The baby was crying, the babysitters were late, and the zipper on Sansa’s little yellow skirt was refusing to go all the way up. It hadn’t been that long since she had last worn it, had it? She tried to think back to the last time — which wasn’t so easy to do, with little Ellyn’s squalls echoing down the hall — and she realized that it had definitely been before the baby. Come to think of it, it might have been before the kindergartner, too.
How am I supposed to recreate our first date if my rear end doesn’t fit into the skirt I was wearing? she thought to herself, feeling disappointed.
Something clunked in the next room, and the baby stopped screaming and started giggling. The little girl had probably chucked the expensive baby monitor to the floor again, but at least she wasn’t making that unbearable noise any more.
Sansa tossed the skirt aside and grabbed a pair of skinny black pants out of her closet. Every mom she knew owned something similar. At least they went with the pretty blouse she had worn on her first date with Sandor so many years ago.
She had just begun to consider shoes when the door bell rang. And rang. And rang. Sansa ground her teeth and called down the hall, “Eddor, let Uncle Rickon in, sweetheart, before he breaks the chime.”
From the front of the house she heard the door squeal open on its hinge followed by her brother’s voice.“’Sup li’l man? How’s it hangin’?”
“Shireeeeen! SHAGGYDOG!!!!” Eddor’s young voice cried out excitedly, followed by breathless, unintelligible chatter and excited barks.
Sansa rolled her eyes. She had specifically requested that Rickon leave the husky at his own apartment for the evening. Fine, whatever, she told herself as she slipped on what she thought were a pair of pretty cute flats, then trotted into the baby’s room only to find Ellyn standing in her crib, chewing on monitor wires. With Eddor, Sansa probably would have flipped out at the sight and phoned the advice nurse, but Ellyn was the second kid. Sansa calmly took the cord out of the baby’s mouth and picked the child up. “Silly girl,” she said, giving the redheaded Ellyn a kiss on the forehead and walking to the living room.
A wall of wet dog smell slammed into Sansa’s nostrils, and she wrinkled her nose. Shaggydog was rolling on the rug while Eddor rubbed his dark head against the husky’s tummy. Rickon had sprawled out on the couch with his dirty sneakers mucking up the coffee table. As usual, he was wearing a tee shirt with a message that Sansa was evidently too old and uncool to understand, but this time, it was also completely inappropriate for the kids.
“Really, Rickon? ‘Ramsay Bolton is a f-u-c-k face’?”
Rickon looked down at his shirt as if noticing it for the first time, then looked up at Sansa and grinned. “Sick, right? You should see the other side.”
“What did you spell? What did you spell, Mommy? WHAT DID YOU SPELL?” Eddor demanded.
“Hush, or Auntie Shireen won’t let you have dessert,” Sansa threatened. The boy quieted but stuck out his bottom lip in an impressive pout. “Eddor’s learning to read,” she admonished her brother. “I don’t need him repeating that kind of thing at school.”
Rickon smirked. “I’d take that call from the principal,” he volunteered.
Shireen, smiling in a cozy pink sweater, emerged from the bathroom and kissed Sansa on the cheek, then reached for the baby. “Where’s Sandor?” she asked as she cuddled Ellyn.
“I’m picking him up from the gym. We’ll be home after ten.” She felt the heat rise to her cheeks in anticipation. Finally, she would have a whole afternoon and evening with Sandor, and it would be just as magical as the first time. That was, if she could ever get the hell out of her house.
“You might want some boots,” Shireen warned and tilted her head toward the window, from which Sansa could see the slate-grey sky and the late winter drizzle. “The rain is supposed to pick up.”
Sansa glanced at her rubber rain boots by the door, which featured cheery yellow duckies holding magenta umbrellas. Eddor had helped her choose them. Sansa sighed hard. The boots projected the exact opposite message she was trying to send to Sandor this afternoon, but she had reached the point in her life where wet feet were more troublesome than footwear that perfectly matched the rest of her outfit. “Fine,” she grumbled, kicking off her shoes and pulling on the scratchy wool socks she had shoved into the boots the last time she had worn them. Then she put on the boots.
Sansa provided the information about the kids’ dinners, baths, television allowance, and bedtimes. She kissed Eddor and Ellyn and promised that she and Sandor would spend time with them tomorrow, and after what felt like a million years, she finally got out the door and into the Mustang. She stuck the keys in the ignition and started everything up, ready to have a whole drive blessedly alone. It was kind of like her own miniature Valentine’s Day gift to herself, before the main event.
As she headed toward the gym, her shoulders slowly relaxed and her worries about the kids dissipated. She was so happy that she could mostly ignore the even-more-mildewy-than-usual smell coming from the air vents. The closer she got to Sandor, the more excited she began to feel about the upcoming date. This time, she had really outdone herself in the romance department.
First, she would take Sandor up the Kingsroad on the same route they had traveled on their very original date. Then she would stop at the little pizza place where they’d picked up a couple of heavenly slices, and they would bring their dinner to the same hillside park overlooking the city. She would present Sandor with a flask of the same liquor that they had shared on their first evening together, and which they would share again tonight. And then — the most romantic part of all, Sansa thought giddily — she would bring him back to the stoop of his old apartment, where they would share a perfect goodnight kiss. Except this time, Sandor would already know that Sansa wanted to kiss him more than anything else in the world.
Yes, it would be a night of true bliss.
When she pulled up to the curb of the gym, Sandor was standing there in a raincoat and jeans, not exactly handsome but exactly who she wanted, with his dark hair still damp from the shower. He opened the car door and got in, jostling the chassis as he settled into the seat.
“What’s that smell?” he asked, forgoing the “Happy Valentine’s Day” that Sansa was expecting.
“Just the fan, I think,” she replied, feeling a little thrown off. “Hap—”
“Shit, shit,” Sandor interrupted, pitching halfway into the back seat. “It’s a diaper. Who knows how long it’s been back there.” He picked up the offending item and hopped out of the car, then chucked the diaper into a nearby trash can before getting back in.
Sansa tried not to gag and she rolled down the windows and pulled away from the curb. But that let in the freezing air, so she scrambled to pull her bulky jacket over her cute blouse. Her hair whipped around her face. She hoped it still looked presentable.
“Happy Valentine’s Day to us, courtesy of little Ellyn,” Sandor muttered. “Come to think of it, that was probably more of a New Year’s present. Ugh.” He stretched and started to put his hand at the back of Sansa’s neck, but as she recoiled he remembered to get the hand sanitizer from the center console.
Sansa smiled in relief. A few years ago, Sandor wouldn’t have remembered to clean up after touching something disgusting. “Thank you,” she said. Things might have started rough, but now everything would get better. She stopped at a red light, the sole of her boot squeaking against the rubber brake pad. “Happy Valentine’s Day, my love.”
“And to you as well,” Sandor replied, leaning in and stealing a kiss. “What’s the surprise?”
The light changed to green and Sansa signaled for a turn. “Look at the sign,” she said, jerking her chin toward the side of the road.
“Kingsroad, North,” Sandor read. “Haven’t been out this way in a while.”
“No, not since —” she paused to add a little drama, “--our very. First. Date.” Sansa grinned and accelerated. The Mustang wheezed, but it lurched forward dutifully. Perhaps it was a little overdue for its oil change. It didn’t matter. They were out on the road together, and they would have a wonderful evening.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sansa could see that Sandor was grinning too. “I have a vague memory of that night. Didn’t you chase after me and slobber all over my face?”
“I don’t remember it quite that way,” she teased back. “But we’re going to do it all over again exactly the same, to help you recollect.”
“Sounds alright, I guess,” he deadpanned, but he slipped his hand onto her thigh. “Was this part of it?”
“No. But I’ll let it pass,” she said, and he slid his hand higher as she drove down the road.
Sansa managed to concentrate as she drove along the winding highway. She finally had to roll up the windows because of the cold, but she was so happy and so pleased with herself that even the lingering baby poop smell couldn’t dampen her spirits. The trees on either side of the road had lost their leaves and had not yet begun to bud, and the clouds had darkened to near violet, but the rain held at nothing more a drizzle. Just as before, her stomach gurgled, and just as before, Sandor laughed.
“Where’s the pizza place?” he asked.
“We’re nearly there,” Sansa said, looking ahead toward the crossing, where the little strip mall was.
“Wasn’t that it?” Sandor said as they pulled up to the building where the two of them had once purchased the slices of pizza that had started their whole relationship. But instead of a takeout counter with a guy throwing dough in the air under fluorescent lights, there was just a line of blacklights across the top of the window and a neon sign that proclaimed the business was now called “Planet of the Vapes.”
“Maybe they changed the name?” Sansa guessed hopefully, but no one was coming out with food.
Sandor pulled his own phone out of his pocket and scrolled with his thumb. “It’s for e-cigarettes. Fucking millenials.”
“I’m a millenial,” Sansa reminded him.
“I still wish it was a pizza place.”
“Me too.” Sansa exhaled hard. A quick look around the rest of the shopping center made it clear to her that there was no other restaurant around. For the first time this evening, her hopefulness faltered. She stared down at the steering wheel, sucking in her lower lip.
Sandor must have noticed, because he reached over and caressed her chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Well, come on, I’d still like to see the park for a bit. We can grab something on the way home.”
A few minutes later they were picking their way across the muddy ground to the same picnic bench where they had gazed down at the city. Unlike that night, the park was deserted, and tonight Kings Landing wasn’t really visible — the low clouds obscured all but a few blinking lights in the distance. It’s still pretty, Sansa tried to tell herself as she shivered, but her heart wasn’t totally in it anymore.
Together they sat down on the top of the table and huddled against the chill. Sansa fished a granola bar and a package of fruit gummies out of her purse, and she and Sandor munched morosely on the kids’ snacks.
Then she remembered the liquor. Perhaps all was not lost. “Look what I brought!” Sansa said as she held up the flask triumphantly.
“You remembered that part right,” Sandor said with a smile, reaching for the booze.
Suddenly Sansa was blinded by a cold white light.
“You two over there!” shouted a clear, high voice. “There’s no drinking in this park!”
Sansa blinked until her eyes adjusted and saw that it came from a flashlight being carried by a remarkably tall woman with short blonde hair in a wrinkled park ranger uniform.
“Want to turn that light off?” Sandor rumbled, putting his arm protectively around Sansa.
“First I’ll need you to vacate the premises, sir,” command the woman, twisting the final word like she didn’t think Sandor deserved the title. She kept the light trained on them. “The rules are posted in multiple languages over by the entrance, and they clearly state that alcohol cannot be consumed —”
As the ranger went on, Sandor muttered some colorful curses that Sansa hadn’t heard much since the kids had been born.
“You know, I was supposed to be at home with my own Valentine right now, but I got a call just as my shift was over to come deal with some troublemakers at the park,” said the ranger, her voice overflowing with frustration. Sandor grunted as he stood, which the woman mistook for unkind laughter. “Yes, even a giantess like me has a Valentine. I’ll thank you to reserve your judgment.”
“We were just leaving,” Sansa replied in conciliation, and got up, pulling Sandor with her.
By the time they were both back in the Mustang, sitting in pouring rain and traffic as they waited for an accident to be cleared away, Sansa felt hopelessly deflated. “Nothing went right tonight,” she lamented. “Let’s just go home.”
Sandor chuckled. “What about my goodnight kiss?”
“Stop making fun. I mean it.”
“And so do I. Come on, the evening is already blown. It can’t get worse. We might as well drive to the old place and get a laugh.”
Sansa couldn’t help but feel a bit resentful that Sandor seemed unconcerned about the ruination of their plans, but she tried, once again, to muster some wisp of her earlier feelings of excitement. When the cars ahead started moving, she turned on to the street where she and Sandor had once lived.
The two spots designated for Sandor’s place were taken by a sleek gold Cadillac and a mud-spattered white truck, but the next one over was empty, and Sansa pulled in.
“Here we are,” she breathed, just loud enough over the spatter of rain against the windshield. In spite of everything she felt a flutter of the memory from her old life. She glanced over at her husband’s familiar face. His hair was a little thinner at the top than that night long ago, but the scars were the same, as was that flicker of hunger in his eyes.
Sandor leaned toward her out of habit, then said aloud, “No. I’ll meet you out front in a minute. Then we’ll do this the way it should have been done the first time.” He winked at her, then opened the door and stepped out.
Sansa took a deep breath and remembered how he had once jumped out of the car, too afraid to place his lips against hers. She remembered her own determination to make the fairy tale happen for herself. She swallowed and launched herself out into the rain.
He was standing there in front of his old door, his eyes still lit by that yellow street lamp, his hair bedraggled against his face. The unburnt corner of his mouth was turned upward, and she could see a little of his teeth.
She returned his smile and took a step forward. Her own hair was starting to cling to her skin. She shivered and walked slowly toward him, her boots squelching in the puddles. She stood just inches away from him, her hands in her pockets, her face turned up toward his.
“Do you want to kiss me?” she asked, her voice low, her eyes on his lips.
“Since the day I met you,” he said, and he reached his arms around her waist, slowly, calmly, and leaned down toward her as if it were the first time.
The door beside them swung open, and a bright rectangle of light illuminated them. A golden haired man stood in the doorway, wearing nothing but a pair of bright red underpants and a swath of whipped cream in the shape of a heart on his chest. “May I inquire who the two of you are, and what you’re doing on my front step?”
A familiar voice came from within the apartment. “Jaime, what is — did you follow me?!” It was the park ranger from earlier, and she was hastily wrapping a blue silk robe around her muscular frame.
“Do you know these people, darling?” said the man, and he sounded a little bit hopeful.
“These are the miscreants who made me late,” she answered and blew her bangs out of her eyes with an angry puff of breath. “Now do you believe me?” she addressed Sandor and Sansa, who were both frozen in shock. “Even a big scary lady like me has a handsome man to love. You’ve seen him. Now get off our porch.” She slammed the door shut, and Sandor and Sansa were once again enveloped by darkness. From inside the man’s muffled voice said, “I like that you’re a big scary lady.”
“Um,” Sansa said, feeling soaked through her clothes. “I guess we should get off their porch.”
“Yep,” Sandor agreed, and together they fled to the stuffy warmth of the car.
A few minutes later, Sansa was behind the wheel again, driving home and feeling dazed. Finally she broke the silence. “I didn’t quite expect that,” she said.
Sandor guffawed, then broke out into a merry cackle. Sansa joined him, and it was the best thing that had happened all night.
As their laughter finally died away, Sandor yawned and said, “So, want to take bets on the state of the house?”
Sansa smiled ruefully. “Given the way this night has gone, I’m guessing that Ellyn is screaming on the floor with a poopy diaper, Eddor is up watching horror movies, and Rickon has passed out in a haze of pot smoke on the couch.”
“Nah. You have it all wrong. Eddor’s running through the house on a sugar high, Ellyn’s just waking up for a fresh four or five hours to scream at us, and Rickon and Shireen have been fooling around in our bed.”
“Eww. You don’t think they do that, do you?”
“I change the sheets after they come over for a reason.”
Sansa heaved the greatest sigh of the evening. “Happy Valentine’s Day, my sweet, darling Sandor.”
“And to you, love.”
She pulled the car into the driveway and walked to the front door with Sandor behind her. “Ready to face it all?”
“As long as we can face it together.”
Sansa turned the key and opened the door, wincing in anticipation for whatever awaited them. But there was no sound, no smells, no kids, no dog, no one at all. She stepped in, confused, and looked down at the coffee table, where there was a single white daisy in a glass and a pair of beer bottles shoved into an ice bucket. On a scrap of notepaper was written “Happy V-D!” in Rickon’s handwriting.
“I don’t understand, is he playing a joke on us?” Sansa said, and turned around expecting to see Sandor looking as confused as she felt. But he was just standing close to her with a smirk on his face and that same hunger in his eyes from earlier.
“What, you think I don’t have any Valentine’s surprises of my own? I had your parents come and pick up the kids after you left. We have the whole night to ourselves.” He stepped forward and leaned down until his face was once again inches from hers.
“Oh,” she sighed, and her emotions were bouncing between excitement and nerves. A whole night together. And a morning. Sex and sleep. “Thank you,” she said, again not looking at his eyes, just at his lips as they moved closer toward hers.
“I’ll take that kiss now,” he said against her mouth.
“Mmm,” she agreed, and wrapped her arms around his neck.