Summary: The Starks spend Christmas in Michigan, where reminders of Robb seem to be everywhere.
Notes: This outtake takes place after Sansa's birthday in the A City timeline.
It only takes a small reminder to make everything fall apart.
Things have been good since they arrived in Michigan, better than they were at Thanksgiving, where all of the holiday expectations were piled into one day in which they were expected to be thankful and weren't. This has felt different. They're all together and no one has work of any kind and they can all sit in the great room together and play board games or run around by the frozen lake, shrieking like banshees with no neighbors close enough to complain.
The only unhappy face worn by anybody until today was fleeting. Yesterday, Rickon loudly complained to anyone who would listen that Sansa kissed him under the mistletoad twice, once on each cheek, after they came in from throwing snowballs, and he didn't appreciate their laughter after such a serious affront to his dignity.
"Your sister lived in Paris," Jon said, poking him in the side like Rickon was the Pillsbury Doughboy. "The French kiss both cheeks."
Rickon scrunched up his face and batted at Jon's hand. "I'm not French!"
"What are you, then?" her daddy asked.
In response, Rickon bared his teeth, a face they've all grown accustomed to, and growled.
Rickon's current obsession is pretending to be a wolf, or to be more exact, to insist that everyone around him treat him as if he is a wolf. His wolf persona has a questionable name, Shaggydog. Since Sansa was the one in charge of keeping track of her youngest brother in the airport and for the duration of the flight, she knows Shaggydog's preferences rather intimately. Shaggydog doesn't listen to flight attendants. Shaggydog doesn't like to wear a seatbelt. Shaggydog tosses peanuts. Shaggydog mostly says no a lot and growls, but sometimes he makes use of a clawed swipe that is particularly difficult to stop if you're not ready for it.
They're ready for Rickon's outbursts. What they're not ready for is Bran's.
They made it all the way until Christmas Eve without an incident, and yes, maybe some of them have had a dark thought or two—or a dozen—about Robb, but it hasn't ruined everything, hasn't cast its usual dark pall over every last thing they've done. Until the sky has gone dark and they all sit down in front of the fire in the great room, and it's time to hand out presents. The tradition is that on Christmas Eve after dinner everyone gets to open one gift. Except you don't get to pick which one. Instead, the person playing Santa delivers all the gifts and if they give you the box that only has red and green socks, tough. You get what you get and you don't get upset, as Rickon recently has been taught by his angelic Kindergarten teacher.
For as long as her younger siblings can remember, Robb has played Santa. For as long as Jon's been a part of the family too. But that's not the case with Sansa. She remembers a time when it was just her and Robb and they were both so little that Daddy played Santa, doling out their presents on Christmas Eve and again the next morning, while Mama snapped pictures. Later she'll wonder if everything would have been okay if she let her father step in and take over like he once did, but something makes her act, something makes her volunteer one they're all sitting before the fire, Arya and Rickon cross legged on the rug and Jon next to her on the sofa. Suddenly it strikes her that they're all waiting for someone to go to the tree and deliver gifts. Not just someone, Robb. But Robb isn't going to magically appear to fulfill their longstanding tradition. She glances over at her mother, who stares off into the middle distance, and her father, who is trying and failing to take her mother's unresponsive hand. Sansa doesn't want them to be sad, not after they've been so understanding, so supportive of her, and sad for so long.
So she pops up, smoothing her hands down her green, woolen skater skirt.
"I'll be Santa," she says with false cheerfulness.
No one says a peep. There's no resounding cheer, but no protest either, so she picks her way over to the tree, stepping around Arya as carefully as she can in her festive gold heels, and begins to hunt for one of Rickon's presents. They all take turns watching each other open the delivered gifts, so it only makes sense that the youngest gets the first present. At least, in the interest of peace and harmony the youngest has always gone first, younger siblings tending to have less patience than older ones. Rickon's present turns out to be a stuffed wolf. Mama knew what she was doing with that one. They cheer and he growls at it and shakes it like a dog toy, which probably means he's pleased, and so Sansa goes back to the tree to find a present for Bran. A medium sized one, an odd shape. Not likely to hold pajamas, but not likely to be a showstopper that will steal the thunder of whatever is left to open tomorrow. She's proud of herself for being able to think on her feet about present selection, having never really thought about the logistics behind this little tradition before, but Bran seems less impressed at her delivery.
When she places the shiny wrapped present in his lap, he makes no effort to lift his hands off the arms of his wheelchair.
"Go ahead, honey. Open it," her mama says from the overstuffed wingback, where she sits with her legs crossed and a cup of eggnog cradled in her hands.
"What do you mean, no?" Sansa says, tapping the top of the box with her index finger. "I picked out a good one for you."
Bran looks up at her with his big blue eyes. "I don't want you to play Santa."
Their father says his name in that fatherly, warning tone they all know means they need to shape up, but Bran either doesn't hear or doesn't care. He repeats himself, louder than the first time, and this time his no is accompanied by a twitchy shove. The room echoes with the sound of the box clattering to the ground and their collective stunned silence. Sansa stares down at the present, as it rolls over onto its side, now dented on one corner with a smashed bow.
When she finally looks up, his cheeks are shiny with tears. "I want Robb."
"You're not the only one. We all want Robb," she spits back, and it's hateful and childish and not the kind of tone she should take with a child, and she can feel her cheeks heat in immediate shame as her mother comes to her feet and reaches for the rejected present.
"I think we're all just tired."
"It's been a long day," her father agrees, and he sounds tired.
Everyone saw. Her parents. Arya and Rickon. Jon. All she wanted to do was smooth things over and she's made them worse. She's the worst sister.
"I'm sorry, Bran."
Her voice shakes and she wills him to look at her, so he'll see how sorry she is, but Bran doesn't answer and he doesn't look up. All he does is ball his fists in his lap.
"Bran, you need to apologize too. To your sister and your mother," her father says, taking the package from her mother's arms. "You know better than to throw things. You might have broken it and that's wasteful as well as ungrateful."
"You're supposed to use your words, when you're feeling sad," her mother says, stepping forward to brush Bran's hair back off his face, but her father holds his hand out.
"He didn't. So now he can use his words to apologize."
Bran looks off to the side avoiding all their stares as he mutters an apology, and then her mother suggests they open presents in the morning, when everyone is feeling more rested, and since Rickon already has a wolf clutched to his chest, no one puts up much of a fuss. They mill around, gathering up whatever they brought to the great room with them, cups, electronics, the odd toy, and say their goodnights. Her father kisses her on the forehead, her mother kisses her on the cheek, and they drift off to whatever things they need to do before heading to bed.
Bran asks if Jon can be the one to give him his bath and put him to bed; Bran doesn't say goodnight very pointedly to Sansa.
She feels sick about it.
Her room here in their Michigan home is annoyingly pink. It's a remnant of her younger self that wanted everything pink, princess pink, and she'd like to be able to say that it's the glare of the pink bedspread and pink rug and pink polka dot wallpaper that keeps her awake tonight, but it's not. It isn't the anticipation of what gifts tomorrow might bring either. She's certainly not awake listening for sleigh bells. It's her own failures that haunt her—not only tonight's but a whole year's worth of failures—and they don't seem eager to stop hissing in her ear, no matter which side of the pillow she flips to. So she gives up on sleep and wraps herself in a grey cashmere robe and makes her way down the stairs to the kitchen as quietly as she can creep, bare toes curling over the edge of each step.
She's surprised to see Jon hunched over a book in the kitchen, sitting at the table with his glasses reliably sliding down his nose with only the fixture over the table turned on. Even more surprising, since it's hard to sneak up on Jon, and he obviously has yet to hear her. Hopefully that means he's relaxed.
"Santa won't come if you wait up for him." He lifts his head as she speaks and the corners of his mouth quirk just a little bit, as he looks over his black rim glasses at her. It's nice that someone is happy to see her, despite ruining everyone's evening. "And that could be a problem, because I am a very sorry replacement for Santa and Robb apparently."
"Everyone's a critic," he says, as he reaches out to pat the empty chair next to him. "Can't sleep?"
"Not at all," she says, walking on her tip toes into the room. Her mama always keeps the house too warm with the massive furnace belching out heat and more than one fireplace lit to make all but her mother too hot. Sansa can't stand to sleep in more than her little silk cami set, but the tiled floor is cold under her feet, and she can't bear to have them touch it any more than is strictly necessary. "You?"
He's not in his pajamas. He's wearing his usual jeans and t-shirt, which means he hasn't even tried to go to sleep. His being fully dressed reminds her how little she has on and she wraps the robe a little tighter around herself before grabbing the back of the empty chair.
"My days and nights are a little bit reversed." Jon closes the book with a soft thud and slides it away from him, as she sits down and pulls her feet up on the rung of the chair away from the chill of the floor. "Don't be upset about Bran. He's fine. He was embarrassed about how he acted."
Not as embarrassed as she is. "How do you know?"
"That's privileged big brother information, but don't worry about him. The whole playing Santa thing, it was just…"
"It made him remember."
Jon reaches up and pulls off his glasses, bending the arms in as he nods. "Yeah."
It only takes some little thing to make you remember and then the pain thuds in your chest, a reminder of the permanent alteration Robb's death has created in your life, in all of their lives. There aren't really words for that hollow feeling, and yet, they've been told to talk about it by their therapist. Use your words. Not an easy thing for Sansa and probably considerably less so for a nine year old.
"I shouldn't have snapped at him."
"No, but it happens. Even your mom snaps sometimes." She raises one brow at him, because that doesn't sound like her mother. "Rarely, but sometimes she does. You'll make it up to him tomorrow."
She'll try. But she can't undo what happened. "Still, because of me, we couldn't even finish opening gifts."
"No, I'm pretty sure Bran deep sixing that gift ensured that we weren't going to finish opening gifts."
She wasn't the only one whose emotions got out of hand. Just the only adult. "Maybe."
There's one gift in particular that she's a little nervous about, one she really wouldn't mind delivering in person to avoid the watchful eyes of her family, as Jon opens it. There are a couple boxes with his name on them under the tree that are from her, but it's the smallest package wrapped in shimmering silver paper that she's been worrying about. It didn't strike her as too personal or too much when she bought it. It didn't strike her as problematic at all until she was wrapping it the other night. It's a personal gift and that's worse than the money she spent on it, which was considerable. She's never put so much thought into a gift for Jon, and someone is bound to notice. They might all notice, and she's not sure she'd like that. She's not sure he'd like it either. He's private and her gift might make him uncomfortable.
"Would you let me have one more try at playing Santa?" she ask, as her fingers play with the ends of her hair that fall over her shoulder.
"You want to give me a gift?"
"Yeah," she says sitting forward on the edge of the chair. "Yeah, I think I do. Can you stay there?"
The present is bad enough. It would be too much alone in the great room with the dying fire and the tree lit up, opening gifts together. In the kitchen is better. There's less pressure in the kitchen.
She has to skitter over the cold floor again up high on her toes, and she thinks she hears him stifling a laugh as she leaves the kitchen behind with her robe flapping at her sides. She knows right where the box is, tucked away in the plaid tree skirt, where she half hoped it would be missed until everyone was comatose from too much excitement and their breakfast. The box is small, but it has some heft to it. She picks it up and exhales, careful not to crease the paper, as she walks with some measure of calm back to the kitchen.
He's waiting for her, his eyes fixed on the doorway as she enters, with one fist held up to his mouth and his arms crossed. She approaches him with the gift held out in one hand as if it might explode if she brings it too close to her body. Her heart feels as if it might explode too. Everything about her feels tingly and too tight except for her icy toes, which she can't feel at all.
"Promise not to toss it on the ground," she says, pulling it back a little, when he lowers his hand.
She places it in his hand, as he promises, "Cross my heart."
He tilts it slightly, so that the light catches the gleam of the paper, testing the weight with his lower lip caught between his teeth, and her chest collapses as she slides back into her chair on a quick exhalation. "No, don't try to guess what it is."
"I'll never guess?"
"Nope. Open it, please."
"All right," he says, turning it over to attack the back, where she's hidden the tape with crisp folds.
Wrapping is important to Sansa. It's how you can tell the giver put thought into the gift. It's a measure of the sentiment. Except she knows very well she's beautifully wrapped things for people before that weren't full of much sentiment. Wrapping can be like anything else, a pretty illusion. But this time, she really did pour everything into it, the wrapping, the gift, the sentiment, and that should make her feel better about it, but all it does is make her heart climb into her throat as he tears the paper away, letting it fall to the floor, and gets down to the grey leather box.
She almost blurts out, "It's a watch," because she knows he doesn't care much for surprises and the anticipation is killing her, but she covers her mouth with her fingers and lets them tap mindlessly against her lips to stop herself from speaking, as he finally undoes the latch to the box and cracks it open.
He looks from the watch to her three times, before she finally whispers, "You don't have one. A nice one."
When he wears a watch, it's this beat up old thing, and at Halloween, when they dressed up and he went as a Wall Street trader, the one thing he didn't have was a nice watch. It sort of seemed like a shame, because he has such nice wrists, and that's probably a weird thing for her to notice, but he does. He has really nice wrists.
He says her name, softly, maybe even with regret and Sansa shakes her head, knowing it's the price that concerns him. "It'll make me happy to see you wear it."
And it will, which is probably even weirder.
He pulls it off the pillowed insert, and she watches him turn it under the light, feeling embarrassed and pleased in equal measure. But when his fingers fumble to slide the band—black leather, because she couldn't picture him in gold or silver or anything too conspicuous—through the silver buckle, her hand reaches out to stop him. "Wait. It's engraved."
His brow knits as he flips it over in his hand and goes completely still.
He isn't wearing his glasses and maybe even if he can read the little letters, they don't make sense to him, so she says, "It's your mother's…"
She didn't know Lyanna's middle name and couldn't outright ask Jon without making him wonder what she was up to, so she texted Sam and he came up with the information with just a little internet digging.
Sansa scoots forward on the chair until her bare knees peek out of her robe and bump his. "It's just…you said all you have is your grandmother's wedding ring, and I thought, I thought maybe you'd like to have something to wear close to you that reminded you of her. Even if it wasn't hers."
"This is the most," he starts and then can't seem to finish, his eyes glued to the back of the watch and his shoulders rigid.
Her fingers brush his wrist. "Well, put it on. I stopped you. I just wanted you to see the engraving."
He slides it on, threads the buckle, and before she has time to comment on how good it looks on him, his hand cups her face and he kisses her, closing the distance between them. It's only her cheek, but his lips are close enough to hers that if she turned her head the slightest bit, they would touch. And she wants them too. That's how she knows this isn't a brotherly, friendly thank you kiss. Somehow by the way he holds her face and the way his lips brush her skin, he makes her want to turn into him and let her lips part. He makes her eyes drift closed and her breath come quicker, and when he draws back, her hand floats up to catch his arm and hold him to her, but there's no need because he doesn't go far, he only moves to the other cheek—closer—pressing a second kiss closer to her lips, closer to her not knowing where he stops and she begins, fraying the edges of her body. She wants to wind her fingers in his hair and tug him to her lips, to end the separation and find out what it is they are. Because she doesn't know anymore.
She knew once. She'd still know if Robb hadn't been shot down. It would never be like this if Robb was alive. He was always Robb's friend, she was always Robb's sister, and that's all it would have ever been between them. It's just a small reminder, but it's enough to come back to herself, enough to make her pull free of his grip.
She has feelings she doesn't know what to do with sometimes, when she looks at Jon, but whatever those feelings are, if she chases them, she'll be saying goodbye to what they were when Robb was alive. They'll both be leaving Robb behind.
He stares down at his feet and pulls his hand back through his hair. She can hear him swallow before he murmurs, "I'm sorry."
There have been too many apologies tonight and she wishes he didn't need to apologize about this.
"It's fine. Like the French. Once on each cheek. I'm not nearly as fussy as Rickon." Her words sound like chirps and chatter full of feigned amusement. But it'll be better for the both of them if she pretends it was nothing, that she didn't feel it. Whatever it is.
"But you like it?" she asks, grabbing the leather box off of the table and flicking the little clasp closed.
"I love it."
She can't look at him when he says it, not with Robb hanging somewhere in between them, but when she stands to go back to her sleepless bed, she runs her fingers through his hair, right above his ear, where it curls. The way she would have liked to, when his breath was warm against her face.
"Good. That's all I wanted."
Notes: Welp. I have to say I didn't think it would quite go there. But it did. Follow the fallout on tumblr with Jon (theghostofjonsnow) and Sansa (makepinklemonade) and for all you know Margaery (ahighgardenrose) knows about this too. And let's be friends (justadram)!