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Reflected

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His head was spinning. Too much wine again.

 

Shit thing about being his size was the long, hard fall to the ground. Last thing he needed was to keel over in front of the Stark girl and shame the LannistersWho knows what she’d do if he passed out. Sandor imagined her darting around his prone body, panicked and aflutter. The image changed to him falling and crushing her delicate arms and legs. His stomach roiled.

 

“Hold on, girl. I need to sit a moment.”

 

No protest came from her as he sat heavily in the dirt and rested his head against his knees. They’d be off after he recaptured a semblance of balance. Her skirts rustled as she settled on a log behind him and he heard nothing after. In truth, he half expected her to try to fill the quiet, but the only chirping that assaulted him was from the crickets. Disappointment crawled up his arms and over the back of his neck. He shook the familiar feeling away and let himself unwind, grateful for the peace. His thoughts settled on the small girl at his back. Her presence was crippling and comforting all at once. Beauty always put him on edge and dumped the weight of inadequacy in his lap.

 

He did not know why it ate at him so. It’s all just dung dipped in glittering gold. Still, Sandor felt a jarring sense of failure at being surrounded by so much of it and not contributing to it. If anything, his face diminished it. Or maybe it enhanced it. Any fool looks good standing next to a scarred dog. His stomach had been a pit of ice when he first locked eyes with the little lady Stark. Such a lovely child shouldn’t suffer to look at a face like his. I shouldn’t have touched her. What possessed me to lay hands on the girl? He was angry at himself for reaching out. It had been impulsive and bloody stupid. It was Payne she feared, not you. You heard it yourself. The thought did little to soothe him. She feared him well enough. As if the scars could leap from my face and mar her somehow.

 

And the golden cub eased her fear where you only added to it. The thought dug its fingernails into his temples making his head throb. The sound of her shifting on the log pulled him out of his thoughts. Thankfully, the ground didn’t seem to roll about when he opened his eyes. He thought she’d speak then; ask to be taken back immediately. When no such plea came forth, bitterness began to bead on his brow.

 

“What’s that I hear?” He muttered into his knees. “Not a chirp, nor a peep. Has the little bird forgotten her songs? It’s rude to let conversation lapse or weren't you taught?” A laugh snapped out of him and he glanced over his shoulder. Her eyes were wide with disbelief and her small pink mouth was slack. The sight was too much for his wine-wrecked head and laughter galloped from deep in his belly, unchecked. He came down from his outburst slowly, almost reluctantly. “Damn me, but that was funny.” His smile was gruesome to be sure, but he found it difficult to contain just then.

 

He looked at her and a fae-like creature smiled back, eyes alight with something. She was watching him, transfixed. The moonlight dusted her loveliness with a hint of wonder. Neither disgust nor uneasiness had found a home in her features. He remained as still as possible. He was torn between basking in the unexpected reciprocation and shaking her free of whatever madness had gripped her.

 

The bastard child of suspicion and embarrassment clung to his legs. She wasn’t returning your smile, you bloody fool. You laughed in her face! Her smiles belong to the little lion. He stood then, swaying only for a moment.

 

“We’ve tarried enough.”

 

He watched her smile die a slow death. Emotions he couldn't begin to name became a writhing mess and it angered him. The little bird peered up at him. A small frown haunted the corners of her mouth and furrowed her pale brow. Shame clambered onto his shoulders whispering hateful things into his good ear. Its voice was an unsettling combination of Gregor and the Lioness.

 

The Hound was poised to snap and snarl at the young girl, wanted to. Needed to. But for the span of a heartbeat, Sandor did not want to be feared. In that moment, he was only Sandor.

 

“Come, little one.” He caught her slender wrist and pulled her to her feet as gently as he could. They made their way in silence; her odd behavior and his own conflicting thoughts stilled his tongue. 

 

Gregor enjoyed terrorizing innocents. He was not Gregor.

 

Never Gregor.  

 

There was nothing to be gained from being feared by the little bird, but much to lose. Still, he would not shit on his dignity and go out of his way to gain her favor or her smiles. He was a dog, not a bloody knight. Empty courtesies grated on his patience, but when she chirped, even his disenchanted ears wanted to listen.

 

Buggering fool is what I am. He admitted sullenly. Without thought, his grip tightened around her fragile wrist. His fingertips skimmed along the silken skin of its innermost side. Startled by his own forwardness, he released her as discreetly as possible. Whether he was seeking comfort, or some vague reassurance, he couldn’t be sure. The only thing he was sure of was the relief he felt when her door came into view.

 

“In with you, bird. Your nest awaits.” He was tired, and did not wait for her to enter her chambers before heading off in search of his own bed. What he needed was to lose himself in a wine-induced sleep and hope all would be forgotten by morning.  

 

“Sleep well…” Her little voice was strained. She was holding back some perfunctory title and her effort amused him. Lacking the energy to tease her, he slowed and acknowledged her with a nod. He was a short distance down the hall when her soft voice touched his ear again. “…My lord.” He couldn’t be sure if she’d truly said it. Maybe his mind was far gone enough to imagine the proper little lady making a jape. A short laugh escaped him, but he did not look back.

 

The wine and his exhaustion combined were enough to drag him under as soon as he was draped across a straw pallet. They were not enough to keep his dreams at bay.

 

He was near a red-leafed northern tree - Weirwood. Amongst its roots, a small bird peeped and fluttered frantically. He could see the nest it had fallen from and moved forward to return it. A sleek lion cub emerged from the other side of the tree, green eyes fixated on the fledgling. Sensing the predator, it became as still as the roots around it. The cub circled the bird, swiping at it lazily. No matter how hard it was swatted, the tiny bird remained stationary and did not attempt to flee. Sandor could do nothing but look on helplessly.

 

The dream returned again and again. He awoke those nights in a cold sweat, unable to recall the details of his nightmare.

Chapter Text

Whenever he was ordered to escort her, she kept her eyes lowered demurely- as a lady should, but he still felt slighted. Whatever had taken hold of her in the field had lessened its grip. Her fear did not return, but she remained wary of him.

 

Fear is Joffrey’s gift to her, not mine.

 

So, Sandor gave her the only thing he possessed: honesty.

 

Or, he tried.

 

Imparting nearly a lifetime worth of cynical wisdom to a highborn maid was not something he could have foreseen, and thus, had not prepared for. Words are wind. She needs more than words. More often than not, the growing rage at his own uselessness tripped him up. When the Hound snarled and smiled with hate in his teeth, the lovely girl merely weathered the storm until only Sandor was left, deflated and defeated.

 

He'd come to collect her once again and she fluttered about nervously as she made herself presentable. She is afraid and rightly so. He could smell it on her, see it in her eyes and hear it in her soft voice. She begged to know what she’d done wrong. As if any of this was her fault. The little bird was too perfect; her wall of courtesy allowed for no retaliation. None that was truly justified at least. And when has Joff ever needed a good reason to have her beat?

 

Every step, every victory for her brother was reason enough. He wished the boy would fail so she might have some respite. Not bloody likely. Sandor wondered if the King in the North knew what his sweet sister was being subjected to. Certainly there must be rumors.

 

Sandor had reported the beatings to the Queen once, foolishly thinking her own abuse at the hands of Robert might make her sympathetic to the girl’s plight. But she’d dismissed it and insisted Joff would not allow any permanent harm to come to the Stark girl. From then on, he did his best to keep his features as neutral as possible when she was being instructed.

 

Child that she was, the little bird was everything a lady ought to be and would have been a remarkable queen. If she survives long enough to wed the little beast. The Hound thought bitterly. Between Joff and his snake of a mother, she’d be little more than a figurehead and a whipping boy. If the Lioness had even a grain of the girl’s grace, perhaps Joffrey wouldn’t be the way he was.

 

If, if, if. Bugger it all. Joff is a monster, his mother is a she-monster. There is nothing for it.

 

He helped the girl to her feet at the King’s insistence and remained near her as Lancel Lannister gave the court a fantastical account of her brother’s latest victory. Half truth, half pigshit. He heard nothing else as his mind worked furiously on a way to lessen the violence against her without actively defying the king. Three words dragged him from his thoughts:

 

“Dog, hit her.”

 

What in the seven hells- Before he could react beyond a flat look, the fool Dontos leapt at the chance to “beat” the girl. Sandor watched numbly as melon juice oozed through her lovely hair. Joffrey was not appeased. Ser Meryn and Ser Boros did not hesitate to obey their king and set upon the girl when he gave the order. His entire body was aflame. He would kill them. They'll suffer. I’ll make Gregor’s work look like child’s play.

 

“Enough.”

 

The one word was all he could push past his teeth; if he opened his mouth the rest would rush out and condemn him. But Joffrey was too wound up to care about consequences and called for something even more foul.

 

The last shred of Sandor’s loyalty was ripped away with the little bird’s silk dress. Her teats had yet to develop the weighted roundness of a woman’s; they sat high on her chest, tipped pink. He felt the tension in his muscles, the rush of intent that went surging through his body before a kill, but he was not given the chance to act upon it.

 

The Imp arrived and brought an end to the awful spectacle. The Hound recovered swiftly, letting his expression go flat again. Rage still paced within him, restless. When Lord Tyrion called for someone to cover the girl, Sandor tossed his cloak to her. If he went near her now, he’d do something foolish. Gather her up, little thing that she is. Carry her away from this buggering shit hole. After Joffrey was sufficiently cowed by his uncle, the little bird was removed from the prying eyes of the courtiers. The dwarf would see to her injuries and hopefully keep her better guarded. It’s more than you’ve done for her. He was incapable of helping her, that was the truth of it. He wanted to begrudge the Imp's ability to protect her but he could only feel relief. Be grateful she's got the halfman as an ally, even if he is only doing it to protect his brother.  

 

Joffrey raged for hours afterwards, spitting talk of torture and punishments. Luckily, Sandor’s disobedience was forgotten in light of the Imp's intervention. Through the remainder of his shift, he hardly listened to the foul things his king was going on about. His close brush with treason weighed heavily on his mind. If there had been no interruption, he’d have killed Blount and Trant where they stood and probably cut Joff down as well. The Queen would’ve tortured the young Stark girl, believing she’d beguiled the Hound into killing her tormentors. Sandor couldn't let his rage lead him to do something rash; the girl would suffer the most. He’d have to be more careful in the future. 

 

Sandor was sure the Young Wolf would never agree to an exchange and it was only a matter of time before Joff went too far. She wilted, less vibrant than he’d ever seen her. How long could she last? Might be kinder to offer the girl a quick death. It would be a mercy. But the thought sickened him and he grit his teeth against it. 

 


Had she thought of taking her own life?
He was staggered by the possibility. True fear twined itself around his neck, making it difficult for him to fill his lungs. The hours trickled by and he struggled not to slap the golden shit around his mouth every time he spoke. Once he was relieved for the night, Sandor trudged back to his room for some much needed wine and rest. Until he could figure out a more permanent solution, he resolved to keep a closer eye on the girl when he could. 

 

-

 

A stillness had come over the bird.  The lovely wings hung limply, tattered and awkward.

 

Sandor did not want to go to it, did not want to touch it. But he was already kneeling before the unfortunate creature, cupping it gently in his rough hands. He wept wretchedly as he stroked the soft feathers. Its tiny body was no heavier than a breath.

 

Grief carefully hollowed out a space and nestled itself within him. He kissed the bird's delicate head and ran his fingers along the pretty feathers one last time before he swallowed it whole.

 

The golden cub lounged a short distance away watching him, unconcerned. It locked eyes with him as he struggled to stand but didn’t seem alarmed by his approach. Familiarity painted its face the color of trust as he crouched before it and laid a large hand on its flank. Playfully, it began to swat him and butt its head against his knee.

 

Some twisted form of anguish crawled down Sandor’s cheeks and blurred his vision.

 

* 

 

He did not feel the claws that tore at him as the beast’s trust was replaced with confusion, then desperation. Misery, regret- those things he felt heaving from his lungs as his hands squeezed and squeezed. The fear slipped from the its eyes leaving the stunning green color dull and flat. 

 

 *

 

Finally, it was still.

 

Weeping, Sandor pulled the cub into his lap and stroked its head.

 

After a time, he swallowed it too.

 

-

 

Sandor awoke slowly, clawing his way out of the dream. He let himself be swept away and pressed his face into the bedding. There was no one to see him give in to a misery that wasn’t fully his own. He was suffocating, always struggling to breathe.

 

Somewhere within in him, a black lake churned; in it he drowned all his darkest memories. The boy who ran. Make it quick. No suffering. He remembered bringing his body back. The broken boy sank beneath the waves. The little bird. Peach sweet and just as soft, easily bruised. Red blood smeared on pink lips. Young teats bared by cruelty. She floated, barely keeping above the surface. Some day, she would slip under and drift down, down further than even the memory of the flames.

 

As the morning wore on, he plotted and schemed. I can’t save her. Not on my own. There was no one in the city he could trust and no way to get a message to any of her family. Damn me, I’m the bloody Hound. I could walk out the buggering gates without so much as a-

 

The thought jolted him out of his wallowing. He propped himself up on his elbows and stared at the uneven weave of his blanket, unseeing. I could walk her right out the godsdamned gates. None of those fools would try to stop me. Not if she was well-disguised.

 

But that idea was beyond laughable. He’d have to get her out of the keep, through the city and out of the gates. All without anyone missing her. Or him, for that matter. It’s impossible. You’re worse than the bird, cooking up daring rescues. You’re a dog, not a bloody knight. You’ll just get her killed.

 

Footsteps and several loud knocks announced some fool ser he was meant to relieve. Anger tore at his chest and belly. Sandor rubbed his face viciously against the coarse blanket, trying to dispel the sorrow that had wound itself so intimately around him. He acknowledged the interruption with a few choice words and began to ready himself.

 

Routine. He washed his face carefully, combed his hair and dressed in a clean set of clothes.

 

Routine. The armor was difficult to put on alone, but he’d rather struggle with it than have a squire pester him.

 

Routine. He stood and stared at the white fabric hanging by his sword belt. Inefficacy was his cloak, and he wore it daily.

 

Routine. Sandor walked to the door, but the Hound opened it.

 

Routine. Rage took him by hand and led him out into the day.