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In Plain Sight

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~1~

Three emails you should know about:

 

From: melisandre.asshai@lightbringer-gazette.we

To: edric.storm@lightbringer-gazette.we

CC: matthos.seaworth@lightbringer-gazette.we

Subject: Saltpans, Riverlands

 

Ed,

As you continue to be quarrelsome, I’m giving the Wight Walker assignment to Matthos instead. Forward him all your research.

As for you, I want a fluff piece for next month’s travel section. Saltpans, Riverlands should suit your “Faith” of the Seven sensibilities nicely. Historic old town, famous Sept, the Raid, ra ra ra. Interview your rowing champion half-brother for some eye candy. Review a couple of restaurants. Find me some local human interest feel good stories.

What I do want: lines that make little old ladies from Blackhaven go awwwww

What I do NOT want: stories about Tywin Lannister running a child porn ring from a gas station, or how Daenerys Targaryen is secretely a fire-breathing dragon.

And remember: I promised Stannis I’d give you a job, but I didn’t promise to keep you around forever. If you ever pitch me your conspiracy theory nonsense again, I’ll gladly watch you go down in flames.

 

May the Lord of Light guide you always,

Melisandre Asshai

Deputy Editor-in-Chief

Lightbringer Gazette

 

 

From: dondarrion@kp-saltpans.gov.we

To: arry.snow@maidenpool-uni.edu.we; gendry.waters@maidenpool-uni.edu.we; tarth@kp-riverrun.gov.we; Jaime.lannister@sbl.com; payne@kp-riverrun.gov.we; info@watergardens.dor; 3houndsc@ravenmail.we; tofmyr@ravenmail.we

[This message is marked personal and private]

Subject: Hunting Party

Attachment: bower_menu_summer.pdf

 

My dear friends,

This is the last reminder that it’s Saltpan’s turn to host the second annual Hunting Party this year and we will all meet again very soon.

I booked a table at “The Bower” for 7 pm on the Cronday two weeks from now. It’s around the corner from the KP station, T and I eat there often. Brienne, they do a lot of seafood. Does the smell still make you feel nauseated, or is the third trimester treating you better? I’m sure we can all agree not to order anything that will make you retch.

I attached the menu for everyone’s convenience. The owner is an absolute sweetheart and will accommodate anything. Just ask for Alayne.

T will pick up the Dornish crew from the airport in Maidenpool and should be back in SP at around 5. Willas, please confirm the flight details!

I can’t believe it’s been two years already.

 

May the Lord of Light guide you always,

Beric

 

 

From: arry.snow@maidenpool-uni.edu.we

To: dondarrion@kp-saltpans.gov.we

[This message is marked personal and private]

Subject: Re: Hunting Party

 

Hey Beric,

Sorry, but Pod and I won’t make it this year. It was Bran’s birthday last month and Mother has decided to throw him a party the weekend of the hunting party. Not that Bran cares, but I think she found out that Jaime will be there and … you know, any reason to keep me away from his “bad influence”.

It sucks that I’ll miss the Hunting Party AND a H’ghar blindfold workshop that I was looking forward to, but Mother has a heart of stone these days and insists that family is more important than anything in the world, even if the family in question will mostly be stoned out of their collective minds the whole weekend. It’s okay to tell you that when it’s not your jurisdiction, right?

I worry about the dog. Gendry promised to force him out of the house, but now Gendry’s mad at me because I finally told him that Pod will transfer from Riverrun to SP... You take good care of my dog, okay?

Can I drop by the station for a coffee next Mainday? I want to pick your brain about the parry-riposte practice Syrio has me do.

Arry

 

~2~

What’s happening now

Like every morning, the mirror greets Alayne Stone with Sansa Stark’s face. It’s a beautiful Cronday morning today, a light blue sky over the roofs of Saltpans’ historic old town. The sun already falls through the single window of Alayne’s tiny attic room above her “Bower.” The bells of the famous Saltpans Sept – built as an offering to the Seven after the town was raided and then rebuilt in the War of the Kings 600 years ago - wake up the little shops and cafés in the narrow alleys below. Soon scores of tourists will worm their way through this maze. They will buy postcards and ice cream and souvenirs for the grandkids before returning to the river cruise ships moored in the marina for a nap and their all-included lunch

Some of them will stop in “The Bower” for a coffee and something sweet. And Alayne will charm them, and they will tip her well and coo over her lemon cakes. After them, her regulars will stop by for lunch. During the work week they would be locals, mostly working in the several government agencies settled around the Sept. Today, most will be students from the little Saltpan Campus of Maidenpool University, hungover and in dire need of scrambled eggs and the Bower’s famous breakfast selection. Or maybe junior maesters from the Quiet Isle off their night shifts, hungry and too wired to sleep. Alayne will take care of them, too. Then a little lull in the afternoon, then the next wave of tourists, and finally in the evening the Bower is booked for a private dinner party.

A good, regular ordinary day. Alayne loves nothing more than regularity. No surprises, nothing unplanned, a simple day to look forward to.

But first: the face.

Alayne’s hair is a glossy ash tone, a totally unremarkable color on the border between brown and dark blonde, and already pinned up in a simple ponytail. Very hard to describe correctly, both in color and length. Good.

Brown contact lenses cover Sansa Stark’s Tully blue eyes. The result is a murky in-between. Very hard to describe correctly. Good.

Next, a thin layer of primer and over that a liquid foundation that turns Sansa’s aristocratic porcelain paleness into an everyday type of skin for a girl from the Vale. Not too pale, not too tan. Just ivory skin, just a blank canvas. Good.

Alayne paints the rest of her face with the firm, confident strokes of an Old Master. Her eyebrows, already tinted dark, are filled out and straightened in the process. Three shades of eyeshadow, a shimmery ocher, a matte ivory and a dark smoky gray, deepen her eyes and change their shape just so. False eyelashes. Black eyeliner. Two coats of jet black mascara.

The contours of Sansa’s heart-shaped face disappear as Alayne sculpts her own with bronzer and highlighter and blush. Just a touch here, a little there.

The final result is a face so utterly bland and yet so obviously made-up that the only answer anyone could give in a questioning would be: “Don’t remember how she looked like. Tall. Pretty, I think? Sure wore a lot of paint!”

Some powder and a setting spray. In this heat, she’ll have to come upstairs for a touch-up around lunchtime anyway.

Alayne slips out of her robe and into her usual work outfit. While Sansa used to wear pastels and jewel tones, Alayne wears only black, grey and white. Slim black slacks, cropped at the ankle, black ballet flats, a white flowing shirt and long eye-catching earrings, glasses with a fashionable frame and non-prescription lenses. Refrained, tasteful, elegant like a Lysian film star from the 50’s.

Also, very boring.

Good.

 

Downstairs, she unlocks the café and waits for the crew of the morning shift to arrive. A totally unremarkable day.

We’ll see.

 

~

 

“Dondarrion, 11 9 guests (3 blind), 7 pm. Private Function”

The Bower seats 30 people, if you count both the inside and their little al fresco area, but tonight they’ll close down the entire place for just nine guests. Fully compensated for the loss of business, of course. Alayne likes Beric and his partner Thoros, who are kind and courteous and tip well… and never spoke to Sansa Stark in person, way back when. They were among her first regulars when she came to Saltpans two years ago and overhauled the Bower from an outdated forgotten tea room Petyr Baelish kept around as a tax write-off into what it is today. They’ve been loyal customers ever since. The tiny Knights Prosecutor Station, much too small for its own cafeteria, is just ten houses and a corner away, and now, with their own Ser Dondarrion as an example, most of the squires eat at the Bower at least once a week.

But she is her Daddy’s daughter, even if he said he’d come back for her two years ago and hasn’t turned up again since. And her Daddy’s daughter does not let her own sympathies come between her and money. Business is business.

She has to remind herself of that when she overhears one of her waitstaff chat with one of the guests.

“… and can you believe the council will allow the fucking R’hllorists to build a new temple! As if the one on Blackfyre wasn’t enough of an eyesore!” The speaker in question is a young Northerner who has frequented The Bower several times in the last year. Every time, her waitresses had come back to the bar with flaming cheeks and trembling hands. A very charming young man, with oddly pale eyes, like dirty ice. An utter psychopath, Alayne is aware of that. She’s seen men like him before.

“R’hllorists, pah! Almost as bad as all those wildlings coming down from the North. Winter is coming, my ass.” It seems like this time he has found a willing audience in Harry, her only male waiter, a student from the Vale getting his second link in history.

“Harry!” Alayne hisses at him when he walks by her later. She is very stern when it comes to bad manners; she will tolerate light swearing, indulges in it herself from time to time, but she draws the line at slurs. “I have told you a hundred times not to use the w-word. The polite term is Free Folk as you very well know. Please, use it!”

Harry grumbles for the rest of his shift, but lunch runs smoothly anyway. He’s a great waiter, attentive and charming and their main clientele of retired cruise ship tourists love his dimpled blondness that makes them dream of good grandsons who always call and never talk back and get married to Westerosi girls in tasteful, traditional Sept weddings. For that she is willing to overlook his flaws, of which he has many.

But because she knows him, she also sorted him into the lunch and afternoon shift today and will do the evening alone with just the kitchen crew. Alayne won’t risk having Harry or any other of her crew offend Beric or Thoros or their friends, and she can deal with nine guests just fine on her own.

 

~

 

It’s half past six and she’s in the kitchen going over their order for the rest of the week, when the last remaining waitress of the evening shift, a spunky Maidenpool student called Sally, sweeps in and waves at her.

“Alayne, the Warrior Incarnate just walked in, asked for you. Definitely part of our dinner reservation.”

“The Warrior Incarnate? That I got to see” Harry pipes up from behind where he’d been trying to chat up Jeyne, one of the cooks, and then they huddle near the kitchen door and gawk at the looming figure waiting patiently at the bar.

“Oh Gods, he’s huge! Too bad about the face, though. And you know…” Jeyne whispers and gestures towards her eyes. “I wonder what happened to him.”

The man is so very tall, much closer to seven feet than six. And he’s broad, too. His bulging muscles are clearly outlined against the thin fabric of a T-Shirt in faded black, much-washed and now soot gray, like his jeans. Arms like tree trunks. One half of his beardless face burned and scarred. Wide shoulders, brushed by long black hair that barely covers a missing ear.

“He really looks like the Warrior,” Harry says, awed.

Alayne doesn’t hear him, not really.

It’s the Hound.

Sandor Clegane is in her Bower. It’s over, they have found her after all, it’s over. If she can slip out the back door through the kitchen, maybe she’ll have enough of a head start to make it to the train station...

She takes a step forward instead.

He turns his head slightly, he’s looking straight ahead, straight at her, he’ll recognize her any second now… but his eyes are a warm, deep brown. His eyes are not his eyes, and that can’t be. She vividly remembers metal, silver, or angry steel gray, the color that swords are. The rest of the picture falls into place. The white cane in his hand.

11 guests, 3 blind.

He’s blind, oh gods, he’s blind. He doesn’t… he doesn’t know I’m…

And then her survival instincts kick into gear, finally, and she straightens up, throws her hair back and is Alayne Stone, who will greet all her guests with the gracious charm of the natural born hostess, no matter if they are little old ladies on a day trip from Riverrun or giant scarred men who haunt her dreams with half-remembered kisses.

“Hey, I’m Alayne. You’re here for Beric’s party, I assume?” Her voice is all Alayne, no hint of the North, not a trace of lords and kings, of 9000 years of Starks. Just a nice girl from the Vale.

“I’m a little early, I’m afraid”, he says with a smile, an actual smile, as if this whole thing wasn’t surreal enough. His politeness throws her almost as much as his blindness has.

“You’re the first one here, but you’re not that early. May I guide you to your table?”

When he nods, she touches the back of her hand to the back of his, and he gently draws his hand upwards along her arm until he gets to a spot just above the elbow. She has done this with Beric a hundred times before, and she knows how to accommodate a blind guest. She leads him to the table and adjusts her gait to a limp he didn’t used to have – another change of him that disturbs her deep inside. She describes the layout of the table, lets him choose his chair. She’s business-like, yet charming, completely unfazed. Daddy would be so proud.

He orders some water, which she brings him while “The Hound never drank water” repeats in her head like a broken record.

And then she lets him wait for the rest of his party to arrive and sneaks into the bathroom. Her make-up is still perfect.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths, Alayne. You’ll be fine.

 

~

 

The next guest comes through the door. A young man with dark hair and bright blue eyes. Alayne doesn’t need anyone to tell her Gendry Waters’ name, not after his single scull triumph over Riverrun during last autumn’s head race, the first win for Maidenpool in over 20 years. Not after the newspapers were full of him, his picture conveniently placed next to several headshots of Baratheon progeny. Robert Baratheon’s natural son.

She watches him like a hawk as he confidently comes up to Clegane, as they greet each other as if they meet up every day, both of them relaxed. They are friends, she realizes, but that can’t be because the Hound doesn’t have friends.

Gendry is about to order his drink, when the door opens and the next guests arrive. And again, no introductions are needed. Everyone in Westeros knows Prince Oberyn of Dorne and Ellaria Sand. They’ve been a favorite of gossip rags everywhere for close to 20 years now, and his tragic car accident three years ago has inspired many an attention-grabbing headline, the tales of Ellaria’s unwavering devotion to him through countless facial reconstruction surgeries have brought many a King’s Landing housewife to tears. He’s blind now, of course.

After them come Beric and Thoros, who she’s seen almost every day for years.

The last member of the group is another familiar face she has never seen in real life before. Willas Tyrell, golden-eyed and handsome and walking with a cane, the oldest of the Tyrell siblings and the only Tyrell who eschews the cameras that follow Loras and Margaery wherever they go. Margaery used to constantly make jokes that Sansa should date him, back then, a lifetime ago.

She greets them all, because she is charming and confident Alayne Stone of the Vale, and certainly not a scared little Northern girl that yearns for her dead family every minute of the day.

When seconds later the last two guests come through the door, she is so far beyond the ability to be surprised that the sight of Jaime Lannister leaves her totally numb. He’s holding hands with a blonde giantess who is also very pregnant. Ser Brienne Tarth, the third female Knight Prosecutor in the history of the Riverlands. A common target of the ire of the people, even though – or maybe because – she is very good at what she does.

If Aegon the Conqueror comes through the door next, on dragon back and all, Alayne will offer him a drinks menu and some peanuts and she will not bat an eye. Nothing feels real anymore.

None of them pay much attention to her, other than a quick hug from Thoros and a handshake from Beric. Jaime Lannister doesn’t look at her at all, he’s so busy complaining about the traffic on the road from Riverrun. And she’s not worried about him to be honest. He never looked at her twice, the few times they met face to face in KL. He only had eyes for Cersei then, just as he seems to only have eyes for Ser Tarth today.

It’s fascinating to watch this group of people. How did they meet? What was it that brought them together? Read the room, Alayne.

It’s obvious they all know each other well. The Dornish greet each and every one of them with cheek kisses, so does Ser Tarth. Cheek kisses for the Hound, it makes her want to laugh. There is much commenting on the size of Ser Tarth’s stomach, much laughter about her self-deprecating answers. Stories of traffic and air travel and children back home. Gendry asks after Myrcella Baratheon, shipped off to boarding school in Dorne four years ago, like he knows her and knows her well, and then he and Jaime Lannister and Ellaria Sand put their heads together and… gossip.

Alayne takes their drink orders. Alayne explains their menu and the specials. She’s perfectly calm.

“So, is that like a self-help group? Something wrong with all of them, right?” Jeyne asks when Alayne comes back into the kitchen.

“No,” Alayne replies solemnly, “just friends having dinner.”

Not an ordinary day. Not at all.

 

~

 

No matter how fascinating this unexpected assembly of celebrities is… it’s the Hound she simply can’t take her eyes off of. What is he doing here? What happened to him? The eyes, the limp? Hadn’t he suffered enough with just the scars on his face?

It’s the very first time in her life that she can truly look at him without shaking in fear, and now she just drinks him in. She notices things she had known about him once; she sees things she has never noticed before. How elegant his hands are, how long his fingers – for a sizzling second, she imagines his hands on her, his fingers in her-

The scars on his face, gruesome, yes, but a lot less overwhelming now that she has had five years to get used to them. Joffrey used to make fun of the way he ate, his burned lips not closing right in the corner of his mouth, Joff’s vicious barbs seemingly unnoticed by the Hound in his stoic composure. No one here today is making fun, the atmosphere is light and joyful, and Alayne can see that this is Sandor Clegane at peace, relaxed among people he trusts. Whatever she had thought of as stoicism in King’s Landing had simply been a thin smokescreen put over rage and hurt. His warm brown eyes look so real. Prince Oberyn’s dark eyes are beautifully made, too, but Clegane’s eyes move so realistically. Beric, of course, never takes off his sunglasses.

 

~

 

Sandor's muscles are chiseled like a statue. At one point he stretches his arms above his head and the muscles in his upper arms seem to triple. It takes her breath away.

She can’t help it. She’s staring, but for the life of her she cannot stop looking at him. He looks so happy and she is so happy that he’s happy and if he would touch her with these hands of his…

And as if just looking wasn’t bad enough, Alayne’s flirting, too. She realizes that after the first course is finished, when she refills the drinks. It had just happened, she doesn’t know how or why.

She brings a new glass of water for him (“The Hound doesn’t drink water!”) and when she guides his hand to it… she lets her touch linger, just a bit. She takes orders, but when she talks to him, her voice turns from attentive to sultry. She leans a little closer to him than necessary. The Hound seems… baffled.

The others definitely do notice now, too. Gendry follows every one of her actions with wide disbelieving eyes. Ellaria Sand’s beautiful face wears the smile of a very entertained predator, and Willas Tyrell looks at her like a spectator at a horse race scrutinizes a promising three-year-old. Finally, Ser Tarth locks eyes with Thoros who whispers something into Beric’s ear who in turn waves her closer.

“Why don’t you sit down with us for bit, Alayne, have a glass of wine. Come and meet our friends. We’d enjoy your company.”

Daddy would be so mad about the risk she’s running with this, but she can’t help herself. Reality has ceased to be, she hasn’t enjoyed herself like this in so long. How far can she go, before…?

“Oh, thank you, yeah, I can spare a minute.” She gets herself a glass of sparkling water, draws up a chair, maneuvers it right next to Sandor Clegane, on his right side. He sits up straighter. Thoros introduces the group, whose famous and royal members wave all her attempts at formality aside. She can’t see herself ever calling a Prince of Dorne “Oby,” but Ser Tarth with her kind blue eyes already feels like a Brienne to her. The Hound is introduced as “my friend, Clegane”.

“May I ask what the occasion is? Someone to congratulate? Other than the mother-to-be, of course.” She raises her glass to Brienne who accepts the gesture with a gracious nod. “A birthday?”

She must have said something funny. Shades of merriment ripple through the group, from soft chuckles to open laughter.

“Just the opposite, my dear”, Thoros starts up to explain. “Just the opposite. We’ve gathered here today to celebrate the dea-”

“Do you know what classified means, Thoros?” Brienne interjects sharply. Thoros just laughs and tips his glass to her.

“Well, let me just say this much. Two years ago, to this very day, a group of proud and gallant Knights Warrior rode out into a dark forest to slay a terrible monster and, after a fierce battle, emerged victorious.”

Sandor Clegane snorts. “Wasn’t the monster a fucking knight, too, Thoros?”

“Not a true one,” Sansa says with conviction. “No true Knight Warrior could ever be a monster.”

“A lovely sentiment, my dear,” Beric says. “Say, Alayne, these grilled vegetables were delicious. Grown locally, I assume?”

“Eh, yes. Right now, we get a lot of our produce from Ray’s Sanctuary here in Saltpans.” She’s a little confused, both by Beric’s sudden change of topic and the further delight her answer seems to cause her audience. Sandor Clegane has gone very, very still.

“Don’t be shy, Sandor,” Gendry needles him and finally offers an explanation to a very puzzled Alayne. “He works there, you know. Probably grew everything you buy from there himself.”

“You’re a gardener?” Alayne asks, unbelieving. The Hound. Growing plants. In a garden.

“I’m a… sort of teacher,” he rasps. “I work with the kids in the gardens. They are the ones that actually grow stuff.”

“Oh, have you always wanted to be a teacher?” she asks him playfully. Randa would be so proud.

He laughs. Not the Hound’s dark vicious laughter, drenched in wine and blood. No, simply relaxed mirth.

“Not really, no. What about you? Always wanted to be a waitress?” Oh, he doesn’t know she’s the owner?

“No. I wanted to be a singer.”

“A singer, eh?”

Their heads are close together now.

“I’m a little songbird, you could say.”

“Are you now?”

“Yeah.”

She’s touching him, openly. Her fingers stroke over his hand, on to his wrist, and he returns the touch, long fingers on her bare skin. It’s exhilarating.

“You know, I sing at the Sept, every Strangerday evening service. Maybe you could come one day and I could sing for you. Maybe the Mother’s Hymn?”

And that’s a mistake.

He tenses up like she’d stung him, his face blank. Do you, do you know who I am? Have I gone too far? Have I gone far enough?

“I’m not a fan of Septs,” he says with a voice like ice, but he doesn’t pull his hand back. His eyes are warm and brown, and she wonders if in a different life they would be storm gray and flashing with anger right now.

His earlier playfulness doesn’t return, and Alayne covers up her faux-pas with some more chitchat and retreats into the kitchen to nurse her wounded pride.

 

~

 

Beric, Thoros and their guests from Dorne leave shortly before 11 P.M. There’s a lot of hugging involved, cheeks are kissed once more, plans for the next day confirmed.

When Willas Tyrell walks by Alayne on his way to the front door, he stops and looks at her from top to bottom and back to the top, with his kind, golden eyes that seem to be in on a joke she hasn’t been told yet. “So tall,” he says, half to her, half to himself and the bottle of Dornish Red he must have had on his own. “You two will have spectacularly tall children. Thank gods that you have the hips for it.”

One advantage of wearing approximately seven layers of make-up on your face is that nobody will see you blush.

The remaining four guests sit for a little bit longer, Brienne’s tiredness more obvious from minute to minute, and finally they too get up, say their polite goodbyes to Alayne and leave. Alayne rushes to grab a convenient garbage bag from the kitchen and slips outside through the backdoor into the tiny courtyard. She was right, they are lingering still, the opportunity to tease a friend not wasted.

"What in all the seven hells was that?" Gendry asks with a joyful incredulity. "She practically threw herself at you!"

"He’s right, Sandor. There was hair touching, batted eyelashes, sultry looks. Utterly wasted on you, of course, but it’s the thought that counts. And that hand touching? My advice to you is to march right back in there and throw her over your giant shoulder! Make it a free folk wedding! Your best chance at any kind of wedding, really."

"Jaime, leave him be. Goodnight, Sandor. Goodnight, Gendry. Thank you for a lovely evening." Brienne kisses them on the cheek, then walks away into the direction of Tully Square. Jaime Lannister mumbles a hasty goodbye and follows Brienne into the night.

"If you miserable little cunt tell m‘lady about any part of this, I will strangle you, slowly, and I will enjoy it."

M‘lady. She presses herself deeper into the shadows. He has a m’lady, a girlfriend, maybe even a wife, and she just threw herself at him, like… like a wanton slut. No wonder he was so uncomfortable. Sansa’s shame burns deeply.

Their voices fade. Alayne walks back inside, her heart beating in her chest like a fluttering little bird.

She locks up, wipes down the tables, mops the floor twice, takes her time. Her legs ache and her feet hurt when she finally walks up the steps to her place. She makes herself a cup of herbal tea, lets it steam on the counter, lights a candle on her tiny kitchen table, blows it out again. No fire, not tonight.

She’s almost dead on her feet in the shower, half asleep when she takes her make-up off, carefully reversing the morning’s work. Contact lenses first, then eye make-up remover, oil cleanser, cleansing balm, face oil, moisturizer softly padded into the skin. Sansa Stark’s bare face in the mirror is mocking her.

She falls into her bed, eyes firmly shut, but sleep won’t come. She gets up again, remembers the herbal tea, now cold and long forgotten on the kitchen counter, drinks it anyway. She stands before her bed for a long minute. There’s a battered old backpack, covered in rusty colored spots, grime and dust, underneath her bed. She takes it out. Inside, there’s an old leather jacket, size 4XL, just as stained and battered, an expired can of pepper spray and a broken pair of handcuffs. She takes the jacket out. There are four photographs, hidden in a breast pocket. A laughing family before a Sevenmas tree. A puppy in the arms of a young girl with auburn hair. An imposing wintery castle in the snow. A close-up of a man’s face, his storm gray eyes clear and bright in an angry, scarred face. Behind him, blurry and out of focus, a boy with green eyes and golden hair smiles angelically right into the camera. Alayne stares at the photograph in her hand like an explorer who accidentally stumbles across the ruins of a lost city in the desert. Time goes by. She takes nail scissors from her bedside table and carefully cuts the smiling blond boy out of the photograph, cuts him up into tiny pieces, throws him out of the window into the night air.

The remaining part of the photograph is lovingly put back with the others, back into the jacket, back into the backpack, back under the bed. Safely stowed away.

She falls asleep and dreams of the Hound in her bed.

 

~3~

What happened way back when

At fifteen, Sansa Stark met the Hound for the first time and it felt like walking into a horror flick. In secluded, lovely Winterfell, everything was groomed and cozy and neat. People came from all over Westeros to visit the castle and the famous gardens, both those under glass and out of doors. Her family was close, if chaotic and loud. Her family’s employees were as good as family, if less chaotic and less loud. Other than her mother’s open dislike of Jon, there was a pastoral cheer, a routine of “every day the same” to everything around her that Sansa felt was… boring. Spoiled and sheltered, she simply craved drama. And romance. And beauty.

When Joffrey, gorgeous green-eyed Joffrey, came through the gates of Winterfell, it felt to her like the beginning of fairytale. When his personal bodyguard took off of his motorcycle helmet a second later, it quite ruined the picture. She had never seen anyone so ugly or so angry before, not in real life.

It took her weeks not to shudder in his presence, and even after she had gotten used to his ruined face – and she felt horrid that it took her such a long time, he was only human after all– the anger in his eyes kept her on her toes at all times.

 

At sixteen, Sansa wept on her knees. Her fairytale wasn’t a fairytale. Her fair prince was a monster who tormented her, and the man she had thought of as a monster gently dabbed blood from her face, saved her from a protest-turned-riot, counseled her, told her his secrets. He still scared her, too.

 

At seventeen, she watched the shipyard of King’s Landing burn and Sandor Clegane disappear into the night.

 

At eighteen, Sansa Stark disappeared herself...

 

 

 

Chapter Text


End Notes:
~1~

Three snippets of newspaper articles you might like to read:

 

From the Saltpans Daily, one year ago

The Sanctuary -  Success Story Despite Naysayers

[…] Despite initial community pushback, The Sanctuary has grown firm roots in Saltpans and now even supplies several local businesses with their produce. Founder Ray (no age or last name given) says: “They’re just boys, who all got dealt a bad hand in life. Poverty, bad parents or no parents at all, crime, the lot.” The young residents of the Sanctuary come from all over the Riverlands, out of juvenile detention centers or off the streets, and at the Sanctuary are given an education and work to do in the open air. As Ray says, “To truly reach them you have to give them responsibility and a sense of purpose.” Alongside Ray work a team of volunteers as well as a dedicated staff. One of them does not even let personal tragedy hold him down. Sandor Clegane (34) has more than ten years of experience working with troubled youngsters and despite recently losing his sight […]

 

From the King’s Landing Times, two days ago

No Trace of Seaworth.

Search efforts continue in the Riverlands, where Davos Seaworth, long-time advisor to shipping magnate Stannis Baratheon, went missing on Faraday. Seaworth was last seen in a rented car near Maidenpool […]

 

From the Riverrun Courier, today

Letter to the Editor: Wights Sighted in Darry – When Will Tarth Act?

[…] It is a disgrace that this is the third incident of so called wights south of the Neck this year already, and our Lady Prosecutor does nothing to stop this filth. Don’t we all know who’s supplying our children with deadly drugs? Why aren’t we allowed to talk about all these [Free Folk, ed.] coming down South, taking our jobs and bringing their drugs? [...]

 

 

~2~

What’s happening now

Sandor wakes up when the birds start chirping in the trees outside his window. He lies very still for a moment, then he stretches in bed, makes himself as long as he can (that is: very long), carefully tests out the state of his leg. After all this time, there are mostly good days of barely a pinch and then the rare bad days when the pain is so bad that he throws up from it, almost the second he wakes up.

Today, it’s another good day. He gets up, bathroom, piss, shave, toothbrush, hairbrush, throw on jeans and a T-shirt. The rest of the house is quiet. Wolf girl, back home from Winterfell since late last night, a bedraggled Podrick Payne in tow, is most likely still asleep. Gendry has a very early rowing practice on Maindays, has taken the dogs with him, and is probably already on the water by now.

Sandor loves this house with its high ceilings and tall doors. Brynden Tully might not be quite as tall as Sandor is, but everything in this house was built to fit someone taller than average height. It’s a small three-floor mansion surrounded by a garden and a tall wall, in a neighborhood built around the old town of Saltpans in the prosperous days of King Victarion the Third, at the end of the last century. When Sandor first came here, after almost six months on the Quiet Isle, and wolf girl led him through the rooms, he had still ducked his head automatically every time they approached a door. A lifetime of habit maybe, even deeper ingrained now that he couldn’t see for himself any longer and had bumped into hospital doorways more often than he could count. He doesn’t duck today. Not anymore.

Sandor knows this space so well, after a year and a half of living here. His room used to be the Blackfish’s, before the man went back to Riverrun to take over as warden, and the house stood empty for a year. There’s a large balcony towards the garden, an en suite bathroom with a tub the size of a small swimming pool, and a bed that actually fits Sandor. Outside his door is a large hallway, hardwood floors with a long Myrish rug that runs from his door to the stairs. Gendry has the room next to Sandor’s, then comes another bathroom and then the room designated for Podrick Payne. Wolf girl has her room on the third floor. Sandor’s been up there twice.

The walls are hung with old Tully heirlooms. Swords mostly, an axe here and there. They jingle when he taps his knuckles against the wall. In the staircase, the weapons make way for tall paintings in large ornate frames. Landscapes, according to wolf girl. I don’t know, rivers and trees, according to Gendry. Riverlands landscapes from the Romantic Period, depicting pastoral scenes, executed in oil, according to Pod.

The downstairs opens to one grand room. Sandor follows his usual path to the kitchen, another Myrish rug under his feet, past the side table where wolf girl drops her fencing gear after practice. Past the two dog baskets between their large couch and the tall wingback chair that is Sandor’s spot by unspoken agreement. Past the bookshelves that used to be filled with leather bound first editions of classic literature and are now home to Gendry’s textbooks on mechanical engineering and the supplies for his weaponized robot experiments. For the six months since Podrick Payne sneaked his way into wolf girl’s arms to create the world’s most stubborn love triangle, Sandor has waited for something of Pod’s to creep into the space. But quiet, unobtrusive Pod keeps his stuff out of the great room and always remembers to put everything back the way it has to be.

It’s the kitchen where Pod’s influence can be felt. When the boy first showed up, he had almost burned the house down trying to cook dinner. The next time, and a very begrudgingly granted next time it was, the food had been edible. The next time after that, it was bloody fantastic.

“I bought a book,” Pod had said. “It’s not that hard if you have a recipe to follow.”

Ever since then, Pod has been in charge of the kitchen.

Today there is pre-timed coffee already brewed and waiting for Sandor. Three bowls of cold porridge, one larger than the others, on the breakfast shelf in the fridge. Good Pod. He takes his bowl and coffee mug outside into the cool morning air, and sets them down on the big garden bench that Tormund made for them out of two tree trunks. Then he turns on the irrigation system and sits down, coffee mug carefully cradled in his left hand. The garden is silent and noisy at the same time and he listens carefully while he eats his breakfast. There are birds in the trees, crickets in the grass, bees in the rose bushes, the little fountain in the middle of the lawn babbles. One of the dogs comes up the garden path, the gravel crunches underneath its paws. Gendry must be back and on his way to a shower. The dog brushes against Sandor’s legs, under his outstretched hand. Short silky fur. Stranger. “Good boy, what a good boy you are, Stranger, such a good boy,” he coos, because no one’s around and this is home and this is his fantastic dog. Such a good boy.

It’s his favorite time of day, the sunrise. With the sunrise, he paints Sansa Stark…

“Let’s go hiking,” Arya says, suddenly next to him, and tears him from his thoughts. How long has she been here? Maybe he really does have to put a bell on her.

“Hmm?”

“I mean it, let’s go upstream, maybe to Green Fork, and spend a night in the woods, like...”

“Like before?”

“Yeah.”

Silence.

“Beric and Thoros do it all the time,” she says sullenly and swats his shoulder when he snorts. But the idea of being outdoors, away from it all even for a bit, is very appealing.

“Nym and Stranger would like it,” he muses out loud. “Not so sure about my leg, though. We’d have to go slow, and you’d have to guide me a lot. And there’s no reception out there. If something happens…”

“Nothing will happen, I don’t mind slow, I guide you all the time, and no reception is the fucking”- she never swears for a couple of days, every time she’s come back from the North, before she finds her way back from Cat Stark’s daughter to his little wolf girl, and the relish behind her words right now startles him – “fucking point. I just... I really, really need to not speak to my mother for a bit. Or Gendry.”

He stretches his leg. Barely a pinch and he hasn’t had to use a walking cane in months now. Tormund is happy with his progress, Dickon Tarly is very happy with his progress, Stranger would love to chase a rabbit or two… But what if he can’t make it a whole day, what if his leg fails him? Wolf girl would probably leave him behind to die under a tree…

“Urgh, fine. If you don’t want me, I’ll just go on my own.” Apparently, he’s been silent for too long and she has drawn her own conclusions.

If you don’t want me. Wolf girl, where is that coming from? What happened up North? What did Cat do?

“I haven’t said no, have I?”

“So... you’ll come with me?” She always sounds so bloody young when there’s hope in her voice.

“I’ll have to ask Tormund, get him to clear my leg. But… you can ask Dondarrion about trails... And no campfire.”

A car honks. Ray, come to pick him up for work.

 

~

 

The car ride with Ray is uneventful. They listen to the news and speculate about Davos Seaworth’s disappearance like the rest of Westeros has done since the news broke last Mothday. They listen to some music in silence. When they arrive at the Sanctuary, most of the boys of are already in the garden. They introduce themselves by name, one by one, like every lesson, just like he taught them and expects them to.

Today he starts with a group of 10 to 12-year-olds, the youngest ones, and in some ways the most exhausting. At least the bigger ones don’t ask as many bloody questions. Although… the ones that ask questions are the ones he doesn’t worry about as much. It’s usually the quiet ones that turn out to be trouble.

“Can’t you see anything at all, Mr. Clegane?” and “Can you take out your eyes? Is it gross?” and “Steffon says you were an elite soldier in Quohor! Is that true?”.

He just grumbles a bit (“No”, “Yes and yes”, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”) and shows them how to gently bind up sunflowers so that their stalks won’t break when they’ll be taller than him when summer ends. Sandor knows that this is what he’s here for, that his job is to teach them more than the bits that he picks up from the others who work in the gardens. His job is to show these kids how to handle fragile shoots and young leaves, how to take care of others, how not to give up, how to protect something weaker than you. How to be strong, and gentle, and brave.

And his job is to listen to them. To sniff out the little lies they tell and the big ones, to find the troubled ones, the bullies, the ones who would hurt a cat and laugh about it, the ruthless manipulators.  Gregor, Joffrey, Petyr Baelish…

They are just about done when Nella Fletcher arrives, one of Ray’s volunteers. A kind old lady with the backbone of steel that you get from teaching Common Tongue to teenagers for 35 years, but notoriously late. She and the boys start picking slugs in the lettuce patch, and she makes it a game for them, who finds the most, the biggest, the grossest.

Sandor never participates in the slug picking, for very obvious reasons, and today uses the time instead to check what the boys did to the sunflowers.

“Mr. Clegane?” These bloody kids with their voices that all sound the same.

“You have to tell me who you are when you come up to me, boy.”

“Oh… I’m Tommy.” Arrived just last week, check for signs of trauma and sociopathic tendencies, Ray’s voice whispers in the back of Sandor’s head.

“And?”

“Slugs are gross.”

Sandor bites down a laugh. “And…?”

“I’d rather help you. Mrs. Fletcher says it’s okay. Can I?”

Tommy is surprisingly useful when it comes to opening knots in gardening yarn, his hands are gentle with the young leaves just like Sandor shows him to be, but he doesn’t say anything unprompted for the next thirty minutes. Sandor is contemplating that when the bell rings, and the boys rush into the main house for their next lesson. Nella comes up to him.

“He’s doing all right for a new one, don’t you think?” Sandor asks.

“He’s scared of his own shadow, the poor boy, very scared of men in particular.” Nella has a keen eye for body language and she has seen many, many children grow up over the course of her career as a teacher. It has given her an insight into their psyche that is unmatched among all of them at the Sanctuary.

“Hm. He seemed fine with me. Then again, I’m not much of a threat these days.”

“No, I don’t think that’s it. You could hurt them all, easily. But you won’t. And you’re always honest with them. The kids can tell and respond well to that. Too bad you won’t go with them to Maidenpool. They could use you there.” In a week, all of the boys will leave for the summer, to various summer camps all over the seven regions. Ray has asked Sandor repeatedly to join the little ones, but he firmly declines every time, opting to stay behind with Ray and Nella and the rest of the skeleton crew to look after the garden and the animals.

The next group arrives, the surly steps of 16-year-olds fresh out of a math class. He’ll have them dig up the potato fields until they’re exhausted and relaxed again. An hour should do it.

 

~

 

Nella drops him off at the gym on her way back home, where Tormund’s already waiting for him at the front door. Like every Mainday, Tormund urges him to try the new climbing wall. Like every Mainday, Sandor categorically refuses without confessing that it’s not the physical aspect of it that holds him back… it’s trusting someone else here to not let go of the damn rope. And as the only person on the planet who Sandor does actually trust enough, who he knows to have both the strength and the heart to never let him fall, will be busy carrying Jaime Lannister’s spawn for another two months, climbing adventures will have to wait. Instead he does his workout, showers and waits for Tormund to go on his lunch break. On Maindays, they get rotisserie chickens from a little place across the street and eat it with their bare hands on the grass in the backyard of the gym. Tormund calls it staying in touch with his wildling roots, Sandor calls it bloody convenient. He loves eating with his hands, always has, always will.

It’s over their chickens that Tormund awkwardly asks after his blue-eyed goddess and if that Lannister bastard is still treating her right (apparently the only reason Jaime hasn’t met the edged side of a battle axe yet is that he does in fact make Brienne very happy,) and Sandor breaches the topic of going hiking with Arya next weekend. Tormund happily agrees with the plan but still rattles off advice after advice, just in case, Sandy, you’re fine, but still, heat packs, cool packs, stretching, take it slow, slow, slow.

Sandor walks home from the gym and has almost reached their street when someone calls his name and, seconds later, jumps off a bicycle next to him.

“Hey.” It’s Gendry, and his greeting sounds like someone who was recently sentenced to death.

“You’re home early,” Sandor says as he continues walking, careful not to get his cane into the spokes of Gendry’s bike.

“Yeah. I couldn’t stand it any longer. All everyone talks about is Davos. And - I just couldn’t… I spoke to Shireen on the phone earlier today. She’s heartbroken. His wife and sons are too. And all these people who never met him, talking nonsense like ‘oh, he probably ran off with Baratheon’s money.’ He would never!”

“Wouldn’t he?” Sandor used to live in King’s Landing for the better part of his life. In his experience, there isn’t anyone who wouldn’t run off with money, as long as it’s enough of it.

“You never met him,” Gendry scoffs. “He’s the nicest man. He’s like the dad that I never had. That we never had, really, because just ask Shireen and Myrcella about what kind of dad they had. Have, whatever. And what Davos means to all of us. When Beric and Thoros picked us up, me and Arry, after… after that place.” That place being Gregor’s torture chambers near Harrenhal. Sandor has never heard Gendry mention them before. “Davos came and told me who my father was and that my cousin Shireen was looking for me and that I had a family, a real family, and brothers and sisters. And he hugged me… When Shireen and Myrcella prepped me for the Maidenpool entry exams, Davos would help me study, every day. He was the one who got me in touch with Arry again, did you know that? And then to hear people talk shit about him, like he’s a criminal, like we’re not worried for his life. I had to leave. Or I’d punch someone.”

Sandor stays quiet. Gendry sighs and changes the topic.

“My brother Ed is coming to Saltpans next week. I already told him he could stay with us. I hope that’s all right with you?”

“Which Ed?”

“Edric Storm. Reporter for the Lightbringer Gazette. You haven’t met him yet.”

Sandor shrugs.

“I don’t mind as long as he puts his shit out of the way. Guestroom on the third floor?”

“Yeah, has to be, now that wonder schlong permanently has the one on the second.”

“Pod’s a good kid.”

“Pod’s a good kid that’s fucking m’lady.”

“And you told her you were fine with that.”

“I thought I was. Changed my mind.”

They have reached the gate to their house, and Nymeria greets them with cheerful yips. Seconds later, Stranger’s deeper bark joins her. Gendry locks up his bike while Sandor pets the dogs and folds up his cane.

“I haven’t told her, you know,” Gendry pipes up.

“Told her what?” Sandor asks cautiously.

“About yesterday. Alayne.”

Alayne. A warm hand on his arm. Her lovely voice, her voice that sounds just like Sansa’s, so close to his face. I’ll sing a song for you…

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Soooo, it is okay if I tell Arry?”

Sandor stands up very straight and tall, constricts the muscles in his bad cheek to make his scars stand out more, lets the snarl of his ruined lips intensify. Prepares his voice to be lower, deeper, raspier than usual. The full horror flick effect, the full Hound experience.

“If you want me to strangle you…”

“Okay, okay, my lips are sealed! Seven, you’re scary like that.”

 

~

 

Thoros and Dondarrion come by the house the next day, and they go over trail maps together, talk about hikes and camp grounds, reminiscing like they own the bloody forest. Pod unobtrusively conjures up dinner in the background. Good Pod. In the end, they settle on the easiest path possible. Starting out from the historic Inn at the Crossroads, down to the Trident on a path popular with the plus 60 set, a night there, back the next day.

Gendry drives them up, early in the morning. The ride is a complete and utter nightmare. Arya is sullen and silent in the backseat, almost buried under happy, slobbering dogs, Gendry is silent and sullen right back at her, and Sandor just can’t get comfortable in the passenger seat, can’t shake his disorientation, the unsettling feeling of not knowing where the fuck he is.

When Gendry finally parks the car, and they all stumble out into the parking lot with various degrees of enthusiasm – ranging from a fuck ton of it (the dogs) to none whatsoever (Gendry) - their joint relief is palpable. They spend the morning at the Inn, where an old friend of wolf girl and Gendry’s is an apprentice cook, and have fantastic steak and kidney pie for lunch. Hot Pie and nostalgia break the tension, a little bit at least, and wolf girl says her goodbyes to Gendry with a lot more passion than Sandor has heard of her in weeks. He’s pretty sure that one long silence is a little make-out session.

The hike is… surprisingly nice. His leg holds up without a problem, the weather is fantastic, and for long stretches of the even path, he and his sturdiest cane get by just fine on their own. They reach their destination easily and make camp under a tree, not far from the Trident, eat what Pod packed for them (no campfire,) and finally roll out their old sleeping bags.

Sandor wakes up. The air is too cool, the meadows are too quiet. Still night then. Arya shifts next to him.

“Are you awake, Dog?”

“Aye. Can’t sleep?”

“I’ve been thinking. About break-ups.”

“If you break up with Pod, we’ll starve to death.”

“I don’t want to break up with Pod. Pod’s great. And Gendry is… Gendry is great, too. I don’t want to break up with anyone, it’s not fair that I have to. We talked it through, last winter. And we all agreed to this... I want things to stay the way they are.”

“But?”

“Gendry’s unhappy. He’s jealous. He doesn’t like sharing. I hate what it does to him.”

“Have you tried not sharing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Tyrell and Sand don’t share Martell. They just… pile on. A Dornish love triangle is a circle.”

“You mean all three at the same time?”

“Aye.”

“Huh… I don’t think Gendry would go for that... Pod would, though.”

“If Pod is as good in bed as he is in the kitchen, I’d let him fuck me, too.”

“Oh, he definitely is.” She snickers.

“Then tell your boys to try. Maybe they’ll like it.”

Silence.

“Now. That thing about your mother.” He fully expects her to tell him to shut it, but…

“She has a fucking shrine. A Sansa shrine.” She almost sputters. “Everyone always liked her more than me. My parents, our teachers, even you. She was prettier and better in school and everyone loved her… And now she’s dead and I still can’t compete with her. I’m here, and she is gone, and mother still, still…” She’s sniffling angrily, his little wolf girl always. “It was such a great weekend at first. Mother even went to Wintertown with us. It was fun! And then… There’s a table right in the hall, with candles, and pictures of Sansa in black frames, and all her trophies and ribbons, and nobody is allowed to touch it. I, I picked up a picture, I just wanted to look at her, and Mother yelled at me. Fucking screamed, like, like a ghoul. Sansa’s dead, Dog, why doesn’t Mother love me now?”

His little wolf girl. He turns to her, contemplates reaching out for hug, decides against it. He can feel the tension radiating from her, like static, electrical currents. Always so angry.

“Your mother loves you, Arya. You know that. And she loves your brothers. And your sister, too.”

“Yeah, right. And what do you know about my mother. About mothers plural. Nothing!”

“Not much, sure.” He shrugs. “All I know is that it’s not healthy, being angry all the time. But, girl, I know Cat. I’ve met her, I’ve seen...” not really, actually, but this not the moment for semantics, “I’ve seen her with you. She. Loves. You. Now, quit your fucking whining. Boohoo, my sister’s dead and my ma is sad about it. Cry me a bloody river. We are all allowed our grief.”

She huffs, rubs her face with her sleeve.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay, enough about my shit. What’s up with you? How was the big reunion of the three blind mice? You never said.”

“I… I think I met someone.”

Her laughter has a slightly hysterical edge to it, but it’s better than her tears, and he’ll gladly take it.

“Seriously? And here I thought you’d be pining after my sister forever and ever. Who? Where? Tell me!”

“Not much to tell, really. The waitress at Beric’s dinner party… She. Hm, the others say she’s pretty and that... She looked at me. She definitely flirted. With me.” She sounds just like Sansa.

“Have you asked her out?”

“No.”

“So… What now?”

“She sings with the Sept choir during Strangerday Evening Service. Asked me to come and listen to her sing.” Sing him the bloody Mother’s Hymn. With her voice that sounds just like Sansa’s.

“Hmm. Are you sure it’s not just a, a missionary- help him find the seven- thing?”

“No.”

“Yesterday was Strangerday.”

“Aye.”

“But you’re here.” The with me, instead hangs unspoken in the air, loud and clear.

“Mmh.”

“Why?”

He shrugs. “Why not?” They’ve never been much for words or displays of affection, his wolf girl and he, but he can do unspoken just as well as she can, and he projects his because you’re my friend and you were upset and I care for you into the night, adds a growling “Come on, don’t make me say it.” Out loud, just for good measure.

“What, that you’re a miserable coward? Too scared to chat up a waitress, Clegane?” That’s the spirit, and he reaches out, finds her head on the first try, ruffles her hair while she shrieks and pushes away from him. That wakes up the dogs.  

“I’ve missed this. Being outside, feeling free,” she says an hour later, after the howling and barking has stopped and the night has slowly begun to flow into the morning. “It would be even better if you could still see… but you’re a lot nicer now, and not drunk all the time. So maybe this is not so bad after all?”

“Maybe.” Because really, what else can he say to that?

There’s a friendly silence between them while they eat their way through Pod’s fantastic breakfast pail. Literal crickets chirping in meadow. She’s making her thinking noises, chewing quietly, and he knows because he knows her that she will call her mother from the car on the way home and will go back North the next weekend.

“Brienne thinks that Sansa might still be alive, you know. Something about the DNA evidence and the KP at the time being on Baelish’s payroll.” Arya’s hopeful voice, so young suddenly.

Sandor knows all about Brienne’s crackpot theories, about her obsession with finding either the little bird, alive and in hiding somewhere, or her killer. But thinking about Sansa’s death, how they never found out if she was still alive when… the fire… it’s more than he can bear right now. Wolf girl thankfully drops that specific subject.

“She’d have turned 21 soon. The Mainday two weeks from now.”

“Aye.”

“Dog? I think I’ll throw her a nameday party.”

Sandor draws a sharp breath.

“That’s really fucked up.”

“I know. But… maybe Brienne’s right - and I’m not saying she is. I want to do something for Sansa anyway. She deserves a party.”

Sansa Stark deserves everything good in this world, most of all to actually be fucking alive.

“Can you see the sunrise from here?” Sandor asks, changing the topic again as proof of his good will more than anything.

“Uh, yeah, wait. I’m going to touch you.” Small hands on his shoulders, a hand turning his chin to the left. “Now, straight ahead. The sun’s just coming up, about two hands over the horizon. No clouds. Eh, the sunlight glitters on the river.” Then, an afterthought. “It’s really pretty.”

They sit next to each other, both with their chins resting on knees tucked to the chest, both with a sleepy happy dog at their feet. Sandor has one of Stranger’s velvet ears between his fingers, a snout on his right foot. Birds are singing in the trees, the dewy air is already warm, the river a quiet stately presence in the distance. He isn’t in any pain or danger, his belly is full, he’s wide awake in body and mind. That’s being happy, right?

Sandor paints the sunrise in his mind and his colors are Sansa. Fiery hair for the sun, Tully blue eyes for the river below, unblemished skin like cream for the clouds he knows aren’t there but imagines anyway because he’s from the Westerlands and a sky without clouds isn’t a proper sky. Her blush the softest and her lips the deepest pink of the sunrise. That green dress of hers for the trees, that purple one and her pastel shirts for the flowers in the meadows. Her dazzling smile, the glittering waves…

Poor wolf girl. Your mother is not the only one with a fucking shrine for Sansa Stark.

 

 

~3~

What happened way back when

Five days into this nightmare, the eyes were bad, but the leg was worse. The eyes, well, he’d seen Dondarrion, had heard of what happened to Martell. To walk into his brother’s fucking lair and take the fucker down and lose life or eyes in the process had always been a possible outcome, somewhere far in the back of his head. And he’d taken that chance anyway, willingly, had risked it on an all-or-nothing bet, and he had lost. Okay, so he’d lost, that was life.

But the leg. Fucking bullet ricochet. He had always thought he knew what pain was. Turned out he might have known once, but had forgotten quite a bit. Because this. This was pain. The alcohol withdrawal didn’t help much, either.

At least they didn’t skimp on the good stuff, even if it didn’t last quite as long as he’d like, and he was mostly drifting in and out of consciousness.

“Mr. Clegane,” a voice said, next to his bed. All these voices jumping at him from the nothingness. A woman this time. Older than him, maybe? A posh voice, but restrained, brittle and tense. Crying? What?

“Who…?”

“Thank you, Mr. Clegane. Thank you for protecting my daughter.” But that was wrong, he hadn’t protected her, he had left her behind, she was dead, had burned. His little bird burned to death. He felt sick again.

“Arya told me everything. And I spoke to Ser Dondarrion. Thank you for everything you have done for my family.”

“Catelyn Stark?” he whispered into the nothing.

“Oh. Yes, I am so sorry. Yes, I am Catelyn Stark. I beg your pardon, Mr. Clegane. I should have introduced myself properly.” A cold hand grabbed his own, pressed it, released it.

“How’s wo-, how’s Arya?”

“As good as can be expected under the circumstances, thank you for asking. We are staying at my uncle’s house in Saltpans for the moment and will travel back North, home to Winterfell, as soon as possible. Everything will be fine. Arya will get the help she needs. Everything will be how it was.”

She was determined, Catelyn Stark. Dead wrong, of course, because nothing would ever be how it was for her, not with a dead husband and a dead daughter and Arya Stark more wolf than girl these days. But Sandor had always admired determination.

Wolf girl didn’t come to visit.

 

~

 

A Riverrun KP came by to tell him that Polliver’s case would go to trial and that she’d call him as witness for the prosecution. Brienne of Tarth, a voice like Valyrian steel, clear and precise and elegant.

“I thought Jaime fucking Lannister was the KD for all these cunts. How’d he withhold a concur in good conscience?” Sandor asked.

“Jaime’s reasons are entirely personal and do not reflect the chances of the defense to win this case, I assure you.” Jaime, huh? And personal reasons for any Lannister, Knight Defender or not, could mean only one thing. Orders from up high.

“Tywin.” Sandor let his shoulders sag. The man to go against Tywin Lannister and win hadn’t been born yet, most likely.

“I did not say anything,” the KP (“please, call me Brienne”) sighed, her voice resigned. “May I take this opportunity and thank you for protecting Lady Arya for the last year?”

“Didn’t need much protection. And what’s it to you?”

“I was in charge of a special unit tasked with finding the two missing Stark girls. It was recently dissolved, and I was re-assigned to Riverrun.”

“Dissolved before or after they found… the body.” Sansa’s burned corpse. His stomach lurched, he could taste the bile already.

“Before. One month before.”

“Convenient timing.”

“I am aware of that.” She took a deep breath and there was something in her voice that he knew. This was what his own thoughts must sound like. “I should have insisted on going on. We had a lead to the Vale, to Petyr Baelish. I should have kept going. I failed her. And I would give everything I have, everything I am, to make it right again.”

“Welcome to the club.” The words left his mouth before he had the chance to think about their implications. And spoken to a fucking KP. He was definitely slipping.

“What do you mean by that?” She leaned forward, her voice closer now than before.

And then more words came out of his mouth somehow. And Brienne had stories, too. At some point, she left to get them some coffee, and when she came back and touched her paper cup to his, “to Sansa” in a voice like Valyrian steel, it felt like they had somehow become the founding members of a very exclusive club.

There might be better foundations for a friendship than a shared and utterly unhealthy obsession with Sansa Stark and the many ways you failed her in your life. But there were also many that were a lot worse.

 

~

 

There never was a trial; Polliver was found dead in his cell one morning, his throat slit. The killer was never found.

Months came and went.

 

~

 

When Sandor limped back to his room after a particular grueling PT session with Dickon Tarly, one of the nurses announced that he had a visitor, Lady Arya Stark, waiting in his room. It made him straighten up, walk into the room with his head held high. She hadn’t seen him in the after yet.

“Wolf girl.”

“Dog.”

“I thought you were back home in Winterfell.”

“I was. I left.”

“Why?”

She sighed, her fingers nervously tapping against… something?

“At first, it was great. I love Winterfell, I loved being back with my family. And looking at all the photos there. I had almost forgotten how father looked like. But… Jon is busy fighting winter at the wall. Bran is stoned all the time. Robb lives with his wife in White Harbor ,and when he’s home, he and Mother fight. Rickon is… Rickon. I want it to be how it was, but, Father won’t come back. Sansa won’t come back. And Mother… is like a ghost. There are still paparazzi outside the gate, trying to get pictures of us, and Mother absolutely refuses to be in the press, so we barely ever leave the grounds. It’s a cage, Dog. A cage and a crypt. I turned 17, last week, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. They don’t understand – what it was like for us. Not how you understand, or Gendry. I’m of age now, I can do what I want. I wanted to leave and I left. Can I… can I stay with you instead?”

When he opened his arms, she came to him and threw her arms around his neck. A slight wisp of a girl in his arms, and long buried memories of holding his sister like this flitted through his brain. “Happy Nameday, wolf girl.”

It took Dondarrion and Brienne almost an entire week to convince a raging Catelyn and a raving Robb Stark to go back North and leave Arya behind. Official oaths to protect Lady Arya Stark were sworn, as if that meant anything, promises were made to visit often, to call every day, but in the end the plan to enroll Arya in the prestigious and highly elitist Knights Prosecutor program at Maidenpool Academy was what pushed Cat over the edge.

 

~

 

“What about forgetting stuff? Faces?” he asked the Elder Brother as they walked through the garden.

“Hmm, when you think back to your childhood, or people you haven’t met in years. There are faces you remember, right? But others you have forgotten. For example, can you remember the face of your Common Tongue teacher when you were eight years old? Probably not, right?”

He actually remembered Ms. Hightower vividly. She had been pretty, she had been nice to him and looked him in the face, and he had randomly thought of her over the years, wondering how she was doing, if she was happy with that Northman she had married. But the man still had a point because even though Sandor might remember his CT teacher, he couldn’t for the life of him remember his mother’s face… or his sister’s anything.

“You will remember the things you think of often enough. Everything else will fade with time, just like any memory does when it’s not revisited repeatedly. And when it does, just ask yourself. Does it really matter? You will remember new things instead. Sounds. Smells. Stuff that will still mean something to you. Anyway, have I told you about my friend Ray yet?”

 

Sansa Stark matters, he thought later that night. Sansa. All these years, he’d seen her every day, and barely looked at her, or maybe leered at her in the dark, drunk as a dog. What a waste of time. If he’d just known. If he could just go back, just for an hour, a minute even. If he could just look at the little bird one more time, he’d happily drown himself in her eyes. So he dragged up every meager memory he had of her, put them all in a row, every single day.

First, the happy ones. That split second of her on a sun-drenched terrace high above the city, a light blue sundress, her pale shoulders translucent in the sunlight. Sansa, leaning across the balustrade, her perfect profile against the red stones, the elegant turn of her head, her dazzling, devastating smile. (She’d smiled at Loras Tyrell that day, of course. Never at you, dog.) Sansa, laughing in the gardens, Sansa with Myrcella and another one of their useless girlfriends, taking pictures of themselves, pursed lips and sultry eyes. Sansa, untying her braids, her glorious hair flowing down her back, her fluttering hands, her long slim legs.

Then, the ones that filled him with regret and shame. Sansa, cowering before that cunt, that utter cunt Joffrey, her shirt torn, her bare tits, perfect, what else. Her face when she cried out as Trant hit her. And he hadn’t saved her, had looked at her ears instead or straight above her head, trying his godsdamn hardest to think of nothing at all. Sansa, during the riots. How she’d clung to him.

Finally, the one memory that he saved for last, every single time. How she had looked in the half-light of the burning ship yard, his blade on her milk-white throat, her wide eyes when she looked him straight in the face. Her mouth when she sang for him.

Why hadn’t he just taken a good long look every time he had the chance? Why had he been so drunk all the time, such a coward?

What an utter, utter waste of sight. Hair like fire and Tully blue eyes. Beautiful… like a sunrise.

 

Clegane, you pathetic fool. Go to sleep.

Chapter Text


~1~

one letter you should definitely know about

From Samwell Tarly, Mae (Oldtown), Knightswatch at Castle Black to the Head of the Pharmacology Department, Citadel of Oldtown (dated three years ago)

[…] One of our Rangers, Benjen Stark, accidently came in contact with an unknown substance during a raid. […] The Free Folk call it “Winter” and the affected “Wights” […] Physical effects set in almost instantly after exposure. What we can assume from mere observation is that the eumelanin in the iris is absorbed, leaving behind the typical phenotype of very light blue eyes. Blood circulation is instantly compromised, leading to edema in hands and feet and leaving the affected unnaturally cold and pale. The skin begins to decay, although those affected don’t show any signs of discomfort or pain […] extremely aggressive behavior […] We strongly suspect a synthetic origin, but why anyone would circulate a drug that does not create a demand in the addicted – as in most observed cases the drug appears to be lethal after just one instance of exposure – is utterly beyond me. […]

 

 

~2~

What’s happening now

Alayne wakes up drenched in sweat and with Sandor Clegane on her mind, like every day since he stepped foot into her Bower. He hasn’t come to see her, neither at the café nor at the Sept last Strangerday, which in turn has confirmed her conclusion from that overheard snippet of conversation. He is in love with someone else and has no interest in her. Her head tells her that she should be glad about the peril of discovery being averted once again, but still. She is disappointed.

Before she goes downstairs, she cleans her little room. Her room. Not Catelyn Stark’s, not Cersei’s, not Petyr’s.

In the two years she has lived here, no one but her has entered it. It’s her space, she herself has chosen and assembled every single piece of furniture, painted the soft blue of the walls, sewn the gauzy curtains for her single window, the covers for her throw pillows, her table cloth. She has hung the framed paintings of Saltpans landmarks, the Sept, the harbor. She bought these paintings with money she has earned herself.

A week ago, the thought of another person in here had felt like a sacrilege. Today, she can’t get rid of the image of Sandor Clegane in this room, with her.

 

Her giant bed, large enough for a family of four – or an extremely tall man and a very tall woman, her heart supplies unhelpfully –fills the corner of the room where the roof slopes. She changes the sheets and the pillow case. Sleep is so hard to find while this heat wave continues to scorch the Riverlands. How would it be to share this bed with another warm body?

She wipes down her little bathroom, just a shower stall, a toilet and a tiny little sink, but still, two people could fit in the shower together… if they were willing to get close. Very close.

Her cheerful yellow kitchenette with the tiny round table and just two chairs. So cozy and neat and pretty. She wonders how it would be to have his masculine presence here in her space, laughing over a cup of coffee in the morning, that relaxed, happy laugh that took her by surprise the week before. He’s so tall, his head would almost reach the ceiling standing here. Daydreams of having breakfast with him at her table, in her bed...

Later, she listlessly does her morning workout and paints on her Alayne face with an unusual determination. A young reporter for the Lightbringer Gazette will visit the Bower today, interview her, take a few pictures. Not of her, though, never a picture of her. Just some close-ups of their food, the interior, maybe Harry with his golden boy smile. What a great opportunity to get some publicity in the Stormlands where the Lightbringer is very popular with the large R’hllorist community. Harry, who reads the Riverrun Courier like it is the Seven-Pointed Star, will definitely have to keep his mouth shut, though. She wonders what Sandor Clegane thinks of the Riverrun Courier and -

Focus, Alayne. Keep it together.

 

~

 

Edric Storm turns out to be another obvious Baratheon offspring. It’s almost laughable how they suddenly spring up around her like mushrooms.

She eats dinner with him, ready to win him over with grilled sole and vegetables, Arbor Gold, coffee and lemon cakes, and her own captivating company. He is charming, courteous and handsome and clearly very, very bored with the whole situation.

“You’ve asked that question already,” she says gently, after he asks her about her favorite historic landmark of Saltpans for the third time. “The Sept.”

He blushes. “I’m sorry, Ms. Stone. Alayne. Of course, as you said... the Sept.”

“This isn’t what you want to do with your time, is it?”

He sighs and leans back in his chair. “That obvious?”

She laughs and raises her coffee cup to him. “I see a lot of students struggling to finish papers. Most of them don’t look half as tortured as you do.”

“I really am sorry, Alayne.”

“Oh, don’t be. What is it you would rather do?”

He plays with the rim of his wine glass and then smiles at her bashfully. “I was onto a really big story. Really big. Only, my boss didn’t like what I found. She gave that assignment to someone else instead.”

Alayne leans forward, her curiosity piqued.

“May I ask what it was about?”

He looks at her critically, and she makes her eyes a little wider, her lips a little fuller. Her “I’m just a sweet girl, you can tell me anything” face, and she focuses her gaze on his right eye, holds it, switches to the left one, then looks at his mouth. It works like a charm. Edric leans forward, unconsciously mirroring her posture.

“There are only two stories every single reporter in Westeros dreams of breaking. No, actually it’s three, if you count whatever happened to the Starks.”

Alayne’s blood turns icy cold at that name. Thankfully, Edric doesn’t notice her turmoil and continues.

“The first one is if the rumors are true about Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane and all those disappearances in the Riverlands up until two years ago. Human trafficking, allegedly. Oh, did you know that the Riverlands have the most serial killers per capita in all of the SK? My boss always says it’s because of all the wars that were fought here. All the blood in the ground; it attracts evil. That’s what my boss says, at least. Anyway, take any of these picturesque little Riverlands villages that look like the clock stopped fifty years ago, and I’ll show you one unsolved suspicious death after the other.”

He takes a gulp from his wine glass.

“This Arbor Gold is excellent, by the way.”

“Oh, thank you.” Alayne smiles. Please, don’t start talking about Starks again, please. “And the other story?”

“Ah, the other story. The other story is if winter is coming… or if it is brought.”

Please, don’t mention Starks, please, please. She can already feel Sansa’s tears well up deep in her throat.  Edric takes her silence for spellbound attention and leans even closer.

“You’re a business woman, Alayne. Right? Have you ever wondered what the point of a drug is that kills the user right away? Sure, they have nasty stuff like that over in Essoss, too. Something desperate people cook together over a candle flame when the need for a hit gets so bad that it doesn’t matter anymore if the flesh rots from your bones. But winter? Winter is different. For three years, maesters have tried to figured out how it’s made. Because it is definitely made and in a very intensive chemical process at that. Somewhere on Planetos, someone has a lab where winter is made. But for what purpose?”

“It can’t be money,” Alayne ponders. “You make the most money by creating a steady demand for your product. To kill off your, eh, customer base right away makes no sense.” Joffrey’s dealer had been the number two on his speed dial, right after Cersei.

“Exactly!” Edric beams proudly. “It makes no sense at all!”

“What do you think it is?” Alayne whispers, giving him her best “you’re the smartest man I have ever met” look.

“I think that winter isn’t a drug.” Edric pauses dramatically. "It’s a bio weapon! Have you heard of the Wight Walker?”

Alayne shakes her head.

“Other than in history books, you mean?”

“No, not white as in color, wight as in creature.” Ed waves a hand impatiently. “But that doesn’t matter. There are eyewitness reports, mostly from children, all from the Far North, that in a night before wights turn up in a village, creatures walk from house to house. Creatures whose descriptions sound suspiciously like men wearing white hazmat suits. The Wight Walker.”

“And they spread winter? Why?”

“Why does anything happen ever? Sex, money or power.”

“But you said -”

“I said that no money is made by selling it. But take a look at the bigger picture. What has happened since winter arrived? The Free Folk communities are devastated, President Rayder’s government is in full crisis mode and loses support by the hour. The North is already overrun with Free Folk immigrants and the South will be soon, too. Tensions are running high; people actually believe that tabloid rag, the Riverrun Courier, and the xenophobic nonsense it spews. And in this hour of need, what does Roose Bolton, our esteemed Warden of the North, propose as a solution?”

“To send SK troops beyond the Wall as disaster relief,” Alayne replies. “It was in yesterday’s KL Times.”

“Yes. To send SK troops beyond the Wall. But not to help.” Edric takes a sip of his wine again. “It’s all in  preparation for a land grab.”

“But... why?”

“Money and power. Four years ago, the largest oil reservoir on the planet was found in the Far North. Larger than even Vaes Dothrak ever was. We are talking unfeasible amounts of money here. Trillions. But all production there has ceased at the moment. Why? Because of winter! Roose Bolton holds large investments in several oil companies, his son is getting his second link in engineering from Maidenpool. I took a look at his first link paper. Construction of a “hypothetical” oil pipeline from the Far North to White Harbor. What a coincidence, right?”

Alayne whistles.

“And you think Bolton would kill thousands and thousands of people just -” She pauses. In another lifetime, Sansa Stark has actually met Roose Bolton. “Yes, I’m sorry. Of course, he would. Money and power… Can you prove any of this, though?”

Edric sighs.

“Unfortunately, no. I can’t prove anything. And neither can the watchers I spoke to. Oh, the Knightswatch has had an eye on Bolton for months, they’re not stupid. But not even Lord Commander Mormont can easily order a search if it’s the Warden they’re searching, you know? Least of all because of something that boils down to hunches and weird coincidences. Anyway, my boss got really impatient after a while. She’s a hardcore R’hllorist; she believes that winter is a plague sent by the Red God. My buddy Matthos gets to write about winter now. And I’m stuck in Saltpans, Riverlands, most boring town in Westeros, during the hottest summer in a century, writing drivel for a glorified tourist brochure. No offense meant.”

“None taken.”

“Well, at least I get some quality time with my little brother out of it.”

Alayne’s ears prick up.

“You have a little brother here in town?”

“Yes, a half-brother. Gendry Waters, the rower. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. Westerosi record holder and all? I’ve been staying at his house. I should go soon actually, I promised to meet him, his girlfriend and one of his housemates for drinks in half an hour.”

“One of his housemates?” Be careful, Alayne. Don’t run stupid risks, just because you can’t get a man out of your head.

“Oh yes, very interesting creature. Used to be Joffrey Baratheon’s personal bodyguard. And Gregor Clegane’s little brother, not that you’re allowed to mention that in his presence, ever. Had an accident or something, lost his sight. Would make a great human interest piece but he won’t hear of it, barely talks to me. Very rude man. Too bad. Melisandre – that’s my boss - loves a good maiming story.”

“Where did you say you were meeting them?”

“Down at the waterfront, a place called “Trout Jig”. You know it?”

“Of course.” Alayne smiles her most bewitching smile. “You know, I’m free in half an hour, I can show you the way there.”

“Would you?” Edric smiles broadly. “If you’re already free, I’m sure they would be delighted if you could join us for a drink or two.”

Got you.

 

Alayne leaves Edric behind to flirt with Sally, while she slips upstairs to her room to get ready for a night at the Trout Jig. She quickly checks her make-up, touches up a bit and adds red lipstick, lets her hair down, brushes it out, and takes her glasses off, changes into a sleeveless black silk top and her only pair of high heels. She picks dangling silver earrings that lightly jangle when she moves, packs a little clutch with just the necessities, and sprays on some perfume. When she sees her reflection in the vanity mirror, she twirls. After two years of boring, understated looks, these little changes make her look like a whole other person.  

Edric stares when she comes up to him, taller than he is in these shoes. Men haven’t looked at her like that since she came to Saltpans from Gulltown and it suddenly makes her so uncomfortable she almost lets Sansa out. Maybe dressing up was a mistake… It’s one thing to charm them, to make them swallow the bait she puts in smile and voice and eyes. But to be looked at simply for looking like she does leaves her without control of the situation. Alayne does not like to lose control.

“Ready to go explore Saltpans’ exciting night life?” she asks playfully, hiding everything she feels behind her brightest smile.  

On the way outside a man bumps into her in the doorway. That young Northerner with the oddly pale eyes. He looks her up and down, grins like a shark, and whistles lewdly. What a dick. She shudders and ignores him.

Focus, Alayne. You’ll be fine.

 

~

 

The Trout Jig is a little cocktail bar by the waterfront, popular with students, especially the rowers among them.

Gendry and Clegane sit outside at one of the small tables in front of the building, already with drinks before them. Clegane on a bench with his back to the exterior wall, Gendry facing their way. She spots them immediately and how could she not? He’s just so tall.

Gendry’s face lights up when he sees her next to his brother and he quickly whispers something into Clegane’s ear. She’s close enough already to see his reaction. His face… sharpens somehow.

“Hey,” Edric greets them, something like awkwardness apparent in his bearing for the first time. “I brought someone, I hope that’s okay-”

“Of course, it’s okay!” Gendry interrupts him enthusiastically. “Hi, Alayne. Ed, Arry’s running a bit late.  Please, Alayne, sit down!”

“Hello, Gendry.” Alayne projects calm, calm, calm and is so very excited on the inside. “Clegane.”

“You know each other?” Edric asks with furrowed brow, but Alayne is already sliding onto the bench next to Clegane. She’s facing the scarred side of his face and he turns his head to her, his warm brown eyes almost directly on her.

“I hope that seat wasn’t taken,” she purrs. In the corner of her eye, she can see Edric’s eyes go wide in surprise. Gendry pulls him down into a chair, quickly types something into his phone and shows Edric the screen. It doesn’t change his evident disbelief, but at least he doesn’t say anything to ruin the moment.

“Taken by whom?” Clegane rasps, a little smile on his face. He’s playing along.

“A wife? Maybe a girlfriend?” How subtle, Alayne.

“No wife. No girlfriend, either.” The relief that washes over here is a strong, tall wave. Then who is m’lady, Sansa desperately wants to ask, but Alayne doesn’t dare to expose her snooping. Never reveal your sources, sweetling, Petyr used to say. No other woman in his life, that’s enough information to form a strategy, green light to proceed. She scoots closer to him, so close that their legs almost brush.

“You’re free as a bird then? Why didn’t you come to hear me sing last Strangerday?”

“I was out of town. Hiking with a friend.”

“Where did you go?” she asks and they’re out the gates. It’s so easy to talk to him. He tells her about roaming the Riverlands, she tells him about spa days in Maidenpool. They’ve both lived in Saltpans for two years, and she figures from the way he tries to avoid the topic of why he moved here that it had something to do with whatever happened to him. She doesn’t ask about that, keeps the conversation light and does her best to avoid any pitfalls that might lead him to ask her uncomfortable questions as well. They talk about the Sanctuary, the kids he works with, the food he grows and what she makes with it at the Bower. They talk about their workout regimens. They both prefer dogs to cats, they both prefer summer to winter, they both have never been to Dorne. Neither of them drinks alcohol. She tries his alcohol-free lager, lets him sip her virgin mojito. He gently teases her for ordering  a fancy lemonade and makes her laugh with it. It strikes her how many friends he seems to have, how  many other people feature in his stories. Gendry, one or two other unnamed housemates, Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister, Willas Tyrell, Beric and Thoros. And other people she hasn’t met. Tormund. Dickon.

Alayne hasn’t had a friend since Gulltown. She’s so happy for him. He’s great, he deserves this. Why is he so great?

At one point she realizes that she’s been unconsciously focusing her gaze first on his right eye, than the left one, then his mouth, and it makes her pause mid-sentence. How stupid of her.  

He lifts his chin.

“Everything okay?”

“Yes,” she whispers, trying to hide her embarrassment. “I just realized… there’s this trick. When you flirt with someone? You look them straight in the eye, but only one eye, and then you switch, and then you look at their mouth. Left, right, mouth, left, right, mouth.”

“And you’ve been doing that? Flirting with me?”

“Yes.” Her voice is barely audible.

He chuckles.

“I got the message anyway, don’t worry.”

She blushes beet red under her make-up. Clegane lifts his right hand and draws a little circle in the air, near her head.

“You jingle. Every time you move your head.”

“Oh. My earrings. Silver trouts. Ah, I. Do you… you can touch them if you want?”   

His hand makes contact with her shoulder, her naked shoulder, and her skin there feels like it’s on fire and doused in ice at the same time. He moves his hand up, over the silk of her top, the skin of her neck, until he reaches one of her long earrings and gently catches it between thumb and forefinger. She can tell that he’s careful not to pull, to keep all traction from her earlobe, always mindful of his own strength. It’s hard to breathe with his hand so close, with his face so close to hers.

“It’s a fish, you said? Doesn’t feel like one,” he says pensively, rolling the many connected silver links between his fingers. When he lets go off the earring, his fingers glide down through her hair, down her back, her elbow, her forearm. She shivers.

“Are you cold?” he asks and strokes his thumb over the goosebumps at her wrist. Her entire world melts down to the spot where his touch meets her skin.

“Yes,” she breathes. What does it matter that it’s the hottest summer in a century?

“I don’t have a jacket with me or I’d give it to you,” he rasps, “but if you want to…?” He lifts his arm and she slides closer to him, against his side, his arm over her shoulder. Their hands find each other over their legs. They fit together like they were made for each other.

“You smell incredible,” he says into her hair. “Like summer.”

Something moves in the corner of her eye, a raised phone, and Alayne quickly buries her head in Clegane’s chest, hiding her face behind her hair.

“Ah, you ruined the picture, Alayne!” Gendry whines. “M’Lady just texted she won’t make it after all. Rough practice and she’s not in the mood to go out. I promised her a picture of the two of you to cheer her up and Alayne ruined it.”

“Gendry,” Clegane growls. “No pictures. Alayne, make sure he deletes it, okay?”

Gendry pouts when Alayne plucks his phone from his fingers and quickly deletes the picture he’d taken of the two of them. His screen saver is a lithe fencer, lunging in full gear.

“Who is m’lady?” she asks innocently after she hands back the phone, letting her head rest against Clegane’s solid chest.

“My lady love,” Gendry slurs dramatically, “who insists that I have sex with a house elf with a magic dick.”

“Excuse me?”

“My girlfriend has another boyfriend. And someone,” Gendry raises his drink in Clegane’s direction, spilling most of it over his hand and half the table in the process, “has put ideas in her head.”

While Clegane and Alayne have been happily flirting over non-alcoholic drinks, Gendry and Edric – long forgotten, suddenly remembered – both did drink alcohol. And have had a lot of it, going by their red faces and glazed eyes that make their Baratheon resemblance appear even more striking.

“Oh, you mean like a Dornish love triangle?” she asks.

“A Dornish love triangle ish jusht a circle.” Edric slurs even worse than Gendry.

“Exactly,” Clegane says dryly. “I’m sorry, Alayne. I’ll have to get those two home now, before one of them drowns in the Bay of Crabs.”

“I understand,” and she does. They are the last ones in the bar anyway. It’s still disappointing when she has to let go of his hand and a small triumph when he draws her close to let her guide him.

“We’ll escort you home first, of course.”

 

~

 

They are almost at the corner of Tully Square when Clegane suddenly stops walking and pulls Alayne to a halt with him. Gendry and Edric, tailgating, swaying with their arms slung across each other’s shoulders, almost run into them.

“What’s wrong?” she asks and then she hears it, too. And smells it.

Three figures shamble out of a courtyard to the side of them. The stench is unbelievable. Rotting flesh. Feces. The eyes, unearthly blue. And the sounds these creatures make aren’t human.

Wights.

She has just listened to Edric’s theory about their possible origin mere hours ago, pictures of devastated Free Folk villages have been in the news for years, the resulting wave of Free Folk immigrating to the SK has been a hotly debated topic for just as long.

But reading about it is something entirely different from what she’s seeing now. No human being can look like that and still… live.

“Alayne, how many?” Sandor Clegane asks her, softly.

“Three.”

He nods as if she’d just confirmed a suspicion. “Call the squires. Be as silent as you can. Don’t let the boys do anything stupid.”

“WIGHTS!” Edric yells elatedly over her shoulder. “Gendry, look! Real wights!”

Clegane groans quietly. The creatures halt, like hunting predators scenting prey. One of them is missing half his face, the exposed flesh glistening in the moonlight. Alayne feels sick.

“Alayne. Squires. Quick.” Clegane’s raspy voice is pure authority and she gets out her phone while he pushes her behind him. His bulk a wall between her and danger.

The first wight makes ready to charge at them right as a squire answers Alayne’s call and she stammers in fear, an attack, Tully square, please help.

And then she isn’t afraid anymore, because Sandor Clegane, formerly of the King’s Guard, is here and he has lost nothing of his old glory. The first wight, the one with the mangled face, runs screeching at Clegane who takes two steady steps towards him and punches the wight straight in the face. It sounds mushy and also like breaking twigs, a horrible, horrible sound. The wight falls down and doesn’t get up.

Clegane tilts his head to the side, shakes out his hand. There’s goop on it. “Alayne?”

“He’s down. I think.”

The other two wights hold back, apparently not as far gone as their fallen comrade and still equipped with a remnant of awareness of danger. They still screech, though.

Clegane is angled towards them, a fighter’s stance, light on the balls of his feet.

“Shouldn’t we do something? Help him?” Edric hisses excitedly next to Alayne. Gendry looks at him in disbelief. “What? And spoil his fun? No! Are you crazy?”

Clegane is definitely having fun. More than that. He’s magnificent. The next wight runs straight at him, screaming incoherently. Sandor simply takes one step to the side, lets him stumble, grabs him and throws him across the street. This wight doesn’t get back up, either.

The last remaining wight is the one that most closely resembles an actual human being, something like intelligence still in his movements. This one creeps closer instead of rushing at his target. The wight’s eerie blue-eyed gaze swings from Clegane to the three others, back and forth, back and forth, undecided. Clegane takes another step to the side. He’s trying to draw attention away from Alayne and the others, she realizes.

Blue lights flash at the end of the square, but no siren wails, as a car approaches. The wight turns to the lights, screeches, turns back to Clegane, and then things happen so fast. The thing kicks at Clegane, who buckles, goes down his knees, but also pulls the wight down with him. On the ground and in close quarters, he has the advantage again, and it only takes one heavy blow to the head before the last wight stops moving, too.

The squire car draws up to them, two squires get out. Edric babbles something. Alayne feels dazed, doesn’t listen. Clegane kneels above the last wight, breathing heavily, his hands covered in sticky looking gore. He holds them out in front of him like foreign objects he doesn’t know what to do with.

“Are you hurt?” she asks him. He struggles to get up and she grabs his elbows and pulls him upwards.

“I don’t know. Not yet. Adrenaline rush. But I don’t think so,” he pants, then he carefully sniffs at one of his hands and recoils.

“Hello, ma’am. Hello Sandor, it’s Pod. Squire Podrick Payne, ma’am.” One of the squires has come up to them, unnoticed. An earnest looking young man she hasn’t met before and here she thought all of them were regulars at the Bower. “Are you okay, ma’am?”

Alayne nods and he’s shoulders sag in relief.

“Thank the gods. We’ll have to wait for reinforcements just a little bit, to remove… your attackers. Could you come back with us to the Station afterwards? I know that this is a difficult situation to be in, and I apologize for any inconvenience, but it is vital to collect eyewitness statements as soon as possible after incidents like this.”

Alayne nods at him. He turns to Clegane.

“Sandor, the lady here just nodded, agreed to come with me. You’ll have to come to the Station, too, for a statement. I can take a closer look at your hands there, but I have some wipes for now. Hold them out.”

Clegane obeys instantly and the squire, Pod, wipes down the worst of it, before he pushes a wad of fresh wipes into Clegane’s hands.

“I’m not the best eye witness.” Clegane says, while carefully cleaning off his hands. “But sure, we’ll both go.”

 

~

 

Any other day, the Saltpans KP station is a relaxed space where you can report pickpockets, traffic violations or your neighbor’s dog barking too loudly, and an amiable squire will put a cup of coffee and a Dornish pastry in your hand while he takes your statement. A typical small town KP station.

Tonight, it’s a hellhole of buzzing activity. Wights in sleepy little Saltpans! Mother have mercy on us all.

Alayne and Sandor Clegane have been separated from Gendry and Edric for the short car ride to the Station, then separated from each other. Lem, who she knows well, takes her short statement, and she’s on her way to the exit when she hears familiar voices from a room down the hallway.

“What were you thinking, Clegane? I’m serious. Three wights on your own? What is the first thing they teach us? Protect your hands!”

“Beric.” Clegane’s voice is a growl and a warning. “My hands are fine. What do you want me to do? Let them tear apart the girl while I stand by and do nothing?”

“Gendry was there, too.”

“Gendry was drunk, I wasn’t.”

Beric sighs audibly.

“Three wights in my town, Sandor. Riverrun specialists on the way to us as we speak. If we can keep this out of the press, it’ll be a miracle.”

“I won’t blab about it. Gendry won’t, Alayne won’t. Edric – “

“Edric Storm is the press.”

“Damn.”

“Exactly.”

A heavy silence. Alayne ponders her options, but as always these days, her desire to see Sandor Clegane overrides all her self-preservation instincts.

She knocks at the half open door and two heads swivel to her. Sandor Clegane’s eyes are warm and brown. Beric is not wearing his sunglasses for the first time in the two years that she’s known him as Alayne. Beric doesn’t have any eyes. Two deep holes in his skull, covered by smooth skin.

“Yes?” Beric prompts. Oh. Yes, right.

“It’s Alayne. I… I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Alayne, my dear, are you alright?” Beric’s concern is touching.

“Yes, I’m fine. All thanks to Sandor here. A true Knight Warrior.”

“I’m not a knight,” he barks.

“Well, you saved me anyway.”

Sandor turns to Beric abruptly. “Are we done here? Can I escort the lady back to her Bower or does the real knight have any objections? I’ll be back later to pick up  Gendry and Edric.”

“No objections. Good night, Alayne. Thoros and I will stop by tomorrow for lunch.”

 

~

 

Sandor calls someone on the phone as soon as they leave the station, doesn’t explain whom, just a “Can you meet me at the Bower instead? - Ten minutes maybe? – Well, plans do change sometimes! It’s not that much of a detour.”

She doesn’t ask. He’s right about the effect of adrenaline, they both had a lot of it tonight and they are both coming down from it now. Alayne is very exhausted, she feels maudlin and Sansa-ish.

They walk slowly and in silence, his hand a comforting weight above her elbow. His gait is slightly different, the limp more pronounced.

“We’re there,” she finally says, and he stops walking immediately, like a reined-in horse. She reaches out with her right hand, lets it glide over the bare skin of his left arm, from the elbow to his forearm and down to his wrist. Lets it linger there, her thumb circling across the pulse point.

“Will you be out of town this weekend, too? There’s a song I have saved just for… Oh.”

“Oh what?”

“Sorry, it’s nothing. There’s a man watching us, from across the street. He’s… staring.”

Sandor snorts.

“If that’s all he does, he can be my guest.” He tilts his head to the side, suddenly serious. “Alayne, between the scars, the limp, the eyes, my godsdamn height… people stare at me all the time. It’s fine, it doesn’t bother me. Most of the time, at least.” A pause, a wry, defeated smile. “Does it bother you that much?”

Instinctively she takes a step back, lets go of his hand, creates space between them. Alayne, who has spent all three years of her existence avoiding unwanted attention, who feels every lingering glance like a declaration of war, a siege laid to the fortress of her secrecy, is at a loss for words. Of course, he’ll draw the eye wherever he goes, of course people will stare at him… and whoever he’s with, too. What a stupid, reckless thing to be by his side, and he so memorable, so hard to forget... and yet, so powerful, so strong, so safe. No, she decides, there is no other place where she would rather be. Let them stare if they like, he will protect me. He will keep me safe.

But before she has a chance to order her incoherent thoughts enough to tell him that, or better yet to show him just how much she wants to be close to him and that the whole Riverlands can watch for all she cares. Before she can reach up to cup his scarred cheek and pull him down to her for a sweet, sweet kiss…

“Sandy, my friend!” The staring man from across the street walks up to them. Tall, with a red bushy beard and wild red hair, massive arms, wearing faded jeans and a black “Free Folk Pride” T-Shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders. He smells of cigarettes and beer. On his way home from a night on the town as well.

“Tormund,” Sandor growls.

“The one and only. And you must be the gorgeous Alayne! Sandy has told me so much about you.”

“That’s a lie,” Sandor spits out quickly, but the man, Tormund, continues on undaunted.

“Well, someone has. The who’s not important,” Tormund winks at her, turns to Sandor. “Are you ready to go pick up Gendry and Storm? Or… have your plans changed again?”

Alayne definitely has plans with Sandor Clegane, now that she has been so close for him for so long, now that she has touched him, has thought of kissing him. She can see the muscles in his broad chest moving with every breath. Hmm, kissing him all over…

“Aye, I’m done here.” His voice, that had been so open and alive just a minute ago, is hoarser than ever and very far away. Startled, she looks up to his face. His brown eyes are closed, his forehead wrinkles in a deep frown. His scars… twitch.

“Thank you again for saving me,” she squeaks out, overwhelmed by the sudden change in him.

He smiles, a dark twisted grin that makes his scars stand out more.

“No need to thank me for roughing up some vermin, girl. I enjoyed it.”

She reaches out for him again, his right shoulder this time, but he immediately pulls back, away from her touch, bumps into Tormund, who slips a steadying hand into the crook of Sandor’s elbow. His rejection stings so badly.

“Will you come to the Sept tomorrow? Please! I so want to sing for you.”

“I doubt it,” he says, with all the cruel bitterness of the Hound. Before she can say anything more, he turns away, almost dragging Tormund across the street with him. Tormund waves at her over his shoulder (“Nice to have met you!”)

 

Alayne remains behind with her mistakes. Later, she lies awake for a long time, and when she finally falls asleep, she dreams of Sandor in her bed.

 

 

~3~

What happened way back when

 

The sight of Joffrey’s convulsing body in the pale street lights of that back alley behind “Purple” - his favorite club -  still burned in Sansa’s mind as she sat crying in Petyr Baelish’s extra-long limousine. He handed her another tissue.

“Don’t worry, Lady Sansa. I will protect you.”

She startled from her thoughts.

“Protect me? Am I in danger, Mr. Baelish?”

“Yes, Lady Sansa. Cersei will want blood for Joffrey’s death.”

“But, but. He overdosed. Didn’t he?”

Petyr Baelish shook his head gently, every inch of his body making clear that she was a very stupid girl that didn’t understand how the world worked.

“Ah, Lady Sansa. Maybe he did. But the Lannisters - believe me, I know them - will be convinced that it was you who poisoned him to revenge your father. They will want your death for this.”

“My death?” Her tears stopped flowing in her surprise.

Petyr Baelish nodded sagely.

“Your death. But don’t worry. I will keep you safe. I will take you to a place where nobody will look for you.”

“Oh. I thought... I thought you’d take me home.”

“And endanger your family? Oh Sansa, no, no, no. We’re on our way to the Keep, where you will get just the necessities from your room. And then I will take you to a safe place where you can hide out with a new identity until the storm is over. I do have connections, you know?”

Sansa finally understood.

“Oh, Mr. Baelish. I didn’t know that you ran a Witness Protection Program!”

He paused for a split second, then he cleared his throat and handed her another tissue with his usual suave demeanor.

“Yes, exactly. I do run a Witness Protection Program. All top secret, of course.”

 

Sansa found it very strange that a Witness Protection Program would place her in a strip club in Gulltown, but Petyr said it was all right, just a deep cover, Sweetling, and so it had to be all right. Petyr wouldn’t lie to her, he had always been Mother’s friend. Everyone knew that. Anyway, she had to pretend to be Alayne now, and address Petyr as daddy. And Petyr taught “his little girl” many useful things. Like bookkeeping, how to order supplies for their kitchen and stage, how to manage a business and keep the Masters of Coin off your back.

“Always be truthful with your taxes, Sweetling,” he used to preach. “The Knights are all idiots and easily bought ones at that. But the Masters of Coin will find you, and the books never lie.”

He was a very thorough teacher, and after a few weeks of her being a very fast learner he allowed her out of the backstage area and took her on road trips to other investments of his. A boxing gym in Maidenpool, an old stuffy tea room in the old town of Saltpans, a horse race track in Duskendale.  

 

~

 

After she had stayed in Gulltown for six weeks, she finally dared to ask Petyr when it would be safe to go back to her family.

“Oh, Sweetling,” he said. “The Lannisters are still looking for you. It won’t be safe for quite some time.”

“But I miss them!” Tears were streaming down her face. “Please, I can hide in Winterfell and no one would even know!”

“Believe me, I feel even worse about this than you do,” Daddy said. “But you’re not Sansa anymore. You’re Alayne now. I am your family, not them.”

She looked at him through her tears.

“I am a Stark of Winterfell. They will always be my family.”

Petyr Baelish smiled.

“Of course, my dear. Of course. I will try my best to get in touch with them.”

 

~

 

Five days later, he called her into his office, his voice grave and sad. When she cautiously approached his desk, he turned his laptop around, so she could see the website that was open in his browser.

A news website. A headline in bold letters.

Tragic Car Accident: Stark Family Dead

She read half of the article before she collapsed in his arms.

“There, there, Sweetling,” he said as he stroked her hair. “It was Tywin Lannister, of course. Retaliation for Joffrey. It’s absolutely imperative that you stay in hiding.”

Her teeth chattered. Her mother was dead. Robb and Jon, Arya, Bran and Rickon. All dead. Her family was gone.

“It must be so painful for you to read all this,” he said and offered her another paper tissue. “So, so painful. If I were you, I’d stay as far away from it as I could. Not read one more line of this.”  He closed his laptop with a bang.

“My family is gone,” she whispered.

“No, Sweetling. I am your family. I’m your daddy. Isn’t that right, Alayne?”

She didn’t move. He sighed.

“Do you want to read another article, Sweetling? There is one that has some close-ups of -”

She blanched. The thought of actually seeing them. It was more than she could bear. All of this was more than she could bear.

“No. Please, no!”

“Are you sure?”

Alayne lifted her head.

“I’m sure, daddy.”

 

~

 

Alayne loved making guests feel welcome in her demure Lysian maid costume. She served drinks and smiled and chatted. Few men ever touched her, she was much too clothed to attract much attention, but they flirted back and tipped her well. Money was important. Sansa had never quite understood that, but Alayne did very much. The men who did touch her had a little talk with her daddy afterwards and either never spoke to her again or didn’t return at all.

You’re my little girl, Alayne. I’ll keep you safe.

It took Alayne several months to find out that the women did more than just dance in the little private rooms on the second floor. Daddy had been gone on a business trip for a couple of weeks, and for the first time she spent her free time with the friends she had made among the women, with Randa and Ros.

They taught her things the austere Lady Catelyn had never ever spoken about to her daughter. How to use make-up like an artist. How to flirt. The effect of beautiful underwear on your self-esteem. And other things…

“So, you sleep with them. Just like that? And I have never even seen a man’s… manhood before.” Catelyn Stark had been very strict when it came to this topic, and Sansa’s governess had been a Septa after all. Joffrey had endlessly mocked her for her prudishness.

“And you never will, love, if you call a dick a “manhood” like a Septa!”

Smiling, Randa opened a drawer and it was filled to the brim with… dicks, Alayne thought, defiantly. Randa picked one, of a pink that reminded Alayne of pigs, and threw it to her with a grin. It was rubbery and big and it had veins. It was disgusting.

“That one’s about average size, I’d say.”

“How…” Alayne didn’t even know what to say. How did this thing fit, if she had trouble inserting a tampon? Why would anyone look at that and want to touch it, or have it in them, or, or… lick it?

“Oh honey, your face,” Randa laughed. Alayne blushed, her cheeks red and burning.

“So, most men would have something like that? It’s so big.”

Randa laughed even harder, wheezing and holding her sides. Ros took pity on Alayne.

“Honey, that’s barely five inches. Yeah, that’s roughly what you can expect. But, if a guy walks up to you that’s smaller or bigger than average, most likely he’ll be proportionate, too. And even the most average looking guy in the world can have a giant cock or a… little finger… You just never know, so don’t expect anything and you won’t be surprised, okay?”

Alayne was very quiet for a bit.

“What about… a taller guy?”

“Depends. How tall?”

“I don’t know.  Like 7 feet, maybe?”

Randa and Ros looked at each other and now they were both laughing. Randa wiped a tear from her eye and then picked another dick from the drawer, handed it to Alayne. It was massive. You could beat a guy to death with that thing.

“That, my love, is the Stranger. If I were you, I’d slowly work my way up to that one. And all this stuff won’t help you if you don’t know where your clitoris is. Alayne? By the Seven, please tell me you know-” Randa clapped her hands together in despair. “Ros, can you believe that?”

 

Daddy asked one day about what she had liked to learn about the most, and she told him, excitedly, the stupid little girl she was, that it had been Randa’s lessons.

He slapped her in the face for the first time, later that evening, for spilling a glass of wine on her tray, and consoled her minutes later in the empty storage room (“All part of the game, Sweetling, just a ruse, it hurt me more than it hurt you!”) The next day, Randa had a black eye under her make-up.

Alayne never told him anything personal again.

 

~

 

Sometimes Daddy looked at her strangely, but the looks stopped after a final and unexpected growth spurt left Alayne more than a head taller than him. He never touched her.

 

~

 

It didn’t take long and she could fit a 9-inch dildo inside her easily, could put a condom on it with her teeth. Most importantly of all, she had learnt how to touch herself and find release. So what did it matter if she thought of Sandor Clegane when she had her hand between her legs?  It wasn’t like anyone would ever find out about it.

Right?

 

 


Chapter Text


~1~

Three text conversations you might find interesting

 

From: unknown

To: Sandor Clegane

Hi

I’m so sorry about last night

It wasn’t you! It’s me

This is Alayne btw

[status: messages deleted]

[status: sender blocked]

Beric gave me your number, don’t be mad at him

Talk to me, please!

 

 

Group Chat “Dog Support”

Gendry: Warning! Darkest mood snce last winter

Arry: yeah, he’s a grumpy growly mess. we think leg pain?

Tormund: this Alayne girl turned him down

Gendry: WTF? WHEN????

Tormund: said too much already

 

 

From: Gendry

To: PodP, M’Lady

Ok ok. Just this 1 time so u 2 can shut up abt it.

 

 

~2~

What’s happening now

Sandor wakes up to three very unpleasant things.

One, the air in his room is stale and stifling. The dog days of summer, when the heat never fades, even at night.

Two, ever since fighting off those wights two days ago, and damn them to the seven hells for that kick the last one got in at the end, he has favored his good leg and now the unusual overexertion has turned the muscles in his bad thigh into a burning, aching knot.

Three, the noises. Oh gods, the noises.

Whatever Podrick Payne is doing on the third floor must be some sort of Summer Isles sex magic that involves a lot of grunting, moaning, and a very enthusiastic Gendry Waters. Sandor suddenly understands why wolf girl and Pod always wait until they are on their own in the house. Upstairs, a crashing sound, followed by muffled giggles. Then the moaning starts again. Maybe they broke the bed? No matter how appealing the idea might be to tease Gendry for the rest of his days, right now Sandor just wants the pain and the godsdamn noise to stop so that he can go the fuck back to sleep. Arya’s joining the fray, oh gods, no, no, no. Sandor pulls his pillow over his head in a futile attempt to block out the sound of his kinda-almost little sister doing… or more likely having stuff done… no, he refuses to even think about it.

When they finally come, ha, to an end upstairs, Sandor is still wide awake. He checks the time. Another four hours until he has to get up for work, even if it is the weekend. The dog days of summer, when the gardens have to be watered twice a day, both at his house and the Sanctuary. And around noon Jaime and Brienne will come over for a barbecue and bring a housewarming gift for Pod.

Why in all the seven hells did he ever volunteer for the morning shift on a Cronday? Why did he think it was a good idea to go up against three wights at the same time? Why did he even for a second believe that the girl would…

He tosses and turns and curses, until, after what feels like hours and the blink of an eye at the same time, his alarm finally tears him from fitful dozing. The house is quiet. When Sandor gets downstairs, the dogs almost run him over at the bottom of the stairs. Wiggling, yipping, impatient dogs. Gendry is usually the one to take them out in the morning, either to rowing practice with him or out for a morning run. Sandor lets them out the back door; he’ll make sure that Gendry knows that he’s responsible for anything that happens in the garden. This morning, there’s no coffee already brewed, no breakfast already prepared and waiting. Fuming, angry with himself for building up expectations in others, he sets up the coffee machine, and breakfasts on an apple, some bread and butter. The dogs are playing tag in the garden when he walks out to turn on the irrigation system, coffee mug in hand. Nymeria is a furry ball of energy that bounces from wall to wall, the gravel of the garden path flying under her paws. Her happy barking will probably earn them another complaint from the neighbors. Stranger trots over to his master, panting and slow. Already tired out.

“Come here, boy,” Sandor coos as he sits down on the small bench under the willow tree at the end of the garden, and Stranger lays his trusting snout on Sandor’s good thigh. The hair around his muzzle has changed over the last year. No longer silky-smooth.

“Wolf girl says your nose is gray, Stranger-Danger,” Sandor murmurs and gently strokes the course fur. “We’re both getting old, aren’t we? Two sad, old dogs.”

He’s had Stranger ever since he pulled him out of the ring at an illegal dog fight back in King’s Landing, when Stranger was barely more than a ferocious puppy and Sandor was still the Hound, one of the most elite soldiers in the entire Seven Kingdoms. What did Meryn Trant think when he took the Hound to a place where they hurt dogs, made them rip each other apart on purpose? (To be fair, Meryn Trant barely ever thought if he could avoid it.) Sandor had torn the place to pieces, had found homes for all the dogs that could be helped, sanctuaries for the ones that were too far gone to ever be a pet, had held that mad one with the too severe injuries as they put him down. And had kept Stranger for himself. Snarling Stranger, with his pitch-black fur and his warm brown eyes, who only let his new master come close and snapped at everyone else, who was the biggest dog Sandor had ever seen, the size of a pony almost. Or the biggest before they’d met Nym. No other breed on the planet could match a Northern diredog in size.

And now, years have passed and Stranger’s getting old. Soon…

Sandor tries not to think of that as they slowly walk back to the house together, to get his cane and put away his coffee mug. Much slower than two days ago, and so very much slower than back when they went for their first walk together.

 

~

 

Sandor waits in front of their gate for Nella Fletcher to pick him up for work. She doesn’t come. He texts her and gets no reply. He calls her when she’s ten minutes late, lets it ring until the call goes to voicemail. After twenty minutes of impatient pacing in front of their gate, he calls again. This time, his call goes to voicemail right away. He calls Ray next, who answers his phone with sleep in his voice and the promise of being there in an hour. An hour! It’s infuriating. He walks back into the house with his hackles raised, and the soundscape of domestic bliss in the great room doesn’t help to soothe his dark mood whatsoever.

Soft Tyroshi music on the stereo. Pod humming along in the kitchen, the sizzling of a frying pan, the gurgling of the coffee maker. Wolf girl’s almost soundless steps, the clatter-scrape of cutlery on plates as she sets the dining table. Running water in the bathroom upstairs, Gendry singing in the shower.

Sandor feels like an intruder, like a third wheel, and then his treacherous thoughts stray to Alayne. How would it be to have her here, on a day like this? To kiss over a cup of coffee? To have breakfast with and then go back to bed, and fuck, and fall asleep again…?

He’s deep in thoughts when Stranger greets him with a deep woof and a cold wet nose at his hand.

“Oh hey, Dog!” Arya, and unusually cheerful at that. It grates. “Shouldn’t you be at work already?”

“Nella didn’t show up. Waiting for Ray to come instead.”

“Do you want some eggs and bacon?” Pod yells from the kitchen. Pod’s cheerful and there’s no doubt that Gendry will be, too.

Yes, he does want eggs and bacon. No, he doesn’t want to stay here and listen to the three of them be all fucked out and happy, when the woman he wants can’t even stand to be seen with him.

“Don’t bother. I’ll wait outside.”

There’s a moment of silence and he just knows that wolf girl and Pod are exchanging looks, a “what’s wrong with him today?” maybe, or a “thank the Seven, if he leaves we can be on our own”. He wordlessly turns around and hides out on the bench under the willow tree.

 

~

 

Ray finally shows up, and during the car ride Sandor blocks all of Ray’s attempts at a conversation - possible reasons why Nella didn’t show up, the ongoing mystery of Davos Seaworth’s whereabouts, Warden Bolton’s motion to send SK soldiers to the Far North. He doesn’t care about any of that stuff.

When they make it to the Sanctuary, the sun is already beating down and the goats are bleating. Ray feeds and waters the animals, while Sandor begins watering the garden. His sunflowers are nodding sadly, the lettuce is limp, and wherever else his searching hands go, they find bone dry earth and wilted plants. It’s all a gigantic mess. He can feel an old familiar anger rear its ugly head deep in his gut.

His leg is killing him, he’s hot and his hands are full of grime, he can feel the sun too acutely on his skin. He’ll burn. He snaps at Ray. He doesn’t pay attention and gets lost twice, on a path he knows so well he could walk it in his sleep any other day. His leg doesn’t hold when he tries to lift a large bale of hay and Ray has to carry it for him. Sandor hasn’t felt this helpless in a long time, not since that one time last winter, and the sting of it is worse than the physical pain is. It’s all too much.

When they are finally done and back in the car, the pain in his leg is barely bearable. He has dust in his eyes, a scratchy feeling under his eyelids. He’s furious and ashamed.

It’s a Cronday, so no gym, no laughing and sharing chicken with Tormund. Instead Jaime fucking Lannister and Brienne and the Dornish love triangle. This entire day is a nightmare.

“Sandor, my friend,” Ray’s calm voice is soft and soothing. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. We all have bad days sometimes.”

He doesn’t reply.

Because he just realized that for the first time in almost four years, he hasn’t thought of Sansa once since he woke up. When he frantically calls up his memories, all the snapshots he has of her beautiful face are still there, untouched.

But now it’s Alayne’s voice that sings the Mother’s Hymn.

Failed her again, dog.

 

~

 

Back home, he summits the stairs with gritted teeth and goes straight to his room, although he can hear Arya talk to… one of the boys, he can’t tell which, or maybe both, fuck, he doesn’t care either way, in the great room downstairs.

“Dog?” she calls after him, but he ignores her. He turns off his phone, sheds his clothes into the laundry basket and falls naked into his bed. The skin around his eyes is irritated and stings, he can feel discharge building up behind the prosthetics, the right eye has already started to tear up. He needs to take them out, clean them. He’s done it before, of course, but always at the Quiet Isle, during an actual appointment with someone there to help him in case he struggled and, gods forbid, dropped one. Having to ask Pod or Gendry or, worst of all, wolf girl to watch him fumble around with that is beyond his imagination.

Instead…. he pictures himself, how he looks today, how Alayne would see him now, or Sansa, oh Sansa, if she could. The merciless scars on his face and scalp and neck, the mangled ear, the hole of missing flesh at his jaw where only the thinnest layer of skin covers the bone, his ruined lips, the nerve damage that makes his burned side twitch uncontrollably when he’s agitated. The damaged vocal chords that make every word come out hoarse and ugly and distorted. His leaking eye sockets with two pieces of useless plastic inside them, just for his hopeless, hopeless vanity’s sake. His dick, impressive in theory, but actually too big for most women to take in and enjoy it. The mess of his thigh that took away the last bit of pride he had had in a body that might have always been ugly and freakishly large but also reliable and strong...

Of course, she came to her senses in the end. How could she not? He has nothing, nothing to offer to anyone. Least of all to a woman like her, who is tall and smart and confident and smells like summer, has skin like silk and a voice like sunshine. Why did he ever allow himself to dream that he could have something resembling a future with her, during those precious moments she sat next to him? Why doesn’t he have the guts to face his actual future instead? Wolf girl and her boys will grow up and graduate and move away and leave him and he’ll have to move out of this house that he knows like the back of his hand, that was a refuge when he needed it, will have to move away from the first garden he ever loved and his willow tree, and who will be there with him when more black days come, when winter comes? He’ll snarl and bark and alienate the rest of them, will push Brienne away, and Beric and Tormund, too, and everyone else.

Stranger is getting old.

Soon…

 

“Sandor?” Someone knocks on his door. One of the boys.

“Pod?” A guess more than not.

The door opens. He really should at least crawl under a blanket, but fuck modesty. Fuck them all.

“Jaime and Brienne just arrived.” Pod’s voice is perfectly matter-of-fact. No embarrassment, no disgust. Just helpfulness. Good Pod. “Arya says you staying up here isn’t an option. Do you need help with anything?”

He knows he could get by on his own, that he doesn’t need help.

He wants it.

He hates the world so much.

 

 

~

 

Sandor’s eye sockets and prosthetics are cleaned, he is freshly showered, he’s dressed again. He feels slightly better. Pod’s careful attentiveness has cleansed a lot of hurt away as well. That wasn’t so bad.

He manages to eat a little and to ignore the others around him as much as possible. He’s silent when Brienne and Arya talk about this fucked up party idea of hers as if throwing a nameday party for your dead sister wasn’t crazy as fuck. He keeps his mouth shut as Brienne repeats her insane “hey maybe she’s not dead, hey they took the DNA from the blood in the car not the body, so maybe…” theory for the millionth time, even though it makes him want to rip her throat out for giving wolf girl false hopes like that, even though it reminds him that Sansa Stark’s body burned, and no one knows if she was still alive when… He feels sick again.

Arya and the boys have just left to do the dishes, and Sandor is more than ready for a strategic retreat to his room. But there’s no escaping Jaime fucking Lannister.

“Have you seen that girl again, Sandor? What was her name? Oh yes, Alayne, the gorgeous Alayne.”

Something in Sandor finally snaps.

“I have certainly not seen her, Lannister, and if you’re asking if I’ve been sniffing after her, it’s none of your damn bloody business!”  

“Sandor, I was there, too. She very obviously liked you. What is holding you back?” Brienne asks from where she’s sitting next to him.

Is she making fun of him? Does she want him to spell it out for her, how she’s probably a supermodel and he’s just an ugly, old, blind dog?

“I really don’t need relationship advice from Brienne the Beauty,” he snarls and regrets it a split second later.

“Clegane.” Jaime voice is utterly devoid of his usual charm and levity. It’s scary how much he sounds like his father. “Clegane, if you insult my woman again, I will hit you. In your ugly face.”

“Leave us, Jaime.”

“Brienne.”

“I mean it, Jaime. Go inside, help the others do the dishes. This is my fight, not yours.”

And Jaime fucking Lannister actually backs away and leaves, loudly bangs the door behind him. If Sandor wasn’t so confused, he’d be impressed.

“Sandor.” Brienne’s voice is very clear, very precise. He’d always liked that about her. Right now, when everything is a challenge and a threat, he hates it. “What do you think I look like?”

Her question throws him.

“You’re tall.”

“And?”

“And…” he tries to grasp his mental image of her, finds it unsettling how he can’t come up with anything. He’s never asked, they met after, and looks have never mattered between them. What does he actually know about her?

“Your eyes are blue. Tormund calls you a blue-eyed goddess. Jaime fucking Lannister is fucking you, and I know his type. So. Blonde and very pretty, I guess…”

Brienne’s Valyrian steel voice has a hitch in it, now.

“I had just started out with the Riverlands prosecution. One of my first trials dealt with a drunk brawl that ended with a man in a coma. The attacker got off on a technicality, and when I left the building later that day, he stabbed me in the face with a broken bottle. It tore a piece of my cheek right out. I have a scar, from my temple down to my mouth.”

That’s an awful joke. It has to be a joke.

“And I was not beautiful before that, either. I have played rugby all my life, mostly on men’s teams. Yes, I am tall, but I am wide, too. Strong. Manly. I thought you knew that. ‘Brienne the Beauty’ is a joke meant as an insult, Sandor. Tormund and Jaime are the only men I have ever met in my entire life who were attracted to me.”

“I…” He doesn’t know what to say. What do people say in these situations? I’m sorry?

“Do you want to see for yourself?” Brienne asks gently.

His right hand is up in the air before he can think about it. Brienne captures it and guides it up to her face. It’s the first time since he’s lost his eyes that he has touched another person’s face. The cliche of it eats at him, but his curiosity is too great to pass up this opportunity. His fingers land on soft skin, Brienne moves them slightly to the side, and there it is. A ridge of raised flesh in the softness. He tries to imagine how it must look like but his imagination fails him, there is nothing in his brain to translate the information his fingers give him into a mental image. He brings his left hand to his own face with the hope that maybe a comparison will work. It doesn’t.

There’s something else. Wetness. Brienne’s crying. Gods, he really is a monster.

“Brienne. I…”

“Oh, no, Sandor. Not you. The pregnancy is overwhelming sometimes. Well, right now, it is. Hormones, you know, and the baby can tell that I am upset. He is kicking up a storm. Here, let me show you… if you want to, of course?”

He nods, something rustles, and then his palm is placed on Brienne’s bare stomach. Her skin is warm, and he is surprised how taut it is, the roundness of it all. Only two months to go, he remembers, a lot further along than he had imagined.

Something bumps against his hand, a sudden hard jolt. The feeling is utterly strange.

“When I met Jaime for the first time, he told me repeatedly that I was the ugliest woman he had ever met.” She halts, puts her hand on her stomach next to his. The baby kicks again. “Look at us now. Most days, I am so happy it all feels like a dream. Maybe I will even say yes, the next time he asks me to marry him.”

“That would make the… sixth time?”

“The seventh. He is starting to wear me down. Loras and Renly have set their date for next year. I will be maid of honor, of course. Do you know how many times I have been a bridesmaid, simply because brides think it makes them look prettier, standing next to me? Fourteen times. I have fourteen horrible, much too expensive bridesmaid’s dresses hidden away in our attic. There is a brown one that actually makes me look like the Titan of Braavos...” She pauses, and when she continues there is something in her voice that reminds him how young she is. “Lately, I have been thinking how I never thought I would be a mother, I never thought I would be loved like Jaime loves me, I never thought I would get married. The first two came true, why not the third one, too?”

“So you’d marry him after all, even though the old lion’s still alive?”

Brienne has always been adamant that she will never be Tywin Lannister’s daughter-in-law and will never bear the Lannister name, much to Jaime’s chagrin and, most likely, Tywin’s relief.

She hums.

“I said ‘maybe’. And… he has not spoken to his father once since he read Gregor’s entire file for the first time. Maybe I am unjust.”

There’s a long pause.

“Sandor? Do you remember how I called you after Jaime kissed me the first time? After I had won the Pennytree trial against him?”

She’d called Sandor in tears and he had talked her down from a full-blown anxiety attack. Had spoken to her like to a spooked puppy, until she had found herself again and went back into the building to screw Jaime’s brains out in the men's room in the basement.

“Sure.”

“You were the first one I called. You, not Renly, because I knew that you would keep silent about it. Did you ever think that… you’d have a friend like me?”

Of course not.

“My ‘I never thought’ scenarios came true. Why not yours?”

He’s silent. Her logic is so obviously flawed. Only because her Fair Maiden and the Beast dream came true… And what are wide shoulders and a thin line of scar tissue against the absolute deluge of shit that’s wrong with him. And even if the Gods were real and would take it all away one day, his blindness and his scars, and all his other… issues. What would remain? Who would he be if Gregor had never pushed his face into the coals?

“Sandor, give it a try at least. I know that it is hard. It is hard for all people anyway, to take a chance on love. And for some of us it is even harder… it seemed impossible to me once.” The baby is dancing in her belly, and Brienne softly strokes it through her skin. “But I have seen the way this girl looked at you.”

“I haven’t,” he says, simply stating a fact. There is hardly any anger left in him. “Although all of you keep harping on about it, this special ‘way’ she looked at me. No woman ever looked at me above the neck, and that was before… I’m fucking blind, Brienne, but I know my face.”

“It is hard to describe. No, let me try… She looked at you like someone had surprised her with a precious gift. Sandor. Go to her, use your words, talk. I’m so sure that there is something there. And,” she takes a deep breath, “I’m sure that Sansa would want you to be happy. Wants you to be happy.”

The name cuts him like a knife. Before he can say anything in reply, Brienne gently removes his hand and pulls her shirt back down. A second later, Sandor realizes that Jaime is walking back to them, over the soft grass. A rattling noise and clunking as things are put on the table. Another sound. What? Ah, they’re kissing. Jaime sits down across from Brienne and Sandor.

“Listen, Sandor. I’ve known you for almost 25 years. You’ve always been a surly bastard on your best days, and, to be perfectly honest, you’re utterly unbearable on your worst. Take something for the pain and go to bed. You’re done for the day.”

Sandor bristles. It’s true that he has known Jaime since they were both just boys, but he has spent the better part of his life following Lannister orders, he’ll be damned if…

“Oh, for Seven’s sake, Sandor! I’m only trying to help you. You can believe me, I know a thing or two about being in pain, and everyone in the vicinity of ten leagues of you can tell that you are hurting. Badly.”

“You never cared before if I was in pain.”

“No, I didn’t. But this is what the love of a good woman does. It reforms, it makes a better man out of you, it makes you care. And as I am loved by the best woman, I do actually care now… Here is a bottle of painkillers.” He rattles it. “And here is a glass of water. Right in front of you.” Next to Sandor, Brienne’s almost purring with pride. Jaime Lannister, who would have thought…

Sandor reaches out, grabs the pill bottle, surprised to find small bumps on the label. He traces the Braille letters as best he can. His own prescription. Arya must have taken it from his bathroom, the little traitor. He considers the probability of a poisoning attempt, deems it unlikely, shakes one pill into his hand. They collectively breathe a sigh of relief when he swallows it.

Wolf girl and the boys come back outside, the dogs dancing around them.

“Dog, Ray just called on the landline. He wants you to call him back.”

“Did he say why?”

Arya hesitates for a second.

“He says that Nella is missing. She didn’t show up to a play date with her grandkids, either. Her daughter already called the squires about it.”

 

~

 

Brienne and Jaime leave soon after, earlier than planned, but Brienne claims exhaustion and the heat. Wolf girl and Sandor walk them out to the car where Brienne hugs them both goodbye and Jaime draws him into an awkward handshake. It shames him deeply that he made her cry, that they are both so nice to him, nevertheless. Arya and he walk slowly back to the house, crunch crunch across the gravel. He limps badly, still waiting for the pill to really kick in, but rejects wolf girl’s cautious offer of getting his walking cane for him. It’s been almost four months, he won’t go back, and he can tell how exasperated she is with him.

“You know what, I’m not in the mood for dealing with your shit. I’ve had a really, really good day, you know and I won’t let you being stubborn ruin that. It’s still early, they won’t even have started to think about dinner in Dorne. Call fucking Willas, maybe he cares. Because I don’t!”

He turns his phone back on and it starts chiming right away. Missed calls from Ray, suspiciously random texts from Tormund and Tarly, just checking in, how are you. He contemplates calling Ray back first, but in the end, he calls Dorne. Talks to Oberyn about the weather, the water garden and little Myrcella Baratheon, but not about his eyes. Talks to Willas about dogs but not his leg. Talks to Ellaria about weightlifting but not about how it feels to have a baby kick inside of you, if it feels that creepy-great from the inside, too. Ellaria has to go and break up a fight among the girls, so he talks to Willas again, talks about the leg this time, and the pain and the constant anticipation of things going to shit even more and how much he wants his eyes back. Willas has the best voice and most importantly, Willas gets it. Sandor hasn’t been this high in months, not since he had to take something that one time last winter. If he weeps a little bit, neither he nor Willas will ever tell another soul.

Two minutes after he hangs up, Thoros calls.

“Heard you’re having a shit day.”

“And who told you that?”

“Gendry.”

“Did he.” Another traitor.

“Tempted?” Tempted to drink yourself to death, he means.

“I took a pill. Pain was bad. But that’s it.”

“Just the one?”

“Aye… Thoros, it was just one bad day. Tomorrow will be better.”

“Good. Oh, Beric says hi. Do you want to talk to him?” He doesn’t, but stays on the phone for Beric anyway, just for a bit. Sandor knows how guilty Beric still feels about what happened two years ago, as if it hadn’t been Sandor’s own choice to do what he did. But guilt isn’t a feeling born from reason, there’s no one who knows that better than Sandor himself. And if it makes Beric feel better to yap on about the Lord of Light and his divine plan that seems to include a whole lot of pain for whatever bizarre reason, then Sandor will let him. It wouldn’t be fair to drag Beric down with him. Beric’s voice is nice, too.

 

~

 

When he can’t avoid it any longer, he calls Ray.

Nella hasn’t been seen all day. Her front door unlocked, no sign of a struggle or any criminal activity.

How strange…

 

~

 

Afterwards, he goes downstairs on wobbly aching legs, where wolf girl and her pack are watching something on TV, a history documentary from the sound of it. Battle sounds, swords and horses. Or maybe a drama? He doesn’t ask, simply drops himself in his chair and puts his legs up on the coffee table. They’ve rarely been together like that, all four of them. Pod’s presence used to make Gendry retreat up to his room in a huff. Not anymore.

“Any news about Nella?” Wolf girl sounds genuinely worried.

Sandor shakes his head.

“Still no sign of her. Ray thinks she might have taken an early morning walk at the beach and got surprised by the tide. She never paid much attention to the time.”

“You never know with old people,” Pod says and gets up from the couch. “Just take my Great-Uncle Ilyn. Do you want some iced tea, Sandor? Got some cake, too, if you’d like?”

“What happened to your Great-Uncle Ilyn?” Gendry asks. “And why is Sandy the only one who gets cake? I want cake!”

Pod clinks with glasses and plates in the kitchen and comes back with a tray that clanks on the coffee table.

“Sandor, I have your glass here,” a tall, perspiring glass is pressed into his waiting hand, “and here’s your plate, okay? It’s a marble cake, you won’t need a fork. So, my Great-Uncle Ilyn. A quiet, unassuming clerk for the forestry office in the Westerlands. Then he retired and one day - bam.”

“Heart attack?” Gendry asks with his mouth full.

“Oh, no. Throat slit.” Pod might just as well talk about the weather instead of a violent crime. Typical squire; Sandor’s father had been just the same. “Turns out he had actually been an assassin all these years and then someone paid him back. As I said, you never know with old people.”

“I doubt that Nella Fletcher is secretly a mob assassin. Maybe she simply forgot about that date with her kids and went shopping in Maidenpool instead? Anyway, I hope she’ll turn up soon.” Arya, who has more experience with actually being a missing person than any of them seems to have reached her limit. “Can we watch the show now? Syrio says there’s a part about Braavosi water dancing coming up, and I don’t want to miss that.”

“What are we watching?” Sandor asks.

“A documentary about the War of the Five Kings. Is the volume okay for you like this?” Gendry asks.

“Stop coddling him, you dolt, he’s a grown man. He’ll tell you if something bugs him,” Arya growls.

Sandor sinks deeper into his chair. The iced tea is cold, he’s eating cake with his hands, his leg feels better than it has since Mothday. Arya and her boys are just the same as they were yesterday. Gendry makes fun of the inaccuracy of the reenacted scenes, because apparently no Knight Warrior in the War of the Five Kings had a rapier like the one shown on screen. Wolf girl scoffs and calls Gendry a geek and a show off. Pod starts narrating what the show itself doesn’t. The dogs are there. It’s cozy. Arya and Pod and Gendry…

He thinks about Sansa Stark, love of his life, who is dead. And Alayne, with her summer silk everything, who is alive. He won’t ever stop loving Sansa, he knows that like he knows that the sun rises every morning of every day. But maybe, just maybe, it is all right for him to love another woman, too.

If she still wants him…

Maybe he had been rash and unjust. He had hardly given her a chance to explain herself. And she had flirted with him, she had said so herself. Maybe… maybe, the looks people would give them, maybe that was something she could get used to, with time?

He thinks of Brienne, and her ‘I never thought’s. Yes, he definitely was too harsh with the girl. What does he have to lose, really? Maybe he’ll talk to her…  

 

Gendry laughs about something Pod said. Arya laughs, too, young and free and happy.

 

Sandor smiles. Another ‘I never thought’, this pack of his.

 

~

 

The next day is a Mainday and his leg is a little better.

On Warday, it’s a lot better.

On Faraday, he decides that he’ll give it a try. Tomorrow, he will go to her.


~3~

What happened way back when

 

The Hound had drunk an awful lot that day, otherwise they never would have overwhelmed him so easily.

The men that had captured him took the blindfold off in a typical KP station interrogation room. Thoros of Myr’s smiling face. That bloody cunt.

“Sandor Clegane, so far from King’s Landing. As if the Riverlands haven’t suffered enough.”

“Fuck you!”

It got a lot less pleasant after that and, like every other unpleasant thing in the Hound’s life, it was all Gregor’s fault. Anguy, another familiar face and the bad squire to Thoros’s good one today, kept raging about child rape and torture or something like that. The Hound’s head hurt and he didn’t really listen. What did he have to do with all that? He’d never raped anyone in his life. Gregor had, sure, but he wasn’t Gregor, was he?

Sansa Stark’s face as she sang the Mother’s Hymn…

The Hound fell asleep at the table and when they shook him awake, he threw up over Thoros’ shoes. Served him right.

He threw up again, when Dondarrion walked in. Bloody hell, and he had always thought that his face was bad. What little could be seen under all the bandages – bandages that covered his eyes, ouch – was black and blue. His teeth were mostly gone, he was stick thin, looked a Strangerween decoration someone had left out in the rain. For several years.

“You look like you’ve been to hell and back.”

“Oh, no. I’m still in hell. We all are.” Apparently, he’d gone insane, too.

Only Dondarrion hadn’t. Gregor had. Although “gone insane” might have been the wrong expression. Had “gone insaner,” yes, that seemed about right.

They told him a jumbled story of Gregor and Tywin Lannister and an underground porn industry that covered the entire spectrum of human depravity. Rape of anything that moved, torture porn, snuff films. Whatever someone wealthy and sick enough ordered, they could have custom-made.

“Have you never wondered where all that Lannister money comes from, Clegane? This-” Beric banged one skeletal fist on the table– “is Tywin Lannister’s actual goldmine.”

“We’ve been onto them for quite some time,” Thoros continued. “Ned Stark set up this team as a special investigator unit, and thank the Lord that he made us a subdivision of the Riverrun KP shortly before he died, so the Lannisters can’t get their hands on us without pissing off Brynden Tully. Most of the victims are from the Riverlands anyway. For the longest time, we thought they shipped them over to Essos for the actual filming part of it, but then…”

“Then they got me”, Beric finished the sentence. “And look how that turned out.”

“Yeah, you look like you have seen better days.”

“And I won’t see them again.”

Thoros looked at Beric like he hung the fucking moon. The Hound wondered idly if they’d already been fucking back in King’s Landing.

“Can you imagine how it was for us, Clegane? Beric gone not even five hours and our sources already forward us a video of someone fucking his empty eye sockets…”

The Hound, who had known Gregor since he was born, could imagine it vividly. The rest was the usual pathos-filled Knights nonsense about weeks of waiting, a daring escape, certain death averted by vigorous revitalization measures for hours on end and the kiss of life. Boring, really.

“Who’s the KD for this?”

Thoros hesitated, and Beric became still as a statue.

“Jaime Lannister.”

The Hound laughed and laughed. Jaime fucking Lannister.

“And you seriously think that he’s not dumping every single piece of info you share with him straight at his daddy’s feet?”

“It’s a breach of the Defender’s oath to inform anyone during the investigation phase,” Beric said like he actually believed in the sanctity of oaths.

“And you think Lannister cares about that? Once an oath breaker, always an oath breaker.”

Thoros waved his comment aside.

“He’s a Knight Defender now, and I swear to you, Clegane, he is on our side. A friend of ours vouches for him.”

“And what do you want from me?”

“We want to catch your brother. We want to get enough evidence to get to his backers, too. Settle this once and for all. So far, all our attempts have failed. So have Oberyn Martell’s.”

The Hound raised his good eyebrow at that.

“What, did you believe that bogus story of a car accident last year? No, got his skull smashed in by the Mountain himself, lost his eyes, too. We think that’s where Gregor got this new eye fixation from. Before that we got a lot of people burning-”

Thoros stopped when he took a look at the Hound’s expression and had the good sense to look a little sheepish.

“Gregor wants you more than anything. With you as our bait...”  

“No.”

“It’s the right thing to do!”

“No!”

 

They did have to let him go in the end. He was not his brother, and they didn’t have enough on him to frame him for anything.

Stranger was gone when he finally made it back to the alley behind the pub where he had left him.

The next day, he found out that these fuckers had frozen all his bank accounts. Without any money, it was a lot harder to drink yourself to death in the style he’d grown accustomed to, but he was sure he’d manage sooner or later.

 

~

 

The wolf girl was just there one day. The last 24 hours before waking up in a ditch, with Lady Arya Stark hovering over him like a miniature version of the Stranger, were a complete blank drenched in cheap red wine. Stranger-the-dog sat next to her, panting, his usual ferocious snarl replaced by a happy doggy grin. On the other side of her was a gigantic Northern diredog with grey fur and very long teeth. A fucking wolf pack.

He groaned and fell back asleep.

 

~

 

He threatened her with various acts of violence about five times a day, she cursed at him and tried to kill him on a few occasions. But they made a good team. She had picked him up for protection, so he became a bodyguard again.

She was very good at finding dogs. First Nymeria, then Stranger, then Sandor Clegane.

He didn’t ask why she didn’t simply go back home to Winterfell. The Starks had always seemed the epitome of a loving family to him, but he had also lived in KL long enough to know that appearances were often deceiving. Seven hells, he had run away from his own family when he had been even younger than her. And after all, the Starks had abandoned the little bird to the Lannisters, hadn’t they?

Summer came and they left the cities and towns behind whenever they could and slept rough in the Riverlands forests, under trees and the starry skies. From time to time, the Hound wondered what they’d do when winter came. He’d always wanted to see Dorne one day.

Wolf girl opened up in bits and pieces, so did he. She had killed people. So had he. She had seen things, Gregor had had her, and she had seen… but nobody had touched her. She’d been lucky. And there had been others with her. Gendry, whose name she spat out and said like a caress at the same time. The raid that freed Dondarrion had freed them, too. But Gendry had left. And she longed to go home again and didn’t dare.

“I’ve killed people, Dog. Mother won’t want me anymore.”

Bloody nonsense, of course. In another time, another life, she would have been worth her weight in gold, but in this day and age kidnapping and blackmail were quite serious crimes. Too bad. He wouldn’t force her away, not when she was so useful in getting him the wine he wanted. Needed. And after a few weeks, the way she said “dog” wasn’t an insult either. They both did like dogs better than people.

Of course, it was too much like happiness to last.

They went into Fairmarket one day, to get supplies… The Hound was just trying to decide how many boxes of wine he could afford in good conscience when wolf girl appeared at his side with death in her eyes and a newspaper in her hand.

Sansa Stark was dead. Sansa. Burned. Like a fist to the gut when you least expect it.

The Hound stared at the newspaper frontpage for long time, then Sandor Clegane slowly lifted his head.

He called the Riverrun KP station an hour later, sat across from Thoros, a slightly healthier-looking Dondarrion and a furious wolf girl the next day. Said stupid, stupid things like “Changed my mind” and “Because it’s the right thing to do” and “Just give me the fucking wire” and “Dondarrion, if something happens, take good care of my dog”. They sent wolf girl in with him, an unspeakably idiotic risk that Catelyn Stark will never find out about.

There were three of them, at first. A dirty squire, then Gregor’s right-hand man Polliver and another one that made wolf girl growl, her hackles raised. He agreed to go with them to meet his brother. And after that?

His memory of what happened next would forever remain a blur of screams, Gregor’s booming laughter, bullets fired. Pain. So much pain.

Two days later, he woke up in a hospital room on the Quiet Isle without his eyes and without a good chunk of his left thigh, and with a life that had one more before and after.

 


Chapter Text


~1~

Three headlines that catch the eye

 

From the King’s Landing Times, frontpage, 2 years and 10 days ago:

“DNA Confirms: Found Body Missing Stark Heiress”

 

From the Saltpans Daily, today:

“Children Pray for Missing Granny Nella”

 

From the Riverrun Courier, today:

“Missing Davos Seaworth: Trace Leads to Essos”

 

 

~2~

What’s happening now

 

Every Smithday since coming to Saltpans, Alayne has spent the afternoon taking care of paperwork. Every Smithday evening, she goes to the Sept, lights candles in front of all of the Seven and is Sansa for an hour of quiet contemplation. Then she goes home and dyes the roots of her hair, touches up her eyebrows and eyelashes if needed. It’s another little ritual she clings to in a life that has been as chaotic and lonely as the high sea ever since she left Winterfell.

Today, she needs that hour of calming silence more than ever. Alayne’s equilibrium has been deeply disturbed by Sandor Clegane’s sudden return into her life, and Sansa has come closer to their surface than she has been in years. The clear distinction between the two is slipping through her fingers, and she finds herself doing things that are pure Sansa even when there should only be Alayne. Yesterday, for example, she had bought and used a linen spray that had been Sansa’s favorite – Lavender and Dornish Lemon – and hadn’t even realized until she went to bed that night.

She’s been thinking of the wights that Sandor… disposed of. Wondering about their lives, their families, if they had suffered, if they had died. Petyr Baelish would never have tolerated such pointless sentimentality.

She will pray for these wights tonight, for the men they used to be. And for Nella Fletcher, who sings alto in the Sept choir with her. The nicest old lady.

 

~

 

“Look at our Alayne here. A real good girl, off to the Sept like clockwork,” one of her waitresses says as she checks on the Bower before she leaves. “I bet she’ll even stay a maid until her wedding day.”

“I certainly plan on it!” She plays along with a smile and a wink. Of course, she doesn’t really plan on staying a maid until her wedding day. How absurd. She will never get married, and risk discovery and inadvertently killing another family of hers. No, but she’s so touch-starved, she wants to kiss and be kissed, she wants to use all the tricks that Randa showed her on a living, breathing man instead of the toys she hides in her nightstand drawer. Living a life of sin is her only option, now that she’s finally ready for it. And she is so ready for it. Why did she have to scare away Sandor Clegane the other night? He would have been gentle with her…

“I didn’t take you for a pious girl, Alayne. But, yeah, you do look like the Maiden Incarnate,” Harry says with a leer.

Ugh. He has been harder to deal with the last few days. All the talk about Warden Bolton’s plans for the Far North has egged on Harry to rant more and more openly about his distaste for everything that doesn’t fit his traditional ideas. The only one who seems delighted with that development is that creepy Northerner - Ramsay? Randy? Ronny? His name definitely starts with an R -  who turns up at the Bower almost daily now and distracts Harry from his duties. Harry being an ass about her Sept-going habits is almost a relief compared to some of the stuff he’s said today alone. Thank the Seven that Creepy Ronny hasn’t shown up today.

“What, just because my mother was a stripper, I’m not good enough for the gods? Women pray a lot more in strip clubs and brothels than they do in mansions and manor houses, believe me!” Alayne gives him a long look. To her own hidden horror, she can feel how the likeness of Catelyn Stark standing over Robb and Jon and Theon, the boys caught doing mischief in the stables, creeps into her face. Sansa’s face.

Harry instantly holds up his hands in the universal gesture of “sorry, boss, no offense meant” and she acknowledges his surrender with a terse nod. Yes, I’m your boss, you better remember that.

 

~

 

The air outside is so hot and humid in this heatwave that just won’t end that she feels drenched in sweat when she makes it to the Sept. Her skin under all that make-up itches.

In this weather more than ever, the Sept is a cool refuge, thanks to the swift waters of the canal system it was built on lapping at its foundations. And the heat keeps the tourists off the streets and inside air-conditioned buildings. The Sept is mercifully empty.

Sansa is pondering theological intricacies and whether the Maiden or the Mother would be the one to ask for rain if one isn’t a farmer, when the large oak doors open and another worshiper enters. It’s bad manners to turn around and stare at newcomers, so she keeps her eyes on her hands, folded around an unlit candle, until she hears it. Swish, tap, swish, tap. She already knows it’s him but she turns around anyway.

Sandor Clegane wears the same faded all black clothes as usual but something seems different to her. I’ve never seen him use a cane before.

“Hello, Clegane.” She’s irrationally angry, feels raw and exposed. This is the only time of the week she allows herself with her family, her real family, and she almost lets her anger bleed into her voice. He isn’t supposed to be here, Alayne isn’t supposed to be here, the Sept is Sansa’s place, how dare he drag Alayne’s skin over Sansa...

“Hello, Alayne”, he says and corrects his path slightly, walks up to her with smooth strokes of his cane until it hits the pew where she stands in front of the Mother. “Came to see you at the Bower. They said you’d be here. I hope I’m not disturbing you?”

“You… came to talk?”

“Aye.”

“I’d like to finish my prayers first. If that is alright with you?”

He only nods, folds up his cane and puts it in his back pocket, and sits down in the pew while she goes, lights her candle and puts it before the Stranger. I’m sorry, Great Other, that I ever took your name in vain. Please, please, I beg you for Father, Mother, Robb and Jon, Arya, Bran and Rickon… take them to the heavens, please…

“Alayne?”

“Yes?”

“Can you…” He stops, takes a deep breath. She walks back to him, rests her hands on the backrest of the pew before him. She looks down on him like that and he seems smaller somehow, as much as a man of his size even can appear small. This is wrong, she thinks, and remembers the alley fight a week ago, that fight during the riot in King’s Landing a lifetime ago. His strength, his brutality, his mocking laughter. The Hound is not supposed to look this small… and lost. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Yes?” she repeats, a lot less forcefully. He turns his face to her, his eyes closed, his hair pushed over the left side of his face. Hiding from her.

“Would you light a candle for me? For the Mother?”

He opens his eyes. Warm and brown. His eyes are wrong, too. All fight she had left drains from her instantly.

“Please,” he adds, quietly, as if the word itself pains him.

“Yes, of course,” Sansa says. “Do you want to do it together?”

He gets up and follows her steps, his cane still tucked away, and they stand in front of the Mother together. She’ll ask her for rain… and guidance.

He bends unexpectedly to reach for a second candle and she can’t bear to see his wandering hand, so she bends, too, to guide his hands a little to the right. It’s just a little change, but it brings their bodies closer together… and something happens when her skin touches his. She feels it like an electric shock, like stumbling on stairs and catching yourself in the last second before you fall, and he feels it too, he has to. They both straighten up immediately, standing so close to each other now, face to face. He’s so tall, but so is she. It would be possible, easy even, to stand on her tiptoes and kiss him. But… she’s a little scared of how much she feels so suddenly, they’re both a little scared from what she can tell.

That little tremor in the burned corner of his mouth.

The Sept doors open again, the sound of a larger group and, like a child caught with their hands in the cookie jar, Sansa takes a quick step back from him. He frowns at that, and she realizes that she’s on the path to repeat Alayne’s mistake from the other night.

Courage, Sansa!

She comes back to him, pulls him down a little so that she can whisper in his ear.

“A family just walked in. A mother and four little children. There’s one bigger boy, maybe five or six years old. And adorable little triplets. I can’t tell if they’re boys or girls.”

“They speak Valyrian,” he whispers back. Their heads are so close together that she can feel his breath on her face.

“Maybe tourists from Lys? She’s so beautiful, like a painting of a Targaryen queen. Silver hair. The triplets look just like her, but the little boy is a lot darker. She’s so young for having four babies…”

“But only two pregnancies,” he reminds her. She ponders that, nods, remembers he can’t see her. He slowly wraps his large hands around her waist and pulls her closer to him. They’re embracing now, her body firmly held against his by his strong arms.

“Who else?”

She’s so distracted by his hands on her she doesn’t understand. “What do you mean?”

“Mother, four children, down here with us,” he whispers in her ear. “But there are others. Closer to the doors.”

She lifts her hands, links them behind his neck, and carefully peeks over her arms. Mother and children are lighting candles in front of the Father, and even the triplets, not older than three, are allowed open flames. Behind them –

“Two men near the doors. One dark-skinned and young. One blond, balding.”

The balding man stares at the two of them with a hard, closed-up face, but Sansa has learned from her mistakes and will not mention that.

“Hm,” Sandor’s mouth is very close to her ear. “One facing the door, the other watching mother and babies?”

“Yes. How… oh. Bodyguards?” She’s so close to him, so close, he smells so good.

“Must be a very important tourist from Lys,” he murmurs into her hair, and she wants to rip off all her clothes and all of his clothes and she wants to kiss him and…

“We shouldn’t gossip like this in a Sept, it’s not right,” she whispers instead. “And… I do owe you still. For the other day. Can I take you out? For a drink?”

“I don’t drink. Not anymore. But you know that.” His massive shoulders rise and fall, then he shakes his head softly. “I’d take a coffee.”

She can’t suppress the cheer bubbling up inside her at his words.

“Oh, that’s wonderful! When do you want to… or we could go right now?

“Now or never?” he asks and raises his brow. He’s smiling.

“Then definitely now!”

It will be unbearably hot outside after the relative coolness of the Sept, like walking into an oven. Sansa doesn’t even want to think about how heated up her little attic must be by now. Sandor Clegane, naked on her bed in the warm air…

“Where do you want to go?” he interrupts her train of thought. Is he sniffing her hair?

“The waterfront again? It might be slightly cooler there? I know we said coffee, but what about some ice cream instead?”

“Or a fancy lemonade?” he teases her.

They are so close. She’d only have to shift her face a fraction to the left, tilt up her chin a bit, and they’d be kissing…

 

Does she dare…?

 

She does.

 

Sandor Clegane’s mouth on hers, sweet and strange.

 

It’s a chaste kiss, their mouths closed. That vague dream-like memory of a kiss while the Blackwater burned, that she has carried with her like a treasure all these years, just as much a treasure as his jacket and picture under her bed, flashes through her mind and disappears. No dream can match the feeling of his lips touching hers, of Sansa Stark’s first kiss, of Sandor Clegane kissing her, as they stand in the famous Sept of Saltpans between the statues of the Father and the Mother.

 

Thunderbolts rip through the silence.

Once.

Twice.

Then the rain starts, pit-pit-pit against the roof.

 

~

 

A gust of wind whips a squall of rain at them as soon as they step outside, as they walk out of the Sept like lovers do, his arm slung over her shoulders, her arm wrapped around his back. The sky is dark with heavy rain clouds, the air feels so cold after these last few weeks of extreme heat that Sansa’s shivers in her thin shirt. Sandor tightens his grip on her.

“Let’s go back to mine, it’s close, and we can wait for the rain to stop,” she says and he agrees. They’re drenched to the skin after the first few steps, but Sansa’s skin is warm where she touches his, his body a bulwark next to her. She lets him set the pace, he lets her guide him through the suddenly empty alleys. Something pricks her skin like a needle, again, again.

Ice. Hailstones.

Almost there, she can see the inviting windows of the Bower at the end of the alley. Still, not close enough, and she pulls him with her under an archway. Maybe she could text Sally to come and bring them an umbrella?

“Just a pit-stop,” she tells Sandor, snuggling closer into his arms. “We’re almost there, but I don’t like the hail.” His t-shirt clings to him like a second skin, and she rests her head against his strong chest, the cold wet fabric, his body warmth slowly seeping through. He’s quiet, but his hands hold her so tightly. The burned corner of his mouth twitches… 

Someone coughs.

Alayne whips around, Clegane tenses up.

Casually leaning against the other side of the archway is that strange Northerner who’s hung around the Bower all week, creeping out the girls and edging on Harry’s nasty xenophobic side. Like them surprised by the changing weather and waiting for the hail to stop... What was his name? Ronny?

“Hello, darling,” he says, with a smarmy grin and a manic look in his oddly pale eyes. “Have you missed me?”

Alayne gives him a cold nod, a “yes, I remember that I met you before, now go away” nod, and turns back to Clegane.

Creepy Ronny doesn’t seem to understand body language and slithers over to her. “You look cold, darling. Why don’t you come here and let me warm you up? I’ve missed looking at your glorious tits.”

What in the seven hells is he talking about? She spins around and glares at him.

“I see you’re still wearing white. White lace, how lovely. When you’re done with your charity work for the day, I’ll rip that one right off you. Make you scream.”

As Sandor Clegane growls, an honest to the Gods growl, and pulls Alayne’s back flush against his body, she realizes two things. One, the rain has turned her white silk top completely see-through and her white lacy bra is clearly outlined where the shirt clings to her skin. Two, this nonsense that Creepy Ronny is spouting is meant to taunt Sandor Clegane, meant to make him jealous, meant to hurt him. The two of them a nice little distraction for a bored sadist, who thought that Sandor’s blindness and her drenched clothes would make for an easy target, for a nice little mindfuck to pass the time. She had lived in the shadow of Joffrey’s increasing madness for years; she can see the signs quite clearly now. But to think that she would ever, ever choose this little weasel over the Warrior Incarnate, whose strong hands are so warm on her cold skin?

It’s so absurd that it makes her laugh and still laughing she turns back around for the second time and pulls Sandor down for another kiss. This one isn’t innocent, not innocent at all, as she opens her mouth, as her tongue darts along his lips. She can feel how the texture of his skin changes where the scars begin and she lets it linger there, exploring the ridge where damaged skin meets smooth lip. Then his tongue is there, too. So hot and so, so good.

They take their time.

When they finally pull apart, the hail has stopped. Creepy Ronny is gone, and the rain has turned into a torrential downpour that shows no sign of stopping any time soon. She tells Sandor all this, but at the mention of Creepy Ronny his face goes dark.

“Who was that?” Clegane rasps. “An ex?”

His voice is hard, and he’s looking right at her, his wrong, wrong eyes angled just right for once.

Oh! Oh, gods, no!

“Definitely not! I’d rather die than go out with that man,” she says with more venom in her voice than that creature deserves. “He’s been freaking out my girls for weeks now, with his creepy eyes and wandering hands.”

As soon as the words have left her lips, she fears that it was wrong to tell him that. The Sandor who just kissed her so eagerly has frozen, retreated. Only the Hound remains on Sandor Clegane’s face. What if she’s said the wrong thing again, like last week, and offended him? What if he leaves?

“His eyes are creepy?” the Hound steel-on-stones at her, but what would have frightened the girl Sansa Stark is merely a thrown gauntlet to the woman Alayne Stone. Just as she readies herself to explain that absolutely no offense was meant to him, that she likes his eyes, likes his face, and wants to keep kissing, kissing, kissing -

“Has he ever touched you? What do you mean with ‘creepy eyes’? Describe him to me.” It’s Sandor’s voice and the Hound’s face. Protective, always.

“No, he has never touched me.” She takes a moment to think. “His eyes are creepy because he looks at me like I’m fresh meat, or - or a juicy corpse. They don’t have any real color, like dirty ice, and - I don’t know how else to describe them. Oddly pale? He’s a littler shorter than me. Bad skin, sloping shoulder. It’s not so much the way he looks. It’s how he carries himself… He reminds me of men that I have known.  Why do you want to know?”

He leans down and kisses her temple, brings one of their intertwined hands up and kisses the back of her hand, her fingers.

“So that I can find him if he ever hurts you.”

“He won’t,” she breathes against his collarbone. “You’ll keep me safe.”

 

There’s more kissing, finally.

 

When they hurry through the rain later, the cobblestones under their feet are more puddle than not. She leads him through the little gate into the courtyard, where the tall walls of the surrounding houses offer a little bit of protection against the rain. As she rummages through her bag for the keys, there’s still something in his posture that makes her uneasy, a lingering tension as he leans against the wall, his arms crossed.

“Do you still want to come upstairs for your cup of coffee?” she finally asks him, bracing herself for rejection, having to take him into the Bower to dry off a bit, call him a taxi…

“A cup of coffee or a cup of coffee?” he asks with his eyebrow raised.

“Nightcap, cup of coffee, Netflix and chill. Whatever you want to call it. Come upstairs with me, stay the night.”

She’s fiddling with her keys, hands slightly shaky in anticipation, when he starts to speak in a voice so low and husky she almost can’t make out the words.

“Alayne. I… you… oh Seven Hells.” He slumps back against the wall, and she looks up to him with wide worried eyes.

“What’s wrong? Don’t you … would you rather leave?”

“No!” he says quickly. “It’s… just… I. Fuck me, this is hard.”

They’re both so nervous and suddenly she sees the humor in what he just said and steps giggling into an embrace. He holds her tight, his back against the wall, and he’s smiling, too.

“I like your smile,” she whispers.

“You have very strange taste, Alayne,” he says wryly, but he’s still smiling, he believes her. “Alayne.” He takes a deep breath, tries for the third time. “Before we go up there... I can’t see anything. At all.”

“Really?” she gasps in feigned surprise. “I had no idea!” But her hand is very serious as she caresses his rain-wet cheek, as she continues softly. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do my best. We’ll be fine.”

And he’s smiling again and leans down and kisses her, and she opens the door and pulls him through into the stairway. It’s three flights of stairs up to her room under the roof, and she kisses him on every floor, both to give his bad leg a little break and because she really, really wants to. When they’re in front of her door and she fumbles for the keys again, he reaches out and carefully trails the door frame with the back of his hand. He’ll have to duck to get through, she can see him work that out, and Sansa thinks that she finally understands a little bit of why he’s so nervous.

They toe off their soaked shoes and leave them outside. Inside the little room, the air is still warm and stuffy. The first thing that Alayne sees is their reflection in her vanity mirror; it’s not a pretty sight and she actually gasps. The rain, the kisses, maybe a combination of both, have ravaged her carefully painted face and smeared the make-up. Her mascara dark smudges around her eyes, her contouring like streaks of mud across her cheeks.

She can see Alayne and Sansa in her face at the same time. She’s a mess.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, alarmed.

“Oh, it’s nothing. My make-up… didn’t survive the rain. I look like a very sad clown.”

“I bet you look beautiful anyway,” he rasps. Sansa has known his hoarse voice for years, and she recognizes the nuances that Alayne couldn’t have picked up yet.

 

Humor and tenderness.

 

~

 

He calls one of his housemates, while she quickly takes her make-up off, gets out of her wet clothes, wrings out her hair. She can hear snippets of the conversation through the closed bathroom door, a few “I’m sure”’s and one very indignant “I can take care of myself.” When she walks out of the bathroom in her robe and her sexiest lingerie, he still stands where she left him in her little kitchen area, still in his wet clothes. The towels she’d given him are untouched on the kitchen table. His long, wet hair clings to his face. Water droplets collect in the deep ridges, the craters of his scars. He stands very straight, very tall, his face angled towards the direction of the bathroom door, towards her, and he’s clutching his folded-up cane with both hands. His hands tighten around it, relax, clench again, and again. It’s the only visible movement in his body, until he hears her come to him, when his chin jerks slightly upwards, listening, and the little tremor in the corner of his mouth starts up again.

Sansa pads towards him like you approach a scared and hurt dog.

“Hey,” she whispers. Right now, she wishes she had more experience with this sort of thing. Randa would know how to tell a man you want him naked in your bed, the sooner the better. But in a way, Randa had been just as good a teacher as Petyr Baelish had been. Alayne’s at least not totally clueless.

“Hey,” he answers with that wry, self-deprecating smile of his.

“You’re dripping all over my kitchen floor,” she breathes. “Give me the cane and take your clothes off.”

He raises his good eyebrow at her words, but he lets her pluck the cane from his hands without a word. With his hands free, he slowly lowers them down to the hem of his shirt, slowly, slowly pulls up the wet fabric to reveal a flat, muscled stomach, defined pecs, all covered in a fine dusting of dark hair. The widest shoulders she has ever seen. Water drips from his hair over his wet skin.

Oh gods, his arms… Her heart pounds in her chest like a drum as she surveys his magnificent body, as her own responds to his and desire quickens low in her belly.

He holds the wet shirt in his hand like he doesn’t know what to do with it, and she realizes that she’s been silently staring at him for a heartbeat too long, has left him half-naked and unmoored without a hint of her reaction.

“You’re glorious,” she says. Matter-of-factly. Not a trace of a lie in her voice, and she knows that he’s listening for one, from the way he moves his head. He still doesn’t say anything.

She takes the shirt from his hands and throws it in a clear arc into her kitchen sink. Then she reaches out, gently reaches for the button on his jeans, her fingers dusting over the skin above the waistband, waiting for a reaction. He freezes, gulps, his hands in tight fists at his side.

“May I?” she asks, and finally he grunts and gives a curt nod.

She pulls down his jeans and underwear together in one fluid movement, waits for him to step out of them, then throws them into the sink, too.

He’s naked before her and it’s everything she ever wanted it to be. His long, muscled legs, the dark hair between them. He’s only half-hard, but already much bigger than that first fake dick from Randa’s drawer years ago, when the sight of a penis so disgusted her, when she couldn’t fathom the appeal. She’s not that child anymore. Today, in front of Sandor Clegane’s magnificent naked body she finally understands why Randa laughed so much that day. Because she definitely wants to lick this.

“Glorious,” she breathes, and at the sound of her voice he leaps at her, whatever has held him back so long melted away, his hands around her waist, pulling her against him. He tugs at her robe at her back with one impatient hand, frowning, while the other one is buried in her hair.

“Take that off,” he commands, and she slips out of it, stands pressed against him in only her lacy bra and panties, her palms on his shoulder blades. She can feel his heart hammer in his chest, its rapid beat mirroring hers. Both his hands drop down to her ass and he buries his nose in her hair with a moan. She moans, too, as his fingers trace the lace over her skin, his dick steadily growing against her stomach. She can feel the wetness between her legs start to drip into her panties.

“Bed. Now.” His voice is full of that authority he had the night of the wight attack. Self-assured and confident. It sends shivers down her spine, and she lurches up and kisses him, devours him, his cruel mouth so hot, his tongue… He grabs her hair and pulls her head back, leans close to hear, his nose grazing her temple.

“Girl, later I will bend you over this table and fuck you bloody. But not now. Now, I want you spread on your bed.  And on your bed, I’ll make you come until you scream for me. Bed, now!”

She stumbles backwards, still clinging to him, raking her hands over his broad back, until her calves hit her bed. She lets herself fall on her back and pulls him down with her, a tangle of limbs and so much skin, his large body on his side beside her, his head near her shoulders, his rock-hard dick pressed against her legs. His eyes are staring at her in the twilight, only they’re not, Alayne, for Seven’s sake, get a grip. He runs his fingers over the lace on her hips, trails upwards, circles her belly button, finally reaches her breast and cups one with a large palm, thumbing the lace there with surprising gentleness. In turn, she’s raking her fingers over his arm, up his neck, the scars on his cheek, until she comes to his scalp. She brushes the hair away and in doing so, her fingers softly rub over the little stub that remains of his left ear. He shudders. She gently tugs at his hair and sweeps her fingertips over his whole right ear, the soft skin behind it. It makes him tremble and his roaming hands still. She’s soaring now, far, far away from the world. Such power over him. He’s hers and she is his, the two of them made for each other. Her tongue on his warm skin, down from his ear to the strong muscles of his neck and shoulders. Something primal howls in the back of her mind, howls “what is it that wolves do to dogs?” and “claim him, claim your mate!”

She closes her eyes and bites, her teeth in the hard muscles where his neck meets his shoulder.

Out of the blue, Sandor groans, bucks against her thigh, hard, once, twice. Something warm and liquid drips over her.

Oh…

With another groan he rolls off her, and lies panting on his back, one arm slung over his face.

“Seven hells...” he rasps softly, his arm still over his face, “That was… fuck.”

Sansa doesn’t know to say or do, so she pulls her panties off and wipes her thigh with them, so sensitive everywhere that the lace against her skin feels like sandpaper. But before she can decide on what to do next, he’s upon her again, planting wet kisses on her neck, her collarbone, licks down between her breasts, over the lace of her bra.

“Let me,” she whimpers, and quickly takes the bra off with trembling hands. Her nipples are hard as pebbles and he gently tongues first one, then the other. It makes her shudder, and she’s half-relieved, half-disappointed when he doesn’t linger there. He continues to take his tongue downwards, circling over her belly button, nipping at the flesh at her hips. They both moan when he reaches her pubic hair, where he lets his hand take over from his tongue and strokes the auburn hair between her legs.

There the tiniest hint of cautiousness in his fingers for a second, then he lifts his face to hers.

“What’s it to be, fingers or tongue?”

“Whatever pleases you.” Sansa’s voice is a breathless whisper.

He shakes his head and gives her hip a little slap.

“And I’ve asked you. Fingers or tongue?”

She’s dreamed of his fingers in her every night since he first came back into her life. The places where his tongue licked at her skin still tingle...

“Both, please, please, Sandor. I want your tongue on me, your fingers, everything, everywhere,” she groans.

Oh gods, the look on his face, wonder and pride and veneration, as his fingers part her folds and find the sea between her legs.

“Fuck, you’re so wet, Alayne, so wet for me –”

She expects him to go straight for her clit, and her fingers itch to do the job herself; she’s aching for it, for release.

But he takes his time. For long agonizing seconds, his head rests between her thighs, one hand holding onto her hip, the fingers of the other hand gentle and relaxed on her lower belly. He does nothing but - breathe. Deep breaths, and every time he exhales the air hits her and makes her hairs stand on end.

She can’t help it, she groans impatiently, an almost stuttered “come on, come-” and lifts her pelvis up towards his face. His strong hand on her hip holds her down.

“Such a wild thing,” he murmurs and nips at the inside of her thigh. Yes, that’s better, but still not what she wants.

“Sandor, please, do - ah.”

One finger on her clit, just for a second, a tease, nothing more. He nuzzles the soft skin where her thigh meets her groin, and she brings both her hands down to his head, buries the one in his dark, long hair and lets the other melt around his skull, his scars. He’s humming in response, and she lifts her pelvis a second time, offering herself.

“Sandor, please…”

Then his tongue is on her clit, just for a second or two, three, four.

And he’s gone again, kissing in wide circles over her thighs, hips and lower belly, licking long lines from her belly button down to her sex.

This is torture.

“PLEASE!”

He smiles against her thighs, he actually smiles, and then his fingers part her again and -

Oh gods, he sucks on it, oh gods. 

She loses herself after that, in the heat, the heat, the heat… She loses all sense of time and self. His tongue, his lips on her, the sight of him between her legs. It’s almost unbearable, the sensations so different from what she feels when she pleasures herself. Lightning flashing through her, again and again and again. He slides an index finger into her, just the first two joints, then the middle finger, too, and curls them up, like -  like he’s beckoning her, pressing against the pubic bone from the inside, while his relentless tongue laps her up, the friction on her clit just right, almost too much, buzzing in her ear, her heart beating so rapidly…

Sansa screams, almost incoherently, “oh gods, oh gods, oh gods, Sandor!” and he sucks at her clit again, and she comes so hard that she sees stars. He keeps his fingers in her as she rides it out, as her muscles contract and contract and contract around him.

Finally, Sandor sits back on his knees between her legs, his hands on her thighs. He’s grinning, he’s proud and accomplished, his skin slick from her juices… and the effect on his scars would have brought the Sansa of five years ago to tears of terror.

The woman that she is today sits up and carefully, tenderly, lovingly licks his scarred face clean.

 

 

~

 

Afterwards, they don’t speak much. She opens the window and lets in the night air, fresh and cool after the rain. She shows him her little bathroom, finds him a fresh toothbrush, hangs up his wet clothes to dry. He takes a shower and waits for her in her bed while she showers, too. They kiss some more, gentle and sweet.

They lie together, limbs tangled up. She on her back, Sandor on his stomach next to her.

“Do you… your eyes, do you have to take them out at night? Like contact lenses?”

“No. Not for a few weeks.”

“May I ask you something else?” He tenses up, rolls from his stomach to his side, but doesn’t stop brushing his hand up and down her thigh. His fingers trace the long, thin scar there, down to her knee, over her calf. He doesn’t say anything.

She takes it as a good sign and continues.

“How did you decide on their color?” She catches herself at the last moment, quickly tries to hide the fact that she knows his eyes haven’t always been a warm brown. “It’s not, I mean, did your… old… eyes look like that? Brown? Or… I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”

“No, it’s fine. Not the question I expected… Hmm… The true story?” He’s silent for a moment. “When I woke up after, nobody could remember how exactly my eyes had looked like. They’d been gray, but that was all anyone could agree on. Apparently ‘just make them gray’ does not cut it; gray can be anything. There are no photographs of me, from the before, nothing conclusive enough at least. I’d always been just too good at not being in the picture. Ironic, really. Someone suggested my brother’s eyes, they had more than enough pictures of him. That idea… didn’t go over well for them. In the end I had them use my dog’s eyes as a reference instead.”

“These are your dog’s eyes?” She remembers the day of the riot. A hulking, snarling beast with short black fur and a blasphemous name. She had never noticed what beautiful warm eyes it had.

“Aye.”

“What’s its name?”

“His. Stranger. Yes, I know. My… friend… makes fun of it all the time. Me having the Stranger’s eyes.”

His hand has arrived at her jaw, his palm splayed over her cheek, his thumb gently stroking over her lips. He’s trying to figure out her reaction to his story, she realizes. She cups his hand with her own. Presses a kiss to his palm.

“Puppy dog eyes, you mean.”

It makes him laugh. She’s said the right thing. She’s so proud.

“What question did you expect?”

“The usual. What happened to my face, why I’m blind… stuff like that.”

“Would you tell me if I asked?”

“Are you asking?”

She reaches up and gently brushes her fingers over his left eye, traces the scars around it. I know, Sansa thinks, I already know what happened to you. And I know your real eyes.

“No. You can tell me when, if, you like. One day. But knowing ‘how’ doesn’t change the ‘now,’ right? And things are what they are. I don’t want to drag the past into tonight.”

“Aye”, he says, tenderly, and so tired. “Let’s not think about the past tonight. Tonight, you and I are here… and our dead rest in peace.”

He’s almost asleep in her arms when he mumbles a question of his own. “What color are yours?”

“Tully blue,” Sansa Stark replies without hesitation. His breath is already sleepy-even against her neck, and she falls asleep soon after him.

 

~

 

There is a bloodstained backpack underneath the bed. In that backpack? An old leather jacket, size 4XL, an expired can of pepper spray and a pair of broken handcuffs.

And a photograph of a man with storm gray eyes, clear and bright in an angry, scarred face.

 

 

~3~

What happened way back when

 

Something had happened. Randa had gone out, “just shopping, darling, do you need anything?” - but she hadn’t come back.

Alayne had surprised her in Daddy’s office the day before, looking through his filing cabinet. Randa hadn’t said anything. Had simply nodded at her and had taken a stack of paper out of a folder. Then she had given Alayne a tiny salute and a wink.

Squires saluted like that.

Alayne worried.

 

~

 

That night, Alayne was asleep when her Daddy came into her room and shook her awake. Something was terribly wrong, she could see it in his face, and he almost yelled when he told her to pack her things, to put on a dress. Hastily, Alayne stuffed things from her drawer into her old trusty backpack. Her dresses. Underwear. The silver trout earrings Cat Stark had given Sansa for her 14th birthday, the can of mace Randa had given Alayne one night with a knowing look and her eyebrows raised in Daddy’s direction. Sandor Clegane’s jacket.

(Joffrey’s handcuffs, never unpacked, still on the bottom of the backpack.)

Ros was already downstairs, cowering in the backseat of Daddy’s second favorite car, her red hair wild and tangled, and Alayne could tell that something had terrified her. Daddy’s eyes were hard as stone as he pushed Alayne in the passenger seat. He didn’t answer any of her questions, drove to the train station in silence, parked the car two streets over, and very nonchalantly pulled a butterfly knife out of the glove department.

“This will hurt me more than it will hurt you, Sweetling. Don’t scream!” Alayne didn’t have time to be scared before he pulled up her dress and cut her in her left thigh, and then from her knee down to the ankle.

Alayne didn’t scream. She stared at him with wide eyes, tears flowing freely. But she didn’t scream.

The blood from her leg dripped into the car seat cover, down to the footwell, over the backpack at her feet. Daddy watched it critically. Finally, he nodded and had Ros hand her a towel and some gauze from the backseat. Ros was sobbing, praying to the Mother under her breath, but she obeyed.

After Alayne had wrapped her leg, all the while wondering why she didn’t feel more pain, Daddy shoved a briefcase into her hands, leaned over her to open the car door.

“Get out now. The train to Saltpans leaves in 20 minutes, I’ll finish some business here and join you there later this week. Wait for me at the Bower. Tell them… something. You’re a good girl, you’ll come up with something. Won’t you, Alayne?”

She stared at him and didn’t move.

“Alayne. Out! Now!”

She hobbled out of the car, with her bloody backpack and the mysterious briefcase.

She never saw Petyr Baelish again.

 

 

~

 

Her leg began to hurt after an hour on the train. Blood had seeped through the bandages around it and she cowered awkwardly in her seat, trying in vain to find a position where the wound wouldn’t hurt as much, where she could hide the bloodstains on her backpack under her long dress.

The train tracks from Gulltown to Saltpans followed the coastline of the Bays of Crabs. She could already see the Quiet Isle in the distance, the largest hospital complex in Westeros, if not the world. She had been there once, visiting her Grandfather Hoster after his first heart surgery.

Her thoughts strayed to the calm white buildings and the beautiful, old gardens there. How nice would it be to have a maester take a proper look at her leg? Maybe she needed stitches?

But Daddy had said that she was to wait for him at the Bower in Saltpans. And the cut hadn’t been that deep. Or had it? It hurt.

(She needed stitches, and she got them in Saltpans the next day.)

Her eyes fell on the briefcase he had given her. He hadn’t told her not to open it.

When the train was abreast of the Quiet Isle, she couldn’t take it any longer, a deadly combination of curiosity and the desperate need for distraction getting the better of her.

The combination lock wasn’t a problem to her.

All he ever used was Catelyn Stark’s namedate.

 

The briefcase was full to the brim with legal documents of all sorts. Birth certificates, passports, school diplomas, business licenses, bank account statements.

They all bore the name Alayne Stone. But the namedates were different, and the pictures were, too.  Some Alayne Stones were in their late fifties or older, some were even younger than she was. Automatically, she began to sort them, like a puzzle. In the end, she had eleven stacks, eleven Alayne Stones.

One was she.

Another belonged to an Alayne Stone in her seventies, and her stack of papers proved to all of the world that she was the owner of that little, old tearoom in Saltpans, “The Bower.”

How interesting.

 

~

 

It wasn’t hard to take over, even if her heart was pounding like mad when she introduced herself as the new owner.

“Poor Granny. It was rather sudden.”

No one challenged her.

There was enough money in the bank, just Catelyn Stark’s namedate between it and Alayne. For months on end, renovating, no, rejuvenating the Bower kept her thoughts busy and her heart full. How it sang to her, beautiful Saltpans, where every day was the same and nothing bad ever happened. She joined the Sept choir and made acquaintances (never friends.) She painted walls and chose flooring, overhauled the menu. She hired new staff: gorgeous Harry, Sally with her wide smile, Jeyne Heddle and her sister for the kitchen. Guests flocked to the Bower now, to Alayne’s charm and her lemon cakes.

At night, she lay on her gigantic new bed, her backpack safely hidden underneath it, and prayed and prayed and prayed that he wouldn’t come for her, that she would be allowed to keep this little world she had made for herself.

Daddy didn’t come and Alayne lived her life.

Waiting for Sansa Stark's past to find her…


Chapter Text


~1~

Three ways to find your people

From a glossy recruitment brochure for the Knightswatch

[…] With origins shrouded in history, the Night’s Watch protected the Wall until the New Dawn more than 600 years ago. After the Night had been defeated, it was refounded by the survivors of this legendary battle with the purpose of guarding the North against pillaging Southern Knights. Today’s Knightswatch serves both as border control with the Free Folk territories as well as central law enforcement in the North. Headed by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, our commanders and rangers […] Jon Snow, the youngest Commander since the War of the Five Kings […]

From a formal letter to a young, promising soldier

[…] In the light of your outstanding conduct you have been suggested as a potential King’s Guard. You are hereby formally invited to take part in the Potential King’s Guard Course […] elite of the elite […] seven-year long commitment […]

A handwritten note on the bulletin board of the small grocery store in the old town of Saltpans

Interested in joining the SEPT CHOIR? We are always looking for new voices! Practice is Mainday and Faraday, 8 P.M. If you’re interested call Nella Fletcher at […] or Septon Meribald at […]

~2~

What’s happening now

He wakes up and something isn’t right. This isn’t his bed. The sheets are softer, the mattress is slightly harder, it smells faintly like lavender and lemon and sex, and there is a warm body pressed against him that is definitely neither Stranger nor Nym. He tries to blink against the confusion of sleep and last night’s dreams, those vivid dreams of Sansa moaning under him, her fiery hair a halo around her pale face, and for a second he’s dead sure that this is Sansa next to him, he only has to turn around and look at her, but something’s wrong with his eyes, what the fuck, what the fuck… oh, right.

Alayne. Right, he’s in Alayne’s bed. He’s blind and a mess and he still brought the most gorgeous girl in the Riverlands to her fucking knees, had her wet and trembling for him.

He smiles, then he grins and then he laughs a little into her hair. Her breathing doesn’t change, but she turns her shoulder slightly against his chest. Already awake.

“What’s so funny?” she mumbles into the pillow.

This, you here with me, Sandor thinks but doesn’t say.

“Good morning,” he whispers instead and lets his fingers follow the dip of her spine, from the small of her back up to her long, slender neck.

“Good morning,” she replies, her sunshine voice still full of sleep. It makes him think of tough honey, dripping from a spoon in the first sunlight of a summer morning.

It startles him, when her warm, soft skin under his hands suddenly disappears. She crawls over him, out of bed. Did he do something wrong?

A quick peck on his cheek, a “I’m sorry. Bathroom. I’ll be back soon,” and she’s gone. Sandor rolls over into the warm dent she left behind, burrows under the covers. Everything still smells like her. And lavender and Dornish Lemon. Sansa used to smell like that, too.

Sansa. There were at least three moments yesterday when reality slipped, and he had imagined that he heard Sansa when Alayne was speaking. Maybe even more than three. He’d suppressed the thought instantly every time. To compare the two of them feels so wrong; Alayne deserves better than to be kept in Sansa’s shadow by his stupid dog-faithful heart. Alayne is her own person, so much taller and more outspoken and just plain older than Sansa had been. How old is she anyway? He hasn’t asked yet.

But her laugh is the same. And that gentle hand on his wet cheek. Just like…

No. No, stop that. No one will ever compare to Sansa Stark. No one will ever compare to Alayne Stone, either.

He cycles through the Sansa memories of his morning ritual while half his heart listens to the water running in Alayne’s little bathroom.

Sansa. For the first time in long years the thought of her comes without its usual sting. Maybe he’ll go to wolf girl’s fucked up party after all. Maybe he’ll even ask Alayne to come? She already knows Gendry, and Pod. Time to introduce her to wolf girl and Stranger and Nym. Alayne likes dogs...

The sound of a faucet being turned off in the bathroom breaks through his thoughts. A door opens and Alayne is back in bed, minty-fresh breath ghosting over his face as she speaks.

“I have two hours before I have to be downstairs…- Oh, do you have to leave for work?”

“No. Summer break. I have the whole week off.”

Her fingertips on his biceps.

“Good. Great. Then…” Her fingers gently move up to his shoulders, he catches them and kisses her hand.

“Bathroom first?”

“Sure.” She’s smiling, he can tell. “I’ll wait for you.”

He knows the direction of the bathroom door, has a good idea of the distance, knows that the floor is clear. It’s still unsettling to walk the space on his own. Where even is his cane? Alayne put it somewhere…

The bathroom itself is so tiny that it’s easy to find everything, and he comes back with an empty bladder, brushed teeth and an acute awareness that Alayne is naked in her bed, that he is naked, too, and that she can see him, all of him. When she didn’t make a move after he’d made her come last night, he’d just assumed that she wasn’t interested in his dick. He knows that the size of him is… intimidating, that women might talk about big dicks but shy away when confronted with the real thing. That it’s painful for them, and he knows that from experience. He has had his fair share of women in his time, he’d been a King’s Guard for Seven’s sake. A King’s Guard in King’s Landing can have three heads, a hunchback, and Tywin Lannister’s face tattooed on his crotch, and will still have to beat off groupies with a stick as soon as they catch a glimpse of the emblem on his jacket. But for the Hound, to fuck them was another story than to get them onto a bed with their clothes off. They all talked a big game, but when he took off his pants, it ended in stunned silences and half-hearted blowjobs more often than not. He took care of them, of course, to keep up his reputation, and after Alayne’s reaction last night, he’s gladder than ever for all the practice -

His shin finds the bed, and her hands pull him down to her, against her naked skin.

“Come here. Sit up…” He follows her tugging arms and sits with his back against the wall, her hand on his shoulder, her hand on his jaw, her body on his lap. Ready for anything.

Alayne pushes the hair away from his face, brushes her fingertips over his burned scalp, to his missing ear, across his cheek, down to the left corner of his mouth where his lips never quite meet. Then her hand is gone and her mouth, her soft, soft mouth on his mouth. Maybe he’s still dreaming? No, he can always see in his dreams. She kisses him, thoroughly, recklessly, her tongue on his lower lip, her tongue a pressure against the corner of his mouth. Her teeth capture his lower lip, a quick little bite, exquisite pain. His dick is hard and heavy…

Then she’s suddenly gone, and there’s a wooden sound, scraping right next to him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m getting lube and condoms,” she says, breathless but matter-of-factly. “You’re bigger than I thought. That’s… a lot to take in.”

“Aye, I know. You don’t have to if -”

She hums absentmindedly. “We’ll need a lot of lube and I think you’ll have to make me come first, maybe twice? I’ve never had more than 10 inches before…”

The thought of her with another man, another man’s hands on her naked body, another man looking at her. A burning jealousy, a rage he hasn’t felt since he heard those rumors of Sansa and the Imp…

He channels his fury, lets the Hound out as he finger-fucks her into the mattress until she jerks like a fresh-caught trout, slippery and wild under him. He does make her come twice with his fingers, three of them buried deep inside her wet cunt and his thumb on her clit, makes her sob his name, again and again and again. Then a third time with only his tongue, featherlight and gentle. He’s so hard it starts to be painful.

She’s completely relaxed and limp as they kiss afterwards, as she licks at his face, just like she did yesterday. The touch of her tongue on his skin feels wet and soft on the unscarred side of his face. Her tongue on his scars is nothing but a vague pressure in the vast areas where he feels nothing. Better than what he can physically feel is this clearest evidence that she isn’t put off or disgusted or repulsed by his scars, by him… Ah, and there are few spots where a sudden clear sensation is so intense it makes him shake. She notices. Of course, she does.

“Good?” she murmurs, the am-I-hurting-you conveyed by the soft worry in her voice.

He bites out a “yes, don’t stop” and she continues mapping his face with her tongue, sweeping over the thin skin at his jaw bone twice. Again, she suddenly moves away, disappears into thin air.

“Alayne?”

“I’m right here.” Her hand touches his thigh, anchors her. She’s on his right side, at the edge of the bed.

“Do you want me to blow you first?” she asks. Oh gods, oh the thought of her hot, wet mouth around his dick, oh fuck. He’ll definitely come from just that… and he’s not 20 anymore. Given the choice he’d rather have his dick in her hot, wet cunt right now.

“Next time...” he says and she hums in reply. There’s the sound of a condom wrapper being ripped open, a squirting sound, another one and a little pause, then palms rubbing together. She settles between his legs.

“I’ll touch your dick now, okay?” she asks and he nods his consent, reaches out for her and his hands find an arm and a perfect tit. He lets his hands glide over her smooth skin, his dick twitching in anticipation.

Then one hand, wet and warm, on his dick. Oh fuck, fuck, fuck… She lubes him up, the full length of his dick, leans down and presses a quick kiss to the head that makes him buck into her hand.

“Sorry,” her voice sheepish. “I just wanted to say hi. Sorry, next time, I know… I... I wanted to put the condom on with my mouth. Would that be okay for you?”

Would that be okay? She can’t seriously ask that. Of course, it’s bloody okay!

“Fuck, Alayne, sure, oh gods,” he babbles and then her head is in his lap. He has both hands buried in her hair at the back of her head, as she slowly takes his dick in her mouth, lets her firmly pursed lips keep the condom in place as he slides into her mouth for a couple tantalizing inches, before her hand takes over and takes it all the way down. Her mouth gone again, then her hands. She kneels over him, her legs almost wrapped around his hips. She kisses him deeply. His hands drop down to the small of her back, cup her perfect ass.

“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been dreaming of you?” she whispers into his bad ear, only her voice is Sansa’s voice again, and then she guides his dick into her cunt, and nothing matters anymore. She’s so tight and warm and she takes him in slowly, inch for inch. Almost his whole length, almost. When she begins to move, to ride him, clever girl to choose this position, oh fuck, fuck, seven hells.

Alayne’s grinning into his neck and he growls and softly bites her shoulder, just like she did to him last night, which makes her breath hitch and the small hairs of her body, under his hands, stand on end.

“Do that again,” she moans, and he does, marks her with little bites while she increases the speed of her hips. It seems impossible, but she pulls him even closer and she… she takes him, all of him, just like that.

This woman was made for him.

Now that he knows what is possible, the speed she’s setting is suddenly not enough, he wants more and he grabs her firmly by the hips and gets up on his knees in one fluid motion. Alayne wraps her legs tightly around him, lets her upper body fall back on the bed, her body weight on her shoulders, and he has both hands free to cup her perfect tits, has enough leverage to ram into her, her warm, tight... one of her hands sneaks under her ass and cups his balls. Oh, fuck.

He comes, a shaky, breathtaking, earth-shattering orgasm. She deliberately clenches her cunt around him, milks him, and it’s almost too much, and he collapses on top of her, only half-aware not to crush her to death. She wraps her arms around him and he slowly pulls out of her, a wet squelching sound that he enjoys so much.

“You’re perfect,” he mumbles into the soft skin of her neck where his head has come to rest.

She kisses his forehead in reply.

“So are you.”

~

It takes her ages to put her make-up on. Even longer than it took Cersei, back in the day. Sandor gets dressed, texts Gendry, spends some time learning her space, bumps against the sloped ceiling, gets a reply text from Gendry, finds his cane on the kitchen table and ends up watering the little potted herbs on her kitchen counter. Thyme, rosemary. A wilted little basil.

“I never use them,” Alayne says to his right. Wistfully. “I hardly ever cook. I eat almost all my meals downstairs. My fridge is empty, too.” She pauses and Sandor braces himself. “Would you have breakfast with me? Downstairs, at the Bower? I’m starving and I bet you are, too.”

He is, but still his first instinct is to decline, no matter how hungry he is or how much he wants to be around her. Eating in front of others, always a nightmare when sober, twice as much now that he can’t see what the fuck he’s doing. Not a pretty sight, but - Most likely, she has seen him eat before, he suddenly remembers. Beric’s dinner party. She must have seen him then, she must have. And he really didn’t pay much attention to table manners and his stupid ruined mouth back then, not with Dondarrion and Martell there, not among friends. All right, then. Even if having breakfast with a gorgeous woman feels hard to do, he’ll survive.

~

They take their time, walking down the stairs together, kissing on every floor. Voices greet Alayne as they enter the Bower. One is cheerful, young and female. Another tired and sad, but also young and female. One pompous sounding male voice. They’re gathered behind the bar, obviously caught talking about something private. Alayne introduces them as Jeyne, Sally and Harry. She introduces him as Sandor. There’s the usual stunned silence of people staring that has only intensified since he lost his sight. Finally, the guy, Harry, mumbles “Warrior Incarnate” under his breath.

“What’s wrong, Sally?” Alayne asks unperturbed. She’s noticed, too.

“Nothing, it’s nothing, boss,” Sally says, very unconvincingly. “I’ll pull myself together, promise.”

“If you don’t feel well, you can go home, no problem. It’s just Mothday morning, Harry and I can handle it just fine.”

“No. I mean, thanks, Alayne, but no.” Sally takes a deep breath. “It’s just Mikken being a shit head again. I’ll be fine in a second. Don’t worry. I really don’t want to go home right now.”

Alayne makes sympathetic noises.

“Your decision, Sally. Sandor and I will have breakfast together. I’ll join you if we get a wave in, okay?”

She leads him away from the bar into the quiet din of early bird customers. Sandor tries to recall the layout of the Bower from his one visit weeks ago, comes up with a vague memory of a long table but not much else as Alayne guides him to what sounds like a corner and puts his hand on the back of a chair.

“Would you mind taking this one? If I have the other one I can see pretty much the whole room…”

He sits down at a table for two, hungry, with a woman he just slept with. With the perfect woman. Sandor’s terrified. Something will go wrong. Something always goes wrong…

“What are you in the mood for?” Alayne chirps. “You’re here with the boss, you know? Jeynie will make you whatever you want. Or… we do have one menu in Braille? For Beric, mostly.”

“What will you have?” he deflects, unwilling to admit how slow his fingers are at reading, too large and calloused, while bloody Beric has taken to it like a duck to water.

“Hmm, usually fruit and yoghurt and a green smoothie. Today… scrambled eggs, bacon, toast. Smoked trout. Our ‘Riverlands Classic.’ And coffee.” She pauses. “Okay, and the green smoothie, too.”

“Same for me,” he decides and her chair scrapes on the floor as she gets up.

“How do you take your coffee?” she asks, her voice hovering above him.

“Black. Strong.”

“I’ll be right back.” She leans down slowly, he can feel her come closer, and she kisses him, in front of everyone, just like that.

When she comes back, there’s a spring in her step. She kisses him again.

“What’s wrong with that girl?” he asks. “Does he beat her?”

“Who? Mikken?” Alayne laughs as she sits down. “Gods, no. He’s just an idiot who lives for his inventions and doesn’t come home when he promises to. He’s getting his chain in mechanical engineering and is the living and breathing ‘absent-minded maester’ cliche. You know, a tiny guy with wild hair and checkered shirts. He probably stood her up for dinner or something. We don’t even ask anymore. He’ll call her, or text her, in the next hour and everything will be fine.”

She takes his hand into hers. Holding hands with the perfect woman.

“Tell me about your dog,” she says. By the time the food comes he has told her everything about Stranger and relaxed so much that he doesn’t even remember to be self-conscious about eating in front of her. The food is great. The coffee, too. She is so lovely and, in this setting more than ever, so unobtrusively good at dealing with his blindness. Beric’s influence, no doubt.

They talk about dogs. About green smoothies. Sandor tells her how Tormund built his body up basically from scratch, after he came to Saltpans from the Quiet Isle where he had lost almost 60 pounds of muscle, sculpted him with free weights and chicken and endless protein shakes. Again, she lets him try her drink, a sin against coffee, too much frothy milk, way too much sugar. How can anyone drink that?

“Oh, you won’t believe it,” she cuts into his rant with a conspiratorial whisper. “Guess who just walked in? Our important tourist from Lys.”

It’s been two fucking years and he still has to suppress the instinct to turn around and look. Instead, he listens. Two, maybe three tables away from them. One high-pitched child voice. Two women, speaking softly in Valyrian.

“Where are the bodyguards?” he asks.

“One standing at the door. One at the table with them. There not the same ones as last time. Doorman is definitely Dothraki. Table guy has a beard, but I can’t say if he’s Essosi or not. Probably, because the tips of his beard are dyed blue and that’s an Essosi thing, right? Oh, and it’s her and her oldest and another woman. No sign of the triplets. Maybe the one at the table is the father? Harry is trying to flirt with her and her friend at the same time, and table guy doesn’t seem pleased. At least, I hope he’s flirting. Harry has… opinions. He’s writing his second link about the raid of Saltpans and sometimes I’m scared that reading about it all day messes up his brain.”

She sighs.

“It’s getting full. I’ll have to help out soon. How are you getting home?”

“Gendry.” It’s a 20-minute walk from the Bower to Sandor’s leafy Victarian neighborhood. From the Bower past the Sept down the hill to Tully square and then Blackfyre Street. “He only has an early class today and that finished half an hour ago. He’ll be here soon.” And Sandor and Gendry will slowly walk home together and he’ll memorize every little thing about the way. Make it 40 minutes with his leg in the state it is and the extra time he’ll take to learn the way by heart.

“Hey, boss,” Sally’s voice next to their table, wobbly and full of barely suppressed tears. “Can I… can I go home, please, and check if he’s there maybe? He hasn’t been to his morning class, either, and that’s not like him at all. I’m so sorry - but I worry. He’s been gone since yesterday before lunch.”

“Of course, dear. Do you want me to call Beric about it?”

“No, no. I’m probably just being silly. Thank you so much, Alayne.”

After Sally’s departure, Alayne reluctantly leaves him to do something or other in the kitchen, leaves him with kisses and a second cup of coffee.

“Clegane, you dog, you!” Gendry, finally. The one-armed hug is a surprise but Sandor is in a very benevolent mood right now and doesn’t even try to break Gendry’s arm in retaliation. “Sorry it took so long. Mikken – wait, do you know Mikken? On my robotics team, the tinkerer? – anyway, Mikken teaches my early class this summer. Didn’t show up so we built this fantastic robot instead. I’m sorry I forgot the time -”

Gendry keeps talking but Sandor doesn’t really listen. Alayne’s laughing in the distance. Yes, she’s walking up to them.

“Hey Gendry,” but she greets Sandor with another kiss, with a hint of tongue, and Gendry finally shuts up, a hilarious strangled sounding cough. She rests his forehead against his, rubs their noses together. “You do have my number, right? Or… I’ll be done here by five. Come by if you want? There’s this next time I promised you.”

~

He’s back by five and stays the night.

~

When he comes back home on Strangerday morning - almost noon already - after another incredible night with Alayne, his very own Stranger hurls his hundred-pound body against him like a cannonball. He misses me, Sandor thinks and feels guilty as he ruffles the fur at Stranger’s large chest. Nym comes up to him, too, and yips a friendly hello.

There’s a third dog.

Sandor can hear paws on the gravel, light as a feather, almost silent.

“Hi,” he says and holds out his hand in the direction of the mystery dog. “You must be Ghost, huh.”

The-dog-that-has-to-be-Ghost comes slowly closer and sniffs at Sandor’s outstretched hand. Nym yips, like a happy puppy, and Ghost’s cold nose disappears again.

“That’s all right, take your time,” Sandor says. “Let’s go inside and meet wolf girl’s big brother.”

All three dogs follow him into the house.

“I’m home!” he yells into the hallway before he almost trips over something on the ground. “Someone left his bloody shoes lying around, for fuck’s sake! Wolf girl, tell your harem to clear their shit away!”

“We have company!” Arya yells back at him, from the vicinity of their dining table. Heavy steps approach him, but a woman’s voice greets him. Brienne. He’d expected Jon Snow, who was supposed to arrive late last night for a weekend down South and Sansa’s fucked up nameday party on Mainday.

Brienne here, that’s a surprise.

“I am so sorry, Sandor. Ugh, I told Jaime a thousand times… Sorry, here just let me clear that away.” She stacks shoes, pushes them against the wall and out of the way, a lot more shoes than he anticipated. Must be a lot of company then. Brienne straightens, huffs a little.

“Getting big, huh?”

“Bigger every day. I can show you later,” she says, but there’s a smile in her voice, and he smiles back at her. He’s having a great day, he’s sated in so many ways he can’t count them all, and he won’t let having to share a roof with Jaime Lannister bring his good mood down. Brienne doesn’t offer her arm, just walks back into the great room. He follows her, still smiling.

“Your chair is empty, Dog. You better sit down for this,” Wolf girl greets him.

“Who else is there?” he asks into the silent room.

They speak up, one after the other, as he sits down. Jaime Lannister, Beric and Thoros.

And then two other voices, one unexpected and new.

“Jon Snow.” Come south for the party. All right. But why the gathering in heavy silence?

“Jorah Mormont.”

Oh, that can’t be good. Mormont back in Westeros? Sandor hasn’t seen him since that campaign in Pyke, what, ten years ago? And he didn’t know him well back then, either. Sandor had served under Kevan Lannister back then, before he was suggested for the King’s Guard, and Barristan Selmy gleefully snatched him up. Jorah Mormont had been with a Northern regiment.

“Is that him?” Thoros asks. Is who what?

“Yes,” Jorah says, grudgingly. “Clegane, it seems I owe you an apology.”

“What for?” His good mood is gone, he’s defensive and tense. He hates that there are people in this - in his - house that… that aren’t pack.

“He thinks you kidnapped a woman,” Wolf girl chimes in from her seat next to him. “Which is obviously completely ridiculous.”

“Not a woman. Daenerys Targaryen, Khaleesi of the Dothraki. She went missing yesterday.”

“And why did you think that he of all people had her? Oh, there’s a Clegane, must have been him?” Jaime Lannister, Head Knight Defender in the Riverrun office of “Stokeworth, Blackwater & Lannister.” Not the worst ally to have when wrongly accused of kidnapping.

Jorah takes a deep breath.

“He was seen around her twice. On Smithday, when we took the children to the Sept. I saw him there myself. Yesterday, on Mothday, Daenerys took her son for breakfast at a local café. Her security detail reported the presence of an exceptionally tall man with a heavily scarred face. Clegane again – that was clear. Now, once might have been a coincidence. But twice? He was our number one suspect from the start.”

The important tourist from Lys. One bodyguard blond and balding.

“And this?” Sandor waves a hand in front of his face. “Mormont, you weren’t a complete idiot back in Pyke. How did you imagine I kidnap that woman when I can’t fucking see?”

Silence, then a low groan.

“We didn’t notice. That.”

Sandor laughs so hard he has trouble breathing. As does wolf girl. Jaime and Brienne and Thoros are laughing, too, and even Beric chuckles – which for Beric is the ultimate peak of hilarity.

“Well, no wonder you lost her. I’m sorry, Mormont. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Yes. And I do apologize. Beric told me as soon as we contacted the squires. I just wanted to see for myself.”

“Do you have any other leads? Suspects? Does she have enemies?” Brienne, ever the voice of reason.

“Almost too many to count.”

“Then count, Jorah,” Jon Snow, speaking for the first time.

“There are the minor Dothraki khals, of course. Daenerys is Khaleesi until Rhaego comes of age and many are unhappy with her regency. Vaes Dothrak is one of the largest oil fields in the world, and the Dothraki are a rich and proud people, but Daenerys uses the money for humanitarian causes beyond the Dothraki Sea, as well. She cracked down on human trafficking all over the Essos and made a lot of enemies with that. Then there’s the triplets. And she already had enemies here in Westeros. She is a Targaryen, after all. You of all people must know…”

Huh?

“I do,” Jon Snow says as if that made any sense. “Dany has also heavily supported the North’s fight against winter after Warden Bolton cut our funding.”

Dany? And Sandor isn’t the only one who notices.

“Oh, you know her?” Beric asks.

Silence for one, two, three –

“He nodded.” Thoros and wolf girl, at the same time.

“Yes,” Jon Snow, sounding sheepish. “If she hadn’t helped out, when the Knightswatch needed help the most, winter would be below the Neck already. It’s a long story.”

A moment of uncomfortable silence.

“Actually,” Beric says, “we just had an incident, last week. Three wights. Dock workers.”

Jon Snow draws a sharp breath, then he clears his throat.

“Let’s talk about later.” The ‘when Jorah is gone’ very clear.

“Wait. What did you mean with ‘then there’s the triplets’?” Brienne. Clear, precise. A voice like steel.

“Rhaego was born prematurely, they both almost died back then. Four years ago, Daenerys hired a surrogate to have more children: the triplets. The father is… unknown. There are vicious rumors, lies circulating in all the gossip rags of Essos. That she used her brother as a sperm donor. That she had herself cloned in Asshai. That the triplets are genetically modified super soldiers. All nonsense, of course. They may be wild, but they are lovely children. Nevertheless, Daenerys is anathema to every religious fanatic on the planet.”

“And why do you think it’s a kidnapping? Why not an assassination? Maybe she’s dead on the bottom of the Bay of Crabs?” Wolf girl, and again he hears that longing, that awful hope in her voice that makes her sound young and vulnerable.

“I just do. I’ll always have hope, and I won’t rest until I find her.” Of course. He’s in love with her.

“I wonder if it’s connected to the Seaworth disappearance,” Beric says. “Brienne, can we get in with that grid investigation on a B13 form -”

The conversation gets technical after that and as Sandor has absolutely no interest in which forms need which Riverrun bureaucrat’s signature, he goes upstairs to change and text Alayne.

~

When he comes downstairs again, the great room and the kitchen are empty, which means Pod isn’t back from work yet. Probably pulling a double shift again, as the newbie of the Saltpans Station and the one stuck with night shifts, double shifts, and weekends on duty until a newer face arrives. Gendry is in Maidenpool for a Baratheon sibling meet-up and will be back tomorrow with Ed Storm, Shireen Baratheon and little Myrcella in tow, for Arya’s morbid-as-fuck unnameday party on Mainday.

There are voices outside in the garden, and seconds later the familiar sound of steel blades meeting in a quick attack. Wolf girl’s laughing at something when he walks outside.

“Don’t look so surprised, Jon! I told you that Syrio thinks I have a chance at the national team, didn’t I?”

Sandor has actually seen wolf girl fence, back in the Riverlands when they practiced with sticks, just for the fun of it. And he has heard her many, many times since then, has been to most of her competitions over the last year. The girl known to the world as Arry Snow is an exceptionally gifted fencer, maybe even better than Jaime was. Should Cat Stark ever allow her daughter to walk this world using her real name and draw attention to herself, the Lady Arya Stark will definitely make the national team. Maybe the SK will finally get the champion it needs to knock those cocky shits from Braavos down a peg or two.

Jon Snow chuckles.

“Let’s go again, little sister.”

Blades meet again. Again and again. It sounds like Jon Snow can hold his own.

“Sandor, hey!” Brienne’s voice from the large garden bench. “We are all still here. Well, Jorah Mormont just left. But the rest of us are here. There is an empty spot next to - Arya, keep your hips aligned!”

Wolf girl answers Brienne’s criticism with an indignant yell.

“Is she letting her hips fall out again? I’ve told her a thousand times…”

“She’s a lot better than last spring,” Jaime chimes in. “You can say what you want about Syrio Forel but the man knows what he’s doing.”

Brienne and Sandor huff in unison, which makes Thoros laugh at the far end of the bench.

“You Westerosi with your silly prejudices. The man is a living legend. Of course, he knows what he’s doing -”

“Hush,” Beric interjects. “Either narrate or shut up. I want to know what happens.”

Sandor sits down in the empty spot next to Brienne, while Jaime summarizes every attack and counter with clipped, precise words.

Fencing is still the most popular sport in Westeros, ever since the famous tourneys of the Targaryen era. And while jousting lost its popularity shortly after the War of the Kings, the melee never did. Rugby and football have started to encroach on it in recent years, mostly because they look better on TV, but to this day nothing draws a crowd like a fencing tournament. All of them here have been semi-professional fencers at one point of their lives - Jaime, one of the greatest of all time, even - and they are all much, much too invested in wolf girl’s career.

“Arya! Hip!” Brienne yells again. Wolf girl replies with an incoherent scream and a second later, one sword clatters on the ground. Jon Snow’s.

“Your footwork is too slow, Snow,” Beric says wisely, and of course he’s right. “You have more strength, but she’s much quicker.”

“And has more stamina,” Jon pants, completely out of breath. “Too much desk work this last year, too little exercise. Let me just die here, okay?” And he dramatically flops to the ground.

A deep, worried woof and paws on gravel. Ghost checking up on his master. Jon jumps to his feet again and approaches the bench.

“Now that Jorah’s gone. What was that about wights?”

Beric sighs.

“Three of them. Mothday, a week ago. Sandor here fought them. Two died on the scene. One later on the Quiet Isle.”

Jon Snow taps his fingers against his legs, a nervous habit that he shares with his little sister.

“You’ve managed to keep it out of the press.”

“Barely. I owe Ed Storm a favor now. And we sent you lot a report, too.”

“Ed Storm?” Jon sounds pensive. “Has he told you about his theories?”

Sandor scoffs and joins the conversation.

“We all have been in the same room as him for longer than 30 minutes. White Walker, Bolton’s evil, oil money, bio weapon. Is there anything to it?”

Jon is silent for a long second, then he sighs.

“Yes. Unfortunately. Did he tell you about Bolton’s son, the Maidenpool student? We are sure that he’s the one to spread it in the South. Strategic events, to rile up the people. If we could just nail that bastard with something, anything, and do a proper search…”

“Do you think that he has your friend ‘Dany’?” Jaime asks.

“I hope not. I really do.”

Jon Snow leaves to take a shower. Jaime and Brienne go inside, arguing about something or other. Thoros and Beric talk quietly on the big bench, while Sandor takes a tour of the garden to check on his favorite plants. The dogs dance around him. Stranger, Nym and Ghost.

“Hey, puppy,” Sandor coos at a diredog that wolf girl could ride like a pony. “Will you let me pet you now?”

Ghost butts his large head against Sandor’s thigh and lets him ruffle the fur behind his ears. Triangular ears and a long snout, just like Nym, but wider, more massive.

“You’re just a pretty as your sister, aren’t you, puppy?”

“He doesn’t usually let people touch him, you know?” Arya Underfoot. He definitely will tie a bell to her.

“He’s a good boy,” Sandor replies, while petting Ghost’s strong, fluffy neck.

“I didn’t say he wasn’t.” Wolf girl pauses. “Oh gods, Thoros and Beric are holding hands. It’s so cute. If they kiss, I think I’ll throw up from the cuteness.”

Sandor just hums, waiting for her to come to her point. She babbles like that when she’s thinking about something else.

“Dog. You know what Ed says about the Riverlands?”

“That they attract evil?”

“Yes. But Beric says it’s all duality and stuff? Lord of Light versus the Lord of Death? And if the Riverlands attract evil, they also attract good?”

“Aye.”

“Dog, why did all of us end up in the Riverlands? Jaime and Pod and you are from the Westerlands, Gendry from the Crownlands, Brienne and Beric from the Stormlands, Thoros from Essos. Maybe we are here for a reason?”

She’s so young. Why does he always forget how young she is?

“Wolf girl. You know what I think of the gods, right? And to be honest… I don’t really care. What does it matter why we’re here? We’re here. That’s it.”

She sighs.

“Maybe you’re right.”

There’s a long pause and her voice is very careful when she speaks again.

“You know that I’m happy for you and that woman, right? I mean… I always dreamed that we would find Sansa and she’d have just the right kind of harmless brain injury to fall in love with you and you’d get married and have gigantic children. But… I’m glad that you’ve moved on. I wish the rest of us could, too.”

Sandor stops his hand on Ghost’s fur. Holds out his arm, an invitation for a hug. She sneaks into his arm like a shadow.

“Arya, I’ll never move on from Sansa. Never. But with Alayne… I can’t describe it. I’ll bring her over soon and you can meet her.”

“I’d like that,” and she moves away from him again.

“Don’t you think it would be in the spirit of moving on to cancel that fucked up nameday party?” he asks softly.

“No.” She’s determined. Sandor has always admired determination. “I want to have this party more than ever. She’s my sister. You know the doubts Brienne has about the DNA evidence. Why did they test the blood in the car, and not the body? No, I still have hope that my sister isn’t dead. I’ll always have hope.”

~3~

What happened way back when

“Oh, your brother isn’t quite dead.”

It had been such a simple question. He’d just asked if they had buried Gregor yet, if Sandor had a grave he could look forward to pissing on, or ashes to throw away somewhere. Instead a wet rag of a junior maester had stammered and stuttered and then this. Another maester had swooped in, probably attracted by the yelling, although this one sounded at least old enough to shave.

“My name is Maester Qyburn. Now, let me explain -” Sandor might be high as a kite but he still got the gist of the long rant that followed. No brain function, body still kept alive by machines in the ICU. Yeah, yeah, got it.

“You are his next of kin. It is your decision how we proceed. Oh, and your brother did not leave behind any instructions regarding his organ donor status, either, so this decision falls to you as well. Let me just state for the record that organ donation isn’t the only option. A specimen like him, we would be more than happy if you’d donate the body to science. I’d love to see what went wrong in that brain of his. I have this theory about the amygdala -” Qyburn caught himself, the fanatical glee of the true scientist fading away, replaced by standard maester handbook politeness. “I will gladly answer any questions you might have.”

The Quiet Isle was Westeros’ foremost teaching hospital. They were always in need of bodies for their anatomy classes.

Maybe a combination of both? Skin grafts for burn victims, cornea for the blind, the rest of Gregor’s freak show body sliced up like a lab rat by eager first year maester novices.

Poetic justice.

~

They pulled the plug together, Sandor insisting on their presence until the maesters caved in, even though he didn’t quite understand himself why it was so important to him to have… witnesses there. Martell came, flown up from Dorne for the occasion, and Dondarrion, of course. Jaime fucking Lannister, who guided the two of them as best he could. The hangers-on, Thoros, Ellaria Sand and Willas Tyrell, all waited in a visitors’ area outside. Wolf girl was in Winterfell and, unless someone else had told her because he sure as fuck hadn’t, had absolutely no idea that Gregor wasn’t worm fodder yet.

Sandor was in a wheelchair, the pain just barely manageable, but he was already up to the gills with painkillers and refused to ask for more. He wanted to be present, wanted to savor the moment, the release, the final up-yours-brother. He had a hand on his brother’s chest. It – the thing that used to be Gregor - felt warm and hard, a ribcage like the hull of a small ship, the rhythmic up and down of a vent-assisted breath, but the brain was toast, the maesters were absolutely certain and to be frank… Sandor didn’t much care if they were right or not. The only thing keeping his brother alive were science and Sandor’s wishes. And Sandor had wished for his brother’s death for most of his life. Memories flitted through his brain. That mad dog, so badly hurt in the ring, how he had to have it put down in KL, years ago…

It all went by so quickly.

Maesters said stuff he didn’t quite comprehend. Someone asked him something, Sandor answered with a curt “Okay, aye, yes, I’m sure” and then his big brother’s larger than life chest convulsed… and didn’t rise anymore. Machines beeped, others stopped beeping. People moved around him. He moved too, he was floating. Why was he sitting in the hallway, with Thoros on one side of him and Willas Tyrell on the other? Willas Tyrell was stroking his back, murmuring a soft stream of “steady, steady now, steady”. What? It was over. How could it be over? He couldn’t see, he didn’t have eyes, he couldn’t stand up to take a piss.

Sansa was dead. He’d never see Sansa Stark again.

It would never be over.

They took him to his room, where Thoros and Jaime fucking Lannister helped him from the wheelchair to his bed, and he growled and yelped in pain and fell asleep.

The next day, a septon showed up with a fucking smile in his voice (“I am the Elder Brother. May I call you Sandor?”), who had the audacity to ask him how he felt. How he felt? Fuck you, that’s how. But Sandor was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, and he wanted to see so badly that words just come pouring out of his mouths. It was the first time he had spoken more than five words in a row, since the raid, not even that, no, since that conversation with Dondarrion in the KP Station in Riverrun. It all gushed out of him, like a bottle of wine that’s spilled, like blood on a sidewalk. His entire fucked up life story up to that date.

“I thought I would be… happy he was dead. I thought I’d be fucking ecstatic! And instead. I feel absolutely nothing. Nothing. Even that… I’ve dreamed of revenge since I was fucking seven years old and in another bloody hospital and, gods, why couldn’t he just let me have this? Why can’t I have at least this? Why does he always take fucking everything away from me?”

He was crying. Ugly crying, as if he could do it any other way, with snot dripping down his face. His scars felt hot and taut, he didn’t even want to know how his fucking, fucking eyeholes…

The Elder Brother put a hand on his shoulder. Why were people suddenly touching him so much?

“There is nothing I can tell you, other than this. Your brother is dead. And whoever the Hound was... He’s dead, too. You’re Sandor Clegane and you survived. Your life goes on. That means that you won, right?”

~

He got up the next day, and the next, and the one after that. The bandages came off, first his hands, then his eyes, then – much later – his thigh. He got fake eyes that looked nothing like his own, he endured days and weeks and months of fucking rehab, learned how to manage pain and how to walk with a white cane and a crutch at the same time, how to do almost everything without his eyes. He never touched another drop of alcohol, he remembered Sansa Stark every morning with the rising sun.

He was Sandor Clegane and he survived. Life went on.

In your fucking face, Gregor. I won.

Chapter Text


~1~

Three articles and three secrets

From the King’s Landing Times, three days ago:

Tywin Lannister dead at 71

[…] former Prime Warden has died following a stroke […]

A blog post by V. Spyder, published on his political news blog “The Voice of Reason”, yesterday:

Ned Stark’s Honor

[…] Yet, even then his plan to uncover the truth might have succeeded if he hadn’t placed his trust in the wrong people. The one to ultimately betray him was Petyr Baelish, Master of Coin at the time and a childhood friend of Stark’s wife, Catelyn. His alliance with Tywin Lannister […]

From the King’s Landing Times, today:

Petyr Baelish found dead in Pentos

[…] former Master of Coin, on the run since his involvement with an international child porn ring was uncovered two years ago. […] found with his throat slit […]

A secret that only Tyrion Lannister and exactly thirteen other people on the planet know:

Tywin Lannister died on the privy.

A secret that only Tyrion Lannister and exactly eight other people on the planet know:

Tywin Lannister didn’t die of a stroke. Oh, no. He had his throat slit.

A secret that exactly four people on the planet know and Tyrion Lannister has his suspicions about:

Who did it, and why.

~2~

What’s happening now

It’s a beautiful Mainday morning, and Sansa wakes up with Sandor Clegane in her bed. He’s the world’s largest little spoon right now. Her body is tucked against his broad back, her arm slung over his ribs. She can feel his ribcage expand with every even breath and it makes her smile. So happy, so content, so relaxed just the two of them. They won’t have much time this morning, he’ll have to leave for work soon, so she places little kisses on his back, along the spine, up to his neck. Soon enough, his breathing pattern changes, his large hand comes and envelopes hers where it rests on his ribs.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” he rasps and turns on his back. “What time is it?”

“Almost 6:30,” she says and watches mesmerized as he stretches his long limbs. He has done this every morning so far, and it does something to her to see his defined muscles move under his skin, his strength on show for her. He hums as he pushes his hands against the sloped ceiling above their heads and puts every little muscle in his arms on display.

“That leaves us, what? Maybe half an hour?” Sandor asks. “Just enough time to finish what we started last night.”

He’d mapped out her body last night, had touched every inch of her skin from the top of her head, down to her knees. When he’d reached her knees, she’d been so ready for him it felt like she was vibrating out of her skin. She had pulled him into her with abandon. He still hasn’t asked her about the scar on her leg and she’s glad because she still hasn’t come up with a convincing cover story for it.

“Or I could do you again,” Alayne says sweetly.

Sandor draws a sharp breath and rolls on his back. “Or you could do that… If you want to.”

Alayne really, really wants to. She loves going down on him. How he falls apart when she moves her tongue just right. The smell, the surprising smoothness. No rubber dick ever felt so smooth.

She begins with little kisses on his neck. There’s a spot below his good ear that is so sensitive that he shudders every time she comes close to it. She nips at it, lets her teeth graze over the skin. He groans softly and then comes the little shudder she’s been waiting for. She lets her tongue track down his neck, down to his collarbone and then gently blows at the damp track. The hair on his chest stands on end and his breathing accelerates. It’s exhilarating to have such power and she hasn’t even reached the really interesting parts of his body yet.

His collarbone gets another little bite, and he repays her with another soft moan. When she looks up from his chest to check in on his face, she notices that one of his hands has snuck down to his hard dick.

“No,” she says with determination. “Mine.”

He stills, and she takes his hand and puts it down on the bed beside him. The other one, too. He tries to raise one hand to caress her, but she intercepts it and pushes it down more firmly.

“My turn. No touching.”

His body is tense now, but he’s smiling, and his dick is fully hard. He’s into this just as much as she is. Just like they both enjoyed it when he was the demanding one last night and made her come twice before he allowed her anywhere near his dick. Or the night before that when he fucked her over her kitchen table, rough and wild like a beast.

Gods, he’s so great.

Her hands take over from her tongue for a bit as she drags her nails through the hair on his chest hard enough to leave thin white lines. She bends down lightning-quick and licks the exposed soft skin in the crook of his arm. It takes him by surprise and he arches his back off the bed in response, his moan louder this time. Then she pushes his hips down with both her hands, puts her weight on them, and settles between his legs. Her thumbs follow the deep grooves where his abdominal muscles form a perfect V down to his groin.

She takes her time there. Time to lick the hard muscles of his stomach. To scratch lightly over the inside of his thighs. To leave wet kisses at his groin. To gently cup his balls in her hand. Sandor is a flushed and panting mess under her, his hands clinging to the bedsheets with white-knuckled fists.

“Good morning,” she murmurs and finally bends down to his dick. He starts moaning in earnest as soon as she takes the head in her mouth. Deep, primal sounds that make her feel like a queen. Her tongue explores his velvet skin, until she comes to the place where the head of his dick meets the shaft, and he bucks his hips. She lets go of him, with a wet pop of her lips, and he growls.

“So impatient,” she chastises him and takes any possible sting out of her words when she comes up to his face for a deep kiss. “Can you taste yourself already? I can.”

She finds a good rhythm quickly, using both of her hands, her tongue and the silky inside of her cheeks, and he completely falls apart soon after.

Sansa and Alayne both watch his face as he comes in her mouth.

I love you, she thinks.

~

“I won’t be able to come by tonight,” he says as he pulls on his shirt. Alayne, leaning against her kitchen counter with a glass of water in her hand, enjoys the show of his ab muscles and his biceps on display like that. “One of my housemates… has a thing. And I really should say goodbye to someone.”

“That’s perfectly alright. I have choir practice at night anyways.” She takes a sip of her water, and then she makes her voice playful and sultry. “I’d thought I could skip it today and practice something else. But that will just have to wait then.”

“Aye. But not for long.” He’s playing along, he always does, but this time his eyes are closed, and she’s noticed before how that is one of his tells. He’s upset about something.

“Everything okay?” she asks. “Something wrong with one of your friends?”

He holds out a hand towards her. “Come here, girl.”

She walks into his arms, and he brings his nose down to her temple. She loves it when he does that. His raspy voice so close to her ear that it sends shivers down her spine.

“Tomorrow, I’ll pick you up after work. I’ll bring my dog and maybe some food, and then we’ll walk somewhere where we can watch the sunset together. Does that sound nice, Alayne?”

“That sounds perfect,” Sansa says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Sandor kisses her ear, his big arms holding her tight.

“There’s been someone. In my life. Not a girlfriend, just… it’s complicated.”

A burning jealousy engulfs her. He is hers and hers only and she will tolerate no other woman in his heart ever.

Sandor must feel her tense up and kisses her ear again.

“She died. Two years ago.”

Oh.

“Oh.”

“Aye. And… have you ever lost someone, Alayne?”

What is she supposed to tell him? That her entire family is dead? That she held her father as he died on the steps of the Sept of Baelor, the blood from his slit throat flowing over her hands? That Alayne Stone is nothing but the idea of self-preservation, and that Sansa Stark’s dead wear her like a cloak made of grief?

“Yes. Yes, I have,” she whispers.

“Then you know. How they never really leave.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

He tilts her chin up and kisses her so tenderly that her heart wants to burst.

Mine, mine, mine.

“Like the sunset,” he rasps softly and strokes his thumb over her lower lip.

“Huh?”

“Sunrise and sunset. Every day has both.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t follow?” She is very confused, and jealous. And sad.

Sandor kisses her again, and then he changes the topic.

~

Alayne sees off Sandor with a dozen kisses and begins her work day with a sense of impending doom that still lingers when Thoros and Beric walk in at lunchtime. Edric Storm is with them, fresh-faced and serious.

“Do you have a table for four, Alayne. A quiet one?” Beric asks, and that should tip her off. The squires’ table is always reserved for them and Beric knows that. She seats them in a corner, away from prying eyes, and when she turns to walk away, Thoros lightly grabs her by the wrist.

“Sit down, Alayne. Please.”

She gestures to Harry who nods in understanding and sits down. Her stomach lurches in anticipation, none of this inspires much confidence that something good will follow, and her flight instinct pulls her feet under the chair in a starter’s position.

“Alayne,” Beric begins. “Storm has agreed to keep your little encounter out of the press if we give him something else in return.”

“And you better make it a really good story,” Ed says with his arms defiantly crossed. “Do you know what a wight story does to magazine sales?”

“Do you know what a wight sighting does to a town’s tourism?” Thoros mimics Eds tone and body language. “Overnight stays in Darry have gone down 80 % since they had wights there and, unlike Darry, Saltpans relies on tourism. If we didn’t have people coming in to visit the Sept, we’d be just another Maidenpool suburb.”

“Oh, I do know that,” Ed says with a grin and leans towards Thoros. “That’s exactly why you should make it a damn good story.”

“Enough,” Beric cuts in. “That’s enough. Storm, if you write it well, this is the story that wins you prizes. This is the story of Gregor Clegane and Tywin Lannister’s goldmine.”

Alayne, seemingly forgotten and wondering by the second why on the planet she is supposed to sit here and listen, can’t help but gasp. Ed and Beric, their attention focused on the other in something that might have been a staring contest in another life, completely ignore her. Thoros pats her shoulder in encouragement.

“I’m listening,” Ed finally whispers. “Oh fuck, that’s... That’s the big one.”

“It is,” Beric nods. “Tywin Lannister is finally dead, Riverrun acceded our request to unseal the Clegane case, and I’ve decided to give you the exclusive. I’m the Knight Prosecutor of Saltpans, it is time that I use my authority for more than just petty crimes. Maybe I couldn’t expose that piece of shit while he lived, but I’ll be damned if I can’t make sure that the world knows that Tywin Lannister stood for nothing but torture and pain.”

“You’re wondering what that has to do you with you, right, dear?” Thoros ask.

Alayne nods and says “Yes” at the same time.

“It’s Knight Law. If we give an exclusive to Edric, we need an independent third-party present as a witness regarding the content of the conversation. Usually that would be a Knight Defender, but it doesn’t have to be one. Technically, at least. We thought… maybe you should be our witness when we tell this story. Because it might be Beric’s, but it’s also very much Sandor Clegane’s.”

Alayne is torn. One half of her feels like this is a betrayal of confidence. The other half is just plain curious.

“Okay,” she hears herself say.

Beric nods like he hasn’t expected anything else.

“Ready? Good. It all came to pass two years ago, when a group of proud and gallant Knights Warrior rode out into a dark forest to slay a terrible monster…”

The sun shines on the polished floor of the Bower, people are laughing, cutlery clinks against plates. Alayne doesn’t see it, doesn’t hear. She’s far, far away, in dark rooms and brightly lit ones with blood-stained walls and floors and ceilings. She hears people scream, smells blood, tastes pain.

Beric tells it all so impersonally, as if it all happened to someone else. How Ned Stark sent them out to stop Gregor Clegane. The growing suspicion that Tywin Lannister, Warden of the West, was the mastermind behind the whole horrible scheme. How they trusted the wrong KP in the Westerlands, resulting in Beric’s capture. The weeks of torture, the starvation, the rape. And never giving up, never losing hope, clinging to the Lord of Light with all he had.

“When we finally found him,” Thoros takes over, his face turned towards Beric’s like a flower to the sun, “he was so far gone, he died six times. Once when we removed the restraints, four times in the helicopter on the way to the Quiet Isle, one last time on the operating table.”

They’re holding hands, a rare public display of affection for the two of them.

“Thoros brought me back that first time – “

“The Lord of Light did!” Thoros interjects quickly.

“Because you asked him to. Because you loved me.” Beric’s face and voice are gentle and tender, the first display of emotion since he started to tell this tale of horrors. His thumb is gently stroking over the back of Thoros’ hand.

“Aye. Because I love you.”

Edric Storm rakes a hand through his hair, gestures towards the two of them in a wide circle.

“How? How can you sit here and just... be? That’s… I can’t even begin to imagine what you’ve been through. And… you’re so normal.”

Beric chuckles. “Define normal? No, Storm. I have my scars from this, inside and out. But Gregor Clegane never got to me, no matter how hard he tried, and the Lord knows that he tried very hard in his own way. But he wasn’t - he only cared about physical pain. He didn’t play mind games, he didn’t care about the mental aspects of torture at all. He wanted me to cry and bleed and have it look good on camera. It got repetitive and predictable soon. I think that is why my soul is still whole.”

Sansa thinks about Joffrey and his twisted, worm-lipped smile.

About Creepy Ronny with the oddly-pale eyes.

Beric wouldn’t have left their lairs with his soul intact.

She’s torn from her thoughts when Beric shrugs.

“But to be perfectly honest, I have no idea and I don’t like to waste much time thinking about it. Maybe Gregor Clegane failed as a torturer. Maybe the Lord of Light protected my soul and sanity for a reason. I don’t know. I only know that I survived. That I’m in love. That life could be a lot worse.”

Thoros looks at Beric like he’s the living proof that gods exist, so much love in his face. Their hands are clasped so tight.

Alayne huffs internally as jealousy wrecks her for a moment. She wants Sandor for herself, just like Thoros has Beric for himself. Well, maybe Thoros has to share with R’hllor. But she feels that her logic is sound anyway. She wants what they have, only without the fire-worshipping -

“Let’s finish this, shall we?” Thoros says. “Let’s come to the uplifting part where Anguy puts a bullet in Gregor’s head.”

Thoros tells of the Hound as Sansa knew him, surly and drunk and filled with rage. Of a sudden change of hearts for reasons unknown and a wire and Gregor’s hands on his little brother’s face, of backup that didn’t make it in time, of a bullet that ricochets.

Alayne hasn’t cried since Petyr Baelish stuck a knife in her leg, and she doesn’t cry now, either. Even though she wants to. Gods, she wants to cry so badly. Maybe that horrible clamp around her heart would go away if she could cry?

“It’s a great story,” Edric finally says, slumped back in his chair. “But I don’t know if we can print it. If you didn’t have enough evidence back then, to go up against Tywin? That’s a libel suit waiting to happen.”

“Hmm, maybe it would have been, two days ago. But Petyr Baelish is dead, too, and he didn’t have a Warden’s partial immunity. Every file a KP has on him in all of the SK is finally accessible without a bloody Defender interfering. I spoke to Royce up in the Vale this morning. If you combine the two cases, not even Jaime Lannister in his heyday could have withheld a concur.”

Blood rushes in Alayne’s ears. There’s no ground beneath her feet anymore.

“Petyr Baelish?” she hears herself ask.

“Oh yes, yes. Petyr Baelish.” Thoros uses the name so carelessly, as if Alayne’s world isn’t falling apart right now. “Master of Coin a couple of years ago, thanks to his connection with the Lannisters? Made his fortune with prostitutes and blackmail and getting Gregor the right victims. He had an in with Beric’s predecessor here in Saltpans, who tipped him off that Special Agent Royce had managed to get enough dirt on him and the Eyrie KPs were ready to take him in. Ran away to Essos and must have double-crossed the wrong people. Finally, and good riddance. It’s all in today’s Times.”

Thoros takes a long look at Alayne’s face. Seven layers of make-up. Who can tell if she is pale as a ghost underneath…? Thoros nudges Beric a little, and Beric nods and starts to get up.

“We should go. It’s been a lot to take in, I’m sure. Will we see you tonight, Alayne?”

Alayne doesn’t listen to what he says, just hmms and gets up on autopilot, walks them to the door, watches Thoros and Beric walk away in one direction and Ed Storm in the other.

Her hands are sweaty.

~

Alayne walks over to the spot at the bar counter where they keep the daily newspapers and the magazines. The Times is on the bottom of the pile.

His death didn’t even make the frontpage. How he would have hated that. Instead it’s a tiny paragraph under ‘Essos’ on the third page.

Petyr Baelish found dead in Pentos

Alayne puts the Times down with shaking fingers. If all this is true then… then there never was a Witness Protection Program. Then he had simply kidnapped her. Lied to her. Then, maybe, maybe… he had lied about her family, too…?

“Are you alright, boss?” Harry asks concerned from the side. “Those fucking R’hllorists upset you? I knew it, always trouble. But you have the Maiden watching over you, don’t worry!”

She mumbles something, tucks the Times to her chest and hides in the storage room, between a milk crate and some shelves.

Maybe they are still alive…?

She can hardly type when she opens the browser on her phone. Ravens for “Stark family accident” … 8000 hits.

“Stark scion injured in freak climbing accident”

“Bran Stark still in coma”

“Stark boy miracle”

Ravens for “Stark family car accident dead."

Nothing on the front page matches her search.

Ravens for “Catelyn Stark” and adjusts settings to “last year”. She has to close her eyes for a bit, the situation too overwhelming, before she can look at the screen. The first match is a celebrity gossip blog and the time stamp dates it to just two weeks ago. Her heart beats so hard in her chest it feels like it’s trying to break out of her ribcage.

EXCLUSIVE: Recluse Stark widow out and about

Catelyn Stark (46), a hermit since her oldest daughter Sansa died under mysterious circumstances two years ago, was seen shopping in Wintertown with her younger children Arya (19), Bran (17) and Rickon (15) yesterday afternoon. Oldest son Robb (25) and his wife [CLICK TO READ MORE]

They are all alive. Alive and together and safe back home. Home in Winterfell. She slides down the wall to sit on the floor; her legs can’t hold her any longer. They are all alive. Baelish lied to her. And he lied to them. People think she’s dead. Mother thinks I’m dead

It takes her three tries to successfully type in “Sansa Stark”.

“DNA Confirms: Found Body Missing Stark Heiress”

The words swim before her eyes, but the tears don’t fall. A red-haired woman in a car, seen by many eyewitnesses. An abandoned car in a ravine near Gulltown. Blood, Sansa Stark’s blood, on the passenger seat. A burned female body, almost completely destroyed, in a bonfire just 20 yards away.

Ros, oh Stranger, no. Ros, crying in the backseat…

“Alayne, are you okay?” Jeyne’s worried face stares down at her.

“Yes, no…I’m... I’ll... I’ll be upstairs, ok?” Sansa flees up to her nest, slams the door shut behind her. Paces from her kitchen to her bed, like a trapped animal.

What now? How do you come back from the dead?

She has the number memorized, even after all these years, but has to wipe her sweaty hand on her shirt two times before she can dial it. Who will answer the phone? Mother? Arya? Rickon? Rickon’s a teenager now, his voice probably already broken…

A woman’s voice answers, but robotic and mechanized.

There is no such number.”

She dials it again.

There is no such number.”

And again.

There is no such number. There is no such number. There is no such number.”

She falls down on her bed, closes her eyes. Who else is there?

She looks up the number of the Winterfell Estate Management online, just to be sure, and it’s Jory, Jory who she’s known since she was a baby, that answers the phone.

“Oh, Jory! It’s… this is Sansa. Sansa Stark. I’ve been trying to reach Mother -”

His voice is hard and furious as he interrupts her.

“You’ve got some nerve, missy. How dare you -- and calling today of all days! What a sick thing to do.”

He hangs up. Just like that.

Who else is there? She ravens her siblings’ names and finds nothing, not for Robb or Arya, Bran or Rickon…

Jon! So many hits for Jon! He really did become a watcher, just like Uncle Benjen.

“You’ve reached Knightswatch, Castle Black Station.”

“Hi, this is…” No, she won’t make that mistake a second time. “Eh, may I speak to Jon Snow, please?”

“Commander Snow is currently out of office. Ranger Tollet covers his cases during his absence, but he’s obviously very busy. Unless you can give me a case number, I’ll have to put you through to the Ranger on duty who’ll take your report.”

“Could I speak to Benjen Stark instead, please?”

The voice at the other end of the line gets cold and angry. What is it about her that upsets people so?

“Commander Stark has been on extended medical leave for years. Anyone with any business calling should already know that.” He hangs up.

She lies on her bed, spent like she’d just run for a very long time. Like she’s been running since Beric walked in earlier today. And it had been such a beautiful, normal Mainday morning with Sandor.

What did Jory mean “today of all days”?

A simple Mainday, nothing special about that. She looks at her phone again, trying to come up with someone else who she could call and who would finally believe her, maybe Uncle Brynden, when the little date on the display catches her eye.

It’s her nameday.

Today is her 21st nameday. Somewhere in the North, it’s Sansa’s nameday and her family thinks she’s dead and she can’t get through to them.

And that thought brings the tears, finally, and she sobs, sobs, sobs, barely conscious of it or anything else, and she cries five years of pain and heartache, three years of fear and mourning, two years of unbearable loneliness into pillows that smell like home. Lavender and Dornish Lemon and Sandor Clegane.

Sandor! Of course!

Sandor knows her. Knew her. He’s at work still, she’ll have to go later in the evening.

He’ll know what to do.

~

Sansa finishes Alayne’s shift with frayed nerves, jittery and inattentive. She can feel Sally and Harry exchange worried glances behind her back. Harry even asks her if that big Warrior brute has tried to force himself on her. “I’ll defend your honor, fair maiden,” he jokes, and she fakes a smile and assures them that no, everything’s fine.

But her mind is far away. If she was home today, and her family was there… What kind of party would she have? Lemon cakes, of course. And ginger lemonade. Sansa and the other Stark children used to have paper cups with “Happy Nameday” on them, every nameday when they were young, even Jon. Blue for the boys and bright pink for the girls, with golden lettering. How Arya used to hate that pink. And balloons. And friends gathered in the gardens. Her siblings, and Theon and Jeyne Poole…

When it’s finally time for her to leave, she quickly runs up the stairs and grabs the old backpack from under her bed. The jacket and the photograph of his face, his storm gray eyes. Undeniable proof that she is Sansa Stark. He’ll believe her when she shows it to him.

She almost runs, over Tully Square, down Blackfyre Street and the R’hllorist Temple, up the hill. She’s at a crossroads when she realizes that she doesn’t know where he lives. The thought stings more than she’d thought possible. They have spent every night together since last Smithday. How can she not know where he lives?

“Hey, Alayne!” Thoros comes up the street, carrying a bag of ice, and waves. “Ready for the party?”

Party? Which party?

She nods. He looks at her, eyes the gigantic jacket she has wrapped around herself, and his brow furrows. “Alayne, listen. We know that was a lot to take in today, but we needed a third-party witness and you -”

“Oh no, no. I’m fine,” she assures him. She wants to know more about that party. Who is having a party?

Thoros doesn’t seem convinced.

“Just… don’t treat Beric any differently. Or Sandor. Please?”

Again, Sansa only nods, because they have reached the iron-wrought gate of a small Victarian mansion surrounded by a tall ivy-covered wall. The names on the bronze panel by the bell read “Clegane, Snow, Waters”. Someone has stuck a piece of paper with “Payne” scribbled on it underneath.

The gate is open, and she follows Thoros into the house. She feels dazed. That dark-haired young squire that was so nice to her the night of the wight attack is cutting limes in a large white kitchen.

“Oh, welcome, Alayne. Thoros, you brought ice. Great! I just sent Jon out for more, but you can never have enough ice. If you’re looking for Beric, he’s outside with Arry and the rest.”

Other people, people she doesn’t know are gathered in front of the fridge and talk about… something. She doesn’t care. Where’s Sandor?

What was his name again? Pea? He’s saying something.

“Do you want a drink? We have Dornish lemonade, and Arbor Gold, and -”

“Some lemonade would be lovely, thank you,” she says and immediately feels bad for interrupting him. How rude of her. He pours some spiced lemonade, obviously homemade, from a glass pitcher into a bright pink paper cup with “Happy Nameday” printed on in golden lettering. Sansa takes it like he’s handing her a poisoned goblet. What is happening?

There is something in Pea’s bearing that calls to her, something she recognizes. He’s the host. Maybe this is his party? Maybe this is only a fantastic coincidence? Maybe she hasn’t gone insane?

“Do you live here?” she asks him as he hands her the cup. He lifts an eyebrow.

“I moved in two weeks ago.” The “Hasn’t Sandor told you that?” is very clear in his face. And that’s right, why hasn’t Sandor told her that. She knows that Gendry lives here, too. But who is Arry? Another squire she doesn’t know? Sandor never asked her to come here…

“We have a buffet outside,” Pea says. “You should try the lemon cakes. Myrcella can show you the way.”

Myrcella? Pea is looking over Sansa’s shoulder at someone behind her. She turns around and Myrcella Baratheon is standing right there. Blonde and beautiful, a pink paper cup in her hand.

“Hey, I’m Myrcella,” she says. “And you are?”

“I’m Alayne,” Sansa croaks out and takes a large sip of lemonade to hide behind her cup. The lemonade tastes strange. Alcoholic.

“Oh, that Alayne! Sandy’s girl, right?” Myrcella beams at her, a beauty queen smile, but Sansa isn’t fooled. Myrcella is definitely looking at her face more closely now than a second before. She’d always been the smartest of the three official Baratheon children.

“Shireen! Come meet Sandy’s girl!” Myrcella calls out and a girl with dark hair drifts over to them. Edric Storm comes closely behind her.

“Alayne, this is my cousin Shireen. I believe you already know my brother, Ed?”

Sansa is too scared to say anything. Shireen Baratheon has eyes that belong into a much older face.

“I love your make-up,” Shireen says with a kind, genuine smile. Sansa has learned from the best and she can see the many layers that Shireen herself wears on her face. Old scars underneath.

Sansa mumbles a “Thanks” and takes another sip of her lemonade.

“Alayne,” Myrcella tugs at her sleeve and pulls her closer. “Do you know who that tall ginger is? He just walked in. Over there!”

Sansa turns around.

“Yes, that’s Sandor’s friend Tormund. Free Folk, owns a climbing gym.”

Shireen whistles softly.

“A climbing gym. Cells, are you thinking what I’m thinking? Mya?”

Myrcella snickers, nods, and takes a sip from her cup. Her cheeks are flushed. Sansa wonders how many cups of “lemonade” she’s had already. Cersei was rarely without a glass of wine in her hand.

“Definitely Mya.”

“What?” Ed lifts a single eyebrow. “Did Mychel break up with her again?”

Who is Mya? Who is Mychel? Sansa can’t bring herself to care. Jaime Lannister comes through the door, saunters over to them and eyes the paper cup in Myrcella’s hand with open disapproval.

“Hello, Alayne, good to see you again.” Just like last time, he barely looks her in the face, too distracted by another woman to really care about her. This time, it’s his… niece, who distracts him.

“Cells, I don’t mean to be a nag, but should you really? There’s a lot of alcohol in that. We don’t want you passed out and pictures leaking to the tabloids.”

Myrcella rolls her eyes.

“I’m sure, Uncle Jaime. Dad doesn’t mind if I drink. He says it builds character. So, if you have a problem with this, go and talk to my father about it, okay?”

Jaime looks at her like a wounded animal, nods to the group and wanders off.

Myrcella sighs, lifts her cup, salutes his back.

“Sometimes I do pity him.” She leans closer to Sansa. “It’s plain lemonade. I don’t drink, you know. Not with two alcoholic parents and a brother who… Never mind.”

Myrcella is staring at her face again, her brow furrowed. It’s deeply unsettling, and Sansa longs to hide her face in Sandor’s embrace.

Sandor.

She has to find Sandor.

“Tough day, huh?” Ed says at her side.

“You have no idea.” She takes another deep gulp. Warmth is spreading through her. Her face is numb. “Do you know where Sandor is?”

But Ed and Shireen have turned away, put their heads together, are talking some more about the mysterious Mya.

Myrcella Baratheon still examines her.

“How long have you known him?” Myrcella asks. “A long time?”

“A couple of weeks. Yes, two weeks exactly.”

Myrcella’s eyes bore into her soul.

“You look like someone I used to know, years ago. The resemblance is striking; Sandy definitely has a type. I wonder who told him that you look just like her.”

Sansa hesitates.

“The - the woman he loved?” she asks, shaky and curious.

Myrcella nods.

“Did he tell you about her?”

“Only that she died.”

“Yes. She died. They don’t know how, but her corpse was found completely burned. The news fucked him up so badly that he went and did a very stupid thing that cost him his eyes - and almost his leg. Or at least, that is how Gendry tells it.”

Sansa’s face is numb from all this alcohol she isn’t used to, and she wishes her heart was numb, too. Instead her heart aches for him and his lost love, his lost eyes, and for herself. Having to share his heart with that woman. He lost his eyes because he thought she was dead… How can she ever compete with that kind of love?

What a roller coaster this day is.

She empties her cup.

“Excuse me, please. I’d like to go and find Sandor.”

~

Sansa floats through the house, clinging to her refilled “Happy Nameday” paper cup - Pod had swooped in and she had barely noticed him - like a lifeline. The kitchen opens into a great room. Large oil paintings of Riverlands landscapes hang on the wall, next to swords that look too battered to be fake and an enormous mounted sturgeon over the fireplace. There are two large dog baskets next to a large, comfortable looking plaid couch and a large wing chair. Two food and water dishes next to the back door. Two hooks with dog leashes. He had told her everything about Stranger, of course.

Is there another dog?

There’s music coming from the garden. Sansa steps out of the back door onto a tiled terrace. Maybe it’s a dream?

More people she doesn’t know on a large lawn. And a group of men, singing.

Beric with a guitar. A man she dimly recognizes as the Lysian tourist’s balding bodyguard, also with a guitar. Sandor’s ginger friend, Tormund. And Sandor. They’re singing.

A young woman stands in front of them. Dark hair. Her back to Sansa.

There’s a large banner strung between two trees.

“Happy Nameday, Sansa” in golden letters on a bright pink ground. White balloons, bunches of them. Two balloons are golden, shaped like a “2” and a “1”.

The young woman turns around, and Sansa feels like she just walked into a wall, like she’s been thrown from a moving car at the same time, like one part of the world is suddenly in slow motion and the other sped up to three times its usual speed by an impatient child. She’s dizzy, and the numbness in her face spreads over her entire body like a strong current pulling her out to sea. It’s so cold suddenly, on this warm summer day.

Lemonade splashes on tiles as her hand crushes and drops her paper cup. She doesn’t notice.

The young woman is Aunt Lyanna.

No.

It’s Arya.

Arya…

Sansa just had to walk through the memory of every nameday party of her childhood, has tried to come back from the dead today and failed, is drunk for the first time in years. The sudden, unexpected confrontation with her sister’s face is more than she can bear. All of this is more than she can bear.

Alayne? Please?

Alayne, the instinct of self-preservation shaped to look like a woman, wraps herself around Sansa and calmly analyzes the situation. Childhood memories come to life, balloons and lemonade in pink paper cups. Arya, supposed to be in Winterfell, suddenly here on the same day Sansa finds out she’s alive? Arya throwing a nameday party for a sister that is believed to be dead? Who does something like that?

Alayne reaches a conclusion; Sansa has lost her mind, possibly from the stress, and none of this is real.

None of this is real.

It’s the only explanation.

The entire thought process doesn’t last more than a split second, just enough time to see recognition bloom in Arya’s face.

Alayne Stone turns around and runs.

~

Voices in the distance.

SANSA!”

“Sansa!”

“Gendry, you idiot, let me go -”


~

When she finally comes to a stop at the R’hllorist Temple on Blackfyre Street, she has a stitch in her side. Definitely not a dream then. And she had so hoped that it was all just a dream.

She wraps the Hound’s large jacket tighter around herself. It’s a strange feeling to lose your mind and be aware of it. She wonders what her name actually is. Is she Alayne Stone? Did she make up Sansa Stark completely? Or is she Sansa Stark and this is Winterfell and Saltpans isn’t real.

Everything is spinning, and she feels sick to her stomach. Deep breaths, deep breaths, but the dizziness doesn’t subside, and she is sweating, both from running and the pure shock of it all.

Focus.

Whoever you are, focus.

Now.

The doorbell nameplate had read “Clegane, Snow, Waters”. Pea had spoken of “Arry”, Arry was in the garden. Arry Snow. A pseudonym for Lady Arya Stark to keep her privacy?

Maybe this was real after all?

Maybe it was all just a phenomenal coincidence?

Oh gods.

He had loved someone.

A woman who died two years ago.

A woman whose body was found burned.

A woman who resembled her.

A striking resemblance.

Like sunrise and sunset.

Oh gods.

Her.

Sandor Clegane had loved… her.

Had loved Sansa Stark.

She sits down on the steps leading to the temple doors, utterly unable to keep track of the many emotions surging through her body, both hot and cold, shaking with joy and fear and confusion. She doesn’t have to share his heart, he’s hers, made for her by the Gods, just for her.

She should go back, no, she has to go back and –

“Hello, Alayne,” a man says, suddenly next to her. He startles her and it takes her a second to recognize him under the pulled-up hoodie.

She pulls herself together with a strength she didn’t know she still had, gets up and dusts off her jeans -

The spray in her face is a surprise and she’s only barely aware that he catches her when she falls, before she loses consciousness.


~3~

What happened way back when:

They had been taking selfies in Myrcella’s private garden in the Red Keep, when Joffrey and the Hound walked past them. The butterflies in Sansa’s stomach fluttered like mad at the sight of him. She wore a new dress, her hair finally held the complicated braids that were in style in KL, she knew that she was pretty. She wanted to be perfect for him, her golden-haired prince.

“No pictures,” the Hound growled at her, and plucked her phone from her hands. He swiped through her picture gallery, scoffed, and almost threw the phone back at her. Why did he always have to be so mean to her?

Joffrey didn’t even look at her. Sansa sniffled.

“Don’t take it personally,” Myrcella comforted her. “He’s not actually mean. He just doesn’t want anyone to take his picture.”

Oh, Sansa defiantly took a picture on purpose, the next time she was in the garden with Myrcella. And when the Hound came towards her with blazing eyes, and that familiar terror crept over her, Joffrey called him back. Her prince.

“Can’t you see that she took a picture of me, dog,” Joffrey smiled at her. “Leave us alone. You’re scaring my lady.”

She looked at the picture every night before she went to bed. Golden Joffrey and the fearsome Hound. When Sevenmas came, she had it developed together with the other pictures in her favorites folder.

But by then Arya had disappeared, Father looked more and more worried by the day, and Joffrey… Joffrey wasn’t anyone she would want to look at anymore.

She tucked them away, the ones that hurt too much to look at. Lady as a puppy. Winterfell in the snow. Her family, smiling in front of the Sevenmas tree.

~

It was a farce that Sansa had to formally identify her father’s body and everyone knew it. Ned Stark had been killed in broad daylight on the steps of the Sept of Baelor. His throat slit by a masked assassin. They were still looking for the killer, but hadn’t Tywin Lannister stated at the press conference that the trail was already cold?

There was absolutely no doubt about the identity of his body, and yet… Joffrey cackled all the way to the morgue.

“Look at him,” he hissed at her as they stood over… oh, Father.

On the other side of the bier, the Hound looked impassively at the vicinity of her ears. Next to her, Meryn Trant. His holster was level with her hand. Maybe…?

But she hesitated a second to long, and then Joffrey had Trant hit her in the face for not smiling when he told her to. Why hadn’t she noticed before just how revolting Joffrey looked?

Oh, it would have been so easy to push him into traffic on their way back. Reckless, sure, but easy, and what did she care about consequences?

Only, Sandor Clegane stepped in her path and dabbed away the blood from her lip, and the moment was gone. He was surprisingly gentle.

~

They wouldn’t let her leave. She wanted to go home, but they wouldn’t let her leave. They made her write letters to her mother, empty phrases that Cersei dictated to her with a glass of wine always in her hand.

They’d taken her phone.

She cried every night.

~

It was a heedless, dangerous thing to speak out for Dontos Hollard.

But the Hound spoke for her in turn.

And when she met with Dontos at night? Dangerous, dangerous, and irresponsible to be out at night. Who saved her then and took her back to her room?

The one friend she had in King’s Landing.

~

Maybe she should have realized sooner how reckless Sansa was.

And that Sansa Stark would always crave the safety Sandor Clegane offered her. Protecting her from others and herself.

Sansa was a Stark of Winterfell, brave to the bone.

It was Alayne who was the coward.


Chapter Text


~1~

Two (seemingly) random Varypedia Articles

Saltpans Sept

[…] After the original wooden building was badly damaged during the Raid of Saltpans in 300 AC, the Saltpans Sept was rebuilt as one of the first stone buildings of the Saltpans revival.

Below the Sept and the surrounding old town, an intricate system of safety shelters and tunnels stretches for a total length of 4 miles. Much of this tunnel system was repurposed in 765 AC, when the town’s canal system was extended. The remaining parts were used as storage for emergency supplies, like grain and other seeding material, up until the civil war of […]

Dust explosion

[…] rapid combustion of fine particles suspended in the air, often but not always in an enclosed location. Dust explosions can occur where any dispersed powdered combustible material is present in high enough concentrations in the atmosphere or other oxidizing gaseous medium such as oxygen. Dust explosions are a frequent hazard in underground coal mines, in grain elevators, and other industrial environments […]

~2~

What’s happening now

The party goes on. People mingle in the garden, people laugh in the kitchen… Apparently nobody has noticed wolf girl’s breakdown - or if they have, they pretend not to notice.

They herd a frantic Arya up into her bedroom, just Sandor, Gendry, Pod and Jon Snow, where Sandor perches on the edge of her bed. The others circle around each other, like wolves gearing up for a fight.

“Arya, are you sure?” Jon Snow’s voice is pure Knightswatch Commander, zero percent brother, and Sandor can tell how much it hurts his wolf girl to hear him talk to her like that.

“Of course, I’m sure! I know what Sansa looks like! She’s my sister! Why don’t you all just believe me?” She’s close to tears of frustration, her voice shrill and angry.

“Arya. Please. Just try to understand how this looks from the outside. You hold a birthday party for your sister, who was declared dead years ago. Suddenly you claim that one of the guests is in fact your dead sister. This woman, who no one else has seen, disappears without a trace. Can you see how that might seem a bit…?”

“I’m not crazy! How dare you, Jon! And someone else must have seen her.”

“Pod and I have asked everyone in the kitchen and no one has seen a woman with red hair and blue eyes.” Gendry’s obviously trying to sound soothing but ends up in “talking to an upset five-year-old” territory instead. If wolf girl tries to geld him later, Sandor will gladly hold him down for her.

“Oh, no, no, no. She didn’t look like Sansa. It was her, it was, but… disguised. Her hair was brown, and she had brown eyes. She was wearing… dark jeans, a giant black leather jacket. And she knew me, too, she did, I could tell. She took one look at me and ran. And I would have gotten her if you hadn’t tackled me, Gendry.”

An awkward silence in the room. Someone coughs.

“Honey, that was just Alayne,” Gendry finally says in his “try to reasonable” voice, but Sandor’s not paying attention anymore.

Alayne.

Oh Gods.

When Sandor was young, before his father died and he ran away to Casterly Rock, Gregor would play one of his sadistic games where he’d sneak up to him and punch him in the gut, completely out of the blue. This is what it feels like now, the suddenness, the air forced out of his lungs.

“Alayne?” Wolf girl’s unbelieving voice cuts him like a knife. “Dog? Your Alayne?”

Suddenly, it’s all so very clear. That familiar Sansa scent in her bed, her laugh, her hand on his wet cheek…

“Brown eyes, you said? Gendry, does Alayne have brown eyes?” He can barely hear his own voice over the blood rushing in his ears, over his wildly beating heart.

“Um, yes. Not brown like yours, lighter a bit. But… yeah, definitely brown.”

How could he be so fucking blind?

“She told me they were Tully blue,” he whispers.

“How could you not know? You slept with her! How could you not know it was Sansa?”

Arya screams furiously, in full wolf mode, pacing the room with wide strides. How could he not know? Sandor groans and buries his head in his hands. He sits like this for a long second, with his upper body bent down to his knees, before he straightens himself up again. He gestures towards Arya.

“She’s right. She’s right, it fits.”

“Maybe Sansa has amnesia?” Pod offers tentatively.

Come hear me sing, I’m a little songbird, I can sing you the Mother’s hymn…

“No,” he decides. “No. She… I didn’t pay attention. But she… dropped hints. She definitely remembered me.”

“Then why…? No. The why can wait.” Jon Snow. Youngest Commander of a Knightswatch Unit since the War of the Five Kings. “Arya… I’m so sorry that I doubted you, little sister. We’ll find her, don’t worry. We’ll have plenty of time later, to ask her why she ran. I’ll go downstairs, inform Brienne and Beric. We’ll find her. She can’t have gotten very far.”

“Dog.” Wolf girl’s feverish voice right in his face. “Tell me about her. Tell me everything.”

What is there to tell? How she wanted him to recognize her, and she must have from all the now obvious hints she dropped, and he failed her again? How she kissed him like she was proud to be with him anyway?

He scrambles for something to tell Arya and can’t find any words.

She sighs.

“Let’s go downstairs and send people home. Seems like I have a sudden migraine. Or food poisoning? Both?”

~

Alayne’s phone goes straight to voicemail. The squires that Beric sends for the Bower report back that one Stone, Alayne was seen leaving in the afternoon. An eye witness reports that she had been visibly distressed at the time. She hasn’t been back since. Her car is parked two streets away from the Bower. Not a trace of her in the surveillance cameras of train station and harbor. She’s hiding somewhere… But why hide at all?

The sun has set. Sandor has retreated into the now empty garden, on his bench underneath the willow tree. Stranger is asleep at his feet, and a single cricket chirps in the herbaceous border.

Why?

Why did she hide herself from him, why did she run from Arya? Nothing of this makes sense…

Why hadn’t he recognized her, Sansa Stark, love of his fucking life? There had been hundreds of little moments, of Sansa’s scent in his nose, her laughter in his ears. Sansa always at the edge of his reality, a specter in the corner of his eye. And he hadn’t trusted his instincts enough. Failed her. Again.

He had kissed Sansa Stark. He had had sex with her, fucked her… made love. To Sansa. She had screamed his name when she came. When he had made her come.

Stranger woofs in his sleep, and Sandor puts his head back.

His emotions are a whirlwind, too much to make sense of, of love and regret and plain confusion. Memories flash through his mind. He had never put a face on Alayne. The few times his mind had wandered to that question of “what does she look like”, he had ended up with Tully blue eyes in a heart-shaped face. It had felt wrong to imagine Alayne that way. With Sansa Stark’s face. No, Alayne was silky skin, warm and damp under his hands. Her teeth tugging at his lower lip. That scent of lavender and Dornish lemon and her.

Do you have any idea how long I’ve been dreaming of you?

She had said that, to him. She had known him, she had dreamed of him -

Steps on the gravel, a polite cough. Pod.

“Jon has called a meeting in the house. He’s got news.”

“Good or bad news?”

“He didn’t say. I left to get you. They might have started already.”

“How’s Arya?”

“Bouncy. Ready to stab someone. The usual.”

The gathering in their great room is claustrophobic. So many people, talking over each other… Snow, Beric, squires and house guests.

Sandor pulls himself up to his fullest height.

“What in the Stranger’s Name is going on?”

Arya is upon him in an instant, tugs at his hands and leads him to the dining table.

“She’s not hiding, Dog, she was taken! Jon, play the clip again!”

The sound of a computer keyboard. A laptop on the table.

“They got it on tape. One of the new surveillance cameras of the R’hllor Temple on Blackfyre Street. It’s her, dark jeans and that oversized jacket. A man talks to her, then he sprays something into her face and she collapses. And he puts her over his shoulder and carries her somewhere.”

Arya is giddy, but Jon’s voice is all business.

“The quality of the clip isn’t up to par. We don’t see enough of the attacker… but I’d swear that it’s someone she knows. She doesn’t seem alarmed by his presence before he gets out the spray. Clegane, do you know of any men in her life that might pose a threat to her?”

His eyes are creepy.

“There’s one… We met him once, the day we were at the Sept, when Mormont was there, too. Right after we had left the Sept, actually. He spouted a bunch of nonsense about assaulting her. I don’t know his name, she never said. But…” He concentrates. “She said that he was creepy. That he had wandering hands, and that he frightened her. He had a Northern accent. Bad skin and sloping shoulders. And that he had eyes like ‘two chips of dirty ice’.”

Jon Snow draws a sharp breath at his last words.

“That’s Ramsay Bolton. That description fits Ramsay Bolton. And so close to Daenerys... Brienne. Beric. I think that’s enough for a warrant. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” they reply in unison.

“We’ll have to coordinate with my guys up North. We’ll have to take Ramsay here down South and raid his house at the Dreadfort at same time, before he can tip them off. And if we find something, yes, then we can get to Bolton senior! But we’ll need some time to set this up. Beric, have your boys found out where Ramsay lives?”

“They have,” Beric replies. “Hawick Hall, a student dorm at the edge of the old town. But don’t forget that we’ll need to get a Defender, too. We’re not in the North where -”

A ringing phone interrupts him.

Arya tugs at Sandor’s arm again, drawing his attention to her, but half of him still listens in on Beric’s terse answers to whoever it is on the other end. The call doesn’t sound a very promising.

“Dog, isn’t this wonderful?” Arya whispers, her voice so young, so hopeful, so excited. “Sansa’s alive. Sure, the Wight Walkers have her. But she’s alive… oh, I wish I could call Mother already!”

“Arry. Sandor.” Beric’s voice is too gentle for good news, to matter-of-fact for bad. “That was a colleague in Gulltown. We have traced Alayne Stone’s history back to an establishment there.”

“An establishment?” Arya asks. Sandor already knows what’s coming and his stomach churns. The word establishment can mean only one thing.

“A brothel. Owned by Petyr Baelish.”

~

Sandor lies awake for a long time that night, while every single interaction with Alayne, with Sansa, replays in his head. Every kiss. Every touch of her hand. It’s a dam break, sudden and ferocious, and it floods his brain with image after image, Sansa’s face emerging in every memory he has of Alayne.

That first kiss in the Sept, so sweet and tender, but now there is Sansa’s beautiful face looking up at him. Sansa, drenched to the bone from that sudden rain, clinging to his arm…

Seven hells, Sansa under him, Sansa on top of him.

He has to deal with his hard dick, and a few rough strokes is all it takes. It clears his head somewhat, and a new thought appears, worms its way to the foreground. A thought like a poisoned arrow.

How many men did Littlefucker force on her?

Sure, she had been too good to be a virgin, had spoken of that one 10-inch dick she had had, and Sandor had tried his best not to be jealous of the men that had come before him. But a brothel in Gulltown? That’s a completely different story than what he had expected, than maybe one serious boyfriend and one-night stands here and there. That’s bound to be pressure and trauma and force, not the pleasantly uneventful sexual history he had imagined for the self-assured woman that shared his bed… If he’d taken her with him, back then when the Blackwater burned, he could have spared her all that. He would have protected her… Sansa Stark, in a fucking brothel. Littlefucker had made a whore out of the little bird…

The Hound growls deep within him as he tosses and turns.

~

When he comes home from work around lunchtime, there are at least five voices in their kitchen. Ed Storm definitely, talking to a woman that might be Shireen Baratheon - she doesn’t speak enough for him to be sure. Everyone else seems to be talking at the same time. Sandor stays close to the wall, just to be safe, because he needs coffee or he’ll have to kill someone. They shut up suddenly, and he feels all their eyes on him.

He can’t stay in this house.

Sansa’s out there, kidnapped by the Wight Walkers, and he’s sitting on his ass, doing nothing while people gawk at him like an animal at the zoo. Watch him as he fails her. Again.

He’ll have to survive without coffee today.

“Where are you going?” Arya, suddenly next to him as he ties his shoes.

“None of your bloody business.”

“Littlefinger told her we were all dead.”

Sandor stops fiddling with his shoelace.

“What?”

“That’s Special Agent Myranda Royce in the kitchen. She knew Sansa in Gulltown. Says that they were friends. And she says that Littlefinger told Sansa that we had all died in a car accident. Isn’t it weird? We think she’s dead, she thinks we’re dead. If Littlefinger wasn’t dead already, I’d have to kill him twice for that. Come talk to her.”

Myranda Royce whistles when he walks a back into the kitchen, and her voice is sultry velvet when she speaks.

“Look at you, tall drink of water. How tall are you? Seven feet?”

“Something like that.” He doesn’t have the patience for nonsense like that on his best days and certainly not today. “You knew her?”

It’s fascinating how her voice changes. The velvet melts away and reveals steel. A no-nonsense voice, but less striking than Brienne’s, and warmer than hers, too. A dagger hidden under a silk dress, compared to Brienne’s Valyrian steel sword.

“Yes. I did. As I already told your friends here, I work for the Master of Coin. I was on a deep undercover mission in Gulltown for about a year. Alayne, Sansa Stark, arrived a month after I had. Maybe we should sit down? It’s a long story.”

They do sit down, and Sandor finally gets his coffee.

“We knew that Petyr Baelish had a massive network of money laundering schemes all over the SK. He’d already been under investigation before he became Master of Coin himself, and the second he was booted from office, the case was opened again. Gulltown was his headquarter, and I was sent in to get as much intel on him as possible.”

“Yeah, okay. But what about Sansa?” Wolf girl is about as patient as Sandor is. Not patient at all.

“He introduced her as his daughter, Alayne Stone. He kept us apart from her for a few months in the beginning, and I had my doubts about her identity then. The way he looked at her, I thought she was his lover. Around that time, he hired one of my favorite customers to build a couple of fake news websites, all dealing with a deadly car crash that killed the entire Stark family. The man told me about it - pillow talk, you know. I didn’t think much of it at the time… Soon after that she came out of her shell, and he allowed her to interact with us more. I took her to the Sept with me every Smithday - people are very religious in the Vale and that was where I could meet my handler - and tried to get her to open up. But she was so very convincingly his daughter that I thought I’d been wrong before. Now, I think she believed it herself on some level.”

She pauses.

“Did you know that Alayne Stone is the most common female name in the Vale? Like Jon Snow in the North? It’s the perfect assumed name.”

Seven Hells, this woman is worse than Ed Storm. Get to the bloody point already.

“I got suspicious when I discovered that Baelish had business connections with seven different Alayne Stones. And the one I knew wasn’t even among them. Was she really his daughter? We sent out a report to the central KP stations with her description, to see if they had anything on her. That was about a month before he caught wind of my investigation and… ran.”

There’s a quick flash of sadness and regret in her voice. For the first time, Sandor wonders who the body belonged to, the body of the woman who died in Sansa’s place.

“Aye, Brienne said that they had a lead in the Vale.”

“Almost exactly two years ago, I finally managed to get into his office and find the proof we needed. And then we sent it to the wrong people and Baelish-”

“I don’t care about any of this,” wolf girl jumps in. “I don’t care what Littlefinger did or why. You knew Sansa, so tell us about her. Was… was she happy?”

Myranda Royce takes a deep breath.

“No, honey, she wasn’t.”

Sandor’s heart clenches like someone just pushed a hand into his chest and is now slowly squeezing it. He can’t stay. He can’t listen to this woman tell them about how Sansa… no. Just no.

He leaves.

~

Sandor’s on his way to the Sept. Not to pray, of course. She kissed him there, that first time, and he has the vague hope that the silence will help sort his mind. He needs to be alone, which is virtually impossible at the house right now.

Myrcella’s tiny voice when he left. “I thought you all knew,” she had said. “The likeness was bewildering under all that makeup. She could have been Sansa’s twin. I thought you knew that.”

He feels better as soon as he is out on the street. Just a few cars going by, only one other person behind him walking in the same direction, their steps faint in the distance on this quiet Warday afternoon.

Warday.

He hasn’t been to a Sept on Warday since his days in King’s Landing, when all the men of the King’s Guard would go together and pretend the service didn’t bore them to tears, pretend that they believed in the Gods, and knowing all the while that none of them did.

Warday.

There is something nagging in the back of his mind, like an itch in a spot you can’t reach.

Something important.

~

Warday.

The Warrior’s day.

Maiden, Warrior, Father, Smith, Mother, Stranger, Crone.

Mainday, Warday, Faraday, Smithday, Mothday, Strangerday, Cronday.

Seven days named after the seven gods.

Nella had gone missing on a Cronday. A kind old lady, an old lady -

Crone!

~

He has to stop walking, he can’t focus anymore on whatever his cane is telling him.

A crone on a Cronday. What about the others?

“Dog? Got lost? Gendry can pick you up -” Arya answers his call on the second ring.

“When did Seaworth disappear?”

“Everything alright?”

“This is important, Arya, listen. It just came to me. Nella went missing on Cronday. A crone on a Cronday. When did Seaworth disappear?”

Arya is quiet, then he can hear a muffled conversation in the background, and then...

“This is Jon Snow.”

“When did Seaworth disappear?” he repeats again and he himself can hear how frenzied his voice has become. “What day of the week?”

“Wait a second, let me check… A Faraday.”

“Seaworth has seven sons. Storm wouldn’t stop mentioning them, Gendry said so, too. A father on a Faraday. What about the Targaryen girl? Four kids, right? A mother, Snow!”

“Oh Gods, Clegane. Five days ago. A Mothday.”

“Alayne, yesterday. A Mainday. Can you see it, Snow? It’s not the Wight Walkers, it’s something else! Is there a missing smith?” Snow puts the phone down, muffled voices, then -

“Sandor, this is Gendry! My buddy Mikken, remember? No one’s heard from him since last Smithday…”

A noise like the phone is dropped and then -

“Hello, it’s Jon again. We’re combing the database for any missing persons fitting a profile for Warrior and Stranger. There is something there. Good catch, Clegane.”

Sandor’s breathing rapidly when he hangs up and puts his phone back in his pocket. Excitement courses through his veins like it did back when he was on active duty, like it did in Pyke.

A maiden on a Mainday. Only Alayne’s not a maiden anymore.

Alayne, Sansa, please be all right.

All right, all right… now, where the fuck is he?

Damn it, why didn’t he pay more attention. His last memory is reaching Tully square, but did he cross it? If he did, then he’ll have to turn right to get across the little bridge over one of the side canals. But if he is still in the middle of the square… A tentative swipe of his cane yields no further information. Damn it, he’ll have to walk back and try again.

Whoever was walking behind him has picked up his pace. Fast approaching footsteps, probably hurrying to offer some assistance. Sandor’s already furious, the reminder of how he must look to other people doesn’t help at all, and he really doesn’t want to interact with a stranger right now.

“Come with me,” a man’s voice says. He’s heard that voice before, but where? The man grabs his left forearm, hard, and only rigorous self-control keeps Sandor from plunging his fist right into the stranger’s face. Instead he shakes off the hand on his arm with a quick self-defense move and makes himself as tall and broad as possible.

“Just directions to the Sept will do, thanks.”

Where has he heard that voice before? And now he notices the smell. That smell of dust and mold…

“Yes, yes. The Sept. You’re the Warrior. Where else would you go?”

Something small and round and cold is pressed against the small of his back. A gun. Sandor freezes.

“Let’s go to the Sept. The Gods don’t like to wait.”

“The Gods have told you that?”

“The Gods have told me everything!”

“Have they told you about Alayne Stone?”

The man only giggles as he slides Sandor’s phone out of his pocket. “The Maiden is already on her pedestal. Waiting for you, just like the others.”

A splash as a small object hits water. Ah, he had made it down to the canal after all… And then his kidnapper says something utterly bizarre.

“May I offer you my arm?”

Just like Alayne would say it, the same tone of voice, and finally, it clicks.

It’s that pompous sounding waiter from The Bower.

Harry.

~

Sandor contemplates overpowering him right there and then. He could definitely take him, gun or no gun… but this man has Sansa and from the smell of him, she’s chained up in a dungeon somewhere. Sure, he could subdue him easily, but that bears the risk that they’ll never find out where he’d stashed his victims - while Sansa starves to death. No, let Mr. “the Gods told me” take him to her and then he’ll take him in turn.

Only an amateur, and fucking crazy, too, it seems. That idiot doesn’t even try to take the cane. There’s an itch in Sandor’s fingers. It would be so easy…

A warrior on a Warday.

Sandor starts walking.

Harry doesn’t lead him down the direct way to the Sept, but weaves through the little alleys of the old city center as if he’s trying to shake off a pursuer. What a complete and utter amateur. To think that you can take Sandor Clegane for a stroll through Saltpans without being noticed. They walk past Jonquil Street, where the distinctive scent of Braavosi take-out hangs heavy in the air, where there are at least three surveillance cameras on the walls that Pod likes to complain about. Sandor waves a little. Maybe Pod will be the one to analyze these videos when they realize that Sandor’s missing.

Such an amateur.

Sandor pretends to stagger a little, lets his body fall against Harry, just a little bit. After that he’s certain about Harry’s size, height as well as muscle mass, and has a general idea of his strength.

Average, average and average.

They reach a building, solid stone from the quick touch Sandor can sneak in. Then a tall door, more cobblestones in a courtyard, a smaller door. “Mind your head,” Harry snaps and then there’s a door that barely reaches Sandor’s shoulders and a… tunnel? Definitely a tunnel, and a long one at that, deep echoes and stale moldy air. He has to crouch to fit. They only walk for another couple of yards, then there’s another door to the left, and suddenly the ceiling opens up into a tall room. There are people in this room, he can tell, and for some reason the sound of running water, and from a far corner comes a gasp in a sweet feminine voice.

Found you, Sansa!

“Silence!” Harry roars, although nobody had been talking. “The Gods have sent us the Warrior. Now, only the Stranger has to come to us, and the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros will be restored to their old glory! Praise the Seven that are One!”

Completely fucking crazy…

Sandor is pushed into the room, then the door behind him closes again. Footsteps fade away.

“I will kill this man,” a woman says, her voice shaking with rage. “I will tear him apart, and I will watch him die.”

Sandor will gladly help, but he has more important priorities right now.

“Sa - Alayne?”

“Oh, oh, Sandor!” She’s in his arms, her cool hair, her soft skin, and he holds her so tight that she squeaks. He lets her go, runs his quick hands over her head, her arms, her torso. She’s trembling.

“Are you hurt? Did he hurt you?”

“No, I’m fine. Are you?”

“Fine, fine. Little Bird, what’s going on?”

She doesn’t say anything, but her hand reaches up and touches his scarred cheek.

“Little Bird?” she asks, shaky, hesitant. “You always… you never…” She weeps in his arms, and he holds her tight, leans down and whispers in her ear. “Little Bird, I need you to focus. What’s going on here?”

She pulls back from him, wipes her face.

“We are in a storage room, below the Sept gift shop. Nella and I have been here before. We stored the costumes and props for last year’s Sevenmas play with the choir in the tunnel outside the door. Oh, Sandor! He kidnapped other people, too -”

“Daenerys Targaryen, Davos Seaworth, Nella Fletcher, and Gendry’s friend Mikken,” Sandor completes. “Yes, I know.”

“And you must be Sandor Clegane,” a man’s voice. A Fleabottom accent if Sandor ever heard one. Seaworth. “Lady Sansa here has spent the whole night telling us how you’d come to rescue her.”

“And I told them that she was probably right,” Nella chimes in. She sounds tired and old. How long has Harry had her now? Longer than a week.

“He’s certainly tall enough, like you said,” the woman that has to be Daenerys Targaryen interjects. “It would work.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Sandor asks. Sansa clings to him like she’s drowning, and he worries about her, now more than ever.

Davos Seaworth sounds pained as he explains the stupidest escape plan Sandor has ever heard.

“There is a smoke detector on the wall to your right. Lady Targaryen wants to set a fire – “

“No fire!” he roars. “Sansa, tell them! No fire!”

She is silent and stiff when he touches her. “Tell. Them.”

“No.” Her voice is so soft that he almost doesn’t hear her. He doesn’t want to hear her. How can she do this to him?

“Sandor, please. I know it’s hard, I know. But it’s a good plan. People will find us.” She has her hands on his back and pets him like the frightened dog he is.

Davos continues. “Mikken is certain that he can short circuit an electrical wire that runs along the ceiling and use the spark to light a fire with some of our clothes. Not a big one, just enough for some smoke to develop and trigger an alarm. None of us are tall enough to help him reach it. But you…”

“No. There has to be another way,” Sandor growls. “That’s the stupidest fucking escape plan I have ever heard.”

“Next Strangerday he’ll kill us all,” Nella says. “He’ll sacrifice us to the gods. Please, Sandor!”

“I said NO! Are you insane? You want us to be trapped in this room without a way to get out when the fire spreads? You want to burn us all alive? You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The fire wouldn’t spread-” Daenerys tries, but he won’t let her finish.

“How do you know? And smoke in a closed room? Even if we don’t burn, the smoke would get to us quicker than anything.”

“What if it’s not a closed room?” Davos interjects. “We can hear him come. We can trigger the alarm when we hear him open the door.”

“The guy is an amateur! There are six of us against just one of him. Why not overpower him when he comes back? There’s no need for all this fire nonsense!”

“We have tried that,” a young voice, a man. Mikken, “The Smith.” He sounds like he’s in pain. “Each of us has tried at some point or other. He drugs our food most of the time. The last time he didn’t, Davos and I tried to take him down. That was two days ago. A shot came off in the melee. Bullet ricochet grazed my arm.”

Sandor’s blood turns cold. The sound of a bullet ricochet loud in the back of his mind.

“I made it through the door the first day,” Daenerys adds. “There is another door at the end of the tunnel that was closed. Locked with a keypad. But the code that Nella had given me wasn’t current anymore. He caught me. He beat me… I will kill him for that.”

“And I’m too old and tired to be of much use,” Nella says dryly. “That smoke detector is our -”

“No.” Sandor says with finality.

“Sandor, please.” Sansa tries again, and her voice is very small. “I know I have no right to ask this of you. Please, at least consider it.”

“No. It’s a long time until Strangerday. We’ll think of something else until then. And I left enough of a trail that Beric’s boys will find us before then.”

He finds a wall, slumps down against it, stretches out his legs. Sansa sits down next to him, and his first instinct is to shuffle away from her. How dare she betray him like that? But that feeling fades like ash blown away by a strong wind, wiped away by the relief to have her next to him, unharmed and alive. The others are whispering in the far corner of the room. Fuck them all.

“It isn’t Strangerday yet,” he tells her instead, repeats himself with even more conviction. “We have three more days to come up with a plan that’s not completely fucking stupid. How often does he usually come back?”

“That depends,” Seaworth jumps in. “Once a day at least, to bring food. We have the canal for water. And often he just comes to rant. He has picked out the Stranger already. Probably out watching him right now. He’ll come back later and tell us all about it.”

Sandor can feel that Sansa wants to continue the debate. He makes her show him the room instead. The door is solid metal and doesn’t budge when he tries all his strength on it. Rough-hewn stone walls, a wooden support beam, dusty mortar crumbling under his fingers. A cold stone floor. The fizzing of electrical lights.

“The lights are always on.” Seaworth says. “You get used to it.”

At the far end of the room the floor suddenly drops away and is replaced by running water. A canal.

“It’s barred at both ends. We tried for days to pry them open. No chance. And even if we’d manage. Who knows where we’d end up? I’m not too keen on drowning.”

“You’d rather burn, I know.” Sandor can’t help himself.

Seaworth cleans his throat. “Be grateful that it’s there. The first week he had me in a room without… amenities like that.”

Sandor reaches another wall and sits down against it. Wraps his arms around his chest and lets his chin sink down. Sansa inches closer to him. So close to him, and he wants nothing more than to take her in his arms, and kiss her, and tell her how much he loved her, loves her, will always love her to the day he dies.

But something holds him back. A leash of “an establishment in Gulltown.” A choking collar of “she did hide, she didn’t tell me who she was, she used my blindness as a veil to hide behind.” The burning, bitter shame of “I could have protected you, but I failed you instead.”

“Sansa.”

Her hand on his arm. He sighs.

“I’m so sorry, Little Bird,” he whispers softly. For her ears only. “That I didn’t protect you back then. That I didn’t stay with you. That you, you know, had to go through all this… with Baelish.”

“It wasn’t that bad. He was kind to me. Most of the time,” she says. If fucking Littlefinger wasn’t already dead…

“And the… the men?”

She withdraws her hand. Why couldn’t he just shut up, now he’d reminded her, hurt her with the memory most likely.

“What men?” she asks, curious and hesitant.

“We know about… The brothel.”

“You think I was a whore?” An indignant shout. The others stop their murmuring, the room falls completely silent.

“We just thought…”

“Sandor Clegane!” Sandor heard Catelyn Stark yell at Rickon one time, for taking one of the Blackfish’s décor swords of the wall. It was exactly the same tone of voice. “You are the first man I have ever slept with. The only man I have ever slept with.”

“But you said –” he whispers, “you said you’d had 10 inches before. You said that.”

“Yes, but that was a toy, not a man.” Her whisper is furious hissing. “And who is we?”

“Arya. Jon Snow. Me.”

“Arya and Jon!” Her affronted rage is forgotten in an instant. “Arya and Jon. Oh, oh, Sandor, tell me about them, please! How do you know them? What about Mother and Robb, Bran, Rickon?”

He tells her about Arya first. How they became pack. About Jon Snow, feverishly trying to find her as they speak. Daenerys jumps in and sits down at his other side, asking about her children, and he tells her everything that Jorah told him -

Sansa inches closer to him, and he’s almost ready to ask her, almost ready for the why, the why didn’t you trust me.

There are footsteps, in the tunnel behind the door.

Just one person.

Harry’s coming back.

~

“Silence!” Harry screams as he enters the room. He’s agitated, his footsteps are erratic. Oh, this isn’t good. An amateur is one thing, but a crazy one with nothing to lose is a threat one mustn’t underestimate. And maybe this is their chance? Harry hasn’t closed the door behind him…

How to get close enough to overpower him?

“The fucking R’hllorists have taken the Stranger. I saw them. Saw them take him. He was mine. Fucking R’hllorists. Thoros of Myr, curse him. And a watcher from the North putting handcuffs on my Stranger. The Old Gods. The Old Gods. Pah, fucking wildlings-” Harry’s furious and continues his villain-monologue with a rant about the Free Folk all being the Others in disguise.

“Sansa,” Sandor whispers from the corner of his mouth. “Can you distract him? I have to get close to him somehow.”

“I’ll do it,” Daenerys whispers back. Fabric rustles as she gets up slowly.

Harry stops his rant mid-sentence.

“She’s taking her clothes off,” Sansa whispers. “He’s staring.”

Sandor estimates the distance to Harry to be about 10 yards. Too far for a sprint if your opponent has a gun. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Stop this, you harlot! Do you think you can tempt a servant of the Seven!” Harry shrieks. “I am true of heart, pure in mind and body! You, you Essosi snake-”

A gunshot.

In a split second, Sandor throws himself protectively before his little bird. His ears ring, but she is safely sheltered between him and the wall, and that’s what matters. What the fuck was that?

“Oh.” Harry’s voice. Then his body hits the ground. The metallic smell of blood in the air.

“What happened?” Sandor asks into the room, shaking his head against the buzzing in his ears.

“Waving that gun around, like a fool. The idiot shot himself in the leg. He’s unconscious.” Seaworth is shouting. He must have been closest to the blast.

“He’s bleeding out, gods, I can’t stand the sight of blood,” Nella pants, her voice coming from near the ground.

“Yes!” Daenerys, openly euphoric. “Let him, he deserves it!”

Sansa crawls out from behind Sandor and disappears. Seconds later, her voice re-emerges from where he heard Harry fall, quick words to Nella that he only half-understands. “Hold,”“Turn.” Fabric rips.

Then her voice, loud and clear. “He needs a maester and quick. We’ll need to get out of here!”

No.

Please, Sansa. Not that.

She’s back with him, and she stinks of blood.

“Sandor, we can’t let him die. We need to trigger that alarm and we need to do it now.”

Oh, Sansa Stark, always the best person in the room. Still, every single fiber of Sandor’s body violently rejects the idea, the mere thought of this plan going wrong, of being trapped here, of them all burning. It’s more than he can take.

“Please, Sandor, please. For me.”

For her…

“Are you sure that the flame won’t spread?”

“I’m sure,” Mikken says. “We’d get a little spark, enough to set a T-Shirt on fire, for some smoke. We don’t have anything to transport water with, but once we’ve triggered the alarm, we can kill the fire with the jacket.”

“Which jacket?” Sandor asks.

“Your old King’s Guard jacket,” Sansa whispers and pushes familiar leather against his hands. “You left it in my room – that night. And I kept it with me. Always.”

I love you, little bird. I love you.

“Okay then.”

~

What can go wrong, right?

~

Haven’t you learned anything, Sandor Clegane?

What can go wrong?

Everything…

~3~

What happened way back when

When Sandor was ten years old, his father put on his best suit and drove all the way to Casterly Rock to have dinner with the Lannisters. Sandor knew it was to ask Tywin Lannister for another loan, and that his father’s squire insurance only covered the basics, ointments had only done so much, and the skin grafts Sandor would need were expensive. When his father came back, he was already drunk, and skin grafts were never mentioned in the Clegane household again.

Sandor heard the story from a Lannister footman two years later, when he was already living in Casterly Rock. How Tywin Lannister had been inclined to grant his father’s request at first. How one of his children had chimed in, had asked if Sandor was as scary as Gregor was. If he’d be less scary after he had his face fixed. Tywin’s pensive face.

“If your younger son turns out like Gregor, and I hope he will, the face will only be an asset. Why devalue an asset, Clegane?”

It must have been the Imp, Sandor just knew it, and he hated him passionately ever since. But the lesson he learned was a valuable one. Everyone was always looking out for their own interest only. Everyone only did what served their own goals.

There was no true kindness in this world.

~

Ned Stark’s daughter was a pretty airhead. When the Hound saw her for the first time, he thought what a pity it was that a nice girl like her had to end up in the fucking Lion’s den. Cersei would eat her alive.

Only, the girl didn’t stay just pretty. With every passing month she grew into a striking beauty and by the time she was seventeen, she took his breath away. He forced himself to hardly ever look at her.

Only, the girl wasn’t an airhead, either. Yes, she was terribly naïve. A chirping little bird from the Summer Isles. So trusting that it pained him to see her speak to anyone at all, because there were no trustworthy people in all of King’s Landing. She was the worst liar he had ever met.

She was also brave. And strong. And kind.

Out of all her good qualities, her kindness was the worst of all, the one that pierced his heart the most.

He had never met anyone like her before, someone genuinely good, and her presence made him uneasy like a school boy. Whenever he was alone with her, he found himself telling her stories he had kept secret for decades, told her of hurt, betrayal and cruelty, the real world as he knew it, hoping to scare her into a semblance of self-preservation. And she would look at him with her big eyes, as if he was a real person and not a dog that walked on two legs. Put her hand on his shoulder. Touched him.

He couldn’t tell when it had happened exactly, but one day he woke up with the secure knowledge that he was hopelessly in love with Sansa Stark.

Then the Blackwater burned, Stannis Baratheon’s pride put to the flames by Tywin’s goons, and the vicious street battle that followed broke the Hound into a million pieces.

He crawled to her, his fixed star in the darkness, ready to take her away to safety. He scared her instead, held a knife to her throat in his madness.

She sang the Mother’s Hymn for him. She didn’t go with him.

Oh gods, how he had failed her.

How his soul yearned for a second chance…


Chapter Text


~1~

Three more emails you might be interested in

From: ppayne77@ravenmail.we

To: gendry.waters@maidenpool-uni.edu.we

Subject: <none>

Attachment: shopping list

Lem called in sick, so it’s another night shift for the newbie… Can you go and buy groceries? Sent you a shopping list.

How is she holding up? She was extra stabby this morning.

Oh, I just tried to call him, and Sandy’s phone is turned off. Everything okay with him?

I miss you, too.

Pod

From: jl@ravenmail.we

To: tl@ravenmail.we;

Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re: She said yes!!!!!!!!!!

We’ll have a long engagement. This year’s out because of baby and having to pretend to mourn father. Loras and Renly insist that no one steal their thunder next year, and we’ve been living in sin for so long that we’re willing to keep the peace. What’s two more years, right?

Brienne and baby are doing great, thanks for asking. We’re thinking about naming him after you. Tyrion of Tarth has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Love you,

Jaime

P.S. Of course, I’ll take her name!

From: arry.snow@maidenpool-uni.edu.we

To: mailing list “family”

Subject: CALL ME!

YOU READ THAT RIGHT CALL ME! CALL ME!

If I don’t answer, CALL JON!

Arya

~2~

What’s happening now

Sansa has not slept for a second since yesterday, since she’d woken up tucked against Sandor, safe in her own bed. Since getting up she has listened to a horror story, had her sense of reality shattered, has tried to come back from the dead and failed, got drunk, found her sister and lost her again the very same second, and then has been kidnapped and held against her will underneath the Saltpans Sept.

She’s so far beyond tired that she has circled back to being fully awake again. The ache in her bones, the sluggishness in her limbs, all the telltale signs of sleep deprivation have made way for a single-minded determination. She will get all these people to safety. She’s a Stark and her will is iron.

Mikken is ripping wires out of one of the large flood lights high up on the wall. Sansa can hear him mumble to himself. She has never loved Sandor more than now, as he stands stoically silent while Mikken perches on his shoulders. There are beads of sweat dripping down Sandor’s face, and the burned corner of his mouth twitches wildly. It might look like physical exertion to all the others in the room, but she knows better than that. She knows his true strength in body and in mind and that balancing Mikken on his shoulders, who is more than a head shorter than Sansa and more than likely weighs less than her, is no reason for the warrior incarnate to sweat. No, this is the strength of his mind proving itself; he’s terrified, yet he still goes through with this because she asked him to. Because it is the right thing to do.

Sansa turns away and bends over Harry again. He is still unconscious, his skin clammy and cold. So far, the makeshift tourniquet Sansa applied seems to do its job. The bleeding has come to a very slow trickle, and luckily, it doesn’t seem like the bullet hit the femoral artery. Still, he desperately needs a maester, the sooner the better. Seven, please don’t let him die here, please.

“Yes!” Mikken yells, and Sansa turns around just in time to see a strip of fabric - torn from Nella’s blouse – catch on fire. Mikken quickly hands the flaming cloth to Davos, who shoves it into the heap they have made out of some of their clothes below the smoke detector. Sandor shudders, and Sansa jumps to quickly help Mikken down from Sandor’s shoulders while Dany and Davos fan the flames. Nella takes over Sansa’s spot next to Harry to keep an eye on his pulse, despite the green tinge that deepens on her face when she reaches out for his blood-spattered wrist.

The smoke detector comes to life with an ear-piercing wail.

“I’m so proud of you,” Sansa murmurs into Sandor’s ear. “So proud, you’re so brave.”

At first, she’s not sure if he hears what she says, but he then he tightens his hold around her. She wants to kiss him, but she doesn’t dare.

“Don’t ever make me do something like that again, girl. Gods, that stench.”

And he’s right. The smell of burning fabric tickles in her nose.

“Oh, oh,” Mikken says behind her. Sansa turns around quickly, Sandor instantly even tenser against her. The smoke coming from their clothes has turned black and billowy. Orange flames are licking up from the torn-up sleeve of a polyester shirt. Sansa realizes their mistake, and she can tell that the others do to. They built the heap directly below the smoke detector. Too close to the wall.

A low-hanging cobweb, caked with dust, has caught fire and the flames travel along the wall like lightning. Sansa hadn’t known that dust could burn like that. For a split second, she doesn’t know what to do, yearns for someone to take over and take charge. Her eyes meet Dany’s, and in her violet eyes she sees the same determination that she felt herself just seconds ago. Stark and Targaryen, daughters of ancient queens, and Sansa’s spark returns instantly.

Her thoughts are racing now. They don’t have anything to fetch water with, and now the flames are too far gone for that anyway, stay in this room, hide out in the canal, no, no, what if the building collapses? Gods, please forgive us. They’ll have to make a dash for the other door.

“Everyone in the tunnel!” she yells. Sandor startles behind her, and she whirls around and takes his hands, leans up and presses a desperate kiss against his lips. “I’m so sorry.”

Meanwhile at her back, Dany has taken over. Davos and Mikken have slung Harry’s limp arms over their shoulders at her commands, Dany herself is supporting Nella. They are almost out the door already, and Sansa pulls Sandor behind her into the tunnel, only half notices how his hand gets too close to the burning wall, how he recoils, gods, no, please, don’t let him burn, and she slams the door behind them.

She’s sweating, and her nose stings as they hurry down the tunnel, and she’s back in that part of her mind where nothing feels real anymore. They stop before the locked door, Dany’s banging against it, screaming for help, so are Davos and Mikken. Nella cowers, panting, on the ground next to Harry, who has started to groan a little, with his eyes still tightly closed.

Sandor turns around to her with the wry, cruel grin of the Hound.

“I told you all that was the stupidest fucking escape plan I have ever heard. Welcome to the hells.”

His eyes are warm and brown.

Oh gods.

Oh no.

She has left the jacket behind. She has left the picture, the only picture… She has left his eyes to burn. The eyes he lost because of her.

She screams, and she doesn’t know why. They all turn to stare at her with wide, surprised eyes. His eyes are warm and brown, when they should be storm gray, the color that swords are. Everything about this is wrong. Fix this, how can she fix this?

She has to save that picture, that’s the only way, right, the only way, the only right thing to do. If she saves the picture, she saves his eyes, it’s all crystal clear in her head, she has to save him -

As she turns and starts to run back, Sandor catches her arm and says something that she can’t hear over the buzzing in her ears. She wrenches her arm out of his grip, and it hurts so much, and then she’s flying down the tunnel back to the flames.

The door is hot as she pushes it open with her left arm, but she doesn’t feel it, not really. Her skin is steel. Her head aches like it’s been hit by a sledge hammer, but she doesn’t really feel that either. There’s a veil between her and the world now, and propelled by the the unshakable conviction that this is the right thing to do, Sansa pulls her shirt over her nose and mouth and goes on. She can see the jacket lie on the ground about five yards beyond the door. It’s not on fire and the path is clear, only the smoke is getting so thick now. When she reaches it, the heat coming towards her from the burning wall, and a lit-up oak beam is scorching, but at least the fire hasn’t spread much further. She quickly snatches up the jacket and turns to run towards the exit, but the heat is just too much now. Smoke burns in her lungs, her eyes water, she so dizzy that she almost can’t see the door anymore.

The earth shakes. Dust flutters from the ceiling, from the walls that aren’t burning yet.

They found us, a small Alayne-ish part of her thinks. They’re trying to force the door open; that’s the sound of the battering ram.

The heat is too much.

The canal at the end of the room, channeled off from the sweet waters of the river, looks so cool. She must be hallucinating now, because there’s a voice, a woman’s voice, calling her from the Trident. Mother, Sansa thinks, trout is for Tully. Clutching his precious jacket to her chest, she sprints towards the water.

Everything seems to happen both extremely fast and in slow motion at the same time, three things happening almost simultaneously. Almost, but not quite.

First, the walls shake again.

A split second later, Sansa dives into the canal at the end of the room.

And then the dusty air explodes into a gigantic fireball.

Sansa stays below the surface for as long as her aching lungs can take it. The entire room is ablaze now, and when she comes up for air, she almost chokes as she clings to the bars that close off the end of the canal with every ounce of strength she has left, and somehow also manages not to let go of his jacket. Her eyes closed tightly against the brightness, praying. Praying to all the Gods, praying to the Seven who are One. She’s only vaguely aware of her body and its pain, but Alayne already knows that something isn’t quite right with her left forearm, her lungs, her nose and mouth, her head. She feels it, and yet she doesn’t.

Nothing feels real anyway.

Nothing has felt real in days, nothing has felt right since the Blackwater burned and she didn’t go with him; but she went with him now, she has him in her arms, she saved him -

Another explosion, but not of fire this time. Another one. She watches through half-opened eyes how a fine white powder covers the burning floor. The shape of a man in the door, spraying the burning walls with a white foam. White like snow in Winterfell. She is stronger within the walls of Winterfell. Voices, yelling something. She can feel how her fingers start to slip, it gets harder and harder to breathe.

“She’s here!”

Two men in firefighter gear run towards her.

Strong hands pull her out of the water. Strong hands try to wrestle the jacket from her clutches but she doesn’t budge, pulls it to her chest. Someone carries her. Through the tunnel, through the door, into the courtyard.

The sky is so blue.

She’d thought it would be nighttime for some reason, but it’s a beautiful sunny day. A stretcher. A medic pulls an oxygen mask over her head, another takes her arm, a needle prick, and she can feel something cool flow through her veins. It’s a wonderful feeling.

A face appears above her. Dark hair, framed by the bright sunlight like a halo.

“Jon,” she rasps, her voice hoarse and raw, like steel on stone. It hurts to speak. “Jon. The picture. Inside. His. For him.”

Jon’s face bears such an expression of utter puzzlement as he takes the jacket that it makes her want to laugh. She coughs instead, and it hurts so badly. She can see from the corner of her eye how Jon gingerly pulls the pictures out of the soaked jacket. The fear that this was all in vain, that she saved his photograph from the fire only to destroy it with water instead, feels so much worse than running back into the flames ever did. Jon leafs through the pictures, throwing her quick worried glances. He stills suddenly. Lifts one up so she can see it.

The moisture has eaten away most of the background, but the rest, oh gods, oh thank you, thank you, thank you.

Storm gray eyes in an angry, scarred face.

Then she finally allows herself to faint.

~

Sansa wakes up to a faint beeping in the background. The room is dark. Her head hurts, she feels sick. Her lungs hurt, too. A man is holding her hand, and even though it’s smaller than the one she is used to, her first thought is Sandor.

“Oh, Sansa,” Jon says, and Sansa’s tears flow from her stinging eyes. Another head appears in her field of vision, so similar to Jon’s .

“Hey, big sister.” Arya. So grown up, so beautiful. “Don’t worry, Sansa. Mother’s on her way already.”

Sansa falls asleep again.

~

The next time she wakes up, Jon and Arya are gone. Sunlight floods the room through tall windows.

Another familiar face at her bedside.

“Hello, Sansa.”

“Bran…” Bran, her little brother who barely came up to her shoulder when she left, is so incredibly tall, even sitting down. He smiles, and his fingers move on the phone in his hand with lightning speed.

“Mother just left to get something to eat, she’ll be back in a second.”

Sansa just stares at him, him and his broad shoulders and… is that beard stubble? Oh gods, he just turned 17 four weeks ago, he’s of age now! Her little brother all grown up. She wordlessly reaches her arms up, like a little girl that’s asking to be picked up after a tumble, and his hug feels just like Father’s did.

A maester comes in a minute later, to prod her and ask questions that she answers with a voice she can’t recognize as her own. Her voice will recover, the maester assures her. All of her will most certainly make a full recovery… although the burns on her left forearm, the one she used to push open an almost glowing metal door… There might be some light scars.

What does Sansa care about some light scars on her arm?

Seven years old. Sandor was seven years old, when Gregor pushed his head into the coals. She was much too young when he’d told her that story, she hadn’t understood what pain was back then, or innocence, or the magnitude of it all. The full horror of what happened to him, a little boy betrayed by everyone who was supposed to look out for him. It makes her tear up, which in turn triggers a coughing fit.

The maester, who seems to have been waiting for a reaction like this, explains in carefully chosen words that with the right care -

“This isn’t about her scars,” Bran interrupts her.

How does he know that?

Bran smiles at her and winks, and then the door opens, and her mother comes in, and while Bran and the maester drift unnoticed out of the room, Sansa cheers and coughs and cries in her mother’s arms.

They hug for a long time, wordlessly clutching at each other in the desperate embrace of two people drowning in the sea. Sansa weeps into her mother’s hair. Finally, they lie next to each other on Sansa’s hospital bed, facing each other, just staring, trying to register every little change in the other’s face.

Her mother has changed so much that she can hardly recognize her. The long auburn hair that her father had loved so much is white and brittle, her entire person unkempt and unwell, a shadow of her old self. But the eyes are the same…

“It’s really you,” Sansa finally says. Her voice is almost gone and it hurts to speak. She is very sleepy. “I thought you were all dead. He told me you were dead.”

“Petyr Baelish rots in the seventh hell for this,” her mother whispers, her eyes burning. Eyes that are suddenly as hard as stone. “Don’t worry. I took care of that. I’ve taken care of them all.”

Sansa nods uncomprehendingly, her thoughts refusing to stay with Petyr Baelish’s memory for a second longer than necessary. Her heart has other things it wants to know about.

“How is Sandor?” Sansa asks. She’s so tired. She’ll just close her eyes for a bit. “When will he come and visit?”

Her mother’s voice is already far away, still hard and so unlike the one that Sansa remembers. “He’s fine, dear. Don’t worry.”

Sansa falls asleep in her mother’s arms, and when she wakes up, Arya and Jon and Bran and a much-too-tall Rickon are there, too. There are more hugs, more tears, but she is still exhausted and her voice is too raw to speak much.

Robb calls while all of them are gathered around her bed, promises to visit as soon as possible, but unfortunately, he has an important something or other at work that he can’t miss right now. Sansa tries very hard to be understanding and not let his choice of priorities hurt her. Business is business, she reminds herself. He’ll meet up with her when the time is right.

Right after Robb hangs up, Jon tells her that has to leave for the North again to deal with something important that he’s not allowed to talk about, and that he’ll take Bran back with him. She finds the courage to ask after Harry’s other victims, and Jon assures her that the Sept itself is untouched, that Harry will be fine and is in custody, that the others are unharmed and back with their families, that everything is all right. That they’ve all been saved.

Sansa smiles when she falls asleep, her family talking in the background.

~

Sandor doesn’t come… and she doesn’t dare to ask for him again.

If she doesn’t ask, she can’t be rejected.

~

The next day when her mother comes to visit, Catelyn Stark is almost fully restored to her old glory. Her hair has been dyed back to her old dark auburn shade, and it looks fuller than it did the day before. Her skin glows, she looks rested and happy. She brings Rickon with her, who is already taller than Sansa is, his curly hair wild and long. He wears a “Free Folk” T-Shirt, almost like the one Tormund had worn the night of the wight attack. It makes Sansa smile.

“Your hair will be next, darling,” her mother says as she lets her fingers glide through Sansa’s Alayne-dyed hair. “The stylist I found did a marvelous job. I showed them pictures of your real hair and she swore she could match the color perfectly. May I brush it out for you now?”

Rickon doesn’t say anything at all while Catelyn brushes Sansa’s hair, simply stares out of the window that overlooks the Bay of Crabs.

“Mother, could you get me a glass of water from the hallway, please?” Sansa asks finally.

“Rickon, please -”

Sansa stops her mother with a quick shake of head. Please, let us talk alone, her eyes plead, and Catelyn nods in understanding.

“Of course, dear. I will be right back. Rickon, keep your sister company, please.”

Rickon mumbles something unintelligible.

“Hello, Rickon,” Sansa says quietly.

“Hey.” That’s a start.

“I’ll get out of here soon.”

“Okay.”

“How do you like Saltpans?”

“It’s okay.”

“Have you been here before?”

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“When Arya came back.” He pauses. “Mother was happy then, too. It didn’t last long.”

“What happened?”

He sighs. “She… I don’t know. She’s been like this since Father died. That was a long time ago.”

A lifetime ago.

He turns and looks out the window again. His next words are so low she can barely hear them.

“I hope she stays happy this time.”

Sansa looks at her little brother, lonely and left behind, and thinks. There has to be a way to get him out of his shell…

“How’s Shaggydog?”

When Catelyn Stark comes back into the room with a glass of water in her hand, her oldest daughter and her youngest child are huddled together over Rickon’s phone, his arm around his sister’s back, her head on his shoulder. Just like when they were little, and Sansa read to him from her favorite book of fairytales.

“And in this one, Shaggy’s eating Jory’s shoes -”

~

It’s evening, and her family has left on her insistence that they should go out for a proper dinner. A very kind nurse changes the dressing on her arm and brings her a damp washcloth to cool her swollen eyes.

“Lady Sansa, one of our hospital septons would gladly offer his services if you’d like talk to someone,” she says as she gently puts the cold compress on Sansa’s face.

Sansa doubts very much that a septon would gladly do anything for the woman who almost burned the Saltpans Sept to the ground, but she also wants to talk to someone who isn’t her family. The nurse clears her throat. “He’s actually already in the hallway. Shall I send him in?”

“Yes, please. That would be very kind of you. Thank you.” Sansa says.

A man enters her room soon after, wearing the old-fashioned robes of a Silent Brother. The way he moves reminds her of her Great-Uncle Brynden for some reason, the straight spine of an old soldier. But his eyes are very kind and his name tag reads “Elder Brother.”

“How are you feeling, Lady Sansa?” he asks as he sits down next her, and of course that question makes her tear up again. The compress is already too warm to offer any comfort, and she squeezes it in her hand until her fingers hurt. Watches droplets drip down her hands.

“I don’t know,” she finally says, cautiously. “I… I feel too much and yet nothing, at the same time. I can’t stop crying… but I don’t know why. I’m happy, but I’m not. I’m not sad, but I am - It’s… I thought I knew what reality was, I thought I knew… but. Is any of this real? Two weeks ago, my name was Alayne Stone, and I knew that Sansa Stark’s entire family was dead. Only, they weren’t? Two weeks ago, Alayne Stone’s father was Petyr Baelish who ran a Witness Protection Program and was a hero for keeping her safe at all costs. Today, Petyr Baelish is a criminal and a corpse in a morgue in Pentos… It’s too much, I… And it’s not just that. I… I can still feel Alayne in me.”

“And that is a bad thing?”

“Isn’t it? My name is Sansa Stark. And it feels so good to say it out loud after all these years. But... I have thoughts that I never would have thought… When they brought me my phone, my first call was to Jeyne to check on my cafe, not my Uncle Edmure or my Aunt Lysa or my Uncle Benjen, to tell them I’m alive. I literally thought “business first.” When my mother visited me yesterday, I got distracted and thought about my quarterly report. That’s not Sansa, that’s Alayne. And Mother speaks about me going back to Winterfell, and I want to go home… only I don’t want to leave everything I built for myself here, either. Where is ‘home’? I don’t know anymore.”

Sansa feels so guilty.

She continues with a shaky voice, “And Alayne has done things that Sansa would never do.”

The Elder Brother looks at her face with infinite compassion.

“Do you regret these things?”

Sandor Clegane’s hands on her body, his dick in her mouth, his tongue... She can feel her cheeks blush bright red.

“No,” she says with conviction.

The Elder Brother leans back in his chair and steeples his hands in front of his chest.

“Lady Sansa, you speak of these parts of you like there are separate entities living inside your body. I don’t believe that there is an actual psychological disorder at play here, and you are also not the first lost soul I have seen to clearly discern different aspects of their personality as if they were entirely different people. I once told someone who had experienced a deeply traumatic event that their old self had died and another– more peaceful – person had survived instead.”

He pauses and stares into the distance.

“But I don’t believe that to be true any longer.”

He looks back at her, his face gentle.

“Lady Sansa. What do we say about the Seven?”

For a second, she’s confused, and then it dawns on her.

“The Seven Who Are One, like the seven walls who make up a Sept.”

“You are a smart young woman. Yes. Just like the Seven, we, all of us, have more than one face. Sansa or Alayne, your mother’s little girl, you as a sister, a friend, a lover. These are just the walls that make up a single you. No matter what happens to us, the walls of our Soul Sept remain. The only thing that changes is the part of us on which we focus. Where we light our candle, so to speak. What you want to call yourself at any given point in your life is your own choice. But I find that names do not matter as much as I thought they did when I was young. You will have to make your choices, just like all of us do, about where to put your candle. But your Sept still stands and your soul is still whole, my dear. And that’s what matters.”

After he has left, Sansa asks the kind nurse for a mirror and looks at her bare face, at herself, for a long, long time. What a strange, new, powerful thought.

“I am myself,” she says out loud, and feels so silly that she has to laugh at herself.

She cries a lot less the rest of the day.

~

There is no part of her soul that is not madly in love with Sandor Clegane. And he hasn’t come yet.

~

Catelyn’s face turns into a mask as a star struck nurse announces Myrcella and Shireen Baratheon.

“How dare that little -”

“Mother,” Sansa interrupts her quickly. Her voice feels much better already. “Please, be so kind and wait outside. Myrcella and I have always gotten along, and I would like to see her.”

Her mother huffs, but she leaves when Myrcella - a gigantic flower arrangement in her arms - enters the room, sails by her without giving her or Shireen a second glance.

“Oh, Sansa.”

Myrcella and Shireen pull up chairs, and Sansa dutifully admires the flowers. Small sunflowers, deep pink roses, and another yellow flower she doesn’t know the name of.

“We’re so grateful to you, Sansa,” Shireen begins. “Thank you so, so much for saving Davos.”

“But I didn’t do anything?” If she did anything at all, she put him into more danger…

“That’s not how Davos tells it, or Sandor.” Myrcella looks at her face with the same intensity she showed at the party.

Sandor? Sansa involuntarily closes her eyes. That longing for him grows stronger by the hour, but she can’t bring herself to ask for him.

“Why did you hide all these years, Sansa?” Shireen asks gently.

Sansa gladly grasps at the offered change of topic, but throws Myrcella’s golden head a careful glance before she speaks.

“Petyr Baelish told me that the Lannisters wanted me dead. That I had to hide. Later he told me that Tywin Lannister had my entire family killed.”

Myrcella whistles softly, leans back, and crosses her arms before her chest.

“And why would ‘the Lannisters’ want you dead?”

“Because… because they thought I killed Joffrey? To revenge my father?”

“Revenge your father?” Myrcella’s voice is tense, but her beauty queen face is unreadable.

“He said… he said that Tywin had Father silenced because he had found out that… you and your brothers weren’t Uncle Robert’s children. That your mother and your Uncle Jaime…”

The ‘was that true?’ trembles unspoken in the air.

Myrcella throws Shireen a look, receives a nod in reply, and then leans forward and takes both of Sansa’s hands in hers.

“Sansa, I can assure you that you never were one of Grandfather’s targets. Never. My abominable brother overdosed all on his own, he really didn’t need any help with that. They kept you in King’s Landing because Joffrey insisted on it; after his death you would have been free to go. Mother had a nervous breakdown at his funeral and has taken to traveling through Essos ever since. And about the other thing… Your father found out two things about my family: who my biological parents are, and how my despicable grandfather made his money with the help of Gregor Clegane. He died because of the latter.”

“Are you sure?” Sansa whispers.

“Yes.” Myrcella smiles a sudden gorgeous smile. “Because he told my father about the first one right after he found out about Mother and Uncle Jaime.”

“What?”

Myrcella nods. “Oh, sure, Daddy broke some furniture at first, and he and Mother haven’t spoken much since. But in the end… Tommen and I will always be his children, not Uncle Jaime’s. Shireen and I have located all my many brothers and sisters, and we made sure they are happy and taken care of financially. And when I have children one day, they will have Baratheon blood.”

Myrcella looks at Shireen like Thoros looks at Beric, and when Shireen smiles back at her, a happy, loving smile that chases away the sadness in her eyes, Sansa finally understands.

~

Why doesn’t he come to her?

Why is everyone else happily in love but he doesn’t come to her?

~

“Are you sure that she can be told, Maester? Is she stable enough?”

Cat Stark’s worried voice pulls Sansa from her midday nap. Her heart clenches. Did anything happen to Sandor? Is that why he doesn’t come to see her?

“Mother?” she asks sluggishly. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, my darling.” Her mother gently strokes her hair. “I’ll have to leave and go back North.”

“Why?”

“Because Robb will be announced as Warden tomorrow, and I’ll have to be there.”

Robb? Robb is a boy! Much too young for an office like that.

“How…”

“We have tried to spare you the excitement, my dear, to give you some rest first. Roose Bolton was uncovered as the mastermind behind winter! He was arrested on Warday, the day of your escape from the Sept. The Knightswatch found enough evidence at the Dreadfort to make his trial a formality, and the Northern Lords have unanimously decided to appoint Robb as his successor. The North really does remember.”

Lady Catelyn Stark, fully restored, and her voice brims with pride.

So that was Robb’s urgent business that kept him from coming to see her.

Sansa sinks back into her pillow.

Robb. Warden of the North, just like Father…

… she would much rather know how Sandor is, though.

~

Seriously, where is he?

~

Doesn’t he want her anymore?

~

“You do not want to move to Winterfell, believe me,” Arya says the next day, perched on the chair next to Sansa’s bed and gesturing with a half-eaten chocolate cupcake in her hand. “It’s a nightmare.”

“I have a life here,” Sansa replies around the lemon cake in her mouth. Jeyne had sent her a care package and her business correspondence. Their tax report is due soon, and the papers are strewn all over Sansa’s bedside table. She won’t neglect her duties as a business owner just because of a little smoke inhalation. “I don’t want to leave. I mean… I do want to go up North and visit everything, maybe stay for a few weeks, of course.”

“I made it for four months once, the first time. After that the longest was five days. Mother is intense.”

“Yes, I’ve already talked to Rickon about that.”

“Talked at Rickon, you mean. I don’t think I’ve heard him speak three words in a row in the last two years.”

“He’s the one at home with Mother, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, sure. And Bran.”

“What’s the deal with Bran?”

“Bran smokes weed. A lot. Mother yells at him for it, and he just looks through her and talks about ravens. He’s really into ravens. Both the birds and the company, by the way. He’ll start for his link in computer sciences this autumn. Got into Oldtown, the little overachiever.”

“And Robb?” There’s a newspaper on Sansa’s bedside table. The King’s Landing Times, with a solemnly smiling Robb on the frontpage.

“Oh, yeah. Robb.” Arya draws in air between her teeth. “Robb eloped with a girl Mother hay-ates. About three, maybe 2 and a half years ago? Yes, must have been. Dog and I read about it in the paper, and at the time Baelish probably controlled your exposure to Westeros’ finest gossip. Mother wanted him to marry one of the Frey girls; it was a clusterfuck of epic proportions. The Frey girl ended up marrying Uncle Edmure of all people, on the hottest day of the year. Everyone got sunburned and the rags still call it ‘the Red Wedding’. And Robb went to live in White Harbor with his wife and waited for his 25th birthday so he could finally take over Winterfell. He’ll definitely make Winterfell the Warden’s seat again, and I wonder how Mother will deal with that. It’s so weird to watch him and Mother. I have no idea how this whole Warden thing will change that. They love each other, but… they fight a lot.”

Remind you of anyone, little sister?

“Do you think we could get Mother to move South?” Sansa muses instead of pointing out certain similarities between certain family dynamics. “Not to Saltpans, but maybe Riverrun? She would be closer to us, and Uncle Brynden and Uncle Edmure, and Robb could have Winterfell to himself.”

“Hm, I don’t know. Maybe if Rickon’s finally allowed to go to boarding school on Skagos like he’s wanted to for ages, and you stay here as well. Ha, poor Mother, losing another daughter to Sandor Clegane…” Finally! The cue Sansa has waited for all day, because after long days of waiting and keeping silent, she is just bursting, flowing over with worry and longing and heartache, and she can’t not talk about him for a second longer.

“How is he?” Sansa asks, trying to conjure up some of Alayne’s calm and failing miserably. She feels like all her love and hope is in her face while Arya’s is a careful neutral.

“He’s home already. His right hand was singed a bit, but not as bad as, you know, his face. It won’t scar, and his fingers are fine. Could be a lot worse. He had them wrap it and went straight home. Hospitals freak him out.”

Sansa weeps again. Her fault, her fault that he got burned again. She made him agree with the plan, she almost killed him. Arya leans forward as if she wants to hug her and reconsiders at the last moment.

“He showed me the photo, you know. We all had to describe it to him, each of us twice at least. That you went back into the fire for that. Sansa, you’re insane. What were you thinking?”

Sansa has asked herself that question a lot in the last few days; what was she thinking, risking her life like that, just for a photograph? It makes absolutely no sense in the harsh light of a hospital room, but sometimes when she falls asleep, the edges of her consciousness can still grasp that overwhelming sense of conviction, that need to do the right thing. But who would ever understand that this might have been a test by the Gods, that her love had been put on trial, and that she had won and proven herself worthy?

“I wasn’t thinking at all,” she tells Arya instead. “I was so incredibly exhausted and strained. I assume that I just lost it for a bit.”

“Well, Mother certainly lost it, when Jon told her why you went back in. Yelled at Sandor for an hour or so.”

Arya shakes her head, smoothes out the crumpled cupcake liner in her hand. Hides her face behind her hair, just like Sandor does when he’s uncomfortable. Her voice is almost timid now, like she isn’t sure if she should continue to talk or switch the topic.

“He asks about you all the time.”

Oh, it’s like an arrow through her aching heart.

“Does he really?” Sansa sobs. “Does he really ask about me?”

“Of course, he does. Why would you - Wait a minute…” Arya looks back at her with big, unbelieving eyes. “You do know that he’s been in love with you since forever, right? It’s been ‘Oh, your pretty sister this’ and ‘Oh, your pretty sister that’ all the time I’ve known him. And then… He was absolutely crazy about Alayne. I think you could turn out to be a mermaid or, or a snark, that man would still find and love you.”

Arya’s words only make Sansa cry harder.

“Then why doesn’t he come to visit me?”

Arya stares at her like she has grown another head. “Do you want him to come? You haven’t asked for him. Or even how he was. We all just thought you didn’t care to see him.”

“I asked Mother when I woke up! She said that he was fine and that she’d tell him to come. Is he… do you think he’s angry with me? Because I didn’t tell him that I was Alayne?” Sansa looks at the wall, the door, back to Arya. Her lower lip trembles. “He hates liars.”

Arya doesn’t say anything, just taps her fingers against the bed. Then she bends down and kisses Sansa on the forehead.

“No, he’s not angry. Try to get some sleep now. I’ll be back after lunch.”

Sansa burrows deeper into the log that masquerades as a hospital pillow and watches through half-closed eyes as Arya takes out her phone and calls someone on her way out, her voice fading as she leaves the room.

“Gendry, we really are surrounded by idiots…”

~

She can hear them long before they make it to her room. (“I swear to the Warrior, Dog, you’re such a coward. It’s only Sansa! Just talk to her, she won’t bite you!”) There’s a knock at her door, and when it opens, he fills almost the entire frame. Arya guides him, although he has his cane with him, too. Sansa can tell from the way he holds his head, from the tension in his shoulders, how much he doesn’t want to be here. His eyes are closed. It breaks her heart and tears spring into her eyes.

“Heya, sister. All right, she’s right in front of you, half a step away. Talk it out and text me later, I’ll be down the hallway.” Arya bends down for a quick but fierce hug for Sansa, boxes Sandor in the shoulder, sets out to leave.

“And don’t fuck this up.” The door bangs shut.

Which one of us, Arya? Which one?

Sandor stands silently next to her bed, right where Arya left him, both hands at the top of his cane, like a Knight Warrior at attention, or maybe just an empty armor in a museum somewhere, perfectly still. She desperately wants to fly into his arms, wants to be held by him and kissed and petted… but he’s so tense, like a sudden touch would scare him away. What if he doesn’t want her anymore? She lied to him, for weeks. She slept with him, kissed him, and pretended she was someone else all the while. What if he doesn’t want her, her as Sansa, her as Alayne, what if he’s so angry that he doesn’t want any part of her, oh gods, how she betrayed him…

It’s a long, long silence, finally broken by her sniffling. She’s crying. Again. She’s pathetic, and she wipes her tears away with the sleeve of her hospital gown. Pathetic. More tears come, and she closes her eyes tightly, her head against the pillow, wills herself to stop crying, stop crying, stop it.

“How are you… Sansa?” he asks very quietly. She honestly can’t tell if he’s angry with her, or sad, or if he feels anything at all.

“I’m fine,” she sniffles through the tears.

“You kept my jacket. Why?”

The question is not what she expected, and the surprise helps her to pull herself together a little bit.

“I don’t know. It felt important. I also… do you remember when Joffrey tortured that poor cat? And he handcuffed me to the pipes so I had to stay and watch?”

When it had finally been over, the Hound had pulled apart the handcuffs at her wrists like they were made from wax.

Sandor nods.

“I kept them, too. I think… maybe I needed that reminder that… someone was still out there who would make sure that no harm would come to me. Someone strong.”

He looks stricken, his voice hoarse as he replies.

“But I didn’t… I could have saved you that night, but -”

She instinctively tries to reach out for him, and winces at the pain the sudden movement sends through her body. A little moan of pain that she can’t suppress.

“Are you okay?” he asks and steps closer to her bed.

“My head hurts. My arm hurts.” She can’t mask the pain in her voice, either, but that should be understandable, considering the circumstances. Right?

She looks up at him again. His face is a perfect mask.

“My heart hurts.”

And now she’s bawling, openly, no nolds barred. He’ll leave her and she loves him, why won’t he come to her, if she loves him so.

He cocks his head to the side, frowning, clearly worried, and the last remaining rational part of her, the part where she is all Alayne, made purely of reason and survival instincts, notices how tightly his hands grip his cane. The knuckles of his left hand are white from pressure, the right hand still bandaged, and both of them are clamped around the handle of his cane like a vice. She suddenly remembers how he looked in her bedroom, the night they fu… made love for the first time, like he was waiting for something. For her to lead the way.

Use your words, Sansa. Talk to him.

“Please, Sandor, please, forgive me.”

He draws a sharp breath, clearly taken aback. “Sansa, I…”

“Please! I’m holding my hand out to you, I’m literally holding out my hand, please don’t go! I’m so sorry that I lied to you! Please, don’t leave me, please!”

He takes a step forward, holds out his hand to her, and she grasps it like a lifeline, pulls him down to her until he’s half on her, half on the bed, his nose buried in the crook of her neck.

“Oh, you silly little bird,” he rasps. “Sansa or Alayne. I don’t give a fuck. My little bird. As if I could ever leave you again. It was just that Cat said… and I thought you regretted… us…”

The notion of regretting him is so laughably absurd that her tears stop abruptly, then she laughs, then the hiccups start, and she cries again.

And he holds her and nuzzles her and his gentle fingers wipe away the tears.

“I love you, little bird. Forever and always.” His voice vibrates against her neck, and she feels like she can’t breathe, it’s all so much, so sudden, so wonderful, and she sobs more than she speaks.

“I love you, too. Oh, gods, Sandor, I love you, too.”

This would be more romantic, a small part of Sansa thinks, if she didn’t have the hiccups right now, if she wasn’t a tear-soaked mess.

Then he brings his face up to hers, swipes his thumb over her lower lip, and she doesn’t think anymore.

Sansa Stark kisses Sandor Clegane in a hospital room on the Quiet Isle.

And that part is perfect.

~ The End ~