Evening fell, and darkness surrounded Winterfell House in a close embrace. Sansa sat next to her mother on a swinging porch bench, their feet tucked under a flannel blanket to ward off the spring chill. They rocked back and forth gently, the creak of the metal fastenings settling into a rhythm that complemented the chirp of crickets in the tall grass. Through the screened windows, her father’s low, even voice repeated the same handful of sentences again and again.
She was crossing the river on her way home from a gig and lost control of her car. Yes, it was the bridge at the Twin Oaks, on the old county road. Lyanna hated driving on the new highway. No, the sheriff said it was quick. Thank you for your condolences. We hope to see you at the funeral.
Some conversations took longer. Once, Ned had raised his voice to yell, “If you say one word about him when you get here, Robert, I swear…” before abruptly dropping off.
“Do you think Uncle Robert will be okay?” Sansa ventured. He wasn’t really her uncle, just her father’s best childhood friend, but he’d been spending holidays with the Stark family since she could remember. His obsession with her Aunt Lyanna was a poorly kept secret, and Sansa suspected it had played no small role in the unravelling of his marriage.
Catelyn took Sansa’s hand and stroked her knuckles in a reassuring fashion. “Your father will take care of him. And the whiskey at the wake should keep him happy.”
No small number of friends had asked about whiskey when Ned called them. The strain was evident in his voice with every denial he made. Sansa hadn’t known that her aunt had gotten a DUI a few months after giving birth to her son, but apparently all her neighbors had, and it was the first thing they asked upon hearing the news.
Silence followed her father’s phone call to Robert, and Sansa thought for a minute he might be done. Then his phone rang.
He was already moving away from the window, muffling his voice, but Sansa’s mother was up off the bench as soon as she heard the name. “Excuse me, Sansa. You should get to bed soon.” Catelyn let the porch door slam after her, a sure sign that she was angry, but Sansa stayed where she was. It only took a moment for the crickets to resume their evening song after the bang of the door, but they weren’t loud enough to drown out her parent’s words, retreading old ground.
“I suppose you’ve invited him to stay here with us.”
“Catelyn, the boy’s just lost his mother. Surely you can find some compassion for him now.”
“Compassion?” The word ended on an incredulous note. “I raised him since he was a baby, out of the kindness of my heart, because you asked it of me. Then he turns eighteen, throws a fit, and walks out of our lives, never to be heard from again?”
“We have an obligation, Cat. He’s family.”
She scoffed at that. “Family? Barely, Ned. He’s your cousin’s son, not yours.”
“Lyanna was the sister I never had. I owe it to her to look after him, even if we parted on bad terms.” Sansa could imagine her father’s face, brows drawn together in grief.
“I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, I really don’t. But Lyanna tore this family apart…”
“She didn’t mean…”
“…and Jon will too, if you let him. Do you remember how torn up Robb was when he left? Or how I got the blame from Arya for driving him away?”
A long silence had followed. Finally, Ned spoke again, slow and sure. “It’s just for the funeral, Cat. You don’t have to fuss over him, but he’s staying here.”
A cool breeze swept along the length of the porch, making the ruffled silk sleeves on her dress flutter against Sansa’s bare arms. She shivered and pressed a hand to the side of her thigh to keep her pleated skirt from flipping up. It seemed as if the weather itself reflected the bad news her father had brought with him when he’d driven home from work mid-morning the day before.
Aunt Lyanna had loved winter, Sansa remembered. She hadn’t spent much time at Winterfell House, even though Jon had grown up living with them, but when she did she was always complaining about the heat. Sometimes she would get itchy enough to drive up into the mountains to get her fill of bracing winds and frozen forest landscapes. Maybe the cold air had come all the way from the mountains to send her off.
Sansa waited until Mrs. Hornwood made it down the stairs and into her car before she retreated back into the house, rubbing her palms up and down her arms. It had been warm enough over the past two weeks for the spring bulbs to blossom, making the sudden cold snap feel all the more significant. They’d had to move vases of fresh-cut daffodils and pink tulips onto the kitchen counters to make space in the parlor for the lilies and chrysanthemums brought by well-wishers.
She counted no fewer than a dozen arrangements already laid out in various fan-shaped configurations. Her mother sat next to them, scribbling the details of Mrs. Hornwood’s gifts onto a yellow legal pad. Looking up, she caught Sansa’s frown.
“It’s best to get it all down while it’s fresh in your mind,” she explained wearily. “We need to thank the Glovers for the white roses and Donna Hornwood for the gladioli and the spinach lasagna, and…”
“I know that thank-you notes are important,” Sansa soothed her, “but you’re exhausted. You sat up all night making calls with Dad, and there’s still the wake tonight. Go take a nap.”
Catelyn was stubborn as always. “They’ll expect to see me.”
“You weren’t even related to Aunt Lyanna, Mom. I’ll be sure to invite everyone back for the wake, and they can see you then.”
Reluctantly, her mother pushed her chair back and stood, stretching her back. “I’ll rest for an hour, Sansa, and not a minute longer. Don’t let me oversleep.”
She agreed easily, though she had no intention of interrupting her mom’s nap until it was necessary. It had been late when she’d fallen asleep on the porch, listening to her parents argue, and she’d had to slink back to her room in the early morning light to avoid getting scolded. Besides, her mother would need all the rest she could get over the next few days.
Sansa tried to forget the echoes of their argument without success. It was just the same as when Jon had left eight years ago, furious at her parents over some issue regarding the mystery of his father. Jon had been a quiet, brooding teenager, not an angry one, and his abrupt departure had been so out of character that even now she could hardly believe it wasn’t a strange dream. The bitterness it caused was real enough, though, and it had lingered among them like ripples on the surface of a pond that could never return to stillness.
The sound of wheels on the gravel drive pulled her from her thoughts. Another casserole, she thought, already trying to remember which of the coolers they’d brought out of storage still had space.
A moment passed before she could process the appearance of the stranger on the other side of the threshold. The man on the porch was well-built, filling the doorframe as he slouched with his hands in the pockets of his worn leather jacket. Long, dark curls covered his face, tilted down to stare at the ground in front of her feet.
It had to be Jon. Sansa opened her mouth to welcome him in, but she couldn’t think of what to say. Instead she hesitated, suddenly nervous. Straightening his shoulders, he took a deep breath and looked up to meet her face.
“Sansa.” His forehead furrowed just like her father’s did.
At last, her voice returned to her. “Jon. It’s so good to see you.” The words slipped out of her mouth, a generic politeness, but as she said them they came true. It was terrifically disorienting to see him, all grown up, on the porch where he’d passed his childhood, but in a good way, like taking off a pair of sunglasses after spending an afternoon at the beach. Despite the awkward nature of their reunion, a handshake seemed too formal, so she stepped forward and wrapped an arm around his neck. To her relief, he returned the hug, sagging a bit against her shoulders as he pulled her close.
“You’re so much older,” he marveled once they both pulled back.
“It’s been a long time,” she responded without thinking. Immediately, she wished she could call the words back as his expression darkened. She tried to fix her mistake, babbling, “But I’m glad you’re home now. Let me help you get your things from the car, and we can take them to the guest room in the carriage house.”
His mouth twitched, but he didn’t comment further on the fact that he wouldn’t be staying in his old bedroom. Still, she couldn’t hold back a train of excuses as she followed him to a rusted grey pick-up. “It’s been redone, with plumbing and heat and everything. Mom thought you might like to stay someplace quieter than the big house.”
He grunted, hauling a duffel bag out of the truck bed. Sansa reached for the guitar case that lay in the cab, but he waved her off. “Just leave that there.”
They walked away from the house toward a tall brick building with dark shutters. The bottom level had functioned as a garage for as long as Sansa could remember, but the staircase on the far side of the structure was only a few years old. She held the door open for Jon and gestured down the long hallway. “You’re on the end.”
“Who else is staying here?” he asked.
“Uncle Benjen is staying at the big house, and probably Uncle Robert too.” Benjen wasn’t Jon’s uncle any more than Robert was, but it seemed easiest to use his familiar title. “It’s just you and I out here, though.”
He looked over his shoulder at her, surprised. “You live here?”
She nodded. “I moved back after graduation. That’s why mom and dad decided to renovate it.”
Then they reached the guest room. Sansa had fixed it up for Jon’s visit herself, sparing her mother the task of preparing for a guest she didn’t want. It was very plain, with just a navy bedspread and matching towels to add some color. She’d been tempted to spruce it up with some flowers, but then she’d had second thoughts, worried that he would think they were silly. Now she wished she’d gone with her gut. Maybe flowers would have eased the tension in Jon’s shoulders.
She waved her arms jerkily at the furnishings. “The bathroom’s right across the hall. Just let me know if you need anything.”
He nodded, staying silent. Sansa shuffled her feet, caught between wanting to ask him dozens of questions and wanting to leave him in peace. Jon appeared lost in his own thoughts, though, so she slipped back toward the door. “I have to go back to the house in case there are any more callers. Arya and the boys are out back, preparing the ground, if you want to join them.”
He looked up at her then, a little quizzically, so she added, “Or you can join me. Waiting for callers. I didn’t mean…”
He cut her off. “No, it’s fine. I’ll find them once I’ve unpacked.”
Way to make him feel welcome. Sansa could feel her cheeks burn as she walked back to the house. She hadn’t meant to give him the impression that she didn’t want him around, but she’d never been close to Jon growing up- he’d always spent time with Robb, or their friend Theon. That’s probably why it hadn’t hurt her when he left in the same way it had hurt her siblings. Robb, especially, considered it a betrayal, she knew. It was anyone’s guess what kind of reception he would find at the family burial ground.
Her mother was already back from her nap when she reached the parlor. “Is that Jon’s truck in the front yard?”
“Mm hmm. I took him to get settled in the guest room.”
Catelyn pursed her lips. Before she could speak, Sansa gathered her courage and begged her mother, “Please don’t say anything to Jon about him leaving, okay? I know it was hard, and it hurt you, but can you try to put your arguments behind you for the funeral?”
“Arguments?” Sansa flinched at her mother’s sharp look. “We didn’t argue. He accused me of not loving him the way I loved the rest of you, and I told him he was right. Was it not enough that I fed and clothed him, checked his homework, cut his hair, made him a cake on his birthday? I wasn’t his mother, Sansa.”
“I know you were good to him, Mom, of course you were. But you can’t blame him for wanting you to be his real mother sometimes.”
“Yet he blames me. Do you know what I said to your father when we took him in? Let’s adopt him and have done with it. If we raise him any differently than Robb, it’ll only cause trouble. But Ned wouldn’t even consider it. He was so convinced it would only be a matter of time before Lyanna could raise him herself.” She shook her head. “She was never going to take him back and I knew it.”
Sansa tried to keep her voice neutral. “It wasn’t as if she didn’t want to, mom. I’m sure if she could have…”
“Don’t feed me your father’s line. Lyanna loves him, she just can’t take care of him right now. His whole family indulged her so far, she couldn’t possibly take responsibility for herself. Much less a child.”
Sansa fiercely regretted bringing up the subject now. Catelyn was a practical woman; she’d started her family young, by most people’s standards, but she’d earned a college degree and gotten married before having Robb, while Lyanna had spent three years following bands around the country after high school. Her mother the consummate homemaker and her aunt the bohemian musician probably wouldn’t have gotten along even without the issue of Jon between them. She was frantically considering ways to change the subject when the screen door creaked open and then shut with a quiet click.
“Hello, Mrs. Stark.”
Sansa wasn’t facing the doorway, but she imagined the bland mask that had fallen over her mother’s face was reflected on Jon’s.
“Hello, Jon. I’m very sorry for your loss.” Her mother’s tone was formal, and cold as ice. Sansa jumped up from her chair.
“Most of our neighbors already brought flowers. Do you remember the Manderlys? And the Cerwyns, right down the road?” she said, pointing to arrangements at random.
Jon replied, “A lot of people cared about her.” His tone was mild, but he didn’t take his eyes off of Catelyn.
“And you’ll get to see them, at the wake. They’ll be so excited to see you again.” Jon didn’t respond. He didn’t sit down, either. Glancing between him and her mother, Sansa despaired of finding a topic that would draw them both into polite conversation. Before the silence could grow too heavy, she went on, “And Dad will be home soon. He’s just finishing arrangements at the mortuary.”
At least the mention of her father got Jon to look at her. “I talked to him last night. He said the service will be first thing in the morning?”
“That’s right. Father Luwin is coming out right after morning mass.”
Finally Catelyn spoke again. “Can I get you anything to drink, Jon?” Sansa kicked herself for not offering earlier.
“Could I have a Coke, please?” She unfolded her arms and stood without a word, heels clacking on the wooden floor as she went to the kitchen.
Even without her mother in the room, Sansa didn’t know what to say to Jon. She fidgeted with her hands, trying to think of a question that was sympathetic without being pitying. Jon gazed over the table of flowers, but his eyes were empty. Sansa doubted he saw them at all.
The slam of the screen door startled them both. Arya, Robb, Rickon and Uncle Benjen tramped in one by one, their shoes trailing fresh dirt into the entry hall. Relieved, Sansa seized the opportunity to break up the oppressive silence in the parlor. “Arya! Robb! Look who’s here!”
She hoped she had done a better job of hiding her shock than her siblings. Robb gaped, mouth wide, and he hesitated much like she had at the door. Then he was pounding Jon on the back between his shoulder blades, clasping his neck with his other hand. “Good to see you, brother. Welcome home.” Arya tried to elbow past him to hug Jon herself.
Thank goodness, Sansa thought, relieved that her older brother seemed to be letting bygones be bygones. Robb had always treated Jon as his brother, as his twin almost, and her younger siblings had followed his lead. Sansa, on the other hand, imitated her mother. She’d introduced him as “my Aunt Lyanna’s son” to her friends until she was old enough to decipher the discomfort in his expression.
As Jon embraced Rickon and Uncle Benjen in turn, Sansa slid closer to her sister. “You have to help me,” she hissed. “Jon and Mom can’t be in the same room for thirty seconds. We need to keep them apart until Dad gets back.”
Arya’s eyes slid around the room. “Is she in the kitchen?” At Sansa’s nod, she continued, “When she gets back, I’ll suggest that Robb and I take him on a walk around the back pasture, to stretch his legs after- how long was his drive?”
“No idea,” Sansa admitted. “I’ll try to see if mom will start working on food for the wake with me. We shouldn’t get too many more visitors this late in the afternoon.”
Plans in place, the girls separated. When Catelyn returned with Jon’s soda, Arya successfully herded the boys back out the door as Sansa encouraged her mother to start sorting through the mosaic of casseroles that now covered their kitchen counters.
Benjen offered to help them, and soon Catelyn had him hauling coolers from one end of the house to the other while she organized which dishes to heat up for guests and which to save for later. Sansa set to work washing and peeling fruit for a salad. She watched through the kitchen window as Jon and Robb’s curly heads disappeared into the woods behind the white picket fence that needed a new layer of paint.
“It’s good to see you all welcoming Jon back. He was worried you wouldn’t after all this time.” Benjen startled Sansa by appearing at her elbow. He picked up an apple, rinsed it in the sink, and started slicing it with a knife drawn from his pocket.
“Have you seen him, then, since he left?” she asked.
He made sure, even cuts as he answered, “Jon’s spent time with me, yes. Hasn’t lived with me since that first year, but he tries to check in every month or so.”
Sansa hadn’t realized Jon was still in contact with any of their family, but it made sense that he’d gone to Uncle Benjen. Even though he didn’t have children of his own, he had a knack for making people feel like they were important, no matter their age. She saw more of him now than she did when she was little and he was stationed at Fort Bragg, and his visits never failed to lighten her father’s mood. It was strange, though, to think of him knowing about Jon all these years that her cousin had existed only as an unanswered question in her mind. “What’s he been doing?”
He tilted his head to look at her, but the steady thunk of his knife against the cutting board didn’t pause. “Have you asked him?”
“I don’t want it to seem like I’m being nosy.” Putting it into words made it sound silly. Sansa blushed and picked up another apple. “I guess I just don’t know who he is to me anymore.”
“He’s family,” Benjen replied, but even though his voice was confident, the words rang hollow in her ears.
Neighbors started arriving promptly at six. Most of them were there for Ned’s sake, but plenty of them had memories of Lyanna when she was a child, before she’d shocked the county by running off to play music instead of going to school like her cousins. Others came because a Stark wake was not an event to be missed.
Sansa had only attended one, when she’d been ten and her grandmother had died. She’d thought it would be less morbid, now that she was older and able to understand it all better, but the sight of Lyanna’s casket, laid out on the parlor table and surrounded by flowers, struck her as grotesque. It was a simple pine box, the lid carved into an elegant curve— closed, by Ned and Jon’s agreement— and polished so brightly that it reflected the flickering tapers around it like a mirror. All night, they would keep watch over her, until it came time for the burial in the morning. An old custom, and one that generated plenty of talk, but Ned wouldn’t have Lyanna mourned any other way.
Guests loaded their plates in the kitchen and then moved into the entry hall and out onto the porch to compare recipes and eye up their neighbors’ dark suits while waiting to pay their respects. Between stories about Lyanna’s youth, Sansa heard plenty of speculation about Jon, where he’d been, and whether he’d actually reconciled with the family. She did her best to glare down the unkind remarks, but only about half the neighborhood’s busybodies were quailed by her looks.
Fortunately, Jon and her father stayed in the parlor. Sansa caught glimpses of them as she escorted families one at a time from the porch into the house. Once or twice, Jon looked impatient with the questions aimed at him, but mostly he kept his head down and stared at Lyanna’s casket, stiff and somber.
The rest of the family had their jobs, too. Rickon and Robb were on the porch, mingling, while Bran supervised the children too young for the wake who’d been sent out back to climb crabapple trees. Arya was supposed to be helping in the kitchen, and Uncle Benjen was shaking hands and pretending not to be following Uncle Robert, who poured whiskey liberally into every empty glass he could find, especially his own.
The evening went smoothly for Sansa until she found herself guiding Barb Dustin from the parlor to the kitchen. The widow’s tone was acrid as she complained, “Such a stubborn, sullen boy. I can’t imagine what your mother must think of having him here again.”
“He’s Aunt Lyanna’s son, Mrs. Dustin. Our whole family is glad he’s able to stay here for the funeral,” Sansa replied firmly.
The older woman rolled her eyes derisively, making the garish purple camellia on her black hat bob up and down. “More like Lyanna’s shame. Running around with a married man like that, who was surprised it ended so badly? And Brandon paid for it, poor…”
“Mrs. Dustin.” Ned Stark’s grey eyes were hard as flint. “Why don’t you show me which of these lovely dishes is yours.” He took her arm firmly and led her away, leaving Sansa alone in surprise. She’d never heard a hint about who Jon’s father might be, except from the gossipy folks who insisted there was a state representative named Snow in Tennessee, and Lyanna had hushed the whole thing up to avoid a scandal.
Jon appeared beside her, a pained look on his face. She touched his arm hesitantly. “Don’t let anything she said get to you. She’s a bitter old lady, happy to make up stories if they might hurt someone. ”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “Then you still don’t know? About my father?”
Sansa couldn’t think to respond, but he went on. “It’s true. He was married, with two kids and everything. My mom met him on tour when she was the opening act at a club he visited. They had an affair.”
His voice broke at the end. Sansa stared at him, willing him to look at her. Maybe if she could see his eyes, she could figure out who he was to her, and what she should say. “She wasn’t ashamed of you, Jon, no matter what anyone says.” Jon frowned, but she stalled his protest, continuing, “Maybe she was ashamed of herself, or ashamed she couldn’t give you the kind of relationship you wanted with her, but she was a good person, and she loved you.”
At last, he met her gaze. The stifling hallway felt too small for the two of them. Then he swallowed, and motioned for her to go first down the narrow passage. “Thank you, Sansa.”
As the sun set, their neighbors and friends drifted home, leaving the family to carry the wake through the night. Arya helped her clean up the kitchen while the others moved the flowers out of the parlor. Their combined scents had already filled the room with a sickly sweetness that still hung in the air when they rejoined the rest of the family.
Benjen rose, pulling out the empty chairs on either side of him. Arya took the spot next to Jon, so Sansa moved the other way to sit across from Bran. Her mother sat between them, at the foot of the casket, far from Ned and Jon. Inexplicably, Robert pulled up a chair to sit at Lyanna’s head, though on second thought Sansa wasn’t surprised that he thought he’d earned a place among her chief mourners.
Robb gently extracted the whiskey bottle from Robert’s hold and passed out rocks glasses filled with the amber liquid. Sansa wished he’d included ice, too, but resigned herself to drinking her first glass neat. After he finished, her father bowed his head and intoned:
“We gather here, dearest friends and family of Lyanna Stark, to remember her life and ease her on her journey to peace. She was a mother, a cousin, and an aunt, but also a woman of incredible bravery and talent. In all things, Lyanna followed her own path, even when it seemed to be the hardest path, and we will miss her bold spirit and the love she showed to her family.”
He lifted his glass then, and they all took a sip in unison. Having drained his in one swallow, Robert reached over and snatched the nearly empty bottle from the table in front of Robb.
Going around in a circle, they shared stories about Lyanna, punctuating each memory with another toast. Sansa tried to pay attention to her sibling’s words, but the heavy scent of flowers and the smooth whiskey lulled her into a hazy daydream. Robb talked about the songs she’d written for each of them on their birthdays, and Bran related how she’d taught him to climb trees. Rickon’s story was short, on account of his being an uncommunicative teenage boy, and Sansa wasn’t sure her mother said more than a few words.
Then it was her turn. Taking an extra sip for courage, she began. “Aunt Lyanna visited me during my last semester of college. She was in town for a show, and when she called me and asked if we could go to dinner, at first I was frustrated. I had gotten engaged on New Year’s Eve, and I was very busy,” here she choked on a laugh, or maybe a sob, “planning a very elaborate wedding, and no one seemed to realize how important and time-consuming it was. Then we sat down to eat and she started asking me all these questions. Why had I dropped my econ double major to focus on studio art? Why did I have to get married so soon? What did I mean I wasn’t applying to any jobs after graduation? She wasn’t the first person to question my decision to pin my entire future on Joffrey, but she was the most relentless.”
By now, her mother’s hand had crept onto her lap to squeeze her hand, and Uncle Benjen had turned all the way in his chair to face her. Sansa couldn’t say exactly why she felt moved to rehash the entire story, when most of the room already knew how it ended. It’s for Jon. He should know what his mother did for me. She went on, her voice shaky. “Aunt Lyanna didn’t ask many questions about Joffrey, the way most people did. Instead, she asked about me, and how I was giving up every opportunity to be self-reliant. And she was right. All of my decisions- everything about the whole relationship, really- was about making him happy, even when I had to make sacrifices. Because when Joffrey was happy…things were better for me.”
She stared into her whiskey glass, avoiding the pity and anger she would see in her family’s eyes. Taking a deep breath, she pressed on. “If not for Aunt Lyanna, I would probably be married to him. Or divorced, by now. Either way, I would have been deeply unhappy. Joffrey always made me feel stupid when I made mistakes, but Aunt Lyanna helped me realize that even though I had misjudged him, I could put it behind me and start over. Or try, at least.” She grimaced, admitting to herself that she hadn’t really put that part of her aunt’s advice into practice. “So I’ll remember Aunt Lyanna for saving me from, um, for really good advice about relationships.”
Raising the glass to her lips, Sansa finished her alcohol and gasped, both at the burn down her throat and the burden she’d just unloaded. She’d only ever talked to her mother about Joffrey, trusting her to disseminate the relevant facts of the break-up to the rest of the family. Benjen cleared his throat to begin his own story, but Robert interrupted, slamming his hand down on the table.
“What did she know about relationships, damn it? She couldn’t spot a decent man if he stood right in front of her! Fucking Rhaegar just played his fucking guitar, and she wouldn’t look at anyone else.”
He was openly weeping, now, and chairs were being pushed back on all sides. “That’s enough, Robert,” said her father, his voice cold as ice. He and Robb moved to either side of the big man, hoisting him up by his armpits and half-dragging him out of the room. Before the door closed behind them, more words left his mouth.
“He should be the one going into the ground, not her! Not Brandon! Lyanna never got over losing him, never. Fuck, Brandon…”
Jon’s hands were clenched in front of him on the table. Benjen moved behind him to put a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off. Her mother stared at Robert’s empty chair, lips pressed tight in a thin line, but she was the first to break the silence. “Why don’t we all take a moment to change into more comfortable clothes for the rest of the night?”
Her uncle seized on the idea at once. “I’ll stay here and change when you get back.” Bran, Rickon and Arya scurried upstairs, the boys already unbuttoning the stiff collars of their shirts. Sansa paused at the door, looking back at Jon. After a moment, he rose to follow her.
To her surprise, he spoke as soon as they were on the porch. “He hurt you, didn’t he. “ Preoccupied by Robert’s outburst, Sansa almost forgot that she’d been talking about Joffrey. All she could do was nod. “What a piece of shit,” he swore. “Did Robb go after him?”
“He promised me he wouldn’t.” At his disbelieving look, she explained, “I was pretty torn up for a while after it ended. I didn’t want to call any more attention to the whole thing. That’s when I moved home.”
“And you’ve been here now for what, two years?”
“It’s not so bad. I have privacy living in the carriage house, and that’s where my office is, too.” She climbed the stairs with more force than necessary, feeling defensive about her choice to live at Winterfell. Maybe it wouldn’t be the dream of most twenty-four-year-old women to live with their parents, but she’d found strength in moving back to her family.
“Your office?” Jon repeated.
“Here.” Sansa opened the first door on the right. Three large chalkboards in rustic frames leaned against the wall next to pink and yellow drawers stacked to the ceiling. The long crafting bench was cluttered with paper samples and rows of matching envelopes, but the desk in the corner held only a porcelain pitcher filled with flowers and a laptop. “It’s probably the one good thing that came out of my engagement. I found out I’m really good at planning weddings.”
“This is all your own business?” Jon raised his eyebrows. “Wow, Sansa.”
“Anyway, it’s the perfect space for what I need.” Suddenly shy, she tried to guide him out of the room. Instead, he moved to her work bench and picked up a folded notecard.
“This is really beautiful,” he said, tracing a letterpress monogram with one finger. Then he looked up into her eyes. “You’re going to have the wedding of your dreams someday, with a man who deserves you.”
Her father had said something similar once to comfort her, but coming from Jon, the words made her shiver. Or maybe it was his eyes, and the way he stared at her with utter sincerity. She looked away. “We should get ready to go back soon.”
He let the stationary drop back onto the table and turned toward his room. After she heard the click of his door, she forced a breath from her tight lungs.
After changing into stretchy black pants and a dark grey tunic, Sansa hurried out of the carriage house only to narrowly avoid tripping over Jon, who sat with a lit cigarette on the first step. In the dim light of evening, she couldn’t tell what he was wearing until she sat next to him. A dark plaid pattern was barely visible in the glow from the cigarette’s tip.
“You’re lucky the stairs don’t face the house,” she commented. “Mom would have your hide for smoking in front of her children.”
His full lips curled as he inhaled, and he turned his head to blow his smoke away from her. “That’s one thing we’d agree on. I quit, theoretically, a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t help but pick up a pack on the way here.”
Sansa remembered Benjen’s gentle criticism and gathered her courage. “Was it a long drive?”
“Six hours.” The ember on his cigarette flared as he took another drag. “I’ve been in Nashville, working as a session musician.”
The guitar in his truck made more sense, now. “Lyanna must have been so proud of you.”
Passing his cigarette to his other hand, Jon cleared his throat. “I think she would have been, if she’d known. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. Since we argued about my dad.”
“Jon.” Just as she place a hand on his back, he coughed, choking a little on tears and smoke. She rubbed firm circles between his shoulder blades while he ducked his head between his knees. They sat in silence broken only by his shuddering breaths, surrounded by fading tendrils of tobacco.
Finally, he sat up, rubbing his eyes. Sansa let her hand slide off his back as he started to speak. “I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t let me meet him, and all she would say was that she didn’t trust him and it wasn’t safe. That DUI ticket everyone was whispering about at the wake today? She got a ticket for reckless driving with an open container in the car on purpose, so that if he was watching the newspaper for her name, he wouldn’t suspect she’d just had a baby. She made up my last name. Jon Snow, like John Doe. I told her she was being paranoid, or crazy.”
His voice grew gritty with emotion. Sansa’s chest felt so tight that she could barely breathe. Unable to speak, she twined her fingers with his hand where it clutched his knee, white with strain, and squeezed. He squeezed back, stroking his thumb across her fingertips. Her mind should have been quiet, but a name danced through it, reinforced by the image of a handsome man with white-blond hair, wielding a guitar in front of thousands of screaming fans. Hesitantly, she pressed him for more. “Uncle Robert said she loved a man named Rhaegar.”
“Rhaegar Targaryen. Country rock legend, and also my dad.” He sniffed and shuffled his feet. “Let’s get back to the house.”
He helped her up by their clasped hands. On an impulse, Sansa brushed a kiss atop his knuckles before she let go.
A boot hit the bottom stair, startling them both. “Just checking to make sure you were both coming back,” Benjen explained mildly. Sansa practically leapt down the stairs, made jumpy by the feeling they’d been caught in an intimate moment. You were just comforting your cousin, she told herself. Your second cousin. The distinction didn’t settle her thoughts.
By the time the sky began to lighten, most of the family was worse for wear. Robert hadn’t been seen since his outburst, and Rickon had gone to bed a little after midnight thanks to Robb’s generosity in refilling his whiskey glass. Robb and Arya seemed committed to matching Jon drink for drink, with the result that their eyes were bloodshot and their hands shaky by morning.
Sansa switched to tea after her conversation with Jon, and Bran joined her, so the two of them felt tired but not hungover. Catelyn, sitting by Ned’s side and holding his hand under the table, sipped nothing at all. She stayed quiet, but her eyes followed Jon each time he got up to smoke another cigarette around the side of the house. One time Robb stood up as if to accompany him, until a swift kick from Sansa encouraged him to give their cousin some time alone.
Soon enough, Father Luwin arrived to set the funeral in motion. He led the family in a prayer around Lyanna’s casket, urging the family to consider it a time of reconciliation. Near the end of his words, the stairs creaked beneath the heavy tread of Robert’s shoes. As he nodded toward Ned and Jon, Sansa saw his cheeks were flushed, though whether it was from embarrassment or from drinking alone in his room she couldn’t tell.
One by one, friends and neighbors pulled up the drive. Most of them were dressed in the same dark suits and dresses they’d worn the night before, though more of the women were wearing hats. At the appointed time, Ned and Benjen led the other pallbearers in lifting the casket and began to process down the porch to the Stark graveyard.
Long ago, they’d been the only Catholic family in the county. Instead of traveling to a parish cemetery, the Starks had been buried on their own land, nearly within sight of the farmhouse that had grown to be Winterfell. Just like the wake, it was a tradition the Starks had carried on since their earliest days.
They threaded their way past fallow pastures in a solemn line behind the priest and his servers, the thurible clanking with each step. Jon walked directly behind the casket, with Sansa and Arya flanking their mother behind him. He’d changed into a jacket and pants at some point, but Sansa noticed that on his feet he still wore the boots in which he’d driven the day before.
The graveyard itself wasn’t a place that Sansa visited often. Besides her grandmother’s funeral, she’d only come here with her parents once or twice on Uncle Brandon’s birthday. He died in a hunting accident, they’d told her, laying white roses at the base of the cross that marked his resting place, but she’d never heard that Lyanna was connected to his death until the day before. The roses resting on his grave looked fresh. She wondered who had set them there.
The time it took for the entire procession to arrive made the burial itself feel rushed. There was incense— the sign of the cross— a chanted prayer— then the casket was being lowered, and her father was offering a shovel to Jon. He took the handle slowly, walking to the mound of earth created by Robb and Benjen’s efforts, and tipped a trickle of soil into the grave. Then he was gone, elbowing past the crowd of mourners, the shovel abandoned face-down in the dirt.
Robb stepped toward the shovel, and Sansa moved after Jon. She had to take care along the grassy path in her formal shoes, even though she’d chosen ones with a sturdy heel, so he cleared the crowed and their murmurs long before she did. Then he slowed, and she was finally able to reach his side.
The whole way to the house, she walked next to him, searching for words. Instead of climbing the porch stairs, he led her to the back of the house, where a broken terra cotta flowerpot sat filled with cigarette butts. His hands fluttered to the pockets of his jacket, then to his pants, before he folded them tightly across his chest. “I never got to say goodbye. I’d call her on her birthday, and at Christmas sometimes, but we’d only talk for a minute or two. I never…”
His shoulders drooped. Worried that her presence embarrassed him, Sansa considered leaving him alone. Then she thought of him the night before, the circles under his eye growing darker every time he returned from a smoke, and changed her mind. Tenderly, she smoothed her hands up his arms starting at his elbows. A heartbeat passed, then his whole body tilted forward, embracing her, until their toes and foreheads touched. A gasp tore its way from his throat, then another. Tears slipped down her cheeks, pattering drops forming a rhythm with his ragged breathing as they hit the ground.
Once his quaking shoulders returned to stillness, he pulled away. Sansa lifted her hands to wipe her face, but he beat her to it, softly tracing half-circles across her skin with his thumbs until they were dry. Then he ran a hand through his hair. “I should go change and pack up.”
“You’re not leaving today?” Shaking her head, Sansa pitched her voice into a half-question. Jon didn’t meet her eyes. “No, that’s absurd. Spend a few days here with the family.”
“Your mother’s already let me stay here for the funeral. I don’t want to infringe on her any more than I have to.”
Sansa wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re staying in the carriage house. She barely has to see you except at meals if she doesn’t want to. Get caught up with Robb and Arya, go fishing with Bran, whatever you want— but don’t race out of here this afternoon.”
“I’ll think about it,” he promised, and turned without another word.
He decided to stay, or at least Sansa hadn’t heard him carrying his duffel out of the carriage house yet. When they’d rounded the corner of the house, Benjen had been right there waiting for them, and Sansa had skittered off to the kitchen, unnerved again by the attention he way paying them. It wasn’t disapproval, exactly, just a wariness that the rest of her family lacked. If they’d noticed she’d talked more with Jon in the last two days than she had her entire childhood, they kept their observations to themselves.
After lunch, she settled in her office to finish a batch of invitations. She preferred to work with the natural light of the afternoon streaming through the windows, and her weddings would go on whether Jon was still visiting them or not. Checking over the plate for errors, fixing it to the press, aligning the cardstock; for a while, she thought the printing procedure would provide sufficient distraction from her emotions. Then the letterpress hummed into gear, and the familiar swish-thunk of the machine left her alone with her thoughts.
Sympathy. Concern. She sorted through her feelings for Jon, word by word. Pity. Confusion. Curiosity.
That’s where she got stuck. Her mother’s words ran through her mind. Family? Barely. But Robb called him brother.
Beneath the whirr of the letterpress, she detected another sound. When the last card peeled off the printing plate, she could hear it better: strains of guitar drifting out of Jon’s room.
She shifted her weight to the balls of her feet, about to stand— but where would she go? To sit next to him on his bed, as if he were playing for her? Scooting her chair closer to her work bench, she turned her attention to addressing envelopes.
Sansa was fortunate that she’d spent two years perfecting her calligraphy. The list of names and numbers in front of her lost their meaning, becoming abstract shapes that flowed from her hand while her mind strained to hear more of the melody. It started as a meandering, wistful thing, but the longer he played, the more the song took shape, developing into a consistent progression. I could listen to him all day, she thought with a sigh.
She’d shied away from dreaming about men since Joffrey, filling her imagination with wedding decorations and inky flourishes instead. Now, however, a sliver of a daydream crept in front of her eyes: Jon, warming up with etudes as she answered emails, then long afternoons of phone calls with vendors and design sketches while he wrote music, each of them taking breaks to sit on the porch together, his arm around her shoulders or in her lap.
It took a minute or two of silence to draw her attention. She looked up from the stack of blank envelopes just as a knock sounded on her door. “Sansa? I think your mom’s serving dinner in a few minutes.”
“I’ll be right there,” she called out, blushing a little at what he would think if he could read her thoughts.
Uncle Robert had gone home, but the dining room still felt crowded with all her siblings there in addition to their guests. Sansa tried to muster a convincing interest in Arya and Bran’s stories from college, but mostly she watched Jon. He grinned at Arya’s stories and teased Robb a few times, prompting wide smiles from her siblings, yet between stories a deep crease returned between his brows. As her mother passed around plates of blueberry cobbler, she caught her uncle watching her with careful eyes.
“Sansa, would you mind taking a walk with me after dinner? I’d love to hear more about the weddings you’ve been working on,” Benjen asked casually after a bite of dessert.
She could hardly refuse, even though she doubted he’d really want to talk about weddings. After helping her mother clear the table, they set out across the grass. Instead of heading toward the graveyard, Benjen chose to walk through a copse that bordered the small creek that ran through their property. The air was cooler under the trees, and the shadows that fell across the path were so thick she thought she might trip over them. Her uncle saw her shiver and offered her his arm.
“What has Jon told you about Brandon?” he asked without preamble.
Sansa stopped, surprised. “Nothing at all.”
Benjen raised his eyebrows, making his long face stretch even longer. “Nothing? Are you sure?”
“The only people who’ve mentioned Brandon to me have been Barb Dustin and Uncle Robert,” she insisted, urged on by curiosity to find out what everyone had been hiding about her uncle. “Why?”
“The two of you keep sneaking around behind buildings and making eyes at each other at the table. I thought he might have told you something,” he said, suspicion clear in his expression.
“He told me about his dad,” she admitted. Benjen grunted in reply and continued walking.
When they reached the creek, he took a seat on a nearby rock, motioning at a dry stump for her. He looked out over the moonlit water before he began his story, raising his voice to be heard over the gurgling eddies. “Your uncle Brandon loved Lyanna very much. More than most cousins do, certainly, and more than Robert ever did, no matter the spectacle he made last night.” Sansa shifted her posture to face him more fully. “When she started dating Rhaegar, she didn’t tell anyone. He was married, and a big star, and we could be overprotective. Especially Brandon. By the time the truth came out, they were already arguing. Rhaegar had all these wild ideas about her coming to live with him and his wife, promising her it would be okay. He wanted to have children, right away, even though they’d only known each other a few months. Lyanna was all about the music, but Rhaegar was more than that. He was a personality, a force of nature. That’s what got all those fans screaming his name every night.”
Dread coiled in the pit of her stomach, but she had to know more. “What happened?”
“She called Brandon to tell him she was moving back home, and he could hear Rhaegar arguing with her in the background. When she stopped answering their phone, he called Robert. They drove out to the Targaryen compound, this big mansion that Rhaegar built for his family when he got famous.” He paused, flexing his hands in his lap. “Lyanna and Rhaegar weren’t there, but Rhaegar’s father was. Pulled out a shotgun as they drove up and started firing.”
Sansa’s head reeled. “So it wasn’t a hunting accident at all,” she murmured, Benjen confirming her words with a shake of his head. “Did he go to jail?”
Benjen spit on the ground between his feet with unusual vehemence. “It was on Targaryen land. He said the car resembled a suspicious vehicle that had been seen on the property. The police didn’t even file charges.”
“It wasn’t Lyanna’s fault though. Or Rhaegar’s, really.”
“Maybe not,” Benjen shrugged, “but she carried the guilt with her the rest of her life. When Rhaegar still wanted her to move with him, onto the very land where her cousin had died, she left him. She tried to erase all memory of him, too, until she realized she was pregnant with Jon.”
For a while, they sat together without talking, listening instead to the rushing murmur of the water and the faint peet of nightjars. Darkness settled over them like a blanket, hiding her uncle’s expression. The water ran dark and swift, revealed only by the glint of moonlight off its surface.
“Thank you for telling me,” she said eventually.
He nodded. “Let’s get back to the house. I think it’s time for bed.”
The sharp sound of the carriage house door banging against its frame startled Sansa awake. It was well past midnight, she found as she checked her phone, but she couldn’t hear any noise from Jon’s room or the hallway. He must have left, she realized. The warmth of her bed and the stillness of the dark lured her halfway back to sleep, but she shook off the temptation to close her eyes.
Next to her bed sat a pair of leather boots, and once she had them on she grabbed a long waxed-cotton jacket from her closet. It looked funny with the pale hem of her nightgown hanging out from under it, but she didn’t want to waste time looking for real clothes. Careful not to let the door slam again, she stepped into the night.
Arpeggiated chords rang out from the graveyard. The closer she approached, the better she was able to pick out the melody from the muddy echoes. Jon was playing the same song he’d practiced that afternoon, plaintive and mournfully slow. She balked at the iron gate of the burial ground, imagining the spirits of past Starks filling the air, but she entered all the same.
Jon sat with his back to a marble plinth, the stone glowing eerily in the moonlight against his dark hair. He faced the dark patch of earth where Lyanna had been laid to rest that morning, and Brandon’s grave as well. Scuffing her boots against a patch of gravel so she didn’t alarm him, Sansa stepped nearer.
“I couldn’t sleep.” He stopped playing and patted a spot next to him. She crossed her legs daintily as she sat down, keeping her nightgown from riding up. A scrap of paper with one ragged edge lay on the ground in front of him, lines handwritten on a sheet torn from a notebook.
“I’ve been trying to set it to music, so I could play it for her.” She reached for the paper as he went back to strumming. While she read the poem in her head, he hummed the words under his breath:
Goodnight; ensured release,
Have these for yours,
While sea abides, and land,
And earth’s foundations stand,
And heaven endures.
When earth’s foundations flee,
Nor sky nor land nor sea
At all is found
Content you, let them burn:
It is not your concern;
Sleep on, sleep sound.
The melody changed, then, to something vaguely familiar. Sansa imagined the vibrations traveling through the earth to reach Lyanna, locked away in her box of pine. Goosebumps danced across her neck.
“Benjen told me about Uncle Brandon, and how he died.” Jon stopped, again, and she regretted her outburst as he twisted to set his guitar in its case.
“My mom never really got over it. He was a fool, charging off like that with Uncle Robert, but she still felt like it was her fault. Your mother thought so too. Did you know she used to date Brandon in high school?”
“No.” The only stories Sansa had heard about him growing up were wild adventures and practical jokes. She couldn’t imagine her mother putting up with that. Lacking any more comforting platitudes, she sat back against the funeral marker. Jon let his head roll back until it touched the pale marble. He’d shaved for the funeral, so only the suggestion of stubble interrupted the smooth planes of his jaw and neck.
An owl hooted, its tone disapproving. Sansa’s heart began to race, imagining Benjen or her father finding them alone together out there. Jon slowly unfolded his legs and got to his feet, offering her a hand to help her stand. Maybe he was uneasy, too.
“Your hands are cold,” he observed, wrapping his own hands around hers. “Are you sure you’re not a ghost?”
Another hoot from the owl silenced her laugh. They both glanced up at the old trees planted at the back of the fence. He stooped to grab his guitar and they set off toward their rooms, putting the crumbling gravestones of their ancestors behind them. Jon maintained his grip on her hand, and the steady pounding of his heart matched her own.
They were almost to the carriage house when she stopped him. “I heard you practicing all afternoon, and I wanted to tell you that your mom would have been really proud of you. She was proud of you, no matter who your father was or how often you called her.” The wariness disappeared from his expression, replaced by a softness in his eyes, but she couldn’t stop. “And not just for your music, either, for everything. I know it can’t have been easy to come back after all these years.”
“I’m glad I did, though.”
Then he was kissing her, full lips gently caressing her mouth while his nose bumped hers and his hand slipped carefully behind her ear. The sudden warmth of it all shocked her. Just as she began to move her lips against his, he pulled back.
“Shit. I shouldn’t have…shit. I’m sorry, I won’t…”
Jon was up the stairs before she could correct him. Skin tingling wherever he’d touched her, Sansa stood frozen in place. Then she raced after him, throwing her boots and jacket on the bed and opening the door to his room without a knock. He was sitting on his bed, hair wild and eyes wide.
She closed the door and cut him off before he could start babbling more excuses. “It’s okay, Jon. It’s okay.” Moving between his knees, she took his face in her hands and pressed her own kiss to his mouth.
His response was immediate. She was pulled practically into his lap by the urgency of his tongue parting her lips and his hands gripping her legs. Soon she tumbled down onto the bed, already reaching for the hem of his shirt as he nipped and soothed the skin across her jaw. After his chest and shoulders were bare, he reached for her hemline, too, or at least he seemed to. His hands drew circles as they roamed across her skin, the left one roughened by callouses in places the right was smooth. She inhaled as they crept higher, underneath the elastic of her underwear, then breathed out a shaky sigh as they came back to the ticklish spot behind her knees.
Dragging his teeth over the curl of her ear, he drew a stifled whimper from her that she muffled against his neck. “Can I touch you?” he asked.
“Please,” she breathed, wrapping her arms around him more tightly. He tugged the pink lace down her legs, groaning in contentment as she traced the ridges in his spine. Sansa couldn’t think of a time she’d been able to enjoy a man’s touch without trembling with anxiety— in high school there had been the fear of getting caught on top of the insecurity that came with being a teenage girl, and with Joffrey she’d always had to monitor his mood to avoid setting him off— but Jon made her feel safe.
And he gave. Every innuendo she’d heard about musicians having talented hands came back to her in a whirlwind as he stroked her bud and crooked his fingers inside her, his other hand splayed across her belly. Seeking more, she arched her back, wrapping her legs around his waist to pull him nearer. “Please,” she repeated, running one hand down his side and between their bodies to palm the front of his jeans.
“Sansa,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
“It’s okay, Jon. It will all be okay.” That became her mantra as she kissed his cheeks, his mouth, his forehead creased with stubborn worry. By the time he’d worked his jeans and boxers past his ankles and kicked them off the bed, his shoulders were shuddering again with each breath.
Then their bodies joined, and he pressed himself against her, almost as if he could crawl inside her skin. She helped, pulling on the curls at the nape of his neck and the dimples at the small of his back. Slow and deep, he thrust inside her, dropping open-mouthed kisses on her neck and collarbone and lower.
Even after they peaked, neither wanted to let go. Sansa twined her legs with Jon’s, holding him close in her arms, while he tucked his head to her chest after straightening the neckline of her nightgown. The back of his neck was damp with sweat, and his temples. Gently, she carded her fingers through his hair until his eyes closed.
Her surroundings left her groggy and confused when she woke, but Sansa wasn’t surprised to find that Jon had already left his bed. She took a shower, letting the water run until it was hot and willing her cares to dissipate with the steam. With her wet hair braided and pinned up in a bun, she was halfway to the house when she heard footsteps. Ned and Jon were making their way back from the direction of the graveyard, identical frowns across their faces.
Her father dropped a kiss on her forehead, muttering “Good morning,” but Jon lingered to walk next to her as they approached the house.
“We saw her,” he whispered after Ned had entered. “We went for a walk, to talk things over and we saw…” He looked back towards the path, where budding trees gleamed in the gold light of the morning sun. The sight made his shoulders sag. “Never mind. It was just the mist on the creek.” A cool wind turned the corner from the shady side of the porch, stirring his hair.
Goodbye, Lyanna. Sansa followed him into the house and shut the door.