The first time Sansa heard the name Littlefinger, she’d thought it absurd, almost a joke between her parents overheard in conversation not meant for her ears (although technically, Arya had been the one eavesdropping and Sansa merely an innocent bystander). She’d had been climbing the stairs to her room to fetch a book and rounded the corner of the landing only to see the back half of her little sister poking out of a hole in the wall. Jon ripped out the section weeks ago to redo the baseboards mice had chewn through, but the project languished half-finished in light of larger concerns. Sansa hadn’t paid it much mind before, but now she ducked down to see what so occupied her little sister, who glanced at her for a moment only to gesture for silence with a finger at her lips before turning back to what had commanded her attention. The abandoned renovation work had unearthed what looked like an obsolete dumb water, buried as the centuries-old building grew organically with its occupants. Leaning further into the rough alcove, she was able to see bits of the room underneath between loose slats, just enough to identify it in a scandalized whisper, “Is that father’s study? Arya--”
“Shhh!” Her sister spun around crossly, elbowing Sansa in the stomach, which she returned with an indignant shove, drawing another breath to castigate her wayward sibling, but was forestalled by her mother’s voice floating up to them--a tension in it she’d never heard before made her stay silent and still.
“Robert is dead, and with him any last shred of reason left on their side,” her mother’s declaration echoed in the small space around them, punctuated by footsteps approaching her father’s desk just below. Arya and Sansa shared a troubled look. Lannisters and Starks had been feuding for generations, the honor of each old family steeped in the other’s blood; the fighting only ceased in an uneasy truce with the marriage of Robert, her father’s oldest friend, to Tywin’s only daughter. That fragile peace was fractured here and there by alleged misdeeds on both sides over the years, but shattered entirely when the big, boisterous man playing peacekeeper had died in a hunting accident some months ago. The full-blown war that followed was inevitable.
“Cat—“ her father’s voice sounded weary and resigned, a far cry from his usual quiet strength.
Her mother continued, uncompromising, “if we’re going to survive this, we need to bring the fight to them.”
“Littlefinger, you mean,” her father spat, disgust plain. “Littlefinger’s men are animals, and he’s worse.”
“And what would you call the monsters that crippled our son?” her mother retorted, wrath adulterated by anguish. Unbidden, the reminder of Bran’s accident and her inadvertent role in it shook Sansa-- the cruelty in Joffrey’s eyes as he whispered malicious condolences in her ear, savoring the pained shock freezing her in place, unable to believe the boy she’d wanted to marry capable of such a thing-- until she swallowed the bile welling in the back of her throat, focusing once more on the steel in her mother’s voice. “Ned, I can’t-- I won’t-- stand by and let them hurt any more of our children. Whatever it takes .”
Her mother’s adamantine will pervaded the heavy silence for a few moments until it was broken by her father’s defeated sigh, worn down at last. “Very well.”
Footsteps on the creaky boards behind them had Sansa pulling her sister out of the alcove in a panic before they could hear her mother’s reply, brushing the worst of the dust off themselves just in time for the plodding arrival of Old Nan, who appraised them with a leery eye. “What are you girls up to?”
The skepticism on her craggy features only deepened at their stammered excuses until she silenced them with a huff, dragging them off to their chores mercilessly and ignoring the sullen looks they exchanged with one another. The row between her parents faded behind her, but the strange name stuck with her, persistent in its oddity. Littlefinger.
It wasn’t until a week had passed--and more than a few exchanges of bloodletting suffered on both sides--that anything came of it. The raucous din of the proper Stark wake held in honor of her Uncle Benjen, who had been gunned down by Jaime Lannister and his men at a gambling hall just outside of town, dwindled to a dull roar as she stepped further into the dark, earthy wood at the edge of the fallow field, retracing the steps she’d taken a quarter-hour past during a game of hide-and-seek she’d engaged in with her siblings. A childish pursuit for a girl of her maturing years, perhaps, but it had been worth it to bring a smile to her little brothers’ faces and distract them, at least for a little while. Bran was more attuned to the complex emotions underpinning the gathering than he should be for his age, and still cautious and hesitant about being in the company of others during his prolonged convalescence, while Rickon understood less, but was rendered unsettled, restive by the tense mood and forced frivolity. A little of the somber, heavy dread hanging over them had lightened as they took turns hiding. Rickon giggled when she found him, and the self-consciousness melted away from Bran as he lumbered around balanced on Hodor’s back, the gentle giant fiercely protective of his charge, finding ever-smaller objects to ‘hide’ behind, the absurdity becoming part of the fun. Even Robb and Jon joined in for a bit, goaded by the ever-competitive Arya.The only drawback had been discovering her bracelet missing afterwards, a gift she received on her sixteenth birthday, a Tully family heirloom that had been passed down from her mother’s mother. She was dismayed to have misplaced it and dreaded having to admit the loss to her mother.
The sun hung low behind her in the late summer haze, beams painting the field in oranges and yellows that deepened to purple and blue in the shade of the trees. The rich mossy earth tickled her nose as she ducked low under branches and clambered over the gnarled roots of the great trees hunched like arthritic knuckles at their bases, scouring the undergrowth for any sign of the precious object. As the light faded, having gone around in circles for what felt like an eternity, she began to despair of ever finding it, and was nearly in tears with frustration when a soft, unfamiliar voice made her jump.
“Pardon me, miss. Is this what you’re looking for?”
She pivoted swiftly toward the threat, bringing her hands up defensively in front of her. A stranger stood a few feet away, far closer than he should’ve been without her hearing him approach. He didn’t look like much at first glance—a slight, neat man in a sharp dark suit, nothing like her burly father and his men, but an air of lethal stillness hung about him. His youthful face was belied by the ash at this temples, a smile playing about his lips that didn’t quite reach the grey-green eyes boring into hers, rings flashing on his fingers as he held his hands open, empty except for the silver and sapphire bracelet she’d been so desperate to find slung over his thumb. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he continued in a sardonic tone more amused than contrite.
Caution fought with curiosity as she blurted out, “What are you doing here?” It might’ve been a rather rude response more worthy of Arya, but he had surprised her, after all.
He didn’t appear to take offense, replying with a quiet chuckle that pricked at the nape of her neck oddly, “Endeavoring to help a lady in her time of need.” He held out the hand with the bracelet toward her in encouragement.
It was hardly a satisfying answer. He was clearly trespassing on her family’s land; though she couldn’t quite place his accent, a lilt to it marked him as not of these parts, and she’d certainly never seen him before. Gathering herself, she considered him for a moment as he waited patiently for her. Her family knew these woods better than any interloper, the stills hidden in the depths of the forest the least of its secrets, and she decided--perhaps brashly--that she would have time to scream for help if he tried anything untoward. As she reached out to pluck the item from his open hand, her fingers brushed his in passing, a jolt from the contact affecting them both.
A peculiar, almost haunted look passed over his face for a moment as he observed her slip the bracelet on. “Thank you,” she murmured, tucking her hair behind her ear, self-conscious of his frank appraisal.
“I’m Petyr,” he added after a moment, smile somehow equal parts charm and danger.
“Sansa,” she replied cautiously, aware of the breach of decorum she was now actively participating in.
“You’re Cat’s daughter,” he ventured, and she confirmed with a nod, a bit surprised at his knowledge of the nickname for her mother used only by family and close friends. “You have her look,” he murmured hoarsely, “but you’re even more beautiful than she was at your age.” Something about the way he said it made her flush, and it wasn’t helped by the heat in his gaze as it roamed over her.
“Thank you,” she replied, falling back on her courtesy. “You know my mother?”
His lips quirked in a wistful smile. “I did, a long time ago.”
Her curiosity was piqued, but before she could inquire further, her name rang through the trees behind them, belted out in a piercing, obnoxious shrill that could only belong to her younger sister. “I’m here!” she called back, reassured by the wall of green in between them and any prying eyes.
When she turned around, however, the strange man was gone, as if he’d melted into the undergrowth. Disappointed, she trudged back to the gathering, wrestling with whether to disclose her encounter with the mysterious trespasser or, selfishly, to keep it all to herself. She joined her sister at one of the long tables, ignoring the quizzical looks Arya sent her way in favor of gulping down a glass of water. The party had gone on without her, it seemed. Her father and his men slouched at one end of the bench, trading jokes and old stories with red-rimmed eyes, liquor flowing with tears until the two were indistinguishable, Howland Reed evidently doing his best to console her father by drinking him under the table. Uncle Benjen’s death had rendered her father the last left his brothers, and though he wasn’t prone to open displays of emotion, she could tell it had hit him hard. Her mother sat at the other end of the table, deep in conversation with Uncle Edmure and his wife, the latter nursing her newborn. Robb and Jon were busy nearby engaging in some sort of drunken nonsense with Theon, long having abandoned the pretense of not imbibing just as heavily and openly as their elders. Sansa sighed, picking at a plate of food in front of her, long grown cold during her search, and was considering confessing to her mother when the decision was made for her not a quarter hour later.
All motion and noise ceased suddenly as the man calling himself Petyr reappeared in most dramatic fashion at the edge of the field, leaning against a fencepost, lazily snapping a butterfly knife open and closed, the flicker of cold steel reflected in his eyes which now held none of the warmth he’d approached Sansa with earlier. In the light of the lanterns his clothes were richer than even they first appeared, the fine patterned silk of his dark green waistcoat and matching tie almost shining, though now she could see as well the bulk of a revolver holstered on one side and a sheath of throwing knives tucked under the other arm. He was swiftly joined by a small host of men of much rougher garb and manners stepping out of the treeline behind him.
Her father sprung to his feet, flanked by Robb and Jon brandishing shotguns drawn from beneath the table. Her mother stood as well though with more dignity. Her father radiated loathing as he growled, “Littlefinger! What the hell are you doing here?”
Her eyes snapped to Petyr— Littlefinger— in confusion, perturbed that the man who’d been so cordial and helpful in the forest could be the same her father regarded with such abhorrence. He in turn glanced at her and for a moment, so fleeting she almost missed it, his expression softened before reforming once more into implacable, cold amusement as he pointedly ignored her father in favor of addressing her mother. “Long time, Cat,” he intoned drolly, then nodded to her uncle standing beside her with almost a sneer, “Edmure.”
Her ordinarily amiable uncle returned it with a frown, and opened his mouth to speak, but was deterred by her mother’s hand on his upper arm. She stepped forward, bearing every bit as calm and collected as her father’s wasn’t. “Petyr, I’m afraid this isn’t a good time.”
“My apologies for intruding,” he replied with manufactured remorse. “Shall I come back another day?”
Her father and mother exchanged a look, having some sort of nonverbal debate for a few beats that the latter ended up winning as her father motioned for her brothers to lower their weapons and barked, “Let’s get on with it then.”
Petyr stepped forward, secreting the knife in a coat pocket and leaving his entourage behind with a careless hand motion. After a few more words to his men, her father joined her mother at the foot of the table, and together they lead their uninvited guest toward the house, her brothers and Theon forming a rearguard behind them. Petyr flashed Sansa a quick grin as he passed by which she returned uncertainly, hoping no one else noticed and knowing even less what to make of him than before.
Slowly, the crowd around her woke from its stupor, conversation picking up in small, hushed groups. Arya made eye contact with her from across the table meaningfully and they both broke for the house as quickly as possible without being noticed. Sansa grabbed an empty bowl as pretense and Arya copied her, plucking an unused tray from the table in turn. They took the longer route around back through the kitchen, discarding their burdens before tiptoeing upstairs to the alcove.
By the time she and Arya got in position, the group had already gotten settled in her father’s office. Petyr had taken a seat in front of her father’s desk, her parents facing him from behind it. He retrieved something from a coat pocket that turned out to be a lighter, and with a flick of it lit a cigarette that sent the sweet burn of tobacco and mint wafting up to them, a smell she recognized on him from the forest. After a long drag, he spoke. “You have a beautiful family, Cat.” She didn’t have a good view of his face, but he’d managed to imbue the ostensibly innocent compliment with a darker significance that made her feel inexplicably warm.
“Thank you,” her mother replied tightly.
“Enough pleasantries, Baelish,” her father grunted, hands clenched atop the desk. Baelish. Now she had another name to call him by though it too wasn’t one she’d heard before today.
“Very well,” Petyr conceded, flicking the ashes of his cigarette on the floor carelessly. “Now, what can I do for you? Your note was rather lacking in details.”
Her mother took the lead, which was probably wise considering she could practically hear her father grinding his teeth in irritation. “I’m sure you’re aware of the recent troubles we’ve had with the Lannisters.”
“That bit of news had reached me, yes,” he drawled neutrally, taking another deep pull on the cigarette before adding, “Cersei thinks you killed her boy.”
“We had nothing to do with it,” her father denied, pounding his fist on the desk in front of him in anger, which made both girls jump.
Baelish shrugged. “Perhaps not, but it doesn’t matter either way. She won’t back down until every last one of you pays for it.”
Sansa closed her eyes for a moment, unable to deny the truth of his words. Even before Joffrey’s body was pulled from the river so black and bloated he’d only been identifiable by dental records or Bran’s crumpled form had been found on the floor of the old abandoned barn favored by smugglers and thieves, barely clinging to life, she’d gotten a glimpse of the rancorous madness that lay hidden behind Cersei’s practiced smiles and regal bearing. To think she’d once admired the woman, wanting to be just like her…
“That’s why we need to end it,” her mother asserted grimly.
“Tywin has thrice the number of men as you do and half the law around here in his pocket. On paper, you’ve already lost,” Petyr replied in detached clinical assessment.
“Which is why we need your help,” her mother implored. “Please, Petyr, you were once like a brother to me. Will you do this for us?”
Arya looked at her, perplexed, which Sansa could only return with a shrug before turning her attention back to the man contemplating her mother’s pleas below. A long silence ensued, marked by the soft tick of the old grandfather clock in the corner of the room, and from what she could see of his face, Sansa couldn’t guess what he was thinking. She felt her leg starting to cramp from leaning over but didn’t want to risk making noise to relieve it. Finally, he sat back, a low, mirthless chuckle leaving his lips. “I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, words innocuous but with terrible promise, sending a shiver down her spine.