Holy water cannot help you now
See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out
I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out
A thick layer of frost covered the rolling moors from which the squat stone tower rose. Beyond the tower, the grey sea thrashed upon craggy cliffs, its seafoam white as frost. Gulls called to each other as they swept over the sea.
It had been the first cold night after a week of relentless rain. As Ramsay hastened to the tower, his boots cracked the frost and sank into squelching mud. He wondered if his guest had survived the night. After all, there was no heat in the tower, and he had removed his guest’s clothing the night before.
His black hounds were on his heels, their relentless panting steaming in the air. They did not dare walk one step ahead of him, nor did they lag behind—he had trained them well. His mouth watered just as slaver dripped from their beautiful, beastly jaws; together his strides and theirs lengthened and quickened with desire and anticipation as they got closer and closer to the tower. Animal instinct, he mused with reeling joy. We’ve all got it.
If his guest had survived the night, he might be generous and share with his hounds; if not, he would simply give his guest to them. There was little joy to be had in a dead body.
A lone figure waited outside the tower, huddled in a heavy parka. His drawn, broken face was wind-chapped as the cliffs themselves. He’d been outside all night.
"Reek," he greeted above the wind. His man Reek began fishing the keys to the tower from his coat pocket.
The tower was as old as the land; it had been a ruin when his father, the late Roose Bolton, had taken over the estate, and then Roose Bolton had rebuilt it, originally intending it as safekeeping for the spoils of his money-laundering efforts.
Now that it belonged to him, Ramsay had found other uses for it.
He had loved the tower’s austere wooden door. The key Reek drew from his coat pocket was made of iron; it was medieval in its weight and craftsmanship. Reek’s pale hand trembled as he fitted the key into the lock, his watery grey eyes flicking back to the hounds; Reek had never quite got used to them. "Did our guest survive the cold night?"
“D-dunno,” Reek stammered, heaving the door a little as he unlocked it. Though the hardware was not even forty years old, it had been exposed to the harsh elements and salt of the sea for so long that it was already rusted, and already felt as ancient as the original tower. Ramsay liked it even better for its aesthetic appeal. It made him think of the Tower of London, one of his most favorite places. “Stopped crying round four, I th-think," he shivered.
"A pity," Ramsay sighed, and his breath was so warm it created a cloud of steam before his face. The desire was mounting; his blood was throbbing in his veins. Reek took so fucking long to open the fucking door, and Ramsay fisted his numb hands in his pockets to stop from strangling the fool as he rocked on his feet, biting his lip. Open it open it open it JUST OPEN IT.
The door swung open, the shaft of thin grey light falling across the packed-earth floor and revealing Ramsay's prize. Reek could not tell if the low, rumbling growl of desire and hunger came from Ramsay, or his hounds, or both, before they lunged.
"Welcome back, Snow." Bowen Marsh rammed the key into the lock and pushed open the door to Jon's office. A rush of stale air greeted them: his office had no windows, and had been locked for three months.
Jon tried to still his features as the door opened, but his leg shook anyway with something like anticipation. The last time he had been here, he had been out of his mind.
They had done their best to clean up the evidence of his breakdown: a new chair replaced the one he had thrown and smashed into the wall, and the walls had evidently been patched up. The empty coffee cups, the stacks of files, the random odds and ends that inevitably junked up an office over time had all been removed, leaving the room both wildly personal and yet far too sterile.
"Thanks, Marsh," he said quietly, nodding to the older detective. Marsh nodded back, avoiding Jon's eyes; the last time Jon had spoken with him had been the same day he had smashed everything in this office, and their last words had not been friendly. But Marsh was professional and pragmatic, luckily, and therefore hid any remaining animosity he might have felt. As grateful as Jon was for this, it also pained him: once upon a time, Jon had counted Marsh among his closest friends.
Marsh gestured for Jon to enter, and then left Jon to himself. Jon stood in the doorway. The rest of the department behind him buzzed with low activity. So many people were pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary, though nothing could have been stranger than this day. Their stares burned Jon's back like a light shining too brightly. He swallowed over the lump forming in his throat, and stepped into his office.
Someone had tactfully removed the notes and photographs from his last case that had been tacked to his corkboard. That case had consumed his life for five years, and had ultimately led to this moment. Jon stared at the blank spaces, the un-faded squares of cork where the photographs and notes had been tacked for so long. Much like those dark squares, removing all evidence of that case just proved that there had been nothing else in his life. His life was as barren and faded as the corkboard; the space was defined more by what wasn't there than by what was.
The only personal thing that remained, the only object of importance to Jon and the only sign that his life had not been completely desolate, lay on its side atop his desk. It was a handmade, felted-wool wolf, and Jon touched it, smiling, before turning to look at the corkboard again.
"You could have gotten your hair cut." Mormont's gruff voice followed the soft click of the door closing, and Jon turned away from the blank corkboard to look at his boss, his mentor, the closest thing he had to a role model since his uncle Ned had died. Jon self-consciously touched his hair, which had been pulled into a low knot at the nape of his neck. He hadn't been able to bring himself to cut it. Not yet. He just needed a little more time.
"You're lucky I shaved," he tried to joke, but he couldn't make the tone light enough, and it came out too morose.
Mormont's gaze lingered openly on the scar over Jon's eyebrow. Jon felt the first stirrings of panic. If Mormont tried to bring it up--
“D’you know—I wish you hadn't. You look too pretty without a beard," he complained. "Well, beard or no, at any rate, you'll be pleased to know I got your papers. Dr. R'hllor faxed them last week."
His stomach turned. He didn't want to think about the psychiatrist, Dr. Melisandre R'hllor, who had been probing into him for the last three months any more than he did the reason he had been gone so long.
"Good," he forced out. "That's …good. So, what'll I do first?"
"You could clean your bloody office, but I know you won't, so I'll not hold my breath."
Mormont looked uncomfortable for a moment, like he was suffering an inward battle, but finally the older man seemed to come to some conclusion, and stepped closer. "I've got a case, but I won’t lie: I don't want to put you on it, lad,” he said bluntly, and he slapped a thin folder onto the desk. "It's a missing prostitute."
Jon felt the blood rush from his head; he needed to sit down, but he instead pretended to lean casually against his desk to look closer at the folder. He opened it, his grey eyes skimming the text, hyperaware of Mormont watching him carefully. It would be harder to fool the Old Bear than the others, he knew.
Why am I trying to fool him? Jon wondered, turning the page over and finding nothing on the back. I'm fine. Even Dr. R'hllor thought so. I don't need to fool anyone. "I don't want you getting too close this time, Snow. The minute you start going—well, you know," Mormont began, struggling and flailing for polite words, "The first sign of trouble, I'm taking you off it and sending you straight back to Dr. R'hllor. Do you hear me? I'll have no more—no more breaking chairs and—and..." Mormont trailed off helplessly, desperately.
Jon couldn't look up. He stared at the page, unseeing, his vision blurring with shame. His mouth was horribly dry, but he reminded himself that it was nothing more than a side-effect of the medication that Dr. R’hllor had put him on. He tried to smile, but his lips got stuck against his teeth, and he licked his lips before looking up at Mormont.
"It's just a prostitute," he said calmly. "You don't have to worry. I'm fine."
"She's more than likely—"
"—Dead, yeah. It says she's been gone thirty-six hours," Jon finished, closing the folder. "It'll be a straightforward case."
"Quiet, or the gods'll hear you," he joked. "Don't tempt fate now. Supposedly Lannister is hiring a private investigator. A woman named Stone. Word is that she's good—and expensive. Watch out for her."
For a long moment the two men regarded each other. "Welcome back, Jon Snow," Mormont said quietly, solemnly, at long last. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a dark, gleaming pistol. Jon's heart shuddered at the sight of it. Mormont set it gingerly, lovingly, on the desk. "If this case works out—if you can prove to me you're back, really back—then you can have her back."
"Her?" Jon tried to jest, his heart in his throat as he looked down at the gun. "Longclaw is hardly a woman's name."
"It's hardly a gun's name, either, but did anyone ask me?" Mormont scoffed, before picking the gun back up off the desk. Jon felt a distinct loss. He had felt naked without his gun; useless without his gun.
“Maege never did,” Jon replied, forcing a smile. He tried not to watch too hungrily as Mormont stowed the gun back inside his jacket. Mormont tapped lightly on the folder now. "Find that girl, and I'll give you your girl back."
Mormont left the door open, leaving Jon exposed to the odd atmosphere beyond his office door, as the entire department valiantly attempted to pretend they were not in agony with curiosity about him.
He shrugged off his jacket and dropped into his chair—it was not nearly as comfortable as his old one. This time he didn't skim the information: almost as though on autopilot, his hands went to the drawer on the left side of his desk, and as he read, he procured one of his composition-style notebooks that he always used for all of his cases.
He opened to the first blank page, and got out one of his pens.
Atop the page, he wrote: Shae Lorath.
It was pouring rain and Tyrion was soaked, his best suit arguably ruined. He used his broken umbrella to reach the doorbell next to the grubby little door, which, among the rest of the chaos of Charing Cross, had been nearly invisible. The rain pounded down harder, and Tyrion cursed everything from god to his fate to the weather to stupid teenaged boys who liked to humiliate grown men. He also decided to curse Miss Alayne Stone, private investigator, for good measure, because it took her an awfully long time to open her damn door.
At long last the door opened, and a tall, ugly woman with lank blonde hair and an ill-fitting suit stared him down.
"I’m Tyrion Lannister, here to see Miss Alayne Stone," Tyrion explained loudly over the roar of a passing bus.
"You're late," she said coolly, not stepping aside to allow him in. Tyrion considered hitting her with his umbrella. It would be utterly satisfying, but he needed Miss Stone…Then again, he'd heard she was beautiful, so this giantess could hardly be her, unless Varys had just been fucking with him—which was the likeliest, now that he thought of it.
"As are you, in opening your damn door. Let me in, woman. I'm a paying customer," Tyrion insisted furiously, and let out a sigh of relief as the woman stepped aside to allow him in. The narrow hall was cramped and dark, but at least it was dry.
"Follow me," the blonde ordered, before turning sharply on her heel and walking up the stairs. She was so tall and broad that she looked like she was climbing up a dollhouse staircase. Tyrion amused himself with the difference between them as he hastened to follow her, grateful that she would not watch him hobble up the steps.
They came to a door of mahogany with frosted glass; Tyrion already felt a bit better at the sight of such an elegant door.
"That's a rather posh door for such a hideous hallway," Tyrion remarked gamely, wondering if he could get a grin from this broad. "It's a bit like me wearing such fine suits, isn't it? Though I suppose, thanks to being stuck in the rain, you can hardly tell how fine this—"
"—Miss Stone will see you shortly. Have a seat. Would you like a biscuit?" the blonde asked stiffly without looking at him, opening the mahogany door and gesturing sharply to a seat. The waiting area was a tiny sitting room, though it was sumptuously decorated in shades of grey. Tyrion vaulted himself onto one of the brocade-covered chairs.
"Yes, please," he said, and tried not to smirk as he watched her stamp off to a cupboard behind her impressive desk, which boasted a luxurious Apple monitor, and an immaculate and eerie orchid. The windows looked out over Charing Cross, but the noise of the road was well blocked. The office felt cosy and sequestered. The blonde thrust a tray of biscuits at him, and then disappeared through another door of frosted glass. Tyrion strained to interpret the muffled voices, but it was no use, so he chomped on the chocolate biscuit and tried not to dwell too much on why he was here.
Sadly, he was a little short on non-depressing thoughts these days.
He tried not to think about the journey here, either: the humiliation of taking the Underground, rather than having his driver; then, those bloody teenagers who had clearly decided that being half the height of every other forty year old man was simply not terrible enough—why not also take his umbrella, break it, then beat him with it? So funny! Hilarious! Really, the wit of it was not to be believed... A lump of self-loathing in his throat, forming all day, was getting all the harder to swallow around.
Nothing was good about his life right now, and nothing had ever been—save for Shae.
Miss Stone was getting the last of his money left to him. But if she could find Shae...
The blonde came through the door and gestured for him to enter. "Miss Stone will see you now," she said stiffly, clearly unhappy about this turn of events.
Tyrion shoved himself off the chair and, sopping wet and skint as fuck, he went in to see this Miss Stone.
...If Miss Stone could find Shae, it would be worth every pound.
Tyrion Lannister's name had jumped out to her from her agenda for the past twenty-four hours, making her heart leap into her throat each time she saw it.
Now at last the suspense would be over.
Her newly-cut fringe itched nearly as much as the black bob wig already did on its own, but she was certain that the fringe made her even less recognizable as Sansa Stark—not that Sansa Stark had known Tyrion Lannister very well. She'd only interacted with him a few times, before her "death." She doubted he would remember her even if she’d run into him without the wig.
...But she still had to be careful. Even taking him on as a client, even meeting him, was an enormous risk—some might even say an idiotic one.
Maybe there was a part of her that just wanted trouble.
She arranged her features into a mask of ivory as Tyrion Lannister waddled into her office, and Brienne—who had made it abundantly clear just how unwise she found this meeting—held her chin high and shut the door behind him.
Tyrion Lannister had the signature golden Lannister hair, partly, though he had an unexpected shock of white pluming from it as well. His eyes were mismatched, and a jagged scar hacked his already ugly face in half. He was shockingly, brutally ugly to look at. And yet...there was a charm to him, the Lannister charm. Perhaps it was the brutal confidence—and simultaneous self-loathing—with which he carried himself. He was drenched, wearing an immaculately tailored suit, and carrying a broken umbrella. When their eyes met over her fine desk, she saw no recognition in his mismatched gaze, and she felt her muscles begin to release.
Slightly. Not fully. She never fully relaxed. She had not relaxed in fifteen years.
"Miss Stone," he greeted politely. "Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice."
"Mr. Lannister," she greeted with a nod. "Please, have a seat."
"I believe you were emailed a file containing all of the necessary information," Tyrion said as he struggled onto the chair. Sansa averted her eyes instinctively and pretended to shuffle through the papers. She thought of her little brother Bran, who was severely handicapped, but pushed the thought aside. Alayne Stone had no little brother. She had no family at all.
"Yes, I have it all here. Thank you for this extensive information," she finally said, setting the papers down once Tyrion was situated upon the chair. There was a split second of naked gratitude upon his face that vanished instantly.
"The Met has done nothing. Evidently they've assigned the case to a detective who just came back from personal leave," he said, waving his hand. "I happen to have known said detective in a past life, and I only knew him as a self-absorbed adolescent. Suffice it to say, I do not feel supremely confident in the Met's ability to find Shae alive."
Sansa took out her notebook, a fine leather-bound book of heavy, quality stock, and began writing, as was her custom.
"These are helpful details for me to have. What’s this detective's name?"
"He's a copper,” Tyrion said rather wearily. "Former copper, I suppose. Detective Inspector Jon Snow."
Sansa's hand did not still, though her heart lurched back into her throat. She cleared her throat as Tyrion continued. A flash of dark grey eyes, a mouth nearly too pretty for a boy, and strong hands… Jon Snow… Breathing was, quite suddenly, difficult. A flush crept up her neck, but she was wearing a scarf so Lannister would not see it. “Evidently he had some sort of mental breakdown. A dear, well-connected friend of mine was able to glean some insider information on what happened with him, but it hardly matters. The point is that every minute that passes is another minute in which Shae could be lost forever."
“Of course. And have you spoken with this detective inspector yourself?”
“Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time before he brings me in for questioning. Some rookies questioned me last night, and I must say that my pet bird could have done a more effective job.”
Sansa finished writing and looked back at the printout of the email he had sent. It had been an exhaustive detailing of the sequence of events, and extensive information on Shae Lorath herself. It also contained very well developed guesses as to where she might be, and who might have taken her. Two names had jumped out at her in particular: Cersei Baratheon, Tyrion’s supermodel sister, and Tywin Lannister, his father, that famed surgeon.
“Tell me about the night Shae went missing,” Sansa said, setting the paper down. Tyrion arched his brows at her.
“You have it all there,” he protested. “We don’t have time to—“
“—We can do this my way, or Brienne will cut you a cheque for the amount you are owed and we can hail you a cab, Mr. Lannister,” she said coolly. Tyrion’s lips twisted into a grin.
“Oh, I do enjoy a woman in charge. Very well, then. I suppose this is some sort of tactic of yours.” He adjusted his suit jacket and cleared his throat. “Two nights ago, I came home from a very long, trying day at the office to find Shae missing. She had been living with me for about six months, and had stopped working for her pimp, Craster, in that time. She didn’t have a day job, and didn’t go out much, so right away I knew something was wrong.”
“Why didn’t she go out much?”
“I forbade it. My sister and I…well, we’ve never really got on, and for reasons I won’t go into, she has always had it out for me, and has always looked for ways to hurt me.”
“Reasons to kidnap or murder someone?”
“Nothing new, if that’s what you’re asking. I just mean we’ve always had bad blood between us, since we were little,” Tyrion dismissed with a wave of his hand. “So I had been working extremely hard to keep Shae a secret from the people who knew me, lest it get back to my sweet sister that I had someone I loved and cared about.
“Anyway, I got home and quickly realized that all was not right. I looked around the flat, and came upon a note on the bed.” Tyrion’s voice hardened; his fists clenched. Sansa pretended not to notice. "I would give you the note, but the brilliant Met police took it with them. Luckily, I have a picture of it. I anticipated a struggle of intellects, and snapped a picture before they could take it away.” Tyrion fished his mobile out of his pocket, and scowled at something on its screen before dismissing it and bringing up the picture. He leaned forward and Sansa took the mobile to study the picture.
The handwriting was shaky; it was written on pink paper.
to Tyrion my lion,
I cant go on like this I am lonely
You know I love you but love isn’t enough is it
Im very sorry for everything I will miss you
“It smacks of coercion, does it not?” Tyrion demanded. “Look at the inkblots; she was obviously crying. Her handwriting looks nothing like that; look, I can show you other examples.” With a shaking hand he frantically pulled crumpled up notes from his pockets and tossed them onto the desk. Sansa took them and smoothed them out. Little love notes, written in a large, bubbly, childish hand…
“How old was—is—Shae?”
Sansa as a rule hid any judgment from her clients, but it was hard to still her features at this as she looked up at Tyrion. He was in his mid- to late-forties. Disgust roiled in her gut. She pressed her lips together.
“It would be hard for a nineteen-year-old woman who was used to being on her own to suddenly stay in a flat all day every day,” Sansa remarked cautiously, pushing the notes back to him. Tyrion snatched them back up.
“Yes, she was unhappy about it. I was working to find a new place for us to live, further from my sister, but—well, it was taking a bit of time,” Tyrion confessed, looking furious yet also shamefaced.
“A bit of money, you mean?” Sansa asked shrewdly, making another note. Tyrion smoothed out the fabric of his trousers.
“My debts are…not insignificant,” Tyrion said carefully. “A lifetime of whoring and gambling will do that rather quickly. My father had told me that day, as a matter of fact, that he would be cutting off my access to my trust fund unless I cleaned up my act.”
“Why not move into a cheaper flat? This address puts you in Mayfair—that’s not exactly an affordable neighborhood.”
Tyrion looked pained. He let out a sigh.
“I couldn’t let Shae know how bad things were. She was a whore, you know…so without my money, without the seduction of my wealth…”
“…You thought she would leave if she learned how bad things were, financially,” Sansa interpreted. “Was there any sign of a struggle? Or any signs that she had left of her own free will?”
“No clothing was missing. No jewelry. She didn’t bring her mobile, which the girl was bloody surgically attached to. But no signs of a struggle, either. Just the note.”
For another hour, they went through the particulars of Shae’s disappearance. At long last, Tyrion was shown out, and Sansa could sit with her thoughts in peace. There was a soft knock at the door, and Brienne appeared, bearing two steaming mugs of tea. Brienne looked like she had aged about ten years in the last two hours as she sat down heavily where Tyrion had sat.
“There’s no sign of this in the news, yet. I checked all major social media, too, and can find nothing. The girl had a Twitter and an Instagram account; both were blank,” Brienne reported before taking a long sip of her tea. Sansa stared into her mug.
“I’m sorry for putting you through that.”
Brienne abruptly set her tea down.
“It’s not me I’m concerned about,” Brienne insisted, almost angrily. “Miss Stone, you know this case is foolish to take on—”
“—I know, Brienne,” Sansa smiled sadly at the woman. “He’s not the only person who might know me, though,” she said now, looking down at one circled name in her notes in particular.
“Of course he isn’t! Tyrion himself might have known you, not to mention any of the Baratheons or Lannisters. I do wonder what Jaime will make of this—“
“—Jon Snow is the detective inspector from the Met on the case,” Sansa interrupted.
Brienne froze and stared at Sansa in horror.
“Jon Snow?” she croaked. “San—I mean Alayne, you cannot do this. The others might not know you, not with your wig and contacts, but Jon…was like a brother to you. He was raised alongside you for your entire childhood. Not to mention he’s not exactly a fool.”
“He was no brother to me,” Sansa replied, staring out the window onto Charing Cross. “We hardly spoke,” she recalled, thinking of the sour-mannered but sweet-tempered boy whom had lived with her family for most of her life, raised as her brother though he was in reality her cousin, the son of her father’s wild younger sister, Lyanna. He had been Robb’s closest friend, had loved Arya, Bran, and Rickon like they were his own younger siblings…but between her and Jon there had been an inexplicable chasm. They had had nothing in common, and any time spent together had been strained, uncomfortable.
“That doesn’t mean he won’t recognize you.”
“I won’t have to see him. I’m sure I won’t,” she said firmly. “Now, first things first: get me a meeting with Tywin Lannister.”
"Heading out?" Mormont looked up from his work as Jon passed by his office.
"I'm getting dinner with my cousins. The Starks," Jon added needlessly—as if Mormont didn't know about Jon's upbringing, as if in three months the man could have forgotten everything he knew about Jon from ten years of working together. Mormont looked a bit thrown off, but he forced a smile regardless.
"Good. Good," he said after a beat too long. "That's good."
"Yeah." Jon shifted. "Well, see you tomorrow."
Marsh was packing up as Jon passed by his desk. Jon had to unstick his lips again to speak. His head was throbbing, too. Dr. R'hllor had upped his dosage a few days ago, and he supposed the dry mouth and headaches were the result. Even his eyes ached, and his heart fluttered uncomfortably.
"Night, Marsh," he forced out as he passed. The red-faced man barely looked up.
"Night, Snow," he muttered reluctantly. Jon wanted to linger, longed to say more, but his throat was stuck again, and he found himself bursting forth into the November evening, breathless with a grief and shame that he could not name.
They were meeting at a French restaurant, which Jon should have realized was a hint that Petyr Baelish, who worked to manage the Stark's wealth and inheritances, would be joining them.
The restaurant was stuffy, and too fancy. Jon gave his name to the hostess as he spotted Arya with her boyfriend, Gendry, and Bran, who was evidently having some sort of disagreement with Arya and his girlfriend, Meera. A large path had been cleared for his enormous, complicated wheelchair. Petyr Baelish sat, observing, clad in his usual three-piece bespoke suit, with a general air of amusement about him. Bran's normally pale, gaunt face was flushed, Meera's hand on his arm, and Arya looked furious. Oddly, she kept shooting glowers at Meera, who seemed to be keenly avoiding her eye. Rickon was, per usual, late.
"Jon!" Gendry called a little too desperately, waving like a drowning man as Jon approached them. Arya glanced and waved shortly, before returning to glaring at Meera.
"Snow," Petyr greeted, gesturing to the chair beside his. He poured a glass for Jon from a bottle of wine that was, undoubtedly, over one hundred pounds. Petyr's clever, swarthy eyes were dancing. He always seemed like he was inwardly making fun of Jon. Those eyes lingered on Jon's scar. "It's been too long. Have some Montrachet."
"Thanks." Dr. R'hllor had told him to not drink while on this medication, but he couldn't exactly refuse. Petyr was paying, after all. "Where's Rickon?"
"Who knows. Probably clubbing," Arya snorted in disgust. Gendry looked like he would have liked to simply melt into the floor.
"I'll text him," Jon said carefully, glancing between his cousins. The tension was thick. Much as Jon disliked Petyr, he glanced curiously, probingly, at him now. What was going on with Arya and Meera? Petyr arched his brows, and subtly nodded to a pile of photographs on the table, between Arya and Bran.
They seemed to be of a woman with chin-length black hair, taken from a distance. Jon studied Meera, who was a photog. She must have taken the pictures... There was something familiar about the girl, though he couldn't see the pictures well enough to say for certain. Arya, though temperamental, was not one for holding onto a disagreement longer than necessary, so this had to be bad.
He took his mobile out and fired off a text to Rickon, though it was unnecessary: moments later, Rickon sauntered in, completely underdressed for the restaurant. Suddenly, Jon felt unbearably weary, and he took a long swig of wine.
"I heard today was your first day back," Petyr said in a low voice, presumably to cut the tension that was ever tautening as Rickon approached their table. Even Arya, covered in piercings and tattoos, had worn one of her nicer shirts, and Jon could see her fury rising as she took in Rickon's track bottoms and scruffy cap. He took another swig of wine.
"That's right, Jon, back at Scotland Yard?" Meera cut in rather loudly. Jon sensed she was about to angle for something. He took another swig of wine. He was being foolish, being destructive, as Dr. R'hllor had discussed. He took another swig of wine. His head was only throbbing more. He could feel Arya's eyes on him.
"Yeah," he said. His mouth already felt thick. He cleared his throat as he realized he was already on a path to being solidly drunk, as Rickon slid into the seat next to him. "Rickon—long time no see."
"What happened to your forehead?" Rickon asked bluntly. Jon could feel Arya seething.
"I got hit at work," Jon said. "What happened to yours?" He eyed the tattoo peeking out from underneath Rickon's wild auburn curls. Rickon pulled his hair back, showing a tattoo of a wolf. The skin around it was pink; it was a fresh tattoo.
"You realize that will be impossible to cover that up, right?" Arya asked with awful sarcasm. "If you ever want a job—like, anywhere—then you are going to be fucked."
Bran was staring at the photographs, Meera was staring at Jon, Gendry was staring at the ceiling, and Petyr was looking between all of them with an air of good humor. "Also, if you had bothered to return anyone's calls or texts in the last three months, you would know that Jon had--"
"—A bad patch at work," Jon cut in swiftly. He gulped down some water, though Petyr poured him more wine. "So what are these pictures?"
"We think you could help," Meera said quickly, shoving the pictures across the table towards him. Jon felt Petyr glance at him again, but he avoided the man's gaze, and took the photographs.
"Sansa is alive," Bran explained.
"I saw her near Charing Cross, and I took some pictures. I've been back there a few times, looking for her, but I haven't seen her since," Meera explained hastily, as Jon studied the photographs. He saw Arya covering her face out of the corner of his eye, and Rickon was staring down at the table as though in a trance.
A heaviness settled over Jon, heavier than any depression. He felt old. He felt tired.
The car accident that had killed Catelyn, Ned, Robb, and Sansa, and had paralyzed Bran from the waist down, had caused the Stark family so much destruction. Jon had been out of the Stark home by then, and had received an abrupt call to find out that his uncle, who had raised him, along with his cousins, one of whom had been like a brother to him, had died suddenly...and also that he had been in Ned Stark's will.
Given the circumstances under which he had left the Stark home, this had been especially painful, and the Stark money that Petyr Baelish had doled out to him over the past fifteen years had been a source of discomfort, shame, and guilt for Jon. He had never been able to bring himself to touch the money—until three months ago, when the rug had been pulled out from under him, and that money had quite literally saved his life.
Perhaps the greatest destruction of all was in its effect on Bran. Bran had been the sole survivor of the accident that night, and had never recovered. He had to live in an assisted-living facility, and had spent the past fifteen years consumed by his conviction that Sansa had survived. This was made worse by the fact that her body had never been found. Her casket had been empty. Bran swore he had seen her crawling away from the wreckage, and in the last year, he insisted he had uncovered a new memory from that night: of Jaime Lannister, who had come upon the wreckage and purportedly saved Bran, pushing Bran off the bridge and causing his paralysis before helping Sansa escape.
Bran's anguish had been a great source of pain for both Arya and Jon over the years. Arya, in particular, had devoted significant energy into helping Bran find closure—and yet he never moved on.
And now Jon understood why Arya had been so furious with Meera. He felt hot and tingly, and now he took another swig of wine as he stared at the pictures.
It was a woman, perhaps in her mid-thirties—well, it was the right age, at any rate; Sansa would have been turning thirty-five this year—with black hair in a bob, dressed all in black, ordering lunch at a Pret a Manger. She was beautiful, and tall, as Sansa had been, but she looked nothing like her. Sansa had had thick, wavy red hair, cascading down her back, and light blue-green eyes. She had been, even at age nineteen, an infamous beauty. But this woman seemed to have dark eyes, and Jon supposed she could have looked like Sansa, with different hair and eyes...but who could possibly say? All of them looked drastically different than they had fifteen years ago.
Jon wearily set the photographs down as a waiter came by to take their orders. Rickon refused Petyr's wine, and instead ordered a beer.
The waiter smiled at him quizzically, and Arya covered her face in rage and exasperation. Bran hadn't even chosen anything to eat, and Meera ordered for him, and Jon found himself feeling lightheaded, just staring at her. How dare you, he thought, but the rage felt separate from him, a thing he lacked the password to access but knew existed.
"So, we were thinking that Jon might be able to look into her at work," Meera suggested after the waiter left. Jon stared at her.
"I have no idea who this woman is," he said bluntly, touching the top photograph. "How could I possibly ‘look into’ her? And why would I? She looks nothing like Sansa."
He stared Meera down, and Meera returned his stare unabashedly. It occurred to Jon, suddenly, that Meera despised him, and probably had always despised him. It was naked on her face now.
"I don't even remember what Sansa looked like. I don't remember her at all."
Rickon's sudden, anguished admission caused them all to go silent, to look down. Jon's grief grew heavier. It was too easy to forget that Rickon was only nineteen, that Bran was still in his mid-twenties. They were so young...even Arya was barely more than thirty. Though they had been through so much, they were so innocent in some ways...
"You remember Sansa, don't you, Uncle Petyr?" Bran's voice was clear, and strong. Petyr had been uncharacteristically quiet, and Jon reluctantly passed Petyr the photographs. Jon realized that Rickon was suddenly trying not to cry, and he hated Meera even more. As Petyr studied the photographs dispassionately, Jon stared at Meera and fantasized about killing her. With her stupid hair, her stupid camera around her neck...
"Sansa was beautiful, like your mother." A creeping feeling, like icy fingers, ran up Jon's spine. His tongue was too heavy. "She had waist-length dark red hair, and bright blue eyes...did you know that is one of the rarest combinations?" Something about Petyr's tone chilled him. He sounded like a curator discussing a rare artifact he had once touched. "I remember Sansa well, because she was the spitting image of your mother at that age." Petyr dropped the pictures onto the table. "This isn't Sansa, my dear Bran." His voice was not without sympathy, and yet...
Jon was relieved when the food arrived. He ate without tasting, trying to sop up some of the alcohol. He'd had barely two full glasses of wine and felt like he'd have a headache tomorrow. Perfect—just how he wanted to show up to his second day of work in three months: hung over and angry.
The rest of the dinner crawled by. After more strained conversation about Rickon's new tattoo and Jon's return to work, Petyr opened his briefcase and gave them the update they had all gathered to get: on their funds, on their parents' estate.
Jon absorbed none of it. He wasn't a Stark; he did not belong here. Oh, he was Lyanna's son, and so technically he was half a Stark, but he had no right to Ned's money...Petyr paid the bill (which Jon knew must be exorbitant), and Arya dragged Gendry out in a huff, and Rickon skulked off, and Petyr excused himself.
Jon helped Meera wheel Bran out of the restaurant. It was raining again, and Hodor, one of the caretakers at Bran's assisted living facility, had pulled up in his van. As Hodor and Osha loaded Bran into the van, Jon pulled Meera aside. The inebriation was clearing, and his headache was worse than ever, and the hollow anger was as throbbing and consuming as the headache. He pulled Meera behind a potted plant, and rounded on her.
"How dare you," he began calmly, flexing his fingers. Meera stared up at him defiantly, tears in her eyes.
"You know it's Sansa and you won't admit it. You're really quite good at running away from things, aren't you?"
If he had been younger, more inexperienced, less drowned in his own pain, her words might've hurt. As it was, he stared sadly at her.
"Bran is trying to heal," he began. He wondered if he had paracetamol in his flat. Even his teeth were beginning to ache, and he massaged the bridge of his nose. "He needs to accept that Sansa--"
"--Oh, shut up," Meera hissed, her face turning pink with a fury he had not expected. Her hands balled into fists. "I thought you'd care enough to help but if you won't, we'll just figure it out on our own."
"There's nothing to figure out, Meera. Baelish remembers her the best, and--"
"--Petyr is a fucking pedophile, let's face it," she seethed. The rain began to fall harder, and she began to tremble with cold. "You know what I think?" she asked in a low, scathing voice.
"Oh, tell me what you think," he blurted sarcastically, hated how his voice raised. "You only just fucked up a dinner for absolutely no reason; yes, Meera, tell me what you--"
"--I think you left because you were fucked up and you knew it, and you were fucked up about Sansa, just like Petyr was, just like every man was."
Jon stared at her. Her words were like a slap of ice, from nowhere. Meera was breathing hard. "I think you wanted to fuck her," she said in a rush, "I think you had no cousinly feelings for her at all, and you're ashamed of it. I saw that prostitute you were so obsessed with, Ygritte, was it? I saw her. She looked like Sansa, she looked like a poor man's Sansa Stark--"
His fist had clenched. He had seen red. For a moment he left his own body.
But it was Osha who saved him from saying something he would have truly regretted.
"You coming with us, little lady, or you going to stand here in the rain and quarrel with Jon Snow?" the dark-haired woman asked slyly, peering at them. Jon dropped his hand, suddenly short of breath. Meera's eyes were wide and wild as Osha led her away, her gaze fixed on Jon.
He stood in the rain, his head throbbing and pulsing, his fist still clenched and shaking.
Maybe it was the drugs, maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the day, maybe it was all the bloody French food—but he went to the nearest alley and doubled over and emptied the contents of his stomach. Gasping, one scarred hand braced against the wet brick, bile and vomit and rain dripped from his lips.
In the warm light of her bathroom, Sansa peeled the black wig off. A few short black hairs came with it; she'd only cut the blunt fringe this morning, in a desperate attempt to further disguise herself. Petyr stood in the doorway to the bathroom, holding a glass of wine, watching almost hungrily as she freed her thick auburn hair from its pins. She could see him in the reflection.
For years, she had simply dyed her hair black, but the effort had fried her hair, and seeing herself with black hair in the mirror each day had made her drift further and further into despair. The wig was uncomfortable; hot and itchy, and it never seemed to sit quite right, even though she'd paid exorbitantly for it...But it was worth it, to be able to see herself staring back at her in the mirror at the end of each day.
"Nice fringe," he remarked wryly. He was one of three people in the whole world who knew her name, who knew who she really was. He had known the Starks extremely well. In fact, he had been with her family tonight. He pushed himself away from the doorframe and came up behind her, touching her hair.
"I saw Tyrion Lannister today." She arranged the wig on the styrofoam head, and set about removing her colored contacts. Brown disappeared, and then her own blue-green eyes were blinking back at her, a bit red from removing the contacts. She thought she might never get used to them. "That's why I cut the fringe," she explained.
"A risky move," Petyr replied. She felt him tugging on an auburn curl and she resisted the urge to flinch. Petyr's touches were limited; he never did more than tug at her hair or touch her cheek. "Feeling dangerous, lately, Alayne?"
She couldn't tell him why she'd taken Tyrion Lannister on as a client; the words got stuck in her throat. She turned the warm water on and rinsed her makeup from her face, watching the pink and black swirl down the drain. She had to darken her brows, and wear considerable eye makeup, each day. She felt his fingertips through her curtain of hair, grazing against her back, against the silk of her robe. If it were her bare skin, he'd feel the heavy scarring. No one had ever seen it, save for Jaime Lannister and Brienne. Petyr knew of its existence, but he himself had never seen it, nor had he ever pressed her about it. It was a relief. She preferred to forget it was there.
"I need clients," she said pragmatically, after the makeup had been removed. She straightened and stared at herself, her skin reddened and wet, and slowly applied her various creams and skin treatments. Petyr was still fingering a lock of her hair thoughtfully.
"You're not the only one who saw an old face. I saw Jon Snow today."
She had heard about Jon's breakdown through Petyr—something to do with a case gone bad with the Met—but her information was limited. "He looked unwell. Drank too much wine." There was a tone of relish in Petyr's voice. He always had loved drama. "The word is that he's been in psychotherapy three times a week and is on intensive mood stabilizers. He was zonked out of his mind and could barely hold a conversation."
“Anti-depressants?” she asked curiously. Petyr’s lips twisted into a smirk.
“No, think stronger. Much stronger.”
She didn’t want to think of Jon Snow. Dread thrummed like a church bell in her head.
"How were the rest of them?" Sansa sat on the edge of the bathtub and began smoothing moisturizer on her legs. Petyr's dark eyes followed the movement hungrily, though he did not move closer to her.
"Let's see...Rickon's got a new tattoo, Bran's girlfriend continues to antagonize Arya..."
"Oh, god, another tattoo? Doesn't Arya have enough for the two of them?"
Petyr smirked and swilled his wine.
"It's a wolf tattoo, naturally—on his forehead."
"His forehead?! Idiot," Sansa grumbled, even as her heart reeled with pain. Rickon had been four years old when she had 'died.'
She often ‘visited’ him, as she did Arya and Bran, though they never saw her, of course. They wouldn't recognize her, anyway. She just liked to go and observe them.
Bran was part of a tabletop gaming club that met at a bookshop in Kensington on Saturdays, and she liked to stop at the florist across the street at the same time and catch a glimpse of Meera wheeling him inside. In spite of everything that had happened to him, he’d grown so handsome, like Robb only a bit narrower in the jaw, and paler, too, and it made her heart swell with painful pride.
Rickon was already a frequenter of many of the clubs in Soho, and she stalked his Instagram account for the clubs he haunted so she could follow him, just to catch a glimpse of him sitting in the VIP section, smoking his herbal cigarettes and getting into fights.
Arya was off in Hackney, living with her boyfriend Gendry, and working as a chef at a very cool restaurant. Sansa would take the Tube to Hackney and visit the cool used bookstores and watch them walk to the restaurant for her shift sometimes.
She'd never visited Jon, though.
"So, what did Lannister want? I do wonder how he heard about you." Petyr followed her into the kitchen. He'd brought a fine bottle of French wine, and he poured her some now, as Sansa prepared herself a small dinner. Cooking was one of her few passions that she could actually safely enjoy, and even on long days like today, she took the time to prepare an immaculate dinner for herself.
She snorted as she began cutting up vegetables.
"As if you don't already know. His girlfriend has gone missing."
What she didn't say was whom Tyrion Lannister primarily suspected: Ramsay Bolton.
Petyr slouched against the counter, watching her.
"I may have heard something of it," he conceded slyly. “Would you like some wine? It’s a Mersault.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.” She heard Petyr pour her a glass.