Actions

Work Header

Product

Chapter Text

June 6th, 2006

SANSA

                It’s too dark in here. I don’t like it. Where’s my nightlight?

                Little feet slid out from under the pink, flowery quilt and silently hit the plush carpet. Carefully on her tip-toes, Sansa crept across her room. She squatted down next to her dresser and felt around on the floor until her hand landed on the two-pronged back of her rainbow nightlight. Frowning slightly, she tried to plug it in without the assistance of any light. The sounds of metal scraping along the socket casing seemed to fill her room and ring in her ears. She was about to give up and flick on her light when she heard the creaking of the stairs down the hall. Curious as to who was awake at this hour, she abandoned her unsuccessful task and made her way to her door, pulling it open without a sound.

                Only dim moonlight from the entrance way window lit the long, open landing, but she could clearly see the outline of a tall shadow as it stole noiselessly into her parents’ room. At first Sansa thought it was one of her older brothers, either Rob or Jon, but the figure looked too tall. Sansa bit her lower lip and moved with a dancers grace along the hall towards the bedroom door that still stood ajar. As she reached out with one slender arm a scream of pure terror rent the air.

                “NED!”

                All of Sansa’s muscles locked down and she stood rooted to her spot by the door. Her heart thrummed in her chest like hummingbirds wings as fear shook her delicate frame. Breaking glass, ground shaking thumps, and deafening shouts echoed all around her, but she remained frozen, unable to flee. It wasn’t until the doors of her siblings began to fling open and her brothers emerged in alarm that she seemed to shake herself out of her shock.

                “Dad!” Rob screamed as he bolted into the bedroom, throwing the door open wide. What Sansa saw made stomach clench violently and her body tremble uncontrollably.

                One lit lamp lay on the floor by bed, the shade knocked off so that the bulb glowed a bright white. The plush cream carpet was stained red, almost purple in places. Her brother, Rob, stood in the middle of room, his face ashen as he took in the scene before them. Great puddles of blood decorated the floor beneath the bed, fed from streaming falls that had pooled on the bed where her mother lay motionless. Her face was frozen in the mask of an open-mouthed scream, blue eyes wide and staring blankly right at Sansa. She had not realized she had moved until her legs hit the end of the bed.

                “Mommy,” she whispered in a broken voice. Warmth spread down her legs and settled wetly at her feet as the smell of ammonia wafted through the air around her.

                “SANSA, RUN!”

                It was her father’s shouts that tore her attention from her beloved mother. Her eyes moved slowly about the room until they landed on a great struggle. The shadow she had seen had her father pinned to the wall with one hand while another figure dressed in the same dark clothes danced around them, slicing at stabbing at him with a long, bloody blade. The attackers laugh raised goose bumps on Sansa’s exposed skin and her blood run like ice water though her veins.

                “RUN! GET HELP!” her father bellowed. It was the desperation in his voice that finally got through to her. She turned to run and ran smack into Rob. He didn’t hesitate as he grabbed her hand and yanked her down the hall. They flew down the stairs so fast that they both collided roughly with the solid front door at the bottom. Rob struggled with knob for a few moments before throwing it open, a rush of cool air blowing around them.

Both of them paused mid-step as they noticed something blocking their exit. A man stood on the stoop cloaked in darkness.

                “Call the police! My parents –“ Rob started to yell, panicked. His words cut off as he body suddenly jerked backwards before he crumpled to the floor, a crimson stain spreading across his Superman pajama shirt. Two small sounds, like puffs of air, echoed dully in the entryway.

                The screams that been trapped in her lungs before suddenly broke free. Sansa turned on her heel and bolted into the living room. She rounded the corner into the kitchen, her bare feet slapping painfully against the cold tiles as she heard heavy footfalls advancing behind her. She had nearly made it to the back door when an arm wound around her waist and lifted her off her feet. Shrieking, sobbing, and struggling to escape, Sansa was carried though her home on the man’s shoulder and directly out the front door. Even though she knew the neighbors were not that close, she screamed with all her might in the hopes that someone would hear her; that someone would come. A stinging slap to her bare thigh brought a fresh torrent of tears and cries even as the assailant told her to shut up.

                The sound of a van door rolling open brought fresh waves of fear and panic so acute that Sansa finally heaved up the dinner that had been churning within her since this nightmare had started. The splattering sounds of her sick were quickly followed by a shout of disgust from the man whom still carried her. He dropped her unceremoniously onto the driveway, bloodying her knees and hands as she landed like a cat on all fours to continue her retching.

                “Be more careful,” a deep, cold voice from within the van rumbled. “The product is not to be damaged in any way.”

                “She fucking puked on me, man!” her handler argued angrily. He lifted a leg like he might kick her, but froze when a sharp “stop!” came from the man in the vehicle.

                “Any damage done will come out of your cut,” he warned.

Cursing, the other man lowered his foot and went to retrieve her again. Sansa frantically looked around for someone, anyone, who would help her. Her eyes nearly passed over them, but the shining whites of their wide eyes reflected back her own fear and caught her attention. Her oldest brother, Jon, had his arms wrapped securely around their little sister, Arya. His large hand was firmly clamped over her mouth to keep her quiet in their secret hiding place of the large Bay leaf bushes that lined the front walk. She could see their cheeks shining with tears as she was lifted, carefully this time, and placed onto the backseat of a large utility van. It was the last thing she saw before the blindfold was secured over her eyes.

                                                                                                                      *P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*

                She didn’t know how long the ride was. It could have been minutes or days, but she did not notice. She lay, shivering, numb from fear, grief, and cold, until the van slowed down and began to bounce around roughly. No one spoke the entire journey, so when the van finally stopped and voices could be heard, Sansa’s heart began to thunder again. The van door slid open with a deafening roar and chilly nightly air swirled around her.

                “Up.” The voice of the man who drove commanded her suddenly. She must have been too slow to obey because she was yanked by her arm into a sitting position. She yelped a little, more from fear than pain. This time when she was pulled from the vehicle she was carried like a baby in front of someone, not left to dangle over a shoulder. The rocking motion of the mans’ pace did nothing to help settle her tender tummy, and she was afraid she would be sick again when she felt herself suddenly indoors and settled down on a soft surface.

                “What happened to her?” A new voice asked quietly. This voice was soft, almost gentle, with an accent that she had sometimes heard in the movies her father liked to watch.

                “She fell when she tried to run away,” the man who had carried Sansa lied. There was silence for a few moments before the sounds of paper rustling could be heard.

                “Pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen,” the soft voice said. The click of a door closing was all there was for a minute, and then footsteps. They were slow in their approach, but Sansa knew they were coming towards her. She felt her body begin to shake harder as fresh tears welled in her sore eyes.

                The blindfold was removed without warning. Light stung her eyes and she blinked rapidly, rubbing them with her small fists until she could see well enough. She was in a house, sitting on a couch next to a man. He was skinny with dark hair and a thin mustache. There were silver glasses perched on his very straight nose, behind which sharp blue eyes stared intently at her.

                “Hello, Sansa,” the man said gently.

                Sansa’s heart leapt. “How do you know my name?” she whispered.

                The man smiled kindly and Sansa felt herself start to feel hope. Maybe he knew her parents. Maybe he could still help them.

                “I know all about you, sweet girl. Your name is Sansa Stark. You’re nine years old. You’re a wonderful ballerina. You’re incredibly smart and you are very, very beautiful.”

                He was saying such nice things. Sansa had always liked to the praised. She didn’t know anyone who didn’t, but she knew of all her siblings she was the one who liked it the most. Maybe this man knew that. Maybe he knew her family. It was possible. Her parents had so many friends it was hard to remember them all.

                “Can you please call the police? Those men hurt my parents. And Rob . . . They need help.” Her lip began to tremble with her request. He had to help them. He just had to. He seemed so nice.

                “I already have, my sweet girl. I am sure they will be just fine. Right now though, you will need to stay here with me while they get better.” He smiled kindly at her and brushed the tears from her cheeks with his thin fingers.

                “But . . . I want to go home.” More tears fell in rivulets, faster than he could wipe them away. The man sighed deeply as if he was sad, too.

                “I know you do, sweet girl. But there is no one at home right now to look after you, so you will stay here with me. I even have a room for you. Would you like to see it?” he asked warmly.

               He seemed excited to show it to her, so she nodded a little and let him lead her by the hand from the room. They walked down a hallway with a wooden floor until stopping at a door at the very end. There were locks on the outside of this door like the ones on her front door at home, which Sansa thought was odd. She had never seen a bedroom with locks like that before. When he opened the door he led Sansa in and stepped off to the side so that she could take it all in.

               The room was very pretty. There was a big white canopy bed with lacy pink covers and lots of pretty pillows. A dollhouse was in the corner next to a toy chest and carved white bookcase full of stories. A knotted rug lay in the middle of the wooden floor with a pink, fuzzy bean bag behind it. The windows had pink and white lacy curtains that fell to the floor. A large white dresser completed the set.

              “Do you like it?”

              Sansa looked up at the man and knew he wanted her to say yes, so she nodded. It was a very nice room, but all she wanted was her own room in her own house.

             “There are fresh clothes in the dresser. I would imagine you would like to get into something clean. The bathroom is right next door if you would like to take a bath. Does that sound nice?” he asked expectantly.

             Truthfully it did not, but as she knew she had wet herself and been sick, she could not refuse.

            “Do you need help with your bath?” The man was closer now, his hand stroking her bare arm. Her nightgown suddenly felt like too little clothing. She needed something more, something warmer to ward off the chill. She did not like him touching her, though she could not say why.

            “No, thank you,” she whispered. “I can do it.”

            His smile was indulgent. “Of course you can. You’re a big girl, right?”

            Again Sansa only nodded because she knew it was the answer he wanted.

           “I will do everything I can to make you happy here, Sansa. Do you want to be happy, sweet girl?” His face was very near to hers, his nose skimming the top of her head as if he was sniffing her hair. It made her uncomfortable.

           “I want to go home,” she said automatically. Some deep unnameable fear erupted inside her. “I want my mommy.”

           The man sighed again and softly kissed her temple. He stepped away from her and headed out of the room. Before he left he turned back to her.

          “Would you like something to eat, sweet girl?”

          This time she shook her head, tears welling in her eyes again. “Can I call my parents tomorrow?”

          The man seemed to consider this a moment before nodding once. “Of course you may . . . if you are a good girl.”

          Nodding rapidly, Sansa promised, “I’ll be good, mister . . .”

          The man smiled widely this time. “You may call me Uncle Petyr.”

                                                                                                                             *P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*

          At first the room glowed with a hazy grey light brought on by the early hours of the morning. Sansa sat on the bed in her white cotton nightie watching as the colors changed from a thin pink to a full, bright orange as the sun rose through the dense trees beyond her window. Despite the softness of the bed, Sansa had not slept one wink the previous night. After her bath she had brushed her teeth and gone back to her room. Petyr had not locked the door behind her – she got up to check sometime later, pretending she needed to use the toilet – but Sansa was incredibly nervous about being alone in a house with a man like him. Even with his soft voice and kind words and nice smiles, there was something about him that made her uneasy. So she did not sleep, instead she chose to draw back the curtains and wait for morning. She should have been surprised to see the bars on the outside of the windows, but the only thing she could feel was scared.

         All night long the images of her bloodied mother and fighting father haunted her to point of near hysteria. She vacillated back and forth between hiccoughing sobs to sitting numbly staring out the window waiting for the sun. All she wanted to do was go home and see her family. She needed her mommy and daddy. She needed her brothers and sister. She needed her bed and her clothes and her own home to make her feel safe again.

        Sansa stared at the surrounding woods hoping to see another house nearby, but there was no one. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead to her knees and closed her eyes a moment to imagine she was safely back home with her parents and that everyone was okay. That this had all been a bad dream. The knock at the door startled her and made her jump. Petyr opened the door widely, but did not enter the room.

       “Good morning, sweet girl. Did you sleep well?” he asked pleasantly.

        Sansa considered lying to him, but she had never been very good at that. So far she had not made him angry, and she was terrified of what might happen to her if she did.

        “I couldn’t sleep,” she told him honestly. “Can I call my parents now?”

        Petyr smiled, but there was a tightness to his expression that made her think it was a fake smile. “It is still a little early yet. Why don’t you get dressed and have some breakfast? The time will pass much faster on a full tummy.”

        The thought of food still made her feel sick, but she did not think he would let her refuse again, so she nodded.

        “Okay.”

        “Why don’t you pick out one of the pretty dresses and then join me for pancakes. Does that sound good?” He was smiling at her again, the same smile that made her insides squirm.

        She swallowed thickly and nodded. He turned and left, closing the door behind him. Sansa waited until she could no longer hear his footsteps in the hall before getting up off the bed and going to the dresser. She knew the top drawer contained underwear and socks, and the next door had pyjamas, so she went to the third drawer and pulled it open. Folded neatly and stacked up high was a row of smocked dresses with lacy collars and satin sashes. Sansa reached inside one and saw the tag read Polly Flinders size 8. It was white with little blue flowers all over it and a shiny blue sash that tied at the back. It looked just like a dress she had seen her mother wear in pictures from when she was a child.

       Thoughts of her mother rushed through her, bringing with them such intensity and longing that Sansa’s chin began to tremble and tears once again cascaded down her cheeks. Sobbing quietly, her breath coming out in great gasps, Sansa shook as she shed the nightgown and stepped into the dress. She knew she would need help with the buttons in the back, but still tried to do them up herself anyway. She did not like it when Petyr touched her, and she really did not want him to see her with her dress open. The thought made her insides twist and brought a great feeling of shame. She was not supposed to let strangers see her body without clothes. It wasn’t proper or decent.

       An ear-splitting crash shook the whole house as thundering feet and shouted voices suddenly filled the air. Sansa screamed, dropped the ribbon from her hands and scurried to hide under the bed. When she lifted the dust ruffle she saw that the space was full of ornately carved wooden boxes, each bearing a name. Jessica, Sasha, Eileen, Kaitlin . . . and on and on. There were dozens of them.

      Before Sansa could open one the door to her room banged open, slamming into the wall. Sansa keened in terror as she vividly remembered the last time men and stormed into her house. But this was not her house. She was not safe. She was never safe.

      “Sansa Stark?” A man barked from the doorway. He was huge, looming over her all in black and holding a giant gun in his hands. His hair was thick and dark. His eyes were narrowed.

      She was too terrified to speak. All she could do was stare at the man, shaking and screaming with each breath she took.

     “Are you Sansa Stark?” he asked again, his voice still tense though not as loud.

     Sansa was sobbing too hysterically to make sense of anything. He knew her name, but so did Petyr. He had a gun, but so had the men at her house. They all wore black. They all shouted at her. They all scared her. She wanted her mommy. She wanted to go home.

     “Boros, you fucking idiot!” A second man appeared. His hair was golden like in her story books. But unlike the handsome heroes Sansa loved so dearly, his face was angry. When he looked at the first man Sansa cowered further into the wall, but his expression softened considerably when he looked at her. She noticed right away that he did not look at her like Petyr did. He had kind eyes; green like moss. He knelt down and placed his hands up, palms out. He moved slowly, precisely. He didn’t have a gun. Sansa took in all these things, but still she was afraid. She would always be afraid.

     “You look just like your mommy, Sansa,” the blond man said. His voice was so quiet that she felt herself lean forward to hear him over the chaos that still reigned outside the room and inside her head. Not enough to encourage him to come closer, but ever so slightly so that he would know she was listening.

     “My name is Jaime. I’m with the FBI. Do you know what the FBI is?” he asked her gently.

     Aware that she had stopped screaming, Sansa tried to catch her breath around her sobs so that she could answer him. When she could not she just shook her head.

     “That’s okay, Sansa, I can tell you that. We’re like the police. We’re the good guys. You are safe now, Sansa. We’ve come to get you and take you back home. Would you like to go home?” Jaime extended his hand towards her, but Sansa was still not convinced. Petyr had a nice way of talking to her, too. He knew her name, too. She did not trust him either. She shied back from his hand, wrapping her arms tightly around her knees and drawing herself together as tightly as she could.

     Sansa could suddenly hear a familiar voice shouting just outside the door. Her heart leapt in her chest and she released her knees, eyes intent on the doorway blocked from view by Boros.

     “I don’t care who the fuck you work for! Get the hell out of my way or I’ll shoot in the face!”

      Sansa tried to call out to her, but all the came out were little squeaky sounds. She rose up on her knees, prepared to make a run for it.

      A woman burst into the room and shouldered the much larger man out of the way without a word, but skidded to a stop behind Jaime. Her blue eyes were wide and mouth dropped open as she scanned the little room Sansa had been in all night. When they landed on Sansa tears filled them and she gasped, her hand flying up to cover her lips.

      “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she whispered tremulously. “Sansa!”

      Sansa finally found her voice and shrieked, flinging herself into waiting arms of her Auntie Margie. Margaery lifted the little girl up into her arms, wrapping her firmly in a protective embrace as sobs wracked Sansa’s little body. She stroked her hair and kissed her face as tears traced down her flushed cheeks.

      “I want my mommy!” Sansa wailed in her arms. “I want mommy!”

      Margaery went to leave the room when Jaime reached out to stop her, bringing on a fresh wave of terror from an already hysterical Sansa. She clung to her aunt with all her strength and screamed loud enough to rattle the windows in their panes.

      “NO! DON’T LET THEM TAKE ME! I WANT MOMMY! I WANT MOMMY!”

      “Back off, Lannister!” Margie growled menacingly. Sansa had never once heard her aunt use that tone of voice. Instead of making her more afraid, it filled her with a sense of security and a feeling of protection. It was the same tone her mother used when the man across the street had hit Jon with his belt for stealing apples off his tree. Still, she could not stop herself from wailing. Once that damn had been broken there was no stopping the flood of emotion she had battled in the past twenty-four hours.

      “Who the hell are you?” Boros barked around Sansa screams.

      “Left back pocket,” Margaery hollered back as she once again made to leave the room.

      She made it to the hallway before Jaime followed behind her. Sansa finally stopped screaming as Margie continued to hush her and told her it would be okay, that she had her now, but the sobs did not subside.

      “You’re a U.S. Marshall?” he asked.

      “That’s right,” she answered into Sansa’s hair. Her grip did not ease one bit as she navigated the house and headed swiftly out the front door.

       Through blurry eyes Sansa could see so many flashing lights that she was reminded of Christmas. She counted six big cars, two trucks, and one van, all with lights flashing. Some said Police, while others were just normal cars, but everyone walking around outside the little house she had been in wore a uniform or the black clothes that Jaime and Boros wore. Despite the presence of so many men and women, including her auntie, she still did not feel safe.

      “Bronn! I’ve got her!” Margaery yelled after protecting Sansa’s ear.

       Sansa raised her head from Margie’s shoulder. She knew that name, too. Uncle Bronn. Wildly, she searched for the big man who always gave her piggyback rides and made sure she got enough ice cream for dessert. When he jogged through the throng of people rushing around Sansa reached out for him with one arm while still holding onto to Margie with the other. Bronn wrapped them both up in a tight embrace and Sansa could feel Aunt Margie start to shake.

       “That room,” she moaned. “Bronn, that room . . .”

       “I know. Not now,” he said firmly, squeezing them more tightly.

       Even though she was happy to be with people she knew and loved, Sansa still just wanted her parents. She lifted her head again and sniffed loudly.

       “I want mommy,” she croaked around her tears.

        Bronn stared at her brokenly for a moment before nodding his head and kissing her forehead.

        “I know, baby. I know.”

Chapter Text

March 7th, 2016

                Sansa trudged through the ankle deep snow up the hill towards her Monday morning class. It could have been worse. The sun was out and the snow would start melting by noon. Last year it had remained so cold that there was snow until mid-April. She had heard from seniors that it wasn’t uncommon for it to snow from Halloween to Easter. The climate of the north-eastern part of Pennsylvania wasn’t too different from where she had grown up as a child. But that was a different time. A different life.

                Sansa passed the Doane Center which housed campus police as well as the 24 hour computer lab for the whole campus. There were computers in the library at the North Hall too, but who the hell wanted to go all the way up there? Plus, they weren’t open 24 hours. Not that Sansa needed either of those facilities to go online. She had her own laptop, her own cell phone, her own everything in her very own room in the Spruce dorms at Mansfield University.

                She continued up the massive hill that sat squarely in the middle of campus. No matter which dorm you were in you had to hike up it to get anywhere. The dining hall was open and already busy when Sansa made her way up to the main dining room. It was after eight, so she would have to forgo her usual spread of waffles and sausages drowned in syrup and instead go for the much quicker breakfast of an egg sandwich. The line for the griddle wasn’t too long and the line cook was super-fast, so she didn’t have to wait long for her single friend egg with cheese and sausage patty. Quickly throwing it all between two slices of wholemeal bread, she filled her thermos with coffee, sugar, and half and half before jogging back down the stairs to the exit.

                She’d finished the entire sandwich and half the coffee by the time she strolled through the doors of Elliot Hall. She was running a few minutes ahead of schedule, which was a small miracle. She wasn’t a fan of her Statistics class, but it was required for her Psych minor. She had managed to get out of taking it last year due to a very full course load for her Criminal Justice major, but she couldn’t put it off any longer. Her academic advisor told her to just get it over with so that she could focus on the classes she would really enjoy in the future. It wasn’t bad advice, but Sansa grumbled anyway. She hated math.

                Her phone pinged as she took her seat off to the far right against the wall, only paces from the door. She never sat by the windows. She never sat within sight of the door. If someone was looking for her they would have stick their head all the way into the classroom and crane their neck around in order to find her. It was one of the major rules she lived by: never be in plain sight.

                After settling into her ridiculously uncomfortable desk – seriously, where the hell did they get these things? – Sansa dug through her backpack for her iPhone. She couldn’t contain her snort of amusement as she read the text from her sister.

                Penis envy? Really? Who the fuck is this Freud guy?

                Snickering to herself, Sansa sent back an emoticon with a shocked face before silencing her phone and placing it on top right corner of her desk. It was another one of the rules she’s grown to live by: always be contactable.

                The class passed by quickly, and before she knew it Sansa was following the masses into the halls and shaking the cramp from her hand from taking copious amounts of notes around Bell curves and other forms of averages. Thanks to the bright sunshine it was warm enough to shed her down jacket as she strolled back towards the Quad. People walked all around her, calling to friends, talking on their cells, or simply rushing towards their next class. It wasn’t a huge college, but there were enough people that she knew she didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

                “Hey, watch it!” Some pinched looking blond guy whined as his coffee sloshed over his high school letterman jacket. “What the fuck, man!”

                The stocky boy who’d accidentally collided with him shrugged and stuttered an apology as he raced off towards the academic halls.

                “Elle!” a girl called from somewhere behind her just as she spotted her sister charging up to a very large young man that stood with a ragtag bunch of guys outside the South Hall. Before she could go investigate she felt a tug on her elbow. Sansa whipped around cautiously, but saw that it was only her friend, Shireen.

                “Jeez! I just wanted to say hi,” she joked, but Sansa could see the question in her light blue eyes. She grinned and tried to wave it off.

                “Sorry. Off in my own little world,” she said airily. She still had moments where she forgot she was no longer Sansa Stark. That girl had died long ago. Everyone in her new life knew her as Elle Blackwater.

                “Looks like Jayne’s got someone cornered again.” Shireen snickered and shook her head.

                Sansa hummed in agreement as she looked back towards the commotion that had rapidly begun to draw attention from curious onlookers. Pulling Shireen by the hand, Sansa made her way over towards to colourful shouts that were emanating from her five foot, three inch sister. By contrast, the boy she was taking on had at least a foot on her. There was something about him that struck Sansa as familiar, but she couldn’t place it. He had a similar look to the rest of unwashed masses that passed for the male population on campus: Cut and styled dark hair slightly hanging in his piercing blue eyes, oversized school hoodie, rumpled jeans, dirty shoes. There was an arrogance about him that was instantly off-putting, but other than that he seemed like any other upperclassman she may have rubbed elbows with over the past two years.

                “ . . . can’t really be that fucking stupid, can you? Were your parents related? You have that inbred look about you,” Arya said hotly as she continued to advance on the obviously uncomfortable, albeit slightly amused looking guy in front of her.

                “Jayne,” Sansa said, emphasising the name carefully. She was not the only one who needed reminding of who she was at certain times. For Arya, it was whenever her temper got the best of her, which was very often.

                Arya’s grey eyes darted away from the towering boy for only a second, but that was all the opening he had needed. He ambled carefully away from them, picking it up to a slight jog when Arya’s very loud “Oi! Get your ass back here, you sackless waste of space!”

                Sansa and Shireen were laughing almost as loudly as everyone else, including the guys who ran away from them. Arya glared frostily at the guy’s back after he gave her a little mock salute before turning back to his friends and heading towards Manser.

                “What was all that about?” Shireen asked around giggles.

                Still scowling, Arya answered, “He made some dumbass comments during our psych class. Something about women being intellectually inferior to men based on studies from, like, the seventies or some shit. Stupid fucktard.”

                Shireen howled with laughter as Sansa shook her head. Arya had one of the most expansive vocabularies she’d ever heard, and if she couldn’t find a word to fit the situation she made one up.

                “What are you and Elle doing tonight?” Shireen asked once she had quieted down a bit.

                “Dunno. Maybe going to the Hut. It’s Karaoke night,” Arya provided with a devious waggle of her eyebrows. Sansa rapidly shook her head.

                “Hell no. Last time you got up there to sing you were booed offstage and then got into a parking lot brawl with the morons who heckled you.”

                “Not my fault the snot-nosed little dipshits bit off more than they could chew,” Arya gloated as she flexed her muscles. Sansa had looked on while Arya singlehandedly took down three guys that were easily twice her body weight. Each.

                “Not their fault they unknowingly picked a black belt to mess with,” Shireen chimed in. She had seen it too. Saying Arya was trained in martial arts seemed like the only plausible explanation that wouldn’t raise any more questions.

                Arya shrugged, unbothered. “Next time they might think about who they fuck with. I saved countless other girls the headache of having to deal with those asshats.”

                “You kiss your mama with that mouth?” Shireen teased. She had stopped at the street and was too busy watching out for cars to see the brief flash of sadness wash over Arya’s face. As quickly as it had appeared it was gone again, replaced by the cocky expression Sansa had grown accustomed to over the years.

                “Yeah right. Only if I want to be eating Dial for dinner.” She made a disgusted expression.

                “Jayne, you are too much,” Shireen  chortled as they headed towards their dorm.

                “That’s what he said,” Arya countered with a saucy wink. Sansa snorted. She was becoming more like their brother with each passing day.

                “Plans, ladies?” Shireen asked as they made their way up to their rooms. As luck would have it they were on the same floor that year. Usually freshmen had to room with other freshman, but Arya’s shrink had some sway over the housing board at the university, so she was allowed to share a suite with Sansa. It meant that instead of having a pokey little single room like she had last year, Sansa and Arya now had their own tiny apartment with mini kitchen, living room, and bathroom. Shireen had just gotten lucky in that, as a sophomore, there were any singles left after the upperclassmen got first dibs.

                “I’ve got a Stats paper to do,” Sansa said with little enthusiasm.

                “Psych,” Arya contributed with the same lack of gusto.

                “Lucky you two. I’ve got a Chem paper due, plus I’ve got to turn in my journal for Creative Writing. Ugh!” she snorted in disgust, rolling her eyes dramatically.

                “Enjoy,” Arya said with a fake grin and a big thumbs up. Shireen snickered and waved over her shoulder as she headed away from the elevator.

                “Pizza tonight?” Arya asked.

                “Meh.” Sansa shrugged.

                “Is the code for ‘yes’?” Arya joked as she scrolled through the messages on her phone.

                “Anything good?” Sansa asked, only slightly interested. However, her curiosity was piqued when Arya flushed pink and tucked her phone away rather quickly.

                “Nope,” said, popping the ‘P’ loudly and doing her best to avoid eye contact.

                Sansa rolled her eyes, clearly unconvinced, but moved to unlock her door.

                “Aw, no one loves you,” Arya mocked as she pointed to the empty whiteboard Sansa had secured to the front of her door. It was there so people could leave messages if they stopped by while she was out. The only people to ever use it were Arya, Shireen, and last year’s boygfriend, Joffrey, though she’d had to take it down when he kept leaving pornographic sketches for her to find. Her RA had threatened to have him banned from the floor if it kept up.

                “No one loves you either,” Sansa quipped back as she tossed her keys on the kitchen counter as they made their way into the living room.

                It looked as if a bomb had gone off in there. Eying the mess distastefully, Sansa glowered at Arya, who was busy looking at her phone again. There were clothes scattered all over the place, books tossed haphazardly, papers everywhere.

                “What the fuck?” Arya practically shouted as she stared angrily at her phone.

                “What?” Sansa asked, only half interested. She was too busy cleaning up after her slovenly sister.

                “That wanker from earlier just texted me with links to those articles he was talking about!” Arya was clearly outraged at not having the final word, but Sansa’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

                “How did he get your number?”

                Arya shrugged. “Probably off someone else. We have a class list so we can text if we’re going to be absent.”

                Sansa grimaced. She knew about those lists, but had never put her number on there. It was too risky.

                “Do you even know his name?”

                “Uh, yeah, it’s like Riley . . . Randy . . . something like that.”

                “You shouldn’t have done that,” she scolded.

                “Whatever, mom,” Arya grumbled as she furiously texted back.

                Sansa sighed and shook her head. She had long ago stopped being upset or offended when Arya called her that. She knew it was just an expression, but it still hurt her greatly to think about their mother.

                “You look just like her now,” Arya said quietly, still not glancing up from her screen. “You didn’t so much when you were blond, but now . . .”

                Sansa felt a lump raise in her throat and tried to swallow it down. Last year she had decided to stop dying her hair and just let the natural red come through. She’d also stopped wearing it in short, styled cuts and let it grow out. Her argument was that this was a whole new place, yet again, and that no one was looking for her anymore. There would be plenty of other redheads at college. Margie had agreed. Bronn had not. It was commonly like that.

                After learning that practically her entire family had been slaughtered, Margaery and Bronn had gone into witness protection with the only three remaining Stark children: Jon, Sansa, and Arya. They hadn’t even been permitted to attend the funerals of their family. There were empty graves alongside the rest of them that bore their names; obituaries about their short lives posted in the papers. From that day on, Margie and Bronn became the only parents they had left. They moved often for the first few years, changing appearances along with their locations when it was made clear that not that Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish was still out there somewhere, but that he was hunting Sansa.

                They had gotten lucky sometime in her mid-teens when a sting operation centered on kiddie porn came too close for Baelish’s comfort. The last they’d heard he’d fled the country to somewhere with protective non-extradition laws. It had been quiet ever since and they had finally started to relax a bit.

                Of course, relax might be too strong a word. Bronn had them training within the first month of their new living arrangement. Martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, knife fighting, survival skill; if it was part of his specialist military training, then they had to learn it. He was determined to ensure they were as well equipped to defend themselves as they could be should anyone ever try again. Those skills had come in very handy when Joff had gotten a little too handsy and aggressive with her last year. The shocked look on his face was comical when she had successfully done a hip throw that landed him squarely on his ass. Despite his threats she had ended things with him right then and there.

               “I know,” Sansa sighed as she continued to tidy up. “It’s just the hair though. You’ll get used it.”

               “No, it isn’t. You look just like her. It’s scary sometimes.” Arya finally looked up from her phone, her expression sad at first, but this she frowned as she took in the chaos around them.

               “Next time clean up after yourself,” Sansa muttered as she tossed a handful of laundry through Arya’s open bedroom door.

               “I thought I had,” she mumbled as she turned in a slow circle. When her phone pinged again she growled loudly.

               “Seriously, can you not take a fucking hint?” She went back to angrily texting again.

               “What’s he want now? A date?”

                Arya scoffed loudly. “He wishes. He’s a non-trad, so he’s like, twenty something.”

                Sansa noticed the flush had returned Arya’s cheeks again and was about to say something when she peered into her own bedroom and saw that it had not escaped the wrath of hurricane Arya.

                “HEY!” she half-shouted as she stomped through the door to survey the damage. Her clothes were everywhere, her bed was dishevelled, papers were scattered about, it was a complete disaster area.

                “I know you’re a slob and everything, but could you at least show me the respect of not tearing apart my room while you steal my things?” Sansa snapped as she set about cleaning up.

                “Hey, I didn’t . . . whoa.” Arya froze in the doorway, her eyes wide as she surveyed the space.

                “Yeah, whoa!” Sansa groused as she began folding her shirts.

                “Sansa, I didn’t come into your room at all this morning,” Arya said seriously. Sansa rolled her eyes and grabbed another shirt. This one was a little damp in places.

                “Did you spill something in here?” she practically screeched as she lifted the shirt to sniff the material. Arya’s hand on her arm stopped her mid-air.

                “What the mother fuck . . .” Arya choked out as she pointed to a heap on Sansa’s bed. It was all of her panties, and like her shirt, she could see that they were wet in places. She dropped the top as her eyes darted around the tiny space. She stopped when she noticed a note stuck between the doors of her closet.

                “Who . . .” She pulled the folded sheet out, opened it, and nearly froze solid as ice water rushed through her veins.  Arya snatched the sheet and scanned it quickly before breathing out a heavy, “oh, shit.”

                Sansa leaned heavily against the door as she attempted to steady her rapid heart and soften the pounding in her ears. She barely noticed that Arya had dialled her cell. She closed her eyes, but the soft, loopy scrawl swam before her cloaked in darkness: Did you miss me, sweet girl?

                “Jon, get your ass over here now. Bring Bronn,” Arya directed as she looked around the room suspiciously. “He’s back.”

Chapter Text

March 8th

                Watching the chaos as it unfolded around her was began to give Sansa a headache. It was like everyone had suddenly lost their damn minds. Which was to be expected, in her opinion. After all, this was what they had been running from since that fatefully day ten years ago.

                I guess we didn’t run far enough, she thought grimly while she stared blankly out the window as the conversation swelled around her. The two milligrams of Ativan swimming through her system were enough to keep her functional. Even with her years of training, this was the one thing Sansa was truly afraid of. Yes, she was older and stronger and faster now, but somewhere in the back of her mind Sansa was still that petrified nine year old girl who had watched her family being butchered and been sold to a paedophile that was one of the top ten most hunted men in America. The fear that Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish would find her again someday had haunted her dreams ever since Margie and Bronn had come to her rescue.

                “Call him,” Margie ordered again as she thrust the phone into Bronns chest.

                “Margaery,” he said calmly, but she was not to be swayed.

                “Bronn,” she countered in a tone that - Sansa had learned many years ago - meant that someone was in deep shit.

                “Love, I can’t just up and call the Director without proof,” Bronn said too patiently. Margie’s eyes narrowed.

                “Five . . . four . . .” Arya whispered from her spot on the sofa. Sansa felt the corner of her mouth twitch upwards.

                “Call him.” Margie’s voice had dropped a full octave. Never a good sign.

                “Three . . .”

                “Love.”

                “Two . . .”

                “FOR THE LOVE OF FUCKING CHRIST, BRONN! IF YOU DON’T CALL BARRISTAN RIGHT THIS MINUTE I WILL –“ Maraery’s hollering was cut off by the slam of the front door and the sound of footsteps in the foyer.

                “Please, do not stop on my account. Although, you should know it sets a bad precedent to make idle threats. If you are going to present a consequence, you need to be able to follow through. Otherwise the behaviour will never be corrected.”

                Tyrion Lannister, all four feet five inches of him, strolled nonchalantly into the living room. Hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans, he smiled benignly up at Bronn.

                “I don’t make idle threats,” Margie said in a controlled voice.

                “No, my dear, I do not believe you do.” He nodded once in her direction before turning back to Bronn. “You may want to sleep with one eye open. And hide all the sharp objects lest you awaken without your manhood.”

                “Who sleeps?” Bronn muttered as he eyed Margaery warily.

                “Who’s missing?” Tyrion asked suddenly as he took stock of those in the living room.

                “Jon’s at work,” Arya provided with a shrug. “Couldn’t get off on short notice and didn’t want to get fired.”

                “Gendry would never fire him,” Bronn mumbled while he rubbed his eyes with one hand. Sansa recognized it as his ‘stressed to max’ move. She had seen it often when they had first lived together. It was because of this gesture that Bronn missed the deep blush that graced Arya’s cheeks as she ducked her head and stared out the window guiltily. Sansa was about to ask what that was about when she realized what Tyrion’s presence meant.

                “Who called you?” she asked around a heavy sigh.

                “I did,” Margie provided gently. “I thought you may want to talk.”

                Sighing again, Sansa nodded. It was only a few days ahead of schedule. She would have seen him Friday anyway. “Why not?”

                “Basement?” Tyrion asked, gesturing toward the door.

                “Sure. Jon won’t mind.” It was Jon’s apartment down in the basement, but he never seemed to care if the girls used it to hide out or just hang out. She doubted he would mind her borrowing his space for therapy.

                Sansa thumped gracelessly down the stairs behind Tyrion before she threw herself down on the suede sofa that sat against the wall, tucking her foot underneath her and slouching against the arm. Tyrion eyed her with interest as he took a seat on the opposite end of the couch and folded his hands in his lap. She knew this stance well. It was his “I will wait patiently until you decide to speak” pose. Usually it worked for her. Today, though, it annoyed the ever loving crap out of her.

                “What?” she asked dully. She didn’t have the energy to snap thanks to the meds swimming around in her bloodstream.

                Tyrion shrugged. “You tell me.”

                “Someone trashed my room,” she offered monotonously.

                “I heard,” was all he replied.

                “There was . . . stuff on my clothes. My underwear.” She felt her cheeks warm but not the corresponding emotion. She was too out of it.

                Tyrion could sense that as well. “Have the police been there?”

                Sansa nodded. “Yeah. They’re taking samples and dusting for prints, but Bronn heard one of the tech guys say that it had to be body fluids because of the way it reacted to the black light.”

                “It could be any number of things, Sansa,” Tyrion tried to comfort her, but she snorted derisively and rolled her eyes. Even in her altered state she knew what it was.

                “It was my panties, Tyrion. I don’t think someone merely spit on them.”

                He pursed his lips and nodded once. “You seem to be handling this rather calmly.”

                She snorted again, more loudly this time. “I’m not calm, I’m medicated.”

                “I thought as much.”

                “You would be too if some psycho predator that’d kidnapped you and murdered your family was suddenly back in your life and playing with your undies,” she griped tonelessly.

                “Is that who you think did this? Littlefinger?” They never used his real name in therapy; only the nickname he’d acquired.

                “Who else?”

                “What led you to believe it was him?” Tyrion asked instead of offering an answer.

                Sansa had tried very hard not to focus on the words, but they still swam before her eyes. “The note he left said . . . it said . . .”

                “I know what it said,” he provided when she could not finish her thought. He leaned forward a little and placed a warm hand over her cold one. She looked into his mismatched eyes – one blue, one green – and saw only kindness. When she’d first seen him it had creeped her out, but now she couldn’t imagine it any other way.

                “Sansa, I want you to think back through the years. Has anyone ever called you that besides him? Or something along the same lines?”

                She frowned slightly as she travelled back in her mind through countless other encounters. It only took a few minutes before her eyebrows lifted slightly before plunging into a deep scowl.

                “That little . . .”

                “Who?” Tryion prodded gently.

                “Joffrey,” she bit out.

                “Ah yes, my unfortunate nephew.” Tyrion looked as displeased as she felt.

                Tyrion had been Sansa’s therapist since she was a child, having been referred by his brother, one of the FBI agents responsible for finding Sansa in the first place. Tyrion had just completed his PhD and was looking to move away from his current practice when he met Sansa. Because of the extreme trauma she had experienced, coupled with the loss of almost her entire family, Tyrion had willingly moved every time they had in order to give Sansa a sense of stability and continuity of care as she processed through her experiences. As far as psychologists went, she considered him one of the best.

                It had been something of a joke for them both when Joffrey Lannister, Tyrion’s nephew by his sister, had not only attended MU, but taken an interest in Sansa. The humor was short lived however, once they both saw the disturbing ways that Joff had begun treating her. Tyrion tried to maintain personal boundaries around her relationship, and she had never let Joff know that she knew his uncle, but that didn’t stop either of them from being relieved once the relationship had ended more than four months ago.

                “He used to call me things like sweetheart, sexy girl, beautiful girl. Sometimes though he called me . . . that. I told him I hated it, but he never seemed to care much.” She grimaced at the memory.

                “Always girl?” Tyrion asked.

                “Pardon?” She’d gone off in her own little world again and didn’t know what he’d asked.

                “Did he always refer to you as a girl? Never a woman?” Tyrion clarified.

                “Oh, um, yes. Always girl. It was annoying really,” she groused. Tyrion gave a knowing half-smile and nodded.

                “Such a charmer, my nephew.”

                Sansa didn’t want to trash Tyrion’s family, so she said nothing.

                “You think it might have been Joffrey who broke in and messed up your room?”

                Sansa sat back and considered it fully. “I’m not sure. Maybe. I hadn’t really considered that it was anyone else . . .”

                “It is entirely reasonable for you to have knee jerk reactions when it comes to someone violating your personal space in such a way,” Tyrion offered empathetically.

                “I know,” she huffed around a heavy sigh. He was always so understanding.

                “They’ll test the samples and go from there. If it is semen, as you suspect, then it will be sent to compare against the samples the FBI have of Littlefingers’.”

                Sansa shuddered despite the sedatives. “Gross.”

                “Gross indeed,” he agreed.

                “And if it is him again? If he’s actually found me this time?” Worry began to knot her stomach.

                “You know the drill by now. You relocate. You start again. New house. New school,” he paused as his eyes flicked up slightly, “new look.”

                She groaned loudly and buried her face in her hands. Must everyone have some negative comment about her damned hair?

                “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely shade of red, but . . .”

                “I know!” she growled. “It makes me too recognizable. I look too much like my mother. What the fuck ever. I gave up my name, my home, my friends, my hobbies; can’t I have one single thing that is well and truly mine?”

                “No one has ever denied that you got a raw deal. It absolutely sucks to grow up that way.”

                There he was, being too understanding again. For a super genius he could be really stupid.

                “How the hell would you know?” she snapped before she could stop herself. Immediately she was flooded with guilt. She turned to face him fully. “Tyrion –“

                He lifted a hand. “No need. You are entitled to your thoughts and feelings, Sansa, you know that. You aren’t always going to like me and I both know and accept that.”

                “I do like you,” she stressed, but stopped when he smiled knowingly at her.

                “That’s nice to hear. And you are absolutely right; I have no idea what it’s like to be in witness protection and have to deny who you really are for a matter of survival.”

                “But you’ve started over too,” she offered as she thought about all the times he’d moved with them. Began a new practice in a new town or city. That could not have been easy.

                “It’s different for me.” He shrugged. “I’m an adult who is able to make that choice for myself. You are an adult who is still having those choices made for you. I honestly don’t know how you haven’t gone completely postal by now.”

                Sansa huffed a laugh and rolled her eyes. He’d always said she was far too reasonable for a teenager. It was like their little inside joke.

                “Arya does that for me.”

                “That she does,” he agreed with a chuckle. He had been made privy of Arya’s exploits over the years and found them wildly entertaining at times. It was nice to have someone she could be real with. Someone she didn’t have to hide from or pretend with.

                The rest of the session was good for her. By the time they were finished, she had even begun to feel calmer, more secure in her personal safety. When they emerged from the basement Sansa was relieved to see that things had calmed considerably upstairs as well. Arya still sat on the sofa, but was watching some mindless MTV program. Bronn and Margie were speaking in hushed tones that thankfully lacked the animosity that had been present before Tyrion’s arrival. They both turned to her with small smiles of encouragement as she approached.

                “How ya doing, gorgeous girl?” Bronn asked with small wink. She and Tyrion exchanged knowing glances. She would always be a girl in Bronn’s eyes. That was something she was okay with.

                “Better,” she admitted. “Are the police done with our room yet?”

                “They’ve just finished up,” Margie jumped in. “I’ll get over there to clean it top to bottom in the morning. Right now –“

                “No,” Sansa interrupted. “No, Arya and I can clean it ourselves. It will give me an outlet for all these jitters.
                Margaery looked gobsmacked. “Sansa, you are NOT going back there tonight, maybe not even this week. You need to lay low. You need to –“

                “I need to get on with my life. Shit happens. Creepy people exist that aren’t serial killers or kidnappers. They’re just assholes and I know how to deal with those,” she cut her off again.

                Margie’s expression darkened. “You. Are. Not. Leaving. This. House.”

                Sansa repressed the urge to cringe or shudder. It was the ‘mom’ voice. Margie only ever broke it out in extreme situations. Like when Arya and Jon snuck out to see Linkin Park more than four hours away from where they had been living at the time, or when she caught Sansa having sex with her very first serious boyfriend. Luckily it hadn’t been their first time; talk about awkward.

                “Aunty, we are legal adults now,” Sansa started reasonably when Arya butted in.

                “We kick ass, Aunty M.” It was a nickname Arya had given her years ago because no matter where they moved to, Arya insisted that she was always ‘home’ because Margie was there. “You and Uncle Bronn have us so well trained that I haven’t been afraid of anyone since I was thirteen and saw that I could out fight several grown men in the hospital without even breaking a sweat.”

                Sansa grimaced. She did not think bringing up that incident was going to help their case much. Arya, no matter how justified her reaction was at the time, nearly wound up being arrested. It took some fast talking and even faster packing to keep her little butt out of juvie.

                “You are not going back to school unprotected,” Margaery argued in a strained voice she was trying to make sound reasonable.

                “We can protect ourselves!” Arya objected. After having a rather quiet therapy session the loudness of her voice made Sansa wince.

                “As invincible as you think you are, munchkin, your ass is NOT bulletproof!” Margie growled.

                “I’ll stay with them.” Jon appeared as if from thin air. He stood quietly behind them in the kitchen holding an open beer.

                Ayra gave her best shit eating grin. “There. All settled. We’ve got a big strong man to protect us women folk. Everyone can unbunch their panties now.”

                Tyrion snorted rather loudly and didn’t appear abashed at all when Margie raised an eyebrow in challenge. Instead he merely shrugged.

                “You’ve done very well to raise intelligent, capable young adults. Having them all under the same roof would prove to be very challenging for any adversary bent on doing them harm.”

                “Preach.” Arya raised her fist but did not look away from the TV. She cackled loudly when some idiot did a magnificent face plant while attempting to skateboard down a railing.

                “That one could use a few more lessons in maturity,” Tyrion added, pointing to Arya. She pointed back with a different finger.

                “I’ll go pack some things.” Jon turned to head downstairs when Margaery’s arm shot out to bar his way.

                “It’s a girls only floor. They’ll kick you out.”

                “His glorious man bun is a fantastic disguise,” Arya quipped from the couch.

                “They have rules about overnight guests,” Margie tried again.

                “Boyfriends stay all the time. No one cares,” Arya counters automatically.

                “Your boyfriend?” Bronn asks, suddenly interested in the conversation.

                “I don’t have a boyfriend.” Arya’s reply was quick, automatic. Bronn looked ready to start an Inquisition, but Sansa intervened.

                “He’s stayed with us before, remember?”

                Bronns frown deepened as he recalled the week that Jon set up camp in their dorm room when she and Joff had broken up. It was a good deterrent. Joffrey was scared shitless of Jon .

                “It’s fine. Their futon is pretty comfortable and they have their own bathroom. It’s closer to work, too.” While he seemed perfectly fine with the arrangement, Arya looked downright annoyed.

                “We don’t need a fucking babysitter.”

                “Actually, he’s more like a bodyguard.” The wicked glint in Tyrion’s eye told Sansa he knew exactly which button he was pushing on her sister by making that correction. Arya scowled at him.

                “I don’t need one of those either. Ask anyone who’s ever pissed me off,” she snapped.

                Tyrion grinned. “Are they still capable of speech? You’re losing your touch.”

                Begrudgingly, Arya smirked. “Never.”

                “Don’t worry so much, love. Jon will stay with them at night and I’ll patrol around campus while they’re in class. You just keep on those shitheads at the FBI about any CODIS hits from the samples we sent them.” Bronn kissed her temple, but Margaery did not look placated in the least.

                She gave a heavy sigh. “Fine. But if there is one more incident, and I don’t care how small it is, you are all living here for the rest of the semester!”

                Arya groaned. “No one lives at home with their parents, Aunty M. You’ll turn us into social pariahs!”

                Margie gave her a frosty look. “Ask me how many fucks I give?”

                No one asked. They didn’t need to.

                                                                P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*

                “Home sweet home,” Arya mumbled darkly as they filed into the messy living room. Sansa watched as Jon took in the disaster around them with narrowed eyes. He finally stopped surveying the damage and looked her directly in the eye.

                “You need to fire your maid,” he deadpanned. Sansa rolled her eyes but her lips quirked up at the corners.

                “Come on, ladies. It’s nothing a little elbow grease can’t take care of.” He clapped his hands together loudly before unearthing the cleaning supplies and handing them out.

                “Oh, joy,” Arya grumbled as she began sifting through the wreckage for anything clean or intact.

                Sansa took a deep breath and ventured into her bedroom. The pile of soiled panties had, thankfully, been removed, but everything else was still out of place. She went about yanking the bedcovers off and changing the sheets. Instead of folding her clothes she assembled piles of washing, not trusting that anything had escaped being handled or messed with in any way. It took a few hours before her room felt like hers again, and by then she could smell pizza wafting from the other room.

                “Ee owo oo ewa awowee,” Arya stated around a very full mouth of food. Sansa wrinkled her nose in distaste.

                “I think that was piggy speak for ‘we ordered you extra anchovies’,” Jon provided with a half smirk.

                “You keep those foul things away from my pizza,” Sansa ordered, pointing at them both. Jon’s grin grew more pronounced as she lifted the lid and saw pepperoni, but thankfully no little gross fish.

                “You two are rotten human beings who deserve to be flogged and beheaded,” she pronounced airily as she took a few slices for herself before plopping down on the couch next to her sister. No sooner had she taken a bite than a loud and very distinct knock landed on their front door. Rap . . . tap, tap.

                Sansa froze mid-bite before she removed the food from her mouth and set it down with such caution you would think it was made of nitro-glycerine. For a split second she felt afraid and unsure of herself, but then she remembered. She remembered what a lying, cheating prick he was. She remembered what a snivelling, whiney bastard he was whenever he wouldn’t get his way. And she remembered the right hook that had planted him on his ass the one and only time he’d ever tried to hit her.

                “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she muttered as she swiftly stood and stalked towards the door. “Of all the days for him to show up, he picks this one?”

                A hand on her arm halted her footsteps, but she shook it off. She didn’t even look through the peephole, just yanked to door open far enough to stick her face out and scowl openly. But it wasn’t who she expected. Instead of Joffrey’s arrogant green eyes, she was staring into icy blue. These were sharp eyes that she instantly knew saw everything, even things you tried your damnedest to hide. Dangerous eyes, but familiar in a way that she could not place.

                “Um, yes?” she stammered. She had been prepared to wage war on her ex, not greet a guy her sister had publically humiliated just this morning.

                “Sorry to disturb you. I was looking for Jayne Blackwater. Have I got the wrong room?” His voice was smooth as silk, but Sansa felt the hairs on the back of her neck go up. Some inner instinct told her not to trust this man, and she always listened to her instincts. She straightened a little and adjusted her expression to be less hostile.

                “She’s out, sorry. I can tell her you stopped by if you want.”  

                Irritation flashed briefly before it was replaced by cool indifference. “No, I can come back later.”

                Jon suddenly appeared at her shoulder. “She’ll be out all night. To be honest, she’s not around here much, is she, Elle?”

                Sansa shook her head and frowned a little. “Not unless she’s run out of clean clothes. You sure you don’t want to leave a message?”

                The man stared at Jon just long enough that Sansa felt uncomfortable by the stand-off. She was not much better off when his gaze settled on her once more. He looked like he was going for a polite, kind smile, but he missed the mark.

                “Just tell her the Freudian ass stopped by to speak with her.”

                Sansa spluttered a surprised laugh, but she felt Jon tense behind her.

                “Will do,” he said tightly. “G’night.” He closed the door in the man’s face, but not before Sansa saw a flash of rage contort his features. A chill swept over her, making her shudder violently.

                “Creep,” she muttered while she rubbed her hands up and down her arms.

                Jon hummed in agreement and he guided her back towards Arya and what was left of her pizza.

                “Who was that?” Blessedly, Arya’s mouth was empty and therefore her words didn’t require translation. Sansa shrugged.

                “The guy you were yelling at this morning.”

                Ayra’s eyebrows shot up in shock. “He came here?”

                “I didn’t think you knew him that well,” Sansa said as she nibbled on the crust of her dinner.

                “I don’t!” Arya shook her head. “What the hell is with this guy?”

                “What do you mean?” Jon asked, clearly concerned.

                “First he baits me all through psych, then texts me out of nowhere even though I NEVER gave him my number, and NOW he turns up at my fucking room? Is he demented? Some sort of creepy fucking stalker?” She got up and started pacing, obviously agitated.

                “What’s his name?” Jon asked ominously. The girls glance at each other. They’ve seen that look before. Big brother was not happy.

                “I don’t know. Riley, I think.”

                “You think?” Jon prodded.

                Arya shrugged. “I just call him ‘dickhead’.”

                Sansa snickered as she finally took a bite. Arya grinned evilly before she turned to look out the window.

                “Wait until I tell him,” she practically whispered.

                Jon pounced without warning. “Him who?”

                Sansa arched and eyebrow in question at her sister as she tried to appear nonchalant, but couldn’t quite pull it off.

                “Bronn.”

                No one was convinced.

                “You know she’ll find out sooner or later. She always does,” Jon warned.

                Arya tried not to look bothered. “Nothing to find out. She can poke around all she wants.”

                Sansa snorted before she took another big bite. Aunty Margie would discover who “he” was without even leaving her house.

                “Three things cannot be hidden long,” Jon quoted Bhudda. “The sun, the moon, and the truth.”

                Arya’s gaze flickered over to his for a moment before it retreated back to the window.

                “Is that a fact?” she asked drily.

                “The truth is more important than the facts,” Sansa quoted another well-known saying as she grinned at the scowl that formed on her sisters’ face.

                “You two suck,” she muttered.

                Jon was not deterred. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

                “You’d better hope Aunty M doesn’t catch your truth without his pants on,” Sansa warned while she tried not to giggle like a twelve year old.

                Try as she might Arya could not stifle her snicker, though she put up a good fight.

                “I hate you both.”

                Jon and Sansa finally let their laughter loose when it was cut off by her cell phone ringing. The word ‘home’ flashed on the screen, so she answered quickly.

                “I know Jon was supposed to call, but we’ve only just finished dinner and were starting to relax a little –“

                “Sansa, stop,” Bronn directly firmly. “Are your brother and sister there?”

                “Yes, they’re right next to me. Why?” She suddenly felt nervous. All the good that laughing had brought her was wiped clean away by the tone of her uncle’s voice.

                “Put me on speaker,” he told her and then waited before he spoke again.

                “Alright.” She pressed the button. “You’re on. What’s happened?”

                “The tests have come back from your clothes. There was a hit on CODIS , a positive match. But . . . there’s a problem.” He sounded hesitant. Beyond that he sounded absolutely furious.

                “What’s the issue? Who was it?” Jon asked.

                “They won’t release the name without a court order. The sample matched that of a juvenile offender from back in ninety-nine. The records are sealed because they were expunged when he turned eighteen,” he explained.

                “If they were expunged, then they shouldn’t exist at all,” Sansa argued. She knew enough from her criminal justice classes to know that.

                “His DNA is still in CODIS,” Bronn said with no further explanation. “We’re working on tracking down the cops who worked the original case if we can’t get the name suppression lifted.”

                “Okay,” Arya drew the word out. “What the fuck do we do in the meantime?”

                “Be careful. Go to class. Go to your room. Eat on campus. Never go anywhere without someone else and NEVER leave campus without us or your brother. Understood?” His tone brokered no argument, and for once Arya didn’t give one.

                “Yeah,” she sighed as she turned to look out the window once more. “Understood.”

Chapter Text

 SANSA

March 11th

                She knew from the moment she opened her eyes that it would be her only opportunity. She slid from her bed as the noiselessness of her apartment seemed to scream at her to hurry the hell up. She didn’t have time to be choosey with her outfit, so yoga pants and her favourite purple hoodie tee over an almost clean tank top would just have to do.

                In an effort to be as stealthy as possible she carried her Sketchers in one hand with her coat and backpack slung over the opposite arm as she tiptoed through the living room towards the front door. Arya’s door was firmly shut, and Jon slept soundly on the open futon, arm flung over his face to cover his eyes from the thin beams of early spring sunlight fighting their way through the heavy curtains. Sansa’s hand had only rested on the door knob when a sudden voice caused her to jump out of her skin.

                “Where are you sneaking off to at this ungodly hour?” Jon’s voice was rough from sleep, but there was an unmistakable alertness that told her he’d been awake nearly the entire time she’s attempted her escape. Sansa sighed heavily and turned towards him.

                “I have to go to class, Jon. I’ve already missed all of Wednesday and Thursday. I need to keep up with my work.” She was at the top of most of her classes, but she was a little concerned about Stats.

                “Not a chance. Aunty M will skin me alive.” He sat up and rubbed his eyes with one hand while leaning heavily on the other.

                “Come on, Jon! This is ridiculous,” she whined.

                Jon smirked. “Did you really just stamp your foot? Way to channel your inner toddler.”

                Sansa flipped him off which only seemed to amuse him more.

                “You know you have to stay here. It was different when we thought we knew who we were dealing with, but we still haven’t heard back about that CODIS hit . . .”

                “I know, Jon. You don’t have to tell me what the risks are. No one is after you!” she snapped, and then was immediately swamped with guilt. “I’m sorry, that was . . .”

                “Accurate, but yeah, kinda bitchy,” he allowed with a small smirk that didn’t reach his eyes.

                “I’m sorry,” she apologised again.

                “Noted and appreciated, but you still can’t leave.”

                Sansa growled as she grabbed fistfuls of her hair in immense frustration. She was going stir crazy being locked up in her dorm room.

                “You know what? Fuck it. I’m going to class.” She roughly pulled her coat on and slung her Jansport over her shoulder as Jon started to rise from the bed.

                “Sansa, you can’t –“

                “The hell I can’t!” she bit out. “Some asshole ruined my childhood, I’m not going to let another one ruin this part of my life. I’m going to class. I’ve only got three today and there’s a massive gap between this one and my afternoon classes. I’ll see you for lunch at the cafeteria.”

                She didn’t allow him time to argue, she simply stormed out the door. She was a grown woman capable of killing a person while barely breaking a sweat, she could handle going to math class without an armed escort.  

                She decided a breakfast bagel was in order and stomped into the Einstein’s that resided in her dorm. The scowl slid off her face when she saw the unmistakable spiky do of her sister at the counter as she placed her order.

                “How did you get out without Jon seeing you?” she hissed. Arya jumped slightly then turned, wide eyed to stare at her.

                “Eddie?” she placed great emphasis on the name and Sansa nearly did a face palm. She’d slipped and forgotten to use his cover ID. She needed to get a grip and keep her wits about her. Especially now.

                “He didn’t see me slip out because he was dead to the world.” Her shrug was too, blasé, too casual. Besides, Jon was a lighter sleeper than Margeary. No one got past him ever.

                “Bullshit.” She was tired of being lied to or kept in the dark. Arya needed to tell her what was going on, like, yesterday.

                “Anything else, miss?” the kid behind the counter asked testily. There was no line behind them, but at quarter after seven in the morning, his caffeine obviously hadn’t kicked in yet. Arya’s glare nearly caused the poor guy to wet himself.

                “Nope, just the coffee and bagel.”

                After she paid Sansa stepped up and received a slightly warmer customer service greeting.

                “Classic with sausage on spinach and a large non-fat hazelnut latte, please.” She always remembered her manners, even it was to pimply, rude, cashiers who stared at her chest too much.

                Arya, however, did not. She snapped her fingers in front of the kids’ face and yelled, “Oy! Her eyes are up here, dick!”

                “Jayne,” Sansa chided, but only half-heartedly. She had a point.

                The food was fast and the coffee was hot as they made the trek to their prospective classes. Sansa saw Arya to her psych class in South Hall before she hoofed it to her Stats class in Elliot. Usual seat, usual teacher, and the usual students made her relax a little. There was no one out of place. No one stared unnecessarily at her. No one suddenly turned up as a new student. All seemed well enough, except for the niggling ‘but’ in the back of her mind. It could have been an existing student that broke into their room. It could have been someone from town, or someone who just got to town that didn’t go to the college. Or, even more frighteningly, someone who specifically wanted Sansa and was hiding out of sight while terrorizing her in her new life. Someone like Petyr Baelish. She shuddered. When class finished she high tailed it out of there and practically jogged back to the quad to find her siblings.

                She spotted his sloppy man bun before anything else. Jon had always left his hair longer than their mother would have ever allowed, and he either seemed to have it tied up in a messy knot or hanging down in his eyes. There was no in-between. Despite his casual slouch against South Hall Sansa could tell just how pissed off he still was. She had barely made it within six feet of him before he started in on her.

                “I ought to rat you both out to Aunty M and just sit back and watch the carnage. I’d even bring popcorn,” he snapped.

                “Oh, pop a Midol,” she quipped back. She was beyond tired of being told what to do. She wasn’t a child, for god’s sake. He didn’t bother responding to her once Arya came into view. Instead he rounded on her with the same level of anger in which he’d greeted Sansa.

                “And just where the fuck were you last night?” he snarled. From the tone of his voice Sansa suspected that he already knew the answer to that question. Well, that made one of them at least.

                Arya flushed slightly but her chin raised a fraction in defiance. “Out.”

                “You don’t get to go out!” Jon bellowed suddenly, causing both of the girls to startle, along with half the student body meandering around them.

                “Cool it, Eddie,” Sansa hissed as she jerked him away from the forming crowd by his elbow. Thankfully he came along without further protest. When she looked back she was relieved to see their sister skulking along behind them as well.

                They wandered off campus and headed down College Ave to South Main Street. She it would be busy that time of day, but she was hungry again and the surrounding noise would provide good cover, so she guided them to Papa V’s.

                “I really think –“ Jon started in, but Arya cut him off.

                “Yeah, yeah, we KNOW. Let’s just get lunch to go before head back to our fortress, okay? I really need a . . .” her voice trailed off as she looked towards the counter. Even with his back to them Sansa knew exactly who she was staring at. There wasn’t an inch of his neck or arms that wasn’t covered in ink, and his multiple piercings stood out among the townies and students alike.

                If Jon noticed the change in her demeanour he certainly didn’t let on. But Sansa saw everything. The flash of fear, the color that rose to the apples of her cheeks, the way she looked anywhere but directly at him. It was so obvious now that she nearly did a face palm for not noticing sooner. How could she have been so blind?

                “Hey boss,” Jon said with a smirk.

                Gendry’s shoulders flinched slightly before he slowly turned and cast a glance over his shoulder. His eyes slid across to find Arya’s for the briefest of moments before settling on Jon’s with a sort of forced nonchalance.

                “Dude, you don’t need to call me that. We’re practically the same age.”

                Jon shrugged. “Lunch break?”

                This time Gendry smiled fully. “I’m the only one at my garage that gets breaks, you know that.”

                Jon snorted as he nodded ruefully. “Pretty sure that’s illegal, by the way.”

                “Report me, pretty boy,” Gendry shot back with a laugh before turning his attention on Sansa as Jon went up to the counter to order their lunches. “Hey, Elle. How’s my sister coping this semester?”

                Besides being Jon’s boss and owner of a garage in town, Gendry was also Shireen’s older half-brother by their father. Nearly five years ago their dad died from a massive heart attack, leaving the two kids – then aged 19 and 14 – with no living family in the area. Gendry inherited his dads’ garage and, instead of allowing her to be placed in state care, took custody of Shireen. The girl, now Sansa’s age, practically worshipped him. He was her hero and she let him know it by working her ass off in school as well as taking care of their little house in town. It was one of the reasons Sansa had been able to bond with the other girl so quickly and thoroughly. She knew what it was like to lose everyone but your siblings. She had to start again. She had to learn to rely on herself. And she hadn’t been destroyed by the tragedy. She was one of the sweetest, kindest, and smartest women Sansa had the pleasure of knowing.

                That being said, Shireen was going to skin her brother alive once she discovered that he was messing around with an 18 year old girl, especially since she was Sansa’s sister. That was if Jon didn’t beat her to it.

                “She’s doing great. Better than me anyway,” Sansa assured with a faux frown. Gendry nodded once before looking to Arya at last. Her sister seemed to have been holding her breath.

                “How about you, midget? Getting through your Freshman year okay?” His tone was easy, but there was  tension in his voice that he couldn’t quite disguise.

                Instead of being affronted by his description of her size, Arya merely shrugged. “Oh, you know. The classes are easy, but dealing with all the stupid frat boys gets a bit tiresome after a while.”

                Sansa tried to control her expression as she saw Gendry’s turn to stone.

                “That right?” he asked, his tone clipped. Instead of taking the warning, Arya gave her best Cheshire cat grin.

                “Totally,” she said with a great roll of her eyes. “It’s like no one told them how to keep their hands to themselves.”

                Sansa bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. If Gendry were a cartoon character there would be steam coming out of his ears. His fists clenched tightly as his sides as he leaned down to the point that he and Arya were practically nose to nose.

                “Who?” he practically snarled. Arya reached up and patted his cheek affectionately, a defiant smile on her lips.

                “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about me. This midget knows how to take care of herself.”

                He did not look placated in the least. In fact, he looked downright murderous. Arya’s expression suddenly turned as well, but hers was more challenging than angry.

                “Perhaps if word got out that I had someone who minded me being treated like the grade “A” piece of ass that I am, they would think twice before trying it on.” Her voice was quiet, but there was no mistaking the message behind her words. Sansa had so many questions for her sister once Jon was out of their hair.

                Gendry seemed to need time to compose himself, swallowing thickly before he was able to reply, “You’re not a piece of ass.” His voice shook. Hers softened.

                “Then what am I?”

                Gendry closed his eyes and shook his head as his number was called. He turned and collected his food before he headed toward the door. Right as he slipped past her Sansa heard him whisper, “You are the apple.”

                Arya scowled at his retreating back. Sansa was only able to contain herself for two point four seconds before she pounced.

                “Like, the apple of his eye?” she teased, but Arya’s frown deepened.

                “No, like the apple on the Tree of Knowledge.”

                That brought Sansa up short. “Wait, so you’re what? The ultimate temptation, but if he gives in he’s damned for eternity and chucked out of the garden?”

                Arya shrugged as Jon made his way back to them with a bag of food. Sansa made no effort to hide the massive roll of her eyes.

                “Wow, dramatic much?” she joked.

                Arya snorted. “You have no idea. I swear he’s the one who gets PMS.”

                “Who’s this?” Jon asked as they jostled their way down a busy Main street back towards the dorms.

                “Just this guy in my class,” Arya lied easily, but Sansa knew her sister. Behind the snark and indifference she was hiding her pain. Sansa just needed the opportunity to get her to open up and she would spill faster than drunken sorority girl wearing stilettos for the first time.  

                Afternoon classes flew by so quickly that Sansa barely remembered anything they had gone over by the time she made it to the door of their dorm room. It was a good thing she always took copious amounts of notes.

                Before she could slip the key in the door it flew open and Arya dashed between the narrow crack she had made. She grabbed Sansa’s pack and threw it inside before quietly shutting the door again and bolting towards the stairwell.

                “Quick, quick!” she hissed, gesturing wildly with her hands before the little squirrel scampered off down the stairs. Sansa grinned as she kept pace with Arya all the way out of Spruce and walking in the faded light of sunset.

                “Ugh, I just needed to get out of there and he had finally taken a fucking nap!” Arya groaned a little too loudly, attracting attention from those that passed by them. Sansa, thankful she had worn her coat this morning, zipped it all the way up to ward of the wintery chill that still invaded the early spring evenings.

                “Good, that means you can tell me how long you and Gendry have been screwing around without Jon going positively ape shit.” She snorted indelicately at the shock on her sisters’ face.

                “You really weren’t very subtle, especially earlier today at Papa V’s. I mean come one, Arya,” she rolled her eyes before greatly exaggerating her tone to something from a badly acted dramatic romance movie. “I can take care of myself. What am I then?” she then dropped her voice and put on her best pained expression. “You’re the apple.”

                “You sound like Batman,” her sister deadpanned. Sansa gave a full belly laugh that echoed off the surrounding houses as they made their way back towards South Main.

                “So?” Sansa nudged her with her shoulder, a wide smile on her face. Try as she might Arya could not maintain her scowl.

                “It started around Christmas,” she finally relented. Sansa squealed like a twelve year old and clapped her hands.

                “Come on, let’s cut through here,” Arya suggested and headed off onto Morris Drive. Some of the street lights were out, but the orange glow from the setting sun still illuminated the way enough that Sansa didn’t worry about heading away from people. Obviously Arya had more to say that required less of a chance that they were overheard.

                “It wasn’t anything major when it began,” she confided, her pace slowing considerably as she got lost in the memory. A small smile pulled at her lips.

                “What happened?” Sansa was genuinely curious. Arya hadn’t had many boyfriends. She never seemed to possess the patience or tolerance required to deal with the teenage male ego. That and most guys didn’t want a girl who could kick their ass six ways from Sunday and let them know it. Her relationships had all flamed out rather quickly.

                Grinning fully, she replied, “Flirting mostly, but then . . .”

                “Then?” Sansa prompted, nudging Arya’s shoulder with her own.

                Arya laughed. It wasn’t a sound anyone got to hear very often. For all her wit and sarcasm, Arya very rarely laughed. It was unusual to see her truly happy.

                “I could tell he was too afraid to make the first move, so I did.” She shrugged, although Sansa could tell that her sister was very proud of this fact.

                “You kissed him?”

                Even in the rapidly fading light Sansa could see the blush cover her sisters’ cheeks. “Um, yeah, let’s go with that.”

                “ARYA!”

                “Shhh!” She looked around quickly before she stopped in her tracks and frowned. “Are we still on Morris?”

                “Uh,” Sansa stopped to look around. They must have turned off without realising. “No, we’re on Academy now. Look, there’s the little playground.”

                “Huh.” Arya narrowed her eyes and did a full circle before she moved towards the swings.

                “What are you looking for?” Sansa asked as she watched Arya’s eyes continue to sweep the trees and empty street around them.

                “Sam and Dean,” she answered simply. When Sansa snorted a laugh she smirked and gave a one shouldered shrug. “What? It just seems like the start of a Supernatural episode.”

                “If it was Supernatural you’d better hope it was closer to the end,” Sansa corrected knowingly.

                Arya’s eyebrows knitted together. “Why?”

                “If it was the beginning, we’d be dead by now,” she stated as if to say ‘duh’. “I’d rather be rescued by them, thank you very much. I don’t want to be werewolf kibble.”

                “Or vampire slim fast,” Arya countered with a snicker.

                “Wendigo human jerky,” Sansa said around giggles.

                “Arachne smoothie,” Arya spluttered.

                “GROSS!” Sansa shrieked in laughter as they continued to swing. Joking about the monsters on their favourite TV show made it easier to settle the sense of unease that continually rose within her. There were a few houses around and they were right across from the college, but something still made the hairs on her arms prickle.

                “Hey, let’s hit the Monkey,” Arya said as she launched herself suddenly off her swing. The Hungry Monkey was a local Mexican food joint.

                “Meh,” Sansa said as she followed suit. “Not really in the mood.”

                “What do you want then?” Arya turned to ask her when her eyes suddenly went wide and her body stilled and deer caught in headlights. “DUCK!” she screamed.

                Her instruction came a millisecond too late. Pain slammed into the back of her skull as stars exploded and her vision doubled.

                “NO!” She heard Arya bellow as sounds of a scuffle swirled around her in dizzying swoops.

                “Arya,” she whimpered. She closed her eyes and tried to rise up on all fours. The world spun sickeningly. Images of her past flashed in her mind.

                “Run, Arya,” she whispered. The blood froze in her veins when she heard the tell-tale click of a hammer being cocked. She forced her eyes open.

                Three men dressed in dark clothing and work boots stood with their backs to her. They blocked Arya from her sight, but Sansa could see the tops of her Converses’ between their legs.

                No. This . . . not this. Not again. Not . . .

                Sansa drew in the deepest breath she could and screamed at the top of her lungs, RUN!” She would have continued to scream until the word until she’d run out of air if not for the chemically soaked cloth that had been placed over her nose and mouth mid-shout.

                Chloroform, she thought as she began to truly panic in a way she had not since she was a little girl.

                Two loud cracking shots seemed to pierce through her body with the power of lightning bolts. They filled her with pain and fear and dread that she tried to fight even though it was a battle she knew she had already lost. Because those gunshots weren’t aimed at her, and she could no longer see the tops of Arya’s shoes nor hear the sounds of soles slapping the pavement in an effort to flee.

                Thoughts fled her completely as her world hazed over and she floated away on a damp cloud of her own tears and noiseless cries.

Chapter Text

ARYA

March 12th

 

                “Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”  The tinny voice seemed a million miles away as Arya held her phone up to her throbbing head. Waves of vertigo twisted her stomach as the trees and blackened sky swooped viciously around her.

                “I . . . need . . .” she wheezed out. She wasn’t able to properly catch her breath.

                “Hello? Miss? Can you hear me? Are you still there?” The operator sounded slightly panicked.

                “ . . .ambulance . . .been . . .shot,” Arya managed to finish in a somewhat garbled voice. A roaring sound filled her ears, slightly muffling the echoed shouts and footfalls that reverberated off the pavement.

                “HEY! HEY! Shit . . .” The voices were closer to her.

                “Dude, I fucking TOLD you those were gunshots!”

                “Miss? Are you hurt?” That voice was right in her ear. Ayra pried her eyes open and saw a mask of adolescent concern staring right back at her. Incapable of coherent speech, she lifted her phone towards him.

                “Crap, uh, hello?” he paused and listened to the operator. “Yeah, this chick is just laying here, and we heard gunshots, and I think she’s bleeding, but it’s really dark, and –“

                “JAYNE!” There was no mistaking the unadulterated terror that saturated Jon’s voice. She could feel the darkness pressing in from all sides and struggled against it to remain lucid. She had to tell him. She just had to.

                His face suddenly appeared in her vision as the guy with her phone rattled off their location in a whiny voice. Warm hands cupped her cheeks and kept her head from lolling off to the side while she tried to focus on his terrified face.

                “She’s gone,” she slurred, unsure where the liquid in her mouth had come from. A spluttered cough helped to clear it somewhat. “Took her.”

                “How many?” Even through the panic Jon was demanding answers, details.

                “Dunno. Two . . . three?” It came out as a question. Her head swam and her vision blurred.

                “Hang on,” Jon demanded. “Dammit, you stay with me! I will not lose you now, do you hear me? FIGHT IT!” He shook her slightly but it was too little, too late. The darkness won.

 

                                                                                                             P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P*P

 

                Bright lights fought their way through the cracks between her lashes and pried her from a drug induced sleep. She stared out at the stark white walls that only medical institutions have before her eyes darted around the space in search of an exit point. As soon as she was able, her ass was walking out of this room and hunting down the fuckers who took her sister.

                Her sharp gaze landed on the sleeping figure of Bronn, her surrogate father these last ten years. His chin rested on his chest in an uncomfortable slump as his six foot frame was folded into a tiny hospital chair.

                Arya started to sit up, but her head spun sickeningly as pain tore through her right side. Gasping, she reflexively reached down and cupped her hand over the lower part of her ribcage. Beneath the paper thin hospital gown she felt a thick bandage pad. Stifled as her sounds were, it was still enough to wake up the only other occupant of her room. He said nothing at the start, but his intense stare bored through her and left nothing but shame and guilt in its wake. She was almost relieved when he finally blinked and began talking.

                “Your mother and father are rolling in their graves right now.”

                Almost.

                She felt her face flush and lowered her gaze as she felt hot tears fill her eyes. Bronn and Margaery never spoke of their parents unless one of two things happened; the first was if she, Sansa, or Jon would talk about them. The second was if any of them had done something so monumentally stupid that they needed to be reminded how their parents would have responded or why it was exactly that they weren’t around in the first place. Arya knew damn well this fell into the second category.

                “I know,” she whispered.

                “What the fuck were you thinking?” He wasn’t yelling. If anything, it was worse that he spoke in hushed, tense tones. She had never felt so ashamed of herself.

                Arya knew there wasn’t a single thing she could say to excuse her behaviour, so she wisely kept her big mouth shut. She thought it would help keep her out of more trouble, but apparently she was wrong.

                “You going to open that smart mouth of yours, or am I going to open it for you?”

                Arya took a deep breath before thinking about the best answer she could give.

                “I thought we would be okay because we were together. Sansa was getting stir crazy and she had already gone out by herself . . .” she trailed off for a moment. Bronn had the ability to detect when she was lying, but only if she wasn’t very careful. He absolutely could not find out about her and Gendry yet. They needed to find Sansa first, and then she could start that little shit show.

                “Look, it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that we find her. There were three guys,” she told him, able to remember much more clearly now that she wasn’t passing out from blood loss and shock. “Two were around six one, six two, and maybe a buck eighty each. Then there was the other guy. He was smaller. Five ten maybe, chunky build. Looked to be about two, maybe two ten. He had the gun. The taller ones used a cloth on Sansa to knock her out, my guess was chloroform. They loaded her into an F one fifty. Licence plate BCH nine eight nine five. Dark color, possibly black.”

                Arya had to physically put her hand over her lips to stop her word vomit. She could tell that Bronn had heard her and was struggling with how to respond. She could tell that he was a little proud of how much detail she was able to provide, but he also had that slightly crazed, exasperated look about him that he got when he was fighting the urge to strangle her.

                “I’m more sorry than you will ever know,” she muttered as she choked back the tears that wanted to fall. “No ass kicking you or Aunty Em will compare to the beating I am giving myself right now. And seriously, I’ve already been shot, so . . .”

                Bronn’s nostrils flared as his face went deathly white. “Don’t you fucking dare joke about that. You could have . . . you nearly . . .”

                Seeing her father figure struggle to contain his own grief was too much and the dam finally broke. Tears cascaded down her cheeks as her lower lip trembled with the effort to contain her sobs.

                “You were lucky it wasn’t worse. There was a small tear in your lung that they repaired easily while removing the bullet from your side. It could have done a lot more damage.” He stopped speaking and simply shook his head, lips pursed tightly.

                “Where are Aunty Em and Jon?” She had to change the subject, but more than that she had to know they were looking for her sister.

                “Jon is back at the house talking to Tyrion. He’s blaming himself for all this,” he said accusingly as he glared at her. Guilt welled up again. Jon swore to keep them safe and they had all but spat in his face by running around and acting like he was their warden instead of their caring brother.

                “Margie is . . .” he paused and looked away shiftily before muttering, “ well, she’s talking to an old colleague that lives near here.”

                Arya’s eyes narrowed. This was completely new information. She’d had no idea that anyone – besides those who needed to know – was aware of who they really were.

                “What do you mean colleague?” Her tone was sharper than she had intended, so she was careful to soften it. “Have I ever met him?”

                Bronn snorted. “No, you’re not likely to forget a man like him.”

                When he offered no other details Arya raised her voice slightly, struggling to remain respectful. She had screwed up royally, but dammit it to hell, she did NOT like being kept in the dark about things that involved her.

                Bronn must have sensed she wasn’t going to let it drop and sighed heavily, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

                “He’s retired,” and then as an afterthought added, “mostly. He used to be a Marshall, too. Dropped out of sight a few years back after he was injured pretty badly during a case. Cut himself off from just about everyone except for me and Margie.” He glanced at her before he muttered, “He’s the reason we got you into this school. We knew he was around here and thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have another set of hands in case . . .”

                “In case something like this happened,” Arya finished for him. She wanted to be mad, but she couldn’t find the energy.

                “He wasn’t watching us or anything, was he?” The idea creeped her out.

                “No, he’s never been an inconspicuous fucker, even before the explosion.”

                “Explosion?”

                “Not your business, so keep out of it.” He said suddenly and shook his finger at her, his voice dropping sternly.

                “What’s his name? Just in case I come across him, I’ll know he’s safe,” Arya reasoned. She had every intention of looking this guy up the minute she got her hands on her cell phone.

                “Do you think I was born yesterday? That I’m the dumbest shit to ever put on a tie?”

                “I’ve never seen you wear a tie,” Arya rebutted blandly. It was obvious he wasn’t going to answer her question.

                “There’s a lot of things you’ve never seen me do. It doesn’t mean I can’t or don’t do them,” he reminded her seriously. She’d heard this lecture before and wasn’t in the mood to hear it again.

                “I already said I’m sorry. Can’t we just get the hell out of here and go find my sister?”

                “You think I’m just sitting around here with my thumb up my ass? You think I haven’t been on the phone since Jon called me from the ambulance, calling in all the favors I’ve got left? You think for one goddamn minute that I’ve just thrown my hands up and said, ‘oh well! She’s gone again and there’s nothing I can about it?’” His voice had gotten progressively louder as he leaned toward the side of her bed.

                “We’ve got state troopers and local police out blocking the local roads and searching abandoned buildings. We’ve got a group of local hunters combing the thousands of acres of woods that surround us for any sign of her. And we’ve got every agent and Marshall we’ve ever been connected with shaking down every nark, snitch, and low life within a hundred mile radius. And all that was done BEFORE you went into surgery!” he growled.

                “Okay, okay, I’m sorry!” She raised her hands in surrender. “I just want to DO something besides sit her on my ass in this stupid little bed, listening to my heart beat when hers might not be!”

                “You are only staying in this bed as long as you have to, and I won’t hear one fucking argument from you. You will be the ideal patient and follow every doctors’ order or so help me God I will let Margie kick your ass from here to Antarctica and back again.”

                Arya wisely decided to keep her yap shut and simply nodded in agreement. When he got the hint that she wasn’t going to argue his tone and expression lost a bit of its edge.

                “Someone will be with you at all times. The nurses are organising a mattress for one of us to use until you are deemed healthy enough to leave here. Shouldn’t be more than a week if you don’t develop a post-op infection or bust a stitch.”

                Before she could thank him or ask any other questions, Margaery burst into the room and practically slammed the door behind her.

                “I just got back,” she said breathlessly as she sat on Arya’s bed. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up.”

                A brief feeling of warmth flowed through Arya’s damaged body, but it was quickly replaced by overwhelming remorse. Aunty Em had dark circles under her eyes, her hair was a tangled mess, and there was an air of desperation that wrapped around her like a heavy cloak. The tears she had fought so hard to contain only moments ago came back with a vengeance.

                “I’m so sorry,” she blurted out in a croaky voice. “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have asked her to go with me. I should have called you. I should have stopped them. I didn’t see in time. I tried to warn her! I did! But I couldn’t SEE!”

                “Hush, child, now hush.” Margie wrapped Arya up in the motherly embrace she only ever indulged in when things were too hard. It had always felt like she was betraying her real mother to accept this kind of affection from Aunty Em, but there were times when she just went with it and allowed the love she felt to fill some of that void.

                “I’m not going to lie to you, Arya, you screwed up royally this time. But it wasn’t just you, and it’s not your fault someone took her. You just need to focus on getting better and let us focus on getting her back as safely as we can.” Her tone brokered no arguments, and for once Arya did not give one. She merely nodded into the softness of her “Aunts” shoulder and enjoyed the comfort of her embrace.

                “Did you find him?” Bronn asked quietly.

                Margie snorted. “He’s not all that difficult to find, really. It’s not like he’s on the run or hiding who he is.”

                “Will he help?” There was a nervousness in Bronn’s tone that Arya had never heard before. It scared her more than she was ever willing to admit.

                “Of course he will,” Margie answered softly as she started stroking Arya’s hair. “He was gearing up and heading out with the dogs as I left.”

                “He’s got hounds?” Bronn looked mildly impressed. What’s more, he looked hopeful.

                “Better. He’s got wolves.”  

                “Wolves, as in . . .” Bronn started.

                “Timber wolves, I believe. Not pure wolf, mind you. That’s illegal.” She winked at him. “I think they’re crossed with Malamute or something similar. I didn’t really stop to ask. As soon as I told him who it was that was missing he was shooing me out the door and told me he’d be in touch when he found her.”

                “You mean if he finds her,” Arya corrected bitterly in an effort to cover her fear. She felt Margie pull away from her slightly as the older woman carefully pulled her chin up so that their eyes met.

                “No, child. He didn’t say ‘if’. He specifically said ‘when’.”

                “Well, if anyone can find her, it’s him.” Bronn sighed and rubbed his hands over his tired face.

                “Who is this guy? The Last of the Mohicans?” Arya quipped. They made him sound like some kind of legend, the way he survived explosions and trained tracking wolves.

                “He’s an ex-Green Beret, ex-US Marshall – “ Aunty Em started to explain when Bronn cut in.

                “Give it to her straight, love. It’s not like she’s going to judge him.” He turned to Arya. “He was all those things and more. I didn’t even have the clearance to learn a fraction of what he had done for the Army before becoming a Marshall. He’s a bounty hunter now. Mostly because he scares the shit outta people without even opening his mouth, but partly because he couldn’t just rot away in the woods and let all of his specialist skills go to waste. He’s one of the most dangerous men I know, but he’s also one of the most honourable. Your father even liked him, and Ned Stark was the pickiest bastard I’d ever met.” He grinned a little as he told her that. Bronn was the only one she ever allowed to say anything remotely negative about her father and still be allowed to keep his teeth.

                “Okay, I get that he’s all tough and impossible to kill, but why would he help us? You said he’s a bounty hunter; are you paying him?” Something didn’t add up.

                “No, it’s –“ Bronn started to explain, but this time it was Margie who cut him off.

                “Not our story to tell,” she said while she gave him a meaningful look.

                “What, did my father save his life or something?” It was only a guess, but something told Arya that she must have hit close to the mark when she watched them exchange a dark look.

                “It really isn’t our place to say,” Margie stated again. “Just know that he has a vested interest in your sisters’ safe return and will stop at nothing to see that she’s brought home.”

                “That’s all you’re going to say? Some cryptic shit about him being invested in her safety?” Arya’s temper started to rise. They were hiding something from her. Up until that moment she could have said with absolute certainty that Bronn and Margaery had never lied to her, never kept anything from her. That sense of absolution had abruptly changed.

                “Just because we aren’t giving you the answers you want don’t mean we’re not telling you everything we can,” Bronn stated. Arya threw her hands up in exasperation, and then hissed in pain as her wound throbbed from the abrupt movements.

                “What does that even mean?” She was beyond fed up with all the half-truths and Yoda speak. “Is he connected to us somehow? Was he a friend of my parents? Does he know something about their murder, or Sansa’s kidnappings?”

                She watched as Bronn and Margaery shared a long, private look before Margie nodded once and turned to face her again. She gently stroked Arya’s arm as she began speaking in low, careful tones.

                “You have to understand that you’re parents murder investigation is still open. We have been getting tips and new information for the past ten years, but the whole picture is as elusive as it was years ago. We never caught the people who broke into your home and murdered your family; who took your sister and delivered her to one of the most reviled paedophiles in the world. We knew Petyr Baelish was behind her kidnapping, but there was more to it than that. So much more.”

                Arya’s eyes darted between the two of them as she took in the open pain and grief they wore like matching shrouds.

                “What . . .” she swallowed thickly, her mouth suddenly bone dry. “What do you mean?”

                As much as Arya had been demanding answers to her questions, when Margie opened her mouth and let the hidden truth poor out Arya wanted nothing more than to shove it back in. She wanted to go back in time and never have asked the questions; to remain in ignorant bliss. But there was no going back.

                People had said that the truth hurts, but Arya had never really understood the full impact of that statement until right there in that moment. But people had been so wrong. The truth didn’t just hurt, it absolutely shattered her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five – SANSA

March 12th

                “Wakey, wakey.”

                The garbled words had barely sunk into Sansa’s mind when she was sudden hit with a shock of freezing cold. She gasped wildly, she nearly choked as she coughed and spluttered out the water that had somehow appeared in her mouth. Her body, which seemed to register its low temperature before her mind had, had curled in to the foetal position. A shuffled sound to her immediate right caused her eyes to snap open and dart around wildly and take in her surroundings.               

She was in a room, underground judging by the high set windows and concrete walls. Everything was filthy. Dirt caked the walls and floor and the smell of damp was the most prevalent odor, followed by the stink of unwashed bodies. A shiver wracked through her chilled body, and brought with it the terrifying knowledge that she was completely naked. It took less than a second for her to realize that she was also not alone.

                A man stood in the far corner of the room, his thin frame taking up most of the only doorway she could see. He wore a balaclava, dark hooded sweat shirt, and dark jeans over combat boots. Her sharp eyes put him at about six foot two and around one hundred and eighty pounds. Startlingly dead eyes peered darkly out of the holes in his mask as he regarded her impassively.

                A memory rushed to the surface and flashed though her mind. ARYA! They were on the swings. She screamed a warning. An explosion of pain in her head followed by one in her heart as she heard the shots fired through her drugged haze. Then nothing.

                Her chest constricted with an unbearable pain as she thought of her sister and the gunshots and the screams.

                NO! she demanded silently. You can’t think about that now. Focus!

                “Rise and shine,” his muffled voice intoned flatly.

                “Who are you?” Sansa croaked. Her throat was immensely sore and she had to fight the urge to wrap her hand around it in an effort to soothe the ache. It was the only pain she felt; everything else was numb from the cold.

                Her captor gave no inclination that he’d heard her, just continued to stare blankly in her direction. The same shuffling noise as before echoed through the space, but Sansa was hesitant to tear her eyes away from the silent man whose eyes bored into her. There was something about the way he stared at her that instantly set her teeth on edge and made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.

                The buzz of a phone broke the stillness as he retrieved the device from his jeans and held it up to her covered face.

                “What?” She tried to hear what was being said on the other line, but she couldn’t make anything out.

                “Yeah. Got it.” The man seemed to lose his patience with whoever was on the other line. “I said I got it! Yeah, an hour. She’ll be here.”

                He hung up the phone and his eyes narrowed at her briefly before he slumped forward on heavy feet. His steps were loud, precise. He stopped directly in front of her, his boots practically touched her bare toes. She stared at him unblinkingly; her neck bent all the way back in order to maintain eye contact. Slowly he crouched down into a low squat, all the while his flat, lifeless brown eyes seemed to cut through to her very soul. His hand shot out without warning and Sansa was barely able to contain a violent flinch. He trailed his fingertips along her shin, up and over the swell of her knee. Her body clenched tight as she tried to draw her legs closer to her chest. She didn’t miss the way he snorted a quiet laugh under his mask; she imagined him smirking through the fabric. Before she could brace herself his eyes squinted in a malevolent glare and the skin on the side of her right thigh was suddenly twisted in a vicious pinch.

It took everything she had not to cry out as the pain cut through her frigid limb and rocketed up her leg. Instead she focused on glaring right back and kept her breathing soft and calm. Her lack of reaction seemed to have either impressed or bored her tormentor, because he simply snorted again before her rose and took a step back. One more look, this time with curiosity and something far more sinister in his eyes, and then he turned around and stormed through the door, slamming it behind him.

Before the noise of his retreating footsteps had started to die down Sansa had already begun to take in the rest of the cavernous space. Without walking the room she figured it was around fifteen by twelve feet. Where she previously believed she was underground that was disproved by the fact that she did not hear her captor go up any stairs and the fact the natural daylight from the windows didn’t seem to be dulled by earth as would happen with basement windows.

                When a sudden scraping sound came from the darkened corner not six feet from her, she froze like a deer in headlights, wide eyed and heart pounding. She blinked several times, her eyes trying to adjust to the lack of light. All she could make out was the outline of smallish lump pressed back into the deepest part of the corner. When her eyes refused to make out more details she chewed her lip and debated getting closer to better see what had moved.

                “Hello?” she whispered first. She was met with a resounding silence that did not break even after she had counted to one hundred in her head.

                Very slowly Sansa unwound her arms and leaned forward ever so slightly as she squinted into the inky shadows. Closer; she placed her hands on the frigid floor. Closer; she rose up slightly on her knees. Closer . . .she blinked several times. A large set of green eyes blinked back.

                Sansa sucked in a fast breath that caught in her throat and made her cough again, but she didn’t retreat. They eyes did not waver, did not stray from her gaze. They stayed like that for what felt like years as Sansa’s heart galloped in her chest, counting the passing seconds as they ticked away what was sure to be the last hour of her life.

                And then suddenly, the eyes seemed to get larger. It was only when Sansa could see the pale face hidden behind lank, dirty strands of dark hair did she realise her staring partner had moved closer to her. It took everything in Sansa’s power not to gasp out loud or cover her mouth in horror as the owner of the large green eyes ventured into the dusty beams of daylight.

                She was so small, no more than five or six at the most. Her tiny little frame was curled in on itself just like Sansa’s had been, as if to shield itself from an imminent threat. And also just like Sansa, she had not a stitch of clothing. They sat there staring at one another again, this time more openly, less suspicious. Her eyes were wide, alert, but there was a hollowness there that spoke of terrors no child should ever have known. She was haunted.

                “Hi,” Sansa whispered, more in an effort not to startle the child than to preserve her already raw throat. The little girl did not respond in any way, but neither did she retreat back to her corner.

                “I’m,” she nearly gave her real name and had to force herself not to. “I’m Elle. Can you tell me your name?”

                Her tiny throat worked as she swallowed but she made no effort to speak. Sansa was not deterred. This poor child was probably terrified and no doubt traumatized. There was a chance she didn’t even speak English, but she continued to ask questions anyway.

                “How long have you been here?”

                Silence.

                “Did you see who took you?”

                Silence.

                Sansa bit her lip for a moment before trying again.

                “How many of us are here?”

                The girls breathing turned more rapid and shallower than before. Her eyes darted to the door a few times, but she gave no indication that she was going to answer the question.

                “How many of them are there?”

                The wide green eyes stared wildly back at her for a few beats before a thin, frail arm lifted ever so slightly away from where she had it wrapped around her legs and three fingers extended outwards. Sansa smiled brightly at the girl and nodded.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I’m going to get us out of here.”

But the promise of getting this child away from their captors did not bring about the reaction she expected. The girl froze, fear oozing off her tiny frame before she began to shake all over. She whipped her head side to side so rapidly Sansa was afraid she might break her own neck.

NO!” a wispy little voice warbled so quietly that Sansa nearly missed it. Her tiny bluish lips barely moved.

“It’s okay, honey, I can get you out of here. I can –“

The little girls’ head shook more furiously as she clutched herself even more tightly. “NO! They kill you! THEY KILL YOU!”

Sansa’s stomach twisted sickeningly. While uttering her last objection the tiny child had finally opened her mouth wider than half an inch. It was Sansa didn’t see that made her feel ill. All of her front teeth were missing. And not just the top ones, but the ones on the bottom, too. Her gums were too swollen for it to have been natural. From the looks of it someone had forcibly removed at least eight of her teeth.

Sansa took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. “You don’t have to help me. You don’t have to do anything except hold onto me once I tell you to. But I will not leave you here.”

Tears had started to cascade down the childs’ hollow cheeks but she had finally stopped shaking her head. Her breaths came quick and punctuated with panic, but her eyes did not leave Sansa’s.

The sounds of approaching footsteps seemed to puncture the air with icy doom. Both of them had gone still as rabbits in the presence of a predator. The child was the first one to scamper off back to her corner. She did it so silently that Sansa briefly wondered if she had made noises on purpose if only to let her know that she was not alone in that room. She quickly cast that and all other non-essential thoughts from her mind and momentarily shut her eyes, breathing deep to find her center. She rose up to stand steadily on her feet, placed them slightly apart, squared her shoulders and waited. Every moment of training, every lesson Bronn and Margie had ever taught her flooded her conscious and filled her with adrenaline.

Men will strip me naked to shame me, to make me cower in fear of being raped. It is easier to attack a naked woman because they are too preoccupied with modesty.

Sansa did not tear her eyes away from the door as she stalked noiselessly towards it. She gave the child that cowered in the corner one last thought as she quickly looked over her shoulder.

“Cover your eyes,” she whispered. No child needed to see what was about to be done.

On nimble feet she darted over to stand partially immersed in shadow next to the side of the door. The knob was mere inches away and she watched with baited breath as it slowly turned and the door eased open into the open space. There was no sound but his heavy breath as he stepped one foot, then the other into the room. Before he could get his bearings or take a good look around, she launched herself at him. A well-placed elbow to the back of his head knocked him to the floor, but did not render him unconscious. He groaned loudly as she pounced directly onto his back and both heard and felt his ribs crack beneath her knees.

“Fuck!” he hissed as his breath caught in pain.

“You never will again,” Sansa growled in his ear before she placed both hands in the precise spots on his head and gave it a sharp twist, cracking his neck and taking his life. His body went limp beneath her and her head snapped up, ears straining for any sound as she held her breath. Twenty seven heart beats passed before she breathed again and snapped her attention back to the far dark corner. Her eyes remained there as she quickly rolled the body over and removed the black hoodie, throwing over her own torso and zipping it all the way up. She briefly contemplated taking his pants and boots too, but decided it would take too long.

“I’ll be right back,” she spoke to the huddled little mass in the corner. “I have to make sure there aren’t any more of them here. I will be right back.”

Without another word she crept through the open door and stalked down an unlit cement corridor. At the end of the hall she could see that another door stood open and natural light poured in. She held her breath as she inched closer and murmured voices became clearer.

“Your investment is much appreciated,” a smooth voice stated. It wasn’t familiar to her. “I’ll be sure to tell him just how generous you have been.”

Sansa’s heart pounded so hard she was afraid it might have been audible to the man in the next room. Still she stood within a foot of the open door and listened, making sure to keep to the shadows and stay out of sight.

“You can tell your client that we have exactly what he is looking for. She’s already been broken in and is very compliant. She has the sweetest little mouth.”

Sansa had to swallow down the bile that threatened to make an appearance as she listened to him close the deal on what was most likely the tiny girl back in the storage room.

“I have to go, I have another customer calling and he’s on his way to pick up his purchase.” A low beep ended one call before the man spoke again. “Hello, there. Yes, I have just sent him down to collect her. You might want to get here quickly. Roger tends to be a little ‘hands on’ with his work. Ten minutes? See you then.”

Sansa was already halfway back to the room when she heard the call disconnect. Just before she slipped through the door a soft shaft of light opposite the direction she had gone before caught her eye. A very quick assessment told her it was most likely another door and that was good enough for her.

Sansa rushed over to the corner and without word or warning reached down and grasped onto the quaking child’s delicate arms, hauled her up onto her chest and zipped the sweatshirt closed over them both. The girls hot breath fanned onto her neck in quick pants as Sansa wrapped her skinny legs around her waist.

“Hold on tight to me. I need to use my hands,” she commanded as gently as she could. With strength she didn’t think such a tiny body could hold, the little girls grip tightened like a vice around her shoulders and stomach.

Determination laced with fear propelled her forward, and even with the added weight she was able to move quietly back into the hall and lithely make her way through the darkness. Thin shafts of filtered light poked through layers of dust and grime that caked up a small reinforced glass window that sat near the top of a heavy metal door. The words ‘Emergency Exit’ were barely legible, but the long metal bar below them practically glowed in contrast.

She knew there was no way to do it quietly. She would have one shot at it and she had better make it count, because as soon as that man heard something he would come running. Probably armed, probably with some sort of back up. Sansa sucked in a deep breath and braced all her weight on her back foot before she shot forward and tossed her body against the hard surface, her hands pressing down firmly on the long cold handle. A deafening clang followed by the screech of rusted hinges and scraping metal as the heavy door inched open set every nerve in her body on high alert. She had barely begun to squeeze through the small opening when she heard the one sound she had hoped not to.

“HEY!” Bellowed an irate voice followed by a string of curses and then . . .

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Metal pinged off surfaces by her feet and near her head and despite trying to keep herself calm and in control Sansa screamed. With one final shove and a quick twist of her shoulders she stumbled out onto weed choked gravel, the stones cutting into her bare, frozen feet. She didn’t even wait for her eyes to adjust to the hazy, overcast daylight; Sansa just ran. Her arms automatically clasped the tiny child to her chest as ran pell-mell into the trees beyond. Fear pushed her faster than her two legs had ever carried her and some higher power must have been on her side at least a little that day, because despite being in a heavily wooded area her feet did not catch on a single stone or loose branch.

“FUCK!” she heard a scream echo in the distance behind her. “FUCKING CUNT!”

Dread at being caught again propelled her legs faster, made her eyes sharper as she flew through the trees and leapt over fallen logs. She didn’t know how long or in which direction she ran, she only knew that once her lungs screamed for rest and her legs began to shake uncontrollably she finally slowed down even a fraction and started to look for signs of civilization or indication that a road might be nearby. She needed to find a way to call for help . . .

His phone! Sansa came to almost a dead stop and the child in her arms made a sound like a frightened puppy as she tried to claw her way closer to Sansa’s skin.

“Okay,” she huffed, unable to speak. She panted from the exertion and exhaustion as she felt around in the pockets of the jacket. A jab of hopelessness shot through her when she realised they were completely empty.

It was in his jeans, idiot! She berated herself. She turned in a full circle and saw nothing but trees. She had no idea where they were and had no idea how to find help. She had taken herself and a starving, naked child out into the freezing woods with nothing more than a sweatshirt for the both of them and she could tell by the orange tint in the light around them that sunset approached and night would fall soon after.

We’re going to die out here. The thought sprang unbidden to her mind and momentarily seized her entire body with unyielding panic. She physically had to shake her head to rid it of the noxious thought that would bring them nothing but demise.

Keep moving, she commanded herself. Someone will find you.

It was another whimper from within her jacket that made her icy feet stumble forward again. Her legs shook badly as she stepped over rocks and her head throbbed in time with each beat of her heart, but she kept on.

Daylight faded more quickly than she would have liked and soon she saw her breath coming out in great puffs of white. She silently debated with herself whether it would be better to continue moving to keep her circulation going and potentially break her neck while stumbling around in the dark or if she should try to make some sort of shelter to keep them both from freezing to death during the night. Clearly, both had their downsides.

I must not be in shock if my sarcasm is still intact. Strangely enough, it was that thought that gave her the most comfort and a sense of hope. If her mind was functioning fully then she believed she could make it out of this mess alive. Her and her little stowaway.

“Okay tiny, I said I would get you out and I did,” she croaked as her throat twitched painfully. “Will you tell me your name now?”

There was no answer, but her small hands gripped Sansa’s shoulders a bit more and her head shifted against her shoulder.

“I shall just have to make one up for you then,” Sansa sighed. “Would that be okay?”

They walked on in silence for a while, but just as Sansa was about to speak again she felt a little nod against her chest. She smiled and hugged the girl and little more, shifting her weight somewhat from one side to the other.

“Alright, let’s see . . .” she pretended to think, but had already made up her mind what to call her. “You were so quiet in that room and you moved without making a sound, just like a little cat, so I think that’s what I’ll call you: Cat.”

When she got no response she looked down into the neck of the hoodie. One green eye peered back up at her.

“Do you like it?” she asked quietly. After a moment the little girl blinked and nodded again. Sansa smiled warmly at her before pressing a kiss to the top of her head through the sweatshirt. “Good.”

The sweet moment was interrupted by the sudden baying cry of some kind of dog. Its howl sent shivers down Sansa’s spine as deep rooted self-preservation reared up inside her and put her body on high alert. She immediately began to run a list of local wildlife she knew existed in the North-eastern part of Pennsylvania. Bears didn’t make sounds like that. Foxes were too small to worry about. Coyotes were not uncommon and the thought of running into a pack of those while trying to carry a small child brought about fresh waves of the panic she had barely fought off before. 

The child, Cat, stilled in her arms as Sansa stopped to listen for the sound again. When it cut through the blowing wind and rustling leaves it sounded closer. Some primal urge to flee for her life sent Sansa into another blind run as she clutched the bundle of quaking limbs tightly to her body. But the toll her previous flight had taken on her battered and half-frozen body stiffened her movements and made her unsteady on her feet.  Her luck finally ran out as her foot caught on an exposed root and she tumbled forward, one hand protecting Cat, while the other splayed out in front of her to break their fall. Pain shot up her arm upon impact and she felt the skin break on her knees as she managed to land on all fours, preventing Cat from hitting the ground at all.

“Are you okay?” she asked. The girl did not nod or answer, but Sansa determined from her rapid heartbeat and quick breaths that she was probably more scared than injured by the fall.

Before she could get back to her feet a chorus of growling barks and howls rose up all around them. Heart thumping double time in her aching chest, Sansa frantically looked for somewhere, anywhere to escape. She considered climbing a tree and waiting for the pack to get bore and move on, but the thought of being treed for days and potentially found by those men again made her decide against it. No, she would just have to try to outrun them.

SNAP!

Twigs and branches broke behind her and Sansa whipped around, her heart hammered against her ribs. In the fading light she saw the massive frame of a person as it advanced on them. Something about his build, the way he moved, was vaguely familiar and yet somehow different from her hazy memory.

A sharp whine to her right and she whirled around to see a large grey wolf with yellow eyes stood a few feet away. Her first thought was that there were no wolves in Pennsylvania, and that animal was far too large to be a coyote. She stared more intently and saw what others might miss in their fear: hackles were not raised, teeth were not bared, and it made no threatening sounds. It merely stood there and stared at her with glowing amber eyes. A sense of another presence shifted Sansa’s gaze farther to her right. There was another wolf, this one pure white with eyes that glowed blood red. It was the stuff of nightmares, and yet it merely stood there and stared, not advancing, not growling.

“To me,” a deep, raspy voice called. Startled by his gruffness, Sansa held Cat closer and started to walk backwards away from him. She was made to move a little faster when she noticed the two wolves she had seen, plus another darker wolf, trotted obediently to his side.

Sansa had always fared herself to be fairly tall at nearly five feet ten inches, but this great mammoth of a man towered over her. He was at least six and a half feet tall and his broad frame suggested he weighed somewhere around two hundred and fifty pounds. Something about the way he moved also told her that his man would not be so easily incapacitated as her previous captor had been, even if he wasn’t accompanied by wolves.

Before she could think she found herself flying through the woods again, her feet barely making contact with the ground. She came to a staggered halt when the white wolf suddenly appeared in her path. She wheeled around and headed off in another direction for a minute or two before she was once again blocked, this time by the grey wolf. A strangled cry of desperation burst from her lips as she turned in a circle while she tried to see a safe way out of the situation. She tripped up slightly and stumbled forward into a tree, but took the brunt of it on her shoulder to spare Cat any more pain than they both surely were in for.

Sansa tried to straighten her back to her full height, but the weight of the little person she had been carrying around had finally started to take its toll on aching muscles. Hunched slightly, she pulled Cat up in her arms and angled her away from the slowly approaching figures. In a last attempt to save their skins, she reached around and pulled the girls legs from her waist and set her down on the ground. There was so little resistance from the child that it would have broken Sansa’s heart if she had been able to focus. It was as if she expected to be abandoned just so Sansa could save her own skin. In one swift movement she stripped the sweatshirt off her own body and whipped it over the shivering child’s naked frame. She turned and guided Cat between her back and the broad tree behind them. Instinct seemed to have taken over from all logic, for she knew there was no way out, no escape, and yet she was prepared to fight to the death in an effort to try.

The men approached them with caution, hands out and open in a placating gesture. He panted a little from the exertion of running around after her, but his face was calm. His face. His face! She could not stop staring. She had never seen scars like that on someone’s face before.

“Stop trying to fly away,” his gravelly voice carried over the ten feet of space he kept between them. “I’ll not hurt you.”

Sansa didn’t respond, she only stared at him. Some small voice of reason spoke softly in the back of her mind, “He’s telling you the truth.”

He stared very intently at her eyes and she saw that his did not wander once to her bare body. It helped decrease her fear slightly. Still, she was no idiot.

“I killed one of them already.” She tried to place as much menace in her voice as possible, but knew between her scratchy throat and the way she swayed on her feet that she had missed the mark.

To her surprise, he nodded once. “Your mothers’ daughter.”

Shock jolted through her body at the mention of her mother, but her adrenaline had finally begun to fade and with its loss came exhaustion so acute that she had to fight to keep from collapsing on the spot.

“Who are you?” she asked before she could stop herself.

“Sandor Clegane,” he answered without hesitation. “And you’re Sansa Stark. I’ve been looking for you since – “

But she didn’t hear the rest. Her vision tunnelled and darkened, her body swayed and pitched towards the ground. The last thing she heard was the heart wrenching wail of a small child calling her assumed name.

 

Chapter Text

SANDOR

March 13th

                He was going to hell; that much he was definitely sure of. He wasn’t an evil man. No, he’d hunted those most of his adult life. He’d looked into the face of evil and spit right in its eye on more than one occasion. But he was no saint. He drank too much. He cursed like a fucking sailor. He had a violent temper that had nearly landed him in prison several times in his youth. And no matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he could not stop thinking of Sansa Stark standing gloriously naked in the snow. It didn’t matter that she was ready to fight him to the death to protect a child that was not even hers. It didn’t matter that she had most likely been debased and abused – yet again – at the hands of the vile creatures he had sworn to protect her from. It didn’t matter than he had known her as a small child and still had trouble reconciling that knobby-kneed, traumatised nine year old girl from the fiercely gorgeous woman she had become.

                Which was why he was going to hell.

                Sandor groaned quietly as he unfolded his massive frame from the tiny waiting room chair at Soldiers and Sailors ER. He’d brought them both straight there. It had been quite a challenge, carrying an unconscious woman and catatonic child the few miles to where he’d parked his truck. He had first thought it lucky that the little girl didn’t put up more of a fight or tried to run off. The more he thought about her lack of responsiveness though, the more it unsettled him. Her complacency was downright frightening, and he had been concerned that she had gone into shock or was experiencing a severe case of PTSD. But when the SAFNET staff had attempted to separate Sansa and the filthy babe that wore only a sweatshirt, the wee thing had screamed so loudly that he swore the windows rattled in their panes. In an effort to cling to Sansa, the girl must have roused her from her semi-comatose state. It was all downhill from there. When all was said and done two of the nurses had to be helped towards Radiology for x-rays while another was stitched up by the attending physician. That was the point at which Sandor flashed his old badge and stepped in. He had them moved to a more private exam room and set up camp right outside the door. Before he’d closed them in he looked her right in the eye and promised no one but her family would get past him. She’d nodded only once, at warily at that, but then dropped off into slumber with the grubby child tucked into her side. His presence was enough to deter staff from further attempts of intrusion. No one tried to separate the two again.

                Bronn and Marge arrived soon after, but Sansa had been so spent from her valiant efforts that she’d almost immediately succumbed to sleep once the threat had been alleviated. Marge had barely been able to rouse her enough to get more than a mumbled, incoherent ‘yes’ or ‘no’. So that left Sandor with a lot of explaining and next to no pertinent information. After a little while Bronn left to attend to the youngest, whom was also a current resident at the hospital. He was told she was to be released later that day, but didn’t know what would happen from there. It was clear to him that both woman and child needed to be examined. It was also clear to him that hell would most likely freeze over before Sansa allowed anyone near that child in the foreseeable future.

                “She still asleep?” Marge mumbled tiredly as she awkwardly trudged up to where he sat. She noisily pulled a waiting room chair behind her and it was more to save his eardrums than preserve the relative peace of the predawn emergency department that propelled him forward. With so little effort it was almost amusing, he single-handedly lifted the chair and set it down next to his in one fluid motion. To her credit, Marge only blinked a few times before she muttered her thanks. His half shrug was the only response she got.

                “And I thought Arya was the real hellcat,” she said around a massive yawn.

                Sandor glanced curiously at her from the side of his eye. Marge gave a weak smile.

                “Nurse Ratchet had her arm broken as well as her shoulder dislocated, which I suppose is better than the broken ribs and concussion Doctor Kevorkian received. Not to mention the thirty seven stiches that poor intern got after she tried to approach Sansa from behind with a needle full of sedatives.”

                “Are those actually their names?” was all he could think to say. Marge snorted and shook her head.

                “Who the hell cares? The point is what the kind of idiots do they have working at this shit show? Who approached traumatised victims that way?” She threw her hands up in exasperation.

                They were quite for a while. The hum of machinery and the occasional sound of footsteps were the only sounds that surrounded their cocoon of denial and self-flagellation.

                “Have I thanked you yet? For finding her,” Marge added when Sandor gave her a look that clearly questioned her mental stability. What the fuck would she thank him for? He was the reason they were sitting there in the first place.

                “No thanks necessary. She wouldn’t have even been out that if I had done my fucking job properly,” he growled bitterly.

                Marge sat in silence for a moment as she mulled over his words. Finally, she shook her head.

                “You have to cut that shit out, Sandor. No one blames you. Bronn least of all. We know what it’s like. Sometimes the job is more than any one man can do.”

                “I’m not just any man,” he bit back.

                Marge gave him a woeful smile. “No, my dear, you certainly are not. It’s why she liked you so much. You know that right? Most people she just taught because it was her job, but you? She really liked you. She would have been  -“

                “Don’t,” he cut her off. He didn’t want to hear it. No, scratch that. He couldn’t hear it. Couldn’t bear it. The shame in his failure was too overwhelming.

                Their conversation was cut off when two harried people came rushing into the hall, a young doctor right on their heels. When the frazzled woman reached for the doorknob to Sansa’s room both Sandor and Margie rocketed to their feet.

                “Whoa!” Sandor stepped in front of the door and placed his hands up, palms out towards the couple.

                “My daughter is in there!” the crazed woman’s voice warbled as it carried through the nearly silent hall.

                “I think you’re mistaken,” Margie said gently as she edged towards Sandor. “My daughter is in this room. Perhaps –“

                “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” the younger woman screeched as she tried to shove her way between the two of them.

                “Hey, easy!” Sandor raised his voice but did not touch the lady. He could tell with one glance she was practically out of her mind. Her brown eyes were puffy and bloodshot, her dark hair a tangled mess about her shoulders. Even her clothes were rumpled and dishevelled. She couldn’t have been more than her late twenties, but the agony in her eyes seemed to have aged her by decades. The man behind her was similar in appearance, though he lacked the maniacal look in his eyes. He stepped forward and placed his hands on the womans’ shoulders. Sandor guessed by the band on his left hand that they were married.

                “Their daughter was brought in with yours, Mrs Blackwater,” the doctor explained quickly. Margie’s eyes widened as they darted between the couple and doctor. Sandor watched as she swallowed thickly and seemed to gather herself.

                “The little girl . . . she’s yours?” Sandor questioned. He wouldn’t put it past anyone involved with Baelish to send a convincing looking couple to reacquire their missing goods.

                “Jenna,” the man answered in a choked voice as his wife nodded frantically. Sandor’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

                “How did you know she was here?” They had only been there a matter of hours. He knew the police had been contacted, but he had never experienced such expedited results from a rural police force.

                “The girl has been missing from Lycoming County since December last year. Snatched from a shopping mall while – “

                An anguished wail erupted from the woman as tried to claw her way between Sandor and Margie to reach the door once more. She managed to rattle the knob slightly before Margie clamped her hand down on the woman’s arm in restraint.

                “I’m sorry, but . . .” she looked from Sandor to the doctor, “how can I be sure? Where are the police now? Why aren’t they here with you?”

                The man seemed to lose what little patience he had and suddenly roared in frustration, “Where the hell do you get off?”

                “The police are on their way!” the doctor interjected. “I’ve just spoken to the Sheriff and he’s coming by with a Statie.”

                “I’m not waiting!” the young woman shouted and tried to wedge between them again. This time Sandor moved to let her by. When Marge looked like she might object, he rushed to assure her.

                “We’ll all go in.” Nothing could happen with both of them standing right there. Especially since he was armed and was pretty sure she was too.

                Sandor wasn’t sure what to expect when they entered the small exam room, but what they encountered brought everyone up short. Sansa and the child weren’t in the bed as they had been the last time Sandor had looked in on them. Instead Sansa had them both backed into the farthest corner of the room, her body in a slight crouch as she shielded the little girl from view.

                At least she’s not naked this time. The thought came unbidden to his mind and he did his best to battle the imagery that tried to accompany it and stay focused. It wasn’t easy.

                “Leave.” Sansa’s voice was low, menacing. It actually sent chills down his spine. Not an easy task to accomplish.

                The wreck of a woman stepped forward and cleared her throat several times before she crouched down and tried to look around Sansa.

                “Jenna?” The naked hope in her voice was nearly drowned out by a startled gasp that came from the back of the room.

                “Mommy?” the disembodied whisper carried with it disbelief and shock. Sansa’s arm suddenly flew back as two wide green eyes peered out from under her elbow. Stringy hair hung in the childs’ face, partially obscuring her expression.

                From the floor in front of them, the mothers’ breath caught in her throat before she started to crawl haltingly across the floor. “JENNA!”

                The small child dove under Sansa’s arm and collided with her mother, burying her face in her shoulder as her arms wound tightly around her neck. Sansa rose slowly from her protective stance as the girls’ father dropped to his knees and gathered both mother and child into his embrace as they all sobbed hysterically and rocked back and forth.

                The scene was powerful, emotional, and Sandor felt as if he were an intruder upon the intimate and painful family moment. He saw Sansa quickly reach up to brush tears from her cheeks, but Marge made no move to stem the flow of hers. She stood hugging herself around her waist, her eyes glued to Sansa.

                No one spoke for a time, but Sandor knew that he, Sansa, and Marge were the only ones to notice when a very large blonde woman in a Sheriff’s uniform quietly entered the room. Her hair was closely cropped to her head and she had a manish quality about her that immediately made her appear formidable. She stood off to side behind Sandor, and averted her gaze from the reunited family. He could not decide it the act was out of respect or discomfort, but before he could make up his mind the atmosphere in the room shifted dramatically.

                “Please don’t!” Sansa suddenly cried and Sandor’s head whipped around to see that the father had approached Sansa with his arms out as if to embrace her. Without thinking, Sandor took a step towards them, his fists clenched.

                To his credit, the younger man stopped immediately. He dropped one of his hands while the other he ran through his hair nervously.

                “I just w-wanted to thank you, miss,” he stammered, clearly still overcome with emotion.

                Sansa nodded her head rapidly to indicate she understood, but her body didn’t relax. The father nodded a few times and turned back to his family, still huddled on the floor. The doctor chose this time to suggest examining Jenna in a separate room. Her mother gathered her up like an infant and squeezed her tightly against her own body.

                “It’s better if we get it over with now, Mrs Banks,” the doctor stated gently. “We can give her a little medicine to help her relax. She might even sleep through the whole thing; she’s pretty exhausted.”

                The mother had broken down into quiet sobs, but she nodded against the top of her child’s head. With her husband’s assistance, she stood and carried her daughter from the room, kissing her face and whispering loving words into her hair. The room seemed almost bereft of emotion once the door closed behind them. Sansa seemed to be at a loss as to how she should react as he watched her wrap her arms around her waist while she leaned slightly against the wall behind her. She stared blankly at a spot on the floor.

                “Mrs Blackwater,” the large woman behind him finally spoke up. Though she did so quietly, both of the other women startled slightly at the sound of her voice. The pale skin of her face and neck flushed deep red, but the Sheriff stepped away from the wall and maintained eye contact with Marge.

                “Sorry for the intrusion, ma’am, but I am here to speak with your daughter, Elle,” she informed Marge gently.

                At the mention of her pseudo name, Sansa’s eyes darted up and focused on the Sheriff. She seemed to take a moment to size up the other woman before she squared her shoulders and shook her head before she uttered a single word.

                “Lawyer.”

                Sandor couldn’t contain the snort the burst out of him, nor did he really try. Marge rolled her eyes and shook her head. The Sheriff, on the other hand, was brought up short by Sansa’s response.

                “You’re not under arrest, Miss Blackwater. You don’t need a lawyer,” the Sheriff informed her evenly. “I just need to ask you a few questions about –“

                “No,” Sansa cut her off. “No questions.”

                The Sheriff’s flush deepened and she straightened her back to tower above Sansa at her full height. She was only a few inches shorter than Sandor, and of a similar build, but Sansa did not quell under her penetrating gaze. In fact, she met the other woman’s blue eyes defiantly, her chin tilted up and jaw set tightly.

                “You really are your mothers’ daughter,” Sandor mused out loud.

                “Thank you,” both Sansa and Marge murmured in unison.

                “Miss Blackwater,” the Sheriff sounded as if she struggled to maintain her pleasant tone. “We need details on the men who took you, who held you and Jenna Banks captive. We cannot begin to bring these men to justice if . . .”

                Her voice trailed off uncertainly when Sansa suddenly barked out a harsh, mirthless laugh and shook her head. When she looked back up at the Sheriff, her gaze was hollow, empty, and hard as ice.

                “There is no justice for me,” she spat. She stomped off towards her bed and threw herself into it. She kept her back to the room, but Sandor was tall enough to still see her face. She screwed her eyes shut and clamped her lower lip between her teeth.

                “Miss Blackwater,” the Sheriff tried again, but Marge finally stepped in.

                “Sheriff . . .?” she looked to the other woman expectantly.

                “Tarth. Brienne,” she offered her name as well as her hand. Marge took them both gracefully and nodded once.

                “Elle has been through a great ordeal. I am sure she will be more forthcoming once she has gotten some rest, but right now why don’t Sandor and I answer some of your questions and let her get some much needed sleep.” The tone she used brokered no arguments and Sheriff Tarth did not offer any. She did not look pleased, but she nodded and followed Marge from the room as Sandor took up the rear. He had not expected her to round on him with suspicion in her eyes once they were in the hall with the door closed behind them.

                “Sandor Clegane?” she hedged.

                “That’s the name my mother gave me,” he retorted somewhat mulishly. He knew what came next and he was not disappointed, but he was surprised when it wasn’t the usual remarks.

                “You look nothing like your brother,” she remarked quietly.

                “I am nothing like him in any way,” he shot back as he tried not to get riled by her comparison.

                “No,” Sheriff Tarth stated after a moment. “You’re not, are you?”

                “I take it you knew of him,” he asked hesitantly. Most people in law enforcement had at least heard the name. He had been at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list for years.

                “Something like that,” the Sheriff murmured quietly before she turned her gaze back to Marge.

                “What can you tell me about where they were held?”

                “Ask Sandor, he’s the one who located them.”

                The Sheriff didn’t hide her suspicion when her startling blue eyes swivelled back to his. She arched an eyebrow at him.

                “And just how in the hell did you manage that?”

                “My dogs sniffed her out after she had fled from her captives. I have a cabin only 8 miles from where they were hiding out. I had been up and down the back roads looking for her since she went missing,” he started to explain when Tarth cut him off.

                “How did you know she was missing?”

                “My husband called him,” Marge interjected smoothly.

                “And just how is it that your husband knows Clegane?”

                “They were in the same girl scout troupe. You should see the way Sandor can braid.” Marge had clearly lost patience with the line of questions.

                “We’re hunting buddies,” Sandor practically snarled. “Met when they moved into the area and he tried to deer hunt on my property. One of my dogs nearly took his leg off.”

                “I see.” Tarth was clearly not buying it, but Marge obviously didn’t care less.

                “Are you going to let him tell you what he knows? Or do you want to stand around here with your thumb up your ass while my daughters’ kidnappers cross the state line?”

                “I just want the truth, if you please,” the Sheriff said between clenched teeth.

                “That’s all I’m giving you,” Sandor retorted. “Are you going to listen, or do I need to write it down?”

                For the next half hour Sandor gave as much detail as he could of the past six hours. He described how he had come across the girls, what Sansa had told him about killing one of them herself, and the condition they were in when he located them.

                “I think the medical staff bagged the sweatshirt,” he provided, doing his utmost to be helpful. He’d dealt with his share of uncooperative witnesses in his short career. He didn’t want to be lumped in to that category.

                “Thank you, Mr Clegane,” Sheriff Tarth said begrudgingly as she tucked her notepad into her back pocket and turned back to Marge. “I’m going to need to speak with Elle as soon as she is capable. When will she be released from the hospital?”

                “The doctors haven’t even examined her yet,” Marge deflected her question with a concerned look back at Sansa’s closed door. Something in the Sheriff’s expression shifted as she followed Marge’s gaze.

                “Tell her to take all the time she needs, but please ensure she contacts me as soon as she feels she is able. Time is of the essence in cases such as these. I’ll have the results of her tests expedited at the lab, if you are agreeable?”

                “Thank you,” Marge murmured, but continued to stare at the door.

                “I’ll leave you in peace now,” Tarth said as she nodded once towards them both. “Clegane, ma’am.”

                Marge waited until the Sheriff was out of earshot before she turned back to him with a determined expression.

                “Bronn’s gonna shit kittens,” she muttered.

                “I’d pay good money to see that,” Sandor rasped. He glanced over top her head as a doctor walked passed them, eyes fixed on the medical chart in her hand.

                “How are we going to keep Sansa away from the locals?”

                Sandor saw the look of pure consternation on her face and wondered if it was him she had spoken to or herself. He blurted out the first thought that popped into his head.

                “She can stay with me.”

                He tried to maintain a cool expression when Marge’s eyebrows practically rose into her hairline.

                “With you,” she seemed to stumble over the words in disbelief.

                “Why not?” He seemed to suffer from diarrhoea of the mouth. “I’m in the middle of nowhere. My place is big enough. And I’ve got more than enough ammo to take out the Eastern Seaboard.”

                “I’d rather have her at home where I can keep an eye on her,” Marge mumbled, but he could see her mind whirling.

                “She won’t stay there and everyone knows where you live. No one knows where I am. No one,” he emphasised with a meaningful look.  

                She nodded absently then seemed to shake herself out of her thoughts. She smirked up at him.

                “You sure you know what you’re getting yourself into? She’s a teenager. They’re not exactly the easiest of breeds.”

                “She’s an adult,” the argument sounded weak even to his ears and he couldn’t figure out who he was trying to reassure more; himself or Marge. “It’s for her protection.”

                Marge laughed out loud at that and reached up to pat him consolingly on his upper arm.

                “Yeah, tell her that. I’m sure that will make ALL the difference.”

                He knew when he was being mocked, but tried to convince himself it wouldn’t be that bad. She was just one girl. How much trouble could she be?

Chapter Text

SANSA

March 14th

 

                She’d been operating on autopilot since Cat – no, Jenna – had been reunited with her parents. With no one left who needed her protection and care she had nothing to occupy her thoughts. Nothing, of course, except the past twenty-four hours. She wasn’t ready to think about all that yet. What it meant for her future, for her family. What it meant for the tiny little girl who had been taken from her home and –

                “Stop!” she hissed under her breath while she shook her head as if to physically throw the rancid images from her mind.

                Sansa crossed her arms over her chest, pulling the oversized cardigan tighter around her shivering frame, as she stared out the window at the setting sun. She’s been in the hospital since the previous night, and it had taken until nearly lunchtime before she would allow doctors to examine her. They did her one great service, upon her request, by having her sedated for the head to toe examination. She didn’t even remember Margie helping her into the shower, but when the drugs wore off she had damp hair braided down her back and she smelled of lavender. Her own clothes wrapped her body in comfort, but she found no warmth in rich fabrics of cashmere and brushed thick cotton. If you asked her then and there she would have said she would never feel warm again.

                If Sansa felt anything at all besides the cold, it was numbness. The supreme lack of emotion was a welcomed relief after being so hyper vigilant. She wondered if they had given her more medication and she simply didn’t remember.

                The relative peace of her hospital room was suddenly shattered when Bronn stormed in with Marge hot on his heels. Her hulking rescuer quickly followed suit, and then leaned his massively muscled frame up against the door he closed quietly behind him.

                Bronn was tense, more agitated than she had ever seen him. He actually looked on the verge of losing his shit completely. Behind him, Aunty Em had tears in her eyes as she wrung her hands nervously. It should have rattled her, but she wasn’t able to feel anything at all. She just stared expectantly at them and waited for someone to speak. It was Bronn, once he stopped pacing, who decided to break the tense silence.

                “We’ve been made,” he blurted out as he ran a hand through his dishevelled locks. “All our covers have been blown. No one knows how or who, just that it’s happened.”

                For the first time since last night Sansa felt a stir of something within her, but the emotion remained vague and easily ignored. She nodded in understanding but said nothing. She knew he wasn’t finished talking.

                “I’ve . . . well, we,” he corrected as he looked at his wife, “have been ordered to implement one of our escape plans.”

                When he didn’t continue and no one else looked like they were going to provide the questions, or answers, one would expect in such a situation, Sansa cleared her throat.

                “Where are we going now?” Her voice was stronger than she had expected it to be. It belied a confidence she didn’t feel at that moment.

                Margaery’s face tensed and Bronn’s expression darkened. Confusion bubbled up inside her as she watched her surrogate parents glance at each other as if they communicated telepathically.

                Sansa lost what little patience she had, and snapped at them. “What? What aren’t you saying?”

                Aunty Em walked over and gently wrapped her hands around Sansa’s upper arms and stared up into her eyes.

                “This . . . this is bad. The director was tipped off by an anonymous informant that your location has been leaked to known associated of Baelish. That, coupled with your kidnapping, Selmy wants to eliminate the risks as much as possible.”

                Sansa followed everything her aunt said, but instinctively knew the bomb was about to drop.

                “So,” she tried to go through the contingencies she knew about out loud. “We, what, go underground? Leave the country? Assume all new identities?”

                “Yes, no, and yes,” Bronn stated decisively. “But since the director is so convinced you are all targets again, they’re taking their safety measures farther than before.”

                Sansa looked between them for another moment, and then everything clicked into place. Bronn’s fury, Marge’s grief; it all made sense.

                “We’re splitting up,” she said flatly. Bronn gave one curt nod and Marge wiped at her eyes.

                Sansa returned the nod, but strangely didn’t feel tears behind her own eyes. The numbness was back. Tyrion called it disassociation or emotional detachment. As long as it kept her from having a breakdown he could call it whatever the fuck he wanted to. It worked for her.

                “So what did you do, flip a coin?” Sansa’s voice was more caustic than she had anticipated, and tried to soften her tone and expression. “I pity whoever gets to tell Arya.”

                Bronn flashed a humorless smile while Marge grimaced. Marge squeezed her arms again.

                “I’m taking Arya,” Bronn said finally. “Jon is going with Marge.”

                She stared at them, dumbfounded for a moment and then blurted, “Where the fuck am I going?”

                All eyes turned to the silent giant that still blocked the door. Sansa felt her eyes widen slightly as she finally began to understand. She stared at him unabashedly and tried to take it all in. She was going to stay with a man she didn’t know. A man who had been instrumental in her rescue, and potentially, her survival. His scarred face was devoid of any expression.

                “So you drew the short straw, huh?”

                He stared openly at her, his grey eyes glued to her blue ones. He seemed to take his time on making a decision before he swallowed thickly and spoke up.

                “More like you did,” he retorted.

                “Nice,” she replied with a snort. She seemed to be channelling her sister as she spoke. “So what makes you so special? Have you got weapons of mass destruction under that jacket? Were you Jet Li’s understudy?”

                Her humor, or rather Arya’s, seemed to have missed its mark. He didn’t even crack a smile.   

                “I used to be a Marshal,” he rasped. “I know the details of your case. It’s why they put you with me.”

                Her eyes narrowed at that bit of information. He knew about her? The previous days’ interaction, brief as it was suddenly flashed to the front of her mind. His words bounced around in her head.

                “You knew my mother.” It came out like an accusation. He nodded again, but this time did not elaborate.

                “And you just happened to live near us? Of all the backwater hick towns in America, this is where you chose to set up shop?” Her sarcasm was thick as molasses and held the same tinge of dark bitterness.

                He shifted from foot to foot under her scrutinising gaze, but said nothing. It confirmed her suspicions. She turned her laser glare on her ‘parents’.

                “You knew.” Another accusation.

                Bronn straightened to his full height. “Damn right I knew and I was fucking glad for it. The more help, the better.”

                “Yes, because this meets the textbook definition of a successful operation,” she bit back scathingly.

                “Hey – “ Bronn stepped forward, voice raised in anger. Marge placed her hand up and turned her sad eyes onto Sansa.

                “It was the best we could hope for, and it had worked before . . .” her voice trailed off, her tone unsure.

                “Before what?” They were keeping something from her. She had never been so sure of anything in her life. It must have shown on her face because fresh tears fell from Aunty Em’s eyes.

                “Everything we’ve ever done was to keep you three safe and happy.”

                “And prepared,” Bronn added seriously.

                “This is what you were preparing us for?” Sansa indicated around the small hospital room incredulously.

                “Yes,” Bronn replied without missing a beat. Sansa was momentarily stunned by his admission.

                “This,” she stated again, but this time with less heat.

                “Precisely this. We knew,” he sighed and ran his hand through his hair again. “We knew this was always going to be a possibility. We knew that since Baelish was never caught that you would always be at risk. Would always be in danger.”

                “There aren’t any other redheaded kids in the world?” Even as the words escaped her lips she wanted to take them back. The idea of him victimizing another child like her was unfathomable.

                Marge and Bronn exchanged another look, but this time it was Aunty Em was the forthcoming one.

                “You have to know that you were different. We told you a few years ago,” she started to explain when Sansa threw both hands up in a plea to make her stop talking. She remembered the conversation. She didn’t want to think about that again. Not when she was already so nauseated.  

                “Then why haven’t we been living in a cave in Syberia?” Sansa shouted in exasperation.

                Margaery’s watery smile gave her the answer before her words flowed through the pained silence.

                “We wanted so much to give you the kind of life you would have had with your parents. Happy. Normal. Loved.” She reached out and tucked a stray lock of hair behind Sansa’s ear.

                “That’s why we lived in all the small towns in Bum-fuck Nowhere,” Bronn explained with a slight smirk. “We had less of a chance of anyone being recognized. You had more of a chance at a regular childhood.”

                She stared out blankly as all their words sunk in. She knew it wasn’t everything, but it was a start. She nodded absently as she tried to wrap her head around the chunks of information she had instinctually known but had never been confirmed.

                “So now what? We just head to separate corners of the world?” The prospect of being separated from her siblings suddenly frightened her. They had never truly been away from each other.

                “We’ll be heading to different safe houses within the continental US,” was all Bronn provided.

                Sansa was suddenly overwhelmed with an urge to vomit.

                “Until when?” The urge intensified when no one spoke.

                “Until when?!” she demanded again. Her numbness was long forgotten as bone rattling alarm shot through her nervous system.

                “Until they threat is neutralised,” Sandor answered evenly.

                Horror struck, Sansa felt her jaw drop before she let loose a string of profanity that would have made Arya blush.

                “Sansa –“ Aunty Em used her calmest, most reasonable tone, but Sansa heard none of it.

                “No. NO!” she shouted suddenly. “No one has ever come CLOSE to catching sadistic piece of monkey shit before! I could be in hiding for YEARS! DECADES!”

                “This is different,” Bronn started to explain, but she wouldn’t let him finish. He wasn’t going to gloss over this the way he did everything else in an effort to placate her.

                “HOW?” she screeched.

                “There’s a taskforce specifically assigned to take down Baelish and every accomplice they can track down. He’s been on the run and on more ‘Most Wanted’ lists than we can count, but he’s never been truly hunted. Once we knew he’d fled the country it was up to Interpol.”

                “I know all this already,” Sansa snapped. She folded her arms tightly over her chest, her face set in a very juvenile scowl.

                “Well, no offense, gorgeous, but each of the countries he was briefly spotted in weren’t exactly known for their integrity. And they had enough of their own issues to deal with, their own evil to track down,” Bronn explained patiently.

                “But he’s back here now,” Sansa stated the obvious and her irritation grew into confusion when both Bronn and Sandor cracked malicious grins.

                “He has no idea the epic shit storm he has awaiting him now that he’s back on US soil,” Sandor provided with a raised brow.

                Sansa saw hundreds of flaws with their plans, but didn’t state any of them out loud. She knew she’d have plenty of time to dwell on them in the months that were sure to follow. The anger drained away like water in an open sink. It left only sadness tinged with uncertainty in its wake. She leaned against the window and sighed deeply.

                “When do we leave?”

                “Now.” The word was blunt and hit her with the force of a wrecking ball, though it had been delivered in the gentlest of murmurs.

                “Will I be able to hear from you at all?” Her voice cracked with emotion and the tears that had been suspiciously absent during the entire exchange suddenly made their debut. Sansa angrily swatted them away, but each tear seemed to be chased by four others and she was completely unable to stem the flow.

                “We’re working on that,” is all Bronn said, and she heard the pain in it. She also heard what he did not plainly say: there was no guarantee they would be in contact at all.

                “I need to say goodbye,” Sansa started to say but stopped when everyone else shook their heads.

                “No time,” rasped Sandor.

                “No offense, Paul Bunion, but I wasn’t asking you permission,” she snapped as her temper flared back to life. She felt a little bi-polar with all that had happened in the last day. It made her head spin.

                Sandor smirked, but said nothing. Marge gathered her up in her arms and hugged her tightly.

                “That’s why I’m here right now. There’s more of us downstairs. Jon and Arya are already with them. We leave now. I couldn’t –“ her voice failed as her sobs broke through. Sansa clung to her like as she had when she was nine years old and feared being taken away by Baelishs’ men again.

                “Find a way,” she whispered to her aunt, her second mother, her security.

                “I will,” Margaery whispered back before she peppered Sansa’s face with teary kisses. Sansa was released to Bronn’s embrace and although it was a bit more awkward, it still gave her a profound sense of safety and comfort.

                “I know he’s an ugly cuss, and a right pain in the ass to boot, but he really is one of our best. You’d do well to listen to him,” Bronn said as he jerked his head in Sandor’s direction. She saw the larger man roll his eyes, but otherwise gave no indication that he’d heard anything they had said.

                “We love you,” Marge choked out.

                “I know. Tell Arya and Jon –“

                “We will,” Bronn said meaningfully. “Now get out of here. You’re going out the back. Keep your hood up and your head down.”

                “I’ve got her,” Sandor said solemnly.

                “We know you do,” Marge answered back. And then she walked over and stood on her tippy toes – even then was still too short – and pulled Sandor down to place a kiss on his stubbly cheek. She dashed out the door without a backwards glance and Sansa knew it was only because if she looked back she would never find the strength to leave.

                “Give him hell for me.” Bronn grinned and tugged on the end of her braid. Then he too was gone and it was just the two of them. They stood and stared at each other awkwardly until Sandor cleared his throat and gestured towards the door.

                “After you,” he rumbled.

                Sansa took a deep breath, nodded, and shuffled out of the room. She didn’t look back either, but she could feel the behemoth’s presence behind her. A slight tug on her sleeve caused her steps to falter as she turned to glance at him over her shoulder. He held out an army green hooded jacket she immediate recognized; it was her brother, Jon’s.

                “Cover up,” he instructed bossily. She must have made a face because he adjusted his tone and offered, “Don’t want you to catch cold.”

                They left through a back entrance with her hood raised and her head down. She felt his hand on the small of her back as he guided her through the half-full parking lot towards his black Ford pick-up. Once they were safely ensconced in the cab were pulling out of the lot she turned to him.

                “Where are we going?” She’d started with what she thought was the most innocuous question on her list. To his credit, he didn’t hesitate to answer her.

                “Right now I’m going to get a few things from my place. Then we’re hitting the road.”

                “And this road leads to?”

                “No idea.”

                She frowned at him. “What do you mean ‘no idea’?”

                He held up a cell phone and shook it slightly. “I get a new set of directions every few hours. Once we reach the first destination they’ll let me know where we’re off to next.”

                “Until . . ?” She was losing patience. Apparently he was as well.

                “Until we’re exactly where they want us,” he bit out.

                “And they would be who, exactly?”

                He shot her a look full of annoyance. “Santa Clause and the fucking Tooth Fairy. Who the fuck do you think?”

                Sansa huffed in irritation at his tone and turned to look out the window. It was dark and they were on a back road surrounded by trees, but she’d rather stare at fuzzy dark blurs than the stranger at her side. They hadn’t even been in the car half an hour when he turned onto a long dirt road that dead ended at the front of a small cabin. Several pairs of eyes glowed from the shadowed darkness of the covered porch.

                Sandor stepped out and gave a short, sharp whistle. Seconds later the three wolves she remember from the day before leapt into the back of the truck. Sansa opened her door and hopped out of the passenger side.

                “We stopped for your dogs?” She wasn’t angry, more surprised. He came out of the house with and dark duffel and a heavy winter coat.

                “The word ‘dogs’ might not be entirely accurate,” he provided as he tossed the duffel on the floor of the extended cab and his coat on the back seat. It was the first time she had looked back there and she was shocked to see her own grey duffel practically bursting at the seams along with her parka and her favorite purse. A few pairs of her shoes and boots were strewn across the floor as well.

                “My stuff,” she said weakly.

                “What your brother could gather from your dorm before the clean-up crew descended,” he informed her drily.

                Jon had done this for her. That explained how Sandor had gotten his jacket. He’d given it to her. To remember him by if things went pear shaped? She pulled it tighter across her body and tried not to think along those lines.

                “Our house?” Her mind flashed to the few keepsakes she had from her childhood home. Pictures of her parents and brothers, their home. Dance recital ribbons and a blanket her mother had made when she was born.

                “Not sure. It’s just stuff. It can be replaced,” he said offhandedly as he checked the magazine of a government issue Glock.

                “No, it can’t,” she replied tersely. Her tone must have gotten his attention because he glanced up at her for a moment before going back to checking his weapons.

                “I’m sure Margie got everything important out before our guys went in,” he murmured.

                It was strange the way this guy seemed to know the way she thought, seemed to understand her concerns without her having to voice them. Then she remembered that he wasn’t such a stranger after all. He’d known who she was when he came across her in the woods.

                The crunch of tires on gravel and dirt brought Sansa’s senses into high alert as she swung around to track the direction of the sounds.

                “I thought you said no one knew where you lived?” she accused as her heart clattered in her ribs. He appeared in front of her suddenly and his gigantic body blocked her completely from view.

                “Stay behind me,” he growled. His tone brokered no argument, but Sansa was used to such a tone and it didn’t intimidate her one little bit. She was not some shrinking violet that needed rescuing. She knew how to hold her own.

                In one swift movement she had pulled his backup weapon from where he had it tucked into the back of his jeans and whirled out from behind him before she landed in a shooters stance to his right. The look of shock on her great protectors’ face was hilarious, but she didn’t crack a smile. Her eyes were trained on the bouncing headlights that grew larger as the vehicle approached slowly. It rolled to a stop less than twenty feet from them and Sansa heard the drivers’ side door creak open and feet hit the driveway.

                “I shoot first and ask questions later,” Sandor warned in a booming voice that nearly startled Sansa out of her skin.

                “Not very welcoming, Clegane,” a voice called back jovially over the rumble of the cars’ engine. Something prickled at the back of Sansa’s mind. Some long lost memory that she had repressed struggled to make its way to the surface.

                Sandor swore under his breath, but lowered his weapon. “Kill the lights, will you?”

                “I thought you liked the spotlight, Clegane?” the smooth voice called merrily. “But if you insist.”

                The headlights flickered off and it took Sansa’s eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness. The cabs’ interior light shone around their impromptu visitor, illuminating just enough for Sansa to make his features out. Again the memory tugged at her.

                “We won’t shoot, you golden haired shit. Get over here and tell us what you want so we can fucking leave,” snarled Sandor. Without even a glance in her direction he swiped the pistol from her grasp and tucked it back into his belt. Sansa was almost embarrassed at how easily he had disarmed her, but reasoned it away by telling herself if was only because he had let his guard down that she had done the same.

                The lights from the porch and the headlights from the truck created an artificial daylight around them. His hair was the first thing she’d noticed. It was golden, just as Sandor had stated seconds ago. The next was bright green eyes set into an absurdly handsome face. It wasn’t until she glanced down and saw the black vest emblazoned with the letters FBI that she gasped wildly and fell back against the side of the truck.

                “Y-you!” she stammered.

                The man smiled kindly and ducked his head slightly. “Hello, Sansa. It’s nice to see you again.”

                Sansa continued to gap at him, her mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Her stomach twisted as an emotional tidal wave overwhelmed her, nearly drowning her with its intensity.

                “I’m surprised you remember me,” the man stated gently.

                Sansa spluttered out a noise somewhere between a laugh of disbelief and a scoff. It was like her mind couldn’t make heads or tails of who stood before her.

                “What do you want, Lannister?” Sandor barked. It didn’t escape Sansa’s notice that he had moved ever so slightly to partially block Sansa from the G-man’s view.

                “Relax, Clegane, I come in peace. I’m actually here under orders. I’m to tail you until you reach your first destination. I’ve also got a message for Miss Stark,” his tone was back to its previous humor.

                “A message from who?” snarled Sandor. He moved closer to her. She was surprised at how much relief she felt at the gesture.

                “My brother, Tyrion,” G-man Lannister answered.

                Sansa gaped at him again. “You’re Tyrion’s brother? You’re Jaime?”

                Jaime grinned fully. “He talks about me? How unexpected. And here I believed we were all dead to him.”

                “Not you,” Sansa blurted without thinking. She had the decency to blush. She wasn’t sure if Tyrion would appreciate her sharing what little he had told her during their sessions.

                “You know the Imp?” Sandor questioned rudely. Sansa openly bristled at the nickname he used.

                “He’s my shrink,” she challenged, “and he’s fucking awesome, so watch your mouth!”

                Sandor’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. Jaime laughed uproariously, even after she turned to icy glare towards him.

                “Give me the message then get your happy ass back in your G ride and let us get the hell out of here. I’d like to live to see twenty-one, thanks.”

                “You’re only nineteen,” Jaime countered with slightly narrowed eyes.

                “And not getting any younger, Hoss. Give up the goods and let’s get going!” She snapped her fingers a couple times to accentuate her point. Jaime chuckled and shook his head.

                “Yes ma’am,” he drawled with a very thick, very fake accent. His expression shifted to something a little more clandestine and he leaned towards her conspiratorially. “It’s like this, see? Tyrion wanted to let you know he would send word to wherever you are by way of,” he paused for dramatic effect and stage whispered, “carrier pigeon.”

                “Have you lost your fucking mind, Lannister?!” Sandor’s roar bounced off the trees and somewhere in the immediate area a flock of geese were started into sudden flight, honking loudly as they went.

                But Sansa knew the code. It wasn’t some lame ass joke as her almighty protector assumed. There was hidden meaning that only she got. It made her smile.

                “Ravens are better for that sort of thing,” she countered, wondering if the other man knew. His green eyes twinkled as he appraised her openly.

                “Dark wings, dark words,” he said plainly. Sansa nodded and then turned to Sandor. Things were not so hopeless and out of control after all.

                “Let’s do this before I do my best impression of the Road Runner and leave your gawking ass in the dust,” she muttered and casually backhanded his broad chest.

                She climbed into the cab and called over her shoulder, “Give him my best, will you?”

                It was the last test she could think of. She knew what Tyrion would say if she gave him those exact words. She’d used them as a parting line while she was a teenager. He’d always responded the exact same way, his words never changed.

                “Never give your best away. Always make them earn it.” Jaime looked astonished even as he spoke the words.

                Sansa nodded and smirked. “That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”

                Both men laughed, but Sandor was the loudest. He climbed into the cab and shook his head at her. “You’re something else, Little Bird.”

                “Little Bird?” she turned to him and cocked an eyebrow.

                “Mmm,” he hummed and nodded. “And FYI sweets, if you ever try to fly away from me, I’ll have you hogtied and locked away so fast that pretty little head of yours will spin.”

                We’ll see, Sansa thought to herself as the truck lurched forward into the night

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight – SANDOR

SANDOR

March 15th

This is never going to work, his inner critic chided. What the fuck was I thinking?

The last two days had been utter madness. He’d barely slept six hours in the past forty-eight. If they didn’t reach their safe house soon he was sure he’d lose his damn mind. And it wasn’t like she was making things any easier.

Sansa was stretched out in the passenger’s seat with her impossibly long legs extended over the dash. Her socked feet rested against the windshield as she reclined lazily with her right arm draped out the open window. He’d asked her numerous times to take her shoes off the dashboard, to which she finally relented two hours ago by removing the shoes, tossing them into the back before she plonked her shoeless feet in exactly the same place they had been since dawn.

“Happy?” she’s asked him with a saccharine smile.

“Ecstatic,” he’d snarled back.

“Great, maybe later we can skip and hold hands,” she’d bitten back before rolling the window down and burrowing under her parka. It couldn’t have been more than forty degrees outside, but she’d kept the window down as they drove across Ohio and into Indiana. The only time she’d spoken to him was when he pulled through a drive threw for lunch.

They couldn’t go on like this. They were going to be stuck together for God knew how fucking long. If this kept up it would only make it things more difficult on both of them. He didn’t want to feel like her warden. He knew he was an ugly son of a bitch with a mean streak a mile and half long, but he was trying to be at least somewhat pleasant with the girl. She’d had it bad enough; she didn’t need his shit on top of everything else.

Her ice maiden exterior finally thawed as they crossed the state line into Illinois. It was dark again and way past dinner time. She stretched forward, her body doubled over gracefully before she simultaneously yawned and arched her back. Finally, she put that damned window back up. The dashboard indicted it was thirty three degrees outside.

“I don’t suppose we’re there yet,” she inquired as she laced her fingers together and noisily cracked all her knuckles in one swift motion.

Sandor glanced down into the cup holder at the screen of his phone. They usually sent a message around this time with the next set of directions. Sure enough, the phone vibrated noisily as the screen lit up. Before he could reach down her slim little fingers hand snatched it up and away from him.

“Hey!”

“Cool your jets, it’s just more directions. Take eighty west to two ninety four north to eighty-eight west. Take exit for Freedom Drive towards Naperville. Right onto East Diehl Road. We’re at the Hampton Inn.”

He tried to reign in the urge to growl at her for taking his phone. Sandor reasoned to himself that she probably just wanted to feel like she had some say in where she was going and what was happening in her life. He could let her have that. He knew he’d be bat shit crazy if the roles were reversed and someone was dragging him all over Gods’ green earth without so much as a ‘fuck you’.

“I hope this place is better than the last fleabag motel we were stuck in,” she griped, arms folded tightly over her chest.

He snorted, not able to disagree with her. The place they’d stayed in Ohio was a real pit. The fucking air-conditioner had been removed from the wall before they had arrived, leaving a giant, gaping hole in its place. They were quickly given a new room, but it was not much better. Sandor had been quick to call his contact and demand better. When the kid on the other end whined about budgets and needing to keep his job, Sandor barked at him.

“How long will you keep your fucking job if the girl contracts Hepatitis from the filthy conditions you’re making her sleep in!”

As they pulled into the parking lot of the motel, he could see the kid had taken him seriously. It was no Hilton, but once they were in the lobby he could see the place was clean and well looked after. They were given a room with two doubles and directions to a local Italian restaurant that also did take-out and delivery.  

“What about your wolves?” Sansa asked quietly as they wandered down the hall.

“I’ll bring them in after we eat. Ghost is a hopeless beggar,” he informed her. Sansa snorted a quiet laugh as he opened the door and led her inside.

There were two double beds made up with clean, white duvets. A decent sized TV sat across the room from them and below the large window opposite the door was a heater/air-conditioner embedded in the wall.

“Thank God!” Sansa exclaimed as she fell back dramatically on the soft white bed nearest the window.

“You hungry?” he asked as he set their duffels down by the bathroom door. When she nodded vigorously he handed her the menu for Maggiano’s.

“Hey, this actually looks edible,” she said with a teasing tone as she eyed the food list intently.

“Get whatever you want,” he offered.

“Anything?” she asked with a raised brow.

He shrugged. Why should he care? It was all paid for by the government. Let them sort it out if she decided to order lobster or some shit. She’d surprised him with her simple order of a chopped salad and veal parmesan. He kept it simple with a double order of spaghetti and meatballs. It was his turn to surprise her when he not only finished his food, but also what remained of hers when she was full.

“How the hell do you eat that much?” She shook her head, slightly wide-eyed.

He smirked. “I’m a big boy.”

Color rose to her cheeks and she gave a slightly nervous laugh before he thought he’d heard her mutter under her breath, “I’ll bet you are.”

“What was that, Little Bird?” He arched his brow in surprise.

“Why do you call me that?” she asked him suddenly. He saw the distraction for what it was, but allowed her to change the subject.

“You asked me that already,” he muttered around the mouth of coke bottle.

“Yeah, and you gave me some B.S. about me flying away from you too much,” she challenged with an eye roll.

He was surprised when he felt heat rise to his own cheeks. In truth, it was because she flew and fluttered away from him when he first found her. But it had also been because she was naked as a Jay bird. He didn’t think she would respond well if he reminded her of that, so he gave a non-committal shrug.

“You chirp a lot.”

Her mouth dropped open and she huffed indignantly. It made him chuckle. Especially when she shrieked, “I do not!”

“Tweet, tweet, Little Bird,” he goaded, enjoying the way her face contorted in anger.

“I’ve barely said two words to you this whole trip! How is that chirping too much?” she demanded.

He grinned. “It’s more the tone of your voice. It’s very high and squeaky.”

She opened her mouth before she snapped it shut again with a click. Glaring, she slowly lifted her hand and flipped him off.

He laughed out loud. “Giving me the bird now? Just reinforcing the nickname with that.”

A smile tugged at the corners of her full lips, but she fought it valiantly.

“You suck,” she said finally before she bounced off the bed and stomped off to the bathroom, grabbing her toiletries on the way.

“That I do, Little Bird,” he agreed quietly as she slammed the door behind her. “That I do.”

It was almost an hour later when she finally re-emerged. Steam billowed from behind her as she floated into their room in a baby blue t-shirt and tight black leggings. Her coppery mane was still damp in places and hung long and loose down her back. Her alabaster skin practically glowed in the dimly lit space illuminated by only one bedside lamp and the TV.

Sandor had to swallow a few times before he was able to rasp out, “Took you fucking long enough. Leave any hot water for me?”

“I hope not,” she said around a deep sigh as she snuggled down into her bed.

“I’m going to get the wolves,” he informed her. It was nearly eleven at night – late enough that he should be able to walk three fully grown beasts of their size without anyone getting alarmed and calling Animal Control. Getting them into the motel unnoticed would be a little trickier, but he was sure he could manage.

Once they’d all done their business, Sandor fed them from the practically empty container of food he’d packed them, and then with stealth that belied his size, he snuck them past the front desk manned by only one person – who was luckily too busy checking their phone to notice him – and down the long hallway to their room.

Only the TV remained on since his departure less than forty-five minutes previously, but in that time Sansa had managed to settle into a somewhat restless sleep. When she twitched and hummed in her sleep, Ghost whined lowly and padded over to her bedside. He sniffed near her face before Sandor could stop him.

“Oi! Back off, you,” he hissed. Ghost turned his massive white head and stared at him with what Sandor imagined as belligerence before he snorted once, turned in a circle and lay down between the two beds. Sandor rolled his eyes but left the mongrel there.

He turned to the other two and saw them curled up next to each other nearest the door. Both were grey with yellow eyes, but the female, Lady, had a white underside, while her brother, Grey Wind resembled smoke his entire coat over. Ghost had been the runt, and an albino to boot, so he’d gotten him nearly half price of the other two. He stood taller than both of his siblings now, but was the worst behaved of the three. That being said, he seemed to have taken to Sansa, so that at least showed he had good taste.

Sandor makes his way into the small bathroom and glares balefully at the pint sized shower/tub combination installed there. It’s clean and well stocked, but he has to duck under the showerhead in order to wash his hair and upper body. It took two of the small towels to fully dry him and he felt like a contortionist as he tried to dress himself in the micro space. He settled with just his boxers and a ratty pair of sweats he usually used to do yard work. By the time he’d made his way back into the bedroom it was past midnight and he was spent. He groaned under his breath as he sunk into the soft mattress and pulled the blankets over his bare chest.

He felt like he’d barely closed his eyes when he was shocked awake by a window rattling scream. Bleary eyed and half-conscious, Sandor bolted upright in his bed and looked around in alarm. The bluish glow from the TV screen barely illuminated the room, but it was enough to see the thrashing, baying girl off to his left in the throes of what was clearly a horrific nightmare. Ghost was on his feet and whined noisily as Sandor threw the covers off and slid to his knees between their beds. He tried to shove the beast away, but the nearly one hundred and fifty pounds of wolf mix merely snorted at him before he prodded at Sansa’s arm with his wet nose.

“Sansa,” Sandor said quietly. Her back arched and her eyes flew open as he arms flung out in front of her face defensively.

NO!” She bellowed at the top of her lungs. Afraid someone well-meaning neighbour was going to call the front desk – or worse, the police – Sandor seized her by the shoulders and pulled her up so that they were practically eye to eye.

“Sansa!” he said more loudly.

Her blue eyes were wild and unfocused as they darted around unseeingly. She started to shake her head again and Sandor was about to give her a good hard shake when her voice broke over one word.
                “Mommy.”

He felt his heart stutter in his chest and he was momentarily struck dumb. The pain and fear laced in that single word was enough to make his entire world come crashing to a screeching halt. He had to swallow past the lump in his throat several times before he was able to speak again.

“Little Bird,” he rasped quietly before he was able to repeat himself, louder the second time. It was then that he saw her come back to herself, to him. Her pupils dilated as her eyes finally focused in on him. Her breath came out in stuttered huffs.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” she apologized ridiculously. Sandor and Ghost almost snorted in unison. Startled, Sansa’s eyes darted between man and mutt before she let out a watery chuckle.

“Even he knows you’ve got nothing to be sorry for.” In truth, Sandor was relieved to have something to distract him from the trauma of hearing that cry come from that girl. She didn’t know – couldn’t know – what a knife to the gut it had been.

So he couldn’t explain the sheer lunacy when he uttered the words, “Wanna talk about it?”

She hesitated briefly before she shook her head once. “No point.”

Intrigued by her response he leaned a little closer and held her gaze. “Why’s that?”

“Talking about the nightmares never made them stop before,” she said with a one shouldered shrug.

“Maybe you haven’t talked to the right person about them.”

Where the fuck was all this coming from? he wondered as he was unable to stem the flow of stupid that continued to poor from his burnt lips.

Sansa gave him a soft chuckle, but he noticed that she didn’t move away from him. “Tell me why you think you’d do better than a shrink I’ve known for more than ten years.”

“You’ve got me for more than a fifty minute hour,” he supplied without thought. When she laughed again, a little fuller this time, he knew he was on the right track. “Try and get some sleep, Little Bird. I’m not going anywhere without you, and you’re not going anywhere with me.”

He moved to turn off the TV, but stopped when a soft hand rested delicately over his.

“Leave it on, please. I don’t like the dark.”

“Monsters don’t hide in the dark, Little Bird. Even if they did, I’m the scariest motherfucker around, and I’m with you.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” She sounded amused.

“Yes,” he told her honestly, because it was. “Does it?”

She was quiet for a moment as she stoked Ghost’s massive head. Finally she nodded. “Yeah, actually it does.” She patted the bed beside her. “C’mon big boy.”

He made to get up. “If you insist.”

“Not you!” she spluttered around a laugh. She looked at the great white ball of teeth and fur who stared right back with big, hopeful red eyes.

Sandor sighed and made a big show of looking put out. “Fine, but you should know he snores and hogs the covers.”

“I’ll take my chances,” she deadpanned. Sandor shrugged before giving the all clear with a jerk of his chin in Sansa’s general direction.

“Go on then,” he grumbled. When Ghost gracefully leapt up and curled closely by her side, Sandor had to squash down the irrational swell of jealousy before it showed on his mangled face. “Don’t get used to it!”

Sansa giggled from her pillow as he finally extinguished that last bit of light in the room. The inky blackness brought with it the relief that he no longer had to look and the painfully beautiful woman-child that lay less than three feet from him. He could still hear her breathing though, and her soft sighs of contentment brought with it a new kind of torture. Though that was nothing compared to when he heard his name fall from her lips.

“Sandor?”

“Hmmm?”

“What’s his name?” She sounded almost embarrassed; like she should somehow know that information even though he had never provided it.

“Grey Wind and Lady are curled up in the corner, and the hound taking up half your bed is Ghost,” he told her quietly.

She said nothing else and it was only moments later that he heard her breaths even out to indicate she has drifted off again. He knew it wouldn’t be too long before he followed.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine – SANSA

March 16th

 

She had awoken to the soft pinging of an incoming text. To her right she heard the large man groan, while to her left a massive wolf snored softly. She smiled, the first real smile since this nightmare had begun – had it only been four days ago? Five? She couldn’t believe it hadn’t even been a week. It felt like a lifetime.

“What time is it?” she asked in a voice thick with sleep.

“Seven seventeen,” Sandor grumbled in reply. He didn’t sound too happy that he was awake yet.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?” she suggested. “We can get up and go in a few hours.”

“No can do. Got our next set of instructions. Looks like we’ve finally got our destination,” he informed her evenly.

Her ears, much like the animal next to her, perked up at the news. “Oh?”

“Mmm,” he hummed in response. When it became clear he would provide her with nothing else she let out an exasperated sigh. All men weren’t so clueless.

“Well?” she prodded impatiently.

“Chief Lake, Wisconsin,” he told her as if that explained everything.

“Is it far?” They weren’t too far from Wisconsin, but it was a big state.

“About six and half hours from here, and that’s with no pit stops,” he rumbled as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and wiped a tired hand over his scruffy face.

“So another long day on the road,” she surmised in a sour voice.

“Deal with it, princess. We’re doing this to keep your hide alive and safe,” he snapped.

“Not much of a morning person, are you?” she asked with an arched eyebrow.

“Bite me,” he retorted, but his tone was far gentler than before.

“Aw, does the big, bad bear have a sore head,” she teased and then laughed when he glowered at her.

Maybe it was because of how kind he had been the night before, but she felt more comfortable around him. She felt herself start to relax, something she hadn’t done in . . .well, years if she was honest. It was strange that she felt safe enough to let her guard down in this circumstance, when it had taken years with Bronn and Margie before she had been able to do the same thing.  

“I need coffee,” he muttered as he stood up and stretched his arms. She saw his fingertips brush the ceiling and tried to hide a smirk. Her expression twitched when she let her eyes wander down his impressively muscled torso. Her gaze lingered a little too long on a series of scars over his right hip and she startled slightly when Sandor suddenly cleared his throat loudly. Heat flooded her cheeks.

“Something catch your eye, Little Bird?” His tone was amused, but that only served to heighten her embarrassment.

“Nope,” she said as casually as possible before gathering her courage to look him in the eye. She smiled fully before she continued, “Just counting your grey hairs.”

He chuckled and scratched at his morning scruff. “Touché.”

She scurried over to her duffel and yanked clothes from within. She was just about to disappear into the bathroom when he tossed over his shoulder, “Hurry up and make yourself decent so we can get breakfast and hit the road.”

She didn’t know what possessed her to say it, or what drove her eyebrow up saucily as she did. But the words flew out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“Baby, I haven’t been decent for years.”

His head whipped around so fast she thought he heard his neck crack. A giggle escaped her as she practically flew into the bathroom, his wide eyed, slack jawed expression left behind her.

“What the hell has gotten into you?!” she whisper-yelled at herself as she whipped off her PJ’s and threw on a fresh bra and t-shirt. “Why the fuck are you flirting with him?”

That was the million dollar question. Why was she flirting with him? This was not The Bodyguard, and he was NOT Kevin Costner. He might be the same age though. No. Was he? She was usually pretty good with guessing someone’s age, but this guy was kind of a mystery. She wouldn’t put him at more than thirty, but then he’d said he knew her mother, so he must be older than that, right? Right?

“What the hell does it matter?” she hissed as she yanked on her jeans. “I’ve learned a long time ago that boys suck!”

But he’s not a boy. He’s a man, a little voice whispered in her mind.

“Yeah,” she whispered back. “An OLD man.” Then she groaned and yanked a brush through her wild tresses. “Great, Sansa. Talking to the voices in your head is one of the first signs of insanity.”

A loud bang on the bathroom door caused her to yelp in surprise. She pressed a hand to her thundering heart and snapped, “What?”

“Hurry up, would you? I’ve got to tap a kidney.”

She snorted, grabbed her toothbrush and went to work. A few minutes later she emerged and brushed past him with an exaggerated eye roll.

“Such a fucking gentleman.”

“You kiss Marge with that mouth?” he retorted with a smirk as he made to shut the door. She whirled around, a quick quip ready on her lips when her brain-to-mouth filter finally decided to make its appearance and stopped her from speaking the words, ‘No, but I’ll kiss you with it if you want.’

Instead she blushed furiously, closed her trap, and whirled back towards her bag. She tried to ignore the throaty chuckle that disappeared behind the door as she made a meal out of folding her clothes and tucking them away.

“Seriously, what the hell is wrong with me?” she breathed as she tried to gain some semblance of control over her wildly beating heart.

When Sandor re-emerged he came out to three hounds and one very tense looking Sansa standing at the ready by the door. He coughed out a small laugh as he reached across and relieved Sansa of her bag, then snatched his up in the same hand as if they weighed nothing at all. She tried not to notice the way the muscles on his arms tightened and bulged with every movement.

“What do you want to eat?” he asked as they all piled into his giant truck.

Sansa shrugged one shoulder. “I’m easy.”

Sandor smirked and shook his head as he drove smoothly out of the parking lot.

“Somehow I doubt that,” he murmured under his breath.

“What?” she asked, sure she had misheard him.

“Nothing,” he countered just as quickly.

Her eyes narrowed in irritation and she turned to look out the window as he coasted into the nearest fast food joint and ordered them breakfast sandwiches and coffee. They drove in relative silence as they made their way onto I-88 West.

“So where are we headed?” she asked once she had finished the last swallow of sludge that barely passed as coffee.

“I told you, Wisconsin,” he replied shortly. Sansa heaved a deep sigh as she tried to channel what remained of her patience.

Sandor glanced at her from the corner of his eye and gave a deep sigh of his own. His body seemed to relax somewhat as he slowly expelled air from his lungs.

“A little place called Chief Lake. There’s a house there close enough to town that we can get supplies, but won’t be seen if we don’t want to. It’s also close to Duluth should we need any back up.”

He sounded almost friendly as he explained. It made her relax a little.

“Does the government just own houses all across the states for situations like mine?” She sounded snarky, but was genuinely curious. She was surprised when he answered her honestly.

“Sometimes. Most of the time they are either purchased for specific use, or rented. This one is owned by a government employee. He’s generously offered to let us use it.”

She notices that his tone became more wry towards the very end of his explanation.

“Whose house is it?”

Sandor hesitated briefly before he nearly spat, “It’s a Lannister house.”

Sansa stiffened. “Which Lannister?”

“Not sure. Probably your impish shrinks’,” he grumbled.

“Tyrion,” she corrected him with a pointed glare. “Why don’t you like him, anyway?”

He seemed to consider his answer before he gave it to her. “He always acted like he was so much smarter than everyone else. It bugged me.”

“Probably because he was smarter than everyone else,” she replied in an off-handed way. It was no secret Tyrion was extremely intelligent. He’d graduated very early from high school, college, and grad school.

Sandors’ loud snort of derision clearly indicated he did not agree. She decided to let it drop since she didn’t want to argue with him for the next hundred miles.

“How long until we get there?” she tried to sound casual. He’d told her how long it would take before they’d left, but she hadn’t really listened.

“Another six hours,” he bit back. She felt her own temper prickle, but did what she could to keep it out of her voice.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“No.”

She rolled her eyes, but proceeded anyway. “When we first met, you said something about me being my mothers’ daughter.”

His expression shifted from hostile to guarded. “Yeah?”

“Did you know her? My mother?”

His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed thickly. “Yeah, I knew her.”

When he didn’t offer any more, she prodded, “How did you know her?”

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a moment before he answered, hesitantly. “We worked together on a case.”

“You were her partner?” She was a little confused. She’d heard her mom worked on a team, not with one particular person.

“You could say that,” he said hesitantly. “But only for that one case.”

“When was that?”

He got a little twitchy. “A long time ago.”

“How long?” she pressed. She didn’t know why it was important, it just was.

He sighed and shot her a fleeting look. “End of two thousand and five.”

Her eyebrows shot up as she glanced at him appraisingly. For all her self-flagellation about hitting on an ‘old man’, she didn’t think he was that old.

“How old are you?” she asked shrewdly. His wry smile should have been answer enough, but she was glad he didn’t make her ask again.

“Twenty-nine.”

Mental math took her an embarrassingly long minute, but her temper burned away the shame she felt at her numerical ineptitude. “The Marshal’s don’t take teenagers.”

“Not usually, no,” he agreed.

“Then how did –“

He cut her off, suddenly defensive. “What’s with all the fucking questions?”

“What’s with all the fucking lies?” she shot back angrily.

His face contorted into a mask of rage. He stomped down on the brakes and swerved dangerously across two lanes of traffic before they came to a screeching halt on the side of the highway. He turned fully in his seat and shook a long finger in her face.

“I. NEVER. Lie,” he growled.

“Then explain how –“

“I don’t have to explain jack shit to you, woman!” he interrupted again.

“You said –“

“I know goddamn well what I said,” he shouted. His voice boomed in the confined space and hurt her ears, but she’d be damned if she let him off that easily.

“You have to be twenty-one to join the Marshal’s, AND you have to have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or law. Are you trying to tell me they made an exception just for you?” she asked with as much disdain and disbelief as she could muster.

His eyes narrowed and his voice dropped. “Believe whatever the fuck you want. You asked me a question; I gave you the answer.”

Sansa didn’t budge. It didn’t make any sense. They would never take a nineteen year old kid into the Marshal’s. Unless . . .

Sansa slowly sat back in her seat until her back was against the window. Her eyes travelled over his scarred features twisted with fury down his muscled body to the gun he had tucked into his jacket. He was a very large man and had the same features she remembered hearing about when eavesdropping on her parents whispered conversations when she was a child.

“Your last name is Clegane,” she stated quietly. She wanted to take the words back when his grey eyes turned dark and stormy. Instead, like the idiot she had proven she was, she ploughed on.

“I remember hearing that name when I was little,” she informed him carefully. He said nothing, but his expression spoke volumes. She was treading into very dangerous territory if she was correct. Something told her she was.

“I would sneak into the hallway at night sometimes when I couldn’t sleep. Not often, just . . . just when I’d had a bad dream or something.” She didn’t know why she felt the need to justify her behaviour to him. It just seemed to be an impulse. “One night, right before Thanksgiving, I remember my parents arguing. They were talking about a man named Clegane. My mom was mad that daddy wanted her to transfer off the case. She kept saying she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and that if she was a man, they wouldn’t be having that argument.”

Some of Sandor’s hostility melted away as she spoke, but his posture was still rigid. She hesitantly leaned forward a little to catch his eye.

“Daddy called him a sadist and an animal. He talked about how he had killed people and done horrific things to the women in his life. My mom shouted at him that this was the reason she would do anything to stop him. Daddy said she was going too far and would regret it. That it would be the end of her career. They stopped talking after that. I’m pretty sure daddy slept on the couch that night.” She smirked at the memory of seeing the folded blanket and pillow and being told by her mom that daddy snored too much so she’d banished him to the living room until he learned to sleep more quietly.

“It couldn’t have been you they were fighting about,” she reasoned out loud as she sifted through her thoughts and memories like old photographs out of order.

“Might be,” he rasped back, but Sansa shook her head.

“No, it couldn’t have. The Marshal’s would never employ someone who was wanted for those kinds of crimes – any crimes, really. But,” she hesitated as she looked him over carefully. “They might bend the rules for someone with inside information. Especially if it would help them catch a dangerous criminal.”

His grey eyes darted back and forth between her blue ones, but he said nothing to neither confirm nor deny her theory. After a few minutes of loaded silence he nodded once and turned back toward the wheel. Flustered and confused by the half-truths she’d managed to uncover from his eruption, Sansa turned and looked forward out of the windshield. If she was honest, she had really only dug up more questions she wanted answered. She knew it was not the time. Her shoulder still smarted from where the seatbelt had prevented her slamming into the dash, so she knew more car ride conversation around that topic was out. She decided to wait a while before poking the bear again. Next time she wanted more space around them, and possibly a pre-planned escape route.

It was hours before she was brave enough to try to engage him in conversation again. She purposefully steered clear of his past or her parents or the US Marshal’s, but there was only so much she could say about the weather, the scenery, and questions about where they were headed without sounding like a vapid child.

When he heaved a deep sigh full of irritation, she wondered what she could have possibly said to offend him this time.

“I don’t like talking about it,” he muttered, and then clarified, “the case I helped your mom with. It was . . . not a great time for me.”

Sansa could see that he struggled to string together a coherent – and polite – sentence. She decided to make it as easy on him as she could.

“You don’t have to talk about the case at all,” she murmured and pulled on the end of her braid. “I actually just wanted to know more about her. What she was like. Anything, really.”

“You don’t remember her?” he sounded surprised.

She shook her head. “I do, I just . . . the memories are faded, but they’re there. Mostly family stuff, you know? Holidays, vacations, but nothing from the day to day. I used to ask Aunty Em and Bronn about her and daddy. They’ve told us all kinds of wonderful things from when I was too little to remember.” She smiled sadly.

“It’s never enough, though, is it?” His gravelly voice was soft, almost tender, but heavy with understanding. Sansa shook her head and willed her eyes to stay dry. Sandor didn’t look like a man who handled tears well.

“No,” she agreed.

He pursed his lips for a minute before words tumbled haltingly from his mouth.

“She used to drag me places by my ear,” he blurted. Sansa barked out a laugh of disbelief.

“You’re, like, twice her size!”

He scoffed loudly. “I swear she had some sort of elastic reach. And fucking Vulcan hearing. I could drop the F bomb all the way across a crowded room, full of shouting people, and she’d hear it every time.”

Sansa grinned widely. “Tell me about it. Arya and I tried to learn sign language so that we could have what mom called our ‘secret squirrel conversations’.” It felt good to remember things like that. For the first time in what felt like forever, Sansa noticed a warmth spread through her chest.

“She used to tell me I acted like I’d been raised by wolves,” Sandor provided with a knowing smirk. Sansa laughed loudly and glanced over her shoulder towards the back of the truck where his pack lay sleeping.

“That explains so much,” she teased and relaxed more when he gave her a full grin while he nodded.

“People around the office, Marge in particular, called me her ‘pet project’.”

“Oh, man. I feel so bad for you,” Sansa said around a giggle. Once her mother got it into her head that someone needed help, she moved heaven and earth to make things happen for them.
                “Did she tell you that you had to ‘accept your brilliance to realise your full potential’?” she asked as she quoted her mother verbatim.

Sandor groaned loudly, which Sansa took as a yes. She reached over and softly patted his scarred cheek in mock pity. Her hand froze mid-pat when he violently flinched away from her touch. Awkwardness filled the cab like a heavy fog, dense and suffocating as Sansa scrambled for a way to make up for her gaffe. She was relieved when Sandor resumed speaking as if nothing had happened, though his tone had taken a more serious note.

“It was her nagging and insistence that got me accepted into the Marshals. I was able to complete my degree in half the time by taking summer classes and nearly a double class load. Pretty sure I only slept, like, twenty hours in those two years.”

Sansa had the good grace to blush. “Guess you were twenty-one after all.”

He hummed at her and gave her a mock glare. Her lips quirked up at the corners before she leaned her head back and stared out the windshield again.

“So what happened with the Marshals? You said you were retired or something?” He had explained before, sort of, but so much had happened that she couldn’t quite recall the details.

“Or something,” he muttered. When she turned and looked at him in question he snorted under his breath.

“I was injured during my last case. Made me unfit for duty. I didn’t want a desk job, so I just take protection detail when it comes up.”

Sansa nodded once and turned to look forward again with a simple, “Oh.” She could tell that it wasn’t the whole story, but given his extreme outburst the last time she’d accused him of not telling the truth she decided to just let it be. She could always ask him again another time. Like when they weren’t hurtling down the highway going seventy-five miles an hour and trapped together in a small metal box.

“And lucky you, you get to escort the walking death trap to the middle of nowhere and babysit her until the end of time!” she said with as much sarcasm and false enthusiasm as she could muster. She even gave him a big, cheesy thumbs up.

He snorted a laugh and shook his head. “Looks like that, doesn’t it?”

She noticed his cryptic remark, but decided to let that slide, too. “You must have really pissed someone off up the food chain. I almost feel sorry for you.”

“Almost?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Almost,” she repeated with a wink.

The conversation trickled in and out as the miles flew by outside the windows. Despite the way the day had started out, by the time they had turned off the highway towards Chief Lake, Wisconsin Sansa felt downright comfortable around her very large protector/jailor.

“Wow, there’s not much here, is there?” she muttered.

“Welcome to the backwoods, Little Bird,” Sandor said wryly.

Snow was at least a foot deep outside, but the roads were perfectly clear. The ploughs must have done daily runs to keep up with the snowfall. The place was densely forested, but she managed to see a couple signs that indicated an Inn and a couple places to eat.

“We’ll head up to Hayward for groceries later. I want to get there and make sure everything is in order.” Sandors’ expression twisted with dislike as he spoke. Sansa had a sneaky suspicion that it was due to whose house they were staying in rather than the prospect of coming back out for food.

The driveway was impossibly long. Sansa was nearly convinced they’d wound up on some unmarked back road when the treeline suddenly broke and revealed their destination. Sansa was sure she looked like a fish out of water as her jaw gaped and her eyes nearly bugged out of her head. The house – if one could call such a monstrosity that – was easily four thousand square feet. It towered over them, a sprawling two story stone and log lodge that looked like it belonged on the cover of a travel magazine for Aspen.

“Holy shit!” she gasped as they pulled up in front of the attached three car garage.

“Think he’s trying to overcompensate for something?” Sandor muttered under his breath. Sansa let that one slide, but only because she couldn’t wait to get inside and explore.

Sandor stretched and groaned loudly after he unfolded himself from the seated position he’d been in for over seven hours. She had to admit, even though it was bitterly cold outside the nice warm cab, she was happy to be able to stretch her legs again. Even the wolves looked excited to have some freedom, and they bounded off into the trees nipping at each other’s heels.

They both reached into the back and retrieved their meagre belongings before walking up to the double front doors. Off to the right there was a key pad on which Sandor punched in a five digit code. A loud beep and click later and they crossed the threshold. No sooner had they stepped foot in the foyer did Sandor’s phone ring.

“Yeah?” he all but barked into the receiver. Sansa shook her head at his manner and set her bag down. Directly in front of them laid an open and inviting two story great room, complete with floor to ceiling windows and large river stone fireplace. There was a very comfy looking couch, along with four armchairs around a stone coffee table, all facing the fireplace and wooden TV cabinet. Beyond the windows lay a tree framed view of the crystal blue lake. The sun shone brightly off the choppy water, bouncing rays of yellow and white along the dark water. Snow coated the deck and stairs outside. It was like a postcard.

She turned to the right and ventured into a massive kitchen done in blue and white cabinets with granite counters and top of the line stainless steel appliances. Close to the windows sat a six seater round mahogany dining table. She walked right past it and out into a three seasons porch. There was a fireplace out there, too, but it was much colder than in the house. She retreated to the relative warmth of the kitchen where she found Sandor glaring at the space around them.

“This place is amazing,” she said breathlessly.

“Never understood why people had to build places like this. It’s too damned excessive,” he griped. Sansa pursed her lips and rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s right up your alley, princess, but consider this,” he bit out, “this place, and many others like it, isn’t owned by anyone local. The people around here barely make above the poverty line, let alone enough to live in something like this.”

Sansa straightened up and placed her hands on her hips. “So that means that people who have money can’t buy land and build something nice in a place they might love to visit? They probably don’t even know this place exists! It’s in the middle of God’s nowhere! And stop calling me princess! My life is no fucking fairy tale!”

Sandor’s jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed, but he nodded once in ascent. She had him there, and he damn well knew it.

“Now that we’ve gotten that sorted, I’m going to find a bedroom for my stuff. Why don’t you make yourself useful and build a fire. I can see my breath in this place,” she groused as she snatched her bag off the floor and stomped off toward the stairs she had seen on her way in.

“Yes, my lady,” she heard him mutter as she swept passed him. Without looking back she flipped him the bird over her shoulder. His raspy laughter chased her from the room.

The first room she came upon had to be the master bedroom. There was a king sized four poster bed, a private deck with stunning views over the lake, and a master bath with spa tub and separate shower big enough for two – or one very large man. The whole room had a very masculine feel to it, which helped make up her mind. With a decisive nod she moved along down the hall.

Right next to that room was a more modest one with a queen bed all done up in deep reds and Native American art. There was a bathroom with a deep soaking tub and walk in shower right across the hall. It was more than enough. She threw her bag on the bed and continued down the hall. There were two more bedrooms, one with twin beds, and the other with a set of double bunks.

As she padded back to her room she saw Sandor leaning against the wall outside her door with an expression she couldn’t decipher on his face.

“You didn’t take the main bedroom.” It almost sounded like an accusation, but Sansa could hear the confusion that lay under his biting tone.

She shrugged. “You’re too big for the other beds, and I like the colors in this one better,” she tacked on the last part so he wouldn’t argue with her. She had a feeling that he would fight her tooth and nail if he thought she was trying to do something for him. God forbid.

His eyes narrowed like he thought she was lying to him, but after a mini staring contest where neither of them backed down, he seemed to relent with a minute nod.

“I’ve located the thermostat, so it should warm up in here. The fire will have to wait until we get back from Hayward.”

“What’s in Hayward?”

“Food and other shit we need,” he practically snapped. She watched him take a deep breath in before he spoke in a much more measured voice. “A grocery, gas station, Walmart; you know, that kind of thing. I thought you’d want to come along rather than have me pick out everything.”

There he was, trying again. It set something a flutter in her stomach, the sight of this monstrous man doing what he could to be more than just civil to her. They weren’t quite butterflies; maybe moths. Or gnats.

Sansa smiled widely at him. “Thanks,” she said sweetly and practically danced over to stand right in front of him.

He glared at her again before grunting something along the lines of, “Yeah, whatever. Get in the truck.”

“Can I drive?” she asked all hopeful with big, blue Bambi eyes. He didn’t even hesitate.

“Nope.”

She reached over and grabbed his hand in both of hers. Despite it being nearly thirty degrees outside – and probably in – his skin was warm to the touch. He froze mid-step.

“Please?” she begged and poked out her lower lip in a childish pout. She even batted her eyelashes over wide eyes as she stared into his stormy grey depths. “Please, Sandor?”

His breath seemed to stutter somewhat as he breathed out. Slowly, carefully, he withdrew his hand from hers, but their eyes remained locked. He cleared his throat once before his face scrunched up in a scowl.

“Fine. But,” he turned and raised a finger, pointing at her face. “You scratch my car and I’ll take it out on your ass,” he threatened menacingly.

Sansa couldn’t stop her expression before her eyebrows flew into her hairline and her mouth twisted into a wicked smirk. She felt her cheeks heat under the intensity of his gaze and noticed that he too seemed to have heard his remark the way she had. His eyes momentarily widened before he dropped his hand to his side and took a giant step back from her. Finally he shook his head and fished the keys out of his pocket, handing them over without looking at her.

As she moved passed him, completely baffled as to what had just occurred, she could have sworn she hear him mutter to himself.

“I’m so going to hell.”

Chapter Text

SANSA

March 17th

 

                The cold wind nipped at her cheeks and the tip of her nose, but she couldn’t bring herself to go back inside. It was torture in there. Pure torture. She picked up the thick branch again and whipped it off into the clearing as hard as she could. Ghost bolted past her and seemed to dance between the lightly falling snowflakes before he launched himself into the air and caught the airborne stick. He trotted back to her side and dropped the branch at her feet again.

                “Show off,” she muttered while she scratched behind his ear. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a gravelly voice sounded almost directly behind her. She hadn’t even heard him approach.

                “You ever coming back inside?”

                She glared down at the white wolf who sat in front of her expectantly.

“Thanks for the warning,” she grumbled. “Some watch dog.”

“He knows I’m not a threat,” Sandor rasped.

Sansa gave him her best side eye. “What good are you then?”

He snorted a small laugh. “No threat to you,” he amended.

She hummed and nodded, but didn’t comment. She wasn’t too sure about that. While something deep inside told her that he wouldn’t ever harm her, there was something about him that she didn’t trust. The fact that she couldn’t out her finger on it, or that it seemed to have no real base in his words or actions, irritated her. It was that little annoyance that had driven her out of the warmth of the house since breakfast.

“You’re avoiding me,” he stated plainly and without accusation.

Sansa had to fight to keep her expression neutral. Was it that obvious? She used to be better at hiding her motives.

“What makes you think that?” she murmured while she softly stroked Ghosts’ velvety nose. The great wolf’s eyes closed and he leaned into her touch.

“I’ve seen hide nor hair of you for nearly five hours. Just yesterday I could barely leave the room to piss without you on my heels.”

She rolled her eyes. “I think you’re exaggerating just a tad.”

“I think you haven’t denied it.” His voice was still quiet, calm. But there was something that simmered beneath the surface. A small part of Sansa wanted to push him to see what that ‘something’ was, but another part was utterly terrified to find out. She felt so completely out of her depth with him. Boys were easier. Boys were stupid.

Sansa sighed heavily as she turned and strode back towards the house. She was stopped short by a large hand wrapped around her elbow. He didn’t tug on her or even grasp her tightly. The mere presence of his hand seemed to be enough to halt her in her tracks.

“Don’t do me any favors.” Annoyance was present, but only just. Like he was doing his best to keep it at bay.

“I’m cold,” she replied truthfully. “I didn’t know I’d been out here so long.”

He didn’t speak, but he didn’t let go of her either. She sighed again and tucked her free hand in her pocket.

“It’s nothing. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning and didn’t want to take it out on you.” It wasn’t a lie, not really. Her dreams the previous night had been . . . vivid. She hadn’t slept well at all. When she finally rolled out of bed around eight all she wanted was a shower and massive cup of coffee. She’d ventured outside to clear her head and keep her strangely suspicious mood from his uncanny radar.

He shuffled his feet, and when Sansa glanced back at him a look of uncertainty clouded his face. He finally dropped his hand, but only to sweep it through his hair and scratch the back of his head. He looked off over shoulder and cleared his throat.

“Do you need to run into town for anything?” he asked haltingly. His gaze didn’t return to hers. Not even a flicker. He looked, if it was possible, embarrassed. It finally dawned on her way and she had to fight not to giggle at his very boyish reaction.

“No, no, I’m fine. Really,” she emphasised and stared right at him until he finally returned eye contact. He tried to shrug it off, but the movement looked more like nervous tick.

Sansa pressed her lips together and turned back towards the house. He was such a contradiction. Hair behemoth that could probably kill someone with his little finger and he still got all squeamish at the idea of a girl on the rag. Hilarious.

They stomped the snow off their boots on the back porch before trudging into the living room. Sansa flung herself down onto the fluffy sofa in front of the fire while Sandor showed a little more restraint in an adjacent armchair.

Probably afraid he’d break it, Sansa thought to herself as she snickered under her breath.

“So, what’s the plan?” she asked as she sank back into the cushions.

“Plan?” He looked a little confused.

“Um, yeah,” she replied, “I thought you would have a plan of your own? I’m assuming we’re going to do more than just sit around on our butts waiting for a phone call that says I can see my family again.”

“You know what they say about assuming,” he deadpanned.

Sansa shot upright. “So we’re just going to hang around here until the shitheads that grabbed me are caught?”

Sandor nodded. “Looks that way.”

“But . . .” she had trouble putting the root of her distress into words until she remembered all the years of therapy with Tyrion. She took a deep breath and willed the panic away while she focused on one clear thought at a time.

“They never caught who murdered my parents.”

“No, they didn’t,” Sandor answered calmly. Too calmly.

“But you know things about . . . that case. And mine.” These were difficult things to talk about, but desperate time called for desperate measures.

Sandors’ eyes narrowed slightly. “You could say that.”

“They don’t know where P –“ she couldn’t say his name. “Where he is.”

“No, they don’t.”

“And the last taskforce failed so miserably that I heard someone actually got themselves blown up trying to apprehend a suspect.”

Sandors’ expression seemed to ice over while his body froze. He didn’t even appear to breath. Meanwhile, Sansas’ anger continued to build and overtake her like an avalanche.

“I thought you were one of their best!” Her voice rose, but she found she couldn’t control it. “Why would we just waste away up here in the middle of nowhere while those sickos run around free and torment more children? More families!”

                Her shouts echoed in the great room and her breath came out in pants as she tried to reign in her rage. Sandor was like the complete opposite of her. While she railed and her body shook, he sat silently as if carved from stone. She wanted to walk up and slap him just to get a reaction. A tiny sliver of self-control was all that stopped her. She took several calming breaths before she attempted to appeal to him.

                “They already tore my family apart once. I won’t let them do it again.”

                It felt like an age as Sansa watched her “protector” thaw enough to loosen his jaw and speak.

                “You’ll do as you were told. We’re not going anywhere.” His voice was quieter and yet more menacing than she had ever imagined him capable. But instead of frightening her into submission, it sparked the smoldering fires of her fury that she had worked so hard on controlling.

Violent images passed through her mind. Her parents. Her brothers. Her dorm room. Arya laying on the ground, bleeding. Jon. Arya. Bronn. Margie. Flash after horrifying flash spun around in her brain until the anger and agony were too much to contain. She sprung to her feet and stomped off towards the stairs.

“No, fuck that!” she spat from between clenched teeth.

Her hand had barely made it to the bannister when she was spun around by her shoulder and pinned to the wall, a heavy, hairy arm across her chest. Sandors’ grey eyes flashed as he towered over her.

“What the fuck are you going to do?” he growled. “You’re a child! You barely made it out of the last mess you got yourself into alive! All you’ll do is get yourself and everyone else you care about killed!”

She glared at him and made to move out from under his hold. He snorted and pushed her against the wall again, but not hard. It was like he was trying to be careful with her. He pressed his body close to hers, but not close enough. It was like he was afraid to hurt her.

Big mistake. With a twist of his pinkie, a drop, and a twirl she was free of his grasp, but not before she saw the surprise on his hairy face. She sprinted to the entranceway and grabbed the keys to his truck from where they sat on the table near the door. She had it wrenched open and was out in the snow, shoeless, when he finally caught her by the back of her shirt. The fabric pulled against her torso and the sheer strength of him had her off her feet as she collided with his solid frame. Two muscled arms snaked around her shoulders and waist as he dragged her back towards the house.

She should have been scared. Hell, she should have been shitting herself with fear. She wasn’t though; she was just plain old pissed off. It sharpened her senses and her determination to flee. To get the better of him. And while she could tell he was still being careful with the way he restrained her, she wasn’t going to give him the same courtesy.

 She threw her elbow back into his solar plexus  and was rewarded with a soft grunt and the slight loosening of his grip. It was all she needed. She lifted her arms overhead and dropped down on one knee, effectively freeing herself from his hold, before she hooked her left around and kicked the back of his knees. Sansa spun clear of him as he stumbled forward and neatly sprang up like a Jackrabbit before she bounded toward the truck again.

He was quicker to recover than she had thought he was capable of. She barely grazed the door handle before he crushed her against the drivers’ door. There was no wiggle room at all this time, and his meaty paw enclosed her right hand with the keys still in her grip, while he tried to wrap the other arm around her waist again.

“The Little Bird thinks she has teeth,” he rasped in her ear, and to her frustration and dismay he didn’t even sound like he was trying that hard.

“Let go!” she demanded as she tried to wrench free of his grip.

He laughed. He fucking laughed.

She snapped her head back suddenly and was filled with satisfaction when the back of her skull met with flesh and bone and her pursuer left out a string of filthy words that would have made Arya blush. He’d leaned away from her slightly, but still didn’t release her hand. Her foot flew up and connected with his knee. She had hoped to hit the family jewels, but he wisely kept his legs closed. This time he growled like a beast. She ducked under his arm and twisted away from him again, but he’d never relinquished his hold on her key-carrying hand, so she was yanked towards him before she could establish her footing. It didn’t stop her from taking a swing and connecting with his scarred ear, or from bringing her knee up towards his groin. She was a woman on a mission, and he was all that stood in her way.

He stopped her knee with his hand – barely – and then spun her around to pull her back against his chest. Both arms squeezed her tightly to his chest as he swung them around to place his back against the truck. Then he slid them down to the frozen, wet ground. She kicked and writhed until, with a deftness that defied his size – he was able to wrap his legs around her and pin her legs beneath his into the snow.

Sansa thrashed and pulled and tried to head butt him again, but it was no use. He’d beaten her. He’d won. She was too small. Too weak compared to him. He’d rendered her useless. Completely and utterly useless. To her utter horror, hot tears had started to slide down her cheeks. Soon her body shook with silent sobs and cold, but they didn’t move. His grip never loosened, but after a time it stopped feeling like he was trying to restrain her. She found comfort in his silence and his strength. She was relieved that he said nothing, asked nothing, did nothing.

 It wasn’t until her tears had long frozen to her cheeks and her teeth had begun to chatter so loudly that it was impossible to ignore that he finally shifted at all. He started with his legs, setting her free. When he seemed satisfied that she wasn’t going to renew her escape attempts or assaults on his body, his arms loosened as well. He shifted enough to get one arm beneath her, and as if she weighed nothing at all, lifted her sagging, exhausted, shivering body from the snow and carried her back through the open front door.

 He bypassed the lounge and went straight up the stairs. She thought he was going to take her to her room and was surprised when they instead entered his. Gently – as if she was made of glass – he set her down on his bed. Nevermind that her clothes were soaked through or that she had just given him what was sure to be a number of injuries, his expression held no malice when he stared down at her. To her credit, she held is gaze. Her eyes were wet and sad while his were calm and contemplative. Unexpectedly, he reached up and brushed some stray hairs that hung in her eyes behind her ear. His icy fingertips grazed the side of her jaw before his hand fell away and he swallowed hard. Before she could even think about opening her mouth to speak he disappeared into the bathroom. She heard water running and smelled something earthy but pleasant floating into the bedroom on a cloud of steam. When he returned it was with a soft, fluffy blue robe and thick white towel. He laid them down on the bed next to her before he headed out of the room. He paused in the doorway and barely turned his head to glance back at her.

“Take your time, Little Bird,” he rasped quietly. And then he was gone. He walked so quietly that she had no idea where he went in the house. He could have been outside the door the whole time. What she did know what that he had run her a hot bath and even added some of the fragrant salts that sat on the window sill.

The fragrant water scalded her bluish skin as she sank into its perfumed depths and let the heat soak away her pain, the remnants of her fury, and any fight that still remained. It was quickly replaced by shame at her actions. None of this was his fault. None of this was her fault. They were both stuck here, waiting. Neither one was particularly thrilled with the idea, but she couldn’t keep taking it out on him.

She was surprised he hadn’t reacted differently. He’d shown her on multiple occasions just how prickly he could be. She could tell he had one epic temper. Then again, so did she. She just hid it better than he did . . . most of the time.

Sansa sat in the tub until her skin was so wrinkled she wondered if it would ever smooth out again. She finally realised that she couldn’t hide from him forever and that she was only delaying the inevitable. Still, she took her time drying off and choosing a comfortable outfit of leggings and a soft cotton cowl necked sweater in sky blue. She padded down the stairs and poured herself a cup of coffee from a freshly made pot before steeling herself and venturing back into the lounge.

He sat in the middle of the sofa, elbows on his knees, shoulders stooped, eyes on the dancing flames before him. Though he appeared lost in thought, Sansa could tell that he was aware of her presence. She eschewed the armchairs and instead tucked herself into a corner of the sofa, her socked feet under her bum as she leaned into the curved arm and rested her mug on her thigh. There were only inches between them, but she didn’t feel uneasy. Quite the contrary; she had to fight the urge to move closer and lay her head on his shoulder. She fought back a heavy sigh as she tried to make sense of her mood shift from the morning. Confused, she shook her head slightly. She’d have to wrap her head around this strange attraction she felt towards him sometimes before she did something stupid and embarrassed them both. She caught sight of a blooming bruise on his unscarred cheek and immediately groaned. Something else stupid.

“Oh, Sandor,” she whispered and reached towards his face, brushing the tender spot with her fingertips before he leaned away from her. “I’m really sorry about.”

He snorted under his breath. “Stop chirping. It doesn’t hurt.”

She fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m still sorry. You didn’t deserve that. Any of it.”

He nodded but didn’t speak. He continued to stare into the fire until the shadows in the room grew long and logs were burnt away to glowing embers. Her coffee long finished, Sansa began to contemplate dinner when Sandor finally stirred. He let out a long sigh and shook his head a few times as if he couldn’t believe something. Then his stormy grey eyes settled onto hers, freezing her in place. He looked slightly defeated, but determined at the same time. The intensity in which he looked her up and down, as if considering her for the first time, made tingles shoot through her entire body. But when he spoke a bolt of something frightening, something she could not yet bring herself to acknowledge let along name, shot right through her body.

“All right, Little Bird. I’m yours. I’ll do whatever you want.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

SANDOR

March 17th

 

She sat there staring at him with those penetrative blue eyes of her. He didn’t know how long they gazed at one other in silence, the popping and hissing of the fire our only background. Sandor felt the impatience build and was unable to keep the growl out of his voice when he finally snapped.

“Are you going to fucking say anything?”

She blinked owlishly at him, her expression unchanged.

He was baffled by her response. Wasn’t this what she fucking wanted? Not even a few hours ago he’d held her struggling, howling in the fucking snow because she was so hell bent on revenge! Where did that wildcat go? Sandor sat there and tried to figure out a way to tap into that side of her, desperate to see her ferocity again, though he’d loathe to admit that. There was something about her all fired up that got him . . .

He practically recoiled from where his mind had started to wander. Nothing good would come from travelling down that path. Not for him, not for her. Definitely not for her.

She sighed heavily then, the soft sound startled him from his dark thoughts. Sandor studied her features, sure that he had started to develop the ability to read her, closed off as she was at times.

“What’s the catch?” she asked hoarsely. It sounded like all that screaming had taken its toll. He tried, and failed, to focus on her question and not the way her throaty voice affected him.

“What do you mean?”

“You said you’d do whatever I wanted. Does that mean I stay behind while you go off and play hero?” She arched her brow at him sardonically.

Ah, so that was her issue. She was trying to outthink any restrictions he may have placed on his offer. Too bad he didn’t have any. He’d meant what he said. In more ways than she was able to fathom.

He decided to just be blunt. It came naturally to him. “No, Little Bird. No catch. No hidden agenda. You tell me what you want to do, we’ll come up with a plan.”

“We?” Her voice faltered on the word.

“Yeah, we,” he repeated back without looking directly at her. The fire was safer to stare at. Far less dangerous than her.

She shifted on the couch, but never took her eyes off of him. Reluctantly, he met her gaze. He could sense her unease, her hunt for any sign of deception. She wouldn’t find any. He didn’t lie. He detested liars.

She licked her lips and continued to scan his face. He really wished she wouldn’t do that. It made him . . . uncomfortable.

“So, what do we do now?” she asked cautiously. He snorted and shook his head, a smirk forming on his mouth.

“How the fuck should I know? You haven’t told me what you want.”

She blinked at him again. “Oh . . . yeah.”

“So?” he prompted when it looked like she was going to go all quiet on him again.

“I . . . have no idea where to start,” she admitted sheepishly. Her blush was adorable. Something else he would never admit.

“You seemed all fired up and ready to go earlier,” he commented offhandedly.

She smirked and looked away from him, somewhere off towards the kitchen. She sighed again and shook her head slightly.

“Yeah, I do that sometimes. Arya’s worse. She just acts without a plan, without thinking.” Her expression lightened, turned nostalgic.

“She’s lucky she never got herself killed,” Sandor grumbled. Images of teenage girl stupidity flooded his mind, no matter how hard he tried to block them out.

“More like lucky she never killed anyone else,” Sansa mumbled as she rolled her eyes.

He knew he shouldn’t, but that didn’t stop him. “What, that tiny little thing?”

He nearly laughed out loud when the little bird scowled at him. It was almost too easy to rile her up sometimes.

“Don’t ever say that to her. If you walk away, it will be minus an important part of your anatomy,” she warned.

He chuckled, he couldn’t help it. He liked her feisty. That was something he could deal with. The sobbing, broken mess from only hours earlier was harder, much harder. It physically hurt to see her like that.

“You’re a dick, you know that?” she snapped, to which he laughed harder while he nodded in agreement.

“Duly noted, Little Bird. But you knew that already. Now,” he interrupted what was sure to be an epic hissy fit on her part. “how about you tell me what you want to do, since sitting here in the lap of luxury doesn’t seem to be high on your priority list.”

“You do this for a living, don’t you?” she challenged. “Why don’t you tell me how we’re going to find Li –  . . . the people looking for me.”

He pretended not to notice how she stumbled over Littlefingers’ name. “I’m a Marshal, not a fucking bounty hunter.”

She wasn’t deterred. “You know how to locate people. It’s part of what you do. Hell, it’s the biggest part!”

“We’ve all got our strengths. You think sitting behind a computer, analysing logistics and data was mine? That that’s what they hired me for?” he asked archly.

She studied him openly for a minute in a way that was so familiar it made him want to look away, to hide. It was like she stripped him bare and saw everything, even the worst parts of him. Especially those. It took all his effort to not look away from her.

“Yes,” she said finally. “Not the ‘behind a computer part’, but the analytical part. I know you’re intelligent, Sandor. You wouldn’t be where you are if you weren’t.”

He arched an eyebrow at her. She was right, of course, but he didn’t hide this about himself. People just made the natural assumption that, based on his size, he was only a hired thug. A meathead that was easily outwitted. It was always amusing when they discovered how wrong they were.

“So?” he prompted. He said he would do whatever she wanted; he never said he would make it easy for her.

Her exasperation showed as she rolled her eyes sky high. “So, fucking help me find them!”

He grinned. She was too much sometimes. Hell, all of the time. Sandor leaned forward, elbows to his knees and levelled her with an intense look.

“What exactly do you plan to do once I’ve located them?” He knew, of course. He wanted to hear the words. It was one thing to think, to fantasise about taking revenge. It was another thing entirely to admit your intentions aloud; to act on them.

He expected her expression to darken, for her to either give a vicious war cry or whisper her deadly intentions like a solemn oath. What she did he was wholly unprepared for. She seemed to wilt before his very eyes and fold in on herself. She curled, chin rested on her knee, as her eyes clouded and lost focus. When she lifted her gaze to his once again it threw him completely off balance. Her eyes, normally so sharp and beautiful, had transformed into something deeply scarred and haunted.

“I guess that all depends,” she answered finally, her voice softer than silk.

He was almost too afraid to ask. “On what?”

“On how many ‘Jenna’s’ we find along the way.”

Sandor stopped breathing. He should have known that was what she was most concerned about. It wasn’t that he didn’t expect to find more children; these parasitic cunts always had more victims stashed away. But chances were it was not going to be what she expected. He drew in a slow breath and eyed her warily. This needed to be done delicately.

But he didn’t do ‘delicately’. “Not everyone gets a happy ending, you know.”

Sansa snorted delicately. “You call that happy?”

“As happy as that situation gets, yeah. She went home to two parents who loved and missed her. Who will do everything in their power to protect her and help her heal. Not everyone gets so lucky.” He could see her response before she uttered it. “Yeah, you were lucky, too.”

He saw her fury physically manifest. Her eyes glowed like burning ice as her body seemed to swell with it.

“Lucky?” Her voice was low, deadly. She was absolutely mesmerizing. That didn’t mean he let his guard down. Her tone promised violence. Still, like the fucking idiot he was, he kept on.

“Yeah, lucky. You had people who loved you. You were guided, protected. You weren’t traded for drugs. You weren’t sold into the sex trade as an infant, passed around from one depraved animal to another. You weren’t bred for the sole, vile purposes some of these children find themselves born into. You were stolen from a loving, caring family and returned to other members of that same family.” He put his hands up when she started to shake. “I’m not saying you didn’t suffer, that you didn’t lose nearly every fucking thing you knew. But like it or not, as far as these things go, you were lucky, Little Bird.”

She sat there, trembling, glowering balefully at him, but silent. He could tell she couldn’t argue with him. His reasoning was sound. He was a complete asshole for putting it that way, but he was right. And she knew it.

“Now,” he continued before she launched herself across the couch and ripped his stupid head off for his callousness. “let’s discuss how this is gonna go.”

Her body relaxed minutely, but her expression remained unchanged. At least she was still listening to him.

“You’re right that I have ways of finding people,” he started. “But if these people were that easy to find we’d have rounded up all these spineless fuckers by now, don’t you think?”

A minute twitch of her eyebrow was all she gave him. He admired her tenacity. It would definitely come in handy when shit got real.

“I have some contacts,” he hedged carefully. “They’re undercover. Have been for years.”

Her demeanour finally shifted. “Marshal’s don’t do undercover work. That’s for the FBI and local police forces.”

He smirked. “I never said my contacts were Marshal’s.”

She unfolded one leg, but continued to hug the other. “Keep talking.”

Her commanding tone made him bristle, but he controlled it. It was not the time.

“I have ways of in getting in touch, but it requires travelling.”

That seemed to get her attention. Her countenance relaxed into open interest. Still, she remained cautious, guarded.

“Okay?” she hedged. “Where do we go?”

He braced himself. “Vegas.”

“Vegas,” she repeated, clearly dubious.

“That’s what I said,” he muttered. He hated repeating himself.

“Why there?”

She clearly didn’t know as much as she thought she did. For some reason, he found that inexplicably annoying. It showed.

“It’s called ‘the city of sin’ for a reason, Little Bird.”

“But,” she seemed to really struggle with what he was trying to tell her. “There’s so many people. So many ways to escape. I don’t understand –“

“What the fuck don’t you understand? There are thousands of these sick motherfuckers out there, Sansa! Thousands! Do you really think they’re all low level criminals who hide in the middle of fucking nowhere? That none of them have money, resources, power?” he had started shouting and did his best to lower his voice somewhat.

“But . . . the kids. What happens to them?” He could see it; the moment when she started to piece together the awful truth. She had to know already. How the hell could she not?

“Disposable,” he said clearly, definitively.

“They kill them?” She practically choked on the words as he saw the truth sink in. He decided to throw her a line, such as it was.

“Not all of them. Some are sold, some traded. A few are recovered after a while.” He didn’t say everything he knew. She didn’t need his nightmares. But seriously, with her background, how the fuck did she not know all this shit?

The pained look on her face morphed into sombre acceptance. “Right, so I’ll pack.”

“Whoa, slow down, Little Bird.” He lifted his hand towards her when she moved to get up. “We’ve got to get things sorted first. We can’t just show up and in blind. First rule in the Marshal’s: always be prepared.”

“That’s the boy scouts,” she deadpanned.

“Yeah, well, it applies here, too,” he countered. “Seriously, we need shit before we go anywhere.”

“What kind of shit?” she inquired archly.

He half sighed, half groaned at her. Why couldn’t she just let him handle everything? Why did she always have to ask do many damned questions.

“Considering it’s my life on the line I think I deserve to be fully informed,” she snapped angrily.

“Fine!” he barked back. “We need guns, more than I already have. New clothes so we blend in, a new car, and a shit ton of money! Oh, and having a kid with us would be an advantage since most of them don’t bother hiding their toys!”

He’d gone too far with that last remark and he bloody knew it by the way she paled, but for the love of fucking Christ she just need to shut the hell up and let him think without questioning his every fucking move!

He growled in frustration and scrubbed his hands over his face. His feelings around her were so confusingly polarized he could barely think straight. It had never happened with anyone else, only her. It was infuriating.

“I didn’t mean –“ he started to explain himself, something he’d never fucking done before he’d spent time with her, but she cut him off.

“What about Arya? She’s small. With the right clothes and make up she could easily pass for a young teen.”

His jaw hit the floor before he practically bellowed at her, “Have you lost your fucking mind?”

The little bird smirked. “Years ago.”

This insanity needed to stop. Immediately.

“One,” he started as he counted off of his fingers. “I’m not risking anyone’s life here. Not yours, and especially not the only sister you have left.”

She opened her mouth to chirp more stupidity, but he shouted her down.

“TWO.” He leaned forward so he was eyelevel with her. “She’s too old. When I said child, I meant pre-pubescent. None of the guys you’re looking for go anywhere near a kid once they hit puberty. They’re considered too old at that stage.”

He ignored the way she recoiled at his words, determined that she knew the shit she was about to get herself into. Maybe a little truth would put an end to this lunacy.

“Three,” he growled, “if we do this, we do everything, EVERYTHING, my way! You don’t get to ask questions unless it’s, ‘what do you want me to do next?’. I am the only thing that stands between you and people who are hell bent on turning you inside out and putting you through a kind of hell you couldn’t imagine in your worst fucking nightmares. You WILL listen to me! You will NOT question me! Got it?”

The glare was back. He levelled her with one of his own.

“Fine,” she bit out.

He was visibly taken aback. He never expected her to just agree like that. His eyes narrowed sceptically as she rolled hers.

“Give me some credit, will you? You were chosen to protect me for a reason. While I know that you haven’t told me everything,” she accused. “I also know that I am better off with you than without you.”

Well goddamn. She could be reasonable. Imagine that.

“So, tell me what I can do. I assume I’m going to need to do more than just show up and look pretty.”

He sat back and regarded her with open interest. It was probably the only time in his life he could scan over her entire body without getting bitch slapped into the middle of next week. Ninety percent of his brain was analytical as he considered her. The other ten percent, however . . .

“I can tell you’ve had combat training,” he murmured as his eyes swept over her curves again.

She hummed in agreement. It was a soft sound that did nothing to help keep his focus. He cleared his throat and with tremendous effort lifted his eyes to meet hers.

“You need practice,” he told her, not unkindly.

“I think I’ve done pretty well so far,” she bristled.

“Not against me,” he countered matter-of-factly.

She pursed her lips. “You’re not exactly a typical male specimen.”

He grinned. “Nice of you to notice, Little Bird.”

“Closer to a Neanderthal than anything else,” she replied tartly. He chuckled at her. She had no idea.

“Sweetheart, I’m prince fucking charming compared to the people you’re going to meet.”

“Pretty sure I’ve already met worse,” she quipped.

At that he felt his face fall. She had no idea, and he was desperate to keep it that way.

“You’re going to need more training,” he continued.

She sighed dramatically before muttering, “Fine. With who?”

“We’ll start with me,” he informed her evenly. He was glad to see her instantly sit up and eye him warily. She should be nervous.

“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you, Little Bird,” he tried to assure her.

She snorted. “So not my concern, but thanks.”

“It fucking should be. I’m three times your size,” he rasped incredulously.

When she rolled her eyes he had to refrain from shaking some sense into her.

“I’m not saying you aren’t physically capable of doing some real damage to me if you wanted to,” she explained as if talking to a simpleton. “I’m saying you don’t have it in you to try and hurt me at all.”

She was only half right, of course. And he needed to make that abundantly clear. He leaned forward until they were practically nose to nose.

“I’ll do it because I want you prepared. I’ll do it because it’s what’s best for you. I’ll do it because without me you don’t stand a chance in hell of surviving,” he vowed. “I won’t like it, won’t fucking enjoy it at all. But, I will do it because you need me to.”

Her pupils dilated as she swallowed thickly. He could practically smell the fear that rolled off of her in perfumed waves. Her reactions sickened him, made his gut clench and his stomach twist. He hated her fear, but at the same was relieved to see it. He often wondered if she still had any sense of self-preservation. The last thing he needed was to be the man in charge of someone who believed they had nothing left to live for.

“When do we start?”

Her question caught him so off guard he actually stuttered.

“After . . . after we, um, sort some other shit out first.”

Her fear melted away into amusement. “Do I get to know what this ‘shit’ is? Or do you just want me to nod and smile like a brainless bobblehead?”

“Fuck no,” he replied quickly. When her eyebrows knitted together in clear confusion he realised that his words could be construed two different ways.

“Brainless is boring,” he clarified. “I’m counting on your intelligence to help me sort this shit out.”

She smiled, eyes downcast. Her reaction baffled him. She was a smart, gorgeous, talented girl . . . woman. Surely people had told her that on numerous occasions?

“Ask your questions, Little Bird,” he encouraged.

“What do we need to sort out first, if not my badass training?”

She was teasing him. He tried not to smile. It was more difficult than it should have been.

“Clothes. Well,” he corrected, “money, then clothes. Then better weapons.”

“Where do you plan on getting these clothes?” she asked, head tilted in consideration.

He shrugged. “I’ll order them online.”

Sansa half shrugged. “Yeah, I guess that could work. But you said we would be rubbing elbows with higher end criminals, right?”

“That’s right,” he agreed cautiously.

“Are these people ‘old money’, or ‘new money’?”

“What the fuck does that matter?” he asked.

She looked amused when she answered. “Well, people who grew up with unlimited funds often wear high end labels, but tend to dress classically, more traditionally. Not conservatively, necessarily, but definitely classy. People who are new to having a lot of money tend to be flashier. They wear designers that are well known, but lack the conditioning that those who are generationally wealthy seem to have in spades.”

She stopped only to start giggling uncontrollably, no doubt in response to his perplexed expression.

“Where the fuck did you learn that?”

She reached up and placed both hands on his shoulders. “Brace yourself, Sandor. I. Am. A. Girl.”

He shrugged her off in annoyance. “No shit?”

She continued to giggle. “I read, you moron. Vogue. Elle. Harper’s Bizarre. I look forward to Fashion Week every year. It’s one of the things Margaery and I bonded over since Arya’s idea of fashion was wearing Jon’s hand-me-downs along with a carefully styled selection of flannels and jeans.”

“Right,” he sighed and ran his fingers through this tangled hair. Her eyes followed his hand.

“So, first things first,” she continued. “What kind of budget are we working with here?”

“Unlimited,” he said without thinking. He quickly amended it when her eyes went big as saucers. “Within reason, Little Bird. No dresses that cost more than a house.”

“Like a house here, or one in Appalacia? ‘Cuz they’ve got some cheap ass –“

“Rein it in, woman!” he half laughed, half snapped. “Nothing that’s going to attract unwanted attention. We want to blend in.”

She grinned. “Right. You still haven’t told me if we’re ‘old’ or ‘new’.”

“Which is easier to fake?” He was serious. He didn’t want to have to worry about having his cover blown by the wrong choice of tie.

“Depends,” she responded with a shrug. “We’re both smart and educated, which is harder to fake than being stupid. But you don’t have the air of someone who believes everyone else is beneath them.”

“Neither do you,” he countered with a nod in her direction.

Her expression instantly shifted to haughty and arrogant. She eyed him with open distaste. “Yes, but unlike you, I know how to fake it.”

You’d never have to fake it with me, baby. The unhelpful voice practically took over his thoughts. He actually had to shake his head to clear it away. Now was definitely not the time.

“Touché,” he murmured. “New money it is then.”

She nodded decisively. “Okay. Then we’ll need to go shopping. And we can’t order everything online.”

“Why the hell not?”

She looked at him like he was stupid. “Uh, because no one knows we’re here? It’s going to look rather suspicious when all these high end clothes and shoes suddenly turn up in middle of nowhere, right? And we’ll need too much to send it to a PO Box and then go collect it. So . . .”

He got it. He felt like a grade A asshole for not realising all that himself, but he got it.

“I don’t suppose we’ll find any of these stores around here?” It was a dumb question, but he needed to know if there was a longshot.

“Uh, no. We might get lucky in Chicago, but honestly, our best bet will be LA or New York.

He groaned. This was going to cost a very large fortune.

“I’m guessing we’re going to have to do this without the full backing of the Marshal’s?”

Her intuition was incredible at times.

“Yep.”

“And if they don’t know we’re doing this, they won’t cover the costs, will they?”

“Nope.”

Sansa sat back against the couch. “Well, fuck.”

He sat back as well. “Yep.”

“How are we going to bank roll this little operation?” She looked genuinely concerned.

Time to let the cat out of the bag.

“I’ve got it covered.” The less she knew, the better.

She looked at him sceptically. “It’s not going to be cheap, you know. Especially if we have to convince people in Vegas that we have money. I mean, that’s a whole other kind of ‘new money’.”

“Yep.” He nodded.

This time she scowled at him. “Is that all you’re going to give me?”

He silently reached into his back pocket and pulled out his personal Amex, then tossed it into her lap. “Have a blast, Little Bird. But try to keep it within reason.”

Eyes wider than ever before, Sansa lifted his Black Centurion card up delicately between her thumb and forefinger.

“Lucy, you got some ‘splainin to do,” she murmured as she stared right at him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

SANSA

March 20

 

                No explanation. No details. Just the most exclusive credit card in the world thrown in her lap with minimal restrictions. Hell, she could buy a plane!

                Probably doesn’t qualify as ‘within reason’. Stupid, annoyingly logical inner voice. She really needed to shut the hell up.

                Sansa sighed and threw the stick for Ghost again. She was back where she started a few days ago; hiding outside in the snow. This time it was for a good reason. She was hiding out of guilt. Guilt because she’d done something. Something incredibly selfish and ridiculously foolish. Aunty Em was going to skin her alive when she found out. That was if there was anything left once Sandor finished with her.

                He could tell she was hiding something. He’d hinted as much without accusing her outright. She almost wished he would; it might give her the push she desperately needed to spill her worthless guts. But she was too despicable to do it on her own.

                “Is this how it’s gonna be from now on?”

                His deep, gravelly voice carried across the silent forest. Goosebumps broke out all over her body. They made her shiver, but not from the cold.

                That was the problem. He was the problem. How could he not see that?

                Because he doesn’t see you the same way. You’re still a child to him.

                Sansa frowned but quickly cleared her expression.

                “What do you mean?” She winced internally at the false notes even she could hear in her voice.

                “Don’t do that,” he growled. Startled by the sudden turn of his temper she looked up at him.

                “Do what?”

                “Lie,” he rasped.

                She was determined not to flinch under the weight of his words. And his eyes. She nodded once.

                “Okay”. Was a lie of omission still a lie? Was agreeing not to lie while simultaneously keeping something from someone a lie? Her head hurt from all the questions whirling around in it.

                And Sandor didn’t look too comforted by her easy agreement to be honest. If anything, he looked more sceptical than before. Not to mention pissed.

                “Sansa,” he stepped towards her, “just . . . tell me.”

                She swallowed thickly. Her heart started to pound in her ears. “Tell you what?”

                He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he opened them she could tell that he was desperately trying to reign his temper in. It brought her no comfort. She was only going to set it off again.

                “Look,” he tried to sound calm, but it came out very strained. “I can deal with anything, ANYTHING, as long as you are up front with me.”

                Her pulse raced. “Anything?”

                He actually seemed to settle a bit with that one word. He moved a few steps in her direction, slowly nodding.

                “Anything,” he vowed again. “Just tell me.”

                Her mouth was so dry. She tried to swallow a few times, but nothing helped. The wind picked up and whipped her hair about her. She shakily swept it from her eyes. By this time, Ghost had made his way back with his stick, but no longer looked interested in it. He stood between, his great head swivelling back and forth as Sansa shifted from foot to foot.

                “We . . . we should g-go,” she finally stammered.

                Sandor’s face contorted in agitated confusion. “Go? Go where?”

                “Somewhere safe,” she practically whispered as her voice gave out. She had no idea it would be this terrifying to tell him.

                He shook his head. “We are safe. No one knows –“

                His voice cut off abruptly and his eyes narrowed when she visibly flinched at his words. She watched, dread building like bile in the pit of her stomach as the weight of what she was finally ready to admit out loud. His hands clenched into tight fists once, twice, three times as his chest heaved angrily.

                She waited him out. It was better, safer, if she gave him time to come to terms with what she’d told him. What she’d done. The minutes stretched on while she watched him battle his rage and bring himself under some semblance of control.

                “How bad is it?” he asked finally. He still sounded angry, but not uncontrollably so.

                “Very,” she blurted honestly. Now that it was out she struggled not to do a complete word vomit and confess everything. EVERYTHING.

                He seemed to consider his words before he spoke again. “How do you know?”

                “I – I was going to come and tell you,” she started to explain. It sounded like the beginning to a lot of bullshit excuses, but she really was going to tell him as soon as she’d worked up her nerve.

                “Tell me what?” His voice was softer than before. It actually made it more difficult. She preferred him angry. At least for this.

                “I got a phone call this morning,” she stammered as she braced herself.

                Sandor froze on the spot. His lips were the only things that moved as he spoke tightly.

                “A phone call.”

                She nodded like a spastic bobblehead doll.

                He took a deep breath and let it out very, very slowly, his breath steaming around them both is great wispy clouds.

                “Where did you get a phone?”

                “Um, I bought one last time we went into town for food,” she admitted.

                Sandor shut his eyes before he took a giant step forward. It took all her courage to stay where she was and not lean away from him as he towered over her.

                “What is disposable?”

                She swallowed hard and shook her head.

                Sandor angrily scrubbed his hand over his face before glowering down at her. “Who did you call?”

                “Tyrion. Just Tyrion, I swear!” she revealed easily.

                “Why?” he barked.

                “Why?” She didn’t understand. “Why what? Why did I call him?”

                “Yes,” he ground out between clenched teeth.

                Her eyes shifted away from his face. “I needed to talk to someone.”

                “About what?” he growled.

                Sansa felt the blood rush to her face and neck as she flushed hotly. She couldn’t very well tell him what she had talked to Tyrion about. It was hard enough just telling Tyrion.

                “Stuff,” she tried. It didn’t fly.

                Sandor grabbed her shoulder and pulled her closer.

                “What. Stuff?” he snapped each word separately.

                She squirmed uncomfortably under his penetrative gaze. “That’s private.”

                A low growl rattled around her. At first, she thought it was Ghost finally getting riled up at their exchange. It wasn’t until she saw that Ghost had moved off to the side a little way away that she realised the animalistic noise had come from Sandor.

                “I needed to talk, okay! He’s my shrink,” she tried to explain without actually telling him anything of import.

                Sandor released her shoulder with a tiny shove that nearly planted her on her ass. She stumbled back a little before she found her footing.

                “He called you back?” Sandor guessed.

                Sansa bit her lip and shook her head. “No. Not him.”

                His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Who?”

                “I’m,” she hesitated, “not sure exactly. He didn’t say much.”

                “Name?” Sandor barked.

                “He didn’t give it. But,” she started to shake, “he knew mine.”

                She watched as he ground his teeth angrily and stared off over her shoulder. He was quiet so long that we he finally snapped again she visibly flinched.

                “Get your shit and get your ass in the truck! You’ve got ten minutes!”

                Sansa didn’t need to be told twice. Honestly, she’d known this was going to be the most likely outcome. She high tailed it back to the house and ran up the stairs two at a time to her room. Sandor had bought her a suitcase during their last excursion, so she whirled around the room and tossed everything she could get her hands on into it. Her bathroom stuff all went into a matching duffel she’d managed to get by batting her lashes and asking very, very nicely.

                Don’t expect that again. You’ve truly fucked up this time, idiot.

                “Yeah, yeah, I know,” she muttered to herself.

                She was very nearly done pulling on her boots and coat when Sandor suddenly appeared in her room. He snatched up her bag and stomped back out again.

                “Move your ass,” he snarled over his shoulder as he left.

                Sansa sighed. It was what she had expected and no less than she deserved. He’d been very accommodating lately, and she’d had to go and screw it up.

                She moved quickly and quietly out to the truck. She arrived just in time to see the wolves hop into the back and settle themselves in for a long ride. Sansa pulled up into the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on. The ride down the tree lined drive brought an unexpected sadness. She would miss the house and the tranquillity of the woods. But honestly, being out in the middle of nowhere made her feel vulnerable and exposed. There were no crowds to get lost in, no local authorities at the touch of a button. Just her. And Sandor.

                It wasn’t until they hit the highway that Sandor finally broke the silence.

                “Start fucking talking,” he demanded roughly.

                Sansa startled and turned to look at him with a look of utter befuddlement. She stammered for a few seconds before words just came spilling out.

                “I’m sorry. It was so, so stupid. I know better, I do! I should have just told you I needed to talk to Tyrion –“

                “You NEED to stay the fuck alive!” he shouted. His deep, booming voice filled the small cabin of the truck and rattled her eardrums.

                “I didn’t think –“

                “You sure as shit didn’t!” he snarled.

                “Are you going to let me finish?” she finally bit back.

                “You don’t get to be all high and mighty with me, princess! You fucked this up. YOU!”

                “I KNOW!” she shouted back, finally fed up with his interruptions and accusations. “BUT I CAN’T CHANGE IT OR FIX IT, SO WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”

                “I WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE FUCK WAS SO GODDAMN CRITICAL THAT YOU HAD TO FUCKING CALL THE IMP –“

                “DON’T CALL HIM THAT!” she shrieked.

                “I’LL CALL HIM WHATEVER THE FUCK I WANT! YOU RISKED YOUR LIFE AND MINE WITH THAT PHONE CALL, AND FOR WHAT?! FOR WHAT?!” She glanced at his hands as they shook on the wheel. It was then that she noticed the speed at which they travelled.

                “HOLY FUCKING SHIT, SLOW THE FUCK DOWN! YOU’RE GOING OVER NINETY MILES AN HOUR!”

                He made no move that indicated he had any intention of listening to her. In fact, she heard the engine groan like he was speeding up more. Fear overrode her anger and softened her voice considerably. She reached over and very gently placed her hand on his shoulder.

                “Sandor, please,” she begged, “please slow down.”

                When he continued to ignore her, she chanced a look out the windshield. The world few by at unnatural speeds. Cars, trees, concrete pylons. Sansa whimpered and felt her hands break out in a cold sweat. Then the words just tumbled out.

                “I’ve never been without him. Tyrion. Ever since . . . since my parents, my family . . . died. He’s always been there. He’s the one person I could always go to with anything. You’re right, I had Uncle Bronn and Aunty Em, but I couldn’t talk to them about everything. So, Tyrion was like my lifeline. He literally talked me off a ledge on more occasions than I care to recount.”

                She saw Sandor’s grip in the wheel loosen just enough that he wasn’t white-knuckling it anymore. She stared out the windshield and let the words continue without too much thought on what she was telling him.

                “I went to him with everything. EVERYTHING. You’d think because he’s a man and I’m a girl it would have been awkward. It was, in the beginning. But with each topic it got easier. He helped me make sense of things I don’t think anyone else could have.”

                She took a deep breath while heat stained her cheeks.

                “He was the first person to know when I’d gotten my period. I knew it was going to happen, but I was horrified when it finally did. He helped me through all the anxiety it caused. He even told Aunty Em for me.”

                “It made it easier when I started noticing boys. I could tell him everything without being made to feel like the freak that I am. He never made me feel incapable of having a normal life. A normal . . . sex life. It took me a long time to even consider that; sex. The first time a boy tried to touch me I broke his jaw. Everyone always thinks it’s Arya who is dangerous, but they’ve never seen me when I’m . . . when I’ve . . . when . . .”

                She had to stop and control her breathing before she started to hyperventilate. It helped tremendously that the world outside the truck had slowed somewhat.

                “I cried for hours after my first time. Really freaked the guy out. I had to be sedated before Tyrion even got there. And the pain . . .”

                Sandor jerked in her direction momentarily and stared hard at the side of her face, but she wouldn’t return his gaze. She knew what he was going to ask before he even opened his mouth.

                “Did he –“

                “No. He didn’t force me. But,” she hesitated, weighing up her words. She was mindful that even now, after all her years of therapy, she still tended to blame herself. “He wasn’t careful. Or particularly gentle.”

                She huffed, angry at herself for being a coward again. “Actually, he was an asshole who fucked me raw and left me sobbing on my bed.”

                Sandor shifted in his seat, but she kept going. Now that she’d started down this path it was nearly impossible to stop.

                “I would only talk to Tyrion. I’ve never seen him so angry. He was always so calm. Funny at times, stern when I needed it, but never, ever angry.”

                She got lost in thought for a few minutes, silent as history seemed to swell right in front of her and take shape.

                “Did something happen?” Sandor’s deep voice was so soft it barely registered after all the screaming he had done. They both had done.

                “With the Eric? No, nothing. I didn’t see him anymore because Jon threatened to have him drawn and quartered, and that was after he let Aunty Em and Uncle Bronn have their way with him.”

                “No, I meant,” he paused as he moved out of the fast lane. “Here. With me. Why did you need to call him?”

                Sansa bit her lip. She was capable of being honest about her past and even the fact that she’d screwed up royally by being so careless in her calls to Tyrion. But what he asked for was more than she was prepared to give. How could she tell him that he was the reason she’d called Tyrion? That for the last few weeks her attraction to him had grown so much that she actually had trouble being in his presence without throwing herself at him.
                “Please,” she whispered. “Please don’t ask me. I don’t want to lie to you, but I don’t want to talk about it either. Please.”

                She could tell by the way his entire body stiffened that he wasn’t happy with that answer, but thankfully he didn’t press her further. Instead, he asked the other question she dreaded.

                “Who called you?”

                “I don’t know, honestly. When the number came up as Tyrions’ office line I just assumed it was him.” She shrugged.

                “Wait,” he stopped her again before she could continue. “You called his office? Why not his cell?”

                “He just got a new one a couple months ago,” she explained. “I didn’t know the new number as well as his office number. Why?”

                Sandor growled loudly and banged his hand against the steering wheel. “Anyone, ANYONE could have set a tap and trace on his fucking phone!”

                He suddenly lunged towards her and started groping around her hips.

                “Hey!” she screeched. “What the fuck are you doing?!”

                “Where is it? Do you have it with you? Is the damnable thing turned on?” he demanded as he continued to pat her down with one hand and drive like a maniac with the other. She forcefully slapped his hand away and shoved at his arm.

                “Get the hell off me!” she demanded and shoved him again when he persisted. “I chucked the phone and destroyed the SIM card. What kind of idiot do you take me for?”

                “The kind who calls people while they’re supposed to be in protective custody!” he snarled.

                That shut her right up.

                “That being said, at least you had the brains to toss the phone. Where?”

                “I smashed it up and tossed the pieces in the snow. After I submerged the whole thing in water for an hour.” In essence, it was the truth. She’d dropped the phone in the toilet as she’d heaved up her breakfast and didn’t have the courage to fish it out for quite some time. Then she’d angrily smashed it against a tree outside when it started to ring.

                “The person who called,” Sandor inquired. “What did they say?”

                “He said my name,” she told him.

                “Which name?”

                “He said, ‘Is that you, Sansa Stark?’”, she relayed as she heard the mans’ voice echo through her mind.

                “Did you answer him?” he prodded.

                She shook her head. “I couldn’t . . . speak. I froze.”

                “Did he say anything else?”

                Her voice faltered at first, but she eventually replied, “Yes. He said, ‘P-Pet . . . Peter will be so happy I’ve found you.’”

                “Fuck!” Sandor hissed, and then shouted, “FUCK!

                His anger was a mask, and one she easily saw through. He was like Arya, like Aunty Em. When they were scared, they lashed out. Sansa was the same at times, but only in the most extreme situations.   

                So, she wasn’t afraid of his reaction. Rather it made her feel guilty. She was the reason he was so angry, so afraid, and it was all for her. He’d promised to keep her safe, keep her alive. And she’d gone and made that so much harder for him. She hung her head, deeply ashamed of herself.

                “I’m sorry,” she murmured towards her lap. She couldn’t bear to look at him.

                He didn’t speak for a while. They both sat in tense silence as the highway stretched on before them and the midday sun swept lazily across the horizon. She looked out the passenger window for a time and watched and the shadows from the trees and passing semis got longer and darker. It wasn’t until they merged into the exit lane for Interstate 80 West towards Omaha that she took notice of their probable destination.  

                Still, she asked, “Where are we going?”

                “West,” he answered shortly. She sighed.

                “Are we back to this again? I said I was sorry, Sandor, what else can I do?”

                He shot her a look of pure irritation from the corner of his eye. “California.”

                Her brow furrowed. “Wait, I thought you said your contacts were in Vegas?”

                “And you said to get the shit we needed we’d either have to go to LA or New York. LA is closer to Vegas, so California it is,” he bit out.

                She stayed calm and schooled her expression into something neutral, but something very close to happiness bubbled up inside her.

                “I didn’t realise you still intended to go through with everything. I thought –“

                “What?” he growled. “That I’d go back on my word just because you did?”

                “Hey, that’s not fair!” she argued, wounded by his accusation.

                “Life is fair, princess,” he spat.

                What happened to ‘Little Bird’?

                “I never lied to you OR broke any promises!” she shot back. “What I did was dumb, but it wasn’t malicious.”

                “Then why didn’t you just ask to use my phone?” he challenged.

                “Because I’m twenty years old and haven’t asked permission for shit like that since I was fifteen!” she exclaimed. Trying to reason with him was exhausting.

                He was quiet for a while, so it really surprised her when he relented with, “Fair enough.”

                She glanced at the clock; nearly quarter after six. No wonder she was starving.

                “Can we stop and eat soon?”

                He glanced over at her, lips pursed. “I wasn’t gonna stop until Omaha.”

                “How long until we get there?” she wondered aloud.

                “Another two hours or so. Can you wait?” He didn’t sound angry, just curious.

                “Not really, no. I’m really hungry and I’ve had to pee for the last hour and a half.”

                “Why didn’t you say anything?”

                “It was quiet. I didn’t want to disrupt that,” she told him honestly.

                He shrugged, but didn’t say anything.

                “So?” she prompted when a sign for a rest stop came into view.

                He sighed heavily and flicked on the turn signal. Sansa smiled in relief as they pulled into the parking lot.

                “Thank you, Sandor,” she said fervently after she’d voided her bladder.

                “I fed the wolves,” he murmured quietly. They’d parked on the very far end of the lot nearest the trees. It made taking the wolves out for a walk less of a spectacle.

                “I bet they were happy to get up and stretch their legs,” she mused while they waited in line at Mickey D’s.

                “Do you mind if we eat in the truck?” he asked as they approached the counter. “I just want to get there.”

                She sensed something was off about his tone, though it wasn’t angry or agitated. She considered him for a moment before she nodded in agreement.

                “Sure, we can do that.”

                He ordered enough food for a small army, and they made their way towards the darkened corner of the lot. Sansa stopped suddenly and slapped her forehead.

                “Crap!” she exclaimed.

                “What?” he asked dubiously.

                “I wanted to get a couple Snapple’s from the vending machine I saw in there.” Regret was plainly etched on her face. She bit her lip and turned to him with a hopeful smile. “Give me five?”

                When he moved to reach into his back pocket she laughed out loud and stopped him with a hand on his arm.

                “Five minutes, not five bucks! I still have some cash from the last time you gave me my allowance,” she teased.

                “Well, you did do the dishes,” he deadpanned.

                “Because someone else had left them there for days like they were going to magically do themselves,” she quipped back with a cheeky eyeroll. “I’ll be right back, I promise!”

                She jogged across the lot and pushed through the glass doors before she made a bee line for the machines near restrooms along the back wall.

                “Argh! Just take my money, you stupid piece of crap!” she grumbled at the machine when it spat her dollar out for the third time in a row.

                “You gotta have the magic touch,” a smooth voice with a southern twang came from directly over her shoulder.

                Sansa turned to see a tall man with dirty blonde hair standing far too close for her comfort. He made matters worse when he reached around her and took the dollar from her hand, crumpled it up, and then fed it through with no issues at all.

                “What you got a taste for, beautiful?” he said hotly into her ear.

                His proximity and overtness set her teeth on edge and made her skin crawl.

                “Actually, it’s for my boyfriend,” she lied effortlessly as she made her selection.

                “Peach tea? What kind a man drinks peach tea?” Another man appeared as if from thin air. His hair was darker, slicked back away from his face in that fifties Grease sort of fashion.

                “Obviously, the boys’ got a sweet tooth,” blonde creeper number one said as he ran a crooked finger down Sansa’s arm.

                Creeper number two whistled lowly as he made a great show of looking her up and down. “Well, yes he does. You look positively delicious.”

                She nearly vomited all over his shoes when he actually licked his lips. Instead, she ducked under the arms of creeper one and darted towards the door.

                “Thanks for the help,” she called politely over her shoulder, louder than necessary. She wanted to draw attention to those two ass clowns so that other people would see them and, hopefully, they wouldn’t follow her.

                Those hopes were extremely short lived when she’d barely made it halfway across the lot when she heard one of them wolf whistle at her.

                “Now, where you off to in such a hurry, sweet cheeks?” One of them hollered.

                Please, oh please, Sandor get the hell of the truck.

                Her powers of telepathy had never been all that great, but this time someone must have taken pity on her. Sandor’s tall, bulky frame emerged from the shadows. Relief welled up so strongly inside of her that it drove her temporarily insane. Yep, that was the only thing that could explain why she practically flung herself at him and planted a hot kiss directly on his mouth.

                He stood there, momentarily stunned, before his hands went to her hips. She’d expected him to push her away, ask her what the hell she was playing at, or yell at her that she was nuts. He did none of those things. Instead, he pulled her closer to him and returned her kiss in full, his lips working hers in a way that practically made her knees give way. She had to be the one to pull back and tried to hide how hard she was breathing when she looked up at him.

                “Hey, baby, I got your tea,” she informed him sweetly.

                “Thank you,” he rasped. The way his eyes burned set fires off all across her body. If she didn’t get away from him soon she was positive she’d combust.

                “Sorry it took so long. The machine hated me. Lucky for me, these guys came to the rescue. They fixed my dollar,” she warbled. The fact that she could still feel those two sleaze balls behind her made her inexplicably nervous. Or was that because Sandors’ hands still tightly gripped her hips. And that his thumbs were stroking the small of her back.

                “Thanks for your help, boys.” Sandor nodded in their direction, but there was nothing friendly about the gesture. Sansa hoped they weren’t so far down the evolutionary chain that they didn’t get their hillbilly butts the hell out of there, and fast. She heard them muttering bullshit behind her, but thankfully, their voices receded.

                She heaved a huge sigh of relief and rested her forehead on his muscled chest. “Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

                She heard his chest rumble with a quiet laugh, but it wasn’t enough to distract her from the way his heart thundered beneath her. Had she done that? Was he angry with her? Had she crossed the line?

                Crossed it? You freaking pole vaulted over that bitch! He’s going to freak the hell out!

                It was painful when she slowly extracted herself from his grasp, and even more agonising to take a couple small steps away from him. She nervously tucked her hair behind her ears before she stuffed her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. She didn’t dare look at him.

                “We should get going,” she suggested as lightly as she could manage.

                “Whatever you say, Little Bird.”

                Her heart fluttered at the endearment. She never knew how much she liked it until he’d stopped using it. It was certainly better than his derisive ‘princess’.

                They both piled into the truck and headed back onto the highway. Silence was only punctuated by the chewing of food and slurping from Snapple bottles. It was only after they’d been finished for some time and signs kept a constant reminder that Omaha drew dangerously near did Sansa finally harness the bravery it took to open her mouth.

                “Do I need to apologise?” she asked cautiously as she fiddled with the ends of her hair.

                Sandor cast her a sidelong glance. “Depends. Are you sorry?”

                It was humiliating how quickly the “no” flew from her lips.

                Sandor took a minute a full minute to respond. When he did it was a very simple, “Then no.”

                Sansa nodded, but in the dark cab she was unsure if he saw. Taking a chance that he was too busy concentrating on the road, Sansa turned to grin out the passenger side window.

                “Good,” she murmured. “’Cuz I’m not sorry at all.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

SANSA

March 21st

 

                Last night had been . . . interesting. They’d checked into a hotel near the highway and ate Chinese takeout in relative silence. She’d helped him walk the wolves after eleven and then slipped into separate beds near midnight. But she was pretty sure neither of them slept. She didn’t hear him snore and no matter how soft the bed was she just couldn’t settle.

                Gee, I wonder why? Her inner voice taunted her as she sipped a triple red eye venti mocha from the local Starbucks. She was strangely wired for someone who hadn’t slept a wink last night. Sandor didn’t fare much better in her view. He’d barely spoken two words to her since their pash in the parking lot, but he didn’t seem angry. On the contrary, he appeared quietly introspective. She didn’t know what worried her more; the thought that he was trying to find a way to tell her not to do that again, or that he was trying to figure out a way to recreate it. The knots in her stomach worsened with each passing mile. It must have showed on her face, because when they crossed the state line into Colorado he finally spoke.

                “You should take a nap. I’ll wake you for lunch,” he offered softly. His tone hadn’t changed since last night. No more gruffness. No more growling. It was the strangest thing after a whole week of snarling, snappish sarcasm. 

                Jesus, is that all it’s been? It felt like months. Years.

                “I’m okay,” she murmured back as she traced the opening of her coffee lid. A conversation needed to happen, but she wasn’t sure how to start it. Hell, she wasn’t even sure if she should start it. Maybe it was better to let sleeping dogs lay.

                He shook his head. “You’ve got circles under your eyes. You didn’t sleep a wink last night.”

                “And you did?” she shot back in annoyance. Whoa, dial back the bitchiness. He didn’t ask for you to pounce on him and make a fool of yourself last night.

                Instead of snarling back at her he laughed under his breath and shook his head again. His response rankled for some reason and she tried to moderate her tone as to not start a fight.

                “What’s so funny?”

                He chuckled again. “You’re reminding me of just how young you are.”

                She bristled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

                He grinned openly at her tone and glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but didn’t elaborate. She huffed in annoyance and sulked down in her seat, turning her body away to stare out her window.

                “Whatever,” she muttered around her coffee cup. This time he laughed out loud.

                She must have drifted off because she woke later with a crick in her neck from leaning awkwardly against the door. Her half-full coffee sat cold in the center console. Sansa reached up and stretched as best as she could in the cramped space.

                “Afternoon, Little Bird,” Sandor rasped, his eyes glued to the road.

                “Where are we?” Her own voice was rough from sleep. She cleared her throat.

                “About an hour away from New Mexico,” he replied. His face held no expression, his tone was just as blank. She’d had enough. This was worse than being yelled at. At least then she could read him. Not knowing was too damned difficult.

                “Are you going to say anything about last night?” she blurted out. She had to stop herself from doing a face-palm at her bluntness. She used to be better at this, but with him she always felt on the back foot.

                He was quiet a few beats, and then, “I don’t like peach tea.”

                She waited another minute before she scoffed. “Is that it?”

                He ran a hand through his hair roughly. “Look, Sansa –“

                He was cut off by the ringing of his cell phone. He frowned deeply as he retrieved it from his front shirt pocket.

                “Yeah?” he barked gruffly. She watched as his features hardened and his hand tightened around the wheel.

                “When?” he growled out lowly. Then, “Fuck!”

                Sansa flinched and then gripped the handle on her door for dear life as he jerked the car across two lanes of traffic and slammed to stop on the shoulder of the highway. He scrubbed a hand roughly over his face.

                “Where?” he demanded roughly, then shook his head. “No, too far.” A few beats of silence then, “Southwest.” A few more beats. “Fine. Send me the coordinates.”

                He ended the call and tossed the phone into the empty cup holder. “FUCK!”

                Sansa’s heart rattled in her ribcage. It didn’t take a genius to know something seriously bad had happened. She had a sinking feeling it was linked to her stupid phone call. She was too afraid to ask, so she sat silently and waited. And waited. After a few minutes of fuming Sandor threw the truck back into drive and stomped on the gas, lurching them back into traffic. And still she said nothing. After another ten minutes Sandor finally released his death grip on the steering wheel, giving Sansa the confidence to speak.

                “Change of plans?” she hedged quietly. He nodded curtly but didn’t respond beyond that. She waited another few minutes before trying again.

                “Is this because I called Tyrion?” Her voice sounded small, even to her own ears. Either he didn’t pick up on her wariness or he just didn’t give a shit. She bet on the latter as he snapped at her.

                “No. But don’t let that give you any more bright ideas.”

                Sansa’s cheeks flushed as she read into his words, and she lashed out in an effort to ignore the sting.

                “Don’t worry, I won’t!” she snapped. She got an evil side eye, but he didn’t respond. After another half hour of tense silence, she’d had enough.

                “Are you going to tell where we’re going?” she demanded hotly. She knew her attitude was a bit much, but his wasn’t any better and she was tired of emotional whiplash from his constant mood swings.

                “I don’t fucking know yet,” he snarled back. He still hadn’t looked at her. Her stomach soured at the thought that they had gone backwards and were back to where they started.

                “So, no more Vegas?”

                Before he could growl another response, his phone chimed with a text. He snorted and rolled his eyes before he tossed the phone back in the cup holder.

                “No more Vegas,” he grumbled. “But on the bright side, we’re only 20 minutes out from our next place.”

                Sansa looked around, confused. “There’s nothing around here.”

                “Precisely the point,” he replied before he pointed an accusing finger at her. “And don’t think for a fucking moment you’ll be allowed to go into town unescorted again. I don’t make the same mistakes twice.”

                Sansa crossed her arms tightly over her chest and muttered under her breath, “Neither do I, asshole.”

                She hoped he got the meaning behind her words and body language, but deep down she ached. In truth it was herself she was angry with. She’d never really gone out on a limb like that before, and to say his response hurt was a massive fucking understatement. Especially after his initial reaction had been so much more promising.

                They turned off Interstate 64 onto route 434. A road sign for Angel Fire, New Mexico came into view. Sansa sighed and slumped down further into her seat. Another remote location, no doubt. That meant no distractions from the oaf in the drivers’ seat. She’d just have to make herself scarce again by spending time outside with Ghost. 

                A few more turns and they ended up on a long stretch of road with very few homes that dotted the frontage. There were trees and large boulders everywhere, and even this far South there was snow on the ground, though far less than in Wisconsin. At the end of a windy driveway stood a modest wood and stone split level house. It was still early in the afternoon, so the sun broke through the trees and lit the scene beautifully. There was a circular driveway with the house off to the left. A small wooden bridge and deck led to the front door. Once the truck stopped in front of the double garage Sansa hopped nimbly from the vehicle. She wandered around to the back to retrieve her bag and had to jump back slightly when it thumped down at her feet. Sansa glowered at Sandors’ back as he stomped off towards the front door and retrieved the keys from a little hidey hole in a post of the bridge.

                She kicked the snow off her boots before entering the house. It was a modest great room with a kitchen and dining area off to the left and a living area to the right. A large grey sectional sofa faced a stone fireplace with a plasma TV perched on the wooden mantle. The floors were hard wood with the walls and ceilings a clean white. Little bits of Southwestern art dotted the room and a woven native blanket was draped over the back of the couch. The place was nowhere near as grand as Tyrions’ had been, but it was clean and cosy.

                Sandor stomped off towards one end of the house before he returned empty handed. He yanked her bag out of her grasped and trudged away again.

                “Hey!” she called after him before she chased him down the hall.

                “You’re in here,” he said gruffly as he tossed her bag into what looked like the master bedroom. “I’m right next door. The dogs will be sleeping inside from now on.”

                “Okay,” she started to respond when he cut her off with a wave of his hand.

                “This isn’t up for debate. If you don’t like to décor, fucking deal with it, princess,” he snapped.

                “That’s not was I was going to say,” she began again, but was rudely interrupted.

                “Don’t care. I’m going into town to get food. Stay inside with the doors locked. The dogs will stay here with you –“

                She’d finally had enough of his shit. “FOR FUCKS SAKE, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”

                She wasn’t sure if it was the anger in her voice or the sheer volume that finally brought him up short. She should have quit while she was ahead, but once she got going it was always hard for her to stop.

                “You’ve been acting like a dick since you got that phone call.” She wasn’t yelling anymore, but she was still pissed as hell. “I don’t know what’s changed because you’ve had your head so far up your ass that you won’t take two seconds to tell me what the fuck is going on!”

                He glared balefully at her and clenched his jaw. His refusal to give her anything at all just fuelled her own rage.

                “That’s all you got, big man? Dirty looks?” She knew it was stupid to bait him, but she couldn’t stop herself. Her pride was wounded and she was scared; not a good combination.

                He took one step towards her, a look of pure menace on his face. She raised her chin in defiance and glared back at him.

                Her voice dropped a full octave. “What, you gonna hit me now?”

                Sandor stopped breathing. His whole body tensed as he froze solid. The storm in his grey eyes settled and dulled before his whole body seemed to shrink by inches before her eyes. The effect was entirely disarming.

                “No, Little Bird. I won’t hit you,” he all but whispered. The way he deflated took her off guard completely. She didn’t know how to respond.

                “I . . .” she started, but didn’t know what she really wanted to say anymore.

                “What do you want to eat?” he asked quietly.

                Her head spun from the rapid turn of events. Would she ever get her footing around him?

                “I’m not hungry,” she replied. She reached up and massaged the side of her neck. Her head had begun to ache. “But I could use some Excedrin.”

                “I’ll pick some up for you.” He started to move passed her.

                She didn’t know what possessed her to reach out and grab his massive hand. His body stilled next to hers. He seemed to fill the space with his presence more than his frame.

                “Sandor, please,” she whispered. She watched him as he swallowed thickly, but he wouldn’t look back at her. Her eyes stung. She let go. After beat he walked further away from her. Before he reached the door, she managed to find her voice again.

                “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?” she called to his back. He paused, his hand on the door knob. “You said it wasn’t my fault, but you won’t tell me what happened.”

                When he still didn’t move she took a few tentative steps towards him.

                “Did . . .” she nearly couldn’t bring herself to ask. “Did something happen to my family? Aunty M? Jon? Or –“

                “No,” he interrupted gently, but still didn’t turn around.

                “Then I don’t understand why –“

                “You don’t have to understand.” He was gruffer, but she wasn’t deterred, his temper be damned.

                “The hell I don’t!” she argued. “This is my life!”

                He turned his head slightly, but still didn’t look at her. “You’re right, it is. So, let me make the decisions and you can keep it.”

                “I don’t need you to make all the decisions for me, thanks,” she shot back. “If it’s about me or affects me, I deserve to know.”

                She expected him to yell some more. Maybe stomp around and give her the silent treatment. But he didn’t do any of that. Instead, he sighed heavily and turned to face her fully. Hands stuffed in his jeans pockets, he leaned his massive frame against the front door. His hooded eyes finally connected with hers and he nodded once.

                “Yes, you do. Sit down, Little Bird.”

                Sansa’s mouth went dry at the sudden seriousness of his demeanor.

                “I’ll stand, thanks.”

                He looked like he might argue with her, but then merely shrugged.

                “Suit yourself.” He sounded so resigned. His jaw clenched repeatedly while he stared right into her eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again and shook his head, lips pursed tightly. Then he tried again.

                “How much do you know about your case?”

                The question took her off guard. “Uh, quite a bit, I think. Why?”

                “You know who abducted you?” he hedged.

                Her eyes narrowed as she tried to recall if anyone had ever told her names. When none sprung to mind, she shook her head. “There were two of them.”

                Sandor scrubbed his hand over his face roughly and looked at the floor.

                “Yeah,” he said quietly. “One of them was caught shortly afterwards. He was a low level punk named Locke. Got shanked while serving a nickel in state.”

                She nodded as she vaguely recalled hearing something about that. Sandor cleared his throat and lifted his grey eyes back to hers.

                “The other was Gregor Clegane.”

                Sansa felt her eyes go wide. She nodded slowly and made her way to a bar stool at the kitchen island. He had been right; she needed to sit the fuck down. She clenched her hands together and stuffed them between her thighs. She cautiously raised her eyes back to his. He looked so guarded, like he expected her to attack him. Instead she nodded for him to continue.

                He swallowed thickly. “Gregor was never caught, but he was identified by Locke. You’d think a man as big as him would be easy to locate, but he’s a sneaky fucker, like Baelish. He fucking vanished . . . for a while.”

                When he went quiet she tried to connect the dots. “So, he’s back now? Is that why we’re running?”

                Sandor held her gaze for a moment before he haltingly replied, “In simple terms, yes. That’s why we’re running.”

                “What does that mean?” she implored. Her head pounded and she felt sick to her stomach. She didn’t have the ability to riddle things out. She just wanted answers.

                “It means that I can’t take you to track down Baelish,” he ground out.

                “Okay,” she started to say when he barked a harsh laugh.

                “Okay? OKAY? What happened to the woman who fought me and was practically spitting fire? What happened to getting your life back? You’re just going to give that up now, what, because I told you he’s my fucking brother?” His voice got louder and louder until he was shouting at her once again.  She frowned at him.

                “Of course I’m not giving up! I assume we can try again later after this threat is neutralised!” she countered.

                He openly gawked at her. “Neutralized? Do you have any fucking idea what you’re dealing with here?!”

                “What do you mean, what I’m dealing with? Are you going somewhere?” It was embarrassing how alarmed she sounded.

                “Where the fuck would I go?” he shot back.

                She was so confused. “How the fuck should I know?! You’re the one who implied that I was going to have to deal with him on my own!”

                He pointed his finger at her face angrily. “I said no such thing! I implied that you have no idea who the fuck you’re dealing with!”

                “So enlighten me!”

                Sandor huffed in annoyance and shook his head over and over.

                “What does that mean? No, you won’t tell me?” She closed her eyes and massaged her temples.

                She nearly jumped out of her skin when his large, rough hand softly massaged the back of her neck. He started to withdraw again when she startled, but she reached back and held his hand there. He stood behind her, working the tension out of her with skilled movements, and yet her headache remained. She kept her eyes closed.

                “You have no idea what kind of man he is,” Sandor rasped. He continued to gently massage her, so she kept quiet and just listened. “He’ll stop at nothing to do what he wants, get what he wants. Nothing matters. No one matters.”

                “Does that include you?” The words were out of her mouth before she could even consider them.

                He snorted loudly. She tried not to wince at the sound. “Especially me, Little Bird.”

                “I take it you two don’t get along?”

                “Not since we were kids. Not even then, I don’t think. I’ve no good memories of him. He was always a bully. A real sadistic prick, too. Did time before he was 10. Expelled from school by 13. Prison at 16. After that, no one could catch him. He was too smart, too vicious. He killed anyone and everyone that got in his way or tried to bring him in.”

                “But not you.” It wasn’t a question. Somehow, she just knew that Sandor was the only one to ever survive his brother.

                “Not for lack of trying, but yes,” he replied evenly.

                “Tell me?” she asked softly.

                His hand stilled for a moment before he resumed his blissful ministrations.

                “It was three years ago. We finally got a bead on him that sounded reliable. He was holed up with some . . . kidnapped kids in Peoria.”

                Dread settled into her stomach as his story wound on.

                “I demanded to be part of the team. Called in every favor I had. It was going too smoothly. I should have known . . .”

                He went quiet for a little while before his gravelly voice seemed to fill the air around them.

                “It’s like he knew I was going to be there. The whole place was wired. No one considered that he would risk blowing himself up just to get me . . . to get away. We lost four Marshals that night. Six kids. And I was put out of commission for good.”

                “So that’s how . . .” she didn’t know how to delicately discuss his scars.

                “Yeah,” he sighed heavily. “The ones on my face aren’t even the worst of it.”

                “The rest of you looked pretty good to me.”

                Sansa froze and then flushed deeply, even more so when a throaty chuckle floated around her.

                “I appreciate that.” He sounded so amused.

                Sansa dropped her face into her hands, ready to cry out of sheer frustration. Instead, she turned to face him. She wasn’t a child, damn it, and she was determined to prove that by forcing them to have the tough conversations. Time to put her ‘big girl’ pants on.

               “I’m sorry he did that to you. I’m sorry you got tangled up in this shit.”

               He shook his head. “Don’t apologise to me. You have no idea what really happened; why I’m so involved.”

               “You worked with my mother,” she said as if that was all the explanation needed.

               “No, Sansa, you don’t get it.” He sounded like he was getting angry again. She reached up and placed her fingertips over his lips to stop him talking.

               “I get all I need to,” she told him firmly. When it looked like he wanted to argue, she cut him off.

               “Let me ask you something. You liked my mother?”

               He nodded.

              “Respected her?”

              “Yes,” he mumbled around her digits. She didn’t remove them.

              “Did you know Littlefinger was going to take me?” One tough question down. She was beyond relieved when he finally shook his head ‘no’.

              “Were you part of the group that came looking for me?”

              He reached up and pulled her hand away. “I had to. Sansa, you need to know –“

              “I know everything that matters,” she interjected stubbornly. She could tell he wanted to drop something on her. From the ominous tone of his voice and the dead look in his eyes, she could tell it wasn’t good. She was tired of bad news, of tragedy, of horrible truths.

              “You were friends with my mother. You came for me when I was little, and then again last week. You’re driving all over God’s green Earth in an effort to protect me. Whatever it is you think I need to know about the past, I assure you I don’t.”

              He shook his head again. “Sansa –“

             She stood on the rails of the barstool so they were practically eye to eye and wrapped her free hand around this back of his neck to steady herself and keep him from looking away.

             “Please!” she interrupted him desperately. “I don’t want to know. I don’t need to know. Please, Sandor. Just let it go. Please.”

             They stood that way, staring intensely at one another for an unfathomable amount of time. It felt like hours, days even, when she finally saw the resignation in his eyes. A singular nod of his head lifted some of the dread from her bones. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief, closed her eyes, and leaned her forehead against his.

             “Thank you,” she whispered. She stayed that way until she felt him shift slightly away from her. Only then did she release him and climb down from her perch. She patted his chest lightly before stumbling over to collapse on the couch with a pitiful groan.

             “I’ll go to the store,” he offered.

             “Wait.” There was still one more thing they needed to discuss. “Are you angry with me . . . for kissing you?” There. She said it. No taking it back now.

             When he didn’t respond after a few seconds she cracked an eye open. His expression looked equal parts irritated and confused.

             “Did I say I was?” he finally countered.

             She groaned loudly. “Could you please just answer the question?”

             He huffed loudly in return before he practically snapped, “No.”

             She sat up and pried her eyes open to look at him. His answer made no sense, especially combined with his attitude.

             “Then why have you been acting like such a dick?”

             His expression soured even more. “It’s not like we’ve gotten the best news today.”

            “True,” she conceded. “But that still doesn’t explain –“

            “You caught me off guard,” he blurted out.

            “Well, it’s not like I planned it,” she retorted.

            “Then why did you?” His voice was calmer, but that only made her more nervous to answer. There were a variety of replies that would be truthful. The trouble was choosing which one to give him. She didn’t think she was ready to tell him the whole truth; not yet, anyway.

            “Those guys were following me even though I told them I was with my boyfriend. I had a really bad feeling. I thought it would be the fastest way to get the point across without violence.”

            There. All of that was true. Never mind that she had fantasized about kissing him for the last few days. That information wasn’t really relevant. Right?

            He stared at her, his gaze penetrating. She tried to hold his eyes. She didn’t lie. She just didn’t tell the whole truth. That wasn’t the same as lying. After a full minute, he nodded.

            “You want me to get you that medicine now?”

            “Yes, please,” she all but begged. Good. Awkward conversation over. “But I should probably go with you.”

            “No, stay here and rest.” She didn’t have it in her to argue. She settled against the cushions intent on trying to sleep when the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked made her open her eyes in alarm.

            Sandor laid a revolver on the side table next to her. When she eyed him in question, he shrugged.

            “In case anyone gets past the wolves.”

            Sansa looked around his massive frame at her three guardians laying peacefully by the front door. They looked completely relaxed and harmless, kind of like their owner at the moment. She snorted because she knew better.

           “Not a chance.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

SANDOR

March 25th

 

                Four days. It had been four miserable, agonizing fucking days. They had been ordered to sit tight until more information on his shit head brothers’ whereabouts could be confirmed. Like that shit would ever happen. Gregor wasn’t an idiot. It would be easier if he was. Hell, he’d be dead by now if he was. Sandor would have made sure of that personally. Especially after what had happened all those years ago.

                He’d tried, God help him, he had tried to talk to her. To tell her his deep, dark secrets; at least some of them. The important ones. The most repugnant, deplorable ones. But she wouldn’t hear him. Hell, she wouldn’t even let him talk. She’d just placed that delicate, deadly hand over his gnarled mouth. Touched her face to his. Gripped his neck. He briefly thought – hoped – that she was going to kiss him again.

                That kiss. To say he was surprised was a massive fucking understatement. It was like his brain shut down the moment her soft, full lips collided with his. He’d taken full advantage and wrapped his hands around the swell of her hips too keep her from escaping. He’d figured out rather quickly what had led to her impromptu display of affection. He’d spotted those two shits and climbed out the truck to tell them to fuck off when she’d pounced on him.

                He wanted more. Craved it. He’d given her space that night at the hotel even though she’d said she wasn’t sorry. But that space gave him time to think. He hadn’t slept at all. His mind ran through all different scenarios; none of them ended well. No matter how he pursued her, it was not going to end well for either of them. Especially not for her.

                That’s what stopped him from crawling into her bed that night. He just wanted to kiss her again, but if he was honest with himself, he’d take anything she gave him willingly. He’d pushed annoying facts away like her age, that she was recently traumatized, and that her mother would have ripped his sack off and fed it to him for even looking at her cross-eyed. But then the thought of causing her any harm made him physically ill, and kept him locked down in his own bed.

                She’d find out sooner or later who exactly he was, and how he was connected to her past. Everything he’d told her was true, but there was more. So much more. And he knew it would change everything once she was informed. She would despise him, and rightfully so. He was the reason she was in this mess in the first place. That she’d been deprived of her childhood. That she’d been dragged all over kingdom come in an effort to keep her away from Baelish and his cohorts. To keep her away from his brother. It was all his fault. Everything bad that had ever happened to her squarely landed on his shoulders.

                Which was why he couldn’t allow himself to cross that line with her again. She deserved so much better than him. He wouldn’t defile her that way again, no matter how desperately he wanted her.

                In an effort to keep his promise to himself he’d kept them busy. They hiked around the eighty acres of woods that surrounded the house. They’d gone into Taos to get supplies from a hunting and camping store. To do food shopping so she could cook and he could pretend to. And then this morning he’d suggested training again. She’d been all for it. Excited even. He hadn’t been prepared for that. Last time he’d suggested it she was hesitant. But she’d been doing a few things differently since then.

                She was a lot more . . . affectionate than she used to be. More hands on. Always touching him somehow. She’d brush by him in the hall, touched his arm when they were shopping, sat so close their legs nearly touched when they watched TV. The fucking sofa was huge and every time they sat down she’d practically place herself on top of him! At first he thought it was just how she was naturally, but in the times he’d watched her at that school she had never gotten physically close to anyone but her sister.

                Sandor wasn’t a fool. He’d been around plenty of women in his time. Even had a few long term relationships that he thought might go all the way. He knew every trick in the book. And if it was anyone other than Sansa Stark pulling this shit, he’d think she was trying to get him in the sack. But with this girl – woman – he just couldn’t fathom it. Because if he entertained that line of thought for even one millisecond, there would be no going back.

                So there they stood, barefoot in the partially finished basement of the house, garbed in sweats and tees. Hair tied up and out of the way. She’d even gone so far as to wrap her hands. He hadn’t bothered. It’s not like he’d ever hit her.

                “You’re not doing me any favors, you know,” she griped while she stretched her arm across her chest.

                “How’s that?” He’d thought that was exactly what he had been doing for the last hour by giving her a workout. She’d had to break out of several holds he placed her in, and prevent him from grabbing her again. They were both sweaty and puffing after the last one. She’d put up more of a fight than she had in the snow last week.

                “You’re going too easy on me,” she informed him evenly.

                “You think so?” he replied gruffly. He didn’t want to hurt her. Scratch that. He couldn’t bring himself to hurt her.

                “I know so,” she retorted. “It’s like fighting with Jon. He always let me win. At least Arya bloodied me up a few times.”

                He felt his temper begin to rise. “Is that what you want me to do? Beat the shit out of you?”

                Her eyes narrowed in challenge. She gave a one shoulder shrug. “I don’t think you’ve got it in you.”

                How right you are, Little Bird. He glared at her.

                “I think that’s how you’ve managed so well before,” she continued. “You’re all big and scary looking, so most people won’t fuck with you out of fear. Well, guess what buddy? I’m not afraid of you.”

                He saw right through her. She was pissed at being kept her. Pissed that no one ever told her what was going on – not that he hadn’t tried. Pissed that her life was disrupted over and over again because some stupid cunt couldn’t let her go. So, she was picking a fight.

                Sandor decided to play ball. He smirked at her and leisurely stretched his hands over his head. “Yeah, that must be it. What a smart little girl.”

                His response brought her up short for a moment before he saw the annoyance flash in her eyes. Good. The shit she kept trying to pull annoyed the hell out of him, too.

                “This little girl did some damage to you before, asshole,” she spat back.

                His grin widened. “And yet, you still couldn’t escape me when you really tried.”

                Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Maybe I was going easy on you.”

                He snorted. “Not a chance. You were desperate to –“

                Her fist came out of nowhere, but his reflexes were faster than she had anticipated. He deflected the blow easily enough that he knew it wasn’t all she was going for. Sure as shit, her knee came up next, aimed right for the family jewels. He blocked that, too.

                “Low blow, Little Bird,” he taunted and wagged a finger at her.

                “You just gonna stand there?” she taunted and threw another punch at his face. There wasn’t much weight behind it, but he grabbed her wrist anyway.

                Her other fist came flying at him, then a foot, followed her knee once more. With the arm he still held, Sandor whipped her around and then yanked her back against his chest. She must have anticipated the move, because like last time, her sharp little elbow jabbed him in the stomach. He grunted slightly and widened his stance to keep his balance. Good thing, too. Her next move was to lift her feet up and brace them against a support beam. He let her fall right on her ass as he released her body and stepped back.

                “OW!” she protested loudly as she turned to glower at him. “What the fuck?”

                He shrugged. “Your own damned fault. I wasn’t going to let you slam me into the wall.”

                She actually fucking growled at him. It took him so off guard – mostly because it turned him on – that he was wholly unprepared when her leg shot out and her foot collided with his knee. He went down on one knee, hard.

                “Shit!” he hissed.

 It was all he had time to do before she flung herself at him. The weight of her nearly knocked him back to the floor, but he managed to stay upright. He grappled with her as she tried to wrap her arms around his neck. He broke her choke hold and nearly had both wrists when her legs wound tightly around his waist. He saw her neck muscles tense and barely had time to bring his chin down before her forehead collided with his. Had he been a second slower he was sure she would have broken his nose. As it was the knock dazed him slightly. He’d decided that he’d finally had enough. One hand went to her shoulder while the other reached around to unhook one of her legs. His thumb expertly found a pressure point in her thigh, which caused her leg to jerk and release from his hip. Before her next breath he’d slammed her – as carefully as he could while still getting his point across – to the floor in front of him. He fended off bluff after blow as she tried to reassert herself and get out of the vulnerable position, but nothing worked. He was faster than her, stronger than her, and damned sure better at this than her.

But that was the danger, wasn’t it? Because Gregor was nearly as good as him. And others had gotten the jump on her before. So, he needed her to be better, stronger, faster, and far more ruthless. He leaned down so they were nose to nose. He wanted to taunt her. To antagonize the wrath out of her. Make her focus. Make her better, more lethal, than even him.

She looked him right in the eye, the sparkling blue momentarily captivating him. That was all it took. His guard down for that one moment. She took full advantage. The leg that remained at his waist shifted before she jerked against the small of his back while her hands snaked between his arms, gripped his shoulders, and pulled him down on top of her. He tensed, expecting her to try and roll them so she would be in the dominant position and incapacitate him.

She didn’t. Her leg tightened around him. One hand gripped his shirt while the other laced into his hair at the back of his head. By the time he’d realised what she was up to, he was too late. Her full lips captured his while her whole body rose up to meet his. Later, he’d blame the knock to his head for dulling his wits and not moving faster. Truth be told, he wanted just a moment to savor the taste of her; the feel of her body. He didn’t know who deepened the kiss, but his wits finally returned when she moaned softly into his mouth.

He was up and across the room before he drew in his next breath. He stood near the stairs, his back to her as he struggled to slow his heart. He should have kept an eye on her. Then he would have seen her approach before she had a chance to run a perfectly manicured hand up his bare arm. He jumped slightly and swatted her away. When he glanced up at her he saw the flash of hurt in her sapphire eyes. He had to swallow down his guilt. This couldn’t happen. She was too young, too –

“What, am I too damaged for you?” she spat suddenly.

What the fuck?!

“You’re not damaged,” he growled, fists clenched at the thought that anyone had ever made her feel that way.

She regarded him for a minute before her countenance thawed slightly. She crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head.

“Okay, then . . . I don’t understand.” She sighed and looked up at him through impossibly thick lashes.

He rubbed his hand over his face. He didn’t know what to say. He’d never had to let someone down gently before. Most of the women he’d been involved with had only wanted a couple good nights, so they left of their own free will. The others, few as there had been, he’d parted with on decent terms because he couldn’t give them what they wanted at the time. There’d only been one who’d told him to fuck off, and he’d more than deserved it.

“It’s not a good idea,” he tried.

Sansa gave an indelicate snort while she rolled her eyes. “That’s right up there with ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.”

He shook his head. She hadn’t let him explain before. He knew damn well that if she had all the facts, she wouldn’t look at him the way she was.

Her voice was much softer when she spoke next. “It’s okay . . . if you aren’t . . . if you don’t see me that way, just tell me.”

She sounded so vulnerable. If only she knew. He was too interested. But maybe it was kinder for her to think that was the reason he stayed away.

He opened and closed his mouth several times, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He detested liars. At one point in his life the only thing going for him was the fact that he was honest. He’d be damned if he gave that up now.

She seemed to sense his struggle. She moved towards him, but he countered her steps with retreating ones of his own. She stopped and cocked her head to the side.

“Why are you running away from me?” She sounded slightly amused, but he could still see how uncertain she was.

“Not running, just keeping a respectable distance.” Otherwise he didn’t think his restraint would remain.

Her eyebrows rose. “Respectable distance?”

Why did she have to make this so fucking difficult? “That’s what I said.”

“So . . . you are interested in me?”

She sounded so confused, but his frustration with her line of questioning had started to grate on his nerves. He groaned loudly while he thumped his head against the wall behind him.

She giggled. “Don’t do that! You’ll damage the wall.”

He stopped and levelled a mock glare at her. Her laughter was disarming.

“What about my head?”

She grinned and shook her head. “Not my problem.”

The rapid shift in her mood both settled him and made him immensely curious. A minute ago he’d thought she might cry. Now she was bloody laughing at him. Women were so strange.

“Sansa –“ he tried again.

“No,” she practically whispered.

He shook his head. “No what?”

“Don’t call me that. Call me the other thing.”

His heart thumped. “Princess?”

She snorted and rolled her eyes. “The other, other thing.”

He had no idea she liked the nickname he’d given her in the woods that day. He swallowed thickly. She had made this so much more difficult.

“Little Bird,” the endearment rolled off his tongue like honey. He shook his head slightly to clear the dirty thoughts from his mind.

She reached out and grabbed his hand. “I think . . . I think you like me.”

He opened his mouth to respond, unsure exactly what to say. She cut him off.

“I know I like you,” she murmured. That shut him right up. He’d figured that much out for himself, but it still made his heart race to hear it from her sweet mouth.

“I can tell you aren’t sure about this, but,” she stopped and took a deep breath before looking up at him with large, beguiling eyes. “You’ve also kissed me back. Twice now.”

He didn’t know how to reply to that. She was dead right. But it couldn’t happen again. He was about to say so when she kept talking.

“Is it my age?” she implored. “You think I’m too young?”

At last, something he could answer straight up. “That’s definitely part of it.” Because it certainly wasn’t all of it.

“Did you know my dad was 9 years older than my mom?” she asked with a hint of challenge in her eyes.

Bringing up your parents isn’t going to help either us here. “Is that right?”

She hummed and nodded. “They got married when mom was nineteen. She was a sophomore in college.”

He certainly had not known that. It didn’t change that facts though. He shook his head again.

“Why are you fighting this so much?” That wounded expression was back. The one that practically shredded his heart.

“Because I’m using my fucking brain!” he shot back in a desperate attempt to make her see sense.

Her face fell even more. “So am I.”

Exasperation took over and he huffed in disbelief. “How in the hell do you figure that?”

When she bit her lower lip, he had to physically resist the urge to pull it from her teeth with this thumb. She shifted uncertainly from foot to foot as she fiddled with her thumbnail. After a few minutes of silence he sighed, impatience getting the better of him. The apples of her cheeks glowed red.

“I’m not very good at this, you know,” she murmured, suddenly very shy.

“At what? Talking? I have it on good authority that you speak very well,” he replied drily.

A small smile curled the corners of her mouth. “Going out on a limb like this. I’ve never been one to make the first move.” She raised her eyes back to his. “Ever.”

He was taken aback. “You’re shitting me?”

She snickered lightly and shook her head. “I kind of just went along with dating when I thought it was the thing to do.”

“What do you mean? You’ve never been interested in someone?” She wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. No girl – woman, DAMNIT – got to her age without having a crush. And hadn’t she said she’d had sex? Not good sex mind you, but still consensual.

“No, I have. But I kind of developed feelings after we started seeing each other. My point is, I’ve never been interested enough to even consider doing anything about it. I just went along with whatever he wanted, most of the time.” She shrugged nonchalantly, but he could see what it cost her to admit this all to him.

“You seemed to have gotten the hang of it pretty fast,” he muttered wryly.

She flushed deeply, but smiled. “Certainly doesn’t feel that way with you fleeing like your pants were on fire.”

“I’m trying to do the right thing, but you’re making it increasingly difficult,” he admitted.

“What makes you think your way is what’s right? My way could be,” she said with such sincerity he nearly agreed with her.

No, you dumb shit! She deserves better than you. WAY better.

She must have sensed what he was going to say, because she started talking fast.

“If I was someone else, if you didn’t know about my past or my parents, would you still be so hesitant?”

He had to get one thing through that beautiful thick head of hers. “There’s nothing wrong with who you are. It has NOTHING to do with what you’ve survived. What the hell do you take me for?”

“Uh, a guy?” she replied with a look that said he was the biggest moron on the planet. His anger and disgust must have showed clearly, because she scrambled to expound on her thoughts. “It’s just that the few times that I’ve even hinted about my past to a guy that I’ve been with, he’s left in true Road Runner fashion.”

“You must have dated some real shitheads,” he growled.

She looked ashamed as she nodded her head. “Yeah, I really did.”
                “You didn’t have one good one?” He found that hard to believe. She was too sweet to have been mistreated by every guy she’d given the time of day.

Her smile was soft, nostalgic. “The first one was great. Exactly the kind of first boyfriend any girl would want.” She giggled. “He was a boy scout. Literally.”

Sandor snorted. Of course he was.

“His name was Podrick. We were fourteen. Everyone else in our class was ‘dating’, “she made air quotes with her fingers, “so when he asked me to the Valentine’s dance I said yes.

He was the sweetest guy. Things never went very far, but he was always so careful with me whenever trying something new. I wish all the guys I’d dated has been like him.”

“What happened?” It didn’t sound like this ‘Podrick” turned into an asshole overnight.

“The same thing that almost always happened whenever I got comfortable,” she said with a tinge of bitterness. “We had to leave. Packed up in the middle of the night. At least Aunty M let me leave him a letter in his locker.”

“In the middle of the night?”

She grinned. “You should have seen the way Bronn picked those locks. Rural school, so no alarm.”

In spite of himself, Sandor grinned. He could see Bronn doing exactly that. His lockpicking skills were legendary.

“So why not continue dating alter boys like that one?”

Sansa’s smile turned rueful. “I guess they stopped being interested. I’m not sure why good guys weren’t the ones pursuing me. They just seemed to all be duds after that. Not that I knew that at the beginning. Some of them were pretty good at hiding that fact until after I developed real feelings for them.” She frowned.

“Maybe I’m like them,” he tried. When she snorted and rolled her eyes he knew that was an epic fail. “How do you know?”

“One thing I’ve learned from dating a bunch of pricks is how to easily identify them,” she remarked sardonically. “You may bark and growl at me, but you’re not going to hurt me.”

Oh, how wrong you are, Little Bird.

“I think I’ve gotten to know you pretty well over the past week or so. And before you say ‘that isn’t that long’ we’ve spent every waking hour together for the past ten days. That’s, on average, 120 hours. Going on the assumption that most dates last two to three hours, that would mean that the amount of time we’ve spent together would equate to at least forty dates. If we dated a few times a week, one could stand to reason that I know you as well as someone I had dated for at least four months. So, what does that tell you?”

“That you’re ridiculously good at math,” he deadpanned. He didn’t want to let on just how hot it was that she was using her wits to try and entice him rather than her flawless body. It made her that much more attractive.

“You’re really going to fight me on this, aren’t you?” she eyed him quizzically.

He sighed. He didn’t know what to say anymore. His head hurt from where they’d collided. Or maybe it was because he was tired of trying to talk himself out of something he wanted so much.

“You know I’m not trying to get you into bed, right?” she said suddenly, her eyes large.

He barked out a laugh at the look of shock on her face. “Good to know.”

“Not that I wouldn’t . . .uh, eventually . . . when, um,” she stumbled around her words as her whole neck and face flushed hotly.

He tried not to laugh at her discomfort, but she was too fucking adorable for her own good. He reached up and placed a hand over her mouth to stop the flow of stupid that continued to pour out.

She dropped her chin and giggled uncertainly as she rubbed the back of her neck. She was such an enigma. A walking contradiction of strength and uncertainty. She acted so much older, wiser than her years. Then she had moments where she floundered, still graceful, but obviously out of her depth.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said after taking a deep breath. He was suddenly wary.

“I’m listening,” was all he gave her.

“I . . . I’ll behave and keep my hands to myself. But,” she hurried on, “you know where I stand and what I want. So, the next move is yours. I promise not to cross that line again, but that means you have to.”

Bloody hell. She’s going to be the death of me. He took a full minute to think about what she had just said. She wanted him. HIM. And for more than just a fling. He could see it, sense it when she touched him. She was a ‘feelings’ girl; not a random hook up kind of woman. It was him that she was falling for. Logically, he knew it wasn’t a good idea, but deep down he also knew he didn’t have the power to resist her if she kept up with her persistence. Better that he was in the drivers’ seat; then he could control just how fast this train wreck in the making would go.

He finally nodded. “Deal. Now go take a shower. You stink.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “You’re one to talk.”

He smirked. “I’ll have one after you, so leave some hot water, princess.”

She flipped him the bird and trotted off up the stairs. Once he was sure she was out of hearing range he groaned loudly and smacked the heel of his hand against his forehead.

“Stupid, dirty old man!” he hissed at himself. He gave it another five minutes before he skulked up the steps after her. He heard the water running through the pipes as he made his way towards his room. There was a shower there, too, so he wouldn’t have to chance running into her half naked. He no longer thought he had to restraint to resist touching her, kissing her perfect skin.

He stripped down once the sounds of water ceased and eased his suffering the good old fashioned way. Shamefully, it didn’t take long. It was like she’d turned him into an adolescent again. He stepped out onto the mat once he’d cleaned himself thoroughly and no longer worried about offending her with his stink or the tent in his jeans. Not that he expected her to be offended anymore, but he’d be damned if he was going to be the kind of guy who showed a woman he liked her by sporting wood around her all the damned time.

                He’d only managed to pull a tee-shirt over his damp chest when he stomped into the living room and stopped dead in his tracks. She laid there on the sofa, legs crossed at the ankle, in skin tight grey leggings and equally revealing white tee that read ‘TEASE’ is bright blue cursive across her ample chest.

                Holy fucking Christ on a cracker!

                He shut his eyes and shook his head.

                “What?” she asked with too much innocence in her voice.

                “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he practically growled.

                “Problem?” she challenged. When he chanced a peak at her, he saw her eyebrow cocked at him saucily.

                Determined to last at least another five minutes without fully giving her anything she asked of him, he shrugged and plopped down next to her feet and flicked on the tube.

                “Nope,” he replied evenly and tried to focus on the rerun of Supernatural. It was a good episode, too. The one where Dean dies every five minutes. Funny.

                When she started to sit up he held a hand out towards her. Once he was certain he wouldn’t crumble at a simple look from her, he turned enough to give her the best side eye he could muster.

                “You promised to behave,” he reminded her. She actually fucking pouted as she slumped back against the cushion.

                “You promised you wouldn’t,” she grumbled under her breath. He snorted.

                “Patience is a virtue,” he retorted as he watched Dean get run over by a car.

                “All hail the saint,” she griped again, but didn’t move towards him.

                Good. Maybe she would give him more than five minutes to gather his thoughts and settle his once again raging libido. She sighed deeply and stretched, her feet sliding up onto his lap.

                Then again, maybe not.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

SANSA

March 27th

 

                He’d held out so much longer than she’d hoped. She could see it in his eyes; he wanted her. Hell, he even liked her. It wasn’t just a booty call he was after. She wasn’t stupid; she knew she was attractive. She took care of herself, ate right, exercised. She was happy with her body, even though she generally kept it more covered than others her age. But maybe that was because she knew the depravity that was out there. She had never been comfortable with being stared at, and adolescent males weren’t known for their discretion.

                Yes, his sainthood was still firmly intact, but she had seen signs of him weakening. He touched her far more frequently. Ran his hands down her arms, sat maddening close to her. Last night, while they sat on the sofa and watched a movie, she’d nearly purred when he’d played with the ends of her hair. But when she’d hummed in contentment he’d practically launched himself off the couch and out of the room, with only a quick, “g’night”.

                Her frustration mounted this morning when he wouldn’t even look at her over their morning coffee. He’d just bolted out the door with his wolves and hadn’t been back in hours. She knew he was somewhere close by – he never left her alone for too long – but it wounded her heart (and her pride) that he kept himself away from her. Old insecurities that she’d long thought were resolved in therapy washed over her like an incoming tide, each wave strengthening and building on the last. She’d heard him the other day; that her history didn’t matter, that he was offended she would think that of him. But the niggling doubts remained.

                She pulled on leggings and a loose tee over her sports bra and breathed deeply while she removed a pair of well-worn ballet shoes from her top drawer. She used her calming techniques and channelled Tyrion’s voice: She had never been sexually violated by Baelish, but she still suffered trauma. She was NOT damaged, tainted, tarnished, or spoiled goods. She was a good person, capable of love and intimacy. She was allowed to desire someone. It was perfectly natural to have sexual fantasies and feelings. It was absolutely understandable that she would be unsure about sex and sexual activities ever being something she would actively seek out. She was worth respecting, worth waiting for, worth loving.

                With that mantra swirling in her mind, she trotted down the basement steps, iPod in hand. She had unearthed an alarm clock with a player in the bedroom closet and was determined to put it to good use. It had been too long since she’d worked out. She needed this to bring peace to her mind and calm to her body. When she selected her list the starting notes of Ed Sheeran’s “Give Me Love” floated through the air. No classical music for her; her playlist consisted of Sheeran, Beyonce, Rhianna, Imagine Dragons, and anyone else that made her want to move.

                The space downstairs was big enough she could move freely, even with the support poles. The lack of a barre would make stretching a little more challenging, but she’d make due. Her pointe shoes made her that much taller, but she’d always felt so graceful in them. She started simply; plies, grande plies, round de jambes, all the usual warm ups from her days in the studios as a girl. It was like riding a bike. Her lithe body bent and twisted with fluidity she’d forgotten she could manage. When Rhianna’s “S&M” blared through the speakers it brought a full smile to her face. There was something so wrong about her enjoyment of that particular song. Like she should have been too traumatized to love it so much. Tyrion had said he wasn’t surprised at all, that she always seemed like a walking contradiction. Bronn hated it and banned her from playing it at the house. She turned it up and twirled across the room in time with the down beat en pointe.

                She lost herself in the music and the movement. She’d always felt so damned free whenever she danced. It had taken a few years for her to agree to get back into it after her parents died. Aunty M had practically begged her, which was the only reason she’d finally relented while they lived in Georgia. It was the best decision she’d ever made. Dancing gave her an outlet for her emotions that didn’t require words. It was cathartic and uplifting all the same time, and it boosted her wounded confidence at a time when she’d desperately needed it.

                She’d felt his eyes on her sometime during the opening bars of Seethers “The Gift”. Determined to ignore him and hold on to the soft, peaceful shroud her dancing wrapped her in, she continued to move with purpose around the basement. It wasn’t lost on her, the appropriateness of that particular song for their current predicament. She could tell that he fought their attraction with everything he had. She’d surmised that her age was a real sticking point for him but knew there was something more substantial holding him back. In an effort not to let her thoughts wander again, she zoned out, the way she only ever could when she danced, and let the music carry her body. The strong movements propelled her through complex steps and turns.

                As the final riffs faded she finally stopped to mop the sweat off her face with a towel. Without a single glance in his direction, she swallowed down some water and cleared her throat. “Demons” by Imagine Dragons started. She snorted.

                Could this get any more poetic?

                She fought to keep her confidence. Sarcasm had always been her greatest shield, so she mustered a haughty tone.

                “Are you just going to stand there and stare at me, or –“

                She was abruptly cut off when a firm hand gripped her shoulder and spun her around. She didn’t even have time to draw a breath before his mouth captured hers. Shock froze her thoughts and her body, but only momentarily. When she felt his hands on her hips she snapped out of her daze. She opened to him, her fingers tightly wound into his long, dark hair while she pressed against his firm body.

                It was the first time he had ever kissed her. His mouth was soft, but so skilled she felt her knees tremble. She’d been wholly unprepared for his gentleness and it unnerved her slightly. Guys were always so aggressive with her, like they didn’t understand the difference between passion and roughness. This was obviously not an issue with Sandor. She could feel everything in his sure movements. The way he caressed her hips and toyed with the hem of her shirt set off goosebumps, and she full out moaned when he nipped at her lower lip. She immediately wished she hadn’t when he broke the kiss and rested his forehead against hers. Her body felt like he’d lit it on fire. When she opened her eyes, she saw the sweat that still glistened on the skin of her arms. She huffed out an embarrassed laugh and detangled herself from him and took a step back. His stormy grey eyes followed her with an intensity that melted her insides.

                “Seriously?” she choked out before she cleared her throat. “Now you kiss me? When I’m stinky and gross and covered in sweat?”

                “You’re fucking gorgeous,” he breathed while he stared openly at her. She felt the heat in her cheeks and bit her lip but held his burning gaze. After a moment of silence, he finally blinked and started glancing around the room.

                “I didn’t know you danced,” he finally said and waved a hand at her.

                “I haven’t in a while, what with school and everything,” she replied lamely. She shrugged. Why the hell was it so hard talking to him now?

                “Oh,” was all he said. He looked around again as if trying to find something. “What the hell are you listening to?”

                “Um,” it took her a minute to think, “his name’s James Bay.”

                “What’s the song?”

                As she heard the words it made sense why he’d ask. She whispered, “Scars.”

                He regarded her sceptically before he hummed under his breath. “You have peculiar tastes in music.”

                She stuttered a breathy laugh. “How so?”

                “From Staind to Ed Sheeran to Rhianna to this guy? Strange mix.”

                “I like Taylor Swift, too,” she replied with a roll of her eyes.

                “Dear God, no,” he said dramatically. She giggled like a twelve-year-old and flushed again at how brainless it made her sound.

                “Pretty sure I’m not as crazy as she is, but I love the way she embraces it,” she offered with a shrug.

                “I don’t think you’re crazy at all,” he said as he reached out and gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. He leaned in close again and whispered, “But I do think you selected your music with a purpose.”

                A shiver sparked down her spine as she laughed breathlessly and shook her head slightly. Her cheek brushed his unscarred one as she tried to look him in the eyes.

                “No, I really didn’t. You can look at my iPod if you want. I made this last year,” she murmured.

                He hummed again and traced his nose along the curve of her jaw up and over the edge of her ear. She shivered and had to grip his arms to stay on her feet. For someone who practically ran from her every time she even looked cross eyed at him, he sure was comfortable being so close. The heat that rolled off of him was intoxicating and she found herself leaning into his embrace. His lips found her the pounding pulse in her neck and her eyes fluttered closed. She allowed herself to just feel. His breath on her skin. His hands on her back. Her fingers explored his muscled chest and shoulders before one hand tangled in his hair. Her other felt the thundering rhythm of his heart. To know that he was as affected as her gave her the boost she needed. She kissed his up his chest and went en pointe to enable her to reach his neck. Her lips explored the rough skin under his jaw and she nipped gently at his Adam’s apple, which earned her a small grunt. Carefully, slowly, she kissed her way across to the scars that marred him. She felt his body harden as her planted feather light kisses along his neck, his jaw, his cheek.

                She pulled back only enough to look into his eyes. She wasn’t surprised by the wariness that hardened them. She whispered his name and smoothed the hand on his chest up, slowly, to wrap firmly around his shoulders. She pulled him down to meet her with very little resistance, if any at all. There was no pretence, no hesitation from either of them. Just the push and pull, the heated exploration, the heavy breaths. With each passing moment she felt his body soften, his kisses intensify, and his fingers creep further up her back under her shirt. She was afraid he would pull away when her legs began to wobble from the strain of her position, but he did nothing of the sort. Instead, he wrapped his arms firmly around her middle and lifted her clear off her feet. She had to fight the urge to wrap her legs clear around him, certain that would send him running again.                      They were so lost in one another that when his phone vibrated against her thigh from within his jeans pocket she actually squealed in shock. Sandor laughed and set her down to answer the offending device with his typical gruff greeting. She took that moment to slide down to the floor and remove her shoes. Halfway through the first ribbon his voice raised to an alarming volume.

                “What the fuck do you mean ‘you think he’s on the way’?!” he yelled into the mouthpiece.

                Sansas’ eyes widened as her heart thundered. Gregor, she thought in absolute panic. How the fuck did he find us so fast?!

                He did warn you that you had no idea who you were dealing with when it came to his brother, a little voice whispered in the back of her mind. She did everything she could to ignore it and the overwhelming fear that continued to flood through her. She pushed it down with logic. She wasn’t alone. She had Sandor. And the wolves. And she was a badass, damnit! Isn’t that what Tyrion always reminded her? She could kick ass without breaking a nail or a sweat most days.

                But look what he did to his brother. She fought the urge to clamp her hands over her ears like she did when she was a child and her inner voices wouldn’t shut the hell up.

                “I don’t need back up, especially that lecherous piece of shit,” Sandor snarled viciously. That got her attention. Who the fuck did they plan to send that he objected to so vehemently.

                When the tinny voice on the other end shouted a response, Sandor seemed to remember he wasn’t always in charge. He grunted a surly, “Yes, sir,” before he ended the call. For a moment she thought he might smash the phone against the wall, but he seemed to think better of it and jammed it back into his pocket.

                Too many emotions warred within Sansa for her comfort. She harnessed the easiest, the most useful and felt it fill her up. Fluidly she rose and crossed her arms when she finally looked him in the eye. There was anger there, like her, but something else she couldn’t immediately identify lingered as well.

                “Tell me,” she demanded quietly. She could not be timid or afraid. That never got her anywhere. She was strong, capable . . . deadly. So was he. They could handle this. She was determined to handle it

                He eyed her cautiously and huffed out a frustrated sigh while he scrubbed a hand roughly down his face.

                “There was a situation at the Mexico/California border. A fake passport was used, but with the FBI running frequent most wanted lists an agent recognized him, even with his altered appearance.” Sandor’s voice was low and tense, which could only mean one thing.

                “Littlefinger,” she said flatly. He nodded. She waited for fury, fear, anything. There was nothing. She felt like she was suddenly swallowed up by the great void of emptiness she used to surrender to when she was young and struggled to make sense of her emotions. It was as if all was snuffed out with that one name. The room felt smaller. Darker.

                “Sansa,” Sandor started to say, but she cut him off.

                “California. That’s really close.” Her voice sounded dead to even her own ears.

                “Don’t!” he snapped, suddenly right in her face. “Stop it!”

                “What?” she asked dully.

                “Shut the fuck down. Quit like this,” he barked back, gesturing towards her passive body. She snorted and crossed her arms.

                “I’m not,” replied evenly. She didn’t know how to shut down.

                “The hell you aren’t!” he boomed and stomped away two paces before he was back in her face again. “Look at you! This is why I don’t want to tell you anything! You can’t handle it!”

                Flashes danced before her eyes. Blood. The woods. Icy wind on her naked skin. LIttlefinger offering her a bath. Jenna, broken and filthy. A snapped neck. Running. Loud noises. Strange men. Hospital rooms. All of them spun in a sickening whirlwind until she had trouble figuring out which reality she stood in. Which memory.

                “You don’t know shit!” she spat venomously, her anger suddenly back with a vengeance. Her whole body practically vibrated with it as she rose up on the balls of her feet in an effort to stare him down. She wouldn’t be taken down again. She could handle anything. She had to handle anything. Everything.

                His eyes narrowed back at her but he didn’t budge. And he didn’t take it back.

                “You know nothing,” she uttered lowly, rage choking her words, “if you think this is me shutting down.”

                “Looks that way to me,” he challenged. His face changed, morphed into something from nightmares long forgotten.

She shook her head. When her hands twitched he sneered at her.

“You gonna hit me now?” he taunted her with words she’d used against him last week. She couldn’t remember his reply. Couldn’t remember . . .

“Keep pushing me and find out,” she bit back acerbically. She was wound tight, ready to spring. When his mouth twitched and his eyes narrowed she felt the world tilt and darkness seep in around the edges.

You are the one in control. No one has the power to make you disappear, Tyrions’ voice rang in her mind. Never give your power away. It’s only ever been yours.

Fear shot through her with such intensity that her entire body jolted as if she’d been struck. She staggered back a few steps and started to breathe rapidly.

No, no, no, no, she said the words in her head, but may have also uttered them aloud. She couldn’t focus on that though. She had to get a firm grasp on herself. She couldn’t let herself go. Not after all this time. She’d worked too damned hard.

“Sansa.” The voice that had only moments ago held such anger and contempt only sounded uncertain, worried. When he took a step towards her she held both hands out in front of her to ward him off.

“Don’t!” she practically shrieked. Her heart rattled in her chest, pounding her pulse in her ears. She took a deep breath. Then another and another. The darkness began to recede. She focused.

My name is Sansa Stark. I am nineteen years old. I am safe here. I am not in danger right now. I am safe here. My name is Sansa Stark. I am nineteen years old. I am in New Mexico.

“Look at the floor,” Sandors’ gravelly voice suddenly broke into her thoughts and her eyes flew open. She hadn’t realized she’d closed them. He was only a foot away from her, hands stuffed tightly in his jeans. When had he gotten so close. His eyes intensely bored into hers, but his body language was calm, relaxed.

“Look at the floor,” he repeated gently. She did as she was told. “Describe it to me.”

She swallowed. Yes. This was good. The floor. “Um, it’s hard. Grey. Concrete. Smooth. Cold.”

“Good,” he said smoothly. “Now look around you. Tell me about the room.”

She nodded and glanced around. “Walls. Basement. Silvery poles. Small windows behind you. Alarm clock. Music.”

“Tell me about it,” he said firmly, but gently.

She could breathe more easily. She nodded again. “Loud. Pretty voice.” She paused to think. “Flyleaf. All Around Me. Good song. One of Arya’s favorites. Jon’s too.”

“Look at me,” he commanded softly. She didn’t try to resist, didn’t want to. He was so soothing. The song ended. Silence engulfed her.

“Who am I?”

Easy. “Mine.”

Something shifted in his expression, flashed in his eyes, but it was gone before she could grasp onto to it. His mouth lifted in a half smile.

“As you say, Little Bird,” he murmured.

Little Bird. Sansa Stark. Little Bird. Littlefinger. NO.

                “Sansa.”

 Calm. Firm. Gravelly. Sandor. Safety. Comfort. Desire.

She released a breath she hadn’t realised she’d held in a long exhale. She took one step towards him. Another brought them toe to toe. She leaned her body into his, hands clenched firmly in his shirt, afraid he would move away. He didn’t. He held her. Soothed her with soft touches and hushed tones. Her mind calmed, her body relaxed, all tension and fear evaporated. His smell, his touch, it all brought her right back to where she needed to be. Her thoughts slowed and became less disjointed. She began to think in full sentences. She once again noticed her body. Her feet were freezing.

“Faster than therapy,” she murmured against his chest. He held her tighter and stroked her hair.

“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. She shook her head but still couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Now that she was back, calm, she felt the usual embarrassment that accompanied these episodes.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” she started to say.

“Bullshit,” he interrupted. “Don’t lie to me, Sansa. That’s all I ask of you. I can take anything but lies.”

She shook her head the entire time he spoke. When he huffed a frustrated sigh she finally lifted her chin to look him in the eye. He didn’t look angry. If anything, he looked sad. She hated that. She never wanted people to feel sorry for her. She’d had quite enough of that when she was little.

“You didn’t know,” she tried again. “We’ve argued before. Hell, we’ve fought before, and I never got that close to losing myself.”

His fingers combed through her hair. She couldn’t recall taking it down from the messy bun she’d had it in earlier. Had she actually lost time? She hadn’t thought so. She bit her lip and went back through every thought, every second.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Sandor asked.

“I can’t figure out how my hair fell down,” she answered honestly.

His fingers stilled for a moment before they resumed their ministrations.

“You pulled it loose. You kept trying to pull it out,” he told her calmly.

“Oh,” was all she could think to say.

“You stopped when I started talking to you.”

Good to know. “Thank you for that.”

He nodded but said nothing. She stayed in his arms. She enjoyed the warmth and feeling of absolute safety there. She’d never had that with any other guy before. Hell, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually felt someone’s physical presence was enough to soothe her. She supposed Margie and Bronn brought her comfort when she was younger. The older she had gotten, the more difficult it became to find that same sense of peace. But with him, she’d found it again and she was in no hurry to give that up.

When she started to shiver he made to pull away. She’d actually whimpered like a toddler and clung to him tighter. When he didn’t move to hold her again she worried she’d somehow made him angry. Before she could think how to ask she was swept up in his arms bridal style. She stifled a gasp and gripped around his shoulders tightly as he carried her up the stairs.

“Be careful, I’m heavy.” She really didn’t want him to drop her. When he scoffed at her and gave her a rather unamused side eye she shut up about it and rested her head on his shoulder.

He kicked the door shut behind them and sauntered over to the sofa. Instead of setting her down, he merely sat and cradled her in his lap. They sat quietly for a time. When Sansa noticed how low the sun sat in sky she finally lifted her head and looked him in the eye. The sadness was gone, replaced a quiet calm she had come to crave from him. She reached up and stroked the scarred side of his face tenderly before leaning in and kissing him soundly on the mouth. He accepted her eagerly, which was a welcomed change. He kept things slow. Soft lips. Gentle hand on her calf. Never pressing for more. Never letting her get too carried away.

                She pulled away first, too many questions on her mind. He seemed to sense that and held her a little more tightly.

                “How did you know what to do?”

                “You think you’re the only one who ever needed therapy?” he replied with an arched eyebrow.

                She huffed a little laugh. Of course she didn’t think that. She’d also never assume that someone had sorted their shit out through a professional simply because she had.

                “You may have missed your calling,” she told him good-naturedly.

                He shook his head, “I’m much better at breaking people than I am at putting them back together.”

                “I beg to differ,” she countered as she traced the pattern on his tee shirt.

                “I have a vested interest in seeing you whole and happy,” he replied quietly.

                “How gallant of you, sir,” she teased lightly.

                His eyes narrowed in mock anger. “Fuck your sirs. I do what I do for my own selfish reasons.”

                “You’re probably the least selfish person I know.” He couldn’t be serious with that crap, could he?

                “You need to get out more,” he deadpanned.

                She laughed under her breath and shook her head in consternation. “You’re impossible. Can’t you just take a compliment?”

                “Didn’t realise you’d given one.”

                She leaned in close and kissed his lips once. Twice. Softly. Quickly.

                “Thank you, Sandor.”

                He looked like he might say something stupid again, so she covered his mouth with her hand and gave him an exasperated smile.

                “Just say ‘you’re welcome’ you stubborn ass.” She giggled when he shook his head and then growled as she touched her forehead to his.

                “You’re such a pain in the ass.”

                “Never claimed to be anything different,” he said around a chuckle when she growled at him again.

                “You sound like an angry kitten when you do that,” he teased with a glint of humor in his steely eyes.

                Slightly affronted, she shoved his shoulder. “Hey! I’m way more terrifying than a kitten.”

                “I don’t know, they’re pretty fucking scary with their tiny fangs and razorblade feet.”

                Sansa laughed. “Big man like you scared of harmless little kitties.”

                “You’d be surprised at the things I fear.” He still sounded like he was joking, but there was something serious in his eyes.

                She refused to take the bait. She had a feeling she wouldn’t like the answer and she wasn’t ready to talk about something heavy yet. She needed a couple days after all that transpired in the basement. And now that he finally gave in and kissed her, actually touched her, she wanted to focus on that more than anything else.

                “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” she murmured against his lips. It was amazing how quickly he relented to her touch in such a short time.

                He was so good. She’d been with guys – and the occasional girl during party hook-ups – who were good kissers. But Sandor was on a whole different level. She’d never been so turned on by mere kissing before. Her breath sped when his fingertips grazed over the top of her thigh while he expertly explored her mouth.

                He pulled away before things could get too intense. It was probably for the best, frustrating as it may be. She could tell there were things he still needed to say. She sat back and scratched her nails gently across the back of his neck. His eyes burned hotly into hers in such a way that she nearly dissolved into a puddle of pure desire. She tried to think of a way to distract him. No matter how much she wanted him, she knew that she wasn’t ready for that. She settled for requesting the information he’d tried to impart earlier.

                “Tell me,” she asked softly. It was different from the last time she’d uttered those words only hours ago. She was in a better headspace. She physically felt safe. He seemed to sense that, too. He was much less reluctant to talk than he had been downstairs.

                “With the sighting in California, my boss thinks it best for us to have more support on the ground.” She could tell by his tone that he was less than thrilled with that idea.

                “I know you can protect me,” she started to say in an effort to smooth things over.

                “It’s not about that, and it’s not up to me,” he interjected gruffly. She nodded quietly and resumed stroking the back of his neck. It seemed to settle him somewhat.

                “They’re involving the FBI,” he paused, then corrected himself. “Actually, they’ve always been involved, but now they’re sending agents.”

                “And you don’t want to share?” She hadn’t meant to say it quite like that and knew immediately that she had to revise her statement when his expression instantly became stony.

                “I meant that you don’t want anyone else trying to take over protecting me?”

                “Right,” he ground out, his eyes still hard.

                “You don’t like who they’re sending.” It was more of a statement than a question since she recalled his reaction on the phone.

                “Not particularly, but since they’ve been part of your case going back to when you were a child, I have no say in the matter.” His tone was bitter and angry. She knew how much he didn’t like not being in control, even after only being around him for a short time.

                “They can send whoever the fuck they want. The only person allowed anywhere near me is you,” she told him firmly. His eyebrows went up slightly before the scarred half of his mouth twisted up in a smirk.

                “The little bird has teeth.”

                “Damned right I do, and I’m not afraid to use them. You know that first hand.” She winked at him and he snorted.

                “Who are they sending?” she asked out of sheer curiosity.

                Sandor glowered. “Boros and Lannister.”

                “Tyrion?” Surprise lit her features. He snorted again.

                “No, his brother, Jaime.”

                “Wasn’t he the guy who came to see you before we left Pennsylvania?” She recalled other memories of him, too. More distant memories.

                “Yeah. Dumb fucker.”

                She smiled and shrugged. “At least you know them and what they are capable of. That’s probably better than someone you’ve never even heard of before.”

                He eyed her suspiciously. “True. When the hell did you become so accommodating and optimistic?”

                She shrugged. “I’m just being logical. And I was serious before. I don’t care who they are or how long they’ve been working my case. I don’t want anyone around me but you.”

                “They’re going to have to stay here,” he informed her with a guarded expression.

                “We’ll get them a tent,” she returned evenly.

                “Sansa,” Sandor started to argue around a chuckle.

                “What? It’s warming up outside.”

                His deep laugh rumbled through her whole body and made her smile.

                “If it rains they can sleep in the basement,” she went on. Sandor shook his head but mirth glowed from his eyes.

                “When do they get here?” she asked. She needed to know how much time she had alone with him before the lions descended.

                “It will take them a week to mobilize everything.” That was better news than she had expected.

                “What happens if we aren’t here when they arrive?” She had to know all the possibilities.

                “Don’t even think it. My boss will yank me off this case faster than your pretty little head could spin,” he said firmly.

                “Can he do that? I thought you weren’t technically working for them anymore?”

                He huffed. “I contract to them from time to time.”

                “Is this one of those times?”

                “Why all the questions about my employment status?”

                “Because I want to know exactly how much power they have over you staying here with me,” she told him honestly. The last thing she needed was him being reassigned to Antarctica for the next five years while she tried to stay alive what whatever yahoo they sent to replace him.

                “Don’t worry about that,” he tried. She wouldn’t have a bar of it.

                “Nice try. Give it to me straight.”

                “I’m technically acting as a Marshal since that was the only way for me to take you away from Bronn and Margie. You’re still in witness protection, remember? You always have to have a Marshal with you or very nearby.”

                “Technically? What’s the loophole?” She could tell he was getting annoyed with her questions.

                Tough shit, big man. I’m smart and determined to use my damned brain to get what I need.

                “Even if they tried to replace me with another agent there is nothing to they could do to make me leave. Technically.”

                She finally saw was he wouldn’t say outright. It was immensely comforting.

                “So, you aren’t going anywhere? No matter what the big, bad FBI agents report back to their superiors or yours?”

                “I don’t have any superiors,” he said drily. She rolled her eyes.

                “Nice ego. Now put it away, please.”

                “We might have to be more cautious about this.” He indicated the lack of space between them.

                “Why? It’s not like they can fire you. And I’m not a minor.”

                “Lannister gets jealous when he’s not the center of attention.”  

“Too damn bad. He can’t have you; you’re mine,” she said before gazing up at him through her lashes. She knew that wasn’t what he meant, but she wanted to make that clear before anyone descended upon then and complicated things more than they already were.

                She felt his heart thud hard. His expression gave nothing away but his body betrayed him. He breathed more heavily, held her a little closer, his eyes smouldered. She could see the truth of her words. He was hers. That knowledge brought with it a thrill that settled deep within her.

                “As you say, Little Bird,” he murmured before they became entangled in one another again. It was so easy to get lost in feel and taste of him. She could stay there forever. She prayed that he’d let her.

Chapter Text

 

SANSA

March 30th

 

                “Hurry up.”

                Sandor’s gravelly voice echoed through the hallway again. That was the fourth time he’d barked the same order. Sansa groaned under her breath in annoyance while she finished tying her shoes. When she stalked out of the room she had to catch the jacket that nearly clobbered her in the face.

                “Dude, what the hell?” she finally snapped. Sandor, unperturbed by her tone, shrugged.

                “You take for-fucking-ever to get ready. It’s just the grocery store. Stop being such a diva and move your ass if you want to get there before it closes.” He gestured towards the front door with his thumb.

                “Just because I don’t think pyjama pants are proper shopping attire doesn’t mean I’m a diva,” she grumbled. Once her arms were shoved into Jon’s jacket she stalked past him and stomped out the door towards the car.

                “What are you so surly about?” he asked as they turned around in the driveway and headed out towards the road.

                “I’m not surly,” she countered, “I’m just sick of you ordering me around like we’re in the fucking army all the damned time. Do this, move here, go away.” She deepened her voice to sound somewhat like his before she glared and him and ground out, “BUH!”

                He snorted and rolled his eyes. “Sometimes you need reminding that this isn’t just a vacation.”  

                “I’ve never been on vacation,” she groused. She wound her arms together tightly and sat back in a huff. It was quiet for a full minute before Sandor spoke again, much more softly.

                “Is that true?”

                “Is what true?” she bit back. She hated how much he antagonised her. It was like living with Arya.

                “You’ve never been on vacation?” he clarified, his voice slightly incredulous.

                “When the hell would I have ever had time for that, what with constantly running for my fucking life?” She threw her hands up and shrugged her shoulders.

                Sandor was quiet again, his expression pensive. When they finally pulled into the grocery store parking lot he turned to look her full in face.

                “I’ll take you.”

                “What?” She breathed out a semi-amused laugh. “Take me where?”

                “Wherever you want to fucking go. I’ll take you.” He was serious. He was also trying to be sweet. It was rare, but she’d seen him do this a few times in the past week. She allowed her mood to thaw somewhat and gave him a half smile.

                “If we get out of this alive, I might just hold you to that.”

                “One condition.” He held up his finger. She rolled her eyes.

                “Ugh. Of course there is. Lay it on me.” She gestured towards him.

                “No Dollywood,” he said with the utmost gravity. She burst out laughing. What a nut job.

                “Deal,” she said around her snickers and opened her door to slide out of the truck.

                They walked up and down the aisles while she threw things haphazardly into the shopping cart. It was a great store, but it had all the necessities. Although, Sandor didn’t always agree that something was a basic need.

                “We’re not buying that,” he grumbled as he tossed her favorite hot chocolate back onto the shelf.

                “Why not? It’s really good!” she argued and reached for it again. He stood in her way.

                “Because it’s nine goddamn dollars, that’s why,” he reasoned as he threw something in into the heap to replace it. “Here, Hershey’s syrup. Just a good.”

                Sansa made a face. “That shit is vile! It’s almost pure corn syrup. There’s, like, no real chocolate in it!”

                A battle ensued where each of them continuously removed the others’ selection from the cart and replaced it with their own respective choices. Sansa laughed so loudly after a few minutes that they had begun to draw attention to themselves.

                “FINE!” Sandor threw his hands up in surrender and backed away from the cart. “You win, crazy woman. Buy your ridiculously expensive drink. But that means we buy the cheap cereal.”

                “I win, I win,” Sansa teased in a sing-song voice while she danced around him. When he made to glare at her, she poked out her lower lip in a full-blown pout.

                “Aw, poor big man. Am I so mean to you?” She didn’t even think before she acted; just rose up on her tip toes and planted a lingering kiss. When she pulled away and saw the shock on his face she worried she’d overstepped.

                “Uh, was that not . . . would you rather I –“

                “It’s fine, Little Bird. Just took me off guard is all.” He resumed their shopping with what looked like forced nonchalance.

                She looked around but didn’t see anyone staring at them anymore. It wasn’t like she’d full on mounted him in the coffee aisle. She caught up as he rounded the corner and looped her arm through his. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye but didn’t say a word. In fact, he was uncommonly quiet as they finished their shopping. While outside loading the truck, Sansa took a minute to look around. There were spectacular mountain views no matter which direction she glanced. It really was beautiful. Everywhere he’d taken her had been.

                “Maybe next time we’ll find a beach,” she mumbled. It’d been ages since she’d gotten a tan.

                “What was that?” Sandor asked, his head in the back of the truck. She didn’t answer him. She couldn’t.

                Sansa had her back to the truck when a silver SUV drove slowly out of the parking lot in front of her. Her breath caught in her throat when a flash of recognition slammed into her. His hair was exactly the way she remembered it, though the black was shot through with grey. His bright eyes barely glanced in her direction as he drove right past her. The full beard he sported changed the shape of his face, but it was so eerily similar. Her heart thundered and her stomach twisted as her breaths came in a short gasp. It was impossible. He couldn’t be there. She was seeing things. Losing her mind.

                “Hey,” Sandors’ gravelly voice breathed in her ear.

                She swallowed down her thundering heart and tried to slow her breaths. She nodded at him but continued to stare where the SUV had been.

                “Everything okay?” He smoothed her hair away from her face and wrapped an arm around her waist.

                “Yeah,” she replied breathlessly. She swallowed again and cleared her throat. “Yeah, I just . . . I thought I saw someone. It’s okay. I’m okay, really.”

                She turned and looked up at him and saw concern in his steely gaze. She gave a tremulous smile.

                “It’s really nothing, I promise. I’m good.” She leaned up and kissed his cheek, but he turned to press his mouth to hers eagerly. She lost herself in the moment. His mouth devoured hers wickedly while his hands smoothed down over the curves of her spine before they slid deftly into the back pockets of her jeans. She moaned softly when he squeezed her ass and pulled her against him indecently.

                Someone wolf-whistled from a passing car before they shouted, “Get a room!”

                Sansa broke away from his demanding lip and whispered, “Good idea.”

                His raspy laugh sounded so dirty. Or maybe it was her thoughts that were dirty and his laugh was the same as always. Either way, she felt herself flush deeply at the thought of being alone with him after such a display.

                “Get in the car,” he said lightly before he tapped her rump and went off towards the drivers’ side.

                She was quiet the whole way back to the house. Sandor seemed to know that she was trying to work something out in her mind and, to his credit, didn’t interrupt her thoughts. She had been rattled by the sight of that man in the SUV and wasn’t able to shake the feeling that she was being watched. She silently helped unload groceries and put them away in the kitchen. However, when she tried to slip away to her room for a little more time to dwell, she was stopped by a strong arm roped around her waist. He pulled her back against his chest and lowered his head to murmur in her ear.

                “You gonna tell me what’s on your mind? Or do I have to drag it out of you?” His free hand slid up her arm.

                He had been much more demonstrative the last couple of days. To say that she had enjoyed it was a massive understatement. She closed her eyes and let her thoughts drift to something far less confusing and much more pleasant. He nipped at the shell of her ear and shivers travelled the length of her body.

                “I thought I saw someone when we were at the store,” she told him and then shook her head slightly. Sansa turned in his arms to face him. “Sorry, it just took me a little off guard.”

                “Not uncommon,” he said softly. He reached down softly encircled her wrists in his hands. “Do you need a distraction?”

                Her breath came faster, heavier. She nodded as he moved against her body, forcing her back against the kitchen wall. Leisurely, he lifted her arms up and placed her hands over her head. There was no force to the movements, no pressure on her wrists, but the intention was clear. Her head fell back dizzily as she offered him her mouth. He leaned into her slowly, his grey eyes alight with a burning intensity that melted her insides. When his lips finally found hers, she moaned quietly and leaned fully into the kiss. She loved kissing him. It was thrilling and enticing, everything she thought it would be; everything she’d never had before but always desired.

                Before long she was breathless. It was almost embarrassing just how much he affected her. Her heart pounded, her body trembled, and the pulsing from between her thighs had almost become unbearable. She had never wanted someone so much in her entire life. But he only ever seemed to be interested in PG-13 make out sessions. Seriously hot make out sessions, but they still left her totally frustrated and wholly unsatisfied. It reminded her of practically every sexual encounter she’d ever had before him. Guys, in her experience, were always so goddamned clueless. So far, Sandor seemed to know exactly what he was doing. But his glacial pace was enough to make her want to cry.

                In a moment of sheer desperation, she decided to try something new. She slid her hands easily from captivity and stroked them down his chest towards his belt. She knew what he would assume, and what his response would be. When he stepped back slightly to retreat from her exploration, she sprung into action and whipped her own shirt off over her head, tossing it on the floor.

                He froze, his steely eyes wide as saucers. She didn’t like being looked at, especially when undressed, but she didn’t know any other way to get her ideas across to him. She was used to fending guys off, not trying to make them move faster. This was way out of left field for her.

                She hungrily pressed her lips against his, her arms going tightly around his waist. When he barely responded she kissed along his jaw, up to his ear.

                “Touch me,” she whispered before she resumed the assault on his lips.

When he didn’t immediately respond she worried she’d crossed a line. Then she felt his calloused finger tips brush along the curve of her hips. She sucked in a breath as his hands skimmed around her ribs and ghosted over the skin of her lower back. When he suddenly gripped her butt and lifted her up, she didn’t try to resist. Unlike last time, she wrapped her legs around his waist. Her arms wound tightly around his neck as she kissed him deeply. Her back found the wall again as he pressed his very prominent arousal against her core. She groaned loudly into his mouth while he ground against her.

Sweet baby Jesus . . .

It felt so damned good. She didn’t want to stop. Sex had never been her idea in her relationships, but she had never craved anyone the way she did Sandor. Occasionally, she would enjoy sex or foreplay with someone who actually tried to make her feel good. But everything he did was perfect. Everything made her want more.

She moaned loudly when hit a sweet spot that sent little waves of pleasure through her whole body. Lost in the sensations, she was unprepared when she was pulled away from the wall and her weight rested in his large hands. She relinquished his lips to suck and nip at his neck. They had started to move and she mentally prepared for what surely came next when she saw that they had headed away from her room. Confused, she pulled away slightly as they approached the couch.

“What –“ she started to ask breathlessly, but he cut her off with a penetrating kiss that made her toes curl.

Carefully, he lowered her down on the cushioned surface. He maintained some space, his body held over hers by his arms. She yanked on his shirt demandingly. She didn’t want the distance. She didn’t want to play it safe or take things slow or whatever fool idea he had in that brilliant head of his. She wanted to feel good. Hell, she wanted to feel amazing, and she was certain he could deliver. If only she could get him to relax his stupid rules for two minutes.

She slid her hands under his tee-shirt and felt the muscles of stomach flex and contract beneath her fingers. She moved down until her thumbs traced over the top of his jeans. When she clasped his belt, her hands were suddenly locked inside one of his.

“Little bird,” he practically crooned in her ear. “Stop tempting me.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” she panted back and tried to wiggle her hands free. He huffed out a laugh but would not release her. He nuzzled behind her ear and nipped at her lobe.

Sansa whimpered. She was so turned on she could barely see straight. It wasn’t fair that he could do this to her. She shook her head slightly at the unjustness of the situation. She wasn’t supposed to be at his mercy; he was supposed to be at hers, dammit! She was completely out of her depth, and he knew it.

Sandor leaned up slightly to look at her. She must have been a sight. Hair all screwed up, no top on, yoga pants clinging to her indelicately. Her purple lace bra felt uncomfortably tight with the way her breaths came hard and fast. She shifted underneath him and avoided his eyes.

“Look at me,” he ground out.

Her eyes rose to meet his of their own volition. He seemed to search for something in her expression. She didn’t know if he found it or not, but when he backed away from her and sat up on his knees she knew better than to let him get too far. Her body chased his. She pulled one hand free and quickly released the clasp on the back of her bra.

If he thought I was tempting him before . . .

He dropped her other hand in shock, which gave her the opportunity to quickly remove the offending garment and toss it off to the side. He looked like he was about to make a break for it when she gripped his shirt in both fist and tugged hard. He lost his balance and tumbled forward slightly but caught his weight before he could collide with her. She didn’t release him but renewed her assault on his neck.

“Fuck, Sansa,” he breathed. His chest heaved as he breathed hotly in her ear. She had him, she could feel it. She reached down for his belt again.

He practically growled and batted her hand away.

“Knock it off,” he said gruffly. Confused and slightly wounded by his tone, she pulled back to look him in the face.

“Why?” She really didn’t get it. He wanted her. The proof of that poked her in the hip. And she damned sure wanted him. What was the problem?

His expression turned exasperated for a moment before he chuckled at her and shook his head. He leaned forward and pushed her shoulder gently until she lay back down beneath him. He devoured her with his eyes and she had to fight the urge to cover herself with her hands. The pure want in his heated gaze made desire pool in her lower belly.

“Slow down, Little Bird,” he murmured, staring hard at her.

“If we go any slower we’d be going backwards,” she huffed.

Sandor hummed while he regarded her quietly. The hand on her shoulder slid down until his palm fully cupped her breast. She felt small in his hands but loved the feel of them on her sensitive skin. Her breath hitched in her throat when his thumb flicked over her nipple and she bit her bottom lip in an effort to keep quiet. She watched his eyes darken lustfully. Sansa moaned and her eyes slid shut once he began rolling her nipple between his thumb and finger. Her hands wound through his hair when his mouth replaced his hand, sucking and nipping at her sensitive peaks.

She had no idea how long he continued the delicious assault on her body, but she had become acutely aware of the dampness and ache between her thighs. The way he had positioned himself over her made it impossible to seek out any kind of friction. Before long she became a quivering mess of need, gasping and whimpering as her body hummed in a constant state of arousal from which there was no release. When she could bear the divine torture no longer, she threw her leg over his hip and tried to pull his body down on hers. Sandor lifted his head from her breast, his eyes dark with his own desire. She pressed on him again with her heel, but his body did not budge one inch.

Instead, his hand slid purposefully down her belly to the hem of her pants. His fingers played along her delicate skin but didn’t descend further until she nodded her head rapidly a few times. He wasted no time as his fingers slipped under her clothes and down over her curls. She had never particularly enjoyed that kind of attention, what with guys taking most of their cues from bad porn. But with her level of desperation rapidly on the rise she would take whatever she could get. She waited for him to try and fuck her with his fingers as other guys had before. She was slick enough it might have even felt okay. Instead, he caressed her soft skin so gently it made her twitch beneath him. His fingers tickled along her slit with such delicacy that she practically jumped out of her skin when he pressed against her clit.

“Fuck,” she squeaked out. He smirked at her while he continued to stroke her in small, precise movements. Her eyes rolled up and her back arched as jolts of pleasure swept through her.

He’s good at everything, she thought absently. Profanity slipped unbidden from her parted lips while he expertly worked her over. A wordless shriek escaped her when his lips recaptured her nipple. Her thoughts became a jumbled mess as her climax continued to build so much more swiftly that she was used to. When his teeth grazed her stiff peak with the rhythm of his ministrations her orgasm ripped through her hard and unexpected. Her legs clamped shut over his hand while she rocked against him, incoherent cries tumbled from her open mouth. She may or may not have pulled out some of his hair.

As her body settled her senses returned to her. She tried to slow her breaths and her thrumming heart. Her hands ached from gripping his hair and arm so tightly that she’d lost circulation. She lay there limply and finally pried her eyes open to see him staring openly at her heaving chest.

“Holy shit,” she croaked.

“Indeed,” he replied with the arch of a brow.

She rose up on shaking arms and kissed him breathlessly. He was just as willing as before but she could feel resistance bubbling beneath the surface. Her hand fluttered down and she cupped his raging hard on through his pants, but like before he pulled away.

“Hey,” she protested weakly against his lips. He chuckled and shook his head.

“Slowly, Little Bird.”

He’d said that before. She sighed. “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”

He snorted a laugh and kissed her softly but she wasn’t as into it as she had been. He noticed immediately.

“Don’t sulk,” he teased.

“You won’t let me touch you,” she retorted sullenly. What was the big deal?

He smirked and shook his head. “You don’t need to do that. It’s not tit for tat.”

“It could be.” She stared pointedly at his ‘tat’ before looking up at him with a smirk. He laughed a bit more fully at that.

“You’re ten seconds from passing out,” he accused lightly and she couldn’t argue. He was totally right; she was ready for a post-orgasm nap.

“I want to,” she tried again, because she really did. She felt selfish just leaving him like that.

He considered her for a moment before saying, “Another time.”

When she started to object he retrieved a warm, knitted throw from off the floor and pulled it around them both before he settled his head on her naked shoulder. She was so taken aback that she couldn’t find words. Wasn’t he frustrated? Didn’t he want her to take care of his needs? Guys were always going on about that – especially Joff; he was the worst. She couldn’t believe that he would be so different from every other guy she’d ever met.

“Sleep, Little Bird,” he mumbled against her skin.

He was serious. He didn’t want her to do anything. He just wanted to hold her. His hand soothingly traced the curve of her arm from her wrist up to her shoulder and back down again. Sansa felt her eyes close on their own accord. Her body succumbed to the boneless blissful state she’d fought since the last wave of her climax dulled down to a mere ripple.

I didn’t know men like him existed, she thought dreamily as she felt herself drift.

One last thing. “Disney World.”

“What?” he mumbled tiredly.

“Our vacation. I want to go to Disney World,” she said before a yawn took over.

“Do I look like I’d wear fucking ears and go on ‘Small World’?” he retorted sarcastically. She barely had the energy so she only shrugged one shoulder.

“It’s the happiest place on earth and I wanna go.” Her words had started to run together, but she kept on. “You promised. Anywhere I wanted.”

His loud, irritated groan made her giggle. His arms tightened around her.

“Fine,” he relented. Not that she thought he wouldn’t. It had become quite clear that there were certain things he would do for her, give to her, without any thought or hesitation. Mostly things that somehow made her happy.

Her last thought came quiet as a hummingbird’s wing and passed just a swiftly.

I could really fall for him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

Sandor POV

April 2nd

 

                It was getting too fucking hard – pun intended. He couldn’t keep fighting off her advances. Couldn’t keep dealing with his . . . issues . . . in the shower after watching her fall apart under him, next to him, in front of him, day after day in the most glorious ways possible. It was like he had found the most exquisite form of torture and still went looking for it every day. Multiple times a day.

                It was only set to get worse once the Feds descended. Then there would be sneaking and groping the dark like hormonal teenagers.

                She is a hormonal teenager, his inner voice growled at him. He groaned loudly and banged his head against the wall.

                Sansa came around the corner from the kitchen into the living room and stopped to stare at him like he’d lost his mind.

                “Oi! You’ll damage the wall!” she chided and smacked his arm on her way to the couch.

                “Always worried about my safety,” he quipped grouchily.

                “Pfft!” She waved him off. “You’re practically bullet proof. If no one’s killed you yet, chances are you’re immortal.”

                “How do you figure that?”

                She shrugged and turned on the TV. “I dunno. Maybe because you’ve been shot at and blown up and probably targeted in at least a dozen other ways and you’re still breathing. Which means you’re either a freaking super hero, the luckiest man on the planet, or immortal.”

                He smirked, entertained by her view of him as some sort of Superman. He vaulted the back of the sofa and landed roughly down next to Sansa. She wasn’t startled at all. Instead, she merely gave him her best side eye before she refocused on the television and resumed flipping through the channels.

                “What are our plans for today?” she mumbled. She’d finally chosen some god-awful reality show where the people were constantly in some inebriated state of undress or getting into macho showdowns with other inebriated people at nightclubs.

                “More combat training.” It came out more as a question due to the fact that he wanted an entirely different form of workout.

                Sansa merely shrugged. “Sure.”

                They stayed exactly where they were for the next two episodes. When a third started up he groaned audibly and threw his head back in mock distress.

                “What’s with you?” she giggled.

                “Pretty sure we’re losing IQ points by watching this shit. I actually feel dumber after sitting here for the past hour and a half,” he said with a completely straight face. She laughed again and turned the TV off.

                Her cerulean eyes glowed mischievously as they locked onto his. Slowly, with smooth feline grace, she climbed into his lap, her legs straddling his hips. The feel of her supple body pressed intimately up against his flamed his already raging libido. His hands settled on her hips as if of their own volition. She was so damned enticing it made him ache. When her lips softly brushed his he could feel her seeking permission. If only she knew that she could have anything she wanted from him, everything she wanted from him, anytime she wanted it. It was probably better that she didn’t know that. He was already too weak when it came to her. He didn’t need her to have any more power over him than she currently had.

                He lost himself in the taste of her mouth, the curves of her body, the gentle rocking of her hips against his. His eyes devoured every inch of her exposed flesh when she removed her shirt and allowed her to rid him of his as well. He slipped the straps of her bra off her shoulders before she removed the damnable thing and tossed it away. Their breaths were fast and heavy. Hands explored bare skin as he touched and tasted his way across her chest. He loved the way she moaned and shuddered when his teeth grazed her taut nipple. She pressed her core against him wantonly and ground against painfully throbbing cock. He’d grunted from the sheer pleasure of it.

                He was less than two seconds from dragging her off to her room and finally fucking her senseless when a low growl caused him to freeze. He pulled away from her delectable tits and looked towards the source of the sound. Ghost, Lady, and Grey Wind all stood at attention, hackles raised, eyes intent on the front door. Sansa’s gaze followed his as her breaths continued to heave over his exposed skin. It was just by chance that he saw the little red dot appear on her perfect skin.

                “MOVE!” he shouted before he launched them both to the floor, his massive body completely covering hers not even one second before the sounds of shattered glass rained down. He shoved her towards his room in a low army crawl. She shrieked wordlessly but, thankfully, moved her ass quickly across the floor towards the small hallway. He turned his head towards the front door.

                “GO FIND!” he bellowed and gave the hand signal he’d trained into them all those years ago. Their bodies shot through what was left of the windows as they took the remaining panes out with their bodies.

                Ears strained, Sandor held his breath. He shifted his body slightly upwards and heard the soft impact of projectiles impaling soft fabric. The couch cushion directly behind him exploded. Cotton and feathers floated down silently while he waited, listening intently. Of course these assholes used silencers. There was no other way to get the drop on them without alerting the neighbors. Even as far off as they were, no one would mistake the sounds of gunshots around there.

                Snarls filled the air and bounced off the trees outside. They were close; not even 20 yards. The dumb fucks were somewhere in the immediate vicinity of the house. The realization made his blood run cold. A hit could be done much farther away. That wasn’t what this was. That wasn’t why they were there. He reached between the ruined cushions on the sofa and withdrew his .44 Magnum he’s hidden there days ago. Safety off, he belly crawled along the same path Sansa had followed.

                “Sansa,” he hissed as he approached the door. She must have closed it after she’d made her escape. Cautiously, he reached his hand up and turned the knob. The door swung open with too much ease for his liking and banged loudly against the wall. Sandor crawled into the room and scanned the area with his sharp eyes.

                Empty. Nothing under the bed or in the closet. Movement caught his attention and immediately filled him with dread. The curtains fluttered against the breeze intruding into his room. In a low crouch, he made his way across the room where he discovered the window was wide open, screen removed.

                Sandor cursed under his breath and mentally prepared himself. Without warning he dove through the open space and tucked into a roll once he hit the ground outside. Once upright, his eyes followed the path of his gun. It was then he saw them. Her fiery hair trailed behind her as she bolted through the trees in front of him, an armed man hot on her heels. Without taking his eyes off her he whistled shrilly. He stayed in a low crouch to follow them through the trees. Less than ten steps in Lady and Ghost appeared at his left shoulder. He motioned out in front of him.

                “Guard!” he hissed and was only slightly relieved when they bolted after Sansa. He had to briefly remind himself that they weren’t pets, that’s this is what he’d trained them for. Still, he wouldn’t admit out loud how much it would wound him if one of them got hurt. Or worse.

                It took the beasts less than ten seconds to close the gap between him and Sansa. In that time, he’d spied three more men emerging swiftly from the woods around them. Even with the wolves, they were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. In short, they were fucking screwed. It made it all the more satisfying when Ghost leapt at the man that pursued Sansa and took him down with a fierce growl. The fucker screamed as Ghost shook him roughly by the shoulder. Lady trotted around Sansa, whom had stopped running when her attacker was taken down. Sandor was only two feet from her when the bark on the tree to his immediate right exploded with a slight pinging sound. He ducked as he launched himself forward and brought Sansa down with him. They hit the ground hard, but he didn’t have time to assess if she was injured before he rolled on top of her to shield her from any projectiles. He turned to Ghost, who continued to shake and grip the bellowing shithead a few feet from them. He gave the one command he’d never used before.

                “Kill,” he said lowly. Ghost froze and momentarily lifted his head away from the man he’d held. There was blood on his muzzle and fabric in his teeth. Sandor only had to nod once before the beast whipped his massive head around and tore out the mans throat. Gurgled wet screams rent the air, but only for a few seconds. Ghost was fast, thorough. Just as he’d trained him, trained all of them, to be.

                He looked down at the woman prone beneath him. Her hair was everywhere and her eyes were wild. He wanted to tell her he’d get them out of this, or at the very least, her. It killed him that he couldn’t say that. Branches cracked all around them, but the sound was suddenly dulled by the ferocious growls that circled them completely. In a quick glance he’d seen all three wolves create a wall of protection between them and those that advanced. Nothing the intruders did would break that line. Even if one of them fell, those that remained would continue to guard and protect them until death. Their loyalty was absolute.

                A sudden shotgun blast made Sandor startle after all the silenced bullets that had whizzed around them. He kept his head down but lifted his gun. A quick look to ensure he didn’t hit fur and he fired off two shots towards the advancing trio. A muffled cry and the sound of a body hitting the ground filled him with a macabre satisfaction. He’d at least wounded one of them. That was something. It empowered him to be a little more cavalier. He lifted his head again to glance around the area.

                Fifty yards, maybe less. That gave him no more than two minutes, three tops. He rolled off Sansa and shoved her behind him as he rose up onto one knee and took aim. One shot hit its target without preamble. The advancing man stumbled and fell in a heap, not moving again. One of the other attackers lifted his rifle and shot while he continued to move purposefully towards them. His shot hit its mark, too.

                Lady yelped loudly as she collapsed before him, blood blooming in the grey fur of her right shoulder. Sandor cursed under his breath and took less than one second to make the decision he wondered if he would later regret. He reached out and hauled her back by her tail while she howled in pain.

                “Lady, go hide!” he commanded roughly and shoved at her hind quarter. Her high-pitched whine tore at him, but he didn’t let her talk him out of it. He would need all of them if they made it out of this mess alive.

                “NOW!” he shouted and shoved at her again. She took off like a shot, favouring her front right leg, a trail of blood left in her wake.

                Another loud shotgun blast made Sandor reassess. It didn’t come from the advancing figures. It came from somewhere off to the left. And it wasn’t aimed at him or the wolves. The assholes in the woods froze, too, uncertain of what the hell had just happened.

                “I thought you said he was alone with her?” One yelled at another.

                The second man didn’t get a chance to answer. A third blast saw his head explode in a shower of brain matter, blood and bone. His grotesquely headless body fell heavily to the ground. Sandor was a few seconds too late but used his free hand to signal Sansa to get back and stay down. He felt her grip the back of his shirt tightly as she crouched behind him. In hindsight he realised he should have brought another gun. At least that way she wouldn’t be such a sitting duck. She was a pretty decent shot, actually. It would have done them some good.

                While there was one man still in front of them, Sandor was unsure how many more were still out there. It was this reason alone that he didn’t advance on him. The coward had taken cover behind a large pine after his friend dropped dead less than ten feet to his left. Sandor couldn’t get a good shot without moving and he wasn’t ready to do that with the Little Bird still exposed behind him. They were too far from the house for him to have her retreat while he stalked the shithead to his certain demise. No one was leaving this plot of land alive if he had anything to say about it. And he still wasn’t sure who was helping them, but he hadn’t ruled out killing them either. Witnesses were dangerous.

                The stand off continued as the sun climbed higher in the sky. It cast shadows all around them that flickered in the wind and drew his eye every now and then when he mistook them for human movement.

                “Stand down and I’ll let you and the girl live,” a voice called out suddenly. It wasn’t as deep as his, nor as mature. It made him wonder just how young the guy was. Not that it mattered.

                He didn’t bother answering him. Silence was the best weapon in situations like this. The kid was looking for a way out, but he wasn’t going to get one. Not from Sandor. Not today.

                It was quiet a few minutes more, then the dumb fuck opened his mouth again.

                “Hey, is Arya still going by another name? What was the one she just used? Jayne?”

                He felt Sansa freeze behind him as she stopped breathing. Her fear lasted only two seconds before she bellowed from behind him.

                “Who the fuck are you?!”

                “Shut up!” Sandor turned his head to hiss in her direction. She didn’t fucking listen. He felt her body shift as she moved to step out from behind him. He was of two minds; one was to keep protecting her while the other was the knock her the fuck out to keep her from doing something so goddamned stupid.

                “Take the girl back to the house.”

                The gruff command came from behind them. He stopped breathing as his memory jolted with instant recognition. His stomach dropped into his feet as his mind whirled with the implications of what hearing that particular voice meant.

                Impossible! The word echoed over and over in his mind but he couldn’t shake the undeniable truth that snaked through his body and anchored him in that spot. Behind him, he felt Sansa shift towards the direction the voice had come from. He knew there was no way to talk her out of moving. Talking would do nothing now. Because as surely as he recognized that voice he knew she did as well. He wondered just how much of her mind was screaming in denial as well. If Sandor was right, then a life altering moment was about to take place, and he wasn’t sure anyone was ready for that. Sansa least of all.

                Sandor whipped his body to the side and widened his stance. In one swift movement he’d made them a smaller target while securing Sansa to his side, but still shielded her with his body. Slowly, he moved them back towards the house, one small shuffled step at a time. She struggled fruitlessly against his iron grip as he continued to aim his gun towards the twat that kept taunting her.

                “You think this lone gunman is going to save you, Sansa? You’re fucking dreaming! There’s so many more of us than there are of you.” His voice seemed to follow them through the woods, but Sandor didn’t see any movement to indicate he pursued them.

                The unmistakable sounds of tires on gravel travelled through the trees. Sandor felt the Little Bird’s heart rattle in her chest as she strained against his arm while he froze completely in his tracks. Ghost and Grey Wind growled lowly as they ducked their massive heads and stared off towards the driveway, ready to attack at a moment’s notice. The noises grew louder with their impending approach. When the tires stopped suddenly and Sandor heard a car door slam closed he prepared himself for another onslaught. Body tensed, he kept his eyes trained ahead, unsure which threat needed to be taken out first.

                The silence that followed was painful. His muscles were so tense they started to ache and his trigger finger nearly twitched with the intention to fire when a slightly movement drew his attention.

                “Don’t shoot, Clegane!”

                “Fuck!” Sandor hissed under his breath.

 Not this asshole. He’d never live this shit down as long as they both lived. He dropped his arm slightly, but not all the way.

                Jaime emerged from the trees with a shorter, dark haired man at gun point. The shit eating grin on Lannisters’ face made Sandor grind his teeth in irritation.

                “Looks like the cavalry has arrived early,” Sansa muttered absently while she continued to strain away from him. Sandor said nothing, just kept his eyes trained on the guy being frog marched towards them. Sansa suddenly stopped struggling just as the fuckers face came into view. Sandor studied him warily. He wanted to know who sent him, who his connections were, everything. And he would find out. He was very, very good at extracting information.

                “What the fuck are you doing here?” She asked suddenly. Sandor’s eyes shot down to her face in shock. She knew him?

                Blue eyes flashed angrily, but when he opened his mouth to speak Sandor didn’t recognize the voice that came out. It wasn’t the same as the one who’d shot at them. The one from the woods. Which meant . . . He looked down at the wolves and jerked his head.

                “Go find,” he commanded roughly. They shot out in different directions.

                “You all just took off! No word, nothing! What the fuck did you think I would do? Just let her go?” The guy bit out angrily. Upon closer inspection Sandor noticed his clothing was different than the other men’s had been. Good thing he hadn’t shot him on sight. Sansa might have been put out by a bullet in what he assumed was her friend.

                 She looked slightly abashed as she sighed heavily. “I’m sorry. She should have at least said goodbye, but I have a feeling Bronn wouldn’t let her.”

                “Wanna clue me the fuck in as to who this shithead is?” Sandor snarled. He hated being left out of the loop. Lannister didn’t look all that impressed either.

                Sansa sighed again and drew away from him as much as his grip allowed. “His name is Gendry. He was Arya’s boyfriend.”

                “I still am,” he snapped and ripped his arm away from Jaime angrily before he brushed his black hair from his eyes. He looked exhausted, furious, but above all, absolutely terrified. He had no idea what shitstorm he’d just waltzed into.

                Lannister looked him up and down for a moment before he frowned. “Isn’t Arya only eighteen? How old is this guy?”

                Gendry glared malevolently at him. “I’m twenty-four, and she’s perfectly legal you shithead.”

                “Whatever helps you sleep at night,” Jaime snarked, his distaste obvious.

                “Leave him alone. He’s good for her and as far as I knew, good to her. That’s more than she’s ever had before,” Sansa said quietly. Sandor briefly wondered if she was solely sticking up for the boy or if she was preparing a defence for their own budding relationship. Before he could consider that conversation he had to make sure the threat had been neutralized.

                “See anyone else on your way in?” The words almost stuck in Sandor’s throat from the immense amount of discomfort they caused him. He hated that he’d needed assistance in protecting Sansa. Especially since it had to come from the man in front of him.

                “You mean on my way in here to save your bacon? No, Clegane, the only one I found I brought straight to you.” His grin was too self-satisfied for Sandor’s liking.

                “Well good job, asshole. You brought one harmless dipshit here while the real threat snuck off!” he growled and waved towards the forest around them. Jaime’s eyes cooled and he squared his shoulders.

                “Then we must have scared them off with our approach. I believe thanks are in order either way. Especially since you had no idea this,” he jerked his blond head towards Gendry, “has been following you around for God knows how long without your knowledge.” Sandor bristled at his tone and straightened himself to his full height.

                “Actually,” Gendry interjected. “I followed someone else here. I only learned where these two were a couple days ago.” All eyes were suddenly on Gendry and he cleared his throat uncomfortably.

                “Who the fuck did you follow?” Sandor demanded. Gendry looked annoyed by Sandor’s tone, but wisely didn’t snap back. Instead he lifted his chin in defiance and crossed his arms over his chest.

                “Tell me where she is and I’ll tell you everything I know,” he challenged.

                In one breath Sandor had the dumbass lifted off his feet and brought eye to eye with him.

                “You’ll tell me whatever the fuck I want to know or I’ll beat you into a coma, boy!”

When Gendry’s eyes shot down to Lannister, Sandor shook him roughly.

“He’s not going to save you, you stupid shit! Tell me what I want to know!” he roared.

“Sandor.” Her voice was quiet and the hand suddenly on his bicep was soft, but it had the desired effect. He stopped and glanced down at her.

“Let him go. Please,” she added in a murmur. When Sandor dropped him and he fell on his ass Sansa rolled her eyes but didn’t chastise him. Instead, she took his hand and started back to the house.

“This might take a while. We might as well get comfortable,” she suggested, then threw over her shoulder. “C’mon Gendry. I’ll get you some coffee.”

The four of them trudged back to the house in silence with Sansa and Sandor in the lead. Since she’d made no move to drop his hand he didn’t release her either. He could feel the prying eyes of the FBI agent zero in on that point of connection but Sandor refused to acknowledge him. Like the kid had said, she was fucking legal. He’d just have to get the hell over it if it bothered him so much. Not his problem.

It was only when they reached the destruction of the front door that Sandor noticed Sansa’s bare feet. How they weren’t a bloody mess from tearing around the woods he had no clue, but he wouldn’t let them get all screwed up by her walking over the piles of broken glass that littered the front walk and living room. He swept her up in his arms bridal style and tried to ignore the way she giggled around a shriek while she pulled her body close to his. He didn’t have time for anything else except keeping her alive, and to do that he needed all the information. He kicked in the door and stomped into the kitchen, broken glass crunching under his shoes. He only set her down once he’d scoped out the area thoroughly and was convinced it was free from damage or danger.

She kissed his scarred cheek before she flitted around the kitchen to make the aforementioned coffee. Sandor wheeled around and glowered at their new houseguest.

“Start talking,” he spat angrily.

Gendry perched on a kitchen stool at the bench and leaned forward on his elbows. Sandor had to squash the quilt that bubbled in him when he saw just how broken and worn Gendry suddenly looked.

“I was at the Hut when I heard this guy on his cell. The minute he said . . . her name, I knew. I just knew. So, I followed him.”

Sandor shook his head. It wasn’t good enough but he tried to be nice about it. “Tell me what you heard, word for word. Leave out nothing. Then tell me where you went and how you got there.”

He saw a small smile pull at Sansa’s lips and knew it was for him. He was trying and she had noticed. It was embarrassing just how much that mattered to him.

Gendry scrubbed his hand over his face and nodded absently. “He said something like, they’ve taken off again. He used their real names. That’s how I knew it was about her. About you.” He looked apologetically at Sansa, who had turned to him in shock.

“How . . . how much did she tell you?” she stammered out, blue eyes impossibly wide.

“She didn’t tell me anything,” he explained. “But she talks in her sleep. She said your name a lot and. . . ”

 “And?” she prodded before Lannister or I could. Jaime listened as intently as Sandor was.

“She talked about someone named Jon a lot,” he muttered with a tone of misery. The boy obviously thought Jon was some sort of rival love interest. Sansa snorted a soft laugh.

“Our brother,” she explained gently with a look of perfect understanding. “You know him as Eddie.”

The relief on Gendry’s face was so acute that Sandor almost felt bad for the kid. Almost. But the more he spoke, the more enraged Sandor became.

“The guy said he’d been in her class and even managed to find your room on campus. He sounded pissed that you’d both gotten away so cleanly. Then he sounded happy about whatever the other said and started repeating directions here. He wrote them down on a napkin but left it behind on the bar. I grabbed the napkin and followed him out of the bar. Jumped on my bike and trailed him as far as I could, but he gave me the slip somewhere in Georgia. I just followed the directions here anyway. I hoped . . .” he stopped talking when he noticed that Sandor had started to shake.

“You have no idea what you’ve done,” he snarled.

“Sandor,” Sansa tried but he held up his hand.

Gendry looked confused. “They already knew about this place. About you being here. I told you, I followed him.

Before Sandor could rip him a new one over his stupidity, Jaime butted in.

“You said the guy was in a class with Arya?” he asked, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Gendry nodded. “Yeah. I think she’d told me about him. Some asshole who gave her a hard time a lot.”

“You know his name?” Sandor managed to bite out. Gendry hesitate and then shook his head.

“No, but,” he reached into his pocket and withdrew his phone. “I took his picture when he wasn’t looking.”

Sandor went to snatch the phone away, but Sansa beat him to it. Her eyes went wide and then narrowed dangerously.

“This is the shithead who came to my room!” she practically shouted.

When Jaime plucked the phone from her unsuspecting fingers she protested loudly, but he deftly moved out of her reach. Then he stopped dead and his face drained of all color.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he muttered, apparently stunned by what he saw on the screen. Sandor huffed in annoyance and leaned over the counter to catch a glimpse of the photo. When his eyes locked on the image all the breath left his body at once. He felt like he was going to be sick as he stared at unmistakable profile of someone he’d actively hunted for years.

Sansa immediately noticed the difference in their postures and alarm set in to her blue eyes.

“What?” she asked, her voice high and panicked. “Who is he? What don’t I know?”

Sandor swallowed, his throat suddenly dry as the Sahara. For what was sure to be the only time in his life, he was grateful when Lannister spoke up for him.

“His name is Ramsay Bolton. But he’s knows as –“

“The Bastard,” Sansa finished breathlessly.

“You know who he is?” Jaime asked incredulously. Her eyes snapped angrily to his.

“Of course I know! You think I didn’t ever listen to Bronn when he had his little phone calls? That I can’t access the Most Wanted lists your organisation posts? That I don’t know EXACTLY who this guy is connected to?” Her voice rose with each question until she was practically screaming at them. Sandor grabbed her shoulders and had to resist the urge to shake her.

“Why didn’t you tell me he was there?” he demanded. Fear and fury made his voice harsher than he’d intended.

“I didn’t recognize him!” she yelled. When she raised her hands, he thought she meant to push him away, but instead she clasped his forearms in her tight little fists, anchoring him to her.

“Those age progression photos don’t look a thing like him! You think I wouldn’t have run for the fucking hills if I’d have known? That I wouldn’t have alerted EVERYONE I knew? That I just would have ignored the fact that one of the most dangerous predators the world has ever seen was ON MY FUCKING CAMPUS?!”

“Will someone tell me what the fuck is going on here? Who is this asshole?” Gendry demanded hotly as he rose angrily from his seat.

All the fight seemed to drain from Sansa in one breath as she sagged against Sandor’s chest. A few shaky breaths later and she pulled away, turning back to coffee pot she’d prepared earlier. She slowly prepared four cups before she passed them out to all in attendance and motioned for Gendry to sit back down.

“You might want to brace yourself. This shit’s about to get epic,” she muttered before she took a deep breath.

“It started about ten years ago . . .”

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Eighteen

Jaime’s POV

April 2nd

 

                Jaime listened to her story with a sort of forced passivity that came from years on the job. He’d been part of her recovery team. Met her family. Well, what was left of them. The only silver lining to her horror was that they’d gotten there in time. Baelish hadn’t harmed a hair on her pretty little head. Physically, that is. Psychologically was a whole other story. But that wasn’t his area of expertise; it was Tyrion’s. Which was why he’d suggested him to Bronn and Marge during their interviews later. Especially after he’d learned what Baelish had in store for her. It still made him physically ill to think about it.

                Standing in the remains of their safehouse made him all kinds of twitchy. Protocol dictated that they gather what crap they needed and head out ASAP. Yet, there they were, sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee like they had all the time in the world. He knew he should hurry things along, but the knowledge that this particular girl had once again been through absolute hell in her very short life gave him pause. He could give her a few moments to gather herself, to find some peace in all the chaos that surrounded her before he intruded upon her life again.

                “And that’s pretty much everything,” Sansa finally finished off with a small one shouldered shrug. Gendry blinked owlishly at her a few times before he nodded once.

                “Right,” was all he said.

Clegane snorted and shook his head before he headed back out the front door muttering under his breath. For her part Sansa ignored the big man completely and stayed focused on the dipshit Jaime had dragged from the woods.

Gendry seemed to relax slightly once Clegane was out of sight. He frowned a little at Sansa and cocked his head to the side.

“I don’t understand why you all just didn’t stick together this time. Isn’t that what you’ve done every other time there was a problem and you needed to relocate?”

Excellent question, Jaime thought and studied Sansa while she responded. She was very poised and superbly controlled, but he could see the panic that simmered away beneath the surface of those cool blue eyes.

“The threat has never been this . . . real before. We’ve had some small-time concerns, yes, but most of the time we’ve needed to go somewhere else it was because of something Arya or Jon did. Or me,” she tacked on and ducked her head, abashed.

“So, this time . . . what? More danger means more distance between you? I’m sorry, Elle . . . uh, Sansa,” he corrected quickly. “But that doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t you be better protected all together?”

“Yes and no,” she replied patiently. “We stand out more when we’re together. It’s not common for kids our age to still be with parents. And there’s also a higher risk when we stay together.”

“Risk of what?” The kid clearly didn’t get it. Jaime decided to chime in.

“Complete and totally annihilation. If they’re separated, then they can’t all be taken out at once.”

Gendry’s eyes went wide as they darted between Jaime and Sansa. “Seriously? That’s the reason?”

When they both nodded at him he seemed to finally grasp just what he’d stepped into. Jaime clapped him on the shoulder roughly.

“Still want to find that girlfriend of yours?” he asked lightly.

Furious blue eyes swivelled to meet his. “Of course I do! What the fuck do you take me for?”

“You really don’t want me to answer that,” Jaime retorted with a simple shrug of the shoulder. Before Gendry could say anything else, Jaime turned his attention to Sansa.

“You look a little worse for wear than the last time I saw you. Considering what you’d been through then, that’s quite a feat.”

Sansa smirked but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Yes, I seem to be very popular all of a sudden.”

“Your almighty protector doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job,” Jaime said with a hint of humor in his voice. He was baiting her to see if she would confirm his suspicions. When her demeanor turned frosty and she crossed her arms tightly over her chest he knew he’d been right.

“I’m still alive, aren’t I?” she snapped.

“Is that the only standard you hold him to? Pity. I rather hoped you’d at least require him to keep you in one piece.” He knew he shouldn’t taunt her. She’d been through too much already. But what he saw between her and Sandor irked him deeply, though he couldn’t say why. It just felt wrong. Unnatural. Not to mention all kinds of unethical on Clegane’s part. But that was a conversation for another time. He’d get nowhere with that man right now, if ever.

“Does it look like she’s missing anything?” Sandor suddenly snarled from behind him. Jaime had to force himself not to jump. He hadn’t even heard Clegane come back into the room.

Jaime quirked his eyebrow and made quite a show of looking her up and down. “Not from where I’m standing. But there’s so much I can’t see –“

His lewd comment was interrupted when he was suddenly gripped from behind and thrown into the kitchen wall. Sandor was on him again before he had the ability to regain his balance or his composure. He lifted Jaime clear off the floor by his flak jacket. The man’s scars twitched madly as he glowered balefully at the FBI agent.

“Sandor,” a gentle voice cut through the chaos. “Enough.”

“Not nearly,” the vicious man replied and gave Jaime a rough shake. The motion was cut off suddenly when the barrel of a Glock was pressed against Sandor’s scarred cheek.

“You’ll do well to put him down,” the woman at the other end commanded lowly.

“Advancing on an unarmed man. Aren’t you fucking brave,” Sandor spat in contempt before he unceremoniously let Jaime drop back to the floor with a thud. Large hands remained until the gun was pulled away from his cheek.

Jaime made a show of straightening his clothes. “Thank, Brienne.”

Sandor’s head whipped around as he stared at the large woman still pointing her gun at him.

“You!” he barked.

“Lovely to see you again, Clegane,” she replied drily and holstered her sidearm.

“Aren’t you the sheriff?” Gendry asked, confusion clear on his face. Not too bright, that one. Jaime could tell he was going to struggle to keep up with everything. Pity Arya didn’t have better taste in men.

“No,” Sansa answered for her, her eyes narrowed in slits. “She’s FBI. Most likely been under cover since Arya and I were accepted to Mansfield.”

“Actually, I’ve been under cover since we found you in Baelish’s cabin when you were nine,” Brienne answered plainly. Her stance changed to something more relaxed, at least for her. Feet wide set, hands clasped behind her back. Completely open and unthreatening. Until she had to be, that is. Agent Tarth could be more lethal than people first assumed upon meeting her. It was likely to be their last mistake.

Sansa blinked in shock at that information and glanced to Sandor for confirmation. When he gave a one-shoulder shrug she turned her inquisitive blue eyes back to Brienne.

“You’ve been following us all this time? Did my . . . did anyone know?” She looked like she was caught somewhere between intrigue and anger; completely unsure of which emotion should dominate.

“Only three people knew of my undercover work observing you and your siblings.”

“Who?” Sansa shot back, arms folded tightly again.

“My superior at the FBI, Agent Lannister, and your psychologist,” Brienne told her after a beat of uncertainty. Jaime could tell she was trying to get on the girl’s good side. He wasn’t sure that was the way to do it. Sansa’s entire body went rigid.

“Tyrion knew?” The shock was plain in her voice and her posture.

Brienne nodded once as Sansa flushed from chest to crown. Uneasy, Jaime turned to Sandor.

“You know her better than I do. Should we run?”

Even Clegane looked wary. “Wouldn’t hurt. Probably wouldn’t help though. She’s armed an excellent shot.”

Jaime glanced back at her in alarm. “She doesn’t look armed.”

Sandor looked down at him knowingly. “Doesn’t look dangerous either. You wouldn’t catch me fucking with her.”

“Wouldn’t I?” Jaime challenged. The tone of his voice made clear the double entendre.

Clegane’s grey eyes turned stony as he glared threateningly back at him. The sudden tension was broken when Jaime’s phone chirped from his pocked. He looked at the screen and grinned widely.

“It’s for you,” he said as he answered the call and tossed the phone at Sansa. She caught it one handed and held it up to her ear.

Her answer was a tentative ‘hello’ quickly followed by, “What the almighty fuck, Tyrion!” She stormed away and slammed a bedroom door in order to yell as his baby brother in privacy. Jaime did not envy him in that moment.

“She’s . . . tenacious,” Jaime said when he finally settled on the right word.

Sandor looked at him plainly and shook his head. “You’ve no fucking idea.”

“Maybe you should enlighten us,” Jaime offered and gestured towards the door. Before they could venture out three wolves, one obviously injured, trotted in.

“Good girl,” Sandor murmured quietly as he leaned down to inspect the bloodied leg of a large grey beast. She whimpered slightly but didn’t snap or snarl. When Sandor stood again he sighed in relief.

“Only grazed her,” he mumbled and rubbed a bloodied hand through his hair before he stopped and looked at it in disgust. He stomped over and washed them in the kitchen sink before pulling a first aid kit down from above the fridge. He set to work tending the animal but shot a glance up and Brienne and Jaime.

“Only the two of you, then? Where’s the other guy?” he asked gruffly.

“No idea,” Jaime answered honestly. This was not the time for the conversation that needed to be had. First, they had to get safe. How safe they would remain once the game was up, well, that would remain to be seen. He had no desire to be there for that fallout.

Sandor’s head snapped to the side as he glared openly at him. “What do you mean you have no idea?”

“Which part of that sentence is giving you trouble?” Jaime shot back. He was not in the mood for this. Starting his day with a fatal shootout always gave him an almighty headache.

Sandor slowly rose to tower over Jaime and looked down at him menacingly.

“Glare all you like, Clegane, that won’t change my answer.”

                “Isn’t he with you?” Sandor bit out.

                “Sort of,” was all Jaime replied. He could see Clegane’s temper rise but knew there was only so much information he could give. He had a mission, too.

                “Sort of? What’s that mean?”

                “Does some want to catch me up here?” Gendry suddenly chimed in. He’d been so quiet Jaime had almost forgotten the dipshit was there.

                “No,” three voices answered him back emphatically. The kid didn’t need any more information than he already had.

                “Perhaps we should take this outside,” Brienne suggested mildly. Sandor nodded as he finished bandaging his wolf and Jaime took a step towards the open door. When Gendry looked like he might follow, Jaime wagged a finger at him.

                “Sorry, this is a grown-up conversation. Make yourself useful and start packing.” Jaime ignored the single finger salute Gendry gave him and walked out of the house, Clegane hot on his heels. They stopped about ten feet away and formed a small circle. He immediately turned to address the conversation where it had been cut off.

                “It means we know he’s around somewhere and we know he’ll follow up wherever we go, but we don’t know exactly where he is at any given time.” He didn’t know why he felt the need to explain so much, but he supposed it was better to get everyone on side rather than to fight amongst themselves.

                “What sort of shitshow operation are you lot running here?” Sandor growled, his hands thrown up in obvious frustration.

                Jaime considered his words carefully before giving the big man all the information he safely could. “He’s not an agent, but he’s working with us. Consulting, if you will,” he added with the arch of an eyebrow. Clegane was a smart man. He would get the meaning.

                Sharp grey eyes narrowed, but Sandor’s posture relaxed slightly. Jaime could tell that being kept out of the loop was the greatest part of Clegane’s irritation, so he would try to ease that as much as he justifiably could. He had no desire to butt heads with the man. And since they were going to be spending an uncomfortable amount of time with each other for the foreseeable future. No reason for it to be any more tense than it already was.

                “Who is he?” he asked in a much calmer voice. Jaime hesitated. It was the one direct question he couldn’t answer. Yet.

                “Someone invested in her safety,” he tried. He could see Clegane’s frustration mounting again and tried to head it off.

                “I’m not trying to be a dick here,” he started to say.

                “Comes naturally,” Sandor retorted testily.

                “There are some questions I can’t answer now,” Jaime tried again. When it looked like Sandor was going to growl again he rushed on. “So, try different questions. Believe it or not, I want to give you as much information as I can.”

                Sandor’s eyes narrowed. “No fucking games, Lannister.”

                “Wouldn’t dream of it,” Jaime replied jovially.

                “He was an agent of some kind?”

                “Not for some time now.” That answer was easy enough to give.

                “How does he know her?” That one was not.

                “Let’s just say he was involved in her case,” Jaime replied cagily. Sandor actually growled like one of his wolves and tightened his fists reflexively.

                Brienne stepped between them with a sigh. “Oh, for pity’s sake. Do you really need to know all this right now? Our immediate priority is to secure Sansa and move her to a safe location since this one has been compromised. Agreed?”

                Sandor was quiet a few beats before he reluctantly answered a surly, “Agreed.”

                “Excellent. Now that’s settled, why don’t you let me help you gather your things so we can move out quickly. It’s not very densely populated around here, but those shotgun blasts would have been heard miles away and it won’t be long before the local law enforcement comes out to investigate.”

                “You really FBI?” Sandor eyed up Brienne sceptically.

                “Would you like to see my shield?” She offered. When Sandor didn’t push the issue she also let it drop.

                “Right,” Jaime said and slapped a hand on each of their shoulders. “All friends then! Good. It will make travelling together far less unpleasant if we get the pissing matches out of the way early. Which leads me to my next question. Just what in the fuck are you thinking, Clegane?”

                He could tell that Sandor was momentarily taken off-guard by the sudden hostility in Jaime’s voice, but it didn’t last. The bigger man’s defensiveness was back as he crossed his thick arms defiantly.

                “My thoughts aren’t your concern, Lannister.” His voice was low, gruff. A lesser man would be intimidated. Hell, so would a normal man. Trouble was, Jaime was neither of those.

                “Ah, but it’s not your thoughts that are the issue. It’s the fact that you’re acting on them,” Jaime challenged evenly.

                To his credit, Clegane didn’t flinch. He also didn’t deny it. Brienne glanced uncertainly between the two of them.

                “What am I missing?” she asked. More like demanded, really. When a few minutes passed and Clegane gave her nothing, Jaime shook his head.

                “He’s fucking the girl.”

                Shock widened Brienne’s impossibly blue eyes as she turned her very judgmental stare on Sandor.

                “She’s a woman,” Clegane started to say.

                “Hardly,” Jaime scoffed. “She can’t even legally drink!”

                Sandor ignored him and continued on. “And no one is fucking her.”

                Jaime snorted derisively and rolled his emerald eyes sky high. It sounded more like a threat than a denial. He had no doubt in his mind that that was the way Clegane meant him to hear it, too.

                “She’s . . . you’re supposed to be protecting her,” Brienne stated indignantly.

                “She look harmed to you?” Sandor bit back.

                “What do you call today?” Brienne countered.

                “A typical fucking Tuesday,” he snarled and balled his hands into fists. “In the past month she’s managed to escape several attempts on her life as the real dangers have gotten closer. She was kidnapped, stripped down, held by human traffickers, assaulted, stalked, and shot at. She’s been safer with me than she has been in long time! I can protect her. I know what I’m doing.”

                Jaime’s eyes widened with every word and he found himself shaking his head incredulously. With each word that Sandor had spoken he became more impassioned, more resolute. Jaime didn’t know the man overly well, but he knew enough to recognize just how out of character is was for Sandor Clegane to get that worked up over anything, let alone a woman. Which meant only one thing in his mind.

“Holy fucking shit, Clegane. You are one dumb motherfucker.”

                Sandor went deathly quiet as wrath poured off of him. Had Jaime not been completely gobsmacked by his realisation then he might have actually taken a step or ten away for self-preservation. But shock had rooted him in place.

                “You’ve got feelings for her,” Jaime accused. He would never have thought it possible for this seasoned warrior, this intelligent ‘business is business and rules are rules’ stickler for protocol to be so goddamn dumb. It defied logic. Clegane had always been the consummate professional. Dedicated to his job and the rules and law. And it was all about to be obliterated by a nineteen-year-old redhead with more issues than Playboy. Sure, she was beautiful. A blind man could see that. But this was beyond damsels in distress and knights in dented armor. Sandor Clegane might very well be in love with that girl. It boggled the mind.

                Clegane flushed. It was all the confirmation Jaime needed. He shook his head again as if to shake the thoughts out. Jaime cast his gaze to Brienne for support but saw that her expression had changed. She regarded the scarred man a bit more gently than before, almost as if she commiserated with him somehow. It made Jaime wonder if he had stepped into some sort of parallel universe where aliens had replaced all the logical people with moronic, emotional versions of their true selves. God save them all.

                Uncomfortable silence settled over them as the men shifted around twitchily while Brienne continued to openly regard Sandor. After a few minutes Jaime cleared his throat and gestured towards the house.

                “Tell her to wrap it up in the there. She can call my baby brother anytime she wants now. We need to get a move on it.”

                Begrudgingly, Sandor nodded. Jaime could tell the thought of taking any sort of orders from anyone made the big man bristle, but he didn’t have time to give a shit. Clegane’s precious ego was not his concern.

                “And make sure that stupid boy is ready to move out, too. He’s coming with us whether he likes it or not,” Jaime added with irritation. Clegane ground his teeth as he wheeled around and headed back into the house. After he had stomped noisily out of sight, Brienne turned to him, suddenly earnest.

                “This could be bad,” she stated plainly.

                Jaime snorted. “More like apocalyptic.”

“You might be right about Sandor though,” she said softly. “He certainly presents as a man in love. And she genuinely appears to be taken with him, as well. She trusts him, at least.”

Jaime rolled his eyes. “I do not see this going down well no matter how they spin it.”

                “I still can’t believe she doesn’t know.” Brienne shook her head.

                Jaime sighed and patiently counted to ten in his head. When he was sure he wouldn’t snap at her – again – he gave her the same answer he had on countless other occasions.

                “It wouldn’t have served a purpose. It was too –“

                “Dangerous,” she cut him off with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I know, you’ve said that before.”

                “Well, you don’t seem to be grasping the concept too well,” Jaime groused.

                Brienne frowned and shook her head again. Frustrated, Jaime grabbed her upper arm and escorted her further away from the house.

                “He was in a coma for months. It was touch and go for over a year before he really stabilized. They couldn’t stay there; the risk was too high. As it was Bronn had a helluva fight just keeping the kids together! The focus was on the kids’ safety.”

                “But once they were safe –“

                “They’re never fucking safe!” Jaime boomed suddenly before he squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose in sheer exasperation. He knew she wasn’t dense. But her insistence in fairness and happily ever afters infuriated him. The world just didn’t work that way. He would know. And he knew, deep down, she did too.

                “Keeping someone alive isn’t enough,” she argued passionately. “You can see the grief in that girl. She wears it like a shroud and it weighs on her all the time. This could –“

                “This could absolutely destroy her. All of them, for that matter.”

                “Think of what it would mean to them!”

                “Yes, let’s do that.” Jaime had finally had enough, so he hit below the belt. She needed a big, fat dose of reality.

“What would it mean to them to know that the only people they trusted and loved had lied to them the majority of their lives. Think about what it would mean to them to know that so much was wasted, that so much was lost due to the decisions of others. Think about what it would mean to them to have their worlds suddenly turned upside down as they question why someone didn’t fight harder, try harder, to give them what everyone knew they really needed. Think about that, Brienne!”

                She shook her head stubbornly again. He wanted to shake her, to make her see sense. He ground his teeth to keep from shouting at her again.

                “I’m not denying they would be angry and hurt,” she allowed, but then hurried on to add, “at first. But then . . . can you imagine what it would be like for them? For her? It’s life changing.”

                “Is it?” Jaime was suddenly quiet as he pictured exactly what Brienne was trying to make him see. Sadness overwhelmed him. “You know he’s not the same. You’ve seen what he’s become.”

                “Can you blame him?” she hissed, suddenly angry. “What they took from him –“

                “What they saved!” Jaime argued again. He breathed in deeply and slowly released. It was no good. They were talking in circles. Neither of them was going to budge because, in truth, neither of the was wrong. Which is why the situation was so damned complicated. There was no easy solution, no quick fix. It was going to be one big, epic fucking disaster no matter how it was played.

                “Tyrion doesn’t think she could handle it right now,” he confided in her. Her eyebrows went up in surprise, but for once she did not argue.

                “But, for what it’s worth, I think you’re right,” he added. “Eventually she needs to know. They all do.”

                He paused and looked into her fierce blue eyes. “But I also know that once that girl finds out that her father has been alive all this time, there will be no force on earth that can contain the fallout. And God help Clegane, because he’ll be caught right in the crossfire.”

Chapter Text

 

EDDARD POV

April 3rd

 

                It was quiet in the cab of his Range Rover, save for the steady hum of the engine and the wind whipping by at seventy miles per hour. It gave him time to think, to seriously consider all the facts. And Ned was nothing if not a fact man.

                Fact: His children were once again in perilous danger.

                Fact: Despite all his sacrifices, all his gruelling hard work, what was left of his family was now scattered to the four corners of the US instead of being together as they always should have been.

                Fact: His children were not, in fact, children anymore. Not even little Arya. They were beautiful, capable – hell, even deadly – intelligent adults. More to the point, they were good, decent people despite the tragedies of their lives. He supposed he had Bronn and Margie to thank for that. And now, Sandor.

                Fact: Sandor Clegane was in love with his nineteen-year-old daughter. And Ned would bet his life that she returned those feelings.

                He scrubbed his hand roughly down his weathered face as a deep frown twisted his normally serious countenance. Cat had always given him such a hard time. You should smile more, she’d always teased him. He often stated that she smiled enough for the both of them. He idly wondered what she would think of him lately. What she would think of his decisions.

                Guilt pressed on his chest like a stone, hard and unyielding. It never let up, not that he’d ever wanted it to. He knew all those years ago when he’d come out of that coma, when his life had been upended and his heart shredded beyond repair, that the guilt would be his constant companion. His only companion.

                The chiming of his phone alerted a new text and he carefully glanced down at the message. It was Tarth alerting him of their final destination. They’d driven well into the night after finally leaving the house in New Mexico, only stopping at a motel once they’d reached the outskirts of Witchita, Kansas. After only a few hours sleep they’d then left again soon after sunrise. Even so, it would be well after sunset when they reached the tiny town of Blue Ridge, Georgia. He knew of their destination; he’d been there several times over the years. It was the personal property of Directory Selmy.

                Ned sincerely hoped the man wouldn’t be there. The last time he’d seen the director he’d pulled a gun on him. He wasn’t sure he’d have the strength not to shoot him if he came face to face with him again. He still placed a large portion of blame on Selmy’s shoulders. The rest . . . well, it was divided equally between himself and one other. If he could kill them all with only one bullet he was almost completely certain that he would do that, cowards way out or not.

                A deep frown creased his already lined face as the last thought floated through his mind. He’d never been a coward before. He’d nearly gotten himself killed – or thrown in prison – on several occasions when he’d tried to find his children. He’d felt it was cowardice on behalf of the agency to keep them apart. A fear they’d implanted in him every time they sensed he was about to tell them all to go fuck themselves and give him back his family. He’d already lost three children – not to mention his wife – did he really want to risk the last three? His answer had always been the same; that he’d be there to keep them safe. And theirs had never faltered; you couldn’t stop them the last time you were there. What would be different this time?

                Ned sighed heavily again and tried not to shut his eyes with the action. He was so damned tired. His body was worn from years of abuse, his mind a labyrinth of darkness and grief and anger that, no matter how much therapy he endured, he could never manage to navigate without ending up in devasting pain. There was no light, no tunnel to speak of, just darkness. Just more of the same torture that followed him since that hellish night. No relief. Never any relief.

                His phone chirped again, but this time to signal there was a call coming in. When he looked at the ID his frown lessened somewhat. He pressed the button for speaker phone.

                “Brienne,” he greeted as pleasantly as he could manage. He liked her more than most. She had a unique honesty and a purity of heart he rarely encountered anymore. It made him feel like the world was just a little less damned if people like her still existed.

                “We’re pulling over at the next town for gas and some food. Are you going to keep trailing us, or go up on ahead?” Her tinny voice held no judgement in the question. She was well aware at how much he valued keeping his distance. Sansa had already gotten a glimpse of him once; he didn’t want to risk a second time.

                Still, the temptation was fierce. This was the first time he’d been within a hundred miles of his daughter and he ached at the mere thought of just watching her. She was so like her mother. He would be happy staring at her all day. At least, for a while. The pull to go to her, speak to her, was so intense back at that little house in the mountains that he’d nearly given in. He knew it was only a matter of time before he revealed himself to her. Before he changed everything. Before she would hate him with a fiery passion reserved for fathers that abandon their daughters. Right now, he was certain that she still loved him. After she discovered the truth he knew that would change.

                “I need gas, too,” he said impulsively. It was true, but they both knew that wasn’t all of it. He tried to reassure the doubtful silence that flowed over the open line.

                “I’ll stop at the first station. Go on to the next. Text me when you’re heading back onto the highway and I’ll do the same.” It sounded like a pretty good plan.

                “Ned,” Brienne started in that particular tone he’d come to loathe in the past few weeks.

                “Now is not the time,” he stated as firmly, and kindly, as he could manage.

                She heaved a heavy sigh. “I just think –“

                “You heard the shrink,” he interrupted. “She’s not going to take it well. Do you really think it’s best to agitate her so much while we’re still on the road?”

                Brienne sighed again, but the sound was quieter. Defeated. He knew it well. He made that sound often.

                “We’ll discuss it once we get to Georgia.” The words popped out before he’d even really thought them through.

                “R-right,” Brienne stammered, surprised as he was at the sudden turn. He’d always been adamant she would never know he was there. Not until the end. Not until it was all resolved. Seems like he’d changed his mind without even knowing it himself.

                He hung up before he could say anything else, afraid that he’d opened a floodgate of idiocy and all the foolhardy plans he’d entertained the past month would come pouring of him in a torrent of hopeful stupidity.

                “Get a grip on yourself you damned fool,” he muttered under his breath as he signalled for the exit that approached rapidly.

                He did as he’d planned and stopped at the first Mobil station he came across. He grabbed a coffee and a box of doughnuts, smirking at little at the cliché. Sure, he wasn’t technically law enforcement anymore, but the joke never really retired either.

                He moved his truck to a parking space to enjoy his snack away from prying eyes of other customers. He saw the way people looked at him. They either saw some sad, crazy old man, or they saw him as he really was – dangerous. Either way, people tended to give him a wide berth. He preferred it that way. He never liked lying so limiting his contact with others also limited having to tell half-truths and semi-explanations.

                His eyes had wandered to the parking lot that abutted the gas station’s. It belonged to a tiny diner called ‘Mirna’s’. He watched as people came and went with little interest. That was until a tall, graceful figure with her fiery locks piled into a messy bun sauntered out the doors into the bright sunlight, followed very closely by a hulking frame. He ivory skin practically glowed in contrast to her companion, especially given his choice of dark apparel.

                Ned couldn’t tear his eyes away as he observed the pair. They looked so mismatched in appearance, but the way they moved around each other left little doubt that they were together. The way his large hand ghosted at the small of her back while they walked. The way she seemed drawn to move closer and closer to him without an ounce of fear or discomfort. It both fascinated and infuriated him. His paternal instincts roared to life when she turned towards the man mid-conversation and gave him a sly grin. Her companion looked less than impressed with whatever it was she said to him, but she continued undaunted. When his scarred face twisted with a scowl she fearlessly reached up and caressed his check, her hand not stopping until it wound around his neck. And Ned sat there, staring helplessly as he watched her subdue the mighty warrior with firm kiss. It wiped away whatever resistance she had met as he saw the man’s features soften considerably. When she pulled away and looked up at him expectantly the sternness was gone, replaced by a gentle defeat. He nodded in assent once and was rewarded with a blinding, toothy grin.

                He sat and watched as Sansa grabbed Sandor by the hand and pulled him away from the diner, a look of sheer triumph on her beautiful face. So much like her mother. Ned’s heart twisted painfully with the thought but love and pride swelled within him as well. She was just as amazing as he’d always hoped she’d become, in spite of everything she’d been through. Or maybe it was because of it. Ned wasn’t sure yet. He might never really be sure. What he was sure of was that his fears had just been confirmed. Clegane’s feelings were not one-sided. They both seemed to genuinely be taken with the other. It would boggle the mind if Sansa was anyone else. But she, like her mother, had always seen the beauty – the good – in people despite outward appearances. Even when she was a little girl. She’d consistently befriended the most troubled children at school and in their neighbourhood, insisting everyone be nice to them when she brought them around. Cat always beamed with pride when they saw her in action. Ned was more cautious, shrewdly examining the potential risk this child could place on his own. It was no different even if she was fully grown now. Especially given he knew exactly the kinds of risks that accompanied Clegane.

                A sharp rap on the glass of his passenger side window startled him enough to know he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings. He cursed under his breath as Jaime opened the door and slid into the seat beside him. At first the man said nothing, just sipped at his gas station coffee in contemplative silence. It didn’t last nearly long enough, the coffee or the silence.

                “Tyrion is of two minds about the timing off all this,” the blonde man finally said with a small encompassing wave of his hand.

                Ned kept quiet and waited for him to continue, unsure which angle the man would approach from first. Surprisingly, it was the same one Ned would have started with.

                “I don’t think the age difference is his main concern,” Jaime said thoughtfully as he stared at the spot the couple had been in moments ago. He glanced at Ned from the corner of his eye before amending, “Though I would imagine you wouldn’t be thrilled about that no matter who she was dating.”

                Ned grunted his assent, but didn’t elaborate. He had a feeling Jaime wasn’t finished.

                “Do you think he’s told her everything?”

                Ned swallowed thickly. Now that was the million dollar questions, wasn’t it? But would his daughter still be with a man who had bared everything for her like that? Was she, even good as she was, capable of seeing past all that? Ned shook his head slightly.

                “Everything he’s actually aware of, I mean,” Jaime amended.

                That was a little more likely. Ned shrugged. “No idea. I never got to know him the way Cat did. I’d like to think he’d be as honest with her as he could be, but . . .”

                There was so much information. Some of it wouldn’t help her by knowing. Most of it, really. Jaime seemed to keep up with his inner musings.

                “There’s a difference between being honest with someone and bludgeoning them to death with the truth,” he said rather bluntly.

                “This is true,” Ned agreed with a slight nod.

                “For what it’s worth, he really seems to care genuinely for her. And she for him,” Lannister added carefully. Neds eyes narrowed at the windshield and he felt his hands clench tight on the wheel.

                “Brienne practically got him to admit he’s in love with her,” Jaime continued, undaunted by Ned’s obvious discomfort. Or maybe it was because of it that he felt the need to tack on, “And she’d confided in Tyrion that she was really falling for him, too.”

                Ned blew a strained breath out his nose and tried to reign in his paternal desire to go beat Clegane within an inch of his life. Sansa was just a baby. She was his baby.

                “It was Clegane who rescued her and the child from the traffickers in Pennsylvania,” he added softly. Ned felt all the air leave his body as his stony eyes met earnest green ones. Jaime grimaced and nodded once.

                “Yeah, I wasn’t sure if they told you that, what with all that’s happened in the past months. He and his wolves had her and the girl rounded up in under twelve hours. Of course, he would have gotten to her sooner had she not killed one of her captors and fled with the child into the woods in only a sweatshirt,” he added bitterly.

                Neds eyes widened in surprise. “I thought he’d killed the –“

                “No, that was all her.” The Fed sounded impressed. “And you and both know that not many women could pull that off given the circumstances they had her in.”

                Ned shuddered. He didn’t want to think about that. Couldn’t think about it.

                “My brother thinks they might just be what the other needs in this moment,” Jaime suddenly continued on his earlier comment. “But he was clear that any withholding of information, by either of them, would greatly impair their ability to trust beyond necessity.”

                I wonder if the same is implied for my ability to be honest with, Ned thought waywardly. And her with me, when the time comes.

                “He’s going to meet us there,” Jaime added suddenly. This time, Ned was more than mildly alarmed.

                “Is that wise? He could be followed, or worse.”

                Jaime’s face twisted into a scowl that did not suit the handsome agent. “Don’t I know it. But the little genius insisted. Seems he’s very worried about what your sudden reappearance in Sansa’s life could do to her fragile psyche.”

                Ned didn’t like where the conversation headed. “I thought we’d decided it was best to have as many hands on deck once we got to the next destination.”

                The nervous way his stomach twisted at the thought of once again being so close to his child but not permitted to have contact ate away at what remained of his nerves.

                “I agree with you,” Jaime put his hands up in surrender, but continued to shake his head. “It’s Tyrion who thinks she needs to be eased into the knowledge before actually having a face-to-face. He said something about dissociative episodes and a risk of extreme fight or flight responses if you just walked into the room without her being prepared.”  

                His alarm steadily rose. “She doesn’t look that fragile. You just told me she’s killed someone with her bare hands.”

                Jaime sighed deeply and met Neds’ penetrating gaze.

                “You and I both know what people can be capable of when they are in survival mode. And what those actions can do to the mind once the danger has passed,” he said gently.

                Ned didn’t want to listen. It was his fault she was ever introduced to this kind of existence. His fault she was denied the childhood and life he and Cat so desperately tried to provide for their children. His fault she was so traumatized by the wicked side of the world he’d immersed himself in daily.

                “Look, I just got off the phone with him before I came to tell you. We’re not too far away. The good thing about this place are the little fishing and hunting cabins dotted around the property. It means we can spread out a little without actually putting a dangerous amount of distance between us.” He was trying to placate the older man, but Ned wasn’t in the mood.

                “Stop trying to sell it to me,” he finally snapped. The other man had no idea what it was like to be kept from his only remaining family. His children. He didn’t have a damned clue.

                Jaime’s expression softened in a way that made Ned want to punch him. But he knew better than to shoot – or hit – the messenger.

                “I’m on your side,” he said quietly. “You’ve been denied this too damned long. It isn’t right, or fair, to either of you. Any of you,” he corrected. He shook his head. “Just . . . wait for Tyrion. I don’t often agree with him, but is it worth the risk?”

                Angrily, Ned huffed out a heavy sigh. Of course, he wouldn’t risk her in any capacity. Of course, he’d wait for the fucking shrink. Much as to gnawed at his insides. Much as the continued physical pain felt it would rip him in half. He would lurk in the shadows as he’d done these past ten years. It was his fault they were all in this mess to begin with. He wouldn’t add to her trauma out of selfishness.

                Movement caught his eye as his daughter and her hulking companion once again came into view. Ned’s eyes narrowed of their own accord a singular dark, unforgiving thought pressed insistently to the forefront of his mind.

                My fault, yes, but yours, too.

Chapter Text

Twenty

SANSA POV

April 4th

 

Sansa had been surprised by their next location, but only just. The small mountain town of Blue Ridge was cute and quaint in that same way that Mansfield had been. Little shops and restaurants lined the main street through the center of town, mixed in with a few chain establishments that tried to fit in with their surroundings. Even though the house was a mere three miles from town, it was like a whole other world up there. Surrounded by trees and with sweeping views over a distant lake, the massive log home felt safe in its seclusion, as well as warm and inviting with its many fireplaces and exposed wood throughout. Despite being early April, she could see her breath and felt a deep chill in the air once the sun went down.

“Here,” Sandor had grunted as he tossed her Jon’s jacket. She wrapped it tightly around her body gratefully. “Can’t be more than forty-five degrees out.”

She hummed in agreement as he’d opened the back of his truck to let the wolves out. Lady loped gracefully around the truck, but continued to favour her injured leg. Remorse had filled Sansa up but she tried not to let it show. Sandor had already squashed that down when she’d expressed it in the truck. Lady had been doing her job. That’s all there was to it.

They were all too damned exhausted to explore the house thoroughly the previous night. Once the sun came up and filtered through the curtainless windows, she was able to get a much better idea of their latest digs.

The place was a massive log cabin, similar to Tyrion’s place up north. It was decorated just as lavishly, too across it’s nearly ten thousand square feet. While Sandor muttered under his breath about the colossal waste of money and space, Sansa admired the simplicity that still existed. The walls, ceiling, and floors were all polished wood, and the bare windows took advantage of the views of sprawling mountainous forest that nearly encroached on the house itself.

Even with eight bedrooms to choose from no one seemed to blink when Sansa and Sandor decided to share one rather than occupy two side by side. In fact, she was certain there was a smirk on agent Tarth’s face as she turned to venture clear down to the other end of the hall to occupy her own space. Gendry wasn’t subtle either, making sure he’d picked a room far from theirs as well while muttering something about being psychologically scarred by the idea of them. Jaime had scowled, but said nothing as he carried his bags to a downstairs room near the front doors. In all honesty, they had been so wiped out that they’d barely hit the mattress before they were both sleeping soundly.

 The place was amazingly open plan, with a great room that dominated the central space of the home. A massive stone fireplace glowed with the heat of their morning fire while eastern floor to ceiling windows brought the spectacular light show of sunrise in hues of yellow and orange. Sansa padded noiselessly down the curved stairs and moseyed into the kitchen, lured by the heady aroma of coffee. Agent Lannister – Jaime, as he insisted – stood by the steaming pot as it gurgled enticingly. Wordlessly, he handed Sansa an empty mug while he continued to stare as the dark liquid rose higher and higher.

“Morning,” she offered softly. He grunted a form of greeting in return, to which she smirked. He didn’t seem to be much of morning person. Fair enough, really.

Despite his grouchy demeanour he did pour her the first cup of coffee, for which she thanked him enthusiastically.

They sat and drank in companionably silence until a freshly showered Sandor trudged into the room. His eyes darted suspiciously between them before he helped himself to caffeine, but he stayed quiet. Gendry also stomped wearily into the kitchen moments later and wordlessly filled his own cup. He looked barely conscious, but Sansa wasn’t surprised. Jon had always said what a bear Gendry was before his morning coffee at work. The memory sent a pang of sadness that hit deep within her. She hadn’t realised just how much she’d missed them all until that very moment.  Thankfully, Brienne joined them that the silence was finally broken.

“Good morning everyone,” she said breezily as she finished off the remains of the pot in an oversized mug. “Don’t worry, I’ll make another.” She took a deep sip before casting her too blue eyes on the other three in the room.

“Plans for today?” she enquired politely as she looked between them.

Sansa felt her eyebrows knit together in confusion. She’s just assumed she’d be on house arrest as usual. Was that different now that there were more of them?

“Um?” she hedged while giving a sidelong glance to her warden slash lover.

“No plans,” he grumbled around his mug. Sansa didn’t bother to hide her scowl, which made the two blondes snicker quietly. Gendry just watched the exchange with shrewd eyes.

“We could make plans,” she started to say, but the words died off as she watched him shake his head.

“Oh, come on!” She knew she was whining, but she didn’t care. “Sandor, I’m dying here.”

When his stormy eyes snapped right to hers she immediately regretted her poor choice of words. She frowned and shook her head, ready to try and explain when he roughly dropped his mug to counter top, sloshing the contents on the pristine white stone bench.

“That’s exactly what every fucking person in this room is trying to prevent, princess,” he snarled, pointing a finger dangerously close to her face.

Irritation shot through her as she batted his finger away. He hadn’t spoken to her like that in weeks and she’d be damned if she allowed it to start back up again. They’d come too far to start moving backwards.

“I wasn’t suggesting I go anywhere alone,” she reasoned and tried to keep her voice even.

“You’re not going anywhere at all,” he replied gruffly as he continued to try and stare her down.

She fought the urge to cock her eyebrow at him. She knew this side of him very well. He only got all prickly when he was worried about her safety and felt out of control. She’d picked that up in the first few days. Since then, she’d been able to read him more and more clearly. Especially since the shift in their relationship. Arguing wouldn’t do anything but make him dig his heels in harder and inflame his temper more. She breathed slowly, steadily, as she maintained eye contact with him. Her hand found his arm and rested there softly.

“Do you think, after all we’ve been through, that I would put myself at risk? Especially now?” she asked, her voice a little quieter than before.

He didn’t answer her but his eyes narrowed ever so slightly. She licked her lips and leaned into him a little.

“I’m not stupid, Sandor. I know what’s happening around me and there are moments where I am absolutely terrified.” She was close enough that her chest pressed lightly against his muscled arm. She lifted up on her toes to prop her chin at the very edge of his shoulder. Some of the tension released from his body, which made it so she didn’t have to stretch her neck so far.

“But then I remember that you’re here with me and I can breathe just a little easier.” Her other hand drifted up his back and anchored her to his shoulder more securely.

“You’re never completely safe, even with me,” he rasped. His voice was markedly calmer and his eyes had softened enough that she felt the corners of her mouth twitch upwards.

“I’ve never been completely safe at any point in my life,” she said plainly as she shrugged a shoulder. “It’s never stopped me from living. And I don’t want it to stop me now. Do you?”

He held her gaze in complete silence for a full two minutes before a heavy sigh left his body. His mouth twisted into a small scowl as he shook his head slightly, but he never broke eye contact.

“What did you have in mind, Little Bird?”

She squealed a little and wrapped her arms around his head to bring him down a little before peppering his unshaven cheek with little kisses. He let her go on like that for a few moments before making a show of stopping her, but his actions were extremely gentle.

Before she could say anything, a quiet muttered Jesus Christ caught her attention. She turned towards Jaime and saw him stare at her with eyes wide in astonishment. To his right Brienne tried desperately to hide her grin in her mug as she quietly sipped her coffee. Gendry shook his head despite his lopsided smile.

“You two are fucking dangerous,” Gendry muttered. She didn’t have to ask him to know he was referring to Arya in that moment.

Jaime made his way around the kitchen island and stopped dead in front her while he set his cup on the bench. In a hugely exaggerated movement he dropped to his knees and bowed deeply at her feet several times. Brienne snorted a laugh while Sansa tried to contain hers miserably.

“Get up you freak,” she spluttered between wayward giggles. When he stood back up there was a roguish grin on his ridiculously handsome face.

“What? You’re my hero!” he said with mock sincerity. He then turned and clapped a hand on Sandor’s shoulder.

“But you, my friend, are completely fucked.”

Sandor batted his hand away with a great deal more aggression than he had Sansa’s just moments ago, but she couldn’t blame him this time. In the interest of keeping Jaime’s face pretty, she stepped between them and wrapped her arms around Sandor’s waist to recapture his attention.

“What if we just went to the grocery and got some food? There’s barely anything here and I know how particular you are about your cereal.”

He snorted loudly, but finally stopped glowering at other man and looked at her.

“You’re the picky one, with your nine dollar coffee and fifteen dollar cheese,” he growled without heat.

“Actually, the cheese I like is twenty dollars,” she corrected him with a false air of snootiness. “That cheaper stuff is for peasants.”

“We’re going to risk your hide for some fucking cheese?” He cocked an eyebrow at her.

“And coffee,” she said with a firm nod. Behind them Brienne chuckled openly.

“Now I know where Arya gets it,” Gendry grumbled and rolled his eyes.

“At least she’s got her priorities straight,” the older woman chimed in good-naturedly.

“Don’t encourage her,” Sandor murmured. “She doesn’t need your help, trust me.”

“Oh, I think we’ve all seen that very clearly this morning,” Jaime added with a suggestive wag of his eyebrows. “Nice to know who’s really in charge around here.”

Sansa turned to glance at him over her shoulder and have him a saucy wink. “Damn right.”

She didn’t bother to disguise her giggles as Sandor glared over the top of her head. They quickly morphed into a startled shriek when she found herself suddenly tossed over one of Sandor’s shoulders.

“What the hell are you doing?” she cried as he turned around and headed out of the kitchen.

“Looks like he’s trying to show you who’s boss, kid,” Jaime shouted after them between loud guffaws.

He trudged them up the steps more quickly than she would have thought possible with her added weight. It was only a few seconds before he’d kicked the door shut behind them and tossed her down on the bed unceremoniously. Her laughter had increased with each step and as she bounced on the mattress she found she was struggling to breathe through her giggles. Only when the mattress depressed all around her and she felt the weight of him hovered over was she able to calm and quiet somewhat. His expression was stern, but his eyes were lit with mirth and something else. Something Sansa couldn’t identify yet, or perhaps, was too afraid to.

Her hand had a mind of its own as her fingers brushed a few damp strands of hair off his rough cheek and tucked them behind his ruined ear. Finger nails gently scratched along the flesh of his neck and exposed collarbone. When she felt him shudder slightly above her heart quickened slightly. She gripped his shirt and pulled him down to her. He came easily, his movements fluid, practiced. His eyes stayed open until the point where his lips touched hers.

Kissing him brought new experiences and feelings every time. Some days they were unhurried, soft and deep. Other times she felt like the sheer intensity would melt her bones and leave her a quivering puddle of molten need. As she lost herself in the heat of his body she tried to stay in the moment and not relive that past twenty-four hours. It was easy once she rid him of his shirt, even though he stopped her from removing her own. His hands captured hers and diverted them back to his shoulders, his back. The masterful way he conquered her mouth made all conscious thought evaporate from her mind and she found it hard to think of anything except the delicious sensations that travelled through her aroused body.

But every time her hands strayed low on his waist she found them deflected somehow and placed into ‘the safe zone’. After the third failed attempt she groaned loudly and made to push him up so she could look at him. Just as she’d thought – and feared – his breathing was a little heavy but his eyes were calm. He was completely under control and there she was, desperately pawing at him like some hormonal teenager. It wasn’t fair. She tried desperately to quash the feelings of inadequacy that usually rose up and remain impassive.

“Something wrong, Sandor?” she asked breathlessly. She continued to caress his bare chest and shoulders as she lay beneath him.

He didn’t answer her question. Instead he asked, “I thought you wanted to go shopping?”

Not at all diverted by his attempt, Sansa smiled and continued to trace invisible patterns across his broad chest with her nails. “The stores are open all day.”

He huffed a small laugh and shook his head as he pulled further away from her. It gave her all the space she finally needed to whip her tank top off over her head. Already braless, she saw with great satisfaction the way his pupils dilated as he took in her bare skin. She tried to pull him back down to her but the man had seemingly turned to stone and could not be budged. She tried unsuccessfully for a few moments through small bursts of nervous laughter. He grinned down at her in earnest but still refused to be moved.

“Little Bird,” he started to say something, but his voice was too patient, to gentle. It made her stomach twist uncomfortably.

A frustrated groan escaped her as she placed one hand over her eyes and willed herself not to be embarrassed. She knew she hadn’t quite succeeded when she felt the heat that bloomed over her exposed chest and neck. Her blush never just contained itself to her checks. No, it was like her whole body was aflame. Being that vulnerable wasn’t something she’d ever had to endure, and Sansa found she was unable to talk herself down from the spiral of self-deprecating thoughts that got louder and more insistent with every passing second of space between the two of them.

She refused to look him in the eye as she finally moved to sit up. Unlike when she had tried to pull him closer, pushing him away was something he allowed with painful ease. Silently, she reached down and pulled her top up off the floor and back over her head in a practiced move. With her back to him she rose up from the bed and took a step towards her open duffel bag. A large, calloused hand suddenly encircled her wrist. At the extreme delicacy of his touch she felt tears prick at the back of her eyes. She swallowed thickly and cleared her throat before pulling her hand away.

“Give me a few minutes to get dressed,” she said as plainly as she could. She wanted to flinch at the hollow sound of her voice, but she supposed it was better than reflecting the inner turmoil that she felt. Or worse, the pain.

She kept her shoulders back and her chin up as she walked into the bathroom and quietly latched the door. It was only once confronted with her reflection that she curled in on herself somewhat. Her face glowed with humiliation and her wide blue eyes looked back at her in accusation. A whirlwind of thoughts slammed into her and threatened to sweep her away with their intensity.

Not good enough. Doesn’t want you. Too young. Too damaged. Too much trouble. Undesirable. Unlovable. . .

On and on they went. It took a few minutes of deep breathing and practiced internal phrases to feel herself settle a bit more and relax. She still felt like she teetered on the edge of something painful; like a strong gust of wind could send her into a downward spiral that she wasn’t sure how to pull herself back out of. But at that moment she felt stable enough to get through another day without digging too deep and trying to find the bottom of that particular well of discomfort.

She emerged fresh faced and forcibly calm, even able to flash him a small smile as she went to retrieve her jacket from the window seat where she’d left it the night before. Sandor sat on the corner of the bed and just watched her flit around the room and gather her things. The more he stared the more she tried to ignore both him and the uneasy feeling that tried to rise up overhead and completely engulf her.

“Ready?” she asked as she approached the door with shoes on and keys in hand. He managed to catch her by the wrist again. She didn’t turn to look at him. Couldn’t. Perhaps her emotions weren’t as contained as she thought they had been.

“Sansa.” The soft, sweet way he said her name caused gooseflesh to prickle across her skin and her throat to tighten.

She shook her head. She didn’t want to be weak. Not after everything. Not in front of him. She’s already shown too much. The imbalance was what threw her so completely. She was so completely dependant upon him, so exposed at all times. And he was so careful, so guarded, with so little unconcealed. It wasn’t fair to have him so unaffected by her while she practically begged him to be let in.

“Let’s just go, okay?” she sounded tired, which she was in a way. Tired of always being so emotionally disabled. Tired of always looking over her shoulder. Tired of never being normal.

She felt his body get closer to hers but kept hers facing away. She couldn’t do this. It was too much. Too hard. She didn’t want to be the one to once again give so much of herself away while getting barely anything at all in return.

“What’s going on in that beautiful mind of yours?” he murmured, closer again, as his other hand slid up her exposed arm. The gentleness of voice combined with his touch nearly did her in. She felt the trembling from her stomach spread throughout her body.

It was all too much. She was too close. The risk was too great. She needed to find a way back to herself. Needed to not feel so weak, so damned powerless. Needed to flip the script, turn the tables. Needed him to just stop sending her into such a tailspin. And the only way to do that was to send him into one of his own. It was dirty and underhanded, but it was all she could think of and she was one breath away from letting all her walls come crashing down and she didn’t think she could get through that. So, she finally turned to look him directly in the eyes. He was so close she felt his breath on her cheek.

With her voice as steady as she could make it, she asked him, “Do you love me, Sandor?”

Equal parts satisfaction and shame slammed into her when she saw him stop breathing and turn to stone. His grey eyes wide with shock stayed frozen on hers. She could tell her words had hit their mark. Done exactly what they were meant to. Helped shift her ever so slightly off the constant back foot she always felt she was on with him. When he didn’t move or breathe or speak for a full minute she nodded slightly and felt the knots in her stomach loosen, but only a little. The guilt from such a sucker punch still pressed heavily on her heart and she knew there was nothing she could do the lessen that sensation.

She made to turn away, to open the door and go about the rest of their day with the uneasy upper hand she thought she’d have. The disappearance of his light touch from her body left her bereft and wanting. She deserved it though. She deserved anything he threw at her.

She pulled the door open and took one step into the hall as her heart thudded painfully in her chest. When she finally heard him pull in a deep breath she thought he might just yell at her and nodded slightly.

She was wholly unprepared when his rough voice ground out a steady, “Yes.”

Everything stopped. Her breathing. Her heart. Her guilt. Her shame. Time. Everything froze perfectly in place as his answer echoed through her mind over and over again, bouncing around the emptiness there until it finally landed and took root there forever. She could never unhear that word, never erase its existence in her mind. Everything suddenly went numb, her body cold as ice while sensation returned and the world sped back up around her.

Fear so acute she could taste its metallic sharpness on her tongue shot through her system. She was down the hall and on the stairs before she drew her first breath. No destination in mind, she flew around the bend and was headed to front door when a pair of bodies blocked the way. Something in her mind instantly recognized the safety, comfort, and peace that came with the smaller of the two. She staggered forward as tears finally clouded her vision and her knees hit hard on the wood floor as her arms twined around his steady shoulders.

“Tyrion,” she whimpered against his soft wool coat. It smelled of his cologne and lingering cigar smoke from his very occasional vice. Years of talks and calm and pure trust flooded her to the point that she couldn’t contain anything more and it all suddenly came spilling out in a torrent of wracking sobs that left her dizzy and breathless and on the verge of hyperventilation.

“I need someone to carry her.” His voice was so steady in that no nonsense, ‘we’re going to do things my way’ ability of his that Sansa felt some of the tension she’d held for weeks finally evaporate from her shaking frame.

She didn’t object when strong arms lifted her off the floor and she clung to wide shoulders that didn’t belong to the one man she both needed and couldn’t deal with in that moment.

“There’s an office down the hall here. I’ll put her on the couch.” Gendry’s voice was rough with some concealed emotion, but he held her gently against his body and smoothly walked through the hall. He carefully set her down and backed out of the room without a word or a glance.

Tyrion passed him and closed the door firmly before he turned and openly appraised her. He set down his bag – the one that always came with him to their sessions – and removed his blue peacoat.

“Do you need a sedative?” There was no judgement, no admonition in his tone. Just open concern and question. She shook her head as she felt herself calm enough to speak without hiccoughing every three seconds. She was just on the safe side of complete hysteria and was determined not to cross that line.

It all came spilling out of her without direction or reason or thought. Like a tap turned on and left open after years without use it was dark and murky and came in spurts at first, then ran smoothly, clear and powerfull. With each passing minute Sansa was able to reign in more of her sanity and find her missing sense of stability and control. She didn’t know how long they spent in that office with her pouring everything out for him without pause. She barely kept up with her own train of thought at times, violently skipping from one area to another without preamble or transition, but Tyrion sat there openly and took it all. He didn’t interrupt, didn’t ask any questions, didn’t make a sound from the occasion ‘hmmm’ while he nodded or shook his head slightly.

After a while the tempo of her speech slowed considerably and Sansa was able to take deep breaths and pause between statements while she felt her body finally relax. Her eyes were tired and sore from crying with such abandon and her throat was a little hoarse, but she kept going until she’d run out of things to say. After a few full minutes of silence Tyrion cocked his head to side slightly to capture her eyes with his. He was always so steady, so calm. It settled her even more, like a security blanket or favourite toy would an anxious toddler.

“You’ve been holding onto all that for quite a while,” he said simply. When she nodded he added, “That’s a lot to hold onto.”

“Yeah,” she agreed.

“How are you feeling now?”

She thought about how to word it. “Empty, but in a really good way.”

He nodded in understanding, then cracked a small smile. “Seems like I showed up at precisely the right time.”

She nodded with her own little smirk. “Sure did. Glad to see that crystal ball is working.”

“Mmmm,” he hummed in agreement as he folded his hands neatly in his lap. She knew that cue. He did it right before asking tough questions. She met his eyes calmly, welcoming the familiarity of therapy again. It was like a buoy in the storm of her often tumultuous life.

“Walk me through the moments before you saw me today.”

Ugh. She felt her body flush as her eyes darted down to the carpet. Of all the things he could have asked her about, that was going to be the most difficult to explore. Especially as it was still so damned fresh. But perhaps that was the point. She swallowed thickly.

“You know what I told you last time we talked? About . . . about how things are going with me and Sandor?” she hedged cautiously. She didn’t know why it was hard to talk about all these details with Tyrion lately. She’d discussed sex in much more detail with him in the past. His unflappable nature and approach had always made it so much easier and more comfortable than when she tried to talk to Aunty M or Arya. But trying to talk about this man, this relationship – if that’s what it could even be called – was beyond difficult and she wasn’t sure why.

“You mentioned that in the few instances where you had been sexually involved it remained remarkably one sided,” he summarized simply with no inflection of judgement of discomfort in his voice. “And that it bothered you that he wouldn’t let you touch him intimately.”

Heat stained her cheeks and she nodded dumbly as she struggled to find words through her embarrassment. Of course, Tyrion noticed immediately and commented on it openly.

“We’ve discussed different sexual experiences you’ve had over the years many times over, Sansa, and I’ve never really seen you so reticent to talk about them. What do you think is different in this situation?”

She sat and thought about that for a moment. What was different? Instinctively, she knew, of course. She’d only really admitted it to herself recently and look where that had led. She went back through her humiliating behaviour upstairs and wanted to curl up in a ball and hide once the truth shone down on her like an interrogation spotlight.

“Tell me what you’re thinking about right now.” It wasn’t really a request, but it wasn’t an order either. It was rare that Tyrion flat out demanded something from her. His tone said it was still up to her if she answered, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before that tone changed slightly. She decided to get right to it. It was faster that way.

“I stepped over the line,” she relented and bit her lip.

“How so?”

Sansa closed her eyes. It was easier that way to recount her shame. “We were kissing again and . . . he kept stopping me. Wouldn’t let me touch him. Well, anywhere . . . um . . . intimate. But he also didn’t seem interested in doing anything beyond that, which is confusing.”

“Why is that confusing?”

She felt her eyebrows pinch together in a frown. “Because we got close a couple days ago. I could feel it. The day where those guys showed up, he was changing his mind. He’d said he wanted to go slow, and I thought we were, but that day it seemed like we both wanted . . .”

Her voice trailed off as she tried to hold onto the passion she’d felt there. The passion that hadn’t been present since then. Especially that morning.

“You said he wanted to take things slowly.” Again, it wasn’t a question, but an invitation for her to think more about something. To explore.

Her eyes opened but she continued to stare at the carpet.

“Mm-hmm.” She nodded.

“Why does that bother you so much?”

Dammit. He’d always been able to see past all the little things and get right to the heart of the matter without preamble. She kept her eyes down and shrugged. Tyrion snorted in disbelief.

“Bullshit, Sansa. You know damn well why it bothers you,” he countered without malice.

She huffed in frustrations and crossed her arms tightly over her chest. “I’m not ready to talk about this yet.”

“I call bullshit again.” Tyrion’s voice was softer that time, but the impact was harder. Funny how that worked. Sansa swallowed, but didn’t speak.

“What happened upstairs, Sansa?” he prodded gently.

Her heart thumped hard. She swallowed again as her breath stuttered on release.

“Sansa?”

She practically spit the words in the effort to get them past her teeth. “He didn’t want me. I wanted him, but . . . he didn’t, so . . .” She didn’t realise her hands were balled into fists until she rubbed them down her thighs to stop the tingling sensation in her palms.

“You thought he didn’t want you?” It was a question that time, but he didn’t stop there. “So, what did you do?”

Her stomach twisted as painfully tight as her clenched fists. Her jaw locked for a brief moment in an attempt to stop the words from coming, but it was no use. They had to be released. It was the only way to make the chaos calm, to make the pain dull enough to be survivable.

“I went in the bathroom to get dressed and then I tried to leave.” Her voice was flat, but she knew her eyes were full of the emotions she tried to desperately to supress. She trained them on the window across the room.

“You tried?”

She pulled in a deep breath. “Yeah. He stopped me.”

“What happened then?”

She shrugged. “I think he wanted to talk about it.”

“You didn’t.” It wasn’t a question. He knew her well. She shook her head to confirm.

“No.”

“Is that when you came downstairs?”

Her chest tightened. “No. He still wouldn’t let me leave.”

“Was he angry?”

Sansa snorted. Angry would have been easier. Angry would have been something she was prepared to deal with. Not the gentle understanding he wore and tried to wrap around her. That was too much to bear.

“Not. At. All.” She enunciated each word as she shook her head.

Tyrion nodded. “Ah. I see.”

Finally, she looked right at him. “Do you?”

“You’ve always been very uncomfortable with people you think have power over you,” he answered evenly.

She didn’t argue since they both knew it was the truth. Instead, she braced herself. “There’s more.”

“Oh?” he enquired openly.

She swallowed again and felt her hands tremble on her lap. “I tried to even things up a bit.”

Tyrion’s eyes grew cautions but still held no judgement. “How did you do that?”

Anxiety flowed and soured her stomach as she relived it all. “I . . . I . . . I asked him . . . if he . . . loved me.”

Tyrion usually schooled his features very well during sessions, but he had a hard time disguising the open surprise that took over for a few moments.

“Wow,” was all he said when he’d finally absorbed what she’d just told him.

“Yeah,” she agreed heavily.

“Out of curiosity, what answer did you hope for?”

His question threw her. “Uh, I honestly don’t know.”

“Then why ask him that?”

She pursed her lips as shame and guilt welled up in her again. “I told you, to even things out.”

“Because once he said no that meant that all the negative things you’ve been saying about yourself would have been proved correct. And it would prove that he was just as shallow and predictable as all the other men who showed you interest over the years. Which would, of course, make it that much easier to write him off and quash those continuously building feelings of yours before they got out of control and actually made you want more than just a sexual connection with him.” He said all of that with a tone of such seriousness that Sansa felt each word penetrate her like a bullet.

“How am I doing so far?” he asked when she didn’t respond to him for a full minute.

“Sounds about right,” she answered hollowly.

He nodded and sighed deeply, the way he did before he started to delve into painful things and explore sides of her she’d rather remained hidden. If she’d thought it would help she might have let him, but she cut him off before he got started.

“But that’s not what happened,” she mumbled.

Confused, he cocked his head to the side. “How do you mean?”

She pulled in a deep breath and finally met his eyes. “He said yes.”

If Tyrion looked surprised before it was nothing compared to the round eyed shock she was greeted with after uttering those three words. And then he’d done something she was completely unprepared for. He laughed. Quietly at first but then he threw his head back and just let loose.

She glowered at him. “I fail to see the humor here.”

“I’m sure you do,” he chuckled and shook his head. “Well, that explains why you looked about ready to take flight as I arrived. I doubt we’d have tracked you down before next week, even with those wolves of his.”

“I just might feed you to those wolves if you don’t stop laughing at me,” she snapped.

“Then who would help you contain your bucket of crazy when the lid stops fitting?” he joked lightly.

“Maybe I don’t need help anymore,” she countered while she continued to glare balefully at him.

“I professionally disagree,” he countered good-naturedly. At least he’d finally stopped laughing. “You’d have flown the coop once you realised on your own what I’m about to clue you in on.”

“And what is that exactly,” she grumbled.

His eyes softened somewhat, but his smile remained. “You’ve never had someone really love you that isn’t part of your family, and the idea is truly terrifying for you.”

“Love is terrifying!” she shot back. “Find me one person with half a brain who says otherwise!”

“Oh, I absolutely agree with you. But you aren’t scared of being in love, you’re scared of being well and truly loved.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What’s the difference?”

“The difference is control. You can’t control when you love someone, but you can control how you show it, express it, if you share it, et cetera. You have zero control over how another person loves you and it scares the crap out of you that someone might actually see you as worth it.”

His words laid her bare and exposed and she wanted to scream at him to take them all back. He didn’t. He just kept going as he stripped away every defence she’d put into place over the last few years.

“That’s why you’ve always settled for boys that are beneath you. You know their feelings are shallow. More hormones than heart. You know how to deal with that, manipulate that to your advantage. You can’t do that with Sandor, much as you may have tried. And it’s not because of the lie you’ve sold yourself in efforts to protect your mind and your heart from the truth.”

She wanted to tell him to stop but her mouth was dry as dust and she couldn’t form any words. She sat helpless as he continued to pour the truth over her like a baptism of knowledge that she had actively avoided since setting eyes on Sandor Clegane.

“He absolutely wants you, probably more desperately than you want him. He stops himself because he knows you aren’t ready for that. Because he cares for your safety and well-being, in all aspects, and would never be the one to put you in harms way. He does it because he loves you and you mean more to him than just an easy lay while heat is running high. You’re precious to him. Special. And he wants you to feel that way, especially since I’ll bet he can sense you never have before.”

“Stop!” she finally squeaked and held her hands up in front of her. “Stop, stop, stop!”

Tyrion’s eyes turned unbearably sad. “Why is it so hard for you to hear that someone treasures you the way they should?”

“Because he can’t!” she wailed suddenly. “That’s not safe! I’m not –“

She stopped and shook her head over and over as if to rid herself of the way hope had started to worm its way into her mind from Tyrion’s carelessly wise words.

“You’re not what, Sansa?” he asked with such gentleness she felt something inside her break.

“I’m not safe!” she screeched.

“How aren’t you safe?”

“It’s not safe to love me,” she pelted back even though the thought had been different. Not worth being loved was what she had been thinking, but that’s not what she said. It brought her up short.

“Why isn’t it safe to love you, Sansa?” Tyrion leaned forward and captured her eyes again.

Her mind whirled sickeningly. “I don’t . . .” she paused while she thought it through. “I don’t know.”

“Who else has loved you?”

No. She didn’t want to go there. It was too hard. Too painful. Tears came again and she bit her lower lip as it trembled.

“Who?” he pushed softly.

“My parents and my brothers,” she shot back at him with venom. “Look how well that turned out.”

“Yes, they did,” was all he said. “Who else has loved you?”

Her throat felt tight but she forced the answer anyway. “Jon. Arya.”

He nodded. “Who else?”

It got easier, if only just, with each passing second.

“Pretty sure Pod loved me,” she murmured thoughtfully.

“I’ll wager he did as well,” Tyrion agreed, “In that innocent teenage, first love kind of way. He was good to, our Pod.”

 “Aunty M. Bronn.”

“Most definitely.” He nodded sagely.

She paused, uncertain. His open expression made her venture forward carefully. “Um, you, maybe?”

A genuine smile spread across his face. It was then she saw the resemblance between the brothers. Tyrion was handsome in his own way, and the errant thought made her blush slightly.

“Yes, in as much professional capacity as I’m permitted. And, to be honest, perhaps a bit more than is recommended.” He winked at her and she gave a small, breathy laugh.

Still, she couldn’t add him to the list. Tyrion did it for her.

“Sandor,” he provided.

She bit her lip shyly but allowed herself to nod.

“Have you told him that you love him, too?”

The question was unassuming, but it startled her.

“I . . . I . . . uh . . .” she stammered as she shook her head. Tyrion raised his hands and chuckled again.

“Right then. One step at a time. I forgot that you’re a flight risk right now.”

His mismatched eyes held too much mirth for her comfort. She barely resisted the urge to lash out at him when something clicked into place.

“I wonder if that’s why he calls me that,” she mused out loud.

“Calls you what?” Tyrion enquired lightly.

“Um, Sandor calls me ‘Little Bird’ sometimes,” she murmured, unsure why saying that out loud embarrassed her. She loved the nick name. It had quickly become her favourite term of endearment.

Tyrion’s expression softened as he nodded appreciatively. “Appropriate.”

He seemed to weigh up his words very carefully before speaking again.

“I’m going to trust you with this information in the hopes that you use it going forward to grow and not to try and gain the upper hand of your relationship in such a destructive way again.” That was as close to scolding her as he had ever gotten and she felt appropriately cowed by the inference. She nodded vehemently.

“You do realise that he saw exactly what you were trying to do up there and gave you precisely what you were seeking, don’t you?”

Startled and confused, she stared at him open mouthed. “Huh?”

His grin widened and he actually rolled his eyes at her lack of usual eloquence. Or maybe it was her density he found amusing.

“He’s a very smart man, Sandor Clegane. He knew damned well that your question was meant to put him into a place that he wanted no part of. And he saw that it was your complete lack of control, your fear and deep insecurities that drove your actions. So, he gave in and gave you the ultimate upper hand. He said he loved you first. He said it without the safety of knowing you’d say it back. He said he loved you even though he knew you would run away.”

When Sansa was too stunned to respond, Tyrion leaned forward and placed his hand overtop of her still clenched fist.

“He did the one thing he knew you’d never expect because you didn’t think love like that existed. In his own stubborn way, he wanted to prove you wrong, but really it was about showing you that love like that is real and it’s why he is content to just kiss you. Because for him, it’s more than enough. You are more than enough. You have always held all the power. You just didn’t know it. My guess is this was the only way he could show you that so that you’d see it without question.”

“Oh god,” she whispered as her mind flew through every conversation, every encounter, every kiss, every touch. With the blinders of doubt and ignorance gone she saw it all for exactly what it was. What it always had been.

The knowledge hit her like wrecking ball and smashed right through any of her remaining defences. She didn’t even think. She got up and staggered towards the door without a word. Tyrion’s laughter behind her let her know he didn’t take it personally that she now fled from him the way she always ran from anything too overwhelming. But this time it was different. She wasn’t running away. She was running towards.

Her feet carried her up to their shared room, barely striking the ground as they propelled her forward. Empty. Back down the spiral stairs and into the kitchen. Gendry stood there talking to Brienne in hushed, private tones that ceased the moment she came into view. Brienne looked at her with open concern, but Gendry too one look at her and just nodded in understanding.

“He’s outside. Down by the firepit, I think,” he provided.

“You might want a jacket and shoes!” Brienne called after her as she spun on the ball of her foot and took off for the back door.

Outside the crisp air was a welcome hit on her overheated skin. She saw him some yards away with his back to her, staring out at the amazing view of the forests and mountains and lakes that lay beyond. Sure, even strides brought her closer even as she felt her insides shaking and her heart stutter painfully. She didn’t say a word as she approached him, and by the time she stepped in front of him her whole body shook uncontrollably. She refused to let it stop her. She wanted to be whole and healed and healthy and good enough for him. She wasn’t any of those things, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from trying. Not anymore.

Without warning she threw her arms up and wound them tightly around his neck while she pressed her whole body into his, tucking her face into his bare neck. When he didn’t move in response she felt her breathing stutter and her heart pound painfully against her ribs.

“H-h-hold me,” she stammered as her frame continues to quiver against his. “Please!”

Finally, strong arms returned her embrace. She tried to pull herself impossibly closer. It was all she could do not to wrap her whole body around him. He must have sensed that she needed more because his arms tightened to the point of nearly constricting her ability to breathe, but the strength in them finally helped release the much-needed waves of calm she’d craved. She started to whisper brokenly to him as her shaking died down.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she repeated over and over again while she clung to him like the only life vest in her sea of constant turmoil. He let her go on like that for a time before he started pressing soft kisses to the top and side of her head. His mouth brushed her ear several times over and each time she heard him breathing whispers softly, almost inaudibly, but she’d heard them. The same three words over and over. The trembling came back full force, but it was different. It was better. And after the fifth time she finally summoned the strength to pull back and look into his stormy eyes.

“I love you, too.”

Chapter Text

 

April 7th

TYRION POV

He paced around the office on his short legs. He had never been very patient. Ironic, being what he was professionally. He glanced at his watch again. It was taking too damned long. He knew the man was a stubborn jackass, but he’d counted on his genuine care for Sansa to make him move his giant as just a little faster. When the door finally opened Tyrion huffed out an annoyed sigh.

“Finally,” he practically snapped. “Close it behind you please. I’d like to keep this talk as private as possible.”

Sandor’s eyes narrowed, but he complied. Tyrion indicated to the sofa and had to force himself not to roll his eyes when Clegane instead leaned against the door frame and folded his massive arms across his chest. Fine. Let him have it his way. Tyrion wasn’t going to waste precious time arguing logistical seating with the man.

“How long until she’s back?” Tyrion asked brusquely.

After what felt like an age the other man mulishly responded, “An hour. Maybe two if she finds something worth looking at in the Podunk town.”

“Then we need to get this underway,” Tyrion muttered and shook his head. He resumed his pacing and tucked his hands into his pockets to stop them shaking. A small sense of security washed over him as he touched his safety precaution.

“I’m going to do something slightly unethical and talk about a patient without her consent and without informing her,” he informed Sandor evenly. Just as he’d expected – and secretly hoped for – the larger man puffed up indignantly and dropped his fists to his sides. Good. That meant he really did have her best interests at heart.

“There’s nothing slight about that,” Sandor sneered.

“Think,” Tyrion snapped at him. “You’re a smart man, maybe even smarter than me.” He stopped and rolled his eyes when Sandor looked annoyed. “Check your ego, man, we certainly don’t have time to be precious today. When am I allowed to break confidences?”

Sandor paused and his eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Risk of harm.”

Tyrion nodded. “That’s right. So, what does that tell you?”

Sandor heaved a weary sigh and finally sat down on the sofa. He rubbed a hairy paw over his scarred face. When he faced Tyrion again his grey eyes were unbearably sad.

“You think she’s going to try and hurt herself?”

Tyrion shook his head slowly. “If only it were that simple.”

Sandor looked at him with open disbelief Tyrion sighed in frustration with the other man’s deliberate denseness. They didn’t have time for any of that. It was going to take a while to get through everything. He just hoped the Sandor loved her enough to stick it out once he knew.

“I’m going to start by saying I know everything.” No point in hiding behind the truth. It would only get in the way.

Sandor snorted and crossed his arms again. “Sure, you do.”

Tyrion faced him dead on. His wit and knowledge made him speak fearlessly, almost harshly. Later, he would wonder if he had deliberately tried to provoke Clegane, but in the moment he chalked it up to little sleep and less patience.  

“You were twelve the first time you met Petyr Baelish.” He watched in satisfaction as the color drained from Clegane’s face. Good. It meant he wouldn’t interrupt him.

“You didn’t know who he really was, of course, but your brother did. Your father did.”

“Stop,” Sandor practically whispered. His massive frame had started to shake. Tyrion bowled forward with no regard for either of them. Sandor could pound him into dust if he saw fit. It didn’t matter. Neither did Clegane’s shaky hold on his own psyche. She was his only concern. Just her.  

“By the time you’d found out what you’d done it was too late, but that didn’t stop you from trying to fix it. You’ve spent your whole adult life trying to repair things that you never actually broke, but take full responsibility for. Is that why you love her?”

“Enough,” Sandor said with more force. He shook his head rapidly.

“Do you think if you love her enough you can heal her? You can give her back everything that was taken? That you believe you took from her?”

ENOUGH!” The man suddenly roared and launched himself up from the sofa. Sandor had barely taken a step before Tyrion had the small pistol he’d held in his pocket cocked and aimed between the larger man’s eyes.

“I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I think you can’t control yourself,” Tyrion stated as calmly as could. In truth, he couldn’t understand why his hand had stopped shaking as he pointed the weapon. Small favours, he guessed.

Seething with rage, Sandor’s chest heaved with rapid breaths, but he wisely stood perfectly still.

“Like I said,” Tyrion continued, unruffled by the display, “I know everything. But you don’t.” He emphasized his last words with an arched eyebrow.

Sandor swallowed convulsively several times before he lowered himself back down to perch at the very edge of the sofa. Tyrion leaned his back against the desk and placed the gun down next to him. He placed his hands back in his pockets before the surge of adrenaline could make them tremble enough for Sandor to notice.

“How much has she told you about her sexual experiences?” he asked Sandor plainly. He tried to ignore the dark glare the other man shot his way and simply waited him out.

“She told me about when she lost her virginity, if that’s what you’re referring to,” he spat balefully.

Tyrion nodded. “It was part of it, but certainly not all. I think you may have noticed by now that she bears scars that go far beyond what her childhood experiences should have borne her.”

“For someone who’s worried about our time constraints, you certainly like to dance around the point,” Sandor bit out.

Tyrion nodded. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you. I don’t want to shoot you, Sandor, but I will if I think you might actually take your rage out on me.”

“So that’s it? If I promise to keep my hands to myself you’ll spill all her secrets?” he sneered.

“Hardly,” Tyrion scoffed in disgust. “This is to save your life, Clegane, not ease by burden!”

That seemed to get his attention. “My life? Not hers?”

“Oh, our lovely Sansa is more than capable of keeping herself alive. True, she’s in over her head right now, but I think you might find her a very capable adversary should the time come.”

Sandor growled and balled up his fists. “Fucking spit it out already!”

“She’s killed four people since she was fifteen.”

Sandor looked stunned for a moment before he schooled his features into an impassive mask.

“Is that right?” he muttered in the same way Tyrion imagined he might say ‘who hasn’t?’

“That we know of,” Tyrion said with a nod. After a quick glance at his watch he decided to skip all the lead up and just give the quick and dirty facts.

“The first was a boy in her Freshman class in Maine. His name was Peter Brown.” He watched as Sandor froze completely in his seat before he continued. “Seems this Peter was no better than the last one she’d run into. Mind you he was just a fifteen-year-old shithead with a penchant for date rape, but when he set his eyes on Sansa he had no idea it would be the last thing he’d ever do in his short life. After he’d managed to corner her behind the bleachers in the gym during a pep rally – a rally she’d snuck out to with Jon and Arya, I might add – he pinned her to a wall and ripped her top open. He never got any farther than that. She snapped his neck before he could. Jon and Arya found her wandering the halls completely dissociated. They called Bronn who then called me. We moved that night, all of us. It took me three weeks to get her back for more than five minutes at a time. We all decided it was best that she just thought we’d moved because Arya had gotten into a fight with some boys at school.”

Tyrion paused to make sure he still held the other man’s attention. When Sandor met his eyes and he saw the awareness blooming in their depths he nodded once and continued.

“The second was Eric Schultz, the prick who’d sweet talked her for months and then fucked her violently after telling her he loved her. She thought because he said the words, that meant he’d really meant them and would be gentle with her. She got her ideas from romance novels; I’m guessing he got his from sadistic internet porn.”

Sandor flinched visibly, but Tyrion couldn’t stop to spare his feelings.

“She said he left her crying on the bed,” Sandor muttered.

“Because that’s all she remembers. She doesn’t remember finding a box cutter on the floor and slitting his throat from behind. Just like she doesn’t remember crawling out his window, naked and covered in blood, and wandering the streets of her Wyoming town. She was lucky Jon found her first. She’d snuck away from school on his watch and gone to the Eric’s house without permission. He’d figured that’s where she was, and found her before she’d made it half a mile from the rural property. Light traffic on the roads meant no one else saw her. That time it took nearly six months to stop the episodes of disassociation. The problem then became stopping her from slipping back into them with her triggers. We thought we’d gotten past them when she went nearly nine months without one.” Tyrion grimaced in shame. He should have known better, but he’d allowed her to talk him into giving her more freedom. More time to just ‘be herself’.

“The third was at the beginning of her senior year. She’d had a boyfriend named Damien Hill. By all accounts, he seemed like a really great kid. Wanted to be a doctor. They’d only been together a couple months.”

“She’s never mentioned him,” Sandor mused aloud. Tyrion frowned and looked down at his feet.

“I’m not surprised. He never did anything to hurt her. I don’t think her psyche could ever live with the fact that she killed him. He didn’t do anything to provoke her. Just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong teenaged stupid move.”

“You said he didn’t hurt her.” Sandor’s tone was almost accusatory. Tyrion bit back his annoyance at the implication it held.

“He didn’t. But he did lace some brownies with synthetic drugs, which led to a drug induced psychotic break where she hallucinated she was nine years old and back in Baelish’s house. She beat that poor boy to death with her own hands and feet.”

“He didn’t stop her? Try to escape?” Sandor looked quietly horrified, and Tyrion hated to be the one to have to break it all to him. He wasn’t a bad man at all. Just a bit damaged. But who wasn’t?

“Not everyone is six, six with military training, Clegane,” Tyrion snapped at the other man. Did he think everyone so capable? Had he ever really seen her in action? He doubted the man would ask such inane questions if he had.

“I got my hands on a copy of the autopsy and examined Sansa myself. She didn’t have a singular defensive wound, and he didn’t have any offensive ones. My best guess is he just tried to take it or calm her down by talking to her. Not that it helped. He didn’t even know her real name, not that I think that would have made much of a difference. Nothing short of powerful sedatives helped. When she woke up she had no memory of the incident at all. So, we just told her we had to move again because she’d been seen. She finished high school in another state and then went on to go to Mansfield.”

“Christ, why the hell wasn’t she ever medicated?” Sandor shouted, hands up in frustration. Tyrion turned his own glare on the other man.

“Give me some fucking credit, Clegane!” he barked angrily. “Of course, she was medicated. She was on mood stabilizers for years. With regular therapy we were able to get her off of them after she finished her Freshman year of college.”

“What the fuck for?” Sandor challenged. “If you’re determined to paint her as some kind of homicidal maniac, why take her off drugs at all?”

Tyrion rolled his eyes and grimaced at Sandor’s choice of labels. “She got better, you imbecile.”

“How do you figure that?” Sandor shot back.

“You two have been rather intimate lately. Has she tried to kill you?” Tyrion shot back in annoyance.

Clegane’s eyes widened slightly before he glanced away in what Tyrion thought might have been embarrassment. He hadn’t spent enough time with the man to read him perfectly yet. The shrink sighed and rubbed his hand over his eyes before he softened his voice and approach.

“For more than eighteen months she’s done beautifully. No dissociative episodes. No violent outbursts . . . that weren’t warranted,” he amended as he thought of her last ‘victim’. “Clearly, the last man she killed got what he deserved.”

“He deserved much more than that,” Sandor growled. Tyrion nodded. At least on that they could agree.

“And what’s more, she knows she killed him, doesn’t she?” He needed to check some details with the other man before he continued.

“She does. We don’t really talk about it though. She’s mentioned it once or twice when we were arguing,” Sandor said with a small shrug. “Didn’t seem she was too disturbed by what she’d done.”

“Mmmm,” Tyrion hummed thoughtfully. He studied the other man for a moment before deciding which approach might work best with him.

“If you’ll permit me, I would like to get some details from you regarding your relationship and your time together this past month.” It was a request of sorts, but the message was clear. Tyrion needed details and he needed them for her well-being.

Still, Sandor’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Can’t you just go by whatever she’s told you?”

Tyrion nodded. “I have been. There are missing elements I still need. Something big is going to be revealed to her, and soon. I need to know if she can handle it or if it will send her back into a dissociative state.”

“What’s going on?” Sandor leaned forward, eyes keen.

“You first,” Tyrion countered quickly. “Have you noticed her shutting down at any point in time since you picked her up from the hospital?”

Sandor hesitated, but then provided, “Once. She tried using grounding techniques, but they weren’t working very well. I reinforced them for her repeatedly. Took a while, but she eventually came right.”

“How long?” He needed specifics.  

“An hour. Maybe a little less.”

“What happened directly preceding the event?” He had to know the trigger.

“I got a phone call that Baelish had crossed into California from Mexico,” he recalled plainly. “We were in New Mexico. She was afraid because of how close we were.”

Tyrion shook his head and frowned. That never would have been enough to set her off before. Something was missing. “Go back further. What were you doing right before the phone call?”

The look Tyrion couldn’t truly decipher before had returned. Sandor looked away from him and clenched his jaw a few times before he stated, “We were kissing.”

Ah, so it was embarrassment after all. After he decided to throw the other man a bone, Tyrion waited until he looked back at him to give a small, reassuring smile. “That wouldn’t have sent her into an episode. What about before that?”

“Um, she was dancing,” he said with a very small half smile that barely reached his eyes.

Tyrion froze. He was sure he’d heard him wrong. “Dancing?”

“Yeah, doing ballet or some shit. Why?” Confusion on his face was clear, but Tyrion was too busy with his own emotional overwhelm to try and deal with anything else in that moment.

Sweet mother of Christ. She was dancing. Dancing. How long had it been?

His mind spun over the dozens of conversations he’d had with her over the years about how much she’d missed her lessons with her mother. But every time she thought she could try again, she’d broken down. The grief was too much. Too hard to handle. Whenever she’d tried she’d ended up in a depressive state for months after. Something must have finally shifted for her. Tyrion could guess what had finally made the difference.

He didn’t realise he had begun to shake his head until his eyes refocused on the room that swum before him. Tyrion swallowed thickly several times before he managed to speak again.

“Her mother taught her how to dance when she was very small,” he explained. “It was their special bonding time.”

He paused and looked at the man Sansa seemed to have chosen to help her really start to heal after all that time. “She hasn’t danced, really danced, since her mother died.”

“I thought . . . she said Marge put her back in dance,” Sandor said, uncertain.

“She did, but never ballet. She hasn’t done that since Cat died.” He allowed the weight of his words to settled on the big man’s shoulders.

“Whatever you’ve been doing for her, Clegane, seems to be working. She hasn’t had the confidence to try that in years for fear of being overwhelmed, no matter how much we worked towards it.”

Sandor looked down at his hands and nodded once, but he didn’t offer anything else. Tyrion decided to just keep going. They were almost out of time.

“That explains why she was so easily triggered. Dancing would have brought back childhood memories for her, then to be triggered by Baelish in the same instance, no wonder it was almost too much for her,” he explained. “Was that the only time?”

Sandor nodded, but Tyrion had to be sure.

“Never when you were intimate?”

Annoyed, the larger man glowered at him openly for a fully minute before he spat between his teeth, “We’ve never been intimate.”

Tyrion blinked in disbelief a few times. “Forgive me, Clegane, I knew that was the case before, but I’d just assumed that since you’d both –“

Sandor interrupted him with a loud snort. “What, we say I love you and that means we have to fuck?”

Not deterred by his crassness, Tyrion cocked an eyebrow at him. “Well, no, you certainly don’t have to, but you must know that she’s wanted to sleep with you for quite some time now.”

Grey eyes darted back to floor and Tyrion had to call on his years of training not to grin like an idiot. It seemed the big, tough, warrior had some issues discussing sex. How droll. When he was sure his voice was calms and even, Tyrion proceeded.

“You know she’s never been in love before.”

That got Sandor’s attention right quick. The man’s head snapped up so fast Tyrion worried about whiplash. Doubt was etched all over his scarred face.

“Bullshit.”

Tyrion no longer tried to contain his mirth, and chuckled. “I shit you not, Clegane. She’s dated and had sex, sure, but up until a few days she has never told another human – not related to her – that she loved them. In truth, she’s never trusted anyone, herself included, enough to fall in love before.”

Tyrion could see what the information meant to the other man, but he also saw the way he tried to push it away. To not believe it one little bit. If Tyrion had more time he would have explored that, but as it was he was worried about getting through everything else.

“Given that she still hasn’t had another episode, even with all the chaos and new emotions she’s been dealing with, I don’t think there would be any issue if you did decide to progress your relationship, Sandor.”

“What, no longer worried she’ll try to kill me once the post-coital bliss wears off,” he said acerbically.

Tyrion grinned. “Not in the least. Mostly because she hasn’t had that kind of issue since she was 17, and she’s had sex plenty of times since then.”

Tyrion couldn’t contain his chuckle with Sandor glowered at him upon receipt of that information.

“Her last boyfriend was a real shithead, too. If it was going to happen, it would have been with him. I truly think, now that’s I’ve checked in with you, she’s moved past that being a trigger for her, so long as you treat her well. Not that I would expect anything less from you,” he hastily added when Sandor squared his shoulders at him and clenched his fists. He really didn’t want to reach for his gun again.

“Great, I’ve got the shrink seal of approval to bed my partner. Can I go now?” he snarled.

Tyrion wondered at his use of the word partner over the more common adage of girlfriend, but thought it fit them better anyway. And Sansa wasn’t a girl anymore; she was a woman. Perhaps that was shy he used it. To remind himself that she was no longer a child.  

“Not quite.” Tyrion rubbed the back of his neck as he tried to decide how to proceed. In a last-minute decision, he decided he would leave it up to the man himself.

“I know you value honesty above everything else, so I’m going to give you a choice here.”

Sandor eyed him shrewdly. “What kind of choice?”

“I have information that will directly impact upon Sansa, but I don’t have to give it to you.”

“Then why mention it at all if you aren’t going to tell me?” Sandor shot back, clearly annoyed.

“I didn’t say I wasn’t going to tell you, I said I don’t have to tell you,” Tyrion clarified. Before the other man could snap again, Tyrion went on to explain, “You see, I have a feeling if you knew this information you would feel duty bound to tell her. Not telling her could be seen as a lie of omission, especially once all is revealed to her.”

Sandor seemed to consider this for a few moments before he asked, “Will my not knowing risk her safety?”

Tyrion shook his head. “Not in the slightest.”

He nodded absently before he asked, voice lowered, “Would it be a betrayal to not tell her?”

Tyrion thought about that for a moment before he answered. “That’s very subjective. But, for her, yes, I believe it just might be. At the very least it would shake her ability to trust you fully from here on out.”

Sandor muttered a curse under his breath and shook his head before he leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. Hands ran through loose black hair before resigned eyes met his again.

“How’s she going to handle it? This information I may or may not want?”

“I really don’t know,” Tyrion answered honestly. “It could go any number of ways, most of them good, some of them not. But I can say with certainty that having another person who didn’t know will help her to not feel so isolated.”

When Sandor nodded again Tyrion felt duty bound to add, “On the flip side, if you knew beforehand you might be able to support her through it better.”

“Well that’s just fucking great,” he grumbled.

“What would you want?” Tyrion asked, genuinely curious.

“You mean, would I want her to hold information and not let me know she had it until after I did?” he clarified.

“Precisely.”

Sandor thought about it for a few minutes before he stood and made his way towards the door. Tyrion guessed he had his answer.

“Before you leave, I’d like to offer a small bit of advice.”

Sandor turned to frown at him impatiently. “I thought therapists don’t give advice?”

Tyrion smiled. “Normally we don’t, but I am making an exception.”

“Get on with it, then,” Sandor grumbled.

“Before you go any further, I would tell her about your past. It would be better coming from you, and she would never forgive you if she heard it elsewhere first.”

He expected an argument, or a bluntly stated ‘fuck you’, but was surprised when Sandor merely pursed his lips and nodded. Before Sandor could turn the knob, he stopped him with one last question.

“When did you know that you loved her?”

After a deep sigh Sandor turned and glanced over his shoulder, but didn’t quite make eye contact.

“The moment I saw her dance,” he murmured softly, then left the room.

As Tyrion watched the door close he breathed his own heavy sigh of relief. He did that over and over again until he felt the vestiges of calm he always tried to keep in reserve finally felt refilled. The conversation had gone as well as he could have ever hoped. The fact that Sansa was still very much in control of herself was a relief in and of itself, but added to that there was a man who well and truly loved her in her corner, willing to heal with her, fight for her. . . it was more than Tyrion had ever thought possible when he first started working with that frightened and traumatized nine-year-old girl almost ten years ago. He stared at the closed door for another minute to be sure the other man wasn’t changing his mind, coming back for the secret Tyrion had keep for ten long years. When he was satisfied, he went back to the desk and retrieved his cell phone. One text was sent to two receivers. Coordinates along with a simple message.

It’s time.

Chapter Text

 

April 9th

SANSA POV  

               

                The house was blissfully empty. The FBI agents had gone to town for ‘supplies’ – whatever the hell that was code for. Gendry had gone with Tyrion for a walk around the grounds, which probably meant that Gendry needed some therapy and didn’t want to risk being overheard in the house. But that was fine with her. That meant for the first time in days, she and Sandor were finally alone.

                Now I just have to find the man, she thought as she padded through the house. She’d peered in all living rooms and out on the expansive deck, but hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him. Though she’d already checked their room, she decided to give it another pass. She was slightly surprised to see him standing at the window with his back to her. How long had he been there?

                “I have been looking everywhere for you,” she said with false drama as she threw herself across the bed onto her belly.

                “Well, you’ve found me,” his gravelly voice was unusually soft. She rose up on her elbows and frowned at his back. Something seemed off.

                “Everything okay?” she queried.

He was quiet for so long that she almost repeated the question, but something twisted in her stomach and stopped her. When he finally turned to look at her alarm bells had already begun to sound off in her head. His eyes were red rimmed and practically devoid of any emotion. His whole posture looked simultaneously ready for battle and yet already defeated. Sansa felt her heart pound as she tried to remain calm. She swallowed and just waited.

“We have to talk,” he murmured.

Oh, fuck. Already? He’s going to end it. I knew it wouldn’t last. Too good to be true, isn’t that the saying?

Sansa nodded dumbly, afraid if she opened her mouth she’d get sick all over the bed. She could just sit there and take it. She refused to break down in front of him. She wouldn’t be that girl.

                “You asked me once how I knew your mother,” he said quietly.

                It was so far off the topic she had expected that it startled her right out of her rapidly building anxiety. She felt her eyebrows pinch together in confusion. At least she no longer felt ill, which was more than she could say for him as she swore he turned a little green.

                “Um, yeah, you said you met on a case,” she recalled. She also remembered how reluctant he was to talk about it.

                “It was my case.”

                Sansa sat up slowly and folded her knees beneath her, all the while she kept her eyes trained on him intensely. Her heart beat sounded in her ears again, but for very different reasons than before.

                “Your case,” she repeated. “Not . . . not Gregors?”

                “They were one in the same,” he stated evenly.

                The same. The same.

                The words rattled around her brain as she sifted through the little bit of information she had on his brother. His record. His cruelty. His involvement in her kidnapping. But it didn’t meld with the pure venom in Sandor’s voice whenever he’d spoken about Gregor. Something didn’t add up.

                “I don’t understand,” she said finally after trying, unsuccessfully, to wrap her mind around what he had just said to her. She watched him stare at her as he swallowed convulsively several times.

                “Gregor and I both worked for Littlefinger,” he finally croaked out.

                Worked for . . .

                The force of those words slammed into Sansa with such force it felt like the wind was knocked out of her. Her lungs burned and her eyes lost focus, but she couldn’t draw breath. The world around her darkened at the edges and the room tilted. Then warmth on her cheeks. Breath in face. Air.

                “Little bird,” an urgent voice broke through the haze. “Breathe!”

                Finally, her body cooperated. She greedily sucked in air as her world came back into sharp focus. Stormy eyes laced with red and shot through with undisguised worry were directly in her path. For a brief moment Sansa felt that soft blanket of calm that had come with those eyes drift over her. And then his words echoed through her head again. And again. And again.

                Her hands were fast, up and into his shoulders with lightning speed as she shoved him away. She must have caught him off guard by the way that his body stumbled back from the bed until he regained his balance. She instinctively knew she wasn’t strong enough to budge him if he didn’t want to be moved. She tried to ignore the naked pain in his eyes as he stepped back and tucked his hands behind his back. He leaned against the window frame mere feet away from her. She had just started to wrap her brain around what he had said when he started talking again.

                “My father was a very smart man, but he had an incredible weakness for money.” His voice held no inflection, no emotion at all. “He also had no moral compass. So, when he got into six figures worth of debt to the local syndicate, he decided selling off his sons was better than working off his debts.”

                Sansa’s eyes snapped up to his face and her jaw dropped open.

                What the fuck did he just say? Sold them?

                Sandor continued as if he didn’t notice. Maybe he really didn’t with that empty look in his eyes and detached tone about him.

                “Gregor was hired muscle, of course, but I was . . . different. It seemed that I had a conscious where my brother and father did not. I refused to do things just because I was told. No matter what they threatened me with. I wish they had been dumber. I could have taken the beatings. Hell, I’d been doing that my whole fucking life. But then they quickly learned I had more useful skills.”

                “What kind of skills?” The words escaped her in a breathy whisper. She hadn’t even really realised she thought them. Her mind was still stuck on the horrific images of a young Sandor being tortured by fully grown men. By Littlefinger.

                “I was good on a computer. Could hack government sites with incredible ease. Back then, it was child’s play,” he trailed off in a near whisper, “literally.”

                Little by little, Sansa felt sensation return to her frozen limbs as her mind grappled with the picture Sandor painted. Still, all she could do was nod for him to continue. She just knew there was more. So much more.

                “When I met Baelish, he was a social worker,” he said bitterly. It was the first time she’d heard any emotion creep in since he’d started talking.

                “My father said that since I had been useless in other areas that I was going to help his friend.” He sneered at the last word and she could feel the disgust radiating off of his massive frame. His muscles were all tense and tightly coiled as he stood stone still, his gaze permanently fixed on her face.

                “Baelish said he needed help finding children who had been kidnapped by their non-custodial parent. Told me these kids were in danger.” The more Sandor spoke, the more choked his words became. For the first time in his story, he purposefully avoided her gaze.

                “The first person he wanted me to find was his . . . his missing daughter. Said his ex had taken off with the baby before she was born. Said she was mentally ill,” he spat tremulously. “He said a lot of things about her.”

                And right then Sansa just knew. Her eyes closed as she tried to reign in her chaotic emotions. She just felt so much it was hard to isolate one thing at a time. To make sense of it all. Strangely enough, she didn’t feel like crying or raging. It was like she was shocked into stillness. Forced to just sit there and continue to receive the picture Sandor painted of just her life had been turned upside down all those years ago.

                “I found her once she joined the Marshal’s. You were only three.”

                Her eyes flew open in absolute shock and that time she actively sought his out. He no longer stood still. His massive body quivered ever so slightly and his eyes darted between hers so rapidly she absently wondered what he searched for in them.

                “When I was three? Sandor, how old were you?” She knew, of course. He’d already pointed out just how epic her math skills were.

                “Old enough I should have known better,” he replied unforgivingly.

                She shook her head because he was so, so damned wrong. He couldn’t have been more than twelve at the time. “You were a child.”

                “No, you were.”

                Finally, it all started to click into place. His warnings to her when they first met. His reservations about her trusting him. His continuous claims that everything was his fault. The way he gave her everything of himself that he could, but wouldn’t take anything from her in return. It all made perfect sense. And it broke her damned heart.

                She opened her mouth, unsure what she was really going to say, but he beat her to it.

                “You were only the first.”

                Her teeth snapped shut at that and she blinked rapidly and the implication his words held. She didn’t know if he continued to talk because he thought she needed to know everything, or if it was because he’d never actually told anyone the whole story and it just came spilling out of him like pus from a festering wound. That there was no stopping once he started.

                “I didn’t notice pattern since there just so many other kids on his lists, but later, when presented with them all side by side, I saw it,” he said roughly as he shook his head in dismay. “Every six months or so there was another little nine-year-old red headed girl on the list. But she was always ones of dozens.” He sounded desperate, like he still tried to convince himself he couldn’t have known. And of course, he couldn’t have.

                “You said when it was all presented to you,” she hedged, trying to recapture his attention as she saw his eyes lose focus slightly. He startled a little before he cleared his throat and smirked humorlessly.

                “Turns out I wasn’t quite as good as I had thought myself to be,” he said with no malice. In fact, he seemed relieved. “Your mother is actually the one who caught me snooping around her electronic files. Her team busted in and arrested me. Thought they had caught an adult. Boy were they surprised that I had just turned seventeen.”

                Five years. He’d helped Littlefinger for five years. Tracked her mother. Tracked her.

                He must have been able to read her thoughts on her face because the desperate tinge to his voice was plain as the pleading look in his tormented eyes.

                “When I came face to face with Cat I just knew they had played me.” Sansa flinched at the familiar name he used for her mother. He noticed, but kept going without pause. “To her credit, she believed me straight away. I think she had done her own research on me as well. And she wasn’t surprised in the slightest when I told her about Baelish being after her. After you. I think she’d known all along. Either that or she was a helluva good bluff.”

                He rushed to continue. “I swore to end Gregor. To track down Littlefinger myself and rip him apart with my own two adolescent hands. And I would have, too. But she stopped me.”

                Sansa nodded. Of course, she had. That was her mother. She never would have let someone throw away their life because of a mistake, no matter how big it was.

                “She told me that I owed her,” he murmured, that distant look in his eyes back again. “And of course, it was bigger than that. I owed your whole family. Hundreds of families. I told her I would do anything I could to make it right. Anything.”

                He swallowed and for the first time the small smile that curved his scarred lips reached his eyes. “She told me to join the military. Train up physically, the right way. Go to college to sharpen my mind. Told me the military would pay for the best because they would be able to see it was what I deserved. What I was capable of. She knew I had money, but it was all so damned tainted from how I’d gotten it that I never wanted to spend it on myself. I used to donate it to charity. As much as I could in a single hit without alerting the IRS.

                She told me to help her case. She was going after Littlefinger and Gregor herself. Said she was tired of looking over her shoulder. Tired of having to fear for her children. For you.”

                When he looked at her his eyes were watery. He didn’t even try to hide his open grief from her as he teetered on the edge of breaking down. Her own eyes pricked with tears as her body instinctively moved towards him. But when he held up a hand to stop her she felt her movements still.

                “You were right that I joined when I was twenty-one, but it was earlier than she and I had both planned. I had been medically discharged from the Green Beret’s, but she’d gotten me into the Marshal’s anyway. Pretty sure your father had something to with that, too. She didn’t have enough pull for something like that on her own, no matter my connections to her case. I officially became part of her team in March of 2006.”

                Tears finally spilled over and rolled down his cheeks in earnest, but he didn’t falter. Voice choked and rough as gravel, he continued.

                “That night in June, your mother had gone home early. I was just about to leave the office when information came through on Littlefinger. One of our witnesses finally came forward with useful information, but there had been some sort of glitch in the system. We – I – didn’t get the message until four hours later. The move was being made that night.”

                He sucked in stuttered breaths around his agonized, broken speech. But he didn’t stop.

                “I thought I could get there in time. I left word for the rest of the team and headed to your house alone. We knew later that was what they’d planned for. And it all when off perfectly. I was at the end of your street when I was boxed in. I thought it would have been Gregor, welcomed it really. But it wasn’t. It was the Bastard, Ramsay Bolton. Your mother had discovered the connection between them some years prior. Bolton worships Littlefinger; sees him as a sort of mentor or father figure. So, of course, he would have done anything to help acquire you. Taking me out would have just been fun for him.”

                Sansa hadn’t realised she was so calm until she spoke without even a tremor in her smooth voice. “But he didn’t take you out.”

                “Not for lack of trying. Bastard shot me three times and even then, I refused to go down. To this day I don’t know why he didn’t try to finish me off. None of the shots were fatal. I was obviously outnumbered, outgunned. It would have been easy, really.”

                Sansa knew. “He wanted you to live with your failure. To know that there was nothing you could do to stop Littlefinger, no matter how hard you tried.”

                Sandor choked back a rough sob as he nodded in agreement.

Realising what she had just said to him, Sansa was quick to add, “But the failure was his that day, not yours.”

Open disbelief colored his scarred features. “How the fuck do you figure that?”

She refused to be deterred again. She was so calm it belied reason. After everything he’d just told her she should have been raging a war. Crying. Screaming. Throwing things at him. But she couldn’t. It just wasn’t there, the boiling hatred that he obviously expected. The unrelenting blame she was sure he had prepared himself for. None of it. She understood too much, knew too much. Maybe if he had been older when it had started. Or maybe if he hadn’t been so clearly trapped by his own shitty circumstances. Then, possibly, she could lay the blame at his feet where he clearly thought it belonged. But she couldn’t because in her mind, she just didn’t see it that way.

“Because I’m still here, and so are you.”

“Your family –“

“Was not your fault,” she cut him off with a soft, but final, tone.

He shook his head vehemently and she saw as the ire rose up within him. But she saw it clearly now. It wasn’t directed to anyone but himself. He was just like her. She leaned forward and reached one hand out for him.

He stared balefully at her outstretched hand while he continued to shake his head. She didn’t let it drop.

“This is what you tried to tell me in New Mexico, isn’t it?” She knew the answer already, but wanted him to know that she’d been paying attention. “When I told you it didn’t matter?”

“Foolish child,” he spat aggressively, but she just smiled softly.

“Love makes fools of us all, Sandor.”

He jolted like she’d hit him. She reached out a little more and didn’t take her eyes off his as she spoke gently, honestly.

“I can’t blame you for what’s happened any more than I can blame my mother or myself. You did everything, everything,” she emphasized, “you could to stop it all. As soon as you were told what was really going on you dedicated your life to making it right. You’ve sacrificed yourself time and time again to protect me, protect others.”

“Fucking lot of good it did,” he snarled. “Look at you! Moving every five minutes. Lifetime of trauma and therapy. Orphaned. Abused.”

“Yep,” she agreed easily. “And I’m still here, still breathing.”

She stopped to look him directly in the eyes. “And I still love you.”

At that, he broke. Folded in on himself. Hands up over his face, he slid down the wall and curled up as much as his huge body would allow. His shoulders shook with silent sobs.

She couldn’t bear his misery any more than she could bear her own. But his she could fix. Sansa slid off the bed and crawled over to him. He wouldn’t let her peel his hands away from his face, so she squeezed herself into the space between his knees and his heaving chest, straddling his waist. Forehead rested against the backs of his hands she stroked her hands over his bare, shaking arms as she made soft soothing noises, the way her mother had when she was little. Her own tears came finally, but they were for him, not herself. She couldn’t imagine living with the kind of pain he had all that time. Hers was unbearable enough. She didn’t know how he’d managed to survive and remain such a good and decent man.

After a few moments his hands dropped away and he wound his arms tightly around her body. It was like he was afraid she’d change her mind and suddenly run from him, and yet terrified to actually accept the love and comfort she was desperate to give him. She kissed the top of his head and ran her hands over his neck, his back. Her lips travelled across his forehead and down past his temple when he finally lifted his head up. His grey eyes were so tormented as they bore beseechingly into hers. She could almost hear his silent questions. The fear in him that she would blame him eventually. That she would stop loving him. That she would wound him so deeply that he would never recover. Because those were her thoughts, too.

She captured his face in her hands as her lips crashed into his with sudden desperation. The dam that barely contained her emotions suddenly burst and she was swallowed in unrelenting waves of grief and love and hurt and need. His mouth moved with hers, like he, too needed an anchor in his own violent storm.

He moved so smoothly as he lifted them both from the floor. She clung to him with all her strength. She wouldn’t be pushed away again. Never again.

Like he’d heard her thoughts, Sandor lay them down on their bed, his body covering hers from top to toe. There was no hesitation in his movements as there had been before. Like her, he seemed completely lost in their connection. His hands moved continuously over her, never settling anywhere. She couldn’t decide where to touch, either. She wanted to be everywhere all at once. When he suddenly rolled them over so that she was atop him she briefly feared he was going to stop things the way he always had before. All doubts fled when he instead whipped her shirt off over her head and reached for the clasp of her bra.

Embarrassingly loud whimpers slipped from between quivering lips when he cupped her bare breasts in his palms and rolled her nipples with his thumbs. She had to fight to keep her eyes open and from rolling completely back in her skull when he pulled her chest down to his hungry mouth. Her hands gripped his shoulders while delicious shivers wracked her body at his insistent touch. She couldn’t stop the jerk of her hips when his teeth very gently grazed her sensitive peak.

The way he grunted at the contact turned her insides to liquid fire and she fisted her hands in his hair, pulling his mouth back to hers forcefully. Hands on her hips didn’t still her movements as before, but guided them roughly. It was all she could do not to scream as the intense sensations rolled through her. She had to break away from his lips to breath in sharp pants. This time she was confident when she reached for the button on his jeans. He didn’t stop her. His eyes burned hotly into hers, melted silver pools of desire that made her head swim dizzily.

Sansa slid herself up on her knees as she pulled and yanked his pants away, leaving him exposed to her. As she dropped the offending garment she’d wanted to rid him of for weeks she watched him remove his shirt and toss it away. He lay completely bare before her and though nudity had never been something she’d been comfortable with, she found she couldn’t stop staring at him in all his glory. Her eyes drank in every inch, every line, every scar. Hands travelled in the wake of her gaze from the bottoms of his thighs over his hips, his perfect stomach, tight chest. By the time her mouth met his again they both breathed heavily, loudly.

Her hands tentatively traced their way back down to his stomach. When her fingertips grazed over his hip again Sandor gave a stuttered groan that gave her confidence the boost it needed to wrap her hand around his rigid cock and stroke down smoothly. One hand wound into her hair as the other continued to tease her breast. Completely enraptured by his response to her touch, Sansa pulled back from his mouth so that their lips barely touched. Every movement of her hand made him breathe harder, made his muscles ripple and jump. It tuned her on like nothing ever had before, seeing just how much he enjoyed her hands on his body. She squeezed gently and watched as his eyes rolled and his back arched slightly while he thrust into her hand. Her thighs trembled at the sight of his naked pleasure, her own fiery need burning through her. When his hand slid down her body and dipped into her pants she couldn’t contain the embarrassing way she mewled at the contact. Calloused fingers slid over her expertly and caused all thought to flee her mind.

She found herself on her back before she could blink. Sandor’s hands stilled on the waist of her leggings as he openly sought her permission to proceed any further. He was giving her time to think, not assuming that just because she’d pushed for this before that it meant it had to happen right then. Her heart melted just a little more at just how well he understood her without even using words. She nodded without hesitation and he peeled them away from her body smoothly, slowly, all the while his eyes stayed trained on hers. The undisguised, open love and desire she saw there made her body shake because she knew it was reflected back to him in her own gaze. She’d never felt so exposed before. And she’d never felt so damned safe.

He leaned in and kissed one knee, then the other before pulling her legs apart ever so slightly and moving a hand up her trembling thigh. His mouth followed. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer once his teeth nipped at her hipbone. Hands fisted in the quilt, Sansa tried still her body when she felt him taste her. Her own indecently loud moan nearly drowned out the one she heard emanate from between her thighs. He worked her over with precise, expert moves she had never experienced before. Sure, she’d had good sex before. She’d even had some pretty great orgasms when someone took the time to make sure it happened for her. But what this man did to her, seemingly without effort, it absolutely floored her. Maybe it was because he really loved her. Maybe it was because she actually loved him. She didn’t have time to really think too deeply about it as sudden waves of acute pleasure crashed over her. It was almost humiliating how quickly she unravelled beneath him, heart pounding as she tried to stop herself from repeatedly crying out with each breath.

His mouth moved up her body with guided purpose before capturing hers in a sensual kiss that made her still quaking insides pulse in time with her pounding heart. She didn’t know if anyone had ever died from mind blowing, earth shattering sex before, but she was sure she would if he kept it up. He rose up over her body and paused again as his hand lovingly stroked her side, down over the swell of her hip.

“Little bird,” he crooned. “Look at me.”

She complied immediately, as if she could do anything else. Her hands clung to his shoulders tightly and it wasn’t until she saw just how softly he looked upon he did she realise just how tense her body was. Gradually, she allowed herself to relax piece by piece. After a few moments she released a slow, calm breath.

Only then did he brush her hair away from her face and ask, “Are you sure?”

Her answer was immediate, but not because it was automatic. Not anymore. This time it was real. This time, she really meant it.

“Yes.”

He took his time, something else she wasn’t accustomed to. He kissed her again, ran his hands over her body, teased the moans from her lips over and over again. By the time he moved with purpose between her thighs she was so worked up she knew it wouldn’t take much to have her fall apart all over again. He was so careful, the way he moved within her, but with such passion that she didn’t doubt his desire for her. His moans rivalled hers when she lifted her knees and wrapped her legs around his waist. Her name whispered into her hair, her skin as they loved together, Sansa had never known it could be that way. And when she tumbled down around him again she felt whole, filled in a way she’d never experienced with anyone else. Only then did he fall, too, one hand in her hair, the other clutching hers tightly.

They clung to each other desperately as the sun moved across the sky and the shadows deepened around them. She knew neither could bear any space between them. Sometimes they exchanged gentle words, or lingering kisses in time with soft hands. It was love, pure and simple in its rawest form, and it was all they needed from each other.

Chapter Text

 

April 10th

SANDOR POV

 

                The sun broke through the trees with insistent golden beams and cast warm patterns on their still bare skin. He lightly traced the leafy shadows that danced across her back while he revelled in the silkiness of her skin. He barely breathed for fear he’d wake her. She needed more sleep. They both did, really. Despite being emotionally exhausted and physically spent, he’d stayed up half the night and just watched her sleep. It was the closest thing he’d ever gotten to a spiritual experience, if he believed in that sort of thing.

                Her breath hitched slightly as eyelids fluttered. He thought her about to wake, but then she’d nuzzled closer to him and settled back into restless slumber. Christ, she was so damned beautiful. What the hell she saw in an ugly cuss like him he’d never figure out. Secretly, he hoped she wouldn’t either. Now that he knew what it was like to be loved by her he didn’t think he could live without out.

                Fuck, I sound like some kind of sappy teenager. And here I was giving her shit about being a child.

                He shook his slightly and continued to stroke everything he could reach. The dip in her lower back, the graceful curve of her long neck, the creamy skin on the inside of her arm. He could tell the last tickled her when he watched as her fingers twitched and her eyebrows pinched together. A small smile tugged at his lips when he repeated the feather light touch and heard her groan in protest. When he did it the third time her fingers clutched at a small patch of his chest hair and gave a rather firm yank.

                “Ow!” he protested and moved to pull her hand away. Perhaps she wasn’t as asleep as he’d thought.

                “Serves you right,” she mumbled. “I was sleeping, you beast.”

                Oh, how right she was. “Does that make you beauty?”

                She snorted indelicately and pried open her tired eyes. The blue shone so brightly it was like looking into a summer sky.

                Definitely beauty.

                It was like she could read his mind when she rolled her eyes in amusement and tapped the end of his nose. “Looks like getting laid has made you all sappy.”

                Now it was his turn to snort a laugh. She was too right about that, but it had nothing to do with getting laid. It was just her.

                “You’ve always had that effect on me,” he shared quietly as his fingers brushed over her cheek. “I just didn’t show it before.”

                She cocked an eyebrow at him and smirked. “Sure you didn’t.”

                He narrowed his eyes at her in a mock glare. When she giggled he knew it was all over for him. Whatever illusion he’d held onto before that he frightened her or managed to keep his walls up in her presence was completely shattered.

                “Aw, don’t sulk,” she teased and placed a kiss on his shoulder. “I can pretend that you’re all scary and intimidating if it soothes your precious male ego.”

                “Don’t do me any favors,” he muttered sourly, but she only giggled again and shrugged.

                “Okay then,” she agreed easily and then arched her whole body as her arms shot overhead in a lengthy stretch. The deep groan at the back of her throat along with the glorious way her bare skin glowed in the sun woke his barely slumbering libido. He barely had time to shift his body away from hers before his arousal became readily apparent.

                Her cheeks flushed deeply, but her genuine laugh made him feel less like a randy teenager who’d just greeted his girlfriend by poking her with his dick. When she shyly bit her lip and placed a delicate hand on his chest he just about busted a nut right there. He really needed to rein that shit in.

                “I . . . um,” she stammered and looked so unsure of herself that he couldn’t keep from kissing her soundly.

                She arched against him immediately and knotted her fingers in his hair. Fuck, he loved that. He dragged his hands down her body, intent on pulling her atop him so as to give him more ability to roam her flawless skin. When he wrapped one hand around the back of her knee he felt her legs tense and twitch away from his grasp somewhat. He stopped moving eyes suddenly wide open and searching her face.

                She looked abashed and when she murmured an apology it was like he’d been doused with cold water.

                “Why are you apologising?” he asked a bit more harshly than intended. He made sure to soften his expression as much as he could to take the sting out. He could already see the reticence in her gaze.

                “I’m just a little sore this morning. We could try later . . .” her voice trailed off uncertainly and he had to remind himself that if he yelled right then she would think it was her he was angry with. He took a steady breath as he stroked his hand up her arm and brought her fingers to his mouth, kissing each one individually before he trusted himself enough to actually speak.

                “You don’t ever have to apologise for not wanting to have sex,” he told her calmly. “You’re allowed to not be in the mood, to not want to right then, or at all for that matter. It’s your body. You don’t owe me anything, including an explanation.”

                “I know that. But what if –“ she started to ask, but he anticipated her question and cut her off.

                “I’m a man; I always want to,” he said with a smirk. “But that doesn’t fucking matter, got it? If you don’t then you don’t. I wouldn’t ever want you to do anything with me, anything at all, that you didn’t completely want in that moment. Understand?”

                She nodded but he wasn’t convinced he’d gotten the message across. “Would you try make me if I told you I no?”

                She ducked her head and grimaced and he had to laugh when he remembered just how she’d whined and complained when he’d done exactly that not even a week ago. Begrudgingly, she smiled after a minute too.

                “I promise not to hold that against you if you promise not to hold my morning wood against me,” he offered with a wicked grin. It worked. She snickered and nodded in earnest, her eyes finally shining with humor.

                “Deal, but only because I can’t promise I won’t throw another hissy fit when I’m in the mood and you aren’t.”

                He swung his legs off the bed and stood to stretch his body much like she had. The only difference was there were a few joints that popped due to age and constant physical punishment.

                He looked over his shoulder to spy her ogling his backside openly. He chuckled lowly and stalked off to the bathroom for a shower.

                “I told you. We’re always in the mood,” he repeated with a devilish grin.

                “I have it on good authority that isn’t always true when it comes to you,” she said somewhat tartly.

                He paused in the doorway and turned to look at her. He had to set the record straight, no matter how much power it gave her. Hell, he’d already given her everything else. What would it hurt?

                “The only reason I didn’t give you exactly what we both wanted,” he stressed, “was because you didn’t have all the information yet and I refused to hurt you that way.”

                Her eyes lit with understanding and she smiled softly at him, nodding. “Okay.”

                “And just for the record, you came this close,” he held his fingers millimeters apart, “to making me cave every time you even looked at me.”

                He left her with a big stupid grin on her face while he went and quickly cleaned himself up in the shower. Under the hot spray he was able to think over the past twenty-four hours, particularly his conversation with the Imp. He didn’t much like the idea of knowing about Sansa’s past without her having the same level of knowledge, but he did understand it. Maybe at some stage she could be informed, but with everything being so crazy at the moment it wasn’t a good idea. Not that he was afraid for himself. It was her he worried for. Always her.

                His mind wandered to the topic Tyrion had eluded to. He still didn’t regret not knowing; he’d never be able to keep anything of substance from her. He was done with lying, no matter the context.

                After he quickly toweled off, he wandered back into their room and saw that Sansa stood wrapped in shirt from the day before, arms crossed and tapping her foot with mock impatience.

                “Took you long enough!” she snapped with false ferocity. “Geez, do you know how long it takes for me to actually put myself together so I’m presentable?”

                He rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t. You were born bloody perfect.”

                Her cheeks flushed but he could see her try – and fail – not to smile at him. Her eyes narrowed, but the way her lips twitched to fight a smile told him it was all for show.

                “Flattery will get you nowhere,” she grumbled.

                He leaned down and pecked her on the tip of her nose. “What will coffee get me?”

                “A blow job,” she said with a slight shrug.

                Sandor damned near choked on his tongue as his eyes popped wide.

                What the fuck did she just say?

                “What? My mouth isn’t sore,” she continued with wide, innocent eyes.

                He imagined he looked like a fucking goldfish with the way he spluttered and tried to think of response that didn’t make him sound like a pig. When she grinned like the cat who got the cream it dawned on him that she was just screwing with him.

                “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”

                “I think I’m hilarious,” she stated with a little giggle. “But that’s beside the point.”

                “And what’s the point?”

                She looked up at his from under her lashes and bit her lip. “You seem to be under the impression that I’ve some innocent little maiden who’s frightened by anything sexual.”

                He frowned. “Where the hell do you get that idea?”

                She looked at him like he was the dumbest man on the planet. Under that gaze, he actually started to feel that way.

                “Your little speech before she bee-lined it for the shower,” she said around a snicker.

                “You were apologizing for being sore!” he pointed out.

                “No,” she corrected him. “I was sorry because I knew we couldn’t have sex and I really wanted to. You seemed to take that as me not believing I had the right to boundaries. And, for the record,” she said with some emphasis around her stupidly large grin, “I haven’t had an issue saying no since I was seventeen. The only times I’ve had sex since then were on my terms with who I wanted.”

                “Well shit,” he mumbled. He must have misread her.

                “But,” her voice gentled and her hands slid up his arms. “I appreciate what you said. It’s usually a conversation I have to have at some point, but I’m generally the one putting my foot down, not the other way around. It just reinforces what I already knew about you.”

                “And what’s that, Little Bird?”

                “You’re the best man I’ve ever met, and I was on hundred percent right about trusting you.”

                “You’re only half right,” he corrected. He wasn’t the best anything, but he knew she wouldn’t hear anything about it.

                She rolled her eyes. “I think you need to work out your self-esteem issues. I recommend Tyrion. He’s pretty awesome with that stuff.”

                She sauntered into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. Before he could be tempted to follow her in there and try to take her up on her earlier offer he threw on some clean clothes and ventured into the kitchen. Coffee beckoned, though he now had difficulty not connecting to the aroma to oral sex. He was going to get her for that one.

                When he saw Brienne looking out the window with her own steaming mug he almost turned around and headed back upstairs. He wasn’t the bonding kind of man, and that agent seemed to want to make personal connections with everyone under their roof.

                “Good morning,” she said when she spied him enter the kitchen. “Sleep well?”

                He looked at her suspiciously and when she rolled her eyes and laughed openly at him he couldn’t help the way he scowled at her in return.

                “Why are men such bears in the morning? You’d think all the sex you had yesterday would have made you Suzie Sunshine,” she said simply before taking another sip. Meanwhile, he practically sprayed the mouthful of hot liquid he’d just taken.

                Her laugh echoed in the large room and did nothing to ease his irritation.

                “Please, Sandor, I doubt there was anyone in a fifty mile radius that didn’t hear you two.”

                He cursed under his breath, chagrined that they hadn’t been just a little bit more discreet. Not that it mattered to him, but he imagined Sansa would be embarrassed once she found out the whole house knew her sexual activities. He was just about to tell Agent Tarth to keep it to her damned self when she smiled wickedly at him.

                “I’d imagine she’s quite proud of herself given that’s she’s been trying to get you to give it up for a couple weeks now,” she joked. When he looked at her in shock she simply shrugged. “Girl talk.”

                Sandor grumbled something about women and their big mouths while Brienne stood looking far too satisfied for his liking.

                “Don’t be so precious,” she scolded him. “She needs someone to open up to. I’m happy to keep her confidences.”

                “She’s got a shrink for that,” he growled, bothered by Sansa’s budding relationship with the other woman more than he ought to be.

                Brienne looked thoughtful for a moment before she shook her head. “It’s different. I don’t doubt that he’s an excellent therapist, but having a girlfriend to talk to means she can just unload without having to examine it.”

                “Bosom buddies now, are you?”

It didn’t seem likely that she would have gained Sansa’s trust so quickly, but maybe that was because of how he was rather than how Sansa was. And given that Brienne was probably much more cordial towards her than Sandor had been in the beginning he guessed it wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility that the two had struck up a fast friendship.

Brienne saw right through his hostility and gave him a reassuring smile. “You don’t have anything to worry about from me, Sandor. I’ve been rooting for the two of you since we got to the house in New Mexico.”

“Why is that?” She didn’t know him from Adam. What the hell did it matter to her that Sansa and he ended up together.

He watched her expression change slightly and immediately knew there was something she was hiding. She wasn’t lying outright, but she wasn’t completely forthcoming, either.

“I know I don’t have the same history with the family you do, but I’ve been around long enough to know that that young lady – her whole family, actually – deserve happiness.”

“You mean what’s left of her family?” he pointed our harshly. When the look in her eye shifted again he felt the hairs on his neck stand up.

“Yes, every last one of them,” she said with such conviction that he immediately wanted to drill her with questions. He was only stopped by the sudden presence of the little sister’s boyfriend.

“Elle still sleeping?” he asked as he poured a mug of caffeine.

“Sansa,” Brienne corrected easily.

Gendry shook his head. “Right, sorry. I’ll get it.”

“Takes time,” Brienne granted.

The Little Bird chose that moment to be present. She sauntered in dressed casually and freshly showered. She stopped to kiss his cheek before she made her way to the fridge.

“What takes time?” she asked as she rooted around for something to eat.

“Learning your real name,” Gendry supplied with a shake of his head. “Honestly, how did you all do it? Did you have the same fake names all this time?”

“Mmm-mm,” Sansa replied with a little shake of her own. She emerged with some cheese Danish. “It changed every time we moved.”

“Isn’t that hard? I’d be confused at hell if I grew up with new names every other year,” Gendry stated with a slight scowl.

“It totally sucked,” she agreed around her food. “And there was more than once where we were asked our names and gave completely the wrong one.”

She rounded on Sandor without warning and gave an evil smile. “I thought you were bringing me coffee?”

Given their conversation upstairs he couldn’t help the flush that crept up his neck and hotly invaded his face. Before he could think of a response she went right ahead and dropped him in it.

“No blow job for you,” she said with a wag of her finger.

Two shocked sets of eyes stared right at him and in that moment, he didn’t know if he wanted to kiss her or throw something at her.

“Sansa,” a reproachful tone called from behind them. Tyrion strode into view, shaking his head with a wry smile on his face.

“What?” she asked with false innocence.

“Was that entirely necessarily?” her therapist asked pointedly.

“I don’t know,” she said with a tone of challenge, “you tell me?”

The look he gave her showed he wasn’t impressed, but then he turned and looked up at Sandor with an expression that resembled chagrin.

“She’s hazing you. Just ignore it and she’ll stop,” and then he added with a thoughtful tone, “eventually.”

“Is that right?” Sandor grumbled as he glared openly at her. Personally, he believed that statement was to gauge the reactions of their houseguests rather than embarrass him in some way.

“Haze somewhere else please,” Gendry said with a look of disgust on face.

Sansa rounded on him fast, her eyes hard. “Got a problem with my relationship?”

Despite himself, Sandor smirked. He was right. It wasn’t about him. She was making sure everyone else minded their own fucking business. Good. Saved him the effort. And she’d probably do it without bloodshed.

“It’s weird,” Gendry began as he eyes Sandor openly.

Then again . . .

Sansa cut him off with a snarl of her own.

“Like you screwing my eighteen-year-old sister?” she growled, but he shot back quickly, a little louder than before.

It’s weird,” he emphasized as he looked straight at her, “to hear about your sex life when I think of you like a sister. Kind of like how Ed- Jon might think it’s weird if you said that in front of him.”

Sansa had the decency to look abashed. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh,” Gendry said with a smirk.

She grimaced when everyone else around her chuckled at her gaffe.

“What should she not say in front of me?”

Five heads whipped around at the sound of a new voice, and before Sandor could think Sansa had dashed across the room and flung herself into the arms of her only remaining brother.

“JON!” she shouted happily. He lifted her in the air and hugged her tightly against him.

Sandor had only set eyes on him a few times, but there was no doubting he was Ned’s son through and through. He looked just like him.

“What are you doing here?” Sansa asked excitedly when he finally set her down. She looked so damned happy to see her brother that Sandor couldn’t even find it in himself to be sour that there was yet another person around the house.

“We got a call that we were needed here, so . . .” he shrugged as his words trailed off.

“We?” Sansa said with naked hope all over her face.

“Yes, love,” Marge said as she appeared around the corner. “We.”

The reunion between then was nothing short of emotional. Both women cried as they held each other and whispered quietly to one another. Sandor felt as if he intruded upon something private and diverted his gaze out of respect. He saw that everyone else had the same idea, save Tyrion, the nosey prick.

“Oi, what the fuck am I, chopped liver?” Arya called as she waltzed through the room with an air of aggression that wrapped around her tighter than the leather biker jacket she donned. Sandor didn’t miss the way she glowered right at him over Sansa’s shoulder when the two sisters collided.

“Family reunion!” Sansa sang happily as she stepped back and looked at them with such joy radiating from her that Sandor thought she rivalled even the sun.

“We’re still missing one,” Tyrion said as he wandered over to greet them all individually. Sandor was more than a little surprise when they each hugged him warmly. He’d always assumed that the Imp was only really there for Sansa, but it appeared as if he’d been involved with the whole lot of them.

“He’s out unloading the truck,” Marge said with a small smile. Then she turned her gaze on him and her expression became appraisingly bemused. “Which means you and I need to go for a little walk. He’ll be armed when he gets inside and you’ll want a good head start before he starts hunting you down.”

Sansa turned to him with open alarm in her bright eyes, but Sandor just snorted. He’d expected nothing less from her father figure. But that wasn’t the person he really worried about.

“I’d rather take my chances with him, to be honest,” he told Marge bluntly as he sized her up. She always carried and he wasn’t of a mind to be shot right then.

“Tough,” she said in that no-nonsense way of hers and she stalked towards the back door, gripping him by his arm as she passed. “You and I need to have a little chat.”

He could have just planted his feet as there was no way such a tiny woman could physically force him to move, but he knew better. Sansa didn’t get all her moves from her surrogate father. Her worst ones came from the woman he allowed to drag him out of the house. He didn’t bother to pull out of her grip as she guided them a good hundred yards away. When they stopped just inside the treeline he braced himself for what he knew was coming. It still hurt like hell when she sucker punched him in the gut.

With a quiet ‘oof’ he folded in slightly, then turned to the side to make the target smaller. He kept his hands stuffed in his pockets. She was practically Sansa’s mother; she was entitled to beat the shit of out him for sleeping with the woman she loved like a daughter.

“You,” she punched his arm, “stupid,” a kick to his thigh, “mother,” a smack to the side of his head, “fucker!”

She was mad, and he knew he should have just kept his mouth shut, but he couldn’t stop himself from antagonizing her just a little.

“Shouldn’t that be daughter fucker?”

She cracked him in the mouth for that. He chuckled when he felt the small cut on the inside of his lower lip bleed against his tongue. He’d deserved it and probably more. In truth, he had kind of hoped she’d kick his ass a little. It helped ease his guilt a little.

“Watch your mouth, you ass!” she warned him, finger in his face.

He held in all the sarcastic responses that flew to mind and settled for laughing under his breath.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” Marge hissed as she did her best to get in his face.

His mouth got the better of him again as he shrugged. “We don’t have cable. We needed something to entertain ourselves.”

He shied away from the blows she reined down on him for a full five minutes, but did nothing to stop her. At least she hadn’t pulled her piece. Yet.

“Her father’s going to shit a brick!” she snapped as she shoved him hard.

“Bronn will get over it,” Sandor said evenly. When something shifted in Marge’s accusatory stare he threw his hands up in frustration.

“You act like I seduced her and stole her virtue. I hate to break it to you, but she’s been coming on to me practically since day fucking one.”

Clearly, that was the wrong thing to say. At the unbridled rage her in eyes Sandor braced himself again. But for the first time, he dodged her blows. And when a well-placed knee aimed for his groin, he actually deflected.

“I love her,” he said evenly.

Marge’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Of course, you do. Who the fuck wouldn’t love her? She’s amazing!”

Sandor gave her a quizzical look. “If you know that, then what’s the problem? You think I’ll treat her badly? That I’ll break her heart or leave her traumatized?”

Finally, the ire in Marge’s eyes cooled. She sighed heavily, leaned back against a pine and ran her hands through her tangled tresses.

“Honestly, no, I don’t think you’re capable of doing that to her. Or anyone, really.”

“Then what it is?” he asked curiously before he guessed, “My age?”

When she grimaced he just nodded. He understood that. “Is that Bronn’s issue, too?”

He was surprised when she shook her head. “Honestly, I don’t think it would matter if you were a twenty-year-old golden boy whose life mission was to save the world. No one will ever be good enough of for either of those girls in his eyes.”

“Is he as offended by the idea of the stowaway mechanic with Arya as he is with me and Sansa?” he questioned tightly.

Marge groaned dramatically and covered her face with her hands. Sandor tried not to snicker at her too loudly. He didn’t want to get hit again. She dropped her hands when she heard him and pointed at him fiercely.

“Just wait until you’re raising a couple girls, you smarmy ass. We’ll see who gets the last laugh,” she swore.  

Determined not to show her just how much that idea freaked him the fuck out he simply stated, “I think we’re a long way off from that yet.”

“You fucking better be,” she snapped and then heaved a weary sigh. Her eyes were watery when she looked up at him again.

“Make her happy, okay? She deserves it so damned much.”

“That’s the idea,” he promised her. He then decided to add on, “I’ve told her everything.”

Marge’s eyes softened and for the first time since she’d sauntered into the house, she smiled at him. “I never expected you wouldn’t.”

“Why didn’t you? Or Bronn? Why keep so much from her?” He didn’t understand why she hadn’t been told every little detail. If it was him he would have demanded it.

“It wasn’t our story to tell,” she said simply. “And besides, what purpose would it have served? Hell, Sandor, she most likely wouldn’t have gone anywhere near you if she’d known all that before she’d had the chance to get to know you and decide for herself what to make of it all.”

“Probably be better off if she hadn’t,” he mused as he turned to look up at the house.

“Hardly,” Marge scoffed. “Without you she’d most likely be dead by now.”

He turned back to her, slightly unnerved by her statement. “What makes you say that?”

Marge grimaced and stuffed her hands into her pockets. The frustration rolled off of her in waves as she turned her head to look back at the house, too.

“Jon and I weren’t on the road very long when we started having trouble,” she muttered.

“What kind of trouble?”

“The deadly kind,” she replied lowly. “We had to be careful not to leave a trail of bodies in our wake. We got lucky. They were all pretty low level thugs without much experience. I’m still not sure why those were the ones they sent, knowing what kind of training we have.”

Sandor knew. “Because they counted on you being tripped up by local authorities eventually and having your covers blown. Makes it easier to send the right people after you once that happens.”

Marge cursed under her breath and bit her lip. “Yeah, that’s what Bronn thought, too. I was hoping he was just being paranoid.”

“Not bloody likely,” Sandor snorted. That man was one of the most level-headed people he’d ever met. At least, he usually was. Sandor still wasn’t sure what he’d make of Sansa and his newfound romance. He decided to ask outright.

“Is he likely to shoot me? Because I really don’t have time for that shit.”

Marge snickered and shrugged. “Couldn’t tell ya, hon. Sorry.”

“Fuck,” he muttered and scrubbed a hand over his face.

“Actually, I’d be less worried about him and more about her sister,” Marge said seriously. When she started to head back towards the house Sandor followed suit.

“Yeah? Why is that?” It wasn’t like she didn’t have her own dirty little secret. He was even waiting for her in the kitchen.

“Because of who you were, how you’re related to their case,” she paused, “what happened the night her mother was killed.”

Sandor shot her a look full of annoyance. “What the hell did you go and tell her all that for? What happened to ‘not our story to tell’?”

Marge shrugged unapologetically. “I knew you’d tell Sansa, so we didn’t see the harm in telling Arya and Jon. It was the last little bit of information we’d held from them. Well, almost the last.”

She’d barely whispered those final words, but the immense look of guilt on her face made him want to drag her back into the woods and find out just what in the hell she’d meant by that. It was too late, though. They were already at the backdoor and they could both hear the shouting from where they stood. Sandor tried not to scowl as he ventured back inside and right into what had quickly turned from happy family reunion to world war three.

“How the fuck can you stand to let him touch you?!” Arya shouted from where she was being restrained by Gendry. “He’s the reason all of this shit happened in the first place!”

“Arya, you’re not being fair,” Jon said quietly from where he stood next to Sansa. His hand rubbed up and down her arm in a soothing fashion, but next to him Sansa glared balefully across the room at her pint-sized sister.

“Fuck fair!” Arya shrieked.

“You don’t know jack shit about him,” she seethed, her willowy frame trembling with barely contained rage.

Bronn stood between them, his lanky body resting against the fridge as he watched the battle from a neutral place. Clearly, he wasn’t taking sides. Sandor supposed that was a good sign, for him at least. That was until Bronn levelled him with a withering stare. He’d deal with that later. He wasn’t going to stand there and let Sansa wear any of the blame that should have been tossed at him, and only him, by any of the Stark children.

“You’ve got every right to hate me for what you’ve been through,” Sandor stated to Arya firmly. “But you won’t take it out on her, are we clear?”

“Fuck you!” Arya spat furiously. She struggled against Gendry’s grasp and Sandor knew that the only reason he still had a grip on her was because she allowed it. He idly wondered if the other man knew what that tiny tyrant was actually capable of.

When Jon spoke up, he was far calmer than either of his sisters, but Sandor could clearly hear the accusation in his voice.

“Is it true that you joined the Marshal’s after you found out what had really been going on all those years?”

“You mean after he was caught for his part in trafficking children to that sick fuck, Littlefinger? You mean after he’s already delivered our sister and our mother to him on a fucking platter?” Arya bellowed. Tears shone in her grey eyes, but she was too proud to let them fall.

Jon winced at his sister’s words, but Sandor just stood there and let it all sink in. Her rage, his blame, Sansa’s barely concealed grief. He consumed it like a starving man at his last meal. He’d waited years for it, and it was oddly cathartic to finally bear the brunt of all the pain and turmoil he’d caused that family.

Marge walked over to Arya and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder while she leaned in close and murmured quiet words that only the two of them could hear. Arya shook her head violently while Marge spoke, but after a few moments she stilled and her steely gaze locked onto his once more.

“Is that true?” she asked harshly.

“Is what true?” He hadn’t heard the exchange, so he couldn’t verify anything.

“Your dad sold you to Littlefinger when you were little?” She bit out like it pained her to actually say the words.

He nodded and her eyes narrowed as he provided, “Not little, but young, yeah.”

She’d finally stopped struggling. “How old exactly?”

“I’d just turned twelve three days prior.”

He tried not to flinch when he heard Sansa stifle a sob, but his eyes flashed to hers and she smiled reassuringly at him through her tears. His kept his face impassive. The only person he allowed to see just how much it cost him to say those things was Sansa. He trusted no one else as much as her.

Arya openly appraised him with angry eyes, but her body finally relaxed enough that Gendry eased his grip around her waist.

“I still fucking hate you,” she spat.

“You’re entitled,” he granted with a firm nod, then jerked his head towards Sansa. “But not her. She did nothing wrong.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment before Arya spoke again, this time to her sister.

“So, you’ve just decided to run off together and live happily ever after?” she accused, but her voice didn’t hold half the animosity it had before. Progress.

Sansa looked affronted by the allegation. “Of course not! We’d planned to hunt Littlefinger and Gregor down ourselves before –“

YOU DID WHAT?!” Bronn bellowed suddenly as he looked between he and Sansa. Sandor shot her look of irritation and she at least had the decency to look chagrined.

A sudden blow to back of his head showed him that he should have been paying attention to where Marge stood after she moved away from Arya. He resisted the urge to rub the sore spot that would certainly bruise by morning.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Sandor started to say, but Bronn cut him off, clearly enraged.

“So, what, Clegane? She spreads her legs for you and you just agree to do any foolhardy thing she wants in return?” he spat.

White hot fury shot through Sandor and before he knew it his fists were clenched and he stood toe to toe with the man he’d called his friend for nearly a decade. It was all that history, combined with the fact that it would be a real shame to beat some respect into the man who’d care for Sansa since she’d lost her parents that stayed his hands.

Marge wedged between the two and he allowed her to shove him back several feet, but he didn’t take his wrathful gaze off the other man’s furious face. He didn’t even bother to hide his smirk when Marge whirled around and slapped him hard across his face.

“Don’t you ever say anything like that ever again,” she warned in a dangerous voice. Bronn immediately crumpled into her, his head on his shoulder as he sagged against her small body. She pushed him off and shook her head.

“It’s not me you need to apologise to,” she said lowly.

Bronn’s face was a mask of misery as he turned to Sansa. In contrast, hers looked like it was chiselled from ice. Sandor nearly shivered from the frosty way she regarded the other man.

“Nice to know you think so much of me,” she uttered darkly. Even her brother glared harshly at him.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Bronn said as he shook his head.

“I don’t really care how you meant it,” she snapped at him. She stepped out of Jon’s embrace and walked past Bronn to slip her arm around Sandor. She cast her eyes to everyone in the room and raised her chin defiantly.

“This is happening. We’re together. Like it or hate, I really don’t care,” she stated firmly. “But you will respect it.”

Despite her strong stance, he knew deep down Sansa did care. She wanted her family’s support and approval more than she let on, but in that instant, she wasn’t going to let that dictate how they treated her. If it didn’t feel so damned self-serving he would have been proud of her. He squeezed her against his side slightly to show he was there, and that he agreed with her. From the corner of his eye he saw the smug smile on Tyrion’s face and tried to not scowl. The damnable shrink didn’t get to take credit for her show of strength; that belonged solely to her.

“You were really going to hunt down Littlefinger?” Arya finally asked, her voice incredulous.

“Yeah, we were,” Sansa replied roughly. “Don’t tell me you’re pissed about that, too?’

“Only that you were going with me!” Arya snapped and threw her hands up in the air. “Fuck, you couldn’t have swung by and picked me up on the way? I literally take up this much space in the car!” She held her hands inches apart.

A small smile pulled at the Little Birds lips. “I didn’t know where you were.”

Arya rolled her eyes. “It’s called a fucking phone, you moron.”

“The warden doesn’t let me have a phone,” Sansa said with a sidelong glance up at Sandor. He merely shrugged. The last time she’d had one she’d screwed up. He wasn’t taking that chance again.

“Warden, huh? Is that what you two role play?” Arya looked him over in a way that made him extremely uncomfortable.

Tyrion barked a laugh as he walked out of the room, while Jon, Gendry, and Bronn all made faces of horror or dismay. Marge just snickered. He would have been interested to see how Sansa talked her way out of that one, but he never found out.

Jaime stalked back into the room with a tense look on his face, Brienne hot on his heels.

“We don’t know that it means anything,” she hissed after him.

Jaime rolled his eyes and strode into the middle of the group. “We’ve got a problem.”

“Jaime,” the large blonde woman tried again.

He ignored her and looked directly at Sandor. “I think you need to see something.”

If Jaime thought they’d get a private word he was sorely mistaken. The entire goddamned troop of them traipsed through the house and out into the yard beyond the back deck. But instead of going in the direction he had with Marge, Jaime veered off sharply to the left and stomped roughly towards a small woodshed fifty feet from the back entrance.

“What the hell?” Jon muttered as they got closer to the small building. Patches of red made a haphazard semicircle in front of the shed. It wasn’t until Sandor practically stepped on one that he saw with sickening realization what they were. 

“Shit,” Sansa whispered and leaned into him, her wide eyes wildly darting around to take in the destruction before them.

Dozens of small red birds lay strewn about the ground, their necks at unnatural angles. Several were missing their heads, while others had wings or legs ripped off. Several curses sounded off around them.

“I don’t get it,” Gendry said. “Why would someone kill a bunch of birds?”

“It’s a message,” Jaime stated flatly.

“To whom?” Arya chimed in, clearly disturbed.

“To me,” Sansa said softly, but Sandor shook his head.

“No, Little Bird,” he corrected, certain for the first time that it was no longer just about her. Not anymore. “Not you. Me.”