“Genna. Genna, I said- Ow!” Sandor grits his teeth and closes his eyes as his four year old niece tugs another sheaf of hair out of his ponytail. He sighs. They’ve been waiting here at Tucson International for over thirty minutes for this goddamned plane, and it’s late, and he’s not surprised, because when has his life ever gone as planned?
“But I wear my hair down so daddy should too,” she says, plucking another strand of hair free, and without opening his eyes his hand darts up, closing loosely around her soft little wrist. How something so delicate and sweet came from his brother, he will never know.
“I’m not your dad, Genna, okay? It’s been four months, and you know I’m your uncle. Call me uncle. Uncle Sandor, okay?” He tries to be gentle because she’s just a fucking kid, but by God, she tries him. The last thing he wants, the last thing he needs, is Gregor’s daughter mistaking him for him, not that she ever knew him.
“Okay, daddy Sandor,” she chimes, climbing up on the seat next to his, and Sandor oofs when she slings her leg over his back. He’s strong but he’s been digging holes for his neighbor all day, and though she maybe weighs thirty five pounds, when she climbs up on his shoulders he’s wincing.
“Uncle,” he grits out, silently adding the goddammit motherfucker I already told you oh Christ my fucking back would you just please get the fuck off of-
There is an announcement coming through on the speakers overhead declaring his new nanny’s plane has arrived, and Sandor stands with a grunt, hefting Genna up on his shoulders. While he is relieved the wait is over, is happy he will finally have help with his niece, there is the old familiar dread building up inside him. Here it comes. The tattoos. The dirt. The scars. He will scare her, whoever the hell this Sansa Stark is. Hell, Gayle at CPS basically warned him of it, as gently as she could in her gray slacks and her saggy blouse, with her watery eyes that said Hey, you’ll do. You’re better than most, and I get off in forty minutes, so there’s the door.
He feels like an idiot or maybe a chauffeur, holding up the hand written sign that says STARK on it, but not so lonely as he usually does, thanks to the sticky, chubby legs on either side of his neck. She’s still yanking on his hair and giving him a headache, and he knows he will look all the wilder, all the crazier for this new hairdo Genna’s giving him, but at least he’s not alone. She’s messed up his house, has left every door open known to man and now he can’t seem to get rid of the lizards in his kitchen, she wakes him up crying almost every night, but she’s there. He doesn’t know what the fuck to do with her, but she’s there. He’s there. They’re there, together.
“Goddammit, Genna, I said that hurts,” he grunts after another tug, and when a couple standing next to him gives him a dirty look, he mouths Fuck you to them. They blanche and look stonily to the floor.
Genna just laughs.
She’s not even out of the airport but the gust of hot, dry air that hits her when she steps from plane to ramp is enough to take her breath away. There were so many thoughts going through her mind on the flight down here, having looked at google images of Sonoita, but the heat was not on her mind, never, not after photo after photo of high blonde grasses and vineyards, not after pie in the sky ideas of wearing long cotton skirts and brushing her hand against the ripe vines or hiking through the scrubby landscape at dawn. She knows it’s cooler in Sonoita than here in Tucson, but this heat has her worried that the website was wrong.
It’s nothing like Washington, and by the time she’s wheeled her little carryon towards the baggage area she’s already shrugging out of her hoodie and slinging it over her purse, even though it’s only March. Sansa glances around her at the people herding alongside her towards baggage claim, and suddenly it strikes her how very far from home she is, how utterly alone she is. She did her college routine, much to her eventual distaste, but it was still a school close to home where all of her family lived; there is absolutely no one here for her now, but her. Well, there’s Genna, she thinks, lacing on a brave smile as she shoves the pull handle of her suitcase down and picks it up before stepping onto the escalator. Genna needs me, and poor girl, I need her too.
It was a nighttime flight, the one she hopped on from Seattle to Denver and on to here, and even though it’s a Wednesday night Sansa is surprised at how few people are waiting for their loved ones. Even though she’ll be living in Sonoita she did research Tucson, and it has over half a million people; there are only about a dozen folks waiting for her fellow passengers, and she can see their feet as she slowly inches downward on the escalator. Whose feet are my new boss’s? Where are little Genna’s?
She sees flip flops and work boots and tennis shoes, then legs, before she sees the STARK sign, and she breathes a sigh of relief because even though she’s almost twenty four she’s still never traveled to places where no one was waiting for her. Sansa sees that sign and makes a beeline for it, noting the big arms and the broad shoulders, the adorable little black haired girl on those shoulders before she registers the face of her new employer. He’s tall and he’s dark and he’d be handsome if he wasn’t so formidably scary looking. Scars, scars, scars, is all she can think, despite that adorable little girl on his back with her fingers in his wild hair. But she’s nothing if not polite, so she marches up to him with her hand outstretched, and then she feels stupid because his hands are curled around the little ankles on either side of his neck, and he makes no move to shake her hand.
“Hi, I’m Sansa Scars,” she says with her hand still outstretched, and then she sucks in a mortified, desperate gasp as her eyes lift from sign all the way to little girl, and then they settle on his face. “Oh my God, I mean, Stark. Sansa Stark,” she practically shouts, sweating alike now from both the hot air and the horrible, horrible first impression she’s just made. You used to be better than this, she thinks with a shake of her head. She drops her unshaken hand.
“Nice recovery,” her new employer scowls, and his voice is low and gruff as if he doesn’t speak enough to break it in fully.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, and he is strong enough to shrug even with a four year old on his shoulders. Sandor Clegane folds the STARK sign into quarters and turns on his heel towards the baggage carousels. Her gaze lingers on the trash can he chucks it into, and she wonders if it’s an apt metaphor for this rash decision to answer an ad and fly down the length of the county.
“If you think you’re the first person to get that horrified look on your face, you’re fooling yourself,” he says over his shoulder, and though she’s long legged she is forced to hustle to keep up with him. “This is Genna, by the way. Genna, this is Sansa, she’s the lady we’ve been talking about,” he says by way of introduction, and the little girl smiles shyly down at her.
“Hi Genna,” Sansa says, relieved for a distraction from her awful Freudian slip moments ago, and when she stretches out her hand to shake Genna’s, she is delighted to feel the warm little hand tuck inside hers. They shake enthusiastically, and she’s reminded of Rickon when he was this age. She smiles brightly and the little girl’s smile widens in a mirror of Sansa’s expression, and the jangle of nerves from her and Sandor’s initial meeting starts to disentangle and smooth out.
They stand in silence as they wait for the carousel to groan to life, or at least, she and Sandor do, but she and Genna are instant friends, and Sansa’s heart is warmed as the child tells her about her stuffed animals at home and all of her favorite episode of Daniel Tiger. Her uncle snorts below her.
“If the one thing you do is get her to stop watching that damned show I’ll be a happy man,” he grunts, and it makes Sansa smile. She hazards a glance at him and here on his right side it’s not a daunting task at all, far from it. He stares straight ahead and because of this it’s easy to imagine that there are no scars all over the left side; he’s bearded and tanned from working outdoors (I work in landscaping and am gone from dawn til dusk, his email had said), and his hair is in a wreck of a ponytail thanks to Genna, half of it hanging long and black in his eyes, and aside from a few flinches he is all stony silence even as she continues to tug on it. Sansa is reminded of the shows on lions she’s watched on PBS, lounging in the shade as their cubs crawl all over them, all tooth and claw and play.
There is a clank and a shudder as the bags start spitting out from the mysterious hole in the wall; she always wondered as a kid what it was like back there, making her think of Santa’s elves and little magical workshops, though know she knows it’s more likely that an employee has gone through her stuff, and when she finally sees her huge slate gray suitcase with the brightly colored scarf tied on the handle dump unceremoniously onto the metal belt she steps forward.
“That’s me,” she says, and before she’s taken two steps forward she feels a calloused, dry palm on her shoulder.
“Here, I’ll get it,” he says with his rough voice, and Sansa stares as he walks away from her, his niece’s tumble of dark curls bouncing with his heavy footfalls . Genna shrieks with glee when he leans over to pull the suitcase off the belt, and with a jerk he’s got the enormous thing in hand. Sansa knows how heavy it is, but he makes no grimace or grunt of effort when he sets it down at her feet.
“Thank you,” she says, risking a look up in his face. God, they’re really awful, she thinks, fixating on the pebbling and roping of scars, but when she finally lifts her gaze to his eyes, which are gray, she can tell now, she can see the ill-concealed anger there, and once more she’s mortified at her crass behavior.
“Go ahead, get it out of your system,” he growls at her. “Take a nice long, hard look at them, because they’re not going anywhere, so you might as well get yourself acquainted,” he says, and God he’s a menace, even with two little ankles in his hands and two adorable little fists in his hair.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare,” she says, her heart pounding, because this is the man she works for now, this is the man she’s going to be sharing a roof with, and it’s evident she’s insulted him twice now for something he cannot help. Suddenly the scars take on a sad look instead of a scary one, and she wonders if anyone has comforted him over them.
“Nobody means to but that doesn’t mean they don’t,” he says as he turns away from her. “Come on, let’s go, we’ve got an hour long drive from here and I still need to get some McDonald’s for her dinner,” he says, and Genna screeches Chicken nuggets in his ear, and that makes this hulk of a man flinch.
The two girls chatter and chitter back and forth for the first half of the car ride, sounding like girlish, dulcet toned squirrels, and their voices are pleasant enough, though nonstop, that Sandor is able to peacefully tune them out. The car smells like fast food and his stomach growls off and on even though he had a big mac and a large fry; he forgets to eat in the middle of the day, and it’s moments like this he pays for it. I gotta remember to bring lunch, he thinks, Bronn always does, but then, Bronn has Margaery who dotes on him like he’s some sort of baby deer instead of a big dumb oaf like him.
The sudden silence brings him out of his thoughts when he realizes the two of them aren’t prattling on about Disney princesses and their favorite colors anymore, and he glances over to Sansa who sits up front with him in his four door Silverado. She looks over at him, is on him the moment he turns his head and he thinks she’s probably nervous because most people are around him.
“She’s asleep,” she murmurs, tipping her head towards Genna’s booster seat in the middle of the backseat, and sure enough when he stretches up and looks in the rearview he can just make out the crescent of her round little cheek as her head slumps against the side of her headrest.
“Figure she would, she’s been up since five with me,” he says, and when he looks back at Sansa before pinning his eyes back to the road she’s staring at him incredulously. “What? What’s that look?”
“But she’s only four,” she says with flare of indignation, as if he were torturing the girl instead of waking her up to go to daycare before pre-K. Pre-K, he thinks. Jesus, I never thought I would know what the hell words like pre-K even mean. “It’s past nine pm, Mr. Clegane,” she says, and he rolls his eyes.
“You’re the one who booked the evening flight,” he bites back. “I work all day, okay? I have to get her up before I go to work. Shit like this, bedtimes and all that other crap, why the fuck do you think I hired you?” Another glance her way and he sees a wound there from his words, and he sighs testily. Women are too goddamned sensitive.
“I know why you hired me and it’s clear you need me, believe me,” she says, a little nip to her voice, and Sandor snorts with approval, though he makes no reply. Good, maybe you’ve got teeth after all. You need them out here. His stomach growls again and she actually laughs. “Here, I didn’t eat most of my fries,” she says, leaning forward as she rummages through her bag of McDonald’s, and when he looks over he sees her tank top has ridden up her back, and he can see a sliver of pale skin. He suppresses a sigh, maybe a groan, because it’s been that long since he’s been with a woman, and now he’ll be living with one of the most beautiful girls he’s ever seen; all that red hair, and eyes bluer than a spring sky. He thought he’d was going to have a heart attack when she approached him in the airport, but then she saw his face, and that ended that.
“Thanks,” he says begrudgingly when she rights herself and hands over her fries, still lukewarm. He keeps his eyes on the road and their fingers brush when she nestles the carton of fries in his hand. Sandor clenches his jaw at the touch.
“No problem. Payback for getting my bag for me,” she says with a smile.
“Yeah, what’d you pack in that thing, cement blocks?” he says around a mouthful of fries, because it humored him, when he lifted it off the baggage carousel, to imagine a wisp of a woman like her hauling that thing to the airport.
“My entire life is in that bag, basically,” she says, and there’s some sadness in the softness of her voice; he’s good at picking up on that sort of shit because little else resides in his heart aside from sorrow and anger, though there is something else beginning to grow there, in the shape of a four year old with almond gray eyes and a cherubic smile ready for him no matter how often he gripes at her.
“I uh, I guess up and moving like that is pretty intense, huh,” he says uncomfortably because this is starting to feel an awful lot like they’re going to try and get to know each other, and all he wants is someone to help him keep Genna from growing up into a horrible brat, or worse, someone like Gregor. The thought terrifies him.
“It is, yeah,” she says quietly, gazing out the passenger window. They’re off the interstate now, and he wishes she could see more than inky black outlines of shrubs and scrubby trees against the star-scattered sky because he loves the terrain out here, before they actually reach Sonoita where the elevation makes it more of a grassland than desert. “But it’s nice to have an opportunity for a change, right?” she says, injecting her voice with cheeriness which Sandor recognizes as fake, and the falsity of it irritates him.
“I wouldn’t know,” he says, polishing off her fries, and it’s a temporary fix but a much needed one, and he washes down the grease and salt with a long pull from his soda. “I’ve lived here my entire life.”
“Really! I lived up in Spokane my entire life too, except for as of this afternoon, I mean.”
He grunts and they’re silent again until finally the curving, winding, rising and falling road straightens out like a pin, and the land stretches out flat and placid on either side of them. There are ranches to the left and right here, and once they get into and past the little town there will be the vineyards and sprawl of houses where he lives. They pass the one gas station and one of three restaurants and drive into the lazy rumple of hills, the grasses breezing to and fro beneath the white moonlight. When he looks over he can see her smiling, and that makes him oddly happy, because he loves this place despite the shitty memories that live like ghosts here.
“Welcome home, Sansa Stark,” he says when they pull up his driveway, their driveway now, and she hunches forward to gaze at the one story ranch house he had built for himself. He kills the engine and opens his door to get to Genna in the backseat. “Up you come, kid,” he says as Genna mutters and whimpers in her sleep. At least she didn’t have those bad dreams during the drive home. As she slumps against his chest with her head on his shoulder, the sounds of wild yipping and yowling fills the air, and Sansa startles though Genna doesn’t even stir.
“What is that sound?” Sansa asks, eyes wide as she turns to stare at him. The cab light is a sickly yellow but she’s pretty even with it casting shadows on her face, hollowing out her eyes and sharpening her cheekbones. Sandor grins, because he knows the light above does no such favor for him.
“Coyotes,” he replies. “But don’t worry, I won’t let them take a bite out of you.”
“Hmmph,” she says with a sniff as she unbuckles her seatbelt and opens her own car door. “Well, if they do I’ll just bite them back,” she says with an attempt at bravado, and he laughs.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”