Actions

Work Header

My Boy Builds Coffins

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Sansa relaxed into the saddle, letting herself shift and sway in time with Lady’s even, surefooted gait, sunlight filtering through the trees laying a lacework over the forest floor. The leaves were now a dull green that would shortly give way to yellows and reds, and birds flitted from branch to branch overhead, their melodic exchanges spirited if incomprehensible. Sansa let her mind wander, nudging the mare here and there to take the less-trodden paths snaking through the forest. The rutted dirt tracks used by the trucks were more straightforward, but less fun. Sansa had little enough excitement in her days, and thus took advantage of the errand assigned to her--delivering her father’s lunch along with a note from her mother.

The last day of summer marked nearly two months of utter boredom undercut with ever-present dread; even casual trips into town were deemed too much of a risk by her parents, and so all the latest moving pictures were left unwatched, parties and dances unattended, concerts unheard, and, to her younger siblings’ dismay, a passing fair came and went without any of the Stark children getting as much as a strand of candy floss. The only time they were allowed to leave the property was to go to her mother’s church, which was hardly more entertaining--with repetition the droning of the preacher’s sermons became nigh indistinguishable from her siblings’ squabbling, all just background noise. They were due to restart school in a few weeks, which Sansa had been looking forward to after the tedium, but it seemed even that was now deemed too perilous. At least Jon and Robb got to go on deliveries, she reflected with some envy.

It had all started with an asinine display of machismo on a hot summer afternoon. Joffrey’s chest was puffed out with pride as he showed off the shiny new speedster bought with his grandfather’s money in gold and red, a custom lion figurehead perched atop the hood. Next to all that flash and nonsense, the old truck Robb drove for her father didn’t look like much—paint flecked and faded, seats moth-eaten, dust etched into its very bones—but its engine purred, it ran like lightning, and turned on a dime, especially with the hidden compartments in the panels and beneath the false floorboards free of their customary load. Her brother labored over it with such loving care that his wife Jeyne jokingly called it his mistress. Joffrey, insulted by her brother’s less-than-impressed reaction to his new acquisition, challenged Robb to a drag race to prove his car’s superiority. Sansa remembered keenly the apprehension she’d felt at the foolhardy activity but had her concerns brushed off by her beau and her brother both. The course was set--a ring of crumbling hard pan stretching round the small reservoir at one corner of the Stark property, a rusty old plow serving as both start and finish line. Sansa reluctantly joined the spectators—her siblings and Joffrey’s hangers-on—as Theon stood between the two roaring vehicles to set them off with a flourish of his handkerchief.

Robb was quicker off the line, but the raw power of Joffrey’s coupe allowed him to close the gap, at least until the first corner, when Robb pulled away, his truck nimbly skipping around the turn ahead of the labouring, heavy machine. Joffrey again pulled even on the straights, but with each setback at a subsequent corner his frustration became obvious even across the body of water. The two were in a dead tie approaching the last bend just before the finish but, instead of slowing like he had on each prior turn, Joffrey accelerated. Sansa’s heart dropped, mumbling too fast, he’s too fast to herself, unable to look away as he rounded the corner. He almost made it, but at the very last second, the rear of his vehicle spun out, sending him careening off course into the woods. Rob reacted even before she had a chance to scream, pulling his car around in a bootleg turn and jumping out of it almost before it skidded to a halt to run after Joffrey’s car. By the time she and the others had made it down the track, her brother had already pulled Joffrey from the burning wreck and dragged him to the road. She was relieved to see her intended not only alive but conscious, if a bit bruised and battered. It had seemed like a miracle at the time, but little did she know it would represent the beginning of the end, not only of their relationship but the peace she had taken for granted growing up.

When Sansa tried to console Joffrey he shrugged off her concern, even going so far as to snap at her, somehow blaming Robb for the accident and her by association. The hatred and disgust he assailed her with was shocking, incomprehensible, as if he’d become another person entirely. Soon enough both his parents and hers arrived. Robert managed to laugh the incident off, claiming ‘boys will be boys’ and defusing the powder keg of tension, but his wife was unappeased. Moreover, Cersei’s burning ire seemed directed at her, as if Sansa were somehow at fault. The woman’s wrath would only grow stronger as relations between the families deteriorated. Robert died soon after, and from then on chaos had reigned in her life. Despite herself, a part of Sansa mourned the boy she’d thought he was and the life she’d hoped to lead with him.

Shaking off fresh ghosts, Sansa guided Lady away from the path into a small stream that paralleled it for a few yards before darting off into the deep woods, converging with the river at their destination. The dull thuds of the horse’s steps against earth gave way to soft splashes and muffled clatter of hoof over stone, the mare’s strides more dainty in the shallow water than before, though she still seemed to enjoy herself. The foliage grew denser around them, branches crossing their path in a gauntlet that had Sansa ducking and brushing them aside with her forearm as brambles clawed at her riding skirts until they suddenly broke free, stepping out of the forest into a clearing, walled in on one side by a massive slab of bare rock rising to join others like it to form the foothills of the mountains looming in the distance. The small field was occupied by a structure that appeared to be a ramshackle hunting cabin leaning against the smooth stone, but it hid much more.

The man stepping out from the doorway had a rifle slung over his shoulder but greeted her with a friendly wave. When he doffed his hat, she identified him as one of her father’s most trusted workers. “Good afternoon, Jory,” she called, directing Lady toward him with a gentle prod before bringing her to a halt.

“Hello, Miss Stark. How are you?” he replied, leaning the weapon against the wall of the shed to help her dismount. She gave him the reigns to hold as he offered a hand to aid her swing down from her perch atop the saddle, her boots sinking into the soft grass a bit as she landed. When Jory started to lead the horse to a nearby post, Lady tossed her head with an arrogant whinny.

“Behave,” Sansa chided, but Jory only laughed, patting Lady’s head affectionately as he tied her up in the shaded lee of the building. “Is my father in?”

He nodded. “Aye, miss. He’s around back tinkering with that old boiler again. He’ll be happy to see you I’d expect.”

Sansa withdrew several parcels wrapped in brown paper from the saddlebags along with an unaddressed envelope. Lady paid her no mind, munching on a patch of clover she’d discovered. She smiled at the man now retrieving his weapon and returning to his post. “Thank you Jory.”

“Of course, miss,” he answered with an easy grin.

With her packages in hand, she stepped past him into the shack. The walls and floor were of roughhewn wood, unfinished and splintered, which creaked with every step. A small stove sat in one corner, and in the other a cot with a metal box next to it to keep provisions. She walked through the compact space to the door on the opposite side, opening it to reveal a stairway of the same build twisting down the side of the rock to the cave mouth below. She gingerly picked her way down the steps, one hand against the rock wall to steady herself, parcels tucked under her other arm. The caverns served a dual purpose, providing concealment for the brewing of illicit substances and also yielding an endless supply of pristine water filtered through porous rock. It wasn’t the only site they used, though it was her father’s favorite; he’d inherited her grandfather Rickard’s gift for making white lightning from seawater, but preferred the best ingredients he could get his hands on.

At the foot of the stairs, however, she found not her father, but the man who had captivated her since their chance meeting--in spite of her misgivings. Petyr Baelish stood in a smooth motion from where he’d been lounging on one of the stumps serving as chairs around the ashes of the fire pit, eyes lighting up when he spied her. He approached her eagerly, flicking away his cigarette toward the sandy edge of the river where its tributary emerged from the cavern behind them. He wore a gray suit with deep red accents, fine and well-tailored as was his wont. She’d noticed over the past few days since his arrival that he was always clean and well-dressed, and appeared not to indulge in the boisterous drinking and gambling in which his men--and even her father’s, to the latter’s dismay--habitually partook. Her parents had forbidden her and her siblings from venturing too close to the rough, bawdy newcomers and their careful, impeccably dressed master, but it didn’t stop Sansa from observing him from afar. Though she tried not to be obvious about it, every time she felt her attention drawn to him, he seemed to be watching her back, the barest hint of a grin on his lips.

The smile he favored her with now was broader though no less devilish. “Hello, sweetling,” he drawled, employing an endearment she wasn’t used to hearing. He offered his hand to her, and when she reciprocated seemed reticent to surrender it, pressing a kiss to her knuckles then smoothing over them with his thumb.

Sansa fought to keep her voice steady under the intensity of his attentions, trying hard to ignore the thrill of his hand cradling hers but making no great effort to retrieve it. “Good afternoon, Mr. Baelish. I was looking for my father,” she returned, giving both an explanation for her presence and a reminder that his boldness--though perhaps welcome--wasn’t without risk. Her father was most assuredly nearby, and while Eddard Stark was not a violent man as such, he didn’t hesitate to use force when needed, particularly where his family was concerned. Even before some self-important politicians in a far-off ivory tower made her family’s livelihood, their very life blood, illegal, Starks had a healthy distrust of the law, instead keeping (and enforcing, by whatever means necessary) their own code of ethics. As did the Tullys too, having been long-acquainted with the gray areas that came with racehorse breeding and all its trappings.Thus, both her parents had strong notions concerning the right and wrong sort of disreputable. Petyr Baelish was decidedly the latter.

“I’ve been waiting for him as well but alas, I fear he’s occupied at the moment.” His expression revealed anything but disappointment at the prospect. “I’d hoped for a chance for us to speak again,” he continued, stepping even closer to her. The scent of minty tobacco mixed with sharper spice--his aftershave, she ventured--enveloped her even as his eyes held hers rapt. “You haven’t misplaced any more jewelry, have you?” he teased, tone coarser, deeper.

“No,” she mumbled. Abashed, she dropped her head for a moment, eyes focusing on his thumb as it swept gently over her skin--even his nails were clean with neat edges, not rough and torn with dirt permanently caked underneath like so many other men of her acquaintance.

Meanwhile, his gaze strayed to where her unbound hair lay over her shoulder. “You seem to have acquired an addition to your ensemble. Not intended, I take it?” The amusement in his voice was dry but not unkind.

To Sansa’s horror, a twig had become ensnarled in her hair. She tried pulling her hand from his to rid herself of the vexing sprig, cursing inwardly at the fool she’d managed to look in front of him twice now--first careless and now unkempt. He tightened his hold on her, however, bringing his other hand up to cover hers.

“May I?” His eyes caught hers, the green of them more pronounced in hunger. She nodded, not trusting her voice. He gently squeezed her hand once more before releasing it. Petyr took his time disentangling the leaf from her locks, careful not to tug. She couldn’t help but be aware of how close he was standing to her, could feel the heat of his body across the handbreadth separating them.

“There,” he murmured huskily, finally extracted the offending bit of foliage and flicking it away. He didn’t, however, step back, instead continuing to curl her hair gently through his fingers. She should stop him, it was most improper, but she could do nothing but watch and feel the warmth of his hands brushing over her shoulders. “A most remarkable shade,” he added, thumb reaching up to skim lightly over the outer shell of her ear.

“My mother’s,” she replied dutifully, suppressing a shiver. She’d been told how much she resembled her mother too many times to count, including by the man in front of her.

“Not quite,” he demurred, “yours is deeper, more vibrant.” He leaned in closer, breath almost mingling with hers, fingers carding gently through her tresses. “Kissed by fire,” he declared in an almost reverent whisper. She’d heard the expression before but never had it affected her like this, curling low in her belly.

Noises echoing off the rocks behind them broke them apart, Petyr stepping back to put a more discreet distance between them, his hands finally dropping away as Sansa tried to banish the blush from her cheeks. Her father’s voice heralded his arrival, emerging from the cavern with Robb in tow, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows and hands covered in soot. “Sansa,” he exclaimed, “I wasn’t expecting you.” He glanced between her and Petyr with wariness while her brother did the same in curiosity.

“I brought lunch. And this note from Ma.” She withdrew the almost-forgotten bundle from where it was tucked at her side. Robb was quite happy to relieve her of the sandwiches, giving her a quick hug in the process, and then handed over the envelope to her father. Silence reigned a beat too long, Petyr waiting expectantly while her father regarded him with suspicion before realizing that etiquette demanded some sort of action on his part. He turned to her, blustering, “Sansa, have you met Mr. Baelish--”

“We haven’t been formally introduced, no,” Petyr interjected, saving her father from further awkward palaver. “It’s my pleasure Miss Stark.” He once more bent to press a kiss to her hand, eyes alight with mischief. Robb wisely kept mum, watching the exchange with quiet interest.

Her father cleared his throat harshly, sending the pair a sour look which Petyr seemed impervious to. He opened the letter, scanning its contents quickly, then gave her a tight smile. “Thank you, Sansa. Tell your mother we’ll be late for supper.”

“Alright, Pa,” Sansa swallowed her disappointment at the dismissal, yielding to her father’s request without protest, returning Robb’s commiseratory wave with a nod. Though her parents wouldn’t let her drink until she was older (unfair considering that she was sure her elder brothers had started imbibing far earlier), she wasn’t forbidden from being at the worksite, and even helped her father on occasion. He evidently wanted her as far away as possible from his unwanted ally. She could feel Petyr’s eyes on her as she climbed back up the winding stairs.

After retrieving Lady from Jory, she set out on her return journey. She turned the horse loose to gallop where she pleased, cutting through rolling fields and bounding over low stone walls. The breeze was just cool enough to be pleasant though soon it would bear a snap of cold portending the coming winter. She used to think her family’s land was enormous, a kingdom all its own. It grew smaller as the wider world around it proved harsh and unforgiving.

The leisurely ride gave her time to process her second real interaction with Petyr. She knew better than to trust pretty words or a handsome face, but she liked the way he touched her and took liberties she wouldn’t ordinarily allow, much less enjoy. According to what she gleaned from her parents’ conversations and the rumors traded back and forth among the servants, he dabbled in all manner of illicit activities, some quite violent indeed, but somehow managed to keep his hands clean. A man of myriad contradictions, his manner with her was courteous but far too forward while he seemed to delight in needling her father, always ready with a clever quip or quick rejoinder. His interactions with her mother were even more muddled, causing her to wonder what relationship they could have shared that would permit such familiarity but also such coldness at the same time. His own men, meanwhile, seemed to hold him in great respect, if not fear, though most of them hulked over him. He might well be the irredeemable rogue her father said he was, but she was drawn to him nonetheless.

Nearing home, she passed workers picking vegetables and readying the corn for harvest, activity increasing the closer they came. After riding by the cabins occupied by the farmhands and their families, she spotted Arya and her ragtag friends getting up to some sort of mischief in the garages, Rickon tagging gamely along. She rolled her eyes but chose not to tattle on them, and purposefully skirted wide around the guest quarters given over to Petyr and his gang that had been intended for Robb and his wife in anticipation of the child she carried. They’d moved back into the main house, occupying a quieter wing than the room Robb had shared with Jon growing up. The old mansion had more than enough space anyhow.

Their path took them by the coop, startling the chickens, who clucked their displeasure as they scurried out of the way in a dust cloud of ruffled feathers. Dismounting at the stables, Sansa led Lady past the other horses braying for attention to her stall, securing her by looping rope through tie ring and halter in well-practiced knots. She then poured fresh water in her trough and tossed a few handfuls of hay into the feeder to occupy her before unbuckling the saddle to hang on the wall rack. The ritual of grooming the horse was relaxing, a task she didn't mind enduring. She began by brushing the sweat and dirt from the mare’s gray coat in smooth circles of the currycomb from shoulder to flank, using a softer comb for Lady’s face. The horse’s dark eyes observed her calmly, flicking an ear on occasion but otherwise submitting without protest.

A creak of the barn door startled her and the horse both, the latter emitting a soft whinny in alarm. Soothing Lady with a gentle pat to her muzzle, she was pleasantly surprised to see Petyr stepping inside, evidently finished whatever business he had with her father that afternoon. He closed the door behind himself, looking out of place in the dusty, dirty stable, and greeted her with rakish grin. “Good evening.”

She returned his smile with a more demure one of her own. “Hello Mr. Baelish.”

His movements were smooth and sure as he neared them, eyeing Sansa and the horses in interest. He stopped just outside Lady’s stall, appraising her with a singular focus that she might’ve found unnerving but instead was becoming accustomed to. “Call me Petyr, please.” His entreaty was delivered in a low rumble.

She relented in a soft grin. “Petyr.”

His pleasure at hearing his given name from her lips seemed out of proportion to the small gesture. He offered his hand to the horse, who nuzzled it happily in turn. “What’s her name?”

“Lady,” she replied fondly.

“She’s beautiful, just like her owner,” he murmured, stepping closer to her. The horse seemed to preen in the attention while Sansa felt her cheeks redden. She returned to her labors, aware of Petyr’s steady gaze as something almost palpable. Untangling the horses mane was a more involved endeavor, but fortunately Lady adored being primped and pampered.

“I was surprised to see you at the still. Father never brings strangers there,” she remarked, drawing the brush through the fine strands of Ladys hair in gentle motions.

He leaned against the side of the stall, keeping a respectful distance between himself and the horse while somehow managing a welcome encroachment into Sansa’s personal space. “I insisted. I like to have a thorough understanding of an investment.”

She sent a questioning glance over her shoulder. “Investment?”

“It seems I am now the main distributor of Stark product,” he mused, eyes glinting.

“I see,” she replied, working out the worst of the knots by Lady’s ear. Even if the money was Petyr’s only contribution--which she doubted--it was sorely needed. Since the conflict began, their comfortable living had grown lean--steeper bribes, shipments stolen or confiscated by authorities, even legitimate holdings at risk as their customary trading partners became wary and skittish about choosing sides. Her parents were loathe to sell off property that had been in her family for generations, and were likewise reluctant to part with loyal employees, many of whom’s families had served and depended on the Starks for just as long. The harvest would keep them fed for winter, but any excess was needed to arm and armor their side for the war.

“It should be mutually beneficial,” he added slyly.

Plucking up her courage, she ventured, “Theon says you own a brothel in the big city.” She’d overheard Theon (and Robb as well) teasing Jon about his shyness around women, the former boasting of his exploits in a way that both disgusted and fascinated her.

He failed to appear the least bit offended or scandalized, instead responding with an unrepentant chuckle, “I do, several in fact.” His eyes danced with mirth when they met hers. “Among other things.”

She worried her lip with her teeth, curious but a bit apprehensive about what a man in such trade would desire or expect from her. “Is that what men like?” she asked cautiously, intrigued but half-afraid of his answer.

He laughed. “What, whores?” She nodded, blushing at the casual coarse language, while he leered at her discomfort. “Many men do, which makes me a great deal of money.” His searing gaze raked over her, down to her toes and back up again. “Personally, I’ve never seen the appeal.”

Distracted, Sansa was unprepared when Lady suddenly shifted her weight, causing her to lurch backward into Petyr, who caught her readily. She froze under the press of his hands on her shoulders, no doubt on the pretense of steadying her, but there was no mistaking the covetous nature of his hold.

The mare gave a soft whine in protest of being neglected by the two humans in favor of each other, spurring them to separate. Sansa stepped further down the stall to tend to the horse’s tail, which was fortunately not in as poor shape as her mane had been. Petyr ceded her the space but continued to watch her. He cocked his head to one side. “Don’t you have servants to do this sort of thing?”

She shrugged. “We’ve always had chores. Lady is mine, but I help care for the other horses as well. Mother always says it’s part of our duty to the family.”

“Old Hoster said the same,” he huffed with a twist of his lips.

Her brow furrowed. “You knew my grandfather?”

He nodded soberly. “My parents died when I was very young, and I was sent to foster with the Tullys. I grew up with your mother and her siblings. She was like a sister to me at one time.”

He fell silent, and though she was sure there was more to it, she didn’t want to upset him by pressing the issue. Instead, she traded the comb for a hoof pick to begin her least favorite activity--prying loose the muck packed in Lady’s hooves.

Before she could lift the horse’s leg, however, Petyr spoke up. “Here, let me help,” he offered, pushing away from the wall.

“You’ll get your clothes all muddy,” she warned, conscious of her own worn, unfashionable garments, a victim of the sacrifices that had been necessary because of the conflict. A recent growth spurt had rendered many of her dresses unfit as well with little hope of replacing them, and there was only so much a needle and thread could do.

Dropping to one knee beside Lady, he dismissed her concerns with a careless shrug. “I can always buy more.” Petyr picked up the horse’s back leg with a practiced hand she wouldn’t have expected from a man whose look and manner screamed ‘city’ to enable her to scrape away dirt and stones caked in the metal curve of the shoe.

“I used to help your mother do this,” he murmured, releasing one leg to pick up another so that she could repeat the process.

Sansa frowned, glancing down at him in between swipes of the pick. “She’s never mentioned you.”

He sighed, peering up at her with an openness that, even in their short acquaintance, seemed atypical for him. “I’m not surprised. We didn’t part on the best of terms.”

She paused, touched by the vulnerability she saw in his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

A shadow passed over his face before he shrugged it off. “A sad tale for another time, I think.”

They lapsed into a not uncomfortable silence as he helped her pick the remaining hooves clean. After she finished getting Lady settled in for the night, she joined Petyr near the front of the stalls, offering him a shy but grateful smile. “Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure,” he replied. He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but they were interrupted by the squeak of the old barn door protesting as it swung on its hinges. Sansa jumped while Petyr slid back into the shadows almost quicker than she could blink; it was just in time as Rickon stepped into the barn with an expression of puzzlement on his face. “Who were you talking to?”

“No one, just the horses,” she lied, forcing herself to relax and not betray the tension she felt.

“Okay,” Ricken gave her a funny look, but let it go. “Ma says dinner is ready and I’m hungry, so hurry up.”

“I’ll be up in a moment,” she promised. Rickon nodded and left, leaving the door ajar. Sansa sagged in relief. They hadn’t done anything improper, she told herself even as part of her piped up, then why do you feel so guilty? If her father found her alone with a man he deemed unsuitable--and Petyr epitomized that--there would be hell to pay. She silenced the unwanted voice, which sounded suspiciously like Sister Mordane, the nun who presided over Sunday classes and rooted out even the most innocuous sin with an uncanny perspicacity. Petyr reappeared from the rear of the stables, eyebrow raised in silent question.

“Sorry, I’ve got to go or my mother will send Arya next,” Sansa lamented.

“We wouldn’t want that,” he chuckled, bringing a hand up to cradle her cheek. His characteristic brogue took on a rougher timbre. “I want to see you again.”

Even as she nodded her assent, she couldn’t help but voice her concerns. “My parents won’t approve.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to ensure they don’t find out,” he purred lowly with a wicked grin that sent a rush of heat down her spine. He bid her farewell with a lingering kiss to her cheek and promise to call on her soon. The place where his lips had pressed against her skin tingled long after, and she found herself touching it at random moments in the chaotic din of her family’s evening meal.