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Gone North, To Die

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“Where to now?” Sandor remarked to Jon, as the two of them surveyed the empty dragon pit, where the dead wight still lay, rotting in the sun. The rest of their company had since departed, leaving them to go back to the Red Keep or to prepare the boats. Only they, along with Brienne and Davos, remained, both seemingly lost in their own thoughts.

“Home.” Jon said it with a bit of relief. “We’ll go back to Winterfell. That’s where they’ll hit first. We can make our stand there, use it as a home base and plan. We’ll go through the north first, warn everyone of what’s coming, and rally forces.”

Sandor hadn’t decided where he would go, or what he would do yet. The temptation to remain in the south, and wait for his chance to face off against his brother, was great. But he knew what threat was coming from the north, and he wanted to face it head on, rather than cowering in the south, while Tormund and the rest fought.

“If you plan to sail, your grace, would you like me to ride?” Brienne offered. “I know you will want me back to Winterfell quickly to protect the lady, and if you intend to show the people that they should follow the dragon queen, riding will make better time.”

“I thought you said Arya could protect herself.” Sandor turned to look at her. He was still surprised the girl managed to make it out alive, and all the way back to her home. He supposed the odd feeling in his chest could be described as proud, if he didn’t look too closely at it. She always was a fighter.

“Arya is back in Winterfell?” Jon looked at Brienne, astonished.

“What other lady is there?” Sandor remarked, thinking in amusement of how Arya would react to being called a lady. She’d hate it, if she really was the girl Brienne said she was, and that made him wrench his mouth up in a half smile.

“Sansa.” Brienne looked between the two of them, as though they were both idiots, missing every third word of a book they were all reading. “Both your sisters are home, your grace. Bran as well.”

“What?” Jon looked astonished, while Sandor’s heart was pounding of its seemingly own accord. “They are?”

After a moment, her words sank in for him. Sansa was alive then. That was more than he’d ever hoped for, during all the years that had passed since they’d lived in the Red Keep, in the nest of vipers, together. He’d assumed she would’ve perished, if not by the mad queen and her demon son, then smothered by the poisonous court. It had given him nightmares, and often he saw her face, afraid and bruised, in nobody’s amongst a crowd. Hearing that she was alive, and at Winterfell, could only mean one thing. She was alright. She was the Lady of Winterfell, no less. She survived.

“Yes.” Brienne blinked a couple times. “I thought you knew.” Her words wrenched him back to the present and unbidden, his eyes flickered to the great red monster off in the distance. Every bone in his body was screaming, oddly enough, for him to go in the opposite direction. Away from his brother, away from where he had spent so much of his time. It was as though someone had reached inside him, caught a rib, and was now tugging him, tugging him relentlessly north.

“About Sansa, yes.” Jon was astonished, looking at all of them, but Sandor heard his words, even if they didn’t register. He was too busy with his own astonishment, trying to comprehend that Sansa Stark had lived, and was finally home. Where he’d promised to take her. “Not Bran, and certainly not Arya. Is she alright?”

“More than alright.” Brienne’s eyes flittered to Sandor, as though trying to understand why he looked like he’d been clubbed over the head. “Quite terrifying actually.”

“What?” Jon absentmindedly felt the pommel of his sword.

“She’s a talented fighter. She’ll protect Sansa.” Brienne assured him.

“Not against white walkers.” Sandor grumbled, looking down to hide the overwhelming rush of emotions. Joy. The little bird had finally escaped her cage. She was free. Shame. He failed her, on so many levels, so many times. Fear. She’d never forgive him for what he let be done to her. She had every right to never speak to him again.

“Nor against Littlefinger.” Jon said darkly and Sandor’s head snapped up.

“You left her alone, with him?” He demanded, of both Jon and Brienne. In his mind, they were both at fault. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know what he did. They’d never seen her in the keep, how the master of coin’s eyes had followed her as she drifted from room to room, a broken thing. He had his own suspicions, confirmed by the dead whores he’d carried away from the king’s rooms. Petyr Baelish didn’t mind breaking things, as long as they could still serve his purpose.

“He’s Lord of the Vale.” Jon said, uncomfortably. “He saved Winterfell from the Bolton’s, his army helped me win, I couldn’t just throw him out.”

“Sansa’s dealt with worse.” Brienne meant for it to make him feel better, but it did the exact opposite. Sandor looked at her in horror, unable to stop himself from showing such boldfaced, open concern. He’d seen the worst in King’s Landing. What could possibly be worse than how Joffrey had tortured her? He didn’t want to even think on it as he unstuck his throat and uttered lowly,

“Worse?”

“If they’re all there, someone needs to go north and protect them.” Jon looked a little dazed still, apparently ignoring Sandor. “Brienne—”

“I’ll go.” Sandor said suddenly, stepping forward and Jon looked at him, startled. Brienne went to protest, but he cut her off remorselessly. “I’ve faced the damn dead, and killed the fuckers. She hasn’t. I go.”

The words, urgent as they word, hardly conveyed his true panic. What Brienne had said kept thudding through his mind, worse, worse, worse… He needed to see that she was still standing. He needed to see her, for his own incredibly selfish reasons, but also because if she really was alone, with fucking Littlefinger of all people, he needed to be there. He needed to protect her. He needed to do something to make up for all the times that he had stood, pretending to be indifferent, and failed her.

“You want to?” Jon eyed him critically.

“I’ll get there faster.” He stated flatly, trying to be logical when all he wanted to do was run, as fast as he could, north. He had an apology to beg from a beautiful wolf. “I know the lands better, the roads. I can keep her— them— safe.”

“I am her sworn shield.” Brienne argued. “I’m bound to protect her.”

“Oh, aye,” He rolled his eyes. “And what good you’ll do, dead.” Brienne didn’t know, she didn’t know sneaky bastards, she didn’t know undead wights, she didn’t know a damned thing, and now that the knowledge that Sansa was alive had buried itself in his chest, right where his heart was meant to be, he didn’t trust anyone to do right by her. He hardly trusted himself, but he had to try. He had to, for her.

“Enough.” Jon held up a hand. “Brienne, he’s right. He’ll go quicker and he’s faced what’s coming. Let him. He’ll protect them.”

“But—” Brienne began, but Jon gave her a look.

“Sansa would appreciate her shield keeping her brother safe.” Davos remarked, from where he’d been quiet. “And we could use a fighter like you to keep the peace with Jon and her grace.”

“Fine.” With a murderous look, Brienne stalked off, yelling for Pod. Sandor went to follow, mind already whirling with how to get to Winterfell quickly before Jon called,

“Clegane. A word?”

“What?” He turned back around with a furious expression and Jon gestured for him to walk, not moved in the slightest. With a barely restrained groan of annoyance, because he wanted nothing more than to get on the road and ride his horse into the ground if it meant making it to Winterfell quickly.

“My sisters,” Jon began slowly, as they began a maddeningly slow pace around the dragon pit and towards where the horses waited. “And my brother Bran, they are everything to me. They are the only family I have left. They lost their mother, our father, Robb, and Rickon. If I lose any more of my family…” He trailed off.

“I’ll protect them.” He said roughly, touching his sword. It hardly gave him comfort, knowing that neither the dead nor Littlefinger feared such a thing. But it was a part of him, one that he knew others feared and respected. He hoped Sansa would accept it. How did those vows go? My sword before yours…

“Why?” Jon paused, looking up at where the two dragons wheeled in the sky and Sandor stopped with him, shifting from foot to foot in the impatience to be moving once again. “You aren’t a sworn shield, like Brienne. You were loyal to the Lannister’s, once. Why should I trust that my sisters will be safe with you?”

“Because they always have been.” Sandor looked out at the water, rather than at Jon. He thought of his time in Kings Landing, when he’d thought to take her away on a boat, across the Narrow Sea. Somewhere where golden lions could never touch her again. He didn’t look back at the keep. There were no happy memories there, except the one. When she’d sang, and for half a moment, he thought she’d follow him away from it all. He had promised her things then. He wanted to live up to them now. “I’d never let anything happen to them.”

“They always have been?” Jon gave him a quizzical look.

“Aye,” He huffed, trying to keep his temper in check. No matter what the septon said, it didn’t seem to work. “When your sister came to Kings Landing and was to marry Joffrey, I kept her safe.”

“Safe?” Jon went red. “You call her being beaten and taunted safe?”

“She was alive, wasn’t she?” He snapped and Jon went to argue once again, but he cut him off, his words coming out hot like a sword fresh from the forge. “He was a cunt, I don’t deny that. And I didn’t do as much as I should’ve, I know that. I regret it every fucking day. But Arya, I kept her safe!”

“How?” Jon demanded, looking up at him with those damned northern eyes. Like Arya’s, but not Sansa’s. She had those twin blue pools, trapping and drowning men stupid enough to look at her. Eyes like a river.

“I tried to bring her to her mother.” He sighed, turning his thoughts from Sansa and remembering vividly the night of the red wedding, how they paraded Robb’s body about. How Arya had lost so much. “Then I took her from the Frey’s massacre.”

“She was there?” Jon looked stunned, and a little queasy around the gills. He wondered how much the man knew of his half brother’s death, if he understood what exactly Sandor had risked going back for the girl.

“No,” Sandor shook his head. “I took her while the rest were being slaughtered. Robb, her mother, already fucking dead. Then I tried to take her to her Aunt Lysa and—”

“Littlefinger.” Jon said grimly.

“Cunt.” He growled, meaning it from the bottom of his heart. He put the pieces together in an instant, imaging what had happened. If Littlefinger was in the Vale and Sansa wasn’t in Kings Landing, he could about imagine how she escaped. He wouldn’t put anything past the man, not even killing the king. With a jolt, he realized just how close he must’ve been to, when he’d stood at the Bloody Gate and demanded Lysa Arryn. “I should’ve stayed. If I would’ve seen Sansa— Lady Stark—” He began to ramble, despite himself.

“You would’ve saved her a lot of pain.” Jon said heavily and Sandor’s heart clenched. What could’ve possibly happened to her that was worse than the Lannister’s? The word kept thundering in his head, to the rhythm of hooves— worse, worse, worse…

“Is she…” He trailed off, unable to say the words. He wasn’t even sure which he would use here. Scarred? Broken? A shadow of her former self, the bright little songbird who’d chirped on command? Could he bring himself to ask such a question and receive such an answer? He didn’t know.

“She’s not who you knew, Clegane.” Jon avoided his eyes. “She was married to the bastard Ramsey Bolton. He was worse than anyone I’d ever met. He tortured Theon Greyjoy, completely broke him Sansa said. Called him Reek.”

“Seven hells.” He swore, remembering the rumors he’d heard during his travels about the northern bastard, completely insane. Even as far south as the Riverlands, word of his exploits carried. Some said him worse than his brother, and his stomach suddenly heaved, his mouth gone dry. “And she—”

“Unspeakable things.” Jon stared out over the water, the only emotion showing a tic in his jaw as he clenched and worked to unclench it. “The worst things that can happen to a woman.” They were both silent for a long moment, as the horrible words sunk in for Sandor. Jon didn’t need to say anything further to explain.

He wanted to be sick, right there, standing next to the King in the North. He had terrible images in his head, of hands running up that thin, pale neck. Usually when he had these waking nightmares, it was Gregor’s hands, his cruel face, his harsh laugh as he bent a weeping Sansa forward. The only comfort Sandor had once taken was that it was all a dream, all a nightmare, and had never happened. Now he pictured pale hands and his gut clenched, threatening to return his food.

He thought of them, the Stark sisters. Arya, the little killer, and Sansa, the little bird. He thought about how someone had hurt Sansa, had caused her such pain, and he wanted to run his sword through himself with guilt. He could’ve done more, and he should have. That, or died to protect her. He couldn’t even die right, he’d done it speaking such vile words on his lips, and he felt a familiar wave of self-hatred that he hadn’t dealt with in years.

“I’ll go.” He promised Jon, gritting it out from between clenched teeth to stop himself from spitting with rage. “I’ll kill the bastard.” He imagined splitting his skull open, presenting it to Sansa, before he could stop himself. He always imagined violence, and hated dragging her innocent self into it.

“Too late.” Jon turned, looking at him with an honest expression, and he saw something dark glitter there, reminding him of himself. “Sansa was never going to let him live once we took back Winterfell.”

“What?” Sandor’s head whipped around in astonishment as he thought about the beautiful little bird who said all the right words when demanded of her, with soft, pale skin, and vivid red hair. She’d been the most stunning woman in Kings Landing, and he’d seen girls from Dorne to Mereen. None compared to her. What did Jon mean, she hadn’t let him live? She was an innocent. She didn’t do such things.

“He’s dead.” Jon said plainly.

“And she killed him?” He didn’t bother to try and hide the wonder in his voice. Jon’s next words sent a bolt of heat through his stomach and down into his groin.

“She doesn’t use swords or bows, but she gets the job done.”

“Huh.” He tried to understand that, his little bird now a little wolf. He tried to understand why the thought of her, watching with cold blue eyes as the men that had hurt her died in front of her, made his mouth water. He tried to understand the rapid beat of his heart against his ribs, as though it was a little bird itself, looking for its pair.

“If I send you home to my sisters, what can I expect?” Jon folded his arms and gone was the King in the North, the fearless leader, the noble warrior. Before him stood a skeptical big brother, and nothing more.

“I owe them this.” He thought of when Sansa had been beaten in front of him, and he’d done nothing. He thought of that damned white cloak wrapped around her, and the way those blue eyes had peered up at him like he’d been her beloved. He tried not to think about how much he desired such a look to be true ever since, knowing it was impossible. He even thought of Arya and how she had, rather unwittingly, reminded him of why a person could not run on hate alone. “I owe them everything.”

“And they’re not going to be upset if I send you?” Jon pressed.

“I don’t think I’m on Arya’s little list anymore.” He said thoughtfully, remembering how her hateful little voice had declared his name every single night, and Jon’s brows furrowed but he kept talking. “And if the lady orders me to be killed, so be it. She deserves that much, and I’d go without question.” His voice broke at the end, but he spoke the words truly and meant them with utter sincerity.

“You speak of Sansa like you know her, and know her well.” Jon was quiet, the long face and dark eyes unreadable. “How?”

“She was the only honest thing in that den of vipers.” Sandor looked to where the Red Keep towered high above all else and repressed every urge to go start tearing the damned thing down. He wished the dragons would burn it, and clean away all the memories he and Sansa had of that place. “The only good thing. I didn’t think she’d survive them and I fucking hated it. I tried to steal her, but she wouldn’t come. Should’ve stole her anyways.” Regret and bitterness hung heavy on his words.

“Would you die for her?” Jon asked bluntly.

“Aye.” He turned away from the keep and turned back north again, the ache in his chest eased only when he faced that direction. He thought about all the wrongs he’d done her, all the evils she’d faced because of him. “That’d only be fair.”

“Alright.” Jon clapped his shoulder, startling him. “Go then, tell them I sent you to make sure Winterfell is ready for me, and for what’s coming. Tell them I’ll be home soon. Tell Arya… Tell her that I miss her.” Jon’s words nearly stuck in his throat.

“I’ll leave some of the dead fuckers for you and the dragon queen.” He glanced up at the fire breathers and shuddered. Jon grinned.

“Not too many. Be safe.”

“Aye.” He grunted and glanced at Jon, taking a last look at him. He was the exact opposite of Joffrey, in every way, from the attitude to the looks. He dismissed any idea he had of finally having a king to follow, to vow to, and headed to where the horses were tethered, waiting. They weren’t the only ones.

“A word.” Brienne said stiffly, her and her squire already sitting astride their horses. He glanced up at them, Pod looking a little bemused and Brienne looking like someone had put a hedgehog between her ass and the saddle. He bristled but reminded himself, forcefully, that she wouldn’t be Sansa’s sworn shield if she didn’t trust and respect her.

“Quickly then.” He ordered, checking the saddlebags for his supplies.

“I am sworn to Lady Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell, Wardenness of the North, and as her sworn shield, I must—”

“Out with it.” He ground out, taking a bag of gold from Tyrion’s saddlebags. He’d deal with that later. Stealing from the imp felt oddly right and he bared his teeth in what might’ve been a smile, if he wasn’t so savage.

“Are you really going to protect those girls?” Brienne dropped all her pretense and stared at him hard, suspicion in her bright blue eyes.

“I am.” He glared at her, hard, as if he could knock her from her horse on that alone. “I did, or did you forget?”

“What are your intentions?” Brienne questioned, all honor and nobility and he laughed, a harsh rasp.

“Maybe swear to be Arya’s sworn shield.” He said with feigned thoughtfulness and Brienne gave him a withering look while Pod watched the two of them in mild interest, the horses shifting in anticipation.

“I’ll be to the north soon enough.” Brienne flicked her reins and the horses walked past him, her back as straight as if she herself sat on the damned Iron Throne, not looking down at him. “Leave it still standing.”

“Aye.” He hid his slight amusement from her. Once he had stolen and taken enough provisions to get him through the journey without needing to stop frequently, he swung himself up into the saddle. He spared one glance towards the sea, where the ship with black sails waited. Then he urged Stranger the other way and headed for the Kings Road, heart soaring at he was pulled north.

The journey seemed to fly. He vaguely recalled the first time he’d done this journey, when Robert had been king and it had been summer. It had been easier then, except they’d moved at a snail’s pace, with the cooks and the ladies and half of the household dragged onto the road. This time, he rode at a hard pace every day, slept in the saddle when he could, and hardly noticed as the kingswood melted into the Trident, into the Neck, into the wintery lands of the North.

He tried to keep his thoughts off of Sansa, but it was utterly useless and by the time he passed into where the drifts were nearly too high for Stranger to step over, he had to admit that he was terrified, for the first time in his life, of what a woman might do to him. Scared of how much power she had.

Because he kept picturing how it would go. How she would come down the stairs and slap him for presuming that he could come back. Or how she wouldn’t even greet him and instead send an archer to pierce his heart before he even reached the walls. Or how she would sentence him to death in that muddy yard and list out his crimes against him. That was always the worst, hearing his crimes in her sweet voice.

“I, Sansa Stark, do sentence you, Sandor Clegane, to die..”

But as he drew closer to Winterfell, he resolved himself to a simple truth. He hated it, hated coming to the conclusion, but it was like a festering wound, and he’d long since learned his lesson there. It was best to root out the source of the hurt, and face it head on, unafraid, before it could get worse.

And so he, Sandor Clegane, came to the realization that he was going to go devote his life to Sansa Stark, if she would have him. Because it was the right thing to do. Because it was the good that blasted Beric thought he might still do. Because it felt like, for the first time in ever, he had a calling in his life. A purpose.

He was no silver knight, streaking across a wild field to come to the rescue of a fair maiden. He still spat on stories and vows and songs. They were utterly useless and the world was shit. But there was a small part of him that hoped that the Sansa Stark that greeted him at Winterfell might still believe and take comfort in such things like she once had. So he traveled north and promised himself that he was simply doing his duty to Jon, by protecting the girls who had deserved better from him, long ago.

He didn’t think about how he slept and dreamt of Sansa, gliding towards him over the snow, arms outstretched and smiling. On the nights when he made a fire and sat around it, trying to get warm, he would often stare into the flames and try to see what was going to happen, even if he hated himself for it slightly.

He never saw anything as clear he had with the dead. He saw what he thought might be three dragons in the sky, he saw the moon cross in front of the sun, he saw walls crumbling and light rush through them, he saw the sun set in the east, he saw wolves creeping down the mountain and through dead trees. He saw what might have been a woman in the flames, but she turned away from him when he called for her. But nothing that told him what he might expect from Sansa Stark.

Chapter Text

Hard riding and few stops meant he arrived at Winterfell a day earlier than he’d predicted, but the gates were ready to receive him. Clearly Sansa, the little bird who’d since grown into a wolf, expected him, and he wryly took it as a good sign. So, into the courtyard he’d rode, feeling like he might yet be sick, and when he’d dismounted his horse and sent him to the stables to be cared for, he’d looked up and laid eyes on all that was good and right incarnate for the first time in years. All his breath left him.

She was still as beautiful as she’d been in the Red Keep, but so much was different about her, he had to stop in the midst of unconsciously walking towards to her to catalog them all. Her hair, still that striking red, was in a long braid that hung straight down her back. No more nest atop her head, and he found it suited her. Her dress was no longer the silky thing that bared collarbones and shoulders, but a warm cloak, with fur around her slender neck. It was dark, but he didn’t miss the fact that there was a wolf embroidered across her chest, a declaration that Sansa Stark had come home to the north.

The look at her face was impossible to read and he absentmindedly wondered if he had indeed fallen out of practice of understanding the little subtle signs of what was on a woman’s mind. He’d gotten quite good at it, in all his years of watching the mad queen Lannister. She stood at the top of the stairs, impassive, looking older than her years. She had lost the innocence she once held in her sweet face, and instead she had a look of steel, though somewhat tempered by the small smile that lingered.

Gods, she looked fucking good, he realized. A little taller, maybe. Taller than Arya certainly, but that didn’t take much work. And she was a woman now, a true woman, with the right curves, though her northern dress and cloak hid them away. He didn’t know what to say or do, so he stood in the midst of the courtyard, as transfixed by her as he had been ever since he stood, very nearly in this same spot, all the years ago and spotted a little bird he feared would be crushed by Joffrey.

“Sandor Clegane.” She didn’t use the customary title in front of his name and when she said his full name, gazing down at him with a back so straight he was vaguely surprised she didn’t wear a crown on her head, it was utterly sweet on her lips. He watched as she began her descent down the stairs, hand lightly drifting on the bannister, brushing the snow off so that it fluttered down in a glimmering shower back towards the earth.

“My lady.” His voice was raspy from the lack of use and the words sounded woody in his ears, though he’d certainly practiced them time and time over on the ride north. He’d ridden hard to Winterfell on Jon’s orders, not in the least because he was excited at the notion of seeing her again. The little bird, free from her cage. Remembering himself, he dropped to a knee. She was a proper lady now, not that she hadn’t always been, and he wanted to give her all of his respects, like he never had before.

“Welcome back to Winterfell.” A small smile was hidden in the corners of her mouth and he caught the wording with a thrill. So she too remembered he had once ridden into the courtyard before. She was close now, close enough for him to spot the details on her dress. Snow, wolves, the landscape of Winterfell, all sewn in tiny detail along it. Stunning. She always was good with a needle, and not her sister’s kind, he remembered.

“It is good to be back, Lady Sansa.” He tried to keep his voice schooled, trying to remember the proper words that his maester had taught him long ago, that he’d never had cause to use. Cersei had liked him rough, all the more to intimidate, and Joffrey had encouraged it, howling wildly with glee. But Sansa commanded respect. “I am honored to do the bidding of your brother and protect you.” He rose, thinking it wasn’t half bad, and looked down at her, unable to get breath in his lungs, like he’d been punched in the gut. Her hands were folded in front of her, but she smiled, so prettily, with her head tilted like she was confused by some small matter.

“Who says she needs protecting?” A familiar voice called and he managed to turn from Sansa and see Arya, emerging from the stables. She was eyeing him not with distrust, but rather caution. He found that it was strangely comforting to find her home in the North, reminding him that he had done well, for at least one person here.

“She’s not you.” He smiled a little at the sight of her. Brienne was right; she certainly had turned into a little fighter. She didn’t wear a dress like her sister but rather a style he remembered from her father. Her sword, the little toothpick of one, hung to one side. On the other, an intricate dagger. She’d grown, but not by much, and her hair was a little longer, but the eyes, that’s what marked her change most. He’d seen those eyes before. They were the eyes of a killer.

“No, she’s a little bird.” Arya stopped, a few paces away from him, and used the title he’d once used to describe Sansa in front of her and if he still knew how to blush, he would’ve done so. Sansa, for her part, only offered a small smile, hands still folded in front of her. “And I’m a wolf.”

“You’re both wolves, who likely have little use for a hound.” He said quietly, knowing enough to show her that he wasn’t going to raise a weapon to her. Arya, for her part, raised an eyebrow before seemingly sizing him up with a blank expression. He tried not to think about what she saw there, if anything.

“We’re always honored to receive a friend of our brother’s.” Sansa said warmly, reaching a hand out to him and breaking the stare down that he was having with her younger sister. “And we’re thankful for it, in times like these. Come, tell me about Jon, and I’ll show you what we’ve done for the coming winter.”

“I...” He looked at Sansa's hand, uncomprehending of it. It was tiny and delicate in comparison to his hand and for a wild moment, he remembered when that hand had pressed to his cheek, his burned cheek.

“You take her arm, and you walk.” Arya said helpfully and he turned to glower at her. With a smirk, Arya strode away.

“I won’t bite.” Sansa seemed amused by his hesitation and he wanted to stare at her, drink her in, but remembered his place and hastily shut his mouth. “I promise.”

“My lady, I never would’ve thought to suggest—“ He started the proper words but Sansa just calmly slipped her arm into the crook of his, coming alongside him with ease. The feel of her warm body, pressed into his dirty arm, made him feel as though he’d been the one to get his tongue removed.

“I know. For a man with no honor, you have more honor than any man south of Winterfell I’ve ever met.” She led him towards the stairs, taking even steps. His heart stopped at her words. “You would never insinuate anything of that sort.”

He fell silent, unsure of what else to say. Thankfully, Sansa could do all the talking. She pointed out where the wall had been shored up, where they’d stationed defenses, how they planned for the long winter to come. Finally, they stood atop the battlements, looking out over the snow.

He kept sneaking a glance here and there at her, when it seemed acceptable. She seemed happy enough, walking with confidence through her home, talking as wisely as a master-at-arms might about defenses. He could see how different she was, in the ramrod straight back and the eyes that weren’t ocean pools but the color of clear ice. They paused, atop the outer wall, and he used the excuse of inspecting the landscape to study her. She stood against the biting breeze, hands folded beneath her cloak. She looked across the landscape, her face quiet. He couldn’t read her at the top of the stairs and he couldn’t read her now. He began to wonder if she was the same girl at all.

“I,” He started, then stopped before he could get anymore out, words gone. He never had kind words, much less apologies. Just harsh, bitter words meant to bite and sting others. He didn’t want the same with her. Sansa turned to him, those blue eyes widened slightly. She simply reached out, and rested a small hand on his shoulder.

“I wondered, several times, what would have become of me if I had agreed to go with you, the night the Blackwater burned.” She said quietly, and her words were nearly snatched away by the wind. “If I had stayed with the man who had so promised to protect me. You were what got me through so much, did you know that?”

“Lady Stark.” He was stunned into stammering, like he was a green boy fresh out of the nursery. “I didn’t, I can’t…”

“I know.” Again she turned her gaze back to beyond the walls and he was grateful that she didn’t look at him anymore, because her eyes stirred something in him, something primal. He’d imagined what he thought was this very scenario on the road north, and yet he had not pictured her responding to him like this. “You were my would-be rescuer. My savior. I still have it, you know.”

“Have what, my lady?” He blinked at her in confusion. It felt good to call her a lady, partly to remind him that she was a great lady now and partly to remind her that no one could touch her now. But he didn’t know what she spoke—he knew he would remember if he’d given her a gift to keep. A ghost of a smile flittered across Sansa’s lips.

“Your cloak. The one you wrapped me in, the day that the bastard had me beaten. I kept it. It made me feel safe.” She looked up at him, all blue eyes and ivory skin. “It was the only time I felt safe.”

The cloak. It felt like a hundred years ago, a lifetime ago. The damned white cloak, marking him as one of the great swordsmen in the kingdoms, and he’d done what with it, wear it while she’d been humiliated? It was a symbol of his greatest shame, and he wondered why the hell she’d kept such a thing.

“I would have taken you.” Those words were what he could muster up, in the face of the innocence in front of him. He had forgotten how the delicate skin bruised on Joffrey’s command, but now he recalled it. The words were hollow, but he needed her to understand that he wasn’t a monster. That he had tried to be good, once. “I wanted… I wanted to stop all of it.”

“I know you would’ve.” Sansa took a step closer and looked up at him. Gods, she was tall, taller than little pain in the ass Arya. It put her too close to him. He felt like panicking and running, for some reason. When she was this close to him, with her little smile and the eyes that were melting ice, the world seemed to roar past him in a rush, leaving the two of them alone in the chaos. “That’s why I kept the cloak. A reminder that someone would protect me. That there was someone out there that would never hurt me.”

“Never.” He breathed. He hardly dared dream or hope that she might say such words, that she might understand what he had been trying to do, honestly and truly, all those years ago. He’d tried to protect her. But he hadn’t known how then, he hadn’t known how to be a good man then. He did now, and he was trying.

“I know.” Sansa took a step back, and the winter air filled where she stood. “Come, let me show you to your rooms. I know you are tired after that long journey and I’ve kept you on your feet for far too long.”

“Not tired at all.” He muttered, following her off the wall, and out of the wind. It wasn’t a lie, not really. He had grown accustomed to a hard life on the road, though the thought of a large bed in a warm room nearly made him fall asleep on the spot. “I don’t need you to do anything, Lady Stark.”

“I know you don’t.” Sansa again looped her arm with his and he reflected on how he imagined so many scenarios but never this. Why didn’t she recoil from him, why did she take the scarred side of his arm, why did she treat him like a valued guest and advisor and not some half rabid dog? “But I would like to. Please let me.”

“Anything the lady desires.” He kept the way he was caught between confusion and joy well-hidden on their way back down and into the family rooms of Winterfell, looking like a lord and lady might.

“The water will be warm for him.” Sansa addressed the maid who was waiting for their arrival, who bobbed her head eagerly. “And the bed comfy. Send a boy from the armory to polish his armor.”

“Lady Stark.” He shifted uncomfortably, unsure of what to call her, of what was expected of him, of what the hell she was doing for his sake. He felt like running, or at least swinging a sword at someone. “I don’t need the pleasantries.”

“You do, and you’ll receive them.” Her lips had that little smile on them again. He found it even more intriguing than few little ones he’d seen in Kings Landing. She may smile more often here, in her home in the north, but it was a very different smile entirely. He didn’t know what to make of it. “You may not need them, but you deserve them. And I will give them to you. Oh, and one last thing.” She caught the maid who had been turning to go about her duties. “Tell the entire household that should I hear the ugly name, and they know which, that I will be most displeased.”

“Yes, m’lady.” The woman curtsied and ducked away.

“You don’t need to do that.” He muttered to her, hanging his head. He didn’t understand why she’d protest against the moniker he’d carried with him his entire life. He’d made it into an armor for himself, long ago, and it no longer stung. It was simply another name, and he half expected her to begin calling him it as well. After all, that’s what he was, wasn’t he? Sansa’s dog? He jumped when Sansa’s hand touched his.

“It’s not for you.” She said quietly, tugging on him towards a door. “It’s for me. You’re not the hound. He was a tool of a monstrous family in a past I’d rather shut the door on and forget, forever. You aren’t him. You’re Sandor Clegane now.”

“Does it bother you, Lady Stark, the reminder of your past?” He asked carefully, fearing what he knew would be the imminent dismissal and Sansa quietly opened the next door, to a quiet, thin hallway. They began to talk down it and when he brushed the stones, he was surprised to find them warm to the touch, like they were heated. Sansa caught the look of wonder and a small smile passed her lips before she was quiet, lost in her thoughts once more, worrying her bottom lip.

“Did Jon tell you everything?” She asked quietly, pausing in front of a closed door. He stopped with her and in the cramped hallway, it was even more apparent that she was close to him, so close he could count each strand of hair on her head or each eyelash that kissed her cheeks when she blinked and cast her gaze downward. “Do you know all that has passed, since I was your little bird?”

“Yes.” He couldn't quite breathe, at the quiet way she said the term of endearment he’d given her. She remembered it then, after all these years. After all the names she was called, why did she remember the one he gave her? He couldn’t dwell on it, not when he had to answer her about what Jon had told him, and what Brienne had alluded to with so few words. “I’m sorry, but Jon told me things. I… Asked after you.”

“And I you.” She remarked and his breath deserted him entirely. She, the lady of the north, had asked about him, the coward of the Blackwater? “Then you know what I’ve endured. So no, it is not as though hearing the nickname the wretched pretender king gave you is going to spark my worst memories. I’d just hate for them to deny the respect you deserve.”

“I don’t deserve it.” He insisted, thinking of all the things he’d done. Things to her, things to innocents, things that made him a monster, for what? For the sake of loyalty, for the sake his last name? He didn’t deserve anything. “I deserve the stables, or better, the fucking kennel.” That made her chuckle.

“You deserve a place here, and if I have to command you as the Lady of Winterfell to receive it, I will.” She said formally, but gave him the first genuine smile he’d seen since riding in and it was like sunshine through the slate winter sky. It gave him hope, even if her words made him uneasy.

“I’d do anything the lady commanded.” He said instantly, silently thanking whatever long dead maester of Clegane Keep had installed such words in his head. “I would’ve done anything. If I had… If I could’ve prevented what had happened…” He trailed off in his guilt here, knowing it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough. But he had to try, and he wanted her to know what he would’ve done.

“I know.” She reached up and rested her palm against his damaged cheek. He flinched away instantly, but she kept her hand there firmly, like she had a night long ago. “You would’ve killed all who would’ve harmed me, isn’t that what you said?”

“Aye.” He murmured, before he can stop himself. He cursed him inwardly, sounding like a lowborn man in front of her. But he couldn’t think around her, at least not properly, and it left him here, looking down at the pretty blue eyes. Winter roses, he thought vaguely. Eyes as blue as a winter rose.

“I know you would’ve.” The corners of her mouth quirked up and the hand went back to her side. He missed her touch fiercely. “That’s why I’m glad you’re here, and that’s why I will press upon you all the good things I can. You were a friend to me, in Kings Landing, when I was stupid and grief-stricken. I will repay that debt. Let me.”

“Anything the lady wishes.” He said promptly, resisting the urge to kneel in front of her and swear on the spot. If she wanted to give him charming smiles and kind words and a place to sleep in her castle, he knew he was powerless to turn them away. He should. It would be proper, and he should be the one trying to make up to her. But he was a weak man, and Sansa Stark always showed him the kind of sweetness he craved for days and months and years afterwards.

“Then the lady wishes for you to have a good night, and to see you in the morning to break our fasts.” Sansa opened the door to a tidy little room, with simple wooden furniture and a small fire already kindled in the hearth. The massive bed looked like heaven. “And for you accept the kindness I can show you.”

“Then I will, my lady.” He bowed deeply, recalling his manners, even if he wanted to drop asleep on the spot.

“Then I will see you in the morning.” She gave him another smile and then with a swirl of skirts, she departed through the hallway. He watched her go with a broken smile. After a few moments, maids came rushing with water and he went to settle for the night, removing his armor and travel weary clothes. A bath felt heavenly, and he wished he would’ve insisted on it before Sansa had taken his arm. But there was always tomorrow. Once the maids had left him, he collapsed into the bed.

He couldn’t sleep, restless. He kept replaying the day in his head, over and over. The sight of her atop the stairs. Her hand on his arm- his, like she was his proper lady and he sent to accompany her. The defenses of Winterfell were long forgotten. He’d have to go look at them tomorrow, in case he would need that information later. Right now, all of his thoughts were on Sansa and how her copper hair blew in the wind. He rolled over, intent on getting sleep. He came here to defend her. Not to fall in love.

That, he reflected as he adjusted the furs and blankets piled high in his bed, had been done long ago.

Chapter Text

The next morning, he walked into the hall, following his nose to the smell of food. The household ate, noisy as they did so and at the head of it all sat Sansa, Arya, and the brother they called Bran. Sansa looked up at his arrival and for a moment, something akin to happiness flashed across her face. Arya, on the other hand, looked at him, unimpressed. Now, not so blinded by Sansa, he had a chance to look at the two of them side by side, noting how different they were.

Where Sansa was tall and fair, Arya was short and dark. The only thing that marked them as sisters was their pale skin and something about their smiles, the small ones that he chanced to see. Arya’s hair was down to her shoulders, fair shorter than it should be for a lady, but it was neat and clean, brushed and tied back out of her face. She looked rather like a little lordling, not that he would tell her that.

She had on her weapons, and if anyone was startled to see a lady like her wearing them, they didn’t say a word. She ate with none of Sansa’s delicacy, but with purpose, cast her grey gaze out over the hall, alighting on him before flickering off to something else entirely. She didn’t seem to be made of fire and hatred anymore, and he nearly chuckled, thinking that it was good on her.

“You have a spot at the high table, m’lord.” A kitchen girl informed him cheerfully. He raised an eyebrow. “Lady Sansa said to bring you directly there.”

“Aye, of course she did.” He muttered, but not maliciously. He spotted the empty seat, a few down from Sansa herself, and sat. No one seemed to mind or care about his presence, and soon enough his cup and plate were full. He sat and drank, eating while he looked out over the people.

“Clegane.” Arya addressed him, glancing down the table at him. He started at the name, wondering if Sansa had made her declaration known to her sister as well. He would’ve expected Arya to call him by his more colorful moniker. After all, she usually had one their journey across the kingdoms. He grunted and reached for the watered-down wine, to let her know he heard her. “Would you like to spar this morning? See how good I’ve gotten? Reckon I could take you on.”

“Could you?” He asked, raising an eyebrow and taking a drink. “I’ve heard that you’ve improved your fucking water dancing. Like to see if it’s true.”

“Fine then.” Arya sat back, smiling smugly. Her hand rested on the hilt of her little sword and it made his lips twitch despite himself. She was still the same girl then, after all. “We spar after we eat.”

“Alright.” He looked down at the remains of his food, avoiding Sansa’s eyes. He wasn't sure he could handle such a gaze so early in the morning. When they were all done and the dishes cleaned away, Arya stood and turned to him, a wicked glint in her eyes.

“Shall we?”

“Am I still on your list?” He remarked offhandedly, rising to walk with her out of the hall and Sansa’s brow furrowed as she turned to Arya.

“Were you going to kill him?” She demanded of her younger sister, jaw dropped and indignant on his behalf. It was almost as amusing as it was confusing.

“We’ve made up.” Arya said dismissively, striding past Sansa.

“You did leave me to die.” He reminded her, falling in step with her, and Sansa, following after them, made a noise of shock.

“You what? Arya!

“He killed my friend.” It was like a statement from Arya, nothing more or less. Just that. He turned to see Sansa’s face, a smile involuntarily forming when he saw the mixture of confusion, exasperation, and horror. She didn’t even flinch at death anymore. “I said I would kill him. Then I decided that if he didn’t die on his own, he’d be off the list.”

“And he must have been stubborn enough to not die.” Sansa gave a very unladylike snort. “That, at least, I remember about him.” He very nearly chortled at that, unsure of how to take such a compliment.

They made their way to the open area in the yard where people could spar and he picked up his sword, trying to limber up. A few soldiers and northmen paused, turning to look. It was likely a sight to behold- he, towering well over six feet, and Arya, barely over five feet, getting ready to spar. Sansa stood some ways away from them, looking on with a calm face and sparkling blue eyes.

“Is she going to watch?” He glanced at Arya, who was getting ready. Arya, frowning, looked over to where Sansa stood, alone. Her flaming hair was down her shoulders, in a style that harked back to their mother.

“Probably.” Arya frowned slightly. “But she’s never watched before. She usually doesn’t like the fighting.”

“And that I remember.” He muttered, thinking of how she’d shied away from raised swords. He stopped the memory of why before he could begin to dwell on it. “She’s made of more delicate stuff than you."

“She is.” Arya took another look at Sansa, an unreadable expression on her face. “Not like she was before though. She’s changed.”

“We all have.” He looked down at his sparring sword, with its blunted edges and felt like a green lad again. “Let’s see what you’ve learned then, little wolf.”

She had improved, he’d give her that. No fancy water dancing. She was sure footed and knew what he would do. He approved of how well she was doing, as they spun and parried. Small and quick, using the same tactics that he would’ve against his larger brother. He was surprised to find that he was indeed proud of her and what she’d grown into. Didn’t stop him from ending the sparring session with the tip of his sword pressed to her throat, both of them panting and covered in a light sheen of sweat that was already beginning to freeze on their skin.

“Do you remember the first time I tried to kill you?” Arya said suddenly, the edge still pressed to her skin.

“With a rock.” He tossed aside his sparring sword and raked his hair back. “Didn’t I threaten to break your hands?”

“Yes.” Arya began walking towards her sister, smiling.

“And now you’re so fond of each other.” Sansa had indeed been watching them the whole time. He stopped in front of her and bowed his head deeply, trying to stomach the thrill that she had finally seen that he could still defend her, and well. “It’s good to have such talented fighters here.” Sansa smiled then, a wry, sad little thing. “My honor has never felt more defended.”

“You should learn.” Arya remarked, looking her sister up and down. “To fight. He could teach you.”

“I’m sure he could.” Sansa gave him a smile that made his stomach flip, something sweet with a hint of some darkness in it. How could she smile like that? Where had she learned? “But that’s what I have both of you for, isn’t it?”

“Apparently.” Arya smirked at him then took her leave. He was left with Sansa, and he suddenly aware of everything, how he was sweating, how he was freezing, how he hulked over her, how he was too close.

“How can I entertain you today?” She turned and asked him, all good spirits and bright eyes. He sucked in a breath to compose himself.

“No need to entertain, your ladyship. I am here to protect.” He vowed, knowing that it was his place, and she exhaled in an amused way.

“And you do so well. I regret to inform you that I intend to spend most of my day doing my duties as the lady. Quite boring, really. You’d get more exercise keeping an eye on Arya.” She caught his eye and smiled. “She can teach you the secrets of this place better than I ever could.”

“The lady needs only ask for me.” He reminded her, the words hiding the ones he so badly wanted to tell her. She only needed ask, for him, for his sword, for his… Everything. He’d give it to her.

“And the lady will, if she needs you.” Sansa rested a white hand on his chest and smiled. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“And I you.” The words caused a sort of lump in his throat and a twinge of dread in his stomach as she glided away.

Over the next couple days, he settled into an easy sort of rhythm. He broke his fast with the household, oftentimes up at the head table with Sansa and Arya. He would spend the morning training with the rest of the men at arms. Then he’d eat something, and do whatever Sansa bid him. Sometimes it was walking with her so that he could appraise the men or the defenses. Sometimes it was listening as the people of the north brought their complaints to her. Then, after they’d eaten, he would spend the evening with her and her sister, content to be in the north with them.

One bright afternoon when he thought Sansa to be locked away in the hall with the lords, he headed to the stables instead of the training yard. He knew it was time to check on his horse, and make sure that all his gear was ready for when Jon arrived and ordered them to march north. The day was nice enough that he would be able to take Stranger out, if the warhorse had forgiven him for the punishing pace and his neglect to visit that last few days. He walked in, heading for Stranger’s stall.

“Sansa!” He gasped, seeing the fleck of copper beside the massive darkness that was Stranger. He knew it was her by the shade and shine alone; there really was no one else like her. “Sansa, don’t, he’ll—”

“He’ll what?” Sansa appeared from the other side of Stranger’s neck. He slowed to a fast walk, trying not to alarm his horse. To his surprise, Stranger wasn’t fretting like he normally would’ve around a strange woman. In fact, he was utterly calm, and when Sansa paused from stroking his neck, he turned to looked at her, snorting and huffing loudly as if imploring why she had stopped.

“Stolen his heart, my lady?” He asked gruffly, wondering if it was possible to relate to a horse so much.

“Through sugar cubes.” Sansa smiled, brushing off her hands and Stranger nudged her side, as if questioning if she was hiding more. “He is a beautiful thing. I wanted to see if he’d recovered from your ride here. You must’ve ridden hard, to get here so quickly. I almost didn’t have preparations done.”

“He’s a sturdy beast.” He patted Stranger’s neck and the horse exhaled loudly but didn’t try to nip him, which he knew was good. “Aren’t you?”

“He’s lovely.” Sansa smirked. “Though the stable boys said he about kicked them through the stalls when they tried to bring him in.”

“He’s got a temper, aye.” He agreed, amused at the image even though he knew it should’ve been him to stable the horse. “But not for you.” He said it half with wonder, half as an accusation. A horse trained for war shouldn’t be swayed by a pretty lady with sugar cubes. Though, he thought, giving the horse a point, a solider shouldn’t be too distracted by the same pretty lady and shrink his duties to his mount.

“You just have to know how to sweeten them up.” Sansa looked at the horse and pressed her forehead to his nose. “Don’t you, ser Stranger?”

“My horse is no knight either.” He teased and Sansa looked up at him, surprised to hear a joke coming from him.

“No?” She took on an amused tone and turned to inspect Stranger’s powerful body. “Then what is he? Certainly not a racer, nor a jumper. He looks to be a knight. That, and he belongs to you.”

“Belongs to me.” He snorted, thinking of all the times the horse had made his own choices, regardless of his owner’s will. “Don’t tell him that.”

“You’re your own horse.” Sansa promised the horse with the sweetest of kisses to his nose, then offered Sandor her hand. “Will you take me riding? I want to go check the farther defenses today.”

“Anything my lady wishes.” He remarked, swallowing past the lump that’d risen. She’d sought him out for this? Surely she could take any guard, or her sister, or one of the many knights. But she’d waited at his horse?

“Oh, good.” Sansa squeezed his hand and smiled. “I’ll call the stable boys and get your tack ready.”

“Do you want to ride him?” He offered after a long moment, on a whim. He wanted to see her on top of Stranger, laughing at him.

“Him?” Sansa looked at Stranger and chuckled lightly, patting his neck. “I think I’ll need a few more sugar cubes before I try that. I’ve got my own mare who likes me a little better. You ride him.”

He saddled Stranger, muttering softly to the horse. He wasn’t sure if Stranger had forgiven him for the rather grueling pace he’d set on the road to Winterfell. He hadn’t forgotten, judging by the stamping of his feet and blowing angrily. But soon enough, Sandor was in the saddle and headed to join Sansa.

She was already waiting at the gates, sitting astride a pretty white thing. White, like the cloak he’d wrapped her in, white like her skin, white like the snow. A pretty, delicate horse in comparison to Stranger, the dark, strong beast. She smiled when he joined her and the pair of them rode beyond the walls.

“Does she have a name?” He asked, to break the silence, once they were out of earshot of the guards. Sansa looked down at her mare, patting her neck in an affectionate manner and the mare tossed her head.

“Birdie.” She smiled at him, now that she was beyond the walls where she was demanded to be a lady, an ice queen that ruled all of the north. He thought he should take her riding more often. “She’s my favorite of all the horses in the stables.”

“She’s beautiful.” He hated the irregular way his heart beat when she smiled at him in these moments.

“And fast.” Sansa’s smile grew wicked. “Quicker than Stranger!”

“Sansa!” He yelled, but with a flick of her wrist and some laughter, Sansa had urged Birdie into a trot and he had no choice but to urge Stranger after her. She had all the advantages when Birdie went into a full gallop, outpacing him and Stranger after a few mere moments. She knew the ground, and she had a horse that could dance over the terrain with breathless grace. It was all he could do to keep her in his sights. Finally, she reigned Birdie in atop a hill, breathless with laughter.

“Why, hello. Good of you to catch up!”

“And how in the seven hells do I protect you when you’re galloping away from me?” He demanded, rightfully angry when he finally reached her. Sansa was still beaming, cheeks pink after the exertion. Her eyes sparkled in a way that reminded her of when she had been young and innocent, and for once she didn’t seem to be carrying the burden of the world on her slim shoulders. His anger melted away before he’d even leveled a glare at her, but did he it all the same.

“You were never too far.” She was dismissive, letting Birdie trot in circles around him. He noted how she’d turned into an excellent horsewoman, riding the mare with ease. She certainly had changed from the girl on the Kingsroad who wouldn’t go near them. He watched as she finally stopped and smiled at him, with a hint of the previous mischief. “You never are, my ser-not-ser.”

“Lady Stark,” He wanted to pinch him nose and be annoyed with her, but this was the type of joy he’d waited so long to see on her face.

“Don’t be a sore loser.” She chided. “Stranger isn’t.” Indeed, his horse was standing there, calm as a daisy.

“It isn’t losing when I’m not trying to win. I’m trying to protect you.” He reminded her, waiting for her to rebuff him and remind him that he only had the job because Brienne was gone, marching with some cockless army because he’d nearly pleaded with her to allow him to go ahead.

“Would you be my sworn shield?” She asked him suddenly, stopping Birdie directly in front of him. He felt like she’d landed an ironclad punch to his gut. “If I asked it of you. If I asked you to kneel and swear to protect me, and only me, would you?”

“Yes.” He said instantly, without hesitation. She couldn’t possibly know what those words meant to him. She didn’t know that’s what he dreamed of, thought of, desired. He wondered if she was going to be disgusted, or turn around and tell him how much she didn’t want him. He waited as she eyed him, the same unreadable expression she had when he arrived and he felt half mad, not knowing what was going on behind those clever eyes.

“Asked you to take no wife, have no children. Renounce house Clegane, your family. All of it. Would you?”

“Yes.”

“Asked you to stay by my side, for all of my days.”

His breath hitched, just slightly. “Yes, my lady.”

She appraised him from atop her horse, a red fox amidst the snow. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen and he couldn’t even muster up the denial. He couldn’t take his eyes off her, the most stunning part of the white landscape. It was like she drew all the light to her and radiated it back outwards. Her blue eyes weren’t ice, not quite, and he wondered what kind of things he could do to get them to melt further.

“Come along then. I promise not to be a better rider than you. Come, look at the boarders with me.” And with that, she was riding away, her cloak fluttering in the wind.

“We’re fucked, the both of us.” He whispered to Stranger, who flicked his ears but obediently fell into step after Sansa.

Chapter Text

Occasionally he had a moment of down time, and he would spend it sharpening and cleaning his weapons. He knew what was coming, and he wanted to be ready. As impressive as Arya’s fighting skills were, he didn’t think even she understood what was coming for them. Then there was Sansa, who had teeth like a wolf, but kept them hidden. He worried over their safety, even Arya’s. He didn’t want to leave Sansa to go face the dead, but it was a better choice than seeing her have to face them. He was talking towards the training yard to see if he could find a war hammer like Gendry’s to train with when a voice stopped him.

“I am NOT learning a bow!” Sansa’s voice was firm and he paused in his walk through the courtyard to backtrack. Sansa was standing in front of Arya, hands on her hips, glaring down at her younger sister, who sighed heavily.

“Well, you’re going to need to learn to fight at some point.” Arya argued back, matter-of-factly. “If they come, you need to be able to protect yourself. Since you don’t like getting up close and personal, bow. It keeps you back at a distance, it keeps you removed, and it can keep you safe!”

“I am not.” Sansa repeated, her voice cutting like the winter wind through the courtyard. Her hands were balled into fists at her side, her back straight and stiff. She had panic flittering in her eyes, he noticed with growing concern. He stopped, looking at the two girls and when Sansa looked up, her eyes went wide. Arya, after a beat, turned and spotted him. Sansa looked like she was trapped, while Arya seemed delighted to have found an ally in her campaign. He took a step closer.

“Tell Sansa she needs to learn to fight.” Arya ordered promptly and he cocked his head, his gaze on Sansa, who went red.

“Fine, I’ll learn to fight. But not with a bow.” Sansa glared at her sister.

“Oh, what then, a sword?” Arya made a face. “You’d never figure it out fast enough. You’re a lady, not a swordsman.”

“I’m not a fighter.” Sansa remained firm.

“Aye, you’re not.” He muttered and both girls glanced at him, Sansa surprised and Arya confused. “But you have to protect yourself.” He thought of what was coming. He thought of Cersei, crazy and desperate. He thought of his brother, and that made him set his jaw and decide. She had to learn something.

“Fine.” Sansa folded her arms and her chin jutted out. It made her seem adorably childlike. “But not with a bow.”

“Why not?” Arya demanded loudly and he turned to her with a frown.

“Go to my room. Top drawer has a box, bring it to me.” He ordered and for a second, it looked as if she was going to protest being bossed around in her own home. His narrowed eyes made her think better of it and she was gone.

“What’s in the box?” Sansa questioned suspiciously.

“Not a bow and arrows.” He folded his arms, staring down at her with a skeptical eye. “Why won’t you learn?”

“I don’t want to.” Sansa’s eye flashed. “And you can’t make me.”

“Aye,” He agreed. “But when the dead come, you’ll want to be able to protect yourself. And I want you to know how.” He didn’t have to say any more. He noticed that she started at that, looking up with big eyes, but he just clenched his jaw to keep the rest of the words in and tried to come off as intimidating.

“That’s why I have you.” Sansa reminded him with a sly smile, but he resisted the urge to smile back. The words made him want to throw himself off the high walls, but all he could think now was the deal, ripping into her pretty white skin, and those blue eyes, Tully blue, turned to the evil blue shade, forever dead. He wanted to shudder.

“And if I fall?”

“You won’t.” Sansa sat down on a crate heavily, looking down at her hands in their gloves. “You can’t.”

“I can, and I have.” He reached up and felt where Brienne had bit him. It still ached with a phantom pain, now and then.

“I won’t learn it.” Sansa watched as the snow swirled in the corners. Her voice, though quiet, was absolutely firm. Unyielding steel, with no words for false courtesies, no pleases or thank yous. He wanted to smile.

“Alright.” He agreed easily and Sansa glanced at him, a little taken aback.

“And you’re not going to force me?” She questioned him in disbelief, blinking as though this was a trick.

“No,” He shrugged. “You don’t refuse to do things for the sake of being a stubborn... Girl. You’re not your little wolf-bitch of a sister. If you don’t want to learn, it’s for a fucking reason, and most likely a good one.”

“Oh.” Sansa stopped, then looked down at her hands in her lap, slowly interlacing her fingers. He was quiet with her, letting the snow fall in slow, lazy flakes around them, the clash of wood and steel echoing loudly enough he almost missed her next words. “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”

“Do you want me to?” He turned to look at her and she didn’t look away. She held his gaze, both eyes, without hesitation.

“Her name was Myranda.” She began quietly. “She loved him, and I think he loved her back, in the way he was able to love. But he would take her… Hunting. And she liked it. She liked it like he did. And she would use a bow and arrow. Every time I see it, I think of him and her… Them, together. How many people saw that before they died? I don’t want to become like her. I don’t want to enjoy killing, ever.” Sansa shuddered and he went to pat her hand before remembering where they sat— out in full view of everyone.

“You’re not her.” He told her softly, the only thing he could do. There were so many other words he wanted to say, explain to her exactly how she was different from this Myranda, and from Cersei, and from the dragon queen, and from every other woman in the realm, the world. But he couldn’t.

“No, but I’m not me, not anymore.” Sansa looked at her fingers and he was alarmed to see that they were trembling. Damning whoever judged them, he took them in his own. “That’s what he said. He’s a part of me now.”

“Who are you?” He demanded roughly, repulsed by the idea that Ramsey Bolton ever thought he could hold a candle to Sansa Stark and she looked up at him, slightly alarmed.

“I’m Sansa.”

“No, who are you?” He took both her small hands in his and squeezed, feeling how small and warm and breakable she was. It sent a thrill of protectiveness through him and he knew if he couldn’t kill the bastard, he could at least show her the way that he saw her. Even if it was in his harsh, crude way.

“Sansa.”

“Who are you, girl?”

“I’m Sansa, I don’t—”

“Sansa who?”

“Sansa, Sansa Stark.”

“Sansa Stark, who cares?”

“I’m Sansa, of house Stark.” Her eyes were flashing and he was suddenly seized with the urge to kiss her with a matching passion. “I’m the Wardeness of the North, the eldest daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark, the daughter of Winterfell.”

“Aye, you are.” He let go of her hands as though he’d been burned. “And he’s nothing, anymore. Remember that.”

“Sandor, I—” She started, but then Arya arrived, carrying a box on her hip. Both he and Sansa looked up at her. If Arya was surprised to see them sitting so close together, odd expressions on their faces, she didn’t make a comment.

“This what you wanted?” She asked him, setting it down.

“Aye.” He turned away from Sansa to dig in it. It was easier to hide his expressions that way, and he could never breathe properly around her.

“What is it?” Arya peered around his shoulder, trying to see, stretching on her toes. He would’ve chuckled if his mood hadn’t turned so sour. She was still the annoying little shit she’d been before, curious to a fault.

“Weapons.” He muttered and out of the corner of his eye he saw that Sansa went rigid, while Arya looked intrigued.

“I don’t want to—” Sansa began her protest in earnest again.

“Here.” He offered Sansa a range of smaller daggers and she fell silent, looking between him and them with an expression that quickly switched from betrayal to apprehension as she took in the steel.

“Oh, this one is—” Arya pointed to one but he knocked her hand away and she shot him a look of annoyance.

“Her weapons, her pick.” He said firmly and Arya huffed and rolled her eyes, letting her hand fall. But then after a moment her attention was diverted to the box that still contained a variety of small weapons he’d accumulated gambling and betting in Kings Landing and elsewhere. She was quickly distracted.

“I don’t know.” Sansa glanced at her sister’s back, then up at him with a stubborn set to her jaw. “Let her pick, she knows.”

“No.” He said flatly. “Your weapons, your pick.”

“I don’t know how to tell which is which!” Sansa protested and he set them down, slowly settling his emotions. This was familiar territory. This he knew. This wasn’t tender expressions and the giving of favors and other courtly nonsense. This was steel and death and Sandor Clegane was home here.

“Roll up your dress sleeves.” He ordered and she looked at him, astonished.

“What?”

“They attach to your wrists and forearms.” Arya explained without looking up, still examining the items in the box.

“If they feel comfortable, they’re yours.” He said, a bit gentler. “But you have to pick them.” He omitted the fact that just thinking about her covered in his weapons, things he had once owned, gave him a sort of queasy feeling in the stomach.

“Why daggers?” Sansa asked him, as she pulled off her gloves and tossed them aside, unbuttoning the sleeves of her dress.

“Little birds don’t swing swords.” He muttered, selecting the most delicate of the blades. “They peck.” Sansa’s lips turned up at that and then she offered him her pale, thin wrist. He eyed it, then carefully set the knife against her skin, handle where it could be hidden by the dress but easily accessible. Sansa watched, silent.

One on her wrist, smaller and lighter. Another against her forearm, a little bigger and sturdier. Then he offered her a long one in a supple leather case and Sansa tilted her head, inspecting it, spinning it with her long, thin fingers.

“This one won’t fit on my arms.” She remarked.

“Not supposed to.” Arya informed her, from where she was playing with throwing stars she’d found. He glared at her and she grinned, throwing one with all her might at the wall. It stuck, vibrating slightly.

“Where then?” Sansa asked, glancing up at him. It didn’t take him more than a second to see the trusting nature in her eyes and for it to cause his spin to straighten up a little more, a little surprised at his reaction.

“Leg.” He grunted and turned.

“How will I know how to fasten it?” Sansa questioned and he stayed quiet, face flaming, sure that if he turned around and she had her skirt up to show off her legs, he’d have a damn heart attack.

“I’ll do it.” Arya was smirking in a way he didn’t like, passing him and going to her sister. “Watch, so you learn.”

“Alright,” Sansa said finally, when Arya was done and he turned back around, finding Sansa standing there and trying to appear as though wicked thoughts hadn’t been running through his mind a moment ago. “Now what?”

“This, small of your back.” He handed her yet another dagger. He wanted her to be encased in full armor, if that would keep her safe. He wanted her to always be safe, because he knew that he would have to leave her. It would have to happen and he would be damned if he didn’t leave her able to protect herself.

“How?” Sansa frowned.

“Here.” Arya demonstrated how Sansa could tuck it into the vest she wore over her dress until it was neatly hidden.

“Gods, where else am I going to put one?” Sansa demanded.

“Sew a pocket in your cloak.” He advised thoughtfully, thinking of all the other ways to arm her, and Sansa gave him a look of disbelief. “Or several.”

“Wonderful.” She scowled at both of them. “Now I’m the most-armed person in Winterfell, and I have absolutely no idea how to use them!”

“I could teach you.” Arya offered.

“No.” Sansa turned her down quickly. “You’ll just keep beating me, because you can. I won’t ever learn.”

“So you want to go learn with the other ten year olds?” Arya raised an eyebrow. “And get beaten by Lyanna?”

“No shame in that.” Sansa’s lips quivered with withheld amusement. “She’ll beat you one day I bet.”

“I hope.” Arya grinned. “Who then?”

“They’re my weapons, I’ll teach her.” He muttered, cursing how his heart leapt at the excuse to spend time with Sansa, one on one, the two of them training, and both girls had expressions of varying surprise. Arya had an expression he did not trust. “Besides, if she cuts me, if won’t hurt my looks any worse.”

“If I cut you?” Sansa looked appalled, for once showing the delicate lady sensibilities that she still had.

“Only if you get very, very good.” Arya grinned at her sister, then glanced at him. “Can I keep the stars?”

“No.” He grunted, still distracted by berating himself for opening his mouth. This was only going to end in disaster, he just wasn’t sure how yet. “Tell Jon to carve you some from dragon glass and get your own.”

“Fine.” Arya departed, tossing all but one of the stars back in the box. She sauntered away and he sighed and turned to Sansa, who was absentmindedly stroking the daggers, watching her sister leave.

“I can’t accept these.” She said anxiously, once Arya was out of earshot, turning to look up at him. “They’re yours.”

“Aye, they are.” He agreed, refusing to let him get distracted to think about her wearing things of his. Things that would mark her as his. That route, at least, only ended in pain. “And once you get good enough to warrant a set of your own, I’ll take them back. For now, you wear them, and practice.”

“I won’t be very good.” Sansa warned him and he thought of all the times in the Red Keep he’d watched her be humiliated and beaten, when he’d wished that she could defend herself or that he would be brave enough to raise his sword for her. Now he could, and this was just another way to make up to her all his past wrongs.

“No one is when they begin.” He picked up a wooden sword one of the boys had left behind after sparring. “But if someone gets close enough for you to use these, you’ll be better for knowing how to use them, and well.”

“What if I hurt you?” She eyed the wooden sword and he chuckled, that idea entertaining him at the very least.

“Then I’ll be very proud of you.” He raised the sword. “Now, grab the blade.”

“Which one?” Sansa glanced down at herself, with a rueful twitch of her mouth. “I’m practically covered.”

“What feels natural?” He asked, falling into the role of training master with ease and she let out an exasperated sigh.

“None?”

“Alright.” He lunged forward and Sansa darted out of the way, drawing the longer blade from her wrist and holding it out, eyes wide. “Good,” He took a step back and lowered the sword. “That one isn’t the biggest, but it’s sturdy.”

“The one on my leg is bigger.” Sansa was trembling, head to toe, but her voice was steady. “Should I go for that one?”

“No.” He shook his head, surprised at her question. “That takes too much time. You keep that one hidden. Never let them know how many you have. They’ll think they’ve disarmed you, and you’ll keep coming.”

“So I use this one.” Sansa wiggled the one she still held out. “Until?”

“Until—” He did another lunge and wrenched it from her grasp, holding that hand tightly. It was easier to shut out how his whole body thrummed at the contact of hers when he was training her. “You get disarmed.”

“Then what?” Sansa stared up at him, eyes so blue, warm breath frosting in the air in front of them.

“You tell me.” He looked down at her. She paused for a beat, then drew the one from the small of her back a little clumsily, but with enough grace to hide that she was a novice. He appraised her choice for a moment before nodding approvingly. “Good. That one is still big, and you don’t want to give away your other wrist yet. Use that one last. It’s smallest, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do damage.”

“So how do I get the one on my leg without you chopping my head off?” Sansa questioned and he was proud of her for realizing that.

“Don’t wear fucking thick skirts.” He remarked crassly because he could and she rolled her eyes.

“It’s winter.”

“Aye,” He let her wrist go and took a step back. “And they’re a hindrance.” The thought of her without skirts made him flush.

“They’re warm.” Sansa held out the dagger. “Disarm me again.”

“Alright, then see what you can do to grab the boot knife.” He ordered, pleased she was taking such a shine to it, and she nodded.

He disarmed her and when she ducked to grab the knife, he touched the sword gently to the back of her neck. She froze and when he removed it, came up scowling at him. He gave her a shrug.

“How do I do it then?” She demanded, frustrated.

“We’ll get there.” He promised. “But we start at the basics. Show me how you hold them.” He gathered the daggers from where they’d fallen in the snow. Sansa sheathed the one in her back, then held onto the one from her forearm.

“Is this right?” She asked him and he inspected it, then carefully placed his hand over hers, startled at the contrast of their skin, how rough his was in comparison to the delicate softness of her.

“Like this.” He murmured, adjusting her grip.

They worked on mastering the grip, how to tie them to herself, on drawing them, and quickly. Sansa was mostly quiet, letting him direct her, not protesting. But once she knew how to draw them, hold them, and conceal them with mostly ease, he nodded and set the wooden sword aside.

“Is that all?” Sansa looked at him in surprise.

“Aye.” He told her, gathering up his box, noting what else Arya had stolen and what he’d have to track down later. She was a sly little shit, he noted with what might be called fondness, not that he would ever admit to it.

“I still can’t use them!” Sansa protested quickly, going to his side. “I’ll cut someone, and it’ll likely be me!”

“No, it won’t.” He turned, looking down at her, clad in her winter dress, a hint of panic in her eyes as she unsurely felt the blades now pressed to her. “No one’s going to get close to you, at least not yet. It’s enough for today. Wear them, get comfortable. Practice drawing them, if you get bored. We can practice more tomorrow.”

“Gods.” Sansa rubbed her temples gently, eyes scrunched shut. “I never thought I’d be doing this. I’m not Arya.”

“No, you’re a Stark.” He said firmly and Sansa looked up at him. “And your father was a great fighter. Your mother too in her own way, from what I heard. You can lead and guide, Sansa. You can fight too.” It was as sweet a statement as he could make.

“I won’t be any good.” She looked down, dejected and he caught her chin, making her look up at him.

“You will. Give it time and patience.” He looked down at her pale face, those sharp cheekbones and ocean of eyes. He wanted to add that he would make her into a wonderful fighter, that he would protect her until then, that he would do everything in his power to make sure she was never hurt again.

“Alright.” She looked up him with wide eyes. He took in her face, then gave her a curt nod and strode away.

“So, how is she?” Arya fell in step with him as he climbed the stairs. He was already unsettled by Sansa, and he scowled at her nosy little sister.

“She’s a lady.” He said darkly. “She shouldn’t be covered daggers.”

“I would’ve laughed, if you would’ve told me that one day Sandor Clegane would be teaching my sister Sansa daggers.” Arya mused. “It’s a strange world.”

“Find her a better teacher.” He ordered, getting angrier with each step. “Someone her size, who can show her.”

“What, and wait for Brienne to get back?” Arya frowned. “You’re the best teacher we have here, and I bet the only one Sansa will care to learn from. I doubt she’ll let anyone else fight her.”

“I won’t fight her.” He grumbled, ignoring the desire to turn and question to short girl about what the hell her words meant.

“Teach her then.” Arya glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Then you can’t complain if someone didn’t do a good enough job.”

“I don’t teach ladies to fight.” He retorted.

“You taught me.” Arya stopped him. “She’s only going to want you, trust me.” Her expression was carefully blank.

“What, she’ll want my ugly mug training her every day?” He glared daggers fiercely at her. “Unlikely.”

“Well, your daggers, your training.” Arya smirked and left, leaving him at a loss for words so he growled and went for his room to sit in a black silence and ponder just what she meant and what he was going to do.

The next morning, Sansa met him back in the training yard. Around her she wore her thick cloak and he stopped in his tracks, thinking that it fit her differently this time. She smiled and spread her arms wide, showing him that she’d done as he suggested, and sewed a strap that held a dagger amidst it’s folds.

“Where’d you take it from?” He questioned, struggling hard to keep the note of pride from his voice.

“My back.” Sansa informed him, letting the cloak fall off her, exposing her tight winter dress. “It hurt to sit with it.”

“I’ll find a smaller one for there then.” He decided, trying to think of what daggers he had that would be acceptable for her size.

“Do I really need so many daggers on me?” Sansa muttered.

“Oh, and how many do you think will get knocked out of your hands?” He gave her a stern look and she was silent, but her pretty lips pressed together in what might be called a pout. It made him want to kiss her. “If you won’t learn bow or sword, you best learn daggers and learn them well.”

“If my father could see me now.” Sansa dropped her cloak and squared her shoulders, becoming the Wardenness of the North, daughter of Ned Stark, once again. “Alright, teach me then.”

“Stop me.” He ordered, then stepped towards her. Sansa drew her first dagger and tried to press it to his throat. “No, like this.” He stopped and showed her. “There, try again. You’ve got the reach. Use it.”

“Why don’t you have the sword today?” Sansa questioned him suddenly and he raised an eyebrow, smiling at her bluntness inwardly while schooling his features outwardly in his customary snarl.

“Learn hand to hand. Then I’ll teach you how to disarm someone else with a dagger and stop losing your own. And if that doesn’t take us through the entire winter, then maybe we can see if you can handle a sword.” He informed her a bit harshly, then stopped. He’d spoken to her like she was some green recruit he had to train up, completely forgetting that she was a lady and the only reason she was learning any of this was because there was a chance that they were all going to die shortly. She looked at him, offended, so he back-tracked with, “My lady, I didn’t mean—”

“If I learn hand to hand by the end of this winter, I’ll be proud of myself.” She said critically and he relaxed. She was stronger than he remembered, he had to keep telling himself that. She was stronger than a fragile little bird—wolves always were.

“You will, I’ll see to it. Now let’s go again— I’ll go slow, and you stop me.”

Chapter Text

Most afternoons, the three Stark children sat at the head table, Sansa in the center, Arya to her right, Bran to her left. In front of them stood all the lords of the north, all the knights of the Vale, all the great houses and their men. Today, he watched, with amusement, as Sansa appraised them.

“My lords.” Her voice was firm, and strong. They quieted after a few moments and turned to her. He watched with pride as she addressed them calmly, listening to their complaints and requests, answering each with a level and measured response.

She was built for this work. She carried the daggers that he’d given her, and she trained with them when she had time, but this… This was where she belonged, he thought. In a castle, as it’s lady. Even in these times of war, she sat at the head of the table and listened. She’d learned the good and the bad from her time at court, and now she was using all of it.

He didn’t bother to hide his smile when little Lyanna Mormont stood up, arguing with all the passion of her male, and much older counterparts. He saw the expression on both Sansa and Arya’s faces, of amusement and affection.

Northerns were a different breed, he’d heard it time and time again. They did things their own way, on their own terms, and their loyalty was hard won, and well kept. He saw how the men respected both Sansa and Arya, and not just because they claimed Jon as a brother, but on their own terms.

He watched, a quiet protector, as they concluded their business for the day. It was only after the last lord and knight had left that Sansa dropped her head onto her forearms and allowed herself to show a slight amount of her annoyance. Bran regarded her with little notice, but Arya grinned.

“I know we bickered as children.” Sansa’s words, though muffled, were directed at her sister. “But we couldn’t have been any worse than that.”

“Mother would have disagreed. I sewed shit into your bedding, remember?” Arya remarked and Sansa sighed, lifting her head.

“I best go make sure my orders are being followed in the kitchen.” Sansa suddenly scowled. “If Jon thinks we can feed an entire army all winter, he’s in for a fight. We’ll be lucky enough to feed ourselves and a household. His new queen best bring cooks with her armies, and supplies, or I’ll carve up those dragons for meat.”

“I’d like to go to the godswood.” Bran said tonelessly and after a few moments of silent communication between Arya and Sansa, the younger sister sighed and seemingly lost the argument.

“I’ll take you.” She said with false cheer, pushing the wheelchair away from the table. Bran said nothing as they departed.

“It might be awful of me to say,” Sansa remarked, looking at the door they’d disappeared through. She didn’t look back at him, but she knew that he was listening. He was always listening to her, wasn’t he? “But I don’t feel either of them have returned to me. None of my siblings have, truly.”

“Jon.” He suggested, hearing the sadness in her voice and wishing there was something he could do to right it.

“He’s King in the North now.” Sansa sighed, standing and gathering her cloak. “He’s not my brother any longer. He’s the king, or will be, until this war is done and he bends the knee to the dragon queen.”

“Trust me, take one look at those things, you’d bend too.” He shuddered, remembering how the beast had opened its jaws and flames had spewed forth.

“You must’ve hated it.” Sansa commented knowingly, but without judgement. “I know you hate fire.”

“The flying was worse.” He told her and Sansa’s eyes went wide. They fell in step, departing the hall.

“You rode on one?” She stared at him in disbelief and he enjoyed her shocked attention, if just for a moment.

“Aye, when she came for us in the north, to get back to the wall.”

“What was it like?” Sansa looked up at him eagerly and he suppressed a laugh, reminded of a wide-eyed child that would gather at a nursemaid’s knee to hear stories of fearsome dragons long passed.

“You’d best stick to chirping like a little bird and not flying like one.” He couldn’t resist teasing her with a little smile.

“I think it would be pleasant.” Sansa said thoughtfully, absentmindedly playing with her cloak. “Did you see everything?”

“A lot of damn ice.” He muttered and that brought the corners of Sansa’s mouth up into a smile.

“Jon once said, when I asked him with the north looked like, that it was all the snow I could ever imagine, and then more. We were children then, he’d gone to the Wall with our uncle, and came back determined to join. So much ice.” She stepped outside into the cold courtyard and the snowflakes that fell contrasted against her red hair spectacularly.

“That, and fucking more ice.” He told her, trying not to think about the night they had spent atop that godforsaken rock. She didn’t need to carry his dark memories atop her own. He was trying to lighten that burden, not add to it.

“Didn’t bother you though, did it?” Sansa looked up at him. “You could’ve been a northerner. You should’ve been.”

“Why’s that?” He asked her, genuinely curious.

“You’re like us.” Sansa looked out on the men milling in the courtyard. Some trained. Some handled livestock. Some drilled, while others talked. He hadn’t realized it before, but he had felt comfortable here. He’d chalked it up to Sansa, but when a solider passed and bowed to Sansa before nodding to him, he realized she had a point. He belonged here more than he ever had elsewhere.

“I’m a Clegane.” He said shortly, uncomfortable with this train of thought. “Not a Stark, or Mormont, or Umber.”

“The north has had some houses die out.” Sansa’s lips curled up at that. “We could use a few new ones.”

“Not mine.” He said shortly and Sansa gave him a look that he couldn’t understand, or didn’t want to. He didn’t know the difference lately. He held out a hand to assist her in getting over a puddle of mud left by the soldiers.

“What then?” Sansa held onto his hand a moment longer than she needed to, before dropping it. “Where will you go, if we survive this? South?”

“Does it fucking matter?” He asked, a little more harshly than he had intended, and she paused in the doorway to the kitchen.

“It matters very much.” She said quietly. “Will you go back to Kings Landing, and kill your brother? Will you try to kill Ceresi? Will you stay?”

“Quit your chirping questions.” He said softly, unnerved with the insight she had into his plans. “I’ll answer them if we survive this. That’s all that matters.” Her survival. Her smile. Her life. Her light. The only thing that mattered was that the upcoming winter didn’t choke Sansa Stark. To hell with everything else.

“It is.” With a queer look on her face, she turned and walked into the kitchen, leaving him alone in the snow and wind.

That night, he took the meal with the other men at arms, sitting with them and listening as they talked. It was mostly nothing, discussion of their days and what they did to train. They talked weapons, they talked home, they talked women, they talked about anything but the future. He listened, rather than participate, until the conversation turned to what was coming for them, what they’d have to soon face.

“Clegane.” One of the men, an informal leader amongst them, turned to him. He looked up, surprised that they knew his name, let alone addressed him openly. “You went north. You faced them. Is it as bad as everyone says it is?”

“Worse.” He said after a long pause, and the faces around him were skeptical. He wasn’t trying to scare them however, just warn them. “You can’t kill them, not with steel. Stab them, take their heads, they’ll still fucking come for you.”

“How are we going to defeat them?” One young boy demanded, grey faced. “What hopes do we have?”

“Fire.” Sandor said shortly, repressing a mighty shiver as he thought about how the winged black beast’s jaw how unhinged and then flames had shot out. It had been hell, but it was their only way to kill the wights. “It’s only hope, to burn them. Kill their makers, and kill their king. That’s how they fall.”

“Seven hells,” One man swore. “We’ll never see spring.”

“Oh, have a little faith.” Another remarked. “At least if we go die, we do it for her.” He jerked his head in the direction where Sansa sat. “Don’t know about you men, but one kiss from her, I’d go alone into the army of the dead.”

“Easy.” Sandor growled, clenching his mug. He knew Sansa was desirable, he’d known it since Kings Landing. Every man there, from the fools to the lords, had wanted her. And why wouldn’t they? She was stunning, and kind, and whip smart. She was highborn, with blood so pure it was gold. She was a lady and an elegant one at that. Any man would come for her beauty and stay for her sweet nature.

That didn’t mean he didn’t feel like he had some sort of claim to her, as stupid as it was. He was nothing, the second son of a barely lorded house, but he was something to her. He was a ser-not-ser, a sort of protector, a friend. And she was the only person he respected in turn, the only one who had showed him a gentle hand. He didn’t know what he was to her, but she was his lady, and he wouldn’t have some stupid boy dishonoring her because he thought with his cock instead of his brain.

“What?” He turned to him. “Wouldn’t you?”

“She is a lady, you cunt.” He kept his voice low, so that no one suspected that he was close to murder. “Where is your respect?”

“Oh, I respect her.” He looked affronted that anyone would suggest differently. “She’s my Lady Stark. That doesn’t mean I can’t admire her beauty.”

“Do it silently then, or lose your cunt tongue.” He ordered and there was silence, before he got up and strode out. Better to leave and let them think him some sort of drunken bastard, instead of one deeply in love. That would only make things worse. He didn’t realize he had a shadow until a voice said, loudly,

“Clegane.” He wheeled about to face the man, the leader he knew as Devlyn. “I apologize for my man back there.”

“Your man?” He put his hand on his sword, ready to defend himself. “He best mind his fucking mouth.”

“Aye, it’s a big one.” Devlyn kept his hands clasped in front of him, so that Sandor could see he meant no harm. “And a young one. He didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Disrespectful cunt.” Sandor let his hand fall from the sword reluctantly. “She is the Lady of Winterfell.”

“She is.” Devlyn agreed easily, sitting. “And she commands the respect of all. She’s her father’s daughter. They both are.”

“Aye.” Sandor sat next to him, still a little skeptical. He had no idea what the man meant to gain by following him out, unless it was to slit his throat. He might have noticed Sandor’s reaction, and correctly gleaned the reason? But he doubted that. Not even Arya, for all her cunning, seemed sure of his feelings.

“And as beautiful as her mother.” Devlyn looked to be deep in thought. “I remember the day Lord Stark's men brought her north, when I was a boy. She was a slip of a thing, like Sansa. Never seen such red hair a day in my life. And those eyes could pierce any man. Half the men were terrified of her, half of them were in love with her. Sansa does the same thing.”

“They should know better.” He said shortly and it was an admonishment against himself as well.

“They’re green.” Devlyn ran a hand through his hair. “Think with their cocks and not much else.”

“They’ll lose them with words like that.” Sandor growled, meaning it. He would do it himself, if it meant she got the proper respect. And he would do it with a smile on his face, happily, for her.

“More cockless men to join the cockless army we’ve got marching for us.” Devlyn said with amusement and Sandor snorted. “They know better than to try anything. She’s too beloved, and most of them know that if they’d so much as hand her a token of affection, you’d strangle them.”

“They’re right.” He said bluntly and Devlyn chuckled.

“They know. You’re a good man, Clegane.” He mused, glancing at him for a moment. “She’s lucky to have a man like to watch over her. We’re all thankful for it. You have their respect; do you know that?”

“Their fear.” He corrected. That was all he had from anyone, ever. That was all a hound like him could earn. No one respected a rabid dog, but they all feared one, and that had served him well in his life.

“We are not the south.” Devlyn’s shoulders squared proudly. “We don’t fear fighters like you. We respect them.”

“No one respects the dog.” Sandor said flatly, voicing his dark thoughts.

“Dogs are loyal.” Devlyn stated. “You’ve proven that much to us. We respect you Clegane. And fear you, a healthy bit of that too. Remember that, when you threaten their tongues and cocks.”

“Try to.” He muttered, without really meaning it, and Devlyn glanced up, spotting a figure on the wall.

“Go see to her, why don’t you?” His eyes twinkled. “Keep her safe. That is your job after all, is it not?”

“Aye.” Unable to decipher what the teasing tone meant, he headed for the stairs, eager to be away from the man who looked too smart for his own good. When he got to the top, he saw it was indeed Sansa, with her flowing red hair and her black cloak drawn tightly around herself against the wind. “Your ladyship.” He paused upon seeing her on the wall, staring out into the winter.

“I liked it better when you called me little bird.” She didn’t look back at him, but he was surprised at the venom in her voice. He took a step closer, before reminding himself that he had no claim to her. Not ever, even if he’d imagined long ago that he might have, and hoped for it now.

“You are not a little bird anymore.” He said quietly, and truthfully. That made her turn and look at him, an eyebrow raised.

“No, Ser Clegane?” She asked, those blue eyes like ice. “Not a pretty little bird with a pretty little song anymore?”

“You were a bird there.” He picked his words with care. He had no desire to mess this up here, not when he’d imagined it for so long. He wanted to give her the truth, and he wanted her to understand just what he meant by all of it. But he’d never been good with words, and she was more important to him than any maester’s opinion had ever been. “A little pretty thing, hidden behind the golden bars, with the words and songs.”

“And I am not that anymore.” She seemed to understand, turning back to the frozen moors, the icy wind blowing straight through her. She didn’t seem to even notice it, though he certainly did. “I am no longer the innocent baby bird, who was to marry a righteous and handsome prince and be protected by gallant knights and fairs maidens. Now I am a widow.” She gave a short bark of laughter.

“No one mourns his death.” He growled, because he couldn’t stop the surge of anger at the mention of the bastard Bolton. He’d heard more rumors since coming to the castle, of the acts that he’d committed, against Sansa, against anyone who stayed loyal to the Starks that remained here. For every rumor he heard, some training dummy somewhere lost all its stuffing to his furious blows.

“And no one feels guilty for it either.” She remarked and he took a step closer. What Jon had said was true then, he realized. Not a bird any longer indeed but a wolf now, with fangs and claws that had tasted blood and hadn’t turned away. He didn’t know why the thought warmed him. She turned to look at him, ice in her hair and on those soft pink lips. “It seems your little bird has flown away, Ser.”

“Not a Ser.” He pointed out and her mouth quirked up at the words they’d said so often, usually under such different circumstances.

“A little bird and the most honorable knight to never be a knight. If the sun was shining, we’d be back at Kings Landing, wouldn’t we?”

“Not if the gods dragged me there themselves.” He snuck a glance at her, trying to get her to understand him as he said words that were more like vows than anything he’d ever said before. His voice was rough but his words true. “I’d never let them take you either. Rip apart any bastard that tried.”

“I know.” She looked up at him and this time, it was her that took a step closer to him. She had on that same unreadable expression. “You promised that no one would ever hurt me. Or you’d kill them all.”

“Still stands, my lady.” His heart was located in his throat, or more accurately, in front of him, offered to Sansa Stark. It was startling to realize such a thing, but he’d known it, so long ago. He’d fought it back in Kings Landing. Tried to drink and fuck her away. She’d remained stubbornly there, through his travels with her sister, through his time healing with a bloody septon reminding him that love was a blessing and that everyone was loveable, even him, and such nonsense. She’d gone with him to the Wall, she’d gone with him south. She was his everything, and he was done fighting it.

“Does it?” She looked up at him and her face was blank. “Why? Back then, before it all. I was just a girl. I had no allies. I had no friends. I was a prisoner. And you showed me more kindness than them all. Why?”

“It was my duty.” He stated darkly. It wasn’t a lie, not truly. Because it had been his job, in a warped and twisted way, to keep her safe. And he’d failed her, every time a blade or hand struck her. He’d only ever done one thing right and that was stopping her from pushing the fucking prince off that bridge. He wouldn’t have lasted, seeing the sight of her pretty head taken from her long neck.

“I was once told I was the worst liar in all of the seven kingdoms.” Sansa seemed proud of this. “I like to think I’ve gotten at least a little better. Certainly at spotting a lie. So tell me, Sandor, why protect me? Why care at all? Why come to the north?”

“Do you remember the first time you saw me fight?” He commented, avoiding looking at her face. If he was going to say this, he would say it all in one go. It would be mostly painless, a knife slipped quickly into his heart. A mercy.

“The Tournament of the Hand, for my father.” A note of bitterness slipped in. “You won, didn’t you?”

“If we can call it that.” He too, was bitter at the memory of it all, at any mention of it. “You were sitting with your family. Ser Loras handed you a rose but he was looking at Prince Renly. You beamed at him. You were so innocent in all of it. You and your songs. I’d never seen anything like it, after all my years with Ceresi. The little princess, perhaps. But you… Were stunning, even for a young girl.

“I wanted to protect you. I hated that Joffrey—” He spit off the wall. “Would have hurt you, had they let him. I hated him, long before you came, but then they hurt you. They beat you, in front of me, and what did I do? Waited until the imp stopped it, then covered you with my cloak like that was going to do something? Make up for my indifference?

“You were just a child. Just a girl. A pretty bright thing in a den of snakes. You were scared of me, not of them, and they were the ones who would’ve ripped your heart out, or took your head from that thin neck. My brother is a monster. I vowed not to be him. And that day, at the tournament, I realized that protecting you would be the least likely thing for him to do. So I did it.”

“And now?” Sansa offered him her hand, lips parted slightly, head cocked to one side and her azure eyes fixed on his slate grey ones. “And now if I am not the pretty innocent thing anymore?”

“I’d still protect you.” He took her hand, and every instinct told him to raise it to his lips, but he didn’t. He would never take such liberties with a girl like her. She had too many husbands and suitors that had done so. If she ever came to him, and he never imagined she would, it would be on her own terms. That, at least, he could give her. “That’s why I came. To apologize to you, to Arya. To protect you both from what is coming. To die, and know that only then will I be forgiven for my sins.” With that, he raised her gloved hand and pressed it to his chest, not looking her in the eyes.

“You’re long forgiven.” Sansa gently tugged her hand from his grasp but only to rest it on his cheek. His heart thudded at the words he had dreamt for so long that he would hear. “By me, and my sister. She spoke of you, actually. Told me of your travels. Please, leave the guilt behind.”

“The lady is too kind.” He whispered, the words stolen from his mouth by the vicious wind. He wanted to reprimand her for the kindness, but he was weak, and he wanted her to give him more.

“The lady is sick of you calling her such. Will you call her little bird again, and remind her that she once was innocent?” She guided his chin up so he would look at her. “Or does the lady need to command it.”

“It would be too familiar.” He insisted weakly, quickly losing ground when she looked at him with such wide and trusting eyes, filled with what could only be affection. But he’d never expected such affection to be shown to him, of all people. “You’re the Lady of Winterfell now, and—”

“And?” She cut him off and he struggled for what to say in response. Nothing seemed right; he had no words here.

“And I am just a broken man, with no claim to call you such.” He settled on. That seemed like it would be enough, to put him back a safe distance. To remind himself that he was nothing to her, not really, and to remind her that he knew his place. He was the guard dog, that was all, and he’d content himself with scraps.

“You are the only one who has that claim.” Sansa rubbed a thumb along the stubble that grew amongst the scarring and began long, slow strokes with it that made him weak in the knees. “Please, Sandor.”

“I cannot.” He whispered. “It would be… I need to remember my place.” He wanted to crack, but somehow, he held to the faintest string of self-control dangling down.

“Your place is here.” Sansa tilted her head, like a little songbird might. “Will you call me it now?”

“Would the little bird feel better if I did?” He had to then, in the face of her sweet request and he held his breath, and didn’t release it even when the most beautiful smile stole across Sansa’s face.

“She would.” She sighed deeply. “You can’t be too familiar with me.” She was too close, and when she sighed and whispered such sweet things, horrible thoughts went through his mind, and made him curse himself for thinking of her in such a way.

“Aye.” That was all he could get out, because there were ways he wanted to be familiar, and he knew they would never happen. After a moment, she seemed contented with his answers and took his arm, steering him towards the stairs, off the wall and out of the winds. They didn’t seem so bad, not with her next to him.

They walked back to their rooms together, though from the opposite direction, and when she stopped, only a few doors from his own, he paused and looked at her in slight confusion. She smiled and opened it. After a long second, comprehension dawned on him. This was her room, and his own was so close. Only a few separated them, though he hadn’t known they shared such close quarters.

“It’s nice to know that you’re close.” She said quietly, seemingly by way of explanation. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“I would never.” He couldn’t help but sound a little choked.

“Then sleep well, Sandor.” She disappeared into her room.

“You too, little bird.” Astonished, he entered his own room, but he knew sleep wouldn’t find him tonight. Not with the roiling of emotions in his mind. Above all, he wanted to fight, to find some measure of clarity in it all.

Chapter Text

It became fairly common to him to shadow her. They heard news of Jon and the rest, slowly making their way north. He couldn’t help but laugh, when some of the green recruits told stories of what they’d heard- that the dragons were triple the size of Winterfell itself and that the dragon queen was half dragon herself, with wings. He kept the funniest to relay Sansa, when he escorted her around.

Oftentimes, if someone wished to speak with her but didn’t know where she might be, they would seek him out. He wasn’t sure if he was flattered or worried that it was fast becoming common knowledge that even if she would receive no visitors, she would always accept seeing him. It gave him a thrill of happiness then, to see the way her face would light up in a smile for him, and him alone.

 

“Sandor.” Sansa didn’t even have to turn when he walked into the study she kept, with her letters, maps, and books.

“Your ladyship, Bran sent me to— Sansa?” His tone instantly turned to concern when the fire caught tear tracks that ran down her face. He took another step into the room. “Are you alright?” His hand flew to his sword, and he wondered what could possibly be causing her such pain.

“I’m unhurt.” She looked up at him and touched her cheek in an absentminded sort of way. She knew what was on his mind, even before he did most days. It was baffling and reassuring all at once. “Don’t fret.”

“Then why does little bird cry?” He dropped into using the nickname, letting his voice become tender in their solitude. He would only use it when they were alone, and when no one could hear just how warm his voice would turn.

“It’s the day they took my father’s head.” Sansa looked down at the papers she must have been writing on before he arrived. “It’s been, what, a few years now, and still I manage to find tears for him.”

In a rush, it all came back to him. The day Joffrey had killed Ned Stark. It had been hot, and the crush of the crowd had only made it worse. They’d hauled him up, called him a traitor. The crowd had been near a damn riot. They’d thrown stones, and when Ned Stark had stumbled, he’d righted him. Sansa had been wearing a blue dress, hadn’t she? He remembered thinking she looked like she belonged amongst wildflowers. And now he remembered the sounds of her screams, for her father.

“You’ll always have them.” He said, uncomfortable. He had no idea how to comfort a woman, much less her and about this memory that he couldn’t erase for her, one he played such a huge part in. “He was your father.” He didn’t want to remind her of the immense guilt he felt. He’d been standing on that platform beside her, or had she forgotten? He stood by while they murdered her father, and done nothing.

“Do you cry?” She glanced up at him and he suppressed every urge to wipe away her tears with the rough pads of his fingertips. Instead, he offered fabric. Safer that way, to keep them just separate enough.

“Dogs don’t cry, my lady.”

“Men do, and you’re a man, Sandor. So tell me, do you cry?”

“No little bird, I cannot remember the last time.” He was not lying. It had to have been before his sister, because he hadn’t shed tears, even then.

“And do you think me weak for my tears?” She raised her gaze to his and though her tears had stopped, a couple hung and glistened against her eyelashes. He wondered when they would fall.

“No.” The word was surprisingly compassionate. “No, you’re stronger than I. For caring deeply enough to cry.”

“You care deeply.” Sansa took a deep breath and looked down at her papers. The tears fell then, splattering on the dry paper. “I’m sorry, what were you saying? Before I interrupted you with my tears.”

“Your brother, my lady.” He slipped back into his formal role. It was easier then, to keep her at a distance then. Otherwise he feared he’d overstep. “He requests you come meet him, in his chambers.”

“Gods help me.” Sansa rubbed her eyes, doing all she could to compose herself. “The Three-Eyed Raven requests me, you mean.”

“I don’t know, little bird.” He hesitated. “I don’t understand such things.” The youngest Stark did unnerve him, with those cold eyes that spoke of one who had seen all too much all too young.

“Nor I.” Sansa remarked, setting her things aside in neat order. “Will you accompany me there?”

“Does the little bird feel unsafe?” He asked with alarm and Sansa looped her arm with his. Usually he only went with her when she needed protection, or at least needed to show that she had strong guards. No one in Winterfell would hurt her, but he knew of those that thought of what there was to gain by it. He wanted to rip those men’s throats open, but then a little smile from her quelled him.

“Not anymore.” She told him and he fell silent, walking with her down the halls of Winterfell, feeling an odd sense of pride.

 

“What’s on your mind?” She asked him, not looking up from the shirt she was carefully sewing together that night. He jumped, having been lost in his thoughts. Arya, sitting near the fire, snickered. It was nearly time for bed, and most of the household had gone to their rooms. He’d followed Sansa in, listening to her chatter, and had fallen to brooding about Ned Stark’s murder while she sewed and occasionally chirped at him.

“Nothing.” He said, a beat too soon. Sansa raised one eyebrow and Arya stood, with a whistle and a smirk.

“I seemed to have forgotten my sword down in the training yard.” She announced, with a purposeful look between the two of them. “I’m going to go retrieve it.” She strode out, shutting the door behind her with a loud slam. He turned to look at Sansa, who kept sewing, though her cheeks were slightly red.

“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.” She said calmly, slipping the needle through the dark fabric and drawing it back out. “But something is wrong. I can see it on your face.”

“Nothing.” He grunted, trying to focus on his own work and not her. He didn’t want to tell her that his thoughts were consumed with her, and always her. It would only serve to alarm her, just how obsessed he seemed with her. So much of his daily thoughts went to her, and he didn’t know how to explain such to her.

“Alright.” Sansa agreed easily, gently twisting the fabric and not looking up at him. “We won’t talk about it then. Even though Arya is gone, for the first time in forever, and it’s the only chance we might have to talk, just the two of us, and—”

“Alright, enough chirping.” He ordered and she hid a smile. “It’s nothing at all to concern yourself with little bird.”

“I don’t like when you frown so.” Sansa carefully rotated the shirt, continuing her neat, even stitches. “Your mouth twitches, and your brow furrows so. You always look so cross when you’re thinking about dark things.”

“Aye, I’m much prettier smiling.” He snapped and Sansa raised an eyebrow.

“I do believe so, yes.” She said calmly. He wanted to storm out or kiss her, he couldn’t decide. Why did she understand him so? “What is it then?”

“Little bird.” He used it as his last protest but Sansa was unmoved. She looked up at him, all blue eyes flickering in the fire, and he knew he was broken before he even opened his mouth. “I was just… Thinking on some words an old friend once said.”

“And what words were that?” She set aside the sewing and learned forward towards him, hands clasped, full attention to him.

“About forgiveness.” He said, uncomfortably. How much truth could he give her here, without alarming her? “About how asking for it helps the guilt of those who have done wrong and giving it helps the hurt of those who have been wronged. Asking for it is selfish and giving it is selfless.”

“Those sound like the words of a septon.” Sansa mentioned thoughtfully and he stared at the floor.

“Aye, they were.”

“And you listened to a septon?” Sansa didn’t bother to hide her surprise.

“He was bloody persistent.” He muttered and Sansa heard the past tense and wisely didn’t press. Instead, she reached for his hand and gently took it, using her long fingers to squeeze his.

“And why are you thinking on forgiveness, Sandor?” She questioned quietly. He both loved and hated when she was this close to him. It set every nerve in his body alight and he felt weightless, like he could drift up through the ceiling and back out again. But he knew the pain when he left her would be magnified tenfold for having been close to her before. A curse and one he bore willingly.

“You were crying today.” He kept his gaze on their joined hands, willing that slight connection to give him the strength to keep talking. “For your father. And I wondered, why you don’t… Hate me. Rage against me, order me out. It’s within your right, or have you fucking forgotten that I stood beside you up there, when they murdered him, and didn't do a damned thing? Or when they beat you, and I did nothing? When he hit you, and I did nothing? When they tortured and degraded you, and still, I did fucking nothing?”

He was working himself into a lather now, and Sansa’s sad blue eyes did nothing to prevent him from slipping further and further into his rage and self-loathing. He yanked his hand away from hers, getting up to pace. He didn’t even deserve to be here with her.

“Sandor—”

“You should hate me, little bird.” He said loudly, stopping her from speaking. “And as much as I want to ask for your forgiveness, it would be fucking selfish of me. You don’t have to give it— I never would. I never have. Hate me Sansa, fucking hate me. Put me on your murder list, like your sister! Something, please.” He was begging now and Sansa stood, crossing the room to where he stood beside the window. She looked out it, expressionlessly.

“If I opened this window, and commanded you to jump out it, would you do it?” She asked offhandedly and he took a moment to wonder if he would even fit out the thing before answering,

“Yes.”

“And if I ordered you to fall on your sword, would you?” She looked at the sword propped up against the chair where he’d been sitting. This time, there was no hesitation.

“Yes.”

“And if I were to build a bonfire taller than the great hall and ordered you to step into it, would you?” She questioned and he swallowed, hard, but answered,

“Yes.”

“Well,” Sansa reached up and held his face in her hands. “Then I command you not do any of those things. I command you to accept that I have forgiven you.”

“But I let those things happen. I didn’t stop them.” He protested and a single tear slipped out of the corner of her eyes, but otherwise she was like marble, cut and polished till she shone.

“Yes, and once I believed that Joffrey was a great prince, and Ceresi a beautiful queen. Should I be punished for those actions? For who I once was? What I once believed, what I once did, long ago?”

“You were innocent.” He argued. “A child, a young girl. I was a man grown, and I should’ve known better.”

“Perhaps.” She doesn’t take her gaze from him. “But it was your job. You didn’t do it because you liked it or enjoyed it.”

“I like killing.” He reminded her harshly.

“As do I.” Sansa said quietly and he was briefly so stunned that he had no reply. “The sweetest thing there is, you once told me. But I don’t think that’s true, and I’m beginning to think you don’t either. You were the only one who protected me for nothing more than the sake of protecting me. Not because you wanted me in your debt, or your bed, or in your pocket, or because I could give you the north.”

“I didn’t do enough.” He whispered, defeated and Sansa guided his chin up so that he looked at her.

“What more could you have done?” She asked quietly. “Saved my father, so that they could murder you both? Stopped them from beating me, so that they could’ve just removed you, and kept making it worse? Or are you forgetting all that you did do, and kept me safe from? Rape, beatings, assassins, murderers, the rest of what awful horrors the Red Keep could’ve thrown at me?”

“They hurt you.” He growled and Sansa smiled, small and sad, smoothing down his hair tenderly.

“They did.” She didn’t bother to deny it and it filled him with a long simmering rage. “And they hurt you too, like they did everyone else. But the point of it all is that if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be this girl.”

“This girl.” He tried to bite back his bitterness. “This girl, who carries fucking daggers and knows how to use them, who knows how to kill, how to wage war and win a battle, who keeps company with a damned murderer.”

“Ah.” Sansa took a step back, eyes suddenly turned dark. “And you don’t like the girl that I’ve become.”

“No,” He kept his gaze down, because his next words were the honest truth and it terrified him. “I like her more than the little delicate bird trapped in a golden cage, and that’s what scares me more, Sansa.”

“Sandor, I—” She was reaching for him again, when the door opened slowly and Arya, purposefully making as much noise as she could, entered.

“Oh, hello.” She said, with a cheeky grin. “Hope I didn’t interrupt.”

“No.” Sansa dropped her hand, and strode back to her seat by the fire, as though nothing had happened. He stayed where he was, trying to process all that had happened. After a pause, Arya glanced at him.

“Are you going to sit, or stand all night?” She asked and he started, returning to where he sat. Sansa dutifully picked up her sewing once again. All was quiet for a long moment, before she looked up.

“It’s not selfish.” She said quietly and he jerked to look at her. Arya glanced between to two of them, bewildered. “It’s humble. And you have it, you’ve always had it. I won’t hold anyone who’s not at fault to the crimes of others.” With that, she bent back to her work, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth faintly.

“Thank you.” He said quietly, unable to say anything else. “Thank you, little bird.”

He pointedly ignored the smirk on Arya’s face, instead focusing on the way Sansa’s thin and nimble fingers handled the needle.

 

After their training session the next morning, he watched as she walked through the courtyard, a beacon amongst the men in their armor. Though she wore black, much like the rest of them, that hair would never allow her to blend into any crowd. It was a blessing and curse, he thought. He could never miss her, but neither did anyone else.

He remained a couple paces behind her, as she went about her business as Lady of Winterfell. She was good at it, he noted again. She was always meant to be a great lady, but here, amongst the snow and the cold, she thrived. It was a relief to him. It was what he had hoped for her, long ago. Just to be happy. That he was alive to see it was beyond any of his greatest hopes and dreams.

She stopped to talk to three small children that sat, huddled, atop a cart. When she bent to be closer to them, he saw how her face had changed to one of compassion, with a warm smile and kind eyes. He was startled to realize how young she really was. He often forgot that she was still nearly a child, how young she still was despite everything.

The oldest, a boy who could have no more than seven years, was clinging very tightly to a baby, swaddled in what looked to be rags. At his side, a little girl, dirty and quiet, eyes wide. Sansa was talking to them, very quietly.

“—And you don’t have to be scared anymore, I promise you.” She glanced at him and beckoned for him to come over. He took a couple steps closer, uncomfortable with the way the children were staring. “Do you know who this man is?”

“No.” The boy uttered, looking up at him.

“He is my friend, his name is Sandor Clegane.” Sansa brushed the boy’s hair back, uncaring if it left her gloves dirtied. “He is here to protect everyone who comes to Winterfell. That means he is going to protect you, and your siblings, from all the bad things out there.” Her voice was tender and his heart clenched at the way the little boy looked up at him with such trust in his eyes.

“Lady Sansa,” Sandor tried to protest, but Sansa ignored him, looking down at the bundle in the little boy’s arms.

“May I?” She asked the little boy, who hesitantly handed off the baby. Sansa delicately removed layers, until a small pink face appeared. The baby was asleep, and Sandor watched as Sansa gazed down with a smile.

A mother then, he noted with astonishment. He had wondered if her time in the south had driven that out of her, when she saw what boys grew up to be, how mothers raised their children, their sons, only to lose them. But clearly it hadn’t, he noted with wonder as Sansa reached her hand out to the little boy.

“Come with me.” She said firmly, standing. “Both of you. Let’s get you in the bath, clean you up.”

“Milady,” The man, a solider, who’d brought them, looked at her in astonishment. “No need, they can—”

“Have a warm bath, and some good food.” Sansa’s eyes flashed and it was quite a look, when she was holding a baby and the hand of a grubby common boy. “Then I will sort of the details of where they can best find shelter.”

“Yes, my lady.” He ducked his head, and Sansa began striding across the courtyard, head held high, the children and Sandor trailing her.

He hovered uncomfortably as Sansa rang for a bath, guiding the children into her chambers. They clambered towards the fire. Sansa was still holding the baby, gently rocking it as she gave orders. He had no idea what to do with children, he never had, and yet here was Sansa, as well practiced as any seasoned mother.

“And see if you can find old clothes of Bran or Rickon’s— Rickon’s may fit him best. And Arya’s old things for the little girl. Did Jeyana from the stables have her baby? Ask if she can spare clothes and a blanket. I’ll sew her a new set personally if she can. And bring food up from the kitchens, tell them I ordered it.” She declared, confident in her orders and the maids scrambled.

“Sansa, should—” He went to ask the wisdom of this all, when she turned to look at him and his breath deserted him. She stood, illuminated by the fire, holding a babe in her arms, while two children sat at her feet. For a moment, the world warped, and all he could see was her, dressed in a simple nightgown, holding their child, imploring him with a smile to join her at their hearth.

“Sandor?” Her concerned voice brought him back and he remembered the reality of the situation, and why he was concerned.

“They might be dangerous.” He said, avoiding looking at her. Seeing her in such a maternal way. He had no idea what had come over him, as he certainly wasn’t the kind of man who dreamt of wives and children. He’d never once even thought about it, and now here he was, picturing it with a woman he’d never have.

“They might.” He heard her amusement and frowned at her. “What’s your name?” She asked the little boy.

“Fent.” His eyes darted out to look at Sandor, then back to Sansa. “Shaa, and Mattis.” He pointed to his sister, then the baby.

“And how did you come to Winterfell, Fent?” Sansa asked kindly.

“My mama died.” He said simply. “And daddy no come home.”

“The soldiers found them, when they were trying to get everyone south.” Sansa said quietly, as the little boy huddled closer to the warmth. “They have nowhere else. They are my people. They will never be dangerous to me.”

“Sansa,” He tried to reason with her, tell her that children could be spies and assassins too, that they were just as dangerous, but in that moment, the door opened and in rushed several maids, all talking at once.

“The water, my lady—”

“—Soap, from the larder—“

“Bran’s things from the back—”

“—And her things need some stitching, wild thing as a girl.”

“Here’s her things, said if you could spare a moment, she’d finish chores and be up to nurse the—”

“—Mustn’t eat too much, for the food will—”

“Thank you.” Sansa smiled at each one as they retreated, leaving steaming water in the tub, clothes on the bed, and a pile of food on the table. Sansa noticed how eagerly the children were eyeing it, and laughed. “First, baths.” She ordered.

“But—” The little boy went to protest, but was hastily quieted at a stern and pointed look from Sandor.

“I know.” She patted his head. “But baths first, and then food once you’re clean and warm. Both of you now, in the tub. Clothes here.” She told them, and after a pause they both began to shrug off the dirty rags they wore.

“We’ll have to burn those.” He muttered and when Sansa glanced at him there was a sparkle of amusement in her eyes.

Once both the children had left their clothes in a pile by the fire, they ran for the tub, screeching at the cold air. He wished for them to be quieter, but Sansa seemed to enjoy it, laughing when they jumped in, shouting. She approached the tub and for a wild moment, he thought she would climb in and join them. Instead she sat beside the tub and gave them gentle instructions.

It seemed the children had no idea how to use the soap, or take a proper bath. They were fair of skin, under the grime, and the little girl even had light locks of hair, once the dirt and mud was washed away. Sansa laughed and ignored when the water splashed her, rocking the babe in her arms.

He watched the scene, doing his best to conceal all emotions. There was something about the sight of her, so motherly, so intimate, that nearly choked him. He had to keep his mind firmly in check, least it wander to what it would be like to see her in the tub, or to see her wash children with grey eyes and red hair.

“Alright, are you all clean?” She demanded of them, after the water was soapy and cooled, now a grey color.

“Yes!” They both insisted. They had become chatty after a few minutes and Sansa didn’t correct their lowborn accents.

“Alright.” She smiled and rose. “Sandor, will you hold him?”

“What?” He stared at her in disbelief then down at the baby she offered him. The thing was tiny, and utterly helpless. He’d never held a child.

“I need to towel them off.” She said, voice all innocent and eyes all mischievous. “I need two hands.”

“And I need my sword hand, should someone attack.” He tried to justify but Sansa was having none of it. She easily deposited the child in his arms and he went rigid. She took a step back and eyed him critically, before adjusting his arms. He held on tight, fearful of dropping the small thing.

“Alright, let’s dry off.” Once she was satisfied with how he was holding the baby, she turned back to the older two, holding up two towels.

He stared down at the baby while Sansa dried the other two off, talking to them about some story all northern children seemed to grow up with. All of his concentration went to not dropping the tiny thing in his arms. Once they were dressed and sitting by the fire, happily eating, Sansa returned.

“It’s opening its eyes.” He said in alarm and before Sansa could reach him, a reedy wail broke through the air. “Sansa— Sansa— It’s—”

“Crying.” Sansa seemed to unable to resist laughing at him. “He’s crying, Sandor. Babies are usually crying.”

“How— Stop— No—” He said, panicked, and now Sansa was laughing too hard to take the baby. “Sansa! Little bird! It’s—”

“He’s alright.” Sansa straightened up and took pity on him, taking the child with ease. He relaxed marginally, but the babe was still crying plainly. It didn’t seem to bother Sansa much, because she was removing the scraps around the babe, until he was naked. Carefully, ignoring all his cries, Sansa washed him in the water of the tub. Sandor watched in astonishment at her apparent ease with children.

“Milady—” A maid appeared in the doorway.

“Ah, Jeyana.” Sansa smiled at the woman, who was observing the room with tempered surprise. “Hello. Could you nurse Mattis? I’m afraid I haven’t yet set up preparations for him. And you’ll have a new set of clothes shortly— I apologize for taking these.” She’d dressed the still wailing baby and the maid took him with ease.

“Of course.” She began to nurse the baby, who quieted instantly, suckling with wide eyes. Sandor breathed a sigh of relief. She sat in a chair near the children, who regarded her with wide eyes. Sansa called for maids to take away the water and empty food platters. He watched as the maid finished nursing, then stood.

“That will be all.” Sansa answered her unspoken question with a grateful smile. “I’ll see to them.”

“Of course, milady.” The maid curtsied and was gone. Sansa was left with the babe back in her arms and she looked down, cooing at the little boy.

She was good with children and he was unsure why that surprised him. The two little ones looked at her with utter devotion already and the little babe in her arms wiggled and waved, grabbing for the copper locks that hung nearly within reach. He never thought he would be jealous of a child, but this one, nestled to her breast, receiving her smiles and love, was the first.

“Are you full?” She asked the children, who nodded obediently.

“What do you say to the lady?” He growled, feeling far too tender in this situation. The children looked at him guiltily, but it was without the utter fear he’d come to except from young children.

“Thank you.” They both chorused hastily.

“Thank you my lady.” He corrected them, annoyed that Sansa had made him out to be some kind protector. “She’s a great lady.”

“Sandor.” She chided, smiling as if she knew what he was doing. “Let them adjust. You all can call me Sansa.”

“San-sha.” The little girl tried and even his mouth twitched up with a hint of a smile. It was a little cute, he would admit.

Sansa rocked the babe to sleep, then placed him to sleep on her furs. She braided little Shaa’s hair, and listened to Fent’s stories with wide eyes and rapt attention. Now that they were warm, bathed, and full, their eyelids quickly drooped and soon Sansa had sent both to her bed to sleep.

“Why did you do it?” He asked quietly, when Sansa sat by the fire with the babe, quietly gazing into the flames as she stroked the little one’s soft, pink cheek.

“Do what?” She gestured for him to join her in the other chair and he sat slowly, gazing at the infant.

“Take them in. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to send them to the kitchens or…” He trailed off, not willing to imply what else she might have done.

“They are just children.” She said, looking at the boy and girl that slumbered beneath her furs. “Innocent. And those in power should protect the innocent, shouldn’t we?” She turned a charged gaze on him and he had no retort so he changed the topic.

“And now where will they go?”

“They will stay here.” Sansa sat back, shifting the boy so he rested on her shoulder and he sighed, cuddling closer. Sandor envied him for a brief second. “In the stables or the kitchen. They’ll need pages in the armory. They’ll have a room and be fed. And when the time comes, they’ll go south. I know a few couples looking for children of their own.” Something in Sansa’s voice sounded like longing.

“Tender hearted.” He muttered and she smiled, but didn’t deny it. “How did you get so good with children?” He had to ask the question, because he knew he’d dream of her and this tonight.

“I had three younger siblings.” Sansa reminded him in amusement. “I helped my mother with Bran and Rickon, when they were little. Arya too, though we were close enough in age that I didn’t mother her too much. And I was always taking care of the other children here. It was a ladylike thing to do.” She sighed.

“I’ve never held a child before.” He admitted after a moment and Sansa bit her lip to stop a snort of laughter.

“I know. I put a child in your arms, not a Dornish viper.” Sansa patted the boy’s bottom reassuringly. “He won’t bite.”

“What if I dropped him?” He questioned quietly. “Or hurt him? He is so tiny and fragile and I’m a… Damned brute.”

“They’re stronger than you think.” Sansa said with a faint smile. “I remember once, Robb dropped Rickon, right into the dirt. Robb yelled, mother smacked him, and Rickon cried, but he wasn’t hurt, not really. When father heard, he told Robb that he had dropped all of us, or pinched our fingers, or hit our heads against doorways, or somehow hurt us, at least once. And each time the worst part about it all was mother hitting him.”

“Still.” He eyed the baby. “They’re so… Soft.”

“Alright.” Sansa stood, approaching him. “Here. Nothing to be scared of.” With ease, she placed the babe in his arms. Again, he tensed, but then Sansa’s hand came to rest on his shoulder as she knelt in front of him.

“Do I…” He said unsurely and she smiled.

“You’re doing fine. Relax. Babies are like hounds, they can sniff out fear. Show them ease, they’ll show you the same.” She encouraged and he attempted to ease up, but with Sansa’s hand on his knee, he wasn’t sure how to.

“He’s—” The babe began to shift and he looked wide eyed at Sansa, who smiled encouragingly. He took a deep breath and relaxed, and the boy quickly settled. His little fists reached up and took a handful of the tunic, his breath warm on his neck.

“There.” Sansa smiled, satisfied. “A natural. Will you hold him while I sew? He’ll need a new of clothes, and I haven’t had nine months to prepare.” It was meant as a jest, but the air was knocked out of him regardless. Sansa, large with child, his child, smiling up as she sewed baby clothes by the fire, it was all too much.

“Aye.” He managed to gasp out and Sansa smiled, rising and going to get her needles. When she sat back down, preparing all she needed, he looked at the doorway. “Little bird, if someone—”

“I have my daggers.” Sansa said simply. “And if anyone were to walk in and see Sandor Clegane holding a child, I think they’d faint from shock first.”

“Aye.” He growled but he had a smile. Sansa bent to her work, smiling. They sat in companionable silence for most of the afternoon and the warmth of the fire, combined with the solid weight of a child on his chest, and the humming of Sansa nearby lulled him into a peaceful sleep.

He dreamed that this was all his, that he and Sansa were in a keep somewhere in the deep, cold north, where wolves prowled in the courtyard but Sansa walked amongst them with no fear, in white furs. Their children ran through the halls, yelling and whooping, and when he swung them high into the air, they were not scared of him. In his dream, he held a baby and when Sansa approached, she pressed a kiss to the baby’s head and then to his temple, her scent lingering.

It was a dream he mourned when he awoke.

Chapter Text

The next morning, the children ran in front of her when they headed for the kitchen, where they would work for the time being. Sansa, carrying the babe once again, followed and laughed. He heard the whispers of those behind them, as they watched the Lady of Winterfell and her orphans.

The gentle wolf, they called her. Or the kind wolf. The great lady, who cared for the small, who clothed the needy. Every whisper was one of reverence, of adoration. He kept a smile off his face, but he watched her graceful form as she accompanied the children, and knew that each and every one was right.

When the children were finally all settled and Sansa had promised to visit them as often as she could, she straightened up and made her rounds. There wasn’t a single person in all of Winterfell that she didn’t know by name, he was sure of it. She knew pages and cooks and maids, old men and young. It was rather annoying, the way she could never make it across the yard without talking to everyone.

He would have to be an idiot not to notice the way that everyone watched her, especially the men, and especially in the training yard. It made him wish that it would blizzard and drive them from practice, or that Sansa wasn’t half as stubborn as she was. He wished she wasn’t so adamant about training, and so tenacious while she was at it. True, she was getting better- much better.

But he hated when she got warm while practicing, and she’d throw off her cloak. Then all the boys would stop and stare, uncaring if it earned them extra smacks from the men training them. She was a sight to behold.

He was a jealous man, and he wished that for one moment, he could have her to himself. He had no clue what he would do if he did, but he dreamed, sometimes, that maybe he’d earn a smile or a laugh, genuine and true from her.

“Again.” She said, panting, when he once again held her daggers and she was left with nothing. He sighed, looking over her shoulder. A young knight was getting told off for staring, but he clearly wasn’t listening, gazing longingly after Sansa.

“How about we—” He tried to deflect, but Sansa wasn’t having it. She plucked the daggers from him, putting them back where they belonged on herself.

“Again.” She ordered, hiking up her skirt to return the blade she kept on her thin, pale leg and his face flushed red, from embarrassment and also anger. Every man in the vicinity stopped to gawk.

“Sansa,” He kept his voice low but firm. “How about we—”

“Again.” Sansa’s eyes flashed. “Until I can grab my blade without needing to take my eyes off you.”

“A little break.” He argued. “You’re exhausted.”

“I’m fine.” She snapped but when he offered her a wineskin, she sighed and took it, drinking deeply.

“You’re progressing nicely.” He told her, managing to glare daggers at the men when her back was turned. They hastily moved along, as Sansa sat brooding.

“Not fast enough.” She sighed, fiddling with the wine skin. “I won’t have much to show for it when Jon arrives, I’m afraid.”

“That’s fine.” He thought of what Jon would say when he found out that he was arming his little sister. “Might not appreciate it.”

“He’ll be busy being King of the North again. No time for me.” Sansa remarked tiredly. “Off to fight more wars. That’s all this life is, isn’t it? Fighting. Fighting and fucking, that’s what Shae told me once.”

“Lady Stark.” He was startled, but more amused at her language. She gave him a baleful look, as though asking him to prove her wrong, and he chuckled, unable.

“And apparently, I am good at neither.” She muttered darkly and that utterly shut him up, gone rigid. Sansa was playing with a dagger, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was in a state of shock. “You’re right. Enough for today. I best go check and make sure the grain is arriving. Will you accompany me?” She glanced up at him, blue eyed and innocent.

“Aye.” He said, strangled, making to follow her and focus on anything but Sansa Stark, fighting, fucking, and any combination of the three.

Into the courtyard they went and everyone smiled and nodded to the Lady Stark. On all their lips, he heard the nicknames she’d come to collect- gracious one, the kind wolf, the fair queen, the winter’s red rose, the gentle lady of the north, so on and so forth. He hardly had to guard her here, when she commanded such love and devotion.

After her moment with the orphans’ before, it now seemed like everyone knew about Sansa Stark, mother of the motherless. He would look away for a moment and look back to find a child on her hip or in her arms, often lowborn children whose grubby hands and faces stained her fair clothes. It was amusing and confusing, all at once. Today was no different, as she made faces and laughed at the babe of a kitchen wench.

“Lady Sansa.” A young knight interrupted her and she looked up, her face a little confused. She must not recognize him then, he noted. Sandor took a step forward but Sansa raised one finger, the smallest gesture only he seemed to notice.

“Forgive me if I don’t know your name.” She was all politeness, but he knew better, and smirked for it. The boy would have an easier time melting the Wall than he would the Lady of Winterfell.

“Ser Yves Crewyn.” He knelt gracefully. “Here to serve.”

“Ah,” A flicker of recognition across Sansa’s face. “Ser Crewyn, forgive me. You’ve certainly grown since we were children.”

“And you as well my lady.” He flashed her a charming smile. “I’ve come to answer Jon’s call. We’ve spared as many men as we can, and supplies as well.”

“All my thanks.” Sansa gave him a polite smile, nothing more, and it reassured Sandor more than it had any right to. “You’re welcome to take meals in the great hall with the other bannermen, and we’ll see that your men are—”

“Lady Sansa,” He cut her off and she stopped, a little surprised. She hadn’t been interrupted in ages. “I also come to profess my utmost admiration to you and ask that you please accept a token of—”

Sandor tried to hide his snort of laughter, but from the glare the boy sent him and the twitch of Sansa’s lips, he knew he’d failed. He didn’t mind much, not when he knew that Sansa wasn’t angry with him, and that she was likely a little pleased as well.

“Ser Crewyn, please forgive him.” Her lips were twitching. “He doesn’t mean offense, he just… Lacks manners.” This time, he didn’t bother to hide his loud snort of agreement and Sansa had to work hard to school her features into something reasonable.

“I only meant to give you a token of my affection.” Still glaring at Sandor, the man presented Sansa with a single, well-polished apple. Sansa’s eyebrows raised at the offering of fruit. “I saved it from our stores for you- I thought the lady might like something sweet.” He said, obviously proud.

“I cannot accept this.” Sansa was sweet, but firm. “It is kind of you, but I’m afraid that I cannot.”

“Why?” His smile slipped slightly then and triumph surged through Sandor’s veins, even if he had nothing to do her with denial. Sansa gave the knight a look, signaling to him that she knew exactly what accepting a courtesy from a man like him might imply. A far cry from the girl who once loved to give favors, he thought.

“I’m sure someone would most appreciate it though.” Sansa was clearly trying to let him down easy. “Ah— Fent! Shaa!” She called to the two small figures darting through the courtyard. At her call, both came running for her.

“Yes, Lady San-sha?” Shaa said eagerly, catching her breath. Both of them were actually healthy looking, now that they’d be properly cleaned and attired. They were still as enamored with Sansa as they had been, and didn’t fear Sandor in the slightest. He might have been more annoyed, if Sansa hadn’t been so fond of them.

“This is Ser Crewyn.” Sansa said seriously. “He would like to give you a very special treat.” Both pairs of eyes turned to Crewyn, who looked like he was struggling a great internal battle, before finally handing over the apple.

“Make sure you share.” Sandor ordered the children, who nodded eagerly. Crewyn glared at Sandor with a renewed hatred and he couldn’t resist the urge to smirk.

“Alright, go on.” Sansa sent the two on their way with pats on their heads. She rose and tilted her head to Crewyn. “Thank you. That is a treat those two could hardly imagine, and a gift after such tragedy. I’m sure they’ll be back begging for more.” Only when she spoke of the children did Sansa’s voice soften.

“I meant for—“ He began to protest but Sansa gave another short nod and began to walk away, signaling that the conversation was over. “Wait!” He went to grab Sansa’s shoulder, but before she could even turn, Sandor had grabbed his hand and pressed a blade to his throat with graceful ease.

“Try that again.” Sandor grunted, relishing this moment. “Try it.”

“Sandor.” Sansa, a pace behind the two of them and emotionless, called his name softly. He relaxed his grip, just enough to allow Crewyn breathe but not enough to remove the fear in his eyes.

“He—” Crewyn attempted to start, but the blade cut into him when he spoke, so he quickly fell silent.

“Was defending me, as is his job.” Sansa said evenly, without remorse. “You will find, Ser Crewyn, that the years have done more to me than turned me into a woman for you to desire. I would advise that you train your men, pass apples along to the children, and advert your attentions elsewhere.”

“Far elsewhere.” Sandor growled harshly and Sansa waited for a pause, then reached and took his arm.

“Come along.” She said simply and he let Crewyn go, a little sadly, to accompany her back towards the great hall. He’d always obey her sweet commands, if it meant that she would walk with him like she was actually his lady and he her lord husband. They walked in silence, until he dared make a comment.

“Wrong fruit.”

“What?” Sansa looked up at him in confusion.

“Wrong fruit.” He repeated, keeping his gaze straight ahead as his heart thudded painfully in his chest. “Should’ve brought you lemons.”

“Yes,” Sansa’s lips curled up into a smile. “It was the wrong fruit.”

“Marry the man who brings you the right fruit, little bird.” He wasn’t sure why he said the words, but after he had, he wished desperately to take them back. Until Sansa looked up at him with blazing eyes.

“I won’t marry any of them. And if they try, will you kill them all?” She looked at the training yard then back and him and he swallowed hard, before nodding.

“Aye, little bird. I’ll kill any man who tries to marry you.” His hand tightened on the pommel of his sword, until they were in the hall and Sansa let go of his arm.

 

“Will you ever tell me about it?” Sansa asked, as they sat together, a few days later. The winter winds were blowing outside, fierce and frightful, and so Sansa had declared everyone spend the afternoon resting. For her, that was sewing. For him, it was tending armor. They sat in a comfortable silence these days, after they’d both settled into their roles.

“About what, little bird?” Alone, in front of the fire, without his armor on, he felt different somehow. Smaller. Softer. The type of man who could call her little bird and not feel guilty for it.

“Your scar.” She didn’t look up from her sewing, calm and collected. “You’ve never told me that certain story.”

“Reckoned you know.” He focused, hard, on the breastplate, and shining it up. It distracted him from the violent rage that went coursing through his veins. “Someone must’ve told you, all those years in Kings Landing.”

“Someone, yes.” Sansa paused. “Not you.”

“If you already know it, why do you want me to tell you?” He muttered, resisting the urge to throw the armor across the room and storm out in a rage. He wanted wine, and he wanted it badly.

“Because everyone should have the opportunity to tell their own story.” Sansa reached out, putting a hand on his knee, like she knew he needed comfort. “And I’m not believing anything until I hear it from you.”

“You don’t want to hear that.” He warned her, avoiding her eyes, hating that he leaned into her touch despite himself.

“Alright, if you won’t tell it.” Sansa withdrew her hand and went back to sewing. He looked at her, exasperated, but she was quiet, sewing peacefully. Why was she the only woman who could do that to him, who could make him want to open up and share the story? It was the worst memory in a collection of horrific ones, and yet here she was, ready to hear it. And he wanted to give it.

“Fine,” He growled. “I’ll tell you, does that make you happy?”

“You make me happy.” She shot back and he was silent, taking that in. The words were like the heaviest and thickest armor, except around his heart rather than his body. But it didn’t do to dwell on those words though, and every time he did, he was by turns enraged and wanted to weep. Neither of those would do for Sansa, and so he instead turned his mind to his cruelest memory.

“My brother was punishing.” He began. “And vicious, even as a child. My father was a large man, but Gregor… He was fucking bigger than all of us. It was only so long before neither my father, nor my mother, could keep him in check anymore. That’s when my damned torment began. I would avoid him, as much I could. But somedays it wasn’t possible.

“One night, we sat by the fire. He had been playing with a fucking knight, one of the set our father had gifted me for my name day from the woodcarver. They were my damned toys. He had played with it, after we’d eaten, and then he laid it aside. He was too old for such toys anyways. So I picked it up, and wanted to play with it.

“I wanted to play with my toy, that was all. All I wanted. I was a child, a fucking boy! And he saw fit to take my face, shove it to the fire, and hold it there. To burn me, scar and disfigure me long before I was old enough to ever fight back. I was screaming and he never once wavered or went to let me go. I was never going to grow up handsome, I’ve made my peace with that. But this?” He pointed to his scar, trembling with anger all over again. “I didn’t fucking deserve to carry this.”

“No, you didn’t.” She said softly. She stood, walking over to him, but he was too busy stifling the long festering rage in him to notice just how close she was, how he could smell the milk soap she used and feel the heat from her skin. “No one would.”

“He is a monster.” He muttered, looking down at his shaking hands.

“I know.” Sansa whispered comfortingly and then she knelt, taking his hands in hers. “You’re not.”

“Say it again, little bird.” He whispered, gazing into her eyes and her lips were brought up in a beautiful smile. It was a strong brand of intoxicating, having her kneel in front of him, the light from the fire making her hair gleam, and when those blues eyes peered up at him with such softness in them, he had to be silent.

“What, that you’re not a monster?” She squeezed a hand. “I would call you a knight, but I don’t think that’d be much better. You’re simply you, Sandor.”

“I am going to kill him, you know.” He warned and Sansa shrugged, standing. He wondered if she thought him a monster for that, for kinslaying, when she so utterly loved her siblings. She would likely never understand how a sibling might hurt another, not the way that she and Arya so viciously defended their pack. A pack he was in, he realized with a jolt. She picked her sewing back up, going to stoke the fire a little.

“As long as he doesn’t kill you, I don’t give a damn.” She uttered finally and he looked at her with wide eyes. She looked up at him, blue eyes hard and cold, so different from who she’d been moments before. “I would not take kindly to someone killing you.”

“I will do my best, my lady.” He remarked, and he meant for it to be a teasing sort of joke, like all the times before. Except Sansa’s eyes were blazing.

“Kill him, and then come home to me.”

They didn’t say a word to each other again, not until Arya arrived with Bran and they went to sup in the dining hall with the men. Afterwards, he was distracted by some of the men, and when he looked up to the high table, she was gone. He went to bed, and dreamed about him killing Gregor while Sansa sat astride a massive direwolf, watching, wearing a crown of silver snowflakes.

 

 

“So when are you going to tell her?” Arya asked, as the two of them sat in the armory, sharpening their swords. They often did so together, after training, him with a greatsword and her with her stupid Needle. He hated to admit it, but he and her got along well now, two trained killers. He gruffly passed along tips and tricks in the training yard, and she had gotten good enough to nearly beat him a time or two.

“Tell who and tell her what?” He grunted, sliding the whetstone down the length of silver once again. It was easier to not look at her during these moments, he found. Her eyes knew all too much.

“The cook, that you love her chicken.” Arya rolled her eyes, as though she was dealing with the stupidest lowborn in all of Fleabottom. “My sister, that you’re in love with her.”

“What?” The whetstone slipped and Arya smirked, looking down at her Needle. “I bloody well don’t—“

“What, love chicken?” She was giving him an out, he understood at once. A chance to talk about it, without really talking about it, and much to his chagrin, he found himself taking it, and spoke.

“Aye, I like chicken.” He muttered. “Always have.”

“I know.” She said, going back to polishing Needle with a smug smirk that had irritated him years ago and still did so these days. “I think the cook is glad you like her chicken.”

“She makes better chicken than I deserve.” He pointed out, gritting his teeth. But it felt so good to talk about it, and he couldn’t help to acknowledge that Arya certainly knew his past with Sansa better than anyone here.

“She’s had to make chicken for some terrible, awful men.” A particularly vicious stroke along Needle’s sharp edge and a wolfish curl to her lips. “She’s glad someone like you can appreciate it now.”

“A lowly man like me should not enjoy such fine chicken.” He protested. “It’s not… Right.” He finished lamely, unable to come up with the excuse he wanted.

“We’re going to be at war soon, and we may all die.” Arya gave him an imploring look. “The cook would like to hear that someone appreciates her cooking. I think war is going to distract everyone enough that no one will mind if someone like you has the chicken.”

“And if Jon were to hear?” He glanced at his reflection in his sword, seeing the scars and the lank hair, seeing his horrors reflected back to him in the wavy metal. “That I was eating chicken, that is. Is he protective of his chicken?”

“Jon is protective of everything.” Arya swung Needle in a wide, clean arch, seemingly satisfied with the blade once again. She performed a few more moves before neatly tucking it in her belt once more and rounding on him with a glare that was just shy of her normal malice. “But he knows that the cook would be happy to share her chickens.”

“What if the cook doesn’t care what I think?” He said quietly.

“I talk to the cook. More than you’d think.” Arya’s eyes sparkled then. “Trust me. If she’s going to care about anyone appreciating her chicken, it’s you. She’s asked, more than a few times, what you think of the chicken.”

“Has she?” He nearly dropped his sword. Sansa had asked after him? if he understood correctly, she meant to say that the most beautiful girl in the whole world, let alone the seven kingdoms, had asked. After him. He couldn’t comprehend it, but stared at Arya and asked, nonetheless. “How do I… Tell her?”

“Simple.” Arya shrugged. “Find her, and say ‘Cook. I love your chicken. It is the only chicken I want to eat for all my life, and if there’s anything I can do to make your chicken better, I will do it’.”

“This has just gotten confusing.” He complained, unable to understand if that meant declaring his love to Sansa and balking at the very thought of it, making Arya tossed her whetstone aside with a huff.

“Seven hells, talk to her. You mooning over her has gotten ridiculous. Go.” She strode out, leaving him astonished and alone.

He had no idea what to do with that. As he got up, putting his sword back where it belonged and meandering out of the stables, he thought on the little wolf’s words. How many other people had guessed what he’d long resigned himself to on his journey north? Could the wolf-girl only know because she knew him so well, or had he made his desperate pining so public they all could? The thought made him a little sick.

Then there was the matter of Sansa. Had she really asked after him? Had she been so bold as to ask after him? To her sister, of all people? He knew Arya was crafty, but what could she gain by telling him this? What would she do, humiliate him? Surely it would embarrass Sansa as well, imply she didn’t have some control over her household and her unusual choice of guard. He couldn’t understand any of it, except for one thing.

Sansa’s request that should she be forced into marriage again, he kill the man. She knew he would, and he did as well. He didn’t want to linger on why she thought he’d do such things. It led him down a path he wasn’t sure he wanted to follow. So instead he found himself in his room, using a small supply writing materials provided to him, likely by a thoughtful Sansa. Not, he snorted, as if he had many friends to write to.

He looked down at the writing on the scrap of paper. So far, he hadn’t managed to say anything too awful. That, he reflected blackly, could also be because so far, all that was written was one word.

Jon,

He huffed and looked down at his dry quill. He had no idea what he even wanted to say anymore. Ask Jon for Sansa’s hand, was he mad? A mad dog. She was a lady. The lady. The Lady of Winterfell, rightful queen of the north, and the owner of his heart. How in the seven hells would he explain that to Jon in one letter?

Not that Jon didn’t already know some of it. Jon spoken at length to him about his little sisters, in unawares that Sandor himself had reason to know both of them intimately. He could tell they both adored Arya and the killer in her. But Sansa had brought out a tenderness in Jon that he knew was reflected in his own being. He was sure that Jon would want nothing more than to protect the girl. To keep her safe. To marry her to someone noble and kind. Not a scarred man who might as well been a grandfather to her.

But asking him, telling him of the feelings that were beginning to form against his will? He never would. He never could. That would’ve been too much. Jon had been good to him. Sansa had been good to him- she was good to him. He loved her. Years of quiet contemplation had made that much clear to him.

She would never love him back, not when she was a Stark and he was but a Clegane. A lowborn. Not for a great lady like her, and Sansa was the greatest of all the ladies. She was everything. And if she was going to deny him, he wouldn’t blame her in the slightest. Arya be damned, her questions be damned. He was here to protect her, that was all. Protect her, noting more. He reminded himself firmly once more.

He stared down at the paper, then scribbled some words on it, before the courage he’d seized left him.

Jon,

I ask on Sansa’s behalf—she doesn’t know of this—for your permission that she be allowed to choose her own suitor in marriage. Don’t make some loveless political marriage for her on your journey north. She deserves more. I will ask to remain by her side as a guard, and if she turns me away, I will join you on your march and die protecting her.

Clegane

He sent the raven, heart sinking.

Chapter Text

“There she is.” He almost smiled, coming around a tree in the godswood. Sansa sat beneath it, staring into the small pond. “There’s the little bird. I’d wondered where you’d flown off to.” He was in a rather supremely good mood today; he dumped both Brienne and Arya on their backs in training, as well as a dozen other men. He felt finally recovered from his journeys north and south and north again, and had sought out Sansa, knowing she’d be happy to see him not miserable for once.

“Why do you call me that?” She questioned, looking down at the water. “Is it because she called me little dove?” Neither of them needed to talk about who they were referencing, and he looked at her in worry, his happiness leaking out, filling with alarm at the fact that for once, he was cheerful and she morose.

“Fuck, no.” He sat beside her. “Never in a thousand years. Doves are stupid and elegant. They’ll do as bid. You were never a dove. You were a songbird. A little bird, like a nightingale or a veery.” The words came out too easy, as if he’d spent too much time thinking on them. And he’d done exactly that, hadn’t he? Looked up at the birds that flew around the Red Keep, and tried to figure out which she was?

“Not very pretty birds.” Sansa remarked and he frowned, kneeling before her. For a second she avoided his eyes, until he gently took her chin and made her look down at him.

“What is it Sansa?” A stroke along her jaw, a step too familiar, but boundaries were ignored in the face of his worry and concern. Surprised at the sight of her crying, or rather, letting tears slip out. “Why the sadness?”

“I don’t know.” She whispered. “Because I am scared, and alone, and I’m not even sure what else.”

“You’re not alone.” He frowned at her. “You have your brothers and your sister. You have your people, and me. I’d never let anything hurt you.” Was that why she cried? Because she thought he wouldn’t protect her? Even now, when he’d done everything to prove to her just how much he was willing to die for her?

“It’s so exhausting sometimes.” Sansa leaned into his touch, startling and worrying him further. What was so awful that she would seek comfort with him? “Being strong for everyone. What about me? What about when I want to run and hide and cry? I come here and I remember all the things that I’m crying for. I don’t know how to stop being in this pain, and it’s crippling me Sandor.”

“You don’t.” He said simply. “You cannot stop your pain and I cannot stop my anger.” It was a statement of fact, and she raised her blue eyes to his, searching for him for something he didn’t even know he held, let alone could give her. After a moment, something changed in her, and she leaned even heavier into his touch.

“I prayed for you, once.” Sansa remarked and he looked at her in surprise. “After you saved me, during the bread riot. You called me little bird. Protected me. You were the only one I didn’t want dead, back then. So I prayed for you.” Her lips curled into a wry smile and he wanted to ask what her prayer was, but he didn’t dare.

“I had one Stark girl praying for me, and one who had me on her murder list.” He thought it over for a moment, trying to make light of the moment instead of letting it veer into something dangerous. “Seems fitting.”

“It does.” Sansa stared out over the water again. He was at a loss on what to get that awful look out of her eyes, the same one he saw in soldiers that were battle weary, or whores who’d seen too much of life. Not even at her worst in Kings Landing did she have such a look, and it terrified him down to his very core.

“What did you pray, little bird?” He asked, trying to get her to talk again. “Arya would murder me for killing that boy. You would pray for me for what?”

“To save you, and gentle your rage.” Sansa told him and he rocked back on his heels, startled and surprised.

“And were your prayers answered?” He asked incredulously, thinking of what that prayer was. It sounded like something the maiden would pray, and to hear it from her lips made him wonder if it had worked, after all. He was tamer now, and he could put his rage aside easier, especially with her. But the gods hadn’t saved him. She had, with her little hymn and those blue eyes that tore through his black soul.

“No.” She said honestly. “But I don’t want them to be, not anymore.”

“Saying I’m on your little list now too?” He tried to joke. It was a weak attempt at best, but he had no other choice. His mind was spinning with the other possibilities, and he desperately wanted silence.

“I don’t want to gods to save you, or gentle your rage now.” She slipped a hand behind his head and he was confused, because didn’t she want him to change and not be a monster anymore? A brute? But the look on her face spoke of no hatred or fear like it had so many years ago. It was something else entirely. It was like hope, but he didn’t remember the last time she’d had such a look. “I want you to save me, and I want to save you. I want you to be angry, to keep yourself safe. The gods do nothing. I’d rather.”

“And what will you do?” He asked her and she smiled. “How will Sansa Stark save me?” He didn’t want to tell her that she already had. Let her do it all over again, and think it was her idea.

“I’ll sing you a pretty little song.” She informed him and he wanted to pull her into his arms and explain to her, in no uncertain terms, what sort of song from her lips would save and destroy him in one go. “And how will Sandor Clegane save me?”

Only a breath of hesitation held him back from answering the question very differently. But he gave her an honest answer all the same. “By killing anyone who so much as thinks they can hurt you.”

“I called you awful once.” Sansa laughed humorlessly. “Do you remember?”

“I remember telling you I was honest.” He remarked back, moving to sit at her side. The memory was a little blurry, because it had taken him until it was over to stop the roaring in his ears and come back down to earth. By then she was already running from him, like she always had back there.

“An honest man in an awful world.” Sansa mused. “You were right then, I was just too stupid to know it yet.”

“Not stupid.” He took her hand, head still thudding at how she allowed him this liberty and being grateful for it, while also wishing he could do more. “Naive. Innocent.”

“I like to think back to that.” Sansa leaned against him and he lost all train of coherent thought for a moment, upon smelling the milk soap he knew she used. She smelled clean and sweet and he tried to focus on every single thing about the moment, to impress it into his brain for another time. “To the girl in Kings Landing. All the things I’d tell her.”

“Aye, and what would you tell her about the Hound?” He asked hoarsely, remembering the frightened little bird she was and Sansa smiled, but didn’t look up at him.

“I’d laugh, because she thinks he’s an awful killer. I would tell her no, he’s not awful. He’s wonderful.”

“I’m not wonderful.” He grumbled, suddenly uncomfortable with the turn of words. He had always hated when she did this, tried to make him into some grand ser like the knights in the stories and songs. He’d always tried so hard to make her see the real him, because he didn’t know how to pretend to be good and kind. If she was to look upon him, she would always have to see the bad. “I’m a killer.”

“All men are. You told me that too.” Sansa glanced at him with an unreadable expression, something that wasn’t quite guarded, but more along the lines of… Hesitant. As though she was scared of her next words. “You told me that my father, my brothers were killers. You told me my sons would be killers.”

“Aye, they might be.” He shifted uncomfortably. He didn’t even want to go back to imagining her as a mother to their children. He had to keep reminding himself that she would never want his children, only his protection and perhaps even his company. But never anything more, and he made sure he knew it well enough.

“And apparently there’s nothing in this world you love more than your children.” Sansa’s mouth drew up in a wry smile. “I love Arya, and she’s a killer. So is Jon, and Brienne, and everyone else. And they’re all very good at it. I am even a killer, or did you forget that? So I’m afraid you’re going to need a different argument.”

“I don’t want to argue with the little bird.” He sat beside her, feeling her body heat radiate off her, close enough to turn and bury his face in her neck, and avoiding staring at his mangled reflection. “Just wish to see her smile.”

“I already feel better.” Sansa informed him. “I just needed to be somewhere no one could see me.”

“I can go.” He stood, but she grabbed his hand.

“Don’t. I like when you stay.” She gave him a pleading look. “Stay.”

“Anything the lady wishes.” He sat back down again and Sansa exhaled loudly. He tried to stay still, because surely she was going to send him away shortly, thinking it a fluke she hadn’t already. Instead, she just stared out into the water, like it was going to yield answers to her, but didn’t.

“She wishes a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Like for lemon cakes.” Sansa smiled as she played with the sleeve of her dress, for some reason avoiding his eyes. “For a pile of them. I’d sit and eat them until I was fat and couldn’t have another.”

“Would you now?” He chuckled. “You’d make yourself sick. What else?”

“Um, a new dress.” She looked down at hers. “Something like my mother wore.” He had no idea what Catelyn Tully wore, but somehow, he couldn’t get the vision of her in her dresses at Kings Landing, how they’d been ripped open easily on Joffrey’s orders, out of his head. These dresses, here in the north, seemed like armor that wouldn’t yield. But thinking such thoughts always sent him down a dark path and so he tried to stay present.

“And?” He questioned, wondering if she would say something he could provide. The thought made his heart leap, picturing the look of gratitude, of happiness on her face if he arrived with a beautiful new dress for her or a platter of lemon cakes.

“And for Jon to come home.” Sansa sighed. “For us to lock the gates of Winterfell and hide from winter in here. For everyone to stop dying, for two minutes.”

“I think I’ve been here for more than two minutes and no one has died, little bird.” He pointed out, desperate to instill some happiness back in her.

“Good.” Sansa took his hand. “Losing you would be…” She trailed off, gazing back down into the water. He looked too, but at her face rather than his own.

“I won’t go anywhere.” The words were a promise, but when she rose he did too, and slipped behind her as her shield, and so they went, with nothing left but a memory for him to cherish when he was alone.

 

There were often times at night where Sansa would retire with her siblings, before bed, and he would feel unwanted or intruding, and leave the guarding of Sansa to Arya. He knew she was good enough for it. Tonight was such a night, and after his conversation in the godswood with Sansa, he didn’t mind the quiet.

He sat on his bed and began stripping himself of his armor and clothes. The northern cold required more layers than he’d ever imagined, and while he’d managed so far to not lose any fingers or toes, he felt like it certainly wasn’t a long time coming before he did. He laid in bed and tried to relax, instead of thinking of her.

He did though, he always did, and tonight was no different. He began to play the conversation back in his head, trying to remember what all had been said and how she had said it. Her asking him to stay. Her talking about losing him. Her, hands on his face, chest, arms, all over and not near enough. It was her face he held in his mind’s eye as he fell asleep, but it did not stay there for long.

The water was on fire- green, unnatural, unholy fire. He was wearing heavy armor- he couldn’t get it off. He couldn’t swim, he was going to drown. Burn and then drown, or the other way around? Either was a shit way to go. He struggled, trying to get free, panic making his chest constrict until—

Then, with a gasp, he was awake. Hands rested on his face and his chest, firm enough to root him to the real world and sheer instinct drove him to sit up, grabbing the wrists of whoever held him. It wasn’t until his grey eyes focused on the striking blue of Sansa that he stopped thrashing.

“Your screams, from your nightmares.” She explained quietly, answering a question he did not ask her. “They scared the maids.” She was sitting on the edge of his bed, a faint glow from a candle illuminating her face, with it showing concern of all things. He tried to sit up and she let him go.

“Little bird the only one brave enough to calm the rabid hound?” He asked, raggedly. He was sweaty, and clad in only breeches and an undershirt. Sansa, the lady, shouldn’t see him like this, so he tried to draw the furs up.

“I didn’t want anyone else waking you.” Sansa stood and walked to the hearth, gathering the logs there like she’d done it hundreds of times before. She knelt and started a small fire. “When I had nightmares, I would always have Brienne wake me. Anyone else would send me into a panic. I didn’t want you scared.”

“To be scared and lash out.” He corrected and she turned. For the first time, he realized what she was wearing. A thin nightgown, with a cloak thrown over the top of it. Her feet were utterly bare. Her hair was down, and unbraided. She was utterly vulnerable, in a way he’d never seen her.

“Yes, that. Does me admitting it make you feel better?” She looked at him with piercing eyes, as though she was calling his bluff right back.

“Going to be honest now, little bird?” He glared at her and Sansa turned back to the fire. He sat up fully and felt the chill of the air. He stood, gathering the furs off the bed. Instantly, he wrapped the thickest of them around her. “You should go back to bed.” He was mostly concerned that she had drug herself out of bed for him, of all people, and what anyone would think if they say them together in such a state.

“Except I cannot sleep.” She whispered, more to the fire than to him. It danced, and she stared into it like it would tell her secrets. Uneasily, he wondered if it would. “It seems I have as many nightmares as the ser-not-ser.”

“And who wakes you Sansa, now that Brienne is gone?” He asked her, unable to keep it from being spoken tenderly. He hated himself for it, but he was concerned at the idea that Sansa slept alone with no one there to reassure her when she awoke from nightmares he could only imagine she had.

“You don’t have to be woken if you don’t sleep.” She pulled the furs tighter around her. Against his better judgement, he allowed himself to place a gentle arm across her shoulders for the sake of body heat and she rested her head against his chest. They stood like this for a long moment.

“What do you need to sleep?” He asked quietly. “Is it someone to stand at your door and make sure no one will get in?” That was all he could offer her, no more. Any more and he would risk spilling it all out.

“I don’t think that’s it.” She wasn’t shivering, but he could still feel how tense she was, like a bowstring. “Those that harm me in my nightmares aren’t beyond my doors, Sandor. They’re in my head.”

“I will kill them. Would that help the lady sleep?” He offered and she said nothing, but gazed into the fire as though it would make her forget.

“I already did, and still they come.” She didn’t look at him. “I carried the poison for Joffrey, I fed Ramsey to his hounds, I let Arya slash Littlefinger’s throat, I faced all those that hurt me and then I could hurt them back, and did. But they can still hurt me in my dreams, no matter if they are dead.”

“Tell me what I can do.” He said roughly. Cut down all her enemies. Slaughter them and their families. Be the vicious, murderous bastard that they both knew he could be, that he was. “I’ll do it.”

“This is good.” Sansa muttered, as she drew a little closer to him and his arm curled around her possessively. “Aren’t you cold?”

“No.” He lied. He was, in truth, cold on the stone floor in the winter air outside his furs, still yet reluctant to get close to the fire.

“Yes, you are.” Sansa peered at him with interest and he cursed the blasted Lord Baelish and his teaching of lies to her. “Back to bed.”

“No,” He protested, even as her thin fingers prodded him in the side like a blasted bird might peck, right towards his bed. “You’re not warmly dressed enough, and if the lady can’t sleep, I’ll get her something.”

“The lady is a Stark.” She reminded him, pushing him firmly towards the bed and he let himself take a step backwards, towards it. “Starks don’t get cold. Winter is in our blood. And I don’t need anything but sleep. I’m sure I’ll get it soon enough.” With another good shove, she’d got him to the edge of the bed. He sat heavily and she let the furs slip off her thin shoulders, back onto his lap.

“Sansa— your ladyship— little bird—“ He couldn’t settle on what name to call her, when she was in his chambers, in her nightdress, ordering him about and utterly disregarding him. Nothing felt like it was going to be strong enough to put them at a distance, back where he so desperately needed her, high and out of reach, in her nest.

“Oh, and Jon wrote to you. The raven came in the night.” Sansa offered him a scroll and his heart abandoned him entirely, as memories came rushing back of just what he’d written to the king about. “Is it orders to come back to him?”

“Aye, might be.” With shaking hands, he started to unroll the scroll, then stopped when Sansa sat on the end of his bed, using one of the furs to settle over her lap. “What in the name of the seven fucking gods are you doing?”

“Sitting.” She said, all innocence. “The floor is cold.”

“I thought the lady was a blasted Stark.” He meant for it to sound harsh, and scare her away. But apparently, she was well beyond that now, simply snuggling back into the covers like they were her own.

“And Starks are human.”

“Sansa, you should not be in a man’s bed.” He was fast bordering desperation now, because what the hell could he do now? Against her, he was powerless, but he knew how much pain this would cause her if they were found out. And selfishly, he knew the pain it would cause him, to have her so close with all the barriers dropped.

“This is not the Red Keep.” Her mouthed twisted at that. “There are no spies in the walls. No one is going to flitter about at the fact that I am sitting in your bed. Besides, if neither of us are going to sleep, why not be unable to sleep together?” The words made a blush rise on her cheeks but she was steadfast in maintaining the image that they were doing nothing out of the ordinary. “You can tell me what Jon said.”

“Likely nothing, your ladyship.” He looked down at the scroll, suddenly dreading opening it. What would Jon say?

“Then will you tell me stories?” Sansa asked and he looked up at her. She was reclining, careful not to intrude too much on his space.

“What kind of stories?” He tucked the scroll away and hoped she forgot about it. How the hell would he explain his request to Jon if she asked?

“Funny ones.” Her hair was fanned about her head and she’d pulled the fur up to her chin. When he climbed beneath his blankets, he could only see the hump of her, near his feet. “I want to hear something funny.”

“I don’t have many funny stories.” He muttered, arranging himself so that he didn’t touch a single part of her. “Sing one of your songs, little bird.”

“If you tell me a story, I will sing you a song.” She promised him, sweetly. “But you have to go first.”

“I don’t have stories.” He grumbled darkly, wondering if she thought that he’d grown up in a rosy nursery like she had, playing and listening to some stories of great ladies and lords by their wet nurse.

“Please?” Her voice was soft and pleading, and turned him to damned putty, even if he tried to fight it.

“Sansa.”

“Sandor.”

A long pause followed their names, and for a moment, he savored it. The way his name sounded when it come from her lips like that, a bit of a plea, a bit of a challenge, a bit of something else. And her name, sweet in his mouth, like honey.

“Fine. This isn’t a funny story.” He caved first of course, he always did around her, and heard her shift as a reward for his act.

“Does it involve raping, murdering, pillaging, plundering, sacking, battles, or blood in any kind?”

“No.”

“Then carry on.”

“You know that my house is three hounds, running.” He began heavily. A shift of blankets signaled that she did indeed. “We raised them in the keep, and they were my favorite thing in the world. There were no better days than those when a new litter of puppies were birthed. My brother couldn’t touch them when we were boys, on the pain of my father’s sword. So, he didn’t take too much interest.

“I loved them. I would go into the kennels and sit amongst them. My sister, she loved the runts. My father let her keep them, and she trained them to follow her around. Her and her pack, me and mine. I would train them, and then when they were old enough, we would sell them off. She hated that day, my sister. I did too.

“But before we did, I got to raise them. And the best memories I have are of young pups, running through the westerlands. To fetch, to sit, to track, to heel, to lay, all of it. They were my hounds, and I their master. I suppose that’s where I learned it from.” He ended bitterly, thinking of Joffrey.

His story wasn’t so much a story as it was his simple history, but it was the only sort that had any happiness in it that he could give Sansa. Besides, it felt good, to share with her the fact that he had once been whole, and good, and innocent before his brother stole all of that from him. He wanted her to understand that once, if fate had treated him very differently, he might’ve once been the kind of knight she’d been glad to give her favors and affections to. The kind from her songs.

“I loved dogs. I loved Lady.” Sansa said quietly. He was surprised, sure she’d press and ask more questions about his family, but he recalled the lovely, elegant direwolf that had accompanied Sansa during their trek south, that first time. A beautiful creature with a beautiful owner. “Then I met Ramsey and now they just scare me.”

“Dogs are nothing to be scared of.” He said quietly, thinking of her in his keep, a pack of excitable little puppies tumbling after her as she laughed. It was a pretty picture, and one that would never come true, he sternly reminded himself. “I would bring you the runt of the litter, the smallest and the sweetest, and you could hold it and it would be kind and good, like you. My sister’s pups always were.”

“I would like that.” Sansa said, faintly enough that he almost missed it. Then there was silence. Then came her question. “What was she like, your sister?”

“Beautiful.” That was the honest truth. He felt the tears and the rage that was all too familiar when it came to recalling her. “Young. I don’t know, I don’t remember much else about her then.”

“Oh.” Sansa knew to stop pressing and he was thankful and a little disappointed. He wanted her to know him, see him in a new light, but that was still too raw. “What song do you want to hear then Sandor?”

“Whatever the pretty little bird decides.” He declared, once his throat unstuck from the implications of her singing, even if she didn’t mean it like that, and there was a long pause, long enough that he grew uncomfortable with his request, wondering if it was the right thing or if it would just remind her of that dark night.

“I haven’t sang in ages.” She remarked. “I don’t remember the old songs I once loved so. Is that alright?”

“What songs do you know now?” He asked her, thinking of the way she’d sang the hymn for him so beautifully, even when terrified.

“Sad ones.” She whispered.

“If I cannot tell a sad story, little bird, you can’t sing a sad song. Sing me one of your mother’s songs.” He vaguely recalled rowdy tunes from the men from his wanderings with Arya, before wondering if she knew those. Probably not, ever the little lady.

“What, from the riverlands?” Sansa seemed surprised.

“Aye.” He hesitated at his request, but he’d thought that it would make her happy to recall her mother’s tunes.

“I only know a few.” Sansa’s voice had gone a little squeaky.

“Which is?” He puzzled over her tone.

“Oh, seven hells.” She cursed and he jolted in surprise. “Weren’t you the one who told me not to put faith in such songs? You’ll laugh.”

“I would never.” He stared at the ceiling. Here, when he couldn’t see her face, made honesty all the easier. “I like your voice. Just not the fucking songs.”

“If I cannot sing a sad song, and you’d like it to be from the river, it’ll be a love song. The one they sing at marriages.” She sounded terribly embarrassed, the hint of the girl he’d known creeping back in. It made him smile, if not stopping his heart to think that she would sing him a song about love, while she sat in his bed as though they were the ones who had been wedded and bedded.

“Sing, little bird.” He got it out before he felt like his windpipe was taken hostage with anticipation.

“If you laugh, I’ll stop.” She threatened and he snorted at that.

“If you stop, I’ll make you start over.” It was easily to be brutish with her than explain to her that there was nothing he’d rather do then listen to her sing.

“Don’t laugh!” A thin white foot emerged from the blankets and kicked him, hard, in the shin. He nearly yelped in surprise.

“Gods, girl! I won’t.”

“Promise?”

“Aye, heart and fucking soul.”

There was a long pause, and then Sansa’s voice, soft and hesitant, began. It was indeed the wedding song of the river families, about streams and hearts becoming one, about the strength of two as one, about love prevailing. Her voice was quiet, but gradually it grew a little louder, until she was singing, not passionately, but wonderfully.

Careful, as to not distract her and her singing, he reached for the scroll from Jon. If he was going to receive news that would break his heart, he wanted to do it to her sweet song. Besides, Jon’s righteous anger at the audacity of the request would prevent him from doing anything stupid.

When she finished her tune, letting the last note fade off into the night, she was quiet. He was as well, the scroll clenched tightly in his fist. He wondered if she’d fallen sleep, when her little voice, sleepy, asked,

“What did the scroll say Sandor?”

He took a deep breath and looked at it once again. A few of Jon’s words, scratched down. Only one that really mattered. One that set fire to his blood and made him feel like he needed to run his sword through something or ride for the sea, so he could drown himself in it. He had to whisper his answer.

“It said yes, little bird. He said yes.”

But she was already fast asleep despite everything.

In the morning when he woke, she was gone. If not for the depression at the end of the bed where she’d curled up, he would have chalked it all up to a dream. But it wasn’t, because he had the scroll still in his fist when he sat up. He smoothed it out and read it again, sure that his eyes must’ve deceived him.

Sandor,

Sansa is free to choose her suitors and husband as she sees fit. I promised her that much when I killed bastard Bolton.

We march for Winterfell in three days.

Jon Snow

He sat back down heavily, staring at the scroll in astonishment. There it was, the answer that he’d wanted. He already knew Jon’s feelings on this. The world was coming to an end, shortly, so who cared whether Sansa Stark married a lord or a hound? None of it mattered anymore. But this was permission, or at least reassurance. She wasn’t going to be shipped off to some lord for a few more men, or grain.

She was free to pick. He knew it didn’t mean that she would ever pick him. Not a thousand years, he was sure. But it meant, at least, that he could see her off to the man that loved her, that she loved back, one who would treat her well. And that would have to be enough, for a dog like him.

He crumbled up the scroll and made to throw it in the fire. Instead, he tucked it deep in his bags. Best to have proof if someone doubted that he did ask Jon. He paused, wondering how he could face her today before sternly reminding himself that she couldn’t know anything. Then he got dressed, humming the wedding tune of the rivers.

Chapter Text

“Clegane!” Arya was bounding through the halls and he stopped in surprise, turning around to glance at her. She looked entirely too chipper for the early morning, before they’d eaten, and it made him suspicious. Until he saw that she clenched a scroll in her hands. For a wild moment, he thought she’d taken the one from his rooms.

 

“What?” He demanded roughly.

 

“Did Jon write to you?” She was breathless with excitement. “He’s marching, soon. He’ll be here within a fortnight!”

 

“Aye,” He relaxed marginally, as they headed for the hall to break their fast. “He did mention that.”

 

“He’ll be home soon.” He’d never seen Arya this happy, smiling and with a little skip in her step. She looked her age for once. He remembered how close they were, she and Jon. She’d talked of him a few times, called him her brother. And he remembered the joy on Jon’s face when Brienne had told them she was still alive.

 

“Good.” He said quietly, but without much conviction. Arya, still too delighted by the news to notice, opened the door to the hall and the noise overwhelmed them. Arya went to the head table while he went to the men-at-arms, avoiding looking up to see if Sansa was there or not. He had no idea how to look at her this morning.

 

If Jon was coming home, that meant he only had a fortnight, perhaps a little more, left with her. Then he was going to leave and go north, to fight wights and white walkers. He felt sadness lump in his stomach, and decided to drown out such a feeling with ale. He reached for a cup, when the flash of crimson caught the corner of his eye.

 

He gritted his teeth and took a long swig, pointedly ignoring her. He tried to focus on eating, rather than staring up at her. He had no idea how training was going to go today. She might not even come. She was likely embarrassed, of what had happened last night. It had to have been a mistake. It had to have been.

 

The worst was that he didn’t want it to be. He didn’t want her to be ashamed or regret it. He wanted her to cherish it, like he did. He wanted her to look up at him and smile, as brash and happy as she had been before, in his bed. Even the words made him shift uncomfortably, and he glanced up at the high table, unable to stop himself.

 

She was chatting with her sister, looking bright eyed and well rested. He flushed slightly, trying to get a grip on things. Then, after a pause that spanned no more than a heartbeat, her gaze slid past Arya and onto him, like she knew he was watching her. Before he could look away, a little smile curved her lips upwards.

 

He looked down at his ale and decided he needed more of it, and quickly.

 

After they were done eating, he went with most of the men to the training yard. He’d fallen into an informal role of master-at-arms, he found. Most of the men respected his training and he’d learned that by booming commands at them, most of them would listen. He even found he enjoyed it, putting the men through their paces, noting improvements here and there. It felt like a place.

 

He was discussing the finer points of a longsword with Devlyn when Sansa appeared, making her way to him. Again, she was careful to stop and talk to anyone that approached her, always ready with her little smiles and wise words. He was oddly nervous, feeling more and more queasy with every step she took toward them. Finally, she was standing in front of them and he found it difficult to breathe.

 

“Devlyn.” Sansa smiled at the man with genuine fondness. “How are you doing this morning? Training our men?”

 

“Trying to, my lady.” He said humbly, with a little bow. “And how is the lady this morning? Well, I hope?”

 

“Very.” Sansa gave him a smile that was bigger than the one she’d given the other men previously. “And you, Sandor?”

 

“I am well, thank you.” He said stiffly.

 

“I’ll leave you two to train.” Devlyn gave a little nod and went to depart. Sansa gave him another smile before turning to look up at Sandor.

 

“Hello.” She said quietly and he was quiet, busying himself with finding a blunted knife to continue their work with. “Sandor, look at me.”

 

“We should get to work.” He declared and quick as lightening, Sansa had reached out and caught his chin in her hand, yanking it down so he looked at her. Internally, he cursed himself at what he’d taught her, while trying to remain impassive outwardly.

 

“Don’t.” She utterly, quietly. “Don’t pull away like you always do. I hate it when you do. Nothing has changed, alright? Nothing. Now train me.”

 

“Sansa.” He responded and she let him go, smoothing out her dress, brushing over the hilts of her daggers.

 

“Well?” Her eyes sparkled and he decided that maybe some sparring was exactly what they both needed. He fell into his stance as she went for his neck.

 

“Faster.” He urged Sansa and she gave a very unladylike grunt, trying to block his jabs and holds. He was moving at what felt like the speed of molasses, but Sansa was pushing herself, that was clear. 

 

“Enough.” She gasped and he instantly dropped his hands, looking at her with concern. They hadn't been going long enough for her to be winded yet. She bent in two, panting. 

 

“Stand up straight.” He grabbed her shoulder and tried to help her to straighten but she smacked his hand away and sat heavily on a barrel, arms around her stomach. “Sansa?” He asked with alarm. 

 

“Doesn’t help, does it?” Arya remarked, from where she’d been practicing throwing knives in a circle. 

 

“No.” Sansa groaned and he looked between the two of them in bewilderment, concern fast mounting the longer either of them refused to explain themselves, with Sansa obviously in pain. 

 

“Sansa, are you alright?” He tried to keep the panic from his voice, seconds away from scooping her up and running to the maester and demand she be put to rights.

 

“I will be, just—” She gave a moan and Arya gathered her knives while he hovered around her sister unsurely. 

 

“I’ll go get tea from the kitchens.” She said, with surprisingly gentle kindness and Sansa gave her a grateful look, still pressing a hand, hard, to her stomach. He watched Arya leave, then turned to Sansa in concern. 

 

“Little bird,” He said gently, kneeling beside her. “What is it?” 

 

“Woman’s troubles.” She tried to remain dignified but he couldn’t help reeling back like she’d slapped him. He’d guarded Cersei for years, he wasn’t stupid when it came to such matters, but he’d never thought she’d been out here, in the training yard, with such things, and he’d been yelling at her seconds ago. He felt like an ass.

 

“You shouldn’t be—” He began to protest but she cut him off with a look that spoke to the fact that this was nothing uncommon for her. 

 

“It’s nothing. Sometimes the cramps are a little worse, that’s all.” 

 

“You shouldn’t be doing such strenuous training.” He insisted, noting that she was flushed and still hunched over. He wanted to order her back to bed and spend the rest of the afternoon tending to her every whim, no matter what sort of man that made him. 

 

“It’s cramps, not a loss of a limb.” Sansa gave him a withering look. “What, will the dead care if I have them? Will that stop them?” 

 

“Alright,” He put a hand up, unwilling to think any more on the subject. “But we can be done for the morning, if you’d like.” 

 

“I’ll be fine after Arya brings me tea.” She assured him. 

 

“If you are in pain…” He trailed off, unsure what to say here. This pain he couldn’t take away from her. He couldn’t kill anyone to stop this pain. He was utterly useless and for a moment, he truly understood why men always felt so powerless when they were in love. There was so much he could not control here.

 

“No, I’m not.” She gave a faint smile and he remembered who she was. She’d endured worse pain, far worse, and he hung his head least she saw the rage on his face and think it directed at her. 

 

“Here.” Arya had returned, holding out a steaming mug. Sansa took it with a mummer of thanks, taking a long drink from it. Arya gave him a look he couldn’t interpret, so he scowled back out of habit. 

 

“Alright.” Sansa said, once she’d finished the draught. “Give me a moment and we can start again.”

 

“We don’t have to.” He said hastily and Sansa raised an eyebrow. 

 

“I’m not going to break.” She said firmly and Arya snorted. “And besides, I’m ages and ages behind everyone here. I need to train harder.” 

 

“You don’t.” He gave a stern look at Arya, demanding she back him up here. She quirked an eyebrow, but then agreed. 

 

“Sansa, I spent years training, and I actually wanted to do it. You’ve only had weeks, and you’re much better at being a lady anyways.” 

 

“I don’t care.” Sansa picked up her daggers, shaking out her skirts and looking up with fire in her eyes. “Again, and faster this time.” 

 

“Sansa,” He tried to protest but she took the first step, jabbing at him and he fell into the rhythm. Arya stood nearby, shouting instructions at her sister and he was so preoccupied with worrying about not hurting her that before he even realized what had happened, cold steel was pressed to his jaw. He froze, staring down at her. 

 

Neither Sansa nor Arya seemed able to believe what was happening. Arya had fallen silent, head cocked to one side, disbelief across her face. Sansa, chest heaving, blue eyes wide, blinked twice, shaking from head to toe but keeping the knife pressed firmly to him. Slowly, he reached up and adjusted it to where his pulse beat, rapidly, in his neck.

 

“Bleeds faster, kills them quicker. Press hard.” Arya explained, still very much in the tone of surprise. 

 

“Press hard.” He repeated with a nod and Sansa nodded, still a little astonished, and then dropped the blade. 

 

“I know you let me do that, but—” She began, but this time, he cut her off. 

 

“I was distracted. You took advantage of it. It was a good move, little bird.” He smiled now, a genuine one, when he saw how delighted she was by his words. “I think that’s enough for today.” 

 

“I can still—” She began to protest, but he shook his head. 

 

“I’ve been bested once, and you can do it again. Tomorrow.” He gave her a firm look and she seemed to ready to demand they keep training before she relaxed and turned to Arya with a tentative proud smile, awaiting judgement from her little sister. 

 

“Now imagine learning all that blind.” She stated and Sansa smiled as she pulled her cloak on. The two sisters walked away, but he stayed where he was, knowing that Arya could take care of Sansa if anything happened before he could get to her. Then he turned and headed for the armory. 

 

“Here are her measurements.” He ordered the blacksmith, handing him a scrap of paper that he’d had since their first training session, when Sansa had complained about one dagger being too large. “Finest steel for the blades, finest leather for the sheaths, understand? I know shoddy work when I see it.” 

 

“Of course, Ser.” The blacksmith stammered and he let it go, oddly proud he could still intimidate smallfolk.  

 

“Alright.” He went to leave, then paused and turned back around, against his better judgment but unable to stop himself. “And little birds.” 

 

“Pardon?” The smith looked up, the wrinkles on his aged face deepening with his confusion at his words. 

 

“To decorate it.” He was out of his depth here. All that mattered to him when it came to weapons was functionality, not decoration. But Sansa wasn’t going to carry around some common hunting knife. She deserved elegant, pretty. Beautiful weapons for a beautiful girl. When the smith raised an eyebrow, he left with a scowl. 

 

 

 

He ate a small meal before going to the great hall, where Sansa was holding court with the knights and lords. She was telling them of Jon’s imminent arrival when he slid in behind her, noticing that another steaming mug was within her reach and making a note that when it was empty to get her another.

 

“And he expects us to what, kneel?” One of the northern houses, he wasn’t sure which, was asking in disgust.

 

“Jon is your king.” Sansa’s voice carried across the room with ease, calm and measured. “As your king, if he has made an alliance, we are bound to follow it.”

 

“I don’t kneel to any bitch!” The young lord Cerwyn yelled boldly from the back of the hall and while Sandor bristled, Sansa remained utterly silent, gazing with ice in her eyes at the man. A few men that had started to chortle went quiet, as Sansa slowly reached for her tea and took a slow sip of it.

 

“Ser Yves,” She said evenly, and it never failed to impressive him, how well she knew the houses and their men. She could tell him all the words, all the colors, all the sons and heirs and dead lords. He had no idea how she did it, but here, there was not a man she couldn’t name and call out. “When Queen Daenerys comes, if you would prefer not to side with her and my brother, you would be welcome to face the undead, alone. Or,” Here, her voice cut like steel. “You can remain with us, with our army, our dragons, and our supplies.”

 

After a long pause, the man carefully sat back down, silent. Sandor wanted to chuckle at how masterfully she kept these men loyal, reminding them of what they stood to lose if they left the safety and sanctity of Winterfell. She had learned more at the capital than anyone had ever realized, he thought. Only he could see what a treasure she was.

 

“Jon would not swear loyalty to someone he did not respect.” Bran’s voice was flat, and he could tell it took the majority of the group by surprise. He rarely spoke on these things, and no one was quite sure what to think of him.

 

“Yes,” Sansa said slowly, trying to cover how unnerved she was. “And when both she and Jon arrive, they will both hear your worries and address them then. In the meantime, we deal with the matters at hand. Lord Flint, will you tell me about the stores of firewood we have, and the men needed to build them?”

 

When the men finally departed, he saw for a moment just how much Sansa’s shoulders fell. He looked at her with concern, noting how pale she’d become. Around her eyes were shadows like she’d taken a beating, though he knew no one had touched her. There was something brittle and breakable about her whole demeanor, as though she was a forgotten and neglected statue, and one touch might shatter her.

 

“Sansa,” He started, unable to help himself, but then she gave him a wane smile and finished her tea.

 

“How much daylight do we have left?” She asked him, as Arya stood and stretched, yawning loudly.

 

“A few hours, maybe less.” He told her. The days got shorter every day, and the sun came less and less, replaced by a grey sky that stubbornly refused to yield any light, warmth, or brightness.

 

“I’d like to ride.” She told him, to his surprise. “Tell the lords we’re going to the outer defenses, or something else. But I need out of here.”

 

“Of course.” He agreed easily. He stepped forward and offered his arm. Sansa took it was a little smile and the contact with her reassured him that she wasn’t as breakable as he feared. She glanced back at her siblings.

 

“Let me take you to the library.” Arya was saying loudly to Bran. “Maester Wolkan will be glad to have your eyes.”

 

He and Sansa went to the stables and saddled both Stranger and Birdie with ease. He watched, a little amused, as his horse nudged Sansa and she responded without treats, but instead with a kiss to his black forelock and gentle pats on the side of his neck. It seemed there was no one that she could not, and would not, resist showing compassion to.

 

“Are you alright?” He asked quietly, as they went from the stables to the gate. A few guards nodded their heads as they rode past, and quietly they went beyond the walls of Winterfell. Sansa was quiet for a few moments longer, before whispering,

 

“Yes.”

 

“Little bird.” He gave her a stern look and she leaned forward, resting her forehead against Birdie.

 

“I am so tired.” Her voice could barely be heard over the sound of their horses’ hooves on the frozen ground. He stiffened.

 

“Then I should not have kept you up.” He tried not to think about the implications behind the words.

 

“It’s not you that does.” She gazed north. “It’s Jon, it’s Arya, it’s the past, it’s the future. It’s Bran, it’s my memories, it’s my fears. You’re the only thing provides me some respite, Sandor. The rest of my life, it’s like waves that don’t stop coming. I think it might be like a battle, but I’ve never been in one.”

 

“Nor will you ever.” The thought, especially given his knowledge of what was coming, scared him beyond belief. He wanted her to remain far, far away. He wanted her to remain safe, and sound.

 

“Is it the same?” She didn’t look at him, as she pointed Birdie towards the Kingsroad. “Being in a battle?”

 

“Of sorts.” He followed, keeping pace with her. They headed towards the woods, where he knew traps lay. He’d laid several himself, in the hopes they might stop some of the dead from reaching Winterfell.

 

“How do you keep going then?” She questioned. “When you think it would be best just to lay down and let it pass?”

 

“You can’t.” He said frankly, honestly. “There’s something in you that just turns. Staying alive becomes the most important thing. You keep fighting, because you must. Because there’s things to live for.”

 

“What do you live for?” She asked, turning to him and he stared down at Stranger, trying to answer her honestly.

 

That was the question, wasn’t it? Why he had lived. Why he’d let the septon keep him alive, even when the fever and the pain made him beg for mercy, mercy, mercy, please, give me mercy… He thought once that the only thing keeping him alive was the desire that one day he could kill his brother, and that he’d finally know the sweetness of hearing Gregor take his final breath.

 

But now it was something different, and Sansa knew this. She had to. She had to see how different he was, not only from the man he was in Kings Landing, but how different he was now. How Winterfell had made him into a different sort of man.

 

Sandor Clegane, the Hound, of Clegane Keep, bannerman to Casterly Rock, who lived for vengeance and killing and hatred, had died.

 

Sandor Clegane, the Protector, of the Quiet Isle, bannerman to Winterfell, he lived for a great many things, and the most important sat on a pretty white horse, riding beside him, in her black cloak with red hair.

 

“I live for life, little bird.” He said softly, and thought that was honest enough. Sansa’s mouth twitched upwards.

 

“That’s a good thing.” She declared and he watched as she rode, looking relieved for once that there were no eyes on her, judging, prying, watching. He wished he could protect her from more things, but it seemed this would have to be enough. He rode with her and they were quiet, until Sansa raised her face to the winter sky and closed her eyes. He saw why a moment later; it was beginning to snow.

 

“We need to head back.” He decided, thinking about how quickly winter storms could come on the moors.

 

“One moment longer,” Sansa sounded breathless. “Please.”

 

“Little bird.” He watched her, as she raised one gloved hand up to catch a flake before it melted. He didn’t tell her that her red hair preserved the flakes, giving her a delicate crown of ice.

 

“Were you born in the winter?” She asked him suddenly and he paused, trying to recall the stories of his birth.

 

“I think so.” He frowned slightly. “My mother said once that I came squalling during a storm so bad my father couldn’t make it back from Casterly Rock.”

 

“Like me.” Sansa’s voice was almost dreamy. “I was a winter’s child. Only one of all my family, did you know? The rest are summer children. Winters blood, my father told me once. He said I was as pale as the snow. He said that it was the first day in ages they’d seen a blue sky. Blue like my eyes.” She turned said eyes on him.

 

“Aye, you don’t see much blue here.” He agreed, trying not to imagine what exactly a pale babe with blue eyes looked like, especially not in Sansa’s arms.

 

“No, it’s grey. Like yours. As grey as a winter storm, that’s what you are, Sandor.” Her words were almost tender. "A wild beauty."

 

“I am no beauty.” He scoffed. He knew it was true; he’d never been a handsome knight even without the scars. They just enhanced his ugliness.

 

“Beauty.” Sansa gave a hollow laugh. “Cersei was beautiful, and so was Joffrey. Loras was beautiful, and Robb too. My mother, Margaery, Mycella, they were all so beautiful, and now they are all so dead. Beauty is nothing. Didn’t you tell me that once? The world was built by killers, not beauties.”

 

“I was wrong.” He admitted, not a little reluctantly. “Killers build the world, but beauties make it all the worthwhile.”

 

“You’ve changed.” Sansa said it with a note of approval, so he did not to take offense to her statement. “Still teaching me lessons, I see.”

 

“I don’t teach you shit.” He said, uncomfortable with her implications and gaze. “I just take your orders.”

 

“You’re never done that.” Sansa kicked Birdie into a trot. “You decide your own fate now, you always have.” With that, they rode back to Winterfell, racing darkness and a winter storm. When he retired to his rooms, choosing to dine there alone, a warm bath was already waiting for him. He sank into the water with a relieved groan.

 

Atop the bar of soap was a small scroll and he frowned, reaching a wet hand out to unroll it carefully, trying not to let the water from his hand cause the ink to run and render it useless. He read the words quickly and went still.

 

Do not bar your door.

 

Of course he knew the handwriting. He’d watched as she wrote notes and letters in Kings Landing, and usually ended up burning them all. He’d wondered how many were addressed to her family. He’d never thought to offer to send them. But these were clear orders, with clear intentions. She was going to return to him tonight, or at least intended to.

 

He quickly threw the note towards the fire, watching as it burned, heart jerking in erratic beats. He had no idea what to do, but found himself mechanically scrubbing himself, making sure he did a better job this time than anything other. Then, when he got out of the water, he attempted to do something with his face and hair, cursing because it was utterly useless and he wasn’t sure why he even tried.

 

When the door opened he nearly had a heart attack, but it was just a maid, bearing his food and sent to clear away his bathwater. He sent her away brusquely and settled down to sharpen his weapons, trying to keep Sansa off his mind. It would have been simpler to conjure a new sword with his mind.

 

“Hello.” Her voice was soft when she slipped into his room that night, so soft he nearly didn’t catch it until she closed the door. He looked up and tried to keep his heart from leaping right out his mouth.

 

“Hello, little bird.” Tonight she wore a plain nightgown, with a cloak over to keep her warm. But in her arms was a bundle, and he looked at it, then her curiously. Her cheeks were red, and when she set it down on the bed, her hair fell forward in front of her face. 

 

“I brought you something.” 

 

“Oh, aye?” He glanced at her, as she carefully unfolded the bundle. She left it on the bed, then smiled shyly as she went to light the fire. He moved closer, so that he could inspect the contents. 

 

A shirt, thick and meant to be worn in the north. When he felt the fabric, it was soft but sturdy, and warm. He picked up the black shirt, studying it intently. He knew it was done by her hand- he’d seen her sewing it in the evenings, but had always assumed it would be for Bran, or perhaps Jon on his return. 

 

Now he saw what he’d missed. There was one silver hound, running, sewn subtly into the fabric. Not three, just the one. Fitting, for all the loneliness he’d endured in his life. He looked at her, and her blue eyes were wide with trepidation. 

 

“I know you don’t like your sigil. I thought adding a direwolf would be too presumptuous, so I tweaked it a little.” Sansa explained. “And there’s only one shirt I’m afraid, but I’m working on others, and—” She cut herself off, looking at the remaining items. He picked up the breeches, and several pairs of warm socks he had longed for when they’d gone north. The wrapping wasn’t just fabric she’d used to contain it all- it was a cloak. 

 

Black, and massive. It would fit him proper, not hang to his knees like the rest did. It would be warm, that much was clear. Thick fur lined the collar, and the straps were broad enough that it would cross his chest even with armor on. Small, neat stitches, and there, near the collar, one small bird in red. He ran a thumb over it, heart beat irregular as he thought of what that represented. It was beautifully done, painstakingly so. He wracked his brain, trying to remember if he’d ever seen her working on it. 

 

“Little bird, when did you…” 

 

“The cloak?” Sansa smiled then, running her hand over the fur. “Before we started… This. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I would work on this. I’d nearly finished it when I heard you that night. I meant to present it to you a while ago, but I know you needed the other items, so I worked on them as well. Is it all to your liking?” She shifted from foot to foot, looking slightly anxious for some reason. 

 

“They’re…” He didn’t have the words for it, running his rough fingertips over the soft fabric. “I don’t need such luxury.” 

 

“It’s not luxury.” Sansa gave him a stern look. “It’s necessary, here in the north, with winter. You’d have another set, but I needed to make things for my sister, and well, it’s not like a dress would do.” She gave him a knowing smile, then eagerly burrowed into the blankets. “And I should sew drapes for you, and a new pillow. More blankets too.”

 

“You don’t need to do anything of the sort, lass.” He was a little stunned, wondering what it was going to be like to walk into the great hall tomorrow, adorned like a northman. If anyone would connect it to her, and risk saying anything to him. 

 

“I will though.” Sansa said firmly. “It calms me.” 

 

“Well, alright then.” Carefully, he folded the cloak, then picked up the socks. Sansa’s eyes appeared. 

 

“If those aren’t right, forgive me. I had to guess the size, and well, you’re a fair bit taller than Jon, so I assumed your feet would be larger.” She watched with apprehension as he pulled them on. 

 

“A good fit.” He reassured her, wiggling his toes, showing her the way they went part way up his calf. Sansa relaxed, smiling. “Thank you.” 

 

“You’re very welcome.” Sansa laid back down, satisfied. “You’ll have more, before the winter ends… Or you march, or leave, or...” 

 

“I don’t need many.” He tried to insist, carefully putting the items away amongst the few possessions he carried, eyes still catching on that little red bird. He doubted he’d wear the cloak and not think of her, his little red songbird.  

 

“You will, if you go to battle.” Sansa’s voice suddenly took on a hard note, as he carefully arranged himself an acceptable distance from her, wishing he was a strong enough man to remind her that this wasn’t proper. “If you have to march and make camp in the fields, in the middle of nowhere, in the cold, you’ll need all the socks I can knit.” 

 

“Save some for your brother.” He muttered and he couldn’t see Sansa’s face, but he heard the smile in her voice.

 

“Jon was in the Nights Watch. He’s got plenty of socks. You’re from the south. You need more socks.” 

 

“Fine.” He agreed after a beat, wondering how she managed to defeat him over socks of all things. “Knit me all the socks you’d like then.” 

 

“I will.” Sansa said firmly and they were quiet for a few moments, before he gathered the courage to speak. 

 

“My mother, she would knit.” He said quietly and he felt Sansa start at his words. This was a new topic. They usually avoided family, both of them too sensitive and raw for such a conversation and such memories. “Not very well, but often. Those were the last socks I had that were made for me.” 

 

“Well now you have some more.” Sansa’s voice cracked for him and he felt a deep sense of guilt, before she added, “My mother taught me to sew. She always sewed our clothes, and the first time I remember her being proud of me was when I fixed Robb’s tunic and she couldn’t tell the difference between my stitches and hers.” 

 

“Pretty stitches indeed.” He remarked, thinking of the neat work done on his shirt. “You’re talented.” 

 

“Obedient is more like it.” Sansa sounded bitter. “I was told what to do, and I did it. I never once thought to learn something else, something important like fighting.” 

 

“This is important.” He argued, believing fiercely that she needed to see how important she was. He wanted her to know that her people loved her as their lady and queen, and she was doing well. “You’re keeping people safe, warm, fed. That’s more than a lot of rulers can say, including the mad queen.” 

 

“I know.” She said quietly. “But for how long? How can I keep them safe by sitting by the fire and knitting socks?” 

 

“More soldiers die of empty bellies in the winter than swords.” He said simply, recalling Stannis and how he’d went to north ill-prepared and died for it. “Children too.” 

 

“It still feels useless.” Sansa said quietly. 

 

“Sansa,” He said firmly. “No one expects you to be beside us on the battlefield.” The thought caused his heart to clench. 

 

“No, I’ll stay home, safe and sheltered.” She rolled over, stealing half the blankets as she did. “Like a little dove, high up in a tower, away from the world.” She was bitter, he realized, and he was cold.

 

“And where would you rather be, in the muck and the blood of a battlefield, listening to the cries and smelling the stench of dying men?” He demanded, somewhat harshly. He could picture her amongst the dead herself, that pale skin marred with mud, those blue eyes glassy and unseeing…

 

“With you. With my family.” She said firmly and he was silent, unsure of what to make of that. “Beside the people that I love, instead of sitting here.” 

 

“You’re not coming on the march.” He said it with all the authority he could muster, when he was the one who let her order him around with hardly a second thought. He didn’t want her near the battlefield or the soldiers, or the undead… The thought filled him with dread, even if she was safe in Winterfell.

 

“I’ll have you and Arya and Brienne and Jon. I’ll be up to my ears in defenders.” Sansa protested. “It won’t be unsafe—“

 

“Sansa, the dead won’t refrain from killing you because you’re young and pretty.” He said darkly, remembering the horrors beyond the Wall and what he’d faced, nearly died facing. “They will kill you all the same.” 

 

“I’m not going to sit here and wait to hear who has died and who has lived!” Sansa declared hotly. “I won’t!” 

 

“You’re the Lady of Winterfell, Wardnness of the North.” He reminded her flatly, concealing his panic well. “You stay.” 

 

“Fine.” Sansa’s tone had turned to ice. “Goodnight.” 

 

“Little bird.” He said tiredly, trying to protest but she raised a blanket high, so that she was beneath it, and he sighed. She was a lost cause then. He went to bed himself then, with nothing else left to say to her, and slept fitfully. He kept dreaming of a dead Sansa, advancing on him, and his choice to wield Gendry’s war hammer or die with her.

 

When he awoke in the morning, she was already gone, like she was never there, an apparition of the night and his wistful imagination. He rubbed his forehead, recalling their fight and tiredly wishing she would see his reason. He could never allow her to travel with them, not when it could mean putting her in danger. It was far too risky and she didn’t belong with them. Not there. 

 

He got dressed, feeling even worse when he pulled the clothes she had made for him on. He didn’t deserve them, but they were the warmest things he owned, and it was all he could do to show her that he didn’t deny her things out of malice; it was because he cared. He kissed the little red bird, feeling a fool when he did, but unable to stop himself all the same. Then he faced the day.

Chapter Text

He walked into the hall for breakfast, noticing that while Arya and Bran already sat at the high table, Sansa was noticeably absent. He sat down amongst the men, worried that she had been caught sneaking back to her rooms. It wasn’t until someone hit his elbow that he became aware he was being spoken to. 

 

“Clegane.” Devlyn said loudly. “Are you with us man?” 

 

“Yes.” He muttered, looking down at the porridge in front of him. 

 

“I said, nice cloak.” Devlyn stole another look at it, with a smile and Sandor automatically turned to hide the bird. “Now you belong in the north with us.” 

 

“Now I won’t freeze my balls off is more like it.” He muttered. 

 

“While you know what Tormund always says is good for cold balls.” One solider joked bawdily and Sandor leaned forward with a sigh, rubbing between his eyes, feeling a pulsating headache coming on. 

 

“Long night?” Devlyn asked, lowering his voice so that no one else heard over the clatter of men eating. Sandor snorted. 

 

“Something like that.” 

 

“It is a glorious cloak Clegane.” He inclined his head towards the head table. “She does good work.” 

 

“She—” He began but the words died on his lips as he saw that Sansa had arrived. She sat, quietly speaking to her sister, eating small bites. Devlyn gave him a knowing smile and then turned back to his own food. Sandor debated shoving a fork into his hand just to remind him that he could, but he was too busy being distracted by the pale, wane look on Sansa’s face and worrying over it.

 

After they ate, he went to the training yard, as always, to spar and work with her on her daggers. Today he waited and paced, anxious that she wouldn’t show, that she wouldn’t come, that she would still be angry. He had almost worked himself into a state of agitation when he saw her step into the courtyard, her face betraying no emotion. 

 

“Nice cloak.” Arya appeared seemingly from nowhere, watching as Sansa slowly made her way towards them from across the training yard, stopping every couple feet to talk to someone, listening studiously. 

 

“Thanks.” He didn’t bother to take his eyes from Sansa around Arya. She knew, and if she was going to mock him for it, he didn’t care. 

 

“She only makes things for people she likes, did you know that?” Arya said idly and he jerked, but didn’t look at her. “For me, for Jon, for Bran… Now you. But you made her mad, didn’t you stupid?” 

 

“Aye.” He said quietly. 

 

“What did you do?” Arya kicked him in the calf but he didn’t react to the blow. “Obviously she didn’t get offended at you not liking her gift, since you’re wearing it. So what did your idiotic self say?” 

 

“Watch it.” He growled and Arya was quiet. She at least knew when his mood tolerated no teasing or arguing. He watched as Sansa smiled encouragingly at the young boys who were practicing with bows. A thought about what kind of mother she’d make surprised him with its appearance. 

 

“If you tell me, I can remind her that she’s being silly.” Arya offered with a wicked smile. “I’m good at it, you know, being her little sister.” 

 

“She’s not being silly.” He grumbled. “She’s being stubborn. Thinks she should go see the battle lines with the rest of our lot.” 

 

“And you told her no.” Arya assumed correctly, her grey eyes flashing with understanding. “Ah, well that explains it.” 

 

“Explains what?” He chanced a look at her, annoyed at how nonchalantly she stood in her clothes, noticing now the distinct work of Sansa on the cloak and breeches. Her small, long face had an all too mischievous look for his comfort. 

 

“Why she’s pouting.” Her smirk grew. “Do you know how many men can tell her no? Father hardly could, and Robb and Jon were no better. She could get her guards to do whatever she wanted with a smile. Even you don’t tell her no, most of the time.” 

 

“I do too.” He protested defensively, trying to think of the last time he’d done just that so that he’d have a leg to stand on in this argument. 

 

“Yes, and you take her riding whenever she’d like, and you have more patience in teaching her to fight than I ever could, and you do whatever she asks.” Arya shrugged. “You can’t tell her no. Most can’t. She doesn’t like it when it happens, that’s all. Good on you for telling her no, I’m impressed.” 

 

“I had to.” He clenched his jaw, watching as Sansa talked to one solider, noting how the man looked at her with barely concealed hungry desire while Sansa clearly listened with polite respect. “She could be hurt there, and what if—” 

 

“I’m not disagreeing.” Arya said hastily. “I’m just saying that she doesn’t like it. Say yes a couple times and she’ll forget it.” 

 

“Not likely.” He muttered under his breath, but was quiet when Sansa finally arrived, looking between a fuming Sandor and a smug Arya. 

 

“Shall we?” Acting like nothing was amiss, Sansa took her daggers out, tossing her plaited hair over her shoulder. 

 

“Trust me.” Arya ordered, disappearing with a grin. 

 

“Trust her?” Sansa watched her sister go with confusion. “Trust her with what?” 

 

“Nothing.” He growled, very much wanting to follow her and wring her skinny little neck. “Alright, now I want to see how well you do disarming, so we’ll start with…”

 

He loved the rhythm now that she found. He came at her, again and again, and when he knocked one dagger from her grasp another found its way to her hand again. She was getting quicker, stronger, better with the daggers. She knew what she was doing with them now, and it was a source of pride for him, to see her like this. He’d made her like this. He’d helped her to learn this.

 

“Ah!” She yelped when he struck her wrist and he instantly stopped himself, lurching slightly when his inertia kept going.

 

“Sansa,” He said instantly, sure he’d hurt her. “Sansa, did I—”

 

“Gods!” She hit his chest with two open palms. “Why are you,” Another slap. “Such a brute?” She looked up at him in aggravation.

 

“I,” He instinctively took a step back, bristling at her words. Of course she saw him as a brute. They all did, after time, didn’t they? That’s what he was, nothing more than a brute that could protect her. He was nothing to her, he was—

 

Before he could continue, Sansa made a noise of frustration and whirled away from him, snatching up her cloak and practically running away. It wasn’t truly a dash, because as a lady she couldn’t be seen doing such things, but he watched in confusion as she darted and ducked between men-at-arms, moving as quickly as she could while still retaining a measure of lady-like grace.

 

Then he cursed himself and went chasing after her. It wouldn’t do him any good to sit here and let her go running off. Something was clearly wrong, and she was clearly upset, and as much as he hated it, it was his fault, somehow. He wasn’t even really sure what he’d done, only that it had upset her. He had to put it right, somehow.

 

He was in a black mood by the time he caught up with her, heading into the glass gardens. They’d been smashed during the Greyjoy sack but Sansa had been having them set to rights, and he stopped in the doorway, panting. Sansa stood in the middle of the gardens, beneath the glass domes. She held herself tightly, as if she was as delicate as the panes themselves and his anger at having to chase her like a nursemaid ebbed, just slightly.

 

“I don’t want to talk to you.” Her voice was high, thin. He knew the quirks of her voice by now. He knew how to tell when she was mad or upset or angry. He knew how to tell when she was scared or anxious or frightened. He knew her and he knew that she was trying very hard to conceal some emotion now.

 

“Fine.” He worked to stop his anger.

 

“That means you can go.” She didn’t turn but he heard the frustration there, the icy orders she gave.

 

“No.”

 

“Go!” Her voice bounced off the walls, echoing around them in the empty garden house. Soon, she’d told him before, they would grow food here, that would feed the whole castle. But now it stood barren.

 

“No.”

 

“Why?” Now she rounded on him, furious. He held his ground against her, though he had to acknowledge that she looked slightly impressive, with her sharp cheekbones and blue eyes that blazed.

 

“You need a shield.” He paused. “A brute. To protect you.”

 

“Well,” There was a flicker of shame in her face there, as she turned back around. “I will be fine. Go. Leave me.”

 

“No.” He was growing sick of her little games. He would say sorry for hurting her, because he had not meant to. But she’d taken worse scrapes before and had never once complained, so he knew it hadn’t genuinely hurt her. He would not say sorry, however, for what he’d said last night. He still meant that, wholeheartedly.

 

“You men are idiots.” Sansa said bitterly. “Honestly, how is it that you lot rule while we sit here and sew?”

 

“Sansa,” He said warningly, a moment short of throwing her over his shoulder and dragging her back to the keep like he once had. She carried on, unheeding.

 

“You insist on sitting here and protecting me in my own home, against my own people!” She raged. “You’re good enough here, aren’t you? Then why aren’t you good enough out there? Why must I be the one to sit here and wait for bad news? Why won’t you protect me out there? Why do you want to leave me here?” She broke off, biting back tears and all of his anger left him with a deep sigh.

 

“Sansa.” He walked forward and rested one large hand on her shoulder. “It’s how it is, girl. It’s war.”

 

“Don’t tell me that.” She didn’t shrug off his hand but she didn’t look at him either, gazing out over the earth. “It’s not.”

 

“What is it then?” He was confused, trying to understand what she was implying. War was war, and it was no place for a woman, especially not one like her.

 

“You want to leave.” She kept her gaze fixed on a far-off point. “You want to leave here. You don’t want me, you don’t want to stay. That’s why you want to leave and go. That’s what you did last time.”

 

For a long moment, he lost control of his vocal cords. The words appeared in his head, burst, and disappeared. He just gaped at her, amazed and confused and hopeless and hopeful, all at once. Sansa stared straight ahead, fighting not to cry. So instead of saying anything, all he did was raise one large finger so that it caught the tear that had been caught by the thick, dark lower eyelashes.

 

“Little bird.” It was all he could do. It was all he could say. “No.”

 

“I don’t want to lose anyone else.” She was trembling, even if it was warm in the gardens, heated like the rest of the castle. “I can’t. Not Jon, not Arya, not Bran, not… Not… Not you, Sandor.”

 

“Sansa.” He cupped her cheek. “You think I told you that you can’t come to the battle lines because I want to be rid of you?”

 

“I don’t know.” She avoided his gaze, even as she held still in his grip. He couldn’t understand her. Why was this what upset her?

 

“It is too dangerous there.” He repeated his argument, trying to get her to realize that. “You could be killed.”

 

“You don’t even get it, do you?” Sansa demanded, hitting his chest again. He was alarmed to see that the tears were falling now. She pushed him and he didn’t budge, staring down at her in utter perplexity. He was used to women wailing their devastation, but Sansa’s tears were not of sadness. They were of anger.

 

“What?” He asked her, as she shoved him, seemingly more enraged when he didn’t move even an inch. “Sansa, what?”

 

“I don’t want you to go!” She said it as a half yell, half groan and that took him aback, more so than her blows. “I don’t want you to leave! And you’ll just leave me, because that’s what you do! Because you don’t care!”

 

“Are you fucking mad?” He finally found his own voice and rage. He grabbed her arms and shook her until she looked up at him. “Are you goddamn insane?”

 

“Don’t!” She struggled to get out of his grasp.

 

“Sansa!” He said forcefully and she was quiet, looking up at him. “Quit it, girl, and fucking listen to me. Why in the seven bloody hells do you think I want to leave you?”

 

“Because you said.” She shot back. “You said you’d leave me to go and fight. When I said I wanted to come with, you told me no. You left me behind during the Battle of the Blackwater and…” She trailed off as he growled.

 

He wanted to shake her senseless. What did she mean, he left her behind? He remembered that night. He remembered it vividly, and played it over and over in his mind in the years since. He hadn’t left her. She’d chosen to stay.

 

“You didn’t want to come with me.” He glared at her.

 

“You kissed me!” She accused. “And then you left! You took a song and a kiss and you left me with your bloody cloak!”  

 

“What?” He released her so quickly she had to sway and regain her balance. He stared at her, mind as blank as the sky above them. He must have heard her wrong, because Sansa Stark was looking at him with her chin jutted out and a challenge glint her eyes, telling him that he had kissed her. “Sansa, I, we, never, didn’t, that night, we… No.”

 

“You kissed me and left.” She was so sure of herself, he couldn’t help but gape at her. Had he been remembering wrong all these years? Did he forget that he had kissed her, the maiden made flesh? No. If he had, that was one thing no amount drink could ever make him forget. He’d take that memory to the grave.

 

“I didn’t kiss you.” He growled at her. “If I had fucking kissed you, you’d remember it, trust me little bird.”

 

“You did.” She looked just a little unsure of herself here. “You kissed me, you took a kiss and didn’t take me.”

 

“You didn’t want to leave that thrice damned place!” He wanted to bellow, straining to keep his voice from echoing off the glass panels. “I didn’t kiss you, girl, because if I had kissed you then, I’d have taken a lot more than a song, I promise you that!”

 

“I…” Sansa seemed lost for words, standing there. Her mouth was moving, but no sounds were coming out and he was seized with the ever-present urge to kiss her. But this time it was unbearable. Sansa thought he wanted to leave her. Be rid of her. She taunted him with stories of a kiss that had never happened. He crossed the distance to her in less than three steps and firmly seized her to him.

 

He crashed his lips to hers, hard. He’d kissed women before, usually whores that thought to win favor with the royal family by petting the royal dog. He wasn’t unfamiliar with the art. But he had never kissed anyone like he kissed Sansa Stark then. He tangled a hand into the damned auburn locks and pressed a hand firmly into the small of her back, trying to draw her closer to him yet.

 

She tasted like snow. Like the cold, and a little bit of salty sweat. She smelled like milk soap and the icy tang of wintery outdoors. And when he finally came back to his senses enough to realize what he was doing, he was acutely aware of how warm she was in his arms, warmer than the walls of Winterfell themselves.

 

Before he could panic and pull away from her, sure to have offended her, stolen a kiss she wasn’t willing to give, he felt her hand on his cheek. His scarred side, always his scarred side. The other was around his back and his heart thrilled when she pressed him to her, harder, more insistent.

 

Her lips were nearly as greedy as his, like she was as starved for him as he was for her. She was a little clumsy with her kisses and he found that made him only want to keen harder for her. He wanted her, needed her, had to breathe her in or he would die from the lack of her all at once. He needed Sansa Stark.

 

He nearly sunk to his knees when he heard her breathy little gasps and the way her nails dug into the cloak she’d sewn for him. He had no idea what to make of it, how she was breathless for him, of all people. He knew he needed to stop kissing her, but he also knew that if he left her now, he’d been cast adrift for all time. She was all there was, all there was in this life and the next and all the rest.

 

He tilted her head back to get a better angle and she complied with a little gasp before he covered her mouth with his own again. The noises she made were like an addiction to him and it was all he could to contain himself. He needed more of her and when his hand drifted down her thin neck, he knew he was a lost man.

 

She breathed his name as he kissed the pale skin on her slender throat and that was what it took to remind him of who he was. Who she was, and where they were. What sort of situation they would be in if they were to be found out. He drew his lips from her skin like it pained him, looking down at her with what he knew was utterly unconcealed lust.

 

“Did I kiss you like that, little bird?” He demanded huskily. “Was that how I kissed you, that night? I think not. Because if I had kissed you like that, make no mistake, you would’ve came with me, whether you willed it or not.”

 

“I wanted you to.” She was flushed and her pink lips were bruised and raised. She looked just a little bit dazed. He had no idea if she was talking about that night, or the kiss they had just shared, or anything else. He stared down at her, unwilling to make his mind work, instead trying to memorize every detail of the way she looked in the moment, mused from his kisses, and let her puzzle out her chirping words.

 

“My lady?” A timid voice from the doorway startled both of them and they both sprang apart. He wanted to draw his sword and run the small boy through. It was someone’s squire; Sansa probably knew his name and bloodlines and stupid words, but all Sandor saw was a lad who had disturbed what was the most important moment of his entire life. “Your brother, Bran, he requests you. In the godswood.”

 

“Yes, alright.” Sansa did a remarkable job of putting on her mask of a composed lady. It was like nothing had ever been wrong. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and gave the room a critical look. “Thank you Clegane, I appreciate your input on these matters. I hope it will help my men.”

 

“Aye.” He croaked, knowing they needed a cover story and going with it, at the same time being astonished that she lied and recovered with such ease. She swept out, following the boy with grace. He followed, with far less.

 

Bran was in his wheelchair, under the heart tree. The old gods of the north always gave Sandor pause. It was easy to dismiss the faith of the seven, with their stars and statues. It was easy to scoff at women’s gods, with the fancy, fluttering prayers trilled in a high septon’s voice. It was far harder to mock the old, nameless gods who looked at him through the trees, especially when he saw what Bran was.

 

Arya was there as well, and some maester and other lords. Sansa’s back went ramrod straight and he desperately wanted to take her back to the glass gardens. They had been safe there. Alone. Something had happened there, something that had scared and thrilled him in equal measure. He wanted to go back and shelter her from this.

 

“Bran.” Sansa’s voice held a note of concern as they neared him. “What is it? Is something wrong?”

 

“The army is coming.” Bran said tonelessly, hands folded atop his fur covered lap. Sansa frowned slightly, tilting her head, and he went on. “They are less than a week away from arriving. With them rides Jamie Lannister. Brienne rides ahead. She will be here soon. The dragons will not be a fortnight behind them.”

 

“Thank you.” Sansa’s eyes had taken on that faraway look they got when she was desperately trying to plan things. “I will make sure that accommodations are ready, and—”

 

“That is not all.” Bran’s face still showed no expression. “The Wall has fallen. The dead are marching.”

 

The reactions were varied and immediate. Arya started like she’d been shocked, the maester gasped and clung to heart tree, the lords immediately began crying out protests and denials, while Sansa swayed alarmingly. Concerned, he stepped forward and caught her elbow, steadying her.

 

“Oh.” She looked up at him like she wasn’t truly seeing him. “Thank you.”

 

“Are you sure?” Arya demanded of Bran.

 

“It has fallen, at Eastwatch by the Sea.” Bran stated. “He has resurrected one of the dragons. The dead are coming. They will be to Last Hearth soon. The night king rides the dragon, and he—”

 

“Seven hells!” One lord exclaimed. “The boy, he must be mistaken, or lying! The Wall, it’s stood for centuries, eons, and—”

 

“And it’s fallen.” Bran looked to Sansa, who was so pale she faded into the snow behind her. “They’re coming.”

 

“I believe my brother.” Sansa cut them all off with a raise of her hand. “The Wall has fallen then. We must send a raven to Castle Black immediately, and one to Jon, now. He may have to hasten his journey if we are to fight them. I need to know how many people are at Last Hearth, and if we can get them away. We need to send more people south, and quickly, or they will be fodder.”

 

“Lady Stark, do you think it is wise—” One lord started and Sansa’s gaze was icy. He quieted nearly instantly.

 

“Gather everyone, please.” Sansa instructed the squire that had come for them. “We need to call our banners, and quickly. My lords, Arya, Bran, please, come with me.” With that hardly a second look back at anyone, she strode out of the godswood.

Chapter Text

That night, as he sat in bed, he wondered if she would come. He’d hardly seen her the rest of the day, not after she’d left the godswood and went to command the castle. She didn’t need him then. She needed smart men, men who could guide her. He’d only done what, yelled at her, fought with her, and then kissed her?

 

It made him feel a little sick, recalling it. What if she hadn’t wanted it? She’d had everything taken against her will by evil, vile men. Had he added himself to those ranks? He’d just been so confused and frustrated and filled with desire. Desire to prove her wrong, to prove her right, he didn’t know. He’d just wanted her. And it had seemed like she’d wanted him right back. But an insidious voice in his head told him no.

 

No girl like her would ever want a man like him. Sansa, even this grown up Sansa, wasn’t the kind of girl who settled for a killer. A craven. A dog. She still belonged to some fancy, perfumed lord, who’d give her a castle and sons. He could give her nothing, nothing at all. Poor second son of a lowly house, with nothing to his name. Why would she ever even want him? It was preposterous.

 

He laid his cloak out over his knees, fingering the pretty red stitching that marked him as hers. His mouth twitched up towards a smile. Maybe this was proof enough that she did want him. After all, why else would she become so angry that he was going to leave her? There had to be a point in there, somewhere.

 

He didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t sure where his place was, not really. The castle was in an uproar over the news. Sansa had clearly issued decrees in Jon’s name, and the evidence of her orders were nearly instantaneous. He saw it in the courtyard, watching as soldiers and men-at-arms raced to set up wagons to carry smallfolk away.

 

He wanted to laugh. Carrying them south to safety. Cersei was south, and she was as safe as the queen’s dragons. That alone showed how desperate Sansa was. She had to know that Cersei didn’t care in the slightest about the northern war. All that mattered was her kingdom. But Sansa had no other choice.

 

He resigned himself to the fact that she wasn’t coming and sighed, lying down in bed. He laid as though she had, however. He found it easier to sleep when her reassuring weight was at the other end of the bed, curled up. He always rested better when he knew that she was safe, and she was safe here.

 

He was nearly asleep when he thought he felt the weight on her pressing against him, but the next morning when he woke, his bed was empty.

 

Sansa hardly had time to speak to him that day. When he fell into step behind her that morning, she’d turned to look at him with wide, helpless eyes, her attention being hoarded by the northern lords, all eager to talk battle. He didn’t even have time to train her on her daggers, as special meetings were called. He was sent to the yard to instruct the men and found himself lecturing on how the dead fought. The younger boys looked at him with something akin to reverence and it made him uncomfortable.

 

That night he found himself drinking with the men, including Devlyn and the other men-at-arms in service to the houses of the north. They accepted him in with open arms and he realized it was what disconcerted him the most, having a place. He would occasionally glance at the high table, but Sansa was so deep in conversation she could hardly look his way. That was for the best, he thought, as he downed another flagon of ale. She likely never wanted to see his ugly face after what he’d done to her.

 

He slept that night on the floor of the bunks that housed the men, after losing several games of chance and drinking more than he had in years.

 

By the time he slunk into the hall in the morning, reeking of a hangover and trying to disguise it, Sansa had finished her breakfast and was talking to some horse master. He managed a nod to her and she stopped her conversation with the man by raising her hand. She gave him a profuse apology then rose gracefully and made her way over to him. He hung his head, knowing that he looked a wreck.

 

“Go bathe.” She ordered softly, hands clasped in front of her. “Arya could use a training partner.”

 

“Aye.” He said curtly, giving her a bow and walking out. It was a dismissal and he wasn’t fool enough to ignore it. If Sansa watched him leave, he wasn’t sure. He didn’t look back as he went to his rooms. He got himself presentable, putting on his northern clothes as a way of an apology to her. He wasn’t sure why he ended up saying sorry to her so often. All he knew was that he hated when she was angry with him.

 

When he was fit to be in her company again, he went to find her. He was determined to make up for his mistakes of late, for anything that she was angered by. He was directed to her solar, where she sat, alone in peace and quiet. He loathed to disturb that for her, but he knocked and entered nonetheless.

 

“Sansa,” He said lowly and she didn’t look up, reviewing papers. “Sansa, I…”

 

“I need your help.” She said briskly and he frowned slightly, but answered.

 

“Yes?”

 

“With the men. When the armies arrive, I will be at a loss of how to command them. With Jon and the queen not arriving for a few more days, I need a man who can take charge.” She raised her gaze to his. “I need you to be that man.”

 

“Of course.” He answered automatically.

 

“Thank you.” She said quietly and ducked her head. He opened his mouth to say something but at that moment, the door opened again.

 

“She’s at the gate.” Arya poked her head around the door and Sansa looked up from her papers. Sandor hovered, unsure of what had just happened but wanting throw Arya out until he figured it out.

 

“Oh good.” A genuine smile crossed Sansa’s face and she rose, glancing back to him. “Shall we greet her?”

 

“Aye.” He said darkly, ducking his head to hide his annoyance. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Brienne. He’d long forgiven her for nearly killing him, and he’d even developed a grudging respect for her. She had kept the Stark sisters safe, and the part of him that felt possessive of both Sansa and Arya thanked for her that. She’d even let him go north alone, and had given him this time, whatever it was, with Sansa.

 

But she was Sansa’s actual sworn shield, her vowed protector. Soon, he’d have no reason to accompany Sansa to and fro, because Brienne would be there. He’d go back to waiting for Jon to call his armies, for them to finally march north and for him to die. He couldn’t bear that now, not when he had so many questions left to ask Sansa and hear her answers. Brienne would stop all of that.

 

A sick part of him, deep below it all, was angry too, that the presence of Brienne might mean that Sansa was going to stop her nightly visits to his chambers. Though nothing happened, it never did, it didn’t mean that he didn’t savor every moment of them. Besides, it was the only reassurance he had that she was safe. He, selfishly, couldn’t stand the thought of giving her alone up.

 

He followed the sisters to the courtyard, where Brienne rode in. Both girls looked delighted at the arrival, until Sansa glimpsed the army that had followed her. Then her eyes went wide. As Brienne dismounted, Sansa went forward to greet her, eyes still staring in astonishment at the army that spread before Winterfell.

 

It was massive, but he’d known it would be. They hadn’t reached the gates yet, but the front lines were visible, and the massive sprawl behind it. The sight was reassuring, to see more fighters against the dead. The idea that they would join the army should they fall however made him a little sick.

 

“Jon better have a plan for that.” Arya remarked, as Sansa greeted Brienne, smiling at her sworn shield. Arya stepped up and greeted her as well, before nodding to the squire who followed. Brienne glanced up and saw him, standing with his hand on his sword, and gave him a short nod before Sansa ushered her to sit and warm herself by the fire, eager to hear the news of Jon and his plans for the war.

 

They ate and drank and Brienne told them stories of her travels. He listened halfheartedly, most of his attention drawn to Sansa. He hadn’t forgotten his request to Jon, nor Jon’s response, but he had no idea how to go about telling Sansa what he’d learned. It had been foolish and stupid and he was certain that if he ever was fool enough to approach Sansa about it, she would certainly laugh him away. He’d kissed her, and it meant nothing to her. She clearly didn’t even want to remember the event.

 

He wanted, desperately in his bones, to tell her and then ask if she was going to pick. If she would allow him to stay on, protect her and whatever lord she made hers. He wasn’t going to leave her. It was better to be with her in pain, then to be without her. He practically growled, thinking about how that sounded like some bloody song. He wouldn’t go to her. He wouldn’t ask, and he wouldn’t even dream of offering himself to her.

 

That didn’t stop him from wanting it more than anything. As she was pulled away from their happy little gathering to try to coordinate the massive effort of the approaching armies, both he and Brienne rose. After a second, Brienne gave him a nod, followed Sansa, and was gone. Arya, sitting next to him, look entertained.

 

“Sansa won’t like that.”

 

“Like what?” He muttered, finishing off his ale as he thought about how this was only the beginning. He was going to need something stronger to drink, if he wanted to make it through till Jon’s arrival.

 

“Not having you shadow her.” Arya said thoughtfully. “I’ll bet you that she makes some comment on it.”

 

“Brienne is her sworn shield, not me.” He said tightly, glaring at her and looking for a serving girl with equal urgency. He knew Arya didn’t know what had happened in the gardens, she couldn’t, but still, something about her demeanor made him uneasy. She was too damn observant now.

 

“I know that.” Arya stole a roll from his plate with nimble fingers, getting up. “But she isn’t in love with Brienne.”

 

“Girl!” He bellowed, but Arya was quick and already gone, leaving him fuming with his thoughts. He looked at the ale halfheartedly, before resolving to stay sober until tonight, when he could drown himself. But now was the time to train, and maybe beating some squires senseless would take his mind off the fact that Sansa was already torn from him and he felt her absence in the winter air.

 

He saw Sansa sparingly over the course of the day, always engaged in ordering people about. It had been decided that those that could flee would go south, to make sure the men could eat. Sansa, pale and tense, oversaw it all in Jon’s absence. He wished desperately that he could do something to ease her tension, but all he could do was content himself with hammering at Brienne’s dull squire.

 

When it came time to gather and eat, he remained at his place with the men-at-arms, and dug into his food with what he hoped looked like hunger instead of anger. Sansa sat high above, with Brienne to guard her, and fought back his desires to go to her. Instead, he drank just enough to get a buzz.

 

But he couldn’t do more than that, not with the bitter taste in his mouth. He resolved to steal a couple wineskins and sneak them to his bed. The thought made his heart thud. Sansa sleeping in her own bed, comforted by Brienne should she wake. It was torture. He wasn’t going to get her to himself and though he endeavored to be grateful for the short time they had, every cell in body rebelled at the lack of her. Once it was acceptable, he pushed away from the table and left, not caring if Sansa’s eyes were on him.

 

He stumbled into his bed and as he prepared for sleep, he tried to calm his temper, despite knowing the only thing that made it better was her. He was lying on his side, thinking miserably that she was probably glad of the excuse to stop visiting him, avoiding him to avoid discussing that kiss that she surely regretted, when his keen ears picked up on the slight sound of movement in the hall.

 

“Hello.” The soft voice was nearly silenced by the creak of the door as it opened and he could do nothing but stare in mute astonishment as Sansa slipped through the crack, then shut the door behind her.

 

“What—” He began, as she tended to the fire and draped her cloak over a chair.

 

“Brienne is a heavy sleeper, and she is tired after a long ride.” Sansa said simply, answering a question he didn’t ask. “I told her that there’s nothing I fear at night.” Her lips curved up into that wicked smile he so loved.

 

“Sansa—” He wanted to reason with her, but he held his tongue as she climbed into the bed, curled up, and tugged a fur over her shoulder.

 

“I’d like to hear a story.” Her voice was authoritative, and he had to suppress a chuckle as he arranged himself a safe distance from her. Safe for her or him, he did not know. “About the pups you raised.”

 

“I don’t have many.” He insisted. Sansa’s foot found his calf and she nudged it, until finally he caved, and began his story. He’d hardly gotten to the funniest part when she was fast asleep, and his heart sang. He didn’t care that they hadn’t spoken about their kiss. Sansa had come to him for comfort and that was more than enough.

 

The next morning, though she was gone, Sandor felt like the world had been removed from his shoulders. The world still wasn’t settled, but it was far from as awful as he had thought it would be. They just needed a moment to talk. Sansa had enough to do, and he didn’t want to add to her stress. He vowed that he would do whatever she needed, rising for his day and heading to the hall.

 

After eating, Sansa approached him with a smile. He couldn’t help but smile back, forgetting all the men that looked to him, forgetting what they saw when he looked at her. How infatuated he was with her. How much he adored her. But he couldn’t tell her any of that, not yet. Instead, he offered her his arm.

 

“Thank you.” She said softly and he led her to the courtyard to train.

 

“What in the seven hells is he doing?” Brienne’s voice demanded and both he and Sansa stopped sparring, looking up at the railing where she stood.

 

“Teaching me.” Sansa was panting, slightly, her hot breath turning the chilly air around her white as she did so.

 

“Teaching you what?” Brienne looked alarmed, while Arya, next to her, looked pleased. Sandor shifted awkwardly, wondering if Brienne was going to get angry.

 

“Hand to hand combat.” He explained, handing Sansa her dagger back. Neither of them had said anything before training had begun, but he thought she was lingering in her touches more and more today than ever before. It gave him hope.

 

“With knives?” Brienne was scandalized.

 

“She refused to learn anything else.” Arya said, as though that would explain everything and Brienne gave her an incredulous look. “Or from anyone else.”

 

“Sansa.” Brienne clearly strove for patience, her cobalt blue eyes flashing warnings at Sandor that he happily ignored. He answered to Sansa and Sansa alone. “Why are you learning daggers?”

 

“So that when the white walkers come or Cersei sends assassins after me, I can slit their throats.” Sansa said plainly and he hid a smile, ducking his head to look at the snow as if it was an interesting book. “Whichever happens first.”

 

“And it didn’t occur to you that there are people here to protect you should those exact things happen?” Brienne pointed out, trying to catch his eye so he would see that she was glaring, but he suddenly found the slate grey sky very intriguing and set to studying it.

 

“And what happens if I’m alone in my chambers?” Sansa reminded her with a tight smile, her tone shifting into something wicked. He wasn’t sure if anyone else but he noticed it. “Surely Sandor can’t accompany me to bed every night.”

 

“Well, no,” Brienne was flustered while he quickly turned away to hide the expression on his face that would’ve revealed all too much. “But—”

 

“Then he teaches me with the daggers.” Sansa cheerfully pulled one out. “I’ve gotten rather good.”

 

“That what we’re calling it?” He turned around, emotions under control once again. Sansa made a face and he went to try and grab her again. Sansa evaded his series of holds with grace, ending with the tip of her dagger pressed to his throat. He left her win, if only to feel her body pressed to his for a longer moment.

 

“See?” Sansa grinned at Brienne and he was proud of her. She was never going to be a warrior maiden, nor would she ever be a little wolf like her sister, but it was enough to keep her reasonably safe, he thought.

 

“He could still kill you with one hand tied behind his back.” Arya remarked, before turning to Brienne with a bored expression. “Can we spar now?”

 

“You’re going at half speed, aren’t you?” Sansa asked him quietly and he hesitated, wavering between pleasing her and telling the truth.

 

“Quarter.” She hadn’t truly beat him recently, not since the day she’d had cramps and he’d been caught up trying to coddle her. He’d never make the mistake of underestimating her womanly wiles ever again.

 

“Oh, seven hells.” Sansa put her dagger away. “I’m shit at this.”

 

“You are not.” He gave her an amused look, delighted when she swore and dropped her lady mask. “You’ll surprise anyone, that’s for sure.”

 

“Because I don’t look like someone who can fight.” Sansa sighed, looking down at her dress, still neat and lady-like despite everything. “I know.”

 

“And you don’t like you’re carrying five daggers on you.” He reminded her gently, looking down at her shining eyes and recalling the expression in them when he’d kissed her. It had been heavenly.

 

“Six.” Sansa smiled and showed him the necklace she wore. On the end, instead of just being an ornament, was a tiny dagger.

 

“I’m worried that it’ll choke your thin neck,” He remarked, suddenly grateful that he’d had the foresight to have the blacksmith make another little dagger. They always came in handy. “But it’s a good idea.”

 

“And I’ll try to slit their throats before they get their hands on mine.” Sansa said calmly and they both turned to watch as Arya and Brienne squared off on each other as he tried to stop thinking about that long, slim neck. They were quiet, watching the two, when Sansa asked, “Why didn’t you just take me then?”

 

“What?” He glanced at her in confusion, feeling light headed at what her words implied for them.

 

“The night you left Kings Landing.” Sansa turned to look at him, the familiar look in her eyes. He was starting to dread and love that look in equal measures. “I had no idea how to defend myself, you knew that. You could’ve thrown me over your shoulder and ran off without looking backwards. Why didn’t you?” She sounded like she was striving to approach this calmly and he was grateful. If it was anything like their conversation in gardens, he had no desire for an audience.

 

“You didn’t want to go.” He said simply. That was, to him, the truth of it. She hadn’t wanted to go with him, she had wanted to stay. He hadn’t left her by his choice but by hers. That was his truth, his memory.

 

“I was a stupid little girl.” Sansa said, a hint of bitterness in her voice. “You should have taken me and never looked back.”

 

“You wouldn’t have liked it.” He stated, instead of telling her that he had asked himself that exact question for so many years, ever since he’d left her there and so many bad things seemed to befall her.

 

“It couldn’t have been any worse.” Sansa said flatly and he flinched. “And you would’ve killed anyone who tried to hurt me.”

 

“Aye.” He watched as she pulled her gloves back on, the hilt of her dagger disappearing, blood thundering in his veins to even remember that night. To remember their kiss. He was at a loss to ask her what the hell all of it meant.

 

“And maybe I would be decent with these by now.” She said idly, breaking his contemplations on her.

 

“Aye.” He muttered, trying not to think about what it would’ve been like to steal her away from the castle and Joffrey.

 

“Next time I’m about to make a stupid decision, promise me you’ll throw me over your shoulder and haul me away.” Sansa looked up at him with a hint of a smirk and he had to stop the blood in his body from making a quick rush south.

 

“With those daggers?” He turned back to Brienne and Arya to maintain his impassive expression. “Wouldn’t dare.”

 

He had hardly made it away from the yard when the apprentice of the blacksmith caught up to him. The young boy hung back, clearly apprehensive of the massive, scarred man, until Sandor sighed and looked down at him with a raised eyebrow.

 

“Your order, ser,” He stammered. “It’s ready.”

 

“Aye.” Hiding his happiness, not even bothered by the incorrect ser, Sandor followed him to the armory. When he arrived, six daggers of varying shapes and sizes waited for him. Each, in its sheath, was some of the finest work he’d ever seen. The smallest, now perfect to be worn on the chain around her neck, had a single hawk embossed on the hilt.

 

The boot knife had delicate lines of snowflakes in it, and a raven flying on its sheath. The small one meant for her cloak had a flock engraved in it, providing ridges. The longer one, for her forearm, was his favorite. Its hilt looked to be an outstretched wing of a bird in flight. Simple, but stunning. The smaller wrist blade was thin but firm, and wicked sharp. The little pommel was the head of a wolf, and he smiled to think that the smith knew who these were meant for and added something of his own.

 

He approached Sansa after they’d eaten, as she walked for the godswood. She usually retired there with Bran for a short time, but today she lacked her brother. He fell in step with her silently and she glanced up at him but smiled and didn’t protest. Together, they walked inside, him a half pace behind her.

 

“How are you?” She asked him quietly, once they were alone. “I feel I see you so little during the day now.” Her voice spoke to something like regret and he wanted to ask if it was because they had not been alone since they had kissed. She had crawled in his bed, but he’d seen the exhaustion in her eyes. A tiredness that had only swelled and he looked at her with worry, unsure if now was the time.

 

“I am fine, my lady.” He snuck a glance at her, noting how her pale skin seemed a shade too white, and her lips swollen from the way she worried them when she was nervous. Her eyes, still bright, betrayed her with a hint of their tiredness in the form of an ever-darkening circle around them, and he wished he could hold her, so some tension would release from her shoulders. That was all he would do, until she gave him permission to do more. Dogs awaited orders. “Yourself?”

 

“Fine.” Sansa stared up at the red leaves. “Tired.”

 

“You’re not sleeping well?” He looked at her in concern. She seemed to sleep well enough at night, but he knew he would be dead to the world in the middle of the night as well. She never woke him though, unless he had nightmares. Even then, she was usually quiet. But if she needed something…

 

“Some nights.” She gave him a smile that hinted at which nights were better than others, and he felt his heart stop and restart. “What brings you here?”

 

“I uh, had a gift.” He fumbled for the daggers he’d tucked away for her. Gifts first, questions about her kisses later. Gifts were always more important, especially for ladies. “For you. My lady, Sansa.”

 

“It’s not my name day.” Sansa looked at him, slightly confused. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”

 

“Well, I did.” He said bluntly and Sansa was quiet, but not offended. “You’ve been doing well and I thought that… Oh, fuck, just… Here.” He offered her the daggers and was silent, waiting for her to hate them shortly.

 

“Sandor.” Taken aback, Sansa looked down at them. “I can’t accept these!” He had a flash of panic, that she didn’t want them and he had overstepped, then saw the way she so gently ran her fingers along the hilt, how her eyes shown as even she could see that these very high quality, meant to given as a special gift and not some throw away. He relaxed and understood her intent.

 

“They’re made for you.” Talking about gift-giving and feelings was not his strong suit. But talking about weapons he was good at, and so he relaxed, showing them off. “Based on your measurements, not just whatever the smith’s apprentice decided. And designed for you to carry. Lighter, flatter. No more sticking out of your dresses.”

 

“These are…” She took one and marveled over it. “They’re beautiful. I can’t possibly accept them.”

 

“They’re made for you.” He took the one meant for her wrist and held it out. Sansa undid the sleeve of her dress and after a beat, he laid the blade against her skin. “They’re meant for you. I said you’d get your own set, and you beat me.”

 

“You didn’t have to get me them.” She said softly, and he took a step back, now that the knife was secured.

 

“You deserve them.”

 

“They’re beautiful.” She ran a finger along the details, a smile when she saw the little wren. “How can I possibly thank you?”

 

“If they keep you safe, that’ll be thanks enough.” He said quickly. Sansa looked at him with a smile and he quickly offered the rest of them. Once each was strapped to her, he nodded in approval.

 

“I have a question.” She said idly, looking at the smallest dagger, testing the sharp metal against the pad of her thumb until it broke skin and a tiny bead of red blood fell into the snow beneath them. “How would I slit my wrists, so that I would die quickest?”

 

Before she could even draw another breath, he’d grabbed both her wrists and held them tightly. She gasped slightly, looking up at him in astonishment. He was probably hurting her, he knew. But his heart was pounding, so loud that he could hardly hear himself think, that he couldn’t stop himself.

 

“Don’t— Don’t ever— Never—” He couldn’t get coherent orders out through his panic. “Little bird, you—”

 

“I’m not going to do it now.” Sansa said quickly. “I’m not, I swear.” He relaxed a little and let go of her wrists quickly, sure he’d overstepped. But the idea of her doing such as act was more than he could envision, more than he could bear.

 

“Then why—”

 

“Because if all hope is lost, I’m not going to be taken again.” Sansa’s voice remained firm even if her hands trembled. “I want to know how to die.”

 

He stared down at her for a long moment, trying to figure out what to do. Then he rolled up his sleeve to show her his forearms. He pointed to the vein that ran down it. He’d seen men do this on the battlefield, if there was no one else that would give them mercy. It was not a pretty death, by any means.

 

“Slice up, not across.” He said grimly, demonstrating. “Bleeds faster. Do both arms, if you can. Quickly.”

 

“Thank you.” Sansa smiled, drawing her cloak around her once more, standing. “Now I’m pretty and protected.”

 

“Aye, you are.” He said softly and she smiled up at him.

 

“Thank you.” She repeated softly, reaching up to touch his cheek, the faintest hint of what she had done before. It sent tingles down his spine. “I have to go back to being the lady, but Sandor, I…” She trailed off for a long moment, searching his face for something he wasn’t sure he had to give. “Tonight?”

 

“Aye.” He agreed to whatever it was she wanted, because he always would for her and then turned to follow her before she could see the utter devotion on his face. She led him through the iron gates and back into the castle.

 

Outside the gate he was stopped by Brienne, who still didn’t look thrilled with him. He raised an eyebrow and kept walking, forcing her to follow so they both trailed Sansa, who didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

 

“You’re arming her. Why?” She questioned.

 

“Can anyone in this place keep their mouths shut?” He grumbled, glaring in the direction of the smith.

 

“No.” Brienne said flatly, her large frame taunt and uncomfortable. “Why did you commission daggers for Sansa?”

 

“She deserves her own.” He stated flatly, as though it should be obvious. “Can’t keep using mine.”

 

“She’s not Arya.” Brienne stopped him, eye blazing. “She’s a lady, the Lady of Winterfell. She’s got me, and I believe she’s got you. She’s got Jon, Arya, all the knights of the Vale, all the men of the north. She doesn’t need them.”

 

“Aye,” He squared his shoulders. “And the men in the north can die, and so can those in the Vale. Jon is a king, and Arya a girl. I can be beat, or did you forget? I can die, and so can you. If some cunt like my brother comes for her, and we’re all dead, I’m not leaving her without something!”

 

“Alright.” Brienne backed down and he relaxed slightly. “Alright, fine. She keeps the daggers. But I hope to the gods she never has to use them.”

 

“You and me both.” He muttered.

Chapter Text

That night, he paced his room, growing more agitated by the moment. That in and of itself was the problem. He had no right to be angry with her, because what, she wasn’t here? She didn’t come to his room? She was likely just sleeping, or maybe she no longer wanted to be a part of whatever this was. She was busy. She’d made him no promises. It was utterly reasonable, but that didn’t mean he didn’t hate it. 

 

He had come to long for her to be here, in his room at night. He couldn’t fall asleep without her soft voice telling him stories, or singing songs she claimed to have forgotten long ago. He craved her, all the time, and all that kept him from sweeping her up and kissing her in the view of all in the great hall was the fact that he got her to himself under the cover of darkness. Had her, alone, all to himself, and that was nearly as sweet as the taste of her lips. 

 

He growled in frustration and went to hurl his basin at the wall, before trying to calm himself. He should just go to bed. He should try to sleep, forget that she was tired of him, or that she’d forgotten him. A completely reasonable thing, and he couldn’t begrudge her for it. She was a lady, he a dog, the refrain played on in his mind…

 

He sat down heavily on the bed, head in hands. Thoughts, dark and volatile, raced across his mind. She had said tonight. She had kissed him back. Was she simply playing with his emotions, like so many ladies did? To what end? Hs thoughts raced on and on. He fought them all. He would respect her, he would give her space, he would be honorable for once in his damn life, he would…

 

He was on his feet before he even knew he was doing it. He was just going to reassure himself that she was alright, and if she sent him away, that was fine. He would retreat like the dog he was, back to his kennel, to lick his wounds. But first, he needed to know why she had not come, pitiful as it was. 

 

He padded down to her door, trying to be as silent as possible. He thought about all the nights she’d slipped into his room, but he’d never imagined the reverse. He paused outside the door he knew to be hers, pressing his ear to it in an attempt to hear any voices. What if she was with Brienne or Arya? He couldn’t just storm in. 

 

He heard nothing and for a moment he paused, wondering if he should depart and not bother her with his jealous feelings, when he heard something. It wasn’t voices, it was scuffling, mixed with low cries of someone female. His heart stopped, as though someone had reached inside him and removed it. 

 

He was desperate to get inside, heaving his full weight against the door while cursing himself for not grabbing a single weapon. The noises inside increased and he stepped back, kicking the door with his bare foot. After the third kick, the lock gave way and the door flung inward, splintering. 

 

His eyes adjusted for the semidarkness after a moment, revealing a startling scene. Sansa was locked with a figure shrouded in dark cloth, and he caught the glint as the light from the fire flashed along a wickedly curved blade. Sansa was in a nightgown and a cloak, struggling to keep the blade from her throat. 

 

With a bellow of rage, he charged at the two figures. Sansa was putting up a hell of a fight, but he knew she would tire quickly, when the adrenaline wore off. He didn’t intend for her to get that far; her attacker would die and quickly. 

 

He caught the man by the shoulder and pulled him, hard, away from Sansa. He nearly succeeded and with a cry, Sansa tried to break free. He had to dodge the blade, not nearly fast enough and he felt the hot sting on his cheek. A fist aimed for a jaw nearly missed but meant that he diverted enough attention that Sansa managed to scramble away. 

 

Now that she was relatively safe, he could focus his attention on the fact that the assassin was armed and he was not, and he had no idea how he was going to get the blade away from him. As the knife came for his throat, he used his hands to deflect it, half aware that his hand to hand was only so good because he’d spent weeks practicing with Sansa. 

 

The blows kept coming and now it was more about keeping the blade from gutting him rather than attacking directly. He was tiring, trying to figure out how to end this, when suddenly the attacker went rigid, and the blade clattered to the ground. 

 

He stopped in confusion, watching as the man dropped to his knees, then collapsed forward, dead. Out of the base of his skull was a dagger— one he’d given Sansa, to be exact, with its pretty birds. He looked up in astonishment, seeing her holding one in her left hand, and her right-hand empty. 

 

“I figured back of the neck was as good as the front.” She said rationally, looking down at the dead body with a detached expression. 

 

“Aye.” He said, because there was nothing else he could say. He bent down, pulling out the knife and wiping it clean on the back of the dead man to stop his hands from trembling. He’d thought these daggers would never taste blood and here they were, ending life of men before Sansa had had them for a full day. Then he looked up at her. “Little bird, are you hurt?” He asked urgently. 

 

“No.” Sansa seemed to startle herself awake, looking down at herself. With alarm, he noticed that blood was staining her dress above her right breast and he lunched forward, pulling the dress aside anxiously. 

 

“Sansa—”

 

“It’s nothing.” She said hastily, but he was already sweeping her up and depositing her on the bed. 

 

“Where else?” He demanded, struggling to keep any panic from blooming into his voice and alarming her further. He couldn’t see anything else, but if she was hurt in any way, he’d never forgive himself. 

 

“Nowhere.” Sansa’s breathing was shallow and she kept her arms tight around him, even when he laid her down on her furs. “It’s a scratch.” 

 

“Aye, not deep.” He agreed, too worried about her to be distracted by the creamy skin beneath his fingertips. “It’ll scar though, and if you hadn’t killed him little bird, I’d murder him for that offense.” 

 

“It’ll be alright.” Sansa looked at the wound, a few inches long, just below her collarbone. Already, the blood was drying. He was already going for the water basin to clean her up when his mind stopped racing enough to comprehend what had happened. He stopped, then turned and dropped to his knees by her side. 

 

“Sansa.” Words evaded him again, but Sansa knew. She knew that he was trying to apologize for not being there, for forcing her to protect him instead of the other way around, for the fact that all of this was incredibly improper and he didn’t care at all. She looked at him with wide eyes. 

 

“I’m alright.” She assured him, raising a hand absentmindedly to touch his cheek and it came away bloody. “Are you?” 

 

“Fine.” He was covered with scratches, and he could feel them stinging, but she was the most important thing. He pressed the dagger into her hand and her fingers curled around it tightly, firmly. He was proud of her for that. He got up, intending to search the room completely, but also to hide his face from her.

 

He’d almost lost her. He’d almost lost her, to whoever was now lying dead on her floor. If he hadn’t been so damned jealous, and possessive, she might be dead, her throat slit before she had a chance to make a noise. Her life ended, then and there, before she’d even had a chance to live it. It nearly toppled him, to think that she had nearly died.

 

But she hadn’t. She’d put up a fight, his little wolf, and she was safe now. He could hear her now, as he secured the windows, and the slosh of water as she cleaned herself up. Good. Then he could inspect her properly and make sure she wasn’t hurt. 

 

She had killed the man with ease and he marveled at it as he turned the body over, tugging the head cloth off so he could get a better look at who had been sent to kill her. He didn’t know who it was, but Sansa, who stopped to look down at the body, clearly did. Her lip curled up into a sneer. 

 

“He’s one of the Frey’s men.” She spat. “I remember him from when I was a child— loyal to the old bastard.” The same thought must’ve occurred to both of them then, because before he could stop her in protest, Sansa was already running, leaping over the splintered remains of her door. Cursing, he went to follow. 

 

Sansa practically flew down the hallway, light as a bird on her feet. She reached Arya’s door long before his lumbering frame did, and by the time he skidded to a stop, Sansa was already inside, looking down at the body that also lay on the floor. Arya stood near the fire, cleaning her Needle of blood. 

 

“You’re hurt.” She was saying to Sansa, who waved a hand. 

 

“Bran.” She uttered and both girls flew past Sandor, running for their brother’s room. He turned and followed, trying to remember the last time that he had ran so much in his life. When he finally caught up to the girls, they were sitting on Bran’s bed, both catching their breath with difficulty. 

 

Their brother was unhurt, and no body lay on his floor. Still, Sandor checked the entire room twice as the three Stark children quietly talked amongst themselves. Once he was satisfied that no one lurked in the shadows for Bran, he turned back to them, quietly taking up a post at the door. 

 

“What do we do?” Arya asked calmly. “Dispose of the bodies?” 

 

“Do we want to tell the lords?” Sansa pointed out. “This was an attempt on Jon’s heirs, technically.” 

 

“They were Frey men.” Arya stated. “It wasn’t like they were sent by the crown or anything. It was simple revenge, for me.” He glanced at her and made a mental note to ask her what the hell that meant. As far as he knew, the Frey men had died at some feast, by forces unknown. Now he reconsidered. 

 

“They operated alone?” Sansa questioned and Arya nodded. 

 

“They were loyal to the Frey’s, and since I killed them all, it stands to reason that they’d seek revenge.” Now that sparked his curiosity, but he was too busy thinking about Sansa’s white skin marred by a pink line, and felt murderous.

 

“If there are any left in Winterfell, I’ll kill them.” Sandor growled. Arya glanced at him like she didn’t quite understand something yet. 

 

“Did you kill yours?” 

 

“She did.” He nodded to Sansa, not bothering to hide the note of pride in his voice. Arya looked at Sansa, impressed, and Sansa gave a wan smile.

 

“Did you want to keep their faces?” Sansa asked, with a note of amusement and Arya simply blinked. 

 

“No, they’re not very valuable.” He blinked and turned to her, but Arya gave no hint of explanation in her grey eyes.

 

“The bodies will be burned.” Sansa decided. “Sandor, can you carry them beyond the walls? We can burn them there before the dawn, and if the lords ask, we tell them the guards found intruders. No need to explain what my sister can do yet or who they were. Or worse, what I can do.”

 

“I’ll carry them.” He agreed easily. “Both of you best get back to bed.” 

 

“Are you alright?” Sansa asked Bran softly, brushing his hair back and he nodded. “Alright, we’ll post a guard to your door tonight.” 

 

“Goodnight.” He bid his sisters and the girls left with Sandor. Arya walked close to him, a knowing smirk on her face. 

 

“And what were you doing in my sister’s chambers?” She questioned under her breath and he glared. 

 

“I heard her cries.” 

 

“Did you?” Arya faked surprise. 

 

“Drag your dead into the hall.” He ordered, stopping at Sansa’s door. Arya nodded, still looking far too smug. He walked into Sansa’s chambers. She was sitting on the bed, pulling on her warm boots and grabbing a thicker cloak. 

 

“You’re going to need someone to guide you through the halls.” She said, without looking up and he stood over the dead body, debating how he was going to get two full grown men out unseen. “And I know this place much better than you.” 

 

“And when they see Lady Stark and the Hound carrying two dead bodies out?” He pointed out, dragging the body towards the hallway, grateful the men were scrawny after weeks of travel with likely little food through the winter landscape that yielded nothing for anyone who wasn’t a northerner. 

 

“They’ll see a kitchen girl sneaking off to meet her lover for a secret midnight meeting.” She pulled her hood up with a sly smile and his heart pounded, not at all from the exertion. Sansa quickly cleaned his cheek, too fast for him to savor the close contact for a moment before she slipped away and returned with his own cloak and boots, and he was glad. When they were both dressed, Sansa checked the hallway. Arya, panting, was waiting for them, a body just outside her door. 

 

“Heavy bastards.” She remarked, leaning against the wall like it was natural for them to be dragging bodies around at this time of night. 

 

“Aye, I’ve had worse.” With her help, he heaved one over each shoulder, then looked pointedly at Sansa. 

 

“Quietly.” She said needlessly and he gave her a look before following her down the hall. In all black, she moved like a shadow. A wolf on silent feet.

 

Sneaking through the night, in the dark, keeping his eye on her figure, left him plenty of time to contemplate what it would’ve been like to lose her. If he hadn’t got there in time, if he would’ve stayed in his room… All of it caused him to shudder, so he turned, with difficulty, to thinking about what had happened. 

 

How she’d slammed that knife into the spinal column and the man had dropped. That scratch, across the perfect white skin… Only now did his skin flush warm at the memory of how her flimsy nightgown hadn’t done much to conceal anything from him. He wished now, awfully, that he would have taken more time to inspect every inch of her under the guise of finding injuries. He wondered if she would’ve submitted, or recoiled. 

 

He was so lost in his thoughts, that he hardly noticed that Sansa was opening a small door beyond the walls and he had to duck to get through, or risk hitting his head on the crossbeam. She gestured to a spot just outside. 

 

“Here?” He groaned and dropped them.

 

“I’ll send a trusted guard there tomorrow to burn the bodies. This would be a nightmare if we had to explain exactly why the few remaining Frey men are trying to kill us.” Sansa said, pulling her cloak tighter around her. He quickly made to wrap his own cloak around her, but she shook her head. “I’m alright.” 

 

“Are you?” He helped her back into the doorway and she soundlessly shut it behind her. The two of them carefully made their way back towards the family rooms, on edge for every noise, hearing guards and maids still up finishing nighttime chores.

 

“What do you mean?” She asked quietly, when they paused in an alcove, waiting to see if a cook ambled down this hall. 

 

“You killed someone tonight. You’re hurt. I’d expect you to be in shock.” He muttered, waiting for the footsteps to fade before they kept going. 

 

“I’ve seen dead bodies before. I’ve killed before.” Sansa’s tone was all steel. “This is no different.” 

 

“He tried to kill you.” He hissed and Sansa paused, before ushering him down a side passage at the sound of mail rattling. 

 

“Yes, and you saved me.” Sansa answered. 

 

“And then you saved me.” He reminded me. “I thought I would kill men for you, not the other way around.” 

 

“You have killed for me.” Sansa reminded him. 

 

“Don’t speak on that.” He said, a little harshly, because he was already going to have nightmares of what might have passed tonight, and he didn’t need to be reminded of what might have once happened, long ago.

 

“Returning the favor then.” Sansa opened a door and stuck her head out, then quickly pulled back, her ocean blue eyes wide with alarm. “Guards, coming. They’ll take this hallway, I shouldn’t—”

 

“Follow me.” He muttered, tugging her cloak up over her face and sliding a hand onto her waist. She looked up, eyes wide, but a moment later the guards walked into the corridor, stopping at the sight of Sandor Clegane holding a girl against the wall. 

 

“Oi, Clegane.” The leader said loudly. “What are you doing?” 

 

“What does it bloody look like?” He growled, ducking his face and breathing hotly in her ear. Sansa squirmed slightly, and after a pause, the solider said hesitantly, 

 

“And she—” 

 

Sansa seemed to realize then what was at stake then, and she reached up, grabbing the back of his neck to pull him close, so that his face was hidden by the cloak. His lips were ghosting over the corner of her mouth, and he felt how rapidly she was breathing. His heart seemed to beat in tempo with hers.  

 

He wanted to kiss her again, but not here. Not here, when he wasn’t sure if he had any shreds of self-control to hang onto. If he kissed her now, he was certain he’d never stop until both of them had had their fill.

 

“Do you want to say something else, boy?” He barked, once the guards shuffled uncomfortably. “Dogs don’t share.” 

 

“No, Clegane. Is Lady Sansa alright?” 

 

“Aye, she’s safe in her chambers.” His grip tightened on her waist as he glared at the guards. “I’m entitled some time on my own.” 

 

“Of course.” The guard nodded and Sansa kept her gaze firmly down as the guards filed past. Sandor didn’t take his hands from her until they were gone, then stepped back as though he’d been struck. 

 

“Come on.” He said distractedly, after a long pause so that she didn’t see exactly what she did to him. “We need to get you back.” 

 

“Yes.” She agreed, keeping her hood up and hurrying towards the stairs. They didn’t encounter anyone else on their return journey and when they finally got back to the family rooms, Sansa first made sure that both Bran and Arya were secure in their rooms before she turned to him with a tired smile. 

 

“What else does the lady need?” He asked her gently. She looked far too pale, and he didn’t like the way he spotted her hands trembling.

 

“Rest.” Sansa rubbed the space between her eyes. “Though I’m not sure how likely I am to get it.” 

 

“How can I help?” He asked lowly and she smiled. 

 

“Stay.” The words sent a jolt of desire for him and for a moment, his thoughts wandered to that inspection of her creamy skin. But he needed to be good and just today, even if it made his body scream in protest.

 

“Aye, but not with you.” Boldly, he reached up and patted her cheek. “In the hall, to mind you and your siblings.” 

 

“Don’t you need rest?” She looked at him in alarm. “And you’re hurt.” 

 

“Scratches.” He assured her but Sansa was already bringing the edge of her cloak up to wipe away the blood better this time, fussing about if any needed stitches or not. He let her, closing his eyes to relish the closeness of her. 

 

“Let me clean you up then, before you begin your watch.” She offered quietly and he agreed with a nod. She led him into her chambers, sitting him down so that she could wipe at the blood and sweat on his face. He was quiet, trying to remember the last time someone had cared for him so tenderly. 

 

“Are you scared?” He found himself asking, as she diligently wiped the blood off his hands and forearms. 

 

“Of?” Sansa looked up at him, having been focused on her task. 

 

“Someone tried to take your life.” He reminded her, not unkindly. 

 

“Many have tried.” She said darkly, inspecting his arms and finding small nicks there. “But that’s what I have you for.” 

 

“You did well.” He told her, suppressing a groan as her long, smooth strokes went up and down his forearm. 

 

“You taught me well.” Sansa said softly. “Thank you.” 

 

“If anything happened to you…” He trailed off, choked up despite himself. He wanted to tell her so many words, but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. But he wanted her to know all the same and hated that she might think he didn’t care, when she was all that mattered to him anymore. Her and her alone.  

 

“Nothing did.” Sansa briefly held his hand, making the hairs on his arm stand up. “Nothing ever will. I have you.” 

 

“Always.” He watched as his skin became clean beneath her touch and when she was done, she looked up at him with a smile, before bending and pressing her lips to his wrist. 

 

“Sansa—” His pulse fluttered wildly at the feel of her lips on the sensitive skin. 

 

“A thanks, for the ser-not-ser who saved my life.” She told him, dismissing any notions of impropriety. “Will you not stay?” 

 

“I’ll stand watch.” He didn’t want her to hear how strangled he was, or what was happening between his legs. 

 

“Alright.” Sansa let him hand go and rose. “Then go. If you need anything, I am just in here.” She looked at her ruined gown ruefully. “Perhaps I can fix this.” 

 

“I am only in the hall.” He assured and she nodded. Then, before he could do anything stupid, he went to his room to retrieve his sword before taking up his position. 

 

He was sure that he wouldn’t sleep, that he would be too alert to every noise, too caught up in nightmares of what might have been if he hadn’t been there soon enough for Sansa, all the rest. But he must have dozed at some point, because early in the morning before dawn rose, he was awoken by Sansa’s soft lips, pressed to his scarred forehead before her soft footsteps carried her away.

Chapter Text

The next morning he couldn’t stifle his yawns, and neither could Sansa. He thought Brienne noticed, the way her head swiveled back and forth, but she said nothing and he smiled in his cup of wine.

 

“I cannot train long today.” Sansa said apologetically, when they headed for the training yard. “There’s just so much that requires my attention, and… I regret that I haven’t seemed to have time for the most important things.” She looked at him imploringly and he swallowed hard, nodding.

 

“You’re the lady of the castle now, you have duties.” He reminded her, letting her know that he understood.

 

“I know. But soon Jon will be back and I will not be.” She chewed on her lip for a moment. “I… No, I’m sorry.”

 

“What?” He frowned as he got his daggers out.

 

“Nothing.” Sansa ducked her head and readied herself for their sparring. He gave her a quizzical look before going for her.

 

He held back, wondering if she was frightened by her attacker in the night, but soon found he had nothing to worry over. If anything, she was more confident now. She knew that she could wield the daggers and be deadly with them. He had to work a little harder to block her advances and get around her defenses. He smiled, a prideful thing, at how she flew for him, daggers out, red hair loose.

 

“No!” A child’s yell rang through the yard. Both he and Sansa, pausing to take a drink of water, turned towards the source of the noise. A moment later, Sansa was striding across the yard, face grim. He trailed, forgetting to grab their cloaks.

 

“What is the meaning of this?” Sansa demanded loudly, causing all the guards to straighten up. Fent and Shaa, who were previously being wrangled into a wagon, both leapt down and ran for Sansa. She received both with open arms, and they pressed their faces to her thighs, each sniffling.

 

“My lady.” The guards bowed low. “We were following your orders to evacuate the smallfolk. These children were to head south.”

 

“Is there a third?” Sansa asked sharply. “A baby.”

 

“Yes, my lady.” A young girl was holding the sleeping babe and Sansa gestured for her to give her the babe. He saw the looks the guards exchanged as Sansa knelt in the muck so she was eye level with the children.

 

“It’s alright.” She assured them softly. ‘It’s alright. You have to go with the guards. They are taking you to safety.”

 

“No.” Fent protested. “Stay with you!”

 

“You cannot.” Sadness etched deep lines into Sansa’s sweet face as she brushed his hair back gently. “There are monsters coming. I want you to go somewhere safe. These guards will take you there.”

 

“No.” Shaa was crying now, in earnest, clinging to Sansa’s arm. “No! No! No!”

 

“Shush, it’s alright.” Sansa soothed her. “Don’t cry now. Are you scared to go with them, is that it?”

 

“Don’t want to go.” Fent was begging her. “Stay!”

 

“Fent, you listen to me.” Sansa took his chin and made him look at her. “You have to get your siblings to safety. You’re their big brother and they need you to be strong from them. Do you understand? I need you to be strong. Can you do that, for me?”

 

“Yes.” He said, but it was hesitantly, unsure. Sansa nodded however, and gave him a proud little smile.

 

“Good. You will be a good big brother, I know it. You will go south and be safe, I promise.” She brought his head forward so that she could kiss it, and then did the same to Shaa. “Go now. You’ll be back soon, I promise. Then we will all hear stories, and have fresh apples.” She promised them.

 

“I will miss you!” Shaa threw her arms around Sansa, nearly toppling her. Sansa gave her an awkward one-armed hug, minding the baby in her arms.

 

“And I you.” She said quietly, lingering in the embrace for a moment before rising. She led the children back to the wagon, pausing to kiss the babe’s head before returning him to the girl. Then she turned to the guards and assisted the children into the wagon. They went meekly, without the slightest hint of a fight. “Please take good care of them. They are dear to me, and let no harm come to them.” She ordered.

 

“Yes, m’lady.” Chorused from a dozen mouths and Sansa gave a tight nod. The wagon rode away and Sansa stood tall, stoic. It wasn’t until he placed a hand on her elbow did she even acknowledge that there was anyone else around.

 

“May the old gods bless their journey, keep them safe, keep them warm, keep them…” Sansa either trailed off or the wind snatched the last bit of her prayer away. He couldn’t tell. But she kept her sight affixed on the site of the wagon until it rambled out the gate and out of their sight.

 

“They’ll be alright.” He said gruffly, and knew it to be a lie. They were only slightly safer to the south than they were here, and the journey would be hard for children so young, and motherless.

 

“May the old gods…” Sansa was quiet. “I don’t know. Fuck the gods, that’s what you say, isn’t it? That they only create sheep to feed the wolves?”

 

“Ah.” He flinched as he often did when she reminded him of the things he once said to her. They were bitter words of a broken man but now they seemed to ring oh so true. “I didn’t mean…”

 

“No, you did.” Sansa said it without malice. “May they be wolves then.” Then she strode away and he only glimpsed the tears that froze on her lower eyelashes.

 

With Sansa firmly entrenched with the lords and men, he decided that it was high time that he went out and met the approaching army. They were spreading themselves around Winterfell, some close, some far, and all different. There were stoic men with armor, building fires and neatly setting up tents in line.

 

On the other side was the wild sprawl of the horse lords. He didn’t get that far, because he was hardly three steps into the camp when two men emerged from a tent, deep in conversation. All three of them stopped and stared at each other for a long moment, silent. Then Bronn broke it with his wit.

 

“Clegane, if you keep meeting me on the eve of battle, I might think that you want something out of me.” He gave a roughish wink but Sandor ignored him in favor of staring, in outright suspicion at Jamie Lannister, who looked vaguely uncomfortable.

 

“What the fuck are you doing here?” He demanded roughly. The man may not have been wearing his gold lion armor, but he still had the golden hair and golden hand. There was no mistaking him as anything other than what he was. A danger to Sansa, a danger to everyone in Winterfell.

 

“Don’t hurt him, Clegane.” Brienne’s voice rang out behind them. He turned with a growl. She was walking towards them with a slight frown, looking like a mother who was annoyed that her sons were squabbling. “We need good men.”

 

“Oh, and he’s a good one?” He growled.

 

“Aye, better than most.” Bronn looked unbothered by the obvious tension humming in the room. He whistled, like it was nothing.

 

“Clegane.” Brienne said, but he gave her a look meant to kill her and then grabbed her arm, dragging her aside.

 

“How could you,” He hissed, furious. “Bring him here?”

 

“Jamie?” Brienne, for all of her deadliness and honor, was, in his opinion, a massive fucking idiot. “He came of his own accord, he wants to—”

 

“He wants to what?” He shook her and Brienne frowned.

 

“Take your hands off me, or I’ll—”

 

“Are you as dumb as you are ugly?” He was losing it, quickly, but he couldn’t get the image of Sansa in the grip of an assassin, fighting for her life, out of his head.

 

“Let the maiden go.” He felt the touch of steel on his neck and knew that it was Jamie. He released her with a snarl and turned, unbothered by the fact that the sword was pressed lightly to his chest.

 

“Run me through, Kingslayer.” He growled. “Do it, and see how fast the northerners slaughter you for it. You can kill me, but you’ll never touch her.”

 

“Touch her?” Jamie’s sword drooped for a moment as he looked at him in confusion. “What? Who?”

 

“Clegane, what are you doing?” Brienne was hissing behind him like a mother goose, but she was lost to him now. Everyone was. All he could see was Jamie, his damned Lannister looks, and remembered a boy who looked so much like him that had nearly killed Sansa Stark, his little bird.

 

“Did she send you?” He taunted Jamie. “Or did her cunt finally dry up? Get sick of her? Or was it the other way around then? Think you’ll win her love back by bringing her Sansa’s head? You can try Kingslayer, but you best kill me now if you want to do so.”

 

“He’s not here to kill Sansa!” Brienne yelled, loudly. “He’s with us! He’s on our side. Everyone is on the same side now, so put down the swords!”

 

“He is a Lannister.” He turned to Brienne the second Jamie’s sword dropped. “And you brought him here, to her? He’ll sooner run her through than leave her be, you cunt. Are you so fucking blinded by your wishes that you can’t see him for what he is?”

 

“And what is that exactly?” Jamie asked mildly as Brienne’s mouth opened and closed in wordless fury.

 

“Cersei’s little play toy.” He mocked him. “Like you’ve always been. Did she send you? Did honorable Brienne the Beauty here believe your lies about fucking change? About how you want to do the right thing? Don’t like him fool you Brienne. The only thing he’s ever wanted to do is fuck his sister.”

 

“Enough!” Brienne yelled as Jamie looked to raise his sword again. Bronn picked his teeth, looking supremely unbothered. “Clegane, you are out of line. I am Sansa’s sworn shield and I would never endanger her. I swore an oath, and I do not break them. Present Jamie to her, if you’d like. She gets the choice.”

 

“March on then.” Sandor ordered bluntly. “You too, sellsword. You’ll swear fealty or lose your heads.”

 

“Quite a reception you get here.” Bronn observed, as they went back to the castle. The entire way Brienne alternated between berating and cursing him, while Jamie and Bronn bantered lightly as though nothing was amiss. It made him want to grind his teeth, until they marched him right into the hall and in front of Sansa, who was seated with her siblings and watching impassively.

 

“Lady Stark.” Jamie bowed and Sandor clenched his teeth at how mocking the gesture seemed. “I bring myself before you to swear my loyalty.”

 

“Ser Jamie.” Sansa’s face betrayed nothing. “Last I knew, your loyalty lay with the false queen in the south, your sister.”

 

“Yes, well,” Jamie shifted uncomfortably. “There has been a change in my outlook, my lady. I chose to ride north and stand in your armies to save the realm.”

 

“And what caused this change?” Sansa was a shrewd as ever, especially in front of the lords. Jamie saw it too, and Sandor was damned if he didn’t see a little smile tug up the corner of the Kingslayer’s face.

 

“Cersei—my sister—means to betray you. She means to promise you her armies, then turn and wage war against you from behind. She’s sent the Greyjoy to get the Golden Company.” He told her and the whole hall hushed, astonishment on all faces. Sandor wasn’t sure if was for Jamie’s words or the fact that’d he admitted as such aloud to all.

 

“A tactic she learned from your late father, it seems.” Sansa’s smile was thin and cold. “Well, her betrayal is not new news to us, ser, but I thank you all the same for your honesty. You will be welcome here until my brother arrives. You will face his judgement as well, but until then I offer you a reprieve. You’ll forgive me if I don’t often you a room in my castle, but as you can see, I have lords to think of.” She gestured to the men that lined the walls. Jamie gave her a little half bow stiffly.

 

“My tent will do well enough, thank you. If I may have your leave?” Jamie looked no more bothered than he had been on his way in, but Sandor saw a loaded look that passed between him and Brienne.

 

“You may. The sellsword, however, stays.” Sansa ordered loudly and Bronn, who had previously been inspecting the hall with detached interest, looked at her with wide eyes. Sansa looked down at him, not betraying a hint of emotion.

 

“My lady.” Bronn seemed to remember himself after a moment, performing a low and flourishing bow.

 

“Ser Bronn of the Blackwater.” Sansa said his name with the faintest hint of contempt. “You were once a sworn shield to my first husband, Tyrion.”

 

“Well, I didn’t swear any vows.” Bronn informed her, far too at ease when Sansa held his life in her hands. “We were friends, more like.”

 

“No one has friends in Kings Landing.” Sansa didn’t look at Sandor, but he knew that she meant her words for him. “You have enemies and protectors. Which are you, Ser Bronn? A knight, or a sellsword still?”

 

“Clever girl.” Bronn suddenly broke into a smile, even if Sansa didn’t reciprocate the gesture and the lords along the walls were whispering, wondering what was going on. Sansa, however, paid them no mind.

 

“I remember you. These men have no idea who you are, but I do.” Sansa’s tone was nearing icy. “And I do not stand traitors in my home. So you will tell me why you ride with Jamie Lannister and who you serve.”

 

“I serve the man with the most money.” Bronn shrugged, unashamed to admit it. “Once, that was Tyrion. He worked up a massive debt with my services, and left before he could pay them. But a Lannister always pays their debts, ain’t that so? So I came here, cause either he,” He jerked a thumb at a sighing Jamie. “Or the imp is going to pay what’s owed to me. That’s who I work for.”  

 

“And what debt is owed to you?” Sansa questioned him.

 

“A castle, a lordship, a pretty wife, and the promise to live out my days old and fat and very rich.” Bronn told her and for a second, Sansa allowed something that might have been a smile to cross her face.

 

“Thank you for your honesty. I have no quarrel with you being here to claim a debt.” Sansa dismissed him with a slight wave. “May you get that castle, and not freeze in it before winter’s end.” 

 

“You’re too gracious.” Bronn did another outrageous bow before making to follow Jamie and Brienne out. Sandor brought up the rear, in case Jamie should be fooling them all and turn to harm Sansa.

 

“Wait!” Sansa called and they all stopped. “Clegane.” She addressed him politely by his last name and he turned, wondering in astonishment at what she’d have to say to him in front of all these men. “Make sure he makes it back to his tent in as many pieces as he came in. Gods know there’s a man or two here that would love to do otherwise.” He could’ve stared at the little smirking mouth of hers for all time, but instead he dipped his head and turned away. They had resumed their war meeting before he’d taken two steps.

 

“So,” Jamie said conversationally, once they got out of the hall and back to the yard. “How long has it been then?”

 

“Been what?” He grumbled, keeping an eye on Bronn. Brienne had that mostly covered, marching him towards the gate and lecturing him severely on what exactly he was and was not allowed to do. Bronn was protesting, fiercely, about his denial to all the beer and ale in the camp.

 

“In love with a one Sansa Stark.” Jamie said breezily and Sandor went rigid. Jamie correctly remembered that Sandor usually swung with a large right fist and easily dodged it. None even seemed to notice them, Sandor glaring furiously and Jamie walking along with apparent ease, arms clasped behind his back.

 

“You…” Sandor growled, unable to get out other words.

 

“I was desperately in love with a woman I could not have for all my life.” Jamie reminded him. “I know the look in a man, I know the signs. I also know what to look for in a woman that loves a man she cannot have. So, a more interesting question is how long has Sansa Stark been in love with you?”

 

“I will murder you.” Sandor threatened him vehemently. “You so much as breathe a word of that, and…”

 

“Please.” Jamie meant for it to be scoffing, but it only came off as a little sad. “I don’t give a fuck about who loves who anymore.” His eyes darted to Brienne’s back. “But I swore a vow to her mother that I would see that Sansa was not harmed. I’ve failed, I’ll admit to that much. But if I saw her safely married off to a man who would die to protect her from anything, maybe I could consider that debt paid.” Jamie gave him an imploring look but Sandor was quiet, trying to resist the urge to kill someone.

 

When he saw Jamie off to his tent, he decided to go pummel someone in the courtyard. That would help his mood. However, not even in the training yard could he avoid Jamie. The men were buzzing with the information, debating why he’d came and what his plan was. Sandor was mildly reassured to see that most of the northmen were of the mindset that should Ser Jamie get within ten steps of Sansa; his life would be forfeit.

 

By the time the sun had set, he was ready for a good night’s rest. It was becoming more and more apparent that the time to march was upon them, and his nights sleeping in comfort were fast coming to an end. He knew enough to relish them while he still had a chance, before he was regulated to a tent. He tried not to think about how he would never have a night with Sansa again, most likely.

 

He wanted to ask her what she meant, the things she’d said in the glass gardens. He wanted to know why she’d said he kissed her, and what she’d meant by kissing him back. The mere memory of the kiss made him flush. He wanted and dreaded another kiss in equal measure. All he knew was that he could not speak on such things in front of her. She would have to be the one to bring it up, take the first steps.

 

He wondered if that made him chivalrous or craven.

 

He was reclining in bed when Sansa arrived, slipping through the door like an apparition. He wondered if ghosts wandered the halls of Winterfell. He wondered if Sansa knew them too, like she knew the castle. When she gave him a sad, watery smile, he forgot about the ghosts and was filled with concern for her.

 

“The tears, little bird.” He wanted to reach for her, but he didn’t, as she settled herself on the opposite end of the bed. “Why?”

 

“I don’t see how we’re going to survive this.” She whispered, wrapping her arms around her knees.

 

“Do you think Jamie is—” He began sharply but Sansa cut him off with a wave of her hand, shaking her head.

 

“No, Sandor. I trust that he’s here for the right reasons. He won’t harm me or you, nor Jon or Arya or—”

 

“Sansa, the last place he’s been was Cersei’s cunt, do you remember that?” He snapped at her crassly but Sansa didn’t bat an eye.

 

“Yes, and he’s had weeks of hard riding and marching between her and us. He’s not the man he was. Brienne trusts him and she’s given me a good case for why I should too. I don’t want to speak any more on it Sandor.” She said flatly, but he wasn’t done.

 

“Do you really think Cersei won’t turn on you?” He glared at her, as her pale skin flickered and gleamed in the firelight. “That she won’t betray you the second your back is turned and undefended?”

 

“No, I trust she’ll do exactly that.” Sansa’s eyes cut through him like the coldest winter wind. “Do you remember all the years she held me captive? I did learn from her Sandor, stupid as I may seem.”

 

“You’re not stupid.” She could always get him with that one and she knew it. He rubbed his beard, agitated. “But I grew up defending her. Her silent shield. I know what she’ll do for power, little bird.”

 

“As do I.” Sansa softened, snow melting from the eaves. “Look at us, bickering over who knew her best. It’s not an honor I’d thought I’d ever want.”

 

“Nor I.” He sighed. “I know it’s Brienne’s duty to keep you safe, and I know she would never hurt you, but Sansa…” He trailed off, unsure how to explain to her why he had doubts about Brienne and Jamie.

 

“Because they are in love with each other?” Sansa gave him a tightlipped smile and he blinked, startled. “I know. I noticed too. You think Brienne would betray me, even unwittingly, for Jamie’s love?”

 

“He’s only ever loved his sister.” He warned her. He hadn’t spent his entire life at Casterly Rock and not seen that reinforced, time and time again.

 

“Well, people change. Love is…” Sansa looked down at her hands. “I trust Brienne. I trust her judgement of people. She wrote to me, did you know? To tell me that you were coming, after Kings Landing.”

 

“Oh.” His heart sank. He could about imagine what Brienne had said to Sansa, especially after how they’d departed from the dragon pit together.

 

“She said that you were coming north, that you wanted to protect me.” Sansa told him and he couldn’t raise his eyes to meet her gaze. “She said that she thought I could trust that you would see no harm came to me before she or Jon got here. She said that you were a good man, changed for the better. She had no idea I already knew that, but she said it all the same. She’s a good judge of character.”

 

“You already knew?” He looked up at her.

 

“Of course.” Sansa smiled slightly, flexing her long, thin fingers. “You’ve always been a good man to me Sandor. It was always just a matter of when that man was going to be what the rest of the world saw, not just me.”

 

“What is your plan for the bitch then?” He changed the subject abruptly, uncomfortable with where this was going and what Sansa meant by it.

 

“Cersei?” Sansa paused, glancing at him.

 

“Aye.”

 

“Well, she’s likely to get the Golden Company, but not until they can sail over. If they have any sense, they’ll land deep in the south.” Sansa gave a wry smile. “It may not matter in the slightest. We could all be dead by then, and her army can fight the undead same as we did, and fall, same as we did. But I’m hedging my bets on the fact that when they see what lies here in the north, they won’t be long. They’ll go to Essos, far away, and Cersei will be alone. I intend to make the Red Keep come down around her head.”

 

“How?” He asked, thinking of his brother. “What if her armies get to us before?”

 

“Easy.” Sansa’s mouth curled up into a wicked smile. “An army follows its gold. Cersei will pay them and they will do what she says.”

 

“Aye,” He looked at her skeptically, trying to see what she was getting at. “And when she commands them to kill everyone, including you, Jon, and the rest, how do you plan on stopping that?”

 

“Make sure she never gives that order.” Sansa said calmly and he stared at her in astonishment. She wasn’t making any sense.

 

“How?”

 

“Do you remember what was said when the Frey’s came?” She asked him suddenly and his hands clenched of their own accord.

 

“Aye.” He growled.

 

“And I asked my sister if she wanted their faces.” Sansa said and he paused, recalling his confusion. He’d meant to ask Arya then, what the hell it’d all meant, but he hadn’t had time in the aftermath.

 

“Aye, she said…”

 

“They weren’t valuable.” Sansa nodded. “Have you ever heard of the Faceless Men of Bravos, Sandor?”

 

“They’re legend, little bird.” He told her, miffed. “They’re only a myth or a story. They’re not real.”

 

“Except they are.” That thin smile again. “And Arya is one of them. Where do you think she learned what she knows?”

 

“Fuck.” He’d always assumed that Arya had fallen in with some warriors who’d mistaken her for a boy and trained her as such. He didn’t know what to do with the idea what she was an assassin who could wear the faces of others, but how else then had she killed all the Frey’s? How else had she became so deadly? Then, suddenly, the pieces slotted neatly in order and he understood.

 

There was no one who wanted the queen dead more than Arya. Arya, the wolf-bitch who was now more dangerous than anyone he knew. The Faceless Men, myths as he thought they might be, had skills that were only of legend. If Arya had such skills, he knew it would be only a matter of time before she was placed in the position to murder her. And Arya would never betray her family, and when the Targaryen came for her throne, Arya would step aside with ease and leave the Iron Throne untouched.

 

“She won’t leave until she has time with Jon.” Sansa answered his next question before he could even ask it. “She and he were always close, and she wants to see him again. He’ll want to see her. Then she’ll go south.”

 

“And you?” He looked at her, waiting for a resurgence of their earlier agreement, the one that had sparked everything. She gave a wan smile and slipped down lower into the bed, arranging blankets around her.

 

“I will stay here. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell, and when Arya leaves, and Bran leaves, and so does Jon, I will stay. You were right, the battlefield is not where I belong. Rest assured. I won’t try to go.”

 

“Sansa…” He hesitated. He wanted to ask her about her accusation that he always left, but he couldn’t see her face down, turned away into a pillow.

 

“May we rest? I’m afraid I’m exhausted and there’s still so much more to do tomorrow and until Jon returns.” Sansa’s voice sounded a little broken again, but he remembered his promise. She would lead and he would follow. That was how this arrangement worked, and he would never take more than she was prepared to give.

 

“Aye.” He said softly, reclining.

 

“Sandor?” She whispered softly, a few moments later and he opened his eyes slightly. Sansa’s thin hands gripped the blankets tightly.

 

“Little bird.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“For?”

 

“Everything. Goodnight.”

 

Chapter Text

That night, his nightmares contained Joffrey, taller and older than he had ever gotten to be in life. He looked like Jamie, with his green eyes and blond hair. He was holding Sansa by the throat, and cutting her pregnant belly wide open. Sandor watched in horror as a litter of dead pups fell, and Sansa crumpled into a heap. Joffrey smiled at him then, a horrible thing, and asked in Cersei’s voice,

 

“Would you die for her?”

 

He awoke, sweating. Sansa, who usually woke with him when he dreamt of such things, was still fast asleep at the end of the bed. He couldn’t help from reaching down and brushing her hair back, trailing across her forehead. She was fine. She was here. She was safe. No one would ever hurt her.

 

“I’ll never leave you.” He promised her prone form. “Never, little bird. I’m yours, now and forever.”

 

He couldn’t sleep any longer, so he chose to rise. When he looked out the tiny window, he saw it was indeed morning. The faintest hints of it chose to begin lightening the sky. He watched it for a moment, then turned back to look at Sansa with a tender smile. She looked so peaceful in sleep. For a moment, she was that same young girl he’d known so long ago in Kings Landing, beautiful and innocent.

 

He strapped on his sword and his cloak, deciding that it was high time that he do the job Sansa had set him to. He departed, before not before allowing himself to press his lips gently to the crown of her head. Then he was off, headed for the kitchen for a meager breakfast before going to inspect his troops.

 

News of his appointment must’ve gotten around, because as he joined the few men up this early, sentries and guards, they gave him all a respectful nod. He wondered if he’d ever stop feeling uncomfortable being anything other than loathed or ignored. He was willing to bet all his gold that he never would.

 

When he went to the camp of the Unsullied, he was directed to a man called Great Shield, who’s tent sat in the center of camp. He went, to be greeted by a tall man with smooth skin the color of mocha. He had deep set, wide eyes the color of Sandor’s cloak, and didn’t even think to blanche at Sandor’s scars. He offered him a seat and introduced himself as one of the commanders of the massive army.

 

“You protect the lady of the castle, yes?” The man’s Common was a little rough, but Sandor had no problems understanding him. He nodded, wondering if any of these men even knew what Sansa looked like.

 

“Yes, I guard Lady Sansa. She’s asked me to command your men, until we march for the north.” He told him and the man frowned slightly, turning to the man behind him and saying something rapidly in what Sandor thought could have been Valyrian.

 

“Why you?” He asked, skeptically and Sandor paused. He had assumed that Sansa had given him command because she had wanted him to feel worthy or valuable. He had assumed it was out of some form of pity or favoritism. But the Sansa that predicted Cersei’s every move, who planned things out in advance, meticulously, wouldn’t handle him the command of her brother’s armies so carelessly.

 

“How many battles have you survived?” He turned the question back on the Unsullied, who stiffened.

 

“The Unsullied are tested in battle before they are declared Unsullied, and each survives many battles.” He said pointedly.

 

“I’ve survived my fair share too.” Sandor said plainly. “I was raised here, and I know the houses and the lands. I’ve seen the things that are coming for us from the north. I’ve faced them down, and I will tell you, this battle won’t be anything like you’ve ever faced before. The dead make the Dothraki look like nursemaids.”

 

“Nursemaids.” Great Shield tried the word out slowly. “This means what?”

 

“A woman who takes care of children. Old ladies, mostly.” Sandor explained, a smile hinting at the corners of his mouth. The man’s dark eyes lit up as though he was entertained and he nodded.

 

“Nursemaid. You have faced our enemy?” He asked Sandor, with far more respect than before. Sandor nodded.

 

“Faced it, lived to tell the tale.”

 

“Then you must tell us.” Another Unsullied laid down a map on the table between them and weighted down it’s corners with daggers. Great Shield took another dagger and used it to point to where Winterfell was on the map. “Where will the dead come from? How will we best attack? Defend?”

 

He spent the better part of the morning with Great Shield in the tent, working out battle plans. Occasionally another Unsullied would drift in, to listen. Sandor had never seen an army made of so many men that seemed to have no commanders. They were all equal in the tent, free to share opinions. He saw that Great Shield had earned his position through his knowledge and value as a leader, and wondered if the Unsullied had the right of it then.

 

He ate with them, getting to know the men. Great Shield had the best grip on the language and translated for them. He heard the story of how the Targaryen queen came to them, how she liberated them. They spoke about the cities they’d taken and the slaves that had been freed. Each man said that he fought of his own free will for the woman that had given them that freedom.

 

He left reassured that the army was of good caliber, in good spirits, and would never turn on them for Cersei’s promises or threats. He glanced at the sprawl of the Dorthaki, wondering how they would receive him, when a squire appeared, looking relieved to have found him. Sandor paused, amused. It was not usually and expression found when someone looked upon him, but he understood when the boy spoke.

 

“Lady Sansa requests your presence at once.” He stammered and Sandor turned to Great Shield, who had been walking with him through the camp.

 

“We will come to you when Grey Worm returns.” He said seriously and Sandor nodded, before turning back to the castle. The squire brought him to Sansa’s study, where he was greeted with the site of Sansa, Arya, Brienne, Bran, and most alarmingly, Jaime Lannister sitting around a map.

 

“Ah, Clegane, good of you to join us.” Jaime said brightly when he walked in and he scowled at the man.

 

“What is it?” He asked Sansa directly. She looked exhausted, not bothering to hide such an expression.

 

“You saw him, didn’t you?” Bran asked him abruptly and he swung his gaze to the boy near the fire. Bran’s hands were folded in his lap, his expression cool, but nothing escaped his all-seeing gaze.

 

“Who?” Sandor asked, trying not to shift uncomfortably.

 

“The Night King.” Bran stated and Sandor couldn’t suppress the shiver that went up and down his spine as he remembered the terrible figure on the ridge. He had been sure of his death then and there.

 

“Aye,” He glanced at Sansa. “What of him?”

 

“We don’t know how to defeat him.” Sansa sank down into a chair. “And it seems that Bran has decided that he needs to take it upon himself to solve that problem.”

 

“So…” Sandor trailed off, unsure of why he was here.

 

“She doesn’t think that he’s that big of a threat.” Arya explained and Sansa scowled at her, at them all.

 

“I didn’t say that, I said I don’t see why Bran needs to go to the Isle of Faces to understand how to defeat him. We fight him.” Sansa stated flatly.

 

“He has a dragon now.” Arya reminded her sister and Jaime blanched, looking around in disbelief.

 

“He what?”

 

“Sansa, he’s not like a normal king.” Sandor told her quietly, knowing that he could use such informalities here. If he was as smart as a wooden post, he was sure that everyone in the room knew his true feelings for her. “Fighting him with soldiers and maneuvers won’t work. He’s unnatural.”

 

“All kings can die.” Sansa said, her mouth pressed into a thin line. “I’ve seen more kings die in my lifetime than most do in generations. We will slay this king too, and Bran doesn’t need to be journeying off to a cursed island to do so.”

 

“Lady Stark, we know you don’t want to see your family depart so soon after being reunited.” Brienne said gently and Sansa sighed. “But if this will help us end this war sooner, imagine how many lives could be saved. Isn’t that worth the risk?”

 

“We have lost two brothers.” Sansa said quietly and while Jaime bowed his head, Sandor noticed that not once did Arya take her eyes off him. He smiled to himself, proud of the little wolf. “I won’t risk another.”

 

“My lady, I won’t let any harm come to him.” Jaime promised and Sandor wanted to scoff. So that was why the man was there.

 

“How would you travel?” Sansa demanded of Bran.

 

“I can ride.” He reminded her. “There are sleds and such. If I have Jaime, he can be my legs when I need them.”

 

“Gods.” Sansa rubbed her forehead. “Can all of this wait until Jon returns? I won’t have any of you leaving before he returns or he would have my head. Bran, at least stay until then. We can decide when he arrives and we’ve all had a chance to talk.”

 

“How far is he?” Arya asked him eagerly and Sandor had to smile at that. Having a mystical being as a brother was better than any raven, it seemed.

 

“He will arrive tomorrow if they are not delayed.” Bran informed and Sansa’s head snapped up, eyes wide.

 

“You said we had a fortnight.” She reminded her brother.

 

“They fly now.” Bran said simply and Sandor cringed, remembering the terrifying flight on the back of the beast. He did not envy Jon.

 

“Seven hells,” Sansa swore, looking down on at the items on her desk. “Then I have more to do than I thought I did. Everyone, we will discuss this later. Go… Get the castle ready for my brother.” They all nodded and departed, except for Brienne. Jaime fell in step with him easily, a smug smile on his face.

 

“What?” Sandor growled. “Thinking to finish the job you began?” The whole situation of events had kicked off the disaster that was their present reality was at Jaime’s doing and Sandor wouldn’t forgive him for that.

 

“Redeem myself, more like.” Jaime said easily, his face serious. “I nearly killed the boy once, and I’ve regretted it ever since. If I can put it to rights, well, then,” He shrugged. “Perhaps one strike removed from my woes.”

 

“You hurt him,” Sandor began, but Jaime cut him off with a look.

 

“Spare me the lecture, hound. Go ready your men for the king’s return. I know what should happen to me if any harm befalls Bran Stark. Perhaps Lady Stark will strangle me with my own fake hand. I hear she does like poetic justice, that one.” Jaime stalked off before he could another retort in and Sandor frowned, but knew it would be smart to do as Jaime had bid. He went to the training yard, to begin spreading the word there.

 

With the frenzy that was sparked by Jon’s incoming arrival finally died, Sandor found himself collapsing into his bed. He left his door open, waiting, as he pulled off his clothes and crumpled into bed. It wasn’t more than a couple minutes before his ears caught the sound of bare feet on stone.

 

“Can I come in?” Sansa’s voice was soft in her request as she paused in the doorway. He looked at her, nodding, stunned once again in the face of her beauty. All of the castle must’ve been asleep, and she stepped inside and shut the door behind her once more. 

 

“Little bird—” He went to start his protests against her being alone in his bedchambers when the castle was so full of prying eyes, but Sansa would have none of it. She simply moved to start a fire, like she always did, and he went to arrange the bed so that she could sleep on one end and he the other. 

 

“I don’t need so many blankets. I won’t freeze.” She muttered, from where she was bent over the fire. 

 

“It’s damned cold in your bloody north.” He reminded her, though he evened out the blankets some.

 

“And you radiate heat.” Sansa remarked, standing back once the little fire has been lit. “And you snore.” 

 

“Did you expect anything less?” It was almost teasing, the way he said it. 

 

“No.” Sansa smiled and then she was slipping beneath the covers, like she was perfectly at ease with him. “My father snored. So did Robb, and Jon, and my little brothers too. Arya snores when she’s sick.” 

 

“Well, you kick.” He reminded her. 

 

“Only when I have nightmares.” Sansa commented quietly and he climbed into bed as well, far from her. He had to be, or he would do things he would bitterly regret. Her choice, it had to always be her choice.  

 

“Who is it this time?” She didn’t tell him her nightmares usually, but it was not hard to guess what caused her to scream. So many horrors and he couldn’t protect her from any of them. He felt useless.

 

“Him.” She said simply. “Always him.” 

 

“Well then what shall we do tonight?” He asked her, trying to settle in. Usually when they would talk Sansa would tell him all the stories of Winterfell, and he would sometimes give her a few of his home as well. She knew more of his sister and parents than anyone else, save his brother.

 

“You once said you were honest.” Sansa said quietly and he resisted the urge to squirm, recalling the particular interaction. 

 

“Aye, I try.” He had promised never to lie to her, he recalled. To die for her, but never lie. It seemed prophetic now.

 

“Then be honest with me now.” Sansa’s voice sounded strange, and with a hitch he realized it was because she sounded like she had in the glass gardens. His stomach left him abruptly, and he wanted to bolt.

 

“I swear.” He said thickly.

 

“Are we all going to die?” Her voice wasn’t scared, but it was hesitant, with the barest hint of worry.

 

“Ah.” He was silent for a long time, thinking on how he could be honest when he himself was grappling with how they would survive this. “I don’t…” 

 

“I would rather die here.” Sansa told him, to fill the silence. “In Winterfell, where I belong. I’m not scared to die. I’ll see my mother again, and my father. Robb. Rickon. All my father’s men, Lady, the rest of the wolves. And if I don’t, at least I won’t feel the pain of missing them so much. Are you scared to die?” 

 

“No, little bird.” He said quietly, thinking how much she sounded like a well-seasoned warrior. “And you will not die, not if I have anything to say about it. I will keep you here for as long as I am breathing.” 

 

“You’re saying it again.” Sansa remarked, a note of petulance in her tone. He sat up, trying to get a good look at her face so that he could understand what she meant. She was staring at her hands, fidgeting.  

 

“Saying what?” He asked her, confused. He wondered if this was going to spiral into another argument.  

 

“Vows.” Sansa stopped her movement for a moment and the word hung between the two of them. He sucked in a breath, mind both racing and blank at the same time. He had no idea what to think, and could only give her his honesty.

 

“Those aren’t vows. When I’m saying vows, you’ll know.” He said lowly and Sansa shifted so she was looking at him. Her blue eyes blazed in the low light and he knew he would never tire of looking at her like this. She was the most beautiful thing there was, and it hovered on the tip of his tongue to say so.

 

“How so?” She asked him, a note of challenge.

 

“Because I haven’t taken a fucking vow in my life, and there’s only one that I ever would.” He said plainly, heart racing. 

 

“Then tell me Sandor, which would you take?” He felt her little cold feet pressed against his calves, and fought every urge to jump and run. Usually, he made sure she was a layer or two above him, so that there was no chance of them touching. But not tonight, and gods, she was cold. He couldn’t push her away. He had to keep her warm. 

 

“You know.” He couldn’t bring himself to admit it. That was too much for him, even as his heart ached to tell her.

 

“Would you swear to house Stark, to myself and Jon and Arya and Bran? Would you be our bannerman?” His stunned silence followed her words, so she changed direction, a wolf stalking her prey. “Or would you swear to Jon and his last plan to save our word? Or would you swear a marriage vow?”

 

“To who, little bird?” It felt like he had a little bird in his chest, frantically trying to get out. “Who would want this, as a husband or as a bannerman?” He couldn’t bear her answer, but he received it anyways.

 

“I would.” Sansa said idly and his heart was gone, far away, because what did she say? And how did she mean it? “You’re a wonderful fighter, and a good man. An honorable knight who isn’t a knight. Whoever gets to claim you is lucky indeed.” 

 

The words were vague enough, he didn’t how to interpret them. She could have meant either as a knight or as a husband. She could have meant both. He didn’t know what to do, or say, so he fell quiet. Sansa, sensing not to push him any further, lay back down and shifted a few times, before she eventually stilled. When he was absolutely sure that she was sleeping, he gave her the truth that was too terrifying to admit to her. 

 

“I would vow to you, my little bird. I would vow to protect you, always. Until the end of my days.” 

 

When he awoke in the night, it was because someone was thrashing. That someone was Sansa, and she was whimpering and trying to fight off the blankets. He froze, unsure of what to do. She’d had nightmares before, but she woke herself out of them all times before. This time, however, she didn’t look to be able to do the same. 

 

“Please,” She moaned, after one vicious kick that caught his shin and made him want to shout. “Please, no, please, don’t, don’t, please, please, no, don’t.” She gave one little whimper and it was enough to shatter his heart, so he ground his teeth and sat up, leaning forward to where she thrashed. 

 

“Little bird.” He caught a wrist, but still she didn’t wake. “Sansa. C’mon, girl, wake up. Little bird.” 

 

“Please,” Her voice got louder and he looked in a panic at the door, wondering if the maids could hear. “Please, don’t, no, I don’t want to…”

 

“Little bird!” He drew her close to him, clasping her head to his chest. He didn’t want to scare her when she awoke with the sight of his mangled face in the light of the fire. “Little bird, wake up. I’m here. No one is going to touch you now, you can be damned sure of that. Fucking no one.”

 

“No!” With a gasp, Sansa awoke and tried to scramble away. He let her, sure that she would be repulsed at his audacity to touch her. She was panting, across the bed from him, eyes wild, and he sat, leaning against the headboard of the bed, trying to find the right words to apologize to her. 

 

“Sansa— My lady— You—”

 

“Oh!” With furious tears streaming down her cheeks, she launched herself at him. He barely had time to comprehend what was going on, and she was clinging to him, curled on his lap, weeping into his ragged undershirt. 

 

“Sansa?” He asked in bewilderment, but that only made her sob harder, so he decided silence was the best course of action and did what he remembered from when his sister was very young. He wrapped his arms around her, and let one hand rest against the back of her head, cradling her to him.

 

“He was there.” Sansa gasped, not looking up at him. “He was there, he was coming to get me, he was going to take me back and do those things, those horrible, horrible things, and I was going to die and he was going to hurt me.” 

 

“Hush, little bird.” He strengthened his grip. “No one is going to hurt you; do you hear me? No cunt could get past me in this room. None of them, ever.”

 

“It felt real.” Sansa whispered brokenly, clinging to him. “It felt so real. What if that’s real, and this is a dream?” 

 

“But what’s real here?” He asked her and she paused for a moment. “Tell me, little bird, what’s real here, in this moment?” 

 

“Me.” She took a deep breath. “I’m real. And my nightgown is soft, and a size too small. This room is real, and it’s at Winterfell, in the north. The stones are real. The furs are real. They’re soft, and heavy. The bed is real, because I remember my brothers jumping on it when it arrived. And you. You’re real.” 

 

“I am.” He muttered and her hands snaked out of their embrace and went to clutch his shirt, fisting the fabric. 

 

“Your shirt is real, and so is your chest. It rumbles when you talk. It’s hairy, and you smell like smoke and Stranger. You’re here, you’re real.” 

 

“I am. He’s in your imagination.” He stroked her hair again, reveling in the chance to touch her, even if it was just because she was scared and knew he would kill whoever she commanded. “He’s not real. He never will be again.” 

 

“Prove to me you’re real.” She begged. 

 

“Didn’t I do just that?” 

 

“Do it again.” 

 

“Alright.” He heaved a sigh. “I’m real, because I’m sitting in this bed and the blankets around me are warm. That blasted fire going over there isn’t as warm as I’d like, and the air is fucking cold. My shirt is wet where you’ve cried, and you smell like you’ve taken a bath, with your milk soap and those expensive oils. We’re both real because if anyone finds us like this, they’d say wicked things.”  

 

“They will not.” Sansa said firmly and he was glad a note of challenge was back in her voice. Some more of that strength back again. “I won’t let them. Anyone who says something about us can take a short walk outside the gates. You’re mine.” Her grip tightened. 

 

“Sansa, I’m not…” He trailed off, unsure of where he would go with this. He couldn’t lie and say it wasn’t his dream, but it could never be. She had only ever been fire, and he’d fallen into a trap of playing with it. She was going to burn him, and still he couldn’t resist her. She was his everything. 

 

“Will you swear it?” She demanded, more to his chest than to his face. He marveled at how well she fit into his arms.  

 

“Swear what?” He shifted uncomfortably and she only gripped tighter. 

 

“Swear to me.” 

 

“What do you want me to swear, little bird?” He asked her, wanting her confirmation. He needed her to say it. Her choice, always.

 

“The only vow you said you’d ever swear.” In the dim light, her eyes were the brightest thing he could ever remember.

 

“To be your shield?” A thought ran across his mind. “If I were your shield, we could never do this Sansa, do you understand? It would have to stop.” He tried not to think about guarding her while she was with her lord husband, guarding her while she loved another man. He could withstand a lot of hurts, he knew. But not that.  

 

“Then swear the other thing.” Sansa’s face was utterly serious, otherwise he would’ve laughed and taken it as a joke. 

 

“What other thing?” His heart was pounding so loudly he didn’t know how the whole castle didn’t wake to its beat. He kept waiting for Sansa to laugh outright at him, but he knew her truly after so many days and weeks of her. She was earnest now, hanging off him, looking as innocent and tender as he’d ever known her.

 

“Two hearts, bound as one. Two ways that a river runs.” She quoted and he was violently thrown back into the past, into the night she’d sang that song and he’d allowed himself, for no longer than a moment, to dream of what it would be like to have her in the sense of a love song. To have her give that song.

 

“Sansa!” He looked down at her in astonishment. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You were scared, you had a nightmare, you’re not thinking.” He wanted to panic and run, because this was not for him. Dogs were not loved by little birds. But, a little voice reminded him, she was more than a singing bird. She was a wolf.

 

“Fine.” Sansa stayed where she was, a solid weight on his chest. “Don’t then.” 

 

“Sansa.” He whispered, alarmed, when she made no move to retreat back to her spot. “You can’t sleep there.” 

 

“I can, and I will.” She said stoutly and he knew he was up against a challenge. He gritted his teeth.

 

“Sansa, I can’t— your honor—”

 

“He took my honor.” Sansa went rigid and he mentally cursed himself. “So if anyone wants to come in here and talk about my honor, I’d remind them of that.” 

 

“It’s not proper.” He tried again and Sansa snuggled deeper and he was reaching to pull the furs up around her before he was even sure of what he was doing. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t be brought to give a damn.

 

“I don’t give a fuck.” 

 

“Sansa!” 

 

“Goodnight.” With that, she relaxed and he was left to try to formulate an argument that would convince her that she needed to return to the other end of the bed, or even better, to her own rooms. Once he had, he opened his mouth and realized what had happened.

 

She was fast asleep, and deeply too. None of that faking nonsense she tried to pull off sometimes, when she didn’t want to answer a question. Deep sleep. True sleep. Her worried face smoothed out and her lips twitched. She was the most beautiful thing on this planet, he thought. And rules be damned, if someone tried to wake her now, he’d kill them before they had the chance. 

 

Chapter Text

She slept, the whole night through from then on. She’d stayed atop his chest for most of it, and when he’d fallen asleep, she’d woke him the once. She’d curled up in a little ball beside him and he, still sleepy, had curled around her, nuzzling his face into the nape of her neck and putting one strong arm over her. 

 

When he woke up the next morning, he had the overwhelming urge to piss. He went to stretch, but something beside him shifted and his eyes wrenched open as the night flooded back to him. Sansa, her nightmare, her demands of a vow, the way she’d felt nestled so tightly to him and refused to move. 

 

He didn’t want to look down. He didn’t want to see her in his bed. Let it be a whore, or a bundle of blankets and his imagination. Let it be a goat for all he cared. Don’t let it be her, and for all the gods that were and will be, don’t let her be awake. 

 

He turned, slowly, down to look at the living, breathing thing cradled in his arms. He’d have known it was her even if she hadn’t been partly buried beneath blankets and furs. He’d never mistake that shock of copper hair for anything other than her. Gingerly, he attempted to ease out of the bed without waking her. Get up, leave, pretend he’d slept elsewhere. Pretend that he was a good man.

 

“Fuck.” He cursed, when the whole bed creaked as his weight left it. Thankfully, she didn’t stir, and he was just attempting to get a proper shirt on when he heard it. Rustling. The blankets shifting. Even with his back to her, it was enough to alert him to the fact that she must be awake. 

 

“Sandor.” His name, from her, like a blessing and a curse. He wanted her to say his name more. He wanted her to moan it, to whisper it, to yell it, to call it, to say it more. To never stop calling him such. But not now. Now she would send him away. As she should. It was the only option. “Come back to bed.” 

 

He practically fell over. He turned to look at her in astonishment. She was sleep talking. Babbling nonsense. She must think him someone else, or she was confused. But then he saw her. Curled on her side, blankets piled high around her. But her eyes, looking directly at him, awake and sure. 

 

“Lady—”

 

“Don’t. Come back to bed.” 

 

“I can’t.” He gaped at her. “Someone will come in. Someone will see.” 

 

“It’s barely morning. The whole household will be so busy getting ready for Jon, no one will think to come for me. We have time. Come back to bed.” She repeated the order and he was so gob smacked, he stood in the middle of the room and stared at her. “I’m cold.” 

 

“I’ll get more blankets, I’ll start a fire, I’ll have the maids draw you a bath, but Sansa, you cannot stay here.” He looked at her desperately. “Please.” 

 

“If you want me to go, order me.” She stated. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here, and I want you to come back to bed.” 

 

“Sansa, why in the seven hells would you want me in your bed?” He finally stopped trying to steer her away and asked the honest questions. “Why would an angel like you, a lady, a pretty little bird, want a hound?” He was desperate, and all his words spilled out. He had to know, since she’d kissed him and hadn’t said a word to him afterwards. He needed answers, for he was slowly going insane.

 

“Come back in bed and I’ll tell you.” Sansa bargained and he could only stare at her while she gazed back out, no hesitation in her eyes. 

 

“I come back, I get an explanation, and then I go again.” He declared, stepping carefully towards her. 

 

“Alright.” She opened the blankets to him and he slid beneath them slowly, hesitantly. The whole concept of a woman inviting him into her bed, though technically this was his, was foreign to him. The whores took him in for money and kicked him out when they were done. Never before, not since his mother, had a woman drawn him in willingly. And Sansa was nothing like his mother. 

 

She prodded at his rigid back. He was doing his desperate best to avoid touching her, hoping that the proximity would be enough to get her talking, and talking towards his back. But that thin finger kept jabbing, until he couldn’t take it anymore and rolled over, looking at her, exasperated. 

 

“Sansa!” 

 

“There you are.” She grabbed his chin with her hand and held him there, so that he couldn’t roll back over and away from her. He was tethered to the spot by her grip and bound by her mesmerizing eyes. “Stay.” 

 

“I’m right here.” He breathed. He remembered how it felt to kiss her and yearned for more of those memories.

 

“Yes, and then you’ll bolt again and wake me up.” She was drawing close to him again, a hand trailing across his chest, followed by her head, nuzzled into his shoulder. She did smell like her soap and oils. Usually her dress and cloak masked it, but not now. Not when she was in nothing but her nightgown.

 

“My apologizes.” He said tersely, as Sansa fit herself into his side. He didn’t want to admit how well it worked. How her long frame pressed against his, all delicate thin limbs and warmth. Had he ever laid like this with a woman? Not that he could remember. “I didn’t mean to wake you, but I didn’t imagine you’d be delighted to find my face hovering over yours instead of Brienne’s.” 

 

“I thought I was dreaming.” She stopped moving and that somehow made it all the worse. At least when she was moving, he had something to distract him. Now it was still, and he could feel her. All of her.

 

“Nightmares, you mean.” 

 

“No, I know my nightmares.” Sansa’s fingers tightened just slightly. “You’re not in them. You’re in my dreams.” 

 

“What in the seven hells are you doing, little bird?” He looked down at her and she stayed where she was. Eyes closed, breathing even, hair loose and messy. 

 

“I’m taking in the moment.” She muttered and he was quiet, letting her. “Before you leave again.” 

 

“I have to leave. This isn’t right or proper.” He was desperate now, because his hands had raised of their own accord and he was stroking her back and hair. They were going to start roving and he was terrified this wasn’t what she wanted. Was he misunderstanding? How could he stop?

 

“Do you know what right and proper has gotten me Sandor? It got me betrothed to Joffrey.” She spat. “It got me held hostage by Littlefinger, no matter how pretty his cage was. And it got me sold to the Bolton’s, to be raped and tortured. Right and proper and oh so good, that’s the little girl I was.” She hung tightly to him. “If I am ever right and proper a day in my life again, I will die.” 

 

“Sansa, you are a lady. I am just a…”

 

“Seven goods above, Sandor.” Sansa pressed herself up and back so she could get a better look at him, eyes flashing like steel did in the first light of morning. “Would you out with it already then?” 

 

“With what?” He questioned her and she took a deep breath, like she was preparing herself for something. 

 

“I’m not a lady, not anymore. Not by the standards any highborns would keep. And I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. Not now. Not ever. So I would have you if you’d have me.” She stated and he was silent again, stunned. “I’m not a righteous and honorable woman anymore. And if you tell me that you can’t, because you don’t love me and don’t want me, fine. But if you don’t because you think you're not good enough for me, then I swear to the light of the seven I will fight you around Winterfell until you do.” 

 

“Sansa!” He grabbed her hand in the last-ditch attempt. He brought it to his scar, pressing it hard. “Look! Look at me little bird. Look at me and say that you want this, and say it honestly. Me, with all that I am.” 

 

“I have looked at you.” Instead of recoiling, Sansa leaned closer and held his face with both hands. “And yes, I’ve looked on prettier. And yes, I’ve looked on uglier. But no, I’ve never looked on a man I’ve wanted more.” 

 

“You want knights and princes and a happily ever after. Not a killer.” He reminded her, desperately feeling like the situation had spiraled far beyond his control. He had no idea what to do here.

 

“All men are killers.” She said simply. “You taught me that. Knights are not honorable and princes are not just. You are a killer, and you are angry, and you are flawed. But you would protect me, and you would’ve done it long before any of my other suitors would’ve. I am your little bird.” 

 

“You could be someone else’s everything.” He protested halfheartedly, because he must. “Someone whole.” 

 

“I don’t want someone whole.” Sansa dipped her lips and she was kissing the scarred skin of his forehead and temple. His lips trembled at the suggestion they would meet hers again. “I don’t want anyone but you. Trust me, I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I’ve had husbands, before you. All the men over, and do you know who I thought of?” 

 

“It’s not me, Sansa.” He closed his eyes to her lips. He’d told her there was no true gods, but he knew true heaven and it was her. “You don’t want me.” 

 

“If another man tells me what I do and don’t want, I’ll make you teach me how to run him through. Or get Arya to do it.” Her lips hovered over his. “I want you. I want to be your little bird forever, and I want to be your wife now. Tell me the truth, Sandor Clegane. Will you have me?”

 

“If I have you, Sansa Stark, I will never let you go.” He said fiercely, gripping her, uncaring if it left bruises. He needed to know she was real. That this was real. “I will never let another man touch you, I will protect you, and though I don’t know how long I have on this world left, every moment will be spent devoted to you.” 

 

“Then marry me.” Sansa pressed her forehead to his and her voice hitched slightly. “Marry me, Sandor Clegane and be mine until the end of time. I’m not getting through this winter without you.”

 

“Little bird.” He held her close and didn’t try to understand how he wasn’t shattering her. “Little bird, I should be asking you. I should be begging you, on my knees, for a look. For a glance. I do not deserve you.” 

 

“You’re the only one that does. You’re the only one that promised to take care of me. Kill anyone who tried to hurt me. The only one to do so.” Sansa whispered and he opened his eyes to find hers hovering over him, searching his face. If this was a dream, he would kill himself rather than wake. 

 

“I would. God Sansa, I would. I will.” He said reverently. “Anything for you. Everything. I always would. I always will.”

 

“Then marry me. When Jon comes with his army and your duty takes you away from me, go as my husband.” Sansa finally pressed her lips to his and he could hear her whispers, faintly, over his bliss. “Husband. Husband. Husband.” 

 

It was then that he lost all control. He lunged for her, bringing her none too gently to him. He took kisses from her, hot searing kisses that purged all the need that had burned through him for weeks. He took in her breathy sighs, her little noises and gasps, until he was sure he was going to combust.

 

She seemed to be everywhere. She was running her hands through his hair, gripping his neck and arms. He tried to bring her closer and she obliged, settling herself more comfortably in his lap, where she threw her arms arounds his neck and pressed every inch of her body flush with his.

 

“Sansa,” He gasped, when they separated for the barest hint of a second. “Sansa, I… You… We…”

 

“I want you.” Sansa muttered, correctly interpreting what he meant to doubt. “I have always wanted you, did you know that? I won’t have anyone. I can tell you all the reasons why, but perhaps that is a question for tonight. I’m afraid we don’t have enough time for all the things I need to say.”

 

“Little bird…” He muttered and when Sansa drew back, he saw that she had the truest smile he’d seen yet on her face.

 

“I will marry you.” She promised, clasping his face. “If I have to fight Jon for a day, a year, the whole winter, it doesn’t matter. I won’t marry anyone but you.”

 

“No, you won’t.” He kept her clutched close to him. As far as he was concerned, this was all a wonderful but improbable dream. He wanted to keep it going for as long as he could, this strange happiness. “You won’t have to fight him either, little bird.”

 

“What?” Sansa twisted to look at him in disbelief. Sandor decided to show her rather than tell her and gathering her in his arms, stood up. Sansa squeaked slightly in protest, but he wasn’t losing her skin on his for a second. He retrieved the letter from where he’d hidden it and then walked them back to the bed, sitting down with Sansa on his lap.

 

“I wrote to him.” He admitted and Sansa’s questions died on her lips as she read the short note before looking up at him in astonishment.

 

“When?” She asked him, glancing down at the note once again.

 

“When you asked me to kill all he men that would have your hand.” He admitted, not proud but not ashamed.

 

“Oh.” Dumbfounded, Sansa looked at the paper once then suddenly kissed him, hard. He started, unprepared for the contact but responding in kind quickly. This kiss was all Sansa, passionate and fierce, and he was the one gasping when she drew back, looking as senseless as he felt.

 

“You should go.” He said gently, tracing the pale skin of her cheekbone. He never thought he would touch her without her shuddering in revulsion, and yet here she was, leaning into his touch as though she loved it, desired more.

 

“I know.” She kissed him again, lingering, before kissing his scarred cheek then his forehead. “I will be back.”

 

“I know.” He said, strangled, and she rose from the bed, looking out the window at the rising sun. Her lips trembled as she tried to smooth her hair back into something of the semblance of normality.

 

“Today will be a good day.” She decided and he caught her fingertips, kissing them. Because he could.

 

“It will.” He agreed and she gave him a tumultuous smile before disappearing. He rose then and carefully locked this wild feeling in his chest away. It was a valuable, special thing and for Sansa alone. He’d have no one else sullying it. When they were both ready, he followed Sansa to the hall.

 

“Good morning.” Arya smiled up at the sight of the two of walking towards the high table. Sansa was close by his side, and when no one had looked, she hung tightly to his hand. “I spoke to Bran. He says that Jon and the dragons will be arriving soon.” 

 

“Good.” Sansa looked up at him, and a beautiful smile bloomed across her face. “We need to talk to him.” 

 

“Are you going to go north and fight?” Arya asked him and Sansa sighed. Her hand, just the gentlest of pressure against his back, and she was gone, off to speak with some lord. “She doesn’t want you to go.” Arya observed.

 

“Aye,” He watched as Sansa sat at the high table, instantly engrossed in a conversation with an older woman. “And I don’t think I do now either.” 

 

“Oh, did you finally talk it out?” Arya looked amused. “Did you finally get over it all and tell her how you feel?” 

 

“She told me.” He didn’t bother to lie to her. Arya knew more than anyone else did and she deserved to know this. “She’s a fierce one.”

 

“She is.” Arya glanced up at him. “So if you hurt her,”

 

“What, I’ll be on both lists?” He gave a chuckle, amused at the idea. “The two Stark girls hunting me down.”

 

“No, I’d leave you to her.” Arya grabbed a roll off a plate. “She could hurt you worse than I ever could.” 

 

“Aye,” He looked up at Sansa and found her smiling at him. He smiled back at his pretty little bird. “She’s got a lot of power now.” 

 

“Always has.” Arya remarked, with a wicked smile, lowering her voice. “You had a crush on her back when you were still telling people I was your hostage.” 

 

“She was a girl, I wanted to protect her.” He rolled his eyes. “It was the only good fucking thing I did, remember?” 

 

“Now do another good thing.” Arya laughed suddenly and slapped his arm, her grin all wicked. “Brother.” 

 

“Don’t.” He looked at her in horror, thinking of what that meant for them. For her and Sansa and him. “Don’t.”

 

“Talk to you soon brother-dear.” With that, Arya practically skipped out of the hall, leaving him horrified. He moved to the head table quickly. 

 

“I’ve having second thoughts.” He said quietly, sitting down next to Sansa, the seat vacated momentarily. 

 

“What?” Sansa looked at him in alarm, pausing in putting honey on her roll and dropping her voice low. “Who—“

 

“Your sister.” He narrowed his eyes at where Arya had left. 

 

“Oh, gods.” Sansa relaxed almost imperceptibly. “You scared me. What did she say or do now?” 

 

“That she’s going to be my little sister.” He muttered and Sansa snorted, trying to hide it by coughing into her elbow. 

 

“And that’s all it takes for you to turn and run?” She gave him a skeptical look before her smile turned languid and sly and it was like a jolt of heat went through his body. “And to think I let you in my bed.” 

 

“As I recall, it was my bed.” He was trying to keep up with her, and not look to out of place with a raging erection and devotion in his eyes. Thankfully, the hall was so abuzz with gossip for the impending arrival that no one seemed to notice anything unusual with Sansa and her fierce protector.

 

“It’s my Winterfell.” Sansa was smiling, cutting a bit of meat and stabbing it with her fork. “It’s my everything.” She offered him the meat with a cheeky grin and a quirked eyebrow. “Even you are mine.” 

 

“I thought we shared.” He took the meat and chewed, while Sansa watched him in amusement, seemingly uncaring if anyone saw them. “I am yours and you are mine. All that. You like those pretty vows.” 

 

“I do.” She bumped their knees together. “And I’d like them more if they weren’t said over breakfast.”

 

“Fine.” He took another bite, this time from his own plate, struggling to hide his excitement at the image of Sansa marrying him. “Where then?”

 

“The godswood.” A faint but sad smile covered her face, and he knew that there too, terrible things had happened to her. Hs jaw clenched.

 

“Aye, in front of your strange northern gods. They’ll need to witness such a thing, or they won’t believe it. The beautiful lady of Winterfell marrying a scarred old hound of her own free will. Not even the songs could come up with that.”

 

“You are not—” She said sharply, but then seemed to realize that he was teasing her in his own way and her hand dropped.

 

“Wrong?” He smirked. “They won’t believe it, pretty bird. Never in a hundred million winters. You’ll make a beautiful bride and I’ll be your beast.”

 

“Gods.” She covered her face, but he saw her grin. “Go do something before I kiss you right here.” 

 

“I think I will.” He got up and stretched. “Go make sure all’s ready for your dear brother. I’ll be back, unless you want to ride with me.” 

 

“No.” Sansa peeked at him through her fingers, eyes dancing. “I need to make sure things are ready, in here.” 

 

“Well then.” Beneath the table, his hand found her waist and he squeezed. “Until then, Lady Stark. And until later.” 

 

“Go.” A blush covered her pretty cheeks. 

 

“Aye.” Away he walked, a smirk on his face. 

 

Before he was even out the door, Sansa was deep in the midst of planning. She only looked up briefly to catch his eye and smile. He smiled back and took some food to go, off to finish inspecting and shoring up defenses. It would be his luck for Jon to take back his approval of Sandor because he didn’t think he’d done a good enough job protecting the Stark girls and Winterfell. 

 

He was atop the wall when the bells began to ring, in a certain order that could only herald Jon’s arrival. It was a bong, BONG, BONG, bong, BONG, bong... He quickly went down the wall and into the courtyard. Sansa had just joined him, looking flushed and excited all at once when a shadow fell above them and the men went silent, looking up.

Chapter Text

A dragon’s screech shattered the still winter air and a moment later, a dragon swooped over the castle, the black monstrous thing that the queen so preferred. He took Sansa’s hand in the yard as the men around them cursed or yelled, depending on their nature. Even Arya had the decency to look impressed. After a couple more screaming passes, the dragon landed outside the walls, between the castle and the armies.

 

“You’re squirming.” He muttered out of the corner of his mouth when he saw Sansa fidgeting, waiting for Jon to make his way through the gate and into the yard. More and more men were spilling in to greet their king, but Bran, Sansa, and Arya waited at the front of the crowd. Sansa was worrying her lip. 

 

“And you smell.” Sansa shot back and he looked down at her in surprise, raising an eyebrow. “I’m sorry. I’m just so… Anxious.” 

 

“Well how about you bathe me then, wife?” He said slowly, under his breath and she grinned up at him. 

 

“You’d smell like roses for weeks.” She remarked sweetly and Arya pretended to be looking for Jon rather than hear them.

 

“Fearsome warrior, remember?” He frowned and Sansa chuckled, hiding her amusement behind a hand. 

 

“A good smelling warrior is more like it.” 

 

Before he could protest, the gates were opened with a shout and in strode Jon. Beside him was the silver haired queen, looking around with violet eyes that seemed to see everything at once. Sansa grabbed Sandor’s forearm and held tightly for a brief moment, then beamed at her brother.

 

“There they are.” Jon was smiling too, but he only had eyes for Arya, who had gone rigid. “My sisters.” 

 

“Jon.” Arya said, sounded choked. For a moment, it seemed they were both frozen and Sandor wondered if Arya had changed far beyond the girl who had once insisted her brother on the Wall would take her in. Then she threw herself at him and Jon caught her, groaning slightly with the effort.

 

“Did you grow?” He teased, once he’d let her go and ruffled her hair. For her part, Arya didn’t complain in the slightest, just beamed like she’d been given her heart’s greatest desire. Jon looked much the same.

 

“We’re so glad you’re home.” Arya stepped back, grinning. 

 

“It’s good to be back.” He moved to hug Sansa tightly and she embraced him wholeheartedly. “You’ve kept everything running while I was away, and probably improved on it. How are things here?” 

 

“Good. I can catch you up later, when all the lords are settled.” Sansa informed him and he nodded. 

 

“See to that then. We can all talk after this.” He rested a hand on her cheek. “Thank you, Sansa.” 

 

“Of course.” She kissed Jon’s cheek.

 

“Bran.” Jon moved to his brother next then, looking a little stunned to see his brother sitting there in a chair, calm and composed. He bent to hug him and Bran raised one hand, patting Jon’s back. “I can’t believe… Where have you been?”

 

“Beyond the Wall.” Bran told him and Jon’s eyebrows knitted together. “I learned a great deal. I need to speak with you.”

 

“Soon.” Jon promised, then seemed to remember how he got there in the first place, turning to the queen behind him and offering his hand to her. “I need to introduce you all to Queen Daenerys Targaryen.”

 

“Ah.” Sansa went stiff, as Arya’s face went carefully blank. “Yes, the… Queen. Welcome to Winterfell.”

 

“You don’t kneel.” The purple eyes flashed.

 

“You are not my queen yet.” Sansa said coldly and Jon looked between the two women, alarm growing every moment they spent glaring. Sandor remembered the stories of the nobles who’d died at the breath of the dragon and wondered if he was going to have to intervene. “Jon is my brother, and my king.”

 

“He has knelt to me.” The words were sharp but Sansa didn’t seem to notice, turning to Jon, who had the sense of mind to look a little sheepish.

 

“All of this will be discussed shortly.” Sansa said tartly. “You must be weary from your travel. Please, allow me to show you to where you may freshen up before you meet the lords. Please, follow me.” She went to go and gave one glance over her shoulder at Sandor, who nodded. Then she led the queen away from them. Jon watched them go before he moved to talk to Sandor. 

 

“And we have other things to talk about.” He said quietly. Sandor thought, wildly, that he knew then, but after a pause Jon added, “I saw the defenses from the air, but I want to make sure things are secured.”  

 

“Walk with me, see how we’ve prepared Winterfell.” Sandor offered, taking the chance while he had it. He wasn’t sure when he would get it again. “I think we also need to talk about other things away from the prying ears.” 

 

“Understandable.” Jon tried, and failed, to hide a snort, as the men around them stared. “Then let’s talk.” 

 

They went through the defenses, sharing their thoughts on them and how they could be improved. They talked about Jon’s plan for the winter to come, and how long he would remain at Winterfell. Then, once they were atop the wall, Jon fell quiet. Sandor did as well, unsure of how to bring it up.

 

“Listen, Snow,” He began but Jon cut him off.

 

“I already know, Clegane.” He said and Sandor stepped back, astonished. “I may be a bastard but I’m not stupid. She sent a raven to me, demanding that I grant her permission to marry you when I arrived.” Jon grinned when Sandor stumbled. “I would say asking, but that was not the tone.” 

 

“I know you’ve got questions.” Sandor said once he found his voice again, as they both stared at the massive encampment of soldiers. Somewhere, a dragon hunted. “Smart man like you, who loves his sister. Out with them then.” 

 

“Lots of questions.” Jon smiled, a sad thing. It was rather like Sansa’s. “Not as many as you’d think. Does she want you? Truly? It’s not a passing fancy or some sort of misjudgment on her part? She wants the man you are?” 

 

“By the grace of the gods, she does.” Sandor shook his head, unable to stop the smile. Once Jon’s words would have sent him in a spiral of self-doubt. But he remembered Sansa’s smile this morning, the sweet thing so full of pure happiness she could be nothing but sincere. “I’ve tried talking her out of it myself, but she won’t have it Snow, she won’t have any of it. Stubborn little bird.” 

 

“Family trait.” Jon chuckled, shaking his head. “And you would marry her for Winterfell, for the North, for what?” 

 

“For her.” He glared at Jon. That did insult him. He thought Jon knew that he wasn’t the sort of man to give a damn about titles. “I neglected to protect her, once. I will spend the rest of my fucking life making up for that injustice. I would marry her if she was a damn tavern wench, I would marry her if she was queen of the entire fucking world, I would marry her if she had nothing or everything. I marry her for her, Jon Snow. I marry her for the fact that for some fucking reason, she has decided she wants to marry me as well.” 

 

“Would you fight for her?” Jon squared off and faced him with his arms folded and Sandor remembered the dragon pit, months before, and recalled a conversation so similar yet so different.

 

“Until I died. Then I’d bring myself back, and fight again. And again, and again, until I could see her to safety.” He vowed, meaning it sincerely.

 

“Would you love her?” Jon looked skeptical, but Sandor already had the right words ready, for once.

 

“Every day, until she doesn’t want me anymore. Then I’ll love her from wherever she sends me to.” 

 

“Would you ever hurt her?” Jon asked pointedly and Sandor’s mouth twitched as he thought about all that he’d done to hurt her so far. Never again.

 

“I’d take my life if I ever did.” 

 

“How will you provide for her?” Jon’s gaze flickered out over the barren wasteland of snow and Sandor couldn’t help but snort.

 

“We survive this winter, I’ll do whatever it takes.” He vowed, hoping that he had a chance to make that promise come true. They could struggle through to spring together, so long as they lived to see it.

 

“And if you survive this winter, and she doesn’t?” Jon’s dark eyes were shrewd, but Sandor responded without hesitation.

 

“If she doesn’t survive this winter, don’t expect me to either.” 

 

“Will you still fight for me?” Jon’s eyebrow hiked a little higher and this question was less serious. Sandor gave him a lopsided half smile.

 

“I fight for her now. And so long as what you order is what’s best for her, then I’ll be your man, always.” 

 

“Will you give her children?” Jon asked offhandedly, looking innocently as the dragon flew above them.

 

“Fucking hell.” Sandor couldn’t help but choke a little at that one and Jon turned to him with a crooked smile. “Does she want children with a cunt like me?” 

 

“I haven’t a clue.” Jon said calmly while Sandor panicked next to him. “You should ask her yourself.” 

 

“Aye,” Sandor was wide eyed with a sort of dread. That seemed like an important conversation but it had not come up, and he wasn’t sure how the hell he was going to approach it with Sansa. “I should.” 

 

“And when would you marry her?” Jon inquired. “Tomorrow then, in the godswood, in front of all the lords?” 

 

“If she would.” Sandor followed him as they began to descend the stairs. “I thought women usually wanted a pretty wedding or that shit.” 

  

“I think Sansa is more along the lines of hasty rather than pretty. Apparently she likes you.” Jon grinned at him. “Are you going to shave for your wedding?” 

 

“I’d like to speak to my bride first.” Sandor looked at him in horror, realizing how fast things were spiraling out of control once again. “Do I smell?” 

 

“I don’t know.” Jon gave him a strange look. “Sansa is probably—”

 

“I know where she is!” Sandor was already striding away, before stopping and looking back at Jon. “And Snow?” 

 

“Yes?” Jon was actually smiling now and it was like years had been lifted off his face. It made him look young again.  

 

“Thank you.” He grunted and then was off again. He found Sansa where he imagined she’d be— in the kitchen, giving orders to the many servants and squires for the small meal her immediate family would take now and the larger feast tonight with all the lords. 

 

“And tonight we will be serving— uff!” She exhaled forcefully when he picked her up around the waist and without saying a word, carried her off. Sansa, for her part, let herself get carted into the hallway without a peep of protest.

 

“Tomorrow.” He set her down and glared at her. 

 

“Yes, I was trying to tell the kitchen staff to serve the mutton.” Sansa said, staring up at him with a hint of a smile. “Now they’re going to wonder why Sandor Clegane gets to haul me around without an explanation of any sort. This is going to set a bad example for my future guards.” 

 

“Tell them I’m a cunt, for all I care.” He was pacing while Sansa folded her arms, amused. “Tomorrow, Sansa? So soon? Are you sure? You need more time to change your mind, walk away!”  

 

“Jon is going to take you away soon.” She argued back just as fiercely. “My siblings are here, for only gods know how long. The lords are here. Anyone wants to protest, I can tell them to go to hell all at once. If you are going to go and fight, I am not letting you go without the taste of you on my lips.” 

 

“Gods, Sansa.” He grabbed her roughly and pressed her towards him, savoring the contact in the darkness of a back hallway. Soon he’d get to touch her whenever he wanted, in front of everyone. He would be her husband. It made his head spin.

 

“I don’t want a big wedding.” Sansa held him close, carding her fingers through his hair carefully. He loved when she petted him. “I’ve been married twice before. This is the only wedding I’ve ever wanted. I don’t care how it’s done. I just want it over, so that I am free to love you for all time.” 

 

“Fine then.” He leaned back and searched her face for any sign that she was lying. Any hint that she wouldn’t want to go through with it. All he saw was love and excitement. His heart sang for her, this beautiful thing that had somehow decided that he was worthy of her. “Tomorrow, I marry you.” 

 

“And I marry you.” Sansa stretched up and kissed his cheek, lingering. Her fingers pressed into his hips and he wanted to moan and buck into her. “May I go give orders for our wedding feast now?” 

 

“Aye.” A little dazed, he stepped back. “Go… Do… That.” 

 

“You can meet us in our solar. I want you there when we talk. And take a bath!” Sansa shouted, as she headed back for the kitchen. 

 

“Fuck the bath.” He muttered, but headed for his chambers anyways. He washed up quickly, putting on nice and fresh clothes. He didn’t have anyone to impress, but Jon would announce the engagement tonight and he wanted to make sure he didn’t embarrass Sansa. He was so busy worrying on the announcement that he forgot what he was doing, and when he walked into the solar, was alarmed to see the state it was in.

 

A plate had been thrown against the wall and lay shattered. Several chairs were overturned and the food lay cold and forgotten on the table. He instantly looked to find Sansa and found her sitting by the fire, fingers pressed to her mouth, wide eyed but unharmed. He looked around at the rest of them.

 

Bran was by the fire, as indifferent as always. Arya stood between Bran and Sandor, gaze swinging back and forth between Jon and Dany, who seemed to be the source of the mad chaos. The dragon queen seemed fit to breathe fire, while Jon was pacing back and forth, looking agitated.

 

“Leave us.” Dany caught sight of him in the doorway and ordered, but both Jon and Sansa replied in unison,

 

“No.”

 

“No?” Dany demanded as Sansa rose and crossed the room to him, taking his hand. “You tell me—”

 

“He is to be my husband.” Sansa said loudly, tucking herself into his side. “What I know, he knows.”

 

“Clegane is a trusted warrior and friend.” Jon tried to placate Dany further but she snorted and tossed her head.

 

“What the fuck is going on?” He demanded, wondering what could’ve been done to inspire such rage and shock in everyone.

 

“You think to draw me into a trap?” Dany hissed, an angry cat cornered. “Take away my throne?”

 

“I don’t want the bloody thing!” Jon insisted. “I didn’t know, this is such as… As… Shocking to me as it is to you!”

 

“You lie.” She rounded on Bran, who simply blinked, unfazed by her.

 

“The dragon must have three heads.” He uttered and the words caused her to pale, swaying worryingly. “He is the third.”

 

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Sandor demanded loudly.

 

“I’m not a Stark.” Jon said bitterly and Arya started at that.

 

“Yes you are! Don’t say that you’re not.” She said hotly and Sandor looked down at Sansa, who still appeared stunned.

 

“Jon isn’t my father’s bastard.” Sansa said, through numb lips. “He’s my cousin. He’s the son of my aunt Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen.”

 

“So he’s Jon Waters?” Sandor tried to catch up.

 

“No. He’s Aegon Targaryen.” Bran told them all. “Lyanna and Rhaeger were married and he is the rightful heir to—”

 

“I am no heir to anything!” Jon protested loudly with Dany fumed. “Bran, how can you even know this for true, it—” The groans of everyone cut Jon off.

 

“He’s the Three-Eyed Raven.” Arya explained tiredly. “If you want to see his insane powers, by all means, go ahead. It’s not fun, but he’s never been wrong. Jon, if he says it’s true, it is. Trust us.”  

 

“I don’t trust any of you.” The queen was furious.

 

“Dany,” Jon turned to her, sighing. “You know I don’t want the crown. That’s yours. It’s always been yours. I just want the world to survive what’s coming. I promise you, when we figure out how to kill Cersei, you’ll wear her crown, not me.”

 

“Oh, we already figured out how to kill her.” Arya said offhandedly.

 

“What?” Both Jon and Dany rounded on her then.

 

“Not now.” Sansa flapped her hands. “Back to Jon, we have time to talk about your assassin training later.”

 

“Assassin training?” Jon looked as though the ghosts of the Kings of Winter had risen from their graves themselves.

 

“What are we going to tell the lords? How does this change things?” Sansa demanded, without skipping a beat. “Because as Rhaeger’s son, he’s higher in the order, but if we’re going to prove his birth—”

 

“Are we?” Dany asked icily. “Going to announce his birth then?”

 

“Assassin training?”

 

“This is proof my father didn’t have a bastard.” Sansa drew herself up to her full height, glaring down at the smaller queen, and Sandor subtly shifted so that he could intervene between the two women should he need to do so. “That he was an honorable a man as he carried himself through life. He died to protect Jon from Robert’s rage.”

 

“So you’d plunge our kingdom into war for the sake of your dead father’s honor?” Dany’s words were meant to bite and he could tell they’d found their mark in the way that Sansa flinched, darkness crossing her face.

 

“Assassin training?” Jon bellowed and everyone in the room turned to look at him. For once he looked furious and a silence fell instantly. “Arya, explain yourself. Now!” He ordered and Arya jumped slightly.

 

“I… Went to Bravos.” She admitted, gaze flickering to Sansa. “I… Learned things there. Certain skills.”

 

“What skills?” Jon asked pointedly, his voice low, and Arya glanced at Dany before hesitantly admitting,

 

“I’m a Faceless Man.”

 

“Those are rumors.” Jon said flatly as Dany’s look went from one of rage to one of astonishment. “Those men aren’t real, they don’t exist.”

 

“They do.” Dany wrenched her eyes away from Arya and onto Jon, a look of wonder on her face. “I was raised there Jon, and they’re not legend or rumor. They’re real and if she’s what she says she is…” Dany turned back to Arya, who was narrowing her eyes. “And if she’s loyal to us?”

 

“I’m loyal to Jon.” Arya said shortly and Sansa’s mouth twitched, struggling to keep her smile hidden.

 

“Prove it.” Jon challenged.

 

“Alright.” Arya agreed easily. “Let me go get my faces.”

 

“Your what?” Jon demanded as she strode out. For a second, there was only silence, then Dany seemed to remember herself. She drew herself back up, regarding Sansa coolly. Sansa, for her part, ignored her entirely.

 

“Can we not fight?” She begged Jon instead. “I don’t care if you’re the child of Old Nan and Stannis himself. You are my brother, and it is my wedding day tomorrow. We can decide what to do, but we can do it after.”

 

“Sansa,” Jon said, his gaze softening, but Dany seemed discontent to let such a sweet moment pass, loudly clearing her throat. Both Sansa and Jon turned to look at her, Sansa with contempt and Jon with confusion.

 

“As your queen,” She began and Sansa had the audacity to roll her eyes. Dany stopped, astonished.

 

“You will be my queen when you marry Jon, my king.” Sansa said, faux politeness dripping with hatred. “Until then, you will be the same as every other I have met. Eager for power, for your claim, for what you think is yours. You’ll find that us northerns don’t give ourselves up on blind loyalty or fear or greed. We do it when we feel someone has earned it. That’s why Robb was the first King in the North in centuries, and why we’ve had no other but Jon since. You want to earn that respect?”

 

“My dragons command it.” Dany said hotly and both Sandor and Jon took hold of their respective partner’s arms, before the girls could meet each other, eyes blazing and jaws clenched.

 

“Enough.” Jon said harshly. “Sansa, I’ve declared my loyalty to her. Accept it. I’ll announce it in front of the lords tonight, at the feast.”

 

“There won’t be a wedding.” Dany said spitefully and Sandor slowly turned, looking down at her then.

 

“Excuse you?” He asked quietly and Jon let go of Dany, seemingly amused. For a second Dany paused, staring at his face before gathering herself up.

 

“As I am your queen, you are my subjects and need to request my permission to get married. I deny you that permission.” She said, less regal and more unsure. For a second there was absolute silence in the room. Then he and Sansa looked at each other before bursting into laughter.

 

“Oh, it feels good to laugh again.” Sansa said after a few moments, wiping tears away from his eyes. He smiled then too, and bent to kiss the corners of her eyes, savoring the saltiness of her tears from something that wasn’t sadness. He kissed the tip of her nose then turned to Jon and Dany, who were mildly revolted and utterly outraged, respectively.

 

“I will be marrying her tomorrow.” He stated, taking care to choose his words carefully and with precision. “I won’t be letting a bloody queen, a bloody war, the bloody undead, or any other cunt stop us.”

 

“Sandor.” Sansa chided softly, eyes downcast but smiling.

 

“As my subjects,” Dany began, but Jon cut her off with a gentle hand to her forearm. She looked at him, frowning slightly.

 

“Sansa is my sister.” He said softly. “First and foremost. She had been married against her will, engaged against her will, defiled against her will—” A flinch from Sansa, a growl from Sandor. “And Clegane is, strangely, the only one of them that is good enough to have the honor of her hand. She’ll be marrying him and I won’t hear any protest against it. As her brother, and as the king.”

 

“You mean this is a match made from love?” Dany stopped glaring at Jon and turned to look at both of them in astonishment.

 

“Yes?” Sansa’s eyebrows furrowed.

 

“I thought—” Dany looked between Jon and Sandor, eyebrows sky high. “I thought that he demanded her hand, or arranged to… You chose him? Willingly?” Dany looked at Sansa, who, after a moment, dropped some of her wariness and took Sandor’s hand. He smiled down at her, brushing a stray lock back. Let Dany see them for who they were then, as they truly were. A couple, deeply in love.

 

“Yes, I chose him of my own will and volition.” Sansa said, squeezing his hand. “I’ve been in love with him since I was 13, and—”

 

“You were?” He butted in, looking down at her in astonishment. “I thought I terrified you, little bird.”

 

“I loved you, I just hadn’t figured it out yet.” Sansa gave him a sweet smile. “It took me awhile, but I got there eventually.”

 

“Aye, you did.” He smiled tenderly at her and before Jon or Dany could say anything, Arya appeared, looking around.

 

“Are they doing something ridiculous and sappy?” She demanded, setting the bag on the table heavily.

 

“Actually, yes.” Jon eyed it suspiciously while Dany had turned to Arya with interest. “What’s that?”

 

“My faces.” Arya said, as though it should be obvious. Then she pulled a mask out and pulled it over her face, and in the blink of an eye, it was no longer Arya but that of a young lowborn girl, staring at the with almond shaped, dark eyes. Jon gave a start, while Dany’s eyes glinted with something dark.

 

“You should leave that on.” Sandor told her. “Better than the wolf face of yours.”

 

“Watch it or I’ll take that scarred mug you call one.” The girl-who-was-Arya smirked before turning to Jon.

 

“Well,” He said, with a long-suffering sigh. “The dead march for us, the Wall has fallen, dragons fly above us, and I’m a Targaryen. This isn’t even the strangest thing from today, unfortunately.”

 

“We need to go down to the feast.” Sansa reminded them and a moment later Arya took the face off. “And we need to decide what we’re going to do. About Sandor and I, and Jon and the rest. We need a plan.”

 

“I tell the lords that you’re marrying Clegane tomorrow. They object. We deal with it.” Jon told her and Sansa nodded. “We keep my… My… Parentage private. Until I’m—” He glanced at Dany. “We’re ready to deal with that.”

 

“Alright.” Sansa kissed his cheek then offered her hand to Sandor. He took it, relishing the close contact of her. “Arya, will you help Bran?”

 

“C’mon, Bran.” Arya went behind his wheelchair. “I still think we’re the most normal ones to come out of this family.”

 

“So,” Sansa muttered under her breath as they headed for the hall. The murmur of the lords was growing with every moment. “When do you think Jon will announce to us that he’s hopelessly in love with her?”

 

“When they sort out the fact that he’s her nephew.” He muttered back and Sansa looked mildly aghast.

 

“I suppose she’s a Targaryen, and that’s not unusual for her but Jon was raised a Stark, and he—” She went to start rambling and he cut her off with a kiss. For a second it seemed like she was going to protest and then she was pressing up against him, fingers threading into his hair and pulling him closer to her, like he was air and she was being dragged from the depths of being drowned.

 

“Oi!” Arya’s sharp whistle broke them apart. She stood behind Bran with a look of disgust. “You do that in the hall, Jon’ll be furious.”

 

“I’ll be good.” Sansa promised earnestly, cheeks flushed and he was damned if it didn’t send a jolt through him. “Alright, let’s go then.”

 

“Gods,” Arya muttered under her breath, pushing Bran past them and muttering something that sounded like “Kill me now, it’d be less painful.”

 

“Go on little bird.” He said gently, gesturing to the door. “I’ll be behind you.”

 

“I know.” Sansa stole one last kiss, pressing to his scarred cheek. “You always are. I do love you.”

 

“Go.” He ordered, watching her with fond eyes and with a smile, she glided into the hall, serene, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. He came behind her, once again her shield, as if nothing were amiss.

Chapter Text

Jon and Dany joined them and the meal began. The lords, many of whom had either met Dany upon her journey north or during her arrival, eyed her with a range of emotions. Sandor didn’t give a fuck. He watched Sansa. She was alight with happiness, by turns bickering and laughing with Arya. Jon watched the two of them with a broad smile and Sandor had a moment of wondering if that’s what family really was. Joy in the smallest moments.

 

“My lords.” Jon quieted them all when they were nearly done. After a couple tries, the crowd fell mostly silent, gazing up at him. “I welcome you to Winterfell. Tonight, we have more than our alliances to celebrate.” He glanced at Sansa, to his left, and she nodded. “Tomorrow, my younger sister will be getting married.” 

 

“To who?” Someone towards the back of the room demanded. Sandor stood and Sansa smiled at him, achingly beautiful. The room around them erupted into chaos and Jon waited patiently, until it died some. 

 

“My sister has been engaged to the bastard king Joffrey, married to the imp Tyrion Lannister, and married to the vile Ramsey Snow. She has been deeply unhappy, since she left Winterfell.” Jon looked at her, and she was all steel, gazing out over the crowd, a northern girl with northern fortitude. “I promised her that the next man she married would be her last, and that he would be a good, honorable man. She can marry for love, and anyone that says she can’t can take his grievances to her future husband.” 

 

“Anyone?” Sandor barked, hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Sansa quirked an eyebrow. Most of the men were silent, and he wondered if they were recalling all the hours he’d spent with them and their men, training. If they remembered he was as willing to die for the north, for Sansa and Jon, as they were. Hundreds of eyes stared up at him, but all the mouths were shut and silent.  

 

“Sansa.” Brienne spoke quietly from where she sat at one of the tables. She had a queer expression on her face, one of quiet astonishment. “You love him?” 

 

“I do.” Sansa looked to him and took his hand, fighting back a trembling smile. She was beautiful, with her loose hair and unblemished, clear skin. Her blue eyes were twin pools of calm water. “All my heart and soul.” 

 

“Then I too will defend this union.” Brienne declared and Sandor dipped his head in gratitude to her. 

 

“Anyone else?” Jon raised an eyebrow. After a second, he saw Devlyn casually and calmly raise his pint.

 

“To Lady Sansa, long may she prosper.” He said, his voice ringing through the hall. After a moment, several others joined, and a moment after that, dozens more, until the whole hall was cheering.

 

“Well,” Sansa looked dazed as Sandor sat down beside her, still holding her hand. “Either they genuinely approve, or they’re going to slit your throat in your sleep tonight. I’m afraid I don’t know which it is.”

 

“Doesn’t matter.” He pressed his thigh to hers, where no one could see and she hid her beaming smile. “Are you sure?”

 

“Sandor.” Her head snapped up. “Do not doubt this. Not now. Not me, do you understand? I love you.”

 

“And you little bird.” He gave her hand a squeeze again before Jon quieted the hall and began to speak again.

 

He spoke about Dany, about her dragons and her past and her strength and her wisdom and a fair bit of other drivel, as far as Sandor was concerned. If Jon was distracted by the announcement of his parenthood not an hour ago, he didn’t show it here. He made a case, calmly and pointedly, for an alliance with Dany for the coming winter. He ended it with news of his bending the knee and after a moment of stillness, the room blew up like a keg packed with wildfire.

 

Jon had to shout down who Sandor thought was maybe a Karstark. He watched as Yves Crewen bellowed until he was red in the face about the insults Starks threw at them in one night. Arya laid her dagger on the table when a lord came too close, shouting about loyalty and honor. Jon, Dany, Sansa, and even Brienne had to deal with, in turn, the accusations, the anger, and the betrayals.

 

It took hours and Sandor was impatient and tired. He wanted his bed, and he wanted Sansa in it. He wanted peace, but he stayed her at her side, as her intended, unhappily seeing this through. A few times Sansa’s hand squeezed his knee, an unspoken thank you for his being there. And finally, after what seemed like endless insults and more challenges to duels then he’d ever heard in his life, it was sorted.

 

The north would have Jon Snow—he grinned to think about their reactions when they heard his true parentage—as their king and Dany as their queen through the war. If they lived, Jon informed them they could argue it then. Phrased that way, most of the men quietly agreed to see how it played out. Still, it was deep into the night when the hall finally emptied of men and left them.

 

“Seven fucking hells.” Sansa swore, resting her head in her hands tiredly and Jon turned to look at her in astonishment while Arya smiled and Sandor chuckled. “I thought they would never, ever, shut up.”

 

“I take back my approval.” Jon muttered, staring at Sansa. “He’s clearly had a bad influence on polite, courteous Sansa.”

 

“It’s as much his as everyone else’s.” Sansa remarked, yawning and rising. Dany looked mildly dismayed at the breach of protocol and that made Sandor smile even more. “I’m off to bed. I get married tomorrow, and I intend to sleep in. Jon, don’t wake me. Think you can run things for a morning?”

 

“I’ll do my level best.” Jon rolled his eyes but stood and smiled, embracing Sansa and kissing her cheek. “Sleep well.”

 

“And you.” Sansa turned to Dany and hesitated for a moment before saying quietly, “Good night, your grace. Jon can show you to your room, if you’d prefer.”

 

“I would like that.” Dany said stiffly and Sansa bowed her head just slightly. Sandor rose and gave a nod to Jon and Dany.

 

“Your grace.” He muttered and left them to decide who got his courteousness. He followed Sansa through the halls until they were back to their rooms. She paused at her door, throwing a mischievous look over her shoulder. He smirked when she disappeared into her rooms and didn’t bare his door.

 

It didn’t take long, before the door creaked opened and he was halfway to it when Sansa leapt into his arms. She kicked the door shut with her foot, arms flinging around his neck and he spun her, laughing. 

 

“Hello!”

 

“Quiet, or I’ll lose my reputation as a fearsome warrior.” 

 

“You could never. You’re Sandor Clegane.” She leaned back, smiling at him. “No one will doubt your prowess, even if you do make me giggle.” 

 

“Then you giggle away, but the second I do, I’ll deny it to the end of the world and back.” He warned her, setting her down.  

 

“Fine.” Unbothered, she made her way towards the bed and he sighed, hesitating even now. The castle was fuller than ever, and likely unhappy about the announcements, and he wouldn’t risk her for anything.  

 

“Sansa…” 

 

“I’m going to marry you.” She declared and he loved the way she said it. With just the right amount of pride, conviction, and happiness. “So if someone comes in here and tries to drag me out, I’ll tell them to go to seven hells and stay there. Get in bed, now.” She pulled the blankets up to her eyes and looked at him pleadingly. “I’m cold.” 

 

“You’re wicked is what you are.” He declared, but bent to kiss her nonetheless. He was not made to resist her. Slowly, he eased himself into bed, marveling the change. First he, sitting in a bed as she curled at his feet, both of them stiff and unsure. Now he was hovering over her, and her arms were around his neck and she was kissing him, drawing him down into the blankets and it was bliss.

 

“Come here.” She smiled, drawing back and engulfing them in furs. “I am cold, and you are very warm.”

 

“Starks don’t get cold.” He mocked very gently.

 

“I am not a Stark in here.” Sansa’s voice was muffled by the layers of blankets she was under. “I am just a little bird.”

 

“Alright,” He couldn’t even bring himself to hate the dopey, love-struck smile that crossed his face as he sought her out and dropped a kiss on her brow. “Warm yourself up then and get some sleep.”

 

“I’m not very sleepy.” Sansa whispered and his eyebrows creased when he frowned deeply at her.

 

“You were just exhausted in the hall, and fucking hell, you’ve been run down to the bone, and—” He went to protest but Sansa cut him off with a chaste kiss to his lips that did not remain that way for long.

 

“I’m not very sleepy.” She repeated softly, her intent entirely different now and his mouth went dry.

 

“Sansa,” He went to start, but she was already moving to kiss him, slowly and sweetly, on his mouth. It was easier not to fight her and so he did just that, kissing her back with as much passion as she had. Her hand reached up and tangled in the hair at the nape of his neck, securing her hold on him.

 

“I…” She was speaking, he realized a moment later. “Want you with me… For all time. You’re…. My husband. My everything… My world… And do you… Know how… Much… I love you?” Each was punctuated with a kiss.

 

“Are you sure?” He whispered, the dark voices rising up again. It still was not too late for her to turn and run, but instead she pulled him even closer and kissed him even more reverently, like she would lose him.

 

“Sandor, I am sure of a few things.” She moved back, pressing their foreheads together. Her eyes fluttered close and he was captivated at how long her eyelashes were. Each kissed her cheek and he went to mirror them as she spoke. “I am sure that winter will always come and that it will always end. I am sure that I would do anything for my family. I am sure that I am scared. And I am most sure that I love you, only you, always you.”

 

“Alright.” He bent to kiss her lips, hovering over her. “I’ve had a taste of you now Lady Stark and I won’t be giving it up.”

 

“You haven’t tasted all of me.” Sansa said with a knowing smile and he paused above her, looking down in astonishment.

 

“What?” He asked hoarsely. He’d excepted Sansa to have a working knowledge of what a marriage bed looked like, what happened there, the works. She was septa trained, after all. But septas didn’t know about such things and she must’ve read such a thought in his expression because a moment later she was hardening, frowning.

 

“Should I not been so bold?” She asked him, a faint hint of bitterness stinging him. “Should ladylike little birds not know such things? Did you forget who held me captive, who’s bastard daughter I had to pretend to be? Or do you not want me now, because I’m not some pretty, perfect little maiden?”

 

“No!” He said instantly. “No Sansa, it’s not that at all.” He was desperate to get to her stay but she was already trying to kick off covers and things, trying to get out of the mess that was their limbs and the furs.

 

“And here I thought that you wanted me for me but gods, I’m such a fucking fool! I never fucking learn. There’s no reason to want me for anything other than my damned title and the cunt between legs, so long as it’s still intact, and I can still provide the keys to the damned north, and—” Sansa was raving, pacing in front of the fire and Sandor cursed, struggling to get out of the bed.

 

“Seven hells woman, no!” He bellowed, trying to get ahold of her but with a twist she slipped from his grip and he thought of a damned fish. Tully blue and Tully through and through she might be, but he was a hound and after a few moments, he’d backed her into a corner, trapping her with a growl.

 

“Let me go.” She said, glaring defiantly at him. Tears glimmered in her eyes. “Let me go right now or I’ll---”

 


“Shut the fuck up.” He said lowly, dangerously, and Sansa went quiet, staring at him in surprise and even a bit of fear. That made him bear his teeth all the more.

 

“I…” Her voice was trembling but he ignored her, turning his attention to her gown. It was a simple nightgown, laces across her chest that allowed for her to tighten or loosen them at will. He began to pluck at them. “If you… Want me… For the north…” Sansa was quivering, but he wasn’t sure if it was in terror or something else. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. He kept working at undoing her laces.

 

“I don’t want you for the fucking north.” He said calmly and Sansa shivered. She pressed herself against the warm stone behind her. “I don’t want you for your titles or your castle or your land, you stupid pretty bird. The only reason why I want your cunt is because it comes with that pretty head of yours, with those damned eyes and that fucking mouth…” He couldn’t resist capturing it with his own and Sansa yielded instantly.

 

He made quick work of the laces then and soon her gown was lowered down around her shoulders. He tore himself away from her mouth to trail kisses down the side of her neck, to the hollow of her throat, to her collarbones. Her little gasps were not noises of protest but arousal now.

 

“Sandor…” She moaned, when he reached the little scratch from her would be assassin and he grunted, remembered the way she’d been some warrior maid, all danger, all for him. Because of him.

 

“I don’t want to marry you for anything other than you, Sansa.” He promised, tugging the gown more and after a moment, it slipped off her shoulders and fell down, all the way to the ground, puddling around her feet. “I don’t care what you know, what you’ve seen. The only time you will ever see disgust in my face is when you talk about the cunts that hurt you and remind me I cannot kill them myself.”

 

“I killed them.” Sansa was breathless and he growled his approval from the back of his throat. He loved when she was a wolf. “Sandor, please…”

 

“What?” He was taking his sweet time, eager to do things his way. That meant studying her perfect breasts carefully, noting the way they pebbled when his breath fell on them. “What is it, love?”

 

“Please.” Sansa’s eyes were closed, a look of frustration on her face. He took his time to memorize that too, then smiled slightly and gave in. He lightly ran one rough thumb over her small pink nipple and instantly it was hard, jumping to attention. His cock gave a corresponding twitch.

 

“Do you understand me?” He demanded of her and her eyes opened, just an inch, to gaze at him. He’d never seen so sweet a sight.

 

“Yes, Sandor.”

 

“Tell me then.” He ordered and bent to take her nipple in his mouth.

 

“Oh!” Sansa’s exclamation was enough to drive him mad, but he carefully kept himself in check. His iron control was being sorely tested and while he gently sucked and nipped, Sansa moaned and writhed.

 

“Words, little bird.” He ordered, moving to the other breast to give it equal attention. “Use your words.”

 

“You don’t – oh, gods – want me for – oh! – my titles, you – Sandor! – want me for – oh gods – me and me alone.”

 

“Aye, I do.” He croaked, pulling away from her to get a good look. Sansa was pressed flushed to the wall, pinned there without him having to raise a single hand to her. Her pale skin was flushed red; her cheeks, her chest, her breasts where his beard had irritated her fair and smooth skin. But he was drawn to the other red, the little bit of fire between her legs and she gave a faint cry.

 

“Sandor…” She said quietly, seeing where his gaze had gone but he was already kneeling. That put him at his desired height, eye level with her flat stomach. He ignored her little keens and cries, leaning forward to kiss bellow her belly button. He felt the muscles there flex in reaction to him and smiled.

 

His careful, slow explorations went to her hipbones next, the sharp points that jutted out. She was like nature, beautiful with peaks and valleys, and he wanted to worship all across her. Damn the septons and the seven. This was religion. This was heaven. Anyone who said different was lying.

 

Sansa twitched when his lips pressed to her hips and so he darted his tongue out, earning himself a buck of her hips. Deciding that wouldn’t do, he took them both firmly in his hands, stilling her. She made a little huff of protest but then threaded her fingers in his hair, so he carried on.

 

The source of his entrancement lay just in front of him, but he stopped and looked up at Sansa, waiting for her. It had to be her choice. It always had to be her choice. Sansa stared down at him with heavy, lidded eyes and then after a single moment she bit her lip and nodding, giving him permission.

 

He leaned forward and sniffed despite himself. The scent of her arousal was making the air around him heavy and while he wanted to dive in, that wouldn’t do. Instead, he lifted one finger and carefully left it trace up her creamy thigh to the apex, slipping it between them to simply see.

 

Sansa moaned loudly and he was sure he made some responding noise in the back of his throat because she was practically dripping for him already. He paused in wonder, moving in small little circles and Sansa’s answer was to try to move her hips again, He smiled to himself and looked up at her. She looked like she was suffering the most exquisite torture and he hadn’t even begun yet.

 

“Tell me again.” He ordered lowly, returning to press open mouthed kisses from hipbone to hipbone, slow and careful. His one finger stayed, tracing the tiniest of circles, spreading her ever growing wetness.

 

“You want me for me.” Sansa was panting. “Please, Sandor, please, I… Please, do… Do… Please.”

 

“Do what?” He asked, sucking on one hip and she cried out. He let go of her hip to cover her mouth gently, at the same time letting his finger slip a little deeper than he’d previously allowed it. Sansa’s cry was muffled by his palm and she bit him, not hard. He wanted to moan in his own right.

 

“More.” She begged, when he removed his hand enough to let her speak again. “Please, Sandor. More.”

 

“You always need to ask for it, little bird.” He warned her, pressing one last kiss to her hip. “We’ll never do anything you don’t want.”

 

“I want this.” Sansa was nearly sobbing, so he leaned forward. His tongue darted out and caught the first taste, and he knew from that moment on he would be a ruined man. She was like no fruit from the Reach or wine from Dorne. She was sweeter and ten times as intoxicating. He’d crave her for all of time.

 

He used his hand to force her to spread her legs a little further and with this new access, he could get deeper. His tongue went to catch every drop of her, working in slow circles, savoring the taste of her. He felt her twitch when he found the little nub and began to work, gently, on that area.

 

Sansa was trembling like mad, biting into his hand with each stroke but he had other plans for his hands. He slowly inserted one finger, no deeper than a knuckle, working it in shallow circles while still nipping and sucking on her. She was getting wetter and wetter, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop, not even with her little moans and shouts. This was exactly what he’d dreamt of doing, all those years ago, and now here he was.

 

The realization made him even hungrier for her, so he slipped the finger deeper, bending it and wiggling slightly. Sansa only barely managed to stop her scream from sending the castle walls crumbling down around them. He began to suck, faster and faster, and was rewarded with Sansa grabbing his hair and trying to yank him even closer.

 

He kept sucking and just as he bent his finger forward, she broke apart in his hands. It was a good thing he was holding her to the wall or she would’ve collapsed to the floor. As it was, he still had to hold her upright, gently in his rough hands.

 

“There, there, little bird.” He said softly and Sansa, dazed, blinked several times before seeming to come back in awareness of what was happening. She reached for him like a small child might, and he was only too happy to carry her back to the bed in his arms, curling around her protectively.

 

“You… Didn’t have to do… That.” She said quietly, once they’d both settled back into the blankets. He pulled her closer to him, her back fitting neatly to his chest. He didn’t think he’d ever be sick of this, the feel of her bare skin and the heat that radiated off her body. He relished the rise and fall of her chest. It meant she was alive, and for so long he’d feared the very worst for her.

 

“I want to.” He told her, more to her hair than to her. It was the truth. He always wanted to make her happy. He wanted her to see him as gentle and kind and compassionate, especially here, when it was just the two of them. He would never be like the other men. Be her lord husband he might, he would make her want their marriage bed and never see it as yet another duty.

 

“Do I need to do something for you in return?” Sansa asked him quietly and he started slightly. His dick was stiffer than it had any rights to be in this cold, but he wasn’t going to presume anything with her.

 

“No.” He petted her hair and took comfort in the fact that she was in his arms at all. “No, Sansa, you never have to do anything.”

 

“I want to.” She whispered his own words back to him and a moment later she twisted around, facing him. Her hands were between their hips and she was fast at work with the laces of his breeches, tugging them open. He was protesting before he could even register what exactly was happening.

 

“Sansa, no—you don’t—if you’re not ready—you—I don’t—Need—” He gasped and a moment later his breeches were to his knees. He went still, realizing what that meant. After a long pause, Sansa’s hands carefully went around the base of his shaft and he struggled to keep breathing.

 

“I want to do this, Sandor.” She was whispering, head tucked up his chin. Slowly she began to move up and down, first gently and then a little faster. “I want to make you happy, I want to please you. You’re my husband or you will be soon enough, and I want to do this for you, like you did for… For me.”

 

“Aye.” He muttered, a little strangled. Her hands, through small, had a good grip and she was growing bold, nearing the top and causing him to hiss.

 

“Does that hurt?” Sansa questioned worriedly and he shook his head, trying to get his thoughts in order.

 

“No, it feels – fuck! – it feels good. Keep… Keep… Doing that. Please Sansa.” He put his head back, closing his eyes to the sensations. She was so much smaller than his own hand, but when she closed her other hand around him, he felt like he’d had nothing better ever before in his entire life.

 

“Like this?” She asked and he could only give a moan to answer her. It was bliss and she was perfection. He wanted nothing more than to stay here with her for all time. She pumped a little faster and he groaned his approval. She kept going and he sank deeper into the covers, enjoying what he would’ve said, a few months ago, was impossible. When he opened his eyes and looked down, it was Sansa’s eyes that greeted him, wide and too impossibly blue. He felt like he was burning in the most pleasurable fires of hell.

 

“I love you.” He whispered to her, cheeks burning and she kissed him eagerly, sending electricity through his veins. He knew he was going to be close soon and he broke off the kiss, clueless as to how to stop the rush.

 

“I love you too.” She whispered back and that did nothing to stop him from feeling even more on fire.

 

“Sansa – I’m going to – I can’t – you –” He gasped then yanked his shirt off, startling Sansa but she kept her motion, up and down and it wasn’t until he had his roughhewn bed shirt providing a block did he finally release with a long, shuddering groan, reaching out and taking Sansa’s waist to draw her closer.

 

“Is that—are you…” Sansa asked unsurely and Sandor couldn’t help but chuckle at her. She looked up at him in mild alarm.

 

“Aye, little bird, that was the best I’ve ever had in… Ever.” He smoothed down her hair gently, a bit of manly pride filling him when he saw her flushed cheeks and hazy eyes. She looked sated and happy.

 

“Oh.” She paused quietly, then suddenly reached up and kissed his nose. He was taken aback by it, unsure. That was love, and he’d never had such a thing. Whores weren’t paid to give little tokens of genuine affection.

 

“Come here.” He said softly, suddenly realizing that there were so many things he could do that he never would have thought possible before. Sex didn’t even come to mind anymore; he was entirely focused on the little things. He could kiss her. He could touch her shoulder and her back, and pet her hair. She could lean on him during moments of hardship and he could be there to support her. No one would ever separate them.

 

“I…” Sansa was suddenly shy in the face of him, ducking and hiding her face in his neck. He laughed and she looked up at the sound, but he was busy hauling her into his chest and wrapped his arms around her.

 

“Wife.” He said, with utter contentment.

 

“Yes.” Sansa squirmed a little bit then settled on his chest and sighed deeply. “That will be me tomorrow.”

 

“Are you sure?” He asked, for what he was sure was not going to be the last time of the next 24 hours. He would be certain that Sansa was going to run away until the heart tree was at their backs.

 

“If you ask me that again, I’ll take you outside and marry you this very moment Sandor Clegane.” She threatened serenely and he chuckled.

 

“Alright.”

 

“I like it when you laugh.” Sansa muttered and he closed his eyes, content with this very moment.

 

“I didn’t think I remembered how.” He admitted quietly, to no one but her and Sansa’s grip tightened, just for a moment.

 

“Well, I will remind you every day. We will always laugh and be happy. I promise you.” She said fiercely and he hugged her tighter to him, kissing the top of her forehead.

 

“Get some sleep little bird. You’ll have a long day tomorrow and an ugly face at the end of it.” He told her, only mildly kidding and Sansa gave a little huff of laughter.

 

“It’ll be a long day, with happiness at the end of it, silly man. You get some sleep too. You might have to fight off the lords of the north and the Vale.” She teased and Sandor paused, then gave a little shrug and relaxed into the bed.

 

“Let them come.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, for the second time, he awoke with Sansa in his arms. She, at some point in the middle of the night, had sprawled out beside him, leaving them a tangle of limbs and fire bright hair. He smoothed pieces of it away until he found her dozing face, cheeks pink and breathing evenly.

 

In her sleep, she reached out for him, and he gently obliged, letting her pull his hand to her chest and cuddle it between her breasts. He marveled at how calm she could be when sleeping, how trusting they both were. He wondered if he had ever been this way before her; when the last time he’d slept and hadn’t been worried he was going to be attacked. Surely it was before Gregor turned into who he was.

 

As nice as it was, he knew there was no time to waste. He had a long day ahead of him, and the nerves were already getting the best of him. He wanted to have enough time in the training yard today that any of his desire to run would be quelled long enough for him to believe that he truly was going to marry Sansa Stark. He eased out of bed and was getting dressed when he heard the sweetest sound.

 

“Husband.” Sansa’s voice was velvet soft in the morning light. “Come back to bed please, I’d like to kiss you.”

 

“I have work to do.” He teased, smiling and not turning around. “Some lady of the castle made me a general or a commander or some other fucking useless title, and gave me jobs to do to keep me busy.”

 

“And the same lady is now ordering that you come to bed and stay there.” Sansa said sweetly, rolling and stretching. It made the fabric of her gown grow tight, so he paused to watch it, ignoring the tightness in his own breeches. Sansa, on the other hand, did not seem to miss such a thing. She gave it a long look, then raised an eyebrow.

 

“It happens sometimes, my lady.” He said calmly and Sansa propped herself up thoughtfully, hair down and loose.

 

“Would you like me to do something about that?” She offered slyly, blowing him a kiss and then rolling out of bed.

 

“Normally I would say yes.” He bent and kissed her head. “But don’t you have other things to do?”

 

“Like dealing with the queen?” Sansa groaned and rolled her eyes. “I’d rather murk out the stables. She’s a piece of work.”

 

“Ten gold dragons says she thinks the same of you.” He reminded her and Sansa gave a pout worthy of a child.

 

“Go then, spend your day with my brother rather than me.” She teased and kissed him back, getting up and padding towards her own room. “Tonight then, in the godswood, will you marry me?”

 

“I’ll be there if you will.” He said, tilting his head and she paused in the doorway, turning back to look at him with a slow, sweet smile.

 

“I will, Sandor Clegane. I will.”

 

Then she was gone and he was left to finish getting dressed. When he was ready, he left for food and to meet Jon. He needed to keep himself busy today and nothing would do him better than following the King in the North around while he tried to deal with his northern lords and his southern queens.

 

He found Jon in the training yard, amongst the men, watching with a critical eye. He stood beside the king and joined him in silent contemplation. They watched the men drill, and when a dragon screeched and wheeled above them, they were the only two who didn’t flinch from the sound.

 

“Sleep well?” Jon asked, with a note of warning in his tone.

 

“Aye.” Sandor said easily, watching as a young lord from the Vale was hammered into the ground by a northerner. “Warm.”

 

“Easy.” Jon growled and Sandor chuckled. “She may only be a cousin, but she’s always going to be my little sister.”

 

“Aye, I know.” Sandor said quietly, though he didn’t. His sister had never lived long enough for him to understand how it felt to truly be a big brother and watch a little sister grow up. “I’m just as fucking confused as you, Snow.”

 

“Snow.” Jon looked up at the sky, where the fat flakes of his namesake were falling. “Maybe I’ll keep my name. It’s the north. It’s been who I am for most of my life. How do I be anything but Snow?”

 

“You’ll figure it out.” Sandor said, clapping his shoulder then whistling and striding into the yard, shouting insults and instructions in equal measure.

 

By the time he was done training, he was quickly swept into Jon’s war room, where he was reading a letter from Tormund, who’d made it safely back to Castle Black with Beric and was reporting on the dead’s march south. Now that the Night King had broken through, it seemed he had no interest in going for Castle Black, preferring to come straight at the living. Sandor heard the news, grimly.

 

However, it was hard to focus on the horror and terror when his heart kept leaping and bounding when he thought of Sansa and what was going to happen soon enough. She’d be married to him, his to love and hold, and they would be one. No man could tear them apart. It was better to dwell on that than the dead.

 

The precious few hours of daylight slipped away from them then, until nothing reminded but darkness and candles burnt low. It was then that Brienne entered the room and with a little bow to Jon, turned and addressed Sandor with a queer look, as though she couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth.

 

“Lady Sansa requests that you both kindly stop working and prepare yourselves for tonight, so that she may get married on time and without delay.” She said, rather woodenly, and Jon dismissed all the other lords and commanders with a hint of a smile. Brienne and Sandor reminded as the room cleared.

 

“That’s Sansa speak for get your ass dressed, you lumbering oaf.” Jon said, with amusement, and Sandor snorted.

 

“Aye, that it is.”

 

“Do you know how northern weddings work?” Jon asked him curiously and Sandor paused, hesitating. That was one thing he’d not thought to ask Sansa about. He assumed it was similar to the ceremonies in the sept, but the look on Jon’s face made him worry that perhaps he didn’t truly know what he was in for.

 

“No.” He admitted simply and Jon rose, walking with him towards the family rooms of the keep. Brienne followed, a few steps behind.

 

“Typically, your father would officiate it. Since he’s long dead, I’m not sure who you’d like to take his place.” Jon told him and Sandor thought long and hard about it. Once, he might’ve said Tywin. Now, his choice was northern.

 

“Devlyn.” He said, naming the older man-at-arms. When Jon gave him a quizzical look, Sandor explained, “He’s a good man, with sound advice, and he’s kept my damned head straight. And he won’t protest the fucking ceremony.”

 

“Brienne?” Jon turned with a look and she nodded.

 

“I’ll see him to the godswood myself.” Then she was gone, and only he and Jon remained in the stone halls.

 

“I’ll walk Sansa to you. Not many people will be there.” Jon warned him and that was fine by Sandor. “You’ll claim Sansa, when I ask it of you. You’ll say your name, and any titles and claims you may have. Then she will take you as her husband, and you’ll take her as your wife. Sansa has a few elements of the seven she wants in there, but if you have any gods you’d like to get blessings from, tell us now.”

 

“Fuck the seven.” Sandor said quietly, thinking of the seven-pointed star that had hung above Joffrey’s throne. The gods had seen it fit to have that boy rule the kingdoms, and men had bled for it.

 

“Do you hold by the old gods then?” Jon asked, curiously and Sandor thought of the bone-white trees, with weeping eyes and bloody leaves. The north had given him a new life, a new purpose, a new fight. It had given him Sansa, and she was everything. He owed the northern gods more than he’d ever owed the seven.

 

“Aye.” He answered, surprising even himself. “I do.”

 

“Then they’ll see you married.” Jon clapped his shoulder when they reached their rooms and Sandor was quiet, trying to soak in all the thoughts from the day. “I’ll see you in a little bit… Brother.”

 

“Aye.” He muttered, pushing his door open with numb hands. Mindlessly, he bathed himself clean, even scrubbing his skin so he would smell fair. He managed to tame the wild tangles of his hair, and smooth his beard evenly so that it seemed thick instead of overgrown. He dressed in the clothes Sansa had made him, and then realized he had no cloak with which to drape around her shoulders. In response to his panicked thoughts, there was a knock on the door and he threw it open, wildly hoping it would be Sansa.

 

“You look… Presentable.” Arya remarked, holding something behind her back. He glared at her but moved aside to let her in. She ambled past, careful to keep her back away from him. He watched her, wary.

 

“What then?” He demanded, when she whistled, avoiding his eyes. Then she lowered her eyes to his and smiled, revealing a cloak folded neatly in her arms. 

 

It was white, and large, and very familiar. He looked at her with wide eyes, astounded. Sansa kept it, after all these years. She’d kept the cloak he’d wrapped her in, the first time. He’d let them beat her then, but never again. And now she was to be his, under his protection. He’d never let another raise a hand to her again.

 

He carefully fingered the details of it. She’d taken the care to wash the stains of blood and soot out, until it was as white as fallen snow once more. Then, ever so carefully, she’d sewn one black dog and a tiny red bird, just like she had in the warm northern cloak she’d made for him. A new sigil.

 

“I come bearing gifts from your bride.” Arya said needlessly, as he ran his rough hand over the fine velvet. “And this.” She offered him a scroll.

 

“What?” He questioned, then saw Sansa’s neat letters and sat down to read it. Arya sauntered back out, whistling once more.

 

‘Sandor,

 

I know that you may not like this cloak. I know you’ll see it as a sign of dishonor, about your supposed failures in Kings Landing. About how you let them hurt me and did nothing, and all that other nonsense you say when you feel unworthy of me.

 

You are the only one worthy, remember that.

 

This is a sign of your greatest honor. I kept it because it reminded me of the man who sheltered and protected a scared little song bird. Who loved me before I knew it was love. I’ve made a few changes, and I hope you don’t mind.

 

I’ll see you in the godswood.

 

Love, your little bird.’

 

Hiding a smile, he gathered the cloak in his arms once again. Who was he to deny his future wife anything?

 

When it was time, he was greeted by Brienne, Arya, Bran, and a few other lords of the north. They marched with him to the godswood, and Brienne informed him, loudly, that should Sansa change her mind, Brienne would sooner run him through than let him try to marry her against her will.

 

“Yes, Brienne, we know.” Arya patiently navigated Bran’s wheelchair around a rut. “Just like me, and Jon, and everything else here. Even he’d rather kill himself than do anything Sansa didn’t want.”

 

Sandor didn’t argue.

 

The snow was falling when they arrived to the godswood, setting their torches in the snow. Devlyn stood in front of the weirwood tree in his best clothes, and he looked at Sandor with unrepressed pride.

 

“It’s an honor that you wanted me here, Clegane.” He said quietly.

 

“Aye, well,” Sandor shuffled, uncomfortably with any sentimental conversations before the big moment. “You’re party to blame for this.”

 

“Partly.” Devlyn’s white whiskers twitched. “I think that’s an even bigger honor than this, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

 

Sandor was about to give him a cutting retort, but then the whole woods went quiet and he felt Sansa before he even saw her. He felt her in his bones, as if her small, even steps somehow traveled through the untouched snow and went directly up into him. For a second, everything was still, except for him, tensed and ready for her.

 

When she came into sight, he wasn’t aware tears were falling until they stung his cheeks and froze there. She was wearing a dress of grey, with wolves embroidered into every inch. Her hair, the fire that he would always want to envelope himself in, was long down her back, and unbound. Her skin, alabaster white and as smooth as marble and her eyes, the brightest of blue and filled with an unbridled joy.

 

“Don’t make me wait, old man.” Sandor muttered to Devlyn, who was also beaming, as Jon walked Sansa closer to the heart tree.  

 

“I’ll keep it brief.” He muttered back, before calling out loudly, once Sansa and Jon were close enough, “Who comes before the Old Gods this night?”

 

"Sansa, of the House Stark, comes here to be wed.” Jon answered, his voice ringing out over the cold land. “A woman grown, trueborn and noble. She comes to beg the blessing of the Gods. Who comes to claim her?"

 

“I, Sandor, of House Clegane.” He said, starting after Arya gave him a discreet kick to the calves. “Heir to Clegane’s Keep and its lands. Who gives her?” The words felt strange to say, but with Gregor dead, at least in the sense of the law, the land was his to take. Besides, it was better to say than nothing at all.

 

“Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard Stark, her brother, and King in the North.” Jon’s lips didn’t waver with the lie and Sandor wondered, briefly, if this meant that he truly never did mean to claim his true Targaryen colors.

 

“Lady Sansa,” Devlyn’s voice was tender. “Do you take this man?” Sandor’s breath hitched as Sansa’s blue eyes found his.

 

“I take this man.” She said softly, earnestly, and for a moment, Sandor felt like the world had ended and begun anew there in the godswood of Winterfell, for she was his wife, wedded and true.

 

“You may now cloak the bride and bring her under your protection.” Devlyn ordered and he realized that her northern roots were still twined with that of the rivers, so in one great sweep, he took the cloak that Arya had presented him with and spread it wide. He put it over Sansa’s shoulders, holding it there for a moment and kissing her temple gently before whispering in her ear, 

 

“You’ll marry me this time, and I’ll keep my vows.” She was beaming when he left her go and they turned back to the Devlyn. 

 

“Tonight, we stand here in the sight of the old gods, the new gods, and men to witness the union of man and wife. One flesh, one heart, one soul, now and forever.” He declared and Sandor thought of Sansa’s sweet voice, singing him the wedding song of the rivers, and reached for her hand. 

 

He watched the ribbon be tied around their hands by Brienne, who was the only one who didn’t claim the old gods in their company, occasionally looking up and smiling at Sansa. Her smile filled him with warmth that protected him from the biting cold. Then came their vows, and he had to swallow a bubble of fear. She might still run, and pretend this had always been a joke. Except she didn’t. 

 

“Father, smith, warrior, mother, maiden, crone, stranger. I am hers and she is mine. From this day, until the end of my days. With this kiss, I pledge my love.” He declared, hearing her sweet voice say the reverse. Then there was a moment, suspended in time. 

 

He looked down at Sansa, at her beautiful face, and something in him broke. She wanted him, and only him. She chose him, not her father or mother or her brothers. She did, freely, of her own will. He was free to love this little bird, the one he had for so many years, that when he brought her lips to his, another tear slipped out. 

 

“I love you.” She whispered, when he pressed his forehead to hers. “Always.” 

 

“And I you, little bird.” He leaned back and there was cheering and clapping all around them, but only she mattered to him. 

 

Afterwards, they went to the hall, where a feast had been prepared and was waiting. Jon had ordered that they would feast and toast the wedding, so that all gathered would be too happy and drunk to try to put up a fuss protesting it. Sansa and Sandor’s place was at the high table, and cheers rang out when they arrived and sat.

 

“It was a good idea.” Sansa admitted, quietly, as Jon seated Dany and himself as the meal was being served. “Making it into a celebration. Keeps the men happy, and makes sure they know he approves of our match.”

 

“Yes,” Sandor kept a hand on her knee, eager for her to never be out of his reach. She was his, and he felt giddy with relief at it. “He approves, until I tell him you’ve been sneaking into my bed for weeks now.”

 

“You wouldn’t.” Sansa quipped back, eyes shining and Sandor nearly kissed her once more, except Jon was calling for silence and for them to raise their glasses.

 

“To Sandor and Sansa.” He said loudly, as the men quieted and watched. “May you love each other for all of time.” Jon raised a glass in a toast to them and everyone else did. They drank and Sandor kissed her forehead briefly before finishing off his tankard of ale. Arya moved to sit next to Brienne, leaving them with a measure of peace once Jon leaned over to talk to Dany about the food.

 

“Mutton?” She offered him innocently and he laughed deeply, grabbing her knee beneath the table and squeezing. 

 

“I do love you, you know.” He said quietly and Sansa took a bite, grinning. 

 

“And I you, ser-not-ser.” 

 

When the feast was done, no one had protested the wedding, and Sandor and Sansa sat at the front of it all, looking out over everyone. Jon glanced at them, noting how Sansa leaned into her husband and Sandor stroked her back gently. 

 

“Would you like to go?” He asked them quietly and Sansa glanced up at him, tensing instantly, eyes hard. 

 

“I will not have anyone but him carrying me to my bed.” 

 

“Then I will have to cause a distraction for you.” Jon smiled at her. Sansa relaxed and smiled up at Sandor, who wondered what was going to happen. Jon caught Devlyn’s eye and nodded. A second later, the man stood, and asked loudly,

 

“Lady Brienne, I have heard wonders about your beauty from Tormund Giantsbane, but do you know how the wildlings get married?” 

 

“I am unfamiliar with the customs north of the wall.” She said dryly. “How does one get married there?” 

 

“Well first he would steal you. Then you would try to slit his throat!” With everyone distracted by his loud booming voice, and the topic of wildlings’ wedding traditions, Sandor led Sansa away from the high table.

 

“Is this all a dream?” Sansa muttered as they raced down the stone halls, the white cloak fluttering behind her. 

 

“Aye, has to be.” He whisked her off her feet with ease. “The isn’t a chance in all the seven fucking hells that I’m awake and married to my little bird. I’m probably dreaming back in the Vale, fucking dying where your sister left me.” 

 

“No, you can’t be.” Sansa held close to his chest. “Or I would come get you. And bring you back here to marry you.” 

 

“I’d cross all the seven kingdoms for you, do you know that?” He said roughly, climbing the steps three at a time to get to his room. 

 

“You already have.” She muttered and he carried her to his room. He set her down on the bed and turned to make the fire. “Now you’re not going anywhere.” 

 

“No, I won’t, wife.” He turned to smile at her and she was sitting atop the bed, smiling at him. When the fire was going, he walked over to her, slowly. 

 

“I love you.” She repeated. “I love you more than anything.”

 

“More than lemon cakes?” He teased and her mouth quirked into a smile. 

 

“Even more than those.” 

 

“Then I am indeed a lucky man.” He smiled and pulled her up so she was standing, her thick dress rustling around her. “May I?” 

 

“Please.” Sansa lifted her arms. He plucked at the strings on her dress, as she began to work on his as well. Finally, his shirt and breeches were loose and she was still very much still tightly dressed. 

 

“How the fuck do women manage this?” He demanded, throwing his hands up in frustration. Her nightgown was far simpler and he appreciated that. 

 

“It’s winter.” Sansa laughed and swatted his hands away. “I can’t have my clothes falling off like I was in Kings Landing or Dorne.” 

 

“Prefer it.” He grumbled and Sansa raised an eyebrow, but her nimble fingers made short work of her dress. Once it slid to the floor, he got to work on her corset. She hummed the wedding song she’d sang to him all those nights ago and when the corset was off, she stood in her slip and turned to him. 

 

“Your turn.” She whispered, going for his remaining clothes and weapons. He helped her take it off, piece by piece, until he too, was in nothing but his under clothes. He watched her expectantly, waiting for the moment she was going to run, or pull back, repulsed. Instead, when he was finally as bare as she was, she pushed him back onto the bed and climbed atop him eagerly. 

 

“We don’t have to, if you don’t want to.” He said softly, reaching up and stroking her face tenderly, even as his cock began to stiffen. 

 

“I told you.” She bent down to kiss him several times. “When you go, I want the taste of you on my lips.” 

 

“Wait.” He stopped her before she could go any further, because he had fire in his veins and he wanted to get this out before he lost the ability to do anything rationally. “Wait, I have a question.” 

 

“And?” Sansa leaned back, a slightly confused expression on her face. 

 

“Do you want…” He struggled with the last word, chocking on its implications and Sansa misunderstood, laughing. 

 

“Yes, I want you.” She lowered her head and kissed his scarred cheek, her laughter as light and airy as spring winds. “How many times do I—”

 

“Children.” He blurted out. “Do you want children?”

 

“Oh.” Sansa sat up, looking a little surprised. “I suppose I… Never thought about it. I thought it would be expected of me, with Joffrey. Tyrion and I never… And I made sure nothing of Ramsey ever began. I don’t know. How could we keep them safe?” Sansa suddenly turned fearful. “What if we lost them?” 

 

“Hush, pretty bird.” He reached up and brushed her hair back. “Hush, I didn’t mean to scare you. I just… Your brother brought it up. I meant to ask you, before, but there wasn’t really time.” 

 

“It’s enough to take care of ourselves and our family.” She cradled his face in her hands. “Is that enough for you?” 

 

“You are enough and more.” He whispered. She kissed him again, deepening it, until suddenly she broke it off with something between a laugh and a sob. 

 

“I’m sorry.” She whispered and he grabbed her chin, bewildered.

 

“Sansa, if you don’t want—”

 

“I do.” She insisted, grabbing his shoulders. “I do, I do, I do. I just realized what my father said, one of the last times we talked. He said he’d marry me to a better man. I wish he could’ve known it was you.” 

 

“He wouldn’t have wanted me.” He muttered, avoiding her eyes, trying desperately not to remember all the harm and shame he’d done Ned Stark and the failures he’d surely have to answer for later. No man would want him for his daughter, and least of all the man who’s head he’d helped remove, in a sense. “He would’ve called me the loyal hound, and he would’ve been fucking right.” 

 

“He would’ve came to see you as you are now.” Sansa rubbed his cheek softly. “Like me. Like them all.” 

 

“And would he have liked me, little bird?” He asked quietly. 

 

“He would’ve loved you, once he saw how you loved me.” Sansa kissed him again, with her soft pink lips and this time she didn’t pull away. The fire was burning inside him, but he was trying to remind himself of how to be tender. How to be gentle. How to make her feel all the love in the world, how to make her feel bliss. 

 

He kissed her neck and nearly died at the little breathy sighs she gave in his ear. Her hands were roaming, across his chest and back, pausing to trace all the scars that lingered. With each, he held his breath, waiting for her to be disgusted by the mark of his long, and bloody, life. Instead, with each, she responded with a kiss. 

 

“Sansa.” He rasped, when her hands linger at his hips. 

 

“Yes?” The picture of innocence, his bride. “What is it, my ser-not-ser?” 

 

“Gods.” He laid back against the pillows, unable to form any thoughts beyond his desire of her. “I want you.” 

 

“You can have me.” Her mouth curled up into a wicked little smile. “I am yours, and you are mine.” 

 

“Don’t think I’ll ever quite believe those words.” He told her, carefully kissing her high, delicate cheekbones. “Not from your pretty lips at least.” 

 

“Believe them, Sandor Clegane.” She sat astride him, naked. “Believe me.” 

 

“Are you sure?” He asked her, one last time, just once more. He had to be sure. This was her choice, always her choice.

 

“Please.” She whispered, kissing him, and that was all he needed.

 

He kissed her passionately, letting her ease into it. He liked kissing her best of all. He loved her little sighs and moans, her eagerness to have him kiss her back. He loved that she wanted to kiss him, scars and all. She was everything in a woman, and now she was his wife. It almost made him want to weep with the joy of it all. She was nothing but perfection and happiness, the greatest thing to happen to him.

 

He gently flipped her over so that she was under him. She submitted, staring up at him with wide blue eyes. He bent to kiss each lid and she gave a little breathy laugh, squirming slightly before he pulled away and looked down at her with a smile. After a second of uncertainty, one bloomed across her face.

 

“It was your eyes, you know.” He told her, carefully easing her out of her slip so that he could have her completely.

 

“What?” She helped him ease it off, looking at him in slight confusion. He threw it as far as he could across the room. He didn’t want her dressed ever again.

 

“Your eyes.” He repeated and Sansa touched one, brow furrowed in confusion. He kissed the wrinkles to even them out.

 

“What about them?” Sansa asked, before humming when his hands began to drift down her body.

 

“They were the first thing I loved about you.” He told her and she laughed a little, before gasping when he drifted over her nipple.

 

“Not the… Hair?” She breathed and he chuckled lowly, moving his attentions down her ribcage slowly.

 

“No, that’s what got my attention.” One hand took a lock of the aforementioned shade. “And it always does, little bird. I could stand above a crowd in court and spot you before anyone else. I grew to love it, aye, but your eyes, they were first.”

 

“When?” Sansa questioned then trembled when his fingers lightly brushed from hipbone to hipbone.

 

“The tourney.” He was fighting his own self-control then, but recounting the story helped him take himself away from the moment just enough. He watched the color rise in Sansa’s cheeks as his fingertips caressed her thighs. “Those damned blue eyes, following me every which way. I didn’t want you looking at me, but then Loras declared me champion and your blue eyes were all I could find.”

 

“I know you would win.” She breathed and her nails dug into his back. He smirked at that, edging closer to the apex between her thighs.

 

“Did you?” He asked softly and she nodded, her eyes fluttering shut.

 

“Yes, I told them all. You were – oh, Sandor, please – the bravest man on the field. It had to be you.” She whispered.

 

“Pretty words, pretty bird.” He whispered and she jumped when his fingers finally gently brushed up towards her clit.

 

“True.” She gasped. “So true Sandor.”

 

“Do you want to know what I fell in love with next?” He asked her and she nodded, fingers tangling in his hair.

 

“Yes, please.”

 

“Your mouth.” He bent to kiss her slowly. “I loved the way you smiled little bird. Never fucking saw it when you knew I was looking, but if you didn’t know, if you didn’t see me, then I could see them sometimes. Just enough. You would smile and it was the only time I didn’t want to fight the world.”

 

“You made me smile.” Sansa insisted and he kissed her again.

 

“Aye, and I loved those fucking pretty words too.” He told her aloud, and kept silent on the fact that he’d nearly killed Joffrey for splitting her beautiful lip.

 

“I…” She breathed, as he finally slid one finger between her folds and found her clit to gently stroke it. She was silent then, just little moans and gasps, so he took over talking, trying to keep himself controlled.

 

“That skin, little bird, I loved your skin. And your hands, I loved those too. When they sew, when they hold daggers, when they are in mine…” He kept whispering what he loved about her as he worked to make her come undone in his hands.

 

He was just telling her how much he adored her hips when she cried out and he felt her whole body clench. He gritted his teeth and made sure his touch was feather light as she came down, practically sobbing his name.

 

“You…” She whispered, dazed. “You…”

 

“Yes?” He asked her, kissing below her ear and Sansa did the same, before leaning back enough to see his face.

 

“Will you be my husband now?” She asked him, a tinge of embarrassment in her voice and he frowned at her.

 

“Was I not—”

 

“No.” Sansa’s cheeks were red, but her smile was true. “I mean, will you take me like a husband does?”

 

“Oh.” He said, a little dumbly. Some part of him had known this was coming; he was her husband after all. But he still wasn’t sure it was going to happen. He was convinced this was all a dream.

 

“Tell me how.” Sansa whispered and his hands found her hips. He gently brought her legs open, pressing his forehead to hers.

 

“If I do anything to hurt you, you tell me right away.” He ordered her and she answered with a kiss. Instantly, his body responded with a thrust forward and he grunted, trying to hold himself in check.

 

“It’s alright, Sandor.” She said, grabbing the back of her neck and brought him down to her, kissing his scarred cheek. “It’s alright.”

 

“I don’t want to hurt you.” He whispered, more to her hair than to her. “Sansa, I cannot fucking hurt you.”

 

“You won’t.” She insisted, guiding him down to her. He gritted his teeth, but Sansa had all the control, gently guiding his cock into the wetness between her legs. He closed his eyes and focused on slowing time down while Sansa, ever sweet and gentle, guided him forward. He gasped as she came down around him.

 

He wanted to have words for her. He wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, how wonderful she was. He wanted to tell her how amazing she was, how unbelievable this moment was. He wanted to confess how he’d imagined this exactly, in every different way, but all he could do was hold onto her and gasp.

 

He wasn’t aware of time passing, only that he was gently thrusting in her and her arms were around his neck, her lips fluttering along his neck and collarbone. She was the best thing he’d ever felt. She was the best thing he could ever remember. He felt like crying, for no apparent reason at all. This was something good, something right in his life, and he couldn’t help but wonder when it was going to be taken away from him.

 

“I love you.” He whispered to her and she kissed him deeply. Everything warped and he held tightly to her, moving as fast as he needed. She was gasping, clinging to him, and he had no chance to stop or pause. His release was almost too quick and he had to smother his shout in Sansa’s neck.

 

“I love you more husband.” She whispered, smoothing his hair down and Sandor gathered her into his arms, burrowing them both under the covers. He arranged them around her, then yanked her closer to him, making sure she was comfortable before kissing her head and closing his eyes.

 

“Forever.” He muttered to her and her fingers gently traced the scars that littered his chest and arms.

 

“Forever.” Sansa whispered back. He wasn’t sure if they had a week or a day or twenty years. All he knew was that she was his and he was hers, for however much time he could carve out for them in this world.

Chapter Text

Marriage didn’t change much for them on the surface level. They both still rose, often before the sun, and got ready for the day. They broke fast with the men and the lords and the family, sharing stories and food. He still trained men in the yard and she still wandered through them, though now she had Dany and advisors that trailed after her. He even still trained her, refusing to relent even when she stole a kiss midway through.

 

They still spent their days together, his shadowing her, providing protection. She still used him as a confidant and an advisor. They still split the duties as Lord and Lady of Winterfell. And they still spent their nights together. The only difference was the lack of clothes.  

 

But he would be a fool to see that it hadn’t changed things as well. He had more respect, more leadership. Men looked to him and seemed to forget that he wasn’t of the north or that he’d once been a Lannister sword. Now, he was simply Sansa’s husband, and that made him smile wryly.

 

The only issue they had to face was the appearance of Tyrion, when he arrived with several of Dany’s advisors and another dragon. Sandor stood next to his wife in the courtyard, waiting as the gates were lifted and Tyrion waddled in on his short legs, flanked by two tall, beautiful advisors. The girl was dressed in black, her curly hair capturing the flakes of snow and melting them while the man carried himself with the unmistakable rigor of an Unsullied.

 

“My lord.” Sansa said warmly, extending her hand out politely to Tyrion. He took it with a gracious smile and even bestowed a small kiss to it. Sandor refrained from growling, but it was a near thing.

 

“Lady Sansa, as hospitable as ever. You cannot imagine my joy that you are doing so well here.” Tyrion said, and his tone was genuine. “Please, allow me to introduce the Queen's advisors, Grey Worm, who commands the Unsullied, and Missandei.”

 

“Welcome to Winterfell.” Sansa gave them both a gracious smile. “You have rooms near her grace, and I can offer you warm baths and hot food. I am Lady Stark, and this is my husband and commander of my men, Sandor Clegane.”

 

“Welcome.” Sandor said gruffly. He’d had little contact with the advisors while in the south and even less so with Tyrion. That seemed for the best, given his anger that was rising as he remembered all the hurts that spanned decades between himself and the youngest Lannister. He wasn’t sure how long he would be able to contain it.

 

“The king and queen are meeting with all the lords. I can see you there if you would like to say your greetings first.” Sansa offered politely and while Missandei and Grey Worm nodded, Tyrion waved a hand.

 

“Thank you, sweet lady, but I think our queen can be free of me for a moment longer. I would like to talk to my brother. I’ve gotten word he’s here?” Tyrion enquired and Sansa took a moment but then nodded.

 

“Indeed. He is in the camp of the Unsullied. Sandor can take you to him.” Sansa declared and gave Sandor a stern look until he managed one very small, unamused smile at the small man.

 

“Aye. Follow me.” He said, gesturing for the horses to be brought to them.

 

“My thanks.” Tyrion was helped to clamber atop one. “It’s been some time, hasn’t it Clegane? I see I am not the only one with a change in station.”

 

“Fuck off, Lannister.” Sandor warned him, through only once they were far enough that the words wouldn’t drift back to Sansa’s ears. Tyrion gave him a look that was something just short of pity.

 

“You married her, then. You love her, you really do. You’re a bloody fool. She’ll be the end of you.” Tyrion said quietly and Sandor faced the oncoming wind with gritted teeth. His fingers itched to grab his sword, but he stopped himself.

 

“Possibly. Not much to be gained by discussing it with you, is there?” He demanded and Tyrion chortled.

 

“What better person to discuss it with?” He pointed out airily and Sandor wondered how badly anyone would miss him if he tossed the short man from the walls of Winterfell, into the swirling snow. “I am, after all, the only person who has ever laid claim to the title you now hold that has lived to tell the tale.”

 

“Not much longer, if you keep fucking talking.” Sandor warned darkly and Tyrion had the audacity to laugh.   

 

“Sansa must have told you the truth of it, since I’m still alive.” He said thoughtfully and Sandor grunted. That had been a short conversation, that had mostly consisted of Sansa demanding he not kill Tyrion since he had, in Sansa’s terms, ‘protected me the best he knew how and never took any liberties!’

 

 “Aye.” He said tightly.

 

“Smart girl.” Tyrion said approvingly. “Though she married you and for that I have some questions to her—”

 

“Watch it, you fucking cunt.” Sandor lost his temper. “I’d promised her not to harm you, aye, and the queen could have my head for it, but you say another damned word about her and I will cut you down.”

 

“And there’s the Hound, I was quite worried he’d been left in the south.” Tyrion said lightly. “Are you so dumb as to not see it? I am the only other man here who sees why you fell in love with the girl, the only who could possibly truly understand your intentions. The only one who can vouch for the truth of your love.”

 

“What?” Sandor swung to look at him in confusion and disbelief.

 

“It is simple.” Tyrion had on his most pretentious tone, treating Sandor like the lowliest Fleabottom bastard. “Everyone here thinks you have married Sansa Stark for power, or wealth, or titles, or land, or even a shard of respect. They think she’d married you because she’s damaged or was blackmailed or forced into it by Jon or others. Or they have no idea what to make of such a thing. I alone understand it.”

 

“Understand?” Sandor asked roughly.

 

“Yes, understand that you two love each other more deeply and truly than perhaps all others. That you didn’t take her for a warm bed before death, nor she for a protector against it all. That you two are the luckiest bastards in the whole world.” Something was utterly sad in Tyrion’s eyes. “You get a chance at love before death.”

 

“Well.” Whatever Sandor had been expecting, that certainly hadn’t been it. “And all this means fucking what? You won’t try to make a case for Sansa to become remarried to you, find a way to manipulate us into separating?” Just the very idea made him want to find something to stab his sword through.

 

“No.” Tyrion said simply. “It means I will defend this marriage to anyone who tries to discredit it. You have my word.”

 

“The northern lords and fucking knights of the Vale still grumble about it,” Sandor admitted, as they neared Jaime’s tent. “But they’re smart enough not to say it anywhere near her and me.” He swung down off his horse and even offered an arm to Tyrion.

 

“Smart.” Tyrion said, walking for the flap of the tent. “It seems that they like being able to breathe.”  

 

However, the arrival of Tyrion sparked into motion the thing Sansa dreaded the most; the inevitable departure of her siblings. It began that night with Bran and his journey to the Isle of Faces. Tyrion decided he would go with, as a knowledge seeker and strategist to the queen. Sansa had railed against it, but the moment had finally come as they sat in the solar, crowed with all the new faces.

 

“Lady Stark, I personally give you my promise that no harm will come to your brother. We will travel over land, of seas, over—” Tyrion was rambling on to Sansa, but Sandor saw that Sansa’s face was locked onto Bran’s, her mouth in a thin, tense line. Jon and Arya flanked her, the last Starks sending another off.

 

“I don’t like this.” Sansa cut him off, pacing. Tyrion dipped his head respectfully, but others were watching her intently. “Bran, I don’t understand why it has to be you. We can send Sam, we can—”

 

“I am marked by the Night King.” Bran said simply. “It is to be me, Sansa, not any other. I will have Jaime as my shield, Bronn as my sword, and Sam and Tyrion as eyes and ears. I will find the way to end this, I promise.”

 

“And I believe in you.” Sansa said eagerly. “I just… For it to be you, with them, I…” She looked at Jaime and she didn’t need the words she would say. They all knew. She didn’t trust him, not with her brother.

 

“Lady Stark.” Jaime said quietly. “It would be my honor to take your brother south. I know the lands well. I know the way. It might be my only chance to right a very terrible wrong. Please, allow me.”

 

“I don’t want anyone else getting hurt.” Sansa clasped her hands tightly together so that no one would see the way that they shook. “Perhaps we need to send you with Brienne, or someone else who—”

 

“My lady, I stay with you.” Brienne said softly, and it was only an argument that had already been fought, so Sansa yielded and cast her gaze around the room desperately. She could not send Jon, nor Sandor, nor Arya, nor anyone else who remained. It was simple enough; Bran would go with Tyrion, Bronn, Sam, and Jaime.

 

“Alright.” Sansa conceded and Jon reached out, taking her shoulder. He looked at her and though he didn’t say a word, Sansa still nodded her head in understanding.

 

“Tomorrow.” Jon said quietly. “You may take whatever you need from Winterfell for your journey. You may sleep and rest before you go. If there is anything, please see Lady Stark or myself. We don’t need word of this getting back to any ears that maybe use it in an unsavory manner.” They all knew why heading south would be so dangerous, as Cersei’s plans began to unfold.

 

“Thank you.” Tyrion bowed his head and turned to Daenerys, who took her eyes off Sansa and nodded as well.

 

“Be safe.” She said quietly and Sam pushed Bran’s wheelchair from the solar. Sansa watched them go, helpless.

 

“Sansa.”  Jon said quietly, but she brushed off his attempt to touch her shoulder.

 

“Is that all?” She asked, bluntly for such a lady. “I would like to retire if so.”

 

“Yes, I think so.” Jon glanced at Daenerys, who gave a tiny nod. “We might all want to retire. Tomorrow will be long and no easier than this.”

 

“Goodnight.” Sansa took Sandor’s hand and practically pulled him from the room. He went, knowing that she deserved the comfort of their own rooms to cry out all her tears and her worries. When the door closed, he helped her from her dress and she helped him from his armor. He savored these little moments, and the intimacy of them. They stripped away their defenses, and laid the other bare.

 

“It needs to be done.” He whispered, once Sansa had built the fire up and her thin form crept beneath the blankets and furs. He couldn’t offer her empty, untrue platitudes. He saw the world for what it was, dark and grim. He didn’t shield her away from it, but he would fight it for her.

 

“I know.” She whispered back, bringing his arms around her. She liked to sleep with her back pressed to his chest. It made her feel safe, he knew. He liked it because he held her in her arms, and knew it wasn’t all a dream. “But why is it always us? Why did it have to be my father to find out what Cersei was doing, and my brother to be the one to try to wage a war for it? Why did it have to be Jon to lead us against the Night King, and Arya to become a Faceless Man? Why did Bran have to become the Three-Eyed Raven?”

 

“Because you are Starks.” He said, thinking of all the legends and myths and history he’d learned from the men. There was a reason that men had followed Starks for thousands of years. They made other dynasties look like the fleeting fancies of the maidens and knights of summer.

 

“I know.” Sansa was crying, but just a tear or two that leaked out onto his bicep. “But we must die it seems, and I can’t lose anyone else. I can’t. I won’t.”

 

“Hush.” He said gently, kissing her temple. “Let it be, Sansa. Let it be, while we’re all still here with you.”

 

“Yes, with me.” Sansa twisted in his arms so that she was looking up at him. He saw the hunger and desperation in her eyes. She didn’t want comfort, she wanted an escape from her worries. He would always give her one.

 

He bent and kissed her, slowly at first. He would never stop making sure it was always what she wanted. What she desired. Sansa moaned, grabbing the back of his head and pulling him deeper into the kiss. She pressed her body flush to his and wiggled slightly so that she was better aligned.

 

“Fuck.” He whispered. He would never be used to the fact that she wanted him, this bad, this desperately. That she would pick him over all the rest. He would never stop believing that she was a gift to him.  

 

“Husband.” Sansa breathed into his ear as she kissed his neck and cheek. His insides twisted and he gripped her tighter.

 

“Wife.” He responded. It didn’t matter how long he held the title; he would never be accustomed to it.

 

“Make me forget.” She pleaded. “Make me forget it all.”

 

“Gladly.” He promised and kissed her once more before he pulled her shift off her and let it fall, forgotten, to the floor. The fire tried, in vain, to heat the room, but it didn’t stop goosebumps from arising on Sansa’s bare flesh. Sandor’s attention was quickly diverted to her breasts, where her nipples had stiffened.

 

“Oh.” Sansa whispered when he reached up and gently tweaked one. She was still discovering that sex could be sweet and gentle and kind. He wanted to make sure he always made her feel good, made sure her pleasure came before his. He loved it, the way she would gasp and blush when he did things to her. But he wanted to make sure that the memories she kept of him were sweet.

 

“Tell me if you don’t like it.” He muttered, lowering his head to take one small, pink nipple into his mouth.

 

“No, I do, I think.” She was flushed, breathless. He loved it. He would give up everything, kill anyone, do anything, if it meant that that she would always feel this way. He didn’t know if that made him stronger, or far weaker.

 

“Will you sing for me? My little bird?” He asked her gently, grazing his teeth on her tight flesh. She gasped, but answered.

 

“What song would you like, my husband?” She asked sweetly and he help back a smile. He didn’t deserve her.

 

“My favorite.” He requested, as he pressed his hands to her ribs tightly. She was so small, so delicate. He wondered how the gods had managed to fit his whole world in such a little form. Sansa’s blush warmed her skin.

 

“Make me sing it.” It was half a plea, half a request, and he would always do what she commanded him.

 

He ran his hands down her sides, marveling at how he knew her so well now, knew her body and her ways and her love. She was his and a mystery, her own self and yet an extension of him. He was hers, and had he ever been anything else? Not for as far back as he could remember.

 

Sansa spread her legs open slightly and he wondered if there was better form of worship. He’d never been devout until her. She gave a happy little sigh when he ran a finger up her thigh and along her hip. She was relaxed and had closed her eyes, so he bent and kissed her forehead before carefully gliding a finger towards the center of her heat.

 

He was always astonished when she was wet for him. Like she craved his touch. He knew she desired him; he would never dream of touching her if she wasn’t. But it nearly undid him, seeing such sweet evidence of her arousal. He spread it carefully and Sansa made a noise of both protest and delight.

 

“Nothing is ever going to happen to you.” He found himself uttering as he carefully tested her desire. She liked it best when he played with her clit ever so gently, but he wanted her to scream. “I am always going to be here for you, my wife. No one will ever touch you again, or I’ll kill them.”

 

“Please.” She breathed and he wasn’t sure if it was for him to finally dip a finger into her or for him to kill everyone. It didn’t matter. He would give her both.

 

He kept his eyes on her face as he slid one finger in, then two. Not deeply. Too much too soon would ruin it for them both. He held back, watching as pleasure ran across Sansa’s face for a moment. It didn’t last too long before restlessness set in and she ground her hips down, trying for more friction.

 

Then he began to crook his fingers, back and forth, slowly. There was something inside her, some place wild that would undo her, and he wanted nothing more than to memorize it. He rubbed it slowly, watching as Sansa’s face dissolved back into one of sweet bliss. He wanted to memorize that too.

 

“I’m always going to protect you.” The words kept coming and though they weren’t anything new, any different from the promises he’d been laying at her feet since his arrival, but he needed to say them. Needed her to know, to remember. “I don’t care if it’s years or days we have together, little bird. Each moment is yours.”

 

“I love you… So Much…” Sansa whispered, her eyes going wide. He went a little faster, moving in steady circles in her tightness, and she was squeaking. She brought her knuckle up to her mouth to muffle the screams he knew were coming, but he caught her wrist and gently pulled it away.

 

“No, I want to hear you shout, remember?” He practically cooed and Sansa gasped but nodded. When he was sure she wasn’t going to do it again, he let her wrist go and went to tweak her nipple again, smiling when it sprang back to pert attention. She was a rapture, her body art and her mind glory.

 

With the thoughts that he didn’t deserve such a fine thing, he bent and kissed the soft skin just above her belly button. Once he dreamed that a child might swell there, something made of him and her and their love. That dream seemed as improbable as her love, but he had let go of the notion that he might know anything anymore. Sansa had proved him wrong too many times.

 

He kept up his pace and Sansa was beginning her opening verses. He preferred her hymns to whatever the septons sang. They were simple enough lyrics, mainly variations of his name, ‘gods’, and some curses thrown in for color. But from Sansa’s lips they were glorious and lovely. He worked his fingers until he felt Sansa go rigid and her shout was felt straight in his hard as steel cock.

 

“Sandor!” Her pulsations and jerks were brought under control after a moment and she was panting, looking up at him with a devilish smile and adoration in her clear as day eyes. Love, he knew. He lowered his gaze for one last kiss to her breasts before coming up to kiss her. Impatient Sansa had removed him of his pants before he could even break away from the kiss to help her.

 

“What are you—” He went to ask, watching in bemusement as she piled blankets up in the middle of the bed.

 

“Trust me.” She seemed even more flustered than usual, so he kept quiet, wondering where this was going. Then, after she was satisfied with the work, she laid down so that her hips were raised by the mound. She caught his hand and pulled him towards her, opening her legs invitingly.

 

“Fuck.” He muttered, grasping himself firmly in hand and giving a few tugs just to make sure he was ready. But he never was, not for her. Sliding into her was the same as it had been the very first time; he felt like every nerve in his body was dying and igniting all at once. It made him wonder if he’d even known pleasure before her.

 

“Sandor.” Sansa breathed and when her legs wrapped around his ass to pull him closer, he gave a helpless moan. She was too much.

 

“I love you.” He whispered and her smile would wake giants, launch ships, stop the sun, boil the sea. Nature was a woman and her name was Sansa Stark. “You force of nature, you beautiful fucking woman…”

 

“Now you sing for me.” Sansa unfurled a smile that would’ve brought him to his knees, had he not already been there. He pushed himself in and out and it wasn’t a few minutes later that he was groaning and nearly weeping her name. He finished with an explosion behind his eyes, near collapsing on her.

 

“You…” He muttered sleepily, as she kept her hips tilted upwards. He squinted when she didn’t instantly throw the blankets and furs back over them. He gently traced her collarbones and breasts. “Sansa?”

 

“The old maids, they said…” Sansa seemed embarrassed but kept talking. “They said this way would help.”

 

“Help what, freeze your flawless tits off?” He yawned. He wanted sleep and her warm body, neither of which he would get while she remained in this ridiculous state.

 

“No.” She squeaked and he opened suspicious eyes at her. “Other… Things.”

 

“What?” He asked warily. “Are you sick? Are you unwell? Do you need the fucking maester? What’s wrong?” He was already reached for his clothes when Sansa’s thin fingers wrapped around his wrist.

 

“No.” She said softly, kissing between his eyes gently. “It helps a woman get with child supposedly.”

 

“Oh.” He sat back, dumbfounded. Then he laid down, unsure of what else to say. That was the point, wasn’t it? To have children? A woman would want one, then hoards more. They always did. But men marched off into battle and women to the birthing room, and both failed to return often. He didn’t know which of them would be in more danger should Sansa get her wish. He kept his grim thoughts to himself when Sansa finally relented and organized the bed into a comfier state.

 

He did, however, drag her close to him and bury his face in her hair, repeating how much he loved her as he fell asleep.

 

The next morning, they rose and dressed early. Sansa had on her cold, lady of the north, strong and proud mask, but Sandor saw through it. She held his hand a little tighter, kept her gaze down, and her mouth drawn tight. She didn’t like it, but she knew it was for the best. She was a Tully, as were her siblings, and they would do their duties.

 

“Bran.” Jon’s voice was low in the thin, cold air of the early morning. Most of the castle was still in bed, unaware that this was happening. Jon hadn’t wanted a fuss, especially about the fact that he was sending Bran off with two Lannister brothers, including one who had tried to kill him previously. “Thank you.”

 

“Thank you.” Bran gave him a little nod. “I will send ravens with whatever news I have and anything I find.”

 

“Safe travels.” Jon clasped his shoulder, before moving aside so that both Sansa and Arya could give him a hug.

 

“Be safe.” Sansa said urgently, while Arya stayed quiet and simply held Bran’s arm for a moment.

 

“And you.” Bran said quietly.

 

“Right. We’ll be off.” Jaime said briskly and they moved back. With a smart salute, he rode off, leading the wagon carrying Bran, Sam, and Tyrion, supplies, and several large tomes of books. Several trusted household guards fell into place behind them and it wasn’t until the gates of Winterfell closed did Sansa’s cold hands find Sandor’s. He briefly brought her head to his chest and he felt her shake, just once.

 

When she pulled away, her face was dry of tears.

Chapter Text

The next one to go would be Arya, he knew. It was quite impressive how both Sansa and Jon pretended to remain ignorant of this fact. They were more alike than either of them knew, he thought. The logic was sound enough, and Arya’s reasoning good. With Jaime gone, there was no one else that would protest the plan for Cersei, so it would be simple enough for journey south.

 

“Sansa, if you make me review my route and plan one more time, I’m going to lose my mind.” Arya protested, as Sansa fiddled with her daggers. Her lessons had continued, and he found himself glad of it, now that her protectors were dwindling. 

 

“I’m just making sure that you don’t overlap with the route Jaime had laid out for himself and Bran.” Sansa argued and Arya rolled her eyes, pausing from throwing an axe at a target across the yard.

 

 “Sansa,” She said patiently, keeping care to lower her voice so that no one else could overhear her next words. “Even if I did come across anyone who knew Arya Stark, I wouldn’t be wearing my own face.” Sansa bit her lip, not reassured.

 

Sandor waited until Sansa had been called away to be the lady, before he whistled sharply. Arya, ever attuned to it even after all these years, looked at him in annoyance. He gestured for her to come over.

 

“Listen here,” He quietly spoke to her, keeping a mindful eye out for Sansa’s return. “I spent a fucking lifetime of watching and guarding that cunt Cersei. If you’re going to get close to her, be her equal, there’s things I can tell you.”

 

“So at least you have complete faith that I can get the job done, and do it well.” She said triumphantly and he grunted, sheathing one of his daggers. He would grudgingly admit that he would miss her and worry about her when the Narrow Sea froze over.

 

“You’re a killer.” He gripped his sword tighter. “Same as me, same as Jon, same as everyone. Your sister might not see it. Might not want to see it more like. But it’s been in you since you were a skinny wolf bitch. You’re just better at it now.”

 

“She’s been on my list since the beginning.” Arya said, eyes following a lone bird that wheeled in the sky above them. “Right after Joffrey. I’ve gotten to kill some of them, but not him. And not her. I’m going to end it.”

 

“It never fucking ends, when are you going to understand that?” He asked, a little gruffly. “There’s always another who deserves the blade.”

 

“Then I wield it.”  Arya seemed unbothered. “Until no one will touch the Starks for a generation out of fear that I’ll come from the shadows to murder them too.”

 

“Well,” He gave a little approving shrug. “Now fucking listen to what I know about Cersei, will you?”

 

It was nighttime when Arya slipped away, leaving off under a moonless sky. She didn’t say a true goodbye; they simply woke up to her gone, short notes for Sandor, Sansa, and Jon left on their doors. It was a name for each of them, one that they all knew was her promise to them, someone she would avenge.

 

Lady.

 

Father.

 

Sansa.

 

Sandor let Sansa lean against him for a long moment and she signed heavily. He gently rubbed her back and then she straightened up, pulling herself together. She gave him a wane smile, then went to discuss with Jon what excuses they were going to tell the lords regarding Arya’s disappearance.

 

He and his wife were both aware that their time was coming closer and closer to an end, but neither said a word. It was reflected in their constant companionship, from before the sun rose and long after it set. Sandor had never had such bliss, but he’d also never felt such dread, and it seemed like he was going to burst from the mixture of it.

 

Then the order to march came. They were to leave Winterfell in the morning, in three days’ time.

 

Sansa said nothing when Jon declared it as they dined that morning, but Sandor felt the grip on his arm tighten. There was sadness in Jon’s face, apologizing for something he could not prevent. Even Dany had a twinge of pity in her eyes, watching as the men got up, uproar caused by Jon’s order, and in the moment of chaos, Sandor pressed his forehead to Sansa’s.

 

“Do you need to get ready?” She asked him quietly and he shook his head, holding her hand tightly.

 

“I’ll do that when you’re sleeping, little bird.” He said tightly. “You don’t need to watch that. I don’t want that.”

 

“I don’t want you to go.” Sansa whispered, anguished and he sighed, kissing the top of her head and pulling her into a tight embrace.

 

“I know.” He whispered. He couldn’t make her false promises of return here, no more than he could ask her to tell him the same. They had to face what was coming, and they would have to do it apart.

 

He went to take command of the men, and he easily fell into the role of leader, making sure that they were preparing well. He spoke with Jon, with Dany, with Davos, with Grey Worm, even with the Dothraki men that had learned to speak the common tongue. A massive army was about to march and he was caught up in the excitement of it despite himself. It ended when he returned to his rooms.

 

Sansa sat on the bed, running her hands over the cloak she’d made him. He set his weapons by the door, pulling off his boots and his layers. She didn’t look up, simply running her fingers along the thick fur of the collar, a tiny frown drawing her mouth down and creating lines on her face.

 

“I should’ve made you more.” She said quietly. “And warmer. They say seal skin will repeal water and snow. I should make you blankets and more socks and—”

 

“Sansa.” He cut her off quietly. “Sansa, enough. You’ve done enough. You’ve done more than fucking enough. I’ll be fine. A march is miserable, it usually is. I’ll get through it, like I did all the rest. No worrying.”

 

“That’s all I’m going to do.” She said quietly. “Sit and knit and worry, that’s going to be me. Useless.”

 

“You’ll be running the north.” He reminded her, sitting and taking the cloak for her so that he could pull her onto his lap. “Being its lady and it’s wardenness. Caring for the smallfolk. Making sure that Bran and Arya are alright. Doing what you were born to do Sansa, what you’re fucking best at.”

 

“I’ve lost everyone.” Sansa said quietly, resting her head on his chest. “Everyone that I love. How can I live and be alright with the knowledge that I might lose you and Jon as well? I can’t Sandor.”

 

“Hush.” He gave her a kiss. “Hush now little bird, you’re alright. You’re alright now.” He gently rocked her back and forth, repeating his words. “You’re alright…”

 

The next morning he avoided Jon and Sansa after they ate. He didn’t think they would miss him too badly; everything was about the march now, about the evacuation and the war and their siblings. Sandor had someone to seek out and confess something to, and he intended to do so without Sansa’s knowledge.

 

Brienne was training her squire in the yard when Sandor found her. Sandor had barely taken notice of the boy back in Kings Landing, but here he’d paid more attention. Brienne might be called away, and the boy, Podrick, would need to be the one to mind Sansa. He wanted her left in good hands.

 

“Clegane.” Brienne greeted him stiffly when he arrived. She hadn’t truly forgiven him for the threats on Jaime, but Sandor was unbothered. He thought they were well deserved. He nodded to her and then the squire respectfully.

 

“I need to talk to you privately.” He said quietly and that made Brienne frown, putting her sword away.

 

“Why?” She asked suspiciously.

 

“There’s something you should know.” He said, giving Pod a pointed look. The boy busied himself with cleaning up training dummies and wooden swords, and Sandor had to admit that he felt a bit of kinship to him.

 

“Is Sansa alright?” Brienne questioned instantly.

 

“Yes.” He said, thinking if he should tell Brienne about his wife’s plan to have a child. He decided it wasn’t the time for that and focused on what he had come to say in the first place. “She wasn’t though.”

 

“When?” Brienne’s hand went to her sword.

 

“When you first arrived.” He was treading on thin ice, he knew. He got the plunge over with, all at once. “An attacker worked his way into her private chambers. She and I killed him. We told no one.”

 

“What?” From the look on her face, he might’ve told her that Stannis had come back from the dead to try to marry her.

 

“She was alright,” He tried to assure her, but Brienne was livid with anger. Her cobalt blue eyes were flashing and for a moment he felt the winds of the Vale at his back, and the harsh kiss of her steel.

 

“An attacker got in? You didn’t tell a soul?” She hissed. “You let him get into her chambers? When? Why were you there?”

 

“Listen,” He put his hands up. “Fucking listen, would you?”

 

“Speak quickly then.” She was murderous.

 

“Arya killed the Frey’s. They came for her. I’m sure in the uproar of the castle, they slipped in. Refuges, lords, it was too easy. Sansa stabbed one, Arya the other. We fucking took care of it, alright? But I’m not going to be here much longer, and there’s going to be less people. Make sure she has guards.” He explained, and Brienne’s expression was even angrier, in a way he didn’t think was possible.

 

“Are you…” She struggled with words. “Insane?”

 

“Mad fucker, aye.” He agreed, without skipping a beat. “And I love my fucking wife Brienne, so help me, and if a fucking hair on her head is hurt, I’ll burn the Seven fucking Kingdoms down around us.”

 

“Why were you in her chambers?” Brienne’s face had shifted to horror and he grimaced. He hoped he might get away with that.

 

“I was checking on her.” He said carefully, and Brienne drew her sword, just a few inches. “Alright, put it away. I wasn’t there to fucking hurt her, I saved her goddamn life Brienne!” He reminded her.

 

“Did she want you there? Was it against her will?” Brienne demanded, and he sighed heavily, wishing for a drink.

 

“No.” He told her flatly. “Nothing ever happened in her chambers, I swear to it on the old gods.” And it wasn’t even a lie; he was proud of himself. Sansa wasn’t the only one who could be clever. 

 

“I will ask her.” Brienne warned him and he gave a little snort of amusement, wondering what Sansa would tell Brienne. He didn’t know what woman spoke of, and his wife wasn’t one to gossip like a whore, but he hoped Brienne got more than an earful of what she wasn’t prepared for.

 

“Fine.” He agreed easily. “But you sleep in her chambers with her, understood? Extra guards. Pod with her when you can’t be. Don’t trust any newcomers or anyone who isn’t northern. Not even some of them.” He narrowed his eyes, watching the young lords prance across the yard, including Crewyn.

 

“Alright.” Brienne still looked perturbed. “But Clegane, why didn’t Sansa, or Arya, tell me about this?”

 

“They didn’t want you to worry.” He said dismissively. Brienne asked too many questions, and he knew that she would’ve been the first to connect Arya’s newfound abilities with the legends coming from the Twins.

 

“Fuck off.” The look she gave him was mutinous, so he obeyed. She’d let no harm come to Sansa in the meantime. He could only hope that any enemies coming for them would be deterred by the fact that Sansa had married a monster.

 

He worked with the men to load wagons, to sharpen swords, to work with the traps and machines Jon had brought with him designed to burn through the wights. There were several maesters with them, including the twitchy little pyromancer he remembered vaguely from Kings Landing. He had no time to question why they were in the north, too busy preparing for their march.

 

He liked being amongst the men. Only a few had made smart remarks about his new station and Devlyn had straightened them out promptly. But so long as he was beside them, doing the shit work, loading grain and minding the horses, he found that they respected him, same as before.

 

He left them after the sun had set, going to the solar for a private meal with Sansa. They only had a few precious moments together left to share, and he wasn’t going to have them spoiled by men watching and judging if he kissed his wife or if he held her as she cried. He wanted it to be just them.

 

She was waiting, with a small assortment of food. He smiled the instant he saw her and she looked up, a smiling growing to match his own. She rose and came to take his cloak. It never failed to astonish him, her being his wife, doing wifely duties. He never thought he would have one, let alone her. She kissed his arm before going to hang his cloak by the fire so that it could dry.

 

“Try to keep it warm.” She told him, as he sat and broke bread for them. “It’s best if you have something warm, so if you can, don’t sleep with it. Leave it by the fire, and try to make sure your boots—”

 

“Would you come eat?” He asked gently, and she came to sit. “I’ve done a march or two in my life, wife.”

 

“Not the north.” Sansa handed him the jam. “Not like this.”

 

“Will you love me less if I come back missing a couple toes?” He teased, and Sansa took a bite of her toast with a raised eyebrow.

 

“Don’t lose your fingers, husband.”

 

He gave a hearty laugh at that and kissed her fingertips for it. Then they ate and shared their days as they did. Sansa shared with him about the defenses the army would leave behind in the wake of their path, and Sandor explained that he had told Brienne about the Frey men. Sansa admitted that it was for the best, though she did blush when he informed her she may have to explain to Brienne about her late-night visits to him.

 

They called the servants to take about their plates and draw a bath. When the steaming water was poured, Sansa made good on her promise. She undressed him, then herself, and they both splashed into the tub. She washed him with her expensive oils and soaps, ignoring his halfhearted protests to stop.

 

“Ah.” He sighed in contentment as her nails gently scraped his scalp on the way down, soapy water running down his neck. She was sitting astride him lap, his hard cock pressed to her stomach, one hand on her ass and one on her small breast. She was distracted by washing him, so he lazily rolled one nipple to bring her attention back to him.

 

“Well,” She pressed their foreheads together, smiling. “It seems you don’t want to be washed anymore, husband.”

 

“Is the water getting cold for you, wife?” He ran his hand up her neat little waist, kissing below her ear.

 

“No, I’m quite warm.” Sansa hummed when he nibbled an ear lobe. “How is your fragile southern blood?”

 

“Fragile southern blood?” He stood abruptly, taking a squealing Sansa with him, uncaring that water sloshed around them and onto the floor. “I’ll show you how northern my blood has become, wife.”

 

“Alright, alright.” Sansa was laughing. “Put me down, put me down! You—ah!” He tossed her onto the bed, wet, and she pushed herself up, breathless. “Towel!”

 

“Is the northern girl cold?” He asked, folding his arms and Sansa’s gaze was on his cock, even as she outstretched a hand for a towel.

 

“We’re dripping—”

 

“Oh, aye, one of us will be dripping soon enough.” He promised, and Sansa shrieked with glee when he pulled her closer to him. He loved to tease her with his tongue and make her moan, but he didn’t have enough patience tonight. So instead he pulled her still damp body to his, arranging her in his lap.

 

“Sandor.” She gasped, when one hand gently pushed her knees apart and the other pushed her hair away so he could kiss her neck.

 

“Yes, wife?” He muttered, one finger slowly easing into her while his other hand stroked her ribcage. She sighed and leaned back into him, relaxing easily into his arms. He continued his ministrations.

 

“I love you.” She breathed, hands going up behind her and into his hair. She tugged, slightly, and he responded with a light nip at her throat. She kept moaning and squirming, and he found himself grinning.

 

“What would you like?” He crooned softly in her ear and he felt her warmth of her skin when she flushed.

 

“Crook… Crook your finger, like—oh!”

 

“That?” He asked, kissing her temple and Sansa squeaked. He knew she was going to climax before she did, and he thrust his thumb into her mouth before her shouts made Brienne come running. Though the idea amused him, he was certain it would be a disaster for his chance of satisfaction tonight.

 

“Come here.” Sansa ordered a little roughly, drawing him closer to her. She spun so she faced him, and it seemed that tonight was not the night to worry about have to conceive a child. She just wanted him as close to her and be responded by yanking her close and kissing every inch of skin he could as she rode him.

 

“I love you.” He whispered and she was saying it back, between moans and gasps, and the world was perfect in her arms, and he let everything fade away until it was just her, and her voice in his ear.

 

“I love you… I love you… I love you…”

 

Their last day together, Sansa decided that Jon and Dany should do their proper duties and left them to it. She took Sandor to the glass gardens, smiling up at him when they walked inside. He watched her with a smirk, as she let go of his hand and walked around, spreading her arms wide and basking in the weak sunlight.

 

“Why’d you bring me here, wife?” He asked her lovingly and Sansa’s laugh was bright and merry.

 

“This is where you kissed me, do you remember?” She came back to his side, wrapping her arms around him.

 

“Aye.” He kissed the top of her head. “You lied to me, remember? Talking about some other kiss.”

 

“I was mistaken.” Sansa’s voice was sweet. “I did truly believe you kissed me in Kings Landing though.”

 

“Why?” He asked her, genuinely curious. She’d since admitted that she’d made it all up, but she’d never given him an explanation.

 

“I don’t know really.” She said thoughtfully. “I wanted you to. I expected you to. Somewhere, deep down, I knew that I was in love with you. I suppose I made up a romantic story in my head to make it fit.”

 

“I was your romantic fucking story?” He asked her, eyebrows raised high and she gave him a squeeze.

 

“How many times do I have to tell you, yes. You’re always the hero in my stories and songs, Sandor.” She reached up to press a kiss to his lips and he savored the way she tasted, how she felt, everything.

 

“Always, little bird.” He whispered, pulling her closer. “Always and then once more, wife.”

 

“Fine then.” Sansa pulled him so that they were sitting against the wagon that had been left in there. That was they spent most of the morning, sitting and talking, hidden away from the world and anyone who might’ve pulled them. In the end, it was their hunger that made them leave the safe haven.

 

Sansa took sandwiches for them from the cook, and then they took the horses out the Hunter’s Gate, off into the forest. Sansa wanted fresh air before she was locked away, and Sandor wanted the vision of her flame hair streaking through the winter air forever emblazoned in his mind.

 

They had to sit through a feast with the men. Jon was giving everyone a final night of good food and warm beds, and Sansa held tightly to his hand the entire time. At their first opportunity to leave, Sansa rose, said her goodnights, and pulled Sandor away from the Great Hall behind her, straight to their chambers.

 

She undressed them both without a single word and he simply watched her. He would never be sick of watching her, the way she moved, the tiniest details of her. She wore a simple white shift and she looked up at him, a sad smile on her face and a brush in her hand, outstretched towards him.

 

“What’s this?” He asked, looking at it in confusion.

 

“Will you brush my hair?” Sansa asked him quietly. “My mother always did, when I was a girl. 100 strokes before bed, until it gleamed. I just… Could you?”

 

“Of course.” He said instantly, taking the brush from her. They sat on the bed, Sansa’s back to him. He hesitantly ran the brush through the last couple inches of her hair and Sansa paused before her shoulders betrayed her with a tiny shake.

 

“What are you doing?” She asked, smothering her laughter and he grunted in protest against her amusement.

 

“How the fuck should I know how to brush your hair?” He demanded. “I’ve never fucking done this before!”

 

“I know, I know.” She said soothingly. “You start at the top. You go gently, but don’t be scared to pull a little. It’s not going to hurt me that bad or anything. Just gentle to start, and then once you have most of the tangles out, it should become smoother.”

 

“Fucking brushing a woman’s hair, when the fuck would a cunt like me do that?” He muttered, mostly to himself, and Sansa chose to ignore him in favor of silently watching the flames, fiddling with her fingers.

 

It was oddly soothing, he would admit, brushing her hair. The red strands quickly became like silk in his hands, and eventually it was smooth enough that he could run the brush through in one long stroke and have no resistance. Fascinated at how calming the repetitive motion was, he carried on until Sansa gently got his attention.

 

“Sandor… Would you like me to do the same to you?” She asked him, turning and taking the brush from him.

 

“Me?” He looked at her in confusion and she shifted so that she was sitting behind him. He didn’t protest when she started running the brush through his hair, though it took a considerable amount of time to get it smooth. He closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation on his scalp.

 

“I hope our children have your hair.” Sansa said softly, once the brush ran through smooth black hair.

 

“Why is that, little bird?” He asked, nearly dozing. He tried to rouse himself, but she had put him in such a state of contentment he was finding it hard to lift his arms. “I love your hair, you know that.”

 

“I know, but it’s Tully colors.”  Sansa reminded him, nuzzling into his chest. “Black hair is northern hair.”

 

“That’s what they’ll be, no matter the fucking color of their hair.” He informed her, wrapping his arms around her and reclining back. “I want them to be Stark’s, Sansa. I don’t want my name carrying on.”

 

“I can ask Jon.” Sansa kissed below his ear. “If it’s alright with you, I’m sure he’ll grant us that. But Sandor… Do you really want House Clegane to die out?”

 

“Fuck yes.” He said firmly. “Fuck my house, my words, my colors, my everything Sansa. The sooner my brother dies, the sooner everything that is tied to the name Clegane can fucking die as well.”

 

“Will you have to kill him?” Sansa asked him quietly and he shifted, slightly uncomfortable. He couldn’t lie to her, but he didn’t want to give her the answer he knew she’d be dreading so badly.

 

“Aye, little bird.” He said heavily. “It has to be me.”

 

“Arya will kill Cersei.” Sansa’s voice was soft, but it carried the same deadly undercurrent to it that he’d heard when she spoke about killing Ramsey and Littlefinger. “She’ll poison her or stab her or slit her throat, it doesn’t matter. Cersei will die. How will you kill your brother, my husband?”

 

“However the fuck he can die.” Sandor told her. He hadn’t gotten around to thinking on how he’d kill Gregor yet, mainly because he wasn’t sure Gregor could die. “Fire, most likely. Burn him.” The words sparked the familiar rage that had been simmering in him since he was a small boy, trying to heal from the worst hurt of his entire life.

 

“Who else is there?” Sansa questioned, and he opened one eye to look at her. In the light of the dying fire, her features were resolute.

 

“Who else… What?” He asked slowly, not understanding. With no more emotion than a flicker of fury, Sansa uttered,

 

“Who else is there for us to kill?”

 

“Ah.” He gave her shoulder a light squeeze, but there were no flowery words he could give her, no way to make her back into the innocent maiden she once was. She was a warrior bride now, a queen cut from ice. “Who are our enemies?”

 

“Yes.” Sansa’s fingers threaded through his. “Arya will kill Ilyn Payne as well, I know she will. You kill your brother Sandor, and then we can make sure we are safe, together, from any other enemies who try to hurt us.”

 

“I won’t let anything happen to you.” He promised her, drawing her close and kissing the top of her head. “Not a fucking thing, you hear me? No one will hurt you, not when they know what I’d do to them. Or you.”

 

“Or Arya.” Sansa’s smile was smile, but there all the same. “I love you, my husband. Be sure to come back to me.”

 

“Aye.” He gave her another kiss, but his heart couldn’t give her a lie, so he stayed quiet and held her tightly.

 

When the day of the march came, Sansa’s face was wane and she said nothing. Sandor, unsure of how to do this, simply stood beside her. Around them men were leaving, while two young boys held the horses for the riders. Sansa took her time saying goodbye to everyone, starting with Dany.

 

“Your grace, I wish for safety for you and your dragons.” Sansa said politely, embracing Dany’s forearms. “If there is anything we can do, you need only send for us. Safe travels to you and yours.”

 

“And you, Lady Stark.” Dany responded, a thin smile. “Keep watch over the north for us. We will do our best.”

 

“Thank you.” Sansa inclined her head and Dany left with her advisors. Sansa turned to Davos, who gave her a small, sad smile. He took her hand and gave it a chaste kiss, before patting it lightly.

 

“I hope to see you again, Lady Stark.” He said solemnly and Sansa’s lips trembled but she managed a smile.

 

“And you. Thank you, Davos, thank you for everything.” She said softly and he gave her a nod, before mounting his horse and departing. That left Sansa with Jon and Sandor. She looked between the two of them and Sandor gave her a small nod. She turned to Jon, who opened his arms.

 

“Be safe.” Jon muttered and Sansa just hung tighter to him. For a long moment, they were still and then they broke apart, holding each other at arm’s length. Sansa scanned his face as if to memorize it and hold it fixedly in her mind.

 

“And you.” She said quietly and then Jon looked around Winterfell, before turning to her with a small smile.

 

“This was meant for you.” He said softly. “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell. You were always meant to lead the north Sansa.”

 

“And you were meant to save it.” Sansa gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Go, before you can’t leave.”

 

“Goodbye then, sister.” He said, mounting his horse.

 

“Goodbye then, brother.” Sansa watched him go. Sandor knew then that it was time for his final goodbye and he moved forward, taking her hand. Sansa refused to look at him, staring up at the grey sky. Snow threatened, but it didn’t fall yet. Gently, he reached up and took her chin, turning her towards him.

 

“Little bird.” He said quietly. “Listen to me now, will you? Listen to me, I have something to tell you.”

 

“What?” Tears were threatening on her cheeks but she kept resolutely avoiding his eyes, to the left or to the right.

 

“I see things, in the fire.” He told her and her gaze snapped to him, her mouth falling open slightly. Whatever she’d been expecting, that certainly hadn’t been that.

 

“You what?”

 

“See things in the fire. It happened before we went north, and it happened again when I was coming to you.” He said quickly. Sansa blinked several times, as though her mind couldn’t catch up to what he was saying.

 

“You what?”

 

“Listen to me.” He said urgently, taking her shoulders firmly. “I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I don’t know fucking much Sansa, but I know that I love you more than anything in this godforsaken world, you understand me? Anything. And I’ve gone off to war god knows how many fucking times, but this time I will fight to come home. You are my everything, you understand?”

 

“Yes.” She whispered. “What did you see in the fire Sandor, was it—”

 

“Hush.” He pulled her into a tight hug, gently rocking her back and forth. “Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you stay here, safe. You don’t go anywhere without Brienne, understand me? You hear anything about me, you don’t fucking come for me, you don’t try to get to me. Nothing that puts you in danger, get it?” He felt the terror and desperation slip into his voice, even as Stranger stamped his feet impatiently.

 

“I do.” Sansa’s tears fell down, freely and he kissed them away.

 

“No crying now little bird. It won’t be long, I promise. You stay here. You stay safe. I’ll look for you in the flames, my maid of autumn.” He kissed the top of her head gently, trying to remember exactly how she felt, exactly how she was. Then he pulled back and took her face in, one last time.

 

“I love you.” She told him. “I have since I was a girl, since I knew what love really was. And I will love you until the end of my time, and no others.”

 

“Aye.” He said, practically chocked. “Aye, little bird, and I you.”

 

He mounted Stranger and rode out of Winterfell, feeling something inside him snap and break with every step away from her.

Chapter Text

By all the stupid gods above, and all the fucking hells below, he wanted to go home. He wanted to go back to Winterfell, which was home now, in the strangest of ways. The second son of a kennel master, from the Westerlands, who called Winterfell home. It was enough to make anyone’s head spin. 

 

They’d been at war, non-stop, for what felt like years. Of course, it’d only been months, but that didn’t stop him from grumbling and complaining that it’d been years. The rest of Jon’s men, Tormund, Devlyn, the like, teased him fiercely for his desire to go home to his ‘young wife’ as they all called her, but he didn’t care. He missed his little bird, utterly and fiercely, enough to make his heart hurt.

 

He thought of her constantly. Walking through camp, talking amongst the men. He’d be reminded of the way she had talked to them, how she made even the lowliest foot solider feel valued, important, special. She had a knack for connecting with anyone. He thought of her when he wore his cloak and the clothes she’d made him. Sometimes he would stare at the little red bird and will it to be her.

 

He thought of her when he was with Jon, solemn strong Jon who led their men and never once flinched away from his duty. He thought of her when he was with Tormund, who seemed both astonished and bewildered as to how Sandor had wound up with a beautiful girl like Sansa, the maiden kissed by fire. Sandor had knocked him out for that quip, and then again when Tormund demanded Sansa come and bring Brienne with her.

 

And he thought of her at night, when he was alone in his tent with an empty bed and a lonely fist. He wondered if she knew how many times he’d gotten himself off imagining her. He wondered, thrilling, if she did the same alone back in Winterfell. It was the only thing that got him through the long separation.

 

Now, they were riding home. Victory, if they could call it that, still evaded them. The Night King was nowhere to be found. His armies pressed forward and surged, kept in the barest means of containment with Dany’s dragons and traps set by the pryomancers meant to drive them back, to provide protection for the living.

 

But fighting an army that needed no sleep, no food, no shelter, wasn’t easy. Dany could burn whole armies down, but more would rise after the battle. They killed White Walkers, but there was no point until the Night King could be fought and defeated. Bran hadn’t sent word. They needed time to regroup, to plan and focus while not freezing to death. Winterfell would be good, and warm, and safe. For a time. 

 

And gods, did he miss his wife. His mouth quirked into a half smile at that thought as Stranger walked down the frozen path. His wife. He could call her that for all time, and he’d still never be used to it. The beautiful girl with the red flaming hair. The pretty little songbird. His beautiful wife. 

 

They crested a ridge and there stood Winterfell, it’s now familiar towers illuminated by the icy grey sky. It spread before them, a welcoming beacon of hope. Somewhere inside, he knew, was Sansa. Jon, on his left, glanced at him. Sandor looked back and held Jon’s eye for a long moment. 

 

“Go.” Jon uttered. He nodded and spurred Stranger towards the castle, urging him faster and faster until he was practically frothing. His heart stopped when the gates opened and in he rode. He had a heart pounding moment of fear that the last months were but a dream, and he was nothing here. He was swinging off Stranger when he spotted naught but a streak of red, hurtling towards him. 

 

“Sandor!” She was in his arms before his boots even touched the ground and he was holding her close, as close as he could, because she was here, she was with him again. He inhaled and she was the same as before; she smelled of milk soap and the tartness of winter, like horses and the kitchens. Like the Lady of Winterfell. Like his wife.

 

“Ah, little bird.” He pressed kisses to the top of her head, his insides coming back together as though they had been broken apart for the last months. He had a sudden understanding of what it meant to be complete again. “Ah, my wife.” 

 

“Where’s Jon, the rest?” She demanded, leaning back and taking in his face. He drank the sight of her in. Her eyes, the fantastic blues. The skin, pale, but with rosy cheeks and a healthy glow. Her lips, full and trembling, wavering between beaming and crying. She’d gotten ravens of their dead when they could, but he knew she feared the news that wouldn’t reach her in time. Who wouldn’t return.

 

“Coming.” Her face crumpled in relief. He could tell her, later, of those they’d lost. For right now, he wanted to kiss her senseless, and take her to bed like he’d desired for every single night they’d been apart. She took a step back, beaming while holding his hand, and he nearly fell over in the snow. 

 

What he’d taken to just be a bulky dress or a cloak meant to keep her warm in the frosty winter air, was something else entirely. Sansa, always so long and thin and delicate and oh so very small, had a very distinctive bump, a rounded mound that jutted out from below her ribs. There was no mistaking what it was.

 

Sandor was a warrior and soldier. He was a killer. But he was no idiot and he knew a pregnant woman when he saw one.

 

“Make sure food is ready when they arrive— and fires, light the fires—” Sansa was giving orders to everyone around, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was staring at her belly. “And ready the hall, they’ll need a war room, and beds, make sure that the rooms are turned down and ready, and—” 

 

“My lady.” One maid had noticed the astonished staring of Sandor and timidly cut her off. Sansa frowned, but when the maid raised a finger to point to her husband, Sansa turned to look at him quizzically. 

 

“Sansa.” He whispered, in astonishment and a pale white hand flirted down to rest on her belly. He had nothing but shock running through his veins. That could not be what he thought it was. It simply couldn’t be. It didn’t make any sense. It was Sansa, with a baby. With a child. With his child? He’d known, on some level, she may have wanted one, but this somehow made it real.

 

“Oh.” A bubble of laughter burst from her lips. She seemed unconcerned by it, except for the fact that her husband looked like he might collapse in the yard in front of everyone. “Yes. Come, husband.” She took his hands, patting them in what he was sure she thought was a comforting gesture.

 

“Sansa!” He wanted to dig his heels in and protest, to stand outside and yell at her to explain, but she was tugging him inside. He vaguely saw Brienne as she watched them pass, grinning and waving. 

 

“Tend to the horses.” Sansa was still giving orders to whoever passed them, and they scrambled to do as told. He was led along beside her, dazed, like an obedient pup on a rope. Sansa pulled him to what had been his room, but had since become their room, clearly. Her things littered the place, over the chairs and tables. The door was hardly shut and she was kissing him, hard, and greedy. 

 

He needed no further encouragement. All of his focus went south, as months of separation and need made him desperate. A little clumsily, he shed his armor, and helped her with her cloak and her dress. She was already moaning in his hands, whispering his name and pulling his hair. He had her in bed, naked, when he opened his eyes to see her face and remembered why they were here.

 

"Sansa!"

 

“You’re hurt.” Sansa was fussing over his wounds, half healed as they were. He’d taken an odd assortment of them over the courses of battles and such, but none of that seemed important to him anymore. 

 

“And you’re pregnant!” The words burst from him and he was instantly apprehensive. That wasn’t how he wanted to say it. He wanted to do it better. Softer. Sweeter. Kinder. More loving, more fitting with what he felt. But he had no clue that emotion was. To her credit, Sansa looked up at him and smiled. 

 

“Aye.” She attempted to mimic his brogue and he frowned at her for a moment. “Did you not know that’s what happened between a man and a wife?” She looked at him, utterly calm at this change of plans.

 

“I… Did.” He was flustered. Of course he knew; he was a grown man after all. But this was something much different when it was his Sansa. “I didn’t know… We talked… You said… Children!” 

 

“I told you I wasn’t sure it would happen.” Sansa placed her hand on her stomach and took one of his, placing it beside hers. He watched, mystified, as something moved beneath him. It was almost alien, the way Sansa’s skin shifted and bulged. “I’m sure now. I’m sure there is nothing more that I want than our child.” 

 

“Our child.” He said the words as though mystified by them. He was to have a child? One that was his own? Not a bastard born to a whore, but a trueborn child with his wife. Sansa, the highborn lady, carrying a baby that was to be theirs together. “Boy or girl?” He demanded suddenly. That seemed like an important thing.

 

Boys had to fight. He’d told her that long ago, that her sons would be killers. He hadn’t known then that he’d meant their sons would be killers, because no child with Clegane blood could avoid it. But girls had to be even stronger. They had to survive the men who wished them ill. Men like Joffrey, like his brother. He could train his boys, raise them to fight. But he was helpless to protect a girl.

 

“The old wives tell me girl.” Sansa looked up at him, with a note of alarm. “Is that alright? They could be wrong, you know, they can never be certain until—” He cut her off with a deep kiss and she melted beneath him, moaning softly into his mouth. 

 

He didn’t care about the gender at all. It could’ve been a raven, for all he cared. It was their child. His. A baby. Sansa had wanted to carry one of his. He knew there was ways a woman could avoid getting pregnant, or end one that had already begun. Sansa hadn’t. She’d chosen him.

 

“A little bird, as beautiful as her mother.” He muttered. “A sweet little girl. May they all be girls, and never grow up to know death or pain.” And he would be there to protect Sansa and their children until the very end.

 

“Girls can be killers too.” Sansa reminded and he bent low to kiss her belly. 

 

“Not her.” He whispered. “She’ll be a damned angel like her mother and she’ll never know anything but love. I will promise her that.” He’d fight a war just to give her that. He’d never stop fighting. 

 

“Gods, I hope she’s like you.” Sansa told him, still inspecting his wounds, seeing if there were any that needed tending. 

 

“Me?” He looked at her in disbelief and Sansa, now satisfied that he wasn’t too injured to engage in activities with her, beamed. He was stunned and apprehensive. She was kidding, she had to be. Anyone would only want Sansa in their child. He was a monster and brute, good for one thing only.  

 

“Smart, and honest, and true. I don’t want her to be beautiful. I want her to be strong. I want her to see the world for what it is, and I want her to know much her mother and father love her.” Sansa said quietly, her hand pressed to the little bulge beneath her ribcage. He stared at it and wondered how the hell he loved this little thing, this idea, nearly as much as he loved his wife. 

 

“She will.” He swallowed a lump and bent to kiss her slowly. He tried to speak all the words he could not say with that kiss. “She will know so much love, she won’t know there’s anything else in the world.” 

 

“Show me.” Sansa’s eyes were dark with desire now and her hands went to tangle into his hair. “Show me love, my husband.” 

 

“Will I hurt you?” His hands ghosted over the swell of her belly once more, concerned, and Sansa laughed, a beautiful sound, and he couldn’t resist the urge to kiss her again. He’d missed her, this wonderful woman of his. He wanted her, badly.

 

“You won’t. This isn’t the first child to be born Sandor.” She ran a hand across his long hair. He was dirty from travel, and worn from fighting, but he would not be anywhere else. He wouldn’t wait for another moment.

 

“First for me.” He grunted and Sansa laughed, opening her mouth to say something but his control was gone. He bent down to kiss her, hard, and rolled so she was astride him. He was sitting up, and the new vantage point brought to his attention that her body had changed in more subtle ways that just her swollen belly.

 

She was glowing, lit from within with her happiness. He hadn’t seen her so radiant, so happy, since the journey south when she still had a father and a fair-haired prince to marry. A blush covered her cheeks as she saw the way he was looking her over and it only served to add to her allure.

 

“Does my lord husband like what he sees?” She asked, a mixture of seduction and genuine worry.

 

“Sansa, I…” He trailed off, his hands trailing over her breasts. They were bigger now and he stared at them in slight amazement. He’d thought she’d always had the most perfect breasts, but somehow they only kept improving. He brushed a kiss over one, just to feel the nipple stiffen. “Will you keep…”

 

“What, getting fatter?” Sansa tossed her hair over her shoulder so that not an inch of her creamy white skin was covered before him.

 

“Not fat.” He protested, holding tight to her hips. Even those had seemed to widen slightly. He held her new form in the palm of his hand, vowing to memorize it before Jon dragged him away north again.

 

“Not fat?” Sansa laughed slightly. “Sandor, I’m only going to keep getting wider and wider, and when the—”

 

“Not fat.” He cut her off with a kiss. “You’re having a baby Sansa. I’ve never loved you more than this damned moment, right here.”

 

“Really?” Sansa was wide eyed in surprise, but he decided there would be time for sweet words and loving talks later. Right now, his cock was pounding and if he didn’t get relief he felt it might burst.

 

“Yes really.” He said a little roughly, reaching a hand between them, towards the apex of Sansa’s thighs. She instantly went taunt, as he caressed her slowly, all the way from her clit to her opening, a couple smooth, long strokes.

 

“Sandor.” She whispered, one hand clutching his shoulder tightly. He gritted his teeth to keep his calm and kept stroking, wiling her wetness to come.

 

“Did you dream of me, little bird?” He asked her, to take his mind off of the torture that was patience.

 

“So often, yes.” She gasped, as he eased just one finger ever so slightly into her. “Every night I dreamt.”

 

“Of what?” He coaxed her, feeling the proof of her arousal on his fingers. That made it easier to wait, thinking of her face when he would give her pleasure.

 

“You and me in… In… In… Our marriage bed.” Her eyes were closed, the blush on her cheeks building.

 

“Did you want me, wife?”

 

“So badly.” She whispered. “So very badly. I ached for you Sandor, I needed you to touch me again.”

 

“Did the little bird do it to herself?” He asked her and her eyes snapped open, looking at him in shock. “Oh, don’t give me that fucking septa trained scorn. I thought of you every night, wife, when I pulled my cock out to have my pleasure. I thought of you, just like this, and it made me come.”

 

“I’m glad it did not freeze.” Sansa teased, with a pointed look at his lap where he remained painfully hard. For the jab, he gave one of her nipples a tweak and she gave a little squeak of surprise and delight.

 

“It didn’t freeze, aye, it’s perfectly ready for you.” He growled and Sansa pushed his hand away, even though he hadn’t given her what she was likely begging for.

 

“I’m ready for you.” She said, by way of explanation. “There’s time for that later, Sandor. Right now I want you. I need you.”

 

“You stop me if—” He went to warn her against hurting her, the baby, whatever it was, but Sansa had grabbed him and sunk down atop him slowly but steadily. For a second, he saw nothing but black, heard nothing but his long moan. He managed only one strangled word. “Fuck.”

 

“I wanted this.” Sansa was whispering in his ear, laying kissing on him between words. “I wanted you inside me, I wanted this. I needed this. I needed you. Please Sandor, show me love.”

 

“Aye.” He whispered back and then began to gently pump into her. Sansa was on her knees and she could control the angle and depth. She leaned forward to kiss him again, pressing her body to his and then stayed that way, her nails digging into his shoulder blades. He moved a little faster and Sansa’s breath hitched.

 

“Oh.” She sounded a little surprised, the way he was doing it and he went faster. “Oh, oh, gods, Sandor, !—” With a little cry, she clutched him close, biting his shoulder to keep her screams from echoing down the stone halls.

 

The way her body pulsed around him was overwhelming. It was heaven, the way her hips bucked and her breasts bounced, but it was how she felt around his cock, so tight and nearly gripping him, that had him ready to finish.

 

“Fuck, little bird.” He groaned into her chest, feeling his release building. “Fuck, you… God, fucking hell, you!”

 

“I did touch myself.” She whispered-admitted into his ear. “I thought of you and I did, but it’s so much better when it really is you.”

 

“Fuck woman!” His body responded to her words by peaking and it was all he could do to hold on and thrust into her, trying to hold onto some semblance of control. It was otherworldly, this act with her, and he wondered why at all men bothered with gods when they had women to worship.

 

“I love you.” She was cooing as he panted and relaxed, limp and buzzing with delight. She pushed her hair back to kiss his scarred cheek. “Oh, I do love you, my husband. More than anything.”

 

“More than this thing?” He asked her, cupping her stomach and she rolled off him with a little smile.  

 

“That thing is partly you, so I would think you draw even. Besides, there is still a few long months to go before you or I meet this thing.” Sansa smiled down at the little bump and spoke to it like it could hear her. “Isn’t that right? You stay safe and warm in there, and come out when your father and I are ready.”

 

“When will that be?” He asked her quietly, thinking of all the fighting there was left to do. Sansa looked up him and this smile was less joyous, grimmer.

 

“The maester thinks I’m only a few months away from giving birth. You could stay, be here for the birth, and…” She trailed off, not bothering to give voice to hopeless plans. He could offer her no comfort but a pat to the hand.

 

“All else is well?” He asked her, hoping to bring her mind off the fact that she would give birth alone.

 

“As it can be.” Sansa was frowning. “Arya hasn’t sent word from Kings Landing, but I didn’t expect her to. My reports still say that Cersei is acting rather Cersei-ish, which means that either Arya is a quick study or she’s still working to get access to Cersei. Bran was detoured in the Neck for a time, something about a girl named Meera and her father? He’s almost to the Gods Eye now, so we can only hope that…” She trailed off before turning back to him, some panic back in her blue eyes.

 

“Everyone is alright, little bird.” He assured her. Except it wasn’t and when he gave her the names and stories of the dead, he had to hold her as she wept.

 

Beric had finally given his last life to take down a dozen White Walkers. With no red priest to bring him back, he had fallen one last time. Jon himself had plunged the flaming sword into him so that he would not be brought back by the dead.

 

Davos had died protecting Jon. He had refused to let anything happen to his king, and Jon had wept for him. They all had. He’d done his duty until the last, and their biggest regret was that they had no boat to burn him in. They had wanted to have him die as he had lived, but there was no time for such in the war.

 

Then there were the others. Unsullied leaders, Dothraki horse lords, lords and men-at-arms that had become close during their march and battles. He’d seen Yves Crewyn cut down and felt remorse for the man. He’d seen Great Shield torn to pieces and wanted to rage against the world. For all that Dany burned, for all that they killed, it didn’t stop the good in their ranks from dying as well.

 

Once Sansa had cried her tears out, she dried her eyes and rose. She cleaned herself up, ordered a basin of water for him so he could wash up, and then gave him a tired, but still happy, kiss.

 

“I need to go to the kitchens.” She told him. “Make sure it’s all in order for Jon’s arrival. I’ll be in the hall. Join me?”

 

“Aye.” He kissed her cheek and gave her a pat on the butt when she went by. The glowing pink on her cheeks kept his smiling even when she left. He got himself as cleaned up as he could without a proper bath, chuckling to himself and wondering when he’d become accustomed to proper baths.

 

When he was finished he changed his clothes and went for the hall, whistling a familiar tune. The walls and yards were far emptier than they had been before he’d left, but he knew Sansa was sending away everyone that she could. But not herself, never herself. She was the Stark in Winterfell.

 

He found her in the hall, being the lady. She ordered flagons of wine and ale be sent every which way, discussed where the lords would sit as to not be offended, and generally shaped the chaos into something that was managed. He sat back, perfectly content to simply watch her work. 

 

“Sansa!” Jon yelled when he strode into the great hall and Sansa turned, beaming, Sandor at her side. Jon stopped at the sight of her, or rather at the sight of her dress, which clung tightly enough to show the bump of her pregnancy now that she’d thrown off her cloak and outer layers.

 

“Jon.” She took a few steps towards him, but he was staring at the bump in astonishment. Tormund, walking past, noted it and said, loudly without breaking stride, 

 

“See, he knows where to put it.” 

 

“She’s my sister!” Jon huffed and Sandor wasn’t sure if it was directed at him, Tormund, or Sansa herself. He still hadn’t advanced a step closer, despite Sansa’s opened arms and baleful look. 

 

“She’s my wife.” Sandor reminded him, because he could, and Jon glared. Sandor smirked and took a drink from the draft of ale he’d managed to filch.

 

“It’s what happens between a man and wife Jon.” Sansa’s eyes sparkled and she embraced him., squeezing him tightly. Jon looked extremely displeased, even as he hugged her back fiercely 

 

“You can’t go until it’s been born.” Dany declared, standing behind Jon and smiling slightly for once. “It needs to meet its uncle.” 

 

“And its father.” Sansa held tightly to Jon’s hand and Sandor wished there was something he could do to stop the panic that flashed through her eyes. 

 

“The men deserve rest, and good food.” Jon admitted, patting Sansa’s shoulder. “And I need my own bed.” 

 

“Of course.” Sansa kissed his cheek. “The hall will be ready shortly for you and your lords, brother. Would you like me to have the maids draw you a bath before we sup with the lords tonight?” 

 

“Not yet.” Jon pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing. “We need to regroup.” 

 

“Alright.” Sansa gave Sandor a lingering kiss on his cheek. “I’ll go see to the kitchen.” She left, and Brienne glanced between the two of them. 

 

“What?” Jon asked her. 

 

“Next time, take me with you.” Brienne ordered. “She’s got me sewing baby clothes. It’s impossible.” 

 

“Not a chance.” Jon said immediately while Sandor considered it. “I’ll not have you out there in battle while she’s alone here. Sansa pregnant during a damned war is bad enough!” As if remembering his anger, he rounded on Sandor. 

 

“What?” Sandor tore his gaze from where Sansa had gone. He’d been thinking about a bath, and hoping his wife would join him. 

 

“Did you do that?” Jon demanded and Sandor snorted. 

 

“Well, if it was anyone else, he’d be dead.” 

 

“She’s my sister!” 

 

“My wife.” Sandor played his highest card with a smirk and Brienne looked between the two of them, amused. Jon seemed to struggle to come up with a coherent argument, and once he’d failed, he sighed. 

 

“Gods.” With that he stalked away. Brienne glanced at him then back at Sandor, an amused smile still lingering. 

 

“Talk him into taking me, will you? Pod’s nicely trained, and he and Sansa get on well enough now.” 

 

“No, I don’t think I will.” He said, allowing himself a smirk. “You can stay here and teach my child to use a needle.” Brienne clearly comprehended his meaning and to his surprise, she actually laughed. 

 

“Sansa wouldn’t like that.” She said thoughtfully, walking with him towards the rest of the lords. 

 

“Sansa married me.” He reminded her, and Brienne paused. 

 

“Then maybe she does want her children to be warriors.” 

 

“She thinks this one is a girl.” His voice was unexpectedly tender, and Brienne twisted to look back at him. “I hope it is, with her mother’s hair.” 

 

“I’ll protect them both, if you go north again.” Brienne promised him. 

 

“Thank you.” He said quietly. 

 

“But I won’t sew anymore baby clothes.” She vowed. 

 

“Good.” He snorted. “My child might get the burden of my fucking looks, they won’t need to be dressed in such garments. Adds insult to injury.” 

 

Her shout of protest followed him out of the hall. 

Chapter Text

Few men were stupid, or brave, enough to comment on Sansa’s state to his face directly. Except Devlyn, who gave him a tired smile, shook his hand, and warned him that he was in for it now. He, and Tormund, who found him before they ate and laughed raucously. Sandor glared at him while Tormund hooted and hollered.

 

“A woman like that, carrying your fucking child?” The idea seemed to amused Tormund to no end. “How did you do it, Clegane? Witchcraft? Sorcery? Teach me.”

 

“You’ll fuck off, if you know what’s good for you.” Sandor warned him, going through the armory, seeing what weapons they had left and what would need mending, now that they had Winterfell’s forges once more.

 

“I just want to know.” Tormund was the vision of innocence. “Tell me, Clegane. You once said you hated gingers, but that’s not fucking true, now is it?”

 

“Cunt.” Sandor drew his sword and aimed it at his throat, but Tormund batted it away with nothing more than a chuckle.

 

“Clever man.” He waggled him finger at him. “And under King Jon’s very nose, eh? His own fucking sister!” Hooting, Tormund left. Brienne, headed for the armory, gave him a wide berth. A smile came to Sandor’s face, unbidden, when he recalled his conversation with Tormund beyond the wall.

 

“Aye?” He asked Brienne, once she was within hearing range.

 

“Sansa wanted me to tell you that you will dine alone with her and Jon tonight in her solar. She’s said there’s a bath for you and before you ask—” Brienne went as red as a Lannister banner and averted her eyes but got her next words out clear enough. “No, she won’t be able to join you in it.”

 

“Shame.” Sandor enjoyed Brienne’s discomfort for a long moment. “Right then.” He went back for the keep, and Brienne fell in step with him. They cut a path through the yard, and the incoming men gave them space and respectful nods.

 

“Have you heard from him?” Brienne asked him quietly, once they were back within the keep’s wall. Sandor didn’t need to ask who she was referring to.

 

“If you haven’t gotten a bird here, we sure as bloody hell haven’t gotten one in the fucking wilds.” He told her and Brienne’s face flashed with anger for a moment, then faded away just as quickly.

 

“Right. I wondered if you’d…” Brienne let it go, falling silent. Sandor let it be for a moment, then cursed himself and asked,

 

“I’d what?”

 

“Seen things.” Brienne said, without looking at him. “In the fire. Sansa said you… You could see things.”

 

“Fuck, Sansa.” He sighed. It wouldn’t do for everyone thinking him a damned mystic and try to use him to spy on lovers and worse. “Listen, I can’t fucking use it like a mirror Brienne, and I don’t control what shit I see, I—”

 

“Alright.” Brienne cut him off. “Alright, alright, I understand. I just wanted to check on him, that’s all.”

 

“Why?” He asked her, genuinely curious.

 

“Why what?” Brienne gave him a look.

 

“Do you give a fuck?” Sandor asked her and Brienne seemed incapable of speech for a moment before she answered,

 

“He’s my friend.”

 

“Aye and that’s all he’ll fucking be.” Sandor opened a door for her and Brienne stepped through it with a frown. “He won’t ever want you.”

 

“He doesn’t have to.” Brienne said stiffly. “I don’t expect—”

 

“Aye, you do.” He gave her a look, and suddenly his words were those of Jamie. “I know what it’s fucking like to love someone you’ll never have.”

 

“Well,” Brienne said tartly. “You did marry her.”

 

“By the grace of the fucking gods,” He agreed. “And no small fucking miracle. But Brienne, he’s in love with his sister.”

 

“He left his sister.” Brienne hissed, and he gave her a sad pat on the shoulder.

 

“He did.” He admitted. “But you’re more than the fucking woman who made Jamie Lannister a better man. Find a man who sees that.”

 

“Fuck men.” Brienne said flatly and Sandor chuckled as he opened the door to his chambers and left her in the hall.

 

He was just rinsing the soap from his hair when the door opened, and a frowning Sansa appeared in the doorway, frowning. He smiled lazily at her, but her look of disapproval didn’t budge.

 

“You upset Brienne.” She informed him.

 

“She fucking killed me once.” He reminded Sansa, who rolled her eyes and uncrossed her arms, fixing him with a look.

 

“No more giving love advice to Brienne.” She ordered.

 

“Fine,” He agreed easily. “Now get over here.”

 

“The water is cold and dirty, I’m not getting in.” Sansa warned him, but came nonetheless, smiling.

 

“Alright.” He whispered, reaching for her belly. He kissed the growing bump, still mystified that inside her was a child. “Hello, little bird’s littler bird.”

 

“Say hello to your papa.” Sansa said softly, rubbing her stomach gently. “Say hello to him, that’s your father.”

 

“Your mother is telling me what to do.” He told the bump, ignoring Sansa’s snort of laughter. “I can’t tell Brienne to give up Jamie fucking Lannister, apparently.”

 

“I think it’s good advice, so you know.” Sansa told him, kissing the top of his head, before going to get a towel.

 

“Do you?” He looked at her in surprise, rising from the water.

 

“I do.” Sansa said stoutly. “You just don’t deliver it with a lot of tact is all.”

 

“Tact.” He rolled his eyes. “You didn’t fucking marry me for tact, little bird.”

 

“I know.” Sansa’s eyes danced. “I married you for other things, my husband.” Her hand darted out, quick as lightening, to cup his cock and balls. He exhaled his breath, hard, but she was already striding away.

 

“You’re in for it tonight, wife!” He called after her, before going to get his clothes. Once he was dressed he went for Jon’s solar, shaking his wet hair out and wondering if Sansa would brush it like she had before he’d left. Soft voices were coming from within, so he figured Sansa was talking with her brother and strode in without knocking.

 

To his surprise, it was not Jon and Sansa sitting near the fire, drinking watered down wine and talking animatedly. It was Sansa and Dany, chatting like fish wives, two close friends. Dany even had her hand on Sansa’s bump and was smiling at her while Sansa laughed and gestured, while saying loudly—

 

“—And the size of their father!”

 

“And what of me, wife?” He asked loudly and both women turned. Dany quickly retracted her hand and schooled her features back into something more neutral, but Sansa rose, smiling, and kissed him on both cheeks before seating him near the fire as well.

 

“I was just talking with Her Grace about sons and daughters, and what I as a mother wish for my child.” She poured him wine.

 

“Which is?” He chanced asking and Sansa gave a small laugh.

 

“If they are sons, I hope they have my wisdom and your size.” Sansa’s eyes danced mischievously. “So I will never lose them.”

 

“All they need then is your bloody hair.” He told her roughly, casting a suspicious look at Dany. She was eyeing Sansa’s belly with something that he thought might’ve been envy, but that didn’t make any sense.

 

“As long as they are heathy.” Sansa said, and to his surprise, she reached out and patted Dany’s hand. The silver haired queen gave her a sad smile. “You’ll be welcome to visit him or her, as much as you’d like.”

 

“Thank you.” Dany said softly and Sandor looked at his wife in astonishment, before Jon entered the room.

 

“There they are.” His smile was genuine, as were Sansa and Dany’s when they rose to greet him. Sandor saw that he still seemed to be receiving a cold shoulder from Jon, and he had to chuckle as he sat beside Sansa.

 

“Dany was just telling me about pregnancy and what I might expect.” Sansa told him, her hand going to clasp Sandor’s. Dany’s smile grew sadder as Sandor looked at her in surprise. He hadn’t known she’d ever been pregnant.

 

“It might be a little easier to do when you’re not on horseback.” She told Sansa, who smiled. He wondered, as the maids brought in their food, if anything bonded women together more than their children.

 

As they ate they talked about the war, and the battles. Sandor had given Sansa the overview, but Jon and Dany spoke on the strategy, on the tactics of it. They talked about supplies, and food, and weapons. They talked about everything except the Stark siblings that were missing, and the unborn child. Until finally quiet fell as they finished the meal, and Sansa gave Sandor a knowing look before turning to Jon.

 

“Alright, Jon.” She said, not unkindly. “Let’s talk about this baby, shall we?”  

 

“What of it?” Jon took a long drink of his wine and Dany looked at Sansa with a small smile that clearly spoke to something Sansa understood. She smiled and gave a wiggle of her eyebrows, as if to agree.

 

“I want it to be a Stark.” Sansa said softly and both Dany and Jon’s gazes instantly swung to him, eyebrows flying up. He took a measured drink. “Jon, you’re a Stark through your mother, and no less a Stark than me or Bran or Arya.”

 

“I’ve never taken the name Stark.” Jon reminded her coolly, but Sansa didn’t so much as bat any eye.

 

“Just like you’ve never taken the name Targaryen.” She uttered and Jon’s eyes flickered to Dany, who remained impassive. “Last names are ridiculous Jon. What does it matter that they’re born of Sandor? They’re as much my children, if not more. I’ll carry them, and birth them into this world. Nurse them. Raise them. Here, in the north, at Winterfell amongst northerners. Let them be Starks.”

 

“It’s not how it’s done.” Jon protested weakly and Sansa gave a pointed look at Dany, then back to Jon.

 

“You’re a secret dragon prince, raised as a bastard, with your aunt who was raised outside Westeros for her entire life, and fighting a war against an undead power thought forgotten for thousands and thousands of years.” She said tartly. “I think the children taking my last name is hardly a scandal.”

 

“Fine.” Jon waved a hand. “Fine, whatever you want. That’s how it’s always going to be, isn’t it Sansa?”  

 

“What do you think?” Dany’s gaze was still on Sandor, curiosity lighting up her purple gaze. “Do you want them to have your last name?”

 

“No.” He was even surprised at how firm his words came out. “The house Clegane is gone. Let them be Starks.” 

 

“What?” Dany tried to hide her frank astonishment and failed. “Sandor, you’d… You’d end your line?” 

 

“It’s not ended.” He rested a large hand on Sansa’s belly. “But these are her children too, like Sansa said. Clegane is a name that deserves to die. No memories of my brother to carry on, once we’re gone. That’s what I want.” 

 

“Alright.” Jon said, flexing his fingers before giving Sansa a tiny smile. “Stark it will be then. How many do you plan on having then?”

 

“As many as I can.” Sansa’s smile was suddenly wide, and she turned to look up at Sandor, who was helpless to do anything but smile back at her. He suddenly remembered Tormund’s words on the frozen tundra, about monster babies taking over the world. He pulled Sansa in for a kiss, thinking he’d be happy so long as they were healthy.

 

They finished eating and splitting up the duties of tomorrow. Sandor was unsurprised to see Dany and Jon retire together to Jon’s chambers, but he was surprised at how sweetly and honestly Sansa and Dany wished each other good night and went their separate ways. Sansa was beaming when they retired to their rooms, stripping down and crawling into the bed together. He just held her, content.

 

“Happiness looks good on you, little bird.” He said quietly, as she cuddled into his chest, smiling slightly.

 

“My husband is home, what else could I possibly want?” She reminded him, and he went to talk about all those still missing, still absent, but stopped himself. Instead he kissed her head and made sure she was covered with the furs. “Sandor.” Her voice was soft, and he paused in stroking her hair. 

 

“Yes, little bird?” 

 

“What will we name her? Or him.” Her blue eyes peeped up at him from below her lashes, and he shifted slightly, trying to wake himself up enough to think straight. For the first time in months, he was in bed with his wife, warm, and it made him drowsy.

 

“I don’t know.” His hand drifted down to where her belly rested. He stroked her soft skin, willing there to be movement within. He wondered if the babe slept when she did. “What would you like?” 

 

“That’s why I’m asking you.” She snuggled closer to him and he kissed the nape of her neck. “I don’t know.” 

 

“Well, if it’s a girl it could always be Catelyn.” He offered and she shook her head fiercely, her longer fingers clenching the blankets tightly. Alarmed at her tension, he rubbed her back slightly. “Why not?” 

 

“So many of those names are gone from me. If we named her for my mother, I would think, every time I called her name, of who I lost to the Frey’s. And if it’s a boy, and we called him Rickon, I would think of the little brother who couldn’t escape.” Sansa’s voice cracked like it would break, but no tears fell. “I don’t want whoever this little one is to be born with the mantle of grief on them.” 

 

“Nor I.” He didn’t have to comfort her as much anymore. She no longer wept so fiercely, or frequently, for what was done to her. But he would protect her from the darkness, the grief, however he could.

 

“Would you like it to be after your family though?” She twisted to look up at him and he resolved to go to the godswoods tomorrow and thank his old gods for her. “I would never deny you that.” 

 

“No.” He rubbed a thumb over her cheek, a gentle caress he never thought he’d give her. The small touches of affection he’d missed so much. “No, you’re right. Let the dead sleep. Let our child live.” 

 

“So what then, what shall you be?” Sansa looked down at her belly. “What would you like to be? Someone brand new.” 

 

“You pick a name.” He told her, feeling out of his depth. Did men name children? He had a feeling nothing he and Sansa did with their child would be conventional. “I’ve always been bad with names.” 

 

“You named Stranger, and that’s a good name.” Sansa smiled at him, a hint of teasing in her voice. 

 

“He’s a horse, not a babe.” He remarked back at her and she huffed playfully. “Pick a good name, my wife.” 

 

“I want you to agree, before you leave again.” She whispered, her happiness slipping for a moment and he held her tightly. 

 

“Shush, don’t say such things. Jon may not leave until after it’s been born.” He said the words but they both knew how empty they truly were. It was only a matter of time before Jon made the move again, to challenge their foes. Sansa’s pregnancy didn’t stop the war against the white walkers. 

 

“If you do then.” She strove to sound calm, in control, like the Lady of Winterfell might. But with him she was just Sansa, and allowed to be fearful. “Let’s pick names now, so that way even if you are away, you’ll know your child’s name.” 

 

“Alright, then let’s think.” He took her hands, kissing each knuckle briefly. “How about Arya then?”

 

“No.” She said quickly, amused. “If we gave her a namesake, she’ll raise her to be as much a terror as she.” 

 

“Not Arya then.” He chuckled. “Brienne?”

 

“Would you name your daughter after the woman who nearly killed you?” Sansa looked at him in disbelief. 

 

“She bested me.” He shrugged. He wasn’t going to hold a grudge over it. “And saved you. That deserves honoring.” 

 

“Strange way to honor her.” Sansa huffed and he cracked a smile, but let them lapse into silence. 

 

“If it’s a boy,” He said slowly, offering it up hesitantly and carefully, should she hate it. “Perhaps Harding or Malin?”

 

“And for a girl Arietta or Posy?” Sansa replied, looking at their hands then down at her belly with a note of hope. 

 

“I like Arietta.” He smiled at that. “A little song, like the ones you sang to me. Posy can be for the girl we have in the summer.” 

 

“Hopefully then she gets my voice.” Sansa teased but he didn’t rebuke her. He chortled and kissed her head again.

 

“Malin, if it’s a boy.” He requested, and Sansa tilted her head. 

 

“Where did you hear that?” She asked him quietly and he shrugged.

 

“I don’t remember. Do you like it?” His eyes searched her face anxiously. 

 

“I love it.” She pressed herself up and kissed his fiercely. 

 

“Who are you in there?” He whispered to her stomach, when she curled around him once more. “Are you Malin? Are you Arietta?”

 

“Doesn’t matter.” Sansa’s eyes were shining again, as she held his burnt cheek. “They will be Starks and they will be raised in Winterfell and they will be ours.” 

 

“Ours.” He pulled her close and held her, trying to breathe her in. “Ours.”

Chapter Text

The next morning as they broke fast with the men, Sandor saw the men talking, looking from to him and Sansa, before bending their heads together. He gritted his teeth and his hand went to his sword, but Sansa’s hand was already moving to intercept it, stilling him with a touch and a too sweet smile.

 

“Little bird,” He said quietly but she simply buttered some bread and offered it to him with a look of innocence.

 

“People will talk because they are jealous.” She said wisely. “You have a pretty young wife and a big castle. Soon you will have sons and daughters, and when winter ends, you will grow old and fat with me forever.”

 

“Is that so?” He raised an eyebrow, taking a bite of the bread that she offered him and she gave him a kiss on the cheek.

 

“It is.” She said quietly. “So don’t gut the men that make comments, please? I would like them to live to see spring.”

 

‘If they disrespect my wife, their life should be forfeit.” He stated, and Sansa rolled her eyes, giving him a baleful look.

 

“No hurting them.” Her hand rested on her swelling belly before she conceded slightly. “But if they call the baby a bastard, you can hit them. Just not very hard.”

 

“Not very hard.” He kissed her nose and she laughed. He loved his fierce northern warrior woman.

 

There was too much to be seen to, so he fell in step with Jon the next morning, just like they had in the battlefields. Sansa kept the household running, but it was up to him and Jon to keep things up with the men, and so they were the ones out amongst them, inspecting horses, mending armor, dealing with the wounded and the rest. It was long days, but Sandor found that he enjoyed being a leader.

 

He was just trying to help reshod a horse when Devlyn appeared, leaning against the rough pen they’d constructed for the horses that couldn’t be stabled, watching in silence. Sandor took note of him, but he was too busy trying not to take a hoof to the temple to say hello to him quite then.

 

“Nice work.” Devlyn remarked, once Sandor was done and was trying to settle the horse back down, gently patting its neck.

 

“You here to compliment my work with horses?” Sandor asked him pointedly, pulling his cloak back on.

 

“No.” Devlyn smiled slightly. “Walk with me?”

 

“To?” Sandor asked, hoping that they would head back towards the castle. He had a wife to see, and hopefully a large flagon of warmed wine waiting for him. Devlyn did turn towards Winterfell, but to the godswood, not the main gate.

 

“I saw your lady wife.” Devlyn stated and Sandor gave a little snort. He knew he had adopted a son-like role with the old northernman, but he considered himself a little old for the chat about men and wives and what was produced between them.

 

“I hope she was well.” Sandor commented and this time it was Devlyn who snorted, shaking his head.

 

“Very well.” He informed him. “Busy, yet still found time to come embrace me and thank me for all that I’ve done for you.”

 

“She’s a soft creature.” Sandor couldn’t help but smirk.

 

“Less soft. More round.” Devlyn commented thoughtfully and Sandor shot him a look full of warning. Devlyn chortled and clapped his shoulder, hard. “Relax, man. I’m here to congratulate you.”

 

“Aye, some congratulations it is.” Sandor complained as they took a thin path that snaked along the walls and ended in the iron gate to the godswood. “Mock a man’s beloved wife, give him no advice…”

 

“No advice to give.” Devlyn said, as Sandor opened the gate for them. “My wife and I were never blessed with children, sadly. Just my men and her with whatever orphan happened to stumble along their path.”

 

“That’s the way of women.” Sandor thought of Sansa and the three northern children she’d cared for. He wondered where they were. He hoped, for her sake at least, that they were still alive.

 

“I do know, however, the northern customs and traditions regarding children.” Devlyn gave him a slightly tired smile. “And your children will be northern, Clegane. Make no mistake about that, they belong to the north.”

 

“We all do know.” He nearly smiled to think of Sansa. He’d once thought of her as a flower, when she’d been a girl in Kings Landing. So fair, beautiful, and delicate. He’d thought that she’d been a flower, but he didn’t know what sort of flower bloomed in the cold and wilted in the warmth. A northern flower.

 

“You do, make no mistake. The old gods don’t claim their servants with fire like the Lord of Light, or oil like the Seven. They claim the deserving, the worthy, the righteous. The good.” Devlyn brought him to a stop before the massive heart tree, with the ancient face staring out at him.

 

“And you think they’ve claimed me?” Sandor stared at the face, wondering wildly for a moment if the tree would speak, or do something similarly outlandish. It remained stoic, as it had for centauries before.

 

“Aye.” Devlyn said frankly. “And they’ll claim your children as well. When a northern child is to be born, the father goes to the old gods. Makes a sacrifice to them, and tells them about the child. So the old gods know, and will protect them.”

 

“Sacrifice?” Sandor turned to Devlyn. He knew what sort of dark sacrifices that the Lord of Light took, and he wouldn’t do that, no matter what the northerns did. Devlyn pointed to the short dagger on Sandor’s hip. He touched it, bewildered.

 

“Take your hand. Cut it open.” Devlyn explained. “Then you give your blood to the gods, here.” He touched between the eyes of the carved face. “They will know; they’ll see. Then you tell them of the child.”

 

“Fucking hell.” Sandor muttered, but he gripped the dagger still. He’d taken Sansa as a wife, the north as his home, and the old gods as his own. He was of the north now, and he had to conduct himself accordingly. He knelt and Devlyn stepped a few paces back respectfully, giving him space.

 

The dagger’s bite was cold but quick, and a moment later, a drop of his blood fell amongst the red leaves. When he touched the bark, staining it red, he had the unnerving feeling that the tree was somehow drawing it in, taking in his blood. He wondered if Ned Stark had done the same thing for each of his children, and how many other Stark’s had knelt and done the same for generations.

 

“I am Sandor Clegane.” He found himself saying. “I am not from your fucking north and you were not the gods of my childhood. But I took you by choice, just like I took her. She’s a fucking Stark, you old gods, and so will her children be. You’re destroying the whole fucking world but…” He trailed off and looked deep into the white eyes, dripping red with sap and his blood. Something stirred in him, something that felt old and powerful and the rest of his sentence was a whisper. “But you fucking protect her and this child. Protect them, you old fucking gods. Protect them.”

 

A strong wind gusted through the woods, rustling the leaves and snapping Devlyn’s cloak. Sandor rose and gave the heart tree a stiff sort of nod of acknowledgement. His blood was already dry on the bark, and his hand didn’t smart. The unsettling feeling remained, and only grew when he looked back and saw Devlyn standing there, something like admiration in his eyes.

 

“They heard you.” He said reverently, and Sandor couldn’t shake the unease in him. He saw things in the fire, he spoke to the old gods, he was called the Warrior by his men while his wife was the Maiden yet now the Mother. It was too much for a man who had never bowed to any god.

 

“Aye, well, I’m a big loud cunt.” He said flatly, and went for the castle. He wanted his wife, and that wine.

 

When he found Sansa in the study with three massive books spread out in front of her and a furrowed brow, he stopped and looked at her fondly for a long moment. She was deeply engaged in her task, busy trying to sort through things, but the second he tapped the doorframe lightly, she looked up and beamed, rising and going to embrace him with true delight.

 

“Hello, husband.” She had to stretch onto her toes to kiss his cheek. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I came to look for you.” He informed her and when she reached for his hand, she stopped when he drew back slightly. A frown crossed her face and she caught his hand, flipping it to look at the cut, still bleeding slightly. For a second a blank look crossed her face, before her head snapped up to look at him.

 

“Sandor…” Her blue eyes were wide, and he wondered if he found find tears or happiness in them. “Did you…”

 

“Devlyn told me.” He said, by way of explanation.

 

“Oh.” Sansa gave an absentminded sort of pat to his hand. “I forgot that… My father, he use to… My mother always asked why… Why they needed blood… He told her that it was their way.”

 

“Are you…” He regarded hesitantly. “Angry?”

 

“Angry?” Sansa grabbed his face, eyes wide in disbelief. “Angry? No. No. I’m… Surprised. A little startled, my love. I never would’ve thought to ask you… That. To do that, for them, for me. I didn’t want to make it seem…”

 

“Seem?” He asked and for a second Sansa pursed her lips.

 

“Make it seem as though I expected you to do so.” She finished, giving him a soft smile. “You’re more than I can ever ask for, do you know that?”

 

“Enough.” He kissed her forehead. “I’ve never deserved you little bird, don’t try to make it seem as though I do.”

 

“You do.” She brushed a soft kiss to his lips. “Here, let me take care of your hand. Do you need the maester?” He gave her a look and she laughed, sitting him down. “I know, I know. Hold on, let me at least wrap it up.”

 

He sat and let her fuss about him in contentment. He thought about asking her what she thought of the old gods, and the things he’d seen in the fire, but then she sat on his lap with a sly smile, her hands plucking at his laces and he put all thoughts of gods and fire from his mind and filled it with her.

 

When they supped, Jon saw the bandage on his hand and his eyes went wide. Sansa kept eating the stew as though nothing was happening. Jon’s face was startled and Dany looked between him and Sansa curiously. When no one decided to tell her what was going on, she gave a little huff and demanded,

 

“Has Clegane done something to upset you now, Jon?”

 

“No.” Sansa answered for Jon and Dany looked at her in slight disbelief. “Because when Jon has a child, he will do the same, won’t you Jon? Except there are no heart trees in Kings Landing. If you want your children to be seen by our gods, you will have to come home to the North and do so.”

 

“I would like to know what’s going on.” Dany stated, slightly put out and Jon gave Sansa a look before patting her hand.

 

“It’s a… Rite of passage.” He said, struggling to get the right words. “The father goes to a northern tree and speaks to the old gods, tells them of the child. So that the old gods can watch that child. There’s no heart trees beneath the Neck, except for those on the Isle of Faces. They were destroyed.”

 

“And that’s what he did?” Dany looked back at Sandor, who dipped his bread in his soup without looking up. “We’re losing a war that means death for the whole world and you’ve mad because he told a tree that Sansa is pregnant?”

 

“He’s not northern.” Jon muttered and Sandor raised an eyebrow as Sansa made a noise, affronted.

 

“Really? With all the blood he’s shed for us? Keeping me safe? Arya? You?” Sansa looked at him in disbelief. “Don’t begin this with me, Jon. You’ll go off soon, and I’d rather we not do it angry with each other.”

 

“Fine.” Jon pushed away from the table and stalked out. Sansa watched him go in disbelief, before Dany rested a hand on her forearm.

 

“Let him go.” She said quietly and Sansa looked at her. “We’ve had some… Conversations lately. Of what happens if we make it out of this.” Dany said wryly and Sansa caught Sandor’s gaze for a moment before looking back at Dany.

 

“May I ask?”

 

“I love him.” Dany gave a small shrug. “And he loves me back, but for the life of us, we can’t seem to figure out how it’s going to work.”

 

“Well,” Sansa gave Sandor a faint smile. “I’ll forgive him this one time, but only because I know what it’s like.”

 

“I’ll talk to him.” Dany promised. “You should retire, get some rest.”

 

“I will, thank you.” Sansa took Dany’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze before rising and offering her hand to Sandor. He took it, wished Dany a good night, and went with Sansa towards their chambers.

 

They dressed for bed and climbed in together, Sandor pulling Sansa closer and resting a hand on her belly. He was dozing, just drifting off to sleep when he received a sharp jolt to his hand. He cracked an eyelid, to see Sansa looking at him in delight and surprise. He blinked a couple times, trying to understand.

 

“What the fuck was that?”

 

“That was the baby.” Sansa said, laughing. “They’re kicking Sandor. They sometimes do, before I sleep.”

 

“What?” Slightly alarmed, he looked down at her belly. She covered his hand with her own and pressed gently. After a few moments of tense silence, waiting, he felt it again. A little bump to his hand. He looked at Sansa in awe, unable to express the emotion running through him. That was his child, moving in her.

 

“Can you feel it?” She murmured.

 

“What is it?” He marveled, and Sansa laughed softly, moving his hand slightly so that he could feel it again.

 

“Foot, I think.” She told him, closing her eyes and sighing in contentment. “Feet are stronger than fists.”

 

“Does it hurt?” He asked her urgently and she opened just one eye slightly, her lips twitching in an amused smile.

 

“No, my love. Only if they catch me in the ribs. It doesn’t hurt even then, it’s just less so… Enjoyable. I like it when they move.” She laid back, humming slightly. “Let’s me know they’re alright in there. Growing. Moving.”

 

“I…” He trailed off and then bent down, kissing the little bump.

 

“Whoever is in there knows that you’re their father.” Sansa muttered, burying her face in his side. “They move more with you.”

 

“You go to sleep.” He ordered the bump quietly. “You let your mother rest now, you hear me?” He received one last kick for his efforts and he chuckled, relaxing back beside her with his arms around her. His child, already defiant like Sansa.

 

They tried not to speak of what was going to come next over the following days. They spent their days together when they could. Sandor with his men and Sansa with her household, Jon with his war planning and Dany flying to see how close the dead were getting to Winterfell and holding them off where she could.

 

Sandor knew that both Jon and Sansa were anxious, trying to understand why the Night King hadn’t came for them directly, why he hadn’t attacked. No one could understand that logic and while the men grew more paranoid and fearful, Sandor tried to shield Sansa from the worst of it, and the child as well.

 

It was a pale morning, bitterly cold instead of bone chilling, and for all intent and purposes, shaping up to be a nicer day than Sandor had hoped for. They were eating, with Jon, Dany, and a few others, when the Maester came, bearing two messages and an announcement that changed it all.

 

“From your sister and your brother, my grace.” He said, holding the two small rolls of paper towards Jon, who glanced at Sansa. She sat up straight, her hand going to grasp Sandor’s wrist tightly. “And an announcement from the Citadel. There will be an eclipse in a fortnight. They don’t know what it means but—” But Sandor did. He went cold, reaching for his wife automatically. 

 

“Sansa, read Bran’s letter first.” Pure fear was coursing through him, making his joints feel like they were buzzing. “Now, or Jon, just fucking now.”

 

“Sandor, what—” Sansa turned to look at him in fear, but Jon was doing as he was bid, unrolling the scroll while everyone watched in silent fear.

 

“Jon,” He read aloud. “We have made it to the Isle of Faces. I know how to kill him. He will come here when the world is dark. Bring the dragons. Bran.”

 

Silence followed the words, but Sandor was remembering. He was remembering what he’d seen in the flames. The moon in front of the sun, the three dragons in the sky. He didn’t know what the rest meant, but this seemed clear enough. This was coming to pass. He grabbed Sansa, bringing her eyes to look at his. There was fear in her eyes but he had no time for explanations or reassurances, not when he was so sure that he would have to leave her again and soon.

 

“Read Arya’s.” He urged, and Jon took the scroll, unrolling that one as well.

 

“Lioness has gone mad. Going for the Raven and a three pawed Lion. Will follow.”

 

“Well then.” Sansa’s voice, while resolute, wavered just slightly. Her fingers, locked on Sandor’s wrist, were trembling. “You must go to the Isle of Faces. Bran and Arya will be there, and apparently this is where it ends.”

 

“We need to go.” Jon agreed, practically vaulting the table. As everyone around them descended into chaos, shouting orders and trying to understand what it was they needed to do, Sandor pulled Sansa aside, holding her tightly.

 

“Listen to me.” He said urgently. “The things I saw in the fire, they’re coming to pass Sansa. They’re happening.”

 

“What did you see?” Sansa asked, desperately holding on to him. Her eyes were filling with tears as she watched Jon bark orders and Dany shout at him. He shook her, just slightly, so that she looked back up at him.

 

“Listen to me.” He repeated. “The rest, the rest I don’t understand. A woman in the fire. Wolves and dead trees. I don’t know Sansa, I don’t know what it means but you must stay safe, alright? Fucking stay safe.”

 

“I will, I will, but—” Sansa was crying and he wanted nothing more than to comfort her, but there was no time. All he could do was crush her to him tightly, then he knelt and held to her belly.

 

“I am your father.” He whispered and Sansa’s choked sob was anguished. “I am your father, you little thing in there and I love you and your mother more than anything in the entire world. I love you. I love you.”

 

The last kiss he pressed to Sansa’s lips tasted like salt and her, and then he was gone once again.

 

It all seemed to happen too fast and too slow. The race to the Riverlands, to the Isle of Faces and to Bran seemed to take years, even with the dragons. They were never going to make it, not in time. Not in time to beat Cersei, racing from the south with her armies and Arya at her tail. Not in time to beat the Night King.

 

It was there, amidst the strange pale weirwoods, that he was sure the world was going to end. The dead were coming for Winterfell, the wights and walkers and armies of men trying to kill everyone. He thought it was the end. He hoped that he would do enough to keep Sansa alive, and their child.

 

Bran knew how to defeat the Night King. The sword of legend, there, amongst the weirwoods, with the old gods watching and the children guarding for centuries. The Night King came to claim his final victory, slay the only person who could defeat him. Except that person wasn’t Bran, it was Jamie.

 

It was Jamie who drew the sword from the Age of Hero’s and met the Night King in single combat. It was he who took a blade of ice through his heart but managed nonetheless to strike his blade through the dragonglass heart of the Night King.

 

On the banks, in the icy shallow water, it was Arya who put the dagger through Cersei Lannister’s heart when she tried to kill her twin.

 

It was Tyrion who fired the arrow that slew the ice dragon, and Dany who screamed when her dragon’s body fell from the sky once again.

 

It was Jon who saved Drogon and Dany from their death, riding Rhaegal and claiming his father’s name, and the stones of Harrenhall fell in the fight.

 

It was Bronn who protected Bran, and Tyrion, and Arya, who kept them alive even when it nearly cost him his life.

 

And it was Sandor who stood before a mountain of a man and knew that if he could do this, do this one last thing, the world might be safe enough for Sansa to have their child and raise them in. It was his child he thought of, as he stepped forward to right the wrong that he’d been dealt as a child.

 

The last face he saw before the darkness was his brother’s, crushed and cleaved in two by his sword. Already, someone was running with fire. Sandor had made sure that if he fell before he could light fire to the body himself, someone else would do it, and immediately. As he pitched backwards, sure it was to his death, he took solace in the fact that his brother was dead alongside him. 

 

He thought of his wife, his beautiful, wonderful wife. He thought of the unborn babe, who was surely born by now. Malin, or Arietta. Whichever it was. Didn’t matter. Sansa had some of him then, to take with her always. He imagined the girl with flaming hair and bright blue eyes, and then it was black.

Chapter Text

The first face he saw when he woke was his wife’s. It was pale, pinched, and drawn, as though she hadn’t eaten or seen the sun in too long. He gazed at her, as she sat in a chair and sewed. What was she sewing? He strained to see. 

 

The gentle shift of the blankets made her look up, and for a second, nothing but shock crossed her face. Then in short order was disbelief, amazement, relief, and last of all, a terrible sort of joy. She launched herself at him, already sobbing. He caught her, a little alarmed. 

 

“Little bird.” His voice was raspy, and dry. She was sobbing, clinging to him tightly. “How… Long?” 

 

“Weeks.” She was still sobbing, so the rest came out like gibberish. Instead of trying to comprehend her, he inspected his injuries instead. His left side felt weak, like it was drained. His hair was long, but he was clean, and he supposed he had his wife to thank for that. He raised a trembling hand to stroke her hair, trying to soothe her. 

 

“I’m alright. I’m here.” 

 

“You’re never going anywhere again.” Sansa declared, hanging tight to him. “Never, gods never.” 

 

“Alright.” He agreed. “Here is fine.” He settled back against his pillows, letting the reassuring weight of Sansa settle on his chest. 

 

“Your ladyship, I—“ The door opened and a maid stuck her head in, stopping in surprise at the sight of both of them, in the bed, Sandor awake. 

 

“Yes?” Sansa sat up. 

 

“They're awake.” The maid stared at him in astonishment. “And if he is as well, should I go get someone?” 

 

“Yes.” Sansa got up, keeping a hand pressed to his shoulder. “I’ll see them. Send in the Maester, let him rest. I want broth and wine brought up.” 

 

“Yes, m’lady.” The maid curtsied and left with a swirl of skirts. Despite his haze, he remembered the most pressing question he had. 

 

“Sansa!” He looked up at her desperately and she stopped in the doorway, wheeling around in alarm. “You—“

 

“What?” Nervous, she took a step towards him. 

 

“Our child!” He felt a blinding headache coming on, angry and pounding, but this felt important. If it had been weeks, then surely she would've given birth by now. He had a brief flash of joy so bright it nearly hurt him that she seemed to be fine, but beneath his worry for her, the confusion, his half remembered thoughts of his brother and a final battle, there was something else that nagged at him. “The babe, is it—“ 

 

“Yes, my love.” She crooned, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “Give me a moment and I will tell you everything.” 

 

“Aye.” He sat back and closed his eyes. He was absolutely weak, the weakest he’d ever been. If this was just a dream, or perhaps the afterlife, at least it was a peaceful one. He wanted rest. “That would be good.” 

 

“Sandor.” Sansa’s voice was soft in his ear and he blinked a couple times. When his eyes focused, he was stunned. Sansa stood in front of him, a smile on her face. And on one of her hips sat a beautiful little girl, round and rosy. She had a fuzz covering of deep red hair, and the bright blue eyes to match her mother. But the face was the sweet face of his little sister, all honest and true. On the other was a little boy, with grey eyes and dark hair. He was chewing on his chubby fist, the other holding tightly to the sleeve of Sansa's dress. 

 

Sandor could only stare at them, then back at Sansa. She was watching him carefully, something in her deep blue eyes that seemed to him like apprehension. It made a bubble of worry rise up in him. So much had gone wrong for them for so long, Sandor couldn't help but assume that this would be another such moment. What was wrong? What more did they have to fight? He looked between the children, panic growing deep within his chest. What was it that he couldn't see that was causing his wife to pause? 

 

“Is she-- He—“ He went to ask, but Sansa was already depositing the little girl in his arms. He looked at her, alarmed, but the baby didn’t make a face. She reached up, with a smile, cooing and babbling. He watched her, astonished, as she patted his face, scars and all. “She’s not scared of me?” 

 

“No, of course not.” Sansa eased into the bed beside him, setting the little boy on her lap. He leaned back against her and let go of her hair to reach for Sandor's dark locks, so like his own. “She knows her father. They both do. I brought them to you, every day. You got here when they were a few months old, and while they healed you I would hold them over you and tell them, Arietta, Malin. Arietta, this is your father, this is the man who saved me. Malin, he is a good man and an honest man and a wonderful man. He is your father and he loves you more than anything.” 

 

“Arietta.” He looked at her in wonder. She was perfect and when she looked up at him and a smile went across her face, he found that tears were running down his cheeks. "Malin?" He turned to the little boy, who kicked his feet and made a noise that seemed something like delight, waving his hands. Sandor caught one in astonishment, rubbing his thumb across the smooth skin.

 

“They loves their father.” Sansa whispered, curling up beside him. “Arietta especially loves you, more than anything. She’ll always settle when I lay her beside you.” 

 

“She’s healthy?” He looked at her, at her chubby cheeks. "And him?" Arietta cooed and he leaned forward, kissing her forehead. She seemed like heaven, and some part of him recalled having smelled her sweet scent while he had been dreaming. 

 

“They're both perfect.” Sansa stroked Malin's head, smoothing back his dark hair. “They were born in the midst of the biggest blizzard so far. I was holding Malin the night I got news of you, that they were bringing you back here. He had a fever, and his father was hurt, broken. I held him and I sobbed for thinking that our children may never hear their father speak, or know your laugh, understand how much you loved me and him and her. I wanted them to meet you, so once you were strong enough, I brought them to you and made sure to tell our son and daughter who you were, every single day.” 

 

“And you, my wife?” He reached a hand out to her. Every inch of him that hurt was forgotten; she was the best balm there was. He was too shocked to feel the joy of his children yet. He was still half in disbelief that he'd survived anything at all to understand them, but Sansa he knew. He knew that being with her was what had made everything worth it. And if she was alright, then he would be too, not matter what came. He only needed her, and perhaps now their children too. Their boy and girl. “How are you?” 

 

“My husband is awake. My home is warm. My daughter and son are healthy. My people are fed. My family lives, here, in Winterfell once again. The winter may be long, but the war is won, and I have you. No matter what happens, ever again, I have you and we have them.” Sansa kissed Arietta and Mailn's heads and then him. 

 

“We will do it all together. Forever.” He promised her, holding her and his children close to him.

 

Once he was strong enough, Sansa told him everything that had happened. When they had gone south for the Night King, they’d been attacked. Winterfell had nearly fallen to the White Walkers, but then came the Red Woman, who had burned herself and the dead with her, and bought them enough time to throw them back long enough for the Night King to be killed, and for the dead to fall.

 

He never felt recovered from his battle with his brother, not truly. His left side was always weaker than his right, but it didn’t matter. After the long and brutal winter, no one wanted to fight. They wanted to grow crops and recover from the battles. Dany and Jon ruled from Kings Landing, with their dragons and their court and their children. Tyrion was Hand and for the winter, the people knew peace.

 

Arya disappeared again, but a long while, but Sansa had no worries for her. Her explanation was that Arya would come back when she was ready, truly ready, and that there was nothing they could do before. Sandor wasn’t sure what she meant by any of it, but he grudgingly admitted that he missed the little wolf as much as Sansa did.

 

Bran disappeared as well, from everyone but his family. The world wasn’t ready for him yet, he explained, and so he went North, to what remained of the wall, and tried to piece back together what needed to be done with the wall, the wildlings, the Night’s Watch, and the domain of it all.

 

By the time the winter was over, there were new Starks in Winterfell. Arietta, who grew strong and true, and who’s skill with horses outshone her beauty. Malin, honest and smart, who had all the makings of a great leader. Harding, who trained nearly as hard at the sword as his father had as a youth. Andrik, who while still a young mischievous boy, brought light and laughter to them all. When spring came, Sansa had one more girl. Their Posy, their sweet spring child, who brought sun and warmth with her birth. 

 


 

 

Sometimes Sandor Clegane wondered if there was such thing as time at all. Certainly, some days, it didn’t seem like there was. On days when he fell to musing, getting lost inside his own mind, he was sure that his wife's gods, the old or the new— either, it didn’t matter— didn’t create new puppets from themselves to play with, just reused old ones. Gave them new names, refined their plots a little bit, and went on. All that was had already been, it was nothing but a wheel, turning, and they moved in circles, only to…

 

Sandor ended his thoughts with a little chuckle, looking down out on the courtyard. It was the sight of his children that had set him off down this path, wondering if the gods had saw fit to make the new Stark family in the image of the old. However, that cast him in the part of Eddard Stark, not one that he was happy for in the slightest. 

 

His sons, his boys, chased each other happily through the courtyard, doing their best to hit each other with wooden swords. So far, they had not been successful, and his eldest child, his daughter, called out insulting reminders of this from time to time as she worked with her horse in the yard. 

 

They were winter’s children. He was a westerman, an outsider, but his children were every bit as northern as their mother, and grandfather before them. Sansa had made sure of that. They’d been raised Starks. Even now, as winter drew near once more, none of them seemed bothered by the chill. Other things marked them as true Starks. Their coloring, with grey eyes and the long faces. The way that his boys, even at 13, 10, and 8, held themselves with more solemnness than any grown lad from the south. The way none of them seemed to be bothered by the faces of the gods that peered out upon them. 

 

There was one other thing that marked them as northern children, Starks, and it never failed to amaze and confuse him in equal measure. It was unheard of, even to the maester’s knowledge, but he knew better than to question the ways of the old gods now. He’d asked something of them, once, and saw something in a fire, once. He hadn’t known it would come to pass, even if it would. But it had.  

 

For when his youngest, his little sweet girl, had been no more than three, a massive wolf had arrived at the gates. Half the men were ready to ride out to kill it, the other half scared witless. Sansa had stopped them all with a single word, a stunned look of disbelief and wild joy on her face. 

 

“Nymeria.” 

 

She’d gone then, out the gates, each of the children with her. He’d been atop the wall, sick with worry, but she had told him, with a smile he didn’t understand, that the wolf wouldn’t hurt them. And she hadn’t. The beast had sniffed each of the children, then padded along behind Sansa, as docile as a lamb. Sansa had taken her to the godswood, and it was there that Nymeria had given birth to her litter of pups. Five, one for each child. 

 

She’d gone in the middle of the night, leaving her pups behind. He’d been bewildered, but Sansa had known what to do. She’d placed each pup in the laps of the children and had told them that these were their wolves. They would train them, love them, feed them, and raise them. It was their duty, as Starks. 

 

He’d made a comment once long ago, an offhanded quip. It had been the first time he’d seen Sansa with her wolf, when they’d been going south, and she was still a child. He’d said that Stark’s used direwolves as nursemaids. He wondered if the gods had heard that comment. He wondered if this was their way of giving his justice. 

 

For when he looked out over the yard at his playing children, the direwolves attracted more of his attention than anything else at all. Each was massive, in prettily dappled fur. Ice was slobbering over a bone, one eye still carefully following the way Malin was trying to balance atop a water barrel and hack at his brother. 

 

Cassi was loping alongside Arietta, her red fur rippling in the wind. She was the prettiest of the wolves, he always thought, thought Sansa always said that no direwolf was ever prettier than the other. But Cassi had something rather foxlike about her, and he thought it fit his clever Arietta. Those two were inseparable, and he didn't mind that a few of Arietta's southern suitors had stopped in their tracks at the sight of the wolf sitting beside his daughter, teeth flashing at those she didn't like. Sansa made sure that her children knew to heed their direwolves. 

 

Tamaxis bit at Harding’s heels, eager to play with the two boys. His fur, so grey it nearly seemed a blue hue in the right light, shone in the afternoon light, and when Harding tripped and fell, his wolf pounced on him, licking him eagerly around the neck and ears. It was a disconcerting site to watch, and Sandor didn’t think he’d truly ever stop thinking of fangs ripping the soft flesh of his child, even if he knew that Tamaxis would sooner chew off his own foot than hurt Harding. 

 

Andrik was trying to trip Malin, but Ony was going to alert the other boys to his plan. He was barking lowly, a sort of soft woof that threatened to grow into a full yip, but hadn't quite yet. Ony was the darkest of the wolves, nearly back, with golden eyes that never left Andrik's form. Sansa claimed that half the trouble Andrik would get into was diverted by the wolf alerting her to any danger. 

 

Then there was Posy, was sat at the edge of the yard, watching her siblings and cheering with gusto. Her wolf was the smallest, naturally, and had a golden hue to her fur, with deep brown eyes. Via, while undoubtedly the sweetest of the wolves, watched over Posy better than perhaps even he did. Posy had also inherited her mother's look, fair and sweet, pretty enough that even at five years old she was commented on. Sansa had once remarked that Posy was meant to scare away their demons with her sunshine, and Sandor adored her for it. 

 

He stood, watching his children, as the wind picked up. Soon they would be called to their lessons, brought back inside. The girls would learn to sew, the boys to lead and rule, and he would go back to being the Lord of the castle. But then he spotted Sansa leaving the godswood, and went to meet her. She walked across the muddy courtyard, glancing around and noting what her children were up to within a moment.

 

“Malin, do not hit your brother in the head or I will break that sword over your backside.” She said sternly, when Malin’s blow only missed Andrik's ear by a fraction. Sandor chortled as Malin bowed his head, a little abashed, and Andrik used the opening to try to tackle his older brother around the waist. Sansa looked up from scolding their sons to smile at Sandor from where he was watching the boys, under an awning.

 

“They need to learn to fight.” He told her, with a smile, and she rolled her eyes even as her arm slid around his waist. That had been her refrain for the first years, when he thought that Arietta and Malin would die for any little thing. She had reminded him that their children needed to learn to walk, to run, to fall, to climb, to laugh, to argue, to love.

 

“They can learn to fight just fine, but they don’t need to fight each other.” She said wryly. “They do that enough without the swords.”

 

“Aye.” He agreed, and they both watched as Arietta, astride her horse, came through the courtyard and over to them, her hair braided back. Of all their children, only she had the auburn locks of Sansa, the true shade of it. The rest of her children had the darker hair of Sandor, but Sansa had passed her bright blue eyes onto Arietta, Andrik, and Posy, while Malin and Harding carried on his slate eyes. 

 

“Do you see how good I’m getting?” Arietta asked breathlessly, proudly showing off and Sandor smiled, catching the reigns of her mount. One of Stranger and Birdie’s line, a good solid horse that was far better tempered than the old stallion had been. It seemed to take after Birdie, much like he and Sansa's children took more after their mother than they did him. Each was sweeter than Sandor could ever remember being, and he sheltered them fiercely from anything in their world that might change that. 

 

“You’re doing wonderfully.” Sansa agreed, reaching up and brushing snowflakes off the horse's mane. 

 

“Does that mean I am good enough to ride north and see Uncle Tormund and Aunt Brienne at Bear's Belly?” Arietta asked with a mischievous twinkle. Sansa laughed, gently patted her daughter’s leg and shaking her head. Tormund was one of their most loyal bannermen, and once he'd convinced Brienne to fall in love with him, Sansa had granted them lands to the north. It wasn't a particularly long or hard ride, but one that she wouldn't allow their daughter to do alone, even if she was a better horsewoman than any of her brothers. 

 

“Not with winter coming. You’ll see them for your name day.” Sansa promised and Arietta's clever face grinned. 

 

“And Aunt Arya too?” Arietta asked, and the name stopped the boys from fighting, turning to look eagerly at them. "Will she be coming up to see us?"

 

“I’ll check the ravens.” Sansa said graciously. “I haven’t heard anything yet.”

 

“She’ll come.” Malin said confidently, swinging Posy up onto his hip. Her little face had lit up at the mention of their aunt, and Malin was her favorite brother, least likely to be bothered by all her questions. “She always does.”

 

“Too right you are.” Sansa kissed his head, then Posy's. “Now run inside and change. I don’t want you tracking mud into your lessons. Go, go, no complaining.” She stated, a pointed look at Arietta. She sighed, swinging down and giving her father a kiss on the cheek before herding her brothers in. Posy waited until both Sandor and Sansa had kissed her cheeks before allowing Malin to carry her into the castle.

 

“Do you think she’ll come?” He asked Sansa, who took a deep breath and looked around. Though she’d gotten older, and the creases around her eyes had deepened, she was no less beautiful than she had been when he had married her in the godswood in the deepest heart of winter. He knew that Sansa knew where her sister was, but for the most part, Arya remained a mystery to all of them. Last he heard, she was in the Stormlands, making sure that one of Robert's heirs was granted Storm's End through means Sansa refused to speak on.

 

“Arya?” She looked up at him then sighed. “I would hope so. It’s Arietta and Malin’s name day, and they'll be fourteen. That’s big, especially for a girl. Soon she’ll have suitors and offers of—” His growl stopped her and she gave him a baleful look. Any conversation of marriage had ended similarly before, and he could tell it was pressing Sansa's patience slightly, but he didn't care.

 

“Let some cunt try to marry her.” He growled. “Let them try.”

 

“Stop it.” Sansa slid her arm in with his, pressing her warm body flush with his. It was welcome, in the cooling air. “She’s going to be a woman soon. We won’t let her leave the north until this winter is over, and Bran says it will last a couple years at least. You know she won’t marry a man she doesn’t love, and one we don’t like. Her and Malin both. We'll let them have a say in who they marry, but they need to meet acceptable suitors. It’s the way of things Sandor.”

 

“I’d prefer to keep her here. Safe. With us. Forever. Malin too.” He muttered and Sansa’s kiss to his scarred cheek was soft and sweet.

 

“I know.” She whispered. “But they deserve a life and happiness, like we did. We have to let them find it.”

 

“Arietta stays in the north.” He declared firmly. His first daughter was his greatest joy. Of all his children, he was closest to her. Arietta had been his shadow since she was little, always following him around the castle. He always feared for his daughters more than his boys. He'd taught them to defend themselves, but there was still a part of him that remembered Sansa, along and friendless, surrounded by lions and vipers in the court, and he wanted nothing more than to keep all his children within the walls of Winterfell. “And I want Malin to find a wife from a good family, not a fucking Umber. I don’t fucking trust them, not after last spring. Whoever they pick comes here, stays with us for a bit. So we can make sure it’s a good match. And if fucking King Jon says—”

 

“Jon supports us in whatever we do.” Sansa assured him. “My love, I know. I know. We discussed all these things. They’ll be happy, we will see to it. And we still have time with her, and the others.” She took his hand.

 

“I know.” He said softly, as they found a quiet corner to speak in. His hands found her waist, and he found comfort in her nearness as he always did. “She’s my firstborn daughter Sansa, and I thought I’d never…”

 

“I know.” Sansa brought his head down so their foreheads touched. “So much heartache for us, for so long. I know my live, I know. But their lives are different. Better. We fought a war from them. And we won.”

 

“Yes, I know.” He gave her a soft kiss.

 

“You should get back to your men.” She remarked, sliding an arm around his neck and keeping him more firmly pressed to her.

 

“They’ll keep.” He muttered, kissing her again. “The children are at lessons. Come to bed with me wife.”

 

“I have duties to do.” She said coyly and he laughed, a little roughly.

 

“Still chirping, my little bird?”

 

“Perhaps.” She kissed his neck, making the hair on his arms rise. “But I will sing a pretty song for you tonight, my love, if you’ll have it.”

 

“I will have all of your songs, gladly.” He held her close. “Forever and all of time, Sansa. I love you.”

 

“And I you.” She whispered back and for a moment, there in Winterfell, he remembered all that was good and right.

 

And so it was there, in the North, that Sandor Clegane and Sansa Stark raised their children. He'd gone north once, many years ago, sure it had been to his death. And it had been in Winterfell, at an old age, beside his beloved wife, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, that Sandor Clegane died.