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The First Five Times

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The first time Sansa Stark meets Jon Snow, she’s at a hotel bar.

It isn’t her usual scene— the plush red cushions, the velvet rope, the faint clicking of paparazzi lenses outside the Chateau Marmont are all missing. Instead, she perches in discomfort on a minimalist stool, hands resting weakly on the glossy bar top. The mirrored finish shows her a glimpse of flushed cheeks against pale skin until a puddle from her dripping hair mars the image. She blinks quickly to clear away the water from her vision and sniffs, glancing up to catch the eye of the bartender.

The décor isn’t the only aspect of the bar that puts her outside her comfort zone. Sansa is accustomed to mixologists who jump at the chance to impress a bona fide star, especially in a city as obsessed with celebrity as Los Angeles. But the man behind the bar makes no move to engage her beyond a nod. He punches his thumb against the touchscreen above the register without much care, scratching at a dark tattoo behind his ear with his free hand. If he recognizes her as a Grammy winner, he’s determined to treat her like any other customer.

Petyr wouldn’t approve.

The thought makes her blink away more blurriness. Her former manager had endless advice for preserving her image at social appearances (his term, not hers). How many friends to invite. When to arrive. When to leave. What to order- nothing that will stain her teeth, nothing with too many calories, nothing too cheap. Always get photographed entering and leaving. Never get photographed alone with a man. Never get photographed with more than one man—

The ding of the elevator interrupts her recollections. A man about her age with dark curls and round horn-rimmed glasses strides to the bar. Ignoring the chrome stools completely, he leans forward on a toned forearm and rasps, “Four Roses on the rocks, please.”

“Sure thing, man.” The bartender immediately sets to work, his bleached topknot shining as he scoops out ice and executes a long amber pour with a flourish.

“Thanks, mate.” Though gruff, there’s a melodic quality to the man’s voice that tickles something in her memory. Sansa looks over just as he takes his first swallow, Adam’s apple bobbing, and suddenly it clicks.

He’s Jon Snow, drummer and frontman of Nightwatch, and he’s turning to look at her with a frown.

Before she can think of anything to say, the bartender finally acknowledges her existence. “Can I get you a drink?”

It takes a moment for Sansa to fight off the phantom of Petyr’s list of everything she’s doing wrong. She breathes with control, like she’s in front of a mike.

“I’d like a cocktail, please. Do you have a menu I could see?”

While the bartender shuffles around by the register, she glances back at Jon. His frown has softened, directed now at his glass instead of her sodden hair. Despite working in the same industry, they’ve never been introduced— they don’t share a record label or an agent or any other convenient professional connections. Their songs don’t even compete on the same charts; her songwriting drifts between acoustic ballads with just enough twang to be country and electro-pop when she picks up the tempo, whereas his music falls somewhere under the umbrella of alternative rock, or maybe whatever passes for punk at a major record label. The kind of thing her sister Arya prefers.

The bartender returns with a booklet bound in black card stock. Sansa flips through three pages of drinks with violent names seemingly inspired by Tarantino films. Open Throttle. Three Fingers. Blood of the Bride. Its industrial typeface does nothing to make the ingredients more comprehensible.

The bartender crosses his arms with impatience as she returns to the first page. She can feel the drummer’s eyes on her, too, and she’s about to give up and order something simple like a vodka soda when he interrupts her thoughts.

“What are you looking for?” When she doesn’t answer right away, he gestures at the menu. “Something sweet? Fruity? Herbal? Something to warm you up?”

His last question reminds her what a fright she must appear: hair mussed and blazer water-stained, alone in the bar of who-knows-what hotel.

“Sweet,” she says firmly. Then, more quietly, “And strong.”

“How about a Cosmo?” the bartender offers in a dismissive tone. Jon looks back at him and grins like his suggestion was a joke.

“You can do better than that, Edd. May I?” At her nod he steps closer, leaving his empty glass behind him on the bar. His proximity already makes her feel warmer, his shoulder nearly touching hers as he peers at the booklet. The sleeves of his henley are rolled above the elbow, and when he reaches across to turn the page the muscles evident in his forearms are, frankly, unfair.

Satisfied, he turns the menu in Edd’s direction and taps twice next to one of the drinks. “Another bourbon for me and this one for Miss Stark.”

Sansa twists as delicately as she can atop the stool. “You know who I am?”

Even as she says the words, her attempt at modesty falls flat. Jon looks disbelieving. “Everyone knows who you are.”

“I meant…we’ve never been introduced.”

Obediently, he offers his hand. “Jon Snow.” His grip is there and gone before she can form an impression of his handshake.

“Please, call me Sansa.”

The bartender produces their orders, looking slightly less bored. Jon raises his bourbon in her direction and nods before drinking. She brings the martini glass to her lips, careful not to spill. It tastes like ginger and honey, the sweet heat of the sun captured by flowers.

“Mmmmmm. This is incredible, Jon.”

He ducks his head slightly at her praise, and smiles. “I’m glad. And I’m not going to ruin it for you by telling you what it’s called.”

Edd grumbles something that might have been a rude name. Sansa lets them trade insults, her attention drifting away from her discomfort now that alcohol is warming her from the inside. A few more enthusiastic pulls, and soon she’s nearly finished. The clank of Jon’s empty glass on the bar brings her back to the moment just as he motions for another.

She copies him.

“Are you staying here?”

“Here, at the hotel? No!” He reaches for his third glass just as she remembers that he arrived from the elevator. “I mean, not at the moment,” she says, trying to soften her abrupt answer.

“What brings you here, then?” He sets his drink back on the bar after a smaller sip this time.

“I got caught walking in the rain. Well, I was driving, but then I needed some air, so I decided to walk instead. And then it started to rain.”

He nods as if her explanation makes sense to him, and his handsomeness hits her just as her first drink really takes effect. More words escape before she can consider them carefully.

“I fired my manager.”

“Good for you.”

She stares at him, wide-eyed. “You’re the first to say so.”

“Baelish is a snake,” he explains, shrugging. “If it were up to him, you’d still be performing in pigtails and princess gowns. You’re better off without all that crap.”

“I liked the princess gowns!” Sansa argues.

“Exactly. Liked. When you were how old, sixteen?”

His dismissal puts her on the defensive. “Lots of my fans are sixteen.”

“I’m just saying, it’s okay to grow with your audience. You’re successful because you’re a real songwriter, not just because of the whole blue eyes, perfect hair, pop goddess…whatever.”

He buries his nose in his drink and gulps. Droplets cling to his beard when he puts down his glass, and she’s struck by the fullness of his lips. And he more or less just described her as a goddess.

Time to refocus on her drink. Appreciate the fragrance of the lemon peel garnish, the way the acid and alcohol make her mouth buzz. She moves to get her phone out of her clutch but remembers, just in time, the photos that sent her into the rain in the first place. She lets Jon’s words spin in circles through her brain instead.

“How do you know so much about Petyr Baelish, anyway?” she asks after a moment.

“I’ve never met him or anything,” Jon says, wrinkling his nose, “but from what I’ve read, he seems—”

Sansa can’t help but laugh. The thought of Jon Snow, brooding rock star, reading about her manager in the tabloids is too absurd. “What you’ve read in Us Weekly? The Daily Mail? People you follow on Twitter?”

“Hey, I mean—tour buses are fucking boring, okay?” he sputters, scowling, but when she laughs harder his expression softens. He runs a restless hand through his hair and pulls at a curl behind his ear.

“And you believe everything you read?”

He voice turns flat. “Everyone else seems to.”

There’s some kind of scandal attached to his name, she suddenly remembers. A fire after his band’s breakthrough show at a Scottish festival. There’d been chatter online that it had something to do with the bassist of the Wildlings. A break-up, maybe, or jealousy over a record deal.

Definitely not something Petyr would approve of. Another reason they’ve never met. But not a reason to trust him with the truth, either, except— trust is exactly what Sansa wants to feel again, and Jon is sitting right there, solid and somber.

“It was worse than that. He sold information about me. And pictures. He had all these rules about how to dress, how to behave, how to maintain my brand, and the whole time he was tipping off paparazzi to get photos of me leaving the doctor, leaving the gym, climbing out of cabs, anything unflattering.”

Jon swears, his knuckles white from clenching his glass. “Shit. Shit, that’s…Sansa, you should sue him. Breach of contract, or privacy, or, I don’t know, something.”

Sansa shakes her head. “He won’t try anything else now that I know. He wasn’t trying to hurt me, just…profit off both ends, I guess.”

His hand twitches on his knee, as if he were about to reach out to her, but instead he pushes his hair back again. “But he did hurt you.”

The accusation makes her flinch. “He also made me. Everything I am, the records, the tours, the awards, all of it. And without him, I don’t have a career.”

There’s a helpless note to her voice that she didn’t intend, but Jon doesn’t wince or brush her off. He looks her carefully in the eye, close enough now that his hip brushes the edge of her stool.

“That’s what he wants you to think. Look, you’re Sansa Stark, and you write the kinds of songs that speak to entire continents of teenage girls. Who your manager is doesn’t change that. Maybe this is your chance to cut some dead weight out of your life.”

Dead weight. She tries to smile, to respond to his kindness with something lighthearted, but nothing comes to mind. Without meaning to, he’s conjured up another ghost. Margaery had spent months trying to convince her that Joffrey was holding her back, a burden on her emotions and her career. Their texts were sprinkled with the iconic paparazzi shot of Elia Martell wearing DUMP HIM across a babydoll t-shirt. Sansa returns to her drink to anchor herself in the moment, here, now, or she’ll lose it again thinking about Margaery’s latest Instagram post.

“I broke up with my boyfriend, too.”

His eyebrows shoot up. It has to be the alcohol that’s making her spill all her closest-held secrets to someone she just met. The warm burn in her stomach and the warmth in Jon Snow’s eyes make for a potent combination. “Cheers to you. Can I ask, was the final straw the lap dances in Ibiza or egging cop cars from hotel balconies?

His comments should sting, but instead it’s a strange relief not to feel obligated to come up with a plausible defense for Joffrey’s actions. “I get it. He’s a jerk. I’m stupid.”

“I didn’t say that. Well, he is a jerk. No argument there. But stupid? Never. You said you broke up with him, right?” She nods. “So you made the smart move.”

He waves at the bartender to refill her drink. She waits until he’s slicing fruit at the back counter, out of earshot, before tilting her head at Jon. “Do you always take it upon yourself to give relationship advice to strange girls in bars? It doesn’t exactly fit with the image.”

He shakes his head and pushes his glasses up his nose. His smile brings creases to the outside of each eye just beyond the edges of the frames.

“Not sure I really look the part of a tough guy. Rock musicians can be sensitive, too, we just sing about it a high volume. Although, if I open up Lainey Gossip next week and read about Jon Snow’s soft heart, I’ll know who’s to blame.”

The elevator dings again, and there’s a rumble of heavy boots . The men crossing the lobby are the rest of the band, Sansa realizes, and the sympathetic moment she’s been sharing with Jon is lost. He nods in their direction as she turns back to her drink. Her first sip goes down without any burn at all. It’s a sign she should probably make it her last, but she doesn’t want to stop.

The first man to approach is the shortest but also the largest. He chokes on his words for a moment, stammering, “Sansa Stark? Are you…wow!”

“Sansa, this is Sam. He plays bass.” She can tell there’s a tease hidden underneath Jon’s mild tone.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she says as he extends a shaky hand from the pocket of his hoodie.

She meets Grenn (guitar) and Pyp (also guitar) after they growl at Edd and grip Jon’s shoulder in greeting. The question of her presence hangs in the air and she drains her glass before anyone can give it voice. Declining another round at a gesture from the bartender, she reaches for her bag.

Sam shuffles closer. “If you wouldn’t mind,” he begins, “Could I have your autograph? Please?”

Sansa smiles, ignoring Pyp’s groans and Grenn’s muttered “No chill.”

“Of course.” It takes her two attempts to open the clasp on her purse to look for a pen while Sam checks his pockets wildly for a scrap of paper. Eventually, he grabs a silver bar napkin and holds it out.

“To Sam?”

“To my girlfriend, Gilly. She’s— we’re enormous fans.”

Sansa asks him about their favorite songs, jotting down a quoted lyric under the hotel name— CASTLE BLACK— printed along the top of the napkin. Sam beams when she hands it to him, breathing his thanks.

Mindful of the hem of her dress, she presses her knees together and hops off the stool. Jon is there wrapping an arm across her back before she can take a wobbling step.

“Let me walk you out to your car,” he murmurs. She can’t reply— she can barely manage to breathe, pressed close to his side and doubly intoxicated. He says something about his tab to the bartender and she waves weakly at his friends before he guides her through the lobby.

Outside, the sky is still heavy from the rain that has washed the night air clean. Sansa takes a deep breath to enjoy the bass notes of the city’s perfume, a green bouquet usually hidden under exhaust and concrete. There’s a moment, fumbling with her phone to send for a car, that she wonders if Jon’s going to ask for her number. He lets his arm fall from her shoulders, but remains at her side, staring out at the lights of the city.

“Thank you for taking care of my drinks.”

“Thank you for letting me buy your silence. The rock world isn’t ready to know that Nightwatch listens to Sansa Stark on heavy rotation.”

A low, black car pulls up to the curb, and Jon moves to open the door. Finally, he offers her his hand. She takes a chance.

“If you ever want to pivot to singing pop music for teenagers, you know who to call.”

The words earn her one last smile. “Maybe I will.”

Chapter Text

The second time Sansa Stark meets Jon Snow, she’s at a charity gala.

Actually, it’s more of a party than a gala, but that’s what Margaery had called it on the invitation. It’s been sitting on her vanity for weeks now. Every time she glimpses the gold curlicues proclaiming To Benefit our Hungry Youth, a knot tightens in her stomach.

To say she’s been dreading the occasion is an understatement.

“Ouch!” Mya gasps, pulling her wrist away from Myranda’s slap. The sound startles Sansa back from her anxious thoughts. She’d invited the teenager to her suite so they could get ready together, and her long-time hair stylist is amusing herself by torturing the young singer.

“If you even think about touching another pretzel while your nails are drying, I will make sure to burn you on a particularly sensitive part of your scalp,” the older woman warns, deftly winding a dark strand around her curling iron.

Sansa had trembled in silence on the stylist’s chair for months before realizing that her bark was worse than her bite. Now, she finds the woman’s threats oddly comforting. Mya, on the other hand, is not the type to shrink at confrontation. Before their banter escalates to actual violence, Sansa steps in.

“Open wide!” she trills, loading a carrot stick with hummus and flying it through the air towards Mya’s lips. She rolls her eyes only to close them in satisfaction while she crunches on her snack.

Sansa continues to feed crudités to the brunette while Myranda entertains them with gossip on the Golden Company, the latest boy band to win some kind of reality show across the pond. Myranda’s partner is one of the hottest tattoo artists in L.A., and she swears to have it on good authority from a friend in London that they’ve gone and got matching dragons inked on a rather delicate part of their anatomy, which Myranda is more than happy to describe in explicit detail.

Sansa giggles and finishes her San Pellegrino. It’s almost enough to make her forget about her fears.

When her curls are scrunched and sprayed into place, Mya asks Myranda for help finishing her makeup. Sansa leans closer to her own mirror, poised to add a sweeping wing to her liner.

She can’t.

Her hand is shaking so badly that she can barely hold the liquid pen. Dropping it on the counter, she runs her palms across her silk kimono-style robe, trying to get her fingers under control. Myranda notices, raising an eyebrow even as she expertly fills in Mya’s lips with dark plum liner. Sansa turns away from her visible concern; weakness, even in front of one of her oldest friends, is not something she can indulge right now.

Just as she picks up the liner to try again, a firm knock sounds on the bathroom door.

“Yes?”

Her new manager ducks across the threshold, and Sansa breathes a sigh of relief. There’s very little of southern California in the woman’s features— her blonde hair is too short to be fashionable, her gaze too direct, her jawline too androgynous— but the sight of Brienne makes Sansa feel safe.

Whereas Petyr hid his controlling and scheming under the pretext of protecting her, Brienne says what she means. Her honesty helps Sansa communicate things she hadn’t even known she needed. Until they spoke about the gala, she’d attributed her nerves to being back on the dating market, once more subject to the world’s speculation.

“Forgive me if I’m wrong, Miss Stark,” Brienne had said, “but your relationship with Joffrey always drove gossip and media coverage. Now that it’s over, what’s really causing you to worry?”

And she’d been right. It was loneliness, Sansa realized, not from being single, but from losing someone she thought was a friend. Brienne’s suggestion to attend with Mya was the perfect antidote.

Petyr would have grumbled about her sharing the spotlight.

“How are preparations going, Miss Stark?” Her formality is the only thing Sansa wishes might change.

“Sansa was just waiting on me to do her eyeliner, right darling?” Myranda answers for her, winking.

“Allow me.”

Brienne doesn’t look as though she’s worn a dab of makeup in her life, but Sansa doesn’t think she’d offer if she weren’t confident in her abilities. Her unmanicured hands look out of place holding an eyeliner pen, yet the lines they draw across Sansa’s lashes are even and perfectly tapered.

Before the singers change into their dresses, they take a picture cheek to cheek, pouting like goldfish into the camera. Sansa takes exquisite pleasure selecting a filter before she publishes the snap to her Instagram. Petyr frowned upon social media, saying it took away from the mystery of celebrity, but Sansa doesn’t have to live by his strictures anymore. Slowly, she might even be getting used to it.

It takes a ridiculous amount of time for them to make their way downstairs, enter the limo, and drive down the block to the hotel where the hostess awaits their arrival. Mya fidgets in her seat and fiddles with the pleats on her dark navy gown, struggling to keep them neatly in line. Slowly they roll forward, twelve feet at a time, the noise of the crowd steadily increasing as they make their approach. Outside the lobby of the Four Seasons, the paparazzi swarm in place, a sea of middle aged men in v-neck t-shirts and cargo shorts eager for a glimpse of celebrity skin.

Sansa braces herself, and then addresses Mya. “Okay. Remember to keep your knees together when you get out of the car. We’ll exit on the same side, straighten our dresses, and walk in together. No posing, just smile as we walk past.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Mya salutes and grins. If their friendship sometimes echoes their roles on the TV stage where they met— mentor and protégé, veteran and fresh face— it doesn’t bother them. Together, they’re a good match.

They glide past the photographers and into the hotel as planned, smiles fixed firmly in place. Once inside, Sansa veers left to pluck a flute of champagne from the tray of a nearby waiter. Mya’s grin turns mischievous, but at a sharp look from Sansa she rolls her eyes and accepts a lemonade instead.

Into the breach, Sansa thinks, leading the way towards the first group of industry acquaintances she sees. Then it’s air kisses and exaggerated hellos, praising dresses and promising lunches, over and over and over as they move through the room. Some stars want selfies, some want to know the exact shade of her lipstick, and nearly everyone wants to let her know how sorry they are about the breakup.

Sansa keeps her replies light— some things just aren’t meant to be!— but inside the questions burn. How much do they know that she doesn’t? Who else has been tracking Margaery’s Twitter likes and noticing how often Joffrey’s name appears? She feels more and more like a cornered animal, every insincere apology a test to see if she’ll snap. When they finally reach a break in the crowd, Sansa pulls Mya behind a display of roses sculpted from ice and drags her to the ladies’ room.

“If one more person asks me about Joffrey, I swear I’ll…I don’t even know!” It’s not a really a scene she wants, just a break from everyone’s scrutiny.

“Give me a signal and I’ll step on their toes.” Mya replies, considering her Louboutins with interest. “I could do some serious damage with these babies.”

Sansa tries to laugh, but it comes out more like a sob. Biting the inside of her cheek, she focuses on smoothing out a copper curl so that she doesn’t have to see the sympathetic expression on Mya’s face.

“It’ll get better after tonight. The industry has the attention span of a mosquito, right?”

Unfortunately, the night isn’t over yet, and they haven’t even come face to face with Margaery. Sansa reenters the ballroom determined to find her and get the necessary pleasantries over with. With a warning to Mya about saying “no” to alcohol, she shoos her friend toward the nearest hors d’oeuvres station and straightens her shoulders.

Scanning the crowd with intent, she doesn’t notice the man at her side until he clears his throat and speaks in her ear.

“Can I offer you a drink?”

It takes her a moment to recognize him, but when she does, she bursts out laughing.

It’s Jon Snow.

Wearing a tuxedo.

Sansa covers her mouth, belatedly trying to hide her mirth when he frowns. “Jon! I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“I’m performing. Hence, the monkey suit,” he explains.

She looks over his outfit again. The shoulders are sharply cut, the trousers well-tailored. He’s slicked his long hair back into a bun.

“It was supposed to be ironic, which I thought was hilarious until I actually had to wear the thing. You don’t like it?”

Sansa breaks off her examination of the elegant lines of his lapels to blush. “No, no I do! Except,” she frowns, “your bow tie is crooked.”

He shrugs. “It lends a rebellious touch, don’t you think?”

“No.” Her reply is firm. “It looks like you tried to get away with tying it nice and loose, and now it’s drooping.”

His sheepish expression tells her she’s right on the money. It’s only then she remembers his first question and notices the glassware in each of his hands.

“What did you have the bartender mix up for me this time?”

He holds up a shallow goblet filled with pale gold. “Champagne cocktail. Nothing too fancy.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of fancy.” Sweeter and more tart than the wine alone, the bubbles still leave a sparkling trail down the back of her throat. “Once again, you have an excellent read on my taste.”

He raises his own glass in recognition of the compliment before he takes a sip. He alone of the guests holds back from grilling her about her life. After all the superficial chatter she’d endured upon arriving, it’s a welcome change to get to steer the conversation as she pleases.

“When do you go onstage?”

“After Margaery makes her opening remarks. We’re to get the dancing started, I believe.” He makes a face.

Nightwatch is more likely to get a mosh pit started, Sansa thinks, but she keeps her doubts to herself. Jon looks uncomfortable enough in his suit, even though it’s a good look. A very good look. She keeps up her side of the conversation before she gets any more distracted. “Where did you and Margaery meet?”

“We haven’t,” he admits, lifting a hand to smooth a nonexistent curl behind his ear. “Her brother’s personal assistant knows our manager’s wife, or something like that.”

Working every connection, no matter how tenuous— that sounds like exactly like Margaery. Not for the first time in the past month, Sansa wonders if their friendship was ever real, or just a convenient thread in her networking web.

It doesn’t do to dwell on the past, though. Better to focus on what’s right in front of her. She steps forward, tilting her head to let her hair fall over one shoulder. Jon’s eyes skip down her silver gown in appreciation.

“After all you’ve done for me,” she begins, gesturing at the drink in her hand but alluding to their night at the bar, “I’m afraid I cannot allow you to perform looking like you tied your tie with your eyes closed. Follow me.”

She leads him along a row of candlelit booths, letting her hips sway with each step. Something about Jon’s attention makes her feel powerful. It must come across in the way she walks, because partygoers step aside to make room for them as she winds her way toward an alcove beneath the grand staircase of the hotel.

Jon snorts at the imitation candle flickering from an ornate brass sconce. “Seriously? You’d think we were in a palace the way this place is decorated.”

“A somewhat modest palace,” Sansa muses, setting her drink on a faux-marble plinth. At his raised brow, she clarifies, “The Ritz Carlton is much bigger.”

“Right. Margaery should mention that in her speech. ‘Please enjoy your evening in the second-largest hotel ballroom in the city, chosen in order to reduce costs and maximize our charitable donation to Hungry Youth. Enjoy!’”

Sansa can’t help but laugh at his attempted American accent and the absurdity of it all. The movement sets her teetering on her heels. In an instant, Jon catches her, his left hand stretching wide across skin left bare by the low back of her dress.

They freeze. Once she finds her balance, he removes his hand, closing it into a fist at his side, but the warmth of his palm lingers on her skin.

“Hold this,” she orders. He cradles her pale blue clutch with care. Sansa steps into his personal space, toes brushing the insides of his dress shoes, so she can pull at his bow tie. As expected, the loose knot collapses at her touch.

“Now hold very still,” she says, lower, and his throat bobs above her fingers as he swallows, and this, this is what she’s been missing.

With Joffrey, she spent every moment in terror that he would leave, that he would lash out at her or embarrass her and their perfect fairytale courtship would shatter. Now that it has, she’s beginning to realize there are other ways to feel around handsome men.

Like the thrill that travels down her spine at the breadth of Jon’s chest. He’s a compact man, no taller than her in heels, but there’s a steady solidness beneath her fingers as she smoothes his white dress shirt. She straightens his collar next, enjoying the prickle of his beard against her knuckles, and then adjusts the strip of black satin to lie flat against his neck.

Bracing her wrists atop his collarbones, she can feel the thrum of his heartbeat despite the layers of designer fabrics covering his skin. Her movements are deliberate, folding and tucking and tugging to get the edges lined up just right…

She’s leaning so close that she can smell him, the trace of whiskey from his drink and something woodsy, maybe his cologne. Caught up in cataloguing the scent, she misses the bright cadence of Margaery’s magnified introduction until Jon clears his throat.

“That’s my cue.”

His voice has been reduced to a croak, his pupils blown wide and dark in the flickering light of the alcove.

“Good luck.”

With a jerk of his head, he stumbles away, stopping short to turn and thrust her clutch back into her arms.

Sansa returns to the crowd. Glancing at the booths, she locates Mya and makes her way over to her friend.

“YOU!” she shrieks. Sansa winces. Clearly someone’s been at the champagne after all. “You’ve been holding out on me! All this time, we thought you were moping over Joffrey when really you’ve been mooning over Jon Snow!”

Sansa can’t keep from smiling, even as she denies it. “We’ve met once, Mya. There’s nothing to tell.”

The teenager manages to look serious for a moment before breaking into a gleeful grin. “Bullshit. Don’t worry— I already texted Myranda!”

“I already regret introducing you two,” Sansa complains, but her heart isn’t in it. Her attention is focused on the stage, where the other members of Nightwatch stand tuning their instruments. Just as Margaery finishes her speech and the audience bursts into applause, Jon leaps onstage and settles behind the drums.

A spotlight appears from the upper reaches of the ballroom. It darts between the guests, illuminating snatches of glittering finery before settling on a white baby grand. The pianist begins a jazzy scale in the lowest register of the keyboard, warming up his fingers and the crowd. Black ringlets gleam under the bright beam, and by the time he’s reached middle C, Sansa recognizes him— he’s a French prodigy, fond of velvet tails and patent leather shoes, who goes by a single name: Satin.

He plays with his audience for a few more bars, layering devastating trills and arpeggios in syncopated combinations before landing on an unresolved chord and placing his hands in his lap.

From the back of the stage, Jon pounds out a beat.

Then the band is grooving, accompanying Satin’s playing and shouting their way through the familiar chorus in unison. It’s not a Nightwatch song—unsurprising, considering their genre— but at least the Clash were a punk band. Sansa watches from her seat as couples hit the floor, content to cheer when Jon and Satin trade off blistering solos. She’s still smiling when they stand to accept the audience’s applause, until a confection in gold lamé emerges from the crowd.

“Sansa, you made it!” Margaery cries, kissing her twice on each cheek. “And you brought a friend! I’m Margaery Tyrell, it’s such a delight to meet you.” Mya chokes out her name between more kisses. “You are so brave,” Margaery continues. “It’s hard enough to go through a breakup without all the press making it their business. And I had to invite Joffrey, of course, for appearance’s sake. But he’s conveniently performing in Toronto tonight, so I promise he won’t be here!”

Sansa knows. She‘d checked his tour schedule twice, just to be sure.

It’s reassuring that her friend took the time to do so, though. In the face of Margaery’s outpouring of goodwill, it’s the wrong time to voice her uncertainties. Questions about Instagram stories filmed at Joffrey’s rehearsals and Twitter flirting will have to wait.

“Of course I came. I know how much tonight means to you,”she says instead. “Everything looks stunning, Marg.”

She beams. “Thank you. Let’s take a picture! Mya, you too!” She motions to the event photographer lurking on the edge of the dance floor. Unable to decline, Sansa scoots to make room.

As the camera flashes, she wonders what the tabloids will say about their contrasting metallics. Gold and silver. First and second place. They’ve weathered attempts by the press to turn their friendship into a rivalry before, but never over a boy.

“I have to mingle—so many donors to schmooze, you know—be sure to leave a check on the way out, dears!”

With a wave, Margaery disappears. Sansa’s worries remain.

Chapter Text

The third time Sansa Stark meets Jon Snow, they aren’t supposed to be on stage.

The safe pathways laid out by neon electrical tape have disappeared since the morning’s rehearsals, covered by a landscape of glittering moondust. The set ties together the gleaming statuettes awarded at the VMAs and the launch of Fossoway Beauty’s latest highlighter, a masterstroke of product placement. From her seat in the audience, Sansa admires the spectacle throughout the first half of the show. The stage lights reflected by so many iridescent particles cast a cool glow across the faces of each presenter, like candlelight through frosted glass. There’s already an effect on Instagram to replicate it, she’s sure.

As the audience applauds the Brotherhood Without Banners (Best Hip-Hop or Rap Collaboration), Sansa slides from her seat to make her way backstage. Performers get thirty-eight minutes to change outfits and set up their mikes, but presenters have just the space between commercial breaks to line up in the wings. For the first time, she’s one of the latter.

Petyr considers it a job for fools. “It’s the easiest formula in the business. Put out a single in the month before the show and MTV gives you free publicity to the tune of 12 million viewers. Or, save your next release for September and get onstage with a Bachelor reject to give an award to someone more successful than you,” he would say. But he’s not in charge of booking her appearances anymore, so instead of polishing up something she left off her last record, Sansa’s enjoyed a weekend off between East coast legs of her tour.

She went hiking in the hills outside L.A. with her older brother Robb and the family’s dogs. She snuck into a late night screening of the latest Spiderman movie with her bright hair tucked up under a baseball cap, just to see if she still could. She came home smelling like fake butter from Rickon’s popcorn, pleased to have made it in and out of the theater undetected. Now she’s ready to give MTV twenty-five seconds of cheerful teleprompter reading and call it a night. Sansa Stark is done competing for status in Petyr’s made up music business hierarchy.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan.

She lines up behind Renly Baratheon and Arianne Martell, just as they practiced. They starred together in the latest Marvel crossover, she thinks, and as actors used to the spotlight they’d hit every mark during rehearsal like pros. Arianne’s dress is an eye-catching firetruck red, the side panels slashed by a complicated lattice of cutouts trimmed in gold. Sansa’s about to ask her what kind of tape she’s used to keep everything in place when feedback crashes through the monitors.

Up and down the narrow backstage hallway, hands fly up to cover ears. An audio tech waves his clipboard above his head, a futile signal of distress. As abruptly as it started, the screech ends and the band launches into song.

Sansa already knows it’s Nightwatch, the same way she knows where to make eye contact with the best camera angles and the time allowed for thank-you speeches down to the second— she didn’t get where she is today by leaving the details to others. But she isn’t prepared for the current that races through her blood at Jon’s low voice counting them in, familiar even though they haven’t run into each other in several months.

She’s avoided their music, too. Typing a capital N into the Spotify search bar feels like an admission of something she isn’t ready to put into words. A secret she’s keeping from herself.

Despite the soundproofed halls that separate them now, vibrations buzz across the floor and up through her bones, singing in the spaces between her teeth. The sheer volume creates a physical connection between the music and everyone listening, bodies jumping each downbeat, as if they all had a finger on the same bass drum.

Entranced, Sansa doesn’t notice the stage manager until he’s right at her shoulder, holding a black and silver envelope under her nose.

“Miss Stark, I need you at the front of the line. You’re up as soon as we return from commercials.”

She shakes her head, gesturing at the couple beside her. “I’m after the Avengers,” she says while the manager frowns at his tablet. The band must be reaching their final chorus, pushing the volume loud enough that she has to yell. “It’s Patchface, then the In Memoriam video, then the Avengers and then me.”

He looks at her face, looks back at his tablet, uses his free hand to wipe sweat from his brow onto his black polo.

She tries again. “I’m Sansa Stark, presenting Best New Artist. After Renly and Arianne with Best Movie Kiss.”

He mutters something into his headset, holding the receiver tight against his ear to hear the answer. Nodding, he points down at the screen and turns it so she can see.

PERFORMANCE— Nightwatch— 3:15

—Commercial break #8— 2:40

BEST MALE POP PERFORMANCE— Sansa Stark, presenting

The song ends, but her ears continue to ring. There’s applause from the audience as she flips over the envelope in her hands to double check the label.

Best Male Pop Performance

The backstage monitors go blank, then begin the countdown to the end of commercials. 160. 159. 158. When the screens reach zero, someone has to be walking out on stage to present. There’s no room for error in a live broadcast.

The realization hits her in the stomach, visceral as Jon’s drumming.

Joffrey’s nominated.

She’s Joffrey’s very public ex-girlfriend.

He’s going to win, and MTV is going to have more than a dozen cameras fixed on her face as she gives him his award.

Her stomach clenches. She knows the power of viral moments, how a video becomes a gif and loops endlessly across social media. An entire musical career compressed into three silent seconds, repeated ad infinitum. Not that MTV is particularly concerned with her legacy— they’ve engineered this trap, pitting her reputation for professionalism against the clock, trusting that she’ll be compliant enough or naive enough to go onstage and give them a reaction shot worthy of a Twitter moment.

She glances at the countdown clock. 140 seconds remain to prove they’ve underestimated her.

Sansa draws herself up and puts on a warm smile. She’ll be a performer tonight if she has to be. “What’s your name, sir?”

The stage manager looks relieved that she’s no longer arguing. “Lyn Corbray, miss. Now, if you’ll just follow me,” he says, turning down the hall.

“Hold on please, Mr. Corbray. Are you aware that I’ve been scheduled to present Best New Artist for more than eight weeks now? Because I’m the only musician in the past decade to win this award and release a second album that hit number one. And a third. And a fourth.”

“Miss Stark, I don’t think—“

“And are you also aware that I’ve memorized every musical cue and line for the intro to Best New Artist?”

The rest of the presenters in line aren’t even pretending not to pay attention. Arianne nods, something sharp behind her eyes as she supports Sansa’s story. “They turned her teleprompter off this morning.”

Corbray begins to sweat again. “This schedule is final,” he starts, pointing weakly at the tablet. “I’m sorry if you think there’s been some mistake.”

“You’re wrong on two counts there.” Sansa breathes deep from her diaphragm, fighting to keep her voice level. “I don’t think there’s been a mistake. I think you’ve sprung this change on me at the last possible moment on purpose so that I’m forced to give an award to my ex. And I also think you’re not nearly as sorry as you’re going to be.”

Nightwatch is practically bouncing their way back from the stage now, high on adrenaline. Pyp reaches them first, but he stops and hesitates to walk between Sansa and the stage manager. She sees the band register the tension in the air and catches Jon’s eye before she continues.

“When I get offstage, I expect that my manager and I will receive an apology for breach of contract and a full explanation from whomever is responsible for this. Put that headset to use and call them over here.”

Corbray lowers the tablet and steps forward. There’s a glint in his eyes she doesn’t like, a look that says he doesn’t appreciate being reminded of her power in the industry. “Those are some pretty strong allegations, Miss Stark. Do you have any way of proving any of them are true?”

“Mr. Corbray, is Joffrey Lannister’s name inside this envelope?”

“You can’t know that!” he sputters, cheeks flushed. “We take award security very seriously here!” He’s staring at the envelope in her hands as if she’s about to tear it open in front of them all, but Sansa has other ideas. She’s been reading self-help and, yes, watching plenty of Melisandre Red’s afternoon talk therapy show since sloughing off her manager and her boyfriend and she’s taken a phrase as a sort of touchstone for dealing with everything.

We teach others how to treat us by accepting the treatment we think we deserve.

Lyn Corbray can scowl at her like she’s a diva, and maybe she is, but humiliating herself to give an award to Joffrey is not what she deserves.

Just under a minute remains on the clock when she gives her final ultimatum. “I’m not going to open this envelope until I’m onstage and I’ve read out the nominees. But I want you to think very carefully about the answer to my question. If there is the slightest chance I might be called upon to announce his name, you have—“ she makes a show of checking the clock “— 47 seconds to fix this.”

She turns and stalks to the front of the line, brushing past the panting members of Nightwatch on one side and the silent presenters on the other. Before she reaches the stage door, Jon catches her wrist with two fingers. His hands are warm and a little gummy from gripping his sticks.

“You okay?”

She almost crumples. Thinks about leaning into his chest, refusing to move, wailing for someone else to turn the situation right side up. “Not really,” she answers, unable to pretend otherwise.

He shifts, eyes glancing at his band mates and then up at the clock. “Want me to help you fuck this up?”

Despite her anger, Sansa laughs. “Absolutely.”

“Great.” He nods, letting go of her to scrape his hair back from his face into a messy half-ponytail. “Bring that punk attitude, yeah?”

As the doors open onto the stage, the heat and glare of the lights send her swaying. She tightens her core and reaches down for Jon’s arm as the disembodied voice of the MC echoes from the speakers: “And now, nine-time VMA winner Sansa Stark!”

They make an odd couple, she knows: Jon in combat boots and a black t-shirt featuring the white outline of a raven escorting her, a vision in layers of white and silver beaded fringe. Underneath the applause she can already hear some laughter, the audience anticipating the mismatch is part of a bit.

Once they reach the microphone, Sansa greets the audience without even glancing at the teleprompter. “Thank you, MTV! I am so excited to be here presenting tonight. The next award will be for Best Male Pop Performance.”

Jon leans in, straight-faced. “As a Best Male, it feels awesome to be here, receiving this award. I want to thank—“

“Hold on, Jon,” Sansa cuts in. “You didn’t win.”

The audience chuckles as he plays dumb. “I didn’t?”

“It’s for best Pop Performance,” she explains. “Nightwatch is an alternative rock band.”

“You’re telling me they didn’t even consider us?”

She wouldn’t have expected it, but Jon has great comedic timing. She has to stifle a giggle at his disappointed expression, and she decides to push a little further. Hopefully he’ll go with it.

“Listen, I’m a pop singer— why don’t you show me some of your moves and I can give you some pointers, so MTV doesn’t ignore you next year?”

“My moves?”

“Let’s start with your falsetto.” She hands him the mike with a smirk.

Jon is up to the challenge. He croons into the microphone, taking a Nightwatch song up the octave, eyes screwed shut as the audience laughs. It’s a shame she has to interrupt him after just a couple of lines.

“Good, that’s good! But it’s not just how you sing, it’s what you sing about. Pop is all about connecting to people through our emotions. I write songs about falling for the right guy, falling for the wrong guy, falling back on my friends when I need them, that kind of thing. What emotions do you sing about?”

“Anger,” he replies with a straight face. “Fear. Disenfranchisement.”

Sansa makes a face at the audience. “We might have to work on that one. Now, pop performance means you have to have some dance moves.”

“Oh, I’ve got this.”

Jon struts in a little circle toward the center of the stage, then jerks his feet backwards, one at a time, in a truly awful imitation of the moon walk. She can see cameras drifting above the audience from the corner of her eye, catching howls of laughter and shaking heads. They’ve already gone well past the time allowed for presenting an award, but she doesn’t care. If MTV wanted to stick to their schedule, they shouldn’t have pulled a bait-and-switch on her.

“Yeah, that’s definitely why they put you behind the drums.” Jon gives her a thumbs up. He doesn’t look even a tiny bit nervous to be making a fool of himself. It gives her the courage she needs to ask one more favor of him.

“Okay, Jon, last skill. A pop star has to be able to make his fans scream like crazy.”

He raises both eyebrows. “You want me to take off my shirt?”

Shrieks rise up from the seats as Sansa grins. “Do it.”

He strips off his shirt the way only boys seem to do, grabbing the collar behind his neck and pulling it forward over his head. The move flashes his triceps, then his abs, shimmering with sweat from his performance, then his shit-eating grin.

She gives him an exaggerated once over, then leans forward to the mike. “Next year, it’s all yours.”

The audience eats up the punchline, as she knew they would. Jon steps up to the microphone with a hand outstretched and she trades him her envelope for his shirt as if they’d practiced. It’s suddenly easy to take a step back and fade into the middle distance of the stage; the cameras have to focus on Jon, dutifully reading Joffrey’s name in a voice that lacks the enthusiasm of their performance.

She folds his t-shirt over one arm so she can clap politely, keeping her eyes on the back of Jon’s neck so she doesn’t get caught off guard by one of her ex’s famous smirks. Jon gives Joffrey’s hand a quick shake, reaching up to slap his shoulder twice before he drifts toward her, grin firmly in place.

Instead of handing back the shirt, Sansa takes his hand in hers, guiding it up to his waist and sliding her grip to his forearm as if he were a gentleman escorting her at some long-ago ball. She barely hears Joffrey begin his acceptance speech as they make their way offstage.

On the other side of the doors, they find the rest of Nightwatch still in the hallway, crowded around one of the monitors. They greet Jon with whoops and high-fives.

“Dude,” Pyp begins, “your dancing sucks.”

Jon flips him the bird, laughing.

“Pyp’s worried you’re gonna have us all taking off our shirts now,” Grenn teases, making the other guitarist blush as Sam pokes him in the ribs.

“Speaking of which—“ Jon turns to her with a meaningful look and Sansa returns the black tee. Before he can put it on, she slides one hand around his back to rest on his shoulder, bringing him close in a half-hug so she can murmur in his ear.

“Thank you, Jon.”

She lets her lips trail down his cheek across the edge of his stubble, the barest whisper of a kiss. Then she strides past the band to the tall blonde figure waiting at the end of the hall.

“Miss Stark,” Brienne says, still formal as ever. “You wanted to see me.”

Sansa smiles. “Let’s go have a conversation with the producers from MTV.”