Her voice grows soft, and he can hear the Stranger chasing her, waiting for that moment—between the exhale and before the subtle intake of breath that he can recognize as hers —to take her. She is grey now, like stone, like the castle she had once called home. She will be stone soon, and he will spend the rest of his life on his knees before her, Sansa Stark of Winterfell’s loyal dog, curled up at her feet in supplicance, placing roses on her crypt for as long as he still breathes. He will take her home. He will fulfill that promise, when the others have been broken.
Her lips are blue. He wishes that he had kissed them. He would now, but Sandor could not bear to steal any of the breath that she has left.
“Please,” he says, to no one and to her. He should not have to beg for her life. He should have been there to protect her. “Please, little bird.”
“Sansa,” she says, lips curving into a feeble smile. She rests in a bed of blood, waiting for the inevitable conclusion. Once he feared fire. Now he fears only this.
“Little bird,” he repeats, voice harder, shaking his head. His eyes burn, vision blurring, and for one brief moment all he knows is the weak clasp of her hand in his and the rattling cascade of her breathing. The dagger in her belly will take her from him. It is only fitting, though, Sandor thinks. He had stolen her in the first place.
Not first, though. He just couldn’t protect her like the others had.
“Sandor,” she says, still smiling. He fights against his stomach, everything in him roiling against the blood trickling down her beautiful face. “They’ll write songs about us.”
“Aye, my girl,” he agrees, choking down a sob. “The bards will sing of the lovely Lady Sansa, the rose of Winterfell. Sansa the Savior, they’ll call you. You brought your brothers home, little bird. Saved the North. "I almost brought you home, too, little bird—I almost—”
She squeezes his hand tightly enough to stop his speech, her hand sliding up his arm. He catches it in his, engulfing her small, tiny, fragile hand in his, allows her to bring hers to cup his face. She weakly brushes his tears away, smile refusing to be shaken from her face—grey, grey now, blue, her eyes dimming and movements slowing.
“No, no,” she says sweetly. Her head falls to the side, and her small frame is wrought with coughs, blood and spittle marking the spot where she will die. He waits until she is done, terrified that it will never end, that this is the end—until it stops and using his free hand, he supports her head to hold it up. Sansa’s blue eyes hold his. “They will sing songs about the little bird and her hound. The princess in exile and her only friend, her love, they’ll sing about us, about how we could have been the King and Queen in the North, raised our children in springtime—“
Sandor shushes her, the thought a sweetness too painful to bear.
“Why aren’t you angry?” he asks, voice thick with tears. He’s failed her. He’s failed her again and again and again and he cannot save her from this. He cannot beat back this enemy with his sword, cannot steal her away from it in the night. He strokes the hair from her face, wipes the blood from her lip—
Time stops, and suddenly the memory eclipses the moment, and all Sandor can see is her, so young and so dumb and so strong, moving to push Joffrey off the battlement, the blood on her lip, the confusion on her face when he stooped down and wiped it off.
—and the moment ends, the present sliding cleanly into place. Sansa is no longer young. She has played the game of thrones, and lost. And he is old, and no longer remembers how to live without knowing she is out there, alive. How can he survive in a world where she does not draw breath?
“You should be angry,” Sandor chides her, bringing her into his arms, kissing her temple. Gentleness; she made him gentle.
“That is not—“ Sansa breathes heavily, leaning up to look him in the eyes, “the last feeling—I want—to experience.”
“Then what is?” he asks softly, clutching her tightly, rocking her—her body is trembling, she is cold, she is dying and he does not know what to do . He pulls his cloak from his shoulders, and tucks it around her.
She laughs then, a strange and bottled sound. “That is the third cloak you’ve given me.”
He muffles a sob poorly.
“I could be your wife. I wanted to be your wife. Love—that’s all I ever wanted.” Her eyes drift shut, but her words are still fierce, somehow, fed by something undying inside of her. “I loved you— I did .”
He should know how to tell her, but he does not and it makes him weak.
“I know.” She smiles, eyes slitting open. “Women—always know.”
He nods, feeling a part of him leave with her. He would follow her anywhere, he knows. And she knows. The Hound, the sellsword, broken by the one force the powerful men in the world couldn’t offer: a good woman’s love. He shakes now, too. And she is still, but for her breathing. His hands are wet with her blood. He will carry the feel of her body like this for the rest of his life, however long it may be.
“ With this cloak I give you my protection ,” she murmurs, words slow and slurred and barely recognizable.
“And I will take you as my lady wife,” he finishes, dipping his chin to brush his lips against hers, sharing a breath between them.
Her hands clutch at his arm, nails scrambling for a hold. Sandor looks into her eyes, blunted by pain, and wonders what she sees. Are her lord father and lady mother waiting for her? Is her brother there? The Seven Heavens, he thinks. He could not follow her there.
“Sing me a song,” she pleads, eyes focusing on some far-away place.
He does not stop until her body is cold and the birds sing for the coming dawn, its hazy grey fingers stretching over the horizon, reaching the sky above them. Not so far from Winterfell—a copper short, he thinks—it is within view, if not Littlefinger’s men in the night. He had killed them. But they had killed her. And she was not granted one last chance to look upon her home.
Sandor lifts her body carefully and wraps it in his cloak, a poor man’s excuse for a shroud. Walking towards the ruins in the pale grey of the dawn, he does not notice the staring of the smallfolk or the gasps of the Northern Lords that had assembled to receive them. He does not stop until he reaches the godswood, and lays her down in the red leaves. You cannot much notice the blood now , he thinks, unwrapping her unmoving frame.
Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell, returned home at last.
Kneeling, he pulls the dagger from her belly, and presses it to his throat. He will follow her anywhere. He may burn in Seven Hells, but maybe the Old Gods will let him into heaven to protect her.
She saved him, after all, more than he ever saved her. He never expected a happy ending, but he always thought that he'd be the one to die. Maybe they would be granted this one salvation.
Red is the last thing he ever sees—the color of weirwood leaves, and of fire, and of the blood on both of them, and of Sansa Stark’s hair.