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The Gift of Mercy

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The Gift of Mercy Chapter One

 

 

 

It could have been a feast like any other.

Sansa’s eyes swept the hall, careful not to look too interested in anyone, or anything. The food was decadent, the guests all glittering and beautiful, the music soft and sweet – but she could not meet anyone's eyes, nor linger on any beauty for more than an instant. Any small move could draw attention to her, any sound would remind her betrothed that she was there. He always noticed where she looked, what she took interest in. If he noticed that something delighted her, he became irritated, and took pains to remove the source of her joy. If she seemed displeased, he would mock and cajole her about it, turning it into a joy of his own. So Sansa kept her expression empty, and her eyes dull. It was better if he could not read her eyes, her feelings. It was better not to be noticed at all - especially tonight.

Joffrey’s wicked cackle rang out over the hall, and Sansa held back a grimace. He was taking particular joy in tormenting his fool, Ser Dontos, tonight. There were greater entertainers than the disgraced knight in the hall – only the best for the king’s name day celebration – but Joffrey had been warned against damaging any of the expensive singers or musicians. The crown’s purse grew emptier by the day, and buying off injured and shamed mummers was as not as painless as it had once been. But cruelty was Joffrey’s favourite game, and he would not go with it on his special day, so once he grew tired of courtly jigs and pretty ditties, Ser Dontos had been dragged out before the high table. Tonight, it served the King’s pleasure to pelt the tired old man with table scraps while he attempted to guzzle wine while standing on his head. The fool was as agile as he was fit, of course, and the court howled at the dripping, tumbling figure before them. It pained Sansa to see him suffer so, but tonight, she needed to keep Joffrey’s attention as far from her as possible, and so she prayed the gods’ forgiveness for her silence.

Sansa took another heavy pull of wine from her cup. She had chosen a stronger red than usual, and between her resolute silence and the boisterous festivities, no one seemed to notice she was on her fourth cup. The drink was so strong it made her tongue curl and her throat itch to cough, but she swallowed it down noiselessly, again, and again. She had to be strong, tonight. Harder things were coming than sour wine, and she needed the seed of courage it would give her.

When she turned to beckon the wine server a fifth time, however, a large hand shot out to still the incomIng decanter – it was the Hound. He shook his head discreetly, but firmly, at the shaken server, who quickly stepped back away from the table. The Hound’s grey eyes met hers, then, before she could look away. They were unreadable, his features as schooled as she meant hers to be, but she knew he was suspicious of her, and she quickly turned back to look down at her plate.

He'd noticed. Of course he'd noticed. She'd been trying so hard not to look interested in anything, she'd failed to realize he'd been watching her. He was always catching her off guard like that, even when she was alone. It seemed she had only to think a treacherous thought, however small, and there he appeared, blocking her way, stopping her from acting on it. Like the day on the battlements. She spent all her days hiding, now, from everyone – but somehow, it felt like there was nothing she could hide from him. It frightened her, the way he seemed to know what she thought even before she herself did. But it also baffled her, because he never told. As loyal as the Hound was to his masters, he had never revealed to them the secrets she was sure he knew about her. The Hound had protected her many times, of course, as he had on the day of the bread riot. But that was different. It was his job to protect her physically, to save her for the King. Whereas the rest...She couldn't understand it. But somehow, after all this time, she knew she could count on it. She had to.

And four cups of wine would have to be enough.

Still feeling the Hound’s eyes on her, Sansa gently pushed her food around her plate, trying to look inconspicuous. This next part was tricky. Excusing oneself from the high table on the Kings name day was risky, and could not be done without drawing attention, and probably the King’s ire. She had to be convincing, without making him too angry. Sansa had been careful not to eat very much, and had felt the wine warming her belly for some time now. She could feel heat flushing to her cheeks, just as shed hoped it would. It piqued her nerves to know the Hound was watching her now, but there was nothing to be done about it, and as the servants came to clear away the course, she steeled her increasingly giddy mind for the task at hand. Be brave, she thought. Brave like a lady in a song.

Sansa reached for her wine goblet, as though to finish the last sip, and clumsily knocked it over, splashing the poor table servant with dark red stains. Joffrey, still enchanted with his half-drowned fool, did not turn his head, but the Queen, beside him, shot her a withering look.

“Oh, I'm so sorry, I-“ she reached for her napkin, letting her hand shake visibly as she tried to assist the man she had spilled her wine on, and felt more eyes on her. The man muttered courtesies and tried desperately to detach himself from her hands, but she followed him, swaying slightly as she leaned over the table, dabbing at his vest, as the Queen clucked her tongue, and Joffrey finally turned to see what the commotion was about.

“Sansa, what have you-“

“I'm so sorry, I just-“ suddenly, she heaved forward, bringing a hand over her mouth to complete the effect. “I…oh, I don't feel well…” she let her heavy tongue slur her words, just a little, and grabbed the edge of the table as if to steady herself. Those within earshot had all stopped talking and laughing to look at her, some with thinly-veiled disgust.

“She's drunk!” Joffrey crowed suddenly, his face lighting up. “Mother, do you see?”

His delight was tangible, and Sansa did not have to work to make her face go pale as he laughed. She had prepared for anger, or disgust, but not joy. She held a hand to her belly, trying to settle a rising panic, as nearby lords and ladies slowly joined the King in his laughter. A strong hand grabbed at her shoulder as she swayed again, perhaps not entirely on purpose, and she felt bile climbing in the back of her throat. He's amused by it. He won't let me leave, now, he thinks it's funny.

The Queen leaned close to his ear, then, and Sansa held her breath, praying for mercy. Perhaps someone heard her, for the King’s smile fell, and he petulantly wrenched himself away and muttered an “oh, all right” beneath his breath.

Dog,” he snapped. “My betrothed has made a fool of herself. Take her back to her chambers before she embarrasses me further.”

Gods be good. The Hound wrapped a heavy arm around her shoulders and swung her away from the table, and Sansa had to stifle a scoff of disbelief as he led her off the dais. She had done it. She was free. Behind her, the Imp said something droll that set the whole room to laughing again, but between the fog of the wine and the euphoria of her relief, she could not hear it.

She was in a daze as the Hound guided her through the halls, empty of anyone but themselves because of the feast. Since that awful day in the throne room when Joffrey had had her stripped before the court, the Queen and Lord Tyrion had taken a great deal of care to rein in Joffrey’s appetites for cruelty towards his bride-to-be – at least in front of the court – but she had scarcely dreamed she would get away so easily. She would pay for his frustration later, of course, but she was prepared for that. Hopefully Joffrey would count it as a small slight, and no one else would need to be punished. She had heard whispering from the maids about the women who were brought to his room on the nights when his fury could not be contained, and Sansa was whisked away from him before his bloodlust could be slaked on her. Mercifully, she had never seen the results of these rumours herself, but the thought made her heart twist in her chest. I can't think about that now, though. Her first battle had been won, but Sansa’s night was far from over.

She was shaken from her reverie as the Hound stopped short before her chamber door. He released her for a moment to unlatch it, and Sansa felt the hall spin around her. Perhaps it was too much wine after all, she thought, reaching for his arm again to steady herself. But then, she had never tried to make herself intoxicated before. Sansa only ever drank sweet, watered-down wines with her supper. It is well he stopped me before my fifth cup. Once again, the Hound had seen her intentions, and stopped her before she'd gone too far.

He pulled Sansa through the door, and latched it behind them. He helped settle her carefully into a chair beside the fire, gentle as if she were a new born babe. She was so light-headed, the thought almost made her giggle; but when she looked up she saw that his arms were crossed, and his look was stormy.

“What are you playing at?”

His hard, raspy tone was sobering. She swallowed, and tried to look contrite.

“I only wanted to be away.” It was not quite a lie.

“That's no reason to get piss-drunk at the high table, little bird. What was all that wine for? Thinking of a more permanent sort of escape, are you?” He sneered, teeth flashing in the low light. “There are faster ways to leave this world, girl.”

The firelight flickered over the ruined side of his face, deepening the shadows there, making him look fierce and angry. He was not shouting, but Sansa felt cowed by his words all the same. She clutched the arm of her chair, wishing she could feel as solid as the oak beneath her.

“I needed it to look sick,” she finally said. It was no use lying to his face. He always saw through her lies. We're all liars here, and every one better than you. The Hound looked at her with hard eyes, unmoved.

“A high price to pay for some time alone.” He narrowed his eyes, leaning towards her slightly. “Why do you need it so badly?”

He was clever. No one else ever seemed to notice, but the Hound was sharper than most, and it made him unsettlingly perceptive. She wondered if he already knew what she was after. The thought made her nervous, but it was too late to reconsider. There will not be another chance. Sansa took a deep breath.

“I wanted to talk to you,” she said, rising carefully from the chair. She tried to imagine her legs were rooted to the floor, calm and steady, strong and tall. Though her head still spun a little, Sansa made herself look up and meet his eyes. Stoic though the Hound may be, she could tell he was taken aback at her words. So this was not the answer he expected, after all.

He was still and silent for a long moment, as only the Hound could be, appraising her with his eyes. Could he tell what she was thinking now? Did he know what she was about to ask? The arms crossed over his chest seem barely to move with his breath, and for a moment she envied his unwavering reserve. And then the rumble of his voice came again.

“Why?”

Sansa’s stomach flipped, in spite of herself. Do it. She took a step toward him, though the floor seemed to tilt beneath her.

“I wanted…to ask you for a favour.” Another step forward. She was so close, now, surely he could hear her heart crashing against her chest? Do it. Another step. There will be no other chance.

The Hound stood motionless, not one twitch of a muscle revealing his state of mind. She was a hand’s breadth away, could smell the touch of wine on his breath. Still, he was frozen. Do it now!

Biting her lip, Sansa lifted a hand to cup his cheek, and, when he did not flinch away from her, raised herself up on her tip-toes to place a kiss on his hard lips.

There was an instant, with her breath caught in her throat, that Sansa felt his lips begin to soften against hers, and she almost smiled. But then he stiffened, and it was over.

His big hands suddenly gripped her shoulders so hard it hurt, and he wrenched her off of him, shoving Sansa away with such force that she stumbled and fell backwards onto the hard floor. Tears sprang up to her eyes from the shame, but through the blur she could see something like confusion creasing the Hound’s ruined face.

Sansa hastened to her feet, though her vision swam, and he took a step back from her, his arms held out before him as though warding off some wild creature. Her mind was racing now, and her throat felt tight as she scrambled for something to say. I can't let him leave. A second of silence hung between them, agonizing, before she could speak.

“Please, I-“

Please?” He finally rasped at her. A cloud seemed to pass over his face, darkening, twisting it into a sneer. “Oh, I see. The pretty little bird has finally broken. Can't take your gilded cage anymore, eh? Thought you'd trade a few kisses to an ugly old hound for your freedom?” In a flash, the uncertainty was gone, and he was cloaked in the Hound’s callous aura once again. The shadows deepened around his eyes, and he barked an ugly laugh.

“You don’t know what you're playing with, girl. Teasing a wicked old dog like that.” He angled his face at her, burned side first. “Don't you know what dogs do to wolves?” He moved even closer, backing her towards the wall. He'd found his anger again, and it rolled off of him in waves, like heat.

“Come on then, girl. Show me what you've got!”

Months ago, his display would have made her cower. The face he showed her now was a terror, awful to behold. But she'd seen it before. He'd often tried to scare her like this, to paint himself a monster. But by now, Sansa knew the worst monsters did not wear their ugliness on the outside, for all to see. The deepest evil she'd yet seen lay behind shining eyes and golden curls. What had she to fear from a marked, twisted face? Besides, she thought. The scars aren't the worst part.

Sansa lifted her chin and looked him in the eye, calling whatever fierceness she could to meet his gaze.

“I don't want you to help me escape.”

He paused a moment, then scoffed.

“What do you want, then?” He rasped. “What is it the pretty little bird wants to trade her sweet little kisses for?”

Sansa set her jaw. She had hoped it would be simple. That she wouldn't have to explain herself. The jeer on his face spoke otherwise. She'd been raised to believe a kiss between a man and a woman meant something, something powerful. Even dangerous. But it had been foolish to think the man before her would simply fall to its promise. The Hound was not like other men. He was wiser, and stronger than that.

But that was why she chose him, wasn't it?

“Joffrey has come of age.” She had to work not to clench her teeth. An unladylike habit, Septa Mordane had told her.

“Aye. That's what a nameday’s for,” he sneered. His breath fell hot on her face. She wondered if he could smell the wine on hers.

“In one month’s time, the Queen will have us married. There's nothing I can do to change that.”

“Nor I,” he grunted. “Get to the point, girl.”

“You stopped me from taking my revenge, once,” she said, in a steadier voice than she had thought possible. He frowned at her, creasing his brow in a way that somehow made his scars even more appalling.

“What, the day on the battlements?”

Sansa nodded. She thought of her rage, that day. Her certainty. How simple it all had been.

He gave a dry chuckle in response. “I saved your life, girl.”

“You did,” she replied. “And now I have to live it. With him.”

The Hound had no answer for that. Sansa stood up straighter, unflinching, her confidence gaining.

“They've taken everything form me. They have everything. And a month from now, Joffrey will have me,” she spat, the words like venom in her mouth. She had not felt so fierce in months, in ages. It felt good to stoke the fire in her belly again.

“I want him to find on our wedding night that there is one thing he can't have.”

There it was. The whole, ugly truth of it. The Hound raised his head slowly as the understanding came over him. Sansa felt her own eyes shining with defiance, as they had not been since the Lannisters had put her father’s head on a pike. There may be wolfs blood in me yet.

The Hound shook his head at her, disbelief on his face. When he spoke, his voice lost the frightening edge he'd laid on it before.

“That's high treason, little bird. They'll beat you half to death. Kill you, may be.”

“It doesn't matter,” she answered immediately. “I don't care.” His eyes searched her face, looking for a lie. She held his gaze without falter. There was a beat, and then he scowled.

“Find you some green kitchen boy, then. Or chase down your sweet knight of the flowers. I'll have no part in it. I’m the King’s dog, remember?” He growled, turning away.

“No, it has to be you,” she implored, catching at his arm. It has to. She had not near the strength to hold him, but he stopped all the same. “Anyone else would be too afraid of the king, or else…”

“Or else what?”

She pleaded at him with her eyes, don't make me say it. But if she didn't answer him, he would leave.

“…or else they'll hurt me.” She knew saying it made her sound like a child, but it was true. The reason she wanted him, and no one else.

“You think I won't hurt you?” He rasped, incredulous. Sansa thought of the battlements again, how he'd wiped her bloody lip with his own cloth. She thought of the day of the bread riots, when he came out of the crowd, alone, to save her from the mob. She thought of how he was never the one to beat her, how he covered her with his own cloak when Joffrey had her stripped before the court. The Hound was harsh and crude, and many other things. But he was not a monster. Not like the rest.

“No.”

He snorted at her.

“Did your bloody Septa not teach you what happens in a marriage bed?” He spat cruelly.

“I know there is pain, but - you're not like them. You don't want to hurt me. Not like Ser Meryn, and the others.” She shuddered at the thought. “Not like Joffrey.”

He shifted his weight, and broke her gaze, scoffing.

“I'd hurt you well enough.” His voice was quieter now.

“Please,” she said again, laying her hand on his upper arm. “You know it would be worse, with him.”

For a second, he looked pained, but he turned his head away, his voice falling to a murmur.

“You don't know what you're asking.”

“All I'm asking,” she said, trying to mask her desperation, “is mercy.”

The Hound threw his head back and closed his eyes. There was a beat. Then two. Sansa steeled her resolve and reached for his cheek again.

When she touched him, a growl started in his throat, and he looked down at her with bright, wild eyes. She made as if to kiss him again, but he ducked away from her lips, pushing her against the wall and burying his face in her neck. Yes.

He inhaled deeply, and with his body pressed against hers, she felt the breath deep in his chest. His lips were on her then, hot and wet, tickling and massaging the skin of her neck and shoulder. His massive hands slid down her arms to stop at her waist, squeezing her there roughly, urgently. It all happened so quickly, his rough hands on her body, his hot mouth working up to her jaw and down across her collar bone. Heat pooled in her belly in a way she had not felt before, and her breath came hard and fast, as did his. His skin was rough on hers everywhere he touched, his calloused hands, his scars, his beard – he was by no means gentle, but this was what she wanted. Defiance. Rebellion. Taking control, for once. She tingled all over, and a sound like a moan escaped her lips. She thought she heard him growl in response, and somehow the sound of it sent a thrill through her body.

Suddenly his mouth left her skin, and the Hound’s great hands grabbed her by the hips and pushed her up the wall so her eyes were level with his, the pressure of his body holding her off the ground. He wore only leather and maille tonight, but still, his armour pressed sharply into her, and she gasped at the harshness. His hands, too, gripped her hips too hard, and the pressure of him made it difficult to breathe.

Look at me,” he snarled at her. He was so close their noses almost touched, and little firelight could reach his face. Even in the dark, she could read the fury on his face.

“Is this what you want?”

She could feel the words rumble out of his chest, and she knew he meant more than his scars. He ground his body into hers, and she felt the hardness against her leg. She knew he was trying to scare her with his anger, with his vulgarity. But her mind was made up, and she would not back down.

Yes.”

He hesitated, still, so she leaned forward and kissed him again. It was different, this time. His lips were rough, as before, and she could feel where the scars began on them. But this time, he kissed her back. It was nothing like the soft, sweet kisses she'd seen before. It was hard, and hot, and deep, and wiped every thought from her mind. The Hound grabbed her hair, crushing his lips harder and harder against hers, the back of her head rubbing painfully against the cold stone behind her. She felt his tongue, and all the breath went out of her as though he'd taken it all for himself. Finally, she broke away from him, gasping for air, and he buried his face in the crook of her neck again, still holding her up against the wall, panting. A keening sound escaped his throat, and he turned to whisper in her ear.

“I'm not your bloody Florian, little bird. I won't be gentle.” His tone was raw. But she was sure. Sansa reached up and stroked a hand through his hair, and whispered back.

“You don't have to be.”

She felt his groan against her throat, and then suddenly he heaved her away from the stone, releasing the ache in her back. He carried her across to the bed, and dropped her onto the mattress. He towered over her, and she thought he looked like a man starved as he watched her in the firelight. She couldn't help but shiver under such a gaze. Then he reached for a clasp at his shoulder, and started removing his armour. As the heavy maille fell to the floor, Sansa realized she had never once seen him without it. Even in his tunic and breeches, though, the Hound was still the biggest man she had ever seen. He removed his tunic, too, but stopped there, looking at her expectantly. She could see the bulge in his breeches, and only vaguely knew what it meant. Swallowing hard, she brought her hands to the laces at the front of her dress, and pulled the heavy silks aside to reveal the thin shift underneath. She met his eyes, but found them hazy, and unreadable. Unsure, she reached for the hem of her shift, too, but he moved forward, forcing her down into the sheets as he crawled over her.

His hair fell over her face as he looked at her, a curtain she could not see beyond. Their clothes prevented much contact, but did not stop the heat that radiated between them, and she fairly gasped at the intimacy. Every part of her felt hot and tingly, and she could not seem to catch her breath. One of his hands found her waist again, and slid down the outside of her leg. The movement caused his groin to brush her upper thigh, and she could not help jumping slightly. He growled, and bent to kiss her neck again, hard, like he meant to devour her.

She felt him move his hand up along her rib cage, stopping to rub his thumb back and forth, just below her breast. As he kissed her more fervently, moving down across her collarbone, his chest pressed and moved against hers, and she felt the twinge of her nipples hardening. The Hound had been right, so far – nothing about his onslaught had been gentle. But neither were his attentions altogether unpleasant, and she felt other twinges, lower down, as him thumb brushed up and across her nipple. She was flush with warmth as he began to move his lips down her body, kissing the space between her breasts, then down her belly, all through her shift. Then, he moved his hand from her breast, down along her side, and paused at the top of her thigh. He pushed her leg aside, leaving the join of her legs exposed, and she braced herself for what would come next.

She gasped when, against all her expectations, he placed his hand on her woman’s place, sending a jolt straight to her core. Gently, more gently than she could have hoped, he pressed the heel of his hand into her, and massaged her in slow circles through the fabric of her shift and small clothes. Sansa’s eyes were open, looking down, but she saw only the top the Hound’s head as he moved his lips back up her body again. Something sweet and good was happening, though she could not have described it. A moan escaped her lips, and as his hot mouth reached the top of her breasts at the neckline of her shift, she thought she could feel him smile against her skin. The moments that followed were strange and agonizing, but the sounds she made were not of displeasure, and she did not tell him to stop. The flesh beneath his hand began to feel swollen and wet. A kind of pressure seemed to be building up inside her, and it became harder to breathe, and then suddenly her whole body tensed, and she was awash in pleasure as the tension left her body with a breathy sigh.

“What was that?” She murmured a moment later, feeling foggy and calm. She felt a rumble against her skin that might have been a chuckle, be he made no effort to meet her eyes.

“The part the Septas don't tell you about,” he muttered.

“Thank you,” she blurted, feeling ridiculous even as it came out. He pulled away from her, resting on his knees at the bottom of the bed, his face in shadows.

“Don't thank me, girl,” he rasped, serious again. “We're not done yet.” She could not see his eyes in the dark, but his hulking shape was unmistakable, and she felt he was challenging her again. His shirt had come all out of the waistband of his breeches, and his hair was mussed and messy. The ties at the neck of his shirt had come loose, and she could just make out the thick, dark hair that grew on his chest. The firelight betrayed a sheen of sweat on his skin, and his breath was ragged. She had never seen a man so wild. Sansa knew she should be afraid, and scandalized, and a hundred other things, but her certainty left her calm and sure. If anything lurked beneath, she might have called it excitement. She realized there was a dull ache inside her, and knew there could be no other way to soothe it. She licked her lips and tried to keep her voice even.

“Go on, then.”

The Hound did not have to be told twice. His hands moved to his breeches and she heard the sound of laces pulling, and he leaned over her again. He reached out and played at the hem of her shift, now ridden halfway up her thighs, and when she did not protest, pulled it up to reveal her small clothes. Slowly, he undid the laces, and looked up at her, waiting. She almost smiled at the gesture. Then, finally, he pulled them away, and she was bare to him. The cold air made her shudder, and she fought the strong desire to pull her legs back together. He stared at her, and she could not help feeling embarrassed, thankful that her reddening cheeks would be difficult to see in the dark. Slowly, he ran his hands up her calves, hooking them under her knees to pull her toward him. He paused for a moment, then met her eyes one more time.

Go on,” she hissed, frustrated now, the ache inside her growing sharper. He let out a heavy breath, then pulled her hips closer to him. He bent over her, and watched her face as he reached between them to position himself. She felt something smooth and soft probing at her, parting her curls, touching her most sensitive place. She bit her lip as she felt it move through her slickness to press against her opening. Then the push came, sharp and stinging, and his hand clapped over her mouth to muffle the cry she could not hold in. He didn't move at first, and the sting faded somewhat, only to reignite when he withdrew. She felt her body was taught as a bow string, but so was he, hovering over her. His brow was drawn, and she could see him struggling to stay still. It hurt, of course it did, but she hadn't come all this way for nothing, so she locked eyes with him and nodded. He pushed at her entrance again, and Sansa turned her face away to try to hide the tears welling at the corners of her eyes.

He thrust into her slowly, grunting. The strength of him moved her bodily along the bed, but still she knew he was holding back. As prepared as her mind has been, Sansa’s body objected greatly to the intrusion. She was relieved to find that each thrust brought less and less discomfort, and before long, it became rather bearable. There was another feeling, too, one that was hard to describe. It was almost like...satisfaction. Like an itch being scratched.

Just as she thought it might not be so bad, the thrusting stopped, and the Hound pulled out of her. He groaned, and she felt a wetness creep over the sheets beneath them as he collapsed to the mattress beside her.

They lay there in the dark without touching, each catching their breath. There was an ache between her legs, and Sansa was conscious of each of her muscled as they uncurled, and the tension slowly left her body. She began to feel cold, and pulled her shift back down around her. She wondered where her small clothes had got to.

Suddenly, the Hound rolled up and out of the bed in one motion, then turned to briskly tug the sheet out from under her. His harsh voice broke the silence.

"Clean yourself with this, then burn it."

She did as she was bid while he put himself to rights and replaced his armour. He stood still for a minute when he finished, facing away from her.

“I have to get back,” he muttered, then stalked out of the room without looking at her, shutting the door with a bang.

Sansa still clutched the sheet in her hands, dismayed at his brusque departure. She hoped she had not made him too angry. But then, what did it matter now?

Sansa hopped out of bed and hurried to the fire. Before disposing of it, she unfurled the sheet in the light. Three small smears of blood were visible in the middle. She could easily cover it with the palm of her hand. I thought there would be more. She thought of other injuries that had hurt as much, and knew she had drawn more blood than this before. But it didn't matter. It was done. She balled up the sheet and tossed it into the flames. Then she found her small clothes on the floor beside the bed, and burned them, too, just to be safe. She fumbled around in her clothes chest for a fresh pair to don before crawling back into the bed. The blanket smelled of him. She hoped the maids wouldn't notice, but at the same time, Sansa found herself rather unconcerned about it.

She had succeeded. She had planned, and bided her time, and taken a great risk – and she had won. She curled her legs up, around a dull sort of pain that she began to think of as a badge of honour. And yet there were the echoes of her pleasure, there, too. She wondered again what the Hound had done to make her feel so…so strange. I should think of a way to thank him, she thought lazily. He has given me a gift.

Sansa closed her eyes and gathered the blankets around her. Everything would be different now. In some small way, she had won a measure of freedom this night. They all thought she was such a frail, stupid little thing, that they controlled her every move - but they were wrong. A part of her was still her own. They could not have everything.

As Sansa drifted off to sleep, she could not keep a victorious grin from creeping across her face.

 

Chapter Text

It should have been a feast like any other.

Every landed knight and hopeful lordling this side of the Trident had gathered in the great hall for their precious king’s nameday feast. He could see it all, from his choice post up on the dais, just behind His Majesty. The hall was bedecked in all the finery a young lion could want, dripping with red velvet and cloth-of-gold, covered in polished golden dinnerware, all hosting the richest feast King’s Landing had seen in years. The singers sang, the guests laughed, and a dull roar of chatter filled the air. For once, the hall was filled with mirth and good cheer, or at least the look of it. Such smiles could be easily bought, if one had the coin for it. And the Lannisters surely had the coin.

There was, of course, one whom the joyful atmosphere could not touch. The other maidens in the hall were alive with merriment, tittering at the sights and prospects surrounding them – all except for Sansa Stark. The Little bird did not smile much these days, and certainly hadn’t giggled like a girl for some time – King’s Landing had changed her. She didn’t talk of songs and true knights anymore. Joffrey’s own kingsguard had seen to that. In fact, she barely ever spoke at all, unless it was to answer her simpering husband-to-be, and he didn’t like the sound of her voice well enough to invite it often. Even when she was beaten, now, she barely let out a whimper. Every day, it seemed, the girl wore her mask a little tighter. She had become quiet, and careful. She had learned.

The Sansa Stark before him now was a mere shadow of the excitable girl who had come to Kings’ Landing with her father not so long ago. Oh, she wasn’t a good enough liar to convince even a fool that she still loved Joff, or spent her nights praying for anything but her brother’s victory on the battlefield. Still, she’d learned to hold her tongue and keep out of the way, and be a good little hostage in the lion’s den. Good enough that they didn’t look at her so closely anymore. Enough that they missed the flashes of hatred he still sometimes caught in her eyes.

But something was different tonight. Even from his place behind her, he could tell that the little bird was agitated. Where she had learned to be still as death in the king’s presence, tonight she fidgeted. He could not see her eyes, but it was obvious to anyone who cared to look that her gaze was flighty, her manner uneasy. She did not seem to know where to put her hands, and, careful as she was, they belied her anxiety. And perhaps this night would be reason enough to make her anxious; the king’s coming of age meant a great deal to Sansa Stark, and none of it good. For all her former innocence, the girl seemed to know exactly what her marriage to the little prick would mean. It was not unlikely that she’d even heard the stories of the unfortunate mistresses he’d taken of late, careless as Joffrey was about them. About everything. So perhaps her visible distress would not have been so strange after all – if it hadn’t been for the wine.

She had tried to be careful about it, at least. The girl had waited until those around her were happily in their cups, paying her no mind, before beckoning forth a wine bearer who held a strong, sour red. Ned Stark had only ever let his precious daughters drink well-watered sweetwine, and even then, only at feasts. As of yet, the girl had never seen fit to break with that tradition, despite the queen’s greedy example. For her to drink one goblet would have been reason to take note. Tonight, she swallowed pints of the stuff.

To stop her would bring attention to them both, and that would benefit no one. Besides, simply drinking wine was no crime, especially for a girl in her position. But she did not merely drink it; no, he watched her determinedly drain cup after cup, despite visibly shuddering at the strength of it. He knew then he had no choice but to intervene, lest she make herself sick and cause a scene. When she beckoned the wine-bearer a fifth time, he stepped forward to stop the hapless servant, who looked like he might have pissed himself, had he not been released only an instant later.

The girl met his eyes with apprehension, as always, but he said nothing. He only melted back into the shadows, as was his duty. Most like, she was just nervous. And yet, she wasn’t usually so careless, these days...He could question her later, if anything came of it. What harm could a tipsy little bird do?

He did not have to wait long to find out. As if to challenge his last thoughts, the girl upended her goblet over a passing servant. Quickly – too quickly – she rose to mop up the mess, uttering half-slurred apologies all the while. Even the wine could not excuse the clumsiness she portrayed as the members of the high table turned their attention to her and, incredibly, the King began to laugh. Tension rose in the air, and some sort of upset seemed inevitable - until the Queen spoke to her son in a stern voice that brooked no argument. Somehow, the King allowed himself to be convinced.

Dog,” he snapped. “My betrothed has made a fool of herself. Take her back to her chambers before she embarrasses me further.”

The Hound wasted no time pulling the tipsy girl bodily away from the table and out of the hall, before anyone could change their minds.

As he guided her through the shadowy halls with a steadying hand on her shoulder, he was reminded the little bird was not so little, anymore.

As the king had come of age, so too, had his betrothed. Against all odds, the so-called traitor’s daughter had survived imprisonment long enough to grow into a young woman. Despite the trials and humiliation she had suffered, Sansa Stark would soon be Joffrey’s wife and queen, and she would not fail to look the part. As long as they get her some decent clothes. The girl had long outgrown the childhood gowns she’d brought from Winterfell, but Cersei has been loath to part with gold to dress any child of Eddard Stark. But, like it or no, the crown would now have to provide the girl with a trousseau. It would not do for the young queen of the seven kingdoms to greet the court in the too-small, threadbare cast-offs she wore now. The way the girl was left to wander the halls alone, with no lady’s maids or guards of her own, it was a wonder she hadn’t been already been taken for an especially pretty servant in a dark hallway with no one else around. Especially now, as the castle was crawling with guests for the kings nameday, and would see more for the royal wedding to come.

Once it became clear the North would not be easily won in battle, and Sansa was indeed necessary for their success, the queen and her small council had taken great pains to preserve the girl for the wedding, despite Joffrey’s best efforts. They’d kept her locked up out of sight whenever possible, delivering whores to the king’s chambers when his bloodlust could not be otherwise quenched; it would be a pity to have all of their work undone by some eager lordling or young knight, enticed by the teats spilling out of her bodice.

She was tall, now, too, for a woman. Taller even than Joff, which the young king liked not at all. It mattered little, though, when he sat high on the iron throne to watch her be beaten and tormented. She was taller even than Cersei, he judged, not that they were often seen side-by-side these days. It made no difference, of course, when all they wanted her for was to lie on her back. All she had to do was smile pretty, bear the king a few good sons, and then...and then she is not long for this world.

Finally reaching Sansa’s chambers, he shuttled her into the room and towards the chair by the fire. Between the wine and the firelight, there was more colour in the girl’s cheeks than there had been in months, if not longer. She was clearly intoxicated, but not on the verge of being sick, as she had acted at the high table. Time to find out why. It was a long walk from the great hall to the tower that held the little bird’s cage, and the evening’s revels held the attentions of everyone important. The Hound would not be missed at the feast for some time.

“What are you playing at?”

Her eyes shot up to his face, but she quickly looked away again. He watched her compose herself, arranging her features into a mask of innocence.

“I only wanted to be away,” she replied in a measured voice. As if he would be so easy to fool. A dog can smell a lie.

“That’s no reason to get piss-drunk at the high table, little bird. What was all that wine for? Thinking of a more permanent sort of escape, were you?” Not that he could much blame her. “There are faster ways to leave this world, girl.”

She curled her hands around the arms of the chair, still avoiding his gaze.

“I needed it to look sick.”

“A high price to pay for some time alone.” He narrowed his eyes at her, more suspicious by the second. “Why do you need it so badly?” Could the little bird have hatched a little plot?

She took a deep breath and rose, finally meeting his eye.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

Whatever he had expected, it wasn’t that. What did a frightened maiden want with a Hound like him? Still, as he began to turn it over in his mind, he found that it made a sort of sense. She’d found a ploy to leave the high table, simple as it was. She could have guessed the king would send him to escort her - Joff was always pleased to order his dog around to fetch and carry. And now they were alone in her chambers, far from the revellers and servers in the great hall. On any other day, the walls had ears, even in rooms as high and lonely as this. Tonight, though, servants and highborn alike were busy attending the feast. It was almost clever. But still...

“Why?”

The girl licked her lips, nervous as ever, and stepped toward him. “I wanted...to ask you a favour.”

He was only a head or so taller than she was now, but could still look down at her, even as she came close. He couldn’t think what she was doing, as she held her hand out, as though to a skittish horse. And then she laid a cool hand on his cheek, gently, as she had touched his shoulder in the darkness, one night long ago. He didn’t know why she was raising herself up on her toes until her lips touched his.

For an instant, everything was still.

As soon as he could, he shoved her away with such force that she hit the ground, and rubbed a hand over his mouth. His lips burned where she’d touched them. What-?

She got up on her feet and he tried to assess her, warily, tension in the air. She held out her arms, as though she could keep him back.

“Please, I-“

Please?” He felt the anger flush through his chest as it all became clearer, her intentions finally dawning on him. He drew himself up to his full height and advanced toward her. “Oh, I see. The pretty little bird has finally broken. Can’t take your gilded cage anymore, eh? Thought you’d trade a few kisses to an ugly old hound for your freedom?” He barked an ugly laugh. Seven hells. She’d brought him up here to talk business. It was almost too rich to be believed. Trapped and surrounded by monsters, the little bird had gone and picked the biggest, nastiest monster of them all, and lured him up to her chambers. That's why she'd had so much wine. Courage, to trade her honour for the help of a mean old dog. So Cersei’s taught her something after all.

Could she really still be so naive, to think a kiss could be so powerful as to turn a beast like him from his masters? Still, after everything?

But no, there were no stars in her eyes now. Only fear. It made him sick.

The real world had finally caught up with the sweet little Stark girl. And how not? He’d watched them beat the innocence out of her often enough. She could no longer stand and chirp pretty words for the court as they savaged her. She’d finally learned that her honour and courtesies were worthless, that no one was coming to save her. She could only survive with what she had, and all she had was herself. Like a whore. Like a queen.

In the end, Sansa Stark was not untouchable. She was just like all the rest.

Well, Cersei might have taught the girl that she could bargain with her cunt, but he was no moonstruck squire-boy to be so led about by the nose. If she thought he’d fall at her feet so easily, she had another thing coming.

“You don’t know what you’re playing with, girl. Teasing a wicked old dog like that. Don’t you know what dogs do to wolves?” He felt bile rising in the back of his throat. You are a dog to her, that’s it. A means to an end. Somehow, the thought set his blood to boiling with fresh heat.

“Come on then, girl. Show me what you’ve got!”

The words thundered out from deep in his chest, and he expected her to cower, as she always had. But the little bird lifted her chin and met his eyes again.

“I don’t want you to help me escape.”

He paused, scoffed. What else is there? Why else being a dog to your bed?

“What do you want, then?” He sneered, incredulous. “What is it the pretty little bird wants to trade her sweet little kisses for?” After all this, it could be no small boon.

“Joffrey has come of age,” she said, stoic. Mention of the King only sharpened his thoughts.

“Aye,” he ground out. “That’s what a nameday’s for.” Does she think you would kill him for her? One cunt for another?

“In one month’s time, the Queen will have us married. There is nothing I can do to change that.” Her voice wavered.

“Nor I. Get to the point, girl.” They’d been too long, already.

Suddenly, her eyes hardened, and she changed her tack.

“You stopped me from taking my revenge, once.” Something shifted in her voice. He knew exactly what she meant, of course, but not where she was going with it.

“What, the day on the battlements?”

She nodded.

He remembered it well. He himself had dragged her from her bed that morning, so that Joffrey could bring her to see the rows of heads. Her gallant prince had walked her out on the parapet to see her father’s rotting face. She’d had that flash in her eyes, looking over the edge, and he’d known just what she’d been thinking. He’d known, because he’d been thinking it, too.

Joffrey was always going to be a prick, any fool could have seen. His blood was twisted from the start, and with a mother like Cersei, whispering in his ear all the time that the kingdom belonged to him, that the people were his to command...he was never going to be anything but a monster. But a dog doesn’t turn on its masters for one rotten pup, and didn’t all kings commit atrocities? Didn’t all men?

Maybe he should have stood by and let the girl push him over. Let the little bird go over, too, and spare her the fate that awaited her elsewise. Maybe the girl was the brave one that day. Maybe every crime the king committed since then lay on his own head, for stopping her.

But he was no bloody hero. What's done was done.

He forced out a dry laugh. “I saved your life, girl.”

“You did,” she answered. “And now I have to live it. With him.”

The Hound found he had no rebuttal for that. She seemed to take his silence for agreement, and pushed on.

“They’ve taken everything from me. They have everything. And a month from now, Joffrey will have me.”

Her eyes flashed harder, brighter, with every word, and he recognized a heat in her that could almost be called rage. She was showing more spirit than he had seen since they'd cut her father’s head off.

“I want him to find on our wedding night that there is one thing he can’t have.”

And there it was. The words rang in his ears, over and over, until they sank in with a sound like a sigh. The grisly core of it all. It would almost be amusing – a little girl’s petulance – if it weren’t so ghastly. He shook his head at her and lowered his voice, everything suddenly feeling too loud.

“That’s high treason, little bird.” He bit the words out, each syllable feeling sharp and dangerous. “They’ll beat you half to death. Kill you, maybe.”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.” She answered so quickly. He searched her face for a lie, but knew it was true. The girl was so deadly serious, she looked older than he’d ever seen her, and he recognized the look of one who thought lightly of death. The girl’s little rebellion, quiet as it was, would cost her life, and she didn’t care. To ruin herself before the King could get to her was the only revenge she had left. He turned away from her, sick of it all.

“Find you some green kitchen boy, then, or chase down your sweet knight of the flowers. I’ll have no part in it.” The words tasted sour in his mouth. “I’m the King’s dog, remember?” He made to leave, suddenly very tired.

“No, it has to be you,” she begged, grabbing at his arm. There was naked desperation in her voice, now. He knew the sound of it well enough. “Anyone else would be too afraid of the King, or else...”

For some reason, that stopped him.

“Or else what?”

She dropped her gaze to the floor. For the first time that night, he read embarrassment on her face, but something in him needed to know.

“...or else they’ll hurt me.”

It almost earned her a laugh.

“You think I won’t hurt you?” It was too much. Absurd enough, to stand here discussing such treason with the little bird. But to think she would not even be hurt?  Tall she may be, but he still towered over her. There was not a gentle bone in his body; he could crush her with ease, if only he chose to.

But still, she held his gaze.

“No,” she insisted.

He let out a snort of derision.

“Did your bloody septa not teach you what happens in a marriage bed?” She must know, by now. High-born girls were sheltered, yes, but Sansa had been in King’s Landing too long to be so ignorant. Surely she heard the men’s lewd comments from behind her back when she flitted through the halls, and the maids’ bawdy gossip when she cut through the servants’ quarters to avoid the court.

He should have just walked away. Here he was all but snarling at her, and she only took his response for encouragement, the fool thing, renewing her grip on his arm.

“I know there is pain, but – you’re not like them." Still, her eyes locked with his. "You don’t want to hurt me. Not like Ser Meryn, and the others.” She visibly shuddered, but he wondered, now, if it wasn’t calculated. “Not like Joffrey.”

Not like Joffrey, echoed a quiet voice from within. Not like the worst ones. He remembered another girl’s hand on his arm, a lifetime ago. Another girl he couldn’t protect. Not like... He shoved the thought away.

“I’d hurt you well enough.” His voice came softer than he meant it to. You’d devour her.

“Please,” she said again, reaching further up his arm. She dropped her voice to a murmur. “You know it would be worse, with him.”

Perhaps it was the truth. Pain was one thing, but Joffrey found his greatest pleasure in her torment. His faithful Hound had bundled off enough broken whores from the kings chambers to know what the little cunt liked best. Horrors awaited her in the king’s bed, and she knew it. Of course, it would take such horrors to drive a fine lady into the arms of a scarred, ugly beast like himself. Still, to lie with the King’s own dog...

“You don’t know what you’re asking.” The words sounded empty, even to his own ears.

She was still clutching to his arm, her eyes riveted on him, and she leaned closer. He could smell the wine on her breath.

“All I’m asking...is mercy.”

There was something there, in her voice. Something that pulled at him. He was familiar with desperation, and utterly untroubled by it, and yet...He couldn't name it, but as the intensity of her gaze fell on him like a weight, something in the air between them shifted.

She knows she's lost, and she asks mercy.

He realised, then, that a part of him had been waiting. He'd spent years watching the weight of whole rotten world hanging over her head, with every step she took, just waiting for it all to crash down around her. All this time to see if it would leave her in ruin, as it had with so many before her. But it wouldn't, now. Not if she reached up to pull it down herself.

He was watching her step down off her pedestal, of her own free will - and she was asking him to help her. She had set this all up. She had brought him here. With her eyes open, and her chin as high as she could hold it.

She was reaching for him, and despite himself, despite everything...he found himself wanting to reach back.

It was madness. Suicide. Murder. He wanted her, of course he did, as any man with eyes would. But there was more than that, loath as he was to admit it. And it would surely be the death of both of them.

Still, he found his feet did not move when he commanded them. He told himself to bat her hand away as she reached for him again, but he didn’t. Finally, when she closed her eyes and tried to pull him down for another little kiss, it was too much, and he found himself pushing her back against the wall, hiding his face in her neck.

Fine, then. Let her see what she’s bargaining for.

He breathed in the scent of her, of her hair, and found it just as sweet as he’d imagined. He dragged his lips across the lily-soft skin of her neck, knowing his rough beard would leave marks, that the feel of his scars would repulse her. He ground his body into hers, feeling her softness give beneath his hardened form. He let his hands roam over her skin, letting her feel his callouses, his coarseness. She whined – in fear, surely - and he almost laughed, before pulling back and holding her up against the wall at eye level.

Look at me.

She was breathing fast, and he could see it, the fear in her eyes, just as he knew he would. Let her say it, then. That it was all a mistake, that she didn’t mean it. Let her say it right to his ugly face.

“Is this what you want?”

When she hesitated to answer, he thrust his hips to make his point. He saw the flush in her cheeks despite the low light, but somehow, she held his gaze, and whispered yes, before leaning forward to kiss him again.

Her taste was sweet. Intoxicating. He meant to pull away, but only ended up closer. She was all around him – her hair, her smell, her taste – and there was no more room to think. He was drowning in her. And when he came up for air, she gasped, too, so sweetly – almost like a lover – and he hid his face in her neck again. It was hard to tell, through the maille, but it felt – it felt like she clung to him. And when her light fingers fluttered at his neck, running up into his hair – deep in his gut, he knew he was lost.

He grunted, hoarse, trying to find his voice again.

“I’m not your bloody Florian, little bird," he managed to grumble. "I won’t be gentle.”

It was the truth. She seemed sure enough, but he’d only had whores, he wouldn’t know what to do with her. But he could feel her ragged breath on his neck, and – gods help him, he wanted – he wanted-

“You don’t have to be.”

Seven bloody hells. He couldn’t stop the groan escaping his throat as he hauled her to the bed and all but flung her onto the covers. His blood was singing, as it did before battle. He tried to remind himself this was business to her - you’re a means to an end - but the way she looked up at him...it wasn’t just fear in her eyes, now.

He fumbled for the clasps of his armour, letting it crash to the floor like so many rags. Someone will hear - but the thought was far away, and she was so bloody close. He tore away layers of leather and padding, but left his shirt and breeches. She needn't see the rest, he thought grimly. Your face is terror enough. Suddenly he felt the strength of her stare on him, and paused. She’s probably never even seen a man bare.

She seemed to take his silence as expectation, and he watched her hands flutter to her breast and begin unlacing her bodice. She pulled her silks aside with such grace that he wondered if she’d practiced. She hesitated, though, before removing her shift, gauzy and revealing though it was. This isn’t for you, a voice reminded. You are a means to an end. So he strode to the bed and pushed her down onto the pillows.

The whole bed smelled of her, causing his head to swim. He looked her in the eye as he lowered himself, just so their bodies touched, careful not to crush her. Her breasts pushed against his chest as she breathed deeply, achingly soft. He was glad of the fabric between them, little as it was, for the feel of her skin all over him may have been too much. As it was, the neck of the thing had shifted low enough to expose her shoulders, and the dipping of flesh between her breasts, and it was all he could do not to savage her there with his mouth, his tongue, his teeth. But they were not meant for his pleasure, so instead he ran a hand down her side, making her jump when he reached her hip. He scowled, burying his face in her neck once again. She didn’t have to see his face for the deed to be done. The whores don’t look at it either.

He brought a hand up towards her breast, suddenly doubtful. He'd never been bothered with pleasing a woman - never needed to, when only whores would have him. Soldiers talked, though, and he knew it would go easier for her if he pleased her...but in truth, he was not sure of how. A man’s pleasure came fast and easy. He knew next to nothing of a woman’s, only vaguely where to touch her. But if he didn’t at least try, she might scream. He wouldn't have that.

So he trailed his mouth down her body, between her breasts, along her stomach, stopping between her hips. He felt her watching him as he brought his hand down, then twinge as he came to rest over her woman’s place. Instinct told him his calloused hands were too rough for her sensitive flesh, so he began rubbing her through her shift and smallclothes. He kept his face down over her stomach, but could easily feel how she responded. She moaned aloud, and he knew he was doing something right. He pressed and rubbed, feeling how the folds of flesh moved more freely as they grew slicker beneath his hand. Gaining in confidence, he worked his mouth back up her body to her breast, and found her breath coming fast and sharp. He did not know how long she would need, but she did not tell him to stop, so he continued. He found he enjoyed the soft sounds coming from her throat, though it made his manhood strain painfully against his breeches.

Before too long, he felt her tense beneath him, then let out a deep sigh. He stilled, hoping it was done.

“What was that?” She murmured after a moment, and he could not suppress a dry chuckle.

“The part the Septas don’t tell you about.” Bloody highborns.

“Thank you,” she breathed, and he pulled away from her.

“Don’t thank me, girl. We’re not done yet.” He may have spared her the worst of it, but what came next would not be sweet.

She’d chosen him because she thought he wouldn’t hurt her, but she may very well regret that before it was all over. With her laid out on the bed so prettily, though, her hair all mussed, the smell of her sex between them - his blood was as high as it had ever been, and he struggled to keep his breathing even. He’d never had to control himself with a woman; he didn’t know if he could do it now, even for her.

“Go on, then,” came her husky voice. Gods, you could almost believe she actually wants you.

He made quick work of his laces, but bent over her again before releasing himself from his breeches, hidden behind his shirt. Every man’s big to a maiden; she won't thank you for showing her just how big it is.

He fingered the edge of her shift and, when she did not protest, lifted it up to her waist, exposing her milky white thighs. Everything moved very slowly, then. He undid the laces of her smallclothes and, when he was sure she wouldn’t wrench herself away, finally pulled them off. The smell of her hit him anew, and he could see how she was wet with arousal from his pleasuring her. The moment that stretched between them did not feel real. He was too aware of it, of her, like the breath of lucidity before waking from a dream.

Go on,” she hissed, and he let out a puff of air he didn’t know he’d been holding. He pulled her hips closer to him, and reached down to guide himself to her entrance. She was hot and slick against him, twitching at heir contact. He’d been hard for what felt like an age, and the feel of her was exquisite. He tested her entrance, and despite her pleasure, he found it tight. But she was so wet, and the contact was as much as he could bear, he couldn’t wait anymore, and he pushed.

He clapped a hand over her mouth as she let out a cry, his brows furrowed in concentration. He was only halfway inside her, but he could tell the deed was done by the way her features twisted in pain. She was so tight and hot around him, it took everything in him to stop there, and then withdraw slowly. As much as he wanted her – and gods, did he want her – he would not have her shrieking and crying beneath him.

He looked up at her face, and she met his eyes in the dark. He should have told her then, that it was enough - her maidenhood was broken, her vengeance complete. But she nodded at him, and he knew what it meant, and he was so bloody hard, he kept his wretched mouth shut and entered her again. She was still unable to sheath him fully, though he felt her muscles relax slightly as he slowly thrust into her again, and then again. She turned her face away, but it didn’t matter – a means to an end – he wouldn’t take long. She was quiet for the rest of it, but it didn’t surprise him. She was so used to pain. A moment later, he pulled out of her, tensing, and spilled himself on the linens before collapsing on his back beside her.

They didn’t speak. There was nothing to say.

It was done. He’d fucked the king’s betrothed out of her maidenhood. Gods help them both.

It only took him a moment to catch his breath, as the little bird pulled her shift down to cover herself. She was done with him. Time to go.

He rolled out of the bed, pulling the soiled linen out from beneath her. Her blood was on his skin, on his hands, his manhood. His mouth twitched as he wiped it off on a corner of the sheet.

“Clean yourself with this, then burn it.” The light was not so low that he could not see the tears staining her cheeks as he tossed it to her, or the shaking of her hands.

He turned away to dress himself and replace his armour. It seemed to take long, awkward minutes, while she sat behind him in silence. The heat of their encounter had left him completely, and a chill seemed come over him as the reality of what they'd done sunk into his now-clear mind.

It struck him, then, that, for all her talk of vengeance, nothing had really changed.

He would walk out the door and go back to guarding the king, and come the morning, she would go back to being his plaything. She needn't reveal her transgression at all, if she changed her mind - there would be no lack for blood in her marriage bed.

The King would still marry her. She would still bear his sons. Where was the vengeance in that? How could the memory of this night bring her any comfort when the king was beating and breeding her? And he would stand and would watch her suffer, as he always had. He would probably watch her die.

Like a bloody fool, he'd let her convince him this was an act of rebellion, some measure of justice, even. That he'd been doing something almost right, and not just thinking with his godforsaken cock. But it wasn't that. It wasn't anything.

He’d only fucked a broken girl, whom he had helped in breaking.

Fully dressed again, he tried to think of what to say. But there was nothing.

“I have to get back,” he muttered, and stalked out of the room.

No one noticed him slipping back into his place among the shadows of the great hall just minutes later. No one asked why he'd been absent for almost an hour. The King was still feasting, the guests were still drinking.

It was as if nothing had happened at all.

Chapter Text

She woke to the sound of a breakfast tray clattering to the table. Sansa winced at the clamour as she begrudgingly opened her eyes. She had sympathy for the young scullery maid who'd been assigned the task of serving food to her high tower chambers, and while the poor girl had no grace about her at all, this seemed especially clumsy of her. Nevertheless, Sansa thanked the girl, who sketched a terrible curtsy before scurrying out.

The angle of the sunlight across the floor told her she had slept later than usual. Suddenly, memories of the previous night flooded her mind, and she felt her cheeks redden at the images they brought. And yet, as she pulled back her coverlet and swung her feet to the floor, she realized that, for once, there had been no dreams.

Quickly, before her handmaiden could arrive, Sansa checked herself and her bed over for any sign of her transgression that may have been missed in the dark. Her bed was mercifully clean, and she found no visible signs of injury on herself. She did feel some soreness - she shied from the memory of the sharp pains she'd felt just hours ago - but the remaining ache was no worse than her monthly troubles. I have suffered much worse at the hands of the kingsguard, she thought bitterly. When she was satisfied that there was no evidence to be seen, she took a steadying breath and approached her breakfast.

The food was somewhat cold, as it always was from the long walk up the many stairs to her chamber, but Sansa was used to that. In fact, she fell to it with more than her usual enthusiasm, finding herself uncommonly ravenous this morning. When she reached for a drink, however, she'd found that her usual cup of milk had been replaced with some sort of tea. She tried it, but found it earthy and bitter, and ignored it for the rest of her meal.

Her handmaiden, Shae, liked to sleep late, and so it was not until her food was finished and Sansa had moved to her vanity to begin brushing out her hair herself that the woman finally strolled through the door.

"Good morning, my lady. How did you sleep?"

"Fine, thank you," Sansa murmured, hoping her cheeks did not colour too noticeably. She handed Shae the hairbrush, and she began to smooth and dress her hair for the day. Shae was not the most accomplished hair dresser, and so Sansa would sit in front of the glass for a long time before she was done. She wondered if there was anything in her face that could reveal her secret? Her expressions had betrayed her in the past. Concerned, Sansa carefully inspected her features.

Lately, it seemed the mirror had been showing her a stranger. Sansa had been a child when she'd come to King's Landing, round-faced and bright-eyed. She'd been very pretty then, everyone told her so. But there was so little left, now, of the girl who had come down the King's Road. The face she saw before her now was much changed. Instead of the bright fledgling girl, a frail young woman stared back at her. She was taller, sharper featured. She'd grown thinner, too, leaving hollows in her cheeks, and the woman in the mirror never smiled. She looked melancholy. She looked weak.

But did she look different from yesterday?

Sansa wasn't sure what she had expected. A girl became a woman upon her deflowering, didn't she? Or maybe that was only when she was married. After scrutinizing herself for a long time, she decided that no, she did not see any difference. Good, she thought. It will be all the easier to keep my secret. She did smile then, if only a little. The private knowledge of it seemed almost to have a physical presence, like a warm, living thing coiled in her belly. Victory, it whispered to her. Freedom. But not yet. Not until the time was right. But Sansa knew how to wait - she'd been doing it for years.

Her mind then wandered to the man who had helped her win this freedom. She blushed again, finding she could not think of him without also remembering his smell, the feel of his rasping voice against her neck, of his lips on hers. Her skin tingled at the memory. And oh, the way he'd touched her-

"My lady, you must keep still! If you squirm so, your hair will be uneven, and I will have to start over," Shae scolded.

"Sorry," Sansa murmured, embarrassed.

She folded her hands in her lap and squeezed them together, willing the butterflies in her stomach to be still.

And yet, she could not keep her thoughts away from the Hound, and the inexplicable pleasure he had given her. Was it always like that, between a man and a woman? Why had no one told her? She had vaguely heard that some women enjoyed the act - in hushed whispers from maids and the like, and usually with great disapproval - but she could never have imagined it could feel like that. She'd gathered from the songs and stories that kisses and caresses were sweet, of course, but nothing had ever led her to believe that going to bed with a man was anything but a duty. Her mother was a fine lady and did not speak of such things, especially as Sansa had been so young the last time they were together.

Back when she had thought she loved Joffrey, Sansa had felt longing, but it was different - tender, and soft. Childish, for she's been a child. It was nothing like the heat she'd felt when the Hound had touched her, the yearning for - well, she hardly knew what. Sansa had been pleased by his agreement, of course, thrilled that her plan was succeeding - but was that really enough to explain the physical sensations she'd had? Sansa's youthful fantasies involving men - well, boys, in fact - had always ended with a kiss, as she'd thought that would be the height of joy. She did not know that there might be something...else.

"Shae," Sansa began carefully, surfacing from her silent reverie. "Are you married?"

Shae met her eyes in the mirror, perhaps a little warily.

"No, my lady. Why do you ask?"

"It's nothing, only...I will be married at the end of the month," she continued, shifting in her seat, "and I have no one to...to ask..."

"Oh, you poor thing," Shae murmured, clucking her tongue, "without your mother to talk to."

Sansa nodded. She didn't like lying to Shae, who had been a pleasant, if inconstant, companion. But though the woman had always seemed refreshingly honest, they'd only been together a month or two, and Sansa could not know if she was really trustworthy. She liked her handmaiden...but she'd been wrong before.

Shae put down her brush and pins and brought over a chair to sit beside Sansa. The more mature woman's voice took on a hushed, conspiring tone.

"What do you want to know?"

Careful, now.

"Well I...I had always been taught that the marriage bed is a woman's duty, but...is there also...something else?" For all that Sansa had been bedded just hours ago, she found it difficult to put her question into words.

"Something else?" Shae smiled at her, a twinkle of mischief in her eye. Sansa released a small huff, knowing her handmaiden was teasing.

"Something like..." Her hands twisted helplessly in her lap. "...pleasure." It felt silly to struggle with saying the words, after what she'd done last night. But nothing about this had been easy. Shae only smiled at her.

"For the man, yes," she explained. "It is easy for a man to find his pleasure in the act itself. For a woman...our pleasure is more difficult to find. It takes practice, and pursuit. Not all men take the time to find it, though it can make it much easier on the woman. This is why some women take lovers," she said, breaking into a grin, "or you can take care of it yourself. Would you like me to show you?"

"No!" Sansa blurted, shocked at her handmaiden, though she had only a vague notion of what she was suggesting. "No thank you," Sansa turned away, blushing furiously, but the woman only laughed. As her mirth subsided, Shae's eyes grew serious, almost sad, as she asked, "You know that the first time, there will be pain?"

"Yes," Sansa responded, not meeting her eyes.

"And...if I may say, my lady," Shae continued, lowering her voice, "with a husband like the ki-"

"I understand," Sansa replied firmly. Joffrey would never pursue his wife's pleasure. Only her pain. This she knew.

Shae's brows drew together in a look Sansa knew well by now. It was pity.

"Well, still...it gets easier each time," Shae finished, standing up and taking the brush in hand, seeming to be ready to change the subject as well. "Is there anything else?"

"No, Shae. Thank you."

The handmaiden nodded, and resumed her work on Sansa's hair.




When Sansa attended court that day, she found herself very distracted. She tried to maintain her usual facade of mild interest, but found her eyes wandering a great deal. Sometimes, her eyes swept over Joffrey or his mother, and she felt the thing in her belly tingle with delight in her secret triumph over them. She tried to imagine the look on their faces when they found out about her little rebellion, of how she'd ruined their awful plans. She only hoped it would make them angry enough that they would kill her quickly. But if not, she thought perhaps her feeling of victory may help her stand the pain. To know that she had fought back, after all, in her way. That they couldn't have everything they wanted. Perhaps now she could face her death as bravely as her father had.

But mostly she observed the Hound.

There wasn't much to see, of course. At least, there was nothing different or revealing about him. As her own face had been unchanged to her in the mirror that morning, so too did the Hound's visage reveal nothing of their transgression. He was stiff and stoic as always, maintaining perfect indifference, as always. Not for the first time, she envied his self-control. It seemed effortless. As if there really was nothing going on beneath he surface.

But Sansa knew better.

Not only did she know his fierceness, the rage that boiled beneath the surface, that he kept hidden here in court - but she knew of a kind of gentleness, too. It occurred to her that the kindness he'd shown her - his rough version of it, anyway - was not likely to be known to any other soul at court. He had no family here, nor had she seen him treat anyone as a friend. A small thrill ran through her at that - to think that she, insignificant as she was, knew a side of the Hound that no one else could see. Another secret, she thought, and it brought her a warm kind of satisfaction.

Not all men take the time to pursue a woman's pleasure, Shae had said, though it can make it much easier on the woman.

That's what he'd done, wasn't it? She could think of no other reason he would touch her the way he had, when she'd been laid out, his for the taking. She wouldn't have called it easy, but he'd tried, hadn't he? He'd taken his time, and brought her pleasure, protecting her from what pain he could, in what way he could - as he always did, however gruff and harsh he tried to be about it. She had suspected it before, abut she was certain now that she was right.

It takes practice, Shae had also said. She wondered if he'd been with many women? She couldn't picture it, really. He was so solitary, so gruff. And yet, according to Shae, there must have been some...He had been so forceful at times, and yet careful, when it mattered. He had seemed so sure. Does he make them all feel like that? The thought bothered her, just a little. She tried to shake it away. He was a man, with a man's needs. Where he filled them was not her concern.

I should give him a gift, she thought again, more seriously this time. In return for all he has done for me.




That evening, Shae left her in her chambers sorting through what remained of her sewing supplies by firelight. Her small collection had dwindled to almost nothing, as she had little else to do in her spare time but pray and stitch. Once, Sansa could have had any and all of the materials she wanted - her Septa had been so proud of her stitching. But that was long ago, and the Queen was not in the habit of granting her requests for new things, however small.

Luckily, yellow was not a colour she had used very often, and she had a little black left, as well. Sansa smoothed out the fabric from an old wool dress that had come with her from Winterfell. She didn't relish the thought of cutting it up, but nothing from home fit any more, and it did no one any good just sitting at the bottom of an old chest in her wardrobe. What do I want with a wool dress anyway? Summer was so warm in King's Landing, and she would not see the next winter. Besides, she thought, they'll just get rid of all my things when this is over. Better to make it into a gift, however small and simple.

Sansa wasn't really tired, but being that it was too dark to sew, and Shae had left her for the evening, Sansa tidied away her sewing things and headed for her bed. She was just turning back her covers when her heart jumped at a firm but quiet knock at the door.

"Yes?" She called uncertainly.

The door opened, and for the second time in as many days, the Hound entered her room.

Sansa found herself frozen to the spot, at a loss as to what he might want. He hadn't even looked at her all day, much less tried to seek her out. Had she done something wrong?

He closed the door carefully behind him, and looked at Sansa only briefly before averting his eyes again. Sansa's tried to swallow past the dry lump in her throat.

"You didn't drink your tea," he rumbled.

Sansa was struck dumb for a moment. She felt an utter fool, standing there in her nightshift, trying desperately to understand what he meant. It took her a long moment to catch on.

"At breakfast, you mean?" she finally replied. It was the only tea she'd been offered that day. But what did he care about her breakfast? "It was bitter, and I didn't like it. I think the girl brought the wrong-"

She stopped when he uttered a humourless laugh. "Bitter," he scoffed, shaking his head.

Finally, the pieces fell into place.

"It was moon tea," she realized. "You sent me moon tea." She felt like a terrible fool.

"Aye, but I'd forgotten about your bloody sweet tooth," he growled.

He was displeased with her. And why not? She'd been awfully stupid. Moon tea would have been on any unmarried girl's mind, in her place. She should have realized the moment she saw it. Not that she'd ever seen it before, but still...

"There will be more tomorrow," he rasped, meeting her eyes again finally, "and you'll drink it." It was a voice that brooked no argument.

"Yes," was all she could think to say, and he gave a curt nod before turning back to the door. As he reached it, though, the Hound turned halfway back and spoke over his shoulder.

"Are you...in pain?"

Her eyes widened at that.

"No, I...There was at first, but...I'm fine." She was too shocked to form a better answer.

His mouth seemed to twitch, though it was hard to tell by the firelight, and he only nodded again before quietly disappearing through the door.

Sansa released a heavy breathe. Thoroughly embarrassed, she climbed into bed and silently willed her heart to stop hammering at her ribs. She knew that the marriage bed led to children, of course. But with the wedding only a month away, she hadn't thought pregnancy could possibly be a problem. She would not live to see its result. But maybe...it could cause a change in her? A change they would all see? The hound would know of such things, she supposed. Perhaps everyone did, but her.

It hardly mattered, though. She would drink whatever the Hound sent her, and gladly. For here again, he'd found a way to try to help her. Protecting her before she even knew she'd been mistaken. She wondered how he'd managed it without drawing anyone's attention? She thought of how the girl who'd brought her breakfast tray has seemed unusually jittery that morning. Had the Hound intimidated the girl into switching her drink? She laughed at the thought, though she knew it was unkind, and for the second night in a row, Sansa drifted off with a smile on her lips.




The next morning, her tea had honey in it.

Chapter Text

With only a month to make ready for the greatest wedding in a generation, the castle was now more full of people than Sansa had ever seen it. The great stone walls seemed to fairly hum with excitement, with new merchants appearing every day to present their finest wares for the Queen's consideration. Sansa could hardly make her way anywhere, indoors or out, without worrying she'd be mowed down by one flustered servant or another, desperately racing about, trying to please the royal family. Walls and floors were scrubbed to gleaming, and irresistible smells emanated from the kitchens from dawn til dusk. The place had never looked so lively.

In another time, in another life, nothing would have made Sansa happier. But everything was so different now. This wasn't the life she'd dreamed of. And she wasn't that girl anymore.

Nowhere was this made more clear than in her fitting for the wedding dress. A whole team of seamstresses laid out all their finest work - silk as smooth as butter on the skin, ornate Myrish lace that spent months on the loom, veils so sheer they were still transparent at seven layers - and none of it meant anything to Sansa. The most senior lady - a Madame Webb, who seemed to be very much in charge - tutted slightly at her lack of enthusiasm. She thinks I am a spoiled little princess who can't be pleased, Sansa thought. But she doesn't understand. Sansa indifferently watched her figure in the mirror being draped with cloth, this way and that, merely nodding when asked for an opinion - for it was all in Lannister gold, and she could not produce more than a wan smile, even to please the exasperated woman and her assistants. The merchant women around her could probably imagine nothing sweeter than marrying a king. Who wouldn't be happy to live in a castle, they would say to each other later, sleeping on goosedown, dining on strawberries and cream? Sansa knew she must seem terribly ungrateful to them. She bit her lip and her skin began to itch. Don't you see he's a monster? She wanted to shout. Don't you see they all are? Don't you see the terrible cost? But no amount of screaming would do her any good, so Sansa only smiled her tepid smile and tried to focus on looking more interested.

Suddenly, the door to her rooms burst open, and the very subject of her ire strode in, followed by his faithful body guard.

The ladies around her squealed at the sight of the unannounced men, and Sansa, dressed only in small clothes and some petticoats, hurriedly crossed her arms over her chest. She felt her cheeks go hot and wanted noting more than to run and hide, but knew she would be punished for turning her back to the King.

Brazenly, Madame Webb quickly stepped in front of her and addressed the King.

"Your Grace, a thousand pardons, but my lady is not done with her fitting! She is still indecent-"

"Who gave you leave to speak?" Joffrey demanded, already screwing up his face in distaste. "A King does not wait on a woman's schedule, he goes where he pleases!"

Several of the women in the room cowered audibly, but the head seamstress did not back down so easily. Shaking her head, she began again.

"Your Grace, I-"

"I'm sure she only meant to protect you, your Grace," Sansa interjected. Then, lowering her eyes and softening her tone, "It's bad luck to see your bride's dress before the wedding day."

Joffrey jeered his ugly little jeer, slapping the Hound on the arm. "Do you believe that, Hound? These stupid women have superstitions about everything!" The Hound remained expressionless, staring into the middle distance, as if he didn't see Sansa at all. She was thankful for it.

"But I suppose, to be safe, you'd better leave it off," Joff added with a twisted smirk. Hearing a gasp from one of the ladies, he rounded on the older woman again.

"Why are you still here? Take your simpering fools and get out of here, I'll not have you tittering in audience while I speak to my betrothed."

The seamstress gave a final glance at Sansa - that look of pity, again - before begrudgingly shooing the gaggle of women out of the room. Then the door latched, and she was alone with her wicked betrothed, and his silent sworn shield.

"Your Grace, may I dress?" She asked in the most favourable voice she could muster. The Hound had still not looked at her, and his face gave nothing away, but Joffrey's eyes on her body made Sansa's skin crawl.

"Why bother?" A hideous grin crawled its way across his face. "It's all mine now, anyway." His gaze travelled greedily over her scarcely-clad form. Sansa looked down to avoid his ogling, hoping he would assume the flush on her cheeks came from embarrassment, instead of the quivering rage she felt. You only think so, she thought. She tried to call forth the that feeling, that warmth she felt deep in her belly when she allowed herself to remember her secret. It gave her comfort. Even here, standing in front of her tormenter, naked from the waist up, it gave her strength. You only think you own me. You're wrong.

Joff took to sauntering around the room, rifling through the beautiful fabric as one might jumble a sheaf of uninteresting papers. He had never come up to her tower room before. When he wanted her, she was summoned; he would not take all these stairs just to see the likes of her on a whim. He'd done it on purpose, of course, knowing he would catch her like this. She hated seeing him walk around her chamber like this. It was a prison, yes, but it had also been her refuge - from court, from him. But that was nonsense, she realized now. This room belonged to him as much as anything else in the castle. The thought turned her stomach.

"By now I thought the war would be won, you know." Joffrey's grating voice only added to her discomfort. "We all thought that the North would have been squashed years ago and we wouldn't need you anymore, and I'd be free to find a worthier bride." A tray of beads scattered over the floor at his careless touch, and he scowled. "But your traitorous whoreson of a brother continues to evade us, so Mother says you'll have to do."

Joffrey's wormy lips twisted in displeasure, and before she could help herself, Sansa found herself replying.

"But you've come of age now, your grace. You're king. Doesn't that mean you can do whatever you want?"

She saw the Hound's eyes flick to her, just for an instant, as Joffrey's face crumples up in disbelief - at her insolence or stupidity, perhaps he could not tell. Let him have his temper, she thought. What do I care if I have bruises on the wedding day?

"What do you know about it?" He fairly shrieked at her. "You're just a stupid girl who doesn't understand the intricacies of war!"

Sansa smoothed her face, blank as the Hound's, and agreed.

"Of course, your Grace, I'm very stupid. The Queen always knows best."

The King furrowed his brow, still unsure if she could possibly have meant it as a slight or not.

"Well," he finally huffed, "Mother's right about you, anyway. Barely a suitable bride at all. She says you're far too skinny, and will likely die in your first childbed. And then I'll get a better wife. Isn't she terribly skinny, Hound?"

"Terribly," the Hound agreed dispassionately, still focusing on nothing in particular. Don't think I don't notice that, she thought. Joff would surely be more pleased if the Hound had more to say, but he engaged as little as possible, and she couldn't of a reason that would benefit him at all. It's for me. He does it for me. Despite her undignified position, the idea comforted her.

"You're pretty enough for the moment, though, I suppose," The King sneered, walking up to her now. "Pretty enough to not embarrass me. And see, your breasts have finally come in, haven't they?" Sansa met his eyes, trying to predict his next move.

"Come on, show them to me. I want to see what I'm in for on my wedding night."

Sansa felt her face go pale, and this time she really couldn't stop herself glancing back at the Hound, who remained unmoved. For all that had passed between them, he had not seen her naked, and it shamed her to think he would see her like this, in the daylight, because of Joffrey.

"Oh, don't mind him," the king assured her through his wretched smile. "He won't look unless I tell him to. Will you, Hound?"

"Of course not, your Grace." The words were wooden, as always. She didn't blame him, though. He was as trapped as she was.

"Besides," Joffrey laughed, coming a step closer, "it's nothing the whole court hasn't seen before."

She looked to the Hound again, and thought she saw a flash of something in his eyes, but he made no move to help her.

"Come on!" Joffrey shouted at her, and finally grabbed her wrists and wrenched her arms to her sides.

Sansa jerked her face up at the ceiling to try to stop the furious tears welling in her eyes.

Joffrey was quiet for a moment, perhaps waiting for her reaction.

A beat passed, as hot shame coursed through her body and made her skin tingle. She longed to cover herself, but even that would be just the kind of weakness Joff was looking for. I will give him nothing, she thought.

Obviously displeased at her silence, Joff continued.

"They'll do, I suppose." And then, when she still gave him no acknowledgment, "What do you think, Hound? Will they do?"

Sansa's eyes burned from holding them open, but she kept her gaze riveted to the ceiling.

"I expect so," muttered the Hound, and she knew he had seen after all. A small sound escaped her throat as a treacherous tear rolled down her cheek, the indignation of it all finally boiling over.

Joffrey laughed at her, triumphant. "Very good....Now, shall we see the rest?"

Sansa couldn't help her gaze flashing back to him then, and she knew he read fear in her eyes.

"I-"

"Your Grace," the hound's voice rumbled from next to the door. "The small council awaits."

"And they can wait as long as I please," Joff griped. "I am the king." He had not turned from Sansa, whose breath seemed caught in her throat.

"You are. And while your betrothed will keep, your mother needs your guidance in the war council, as your uncle moves against you, even now." A look passed between the king and the Hound, containing she knew not what.

Joffrey squirmed a moment, looking from the Hound to Sansa, then back again.

"Fine," he bit out. "Yes. I have much more important matters to attend to." He turned back to Sansa, smirking once again. "I'll have time enough with you soon, won't I?" It was all she could do to contain her disgust as he turned and walked out the door the Hound held open for him.

As the door latched closed behind them, Sansa gave her silent thanks to the Hound before collapsing to the floor with a bitter sob.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Days passed before she spoke to him again.

Sansa had not known what to expect from him, after what they had done. It was difficult to predict his actions at the best of times, let alone...well. She'd known better than to expect affection, or any sort of indication of courtly love. That was a child's notion, and dangerous. Still, whatever she might have predicted, it was not the hound's sudden and impressive ability to act as though she did not exist.

Despite his aid with Joffrey the day of the fitting, and the tea she continued to receive with her breakfast, Sansa now seemed to be the last thing on his mind. He did not look at or speak to her in court, nor did he stumble across her in the hallways, as he sometimes had before. It was like they'd never spoken, let alone shared a bed. It shouldn't bother her, Sansa knew. It was the safest thing for both of them, to seem utterly disinterested in one another. And it wouldn't trouble her at all, she suspected, to think she never crossed his mind, were he not so often occupying hers.

It made Sansa feel very alone.

Could I have made him angry? she thought, at dinner one night. During regular meals, the Hound sat below the high table, with his fellow members of the King's Guard, full in her view. This night, Sansa could not help stealing glances at him, unable to stop herself, and praying no one would notice. He had shared her bed, had seen her bare in the daylight, and now he would not look at her. And hadn't, in days. She hadn't realized what a constant presence he'd been in her life at King's Landing until his sudden absence. She hadn't realized how often she'd felt his eyes on her, how often he'd guided her through the halls and yards, until he didn't anymore. She contemplated the goblet of wine before her - she'd seemed to have found a taste for it after all - and tried to ignore the din of people around her. 

Could she have ruined whatever accord there had been between them? The thought worried her more than it should. It left a hollow feeling in her belly to think that he might be avoiding her out of anger. But...hadn't she given him what he wanted? She'd seen the way he'd looked at her, now and then. The way many men had been looking at her lately. She was not so naive that she did not see it. Isn't it what all men wanted from a pretty girl? Wasn't my virginity the greatest gift I had to give? She thought bitterly.

When her cup was empty, and the king had left, Sansa pushed herself away from the table to slip quietly out of Great Hall. The noise in the surrounding halls was no better. The castle was growing very full with guests travelling in for the wedding, many of whom were all too happy to heavily indulge themselves on the king's wine. Raucous laughter assaulted her ears, as a guard broke up an amorous couple from an alcove not far from her. Suddenly finding the air inside heavy and oppressive, Sansa abruptly turned on her heel and headed for the godswood.

Happily, the air outside was cool, and the sounds of the castle's residents faded to a distant din. A breeze rustled the leaves of the trees around her, running cool over her cheeks, and she found a soft spot to sit beneath a large tree in the heart of the wood.

But, peaceful though it was, she could not long keep her thoughts from returning to the Hound.

Is it possible he fears the consequences? She thought. She'd chosen him in part because he did not seem to fear the king, and she had no intention of ever revealing her accomplice, of course, no matter what they did to her. I will protect him, she thought, as he has protected me...But perhaps he did not trust her? She realized, of course, that he had little reason to. The Hound had spent years proving his worth to her, in his own small ways, and what had she ever done for him? I kept his secret, she thought. About the way he was burned. But perhaps that was not enough.

Should I try to speak to him? To tell him I won't reveal him? But he had always rebuked her offers of kindness in the past. And he may not believe her anyway, being that he put so little stock in promises. Perhaps he would think her insincere, as her claims of love of Joffrey so obviously were. She thought he knew all her secrets, but was it possible he still saw her as the stupid, useless little girl she'd been when she first arrived? The idea of it chafed her. Surely he knew better. Although, now that she thought about it, she'd never really offered him much honesty at all, in the past. I am only repeating the words they taught me...But I have no choice, she thought. Doesn't he know that?

In her frustration, a darker thought presented itself to her. Suppose...he was angry at her for making him break his loyalty to the Lannisters? Could he really care for Joffrey after all? He'd been the boy's sworn shield for years, and Cersei's before that. He did not appear to have any great love for them, but the Hound never let on about any of his feelings. And to have served the same family for so long...The Hound valued honesty and loyalty above all else, she knew. Had she damaged that, by creating a secret he must keep from them? Could the man who had protected her all these years, really still be so loyal to her tormenters?

Could she have misread him so badly?

And Gods, what if...what if it was worse than that? His kindness to her made so little sense when she thought of his Lannister loyalty. What if...what if it had all been an act? One more way to spy on her, control her? They're all liars here, and every one better than you. Could she have been such a fool after all? What if they already knew-?

Sansa worked to swallow the bile rising in her throat, willing the panic to stop clawing its way up her throat, fistfuls of grass in her hands.

A memory flashed behind her eyes, then. It was the night the hound had told her about his burn scars. She remembered how young his face seemed when he talked about the wooden knight. How pained he was when he spoke of his father's deceit. The Hound's great secret, that no one knew but her.

No, she thought, slowly releasing her tightly wound fists, leaving grass stains and half-moon marks in her palms. That was real.

It had to be.

He hasn't been lying to me, she assured herself. A Hound will die for you, but never lie to you. Sansa closed her eyes and released a shuddering breath she hadn't know she was holding. And as for making him break his loyalties....how could a weak girl like me make the Hound do anything he didn't want to do?

Some time later - she did not know how long - she was startled by the rustling of footsteps and gleeful tittering approaching. Snapping her eyes open, she saw that the moon was high in the sky, and Sansa knew she'd been out far too long. She pressed herself into the bark of the tree behind her, praying not to be seen - but she soon realized it was not a pair of guards she was hearing.

Carefully, Sansa peeked out from behind the tree, and saw the couple who had been shooed from the castle alcove earlier that night, just a little ways off from her. The woman giggled as the man clutched and pawed at her skirts, his face buried in her breasts. It crossed Sansa's mind that this was a holy place, that they were wrong to do this here - but she remembered that this wood had no heart tree, and there were no eyes on them but her own. Sansa blushed and knew she should look away, but they were so utterly unaware of her...

The moonlight was bright, and it was clear enough where they touched each other, and how. The man seemed to be rough and furtive as his hands roamed over his partner, but the woman only clung to him harder. She helped hike up her skirts and twined her legs around the man's as he fumbled with his breeches, pushing her back against a tree. The woman cried out, and Sansa knew they must be joined now, despite standing as they were. They huffed and moaned and thrusted into one another, and Sansa felt her eyes grow wide despite herself. She should not feel so innocent, and yet Sansa had never seen such a thing. Their eyes were closed, careless of the world around them, engulfed in their pleasure. Sansa had not been able to see the Hound's face when he had taken her - she wondered if she had missed an expression of ecstasy like the one the man before her wore. She wondered if she herself had looked as elated as the sighing woman against the tree, when the Hound had been touching her.

In a few short moments, the man and woman both were muffling their cries of release, and after a few heaving breaths, the woman let her skirts fall as the man rested his cheek upon her breast. The sight of their contentment, known only to her and the moonlight, struck Sansa as rather beautiful, despite its rushed and haphazard nature. Soon, the man was murmuring to his lady again, and he quickly led her off the way they had come, leaving their unseen watcher alone again.

Sansa knew that she must get back, as well - it was foolish of her to have stayed out so late. Silently, she counted off the moments until she was sure the couple must be back to the castle, Sansa sprang to her feet and rushed back out through the wood, nearly tripping on gnarled tree roots more than once. She fairly flew over the stones once she reached them, hoping that if she moved fast enough, no one would recognize her.

She was racing headlong down the serpentine steps when a man lurched out of a hidden doorway. Sansa caromed into him and lost her balance. Iron fingers caught her by the wrist before she could fall, and a deep voice rasped at her.

"It's a long roll down the serpentine, little bird. Want to kill us both?" His laughter was rough as a saw on stone. "Maybe you do."

The Hound.

The smell of wine was heavy on him, and she was too breathless to say anything, until she tried to move her wrist from his.

"Please, you're hurting me-" She tried to wriggle free.

"And what's Joff's little bird doing flying down the serpentine in the black of night?"

Sansa's mind was full of what she'd witnessed, and before she could form an appropriate answer, he shook her.

"Where were you?

"The godswood!" She finally declared. "I must've...fallen asleep."

He looked over her, taking in her flushed cheeks and panting breaths.

"Sleeping?" He scoffed. His words came thick and slurred. "I'm sure. Found yourself a kitchen boy after all, did you?"

He let go his grip on her arm, swaying slightly as he stood.

There was an instant before she understood, and then her brows drew together in disbelief.

"I wouldn't– How could you–?"

"Save your protestations, girl. It matters not to me." He reeled and almost fell. "Gods," he swore to himself. "Too much wine." He looked back at her, that cruel jeer on his face again.

"You like your wine now, too, don't you, little bird? I see you calling for it at the high table each night. Learning more from the Queen everyday." His laugh sounded harsh to her ears, and he shook his head. "Drunk as a dog, damn me. You come now. Back to your cage, little bird. I'll take you there. Keep you safe for the king." With another harsh bark of a laugh, the Hound gave her a push, and followed her down the steps. By the time they reached the bottom, he had lapsed back into a brooding silence, as if he had forgotten she was there.

When they reached Maegor's Holdfast, she was alarmed to see that it was Ser Boros Blount who now held the bridge. His high white helm turned stiffly at the sound of their footsteps. Sansa flinched away from his gaze as he lifted his visor.

"Ser, where-"

"Fuck your Ser, Boros. You're the knight, not me. I'm the king's dog, remember?"

"The king was looking for his dog earlier."

"The dog was drinking. It was your night to watch him."

Ser Boros turned to Sansa. "How is it you are not in your chambers at this hour, lady?"

"I went to the godswood to pray." Such lies came more easily to her these days.

"You expect her to sleep with all the noise?" He was right. Even at this hour, revellers made their presence known, some loudly singing feast songs, but with more vulgar words than she had heard before. She wondered if the couple from the godswood were among them.

The Hound escorted her across the drawbridge, silent again as they made their way up the winding steps of her tower. As she watched his great, hulking form climb the stairs in the torchlight, she realized something. She wasn't afraid. He'd surprised her on the serpentine, yes, and then made her angry - but not afraid. Not like she used to be.

She remembered how she'd first seen him, at Winterfell, and on the King's Road. What a great, big, frightful warrior he had seemed. She could not have imagined, then, seeking any kind of help from such a man, or feeling safe with him. He could try to scare her and be vulgar to her, true - for some reason, he still wanted her to think of him as a monster. But Sansa knew better. And here she was, walking beside him. Knowing his secrets, and he hers, and having no fear of him at all.

They stopped at her door, but he made no move to open it. Sansa began to push her way inside, but then turned back to him.

"I...want to thank you," she began softly, "for your-"

"Seven hells," he snapped at her. "Save your bloody courtesies. You'd thank your own bloody headsman, wouldn't you, you damn fool. Maybe you will. Maybe I'll see it for myself." He bared his teeth at her, but it could not be called a smile. "The blade is the only thing that will erase your regret now, girl.

Sansa drew her brows together. Regret? What had she done to give him that impression?

"I don't know about you, but that night—" and she made sure to look him right in the eyes "—I got exactly what I wanted."

The Hound levelled her pointed gaze right back at her.

"That would make you a traitor to the crown." He said it like a warning. She didn't need it.

"Well then I suppose that makes you one, too."

He narrowed his gaze at her, and something she couldn't name flickered behind his eyes. 

Was it guilt he wrestled with? Did he feel something for his wicked masters after all? She wondered if his drunken state brought out such feelings. She wondered if that made him dangerous.

"You will keep this secret, won't you?" The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. His features shifted until he almost looked amused. "I have kept yours," she reminded him, quietly. He was not so amused by that.

"Aye, and you will still. Or I'll kill you."

"I know," she replied, unflinchingly.

"Oh, you know, do you?" He sneered, leaning in like he did when he was trying to intimidate her. "Little bird thinks she's a woman now, all grown up and knows everything."

"Why, do you have more to teach me?"

That caught him off guard, and she found, for some reason, she was pleased to see it. Perhaps she was being too bold, but a small voice inside asked, what have you got to lose? There was nothing left for her here but to wait for her wedding night. What harm could he do to her now?

And what pleasure, came an unbidden voice inside her. She was reminded, again, of the things she'd felt when he'd touched her. And she thought of the couple in the godswood, the bliss she'd read on their faces. Sansa swallowed thickly as she felt the heat begin to rise in her cheeks, but still she did not look way from the Hound's eyes. Her door still stood open between them. Did he want to? Did he dare?

The Hound eased a hand onto the wall beside her and leaned down, swaying again, until she could feel his breath on her face. A tingle shot through her as she watched him considering her lips, her neck, his eyes travelling lower and lower, then returning to meet her own. Sansa's skin became hot, and she felt her lips part.

Abruptly, the hound turned on his heel and strode away, disappearing back down the steps before she was sure what had happened.

Sansa exhaled in a rush, feeling like somehow she'd won something. But if she was honest, there was a touch of disappointment there too. She wondered at that as she entered her room and closed the door behind her.

She was a little surprised he had left her, it was true. If it was lust and opportunity that had driven him before, why didn't he try to take her again? She'd practically invited him in, and he'd had so much wine. If he'd been angry with her, if his loyalty to the Lannisters had a hold on him, why would he guide her back to her room at all? Why would protect her from Ser Boros at the gate?

She wondered about these kindnesses, as she readied for bed, compared to his ferocious reputation. He was surely a fearsome warrior in the field. She'd seen it for herself at the tourney, long ago, when he'd fought his giant brute of a brother. And it was true that he was full of hatred and anger, bubbling just below the surface. She'd seen that, too, many times. She knew he'd done terrible things. The death of Arya's friend at the trident suddenly came back to her, and although her instinct was to shy away from from the memory, Sansa did not. She held on to it, tried to fit it into the picture that was the Hound in her mind. He had done that, and many other things, in service to the Lannisters. They were truly evil people, and he was sworn to serve them. But how could anyone capable of the kindness he'd shown her, serve such monsters all his life? And yet, what else could explain his kindness to her, if not some measure of heart?

How can he be both at once?

Everyone else sees only The Hound, she thought, climbing into bed, thinking of his terrible hounds-head helm. No one ever gave a thought to what might be underneath it. No one but her. I see something else.

It was as if there were two sides to him...or maybe one side, who only wore the other as a mask. Like mine, she thought. The mask she wore to court, that looked and talked like her stupid younger self. The part she played, as their puppet, while nurturing the tender flame of rebellion deep within. Still a Stark at heart. It hurts to be other than your true self, she thought. But it had been necessary to her survival in this rotten place. She had said and done awful things, too, in her loyalty to, and then fear of, the Lannisters. Perhaps he is only better at this game, at hiding his heart, than I am. The thought made her sad. Maybe that's why there's so much pain and anger behind his eyes. Sansa hugged a pillow to her chest.

Perhaps they all killed their hearts, to survive in King's Landing. For the Lannisters surely had none.

Chapter Text

 

 

Why, do you have more to teach me? 

Sandor stumbled down the stairway and back to his chambers.

Seven Hells.

She really wasn't the little girl who'd come down the kingsroad. The girl who would shrink in his presence, who could barely stand to look him in the face. She hid it well enough in court, with her blank stare and folded hands, but Sansa was becoming too bold. It was going to get her killed. 

As was flitting about the castle grounds, visiting the godswood in the dead of night. Where was the girl's bloody handmaiden? To be out and alone, in the dark, with so many strangers in the castle...he didn't believe she'd been with a man, not really. But at the sight of her on the steps, flushed and breathless, he couldn't help but imagine it. Meeting a lover in the godswood, how well that would suit the little bird. The very idea of it had incensed him, and he'd been too drunk to curb his tongue. But she'd been ready for him, hadn't she? He could tell that she'd quivered, not with fear, but indignation. Had tried to berate him, even. And while she was quiet enough on the walk back, where guards and revelers passed them, her eyes had flashed again, at her doorway. She'd tried to thank him, at first, but when he laughed at her, she wasn't hurt. She was riled. She challenged him. And she called your bloody bluff, didn't she?  He winced as he finally stumbled into the murky dark of his room..

He was sure he'd looked like a fool, turning tail and all but running off at her suggestion. But what was his alternative? Following her into her room, to hell with who'd seen or heard them? No. He would not be making that mistake again. It had gone beyond all reason for him to take her the first time, no matter that she'd asked. No matter if she'd begged, he should have knocked the sense into her and never so much as spoken to the girl again. It was an incredible loss of control, is what it was. Unforgivable.

He'd done his best to keep away from her, yes, trying to lessen the damage. Couldn't have the girl turning scarlet or bursting into tears every time she saw him. With any luck, her senses might have returned to her by morning, and they would have gone on as if nothing had ever happened. She wouldn't be the first highborn girl to carry a vial of goat's blood to her wedding bed. He'd even been to a damned hedgewitch for herbs and threatened the scullery maid to bring her the tea, to make sure there'd be no consequences.

But gods, had there been consequences.

Sandor had drunk himself half to death each night for a week, but the Stark girl had scarcely left his mind since she'd brought him to her chamber that first night.

He'd been with women before, of course. No soldier goes his whole life without visiting a whorehouse or two. But that was different.

He'd been excited when he was old enough for his fellow guardsmen to begin bringing him along to the brothels. The men laughed and made jokes about his size. It was one of the few times they'd thought to speak to him at all. But the affair quickly lost its novelty. To Sandor, a brothel was a room full of women refusing to meet his eye, praying not to be chosen by the disfigured giant in their doorway. He'd had women, but they'd rarely so much as spoken to him, and preferred to be taken from behind rather than to have to see his scars. That sort of reception grated on a man before long. They brought a kind of release, yes; it drained the heat that permeated the blood after a fight, made one tired enough to sleep with fewer dreams than usual.

But they wouldn't even look at him.

Not even after, when he paid them. He could tell the women wanted to forget their encounters as soon as possible, and so did he. His physical needs were taken care of, but in time he could see that each visit only left him more sour than the last. And when he'd moved on to King's Landing, he'd found the expensive brothels would not take him at all, and the cheap ones too were riddled with disease to risk. He'd known men to come back from such places so sick they could not march for weeks. So finally, he'd stopped going altogether, preferring to spend his silver on wine.

But now it seemed a barrel of sour red could not be enough to clear his mind.

Loath as he was to recall it, everything about the Stark girl had been different. She had not closed her eyes to him, praying his gaze would pass over her. Sansa Stark had chosen him. And everything that followed...it was not sweet, nor tender. She had not done it out of love, and even her consent had been tenuous, at times. But she looked at you, didn't she?  She'd faced him. She'd kissed him. He'd had only a vague idea of how to touch her, and had only tried in the hope it might keep her from wailing when he entered her. But the look she had given him after – when she'd bloody thanked him – it was something he had never seen before.

In the end, she had turned away, like all the rest, and that stung more than he cared to admit. And what did you expect, you fool? You cracked her open until she bled – you're lucky she wasn't screaming. And he took no joy in that. But until that moment, she'd looked at him. She'd reached for him. She'd reached for him. Sansa Stark had been braver than than any bloody whore in all of Westeros. 

And he could not forget it. Not for a moment.

The bitter truth was, staying out of the girl's way was not only to keep her quiet. It had been dark in her chamber that night, but still, the sight of her brought images to his mind he could not smother, however he tried. Her lips, her neck, her auburn locks – her delicate hands in his hair. A man of the kingsguard spent his day silent, watching, guarding - hours upon hours to wallow in one's own thoughts. Just seeing her in the gallery at court was to be reminded of her smell, of the sounds she'd made under him, and it made his treacherous hands itch to bury themselves in her hair again. And if it showed, even for a moment, it would mean both their lives. Every thought was treason. Every memory a crime. A lifetime of training himself to be still and silent was all that stood between him and ruin. 

Her too, he was reminded. That pretty little head on the block as sure as yours. You've doomed her, too.

The day Joff had insisted they disrupt her fitting had strained him to his limits, and he knew he'd been right to avoid her. Seeing her again, so close, in the room where it happened, and barely dressed...He should have tried harder to divert Joff. The boy king had been somewhat more amiable recently, delighted as he was at having come of age and knowing that his mother's regency was nearly at an end. The prospect of the terror he would wreak on his world kept the boy fairly contented of late. But careful suggestion had not been enough to deter the boy from his course, and they'd gone to her rooms, and when he saw her there, half naked in the sunlight - any other way, it would have been beautiful. But the girl had flushed with shame as her betrothed taunted her, and Sandor could only stand and witness. You should have stopped him sooner. He hadn't even had to look at her – Joff wasn't really paying attention – but he'd stood by and let the boy humiliate her. As he always did.

He'd tried harder to keep Joff busy since then. Keep him distracted. Seeing him lay hands on the girl had been an unwelcome reminder of what the little bird was in for. He hadn't liked the thought of it before, but now, after seeing what he had seen - it was hard enough to know someone else would have her. Knowing it would be Joffrey, and what he was likely to do to her...The boy is like to make her think on the pain of your bedding her with fondness. The thought of the last whore he'd carried from the boy's bedchambers sprang to his mind. She'd had red hair, too. You should have slit his fucking throat.

He'd drunken himself into a terrible stupor that evening, as well.

But no matter how much he drank and drank, the nights were worst of all.

Sandor Clegane had grown accustomed to dreams filled with terror, and fire, and blood, and screams. On the nights when he drank enough, and was lucky enough, he dreamt of nothing at all. Those were the best ones. But now?

Now she haunts me.

In the dark, on the edge of sleep, she came to him. The light in her eyes, in her hair, the sweet touch of her skin - and there was nothing he could do about it. Sometimes in the dreams, she never looked away, and didn't cry at all. In some, it was not her bed, but theirs.

In some, Joffrey crashed through the door, and had them both sent to the block.

It felt as if he hadn't slept in days. The very sun vexed him more than ever before, and it was all her doing. The little bird hiding her little talons, and she'd sunk them in deep that night. It made him furious. With her. With himself. With the whole bloody world. It would be easier to hate her, as he did all the rest. To see her for the fallen woman she surely was, and leave it at that. But if he was honest with himself - and he hated to be, these days - he knew it was more than that. She was more than that.

When she'd come to king's landing, singing her way down the king's road, he expected her to be the same as any highborn lady. Sweet and beautiful on the outside, but selfish and senseless within. She'd fawned over Joff, just as she was meant to, and all was on its merry way to a proper little marriage contract. And then Joff had cut her father's head off, and it started a war, and everything changed. 

He'd seen her in her darkest days, when she couldn't get out of bed, let alone wash or dress herself. He'd seen her cry and weep and rage, and stand on the ledge of her window, ready to meet her gods. And yes, he'd seen her corner her king on the battlements with murder in her eyes. He'd seen her turn calm and placid after that day, and for a time thought she'd been quietly resigning to her fate, like a good noble girl. But here and there he'd seen the flashes of something within her, saw her grasping his harsh warnings. Observing. Adapting. And the girl who'd come out the other side...he wasn't sure he knew what to do with.

Certainly not now, with her drinking wine each evening and daring him to enter her chambers, even knowing full well he was drunk and irate. She'd made sure to look him right in the eyes again. Guttered as he was, he could see there was no waver in her gaze, no fear of him or his hideous scars. She'd answered his animosity with some of her own. No longer content to suffer your jabs and insults lying down. She was still a demure little princess before the court, but alone in that hallway, he saw the she-wolf. And Gods, but he wanted her.

That was the terrible truth.

Sandor had spent so long – so very, very long – resigning himself to a life of service, eschewing the fatal desires that ruined the men around him. No want of a wife, nor lands, nor title. Pursuing what could not be had caused so many to fall, and he'd known better than to aim for any more than the Lannisters had been willing to give him. It was easier, that way. Secure. Nothing to be afraid of if there was nothing to lose. It had all made sense to him, then.

And now look at you. Dreaming of the red-haired girl a man like him hadn't any right to. Drinking himself half to death over the thought of her, all while knowing he'd never have her again. Wanting her more than he could remember wanting anything. He had tried to be angry with her, at first, for doing this to him - for breaking the rules, the order he'd known for so long. But in truth, all the girl had done was reached out a hand to him. He had taken it. Because he wanted to. Because deep down, he had always wanted to. Had always wanted her. And for all that she'd broken, and fallen, and come back a changeling – there was nothing in him that deserved her.

Except that she chose you, came the unbidden voice. The voice he'd been doing his level best to drown.

Aye, she'd chosen him. The only member of the kingsguard who hadn't yet beaten her bloody. High honour, that.

It wasn't his fault she'd hung on to these last shreds of her childhood hopes of courtly love and true knights. Wasn't his fault she thought he was the closest thing she had, just because he'd been the only one left who hadn't laid hands on her. And so she'd given him her maiden's gift. She likely thought it'd make him fall all over her.

Was she wrong? Look at you now, you bloody fool. Lying awake in the dark, driving himself mad thinking about her, exactly as he shouldn't. Unable to sleep, and facing yet another brutal dawn. One day closer to her wedding. One day closer to her death. And yours, the voice came again. Don't think they won't find out. Don't think you'll be forgiven.

Sandor rolled over in bed to stare at the empty fireplace as the first light of dawn began to probe its long fingers through the window.

So be it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, Sansa found neither the Hound nor the king present at the midday meal. In fact, the whole of the kingsguard was absent. Sansa did not know what to make of it, but knew better than to suspect it was anything good. The Queen was taking her meal in her rooms, but that was common now, with so much too prepare in these final weeks of her regency – Joffrey, however, never liked to miss an opportunity to lord over the people of the castle. He liked being seen, especially since he'd been coronated, and especially now that he was just weeks from taking over the rule from his mother. 

Sansa wasn't even sure who to ask about the men's whereabouts. It did not seem right to ask for news from a servant, except maybe Shae, but it was so difficult to find her at this time of day. Sansa was not familiar enough with any of the nobles at the high table to trust that they would not speak ill of her ignorance, should they deign to answer her at all. Sansa was always polite to the lords and ladies of King's Landing, as a good girl should be – but for some time now, it seemed none of them wanted to speak to her at all. The men were more likely to return her greetings with a curt nod than a courteous word, and the women...they're afraid to even be seen associating with me. No one invited her to dine or visit with them any more. She was lucky if they would stop to address her properly when she passed them in a hallway. I am a ghost here already, she thought. Perhaps, in some way, they all could feel it, too. She could not blame them for their avoidance, of course. They were right. To show Sansa Stark any kindness was to risk defying the King, and that was not a risk anyone here was prepared to take.

Well. Almost anyone.

Finished with her meal, Sansa left the great hall and took to her now-common pastime of silently wandering the halls. Perhaps I will hear some snippet of conversation that will explain, she thought. The absence of the King was a notable enough event, surely. And if she was careful and quiet, and kept out of the light, the servants hardly noticed her anymore. 

Sansa had been slipping amongst the shadows for some time when she heard a commotion of servants rushing from the direction of the kitchen with skins of wine and baskets of bread, one scolding the others to not keep the king waiting. Quickly, but cautiously, Sansa followed them through the halls to the outer yard, and found something of a crowd forming around the castle gates. There were groans of pain to be heard amongst the clamour of onlookers, and she soon realized that Joffrey and his kingsguard, and a handful of other soldiers, had just returned from some sort of mission. The kitchen servants had been sent to refresh them, while stable boys rushed in to retrieve the horses, and squires relieved the men of weapons and shields. Servants and gentry alike were gathering to view the spectacle, gasping and muttering as one man was laid out on the ground, suffering from a leg that seemed to have been crushed, despite being armoured. Spotting Joff among the men, Sansa instantly felt herself shrink behind a huddle of spectators, who clucked and gossiped about the event already. But she did not leave, for the Hound was there, too – and he was wounded.

Just then, Maester Pycelle pushed through the crowd, quick as his teetering old legs could take him, supply-laden assistants in tow. 

"About bloody time," Joff shouted at him. "If anyone had been seriously hurt, they'd have bled to death waiting here for your miserable old self." His words were harsh, as ever, but she could tell that beneath it, Joffrey was in something akin to a good mood. Obviously, there had been violence. She looked back at the Hound, now taking a swig of wine from one of the kitchen boys' skins, seemingly unconcerned about the bloody gash that the torn maille revealed in his side. It had taken her a moment to locate the wound – it was not the only part of him covered in blood.

"Apologies, my king," wheezed the old maester, "I came as fast as I-"

"Just see to my man," Joffrey interrupted. "I tire of his pitiful wailing." She noticed that the king's armour, though somewhat scuffed, bore no trace of blood. The maester hastened to the side of the moaning man with the mangled leg, instructing his assistants to ready a stretcher. Joffrey snapped something at the hovering kitchen boys that sent them scuttling back the way they had come - drawing his eyes to Sansa.

"Sansa!" He cried, a grin smearing his face. "To me."

Of course he saw me, she thought. Joff never missed a chance to torment her. She should have expected it by now. Sansa walked through the crowd as slowly as she dared, steeling herself for the impending confrontation. 

"You should have seen us out there, Sansa. Ripping the traitorous bastards to shreds, weren't we?" He turned to the Hound, who nodded in response. 

"Was there an attack?" Sansa asked hesitantly. Surely the whole castle would have been alerted if some sort of battle was underway?

"Of course not, you idiot. Only some peasants banging at our door, demanding food. More than we thought, at first, or Hayne would not have fallen and been trampled by his own horse, the fool." Joffrey rolled his eyes as a cry came up from the man Maester Pycelle attended. "One even managed to sting my Hound, but he paid for it."

Closer now, Sansa could see that the wound in the Hound's side was still bleeding.

"Should he not see the maester as well?" She asked.

 "A scratch, my lady," came his rasping reply. "Nothing of any concern."

 "It would take a deal more than some peasant's knife to bring down my Hound," Joffrey sneered, mocking her concern.

 "Of course, your grace," she responded, returning her gaze to the ground.

 "Your grace!"

 An eager young page approached, hopping neatly around the old maester and the grunting man in the dust.

 "The Queen requests your presence at once."

Joffrey frowned - he was taking less and less kindly to his mothers commands - but ultimately nodded.

"Yes, mother will be wanting to hear how our skirmish went. Clean yourselves up, men," he called to his companions. "I will see you in the great hall tonight, where we will share news of our victory!"

An indulgent cheer run out as the knights headed for their quarters and the King sauntered off without so much as a farewell to his betrothed. The crowd began to disperse, and as the maester's charge was lifted and carried away, Sansa walked up alongside the the old man.

"Maester Pycelle, I don't know if you noticed - the Hound had a wound in his side."

"Oh, nothing too troubling for a warrior of his size," the elderly man wheezed at the effort of walking and talking at once. "I'm sure he will heal well enough on his own."

"Are you?" Sansa thought of the blood leaking out over the Hound's armour. "It looked like it could be rather deep..." 

Pycelle waved his arm as one would half-heartedly wave off a fly.

"Your compassion does you credit, my lady, but I've seen the Hound take far greater wounds than this. He will be quite alright on his own."

Sansa stopped in front of the old man, causing him to stumble as the heavy maester's chain threw his balance.

"Forgive me, Maester, but does a member of the kingsguard, and his grace's own sworn shield, not merit at least an examination after taking a wound in combat?"

The maester's eyes widened, and his jaw worked with frustration as he searched for the words to respond to her defiance. Clearly, he had not expected such a challenge from the king's reticent bride-to-be.

"Farlen!" he called to one of his assistants, far ahead of them now, and the young man hurried back to the maester's side. "The last time I tried to examine the Hound," the old man muttered, all pretence of courtesy gone, "he threatened to cut off my beard and feed it to me! If your concern is so great, my lady, I suggest you see to him yourself!" Taking a cloth bag from the young aide and thrusting it into her hands, the Maester then hitched up his robes in a huff and retreated as quickly as his ancient bones would allow him.

Sansa was left blinking at the bag in her hands. The Hound would have gone back to his room by now - did she dare try to find him there? A flush crept up the back of her neck as she looked about the yard around her, and found no one who could have seen her exchange with the old man. The maester's suggestion and the hound's reputation might be enough to keep her above suspicion, but she could not be certain of it. Perhaps, she thought, her pulse skipping, if I could get all the way there without being seen...And just like that, her feet began to move, and Sansa found herself walking towards the white sword tower.

 

 

 

Although Sansa had been to the tower before, this time the walk seemed very long. Insecurity plagued her every step of the way, but somehow she marched on. Luckily, between the commotion at the gate and the ongoing wedding preparations, the few people she did pass had plenty on their own minds, and seemed almost not to see her at all as they hurried to their various purposes. I grow more invisible every day. 

Once inside the tower, Sansa suddenly realized that she had no idea which room belonged to the Hound. Cursing her foolishness, she retreated to a dark spot between torches to think. I could simply ask, she thought. Maester Pycelle did send me. But there was no one in the halls, and Sansa Stark, the king's own betrothed, could hardly go knocking on doors in the quarters of the kingsguard. I should have found Shae first. But there was hardly any guarantee that she would have located the willful handmaiden at this time of day. It could be nightfall before Sansa saw her again, and that really would be too late to be visiting the Hound's chambers.

Just then, a coarse shout echoed from around the corner, followed by a visibly shaken manservant scrambling away so quickly he did not even notice Sansa in the shadows. She felt the side of her mouth tip up as she stepped out of her little corner and crept down the hall the servant had emerged from.  When she found the door, Sansa took a deep breath, and knocked.

"Away, I said!" Came a familiar bark through the door. Unwilling to shout back through the heavy oak, Sansa knocked again.

"Do I have to bloody-"

The door jerked open, and the Hound's fearsome snarl froze in his throat at the sight of her. Sansa almost smiled. I've surprised him again. He stood in his breeches and bloodied shirt, and she was reminded that the Hound did not need his armour to look large and intimidating.

"What are you doing here?" He growled, still heated from yelling out the servant - or so she hoped. 

"Maester Pycelle sent me," she said by way of explanation. He looked her up and down, noticing the cloth bag she carried.

"Maester Pycelle should mind his bloody business," he ground out.

It suddenly occurred to her that he might not let her in. He could slam the door in her face. He hadn't come into her room the other night when she'd all but invited him in...perhaps she was the last person he wanted to see.

Still, it was too late to turn back now.

"It looks like a difficult injury to see to yourself...and I thought it might need stitching?" She held his gaze for what seemed like a long time. Let him glower at her, if he liked. Send her away, if that's what he wanted. But Sansa was no longer afraid of the Hound, and she would not cower for him any more.

"You wouldn't want to bleed through your tunic at supper, would you?" She tried again. This time, she was sure she saw his mouth twitch. 

Finally, begrudgingly, he stepped back just far enough for Sansa to slip through the doorway.

The room she found herself in was modestly sized and sparsely furnished. There was good light from a window on the outer wall, but no fire in the fireplace. Aside from the heap of soiled armour near the door - she had heard he cleaned and maintained it himself - it was rather neater than she might have expected, if she'd thought to expect anything. She was struck again by the amount of blood smeared over the steel. The sudden surety that he must have killed someone, not an hour ago, sent a shiver through her. Perhaps several people, even, in his duty to protect the king. She looked to him again, but his features told her nothing.

Stop balking, Sansa scolded herself. She'd known what he was; he'd told her enough times. Blurry memories of a man losing his arm on the day of the bread riots came back to her. The Hound was a warrior, and had not lost any of his ferocity for having shown her kindness. She must remember that. We've both done terrible things for the Lannisters. The thought made her sad, and yet...perhaps there was a small part of her that was glad to be reminded of his fierceness.

Sansa set her bag on the table by the window as the Hound latched and locked the door behind her. Unsure of how to begin, she spent a moment rifling through the contents of the maester's bag, finding plenty of clean cloths and healing salve, as well as a needle and thread.  

"If you could just, um...remove your shirt, and have a seat?"

The Hound looked at her for a long moment before complying, eventually pulling the ruined shirt up over his head and casting it aside with the rest before moving towards the simple bed.

She'd never seen the Hound shirtless before. He hadn't taken it off that night, and it had been dark in her room, besides. It had never occurred to her that he could have so many scars – that any man could, really. They criss-crossed his chest, his arms, his back - silvery lines cutting through the coarse black hair that seemed to grow everywhere. He has seen so many battles, she thought. The Hound could not be much past thirty years, and yet a few lines were so faded...how long ago had he begun fighting?

Reminding herself not to stare, Sansa poured herself a bowl of warm water from the pitcher in the corner - that must be what the servant was here for - and brought her supplies to the bedside. 

"If you don't mind...this will really be much easier if you lie down."

He gave her no expression, and she thought he was going to argue with her, but then he did as she asked.

The blood that had spread from his wound across his torso was matting the hair there, and she nearly tsked at the mess of it. She caught the sound of him grunting ever so slightly as he moved to lay himself down on the mattress, and she guessed that every twist and turn pulled at the wound painfully. With scars like his, he must have known how difficult it would be to clean and dress himself. Why didn't he let anyone help him? She felt his eyes on her as she carried the simple wooden chair from the table to the bedside and silently began her work.

A high-born daughter of winterfell did not receive extensive training in the healing arts, but life was hard in the North, and a lady must be ready for whatever winter brought her. And so, among a few simple remedies to common illnesses, Sansa had learned at least enough to wash and mend a wound like this. She tried to be careful as she cleansed away the excess blood, but the Hound's steady, impassive gaze made her wonder if he doubted she was up to the task. Perhaps he'll watch his tongue when I have a needle in my hand, she thought wryly. Finding the cleaned wound only a couple of inches long, and no longer bleeding profusely, Sansa felt relief as she set the water aside and began to pat the skin dry.

"It needs stitching, as I thought, but it doesn't appear to be too deep."

"Is that so?"

Sansa flicked her eyes to his, but Instead of his usual jeering tone, his words seemed only somewhat amused. Though it still rankled her pride, Sansa took it as a good sign.

"Yes, " she replied. "Luckily for you, I am rather good with a needle. But you will have to hold quite still, so it doesn't hurt too much." As she turned back to the table for her tools, she heard a snort that may have been somehow related to laughter. Sansa braced herself for the barb that customarily followed, but none came. Just him watching her with those unreadable eyes.

"This will sting," she warned, snapping off a length of thread and pulling it through her needle. The Hound only grunted in response.

Sansa set to work, and found her patient remarkably unflinching. From the first stitch to the last, the Hound did not so much as batt an eye. Not that she had expected him to, really. He has seen far worse than this, she thought, eyeing the scars on his chest again. When she was done, she asked him to sit again so she could dress the wound properly.

"Fourteen stitches. Not quite your record, I see," she remarked, setting her needle aside.

"Not quite," he rasped.

She applied a generous amount of healing salve, then told him to hold one folded cloth against the wound. Taking the binding cloth in hand, Sansa hesitated only a moment before reaching her arms around his waist to pass the wrap behind him. Too late, she realized that for her arms to reach, she had to lean in so close that her cheek was just a breath away from his skin. But she couldn't turn back now, so Sansa passed it around him a few more times, as quickly as she could, and focused very intently on tying the knot. She then turned away to gather up her materials, knowing he had seen the blush on her face.

"And here I thought I'd seen it all," the Hound rasped at her, breaking his relative silence while smoothing a hand over the newly-wrapped injury. He made a grating sound that she recognized as a slightly pained chuckle.

"I beg your pardon?" She responded, still placing supplies back into her bag, a little more attentively than necessary.

"After all, the little bird still blushes."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Sansa demanded, rounding on him. She was used to him making fun of her, but now? After she'd cleaned and sewn his wound? She felt her own hackles rising, and the need to return his antagonism overtook her, as it had when he'd been at her door the night before.

"You know what it means," he threw back at her. "Were you so insulted when the Hound left you untouched, you had to seek him out yourself to restore your pride?"

Heat flushed through her face again, and this time it was not from embarrassment. 

"Had to come all the way down here just to show you could, eh? Only you don't know how to say what it is you want. Still think yourself too bloody high." 

It was difficult to think how to answer him with when his words dripped with such bitterness, but she would not keep silent.

"I told you, I got what I wanted."

"Did you?" He rasped, shifting to the edge of the mattress, towering over her even while seated. "Then why are you here now?"

She had to tip her head back to meet his burning eyes, and her heart beat hard against her chest, but she made no move to leave.

"You were wounded. You needed–"

"Horseshit."

She opened her mouth, but no sound would come out. It felt like there wasn't enough air between them.

"What do you want?" He demanded.

"I don't-"

"What do you want?"

The rawness of his tone sent a thrill through her, leaving her skin tingling. Heat seemed to roll off of him in waves, and her eyes flickered to his bare chest. Her fingers itched to move, and she found herself raising her hand, slowly, to cup his jaw. 

"I want..." Her voice was a whisper. What?

"Seven hells," he muttered, before grabbing her around the waist and tossing her down on the mattress.

He hovered almost on top of her, in the narrow bed, and she could feel the terrible heat in him radiating through her silks.

"This?" He uttered, his lips brushing her throat, so close she didn't know whose pulse she felt thrashing against her chest. The realization hit her sharply, incredibly.

"Yes."

The Hound let out a breathe like a ragged sigh, and buried his face in her neck. For a moment, all she could feel was his mouth and tongue, as it had been that night, and then she was sighing, too.

The rest happened very quickly. His hands roamed her body, sometimes rough, sometimes sweet. The hair on his body tickled her skin. She wasn't sure who reached for her skirts first, but they were up around her waist in a flash, and a part of her was shy of being seen in the daylight, but it faded away quickly when he brought his hand over the thin linen garment between her legs. With his fingers pressing into her, and her pulse in his teeth, Sansa knew that yes, this is what she'd wanted, all along. It was so sweet, and so strong, and she couldn't name it, but yes. She squirmed and gasped, feeling engulfed by the form over hers, and somehow still not close enough. And it took too long, and yet no time at all, and he was clamping one hand over her mouth to muffle her helpless cries.

It was after, as her muscles began to unwind, that she realized she'd clung to him. A fist in his hair, the other digging into his shoulder. She slowly retracted her hands and let them fall to the mattress as her breath returned to her, and the Hound got up off the bed without meeting her eyes.

Could she think of him as the Hound, still? After all that had passed between them, somehow it didn't feel right.

She couldn't know how long she lay there, slowly floating back down to reality, but she rose up on her elbows when she saw the scarred man pull a fresh shirt out of the chest at the foot of the bed. She watched him pull it on over his bandages in confusion.

"Are you..." she began, uncertain. "Aren't you-?"

"Don't worry, little bird, we're finished," he muttered. "Wouldn't want to rip your pretty stitches." He continued to rummage around the chest, in search of something. "And you'll be needing to dress for dinner."

The cold logic of the words cut through the dreamy haze in her head. Dinner, she thought. In the hall. She wrinkled her nose slightly. With Joffrey. She rose reluctantly from the bed, smoothing her skirts back down. Standing awkwardly, she brought a hand to her hair.

"Do you have a glass?" She asked, looking around the bare walls of the room. The sunlight through the window, though somewhat lower now, seemed unusually harsh.

He turned away from the chest, finally, and looked her over. Stepping closer, he raised one hand to gently tuck a stray lock behind her ear, then ran it smoothly over the back of her head.

"You're fine," he rumbled at her, softly. Then he stepped away again, pulling on the tunic he had found.

"Go, now. You don't want to be seen leaving here with me." She felt her brows draw together. His tone was so empty and distant, when only a moment ago he'd been...they'd been...

He is the Hound again, she realized. In the space between the bed and the chest, the man before her had changed again.

Sansa folded her arms around herself, feeling suddenly rather cold. She couldn't think of anything else to say, and he clearly had no more words for her. So she simply nodded to his turned back, and left the room in silence.

Chapter Text

 

 

Three weeks before her wedding, Sansa sat in the window of her chambers, sewing by the bright, warm light of morning.

It was a familiar position. Over the years, Sansa had spent countless hours in this very spot, trying to distract herself from her frightening circumstances. She'd gone through her supply of embroidery floss long ago, and had taken to unravelling the stitching on old gowns to keep herself busy. It was nice enough to read by the window, too, but they let her have so few books, and rereading poetry and epic histories no longer held her interest. But no matter what she held in her hands to pass the time, Sansa's heart had always spent these hours far, far away. Here, in the quiet window seat, all she could think of was home. 

She had hoped, for so long, that her family would come for her. She had truly believed, once, that her brother would thwart every Lannister host, come crashing through the gates of the Red Keep, and rescue her from her tower. That it was only a matter of time before she was home, and safe, and she could put the terrifying events of King's Landing behind her. It could never be the same without her father, of course, and she would never again sleep so soundly as she had with Lady by her side. But still, she would weep for joy to see the snowy walls of Winterfell again. To run into her mother's arms, to see all her brothers and Arya, safe and sound.

But those were the foolish hopes of weak and stupid little girl. Sansa knew better, now.

She had been losing hope for some time before the wedding was announced. It seemed with every month that passed, the Lannisters clutched her tighter, and when the war had gone on so long that Joff came of age to rule...it was hardly a shock when the date was set. Like a part of her had known all along that she would never escape this place. Like this was her gods-given penance for betraying her father to the Queen. For even if Robb won now, today, with some improbably great victory, he would never reach her in time to stop the ceremony. And with the state of things now, it was more than likely that the fighting would go on for years yet; time enough for Joffrey to give her heirs, if she let him. And so she'd made her plan. She was lost to her family now, anyway, if she became one of them by marriage – a wife and mother to the house that murdered her father. The very thought of such a future made her sick to her stomach. Better to give her life in defiance than betray her own blood like that. Never again.

Sansa gasped softly, having jabbed herself with her needle. She quickly brought the tip of her finger to her mouth, loathe to get blood on her work, and tried to refocus her attention on the task at hand.

The gift she'd been preparing for the Hound - for Clegane, she corrected herself - was nearly finished. It had been difficult to decide what to make for him, as her skills lay mostly in the realm of dainty, feminine decoration, but she had finally decided on a practical pair of gloves. They would do him little good in the hot summers of King's Landing, but winter always came eventually, though she would not be here to see it. Something to remember me by, she thought, a sad smile on her lips.

She had had to make do with the materials she had at hand, but Sansa was rather pleased with the result. She'd made them from fine black wool, and lined them in a softer, quilted grey wool for warmth - both from dresses she'd brought from Winterfell, all that time ago. Lacking much choice in thread colour, Sansa had worked a background stitch in yellow over almost the whole of the outside of the gloves, leaving spaces in the shape of three dogs, and a patterned border along the wrists. She would have liked to have been able to measure Clegane to be sure, but Sansa felt she now had a rather good sense of how big his hands were. The thought brought the colour to her cheeks, despite being alone in her chamber. Yes, the gloves ought to fit nicely.

So long as he accepts them, she thought uneasily. Clegane had always rejected her courtesies in the past, but surely he would not refuse an actual gift? He had seemed angry with her at their last two meetings – at least, his words had certainly been as harsh as ever. But if he was cross with her, why would he...do what he'd done for her, in his room? Despite his open antagonism, he had given her pleasure, while taking none of his own. Could his wound really have pained him so badly? He'd been cold to her after, too, but that she could understand. He had to put his mask on before returning to the court, just as she did. It would be foolish to let such a thing hurt her feelings. Sansa might be pleased to catch glimpses of the man hiding behind the Hound when he let her, but she had no claim to him. After everything he'd done for her, Clegane owed her nothing. And whatever his motivations, he was still the closest thing she had to a friend in all of King's Landing. And he has given me more than I can repay. Sansa shook away the confusing thoughts as she finished the last of her stitches. And besides, who would turn their nose up at a good pair of gloves? 

As she snipped her threads, Sansa wondered how best to give them to him. She could not simply present them to him in public, of course. Innocent as they all thought she was, such a blatant show of favour from the king's betrothed would bring questions, and that could hurt him as much as her. Perhaps if she secretly carried them with her through the day, she might chance to cross his path? But no, that seemed unlikely. He was avoiding her again, so she knew it would be difficult to catch him by happenstance. And besides, being caught with the gloves would be as bad as waving them before the court. Trying to enter his rooms again would be terribly risky, without the excuse of a fresh wound to mend...but leaving them in her room for too long could be risky, too. She'd kept her work folded up in the chest that held her old winter clothes, hoping that was well enough out of the way that the chamber maids wouldn't see, but Sansa knew it was more than likely that they occasionally rifled through her things on purpose. She had to think carefully about how to deliver them, and soon.

 

In court that day, the mood was jovial. Joffrey was still in a good mood from his highly successful sortie against the rebelling common folk, and was still beguiling the court with his tale of heroism two days after the fact. Sansa could not stop herself watching the Hound – no, Clegane – for signs of his injury worsening, but the man stood as tall and still as ever. 

Her attention was diverted when some minor lord from the Westerlands - she couldn't remember his name, there were so many like him visiting for the wedding - raised concerns about news that Stannis planned to set sail for King's Landing at any moment.

A gasp rippled through the gallery, followed by a wave of concerned murmuring. The lord was young, she saw, and far too eager to address the king in such a way. He must be new to King's Landing, Sansa thought, or he would know better than to ask the king such an unwelcome question. It was common knowledge about the castle how irritable Joffrey became at any mention of his uncle, who claimed the king and his siblings were illegitimate. Any reminder that Joff's right to rule could be questioned was dangerous indeed.

Joffrey did look considerably less pleased than he had a moment ago, and while Sansa wished she could enjoy his displeasure, she knew what horrible ends it could lead to. Luckily, the queen opened her mouth before he could.

"Lord Serrett, is it?" Cersei smiled, but her green eyes glittered with disdain.

"Yes, your grace," the man bowed, beaming at the acknowledgement of his queen.

"Surely my lord does not mean to question the king's ability to protect his city?" The words were simple enough, but the queen's tone was razor sharp. Lord Serrett drew his brows, realizing his mistake.

"No, your grace, of course not, I only–"

"You only wanted to be sure the king and all his court noticed you and your concerns? Not to worry, Lord Serrett. Rest assured, you have been noticed." The man shrank before the malice in her voice, and grew noticeably pale. Cersei then raised her head to address all those present. "The crown is well aware of the state of the war, and any possible threat to our great city. You may be sure that every precaution is being taken to assure the safety of our guests, and that the king and his small council are perfectly well-informed without the assistance of courtly rumours." Her gaze returned to the unfortunate Lord Serrett, who squirmed beneath her glare. Sansa expected he would be lucky to return home in one piece after the wedding.

"My uncle is a traitor and a usurper," Joffrey finally burst, unwilling to let his mother have the last word. "Every one of my men is worth ten of his. A hundred! If he is stupid enough to attack this city, my city, then we will tear his pitiful army limb from limb! I am the rightful king of the seven kingdoms, and those who dispute it will die in agony!"

He was answered by a round of nervous applause, led most emphatically by the hapless young Lord Serrett.

 

At the midday meal, the news of Stannis' approach was all anyone could talk about. Is it really so close? Sansa thought, sipping her wine. The war had gone on for years now, and there was some sign of it in King's Landing - the hunger among the smallfolk, the steady stream of refugees into the city - but until now, the fighting itself had always seemed far-off. Would Stannis really attack the capitol itself? There are so many visitors here for the wedding...What would happen to them if a battle took place on their doorstep?

This and more was on the minds and lips of everyone in the great hall, above the salt and below. Even Clegane seemed to have reason to converse with his fellow kingsguard, which was unusual for him. At the high table, Joffrey only complained to his mother about the lord who had questioned him, and groused that his people still did not take him seriously. 

"It's because you're always there, standing beside me, " she heard him gripe. "I know what they say about me, that I hide behind your skirts still. Someone should be punished."

"People talk, my dearest. Small minds are not content without something to complain about. You mustn't trouble yourself with the opinions of the sheep." The queen always used her most soothing voice with Joffrey, but the syrupy sweetness of her tone made Sansa want to roll her eyes.

"You've been saying that for years!" Joff blurted, drawing the attention of others at the high table. "I'm tired of listening to you! I'm tired of waiting to have my way!"

"Joffrey, my love, please–" Cersei tried to assuage him, but the king pushed away from the table and stormed out of the hall. The queen sighed as a hum of gossip began to travel up and down the trestle tables. Cersei looked out to find the Hound in the crowd, and gestured to him. Sansa saw him nod, finishing a gulp of wine before he rose to go after the king. With the queen now turning aside to try to smooth away the talk at the high table, Sansa realized this was her chance. Draining her cup for courage, she slipped away as quietly as possible, and in the commotion Joffrey's tantrum left behind, no one noticed her absence. 

Hurrying through the corridor to catch him in time, Sansa turned a corner and all but collided with the man.

"What in the hells–?" Clegane caught her by the arms, his face reading first surprise, and then plain irritation.

"I need to speak with you," she said in a rush, hardly knowing what she was doing. Clegane shook his head in disbelief.

"I don't have time for this," he rasped, letting go of her and turning to march off again.

"Wait, please, I have a–" Sansa made to go after him, and was interrupted when he swung around, grabbed her with arms of steel, and bundled her into a nearby alcove, a hand over her mouth and a stormy expression on his face. Her heart leapt into her throat as she heard someone pass very nearby, whistling. A beat passed, and the great hand over her mouth released its grip.

"What?"

Sansa felt her brows draw together. All she wanted was to give him a gift. She wouldn't have had to chase after him like this if he wasn't so steadfastly avoiding her all the time.

"I just wanted to tell you that I made you a gift." The words came out sharper than she'd meant.

"A gift," he repeated, incredulously. "You're chasing me down the hall in broad daylight to give me a gift?" Her shoulders were shaken in his exasperated grasp.

"Well, no," she began crossly. "That is, I don't have it with me. It's in my room..."

He narrowed his eyes at her. A thought sprang into her mind, and it was on her tongue before she could stop it.

"You must come and get it."

His mouth twitched as he considered her. Sansa swallowed thickly, shocked by her own words, but she did not drop her gaze from his.

"You want me...to come to your room?" The words were like metal against stone, but they sent a thrill through her all the same.

"Yes," she replied. "If you want your gift." It really did make the most sense. How else could she get it to him without anyone seeing? 

A moment stretched between them, long and maddening. The sound of a door opening nearby caused her to start, and in an instant, she was alone. Clegane's heavy footsteps receded down an adjacent hall as Sansa's breath returned to normal. She felt a giddiness bubbling up inside her throat, and she struggled to hold it in.

When did I become so bold? She wondered, amazed at herself. It was happening a lot lately, even when he made her angry. Especially when he made her angry. I should be more careful what I say to him, she admonished herself. But…she couldn’t quite bring herself to regret her words, either. It was the best way to give him his gift.

 

Sansa spent the rest of the day wrestling with her nerves. I can't believe I invited him to my room, she thought for the hundredth time. The king did not attend court that afternoon, no doubt preferring to relieve his temper by going off to destroy something. Or someone. The idea left Sansa cold, but the king's absence did leave her free to wander the castle grounds as she pleased. As usual, she soon found herself in the quite of the godswood.

What if he doesn't come? She thought, all but pacing the soft earth. And why should he? Why should he risk being discovered in her tower for the sake of some scraps of wool? The gentle breeze through the old trees usually calmed her, but they did not seem so serene today.

She was playing a dangerous game, she knew, continuing to seek out Clegane as she had. He was the king's own sworn shield, and not an easy man to miss, should he be seen. And yet, deep down, she knew could not have stopped herself. He'd been on her mind so often since that first night. How he had been both rough and soft with her, and careful when it really mattered. And then yesterday, in his room...It did not matter how well he avoided her, she would never forget what they had done. What he had done for her 

What do you want, he had asked.

No one had asked her that in so, so long. What did she want?

The wind rustled the branches above her, and she suddenly remembered the couple she had seen here the other night. They had been drunk, and rushed, and clumsy...but they had seemed happy, hadn't they? She thought about what Shae had said, about why some women took lovers. She thought about the numbered days ahead of her.

What do I want? 

The godswood was as silent as ever, offering no council, only echoing her own thoughts back at her. And today, they were clear enough.

She wanted to see him again.

 

That evening, Sansa returned to her rooms to find a bath had been set up for her. Silently, she cursed herself for forgetting it was washing day. She did her best to hide her frustration as she thanked the chambermaid and shut the door behind her. Sansa usually loved her baths, but they were time-consuming, and it meant Shae would stay with her to help wash and comb out her hair. What if he comes while she’s here? He’d never made that sort of mistake before, of course. It was as if he knew all the comings and goings of the maids and servants in her rooms. But then, that might mean he wouldn’t come at all, and that thought didn’t please Sansa either.

“Good evening, my lady," Shae greeted her. "Shall I help you with your dress?”

She could hardly refuse to bathe; that would be suspicious, not to mention a waste. He probably never intended to come anyway. 

The water did feel good, lukewarm though it was. Shae took her time adding bath oils and soaking her hair, and Sansa did her best not to seem too distracted. She tried to enjoy the cleansing ritual as she usually did, but tonight, the task did nothing for her nerves, and she found her eyes drifting towards the door at least a dozen times.

When she had been thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed, and the bathwater had turned quite cold, Shae finally helped Sansa out of the tub and into a soft linen towel. She sat still as her handmaiden squeezed the dripping water from her hair with more linen, but stopped her when Shae reached for a comb.

“I’ll comb it tonight, Shae. You can go.”

“Are you alright my lady?” The woman's tone contained genuine concern, and Sansa smiled at her reassuringly.

“I’m fine, only…I’m very tired tonight.”

Shae nodded, and bid her goodnight before latching the door behind her.

Sansa wrapped herself in a soft dressing gown and sat in a chair by the fire to comb and dry her hair. The moon was high in the sky outside her window, and she knew the hour grew late. Her gaze alternated between the door and the fireplace, and she felt foolish for waiting. For hoping. It is only as small gift, she told herself, pulling at a particularly stubborn knot. Her long hair was difficult and tedious to comb while wet, but it would be worse if she slept on it. I should have let Shae do it after all, she thought irritably, her arms growing tired as she continued to work her way up the long tresses, with still no sign of her would-be visitor. Still, she remained in her chair when she had finished.

It was some time later, as Sansa began to feel herself nodding sleepily, that she finally heard a curt knock at the door.

 

Chapter Text

 

Never again, he had told himself as he left her room that night. The days after had been hard, but he'd kept to his word. Before long, it could have been as if nothing had ever happened.

But then she'd come to his chambers.

He'd been surprised, yes. Did she not know how dangerous it was to be anywhere near his room? Even with the meagre excuse of a healing errand – damn that bastard Pycelle for putting the thought into her head.  Why couldn't she just stay away from him, as a girl with any sense would? Why did she follow the Hound to his room, alone, bid him undress and lay down before her? What could possibly have possessed her?

But understanding had come over him as he'd watched her. The way she'd been at turns both bold and nervous, he knew she'd been aware of the implications of her actions. He wouldn't have believed it, if she hadn't been right in front of him, touching his bare skin and blushing; she'd come with a purpose. 

There was only one thing she could possibly want from a dog like him. The thing she hadn't known existed before that night. The thing she could not hope to find in her looming marriage. She'd sat alone in her tower and realized she might never have it again for all the rest of her days. She had come to him greedy for pleasure, fearing she would find it no where else.

Part of him was furious. He'd left her the night before for a reason. He did not want her scent on his skin, or in his bed. It was hard enough to sleep as it was. Did she think it made no difference to him, what she was doing? That she could come down here, and toss her curls, and use him as she wished? Her very touch was treason – didn't that mean anything to her?

But part of him could not blame her. She was right. Sansa Stark had not known a soft touch since the death of her father, and she would find none in the years ahead, either. Was it any wonder the girl was hungry for something, anything, resembling affection, however twisted the one who gave it to her? What harm could it do, came the wretched voice, to give the girl a little comfort, before she marches into her end?  And when she had finally admitted it, had told him the bitter truth – gods, he could not stop himself.

But it had been a mistake. To see her like that, in full daylight, the flush in her cheeks and the twist of her brow, her auburn hair splayed over his pillows, her moans a siren song...The images danced in his mind even now. Made him weaker. Made him want. She called to him, every fibre of him, and it had taken everything he had to drag himself away. It may have been comfort for her, but it was poison to him. Sweet and bitter all at once. And one step closer to madness.

Never again, he had told him self once more as she'd left the white sword tower.

And yet somehow, here he stood, at Sansa Stark's door.

He'd told himself he wouldn't half a hundred times that afternoon. Shouldn't have even let her speak to him in the hallway - it was only luck that they hadn't been seen. He knew well enough what her gift was like to be, bewildering as it was, and pursuing it would make him no better than any fool who'd ever chased a highborn woman's skirts to his own ruin.

But he'd had another taste of her, and it would not leave him be. Her bold invitation had echoed around his head all day, louder than his own thoughts, however he tried to quash it down. The hours that followed had felt long and arduous, as they did when expectation hung in the mind. And try as he might, when the sun had set and his shift was over, he had found himself climbing the steps to her tower all the same, like a bloody drunk to wine.

He shook his miserable head, and rapped on the door.

A moment later, it creaked open, and the little bird greeted him with a smile that put her daily mask of courtesy to shame.

She opened the door wide, and he took in the scene before him - a spent bath, bottles of oil, the robe the girl was wearing – as she waited for him to enter. The smell of the bath oils scented the room, and the girl's slightly-damp hair shone in the candlelight. It was clear what she intended. He ground his teeth together silently. Did she think he was at her beck and call, now? That she could tell him to come, and do her bidding, and he would do just that? But you did come, came the voice. And you want to do it.  He ground his teeth all the more. But the longer he stood in her doorway, the greater the chance of being caught. And so, mouth twitching, Sandor stepped inside 

"Thank you for coming," she murmured, latching the door behind him. She smiled again, but he only sniffed in reply. He didn't want to help her. If she wanted something from him, she should stop playing with him, and bloody well say it out loud.

"So," she began, seeming unnerved at his silence. Good.

"I don't have much, as you know but...I made you something." To his mild surprise, she crossed the room to her armoire, and began rummaging through a chest inside. "Here," she said, finding whatever it was, and clutching it to her chest before returning to him.

"I, um...I hope they fit." She reached out to present him with a bundle of yellow cloth.

He was confused, for an instant. This was not what he had expected. He looked to her, and then at the bundle again. At second glance, he realized it was a pair of gloves. They were heavily embroidered, and massive in her delicate hands.

"This is..." He didn't know what to call it. No one had ever made him a gift before. Or at least, not since...

"Your fine work is wasted on the likes of me, girl," he rasped, shaking his head. Did she think she owed him this? For the other day, or for the first time? He didn't want that. "I'll just ruin your pretty work." He tried to make it sound sharp, but the words fell flat even on his own ears. Still, he saw the girl set her jaw in that way she'd been doing lately.

"Who else do I have to waste it on?" She looked down at the gift, stroking a thumb over the elaborate stitches. "I'm alone here, when Joffrey has no use for me." There's that venom, again. "All I have is books and threads. My own clothes have been embroidered so much, they're more floss than fabric." She gave a humourless laugh. "What else would you have me do up here?"

He had no answer for that.

"It's too warm for gloves," he rumbled, but he knew that sounded weak, too.

"I won't be here when winter comes." She said it quietly, but with such certainty, and only a little sorrow.

"Take them," she insisted, stepping closer until they were practically in his hands anyway. Her eyes were demanding, but they were also...something else. He finally lifted one hand and closed it around the offering, and the girl let go with a small smile and a satisfied nod.

Even a rough man like him could tell they had been finely made. Up close, he could see that they were not truly yellow, as he had thought, but black, covered in many hours' worth of stitches in yellow threads. They carried his house sigil, and did feel thick enough to be good and warm. A Northern girl would know, he supposed. They even looked big enough for him.

They stood like that, across from each other, neither sure what to say, for a long moment. Was that it, then? Could this really be all she asked him here for? As he took a breath to take his leave, she broke the silence.

"How is your wound healing?" Her words came out in a rush as she nodded at the place in his side that she'd stitched up not long ago.

"Well enough," he answered. It had not been very deep, and barely pained him now 

"May I see it?"

There it is. Her face conveyed genuine concern, though the bath and the oils spoke otherwise. This was his chance, then, to turn her down, to laugh in her face at her little ploy. But as her bright eyes held his gaze, the words would not come to him, and he did not feel like laughing. In fact, he found himself stepping further into the room.

He placed the gloves on the table by the fire, and and began to unfasten his armour, eyes on her innocent face, defying her to look away. He'd never been interested in having a squire, so he was well practiced at removing it unaided. He let it fall to the floor as the girl's eyes darted here and there, and he noted her fidgeting hands. Next came his tunic, and finally, his linen shirt.

Her eyes dropped to the new scar forming at his side, and she stepped closer to see it in the firelight. She bent down for a better look, and the flicker of the flames danced in the shifting auburn of her hair, her eyes reflecting warmly in the light. She reached a hand up, pausing just for an instant, before laying her cool fingers on the skin around the stitches.

"It doesn't feel too warm," she remarked after a beat, looking back up at him.

 "Good," he rasped.

"You have many of these," she observed, straightening up, now standing only a hands-breadth away from him. He could smell the oils that lingered in her hair.

"I've seen many battles," he replied simply. Her eyes roamed over his torso, considering every scar. Her hand still rested on his side, as if she'd forgotten it there.

"Do they hurt?" She asked, a furrow marking her brow. 

"Not anymore."

Her gaze rose back to his, and he fought the urge to flinch.

She reached up her other hand and cupped the scarred side of his face.

"None of them?" 

He felt his mouth twitch.

"No." 

He could barely feel it through the scar tissue, but he knew that she was stroking her thumb along his ruined cheek, and his jaw clenched. Perhaps emboldened by his inaction, the girl then ran her fingers down the side of his face, over the burnt part of his lips, until he could bare it no more. He caught her hand, brows drawn, shaking his head almost imperceptibly.

"What are you doing, little bird?" His words were a whisper.

She met his eyes again, steadfastly. Certain.

"I know what I want."

It was as if the air had left the room. 

She leaned into him just a fraction, and then there was no more thinking.

Her lips were so soft, so sweet on his scarred ones. He tried to be careful with them, but she awoke something ravenous in him, and he felt like to devour her. She had one hand on the scarred side of his face, one tangled in the hair on his chest, and he felt his arms surround her, crushing her to him, until he was sure neither of them could breathe. His hands were on her back, at her waist, in her hair, and he was consumed by the scent and feel of her. She moaned – moaned – against his lips, and then he couldn't help hitching her up against him and carrying her to the bed.

They landed together, hands still clinging everywhere, and he buried his face in her neck, working his way down as he tore at the belt of her robe. She keened as he dragged one hand down her body, to the hem of her shift, and hiked it up to her hips. Her hands grasped at his shoulders as he touched her, and found she was not wearing smallclothes.

He stroked her gently, over the hair she had there, and he felt the shuddering breath as it left her chest – or his – or both. But when he parted her curls and touched the slick flesh within, he heard a sharp whine that was not of pleasure. His hands were too rough, he realized, to touch her without linen between them. He tried to touch her more gently, less directly, but she was so wet his fingers kept slipping. She sucked in a breath – still too bloody polite to come out and say it – and he knew there was nothing for it. His hands would not do.

Sandor crawled down the bed until he was level with the join in her legs, and put his mouth on her.

Sansa cried out loud, then, and he knew this time she was pleased. He gripped her shaking hips and began to work her flesh with his lips his tongue, guessing at every move. But if he was inexperienced, she had no way of knowing, and certainly didn't seem to mind. She tossed and turned beneath him, digging her toes into the mattress, and it wasn't long before he had her at her climax.

He sat back and wiped his mouth with the back of one hand as she lay there, trying to catch her panting breath. She was so beautiful, like this. So utterly beautiful. Her soft hair fanned out all over the pillows, her cheeks flushed with colour, her chest heaving with ragged breaths. Her shift was twisted around her legs, and he could see her shivering with echoes of pleasure. It was a sight he knew he would keep with him a long, long time. Even if it wasn't for him. Could never be. 

Maybe it was no great harm, after all. Let her have her visits in the night. Let her take her pleasure where she could. And if she chose him to give it to her, well, what did that matter, if he got to see her like this? He may be the only man in the world who ever would.

When the room was still and quiet again, Sandor stepped off the bed and walked back over to his pile of clothing. He had just taken his shirt in hand when he heard her voice again.

"Wait." She'd sat up, her cheeks still pink, and her hair mussed from the bed. "You didn't...aren't you going to...?" The confusion on her face was plain.

"Don't worry about it," he muttered, reaching for his tunic.

"No, wait," she continued. "Please, stop." He let his arms drop to his sides.

"As my lady commands." Her frown deepened.

"I didn't mean it like that."

"Then what did you mean?"

"I meant..." She appeared to be choosing her words carefully. Always so careful with her pretty little words.

"...I don't want you to think that I meant for you to give...without receiving."

If he wasn't so stunned, he might've laughed – he'd just had his mouth on her cunt, and still she couldn't say the words. But he got her meaning clear enough, even if he didn't understand her reasons. It was more than tempting. His cock strained against his breeches, begging him to accept without question, to stride over there and take her as he wanted, as he'd dreamt. But he was not yet so out of his mind, despite appearances. He didn't want anything she offered only out of guilt. He didn't want to see turn her head away again. He shook his head at her.

"You don't have to do that."

"I want to."

He made the mistake of looking at her again, and before he could think of a clever response, she rose up on her knees and reached a hand out to him.

And that was enough.

Though his blood felt set to boil, he tried to approach her slowly. He met her outstretched hand with his own and stood before her. She reached up to pull his face back down to hers and she kissed him again. He leaned into her gingerly, and she lay back down on the pillows, bringing him with her. One hand in her hair again, kissing his way down her chin, her neck, her collarbone. He stroked her belly, her hips, her thighs, and she sighed beneath him. The sounds she made – that she made for him – were enough to undo his composure. He reached for his laces, trying to undo them with one hand.

"Wait," she said again.

Here it comes.

"Can I...may I see, this time?" He looked up into curious eyes.

Oh.

He sat up, regarding her honest, if somewhat abashed, expression.

"I suppose," he began thickly. "I might be convinced."

"Convinced?" 

"Aye. Convinced." She shook her head, not understanding. So bloody innocent.  A dry chuckle escaped him.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

"Oh," she answered, chagrined. "Alright."

With seemingly great effort, Sandor pulled himself up from the bed to stand before her, noticing her sudden focus on his laces. He finished untying them, dropped his breeches to the floor, and kicked them away. Her eyes travelled over his legs, then back up at him, expectantly. He let out a breath – you've come this far – and removed the last scrap of fabric between her and his manhood.

Her eyes widened slightly - but in something that looked more like fascination than fear. She's probably never even seen one. 

She lifted a hand unconsciously.

"May I—?"

He could only nod.

She reached out and touched, then stroked her fingers down the hard, aching length of him. It was difficult not to shudder.

"It's so soft," she breathed. She closed her hand gently around the shaft, gliding up to the–

"That's enough," he grunted, stepping back out of her reach. You're as like to spill in her hand as a green boy.

"Your turn," he rasped hoarsely.

She blushed, but stood up off the bed in front of him. Hesitating only a moment, she lift the hem of her shift up over her head and let it fall to the floor. She looked away at first, and he saw that she blushed in more than her cheeks. But a breath later, she glanced back up at him through her lashes.

He stepped towards her, acutely aware of how small she seemed, naked, in front of him. Ivory and porcelain-smooth, like a doll. When he was close enough to touch her, he tried to watch her eyes as he brushed the backs of his knuckles along the side of one breast. His calloused hands were not made to be gentle, but for the first time in his life, he wanted to try. She shivered, and her eyelids fluttered, but she did not look away. 

It was he who reached down to kiss her, then, as he lowered her back onto the bed. 

Her skin was so pale, and so soft, and gods, he could feel her everywhere. She gasped when he moved his mouth to one breast, and, careful of his rough hands, rubbed his knuckles over the other. He trailed his mouth down her ribs, her stomach, her hips, and back up, hearing all the things he wanted to hear from her.

Her beauty enticed him, of course – a kind of beauty he never thought to hold in his own arms. But there was a strength, there, too, in this girl who would invite a Hound into her bed, and it pulled him in, and in. He struggled to curtail the darkness she brought out in him – did she know what it did to him, to be with her like this? He did not just hold her breasts and hips when she let him put his hands on her. He held her heart, her ribs, between his palms, her pulse between his teeth. He dragged his body over hers, clung to her so fiercely he thought she might break - and through it all, she whispered, "yes".

Finally, he positioned himself at her entrance, and looked to her eyes again.

She nodded.

He pushed.

It was easier, this time, but hardly the stuff of dreams. She gripped the blankets and clenched her teeth, yet she did not turn away. Still, he could tell by how her muscles clenched each time he moved that he was hurting her, and it quickly doused his passion. He would not have her suffer to endure him.

"I don't...you don't have to do this."

"No, it's alright," she immediately replied. "I want to." He let out a breath.

Trying to recall what bits and pieces he knew of such things, Sandor lifted her up and shifted them both so that he was sitting against the head board and she in his lap.

"Try this " he grunted, guiding her hips over him. 

She didn't understand at first, but he showed her where to put her hands, and told her how to move. She was unsure, but did what he said, and lowered herself down onto him.  

He guided her hips with his hands, bringing her shallowly onto him and up again. Her uncertainty made her tense at first, but soon he could tell she was more content, and they began moving together. She was able to take him a little deeper, and a little deeper, and–

He jerked her forward to spill himself on the sheets with a groan, leaving her body flush against his. As he relaxed back into the bed, she stayed with him, laying her head on his shoulder, the brush of her lashes caressing his skin as she closed her eyes. He stared up at the canopy in a haze, listening to the sound of their panting breaths returning to normal, feeling both their beating hearts slow alongside each other. It was warm, and soft, and fragile. Neither of them moved for a long time.

Her slow breathing told him she hovered on the edge of sleep – so vulnerable, and with a beast in her bed – and he imagined he could feel her sinking, seeping into the cracks of him, filling in spaces he had not known were there. He found himself wondering what it would be like to sleep so easily, in her arms. To watch the warm dawn break through the window and fall over the curves of her body, of that auburn hair. 

But he wasn't meant to see that, of course. She may let him come to her bed to pleasure her, but she would never belong to him. 

He stirred, and felt her whine softly against his throat at the disruption. He turned to move the girl off of him and lay her gently on the pillows, and cold air rushed in between them. She gathered the covers around herself, watching him climb out of the bed and begin to dress. His arms felt slow and heavy, but the fog was lifting from his mind by the time he was finished. He glanced sidelong at the girl watching him from the bed. He should say something, but couldn't think what. Instead, he made for the door. Coward. 

"Will you come again?" Why did the very sound of her voice stop him in his tracks like that?

"I shouldn't."

"But will you?" She insisted. As if she knew he'd been losing hold of himself for days 

His gaze fell upon the gloves she'd made. He picked them up, stroking a thumb over the dense stitches. When he spoke, the sound barely reached his own ears.

"...Maybe."

He left the room silently, tucked the gift into his armour, and began the long trek back to his own chamber.

In his room, he pulled the gloves out again, examining them in the moonlight. He did not own anything else so finely made. Finally, he tried them on. A perfect fit.

Of course it is. She knows you now, dog. Better than anyone else alive.

It was then he should have known that he was lost.

  

Never again, he told himself in the morning.

Another night had past, filled with torture-sweet dreams of a girl that made him dread the dawn – but in the sobering light of day, it was clear that they had only risked their lives again for a few short moments of pleasure. Fury pulsed through his veins at the thought of his own weakness. The girl had said she had nothing left to lose, and it may well seem that way to her eyes, but the king's Hound knew better. There were horrors awaiting that she could not dream, and his lack of control would doom them both.

A maid will smell it on the sheets, he thought, as he clad himself in leather and armour in his rooms. Someone will discover the tea you send, as he stood guard next to his king in court. Your absence from the taverns will be noticed, as he took his meal in the great hall with his fellow guards. You can never go back, as he stood in the shadows outside the small council.

You may well have killed her already. 

It was so clear, in the daylight. So simple. So obviously impossible. 

But then the night came.

As before, he tried to find solace in drink. He stayed out late among the people, whom the city was so full of now. Distracted himself from treacherous memories by gambling, even starting a fight or two. The taverns were full of vices to appeal to a man like him. But soon or late, the moon came high, and he had to walk back to his room, alone, in the long shadow of her tower. And in the dark, he could see her eyes, looking up into his. In the quiet, he could hear her sighing and moaning in his ears. In the cold, he could feel her soft hands on his skin.

And there, in the night, beneath the wine and the ache and the fury, he sensed something within himself shifting. Unravelling. Something he could not...would not name. And through it all, he could not escape the knowledge that she was all alone up there, too, with nothing and no one left between her and what she was determined would be her death. And then...

And then no sense, nor code, nor fear of tomorrow, could keep him from climbing the steps to her room.

She opened the door with a smile, the candles in her room still lit, and he knew she had been waiting – seven hells, she'd been waiting. For him. 

He shut the door behind them, and all the rest of the world with it.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sansa never knew her nights could be so sweet.

 

 

 

It was dangerous, she knew. So, so dangerous for them both. But she could not deny the joy that blossomed inside when she'd seen him in her doorway, that night after her bath. There was so little that she hoped for, now, and she was so used to those hopes being dashed. But he had not disappointed her. And he'd taken her gift, after all, despite his initial protestations. And when she'd asked to see him...

Sansa had been frightfully anxious the whole time. Unsure of whether he would come at all, at first. Nervous that he would reject her offering, and, of course, that he would reject her. She tried to hide it, of course. Said she knew what she wanted, though in truth she'd had only a vague idea of what that entailed. Or at least, of what this all meant. She only knew she wanted to be with him, to see those softer parts of him that he sometimes showed her. To feel the things he made her feel. But she also knew he disliked her hesitation. So she had reached out to him, as honestly as she dared, and with all the confidence she could muster. And if that put her on edge, if it made butterflies thrash about in her stomach, it was worth it.

She had hardly known what she was doing when she touched him, when she kissed him – but it had the desired effect. And he'd been...gods, but he'd been so sweet to her. Fervent and vigorous, yes. Oh, yes.  But, as the first time, gentle when it counted. He'd held her tight, kissed her hard, but never hurt her. And the way he knew when his hands were too rough, and used his mouth instead...Sansa hadn't known such a thing could be done, and it was his care, as much as his skill, that had made her sigh with pleasure. 

She wasn't sure what made him leave her then, as he had the day she went to his chambers. Only that it seemed to be over all too soon, and she desperately did not want him to go. Not yet. Why was he so quick to walk away from her? Didn't he want her? But when she'd held out her hand to him, he'd taken it.

What followed was raw and fierce. An assault on all her senses that overwhelmed and left her breathless. But, far from wanting him to stop, she remembered only hoping that he would hold her tighter, and never let go.

And she'd seen him, every inch of him, and it had been the strangest feeling. To see him as vulnerable as he'd ever been, but still so big, so strong. His muscles rippled under his skin, battle scars catching the light. He seemed so powerful compared to her, as though he could crush anything in his grasp, if he so chose. It only made his gentleness with her seem all the sweeter. She hadn't thought twice about showing herself to him, then. The memory of Joffrey pulling her arms from her naked breasts had flashed through her mind sharply, but briefly, and the way Clegane's eyes had changed when he looked at her wiped the thought away. This is how it's supposed to be, she had thought. It had felt like there was nothing else to come between, them, then. No masks. No secrets. Only him and her in the candlelight. It felt...

It felt free.

It felt right.

And when he touched her bare skin, and leaned down to kiss her, she somehow had the feeling, for the first time in years, that she was just where she was supposed to be.

Their coupling was awkward, at first, and it embarrassed her that she could not please him as he had pleased her, that she could not do the one thing a woman was meant to. But he made no complaint, and again, when he sensed her discomfort, he stopped. And the way he had taken her after, however strange it felt, just so she could be more comfortable...something about it made her heart ache. And then, at the end, how he pulled her close...

It was so warm, in his arms, his solid form rising and falling beneath her. She'd lain her head against his chest, and his heart beat close to her ear. His arms wrapped around her back. It almost felt like...like...

Like something she hadn't felt in a long, long time.

She wished they could stay like that until sunrise. Longer. She never wanted him to let go.

But he had, of course. He had to. And his absence from her bed felt like a cold weight on her chest. 

She'd meant to let him go gracefully. To not let her sudden, desperate sense of loss bleed through. But as she watched him dress, the terrible thought that he might never come back, that she might never feel what she'd felt in his arms again, caused her fear to bubble up and out of her throat. She felt childish. She felt weak.

But he hadn't said no.

She'd fallen back into the pillows that still smelled slightly of him, and let a small flicker of hope warm her belly.

 

 

The next night passed much the same, and so did the night after that. Anxious days of court and courtesy, followed by sweetness and starlight. Sansa spent her every waking hour alive with anticipation.

But on the third night, he did not come.

She had sat in the window seat for the better part of the night, but heard no footsteps by her door. As the rays of first light spilled over her lap, she had finally conceded defeat and returned to her bed, alone, confused, and far more affected than she cared to admit.

The next morning she was in a sore mood, both tired an irritated. She drank her tea, as always, but left much of her breakfast untouched. Shae found her testily raking a comb through her hair, the tray of food forgotten. Sansa tried to hide her feelings, but she must have failed, for her handmaiden was compelled to say something about it while dressing her.

"Are you well today, my lady?" Shae asked, lacing her into her gown. Sansa took a breath and tried to stop fidgeting with the trim on her sleeves.

"I'm fine," she replied.

"Are you sure? If you're not, I can–"

"I'm fine," Sansa repeated sharply, frustrated with herself for being so obvious. The woman raised her brows, and Sansa regretted her tone, but no more was said on the subject.

 

 

That day in court, as she watched Clegane standing beside the king, impassive as ever, she felt her irritation shift to fear. Could something have gone wrong last night? Had he...gods, could he have been caught heading towards her tower? The thought made her throat run dry. But, the more she thought about it, the less likely it seemed. Sandor Clegane was a big man, but he knew how to remain unseen when he wanted to – he had certainly surprised her by appearing out of the shadows enough times to prove it.

But what else could it be?

An unwelcome thought struck her. He wouldn't have...lost interest, would he?  She knew she was inexperienced, and that there was little between them after all, but...would he really leave her like that, without saying anything? Sansa didn't want to think so, but once acknowledged, the thought would not leave her alone. It needled at her all morning, and she fought to keep her expression blank.

I will not wilt with worry like a hopeless little girl, she thought. If something was wrong, she would found out what for herself.

She kept a wary eye on Clegane at the midday meal, careful not to be noticed. His manner told her nothing, as usual, but that wasn't what she was after. She waited until the king departed, and Clegane made to follow. As innocently as possible, she crept away from the high table and hurried out into the hall. His strides were much longer than hers, and she had to quicken her pace considerably for fear she would lose him and miss her chance. She must not have been as discreet as she hoped, though, for after following him around a sharp turn, familiar hands gripped her arms and pulled her into the hollow under a secluded staircase.

"Seven hells, girl," he growled, pressing her into a corner, cloaking them both in shadows. "You can't keep doing this. These halls are crawling with people! Do you want us both to–"

"Why didn't you come?"

Her interruption seemed to catch him off-guard, and there was a tense moment as he considered her question. 

 

"I was busy," he grunted.

"All night?" She hated the impetuousness in her own voice, but she couldn't help it. His eyes searched her gaze.

"Aye. All night. There's a war on. I have duties.

"Oh." She felt foolish. Of course he was busy with his duties. The man spent all day and most of the evening by the king's side, and with the threat of Stannis' approach, a member of the kingsguard would surely have plenty of other things to worry about. She huffed out a breath, embarrassed, trying to think how to salvage her dignity.

"Well, you...you might've told me."

"My apologies," he rasped drily. "I'll be sure to send you a letter next time. Shall I find a proper page, or will one of Cersei's spies do?"

"I'm sorry," she huffed, indignant. "I just..." 

It was difficult to avoid his irate gaze, pressed close as he was, his hands against the wall on either side of her. She bit her lip.

"I was worried, and I...I missed you." Her cheeks coloured, but it was the truth. 

"Did you?" he asked quietly. 

"Yes."

Suddenly, footsteps sounded on the stair above them, and a gasp escaped her lips as Clegane pushed even closer to keep them hidden. Her heart leapt into her throat as a servant carrying a heavy load hurried down the steps and out into the hall beyond – mercifully, without seeing them.

They stayed like that a moment, after the intruder had gone, the receding footsteps thumping along in time with her heart.

As the threat of discovery faded away, Sansa became acutely aware of the weight of Clegane's body against hers, and she felt she couldn't quite catch her breath. She was reminded of the couple she had seen some nights ago, clinging to each other in an alcove just like this, where anyone might see. So careless. So free.

"I have to go," he finally rumbled, pulling away, leaving Sansa feeling suddenly small and exposed. Is that it?

Before she could stop herself, she reached out and caught his hand, her unbridled thoughts tumbling from her lips.

"Come back to me, " she breathed.

She could not read the clouded look in his eye then, but he gave a brief nod before striding away.

Clegane was true to his word, and despite the late hour of his arrival, and the long day she knew he'd had, Sansa thought he was especially tender with her that night.

 

  

Something new was unfolding in Sansa.

It was strange. She had spent so long training herself to become numb, to harden herself. To leave anything soft behind her. From the day she arrived, all of King's Landing seemed to want to tear apart any notion of hope or innocence from her, until she was left feeling frayed and broken, and so utterly alone. She had worked hard to lock her heart up, firm and deep, until she wasn't sure she would ever find it again. It was safer that way. Less painful. But now...

Something was changing.

Sansa began to recognize the feeling of having something to look forward to, however wicked it was. She found that her focus was quickly narrowing to encompass only her nights with Clegane. It began to feel as though the girl who wandered the castle halls in the daytime was only a sad dream, and she truly came awake in the dark. She could feel herself light up when he came through the door - her blood rushed, and her heart leapt. Like there was some wild creature inside that she kept caged all day, and it was released only when he touched her. Like she came alive again under his kiss. She still felt awkward, even nervous, never knowing if she was doing anything right. Worried that she would make a mistake, that he would laugh at her, or worse, not return again. But he did return. Every night.

She knew there was darkness in him. She harboured no illusions about what he was. He came to her with furrowed brow more often than not, and she knew it was from spending his days thinking about the war, the violence. What do you think a knight is for?  But she liked to see the troubles melt away when she kissed him, to feel him sigh into her, like the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders, if only for a time. She was happy to pull that darkness from him, if that was indeed what she was doing. To give him respite for the night. The weight of his burdens was heavy, but he made her feel strong enough to bear it. It was the least she could do, when he had given her so much.

She learned as quickly as she could, and found herself growing bolder with every lesson. He made it easy for her to learn what she liked. She liked kissing him. She liked running her hands over his skin, and through his coarse, dark hair. She liked the way he touched her, anywhere and everywhere. She liked that he always saw to her pleasure first. Liked how careful he was not to hurt her. In time, she even came to like when he joined with her. It grew easier, until it was even pleasurable, and it made her feel so achingly close to him. But perhaps most of all, she liked the moments afterwards, when he let her rest in his arms, and it felt like nothing else could ever touch her.

Soon, she found that she could make him groan, too, if she touched him the right way. He didn't speak much when they were together, but she began to understand his looks, and the sounds he made. He liked it when she kissed him, too, and when she let him help her undress. She knew he liked her sighs and moans, by the way he smiled when he thought she couldn't see. He liked it when she looked him in the eyes while they...while they would...

Make love, a distant memory told her. That's what people call it. But was that right? Could she call it love, what they did?

Love is a poison,  Cersei had told her once. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same. 

But what could that awful woman know of love?

She did find herself thinking of him almost constantly. If her days had been listless and tedious before, they were hardly bearable now. She drank her tea in the morning, and made small talk with her handmaiden as she dressed. She attended court when she was required, and stayed out of sight when she wasn't. She spent quiet hours in the godswood. Took her meals in silence. Did nothing to draw attention to herself at all. On the outside, she maintained her mask of impassivity, but inside...

Inside, her blood was singing. All she could think of was him, and their nights together. Her eyes longed to scan every room she entered for any sign of him, and her lips itched to smile every time she thought of her secret. The small flicker of hope within blossomed into a flame that warmed her from the inside out. 

Yet it brought with it a kind of tension, an ache, that she felt more very day. The same thoughts turned over and over in her mind, and nothing seemed to satisfy them. Where did he pass his time, she wondered, when not with the king or with her? What duties kept him in the evenings, so that he must call on her so late in the night? Did he think of her during the day, too? Did he want to see her more and more, as she did him?

When confined to her room, Sansa tried dutifully to distract herself with her books and needlepoint, but it seemed nothing could keep her interest anymore. She soon took to sleeping in the afternoons, to pass the time and try soothe her exhausted nerves. She didn't sleep much in the night, now. Shae noticed her fidgeting one afternoon, and asked what troubled her, and Sansa had to say it was only her approaching nuptials that had her excited. In truth, she thought of her wedding as little as possible. All she longed for now was that midnight knock on her door. Every night, she sat up and watched the moon rise to its peak. Waiting.

 

 

One night, as she lay in his arms, counting the moments until he would have to leave, she let herself wonder what it would be like to sleep all night in his arms. She traced a finger along the scars on his chest, and he stroked one hand gently over her hair. She loved it there. She felt they were their truest selves when they were like this – naked, in the dark, together. It felt good to be herself. It felt good to be with him. If only things were different, she thought, I would stay forever like this, my ear to his heart, with no troubles, and no fear of the rising sun. She was suddenly filled with such sad desire it hurt, and she seemed unable to stop herself from voicing it.

"Do you ever wish...things were different?" His breathing changed abruptly, and she felt him stiffen beneath her.

"Don't," he rumbled. "Don't do that."

She raised her head and looked up at him, brows drawn.

"What?"

"Don't start wishing." His voice was soft, but his eyes glinted with something dark. 

"I only meant–"

"I know what you meant. But it won't do you any good. Believe me." He let out a heavy breath, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

"We are what we are. Wishing won't change that. It just..." His jaw clenched, and she wondered what he was holding back – and if he did so for her benefit, or his own.

"...It'll only make it harder to live with what you've got," he finished simply.

His full meaning hung in the air between them. 

It stung her to hear it, but Sansa knew he was must be right. He'd been through enough pain himself to know. She brought a hand up to the scarred side of his face, and he closed his eyes. 

When he sat up to leave, she wrapped her arms around him and held on as tightly as she could, just for a moment. He didn't say anything, but for a moment, he held her back.

 

  

As the days passed, the sun seemed to hang in the sky longer and longer, leaving Sansa impatient for her too-brief nights. She had spent so long trying to shut herself off from wanting, and it felt like years of it was crashing down on her all at once. She seemed to spend every moment longing for his touch, for that place in his arms where her chest fit perfectly against his. It astonished her how keenly she felt his absence, and she was dismayed to find how much she seemed to need him. Instead of slaking her thirst, each night only seemed to make her want more. Even her dreams were filled with him. She longed for the sparks that lit beneath her skin when he came to her, craved the side of him he didn't show to anyone else. She felt giddy and frustrated, all at once.

She began to visit the godswood less often than before. It was still beautiful there, but it made her think of home, and that didn't feel right just now. She had always gone there in despair and longing, but that wasn't how she felt lately. She was not as carefree as she had been in her childhood, of course, but neither did she feel like the waif who had wandered the castle grounds aimlessly, hopelessly, these past few years. She felt like something else.

She wondered about that girl she had been, sometimes. What would she think of me now?  It almost made her laugh to think how horrified she would be. That girl could not have imagined sneaking around at night, carrying on an affair - and with the king's Hound, no less. It all seemed rather ridiculous when she thought of it like that. But neither could that girl have imagined losing her father at the order of her betrothed, of being held captive in a tower while her family fought a war half a country away. 

It doesn't matter now. That girl is gone.

It had taken years – long, lonely, terrible years – but that girl had finally grown up. And now...

What am I, now?

It was difficult to say. As a child, Sansa had always had a clear idea of who she would become: a great lady, of a great house, with a handsome, highborn husband. She would have spent her days running a household, planning feasts, raising her beautiful children, each with a rich, bright future of their own. Instead, she had become a war hostage, with no future at all. She was no longer a maiden, and though she would marry a king, she would never be a mother. Where did that leave her? Sansa wasn't sure. 

For a while, she had begun to believe she was nothing. An inconsequential pawn in a callous game, worth nothing more than her name. A waste.

But lately, she'd been feeling differently. She had a goal. A purpose. And with Clegane...something more.

She was a woman, now. Built upon the back of everything that had happened to her – the good, the bad, and the terrifying. She had been beaten and broken, but she had emerged from it stronger than before. She was changed, because she had had to change. I am who I had to become.

She thought of Clegane's words, of all the things he had tried to teach her before it was too late. For he had been trying to teach her, she saw that now. It had seemed cruel at the time, but he had been right. He had been right about everything. He has helped me become this.

She owed so much to him, now. For her life, of course, and on more than one occasion. But also for the kindness he had shown her, even before, when he tried to protect her however he could. For helping her with her little rebellion. For the joy and pleasure he gave her when they were together. For giving her a choice.

If only it didn't have to end.

Sansa tried not to think about what was coming; it did no good to fret over the inevitable. But sometimes, in the quiet moments, she could not avoid it.

One afternoon, on one of the rare occasions when Shae sat with her while she tried to focus on her needle work, Sansa was even more distracted than usual. All anyone in the castle could talk about was the wedding. What fine linens would dress the great hall, what sumptuous dishes would be served, who would be allowed to sit at the high table. All Sansa wanted was for everyone to stop reminding her of it, to let her enjoy the time she had left.

It was no courtly romance, she knew, but Clegane made her happy. She felt safe with him. Even when he was not by her side, she felt stronger. More secure. It was he who had brought that out in her, somehow, she was sure of it. Like she drew strength from him. Like he had brought a part of herself back to her. It was so good to have something to look forward to again. She wished it didn't have to end so soon.

Does it have to?  The thought came unbidden, but quickly took root. Could there be another way? Women had survived loveless marriages before. That's why some women take lovers, Shae had said. Was it possible, for her? If she kept her head down, and did as she was told, could she survive a marriage with Joffrey...and keep seeing Clegane? She still did not want to bare Joffrey's children, but...maybe she didn't have to? Sansa could hardly believe she was even acknowledging the idea, but the image of a black-haired babe in her arms suddenly sprang to mind, and it was not easy to shake away. 

Maybe...

But no, those were childish thoughts. She couldn't do that. She wasn't strong enough. I could not lay with him one night, and Joffrey the next. The very thought turned her stomach. And they would know, if I had a son with black hair. They would know, and they would kill him. She could not bear that. And it would put Clegane in more danger, as well. Sandor, she thought. Surely I can call him that, after all we have shared. She wouldn't do that to him, just for her own selfishness. She would not ask him to share her with the king, and risk his own life for it. No. She would have to keep to her plan. There was no other way.

"Is something wrong, my lady?" Shae asked, jostling her out of her thoughts

"Of course not. Why do you ask?"

"You've stopped humming."

"Oh." Sansa looked down at her work, reminding herself to keep her features smooth and placid. She pulled out a line of careless, absent-minded stitches to start again, wishing she could make Sandor another gift. Something better than a small favour from second-hand wool. Something that was worthy of the gifts he had given her. But she didn't have the materials, of course. And she certainly didn't have the time.

 

Chapter Text

   

Five days before her wedding, Sansa made her way to the sept to say her last prayers to the gods as an unmarried woman.

It was a Southron tradition, to visit the sept one last time before the wedding. To thank the maiden for her protection, and to ask the mother to become one's new guardian. A symbolic passing from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to wisdom. A hollow act, she thought, approaching the tall doors. The Maiden couldn't protect me. I am a maid no longer. I left my childhood behind long ago.

But the queen would not have her ward breaking any more rules than she had already, and so Sansa prepared herself for a day of silent prayer.

She had walked there alone, preferring to be unaccompanied for this task. Sansa did not know if she truly believed in the power of the seven anymore, but the thought of having to pretend for onlookers in a sacred place still would have made her uncomfortable. It was only a short walk to the sept of the Red Keep, anyway. In happier times, the king's betrothed would surely have journeyed to the Great Sept of Baelor to seek blessings for her marriage, surrounded by ladies and courtiers for all to see. it would have been a public celebration, and the common folk would crowd around to shower blessings and well-wishes on the bride-to-be.

But the Queen knew better than to send a royal retinue among the common folk just now; as sheltered as she was within the castle walls, even Sansa knew the city seethed with angry, starving peasants; mostly homeless refugees who lost everything to the war. Sansa did not know if they blamed the Starks or the Lannisters for their suffering, but that had made little matter on the day of the bread riots. She was not anxious to go among them again herself.

Not that she would want to make such a fuss over a traitor's daughter anyway. No, it suited the queen far better to have Sansa walk simply and silently to the sept on her own, without troubling anyone at all. She doubted anyone even noticed her lonely journey through the courtyard - despite it being her wedding they prepared for, the whole castle seemed to forget she was even there.

Sansa took a deep breath, pushed the heavy doors open, and stepped into the hushed stone room beyond.

It had been truly beautiful to her, once. The soaring ceiling, the gilded alters, sunlight sparkling through the stained-glass windows. Even the statues of the gods were works of art, finer than any she had seen in the north. She had prayed here in awe, back then. So full of faith and joy. She had never felt so close to the gods as she had here, in such radiance and light.

It was all different now, of course. The room seemed smaller to her, somehow. Not quite as bright. It was still beautiful, she supposed, but it did not enchant her anymore. She knew now how such beauty could be treacherous. Could hide rot and corruption beneath its face. Besides, in just a few days, she would wed Joffrey here, so it could be no sacred place to her. She would rather have prayed in the godswood, if she must pray at all. The old gods had not protected her either, but at least they made her feel closer to home.

Sansa lit a candle and approached the Maiden, whose serene smile did nothing to soften her heart. She knelt before the altar, as was expected of her, but struggled to think of anything she wanted to say. She recited some children's prayers her septa had taught her long ago, but they only made her think of seeing her septa's head on a spear, and the words fell hollow from her lips. She thought of the prayers she had offered the maiden while visiting the meagre sept at Winterfell with her mother, but it pulled painfully at her heart, and she willed the memory away again.

Sansa knew what she was meant to pray for. She was meant to thank the maiden for her protection, for being guided safely through childhood and maidenhood. For her many gifts and talents, and for her fortuitous match. Then, she was supposed to welcome the Mother into her life, and pray for her favour. For a happy marriage, and healthy children, and the prosperity of her husband's house. All she had ever wanted, once.

As a highborn girl, Sansa had been raised to know that she would someday leave her family to become a part of another. It was her duty. Her destiny. All her schooling and training, her needlework and penmanship, the hours of dancing, singing, playing, studying, courtesies and conversation - all were to prepare her to become a good wife and mother. To bring honour to her future husband and his house. She had excelled at all of those skills, always eager to please, to fulfill her duty. She had waited excitedly for her bright future to come along and whisk her away, reward her for her patience and diligence.

But she could not have known it would end like this. What a waste it all was. She might have been a broodmare, for all the Lannisters wanted of her. She had always been told that her life, her place, was so important; but here she was, a mere pawn in the clutches of her family's enemies. To be wedded and bedded as an act of war. 

So instead, for the first time in a long time, she prayed for her family. Her true family.

Old prayers came back to her easily, as if by rote. She prayed that Robb would win the war, some day, and kill her Lannister captors, even if she could not be there to see it. She prayed for Bran and little Rickon to remain safe in Winterfell, untouched by the war. She prayed for her mother to know how much she loved and missed her. She prayed for Arya to stay safe, wherever she was. She prayed that they would all make it home, some day, and be together again. She even prayed for Jon at the wall, that he be kept far away from all this sorrow. 

As she mouthed her silent pleas, unbidden memories flooded her mind - things she had kept buried for ages. Peals of childish laughter as she and her siblings ran through the summer snow, launching snowballs at each other. Building snow men and snow maidens until their cheeks were all pink from the cold. The forts that Arya and Bran would build in the trees, and how badly baby Rickon had wanted to join them. The quiet peace of the glass gardens, and collecting its sweet-smelling blue roses with her mother. Solemn walks through the crypts with her father, listening to the stories of the old kings of winter. Stealing sweets from the kitchens with her sister, giggling and licking sticky fingers as they ran.

One after another, the memories came, each landing like a strike to the heart, and she was helpless to stop them. It ached to remember how it had been. How she had been. Her joy. Her innocence. Her selfishness. The space between that child and the woman she had become was a raw, open wound, and remembering it all was like bathing in salt.

Once, she would have given anything to be back there. She would cry herself to sleep, praying to wake up from this nightmare, to find herself back at winterfell again, back where she was safe and loved. To be saved from the misery, the unfairness of it all.

But that was before. Before she had realized that, after all, she had been her own undoing.

It had taken a long time to accept, but she understood now. Everything that had happened to her since her father's death had been her own, wretched fault.

It was her punishment. For her stupidity. For her betrayal. She had let the Lannisters fool her, had put them before before her own family - and it had gotten her father killed, and started the war that her family fought even now. Arya was lost, Robb and her mother in danger every moment, her little brothers left all alone at Winterfell...It was all her fault. All of it. She did not deserve to be saved. She could not escape from a prison of her own making.

Do they still think of me?

Sansa didn't know how much her family knew about her betrayal.

Do they know it was me? Do they hate me? Will they mourn me when I am gone?

Regrets she'd had a thousand times surfaced once again. If only she could have been as good as her father, or as strong as her mother. As brave as Robb, or even as bold as Arya. Maybe none of this would have happened. 

But it had. She had disappointed them all. Had failed them all. 

So she prayed for forgiveness. For begging to come to King's Landing in the first place. For loving Joffrey and the queen as she once did. For betraying her family. For being so bloody stupid, and weak as a mouse, besides. They would hear of her marriage to Joffrey, and whatever happened after, and she prayed they would forgive her for that, too. That whatever dishonour she had done them could be repaid, at least in part, by her death. She prayed that she might see her father again, and that he wouldn't hate her too much.

Sansa brought a hand to her cheeks, surprised to find tears rolling down her face. She had not cried in such a long time. She had thought her tears had all run out.

She swiped them away resentfully, scolding herself for being so weak. She had prayed these prayers a thousand times before. Why should today be any different? It was done, now. She had made peace with her end. Why, today, could she not stop the tears from running? What had changed? 

Sandor, she realized. He has changed me.

She'd been glad of it, these past days. Being with him made her feel more awake, more alive, than she had in months. Years, maybe. He'd brought out feelings she had not thought to ever feel again. He had been a balm to her ragged soul. Had made her happy, even.

But it seemed cruel, now, as she sat alone in the sept, weeping before the gods who could not save her from herself.

She would not trade their nights for anything, would not give up the chance to lie in his arms every moment she could...but part of her railed at the unfairness of it all. Why was it only now, at the very end of her days, that she had found such comfort? Just when she had finally resigned herself to her end, something sweet had come along, as if to test her resolve. She was crying because she was somehow even more heartbroken than before, after having known happiness again. And it stung that she should be robbed of it now, after tasting so little. She held her arms around herself, trying to suppress the sobs that suddenly threatened to tear their way out of her shuddering breast.

When the hot tears finally slowed to a trickle, and her head ached from the strain of stifling her cries, Sansa lit a candle before the Mother, and prayed for Sandor Clegane.

She didn't know if the seven could hear her, and knew he would would laugh if he learned that she had prayed for him in the sept. But still, she prayed. 

He is not what everyone thinks he is. Or at least, that's not all he is. He is more than the rage and steel and ferocity. He is also good, and gentle, in his way. He has saved me, so many times, and in so many ways. He is my strength. He is more.

Her eyes burned with the salt of her despair, but she did not let them stop her.

This world would have him be a monster. The Lannisters would have him do their evils. Please, please do not let them. Do not let them destroy the soft parts of him. He is a better man than any I have known in King's Landing, a truer knight than any I have seen. They don't deserve him. Please, let him leave this wretched place. Let him find peace. Let him be happy.

Sansa looked up into the stone eyes of the Mother, hoping against hope for something. Anything. Some sign that the gods heard her. But there was nothing of comfort in the cold, stone sept.

Only a foolish little girl and her tears.

 

 

It had taken some time to recover from her visit to the sept. Shae had helped her wash her face with cold water, and tried to soothe her by saying that all girls cried before their wedding days, that it was only natural to mourn one's childhood. Sansa merely nodded numbly as the woman dressed her in her best silks and fixed her hair.

For that night, Sansa dined with the king and and his mother in the queen's private dining chamber. 

The sound of the doors closing behind her echoed ominously as she entered the room, and Sansa fought the urge to fidget as she dutifully took her seat at the table with the two people she hated most in the world. The cook had made them a fine spread choice dishes and fine wine, all of Cersei's favourites. Sansa had eaten little that day, having spent most of it in the sept, but the feast might have been made entirely of cold pease porridge for all the joy it brought her.

It was another Southron tradition. At least, it was traditional for the families of the betrothed couple to meet and dine and finalize the marriage contract. To make plans for the future. But her father was dead and her mother was half a kingdom away, so the queen said Sansa would have to do. And of course, Joffrey was there, too. The king had been kept busy with many duties of late - what with the wedding, and the war, and the war and his impending rise to power, and all - but he would not be left out of such a prime chance to torment his wife-to-be.

"Eat," the queen commanded, eyeing her over a goblet of dark red spirits, a delicate scowl on her face.

"You must keep your strength up, Sansa. You will be a mother soon, and you are too thin yet to bare a healthy child." She cocked her head to the side, lips pulling in that mocking way she had.  "A wife must do her duty."

Joffrey snorted at that, thoroughly enjoying his mother's every word.

"Yes, your grace," Sansa murmured, focusing down on her plate. She tried to do as she was bid, but the air was thick and tense, and her throat felt suddenly tight. The food was dry and tasteless in her mouth, and she had to keep sipping her wine to help her swallow.

"You will do your duty, won't you, Sansa?"

The queen watched her closely, emerald eyes glittering in the candlelight. Evaluating. Calculating. Sansa thought they looked more like a snake's eyes than a lion's. The syrupy words seemed to ooze from her lips.

"You know what is expected of you?"

She couldn't help glancing in Joffrey's direction, only for a moment, but regretted it immediately. A cruel smirk stretched his wormy lips, and she felt her stomach turn.

"Yes, your grace," she replied around the lump in her throat. She did her best to employ her courtesies, hoping they would find no fault with her, wanting it all to be over. She wished Clegane were here. His presence made her feel stronger. But he had not been one of the men guarding the door when she'd come in. It was just her and the Lannisters. The heart of the lion's den.

"And what does that mean to you, Sansa? Your duty? You will be my son's wife, and his queen, besides." She spoke to Sansa as one would speak to a little child.

"What will you do for him?"

She felt the full weight their expectation settle over her shoulders, and Sansa swallowed hard. She knew must choose her words carefully. She could not give them a reason to suspect.

"I...I will love and honour him for all of my days, your grace. I will obey him, and do whatever he asks." She licked her lips, but it did little to soothe her dry mouth. "I will bare him many strong, healthy heirs, and be a good wife, and a good queen, and-"

"That's enough," Joff sneered. "All she has to do is what I tell her to. She knows how to do what she's told, don't you, Sansa? You're good at that, at least. And don't worry, it's simple enough, even you couldn't get it wrong." He laughed at his own jape, and even the queen's lip turned up at that. Sansa took the opportunity to pour herself more wine, gripping her goblet tightly as she did. 

"Do you know how it works, Sansa? Of course you don't, you little fool." He had that glint in his eye. He nearly always did, these days. Sansa took another sip, trying to keep herself calm. He was cackling in earnest, now.

"Don't worry. I'll do all the work, of course. All you have to do is lie on your back!"

"Joffrey," his mother tutted. "Don't be so vulgar."

"Why not?" He asked impetuously. "It's only us, here. And it's the truth! And this is it, isn't it? She mine now, truly. I can do whatever I want with her."

Bile rose at the back of Sansa's throat, and she gulped her wine again to keep it down. Something was bubbling up inside her, and she was beginning to feel dizzy.

"Soon, dearest," his mother cooed. "But now-"

"But nothing!" He cried, slamming his hand onto the table so that Sansa jumped as the plates clattered. Her hands curled into fists in her lap. 

"I am the king, and she is my bride! She has to do as I say! I could have her tonight, if I wanted, and no one could stop me!"

"Of course, my love, but we must-"

"No!" he shouted. "I'm done listening to you! I'm done waiting." He stood up from the table and strode to Sansa's side.

"Come, Sansa," he snapped, grabbing her by one arm and yanking her to her feet. 

"Joffrey," the queen warned, rising from her seat, but he didn't stop. Sansa felt the room tilt beneath her feet as he began to drag her to the door. She tried to pull away, but his fingers clung fast to the flesh of her arm as though he had claws.

"Wait," she began, only to be slapped so soundly for her effort that her ears rang.

"I will not!" He shouted at her. "You can't tell me what to do! Now, come!" He wrenched her arm hard, and without thinking, she wrenched it back.

"No!"

For a heartbeat, everything was still.

"What did you say?" Joffrey balked. He seemed genuinely confused.

She didn't know where the words came from. Her voice shook. Her breathe heaved. But she said them all the same.

"No. I won't come with you."

He stared at her. Just stared. Like he'd never heard the word before. Like he didn't know what to do.

"Joffrey," came the queen's voice again, and somehow it broke the spell.

"How dare you," he snarled, lunging for her arms. He grabbed her, shook her, tried to pull her away again, all the while screaming in her face, "How dare you!"

Everything swam together - his shrieking voice, his hands on her skin, scratching her raw, tearing at her gown, yanking at her hair - and before she could think what was happening, Sansa found herself shoving him away with all her might, sending the king staggering backward, tumbling over a chair, pulling half the tablecloth down with him as he connected with the hard stone floor.

The queen cried out and rushed to her son's side, but he pushed her hands away as he stood up, bewildered rage in his eyes. She might have treasured the sight of him wiping at the fresh cut on his temple, had he not suddenly smiled at the blood that came away on his fingers. It chilled Sansa to her very core.

What have I done?

The queen shot her a look at filled with disgust. It was the same vengeful look she had aimed at Sansa and Arya when they were children at the Trident.

"You impudent little sni-"

"Mother," Joffrey interrupted, and she saw the flicker in his eyes again. "I will deal with this."

Sansa felt the blood drain from her face, and she thought she could hear her pounding heart echoing all around them like a drum. 

"Leave us, and send my guards in." He looked at her with with a growing smile, and Sansa's blood ran cold.

"My bride will learn her lesson."

 

 

 

  

Chapter Text

 

The castle was alive with whispers when he returned from the taverns that night. 

He knew the little bird had been set to dine with the king and his mother, and that had been cause enough to put him on edge. He misliked the thought of her being there, alone, in the lion's den. She had done it before, of course. The girl had been subject to the whims of the Lannisters for years now, and she had always survived it, if not unscathed. But it was different now. The stakes were higher. There was so much more to lose.

Hovering about when it was not his night to guard the king would have only caused suspicion, though. The Hound was not known to pass up a chance to wallow in wine and unsavoury company. So, down to the taverns he had marched, as he always did on such nights, trying to bury his unease. It risked too much to do otherwise. It's better this way, keeping your distance, he had told himself between drinks of sour red. You can't always be there to watch her.

The thought had done little to ease his mind, and he found himself uncomfortably wary all evening. The tavern fires seemed to burn too hot, the sound of revellers ringing sharp and loud in his ears. The wine he swallowed may as well have been vinegar for all the pleasure it gave him. Grimly, he found himself counting the hours until he could return without suspicion, climb the tower steps, and see her for himself.

But the moment he reached the castle grounds, he heard the rumours flying from every pair of lips in earshot, as they only did when something was amiss, and it filled his gut with icy dread.

"...couldn't stop him, after all..."

"...had to be carried back..."

"...will look a fright at the wedding...!"

By the time he reached Maegor's Holdfast, his blood was running cold.

Sandor had never taken the tower steps so quickly.

It was late, and the halls were full of deep shadows in which to cloak himself as he watched her door for any sign of activity. It was well that he took the precaution, despite the instinct that told him not to, for a somber-faced chambermaid soon exited the room carrying a bundle of bloody cloth.

There was no answer when he knocked. He slipped inside anyway.

She was there, lying in her bed. By the firelight, it almost looked as if she was sleeping peacefully, propped up on her pillows. But he recognized the sickly smells of spirits and healing ointments, and there was a dark smear on the pillowcase beside her head. When she stirred at his approach, everything about the way she moved was wrong.

Tonight, she did not smile for him.

Instead, she quickly moved to pull the coverlets up higher over herself - but her actions were weak and halting, and she was using only one hand. As he came closer, she pulled her hair down over one side of her pale face, tilting her head away from him - a motion he knew all too well.

He remembered thinking she'd been broken, defeated, that night when she first invited him to her bed. But this was worse. Much worse. She'd said she'd had nothing left to lose, but he had known better. He'd known.  

He reached out and took her chin as gently as he could, turning her to face him. She did not meet his eyes as he brushed the hair away from her face, revealing a sizeable gash at her temple. Despite her attempts to cover herself, he could see bruises around her neck, and the sound of her shallow breathing told him there was much more, besides. When the words finally clawed their way past his tight throat and clenched teeth, they came hoarse and low.

"What did he do?"

He hated to ask it. The words tasted like metal in his mouth. Part of him didn't want to know. A heavy, writhing part of him, could not bear even to hear the words.

But you must know. You must.

She briefly met his eyes with a sideways gaze, and he knew she understood beyond his words. The thing he could not voice.

"It was only a beating," she croaked. Her voice sounded rough and broken, like her throat was raw. Like she'd been screaming.

She tried to clear her throat, but winced at the movement it cost her.

"He might have meant worse," she continued softly, "but I fell, and hit my head, and...and I fainted." She gestured weakly to the cut at her temple. "I suppose he lost interest after that." 

A small, involuntary wave of relief washed over him, though he hated himself for it. As if she had not suffered enough.

Sandor turned and cast about the room for a candle, finding one the mantle and lighting it by the fire before bringing it back to the bedside.

"What are you doing?" Speaking caused her to wheeze, and he felt his mouth twitch at the sound.

"I want to see," he rumbled, hoping she did not hear the waver at the edge of his voice.

The girl tried to shake her head without wincing too visibly.

"It's not as bad as it looks, really. I've had worse." 

"Don't lie to me."

Even as she tried to pull the covers tighter to her, it was plain to see it hurt her just to breathe, let alone move. It was also plain that she didn't want him to see her, enough to cause herself pain trying to cover up. It gave him no joy to ask - he had no desire to put that look in her eyes, that misery that made her cast about for some way out, some excuse. He almost found himself wishing she would fight him over it, show him that fire she'd been carrying with her these past weeks. But it was not there now. And he needed to see. He needed to know what damage he'd caused. 

Finally, seeing no way to dissuade him, she pulled the covers aside.

He almost didn't know where to look first.

They had left her face pretty, as Joffrey liked to do, but the girl before bore a gallery of Joff's and his men's handiwork, and it looked like she'd been to the hells and back. There were marks blooming around her throat, angry red scratches across her chest, bloody scrapes on her knees and ankles, linen wrapped around the wrist she had been hiding.

But the worst were the bruises, so big and black he could see them through her nightshift, spanning from calf to breast. She shifted so uncomfortably, he knew they must cover the back of her as well.

Her punishments had always been harsh, but it was more than just skin deep this time - several ribs had surely been cracked, if not broken, and that wrist may have been, as well. Something wild twisted and pulled inside of him. He had seen such injuries before, of course, and worse. A soldier became accustomed to such things. He'd seen men fairly torn apart on the battlefield, begging for the mercy of death. But it had never felt like this. Like something holy had been shattered. Like something precious had been lost.

Hot wax dripped onto his wrist, and he cursed the slight shaking of his hands. He blew the candle out and set it down, suddenly eager to be rid of its revealing light. 

"I should've been there," he rasped. If he hadn't been so sleep deprived these past weeks - spending his days preparing for war, and his nights returning to the girl like a lovesick pup; If he'd watched Joffrey more carefully, seen what simmered below the surface of the twisted little king; If he'd used his damned senses at all, he would have seen this coming. Could have found a way to be on guard, or nearby, at least. Could have done something.

"And what could you have done?" She asked, as if reading his bloody mind. She said the words lightly, but they hit him hard, burrowing under his skin. Burning him.

Because she was right.

What difference would it have made if he had been there? What would he have done, truly? Burst in shouting fuck the king, and swept her away from harm like some white knight from a song? That wasn't him. He'd told her that wasn't him.

No. Most likely, he would have stood and watched, as he ever did. Helping no one but himself. Letting them destroy her.

You coward.

"You've done your best to look out for me," she murmured, pulling the covers back over herself. Slowly. Gingerly. "But even you couldn't protect me from my own stupidity."

He almost snorted in disbelief. As if the girl had ever done anything worthy of this kind of punishment.

"It was the wine, I think. I drank too much. Ate too little. And when he grabbed me, I...I couldn't think straight. I was so..." She trailed off, brow furrowed at the memory. She shook her head slightly and tried again. "I told him no, and I shoved him. I don't know what I was thinking. He hit the floor. He was bleeding."

"You knocked Joffrey to the floor?" He almost couldn't imagine it.

"Yes. I did." A ghost of a smile pulled at her lips. "I suppose I should treasure the memory."

Another night, he might have laughed out loud at that. Joffrey Baratheon, the king of the seven kingdoms, laid low by the little bird.

But not tonight. Not like this.

She began to cough, wincing with the pain it caused her, and he looked around the room for something to do about it. He poured a cup of wine from the table, but when he offered it to her, she wrinkled her nose and turned away.

"No wine, please," she croaked. "I can't." 

The wine.

He found a ewer of water on a stand in the corner and brought a cup of that instead. Kneeling to give it to her, holding it to her lips when even her good hand faltered, it occurred to him that he might not have been the only one coming apart at the seams lately.

The little bird had been different with him these past few weeks, but he realized, with a start, that there was more to it than that. She had been much more fond of wine, ever since that first night. She had been wandering about on her own even more, boldly following him through the halls, risking being caught in his room. That first night had been carefully calculated, but since then, she'd been more daring, and more reckless - had she been losing her control, too?

He cursed himself for his lack of awareness. Of course she had been losing control. How could he have missed it? The girl had told him herself, she expected to meet her death on her wedding night. Why hadn't he believed that she meant it? It was so clear, now. In his selfishness, in his desire, he had not seen until too late how dangerous she had become to herself. He had thought she was becoming bolder, perhaps stronger, in a way. Or maybe he hadn't thought about it much at all. But it was not courage he had been seeing in her. It was desperation. 

Every night that he'd come to her, sweet as it may have seemed, he'd been taking advantage of her fraying edges, her threadbare seams.

And for what? Because she was beautiful? Because she had smiled for him?

How could you let yourself be so easily fooled?

She was a woman grown, in flesh, but in some ways she was still a girl. But him? He should have known better. Should have seen. Should have prevented this. All of this. If he had not been so weak, if he had left well enough alone, she might not have cracked and assaulted the king, and been forced to pay for it with her blood.

You saw what you wanted to see.

"Thank you," she sighed, when she'd had her fill of the water. He made to get up again, but she laid a feather-light hand on his shoulder, and met his eyes.

"Truly. Thank you. For everything." She reached out to stroke his cheek, but he stood and turned away.

Thank you?

For what?

For keeping the king safe for her? For saving her from the mob, so he could have her instead? For warning her of the danger only after she had been trapped? For taking her maidenhead, so she could die on her wedding night?

You broken, bewildering, ruin of a girl. 

She had half-convinced him that he had been giving her something, some sort of gift. But he had been taking, all along. He had never done her any kindness. Had never been worth her thanks. He had taken her maidenhead because he'd wanted it. Had come to her, again and again, because he'd been too weak to keep his worthless hands off of her. He had encouraged her brazenness and carelessness. Had sat in a bloody tavern, drinking his fill, while his fellow kingsguard beat her half to death. 

And she thanked him.

After all she'd been through, the girl still clung to her courtesies.

Fury turned in his gut. At her? No. She'd never made him do any of it. All she'd ever done was hold out her hand. He should have known better than to take it.

The silence stretched on between them, tense and heavy. It didn't seem right to leave her yet, but he could not think what to say. There was nothing he could do to help. Nothing he could do to fix this.

Finally, she spoke again.

"I don't like to trouble you, but...I'm afraid I must ask you for one more favour."

Can you survive any more of her favours?

"After the wedding," she began, voice lowering to a whisper. "I...I was sure I was ready for what came after. I had made my peace with it. But tonight, when Joffrey was..." She swallowed hard, her good hand fidgeting with the edge of her coverlet.

"He...he said things. Things I never..." Her voice hitched, she crewed her eyes shut, and it looked for a moment like she was going to cry – but she set her jaw and carried on.

"If he doesn't kill me right away...I need you to help me. Please." She looked him in the eye, raw determination in her gaze.

"Show me mercy. One last time."

It wasn't a surprise, exactly. Sandor knew what desperation looked like.

He had killed women before. It had never been any trouble to a man like him. But this was different. Why was everything about her so different? He felt a twinge in his chest as he tried to imagine it. Opening her soft throat with his knife, or watching her choke on poison. Seeing the light leave her eyes, feeling her body grow cold in his arms...

"I can't," he rasped, shaking his head.

"Please," she implored, clenching a fist in her bedding. "I know I'm asking a lot. I know it would be difficult, and dangerous for you, but–"

"That isn't–"

"I'm afraid." Her voice was almost a whimper, and he could see the truth of it in her eyes.

"I wasn't before. But I thought I only had death to face. I thought he couldn't hurt me much worse than he had. It was stupid, I know, but I didn't think..." She bit her lip, looking down at her fractured self. Her voice fell to a whisper. 

"I can't do this."  

She seemed so small, suddenly. So brittle.

How did it come to this?

He could not meet her eyes.

"Don't ask this of me," he growled.

"Sandor."

The sound of his name on her lips seemed almost foreign. She had never called him that. No one had. Not for years.

"Look at me," she insisted. And he did.

"Please."

He couldn't keep his eyes on her face. It pained him, somehow. 

"It doesn't have to end that way," he rasped. "You'd only need to hold out a few years. Give them a few heirs, then...retire somewhere. Away from here." Cersei hated the girl so much, she may well plan to have her sent away after a few years. They would be humiliating, painful years...but she would live. 

"I would be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it," she admitted softly. "Even if it would make my family hate me. I thought maybe, if I had you..." The suggestion hung in the air for one beat, two, before she shook her head again.

"...But I can't. I know I can't. I'm not strong enough."

"You could," he replied impulsively.

"Now who's lying?" 

The sight of her was as wretched as any he has ever seen. She was not herself. Not the self she had come to show him. He felt the urge to say something, anything, that would change it.

"Where is the she-wolf who was bold enough to lead the Hound to her door?" He tried not to sound desperate, but was only half succeeding. "Where is that fearlessness?"

"I'm not brave any more," she mumbled, looking suddenly exhausted, as though the weight of more than one day's pain was settling in on her. "I was, once. A long time ago. But it's gone, now. I think I've only been pretending."

He had nothing more to say to that.

"It's alright," she murmured. He couldn't tell if she was trying to assure him, or herself.

"Let them waste their gold on a royal wedding. Let them learn they were wrong, for once, I will have my little revenge, and then...that will be the end of it." The word revenge sounded bitter on her tongue, this time. She dropped her eyes to the linen-wrapped wrist she cradled in her lap. "It's better this way."

Her silhouette was crooked in the moonlight, but still. Resolute. Not for the first time, he wondered if she were truly the brave one.

His fists opened and closed at his sides, and he wondered at the sharpness in his chest. None of this should have come as a surprise to him. Had she infected him with her hopefulness, even as she approached the day of her death? Did something in her make him believe this could have ended any other way?

She had only just been scraping by in King's Landing, it was true - but she had been doing so for years. She had learned her lessons. Had kept quiet at court. Smiled when it was called for. Said her pretty words. Stayed out of the way. Survived. Perhaps a part of him was convinced, after all, by her facade. Had thought that, maybe, she would go on keeping herself in line, as she always had.

Perhaps he had only underestimated her, as everyone else did.

"You don't have to stay with me," she said suddenly, glancing up at him only briefly. "I know it's late."

Of course. She doesn't want you here. She knows you're fit to burst. You're shaking, even now.

"It is late," he agreed, returning to the ewer in the corner. Silently, he retrieved another cup of water and set it at her bedside.

"You'll need your rest," he rumbled through half-clenched teeth.

"Good night," she called to his retreating back.

He could hardly wish her the same.

 

 

 

Sleep would not come that night.

Sandor drank, and drank, and drank some more, but nothing quelled the burning rage within. He stumbled so hard upon entering his room that he overturned his table, and found he liked the noise. The solid wood furniture made such a satisfying crack as it splintered against the stone floor. It took away from the beating drums in his head. So he did it again. And again. And found he could not stop.

A short time later, the bed was the only thing left that stood one piece, and Sandor slumped against it, panting, wiping his bloody fists on the sheets. The linens were all torn. Jugs and bottled smashed. Drapes torn from their mountings. A part of him wondered dimly what the servants would say about the wreckage.

They'll only think you were drunk as all hells, and senseless. As you always are. Angry, stupid, useless Hound. What good are you?

He wanted to keep raging, keep fighting the invisible thing that haunted him, but his sparse room held no more obstacles. As he cast his eyes about in search of anything that had been left whole, his eyes fell on something small and bright amongst the rubble of the ruined wardrobe. He got up, teetering, and trudged through the debris to see what it was.

Her gift.

He picked up the gloves, careful not to stain them with his blood, and ran his hands over the stitching. Back and forth. Imagining her hands weaving the needle in and out. How many hours had it taken? Was it more than the hours she had left?

What can you do about it, you useless Hound?

He slid down the stone wall, crouched over the wool in his hands, the burden of too many sleepless nights finally catching up with him.

What can you do?

Cold moonlight shone through the naked window, highlighting splintered wood and shards of glass.

What will you do?

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Sansa had thought she was accustomed to pain.

There had been plenty of it during her years in King's Landing. As soon as her father had lost his head, and there was no one left standing between her and her king, the bruises, the fear, the humiliation, had all become a regular part of life.  She had gotten used to the smell of the poultices, sticky against her skin. Was used to the scented powder that only halfway covered the bruises - the ones that showed, anyway. Used to hiding a limp in her step as she walked through an indifferent court.

She had thought she was ready for anything Joffrey had to throw at her.

She had been wrong.

Perhaps it was, in part, because he had been easier on her of late. The queen and the royal council had made a clear effort to keep her from such physical harm, once it was clear that she and Joff must be married, after all. Sansa had been spared the worst of the king's ire for months now, and though she had welcomed the respite, she now wondered if it had made her too soft. If the strength to withstand it all had faded with the last of her bruises.

But as Sansa lay in the dark of her chambers - exhausted, but in too much pain to sleep - she knew, deep down, it was more than that.

Just as her heart had cracked with renewed grief in the sept, so, too, did her body seem to quake and crumble under the weight of fresh agony – so much worse, now, for having known tenderness.

She had been starving for it. She saw that now. Years of misery and isolation had left her longing, aching for any sort of kindness, anything resembling affection. Perhaps it was not only revenge that had motivated her, that first night, but also weakness. Desperation. Perhaps she had always been on this path, slipping quietly down this slope to disaster. She had been afraid, that night, of so many things. But as soon as Sandor had touched her with that raw, gruff sweetness of his, the rest had faded away, until she was lost in it. Lost in him. 

Every moment since, she had been bolder, more reckless. She had let herself think she was more of a woman, perhaps. As though drinking wine and having a man in her bed meant she was any stronger, any wiser. 

But she could not call it a mistake.

Whatever it had cost her, Sansa could not bring herself to regret the nights she had spent with him. With so little left to her, she treasured the moments they'd had together. The way he'd made her feel. The parts of him she'd been allowed to see. She only wished she hadn't let it make her so stupid.

The pain was a reminder. 

Each throbbing of her flesh, each creak in her bones, each purple mark in her skin - all reminders of what she had been in danger of forgetting.

That there would be no sweet ending for her. That there was nothing to save her from her fate. That her wedding night was almost upon her.

That the greatest victory left to Sansa Stark was to die before her enemies could make her betray her family again.

But will he make sure of it?

She had hated to ask any more of Sandor, especially when it posed such danger to him. He had done so much for her already. But the things Joffrey had said as his men beat her...how little she meant to him, how hungry he was for her screams, for her blood, that he could make it last all the years of her miserable life...She couldn't even remember it all, but the thought turned her stomach and chilled her blood like ice, even now. To think that the one thing she had been counting on, the simple mercy of death, might not be guaranteed. That she might somehow be forced to endure him for years to come. That she could give birth in chains, for all he cared. That she could not abide, however it pained her to ask it.

But will he do it?

He had given her no answer. But he had not let her down yet. She had to believe he would protect her, one last time. She had to.

It was a sin, she knew, to be so hoping, praying for death. But she could not bring herself to care about such things now. She was not the brave and pious girl who had left Winterfell those years ago. Nor was she the bold and careless young woman she had fancied herself to be these past few weeks. She was nothing. The flame in her belly had been snuffed out. King's Landing had broken her. It had won. After everything, they had won.

Is this how father felt before he died?

Dawn began to paint pale streaks of light outside her window, and Sansa felt her sorrows folding up inside her, sealing themselves away. The night had seemed to last a lifetime, but it was over, now. The maester would return shortly to refresh her bandages, and he would offer her milk of the poppy again, to help her sleep. She had refused it before, in case Sandor should come. But this time, she would take it. She was tired, after all.

So very, very, tired.

 

 

The days that followed passed slowly.

The maester and his assistants had come, prodding at her ribs, checking her bandages, and the like. Once they were satisfied that there was little left they could do to promote her healing, they had left her in the care of her handmaiden. Sansa was glad to see them go. They left their medicines, and many instructions, but she would sooner be tended to by her handmaiden than the old men.

Shae was unusually present, of a sudden. Sansa had never much minded being left alone for most of the day, but now the woman seemed reluctant to leave her side at all. She had listened intently to the maester's instructions, and spent the following days seeing to Sansa's every need. It almost felt like kindness. It's all pity, though, she thought to herself. Her eyes give her away. She wanted to tell Shae to stop fussing, that there was no use worrying over her, that it was all going to be over soon – but she held her tongue, of course. As always.

It was difficult to keep track of time. She slept a great deal, whether the sun was up or not. Shae helped her wash, and tended to her dressings. The smell of healing herbs and milk of the poppy permeated the sheets, the air, becoming constant companions. Shae helped her move about the chamber - they'd been told she had to keep moving - and Sansa let her, pressing through the aches and spasms, however futile the exercise seemed. It doesn't matter now. None of it matters. Still, she stretched and walked and sat, gradually becoming used to the pain, easing herself into it until she felt she wore it like a cloak, wrapped tightly about her frame. Shae tried to distract her with idle chatter about the castle and its residents. She tried coaxing Sansa into her needlework, and when that failed, offered to read to her. Sansa could not bring herself to focus on anything so trivial as her work, or Shae's words. She only stared out the window, or into the fire. The hours passed slowly, hazily. The air was very warm. She tried to eat when she was bid, to drink her healing teas and tinctures, despite the rawness in her throat. The tea was always well-honeyed, and her meals were often accompanied by sweets and pastries - a treat she was not usually afforded. She wondered if Shae had made some special request. Still, Sansa took little joy in her food, difficult as it was to swallow. Mostly, she took her milk of the poppy, and she slept.

Sandor did not visit her.

She tried to tell herself it didn't matter. That he had more important things to attend to. That it was more dangerous than ever for him to come to her. But she couldn't help remembering the naked disgust on his face when he had seen her. How he barely looked at her at all as they had spoken. Somehow, there had been room for that to hurt, too.

A part of her still wanted to see him, despite his rejection, but she could not call for him. No one could know. Not even Shae could be trusted. Even if she could have sought him out as she had before – if she could take more than a few steps without the room swimming before her eyes – what would it matter? What good would it do, if he could not even look at her?

 

 

A few days into her convalescence, Sansa's sleep was interrupted by a a disturbance at her door. The sky outside was a hazy grey, making it impossible to tell the time. She struggled to focus. It appeared that Shae was arguing with someone in the hall, but their voices were hushed, and Sansa could not make out the words. Finally, the handmaiden pulled the door wide with a huff, and several maids pushed through, carrying bundles of cloth over to the wardrobe. By the time they left, Sansa had realized what the fuss was about.

The dress.

"I apologize, my lady. I could not stop them."

Shae had made her way to the wardrobe to try to close its wooden doors, but the skirts were so heavy and voluminous, great swathes of silk spilled out into the room no matter what she tried. Finally, Shae gave up, and made herself busy stoking the fire instead.

Sansa climbed, haltingly, off of her bed and gingerly made her way across the room. Shae watched warily as she approached the wardrobe, reaching out to stroke the silk, running her fingers over the beadwork. It may have been the most beautiful dress she had ever seen, even if it was all in Lannister gold. The lace, the pearls, the near-invisible stitches. It was a masterpiece. Truly fit for a queen.

And all Sansa could think was how heavy it looked, and how tight the bodice would sit on her ribs.

Somehow, her heart sank even lower in her chest.

She reached out and grasped the dress by the shoulders, and trying her best to lift it. She winced with the effort of holding it out in front of her, gritting her teeth and willing her battered muscles to bear the strain. She tried to imagine walking through the sept with this silken mass upon her, tried to convince herself she could bear it with grace. But it was as if she could feel the weight of every stitch, every bead, bearing down upon her as each bone in her body screamed in protest. Too late, she tried to return the dress to its place, but her arms gave out, and she dropped to the floor, bringing the shimmering skirts down with her.

Shae was at her side in an instant, cradling Sansa in her arms, and she clung back as tears streamed freely down her cheeks. I can't do it. I can't. I can't. She was too broken to sob and wail as she longed to, so she wept in silence, ribs spasming in agony as Shae rocked her and hushed her on the cold stone floor.

Somehow, she ended up back in her bed, crying softly into her pillows. The last thing she remembered before fading into a fitful sleep was the vague notion that she did not even know who was to give her away.

 

 

The day before her wedding, Sansa woke to Shae shaking her shoulders.

"My lady, you must get up," she urged, as Sansa groggily came to her senses. 

"What? What is happening?" It was late in the morning, she could tell, but the milk of the poppy kept her feeling sluggish.

"Stannis' ships have been spotted. They will be here soon. You must get up!"

Her mind felt foggy, and she struggled to grasp Shae's meaning.

"I don't...Stannis? Is coming here?"

"Yes, my lady!" the woman cried, exasperated. "Here! Now! The city is under attack!"

Sansa's breath caught in her throat.

Could it be?

She clambered out of bed and approached her window, scanning the distant horizon. If she squinted, she could make out white shapes in the distance, across the bay.

The war has finally reached King's Landing.

Shae helped her dress, carefully, in a simple gown, chattering all the while about the rumours she had heard that morning on her way to Sansa's tower. Stannis had hundreds of ships, they said, some all the way from Essos. He also had a powerful witch on his side, from across the sea, who would not let him fail. They said that the queen had closed the castle gates, as the smallfolk were forming mobs, begging to be let in, and the great sept of Baelor was packed to the rafters with terrified peasants and refugees. They said the king himself would lead a sortie when Stannis landed.

Don't hope, she told herself. Don't dare. And yet, she could not entirely bury the thought that maybe, just maybe, things were about to change.

The morning passed so slowly, Sansa imagined she could feel every second pass her by. She did not know what to expect – she had never seen battle before. Shae stayed by her side, trying to be comforting, but she could tell the woman was fighting back her own fears, as well. Sansa found herself pacing the floor, despite the discomfort it still caused her, because sitting still was worse. The castle was quiet, more quiet than she had ever heard it, but the air was far from calm. And all the while, the small voice in the back of her mind whispered to her. Maybe, it said. Despite her efforts to quash it. Despite everything. Maybe.

The midday meal did not come.

By mid-afternoon, there was a knock on her door. It was a summons. The queen had invited all the women of the castle to join her in her private ballroom, for their protection. 

The company of the ladies of court was the last thing Sansa wanted, but she could hardly disobey the queen, even now. She did not know how this day would end.

Shae had to help her down the tower steps. It was slow going, and her teeth were gritted all the way, but she made it. She paused at the bottom to catch her breath, leaning on a window sill. The hallways were empty and silent, but a way off, she could hear the sounds of battle: the deep moan of war horns, the creak and thud of catapults flinging stones, the splashes and splinterings, the crackle of burning pitch and thrum of scorpions loosing their yard-long iron-headed shafts...and beneath it all, the cries of dying men. She couldn't help wondering if Joffrey was one of them. Maybe, said the voice.

"Sansa," greeted the queen, when she finally made it to the ballroom. "How good of you to join us."

The small hall was full of the women and children of the castle, some sitting at the trestle tables, some milling about aimlessly. Cersei gestured to the seat beside her on the dais, and Sansa obediently made her way over to it. 

"You look pale, Sansa," the queen remarked. "Not quite recovered yet, are we?"

It was an empty pleasantry; Sansa doubted the queen even knew the extent of her injuries. She had left the room once Joffrey's men had begun their work in earnest.

"Not quite," she replied demurely. The queen quirked the side of her mouth, and lifted her goblet. From the older woman's bright eyes and pink cheeks, Sansa could tell it was not her first of the afternoon. 

"No matter," Cersei continued, her voice low. "You needn't worry about looking graceful on your wedding day. You won't have to worry about your wedding at all, if Stannis breaks through." She took a long pull from her goblet, then levelled a shrewd gaze at Sansa. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Sansa could not bring herself to respond, and simply lowered her eyes. She was tired of lying. So, so tired.

"I know what you pray for, child," Cersei hissed under her breath. "Don't think you've fooled me. I know you pray for our defeat, in the godswood, and in your heart. I know." She leaned back in her seat, a satisfied smile spread across her lips.

You don't know everything.

"Stannis may take the city," the queen continued, "and he may take the throne, but I will not suffer him to judge me. I do not mean for him to have us alive."

Sansa's eyes flicked back to the queen, who smirked at her bitterly, and nodded at the royal headsman, Ser Ilyn Payne, who stood guard in the nearby shadows. His sword glinted in the candlelight, an awful grin stretching across his horrible face.

"So perhaps you had best pray again, Sansa, and for a different outcome. The Starks will have no joy from the fall of House Lannister, I promise you."

Just then, a knight - one of the Kettleblacks, she thought - burst through the doors a hurried up to the dais. In hushed tones, he delivered news of the battle to the queen. She didn't catch all of it, but he said something about the Hound being missing, and Sansa felt her chest constrict sharply. Please no, she thought. Not him. Please, don't be so cruel. She didn't know if she was praying, or to whom, but that didn't stop her. Sandor's life was all she had left to hope for, now. She did not think she could bear it if he died today.

Kettleblack departed, and the queen called for more wine.

Food was served, and most of the women in the room moved dutifully towards the trestle tables. They listened half-heartedly to the bards and fools who had been invited to distract them, but fear was in every pair of eyes she could see. Children cried between the courses, sensitive to the tension in the hall, even if they were too young to understand it. The queen drank more wine, and said more cruel things to Sansa, but she hardly heard any of it. It didn't matter what Cersei said to her now. It didn't matter that the women all around her whispered and wept for their doom. Her mind was beyond them, outside the castle walls, with Sandor, wherever he may be. Let him live, she thought, over and over again. No matter who won the night, she would be dead soon. But not him. Please, not him. Let him live, let him live, let him live.

Minutes crawled by like hours, hours like days, and even the queen grew quiet.

When the heavy doors finally burst open again, it was Cersei's cousin Ser Lancel who strode up to the dais - though he laboured from a wound in his chest - and told them that the battle was lost.

Screams and cries of despair rang out from those close enough to hear, and the bards all stopped their playing. As Ser Lancel described their men deserting the walls and turning on their own officers, how no one had yet found the Hound, and the gold cloaks had thrown down their spears and gone running–

"Where is my son?" Cersei snarled. "Bring him to me at once!"

Lancel opened his mouth to argue, and the queen slammed an open palm into his wound before stomping down from the dais and sweeping out of the room. She has forgotten me, Sansa thought. A fresh cry went up as the hall's occupants saw that their queen was leaving them, that they were truly lost. The torches burned low, and servants began to leave the dimming hall, as well. 

Suddenly, Shae was at her side.

"You should go, too, my lady. The guards have fled." Sansa looked to the open doors, and saw that it was true. "You will be safer in your room. Go now, and bar the door." 

Sansa glanced back at the ghastly headsman, who had not yet left his post, and knew that Shae was right.

"What about you?"

"Don't worry about me, my lady, just go. Go, now!"

Sansa made her way to the doors as calmly as she could, fighting the urge to run. 

It was even slower climbing back up the steps of her tower without Shae's help, but she did feel better for escaping the room of near-hysterical women.

Her bedchamber was black as pitch. Sansa barred the door and fumbled through the dark to the window. When she ripped back the drapes, her breath caught in her throat.

Wildfire had consumed the bay. The southern sky was aswirl with glowing, shifting colours, the reflections of the great fires that burned below. The air itself smelled burnt. Embers drifted through the night air like swarms of fireflies.

"Have the ladies started to panic?"

Sansa whirled at the rasping voice.

"Sandor." He stood before her, muddied, drenched in blood, and reeking of smoke – but alive. She went to him, unable to stop herself, but he caught her by the shoulders – not ungently – and held her at arms length.

She hadn't seen him in days, and his presence made her feel dizzy with relief, despite the circumstances. Flashes of green light illuminated the room for an instant, but she could not read the clouded look on his face. It was angry, maybe, and he was probably drunk. Something desperate flickered behind his eyes. Still, a sort of calm washed over her. There was no one she would rather have by her side.

But...

"What are you doing here? Where is the king?" They had said no one could find him. What could have pulled him away from the battle?

"He can die just fine on his own," Sandor rumbled bitterly, and she could smell the wine on his breath. His great form teetered slightly, and she realized he did not look quite steady on his feet. Not steady at all.

She felt her brows draw together, trying to understand.

"Then...then what–?"

"I'm going." 

"Going?" He wasn't making any sense. The drawbridge was up. The city was on fire.

"Going where?"

"North."

North?

She tipped her head up as he stepped closer, leaning in so that she thought he meant to kiss her.

"Little bird," he whispered coarsely, eyes bright in the darkness. "Do you want to go home?"

Her heart stopped. The words rang in her ears.

Home.

Finally, Sansa understood, and everything else seemed to fade away. Her tower, the battle, the fire – everything. All of it ceased to matter. 

Sandor Clegane was taking her home.

"Yes," she breathed. 

"Oh, yes."