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In the Heart of the Night

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Prologue

When her voice trailed off, she feared he might kill her, but after a moment the Hound took the blade from her throat, never speaking.

Some instinct made her lift her hand and cup his cheek with her fingers. The room was too dark for her to see him, but she could feel the stickiness of the blood, and the wetness that was not blood. Something inside her unlocked and emboldened her to speak.

"I cannot go with you and I do not want you to go either," she whispered. "They'll catch us, they will not give up."

In her inner eye, she saw them on the road, dirty, hungry and weak; hounded mercilessly until their strength, even his seemingly inexhaustible one, gave out. And just now, it was easy to see that he had weaknesses too.

She kept caressing his face, the leathery, uneven texture of his scars oddly familiar, and suddenly the thought of never seeing his face again, of never again feeling dwarfed by his intimidating size, and of never having him spit his hurtful truths at her grew unbearable. Unimaginable.

"I don't want you to die," she whispered, only when she heard herself saying those words knowing how true they were. On a level she yet failed to comprehend, he was important to her.

And if his coming here, offering escape, meant anything at all, it surely meant he felt something similar.

He made a sound in his throat, a small, broken thing.

"Little bird," he said once more, his voice raw and harsh as steel on stone. Then she heard cloth ripping and footsteps retreating.

Chapter 1

Cersei turned to her, skirts swishing with the abrupt movement.

"I will not see my son humiliated, do you understand?" she hissed between clenched teeth, green eyes flashing anger. "You're to act humiliated and sad."

Sansa nodded, already fighting valiantly against the urge to smile her relief, to lift her face to the sky and thank the gods – old and new – for her deliverance.

"I understand, your grace", she said demurely, looking down on her clasped hands. "I am indeed very sorry King Joffrey chose to end our engagement, though I fully understand his reasoning."

Cersei looked somewhat satisfied.

Tywin Lannister, the man who had told her that Joffrey would marry Margery Tyrell instead of herself, looked bored with the proceedings and dismissed her with an imperious wave of his hands.

"What is to be done about the deserter?" he asked Cersei when Sansa was on her way out, a spring in her step, despite her best efforts of acting distraught.

Her blood ran cold all of a sudden, her elation evaporating. She slowed her pace to be able to hear the rest of the conversation.

"As far as everyone tells me, Clegane hasn't deserted, he was just… otherwise occupied for a while, nobody knew where he went in all the chaos," Cersei said, waving her hand dismissively. "You know he sometimes has ideas of his own and I, for one, could understand him being unwilling to follow Tyrion's orders."

She made a face that clearly showed her disgust at even mentioning her brother's name. Sansa had never understood the deep hatred this woman seemed to feel for her own brother.

"They said when he came back a while later, he went berserk on everyone standing in his way," Cersei went on when Tywin didn't respond. "He practically held the mud gate by himself, knee deep in the bodies of the men he'd killed, while all my brother managed was getting his face cut in half."

Sansa thought it a bit unfair to expect from a man as disfavoured by nature like Tyrion Lannister the same as one would expect from a giant like the Hound. She also wondered why Cersei of all people would defend a man who to her was little more than a servant. But since it was her who had chosen Sandor Clegane to be Joffrey's sworn shield – a task he so far had done admirably – she might feel it was a matter of not being wrong about the man she had placed this much trust in.

"I don't care about his heroics," Tywin snapped. "He turned craven at a critical moment. He is a liability."

Sansa wished she could be invisible. Fortunately, nobody seemed to notice that she was still standing in the doorway.

Cersei again made a dismissive gesture.

"I really do not care what you do with him. I just think the elder Clegane will take it amiss if we kill him and so will Joffrey."

'Ah, there was the real reason,' Sansa thought, for once relieved that even Joffrey's mother wasn't keen on suffering his displeasure.

"Nobody said something about killing him," Tywin said, sounding more and more impatient. "He's to be stripped of his Whites to show he dishonoured himself. We need a place in the Kingsguard anyway to give to the Tyrell boy. Clegane can practice with the soldiers, gods know the Roses can use someone who teaches them how to hold a sword."

Sansa sent a heartfelt prayer of thanks to the Seven, her steps so light nobody heard her leaving.

She wasn't to marry Joffrey and the Hound wouldn't be punished for choosing to heed her plea.

She woke that night with a start at the disconcerting feeling that someone was in her room. Before she could do anything else, a large hand clamped over her mouth.

"Don't scream, it's me," a rasping voice demanded.

She let out a shuddering breath.

"Oh…" she said, "it's you."

She winced a little at the thought that she probably couldn't have sounded more witless if she had tried. She waited for some derisive remark, but was only given a quiet snort.

"Are you alright?" he asked a moment later, the question apparently his reason for being here.

"Yes," she said, reaching out into the darkness. Her hand met rough cloth covering a limb bunching with hard muscle that she surmised must have been his upper arm. "Yes I am."

There were a lot more words that needed to be said, things she somehow should express: her thanks for him trying to take her away, her gratefulness that he was still around, looking out for her; relief that nothing truly bad had happened to him. But the words didn't come and she doubted he would want to hear them anyway. She just tightened the grip on his arm for a second in a fleeting and unobtrusive caress.

"I thought you'd be more relieved at being rid of Joffrey."

He sounded angry, but then he always did. She wondered where he had been during the announcement, she had tried through the whole ordeal to catch sight of him.

"I am," she said hastily. "But they forbid me to show it."

He snorted again.

"Figures".

"What about you?" she asked, when nothing else came from him. "Are you… disappointed?"

He barked a short laugh, so full of derision it made her flinch, but she kept her hand on his arm.

"Not having to stand around for hours on end, watching the little fucker ruin everyone and everything he gets his fucking hands on, yeah, that's a real disappointment."

A rough, calloused fingertip fleetingly glanced over the back of the hand, sending a curious spark of warmth up her arm.

"Will be getting harder stepping in between you and him now, though."

She hung her head and let her hand fall back into her lap.

"I know," she whispered. "Dontos said…"

Realization hitting a bit too late, she gasped and clapped her hand over her mouth.

His sudden alertness was almost audible, a hound catching the scent of prey.

"Dontos," he rasped, "What the fuck have you to do with Dontos?" The strain of not being able to yell at her lest he would make his presence here known was making his voice break and grate like a rusty iron door and when she didn't answer, two huge hands clamped around her arms, shaking her a little.

"Tell me, you little fool, what fucking mess have you gotten yourself into now?"

Fear flashed briefly through her, cold and numbing, but then the same indefinable something that had given her courage the other night reared its head and chased it away.

"Dontos approached me a few weeks back," she told him. "He told me he can help me get away."

A few minutes and what had felt like a thousand questions later, he had the whole of the story out of her; including - to her acute embarrassment - the details about how Dontos made free with her personal space.

The Hound had risen from the bed and paced her room with steps that to her ear sounded agitated and angry.

As if it was the most pressing of her concerns at the moment, she made a mental note to keep a candle at her bedside from now on, just in case of further nightly visits. One never knew.

"This stinks of the buggering Spider," he finally concluded, "or Littlefinger. Dontos cannot lace his own breeches these days, he wouldn't know how to come up with something like this."

He resumed pacing and then abruptly sat down on the bed, the mattress dipping deeply under his weight.

"So I wasn't good enough to take you away, but he was?" he asked into the darkness.

She opened her mouth to tell him how this was completely different, but suddenly realized that from his point of view - well, from every point of view - there was no difference at all. Even the Hound's drunkenness that night wasn't a viable excuse, because even that night he wasn't half as drunk as Dontos seemed to be most of the time.

He had stayed because she asked him to and now he must feel as if she had used him, betrayed him.

Dark as it was, she could feel his eyes on her, anger blazing from them, could hear his harsh intakes of breath as he waited for an answer.

"Back when he asked, I was desperate," she said at long last. "When you asked, the world was on fire and I was so afraid... of everything..." she trailed off for a moment and then added, "just the thought of stepping out of my room was unbearable".
It wasn't much of an explanation at all, but she felt the tension between them ebbing a bit.

"You have to make a choice," he said after a while.

"I've made my choice," she answered, reaching for his arm again. "I've made it when I begged you to stay."

He put a large hand over hers and squeezed a little. "Alright then," he rumbled and there was a tangible significance and importance to these two words that made it clear that a promise had been made and a pact had been sealed.

"I have to find out who's behind this," he said finally, withdrawing his hand from hers. "For now, keep meeting him if he asks, I'll find a way for you to let me know what happens."

He got up again and it sounded as if he was going to leave, but then he halted. When he spoke, his voice came from somewhere near the door, quiet but insistent.

"If he so much as breathes on you again, I'll cut off his hands… among other things."

It didn't even sound particular threatening. More like the statement of a fact – an undeniable one.

And despite the ugliness of the threat, she couldn't help feeling safe and protected.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

It had been surprisingly easy for Sandor to find out who was behind Dontos' gallant offer to take Sansa away. While following Dontos around for a while yielded nor more results than to affirm that the bugger was indeed a sorry piece of human waste, he all but stumbled upon Littlefinger personally overseeing the maintenance and loading of a smart looking ship in the harbour; taking on board not the usual cargo for sailing vessels, but assorted household goods and provisions, as if someone was planning a longer trip and wanted to be well prepared.

The pieces fell into place at this observation, the only thing unclear was why he wanted to wait as long as Joffrey's wedding, which could be months. He would almost bet they'd wait until the turn of the century. Surely all the families involved where puffed up enough to think only a date like this worthy of such a marriage.

He thought about what and how much to tell the little bird while carefully making his way towards her chamber. His new position still afforded him access to the inner corridors of Maegor's Holdfast and most guards and soldiers had taken to treating him as if he wasn't there anyway, probably as some sort of twisted punishment for his supposed cowardice in battle.

The stupidity of letting a dog who was without a master roam freely almost made him smile. Of course he'd tried to act as penitent as he could about manage, even to the point where he had to admit to a personal weakness when it came to fire, but being free of having to be around the Lannisters all the time had been worth sacrificing a piece of his pride.

Not that he there was much to be proud of when it came to him anyway.

What he had kept carefully to himself was that he didn't feel any different towards the whole bunch of them than he had in his drunken haze at the night of the Blackwater. If they ever had any claim to his loyalty, to his allegiance, they had lost all of it when Joffrey first gave the order to hurt a helpless girl who was supposed to be under his protection.

There had been a time when he would have been indifferent to that; one couldn't spend years in Joffrey Baratheon's service and not learn to live with the various cruelties he liked to inflict on others.

But try as he might, he wasn't indifferent to the girl who was everything he wasn't, who had given him compassion when he had tried to scare her; who had given him a song and a kind touch when he had been so very close to raping her.

A strange sort of cramp twisted his gut when he reached her door and remembered how she had reached out to him the night before, her hand like a bird's wing on his arm, gentle and trusting. Always trusting, as if she hadn't been betrayed enough to hammer the lesson home that no one could be trusted.

But there she went and trusted that sodding fool Dontos and – even worse – him.

He pushed the nauseating feeling away and chalked it up to not having had the time to eat properly, what with skulking around after piss-drunken fools and devious traitors.

She was already awake when he stepped towards her bed, lighting a small candle on her nightstand.

"I am glad you came," she chirped her empty courtesy, something that never failed to set his teeth on edge.

"Stop your peeping," he snarled "I'm not in the mood."

As if to underscore the point, his stomach chose this moment to rumble loudly.

Her eyes rounded.

"You are hungry," she observed with her own special brand of astuteness that did nothing to alleviate his anger.

He glowered at her in a way that would send most people running screaming in the opposite direction and added, "…and not just for food."

Her eyes briefly clouded with fear but it vanished almost as soon as it had appeared and she gave him a fleeting smile before jumping out of her bed. He hadn't quite figured out what she was up to, when she rummaged around on the table near the window and soon came back bearing two wooden plates sumptuously piled with bread, cheese, fruit and dried meat.

"My maids insist on leaving this here every night," she said. "They say I do not eat enough and that I look unhealthy."

He ripped his eyes away from the food long enough to squint at her. While he wouldn't exactly concur that she looked unhealthy, a maid of sixteen sure enough could use some more meat on her bones.

Contemplating her body made him realise that he hadn't even lied when he said he was hungry for more than food and quickly focused on the food issue again.

"I'll eat if you do," he said, his stomach gurgling again as if protesting having to share.

She smiled and nodded, giving him another stomach cramp as she did, and daintily picked a piece of cheese and a couple of grapes.

"Your turn."

He fell on the plates with all the refinement of a starving dog being thrown a slab of meat.

When he looked up at her, she opened her mouth for a moment, but then snapped it shut again.

"Got something to say?" he inquired around a mouthful of food.

She shook her head, averting her eyes.

Again, something that always seemed to made his blood boil. Of course, people averted their eyes from him all the time, he should be used to it. And he was. But for some perverse reason, he wanted her to look at him, to see him.

With a piece of bread still in his fist, he reached out and turned her head toward him.

"If you insist on feeding me, you better get used to the sight."

Something sparkled in her eyes at that, like a glint of sun on a piece of ice.

"I just don't want you to choke on your food or make yourself sick, that's all," she said haughtily, raising her chin away from his fist. "It would be inconvenient."

Her show of resistance cheered him a bit and he turned his attention back to his food.

"It's Littlefinger," he said after a while, licking the juice of a pomegranate from his fingers. His hand looked as if he had just killed someone. "Behind Dontos, I mean," he clarified at seeing her confusion.

Her eyes widened.

"But why?"

"No idea," he admitted. "But I mean to find out."

He stood then, shaking some leftover crumbs from his tunic.

"Be careful around Dontos, little bird," he said while walking to her door. "Everything you tell him will get back to Littlefinger."

He reached for the door but then – as an afterthought – remembered some courtesies of his own. He hadn't been brought up in a barn, after all.

"Thank you for the food."

"You're welcome," she answered and added hastily "and please... can't you stay a while longer?"

Again his stomach lurched slightly. Maybe he really shouldn't have eaten quite so voraciously.

He turned around slowly, somewhat at loose ends why she would make such a request.

"Why?"

"You wouldn't believe how boring my days are," she said, looking up at him pleadingly while he felt himself being drawn back towards her bed. Her bed of all places! This was shaping up to being a very bad idea.

"Almost nobody talks to me, I am mostly alone and I thought that maybe your day had some more excitement and you could tell me about it and then things wouldn't be so boring and…"

He lifted his hands in an attempt to stop the incessant flow of words.

"Alright, alright," he acquiesced. "Might as well tell you how I found out."

A few minutes later, he bemusedly found himself holding forth on his various adventures during the day, and with even bigger astonishment found himself recounting some of the events in a way he knew would make her giggle. In retrospect, Donto's antics had been somewhat entertaining.

And it was good to see her smile, to see her eyes glow and sparkle, even though he couldn't have explained what exactly it was good for.

"Thank you," she said when he was done and indicated that he had to leave.

It occurred to him that this was no empty courtesy at all. Maybe because it was accompanied by her putting her soft hand over his paw and pressing lightly which made his insides hurt in a way that was slowly becoming familiar.

He nodded jerkily and went to the door, very keen on leaving as fast as he could.

"Will you come back?" she asked when he was almost in the clear. She didn't even bother to hide the pleading in her voice.

"I will," he told the door and left.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

He came back the next night and the night after that and somewhere around that time he must have given up on inventing reasons for doing it, he just did. Mostly because she had asked him to.

He did not always have something new to tell about Dontos or Littlefinger or anything else really pertaining to her security or her future, but she listened to him nonetheless, with unwavering attention, with slight smiles and sometimes quiet giggles or appropriate noises of distress, depending on what he was telling her.

In return, she plied him with food (which was a million times more edible than what the cooks at the barracks dared to call a meal) and even made it a point to have a flagon of sour red at hand for him to wash it down with. He always insisted she share the meal with him and urged her to do more than just pick one or two grapes.

She told him things she had heard at court or just recounted her day which he still found sort of interesting, if only because it was a life so far removed from what was now shaping up to be his. He still couldn't quite understand how they somehow never ran out of things to recount, especially since they both were meticulously avoiding talking about their families, or anything else that had happened before the Blackwater.

No painful memories, no awkward reminiscences about things no one could change anymore, none of the hurtful truths he had before always lectured her about, nothing that would disturb the peace they had somehow managed to build between them.

It was almost laughable how no one had caught on to their little secret. True enough, during the night, no guard would think to look into the bedchamber of someone who was still an official guest of the royal family, but then again, it seemed disturbingly easy to sneak in there and out again shortly before first light.

Further inquiry revealed that there was a gap of about an hour in the schedules of the guards assigned to this part of the holdfast. He resolved that for this reason alone, he would have to see to it that no harm came to the little bird during this hour.

Apparently, her maids didn't think it odd that Sansa, who before had not touched a single piece of food that they left her every night, suddenly seemed to have developed such a ravenous appetite that she cleared two full plates on a regular nightly basis.

She never failed to thank him for coming even though honour compelled him to admit – if only to himself – that he enjoyed his time with her at least as much as she claimed she did.

He enjoyed having her look and smile at him as if his face wasn't a horror that everyone shied away from, he enjoyed watching the candlelight playing over her hair, making the soft strands look like liquid fire. He enjoyed just sitting together and talking about their day as if there was nothing remotely unusual about his nightly visits.

"I found something today," he told her during a lull in their conversation one night.

She perked up, eyes wide with anticipation.

He rummaged around in his pocket and produced a white stone. It was about as big as a quails' egg, smooth and white, just as every other stone on the walkways in the gardens. Only this one had a curious inclusion, a piece of quartz that had twinkled up at him when he walked by it, blue as Sansa's eyes.

He gave it to her.

"Just a stone I found today, but it… reminded me of you," he finished lamely. He wasn't about to wax romantic about her eyes, he felt idiotic enough as it was, giving a simple stone to a highborn girl who wasn't lacking in jewellery.

She just stared at the stone, her mouth hanging open.

"You can throw it away," he said when she continued to be silent. "I know it's worthless."

The words weren't quite out of his mouth when she flew at him, almost toppling him backwards and threw her arms around him.

"Thank you," she murmured, the side of her soft face pressed against the ruined side of his, holding on to him as if her life depended on it. "It's beautiful, I love it."

He cursed silently while awkwardly patting her back. At the best of times, her insistence on touching him all the time - his hands, his arms, sometimes even his face – made his insides hurt. In the more severe cases, it made him want to throw her on the bed and fuck her until they both had their fill of touching.

But this, this was a whole new level of madness, something he quite simply refused to deal with.

He roughly disentangled himself from her embrace and shoved her back to where she had been before.

"Don't make such a fuss over nothing," he grated, stood up and turned to leave.

"It's not nothing," she said behind him, a note of steel in her voice that she reserved for special occasions when she found it necessary to stand up to him.

He turned and saw her clutching the stupid stone to her chest.

Her eyes shimmered blue and deep, dangerous, almost.

"… and you know it."

SANSA

She knew she'd made a mistake the moment the door closed behind him and she had her suspicion confirmed when he didn't show up the next night.

When dawn broke and he still hadn't appeared, she had cried for a while, but since crying had never accomplished anything so far, she had washed her face and tried to give the matter some thought, to find out what she had done wrong.

During the hours of her waiting for him, she had held the stone he'd given her in her hand and now held it up into the sunlight. The stone was perfectly shaped, smooth and even whiter now in the light of the new day as it had looked in the candlelight. The crystalline inclusion sparkled and glittered coldly blue, just as he had said.

Tears welled up again as she thought of how he had given it to her, expecting her to discard it as worthless when it was one of the most thoughtful, the most precious gifts she'd ever received.

A gift, she vowed, she would never part with.

To that end, she rummaged around in her jewellery box until she found a long, silver chain that fit her purpose and then got a thick needle from her sewing basket and set to work to drill a hole into the stone that was of a chalk-like material, so there was some hope that this could work.

She didn't make much progress at first, especially since she didn't want to damage the stone more than absolutely necessary. But if there was anything she had in abundance these days, it was time.

Meanwhile, her thoughts wandered inevitably back to last night, to his reaction to something that to her had felt so natural, so comfortable, she couldn't grasp why he would shove her away like he had.

Every time she touched him, he seemed to recoil, to draw back, as if her touch was painful to him or revolting in some way. This behaviour made even less sense in the light of how he had pressed his body against hers at the night of the Blackwater, when his face had been so close to hers she had been sure he would kiss her. Had expected him to.

Or maybe this was the very reason he so carefully kept her at arm's length now. He was ashamed of how he had acted back then, drunken on wine and fear as he was, and now had resolved to keep the appropriate distance.

Only that now, she was finding herself resenting this distance. She knew she took any opportunity she got to touch him, to feel the strength of his body in the hardness of the muscles of his arms, the size of his hands or the harshness of his face.

Back at Winterfell, when she was a little girl, her father had been the tallest and strongest man she knew. She remembered being picked up and cradled against a broad chest, held by sure, large hands that were never anything but gentle to her.

And last night, when she had embraced the Hound, had cuddled against the warm, solid wall of his chest, and he had – for a moment – put his arms around her, she had felt just as safe. And just as cherished.

Was this what she sought of him then? A substitute for the father she'd lost? Strong arms to shield and hold her?

She mulled that over while the point of the needle drilled deeper into the stone.

Yes, she finally decided, she wanted to feel safe and protected, but Sandor Clegane, while physically even more impressive, and with similar colouring to his hair and eyes, was nothing like her father and she was in no danger of mistaking both men for one another.

Even though, she remembered with a jolt, at one point a long time ago, she actually had.

Still, he was the man who had held a dagger to her throat and she couldn't look into his eyes without seeing the ever present anger there, lurking and prowling like a caged beast, guarding whatever could be found beyond, forever waiting for a chance to strike.

But there was something else, something she could see in his rare smiles or in the way he looked at her when she talked to him. Something that made her heart soar and flutter and her body ache to be close to him, to be touched the way she longed to touch him. Something she had definitely never felt for her father and that was consuming her now.

Her needle had made some progress by now, part of the stone came loose as a chalky white substance where the needle was supposed to come out again.

'What would it have been like if he'd kissed me?' she wondered, her thoughts again back at the night when she had asked him to stay.

The thought took root in her while her needle finally broke through the stone, having made way for the chain on which she intended to wear it.

'I have to be more bold,' she decided. Knowing that he despised it when she was shy and awkward around him, she had to show him that she didn't fear him. Much like a dog, actually, he could sense fear and hated it.

Carefully she drew the silver chain through the little hole she had made, clasped it together and lifted it over her head.

Looking at herself in the mirror, she smiled at her reflection while a plan was forming in her mind.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Sandor had resolved to keep his distance after the night in which he unexpectedly had found Sansa Stark throwing herself into his arms. Since he had neither a death wish nor any particular desire to make a fool of himself, two very likely scenarios for anyone being in her vicinity, judging by recent developments, he thought it a very smart and self-protecting decision.

It held for a whole day and night.

Then he saw her wandering by the training yard, for all intents and purposes as if this was a regular occurrence. She wore a simple grey dress and had her hair braided in the unostentatious style the Northerners preferred on their women. He mused for a moment how odd it seemed to see her in something else than her nightdress, when he noticed the weird necklace she was wearing.

It was the stone. She had fixed it to a delicate, long silver chain and wore it so that the stone was nestled in the valley between her breasts. Combined with her blatant disregard for the current fashion dictates of King's Landing, the simple ornament left her looking out of place.

Beautiful though. Sansa Stark, it appeared, didn't need expensive dresses and elaborate hair-styles or priceless jewels. She took his breath away in just a grey dress with a white stone around her neck.

Like a diamond that showed its true beauty only in the simplest of settings.

He was given no further chance to admire his present on her, because at that precise moment the soldier he had been sparring with had recovered from the blow he had landed seconds before and noticed his preoccupation, using it smartly to swing his sword at him.

Instincts born from a lifetime of fighting had him duck the blow and having the worst of it glance of his sword, but the blade now came at him at a weird angle and its tip graced his cheek.

He let loose a string of expletives that had his opponent running for cover, but when he turned, Sansa was gone.

"I am sorry," was the first but unfortunately not the only thing she said to him when he came to her that night.

"I should not have bothered you, not that night and not today in the yard," she whined at him, tears threatening to fall. "I cannot think what I would've done if he had killed you and it would've been my fault and…"

He shut her up by putting a hand roughly over her mouth.

"Quit your blubbering, little bird, or I'll be out of here," he growled, only belatedly realizing the oddity of him thinking this a viable threat.

Apparently, it was, because she nodded vigorously and he took his hand away.

"Firstly," he said, holding up one finger, "that whelp could not have killed me if I had been bound and blindfolded. It's an insult of you to think he could."

She opened her mouth, likely to apologize – again - but he forestalled her with an impatient gesture which made her bite her bottom lip. Which, in turn, made him forget what the second point had been.

"I missed you last night," she spoke into the ensuing silence.

He wasn't sure he had missed her. At some point in between the drinking and whoring and puking his guts out somewhere in the gutters of Flea Bottom, yes, maybe there had been a time when he had thought how much better it would've been if he'd been with her.

Not that he would ever tell her any of that.

He reached out and touched the stone on her chest.

"You are wearing it," he observed quietly.

"Because it's not nothing," she said. Then she drew herself up and pushed him backwards until he came to sit on her bed.

"And now you'll let me see to that cut you got because of me."

He rolled his eyes, but heroically resisted the urge to tell her it was nothing. Something told him that wouldn't go over all too well.

She came at him with a white cloth she had dipped into some yellowish liquid and started dabbing at his cheek.

"Seven buggering hells!"

He flinched away from her and gave her a menacing stare.

"What the fuck are you doing? This hurts worse than that fucking sword."

She glowered back at him.

"Cleaning the cut, which wouldn't have been necessary if you had been wise enough to see a maester to treat the wound!"

"A maester!"

He was torn between wanting to laugh or to howl.

"He would've keeled over laughing if I had come to him with this scratch."

"Well, too bad, now I am treating you, and you'll better take it like a man or it will scar."

He couldn't remember a single time in his miserable life when he had been this close to breaking down with hysterical laughter.

"Gods forbid it would scar. People would be shocked to see my handsome face ruined beyond recognition."

Her lips curled at the corners while she fought to stay serious, but she lost the fight against her mirth and chuckled softly.

"Still no reason for this to get worse than it is," she said, laughter still colouring her voice.

When she was done, she let her hand fall to her side and lifted the other to take his chin in her hand and turn his face sideways, looking critically at the good side of his face.

"I doubt people would ever have called you handsome, even without this," she said, indicating his scars with a nod of her head.

"Well, thank you," he gave back sardonically, wondering where her empty courtesies had gone to. This surely would've been a time for those.

"Not plain either," she continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Interesting, definitely…"

He wondered if whatever had been in the stuff she had put on his wound was making him lose his mind, making him envision Sansa fucking Stark musing about the relative merits of his visage.

"Manly, yes and … darkly attractive."

"Are you done?"

She smiled at him. A very secretive, deeply feminine smile. Something so far from innocent it disturbed him deeply.

He stood up abruptly, pushing her out of his way.

"I didn't come her to be mothered," he forced out between clenched teeth. "Or to be mocked."

He turned around but didn't get far before her hand was on the sleeve of his tunic.

"Sandor."

He froze at her use of his given name. They had somehow managed to do without. He called her little bird on occasion, she had stumbled over a few 'sers' and 'my lords' at first but since it was always only the two of them, names really weren't a necessity.

"I wasn't mocking you," she said in a small voice. "Please, don't go."

He took a deep breath, willing himself to just walk. Out of the door, away from her. Away from the sound of his name on her lips, away from her touches and her ministrations, away from her smiles.

He turned.

"Tell me about your day."

"Oh come on," he complained several nights later, "this wasn't half as funny as you make it out to be!"

Although he wasn't really complaining at all. Making her smile, or laugh, as the case was at the moment, was something he enjoyed rather more than he would've imagined. Currently she was in stitches about him telling her how badly Ser Wybald had disgraced himself during training this morning and how he had excused his abysmal performance with the demands his wife made of him every night in the bedchamber.

Far from being scandalized at the way he had put it into words, Sansa had since buried her face into her pillow to muffle the sound of her hysterics.

Finally she came up for air, red-faced with tears of laughter streaming down her flushed cheeks.

Seeing her like this brought the fact home very directly how much he suffered from nothing being demanded from him in any bedchambers lately. Besides being entertaining and companionable, that was.

"It's just," she wheezed, wiping her eyes, "that Lady Wybald remarked to the court ladies just this morning, that she rather wished her husband would 'use his sword' only half as often in their bedchamber as he claimed to use it in the training yard."

He snickered at that. Fit with what he thought of Wybald.

"And then," she continued, interrupting herself with another fit of the giggles, "she sighed and said 'although his sword is more like a little eating knife, really'."

He couldn't help himself. It wasn't even all that funny, but maybe people were right after all and laughter was infectious. Only that his surprised bark of laughter, not muffled by anything, reverberated loudly through her bedchamber, probably waking half the castle.

They both jerked upright, he from his comfortable slouch on the floor, she from her bed, and listened like startled deer for any sign of guards rushing towards her chamber.

When for long minutes nothing at all happened, they both breathed a sigh of relief, so synchronous it made Sansa giggle again.

"Stop it," he admonished with a grin. "You just saw what happened when you make me laugh."

She turned to him, mirth still dancing silvery in her eyes and put her hand on his face. The bad side, as always, which began to him annoy him solely for the reason that he could nary feel a thing on that side and he wanted to feel the softness of her hands on him more than he cared to admit.

"Yes, I saw and I think you do not laugh often enough," she stated with conviction. "You look years younger when you laugh."

"I rarely have reason to," he grumbled.

In all honesty, he had laughed, or at least been amused, more often in the last three weeks than he had in the last three years, maybe even longer.

These few stolen moments during the darkest hours of the night often filled him with such contentment as even a night spend between a whore's legs couldn't, and more quiet joy than he would've thought possible to find with a woman without fucking her.

Although fucking her was never far from his thoughts. Quite the contrary, unfortunately.

When he came back to his own little chamber, with her scent still clinging to him, her touches still burning on his skin and her smiles still fresh in his thoughts, stroking himself to a swift release was always the first order of business.

There had been a couple of moments when the urge to just grab her and kiss her was nearly overwhelming; even some where he thought she had looked as if she expected him to. But every single time he had held himself back, afraid of destroying the sanctuary they had created between themselves, the world where they both were content and untouchable and safe from everyone and everything outside.

He knew it was an illusion and a very fragile one at that, but he didn't mind living in it for one hour every night, like he wouldn't mind having a good dream once in a while. Happened rarely enough.

"I've something for you," she broke quietly into his thoughts and it took him some moments to focus. He had no idea how long he had been just staring at her and as always he tried to hide his embarrassment by clearing his throat and glowering at the floor for want of something else to glower at.

She rummaged to a drawer in a far corner of the room and came back with something she hid in her hands.

"A little boy down in the city was selling a couple of stones he had found on the beach," she explained. "This one," she opened her hands to reveal her present, "reminded me of you."

In her outstretched palm sat a piece of black stone, irregular and lumpy, but with a shiny black surface, smoothed – no doubt – by years of being washed over by water and sand. What made it special were the tiny glittering veins of a silvery mineral that criss-crossed its surface, making the light sparkling off of it like from a true gemstone.

"I've made a necklace out of it, so you could wear it... if you wish to, that is," she said when he didn't move to retrieve it. "It's only a leather cord, but this will not rip as easily as a silver chain would and I thought…"

She trailed off when he finally lifted his hand to pick the stone out of her palm.

Wearing any sort of jewellery wasn't at all customary for a man; maybe a ring, but not a necklace. But he would be damned if he ever took this one off for as long as he lived. They'd have to cut it from his cold, dead body.

He gave it back to her.

"Can you…" he started, but for some reason his voice came out like a croak and he had to clear his throat. "Can you help me put it on?"

She smiled and moved behind him to tie the leather strap into a tight knot, while he put the stone inside his shirt so it rested on his bare skin.

The stone was still warm from when she had held it in her hand and it felt to him as if the warmth was seeping into his skin, into his body. Thawing things that had been so deeply frozen, he had supposed they were dead.

With one hand over the place where the stone was, he fought against a sudden onslaught of emotions that were painfully churning and crashing inside of him like the waves of the sea in a violent storm.

Her smile was sweet and expectant when she sat in front of him again, but words failed him.

"Sansa, I…" he started but then shook his head.

As if to calm him, she put her hand over his, but that innocent gesture made things even worse.

She had embraced him, he remembered with sudden clarity. Maybe…

Before that thought had fully formed, he already had her face between his hands and his lips about an inch away from hers.

The urge to kiss her, to lay claim to her body just as completely as she had laid claim to his soul, was too much to fight. He rested his forehead against hers, not quite stopping what he was about to do, what his whole being demanded he'd do, but giving both of them a moment to come to terms with what was happening.

"Sansa," he whispered, their breath mingling, both of them breathing as if they'd been running.

She lifted her hands and put them on his upper arms, lightly caressing, as if she was telling him that she understood, that it was alright.

But it wasn't.

Just this one kiss would change things irrevocably. Every good intention he might have had, every claim to being a protector of innocence, a trusted advisor, maybe even a friend through dark times, would be invalidated by this one action. By taking what was not his to take.

His breathing slowed when the bout of madness lost a bit of its intensity.

"Thank you," he said, instead of doing what his insides still screamed for. "I understand now, why it's not nothing."

He would never be able to put his realization into words, but he suddenly understood why those gifts that seemed so small in material value were so important.

Surrounded by riches as they were, they had found something only for them. Something that was like a shared secret, a 'you're always in my thoughts' that rested as a small warm weight on the skin near their hearts during all those hours when they were apart. A 'you are important to me' in a world that did their best to make them feel unwanted. A 'you are not alone'.

He'd never before understood the importance some people placed on mementos of loved ones, on favours from women they loved, on all the various tokens of love and friendship people seemed to forever bestow on each other. He'd seen grown men, fatally wounded, crawl back onto a battlefield just to get back a lock of hair or a ribbon or something else they apparently didn't want to live or die without.

He understood now.

Slowly he took his hands away from her face and sat back a bit.

"I'd better go," he said, standing up.

He didn't trust himself to stay so close to her without succumbing to the temptation of her inviting smiles and soft touches. Not right now, at least.

"Will you be back tomorrow night?"

He gave her what he hoped passed for a smile. Surely tomorrow, they could go back to laughing with one another again. Back to their comfortable dream of friendship and safety.

"Of course I will."

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Sansa had to appear at court on the morning after that night.

Joffrey wasn't even there, but courtly business needed to be done and all those who were considered members of the court had to be there, especially her. Cersei had put this demand in no uncertain terms.

What surprised her was that Sandor was there as well, since he was neither a member of the court nor usually very interested in court proceedings.

She didn't dare look at him, at least not all that often, and he never seemed to even look into her direction, but she was as aware of him as she would've been of a conflagration in the middle of the room.

Every so often when she dared to sneak a look, she saw him touching his chest with a seemingly absentminded gesture, cradling the stone she knew he wore under his tunic.

To her, touching the stone, reminding herself of its constant presence, feeling its solid firmness and slight weight in her fingertips had become so much of a habit, she didn't even do it consciously anymore.

Seeing him doing much the same flooded her with a nameless feeling that seemed to be reserved only for him. She had admired – back then she had thought it was love – men before, but none of them had made this consuming wave of warmth envelope her, crawling into every last corner of her body until her scalp and fingertips tingled and a solid core of fire was pooling deep inside her belly.

Her current state wasn't much improved when she remembered how last night they had come so very close to kissing, something she had dreaded not even four weeks ago and was now craving with a frightening intensity. But he wouldn't do it for reasons solely his own and she had no idea how to broach the subject that she wouldn't be adverse at all to the experience. So far, he had blocked all her shy efforts when it came to getting physically closer, even sometimes just got up and left.

Much like last night, actually.

She was roused from her musings when she heard Sandor's name being called by the court official.

Tywin Lannister, as befitting his station as Hand of the King, sat in a lavishly decorated chair on the right side of the empty Iron Throne, waiting with sharp eyes and tight lips.

Sandor came forward and with him Ser Wybald, which made Sansa smile at the memory of the training yard incident he had told her about.

Wybald had apparently requested Sandor being called here to complain about the treatment he got during training sessions. Bringing a military matter in front of the King - or his hand, as the case was - was an extraordinary measure and bound to do Wybald no favours. But the man seemed so taken up with the notion that he had been grievously wronged, he was oblivious to the fact he was about to make a fool of himself.

"I swear this brute doesn't mean to train his men, he is trying to kill them," Wybald complained in a high pitched, whining voice. "I've never seen so many men wounded during training as I do when this dog is in the training yard. I demand of you, my lord Hand, to bring him to heel."

A nasty smile lit Wybald's features, apparently pleased with his own wit.

Tywin didn't so much as move a muscle.

"Isn't sword practice supposed to be about how to defend yourself against men trying to kill you?" he asked.

Some snickers could be heard in the audience and Sansa was surprised to see Lady Wybald being quite openly amused.

Before Wybald could come up with an answer, though, Tywin looked over to where Sandor was standing, appearing for all the world as if he had not part in the whole business.

"Clegane, do you have anything to say to that?"

Sandor gave a slight bow in Tywin's direction and then drew himself up to his full, impressive height.

"Yes, my lord," he said. "I came her meaning to apologize to Ser Wybald."

The audience gasped its surprise, and Tywin slightly lifted one eyebrow.

"I was made aware only after the fact that Ser Wybald is used to handling… much smaller weapons on… let's say, softer opponents. I am sorry for not having taken this into consideration."

Wybald started sputtering and Sansa experienced the acute feeling of being this close to bursting into a million pieces from the laughter she had to hold in. She had no idea how Sandor was managing to keep a straight face, but the rest of the audience didn't even bother.

Lady Wybald and the ladies around her tittered rather loudly, and Sansa could've sworn that even Tywin's mouth twitched a little.

He gave an imperious wave of his hand and said, "I think with this graceful apology the matter can be considered closed."

"And," he continued, leaning a bit closer to where Wybald was standing red-faced and outraged, "I do not wish to hear of this ever again."

That night, Sansa hadn't even bothered going to bed. She was way too excited to find sleep any time soon and since she knew – hoped – to be awakened at about two hours after midnight, it surely wasn't worth the effort.

She alternated between trying to read (unsuccessfully), doing needlework (no use in the dismal light of the small candle) and pacing the room.

By the time Sandor finally appeared, she had worked herself into such a state of fluttering excitement, she could barely hold herself back from just jumping into his arms.

"You were brilliant!" she told him with all the pride and enthusiasm she felt. "Everyone was talking about you afterwards, at least the court ladies were."

The hint of a self-satisfied smile glimmered in his eyes and made the corner of his mouth twitch a little.

"The ladies, huh?" he asked, while pouring himself a goblet of wine and sitting down on her bed, munching on a piece of dried meat.

"Lannister seemed impressed, too," he said around a mouthful of food. "So much, in fact, that he offered me the honour to lead a couple of men to raid a bandits' hideout somewhere along the road to Highgarden. Wouldn't want to scare the new queen, would we?"

His expression clearly said that he could've done without being given this particular honour.

Sansa fervently shared the sentiment. What if something happened to him?

"Will it be dangerous?" she asked, realizing the stupidity of the question as soon as it was out of her mouth. Of course it would be!

She had seen enough carnage in her life for her mind to supply her with all sorts of scenarios of what might go wrong on such a mission. In her overwrought state, it was no wonder the mere thought of losing him brought tears to her eyes.

Sandor looked at her for a long moment, then just shook his head and made a dismissive gesture.

"I'll live," he said decisively. "So those ladies. What were they saying about me?" he inquired, deftly changing the topic and looking at her with one eyebrow raised expectantly. "Anything flattering?"

"Well," she started but then felt a flush creeping over her neck and face. She suddenly wanted to slap herself for her idiocy in bringing this up at all. While Sandor had, in fact been discussed quite thoroughly in the court ladies' circle, most of was being said had made Sansa want to scratch their eyes out.

Sandor wasn't helping her situation by starting to grin.

"That good?"

She swallowed.

"They admired your wit, of course," she began lamely. The eyebrow crept higher and the grin was growing more impudent.

'Damn the man,' she thought crossly, 'he is enjoying making me squirm.'

"And they expressed their pity about your… injury, and talked about how you would be quite an attractive man without it."

'Serves you right for being obnoxious,' she thought when she saw his grin falter a bit. Drawing courage, she continued with the more unsavoury parts of the conversation she had the misfortune of overhearing. He might as well know what was being said, maybe it would please him.

"And, of course, the … uhm, size of your sword and your mastery at handling it was discussed at great length," she ground out, "with some of the ladies even expressing an interest in experiencing said mastery first hand."

He took a deep swig from his goblet and chuckled darkly, which made something cold and spiky take hold in her gut.

"Would you be interested?" she heard herself asking, at the same time realizing that it had been this exact question that had kept her awake all night. It hadn't been excitement, it had been the nagging fear that he would use his newly acquired fame to help himself to some female attention.

Instead of answering her question, he looked at her again, just like before, an unreadable expression on his face.

"Come here," he said finally, holding out a hand for her.

With a short moment's hesitation, she went.

He took her hand and drew her close, then motioned for her to sit right in front of him.

"Look at me," he said, rather redundantly, because she was already looking at him, curious as to what this was about.

Then he took her hand that still was in his and placed it on the injured side of his face, his own covering hers for a moment.

"It's not the first time I've been subject to the talk of those foolish biddies," he said, a smile that was almost kind still lurking in his eyes. "They see a man of my stature and reputation and fancy they'd be daring enough to take him on." He shook his head slightly. "But it's all just talk and imagination. When it comes down to it, they cannot come closer than twenty paces and not avert their eyes. None of them would be brave enough to look at me and touch me like you do, little bird."

Sansa opened her mouth to point out that this didn't answer her question at all, but he lightly put a finger over her lips, a gesture that seemed so intimate, despite how close they already were, it sent a sharp thrill through her.

"So, no, I am not interested."

The fear inside her withdrew its spiky claws and she smiled up at him. Surely with this admission made, he'd see how perfect this moment would be for them to kiss.

His finger left her lips and he moved it to her cheeks, oh so very gently feathering his fingertips over her skin, following their path with his eyes.

She leaned closer, but suddenly anger flared in his eyes and before she knew what had happened, she found herself on her back with him kneeling over her, her hands trapped in a steely grip above her head.

For a moment, she felt herself transported back in time, to a night full of blood and green fire, when he had been so drunk, so afraid and so angry that he had scared her so much she thought he might kill her.

An ugly, triumphant smile spread over his face when he saw the flash of fear.

"You're just like them, aren't you?" he grated accusingly. "Only you are stupid enough to think you can change me, make me into one of the shining knights from your stories, while they have sense enough to be afraid of me, to see me for what I truly am."

Self-loathing, she realized with a start. His anger wasn't only directed at all those around him, but mostly at himself. All the hateful things he had told her over and over, about himself, about others, about how they were all killers and enjoyed taking lives, it hadn't been a proud assessment of achievements, it had been an accusation against himself.

He was convinced that fear and disgust were the only genuine, honest emotions he was able to inspire in another person and he didn't believe even her.

"I know exactly who you are," she said evenly, trying to communicate both her sincerity and her fondness. "And I'm not afraid of you. I haven't been for a long time."

His face came closer, again reminding her of that night that seemed so far in the past now, of the feeling of the point of a dagger pressed to her throat. Yes, she knew who he was. She knew that this dagger hadn't so much as made a scratch on her skin and it never would have.

"If you had any sense, you should be," he threatened, rather unconvincingly in her opinion.

She smiled.

"Why? Because you're so good at glowering and growling?"

"No," he growled. "Because if I would get it in my head to... to rape you, I'd have you under me in two seconds flat and there would be nothing you could do about it."

It was a thrilling revelation that his thinking went into this particular direction. Over the last few days, she had started to doubt that he even saw her as anything else than a pampered child, as anything but someone whom he had resolved to protect. She had started to believe that it was her in particular whom he wasn't interested in.

"Do you want to?" she asked, which earned her an utterly shocked expression, quickly replaced by an horrid sneer.

"For now, I think I can contain myself."

She longed to touch him, to communicate in her usual manner that she cared, that she wasn't afraid, that she even wanted more from him than this uneasy friendship, but her hands were still held tight in one of his and all she had were words.

"Do you want…" she started, an almost painful blush rushing up her cheeks, "Do you want me?"

She seemed to have shocked him again, because his eyes widened for a split second, but then the sneer was back and so was the anger.

Without his usual gentleness when it came to her, he flung himself on top of her, crudely grinding his hips into her belly.

"Answer enough?" he asked between tightly clenched teeth. "Want to know how it would feel, tearing into you, making you bleed?"

'A mighty sword, indeed,' flitted through her head when she felt the heavy ridge of his arousal pressed against her. The thought brought her dangerously close to giggling.

And yes, it surely was answer enough. Not so much the obscenity of what he had done; but the words he'd said answered questions she hadn't even thought to ask. If she hadn't been sure before, she was sure now. Regardless of how desperate he was, how angry or how provoked, he would not – could not – hurt her.

He's sworn to protect her from anyone who would harm her, which apparently included even himself.

Despite, or rather because, of her innocence, he would not take the lead, because he would forever fear to go too far. And therefore it was a good thing she could not move her hands, because he needed more than a timid, shy gesture. He needed more than her just submitting, just accepting, he needed her to be explicit about what she wanted. He needed her to say it.

"Kiss me."

She saw something change in him at her request.

The anger, that old, vile creature that lived behind his eyes, born out of unspeakable pain and loneliness so profound as to be unimaginable, vanished.

It had always been there, even when he laughed. Sometimes it seemed to have been less alive, as if it had gone to sleep for a moment, but it had always been there, lurking.

But right now, it was gone. She knew it would be back eventually, it was too tightly woven into the fabric of his soul to vanish entirely, but it had lost its grip on him.

Inside herself, the undefinable something that seemed the source of her strength howled with triumph.

He lowered his head to her and brushed his mouth over hers almost imperceptibly. Then he drew back a little, a question in his eyes.

If she had the use of her hands, she would have wrapped her arms around him and drawn him to her and showed him what sort of kiss she meant.

"Not enough," she whispered instead.

His eyes flashed brightly for a moment, and then his mouth crashed down on hers, every pretence at gentleness forgotten. Before she could even figure out what to do, what was expected of her, she found her lips opening under the assault of lips and tongue.

With her hands above her head, her mouth so thoroughly ravished she could scarcely draw a breath, and with the full weight of his body resting heavily on top of hers, pressing her into the mattress and making breathing even more difficult, fear of being suffocated suddenly welled up and she started to squirm and push against him.

He pulled back, staring at her with unfocused eyes, wide chest heaving with deep, laboured breaths.

"Too heavy," she managed.

A spark of realization seemed to hit and he finally – finally – let go off her hands and rested his weight on his elbows. Before he could rethink the whole thing entirely, though, she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him to her for another kiss.

This time, his lips remained chastely closed, giving her the opportunity to explore a little, to feel the texture of his lips with her own and later with the tip of her tongue, feel the contrast between the surprisingly soft smoothness of the one side of his mouth and the hard leathery texture of the other.

Carefully she tried to mimic what he had done before and slipped her tongue between his lips, thrilling at the feeling of her tongue meeting his, exploring and stroking.

A kiss, it turned out, was so much more than what the singers told you, more than a shy meeting of lips as a sign of mutual fondness.

A kiss was carnal, somewhat messy and unbelievably exciting. And it wasn't just a touching of lips, or even of tongues, it was an experience that involved the whole body. It made her breasts feel heavy and sensitive to the sensation of his chest pressing into them; it made the place between her legs grow weirdly damp and it made the familiar fire burning slowly and heavily deep inside her belly.

Sandor's hands were in her hair, holding her head to him as their kisses grew in intensity and in something like desperation.

His body was moving against her in a hypnotic rhythm, his hips grinding into hers again and again, as if mimicking the marital act. She was surprised to notice that her body seemed so attuned to his that it moved into those grinding thrusts on its own accord and when they met halfway, the sensation made both of them gasp. His kisses grew even more frantic now, tongue darting in and out of her mouth in a manner that to an observer might have seemed obscene but to her where beyond stirring, just as much as the erratic movements of his hips were.

Suddenly he ripped his mouth from her, leaving her feeling bereft and threw his head back to let out a long groan.

Something had happened she surmised, but she had no idea if it had been good or bad, especially since he looked as if he was in pain.

He opened his eyes after a few moments, but quickly averted them. Then he jerked away from her as if she was on fire, grabbed the cloak that hung over the end of the bed and stormed out of the room without saying so much as good night.

She stared at him bewildered and not a little hurt until the feeling of damp coldness on her belly drew her attention. Sure enough, there was a damp spot on her nightdress and she had no idea how it had gotten there.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

"Clegane," a voice called out behind him, waking him from his half-sleep atop Stranger, who slogged towards King's Landing, not much more awake than his rider.

He turned around.

"Clegane, we have to stop for the night," a young soldier, probably not more than seventeen years, told him, desperation lacing his voice.

"We all are almost asleep on our horses, and Tom Sellmer is doing worse by the minute, he has a fever now."

Sandor peered into the darkness to see the familiar sight of his group slouching tiredly in their saddles, the aforementioned Sellmer, who had been badly wounded, held on his horse only by having been tied to his saddle.

"It's only two hours to King's Landing," he retorted, trying to sound more awake than he really was. "Sellmer needs to see a maester, another night on the ground might very well be his death."

He was glad for the excuse, even though he couldn't care less if the man lived or died. He wanted to be back, there was nothing more important than that.

"You drove us like the devil on our way here, barely letting us sleep," the youth said accusingly, "and we haven't slept a wink since the fighting!"

Sandor shook his head, too tired to argue.

"Get used to it," he grumbled. "That's war for you, boy."

They had been sent against about a dozen gold cloaks who had deserted during the Blackwater and wisely decided not to try to go back to King's Landing. By now every child knew they broke every man's kneecaps who had fled during the Blackwater.

The fight had been short and brutal, but nothing to merit a lengthy rest.

The boy glowered at him but dutifully set his horse in motion again.

Another man came up next to him and Sandor expected to hear the same complaint, this time from one of the older men.

"You ride as if you have a pair of warm arms waiting for you," the man next to him said with a low chuckle.

Recent events had apparently made people fear him less than they should.

With a speed that surprised even himself, Sandor had his sword out and at the man's throat in a matter of seconds.

"Careful, old man," he hissed. "This dog still bites."

The man swallowed slowly.

"I know," he said. "I've seen you fight just yesterday."

Sandor felt a bit mollified that his recent performance hadn't lacked in conviction, even if his heart hadn't been in it.

For as long as he could remember, fighting had been the only time he had felt truly alive, but since the Blackwater, and maybe even before that, things had subtly and irrevocably changed. Right now, he loathed having to risk his neck for another man's cause; having to risk to leave Sansa alone and defenceless in a world for which she was nothing but a commodity. But much more than all that, he hated risking never to be near her again, never seeing her smile at him again. Never kiss her again.

This thought alone had sustained him through those miserable three days.

He slowly lowered his sword and the other man sighed with relief.

"I was not meaning disrespect," the soldier said quietly. "Just hoping for your sake that you truly have someone to come home to."

Something disturbingly much like embarrassment crept up hotly in his cheeks and for a second he was grateful for the darkness. He wheeled Stranger around wordlessly and started to move again, making a sign for the others to follow.

Again he had snapped at someone who had meant no harm, just as he had done that night with Sansa.

Only with her, it had been so much worse and he had left her without any explanation for his behaviour, even though she had not taken it amiss. Which was a miracle in itself.

He hadn't been able to deal with her obvious concern when he told her about his mission. There had been fear in her eyes, but it wasn't fear of him, it was fear for him and it hadn't felt good at all to know that she would be hurt if he was.

Most of the emotions she so generously displayed toward him, even her sudden bout of – entirely unfounded – jealousy, made him feel bad, somehow. It left him feeling raw and open and terribly vulnerable. Getting used to being important to someone, to be shown concern and kindness was a nice concept in theory, but in reality he almost resented her for battering away at the wall he had built around himself over the years.

Still, there was no excuse for what he'd done, for the way he'd treated her.

Like the beaten dog he was, he had tried to bite the only hand that came near him to pet, not to punish.

Part of him had been sure he would see fear; that she would cry and beg for mercy when he threatened her. It would have put both of them back into their place. He could've drawn back from her then.

He had expected at least some maidenly embarrassment when he made her feel just how much he wanted her. But instead of all that, he had received all those secretive smiles, full of a decidedly female satisfaction at leading him – quite literally – by his cock.

It shouldn't have come as such a shock then, when she got around asking him to kiss her.

It still had, though. And there were still about a million reasons why he should've said no. But he'd found out that in a situation like this, when the girl – the woman – you have been wanting for years is lying smiling and willing beneath you, there are things you do and things you don't.

You don't tell her that this is a bad idea, even though it undoubtedly is. You do not tell her that you are not good enough for her, even though you are. You do not point out that you are an ugly, unrefined brute, because for one thing, she thinks you manly and darkly attractive and for another, it's her decision and who are you to question it?

That kiss might not have been yours to take, but it was certainly hers to give. If nothing else, he had to believe that.

The only one thing to do, really, is lower your head and kiss her as thoroughly and as passionately as you can about manage.

Everything that had happened afterwards… well, he'd still had half a mind to find himself a shovel to dig a hole to vanish in forever. Embarrassment couldn't even begin to describe what he felt about having come into his breeches like a green youth with his first whore.

Of course he was old enough to have known he was getting close, there had been plenty of time to stop, plenty of time to draw back, to calm down. But truth was, he hadn't really wanted to.

There was her body, slender and shapely, moulding into his as if the Gods had made her just to fit him; there were her sighs and her moans and the way she kissed him back with all the artless passion of her innocence, her hands roaming over every part of his body she could get access to. She had even moved into his rutting as if it was the most natural thing in the world and there just had been no turning back from this for him.

And in the back of his head he'd known there was a mission and armed men and possible death waiting for him on the next day.

Finding release in Sansa Stark's arms, no matter how undignified, was the better prospect than turning away from her unsatisfied, possibly forever.

He turned Stranger around once more, startling the old soldier still riding behind him.

"I have," he said gruffly, hoping the man would understand that this was an attempt at an apology.

"Someone to come home to."

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

They had ridden into King's Landing about two hours before dawn.

He had commanded two of his men to bring Sellmer, who was miraculously still breathing, to a maester and had woken a couple of stable boys to see to the horses. He'd left his sword and armour at the stable.

If he got lucky, someone would find and clean it before he came back in the morning, although his gear was the last thing on his mind when he carefully tiptoed through the floors of the holdfast, trying to reach her room.

It was way past their usual time and he didn't mean to stay long or in fact at all, but he wanted her to know he was still in one piece. And regardless of the exhaustion that hung like lead in every part of his body, he couldn't imagine finding sleep before he had seen her.

As expected, she was asleep when he snuck into her room, but the small candle on her bedside table was still emitting a very soft light, bathing her face in warm colours.

He moved to touch her but shrank back when he saw the blood-smeared, grimy hand he had meant to put on her face; a face that looked like a child's when she slept.

Her eyes flew open at that moment and before he could gather his wits, before he could start to wonder what kind of welcome he would have after the way he'd left her, she had her arms around him and clung to him so fiercely, she knocked the wind out of him.

"You are back," she whispered, her embrace tightening even more.

Which, unfortunately, aggravated some of the bruises the swords of the deserters had left and he winced.

She pulled back with a start and stared at him, her expression rapidly turning from relieved to horrified.

"Oh Gods what happened to you?," she asked, gesturing in the general direction of his upper body. "All that blood…"

He looked down at himself and noticed that his undertunic was blood-soaked at both his arms and shoulders. Only now it occurred to him that he probably shouldn't have come to her first thing. She might have accepted him for what he was, but that didn't mean she would appreciate him showing up with the blood from his latest victims still all but dripping off his hands.

"Not mine… I think," he said.

She motioned for him to get up and walk and he surmised she was throwing him out, when she steered him in the direction of the table and quite unceremoniously shoved him into a chair.

"Here sit down," she said, fiddling with something or other in some dark corner of her room. "I'll take care of you. You must be…"

"Exhausted," he supplied helpfully.

"No, I meant…"

"Death tired?"

She materialized in front of him and fixed him with a cold, blue glare.

"Hungry," she said.

While hunger was truly at the bottom of the list of his various complaints, he lacked the energy to protest and meekly accepted the slice of cheese and piece of bread she put into his hand. He grew slightly alarmed however, when she started fiddling with the drawstrings of his shirt and made to remove it.

As tempted as he would be any other day, right now, he would probably fall asleep on top of her. He reached for her hand to stop her from doing what she was about to.

"Sansa."

"I have to get this bloody shirt off of you," she said, deftly freeing her hand from his. "I have to see if you are wounded and you have to be cleaned up before you can go off to rest."

He heaved an inward sigh of relief and closed his eyes, for now content to let her fuss over him. Nobody else usually did.

She moved the candle over to the table, carefully taking stock of his limbs and skin and finally declared him mostly unharmed.

"I can see only some bruising," she said, matter-of-factly. "And I guess you'll feel rather sore in the morning."

He already felt rather sore right now and wasn't about to contemplate how it would feel in the morning. In his experience, pain had to be dealt with one step at the time. He thought of himself as something of an expert on this.

He heard the sloshing of water being poured into a bowl, Sansa probably using the jug of water put there for her morning ablutions. He wondered distractedly what her maids would say if they found the water bloody, but then again, maybe for a woman that wasn't all that unusual.

She carefully washed his face and then went on to his neck, shoulders and arms. Then she scrubbed his fingers and even cleaned his nails, while he was slowly drifting off to sleep.

He vaguely sensed her standing in front of him, probably admiring her handiwork, when she interrupted his tranquillity.

"You are magnificent," she whispered.

His eyes slowly opened to find her gazing at his arms and chest with undisguised appreciation. Not just appreciation, he noticed when she came closer to put a tentative hand on his upper arm for a light caress.

"So strong," she breathed softly and it could be his overtired mind but he was pretty sure there was a spark of something else; of want and lust.

Sansa Stark, lusting after him. Who would've thought? If only he wasn't so fucking tired, he surely would've found a way to make use of that.

As it was, he closed his eyes again and let her look, not quite knowing what she found so interesting about his hide that was littered with a number of ugly scars from badly healed wounds and covered with wiry black hair. He knew he was more powerfully built than most men and some women seemed to find that attractive, but he also knew that Sansa especially had been way more interested in slender, smooth-skinned, willowy boys like the Tyrell whelp, or … well, Joffrey fucking Baratheon.

Her hand moved upwards on his arm but then she suddenly drew it away as if having been burned.

"Right," she said as if admonishing herself. "You're tired, have to get you cleaned up."

'Someone seemed to have come to her senses', he thought dejectedly.

There was some more fiddling going on behind him.

"Just lean back a bit more and I wash your hair, then you can go get some rest."

He did as being told, enjoying the feeling of clean water being gently poured over his head, of soap being applied and of her fingertips carefully massaging his scalp. He felt himself slip even more into a dazed state of almost sleep.

Much too soon to his liking, her fingers and the heavenly magic they were weaving were gone and the clinking of bottles could be heard behind him.

"If you put something on me that will make me smell like a flower garden," he warned sleepily, "I swear I'll make you regret it."

She heaved a dramatic sigh.

"I was afraid you'd say that," she said. "Even though just yesterday a friend of Ser Loras gifted me with this marvel here."

A tiny flask was pressed into his hand and he dutifully sniffed it and then quickly held it away from him in disgust.

"Ewww, this is awful," he complained, "it smells like a whorehouse full of flowers and not in a good way. I hope you do not consider wearing this."

She laughed quietly. "No, I do not," she admitted. "Although it seems a shame to have such a costly gift going to waste."

A spark of an insane idea flickered in his brain.

"Let me hold on to it for a while, maybe I can come up with something," he said.

She rinsed his hair once more, then got some cloth to towel it dry.

When she was done, she gently pried the half eaten piece of bread out of his hand and leaned in closely to put her hands on his shoulders and a very sweet, very light kiss on his lips.

"I'd love to keep you here for a while longer," she breathed onto his mouth, their lips still almost touching. "To admire your body at length."

He chuckled, his eyes still closed. He dreaded opening them to find, as he was certain to, that this was a dream.

"Alas, you are tired and dawn is close, so I am afraid I have to send you away."

He pried his eyes open at this reminder of reality, only to find her exactly where she had been in his dream, about half an inch from his face.

His heart gave a painful start and lodged itself in his throat, robbing him of speech.

Instead he pushed himself up and gathered his bloodied clothes to put them back on.

"You're not meaning to wear those again?" Sansa asked, aghast.

"I cannot run through the keep half-naked," he grumbled.

"I just cleaned you up, you'll get dirty again," she said and then turned on her heel to go rummaging around in some chest. He was mildly entertained at the thought that she would give him one of her dresses to wear.

"Here," she said when she came back. "It's your old Kingsguard cloak. I washed and mended it and I want it back."

She was using this special tone of voice that told him she wasn't in the mood to argue.

"It's mine," he said, not being able to resist teasing her.

"You gave it to me, it's mine now. And I am not joking, I want it back."

He gave her a cloak, he mused, his drowsy state of mind making his thoughts flow mellifluously through his head, seemingly unhindered by reality and reason. A cloak and later a kiss and somewhere along the line a promise of protection, too.

And unbelievable as it was, she had given him her kindness and she took care of him and returned his kisses.

Wasn't theirs a perfect union?

Like in a dream, he took the cloak from her and let the heavy, white fabric flow free, until it limply hung in his hand. Then he threw it around her shoulders, grabbed it with his other hand and drew her towards him until only an inch of air separated them.

"With this kiss I pledge my love," he whispered, "and take you for my lady and wife."

Sansa's eyes widened at his words and when he leaned in to kiss her, she stopped him with both her hands on his chest.

'Please,' he thought. 'Please just let me dream a while longer.'

"With this kiss," she said in her no-nonsense tone, "I pledge my love and take you for my lord and husband."

They kissed with closed lips and then he took the cloak from her with the solemn promise to bring it back.

He stumbled back to his little room barely staying on his feet, feeling for all the world as if he was rip-roaringly drunk and about to fall face-first down the next set of stairs.

Good luck to anyone trying to wake him for the next several centuries.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

He woke as he usually did with a start and quick grab for the dirk he hid under his pillow, then he listened for a while into the semi-darkness of the little chamber he had chosen for himself in the cellars of the holdfast.

It had to be day outside, there were a lot of hoof beats and the grinding of cartwheels on cobblestone, and all the other usual sounds of life inside the keep.

He sat up and gingerly rotated his shoulders, finding to his relief that the soreness in his muscles wasn't as bad as he had expected. His head didn't hurt, probably because he hadn't drunk himself to sleep for quite a while, and he noticed none of the lingering after-effects of acute sleep-deprivation, which meant he had probably slept way over twelve hours.

Trying to get up, he had to disentangle himself from a piece of heavy woollen cloth and it took him a few seconds to identify it.

The rough wool of his old Kingsguard cloak brought a faint memory of caring hands and gentle touches. As always after a few days of not getting any sleep, it was hard to discern afterwards what he had dreamt and what had been real.

One of the reason the accounts soldiers gave from drawn out battles seemed to be so inconsistent were for the very reason that after about thirty six hours of not sleeping, people started hallucinating. He was no stranger to that phenomenon.

Then again, he was clean, he had the cloak and on the little table on the wall sat a delicate little bottle of what he was sure had to be the worst perfume he had ever had the misfortune to smell.

So he had gone to see her last night and at least part of what he remembered was real.

He hoped some of the other parts weren't. It didn't bear thinking about.

Maybe he should ask Sansa about it, but if it actually were true, it would make matters worse. Best just to act as if nothing noteworthy had happened at all.

This problem sufficiently dealt with, he put on a fresh shirt and tunic, bundled his bloody clothes together to give them to a washerwoman and neatly folded the white cloak and put it on his cot to give it to Sansa later. Then he pocketed the perfume flagon and was ready to face whatever what was left of this day.

Outside, the sun was already setting.

His first steps led him to the stables, where he found Stranger welled cared for, even though he still fed him an extra apple and gave him a few strokes with the brush, and even found his armour as he had hoped, cleaned and polished.

Then he made his way to the barracks to see how the men of his group had fared and to give his report.

Outside the tent where the maester treated the sick and wounded, he ran into the boy who had challenged his command last night. The boy visibly flinched when he saw him, looking none too happy.

"How's Sellmer?" he inquired from the young man.

The boy gestured toward the open tent flap. "See for yourself."

The answer wasn't inspiring any great hopes for Sellmer's health, but when he carefully peeked inside the tent, he saw Sellmer lying on a cot, his face and eyes still feverish and his wounded arm heavily bandaged, but animatedly talking to a young woman who was smiling and touching his face.

Curiously enough, while he didn't know the man at all well and much less cared what became of him, he suddenly found himself relieved that he had made it through the night. If only for the sake of the young woman who seemed so glad to have him back.

"I am sorry for doubting your decision last night," a pensive voice said next to him. "The maester said Sellmer wouldn't have made it otherwise, it was the right call."

Sandor turned to the boy and fixed him with his most intimidating stare. Predictably, the boy averted his eyes and looked at his feet.

"And if it hadn't been the right call?" Sandor asked slowly. "What then?"

The boy raised his eyes to his again. "It still would've been your call to make, Ser," he said.

"Damn right," Sandor replied and clapped him on the shoulders, causing the boy to wince. "And I am no Ser."

By the time he had found himself something to eat, had concluded his business with the washerwoman and was on his way back, the sun had set. This suited his purpose very well when he made his way to the White Sword Tower where he found a place for the little perfume flagon right under the fastenings of Meryn Trant's epaulettes. Not even a dutiful squire would notice the little thing there, but it would be crushed once the heavy plates would be strapped on. Since the glass was so thin, nobody wouldn't even hear it breaking.

A few guards looked at him queerly when seeing him strolling through where he had no reason to be, but he just glowered and looked intimidating and they didn't ask his business.

The holdfast was shrouded in darkness when he exited the tower of the Kingsguard, and if it hadn't been for the full moon casting a silvery light, he wouldn't have noticed the slender, hooded figure who hurried towards the godswood.

Five weeks had gone by since the Blackwater and they hadn't talked much about either Dontos, Littlefinger or the plan they had come up with during the first week. All there was to do, as far as they were concerned, was waiting for the royal wedding and leave this cursed place behind once and for all.

In truth, what with one thing and another, he hadn't even thought to ask Sansa if she had met with Dontos during the last weeks.

Keeping to the shadows, he followed her at a safe distance. Maybe she only came to pray and he had no intention of barging in on what little opportunity she had of being by herself.

Sure enough, though, when she barely had set foot into the godswood, a big blob of useless human flesh – otherwise known as Ser Dontos – materialized from behind a tree.

Without conscious thought, Sandor's hand wrapped firmly around the hilt of his sword and he was about to draw it, when the fat fool made a grab for Sansa's arm.

But Sansa deftly evaded him and folded her arms across her chest.

"What is it that's so important?" she asked.

"My beautiful Jonquil," the fool started to whine, "you wouldn't heed all my pleas for meeting up with your devoted Florian, so I had to made it sound urgent."

The darkness prevented Sandor from really seeing much of Sansa's face, but his imagination provided him with a nice image of her death-glare. This turned out to be much more entertaining than he would have expected.

"Is there something important?" she inquired coldly.

"No, no there isn't, but shouldn't you be more grateful to the man who risks his very life to spirit you away from unimaginable peril?" Dontos asked sullenly and moved towards Sansa again.

She took a step back.

"Ser Dontos," she said, her voice dropping another notch in temperature. "I am grateful for your efforts, but pray keep your hands off me or I fear things will not end well."

'Damn right they won't', Sandor agreed darkly.

"But my fair Jonquil!"

"I think you'd better go now," Sansa cut off whatever Dontos had been about to say. "I am afraid someone from the Kingsguard followed me here, it is not safe for you."

Dontos looked around hurriedly.

"Yes, yes, you are right, of course, yes," he stammered, stumbling backwards. "Just remember to wear the hairnet, as promised, and all will be well."

With that entreaty, he scurried away like the fat rat he was.

Sansa looked after him for a few moments and then turned to where he was hiding.

"He's gone now," she said, smiling radiantly.

Sandor slowly came out of the shadows, feeling a bit foolish.

"I thought I was better at hiding," he grumbled, half to himself.

Sansa took his arm and steered him deeper into the godswood.

"You are very good," she assured him. "It's just that I can feel it when you are close. Like no harm can come to me."

The words were said lightly, but they robbed him of breath for a moment.

"And thank you for letting me handle Dontos on my own," she continued, apparently not aware of his discomfort. "I think it is better this way."

"It looked," he began, but his voice didn't quite work, so he cleared his throat and started again. "It looked as if you had things well in hand."

"I think I had at that," she said, sounding rather pleased with herself.

The trees around them gave way to a clearing which was dominated by a large oak, the carved face hidden in the shadows of the night and almost completely overgrown by smokeberry vines.

Sansa let go of his arm and took his hand instead, lacing her fingers tightly through his.

A queer feeling settled in his gut as he looked at the tree.

His grandfather had planted a godswood for his wife, in the hills into which Clegane keep was nestled. The young wood was one of his favourite hiding places when he was a boy. Gregor would not have hiked this far to get a hold of him.

The tree in that godswood had had no face, though, and it was only a sapling, not a mighty old tree like this one.

Sansa led him around the tree until they stood directly across from its face.

The feeling creeping up on him intensified as he saw the dead, wooden eyes that seemed to look right into his soul.

"I know you are not religious," Sansa said softly. "And if you were, you wouldn't believe in the Old Gods. But I wanted them to meet you."

He swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat.

"It's alright, Sansa," he managed.

The eyes were watching him, he was sure of it. And it wasn't the first time either. Back when they'd been in Winterfell, when they'd come to drag Eddard Stark to what would be his death, and his daughters to what would be their ruin, he'd walked around the mighty castle, admiring the solidity of the wall and the cleverness of having the waters from this hot springs heating them. And he'd been to the godswood, too, standing before the ancient weirwood, looking into the wizened face that had seen generations upon generations of Starks.

He couldn't remember anymore if he'd stood there for minutes or for hours, but he still remembered that it had been one of the most peaceful moments of his entire life.

He knew now that it had been the calm before a terrible storm, but he had been soothed nonetheless.

Now, the watchful eyes weren't giving him peace at all. They looked at him not as people would, looking at his face and averting their eyes; they looked through him, weighing, judging and probably finding him wanting.

Finally, it was he who averted his eyes, turning his back on the tree.

"We should go now," he said gruffly, then took Sansa by her hand and walked away from the prying eyes.

She followed him obediently for a while, but when they reached the edge of the godswood, she dug her heels in.

"We cannot go back together."

He held onto her hand and it took him a surprising amount of willpower not to keep walking. An almost overpowering force inside him wanted to compel him to just march into the holdfast with Sansa Stark's hand clasped in his.

Suddenly so very sick and tired of hiding, he wanted – no needed – everyone to know that she was his to hold and to protect. His to touch and to kiss.

Breathing deeply in and out until he felt slightly dizzy, he fought to control the suicidal notions.

Oblivious to the turmoil in his mind, Sansa raised herself on tiptoes to kiss him fleetingly.

"See you later," she whispered into his ear, then turned and was on her way.

He followed her with his eyes, his insides burning, until the darkness had swallowed her.

Then he carefully set one foot in front of the other, so as not to risk accidentally running after her like a lovesick puppy, and walked slowly back to the holdfast, back to his own little chamber.

Once there, he wrapped one hand around the stone on his chest and the other around his aching cock, hoping against hope that once his lust was slaked, the terrifying feeling of having been ripped open, of having been bared to the bottom of his black soul would vanish.

A few hours of sleep, a cup of wine and a long look into a polished piece of armour later, he felt himself up to the challenge of facing her again, the worst of the damage repaired that the visit to the godswood had wrought.

They ate and drank and talked almost as if the last disconcerting week hadn't happened. He kept his little visit to the tower of the Kingsguard to himself as a surprise for her, hoping his very first attempt at a practical joke would not be a total failure. There were after all still a number of things that could go wrong.

Sansa asked about the last three days, inquiring after the health of his men and even after Stranger's well-being and looked distressed at hearing that they had been sent after deserters, not just common bandits.

"Do you think Tywin Lannister sent you there on purpose?" Sansa asked, surprising him with the insightful question.

"Sure of it," he answered. "Those men have done nothing worse than I did, he wanted me to see what is still in store for me if I step out of line. And he wanted me to be the one to kill them."

Sansa gnawed on her lips, something that always made him want to kiss her.

"When I overheard them in the small council, he said having you killed would displease your brother and Joffrey."

He laughed mirthlessly.

"My brother would be angry he didn't get to be the one to hack off my head and Joffrey…" he shrugged. "He just likes to be the one who decides who lives and who dies."

"So why did they spare you?"

"I am useful; one of the most efficient killers they have, second only to Gregor. They probably think it would be a waste."

Sansa took one of his hands into hers, gently caressing it.

"I am glad you're so good at what you do," she said softly. "I was so afraid for you during the last days and I clung to the thought that you're not that easy to kill."

The thought of her sitting here and fretting for his life threatened his freshly won calm, so he frantically sought to find something to lighten the mood.

"I wouldn't have let anyone get in the way of me coming back to you to kiss you again," he said with an attempt at a smile.

A brilliant smile lit Sansa's face just as he had hoped and in a matter of seconds she had her arms around his neck.

"You can have as many kisses as you want," she whispered into his ear.

"Glad to know th…"

The rest of the word was cut off when her mouth found his in a kiss that surprised him with its urgency. One of her hands was at the back of his head, holding him to her, the other had a death-grip on his shoulder, fingernails digging through the cloth of his tunic.

Her tongue pushed past his lips even before he had the chance to open his mouth willingly.

A soft growl came from deep in his throat as his body sprang into action quite independently from the deliberations of his mind.

His arms went around her and crushed her to him until she sat on his lap. While exploring the sweetness of her mouth, he let his hands discover the shape of her backside, the elegant curve of her spine and the very womanly dip of her waist that flared into nicely rounded hips and an arse that was to die for.

Sansa gasped into his mouth when he gave the delicious, firm globe a squeeze and then giggled a little but was fortunately not deterred from kissing him.

His hand moved up again until it rested on the side of her ribcage. Trying not to scare her by grabbing what he wanted without any regard for her sensibilities, he gingerly brushed his thumb over the underside of her breast, unsure if she could even feel it through the linen of her nightdress.

She gasped again and then stilled, making him stop as well.

"That feels nice," she whispered against his mouth.

Experimentally, he moved his hand higher, cupping her breast.

She kissed him again then, but she made a little 'mmhhmmm' sound in her throat that he thought sounded like encouragement, so he cupped her a little more firmly and flicked his thumb over her nipple, finding it already pebbled.

A shudder went through her at that and she moaned into his mouth and pushed herself closer into his questing hand.

His blood started to simmer at her reaction and he knew that he was but a little step away from losing himself again, from taking over and turning what was supposed a bit of innocent kissing into something not innocent at all.

He took his hand away to a sound of protest and tried to gentle his response to her kisses, to calm them both.

"It's getting late," he murmured against her kiss swollen lips, when their mouths finally parted.

"Or very early," she said, her lips curving into a smile, but she stilled just like he had, resting her forehead against his, sharing the air they breathed and it was as if a sphere of something unbreakable cocooned them then, shielding them from the outside world, letting them have this moment of intimate endlessness just for themselves.

He knew that life sometimes held moments that one remembered as clearly as if they had only happened a heartbeat ago, just for the reason of them being important or poignant in some way.

Just as he would never forget a single, excruciating detail of the end of his childhood and his dreams, he would never forget this moment either. They had found a spot of perfection somewhere between mindless lust and loving gentleness, neither driven by the first nor constricted by the last. A moment of infinite possibilities.

When she kissed him again, slowly and sweetly, the back of his throat started to ache and he had to squeeze his eyes shut.

"Good night," she whispered when the kiss had ended, releasing him from her embrace.

"I hope you'll come back for more," she said when he got up to go.

He was so busy trying to hide – not very successfully – his raging hard-on, he almost missed the coy wink she gave him.

It would be some time yet, he mused with an inward sigh, before he would find some sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

The next night, Sansa greeted him with a broad grin.

"It was you, wasn't it?" she asked, her eyes sparkling with mirth.

He manfully tried to act innocent and supressed an answering grin.

"I don't know what you mean."

She launched herself at him then and planted a sloppy kiss on his mouth but quickly drew back.

"You know perfectly well what I mean," she said, punctuating the statement with another kiss. "I would have recognized the stink of that dreadful perfume anywhere and you were the one who had it."

Another kiss, this one playful but short.

"See, I always wondered what happened to the flagon you gave me."

That earned him a sharp nip to his bottom lip, which he quickly decided he liked a lot.

"What happened," she started to elaborate, her face clearly communicating that she was humouring him, "was that Ser Meryn showed up to court today smelling like a whorehouse full of flowers…"

A fit of the giggles interrupted her.

"And not in a good way," he added with a grin, which made her laugh even harder.

Unfortunately, it also reminded him of the whole scene he wouldn't have missed for the world and he started to chuckle, and soon he was shaking with laughter just as much as she was.

"The look on Joff's face," Sansa wheezed, "when he tried to figure out where the smell came from…"

"… and Trant acting as if nothing was amiss!"

"I really thought Joff's head was going to explode, did you see how red his face was?"

"It turned redder with every second."

"And the things he yelled at him when he finally blew up, I haven't heard that much foul language even from you."

"And that's meaning something!"

"I almost felt sorry for Trant."

The laugher that fizzled in his bloodstream abruptly vanished, replaced by cold seriousness.

"No, Sansa," he said, cupping her face in one hand. "Don't you dare feel sorry for him. Not you."

He regretted having said that as soon as he saw the dark shadow of remembered pain darken her eyes and watched her laughter dying.

"I don't," she said, putting one hand above his, caressing it. "And thank you."

Then she smiled and the dark shadow in her eyes vanished. And just like that he knew that what he'd done had been worth the risk.

She gently stroked his face and then leaned in for a kiss, bringing her body very close to his.

With the laughter gone for now, their kisses turned serious and heated and although he never came to her chambers these days without having taking care of the worst of his lust before, his body never failed to answer the call of hers almost as soon as she started touching him.

If he wanted to move not too quickly from pleasantly simmering arousal to being half-crazed with want, he had to slow her down somehow.

"There'd been times when a man got food and drink around here," he said when she came up for air.

"Are you hungry?" she asked, as if this was a completely unheard-of occurrence.

He gave her a lazy smile and was tickled to see her blush. She was still such an innocent sometimes, but she caught on rather fast.

"Starving," he said and winked, causing her blush to deepen. "But let's eat first."

Sansa heaved a dramatic sigh and got up, leading the way to the table where a sumptuous feast was waiting as always.

He took his sweet time filling a goblet with wine, while she stood beside him, all but tapping her feet.

He knew he was enjoying this way more than he should, but the thrill of having a woman sincerely wanting to be with him, wanting him to kiss her and touch her and actually being impatient for it was just way too sweet not to savour to the fullest.

"Come on little bird," he teased, "we had a deal; I eat, you eat."

By now, she was pouting and he was hard pressed not to laugh with glee.

She made to sit down on the other chair, but he quickly grabbed her around her waist and positioned her on one of his knees. Which – he realized when her sweet scent invaded his nostrils – might have been not that good of an idea.

A little spark glinted in her eyes and it was the same one that usually meant he was in trouble.

She started to smile very sweetly.

Yes, definitely trouble.

"You know," she said, "if you insist on feeding me, you'll have to do it like birds usually feed their little ones."

For a moment, he had no idea what in Seven Hells she was talking about, but then her forefinger lightly glanced over his lips and realization hit.

The idea seemed so ridiculous, he contemplated just going back to kissing her, if that was what she wanted, but there was a challenge in her eyes and it seemed craven to pass it up.

He selected a fine, plump grape and put it between his lips, leaning in a bit for her to get it.

When she leaned closer, she put her hands on his shoulders and had her eyes firmly on his when she delicately took the piece of fruit between her own lips, their mouths touching slightly when she did.

His head started to swim as if he had drunk way too much wine, and his whole body hummed with an excitement that he faintly recognized as arousal, but was much more than that.

The words 'sensual' and 'erotic' had never held much meaning to him; sex in his experience being a rather simple, straightforward matter. But this… this was something entirely new, it was something that enveloped his whole body, that made him not only want to fuck, but to kiss, to touch, to enjoy everything she had to give.

How a girl as innocent as her could come up with something so bewitching, something befitting the skills of a well-trained love slave, was a mystery to him.

With every new bite they shared, something build between them like an undeniable force. Sansa's lids grew heavy over oddly bright eyes and every exchange of food was longer than the one before, lips touching, teeth biting down on a morsel of food while it was still held between the other's lips, juice flowing from pieces of fruit that had to be licked off.

When the plates had been cleared, they were both panting, his earlier attempt at restraint completely forgotten. They were devouring each other's mouths, her hands grappling for purchase on his shoulders, his seeking the roundness of her breasts under her nightdress, delighting in how perfectly the firm mounds fitted in the palm of his hand.

Sansa drew back from him after a while, the black of her pupils almost eclipsing the usual baby blue of her eyes, her mouth kiss bruised and red and so inviting he leaned in again as soon as he had lost contact.

But there was that dangerous smile again and he paused for a moment, wondering what more his little seductress could have in store for him.

She stood and took his hand, walking to the bed and he followed her like the good dog he was, even sat down as she motioned him to.

"You like touching my breasts, do you?" she said, lowering her eyes demurely.

How she manage to seem both brazen and so startlingly innocent at the same time never failed to amaze him. He hoped the question had been rhetorical, because he was in no shape to give an eloquent answer.

"Would you like to see them?"

He forgot how to breathe for a moment and before he had at least some of his scattered wits gathered again, she had already loosened the drawstrings of her nightdress and pulled the garment over her head and finally stood before him completely naked.

He convinced himself he was dreaming. Had to be. And it would not be the first time he dreamt exactly this sort of scenario. Truth be told, it was one of his favourites.

Sansa started squirming under his gaze, something she never did in his dreams, and moved her hands as if to cover herself.

"Don't," he rasped, his voice feeling as if he had to drag it up from the soles of his boots.

This couldn't be a dream. He was never this tongue-tied in his dreams.

She sat down next to him and took his hand into hers. There was a hint of insecurity in her eyes, and something a lot like embarrassment, so endearingly sweet it made him ache. But for the life of him he couldn't come up with anything at all to say.

If he'd been only a little like the knights she used to talk about, he would've told her that she was the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on. That she was perfect in every way imaginable, with her white, almost translucent skin, her high, but deliciously full breasts, her curving waist and hips and her elegantly long, perfectly shaped legs with the tuft of auburn curls nestled at their juncture.

His eyes were drawn to the white stone between her breasts and he touched it gently, before Sansa's grip on his hand firmed and she placed it on her breast.

At the feeling of velvety skin under his rough palms, his mind went blank again and he was lost in the sensation of touching skin that was softer than anything he had ever touched.

"I want you to touch me wherever you like," she whispered, her face suffused in a hectic blush.

Belatedly he realized that he was making this unnecessarily hard for her with his silence.

"I'd love to," he said stupidly.

The mindless frenzy from before was gone now, though, and it seemed as if they were both standing awkwardly at this precipice to the unknown, one of them too innocent and the other too jaded to know how to proceed.

His hand seemed unnaturally large and dark on her chest; the scarred, calloused and sunburnt ugliness of a limb used mainly for killing an obscene contrast to the white, unblemished softness of her skin.

"I love your hands on me," Sansa said, as if reading his thoughts. "They're so big and strong and capable," she continued, lightly running her fingers over his. "And still so very gentle."

"The hands of a killer," he reminded her.

She didn't smile when she whispered her answer.

"The hands of the only man I ever want to touch me."

There might have been a point in this statement that needed to be argued against, but it was drowned by his sudden, overwhelming need to claim the rights she had bestowed upon him.

He abruptly drew her into his embrace and kissed her for a wild, mad moment until the deafening roar in his ears had subsided a little and then he laid her back on the bed.

"Sansa, I…" he began, pushing a stray tendril of hair away from her forehead while she regarded him with eyes midnight dark with passion. "I'd like to be very thorough about this."

She nodded, but before he could move, grabbed the collar of his shirt.

"Take this off," she demanded breathlessly.

He did as he was being told, even though it would make it so much harder – quite literally – to make this solely about her as he had just resolved it would be.

He threw the shirt somewhere next to the bed and turned to her again, finding her blatantly devouring him with her eyes.

When he leaned over her, the stone around his neck swung forward and collided with the white one on her chest, making a light clinking sound. He leaned closer then and as the tips of her breasts touched his naked chest, they both gasped at the new sensation.

He couldn't remember a single instance when he had undressed for a woman more than just unlacing his breeches. Being half naked like this made him feel terribly vulnerable, surrounded by her scent, the warmth of her skin seeping into his, her hand grasping his upper arms, nails slightly digging into his flesh. The onslaught of sensations was almost too much to bear.

He distanced himself from her a little to get a grip, to focus again on what he had wanted to do.

He touched and kissed every square inch of her, learned the taste and the texture of her skin, the secrets of her body. The spots that made her sigh and those that made her bite her lips to keep herself from moaning.

He traced the contours of her collarbone, so heartbreakingly fragile and tasted the patch of skin at the hollow of her throat with the tip of his tongue. He indulged in spending a copious amount of time on her breasts, licking, nibbling, tasting, finding delight in her unfettered reactions to what was in truth but a novices attempt at giving her pleasure. But she was so receptive to his every touch, he felt he could do nothing wrong, so he grew bolder in his quest.

He discovered that she was ticklish at the soles of her feet, but quite partial to having her dainty toes nibbled. She had a wondrously soft patch of skin at the back of her knees and the skin on the insides of her thighs was so delicate, the stubble of his beard left unsightly red marks. A discovery that would've made him stop if it hadn't been for her threat to kill him if he wouldn't go back to what he was doing "right this instance".

By that time she was lying as open before him as it was possible for a woman to be, the pink folds of her sex dewed with a sheen of wetness, the smell of her arousal overpowering and her guileless acceptance of whatever he wanted to do with her frighteningly disarming.

He knew what he wanted to do – besides just taking his painfully hard cock out of his breeches and losing himself into her, consequences be damned – but he had no idea how to go about it. He'd heard a lot about it in his time, ribald jokes most of it. One couldn't grow up in Westeros without having been treated to one rendition or the other of 'The Bear and the Maiden fair', but that was about all he knew of it. Although the song felt oddly fitting for their particular situation.

I called for a knight, but you're a bear!
All black and brown and covered with hair!

He hummed the tune to himself when he put his mouth on her, a smile pulling at his lips. Sansa stiffened beneath him for a moment, but then let out a long, drawn out moan that she only a second later thought to stifle with a fist to her mouth.

She kicked and wailed the maid so fair,
but he licked the honey from her hair.

The song seemed to steer him in the right direction, judging from the sounds she made, the way she lifted her hips to press herself closer to his questing tongue and mouth and the way her juices dribbled down his chin. Honey, he found, was surprisingly close to the mark.

With her moans spurring him on, he found with his tongue the hidden piece of flesh that made her tremble beneath him and worked it first gently, then more firmly and more quickly when her impatient groans seemed to indicate he should do so.

He was taken completely unprepared, though, when she suddenly clamped her thighs around his head, her hips lifting off the bed. He heard a muffled scream which almost sounded like his name, which was hard to tell with her thighs over his ears and her face pressed into a pillow. Her body convulsed again and again, and if he didn't know better, she might have had him worried.

Then she sighed and squealed and kicked the air!
My bear! She sang. My bear so fair!

She went limp a few moments afterwards and he was left to gaze at her in wonder, while she recuperated from what had felt and sounded like a pretty spectacular release.

Luckily, she had her eyes closed or she would've seen him grin like a maniac, ridiculously pleased with himself, all but bursting with pride.

He resolved then and there to pay more attention to silly songs.

Although this particular song didn't elaborate much about what was to come next. She still lay there like a sacrificial offering, open and wet and very, very ready. It'd be a matter of seconds to be inside of her, taking care of the need that threatened to burn him alive.

On its own volition, his hand went to his breeches, opening the drawstrings.

An image flashed through his brain, of him plunging into her while she lay trusting and heedless before him, of her eyes flying open in horror and pain. Of the betrayal on her face, wiping away forever everything good she might have felt for him.

He squeezed his eyes shut to banish the image, but his hand kept working, opening his breeches, freeing his straining cock and wrapping around it tightly. He almost sobbed with relief.

But then her hair tickled his face and one of her arms was around his shoulders and her lips where near his ear. And her other hand… her other hand covered his, the one currently gripping his cock.

"Show me what to do."

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Sansa woke up with a smile the next day, a smile that wouldn't leave her face even when she donned her dress and had her hair fixed and went through all the other motions required of her during the day. Her feet barely touched the ground, as if she was walking on clouds and everything around her seemed brighter and more colourful.

She did her best to hide her mood from any curious eyes, kept her head lowered and her eyes downcast, but she couldn't be sure that no one had noticed how she randomly blushed when a stray memory from the night before flitted through her brain.

It wasn't embarrassment that heated her cheeks, but that heavy warmth she had felt for a long time when it came to him. Only now it had turned into a fire and flared up every time her thoughts turned to what had occurred between them.

Which they did almost constantly.

How could all that have been hidden from her for all of her life? How had she never heard of the magic that transpired between a man and a woman?

All the songs that told of courtly love or more often of loss and tragedy, why had they never mentioned any of this?

Never mentioned the pure delight of a man's touch on your skin, the shivers you get when rough, calloused fingertips explore the most sensitive parts of your body. The safety you feel when touching the hard, angular planes of a man's body, so different from your own, a body so big and strong, it holds a promise of being your bulwark against anything that tries to harm you?

They heartrending joy of having his mouth and hands worship you until you feel like a goddess, like the most precious thing in existence, until you burn for him in a way that is neither courtly nor decorous.

And – most important of all – why had she never heard of the earth-shattering rapture you find when finally all those sensations overwhelm you and release rolls over you in endless waves of pleasure?

Why had her septa always told her that being with a man would be something that had to be endured, suffered through?

Of course she knew that she had not given Sandor full access to her body yet, that the one act that was supposed to be the most painful of all - the giving of her maidenhead - still lay ahead of her.

And not for any lack of willingness on her part.

Since the vows they had spoken two nights ago, she considered herself his. She knew full well that those vows meant nothing in the eyes of Gods and men, but they meant everything to her, especially since it had been Sandor's idea. He might have been only half awake, but exhaustion had only made him less guarded, she was sure of it.

Seeing him last night, she had known he wouldn't want her to mention this moment of what he would perceive as weakness, so she hadn't. But in her heart, they had formed a bond that was just as sacred as if the vows had been spoken in the Great Sept of Baelor. He was, for the lack of a better term, the husband of her heart.

A husband, she thought with a smile, whom she had to take by the hand and lead where she wanted him to go, even though she didn't know the way herself. She almost giggled at the question what she might need to do to get him to actually take her maidenhead, when last night she had already gone above and beyond what any gently bred girl would be expected to do to entice her husband into her bed.

Then again, it had been more than worth it.

Her thoughts circled back once more to the things that had happened last night and - more importantly - what had not happened.

Could it really be possible that the ultimate act of sexual relations would be so much the opposite of what she had experienced so far? That it would be painful and horrible?

Because, to be quite honest, when she had opened her eyes after the world had stopped spinning, when she had seen him with his eyes squeezed shut as if in pain, stroking his manhood, all she had felt was curiosity.

Maybe she should've been repelled or at least scared of the strange look and the intimidating size of what she knew was supposed to somehow fit inside of her. But when he showed her how and where to touch him, when she felt the velvety softness over the core of steel, the smooth tip, when she

heard him groan her name over and over, when she started to stroke him as he had told her to, all she could do was wonder how this part of him would feel inside her.

If all the other parts of his body could make her feel so wonderful, why should this one make her feel bad?

Musing such as those predictably left her red-faced and short of breath, so she had found herself a nice spot overlooking the sea, where a sharp wind cooled her heated cheeks and the roaring of the see reflected her turbulent thoughts.

Her septa would probably be scandalized at what was going on inside her head, Sansa thought fondly. Carnal urges were supposed to be a man's domain and a maiden's lot in life was it to guard her virtue against men's lustfulness.

So how did a maiden act who felt rather lustful herself?

Despite, or maybe because of her restlessness during the day, Sansa had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit her pillow in the evening, so she woke up only when she felt Sandor's fingers gently stroking her cheek.

"You look like a little girl when you sleep," he whispered.

A warm light flickered in his eyes and woke an answering warmth inside her heart.

In quiet moments such as this, when they took the time to just look at each other, she knew without any doubt that this was what the bards should be singing about. This firm sense of belonging, this bone deep trust, this warming happiness.

If this was what they meant when they sang of love, they told the wrong stories. Sandor had been right about that all along.

"But I am not a little girl at all," she said with a sleepy smile and reached out to him. "Want me to prove it?"

He didn't answer but instead leaned in and kissed her, but only for a short moment.

"Want me to leave so you can go back to sleep?" he asked, raising his good eyebrow.

"Don't you dare leave," she growled and pulled him in for another kiss.

He climbed onto the bed, not breaking their kiss and rolled on top of her.

When next they came up for air, they were both panting heavily.

"Do you want something to eat?" she asked, belatedly remembering that he usually wanted to eat first.

He quickly looked into the direction of the table, but then looked back at her, grinning.

"Thanks for the kind offer, my lady, but a man has got to have his priorities straight," he said just before his mouth crashed down on hers again.

"Clothes," she panted a few moments later. "Undress, now."

That earned her another grin, but then he obediently got up and sat back on his haunches, clumsily tearing at his clothes, while she tried to help him with unsteady hands.

They managed to get his upper body undressed – impatience almost eating her alive – then she shoved him until he lay on his back and worked on undressing him completely.

He made a few noises that sounded like protest but otherwise did nothing to stop her until she finally was rewarded by having him lying prone and naked before her. And very much aroused.

Her eyes drank him in for a moment, this body made so magnificently as if it had been meant for the Warrior himself. Long, powerful arms and legs, rippling with muscles, broad shoulders, a wide chest, dusted with curly black hair that thinned to a fine trail that led over a flat belly right to where his manhood - proudly erect - begged for her attention.

He squirmed under her scrutiny, but let her have her fill of looking at him. After the way he had devoured her with his eyes last night, maybe he felt he owed her the same indulgence.

His skin was marred with scars almost everywhere, ranging from old ones that stood silvery-white against the bronze of his skin, and newer ones still swollen and purple. Most looked jagged and left deep indentations, as if they hadn't been tended to properly.

Thinking of all the pain he must have endured in his life, her only wish was to make it go away, at least for a while.

She lowered her head to his chest and started – gently at first – to brush her lips against his skin, feeling the texture of his scars, some not unlike those on his face, and learning the feel and the taste of the patches that were unmarred by wounds. When her mouth encountered one flat, male nipple, she lavished some of the same attention on it that he had given her breasts.

"Sansa…" he said and reached for her shoulder as if trying to pull her up to him, but she didn't want to. She wasn't done.

Her ministrations moved lower on his body to the sound of his ragged breathing, interrupted from time to time by a breathless moan.

Knowing how he felt about being defenceless, about being at someone else's mercy made this moment so very precious to her, showed her that he trusted her just as much as she trusted him.

When she wrapped her hand around his cock, he uttered a rather colourful expletive that made her smile against his skin.

How could a woman not enjoy having the man she adored so completely in her thrall?

And beside the sheer drunkenness on power, she still burned with a feverish desire that had wetness pooling between her legs, especially now when she held the proof of his arousal hard and heavy in her hand, smelled the musk of him and heard him asking her to put him out of his misery.

Asking her.

She stroked him once, twice but it wasn't enough like this. Maybe for him, but not for her.

No longer was this about him wanting her, it was about her wanting him. And she wanted him badly. Today she had asked herself what a maiden should do who felt lust for a man. The answer was surprisingly simple. She should do whatever she wanted.

And what she wanted, what she subsequently did as soon as it occurred to her, was to wrap her lips around the head of his cock, to taste him there as well.

"Seven hells, Sansa, you don't…" he started but whatever he had meant to say was lost in an long drawn out groan that almost sounded like a sob at the end.

Taking this as a sign she was doing something right, she grew bolder, took more of him inside and stroked what she couldn't take into her mouth with her hands.

Again he tried to say something, even reached out and took hold of her hair, but she was by then so intent on her task, she couldn't be distracted. Maybe he was trying to spare her what came next, but she knew what came next, what would happen when his balls drew close to his body, when he groaned and when his cock swelled to an even more impressive size. So she was neither shocked nor surprised nor – probably what he feared – disgusted, when hot spurts of his seed filled her mouth.

She was proud. And exhilarated and filled with a feeling of power unlike any she'd ever felt.

He let out something that sounded like a couple of sobs mixed with a laugh and then lay still.

Using his momentary stupor, she took the goblet of wine from the nightstand and washed away the tangy, salty taste in her mouth. Not out of disgust, but because she was unsure if he would want to taste himself in the kisses she intended to give him.

He lay with his eyes closed for a long time, chest heaving with rapid breaths but showing no other sign of being conscious. Only now did it occur to her that now that he was satisfied and apparently rather exhausted, he might not care for more activities. Which would be quite a disappointment.

She stroked his chest, contemplating what she would do if he really fell asleep here, but luckily he opened his eyes eventually and gave her a very male grin.

"Still not done with me?" he asked with a pointed look at her roaming hands.

"I just really adore your body," she answered, slightly raking her nails over his skin in the way she had quickly learned he found most stimulating.

His grin faltered for a split moment, but then he heaved an overly dramatic sigh.

"Story of my life," he said. "Scores of women lusting after my body."

Sansa chuckled. Sometimes it still seemed unreal how he – the man everyone feared and most only called the Hound – had turned out to be a man not only gentle and kind, but someone with a wicked sense of humour and the ability to be silly and downright playful.

She knew full well that she was quite probably the only person who ever got to see this side of him, but then again, he saw a side of her that - fortunately - no one else knew about either.

Taking his bait, she narrowed her eyes and raised her chin.

"They'd better keep their distance," she said, slowly lowering her head towards his face. "I'll bite."

To demonstrate the seriousness of her threat, she brought her face to his shoulder and none too gently bit down on it. He took a hissing breath, as if in pain but that was quickly followed by an appreciative noise deep in his throat when she soothed with her tongue the hurt she had inflicted with her teeth.

"My little bird turns out to be a wolf after all," he said, his voice husky with what she hoped was arousal. He put one hand on her back and lazily stroked her.

"Don't you forget it," she whispered, giving his shoulder a kiss.

He chuckled.

"I have the single most beautiful girl in the whole of Westeros here in bed, touching me and kissing me and even sucking my cock, I think I can hardly do any better."

She stilled at this completely unexpected compliment. She knew he wasn't given to spouting empty pleasantries, he disdained them and had frequently told her so. For him to say something so nice in such a casual manner could only mean that it wasn't an empty at all. He meant it.

Silly as it was, this realization brought tears to her eyes.

Since she hadn't moved for a while, he opened his eyes to see what had happened and found her staring at him.

He first looked puzzled and then slightly angry. Whatever was going on his head, it probably was nothing good and she had to stop it before he came up with something ludicrous – again.

"You've never told me before," she said quietly, "that you think me beautiful."

"Of course I did," he retorted, looking offended.

She shook her head.

"Trust me, I am a woman, I wouldn't forget," she said with a smile to disperse the seriousness of the situation.

He still looked annoyed.

"I said it a million times in my head," he finally snapped defensively.

And there he went and said something that was even sweeter, even more romantic than what he had said before and again it hadn't even been intentional. Never had a compliment so delighted her.

She smiled through a veil of happy tears and threw herself at him, burying her face against his neck so he wouldn't see her damp eyes. He tended to be alarmed when she teared up and probably didn't understand the concept of crying out of happiness.

"Thank you," she whispered.

He wrapped his arms around her and just held her to him.

"If I'd known it was so easy…"

She smiled against his neck and started to plant little kisses there.

"I know you are not a man of many words," she said in between kisses, "but of deeds. And right now…"

Her sentence was cut off by an unladylike squeal when he – with astounding speed – turned them both so that he was suddenly on top of her.

"Deeds, right," he said with a predatory grin. "Let's get to that."

He had got to it with single-mindedness and great attention to detail, teasing and drawing things out to the point where she thought arousal would burn her alive. Again he had refrained from taking her fully, but by now she delighted in their special kind of intimacy so much, she decided they would cross that bridge when they came to it. If he was in no hurry and apparently more than satisfied with how she took care of his needs, there was no reason for her to force the issue.

Afterwards they lay comfortably entwined in an embrace, hands slowly stroking but both of them satisfied and slightly tired.

"I hope you won't change your mind," Sansa said eventually. "About me being the most beautiful girl in Westeros."

"Why should I?"

"Margery Tyrell is expected in three days and they say she is very beautiful."

He chuckled so low, she could more feel it in the vibrations it sent through is chest than hear it.

"Are you fishing for another compliment?"

She had to smile at this as well, realizing how the question must have sounded.

"I was ordered to stand on the western balcony when she arrives, to watch Joffrey greet her," she explained where the thought had come from. "He says people expect to see me."

"I know," he said, amusement vanishing from his tone. "I was ordered to accompany you."

She lifted her head and stared at him in surprise.

"You? Why?"

He shrugged and lifted his hand to caress her face. She leaned into the warmth of his hand.

"Maybe to make it look as if you didn't come voluntarily," he said. "And since the Kingsguard has to be with the king, and one of those white idiots would apparently lend you too much importance, it's the deserter's task to stand guard on the traitor's daughter."

"Hmm," Sansa said with a smile, snuggling closer into him and putting her head back on his chest. "It could've been worse."

He made a noncommittal sound and then fell silent for a while.

"Joffrey ordered me to make sure I'm standing on your right side," he said then.

It took her a while to figure out why, but when she realized Joffrey had meant to scare her, forcing her to look at the ruined side of Sandor's face, she couldn't help but laugh quietly.

During the day, she was as terrified of Joffrey as she had any reason to be, her hatred and loathing a living, burning reality inside of her. But during this magical hour in the heart of the night, he seemed but a minor nuisance, something not to be taken too seriously.

"Gods, he such a mean little… rat. Poor Margery."

Sandor's hand drew lazy circles over her back and shoulders, a sensation that threatened to lull her into sleep sooner rather than later. While she had mostly adapted to the irregular sleeping pattern their nightly activities left her with, the addition of physical exertion was taking its toll.

"Don't feel too bad for her, she comes with her whole family and an army at her back," Sandor murmured above her, sounding as sleepy as she felt. "Her brother is Joffrey's most beloved pet at the moment, no harm will come to her."

The hand was still moving, circling, caressing; creating a trail of comfortable warmth on her skin.

"So you and me, alone on that balcony for several hours…" she mused idly. "If Joffrey could see us now, I guess he'd rethink his decision."

That drew another chuckle from him.

"If Joffrey could see us now, we'd never see the next sunrise."

The thought should have alarmed her, but right this moment, nothing could. She was safe, she was warm and the remnants of sexual joy still hummed through her body, so Joffrey could go hang himself.

"I like this," she whispered. "I wish we could stay like this, fall asleep like this. And wake up tomorrow still in each other's arms."

He pressed a kiss on the crown of her head but said nothing, just held her a little closer.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Heat was the first thing he felt when he came into her room the next night but sadly not the heat of his woman's embrace. And not the slowly simmering warmth of arousal and expectation he usually felt either, but the cloying, oppressive sort of heat of a hearthfire lit in a closed room in the middle of summer.

Sansa lay in her bed, covers drawn under her chin, shivering like a leaf. Her face was white and drawn and she had her eyes closed but he knew she wasn't sleeping.

With a few strides, he was at her side and put his hand on her forehead. No fever, fortunately, but if not that, there had to be something else.

"What happened?" he asked becoming slightly worried as he imagined what could have befallen her, Joffrey and his various cruelties at the very top of the list.

With the impeding arrival of his betrothed and his grandfather looking over his shoulder at every turn, Joffrey had little opportunity to torture Sansa, but that didn't mean he wouldn't find a way. He could be resourceful when it came to things like this.

"Did someone hurt you?" he clarified, worry giving way to panic, draining every bit of sexual excitement out of his blood.

Sansa opened bleary looking eyes and only now did he see the dark smudges under them. She slightly shook her head.

Maybe it wasn't Joffrey who did this to her, maybe she just couldn't put up with having her sleep interrupted every night. For him, that wasn't much of a problem, sleep being something a soldier snatched when the opportunity presented itself. But the little bird certainly wasn't a soldier.

"Do you want me to leave?"

Her eyes flew open.

"No," she said. "Don't go!"

He was at a loss. Sweat was trickling down his forehead and ran down his back and his heart was hammering.

"It's just…" she started and then blushed. "Just my moonblood."

Boundless relief flooded him so suddenly, he couldn't stop himself from laughing for a short moment before he saw her expression darken.

"You're mean," she pouted while thumping a delicate fist against his thigh, something he saw rather than felt. "I'd like to see you coping with pain in your back and cramps in your belly and nothing helps whether you are standing or sitting or lying down."

He schooled his features back to caring worry and gently stroked her cheeks.

"Sorry, little bird, I was just glad it's nothing serious."

"Nothing serious!" she shrieked, bolting upright from her bed so suddenly he had no time to back away.

Angry blue eyes glittered at him.

"Do you have any idea how it feels to want to weep one moment and then kill someone the next and feeling as if you are dying? It's horrible."

He thought for a moment to point out that there certainly was a thing or two more horrible, but then decided that caution was the better part of valour in this particular situation and settled for nodding gravely.

Sansa slumped back onto the bed and curled up into herself again.

"Food is on the table," she said dejectedly, tears in her voice. "I am afraid there is nothing else for you here tonight."

For a split second, he thought about just grabbing something to eat and then fleeing the unbearable heat in the room and the strange creature in it who seemed slightly lunatic. More than slightly.

But then he remembered how she had almost set her room on fire when she had bled the first time and wondered what else might happen if he left her alone now. With an open fire in the room.

Better not take any chances.

He strode to the window and ripped it open, taking deep, relieved breaths of the crisp night air.

"Do you want me to freeze to death?" Sansa asked crossly when he turned back to her.

He just grinned at her while kicking off his boots and ridding himself of his upper garments.

"Let me warm you up a little."

Sansa looked at him quizzically but didn't complain when he clambered into the bed and she followed his unspoken instructions willingly when he rested his back against the bed's headboard and motioned her to sit between his outstretched legs and lean her back against him.

Despite the heat in the room, her skin was clammy to the touch and he slowly rubbed her arms to warm her.

"Mhhhm, you're warm," she mumbled and closed her eyes.

Any other time, he might have told her that even without the fire in the hearth, sitting with her lovely backside pressed against his groin and with a prime view down the front of her nightdress was a sure way to get him warm all over.

He felt her relaxing more against him under his ministrations and wished he knew more about what ailed her to be able to help.

He pressed a kiss into her hair, inhaling it's bewitching scent.

"Where is the pain?"

Wordlessly, she took one of his hands and placed it over her lower belly.

The muscles of her stomach were pulled tight with her trying to curl around her pain.

Well, he didn't know about women's complaints, but he knew what to do against cramps. Maybe what helped a horse or a man couldn't be all that bad for a woman either.

Slowly, prepared to stop if she wanted him to, he pressed the flat of his hands slightly against her belly and started to move it in a circular motion.

She sighed and rested more of her weight against him which he took as a sign that this at least didn't make it worse.

"Do you think you can get me some moon tea?"

He stopped what he was doing, his jaw dropping.

"Moon tea?", he repeated his voice giving an embarrassing squeak at the last word. Moon tea was commonly known as a quite effective way to prevent pregnancies. If Sansa was asking for it, did this mean...?

"It helps with this particular sort of pain," she explained.

Reluctantly shoving away the vivid picture that had formed in is mind, he resumed his massage, chiding himself an unfeeling brute for fantasizing about rutting between her legs, cock buried to the hilt in sweet softness, spilling his seed deep inside her belly, while she was in his arms taut with pain.

"I'll see what I can do," he said at last.

Her muscles softened under his hands after a while and the appreciative sighs that came from Sansa every now and then confirmed he was doing something right.

At one point she craned her neck to look up at him, a warm, grateful smile on her lips.

"You are a magician," she whispered. "Thank you so much."

He shrugged.

"Time for me to take care of you for a change."

The monotony of his movements, the lingering warmth in the room and his own lack of regular sleep threatened to catch up with him after a while and only when he forcefully shook himself awake did he notice that Sansa had already succumbed.

One hand above his and with her head resting against his upper arm, she had fallen deeply asleep. So deeply, in fact, that she didn't even stir when he carefully extricated himself from her and left the bed, put on his boots and clothes, banked the fire and closed the window.

When he kissed her forehead before he left, she mumbled his name in her sleep.

He went back to his room with a curious feeling of accomplishment.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Sandor had taken a lot of care with his appearance the morning of Margery Tyrell's arrival in King's Landing.

He had cleaned and mended his light armour of mail and boiled leather, having decided that wearing plate armour would be way too uncomfortable for standing for hours. That particular sort of fun was well left to the Kingsguard.

He had dusted off the silken cloak with his house's colours and sigil, washed, shaved and combed his hair.

Everyone would probably think it was to honour the future queen's arrival, but only he knew it was to honour the lady next to whom he was supposed to stand for the better part of the day, a pastime he very much looked forward to, although he didn't quite know how he would survive it.

He'd probably be hard as a rock the whole time, his mind on nothing but being in bed with her, skin on skin, touching her, kissing her and having the same done to him.

Arousal swelled up in him like a springtide every time he thought of what had happened the last few nights. Her hands on him. Her mouth!

A service every whore charged dearly for, she did without being asked or prompted and it might have been his imagination but to him it always looked as if she enjoyed it, too.

For a moment, that night when she had done it the first time, he'd honestly believed he'd died at the pure pleasure of it.

And later, when pleasuring her until she cried out his name had left him all hot and bothered, she had done it again.

He chuckled to himself, musing idly if with a lusty wench like her, he would soon lack the strength to hold a sword. Not that he'd mind.

The pleasure, the sexual satisfaction was only the one thing, though. The other was the completely unexpected fulfilment of just holding her in his arms afterwards, drowsy and replete, still aware of her naked curves pressed to the length of his body, but just enjoying the feeling without being driven by lust. The quiet intimacy of exchanging words only meant for their ears, of trusting and being trusted.

Even that one night when he had just held her while she was feeling miserable had been something he would not have wanted to miss. Especially since her thanks to him during the nights following that episode had been enthusiastic and very satisfying.

He had an inkling now what happiness might feel like.

'Don't get used to it,' a grating voice in his head warned, but he shoved it rudely back.

Every time a tear in the silvery fabric of their illusion appeared, he had managed to mend it somehow. They had a plan, after all. They would both flee King's Landing during Joffrey's wedding, using Littlefinger's plan to their advantage.

Things would somehow sort themselves out afterwards, there was no sense in planning ahead so far.

He walked briskly to Sansa's chambers, for once not caring about whether or not someone saw him and knocked on her door.

"Lady Sansa, I am here to escort you to participate in Lady Margery's welcoming," he barked harshly.

The door was opened by one of her maids and the girl shrank back as soon as she saw him towering in the doorway.

"I am ready, ser," Sansa whispered, making a convincing show of being petrified with fear.

"I am no ser," he grated and stiffly offered her his arm which she took with trembling hesitation.

They walked in silence for a while, until they were alone in the corridor.

"That was rather convincing," Sansa said, turning her face to him with a secretive smile.

"I think you exaggerated," he gave back, eyes straight ahead. The reminder of how much she used to be afraid of him rankled for some reason, even if he knew full well he had done his very best to frighten her every chance he got.

'Maybe she'd be better off if she had continued being afraid,' the nasty voice in the back of his mind asserted itself. 'You're ruining her.'

"You exaggerate," Sansa spoke up beside him. "You needn't scowl quite so ferociously."

He shook his head to stop himself arguing with his conscience and tried to look mostly bored and slightly annoyed, as had been his aim.

Sansa glanced at him critically from the corner of her eyes but finally nodded.

"Better."

The absurdness of the situation suddenly hit both of them at once and they simultaneously began first to grin and then to snigger, and when they reached the balcony, they had to spend some time donning the masks again they were supposed to show the audience.

Amusement receded a little, when they saw the spectacle the Lannisters had arranged for the greeting of the future queen.

Joffrey, clad in a glittering golden armour, was awaiting his betrothed at the King's Gate to welcome her into the city. The knights from the Kingsguard flanked him as outriders, their armours polished to a sheen, white, spotless cloaks flowing behind them.

"Do you think Trant's clothes still smell of perfume?" Sandor wondered aloud, earning him an unexpected kick in the shin and a smothered giggle.

"Stop making me laugh, I am supposed to look depressed and humiliated," she chided, laughter in her eyes.

He looked away so he wouldn't start laughing again and surveyed the scene before him once more.

Gold cloaks were posted at the sides of the street to keep the masses from reaching the king, but the masses didn't seem intent on harm. The women and children were carrying wide baskets filled with flower petals, shouts of "Margery, Margery" could be heard even before people caught sight of her.

They didn't have to wait long for her to appear.

The Tyrells, not to be outdone in splendour, had attired their girl completely in green and given her a fancy cloak of autumn flowers blowing from her shoulders. She seemed pretty enough, but he found he preferred whiter skin and hair of a more livid colour.

Margery's mother and grandmother were seated in an ostentatious wheelhouse made of golden roses.

The smallfolk seemed to love it. Far from being appalled at the wastefulness of it all while they had barely enough to feed themselves, they cheered and held up their children for her blessing, scattering the flower petals under the hooves of her horses.

"Guess one could say she's comely," Sandor said when he found Sansa's gaze glued on Margery who now rode side by side with Joffrey. "If one likes boring mud-brown hair."

She gave him a grateful smile, but still looked vaguely troubled.

"They would've raped and killed me if it wasn't for you," she murmured, eyes on the cheering masses.

A cold spike of dread stabbed at him at the memory. He still dreamt sometimes that he couldn't get to her in time; that he couldn't cut through the maelstrom of arms and bodies quick enough to save her.

"What did I do for them to hate me?" she asked, desolation in her voice. "What did she do to make them love her?"

"You did nothing wrong and well you know it," he said gruffly, appalled at her train of thought. "Their hatred was for Joffrey and you were caught in the wake of it."

"This girl," he indicated with a nod of his head, "comes with the promise of peace and full bellies. That's what they love her for."

She nodded slowly.

Just then, the cavalcade was nearest to the spot where they were standing and Joffrey lifted his gaze to stare at Sansa, a nasty, triumphant sneer on his fat lips.

Sansa stared back, dry-eyed.

The railing of the balcony provided enough of a barrier from sight for Sandor to take Sansa's hand in his, giving it an encouraging squeeze.

And so they stood, the deserter and the traitor's daughter, hand in hand, staring down the king of the realm as if this was still the illusion they lived in during the night.

He felt, for the first time in is life, how it must be to have someone who is on your side no matter what. Sansa had maybe experienced this before, she had had a family.

For him, family was at best a helpless bystander to his torment, at worst his most brutal enemy. He'd learned almost from the start that he could rely only on his own strength to protect him, on nothing else. But now, with her hand in his, he had this strange sense of belonging, of them being a whole that was so much stronger than its parts. A family of sorts. A pack.

Joffrey faced forward again, displeasure on his face.

They stood like this, hands tightly clasped together, until the show was over and the crowd dispersed and it was time for him to escort her back to her chambers.

"She invited me to sup with her tomorrow," Sansa told him first thing when he tip-toed into her room that night. What with so much more people in the keep right now and Roses running around everywhere, it had taken him torturously long to get to her door undetected.

Things would get a lot more complicated now, he feared.

She had been pacing when he came in, looking as if she had done so for quite a while and now put food and wine in front of him almost distractedly, just giving him a glancing kiss on the cheek as a welcome when he sat down. The invitation that had so upset her in front of her, she gnawed absent-mindedly on a piece of bread.

"Maybe it's not even from Margery," she mused, as if to herself. "Maybe it's some jape of Joffrey's, to shame me in front of his new queen."

"Wouldn't put it past him to try something like this," he said.

That apparently not being the answer she had wanted to hear, she glowered at him and turned her attention back to her invitation.

Inwardly sighing, he bid his hopes for what might happen when he was done eating goodbye. She didn't seem to be in the mood.

"Then again," he continued, trying to give her the reassurance she might have wanted from him, "he wouldn't want to look like an uncaring ass in front of her, so maybe this is just what it looks like: an invitation for supper."

Sansa sighed and pushed the piece of paper away as if it was offending her.

"Nothing in this place is what it looks like," she growled.

"I am," he offered.

She pouted adorably at him for a second, but suddenly smiled and moved over to sit on his lap.

"You," she said, punctuating the word with a sweet kiss, "especially are not what you look like."

"How so?" he asked with a raised eyebrow, his hopes for a different outcome of this night soaring again.

"You," she said in the same tone of voice as before, "look all scary and dangerous and big and bad, while being the most gentle and loving man a woman could hope to have."

He had all sorts of objections against being painted as someone who sounded like a milksop, but then again he had her sitting on his lap and smiling and caressing his face and basically telling him he was the best thing that could happen to her, so he swallowed his protestations and kissed her instead.

She kissed him back with a lot more fervour than he would have expected after she'd been so preoccupied with Margery's damn invitation, but again, he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"So what are you going to do?" he asked her after a few moments, alarmingly out of breath already.

She looked at him with unfocused, lust-clouded eyes and licked her lips.

"About the invitation," he clarified with a grin, liking how her mind worked.

Shrugging, she leaned in for another kiss. "It's not like I have a choice. I have to accept graciously and go."

Before her lips met his again, she stopped, went eerily still in is embrace and drew back a little.

"I wonder sometimes what would've become of me if you had gone away that night."

He had thought about this on occasion as well and so far, no scenario which he had come up with had a happy outcome. For neither of them. He'd found it was best not to think of it at all.

"I am still here."

"I am so glad you are," she whispered against his lips before kissing him with renewed ardour and they were soon desperately trying to get undressed and into her bed.

"Make me forget," she pleaded when he had his mouth on her breasts, toying with one delicious dark pink nipple.

During the last few nights, he had learned pretty well how to make her forget, at least for a while, so he let his hand stray between her legs, lightly stroking her already damp folds.

She sighed and let her legs fall wider apart, inviting more caresses down there. Smiling with glee, he stroked more insistently, finding the small bundle of sensitive flesh at the top of her slit that made her moan and cry out his name.

This time, however, she suddenly put her hand over his and he stilled his movements, afraid he might inadvertently have done something wrong.

"I want more," she whispered and exerted some pressure on his finger, guiding him between her folds and deeper still until half his finger was inside of her.

Eyes intent on her face, watching her every expression, he slowly pushed deeper without the aid of her hand.

She felt heavenly. Wet and slippery like warm butter; velvety and soft as Myrish silk.

Just imagining how this deliciously tight passage would feel around his cock made his blood roar so loudly in his ears, it almost drowned out any other sound.

"More," she sighed.

He moved his finger then, fucking her with it in a slow, deliberate rhythm.

She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip and he almost stopped, worried she was hurting, but then she let out a shuddering moan that didn't sound like pain at all and he continued, going a bit faster.

"Yessss," she whispered in what almost sounded like a hiss and then "more."

His finger was bathed in her juices and he felt her cunt soften and widen a little, so he gave her more. He added another finger and was rewarded with a surprised gasp that petered out into a soft mewling sound of pleasure.

His cock strained and twitched, his whole body burning with the need to replace his fingers with his cock, but he wouldn't. While he felt how her body made room for his fingers, she was still so tight he could only imagine it ending in horrible pain for her, if he tried anything else.

Instead he spread and curled his fingers a little, testing how much she might be able to take, while trying to soothe the discomfort she might be feeling with placing the pad of his thumb on the sweet spot that never failed to make her come with delicious immediacy.

"Yes," she moaned, "do that again."

Ever her obedient servant, he did, pumping his fingers into her with ever increasing forcefulness and speed, until - after not too long - Sansa bit down on her closed fist in an effort to stifle her cries, while her body writhed and shook under his caresses and the walls of her cunt contracted around his fingers in a way that made him want to weep with frustrated desire.

When he felt his fingers weren't needed anymore he withdrew them and was about to wrap them around his cock for the two or three strokes it would probably only take to get him off, when he noticed the slim tendril of red snaking down his fingers, mixed with the clear fluid from her pleasure.

Blood.

Not much, barely a few drops, but he knew for a fact it couldn't be her moonblood again so soon.

Horror struck him like a bucket of cold water, but when he looked at her, she gave him a knowing smile.

"It didn't hurt," she said, her voice oddly low pitched, almost throaty. "And it won't hurt next time either."

Next time.

His mind slogged through arousal and confusion to figure out what she meant with next time but shied away from the obvious answer.

He was not an idiot, though. This sort of loving intimacy might be as new to him as it was to her, but he knew that a woman who gave herself to a man like Sansa had given herself to him would not shy away from the final step. Truth be told, he'd known that for a while.

But some part of him, may it be some left-over piece of chivalry that life at court hadn't quite managed to get out of him, or a certain sort of male egoism that dreaded to commit himself fully, or maybe just the genuine wish not to cause her pain kept holding him back.

As always in these matters, she decided things for him when she bent her head over his lap to take him in her mouth, helping him to a release so swift and violent, it surprised both of them.

He would have to make decisions of his own, he admitted to himself a while later, Sansa nestled against his side, and he'd better start to think them through very thoroughly.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

When the appointed night for her lunch with Margery arrived, a man from the Kingsguard came for her, a man as different as the man she spent her nights with as... well, a flower from a dog. The sight of Ser Loras Tyrell, like the very essence of her maidenly dreams made flesh, standing on her threshold made Sansa's heart skip a beat. For a moment, she didn't know what to say, dazzled as she was by his sheer beauty, which she couldn't help but admire as she would a piece of art or an expertly done specimen of craftsmanship. Or a very beautiful flower.

"Ser Loras," she finally managed, "you look lovely."

She cringed inwardly, glad Sandor wasn't here to witness this. He would tease her mercilessly about this.

Loras gave her a puzzled smile.

"My lady is too kind. And beautiful besides. My sister awaits you eagerly."

"I have so looked forward to our supper," she lied with a smile on her face.

"As has my sister and my lady grandmother as well." He took her arm and led her towards the steps.

His arm felt almost frail to her, a marked difference to Sandor's bunching, iron-hard muscles. Loras wasn't soft, but terribly slight in comparison. Would she feel as safe with him as she felt with Sandor? Or was her sense of safety when she was with him about something more than just his powerful built body, his superior strength?

"Your grandmother?" she asked, trying to keep the conversation flowing.

Loras wore no gauntlets and no mail over his hands, so she used the opportunity to study his hands. He had elegant, tapered fingers with well-groomed, polished fingernails, very different from Sandor's strong, blunt-tipped, long fingers.

Thinking about Sandor's fingers made her think of where those had been just last night and how they had made her feel and an almost painful blush washed over her neck and cheeks. She almost winced at the realization how she must look like to Loras, stammering and blushing and awkward.

Well, let him think her a fool. She was to avoid any suspicion after all, and there was no better disguise than to confirm everybody's opinion about her.

"Lady Olenna. She is to sup with you as well."

"Oh," Sansa said and almost followed this with the observation that Loras' grandmother was called the 'Queen of Thorns' but fortunately it occurred to her that this wasn't something to mention in front of her grandson.

Unfortunately, her conversational skills had deserted her after that last uttered syllable and she realized with some consternation that she had nothing at all to say to the man she had adored from afar for so long, even though that time now seemed to be aeons ago.

Ser Balon Swann held the door of Maegor's holdfast for them to pass.

Beyond the spiked moat, two dozen men were taking their practice with sword and shield. Sansa's eyes immediately found the tallest of them all, currently sparring with a knight with a pair of golden roses on his shield.

"Is that your brother?" she asked, never taking her eyes off Sandor.

"It is, my lady," said Loras. "Garlan often trains against three men or four to be better prepared for battle, but I guess the vicious Hound counts for more than one, what with this freakish size."

She bit down on her tongue to keep herself from a sharp retort and took a deep breath before she said, "He must be very brave."

"He is a great knight," Loras replied. "A better sword than everyone, although I am the better lance."

Loras hadn't quite finished his sentence when Ser Gallad's fine sword flew out of his hand and he gave a shout of pain before raising a hand in surrender.

Sandor turned to them, his expression unreadable as he gave a little bow in their direction, his eyes boring into hers with an intensity she hoped no one noticed.

"But isn't Sandor Clegane quite a capable swordsman as well?" she asked as innocently as she could muster.

Loras' lips thinned.

"He is very strong," he conceded, probably remembering how Sandor had once saved his life, the only man brave enough to face the Mountain in his rage.

"But there is no refinement to his style, no elegance to his movements," he continued agitatedly. "He dominates his opponent by the advantage of his longer reach and his sheer strength and endurance."

Sansa turned to him fully when she realized how much she had upset him.

"Does elegance or refinement really matter," she asked, "when using a sword is only meant for killing?"

Loras opened his mouth as if to protest, then closed it again only to open it with still no words coming forward. Outrage warred with confusion on his features and it was pretty evident that he had no ready retort for her.

'He's like me,' she realized with a violent start that had her being torn between wanting to laugh or to cry.

Loras was like she had been not too long ago. Brought up to always be courteous and well-mannered, even if it meant to lie, head full of childhood stories and bards' tales of knightly valour and honour. Of everlasting love and the value of beauty, comportment and elegance.

He'd never seen a man who was to become a knight brutally burning the face of his little brother, never seen a defenceless woman being beaten with a naked blade by those who had sworn an oath to protect the weak. He had loved and lost, he even had seen battle, but he never had his dreams shattered in the most brutal of ways, never learned that beauty meant nothing, that courtesy and comportment didn't protect and that there could be more honour and bravery in defying an order than in following it.

This place, though, would shatter his illusions as surely and as brutally as it had shattered hers and she felt a moment of pity for the beautiful boy standing before her, looking at her with barely concealed contempt.

Like she had, back when Sandor had spat at her how all knights were killers, Loras must think of her as either resentful or misguided. Probably both.

She shook her head and made a dismissive gesture.

"Forgive me for being morbid," she said with a saccharine smile. "I guess the horrible battle is still much in my thoughts."

Loras nodded jerkily, but he didn't offer his arm again.

"And you are right about being the better lance, I remember," she offered as a sign of peace. "You ride wonderfully."

"My lady is gracious to say so," he answered, appearing somewhat mollified. "When has she seen me ride?"

"At the Hand's tourney, don't you remember?"

He gave her a rather blank look.

'He doesn't remember', she realized, startled once again. 'Not the rose, not what he said to me, none of it. He was only trying to be kind and he lied just as everyone else.'

The thought reverberated a while in her head until it found a hold in her.

'He doesn't remember. It were all only empty courtesies.'

And thus, the last remnants of her maidenly dreams, of what was left of her innocent beliefs and foolish convictions shattered into the dust of the courtyard and she was not at all sorry to see them destroyed.

She was finally free.

...

The setting sun cast an orange glow on the Red Keep when Sansa made her way back - unescorted this time on her own insistence - making it look as if it was on fire.

She chose one of the less frequented, narrow staircases, the one mostly used by servants, when a strong hand gripped her and drew her into a pitch black room, door shutting behind her as soon as she was in it.

"You needn't be so dramatic," she chided mockingly while reaching out her hands to find him in the darkness. "You are lucky I didn't scream."

When her hands encountered him, he took a step back.

"How was your outing with Loras today?" he asked instead and she stilled at the tone of his voice.

"He was merely escorting me..."

"Merely," he echoed and she could almost see the snarl on his face while he spit out the word. "You fawned over him and clung to his arm and I heard it said all over the fucking castle what a lovely sight the two of you were."

She was dumbfounded. She felt accused of something she didn't do, felt she'd somehow hurt him without even knowing how and had no idea what to do about either of those things.

Was she to reassure him that she didn't feel anything for Loras or that nothing untoward had happened? Was she to just kiss him and show him where her true feelings were, her true desires?

"He lied to me," she said, when she couldn't find an answer to those questions.

"What?" he grated.

"He is a vain fool with his head in the clouds. He thinks wielding a sword is nothing more than a sport, he thinks that if he lies prettily enough, people won't realize how little he thinks of them. I haven't felt more insignificant with anyone - even with Joffrey - than I felt when he talked to me."

Sandor was silent somewhere in the dark.

"And if you think, even for a moment," she continued, anger suddenly flaring at his unreasonable behaviour, "that after all I've been through he is the sort of man I long for, you are an even bigger fool than he is."

With that said, she groped for the door handle to make her exit.

She was yanked back, however and crushed into a none too gentle embrace while his mouth devoured hers.

"If I am a fool," he panted into her mouth, barely breaking the kiss, "it's you who turned me into one."

Her anger mellowed a bit as it was overtaken by the flattering realization how much jealousy she had inspired, how much crude and blatant possessiveness. And it quickly became apparent that her body was quite ready to being an object to be claimed and possessed right then and there.

Reason, fortunately, prevailed this time.

"We cannot stay here for long," she said, breathlessly. "I am expected back."

"I know," he replied, equally out of breath. "Just wanted to know how it went."

She refrained from pointing out that he could have very welled asked her that during the night.

"They tried to get me to admit that there is something not right with Joff," she said, trying to be brief. "Which I did, to an extent."

"Might have been a mistake," Sandor said, "We cannot risk having them call off the wedding."

"They won't," she reassured him. "They're just being careful, I think."

"Anything else?"

"They've cooked up some scheme about getting me married to Willas Tyrell," she said. "I pretended to be delighted, but it's to happen after the wedding, so it's no concern to us."

She had tried to say this as nonchalantly, as off-handed as possible and in this moment was glad for the darkness. Because back there with the Queen of Thorns, there had been a moment, if only a fleeting one, when she tried to picture herself amongst the flowers of Highgarden, puppies on her lap and a man beside her who looked like a younger version of his father.

In the end, it had been just a picture, lifeless and without any allure. A future without any purpose, a life without meaning. Her destiny, she was convinced without any doubt, lay elsewhere. With someone else.

A smile stole on her lips at the quirky thought that she didn't need the puppies; she needed her dog.

Besides, she had given him a vow a few weeks back and she hadn't given it lightly.

During her musings, Sandor hadn't made a single sound and even now that she turned her attention fully on him, the silence coming from him was deafening.

"Then you should stay," he finally said.

Now it was her turn to utter an unladylike and surprised "What?".

"Stay," he repeated. "Marry Tyrell. They say he's a good sort. No knight, obviously, but kind and caring. You could have it good with him. And he is Highgarden's heir."

If only she could see his face, she thought, she might be able to see if he was joking. If he was not... well, there was no way he meant that seriously. Just minutes before he had gone mad with jealousy because he'd seen her on Loras' arm and now...

"You're making fun of me, aren't you," she said, tone and volume leaking out of her voice until she was merely whispering.

"No."

She stood there just like mere minutes before, at a loss for an answer, but anger came to her aid much sooner this time.

"I… I can't believe you would even suggest that!" she sputtered. "We… we belong together. Remember that night when you came back from your mission…"

His hand closed around her arms almost painfully and she could feel his face mere inches from her.

"Forget about that night!" he growled. "I have no fucking rights to you and you have no obligation to consider a life of a fugitive over one of the future Lady of Highgarden!"

He released her from his iron grip so suddenly, she stumbled a bit.

"I won't forget about that night," she said quietly, tears threatening so smother her voice. "And I meant what I said back then." She closed the distance between them and put a tentative hand on his chest. "Didn't you?"

"Sansa," he began after a long moment, putting his hand above hers. "I swore once that I will see to it that no harm comes to you. If that means letting you go to another…"

"Wouldn't it hurt you to do that?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Mist was curling over the cover of rotten leaves under his boots when he made his way to the centre of the godswood, making sure every few steps that he still hadn't been followed.

If he was honest, he would love nothing more than to turn around completely and flee in the opposite direction, even though the fools errand he was on at the moment had been his own asinine idea.

How had she managed to make him do this?

He shook his head dejectedly at the thought that she had accomplished this as she did everything else when it came to him. With a few quiet words and a gentle touch.

"Wouldn't it hurt you to do that?" she had asked him when he'd told her - truthfully - that he would see his oath of protection fulfilled if he gave her into the care of a good man of her station.

He'd turned his back on her then, even though he knew she couldn't see his face anyhow, but needing to distance himself from her nearness.

Would it hurt? The question was, would it hurt even more than just thinking about it already did? Would the iron fist around his heart just keep squeezing until the bloody thing stopped beating?

He'd probably drink himself to death just to drown out the image of her being with another man. Just thinking of anyone else touching her, kissing her, fucking her…

He'd hit the wall then, but had scarcely felt the pain.

Sansa had placed a gentle hand between his shoulder blades.

"Because it would hurt me dreadfully," she had said then, his soul soaking up her every word like a revelation. "I cannot live without you."

He'd spun her around then, grabbed her around the waist and pressed her against the nearest wall.

"You throw your life away, little bird, for a dog!"

She had grabbed his face then, her nails painfully biting into his skin.

"You are no dog and I am no little bird. We are a man and a woman and as far as I am concerned we belong to each other body and heart and soul. I'd be throwing my life away living with a man who means nothing to me. This is the only time in my entire life that I am free to choose and I've made my choice." Her iron grip loosened a little on his face and her next words came much less heated, much more quietly. "Have you made yours?"

And yes, he had made his. Quite a while before she had asked that question.

If ever there was a woman meant for him, it had to be her.

A woman who looked at him unflinchingly, as if he was just as any other man. A woman who was his friend and his family, a playmate to laugh and be silly with, a sympathetic ear to bring his sorrows to. A woman who was like wildfire between the sheets, gentle and caring as the Mother when he needed her to be and with a core of steel inside her that gave her the strength and bravery to stand up even to him.

What he had done to deserve one such as her, with her noble blood and her heartrending beauty, he would never know, but yes, he'd made his choice.

He'd made his choice weeks ago during a night filled with green fire, when he'd taken the risk of being punished as a deserter rather than leaving her. He'd confirmed this choice every step of the way and backing out now – no matter how noble he would paint his motives – would be cowardly.

"I hope you won't regret this," he'd said before claiming her mouth in a demanding kiss.

Before she went, he'd told her he wanted to meet in the godswood around midnight.

He thought she'd understood.

So now he found himself staring at the ancient face of the old oak once again, absurdly trying to justify to a tree what he was about to do, because yes, they had given each other vows before, but he'd been half-asleep back then, thinking himself in a dream. The least she deserved was for him to be awake and alert when he swore her an oath.

His thinking was interrupted when he heard her approach.

"Who comes here to be wed?" he asked softly.

"I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell," she replied, quietly out of necessity, but her tone unwavering.

"And who gives her away?" he asked again, keeping to what he had learned from some northern soldier was the custom for a wedding before the Old Gods.

He found it interesting that for the Old Gods, only the trees needed to bear witness. A marriage was completely valid if it was a vow freely given only between a man and a woman.

"I am without a father and a family, hostage to people who have no claim to my loyalty. I give myself," she replied and he almost smiled at the note of steel and pride in her voice.

"Who claims her?" she asked then.

"Sandor of House Clegane," he said and wondered for an insane moment if he'd ever said his own name with this much pride. "I claim her."

She stepped to him then and put her hands in his, earnestly looking up at him. In the pale moonlight, she looked like an otherworldly being, ethereal and unreal.

"Will you take him?" he asked.

"Yes, I will," she replied promptly. "I will be yours until death parts us."

He unfastened his cloak then and wrapped it around her. A brown and worn homespun thing, it didn't bear his family's sigil. Since his name was not going to protect her, nor could he give her the protection of his house, giving her a cloak with the Clegane colours would be something approaching a lie. And he would never deceive her like this.

Sansa touched the rough wool with a smile and then looked up at him. Then she reached both hands to the back of her neck and drew the silver chain with the white stone over her head and held it out to him.

"I give you this as a token of my love," she said.

The white stone glowed eerily in the moonlight, the blue inclusion sparkling with a cold light.

Mesmerized, he drew his own stone from beneath his shirt and held it out to her, stunned at how appropriate this exchange seemed to be for them. As if they were gifting each other with a piece of themselves. Although it seemed a trifle unfair, with him getting something perfect and beautiful and her getting something that had value only to her.

"I give you this as a token of my love," he repeated.

She took the leather band into her hand and he gingerly took the silver chain from her, her words about how the chain would rip easily still ringing in his head.

The white stone settled on his chest a bit higher then the other one, somewhere above his wildly hammering heart.

He felt the eyes of the tree still on him, had felt them for the whole of the ceremony. They were still watching, as if expecting something profound from him. And it was a given that he had to mean every word he said.

"I will kill everyone who tries to harm you," he renewed a promise he had made before. "You have the protection of my sword and the protection of my body as well. I will be yours until I draw my last breath."

...

When they reached the edge of the godswood, he couldn't let her go. Like the last time they had been here together, something almost physically forced him to hold on to her, to not let her out of his sight.

And today, he didn't fight it.

"We're going back together," he declared from between clenched teeth. "If someone asks, I was concerned about your safety and escorted you back."

After a few heartbeats, she nodded silently and put a hand decorously on his arm and so they walked back towards the holdfast arm in arm as it should be their right from this day on.

They reached the door of her bedchamber without being questioned by anyone, maybe due to the fact that he had glowered at anyone who had dared to look at them. He quickly made sure that no one saw him entering her chamber after her and then followed her inside, but only to take one step into the room, closing the door behind him and resting his back against it.

He watched her taking off his cloak, folding it neatly and putting it atop the chest where he knew his Kingsguard cloak rested as well. Then, untroubled by his staring at her, she unhurriedly undressed in front of him until she stood before him wearing only the black stone.

She then reached up to where she had her hair fastened into a neat bun at the back of her neck and withdrew whatever held it there. Time seemed suspended or at least impossibly slowed as he watched the fiery strands cascading past her shoulders, down her back, the silky tendrils slightly curling over the side of her arms, enveloping her like a cloak.

To say she was beautiful, he felt, would be an understatement, almost an insult. There were scores of beautiful women everywhere, but she … she was a goddess. A physical manifestation of every man's dream.

He reached a hand towards her and noticed that it was shaking. Rather badly. He tried to hide it by snatching it back, but she had seen.

"You're trembling," she whispered, stepping closer to him. "What is it?"

Concern shone warmly from her eyes and he almost laughed. It wasn't him she should be concerned about.

"I want to fuck you so badly," he rasped, "I think I'll make a mess of this."

The corner of her mouth went up a fraction, turning her smile from warmly concerned to wickedly daring. Deftly grabbing his belt and starting to unbuckle it, she looked him straight in the eyes.

"You still think I can't handle you, Sandor Clegane?"

He put a hand on the side of her face and traced her bottom lip with his thumb.

"Can you now?", he asked with a shaky smile and then bent down for a kiss.

Immediately her arms went around his neck and she kissed him back with all her usual fervour.

And just like that, the fear he'd felt vanished, the burden he'd felt placed on his shoulders lifted and the fear of hurting her melted in the furnace of her ardour.

Kissing her, holding her, having his hands roam her naked skin - all this felt familiar, because it was. They'd done this before and he'd never hurt her, so why should he now? While their vows might have changed what they were to each other in the eyes of men and gods, they hadn't changed anything when it came to just the two of them.

By now quite an expert when it came to undressing him, Sansa had made short work of his clothes and they were on her bed only moments later, him with his mouth on her breast and his hand between her legs, while she was moaning in delight.

He kept a tight leash on the need boiling inside his veins, determined to make this night as memorable and pleasurable to her as all their other nights had been so far.

"Sandor," she whispered between panting breaths, tugging at his shoulders, just when he was about to bring her to her peak.

He looked up at her, about to ask her what was wrong, when she smiled that one smile that he knew was a precursor to his undoing.

"Fuck me."

Those words out of her sweet mouth snapped the leash that he had so carefully put in place. There would be no stopping now, no turning back.

His cock slid into her body in an effortless smooth glide until he was buried to the hilt and it was everything he had always imagined it to be and nothing like that at all. Like a sip of cold water after a day of heat, like a ship coming into a safe haven after a storm it was both an end and a beginning and for a deranged moment he wished he could stay like this forever, burned alive by lust while soothed and cooled by her willing acceptance of it.

A sobbing groan tore from his throat and only when he heard her moan as well did he think to open his eyes to see in how much pain she was. He couldn't quite tell from the way her teeth had sunk into her bottom lip and her eyes were tightly closed.

He drew back almost all the way out and slowly pushed back in, once again groaning at the sensation of her sweet cunt gripping him like a wet fist.

"Yessss," she hissed, before biting her lip once more. "Like that, please."

There was nothing to do but obeying her wish, thrusting into her until his whole universe shrank to only the feeling of their bodies intertwined in the most intimate of embraces and the only sound he heard were her smothered moans, almost drowned by the hammering of his heart that reverberated through his whole body.

The more he fucked her, the more he wanted to, needed it to last forever, wanted to stay in this heaven of their own making, lost in the welcoming, wet warmth of her body. Shoving his release away every time it threatened, his body was soon dripping with sweat, his balls drawn painfully tight and his breath coming in short bursts that were nowhere near getting enough air into his lungs.

He felt rather than saw when she came, her body suddenly tensing under him, the walls of her cunt contracting around his cock until stars danced behind his closed eyelids and he knew he could finally let go.

Release erupted in him with the violence of a volcano, more pain than pleasure. Rearing back on outstretched arms, he threw his head back, opening his mouth in a soundless, breathless roar. Every muscle in his body was locked in place, only his hips still pumping, bringing the spurts of his seed deep into her belly, again and again, as if he was not only emptying his balls, but his whole being, heart and soul, into her, until he felt he'd given her all of himself, leaving him an empty shell, a blank slate fit to be written on anew.

After an eternity, he came back to himself and only then thought to look down at her.

If possible, she looked even more beautiful now, with her hair a tussled mess and a wet sheen of sweat all over her skin.

'Mine,' he thought savagely and shoved his hips against her once again for good measure, while the languor of bone-deep satisfaction started to spread over him like cooling linen.

"I am really glad you didn't leave that night," she whispered, reaching up to stroke his cheek, a serene smile on her face. A sweet gesture of loving acceptance, a warm unreserved welcome that encompassed so much more than just his possession of her body.

There was nothing else to do but smile back and allow the joy and contentment he felt to engulf him, to allow himself to be happy.

He still held himself above her, his softening cock still buried inside her, the muscles in his arms burning with the effort, but he didn't really notice. He looked into endless blue and felt himself falling. Falling without any fear, only with a curious sense of freedom and weightlessness and he gave himself over to it.

Her fingers softly caressed his cheek while she looked at him, her eyes bright like a drunkards, lips red and her bottom lip still marred from where she had bitten down on it.

"Is this a dream?"

Silly words popped up in his brain and spilled before he could stop them.

"If this is a dream," he said, lowering his head for a kiss, "I'll kill anyone who wakes me."

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

A gust of wind had blown out the flame from the little candle at her bedside, but they didn't let this disturb them. By now, they knew the landscape of their bodies by heart, could find their various ways to pleasure and fulfilment by touch and taste alone.

Barely a week into their clandestine marriage, and no night had gone by when they hadn't made love. Tender and loving most of the time, sometimes playful and with laugher in their eyes and on their lips when they came together. More often than not, he filled her ears with words - spoken in a growling whisper that alone sent shivers of want through her - that were as far from being sweet nothings as he was from being a knight in shining armour, but nonetheless made her squirm and pant with desire.

As was his nature, he told her truly and directly what he liked about being inside her, what he thought about her body, about how she felt to him, how she smelled and tasted. The words were colourful, to say the least, some would say obscene and crude, but she didn't mind at all. And saying some of those crude words back to him in the height of passion always produced the most interesting results.

One night, however, after what she had later learned had been an unpleasant meeting with Joffrey, he'd come to her with a storm brewing darkly in the grey depths of his eyes and it had taken all her mettle to challenge that anger, to draw it onto her and turn it into an encounter that was as passionate and wild as it was lacking in tenderness. He'd taken her in a way that she had thought was only for animals. Not that she had had reason to complain. The night had been memorable and intensely satisfying. Especially since during the following day, she couldn't take a single step without being reminded of the various aches his ardour had left her with. A welcome physical reminder that their relationship, secret, hidden and confined only to one hour a night as it was, still was something real and tangible.

The next night, he had been contrite and embarrassed, apparently set on not touching her at all. It had taken some effort to convince him, that no, she hadn't minded his fierce passion and yes, she had enjoyed it at least as much as he had. That no, she didn't think him insatiable, because she more than matched his hunger, because having him in her bed and inside her body was the only time she really felt alive, felt that life was still worth living.

Tonight, he moved inside her with the insistence of a rising tide branding against the shore. Gentle, but steadily rising, every new wave stronger than the one before, and she moved with him soft and pliable as sand, infinitely patient and infinitely accepting.

But just as the rising waves were about to carry her into sweet oblivion, he was ripped from her, leaving gaping nothingness and cold despair were before had been man as virile as he was strong.

Naked, cold and vulnerable she was left in a forest of red stone, leafless branches entangled as to form a prison around her, harsh and inescapable.

Things were moving in the darkness around her, malicious and dangerous. Pairs of green cat eyes loomed in the blackness, staring at her with hatred.

A hissing growl came from behind her and then there were lions stepping out of the darkness, a whole pack of them, circling, prowling, waiting.

'So you'd thought you could escape?' a nasty voice whipped through her brain, making her wince and cower. 'You thought you could fool us, deceive us?'

She wanted to deny it while at the same time a part of her still longed to stand up to them, regardless of her naked vulnerability. She looked around herself frantically, searching, waiting, hoping.

'Do you think he'd come?' The voice asked and it was not one but many, a mixture of Cercei's cloyingly sweet tones, Joffrey's high pitched, hateful screeching and Tywin's bloodless inflection.

Now that they were closer, she could see the yellowed fangs dripping blood.

'Do you think he'd be there to save you? Did you really think he could, when he couldn't even save himself?'

They circled ever closer, and she wanted to run and to scream, but she could do nothing but wait in icy terror for whatever they intended for her.

"Sandor," she sobbed quietly, but he wasn't there. He couldn't help. "Sandor," she cried a little louder, because even though he couldn't help, his name on her lips alone gave her some sort of hope.

'Maybe it's not him you should call for,' the voices snarled.

Something dark and irregular rolled towards her, bloody and dirty. Two somethings actually.

When the two things came to rest at her feet, she looked at the bloodshot, lifeless eyes of her mother and brother, staring at her from severed heads.

And then she screamed.

A large, warm hand over her mouth muffled her scream quite effectively.

"Seven hells, Sansa, please stop it, you are waking the whole keep."

She stared at him uncomprehendingly.

"You're here," she said tonelessly when he took his hand away. "You came."

He gave her a puzzled look.

"You know I come every night, right?" he said and then started to grin. "Sometimes even twice."

The joke was lost on her in her current mood and she threw herself at his chest, burying her face against the warmth of his skin, sinking her nails into his flesh and battling the urge to cry until she wouldn't have any tears left.

"He's still alive?", she whispered over the burn of unshed tears in her throat. "My brother Robb, I mean."

"Yes," he murmured into her hair. "Very much so and annoying all the seven hells out of the Lannisters for it."

"And my mother?"

"At his side, last I heard of her."

Gradually, the terror from her nightmare receded a little and she became more aware of her surroundings. They were both naked, which meant they must have fallen asleep after they had made love. Unfortunately, it wasn't the first time this had happened and she was afraid it wouldn't be the last. So far, they had never slept into the morning, thanks to Sandor's warrior instincts, but there had been some close calls.

Curled up on his lap as she was, she felt his manhood stirring against her behind, drawing an answering wave of fresh arousal from her body.

Not quite ready to give into it yet, she put her hand flat on his chest, placing it over his steadily beating heart.

"You're careful, aren't you?" she asked, drawing strength from the vibration of his heartbeat against her hand. "You won't let them hurt you."

He buried his face into her hair, drawing her closer, almost crushing her.

"Sansa...",

"Promise," she demanded. "Promise me you won't let them hurt you."

"I can't," he whispered. "You know that."

She closed her eyes and for the first time she wished he would not always be so honest. Just this once, she would have loved to have him give her a promise he wasn't sure he could keep.

"But I am careful," he said then. "You said yourself I am not that easy to kill and I won't go down without a fight."

He was right and just like that she was glad he hadn't lied to her. Because all they could do, he as well as she, was not giving up, not going down without a fight.

And the first thing she had to fight were her own demons, were the green-eyed shadows in the dark that brought terror to her dreams without any reason.

She shook her head, trying to dispel the ill-feelings and then lifted her head, smiling bravely.

"Neither will I," she said and drew him to her for a kiss.

He kissed her almost reverently, cradling her against him like a quail's egg, touching her as if she was made of smoke. And when he came to her, it was with so much tenderness, so much loving care, it felt as if he was afraid she'd break.

And she did break, after a while, bursting into countless shards of coloured light and only his solid presence inside her, big and pulsing with his own vitality, helped her reassemble herself until she could take flight again, this time with him at her side, rising ever higher until they touched the sun, crashed and burned in a fiery light that scorched away the remnants of bad dreams and worse premonitions.

"Do you think it would have been better to leave back then at the battle, when you asked me?" she asked him a while later. "We could be far away by now, maybe even in Riverrun already."

"Or dead," he said evenly.

She winced at this bluntness and burrowed closer into his warmth. Sensing her discomfort, he turned to his side and pulled her to him, enveloping her into his arms and entwining one of his legs with hers until she was half buried under his bulk, head tucked beneath his chin.

While at first he had always been worried that he would be crushing or smothering her in this position, he had to her delight quickly learned that she relished the feeling of being surrounded by him. Additionally, if they would feel like it, they were already belly to belly and it would take only the slightest bit of manoeuvring for him to push into her. Making love like this was always agonizingly slow - almost lazy - and heartbreakingly sweet.

"I often thought about it after the Blackwater," he explained. "I had not really planned an escape, I just wanted to leave. I would have had nothing but the weapons and armour on my back and almost no provisions. My tourney winnings wouldn't have been much use, because we could not have shown our faces anywhere... for obvious reason."

She nodded her head.

"We would have had to sleep in the open every night, we'd been cold and dirty and hungry and I am afraid at one point we would have resented each other for it.

"And as much as it pains me to admit it," he continued in a much lighter tone while giving her behind a playful pinch that made her squeak like a piglet, "You were right about them hounding us. I doubt we would've managed to outrun them. Not as ill-prepared as we were."

"What if we went now?" she mused. "Everyone is preoccupied with Joff's wedding, maybe..."

"Different tune, same song," he said. "All seven hells would break lose if they'd find you missing. You are too valuable a hostage to let you slip away like that. And now they would have even more resources to go after us."

"So Littlefinger's ship is our best option?"

"I have to give it to him that it's a clever plan. Everyone thinks him halfway to the Vale by now, no one knows about the ship, so they would not think to look for one when searching for you, and traveling by sea will be so much more comfortable."

His hand on her rear drew her closer against him, bringing to her attention the fact that he was quite ready again. Knowing the choreography to this particular dance by heart, she withdrew her leg from under his and wrapped it around his hips.

"And as it so happens," he whispered into her hair while sheathing himself to the hilt inside of her in one slow stroke, "I've developed quite a penchant for comfort these days."

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

SANDOR

"Cersei's seamstress was here today," she told him first thing when he entered her room one night.

The information gave him pause for a second, but then he hurriedly started undressing himself. They only had that one hour and as always he wanted to make the most of it. Although lately, it had often been much more than just one hour. Falling asleep after having screwed each other to exhaustion had become a problem and if hadn't been for Sansa waking up screaming from a nightmare that one night, they'd probably have been woken by Sansa's maids.

He knew they should be more careful, but he had no idea how to govern the constant need for her that was driving him. A need that could not be purely physical, because he never went back to his room unsatisfied. But it somehow still never was enough, the hour too short, the hunger for her never truly gone.

Leaving her arms every night seemed to rip open a wound that only healed when he was inside her again, and so he was constantly aching with longing for her during all hours of the day but the one.

They'd called him Hound or dog for as long as he could remember, but he had never felt more like a beast than when he was with her these days. He had even succumbed to his most primal urges, the most violent part of his nature a time or two, but she had surprised him by being a match for him in this just as in everything else.

"I am to get a new gown and a few other things as well," she elaborated. "There will be a little army of seamstresses at work for me, all at the queen's command."

"Why would Cersei do something like that?" he asked after lying down on his back to better enjoy the view of her undressing herself much less hurriedly than he had.

"The seamstress said since I am a woman grown now, I shouldn't dress like a girl," she said and he had to admit to the truth of that. Seeing her standing there in all her naked glory there was no trace of a little girl left.

"Besides," she continued, "I've grown a lot these past years and all my dresses are too short and way too tight around here," she explained, indicated her lovely breasts. "Last time I went riding, I couldn't even lace my jerkin all the way up to the top which made me look like a harlot."

By way of a demonstration, she put her hands around her breasts, squashing them together and upwards with the flat of her hands.

"I'm afraid I gave the stableboy quite an eyeful."

As it was, she gave him an eyeful and his already half-hard cock responded at once by hardening and twitching in anticipation.

"I think I'd have to gauge his eyes out for that."

She laughed and let go of her breasts, much to his disappointment.

"You would have to leave half the keep blinded," she chuckled, "sometimes I think every man just stares at my chest."

He gaped at her in astonishment. How she couldn't know that a man had to be either blind or dead not to admire her breasts was a mystery to him. Still, a low growl of possessiveness started in his throat at the thought. Understanding other men didn't mean he liked them staring. At what was his.

And he much less liked not being able to be at her side where he belonged, leaving no doubt to everyone who dared to look that they'd better direct their attention elsewhere if they valued their health.

"You're not listening," she complained and he snapped back to reality, a bit disgruntled at having to let go of the image of him walking around with her on his arm, sending everyone fleeing in terror with only a 'don't you dare, she's mine' look.

"I am listening," he hastened to reassure her, his refocused attention rewarded by a smile and the breathtaking sight of her naked body bathed in the red-orange light of the small fire in the fireplace, while she had her arms lifted to take down her hair.

"So, Cercei's just doing you a kindness?" he asked to demonstrate his attention to their conversation.

"No," Sansa said, shaking her head. "I just think she doesn't want me to embarrass them by showing up to Joff's wedding looking like a beggar."

He nodded to himself. It made sense, somehow.

"Well, that's that, I think," he said grinning, not wanting to waste another second on the unsavoury topic of Cersei's scheming.

"Now, could you just demonstrate again how tight your old dresses are?" he asked, wriggling his eyebrows. "I didn't quite catch it the first time."

Sansa looked a bit puzzled for a short moment, but - seeing his grin - quickly made the connection.

Sadly enough, they hadn't spent nearly enough time together for their lovemaking to take on a lot of variety, to encompass everything he dreamed up while aching for her, but that didn't mean he couldn't try to teach her when the opportunity presented itself.

Like it did now.

Born seductress that she was, she first circled her hands around her breasts, then teased her nipples a bit with her index fingers before lifting them up, not quite as high as before, more like she was offering them to him.

It truly was a mouth-watering sight and as always he was thrilled at the thought that he was the only one who had the privilege to enjoy it.

She slowly sauntered toward the bed, still caressing her breasts, giving him ample time to admire her body just as she was admiring his naked form, jutting erection and all.

They had long since stopped being shy about their respective nakedness. He adored her body and had told and showed her repeatedly how much; and – surprising as it still was – he knew she adored his just as intensely.

He wasn't quite sure though, what she thought about his face. He'd meant to ask her about it a few times, but it always slipped his mind when he was with her. Only when he chanced to see his reflection in a mirror or a washbasin, seeing the evil looking ruin that stared back at him, he remembered that he really needed to know how she put up with it, when all he wanted to do was smash every reflecting surface he came across.

When he was with her though, he forgot. Because she looked him straight in the face, smiled at him and touched him as if he was like any other man. There were no covert glances, no eyes quickly averted when he caught them staring. As if some fault with her eyesight prevented her from seeing his scars. Which, incidentally, would explain a lot.

She put one knee on the bed and then stilled, waiting for him to scoot over and make room for her.

He didn't.

"I am quite comfortable where I am, thank you very much," he told her, the grin still plastered to his face. "But I am sure you can find some place atop me."

In rapid succession, her face first showed some annoyance, then confusion and then a narrowed-eyed look of pure speculation that kicked his arousal up another notch.

She carefully clambered on top of him, sitting just the way he had wanted, her damp sex pressing against the hard ridge of his cock.

He gritted his teeth against the urge to grab her and just plunge inside of her, but ultimately, this wasn't what this particular fantasy was about.

"And now?" she asked, the question laced with all the innocence that was still left to her, even after all those nights with him.

"Now," he said, trying not to groan while doing so. "You do what every good horsewoman does after she mounted... Gods!"

Apparently getting the general concept much sooner than he could explain it to her, she had lifted her hips and taken hold of his cock, to position it at her wet entrance and was now impaling herself on him with torturous slowness.

She accompanied her descent with a drawn-out moan; a sound so low and deep it didn't seem to come from her at all. Then she started to move her hips, slowly and experimentally, rotating them and only barely lifting them before pressing down on him once more.

"Sansa...," he managed to groan, the word having to serve as a plea, because it was all he could do not to take over.

She looked down at him from lust-clouded eyes, a lazy smile on her lips.

"I am not much of a horsewoman," she said sweetly if a little out of breath. "My teachers had always lots to criticise about my seat."

He was sure there was a witty reply to that somewhere, only not in his head because he was in agony at the moment. So he just stared at her in silent supplication, willing her to put him out of his misery.

And finally, she did. She rose on her knees and slammed down on him and then did it again and somewhere in a detached part of his mind he wondered how he could ever have imagined he could just lay back and enjoy this without even remotely imagining what it would do to him to see her taking her pleasure from him in such in uninhibited way. How the different angle of his penetration would squeeze his cock even more deliciously than usual, how the sight of her teats bouncing with every move would fire his blood beyond the boiling point, how his grip on his self-control would be slipping so rapidly it was frightening.

She leaned forward at the precise moment when he was about to lose whatever thin slice of patience he had still left.

"Sandor, I can't..." she panted, pearly drops of sweat running down the valley of her breasts, making him want to taste them.

Knowing what it was she couldn't achieve without his help, he took her hips in an iron grip, beyond worry if he would leave bruises and put his feet flat on the mattress, to give himself purchase when he surged up into her.

"Hold on tight," he rasped, "We're changing pace."

She came closer, leaning forward even more so that her hair fell like a curtain of rippling fire around them. For a moment, he shuddered as a vile memory crept into his thoughts, but then she put her hands on his shoulders, dug her nails into his skin and breathed his name and the intensity of her passion left no room for old fears and bad memories.

Under the assault of his relentless upward thrusts, her body bowed and shuddered and her moans came from so low within her chest, the sound vibrated all the way down to his balls.

He couldn't take his eyes off her, couldn't close them even though he wanted to because looking at her made it so much harder to hold out at least a little longer. But seeing her like this, completely lost to the pleasure he gave her, was a sight he wanted to hold on to, take with him so he would never forget it for as long as he existed. When her body tensed, when the walls of her cunt clamped down on his cock, he drank in every nuance of her reaction, every trembling, every sound, every sensation because every little bit of this was precious and indefinitely worth remembering.

Finally, however, his body couldn't take it anymore and he bucked into her once, twice... three times more before his seed burst from him in sweetly-torturous release.

Sansa collapsed over him, her face against his neck and for long moments they were occupied trying to catch their breaths, before they could rightly bask in the afterglow of an extraordinary shared experience.

He let his hands gently roam over her back and enjoyed the little shudders of pleasure she gave at his touch, slight quakes like faint echoes of former, greater ones. His hands finally came to rest on the delicious roundness of her arse and he delighted in how perfectly it fit into his big paws.

Turning his head a bit, he pressed a soft kiss to the side of her face.

"My lady wife was too modest about her riding skills," he growled into her ear, getting a low chuckle as a response. He gave the firm globes in his hands a little squeeze and was rewarded with another chuckle that vibrated all along his skin where her body touched his. "She has a fine seat indeed."

Sansa turned so her lips were near his ear.

"My lord husband is kind to say so," she whispered in a low tone. "Because I think I can only perform this well on this particular stallion."

Gods, the things she said to him! There rarely was a time when they fucked when she didn't make him feel like a bloody hero.

Like he was the centre of her universe. The only man in the whole of the world capable of satisfying her, the only one whose touches and kisses she enjoyed, the only one worthy of her notice, her laughs and her warmth, the only one to... the only one.

And try as he might to keep his head clear, it got to him. He believed it. Revelled in it. Needed it.

"You can ride him whenever you want," he whispered back.

...

SANSA

As much as Sansa loved their lovemaking - every and each variation they had tried to far - she equally enjoyed the time afterwards, when they just lay together, somewhere between exhausted sleep and satisfied wakefulness. When touches and kisses where not urgent and meant to arouse, but slow and soft like a sleepy whisper.

When they were still as intimately connected as could be, his manhood still half inside her, naked bodies pressed together as closely as possible, like they truly were one flesh. When her fingertips on his chest could sense his heart calming its frantic beating to the preternatural slowness of post-release fatigue.

"Margery's cousins are forever speculating how it would feel to kiss a man," she told him sleepily, not so much because she thought he would want to know, but to keep both of them from falling asleep.

"And did you tell them?" he asked.

"Well, I have to pretend to be a virtuous maiden who doesn't know, but...," she turned her head a little and pressed a lingering kiss to his chest, right over his heart. "I couldn't help telling them that I think that if it's the right man they've chosen, kissing..." she left a meaningful pause there to make her point that kissing wasn't the only thing she meant, "...would be the sweetest thing there is."

There was a long silence from him. So long, she feared her attempt at keeping him awake had failed.

But then he put a hand beneath her chin and gave it a nudge, so she turned her head and looked up at him.

Tears burned in the back of her throat when she saw the way he looked at her, his heart in his eyes, unguarded and vulnerable.

"I think you have the right of it," he rasped, before pulling her into a kiss that was undeniable proof to her claim.

tbc

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

If he hadn't had his head so far up in the clouds he had forgotten half his armour in his room, he would've missed it. But as it was, he had to walk back to the holdfast to get all his equipment and that was when he saw them.

One of the Kettleblacks and Merryn fucking Trant, half-dragging, half-carrying Sansa out of the keep towards the castle sept, Cersei and a whole gaggle of courtiers, servants and onlookers in their wake.

She wore a pretty dress he had not seen on her before and vaguely remembered her telling him that today was the day the seamstress was to bring her the newly commissioned dresses.

But it wasn't only the dress that was new. She also wore a billowing great cloak with the Stark direwolf sewn onto it.

A maiden's cloak.

The bottom dropped out of his stomach at the realization and liquid ice washed through his veins.

Bits and pieces came back to him now, reassembling themselves into a picture, one he should've been able to see a long time ago. One he couldn't believe he had been too blind to see before. He, who called himself dog, who thought he could sniff out lies, deceit and devious plots from miles away.

They only want me for my claim...

They cooked up some scheme about getting me married to Willas Tyrell...

Cersei's seamstress was here today...

The Lannisters must have caught wind of what the Roses had been plotting and they would not have given up on as juicy a price as Sansa's claim to Winterfell. And there weren't many options as far as her potential husbands went.

Before he could stop to think, his legs had carried him to her.

Her head whipped around to him and she resisted her escorts for a moment. They each had an iron grip on her arms and it looked as if she had fought them. The look she gave him was like a sledgehammer to his gut.

Tears were swimming in her terror-widened eyes and there was a plea in there that was like a scream. A scream so loud it made his ears ring.

Annoyed at her resistance, the Kingsguards knights dragged her along with even more force and Sandor just stood there, all of his blood frozen in his veins.

There was nothing he could do, he realized with merciless clarity. Going to her now, trying to save her, would result in both their deaths. There was no question about that.

When she finally vanished out of his sight, the veil around their shared dream tore with painful brutality. The illusion shattered into a million irreparable pieces.

He stumbled and half fell towards the sept, his gut roiling with sickness and at last he had to find a quiet corner where he doubled over and emptied his stomach, retched until he was sure he would be bringing up blood.

Shaking with weakness and racking sobs, he leaned against the wall, uncaring if someone saw him like this.

He had fancied himself her protector, he thought bitterly. Her friend. Hells, he'd fancied himself her husband! And now he was standing here - sobbing, weak and trembling - watching her led to the altar like a lamb to slaughter and found himself unable to stop any of it.

Again he had taken something that wasn't his to take and again he was being punished in the worst possible way, powerless against his punishment.

Only this time, the flames were not only eating his face. This time, pain was burning through his gut, his lungs, his heart. Like back then, he wanted to scream until he couldn't scream anymore. Scream until someone came and finally stopped this madness.

It had taken three men to pull Gregor off him back then, it would take armies to stop Joffrey.

He would find them, he swore helplessly to himself. He would find those armies and he would tear the little fucker apart just as he would kill Gregor one day.

But still, under all his impotent rage and pain, the worst feeling of all was the knowledge that he had brought this on himself. That he had known about the consequences and still had made what he knew to be a mistake.

Again.

A mistake for which this time someone else would have to suffer.

On the public gallery of the sept, where the servants stood tightly packed to witness the spectacle, the throng of people parted for him when he approached to find a place to watch. He didn't know if they did out of fear or to avoid the stench of cold sweat and stale vomit he gave off, but he didn't care.

He hadn't wanted to come, hadn't wanted to see. He had in short order wanted to jump off the white tower down into the churning sea, throw himself on his own sword or find himself a cask of dornish red to drown himself In.

But he knew he owed her more than that. She deserved for him to share her suffering, he owed it to her to be there, to see, to know.

She must have pulled herself together somehow, was the first thought he had when he saw again, walking toward the marriage altar and her intended - who was predictably no one else but the bloody Imp - on Joffrey's arm.

Her head proudly raised, she was even taller than the boy king and she looked much more a queen than Cersei could ever hope to.

The Tyrells were suspiciously absent in the ranks of the high-born guests, but by now that didn't come as a surprise. Once again he wanted to punch himself for his air-headedness, for his stupidity. For being so wrapped up in his own happiness, he hadn't seen the sword hanging over them.

Tears were streaming silently down her face during the whole ceremony and all around him there was a lot of sniffling and sobbing as well. Quite a joyful wedding this one would turn out to be.

He kept his own eyes dry. Not because he didn't feel like bawling, but because on the off-chance she might be seeing him, he didn't want to add to her torment.

When the part came where Joffrey had to take Sansa's cloak, she stood stiff like a statue, barely breathing.

Sandor saw red for a moment and had to keep a tight grip on the railing to keep himself from jumping down and start killing, when he saw the little fucker grope Sansa's breast.

But then a far more heartening spectacle took place. Despite the dwarfs clear signals for her to go to her knees so he could put the Lannister cloak around her shoulders, Sansa stood tall and unmoving, lips tightly clamped together.

She had called him magnificent a few times during their time together, but in this moment, he knew he could never be half as strong, half as magnificent as she was right now. There was a sort of strength and bravery in this wife of his that put every knight in Westeros to shame. A grace and dignity that made all those around her look like the lowliest of peasants in comparison.

With her gesture of defiance she had exposed this ceremony as what it was - a mummer's farce.

When finally she knelt to receive the dwarf's kiss, she lifted her eyes to the gallery as if she had known the whole time that he was there, locking her gaze with him.

"With this kiss I pledge my love and take you for my lord and husband."

She spoke to him, he realized, renewing a promise they had given each other twice before.

A faint, warm glow started to spread from where her stone lay against his skin and he gently put a hand over it. The little spark threatened to be smothered by despair and anguish again when the septon declared his wife to belong to another man, but it didn't quite die.

Heartened by Sansa's dignified conduct, he managed to get a grip on himself as well.

He went to his rooms after the ceremony, washed and dressed up and made his way to the Small Hall where he had heard the feast was to be held.

Again, this was something he'd rather not do at all, taking part in the celebration of something that had almost destroyed him; but again he felt he better bloody be there, when Sansa had no choice about being there at all.

He was about to walk into the hall, when Trant and Blount blocked his way.

"Stop here, dog, deserters are not invited."

"Says who?" he growled with unconcealed menace. Usually that got him almost everywhere. Even those two clowns usually were afraid of him.

"Says the king," Trant smirked. "We're to call for reinforcements if you were to make trouble about it."

How?

The question bounced around uselessly in his empty head while he backed away from the smirking idiots.

How did the little cunt know?

And why, if he knew, were both his and Sansa's head not sitting tarred on spikes on the battlements right now? Did Joffrey think giving Sansa to his gargoyle of an uncle and having him standing helplessly by was a more fitting punishment? It certainly was, but how did he know?

The more he thought about it, however, the less this made sense. If the Lannisters knew he'd slept with Sansa, they had to be afraid she was pregnant. And even if there was no love lost between the lot of them, their pride wouldn't suffer passing a dog's bastard off to the world as a lion.

But Joffrey must have had some reason…

The realization came to him in hot rush of trepidation and shame.

Of course! Their stupid, reckless show of mutual defiance on the day Margery had ridden into town.

This was exactly the sort of slight Joffrey would not forget and not forgive. Having no emotions himself, the boy was forever preying on those of others, finely attuned to their joy and their suffering, envious of the first and delighted about the other and strangely aware of the sources of each.

He knew exactly how to hurt people, their souls as well as their bodies.

And he must have sensed that Sansa had drawn strength from his presence, so he made sure to exclude him now, when he must feel he'd given her a fine blow indeed.

Despair had once more taken hold of him when he was denied the chance to see her, speak to her. Let her know he was there, even though he couldn't help.

'Maybe she doesn't want you there,' the nasty voice in his head piped up. 'Maybe she hates you now, and rightfully so. You ruined her. And in your reckless stupidity, your heedless lovesickness, you threw her to the lions and now she'll think you abandoned her to her fate.'

And what a fate that would be!

His stomach turned once again at the thought of what was to come after the feast.

Dozens of half-drunk, lewd men groping her and ripping her dress off her, until she stood naked and humiliated in the dwarf's bedchamber, waiting for the twisted imp to...

He retched again but his stomach was empty, so after a couple of dry heaves that had him desperately gasping for air while his face was covered in cold sweat and hot tears, he was ready to slink into some dark corner and wait for the end.

Instead, his stumbling steps led him over the courtyard towards the godswood, deeper and deeper through the trees until he once again looked at the wooden face that had witnessed his oh-so-brave oath to protect Sansa with all he was and all he had.

Some protector he was.

Falling to his knees and hands, he knelt before the tree on all fours like the cur he was, beaten and good for nothing, hanging his head in shame.

Wetness dripped from his face to the ground.

"I failed her," he whispered. "I am sorry."

Wind sighed softly through leaves and branches and nothing else could be heard but his own harsh breathing.

And then, finally, something surged through him again that was as familiar as the handshake of an old friend, as invigorating as a cup of dornish red after a wearying fight, as welcome as a long awaited guest.

Anger had found him again.

His old pal whom he had abandoned somewhere in his blissful ignorance, lost sight of while mindlessly losing himself between Sansa's legs, thinking he had no need anymore of the one thing that had helped him survive into adulthood.

With a sudden, burning clarity, he understood that he had denied something that was part of him. Had been part of him ever since he was reborn out of fire and pain.

And it wasn't her who was to blame. He was like a fighter in a melee who had discovered an ally in the midst of foes. And instead of having his partner's back, he had lowered both his shield and his sword and basked in the feeling of not being alone, forgetting that he was still surrounded by enemies.

He wouldn't forget it again.

Anger was his shield and his sword, the whetstone that honed his deadly edge and the foundation of the bulwark that protected him and - most recently - was supposed to protect her as well.

Anger was the stuff of which the Hound was made and giving up on it had been his most grievous mistake.

He lifted his head and straightened.

"Why did you do nothing?" he spit at the tree. "She is so devoted to you and you leave it to someone like me to protect her?"

You have a plan.

"A plan!" he laughed derisively, not even wondering where the voice came from. It would be no surprise if somewhere along the line, he had lost his mind. "Some plan we have! I do not even know how to get to her!"

You have plan, the voice boomed again, reverberating like an echo in a cave, moving away and getting fainter with every repetition. A plan... plan... plan.

Despite himself, the words woke the little flame again that had ignited in him at seeing Sansa holding up so bravely during that travesty of a wedding.

Yes, they had a plan.

His anger cooled to something sharp and precise, the kind most useful to him and together with the spark of hope, it held despair at bay.

It could still work. It had to. He would make it work and be it the last thing he did.

Maybe this was what she had wanted to show him with her proud defiance. That she could take what was coming to her as long as they stuck to what they had agreed to between them.

And if she could take it- she, who had it so much worse - he could buggering well take it, too.

I will not go down without a fight.

Taking the stone from beneath his shirt, he held its smooth surface against his lips and closed his eyes, allowing his emotions to wash through him; all of them, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Sandor Clegane had set foot into the godswood, but it was the Hound who walked out.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

As long as she lived, Sansa knew, she wouldn't forget the look on Sandor's face when he saw her between Trant and Kettleblack, about to be forced to marry Tyrion Lannister.

Sandor didn't do denial, it was nothing he indulged in, ever. Not even for a second. He took things as he saw them and once he understood what was happening, he had nothing to cushion the blow, letting it hit him full force, with no walls up, no warning, no hope of misunderstanding.

For a moment she forgot her own plight when she saw him, still as a statue, white as a wall, the blood-red scar on his face an even more jarring contrast to his bloodless skin than usual.

What she saw was a man who had been a fighter for most of his life giving up. Mortally wounded, utterly defeated.

And it was her fault. Her fault for being a sobbing mess instead of displaying the strength and dignity befitting her station. Her fault for fighting two grown men, seasoned knights no less, each of them twice as strong as she was, in a vain and childish attempt to flee, until they had to be true to Cersei's threats and drag her to the sept struggling; a spectacle for the stableboys to titter over.

Her fault for not exuding the calm acceptance of something that was but an obstacle on their way.

The only problem was, it was more than an obstacle. It was a deep, dark swamp of despair that threatened to suck her under, smothering her and never letting her see the light of day again.

How could she possibly do this? Set her foot into a holy place, step in front of the Seven and swear an holy oat that would be a falsehood, a mockery? Wasn't there special place in the Seven Hells just for people like her? Would she even be able to speak the words or would the wrath of the Gods strike her down where she stood?

Even more terrifying than the religious rumination was the very real question about how she would be able to go through with the rest. Involuntarily she jerked in the hands of her captors at the thought that she would have to give Tyrion a kiss on top of her vow and the rest of herself as well.

The edges of the knight's steel gauntlet cut into her arms, but she didn't notice, because she saw Joffrey standing on the steps of the sept, waiting for her, resplendent in crimson and gold and an ugly grin on his wormy lips.

Maybe she could end this right here. She wouldn't have to name Sandor, she could still protect him, but she could refuse to wed on grounds of already being another man's wife, of already having given her maidenhead and her heart to a man of her choosing.

They would punish her, so much was a given, and beheading would probably the least they would do to her. But she would not give up Sandor's name, regardless, and maybe she could save at least him.

But then his face stood in her mind's eye as she had last seen him, white-faced and shocked, the grey in his eyes splintered like a broken windowpane.

No, she decided, she couldn't do that to him. They'd vowed not only devotion and faithfulness to one another, they'd sworn each other their flesh and their blood, the breath in their lungs and the beat of their hearts and it was her life she owed him as much as he owed her his. She could not throw hers away like this, despite the fact that keeping on living seemed to be the harder choice right now.

"I am your father today," Joff announced pompously.

"You're not," she flared before she could think better of it. "You'll never be."

His face darkened. She chided herself for not having chosen a different approach, for not having been contrite and pleading and begging, just the way he liked her to be, maybe...

"I am. I'm your father and I can marry you to whoever I like. To anyone. You'll marry the pigboy if I say so, and bed down with him in the sty." His green eyes glittered with amusement and the very same malice she remembered from her dreams. If only she had paid more attention to those, she thought, shuddering.

"Or maybe I should give you to the Hound, would you like him better?"

Her heart stopped beating for a long moment and when it resumed, it hammered against her ribs as if trying to pound its way out of her chest. Surely he was only jesting, wasn't he? Because he thought marrying Sandor would somehow be even more horrifying to her? Or did he know? Was this whole farce only set up because somehow he knew?

Would she condemn both herself and her husband to a terrible fate if she answered affirmative, if she asked him to 'yes, please, give me to the Hound'?

Joffrey cackled when he saw her expression and if nothing else, it told her that yes, it had been his twisted version of a joke. She said a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity had stilled her tongue long enough not to blurt her own death sentence.

"Please, Your Grace," she begged. "If you ever loved me even a little, don't make me marry."

"Your uncle?" Tyrion Lannister stepped through the doors of the sept. "Your Grace, grant me a moment alone with Lady Sansa, if you would be so kind?"

Finally the two knights let go of her and she couldn't help but rubbing her hands over arms where their death grips had cut off all circulation.

"You did not ask for this marriage," Tyrion said softly. And despite him being the one she was supposed to be chained to, his kindness felt like balm to her wounded soul. "No more than I did. If you'd prefer my cousin Lancel, say so and I will end this farce."

I don't want any Lannister, she wanted to tell him and the understanding kindness in his tone and eyes almost made her. I want the husband I already have and I want to go home to Winterfell and be happy with him.

A picture rose in her mind at the thought. Sandor standing on the walls of Winterfell, northern winds blowing black strands of hair out of his face, his eyes on the horizon, when suddenly a frightful foe came at him with a tiny wooden sword, whacking it at his knee with all his might. And he would swoop his combatant up into the air to the former's audible delight and then hug the child to his chest, the chubby arms of the boy encircling his father's neck.

It took her a moment to refocus on the bleak reality before her, but all of a sudden, it had lost some of its bleakness.

Fate had given her the man her father had wanted for her. A man brave and kind and strong. They had been given the time to have a deep and abiding bond grow between them and at least a short while to enjoy it.

They couldn't - shouldn't - have expected things to be peaceful forever. Now there had come the time to fight for what they had dreamed and talked about. And her fight would be to survive the weeks until Joffrey's wedding with her heart and soul still in one piece.

I will not go down without a fight, she reminded herself and drew herself upright.

"I am a ward of the throne and my duty is to marry as the king commands."

The wedding ceremony had almost broken her despite her holding on to the image of her future as to a lifeline. She had tried to be dignified to the point of rudeness, had even publicly humiliated Tyrion because she could not bring herself to bend her knees for a Lannister - any Lannister - but in the end it has been Sandor's presence that had kept her from drowning.

As always, she had known he was there, but hadn't seen him until the very moment she had to kneel and say the words that even in her most horrible nightmares she could not have imagined ever saying to another man again.

Sandor looked like a creature from the seven hells as he stood there up on the public gallery - a giant among midgets - eyes bloodshot and glowing in a greenish-white face; long, greasy strands of black hair plastered to his head, doing nothing to conceal the twisted mass of scar tissue on his face that seemed to burn with the fire that had caused it. He looked terrible and terrifying, magnificent and indomitable, a human embodiment of pain and despair, of strength and bravery.

Beside him, the lifeless statues of the Stranger and the Warrior shrunk to insignificance, man-made idols that didn't deserve her notice, because it was to him she prayed in this moment, it was he who gave her the courage and strength she needed to go through with what was expected of her.

...

She spent the wedding feast with her eyes glued to the entrance of the Small Hall, waiting for Sandor to appear, all the while hoping he wouldn't.

Especially after Joffrey's thinly veiled threats to have her as his mistress despite her being married to his uncle, Sansa wasn't sure she could keep her composure should the man she loved walk into the room. She'd probably fling herself into his arms and cling to him, sobbing her heart out.

The thought filled her with a strange yearning.

What would they say, she mused, if this were to happen?

If he walked into this room and she would walk right into his arms. Then maybe he would put a gentle hand on her face and she would lean in for a kiss that would grow from tender to passionate, from chaste to indecent. A kiss which would make mothers cover their children's eyes, a kiss that would make the world disappear around them.

No one would be mistaking what they were to each other then. Everyone would know. As rightly they should.

Would they be gaping, speechless? Or would they holler and scream in outrage, Joffrey especially?

To see the look on his face, to see him realize what had been going on right under his nose, would almost be worth the price they would have to pay for it.

Not almost, she corrected herself, shuddering at the thought what would be following. It wouldn't be worth it all.

Maybe Sandor knew her weakness, knew she wouldn't be able to keep her countenance and maybe this was the reason he wasn't coming. Or maybe he just couldn't bear to see what would happen later that evening. The bedding...

Her stomach twisted painfully, when she thought about that.

How to go through with it? she asked herself for about the millionth time that day, but then another, even more disturbing question rose in her mind. How would she ever be able to have Sandor look at her again, touch her again, if he knew her being soiled, knew she had given her body to another man?

Her hands started shaking so violently, she had to put her cup down before spilling her wine.

Would he still want to touch her? Would he be able to look at her without seeing her in his mind's eye with someone else? Would he wonder if she had enjoyed it? Would he want to know?

"Sansa, are you alright?"

She refocused her gaze on Tyrion's mismatched eyes that were looking at her with kind concern.

"You are white as a sheet and shaking like a leaf."

She was. Icy cold was crawling through her veins and her fingertips started to tingle, something she had learned was a sure sign she was going to faint.

Taking a deep breath to dispel the dizziness, she reached inside one of her wide sleeves where she had hidden Sandor's stone out of Cersei's sight. She grabbed it and squeezed her fist so firmly around it, that the edges of the stone dug almost painfully into her hand.

The tingling in her fingers vanished then and the cold drew back a little.

Fight, she told herself. Do not go down without a fight.

...

For their wedding night, they had been granted the use of an airy bedchamber high in the Tower of the Hand.

He won't reach me here, it's too well guarded, she thought despairingly, even though she knew very well that wherever this wedding night was to take place, Sandor had as much chance to save her from it as a snowflake in Dorne. And she didn't really wish him to try. He might well be able to cut his way through to her, but it would be the last time they would see each other alive.

Their time for taking reckless risks seemed to be over for good.

Tyrion kicked the door shut behind her. "There is a flagon of good Arbor gold on the sideboard, Sansa. Will you be so kind as to pour me a cup?"

He appeared to be dead set on being as drunk as possible before he took her, having started on it already during the feast. Which was admittedly not such a bad idea, she conceded silently while pouring herself a cup as well and drained it in three long swallows.

Compared to the Dornish Red Sandor preferred, this shimmering golden liquid was cloyingly sweet and mild. Too bad she had lost her taste for light, sweet and mild. She'd rather get drunk on something blood red that stung on her tongue and could be felt all the way down to her belly.

Drawing a bit of courage, she turned to Tyrion.

"My lord Tyrion, should I take off my own dress or do you wish to undress me?" she asked with false bravado, while pouring herself another cup.

The Imp turned away from her. "The first time I wed, there was us and a drunken septon, and some pigs to bear witness."

She looked at the empty cup in her hands, silently digesting the information that her new husband apparently had been wed before. Apparently just as secretly as she was.

"We ate one of our witnesses at our wedding feast," he continued. "Tysha fed me crackling and I licked the grease off her fingers, and we were laughing when we fell into bed."

'The first time I wed,' Sansa thought dejectedly, 'the trees of the godswood were our witnesses. We walked into the Red Keep arm in arm and we were trembling with lust and love when we fell into bed.'

"Who was she?" she asked, feeling a strange sort of connection to the little man.

"Lady Tysha." His mouth twisted. "Ours was a very short marriage."

There was a lot of pain in that story, she realized. But he didn't look as if he wanted to share and she herself couldn't be burdened with more than she already felt.

Looking at her hands again, she waited.

"My lord father has commanded me to consummate this marriage," he said, waving his wine cup at her when she looked up.

His eyes begged her to understand his meaning and unfortunately, she did.

Her hands were trembling so violently while she undressed, she could barely get the laces opened.

A strangled sob caught in her throat when she remembered how she had undressed not twenty hours ago, with what swiftness and sureness.

'Maybe,' she thought wildly, 'if I was innocent, it wouldn't have been so devastating.'

It would have been scary, yes, but she wouldn't have known how it could be, how it was supposed to be. She would expect pain, depravity and humiliation as a matter of course and maybe somehow things would've been easier to bear.

But now, knowing what she knew, giving herself to this other man felt like a violation, a sacrilege.

Tears streamed freely down her face when she was out of her last item of clothing, clutching the stone on her arm like a lifeline. She couldn't keep wearing it, though. She wouldn't go to another man's bed wearing the token of Sandor's love. The thought alone of the stone coming anywhere near her new husband made her nauseous.

She carefully hid the stone under her clothes before turning back to Tyrion. She felt even more naked now than she had before, defenceless and vulnerable and as if a vital part of her body was missing.

He looked at her with sad, pitying eyes.

"I thought you were a child," he said, hunger replacing the sadness in his mismatched eyes. "But you're a grown woman... a very desirable one."

She had no answer for that.

"Which doesn't make this any easier, I guess," he continued, taking another swig from his goblet. "I know I am ugly…"

"No, my…" she started but then noticed what a horrendous lie it would be. She could've told him that she didn't mind his scarred face, that she knew a pretty face wasn't what counted, but that wouldn't have changed the fact that he wasn't the man she wanted. Ser Loras could be standing here in Tyrion's stead and she would feel exactly as devastated as she felt now.

She realized that she had missed a few things he'd said in the meantime, only heard him finishing his speech with, "I could be good to you."

'He is frightened,' she realized. Perhaps that should've made her feel more inclined toward him, but it didn't and she still stood there shaking like a leaf, dread coiling in her belly, with no words to say to him.

"Get to bed, Sansa," he finally said when she stayed silent. "We have to do our duty."

She did as she was bid and resisted the urge to crawl under the protection of the covers. Well enough did she know that men liked to look. She had her head turned away so he wouldn't see the tears that spilled again when she heard the rustling of clothing being shed and finally felt the slight dip of the mattress when he joined her on the bed.

Suddenly a hand was on her breast and before she could prevent her body's reaction, she had jerked violently away, shuddering.

This hand had felt like a boy's, small and soft, when it should be big and calloused and long-fingered. How could she let him touch her? How to let him kiss and…

"Sansa," he said, "open your eyes."

He was sitting at her feet, naked. His stiff manhood gave no reason to doubt what was going to happen and this time she was able to prevent the shudder that went through her at the thought from being visible.

"I cannot do this," he said then, "I am not holding with rape and I am not going to start with my own wife, my father be damned."

He smiled at her and it almost compelled her to smile back with the sudden rush of gratitude she felt, but her lips were frozen.

'Only tonight,' she thought. 'What about tomorrow? What about the other seven interminable weeks until I can leave?'

"I will not touch you until you want me to," he continued as if reading her thoughts.

She looked at him then, at this stunted, little man, so unlike the man she loved and it occurred to her that this was going to be hell for both of them. Because for all his kindness, she felt nothing but pity. And while his deformities weren't repellent to her, she would never willingly share his bed.

"And if I never want you to?" she asked tonelessly.

He drew back as if she had slapped him, but recovered quickly.

"Well," he said, looking away from her, "that's what whores are for."

...

tbc

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

While Sandor had regained the angry determination to see their plan through to the end, he still had no idea how to get to her.

The new master of coin and his wife were even better protected than the realm's gold, which shed a curious light on how secure the Imp felt surrounded by family and allies. Besides, that shady sellsword of his, now an anointed knight if rumours were to be believed, was forever sneaking around in the vicinity of his master's quarters.

And the Imp wasn't the only one who seemed not to feel at all ready to drop his guard.

The roses kept to themselves, as did the lions. While the knights would be sparring with one another on occasion, the soldiers didn't mix at all. A sense of breath being held, of something momentous to happen hung over the keep like grey fog and he repeatedly asked himself how all that could've gotten past him before.

Marrying Sansa off to Tyrion might have been only a minor skirmish in the wrangling for power between those two mighty families, but it would certainly not be the last. There was still more to come.

He went to the godswood again the evening after the wedding. Somehow he felt closer to her here than in the corridors of the Holdfast, where she was so tantalizingly close but might as well reside on the moon for all the chance he had at seeing her.

During the day, he had taken the risk of waylaying one of the Imp's guardsmen and asked him prettily if he'd be so kind to deliver a note to the Lady Sansa.

"I am praying every night in the godswood. S." the note read and he hoped it would be inconspicuous enough should it be read by someone else but Sansa.

The guard, a drop of blood running down his throat from where Sandor had his dagger pressed to it, had agreed very readily and promised not only to deliver the note but to forget all about it right afterwards and than staggered off with shaking knees.

It almost made him smile.

As always, the godswood was silent as the inside of a sept. None of the din of the big city at their feet or the clatter and bustle of the keep could be heard here, only the rustling of the foliage above and somewhere farther away the hooting of an owl. The moon stood only as a slim sickle on the inky sky, barely giving enough light to see where one stepped.

Since he had determined that his time for kneeling was over, he stood in front of the heart tree, head lowered in silent contemplation, hoping.

Every now and then, the thought of how Sansa had been faring for the last twenty-four hours gnawed at his innards. So far, he had managed to push the mental imagery of her being at the dwarf's mercy into the far recesses of his mind, but every time it resurfaced, it was a fresh punch in the gut, the repetition making no difference to the force with which it hit.

He had found it helped to cling to anger, and - of course - to the memories of their enchanted time together.

If he squeezed his eyes shut, he could see her in front of his eyes, hear her sweet voice, feel her hand on his arm…

"Sandor…"

The voice sounded almost real, the touch felt almost as if she was actually there.

"Sandor."

As if his reminiscences had conjured her, she suddenly stood before him when he opened his eyes, clad in dark brown, woollen robe - the one he had given her, he realized - that made her almost invisible in the dark, but her, unmistakable.

Without conscious thought, he grabbed her and pulled her into his arms, crushing her to his chest so fervently it only later occurred to him that he could be hurting her. But she didn't protest but instead burrowed into him with a pitiful, breathy little cry.

He tried to reach a patch of uncovered skin to kiss and found her neck, but instead of kissing it, he pressed his face into the soft patch of skin, drinking in her scent. Lemons, flowers and ice.

Holding on to her like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood, he felt himself shaking like the leaves overhead and he had to grit his teeth to keep them from chattering. She was trembling, too, sobbing like a child.

The sensation of her tears seeping through his tunic and burning on his skin finally chased away the bottomless relief he felt and replaced it with dread and rage. Abruptly, he grabbed her arms and held her away from him, peering into her face.

"What did that fucker do to you?" he asked, his rasping voice sounding disturbingly loud in the eerie quiet of the godswood. "Did he hurt you?"

"No, no… nothing," Sansa sobbed. "He did nothing. He wanted to, but he… he couldn't go through with it."

Anger evaporated like a cloud of black smoke and left him at a loss.

"I was so afraid," she continued after a moment in a small and broken voice, slumping into his grip. "So… afraid."

He crushed her to him again, somehow absurdly grateful to the man who had stolen his woman for not raping her as well.

"If he had done it," Sansa whispered into his chest after her sobs had petered out into soft sniffles. "Would you…,"she swallowed and fell silent.

"Want to kill him and his entire pack?" he continued for her. "Of course I would. It's all I've been thinking about the last two days. Still am, actually."

"What I meant was," she whispered, "would you still love me?"

The question left him stunned. And then confused. And then very, very angry.

He shoved her away from him so suddenly she stumbled, almost falling backwards into the leaves.

"Is that what you think of me?" he grated, his throat hurting with the desperate attempt not to shout.

Her eyes were wide and filled with tears as she looked at him, startled and terrifyingly fragile. There was no trace of the queen who had stood proud and unflinching in the sept just a day before, facing her fate with stoic dignity. Only a scared, defenceless girl, looking at him with pleading eyes.

The veil had been ripped for her, too, he realized belatedly. The illusion shattered for her as well, leaving her to question everything, even the very foundation of what they had between them.

And she wouldn't come to him in her armour, she never had.

"I swore an oath to you in this very spot," he said, trying to keep the trembling out of his voice, "and you're the only person I ever did that for."

She threw herself at him then, wrapping her arms around him.

"I know, I am sorry," she whispered between sobs, "I am so sorry."

'Fucking Lannisters have done it again,' he thought, his hands balling into fists.

They had taken a smiling girl, so strong and full of life she could make a man's blood sing in his veins and returned to him a broken, weeping shell.

How was a damaged beast like him supposed to console her, to give her the sweet words she might be longing to hear, when all his body demanded of him was to throw her to the ground and have his way with her, to confirm their bond in at least some tangible way?

Then again, maybe now had come the time to trust his instincts, to take the lead from her and do what he felt he must.

Grabbing the back of her head in both his hands, he forced her to look at him and her eyes widened at whatever she saw in his glare. But he didn't give her the chance to back away and instead slammed his mouth down on hers in a brutal, savage kiss.

Her lips were oh so soft under his, tasting of tears and desperation and she offered no resistance when he forced his tongue past them to claim the sweetness behind. Walking forward while never lifting his mouth from hers, he backed her against a tree, grinding his full weight against her. Arousal, stoked to a fever pitch by primal possessiveness, started to burn through is veins like wildfire.

It wasn't until he had rucked up her skirts around her waist, lifted her up by her legs to wrap them around his waist and settled his groin insistently against the juncture of her thighs, that she began to fight back.

A sharp pain shot from his bottom lip right to his balls when she bit down on it. Their kiss suddenly tasted of blood and steel and her nails sinking into the back of his neck sent a fresh wave of fiery lust to his aching cock. Pinning her against the tree with his weight, he used his right hand to fumble awkwardly between them, loosing the drawstrings of his breeches. The part of her smallclothes brushing the back of his hand was sodden with her wetness and his knees almost buckled under the onslaught of want he felt at the sensation, at the smell and at the promise it held.

At the end of his tether, he ripped the scrap of fabric separating them and she winced when he shoved inside her in one ruthless thrust. He wasn't at all sure he wasn't hurting her, but he wouldn't know how to stop if his life depended on it.

He leant in against her neck and bit down on her earlobe, his every thrust shoving her farther up the bark of the tree.

"Feel that?" he rasped into her ear. "This is me fucking you, Sansa. This is your husband's cock inside of you and this is what's real."

She cried out softly and tightened her thighs around his waist, drawing him even closer while her nails scoured the skin of his neck. At this, his last hold on control broke and he mindlessly pounded into her, accompanied by mewling moans she tried to muffle against his shoulder.

"You're mine... this is real... everything else is not...," he chanted under panting breaths, trying to get it into her mind just as deeply as his cock was inside of her body.

She was the one who broke first with a choked cry, but he followed right after, his release flashing through him like lightning, leaving him so weak he was sure he'd topple both of them to the ground in a heap of limbs.

But it was Sansa who held onto him tightly, bearing the full brunt of his weight as he leaned bonelessly against her, squashing her between his ungainly bulk and the tree at her back.

He let her down eventually, but still had to brace one hand against the tree to keep himself from keeling over while he put his cock away.

Sansa appeared a lot more lively when she diligently shook down her skirts and brought her appearance back in order.

Then she lifted a hand to his face and traced his bottom lip with her thumb. It stung a bit when she grazed the spot where she had bit him.

"You look like you come straight out of battle," she said with a smile, her eyes glowing unnaturally bright in the moonlight.

"Feel like it, too," he said, chuckling, and then took the hand she had on his face and placed a lingering kiss into her soft palm. "Did I hurt you?"

"No," she said softly, lifting her other hand to feather her fingertips over the scratch marks on his neck where she had caused her own brand of pain. "Only in a good way."

He let go of her hand to trace the tracks of tears on her face.

"Feeling better?"

"Much," she said. "Thank you."

"Courteous little bird," he whispered, his lips still curved into a smile as he leaned in to ghost a kiss over her lips. "If you start thanking me for that, you'll spend a lot of time thanking me in the future."

"I wouldn't mind," she whispered back. "As long as there is a future."

At this reminder, he forcefully shook himself out of the languor of basking in the aftermath of a good fuck and tried to burst out of the bubble they always started to live in when they were together.

"There will be, if we're smart about it," he said, drawing back from her. "The plan has not yet changed, we'll take Littlefinger's ship at Joff's wedding. I'll try to find a way to leave sooner without us risking our necks, but so far I do not see many options."

"What can I do?" she asked.

"Try to befriend the Imp in the meantime, he's a cunning little man, he might have information we need. Besides, it might serve to remind him to keep his mitts off you."

The last part of that came out as a menacing growl and he was glad she didn't take it as directed at her but smiled lightly instead and gingerly touched the back of his hand.

"What about us?"

He closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to ignore the black abyss yawning at his feet.

"Sansa... we have to be careful."

She took his hand in hers more firmly and stepped closer, looking up at him with a plea in her eyes.

"It's seven weeks until Joff's wedding, Sandor," she whispered and Gods help him, but it sounded like she was close to tears again. "Seven weeks."

"I know, I..." he took a deep breath, weighing their options. Yes, it would be the smartest thing to do to keep away from each other for the time being. Stunts like the one they'd just pulled could mean their death with near certainty. It didn't bear thinking about what would've happened if someone would've wandered into the godswood just five minutes ago.

Then again, seven weeks suddenly seemed like an eternity. The Blackwater had been eight weeks ago and look how many things had happened in the meantime.

And missing her, without any doubt, would be like a sickness that would get worse with every passing day. They might very well reach a point where they would be both past considering the consequences.

"Do you know where I sleep?" he asked.

She nodded eagerly. "Yes, you told me once you sleep in a little room in the cellar of Maegor's."

"Think you can find it?"

"Yes."

Suddenly excited at the prospect that they might have found a way to meet again almost like before, he took her face in both of his hands, intent on making sure she understood the risks.

"Tell him you go to the godswood to pray," he whispered insistently. "Make sure you're not followed. Not by any guard and especially not by that sellsword. Keep to the shadows, trace your steps back if someone sees you. Do not come if it's not safe."

She nodded to every piece of his advice and after a long and lingering kiss, one that almost had him push her up against that tree once more, they decided to go back and part ways at the edge of the godswood.

She had barely taken a step away from him, when he grabbed her upper arm and hauled her back against him.

"You're mine, remember," he whispered urgently into her hair. "No matter what happens."

Surprising him with her speed, she grabbed him by the back of his head and pulled him down to her for a non-too tender kiss.

"My husband's seed will still be running down my thighs when I go back," she whispered into his mouth. "I won't forget."

He stared at her back in wonder after she had turned to go, beset by the inexplicable urge to howl at the moon.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

Despite her bravado back when she was with Sandor, standing in front of Tyrion with her hair in disarray, her underwear torn and her inner thighs sticky and wet didn't feel wicked and daring, but dangerous and uncomfortable.

He looked at her for long silent moments until she was sure he had figured out her deepest secrets.

"You look as if you cried, my lady," he said, the by now familiar sad pity in his eyes.

She nodded, glad her tear-streaked face had caught his attention and not the bird's nest that was her hair or the creased and crumpled skirts of her dress.

"I have, but it's better now," she said. "It helped to... pray."

It would have probably been way better to have that last part delivered without blushing to the roots of her hair. Sandor had been right in this, she was a lousy liar.

"If it helps," he offered, oblivious, "you can go whenever you like. Maybe you can ask Bronn to accompany you..."

"Oh, no, no thank you, my lord, that won't be necessary."

He lifted an eyebrow and she resisted the urge to slap herself.

"I mean, I am going there alone ever since I came here, it is perfectly alright."

He nodded, looking somewhat unconvinced.

"Ah, before I forget," he said when she was about to excuse herself to scurry back to her room. "I hired a personal maid for you from Lady Stokeworth. Her name is Shae. Lollys has no need for her anymore and I thought... well, I hired her."

"Thank you, my lord," Sansa said, baffled.

...

On her way back to her chambers she wondered why Tyrion would concern himself with such a menial task as hiring a maid for her. Unless...

Of course, she mentally chided herself. Just like his sister, he meant to use her maids to gain information about every aspect of her life.

Which meant she had to be very careful not to show herself naked to that Shae person. While she could honestly attribute the bruises and cuts on her arms to Trant and Kettleblack, and even might make a convincing argument for those on her back being their doing as well, there was no explanation for the scrapes and abrasions on her inner thighs, left there by Sandor's studded leather trousers while he had taken her so roughly she had thought she'd expire at the searing pleasure of it.

Yes, it had been pleasure laced with no small amount of pain. The tree at her back, the relentless thrusting of his hips, his fingers digging into her flesh and - even worse than all that - the echo of his words in her head, the memory of the sullen anger in his eyes when she had questioned his love.

If she had been more herself, she would have laughed at him for snapping at her like that, for reverting to the one defence he always came back to and for thinking it would work on her. But then again, if she had been more herself, she would not have asked that question in the first place.

Because deep down, she knew. Had always known. A man like Sandor Clegane did nothing in half-measures. His body, his face, was testament to his ability to soldier on despite hardship and pain. He'd given her a promise and there was no doubting he would literally hold himself to it until his last breath, no matter the circumstances.

It had been a moment of weakness - on both their parts. Wounded and frightened, they had both reverted to their former selves and had thus failed each other by failing to draw on what had grown between them for the last weeks.

On that feeling of warm, soft happiness, of deeply felt trust and deliciously sweet longing.

Or may they had failed to draw on it because in this situation, it wasn't enough - was only one side of both their natures and the nature of their feelings for one another, while the other had only been there in glimpses, hastily denied and apologized for. Something wild and indomitable in both of them that they needed to survive.

Something so much like him she could not help but love it. Visceral and bloody, dangerous and dark, virile and alive.

...

It took her but a minute to ascertain that the woman named Shae, pleasant as she tried to appear, was no servant and never had been.

For one thing, she was stunningly beautiful in a darkly exotic way, with straight, even teeth, luxuriantly curled, short dark hair, unblemished skin and soft hands with polished nails. Women of the lower classes usually had not the time or the means to take care of themselves like that.

Even more conspicuous was the fact, that Shae looked Sansa directly in the eyes, not lowering her gaze, and spoke to her with a downright impudent smile playing around her lips. She did all that was asked, but did so with an insolent look or two.

Sansa pretended not to notice and stoically bore her "maid's" amused smile when she claimed she wanted to undress and bathe in privacy.

When finally the door closed behind Shae, Sansa was almost fuming at the realization that Tyrion apparently thought her stupid enough not to see through this so very obvious ruse.

Sansa's first excursion into the bowels of Maegor's Holdfast went surprisingly smoothly. She had told Tyrion, who was deep in conversation with Lord Varys and Ser Bronn, that she was going to pray in the godswood. While Bronn had looked at her suspiciously and Varys had given her an enigmatic smile, Tyrion had just nodded in a distracted manner and mumbled something about her dressing warmly for the occasion.

Keeping to the darker parts of the corridors and staircases, she had reached Sandor's room without incident and let herself quietly into the little room where she found herself confronted with the sight of her beloved being in the midst of very thorough ablutions.

He had apparently just come back from the training yard. His gear had been thrown into one corner in a rather untidy heap and the room smelled of clean male sweat and … him.

She bit her lip at the thought how much she would like to make him sweat again. Her blood getting warmer by the second, she contemplated the play of powerful muscles under the skin of his back and arms, glittering droplets of water running down as if caressing him, lingering around some of the scars and finally disappearing in the waistband of his breeches that were partially unlaced and hung dangerously low on his hips.

He could not have looked more desirable had he tried. How was a woman to remain clear-headed and expected to discuss serious matters of grave importance under such circumstances?

She took a deep breath and tried to remember how much was at stake for the both of them.

Clearly knowing she was behind him, he leisurely finished cleaning up, grabbed a towel from the nearby sideboard and turned to her, drying his face and hair.

If seeing his naked back already had been a trial to her senses, seeing his naked chest – still dripping wet - was an assault.

"Sansa," he said happily and then grinned when he noticed her preoccupation.

"What's the matter, sweet wife," he asked. "Never seen a bare-chested man before?"

His eyes twinkled with mirth and a very male sort of pride.

Well, two could play at that particular game.

She slowly licked her lips and then lightly took her bottom lip between her teeth.

The grin faltered and his chest rose with a deep breath.

"Even if I had seen hundreds," she said, slowly walking towards him, "none of them could compare to you."

It would be so easy - too easy - to just walk right into his arms, to give in to what they both craved. But somewhere in the back of her head she knew they had things to discuss, plans to make, so she just reached out and touched a fingertip gently to his chest, taking the wetness she found and skimming over one flat male nipple. He shuddered under her caress.

"Sansa...," he pleaded in a husky whisper and she didn't quite know if he was asking her to stop or to continue.

She lowered her hand and let it fall to her side, twisting her fingers into the coarse material of her cloak to keep herself from touching him again.

"Did you have any difficulties coming here?" he asked, turning away from her to hunt down a fresh shirt to wear. She almost begged him not to.

"No," she said instead. "Bronn is with Tyrion and Lord Varys, so..."

"What business does the Imp have with the Spider?"

"I do not know," she said but then something occurred to her. "Maybe he helped him hiring that maid who is supposed to spy on me."

Sandor turned to her with one eyebrow raised.

"He hired someone to spy on you?" he sneered. "How very Lannister of him."

A fresh bout of irritation swept over her at Tyrion's plotting and she started to pace angrily.

"I know!" she cried. "And he didn't even put any effort into choosing her! A blind man couldn't mistake her for a servant."

"How so?"

"She's far too beautiful and so well groomed she looks as if she has servants of her own. She doesn't show deference and does not even know how to curtsy correctly."

A longish silence greeted her last statement and when she turned to see why he hadn't replied, she found him looking at her from out of half-lidded, dangerously glinting eyes.

"Deference, huh?" he growled.

Knowing that particular look all too well, she took an involuntary step back, only to come up against the wall of his way too small chamber.

He stalked her like a big predator, slowly coming closer, his eyes never leaving hers.

Need stabbed through her almost viciously and she swallowed the moan that rose in her throat.

So much for talking.

"And she doesn't curtsy correctly," he drawled when he reached her, leaning into her with both his hands propped on either side of her head, his body only inches from hers.

Her whole vision was filled with him and she had to crane her neck to keep looking him in the eye.

She knew he towered over her on purpose, even though it wasn't clear what purpose this was. After the events of the past few days, she had realized that there was still much to learn about the man she called her husband. And she was sure that this particular quest for knowledge would be as dangerous as it would be rewarding.

For a split moment, she was afraid. Afraid of making another mistake, of reacting in a way to anger or hurt him. But fear, she knew from recent experience, would be her worst mistake, the most hurtful insult to him.

"Yes, she doesn't," she replied as firmly as she could under the circumstances. "It's a disgrace."

He closed the space between their bodies and her knees almost buckled at the sensation of his lower body pressed against her, his arousal unmistakable.

"Did she by any chance dare to address you incorrectly as well?"

Sansa was still at a complete loss as to what was going on and with Sandor looking at her as if she was a tasty treat, his body hot and hard against hers, thinking became increasingly difficult.

"She failed to address me as 'my lady'..." she started, only to interrupted herself with a drawn out moan when he lowered his head to nip playfully at the sensitive skin of her neck.

He lifted his head again.

"You were saying?"

His eyes glittered like molten silver, amusement and arousal plainly written in his features.

Finally, she started seeing a connection.

"Failed to address me as 'my lady' on at least two occasions," she finished, trying to sound as imperious as she could manage.

She was rewarded for her perspicacity with a trail of hot kisses from her neck up to her ear. A reward that left her shaking with want.

"You've no idea what it does to me when you're being all haughty and queenly," he rasped against her ear.

Well, she had some idea, because his reaction wasn't exactly subtle, the question why such arrogant behaviour would excite him so much was another matter.

"Why?"

"Because," he whispered, his lips ghosting over hers, "knowing that despite of who you are, you still chose me..." Another feather light touch of his lips, "...brings me to my knees."

Maybe at any other time she would have been annoyed with him for bringing up what they had not talked about ever since the day they'd married. Because it didn't matter how much their social standing was dividing them when what united them was so much more meaningful.

Right now, though, his sweet honesty was balm to her bruised heart and oil to the fire in her veins.

"You are hardly on your knees," she teased breathlessly.

He stilled for a moment and then slowly pushed himself away from the wall, away from her. And then, slowly and surprisingly graceful for a man his size, he sank to his knees.

His eyes never left hers even for a second and she saw the challenge there. He might be the one on his knees, but she couldn't shake the feeling that he was now more in control of her than he had been before.

"Is this deferent enough?" he asked, his hands finding their way under her skirts and wrapping firmly around her calves, gliding upwards. When he reached the back of her knees, fingers circling and stroking, she was beyond being able to give a coherent answer.

With a gentle nudge he signalled her to part her legs to make room for his questing hands.

When his hot palms stroked over her inner thighs, the skin still tender from their encounter the night before, her desire turned to sheer desperation.

"Sandor..." she wailed.

"Yes, my lady?" he inquired in a voice so deep as to be almost inaudible; the only sign that he was as deeply affected by what happened as she was. "How can I be of service?"

He drew an audible, hissing breath when his fingers encountered the wetness on her thighs - not hindered by any additional clothing since Sansa hadn't bothered with smallclothes for this particular expedition. Seeing how the ones she had worn last night had fared, she thought it wasteful to risk another set sharing the same fate.

Pushing upwards, his fingertips soon pressed against the spot where she needed him most, and had she had any clear thoughts left, she might have been embarrassed at how close to completion she already was with such little stimulation.

Her hands aimlessly searched for purchase to keep her from falling over, so she held on tightly to his shoulders.

"Want me to take care of this... my lady?" he asked, one hand still between her legs, fingertip lightly crazing her nub, while with the other he grabbed her leg and lifted it over his shoulder.

"Yes," she panted, with no hope of sounding like he might have wanted her to. "Yes, right now."

And then her already dangerously narrowed focus shrank to only the one place between her legs where he had put his mouth, where he licked and sucked and hummed against her swollen flesh until she stopped caring if she would fall down, stopped caring if she moaned or cried too loudly. Until the spasms of release tore through her and left her shaking like a leaf, boneless and insensible and his name the only word echoing through her brain and coming from her lips.

He caught her when she fell and kissed her hungrily with a mouth that tasted of her. He still called her 'my lady' when he carried her to the bed, freed his cock and pushed inside her with an impatience that might have been brutal if she had not needed him so much, but it was not mockery, not teasing, but true and heartfelt reverence and adoration.

...

"So much for talking," she whispered, smiling to herself, when he nestled his head against her breast afterwards, trying to catch his breath.

They were still both mostly clothed and she was quietly amused and not a little stirred at the thought how much more wickedly daring everything had felt with them not even being able to take the time to get properly undressed.

"Entirely your fault," he mumbled, sounding half-asleep. "The way you looked at me..."

"My fault?" she squeaked. "I wasn't the one parading around half-naked."

"Oh, weren't you?" he chuckled darkly and ran his hand meaningful over her still exposed lower body. "Lady 'I-am-not-wearing-any-smallclothes'. Your scent alone..."

Not too long ago, she would have been disconcerted at the thought that he could smell her like that, but by now she knew that his skin, its texture, its taste and its smell as well, called to her just as strongly.

"Is it normal to be so... so at the mercy of ones... needs?" she asked quietly. "Is it always like this?"

He lifted his head to look at her and then silently ran a fingertip over her lips and another question occurred to her, one which she wasn't sure she even want an answer to. One she wasn't sure she could ask him without him getting angry.

"Has it been like this for you... before?"

His eyes darkened. With anger and with something else.

"No, never," he said tightly.

She lifted her hand to stroke his cheek and his expression softened.

"Do you really want to know about... before?" he asked.

She could see what it had cost him to offer, and no, she didn't want to know. Regardless if he would tell her of women who had meant nothing to him but the paid service they offered, or even if there had been some with whom there had been more... she didn't want to know. It didn't matter.

She shook her head.

He started caressing her again.

"I know about as much about those things as you do, little bird," he said, smiling at his use of the name he had for her. "But I'd like to think we're something very special."

She smiled back. "I like the thought."

He sighed deeply and then instead of lying back down, he sat up on the bed and swung his legs over the side, turning the broad expanse of his back to her.

"It worries me that Tyrion doesn't seem to trust you," he said. "He should have no reason not to."

"Maybe Lannisters are distrustful by nature," Sansa offered.

"They are," he conceded with a derisive snort. "Knowing what they are capable of doing, they might expect the same of others."

He was quiet for a moment.

"What has he to do with Varys?" he then repeated the question he had asked before, but it sounded as if he didn't need an answer to it, knowing she had none to give.

"They were never on good terms, and suddenly he shares wine with him and entrusts him something as delicate as placing someone to spy on his wife?"

"Well, Varys is the best when it comes to spying... or so I've heard."

Sandor nodded thoughtfully.

"Doesn't add up, though," he concluded after a while. "There's something we're not seeing."

"I'll try to find out what it is."

He turned to her, unsmiling.

"Be careful, Sansa," he said and there was a pleading edge to his tone. "Be very... very careful. Keep your eyes and ears open but don't give him any reason to doubt that you are a harmless and clueless."

"I will."

"Promise me."

"I promise to be careful," she said earnestly and then added, referring to a promise he had given her before, "and I won't go down without a fight."

Giving her no time to react, he pushed his hand into her hair and drew her closer to his face, glowering at her.

"As long as I'm still drawing breath," he growled, "you'll not go down at all."

She couldn't help herself. When he was like this, dark and dangerous and ready to spill blood, he was irresistible to her. Slowly, she slid her hand up his thigh until she found her prize, almost ready again.

His eyes flashed at her touch and his serious expression turned into a wolfish grin.

"Unless it's down on me."

And Sansa, ever the obedient wife, joyfully bent to her task.

...

When she went back into her and Tyrion's rooms in the small hours of the night, Tyrion wasn't in the bed they were sharing to keep up appearances.

Tired and glad her prolonged absence had probably gone unnoticed, she didn't spend any further thought on it and gratefully snuggled under to covers to fall promptly and deeply asleep.

...

The next morning, despite tiredness showing in dark rings under his eyes probably due to a night spend Gods knew where, she found Tyrion in high spirits at the breakfast table.

"We're going to move out of Maegor's," he declared with delight as soon as she had bid him a good morning, apparently expecting her to share his joy.

As it was, she could barely conceal her horror.

"We can move into the apartments atop the Kitchen Keep," he went on, not noticing or not chosing to notice her distress. "They were Lord Rosby's before and are said to be spacious and elegant. I am sure you'll love it there."

She nodded numbly.

"Of course my lord," she said tonelessly, "if it pleases my lord."

Tyrion didn't bother to hide his disappointment at her reaction.

"One would think you'd be more relieved at not having to live under one roof with Joffrey anymore," he said sourly. "I am as happy as a pig in shit that I can get away from my sister, that's for sure."

He was right, in a way. It would be good not to live in Maegor's anymore, if not for the fact that it wouldn't make it all but impossible to slip into Sandor's chamber unnoticed.

"I am, my lord," she lied and forced herself to smile.

...

She spent the rest of the day coming up with - and discarding - a number of scenarios how to slip past the guard of the Holdfast, thought of what lie to tell the guards to let her pass, but nothing at all came to mind.

If only Arya was here, she suddenly thought. Her sister had known the Keep much better than she did, due to her chasing around cats or whatever she had done all the time why they were staying at the tower of the Hand.

It hit her then. Something Arya had once told her and she had heard repeated a time or two. The holdfast was impregnable from above, but below was a maze of secret or not so secret cellars, storerooms and passages, connecting all the towers of the Red Keep, including the holdfast.

Under the pretence of being eager to inspect their new apartments, she wasted no time exploring the cellars under the kitchen keep.

Armed with a lantern, parchment, charcoal and a piece of chalk, she methodically mapped every turn the passages took, marked them with little symbols and arrows and tried to draw a map of where she had to go.

It took only a surprisingly short amount of time to find the right path. She didn't even have to go through any secret passages, didn't have to crawl through any tight spaces - a fact she deeply appreciated - or disarm any deadly traps.

What she did find was the room of which Arya had spoken. The one where they stored the skulls of the Targaryen dragons. The sudden sight of the gigantic bones, their dead eyes deep black, suddenly looming up in front of her in the light of her small lantern had given her such a turn, she shrieked and had half a mind to flee and abandon her plan.

But thinking how heartily Sandor would laugh if he'd ever learned of her fleeing in terror of a few dead bones gave her the courage to brave this particular challenge.

As it turned out, the cellars of Maegor's were directly behind the room with the dragon skulls.

When Sansa woke in the middle of the night, she found the bed beside her empty, despite the fact that she had noticed Tyrion coming to bed at some point around midnight. As usual, she pretended to be fast asleep and he soon had started to breathe deeply and evenly.

She quickly donned her dress and the cloak Sandor had given her at their wedding - again foregoing smallclothes - grabbed her map and lantern and snuck out of the bedchamber on stockinged feet, shoes in her hand.

Tyrion wasn't in his study, where he spent most of his time and all the other parts of their rooms and the rest of the keep seemed deserted as well. She stopped and listened after every few steps she took, but the whole keep was quiet and asleep.

When she reached the basement, she slipped into her shoes and hurried along her mapped out path only to come to a full stop when she noticed that there was an eerie light shining from the room where the dragon skulls were kept.

Chiding herself for a foolish coward, she quietly crept forward and finally found that the source of the light was a simply latern, much her like her own, placed in the mouth of one of the smaller skulls.

Soft voices came from farther back were the larger ones stood.

'Balerion' she remembered vaguely. 'Or was it Vhagar?' She had never paid much attention to this part of her history lesson, even though the subject had seemed to be endlessly fascinating to Bran and Arya.

"My giant," she heard the exotic tilt in a voice that could only belong to the woman pretending to be her maid. "My giant has come to save me."

She peeked around one of the skulls and there she was, Shae, wearing only her beautiful, unblemished skin. Between her legs, the man who had married her in the sight of the seven was busying himself with pleasuring her.

It took her a while to notice that her mouth was hanging open and she closed it with a snap that the two people in front of her might even have heard, had they not being otherwise occupied.

Then she had to tamp down on the urge to howl with hysterical laughter.

That was what they hadn't been seeing.

Tyrion hadn't set a spy on her because he mistrusted her. He'd found a place for his concubine. A place where he would have access to her whenever he wanted to.

She contemplated telling him tomorrow that he needn't go to all this trouble. She had neither reason nor the wish to prevent him from finding elsewhere what she refused him. The problem was, that conversation would be as awkward as it would be embarrassing, not to mention would go contrary to her aim to appear 'clueless and harmless' as Sandor had put it.

At the thought of Sandor, a second much less hilarious observation struck her.

They were blocking her path. This was the only way to reach Sandor's room and here they were, rutting in the dirt right where she needed to go.

On the other hand, they seemed so preoccupied, maybe they wouldn't even notice.

She hadn't quite brought that thought to an end, when the two lovers quieted down.

"We should go back," Tyrion said. "It must be near dawn, Sansa will be waking."

Sansa made a face, sorely tempted to step into the light just then and there.

"You should give her dreamwine," Shae suggested at that. "Like Lady Tanda does with Lollys. A cup before she goes to sleep and we could fuck in the bed right next to her without her waking." She giggled. Sansa fumed. "Maybe we should, some night. Would m'lord like that?"

Tyrion only slightly reclaimed some of the respect she had for him when he didn't even deign that suggestion with an answer.

Sansa turned to go. She really didn't want to hear more of this.

"Your neck is hard as stone," Shae went on. "What troubles you?"

The question made Sansa stop again. She had promised to keep her eyes and ears open after all.

"My wife," he started and despite herself, Sansa felt a stab of guilt for being at the top of his list. "My sister, my nephew, my father. The Tyrells. Varys. Pycelle. Littlefinger. The Red Viper of Dorne."

He sighed deeply. "The face that stares back out of the water when I wash."

Another stab of guilt hit her, this time much deeper. She knew how Sandor suffered. Still did, even with her. He still made sure to sit, walk and lie down on her left side, so she wouldn't have to look at his scars. Might be it was an ingrained habit by now, but she noticed and she hurt for him every single time.

Tyrion must have had similar experiences, now worse than before. Being judged, laughed at and avoided for something he could not help.

"A brave face," she could hear Shae cooing at Tyrion with cloying sweetness in her voice. "A kind and good face."

The words rang hollow and untrue.

"My giant of Lannister, I love you so."

A wave of sickness welled up in Sansa at hearing the words.

'By the Seven, Tyrion,' she pleaded silently in her head. 'Do not believe her. She is mocking you, can't you hear?'

But she knew from her own experience that if you only want something badly enough, want to believe something badly enough, you do not care to look too closely until it's too late. Until the thing you thought was love had turned out to be poison. Until your father lies dead at your feet.

She turned and retreated when it was obvious they were getting ready to leave, her heart heavy with compassion for the man she would have every right to despise and much heavier with regret for not having accomplished what she had set out to do.

This way, she realized when she heard Tyrion and Shae agreein on meeting here again, was barred for her like all the others.

By the time she was back in her rooms, she had to battle a bout of despair almost as bad as two days ago. But now she knew better than giving in to it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

More than just exhausted from severe lack of sleep, Sansa spent more time than usual with her morning toilette. Applying some powder to hide the dark circles under her eyes and pinching her cheeks until they glowed rosily as a fresh apple.

A cheerful smile complimented the mask she wore to the breakfast table, only to find Tyrion brooding into his teacup, just as unhappy as he had sounded during the night.

Again, the thought to tell him that she knew of his infidelity crossed her mind, but then again, what purpose would it serve. He had been very clear during their wedding night that he would use other women's services as long as she denied him and there was no way he would grant her the same liberties as he took himself.

"You seem troubled," she tried when he failed to reply to her wishing him a good morning.

He looked up at her and gave her a half-hearted smile, his mind clearly still elsewhere.

"Just a few matters of state," he said, waving his hand dismissively, "nothing you should concern yourself with."

Sansa gritted her teeth and kept smiling. Harmless and clueless. A stupid, little bird, chirping her courtesies.

"I am sure you're right, my lord," she said. "And I am equally sure you have everything well in hand."

His eyes flicked to hers once more, the green gaze sharping on her for a long moment as if he sensed something in her tone.

Sansa smiled even more brightly.

His gaze slid away again and he grunted noncommittally.

"I was planning on taking a walk this wonderful morning," she said after a while, an idea forming in her head that hadn't come to her during her frantic search for a solution during the night.

"Do you want Bronn to accompany you?" Tyrion asked.

"No, thank you, my lord," she said sweetly. "I prefer the solitude and if I should wish for company, I usually only need to walk by the training yard."

Again, Tyrion's eyes measured her for a long, uncomfortable moment.

"Yes," he said slowly. "I am sure they are falling all over each other to vie for your attention."

Sansa widened her eyes in what she hoped passed for innocent surprise.

"My lord isn't suggesting that one of those fine men…"

Tyrion flicked his hand impatiently.

"No, I am not suggesting anything, of course," he said with a pained face. "Just… be careful. You've been at the tender mercies of knights like Trant before, surely you know not all of them are chivalrous."

Sansa's smile deserted her and she had to look down at her plate for a moment to school her face to the blank look of innocent friendliness she had resolved to wear for him.

Tyrion might be preoccupied with his paramour and certainly with quite a few matters of state, but he was not stupid. He knew she wasn't as innocent anymore as she was trying to pretend. He'd seen first-hand how much of her ideals she'd lost already at this court.

Fooling him would be indefinitely more challenging than fooling Joffrey had ever been.

As she had told Tyrion, Sansa had walked alone for a while, deliberating if her course of action was wise but finding no fault with it.

Should she walk by the training yard and a knight, or someone who wasn't a knight, should offer to keep her company for a while in full view of the whole court, no one could have any objections to it.

She didn't need to be alone with Sandor to talk with him, or - and as recent experiences suggested - being alone with him was actually a detriment to talking.

When she reached the training yard, her hopes of just showing herself to Sandor for a short moment so he would know to catch up with her a few minutes later quickly dispersed.

A gaggle of onlookers had formed around a part of yard from with the clanging of swords could be heard. If she stepped any closer, it would not escape anyone's attention that she was here.

'Well,' she thought and lifted her chin, 'in for a copper...'.

The spectacle that captured everyone's interest involved - not very surprisingly - Sandor and one of the knights of Highgarden whom Sansa did not know by name.

Ser Loras, his white armour like a beacon in the crowd, was watching as well and Sansa brazenly stepped to his side, but was ignored since Loras' attention was on the fight.

"Ser Loras," she said, inclining her head just a little, "so nice to meet you."

Loras gave her a cursory glance but then bowed deeply.

"Lady Lannister," he said. "The pleasure is all mine."

Since it was abundantly clear Loras would much rather watch the fight than converse with her, Sansa thought it not impolite to turn her own attention back to Sandor.

They were fighting with two-handed greatswords, blunted training weapons from the dull look of the blades, but a direct hit with one of those wickedly heavy weapons could cause serious injury all the same.

Watching the sparring, Sansa marvelled at the pure raw power that Sandor exuded with every movement. The strength of his body gave him not only the ability to do what other men couldn't, much more importantly, it gave him the ability to do things other men could, but much more easily - much more gracefully.

While his opponent had visible trouble directing the heavy weapon's direction, oftentimes just heaving it upwards and then let it fall where it would, Sandor controlled it, directed its movements to fit his own and could even manage quick parries and skilful half-turns with it as if the sword that Sansa was sure she wouldn't even be able to lift weighted nothing in his hands.

"What a riveting fight," she said, almost to herself.

"An unfair one," Loras commented sourly.

"How's that?"

"Look at their difference in stature," he explained. "Wielding those heavy weapons comes naturally to a man like Clegane."

"I see," Sansa replied. "You said something similar before when your brother lost against him."

A muscle in Loras' jaw jumped but he had no reply for her. It seemed like all their exchanges were fated to end in disagreement about Sandor's worth as a gallant fighter.

It took only a few minutes more before Sandor's opponent surrendered the fight, but Sandor had barely time to wipe the sweat from his brow - much less to scan the crowd and see her - when Loras stormed towards him.

"Clegane," he called out. "How about a more interesting fight?"

Sansa had followed in Loras' wake and immediately Sandor's gaze flew to her but quickly settled on Loras again.

"More interesting?" Sandor rasped. "How?"

"No plate, left hand tied behind your back, light one-hander, no shield," Loras said quickly. "First blood wins."

A lazy smile lurked in Sandor's eyes and in the corner of his mouth, invisible to anyone but her.

"Against you, I presume?"

"Of course."

"Training swords?"

"Real ones."

The smile stayed and Sansa was sure Sandor would gladly accept the challenge, but then he shook his head.

"Sorry, boy," he said. "Not gonna happen."

Loras visibly fumed at the insult and - as Sansa surmised - at Sandor's high-handed refusal.

"So you're a coward after all," he sneered. "How disappointing."

Sansa prayed that Sandor wouldn't be provoked that easily. Getting into trouble over Loras wasn't fitting into their plans at all.

But Sandor's hidden smile only turned into a real, albeit very condescending one.

"Sounds too easy," he said slowly. "Besides I have no desire to explain to His Grace the king why I injured his favourite knight."

A pulsating vein appeared on Loras' neck.

"Then name your conditions," he spat.

Sandor's gaze quickly flicked to Sansa again and she suddenly realized to her acute discomfort, that this whole scene only played out like this because of her.

For some reason, now both men thought they had something to prove.

"Both hands free for you, training sword for me, first blood or first one on the ground."

Sansa gasped and could only barely keep herself from walking over and hissing at her husband what he thought he was doing.

He was putting himself at a severe disadvantage against an opponent who was more agile already only to prove something to her?

Luckily, no one in the crowd had heard her outburst, since everyone else had gasped as well.

Once again Sandor looked at her but this time his eyes held hers a second longer and she could only see very relaxed amusement in them.

'Do not worry,' his gaze seemed to say but she angrily determined that she would worry as she saw fit and while she watched how a few men helped Sandor out of his plate armour and bound his left hand to his back, she decided it was time to be very worried indeed.

She was only vaguely comforted by the fact that this was no fight to the death.

What followed - however - proved that her worries where indeed completely uncalled for.

Only when she saw him nimbly moving to parry or sidestep Loras' attacks, when she saw how he effortlessly anticipated every thrust, every feint, did she fully understand why he was considered one of the most dangerous warriors of the kingdom.

He was as light on his feet as Loras, but had an efficiency of movement that the younger man lacked and he could apparently read his opponent like an open book, certainly owing to years of experience.

He was incredibly quick, graceful and quite simply breath-taking. At least her breath was completely taken away as she watched him.

"Astounding," she heard a familiar voice next to her and only now noticed that Bronn had somehow materialized next to her. "Built like a bull, but he moves like a cat."

Then he snorted with laughter. "And the young Tyrell is the mouse. Look how he plays with him."

Sansa didn't know enough about sword-fighting to see what Bronn saw, but she did notice that Loras, despite his best attempts, was easily foiled in every one of his attacks, while Sandor had so far not even attempted an attack of his own.

Until Loras, red-faced and angry, came at him with full force, spun into a pirouette and moved his sword in a quick uppercut that was probably meant to catch Sandor by surprise. Sandor spun with him, almost as if they were dancing, pushed Loras sharp blade lightly aside and upwards with his training sword, not quite parrying, but left one foot on ground before he had completed the turn.

Loras, his forward momentum not halted by either a hit or a parry, had to take another step forward to regain his balance and at that precise moment, Sandor aimed a kick at Loras' leg and sent him sprawling into the mud.

The crowd erupted into cheers and laughter and beside her, Bronn was whistling and laughing as well.

Loras ignored Sandor's outstretched hand as he tried to help him up, straightened and stalked off without a backward glance.

Sandor gave a deep bow to the applauding crowd and then advanced towards her as if it was the most natural thing to do.

Next to her, Bronn's amusement quite noticeably turned to wariness and he stepped closer to her side, drawing himself up to his full height.

"Lady Lannister," Sandor growled at her, eyes twinkling, "I am honoured to notice you watched this little... diversion."

Sansa tried to shoot daggers from her eyes. What business did he have calling her that? He could very well call her 'Lady Sansa' without anyone batting an eye.

"You performed quite admirably, Ser Sandor," she gave back somewhat tartly.

His smile faltered for split second but then he minutely inclined his head.

Touché.

"Thank you, my lady."

"Would the champion of the training yard like to accompany me for a walk?" she then asked, deciding that as long as everybody has seen them talking already, she might as well use his momentary fame to make it look as if she was granting him a favour. "I'd very much like to hear the finer points of how you managed to defeat Ser Loras."

"It would be my pleasure," he drawled, bowing again with perfect courtesy and then cut a sideways look to Bronn. "If your current escort has no objections, that is."

Bronn nonchalantly lifted both hands.

"Just here by coincidence," he said, exaggeratedly stepping away from her side as if afraid.

Sandor offered his arm and Sansa took it, walking towards the gardens with him in full view of several dozen spectators.

So much for an inconspicuous meeting.

"Showoff," was about the first thing she said to him when they were out of everyone's earshot, but there was much less heat to it than she had intended.

If she was honest, her worry and subsequent anger at him for bringing himself into unnecessary danger had long since given way to thrilled delight that this indomitable fighter, this force of nature was hers and hers alone. Sharp steel and strong arms might not the only things ruling the world, as he had once claimed, but it certainly couldn't hurt to have them at her side.

He laughed quietly.

"I should feel insulted that you had so little faith in me."

She peeked up at him with an apologetic smile.

"I had no idea you could move like that."

He lifted his uninjured eyebrow and now looked really offended. "Must have been doing something wrong all this time."

A rush of heat shot from her chest upwards to under the roots of her hair when her brain saw fit to supply her with a wealth of memories to illustrate that, yes, she should have known exactly how deftly and efficiently her man was able to move.

"It's my right to be worried for you," she said stubbornly, fanning her glowing face.

It seemed to her as if he was drawing her a little closer at that.

They walked for a while in silence both of them savouring the unexpected joy of walking together in public.

"So," Sandor broke the comfortable silence after a while. "I guess there was a problem last night?"

"There was," she said with a sigh. "In the form of the man who is allegedly my husband fucking the woman who is my maid - allegedly - right in the very underground vault that I have to cross to reach the cellars of the holdfast."

She chanced another look at him and found him pressing his closed fist against his mouth. If it wasn't for the way his massive shoulders were shaking, one could've almost believed he was deep in thought.

She sighed and made a pained grimace.

"I found that hilarious, too," she said, "until I realized that this is their regular meeting spot and I have no idea how else to reach your chamber."

Sandor's mirth abated a bit but laughter still coloured his voice when he said, "Still glad we were wrong about the maid."

Sansa shook her head. "I am not," she said. "If she is his... whatever she is, she will tell him everything she learns about me anyway."

"Did they talk?" Sandor asked. "Did she tell him something?"

Sansa started to recount the bits of conversation she had overheard. Since Sandor still seemed to be in a light-hearted mood, he immediately picked up on something.

"So his wife is at the top of his list of worries?" he asked, chuckling.

She ground her teeth at the observation.

"I am sure it was an unsorted list."

"I don't know," Sandor went on. "Wives can be a real worry at times..."

Sansa surreptitiously kicked him. "If you start to commiserate now..."

He patted her hand and smirked down at her.

"Not to me, though," he said, smirking down at her. "I am really quite... satisfied with mine."

She had to bite her lip to keep a stern look on her face. Inside, though, she was glowing.

After all that had happened recently, this was what she had truly been needing. The lightness, the playfulness. The confirmation that things were still right between them.

"If I had known how much fun it is to tease you, dear wife...," he whispered, his tone sending a shiver of pure delight down her spine.

"Keep at it and it'll soon be the only fun you'll be having," she said, but the rejoinder lacked very noticeably in tartness.

Amusement still radiated from him in gentle waves and she couldn't help but smile at it. She still marvelled at how he was with her, how different from the dour, unsmiling brute everyone thought him to be.

"Winning a fight really seems to get up your spirits," she said.

He leaned in a bit, coming dangerously close to overstepping the boundaries of which distance from each other was deemed proper for a man conversing with a woman.

"My spirit isn't the only thing that gets up after a good fight," he murmured and another heated shiver ran through her, starting and ending between her legs.

"Stop it," she admonished him without much conviction.

Meanwhile, they had arrived at the overlook that afforded a view over the Blackwater Bay. To turn the conversation away from dangerous grounds, she asked him what else he thought about the things she'd told him.

He considered her question seriously for a moment, looking out at the water, the wind from the sea ruffling his hair.

"The Red Viper," Sandor said eventually. "Why is Tyrion worried about him? He's far away in Dorne."

He drew a sharp breath and then whistled quietly. "Unless..."

"...unless the Martells are coming to the wedding," Sansa finished his thought.

"Exactly," he said. "And the Imp is right to worry about that. There is bad blood between Highgarden and Dorne and as for the Red Viper, it's no secret he is out for blood."

"You think he wants to kill your...," she bit her tongue much too late.

Gregor Clegane was one of the subjects they had so far avoided.

"My brother," Sandor said between clenched teeth, rage apparent in the taut lines of his face, "had raped and killed Oberyn Martell's sister and had his men butcher her children. One might think he would have more right to revenge than I have..."

She put her hand gently over his, a risk surely, but she didn't know how she could not be touching him right now.

"What he did to you...," she whispered, looking up at him, purposefully letting her eyes roam over the savaged parts of his face, "cannot be weighed against the suffering he'd caused others."

Sandor shook his head, suddenly avoiding her gaze.

"It's not only about my fucking face, Sansa," he rasped after long moments of silence. "Gregor killed my sister, too."

She clapped her hand over her mouth, stifling a shocked gasp.

"I didn't know."

"No one does," he said evenly. "Maybe that's the worst insult to her. That she's forgotten. That no one besides me knows she even existed. That she lies in an unmarked grave. That everyone knows about Elia Martell, but no one cares about her."

Sansa tried to imagine a girl with dark hair and grey eyes. With the harsh features of her brother.

The face her mind came up with, however, was that of Arya, of her own lost sister. She might not ever be able to understand what Sandor must have suffered, but she knew enough to understand why he would not want his sister to be forgotten.

"What was her name?"

He heaved a great sigh and for a moment Sansa thought he might not answer, but then he turned and looked fully at her, his eyes like the sky on a rainy day.

"Elenor," he whispered, a wealth of sadness and regret in this one word. And a great deal of love, too.

To think she had once thought him incapable of feeling, had thought him hateful and crude, when in truth his heart was so big, his true torment might well be that he felt too much, too deeply where others felt nothing at all.

She looked away from him, too tempted to comfort him with more than just a glancing touch on the back of his hand. And even though they stood well apart, she felt somehow closer to him, as if something had shifted in the bond between them, once again changing by degrees what they were to one another.

"I wish I could take you in my arms ," she said.

"I wish I could do considerably more than that," he replied gravely and then cleared his throat.

"So, about Martell," he went on, apparently intend on changing the subject. "Knowing Tywin Lannister, he'll try to keep Gregor away from King's Landing and out of the Viper's reach. That, at least, is one less thing to worry about."

Sansa nodded.

"I'll see if Tyrion learns more once they are here."

"Be careful," he said, straightening and indicating he had to go. "And watch out for that sellsword, he's lurking somewhere behind the hydrangeas."

She laughed when she watched him walk away.

...

While their last meeting had left Sansa with lifted spirits and a new sense of purpose, it had done nothing to resolve the problem of them not being able to see each other. She could not risk being seen talking to him on a regular basis since that would raise far too many eyebrows. As it was, it puzzled her that word hadn't reached Tyrion already, especially since Bronn had apparently been nearby the whole time.

Or maybe Tyrion just had decided not to mention it to her.

After about a week, even Sandor showed clear signs of being decidedly unhappy with the situation.

The first time he decided to do something about it, he caught her completely by surprise.

She had been riding out with Margery and afterwards almost giving the stable-boy a heart-attack by expressing the wish to tend to her mare herself – something her father had always insisted she learned how to do.

On her way back, deeply immersed in her own thoughts, she had completely missed the huge dark shadow behind her until a strong arm wound around her waist and she was bodily dragged into an empty stall. Before she could utter even a squeak, his mouth was on her and so were his hands, greedy and ungentle, but then, so were hers and when his mouth left hers for both of them to get some much needed air, he brought his lips to her ear.

"Are you alright, little bird?" he asked, his hands all the while searching her body as if they could detect if anything was wrong.

"Yes, I am," she whispered back. "Now I am."

But that was a lie, because outside men shouted at stable-boys and stable-boys shouted at each other to the accompaniment to stamping and whinnying horses and the racket left no doubt that they would only have mere minutes before they'd have to part again, not nearly enough for them to quench the fire they had so thoughtlessly ignited.

"Something I need to know?" he rasped into her ear again and she had to forcefully keep herself from resenting the intrusion of reality into this short stolen moment.

"Tyrion is riding out the day after tomorrow to welcome the Martells to King's Landing."

He stilled his movements and took a deep breath. Then he nodded; a movement she only felt because she was still clinging tightly to him until he reached a hand behind him and pried her hands from his neck, turned around and exited the stall, leaving her to straighten her skirts and order her mussed up hair and swallow the tears that threatened.

Ever since then, she kept to the darker parts of passages and corridors when she walked through the keep. She always lingered in the stables under the pretence of grooming her horse or giving it treats.

It rarely came to more than a few stolen kisses and some breathlessly exchanged sentences that left them more dissatisfied than they were before and increasingly miserable.

Four weeks before Joffrey was to be wed to Margery, rain started falling over King's Landing as if meaning to drown the city.

As if circumstances hadn't been unfavourable enough already, the rain cut short any outdoor activities like wandering the keep or riding out, which further curtailed her meagre bit of freedom.

She was standing at the window, despondently watching fat raindrops run down the windowpanes, when someone timidly cleared his throat behind her.

"What is it, Podrick?" she asked, turning around.

As always, the boy blushed when she looked at him. If she had been in a better mood, she might have found it amusing how the boy who was nephew to the man who still had Sansa quake in her slippers when she saw him was so much different from his uncle.

"You have a visitor, my lady."

That came as a surprise. All the people she knew in the keep outranked her by far and would only ever summon her to visit them.

The man who darkened the doorway, however, was someone so completely unexpected, she failed to stifle a gasp.

Podrick straightened and his face suddenly took on an expression of determined courage.

"Shall I send him on his way?" he asked.

"No, Podrick," Sansa said hastily. "It is alright, I was only surprised, that's all."

Sandor stepped fully through the door, his eyes quickly taking in his surroundings and finally settling on hers with a bone-melting intensity.

Podrick remained where he was, apparently still intending to protect her.

"You may leave us, Podrick," Sansa said, trying to keep her voice firm while her whole body trembled.

Podrick fidgeted for a moment, but finally seemed to arrive at the decision that he couldn't do anything but follow her order.

"I have a message from Queen Cersei," Sandor began without preamble just as she was about to ask him if he had lost his mind. "It seemed a good opportunity, so I agreed to be her errand boy."

She swallowed and nodded. She felt as if made of glass, as if she would break should she move, or should she be touched.

"What does she want?" she asked around the lump in her throat.

"She wants you to visit her tomorrow night for a private dinner," he said, taking a step closer. "I suppose it's about the wedding, she is obsessing about it for weeks."

He was standing at arm's length and slowly lifted his hand to her face.

A tear slipped down her cheek when she turned her face away.

"I can't," she whispered. "Not here."

His hand curled into a fist and after an agonizing moment, sank to his side again.

She kept her eyes on the wall beside her, because she knew what she would see should she look at him. And she knew she would not be able to say no a second time.

"I am so tired of this," he whispered. "Having only a few minutes in the dark and lately not even that much."

Angrily, she wiped the tears from her face, suddenly disgusted at her own weakness and straightened.

"I know," she said. "I am too. But we made it this far, and it's only four more weeks."

"Sometimes I think I'd give my life just for having you in my bed for one more night."

The bluntness of the statement left her breathless for a moment, for one thing because Sandor wasn't a man given to hyperbole and meant things almost always literally and for another because she had entertained such thoughts herself at times.

"That would be quite a waste of a very valuable life," she said, trying to smile and defuse the situation.

"It'd be worth it," he insisted, stepping closer once again until only an inch of charged air separated them.

"I've fantasized about something similar," she confided in a hushed whisper. "Daydreamed about how it would be to just stay somewhere in a room with you, the whole night and the morning as well until they would look for us and find us, wrapped in a lover's embrace."

He leaned toward her but she took a little step back, intent on her tale, her voice growing in volume.

"And then we would be tried and sentenced to death and people would be sobbing at the heart-rending story of the star-crossed lovers, the deserter and the traitor's daughter. And they would throw rose petals on our way to the scaffold to where Ilyn Payne would be waiting.

"I would be standing tall and proud and blowing you one last kiss before placing my head on the block for my blood to be spilled on the same steel that had spilled the blood of my father and would spill yours right after."

Sandor had stilled, listening.

"I would die with your name on my lips and our song would be sung for centuries to come and everyone would be weeping when they'd hear it."

A question shimmered silvery in his eyes.

Is this was you want?

She shook her head.

"Someone once told me that life is not a song," she said. "And I don't want ours to be one. I want to live, Sandor. I don't care if the bards sing about us, I don't care what they think about us. May history call me a immoral bitch and you an opportunistic lecher who took the first chance to get into a highborn maiden's smallclothes, it doesn't matter."

He smiled as she poked her forefinger against his chest.

"Our story, Sandor," she said, emphasizing her point with another poke of her finger, "will not be sung by any fucking bards, because it will be ending happily with both of us dying of old age after having lived a full and happy life, do you understand?"

With the appropriate seriousness in his expression he nodded, but then the corner of his mouth curled once again.

"But since you are at Maegor's tomorrow already, maybe..."

With a smile and a disapproving shake of her head, she shoved at him, directing him towards the door. Before he opened it, though, she raised herself on tiptoes and brought her mouth close to his ear.

"Maybe."

SANDOR

He woke with a start from an uneasy sleep at the unsettling sensation of someone watching him. With his hand already at his weapon, body coiled and ready for a fight, his nose caught a whiff of lemon and ice.

Relief washed over him in one great wave.

He had pretty much giving up on trying to stay awake to wait for her during the past weeks, since it never happened anyway. Even though tonight he'd known she was with Cersei and would try to sneak into his chambers, chances were high she would be given an escort and thus unable to find an excuse to walk around the holdfast alone.

He relaxed back against the mattress, sharpening his senses to her movements, but didn't stir, didn't betray his wakefulness. If she had wanted him awake, she would have woken him by now.

Clothing rustled to the floor and then she tiptoed closer. After the blanket had slithered off his naked body, she carefully climbed onto the bed, onto him and he had to firmly leash his need to touch and to caress when he felt the smooth skin of her thighs against his.

Leaning forward, she brushed his face with hair that whispered like silk and smelled like lemon and ice and promised passion and fire.

Something very soft and very warm touched his eyelids, his cheek, his lips.

The tips of her breasts, he concluded, nearly undone at the mental image of how she might look now, gloriously naked, crouched over him, her lovely breasts brushing his face.

He smiled very slowly and opened his mouth to give back the gentle caress with his tongue and his lips.

She moaned into the darkness, but as he gently grasped her shoulders to pull her to him, she straightened and pressed her hips downward, the wet heat of her cunt demanding a response. A response his body delivered with a vengeance.

Her hands pressed against his shoulders forbade him to change position and he wasn't about to argue the point, not when she sank down on him, around him and it felt like the long awaited answer to a prayer.

In the total darkness of the room, with no words between them and the only sounds the harshness of their breathing and the moans and cries of pleasure, they rediscovered what had been so desperately missed.

Her skin was cool and silky under his hands, but her body was liquid heat where they were joined; a fire that raged and seethed until it consumed the both of them in a brilliant inferno.

"That was one nice way to wake up," he whispered into her hair some time later, when she lay curled up on his chest like an exhausted kitten.

She drew some pattern on his upper arm with her fingertip and he wondered idly how he could've survived for so long without her touching him.

"I had ample time to come up with an idea."

"Anything else you came up with?" he asked, not even trying to hide his delight at discovering how prominently he featured in his wife's thoughts and fantasies.

"Wouldn't be a surprise if I told you," she purred and pressed a kiss against his skin.

The thought alone cemented his determination to have her at least once more tonight.

"I barely survived this one, so I'd like to be prepared."

She didn't answer but instead kept caressing him until suddenly a shudder went through her and he pulled her closer into his embrace almost on instinct.

"What is it?"

"Cersei," she said and it occurred to him that he should've asked how the dinner had been. Knowing Cersei, he'd be surprised if it had been anything but awful.

"What did she say?"

Sansa snuggled even closer and he shifted their position to lie half-atop her in that way she seemed to prefer when she was unsettled or afraid.

"It's not so much about what she said, but...," she shook her head slightly and then sighed, nestling even closer into his tight embrace. "The woman is mad. She drinks too much, she sees enemies everywhere, even in her own family. Four weeks seem a long time with her in charge."

"She is not in charge," he tried to calm her. "Tywin has her well in hand."

"I hope you're right."

She was quiet for a few moments and he thought she might still be thinking about Cersei, when she surprised him with her next question.

"What did you do... you know, that night?"

He snorted lightly, knowing at once which night she meant. What he didn't know was whether or not he really wanted to talk about what a pathetic wreck he'd been.

"Talked to a tree," he said finally, hoping she would drop the subject when she knew he'd been in the godswood.

"So you were in the godswood? What happened?"

No such luck, apparently. But her hand wandered gently over his upper arm and she kissed his chest and she smelled so good that he knew he would tell her everything she wanted to know.

"You'll laugh at me."

"I promise I won't."

"When I went there... I was done for. Empty. I'd given up."

She kissed him once again, an open-mouthed kiss to the spot over his heart.

"I think we both had at some point."

"And then... something spoke to me, reminded me of my purpose and gave me something back that I had almost forgotten I had."

She perked up.

"The gods really spoke to you?"

"I couldn't say, but... what else could it have been?"

For a while she was quiet, stroking him almost absentmindedly. His own hands were wandering as well, just for the pure pleasure of feeling the softness of her skin, for the certainty that at least for this moment, she was his to touch and to hold.

"Coming to the godswood...," she began eventually, slowly as if still sorting her thoughts. "...I think it's different than coming to the sept to pray, to ask the Seven for favors or beg them for protection or whatever is on your mind.

"To the godswood, I often just come to think. I feel closer to home when I am here, closer to my family, if that makes any sense. In a way, I feel closer to myself. Things are getting clearer when I think them over in the godswood."

He laughed when he realized what she was getting at.

"So you, the most pious girl I ever met, are telling me it wasn't the gods who spoke to me, but that I just came to my senses by myself?"

Shoving at his chest, she prompted him to move a little away and when he did, leaned up on one elbow to look at him with some amusement.

"Wouldn't it a bit presumptuous to think the gods have singled you out to talk to?" she said with a raised eyebrow.

A fiery tendril of red was falling into her face and he gently pushed it aside with one finger, marvelling at the glossy silk that slithered over the back of his hand.

"Wouldn't it a bit egotistical to think I managed to screw my head back on straight all by myself?" he asked quietly and then added, "And I don't think it's about me. I'm just a means to an end. I have a feeling they are watching over you."

Her eyes filled with tears and she leaned into the hand he still had on her face.

"If they've given me you, I have a lot to be grateful for," she said and then gave him a rather watery smile. "So I turned Sandor Clegane into a believer?"

With his finger, he traced a line from her temple to the corner of her mouth, then ghosted his fingertips over her lips. The urge to kiss her was almost an ache in his chest, but he savoured the knowledge that what he wanted so badly was his to take if he just moved a little and he could do it without risking her or his life for it.

"You made me believe in quite a lot of things," he admitted.

A brilliant smile chased away the unshed tears in her eyes and she lay back on the bed and he moved to hover over her.

"As there would be?" she asked, her fingertips tracing the silver chain around his neck and fleetingly touching the white stone.

He leaned down and kissed her as sweetly and tenderly as he could, hoping it would be answer enough.

The door to the chamber was opened very carefully and the slight shadow that flitted out, trailing a billowing dark cloak behind her, moved swiftly away on silent feet, leaving the subtle scent of lemons and the less than subtle scent of sex behind her.

From out of a corner, another shadow emerged into the torchlight, turning into the shape of a man who was scratching his chin.

"Now how to tell Tyrion," Bronn mused quietly to himself, waiting for another minute or two before he followed the scented trail the female shadow had left.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

Tyrion had heard that somewhere up north they had a saying that you grow with your tasks. At the rate things were developing, he truly should turn into a giant any day now.

Managing the mess Petyr Baelish had left him, euphemistically called the kingdom's finances was not only daunting, it was impossible. Littlefinger must have planned to make himself scarce for quite some time, because he had been borrowing money left and right and spent it recklessly with no care how the staggering debts would ever be repaid.

He had been over every figure at least three times by now, and nothing had changed his dire assessment of the situation.

Still, he should be happy as a clam if that should be his only worries.

Rubbing his burning eyes, he hadn't noticed Bronn slinking into his study. Without so much as a greeting, the man just plopped unceremoniously down into a chair, all the while nursing a goblet of something that surely came from Tyrion's own cellar.

Maybe he should at some point have insisted on some respect, but right now, Tyrion was too tired to bother and instead went back to his accounting ledgers.

"Guess who I caught sneaking around in a dark cloak and so furtively I had a hard time keeping track of her?" Bronn's voice eventually cut through the sounds of rustling paper.

"Who?" Tyrion asked distractedly, not in the mood for one of Bronn's guessing games while columns of numbers were beginning to dance and swirl in front of his eyes.

"Your lady wife," Bronn answered, grabbing Tyrion's full attention.

"Where was she sneaking off to?"

"At first she wasn't sneaking at all, being invited to dinner with your sister."

That was a bit of a surprise, he hadn't known about the invitation. Then again, Sansa barely spoke to him and if she did, "Yes, my lord," and "Of course, my lord," seemed to be the only words in her vocabulary.

"Afterwards it first appeared she was going to the godswood..."

Tyrion snorted.

"I know that. She goes there every night to pray."

Bronn lifted a finger.

"I said at first," he clarified. "Then she retraced her steps and went to the cellars of the Holdfast."

Tyrion gnashed his teeth. Apparently, he was expected to pry the information out of Bronn in bits and pieces.

"What's in the cellars?"

"Kitchens and storage rooms, mostly. Parts of the old dungeons," Bronn said with a shrug. "It's a maze, actually. You should know better than I do, I guess," he added with a wink.

"And…" he continued when Tyrion started rolling his eyes, "a little room in which the current trainer for sword practice and champion of the sparring ring chooses to spend his nights."

"Clegane?" Tyrion asked, not even trying to mask his disbelief.

Bronn held his hands up in a gesture that meant he couldn't make sense of this either.

"She was extremely careful getting there, I even lost her a few times, but once I found the door to that room and had my ear on it…" he trailed off, shrugging again. "Let's just say those two definitely weren't talking."

Tyrion had heard a lot of tall tales in his time, but this one had to take the cake.

"You're joking."

"Wish I were," Bronn said with a sigh. "There are things even I don't have the stomach to imagine."

Slack-jawed, Tyrion tried to.

The seven foot plus Hound; scarred, dark and ugly as the Stranger, heaving on top of nubile, fragile, beautiful Sansa.

"No," he said, "that's impossible. Look at him, he'd rip her apart."

Bronn clicked his tongue and shook his head.

"One of your shortcomings," he said in a bored tone, "Is that you underestimate what women are capable of. They are made to drop six pounds brats, they don't balk at a big cock." Then, almost softly, he added. "Some not even at an ugly face."

Tyrion set his jaw.

"Maybe he coerced her somehow."

Bronn sighed again and now there was actual pity in his eyes.

"I didn't hear a single 'no' and to me it sounded as if she was enjoying herself… immensely."

"Maybe it wasn't even her, maybe you mistook her..."

Bronn leaned forward in his seat, fixating Tyrion with his gaze.

"I had my eye on those two for some time now and I wouldn't have come to you with this," he said, enunciating every syllable as if speaking with a simpleton, "if I wasn't completely and absolutely sure."

With a single sweep of his arms, Tyrion cleared his desk, taking momentary satisfaction from the way all those hated ledgers, books, quills and even the inkwell tumbled to the ground, making a mess.

"Why?" he roared at the startled sellsword. "Why is she doing this to me? I've been nothing but good to her!"

"I guess you have to ask her," Bronn said while leaning lazily back into his seat.

Tyrion started pacing, trying to fight down the white-hot rage inside him that was threatening to choke him. He'd been made a laughing-stock, had his father badgering him about it any chance he got, had his servants tittering behind his back for not bedding his wife and this was how she repaid his kindness?

"Although since you did ask me," Bronn continued in his bored tone, "I do not think this has much to do with you."

Tyrion spun around to Bronn, sneering.

"Of course not, I am just her husband, after all."

"What I meant," Bronn explained patiently, "was that the Hound seemed pretty fond of Sansa for quite some time, even before you wed. Remember when your nephew had her stripped in front of the whole court? It had been the Hound who was about to put an end to it before you came and…"

"… it was him who gave her his cloak to cover herself," Tyrion finished, remembering. "And it was Clegane who saved her during the riots, risking his own life."

Sadness replaced his anger at this particular memory.

The Hound had saved her. Maybe more than once. For Sansa, so utterly alone and friendless, this must have meant a lot.

"Gods," he groaned, "for how long has this been going on?"

Another shrug from Bronn. "Ask her."

Tyrion froze as an entirely unwelcome thought struck.

"What if she's pregnant?" he asked and – shocking as it was – the idea had him double over with a bout of hysterical mirth.

Bronn looked uncharacteristically confused at Tyrion's outburst.

"Imagine," Tyrion wheezed between laughter, "imagine me presenting my father…" he had to stop there again to catch his breath, "with a pup instead of a cub."

Bronn chuckled at that.

Tyrion sobered when he tried to picture what a son of Sansa and the Hound would look like.

He'd be tall, of course, very much so. The blood of the first men ran thick in the Starks of Winterfell, Sansa herself was one of the tallest women he knew, and it was said of the Cleganes that their grandmother had been from the North as well. And while there was some chance the boy would have his mother's auburn hair, Tyrion doubted it.

Light eyes, grey or blue or a mixture of both. Like ice.

He would, Tyrion realized with a start, be exactly the brawny, black-haired giant whom the Northerners would unquestioningly accept as the Stark in Winterfell, as their King in the North. He would be the leader they would follow into every battle, just like they followed the Young Wolf.

"So you think she is pregnant?" he asked, shoulders slumping.

Bronn rolled his eyes. "I do hate to repeat myself, but: ask her!"

"Ask her!" Tyrion lifted his hands in helpless frustration.

"And how do you propose I start this particular conversation?" he griped, the thought of having to confront Sansa about it causing him to feel nauseous already. "Dear wife, have you been fucking any dogs lately?"

Bronn shrugged and took a long swig out of his goblet.

"If there's something I know you're good at," he finally said. "You always find the right thing to say."

Tyrion had dragged his feet walking to the dining room to share his breakfast with his wife, all the while cowardly contemplating just not saying anything at all.

He had his own secrets, let her have hers.

Then again, he had sworn to protect her and he knew all to well what was in store for her if anyone found out about what was going on. Just as he knew well enough what would happen to Shae should his father get wind of this particular secret.

But much more than all that, he had bound himself to this girl... this woman, he corrected himself mentally, for the rest of his life. He ought to at least try to make this marriage work somehow.

Steeling himself with taking a deep breath, he rounded the corner.

Sansa sat in front of her mostly untouched breakfast, staring unseeingly out of the windows, a small, secret smile on her lips.

She really was a sight to behold, so ethereally lovely it could make a man hurt inside. Again he tried and failed to imagine her with the Hound.

He almost felt guilty for having to destroy her serenity, even though he still had no idea how to begin. Heaving himself onto a chair he started heaping food onto his plate despite the nausea churning in his stomach.

His beautiful wife continued ignoring him.

"Why him?" he suddenly heard himself asking.

Not the question he had planned to be asking first – or indeed at all - but to his astonishment it was the only question that he really found worth of being given an answer to.

Sansa's attention snapped towards him, confusion, quickly replaced by realization, written all over her face.

"Of all the men who would've fought each other to the death for the honour of being your lover," he said, growing agitated, "of all the handsome and charming and wealthy, why give yourself to an ugly, big brute of a dog?" He knew that all the hurt, the anger, and the bottomless disappointment he had wanted to keep to himself were thickly lacing every one of his words, but he was powerless against it.

Sansa had been far from slouching in her chair before, but now she sat even straighter, bending a blue-eyed stare on him that was as cold and clear as a morning in the deepest of winter.

"Because he's everything a man ought to be," she said with a frosty, unwavering voice, cutting like glass. "He is... a true knight."

Warming to her topic, as evidenced by a hectic flush on her cheeks, she continued more heatedly as if the words pouring out of her had waited to be said for a long time.

"In this cursed place full of lies and deceit, this place where honour counts for nothing and neither do the bonds of family, friendship and loyalty, he is the only one who never lied to me, the only one who protected me, the only one I can trust."

Her assessment was cutting but irrefutable. He only had to look in to the mirror to see what his own family's loyalty had left him with. He might have had a thing or two to say about how her oh so honourable 'true knight' had slunk away with his tail between his legs during the Blackwater, but then again he was already tired of hearing her praise the man who had cuckolded him. He had more pressing concerns.

"Sansa," he said, surprised by the pleading tone in his voice, "if someone else but me discovers this, there's nothing I can do to protect you."

"I know," she stated simply, turning back to the window.

"You do not understand…"

Cold lightning flashed in her eyes when she rounded on him again, her eyes narrowed.

"I saw my father's head chopped off right in front of my eyes. I was shown that same head tarred and mounted on a spike, right next to the woman who was supposed to be my guide into adulthood. I have been beaten and bloodied. Trust me my lord Lannister, I understand."

He wondered how he hadn't seen before what he saw now. That core of ice and steel in her that seemed to be unique to the Starks of Winterfell. A strength so mighty it had given generations of them the power to rule a land just as cold and deadly as themselves. He'd seen it in Eddard Stark all those months ago and he'd seen it in the eyes of Stark's bastard. And now, just as icy and dangerous, he saw it in the baby blue eyes of Eddard Stark's beautiful daughter.

A Stark – it seemed – would sooner break than bend.

"I am not your enemy, Sansa," he offered, inexplicably more hurt that she would clump him together with the rest of his family than about her deceit.

Her eyes flashed again but then softened.

"I know," she said quietly. "But neither are you my friend."

Another stab that hurt more than by right it should have.

"I tried to be."

She looked down at the hands in her lap, contemplating her answer for a moment.

"You cannot serve two masters," she said then, again reminding him that for her he was merely a pawn of his family.

Didn't she know that the man she placed all her trust in was one of his family's most loyal retainers? Had served them for more than a decade, following every order, butchering people left and right if commanded to do so?

"And your hound can?" he asked.

Again she took some time answering. When she looked up at him, something had softened in her eyes, they shone with an inner light that was as luminous as it was beautiful. Something he had not felt before suddenly burned through his gut with a blinding pain.

Jealousy. Or envy. Or both.

Sansa did not merely trust Clegane. She did not merely share his bed out of misplaced gratefulness.

She loved him. And it wasn't some maidenly infatuation either, something starry-eyed and rose-tinted and fleeting as a warm breeze in springtime. It was something solid, something not even fear of death would be able to break.

"He has but one," she said very softly.

He grabbed the goblet in front of him and threw it at the nearest wall.

She did not even flinch. Looking back at her, he wondered where the scared, timid girl whom he had married had vanished to. The girl who could not talk in more than a frightened whisper, who was forever agreeing, forever lowering her eyes, fearful of doing or saying something wrong.

Looked like she had fooled not only him.

"Tyrion," she said, still quietly while he tried to look anywhere but at her. "I know you've been kind to me, and I know you went against your father's wishes by not forcing me all this time. I am very... very grateful. And I am sorry you had to learn of this, I never meant for this to hurt you. It has… well, it has nothing to do with you."

Gods, if she had said some of those things to him before, he would have lapped them up like a cat a pot of cream. How pathetic was he that he had longed to hear her thanking him? Thanking him for not being a complete and utter asshole?

He hopped off his chair and started pacing, suddenly needing to get away from her.

"What if you are pregnant?" he asked, sounding almost petulant.

She drew herself up straight once again. Only then it occur to him that she must think he asked because that was all she was to him. The womb that held the key to Winterfell.

The more he contemplated this, the closer he came to sympathize with her choice.

"I am not," she said frostily. "I took precautions."

He paced some more and finally located the courage to say what he had meant to from the start of this awful conversation.

"You cannot continue with this."

To his surprise, her reaction was a disdainful sneer.

"So you get to fuck my maid in the cellars every night and I have to remain chaste?"

The question almost knocked him on his arse and he had to grip the next chair to steady himself.

"You know about Shae?" he asked, the question a mere whisper because he was still reeling from the impact of what she had said.

"I do."

He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut, wishing fervently that this was all just a horrible nightmare. Wishing he had never started this discussion in the first place. Wishing he was someone else, somewhere else.

"Who else knows?" he asked finally, when neither wish deigned to come true.

"Guess."

He sighed, the answer to his question obvious.

"I should've ended it a long time ago," he said, more to himself than to her. "My father will kill her if he finds out."

"He might have a point," she countered coldly.

He stared at her, speechless once again. This formerly sweet wife of his was full of surprises this morning. Where did this hatefulness come from?

"Jealous?" he asked.

She opened her mouth for what looked to become a sharp retort but then shook her head.

"Tyrion," she started afresh in the same conciliatory tone that she had tried before. "I saw you two together. The whore is playing you for a fool. She has no love for you and she will betray you as soon as a better prospect comes along."

He shut his eyes again, not even fighting the wave of despair coursing through him. He'd known. Of course he had, he wasn't stupid. Besides, he'd learned his lesson well enough with Tysha.

He had known it was an illusion, a lie. But it was such a comfortable lie, such a nice and warm thing to be feeling. And he had too little of that as it was.

"Apparently, she's not the only one playing me for a fool," he said, lacking the strength to infuse the sentence with the resentment he should be feeling for Sansa for ripping his dream apart like this.

"Tyrion," she started but he gave a curt wave, signalling her to be quiet. To his surprise, she fell silent at once.

He stared at her for a long moment, replaying the horrid morning in his mind and wondered what their union could've been like if he'd known what a treasure he might have had in her. If he'd not insulted her perceptiveness and intelligence by thinking her naive and... well, somewhat stupid. If she hadn't given her heart away elsewhere before.

She obviously wasn't bothered by an ugly face, so maybe...

He shook his head, chasing away the maybes.

"Here's what we'll do," he said decisively, taking his seat at the table again and looking her straight in the eyes.

"I'll end things with Shae this instance. Your... whatever it is with the Hound... ends as well."

She opened her mouth but he cut her off again.

"You might think you know about the dangers, but you do not know my father as I do. And if you do not have a care for your own life, think of Clegane's."

She swallowed and tears started to glitter in her eyes.

"My father," Tyrion pressed his point mercilessly, "will not give a clean death to a man who betrayed and insulted the Lannisters.".

A glittering tear ran down her rosy cheek and he suddenly felt like the lowest of vermin for using her feelings against her like that.

Maybe one day she'd understand that he was only trying to protect her.

"I'll have Bronn dogging your every step from now on, if need be."

She gazed out of the window then, tears silently running down her cheeks, unchecked. But something in her posture told him she was not merely sad, she was thinking. Weird how he had always thought before that nothing much of anything ran through that pretty head, when right now she may very well plot his imminent demise.

Although it didn't look like that, didn't look like anything directed at him. There was something else going on.

"There'd be no need," she finally said. "I agree to your terms."

Her easy agreement caught him a little off-guard. From the way she'd shown her teeth before, he'd expected more of a fight.

Now, finally feeling in control of the situation once more, he felt compelled to admit that he this conversation had not been all that horrible after all. They had talked more in half an hour than they had in all the weeks before, truths had been told and he had finally started to get to know his own wife.

"And as for staying chaste," he continued, feeling now brave enough to broach a topic that had been anathema between them ever since their wedding night. "If you're tired of it, I am right here."

The expression on her face spoke of many more chaste nights between them, but then it changed again and she took his hand in both of hers.

"Tyrion, please," she begged, all mellow contriteness and tears. "Let me tell him at least. So he won't worry."

He ripped his hand from out of her grasp.

"Do not concern yourself about that, I'll tell him right now," he spat before he could've contemplated what he was saying.

Maybe he should have left that particular conversation to someone else. To Bronn, maybe.

One did anger a dangerous beast at one's own peril, after all, and as worthless as it seemed to be to everyone else around him, Tyrion rather valued his life and what was left of his ugly skin.

He took measured steps towards the door, trying to look like a man with a purpose and no fear. Then again, whom was he trying to fool?

"And don't worry," he said while turning to her once again, trying a winning smile. "I'll do my best not to kill him."

Sansa's eyes rounded for a moment and then, clearly despite herself, she laughed while tears were still running down her cheeks. If he'd been a normal-sized man, this laugh might have been insulting, but as it was, it somehow gladdened him that he had made her laugh, even if it was at his own expense.

...

tbc

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

Clegane was standing over a horse trough, splashing water on his face and naked chest.

Not for the first time in his life did a sight such as this prompt Tyrion to wonder what the gods had been smoking when they created men like the Clegane brothers.

The man was the living antithesis to everything that was good in mankind. A hulking brute, all iron hard muscles over long, thick limbs as if specifically made for only the purpose he was used for. All brawn without brain. A killing machine, efficient, unfeeling. And if the horrible scars on his face and those on his body told the truth, indomitable and unstoppable as well.

He saw not a trace of what Sansa might have seen in him, of what could have endeared this man to a sensitive, gentle and intelligent girl like her. What could have made her fall in love with him.

Tyrion's eyes were drawn to the white stone that dangled from the Hound's neck, fastened to a delicate silver chain that looked far too fragile on a man like him. He remembered that Sansa was constantly wearing a rather plain, black stone around her neck as well.

'Just one more rope to hang themselves with,' he thought without much satisfaction.

By that time Clegane had noticed him standing there watching him and stopped for a moment, quietly assessing him. Then he grabbed the shirt lying next to him and hurriedly drew it over his head, taking some care to hide the stone out of sight.

Another conversation he had never imagined having to have and no idea how to start.

"I have been given to understand that you are fucking my wife."

Clegane stilled for a moment, but recovered quickly with a nasty smirk.

"Well, someone ought to," he sneered. "Yes, I have and I can tell you it was worth all the trouble she gave me. Had to bind and gag her most of the time since the stupid wolf wouldn't stop scratching and fighting and biting, but like I said, nothing like rutting between the milky white thighs of a highborn lady."

Tyrion knew he was gaping and shut his mouth with an audible snap.

The Hound was prepared to take the fall for this. He would insist that it had been rape, knowing full well that nobody would think to question his claim – what with him looking like he did. And while that would make for a painful death for him, Sansa's reputation – since she was already married – could be saved by sweeping all of this under the rug.

If he hadn't been sure what was between those two before, he was convinced now.

"Cut the crap, Clegane," he demanded impatiently, motioning for the big man to walk with him as to draw less attention. "You and I both know that's not how it was, she told me so herself."

Somewhere above him, Clegane drew a sharp breath. When Tyrion looked up, Clegane had a hand clamped to his forehead, shaking his head.

"Foolish little bird," he murmured.

This was the second time Tyrion heard him refer to Sansa as "little bird", the first time – if memory served – being when the Hound had heroically saved the girl from a raving mob. Again he wondered how long things had been going on. He'd forgotten to ask Sansa.

Clegane turned to Tyrion, forming a solid wall of seven feet directly in Tyrion's path.

Tyrion distractedly mused how between himself and Clegane here, Sansa could make herself at least one decently sized man. Still not a very pretty one.

Clegane stooped to catch Tyrion's gaze.

"It doesn't matter what she tells you," he grated hoarsely, apparently trying to keep his voice down. "Nothing of this is her fault. I took advantage of her loneliness and her innocence and I fucking well knew better than this."

Tyrion glowered up at the man before him, wishing for an insane moment he would be tall and strong enough to be able to punch the insolent mutt in the face.

"Damn right you should've known better," he snapped at him. "What in seven hells were you thinking?"

Clegane straightened and chuckled darkly.

"I don't know how you go about these things, but thinking had not much to do with it."

Unfortunately, Tyrion knew that all too well, but the thought wasn't a cheerful one and far from helpful in the current situation.

"Look, Clegane, whatever you may think, I am not your enemy here. I will not hurt Sansa more than my family already has by having the one person she cares about gelded and eviscerated for rape."

Next to him, Clegane's hulking form went perfectly still.

"What will you do?" he asked, voice as raw as if he'd been shouting for hours.

"Nothing," Tyrion said helplessly. "For now."

"Then why are you here?"

Again, Tyrion wished he could just plant a fist in Clegane's ugly face and be done with it.

"I want you to stop. If I could find out, others can, too. You are not only playing fast and loose with your own life, you are playing with hers."

The stubborn refusal emanating from Clegane was almost tangible.

"She was given to you like a fucking piece of cattle," he ground out between clenched teeth. "It didn't matter at all what she wanted or what would've been good for her. And now I am supposed to sanction that by taking away the only decision she had ever been free to make?"

Again, Tyrion felt himself taken by surprise. For one thing because of Clegane's unexpected eloquence, for another by the fact that he truly cared. Clegane wasn't just going to sacrifice himself for being at fault for having despoiled an innocent girl. He actually cared about Sansa, about what she thought and felt.

Maybe he had to slightly revise the opinion he had about the man.

But just as Sansa, of course Clegane blamed the whole revolting mess squarely on him as if everyone who bore the name of Lannister was equally at fault for every atrocity a member of his family came up with.

"Do you think that travesty of a marriage was my idea?" he hissed at him. "Have you any idea how many decisions I am free to make these days?"

Clegane just shrugged.

"This isn't about you."

"Damn right it isn't," he said, nearly yelling. He had to calm himself a little before he continued. "It's about you and the havoc you wrought on an innocent girl's life. Just imagine…" he paused for a moment. What could he say, what would be something Clegane would fear so much it would get through to him?

"Just imagine your brother getting a hold of this!" he finally said and saw with satisfaction how a look of true horror crossed the Hound's ugly face.

"You wouldn't!" the man said, his tone clearly indicating he thought Tyrion not above actually throwing Sansa in his brother's way to get what he wanted.

"Of course I wouldn't!" he said heatedly, feeling insulted. "That's not the point."

Clegane wiped a hand over his face and then hung his head.

"I think I get the point."

"Stay... away... from my wife." Tyrion clarified, just to be sure the message had gotten across and through the thick skull of this man he still couldn't imagine inspiring tender feelings in anyone, least of all someone like Sansa.

Clegane's gaze drilled into his for long moments and then he looked away.

Something was at work behind the tall man's eyes. The same sort of calculation Sansa had made. There was something going on, something bigger, something that made an impossible decision that much easier.

Under different circumstances, the suspicion that they meant to kill him might have presented itself, but Clegane was looking into the distance and not really at him, and Sansa too had looked as if he wasn't any factor at all in whatever they were cooking up, so he supposed he was safe – at least from them.

"Agreed," he finally said and this time, Tyrion wasn't surprised at all.

This lack of surprise lasted for precisely the few seconds it took Clegane to crouch down and shove his face menacingly toward Tyrion's.

"But if you touch her," he growled and the hairs on the back of Tyrion's neck actually stood on end at his tone. "I swear I'll find you and I'll kill you."

Tyrion was sorely tempted to tell the brute exactly where he could shove his show of primal possessiveness and that he could do with his own wife whatever he wanted, but then again, he had probably already pushed Clegane to his limit and Tyrion had no intention to find out what it would take to make the Hound bite.

"Unless others I could name," he said instead, pointedly looking up at Clegane. "I am not in the habit of bedding unwilling women."

Clegane didn't even react to that, as if what he had said had gone right over his head. Seemingly deep in thought, he clenched and unclenched his massive fists for a few times and then looked at Tyrion again.

"Thank you," he said in a voice so low one could barely hear it, almost softly. "Thank you for looking out for her."

'Seems like the little bird has the Hound firmly on her leash,' Tyrion mused once his astonishment allowed coherent thought again . 'He's found himself a gentler master to give his full devotion to.'

He managed a smile, more pained than genuine, still a bit unsettled at the discovery that Sansa's feelings clearly weren't one-sided.

"Well, someone ought to," he quipped, but Clegane had already turned and walked away.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 24

Nine days, Sansa thought hopefully as she woke up, having counted days first thing after opening her eyes, as had been her habit for the last two weeks.

Nine days until the end of the year, the turn of the century. The day of Joffrey's wedding.

The day when her imprisonment would end and her and Sandor's future would finally begin.

Missing him hadn't grown any easier during those weeks, despite the numbers decreasing at a snail's pace. She not only missed him physically, although snuggled warmly into bed as she currently was, thoughts of having his firm, warm body next to her, over her, inside of her made her want to cry with painful longing.

She not only missed his company either, talking with him, joking with him or being a target for his quirky sort of humour.

She missed him as one would miss a part of one's body, something vital, something you could not properly function without.

Sometimes, when the pain started to turn unbearable, she daydreamed about what she'd do, what she'd say once she saw him again. There should be not the slightest doubt left to him about how much she'd missed him, how much he meant to her.

She fantasized about how it would be when they made love again. Planned what she'd do, how she'd slowly seduce him, slowly stoke the fire until pure ecstasy consumed them.

As always, at those thoughts, her body clamoured for some sort satisfaction and should it be only the one her own hand could give her. She had done so sometimes at first but in the end she had felt even more alone, even more empty than before and so she had taken to shoving her desire away.

Nine days, she thought again. It really wasn't that much anymore.

Having thus gathered some motivation to get out of bed, she summoned her maids, let them fuss over her and went down to breakfast.

As always, Tyrion was still sitting at the table, clearly already finished eating, and perused some papers.

"Good morning."

"Good morning," he replied, looking up at her, puzzled. "You look... happy."

"I am looking forward to Joff's wedding," she said lightly. While she still kept some very important secrets from him, she tried to be as honest with him as she could.

Once she had told him in no uncertain terms that she did not wish to discuss Sandor or their relationship with him - something Tyrion had since then never tried to do again - their conversations were interesting and stimulating. He seemed to value her opinions and often consulted her on certain matters, especially when it came to all the difficulties resulting from Oberyn Martell's decision to come in company of his mistress.

Sometimes she wondered why he had not yet managed to find himself a wife who truly cared for him. He was intelligent, charming and quite entertaining, caring and considerate, a quality that certainly made him a good partner in the bedchamber as well.

Surely there must be women who would be attracted to such qualities in a man? Especially one as wealthy and highborn as Tyrion Lannister?

"Good for you," he said, chuckling without humour. "I am not looking forward to this at all."

He shoved a bundle of papers over the table.

"Even if he weren't the little prick he is, but just look at all those bills. As if it weren't bad already, but this wedding will ruin the kingdom."

Sansa glanced over the papers while chewing on a buttered bun.

"What does your sister intend to do with two dozen peacocks?"

"Well, apparently we are to have seventy seven courses, and stuffed peacock, decorated with their own feathers, seems to be one of them."

Sansa looked from the papers to Tyrion, noting - not for the first time - the deep dark circles under his eyes, the perpetual resigned sadness in them, the slump of his shoulders.

"Don't you sometimes wish to leave all of this behind?" she asked carefully.

He looked at her, stilling for a moment as he contemplated her question.

"I do almost all the time," he admitted, the same sadness in his voice that was in his eyes. "But the thing is, it won't change who I am - what I am."

Then he grinned that false grin that was his mask.

"So that wouldn't work out too well, would it? Leaving, when I have to take the worst of my problems with me."

He then shuffled his papers into a haphazard stack, bowed to her, bid her good-bye and left without awaiting an answer.

Later in the day, while she sat at the window sewing, Pod shuffled into the room, announcing a visitor.

Sansa jumped from her seat, immediately remembering the last time Pod had made such an announcement. But before she could get too excited, the saw Lord Varys' plump form enter through the doorway.

Pod left and closed the door behind him.

"A lesser man would be quite wounded at the look of disappointment on your face, Lady Lannister," Lord Varys said and took a seat without being offered one, smiling sweetly at her.

"Or should I say... Lady Clegane?"

Sansa felt herself turn to stone. Unable to move, to speak, even to breathe.

When Tyrion had surprised her with heaving learned about her and Sandor, she had been more furious than afraid, more in need of finally being able to acknowledge her relationship to someone than of hiding it.

As if she'd known instinctively that Tyrion would never truly harm her, despite clearly being hurt and disappointed.

With Varys, however, things were different. She had no idea what he would do with knowledge such as this.

"Please do not fear, my lady," the eunuch said softly. "Your secret is safe with me."

Blood slowly came back to her limbs, but her lips still felt stiff when she started moving them.

"That might be so, my lord," she said slowly, "but what will it cost me?"

Varys theatrically put his hand to his heart.

"I am hurt, my lady," he said.

She didn't say anything else, just looked at him. He certainly hadn't just come here to tell her he knew. There had to be something else and she was in no mood to play games. She hoped the look on her face conveyed as much.

With a sigh, Varys shook his head.

"You Starks are all cut from the same cloth," he said but then smiled and this time, it looked almost genuine.

"Your father once asked me who it is I serve," he continued. "And I told him I serve the realm and peace. And I really do. But he never trusted me, he trusted Lord Baelish instead."

He was trying to tell her something, she realized, but while she had begun to sharpen her ears to hidden meanings, always tried to read between the lines, she didn't quite get what he was trying to say.

"Is that why he died?" she asked.

The eunuch sighed again.

"As much as I despise Littlefinger, but even that little weasel did not want Eddard Stark's death. No one did. The only two men responsible for this tragedy are the one who swung the sword and the one who ordered him to."

That was hardly news for her and therefore still left her at a loss what the master of spies could possibly have come here for, brandishing her secret like a weapon. So she tried another line of questioning.

"So, will you tell me who you serve, Lord Varys?"

He smiled and it looked as if this time, she'd asked the right question.

"I serve the one with a rightful claim to the Iron Throne," Varys elaborated, surprising her. "The one who will bring peace and prosperity back to Westeros."

Having her life in his hand apparently emboldened him to divulge secrets of his own that were just as deadly.

"And who would that paragon be?" she asked, honestly intrigued.

"You'll meet her some day, I am sure of it," he answered enigmatically and then waved his hand. "But enough of those things. We cannot talk about the future if we do not see to the present first."

"You asked for a price of my silence, Lady Clegane," he began after a longish silence that Sansa didn't intend t break. "And I can tell you honestly that I will never betray your secret. I have failed to help your father, I will not fail you."

Sansa nodded. Not because she believed him, but to show she was listening.

"I'd like you to believe that I am trying to help you."

Since it was unladylike to snort, Sansa kept looking at him quietly, but he must have sensed her disbelief.

"Not only out of the kindness of my heart," he clarified, "but because the one whom I serve will have need of the last remaining Stark."

Well, of course. Who didn't. It even made sense.

"I knew of your dealings with Clegane from the start," Varys continued.

Nausea curdled in her stomach at the notion that this man and gods knew who else had already known when they had thought themselves safe, thought themselves clever for having evaded disovery.

"Did you never wonder why Clegane could visit you all these weeks with no one ever suspecting anything?"

"He said there was a gap in the roster of the guard's duties," Sansa said. Thinking about it, yes, it had always seemed a bit too easy.

"Not a coincidence."

She swallowed.

"Did you never wonder why no maid ever observed your sudden increase of appetite? Why none of them ever mentioned the black hair they sometimes found in your bedding?"

"I...", she started weakly, but in truth, there was not much to say to that.

"I made sure they didn't talk to anyone but me about their findings," Varys explained, seemingly oblivious to the distress he was causing her.

For the longest time, she had though she suffered from not being able to have their relationship out in the open, from not being able to shout her love from the rooftops as she sometimes wished she could.

But confronted with the possibility of having had witnesses to what she treasured as something solely belonging to them, having someone else hear every whispered confession, every private joke, having seen every kiss and every caress, secrecy suddenly seemed the preferrable option.

"Were you there to witness the wedding, too?" she asked, fighting tears as she did.

"No," he said, smiling once again. "I did not see or hear anything, just made sure no one else was."

That at least, was a bit of a relief.

"Then how did you..."

"I had no more than a suspicion something like this might have happened. You just happened to confirm it."

For a moment, she didn't know if she should marvel at his cleverness or be angry at her own stupidity. Deciding that neither would help her very much, she opted for asking more questions instead.

"Why tell me now?"

"Because - as a friend - I need a favour from you, more than one, I am afraid."

This time, ladylike or not, she did snort.

"I am a prisoner in this house, Lord Varys," she said. "I cannot do anything, I do not own anything..."

"My lady, I would not have come to you if not sure it was well in your power to give me what I ask of you."

Cocking her head, she waited.

"For one thing, I know Dontos Hollard approached you multiple times. Did he ever give you anything?"

It would probably be a waste of time to deny it, she decided.

"Yes, a hairnet I am to wear at Joff's wedding."

"I'd very much like to have it."

She hesitated. That hairnet was part of her way out of King's Landing. Dontos had been more than adamant that she had to wear it, whatever it took.

"I promise to return it in time," Varys assured her, again giving the impression he could read minds.

Sansa stood and walked to the sideboard on which her jewellery box stood and took the hairnet out, handing it to Varys.

He surprised her by not taking it from her but instead unfolding a piece of white silk and motioned for her to drop it into the cloth.

"If what I am assuming is correct," he said. "You'd be well advised to wash your hands very carefully before eating something today."

"Poison?" she asked, aghast.

"Maybe," he said. "I do not know yet."

"Who was it supposed to kill?"

"I do not know that either but I intend to find out."

She nodded, chilled at the thought how easily Littlefinger - it had to be him, according to Sandor - could have used her as a tool for cold-blooded murder. Varys might be right in one regard, trusting that man would be like trusting a snake.

She should tell Sandor about, he would... Pain lanced through her at the realization that no, she couldn't tell Sandor about anything, because she wasn't allowed to see him, to talk to him.

Taking a moment to fight down despair, she eventually turned back to Varys.

"The second favour?"

"I suspect you and Clegane are meaning to flee from here first chance you got," he said, astonishing her with an amount of perception and sagacity even Tyrion had lacked.

"I have an inkling you have been offered to be taken away by Littlefinger at Joff's wedding."

She ground her teeth to keep her jaw from dropping. It wasn't idle talk that the man knew everything. There was no denying he did.

"I would strongly advise not to wait that long and I would be obliged to both of you if you could take Lord Tyrion with you. He needs to travel to Essos. All of you should, actually."

Valiantly trying not to appear too dim-witted, Sansa quickly arrived at the one stumbling block Varys apparently hadn't considered.

"I have no sway over Lord Tyrion's decisions."

"Maybe something will come up to change his mind."

She shook her head, having meanwhile identified another problem, one that had plagued Sandor and her almost from the moment they had decided to flee.

"Even if it did, which I doubt, we do need a ship and..."

Varys cut her off.

"A very good friend of mine has a merchant vessel moored on the docks of King's Landing," he said and despite everything, Sansa felt her hopes soar. "He could sail with the next outgoing tide if I get word to him."

Hope almost swamped her at hearing this. They could be away in a matter of hours if what Varys said was true. And if all this hinged on them taking Tyrion with them, all Sandor had to do was throw him over his shoulder and carry him aboard the ship like a sack of grain.

If only...

Well, if only she could get word to him.

"I'd need to speak to Sandor, maybe something could be arranged."

Vary shook his head.

"If you think about just abducting him, that's not how this is going to work. He has to go willingly."

Remembering their conversation from this morning, the spark of hope she'd felt turned to ashes.

"He'll never agree to this."

Varys stood and put a soft hand on her arm, as if trying to console her.

"Not even those who are always laying the most careful of plans do know what the future holds. Not even Lord Tyrion. He will realize one day that his destiny lies across the sea. Let's hope it's not too late by then."

Apparently not planning to elaborate on those cryptic remarks, he bowed his goodbye and left.

...

Varys wasn't gone for more than a few minutes when Tyrion suddenly stood before her, his face ashen, looking even more terrible than he had this morning.

"Why was Varys here?" he asked, his voice curiously breaking on the last word. Something quite disturbing must be on his mind.

Seeing no reason to lie, she told him.

"He came to tell me he knows about... Sandor and me," she said and to her astonishment, Tyrion almost seemed relieved to hear it.

"That's it?"

"And he wanted to ask a favour," she said.

"Which would be?"

"Talking you into leaving King's Landing with us."

Tyrion rolled his eyes towards the ceiling.

"That again," he said. "He's bugging me about this ever since I told him about you and Sandor," he said, infusing Sandor's name with a healthy dose of disdain.

She opened her mouth to say something, anything. Sandor's and her future might very will hinge on her finding just the right words to convince him. But she hadn't even uttered so much as a word, when he made an angry gesture, forestalling everything she might have said.

"I won't give up on this marriage so easily, Sansa," he said, his tone brooking no objection.

She bit her lips, fighting for composure, telling herself that maybe this just wasn't the right time for this conversation, with him looking as if he had more troubling things on his mind.

"You look... tired, my lord," she said cautiously.

He turned to her again and now the look in his eyes was truly scaring her.

"I have something to tell you," he said very slowly as if the words were dragged out of him against his will.

Dread, cold and deadly, crawled up at her and robbed her of her ability to speak.

Something had happened, something terrible.

"Your brother..."

"No, please," she whispered, somehow knowing what he was going to say.

"Your brother and your mother as well as most of their bannermen have been killed during the wedding of your uncle Edmure to Roslin Frey at the Twins."

Her mind flashed back to the dream she once had, to the disembodied heads lying at her feet.

'Do you think he'd be there to save you? Did you really think he could, when he couldn't even save himself?'

A scream of horror grew inside of her and she pressed both hands to her mouth to keep it in.

"I am so very sorry, Sansa," Tyrion said, walking towards her with an outstretched hand.

She shot upright, her chair crashing to the ground behind her and took a step back.

Then she took her hands from her mouth very slowly.

"Leave, Tyrion," she said, holding on to her composure with her last scrap of strength. "Leave, please."

Chapter Text

Chapter 25

The silence, Tyrion decided after only one day, was the worst.

Not the tears she shed when in another room, not her cries he could hear through the door separating them and not the red-rimmed, swollen eyes out of which she looked at him as he was personally to blame for what had befallen her family.

Every time he spoke, he met a wall of sullen courtesy, as icy and unyielding as the Wall he had once walked in the North. It made him weary, then and now.

So there were no words between them and he knew it was because he wasn't the one she needed to speak to. He wasn't the one she would allow to try and ease her pain.

He wasn't the one she wanted.

For the past weeks, he had somehow fooled himself into thinking things were looking up for them. She had talked to him quite openly, even though she made it clear she didn't want to talk about Clegane, which was fine with him. He didn't want to either, not having quite gotten over what he had learned while talking to the man.

She had shared her thoughts, still oftentimes astonishing him with her insight, her approach to certain problems, always characteristically coloured by compassion, an unwavering sense of justice and a sort of understanding gentleness that had to be unique only to her.

She would have made Joffrey a good queen and a better wife if he'd had the sense to love her, he'd often found himself thinking.

But all of this had vanished without a trace when he'd brought her the news of what had happened to Robb and Catelyn Stark.

She'd not spoken a single word to him since then. Had not shown him her grief and her tears either.

Knowing a bit about how her mind worked, he didn't doubt for a second that she saw the name Lannister written squarely over this whole ugly mess.

She would never forgive him for being part of this family. Not by birth, but by choice.

It wasn't in her to blame him for being born a son of Tywin Lannister, but she had any right to blame him for supporting his nephew, his father and all they stood for by being their servant, their so called "master of coin", by doing everything he could to keep Joffrey on the throne and his father in power.

About a day ago, when she'd asked him if he longed to leave all of this behind, he had thought how it wouldn't change a thing, because he couldn't change who he was.

What he could change, though, what he should've changed a long time ago was which cause he served and which master.

Clegane, it seemed, had been much smarter than him in this regard.

Now, he even sometimes entertained the thought of giving in to Varys' nagging and journey to the Free Cities.

In three years, his cruel nephew would be a man, ruling in his own right and every dwarf with half his wits should be a long way from King's Landing by then.

...

The silence was what finally broke him.

It had taken one more day for him to realize that things would never go back to how they'd been. Because those last two weeks had been just another sort of illusion.

Sansa had never given up on Clegane. How idiotic of him to even think she would, having seen a glimpse of what she felt. Having seen that the man felt at least as strongly.

Her pain, however, was no illusion at all.

The choice he had was to either let her continue in her silent, lonely suffering, or give her what she wanted and needed.

Give her back what he'd taken from her.

Undoubtedly, he'd be even more of a laughingstock should people ever learn what he was about to do. Which man in his right mind would bring his wife's lover to her?

But on the other hand, was his pride worth Sansa's soul? And - in a way - his own?

Sansa had never blamed him for their marriage. On the contrary, she had thanked him for not forcing her. Had thanked him for what should've been common decency.

He wanted to be that man. The man worthy of her gratefulness, maybe even her friendship, someday.

He was sick of being her jailor, her enemy, the obstacle to her happiness.

Maybe he should just quit worrying about what others thought about him.

Let them misjudge him, they already misjudged him anyway.

His worries about how to find Clegane turned out to be unfounded.

The man found him first.

"How is she?" Clegane barked at him in lieu of a more polite greeting, even before Tyrion had quite found his bearings after being ungently plucked off the path he'd been walking.

"How do you think she is?" he scoffed, incensed about Clegane's handling of him.

Murder glittered sharply in Clegane's eyes and his fist tightened on Tyrion's doublet, but he ground his teeth and took a deep breath.

"Did you tell her everything?"

"Of course not!" he said, exasperated. "Spared her most of the details."

Clegane's grip on his garments did not lessen, instead he pushed his face closer.

"I have to see her!" he grated in this peculiar fashion he adopted when trying to keep his voice down. "You have to let me see her."

Considering that this was the whole purpose of him having come to the part of the keep, Tyrion should have just acquiesced and be done with it. But the command in Clegane's voice, the way he still held him imprisoned under this shovel like paw, sparked defiance in him.

"I do not have to do anything, dog," he spat.

The Hound glowered dangerously and even actually growled, but then he suddenly stepped back and took his hand away, making Tyrion stumble a bit as he tried to regain his feet.

When he looked up at Clegane, the man's massive chest rose and fell with laboured intakes of breath as if he had just exerted himself. His hands were balled into fists and he closed his eyes for a moment.

From what he had observed before, Tyrion knew that the Hound was somehow preparing himself to do something that went against his nature, his every inclination.

"Please," he said softly and when he opened his eyes, there was true sorrow in them and a plea so earnest, it touched Tyrion's heart even through all his ire and irritation. "I need to see her."

This, Tyrion realized, was what a man in love would do. Swallow his pride for the sake of the woman he loved.

He waved Clegane's plea aside.

"I was in fact just on my way to fetch you to visit her," he said meekly, dispensing with his own pointless posturing.

Clegane gaze locked to his. But instead of vindication or satisfaction, the concern in his face was now even more pronounced.

"That bad?" Clegane asked.

Tyrion nodded. "That bad."

As usual, she sat in a chair in front of the window, sightlessly staring outside, her face a mask, devoid of emotion.

Grief had given her a haunted, vulnerable look; if anything, it had only made her more beautiful.

He wanted to reach her, to break through the armour of her courtesy and he knew he might very well have done the only thing that would.

"Sansa, I bring a visitor," he announced, trying to sound cheerful.

"Lady Sansa asked not to see anyone, my lord," Podrick said from the side, stepping into his path as if he was actually prepared to throw him and any potential visitor out again if need be.

In this moment, Clegane ducked through the door and even though Sansa could not have seen him, she suddenly flew out of her chair, and with a high-pitched cry that sounded like that of a wounded animal, threw herself into the tall man's arms.

All the time Tyrion had wondered how those two would look together, and it had never occurred to him that instead of grotesque and nauseating, it would actually look as if it was meant to be.

The man whom Tyrion had only ever seen killing and maiming, gently folded Sansa into an embrace, delicately cradling her to his chest like a porcelain doll. His body, his arms and hands, seemingly so crude and ill-fitted to handling something as preciously vulnerable as her, went around her, almost completely shielding her from view as if he was building a wall around her with his body.

Clegane lowered his head to Sansa's until the black strands of his hair mingled with her auburn ones, forming a curtain that warded off curious gazes. The words he murmured to her in his deeply pitched voice were impossible to hear even from only a few feet away.

Sansa was still crying, a keening sound that went through flesh and bone.

Tyrion felt rooted to the spot for a moment, silently staring. When he found his feet again, Clegane lifted his head to look at him.

There were tears in the other man's eyes as he nodded his thanks.

Over the last two days, Sansa had thought she'd dealt with her grief. Accepted that she was the last living Stark now, the last of a bloodline that had existed for thousands of years. She had thought she was ready to move on with the same bravery her brother had shown until the end.

She hadn't tried to shove her grief away, knowing it would become a festering would eventually; but recalled those she had lost, tried to bring their faces, already grown fuzzy with the fog of time, to her memory. To remember the brave, fierce, handsome boy her brother had been. She had thought sadly about how the fact that he was the one intended to be the Stark in Winterfell one day had separated them more than it had bound them, because she had been so keen on leaving her home behind, to find beauty and song somewhere else.

It was easier, if more painful, to remember her mother. The gentle hands she had so often felt when he had brushed and dressed her hair, something she rarely left to the maids. The hands that soothed her through illness and tears brought by all the little dramas and indignities of childhood.

She remembered her voice in all its different cadences from angry to soothing and she'd felt her loss most keenly at the thought that she would never hear that voice again, never feel those hands gently stroking her hair.

After all the tears she'd wept, she had thought she'd come out on the other end, that she could be composed and serene, smiling even, when next she saw her husband.

But when she heard the heavy thumping of his boots, felt his arms close around her and the heat of his body seeping into hers, it was as if she had not even started to deal with the enormity of her loss.

Because once she had felt him, heard his voice, low and soothing whispering into her hair, she felt for the first time in a long while safe enough to give herself completely over to her tortured emotions.

This wasn't how she had envisioned their reunion back when she had been counting days, but there was no holding back the tears, no taming the current of grief that almost literally swept her off her feet.

He gathered her into his arms and sat down on her bed, holding her as tight as he could without suffocating her, stroking her back and arms and hair, patiently listening to her wailing.

When, at last, her sobs died down, he pressed another kiss into her hair.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

She lifted her face to him and he gently wiped at her tear-streaked face, making her wonder just how awful she looked right now.

"I will want that sometime, I am sure," she whispered, her voice barely cooperating. "I'll tell you everything I can still remember about them, every reason I loved them, if only to remind myself. I will not have them forgotten."

He nodded, still stroking her face. She felt greatly comforted that he knew what she meant.

"But I can't just now," she concluded, trying to crawl even closer into his embrace.

If she could, she'd melt into him, become a part of him. Part of his fierceness, his strength and his warmth. So she could be with him always, inseparable as they by right should be.

The pad of his thumb gently traced the contours of her bottom lip and through the haze of her tear-clouded eyes, she saw something else besides care and compassion in his gaze.

He lowered his eyelids and withdrew his fingers from her face, trying to hide from her, but she felt it in the heat of his body, in the way he almost imperceptibly shifted under her.

Her throat closed in on itself at the thought that he would try to shield her from his most visceral reaction to her closeness and her feelings for him, overshadowed by her grief, rushed in with the savagery of a spring flood, clearing away the debris her grieving had left.

She lifted her hand to his face, forcing him to look at her instead of hiding and found that her body not only answered the gentle call of his want, but demanded much more, demanded from her to throw propriety to the wind, demanded to prove that although she had lost so much, she hadn't lost everything. She was still living and still breathing.

Still fighting.

"I need you," she said, voice thick and raw, but gaining strength and conviction. "I want to feel your naked skin on mine and your weight pressing me into the mattress. I want to feel your hands in my hair and your cock inside me and I want to hear your voice in my ear telling me how much you missed me."

The flicker of want in his eyes flared into a blaze of pure desire.

"I'm not sure I can find words for how much I missed you," he said, his fingers once again finding their way to caress her face.

She almost started bawling again, but decided she was done crying.

Instead she turned in his lap and took his face in both of her hands, showering it with little kisses. Kisses on his forehead, his cheeks, his scars, his eyelids, his nose and the corner of his mouth.

"I missed you so much," she said breathlessly between kisses, "all of you… everything."

Wetness was under her lips then, hot and salty, and she kissed it away.

"I still don't know, Sansa," he whispered, his voice as thick as her own, "if you are breaking or making me."

His mouth crashed on hers on the last word and his hands held her to him for a savage, possessive kiss that was exactly what she had wished for.

Linen ripped and laces tore out of their fastenings as they clumsily tried to rid themselves of their clothes with little elegance and no restraint.

They gave up halfway through, deciding that half-bared breasts, a rucked up skirt and unfastened breeches had to do for now.

She sobbed when he pushed inside her with one deep thrust and clung to him with her arms tightly around his neck and her legs cradling his hips as he stilled after he was completely sheathed inside of her.

"Don't think," he gasped, trying and failing to catch his breath. "Don't think it's just this I missed."

"I know," she whispered.

He lifted his head to look at her and she found that yes, she did know. She knew everything from the way he looked at her, from the way his lips twitched and wobbled into something that under different circumstances might have been a smile.

She smiled back just as shakily, when urgency reasserted itself.

A shiver of need ran through her causing her inner muscles to clench around him involuntarily to which he reacted with a pained groan.

"But I did miss it," he breathed against her neck before he started moving again, loving her with vigorous movements that soon lost their rhythm and carried them swiftly to sweet oblivion.

They lay tightly entwined afterwards, catching their breaths, unwilling to let go of one another. At last, though, they separated for the short time it took to undress completely and crawl under the covers to press bare skin against bare skin.

"Was it wrong," she asked quietly, her sense of propriety coming back to her somewhat late and with not much conviction, "to do this so soon... after?"

His hand stroked down her back and she closed her eyes and marvelled at the comforting feeling of rough, warm palms on her skin. If she should be required to make a list of things she'd missed, this would be on it. The feeling his hands on her skin caused her was an answer in itself.

How could something be wrong that felt as if she would slowly wither away and die without it?

"If a loss teaches us anything," he started and she thrilled once again as the vibrations of his rumbling voice shimmied over her skin, "it's that life is a buggering short and fragile thing and you cannot afford to waste even a single moment."

She nodded her head and then pressed a kiss to his skin.

Then she squeaked in surprise when she suddenly found herself flat on her back again, with Sandor hovering over her.

"I missed you, Sansa," he said with so much intensity that a few months ago she would have been afraid. "I missed you so badly it nearly drove me insane." He took a deep breath, leashing what so clearly raged inside of him. "But almost as badly I hated having to wait. To count days, to just sit around endlessly waiting for things to happen, for life to start."

She nodded, knowing what he meant.

He took another calming breath.

"We've spent too much time waiting," he said, but then smiled a little and pushed his hips against her. "Although I'm not saying all of that time was wasted."

She smiled back, meeting his provocative move with one of her own.

His eyes darkened and she could feel him growing hard once again, but he clearly had still something on his mind.

"We have to DO something, Sansa," he said earnestly, "I am done waiting."

"There might be something," she said and then told him about what she had learned from Varys, about all the things she'd talked about with Tyrion.

Suddenly excited about the prospect of fleeing sooner than originally planned, they discussed what to do, how to proceed, how best to take advantage of the possibility Varys had offered.

He needed to talk to Tyrion again, they decided.

Satisfied with their decision, excited and buoyed by hope, they made love again; being slow where they had rushed before, tender where they'd been rough and careless, and thorough where need and urgency had dictated their actions.

She found her release with a sigh of completion and his name on her lips as wave after wave of pleasure rolled through her; he found his with a softly muttered curse and a few intense thrusts that brought the spurt of his seed deep inside of her.

A strange awareness came over her for a short moment afterwards, an age-old knowing of something momentous having happened, but the sensation was soon swallowed by delicious languor.

With his body still covering hers, she felt her consciousness blur and slip, felt all the crying and talking, all the excitement and physical exertion taking its toll.

She closed her eyes.

Only for a moment, she thought.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 26

When next Tyrion saw Clegane, it was almost two hours later. The Hound strolled into Tyrion's study with the unmistakable, soft and loose-limbed step of a man recently sexually satisfied.

While Tyrion wouldn't grudge Sansa the life-affirming act of physical love after the tragedy that had befallen her, he nonetheless didn't enjoy having paraded his wife's infidelity right under his nose.

"They should call me pimp instead of imp," he remarked testily to Clegane who was helping himself to a goblet of wine.

Steel-grey eyes regarded him without blinking.

"How is she?" Tyrion asked.

"Asleep," Clegane answered curtly, giving the impression that was all Tyrion would learn on the subject. But then he cleared his throat and added, "A bit better, I think."

Tyrion nodded, accepting that Clegane had already forced himself to say that much.

"I owe you," Clegane growled after a while.

Tyrion made a dismissive, angry gesture.

"Just see to it that my father doesn't learn about you sleeping with my wife under my own roof," he said. "My sister would probably die of mirth and we couldn't have that, could we?"

Clegane turned from him to stare out of the window. His calm seemed eerie, as if he was a completely different man from the one he used to be. Or the man he had thought him to be. The Clegane Tyrion knew had been so much easier to provoke.

"She's my wife," Clegane said at length, still looking out into the night. "Not yours."

Tyrion snorted.

"You wish."

Clegane spun around to him and glared. For a moment, Tyrion questioned the wisdom of this remark, especially since Bronn wasn't here to protect him. Not that Bronn would've been much of a match for the hound anyway.

But then Clegane found his puzzling calm again and sipped from his wine.

"We married in the godswood before the heart tree as is customary in the North," he elaborated after a while, "a few days after Margery came to King's Landing."

"You just made that up."

He didn't even know why he said that other than being contrary, because it didn't sound made up. It actually made a lot of sense, if he thought about it. It fit with what he knew of Sansa, of her sense of propriety and conduct. It fit with Clegane's fierce protectiveness, with the stones they both carried around their necks... it just... fit.

"Believe what you want," Clegane said, emptying his wine and made to go. "I just thought you should know."

"Why?" Tyrion asked, sounding a bit shrill even to his own ears. "Why should I know? What do you expect me to about this, even if it's true?"

Clegane turned back to him and Tyrion had to resist starting to squirm under the full weight of his iron-grey stare.

"I remember her," he said, voice so deep and low Tyrion had trouble understanding him. "Your wife. The one you married in secret all those years ago."

Tyrion's mouth went dry and for all his usual eloquence, he was unable to produce a single sound. He could only gape in growing horror as the enormity of that quietly spoken statement started to sink in.

"Sansa told me about you having been married before and only when she mentioned a drunken septon and the pigs being witnesses, I remembered."

"You..." Tyrion rasped and swallowed. "You saw Tysha?"

Come to think of it, it would've been much more unusual if he hadn't. If he remembered correctly, Clegane was about two years older than him, had already been at Casterly Rock for a while before that whole episode.

In a motion unusual to him, Clegane averted his eyes.

"I did," he said.

An old rage flared up in Tyrion, something he'd thought he'd forgotten or had put behind him at least.

"So you had a go at her as well?"

The tall man shook his head calmly as if he had not heard the venom in Tyrion's question.

"I was only a squire back then, a green lad who had just recently discovered his cock was for more than taking a piss," he explained evenly. "But even then I had some experience with whores. When they offered her to me... when I saw how...," he trailed off with a slight shake of his head. "I knew she wasn't a whore even before I heard what had really happened. And I just... I couldn't."

Then he lifted his head again, looking at him.

"I, too, am not in the habit of bedding unwilling women," he said slowly, throwing Tyrion's own words back in his teeth and then added more quietly, "I'm not my brother."

He wasn't, Tyrion realized almost as an aside to his jumbled thoughts. Sandor Clegane was nothing like his brother. Thinking them alike was as absurd as thinking he had anything in common with Cersei.

But all that aside, Clegane was still wrong about this. Tysha had been a whore, Jaime had told him so.

"What...," Tyrion started tonelessly, his mind finally catching up to something truly important Clegane had mentioned. "What had really happened?"

Clegane seemed somewhat surprised at the question.

"You don't know?"

"Would I ask if I did?"

Clegane seemed to consider this for a moment.

"You'll not like to hear this."

Tyrion laughed cynically.

"I cannot remember when I last heard something I like, so just tell me what you know."

"Your father had gotten wind of this marriage of yours and nearly collapsed with rage," Clegane began. "He convinced your brother to serve you some bullshit about having hired her for you."

A storm of denial crashed through his mind, hundreds of desperate no's reverberating around in his skull accompanied by the pain of a knife twisting in his gut.

It couldn't be. Not Jaime. Not his own blood, his big strong brother.

When he was small, Jaime had brought him toys, barrel hoops and blocks and a carved wooden lion. He gave him his first pony and taught him to ride. When he said that he had bought Tysha for him, he never doubted him.

Yet words of disbelief or denial never crossed his lips because the truth stared at him slate-grey and honest.

Sandor Clegane might be many things, but the man had no false bone in his body; he was no liar.

Unlike his own brother, it seemed, he thought bitterly while the knife twisted once more.

Tysha, he thought despairingly, my sweet little wife.

"Jaime... Jaime went along with this?" he asked once he was sure that he wouldn't start screaming the moment he opened his mouth.

Clegane shrugged.

"I've no love for your arrogant ass of a brother, but to his defence, it's you, not him, who inherited your father's brains. He probably thought he'd be doing you a favour."

He might have at that. His poor stupid blind fool of a brother.

"Do you know what happened to her... afterwards?"

Clegane's eyes on him seemed to lose their focus, as if he was looking inward, searching for a memory almost fifteen years old.

"They jeered at me for not having taken my chance with her and thought it funny I should be the one escorting her down to Lannisport. The old... your father wanted her on the first ship to leave Westeros that happened to set sail."

A memory came to Tyrion unbidden, of a very tall and lanky squire dressed in mail and leather, mounted on a dark horse. In front of him a slip of a girl with blood still on her thighs, clad in a torn peasant dress, her lovely face swollen and streaked with tears.

Why had he forgotten? Why had his mind twisted and torn that memory until what remained was a deep, abiding hatred for the man who stood in front of him, looking at him with something akin to pity in his eyes?

"I guess you did just that, put her on a ship, I mean," he said, not quite a question. If ordered to do so, this was exactly what Clegane would have done.

The man nodded.

"I did. Spice merchant going to Braavos."

Tyrion buried his face in his hand, fighting the urge to cry. If he started now, he wouldn't know how to stop.

Clegane's voice cut through the quiet.

"I helped her buy some dresses and other things she needed before she boarded," he said. "Made it clear to the captain he was to keep an eye on her."

Tyrion took his hands from his face again and looked at Clegane, much less surprised than he would've been only a few weeks ago. The man had a capacity for kindness rarely found in those of his ilk.

"Did she... say anything?"

Clegane rubbed a hand over his face, suddenly appearing weary.

"I think what happened to her had messed with her head," he said after a long moment of deliberation. "She was barely coherent the whole time. But the few things she said...," Clegane paused again and shot him a glare so full of loathing, Tyrion almost ducked under the force of it. "The girl was broken and bleeding and the only thing she was worried about the whole time was your sorry ass."

Tyrion blinked and blinked again but there was no holding back the wetness seeping from his eyes, no matter how angrily he swiped at the tears running down his cheeks.

The expression on Clegane's face softened a little.

"Ever since then, I couldn't look at you without wanting to smash your face in for what you did to her."

He might have argued that he had been only a boy and what should he have done, but he knew just as the man in front of him did that all of this were only words. He had betrayed his wife and there was no end to the shame he felt.

"And when they gave you my wife...," Clegane continued, still not done poking into the open wound. "You don't want to know what went through my head sometimes."

Despite himself, Tyrion snorted.

"You're right, I don't."

There were a few moments of silence but again it was Clegane who broke Iit.

"What I do not understand," he said. "You spent two weeks with her, if I remember correctly. In some cottage or other. Why did you believe them and not her?"

Tyrion made a wide gesture, encompassing his whole unprepossessing self.

"Why would I doubt him? He was Jaime, and she was just some girl who'd played a part. I had feared it from the start, from the moment she first smiled at me and let me touch her hand. My own father could not have loved me. Why would she if not for gold?"

Clegane looked unconvinced.

"How could I believe she truly loved me?" he said, trying to make the point once again. "Have you looked at me recently?"

The burnt corner of Clegane's mouth twitched in a unsettling manner and suddenly the man took a step towards Tyrion's desk and leaned over on outstretched arms, his face so close to Tyrion's he could smell the wine on the other man's breath.

He had never been so close to that horrible face before and unbidden the question popped in his head how Sansa could stand to look at him, let alone touch and kiss... that.

"You are talking to me about looks?" Clegane inquired insistently, his tone almost amused.

Well, the man had a point.

"At least you're tall and built like a god," Tyrion mumbled before he could leash his errant tongue. Maybe his father was right, that his tongue would be his undoing one of these days.

Clegane reared back as if slapped, his eyes widened, but then he started grinning.

"Careful, imp," he said, mirth lacing his grating voice. "I am a married man, after all."

Overwrought nerves, lack of sleep and troubled emotions were probably to blame for finding that remark all sorts of hilarious. So much so, the tears that came from his eyes were from hysterical laughter.

Clegane joined in, albeit less hysterical, his laughter a bit of a scary sound, but so infectious, it only made Tyrion laugh harder.

It took him quite a while, but finally he calmed again.

Curiously enough, the hilarity had cleared his head, enabled him to think past the unbearable pain of recent discoveries and he found that he might have looked at a good many things from completely the wrong point of view.

So it became just one item on a rapidly growing list of startling discoveries that the man in front of him actually had a sense of humour, probably in addition to a great many other admirable qualities.

"Hold it for a moment, Clegane," he said, remembering something. "That whole episode with Lord Wybald's complaint about you... you knew exactly what you were saying, didn't you?"

Clegane looked genuinely offended.

"Unless I drank too much wine," he declared superciliously. "I always know exactly what I am saying."

"Oh, and the perfume in Trant's armour..."

Clegane let out a short bark of laughter, eyes twinkling.

"Funny story, wasn't it?"

Tyrion chuckled in remembered amusement.

"I bet Sansa loved it."

A wistful expression came on Clegane's face at that, giving a certain softness to his harsh features.

"She did."

This time it was Tyrion who leaned over the table, fixing Clegane with his eyes.

"How do you know she truly loves you?," he asked, not out of malice, but because he needed to know how the man could be so sure, how he had no doubts. "How do you know she doesn't just use you to get out of here? How do you believe?"

Clegane thought about that for a while, but then shrugged and made a gesture he stopped himself from completing. Tyrion could've sworn he'd meant to place his hand over his heart.

"I just know," he said instead. "I trust her."

"As I should've trusted my own wife," Tyrion finished bitterly what had been left unsaid.

"I need to find her," he went on with a newly won sense of certainty. "If she went to Braavos, I need to go there, look for her. I have to leave at once."

Clegane shook his head.

"It's not that easy," he said. "Trust me, I am trying to find a way out of this dunghole for months."

Tyrion opened his mouth to point out he could just have taken a horse, Sansa wrapped in his cloak and ridden out of the gate.

"A way, mind you," Clegane clarified as if having read his thoughts before he gave voice to them, "that doesn't involve getting hounded to death through a land completely ravaged by war."

He was right, of course.

There might be some chance to outrun horses, but no one could outrun the ravens that would begin to fly immediately after a defection of this magnitude would be discovered.

A ship to Essos would be their only chance.

Essos, he thought with a burning ache in his chest. Braavos. Tysha.

"I always thought you two had a plan already in the making," he said, remembering the faraway looks in both of their eyes when he had confronted them with his knowledge about their affair. Which, on second thought, apparently had been no affair at all, but a rock-solid marriage, witnessed by the old gods.

Clegane slightly shook his head and then ran a hand through his lanky hair, involuntarily giving Tyrion another good look at the scarred side of his face. He winced at the thought what it would've taken to cause that kind of terrible injury. Curious that this occurred to him only now, when he'd known the man for more than half his life.

"We had one," Clegane said. "Still have it, truth be told, but we've made wrong decisions in the past..."

Tyrion couldn't supress a snort at that, which made Clegane glower at him.

"We got a lot right between us, as well," he growled at him. "But we made mistakes, too, and waiting around for a ship to sail probably was one of them."

"You have a ship?"

Clegane sighed unhappily.

"Not quite. Do you?"

"No," he said, equally unhappy. "Unless you count the cheese monger's trading vessel that Varys keeps pestering me about."

Not surprisingly, Clegane seemed to have heard that before.

"Why not take his offer?"

"And trust the Spider?" Tyrion asked, so aghast that his voice became annoyingly high-pitched again.

"Why not?" Clegane inquired. "According to Sansa, he knew about us from the start, even helped us without us knowing. If he intended to sell us down the river, he could've done that a long time ago. And I guess he has you by your balls for even longer."

Tyrion pondered that, pressing his fist against his mouth.

"True," he finally said, allowing himself to think of Shae for a moment, of the ugly scene they had when he told her they couldn't see each other again. It had readily confirmed everything Sansa had said about her. "It's just a lot to swallow that he'd be doing this out of the kindness of his heart."

"Of course he doesn't and I am sure there is a price to pay," Clegane said, leaning over the desk once again. "But I for one am desperate enough to pay it, whatever it is."

"I don't..." Tyrion started but was cut off.

"Listen to me, Lannister," Clegane pressed through gritted teeth. "I might just be a dog, but I know when something smells bad. And something here is stinking to the high heavens. Something big and ugly is going to go down at Joff's wedding and I have no inclination for me or my wife to be here to bear witness." He took a deep breath and continued more quietly, "And I have a feeling neither should you."

Tyrion couldn't think. His insides were at war.

Of course there was Braavos - Tysha - begging him to go there, but he was almost petrified at the thought of making another gigantic mistake.

"If something bad is going to happen at the wedding and I'm not here, I'll be blamed for it."

"And you won't if you're there?" Clegane sneered.

Hurtful as it was, but he probably had the right of it.

He sighed, blew out a breath and finally stood up from his chair.

"So Varys' offer it is," he said, more a question than a statement.

Before Clegane could answer, a soft knock sounded from the door to his study.

"I heard my name being mentioned," the eunuch said, walking noiselessly closer. He bowed deeply and tittered at their shocked expression. "So I thought I'd come and spare my lords the trouble of sending for me."

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 27

She floated in a sea of warmth and weightlessness, curiously free of sorrows even though somewhere in the shadows something terrible lurked, but it could not touch her.

The only touch she felt were Sandor's fingers gently brushing her cheek.

"Sansa."

She smiled at him and made a vague sound of content, too relaxed for more.

"Little bird, you have to wake up."

Did that mean she was sleeping?

Months' worth of teaching herself it was dangerous to fall asleep when with Sandor had her bolt upright at once, almost knocking her head against his where he hoovered over her.

"I didn't say there was a fire," he said, chuckling.

She looked around herself, determining that yes, she had fallen asleep - naked - in the very bed she usually shared with Tyrion. The bed in which she had just had carnal relation with her true husband.

"There might as well be," she muttered while jumping out of bed and trying to collect her clothes where they lay strewn and wrinkled on the floor.

"He knows," Sandor said, having apparently divined the reason for her haste, but being himself puzzlingly calm.

It only now struck her that he was already fully dressed.

"How long was I asleep?"

"An hour or two," he said. "Had myself a chat with Tyrion in the meantime."

The words, carelessly spoken as they were, made her forget her purpose.

"And?" she pried, eager to learn every detail of that conversation. "What did he say?"

He didn't answer but let his eyes roam over her instead, taking in every detail of her naked body.

"Can't remember right now," he said huskily, a grin twitching at the corner of his mouth.

Sansa huffed an exaggerated breath, swept her remaining clothes off the floor and vanished behind a wooden screen to dress.

"What did he say?" she demanded again from behind the screen, when she was almost finished.

"Quite a number of unflattering things," he said, clearly trying to imitate her usual way of speaking.

"Sandor," she said menacingly when she was fully dressed and ready to go. "I swear..."

He lifted his hands in mock surrender.

"Alright, alright," he said. "I told him we're married, which he took surprisingly well. Then I almost by accident stumbled over the one thing that made him agree to take Varys' offer."

Sansa had to take hold of his arm to keep herself from tumbling to the floor when enormity of what he'd just told her left her light-headed and disoriented. Was she still dreaming? Was this just a cruel figment of her imagination? A prayer that was constantly on her mind, her most fervent wish turning against her to mock her?

"Is this real?" she asked, lips almost frozen with sudden fear.

He put a gentle hand to her face and gave her a kiss. Only a short, almost chaste one, but his hand was warm on her skin and his lips soft and alive on hers and nothing of this felt like a dream at all.

"It's real," he whispered against her mouth. "We're going to leave, Sansa. We're going to be free."

Shortly after that sweet kiss, Sandor took her hand and led her to Tyrion's study, where not only Tyrion, but Bronn and Lord Varys were awaiting her.

She felt incredibly awkward in the presence of these three men who all knew, who probably all suspected what had happened in the other chamber an hour ago. And while she refused to feel ashamed of it, she acknowledged it would take some time to get used to the idea of not having to hide anymore.

"Please let me start by offering my sincerest condolences on your loss, Lady Sansa," Varys said, taking her hand between his soft ones, looking for once genuinely sorry.

An uncharacteristic firmness then came over his usual soft features as he leaned closer.

"You will have your revenge, that much I can promise," he said with quiet insistence. "And you will have your home back one day."

Tears rushed to her eyes once more at his words. And while she still did not know she could trust this man, it was reassuring that someone else beside Sandor and her believed their future was still in Winterfell.

She swallowed her tears and the dark sadness that threatened.

"Thank you, my lord, your words are much appreciated," she replied courteously. "But as you yourself are wont to say, we have to take care of the present before we can consider the future."

Varys smiled and nodded in agreement.

"You are of course perfectly right," he said.

"Now let me tell all of you quickly what has to be done," he said, turning to the other men. "We have to make haste, so this is going to be very abbreviated by necessity. My dear friend Illyrio Mopatis will fill you in on the details, once you're in Pentos."

Tyrion made as if to say something, but Varys forestalled him with a calming gesture.

"As you all know, the deceased Robert Baratheon tried his utmost to erase each and every man and woman of Targaryen blood. He failed, however, in regard to Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, brother and sister to Rhaegar."

Sansa vaguely remembered her father talking of the youngest of Aerys' children, but had always surmised they were lost as well.

"While Viserys has died, unfortunately, his sister still lives and thrives in Essos, in command of a huge army, reigning over all the cities of Slaver's Bay and in possession of three living dragons."

Every man in the room, even Sandor and the usually so unperturbed looking Bronn, made noises of surprise and disbelief.

"I know, I know," Varys said, lifting his hands. "It sounds a fabrication, but I invite you to see for yourself. You WILL see for yourself, if you take this journey."

"Alas, I won't," Bronn piped up. "Got myself a castle and a wife."

"Preferring Lollys Stokeworth to seeing dragons?" Tyrion asked with a snort.

Bronn shrugged carelessly.

"If what the spider says is true, I'll be seeing those bloody dragons sooner than I'd care to."

Finally, at this point, Sansa's mind caught up with where Varys was going.

"She means to take the Iron Throne back," she stated. "And you want the three of us to help her doing it."

Varys nodded.

"It would be immensely helpful if she had the North at her side," he said, looking at Sandor then, "as well as a fearsome warrior well versed in Westerosi war strategies."

Then he turned to Tyrion.

"And of course a sage and clever advisor who knows the politics of Westeros better than anyone else I could think of."

Tyrion rolled his eyes, but then grinned.

"Flattery gets you anywhere with me," he said, sighing, but then turned serious.

"This is all good and well, but I only agreed to this adventure to find my wife, Tysha. She is my first priority. So it will be Braavos first, not Pentos.

Now it was Varys' turn to sigh.

"I am under no illusion that everyone involved only agrees to this for their own purposes. We've had patience this long, we can have it for a few more weeks. But I trust that you all will honour an agreement that will turn out beneficial to all of us."

None of the present company looked too convinced of the last part, but there were a few cautious nods from everyone, which compelled Varys to clap his hands in pretended glee.

"Well then, off we go!" he exclaimed. "We have about two hours until the next outgoing tide. Lord Clegane will probably want to fetch some belongings from Maegor's first, I presume, so I advise to go there with some haste. Lord Tyrion and Lady Sansa should follow me to the docks, since I know how to get there undetected."

"I am not leaving without Sandor," Sansa stated.

Sandor shifted uncomfortably next to her.

"It's better this way, Sansa," he said cautiously. "I have a few things packed and ready in the stables, I just need to get Stranger and be off. It would be inconvenient to take you with me."

The men in the room, including Varys, audibly winced at Sandor's unfortunate choice of words.

"Inconvenient," Sansa echoed, slowly turning towards her husband, prompting Tyrion of all people to come to Sandor's defence.

"He meant dangerous, Sansa," Tyrion said hastily. "You'd be much safer taking the underground passages with Varys and me; Clegane will catch up with us in no time on horseback."

Slightly mollified, Sansa still looked earnestly at her husband. While she could not express the full extend of her concern for him with all the men looking on, she nonetheless had to make her point.

"If you let yourself get caught at the last minute," she said, poking her forefinger against his chest. "I'll be very cross with you."

When she turned back to the assembled men awaiting her decision, they had all schooled their faces to disinterested passiveness, although she could easily detect some residual mirth in their eyes.

"All right," she said, "I'll go with Tyrion and Varys. I too have my things mostly packed, I'll travel lightly."

...

A mere thirty minutes later, Sansa found herself once again traversing the bowels of the Red Keep, this time with someone who proclaimed himself well versed in the maze's secrets.

They walked silently in the eunuch's wake, heels scraping against stone as they descended. It was very cold in the stairwell, a damp, bone-chilling frostiness that sent Sansa to shivering.

"What part of the dungeon's are these?" Sansa asked to distract herself.

"Maegor the cruel decreed four levels of dungeons for his castle," Varys replied readily. "On the upper level there are large cells where common criminals maybe confined together. The second level has the smaller cells where highborn captives are held. They have no windows, but torches in the halls cast light through the bars. On the third level, the cells are smaller and the doors are wood. The black cells, men call them. That was where your father was kept, my lady."

Sansa shivered even more than before at the tale. At the thought of her father being confined in this damp, cold darkness.

"But there is a lower level still, meant for torment," he continued quietly, reaching for her hand. "We are on the fourth level. Please give me your hand, my lady, and hold on to the hand of lord Tyrion as well. It is safer to walk in darkness here, there are things you do not wish to see."

They walked for a while in the smothering darkness, until Tyrion voiced the thought Sansa had as well.

"You could kill and leave us here and no one would know where to look for us."

Varys tittered.

"I could at that," he admitted easily. "But it would rather defeat my purpose, wouldn't it?"

"Why do you want me out of Westeros so badly," Tyrion kept insisting. "And don't serve me that bullshit again about me being the smartest man around."

"You are way too smart for your own good," Varys replied, giggling once again. "You already saved an unsalvageable situation once with that clever plan of yours for the battle on the Blackwater. I rather have that cleverness serve my cause than those of the Lannisters."

"Hmpf," Tyrion replied to that and was quiet afterwards.

"What about the hairnet?" Sansa thought to ask when the silence started bothering her again.

"Oh, that!" Varys exclaimed. "I forgot to tell you that I am unfortunately unable to return it to you. I showed it to Lady Olenna Tyrell, telling her I had found it in the possession of a thieving maid, and was most surprised when Lady Olenna claimed very insistently that it had been stolen from her. I had no other choice than to leave it with her."

"What are you talking about?" Tyrion inquired.

"I was given a hairnet a while ago from Dontos Hollard, working as I learned for Littlefinger," Sansa explained. "I was to wear it at the wedding."

"Why?" Tyrion asked.

"Lord Varys suspect it contained some poison."

"It did," Varys confirmed. "A poison that kills almost instantly."

She barely dared to ask the next logical question, but Tyrion beat her to it.

"Who was it supposed to kill?"

"Who better to kill at a king's wedding than the king?" Varys said and Sansa stumbled when she heard it. They'd planned on making her an accessory to regicide, the Tyrells and Littlefinger, probably with the goal of blaming all of it on Tyrion in the end.

Tyrion was eerily quiet for a few moments, probably thinking along the same lines.

"Of course," he said then, almost inaudible. "It makes a terrifying lot of sense."

A light appeared ahead of them, too dim to be daylight, and grew as they hurried toward it. After a while they could see it was a doorway, closed off by another iron gate. Varys produced a key.

They stepped through into a small round chamber. Five other doors opened off the room, each barred in iron. There was an opening in the ceiling as well, and a series of rungs set in the wall below, leading upward.

The juncture was otherwise empty, but on the floor was a mosaic of a three-headed dragon wrought in red and black tiles.

"We are below the tower of the hand," Tyrion suddenly stated. How he could know was a mystery to Sansa. If the men left her here, she'd never find her way out.

"Yes," Varys said, opening a long closed door that screamed in its hinges. "This will take us out to the harbour."

Tyrion walked to the ladder and put his hand on the first rung.

"This will take me up to my bedchamber," he said, a faraway, cruel look in his eyes.

"Your lord father's bedchamber now," Varys corrected.

"How far must I climb?"

"Tyrion," Sansa protested when she finally grasped why he was asking the question.

"My lord, there is no time," Varys came to her aid. "We must go."

"I have business above," Tyrion replied coldly, as if he had not even heard them. "How far?"

"Two hundred and thirty rungs, but whatever you intend..."

Sansa turned to Varys, aghast. Why ever was he telling him that when he didn't want him to go?

"And then?"

"The tunnel to the left, but hear me..."

"Varys!", she cried, but whatever it was they played out before her eyes could seemingly not be stopped.

"How far along to the bedchamber?" Tyrion continued asking, foot already on the ladder.

"No more than sixty feet, keep your hand on the wall, the bedchamber is the third."

"Varys, why?" Sansa asked, horrified.

"This is folly, my lord," Varys said, but it seemed but a token protest. "You are risking all of our lives."

Tyrion turned again and gave Sansa a sad, apologizing look.

"This is something I have to do," he said to her and then looked over to Vary. "Take Lady Sansa to the harbour and sail when the tide is right. If I am not back by then, sail without me. At least half of your plan will still be a success, because should I be caught, I will certainly be no help to the Lannisters anymore."

Varys inclined his head, took her hand and all but dragged her away from the five-doored chamber.

The stink of rotting fish and filthy salt-water told them they were walking in the right direction long before they arrived.

Sansa stayed sullenly silent.

True, Varys was hopefully still leading her away from the dreadful life she had lived in this city, but she still did not understand why he had not kept Tyrion from leaving.

"There is something else I need you to know before we part, my lady," Varys said when they arrived at the ship that seemed to be their destination.

She could barely discern his face in the dim light of the few lanterns on the ship's side.

"You think you have one brother left, the one who serves on the Wall," he began and when Sansa gasped in terror, he shook his head. "Jon Snow is still alive, but he's not your brother but rather your cousin, born of the love between Rhaegar and your aunt Lyanna."

She turned to him fully, ripping her hand out from where he still held it in his.

"You do not have to believe me just yet," the eunuch went on. "There will be proof enough where you are going, but there is another favour I have to ask of you on behalf of the queen."

"Which favour?"

"The boy might be a Targaryen, but from what I heard of him, he is most of all a Stark, honourable and very stubborn. It might take someone who knows him well to convince him that his fate might not lie with the Night's Watch anymore once the Queen returns."

Sansa sighed. As if she would be the one who could convince Jon of anything. She barely knew him and at the moment felt as if she didn't know him at all.

"I was never close to him, never loved or knew him as a sister should," she admitted. "But I owe you and your queen to try my hardest to do what you ask in return for the great gift you've given me this night, Lord Varys, for which I will be eternally grateful," she said, taking his hand once more. "And I thank you for protecting Sandor and me. I bid you farewell, my lord."

"I am aware you do not trust or even like me and this is my lot in life, Lady Sansa," Varys replied softly, still holding on to her hand. "But let me tell you that your greatest gift lies in inspiring love and loyalty even in the hearts of men for whom feelings as those are a liability." Then he lifted her hand and placed a courtly kiss on her knuckles before bowing deeply. "Farewell, my lady. May the gods protect and guide you on your way."

...

SANDOR

After weeks upon agonizing weeks of waiting, everything suddenly happened so quickly, it nearly made Sandor's head spin.

Following Tyrion's surprising decision, events had toppled over one another.

He had hastened back to the stables to get Stranger and the carefully hidden possessions he had planned on taking with him.

Sansa and Varys had already arrived when Sandor arrived on Stranger's back, while the imp was curiously missing.

Not heeding Varys' pleas to be inconspicuous and quiet, Stranger had kicked up a fuss over being brought aboard the merchant's ship and everyone had wrung their hands in despair and given him all sorts of useless advice. But even that hurdle had eventually been taken and at present Stranger was happily munching fresh hay down in the ship's holding.

The ship's captain had shown them to their quarters; a cabin that - while relatively small - boasted the luxury of a big bed, and only when the door closed behind the man did he have at least room and time enough to breathe.

At least long enough before breath was once more knocked out of him by Sansa who flew into his arms, winding her own tightly around him.

"We've made it," she whispered into his tunic. "At last we've made it."

He was loathe to remind her that they were far from being in the clear, that every moment Gold Cloaks could board the ship, but at that moment, the ship groaned and lurched, the tell-tale sign of the anchor having been lifted and the lines reeled in.

"We're on our way," he said, his mind still calculating how long it would take until they were truly at a safe distance from King's Landing.

Sansa must have sensed his preoccupation, because she drew back a little and looked up at him a gentle, loving smile on her face.

"All will be well," she said, lifting her hand to tenderly touch his face. "I can feel it."

He turned his face into her caress and pressed a little kiss into her palm.

"I hope you're right," he said, putting his hand behind her head to draw her in for a kiss. A kiss that left him primed and almost ready to forget any danger they might still be in.

"I...," he began, gently extricating himself from her embrace. As much as he wanted to forget everything around them, they had paid dearly for not paying enough attention before and he would not make the same mistake again.

It just wouldn't do to be caught literally with his pants down should the ship be boarded.

"I've to go watch the situation a while longer," he whispered against her lips, as unwilling to postpone what she had in mind as she was. "But we will definitely make a lot use of that bed over there on this voyage."

He could feel her smile, could almost taste it on his tongue as she kissed him once again and he knew that she understood.

"Well, then I guess the little bird is left to prepare the nest," she said with a put-upon sigh, "and the hound will prowl the deck and be on his guard."

He gave her an exaggerated bow, still chuckling at her use of the names they once had for each other, and left the cabin.

...

When he made his way over the ship's deck, seeing the seamen quietly at work trying to get the ship up to full speed, only a lone figure stood at the ship's stern, barely able to look over the railing.

"I though neither you nor Sansa would come up for air for the next several days," the dwarf quipped, but their was no rancour in his voice, he sounded almost amused.

"We surely won't," Sandor said, allowing himself a quiet, self-satisfied laugh. "But I thought it precipitous to celebrate our freedom just yet."

"You think they might still follow us?"

Sandor tried to gauge the expanse of night-black water that stretched between the ship and the lights of King's Landing, but it was hard to say if anyone would still try to follow them.

He shrugged.

"We're probably too far already for them to give chase," he said, "but knowing your family, they might still think to send someone after us. I'll be more at ease once we cannot see the city anymore and it's daylight again so we can better see what's after us."

Tyrion shook his head.

"They might be too preoccupied once they find that the Hand of the King is dead."

Sandor felt his jaw drop.

"You killed your father?" he asked and it unintentionally came out like an accusation.

Tyrion turned and looked at him.

"In my situation, would you have acted differently? If it had been Sansa?"

It took no thought at all to answer that question.

"No," he said, thinking of the blood that was still owed him and his sister. Of the revenge he might never have the chance to take, now that he left.

Curiously enough, the need to kill Gregor had somehow dimmed over the last weeks. Not vanished, just lost its painful, burning intensity.

Gregor would die, that was a given. Maybe not on Sandor's own sword, maybe he would find a violent end before, he did not much care anymore, but if they ever came back to Westeros to find his brother still alive, he would end him. For revenge for one thing, but even more than that, to keep his wife safe from the monster.

He was drawn from his dark thoughts when Tyrion cleared his throat.

"Spoke with Varys while we walked here," he began. "There was a plot to murder Joff at the wedding and since they planned to involve Sansa, suspicion might have fallen squarely onto me. There would have been no way for anyone to save me."

The statement didn't invite a reply, so Sandor kept silent, mulling over what he had just heard. He'd known something ugly was in the making for the wedding, but for Littlefinger and - as he suspected - the Roses to come up with regicide... well, they certainly didn't lack ambition.

"So I guess what I wanted to say was...," Tyrion spoke up again. "I owe you. For telling me the truth about Tysha, for taking care of her as you did. For convincing me to go. I meant to thank you."

Sandor nodded.

"Well," he said, "I guess that means we're even now."

Another few moments went by with them staring at the slowly vanishing lights of King's Landing.

"Do you think it will all work out as Mopatis and Varys have planned?" Tyrion asked then. "The dragon queen coming back to retake the Iron Throne and all that?"

"Might be," he said. "Could be. I don't really care. I'll do as they asked me to and swear my allegiance to her, because they're owed that much. I'd be swearing allegiance to the bloody Stranger if I have to if it means keeping Sansa safe."

He waited for Tyrion to call him a traitor or at least selfish and unprincipled, but the little man's thoughts had run in a completely different direction.

"Never took you for a man who could fall in love like that," Tyrion said, chuckling.

Sandor barked a surprised laugh that sounded almost impossibly loud in the silence of the night.

"You're not the only one," he said.

It was true enough. Sansa had turned his life around in ways that would probably take him years to fully understand. Years he was looking forward to.

Tyrion turned to him, mismatched eyes twinkling.

"Go down to your wife, Clegane," he said, winking. "I'll not find any sleep tonight anyway, I'll keep watch and get you in time to put your breeches back on should something come up."

Sandor didn't need to be told twice.

When he came back into the cabin, he found that his little bird had truly built herself a comfortable nest out of the pillows, linens and covers provided, curled up under the blankets and fallen asleep.

Thinking about it, he felt rather tired himself. The sun would be up in about two hours, and he hadn't slept a wink this night and not much during the nights before.

He shed his armour and clothes as quietly as he could manage, silently amused that this would be the first time he went to bed with Sansa for no other purpose than to sleep.

His purpose was foiled however, when the ship jumped at being hit by a larger wave and he was thrown against a wall. He cursed loudly before realizing that maybe he shouldn't, rousing Sansa from her slumber.

"Mhhmmm, you're back," she mumbled sleepily, pulling the blanket away that covered her to reveal the sumptuously naked body beneath.

"You're tired, Sansa," he said, trying to be sensible. "I am, too, maybe we should just sleep."

Sansa gave him a lazy smile and let her gaze boldly wander down his body.

"You do not look tired," she replied, pointedly looking at his erect cock.

He chuckled and made his way carefully to the bed, mindful now of the ship's incessant rocking.

"The day I am not growing hard at the sight of your naked body," he growled, "will be the day I am dead."

Pleased, she smiled at him even more invitingly and then drew her knees toward her a little and let them fall wide apart, brazenly showing him what lay pink and glistening with wetness between her legs.

"I've been waiting for you," she whispered and reached out her hand; an invitation and a welcome.

Crawling over her, pushing inside and slanting his mouth over hers for a deep, passionate kiss was one single move, done without thinking, driven only by the need for being as close to her as he could, feeling her warm and alive under him, around him. Hearing her sigh his name in delight and feeling her body hold and cradle his as if it was her sole purpose to please him.

The ship's steady movements rocked them together without him having to move at all. Instead he concentrated on kissing her, plundering her mouth, showering her face with kisses, nipping at the sensitive skin below her ear and gently sucking on her earlobe, all of this eliciting the sweetest of reactions from her.

They were both without urgency, without the need to make the most of the time they had, and so they followed the ships movements with their own, patient and gentle and letting release take them when it would, undulating through them endlessly with every new wave until they were both spent and satisfied.

He rolled to his side taking her with him, still half inside her, and covered them both with a blanket to ward off the early morning chill.

She placed a kiss on his chest before pressing her face against him and he cradled her closer still when he felt the trickle of hot wetness down his skin.

But she wasn't shaking and sobbing, so he didn't worry because he knew by now that her heart was sometimes just so full, it made her eyes overflow. He knew because he felt it, too.

"You can sleep now," he whispered, stroking over her back.

"Yes," she whispered back. "Isn't it wonderful?"

Yes, maybe that was the right word for it. Wonderful that they could just fall asleep together without worry. That tomorrow they'd wake in each other's arms and it wouldn't mean their death.

That each day afterwards, he could walk with her in the light of the day and no one would even so much as lift an eyebrow. He could call her his lady wife and it wouldn't be a crime.

He could put his arms around her and kiss her in public if he wanted to and he could glare and glower at everyone who looked at her the wrong way.

From now on, they wouldn't just have that one hour in the heart of the night; they had the rest of their lives.

...

THE END

Chapter Text

Tale As Old As Time

by Christine of Tarth

*note: Christine of Tarth teaches medieval history at the university of Oldtown and is todays' leading specialist on the era between the reign of Aerys II and Daenerys I. She has written a number of highly regarded books on the subject, such as "The Iron Throne" and "The War of the Five Kings" but is equally well-known as author of popular historical novels like "The Winter Rose: A Love Story".

In this article, Christine of Tarth writes about a historical sensation that had made it to the front pages of most of Westeros' newspapers during the past weeks.

...

Long before I knew that I would one day be a history professor, I knew that there was a reason the word "story" is part of "history".

Because for me, history is a tapestry woven out of countless of stories. Stories of greed and hatred, of bravery and heroics, of loyalty and - maybe most import of all - of love.

Many of those stories we know, but there is one of which the ending always eluded us, thus staying intriguing for many centuries.

We all know the tale of Sandor and Sansa, have heard about them in school (with more or less enthusiasm) when we read Richard Throwsapples heart-rending play "Sandor and Sansa" which has the lovers committing a double suicide in the end.

We've seen the Waltney's animation movie "The Maiden and the Bear" (from which I stole the title to this article) that gave them a happy ending - a fact that back then was heavily frowned upon by serious historians.

But we never knew what really happened, what had been at the core of this fabled relationship and whether or not the union was a happy one.

Historians have been convinced for a long time that it wasn't.

Historical sources were unanimous about Sansa Clegane (born to the House of Stark) being one of the most beautiful women of her time, well-educated, kind and courteous.

Her husband, however, is equally without contradiction reported as not only being a big brute of a man, scarred and ugly, but a conscienceless butcher who paid no mind to the worth of an individual life.

It didn't seem feasible that Sansa Stark consented to this marriage or was happy with it.

Subsequently, last century literature is full of dire stories of fair maidens being brought to their ruin by dark and violent men, a warning to girls of the better society to keep to the rules and teachings of their elders and accept the matches made for them.

The opinion that Sansa Clegane was a victim of an abusive husband, forced to live in a union socially beneath her and bearing the man she hated half a dozen children became so popular over the last decades, that we nowadays speak of the "Sansa Syndrome" when it comes to women who cannot free themselves from abusive and unhealthy relationships.

All this, however, has been disproved just a few weeks ago with a sensational discovery.

As often when it comes to important scientific discoveries, coincidence played a big part.

A couple of weeks ago, a violent storm devastated the region around White Harbour City, destroying in its wake extensive parts of the picturesque ruins of the medieval Manderly Castle.

While clearing away the debris, working crews found a heavy oaken chest, carefully wrapped and sealed, which apparently had been walled in somewhere.

After being brought to the archaeological department of our university and opened with the greatest possible care by specialists, we found that instead of gold and diamonds, the chest contained riches far more valuable to us historians.

Letters. Hundreds of letters, some of them already fallen to dust, some crumbled or with writing that had turned illegible over the last 900 years.

But some of them, written with good ink on durable, costly material, were still in surprisingly good shape.

All of these letters were addressed to one Lady Elenor Manderly, born Elenor Clegane, the daughter of Sansa and Sandor Clegane.

Lady Elenor must have been a very diligent correspondent. She maintained communication with almost all the major houses of Westeros at the time, many of whom the Cleganes were connected to by blood.

She was in contact with the Lannisters of Casterly Rock ("Uncle Tyrion"), the children of Lord and Lady of Tarth, the Targaryens (both the Queen herself and Jon Targaryen and his children), the Baratheons and of course the Starks.

Her aunt Arya had become Lady Baratheon, courtesy of the "Bastard Law" which allowed her husband to claim his birthright as Robert Baratheon's son. While the law had been specifically created by Queen Daenerys with Jon Targaryen in mind (the father of King Benjen I.), more than just these two men profited from it.

But by far the most letters she received from her mother.

Almost every single letter Sansa Stark wrote dispels the preconceived notions we had about the relationship she had to her husband.

A woman of her time, she would never have divulged intimate details of her marriage to her own daughter, but it's the little things here and there that give the impression of Sandor and Sansa Clegane having shared a loving relationship.

Many remarks like the following are to be found:

Spring has finally come to the Neck, and I am so glad for it. This morning, your father brought me the first violets he had found blooming on the moors. I think I teared up a bit when he held them out to me in his big hands and I made sure he knew how much I valued his gift.

And instead of suffering from "Sansa Syndrome", the Lady Clegane seemed a resolute matron who led an efficient household with iron rules to which even her intimidating husband had to bow.

I was finally done with spring cleaning in the new hall we've built last year, just taking some refreshments with the maids who'd been diligently at work with me, and you wouldn't believe what your father did. Having been out hunting with some of the men-at-arms he came back, covered to his neck in mud and made to stomp into the hall and sit on the freshly scrubbed benches.

I am quite sure his ears are still ringing from the scolding I gave him.

I could probably cite each and every letter for more details, but the most impressive - the most heart-rending proof of what Sansa Clegane felt for her husband is the long, detailed letter she wrote to her daughter when she informed her of her father's passing.

I will miss him like a vital part of my body. Every breath I take will be filled with pain. He was the blood in my veins and the air in my lungs, he was my heart and my soul and at the moment I cannot fathom how I should go on living without him.

I will, of that I am sure, because I know he would want me to, would want me to take care of our children and grandchildren for as long as I am able and in this I will find the joy that life has left for me, but with my loss so fresh, I feel as if the sun has vanished forever from my life.

As heartbreaking as those lines are; from a scientific perspective, the pages following the description of Sansa's feelings are far more interesting. Maybe to deal with her grief, Sansa Clegane describes to her daughter the various milestones of her relationship to her husband, although Elenor certainly knew many if not all of the facts detailed there.

There are some astounding discoveries we made when reading this account.

While we knew that the pair had come to know each other in King's Landing (they'd first met in Winterfell, though), we always assumed that Sandor Clegane, after he kidnapped her, forced her into marriage during their travels to meet with Queen Daenerys, maybe even in consequence of having raped and impregnated her.

In truth, though, they had already married in King's Landing in a secret, ancient and quite romantic ceremony after having hopelessly fallen in love with one another.

This explains another mystery we hadn't been able to solve.

The wedding register of the Sept of Baelor records a wedding between Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark, later annulled on grounds of both partners having already been wed to still living spouses at the time.

While we knew about Tysha Lannister, it seemed puzzling how Sansa Stark could have married anyone right under the nose of King Joffrey, least of all a man she didn't want.

After having fled King's Landing with the aid of Lord Varys (more on his role in the grand scheme of things can be read in "The Iron Throne") the couple together with Tyrion Lannister went to Braavos in search of Tyrion's long lost first wife.

The search was successful and quick, reuniting Tyrion not only with his wife but with his daughter Lanna. (Tyrion and Tysha Lannister had three more children, two daughters and one son.)

They were guests of Illyrio Mopatis in Pentos for a few weeks to rest after their journey from Braavos.

During the next phase of their travels, Sansa discovered that she was pregnant.

She gave birth to the couple's first son Eddard at Daenerys' court only a few weeks after they arrived there.

Since the journey was apparently not without it's dangers, complications and challenges, Sansa's pregnancy must have been a great source of worry for Sandor Clegane.

She writes:

"Your father's hair was raven black when we started from Pentos. When finally we arrived in Meereen, a number of strands had turned white and with every child I gave him, his head turned whiter still."

Queen Danerys, who at the time already knew she would remain childless, took to the infant immediately and - still in Essos - declared him the future Lord of Winterfell, the one who would carry the name Stark despite being born a Clegane.

This information clears a conundrum that had confounded historians for centuries.

Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark's father, had been a pivotal figure in Robert's rebellion as well as the man whose beheading started the war of the five king.

Documents mentioning the reign of a Lord Eddard Stark in Winterfell decades after the war of the five kings had therefore always lead to confusion and the question whose descendant that man might have been or if he had been a Stark at all.

The current duke of Winterfell, Anthony Stark, who can trace his bloodline all the way back to the second Eddard Stark, had gone to great expense to prove by genetic analysis, that the second Eddard Stark is genetically very close to the Starks who reigned in Winterfell before the war of the five kings.

While this answered a few questions regarding the ducal bloodline, it hadn't quite cleared up where that man had been coming from, especially since the two of the first Eddard Stark's sons, Bran and Rickon were still alive and should have inherited the title instead.

Rickon Stark, as we know now, became Lord of Skagos and Warden of the Far North by royal decree.

Another mystery Lady Elenor's chest of letters has cleared, even though the fate of Bran Stark will probably forever remain shrouded.

The next phase of Sandor and Sansa Clegane's life is part of well-recorded history. They went with Daenerys to take King's Landing and subsequently all Houses of Westeros swore allegiance to the new queen.

Winterfell was freed from Bolton's occupation, both Lord Bolton and his bastard son ending as Dragon fodder according to Sansa's account.

"I saw so many of those burned who wronged us, Littlefinger when Daenerys went to the Vale, the Boltons and many more, but I never managed to witness one single of those executions without getting violently sick. One probably has to be a Targaryen to withstand the stench of burning flesh, because even Tyrion could not stomach it. Your father had very early on asked the queen to be spared having to attend these affairs. He told me his pride might survive begging the queen for this favour, even give her the true reason for it, but not turning into a quivering, sobbing mess at having to witness someone being burned alive."

After the liberation of Winterfell, the Cleganes took residence there and rebuilt the castle. The family lived there until their first son came of age and got married (at the tender age of sixteen).

In Winterfell, Sansa gave birth to three more children, all of them surviving into adulthood.

The four Clegane children were:

Eddard, whom I already mentioned; Florian (clearly it had been Sansa Clegane who was in charge of picking her children's names), the letter-writing Elenor and a third son named Trystan.

Florian Clegane inherited Clegane Keep. The queen had ordained the keep to be Sandor Clegane's by right, but Sandor Clegane's opinion on this, as his wife remembers it, was as follows:

"If someone wants me back at that cursed place, he has to gag and bind me and then I'll still be putting up a fight."

So, apparently to Tyrion Lannister's great concern (he being the liege lord to any future lord of the keep), the keep and lands fell to ruin and disrepair. Tyrion Lannister must have been glad indeed when Florian Clegane claimed it when he turned eighteen, because he gave his newest bannerman his youngest daughter to wife.

Trystan Clegane, as the correspondence suggests, seemed to have been the black sheep of the four children. There was a long-standing disagreement in the family that began shortly after Elenor's marriage (when Trystan was about twelve years old).
Lady Sansa frequently complained to her daughter about the strife between father and son, but seemed clearly undecided whether or not to take sides in the conflict.

In later letters, there is no mention of any problems anymore so apparently things had been resolved at some point.

Trystan Clegane inherited the keep and lands of Moat Cailin which had been the Clegane residence ever since Eddard ruled Winterfell in his own right.

It is to Trystan Clegane historians attribute the draining of the swamps and marshes in the Neck, turning them into sprawling grazing grounds for horses and sheep.

To this day, the horses bred in the stables of the Counts of Moat Cailin are the most renowned racing horses on the continent. It is not completely unlikely that the blood of Sandor Clegane's famous steed Stranger still runs through the veins of those beautiful creatures.

Trystan also seemed to have been the first one to suggest to his eldest brother to build "The Necklace", the immense wall separating the north from the south, even if it was his great-grandson who built it.

While not needed during Daenerys' peaceful reign and long afterwards, the mighty bulwark eventually played an important role in the many conflicts that ravaged Westeros over the centuries.

To Trystane Clegane also fell the task of building the crypt (still existing today) for both his parents, where Sansa Clegane found her last resting place in her 72nd year, having outlived her husband by almost twenty years.

As she had written on the occasion of her husband's death, she devoted the rest of her life to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of them carrying Lord Clegane's first name.

This - at long last - is the true account of the tale of Sandor and Sansa.

I cannot adequately express how glad I am to have had the privilege to be one of the first to see these letters.

Not just because of the breakthrough in historical research, not just because of the many questions they answered, but also because it's a wonderful story of true love.

In our modern world where much too often we look at things with cynicism, pessimism and disbelief it is a heartening, an uplifting thought that even all those many years ago, even back then when life was so much harder, in times when tradition and social strictures regulated the dealings between men and women, true love not only existed, but prevailed.

Chapter Text

Epilogue II: Trystan

Sandor grinned to himself at the sight of the young man walking towards him.

A bit taller than he was, clad in shining mail, dark leather and a splendid grey cloak befitting the lord of Winterfell, with an not unattractive albeit somewhat harsh face he had had the misfortune of inheriting from his sire, Eddard Stark cut an imposing figure.

Or would have, had it not been for the little five year old girl, clad in a bright blue dress, he held on his arm who held all his attention.

Sandor wondered if he'd looked like that back when he had carried his own children around everywhere. Quite probably he'd made even more of an incongruous display what with his ugly face.

Fortunately, neither his children nor his grandchildren had ever minded, had ever been scared or afraid. Once their curiosity was satisfied ("happened during a fight"), they didn't even seem to notice the scars anymore.

"Grandpa!"

The girl all but jumped from her father's arms and barrelled toward him in a swirl of blue skirts and he caught her in his outstretched arms and twirled her around, having her squeak with delight.

How easy it was to please the little ones, he thought with an inward sigh. If only it could always stay that simple.

"Isn't my dress very pretty?" little Catelyn inquired once he was done greeting her in proper grandfatherly fashion.

"It's gorgeous, poppet," he said with all the gravity befitting such a compliment. "You'll be the prettiest girl around."

Catelyn accepted the praise as her due with a gracious nod and a wide smile.

"Has aunt Elenor arrived already?" she asked then. "I'd so like to see the new baby."

Elenor had indeed already arrived a few hours ago. It had become a family tradition to come together to celebrate Sansa's nameday and as always he was thrilled as much as Sansa was to have their ever growing family reunited under their roof.

"Yes, your aunt is upstairs in the solar with your grandmother," he informed her. "They're admiring the little one."

Catelyn beseechingly looked at her father. "Can I go, father?"

Eddard nodded while Sandor motioned to a nearby maid and bid her to take Catelyn to the solar.

"I'm not supposed to say anything, but Bethany has some interesting news, too," Eddard said before Sandor could ask him how things were going.

He lifted his eyebrows at hearing this. At twenty four years of age and married for eight of it, Eddard was three times a father already, the youngest not even out of swaddling clothes.

"You do not have to repopulate the North all by yourself, you know," he said, smiling, while clapping his son on the back in congratulations.

The tips of Eddard's ears coloured a little while he otherwise strove to appear unfazed.

There was joy in the thought that all his married children had made good matches that nonetheless weren't devoid of love. Very early on, when Eddard was still a toddler, Sansa and he had decided they would let their children decide for themselves whom they intended to marry.

Eddard had married a daughter of house Umber, a splendid political choice which was still made from inclination.

"Look who's talking," Eddard grumbled in a voice not unlike Sandor's own.

"Stopped at four," Sandor said, chuckling. And a good thing, too, he thought a bit more darkly to himself, reminded of his youngest.

They changed the subject then, talking a bit about northern politics and all the things the coming of summer held in store for them, when a flash of red caught their attention.

"Isn't that a mop of red hair I am spying there?" Eddard asked, his features lighting up.

Instead of the stern face of the lord of Winterfell, he now wore the face of the boy Eddard, delighted at having spied his younger brother.

"Florian, you ugly good-for-nothing, show yourself!"

His attempt at jumping out at them from behind some corner obviously foiled, Florian sauntered toward them with a wide grin on his face.

Sandor's second son was as much a Tully as any child of his could be. With his head of russet curls, fine features and startlingly blue eyes, he had women sighing over him practically from the cradle. Charming, smart and witty, the boy had been able to talk anyone into doing anything he wanted, including getting his own siblings into all sorts of mischief.

Florian had arrived two days ago, only in the company of a few knights.

"So you're here alone?" Eddard asked after having greeted his brother with a hearty embrace and inquired after the health of Florian's pregnant wife.

Back when Sandor had had news of his first grandchild being on the way, he had thought that with time the secret thrill he felt every time at seeing his family grow and spread like this would diminish. But he still felt a spark of delight at the thought that his second eldest would soon have his second child.

"Left Joanna and Brandon at the in-laws on the Rock," Florian said. "I wouldn't have wanted her to make the long journey in her condition and Tyrion was more than glad to have them for a while. Castle had grown empty, he'd said, with all three girls married and Gerion off in King's Landing dabbling in politics."

"Didn't you plan on visiting Riverrun?" Eddard asked.

"I did," Florian said, nodding. "Stayed with uncle Edmure for a spell and then went to see how Lord Blackwater fared at the Twins."

Sandor sighed.

"Still don't know what possessed Daenerys to give the Twins to that sellsword," he grumbled under his breath.

Florian guffawed.

"Lord Blackwater hasn't been a sellsword for twenty-five years, father," Florian said, still snickering, "I am not giving up hope you'll one day stop calling him that.

"Besides, I for one can understand the queen's decision. The man was nothing but loyal to Tyrion and it made sense to give one of the most strategical important keeps in Westeros to someone both her and her hand trusted."

Sandor sighed again, this time theatrically.

"Yes, I know all there is to know about the honour of holding a keep of strategic importance, even if it's the second ruin I have to rebuild."

Eddard lifted his hands.

"Wasn't my idea," he said, "you wanted it."

The fact that in the span of twenty-five years Sandor had been tasked with rebuilding and reorganizing the defence of two destroyed keeps - first Winterfell and now Moat Cailin - was a running joke between them, repeated at every one of their meetings. And while it was true the ruin and the surrounding lands had been given to him by Eddard, it was equally true that it had been his own idea. Both he and Sansa had suggested it to their son, thinking it would be important the keep was in working order and well defended. And who better suited to the task than the two people most loyal to the lord of Winterfell.

While everyone of course knew that, it was still fun to pretend otherwise, especially since the situation that he was bannerman to his own son was in fact very unusual.

Sandor cut a glance at Florian before he said, "It was preferable to what the queen had in mind for me."

"Hey, old man," Florian said, pretending outrage, "do not go and badmouth Clegane Keep, it's a perfectly lovely place."

Sandor scrutinized his son's smiling expression and as he had before when they spoke about Florian's new and Sandor's old home, there was a glitter of hardness in the bright blue of Florian's eyes.

They had never talked about what Florian had found when he first set foot into the place in which Gregor had been holed up for years with his men. What he did know was that Florian had ordered all the walls left standing to be pulled down and had personally put all that remained to the torch.

He'd built a new house and keep on the ashes of the old one.

"I am sure it is now," Sandor said with a smile, giving his son a nod to tell him he knew.

"Dad, grandfather!" a child's voice carried over to them, followed by the slim figure of a seven-year old boy jogging in their direction.

After having enthusiastically greeted his grandfather and uncle, the black-haired boy turned to his sire.

"Father, uncle Tystan is going to spar with one of your men, can we go watch?"

Three pairs of eyes looked at Sandor expectantly. He felt trapped. He hadn't planned to attend the spectacle ever since he'd heard it was supposed to happen. It surely was better this way and Trystan would be even glad about it, most likely.

Things like this usually didn't end well and if there would be another row between him and Trystan, and on her nameday no less, Sansa would be upset.

"All right," he said with a shrug, unable to invent a believable excuse why he could not go.

He could do it, he thought to himself. He was a grown man, lord if his own lands, father and even a bloody grandfather multiple times over, he should be able to behave for a few minutes at least.

Trystan stood already in the training yard, smilingly chatting with Eddard's wife.

He would grow into a handsome man, this son of his, Sandor mused. Girls might not chase after him as they had after Florian, but he would have no trouble finding himself a good wife four years hence when he would turn eighteen.

If only...

Trystan seemed to have sensed Sandor's presence almost the minute he appeared, evidenced by the way his easy smile vanished and was replaced by a serious, brooding expression.

Sansa and Elenor were already there and Sansa's eyed widened a bit with surprise when she saw him.

"Sandor," she said quietly when he stepped to her side and laced his fingers through hers.

Over the years, he'd hear her say his name a million times. Breathless and in the throws of passion, screaming it in pain when she gave birth, shouting it as a call for help when she was in danger or needed him to chase away a rodent running through their chambers. Scolding him or praising him or just sighing it the way she just did to let him know she appreciated him being at her side.

Still after all this time, he felt he would never get enough of it.

She turned her head to look at him, an earnest plea in her eyes.

"Please," her eyes seemed to say. "Please not today."

He squeezed her hand a bit and gave a slight nod.

The two combatants got ready for the fight.

Trystan had chosen a two-handed greatsword, naturally, and his opponent a one handed-sword and a heavy oaken shield.

"Legs not so wide apart," Sandor criticised his son's stance in his head. "You'll need to keep your balance. Don't grip the sword so tight, you'll lose all feeling in your hands."

Sadly, none of his sons was even close to being a gifted swordsman, Trystan being no exception.

They were halfway decent as their role and place in life required, but not exceptional as one might have expected of sons of Sandor Clegane. Not a one of them had a liking for swordplay, jousting or any of those highly valued knightly pursuits. They were no killers, his sons.

They had taken part in a number of tournaments, not quite embarrassing themselves or their sire, but not winning anything either. Quite probably, they were glad that now as heads of their own houses, they weren't expected to prove themselves in that way anymore.

Eddard much preferred the making of swords to wielding them, a development Sandor squarely blamed on that blacksmith his sister-in-law had married, who now called himself Lord Baratheon.

The finest steel to be found these days either came from Winterfell or out of the Stormlands and not one meeting with his eldest went by without him boring Sandor to tears recounting in great detail all the improvements he'd made to Winterfell's forge.

Florian - on the other hand - had been able to read at age four and hadn't been seen without a book ever since. At age six he'd taken to following the maester around everywhere, driving him to distraction with an endless barrage of questions.

Had it not been for the fortunate fact that young Joanna Lannister had suddenly turned from an somewhat ugly duckling - whose braids Florian used to pull - into an astoundingly beautiful swan, Florian would probably be studying at the Citadel right now.

And Trystan... Trystan just loved the land and all that lived and grew on it.

He was forever to be found in some barn or stable, or chatting with peasants or farmers. More often than not he had to be plucked from behind a plough to attend his lessons with the maester or the master-at-arms.

He was more proficient with a scythe than he ever would be with a sword and there was not a wounded or sick creature around that couldn't count on Trystan to take care of it.

At one point Sandor had to consent to give him use of part of the stables for tending to all the wounded animals he kept finding or which were brought to him once word had got around that the boy had a knack for healing ailing livestock.

Which made it all the more surprising that sometimes over a year ago, the boy had professed interest in becoming a capable swordsman and to Sandor's even greater surprise kept at it with diligence and fervour.

"He does it only to please you," Sansa had repeatedly told him; one of the sentences that lately prefaced every one of their disagreements about his treatment of his youngest.

As the fight he currently watched progressed, Trystan predictably had some trouble even hitting his opponent with the iron grip he had on the large weapon, the other man nimbly dancing out of his way every time a slash or stab of the heavy training sword threatening to strike true.

It went on for a while, during which Sandor masterfully held on to his urge to shout advice and criticism.

Then again, it wasn't necessary to do so, since his other two sons and even his grandson more than made up for his silence.

After some time, Trystan's true advantage - his endless endurance and immense strength - started to play a part. His opponent started to flag, his movements a bit heavier, not so ready to perform nice manoeuvres to evade a blow.

He had just sidestepped one crushing blow, when Sandor saw something spark in Trystan's eye.

Time slowed.

Ice ran through Sandor's veins and he watched in helpless horror as Trystan suddenly changed the grip on his weapon, holding the six foot long piece of steel - a weapon most men wouldn't even be able to hold in two hands - in one hand, bracing the haft against his lower arm while swinging it in a mighty arch above his head.

The other man looked up to see his doom coming down on him and lifted his shield, but Sandor's gut told him it would be no use.

The heavy weapon, swung with inhuman and merciless strength, would come down to split the shield, leaving death and blood in its wake.

The sound of steel hitting splintering wood tore through him and Sandor opened his mouth for a silent scream.

His heart thundering, he ripped his hand from Sansa's, barely noticing her gripping his tunic on his upper arm and ran towards Trystan's fallen opponent.

"Have you lost your mind?" he hollered at his son, terror and rage finally letting him find his voice again.

Trystan looked dumbstruck.

Sandor turned to the other man to find him looking equally unintelligent.

The shield had indeed cracked and splintered, but the man - while seeming somewhat dazed and rattled - was otherwise unharmed.

"Next time," Sandor barked at his son, suddenly feeling a bit dizzy, "choose an opponent your size."

When he turned to go, he noticed that everyone was staring in equal horror as he had just felt, only they were staring at him.

He turned back for a moment and then faced his family again.

True, there hadn't been the carnage he'd seen in his mind's eye, but had they not seen into what Trystan had turned?

Why did they look at him as if suddenly he was the monster?

The first one to move was his wife.

Giving a high-pitched sob and pressing a hand against her mouth, she turned and ran towards the keep.

Sandor's blood cooled at the sight of it.

He had overreacted.

Again. As always.

He moved to go after her but was held back by a strong grip on his arm which he couldn't easily shake off.

"What is wrong with you?" Eddard growled at him with barely leashed fury. "Can't you see how much mother suffers if you are this way? What is it about Trystan that turns you into this... this lunatic?"

This was the sort of sermon he didn't need to hear from his son.

"Have a care what you say," he barked back, forcefully ripping his arm out of his son's grip. "You might be my liege and lord of Winterfell, but under this roof, you're still my son and you owe me respect."

Without another glance he stomped on, eager to reach Sansa. To apologize. To explain. Again.

In the doorway to the keep, his daughter stood.

Poised and elegant, her shiny black hair coiled on the top of head like a crown, making the tall young woman look regal and stern like a queen. Like her mother.

"You have to stop doing this, father," she said, sadness colouring her tone. "You cannot keep hurting them both, I will not allow it."

"You do not know what you're talking about, Elenor," he said, impatience mounting, but not about to shove his daughter bodily out of the way. "This isn't for you to meddle."

Elenor stood her ground for a moment longer but then stepped aside.

When he went past her, she put a gentle hand on his arm, a silent bid for him to stop.

"What did we do so wrong, father," she asked quietly, the sadness in her tone nearly breaking his heart, "that you have to punish Trystan for it?"

He turned to her and gingerly touched her cheek for a second.

"This hasn't anything to do with you," he assured her. "If you don't believe anything else, please believe that."

He was barely up the stairs, when bright blue eyes stared at him reproachfully.

Of course, he'd have to run the gauntlet of all his enraged children before he reached his wife.

"I've heard enough," he said through gritted teeth when Florian opened his mouth.

"I don't believe that's true," Florian said, the steel in is voice as cutting and imperious as Eddard's could be. "Do you not know that Trystan started to practice day and night to be a good swordsman because neither of your other sons and your daughter could manage to be a worthy successor to the most feared warrior of Westeros? Did you know that we all think that something we did or failed to do made you treat Trystan as if nothing he does will ever be good enough?"

"This has nothing..."

Florian sneered.

"Oh yes, I know, it has nothing to do with us, I've heard that before, father. Then what is it about? Whom does it concern because Trystan doesn't know either and trust me he sure as hell would like to know!"

Sandor shook his head, getting tired of being yelled at.

"I've to talk to your mother, just get out of my way."

"Oh by all means do," Florian said, stepping out of his way and giving him a mocking bow. "She's right in there, crying her eyes out."

When he stepped into the chamber they'd shared for the last eight years, walked by the bed they had spent countless passionate nights in, he saw her standing at the window, back to him, shoulders shaking with silent sobs.

"Sansa, I..."

She spun around, cutting him off with a hand raised.

"No, Sandor," she said, her voice clogged with tears, but brooking no interruption nonetheless. "You do not get to say you're sorry. You do not get to apologize and explain."

He fell silent.

"I know each and every word you're about to say and I am sick and tired of them," she continued while walking up to him, putting her hands flat on his chest. "And I know," she said, her eyes boring into his. "I know and I saw. I saw the same thing you did.

"But that's no excuse, not after all this time. You have to find a way to deal with this. You owe that to me."

He lifted his hand cautiously, not quite knowing if he was allowed to touch her.

When he did, when he placed his hand on her cheek, she leaned into his palm for a moment, closing her eyes while another couple of tears slid out of their corner.

"I want to, Sansa," he said, despair at his own helplessness tearing at him. "Please believe that. If only I'd know how."

She opened her eyes again.

"Talk to him," she said. "Apologize to him, not me. Explain to him, not me. Tell him... everything."

He flinched.

"I don't know if I can," he said.

She took a step back, a world of sadness and heartbreak in her eyes.

"You have to," she said quietly. "Because if you don't, it would kill me to have to chose between my son and my husband."

Finding Trystan was not complicated. When troubled, he usually went to the paddock, sitting atop the fence and watching the horses.

Besides, Trystan was just not the right size to hide, never really had been.

At age twelve, he'd already been taller than most men, even taller than Sandor. Now, at fourteen, not quite done growing as it seemed, he was rapidly approaching eight foot.

Sandor slowly walked up to him, still not knowing what to say, how to start.

He didn't mind apologizing. For one thing because yes, he'd wronged Trystan and was not loathe to admit it.

For another, if a quarter of a century of marriage taught a man one thing, then it was how to apologize. For the bigger sins, like being a grumbling boar sometimes as well as for the smaller ones like leaving muddy footprints on a freshly scrubbed floor.

Trystan didn't acknowledge or greet him when he arrived and leaned against the fence, looking into the direction his son did, watching the beautiful black stallion whose sire had been Stranger.

"I am sorry for yelling at you," Sandor said without preamble. "Situation looked way more dangerous to me than it was."

Trystan rolled his massive shoulders but remained obstinately mute, an expression on his face that Sandor knew well enough. Dealing with children at the cusp of adulthood had not been easy in all three previous cases, with Trystan, things were so much more complicated.

"Maybe I should explain...," Sandor started but then Trystan looked at him.

Hurt and anger came off him in waves.

"It's because I look like him, isn't it?" he said, the question more of an accusation. "Like your brother."

It took a while for Sandor to catch his breath. The question had hit him like a blow to the gut.

"How do you..."

Trystan snorted.

"I know you think me stupid, but how could you think I wouldn't find out?" he spat.

"I don't think you stupid," Sandor protested. "I just..."

Trystan cut him off with an impatient gesture.

"Two years ago, when uncle Tyrion came to visit, I was so happy to see him, I ran towards him while he was still dismounting his horse," Trystan said, pain lacing his voice. "He turned when he heard me approaching, but when he saw me, he flinched. His eyes..." Trystan paused and swallowed. "His eyes were so full of fear I stopped dead in my tracks."

Sandor swallowed as well. He knew his son well enough, knew that the gentle heart that beat inside his chest would have been broken at causing fear in anyone, least of all the "uncle" whom he adored.

"Then he laughed and told me to come and give him a hug. 'You gave me a quite a turn', he'd said. 'For a moment there I thought Gregor Clegane was charging towards me.'"

Sandor cursed quietly to himself. He counted Tyrion among the very few friends he had, but right now he'd gladly throttle him.

"Took me a while to understand," his son went on. "I first asked mother, but she would always try to change the subject. Then I pestered the maester and after a while I found out all there is to know about your brother."

'Not all,' Sandor thought, balling his hands to fists.

"But I am not this man, father," Trystan continued, a pleading note to his voice that nearly undid him. "How could you think that? How can you hate me for something I cannot help?"

"I do not hate you, Trystan," he said, his voice as broken as he felt. How could he, indeed. How could he let it come to the point where one of the children Sansa had given him thought he hated him. How could he have let Gregor wreck something so precious from out of his grave. "You're as dear to me as your siblings. If anything... if anything even more so."

Trystan snorted mutinously.

"Your mother had a hard time giving birth to Elenor," Sandor said, suddenly desperate to make Trystan understand. "The maester told us she would likely not bear another child again. We thought we were reconciled to having only three children, but when four years later your mother found herself pregnant again, we realized how much we had truly wished for another child. We both wept when we learned of it."

He smiled at the sweet memory.

"And even though you were a bit of an oversized newborn, the birthing went without any complications and we were ecstatic at having been given such a strong, healthy boy."

Now it was Trystan who smiled a little.

"And you were such a sweet, adorable child. A real sunshine, smiling at everyone, rarely fussy, easy to amuse and even easier to calm down when upset. Your siblings adored you, despite not having been thrilled when they learned we were to have you.

"When you grew older, you went on being the most sweet-tempered boy, so gentle and caring you could never even hurt a fly. You brought the first injured cat home when you were six years old and wouldn't leave its side until it was well again. Maester Onwin had just started to get over Florian's inquisitiveness and now had to content with you, wanting to learn all and everything there was to know about healing hurt and sick animals."

Sandor laughed quietly to himself when he recalled the discussions he had had with the beleaguered man.

"If ever there was a family needing two or more maesters," the young man had said exasperatedly, but not unkindly, "it is yours."

"At age eight, I started to see the similarities," he went on, growing serious again. "You grew with alarming speed, to an extend where even your skin could barely keep up with it. The headaches..."

"Maester Onwin dealt with them," Trystan interrupted.

"Thank the gods he did," Sandor said and then forced himself to continue. "Your... my... Gregor had similar headaches starting when he was about nine or ten years. Maybe they drove him to become the monster he was, I don't know."

He pondered for a while the good fortune that the maester had thought to put Trystan on a regime of daily exercises and a diet that helped Trystan's rapidly growing body to deal with it's changes without him falling prey to the same debilitating headaches Gregor had had.

"When you turned ten, there was no denying that the gods had given you the face and body of the worst monster in the history of humankind."

Over the last two years, he'd often went back and forth between thinking this a punishment or a particularly cruel jest of fate - or the gods - at his expense. Gregor was dead and buried. Sandor would've been content to forget about him for the rest of his life. Pretend he never even existed.

But no, he'd had to look at his face every day.

When Trystan was twelve, the same age Gregor had been when he burned him, things had really started to grow bad between him and his son. Even though he knew very well that the similarities started and ended with looks, he found himself flinching whenever he was unexpectedly faced with his son. Started to make a wide berth around every fire again, although over the years his fear of it had noticeably diminished.

He hated himself for his weakness, hated himself for not being the father Trystan deserved, but in his helplessness, often lashed out at him.

But how to explain that? How to expose his most primal fear, his most debilitating weakness to his own child?

When he was little, Trystan had often been heard bragging about his father's prowess as a warrior, about how he had never lost any tournament, how he had fought bravely alongside the queen. How he was the strongest and most fearsome man who ever lived.

How to tell him that beneath all that there was still a frightened boy who retched at the smell of burning flesh and woke in the middle of the night drenched in sweat at the notion his brother might still be alive?

"But you said yourself I was... am different," Trystan said quietly.

Sandor heaved a deep breath. He would not get out of this without telling him the whole awful story.

"I've never really told you where I got those scars," he said, gesturing to the ruined part of his face.

Trystan nodded. "I've always wondered what sort of fight would cause such extensive burns."

Of course, Sandor thought, if anyone would wonder about that, it would be his son who knew so much about wounds and injuries.

"Your mother and I decided we'd spare our children the nightmares the true story might cause and I am still not sure you should know either."

"I've a feeling I need to know," Trystan said quietly, sounding much older than his fourteen namedays. "Your brother did this, then?"

Sandor nodded, looking unseeingly into the distance, his mind going back more than forty years to a memory that still hadn't lost its hurtful edge.

"I'd played with a toy that was his. He held my face to a brazier until people managed to pull him off me," he said. "I was six years old."

He turned when he heard smothered sobs next to him and to his alarm found his son pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes, his broad shoulders shaking.

He put a comforting hand on Trystan's arm.

"It was a long time ago," he said helplessly.

Trystan shook his head vehemently and before Sandor knew what was going on had jumped from his perch and enveloped him in a bear hug, bowing down to rest his forehead on Sandor's shoulder.

As always, the boy's hair smelled of dewy grass and healing herbs, something he had almost forgotten in the years he had kept his distance from his son.

"I do not hate you, Trystan," he murmured while putting his arms around him. "I just cannot seem to stop being afraid of you, afraid you might one day just... turn," he continued his quiet confession, made somehow easier by their closeness. "I know it's stupid and illogical and I so wish I could just... stop. But I do not know how."

If you hug a child, Sansa had once told him, you wait until the child lets go of you, you're never the first to break the contact.

And so he didn't and stood for long moment holding this weeping, young giant in his arms, his own heart almost overflowing with the love he had for his son.

Eventually, Trystan awkwardly ended their embrace and stepped back, wiping at his eyes.

"How did you...," the boy started, visibly struggling for words. "How did you go on? How can one survive that and become the man you are?"

Sandor smiled at the subtle praise in his son's words. Praise he surely didn't deserve, not from Trystan of all people.

"I don't remember much of the first weeks after," he told him. "Only a haze of fever and pain and thirst. But at some point, anger and hatred found me and... gave me the will to live, if just to seek revenge. To become a man everyone feared and no one would dare to cross."

Pride was in Trystan's voice when he said, "You became what you set out to be, they were all afraid of you."

"All but Gregor," Sandor amended. "And it was him I lived to kill. I was a creature made of blood and steel, filled with monstrous black rage. I hated everyone around me and most of all myself. I only wanted to kill Gregor or die trying and I am sure I would have managed one or the other at some point."

"What changed?"

Sandor closed his eyes for a moment as he let the wave of happiness roll through him that still engulfed him when he thought of his wife.

"Your mother came into my life," he said and with a motion that had turned instinctual over the decades, curled his hand over the stone that he wore openly ever since they had fled King's Landing. He'd not once taken it off. "She put a hand on my ugly face and sang for me. She listened to me and made me laugh. She kissed me and loved me and whatever was left of my heart and soul I gave to her keeping and she's taken good care of it ever since."

Trystan leaned against the fence next to him, staring into the distance. His eyes were rimmed red, but he looked much more at ease now.

Maybe he should've have told him all that a long time ago.

But with children, one never knew when the right time was for one thing or the other.

Eddard had learned to walk when he wasn't even a year old. Florian had taken more than half a year longer. Then again, he could read at four while Eddard spent months arguing how a lord of Winterfell had his own maesters and scribes and thus no need of learning the dreadfully boring skill at all.

"Have you ever thought of forgiving him?" Trystan suddenly asked.

"Forgiving him?" Sandor asked with an embarrassing high pitch to his voice, hoping he might have heard him wrong. "Aside from what he did to me, he killed my sister and quite probably my father, too."

Trystan looked at him with grey eyes full of a wisdom a boy his age had no business having. Sometimes it made him think the gods did have a hand in making him.

"I didn't mean absolving him of his many crimes, I meant letting go of whatever it is you feel for him. He cannot hurt you or anyone you love anymore. As you said yourself, all of that was a long time ago."

Sandor stood dumbstruck, his mind only slowly processing the enormity of what his son was suggesting.

"I think," Trystan said again, sounding sad again, "things with us will never be right as long as your brother is still a festering wound in your soul."

He would see it like that, Sandor thought with fatherly pride. As a wound, something that needed to be healed.

And maybe he was right, too. Maybe he had been living with an old, untreated injury for years, pretending it didn't exist until he payed the price for his ignorance.

Sandor closed his eyes, willing himself to think back to a dream - a fantasy - he had carefully constructed and nurtured ever since the day he'd been burned.

He saw himself, sword in hand, his brother's blood dripping from his sword as Gregor knelt in the mud before him, defeated.

For years, he'd never quite figured out what he'd say to Gregor before he would swing his sword for the killing blow. There had been a thousand variations, but nothing that seemed profound enough to serve. In that fantasy, he had never struck that final blow, not for as long as Gregor lived. After he had learned of his death, Sandor had seen no point in revisiting it.

He'd shoved it to the back of his mind, but he'd never forgotten about it.

He put the point of his sword to Gregor's throat.

Then he let his arm sink to his side again.

"I forgive you," he said, trying out the words. To his surprise, he meant them.

Gregor had lived to barely over thirty years, died in agony, childless and unmourned. While he, Sandor, had a beautiful wife and an ever growing family who loved him. His son had rebuilt the keep Gregor had brought to ruin and nowadays the name Clegane didn't inspire terror and fear anymore.

Sandor had triumphed over his brother in so many ways, he could afford to be magnanimous.

Gregor looked dumbfounded.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because it's time you stop having power over me."

Then Sandor lifted his sword once again.

"This is not for vengeance, but for justice."

He opened his eyes to find Trystan peering at him with concern furling his brow.

"Are you alright?" he asked,. "You looked as if you were falling asleep or something."

Sandor smiled and patted his son's arm.

"I am alright," he assured him. "I think, thanks to you, I finally am alright."

With a sudden lightness in his heart, he looked over the field again to where the young stallion was still galloping in youthful exuberance.

It felt the right moment to focus on the present again.

"So, the beauty over there," he began. "Jennings tells me you suggested breeding him with the Dothraki horses the queen had brought over from Essos."

Trystan nodded, apparently just as eager to finally change the topic as Sandor was.

"Yes, I would love to see their endurance and speed mixed with this one's strength."

"They'll lose out on muscle," Sandor said. "Those Dothraki steeds can barely carry a grown man, let alone one in full armour."

Trystan chuckled at that.

"They're not as bad as all that," he said. "Besides I think the age of armoured knights is over anyway. Nowadays, a knight in full plate is a sitting duck for anyone with a crossbow. Even Eddard admits that no plate any smith can produce can withstand a modern crossbow bolt."

"True," Sandor conceded, thinking back almost wistfully to all the years through which he had worn full plate armour, had grown accustomed to its crushing weight, to the awkwardness of walking and riding in it. Apparently, according to his offspring, he had been part of an archaic breed.

"I guess future warfare will rely more and more on ranged weapons," Trystan elaborated, "and it will become more important how fast a horse is and not how heavy a man it can carry on its back."

Sandor nodded.

"So will you let me do this?" his son enquired, not bothering to hide his obvious enthusiasm for the project.

"There is no one who knows beasts better than you do, son," Sandor said, "besides, all of this will one day be yours anyway, so by all means, please try."

Trystan smiled his thanks and let his gaze roam over the fields and marshes in front of them.

"I am glad that I will never have to leave this," he said quietly. "I don't know if I could bear it. I want to have my family here, my wife and children..."

Sandor raised his eyebrow.

"Already thinking about that?"

Trystan coloured a somewhat unbecoming shade of pink.

"When the Lady of Tarth visited a few weeks ago...," he started but was interrupted by Sandor's groan of realization.

"The second daughter, right?" he asked and then laughed. "So you're telling me I will be connected to Lannisters through two of my sons?"

Of course, that would not strictly be true, since even the Kingslayer called himself Jaime of Tarth after he had been permanently and irrevocably exiled to Tarth by the queen.

Trystan gave him a lopsided grin and a shrug.

"No idea if she'd even have me."

"She'd be daft not to," Sandor said. Then he shook his head again, still amused. "If I remember, the lass is as tall as her mother, you might well be the only man living who can kiss her without having to get up on his toes."

"I had to stoop a little," Trystan said, honest to a fault, colouring even more.

Sandor gave a melodramatic sigh.

It was true that he had unwittingly witnessed way more intimate moments between his children and their spouses (or future spouses, as was the case at the time) than he would ever have cared to, but the thought that Trystan, through all the trouble he had given him, had found a bit of joy and happiness with a girl he liked was a happy one.

"Well, at least she's got the looks from her father's side," Sandor quipped.

"Well, thank the gods for that," Trystan snorted with barely concealed mirth.

They both allowed themselves a guilty chuckle at the unkind comment, well aware they would both hasten to defend the woman they deeply respected against anyone who spoke ill of her.

"I guess we should get back," Sandor said then, watching the sun sink towards the horizon. "Mother will wonder if we have finally managed to kill one another."

Trystan's face fell at his careless remark.

"I was mad at you for a long time," he said earnestly. "But I would never hurt you."

"I know, Trystan," Sandor said softly, with deeply felt conviction. "I know."

...