I would like to apologise for the long delay between the last chapter and this one, and for the fact that it's a slightly shorter chapter than usual. I'm afraid there's also likely to be a long gap before I post the next chapter. I've been laid low by a migraine that's been hanging around like an unwanted guest since February, which has put a serious dent in my ability to write. However, rest assured that this story is not dead, but like dread Cthulhu, merely sleeping. I fully intend to continue with it as and when I am able. Thank you for your patience.
"Sansa! You're here!"
Arya comes hurtling round the corner, feet skidding on the polished wooden floor of the main foyer and arms flailing every which way as she tries in vain to fight momentum. I barely have time to brace for impact before she crashes right into me. The breath whooshes out of my body with the force of the collision, and I only barely keep my feet. There's a brief, shining moment when I feel ridiculously proud about not ending up flat on my rear, but in the next instant the pride is replaced by horror at the distinctive sound of something smashing into about a thousand pieces. Reluctantly (because it doesn't become real until I see it with my own two eyes), I glance down to see the remains of the vase that stands — stood — on a table by the telephone nook. Sure enough, it's now lying in pieces at my feet, the remains strewn with the dried flowers and twigs that had been arranged artistically inside it.
"Oops," Arya says, sounding distinctly unrepentant. She cranes her neck to see the mess, then shakes her head with an exaggerated sigh as we disentangle ourselves. "Mum is going to be *so* pissed off with you."
"What?" I stare at her, confused. "Me? But you-"
"It was your arse that hit the table, not mine," she retorts, quick as a flash. "So you're the one who knocked it over. Quod erat thingummy-wotsit."
"My arse wouldn't have hit the table if you hadn't barrelled straight into me!" I reply, exasperated beyond all belief. "Anyway, what were you even *doing* tearing around the place in such a hurry?"
"Practicing," she says, twitching her bony shoulders in a shrug, like it's the most normal thing in the world and I'm some kind of freak for even questioning it. (Okay, maybe I'm reading a little too much into a single word and gesture. Maybe.) "My goal is to complete a full circuit of the house in under three minutes." She pulls a face. "Haven't managed anywhere near that yet, though. And I'm still having a little trouble with the turns…"
I sigh loudly, rolling my eyes at Arya's tomfoolery.
"You'll have someone's eye out if you're not careful. Knowing my luck, probably mine." I fix her with what I hope is a suitably steely gaze. (I keep one of Daenerys' best glares in mind as I do so. Well, maybe not one of her *very* best — I'm only irritated with my sister, not blazingly furious with her — but if you're going to copy someone, you might as well copy from the best…) "Is this another stupid thing from your crazy fencing instructor?"
"It's not stupid!" she protests. "And Syrio isn't crazy, he's brilliantly unorthodox! Movement is so important in a duel, and a sabreur has to have both speed *and* control." She holds my glare for a moment or two, then drops her gaze and rubs her neck a little sheepishly. "Technically, he never told me to run around the house," she mumbles, and then scowls, her voice growing louder again. "But Mum won't let me go outside! I'm supposed to stay in here be *sociable* and *talk* to people and play stupid *games* that don't make any sense and go on and on and *on* with no end in sight."
The loathing in her voice intensifies on the last words, and despite myself I find my expression softening.
"Let me guess: someone got out the Monopoly board."
She nods vigorously.
"And Game of Life. And the Trivial Pursuit set that was out of date well before I was even born. I think it might have been made sometime in the *eighties*. That's practically prehistoric!" She makes a disgusted noise. "What the merry hell is 'new wave' anyway?"
"Well, that's still no excuse to run around the house like a mad thing," I tell her, but my heart isn't really in it.
"You say that now," she says darkly. "But we'll see how you feel after you've been cooped up in here for a day or two."
I shake my head wordlessly, carefully stepping around the mess at my feet as I finish taking off the coat I was halfway through unbuttoning when Arya ran into me. The wicked points on some of those shards make me glad I hadn't gotten around to taking off my boots yet. We'll have to clear it up before someone hurts themselves…
The sound of the front door opening pulls me from my thoughts, and I look up in time to see Rob stop dead in his tracks, his smile replaced by surprise.
"What happened here?" he asks. Talisa follows after him, her expression full of lively curiosity.
"What is it? What's- Oh my word."
There's a moment of silence, and then Arya points at me and yells: "She did it!" With that, she's off and running again. We stare after her, and then as if by some unspoken consensus, turn to look at the disaster area on the floor.
"She ran into me," I explain, the words emerging somewhat more plaintively than I intended.
"Figured as much," Rob sighs. He closes the door and crosses the entryway to set the rest of my bags down out of the way.
"Where would I find a dustpan and brush?" Talisa asks, surveying the scene of devastation with an assessing air.
"There should be one in the cupboard under the stairs," I say. "But you don't have to-"
"Nonsense," she says, her hand already on the doorknob as she turns to smile over her shoulder at me. "I don't mind pitching in. Many hands make light work, and all that."
"Oh." I find myself returning her smile. "Well, thank you."
Between the three of us — okay, mainly the two of us, although Rob does at least make an effort — it doesn't take that long at all. Naturally, though, Mum materialises before we've quite finished.
"Welcome home, Sansa," she says. "Arya said you were-" And… there it is: the moment she realises that she's interrupted our attempt to dispose of the evidence. "Oh no. What happened?"
"I knocked the vase over," I find myself saying, unable to quite bring myself to land Arya in hot water. Maybe a couple of years ago I would've done — heck, maybe even a few months ago — but… not right now. She *so* owes me, though. "Sorry."
"That was part of a matching set," Mum says, sighing quietly to herself before continuing in a brisk tone. "But accidents happen, I suppose. None of you cut yourselves, did you?"
"No, we're fine," Talisa says.
"Good." Despite acknowledging Talisa's reply, Mum doesn't actually look at her, instead focusing her attention squarely on me. "Just be more careful in future," she tells me, the admonishment softened somewhat by her smile. She holds out her arms. "Now come here and give your old mum a hug."
We embrace loosely, briskly, as is our way; barely even touching before we release each other once more. Out of the pair of them, Dad was always the hugger. I think he corrupted Mum into it, but she never seems entirely comfortable with it. I… used to be. Back before I developed an aversion to physical contact. (Back before Joffrey.) But I think I may be getting over that. I guess it helps that, as I said to Rob earlier, so many of my new friends seem to be the physically demonstrative type.
"You look well," Mum says, looking me up and down. "I'm glad to see you're neither wasting away nor subsisting purely on junk food."
"Mum!" I say, and then stop, unable to properly articulate my indignation.
"You say that like I haven't already put a son through university," she says dryly, a slight smile on her lips. "I know what students are like. Let me guess: you've also brought a bag full of dirty laundry home for me to do."
"I wasn't *that* bad," Rob mutters, sounding put upon.
"No, actually," I say triumphantly, trying to ignore the way Talisa leans in close to Rob and whispers something in his ear that makes him fix her with a mock-stern look. "I made sure I did it all before I left."
Mum laughs and starts to say something else, but is interrupted by another voice from the other end of the hallway.
"Hello Sansa." Jon steps into view around the staircase. His expression is reserved to the point of unreadability, as is often his way, but I fancy that his composure seems a little strained around the edges. I start to wonder what's wrong, and then I remember Mum's words. 'A son' though university. Not 'two sons.' I wonder if he heard that. (I wonder if it stings to be reminded that he's not my mother's son.) I wonder if it bothers him.
Even if it does, I doubt it's something he'll admit to.
"Hi Jon." The tension makes me overshoot slightly from the cheery tone I was aiming for, and I wince internally at the way I sound positively wired to the gills. "How are you?" I continue, in a slightly more normal tone.
"I'm fine, thanks. How about you? How was your journey?"
"Oh, fine. It was fine, I mean. And I'm fine, too. Glad to be home for the holidays!"
Something flickers over his features, then. Not quite a wince, but definitely something. I have the sinking feeling that I just managed to put my foot squarely in my mouth. Luckily, Mum breaks the awkward movement by saying briskly:
"Rob, Jon: why don't the two of you take Sansa's bags up to her room?" She quirks an eyebrow at me. "Since she seems to have packed all of her worldly possessions in there."
"I haven't brought that much stuff with me.," I mutter.
"It certainly feels like everything but the kitchen sink," Rob says, grinning. "Here, Jon, you try lifting that."
Jon obliges, then shoots me an amused look. "I see what you mean," he murmurs. The traitor.
Talisa laughs. "What a performance," she says, nudging me companionably. "Oscar-worthy, don't you think?"
"Totally," I agree, rolling my eyes as the pair of them make a great show of hefting my *totally* not over-stuffed luggage up the stairs. "Wimps!" I call after them. Judging by the laughter, they seem thoroughly unfazed by it.
(I'm happy that Jon has relaxed out of his stiff tenseness. Rob always was able to bring him out of his more closed-off moods. I'm glad to see that hasn't changed. I'll have to have a quiet talk with him at some point; see if there's anything wrong aside from a brief bout of foot-in-mouth from Mum and me.)
"Take your boots off and come and have a hot drink and a sit down," Mum says. "You can tell me all about Nottingham."
"That would be lovely," I say, with feeling. I think I'm just about starting to recover feeling in my fingers and toes, but a hot drink sounds pretty much like heaven right about now. And even though I've already told my Mum all about my life as a student (well, everything I'm planning on telling her), phone conversations just aren't the same as chatting in person. It'll be nice to catch up. "I'll make the drinks."
"No, you can just sit down and relax. Besides, I would've thought you'd be tired of making drinks for other people by now."
"It's not so bad," I say, and then grin at her. "But I won't object if you want to wait on me."
"Cheeky," she admonishes, amusement in the the glint of her eyes and the slight quirk of her lips. "I'm not making you a fancy coffee, though. We have plenty of instant, or I suppose I could break out the cafetière if you really want."
"Tea's fine," I say. It's what she'll be having, anyway. I swear she goes through gallons of the stuff. I rarely think to make it for myself, but I find myself unexpectedly nostalgic for the taste of a proper Yorkshire brew.
"What about you, Talisa?" she asks. "Would you like a hot drink?"
It might be only in my imagination that the animation fades from Mum's face to leave nothing but a kind of frost-edged, brittle politeness in its place. Just as I might be imagining the slight hesitation before Talisa replies.
"Do you have any peppermint tea?"
"I'll check, but I don't believe we have. How about coffee?"
"Oh, ordinary tea is fine, thank you," Talisa replies, perhaps a little too quickly.
"Neither. Thank you."
Yes, the awkwardness between them might just be my imagination, but I really don't think it is. I wonder what the problem is? I wonder if I can do anything to help…
I know I'm probably being rude, but I have to take a detour before joining the rest of the family — plus assorted guests — in the main living room. I just really need to see my bedroom. I don't know why it's so urgent, but by the time I've finished my tea, the faint urge becomes almost a compulsion.
Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. But it won't take long, and if I don't pop up now, then it'll probably be hours before I can make my escape. Mum really is serious about us all spending some 'quality time' together. In the same room. No TV (Rickon), texting (Bran), hiding behind a book (me, Jon; actually, pretty much any of us at one time or another), or otherwise not engaging socially with the people in the room. No running off to find a quiet corner to hide in. Or, in Arya's case, to try some Errol Flynn-worthy feat like swinging from a chandelier.
No, this gathering is about family and close friends. And attendance definitely isn't optional.
I smile inwardly as I remember Arya's disgust with the whole idea. She'll cope, I'm sure. It's not like she won't have other opportunities to slope off on her own and 'practice', or whatever. The big question is: will *I* cope?
I'm sure it'll be fine. I'm sure *I'll* be fine. I just need a moment or two to myself first. And I really would like to check on my bedroom to make sure all is as it should be. I mean, I'm sure it's fine, but I still want to see it for myself.
So: two birds, one stone.
I excuse myself with a simple: "I'll see you in there," making a dash for the stairs without waiting for a reply. Alright, not a dash, per se; more of a brisk, but dignified walk. In any event, a few moments later I'm standing in my bedroom. As I expected, it looks pretty much the same as it did when I last saw it, way back in September.
I can't believe it's only been three months. It feels like it's been so much longer. (It feels like a lifetime.) And yet, in some ways, it feels like it's been hardly any time at all. It's so easy to fall back into old routines; old habits. I can feel the shadow of my old self wrapping itself around me like a well-worn cloak. Comfortably familiar, yes, but also oddly… constraining? I'm glad to be home. I am. But even in this short time, I can't help but be acutely aware of how much I've changed.
Suddenly overwhelmed by it all, I close the door behind me and flop down heavily on my bed, letting out a sigh that seems to have its roots somewhere down by my toes. It feels good, like the tension is draining out of me with the expelled air, so I do it again. As I inhale, I savour the faint scent of lavender wafting out from the pomander tied to my headboard. Maybe it's a bit old-fashioned — maybe an AirWick or Glade or something would be more efficient — but it suits me just fine. I guess I'm just an old-fashioned girl at heart.
I must remember to thank Mum for refilling it.
I lay there for a few moments, eyes half-closed, thinking about nothing in particular and just letting my mind wander where it will. Completely out of the blue, I suddenly find myself wondering what Daenerys is doing right now. Maybe I'll send her a quick text… After all, if I don't do it now, it's going to be another few hours, and she did ask me to let her know I got here okay. I can't believe I didn't remember that until now — how awful of me. I send her a short message. Since I have my phone out, I also text Margaery. (Something I really should be doing more often if we… If I… I'm a terrible… whatever it is we are to each other.) Which reminds me…
I pull out my sewing chest, hunting through it for… Ah! There it is. Yes, that'll do nicely. And it shouldn't take me too much longer to finish her present, assuming I don't have to spend all my time being sociable. I just hope she likes it!
I wonder if she's actually going to make it up here this holiday? As terrible a person as it probably makes me, the thought of it leaves me feeling oddly… conflicted. On the one hand, it'll be great to see her again, (even if we can't…) even if it's not the same as it was in Nottingham. Even if we can't be *together* together. (Not that we really are *together*. Or are we? And not that we really have to be. I mean, it's more than enough for me to have felt this way; to have found someone I can feel this way about. It doesn't have to be anything more than that.) But I'm worried that… What if someone figures out that we…? What if we do something, or say something, to give it away?
I don't even want to think about what will happen if any of them find out — if my *mother* finds out — that Margaery and I spent the night together. (Let alone that she's my one true love.) If she does come to visit, I'll have to make sure she knows we can't… That she keeps certain things quiet. That's all there is to it. And now I just can't think about this any more. I can't. There's no point in worrying about it before it happens. I mean, she might not even come up.
My phone beeps at me, making me jump. I check the display and break into a smile. How is it that Daenerys always manages to know what to say to cheer me up? Even if she can't possibly know that I needed it. I guess that's the magic of friendship for you. My phone beeps again as I'm tapping out a quick reply: Margaery. I send my message to Daenerys and check to see what my… what she has to say.
Is she saying that…? Does she really mean…?
It seems to have gotten warmer in here all of a sudden.
What on earth am I supposed to say to that?
And… and… and… 'Love and kisses?' Does that mean…? Is she saying…? Should I…?
I dither for a while, hesitantly tapping out a word or two before deleting them again, staring blindly at my phone as if I can find some shred of insight in its depths. Unfortunately, there's nothing like that to be had. In the end, all I can do is parrot back Margaery's closing words to me. 'Love and kisses.'
That's okay, isn't it? After all: she said it first.
I wait a couple of minutes, but no further texts seem forthcoming, so I deliberately switch off the ringer and shove my phone in my pocket. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, no; not really. But, on the plus side, I seem to be over my brief fit of family gathering-induced nerves. Certainly, by the time I should be thinking about heading downstairs again, the thought is accompanied by anticipation rather than dread.
That's a good thing, right?
I gather up all my confusion and conflicted feelings as best as I can and shove them down as far as I can, way down into the depths of my mind where I don't have to think about them. There'll be time to worry about it later. Now, I have to focus on other things. Like the fact that it doesn't matter how much I have or haven't changed. Winterfell is still my home and my family are still my family. I'm sure I'll settle in again soon enough and it'll be just like I never went away.
And that's probably for the best.
(And if I tell myself that enough times, maybe I'll even believe it.)