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Fighting a Losing Battle

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If there was one child in his family Ned hadn't worried about making poor decisions in life, it was Sansa Stark. No child of his was ever as polite, grades-oriented, dedicated or wonderfully predictable as Sansa. Robb engaged in an affair with Talisa Maegyr when he was dating Roslin Frey, Jon quit his job at the police station to pursue becoming a human rights activist, Bran was on his way to becoming an avid rock-climber and Rickon got into fistfights with the bullies at school on a weekly basis. Arya... Ned didn't even want to think about the trouble she got into.

But Sansa was as sweet and gentle as they came. Always even-tempered, reasonable, dainty and generous. Never picked a fight. Never so much as stayed out past curfew, despite her friends' ardent attempts to change that (and wasn't he just glad for that).

So it was shocking, to say the least, when sweet Sansa brought home 6'7'', muscled and roughened (and horribly scarred) Sandor Clegane for dinner Friday night. He was big, he was brooding, and he kept Sansa stuck to his hip like glue. Ned's eyes narrowed at the way the big man's hand came to rest (repeatedly) along the back of her long, slender neck, the way his thumb rubbed tenderly on the back corner of her jaw. Sansa, for her part, couldn't seem to keep her hands off of him, either. Shyly, her fingers would brush against his hip, trace his spine, lace through his and hold on tightly.

It wouldn't have been so horrifying if it hadn't been Sansa. If seventeen year-old Arya had brought someone like him home, Ned wouldn't have batted an eye. Instead, Arya was hanging around the lovely blue-eyed hockey referee Gendry Waters and Sansa was with the disfigured, crass, ill-tempered brute Sandor Clegane.

Of all the men... Sandor Clegane.

And the conversation – oh, the conversation! Had Sandor been the strong, silent type, Ned could have dealt with it. Had he been reticent with him and Catelyn, he could have endured it. But no, the man was talkative when he wanted to be. And as foul-mouthed as he appeared. So Ned meticulously went about trying to find a way to smoothly and tactfully round up his family to help him drive the unworthy fiend out of Sansa's life, for good. There was only one small problem.

The boys loved him.

Twelve year-old Ricky was simply enamored with the hardened man, firing off questions left, right and center. "Have you killed a man?" "Ever seen a dead body?" "Could you break a dude's neck?" "Where'd you get your scars?" "Do you own a gun?" But Sansa had pushed Rickon away as soon as the boy asked about Sandor's hideous scars, the one marring close to fifty percent of his face. Sandor had gone stiff and silent, but despite that, there was little that could shake Rickon's admiration of the man.

Bran was enthralled when he heard Sandor mention his climb up Kilimanjaro. "What gear did you use?" "How long did it take?" "How hard was it to breathe?" Sandor answered all the questions with crude language, telling bawdy jokes about the men's desperation for a nice, pliant woman—Sansa hissed and cut him off instantly, but Bran didn't care. It was all courageous in his eyes. Ned knew he was a lost cause, too.

Robb and Jon took longer to convince, but they came around when Sandor offered to take them up to the garage on the weekend and show them how to hotwire a car—which, you know, was just the coolest thing in the world, even if it was totally useless in (legal) society. And one by one, Ned saw his allies slip away before the dinner was over.

Sansa was utterly delighted with the way the evening had progressed, and Sandor was relaxing slowly into the couch with Sansa snuggled into his side. Dinner was a hit, and Sandor had eaten more than double his girlfriend's share.

"I'll make it for you again next weekend," Sansa offered shyly, and Sandor leaned in to whisper something lowly into her ear which made her squeak and smile, turning scarlet all the while. Ned's fists clenched.

Arya remained cold and scowling for the majority of the night, to Ned's pleasure. Right up until... Gendry Waters skipped through the front door, all laughter and smiles, clasping the shoulders of Robb and Jon on his way to greet his girlfriend with a kiss. Then he caught sight of the giant on the couch.

"Sandor!"

"Waters."

"Son of a...!" Gendry laughed, striding over the older man confidently. "You're the last old dog I'd have expected sweet little Sansa to bring home." Little Sansa, as though Gendry were not two years younger than she.

Precisely, Ned thought sourly, wrapping a hand around his wife's waist to calm himself.

"Arya!" Gendry threw his arm out, motioning for her to step into his side. Arya did so, scowling and grumbling all the while at her idiot boyfriend for befriending the man Sansa had brought home. "C'mere, I want to introduce you to the best guy I know."

"Quit your bloody romanticizing!" Sandor snapped, sneering at the boy. But Gendry wasn't fazed by it in the slightest.

"Saved my life a year ago. I got in a wicked accident off Lannisport Road. Likely would have died if it had been anyone else who found me... Sandor performed first aid on me, picked me up and drove me to the hospital. A pissier bastard, you'll never meet!" But Gendry was fond in his recollection of the man, and Arya was watching Sandor now with a grudging respect, uncertain what to do with the new information that her boyfriend was alive because of him–

Ned didn't have to ask. He knew he'd lost her, too.

But I still have Cat, he reasoned to himself. Cat was just as wary of the man as he was, and her nod was all he needed to feel comfortable in throwing the giant out on his head.

But then it happened.

"Sansa, look out!" Sansa, who had gotten up to go to the washroom, gave a yelp as the football Rickon and Bran had been tossing in the kitchen (despite Catelyn's furious protests) came flying out of nowhere and struck her in the nose. Whimpers spilled from her lips as she cupped her bloody nose, but before Ned or anyone could react, Sandor was on his feet and tugging her gently by the elbow into the bathroom, face twisting into such a dark frown that it unsettled the rest of the Stark family.

Rickon and Bran followed them with urgent apologies, but Sandor hushed them with a few curt words about her needing quiet for a while. Catelyn and Ned ushered the children outside to play in the backyard for a while, until Sansa's nose stopped bleeding. When they returned to the washroom to check on Sansa's nose (and where Sandor's roaming hands had landed), Catelyn made Ned stop just outside the door, backs pressed against the wall as they listened raptly.

"Hush, little bird. It's alright, I'm here. Just a scratch, little bird, nothing serious."

Sansa sniffled. "Hurts..."

"I know, baby. Just relax. The pain will pass. Hush..."

Ned almost didn't want to look at Catelyn. He knew what he'd see. Knew he'd lost his last chance to stand against Sansa's suitor. With trepidation and reluctance, Eddard Stark met his wife's gaze and saw her frosty eyes melting at the sound of love and warmth oozing from Sandor's mouth. Ned Stark had lost.

Later that night, when Sandor had left and Sansa's nose had bruised but not broken, Ned went to his daughter's room to discuss her boyfriend with her, just once.

"Sweetheart," Ned began in his most fatherly voice. This was Sansa; he could surely sway her choice with a few well-spoken arguments. This was Sansa. "What ever happened to Loras? Or Theon? Or Willas?" Or any boy who isn't ten years your senior!

Sansa's eyes widened as though she hadn't expected her father to find fault with her suitor. "But daddy, I don't want Loras or Theon or Willas." Anymore, Sansa added silently. Ned wondered where the girl in love with fairytales went, since she surely wasn't here.

"But...Sandor Clegane? Are you sure, sweet one?"

"Daddy," she said, taking one of his hands in both of hers and squeezing it tightly. "I love him. More than words can say. He's gentle and kind and honest – and he's so brave. Is that not the exact man you wanted for me?"

He could remember the exact day he said those things to her; the day she had come home with a pretty purple bruise blooming on her cheekbone, after a date with Joffrey. Ned had pressed charges immediately, and no word of the boy was heard since. Thank God.

"Yes, but...there are other men who embody those things even better than Sandor. Why not one of them?"

"Because there are no men like Sandor," Sansa's face was unusually solemn, and though her voice trembled she did not cry. Instead she patted her father's large hand with care and patience. "You asked me to find a man with all those traits, and I have. And I've found...he's one-of-a-kind. My knight in shining armor." Her lips twitched as though she was in on a private joke she didn't get. Ned had the distinct impression that it had to do with the fact that Sandor was a cynic and as far removed from a knight in shining armor as one could get. More like a black-hearted assassin who selfishly fell in love with the princess...

"He loves me, daddy. Isn't that the best a father could hope for?"

And as Ned went to bed that night, with his wife tucked against his side and four of his children asleep in their beds under their roof, he wondered if he hadn't truly lost, after all.