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Northbound

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“There she is, Clegane — Sansa Stark.”

It had been three years since he saw her last. Three years in isolation from the rest of the world, unaware of the war and politics that destroyed Westeros a little more each day. When he left her in the Red Keep, she had been a maiden. Now, she was a woman grown. 

Since he saw her last, she had been married to the Imp, married to another, a Ser and Lord Harrold Hardyng who had only recently been killed, and, as Thoros and Beric had explained, nearly wedded the conniving pervert, Petyr Baelish. That is, until she stabbed him and ran away — she did, Sansa Stark. They had seen it in the flames, but Sandor couldn’t believe it. The little bird, a killer? Not in this lifetime. Not even in the next. It had to be the other one, that bloody sister of hers. 

He remained skeptical about these so-called visions Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion saw in the flames. However, that all changed once he gawked at the woman approaching on the horizon. Days ago, Thoros had seen her coming in one of his visions, and just so, they traveled to the same spot, roughly a league east from the Kingsroad in the Riverlands, a tranquil snow drifting all around. Thoros had seen her there in the flames, and late that afternoon, there she was, ahorse, alone, and beautiful, Sandor Clegane thought, so fucking beautiful.

Awestruck, Sandor exhaled sharply inside the hood of his woolen cloak. “Seven bloody hells. You were right, you bloody priest. You were fucking right.”

She saw them, too, from afar, too far to recognize them through the falling snow, and turned her horse around.

“I’ll bring her here,” said Beric. “It’ll frighten her if we all approach.” As the red-haired lord urged his chestnut courser forward through the thin blanket of snow, Sandor cursed himself for not offering to ride to her first.

Perhaps that’s all for the better, he thought. How will she react when she sees me? Last I saw her, I held a dagger to her throat. I forced her to sing for me. I almost forced her to… 

“Three years now, eh?” Thoros said. “A long time since you were Joffrey’s dog.”

“And still not long enough since I last saw your face,” Sandor rasped, watching Beric disappear into the grove of dead trees where Sansa had entered. How did she make it this far on her own? he wondered. It’s a few days' ride from the Eyrie...it’s a bloody miracle we found her before someone else did. The thought of her traveling alone made him shudder the same way fire did. 

“The Lord of Light brought us together again for a reason, Clegane.”

That’s what the Elder Brother told me on the Quiet Isle not the will of some flaming lord Thoros and Beric worship, but the will of the seven. He allowed me to leave after years of repenting and digging graves in silence. You are to serve a greater purpose , he said to me, and left it at that. Could that greater purpose be her? 

Thoros pulled a wineskin from his saddle bag and took a swig. “Here they come,” he said, watching as Beric rode beside Sansa towards them. Even far away and cloaked, Sandor was able to catch a glimpse of her auburn hair spilling from the hood, blowing attractively in the wintry breeze. Each time her horse’s hoof fell onto the snowy landscape, bringing her one step closer, the more beautiful she appeared. He never wanted to look away.

“A comely pair, aren’t they?” Thoros chimed in.

He never wanted to look away, but he did after hearing the priest’s words and slapped the wineskin from his hand, the wine saturating the fresh snow. “Are you a madman?!”

The red priest looked at the wineskin, and then at him, cackling. “Lady Sansa is a widow, and Beric is a lord…”

“Beric’s a dead man, six times over.” And a seventh if he so much as thinks about Sansa. 

“Oh, come now, Clegane. It was naught but a jape. But your reaction has been duly noted.” Thoros grinned and hopped down from his horse, picking up the wine skin to take another drink. He stood there with one elbow propped up on his horse’s saddle, looking ahead as the two grew nearer. “A welcome sight, she is. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a woman. And even when I have, none have looked like her.”

That time Sandor knocked the wineskin out of his hand with his foot. “You old bloody pervert,” he rasped, though Sandor would be a liar if he said he hadn’t been thinking the same thing. “Missing the olden days when you used to whore around with Robert?”

“Let’s not stand on ceremony, Clegane,” Thoros said, retrieving his wine. He made to take a swig but frowned when none came out, the last of it painting the snow a deep scarlet. “We all miss a woman’s touch.”

Sandor didn’t even bother responding, suddenly too preoccupied with wondering what Sansa might say to him after so many days apart, after what happened that last night he saw her. The air grew thicker the closer she approached. He kept his head downcast, feeling like a green boy on the eve of battle, about to face something thrilling yet terrifying all at once. The cloak he wore was heavy, and the hood heavier still, keeping the majority of his face hidden. Will she know it’s me before she sees my face? Did Beric tell her that I was here?  His time to ponder was over. Sansa Stark was there before him.

“Lady Sansa,” he heard Thoros say. Sandor lifted up his head an inch and watched the red priest reach out for her hand on the back of his horse and place it on his lips.

“Hello, Thoros.” The voice was familiar yet foregn, soft yet assertive, girlish yet mature. And beautiful, above all else. “I still remember the day you won the melee in the tourney held for my father,” she said kindly, “ and when you unhorsed Lord Beric in the joust.”

Thoros hooted with laughter. “You hear that, my lord? She remembers when I unhorsed you!”

“You were much bigger back then,” the lightning lord dismissed. “And my lady, you remember Sandor Clegane.”

He looked up at her then, and for the first time in three years, he set eyes upon her face.

Seven fucking hells, Sandor thought, astonished. There’s never been anything more beautiful. 

Sansa had been pretty as a girl, far too pretty, in fact. Petyr Baelish had not been the only one fond of her looks when she was still considered a child. It was a battle Sandor had fought every day in the Red Keep, praying to whichever false gods might hear him that his twisted infatuation for her would go away. When praying didn’t work, he drank. When drinking didn’t work, he fucked. And when that didn’t work, he laid in his bed and succumbed to the thoughts of her, crude and deviant as they were.

A woman grown. Beautiful in every sense of the word. Mostly everything about her was the same, her high cheekbones, her soft rosebud lips that were slightly parted just then, her long auburn hair that spilled over her shoulders, skin the color of milk, and those Tully blue eyes that any man who was not blind could easily drown in. She was a bit taller, he noticed, and even sitting atop her horse wearing a cloak, Sandor could tell her figure was more womanly than it had been three years past. He could sit there and admire her until the day he died and it still wouldn’t be long enough.

Those two vivid blue eyes, even bluer in the grey and white landscape surrounding them, looked at him uncomprehending, until she inhaled deeply and turned away, never uttering a word. And there’s my answer, he thought dismally, the little bird hates me.

And off they rode, bound north. Sansa rode in front of him beside Beric, the breeze blowing her pretty scent into his nostrils. She smelled like lavender and roses and lemons — everything good in the world. Absolutely nothing like that wild little sister of hers he had traveled with years ago. Along the way, Thoros served him a few mocking smirks, to which Sandor would pull on Stranger’s reins and attempt to knock him off his horse. 

Sansa rode in silence, and as graceful as she was atop her horse, there was tenseness to her that troubled him. Is it because of me?  he wondered before realizing how presumptuous that was. If what Thoros says is true, she only recently stabbed a man. And before that, she lost her husband. Who knows what else the little bird has seen.

The overcast, along with the onset of winter, gave them less hours to travel while it was still light. Soon enough, the sun would be setting, and shelter was few and far in between. When they caught the rare sight of a peasant house in the distance, Beric immediately gestured for them to veer off in that direction.

The place was a ruin. Earth once scorched by fire slowly being covered by a mantle of snow, stones crumbled apart and scattered all around. And there were a couple of corpses, too, unburied and rotting, but Sansa didn’t even flinch. Of course she wouldn’t, Sandor thought, she’s seen far worse in the Red Keep. Her own father’s head on a spike being one. Upon the sight, Beric tugged on his horse’s reins to a halt and dismounted, unsheathing his sword. 

“You two wait here with the lady. There may be outlaws.”

Outlaws ?” Sandor bellowed. “You’re an outlaw!” He was growing tired of Beric’s displays of chivalry but decided to stay mounted on his stallion in the event there were indeed outlaws. Perhaps I’ll find myself lucky and an archer will place a quarrel in both of their heads. Then I’ll be able to take Sansa home by myself, just like I should have done three years ago.

Beric disappeared into the house, minutes passing without a single sign of him. Just when Sandor got his hopes up, the lord returned and gave them the all-clear. Sandor released a groan of displeasure. The three drew forward closer and dismounted their horses. The wind was picking up, and soon there would be yet another mild winter storm. As strong as they were becoming in the Riverlands, Sandor could scarcely imagine what awaited them in the North.

“In a month, my lady, you’ll be back home in Winterfell,” Beric began, helping Sansa dismount her horse. Sandor’s teeth grinded as he watched the lord place his hands on her waist. Had they stayed there a second longer than necessary, Sandor might have ripped his sword from its scabbard. “Perhaps less than a month should the weather favor us.”

“Are you blind in that one eye of yours, Dondarrion, or did the Others take your wits?” Sandor interrupted. “The weather is not like to favor us, not for one bloody day.” 

“Careful, Clegane.”

“How long have you been traveling north, my lord?” she asked swiftly. 

As Sandor tied Stranger out beside the house, he watched Sansa lift open her saddle bag before quickly closing it shut, looking over her shoulder at the two men beside her, and then at him, chewing on her plump bottom lip. 

The little bird is hiding something. That intrigued him. Everything about her intrigued him.

“Thoros and I have been traveling for a fortnight now. We chanced upon Clegane a few days ago.”

She didn’t respond to that and quietly untied another bag from the saddle to carry inside. 

“Hand that here, my lady,” Beric said, relieving her of the burden.  

Sansa gave him a cordial smile. “Thank you, my lord.”

More chivalry FUCK.

The peasant house was gloomy and cold, the only light provided by the little of the setting sun that bled through the thickening clouds and spilled into the open windows, many of which no longer had shutters. In the middle of the house was a fire pit, to which Thoros had been drawn to, lighting it aflame the moment he sat down. There was a second room adjacent to where he stood, smaller and duskier than the first, and Sansa walked right around him to enter it without so much as a glance.  

She doesn’t just hate me, he thought, she fucking loathes me. Even so, Sandor placed his longsword and bedroll down inside the nook behind him. It was a queer sort of addition for a peasant house, underneath a shutterless window that let in a flakes of snow, but it was just beside the room Sansa had chosen. He decided he’d sit there that night much like he used to stand guard outside her bedchamber in the Red Keep. Back when she used to speak to me. Back before the bloody Blackwater.

An hour later, there was progress. 

The provisions he and the Brotherhood had were scarce and old besides. The winter made it harder to find game, and the earth had been scorched and raided so many times in the Riverlands that it was all but impossible to find anything of substance. Sandor was convinced that more men would die traveling to the North by starvation than by wolves or outlaws. Sansa, on the other hand, traveled with plenty of provisions — suspiciously plenty. That intrigued him again. However she managed to escape Littlefinger’s clutch, she didn’t do so impulsively, he thought. She’s well-prepared. The clever little bird plotted her escape.

As they ate that evening around the fire, Sansa willingly offered them bread that was not hard and cheese that was not moldy. Beric politely declined, but she would hear none of it and gave it to him anyway. Thoros declined, too, but just as quickly held out his hand. When she got to him she didn’t say a word, gently tossing the food into his lap before sitting back down on the other side of the fire. When he glanced down at the bread and cheese Sansa had given him, he noticed that the portions were larger than what she had given to Beric and Thoros. Sandor looked up and caught her looking at him across the flames, her flawless, pale face glowing orange in the burning light, and thought he saw a gleam in her eye.

After a quiet supper, she bidded the men good night, stole one last glance in his direction, and departed into the other room. 

Sandor retired shortly after, sitting in the chilly, shallow, yet somewhat private, nook. His head fell down to his chest as he dozed off listening to Beric and Thoros murmur to one another beside the flames until they finally found sleep. As tired as Sandor was, he was restless still. Every time he closed his eyes he could see her, the rosy color in her cheeks from the cold, the rich, vibrant color of her hair, the curve of her lips when she smiled, even when it was not for him. 

Remembering the details made the peasant home ten times warmer. Sandor’s blood rushed in his veins as if he had just fought in battle, rampant with bloodlust. He hadn’t felt such a desire since that night green fire filled the sky and he had turned his back on the king, turned his back on all he had ever served, and came to her in the middle of it, drunk and savage. I should have taken her with me, he thought for the thousandth time. I should never have threatened her. Of all the things he atoned for on the Quiet Isle, that had been the hardest. Repenting for his urges to have her that night, whether she willed it or not, stole many nights’ sleep from him. The more he thought about it, the more he understood why she wouldn’t speak to him. All the monsters she faced in the capital, and in our last moment together, I became another one of them. 

He hated the memory, but a part of him loved it, too. A part of him that would never die, the same part of every man that wouldn’t die until the day he did — the desire, the lust, the craving of flesh. Even drunk and terror-stricken by the alchemists’ flames, Sandor could remember how it felt to have her body underneath his own, how her breath felt against his face, how her hand cupped his cheek…  

The nook was private enough, the men across the room asleep, so Sandor gave in to his enduring brutish desire and let his hand slip underneath the furs covering his legs and inside his trousers. He was already hard, vexingly so, and stroked himself to the thought of her. It wouldn’t be the first time he had done it, nor would it be the last. And just then, the images in his head were clearer than ever upon reuniting with her. 

He first thought of her skin, as pale as the snow drifting inside through the shutterless window, then he thought of her eyes, two brilliant sapphires, yet more beautiful still. He thought of her lips, those soft pink lips, and how they parted just slightly when she saw him. Sandor imagined himself parting those lips with his tongue, how those lips would look parting for his cock and what they’d feel like as they slid up and down. He wondered what cries of pleasure might escape those lips while she lay underneath him, fucking her not like a whore, but like the only woman he could never forget no matter the time or distance. Sandor clenched his jaw to prevent himself from moaning at the thought, but a grunt of satisfaction proceeded to leave him anyway. 

Fuck. His eyes opened, and his hand immediately came to a halt. I’ll never hear the end of Thoros’ japes if he finds me with my cock in my hand. Sandor sat there motionless for a time, listening for any activity, but only heard the crackling of flames and the squalling of wind. He let his head fall back against the wall and resumed his pace, closing his eyes to return to Sansa Stark, the only way he’d ever have her. He was nearing his climax thinking of how she had touched him that night three years ago. A single, innocent touch, yet somehow the memory of it was more titillating than the rest. In that same instant, his balls elevated, his eyes clenched shut, and his seed expelled into his hand. Sandor released sharp breaths in an effort to subdue the profane shouts he’d have sooner vocalized. And for a split second afterwards, he was faced with an overwhelming sense of clarity, and disgust along with it. 

That poor bloody girl, Sandor thought, wiping his wet hand onto the furs in his lap. She’s been through enough. She doesn’t need me getting myself off to the thought of her on top of it all. As guilt and lethargy consumed him in the minutes after, he heard feet pattering outside the nook, followed by the sound of a soft-spoken voice. 

“Sandor.” 

He sat there with his eyes closed, wondering if he had fallen asleep and was only dreaming of her. Once he heard another step, his eyes shot open to discover her standing in the entrance, the fire in the room behind her accentuating her womanly silhouette no longer covered by the cloak, her auburn hair glowing like a flame itself. Despite the clouds veiling the night sky, her eyes glittered with the scarce moonlight that trickled into the window. The guilt hit him like an iron fist to the throat, undeserving of casting his eyes upon such beauty, let alone speaking to her.

But Sansa was there, her arms wrapped around the front of her waist, and no longer was she silent. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

Sandor blinked a few more times to confirm that he wasn’t dreaming before clearing his throat. “You didn’t.” The response was unintentionally curt, and he expected her to leave just as quickly as she approached. Instead, she looked over her shoulder and took a step closer. 

“I wanted to apologize to you,” she said in hushed tones.

The words confounded him. I should be the one apologizing to her, he thought, for placing a dagger to her throat, for pleasuring myself to the thought of her…again. 

“For?” That response came across as rude, too. Fuck. Now she’ll definitely leave. 

But she didn’t. Sansa stood there, unwavering. “For not speaking with you today. I hope you’ll forgive me, but...seeing you today was like seeing a ghost. For years, I thought you were dead.” There wasn’t disappointment in the tone of her voice like he anticipated, but something else. If Sandor didn’t know any better, he might even say there was relief.

“You and the rest of Westeros.” He visibly cringed and threw his head back against the wall. Why is it so bloody hard to speak to her? 

In the shadowy recess, Sandor could not clearly see her expression, but he could hear her gentle sigh. “Well, I’m glad you’re not,” said Sansa and proceeded to turn away.

The sight of her leaving instilled a sense of panic. “Little bird, wait.”

Sansa’s hand lingered on the wooden beam separating the alcove from the main room as she stood there with her back to him, almost frozen. “I haven’t heard that in so long,” she whispered. The hand on the beam abruptly left to cover her mouth, and that’s when he realized she didn’t mean to say that aloud. She lowered her hand before turning around, and took not one step forward, but two, standing fully inside the nook. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry.” The two words fell out. He had a lot to be sorry for and wished for years to have the chance to say it to her. And just then, he could. So he said it again. “I’m sorry, girl.”

Sansa took a half-step forward, and his heart skipped a beat when she sat down with her legs brushing against the furs. Even after traveling, the scent that lingered on her smelled sweet. He couldn’t understand it. 

“Sorry about what?” she asked.

Where do I begin? Where do I end?  “Everything,” Sandor decided to say, knowing that they’d be there until dawn should he list all of the things he said and did to her that were wrong. 

When a gust of wind tore open the window shutters inside the main room, Sansa startled and gripped his arm. The connection was as intoxicating as downing three flagons of Arbor red, and more than that, it was stimulating.  Sandor could have spent himself again inside his trousers from the touch alone. The dainty fingers on his forearm all but called out to him, begging for him to take her hand and kiss them just as Thoros had. He would have, too, had he not been terrified of pushing her away again.

Sansa looked at him, and then at her hand. “Oh, forgive me.” Her voice quivered when she spoke. She released her grip gradually, hesitant, and glanced over her shoulder. 

His arm felt naked without her touch. “Afraid of something?” It was a foolish question, he knew, and a condescending one at that. Fuck.

“No,” she whispered, “not anymore.”

That made him want to smile. That made him want to cry. A grown woman she may be, but she’s still too young to have seen what she’s seen. Years ago I tried to warn her, I tried to open her eyes to see how twisted and cruel this world is, but now that she has seen it for herself, I’d do anything to take it back. 

“I won’t let anyone hurt you again, little bird.” Sandor had never felt less in control than he did in that moment, thoughtlessly saying things he would have only been able to say if he were belligerently drunk or minutes away from death.

Sansa smiled, not the same way she smiled at Beric and Thoros, not even the same way he used to catch her smiling at the Knight of Flowers years ago in King’s Landing. It was something unique, genuine and pure but not naive like a girl’s, a mature affection solely for him, or at least he hoped. She reached over and grabbed his hand, the one that had only recently been stroking his cock, and brushed the top of it with her thumb.

“I know,” Sansa said. 

Engrossed by her, utterly captivated by the woman she had become, he considered taking that smooth hand and placing it onto his lips, running it along his marred face. And just when he would have done it, frightening her away be damned, footsteps approached. 

“Lady Sansa, is everything all right?” Beric Dondarrion asked.

I’ve killed him before, why not kill him again?  Sandor thought. And Thoros, too, that way he’ll stay dead. 

Sansa removed her hand all at once and stood up from the ground. “Yes, my lord. Just a bit restless.” Before she left, Sansa gave him another smile, one that he could only describe as profoundly bewitching. Sandor knew at that moment he would never be able to leave her again. “Good night, Sandor. And you, too, Lord Beric.”

“Sleep well, my lady,” the lightning lord said. After she left, Beric loitered in the nook, shaking his head while crouching down beside him. “Clegane…”

A gust of wind outside stirred harshly, matching his own growing frustrations. “Go on, get on with it.”

His one good eye never left his face, the other hidden underneath a bandage from where his brother, Gregor, had stabbed him with a dirk; that had been Beric’s fourth death. “She’s Sansa Stark.”

“Aye, she is.”

“The Lady of Winterfell,” Beric added, “the Lady of the Eyrie.”

“And you’re a lord, is that it?” he uttered with bitter resentment. “Make your fucking point.”

“Clegane, how long has it been since you’ve had a woman?” 

Sandor knew where the conversation was headed and stifled a chuckle. “Not as long as you, I’d wager.”

Beric did not share his amusement. “Years you were on that island. I safely presume there are no brothels on the Quiet Isle.”

“Brothels,” he scoffed. “You think brothels mean spit to me?”

“You had a reputation in the capital.”

“So did that bloody priest of yours, but I don’t see you scolding him.”

The lord’s lips grew thin and firm. “I trust Thoros. I trust him with my life.”

Sandor snorted. “All seven of them?” 

The scarecrow of a man regarded him warily for a moment before standing from the ground and delivering a weary sigh. “We will return the lady to Winterfell — untouched.” Without another word, Beric exited. Seconds later, Sandor could hear him stirring the fire as he mumbled a prayer to his flaming god and cursed the both of them under his breath.

Restlessness found him again, and the recess felt colder. Part of him wanted to pick up his sword and duel the dead lord chanting to the fire while another wanted to go into Sansa’s room and lay with her, feel her touch, feel those lips that smiled at him press against his own while he held her underneath him and lifted up her dress...

Fuck, he thought as his blood rushed south. Sandor waited for Beric to grow quiet before traveling his hand back underneath the furs and into his trousers. This is the only way I’ll ever have her, he knew, pleasuring himself again to the thought of Sansa Stark.