Chapter 1: The First Encounter
The First Encounter
She was just a kid, the first time he saw her.
He recalled her blue eyes, wide with excitement, long limbs and a mass of fiery auburn hair. He recalled incessant chatter, too. The girl loved to talk, and occasionally he hadn't been able to contain his irritation at her constant prattling. He'd been told her name was Sansa. It was a fitting name, he'd thought, a pretty name for a pretty, chirping, little bird. For that's what she reminded him of. She was twelve years old and accompanying her father, Eddard Stark, on a business trip to the south.
Her father was the owner of White Wolf Logistics, and his fleet of trucks and network of subcontracted freight companies in the northern parts of the country was crucial to the success of Robert Baratheon's growing empire of businesses, all headed under the banner of Crowned Stag Imports. Robert's other advantage lay in the location of his warehouses and distribution centers. Their seaside locale had one major commercial port, and Robert had a virtual monopoly on the surrounding industrial estates. Once his shipping containers hit the docks, they were on a White Wolf Logistics truck as soon as customs would allow it, and transported to various retailers and outlets throughout the country. The partnership of Wolf and Stag made both men among the wealthiest in the United Kingdom.
Sandor was employed by the Baratheon family. First, they'd taken him on as a driver for Robert's wife, Cersei. But after some training and showing an aptitude for it, he'd been reassigned to their security team. Then when the Baratheon's eldest son hit school age, he'd been made the kid's minder. In other words, he'd become a glorified babysitter. It wasn't the best gig in the world, but neither was it the worst. The Baratheon's had given him a job when many had turned him away, and they paid him a decent salary.
The Baratheon's had multiple properties, including a grand house in the country that they often visited on weekends and a chalet in the Alps where they often took holidays. However, their main residence was a multi-level, waterfront terrace house that was a short drive away from Robert's offices, and a short walk away from the local seaside eateries and attractions.
The Piers, as they were simply known, were two of those attractions. The oldest of the two piers, now referred to as the Old Pier, was first built in the early 1800's, and had been damaged and repaired so many times over the two centuries since its construction that it now stood in a patchwork of aged wood that was creaky in places, iron railings and seawater-stained paint. More often than not, the pier would be 'closed for maintenance', banning visitors from walking along it. People still came to see it, learn about its history, take pictures and then leave to walk along the newer and infinitely safer Greater Pier.
The Greater Pier was a hundred and fifty years younger, built of concrete and steel and was wide enough to fit thirty people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. It was also built closer to the marina, where many pleasure vessels were berthed, and where the fancy restaurants, boutiques and bright lights attracted the vast majority of visitors.
Sandor preferred it that way. His job meant he was around people all day, and most of the time it was people he didn't care for in the slightest. The dilapidated pier offered him a place to walk, think and have a cigarette without interruption. He liked the solitude he could often find at the furthest tip of the Old Pier.
Eddard Stark's business trip lasted almost a week, and during one visit to the Baratheon house, Cersei had instructed the Nanny to take her three children and the Stark girl for a walk down to the Greater Pier to buy treats at the ice cream parlour, while the adults talked business. Dutifully, Sandor had followed close behind them and tried to ignore the fact that the little bird had been doing her best not to stare at the scars that covered the left side of his face.
The Nanny was in her fifties, and most of the time the woman was harassed and irritated. Looking after Joffrey Baratheon would drive anyone to insanity, and Sandor would know. If the boy wasn't with his Nanny, he was with Sandor. The boy had a begrudging respect for him, but the kid liked to test his limits, just to see how far he could push it before Sandor snapped.
Sandor had taken his eyes away from the Nanny and the four children in her care for only a moment, but in that space of time Joffrey and the red-haired Sansa had wandered away from the Greater Pier on their own. He let them go, but he watched them, as was his job to do. When it became clear they were heading in the direction of the Old Pier, he followed them.
The Old Pier was closed that day, and a sign had been hung up on the metal chain at the entrance of the pier. He was expecting that his two charges would just find some place to sit and goof around like adolescents do, away from the younger children. But it seemed Joffrey had other ideas.
Sandor watched and frowned. Joffrey was ducking under the metal chain, and calling Sansa to follow him onto the pier. The girl was pointing to the sign proclaiming the pier closure, but Joffrey must have called her a name because she stopped smiling, and now he looked to be egging her on.
"Don't follow him, you silly girl." Sandor muttered.
Nonetheless the girl ducked the chain link, and now she and Joffrey were walking along the potentially unsafe pier. Sandor knew there was probably little chance of actual danger; he was guilty of ignoring the closure sign himself on occasion. But, the Baratheon brat was unpredictable, and Sandor wasn't going to risk it.
He quickened his pace, and his long strides saw him catch up with them in no time. Sandor caught the girl by her elbow. She turned at the contact and the sharp yank on her arm, gasping in fright when she saw his face.
"What the hell do you kids think you're doing?" he yelled, louder than was necessary, "Can't either one of you read? The pier's closed!"
"I…I tried to…to tell him –" the girl stuttered.
"But you still fucking followed him, didn't you?" he saw her wince at his use of the profanity, "Are you stupid? If he told you to jump off it, would you?"
"No! I…I wouldn't!"
He could see that he was frightening her. He swore again, then looked up to find Joffrey looking at them with some alarm on his face.
"You rotten kid!" he shouted at Joffrey, "Ignore that sign again, under my watch, and I'll throttle you. Now get back here, so we can get off this sodding pile of wood scraps."
He grabbed the boy by the scruff of his shirt, and with his hand still around the girl's elbow, he marched them off the pier, letting them go only when their feet hit the concrete path.
"Get back to your Nanny, boy," Sandor shoved Joffrey back towards the direction of the ice cream parlour, before glancing down at the trembling redhead, "Think I'm frightening, do you, girl? Then you'd best start thinking for yourself. You won't want to see me angry, and I'd be very angry if you let that boy get you into trouble and I have to be the one to get you out of it."
"I won't," she shook her head, eyes still wide with fright, "I promise."
Chapter 2: Have No Fear
Have No Fear
She was thirteen years old when she stopped wanting to run in the other direction whenever Joffrey's scarred bodyguard was around.
It was the first time her entire family had come to the seaside to spend the school summer holiday. All six weeks of it. Her family had rented out a house close to the Baratheon's townhouse for the duration, and almost every day was spent lazing at the beach, strolling along the esplanade and eating fish and chips.
Sansa's brothers and sister liked to go fishing, and their father took them out as often as he could. Their mother kept reminding him that they were on vacation and that he shouldn't have to work. Her father would just smile and make sure that he was home in time for dinner on the days he had to go into the office.
That day, her father had been called into the office. Consequently, he had not been able to accompany them sailing on board Robert Baratheon's yacht. Sansa could see that her mother had not been pleased, but the Baratheons were expecting them, and her mother had not been willing to disappoint all of her children by cancelling the outing.
Excitedly, Sansa had rushed on board the luxury yacht just behind her siblings, before they were taken to the cockpit to meet the skipper. Joffrey and his brother and sister were there too, and soon the young people had segregated themselves from the adult guests. She'd noted that Joffrey's bodyguard was there as well, keeping to the background as he always tended to do. She hadn't forgotten how he'd yelled at her, and she stayed out of his way if she could help it.
The sun was out, and being a glorious summer day, the skipper took them out to the open sea. Sansa had been having a fantastic time, and she didn't think anything could spoil it. However, Arya and Joffrey soon got to arguing about something, and Joffrey had called her sister a name. Then came the pushing and shoving, and while Robb had tried to break up the argument, Sansa had somehow gotten in the way, and the next thing she knew she was thrown backwards…and over the rear of the moving yacht.
She hadn't expected the water to be so cold, or so dark, and she hadn't expected that her summer dress would drag her down. No matter how hard she tried to kick to the surface, she couldn't get her legs free of the waterlogged fabric. Her lungs were burning, and she was swallowing seawater in her panic.
Just when the thought of drowning crossed her mind, strong arms were around her, pulling her up through the dark water, breaking the surface and allowing her to gasp in much needed air.
"You're all right, little bird," a voice rasped behind her, "You're all right."
He had an arm hooked tightly around her ribcage, while he treaded water and used his other arm to propel them in the direction of the yacht. She clutched at him, sputtering seawater, and still trying to take in air.
"Kick your legs, if you can," he said over her head, and she did as she was told.
They were met halfway by a small inflatable boat that the skipper had sent after them. The speedy yacht had travelled an alarming distance in the time Sansa had been in the water. Joffrey's bodyguard sat in the boat beside her, gripping her arm tightly to make sure she didn't fall back into the sea.
The burned man was soaked to the bone, just as she was, with his black hair plastered to his skull. She sat to his left, his bad side, and he wore a ferocious expression that made him more frightening than ever. She couldn't stop staring at him, but neither could she say a word to him.
Back onboard the yacht, her mother, siblings and the Baratheons had fussed over her. She'd been bundled into a robe and taken to the bathroom to get dry and change her clothing. Her mother had then insisted on returning to the wharf, and Robert Baratheon had complied. Sansa did not see the scarred bodyguard when they disembarked.
There had been more fuss around her at home, particularly when her father had returned from the office. He'd been contacted earlier, of course, and the relief in her father's eyes to see her safe and whole had even made Sansa teary.
"Were you frightened, Sansa?" her father asked her, holding her to his chest.
"I was, at first," Sansa had nodded, remembering the coldness and darkness of the sea enveloping her, "Then...Mr. Clegane came into the water after me."
Her father smiled at her. He'd been told of her rescue as well.
"I've spoken to Clegane," her father told her, "I thanked him personally, for giving me my daughter back."
It was then that Sansa remembered that she hadn't thanked her saviour, but she would have to wait until she saw him again. It was no small thing that he did, and it wasn't her life he'd been hired to protect.
After the family had taken dinner, Sansa found the house suddenly too noisy, and overcrowded, when all she wanted was to be alone for a while. It wasn't every day that one nearly drowns. So, while the rest of her siblings watched television in the living room, and while her parents chatted quietly and shared a bottle of wine in the dining room, Sansa slipped out the front door and went for a walk.
The evening breeze was cool against her sunburnt skin, and the sun had not yet set. There were still plenty of people about. Sansa wondered how many of them knew what it was like to drown.
Her feet took her to the esplanade, and she shielded her eyes with her hand against the glare reflecting off the water. There were still pleasure boats dotted on the horizon, and Sansa shivered unexpectedly. It would be a while before she would be getting onto another yacht.
The Old Pier was open that day, and Sansa stopped against the railing at the entrance. The memory of Sandor Clegane yelling at her played in her mind again, but this time it was swiftly followed by the words he'd rasped into her ear as he'd pulled her head above the water, and she didn't cringe.
"You're all right, little bird...You're all right."
He'd only meant to keep her safe, she knew that, now.
Sansa walked onto the pier, taking care not to trip on the uneven planks, stopping at a bench at the furthest tip of the pier. She sat there for a long time, and it was as the sun was finally starting to set that he found her.
The only warning she had was the heavy thud of boots against the wooden planks, and a whiff of cigarette smoke. She turned, and stared at the burned face of Sandor Clegane in surprise, just as he was staring at her.
"What are you doing here, little bird?"
"I was just...just thinking," she replied.
"Been sitting here long, have you?"
"What were you thinking about?" he took a drag on his cigarette.
"Come on," the man made an impatient gesture with the hand holding the cigarette, "You can't have been sitting here all that time thinking about nothing."
He continued to stare at her, and nervously, Sansa managed to answer him, "I was thinking about what happened today...nearly drowning."
"Thinking about death, then," he stated, and gazed at her with an odd look on his face, "Drowning isn't such a bad way to go."
Sansa gasped at his words, and at the sound of her inhale, his look hardened somewhat.
"The cold water numbs the pain, see? There's no sound either, under the water, and it's dark," he explained, "Supposed to be a painless, peaceful way to die."
"Stop it," Sansa said, which earned her a cruel kind of smile from the man, "How can you say that?"
His response was harsh, "It has to be better than being burned alive!"
Sansa's eyes had immediately flocked to his scars, and found that she had no response to his statement. Only a question. How did you get those scars?
"It's getting late," he said after some moments of silence, "Best run home now, girl."
Sansa stood up, and before she'd taken too many steps away from him, she remembered her manners.
"Mr. Clegane -"
"Don't call me mister," he interrupted her, "Makes me feel old."
"Aren't you?" Sansa winced at the look he gave her.
"I'm twenty-nine," he told her, "If you have to address me, use my name. Or, just call me Hound, like Joffrey does."
Twenty-nine still sounded old to her, but she didn't want to anger him so she chose the second option, "Hound."
"Thank you," she said, looking him right in the eyes. There was just enough light for her to learn that they were grey, "Thank you for saving me."
His eyes narrowed, and he stubbed out his cigarette before pulling another out of his jacket pocket. She didn't think he was going to acknowledge her, but in the end, he lifted his eyes back to her and gave her a brief nod.
"Fly away now, little bird."
He was an odd man, and he unsettled her. Yet, he had saved her life, and she learned she didn't need to be afraid him. Looking at him at that moment, for the first time, her blue eyes held no fear.
Chapter 3: Lessons Learned
Okay, so here is chapter 3 of this little story I'm writing for xxxidrilxxx.
Read, review, enjoy! Thank you!
Joffrey began to take an interest in Sansa the following year.
Sandor observed as the fifteen-year-old boy became more attentive to the girl, and noted the way Joffrey began to stare at her whenever she was nearby. Sansa was now at the age where girls became aware of their femininity, and of the way that young men began to look at them. It was also about the time that girls began learning how to use the former, to attract more of the latter.
She had grown taller since Sandor had last seen her, and had lost much of the sharp angles that had marked her adolescent figure, replacing them with the curves that defined her as a woman. Still a girl, a child, in Sandor's opinion, but he recognized that soon, she would be a stunning woman.
Sansa also began to acknowledge Sandor's presence. Where once she had ignored him, she would now nod her head if she saw him in passing, and greet him with a quiet 'hello'. She would even smile at him, on occasion. She still maintained a careful distance around him, but since he'd jumped into the ocean to save her, she no longer flinched at the sight of his face.
In the summer months, the warmer evenings provided ample opportunity for entertaining, and Robert and Cersei Baratheon were known for throwing elaborate parties at their waterfront mansion, inviting important business acquaintances and other prominent members of society. Ned and Catelyn Stark were, of course, permanent fixtures at these parties. During such evenings Sandor would be assigned to security detail, and he would spend the time standing in a corner or in a shadow somewhere, keeping to the background while he watched the constant charade, the fakery and the flattery play out before him with hardened, cynical eyes.
In almost ten years of working for the Baratheons, Sandor had witnessed numerous instances of deceitful behaviour, and not just against his employers. Where he had grown up, Sandor had been subjected to hard truths and painful, often brutal honesty. But in the Baratheons' employ, he'd learned that sugar-coated barbs, offhand remarks and subtle innuendos could be far more hurtful, and destructive. In the world he'd found himself in, he observed that most people would say almost anything to get what they wanted.
Robert was no different. He was a charismatic man, when he had a mind to be, but became abrupt when he started to lose patience. The man was also a womanizer, and everyone appeared to know it, but it seemed his wife chose to turn a blind eye to his infidelities.
It was a Saturday evening, and Robert and Cersei were hosting another such party. Sandor had been obliged to wear a formal suit during his security shift. He hated formal clothing of any kind, but the suit helped him to blend in, where his extraordinary height, build and distinctive face would not. The regular guests had been invited, including the Starks, who'd brought with them two of their older offspring, Robb and Sansa.
Sandor recalled that Robb had attended the parties with his parents before, but this was the first time that the little bird had ever accompanied them. It appeared her parents now considered her grown-up enough, and the girl's pride at such recognition was evidenced by her beaming smile. Something about her looked different, and after staring at her for a moment, Sandor realized that it was the clothes she was wearing, and that she had done something to her hair. Her midnight blue skirt was cinched at the waist, and the sleeveless cream coloured blouse accentuated her womanly form. Her auburn locks had also been styled in a way that made her appear older. The gently curling mass had been swept to the side and left to cascade over one pale shoulder. If he didn't know her, and if he were to see her for the first time, he would say she was seventeen. Except, he did know her, and he frowned when he noted that he wasn't the only man in the room that was looking at her. When she turned in his direction and nodded at him, he did not reciprocate her acknowledgement.
He watched as her parents led her around the room to be introduced to more of their acquaintances, and as some of the younger male guests began introducing themselves to Sansa. Joffrey must also have noticed the attention Sansa was receiving, for it wasn't long after that the boy eventually found his way to Sansa's side.
Sandor lost sight of them when he went to make his hourly rounds, making sure that the areas of the mansion he had responsibility of were trouble free. He'd been settling in for another hour of standing in a corner when Cersei Baratheon approached him.
"Have you seen my son?" Cersei asked him.
"No ma'am," he replied, "Not in the last hour."
"Fetch him for me," she ordered him, "There are some people I want him to meet."
Sandor obeyed with a nod to the cold-eyed blonde, and turned on his heel. He had last seen the boy excusing himself from the lounge area, and he began to search in the usual places that Joffrey liked to hide when he was trying to keep away from his mother. A quick search of the bar, balcony and entertainment room revealed no sign of him. It reminded him that the boy was growing older, and getting better at avoiding him. He couldn't blame the kid. What teenage boy wanted his bodyguard-slash-nanny tailing him around? It was hard to hook up with girls when your minder was with you almost constantly, but it never stopped the boy from trying.
As Joffrey had entered high-school, Sandor had been quick to notice that the boy had inherited a few of his father's traits. When he had a mind to be, he could be just as charismatic and charming as his father. He had a way with words, and used them to his advantage. Sandor would overhear the boy bragging to his school chums about which girls he'd been out with, and what he'd been able to convince them to do just by sweet-talking them.
"One day, you'll get caught," he'd told the boy once, "Girls like to talk, you know."
"So?" Joffrey had challenged him, "There will always be willing girls who'll want me because of who I am."
"You'll be happy with gold-diggers, then?"
The boy had shrugged, "Girlfriend or gold-digger…what's the difference? My father says that all women want is money, but at least a gold-digger is upfront about it."
Joffrey had a point, but Sandor was not pleased about the lessons that the boy was picking up from his father. A fifteen year old boy had no business looking at the world through such jaded eyes. He hadn't lived long enough, and hadn't seen enough to have earned the right to be cynical.
What about you, dog? He'd asked himself. What kind of life have you lived? What have you seen in your thirty years? He'd shaken his head then, and had he been off-duty he might have got himself a beer. Answer was, he'd seen enough and lived long enough to learn that life wasn't fair. At least, it hadn't been fair to him.
He'd been born a Clegane, and that meant living with a depressed, alcoholic father. His mother had died giving birth to him, and his father blamed him for it. He'd had an older sister, once, but she'd died too when he was a kid and now he barely remembered her face. He had no other family left, but an older brother. The same brother that was responsible for giving him his scars. How is it fair that I have to keep paying for that bastard's cruelty? For the rest of his life, Sandor would have to endure people staring at him, judging him, and discriminating against him because of something that had been out of his control and not his fault.
He shook his head again, and reminded himself that he had a job to do. Sandor had just been about to make his way back to the bar when he happened to overhear Catelyn Stark asking her son Robb a question.
"Have you seen your sister? Sansa seems to have disappeared."
Sandor knew then, without a doubt, that the girl would be with Joffrey and this brought his earlier frown back between his brows. He also knew where he would find them, and a second later he was taking the flight of the stairs at the rear of the mansion, heading for the rooms on the top floor.
He found them in a room that was used as an office by visiting guests. The balcony door was open, and it was the movement of the curtain catching the sea breeze that caught his eye through the partially opened doorway.
"Joffrey, maybe we should slow down…"
"Shh…someone could hear you…"
Keeping to the shadows, Sandor stepped into the room and let his eyes adjust to the dimmed reading lamp that illuminated the small office. Joffrey was sitting on a leather sofa with Sansa astride his lap, facing Joffrey and her legs on either side of Joffrey's thighs. Her skirt had ridden up to her hips, and the boy was palming her arse through the fabric with one hand, while the other was about her waist, playing with the hem of her blouse.
"Joff, I really don't think -" the girl reached for the hand at her waist and stopped him as he tried to raise the fabric of her blouse.
"It's all right," Joffrey cooed into her ear, "You can trust me."
The boy lowered his face to try and kiss her mouth, but at the last moment she turned her face, and instead his kiss landed on her cheek.
"I mean it...I thought I heard someone," she peered into the darkness somewhere near Sandor.
"There's no one there," Joffrey let go of her blouse so he could grasp her chin and turn her face back to him, "Come on, Sansa. "
Sandor watched as Joffrey pressed himself onto the girl, kissing the side of her face and her neck, all the while the girl put her hands on his shoulders to try and keep some distance between them.
"Ease up a little," she said to him, "You'll mess up my make-up."
"Just relax, okay?" Joffrey took the girl's face between his hands and gave her a soft smile, "Trust me."
Sansa appeared to relax, capitulating, and Joffrey resumed kissing her. When his hands returned to palming her arse, the girl did not protest again.
Sandor found himself suddenly fuming. He was angry at Joffrey for taking advantage of the girl, and annoyed with her for letting the brat use her. She was fourteen, and this was not a game for children.
He cleared his throat...loudly, and watched as both teenagers sprang apart. Both of their expressions became that of children caught doing something that they shouldn't. Until Joffrey saw that it was just him, and the boy's expression turned smug.
"It's just you, dog," the boy said with a note of irritation in his voice, "What do you want?"
"Your mother wants you," Sandor turned his grey eyes to the girl, who was now sitting self-consciously on Joffrey's knees, "Yours is looking for you, too."
Joffrey swore, and Sansa flushed pink with embarrassment, but Sandor was glad he'd interrupted. He knew Joffrey, and he knew what the fifteen year old was capable of. Sansa was completely oblivious to the trouble she could have been in. The boy hadn't even thought to close, let alone lock, the office door. Anyone could have walked into the room, and there was nothing innocent about the position he'd found them in.
Ungracefully, Joffrey pulled Sansa from his lap and deposited her onto the seat beside him, before he stood up and righted his own clothes. He did not offer assistance to Sansa, who was struggling to finger-comb her mussed up hair back into place, and to straighten her crooked blouse and skirt.
"Stay here for now, and give me five minutes before you come down," Joffrey instructed her, before he fixed his posture and walked out of the room.
Sansa then stood up, and continued to fuss with her clothing and hair. Her movements were jerky, Sandor knew it was because he was still in the room.
"The bathroom is at the end of the hall," he said gruffly, "You can fix yourself up in there."
Sansa nodded, but she didn't move immediately. Instead, she gave him a look from beneath her lashes.
"You won't tell anyone, will you?" she asked him.
He glared his disapproval down at her, "I should. You're a kid."
"I am not," she retorted, "I'm fourteen."
He made a noise that passed for his laughter, "So, you had it all under control, I suppose?"
The girl bit the side of her lip and lowered her eyes, "He wasn't doing anything I didn't want him to do."
"You asked him to stop."
"I asked him to slow down," she corrected him, her cheeks attaining a deeper tint of pink.
"Did you really think he would slow down?" Sandor glared at her, but he couldn't tell whether the widening of her eyes meant that she understood what he was really getting at, "Boys will say anything to get what they want from you."
"But, this is Joffrey," Sansa emphasized, and Sandor wanted to laugh at the incredulous tone in her voice.
"He's still a boy," Sandor pointed out.
"He's not like that," she shook her head, "He's different."
"If that's what you want to believe," he sneered, then turned to walk away, "But, don't say I didn't warn you."
"Why are being so awful? Why do you always say such awful things?" she demanded at his retreating back.
Sandor was reminded of the last conversation they'd had...when they'd discussed death.
"I'm not being awful," he rasped, before he left the room, "I'm being honest."
He couldn't teach her this, he thought. It was a lesson she would have to learn for herself.
Chapter 4: Sweet Sixteen
So, the update for this has also been a long time coming, but it's here at last! Yay! Please check out my tumblr account for the beautiful set of images by my friend Idril that inspired this fic :)
It was two years before Sansa and her family took another holiday by the seaside. Her father had been busy growing his own empire, and Robb had taken on a part-time position at White Wolf Logistics in addition to his college studies so that one day, he could take over the business.
Sansa had also been busy with school work, knowing that she would soon be in her final year of high school, and she was doing her best to gain recognition, and hopefully the chance to attend one of the finest design colleges in the country.
She had always had a fondness for crafts, like sewing, embroidery and sketching designs for dresses. She always received top marks in design class at school, too. But, it wasn’t until her design teacher had asked her if she’d ever considered fashion design as a career option did Sansa began to take a serious interest in what she’d only ever thought of as her hobby. She’d spent most of that school year researching, and speaking to her teacher about what she needed to do to make it happen.
“Fashion?” Joffrey had asked during one of their phone conversations, “Is that really what you want to do?”
“Definitely. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,”
“Well, it’s not like you could run a company like Robb, so fashion makes sense…”
Sansa admitted that she couldn’t really call Joffrey her boyfriend, yet. They lived too far away from each other for any kind of proper dating as such, but they talked on the phone, emailed, Skyped and sent each other text messages often. Joffrey always told her that he couldn’t wait to see her again, and when she’d tease him about other girls, he would always deny it.
“You’re the prettiest girl I know,” he would say, “Why would I want anyone else?”
Sansa had not told him yet, but the design school she was applying to was in the south, which would mean she would get to be closer to him, and they’d finally get a real shot at having a relationship.
For her sixteenth birthday her father had agreed to take the whole family to the seaside again, and it was with much excitement that Sansa found herself settling into the bedroom that would be hers for the next eight weeks, in the house her parents rented whenever they visited.
Joffrey had gotten taller since they had last met, and even more handsome, in Sansa’s opinion. He wasted no time in picking up where they had left off, and that summer they officially became girlfriend and boyfriend.
“This is my girlfriend, Sansa,”
Sansa had not been able to wipe the smile from her face the first time Joffrey had taken her to a party and had introduced her to everyone as his girlfriend. She’d seen the envy in the eyes of the other girls, and she’d felt so happy to be the girl on his arm.
The girls in Joffrey’s group of friends were tougher than Sansa, it seemed. They were more sophisticated than her, and definitely more experienced. They spoke in phrases she didn’t always understand, and wore clothes that pushed the boundary between propriety and fashion. She wanted to be just like them.
Joffrey liked to party, and the friends he’d made knew where all the hottest parties were, while his name guaranteed them entry. They were both underage, but Joffrey still managed to get them into clubs and bars. It was a lifestyle Sansa had only seen on TV and in movies, and she couldn’t believe she was now a part of it.
It was at one of these parties that Sansa met Margaery Tyrell, the only daughter of one of the most prominent families in the south, and family friends of the Baratheons. Margaery was seventeen, about to start her gap year like Joffrey, and was everything Sansa wanted to be. Sansa had always followed the latest fashion trends, but Margaery made her feel like a country-mouse in comparison. Margaery was gorgeous, glamorous and had a confidence about her that left no doubt in Sansa’s mind that Margaery was well aware of her own sex-appeal.
Margaery invited her to go on a shopping excursion one day, and Sansa had jumped at the chance. From then on, she’d spent as much time as she could with Margaery and her girlfriends, learning their ways, and picking up their vocabulary.
It was at another of these parties that Sansa is introduced to a side of Joffrey she never knew about, and to a darker side of the lifestyle seemingly synonymous with the wealthy. She is surprised the first time she sees him light a cigarette, not knowing that he’d picked up the habit. What surprised her even more, was when she realized that it wasn’t just cigarettes that he smoked.
They are at his friend’s house the first time she comes across marijuana, and the first time she watches Joffrey roll a joint.
“Chill out, Sansa,” he said to her, pulling her down into the sofa beside him, “No one’s going to find out, and you’re not going to tell anyone, right?”
“The stuff’s bad for you,” she said in disapproval.
“So are cigarettes and alcohol, but you don’t have a problem with me smoking and drinking, do you?”
She did, but the first couple of times she’d said anything remotely critical he had snapped at her.
“You’re not my mother!” he’d had a mean expression on his face she’d never seen before, and she hadn’t liked it, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
She didn’t like displeasing him, so she kept her mouth shut. Sansa remained apprehensive about Joffrey smoking pot, but after a couple more parties and nothing had happened, she hesitantly accepted that this was part of Joffrey’s life, and nothing she said would change his mind.
Joffrey had pushed her to try puffing on his cigarette once, but after she'd ended up coughing till tears rolled down her cheeks and having everyone around them laugh at her, she put her foot down and he never asked her again, most probably because he didn’t want her embarrassing him again.
Alcohol was another matter. Sansa didn’t really like the taste of wine and beer or even champagne, so she often stuck to soft-drinks, but Joffrey soon got her acquainted with cocktails, and Sansa found that as long as whatever was in her glass was sweet, she could drink it. The trouble was, she didn’t realize that having six of these in a row would have such a dreadful effect on her.
“You’re drunk,” Joffrey stated as Sansa had come out of the lavatory.
“She’s not used to drinking,” Margaery said sympathetically, “You need to take her home, Joffrey,”
“What a lightweight,” Joffrey had laughed as he’d dialed a number in his phone.
Sansa could only lean against the wall as another wave of dizziness washed over her. They were in some fancy, new nightclub, and she could feel people staring and hear giggling around her as they walked by. She tried to hide her face in embarrassment. It was bad enough that Joffrey had to see her like this, and even worse that Margaery had seen her vomit into the loo.
“Here he is,” Joffrey looked over her head, and Sansa instantly felt worse when she saw who he was looking at.
“Have you got all her things?” Sandor Clegane directed at Margaery.
“Purse and jacket, that’s all she had with her,”
Her jacket was shortly around her shoulders, and Joffrey’s surly bodyguard had a steady grip on her arm.
“Wait,” Sansa looked back at Joffrey, confused, “You’re not coming with me?”
“It’s too early to go home, Sansa,” he waved her off, “Don’t worry, he’ll look after you.”
“Let’s go,” Sandor repeated, and this time he marched her out of the club despite her struggling and protesting, “If you keep carrying on like that, I won’t hesitate to put you over my shoulder.”
Sansa stopped immediately, knowing it wasn’t just a threat, “How’s Joffrey getting home?”
There were walking past the clubs and restaurants at a cracking speed, and Sansa wanted to tell him to slow down as her stomach was queasy, but feared he would think she was just making things difficult for him. They crossed the road and eventually the sound of the nightclub district faded as they entered suburbia.
“I made other arrangements for him, don’t worry.”
“Okay…” Sansa only managed to pull out of his grasp seconds before she was on the pavement, spewing into some poor person’s garden bed.
“Fucking brilliant,” she heard him say, and a second later he was kneeling over her, pulling her hair out of her face while her body tried to rid itself of the alcohol she’d consumed.
When it seemed the worst had passed, she found herself upright again, and he was dabbing at her mouth with a handkerchief.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“How many?” he repeated.
“Five, maybe six…”
“Have you eaten anything?”
“Not since lunch…”
“Ah, you stupid, little bird…” he shoved the handkerchief into her hand, “Didn’t anyone tell you not to drink on an empty stomach?”
“It wasn’t that many…”
“And you’re too young to be drinking anyway!”
Sansa didn’t say anything else while the big man kept swearing, “Come on. The car’s just here.”
Soon he’d bundled her into the passenger seat of the town car he drove for the Baratheons. She leaned back against the headrest, and tried to keep her breathing steady. The last thing she wanted to do was vomit inside the car.
The car slowed down and stopped earlier than she expected, and when she opened her eyes she saw that Sandor had pulled up at a gas station.
“Stay put,” he said, and she watched him walk inside the shop.
When he came back, he was carrying a bottle of water, a bottle of Gatorade and a packet of plain crackers. She didn’t say anything when he restarted the car, but she did speak up when he stopped the car for a second time.
“The Old Pier?” she turned to look at him, “Why are we here?”
“You don’t want your parents to see you looking like that, do you?” he got out of the car, and Sansa obediently followed him to a bench overlooking the sea, “Here, wash your mouth out with this.”
He handed her the bottle of water, and similarly, she obeyed him when he told her to sip on the Gatorade and nibble on the crackers. He didn’t say anything to her for a long time, but Sansa didn’t really feel like talking anyway. He sat at the other end of the bench, and Sansa found herself sneaking glances at him from the corner of her eye.
He was bigger than she remembered, if that were possible. The man had always seemed like a giant to her when she’d been a few years younger. He still intimidated her like no one else could, but she wasn’t scared of him anymore. He now had some lines on his face that she didn’t remember him having before, but she knew he was now in his early thirties, and thought the new lines didn’t make him look any worse. The burn scars on his left side were still as terrible as ever, but now she didn’t find them so hard to look at.
She was halfway through the packet of crackers she’d been absently chewing and swallowing, when she realized that her head no longer swam, and her stomach had finally settled. The crisp sea air had done wonders for her hangover.
She finger combed her hair, and was braiding it over her shoulder when she found Sandor Clegane watching her.
“Feeling better then,” he stated
“So, did we learn a lesson tonight, little bird?”
She frowned at him, not liking the tone he was using with her. He sounded like her mother when she was reprimanding her younger brothers.
“I’m not a child,” she said shortly.
He looked at her for a very long time, and for a moment Sansa believed she’d angered him somehow. But, his eyes wondered over her face and down the line of her body, before coming to rest on her face again. When he spoke, his voice was rough.
“You look like a woman," he said, “But, you’re still a child.”
“I’m not a child,” she repeated.
“Said the girl who was puking her guts out an hour ago,”
She ignored his comment, “I’m sixteen.”
“Ah…sweet sixteen,” he said sarcastically, “Think you know everything, do you? I hate to break it to you sweetheart, but you know fuck-all.”
“I never said I knew everything,” she returned, “Just, don’t speak to me like I’m a little kid.”
“So, you want me to speak to you like you’re an adult? Like a woman?” Sandor Clegane started laughing then, and he stood up, “Get in the car, girl. It’s time you got home.”
Sansa didn’t say anything to him again until they were in front of her house, and she was getting out of the car. It was only her manners that made her speak.
“Goodnight, and thank you.”
Sansa began walking towards the gate.
“Girl,” he called after her, and Sansa turned around to see a mocking smile on his burned lips, “I’ll make you a deal, all right? When you start behaving like a woman, then I’ll start talking to you like you’re a woman.”
Chapter 5: You'll Be A Woman Soon
The little bird had finished high school.
He'd heard that Sansa was going to spend her gap year travelling around Europe and Asia, and she was kicking off her adventure by spending a few weeks with Joffrey, before flying to Paris. She would be staying with the Baratheons, as her family had not come south with her that summer.
It is the same summer that Sandor finally acknowledged that Sansa was no longer a little girl, as far as physical appearances went. He'd noticed it the year before, but it was damned impossible to miss now. She made it hard for him to ignore the sway of her hips, or the shape of her breasts when she insisted on parading herself in a bikini around the swimming pool. She was a tall girl, and far from the stick-insect model types that kept Joffrey company when Sansa was not around.
Something had happened in the year since Sandor had last seen her. There had once been an element of shyness and gaucheness about her, but there was no such awkwardness around her now. She seemed assured and confident in her own skin, like she knew that she was beautiful and as though she was now aware that it wasn't only young men that watched her, but also grown men. Still, there remained an ingenuousness about her that she could not shake, no matter how sophisticated she tried to act, and despite of Joffrey's less than saintly influence.
The Baratheon house was often crowded that summer, with Robert Baratheon's younger brother Renly coming to stay, often inviting his college buddies to use the pool and drink his brother's booze. With irritation, Sandor had watched these young men eyeing Sansa, knowing that he was no better. On numerous occasions Sandor had become irritated with himself, realizing he'd been watching her more and more. His eyes seemed to search her out whenever he walked into a room, and his ears seemed attuned to the sound of her voice. He couldn't remember ever being that aware of any woman before, and the fact that she was half his age vexed him further.
Sandor had a lot of things to be cranky about, and currently his biggest concern had to do with discovering small plastic packets of white powder in Joffrey's car. The little shit had lied to him about it, too.
"It's not mine, I swear! I'm just holding onto it for a friend,"
"That's not a very original excuse, Joffrey. How long have you been taking this shit?"
"I've never used it! I told you it's not mine,"
"Have you given this shit to anyone else? Has Sansa been using this crap?"
"Sansa? Of course not!" Joffrey had looked insulted, "I told you, it isn't mine!"
Sandor did not have the proof yet, and the little bastard was always careful around him, but nevertheless he reported his findings to the bastard's father, as was his job to do. Robert Baratheon had merely waved a hand, and told him to keep a closer eye on his son. It had been the same when Sandor had told him about Joffrey smoking weed. In hindsight, Sandor should have known that it was only a matter of time before Joffrey would graduate from weed, to the celebrity drug of choice.
With little power to do much else, Sandor made it a point to discard any packets he found, destroying them in front of Joffrey's face if he could, but the little bastard would only laugh at him. The kid had too much cash, and Sandor had no doubt Joffrey would replace them without trouble.
He could not trust that Sansa was not being exposed to drugs either, and given her propensity to cave under peer pressure, it gave him chills to think she might be dabbling in the stuff. It was one thing for Robert Baratheon to turn a blind eye to his own son's drug use, but it would be an unmitigated disaster if anything happened to Sansa Stark, while she was in Robert's care.
That was the sentiment going through his mind when he found himself lurking outside of the hotel where Joffrey and Sansa were partying in the penthouse suite with a bunch of other privileged brats. Joffrey's behaviour had been erratic that day, a clear indication that he was under the influence of something nasty, and Sandor wanted to stay close by in case there was trouble.
His instinct had been spot on, as just after midnight he received a call from a teary sounding Sansa.
"You have to get him out of here…he's not listening to anyone," Sansa implored, "He hit someone!"
"Calm down," Sandor said, his long legs making short work of the concrete between his car and the hotel entrance. "Where are you?"
"The en-suite in the master bedroom," Sansa's voice trembled, "There's blood."
The penthouse was full of people, but there was a sudden hush when he made his way across the room. He noted broken glass on the floor and a trail of smeared blood, which he quickly traced to a good-looking young man with sandy hair, who was holding a bloody cloth to his cheek. Sandor let out a blaze of expletives when he recognized his identity. Harrold Hardyng, heir apparent to The Falcon Group fortunes. The Hardyng family were major players in the property development business.
Harrold had also recognized him, and the young man glared angrily. "Tell Baratheon he'll be hearing from my lawyer."
Sandor found Joffrey in the bathroom, with blood covering the lower half of his face, and staining his once pristine shirtfront. The major source of the bleeding appeared to be his nose, which looked like it had been broken, and he had a busted lip to boot. Clearly, Harrold had hit back, and Joffrey's handsome face was none the prettier for it. He was pacing the room, swearing, and occasionally punching his fist into his palm.
Sansa was standing in a corner, teary and nervous. Her sequined mini-skirt was smudged with blood, as though she'd wiped her hand across it. Margaery was trying to hand Joffrey a fresh towel to replace the soiled one he'd slung over his shoulder, but was being ignored.
"What the fuck were you thinking?" Sandor demanded gruffly, grabbing the towel from Margaery's hand.
"He deserved it," Joffrey spat, finally accepting the towel from Sandor, "That fucking Hardyng called me a bastard."
"So, you punched him?" Sandor was not surprised, "You rotten brat, your father won't be pleased about this."
"You think I fucking care about that?" Joffrey's voice was nasal and thick, and he was breathing from his mouth.
"Hardyng's likely to sue,"
"So? He called my mother a whore,"
"You hit him. That's assault."
"We'll just pay him off, like my father does with everyone else." Joffrey shrugged.
"Hardyng doesn't need money," Sandor then turned to Sansa, "Stop crying. We need to get him to a hospital."
The redhead nodded, and made a move towards the sink to wash her hands. There was blood on her forearm, and at first Sandor thought it was Joffrey's, until he saw the raw gash under the running water.
"What the hell happened to you?" abruptly, Sandor grabbed her hand, pulling her closer so that he could inspect the wound.
"It's nothing," Sansa tried to pull her hand back.
"Like hell it's nothing,"
Margaery stepped in, "She tried to get in between them, but…erm…Joffrey accidentally bumped into her, and she fell on broken glass."
Sandor ground his teeth, seeing the cover up for what it was, understanding that Joffrey had likely pushed Sansa out of his way to get to Harrold Hardyng. The cut on her arm was not insignificant, and he hoped it would not scar her pretty, creamy-pale skin.
"You need to get that looked at, too."
"I'm fine," Sansa managed to retrieve her arm, "It's just a scratch."
"There could still be glass in it, you little fool!" he barked.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Margaery directed her question at Sansa, but the redhead declined. "Then, I'll see you tomorrow."
"We're going," Sandor grumbled, and instructed them to gather their belongings.
Sansa handed him Joffrey's jacket with a shaky hand, and as quickly and quietly as he could, he marched them out of the penthouse. Judging by the whispers following them, he figured that Robert Baratheon would be paying a lot of money to keep people from talking. Harrold Hardyng was going to be another matter.
It was nearly four in the morning by the time he had taken both young people to the hospital and delivered them back to the Baratheon's house. The doctor had given Joffrey some painkillers that had knocked him out, and thankfully, had kept him sleeping on the ride home. Sansa had stopped sniffling, but had remained silent. Sandor could guess what was going through her head, but he refrained from making a comment.
Cersei was waiting in the doorway anxiously, while Robert talked on the phone, presumably to his lawyer. Behind him, Renly was languidly sipping whisky from a tumbler, and still garbed in the same attire that Sandor had seen him wearing the previous evening. Cersei rushed to her son's side as soon as the car had stopped, waking him up before leading him away, presumably to his bedroom. Robert glanced at Sansa briefly, noting the dressing on her arm.
"I'm okay," Sansa assured him, "It was an accident. The doctor said it will heal in no time."
"You'll have to forgive him, Sansa," Robert implored the girl, "The lad can't hold his drink."
Sansa's expression was guarded as she responded. "He…he wasn't quite himself tonight."
It was then that Sandor became convinced Sansa knew about Joffrey's drug use.
"I'm sure that Joffrey will be back to his usual self in the morning," Robert said, although he had not sounded convincing. Sansa avoided the man's gaze, but she made an appropriate response that appeased Joffrey's father for the meantime. "You'd best get some sleep now, love."
After Sansa had excused herself, Renly let out a drunken chuckle, "Joffrey punched Harrold Hardyng? Harry The Fucking Heir?"
"That kid's been trouble since he was born," Robert grumbled, scratching at his beard, "The older he gets, the bigger the trouble."
"A whole room of people, and he attacks the one guy who can't be bought," Renly laughed, "Bloody awesome."
"Bloody nightmare," Robert grabbed the tumbler from Renly and threw back the rest of its contents.
Sandor had gone home shortly after, slept for a few hours, and later that morning he returned to the Baratheon house to find Robert shouting at Joffrey, while Cersei yelled at her husband in turn.
"You're a fucking disgrace," Robert glared at his son, "Do you have any idea how ugly this will be if Hardyng makes this public?"
"That's all you care about, isn't it? Shutting him up?" Joffrey had glared back.
"It's regretful that he didn't hit you back harder," Robert growled, "A black eye would go perfectly with that mangled nose!"
"Get off his back, Robert," Cersei cut in, "If you'd been any kind of father and disciplined–"
"Don't you dare put this on me, woman!" Robert turned to face her, "A fat lot of good all your mollycoddling did for him."
Sandor made a discreet exit, and went in search of Sansa. He found her lounging by the pool, sitting beneath an oversized umbrella to protect her fair skin from burning. She wore denim cut-offs and a sheer white blouse over a blue bikini top. She looked relaxed outwardly, bar the dark shadows under her eyes.
He took several steps towards her, intending to check on her wound and question her about what she knew of Joffrey's drug use, when Margaery Tyrell appeared from the doorway to the house. He stayed put, knowing he would learn more by eavesdropping than by interrogation.
"Sansa, how are you?" the older girl greeted her, "Did you get some sleep?"
"I'm fine. How about you? What time did you get home last night?"
For some minutes the two girls discussed the night's events, and what had been happening with Joffrey and his parents that morning.
"It's awful," Sansa sighed, "Apparently, Harry's lawyer has already made contact with Uncle Robert's lawyer. There's nothing Joffrey can say…that stuff makes him edgy...it was unprovoked…all Harry did was talk to me, that's all. Everyone there would say the same thing."
Ah. Sandor had the full story now. Harry The Heir had been flirting with Sansa, and Joffrey had not liked it. The brat had little self-control on a good day, and if that stuff was code for coke, then Joffrey really had been a bomb waiting to go off. The knowing look that Margaery was now giving the clueless Sansa spoke volumes.
"Sansa," Margaery inched herself closer to her, "If I told you that there might be something you can do to help Joffrey, would you do it?"
"Of course," Sansa replied without hesitation. "What is it?"
Margaery had sighed, before taking out her phone to make a call, "Hello…Yes, she's here."
The phone was handed to Sansa, who took it uncertainly. "Hello, who is this? Harry…"
Sandor shook his head, foreseeing the conclusion, but continuing to listen nevertheless.
"I don't understand," Sansa was saying, "You're going to drop the lawsuit, and all I have to do is agree to have dinner with you?"
What was there to understand? Sandor thought. The price for Hardyng's silence was Sansa. Hardyng was what? Twenty-one? Twenty-two? Young, but old enough to know the games that men played. You'll be a woman soon, Sandor looked at Sansa's expressions as she spoke on the phone, seeing her doubt, and shock. Propositions of this nature had probably never entered her realm of imagination. This is the world you're in, and you'd be better off realizing that this game has no rules.
"All right, Harry," Sansa said, "Saturday, at Garcon's…I'll have dinner with you."
Sandor grit his teeth, and forced himself to walk away, hoping for her sake that it was only just a fancy French dinner, and that Harrold Hardyng would be satisfied with conversation.
A few days later, the mood in the Baratheon house had lightened considerably. The lawsuit against Joffrey had been dropped without further mention. Harrold Hardyng's assistant had delivered an elaborate arrangement of orchids to the house as a sign of good faith, along with a card dedicated to Sansa, praising her for her charm.
"What did you do to charm him, Sansa?" Renly queried over the dinner table that evening, his voice dripping with innuendo.
Sansa chanced a quick glance at Joffrey, "I just met with him, and apologized for the trouble. It was all a misunderstanding, and Harry…Harrold, was able to see that."
"Joffrey, you're fortunate to have girlfriend like Sansa," Cersei appraised the girl with her cool green eyes, as though seeing her properly for the first time, "The charms of a beautiful young woman should never be underestimated."
"Whatever you said to him worked," Joffrey grinned, carefree once more, "That's all that matters. I love you, babe!"
Sandor knew that Joffrey was well aware of what Sansa had done for him, but it seemed he thought nothing of letting another man touch his girlfriend, when it meant his assault charge would disappear.
It angered him. Had he got her completely wrong? Was that innocent girl he remembered gone forever? He did not want to believe that Sansa could have changed so much, or that she really was capable of selling…using her charms to that extent.
The following day was his day off, and he was glad to get away from the craziness of the Baratheon household. He went to the pub, watched the football, and went for a smoke at his favorite place by the Old Pier. The 'closed for maintenance' sign was back up, and only the locals who knew better loitered about. Sunset was not far off, and the late afternoon light danced across the ocean water.
He sensed her presence even before he heard the squeak of the wood beneath her feet, or caught the scent of her perfume in the breeze.
"I didn't do it," she said to his back.
Sandor turned around and faced her. Sansa looked distressed, and he frowned when he saw that the shadows were still under her eyes.
"Didn't do what?" he asked gruffly.
"What they all think I did," she said, "You're thinking it, too. I saw the way you looked at me yesterday."
"You don't need to explain anything to me,"
"I didn't sleep with Harry," she blurted out, "He never touched me."
"I told him I'm a virgin," Sansa blushed bright pink.
"And he believed you?" he scoffed.
"I am a virgin," her blue eyes flashed angrily, "I'm telling the truth."
"How did you convince him of that?" Sandor had once heard a rumor of Hardyng knocking up a high school classmate, and the idea of someone like Hardyng not devouring a pretty piece of tail like Sansa was laughable.
"He's not what people say he is," she replied, "Not all men are mongrels."
"You expect me to believe that he was happy to drop the charges against Joffrey in exchange for chit-chat about the weather and a plate of garlic snails?"
"Just because you don't know how to appreciate stimulating conversation–"
"I'll bet Hardyng was stimulated right enough,"
"– does not mean other men can't," Sansa spoke over him, "And, they're called escargot."
"I don't care what they're called," Sandor stubbed his cigarette out into the bin near him, "How did you know I'd be here?"
"You always come here on your days off," Sansa replied with a dismissive shrug, "It was either here, or the pub."
He was surprised that she knew him that well, but then, he was a creature of habit and simple pleasures.
"So, you came to find me on my day off, just to tell me you're still a virgin?"
Sansa winced, and flushed even deeper.
"If you're going to tell me that Joffrey hasn't touched you, either, I'm calling you a bloody liar."
"I don't know why I bothered coming to find you," Sansa shook her head, and a pained look crossed her face, "I should have known you wouldn't believe me."
Sandor wouldn't allow himself to believe it. It was impossible that Joffrey would have left her untouched, and yet the hurt in her voice had seemed real enough.
"Say I did believe you," he rasped, "Why is it so important to you anyway?"
The little bird's expression became unsure, and Sansa looked as though she couldn't find the words to say to him. It made him wonder in what esteem she held him, because he had never considered that they were close enough for her to care what he thought of her. It perplexed him that his opinion now mattered.
"Because, it just is," she dropped her arms to her sides in a show of helplessness, "I just didn't want you thinking the worst about me. I'm not completely stupid…I know that things like that happen, but I could never do something like that. I'm not that kind of woman…that's not me…I'm–"
"That's enough," he couldn't bear to listen to anymore. She could convince herself of whatever she wanted, if it eased her conscience. "What does Joffrey think?"
Sansa glanced away before she replied, "He believes me…he loves me."
"And you love him, of course," he stated, rougher than he intended, coming out sounding as though he was mocking her.
"Of course," she said, almost defensively, as though it should have been obvious.
"Then, that's all that should matter, right?" he pointed out, "You're a woman now, capable of making your own decisions. You should be able to handle the consequences, too."
Sandor had no interest in comforting her. If she was looking for some kind of absolution, there was no way she was going to find it with him.
"I get it," Sansa nodded "I've made my bed and all that, right? It was my choice to help Joffrey, and it was my fault for not realizing how people would look at it, so I should just shut my mouth and deal with it."
"I hope it was worth it," he took out another cigarette from his pocket and lit it. "Go home now, it's getting dark."
Sansa watched him smoke for a moment, assessing his face, and Sandor did nothing to hide his distaste. Not that he could do much to make his face less unpleasant to look at.
"You're still as awful as ever," she turned away and began to walk away.
"Men never change, little bird," he called after her, "Best you learn that now."
She didn't look back, but the slight pause in her step let him know she had heard him. You'll be a proper woman, soon enough, he thought. But, if you're going to stay with Joffrey Baratheon, you'd better wise up, or turn your skin to steel.
The summer ended quickly for Sansa and Joffrey. Despite Robert's best efforts to stop people from talking, there were soon rumors about a drug and booze fuelled incident involving Joffrey. In an attempt to stem it, it had been decided that Joffrey would head to Paris early. A few weeks later, Sansa followed him.
Six months later, Sandor heard the news that Joffrey had asked Sansa to marry him.
Chapter 6: Through Different Eyes
Sansa had been wearing the engagement ring that Joffrey had given her for the last five months. It was a flashy thing, beautiful, and clearly designed to attract attention. It boasted a three carat cushion cut fancy yellow diamond, surrounded by at least another carat of white diamonds, set in a platinum band. It had felt heavy on her hand the first time Joffrey had put it there, but he'd told her that she would get used to it.
Joffrey's proposal had been a big surprise, coming six months into her gap year. She had been in Barcelona at the time, and he and Margaery had come to see her during a break they had from college. One evening, Margaery had made herself scarce, and Joffrey had taken Sansa to dinner, proposing just before dessert had arrived.
"I…I don't know what to say, Joffrey," Sansa had blinked several times, only able to stare in awe at the ring he'd held in front of her.
"Yes. Obviously," he'd then taken her left hand and slipped the ring onto her fourth finger, "You're going to say yes. We've known each other since we were kids, and we've been going out a couple of years now, Sansa. It's the logical thing to do."
"Are you sure? We're still so young. What will our families say?"
"Seriously?" he'd asked incredulously, "My father loves you, and to be honest, I think your folks are probably expecting it. You'll be eighteen soon, you'll legally be an adult."
"I suppose that's true…"
"And anyway, you love me, right?" a frown had formed between his eyebrows.
"You know I do," she'd replied, assuring him.
"Then that's all there is to it," and instantly the smile had returned to his lips.
The reaction from her parents, when she had informed them, had been mixed. Not to say they were displeased about her engagement, because they were fairly positive, on the whole. However, her mother had expressed some concerns. When her trip to Spain had concluded, Sansa had made a brief stop home, and that was when Catelyn had sat her down for a mother-daughter talk.
"Are you sure that getting married so young is the right thing to do? You're barely eighteen, Sansa."
"You married young, mum, and that's worked out for you. Why wouldn't it work for me?"
"I'm not saying it won't, I'm just saying that neither of you have to rush." Catelyn had sighed wearily, "You'll be starting your design course soon, and Joffrey still has two more years at university. My concern is that you've both barely experienced what life has to offer, and neither of you truly realize just what marriage means."
"We love each other, isn't that enough?"
"If you truly love each other, then you should both give each other the chance to grow as individuals." Catelyn argued, "At least, agree to a long engagement. Long enough to see you both graduate college."
Sansa had understood her mother's concern, because it had also been weighing on her mind. She had a three year plan involving design school, interning for a big European fashion house, and then making a name for herself. Becoming a wife had not been in her immediate plans. She was just starting to see the world with her own eyes. However, her fiancé had not taken it well when she had tried to discuss it with him.
"They should just keep out of it," had been Joffrey's response, "I'm marrying you, not your parents. We're getting married next year, and they can't stop us."
"Joffrey, this is important to me,"
"I thought you loved me, Sansa," Joffrey had given her that frown again, "If you love me, then there's no reason to wait."
They'd been arguing about it ever since. Sansa couldn't make him understand why she wanted a long engagement, and every time she brought it up he accused her of having second thoughts, of hesitating because she was unsure of becoming his wife, which was not the case. She did want to marry him…just, not yet. Her arguments failed to reach him, and somehow Sansa had found herself going along with Joffrey's plans, to the extent that she had even met with a wedding planner, and a renowned wedding gown designer.
Before she had known it, their wedding had been scheduled for Spring of the following year. A venue had been chosen and 'save the date' cards had been sent to just about everyone known to the Baratheons and Starks. The local newspapers had reported their engagement and Sansa had been inundated with messages from friends and family congratulating her on upcoming nuptials.
Her eighteenth birthday, when it arrived, had been celebrated in Copenhagen, with her family flying to see her. Her mother had put aside her concerns, accepting Sansa's decision, and trusting her to decide what was best for herself. Joffrey and Margaery had also flown in to celebrate with her, with Joffrey gifting a pair of diamond earrings to mark the occasion. She had smiled the whole time, and she knew it should have been the happiest time of her life…if it weren't for the niggling little voice at the back of her mind, questioning just how true that happiness was. Of late, she'd been telling herself that she was simply over-thinking things, and that there was nothing for her to worry about.
"Sansa? You are still here?"
Sansa turned away from the window overlooking busy Orchard Road below her.
"Oh, I won't be much longer," Sansa said to the chic Asian woman, who was currently her mentor. "I'm just about finished with this catalogue."
"It's already late, so be sure to go home soon,"
"I will. Have a good night."
When she was alone again, Sansa quickly put away the catalogue of sketches she'd been asked to organize and prepared to leave the studio. Her gap year was coming to an end, and Singapore was her final destination. She had been very fortunate to land an internship with a leading fashion house, and she had enjoyed her two months in the Asian metropolis.
In fact, she was quite saddened that her year travelling through Europe and Asia was almost over. It had taken her a long time to plan it all, and she'd had to convince her parents to let her travel by herself, but it had been worth it. She might have used her mother's connections to land her first internship at a French fashion label, but after that, everything else had been as a result of her own hard work. She'd been able to complete three internships that year, though unpaid, the experience for her was invaluable.
Travelling alone had also made her realize that she was braver and more adventurous than she had realized. Two years ago, she could not have imagined walking along a busy street in a foreign country on her own, and yet that's exactly what she had done for the better part of a year, through numerous cities in eight different countries. The hotel that she had called home for the last two months was situated a short walk from the fashion house's main office, and each day she had taken pleasure in the heat, sights, sounds and spicy cuisine that Singapore was famous for.
Over the year, Joffrey and Margaery had joined her at least once a month, in whatever city she was in at the time. She usually had lot of fun when they were around, and their visits always involved a weekend of bingeing and non-stop partying. However, after they left to return to the UK, Sansa was also filled with a sense of relief. She had missed Joffrey terribly at the start of her gap year, but with each city she visited, and with each month that went by, their separation had become easier to bear. His proposal and getting engaged had not changed that.
Joffrey was still using, and as far as she knew, he was using more often. After that incident with Harrold Hardyng, Joffrey had been careful never to take anything in front of her, but Sansa could always tell. It didn't matter what city or country they were in, Joffrey always had someone hook him up with a supplier. Joffrey travelled with a minder, usually another member of the Baratheon staff, but never the scarred Sandor Clegane, who was rumoured to have a fear of flying. Sansa had a strong suspicion that Joffrey took advantage of this and partied as though no one was watching. Sandor Clegane was still the only one able to exert some kind of influence over him. She was always on edge whenever Joffrey visited, never knowing when he would snap and she knew that this was the cloud that cast a shadow over their reunions.
It had happened several times. As with Harrold, all it had taken was someone saying the wrong thing or looking at Joffrey in a way that offended him, and it would be enough to start an altercation. Had Margaery not been there to help calm tensions, Sansa did not know what she would have done. It irked her that she still wasn't brave enough to go against Joffrey's temper. If she couldn't make him change his mind about the date of their wedding, then what hope did she have of getting him to stop his drug taking?
There was a message from Joffrey waiting for her when she got back to her hotel room, so she had called him, and learned that he would be coming to join her in two days time to celebrate her final days in Singapore.
"Will Margaery be coming, too?" Sansa asked.
"Should be," Joffrey replied, "See you soon."
After ending the call, she had changed into her swimsuit and headed to the pool, where she swam a few laps to help her unwind, and cool down. She'd travelled to warm climes before, but the humidity in Asia had taken a while to get used to.
As she focused on moving her arms through the water and breathing, her thoughts wandered to Joffrey and his coming visit. It was nice that Margaery always travelled with him. Despite his many acquaintances, Joffrey had few close friends, as Sansa had learned, and it was comforting to know that at least he had the one confidante in Margaery Tyrell when Sansa could not be with him. Margaery and Joffrey were even attending the same university, and the older girl had jokingly promised Sansa that she would 'keep an eye' on her fiancé and keep the gold-diggers away.
It had been Margaery who had helped to assuage Sansa's misgivings about her engagement and the wedding, convincing her that she had more to gain by marrying Joffrey, and it did not mean she would have to give up her fashion designing dreams. Sansa had asked Margaery to be her Maid of Honour, as a sign of how much she valued her friendship.
Late the following day, Sansa received an email from one of the Baratheon's aides detailing Joffrey and Margaery's flight and arrival times. Rooms had been booked in the same hotel that Sansa was staying in, and she should expect to see them at eight the following evening. Smiling, Sansa had completed the beadwork she'd been assigned to do, and counted down the hours until she would see her fiancé and Maid of Honour again.
Needless to say she was left speechless when, upon answering the knock on her door the following evening, she was greeted by the last person she would have ever expected to see in a million years.
"Joffrey sends his apologies," Sandor Clegane said, taking in the dumbfounded expression on her face with some amusement, "Glad to see me, little bird?"
"You," she returned, staring at the hulking man before her, utterly confused, "What's going on? Why are you here? Where are Joffrey and Margaery?"
"Did Joffrey not tell you?" Sandor frowned, "There's been a change of plans."
"No, I haven't spoken to Joffrey," Sansa shook her head, "No one has contacted me."
"Then I suggest you call him and get him to explain,"
Hesitating, Sansa eventually stepped aside and opened the door wider, "I guess you'd better come in."
Sansa watched him warily as he moved around her spacious suite, which was suddenly made smaller with his presence, and not entirely due to his size. She hadn't seen him in almost a year. Not since that time she'd made a fool of herself at the Old Pier. Part of her was still angry with him for not believing her, but mostly she was annoyed at herself for thinking that he would.
She managed to get through to Joffrey's mobile phone after the third try, "Joffrey, what's going on?"
"Ah, geez…did no one tell you, Sansa?" he sounded exasperated, "Margaery's had an accident, and you know…I couldn't just leave her by herself."
Sansa heard how Margaery had taken a fall and sprained her ankle, and consequently she was unfit to travel. Sansa was glad her friend had not been seriously injured, but was upset for her nevertheless. It was surprising that Joffrey had volunteered to stay and play nurse, but Sansa was pleased to learn that he did have a caring side.
"Clegane's supposed to be flying there, so you won't have to travel home on your own." Joffrey informed her.
"Yeah," Sansa glanced at her guest, "Sandor's just arrived."
"For real? Hound got on a plane? I expected he'd chicken out and get someone else to go."
"There's only one of him," Sansa confirmed, "And he's definitely here."
There was laughter at Joffrey's end as he relayed the news to Margaery, who Sansa could hear in the background. There was also music in the background, as well as a low hum of voices, as though they were in a restaurant. Sansa did not get the chance to ask.
"Look, I'm truly sorry, Sansa," Joffrey eventually said, "You're a gem for being so understanding about this. Anyway, we'll see you when you get back in a few days."
After hanging up, Sansa found Sandor standing before the floor to ceiling window at the other end of the living room, staring out at the bright city lights, observing both the pedestrian and vehicular traffic that never seemed to ease regardless of the hour. A glance at the slim wristwatch she wore told her that it was almost nine, and she had yet to eat dinner. She'd been expecting to have dinner with Joffrey and Margaery, but that wasn't going to happen now.
"Erm…did you have a nice flight?" she asked, breaking the silence.
Sandor turned from the window and ran his hand across his jaw. He was wearing dark jeans, boots, and a black longsleeve shirt with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. His shirt was wrinkled in places, suggesting he'd arrived directly from the airport and hadn't bothered changing before coming to see her. His black hair was longer than she remembered, and he looked tired.
"I don't know," he replied, "Got no other flying experience to compare to."
"Are you saying this was your first time on a plane?" Sansa asked him incredulously.
"That's right, yeah."
"So, what Joffrey said is true? You're really afraid of flying?"
"Bullshit," Sandor swore, "I've never flown because I've never wanted to go anyplace far enough to need getting on a plane, not because I'm afraid."
"You've never been overseas?"
"I've been to France," he replied, "By rail."
"This is your first overseas trip," Sansa stated, bewildered, ignoring his response. "This is your first time out of Europe."
He didn't look too pleased about it either. Sansa's own irritation grew. She hadn't needed or wanted an escort, and Sandor did not have to come to Singapore. However, Joffrey had ordered him to go, and now that he was there, and it being his first time in Asia, Sansa felt a sense of responsibility for him.
"You don't have to play tour guide," he snorted, as though reading her mind. "I have no interest in sightseeing. I'll be fine staying in that overpriced room Joffrey's paying for, until we go home."
"That's ridiculous," Sansa's irritation kept mounting, and she gave him an exasperated glare before she went in search of her purse. "I haven't eaten dinner yet. I'm going to get some."
"It's nine o'clock," Sandor protested and pointed to the inky sky from the window, "You can't go out on your own at this time of night."
Sansa paused at the door, "Then I guess you'll have to come with me, if you're so concerned."
She left the room without waiting for him, but he appeared in the elevator beside her just as the doors were about to close. Sansa hid a smirk. He's still so predictable.
Sansa was used to attracting attention wherever she went. Her height, pale skin and head of flame-coloured tresses were hard to ignore. Walking next to Sandor in a country where most of the populace was below six feet in height was another experience entirely. It wasn't only his height that made him stand out. The scars on his face drew just as much curiosity, although, Sandor behaved as though it was normal. It was probably no different to how people stared at him back home, she figured.
He remained silent as he followed her along the bustling entertainment and shopping precinct of Orchard Road. It was hard to tell what he was thinking, but Sansa could see that his eyes held a glint of fascination as he gazed about him. So, she began to talk. She told him about the history of Orchard Road and how it was so named for the spice and fruit orchards it led to during the mid 1800's. She spoke about what she had experienced of Singaporean culture, the people she had met, the fashion trends that had led her to pursue her internship, and about the Malay, Indian and Chinese influences that flavoured the local food.
"You still like to prattle on," Sandor suddenly said, and she looked up to see him glowering. "Am I actually going to try this food, or just hear you talk about it?"
"You're still a grouch." Sansa shot back, and carried on walking.
The restaurant she brought him to was one that she frequented often. She'd initially been brought there by a local girl she worked with at the fashion house, who'd introduced her to dishes beyond the typical noodles and fried rice. Sansa ordered spicy seafood, braised bean curd and aromatic beef rendang, along with coconut rice. She watched as Sandor tentatively tasted everything first, before devouring the lot. He spoke only to learn the names of the dishes and to ask for a beer, but otherwise he ate silently. It was, she realized, the first time she'd ever sat at a table and eaten with him.
After dinner, mindful that he'd had a long trip and probably hadn't slept a wink, Sansa led them back to their hotel, where Sandor still insisted on seeing her right to her door. He bid her a gruff goodnight, before heading to his own room on the same floor. Sansa had to go into work the following morning and went to bed almost immediately, but she found herself picturing the faces Sandor had made while trying each dish earlier that evening. He was a bad-tempered man, and rarely smiled, but it had amused her to see that he could make curious faces as he'd discovered new tastes to his liking.
She thought about the day she had gone to look for him, and how she had tried to convince him of her innocence. He'd asked her why it was important to her, but even after so many months had gone by, she was still finding it hard to put into words. Sure, he was a Baratheon employee, but ever since the day he'd jumped into the ocean to save her, she had regarded him with some respect. She wouldn't call him genial, or even approachable, but he was capable of being thoughtful and of exerting a level of care which she'd experienced for herself on numerous occasions. He often gave her a piece of his mind, even if his candidness was hard to take. In the world she occupied where there was so much falseness, Sandor's honesty had a grounding effect on her, forcing her to open her eyes, and see that the picture was not always rosy.
In the end, she'd told herself that the only person who could change Sandor Clegane's mind, was the man himself. All she could do was be herself, and hopefully he would see that she had been telling the truth all along, and that he was a jackass for believing otherwise.
She was awake very early the next morning. She had missed out on her nightly swim, and after the calories she'd consumed at dinner the night before, Sansa wanted to get her laps in before going into work. Usually, the indoor pool was deserted so early in the morning, but she was surprised to find a man already there, swimming freestyle along its length. Spying his belongings at one end of the row of loungers, Sansa kept her distance and chose the furthest lounger, hoping he would soon complete his laps and vacate the pool.
She'd just removed her shirt when the lone swimmer reached the far end of the pool, and looked to be preparing to get out. His back towards her, the man placed his palms against the edge of the pool, and she watched in appreciation as a broad pair of shoulders cleared the water, followed by a massive expanse of toned back, narrow hips, well shaped buttocks covered by a pair of black and yellow board shorts, and long muscular legs. Taut arms reached for a towel, which he threw over his head obscuring his face. He turned towards her, allowing her to see his biceps bunching tightly as he rubbed the towel over his hair. Her eyes drifted downward, scoping out his sculpted chest and finally, the chocolate block abdominals that made her palms tingle, unexpectedly.
He was tall, so very tall and large. Sansa was making a mental comparison between this stranger's physique, with the only person she knew who could come close, when the man lowered the towel to reveal his face, and Sansa was made speechless for the second time in less than twenty-four hours.
"Didn't expect to see you up so early," Sandor stated when he caught sight of her, now using the towel to pat himself dry, "I'm done. Pool's all yours."
"Erm…thanks," was all she managed to utter.
"Today's the final day of your internship, right?" he asked as he pushed his arms into the sleeves of his t-shirt.
"Yeah…it's more of a formality actually. I technically finished yesterday."
"You have plans with your friends? Or should I expect you back here early?"
"I'll be back early…I don't have any plans," Sansa frowned, recalling that she'd cancelled all her plans with other people when she'd heard of Joffrey and Margaery's visit.
"What have you organized for your belongings? Do you still have things to pack or ship home?"
"Done," she replied, he was asking simple questions, but she was finding herself distracted, "Just two suitcases for the flight tomorrow."
"You're surprisingly organized," he remarked as he walked by her. "I'll be off now."
Sandor left the pool area without looking back, and Sansa slid into the water quietly. Who knew? She thought as she began her first lap. Of course he's a man…but, who knew? What would she have done if he had caught her staring? Would she have appraised him in that manner had she recognized him when she'd first walked in? It unsettled her, to realize that she'd been looking at him in the way that, well…as a woman looks at a man.
She ended her internship at the fashion house with farewell speeches and a letter of recommendation, and after she returned to the hotel, she completed packing her suitcases. She also made sure her passport and travel documents were ready, and sent emails to her parents informing them that she was looking forward to seeing them soon. She also tried contacting Joffrey, but settled for sending him an email when she couldn't get through to him.
With nothing left to do, she sat on the end of her bed and looked out of the window, staring at the tops of buildings in the horizon, and at the pink, orange and violet hues that streaked the afternoon sky. She had nothing left to do. It was her final evening in Singapore, the end of her gap year, and she was sitting in her hotel room, alone.
After the shock she'd had that morning, she wasn't sure she could look at Sandor and meet his eyes without flinching. However, her sense of propriety won out, and as a result she found herself knocking on Sandor's door half an hour later. It was his first trip overseas after all, she reminded herself.
"You do have plans," he stated when he saw her wearing a pretty dress and sparkly sandals.
"Yeah," she offered him a smile, "With you. Let's go."
"I hope you're not planning on dragging me to one of those posh clubs we passed yesterday," he narrowed his eyes at her.
"I wouldn't dream of it," she returned in a serious tone.
"Fine," he stepped aside to let her in, "Let me change."
His suite was bigger than hers, and Sansa belatedly remembered that the room had been booked with Joffrey in mind. If she were to put herself in Sandor's place and look at it through his eyes, she could understand why he'd called it an overpriced room. Joffrey thrived in extravagance, and everything he did was always in excess.
Sandor reappeared from the bedroom, still in dark jeans, but now paired with a dark grey shirt with the sleeves folded up to show his forearms, and unbuttoned at the neck. As she'd suspected, she couldn't meet his eyes, so she kept them trained at a point on his chin and hoped he wouldn't notice.
She took him to Marina Bay, where they ate at a restaurant with a casual atmosphere and where she knew they served fantastic seafood. As per the previous evening, Sandor did not say much, but after some prodding, he admitted to carrying out some sightseeing while she'd been away.
"I went for a long walk," he shrugged, "Ended up at the Botanic Gardens."
She smirked. He refused to admit he'd enjoyed his walk.
She made him do some more walking after dinner, taking him to see the bay, and the architectural landmarks of the city-state. Eventually, they stopped at the water's edge, with a view overlooking the distinctive triple towers of the Marina Bays Sands Hotel.
"I've never seen anything like that," Sandor commented.
"I was told its inspiration came from decks of playing cards,"
"I don't see it," he sniffed, "It looks like a ship sitting on top of three buildings."
"You don't understand design and aesthetics,"
"I call it as I see it," he said, before turning his back on the building and leaning against the railing to face her, "I need a smoke."
"Smoking's banned in most places in Singapore," Sansa informed him.
"Just as well," he sighed, "I quit."
"You did? When?"
"Three months ago."
"Because, it's detrimental to one's health," Sandor gave her a look.
"I meant, why all of a sudden?" she clarified.
He sighed again, heavier, wearier. "I'm thirty-four, and I'm not getting any younger. I had a checkup and the doc said I'd better give it up, if I want to stick around longer. He also told me to take up swimming…it helps improve lung capacity, apparently."
"That's great," she said, momentarily thrown by the reminder of what had she had seen that morning by the pool, "Good for you."
"And you," he nodded towards her hand, and the ring on her finger, "You're getting married."
"Yeah," Sansa felt the need to tuck her hand away from his gaze, "I am."
"Congratulations," he said, but his tone was expressionless.
"You're judging me again," she accused him, her eyes narrowing on the tilt of his mouth, "I can tell."
"Is that so?"
"You're always doing it,"
"Then it should be nothing new for you," he remarked.
"You think I'm too young, don't you," she stated. "You're thinking it's a mistake to tie myself down, and I'm too inexperienced, and I don't know the first thing about marriage."
"I wouldn't know the first thing about marriage, either," he said gruffly, "But, those first things you said…yeah, I do think that."
"You're not always right, you know," Sansa looked up at him, her eyes saying more than her lips could, recalling the disdain in his voice and the disbelief in his eyes that day at the Old Pier. "You're so quick to judge me, but what gives you that right? You've never been married, have you? I don't think I've ever heard about you having a girlfriend either, so what makes you such an expert on relationships? Why do you think you can judge me when–"
Sansa's words were cut off when Sandor suddenly grabbed her shoulders, hauling her around and dropping his head so his face was inches from hers.
"Look at me," he growled, "Look at this face!"
Stunned, Sansa did, seeing deep into his grey eyes which were flashing with anger. She saw the unburned side of his face, with his dark furrowing brow, the high cheekbone and hollow cheek, as well as his lips which curled when he was irritated. She also saw the burned side of his face, with its terrible blackened scars, which she had long since ceased to be frightened of.
"I am looking at you," she said in a tight voice.
"Take a good long look, little bird." Sandor dropped his head even lower, "What woman could love this face?"
The question caught her off-guard, and Sansa could only stare at him in silence, while she tried to find the words to answer him without angering him further, but she never got the chance to reply.
"Never mind," Sandor released her abruptly, "It's pointless asking you. You're into pretty boys, like Joffrey."
"I'm not with him just because he's good-looking," Sansa snapped.
"Oh, of course you're with him for his shining personality, and outstanding morals." Sandor laughed harshly, "Sansa, did you ever think to ask why Joffrey never comes to visit you alone? Did you never ask why Margaery is always with him?"
"What are you saying?" Sansa stepped away from him, unsure of this turn in his mood.
"Margaery sprained her ankle, right?" he continued, "She's at home, with an army of servants to see to her every need. She hardly needs Joffrey to stay with her."
"Joffrey's being a good friend, that's all it is." Sansa glared at him, suddenly aware of a ringing in her ears.
"Is that what it is? Okay, let me ask you another question," Sandor reached for her left hand and lifted it so that her fancy yellow diamond glimmered between them, refusing to let go even when Sansa tried to shrug him off, "Have you ever asked why Joffrey is in such a rush to marry you?"
"Because, he loves me!" she shouted at him.
Sandor's fingers tightened around hers painfully, and he looked as though he was biting back the words he wanted to say. It was only when they became aware that they were attracting looks did he release her hand.
"You're so convinced of that, aren't you?" he said, his tone critical.
"Why is that so hard for you to believe?" her demand came out low, and through gritted teeth.
"I haven't seen anything that's convinced me." Sandor ground out harshly, and with a seriousness that left her in no doubt that he meant exactly as he said.
"I don't know why I let you get to me," she shook her head, "I don't know whatever made me think you cared. You're just a hateful man, and you can't stand to see anyone happy because you're miserable, and you want everyone to be miserable along with you."
"Say what you want, sweetheart. But, I still see things a damned sight clearer than you." Sandor rasped.
Every word had been clipped, like he was controlling his anger, though Sansa was certain that she'd pushed him too far. Her own anger was simmering beneath her skin, but Sansa understood that she'd get nowhere by saying anything more.
"I'm heading back to the hotel," she said, "You can do as you please."
With a sense of déjà vu, Sansa left him by the waterside and caught a taxi back to the hotel on her own. What made me think he could be civil? She asked herself. Why did I think he even cared? She had known him for six years, and in that time she'd imagined he might have come to regard her as…a niece, perhaps, or a friend? Certainly more than a ward he was occasionally charged with, surely? The reality of it, she thought, was that she had just been a babysitting job for him, possibly in much the same way he viewed Joffrey. With a regretful sigh, Sansa mused on the thought that maybe, she had been regarding him too highly. It was with another regretful sigh that Sansa went to bed, mulling over how rapidly the evening had declined, and that before things had gone sour, she might have been enjoying herself in Sandor's company.
The flight home was made longer by the fact that Sandor sat across the aisle from her in first class. She'd barely said a word to him since they had left the hotel, though there had been a moment during take-off where Sandor had looked distinctly uncomfortable, and Sansa had almost been compelled to ask if he was okay. She'd refrained, and consequently theirs was a silent journey.
Joffrey had met them at the airport, where Sansa was greeted with a kiss and further apologies for not coming to see her, and questions about the flight. When Sandor had left them to meet the driver Joffrey had brought along to collect them, Sansa asked him what had possessed him to send Sandor Clegane as her escort.
"Hmm? I didn't," Joffrey had replied, "I instructed him to organize for one of the assistants to go in my stead. It was his idea…he volunteered to be your escort."
Chapter 7: Seeing Is Believing
Seeing Is Believing
Autumn was drawing to a close, and the days became shorter and colder. There was a chill in the air, as one would expect with the changing season, but the frostiness that pervaded the atmosphere whenever Joffrey and Sansa were together had nothing to do with the coming winter.
Sansa's return from Singapore had been celebrated with an extravagant party and plenty of talk from Joffrey declaring how much he had missed his fiancée. For some weeks, there were continued discussions about the wedding and related preparations, but then the talk seemed to peter out, as though Sansa had run out of enthusiasm for it. Sandor soon learned that Sansa had left the rest of the organizing to the wedding planner, claiming that her studies were leaving her time-poor.
Not long after her return, Sandor began to see a developing tension between Sansa and Joffrey, and it wasn't the nervous-excited tension often associated with those about to be wed. If people noticed the difference in Sansa's usually calm and collected demeanour, they put it down to pre-wedding jitters. Joffrey was louder and brasher than usual, but if anyone noticed, they would laugh and claim he was an eager bridegroom. On the surface, everything seemed fine, but Sandor knew better.
It was just a matter of time before things would come to a head, and Sandor was concerned about what would happen when the moment came. He'd watched events unfold over the past year. From his vantage point in the shadows and overlooked corners of rooms, he had seen and heard enough to know how ugly, and messy, things could potentially turn out.
A little over a year previously, beginning with Joffrey's return from Paris following the incident with Harrold Hardyng, Joffrey's father had given him a plum position at Crowned Stag Imports, much to the chagrin of Robert's senior board members and managers, including Robert's brother, Stannis, who was employed as Chief of Operations.
"What are you thinking, Robert?" Stannis had paid Robert a visit at the mansion upon the announcement, "The boy's just entered college…what would he know about running a business?"
"The boy needs to mature, and giving him this responsibility will make him grow up all the faster." Sandor had watched as Robert waved his arms in the air, as though to waive Stannis' concerns away.
"You mean to tell me, this is an experiment?" Stannis had exclaimed, "Since when did Crowned Stag Imports start hiring children?"
"Joffrey will soon be twenty, and he's my son," Robert had responded heatedly, "Someday he'll inherit my company, and when he does, I want him to be prepared. There's no better time for him to start than now."
"Then you should have given him a junior role, not appointed him as an Assistant Manager."
"Joffrey has a thing or two to learn about authority, and this role ought to give him plenty of chances to do just that."
"Authority?" Stannis had spat, "Joffrey's far too spoilt, and his sense of entitlement is so high that I can't see this being anything but a disaster."
In a matter of weeks, Stannis's prediction about Joffrey proved not to be inaccurate, when Sandor heard about the number of complaints being made against Joffrey. Joffrey then began to whine about how his father was holding him back, and how his uncle and other managers were undermining his position, when they kept retracting orders he'd made, and rescinding his decisions.
"What was the point of giving me an Assistant Manager's role, if I have no real power to do anything?" Joffrey had thundered, after one particularly harrowing day at work, where he'd had to explain to his father why it was necessary to call back a shipment of consignments, resulting in some very angry clients who didn't receive their goods.
"You have to think about consequences, Joffrey," Robert had said, "You can't just make decisions on your own without justification merely because you feel like it."
"That warehouse manager is a moron!" Joffrey had shouted, "If it were up to me, he'd have been axed on the spot."
"Yeah? Then it's a good thing you're not in charge!"
"Yet," Joffrey had spat, glowering at his father.
Robert had sought to punish Joffrey by cutting off his allowance, effectively making him work for his money. For the first time in his life, Joffrey had only a weekly salary to rely on. Even though his pay packet was higher than the average Assistant Manager's, it drastically limited his spending power. There'd been serious rows following that decision, and only Cersei stepping in behind Robert's back had calmed tensions. Cersei resorted to giving Joffrey funds from her own accounts in order to keep him in the lifestyle he was accustomed to.
Shortly after, Joffrey began seeing his grandfather at his country estate, CasterlyRock. The reasons for these visits were not obvious at first, as Joffrey seldom went to see the stern old man, outside of the obligatory visit at Christmas. Sandor had been a trusted employee for a long time, and his loyalty had never been questioned. His ability to keep his mouth shut had also been taken for granted. Both of these factors meant that the family were never secretive about what was discussed in front of him, and the reason soon revealed itself.
"Make me your heir, Grandfather," Joffrey had said to Tywin Lannister.
The old man, tall and broad-shouldered, gave his grandson an intimidating glare. "That's very bold of you, Joffrey. What qualifies you to make that kind of demand?"
"I'm the logical choice, Grandfather," Joffrey replied, "Uncle Jaime's run off with that giant, blonde Amazon, and you haven't spoken to Uncle Tyrion in years. You may as well be dead to him."
"Your Uncle Jaime will return,"
"He might, but he doesn't want Casterly Rock."
"On what basis do you make that assumption?"
"He defied you, Grandfather. He deliberately ignored you when you ordered him to stay here and take over the running of the estate, and he even argued with my mother when she tried talking to him. Now, you know how close he is to my mother, being twins and all, but he still chose that Tarth woman. Even if he returned, there's no way he'd give up his yacht racing to be a landowner."
"Even if what you say, as you put it, makes you the logical choice, you're young and have no sense of accountability, Joffrey."
"I have hopes for your Uncle Jaime, so there's no reason to discuss this further."
Joffrey would not be dissuaded that readily, and Sandor did wonder at the sudden interest in his grandfather's wealth, but it wasn't until Sandor overheard him discussing the matter with Margaery Tyrell did Joffrey's motivation come to light. Joffrey and Margaery had grown closer in Sansa's absence, more so as they started university, and as Joffrey's circle of acquaintances from high school were dispersed.
"I won't give up," Joffrey said to Margaery, "Grandfather will have to see things my way soon, and he'll name me as his heir."
"Of course he will," Margaery agreed, "You're his eldest grandson. But, why are you so confident he won't will his estate to your mother?"
"Grandfather is quite an old-fashioned chauvinist in his ideals about women, so there's no chance of mother inheriting any of his major assets." Joffrey had replied, "If he names me as heir ahead of my uncles – and let's face it, Grandfather's likely to kick the bucket sooner than father is – I'd be wealthy, and independent of father's control."
Joffrey wanted to be rich and to be free from his father's rule, and at the time Sandor had only shaken his head at the boy's greed and impetuousness, fairly certain that Tywin Lannister would not be swayed by his grandson's pleas and that the old man's sharp, green eyes could see right through the boy. However, it appeared Sandor had underestimated Joffrey's persistence, and during one visit to Casterly rock, Tywin Lannister suddenly changed his position on the matter, much to Joffrey's surprise.
"I've considered your argument, Joffrey," Tywin said to him, "I will agree to naming you my heir."
"That's wonderful, Grandfather!"
"Don't be too hasty with your celebrations," Tywin cautioned.
"I will not be making changes to my will until you turn yourself around, and become the kind of man deserving of inheriting Casterly Rock."
"I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean, Grandfather."
There had been a shrewd look in the old man's eyes, and Sandor could see that Tywin was not simply just going to hand over his wealth to the boy. Getting hold of his estate was going to come at a price, and the condition that Tywin Lannister imposed caused not only Joffrey to balk, but also caused Sandor to bite his own tongue so as not to swear out loud.
"Quit your partying, quit being a playboy, go to your classes…and marry Sansa Stark."
"Marry…marry Sansa?" the brat had sputtered.
"That's right," Tywin had said, "Settle down, become an upstanding member of society, and see to it that I don't regret making you my heir."
"But, I'm too young…"
"I was married at your age."
"Yeah, but that was to be expected in the Dark Ages."
"Those are my conditions, Joffrey." Tywin had stated, his tone indicating that he would accept nothing less than Joffrey's full compliance.
"Fine." Joffrey had made a face, "I'll marry Sansa."
"There's a good lad."
Sandor had known that Tywin Lannister was not joking, but it still caught him off-guard when Joffrey proposed soon after. The whole situation made him uneasy. Hearing that Sansa had accepted, and that her own mother had tried to discourage them from marrying in such haste only deepened his uneasiness. It wasn't only the fact Joffrey proposed merely to secure himself as Tywin's heir, it was also because Joffrey's relationship with Margaery changed the moment the older girl found out how wealthy Joffrey was set to become.
Sandor had been under no illusion regarding Joffrey's unfaithfulness to Sansa. He'd driven the boy to and from rendezvous locations with different girls in the past, and he was unable to recount the number of dalliances he'd witnessed.
"These girls are cheap," Joffrey had once said, "They'll get into bed with me for a couple of drinks and a fancy dinner. But, one day I'll get married, and that's where girls like Sansa come in, you know? Purebred, upper-crust and all that."
Joffrey had only ever strung Sansa along for that purpose. One day, he would need a virginal bride with a good name from a good family. Margaery Tyrell had always struck Sandor as the ambitious type, but now he remembered that her family was aristocracy, with a name as old and as good as the Starks. If all Joffrey needed was a bride, then it should make no difference to Tywin Lannister whether that girl's name was Stark or Tyrell.
Margaery's interest in Joffrey became predatory once she learned he would be inheriting Casterly Rock, on the condition of marriage, and she'd wasted no time in trying to turn Joffrey's head towards her. The girl was careful with what she said in public, but eventually Margaery had slipped up during a phone conversation, and Sandor learned the scope of her ambitions.
"I've always wanted to be queen of my own castle, Grandma," Margaery had said into the phone, "I have too many older brothers, and what I'll inherit from father won't be much. Joffrey's going to inherit Casterly Rock…have you ever seen it, Grandma? It's a three hundred year old castle, with countless rooms, manicured gardens…even a ballroom. The Lannister's are said to be richer than the Royal Family, not to mention that the revenues the estate pulls in only continues to make them richer…it's going to be mine, Grandma, and when it is, I'll be more powerful than Cersei Baratheon…I just have to make Joffrey see that I'm a much better match for him than Sansa."
Whatever the girl had planned, and whatever tactics she had used to attract Joffrey had achieved the desired results. Mere weeks after Joffrey and Sansa's engagement had been announced in the local newspapers, Sandor chanced upon Joffrey and Margaery kissing. Soon, they stopped bothering to hide their affair from Sandor altogether.
"I wish you'd told me how you'd felt about me earlier, Margaery," Joffrey had said, "Then I could have broken up with Sansa before Grandfather had got it into his mind for me to marry her."
"I didn't know my own feelings, until it was almost too late," Margaery had simpered, with a calculated flutter of her lashes.
"You've always understood me better than Sansa ever has," Joffrey smiled at her.
"She's never quite fit in," Margaery agreed, "I feel awful, as her friend…I know she'll be heartbroken…but if it were me, I'd want to know that the man I love was marrying the woman who could love him the most, and take care of him the best."
"Yes, I presume she'll be gutted, but she'll get over it."
"When are you going to tell your grandfather about us?" Margaery had asked Joffrey, "The sooner you break it off with Sansa, the happier I'll be."
"Soon, Margaery," Joffrey had said, "Grandfather has already re-written his will. As soon as the timing is right, I'll end this charade with Sansa and I'll tell him I'm marrying you instead. "
"What will the rest of your family think?"
"My mother only wants what's best for me, and I don't give a shit what my father thinks."
"Sansa will be home from her gap year soon, we can't keep our relationship secret for too much longer."
They seemed to have it all planned out, and Sandor could only wait and speculate on how things would play out when Sansa eventually came home. Sandor had thought about her often while she'd been gone, and he had frowned at the regularity with which Sansa appeared in his mind. He'd spent a lot of time worrying about how she was getting on in whatever foreign country she was in, concerned that she was travelling alone when she'd spent her entire life being sheltered, and wondering if she even had an inkling of what was going on behind her back. When Joffrey had given him the task of organizing for an escort to bring Sansa back from Singapore, he'd found himself putting his hand up for the job.
In Singapore, seeing her again after almost a year, he'd been stunned at the change in the girl he'd once known. She was confident, passionate about her fashion internship, and reveling in the freedom she'd been able to find in her solo travels. It made no sense to him how she could possibly compromise her own dreams by even thinking of marrying Joffrey. There was nothing good that could come out of their union, and Sandor could only foresee disillusionment and heartbreak.
She'd still been annoyed with him about that day at the Old Pier, and her expression when she'd found him on her hotel room doorstep made that clear. Nevertheless, she'd still accompanied him to dinner, chatting with him about everything under the sun. It had been an eye-opening experience for him, not only due to the exotic sights and flavours he was experiencing, but also because being with her hadn't felt like a job for him. He'd walked side by side with Sansa many times before, as her paid chaperone. Yet the walk along Orchard Road, sharing dinner with her, and strolling through Marina Bay were the only times he could truly say he'd enjoyed being in the company of another human being. At the time, he had wondered why being with her then, had been so different to all the other times, and why he had wanted time to slow down.
Then, he'd ruined it, as only he could. He'd talked about her wedding to Joffrey, even though it wasn't any of his business. He was employed to keep confidences, to keep his mouth shut no matter what he happened to hear while performing his duties, but the thought of Sansa being used to further Joffrey's greedy ambitions tested his patience and temper. Knowing what he knew, he had almost revealed everything.
"Have you ever asked why Joffrey is in such a rush to marry you?" he'd questioned her.
"Because, he loves me!" Sansa had replied, her eyes wide, and as gullible as ever.
"You're so convinced of that, aren't you?" he'd wanted to shake her, to try and wake her up from the dream she thought she was having.
"Why is that so hard for you to believe?"
"I haven't seen anything that's convinced me."
He'd felt angry for her then, furious on her behalf, knowing what was to come. She'd attacked him afterward, calling him hateful and miserable, but he'd had to bite his tongue against the rush of words that threatened to escape his burned lips, badly wanting to tell her everything he had heard and seen, and all while knowing she wouldn't believe him.
"…I still see things a damned sight clearer than you."
All he'd succeeded in achieving was making her angry, and her eyes had filled with disappointment as she'd gazed at him, but he'd hoped that his tirade and the hints that he'd mentioned about Joffrey and Margaery had at least planted that proverbial seed of doubt in her mind.
On their return from Singapore, Sandor had been tense, expecting Joffrey to break off his engagement with Sansa at any moment, but as the months passed and wedding plans moved forward, his uneasiness merely grew exponentially, and he wondered if Joffrey had changed his plans without him knowing about it.
Sansa had moved into an apartment twenty minutes drive from the Baratheon's waterfront mansion, closer to the design school she'd been attending. He'd heard that the Baratheon's had tried to convince her to live with them, until she and Joffrey bought their own place, but Sansa had declined.
"There's plenty of empty rooms here, Sansa," Robert had said, "I presume it would be simple enough to convert one of them into your studio."
"I appreciate the offer, Uncle Robert. But, before our wedding I really would like to concentrate on my studies and on my portfolio. Being in my own apartment will allow me to do that without any distractions." Sansa had explained to them.
"Distractions? We could soundproof the walls…"
"Father, just let her be," Joffrey had spoken up unexpectedly, seemingly in support of Sansa, "If she wants her own space, let her have it."
She had got her way, and in the months since she had returned from Singapore, Sansa had immersed herself in her design studies. Sandor had noticed another change in her, observing a drive and focus that he hadn't seen before. He was getting more accustomed to seeing her with a business-like expression on her face, which reminded him of her no-nonsense father, Ned Stark.
As for Sandor's interactions with Sansa, it irritated him to note that Sansa's attitude towards him had turned indifferent. At times he felt it would have been better if she had ignored him completely, as her treating him like he was any other member of staff just plain pissed him off. She acknowledged him, spoke to him and smiled at him as normal, yet she'd put up a wall of courtesy between them that left him feeling cold whenever he encountered her. It seemed she was making a point, by keeping her distance.
"I don't know why I let you get to me," she'd said to him.
He didn't fully understand what she had meant by that statement. He antagonized her, questioned her way of thinking and seeing the world around her, and gave her his true opinions if she asked for it. However he got to her, it appeared she no longer wanted him to influence her that way, and thus she'd been keeping him at arm's length. He hadn't expected just how much her indifference would affect him, however. He'd never noticed it before. He'd never even realized how he'd come to regard her, until it was glaringly obvious.
He cared for her.
In whatever capacity he was capable of caring for anyone, Sandor had grown to care for her. In that same vein of thought, it irked him to realize that how she viewed him mattered, and he didn't care for her cold-shoulder act one bit. Although, he didn't hold high hopes of things ever going back to how they were between them. Sansa wasn't a little girl anymore, and he was still too unused to dealing with the woman she had become.
Joffrey and Margaery continued their affair, and at times it seemed that Joffrey was getting careless. Sansa had to be taking notice of the missed calls, cancelled dates and increasing presence of Margaery. Even if she was in denial, she wasn't blind. Sandor could only assume that the frostiness between Sansa and Joffrey was due to her own growing suspicions.
The end, when it came, happened swiftly and in front of an audience.
Margaery was visiting Joffrey at the Baratheon mansion, as she so often did. Being the middle of the week, no one expected Sansa to show up. She'd been engrossed in her design projects of late, and her visits to the mansion had been limited to the weekends. Joffrey mentioned nothing of keeping an eye out for her, so Sandor went about his security checks around the property as usual, his guard lowered, expecting nothing out of the ordinary. The first he was alerted of her presence was when he heard Joffrey calling out her name. Belatedly, Sandor recalled that she had her own keys and access codes to the property.
There were loud thuds on the floor above where Sandor was standing, and then the sound of heavy footfalls.
"…It's fine. Really, I understand," he heard Sansa say.
Sandor appeared at the end of the corridor just as Sansa reached the bottom of the stairs, followed shortly by a shirtless Joffrey.
"Stop, Sansa," Joffrey called out, "Let's talk."
Sansa did stop, but not at Joffrey's words. She halted when she spotted Sandor in the doorway, her expression was stiff, but her eyes were wide and dry. Joffrey caught up to her, turning her by the shoulders to face him.
"Let's talk," Joffrey repeated, "Let me put a shirt on, and we'll talk."
"No, there's no need," Sansa shook her head, "You and Margaery are together. I get it."
Margaery herself appeared at the foot of the stairs, her hair no longer in the neat ponytail she had been sporting earlier that evening. Half her shirt buttons were also undone.
"Sansa, I'm so sorry," she apologized, "I didn't mean for you to find out this way,"
"It's okay, Margaery," Sansa smiled, "I understand. It makes perfect sense."
Joffrey turned to Sandor, "Don't let her leave. I have some things I need to say to her."
"This isn't necessary, Joffrey," Sansa's voice rose, and Sandor could hear her anger beginning to simmer beneath her icy tone, "You're going to call off the wedding. I'm not going to object, so there's really nothing to discuss."
"Please let us explain…" Margaery continued, fumbling with the remaining buttons on her blouse.
"Don't let her leave," Joffrey repeated to Sandor, before disappearing upstairs.
Gently but firmly, Sandor took Sansa's elbow and led her towards the door before glancing at Margaery, "I'm taking her to the sitting room, fix yourself up."
"Let me go," Sansa tugged on her arm, trying to loosen his grip, "This has nothing to do with you."
"I can't let you leave just yet," Sandor growled as they entered the sitting room, resolving to keep his own opinions separate from the job he had to do.
"I don't have anything to say to them," Sansa snapped, "They're free to do whatever they want."
"Then, just sit there and listen," he pushed her into an armchair, "You have to hear it."
Joffrey and Margaery appeared a minute later, both appropriately clothed, and again Sansa continued to protest against the need for any explanations, while Margaery insisted that there was. The noise attracted Cersei, who had been in another room, as well as Robert who had just come home for the evening.
"What's going on in here?" Cersei asked, looking from an increasingly glacial Sansa, to a subdued Margaery, and a stubborn Joffrey. "Will someone tell us what's happening?"
Sandor had left the room to stand in a discreet spot in the hallway, but he could still hear every word uttered behind the doors he'd just closed. He could do nothing but grind his teeth, and listen as the two people Sansa had trusted the most tried to justify their betrayal.
"…Mother, Father, I'm glad you're both here. This is going to come as a shock, but I'm in love with Margaery…Sansa and I are through."
"What are you talking about?" Robert demanded, "You're about to get married!"
"Not anymore. I'm going to marry Margaery instead."
"How can you say that in front of Sansa?"
"It doesn't matter, Uncle Robert," came the hollow sound of Sansa's voice, "Margery loves him more…he deserves to be with the woman he loves, too."
"Margaery?" Cersei asked, "When did this happen?"
With a sneer on his face, Sandor listened as the calculating little fox convinced them of her love for Joffrey, and her regret for not having realized sooner, and of how devastated she felt for hurting her dear…dear friend, Sansa. Joffrey followed this up by declaring his own, well rehearsed line about suddenly realizing his own feelings for his long-time friend, and how he hoped that one day, Sansa would find it in her heart to forgive him.
"There's nothing to forgive," Sansa suddenly said, "I wish you both the best. Now, it's getting late…I should get going."
"Sansa, wait…" Cersei called out to her.
"Let her be," Robert snapped, "You can speak to her tomorrow, but for now, let her go."
The door opened and Sansa stepped through it. She didn't see him at first, hidden as he was, but he didn't miss the smile that split her face. It was shaky, but there was no mistaking it for what it was. Sandor frowned, slightly taken aback. What are you smiling about, little bird?
"Clegane!" Robert stepped out into the hall, calling for him.
"Sir," Sandor stepped away from the wall, and saw the smile disappear from Sansa's face as her eyes found him.
"There you are," Robert said, turning to him, "See to it that Sansa gets home safely."
Robert then looked at Sansa, "My dear…I don't know what to say, except to offer my apologies. I had absolutely no idea this was going on. If there's anything we can do for you…"
"Please, don't worry too much about me. I will be perfectly fine."
"Of course you will be," Robert nodded, "You're a Stark."
Robert gave Sandor another glance, before heading back into the sitting room, closing the door behind him. Sandor took several steps towards Sansa, and indicated that she walk with him.
"The car's in the driveway," he said gruffly.
"You don't need to drive me home, I can make my own way."
"I know you can, but let me do my job."
Sansa shrugged and began making her way out of the mansion. At the door, she paused only long enough to shrug on her coat and scarf, before beating him to the car. Sandor hit the remote key to unlock the doors, and without waiting for him, Sansa let herself into the front passenger seat. Sandor strapped in beside her, and as he reversed out of the parking bay, he noted that Sansa sat rigidly, with her hands worrying the straps of her handbag.
It was a chilly night, so Sandor set the heater up a few degrees warmer, and in a short while the interior of the car was toasty. He didn't attempt to break the silence, but every now and then he stole glances at her, trying to understand her expression. The streetlights cast most of her face in shadow, but it was enough for him to see that her eyes were still dry, and that there was no sign of the tears he had been expecting. He recalled the smile she had been wearing earlier, still puzzling over its meaning.
Sansa shifted in her seat. A moment later, she shifted again.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Hmm…fine," she muttered.
"Should I turn the heat up?"
"No, it's warm enough,"
"You knew, didn't you?" she suddenly asked him.
"Yes," he replied, knowing exactly what she was asking him.
"You were trying to tell me," she stated, "That night…you've known all this time."
Sandor grunted, unsure how to proceed. He didn't deny it, because it was the truth, but neither did he want to apologize for not having told her.
"I suppose, I probably wouldn't have believed you even if you had told me," Sansa continued, reading his mind, "What else do you know?"
There was a lot that Sansa still did not know. Joffrey and Margaery had omitted the part about Tywin's will and the truth about Joffrey's proposal, but just like always, Sandor was unwilling to tell her.
"You can't, or won't tell me?" she prompted.
"I could tell you," he bit out, "But, it won't make a difference."
Knowing the whole truth wasn't going to change anything. Joffrey was done with Sansa. The wedding was off. Sansa would have enough to deal with once that was made public, on top of dealing with her broken relationship and the emotions that went with it. She didn't need to know the real depth of Joffrey's deception.
"Yeah, you're right." Sansa said at length, before letting out a sigh, "I could really use a drink right now…a strong one, and something that'll burn on the way down."
He gave her another sideways glance. She'd stopped playing with the straps on her handbag, and she'd taken to rubbing a spot on her temple. Sansa had walked in on Joffrey and Margaery in the middle of something they shouldn't have been doing. He wondered if she was seeing that image in her mind at that moment.
"I know a quiet pub near your place," he offered.
"I'm sure you do," Sansa gave a bitter laugh, "Lead the way!"
Sandor obeyed, and shortly, he parked the car in front of an old pub called Quill & Tankard. It was a place he often frequented. Its out of the way location meant that it didn't attract the football hooligans and partygoers that frequented the newer pubs near the waterfront. The clientele were mostly loyal locals, retirees, and people like him who enjoyed drinking in peace.
Sansa ordered a whiskey and water, and as he had to drive, Sandor stuck with just water, which earned him a look from his companion.
"I'm still on the clock," he muttered, taking a sip from his glass.
"Suit yourself," Sansa tutted, before taking a good swig of the whiskey in her tumbler. She made a face as the amber liquid made its way down her throat, "Whoo!"
"Easy there," he cautioned her, "When did you start drinking whiskey?"
"Dad has a collection of whiskeys at home," she replied, "He drinks nothing else."
"And you drank with him?"
"Just once, when I turned eighteen," she picked up the glass and held the remaining liquid up to the light, "He told me that its colour is due to the cask used in the ageing process, but while colour gives hints about its character, that alone is not enough to judge its quality. I told him 'oh, that's interesting, Dad', and then promptly mixed my glass of rare Macallan with cola, much to his horror."
"That's an act of sacrilege," Sandor snorted.
"I didn't know how rare it was, until Robb told me later on. Dad forgave my ignorance…he always does." Sansa grimaced, as though remembering the event, before taking a couple more measured sips of the not-so-rare Glenfiddich in her glass.
Sandor watched as Sansa finished her first drink in silence. All she did was stare at the glass, tipping it from side to side, stopping before she spilled its contents. She ordered a second drink, and when she was halfway through, she began speaking.
"It was so obvious, now that I think about it," she said.
Sandor made no comment, as it seemed she wasn't looking for a response. Sansa just needed to talk about what was on her mind.
"They were close, even before I came into the picture. Margaery should have been his first choice, from the beginning. If I never met him, they would have gotten together so much sooner…I don't know why I didn't see it. Or, maybe I did, but I ignored the signs…What am I going to do with this, now?"
Sansa fixated on the yellow diamond on her finger, and after a moment, she tugged it off and slammed it onto the table in front of her.
"My hand feels so much lighter," Sansa smiled, much in the same way she had back at the mansion, "Oh, my…that feels so much better!"
Sandor could see she was tipsy, and on her way to being drunk, "I think you should go home after you finish this drink, Sansa."
"Yeah, maybe you're right," she giggled, "Oh, did you know? I saw you come out of the pool that time at the hotel in Singapore. You're pretty fit, for an old man!"
Sandor nearly spit out the water he'd just sipped, "Is that right?"
Sansa took another sip of whiskey, "Of course, I didn't know it was you in the pool before I started checking you out."
"Would it have made a difference if you'd known it was me?" he asked gravely, bemused.
"I honestly don't know," she made a gesture in the air with her hand, as though shooing a fly, "I'll tell you this though…I couldn't look you in the eyes after that."
He was finding it difficult to look her in the face at that moment, and he cleared his throat, unsure what to make of her rambling. Sansa picked up the ring then, and shoved it under Sandor's nose.
"Take it," she said, "Give it back to him, and tell him thanks for wasting the last few years of my life."
Warily, Sandor took the ring from her and slipped it into his jacket pocket, "I'll pass the message on."
"Good. Tell him, Margaery is going to want a bigger rock, he's got to outdo what he gave me."
The last of the whiskey in her glass disappeared, and once she was calm, Sandor quietly led her back into the car. He drove her to her apartment complex, and rode the lift with her to make sure she got to her front door.
"Keys…where the fuck are my keys?" Sansa groped around the interior of her handbag, with little success.
Taking the bag from her hands, Sandor searched for her keys, while Sansa stared at him.
"What is it?" he glared at her.
"You're a man," she stated.
"Yes, and have been all my life," he said dismissively. He found her keys, and soon he'd unlocked her front door, "In you go."
Sansa walked into the apartment, and swayed just as she crossed the threshold, prompting him to follow her inside.
"You're drunk," he said.
"Almost drunk," she corrected him, "You've seen me drunk. I throw up all over the place. I'm not throwing up right now."
"No, you're just blabbering like an idiot," he shook his head, "Where's your bedroom?"
"That way," she pointed to the hallway.
"Then I suggest you head over there now,"
"In a moment…I was saying something."
"You can tell me another time,"
"No, I'm going to tell you now," Sansa stepped closer to him, "I was saying…you're a man."
"That's right," he agreed, hoping she'd spit out what she wanted to say quickly so he could leave, "What of it?"
"Do you know, I've never kissed anyone other than Joffrey? I've never even touched another man," Sansa reached up and placed a small pale hand on his chest, and patted him softly, "Yep, you're pretty buff!"
Sandor almost jumped back in surprise at the contact, "I'm sure you'll get your chance. You're still young, and you're a stunner to look at."
"Really?" she gazed up at him, eyes glazed, "I've been a silly fool. All that time I was hung up on Joff, when I could have been with someone who truly wanted me…I didn't see that until just recently, you know…I mean, even before tonight, I was already feeling that things were over…"
"Stop it," he said, hoping to stem her chatter.
"…There have been many men who've told me I'm beautiful, and I've had many advances from better men that I've turned down, all for Joffrey."
"Sansa, that's enough,"
"Yeah, it's enough," she agreed, "I've had enough of it. I can't do anything about the past. It's done. But, I can start moving forward right now."
"Sansa…" Sandor felt her fingers tighten around his lapel, "What are you doing?"
"You're a man," she stated again, and before he could stop her, Sansa had pulled his head down to hers.
His lips crashed into hers, and a second later he tasted whiskey when Sansa pushed her tongue into his mouth. He took hold of her shoulders, just as he felt her fingers at the nape of his neck, and he quickly lost all thought of pulling away. Sansa was kissing him. Her lips were cool and soft, and he caught traces of her perfume, and the scent of her hair. She pulled him closer, and he felt the curves of her body – curves that he'd only ever observed from a distance – suddenly pressed against him.
Memories of summers by the pool, and images of her bare, creamy skin flashed across his eyes. He let out a groan when the curve of her breasts pushed against his chest as Sansa sought to get closer still. He wrapped his arm around her back in response and held her to him, giving her what she wanted. His head was in shambles, trying to reconcile his remembered visions with the flesh and warmth beneath his hands through the sudden rush of sensations coursing through him. He kissed her back, daring to explore her mouth the way she explored his. Beneath the whiskey, Sansa tasted sweet, and he was damned if he was ever going to find anything more addictive.
A moment later, as he knew it would, reality kicked his consciousness awake. Sandor pulled his mouth free, breaking the kiss. This wouldn't be happening if she was in her right mind.
"Bloody hell," he swore above Sansa's head, and he looked down to see that she was watching him.
"I wanted to see how it felt to kiss another man," she said, her voice steady, as though she knew exactly what she was saying and what she had done.
Sansa's lips were pink and plumped, and cheeks flushed with more than the effects of the whiskey she'd drunk. Her eyelids were lowered, and he saw the barest peep of blue beneath her lashes. He'd never seen her look like that, and a part of him hoped it wouldn't be the last time he would ever see that expression on her face. Sandor disentangled himself from her arms, feeling shaken.
"You are a stupid, little fool," he rasped, "You're not going to remember any of this in the morning."
"You're wrong," Sansa shook her head, "I won't forget this."
He stepped away from her, putting some distance between them, suddenly needing air. Sandor crossed to the door, aiming to get out as fast as he could. Her perfume was on his clothes now, teasing him.
At the door, he turned back to look at her, "Trust me, it'll be better for you to forget."
Sandor shut the door after himself, and calmly walked back to the car. He started the engine and ran the heater, then sat and looked up at the darkened windows of the apartment he knew to be hers.
"Buggering hell…" he swore.
He'd been expecting the break-up for months. He'd envisioned dozens of different scenarios where Sansa would be screaming at Joffrey and Margaery, and all of them ending in tears. This hadn't been in any of those scenarios. Again, she had caught him off-guard. He held the back of his hand to his mouth, still tasting whiskey and Sansa's lips. The Sansa Stark who'd kissed him, and whom he'd held in his arms was a stranger to him. She'd changed in ways he hadn't even considered. Maybe, you've been closing your eyes to it, so you wouldn't have to face it.
Sansa was going on nineteen, and he was turning thirty-five. Perhaps, he thought, he'd been refusing to truly see her as a woman because he couldn't ignore the sixteen years between them. If he continued to see her as a girl, then he could ignore the growing attraction that he'd been trying to suppress. If he kept telling himself that it was impossible for her to see him as a man, then it would be easier for him to deal with the fact she could never be his.
"You're a man," she had said.
And then she'd kissed him.
"Bloody, bloody…buggering hell."
It was some time before he was able to stir from his thoughts and drive away.
Chapter 8: A Matter of Perspective
Design school was proving more demanding than Sansa had ever envisioned, but she found that she was thriving from that pressure. She was creative by nature, and the more she was challenged, the more she exceeded her own expectations. The end of term assessments were coming up, coinciding with the long awaited Nuveau Styliste FashionShow. The Nuveau Styliste made an emphasis on celebrating the hottest new labels and emerging designers in the country, many of whom were just gaining a foothold in the local, domestic industry. All of these newly established brands and individuals were vying for invitations to debut their collections on the world stage, such as Paris and New York Fashion Week, and for the successful few Nuveau Styliste was a springboard to international acclaim.
Each year, as part of the Nuveau Styliste's dedication to discovering brand new talent, design schools from around the country were invited to showcase the works of their best students, devoting a segment solely recognizing these unpolished diamonds in a show that was aptly named, 'In The Rough'. With many influential people in the fashion and retail industry attending the show to scout the next big name, inclusion in the lineup was competitively fierce.
Sansa finished pinning the pleat of raw silk onto the skirt of the gown she was currently putting together, before getting up from where she knelt on the ground so she could stand back and look at the result of her handiwork. The dressmaker's mannequin was approximately her height, and set with her measurements. When it was completed, she would have to model her creation in front of a panel to be critiqued and graded. Of course she wanted high marks to finish the term, but it was the chance to showcase at Nuveau Styliste that she was really aiming for. It went without saying that Sansa wanted her design to be in that lineup.
"It looks great," said a feminine voice from the rear of the room, and Sansa turned around to see a short young woman with curly brown hair, "The silhouette becomes sleeker this way, if that's what you were aiming for."
"Perfect," Sansa smiled, "That's exactly what I wanted to do. How are you, Randa?"
"Same as always," she replied, "Busy, and lacking in sleep."
Sansa had met Myranda Royce on her first day of classes at the start of term, and the two had hit it off instantly. Sansa's reserved nature was a contrast to Randa's effervescent personality, but somehow, Randa was able to draw out the cheekiness in Sansa like no one else could.
"Why do I sense that your lack of sleep is not the result of staying up late to work on your project?" Sansa gave her a knowing look.
"Your senses are spot on," Randa laughed, "I'm tired, but it's the good kind of tired. Know what I mean?"
Sansa shook her head. There wasn't too much more she could add to Randa's statement. She didn't have the necessary experience to make such commentary, but she guessed that her friend already knew that. Initially, they were brought together by their shared passion for fashion design, but after numerous lunch breaks spent chatting over coffees and the occasional impromptu shopping excursion, both young women had discovered they had more in common than first thought.
Randa had grown up in the countryside, much the same as Sansa, and their similar upbringing had bred similar sensibilities, which saw them sharing similar ideals about life, career, and to an extent, love. Sansa realized that had it not been for Randa, the past eight weeks would have been very lonely.
"How about you, how are you holding up?" Randa asked as she set up at her own workbench.
Sansa smiled, "I'm fine."
"You've been saying that for the past eight weeks," Randa pointed out, "You've had your engagement broken, found out that the man you were going to marry was carrying on with a woman you considered a close friend, and now the tabloids are reporting that they're getting married in the same month that your wedding would have been held."
"They sent me an invite to the wedding, you know?"
"Joffrey and Margaery did?" Randa looked taken aback, "The cheek of them...you're going to decline, right?"
"It's not as simple as that…I haven't decided yet."
Randa understood. Sansa's family was connected to the Baratheon family on more than a personal level. Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon had known each other since their school days, but there had been questions raised in the business papers about how the partnership between White Wolf Logistics and Crowned Stag Imports would be affected by the failed engagement of their respective offspring. There was also the fact that both families were prominent members of society, and neither had escaped public scrutiny in recent weeks.
"How can you be fine?"
Sighing, Sansa went back to pinning fabric and marking out adjustments on her project. Randa's question didn't have a simple answer, and though she wanted to give her a response, she wasn't sure she could give voice to the thoughts in her mind. She hadn't spoken to anyone about how she was really feeling. Naturally, her family had been concerned for her when they first heard of her broken engagement. Her mother had even insisted on her coming home, but Sansa had refused. She wanted to stay close to her design school, and she'd seen no need to return to Winterfell Park.
"Your face says it all, Sansa," Randa said quietly, leaning on her bench. "I'll buy you a pot of tea at that café down the road, and you can tell me about it then, okay?"
"Throw in a couple of lemon cakes, and it's a deal."
After classes that day, Sansa and Randa wound up at their favourite café situated a short walk from their school. Winter had well and truly arrived, and the sudden warmth of the café set Sansa's face tingling as she thawed out. They found seats in a tucked away corner of the room, and once settled with the aforementioned lemon cakes and a pot of Sencha between them, Randa fixed her with an expectant gaze.
"Come on, then. Spit it out."
With another sigh, Sansa began to talk.
"I'm relieved," she said, "If I'm being completely honest, I'm relieved that I'm not marrying Joffrey. I think…no, I know that anything I felt for Joffrey had faded years ago. I had a crush on him when I was twelve years old, and as I got older, I'd just made myself think that what I felt for him was love…when it was nothing more than a girlish crush that should have died a natural death. Instead, I got caught up in the hype of being Joffrey Baratheon's girlfriend, and the glamorous parties and feeling like I was so grown up…when all I had been was a stupid, naïve, little fool."
"Sansa, don't be so hard on yourself…" Randa patted her hand.
"I'm not. I'm just seeing things clearly, for the first time in my life."
Sansa picked up her fork and used its edge to cut a bite-sized portion of lemon cake, before she stabbed into the fluffy, golden morsel and popped it into her mouth, relishing its tangy-sweetness as it melted on her tongue. For some minutes neither girl spoke as Randa allowed Sansa to mull over the words she had just spoken. A frown had formed between Sansa's brows, and eventually, Randa's curiosity got the better of her.
"What's on your mind, Sansa?"
Sansa lowered her lashes, "To be perfectly honest, I'm thinking about a man."
"I'm thinking about a six-foot-six giant of a man who's muscled like an ox, has unkempt black hair and a voice that reminds me of a growling animal."
"He sounds hella-sexy," Randa declared, "Who are you talking about? Why have I never heard of this sexy beast before?"
Sansa laughed at Randa's choice of adjectives before taking another sip of her tea. Sandor Clegane had been on her mind a lot. In fact, not a day had gone by since the night she had kissed him that she hadn't thought about the scarred and taciturn man. Of all of the shocks she had been subjected to on that fateful night, the surprise that had left the biggest impact on her even more than Joffrey and Margaery's deceit, had been her reaction to the sensation of Sandor's mouth against hers, and the heat of his body as she'd been engulfed in his arms. Contrary to what Sandor had told her, she remembered every moment of their kiss.
"He's a man I've known for a long time," Sansa replied, "He's a lot older than me, and I never knew I could look at him that way until just a few months ago."
"Look at him in what way?" Randa prompted.
"I kissed him," Sansa confessed, "For the first time, I realized that this man had taken better care of me than Joffrey ever had. He literally saved my life, and he even tried to warn me about Joffrey. He can be an arse when he wants to be, but I want to believe that he cares about me, in his own way, and not just because he's being paid to do so. I wanted to know how it felt to kiss a man that cared about me…so, I kissed him."
"Paid? Sansa, who in the world are you talking about?"
"He works for the Baratheon family," Sansa sighed, "He's Joffrey's minder."
"The bodyguard?" Randa gasped, "You made a move on the bodyguard?"
Sansa's face turned scarlet, and she hid herself behind the rim of her teacup, "Don't say it in that lascivious tone."
"So, how did it feel to kiss a man that cares?"
"Just fine," the corner of Sansa's mouth lifted in a telltale sign, meaning it was more than just fine. "It felt fine."
Randa's sudden laughter caused heads to turn towards them, but the older girl paid them no mind.
"Are you attracted to this man, my dear Sansa?"
Sansa shrugged, "I don't know…maybe."
"Would you pursue it further?"
"No, no…no!" shaking her head vehemently, Sansa put her hands up in front of her, as though doing so would prevent the idea from embedding into her mind, "I couldn't. It's just not possible. If you could have seen his face after I kissed him, you wouldn't say that. He sees me as a kid."
"How much older is he?"
"He's sixteen years my senior,"
"He's only thirty-five," Randa stated, after doing the sum in her head, "He's hardly a geriatric."
"I know that," Sansa sighed, "The problem is not him being too old, it's me being too young."
Sansa felt she had to make that distinction. In her eyes, Sandor had always been a man, and that had never changed. What had changed was her perspective. She now saw the qualities in him that convinced her that he was a good man. His idiosyncrasies that once only maddened her, she now found somewhat endearing – although, she used that term loosely. On the other hand, she couldn't count the number of times Sandor had referred to her as girl or child. Even in those few instances he had acquiesced and called her a woman, his tone had been full of mockery. She wondered what it would take before Sandor started seeing her as an adult.
"I get it, I get it." Randa nodded in understanding, "He's not too old for you. It's him that thinks you're too young for him."
"There's one other issue," Sansa began.
"And, what's that?"
"I don't think he's the kind of man that does relationships."
"Hmm," Randa poured fresh cups of tea for them both, "Commitment-phobe?"
"I don't know," Sansa shrugged, "I don't know much about his personal life. He said something to me once…it's just a vibe I get from him."
Sansa remembered the heated argument they'd had by the marina that night in Singapore, and Sandor grasping her by her shoulders, forcing her to look up at him.
"What woman could love this face?" he had demanded.
The man had some issues, and while his facial scars might have been an obvious source of insecurity, Sansa sensed that there were other deeper, underlying reasons why Sandor remained single. She had always carried a mild interest about Sandor's background, and in the years she'd known him she had learned was that there had been some tragedies in his past, and that all his family were gone, bar a brother that he never saw. No one seemed to know the details, however, and she had not dared to ask him directly. Now, she itched to know everything about him.
"I thought you didn't want to pursue anything with him?" Randa grinned, "Why are you concerned about his ability to make a commitment?"
"I'm not. I mean, I wasn't going to…I mean –" Sansa tripped over her tongue, and shrugged as she gave up trying to explain what she meant. Even she wasn't sure what she was trying to say.
"Don't cause yourself an injury, now," Randa laughed, "Before anything else, you need to figure out whether you really fancy this man. If it turns out that you do, you have to decide whether it's worth your time and effort, if a commitment is what you want. Although, if it were me, I'd take this chance to get out and date as many different kinds of men as I could. You're nineteen, and have only had the one relationship to speak of. You haven't experienced what a real man is, in my humble opinion. In any case, it sounds to me that you're ready to move on."
"Is it too fast?" Sansa worried, "Am I moving on too soon?"
"Hearts can change in a day, my love," Randa stated, "It's been eight weeks – two months, since you split with your cheating ex, and by what you said earlier, it seems your heart had changed a long time ago…it just took you some time to realize it."
Randa's words gave her plenty of food for thought over the next few days, though she was finding it not so easy to come to terms with the unfamiliar, womanly feelings she was having for Sandor, when she had regarded him as a platonic, older mentor for years. At some point, while she was poised over the kitchen sink one evening fixing herself a salad for dinner, Sansa stumbled on an idea that had not occurred to her before.
"Am I on the rebound?" she asked herself. "Is that why I'm suddenly attracted to him?"
While on her internship at a French fashion house during her gap year, Sansa had met a fellow intern who had just started a new relationship after breaking up with her ex just two weeks beforehand. The other women in the studio had warned the girl of the perils of dating while on the rebound, and Sansa had listened to the intern as she'd lamented, and given her reasons for doing so. Sansa hadn't understood at the time, believing that one needed space and time to reflect and regroup, before one could embark on a new relationship with a clear head and heart.
Now, she understood. Looking at her circumstances, she saw that all the conditions suggesting she was rebounding were present. She was lonely, having only herself to depend on for company for the first time. Sandor was virulently male, he took care of her, and he was close by. The idea that she was projecting her need for companionship, affection and physical intimacy onto Sandor was as mindboggling as it was sad.
Sandor would laugh, if he knew what I was thinking, she thought. Their relationship was far from close, and the thought of Sandor offering her those things was bizarre…and impossible. Sandor would never see her that way. She realized that her perceived desire towards him was transient, as was the nature of rebound attractions…and it would fade given time. It saddened her that she could have such feelings for someone and know that perhaps, those feelings were not real.
Good. It's good I figured this out before I did something stupid like throw myself at him again. Sansa finished making her salad and ate it in front of the television. It was also a good thing that she now had very little reason to see Sandor, as it meant that the feelings she was harbouring might fade all the faster. Then I can focus my attention on something more productive, she sighed as she munched on lettuce, like learning how to cook.
Sansa resolved to keep herself busy completing her design project. With the assessment deadline looming closer, she was able to push everything else from her mind, and she surprised herself by how industrious she could be without the distractions of a relationship, or society parties to attend. She still received invitations from her old acquaintances, but she found that she didn't really miss the inane gossip or alcohol all that much.
One afternoon, she received a call from the Baratheon's Head Housekeeper who told her that she had collected some more personal effects that Sansa had left at the house, and that there was also a bundle of mail that had been addressed to her. The housekeeper advised that Cersei's assistant could deliver them to her if she was able to meet him, or alternatively, they could be left with her apartment superintendent if she preferred.
"I'll meet with the assistant," Sansa had said, looking at her watch. "I'll be available in an hour."
Sansa gave instructions for the assistant to meet her at a café, and as she hung up, she realized that none of the Baratheon's had contacted her in weeks. Not that she had expected them to. After that night, she had met with Robert and Cersei for a brief meeting over afternoon tea, where they apologized for how things had turned out with Joffrey. Sansa had expressed that she bore them no ill feelings, and she would always regard them as her Uncle and Aunt. Empty words, she thought. She didn't miss them, and she was sure the sentiment was mutual.
She got to the café late as, having been engrossed in her work, she'd let the time get away from her. She looked around for the blonde young man she recalled to be Cersei's assistant – Lancel, she thought he was called – but instead, her eyes landed on the large, black-haired man that was Sandor Clegane. He stood up from the table where he sat, waving to get her attention.
"Sansa," he called to her.
Her palms began to sweat, and she wiped them hastily on her jeans as she approached him. Why does he always appear when I least expect him to? She wondered. Her heart had done a little flip at the sound of his voice.
"Hi," she greeted him as she took the seat across him, "Sorry I'm late."
"It's fine," he said gruffly, "School keeping you busy?"
Sandor wore his long hair tied at the base of his head, unapologetic of the scars on his face. She was used to seeing him wear it loose, but the ponytail held its own appeal, she decided. He wore the customary dark pants and white shirt that was his work attire, and draped over the back of the seat was a black leather jacket with shearling trim. At his feet was a paper carry bag that she presumed contained the personal belongings she'd come to collect. It had been weeks since she had seen him, too, and she now drank in the sight of him.
"Yeah, I have a project due so it's been crazy." Sansa picked up the menu from the table, "Do you have time for a bite?"
Sandor nodded curtly, "I've got time. My shift's over for the day."
"Did they ask you to deliver my things?"
"It was on my way," he replied with a shrug.
Sansa ordered tea and a slice of lemon cake, while Sandor ordered coffee and a sandwich, and after the waitress had walked away, Sansa fixed him with a smile.
"Lemon cake?" he questioned, "Bit too sweet, aren't they?"
"Nope," she shook her head, "They're my favourite. Anyway, how are you?"
"I've been okay," he replied, seeming unsure of her mood, and the new dynamic they now found themselves navigating. She was no longer Joffrey's fiancée and he no longer had to treat her as an extension of the Baratheon family. "You?"
"I'm doing well,"
"You look it," he gave her face and figure a once over, sending a frisson of something electric down her spine.
"You didn't expect that I'd be okay?" she asked, distracted by the reaction she'd had to his grey eyes roaming her body.
"Wasn't sure what to expect," he grunted, "But, you're tougher than you look, little bird."
"Even though I might not quite have been myself the last time you saw me," she said ruefully, "I wasn't about to fall apart."
"Not quite yourself, eh?" Sandor gave a mocking chuckle, "Guess that explains your…actions, that night."
He was unmistakably referring to the kiss, she realized, and Sansa had the grace to blush. "About that…I'm sorry."
Something about his expression darkened, "Regretting it, are we? I told you it would be better to forget."
"I'm not sorry I kissed you," Sansa said quickly, wanting to correct him. "I'm only sorry that I made you feel uncomfortable."
He looked at her sharply, and Sansa saw that he was wearing the exact same expression that had been on his face that night after she'd kissed him.
"I wasn't uncomfortable," he growled.
"No? Angry then. You had that same fierce expression on your face when you pulled away. You looked like you hated it."
"I wasn't angry, either," he said, "I'm not angry now...and, I didn't hate it."
She stopped moving, stunned. She'd been prepared to make light of the entire situation, but his response had just shattered that plan. Sandor's countenance hadn't changed, but she was very aware that something between them definitely had. A warmth began to creep up her neck when she recalled something else about that kiss, and its significance made her catch her breath. He kissed me back, she thought. He was definitely kissing me back. Sansa shivered at the memory.
Their silence was broken by the arrival of the waitress with their order, and Sandor cleared his throat. Somehow, Sansa managed to keep up a steady stream of conversation as they ate, and he responded in his abrupt manner, even going as far as asking her about the Fashion Show she was hoping to showcase at. Throughout it, her eyes continued to observe Sandor's movements, just as he watched her.
She had learned to recognize interest in men's eyes long ago, and she recognized it well enough in the depths of Sandor's eyes. The knowledge excited her, igniting something hot and molten in her belly. He's seeing me as a woman, she thought, I know he is. Sandor's admission that he hadn't hated her kiss convinced her that his interest was real. She shivered again, and at that moment, every intention she had made to keep things platonic between them were forgotten.
"What's on your mind?" Sandor asked her abruptly.
She gave him another smile, "Oh, I was just thinking it was nice to sit here and chat with you."
"Is that right?"
"I don't expect you to believe me, but you're not bad company. You know? When you're not being an arse about everything, that is."
Sandor laughed, the sound raspy and warm in her ears. "You're unbelievable, you know that?"
"Would you like to come out for a drink with me some time?" she asked him boldly.
He raised his coffee cup and drained its contents before responding, "Sure, I'll have a drink with you, but I can't promise not to be an arse."
"Of course you won't," she grinned, "That's part of your charm."
It's a rebound attraction, she reminded herself. It's a fleeting attraction, and nothing could come of it, just as nothing will come from a short-term fling with Sandor…but, a fling could be just what suits us both.
Chapter 9: What The Night Brings
Winter had begun coldly for Sandor, but it was not turning out to be as cold as had been predicted that year. Not because the weather reports had got it wrong, but because he'd had unexpected company in the weeks following his meeting with Sansa that afternoon at the café. She'd invited him out, and sure enough he'd met her at one of the local pubs he'd favoured one night. They'd had a few drinks, had a meal, and she did most of the talking while he had listened. She had appeared to enjoy herself, and so had he on his part, and he'd expected that to be the end of it.
She'd surprised him a couple of nights later by turning up at his most favourite pub, the one he always frequented on his days off. The girl was lonely, he figured, so he'd entertained her instead of sending her away. The third time he had bumped into her, she had already been inside the pub, waiting for him. By this time, he was certain that Sansa was purposely seeking him out.
He wasn't blind. He could see why she was suddenly looking for him. The question was whether he could believe it.
"What the hell are you playing at?" he'd wanted to demand from her, when he had found himself once again by her side in a dimly lit pub. "What do you want from me?"
Except he had never said the words out aloud, fearing that he would drive her away from his side. Instead, he had continued to sit there slowly being tormented by the nearness of her body, so close that he could feel her warmth and smell her perfume, while she looked at him with half-lowered eyes and smiled at him with those lips that he wanted to crush beneath his.
He hadn't stopped thinking about her, or about that kiss, the catalyst for all his current suffering. If she had been on his mind a lot before, she was there almost constantly now. He no longer tried to suppress the attraction he felt for her, because Sansa had shattered whatever control he'd had over it. He had been willing to believe that she'd made a mistake in kissing him. After all, she'd just had the rudest awakening of her life, finding out about Joffrey and Margaery as she had. She'd admitted it herself, that she hadn't been her usual self that night. Yet, she hadn't been sorry she'd kissed him, sounding exactly like she'd meant to do it.
What the hell am I to make of that? He'd asked himself. Her reaction then, when he had told her he hadn't hated her kiss, had spoken louder than anything she could have said. Sansa had watched him with the eyes of a woman, and the fact she was regarding him as a man, damn near floored him. It hadn't been long since he'd started regarding her as a woman, and part of him was still struggling to reconcile that the same pair of blue eyes that had once stared at him in fright were the same ones that now looked at him with wanting.
It was too much to take in, especially when Sansa had spent the months since their return from Singapore treating him with cool indifference. He had also seen very little of her since her breakup with Joffrey, and he couldn't fathom how her attitude towards him could have changed so swiftly. It wasn't possible that Sansa could be interested in him, he had thought. He was too old, too set in his ways and in no way suited for her. It just wasn't supposed to happen. Sansa Stark was never supposed to look twice at a man like him. She was never supposed to reciprocate his attraction for her. It unnerved him, as though he was falling from some great height and not being able to see the ground, and he did not know how to deal with this unknown.
Sansa had been acting more boldly than he had ever known her to. Firstly, in asking him out, then by following him to his favourite haunts. She'd made it clear what she wanted, and her confidence had him shaking his head. Youth, he thought, confidence in abundance, but sorely lacking in wisdom. He knew that Sansa was waiting for him to take the chance she was offering, but he remained unmoved. Sansa had worn a look of disappointment each time he had sent her home in a taxi, alone.
He wasn't a statue. He had physical needs like any man, and while he'd settled for one-night-stands in the past, he now found the idea of sleeping with some unknown woman less than palatable. Especially when he'd tasted unimagined sweetness in Sansa's kiss, nothing else could ever compare. As it was, with each meeting, Sandor knew that his resolve was weakening, and one day Sansa would get the better of him. Yet, he determined to hold out as long as he could, because Sansa needed the chance to change her mind. He couldn't promise her anything, and any future he could foresee would only end badly. Whatever he could offer her would only be temporary, a short-term relationship, because he was bound to ruin everything in the long-term.
He was still in two minds regarding Sansa when the text messages started coming in. In the past, she had only ever texted or called him if it was something to do with Joffrey acting the fool, so he was caught off-guard when the messages bore only pleasantries, and an invitation.
"How are you? Hope you're doing well. Are you busy this Saturday evening?" Sansa had written.
"Why?" he responded.
"I won a spot at the Nuveau Styliste design showcase. My gown will be paraded in front of EVERYONE. Come with me?"
A bloody fashion show, he thought. The hell I'll be going to that.
"I'll buy you a drink after." Sansa had added.
He tapped out a response on his smartphone congratulating her, but that he wouldn't be able to make it…then he erased it before he could send it. He let out a few choice swear words as the two sides of his mind warred with each other. In the end, he sighed and shook his head.
"I'll think about it," he finally wrote back.
"Really? That's great!" Sansa's response had come almost immediately, "Thought you'd say, TO HELL WITH THAT!"
He frowned. She knew him better than he'd first thought, and this pleased him in ways he couldn't have explained. She was starting to get sassy with him, too. He'd borne witness to her cheekiness before, but he still didn't know how to respond when she was directing it at him.
The day of the fashion show arrived, and as he'd known he would, he called her on the Saturday morning and told her that he would be there.
"Couldn't you find anyone else to invite?" he growled into the phone, irritated that he'd given in to the desire to see her.
"I did invite my parents, but they couldn't make it on such short notice," she replied, "Besides, I wanted to invite you."
She wasn't even trying to be subtle in her response, and he wiped a hand over his face. "Where are you now?"
"I'm at the venue," Sansa's voice was filled with excitement. "We're doing a final dress rehearsal. Oh, my god! I can't believe I'm going to see one of my designs on a catwalk!"
Sandor could not have cared less about her design, but he was pleased to hear the happiness in her voice. She deserved to be smiling after everything she'd been through, and he hoped that his agreeing to watch the fashion show with her was going to keep that smile on her face.
At the appointed time, Sandor met her at the lobby of the fanciest five-star hotel in the city, where the Nuveau Styliste Fashion Show was being hosted. Sansa's face split into a beaming smile when she spotted him, and she all but ran to his side.
"You made it! Thank you for coming," she grinned up at him.
"If I didn't come," he grunted, "You'd have just found me at the pub and chewed my ear out."
"You know what," she tilted her head and regarded him with her tongue against inside of her cheek, "I remember your bark being a lot more vicious when I was younger. I have these memories of you snarling at us kids. But, you're not nearly as mean as you look are you, Hound?"
She was giving him cheek again, calling him by the nickname he hadn't heard her use since she'd been a child. He could only respond with 'you ruddy brat', before Sansa laughed and led him towards the grand ballroom where the actual show was taking place. She walked in front of him, and he allowed himself to observe her figure.
She had dressed entirely in black. From the sleek coat that she wore belted to accentuate her waist, to the skintight pants she had to have poured herself into, and the high-heel boots that added an extra three inches to her frame. She'd worn her hair straight, and her eyes were lined with kohl, making the blue stand out. Her lips were painted a bright red, which kept drawing his attention to her mouth. She didn't have an inch of skin showing, but he found her as alluring as ever.
He'd worn all black too, though that was due to a selectively limited wardrobe and not because he was making a fashion statement. He was wearing black jeans and a leather jacket, along with his old biker boots. For once, no one was staring at him, he mused. There were too many other attractions around him in the form of fashionistas and trend-setters who pushed the boundaries of style and good taste in an eclectic mix of vibrant colours, textures and personalities. This is Sansa's other world, he thought with a sense of curious wonder, this is the world she's chosen to be a part of.
Sansa was born a Stark, and into the privileges as well as constraints that went with the name. However, she'd chosen to make another identity for herself by going into fashion design. An identity entirely her own, and he found that an incredibly brave thing to do. As he saw it, the fashion design world might seem frivolous, but it was perhaps one of the most cutthroat industries around. He remembered Sansa once saying that designers were only as relevant as their latest collection, and with everyone and his dog being a fashion critic, Sansa not only needed skin made of steel, but balls too. The little bird's gone and grown a pair! He started laughing at the thought, but quickly turned it into a cough when Sansa twisted her head to look at him.
Inside the opulent ballroom, a T-shaped catwalk dominated the centre of the room. There were two giant screens at the head of the runway, as well as a luminescent white wall which concealed the backstage area, and from where the models would make their entrance. Seating was arranged by importance, with VIP's in labeled seats in the front rows, and everyone else after that.
Sansa had gotten seats immediately behind the VIP section, and she explained that her segment, 'In The Rough' was opening the show for the evening. She also explained that she would be required to go backstage shortly, to make sure the model wearing her creation was fitted exactly as she wanted.
"I'll be right back after my segment is over," she told him, "You can manage for a few minutes, right?"
"Just get going," he said, "I'm not likely to go anywhere."
Sansa flashed him another smile, then she was off to do whatever designers had to do, and Sandor was left to bear the wait on his own. The seats around him filled up quickly after that, which he saw as a sign that the show was about to start. Soon enough, the main ballroom lights were dimmed until only the spotlights above the catwalk remained. The compere then spoke about a lot of things Sandor didn't care for, but was mostly to do with recognizing the new designers and labels that were showing that night and thanking the sponsors and organizers for making it all happen. Finally, to open the evening the creations of the country's top design students, the diamonds 'in the rough', would now be taking to the runway.
There was a hushed pause as the audience looked on expectantly, before instrumental music began to play, and Sandor watched as models began to appear from behind the white wall. The name of the student and the design school they attended was called out, before a brief description of their creation was given. He found himself watching the outfits that were paraded, subconsciously comparing the abilities of Sansa's competition, and wondering what exactly Sansa had produced. He hadn't even thought to ask, and he frowned at his oversight.
When the last model took to the floor, there was a sudden collective murmur in the audience, and Sandor sat motionless as he saw that the striking auburn-haired model who now stood under the spotlight was none other than Sansa herself.
"Ladies and gentlemen," began the compere, "Modeling her own creation, Sansa Stark from The Southern Institute of Design, wearing a structured dove-grey gown, crafted entirely from raw Chinese silk."
The description that the compere gave was woefully inadequate, in Sandor's opinion. There was no mention of the thigh-high split that bared her long, slim legs. There was no mention either of the deep V-cut neckline that stopped between her creamy breasts, or how the sleek bodice pushed them together to make them look fuller, threatening to spill from their fragile confines. She was clearly not wearing a bra, Sandor noted, and he wondered what the hell was keeping the fabric from slipping. As dresses went, he figured it was a beautiful design, but it was the woman wearing it that truly brought it to life. She was a goddess, fire and ice personified, with the warmth of her flame-coloured tresses contrasting against her pale skin and the cool sheen of her dress. She was magnificent.
Buggering hell, he thought, and watched as Sansa walked the length of the runway as effortlessly as the rest of the models before her. He held his breath, and did not release it until Sansa was once again off the runway. There was a thunderous applause, but Sandor could not bring himself to join in. In fact, he saw little of the show that followed as he waited for Sansa to rejoin him. The image of her had been burned in his mind, and he couldn't focus on anything around him. When Sansa eventually rejoined him, redressed in her black coat and pants, he was sure he must have been scowling, because she raised her eyebrows questioningly.
"What was that about?" he growled, "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Surprised you, did it?" she whispered.
"Completely," he replied.
"It was a surprise for me too," she confessed, "The model tripped and hurt her ankle in the bathroom just before she was supposed to be dressed. There were no other models available with the right specifics to fit the gown."
"Just you," he stated.
"That's right," she nodded, "The dress was made to my measurements, after all."
For the purpose of aesthetic comparison, he had noted that many of the models were flat-chested, and none of those with breasts to speak of even came close to Sansa's specifics. He cleared his throat, and his mind from his damning train of thought.
"Have you done any modeling before? You looked like you knew what you were doing."
"Never," she shook her head, "But, I was here all morning watching the models during dress rehearsal, and mother sent me to deportment classes when I was younger, so I'd know how to walk properly. The girls backstage were nice and gave me a five-minute crash course in walking. The fashion show director said I'd have to forfeit my spot if I couldn't find a model, and no way was I giving up this opportunity. I feel like I've walked over hot coals…but, I managed to convince the director to let me do it!"
"Glad it all worked out," he grunted, "The dress was nice. Good going, little bird."
She glowed at his praise, "Thank you. That means a lot."
The rest of the evening was a test for his patience, while Sansa sat beside him wearing an expression of awe as she watched the remaining shows. When the event wrapped, Sansa was delayed for some time as people came to congratulate her on her design, while others presented her with business cards or took her contact details directly. She introduced him to the people she knew, including to one Randa Royce, a classmate of hers, who eyed him in a knowing manner, making Sandor wonder what Sansa had been saying about him and who else she'd been talking to. It didn't bother him for long, because he was beside her, and Sansa's smile never wavered.
It was close to 11 p.m. by the time they walked into Sandor's favourite bar near the Old Pier. The bartender immediately set them up with Sandor's preferred beer and a cocktail for Sansa. As per usual, Sansa did all of the talking, while he mostly listened and made appropriate grunts when she asked him questions. It was getting late, but Sansa was showing no signs of slowing down, pumped as she was from the success of her first fashion debut.
After two cocktails Sansa declared that she was hungry, so he paid for their drinks and followed her to the 24-hour takeaway shop next door to buy some hot chips, sprinkled with plenty of seasoning. He watched as she picked up each chip with delicate fingers, and thought that a chunk of potato had never looked more enticing than it did between her lips. When she had consumed the lot and only orange sprinkles of paprika remained in the paper cup, Sansa then suggested they take a walk.
"It's almost midnight," he said, "You better go home."
"It's still early," she protested, "The night is dark and full of possibilities, and you never know what it'll bring!"
So they walked, and Sandor questioned the sanity of his decision when the night air hit him like a wall of ice. Sansa was from the North where winters were much colder, and he figured she was used to the frigidness. Tough it out, he told himself. It was no surprise when they ended up at the Old Pier, although they opted to remain at the entrance of the jetty as the waves that night were lashing against the railings, and not even Sansa was crazy enough to brave that.
"Happy now?" he asked her, "I'm freezing my arse off, Sansa. Let's call it a night."
"A few minutes longer," she said, "I don't get out to see the pier much, these days."
"You'd see more of it in daylight," he quipped. "Be a hell of a lot warmer, too. Come on, let's get you a taxi."
"Why are you so determined to send me home?" she rounded on him.
"Because, it's bloody midnight and –"
"That's not what I meant, and you know it." Sansa made a tutting sound between her teeth, and she gave him a look that sought his understanding. "Surely, you must have noticed by now…"
Her voice drifted off, and he knew exactly what she was getting at. He frowned. He wasn't prepared for this, but Sansa's determined expression showed she wasn't going to back down.
"Oh, I noticed," he agreed, "I just don't think you've thought it through."
"I have thought it through,"
"What's changed, Sansa?" he asked gruffly, "You were treating me like a stranger not too long ago. What's so different now?"
"I opened my eyes, Sandor."
"Then you're making a mistake,"
"No, I'm not." Sansa stepped closer to him, "I'm seeing clearly now, and I know what I want."
Sandor swallowed hard, "You don't know what you want. You have no idea what you're asking."
"I'm not asking for forever, Sandor," she stated, to which he could find no response, and she continued in his silence, "Is it because I'm young? Do you really not see me as a woman?"
"I am seeing you as a woman," he rasped, "Believe you me. I've been seeing you as a woman for some time."
Sansa's eyes widened in understanding as she saw the truth written on his face.
"Do you want me?" she asked him, her voice turning husky, heavy with hope and desire.
Sandor clenched his fists. When he answered her, his voice came out as a growl.
"Yes, little bird. I want you."
She stared at him with parted lips, and took another step closer to him. Sansa reached up with one hand and traced the edge of his lapel. Sandor covered her hand with his, stopping her fingers as they travelled across his chest.
"Don't fight me," she whispered.
"I have to,"
"Why?" she demanded.
"I won't have you add me to the list of things you regret," he bit out.
Sandor didn't want to be someone Sansa would someday think about with regret. He loathed the thought of one day being just memory to her, a memory that she would push to the back of her mind because of the pain it would cause her to think about him.
"You keep talking about things I'll regret," she turned the hand he was holding so that their palms faced each other, and she grasped his fingers between her own. "It sounds like such a cliché, but the only thing I know I'll definitely regret, is not knowing what could have been. If you push me away, I'll never know what it is to be with you…and I don't want that."
He studied their entwined hands, noting how small and pale hers were compared to his own. He was losing the fight, and he knew it.
"I'm too old for you," he made his last stand. "I'm not the man for you, Sansa. I can't offer you a future."
"I don't care about your age," she dismissed his first argument, "And I told you before. I'm not asking for forever, Sandor. I'm not even asking for a future. I'm asking you for now…right now…tonight…"
He was lost. His fight was over, and the last thing to cross his mind before he had lowered his head and crushed her mouth with his, was hoping that he didn't come to regret the decision he'd just made.
He kissed her. Hard, and fiercely, the way he'd been craving to kiss her for gods knew how long. She tasted of salt, and she was the most delicious thing he'd ever tasted. Sansa fell against him, and Sandor was pushed against the railing, feeling the wood dig into his lower back as Sansa inched to get closer to him still. Sansa's lips were cool, and her tongue warm and pliant as she returned the pressure of his kiss. The contrast of cool and warm, soft and firm, and suddenly being surrounded by Sansa's scent made him shiver unexpectedly.
Sansa pulled back, and she looped her arms behind his neck, pulling him down so that her forehead pressed against his.
"Take me home," she whispered, her warm breath turning to mist between them. "Take me home, Sandor."
His apartment was close by, and the taxi ride made short work of the distance. He couldn't remember unlocking the front door, but they were somehow standing inside the narrow entryway, and Sansa was back in his arms, searching for his mouth with her own. Fumbling in the dark, she found the zip on his jacket and he unclasped the buckle on the belt holding her coat together. She was wearing a blouse under her coat, and he pulled back from her kiss just long enough to pull the cashmere over her head. Shoes were removed, and they landed on the carpeted floor with soft thuds.
His hands found bare skin when he reached for her again, and Sansa's fingers nimbly undid the buttons on his shirt, splaying the two halves aside so that she could run her cool palms over his chest. With a moan, he lifted her up, prompting her to wrap her legs around his hips as she clung to his shoulders, and he carried her towards his bedroom.
He deposited her on top of his sheets, and Sansa removed her pants while he shucked his jeans off. In the moonlight that filtered in through the curtains of his window, he stared at the exquisite young woman in front of him, feeling his throat constrict when it hit him that Sansa was sitting on his bed wearing only scraps of flimsy, black lace.
"Sandor?" she said, when he took too long to join her on the bed.
This cannot be a mistake, he thought. Sansa was there because she wanted to be, and he would be a fool to make her wait any longer. In one quick stride he was on the bed, kneeling over her and forcing her to look up at him. He touched her face, gently gliding the pad of his thumb over her lips, and her cheek. It was too dark for him to see the flush on her cheeks, but he felt it against his fingers, burning his skin. Right now, she had said, tonight. If all they had was now, then he would take what she was giving, and he would enjoy it, however he pleased.
He started by removing the lacy bra that covered her, brushing the fabric away so that he could take in her creamy perfection. Her breasts were full, and when he reached up to cup them, the heaviness in his palm and the velvety softness of her skin made his breath come out ragged as his hands molded to the shape of her. He dropped one hand to her ribcage, noting the narrowness of her waist, and the quivering of her belly as his fingertips trailed over her flesh. Sansa's eyes never broke contact with his, and he saw that she was trembling.
Sandor eased her down onto her back against the pillows, fascinated by the way her hair whorled and spilled across his sheets. He lay beside her, propping himself on one elbow for support so that he was partially atop her, and let his hand continue its wandering over her taut stomach. When he finally reached the waistband of her lace knickers, he paused and gave her a look, seeking her permission before he went further. Sansa bit her lip, and at her nod, Sandor slipped his fingers beneath the fabric. She gasped when his fingers found her womanhood, and she turned her head into the pillow as he used his longest finger to give her an experimental flick.
"Look at me," he growled, "Let me watch you."
She obeyed him, and he watched as her eyelids flickered shut when he continued to tease her. He started gently, parting her, stroking lightly and caressing softly. His eyes still on her face, he dropped his head to her left breast and took her nipple between his lips. Sansa gasped loudly, eyes flickering open briefly to look at him, before shutting helplessly against the sensation of his tongue swirling over her sensitized flesh. He gave her other breast the same attention, and Sansa's fingers tightened on his shoulder in response.
Below her waist, he coaxed her sensitive pearl from beneath its hood, and he listened to the sounds she was making, taking his cues from her moans and gasps as to when he should speed up, slow down, or increase the pressure of his touch. Sansa writhed beneath him, unable to withstand his double attack, and when he removed his hand Sandor's fingers were slick with the evidence of her arousal.
In one swift movement he had removed her knickers, and Sansa lay there with a shy expression unexpectedly gracing her features as he took in her complete nakedness. She was glorious. She was his, and shortly she was gasping in surprise when he slid down and parted her thighs with a nudge of his shoulders. She caught his intent, and her lips moved to say his name, but the sound came out garbled when his mouth came down on her without warning. As he had done with his fingers, his tongue now continued to tease her, tasting her, and seeking out her most sensitive places. Sandor took his time, and his effort was rewarded when the sounds she made grew huskier as the depth of her desire deepened. He raised his eyes, and his line of sight took in the valleys and planes of her shivering abdomen, her heaving breasts as her breath grew shallow, and finally her face, which bore an expression of pleasure that he had put there.
Sansa opened her eyes and she reached down to push at his shoulder. Curious, he paused, but did not let her pull away, keeping a grip on her thighs.
"Enough," she rasped.
He let her pull away, and Sansa guided him to lie on the bed, taking the place she had just occupied on the pillows. She sat up, and on knees that shook, she pulled his short-briefs from his hips. His member sprang free, already rigid, already straining, and he let out a huff when Sansa's eyes widened at the sight of him. She muttered something under her breath, too low for him to clearly hear, but sounding very much like 'too big'. Any smartarse comments he was about to make all but disappeared when her hands were suddenly on him. Light and tentative at first, but growing in confidence as she learned what he liked. Her fingers encircled him at the base, before gliding up his length, and down again. She was watching his face, just as he had done with her, and the excitement on her face made him all the harder.
Then she was bending over him, taking him into her mouth, and his groan became more audible in the quietness of the room. Even if he had known it was going to happen, he was still unprepared for the heat of her mouth as she engulfed him, and the fluttering of her tongue against his skin as she laved the head of his member. He watched through narrowed eyes as Sansa's head rose and dipped over him, her hair brushing against his stomach where it fell over her face. Every few seconds, Sansa would pause in her ministrations, fumbling as she tried to establish a rhythm between her mouth, tongue and hands. It gave away her inexperience, yet her genuine desire to please him more than compensated for what she lacked in technique.
He wasn't going to last, given the state of his own arousal, and the urgency of his need. Sandor placed his hands on her shoulder and eased himself back. She lifted her head from between his legs, and almost fluidly, she climbed onto his lap, straddling him, the length of him pressing against her lower abdomen. He moved his arm, reaching for his nightstand, hoping he still had that packet of condoms somewhere in his drawer when Sansa stopped him.
"I'm on the pill," she said, "It's okay."
He paused, studying her face. He had no reason not to believe her. "You're sure?"
She nodded, before she placed her hands on his shoulders and lowered her face to press kisses against the side of his neck and face. It was his scarred side, he noted with a moment of alarm, but Sansa showed no sign of hesitation or repulsion. Something powerful came over him at that moment, and the only response he had to it was to wrap his arms around her, and to hold her closer. Sansa's mouth sought his, and when their lips met, Sandor urged her lips apart and plunged his tongue inside.
Sansa raised herself to her knees, and with one hand between them, Sandor positioned himself at her entrance. Slowly, Sandor drove himself into her, the air leaving his lungs as her tightness enveloped him, forcing him to break from her kiss.
"Bloody hell…" he reeled from the unanticipated friction and pushed further still, driving himself deeper into her.
He watched as Sansa bit into her bottom lip, eyes screwed shut against his intrusion into her body. She shivered as she took his entire length inside her, but as the last few inches of him slid home, he felt something give way within her. Sansa gave a sharp cry, and she dug her finger nails into his arms.
He stilled at her cry, alarmed. "Sansa?"
She didn't answer him. He felt her trembling.
"Sansa, are you alright?"
Again, she didn't answer him, but her eyes finally opened…and he knew. He knew. He had always known, but he'd refused to believe it because it had just seemed improbable that she'd stayed a virgin all those years she'd been with another man. The shock caused him to jerk inadvertently, shifting his pelvis, and himself inside her. Sansa tensed and sobbed at the sudden movement, her inner muscles clenching around him.
She gave him a watery smile, "I'm all right."
Sandor didn't know how to respond. He had just caused her pain.
"Move, Sandor." Sansa implored.
"It's done," she continued, "Move, please."
Still, he didn't move, unwilling to cause her more pain.
"Fine," Sansa said, "I'll move."
Flattening her palms against the expanse of his chest, Sansa slowly raised her hips from his lap, pausing for a moment when only the tip of him remained inside her, before slowly bringing herself down. She repeated the movement once. Then, repeated it again.
"Damn it to hell…" he swore, before he wrapped an arm around her waist and took control.
Sandor caved in, lost to the moist heat of her body encasing him, lost to the feeling of Sansa's weight bearing down on him as her hips connected with his, and lost to the knowledge that she done this with no one else before him. He thrust into her slowly, using shallow strokes, hoping she would find some pleasure through her discomfort.
"It's okay," she said into his ear, knowing what it was that caused his hesitance, "I'm not going to break."
He continued with short, steady thrusts, feeling sweat forming on his brows as he did his best to keep his strength under control. Sansa let out another cry, different from earlier. He moved again, with more force and Sansa moaned against him in response. Encouraged, he lowered his hands to cup the cheeks of her bottom in his palms and surged into her a little faster, using longer and deeper strokes. Before long, there was no mistaking the whimpers and sighs escaping her lips.
With a grunt he lifted the both of them, careful not to dislodge himself from her, rolling so that Sansa lay beneath him. She sighed and parted her knees wider, cradling him where they met at junction of her thighs. Sandor's face hovered above hers, his elbows braced on either side of her head. His weight settled heavy atop her, and Sansa looked up to meet his eyes.
"You all right, little bird?" he asked, reaching down with his right hand to hook an arm under her knee, shifting the angle of his entry.
She managed a nod, "Sandor...please..."
He knew what she was asking of him, and Sandor was determined to do whatever he could to take them both over that precipice.
"I won't leave you behind," he rasped. "I'm taking you with me."
Then he lowered his head and started to kiss and nuzzle the side of her neck in a way that sent goosepimples forming along her skin. He began thrusting into her again, grinding against her with every downward stroke. Sansa's hands were at his back, while her ankles had hooked together behind his waist, pulling him deeper. Soon, her breathing became ragged, and her moans had changed in pitch, while the pressure that had been building inside him began to mount up. He was close, and by the clenching of her muscles around him, he sensed that she was not far behind him.
"Sandor…please!" Sansa's grip on his shoulders tightened.
He understood what she was begging for and he was more than glad to oblige. Sandor drove into her with single-minded intensity, feeling the dam of his control begin to break just as Sansa let out the sweetest sound he had ever heard, suddenly becoming rigid beneath him. He continued to thrust as her inner muscles contracted around him, her release finally sending him over the edge. He groaned into her hair as he spilled himself inside her, and she held him when he lost the strength to continue holding himself up, collapsing into her arms.
Slowly, his senses returned to him, but he remained in her embrace a moment longer. There's no going back, he thought, whatever happens now, we can't look back. Sansa shifted under his weight, and Sandor carefully lifted himself from her, pretending not to see the wince that flitted over her features for that split second as he withdrew from her body. There was a smear of blood on the inside of her thigh mixed with the evidence of their exertion, and Sandor briefly left the room to grab a towel from the bathroom, which he used to wipe the worst of the aftermath away. He then settled down on the bed beside her and Sansa placed herself in the crook of his arm.
"You okay?" he touched her hip gently.
"I'm fine," she replied, "Perfectly fine."
Sandor sighed, lethargy seeping into his bones, and he drew the blanket around them, pulling Sansa closer to his side. Something warm stirred within his chest when she pressed her cheek to his heart.
"I hurt you," he grunted, addressing the obvious.
"Yeah, you did," she said, "Just a bit, though."
"Why are you on the pill if you weren't having sex?" he wondered.
"Women problems," she shrugged, "I have an irregular cycle, and the pill fixes it."
"I see," he muttered, though it was obvious in his tone that the finer workings of the female physiology was beyond him.
Sansa giggled softly, and Sandor gazed down at the top of her head. Though they were in cloaked in shadow, he could still see the smile playing about her mouth.
"I didn't believe you, you know," he confessed.
"You knew, Sandor." Sansa stated accusingly, "And you're a stubborn bastard for doubting me."
"Anyone would," he defended himself half-heartedly, "Could you blame me? You were engaged to another man."
"I wasn't saving it, or anything," Sansa told him, "I didn't choose to stay a virgin…it just, never happened."
He didn't want to think about what had happened between her and her former fiancé, or why it had never happened, but Sandor had to wonder at the workings of fate. He had to wonder, of all the good and better men in the world, why Sansa had chosen him to be her first. The night is dark and full of possibilities, Sansa had said. Sandor agreed, as he lay there with the weight of Sansa's head pillowed on his arm. You never know what the night will bring.
Morning was another matter, Sandor thought when he woke up some hours later. Sunlight shone through his bedroom window, touching the side of his bed that now sat empty and cold. Morning is bright and full of clarity, bringing the callousness of reality with it.
Sansa had not stayed.
Chapter 10: A Change In The Weather
Bittersweet. It was a term that Sansa had only ever associated with the Belgian dark chocolate she favoured and the macchiato she sometimes drank. It was not a word she was accustomed to associating with any aspect of her life, and yet, bittersweet was the nature of her relationship with Sandor. It was the only way she could describe what had developed between them in the few short weeks since the Nuveau Styliste show.
She had invited him that night, not only because she wanted to celebrate her accomplishment with him, but also because she was using it as an excuse to see him again. She had already imposed her company on him twice by following him to his favourite pubs, and she figured that a change of environment might be a better catalyst for…whatever it was…that she was trying to start with him. Twice before, Sandor had sent her home alone, without acknowledgment of her thinly veiled intention to seduce him. She had been determined not to go home a third time without getting some kind of reaction from Sandor.
What had eventually transpired had gone beyond the realm possibilities she'd imagined, and the memory of the things she had done with Sandor that night…and the things they had done since, sent a warm flush throughout her entire body. That's the sweet part, she thought. The demands of his job as well as his haphazard working hours made for limited time together, but they met as often as their schedules would allow. She would call or send him a message in the morning, and hopefully she would receive a response a couple of hours before they would meet each other at a restaurant or pub of her choosing in the evening. They would eat, have a few drinks and she would tell him about her day. They would then take a walk along the esplanade, or in one of the tree-lined parks in the neighbourhood, before heading home to whoever's apartment was nearest.
In the bedroom, she learned that Sandor could be far gentler than she had ever envisioned, while she had an aggressive side that she was slowly growing to embrace. Sandor was experienced, he knew what he liked, while everything was new to her and she was keen to experiment with the positions and techniques she'd read about within the sealed sections of the glossy magazines she occasionally purchased. Sandor always obliged her, and she'd witnessed the amused twitch of his burned lip when she would suggest something out of the ordinary for him. One attempt at a bubble bath together had resulted in Sansa's bathroom floor being flooded with soapy water, while Sandor had received bruised knees and elbows for his effort.
"I need a bigger tub," Sansa had stated, while she'd glanced at him sheepishly.
"I ought to punish you," had been Sandor's reply.
The man had glowered at her as he'd helped her mop up the bathroom, though there'd been mirth in his eyes. Later he had meted out punishment in retribution for his bruises in a way that was no punishment at all, in Sansa's opinion.
Sansa learned of the intimacy of pillow talk. It was, she found to her surprise, one of the rare opportunities where she could ask Sandor questions about himself and actually have a high chance of getting a proper answer, instead of his usual curt replies. It was in one of those rare moments, while they'd been lying languidly in each other's arms, that Sansa finally learned the story behind his scars.
"It's a sorry tale, little bird," Sandor had rasped, "My father used to tell people that my bedding had caught on fire when I was a kid, but that wasn't it…not by a long shot. Truth is, I was pushed into a brazier, by my very own brother."
Sansa had only been able to sit in horrified silence as she'd listened to him speak, and when he had finished his story, the only comfort she could offer was to place her hand on his shoulder, and pull him closer against her. It was unimaginable to her that a child of eleven could possess such cruelty at that age, that he could hold his six-year-old brother's face into burning coals, just because his little brother had been playing with his toy without permission. She hated to think what kind of man Sandor's brother had grown up to become.
She would also come to learn that Sandor had never known his mother, who'd died giving birth to him, and that he'd lost an older sister when he was much too young to remember her. His father had died some twenty years before, in an accident on the family farm.
"Farm?" Sansa had asked him, "Your family had a farm?"
"Still does," he had replied, "My brother inherited it when my father died. It's not much, just a few hectares, and an old house. My old man wasn't much of a farmer though. He spent more time drinking than he did tending to his crops. I'll bet he was drunk that day he rolled the tractor into a ditch and got himself crushed under it...I haven't been back to the farm since his funeral."
It was not the childhood she'd imagined him to have had, and the revelation that he had grown up in a rural environment took her by surprise as she'd assumed he'd been in the city all his life. It was evident that his childhood had not been a happy one. She didn't know how to relate, when her life and childhood had been idyllic in comparison. There was such loathing in his voice whenever Sandor mentioned his brother, and resentment when he spoke of his father that Sansa had not asked him anything else. She could see that the topic of his family brought him to a dark place, and she had not wanted to keep him there longer than necessary. He was a complex man, and while she was no psychologist, it wasn't hard to see that his past still affected him. The barrier he had put up around himself as protection had been there long before she came into his life, and Sansa wasn't sure she could get past them…or if she should even try.
That's the bitter part, she thought. She had resolved to keep him at arm's length, figuratively speaking. There was a limit to their intimacy, and Sansa was doing her best to stick to it. She never slept at his apartment, in case she overstayed her welcome, nor expect him to stay over at hers. He never did, and she never asked him to. She didn't want him to think she was becoming clingy, or that she was asking more than what he was prepared to give. She left no toothbrush at his place, and indeed she was careful not to leave anything at all when she visited. She was probably being too over-cautious, but she'd never been in a non-committed relationship before, and she wasn't sure of the rules.
"I can't offer you a future." Sandor had said.
It was his way of telling her that he didn't want a long term relationship, or enter into any kind of commitment. There was no talk of what they'd be doing in six months time, or even in one month's time, and no plans were made more than a few days in advance. Their relationship was about right now, as Sansa had told him that night at the Old Pier, but she was only beginning to understand its limitations. She figured that if Sandor were to change his mind, he would let her know. However, he made no mention of anything that indicated that he'd changed his mind in the weeks they had been together. Not once had he asked her to stay the night, or tell her that he wanted to wake up with her in the morning. The disappointment she had felt the first time she had tiptoed out of Sandor's apartment while he had lain sleeping still gnawed at her, as it did whenever she had felt the dip of her mattress, feigning sleep as Sandor got up to leave her apartment.
She soon found, to her anguish, that she was feeling discontented. It felt that she never had enough time with him. They didn't travel or venture too far from the city, there were no introductions to friends or family, and their dates began to feel like a precursor to sex. Her discontentment began to mount up, and she had to remind herself that this was something she had walked into with open eyes.
She was having to remind herself of that fact with increasing frequency, as the more time she spent with Sandor, the harder it became to leave his side. The more she learned about him, the more she wanted to know. For every fragment of information Sandor told her about himself, the more he seemed to be keeping back. Truly getting to know him meant having to get past his defenses, and she knew that he would never allow that.
Sansa was coming to fear that the very thing Sandor told her he couldn't give her, was something she was coming to want. Was it even possible for a rebound attraction to turn into something real? She had asked herself. Now that she had come to know him better, she wondered if her feelings for Sandor were not as transient as she had first thought.
The idea of wanting Sandor in her future caused the voice in her head that was yelling at her not to get in too deep to grow louder and more insistent. You will only end up getting hurt, she told herself. He's already said there is no future with him, so don't go wishing for something that can't happen. Sandor was not her boyfriend, and she couldn't even say they were lovers because it bore a connotation that they were in love. She was loathe to label what they had as just a casual hook-up as it demeaned the time they spent with each other, cheapening it to just a physical act and that wasn't what she wanted. The fact that she couldn't put on a name on their relationship only added to her discontentedness.
I have to be careful. I can't want for anything more, she thought. And so, she took the bitter with the sweet.
Spring arrived, and the warmer weather brought the return of visitors to the seaside and local business owners, whose cash resources had been spread thin during the lean months, now breathed collective sighs of relief as tourists came bearing wallets full of money. The buoyant atmosphere that was noticeably missing during the winter months gradually returned, and large pleasure vessels began to occupy berths at the wharf once again.
Joffrey and Margaery's wedding was one week away, and Sansa had received a voicemail from their wedding planner telling her that she hadn't RSVP'd, and kindly asked that she do so within the next twenty-four hours as seating arrangements had to be finalized. She had decided that she was under no obligation to attend, so she'd contacted the wedding planner and told her that she wouldn't be going. Sansa had not expected the phone call from Margaery later that same day.
"Sansa, I know that it's perhaps the last place you want to be," Margaery had said, her voice sweet across the line, "However, I want you to know that I'm going to keep a seat for you just in case you change your mind. You've been a dear friend for a long time, and I still consider you a dear friend, and it would mean a lot to me if you could attend."
"I don't know that it's a wise idea for me to be there, Margaery," Sansa had replied cautiously, "Surely you've thought about what people will say."
"Of course I have, though it's not for anyone else to decide who goes to my wedding. I want you to be there, so please think about it."
"Sure, I'll do that."
Sansa bore them no ill will. None at all. In fact, she was grateful to Margaery for taking Joffrey away from her. If she hadn't, Sansa would have married Joffrey, and who knew what would have happened when she finally came to her senses. A broken engagement was better than divorce, she had come to believe. The pain she had felt at the time, she now realized, was more to do with their betrayal rather than a broken heart. Together, they had seen and experienced so much during the years of their friendship. Sansa liked to think that had they been upfront with her about their relationship, she would have come to understand. If they love each other, who am I to stand in their way? It was that thought that led her to begin the process of forgiveness.
Spring had also signaled the beginning of a new term and Sansa had started to work on new projects in class. However, with nothing urgent to complete, and without the pressure she'd been under preceding Nuveau Styliste, Sansa found herself with free time, especially on weekends. She spent more hours than she would have liked waiting for Sandor to let her know if they would see each other after his shifts, which were subject to change with very little notice as the Baratheon's required. She hated waiting, she realized. She did not like knowing that she was not his number one priority.
"You have no right to feel that way," she said to herself, "You do not have the right to make demands on his time. You are not his girlfriend."
With little else to do, she found herself out on the esplanade by The Piers one afternoon, watching the people walk by as she sat by the water's edge. She noticed several children holding bright red balloons walking by, and as she looked closer, she could see some kind of reptilian motif printed on the red latex. Looking around, she noticed that there were quite a lot of these balloons about, and she became curious as to where they had come from.
"It's a new nature exhibit that's just opened up at the end of the esplanade," explained the young mother that Sansa had stopped to question, "You keep heading straight down, you won't miss it."
Sansa had followed the woman's directions and walked towards the far end of the esplanade, away from the wharf until she came upon a newly refurbished establishment that she recalled being a rundown mess, just months before. There was a brand new sign at the front, carved into a huge stone lintel, carrying the reptilian motif she'd noticed on the balloons, along with the name of the establishment. She wondered why she had never come across the place before.
A reptile park, that's what it turned out to be, called The Dragon's Den Reptile Sanctuary. She went inside and paid the twenty quid admission. There was a girl there, about her age, with startling violet eyes and platinum blonde hair worn in a long braid down her back. At first, Sansa figured the girl's hair colour had to be out of a bottle, but when she stood close enough to really look, she grew somewhat envious when she saw that it was natural. Her nametag, pinned to the front of her khaki uniform, read 'Dany'. She was also currently balancing a lizard on her left shoulder.
"Hi," Dany smiled at her, "Welcome to The Dragon's Den."
"Hi," Sansa greeted her back, "This place is new. When did you open?"
"On the first day of spring," Dany replied, "We wanted to make sure we were open when the visitors started arriving again."
"There used to be a roller skating rink here, right?" Sansa asked, looking around at the brightly lit interior.
The entrance hall was covered in murals of frogs, turtles and lizards, with the centre of the room being taken up by a jaw dropping stone carving of a three-headed dragon, illuminated under its own spotlight. There was a gift shop through one of the doorways leading from the hall, and Sansa spied stuffed animals and hats bearing the reptilian logo of the sanctuary. Children and families milled about, guided by staff wearing khaki uniform.
"There was," Dany handed her a pamphlet about the sanctuary, as well as a wristband which signified her as a day-pass holder, "We purchased the entire block, including the land behind us so that we could build the turtle enclosures."
"Wow, that's amazing." Sansa eyed the lizard sitting on Dany's shoulder with wary curiosity, "Does this little guy live here?"
Dany smiled and reached up to give the lizard a loving stroke on his head, "This little guy is a Bearded Dragon, and he's mine, actually."
"He's…erm, very docile." Sansa was strapped for adjectives she could use to describe the golden-brown reptile that looked to be about 12 inches long.
Dany laughed, "A face only a mother could love, huh? He's still just a baby. He'll double in length when he's fully grown. Then he'll be just as handsome as his brothers – I have a 6-foot Green Iguana and a 4-foot Argentine Tegu at home, too."
Sansa expressed her shock, while Dany gave another laugh and bade her a pleasant day before excusing herself to tend to other patrons. Sansa then consulted the map included in the pamphlet and began to wander around the exhibits and enclosures at her leisure. She took some photos of the monitor lizards, the poisonous frogs as well as the large python on display, intending to send them to her little brother Rickon, who was eleven and had a fondness for creatures that slithered and hissed.
She made her way to the tortoise enclosure and she watched the short presentation given by the staff on the origins of the giant tortoise that lumbered about the enclosure, munching on vegetables, oblivious to the crowd. Afterward, Sansa found a seat in a shady spot nearby, away from the bulk of the crowds but near enough so she could keep watching the tortoise's languorous, plodding movements. It turned out to be a good place to sit and ponder about the people in her life, and she remained there for some time, even after the tortoise had settled down for a nap.
After a time, a slim hand appeared by her shoulder, bearing a wedding ring and holding out a bottle of fruit infused water. Sansa looked up and found Dany, sans baby bearded dragon, smiling and urging her to take the bottle.
"Go on, take it. You've been sitting here for quite some time, and you look thirsty."
Sansa glanced at her watch and gasped when she saw that she'd been sitting there close to two hours. "Oh, goodness…I didn't even notice the time!"
"Must be something serious on your mind," Dany observed, "You don't look like a huge reptile buff, if I may say so. I figured there had to be a reason you're still here. Here, drink up."
Sansa smiled and graciously accepted the bottle of water as Dany sat down next to her on the bench, opening a bottle of water for herself.
"Thanks again, for the water." Sansa said as she downed half the contents, thirstier than she realized.
"Not a problem," Dany said, before fixing her with a curious gaze. "So, did you get the answers you were looking for? You don't have to tell me anything, and I'm not asking you to, but you look troubled and I kind of got concerned when I saw you still sitting out here."
"Oh," Sansa blushed in embarrassment, "It's just the usual, you know? Man troubles..."
"You mean, you're troubled about your ex-fiance marrying another woman next week?" Dany suddenly said, and at Sansa's startled expression, the young woman went on to explain, "I recognized you when you walked in, Sansa Stark. You've been mentioned in the paper a few times, and your photos were in the society pages when your engagement was announced."
Sansa's face cleared, before she flushed again, in a rush to deny Dany's incorrect assumption. "No, it's not about my ex-fiance…I'm actually really glad for them both. In fact, they invited me to their wedding and the bride is insisting I go. I'm just not sure that I should."
"If you're glad for them, and seeing them get married isn't going to trouble you, then you should go. Simple as that." Dany stated.
"People are probably expecting that I'll be brokenhearted or still pining for Joffrey…"
"And, that's not the case?" Dany raised a well manicured brow, and at the slight shake of Sansa's head, she continued, "Then, you'll just have to stop them thinking those things about you. Really go and break those expectations they've placed on you. Turn up to their wedding dressed to kill, have a good time at the reception and look like you're really happy for them."
Sansa laughed at Dany's straightforwardness. They'd only just met, and yet here they were talking relationships.
"I see you're married," Sansa indicated the wedding band on Dany's finger.
Dany grinned, "I am. Drogo and I married two years ago."
"You look very happy," Sansa found herself smiling at the obvious love glowing in Dany's eyes.
"We are," Dany nodded, "Though it wasn't always that way. We were chalk and cheese when Drogo and I first met."
"Like you wouldn't believe! We didn't even speak the same language, and I thought he looked so fierce and scary. Not to mention the seventeen-year age gap between us."
"Seventeen years?" Sansa repeated, she glanced again at Dany's youthful face, "And, how old were you when you married him, if I might be so nosy?"
"I was nineteen, then."
"That makes your husband thirty-eight now," Sansa said, hoping Dany didn't take offense to the incredulous note in her voice.
"I get that reaction a lot," Dany shrugged, used to it. "The people around me were concerned that I was marrying too soon, but what really had them worried was the fact Drogo is so much older. People kept telling us that the age difference would be a barrier, and don't get me wrong, it's been hard work getting our relationship to the stage where we can compromise and it not be a constant battle. It is a never ending, conscious effort. But I love him, and I believe if two people really want to be together, they will find a way to stay together."
"That's wonderful," Sansa said, "I envy you."
A chime came from Sansa's phone, and a smile stole across her lips when she saw the text message from Sandor. He was confirming the time and place for their meeting that evening. Sansa's wait was over for now.
"That's a very telling smile you've got there," Dany teased.
Sansa's smile grew wistful, "I'm seeing a man who's sixteen years older than me, and he's the real reason I've been sitting here all this time."
"I see," Dany's eyes were full of understanding, but Sansa was glad that the older girl did not press her for details. "It's complicated…I know how it is."
At length, after some more chit chat about the reptile sanctuary, Sansa stood up and offered her hand to Dany.
"It's been a pleasure chatting with you, Dany."
"It's Daenerys, actually. My full name is Daenerys Targaryen. It's been a pleasure to meet you too, Sansa Stark." Dany grasped her hand and shook it firmly.
Dany shrugged once again, "Yes, I'm part of that Targaryen family."
Sansa's eyes widened slightly, realizing just whose hand she was shaking, "Then, this is your reptile park."
Dany nodded, "It certainly is. It's my newest venture, and perhaps the one I'm most passionate about."
"Well, I'd like to wish you all the best. It's a wonderful place."
"Same to you, Sansa. Let's hope to see you here again soon."
Sansa returned to her apartment to prepare for the evening ahead, still thinking of her encounter with Daenerys Targaryen. Once, the Targaryen dynasty were among the most powerful and influential families in the entire country. They were considered Kings among men, with their fortunes made across numerous industries including banking, international trade, real estate and even mining. If there was money to be made, the Targaryen's had a part in it. Sansa's grandfather used to have business dealings with them, as had her father at some point. However, the Targaryen dynasty began to crumble as rumors of marriage breakdowns, mental illness within the family and financial mismanagement by later generations of Targaryen's saw those fortunes whittled down to nothing. One by one, their empire of businesses were taken over by families like the Lannister's and Baratheon's, sold to pay off staggering debts without hope of recovery.
Sansa recalled hearing that Dany's father and oldest brother had both died within months of each other, and that her mother had died giving birth to her. Subsequently, Dany and another older brother had grown up being shifted from one foster home to another. It amazed Sansa how Dany, who was only two years older than her, could have bounced back from such adversity, to the extent that she now had the means to purchase land for her animal conservation endeavours. Daenerys Targaryen had been making her own headlines of late, not only with her passionate conservation efforts at home and abroad, but also because she was turning that passion into profits.
What in the world have I been doing with my life? Sansa asked herself. Dany's success was well deserved and no doubt she had worked hard for it, but in that moment, Sansa's own achievements felt inadequate in comparison. She had dreams of launching her own fashion label, and that one day she would be a success in her own right. Suddenly, that dream just became all the more clearer, and her determination to see it through magnified. A fire had been ignited within her, and as she finished putting on her makeup, she gave herself a stern look in the mirror. If she can do it, so can I.
She met Sandor at a bar 'n' grill not far from her apartment, and as they sat down to dinner, she told him about meeting the self-proclaimed Queen of Wildlife Conservation.
"Targaryen, eh?" Sandor raised his brow, "There's a name I haven't heard in a while. What was she like?"
"She's amazing," Sansa gushed, "She runs her own business, and she's only twenty-one. Can you believe that?"
"I'll bet that foreign husband of hers had a hand in it," he observed, "Can't see who else would loan money to a teenager."
"Always so cynical, you are." Sansa sighed, "The point is, someone gave her a chance to prove herself, and she has. One day, I'm going to do just the same."
Sandor had studied her with a frown between his eyes, before he gave her a small nod, "No doubt, you will."
"Her husband is seventeen years her senior, did you know?" Sansa found herself saying, and watching Sandor's face closely to see his reaction.
She had been telling herself that the coincidences between herself and Dany were only that, coincidences. They were of similar age involved with older men who happened to be in their thirty's. However, it was easy for Sansa to see herself in Dany's position, when her own circumstances with Sandor were not so different from that of Dany and her husband. Aside from Sandor being sixteen years older, she had also found him fierce and scary when they had first met, and while they both spoke the same language, Sansa had found him difficult to communicate with when she had been younger.
"Is that so?" Sandor muttered around his mouthful of steak, "Each to their own."
Is that it? Sansa wondered. Either Sandor had failed to see the similarity Sansa had been alluding to, or he had, and that he was subtly telling her that it was nothing to do with him. She wanted to ask him if he had ever imagined a future where they were together. She wanted to ask him if there was even a possibility that he could see something more tangible between them, because if he did, then she could allow herself to believe that she was falling in love with him. However she stayed silent, because she didn't know the right words to say.
Instead, she quashed the fluttering little bud in her chest, denying it the chance to bloom. She felt like a coward. She was afraid of hearing Sandor's denial, knowing that he would chide her for wanting more from him, and afraid that he would call an end to their current relationship as a result. She bit her tongue to keep from speaking out, and cut into her filet mignon with more ferocity than necessary. Regardless of any similarities the disparity was still clear; Dany and Drogo were married, while she and Sandor were merely two people who occasionally slept together.
The day of Joffrey and Margaery's wedding arrived. It was a Saturday, and the weather was bright and warm, the perfect conditions for a wedding. During the week, Sansa had made up her mind that she would attend. She was going to attend, not due to some misplaced, lingering loyalty to her ex-fiancé and former close confidant, or because of the attention she would draw, but because she wanted to show that she genuinely bore them no ill will. It was, she told herself, part of attaining closure to that part of her life.
She hadn't told Sandor that she would be attending, simply because she didn't want him to try and talk her out of it, as he had the first couple of times she had asked his opinion on the issue.
"You're done with those people," he'd rasped, "You don't need to be there."
She didn't bother telling him about her need for closure, because he would just dismiss it as the kind of sentimental bullshit only women could come up with. Sandor had told her he would be on security detail at the reception, so Sansa looked forward to surprising him there.
Sansa arrived at the church, a few minutes ahead of the 3p.m. ceremony, wearing a figure-hugging dress of her own design, made by her own two hands. It was navy blue, and featured cutaway panels below her left ribcage that showed a tantalizing glimpse of her toned abdomen. She wore strappy silver heels on her feet, and wore her hair in a partial up-do that left wispy tendrils to float about her shoulders. She'd taken particular care with her makeup, keeping everything neutral bar her rosy pink lipstick, knowing that people would be watching her face carefully to see what kind of expressions she'd make as the man she was supposed to marry became the husband of someone else.
With that thought, Sansa entered the church wearing the brightest smile she could muster, and almost at once, she heard the hum of murmurs as people took note of her presence. The pews on both sides of the church were full, and Sansa was debating on which side of the aisle she would sit when she felt a hand on her elbow. For a moment, she thought it might have been Sandor, but instead the face smiling down at her belonged to a wiry, dark-haired gentleman she knew as Petyr Baelish. He was a mutual acquaintance of her mother's and of the Baratheon's, whom she had met some years before at a function hosted by the Baratheon's.
"My dear, there is a seat available next to me, if that would suit you?" Petyr indicated the empty seat.
"Thank you, Mr. Baelish." Sansa accepted his offer graciously and took the offered seat, "This suits me just fine."
"Please, call me Petyr," he gave her a measured look, before lowering his voice so that only she would hear what he had to say. "I must say, I am surprised to see you here today."
Sansa had been prepared for just that very reaction, and she had a ready response. "I'm here because I'm happy for them. It's my strongest belief that the right woman is marrying Joffrey, and I wish them all the best."
"That's quite magnanimous of you, Sansa." Petyr observed, "Not many women in your position would be so gracious."
"I'm not trying to be noble," Sansa said, "And, I'm not most women."
"No, I daresay you're not." Petyr agreed, and Sansa could tell that she had caught him by surprise.
At the front of the church, the first few rows of pews were occupied by Baratheon and Tyrell family members. Some of them had turned around, searching for the cause of the sudden murmurs, and spotting her, most wore expressions of utter surprise. Renly Baratheon smiled at her broadly, while Tyrion Lannister had acknowledged her with a raised brow and a nod. Margaery's grandmother, a tiny and wizened woman with immaculately coiffed silver hair, also acknowledged her with an almost imperceptible nod. Sansa returned their acknowledgements with a smile, causing the murmurs to buzz once again.
The wedding procession was heralded by the distinctive opening bars of Pachelbel's Canon, played by a string quartet. A hush fell over the crowd as everyone turned to watch the bridal party make their entrance. The bridesmaids, all cousins of Margaery, wore flowing dresses of emerald green silk tulle. Margaery's entrance was made to the tune of Wagner's Bridal Chorus, with the crowd drawing their breath in a collective gasp when she walked in on the arm of her father. She wore a couture gown of ivory silk, embroidered with rosettes and silvery vines along the fitted bodice. The train of her gown bore a cascade of hundreds of handmade roses in varying shades of ivory, white and silver. Margaery's hair had been pulled up, showing off the graceful curve of her exposed back. She made a beautiful bride, of that there was no doubt. Joffrey, who had staunchly refused to turn in Sansa's direction, wore a white morning suit in a complimentary design to Margaery's dress. He looked handsome, as usual, though seeming somewhat distracted.
The ceremony itself seemed to take no time at all, and when the couple had exchanged rings and vows, Sansa found herself mentally closing that door in her mind, sealing her past with Joffrey behind it.
Petyr Baelish had stuck by Sansa's side after the ceremony had ended, and as Joffrey and Margaery were led away for official wedding photographs, the man kept her company while Sansa was approached by numerous acquaintances, curious about her presence and state of mind, guising their interest in the form of small-talk.
"If I may say so," Petyr began, "You've defied everyone's expectations by being here."
"I guess my being here will be the talk for a while," Sansa mused, but it was talk she was prepared to handle.
When Petyr offered her transportation to get to the reception venue, Sansa accepted. A private, beachfront mansion had been hired solely for the reception, as had an army of caterers, who wove in and around the guests bearing canapés and champagne. Petyr was an unexpected, but attentive companion, and Sansa found herself holding a champagne flute almost as soon as they had arrived.
Standing her full height, she tried to be inconspicuous as she scanned the various corners of the garden hoping to find Sandor, but with little luck. Although, she knew that even if she couldn't see him, chances were he had already seen her. Her theory was proven correct when, after she had excused herself to go to the powder room, she was unceremoniously pulled into an empty hallway by a strong pair of hands on her shoulders.
"What are you doing here?" Sandor demanded, glowering at her.
"I've come to celebrate Joffrey and Margaery's wedding," Sansa replied, "Is there any other reason for attending a wedding reception?"
"Why?" he frowned, "You're the last person who should be here. Everyone's talking about you, you do realize that?"
"I know, but that's not why I'm here," she told him, and with a sigh, she gave him a look that asked for his understanding. "I'm here for me. It's something I just have to do."
His frown deepened, but in the end, he didn't make any of the condescending comments she had been expecting. Instead he indicated towards the gardens where she had just come from.
"Why did you arrive with Petyr Baelish?"
"He offered me a ride from the church," Sansa shrugged, "And, as I didn't bring a plus one, he's been kind enough to keep me company."
"Don't get too close to him," Sandor warned, ignoring her dig about lacking a date for the wedding, "I've never liked that man."
"He's a childhood friend of my mother's," Sansa stated, "I won't be rude to him just because you don't like him."
Sandor's eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to speak, but the two-way radio on his hip crackled, and he was distracted by the call to go and check on a commotion down by the gate. Sandor turned back to her, obviously agitated that he couldn't give her a piece of his mind. Sansa grinned at him, enjoying his irritation.
"Just, don't get too close to him," he warned her again, "Let me know when you're about to leave, and I'll organize a ride home for you. You do not accept another ride with Baelish, understand?"
"Is that jealousy I hear, Mr. Clegane?"
"Bugger that," he spat, "And I've told you once before, do not refer to me as mister."
Sandor stomped away, and with a sigh, Sansa accepted that Sandor's warning came from concern for her, not because he was jealous of her being with another man. Still, it's something. He cared for her, and that would have to be enough.
As luck would have it, the seating arrangements saw Sansa seated at the same table as Petyr, and throughout the course of dinner, Petyr engaged her in conversation that ranged from her family and studies, right through to business and politics. Sansa found that she was enjoying herself, and when the speeches rolled around, she was looking forward to what Joffrey and Margaery's friends and family had to say.
If anyone had told her that the course of her future would be changed by the events that would take place in the next few moments, Sansa wouldn't have believed them. It would have been unfathomable for her to consider that in less than twenty-four hours, she would be hiding from reporters, and fleeing the city in the back of a helicopter.
The speeches began innocuously enough, with Robert taking to the centre of the dance floor to congratulate the bride and groom, and to welcome Margaery into the Baratheon clan. Margaery's father then spoke not of losing a daughter, but of gaining another son, and when Margaery took to the floor, she gushed about Cersei and Robert as already being like her own mother and father. Margaery went on to extol the qualities of her new husband that she admired the most, before inviting him to say a few words.
Joffrey spoke of nothing out of the ordinary. He began by once again thanking all of their guests, and then returning all of the compliments Margaery had bestowed on him by gushing about her beauty, her intelligence, and declaring that he'd never loved anyone more than he loved her. There had been an awkward pause as people nearest to Sansa gave her barely concealed glances, but then someone cleared their throat and proposed he make a toast.
"Yes, a toast!" Joffrey agreed enthusiastically, "Ladies and gentlemen, before my best man comes up to say his piece, I'd like to propose a toast to my beautiful bride. Margaery, you've known me since we were children, and during our school days you were my partner in crime. We've had our ups and downs, and through everything, you've been there for me. First you were my best friend, and now you're my wife. Thank you, Margaery. Thank you for choosing to stay by my side, and together, I know we'll conquer the world!"
"Here! Here!" Margaery's father cheered.
Glasses were raised, and led by Joffrey, everyone drank in Margaery's honour. There was applause, and people continued to cheer as Joffrey lowered his glass as he made to walk back to the head table to rejoin his bride. He was about halfway to the table when he suddenly paused in mid-step. No one took notice until the glass he was carrying slipped from his fingers, shattering on the floor. The sound of breaking glass drew attention back to him, and people watched as Joffrey clutched at his chest.
A second later, Joffrey had fallen to the floor, his hands grasping his throat. There was a loud scream from the head table, and Margaery was up on her feet, shouting.
"Someone help him!"
"What's happening?" someone from a rear table asked as a commotion broke out on the dance floor.
"Joffrey's collapsed!" someone else replied, "He's having a fit!"
"Someone call an ambulance!" came the sound of Cersei's cry, "Help my son!"
Stunned and horrified, Sansa could do nothing but watch as Joffrey's father and uncles rushed towards Joffrey, who lay convulsing on the floor.
"What's wrong with him?" Robert shouted, "What's happening to him?"
"What was in his drink?" Jaime Lannister shouted.
"I don't know…wine, I think," a Groomsman replied.
Froth began to foam at Joffrey's mouth, and Cersei's panicked cries rose as she tried to loosen Joffrey's tie from around his neck.
"Leave him alone, woman!" Robert yelled at her, "You're making it worse!"
"He can't breathe!" Cersei yelled back.
At the head table, a stunned Margaery was being held by her grandmother, while all the guests continued to watch on, the scene unfolding before them drawing shocked gasps and whispers of disbelief from the crowd.
Sansa witnessed as Joffrey's face began to lose colour, and as his eyes went round in their sockets. His legs continued to thrash, but soon the thrashing slowed, until his legs had stopped moving altogether. Jaime Lannister had turned Joffrey onto his side and forced his jaw apart in an attempt to clear his airway, but his efforts would go unrewarded. Sansa was still watching as the life left Joffrey's eyes, and she knew that he was dead even before Cersei's anguished howl pierced the night.
"Ladies and gentlemen," came the sound of Renly Baratheon's voice over the speaker, "In light of the circumstances, I must ask that you all head inside the house and begin to make your way home. The reception is over."
"Sansa," Petyr called her name, "Sansa, my dear. We have to leave."
Sansa forced her eyes to leave the sight of Joffrey's lifeless face, and she turned to look at Petyr, trying to focus on what he was saying. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I said that we have to leave now," Petyr repeated, "We shouldn't stay here."
"Leave?" Sansa repeated, "I can't leave yet."
Sansa stood up and craned her neck, looking out over the sea of people scrambling to vacate the premises. Where are you, Sandor? She couldn't see him, and she stood on tip toes to try and see better, only to lose her balance a moment later. Petyr caught her arm before she fell.
"Sansa, I must insist that you come with me now."
"I can't," she shook her head, "Uncle Robert and Aunt Cersei might need help…Joffrey's just died…right there…"
"What help would you be able to offer, my dear? I'm afraid the best thing you can do is give them privacy at this moment," Petyr said gently, "I must also point out that the news will soon spread about what happened here, and after that the reporters and media will converge on this place. They'll want pictures of Joffrey's body of course, then they'll want photos of Margaery. Your presence here didn't go unnoticed, Sansa, and they'll want pictures of you as well. Think of the headline; Bride and former fiancée witness the death of Joffrey Baratheon. You don't want your picture in the papers again, do you?"
"No," Sansa shook her head, appalled at what she'd just heard, "No. I don't want that."
"Then, come with me now."
In a daze, Sansa was barely aware of Petyr's hand on her elbow as he led her from the property. He bundled her inside his car, and before long they were driving away from the mansion. He took her to his home in the city, and from there, he made phone calls to her family.
"Sansa?" her mother called her name over the phone, "Are you all right, Sansa?"
"Mum," she replied. "I'm okay."
"That's great. I'm glad you're okay," relief flooded her mother's voice. "Listen, your father is flying down by helicopter right now. He'll be there to collect you shortly, okay? Don't worry."
After she had hung up the phone, Petyr's housekeeper showed her to the guest room where she could rest, and gave her a clean robe to wear should she wish to freshen up. Sansa washed her face, and then she'd gone to find Petyr, who was in the living room waiting for her.
"I was right," he said to her, and he indicated the TV, "News crews are already there. It was a good thing we left when we did."
Sansa nodded. "Thank you, for watching out for me."
"It's the least I could do," the older man said kindly, "You're Cat's daughter."
Seeing that she was shaken up, though otherwise unharmed, Petyr insisted that she retire to the guest room to wait for her father. Sansa had obeyed, wanting privacy so that she could collect her bearings. The image of Joffrey's face as he'd died was burned into her mind. She wanted to know what had happened, as everything had fallen apart so quickly. One moment he was drinking a toast to his new wife, the next he was dead. She'd never seen a person die before, and the fact that she'd watched someone who'd once been very dear to her lose their life impacted her hard.
"Where are you, Sandor?" she'd asked, checking her phone once again.
She'd been constantly watching her phone, but there had been no messages or missed calls from him. She knew his position at work, and given what had just transpired, she understood that he would have his hands full with ensuring the media and other interested parties were kept away from the Baratheon's. Sansa allowed herself to send him just one message, only to let him know that she was fine, and that her father was on his way to be with her. She didn't expect a reply, and none came.
Ned Stark arrived at Petyr Baelish's door just before midnight, and after Petyr had brought him up to speed, her father had driven her back to her apartment where he told her to pack a bag with enough clothes for a few days.
"You can't stay here, Sansa," her father had said, "The last thing I want is for photographers and reporters camping outside your building, waiting for you like they did when you and Joffrey split up."
Sansa had been in no mood to argue, and so, in the middle of the night she had followed her father to a hotel that took pride in ensuring the privacy of their guests, where she had collapsed on top of the bed and fallen into a troubled sleep as soon as her head had touched the pillow. In the morning, news of Joffrey's death had broken, being covered on every news channel, and front page on every paper.
"Sansa," her father had sat her down at the table in their suite, "Did you know about Joffrey's drug taking?"
Her head had snapped up, and that was answer enough for her father. Ned sighed and ran a hand over his face.
"What's wrong, father?"
"Did you ever experiment, while you were with him?"
"Never. I swear."
Her father had looked relieved. "I believe you."
"Have you heard from Uncle Robert, father?" she asked, sensing that her father was waiting to tell her something.
Her father's expression became grim, but he responded in his usual straightforward manner. "It's too early to say for sure, and we'll have to wait for the coroner's report to confirm it, but early tests suggest that Joffrey died from a toxic reaction to a drug he'd ingested. He'd taken something new, something called Purple Haze on the street. Doctors don't know much about the drug, it's that new, but they suspect something in the drug reacted to the alcohol in the wine he'd been drinking, causing the tissue in his throat to swell…leading to asphyxiation."
Sansa was numb for some time after her father's news. Joffrey had choked to death. She knew what it was like to not be able to breathe. She'd nearly drowned once, and the memory of desperately scrambling to the surface of the ocean as her lungs burned for oxygen still continued to haunt her. She couldn't help but wonder what had been going through Joffrey's mind during his final moments. She'd attempted to call Margaery, but her calls had gone unanswered, and in the end Sansa had sent her a text message offering her condolences.
When her father had told her that they were leaving the hotel as he still had lingering concerns about her privacy, she hadn't argued and she'd gotten into the car as she'd been instructed. He drove to a local helipad, and she got into the helicopter he'd chartered.
"Where are we going?" she'd finally thought to ask as the helicopter lifted off from the ground.
"I'm taking you North, Sansa," her father replied, "I'm taking you back home, to Winterfell Park."
"Okay," she nodded, "It would be nice to see mother and everyone."
She didn't know it at that moment, but it would be a long time before she would set foot in the South again.
Chapter 11: Old Dogs & New Tricks
Sandor loaded the back of the pickup truck with the boxes of produce he was delivering to the holistic retreat a few miles away. It was summer, and the harvest that season was turning out to be better than he'd expected. He had rare types of apples, lemons, heirloom tomatoes, chard, salad greens as well as a variety of herbs that the chef at the retreat had requested. Everything was organic, and for that, he would receive a handsome price.
Three years before, when he had first set foot on Clegane Farm for the first time in twenty years, he'd had every intention of selling the property to the highest bidder. It was a decent plot of land, perfect for someone keen to start a hobby farm or put up a Bed & Breakfast. The location was ideal too, situated amongst picturesque valleys and babbling rivers, with the village nearby providing amenities such as a supermarket, a family run bakery and butcher, a post office and a pub. He'd been close to selling as well, having received a more than fair offer for the place, but one thought had kept him from signing the sale documents; he had nowhere else to go.
A few months after Joffrey's untimely passing, Sandor had received a notice from a solicitor advising him that his own brother had died due to injuries sustained in a pub brawl with a foreign national. Clegane Farm now belonged to Sandor. After he'd sorted out his brother's funeral arrangements – a task he'd seen to himself just to be sure his brother really was dead– he'd sought to take personal leave from work to attend to the legal documentation for the property, as well as return to Clegane Farm and see to its cleanup and sale. However, realizing that there was nothing keeping him in the South, Sandor had resigned from his job effective immediately. The Baratheon's, still recovering from the death of their eldest son, had not tried to prevent him from leaving.
"Can't say I'm not disappointed to see you go, Clegane," Robert had said to him before Sandor had walked out of the Baratheon mansion for the final time, "It's unfortunate, what happened to your brother."
"He was a mean cunt who had it coming," Sandor had shrugged, but Robert had taken Sandor's brusque comment as a front for his sorrow.
"Still, he was your only family left," Robert had held out his hand for Sandor to shake, "Take care of yourself, Clegane. If you need references, you just give them my number."
Sandor had often wondered if Robert had felt somewhat responsible for the death of his son. He had told Robert of each and every time he had found drugs on Joffrey in the past, and each time, Robert had brushed his warnings aside. Although, knowing Joffrey's hard-headedness, Sandor surmised that nothing Robert or Cersei could have done would have made him give up his habit. It appeared that Joffrey's days had been numbered.
The coroner had ruled that Joffrey's death was accidental. More than likely, Joffrey would not have known of the true risk he was taking, given the volatile chemical makeup of the Purple Haze he'd ingested, which had been manufactured to look like a polished purple-coloured gemstone. Reportedly, Purple Haze was the new drug of choice for the rich and famous, as one gem was reported to cost the same as the average person's weekly income. It wasn't hard to imagine that Joffrey, given his propensity for finding trouble and flaunting his wealth, would have been among the first to experiment with the drug.
A few days after he had quit working for the Baratheon's, he'd placed most of his personal belongings into storage and broke the lease on his apartment. He'd then loaded up his car with the rest of his personal effects and driven the three hours it took to get to the village where he'd grown up. He'd had no intention of staying at Clegane Farm indefinitely, only long enough to fix what needed fixing so it would be fit for sale. Sandor had arrived at the farm late in the afternoon, and he could do nothing but swear and scratch his head when he'd found the grounds and the house in a state of neglect. His brother, as it turned out, had not lived there in years, only returning once in a blue moon between contracting jobs in foreign cities.
The hedges were overgrown, and the lawns and flower beds covered in weeds. The greenhouses where their father had once cultivated citrus plants and tomatoes were missing panes of glass. The fields that had once seen orderly rows of cabbages were nothing but fields of mud and weeds. The house itself had been boarded shut, and it had taken Sandor some time to remove the panels of wood from across the windows and doors on the ground floor. He'd found sheets covering most of the furniture, and a film of dust on just about every available surface. It was a surprise to him when he'd found that the electricity was still connected, and at least he'd been able to make himself a cup of tea.
Gregor Clegane had been a well known, though not well liked identity in the village, and news of his death had come as no surprise to anyone. Most shared Sandor's belief that his brother had had it coming. Gregor had been the village bully as a child, and a petty criminal in his youth who had been well acquainted with the local constabulary. It had been a relief to the townsfolk when he'd suddenly upped and left, contracting jobs as a construction labourer wherever the money was good. It was rumoured that he'd blown through whatever inheritance his father had left him, as a reckless twenty-one year-old was wont to do when given a large sum of money without financial guidance, and he'd been forced to join the workforce when the money had run out.
Sandor's return had been met with wary suspicion, and he'd been expecting it. After all, his last name was Clegane. He'd been rebellious and wild as a boy, and while he was not the bully that his brother had been, he'd still found himself in a fair few scraps with the other boys in the village. Whether it was because some git had foolishly made a comment about his scars, or because simply being Gregor's younger brother made him a target, trouble would always find him. However, regardless of who started the fights, it was always Sandor that ended them, often bloodily. Consequently, he had also become familiar with the local constables.
"Is that the lot?" Sandor asked the young lad he employed to help around the farm.
The young man nodded, "Twelve boxes in total."
"Okay," Sandor secured the tailgate on the pickup, before walking back to the driver's side and getting into the cab. "I'll be off. Will you be right to take care of the other deliveries, Tommy?"
"That never gets old, Mister Clegane," the young man laughed, "I'll get started on the deliveries as soon as Podric is done packing the tomatoes."
Sandor glared at the lad's use of mister, but he'd made fun of the lad's name, so he supposed he should have seen it coming. "All right, Lommy. I'll leave it with you."
Lommy Greenhands waved him off and headed back towards the packing shed to join his workmate. Sandor had hired him about two years before, when the workload around the farm had become too much for him to handle. The kid had turned up at the interview, and when Sandor had asked why he should get the job, the kid had given him a cheeky response that had made the corner of Sandor's lip twitch.
"Well, I'm good with plants." Lommy had grinned, "I used to work at that nursery a couple miles away until the owners sold out to developers. I've got experience, and it's in my name, see? 'Cause a pair of green hands are better than just a couple of green thumbs, ey?"
Sandor had hired him, and the lad had been worth the risk, showing an aptitude for horticulture that had seen him working wonders throughout the farm, bringing life back to the orchard of old apple trees, sourcing heirloom tomatoes for cultivation, salvaging what plants had managed to survive the neglect, and helping Sandor relearn his way around the farm in general. After all, he'd been away for twenty years, and farming technology had evolved in the time he'd been in the city. He'd hired another lad, Podric Payne, when demand for his organic produce began to take off. Around harvesting time, and on occasion throughout the season, he would hire casuals to help out as needed.
When he had left the farm all those years ago, seemingly for good, he could never have envisioned that one day he'd be returning to become a farmer himself. It was a thought that Sandor was still musing on even as he reached the twelve-foot high hedge that enclosed the Quiet Isle Holistic Retreat & Spa. He drove to the rear of the property, entering via a service road unseen by the guests, and was met by a man wearing the staff uniform of dun coloured pants and a light brown tunic made of Indian cotton.
"Good morning," the man greeted him, "The boss is on his way."
"Right." Sandor nodded, "Let's get this stuff unloaded."
The boss, also the owner of the retreat, was a tall man with a large, square head which he kept shaven and heavy jaws. In a past life, the man had been a soldier who'd served in the Middle East. An injury that had nearly cost him his life saw him discharged from the military, and he'd then found himself spending the next ten years of his life in an ashram in India. On his return to the United Kingdom, he'd brought back some of the ideas and teachings he'd picked up, opening his own retreat where he could share the health benefits of meditation, yoga and Ayurvedic spa treatments. By popular demand, the retreat had started offering other holistic therapies such as Reiki and acupuncture. Recently, the retreat had been featured in a popular lifestyle television program, and business was booming, as a result.
It was the same man, who looked more like killing machine than a holistic healer, that had reached out to Sandor when he had first returned to the village and had found himself at odds with the locals. The man had introduced himself only as Ray.
"Ah, Sandor! Good morning."
Sandor placed the last box of vegetables down on the ground by the retreat's kitchen and turned to greet the man himself.
"Morning," he said, wiping his hands on a rag he'd looped into his belt. "That's the lot, including the box of Pippins."
"Thank you, as always." Ray said, and gave him an enquiring stare, "How are you today?"
"All right," Sandor replied, "Been busy with the harvest. I've got a bunch of backpackers out on the farm at the moment. Best I get back soon to check on how they're getting on."
"Business is doing well, I take it?"
Sandor shrugged. "Still too early to say."
"I wouldn't put it all down to luck," Ray had quickly learned that Sandor erred on the side of pessimism. "You've worked hard. Turned into a proper farmer, you have."
Sandor frowned. The term still did not sit well with him. He'd associated the word farmer with his father all his life, and with his father's failures. Being a failure was something he'd fought never to become, and once he'd set out to bring the farm back to life, failing hadn't been part of his plans.
"We'll see," he indicated the time, "Is that chef of yours coming out to inspect the goods, or what?"
At that moment, a portly woman in chef's whites appeared from the kitchen doorway, wearing an apologetic smile.
"So sorry," the chef said, "I was finishing inventory in the larder…right, let's see what we have here."
Together with Ray, the chef pored over the boxes of produce Sandor had brought, double checking that everything she'd ordered was there, and that the quality was up to her standards. They spent some minutes talking about what Sandor would have available for harvest in the next few weeks, so that the chef could plan her menus in advance.
"Let's talk lemons," the chef suddenly said, "I need something very fragrant and not too acidic."
Sandor's brows furrowed in thought, "I've got Amalfi lemons ready for picking, and that lad I have with the green hands had me plant some fancy type that's been crossed with an orange, called Meyer's lemon."
The chef's eyes lit up, "Perfect! I'll take a box of each. Can you deliver them in a couple of days?"
Sandor nodded and went to make a note of the order.
"That's a lot of lemons, chef," Ray mentioned, while Sandor was occupied with his notepad.
"There's a VIP coming to stay for a week. She's a fashion designer to the rich and famous apparently," the chef replied, "She made a special request for lemon cakes."
Sandor's head snapped up and he stared at the chef, "Fashion designer?"
"Yeah," the chef replied, "My daughter's been raving about her. Apparently she's been in fashion magazines a lot, not just for her clothing designs, but because she's supposed to be a great beauty herself."
Sandor grunted, "What's she called?"
"Stone, I think her name was. Alayne Stone."
"Never heard of her."
Sandor wasn't even sure why he'd asked. It wasn't as though he'd been hoping for the chef to say the name Sansa Stark. He snapped his notebook shut and cleared his throat, all the while conscious that Ray had been watching him closely. Belatedly, Sandor remembered that he'd told Ray all about Sansa, in a drunken fit once.
"I'll be off," he bade them goodbye and got back in his pickup.
"See you in a couple of days, Sandor." Ray waved to him as he drove away.
Sandor started cursing loudly when he was far enough away, annoyed that the mention of lemon cakes had been enough to get him thinking about a little bird he'd been trying his best not to remember. Thinking about her caused him too much pain, bringing back memories of the day that he had last seen her, not knowing that it would be the last time.
Sandor had met Ray on the same day that he had changed his mind about selling the farm. Quite literally, he'd had the pen in his hand with the real estate agent sitting across the table from him, when suddenly he decided he just couldn't do it. His hand had paused just an inch from the dotted line.
"Is something the matter?" the real estate agent had asked.
"I've changed my mind," Sandor had rasped.
"Changed your mind?" the estate agent had done a double take, "But, why? I thought you were adamant about selling."
"I just have," Sandor had barked, "I'm not selling. Sorry for wasting your time."
After that, Sandor had gotten up and left, leaving the poor estate agent to stare after him in stunned disbelief. He'd found himself at the pub, and after a time he'd gotten drunk and started swearing at the people staring at him.
"What the fuck am I doing?" he'd asked the empty booth in front of him.
He'd spent close to two months getting Clegane Farm ready for sale, and now he'd just scrapped the deal. He'd nearly done himself an injury emptying out the house of every scrap of furniture, selling what he could, donating some to charity, and carting everything else to the refuse tip. He'd also had professional cleaners in to scrub the place from top to bottom, and he'd spent a handsome sum of money on replacing broken slate roof tiles.
The lawns had been mowed, and the garden beds that were beyond saving were simply ripped out so that the new owners could start anew. Of the fields, greenhouses and work sheds, Sandor had hired some lads to clear the worst of the debris and broken panes of glass, and a tractor with a plow had taken care of the unsightly fields, as well as aerating the soil in the process. He'd done a lot of work so that he could get rid of the place, so why was he now holding onto it?
"Heard you finally sold your farm, Clegane," said one of the regular punters, "Did you get a good price for it?"
"That's the best decision you could have made," said another old-timer, "That farm's going to waste."
"You've been in the city too long, you wouldn't know what to do with the place. Your father wasn't much of a farmer either, though." Yet another commented.
"I'm not selling it," Sandor had snapped. "It's my land now. I'm keeping it after all."
"That's a big mistake you're making," said another.
"Why's that?" Sandor had challenged.
"You're like your brother," the old-timer gave him a shrewd look, "He couldn't tell a cabbage from a cauliflower."
"I'm nothing like my brother!" Sandor had roared, causing the entire pub to go silent.
"Exactly like his brother," said a brave and foolish punter.
"Say that again."
Sandor had stood up, ready to walk over and demand that the foolish punter take back what he'd just said, when suddenly there'd been a strong hand on his shoulder, keeping him firmly in place.
"Gentlemen, there's no need to argue," a calm voice had spoken out over the top of them.
Sandor had found the shaven-head, muscular man at his side, not having noticed him before. There was something about the pressure of the man's hand on his shoulder that prevented him from moving which, given that Sandor still stood taller than him, should not have been possible.
"Who the hell are you?" Sandor had demanded, "Get your hand off me."
"I'll remove my hand when you give me your word that you'll calm down."
"And why would I do that?"
The man had smiled at him, "I see that you're a reasonable man, and you know as well as I that aggression has no place here. You're just after a quiet drink, like all of us, right?"
Had anyone else been saying those words, Sandor would have thought they were patronizing him, but the words had not come across in that manner, and his curiosity about the man who'd spoken them made him soften his stance.
"I'm nothing like my brother," Sandor repeated, his voice calmer, but no less resolute.
"I see," the man continued to smile and turned to the old-timer who'd made the comparison, "Joe, would I be correct in saying it's been twenty years since you last saw Clegane? He was only a boy then, and people have a habit of changing as time goes on…would I also be correct in saying that, perhaps it was premature to liken Sandor to his brother, when you haven't gotten to know the man he is now?"
The old-timer's wizened face became even more creased as he thought on the words the bald man had just said, but at length, he gave a reluctant nod. "All right, Clegane. I take back what I said, but I'd like to see you make good on your claim."
"Of course he will," the bald man had replied for him, "It looks as though he'll be staying on the farm from now on, so you'll all get the chance to get to know each other."
Again, Sandor was curious to know how the man had managed to not sound patronizing, even getting old Joe to recant his earlier opinion. He had then found himself seated at the booth once again, with the bald man seated across from him.
"I need another drink," Sandor had rasped.
"I think you've had quite enough," the man had said, "You're drunk."
"That's why I'm here, to get drunk."
"What sorrows are you trying to drown, Sandor?"
Sandor had given him a glare, "I don't know you from a pile of dung, and I don't have to tell you shit."
"My name is Ray," the man had introduced himself, "That's two references to excrement in the one sentence Sandor, how eloquent."
Sandor had proceeded to give him more examples of his eloquence as he'd gone on to tell Ray where he could shove his opinions.
"I don't understand where this frustration is coming from, Sandor," Ray had said calmly, "From what I've heard, you got a substantial offer for Clegane Farm. Why did you change your mind?"
"Why do you care?"
"Let's just say I'm curious."
"Who are you, really?" Sandor had squinted at him, "I've been coming to this pub almost every day for two months, and I've never seen you here before."
"I own and operate the Quiet Isle Holistic Retreat & Spa a few miles out of here,"
"You're talking about that place by the river? The one with the hedges?"
"That's the one."
"Holistic, eh?" Sandor had scoffed.
"That's right," Ray had nodded. "We offer a place where people can come and unwind, recharge and unburden themselves from the stresses of their everyday lives."
"By doing yoga and eating tofu?"
"If that's what the guest so desires, then yes," Ray had agreed, "Most people just seek the solitude we can provide, and often that is enough to relieve a troubled mind."
"You think I'm troubled?" Sandor had demanded, hearing the slur in his speech, "You won't catch me doing yoga. The only time I'll roll around contorting on the floor is if there's a naked woman under me."
"Troubled? Oh, I dare say you are," Ray had chuckled, "But instead of yoga, all I'm suggesting is that you talk."
"Talk? What are you, some kind of shrink too?"
"No," Ray had replied, "I'm just a good listener."
"Good listener, eh?" Sandor had shifted in his seat so that he leaned partially over the table, "You wouldn't be able to stomach some of the stories I could tell you."
"Try me," Ray had challenged, "Starting with why you changed your mind about selling the farm."
Sandor had started swearing anew, but he'd found himself looking Ray in the eyes as he answered the question. "I don't have anywhere to go. I quit my job, so I have nowhere to go back to…no one to go back to, either. I don't fucking belong on the farm, but if I sell it…I really won't have any place to be."
"Ah," Ray had said, sensing that the cork had been un-stoppered from the bottle containing the scarred man's frustrations. "What about relationships? Did you have a girlfriend?"
Sansa's face had immediately filled his mind, but he'd shaken his head, "Nah. She wasn't my girlfriend. Fact is, she was engaged to another man for ages, but when that fell through she hooked up with me…I suppose she was just lonely, because there's no way she could have wanted an old man with the face of a monster like me."
Sandor had found himself telling Ray everything. He spoke about his scars, how he got them and of his family. He spoke of leaving the farm as a sixteen-year-old with no money, determined to make something of himself in the city. He told him of working for the Baratheon's and learning that under the glitzy surface of the world inhabited by the rich, they were all just as rotten and messed up as he was. For a long time he'd been jaded and disillusioned, believing that the life he was leading was as good as it would get for him.
"…and then I met the girl," Sandor had paused, taking a drink from the glass of water that Ray had put before him, "She was just a kid, a twittering little bird with red hair and blue eyes, all innocent and sweet. I feared for her."
"Why?" Ray had pressed.
"I feared that the Baratheon's would change her, make her bitter, just like them…but, she never changed. I watched her grow up, and all that time she stayed just as pure and sweet as when I first met her. But, now she's flown out of my reach…disappeared the night Joffrey died. I haven't seen her since."
Ray had studied him, noting the slump in his posture, the stiffness about his mouth, and his fists which were balled tight on top of the table.
"Do you miss her, Sandor?"
"I don't have the right to miss her."
"Why do you say that?"
"She wasn't my girlfriend," Sandor had replied, "We didn't have that kind of relationship."
"Then, why the wistful expression?"
Sandor had felt something crack in his chest, and soon, the regret and longing he'd been harbouring since the day Sansa had walked out of his life began to swirl around in his mind like mist, clouding his way forward. Unsure of what lay ahead, all he could do was try to sightlessly navigate the unfamiliar emotions, hoping he wouldn't fall off that proverbial cliff edge as he blundered his way through it.
"I wasn't ready to let her go," Sandor had rasped, "I never promised her anything, but I thought we had more time…I thought I'd have her for longer than I did."
There had been a silence as Ray had pondered Sandor's confession, while Sandor had sat there in acute discomfort. When Ray had next spoken, it was all Sandor could do to bite his tongue against the urge to howl, angered by his own vulnerability, because Ray had been able to see through his words, seeing the truth for what it was.
"You're in love with Sansa Stark." Ray had stated quietly.
Pain had ripped through him at hearing the words he hadn't been able to say, even to himself. He hadn't been sure if what he'd been feeling was love, but he figured it had to be. He'd known many kinds of pain, and nothing hurt as much as the agony that pierced his chest every time he would think of never seeing Sansa again.
"So what?" Sandor had snarled, "What does it matter?"
"Did you never hear from her again, after that night?"
Sandor had shrugged, "I spoke to her a couple of times after her father had taken her back home. She said her father was making her stay in the north, and that she'd be transferring design schools so she could complete her course."
"What did you say to that?"
"What was I supposed to say?" Sandor had frowned, "I told her that her father was probably correct, and that she should complete her course somewhere she could concentrate, away from the circus surrounding Joffrey's death."
"You told her to stay in the north,"
"Of course I did," Sandor had wiped a hand over his tired eyes, "She's nineteen, for Christ's sake."
"I see," Ray had nodded, "Perhaps, that was the prudent direction to take."
Eventually, their talk had returned to Clegane Farm, and what Sandor was to do with it.
"I'm nearly thirty-six years old," Sandor had said to Ray, "I'm too old to start learning to be a farmer."
"I was thirty-seven when I opened the retreat," Ray returned, "We might be old dogs, but who says we can't learn new tricks? In any case, what have you got to lose?"
Sandor had thought about Ray's words for the next few days after their talk, and shortly after that, he made the decision to try his hand at farming.
Once he had made up his mind that he was going to stay, the first thing he had done was to make the house livable once more. It had been a blessing in disguise that he'd gotten rid of all the old furniture, because all they had served to do was remind him of a childhood he'd rather forget. With an empty house, he'd gone and given everything a fresh coat of paint, and he'd knocked down a couple of walls downstairs to make a bigger kitchen and dining space, as well as completely demolishing the bedrooms that had once belonged to Gregor and their father. In their place, he'd created a new master bedroom, and an upstairs sitting room complete with a wood burning heater. He was wary of open fireplaces, with good reason, so wherever possible, he'd installed heaters where the fire would be contained within cast iron walls.
It was a good thing that the Baratheon's had paid him a lot of money, he had thought, because the cost of renovations was creating a dent in his savings. Apart from splurging on a new king-size bed, he had the rest of the furniture from his apartment in the city taken out of storage and delivered to the farm, and when he'd pushed the last armchair into place, he decided that the effort had been worth it. He didn't have much furniture to begin with, but though the house was sparsely furnished, it was comfortable enough for him.
His farming efforts that first year had not been without reward. He'd managed to grow a decent quantity of cabbages, cauliflower, tomatoes and lemons, the bulk of which he had been able to sell to a chain of organic grocers. Ray, who had given him the idea to go organic in the first place, had been the first to buy his produce, sourcing it for his organic restaurant at his retreat. The proceeds from his first crops had been enough for him to think about planting more kinds of vegetables, but he knew that he wouldn't be able to handle the workload on his own. That was about the time he'd hired Lommy Greenhands, and the rest was history.
Sandor had been farming now for three years, and while he'd never worked harder or longer in his life, he had to quietly admit that he'd never had a greater sense of satisfaction at seeing the result of his hard work. His days began at the crack of dawn when the first of his casual staff would arrive, ready to pick fruits and vegetables as soon as there was enough light. He'd check orders and do his deliveries to the green grocers and local restaurants who bought his produce, before he'd return to the farm at midday to have lunch with his staff. He'd then work with Lommy on the issues regarding the crops, such as identifying which crops would go on rotation, which to replant, and which field to leave fallow. His afternoons were mostly spent on the phone to customers, and checking emails to organize the next day's orders, before he'd spend a few hours later in the day getting his paperwork ready for the lady who came in every few days to do his bookkeeping. Clegane Farm had become a small enterprise, and for the time being, he was content to leave it that way.
While his days kept him occupied, it was in the evenings when he would sit down to dinner alone, and invariably go to bed alone, that he would be reminded of what was lacking in his life. Once, he would have scoffed at anyone trying to tell him that life was always better when you had someone to share it with, but now he had to wonder if the sentiment had some merit. Sharing his life with anyone was not something he'd ever wanted, and for a long time he'd been resigned to the thought of being alone his entire life.
Then everything had changed, and now at nearly forty years of age, he found himself the owner of a modestly successful business and planting roots for the first time, making a comfortable life for himself. If ever he was in a position to offer a woman a chance at a future, now was that time. But, what's the point of doing all of this? He'd asked himself. The little bird is gone, and she's not coming back.
It was with that thought that Sandor delivered the boxes of lemons that the chef at the Quiet Isle had requested, and he figured he wouldn't care if he never saw another lemon cake ever again.
Sandor was making his usual deliveries at the Quiet Isle a couple of days later when he would find out what it felt to have the ground disappear from beneath his feet. The chef had called him to order another box of Meyer's lemons as the cakes she'd made with them proved to be a huge hit not only with the VIP guest who'd requested it, but with the other guests currently at the retreat.
He arrived at the retreat shortly before 9 a.m. when he knew that the breakfast rush would be over, as the chef would then be free to make her inspection of his produce. He began unloading the boxes one at a time and piled a few of them onto the trolley he used to cart them from the driveway to the rear kitchen door. There were feminine voices coming from the kitchen, and as he neared the kitchen he could make out what was being said.
"…it all depends on the type of cake, you see," came the sound of the chef's voice, "I like to add almond meal to make them denser and give them more bite, but with the lemon chiffon cheesecake, the key is to beat the egg whites first, then make sure you fold it into the batter carefully so you don't knock out all the air."
"I see! So, that's how you got it to be so light and fluffy," came the sound of a second, and younger female voice that made Sandor pause in his tracks, just outside the door.
"Exactly, and be sure to watch the oven temperature. That's very important."
"Thanks so much for sharing your recipes with me,"
The younger woman's voice was accented, indicating that she was from the North. Sandor thought he might have been imagining it, because it had been three years since he'd last heard it.
"No worries, love," the chef chuckled, "You really do love your lemon cakes, don't you?"
"They're my favourite," the younger girl replied, "What kind of lemons are these, by the way? I've never seen them before."
"Oh, these are special Meyer's lemon. We have a local man who grows fantastic organic produce who provides us with most of our ingredients…in fact, I think I hear him outside right now."
There were footsteps, and suddenly the door was thrown open as the chef came to greet him, but all Sandor could do was focus on the young woman who walked through the door behind her. He took a step backwards, her name forming on his lips, but he made no sound. The girl was tall, and had Sansa's build, but her hair was the wrong colour. Sansa was not a brunette, and while her eyes were the same shade of blue, her face was more angular than he remembered.
"Ah, Sandor," said the chef, "I was just mentioning you to our lovely guest here. She was asking about your lemons."
"Is that so?" he managed to say.
"Alayne here is a budding cook, when she's not designing frocks," the chef continued, "I was just teaching her my methods for the best ever lemon cakes."
"Alayne…?" he muttered with a frown forming between his brows.
"That's right," said the girl who looked like Sansa, "Alayne Stone…a pleasure to meet you."
Sansa…Alayne, whatever her name was, appeared to recover from the brief shock that had crossed her face. There was no denying, however, that she recognized him, just as he knew without a doubt that it was her.
"Sandor Clegane," he rasped, his eyes never leaving her face. "Nice to meet you."
"Sandor's farm grows the most wonderful organic produce," the chef said, oblivious to the shift in mood between the farmer and the fashion designer. "He's been supplying us for nearly three years now."
"Organic farming, huh?" Sansa said, "That must be quite lucrative,"
Sandor could see that under her calm facade, Sansa was nervous, and it was clear that his sudden appearance had unnerved her.
"It can be," he replied obligingly, "But, that's actually a common misconception. I usually have to spend more money on alternative pest control and fertilizing solutions as I have to be mindful of everything I put into the ground, and because I spend more, I charge more. That's how it works."
"I didn't know that," Sansa remarked, appearing genuinely enlightened.
"It's all worth it, in my opinion," the chef said, "Food tastes better when it's grown how mother nature intended it."
"It sounds quite interesting," Sansa peered up at him, and Sandor knew that she was trying to work him out.
He was a bodyguard the last time they were together, and he'd been dressed in a suit. Now, he was wearing mud stained jeans and a flannel shirt. What are you doing here? He wanted to ask her. Why now? Sandor had a lot of things he wanted to say to her, but it was not the time or place.
"If you're really interested, you're welcome to come and visit my farm anytime you like," he said to her.
"That's a good idea," the chef added, "Perhaps he can set you up with a box of lemons before you leave the valley."
"Will you be wanting to do your inspections today, chef?" Sandor changed the subject, not keen on prolonging his visit.
"We'll skip it today," the chef grinned, "I trust you."
"Glad to hear it," Sandor commented, "Now, if you'll both excuse me, I have more deliveries to make. Have a pleasant day, ladies."
After depositing the last box by the door, aware that Sansa's eyes had never left him, he got back into his truck and gave a nod in her direction, where she stood next to the chef. As he drove away, he glanced back into his rearview mirror to see that Sansa was still standing where he'd left her, and he hoped that she had understood his invitation for what it was.
When he returned to the farm, having no memory of the other deliveries or the drive back, Sandor realized that his fingers were trembling.
Sandor had told himself that he wasn't going to wait for her. There was no guarantee that she would come just because he had invited her, but part of him had still been cautiously expectant. Anxious, even. Still, he was steeling himself for the eventuality that she would never show up. There had been no contact between them in three years, and he'd told himself that it was too much to hope that Sansa still harboured any lingering attraction for him. He'd once told her that he couldn't offer her a future, and she had been quite ready to accept that. Sansa had been happy to accept a temporary relationship, and he had to assume that it meant she was happy to accept the suddenness with which it had ended.
It was two days later when there was a knock on his front door. It was late in the afternoon, nearly knock-off time for the staff still working on the farm. Sandor had been in his office sorting through a pile of packing slips and delivery dockets for his bookkeeper, and he answered the door expecting it to be Lommy or Podric.
A brunette wearing oversized sunglasses stood there, and when she pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head, he could see that she was flushed, and a little flustered.
"Hi," Sansa greeted him.
"Hi," he replied back, surprised to see her.
"I got lost," she said, "Ray told me where I'd find you, but I still got lost. I asked someone in the village, and I doubled back until I finally saw the sign for your farm. Then I took the wrong track because I didn't realize your house was further up the driveway, so I ended up at the work shed, and the guy there, Lommy, finally told me which way to go. Now, I'm here. I finally found you."
She was speaking a mile a minute, and he found it endearing. He might have smiled if he hadn't been so stunned.
"Yeah. You found me," he managed to say, then cleared his throat. "Come in."
He held the door open for her, and he caught a whiff of the perfume she was wearing as she crossed the threshold. Her fragrance was still the same, even if her appearance was not. She still preferred skintight jeans, and under the wispy fabric of her summery blouse, he could see that she was slimmer than he remembered.
Sansa was looking around her, taking in the tiled entryway and the 12ft high ceiling interspersed with exposed, dark wood beams that supported the steeply pitched roof.
"Are these original Tudor features?" she marveled.
"That's right," Sandor nodded, "They were a bitch to restore. My brother left this place in a mess, so it had to be done, and those national heritage preservation people made me jump through hoops because it's a listed property. They made me fill out a bloody lot of paperwork when I submitted plans to knock down a couple of walls."
Sandor led her around the downstairs areas, showing her the new kitchen and dining areas, pointing out the restorations and like-for-like replacements for features too damaged to be restored, and gave her a brief tour of the upstairs sitting room. He offered her a cup of tea when they returned to the downstairs living room.
"You've done a wonderful job," Sansa commented, "Though your decorating tastes are still as Spartan as ever. Was that the same armchair from your old apartment?"
He nodded, "I'm attached to it."
"You said your house was small," Sansa indicated the spacious room they were in, "This isn't small, Sandor. You have six bedrooms upstairs, and that space that you use as your office used to be the servant's quarters, right?"
"As far as Tudor manor houses go, this is small." Sandor replied.
"Were your family always here? I imagine it used to be filled with antiques."
"My family were here from the early 1900's," Sandor shrugged, "And, I sold the antiques to help pay for the restorations."
"That explains why you have hardly any furniture,"
"Well, I never did understand design and aesthetics," he shot her a look, "And, there's no point filling this place with furniture that won't get used. I'm the only one here."
Sansa raised her brow, recognizing the words she'd once said to him a long time ago before she took a sip of the tea he'd placed in front of her. Momentarily, she stood up and paced the length of the room to look out of the window overlooking the garden.
"I never thought I'd get the chance to see the house you grew up in," she murmured.
"The house may be the same on the outside," he muttered, "But the inside is all different to how it was back then."
"Hmm," Sansa turned back to face him, "A bit like its owner."
"You haven't changed on the outside, Sandor. But, you're not the same man I knew. You're different, now."
"And you've become someone else entirely...Alayne Stone." Sandor returned.
Sansa sighed, "Alayne Stone is my professional name."
"Why?" he asked, "Why did you change your hair?"
"It was the only way I could get away from Joffrey's ghost," she said, her voice filled with bitterness.
"What are you talking about?"
"When Joffrey died, my father brought me back home so that I wouldn't get dragged into the gossip and scandal of Joffrey's drug use…but even after he'd long been buried, the moment I mentioned that my name was Sansa Stark, people would always associate me with Joffrey." Sansa leaned against the window sill, suddenly looking tired, "I tried launching my fashion label under my own name, but every time I would get a mention, I would always be referred to firstly as Sansa Stark, the former fiancée of Joffrey Baratheon, the handsome heir who died so tragically at his own wedding reception...the fact I designed clothes became a footnote."
Sandor understood. She wanted to be recognized for her own merits, and not for anything else.
"I hated to do it, but I had to escape my own past if I wanted people to take me seriously as a designer. Petyr suggested that I become a brunette, at least that way my red hair wouldn't be such a dead giveaway…and it worked. I became Alayne Stone, and after that people started buying my designs."
"Petyr?" Sandor frowned, "As in, Petyr Baelish?"
"That's right," Sansa nodded, "He made the initial investment into my label, helping me to rent studio space and finance the equipment. He gave me a chance."
"Why him?" he asked, "Your father would have given you any amount of money you asked for."
"That's exactly why I didn't ask my father," Sansa replied, "I wanted to be accountable for everything, right from the start. If I wasn't doing a good job, I wanted someone to pull me up on it. If my business didn't take off, father wouldn't have asked for his money back…"
"That would have made you complacent," Sandor said, realizing what she was getting at, "Knowing that you wouldn't have to pay it back, if you failed."
"Failing was never part of my plans," Sansa stated, reminding Sandor of something he'd once told himself, "But I still didn't want that safety net, and that's why I wanted a third party investor. I paid Petyr back within a year, plus interest."
Sandor regarded her through narrowed eyes. "It's more than just your name and hair that's changed."
"You think so?"
"I saw hints of it three years ago, but you've become the woman you always said you'd be."
Sandor had expected her to smile, but she didn't. Instead, she turned her face away from him to gaze outside the window again.
"If only that were the case," she said.
"It's been two years since I became Alayne," she began, "I'm tired Sandor. I'm tired of being her. I never wanted to be her…all I wanted was to make pretty dresses."
"Is that why you're at the retreat?" he asked, "Ray told me it's a place people go to forget about their troubles."
"Yeah," Sansa gave him a weak smile, "That's part of it, but mainly I just needed to get away. I've been working nonstop, seven days a week since I launched my label. I've been burning the candles at both ends, as it were."
"You look it, too." Sandor grumbled, "You're skin and bone, Sansa."
She grimaced at his words, "I'm supposed to open up my first boutique in a few months. At the moment, my clothes are being stocked at selected retailers, and I thought it was time I opened my own…but, I wanted my name on the storefront, Sansa, not Alayne."
"Then do it," Sandor rasped, "Sounds like you've proven whatever it is you set out to prove in the beginning. People are buying your designs. If you think it's time to come out as yourself, then you should."
"You sound just like Ray," Sansa mentioned.
Sandor frowned, understanding that Ray had somehow convinced Sansa to open up about herself, "Probably because I've been hanging around that nosy bastard too long."
"Is Ray a close friend of yours?" she asked him.
He shrugged, "We have a drink from time to time."
Sansa smiled at his response, "That's great, Sandor. It's great that you've made friends here. You really are different from the lone wolf I used to know."
They lapsed into a moment of silence, pondering the things they'd just learned from each other. At length, Sandor noted that although the sky was still light out, it was getting close to dinner time and he wondered whether she would join him for a meal. They still had a lot to talk about.
"Are you hungry?" he asked her, "If you can wait a few minutes while I shower and change out of my work clothes, we can go out to eat somewhere."
Sansa's mood brightened, and her smile grew wider, "A meal would be nice."
"I'd offer to cook, but I couldn't guarantee how it'd taste,"
"Actually, I don't mind cooking," Sansa said, "If you've got a well stocked pantry, I'd be more than happy to cook dinner."
Sandor frowned again, "Are you sure?"
"Show me your kitchen," Sansa commanded.
Obediently, Sandor took her to the kitchen where Sansa quickly surveyed the contents of his fridge and pantry, and then her face took on a gleeful expression when she spotted the herbs growing in pots outside the kitchen door.
"I've got this," she said, "You go on and change. Take your time!"
"Are you sure?" he asked again.
"Go!" Sansa shooed him away, before she began opening cupboards and drawers looking for the tools she needed.
Sandor left her to it, slightly flummoxed by the turn of events, but did as he was told and went upstairs to shower and change his clothes. When he came back downstairs thirty minutes later, he smelled the unmistakable aroma of roasting chicken and vegetables wafting through the hallway. He was about to walk into the kitchen and offer his assistance, when the sight that beheld him stopped him in his tracks.
Sansa had pulled her hair up into a knot on the top of her head, leaving the nape of her neck bare. She'd donned an apron, and had rolled her sleeves up to her elbows. She was currently slicing some Meyer lemons into rings, and adding them to a pitcher full of a dark red beverage, ice cubes and what appeared to be diced fruit. She was also humming a tune he didn't recognize, and looking very much at home.
The sight took his breath away, causing an ache in his chest. Sansa was there, in his kitchen, cooking their dinner. He had to wonder at the twists of fate that had brought them together again after so long. Sansa seemed to sense his presence, as she looked up at that moment and spotted him in the doorway.
"Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes," she said, "We're having roast chicken with lemon, herbs and garlic, roasted carrots and potatoes, and I'm making Sangria."
Sandor nodded, "I'll set the table."
As he went about gathering plates and cutlery, he listened as Sansa talked animatedly about how fresh all the produce was, and how wonderful it would be to be able to cook every day with ingredients you plucked straight from your backyard. When they sat down to eat, Sandor realized that it was the first time he'd ever had anyone sit across the table from him, and the first time he wasn't eating a meal at home by himself. It was a nice feeling, and made him realize how much he'd missed her.
Sansa spoke of learning to cook after living on her own and getting tired of eating salads and sandwiches, and she beamed after he'd praised the result of her efforts. She'd turned out to be a surprisingly good cook, and while he'd never been fond of sweet beverages, her Sangria had turned out to be refreshing while still retaining an alcoholic kick. In turn, Sandor told her about the farm, the village and why he'd made the decision to leave the Baratheon's.
"I'd had enough," he told her, "For many years my main job had been to look after Joffrey, but that became less necessary as he got older, and as it turned out I couldn't protect him from himself. When he died, I became redundant, in a way."
"You don't blame yourself for his death, do you?"
"Bugger that," he replied, "I told his father about it, and whenever I saw him using I destroyed his stash. As far as I'm concerned, I've done my duty. But, I wasn't with him twenty-four hours a day, and he was a grown man. There was nothing more I could have done."
"Go on," Sansa prompted him to continue his story.
"When I found out that my brother had died, I came back here to sell the place…but, I ended up staying."
"Why?" she asked him, "You could have gone anywhere. There was nothing tying you down, you could have gone back to the city."
"I could have," he agreed, "But, there was no place I wanted to go…and nothing in the city for me to go back to."
Sandor paused then, and gave her a look from hooded eyes. Sansa appeared to take a deep breath, and she eased back into her chair. The mood shifted, and suddenly, the time to talk about what they'd left behind had arrived.
"What happened that night, Sandor?" she asked him.
Sandor cleared his throat, "It was chaos, as you'd expect. I was at the gate dealing with gatecrashers – friends of Joffrey's apparently – when I heard that Joffrey had collapsed. I couldn't leave the gate, and by the time I'd gotten rid of them, Joffrey had already passed away and I was told to wait for the ambulance…I saw you leave, Sansa. I watched you get in the car with Petyr Baelish, and there wasn't anything I could do. After that, the place became a madhouse as people all tried to leave the property at once, police and ambulance arrived, then that bloody news crew showed up. The other security guys had their hands full too. Robert then instructed me to follow him and his wife to the hospital when Joffrey was taken away, and I was there for hours, waiting just outside the door listening to Cersei crying. Margaery showed up at some point, still in her wedding dress, clinging to her brother's arm. She was a mess."
"She loved him," Sansa commented.
Three years on, Sandor still did not have the heart to tell her that the reason for Margaery's tears was probably more to do with the fortune she'd lost out on. Joffrey couldn't be Tywin Lannister's heir if he was dead.
"I saw your message about your father coming down to be with you," he continued, "I was relieved that you were okay, and with your father coming to look after you, I got to focus on work without having to worry about your safety too. Word got around about which hospital Joffrey had been taken to, and soon I was having to keep the media from getting in. I didn't reply because I thought I'd have time to do that later…but by the time I was able to call you, you'd already gone back home to your family in the north."
"You told me to stay with my family, even when I told you I'd be coming back as soon as I could." Sansa said tonelessly.
"At the time, nobody knew how long it would take before the media interest surrounding Joffrey's death would take to die down. I thought it was best that you stayed with your family."
"And when I called you a month later to tell you that my father was making me stay in the north, you agreed with him."
"I did," he nodded, "I still thought it was the best thing for you."
"I wish you didn't think so much like my father," she sighed.
"What would you have had me do?"
"I would have come back if you'd asked me to," Sansa suddenly declared, staring at him with wide blue eyes, "All I was waiting for was a sign that you missed me, and I would have come back to you."
Sandor could only stare back, disbelief clouding his face as her words caught him by surprise. It was far more than he could have hoped for.
"I have missed you," he rasped, "Three years I've been missing you. There hasn't been one bloody day that you haven't been on my mind."
"I don't believe you," Sansa shook her head.
"When have I ever lied to you, little bird?" Sandor returned.
Sansa's mouth suddenly formed a tiny smile, "No one's called me that in a long time."
Little bird. What had started out as a nickname ridiculing the one aspect of her personality that used to irritate him, had evolved into something of an endearment. Sansa's expression soon mirrored his, and the atmosphere became loaded with anticipation. What now? Appeared to be the question hanging in the air, but all Sandor knew was that the chance to have Sansa back in his arms, the chance he thought he'd never have again, was staring him in the face and he wasn't going to let it go.
He pushed his chair back and reached for her, his eyes never leaving her face. Her hand met his, and he was pulling her out of her chair. She stood looking up at him, and Sandor softly cupped her face in his hand as he searched for an inch of uncertainty in her features. With his other hand, he sought the elastic that held her hair, and when he found it, he gently eased it from her tresses so that he could run his fingers through the chocolate-brown lengths.
"This should be red," he muttered, suddenly wishing for the fiery mass he'd dreamt of for so many nights.
"It'll wash out," she assured him.
He tightened his hold on the back of her head, pushing his regret about her hair colour from his mind, when it was the woman in his arms that really mattered. He tilted the angle of her chin, and lowered his mouth to hers. Her lips parted willingly, and Sandor groaned. The taste of her, mingling with the sweetness of the Sangria, reignited the desires that had lain dormant within him. Sansa's hands were on his chest, and even before her fingers had trailed across his collarbone and around his neck Sandor had already known the path that her hands would take. Though it had been years since they'd last been together, Sandor had memorized the ways that Sansa liked to touch him, and he'd replayed them in his mind many times in the dark of night. He wondered how he could ever have been satisfied with just his memories, when they didn't compare to the flesh and blood and warmth of having the real Sansa right there with him.
Sansa broke the kiss, and she glanced up at him through her lashes, "You didn't show me the master bedroom earlier."
Sandor flattened his palm against the small of her back, pulling her closer to him. "Shall I show it to you now?"
"Yeah," she nodded, "Please, do."
With her hand in his, Sandor led her through the dimly lit halls of his house, and up the darkened flight of stairs that led to the upper storey. He pushed open the heavy wooden door that led to his bedroom, but neither of them bothered to turn on the lights so that Sansa could view the magnificent mahogany bed that now took pride of place in the room, or the large window on the far side of the room that took in sweeping vistas of the valley beyond. None of that mattered to either of them.
Clothing was removed, and bedcovers pulled back. Neither of them spoke, as nothing needed to be said. Sandor lifted her onto his bed and climbed in after her, covering her with his body. Mouths met, and hands explored, wandering over planes and curves that were both familiar and new at the same time. Sandor's work on the farm had made him harder and leaner, while Sansa had lost some of her softness, but none of her sensitivity.
Her gentle sighs as he'd cupped and fondled her breasts soon gave way to passionate moans when his hand slipped between her thighs to stroke her honeyed warmth. His fingers discovered her arousal, but wanting to make sure she was completely prepared before he entered her, he slowly slipped his longest finger inside her, and when she arched her back off of the bed, he followed it with a second digit. Carefully, he began to build a rhythm with his hands, sliding his fingers inside her and withdrawing them again in a pattern that was intended to send her senses spinning. Soon, Sansa was clutching at the bedsheets and grasping at his forearm. Only then did he relent, removing his hand from between her legs. She was more than ready, and so was he.
He eased back onto his haunches , and wordlessly, he guided Sansa into the position he wanted. She was bent over, her knees pressed into the bed and spread slightly apart. With her weight braced on her elbows, Sansa turned to watch as he knelt behind her. Sandor stroked her hips and buttocks with one hand, while the other guided his erection into place. Sansa quivered when he sought her opening, and Sandor was forced to grab onto her hips with both hands to steady her when he finally surged forward, entering her in one movement.
Sansa whimpered in response to the sensation of their bodies coming together. Sandor's guttural moans soon joined hers, blending with the sound of their flesh connecting and the creaking of the mattress as his weight bore down on her. His movements became frenzied, having gone too long without the touch of a woman, and the fact that he was with Sansa only heightened his frenzy. Sandor knew that the intensity would soon overwhelm him.
Underneath him, Sansa's elbows and knees soon gave way from beneath her, unable to withstand the force of Sandor's movements. Sansa braced herself against the pillows in front of her, while Sandor shifted to straddle her thighs without ever withdrawing from her body. Leaning forward, he covered the length of her back with his torso, and he pushed away the mass of her hair so that he could nip at her exposed neck and shoulders with his teeth. Sansa keened and she lifted her face from where it was pressed against the mattress, turning her face to his so that she could meet his kiss.
She began to writhe below him, and sensing that she wasn't far from climaxing, Sandor reached down with his right hand to lift her right hip, tilting it just enough so that he could slide his hand under her, and between her thighs. With his fingers, he found her most sensitive spot, and he teased her to the brink of oblivion, while a few more hard thrusts of his hips sent her over the edge. Sansa cried his name as she came, and while she continued to convulse around him, he hooked his arm under her hips, raising them so that the curve of her buttocks cushioned the impact of his body as he increased the strength of his thrusts, frantically seeking the same oblivion. When he came, he was unprepared for the force with which it would take him, and he doubled over with an animalistic growl, collapsing against Sansa's back.
Some moments later, when they'd both caught their breaths, Sandor shifted from her, murmuring an apology for crushing her with his weight, but Sansa had replied only by kissing him into silence. He hadn't attempted to speak again, afraid to disturb the wonder of the moment they had just experienced. Without saying a word, he pulled the blankets up around them, and both lay together just listening to the other breathe. It was, Sandor felt, the most profound moment of intimacy he had ever experienced.
At some point, both of them must have fallen asleep, because when Sandor woke up it was nearly dawn. Sansa still lay in the crook of his arm, and he was loathe to leave her. He was tempted to stay in bed, but he had work to do, and he suspected that Lommy and Podric would give him a ribbing if he didn't show up at the work shed, aware that both of them had witnessed Sansa's arrival at Clegane Farm the day before.
With a sigh, Sandor got up and dressed as quietly as he could so as not to wake her. He grabbed a notepad and pen and wrote her a quick note, telling her to stay put, and that he'd be back in a couple of hours, intending on delegating his deliveries for the morning so that he could return to her side. Before leaving, he gently brushed a stray tendril of hair that had gotten caught on her lips, and he smiled when Sansa stirred without opening her eyes. There was a tiny frown between her eyebrows, but he resisted the urge to reach out and smooth it out with his fingers in case he woke her. The blanket had slipped from her shoulders as she'd shifted, down to her chest, giving him a tantalizing glimpse of the curve of her breasts. It was, he thought, a sight that he could get used to.
Her car was missing from the driveway when he had returned, and it was with a sense of foreboding that he took the stairs two at a time in his haste to reach his bedroom. The room was empty, with only the rumpled bed sheets to indicate that there'd been someone there at all. The note he had left on the bedside table now rested on top of the sheets, only this time there was an additional note on the bottom, written in Sansa's hand. Hesitantly, he walked over and picked it up to read what she had written.
Right now is not enough.
Chapter 12: Little Bird
It did not seem to matter how many hours she lay in her bed at night, awake or asleep, she was always tired. Sansa had continued to burn the candle at both ends when she had returned to work, and whatever health benefits she'd gained from her brief respite at the holistic retreat had quickly vanished. Alayne Stone the label had grown much bigger, and faster than anyone, least of all herself, could have envisioned. She was grateful for her success, after all, it had been something she'd been dreaming about since she was sixteen years old. She was barely twenty-three, and she was constantly reminded of how young she still was by everyone she came into contact with in the course of running her business.
"I couldn't have imagined running a business at your age," the bank manager had commented airily when Sansa had met with him to discuss financing for her new boutique.
"I have a daughter your age," the interior designer in charge of her boutique's concept told her, "All she does is go out and party with her friends, and here you are opening your flagship store."
Even her own family had weighed in on it, especially her mother, who was concerned about her drop in weight, and the shadows under her eyes.
"I'm happy for you, dear," her mother had said, "I know how hard you've worked to get here, but I think you're taking on too much."
Her mother was right, Sansa acknowledged, but it wasn't simply a matter of being able to delegate work among the handful of assistants she employed. She was still one hundred percent responsible for creative direction, as well as meeting with buyers, and editing the content of her company website. More and more, she was finding that her focus was gradually being pulled to the actual management of her business, while she was spending less and less time designing and making dresses. This isn't what I wanted, she had told herself. This isn't how it's supposed to be.
Coupled with her growing dissatisfaction about her fashion label and adding to her current state of sleeplessness, was her situation with Sandor Clegane. It had been a huge shock to her system, meeting him again at the Quiet Isle retreat, and she'd been further surprised to learn that he had become an organic farmer. She never could have guessed that her decision to take a week's holiday to visit a holistic retreat in the middle of the countryside that she had seen featured on a television program, would reunite her with the one man she had been longing to see for the best part of three years.
When she had fled the city that night three years ago, she hadn't known that it would spell the end of their relationship. In fact, it hadn't been until a month later, when Sandor had told her that he agreed with her father's decision to make her stay in the north that she had realized that things were over between them. She had accepted it, because there had been nothing else she could do. Sandor had called it quits on their temporary relationship, and she had swallowed the urge to beg him to change his mind.
In the years that had followed, she had done what she could to try and get him out of her mind. She had even tried dating other guys, but she soon developed an unhealthy habit of comparing the handful of men she dated with the surly, giant of a man that she had reluctantly let go. In the end, she'd found that throwing herself into her work and keeping her mind occupied with her fledgling business was the best remedy for her broken heart.
She had loved Sandor Clegane. It had been pointless trying to fool herself. She had fallen in love with him knowing that he would never return her feelings and her emotional wounds from that the time had never really healed. She had, for a time, been able to bury them, but they were always just under the surface of her carefully controlled calm. Regardless of how her attraction to him had begun, she had been mistaken about the transience and depth of her feelings for him. Somehow, it had turned into real love. Had it been anything, but real? She had wondered. In the end the answer didn't matter, because it wouldn't change the fact that the pain she now felt was all too real.
Walking out of the retreat's kitchen door that day, and coming face to face with Sandor had nearly rendered her speechless. She'd seen the shock in Sandor's eyes too, followed by uncertainty as his grey eyes had wandered over her brown hair. That uncertainty had vanished when she'd spoken, her voice confirming her identity, to be replaced by wariness as she'd introduced herself as Alayne Stone. Contrary to what she'd been expecting, Sandor clearly wanted to talk to her, appearing pleased to see her. Still, it had taken her two days to take him up on his invite. She had hesitated, because she'd been afraid of digging up emotions she'd forced herself to bury.
The manager of the retreat, Ray, had approached her at the end of the meditation class he had led after noticing her utter lack of calm or concentration that morning.
"What seems to have happened, my dear?" the man had asked, "You appear to have been quite agitated since your cooking class with the chef earlier today."
Sansa had attempted to brush him off, before the man had given her an odd look.
"Sandor appeared to be just as surprised as you, Sansa Stark."
"You know who I am?"
"You used your personal credit card to place the security deposit on your villa when you checked in," Ray had stated, "Your real name was on your card."
"You know that isn't what I meant," Sansa had said. "Why did you mention Sandor just then? Did you see what happened this morning?"
Ray's expression had softened, "I was on my way to the kitchen to find chef when I happened to witness what was going on. As for Sandor, well, I do recall him mentioning your name in conversation a few times."
"What did he say?" Sansa had reached for Ray's arm without realizing it.
Ray had covered her hand with his and patted it gently, "Why don't we go and have a cup of tea?"
Over a pot of tea, Sansa had found herself doing most of the talking, while Ray had sat and quietly listened. She had told him everything, from meeting Sandor as a twelve-year-old girl, to that fateful night when she'd fled the south.
"I didn't know then, that it would be the end for us," she'd found herself saying.
"You didn't want it to be so, even though you'd made no commitments to each other?"
"I wanted a commitment," Sansa had said, "At least, I was ready to try. But, I couldn't say anything to Sandor."
Sansa had spoken of her fears, and her frustration at her inability to act, and not knowing how she could get past the walls Sandor had built around himself.
"Sometimes," Ray had said, "Some walls cannot be overcome by someone approaching from the outside. Sometimes, the only way to conquer that wall, is if the person on the other side creates a doorway and allows you through."
"Then it's hopeless," Sansa had sighed, "He's built that wall to be impenetrable."
"I wouldn't say it's hopeless," Ray had said optimistically, "He's given you an open invitation to visit his farm, has he not?"
"He has…but, I'm not sure…"
"What makes you hesitate? What is it that you want, Sansa?"
"I don't know," Sansa had shaken her head, "I don't know what I want."
"Then perhaps paying him a visit and having a chat would be a good idea," Ray had suggested, "You have unresolved issues, and at the very least, going to see him and hearing what he has to say could lead you to some form of closure."
Sansa had mulled over Ray's words over the next two days, and eventually she'd come to agree with him. Sitting there and doing nothing was going to get her nowhere. Ray had been ready enough to give her directions to Clegane Farm, and after a number of unplanned detours through the valley and the village, Sansa had finally found the farm. She'd then endured the curious gazes of Sandor's employees when she'd driven up to the front of a large work shed, where the sight of the fields beyond had given her a good grasp of the size of Sandor's operations. After Lommy had given her directions to travel another quarter mile up the driveway, Sansa eventually reached the house.
Sandor had once told her that his family's farm was small, but she'd come to suspect that he had been downplaying the size of the property when she'd first taken a proper look at the size of the land. Her suspicions had been proven correct when she had rounded a vine covered wall, and she glimpsed the storybook perfect, Tudor style manor house for the first time. She'd sat in her car for a moment, taking in the sight of the beautiful house, wondering if she'd ever really known Sandor Clegane.
Mustering up her courage, she'd gotten out of her car and knocked on the door. He'd looked surprised to see her at his doorstep, and to cover her sudden nervousness, she'd found herself babbling about getting lost and driving all over the village to find him. He had invited her inside, and she'd marveled at the interior of the house, gushing at the original period features, and not for the first time, wondering about Sandor's ancestral history.
"You're not the same man I knew." Sansa had told him.
The man that had sat before her, dressed in work pants and a plaid shirt with his hair in a loose ponytail at the base of his head, was far calmer than the man in her memories. There was also a self-assuredness about Sandor that she had never seen before, evident in his stance as he stood tall, with broad shoulders that no longer looked burdened. She wanted to get to know this new version of Sandor Clegane, just as it appeared that he was curious about her life as Alayne Stone.
She had offered to cook dinner after Sandor had mentioned food, mainly because she hadn't wanted to leave the privacy of his house and have to sit in a dining room full of other people. As she'd prepared the chicken and diced the vegetables, she'd found herself feeling at home in his beautifully renovated kitchen, complete with an AGA cooker. While Sandor had gone to shower and change, she couldn't help thinking that he looked somewhat contented, happier than she had ever seen him. The differences in him definitely suited him, and it had brought a smile to the corner of her mouth.
Sandor had spoken more about himself and the life he'd been leading over the past three years, and eventually the conversation had turned to the events on the night Joffrey had died. For the longest time, Sansa had wondered why it had taken him so long to respond to the message she had sent him, and it was a relief to find out that the delay had been circumstantial rather than intentional.
She'd confronted him about agreeing with her father, even though all she'd wanted was to return back to his side. He'd replied as she'd predicted, spouting the line about doing what was best for her.
"All I was waiting for was a sign that you missed me, and I would have come back to you." Sansa had said to him, wanting him to know that she had never wanted their relationship to end the way that it had.
His response had caused her to stop breathing.
"I have missed you," he had rasped, "Three years I've been missing you. There hasn't been one bloody day that you haven't been on my mind."
She had never expected those words to come from his lips, and she had reacted defensively.
"I don't believe you," she had told him.
"When have I ever lied to you, little bird?"
Little bird. Those two little words had made her pause, because she had never heard him say them the way he had at that moment. It had made her smile, because those two little words had held more affection than any endearment he could have uttered. When he reached out for her and pulled her from her chair, she had no hesitations going to him. Sandor had pulled out the elastic from her hair the way he'd done many times before, tangling his fingers in her hair. When he'd kissed her, she was able to finally admit that what she wanted right then was the same thing she had continued to want for three long years.
She had never stopped wanting Sandor Clegane.
She'd lost herself in his arms that night, completely surrendering herself to Sandor's touches and the urgency in his movements. In the past, he had been happy to let Sansa dictate the pace of their lovemaking. That night, Sandor had assumed the dominant role and Sansa had reveled in the momentary loss of control. Sandor had been more forceful than she had ever recalled him being, and at one point she'd wondered if she was physically capable of withstanding his intensity. However, Sandor always seemed to know just when she was reaching her limit, and he would pull back before he became too much for her to handle. She had finally come undone, with the feeling of Sandor inside her and his long fingers between her legs, unraveling to the point that had her gasping and questioning how she had ever thought she could live without this man in her life.
Afterwards, they'd lain in each other's arms and Sansa had listened to Sandor's breathing as he'd fallen asleep. She had watched him, seeing the lines and furrows disappear from around his mouth and eyes, unable to remember seeing him as untroubled as he did then. She had never stopped loving him, and it had been with a sense of astonished disbelief that she had lain there beside him, having come to accept that it wouldn't happen again. At that very moment, her heart had felt full. She was happy.
Then, the doubt had started to creep into her mind. It's too good to be true, she had thought.
Meeting each other again the way they had and finding out that Sandor was still attracted to her seemed too serendipitous. If she hadn't decided to come to the Quiet Isle retreat, chances were they wouldn't have come across each other again. Sandor hadn't once tried to reconcile with her in the three years they'd been apart. She was a public figure and, if he had so wanted, he could have easily gotten in contact with her. Except, he hadn't, and neither had she, believing hers to be an unrequited love. She had eventually fallen into a troubled sleep, dreaming about Sandor beckoning to her with outstretched hands that, no matter how fast she ran or how far she reached out towards him, always remained out of her grasp.
When she had awoken in the morning, she'd found Sandor's note on the bedside table and she'd gone downstairs to see about making a cup of tea for herself. However, as she'd walked through the halls and rooms of the manor house, all she had been able to see were confirmations of Sandor's bachelorhood. The single armchair by the wood burner, the single towel and toothbrush in the bathroom, and single set of crockery that still sat in the dish rack by the sink, all made to remind her that Sandor, where his personal relationships were concerned, did not make commitments.
It had taken luck to bring them back together, but Sansa wasn't foolish enough to place her heart and hopes on providence alone. Even if Sandor still had a soft spot for her somewhere in his heart, it did not mean he would have a place for her beside him in the life that he now lived.
"I can't do it again," she had heard herself whisper, before she had turned around to gather her belongings.
She had stayed long enough just to write a note for Sandor, hoping that he would understand, before she had gotten into her car and driven away from Clegane Farm. Less than twenty-four hours later, she was getting off a plane in Paris, and heading into a meeting with a supplier of French lace. Work, and lots of it, allowed her to get through the following month, as she tried to forget about her brief reunion with Sandor Clegane. If she could forget that it had ever happened, she could get on with her life just as she had before.
As was wont to happen when a person burns the candle at both ends, Sansa experienced a burnout, fainting in front of her dressmaker's mannequin at her studio one day, prompting an emergency dash to the hospital where she'd been diagnosed with a case of anemia. Her brother Robb had been the first one to reach her hospital bedside.
"I'm fine, Robb," Sansa said to her brother, "They're just keeping me here overnight for observation."
Robb gave her a skeptical glance, "Clearly, you're not okay. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here."
"I just forget to eat sometimes," Sansa shrugged, "I've been so busy lately."
"I understand you're busy, but you still have to look after yourself. You're not a machine, you know. You have to eat."
"I know, I know." Sansa sighed.
Robb pulled up a seat beside her bed and reached for her hand, "Something is bothering you, and it isn't all about your work. Do you want to talk about it?"
Sansa shook her head, "It's just work. Alayne Stone is getting quite a following, and demand has been crazy. Then there's the whole business of being Alayne Stone, too. Some days, it just gets too much."
"What do you mean?" Robb asked.
"It's like I'm living someone else's life, Robb. It's as though Alayne Stone has taken over, and Sansa Stark has disappeared."
Robb had stared at her, seeing her pallid complexion and the gauntness of her cheeks, understanding that a change was desperately in need.
"What do you want to do, Sansa?" he asked her, "Think about it carefully. You know you can't keep this up, and there's no sense you doing something that you no longer love doing."
Sansa had agreed with her brother, and after being discharged the following day, Sansa had taken a couple of days off work, at the insistence of her mother, so that she could recuperate and make a decision about her future. In her heart she already knew what she had to do, but her decision could not be made lightly, as it meant letting go of a part of her that she had worked so hard for, and had come to mean so much to her. In coming to her decision, Sansa consulted not only her lawyer, but also with her father and Petyr Baelish, seeking their professional opinions as successful businessmen.
In the end, she decided that Alayne Stone the business and label would be sold as a going concern to a well-known fashion brand that shared her vision for the label and, had the designers to keep that vision alive. The sale of her business also necessitated several visits south, back to the city by the sea, where the main offices of her buyer were located so that the terms of the sale could be negotiated. Over the coming weeks, Sansa made sure that every detail had been meticulously seen to, and that her assistants would remain employed by the new owners.
At the conclusion of the sale, Sansa walked out of the negotiation room with a sense of relief, having signed the final paperwork. Then, as she had stood at the foyer of the corporate office belting her coat against the chill of the autumn breezes, she had caught her reflection in the polished glass walls. The next thing she had done was to call the studio of the renowned hair salon she used to frequent back when she lived in the south, to see if she could come in at short notice. Some few hours later, as Sansa had sat in the stylist's chair seeing her hair now restored to its original fiery red in the mirror before her, she said her final goodbye to Alayne Stone.
Sansa pulled a knitted cap over her head and wrapped a matching knitted scarf around her neck before she headed out of her hotel room that afternoon. Sunset was still a little while away, but she wanted to take her time to get to The Piers. It had been years since she had been to the esplanade and her curiosity, as well as a sense of nostalgia, prompted her to brave the cold and go exploring. She had been prepared to see some changes to the city, as tended to happen with time and progress, but what she hadn't been prepared for were the memories that came to her mind with every step she made.
The first thing she noticed was a poster on the side of a passing bus, an advertisement for The Southern Institute of Design, instantly bringing to mind her time as a student, and of meeting Myranda Royce. She still kept in regular contact with Randa, chatting on the phone every couple of weeks, and meeting up whenever Sansa travelled to Paris, where Randa had relocated after graduation to pursue a career as a fashion stylist. Her friendship was one of the constants in the rather hectic life that Sansa lived, for which she would be eternally thankful.
The shops and boutiques she passed reminded her of shopping excursions she'd had with Margaery and the girls that used to form part of their circle as teenagers. It was always with a wistful sigh that she thought of Margaery. At the time, Sansa had been advised not to attend Joffrey's funeral and she had gradually lost contact with Margaery as time went on, but she'd heard that Margaery had been seen in Harrold Hardyng's company of late. She had also heard a crazy rumour about Margaery dating a now nineteen-year-old Tommen Baratheon, but Sansa preferred to think that the former had more truth to it than the latter, and was less disturbing.
As Sansa continued walking, the cinema she saw along the way brought back memories of dates with Joffrey, as did the sight of certain restaurants they used to frequent. At times, when she least expected it, she would remember him, but she realized it was the boy from her youth that she kept picturing, and for the briefest moments, she would miss the relative innocence of those years. However their relationship had ended, he would always be a significant part of her youth.
She caught a taxi at the end of the block, and as the taxi brought her closer to the seaside, Sansa noticed that the driver had taken the route that would take her by the house that her parents would rent when they used to come down as a family during the summer holidays. Peering out of the window as the taxi drove by, Sansa recalled that she'd had some of the happiest times of her childhood in that house, and she wondered if she could ever again smile as freely as she had as a child.
Instructing the taxi driver to let her alight at the start of the esplanade, Sansa spared a moment to look behind her, towards the direction of the Baratheon's house. From where she stood, all she could see were the windows on the upper storey that weren't obscured by the buildings that had cropped up in recent years. She'd heard that Uncle Robert was struggling to maintain control of Crowned Stag Imports, and that his brother Stannis, was urging him into early retirement. Her father's company, White Wolf Logistics, still maintained a strong business relationship with them, which was a testament to her father's professionalism in the midst of the public scrutiny both families had received in the wake of her split from Joffrey initially, and after his accidental death. Ned Stark had continued to support Robert Baratheon professionally, but Sansa had once overheard her father say that Robert's rule over his empire was coming to an end.
Since Joffrey's death, Cersei was rumored to have become extremely protective of her two remaining children, refusing to let Myrcella study abroad for college, and having Tommen guarded in the way Joffrey never was. Sansa felt sorry for Joffrey's siblings, having to pay for his mistakes, yet she empathized with Cersei. The woman had watched her son die in her arms, after all. As Sansa had grown older, she'd come to realize that there were deep tensions in Robert and Cersei's marriage, but regardless of what was said about Cersei's conduct outside of her marriage, no one would deny that she was a mother who truly loved her children.
Sansa began to walk along the footpath, pleased to see that the ice cream parlour by the Greater Pier was still there, as was the take-away shop where her brothers Robb and Jon would buy heavy parcels of fish and chips for them to share. She remembered how Arya and their younger brothers would jump around the picnic table, and as the paper wrapping would rustle as their father tore it open. She also remembered how the paper would go transparent at the bottom, having soaked up all the grease from the battered, deep fried fish. She decided then, that she was going to have fish and chips for dinner before she returned to her hotel.
The marina still berthed a good number of yachts, and the restaurants and bars were still doing a good trade, though some of the venues had changed since she had last been there. When she reached the end of the esplanade, Sansa was pleased to see that The Dragon's Den Reptile Sanctuary was still there. She'd read in the paper that Daenerys Targaryen and her husband Drogo had just welcomed a baby boy only a couple of weeks earlier, and Sansa made a mental note to send a card and a gift as soon as she could. Dany, as she would always come to regard her, had helped shape her career, even if she never knew it.
Needless to say, there were reminders of Sandor Clegane nearly everywhere she looked. He had always been there, in the periphery of most of her childhood memories since she had first come to the seaside. More recently, it was the neighbourhood parks and drinking establishment she passed that made her recall the brief time they had spent together. But most of all, it was The Piers and the sight of the ocean that she associated most strongly with Sandor. Her most vivid memories of him always took place by the sea, and up to now, she hadn't been able to hear the sound of footsteps on wooden planks without thinking of him.
The Old Pier was closed for maintenance that day, and seeing the familiar sign on the chain at the entrance made her smile. Ignoring it, Sansa walked along the familiar wooden jetty, mindful of the uneven planks that would trip the unsuspecting. It was nearly sunset, and she took a seat on the bench at the furthest tip of the pier. It was cold, she couldn't deny it, and she tugged her scarf tighter about her neck and shoulders to better ward off the chill. She could hear the waves slapping against the wood and concrete pylons beneath her as the tide came in, the sound almost rhythmic, hypnotic.
Looking out over the ocean, Sansa recalled an afternoon a decade before when she had sat on the very same bench, contemplating her life. It was the day Sandor Clegane had saved her from drowning, and she remembered being very concerned about thanking him properly for jumping into the water after her. By coincidence, he had also come to the Old Pier that afternoon, and she had gotten her chance to express her gratitude. He used to smoke back then, and it was the smell of his cigarette along with the thud of his boots that alerted her to his presence, and she'd finally turned her head.
Thinking of that memory, Sansa now turned her head, her movements almost an exact replay of that moment…and just as she had back then, she once again came to look upon the familiar, burned face of Sandor Clegane.
Sansa gasped when she saw him, caught completely unaware. Sandor's expression was unreadable as he stared at her, with his eyes hooded against the afternoon glare and his mouth forming a thin line.
"What are you doing here?" Sansa asked him as she twisted in her seat, bracing herself against the back of the bench.
"Same as you, I suspect," Sandor replied, "To think."
All she could do was stare at him, unable to believe that he was standing in front of her, and her eyes never left him as he stepped towards the bench.
"Been sitting here a while, have you?"
Sansa nodded, taking in his appearance. He was dressed in dark jeans and a thick black coat. He'd cut his hair too, with the ponytail at the base of his head being shorter than when she'd last seen him not so many months before.
Sandor finally came to sit down next to her, the wooden bench creaking beneath his weight. "What were you thinking about?"
She didn't answer him, suddenly conscious of the heat from his body next to her. She caught a faint scent of aftershave, making her bite her lip in response. The spicy notes had brought memories of their last encounter together to her mind.
"You can't have been sitting here all that time…thinking about nothing." Sandor shifted to face her on the seat.
Sansa shook her head, realizing that he was reciting the very conversation they'd had at that very spot all those years ago. She had never expected that he would remember something like that, and it tugged at her sentimental heartstrings.
Sansa felt her chest begin to ache. "Why are you here?"
"I came to find you," he replied, "I had a feeling you'd be here."
"Why are you in the city? What about your farm?"
"I told you, I came here to find you." Sandor repeated, "Don't worry about the farm. I've got the lads looking after things for me."
"You really came here to find me?" Sansa frowned.
"That's right. I've been all up and down the country doing so."
"What do you mean?"
"I went up north first, to your offices, the day before yesterday it was. Your loyal assistants would only tell me that you were down here selling your fashion company, but wouldn't say where you were staying. I don't have your current personal phone number, so I tried the contact number I got off your website, but I couldn't get through. So, I decided to drive all the way here, with no guarantee you'd still be in the city. I took a chance on you coming to see the pier at some point. Now, here I am."
"I relinquished my work phone when I sold the company," Sansa found herself saying, "I'm sorry that you couldn't get through."
Sandor's eyes narrowed, "Is that all you have to say?"
"Of course not!" Sansa snapped, "I've got a heap of questions I want to ask, but you can't possibly think this is easy for me to take in, Sandor…I never expected to see you –"
"Again?" he butted in, "Bet you weren't expecting to see me again, were you?"
"That's not it," she replied, "I just never expected to see you here today, or to hear you've been driving all over the place to find me."
"You weren't avoiding me on purpose, then?"
"You were sound asleep in my bed that morning before I went to work, Sansa. But, you were gone by the time I got back. No phone number, no explanation…nothing but a cryptic note."
Sansa made a face, "I had hoped that you would understand."
"Understand that note?" Sandor had scoffed, "I was mad, Sansa. How the bloody hell was I supposed to understand it?"
"I didn't know how to face you," Sansa began, "I couldn't do it again."
"Do what, again?" he grunted, "Why did you run away?"
Sansa lifted her eyes so that they met his before she answered him, "I left because I didn't want to hear you tell me that you couldn't give me a future. I didn't want to hear you tell me that you couldn't promise me anything…not again."
Sandor's brows rose at the tone of her voice. There had been heat behind her words.
"You little fool," Sandor muttered.
"Why does that make me a fool?" she asked him, "Is it wrong for me to want to protect myself? I didn't want to get hurt again, Sandor. I wasn't myself for a long time when things ended between us back then, and it took me just as long to feel normal again. I don't want to go through that again."
"So you took the coward's way out," he mocked, "How do you think I felt when I found you'd gone?"
"Mad," she replied, "That's what you said before."
Sandor made a look of impatience, "I was mad, yes. I never expected you'd run, and I was angry with you for not telling me why. But, after I was done being mad, I just felt…hollow, defeated even."
"I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't know you'd feel that way."
"I thought you felt the same way I did, Sansa," he said, "I thought that we could start…that we could be together again, somehow."
Sansa heard a ringing in her ears, and her brows knitted together as she tried to make sense of his words.
"You thought we could get back together?" she asked, her voice high, "As what, Sandor? We were never really together to start with. Look, I know I was the one who initiated things to begin with, and I know that I'm the one who agreed to a relationship without commitments…but it became real to me, Sandor. I don't know how it happened, but somehow I came to want more than what you were willing to give me…and, it gutted me to know that."
"What are you saying?" Sandor's eyes had darkened, narrowing as he focused on the emotions playing across her face.
Sansa sighed, and finding that she no longer had the strength to keep her feelings bottled up inside her, she told him what was deep inside her heart.
"I loved you, Sandor," she began, "I fell for you and your rough words, and your don't-give-a-fuck attitude…I knew it back then, but I ignored it because I thought I could protect myself by doing so. But, it didn't work. I still got hurt. When I saw how much you'd changed, and how you'd suddenly become this self-assured man who looked so calm and in control, I knew that it would only bring trouble if I were to fall for this new version of you as well. In the past, I knew where I stood with you, but everything is different now and I didn't know where and if I would fit into the life you have now. All I was sure of was that I didn't want to get hurt again."
"Did you come to realize that before, or after you came to bed with me that night?" Sandor bit out.
Sansa's cheeks flushed with guilt, "I'm sorry, Sandor."
He sighed wearily, "But, you loved me, at one point?"
Sansa had made up her mind to come clean with everything, and though she didn't know what good the truth would do, she knew she owed it to him.
"I did," she said tremulously, "I loved you, and even though I tried to get over you…I just couldn't seem to let go. Maybe I am a fool, because after all this time I still feel the same way. I still love you, Sandor…that's why I don't want to go back to what we had before, because now I want more."
Sandor's expression suddenly changed, his eyes widening at her words.
"Say that again," he growled.
It was then that she saw it, something raw flickering in his grey eyes. Sansa had never seen him look at her that way before. It was intense and she couldn't tear her eyes away.
"I've loved you all this time," Sansa said, "I'm still in love with you."
He seemed to be holding his breath, and for a moment he made no sound or movement. All he did was look at her, studying her face. Sansa stared back at him nervously, unable to read his expression. Then, he suddenly reached for her and with an odd growl he lowered his head, pressing his forehead into the crook of her neck and shoulder.
"Little bird," he muttered into her shoulder, "Ah, you stupid little bird…"
Sansa's heart leapt to her throat at his sudden action, not daring to believe what was happening.
"Sandor?" Sansa grasped Sandor's forearms, feeling him tremble at her touch.
"I let you go once," he rasped, "I'm not letting you go again. I came all this way to find you, because I wanted you to know that I'd figured out what you were trying to tell me. It made no sense to me why you'd leave so suddenly and I came because I had to know why you ran away. I also came because I had to know…I had to find out if there was still a chance that you would accept me into your life again and if there was, then I was going to try my hardest to make sure you didn't run from me again."
Sansa closed her eyes, her fingers tightening on his arms before she slowly brought her hands up to his shoulders, eventually winding her arms around his neck. She pulled him closer, and she felt the tension leave his shoulders as she did so. She had always believed in miracles, and right then, she believed she was experiencing one for herself. Sandor was in her arms, speaking words she never thought she would hear him say.
He pulled his head back, but did not let go of her. Sansa could see that his look was slightly pained, and she understood how hard this was for him, how significant this was for a man who rarely spoke his true feelings. It was, she would later recall, the moment he opened that door and let her through the wall he'd built around himself. What he'd been guarding…what he'd been protecting, had been his heart all along. For a man who'd been so physically and emotionally scarred to the point where he believed he had nothing to offer, his heart was the only thing he had to give.
And, he was giving it to her.
"It's forever that you're asking for, is it?" he asked her, "That ruddy note you left, that's what you meant."
Sansa nodded, feeling tears prick the back of her eyes.
Sandor drew a raspy breath. "I figured it out, after I'd calmed down. You once told me that right now was all that you wanted. But, you've become greedy and now you're asking for more. You're asking me for a future…is that right, little bird?"
"Yes…that's what I'm asking for," she replied, her voice breaking. "I want a future with you in it, Sandor."
Sandor reached up and loosened her hands from around his neck, turning her palms so that he gripped both of her hands between his.
"A future, eh? You'll be wanting a ring, a warm home and kids someday, right?" a single glance at her face quickly confirmed as he'd expected. Sandor took another deep breath, "I don't know if I can promise you a future exactly as you want it, Sansa…but, I can promise you that I'll try my bloody hardest to give it to you."
That's when she broke. Sansa threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face into his chest. Sandor responded by returning the pressure of her embrace.
"I never thought I'd ever hear you say that!" Sansa cried into his chest.
"Believe me, I never thought they were words I'd ever say," he murmured into her hair.
For some time, Sansa allowed herself to revel in the feel of Sandor's arms around her, letting the moment sink in. Their feelings were mutual, and Sansa thought her heart would burst with happiness knowing that Sandor wanted her to be in his future, too. Eventually, Sansa pulled back so that she could look up at his face, wanting answers to the questions now racing through her mind.
"How, Sandor?" she asked him, "When did you realize you felt this way?"
Sandor ran a hand over his jaw, "I don't even know where to start."
"I need to know," she urged him. "The beginning's a good place to start."
Sandor sighed and remained silent for some moments, appearing to be gathering his thoughts.
"By rights, you were never supposed to be mine, Sansa," he began, "I still think that I'm too old for you, and you can't deny that we're from completely different worlds. I saw you as this beautiful, unattainable princess, and for years I only looked at you as someone I had to watch over because of my job. Your perfect manners and your lady-like demeanour used to irritate me when you were younger, and I antagonized you on purpose about it, because I found your reactions amusing."
"That was mean," Sansa rebuked him, "I was so wary around you for years because of that."
"Yeah, maybe it was," Sandor agreed, "But eventually, I got that it was just part of who you are and it stopped being an irritation. I got used to you. When you started dating Joffrey and started spending more time here in the south, I learned that there was more to you than just a pretty face and immaculate manners. You started talking back to me, challenging me whenever I criticized you or did something you didn't agree with. You showed me you had guts, and I came to admire that about you. When you started to look like a woman and talk like a woman, that's when things started to change. I started to care about you, and more often than not, I would catch myself watching you not because it was my job, but because I wanted to."
"I never noticed you watching me," Sansa murmured, surprised by what he was telling her.
"It would have been awkward if you had," Sandor admitted, "As it was, I kept finding myself watching you more and more, and the fact that you were with another man just made me angry with myself. I've cared about you a lot longer than you know, Sansa."
"I know it now," she said, lost for words at the revelation.
"I tried my best to ignore what I was feeling for you, you know?" Sandor rubbed his temple, "It was easier to do when you were with Joffrey. While I believed you were going to marry another man, it was easy for me to continue just to watch you from the background…until you and Joffrey split up, and that same night you kissed me and let me know that you saw me as a man."
"You were attracted to me, all that time?" Sansa gasped.
Sandor nodded, "Even before that, perhaps. I don't remember exactly when I started looking at you as a woman, but as far as I was concerned nothing would change between us. I told myself not to take your kiss seriously…I couldn't take it seriously, because nothing would change the fact that you were Sansa Stark and I was a nobody."
Sansa was shaking her head, "You shouldn't speak of yourself like that."
"Old habits are hard to break, little bird," Sandor said, "Bit hard to see oneself in a dazzling light when I've lived in shadows my entire life. Anyway, I told myself to forget about it, and that you'd only done it because you were in shock. I told myself that you wouldn't have done it if you'd been in your right mind. When you asked me to go out for a drink that first time, I still didn't think too deeply about why you wanted to see me, as I assumed you just wanted a drinking companion. When you started showing up at my favourite pubs, and when I realized what you wanted from me, that's when my control started to break, and when I stopped being able to ignore my attraction to you."
"Hear me out," Sandor took hold of her hands again, "I did everything I could to try and discourage you, but I never anticipated how persistent you would be. Even when I considered that you were probably only seeking me out because you were lonely, I still gave in."
Sansa inhaled sharply, "You thought I was just using you, and you were okay with that?"
"What else would you have me believe?" Sandor gave her a hard look, "I wasn't aware that you even saw me as a man until the night you kissed me, and suddenly you're showing up at my favourite pub with a look in your eyes I'd never seen before. I was confused as hell, but what else was I supposed to think? It was impossible for me to see it any other way. I still tried to push you away, hoping you'd back off when I told you I couldn't promise you anything. However, instead of being discouraged, you accepted it, and that's what convinced me that you saw me as a temporary solution for your loneliness."
"But, you still agreed?"
He nodded curtly, "I did. I took what you were offered me, because I wanted you."
"Even knowing that –"
"I wanted you, Sansa, and I could only resist so much." Sandor broke in, "When you told me that you wanted no promises from me, it took the edge off the guilt and doubt in my head. My biggest fear was the possibility that I'd somehow screw things up, but you telling me that you expected nothing from me, made it okay to think that you knew what you were getting into, if things ended badly."
Sansa was suddenly shaking her head and covering her mouth. "I'm so sorry, Sandor."
He frowned in confusion, "What for?"
"Because, you were right. I was lonely and I don't know how it happened, but ever since the night I kissed you all I could think about was you. It made no sense to me, and I tried to rationalize it by thinking I was on the rebound, although it only made me feel worse. I hated the thought that I was only attracted to you because I was lonely. I hated that I was objectifying you that way because I regarded you more than that…but, I wanted you, and part of the reason I went after you was because I knew you wouldn't expect a relationship from me. I knew that, and I used it against you after you kept rebuffing me. I knew that if I told you that I expected nothing from you, then you'd have no reason to turn me away. For that, I am so sorry."
Sandor's expression remained hard as he contemplated her words, but the anger she was expecting never eventuated.
"We've both been such fools," he eventually said. "You have nothing to be apologizing for."
"Yeah, we were." Sansa agreed. "I never wanted you to think that I was just using you. It wasn't just about the sex or about wanting a temporary solution to my loneliness, as you put it. I wanted to be with you because I liked who I was when I was with you. I loved that I could talk to you about anything, and that you would give me an honest opinion about everything. You looked after me, even though I didn't need you to do so, I loved that you did it anyway, and that was important to me. It ended up that my own plan backfired on me, because before I knew it I suddenly wanted temporary to become permanent, but because I'd told you that I wouldn't ask for something like that, I kept silent…and I ended up agonizing about it for three years."
"That's not even the worst part," Sandor grunted.
"It's not?" Sansa queried with mild trepidation.
"Nope," Sandor shook his head gravely, "After your father had taken you back north, I had plenty of time to think. Wasn't long before I came to realize how I truly felt about you, but you had gone and it was too late. Regardless of how I felt, I believed that you were better off without me. I'd just quit my job, and I really did have nothing to offer you. As I saw it, you seemed fine with how things ended between us, so I did nothing. That's the worst part, Sansa. I realized that I had fallen in love with you, just when you became completely unreachable to me."
Sansa could only shake her head, feeling regretful for the pain both of them had endured and the time they had lost. It was, she realized, difficult to look at their situation retrospectively, but she understood that it was important to look at their past to understand where they were now.
"Complete, utter fools…" Sandor muttered.
"Why did you take so long to come after me?" Sansa asked at length, "Once you'd figured out what my note meant, why didn't you come and find me sooner?"
Sandor released another weary sigh, "From the start, I never considered that I could be the right man for you. I never believed that I had what it took to make you happy. I'd never wanted a real relationship before and for a long time I was okay with being on my own. The idea of waking up next to you each morning and coming home to you each evening were as far away from anything I ever thought I could have, and I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that they were suddenly within my reach. Underneath it all was the fear that I would ruin everything, just because I am who I am."
"Sandor, I fell in love with you because of who you are."
"I know that now," he said, and he squeezed her hand, "Anyway, once I'd figured out what your note meant, I had to think about whether I really could give you what you were asking from me, because it was the first time I was considering someone else's needs before my own. It was daunting, thinking that I might not be able to give you what you were asking of me…but, I would never be able to live with myself if I let you walk out of my life forever while I did nothing."
"You're here now," Sansa said softly.
"Here we are," Sandor tilted her head with his fingertips so that he could look her in the eyes, "Are you absolutely certain this is where you want to be?"
"It is," she nodded, "Are you?"
"Completely sure," he replied.
"Then, tell me again. I need to hear you say it, properly."
Sandor's grey eyes brightened like she'd never seen before, and without hesitation, he said the words she wanted to hear. "I love you."
She kissed him then, and in her kiss he was able to discern the depths of her feelings for him. Sansa knew that there were still plenty of things they still had to talk about, but those things could wait. The important things had been said, and right then it was enough for her to know that he loved her.
Sandor broke the kiss first, but only so he could look at her face once more. His fingers picked up a lock of her hair, and Sansa watched him smile.
"You've gone back to being a ginger," he said.
"Yeah," Sansa nodded, "It was time I became Sansa Stark again."
"Don't get too used to it," Sandor suddenly said, "You'll be changing it again soon."
Sansa frowned, "What do you mean?"
Sandor gave her a look, his brows pulled together in thought. "How do you feel about becoming Sansa Clegane?"
Her jaw dropped, and for several seconds all she could do was move her jaw up and down wordlessly, before she managed a sharp laugh. "Are you serious?"
"Is that a proposal, Sandor Clegane?"
"Could be," Sandor suddenly stood up from the seat and held his hand out to her, "Come on, it's cold and it's getting late. I've been talking for too bloody long and I need a drink. Let's get out of here."
Laughing, Sansa took his hand and wove her fingers through his. As they slowly made their way down the Old Pier towards the shore, Sansa tightened her hold on his hand, and vowed that she was never letting go.
Four Years Later
Spring had arrived at Clegane Farm. Dawn had barely broken, but already the work shed was humming with activity. There were cauliflower and spring onions to be harvested, and lemons to be picked. Business was busier than ever, and Sandor's full-time staff had grown by two people, while his seasonal staff continued to swell each season. The farm was at full capacity, but Sandor had no desire to expand. He had found a sustainable niche market for his produce, and he was turning a profit each season. That was enough.
His daily routine had changed slightly. Every now and then he would still go out and do a round of deliveries to keep face to face contact with his customers, but most days he was happy to supervise the picking and packing in the shed, leaving the deliveries for the other lads to make. Come lunch time, if Sansa's schedule so allowed, he'd pick her up from her shop and they'd have lunch together. If not, he'd sit with the rest of his staff eating the lunch that Sansa had packed for him.
At the end of his working day, he'd come back to the house to find Sansa in the kitchen preparing dinner, or he'd find a message from her saying she'd be late, and could he please get dinner started. After dinner, Sansa would duck into her sewing room to get some extra work done if she was trying to meet a deadline, otherwise they would sit and watch television in the living room, or sit by the wood burner in the upstairs sitting room where Sansa read a book while he dozed in his favourite armchair. They'd established a routine in the time they'd been together, but Sandor found that the best part of his day was when they would go to bed at night, knowing that when he woke up, she would still be there beside him.
Sansa's days were occupied by her work. Shortly after she had moved into Clegane House with Sandor, Sansa had received a request from Daenerys Targaryen to create a dress for her to wear to her newborn son's Christening. Daenerys had been photographed and featured in several women's fashion magazines and websites, and the sleek hand-painted silk number that Sansa had created had drawn the attention and acclaim of the fashion world. Daenerys had requested another creation soon after, a gown she would wear to a charity gala, which again drew praise from fashions critics. Sansa's next creation after that was an ivory satin bridal gown, fit for a princess. The one she would wear as she walked down the aisle on the day she became Mrs. Sansa Clegane.
Their wedding had been held in the spring, a year after Sansa and Sandor had reunited, in the grounds of Winterfell Park where the Stark family had a private chapel. Her sister Arya had been her maid of honour, while Randa Royce and her old school friend Jeyne Poole had been her bridesmaids. Sandor's groomsmen had included Ray, the owner of the Quiet Isle retreat, Lommy Greenhands and Podric Payne. Sansa's parents, indeed her entire family, were stunned when Sansa had told them about Sandor. However, it had not taken them long to notice the change in Sansa's demeanour or the smile that was now almost constantly on her face, and they soon came to see that Sandor Clegane was the knight in shining armour that Sansa had always hoped to find.
Little Bird the label was launched soon after their wedding, specializing in bespoke formal and bridal gowns. Sansa opened a small boutique and studio in the centre of the village, which soon put the quiet little valley on the map. Sansa returned to doing what she loved, which was designing and making dresses, never taking on more than what she and her two assistants could handle. Her dream, she realized, was not in conquering the fashion world by creating mass produced items of clothing to be sold in high-end department stores, but in creating beautiful one-off gowns that would bring a smile to a bride's face as the wedding gown of her girlhood fantasies was brought to life, or in seeing the beaming grin of the teenage girl attending her school ball, confident that no-one else would be wearing the same dress.
Still, despite Sansa's humble intentions, celebrities and socialites soon found their way to her boutique all clamoring for a Sansa Clegane creation to wear to a premiere or award show. With the growing demand for high-end pieces, it wasn't long before Sansa had employed another assistant and launched a second label, Sansa Clegane Couture, officially marking her entrance into the world of haute couture. Somewhere along the line, she had found her balance. A point where her ambition and business savvy could happily coexist with her artistic nature.
In their down-time, which they made a conscious effort to make for each other, they enjoyed taking walks along the many trails that wound through the woods and rivers, as well as sit and have a few drinks at the pub, chatting to the locals. Sansa had found that her celebrity status in the fashion world meant little to the people in their community, and thus, she and Sandor were able to live a relatively low-key existence.
Sansa would be the first to admit that getting their relationship to where they were now had not come easy, with their different backgrounds making for differing views on matters such as handling their finances, and how they ran their respective businesses. There were also the shadows in Sandor's past to deal with, including his insecurities and fears that would manifest themselves from time to time. But, as Daenerys Targaryen had once told her; if two people really want to be together, they will find a way to stay together. Sansa finally understood what Dany had meant, and it was together that she and Sandor found ways to deal with whatever obstacles came their way.
Clegane House had also seen some changes. After she had moved in, and with Sandor's blessings, Sansa had gone to town redecorating the manor house, using her keen artistic eye to source pieces from near and far, turning the house into the home it was always meant to be. Sometimes, when Sandor would open his front door, he would get a flashback of what his house used to look like in his childhood. In those times, all he'd need do was close his eyes and reopen them again to see that his past really was in the past, and Sansa's voice welcoming him home would chase away any lingering darkness from his mind. Sandor learned the meaning of contentment, for the first time in his life, and he was happy.
Sandor woke up one Tuesday morning, before daybreak as he always did. However, he was keenly aware that something was amiss. Turning to Sansa's side of the bed, he found that it was vacant. There was a light coming from under the en-suite door, and he got up to see what had made her get out of bed.
"Sansa?" he knocked on the door before he pushed it open.
His wife was sitting on the edge of the tub, wearing her nightie with a thin robe loosely belted about her waist. Her hair was tied into a messy ponytail on top of her head, and she appeared to be staring at her reflection in the vanity mirror. Sandor noted that Sansa's complexion looked wan.
"Are you ill?" he asked her, "You're looking a bit peaky."
Sansa blinked, shaking herself from her thoughts and turned to give her husband a reassuring smile.
"I'm fine," she said.
"Then why are you up at this hour?" Sandor took a few steps towards her, and placed his palm on her forehead to be sure, as Sansa had a tendency to downplay whatever ailments she might be suffering from, be it a headache or a severe flu. "You don't have a temperature."
"Because I'm not sick," Sansa stated, before she handed him the item she'd been holding in the hand she'd kept out of his view.
Sandor looked at the white bit of plastic in his hand curiously, before realizing that she'd just handed him a pregnancy test. It was the first time he'd seen one up close, and he stood under the bathroom light so that he could see the display more clearly, and the two pink lines in the window.
He raised his head to look at Sansa, who was now grinning from ear to ear.
"Yep," she nodded in response to the question in his eyes.
Sandor swallowed hard and leaned against the bathroom vanity. "The other day, when you talked about getting a puppy…this is not what you meant, right?"
Sansa laughed at the bewildered expression on his face, before she stood up to stand in front of him, taking hold of his hand and placing it on her still-flat abdomen.
"I had a feeling…I mean, I knew there was a chance," she began, "Remember a couple of months back, when I ran out of my pills and it took me a few weeks to get around to getting a new prescription from my doctor? Well, we weren't exactly careful at that time, were we? And, you did say we could start trying for a family soon…now, it's just going to happen sooner than we thought."
"Bloody hell...we're going to have a baby," Sandor rasped, patting Sansa's tummy gently.
"Yep," Sansa reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck, "You're going to be a dad."
Sandor pulled her into his arms and exhaled deeply, his mind suddenly reeling as he thought about the changes this would bring to their lives. It was exhilarating, and daunting at the same time. Being a lover and husband had been new territory for him, but he'd had a rough idea of what was involved even as he'd blindly muddled his way through. Fatherhood, on the other hand, was uncharted waters.
Sansa must have sensed his unease, because suddenly she was pressing kisses to his neck and face.
"Stop worrying, Sandor. You will be fine."
"How do you know?" he grunted, "I don't know what being a good father looks like. My father wasn't –"
"Shh…" Sansa held her fingers to his lips and gave him a steady glare, "You are not your father. You are a good man, and I know you will do whatever it takes to be a good father, just as you've done all you can to be a good husband to me."
Her belief in him still astounded him, and some moments later, after a few deep breaths, he was calm again.
"You'll be a good mother, little bird." Sandor had no doubts about that.
"Everything will be just fine."
Sansa smiled, and as they stood with their arms looped about each other's waist, Sandor believed her.
Okay, so we've reached the end. I had a blast writing it, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Thank you for your patience, to those who waited so long for this to be completed!