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Ring Twice for Sansa

Chapter Text

August 31st, 1947

I shall never forget the weekend Sansa died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For Sansa’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Petyr Baelish, was the only one who really knew her….

A soft knock on his door made Baelish stop typing. He closed his eyes and sighed, leaning his head against the linoleum wall. Always, always an interruption. How am I ever to get her story done for next week’s column this way?

“What is it, Kettleback?” He snapped.

“Another detective is here to see you, sir,” his butler answered, opening the door a crack. “Shall I tell him you will see him when you are less indisposed?”

Baelish’s mustache twitched. “Let the gentleman in, Kettleback. If these gumshoes are so determined to deprive me of any sanity restoring moments of solitude, let them see me in my bath. Hang civility.”

So saying, he rubbed his arms more vigorously with his washcloth, sniffing regretfully at the abandoned first paragraph of his story on Sansa, staring at him mockingly from the typewriter situated on the custom desk tray he’d had installed in his tub.

As Kettleback turned away, Baelish could just see through the open space in the door the tall figure and broad shoulders of the detective. He was standing with his back to Baelish, and all Petyr could make out was the brim of his fedora and the back of his beige trench coat. He was staring at Petyr’s clock in the parlor, which had just rung the hour. It was an antique grandfather clock, delicately painted and engraved in marble.

There was only one other like it in existence: the one in Sansa’s apartment. In the room she was murdered in.

“You can look but you can’t touch, detective!” Petyr called out before Kettleback had the chance to speak to the policeman. “That clock is priceless. So is everything in my home.” It was true. Petyr was a collector of all sorts of objets d’art, from the African masks lining his wall to the Viennese figurines and Italian vases inside his glass case.

He’d made sure Sansa’s apartment was furnished similarly. She must always present class in everything she does, he’d told her, from her demeanor to her very décor. What he did not tell her was that this also ensured that a little part of Petyr would be with her always – even if it was just a vase or an antique clock.

The detective hesitated only momentarily at the doorway once he saw the state Petyr was in, but then he smirked and entered. “Mr. Baelish?”

Petyr’s eyebrows flew up his forehead and he exhaled a taken aback, “Well!”

This detective was quite different from the ones he’d met yesterday. Quite different from most fellows one meets, to put it more succinctly.

Tall was an understatement; he was close to 6’7” from what Petyr could tell from his admittedly disadvantageous vantage point. He was muscled like an ox, with a lightly bearded jaw that could have cut through boulder – that rather was like a boulder, really.

But most arresting were the burn scars ravaging one half of his face. He looked as though someone had pounded uncooked steak into his skin. Although even without the scars he wouldn’t have been a matinee idol, he did have a striking look about him – in a rough, dime store sort of way.

As Baelish’s eyes fell on the burns, his own face brightened in recognition. “Ah! I’ve placed you now. You’re Sandor Clegane, aren’t you? The Hound?”

There was also the matter of the slight Scottish brogue just detectable in his deep voice that confirmed his identity, as evident in his curt, “Aye.” His eyes flickered skeptically.

“The Hound who hunts down his man until he’s found, dead or alive! Earned a shin full of lead during a raid on a Nazi camp in '43. Machine gunfire took out three of your men. But you walked right in and apprehended the commander, no matter the shots. Sadly, that heroic lead shinbone ended your military career. You came to New York and built up your reputation as Chief Ray’s right-hand guard dog on the force.”

“What, writing a column on me?” he practically growled. Baelish corrected himself: no, Clegane’s eyes were his most arresting feature. They were dark, searing, and full of the tragedy of a hunted animal. He looked as though recently diagnosed with something terminal.

Clegane flipped through his notepad as he sat on the velvet armchair by Baelish’s bath, one leg thrown lazily over the chair's arm. “Nice set-up you’ve got here,” he mumbled as he took in the Victorian vanity, the Persian rug, and the pot of chrysanthemums’ placed on the corner of Baelish’s vast Grecian tub.

“It’s lavish, but I call it home,” Petyr replied as he pulled out a folder and opened it on his desk tray. “I do not need to ask why you’ve paid me a visit. You’ve taken over investigation of the Sansa Stark murder case, haven’t you? I already had a visit yesterday morning from Sergeants Meribald and Hunt.” He put on his reading glasses and glanced at a thin piece of paper he removed from his folder. “I stated, ‘on Friday night, Sansa had a dinner engagement with me, after which she was ostensibly going out of town.’”

He noticed out of the corner of his eye Sandor flipping through his notepad again.

Petyr continued. “‘She phoned and cancelled our engagement at exactly 7:00. After that, I’” –

“…‘ate a lonely dinner, then got into the tub to read.’” Sandor snapped shut his notepad. He gave Petyr a mocking, contemptuous squint that Baelish found most uncalled for. “What’d you write it down for? Afraid you’d forget it?” He tucked the notepad back into his coat pocket, and leaned his elbow on his knee, that mocking gleam still in place in those blazing eyes.

There was something rough, unhinged, somehow dangerous about this man, this Hound. Underneath his studied calm, there was a deep vein of urgency. Of violent grief.

Petyr only sniffed again. “I am the most widely misquoted man in America.” He slipped the piece of paper back in its home, then took off his glasses and folded them neatly beside the folder. “When my friends do it, I resent it. From Sergeants Meribald and Hunt, I should find it intolerable.” He at last betrayed his own subdued violence with the rough jerk he gave to his desk tray. “Hand me my robe, will you?”

He stood and ignored the new smirk on Sandor’s face.

Wrapping himself in his robe, Petyr exited Sandor’s line of sight, taking his clothes into his dressing room. He kept the door ajar to ask, “Any more questions for me?”

“Yes, one. Two years ago in a March column, you ditched the book review you started and switched over to the Greyjoy murder case.”

“I’m flattered you’ve delved so deeply into my work, Clegane.”

“You said old man Balon was taken out by a shotgun loaded with buckshot, the way Sansa Stark was murdered night before last.”

“What a morbid coincidence.”

“But he was really strangled by a fishing line from his cannery.”

“Hm. What a blunder on my part. That demise has much more of a poetic ring to it. The fish peddler strung up like one of his own fish.” He emerged almost as dapper as he liked, and all he needed was his tie, coat, and the signature carnation in his button hole.

He faced his bedroom mirror and tackled the issue of the tie as Sandor loomed behind him. “Other than interrogating the processes of the creative mind, have you any other business with me, Clegane?”

Sandor sat again, this time on the arm of Petyr’s satin love seat, which pleased Petyr not one bit. “You were Miss Stark’s uncle, correct?”

“By marriage, Clegane, strictly by marriage. And barely that, I should say. I wasn’t married much more than two weeks when my dear wife decided to end things with a dive out the penthouse window.”

  “Don’t sound too broken up about it.”

“Well, that was several years ago. Anything else?”

“Not really,” Sandor stood up slowly, always staring down nonchalantly at his notepad. “Oh, except for one thing: were you in love with Sansa Stark, Mr. Baelish?”

The ticking of the grandfather clock in the suddenly very quiet apartment was much like that of a shotgun malfunctioning and merely clicking in humiliation.

One of Sandor’s thick dark eyebrows arched as he looked down at Petyr, who was still and silent. “Was she in love with you?” There was steel in that quiet deep voice.

Petyr slipped on his coat. “Sansa considered me the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she’d ever met.” He inclined his head. “I was in complete accord with her over that.” His green-gray eyes took on an artificial dreamy look. “She thought me also the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.”

“You agree with her there, too?”

Petyr chuckled softly as he arranged a mint-scented handkerchief in his cravat. “Clegane, you won’t understand this, but I’ve tried to become the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.”

“Any luck?”

A thin smile beneath Petyr’s neatly trimmed mustache. “Let me put it this way.” He pulled off part of the stem on a fresh carnation. “I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.” He slid the carnation neatly into his button-hole.

Clegane did not laugh, but his unscarred cheek twisted, resembling something close to a rueful grin. It still did not deaden the detective’s potently savage air, however.

He headed toward the door. “Well, that’d be all. So long.”

An almost feline reflex, a sort of instinct, made Petyr ask, “Where are you going?”

Sandor’s skeptical look was back. “What do you care?”

Petyr crossed over to him, picking up his walking stick. “You have to question all the suspects, I assume?”

Sandor snorted a laugh. “That includes you, you know.”

“Good. I’d have been most put out were I overlooked. But I take it high up on your list, higher than myself I’d hope, would be that admirable chunk of wood Harrold Hardyng?”

“Not that it’s any business of yours, but first I’m paying a visit to Sansa Stark's closest friend. Female friend, that is.”

“Ah, Myranda Royce!” Petyr beamed. “What a happy stroke of luck. I was just about to head there myself to pay my condolences. I might as well ride along with you.” He picked up his hat.

“Now, wait a minute. I can’t go around dragging suspects with me on an investigation.”

“Oh, don’t be such a stickler, Clegane.” He took his arm and authoritatively steered them out. “After all, despite what Myranda or Sansa’s siblings might say, I was Sansa’s closest confidant, male or female. You’ll want me along, I’m an endless font of useful information. For example, you’ll be pleased to know you won’t need to take an extra trip to see Mr. Hardyng if we’re heading to Myranda’s….”

Chapter Text

Myranda Royce’s apartment was fashionable and sleekly designed, though not situated in quite as respectable a part of town as Sansa and Petyr’s homes. Outside Sandor nodded covertly to one of his men stationed near the entrance, reading a paper.

They were let in by Myranda’s maid and then the lady herself entered. She was an attractive woman, fashionably dressed; Sandor noted that unlike a lot of sticks out there, she had a bit of meat to her that she carried well. Her brown curls were swept up in a chic bouffant, her dress flattering to her full bosom and curved form. She was better than most at hiding her shock at Sandor’s size and appearance.

“Ms. Royce, I’m Lieutenant Sandor Clegane. I’m taking over Sansa Stark’s murder case.”

She blinked once, struck hard hearing her best friend’s name and the word murder in the same sentence. It was still difficult for her.

“As for me,” Petyr interjected, “I’m just along to pay my respects. We’re both hurting, aren’t we, Randa?”

She decided to ignore the sly tone in Petyr’s voice for once, and took him at face value. “Thank you, Petyr. Same to you. It must have been horrible for you, identifying Sansa’s body in that condition.”

Petyr paled slightly, but with the same jaunty tone, he said, “Yes, shotgun loaded with buckshot, close range, in the face. Not very nice to look at.” He placed his walking stick on her grand piano and began perusing a magazine there, fading into the background.

Myranda shuddered. “Horrible,” she whispered to herself.

She was genuine, Sandor decided.

She snapped out of her fog and asked Sandor to take a seat as she herself sat down and nervously took out a cigarette. “Want one?”

“No, thanks,” Sandor answered, deep in his notes again. “You were very close with Miss Stark, Ms. Royce?”

Her expression softened. “Oh, yes. Sansa was like a sister to me. She gave me my start as a plus-size model, then she promoted me to run the department. I adored her.”

“Did you know her maid Shae very well? Were they close?”

“Shae was as protective of Sansa as a tigress is of her cubs. She’d worked for her for years.”

Petyr’s eyes went blank as he said in a dull, wavering tone, “I’ll never forget her scream when she saw Sansa lying there.”

He stared blindly into nothing.

Myranda shivered and snuffed out her cigarette on a cobalt blue ashtray by her chair.

Sandor’s next question made her stiffen. “Since you were so close to Miss Stark, you must have known a lot about her relationships. With that in mind, did you approve of her upcoming marriage to Harrold Hardyng?”

She fidgeted, crossing her legs. “I mean…yes, of course! Why on earth shouldn’t I approve?”

Sandor shrugged his massive shoulders, expression opaque. “I don’t know. Just what is your personal relationship like with Mr. Hardyng? I see in the notes he’s a frequent house guest of yours. Are you friends? Acquaintances? Are you in love with him?”

Myranda felt like the air had been sucked out of her, and the damned detective hadn’t even changed his inflection. There was a bright buoyancy in Petyr, however, as he proclaimed, “What a fabulous turn of events!”

“Oh, shut up, Petyr,” Myranda snapped, exposing the fiery interior she’d been making every effort to control. “This…this is senseless. Why would you ask me such things?” Her brown eyes glared at Sandor. “What are you driving at?”

“The truth, Ms. Royce.” There was an edge of warning to his husky voice now. “Now answer the damn question: are you in love with him?”

Myranda opened her mouth once or twice, but nothing came out. Petyr was delighted. Famed for her wit, Myranda was for once momentarily speechless.

She at last regained a sense of composure, however. In as civilized a tone as she could muster – this brute was a policeman, after all – she said, “No, no, of course not. I mean…he’s a great guy, I’m fond of him, but so is everyone, dammit!”

Petyr’s laugh was harsh and startling. “I’m not! He’s a perfect lug and you know it. I’d rather befriend a rattlesnake.”

You’re the rattlesnake, Petyr,” Myranda shot back. “I wish for once you’d hold the venom back and keep your damn trap shut.”

Sandor swallowed his laugh. This one had spirit, regardless of her dealings with Hardyng.

Speaking of… “Did you give him money?”

Lightning flashed in her eyes. “…What?”

He didn’t look away from his pad of paper. “Two checks, one on June 8th for $300 and one on June 27th for $450. Both went through your account and were endorsed by him.”

Myranda had her easy laugh at the ready. “Oh, that! I had some shopping I needed done – I was arranging a 4th of July party – and I asked Harry to pick up some things for me.”

“Our Harry’s a very obliging fellow,” Petyr added in a honey-sweet tone.

Sandor ignored both of them and continued. “There’s also the matter of your recent withdrawals. Sometimes as little as $700, sometimes as large as $1,700.”

“Yes, I needed that money,” Myranda bristled. “Is that a chargeable offense?”

“No, but the day you took out $700, Harrold Hardyng deposited $550, and the day you took out $1,700, he deposited $1,550.”

Petyr’s wide grin. “More shopping, Myranda?”

Her face was red as she leapt out of her chair. “I refuse to sit here and be insulted in my own home! So I lent him money, big deal. I can do what I like with my own funds, I hope?” She slit her eyes at Sandor, her winged eyeliner making her look like a vengeful bird of prey. “And in case you’re wondering, I already told the police yesterday that I was going over proofs here at home the night Sansa was murdered. And get this,” her vehemence brought tears to her eyes and Sandor read nothing but honesty in her. “My friendship with Sansa has always come first. Always. No matter what.” Her voice broke on the last word and she turned away, biting her lip.

There was no time to soak in the dramatic silence following her outburst, for Petyr purred, “Well! Speak of the devil.”

Sandor looked up. A handsome young man entered the room from the hallway. He had the crisp aura of one who’d just showered, shaved, and dressed himself – and was completely at home doing so. His sandy hair was perfectly coiffed and judging by his broad shoulders and the way he carried himself, Sandor guessed he’d been a linebacker in high school. However, his current dress was that of the tasteful man about town, not the athlete. Like most people, he blanched at the initial sight of Sandor, but soon took on a look of amiable emptiness.

Though Petyr’s smile remained, his eyes sizzled with loathing as he addressed the young man. “We were just talking about you, Hardyng. What a marvelous coincidence to find you here, at Myranda’s!” He turned to Sandor. “See, I told you that you wouldn’t have to take two trips.”

Petyr reminded Sandor nauseatingly of a little boy who’d succeeded in getting a sibling in trouble.

The young man in question turned puzzled blue eyes to Myranda.

Trying and failing to keep up the appearance of an indifferent hostess, Myranda said, “Harry, this is Lieutenant Clegane. He’s taking over Sansa’s case.”

A disarmingly boyish smile crossed Hardyng’s face as he offered Sandor his hand to shake. “Well, how do you do, lieutenant?” His drawling southern accent was pure cinema and, Sandor believed, mostly an affectation, but not in any devious sort of way. Probably just something he got used to exhibiting to society to come off as the sweet, humble, and courtly country manor boy.

“Mr. Hardyng,” he said, reluctantly shaking the proffered hand. “Didn’t know you’d be here.”

With an aw-shucks expression, Harry stuck his hands in his pockets. “Tell you the truth, lieutenant, I had to get away from my hotel. Place was swarming with reporters to the point it got downright unbearable. I haven’t slept a wink since this whole thing happened.”

“Insomnia! A sign of guilt or innocence, Clegane?” Petyr asked quietly.

As if by magic, the boyish dimples disappeared and Hardyng’s face showed earnest consternation. “I am absolutely at your disposal, lieutenant. Anything I can do, just you let me know.” He spread his hands out. “But what possible reason could I have for killing Sansa? She and I were going to be married this week, we all know that!”

“No, we don’t know,” Petyr put in quickly, voice sharp as a blade. “No one alive on earth knows that for sure.”

Although Petyr employed his usual theatrical flair, there was an adamant fire in his words that held Sandor’s attention. “What do you mean by that?”

“Sansa hadn’t absolutely made up her mind to marry him.” There was a new almost pleading tone to Petyr’s voice as he stared intently at Sandor – as if the detective had the power to make this true. “In fact, she was going up to her country cabin to think it over.”

“And yet she never made it there,” Sandor thought aloud. “Wonder why she stayed in town last minute.”

Petyr ignored him. Rage and contempt dripped from his words as he looked Harry over, saying, “She was very kind, but I never thought she’d actually throw her life away on a male beauty in distress.”

Harry appeared unperturbed, dimpling again. He addressed Sandor. “I’m sure you’ve heard ‘sore loser’ before, lieutenant? Particularly in your line of work.” He laughed and his teeth were big and strong and white.

This phony was getting on Sandor’s nerves just as quickly as Petyr had. Hardyng came across eminently sane, affable, polite – and as if his fiancée hadn’t been brutally murdered just two days before. He should be like a man undead; pale, disheveled, enraged, and ready to tear down the world.

Instead he offered Sandor lunch. “Would you like a bite to eat, lieutenant? You must be hungry.”

“Why, Harry!” Petyr said, eyes gleaming maliciously. “You’re the perfect host, aren’t you?”

At last Sandor saw some violence creep in to the blond southerner’s expression, his hand forming a fist as he said warningly through his teeth, “Petyr….”

Sandor didn’t miss Myranda subtly placing her hand on Harry’s arm to still him.

Petyr merely smiled again. “It’s almost as if he were in his own home, wouldn’t you say so, Clegane?”

Myranda jumped in before Harry could reply. “Harry knows how distracted I am. How about it, lieutenant, would you like something to eat?” Her strained smile was desperate.

Sandor stood. “No, thanks. I better be going.”

With the look of a confused puppy, Harrold asked, “But lieutenant! Don’t…don’t you have any questions you’d like to ask me?”

Sandor’s quiet stare was searing. “You were at a concert Friday night, weren’t you?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Mm-hmm. What’d they play?”

“Oh, let’s see….Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth.”

Sandor’s gaze was unflinching, inscrutable. “…Thanks.”

He started to head toward the door, when he suddenly turned back. “Mr. Hardyng, maybe you’d know this. We can’t seem to find a duplicate key to Miss Stark’s apartment. You don’t happen to know where one is?”

Harry eagerly stepped forward. “You know, I think I do? Are you heading there, to her apartment, I mean? I could help you look.”

Sandor fought his sudden impulse to punch that puppyish look off Hardyng’s face. “I don’t need your help, Hardyng.”

“Oh, come!” Petyr announced, picking up his walking stick and hat. “Let’s make it a field trip, shall we? I loaned Sansa many things over the years, and I’d like to make sure the police haven’t been too clumsy with them.”

“Now, look,” Sandor barked out, “I don’t know what you people think a murder investigation involves, but I promise you it doesn’t include social calls to dead women’s flats.”

“Excellent!” Petyr said, humor unaltered. “Since we’ve established there’s nothing particularly social in my call or Harry’s, strictly business, there should be no problem. Come, Hardyng, I look forward to you continually stumbling over your words and damning yourself with each fatuous blunder. Be a lark.”

 

Sansa’s apartment took up a decently sized brick structure in a relatively quiet neighborhood equidistant from the business side of town and the entertainment side. If Harrold was disturbed by the hordes of reporters outside his hotel, he would have gone mad had he been forced to stay at Sansa’s. There was a veritable mob at her doorsteps, bulbs flashing and curious onlookers murmuring amongst themselves. A hoarse cry of “Extra, extra! Read all about it! Beauty victim in brutal slaying” rang out above it all.

It was only Sandor’s intimidating physique and tenacity that enabled them to push through. A few reporters spotted him and quickly scribbled “The Hound is on the case” in their notepads.

Scattering photographers with the weight of his formidable shoulders, Sandor and the two behind him at last reached the policeman guarding the entrance. The cop stood to the side to allow them in.

“Animals,” Petyr sneered as the three men made their way upstairs.

Sandor fished for the key given to him at the station and unlocked the door to her apartment. As it opened, Sandor right away had the strange sensation he was entering some other realm, something more mystical and delicate than the sweltering crowd outside could ever imagine.

It was his first time inside.

Before he turned on the light, he looked at the floor, as Petyr and Harry watched from outside.

“The doorbell rang,” Sandor muttered.

Harry, who’d been nervously fiddling with his hat, started. “What’s that?”

“She opened the door. This hall light was off so she probably didn’t recognize whoever it was right away. The shot fired.” He backed up into the room several feet. “…She fell there.”

Too preoccupied with something making his eyes dart this way and that, but never at the spot Sandor indicated, Harry didn’t notice the way Sandor’s voice thinned as he finished speaking. He didn’t notice the tightening of his lips and the mad fire in the Hound’s eyes.

Petyr did.

He stepped inside, Harry behind him. “I infer you studied the police reports closely to deduce that.”

“Mm,” Sandor replied noncommittally. His eyes were hooded as he continued staring at the spot where her body had fallen.

He finally appeared to shake off his intense distraction and marched toward the bay windows. He opened the blinds and light flooded in. Sandor took his first good look at Sansa’s apartment.

Despite Petyr’s efforts, the décor was more subdued than in his own home, but still as effortlessly elegant. There was something straightforward and homey about the setting of the sofa, the chairs around the fireplace, the antique credenza. The various bric-a-brac were less ostentatious than Petyr’s, but they and perhaps the tragic aura now hanging over the apartment gave the room a sort of crystallized distance for all its coziness. Close to the door, the twin grandfather clock of Petyr's sounded the new hour, just as Petyr's had in his apartment.

“Guess I better find that key,” Harry said to himself, fingers tapping at his sides. He sped off purposefully to one of the spare bedrooms.

Sandor hovered by the window, looking out over the street below, where a gray birch tree shaded a small garden by the sidewalk.

Petyr was suddenly by his side. “Clegane, tell me. Just why are you brooding so intensely? I noticed it practically from the moment we met. I know for a fact this isn’t the first murder case you’ve spearheaded. What’s different now?”

A lengthy silence as Sandor, his back to Petyr, unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it in his mouth. A few more empty moments and then Sandor, ignoring Petyr's question, said, “By the way, we got word this morning from Western Washington University. Sansa’s sister Arya will be here in time for the funeral, whenever that is.”

“Oh, goodie,” Petyr said drily, one corner of his mouth drawn downward. “Arya Stark in our midst. As if the situation couldn’t get more nightmarish. The press will have a field day once she has her say at the funeral. That reminds me,” he said, suddenly more heated. “Clegane, why did the newspaper have to photograph Sansa in that horrible condition? It was gruesome, terrible.”

Petyr noted the shudder that wracked Clegane’s impressive frame. His eyes went dark as coal as he rasped, “When a bird gets killed, she doesn’t care how she looks.” He turned sharply away, tossing the empty gum wrapper with more force than necessary into a nearby wastebasket.

Petyr was livid. “Bird, dame, doll – would you stop using those vile terms in reference to her? Look at this place – is this the home of a dame?” He spread his arms out, surveying the space as if he had founded it and staked claim.

In a softer voice, he said, “Look at her.”

Sandor followed Petyr’s gaze to above the mantelpiece.

Sansa’s portrait sat in its gilded frame.

Sandor breathed heavily.

She was sitting with her body in profile but her face to the viewer. She wore a sleeveless gown so deep blue it was almost black. Some sort of light gauze served as a shawl over her perfectly molded arms. Her right hand was placed delicately over her heart, the other arm lying limp with a sort of yielding appeal toward the viewer, giving her the effect of leaning forward just slightly. As if to reach out to you.

There was something so ethereal yet realistic about the detail on the face, like a photograph daubed in paint. The lighting was pale on her upper cheeks, darker below, showcasing her fine cheekbones. Yet there was also a crucial softness there in her expression, in the subtle warm hues of her complexion. The tender lips held the faintest ghost of a smile, less furtive than Mona Lisa’s. Her brows were smoothly and innocently arched over her eyes.

Those eyes revealed the spine in her. They were of a startling deep blue, brighter and clearer than the shade of her dress. The look in them was direct, sure, steely, yet with oceans of understanding there as well. The sunlight streaming through the blinds caught the copper strands in her thick auburn waves of hair, which curled like a wreath of flowers around her shoulders, and turned these strands to streaks of fire.

There were embers deep in the coal of Sandor’s eyes now.

Yet all he had to offer as he turned away again was, “Not bad.”

Baelish kept his gaze fixed on the portrait. “Lannister was in love with her when he painted it. But even in that state he couldn’t fully capture her vibrance, her warmth. He achieved only a halfway decent simulacrum of it.”

Sandor exhaled a derisive laugh. “So you’re an art expert, too, huh?”

Petyr’s face scrunched in indignation. “Now, look here” –

“Found it!” Came Harrold’s rallying cry, racing back in. “Here’s your key, lieutenant.” He held it up.

His grin was casual but it didn’t reach his wide eyes.

“Uh-huh,” Sandor said slowly, pulling out his notepad. “Where’d you find that?”

Harry shrugged. “Oh, in the drawer in Sansa’s guest room. I kept telling her there was no sense in keeping an extra key in the house, because what if you get locked out? But she” –

“The police are very fussy about their inventory,” Sandor interrupted, studying the list the department gave him. “That key wasn’t listed as part of the inventory in the guest room or in any other room here.”

An impish, gleeful look peered out of Petyr’s emerald-gray eyes. “Then it’s made a sudden reappearance! Hardyng, you old card, you never told me you did magic tricks.”

Hardyng wore a hangdog look that didn’t suit him, but was at least the only honest expression Sandor had seen so far on him. “Oh, all right, I’ve had it on me the whole time.”

“Why lie?”

“Because…well, because I didn’t want to give it to you in front of Petyr,” he relented, handing Sandor the key. “Didn’t want him making up any vulgar stories.”

“You needn’t worry about that, my boy,” Petyr assured him. “I don’t need to make them up where you’re concerned. Reality outpaces any creation of mine. I’m sure the reality surrounding how you’ve come to possess that key would fill a novel.”

Harry’s cheeks reddened. “Dammit, Petyr, now you listen to me. I’ve been patient with you, by god, but a man’s got his limit. If you’ve got something to say to me, come right out and say it.”

Although significantly shorter than Harry, Petyr’s ego now puffed him up to where he seemed almost equal to the task. “Very well, I’ll state it plainly” –

“I wouldn’t,” Sandor announced, getting between the men just as Harrold advanced. “I have the key, so I’m satisfied.”

Harrold visibly relaxed. “Good.”

Sandor cocked an eyebrow in his direction. “But I can’t say you’re much of a musical expert, Mr. Hardyng.”

Harrold frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You told me they played Beethoven and Brahms at the concert Friday night – but at the last minute their program fell through and they played nothing but Sibelius.”

Petyr laughed aloud. “You see, Harry, you see? I couldn’t make up such gaffes if I tried.” He laughed again, shaking his head.

Harry disarmed them both by joining Petyr in his laughter, his smile more boyish and self-deprecating than ever. “I don’t know why I told such a silly lie as that, I guess I just thought it didn’t matter that much. Truth is, I’d been working such late nights with Sansa and Randa over the magazine’s next issue, that the minute I sat down for the concert I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Slept through the whole thing. Didn’t hear a note!” He shrugged, dimples in place.

“Next he’ll show you photographic evidence of his dreams,” Petyr quipped.

Both men stood tense, waiting for the stone-faced Sandor’s reaction. At last he shrugged, readjusting his hat. “I’ll let this one slide, Mr. Hardyng. It’s an understandable predicament. I find myself falling asleep at concerts, too.”

Harry grinned like a little child getting an answer right in school.

Sandor nodded toward the door. “Let’s go.”

Harry joined him with Petyr not far behind, glowering behind the fiancé’s back.

 

Sandor saw Harrold off in a taxi. The detective stood looking after the car until it disappeared down the road.

Sandor remembered the gleam hidden in those country blue eyes of Hardyng’s, a gleam of paralyzed fear. Whatever he was hiding, it apparently scared the shit out of him.

Only his years of experience in the force kept him from starting as Petyr suddenly spoke close beside him.

“May I buy you dinner, Lieutenant?”

Petyr twirled his walking stick behind his back, his face as serene and insidious as a cat’s.

Twisting his cheek again, Sandor considered. At last he nodded, following the columnist to the next taxi.

Chapter Text

Usually Sandor would resent dining in a fancy joint so obviously out of his usual class, but there was something sort of calming about this place. Maybe it was the sedate manners of the wait staff, the soft lighting, or the wide smile on the portly man playing the accordion with the small band of musicians that put him at ease– or else maybe because he knew from Petyr that this was Sansa’s favorite restaurant. According to Petyr, this table at the back, which looked out to the patio seating against a brick wall draped in ivy, was “our table – Sansa’s and mine.”

The band started playing another song, lilting and soothing – one that made the breath catch in Sandor’s throat. Petyr also froze as it played, stopping mid-pour of Sandor’s wine. His eyes sparkled as he breathed out the title, “‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. This was Sansa’s favorite. I remember it played here when we dined together the night before her twenty-second birthday. Her eyes filled with tears. But she was happy, excited, making plans for her future. I could see it all there, in those sea-blue eyes. Just like….” The most genuine expression of longing Sandor had yet seen crossed Petyr’s face. “Just like her mother’s.”

 

“My father and Catelyn Tully’s attended Harvard Law together. Her father was a legacy student, coming from one of the oldest and richest families in that part of the country. My father had had to scrimp and save, and rely mostly on various scholarships. He came from nothing. But despite the disparity in their wealth and background, the two men became close friends. So much so that when I was born, Hoster Tully was named my godfather.

“As is the way of the world, it did not take long for Tully to rise in the ranks and become a judge in his native Hartford. My father wasn’t so lucky. He’d graduated with top honors, but as a lawyer, his choice in clients wasn’t what I’d call…prestigious. I shan’t mince words: he became a lawyer for gangsters.

“He was eventually arrested for aiding and abetting, and collaborating on massive money laundering – and helping dispose of bodies. He was sentenced to twenty years. I was eight years old. My mother had died from influenza when I was still a toddler, a preview of the great pandemic ten years later. I had no one but my rich guardian in his palatial estate near the Connecticut River. In fact, the place was named Riverrun.

“I forgot my childish indignation and heartbreak over my circumstances the moment I set eyes on Riverrun. Growing up as I did on the wrong side of Jersey, I’d never imagined such a place could exist outside of fairytales.

“I didn’t think a family like the Tullys could exist in real life, either. Hoster had his daughters and son stand at the foot of their great staircase to greet me, and Hoster, with his healthy head of thick reddish-brown hair, wide smile, and twinkling eyes, not to mention his well-tailored suit, struck me as a modern king. He called me ‘my boy’ and ruffled my hair.

“Edmure, his youngest and only son, was about seven and took to me immediately, babbling on about a marble collection he wanted to show me. Lysa, my age, giggled and turned away, whispering rapidly to her sister.

“That sister was Catelyn, the eldest. She was – oh, she would have been about eleven then. She was tall for her age. And beautiful. Her thick auburn hair fell down her shoulders, with a large blue ribbon in back. I was too young then to fully understand what I felt when looking at her, but I knew I wanted to keep looking at her.

“Catelyn would grow into an elegant, utterly dignified young woman, but her eyes would always stay the same: honest, innocent. They made her stand out amongst the other jaded debutantes of her age. Blue as the sun-lit sea. Unforgettable eyes, piercing right through your soul to a secret truth you didn’t know was there. Just as Sansa’s eyes were….

“And so the shamed Jersey son of a crooked, imprisoned lawyer immersed himself in fairyland – that is, old money. I had every amenity: riding lessons, tutoring in French and Latin, ski trips in winter. I was not as athletic as Hoster or Edmure, but Hoster’s library was vast enough to sate my appetite for knowledge.

“I never completely forgot my origins, however, because as good friends as Edmure and I were, he could occasionally torment me about it, in the toxic way even good-natured children are capable of. I was born near Cape May County, which when we looked at it on a map of Jersey, struck him as resembling a ‘little finger’. And so I became just that: Littlefinger. My enemies in society and the press still wield that delightful moniker at me. How could I forget what muck I came from when people called me by it? The resentment simmered.

“Still, overall the Tully siblings and I all got along famously. We were partners in crime, in adventure, in trudging through the river looking for lost gold. Why the Tully brood deigned to look for gold was beyond me; they had all they needed. I was the one in need.

“But as I grew older, there was an even greater treasure I coveted: Catelyn.

“My feeling for her grew with each passing year. She was – ah, she was everything. When we were children she was close to what you’d call a tomboy, leading us in races and baseball games, and more than willing to dirty her expensive stockings in tromps through the mud. But with adolescence came a mystifying ladylike grace, an air of such bewitching sophistication. She was still headstrong and opinionated, but this contrast only contributed to the overarching impression she gave of superiority. Not an arrogant, conscious superiority – true superiority, that doesn’t have to sneer or belittle.

“I loved her with an adoration that was painful. It intensified until ready to burst in our juvenile years.

“I remember I had too much to drink the night of her coming-out party. It was a grand dance in the mansion’s ballroom. She glittered and glowed in the arms of other boys, who spun her around the dance floor as the orchestra Hoster hired played ‘Alabama Jubilee’ and ‘Everything In America is Ragtime’. She was sixteen years old. She was perfect.

“Spurred on by my intoxicated passion, I stumbled to her and clasped her in my arms. She was two inches taller than I. She laughed, thinking I was clowning around, pretending to dance with her. ‘Petyr Baelish, I do believe you’re drunk!’ She smiled, swatting my arm.

“And then I told her I loved her. I told her I wanted to kiss her, now and forever.

“She laughed again. And again. I pleaded with her, but the music and her laughter drowned me out.

“She at last pushed me away playfully, out of my grasping arms, and twirled happily into the arms of another.

“I drowned my sorrow in champagne and more champagne, caring less and less if Hoster or any other adult caught me. In and out Catelyn weaved between the pimply and hormonal boys, swinging like a jungle goddess through the vines. Hovering by my side and trying to comfort me in my dejection was Lysa. She’d grown into a fresh-faced, pretty girl and I knew she adored me. One of my fondest memories was age ten, and she and Cat played a kissing game with me. Tasting Cat’s teasing lips was the closest to Heaven I’ve ever come. But Lysa – Lysa truly kissed back. That and her starry-eyed gaze whenever I came near revealed even to the young boy I was how she felt about me.

“But like I said, she was a pretty girl – while Catelyn was far more than that. You might as well try to compare Judy Garland to Helen of Troy – or Maude Fealy, whose motion picture appearances made her my first love, just before Catelyn. There was never any inner conflict, never any other choice for me. Catelyn was the white gleam off her father’s fine china, the polish on the banisters, the tingling of the grand piano in the sitting room, the surge of the river, the majesty of Riverrun itself. Lysa was just Lysa: herself, pleading and yearning and so very merely human.

“Thus, a devastating mistake occurred, which would destroy my happiness and Lysa’s, many years later.

“I had never had alcohol before, and I soon became almost unconsciously drunk. The dancers were a nauseating blur whirling around me, a carousel that had lost control. The laughter and clinking glasses came in waves, until I couldn’t tell how far or near anything was.

“Vaguely I became aware of warm hands supporting me, leading me up the servants’ hallway, steering me away from the prying eyes of the adults. Locks of silken auburn hair caressed my cheek and soft murmured words of comfort played in my ear.

“At last we reached my bedroom. I lay on the bed, trying to focus my eyes, but still the ceiling spun around and around in the darkness. I felt those soft hands caress me. First my chest, then my stomach. Then a kiss, tight and hot on my mouth. Tears pricked my eyes. Tears of happiness. The auburn hair, the blue eyes, the smile – who else could it be but my very own Catelyn?

“I couldn’t have stopped it even if I wanted. She took control. And as we reached the end, I called out my darling’s name.

“I’m sure you’ve guessed the truth. It may amaze you it took a fatal confrontation some twenty-five years later for me to realize. The only defense I can give was that I was thirteen years old. I was drunk. I was in love. I was heartbroken. No other alternative occurred to me. Only an infatuated child who’d had intercourse for the first time while drunk for the first time could have clung to such a belief throughout his adulthood.

“I woke the next morning with a splitting headache and my mouth full of the taste of cotton, hardly able to move. Lysa very sweetly brought me soup and ginger ale for my riotous stomach. But I didn’t notice her or anything else; I just knew I had to see Catelyn and discuss the wonderful thing that had happened between us.

“Finally by mid-day I felt human enough to leave my bedroom. I looked out the window and saw Cat in her riding gear, heading toward the stables. Although the movement made my whole body ache, I ran after her, calling her name.

“I caught up to her just as she was leading her horse out of its stall. “‘Well, if it isn’t W.C. Fields after his big bender,’ she said in that dry, lofty voice, looking me over. ‘Goodness, but you look a fright. How are you holding up, little soldier?’

“I laughed joyously and tried to kiss her. She backed off immediately and without the humor of the night before said, ‘You’re not still playing that silly game, are you? I thought that was just drunk talk.’

“I was confused to say the least. ‘But Catelyn,’ I said, ‘Last night, you…you and I…’

“‘…you and I almost fell over in one big heap on the ballroom floor because you could barely dance straight you were so crocked.’

“‘But afterafter….’

“‘After what?

“‘You put me in my bed.’

“She snorted, and began fastening the saddle on her horse. ‘No, I didn’t.’

“I became desperate. ‘You did, you did’, I insisted. ‘And then you…and then we….’

“A look of utter befuddlement crossed Catelyn’s face. Then some sort of understanding dawned and she threw her head back, laughing wildly. ‘Oh, you poor thing! You really were tight as an owl last night, weren’t you? You think we…oh, my dear, dear Petyr. You dreamed the whole thing.’

“Rage filled me. How dare she deny? ‘No, I didn’t!’

“‘Fraid so, old sport. I danced till about two in the morning, ask anyone. I am not the culprit. The culprit is your drunk imagination.’ Her face softened a great deal as she took in my crestfallen state. She placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, giving it a squeeze. Her rich perfume, which always reminded me of a cluster of roses, encompassed me. ‘You know, Petyr, I care for you very much. Just…not that way. You’re a little brother to me. You always will be.’

“She kissed my cheek, then pulled herself up on her chestnut horse and kicked its sides, and she rode away from me in a gallop.

“The warmth from her lips lingered on my cheek. I touched the spot absently. I’d felt warm, soft lips on me the night before. I knew to the core that I hadn’t dreamt that. Last night was real.

“And the auburn mane of hair falling on my face, my chest; the blue eyes gleaming in the dark – it was Catelyn. It was Catelyn. It had to be.

“Then why lie?

“That is what I couldn’t understand. That is what tortured me. It wasn’t until dinner that night a theory came to me, a theory that I decided in my thirteen-year-old fervor was the only explanation.

“Catelyn sat at the table under the chandelier with her beautiful head held high, playing more than ever the lady as she spoke over her siblings to her father. The coming out party had obviously gone to her head, and she fancied herself an adult now.

“Which I very much was not.

“To be seen with me, to love me publicly, a child from a poor family, that to Catelyn would have been mortifying. So she had to wait until I was too intoxicated to truly notice, to sneak me away up the servants’ staircase, to take me. And when I remembered the next day, she had her excuse ready: I had drunkenly dreamt the whole thing.

“To me in my passion, that was the only explanation possible. I couldn’t comprehend that I could love Catelyn so much and she feel nothing for me in return but the affection of an older sister. Such a thing was inconceivable. I simply had to wait a few years, perhaps. I would study even harder than before, convince Hoster or his brother Brynden to get me a job at court, get me into Harvard Law. Then I’d be grown up enough and with solid enough prospects to take away her reservations about loving me openly.

“I made a silent oath to this effect, right there at the table, staring at my food and reflexively moving my foot away from Lysa, who sat beside me and kept nudging my foot with hers. I had my plan, and I was ready to execute it. I became confident the course was clear.

“Then the following year came the war. In the years leading up to April, 1917, the European conflict was a distant and hazy proposition to us as we drank lemonade on Riverrun’s vast lawn, as we prepared for the next soiree. We’d whispered excitedly about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, of course, which had drowned more than a few of their father’s society friends.

“But actual war, coming here? Transforming our quiet routines? We were ignorant babes, just as every American was before this second war, before Pearl Harbor. War did come both times, and with it, a swift change in all our lives.

“Hartford was soon overrun with soldiers waiting for their transfer overseas. There was a hum of excitement in the air, of not knowing what tomorrow would bring, so live it up now, boys. The serene, genteel city turned into a bustling world of Youth; of motion, of unending action.

“Edmure and I were too young, of course, to enlist. We’d stand on the sidewalk as the soldiers passed by, the doughboys smiling and waving, winking at the ladies. Edmure envied them; I thought them morons. They were going overseas to fight for a cause they probably scarcely understood, and most likely be killed for it. What mindless drones they all were.

“I was still so set on my goal of making myself a successful adult that I largely ignored the war for the first three weeks. But then Catelyn fell in love in the fourth week, and my whole world fell apart, never to be fully whole again.

“She and Lysa, like most affluent young ladies of the time, did their bit by volunteering at enlistment booths, at hospitals, and Cat even convinced Hoster to temporarily transform Riverrun’s ballroom into a makeshift sewing studio, turning out thousands of patched up uniforms.

“But what every girl looked most forward to were the soldier dances at the town hall every Friday. It was there that Catelyn’s eye was taken by a tall, handsome soldier with dark hair and gray eyes, and who had the wild, untamed manner of a wolf. He was surrounded by girls and worshipful young recruits, but that didn’t matter to Catelyn. She wanted him and she would have him. Their eyes met across the dance floor, and Catelyn later described it as ‘wildfire blazing from my eyes to his.’ He danced with no other girl the rest of the night. Needless to say, a whirlwind romance began.

“This was Brandon Stark. He was quite blatantly everything I was not, in looks and character: dashing, muscled, tall, athletic. Foolhardy and brash. And three years older than Catelyn, while I was three years younger.

“I was paralyzed in denial at first. When Catelyn arrived home after the dance and announced quite matter-of-factly that she was in love, the blow was too intense for me to fully take in. I comforted myself that Cat was only joking, that she wasn’t too serious about it; after all, lots of girls become infatuated with passing boys and got over it the next day. In wartime, with death at the door, the frequency with which that happened was legendary. I’d also heard enough of this Brandon Stark to know that he was what the boys called a ‘lady’s man’, and would most likely never settle down. Besides, he would be overseas soon. This would pass, and Cat would remember her love for me.

"And so I suffered in martyred silence as Catelyn rushed off in her own fashionable black Model T to pick up Brandon after his drills each evening. I busied myself in my studies, and swallowed my tears as I walked back from the library with my bundle of business books only to see Cat parked nearby, swapping cigarettes with Brandon, his arm over her shoulders.

"This suffering would only make my ultimate triumph that much sweeter, I told myself. Any day now, she would quit him. He would be but an obnoxious buzz in the dim regions of my memory very soon.

"Within a month, Hoster announced their engagement.

"There was obvious trouble getting her father’s consent at first. Naturally. Like me, Brandon’s background was humble. His parents were immigrants of Russian-Jewish stock, who’d fled the pogroms in their native country. Unlike my family, however, Brandon’s had found success in Winterfell, Washington, up near the Canadian border. His father rose from the ranks of a humble lumberjack to running the town’s lumber mill, and while Hoster had an innate distrust of new money, the fact that there was money at all must have finally swayed him to Catelyn’s side. He also must have known his willful daughter well enough to understand if he didn’t sanction the marriage, it would happen in the dead of night in a deacon’s home, with strangers as witnesses.

"We often remember our worst moments with more startling clarity than our best. I can remember nothing of the dance held at the estate for Brandon’s squadron, nor the music or the faces of the countless sheep in the same dull greenish-brown uniforms, the same closely cut hair.

"But I remember Hoster clinking his glass and standing in the center of the room as the crowd circled around him, a practiced smile on the old judge's face. I remember Catelyn standing right behind him, Brandon by her side. I remember she wore a blue dress, the same shade she’d worn at her coming out ball. The same shade as the ribbon she wore in her hair the first time I saw her.

"I remember the way she held Brandon’s hand, squeezing it in excitement. I remember her smile, dazzling and wide. I remember Brandon, smiling like a wolf.

"And then Hoster made the announcement. The crowd erupted in applause, and that cacophony still haunts my nightmares. Soldiers threw their hats in the air. Cat’s girlfriends hugged her, and Brandon’s fellow doughboys slapped him on the back and sang a rousing chorus of ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’. Catelyn embraced Brandon, who picked her up and spun her around the room.

"I watched this all happen as if I were in the audience of a motion picture, not truly a part of the action. Lysa whispered something consoling to me, I don’t remember what.

"Then at last I slowly awoke from my stupor. I trudged leadenly back to my room. As I lied on my bed, still hearing the far off celebration continue downstairs, one last flicker of determination burst into a conflagration inside me.

"Catelyn didn’t really love him. Couldn’t. She’d known him scarcely a month. Like all girls these days, her head was merely turned by a handsome uniform, by a tall youth with broad shoulders and whiplash eyes.

"So you want a fighter, Catelyn, I thought. Then I’ll become one.

"I’d been focusing so much on improving my intellect and business acumen that I forgot a girl like Catelyn would want a strong man to protect her. Young and slight as I was, I wasn’t surprised she’d forgotten me with someone like Brandon Stark around. She couldn’t see me in that light. I’d have to show her, show everyone.

"I waited until the next day.

"Brandon’s friends were throwing him and Cat an engagement party at a local restaurant. I waited until they all came out in a crowd and stood joking and laughing in the lot next to the restaurant. Catelyn looked so beautiful with Brandon’s arm flung casually over her shoulders. A woman is always made more beautiful by love, and so Catelyn was. There was a new womanly light in her eyes, a husky note to her brilliant laugh. Even the way she carried herself was more self-assured, more gracefully elegant.

"I approached with balled fists.

"I stood silently in front of them until one by one the team of soldiers and girls noticed my presence and looked me over. Finally Brandon and Catelyn took notice.

“Petyr, what are you doing here?” Catelyn asked.

"I stared straight at her betrothed.

"‘Brandon, I have something to say to you.’

"He lit a cigarette. ‘I’m listening. What’s on your mind, Littlefinger?’

"My face burned. I licked my lips. Then in what I hoped but can’t correctly recall whether or not was a steady voice, I said, ‘I’m in love with Catelyn.’

"I burned again as the crowd burst into laughter. Some of the girls cooed, ‘aww, that’s so cute! What a sweetie-pie.’

"No one laughed harder than Brandon, who turned to Catelyn, shaking with mirth.

"Only she wasn’t laughing. She was embarrassed and annoyed. ‘Petyr,’ she hissed. ‘Cut it out!’

“I ignored her and the laughter and said in a higher voice, ‘I love her and I’m willing to fight for her.’

“This only made them laugh harder. One of Brandon’s friends joked, ‘Better make out your will, Bran.’

“Catelyn rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. She whispered something to Brandon.

“Whatever she said made him hold up his hands to his friends and say, ‘Okay, okay. Let’s settle down.’ He looked at me. ‘Kid, why don’t you run along? You don’t want an old lady like Cat. Go run after that kid sister of hers.’

“I was undeterred. A madness was gripping me by the skull. ‘So you’re too chicken? Is that it? To fight me?’

“An ominous ‘oooooh,’ still tinged with laughter spread throughout the group. Catelyn snapped, ‘Petyr!’

“The true look of a wolf entered Brandon’s eyes. ‘Seriously, kid. Run along.’

“‘Shut up! I suddenly screamed. ‘Just shut up and fight me, you big ignoramus!’”

“That shut up the laughter. There were still a few nervous guffaws, but now a look of wariness entered their faces. Brandon had frozen, and his eyes were stone.

“At this, Catelyn came to me, and there was sympathetic appeal in her blue eyes. ‘Honey, stop this,’ she said gently, her hand on my shoulder. I felt a lump rise in my throat. She’d never called me honey before. ‘You need to go home.’

"It was all suddenly too much. “‘You’re my home, Catelyn!’ I cried, sobbing openly now. ‘And I’m not letting you go without a fight.’

“She seemed frightened by my outburst, and withdrew with a look of surprise mingled with guilt. Everyone was now quiet as the grave, and I avoided their looks.

“Suddenly Brandon spoke in a low voice. ‘All right.' He stepped forward, throwing away his cigarette. The way he strode forward with back straight and head held high made him look ever more the regal soldier. He stood right in front of me. ‘Go ahead, kid’, he said with a subtle tone of compassion. ‘Take a free punch.’

“I gaped. Catelyn shared my doubt. ‘Brandon, that’s sweet of you, my love, but I don’t think that’s wise…’

“Brandon just nodded at my fist and said, ‘Come on, give it your best shot. Then we’ll call it a day.’

“Some of his friends clapped behind him, voicing their warm approval. ‘Attaboy, Stark!’

“My eyes darted around like a cornered animal. ‘What…?’

“Brandon gave me a rueful grin and picked up my hand. ‘You’ve got your fist all wrong. You put the thumb inside and you’ll break it. Now go ahead, give it a try on my beautiful mug.’

“It was the kindness in his usually wild gray eyes and his brotherly manner that pushed me over the edge. No, this wasn’t Brandon Stark. Brandon Stark was a lout, a vulgar, uncouth lady’s man who didn’t care at all for Catelyn. He was the bad guy, I was the good guy. I was going to prove myself. Be her hero. Save her from the wolf.

“Not this. Not this.

“And so my eyes narrowed and my nostrils flared. I shook. ‘It wouldn’t be a fair fight,’ I growled.

“Some of Brandon’s cockiness came back to him as he scoffed, ‘Kid, it wouldn’t be a fair fight if I did slug you back.’

“‘You think you’re so tough, don’t you!’ I screamed in his face, tears running down my cheeks. I was so heated I threw off Catelyn’s hands, that were trying to hold me back gently. ‘But you’re just a dumb chickenshit coward! I hate you!

“‘Now, that’s enough, kid,’ he admonished as if he were my father.

“With weary resignation, Catelyn pulled at Brandon’s arm. ‘Let’s go. He’s not going to calm down anytime soon.’

“Darting me one last pitying glance, Brandon shrugged, shook his head, and turned around. Following his cue, his friends turned also.

“I was stunned. He couldn’t just leave. The sight of the back of Catelyn’s head, that glorious auburn hair in the moonlight, walking arm-in-arm with everything I wasn’t, wrenched an animal cry from me.

“I picked up a nearby rock and threw it at his head.

‘Ow! Fuck!’ Brandon yelled. He spun around, his eyes poison. He grabbed me by the shirt collar. ‘Goddammit, you little brat! What the hell you think you’re doing?’

“There were shocked murmurs all around and Catelyn was pulling at his arm, with more desperation this time.

“‘Please, don’t hurt him. He’s an idiot, but he’s like a little brother to me.’

“At that I let my inner animal completely loose. I punched and hit and bit at Brandon. I was a whirling tornado of violence. I kicked his shins, I spat at him.

“I don’t know what I thought I could gain. He was a trained soldier, over six feet tall and muscled like a stallion, plus he was six years older. I hadn’t even bothered lifting any weights before confronting him.

“All I had on my side was the sincere passion of a fourteen-year-old.

“A couple of his friends tried pulling me away, but a freak strength overtook me. I ripped at his infuriating uniform, I scratched his face. I felt a grim triumph at the sight of blood on his cheek.

“Finally, in between my blows, I heard him call out, ‘I’m sorry, Cat, but I can’t think of anything else!’

“He pushed me hard and when I jumped at him again he sent his fist straight into my jaw.

“Lightning flashed beneath my eyes and then blackness came. A flash of feet crossed my vision, and I was on the ground, which seemed tilted at an odd angle. Then things went black again. Then more light. My face below my nose was numb. I only somewhat took in Catelyn kneeling by my side, almost hyperventilating, saying, ‘oh god, oh god’.

“Blackness again, then I saw Brandon’s legs also kneeling beside me. There was a tense alarm in his voice. ‘Kid, kid! Christ, I didn’t mean to hit him that hard. I just wanted to get him off of me and knock some sense into him. Shit. Kid, can you hear me?’

“I closed my eyes and this time the blackness stayed until I was in my own bed again. I had no idea how much time had passed. All I knew was that Lysa was by my side, wiping grime off my face, murmuring to me.

“I tried to speak but there was a shattering pain shooting through my lower face.

“‘Shh,’ Lysa said, gently guiding me down as I tried to sit up. ‘That jerk broke your jaw and gave you a concussion. You’ve been out for about a half hour.’

“It all came back to me. Every humiliating, emasculating moment.

“I wept.

“‘Shh, shh,’ Lysa repeated. Her hand was in my hair, stroking it like a mother would a child.

“I closed my eyes and pretended it was Cat, and I choked on my sobs.

“Lysa was my devoted nurse for the next several days. The doctor visited me regularly, but never Hoster.

“Never Catelyn.

“What did she think of me now? What did she think of Brandon? She’d made love to me, how could she forget me so suddenly? Be so embarrassed of me?

“Once my jaw had somewhat healed but when I was still bedridden, Lysa visited me in the night asking if I wanted anything. She sat on the bed, caressing my hand.

“She licked her lips. ‘Isn’t there…anything I can do for you?’

“Her eyes gleamed like sapphires in the dim light.

“In that moment I hated her, hated Catelyn, Brandon, Hoster, Edmure, the whole Tully family, everyone in Hartford, and the whole world.

“And so I grabbed her roughly to me and even though it hurt like hell, I kissed her fiercely. She eagerly removed my bed shirt and I her dress. I took her, violently, roughly, until she screamed like a slaughtered mule.

“When we finished I laid my head back down indifferently on the pillow as she gulped beside me, her tussled auburn hair a tangle on my chest.

“No matter what happens, I thought coolly, at least I’ve stolen the virginity of both precious Tully girls.

“In the morning I woke up racked with guilt. Not where Lysa’s honor was concerned; I was still rather smug about that. But I admonished myself for feeling such hatred for Catelyn, for besmirching our love that way, even as she betrayed it with Stark. With each passing day, as I ignored Lysa’s increased fawning, I waited anxiously to hear any word from her. In desperation I finally asked Lysa: was Cat still marrying him? Where was she?

“Lysa looked down and said with affected carelessness, ‘Oh, yes, she’s marrying him. But he’s been called to the front early, so they’ll marry when he comes back on leave. Cat’s staying at a friend’s right now.’ She gave me a cloying look of sympathy. ‘She’s pretty mad at you. Said you embarrassed her and made a fool of yourself.’

“Well-meaning Lysa delivered the sharpest wound yet.

“Once I was able to, I hastily set about writing Cat a letter. I tried explaining myself as rationally as possible. I told her I was sorry for embarrassing her, but that my love was so overpowering that I couldn’t help it. I listed for her all the reasons why I, with my ambition and intelligence, was by far the superior choice to Brandon, who might have physical strength on his side but was too unreliable, too fickle. I reminded her of our night together a year before, and how I knew that meant something to her, much as she denied it ever happened. I told her that a love like mine was so strong there was no way it could stay unrequited. I told her to come back to me.

“She never replied. A week later, once I was sufficiently recovered, Hoster had me shipped off to boarding school.

“It was kindly Uncle Brynden who broke the news, entering my room one day as I dressed. ‘Lad,’ he said, ‘you’ve made a mess of things and that pigheaded brother of mine is furious with you. He’s sending you to school in New York. Don’t expect much kindness from him from here on out. But listen here: I know you’re a smart lad who got taken up by a schoolboy crush, and we’ve all been there. I’m going to keep in touch with you, boy. When you’re ready, come see me at the law firm. We’ll see what we can do.’ He winked at me.

“Had I been capable of any emotion but heartbreak, I might have felt grateful. As it was, I thanked him perfunctorily, feeling nothing.

“Just as the awful memory of Catelyn’s engagement announcement sticks clearly in my memory, so does the last backward glance I gave Riverrun as the chauffeur drove me to the train station. I said a silent goodbye to the lush green fields, the river, the proud tall pillars, the polished china. I said goodbye to the life where I had only been a visitor, but had tricked myself into thinking I was as welcome as one of them. I said goodbye to Catelyn, who encompassed all of this and more.

“Compared to the bright giddy wealth of the Tullys, the boarding school was remarkably drab and gray. Most of the boys ignored me, unsettled by my dark broodiness. They shot disdainful glances at my slight physique and then left me alone to go play football in the schoolyard. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything but Cat. In my benumbed misery, I told myself that soon she would write, soon she would no longer endure separation from me, as I couldn’t bear separation from her.

“Thus every time I received a letter from Hartford, my heart leapt and I opened the letter with sweat-beaded palms – only for my heart to sink to the floor as I recognized Lysa’s loopy handwriting. Still I kept up the correspondence, in my furious need for any news of Cat.

“As I had no social life to speak of at the school, I threw myself even more into my studies, as something to distract me from the ache of my loss. I excelled, reaching top of my class, which only served in isolating me further from my resentful classmates.

“About six months into my stay there another letter from Lysa arrived. I’d never experienced such an extreme jump from one emotion to another upon receipt of it: crushing disappointment that once again it came from Lysa, then a glorious, life-altering joy, my heart soaring to the roof.

“Brandon had been killed overseas.

“My roommate leered at me like I had lost my mind as I flung myself back onto my bad, laughing hysterically, hugging my arms in ecstasy.

“I closed my eyes, breathing deeply like one revived. Catelyn was free again. Catelyn was mine again. I was top of my class. I would go to college early. My plan could still work.

“I schemed about what I would write to Catelyn. I would show her how big I was by not mentioning my love at all, just my ‘sincere’ sympathy for her loss. I would be so eloquent that through her mourning she’d feel something stir for me again.

“But before I could start the first draft, another quick letter from Lysa came in a few days later. Catelyn in her grief had enlisted as an army nurse and was heading overseas herself, against her father’s will.

“At first I couldn’t believe what I’d read. Catelyn, a nurse, tending filthy bleeding men in a war zone, like some common scrubwoman? Catelyn was refinement personified, and I could only ever imagine her standing smiling from atop Riverrun’s great staircase, dressed in blue satin, her smile wide and elegant. The idea of her innocent eyes beholding a battlefield was unthinkable.

“Then I started thinking about it another way. If she didn’t get herself killed, she would be so horrified by the bloodshed around her that she’d yearn evermore for home. When thinking of home, she’d wistfully recall her father, sister, brother – and me.

“How refreshing I would seem compared to the lice-infested soldiers with limbs missing, eyes missing, faces missing. She’d remember our days lying lazily in the green grass by the river, the races, the kissing games. She’d even regret pushing me away the time I slipped my tongue into her mouth.

“Most of all she’d remember my love for her. She’d think what a safe haven my affection was. As bombs exploded around her and she worked herself sick, the thought of my love would become her only salvation, her only connection to home. Something to live for.

“I nursed this fantasy for a whole year. I’d risen so quickly in my class that I was set to graduate early, by sixteen. I’d already secured a job as assistant to the accounting department at Brynden’s firm to support me at Harvard, having always been particularly adept at arithmetic and money handling.

“As graduation neared, I felt what I know now was an unfounded optimism. But I was still so young, and ultimate failure in my most precious endeavor was still, after all that had happened, not something I even imagined.

“Yes, the war was ending, and I was graduating with top honors with a job waiting for me at one of the country’s best law firms. My father had died in prison, so I had no fear of him bringing his shame upon me. If he was dead, memory of him would fade; had he lived and showed himself in public, society would never forgive or forget. And so I looked forward to the life ahead of me without his presence casting a shadow over everything.

“For once, I looked forward to Lysa’s letter. I had a premonition she would tell me Cat was coming home.

“Her letter did in fact say so, and that Cat was bringing home her new husband.

“Cat was adept at her work as a nurse. Because of this, she was sent out alone on ambulances to gather any wounded she could find when the fighting was done for the day.

“And so she considered it almost a vacation when she was transferred to work in the hospital in Paris. The work was still difficult and the threat from air raids ever present, but the atmosphere was relatively orderly compared to the chaos of the trenches.

“One day she made a round in the recovery floor, where those with the least horrific wounds waited for release. She did not give the individual men she checked much thought until she felt an earthquake in her soul as she looked into Brandon’s gray eyes staring up at her from the cot.

“It was his younger brother, Ned Stark, recovering from a broken right elbow.

“She checked his chart and blurted out her whole history with Brandon to him. Ned said Brandon had mentioned her in letters. They talked for hours.

“The two brothers couldn’t have been less alike. Although they shared the same eyes and dark hair, Ned was shorter and less handsome. Where Brandon was raucous and wild, Ned was stoic and steady. Catelyn remembered Brandon calling him ‘the quiet one’ among the siblings. However, like Brandon, Ned did have a strong vein of automaton-like bravery. He made an excellent soldier with his intractable sense of duty and ability to follow orders. In other words, another mindless lemming, parading valiantly off the cliff.

“He and his childhood friend Robert Baratheon became famous for their bravery and valor in leading their troupes through harsh, deadly terrain, and this fame enabled them to go far in their careers when they got home.

“But for the time being, he and Catelyn sat in the hospital ward and talked to each other.

“Brandon was the second sibling he’d lost; his sister Lyanna, married in England, had died in an air raid along with her husband a few months after Brandon. She left behind a small son that Ned vowed to take care of when he returned home.

“His resolute loyalty appealed to Catelyn. Their relationship was not grounded in the same passion as hers with Brandon, but pity and compassion must have led her to accept Ned's proposal. I can’t imagine she’d fall in love with someone so bland, so humorless.

“They married in Notre Dame, he in his soldier’s uniform, she in her nurse’s uniform. She’d resigned herself, I presume, to a life of responsibility and toil, not of romance. According to Lysa she stopped for a brief visit at Riverrun to introduce Ned to her father, then they both settled in Winterfell. Stark took over the family business from his ailing father, who died some weeks later.

“The war was done, Catelyn was married, and true to Brynden’s prediction, Hoster extended no olive branch to me. I felt unmoored, rootless, and if it weren’t for my job in the accounting firm and my position at Harvard, I’d have felt totally without purpose. Catelyn was gone to me, but the germ of hope never left me. Never, until her death….

“And so I threw myself into my work, and professionally I succeeded past even my own sky-high expectations. Again I graduated early. I was promoted at work, then promoted again, then I was put in charge of the whole accounting department – the youngest in the firm’s history. I soon turned my skills to Wall Street, where whatever I touched turned to gold. Soon this caught the attention of other savvy investors; who was this young upstart making such wild investments that somehow always worked to his advantage?

“In my capacity as head accountant at the firm, I was also given free rein to write up annual reports, and I found I had an even better talent for writing. And so at some urging from friends in the marketplace, I decided to submit an advice column for the financial pages, and my submission was not only published but the public cried for more. From there, my career blossomed: I’d made enough off the market to leave my post at the firm and start my own weekly column. My popularity grew when the stock market crashed, as I had weathered it perfectly fine and the poverty-stricken thirsted for pointers to stay afloat.

“Soon my column drifted to topics other than fiscal security, such as politics, science, and even art and literature. Thus was born ‘Peter Baelish’s Miscellanea,’ the most popular column in America – and starting in ’33, the most popular non-fiction radio program. Has everything I’ve ever said on air or in print been 100% truthful? Well, what is truth, really? The country was in shambles, crippled first by the crash and then by the second war. The people devoured my column not for dry facts, but for something more salacious, more exciting, more colorful than what they faced each day.

“As you well know, I’ve become through my work a very influential fellow. So I kept my tabs on Catelyn and her family over the years. You see, I never stopped loving her. Never. Lysa had married the elderly billionaire Jon Arryn and moved to New York, and every once in a while we’d meet up for a quick fling. It meant nothing to me, however. I only did so to sink my face into her thick auburn hair and pretend….

“Years and years passed this way. Then came 1940, a momentous year.

“You’ve heard this part, I imagine, if you’ve delved into Sansa’s life at all. Robert Baratheon, Ned’s childhood friend and celebrated war hero, had married wealthy into the Lannister family and was elected mayor of Chicago. His administration was so full of corruption Baratheon had no idea how to properly handle it, but he knew who to call: his old friend Ned.

“Ned at this time had become mayor as well, of Winterfell, of course. He, too, had ridden the waves of his reputation from the war. But fighting a war in the trenches is one thing; battling the Lannisters in Chicago was quite another. Plucking small town Ned Stark into the lion’s den was a prime example of taking a big fish from a little pond into an ocean body where he’s but one small guppy. Still, Ned went.

“Catelyn stayed behind in Winterfell to look after one of their younger boys who was crippled by polio. But she sent along her daughters: fifteen-year-old Sansa and twelve-year-old Arya. With the debutante blood still beating inside her, Catelyn was determined Sansa should experience the same measure of society that Cat had, sure the corruption Ned was sent to straighten out would never touch her precious girls. Arya, taking after her father’s side, was a rebellious tomboy, and so Cat hoped this same society would rub off on her positively.

“Ned’s involvement turned into an infamous disaster, of course. He had no head for the game, no defense against the Lannister crime empire. They were Chicago. And they had the police in their pockets.

“And so Robert Baratheon’s car accident that left him dead was never fully investigated. And when Ned Stark pressed and threatened to go to the newspapers, Joffrey Baratheon – Cersei’s son – hired an anonymous hitman to shoot Stark dead in public, right in front of his daughters. Of course, the Lannisters claimed it was their enemies who perpetrated the crime. Cersei handled it beautifully in the press: she said that she was holding on to Sansa out of fear that the same assassins who killed her father might attack Sansa if sent home on her own. In truth, this was a covert threat to Cat: ‘don’t bother interfering, for we have your daughter in our claws.’

“They never mentioned Arya. That’s because the young tomboy ran away the very day her father died.

“I felt the vague stirrings of joy I did when Brandon died, but I was older and wiser at that point. I knew better than to hope for a miracle. But I knew that at last I had an unimpeded chance to finally reach out to her.

“I called her. We spoke for the first time in twenty-three years.

“I struggled with my ecstatic tears hearing her voice again, unchanged from her youth. There was a strained agony there, however. I suppose in some small way she’d grown fond of her late husband, and was suffering raising her children alone.

“I told her I was a patient man. I told her that she of course must let enough time pass before even thinking of marrying again, but that my love for her had never died and I would wait for her forever if need be. She and her children would never have to worry about a thing again, I would keep them secure, and I could use my influence to get Sansa back to her.

“She hung up on me. Stubborn to the last.

“But like I said, I was a patient man. I’d waited this long, I could wait until she was ready to live and love again.

“But then –

“Then she died.

“The official word was home invasion by random burglars, but no one bought that. It’s generally believed that before he died, Ned had sent his wife evidence against the Lannisters. Knowing Cat as I did, she was undoubtedly planning to get in touch with Robert’s brother Stannis – a high-ranking official in the FBI.

“The Lannisters never gave her the chance. Robb, her eldest boy, a strapping lad of about twenty-one, confronted the team of thieves and was stabbed in the chest, dying almost instantly. In her mad grief, Catelyn flew at the attackers, and…and was likewise killed, her…her throat cut.

“…..

“…..

“….Excuse me. Her two other little boys, the crippled Bran and toddler Rickon, hid away under the bed as their mother and brother were slaughtered. Faithful Winterfell staff smuggled them away as the intruders set fire to the house. Most of it was destroyed.

“Catelyn’s death has never felt real to me, as I suppose Sansa’s doesn’t to me now. Catelyn was my life, yet here I am still breathing, so how could she be dead? I carried myself around the next year and a half in an utter daze. Somehow I was able to keep up my column, my radio program, my presence in society. But it was an empty vessel masquerading as the razor-sharp wit Petyr Baelish.

“And that’s how I sleepwalked into marrying Lysa. By ‘41, old Jon Arryn had died, leaving her a vastly wealthy widow. She couldn’t wait to get her claws in me. She begged with me, pleaded with me to marry her, confessing unending love.

“I still don’t clearly know why I said yes. The Arryn billions, I will admit, held their appeal. I suppose I also just felt…defeated.

“And so we married. It was a very brief, unpleasant affair. We honeymooned in her city apartment, the penthouse floor. I holed myself up in my study, using my column as an excuse to evade her amorous advances. This was a fatal error. It gave her the freedom to snoop.

“One day as I sat at my typewriter, I suddenly sensed her behind me. I turned around. She’d lost much of her fresh-faced beauty at this point and had become a bloated and unstable woman. She looked ghastly as she stood there. Tears ran down her pale chubby cheeks.

“I asked her what the matter was. She held up a lockbox I unwisely brought with me in my suitcase, jarred open with a wrench. In it was everything I had saved over the years concerning Catelyn: the unanswered letter I’d written her after Brandon broke my jaw, some hair ribbons of hers, old photographs, her wedding announcement in the paper, her obituary.

“Lysa stared dumbfounded at the items, then back at me.

“‘You still loved her? All these years, you loved her?’ Her voice was that of a deranged little girl’s.

“I had no answer.

“She shook her head, over and over. ‘But I’m the one who’s loved you, all this time. I’m the one who cared for you, comforted you, worshiped you. She never cared, Petyr. She loved that braggart Brandon Stark, and then that boring brick Ned. She was never worthy of you.'

“Her disparaging words about Cat enraged me. What I did next was even more unwise than smuggling in the lockbox. I said, ‘For someone who never cared for me, it’s odd your sister gave me her virginity.’

“I took a petty satisfaction from the way her face fell. ‘She did? When?’

“I took a hateful pleasure in telling her about the night of Cat’s coming out party, about her helping me to bed, about how she straddled me.

“Lysa blinked for a moment with mouth partly open, looking like a dumb cow. Then she said, ‘But…Petyr…that wasn’t Catelyn. That was me.

“The world stopped for a moment.

“I followed my first impulse and shouted ‘liar’ at her venomously.

“As if in a sort of delirium, she reached out a dreamy hand to me. ‘First I caressed you here’, she said in a faraway sing-song voice, touching my chest, ‘Then here’, she touched my stomach. She looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Then I kissed you.’

“I trembled, sick inside. The way she touched me…yes, it was exactly like that night. Although it had been twenty-five years before, and I’d been drunk as a dog, her touch brought it all back. Still, I couldn’t…wouldn’t let myself believe….

“She delivered the killing blow by saying, ‘When you called out Catelyn’s name, I thought you were merely pretending I was her…it hurt me, hurt me terribly, but I figured in time….but you thought I was her?’ She blinked back more tears. ‘You thought I was her?

“Years of hope, the solace I’d taken in that night, crumbled to dust around me. What once I felt was a heart inside me turned to rot.

“And so I destroyed her. I told her I never did and never could love her. I told her she disgusted me. I told her that Cat had been my everything and always would be, though she was dead. Dead as she was, she meant more to me than the living Lysa. I told Lysa she could die, too, for all I cared.

“I left the room.

“I paused and breathed in deeply.

“And then I heard the terrible crash.

“I burst back into the room and saw the shattered glass. Although I feared to look, I had to: there was her broken body far below, smashed on the sidewalk, cars screeching to a halt and passersby running to her and screaming.

“There was only a little scandal. I quashed any dubious doubters with my moving eulogy to her on my radio program.

“Otherwise I moved back into my apartment. It was as if nothing had changed except that my bank account became much vaster.

“A few nights later there was a knock on my door. It was my butler’s night off. I’d been enjoying a quiet evening in, reading in my smoking jacket as it rained lightly outside. I was annoyed at this intrusion and opened the door in a less than hospitable mood.

“I stared into the eyes of a ghost, into the eyes of my past. Into the eyes of my beloved.

“Young Catelyn stood there, gaping at me with eyes as wide as dinner plates.

“The blood pumped in my temples and clouded my vision for a moment. At last the cloud cleared and I saw that no, this girl wasn’t Catelyn’s ghost. The hair was just the tiniest bit lighter, and some of the features differed – but not by much.

“No, this wasn’t Catelyn. But it was Catelyn’s eyes that stared at me in trepidation.

“There was an odd clicking sound coming from the girl’s long throat. Fear had momentarily robbed her of speech. I noticed she had a small worn suitcase with her. Her raincoat, too, was a little worn.

“Misery was written in every line of her lovely, woebegone face.

“At last she spoke, and a little part of me died to hear just a touch of Catelyn there. ‘Are you…are you Mr. Baelish?’

“I regained a semblance of composure. ‘Yes. Yes, I am. And you are?’

“She ducked her head, shy. ‘I don’t want to presume on your good nature, sir, but…well, I guess I’m your niece. Sansa Stark.’ Her small, nervous laugh was incongruous to her stricken look of tragedy.

“And I felt my heart almost burst from my chest.

“I ushered her in, fussed over her like a mother hen, rushing to get her some tea, directing her to take off her wet coat and sit by the fire.

“She acquiesced gratefully. Her passive acceptance was like watching a porcelain doll come slowly to life. She was so heartbreakingly exquisite.

“‘Is…is my aunt here? I’ve never met her.’

“I frowned. ‘You haven’t heard?’

“‘Heard what? I headed right here from Chicago and haven’t seen any paper.’

“And so I sat down and broke the news to her gently as I could. Her eyes turned slowly to the fire and she merely breathed out a soft, ‘oh’.

“An awkward moment of silence followed. I at last cleared my throat and started asking her questions. I’d heard that Baratheon was given the evidence he needed by an anonymous tipster, and he was able to put the Lannister brood away for good. I also knew that Sansa’s cousin, Jon, who had left in ’40 to join the war in Canada, was hiring investigators to find his younger cousins.

“So how did Sansa emerge unscathed?

“‘Stannis,’ she answered. ‘He took me into temporary custody when he arrested…them. Then he gave me the fare to come here. He knew my aunt was my only family left, outside of Jon who keeps moving around, and that she’d just married. Married you. So I took the train here.’

“She traced her foot along the carpet, watching that foot’s progress blankly.

“And so here I am,’ she whispered into her chest.

“I looked at this girl, this orphan. She was at this point barely seventeen. She was Catelyn’s daughter. And she needed me.

“Needless to say, I took her in. I hired her a private tutor so she could earn her high school degree. I bought her everything she required. For the first few months she moved about like one undead. So immersed was she in her trauma that at times I shivered, seeing her as not the living image of young Catelyn, but the dead one.

“Eventually life returned to her, however. And with it, her true personality revealed itself: sweet, compassionate, dreamy, courteous, and with a surprisingly sharp wit that could disarm unsuspecting admirers.

“She was a quick learner and finished off her education quickly. One day she came to me with her clear blue eyes full of resolution and said she wanted to work. One of her great passions was designing and sewing her own clothes from the finest materials I could buy her, and her creations were glorious. ‘Petyr, I want to work in fashion,’ she informed me. She was sitting on a footstool as I read the newspaper in my armchair, and there was such earnest appeal in her face, such ambition, that it about took my breath away. ‘I want to help design outfits for people of every size, every color. Not just starving-looking white women. I'm bored with that.’ She was regal as a queen in her dismissal.

"I of course helped her.

“I used my connections to get her an interview at the Highgarden Review, New York’s paramount fashion magazine. I gave her her start, but it was through her own talent and ambition that she rose through the ranks so quickly. She was always quick to seize on things that would improve her mind…and her appearance. She started out in the copy room, but with her own determination and my guidance, she was quickly promoted to chief editor in the diversity line – a division she created.

“The proud smile on her placid face as her boss announced her promotion at the magazine’s Christmas party was so much like Catelyn’s I felt a fierce joy fill me.

“She leaned over and pressed my hand. The light in her eyes danced devilishly. ‘Well, what do you make of me now, Mr. Baelish,’ she whispered as the employees applauded.

“I thought she was marvelous.

"Within a year she was chief editor not only of diversity, but of the seasonal programs, as well.

“I took her shopping, took her dancing, took her dining. I introduced her to people. I know what you’re thinking, but at first I honestly cherished her like the daughter I never had with Cat. Sometimes I pretended she was our daughter, and I had a little piece of Catelyn with me wherever I went.

“I can’t tell you when that started to change. But under my guidance, she turned into a dazzling young woman.

“At a certain point she decided it didn’t look right, her living with me, so she insisted on an apartment of her own. I was reluctant, but knowing she had a point, I helped her select the most fashionable one available– that was in walking distance of mine, of course.

“She always deferred to me in matters of taste. I advised her on what clothes to wear, what hairstyles were more becoming to her. Through me she met everyone, famous and infamous alike. Everywhere she went, she was admired. Men wanted her, women envied her. She became as well-known as Petyr Baelish’s walking stick and fresh carnation.

“She had authentic magnetism, genuine warmth. People were drawn to her like moths to a flame. Everywhere we went together, she turned heads. There was laughter where she was. There was camaraderie.

“But Tuesday and Friday evenings were ours alone. We dined in. I read my column to her. The way she listened was more eloquent than words. Her lovely head would tilt to the side, her expression grave. Her eyes wore a wondering and far away look.

“A couple years later, her sister Arya was found in a boarding school in Ohio. She showed up one day on Sansa’s doorstep. There was a tearful reunion. However, I quickly convinced Sansa to send her away to college. The girl was a wild mess, the scrappy immigrant Stark in her as blatant as the aristocratic Tully was in Sansa.

“Sansa eventually relented, and although she wanted to send Arya to a school nearby, Arya insisted on Western Washington University, the college closest to Winterfell. Sansa paid for her tuition. Her cousin likewise at last found her younger brothers in BC, hiding out in a shack with their faithful servants. I convinced her and Jon to send them to boarding school near Arya, so they could be together. All three visited on vacations, and I dreaded those times that took her from me, made me share her.

“But when they were gone I could soak in her presence again. I could have her all to myself.

“Then one Tuesday she called and said she had to cancel our dinner engagement. It didn’t matter, really. But when it happened again the following Friday I was disturbed. I felt betrayed, but I knew Sansa would never betray anyone. And so I had to find out what was happening.

“The city was deep in winter and the snow raged against me, but I persevered. I saw the light was on in her apartment. I was pleased she was home, but I could tell she was with someone. I saw her silhouette in the window. She had a drink in her hand and was laughing.

“My heart went cold. In my mind, I heard Catelyn’s voice saying she was in love with Brandon.

“I waited in the cold, hiding myself behind the streetlight. I had to see who she was talking to.

“A few hours later, he emerged. It was Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf artist. He’d recently finished a portrait of her, a portrait she hanged proudly over her mantelpiece, to show the world she held no grudge against Tyrion for his family’s crimes.

“Although he was a dwarf and not much to look at, he had quite the way with the ladies. He had a witty, carefree air that drew women to him.

“I detested him. He tried to portray himself as both the new Toulouse-Lautrec and a strapping Cary Grant type – shorter, of course.

“I hurried home and sat up half the night eviscerating him in my next column. I attacked his half-hearted imitation of better artists. I accused him of depravity, of moral corruption. I alluded to his predilection for whores.

“This column effectively ended his career.

“Sansa and I never spoke of him. However, I could tell she disapproved of my methods. But I also knew she could never take him seriously hereafter, and so that ultimately I had won. That column was a masterpiece, because it had been a labor of love.

“There were others, of course. But Sansa’s own discrimination ruled them out before I had to intervene. Until one day at a party thrown by Myranda Royce….

“She was throwing herself a welcome back party, as she’d been visiting family in Louisville. She brought with her a handsome son of a southern estate, Harrold Hardyng. He was very nice to her, she said, while she was at the racetrack.

“The insidious worm made an immediate beeline for Sansa. I remember observing them as we entered and I was giving our coats to the butler.

“‘Are you Miss Sansa Stark?’ He asked in that phony congenial accent, as if he were a bit player in Gone With the Wind.

“‘Yes,’ Sansa answered in that brilliant way she had of balancing perfect politeness with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“‘Would you care to dance?’

“‘I’m not alone,’ she answered promptly, indicating me.

“Thinking I was distracted with the coats, he chuckled and said, ‘Oh, you poor thing. He probably still dances the Charleston.’

“‘Yes,’ I said sharply, stepping forward. ‘Zelda Fitzgerald taught it to me.’

“Although my bon mot was warmly appreciated by those around me, I was miffed that Hardyng was unabashed, bowing a sporting head in graceful defeat.

“I led Sansa away and danced with her, holding onto her more tightly than usual.

“Still, as always happens at these sort of functions, I was stolen away by the usual round-ups of bizarre and non-descript characters corralled from every stratum of society. I was fawned over and petted as I always am by such freaks, every word I said taken as the most hilarious gem this side of Groucho Marx.

“I finally grew so bored I felt myself reaching the breaking point. I looked around. Sansa was missing. I wandered Randa’s apartment and was relieved to see Sansa on the balcony. I hurried over. Then I saw she was not alone. Harrold Hardyng was with her.

“I stood behind the shrubbery and listened to what they said.

“Sansa was arch. ‘And what does it feel like, Mr. Hardyng?’

“‘What does what feel like, Miss Stark?’

“‘Living off the income of an estate?’”

“This earned a soft, deprecating laugh from Hardyng. ‘Well, I’ –

“‘Or do you no longer know that luxury?’

“‘I’m afraid not,’ he admitted freely. “Not since the sheriff took it over some ten years ago.’”

“Sansa was strangely more direct than she usually was. ‘Why maintain the image of the carefree trust fund kid? Why not work?’”

“Again, the dullard showed no sign of offense. “‘You know, believe it or not, I asked one of my numerous friends for a job not too long ago. Head of a big company, 25,000 employees, and he could have done it just like that.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘But he just laughed, he thought I was joking.’

“Sansa sucked in an empathetic breath. ‘Ooh, that’s rough.’

“‘No kidding. When I finally convinced him I was serious he got embarrassed and said he’d call me. That was seven months ago. Now whenever I see him, he just turns the other way…’

“I hated the fact that when Sansa laughed with him, it was genuine.

“There followed several seconds of silence, and although I couldn’t see them clearly through the ridiculous foliage Randa placed in her home, I took it they were staring into the night sky, thinking.

“When Sansa broke the silence, it was to ask seriously, ‘Do you really want a job?’

“Hardyng was just as serious when he answered, ‘Yes.’

“At that point I’d decided I had allowed this farce to go on long enough. This was becoming dangerous, and fast.

“I emerged from my hiding place as if I had just come from the dance floor.

“‘Oh, there you are, Sansa,’ I said briskly. ‘My dear, I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don’t leave with me this instant, I shall run amok.’

“I was pleased she answered me with her usual mischievous and complying grin, agreeing.

“I felt safe in my rescue until she suddenly turned sharply to Hardyng. “10:30 tomorrow, Highgarden Magazine.’ She extended her hand, grinning slyly. ‘You’ve got a job.’

“He shook her hand and smiled like someone who’d taken a substantial gamble and won.

“I concealed my annoyance with masterful self-control as we departed. However, I sensed a situation which would bear watching, and I was right.

“The only worthy attribute Hardyng has ever possessed is his artificial folksy charm, a self-effacing sort of personable sympathy which made certain gullible idiots feel at ease. Thus Sansa wisely – or relatively wisely – put him in PR. He was in charge of scouting out models, of winning over donors. Painful as it is to admit, the lunk did all right for himself. But he’d have been nothing without Sansa there, leading him by the hand.

“She helped him, showed him the ropes. And unfortunately, through her kindness they grew closer.

“Sansa had a soft spot for strays. She gave generously to the local animal shelters. I suppose she saw Harrold as sort of oversized dumb dog, a handsome St. Bernard who needed training and care. Eventually she convinced herself this was love.

“I feared for her greatly. She was a savvy businesswoman, but despite her hard experiences, she was still painfully innocent in regards her personal life, too quick to trust and give her heart. Hardyng took advantage of this with aplomb.

“I spied them in a restaurant once and took a table nearby without alerting them to my presence. I listened.

“As you might have guessed from this long-winded narrative of mine, I possess a rather functional eidetic memory. And so I present to you their dialogue:

“‘Say, Sansa, have you had a chance to look over the new lingerie campaign?’

“‘Mm, yes! It’s wonderful! You did a great job selecting the models. Especially the one that appears in the foreground throughout, what was her name?”

“‘Saffron Redfern.’”

“‘Oh, yeah. Great presence. We should hold on to her, maybe use her for the magazine’s Thanksgiving spread in a couple months.”

“‘I agree. Hm, that reminds me. There was something else I was going to ask you. What was it…oh, yes! Will you join me for dinner tomorrow night?’”

“‘…Maybe,’ she answered with an aloof coyness that pained me to hear.

“Hardyng continued his confounded façade. ‘Hm, no, that’s not it. It’s the next night I need to know about.”

“Sansa laughed. “‘Harry, I can’t just” –

“‘Good, what about a month from now and all the nights in between?’

“‘I suppose you think I’m just some wallflower with no other engagements.’

“‘What about six months from now and the month after that?’

“‘What about next year?’

“‘Well, that’s all settled. Now what about breakfast?’

“Sansa laughed again and I heard her slap his arm. ‘What about dancing, you bum?’

“As he followed her to the dance floor like a hungry dog in truth, he asked, ‘What about lunch? Beautiful lunch? Day after day, after day….’”

“‘What about work? Beautiful work. Day after day, after day….’

“‘Why, Miss Stark, the way you talk. You’d think I was in love with you.’

“I could not stand a moment more hearing her laugh at his weak tomfoolery. I left unseen.

“But I confronted her the next day at my apartment when she stopped by.

“I told her what I’d heard.

“She stiffened, and I could tell she was gearing up for a fight. ‘Well, what of it?’

“I was ready. ‘What of it, my dear? Why, let’s just see what Old Mother Hubbard has in her cupboard.’ I felt a sneaking joy removing the precious manila folder from my desk. ‘My full investigation into the sterling character of Mr. Harrold Hardyng.’

“There was a cold pause and then she sat perched on the desk with her back to me. She said with low, simmering anger, ‘By stooping so low you only degrade yourself, Petyr.’

“I ignored her, knowing how soon she would repent her words and see her folly.

“‘Did you know he narrowly escaped arrest for passing bad checks? That he evaded the police again in Virginia, when he was suspected of stealing his hostess’s pearl earrings?’”

“Sansa merely tossed her head and tramped over to my drink tray, helping herself to a club soda. ‘Of course he was suspected. He isn’t rich and hasn’t anyone on his side. Those are just baseless accusations. Nothing more.’

“‘Not baseless, Sansa.’ I handed her the copy of the police reports I’d obtained. ‘Peruse them at your leisure.’

“She glanced at them, glanced at me, then without touching them, slammed her glass down and turned away, crossing her arms. ‘What of it?’ She repeated. ‘Do you suppose I think he’s perfect? He’s made his mistakes, we all have. A man can change, can’t he?’ The hotheaded streak she’d inherited from Catelyn was in full display now. ‘Everyone’s always so ready to hold out a hand to slap you down, but never to pick you up! I don’t apologize for helping Harry. The past is the past. I’m only concerned with the present.’

“Throughout her little rousing speech, I’d kept a face of absolute calm, but now I let a very small smile sneak out. ‘Speaking of the new and improved Mr. Hardyng,’ I said smoothly, savoring what I was about to impart, ‘He’s now cavorting with a model from your own magazine. One Saffron Redfern.’

“Sansa’s crossed arms fell to her sides and her eyes locked on mine. ‘I’m closer to despising you then I ever thought possible,’ she hissed.

“She whipped around to march out, but then halted, massaging her forehead. When she turned around again, her face was composed and wiped clean of emotion. ‘Maybe I should have told you earlier, but now seems as good a time as any. Harry proposed to me last night and I accepted. We’re going to be married.’

“Her posture was goddess-like in its straightness, her expression frank and unapologetic. But she couldn’t control the wavering doubt in those oceanic eyes.

“I pride myself even now on my cool, collected demeanor. Perhaps if I hadn't any evidence I’d have felt nearly as powerless and desperate as I had with Brandon Stark, with Ned. Now, however, I simply brushed off a piece of lint from my sleeve then slowly opened the drawer to my desk again.

“‘As I recall, you presented him with a watch on his last birthday.’ Like a magician with his deck of cards, I revealed said watch in the palm of my hand. ‘Rather an expensive piece, isn’t it?’

“Her face showed obvious confusion at first, as if she couldn’t quite take in what she was seeing. ‘Where did you get that,’ she asked in a small voice.

“‘The pawnshop that Saffron Redfern took it to after he gave it to her.’ I buttoned my cufflink, let her sink it all in.

“‘That’s a lie,’ she insisted. ‘He…he probably needed money and was too ashamed to borrow’ –

“‘Hardyng, capable of shame? That’d be a first.’ I dare say there was a twinkle in my eye as I said, ‘Must be why the pawn ticket was in Miss Redfern’s name.’

“Her agitation having risen up to a righteous degree she grabbed for my telephone. ‘This is ridiculous and I don’t believe a word. Before I let you go on with this charade, I’ll just’ – She started dialing.

“I felt a supreme serenity, a total control, as I informed her, ‘He isn’t home, my dear.’

“She shot me a look and then continued the call. She waited. I could hear from where I sat the dull monotony of the ring tone.

“My satisfaction mixed with relief when she shot me that old glance of hers I cherished: uncertainty, helplessness, a plea for me to guide her. It had been years since I’d seen it.

“And so I guided her. ‘He’s having dinner at Myranda’s,’ I said, drawing out the woman’s name for full effect.

“‘But that’s impossible!’ She banged down the receiver. ‘He wanted to have dinner with me tonight!’

“‘Ah, but you turned him down last minute. If you hadn’t, he’d have cancelled his engagement with Randa.’ Carelessly, as if discussing the weather, I continued, ‘He treats her rather casually these days.’

“Sansa stood motionless for a moment, except for the nervous twitching of her hands. With a wayward sense of resolution, she again picked up the phone and started dialing.

“She hung up immediately when I told her Randa would say he wasn’t there.

“All pretense of composure gone, she looked at me with those great, tragic eyes. Her voice was plain. ‘Petyr…why are you doing this?’

“I stood, drowning in that appealing gaze. ‘For you, Sansa,’ I said just as plainly. I squeezed her shoulders. I took her hands, patting them as I used to when she was seventeen and frightened. ‘Shall we pay your good friend Myranda a visit?’

“She still clung to some defiant faith in her fiancé and friend. ‘He won’t be there, Petyr. I know, I know he won’t.’

“But her eyes were still pleading with me, sad and desolate.

“I picked up the watch. ‘Shall we take this trifle along, just in case?’

“Without a word she threw it in her purse, and I followed her out.

 

“The maid at Myranda’s knew her job well. ‘I’m afraid Ms. Royce isn’t in.’

“‘We know, dear heart,’ I said, handing her my hat and charging past her with my hand secure around Sansa’s arm.

“Myranda was a smart woman. The place was plunged mostly in darkness, save for the odd light here and there so her maid could see. To the naked eye, she was indeed not home.

“However, by the time we reached the dining room we heard the tell-tale clinking silverware informing us that dinner was still in progress.

“Sansa looked to me as we entered the cozy space. Harry and Myranda sat together at a small round table, inches apart from one another. Quite intimate.

“But the mutual look of frozen panic on their faces as they saw us was far from romantic. Myranda stood but said nothing.

“Harrold sat gulping idiotically for a few moments before the genteel country mask slipped back on. He stood and nodded with every casual courtly grace.

“‘Why, hello, darling! I thought you were going to stand me up tonight!’

“This was too delicious for me to pass making comment on. ‘Hardyng, I admire what deep levels of triteness you’re able to summon in a moment of such supreme disaster. I salute you.’ I eyed Sansa closely throughout. Her expression was inscrutable, but as always, those eyes told all. They were glued on Harry.

“The bumpkin in question merely replied in a sickeningly syrupy tone, ‘Aw, you’ve got your head too full of all that melodrama you churn out on the radio, Petyr. Time for a reality check.’

“He turned his impressive toothy simper on whom he still assumed was his betrothed. ‘You know, I was just telling Randa about our getting married. Wasn’t I, Ran?’ Randa had not moved an inch or spoken since our arrival. This didn’t help Harry’s casual play-acting. He skipped to another topic in desperation, the strain evident in the slight tightening of the skin around his painful smile. ‘Since you’re here, why don’t you two join us for dinner? Randa’s outdone herself on these oysters. Not since I was down in Orleans have I tasted any this good.’

“As if to drive home what an old fashioned Southern boy he was, his accent grew more and more akin to molasses as he spoke. His blue eyes darted to all three of us with a caged animal’s dying spirit.

“He overdid his act so much he sounded more like a rodeo announcer than a plantation son when he said, ‘Come on now, you all sit down!’ He gave the last tight laugh of the damned.

“Sansa’s eyes were the endless, unreachable pools of an overcast sea.

“With graceful simplicity she opened her handbag and tossed the watch on the table. One last lightning glare at her former intended and she sped out the room. I had only time to cast one triumphant smirk at the deflated goon before joining her in her exit.

“A few days passed, during which I wasn’t sure if she saw Hardyng or not, or Myranda. What I do know was that she had lunch Friday with Saffron Redfern. Eager to hear everything, I made sure to set an appointment with Sansa afterward for dinner.

“As I made my preparations – I thought a quiet supper on the patio, against the sunset would calm her – I alternated between moods of over-optimism and over-pessimism. When the phone rang, I had a great presentiment of disaster.

“‘It's me,’ came Sansa’s soft voice on the other end. I could tell right away that my foreboding was well-founded. I knew that tone of hers. I’d heard it many times in her first months with me, when her voice held nothing but weary sorrow. There was a sad humor to it, a resigned laugh around the edges, a deprecating, defeated shrug in vocal form.

“I got right to the point. ‘What is it, Sansa?’

“A prolonged sigh and then a moment of silence. Then, ‘I’m frightfully sorry, Petyr, but I won’t be able to make it to dinner tonight.’

“My stomach plummeted in disappointment and fear. ‘Why? Are you ill?’

“‘Oh, no, no, I’m not ill. Just…frayed at the edges. Worn out. Nervous. Any other adjective describing someone knocked out in the ring.’ She cleared her throat and her next words came out in a stronger, more composed tone of voice. ‘I’m going to my cabin for a few days out in the country. I thought I’d take advantage of the long weekend coming up and all.

“‘I assume this self-imposed exile is attributed to our mutual acquaintance Harrold?’

“Another sigh. ‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’

“‘Hold on, I’ll come over right away.’

“‘No, there’s nothing you can do,’ she said hurriedly. With more conviction she said, ‘I’ve got to sort out this whole mess by myself.’ I restrained myself from objecting too strenuously; after all, what was I for if not to take on her messes myself? But she was adamant.

“She must have sensed my helpless anxiety, however, for she said sweetly, ‘I’m sorry, Petyr. I’ll call you first thing I get back. Good bye.’

*********************

“That was the last time I ever heard her voice,” Petyr finished, staring beyond the restaurant, beyond everything around them.

They’d stayed so long the wait staff was beginning to close, stacking chairs upside down on tables. Only Petyr’s clout kept management from expelling the two men.

The candles on their table had melted into their base.

Petyr either didn’t notice or didn’t care. All he did was continue staring and say, “She had her mother’s pride. I was sure she would never forgive him.” He finally turned to Sandor, his lips forming a wistful ghost of a smile. “But….” He raised his hands in a surrendering gesture, letting them fall back onto the table.

Sandor’s face was obscured by shadow, by his downward gaze at the gum wrapper he toyed absently with. At length he spoke. “Know where this Saffron Redfern lives?”

“Oh, Brooklyn somewhere, I think. I believe she’s in the book.”

Sandor made a quick note in his pad and then snapped it shut, standing. “Let’s head out. It’s late.”

Petyr paid the waiter and then followed Sandor outside. It was jarring to emerge from that quiet, empty restaurant, made funereal by Petyr’s story, into the still bustling streets of New York’s nightlife, with car horns honking down the avenue.

Petyr seemed unaffected by it all, bringing the funereal atmosphere with him. “I shall never forgive myself for allowing her to become involved with Harry.” He gazed into the twilight sky. “I and I alone am to blame. I should have stopped it. Somehow.” He looked down, suddenly appearing older than before.

It was several moments before Sandor spoke. In a voice thick with something Petyr couldn’t name, the detective asked, “Did she ever talk much about her time in Chicago?”

Petyr shook his head. “No. It was too difficult for her, I think.” He furrowed his brow as a memory returned to him. “There was one moment, however. In fact, it was when ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ started playing that night before her birthday. She was so moved by the music that she sat like one transfixed the whole time, never speaking until it was over, except for silently mouthing some of the words. Then she turned to me with tears in her eyes and a soft smile on her lips. She told me that in Chicago, she’d been disappointed in love. The song reminded her of him, whoever he was.” He raised his eyebrows. “She never offered any further details and I never pressed her. But I assume she meant Joffrey, the Baratheon boy. It’s common knowledge they’d dated before he had her father murdered.”

A mystified expression crossed his face. Almost to himself, he said, “Imagine anyone rejecting Sansa! Yes, it must have been the Baratheon boy. Who else would lack the sensitivity and human heart to treat her so?” He blinked and shook his head, coming out somewhat from the dreamlike misery that infected him since he began his long tale.

He tipped his hat. “Well, good night, Clegane.”

“So long. Thanks for dinner.”

Sandor stood under the streetlight, watching until Petyr disappeared into a cab.

Sandor would walk for a while.

His heart thudded dumbly in his chest.

Baelish’s words had pained him, enraged him, fascinated him, and disheartened him by turn.

Particularly his parting words.

Sandor threw his gum away in a nearby waste basket. Then he turned up his collar against the growing coldness in the nighttime air.

He knew one thing for a certainty: Sansa hadn’t meant Joffrey.

Imagine anyone rejecting Sansa!

Sandor could imagine. He was that man.

Chapter Text

Sandor could barely remember Scotland. He’d been born in a forgotten corner of Glasgow, his father a dog trainer for the local police department. Oftentimes officers smoked near the kennels, ignoring the quiet figure of Sandor’s father cleaning the cages deep into the evening. And so Sandor’s father was able to pick up his biggest earnings by selling the information he gathered from these informal sessions to interested parties.

Eventually the multiple talents of Archie Clegane reached even London, where railroad and real estate tycoon Tywin Lannister was staying for a period of six months trying to negotiate a more peaceable relationship between Great Britain and Germany during the war – more peaceable for his stock interests, that is. Lannister arranged a meeting with Clegane at a secluded farmhouse near Dumfries. He hired Clegane as his eyes and ears in London, securing him a nominal position as kennel keeper at Scotland Yard.

The seven-year-old Sandor, half his face already ravaged by flame, was by this point largely indifferent to his surroundings and could not find much different about London from his previous home. Everything was the same murky gray, with damp cobblestones, close quarters, dingy dogs eating out of dumpsters, and a thick black industrial smog over everything.

Sandor dreamed of no better life, only the chance to kill his brother.

Lannister was so pleased with Clegane’s work – he appreciated the man’s sly skill hidden behind a front of sheepish obedience – that when Sandor was twelve, Lannister had the Cleganes moved overseas to Chicago. The young Sandor did feel a slight excitement hum in his veins at the idea; he’d seen enough movies to believe that Chicago and America in general were more exciting and forthright than the stale continent he called home.

Instead he found himself overwhelmed when they arrived, and frightened – though he’d scarcely admit it, even to himself. Everything was too big, too loud, and once again, despite the higher position his father had gained, they were forced to live in more squalor; their miserable shack-like home right under the train tracks.

Sandor did not have much time to dwell on his lonely frightened state, however. One day his father, a grin splitting his face that failed to mask the warning in his eyes, told Sandor in a jovial voice that just like Sandor’s brother had, Sandor himself had caught Mr. Lannister’s eye. He wanted to meet with the lad right away.

Sandor stood stoic and silent in front of Tywin Lannister’s desk. Lannister did indeed like what he saw. He’d heard that the youngest Clegane boy had been a rather small, reedy thing as a child, but had, like his brother before him, reached six feet by his twelfth year. He was still a slender boy, but Lannister noticed the beginning of muscles about the shoulders, legs, and arms.

There was fire deep in the boy’s glum eyes, and Lannister knew what direction he wanted those flames to take.

“How would you like to work as a sort of messenger for me, my boy?” He asked in his aloof but civil manner, his cigar balanced delicately between his fingers. “Make your own wages, help your father out.”

Sandor did not even bother darting a questioning glance to his father. He knew that he had no choice. And so he nodded, mumbling a thank you.

Thus Sandor’s career began. Lannister had him start slow; Sandor in his first year was delegated to truly ferrying messages back and forth from one end of the city to another. The recipients varied from legitimate investors to the back alley dens of drug and arms dealers.

The young boy presented each party with the same inscrutable damaged face. He said nothing to anyone about any of the trips, a valuable trait in this trade.

He was like a silent, faithful dog; that, and the fact he had a nose for finding any hidden nook and cranny in the vast city without ever getting lost, and his father’s career, earned him the nickname Hound – the handle merely followed him to New York, where it gained new meaning in his work as a detective.

It wasn’t until a year had passed and he was thirteen that Lannister indoctrinated him into a more physical aspect of his work; work that Sandor’s brother had been doing even back in London when he was thirteen.

In this one year, thanks in part to the healthy amount of exercise he got traipsing about the city, Sandor’s full potential was first seen: growing muscles bulged from beneath his t-shirt and jacket, the undamaged side of his face even beginning to show the first signs of stubble.

Lannister told him his new role was ‘protection’. Sandor had been hovering around enough dives to know what that really meant.

Sandor remembered a slight tension in his chest once he was told his new position. But then, as always, a numb acceptance overcame misgivings. He would do what he was told. What other choice did he have?

His youth was a blur of crushed bones, bar fights, ducking shoot-outs, and Lannister coming to value his services so much that he no longer wanted his hound hidden in shadow; he must have a legitimate profession as cover.

Sandor joined the police force – not as a kennel master, as his father’d been, but as an actual officer.

Sandor wondered when he first joined the force if anyone would be able to suss him out, smell the corruption on him.

He needn’t have worried. They were all under Lannister’s pay.

And so the years passed into his manhood. Throughout, he maintained the dubious privilege as Tywin’s favorite – after his brother.

In late ’39, Tywin recommended Sandor to his son-in-law Robert as a perfect bodyguard for his family. After all, Robert was promising to make enemies if he insisted on bringing in Ned Stark to investigate corruption. His whole family needed the protection only a strong, upright officer of the law could provide.

Sandor was no stranger to the Baratheon-Lannister household. Oftentimes he was commissioned to stand guard outside Joffrey Baratheon’s countless parties, to subtly try to reel in the young heir to the Lannister fortune when his drunken proclivities – inciting fights and humiliating girls, in particular – became too outlandish for even the press in Lannister’s pocket to ignore.

Fully immersing himself in their lives tapped into a vein of disgust even he hadn’t expected he was still capable of. The two youngest children, Myrcella and Tommen, were all right. Spoiled, but average rambunctious kids compared to the intense sadism of their eldest brother, Joffrey.

While the children’s mother lacked Joffrey’s outright delight in the pain of others, she had instead an ice-cold calculating nature, a deep bitterness, which gave Sandor the creeps for all her blonde patrician beauty. She had no interest in her oaf of a husband, and instead spent most of her time in conference with her twin brother Jaime – often behind the closed door to her bedroom.

Sandor was with them five months before Ned Stark arrived with his two daughters.

He drove Robert Baratheon to the airport to meet his friend. Robert the legendary war hero had let his fame go to his stomach, and there was always a slight shift in the back of the limousine whenever he sat down.

The usual wait at the airport would have been interminable, but as Baratheon was the mayor, the greatest obstacle Sandor had to drive through were a few reporters buzzing near the tarmac, waiting for the reunion between the two war heroes.

“Ned! You crazy son-of-a-bitch!” Robert bellowed with a mighty laugh as three figures emerged from the private plane. “C’mere!”

Except for the few strands of gray sprinkled through his dark hair, Ned Stark was physically in much better condition than his friend. He hugged Robert with vigor, joining his laughter. Still, there was no doubt Ned was the quieter, more introspective of the two. He glanced with bemusement at the photographers who snapped pictures of the two men together while Robert mugged like a Dickensian benefactor.

Hovering at the edge were Ned Stark’s daughters.

Sandor was amused by the younger one. She was a short, spindly thing, who was fidgeting as if fit to explode at her current boredom. Her gray eyes, much like her father’s, roved curiously all over the crowd and airport. She very ungracefully scratched her head, mussing her messy dark bob.

Sandor then turned his eyes to the eldest.

He couldn’t quite understand the slight tug at his chest as he looked at her. It was almost a sensation of recognition; not of someone he’d ever seen or known, but – an awakening, almost: an ‘ah, that’s her. That’s where she’s been this whole time.’

He hadn’t fallen in love at first sight or even infatuation; she was scarcely fifteen and the blooming youth in her face and the reckless naiveté peering out of those blue eyes and her childlike smile made her seem younger. This would have annoyed her had she known, for what also contributed to her youthful aura was her childish determination to come across grown up, ladylike.

Instead of desire, he felt a strong familiarity, a strange kinship to her.

Little Myrcella had insisted on seeing both Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz recently, and so her father had indulged her with a private viewing of both movies over a weekend in their home. Sandor stood outside the door, glancing in at times to make sure no secret assassins were hiding in the dark home theater. Therefore he caught Technicolor glimpses of both already legendary films.

Right now, as he observed Sansa Stark in the airport, Sandor was reminded of both Scarlett O’Hara and Dorothy Gale.

He could tell by the way she cast flirtatious yet hesitant eyes at the photographers engrossed in her father that she was vaguely trying to court them, to interest their flashing bulbs in her. This, and the way she rolled her eyes and sighed whenever her sister fidgeted too obviously or stuck a tongue out at a reporter, revealed that the girl possessed a self-centered, coquettish side much like the iconic southern belle; her bright eyes and vivacious beauty were also quite reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara.

But like the young lost girl in Wizard of Oz, there was something so sincere about her childlike excitement, a wholesome cheer in her poignantly lovely face. She even had Dorothy’s thick auburn mane and dreamy gaze. Sandor’s instinct told him that her vanity, her yearning for the spotlight and romance, were not motivated by power like Cersei, or malice like Joffrey, or absolute control and profit like Tywin; hers was motivated by a deep immersion in fantasy. She was a creature obviously sprung from fairytales, a Snow White in a world full of crooked cops like him.

And what else was it about her, that feeling of startling recognition? Something in those striking eyes of hers. They were of a deeper and more penetrating blue than any he had seen. He’d heard the Starks called the ‘wolf pack’ before, and noting the powerful reserve in Ned, and the wild cub-like mischief bubbling out of Arya, Sandor could understand the comparison.

At first sight, the pretty prim young girl seemed more a delicate songbird than a ferocious wolf. Nonetheless, there was something deep in those innocent blue eyes of Sansa Stark. He discovered what it was: a gleam that did in fact say wolf with intense clarity. This was a wintry gleam, distant, howling out of her eyes with great precision and command. There, in that sweet little snobby girl with her hands neatly holding her little purse in front of her, her feet together, her posture straight – there was a wolf living and breathing in her eyes.

Yes, the Hound recognized the wolf in Sansa Stark and advanced.

He reached for her case just as she did. Their eyes met.

It had been a long time since he’d seen someone react so blatantly to his burns. She gasped as if she were seeing the Wicked Witch of the West for the first time, her eyes so wide she could have given that old dame Lillian Gish a run for her money back in the day.

Still the wolf was there, only on the alert now.

This both amused and irritated Sandor. “Do I frighten you so much, girl?” He knew his deep, rasping voice often contributed to his frightening image, and he added an extra growl to the tone. He wanted to see her shiver and coo like a frightened dove.

Yet she recovered herself quickly, the wolf still at the ready but standing down for now. “I beg your pardon, sir,” she said in a voice with such courteous candor it made Judy Garland sound like a phony. “I – I didn’t see you reaching for my bag.” She smiled bravely, but he could see the anxiety in her eyes.

However, it had been such a long time since anyone smiled at him, much less smiled at him with such a sincere effort to be personable, that he felt his resentment melt away. Still, irritation lingered: how dare this little small-town girl, in her delicately stitched navy blue dress, and her head in the clouds, come here to Chicago? To the Lannisters?

They would eat her alive. The thought brought him no joy.

He jerked his chin toward the car. “Come on,” he said roughly, and after a moment’s shock at his tone, Sansa followed quickly, Arya skipping after her. Sansa thanked him in a soft voice for carrying her luggage.

 

Sandor was depressed but not surprised when she immediately fell for the golden good looks of Joffrey. Bored, the boy decided to indulge her, encourage her. As her father sat in Robert’s study with his advisors and tried to fix the city without the aid of the philandering Baratheon, Sansa attended dances and movies with Joffrey. Sandor was often ordered to accompany as security.

He felt like retching and shaking her when he’d see the dippy look of devotion as she danced with the little twerp or when he bragged to her about his score in golf. Snow White thought she’d found Prince Charming. She didn’t know he was far more like the Wicked Queen when in disguise as the harmless old lady.

Stupid, empty-headed little girl.

It all reached a head for him the night Robert belatedly threw a welcome dance in Ned’s honor at Town Hall, about three weeks into their stay. Sansa was a radiant figure in emerald green, more grown up and graceful than Sandor had yet seen her. Her dress had a heart-shaped top with a long skirt made of tulle, and she wore a black wrap around her shoulders. A pearl necklace graced her alabaster throat. The red in her hair gleamed and danced like copper in the golden light of the dance floor.

She took a few spins with Loras Tyrell, with Renly Baratheon, with her father. But most of her dances belonged to Joffrey. Sandor drank a lot that night.

He saw the growing boredom in Joff, the way the boy’s eyes lazily surveyed everyone in the ballroom except for his adoring partner.

As the dance started to wind down, the last of Joffrey’s chivalry began slipping away. He snapped his fingers and called out, “hey, dog!”

Letting the rage simmer in his stomach but not erupt, Sandor joined the two, where Joffrey was quickly helping Sansa into her coat, his eye on the other end of the hall where the pretty heiress Margaery Tyrell stood laughing with some friends. “Dog, see Miss Stark home, will you?” Arya had gotten so squirrely that Ned had used it as an excuse to take her home early.

Without a kiss or even a tender touch, Joffrey threw “see you, sweetheart” behind his back at Sansa and hurried toward the Tyrell girl.

Sansa stood puzzled looking after him for a moment, her shoulders drooping in ill-concealed disappointment. She turned to Sandor.

Her wide, honest eyes both amused and shamed Sandor in his intoxication. He took her by the arm, and although it wasn’t a very gentlemanly gesture, his grip was much gentler than it looked.

“I’m too drunk to drive, girl,” he rasped at her. “Lucky thing you only live two blocks down.”

She had time only to swallow doubtfully, her eyes frozen on his burns, before he dragged her out of the hall.

 

Luckily it was a clear night. Sandor’s physique and reputation would be enough to scare off muggers. The girl walked with hurried little steps to keep up with his longer strides, her heels going click-clack-click-clack like a frightened deer on pavement.

This was the first time they’d been alone together.

There’s was a silent walk for several moments, until Sandor lit a cigarette.

“My mother says that’s a very nasty habit.” She spoke in such a quiet voice he nearly missed it.

Sandor gave her a sideways glance. Her chin was down, but her doe eyes stared up at him plainly. Her red lips were slightly pursed.

Ridiculous little thing. He laughed at her. “Well, I’m a very nasty man. It fits.” He exhaled a plume of smoke up into the air, up to the moon and stars above them.

“I hear it leaves people short-winded,” she persisted. “And you need all your strength to protect – the Baratheons.”

“Don’t lie, girl,” he spat out. “You meant to say Joffrey, and Joffrey alone.”

There wasn’t much light afforded them from the street lamps, but he caught a becoming pink burning her cheeks.

“Anyway, don’t you fret, girl. If I should fall short, my gallant brother will step in.” A low rumble in his voice made his sarcasm come out deeply bitter.

She must have gathered up all her courage to whisper, “Your brother scares me.”

He laughed harshly. “As he should! Although I don’t think it takes much to scare you.” Of course Gregor scared her. He scared anyone with half a brain. Even if it weren’t for his towering height of just over seven feet coupled with his ox-like muscles, his actions were more than enough to strike fear in the hearts of Chicago. He was Tywin's personal bodyguard, and made Sandor’s physical punishment of various dealers and pimps look downright loving in comparison.

It was his brother’s example that instilled any sort of code in Sandor. Rape, torture – these were things Sandor avoided like the plague, determined to have that on Gregor, at least. And someday he would kill him, he’d have that, too.

Sansa sighed in relief. “I’m glad you’re not angry. I was worried about offending you.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “If you were so worried, why even say it?” He turned his whole face to her, his burns gleaming in the moonlight.

She stared at her shoes and shrugged.

Before he could stop himself he grabbed her by the chin and jerked her face to his. “LOOK AT ME.

She was white as a sheet. She trembled in his grasp. He could see the fiery embers in his eyes reflected in hers.

He let her go and snorted in contempt. “I’ve noticed you glancing away from my face since I first met you. Well, bugger that. When you talk to me, you look at me.” So saying, he dug his finger into his damaged cheek, leaning toward her.

She backed up into a streetlight. Tears filled her eyes and her lips quivered. The wolf was whimpering and its ears were back.

She said nothing.

So Sandor continued. “Pretty sight, ain’t it?” His breath came out in heavy huffs. The world spun a bit, her sapphire eyes too, as he tried to focus. He didn’t think about what he was doing. The drink and her aloof politeness did him in, so that he cared not what he next said. “Got anything pretty to say, hm? Anything nice and proper like Shirley fucking Temple?”

“I – I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Fuck’s sake, girl. You should hear yourself. You remind me of a pretty little trained bird, reciting what it’s told and nothing else.” He sneered gladly as he saw a flash of anger in her eyes, the wolf lashing out. “How do you think it happened, little bird? How do you think I got this ugly mug? The Chicago fire was a bit before my time, after all.” His laughter was mocking. “So I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you. I was six years old, younger even than that sister of yours. We were still in Glasgow, where I was born. My old man was a crooked rat even back then, and he sold the local toy shop owner – aye, even a fucking toy shop owner – valuable information about a shipment of dope. So for thanks, the toy owner gave him a cut of the profit and a few toys for his lads: Gregor and me. I can’t even remember what I got, I just wanted Gregor’s. The war’d just broken out, and Gregor got a toy soldier dressed up like a British infantryman. Real brown cloth and everything. Well, Gregor had no need for it, he was twelve years old and six feet at that time. So I took it.”

He felt himself almost detach from the present as he gazed down into this dark hole of his past. He was in the living room again, the gray walls and stone floor cold even though the fire blazed hot in the brazier.

“He found me after school by the fire, playing with his toy. Without saying a word, he picked me up under his arm and pressed my face into the flames as I screamed. Took my father, mother, and a neighbor to get him off of me. Later on my dear old dad told everyone my bed had caught fire. Christ.” He sucked on his cigarette, and hoped the girl couldn’t see his hand shaking in the dark. “A year later we moved to London, and Gregor and my father became Tywin Lannister’s favorite pets. Me, too, eventually.” His cheek twitched. “I didn’t stay long at my folks’ house once we moved to Chicago. Couldn’t bear it as Gregor roomed there, too. So I bummed around, sleeping on the floor of various bars and clubs Lannister sent me to. Earned my keep as a messenger boy.”

He paused for a moment. The street was eerily quiet. They were in front of a large brick municipal building that seemed as gigantic and grim as Gregor in the darkness.

“My mother died first. Don’t know for certain if Gregor got to her, but who else? Never was too sure on her cause of death. When I asked my dad at the funeral, he just gave me a hangdog look and said, ‘exhaustion.’ She’d given birth to my sister about six months before, and about six months after that the kid died. I met her maybe once. Don’t remember too well. Gregor definitely got her. Always been prone to migraines, my brother’s been, and the child’s wailing apparently got to him. Was said she fell out of her crib at night and that’s what killed her. More like thrown out, or beaten against a wall.

“Then went the old man. Hit by a car. Never caught the driver. But after his death it was said my brother’s Cadillac sported a large dent in the bumper that he didn’t bother fixing for a good long spell.”

Sandor sighed, shaking his head with a miserable smirk on his face. “Gregor had the joint to his own now. He tore it down and sold the parts, then moved himself into classier digs in Lincoln Park with my father’s life insurance. He’s done well for himself. Tywin Lannister’s right-hand man – thug, that is. That’s a prime role to play in Chicago. Pride of the Cleganes,” he sneered, his hate and hurt heavy in his voice.

He stood staring down the long road ahead of them. He panted, slightly unsteady on his feet. Shit, but he was drunk.

Suddenly he remembered he had an audience.

Shit. All the crap he’d just said would have unsettled quite a few jaded fellows, so a naïve little hayseed like her? Shit. She’d probably soiled her expensive panties by now and would be a dribbling mess. Could only spell trouble for him.

Before he could turn to her and assess the damage, he felt her hand on his shoulder.

“He’s nothing to be proud of, sir. You’re worth far more than he’ll ever be.”

Sandor inhaled sharply.

There was something wise and ancient in that voice of hers – but something unmistakably youthful as well.

He looked at her.

There was no wolf, no little bird in those blue depths now. Just her: sure and simple, and more complex than he ever imagined.

Compassion. He’d told himself the concept didn’t really exist, that it was just something people better off than you guilted themselves into acting out.

Yet there was no guilt in those eyes, in the proud little set of her chin. Just compassion; just her.

He felt oddly as if he were staring into his own eyes – into the eyes of the youth he never got to truly be, but who understood whom he’d become, and cared for him anyway. For who he was.

The sensation of kinship increased and pressed in his heart until in his drunkenness he felt like they were the same person. Different sides of the same coin, one damaged and miserable, the other shining and pure. With the same heart, though. The same soul.

There was no trace of her fear of him left.

He blinked and frowned, determined to dismiss these ideas as maudlin, drunken delusions.

He looked down the road again. “Come on,” he said in as even a tone as he could muster. His grip on her arm was even softer than before.

They reached the Baratheon house. Before she took a step up to the porch, he said, “Not many people know that story I told you, little bird. So keep your mouth shut, will you? Don’t go blabbing to your father, your sister. Joffrey. You hear?” He hoped he didn’t sound desperate.

Again the forthright gleam as she nodded her head eagerly. “I won’t tell. Promise.”

She sped up the steps.

Sandor turned to leave (Cersei insisted he only enter the house through the back), but Sansa called out, “Oh, Mr. Clegane?”

He glanced back. She’d stopped at the door, her hand on the knob. “I still think it’s a nasty habit.”

She smiled mischievously. Her eyes were warm and gentle, like the mother, sister, and daughter he never really had and never believed he would have, ever.

Like a friend.

She disappeared inside.

Sandor stared at the closed door to the Baratheon mansion for an endless amount of time. At last he continued the trek around the house.

The next day, he switched to gum.

 

Sandor knew right away that Baelish’s jealousy had incorrectly colored at least one portion of his narrative. Sandor knew for a fact that Ned and Catelyn Stark had loved each other, fiercely.

He knew because one of his jobs at the Baratheon mansion was delivering to Tywin Lannister the recordings of all Ned’s phone calls.

Sandor stood motionless in front of Tywin’s desk as the old lion listened to a call Ned made his wife about three months into his stay.

“Hello?

“Cat?”

“Ned!

“Hey, you.”

“Hey you, yourself! What’s going on over there? It's been weeks since you called! I expected to hear from you long before now.”

“Sorry, Cat, but it’s been crazy. It’s been…more complicated than I expected.”

“More complicated? How?”

“I can’t go over it in detail right now. I don’t understand half of it myself yet. Look, I just sent you copies of some papers by express. Don’t open them. I’m hoping you won’t have to do anything with them, but…” he hesitated. Then he spoke in a very slow, grave voice. “But just in case something happens to me, I want you to send those documents right away to Stannis Baratheon at the FBI. Okay?”

“…Good god, Ned.”

“I know, I know. I’m probably just being paranoid.”

“Don’t say things like that to me.”

“Cat….”

“I want you and the girls to come back. Right now.”

“I can’t do that, Cat. It would only make the Lannisters suspicious.”

“Well, can’t you at least give me a hint what this is all about? I don’t like being in the dark, Ned.”

“I just don’t know if it’s safe.”

“You and I share everything, in sickness and in health. Well, this all sounds pretty sick to me. So please, let me in a little.”

A long sigh from Ned. “I honestly don’t know too much myself at this point. I’ve been contacted by some figure calling himself...well, never mind that. He sent me all the information I have. And so far…god, I hate to say it, it looks like a lot of this stuff checks out.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Money and shipments that should have gone one place, but ended up in another...specifically, Germany.”

“Germany?”

“Yes. Also some pretty nasty insinuations about Cersei and her brother, but I don’t know how relevant that all is.”

“But what does this all mean?”

“Cat, I’ve told you more than I should. I can’t tell you anything else.” His voice gentled. “Honest.”

There was a pause on the other line, then a soft and resigned, “Okay.”

Another pause. Ned at last broke the silence. When he spoke, love was heavy in his voice. “How’s Bran?”

“He’s a trooper, our boy. Physically he’s still weak as a kitten, but he’s been practicing his exercises and he’s still sharp as a tack.”

Ned laughed sadly. “That’s my boy. And Robb and Rickon?”

“They’re getting by without you. It’s tough, though. Robb’s really stepped up as man of the house. He’s a good foreman at the mill, the men respect him. And Rickon’s as wild as ever.”

“Good. Tell them all I’m proud of them.”

“I will. How are the girls?” Sandor could hear the yearning there.

“Just as we predicted: Sansa’s having a blast, but Arya’s having a harder time. She’s homesick.”

“Can’t you at least send her home?”

“I wish I could, Cat, but I just don’t know if that’s wise.”

One more sizable silence.

“…I miss you.”

“I miss you, too, Cat. God, I miss you.”

“Please come home to me soon. Please.”

“I will.” There was a crack in steady Ned Stark’s voice. “First chance I get.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too. Remember what I said about the papers.”

“Yes. Give…give my love to the girls.”

“I will. Goodbye, Cat.”

“Goodbye, my love.”

……

Sandor thought he saw something twisted flicker in Tywin’s green eyes, but otherwise, the great tycoon was as immobile as rock.

At last he addressed Sandor. “On your way out, tell my secretary to get me through to my daughter.”

 

What followed was a tense meeting between Tywin and his daughter, son, and grandson. This took place at Tywin’s office, away from any suspicious Starks. Sandor stood guard outside the closed door. He heard quiet muffled voices from within, except for the frequent venomous exclamations from Joffrey.

At last Joff burst out of the office, face scrunched and livid. He yelled into the room, “I don’t care what you say, that fucking Ned Stark will pay for prying! Someone important from New York has contacted me. We’ll take care of Stark since you’re all too cowardly to.” Like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum, the boy went red and hurried down the hall.

The silence emanating from the conference room was deafening.

At last Sandor heard Cersei say, “Don’t worry about Joffrey. He just gets excited sometimes. He doesn’t mean it.”

Her voice was expressionless, as if she hadn’t the energy to even sound like she believed what she said.

Her father’s tone was just as even. “What worries me immediately is your husband, Cersei. If Stark is willing to share such information with his wife and Stannis Baratheon, it’s only a matter of time before he feels confident enough to go to Robert.”

Sandor heard the tell-tale sound of ice clinking in a glass. There was a rich purr in Cersei’s voice as she assured her father, “Your darling Mountain and I can take care of Robert, father dear. After all, it’s about time we take in that beloved Buick of his to the mechanic’s.”

Two days later Robert’s brakes failed. His car wrapped around a stoplight. He died immediately on impact. A broken neck.

 

The following days before the funeral were somber, but not in typical mourning – more a mounting tension about to burst through and annihilate everything in its path.

It was evident young Joffrey knew nothing of the truth behind his father’s death. In his irrational idiotic rage, he’d apparently decided that somehow Ned Stark was to blame. Logic played no part in his reasoning; only the thirst for violence and vengeance on the man who watched Joff and his family with distrust deep in his gray Northwestern eyes.

From the entryway windows, Sandor sometimes spotted Joffrey hunched over in a phone booth across the street. Joff would dart suspicious glances over his shoulder as he cradled the phone to his mouth.

This attitude of chilly hostility also extended to Sansa. He avoided her, rebuffed her attempts at comfort with a sharp shrug and a biting word.

Sansa’s forgiveness knew no bounds. Often were the times Sandor would come upon Sansa knocking softly on Joffrey’s door with a tray of food, only to be sent away curtly.

She was growing more poker faced, Sandor noticed, as she passed him by with a crisp nod and raised head.

Yet the day before the funeral, Joffrey called Ned and his daughters into the sitting room. As usual, Sandor was just outside, and observed the proceedings over his shoulder.

The boy who entered was a completely different animal from the seething ball of rage of before. He showed nothing but contrite humility. He was dressed in a smart black suit, his hands folded in front of him. "Mr. Stark,” he said with grave respect. Ned and the girls sat at different ends of the table. “Mr. Stark, Arya…Sansa….” He reserved his most gentle smile for her. “I’m most sorry for my behavior recently. My father’s death hurt me so badly I guess I just went a little crazy for a while. But that’s no excuse for how I’ve treated you, his best friend. I…I wanted to ask you something. Could you…could you…” He stuck his hands in his pockets. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but could you join me on a trip to town hall to look over the funeral arrangements with me? I know Mother means well, but frankly, you’re the one who knew him best. It would just make me feel so much better if I were to get your input about the program. The decorations. I want to make sure it really represents Dad.”

He glanced up with a hopeful glint in his eyes. “And girls, you’re certainly welcome to come! We can all go for ice cream after. On me.” His smile was very gentle with just a side of melancholy humor.

Sandor couldn’t see Ned clearly from his position, but no one could have missed Sansa jumping out of her seat and impulsively throwing her arms around Joffrey’s neck. “Oh, Joff! You dear, dear thing. Of course we will. We’ll help in any way we can.”

Sandor felt queasy not at the saccharine words, but at the absolute sincerity and warmth in them.

He craned his head and finally got a good look at Sansa’s father and sister. Their expressions mirrored Sandor’s doubt.

Joffrey, gently disentangling himself from Sansa’s embrace, turned deferentially to Ned. “Well, Mr. Stark?”

Stark’s winter eyes were impenetrable.

At last he acquiesced – resigned himself, Sandor thought more like. He stood, shaking Joffrey’s hand. “Yes, of course, Joffrey. We’d be glad to.”

Arya said nothing but she buried her chin into her chest, her eyes locked skeptically on the young man who was stroking Sansa’s hair absently.

“Dog!” Joffrey called without taking his eyes away from Ned Stark. “Pull the car around, will you? We’re going to town hall, where the funeral’s set.”

 

Sandor knew there was no point in blaming anyone for what happened when he pulled up and dropped off Joff and the Starks. Only Joffrey, and whomever he spoke to in that phone booth across the street, were responsible.

Yet did that change the fact that Sandor was the driver? That Sandor was hired by Joffrey’s grandfather? That he did his and every Lannister’s bidding?

If Sandor had for once ignored his duties, and instead listened to the flash of intuition stirring in his stomach, could he have prevented the tragedy that shaped her life?

Sandor saw no point in speculating, even these many years later. That way lied madness, and needless pain.

Sansa kept up a steady stream of chatter on the ride over. She discussed all the positive articles in tribute to Robert she’d read, of how Joffrey was the obvious heir to his political career. This current of eager encouragement only served to emphasize the silence from the other passengers. Ned was quiet and stern, Arya sullen and withdrawn.

And Joffrey – Joffrey sat tense as if about to pounce. He was apparently so engrossed in some kind of anticipation that he’d forgotten to uphold his chivalrous humble act. He ignored the oblivious Sansa and everyone else in the car. Sandor caught a glimpse of his eyes in the rearview mirror, and swallowed at the flash of frenzied animalistic expectancy there.

Sandor parked the car at the curb. Sansa hopped out, and it was the last time Sandor saw her carefree and with a smile of genuine excitement on her face. Next came Ned, slowly. Then, reluctantly, came Arya.

Joffrey had recovered enough of his manners to hold the door open for all three. Then he crouched down and spoke to Sandor through the window. “Stay here, dog. This won’t take long.”

Sandor looked into his reptilian eyes and smile and saw Gregor.

It was too late to do anything. Joffrey sped away, up the town hall steps. “Hold on a second, Mr. Stark!” He called as Ned reached the top. “Could you come back down the steps? There’s something I want to address with you first.”

Ned frowned but descended, stopping at the same level as his daughters.

Joffrey met him there.

“What is it, Joff?”

Joffrey glanced quickly at his watch. Then casually putting his hands back in his pockets, he stared frankly into Ned Stark’s face and grinned.

Sandor saw the black car hurtling down the road.

He comprehended everything just a split second before the shots rang out.

Then he heard Sansa screaming.

The blood gushed out of Ned’s forehead. The whole front of his face was practically demolished. He stood swaying for a moment like a drunk tightrope walker. Finally his body fell, fell down the steps.

Little Arya made not a sound. With a face green and lupine, she raced down the steps and down the street.

“Girl!” Sandor called, jumping out of the car. She was too quick for him. He realized dimly what she was about.

The skinny little twelve-year-old was running after the car of assassins, hoping to apprehend them.

Sandor was about to pursue her when another anguished cry from Sansa and a snarl from Joffrey caught his attention.

Joffrey’s hand was in Sansa’s hair, his other twisting her face to stare down at the bloody mass that was once her father’s head. “Look at it, Sansa,” Joffrey hissed. “Look and see what happens to traitors.”

Sansa keened, and Sandor saw the whites of her eyes.

And without thinking, without breathing, he ran up the steps two at a time.

The police would pick up Arya, eventually. This was more immediate.

“Let go of her,” he growled, pushing Joffrey away. He grabbed hold of Sansa.

She shook in his arms much like the little bird he compared her to, mauled by lions.

Sansa stared and stared at her father, and her breath came in stuttering gasps.

Wild blue finally met Sandor’s eyes. “Did…you…know?” He was chilled by the throaty, hoarse voice that sounded more like a winter ghost’s than a human being’s.

He shook his head. “No,” he said. He unconsciously pulled her tighter, made her look at him, not the disfigured corpse. “I didn’t know, little bird.”

Her eyes bore into his.

She then fell limp in his arms, softly, sleepily, as if she were a child just dozed off.

By now, a crowd was starting to gather. Sandor heard sirens.

And Joffrey was crying, “Help! Help! Someone’s shot Ned Stark!” He ran into the crowd and waved down police cars. In the hubbub, no one noticed the playful twinkle in the eyes of Mayor Baratheon’s son.

 

Baelish was certainly right about how skillfully Cersei played Ned’s death to the papers. She did indeed express horror and outrage about the miserable scum who took the life of her husband’s dearest friend just days after Robert’s own death.

Dearest Sansa, who had become like a daughter to Cersei, would stay with them for the time being. For one thing, the poor lamb was in a state of heavy shock and was confined to bed by doctor’s orders. For another…well, who knows how far this gang of assassins was willing to go? Who knows why they went after Ned, and who was to say they wouldn’t attack Ned’s vulnerable daughter if she was sent off on her own, all the way back to Winterfell, Washington?

It was a good performance, for in reality, Cersei had spat and seethed like a wildcat in the aftermath. “What were you thinking, Joffrey?” She’d screamed at her child in what she’d thought was the privacy of her office, but as always, the faithful Hound lingered nearby.

Sansa was indeed confined to bed. She was indeed in shock. The doctor had given her a sedative. Sandor had had a peek of her prostrate in her bed as Pycelle injected the needle in her arm. The glazed gleam that entered her eyes made her look so much a corpse herself that Sandor had forced himself away. Thus he overheard Cersei berate her son.

Joffrey would have none of it. “You should know, Mother, that I had one of the greatest minds in America on my side in this. This was the only way. We have to take a stand for our family!”

Cersei merely gnarled deep in her throat and charged out of the room. She marched up the steps and, seeing her head for Sansa’s room, Sandor followed quickly behind, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end.

He saw through the partly open door Cersei shake the drugged Sansa. He heard the girl whimper and his heart twisted.

At last Sansa seemed to stir and turned unfocused blue eyes to Cersei.

Cersei leaned near and whispered to her rapidly.

Sandor could see Sansa’s eyes over Cersei’s elegant shoulder.

The fog cleared a little and a horrified understanding made Sansa close her eyes and turn away.

“You agree, little dove?” Sandor heard Cersei ask, straightening.

A pause, then Sansa nodded her head slowly.

Cersei seemed satisfied. She swept out of the room, ignoring Sandor.

Sandor remained standing in the doorway. Sansa was curled in a fetal position, hugging herself.

Almost unaware of what he was doing, Sandor softly entered the room. “Little bird?” His voice was a low rumble.

For a long moment she didn’t answer, and Sandor thought maybe she’d drifted back to sleep. Then her little voice said, “She…she told me not to say anything…to play along as Joffrey’s girlfriend…that Arya was still lost, and if I wanted her to stay safe…if I wanted to live…I’d act like the Lannisters had nothing to do with this….”

A great tremor shook her body. Her hands tightened around her arms.

She looked so small all bunched up outside her blankets. She sounded like a dazed child.

Following some instinct, Sandor sank down on the corner of her bed. He leaned his elbows on his knees and stared at her floor. It felt odd and wrong yet somehow calming to sit in little Sansa Stark’s room. The air smelled faintly of lemon and vanilla, and everything was so lacy and neat – thanks to her maid, of course. He doubted the girl even knew how to make her own bed.

He sighed. “Save yourself some pain, girl. Give them what they want.”

He was surprised the blue eyes she shot at him were so clear. “What does Joffrey want? I can’t tell. He’s a monster. I don’t know what he wants from me.”

Sandor couldn’t help the cruel sarcasm in his next words. “He wants you to be his little lady. He wants you to smile at him, laugh at his jokes, to look pretty and smell nice. He wants you to fear him. He wants you to love him.”

“How can I?” She sounded like retching.

He smiled ruefully. “You can’t. But you can pretend. He’s unpredictable, he’s violent, but he’s not smart. As long as you say and do what he wants….” He shook his head, trailing off. What was he saying? There was nothing she could do that would protect her completely.

But…. “I’ll do what I can to keep you safe, girl.”

Her pale face studied his in the dark gloom around them. The faintest wisp of a smile appeared on her lips. “Thank you…Sandor.”

Her soft hand on his.

Overcome, he stood. “Sleep now. Tomorrow, you put on a nice dress and join the Lannisters for breakfast. You watch every word you say, every move of your face. They’ll all be watching you from here on out, girl.”

 

And so Sandor found his true calling in that house of horrors: watching over the Stark bird.

He’d made his stance clear on her treatment three days after Ned Stark’s death. He entered the sitting room just as Joffrey struck her. The bird whimpered but did not scream. She stumbled, grabbing onto a chair so she wouldn’t fall. Joffrey raised his hand again.

Sandor yanked it back, forcing the boy to face him. He relished the look of infantile fear in those green eyes.

“None of that,” Sandor snarled.

Joffrey huffed, struggling to free his hand. “Stop it, dog! I can do as I like!”

“Aye? Well, go ahead and see how your grandfather takes it when I report to him you’ve been leaving bruises on the girl’s face. How do you think he’d like that after your mother told the press about how much you all care for Sansa Stark?” His eyes narrowed. “Might be the city will start questioning just how innocent you are regarding her father’s death.”

He released Joffrey, who rubbed his smarting wrist. Lightning still flashed dangerously in his eyes, but Sandor could tell he’d taken in what his dog had said.

Sandor brushed past him and helped Sansa upstairs.

He wiped the cut on her lip as she sat staring stonily into her vanity mirror. “I hate him. I hate him.” Her voice was oddly quiet and questioning, as if amazed by the sheer power of her emotion.

“I know, girl. But careful who you say that around. Don’t want something like that falling on the wrong ears.”

She turned to face him and he cursed her imploring eyes. “Yours aren’t the wrong ears.”

Again, her hand on his, that was still holding the handkerchief.

He forced his heart to harden. “You can never be sure of that, little bird. At the end of the day, I’m still the Lannisters’ faithful hound.”

Before she could protest, he left the room.

 

Joffrey made sure never to strike her again. He instead convinced the members of his additional security team to do so on the rare occasion when Sandor was away.

And so Sandor became paranoid about even leaving for a stop at headquarters or at the Lannister offices. Not that Sansa ever complained – quite the opposite. She withdrew into herself increasingly. What once was an open, cheerful young girl had turned into a detached, impassive figure to anyone passing her in the hall, watching her at the dinner table as Joffrey dominated the conversation with how he planned to take over the Lannister business when he turned twenty-one.

Yet Sandor knew, could somehow feel that this was just a steely front, that the little bird still held her wolf close to her heart. She was waiting. Learning.

She listened to Sandor. She sought him out, whether downstairs in the kitchen late at night or when he was washing the car when no one was home, and asked him questions: why did Cersei drink so much, why was Joffrey afraid of his grandfather, why was Tywin so unemotional, why was Jaime so possessive of Cersei?

Sandor would dodge some of these questions but answer others: Cersei drank to survive a disastrous marriage and a monstrous son, Joffrey was afraid of his grandfather because Tywin wasn’t afraid of him or anyone else, and Sandor had no clue why old Tywin was at all the way he was except for greed. As for Jaime Lannister and his sister…well, never mind that, little bird.

Slowly the questions turned more personal. Didn’t Sandor ever get tired working for the Lannisters? Did he miss his own parents? Had he ever been in love? Married?

Sandor mostly shrugged these questions off. ‘Course he got tired of the Lannisters, but there wasn’t much other option to survive in this town. Sandor knew too much to go off on his own; he wouldn’t make it a day before he, too, had an unfortunate car accident. No, he didn’t miss his parents. His father was a weak asshole, and although he’d felt sorry for his mother, she was of too nervous and irritable a disposition to earn much of Sandor’s affection. He simply laughed at her other questions. No and no.

Sansa would rub her arm and looked down. Sandor always thought he spied a slight blush on her pale cheeks after his answers.

Sometimes Sansa found excuses for Sandor to take her out. “I just need to do a little shopping, Mrs. Baratheon. Could Mr. Clegane accompany me? I’d feel safer that way.” Or, “Oh, I don’t want to embarrass Joffrey with one of my older dresses at the dinner party next week. Could I borrow Mr. Clegane to drive me to the boutique?” He tagged along as she picked out materials to create new dresses, which she obsessed over in her misery.

Oftentimes these shopping trips involved stops to eat. Then Sansa’s eyes would spy a theater running a movie across the street, and she’d look so wistful that Sandor would glance at his watch, sigh, and call for the check. Without saying a word, she and Sandor would cross over and sit in the darkened theater, silent, as the movie played.

One night it was some soppy, whimscal musical just released called Irene. Sandor felt so bored he almost fell asleep.

What kept him even vaguely paying attention was Sansa’s face. She was enraptured, transported, and her eyes never left the screen.

She’d never looked so beautiful.

They left the theater to find the evening a dark blue brightened by street lights.

Sandor realized they hadn’t spoken a word to each other since before dinner, but that the silence wasn't awkward or hostile. Just...comfortable.

She was humming a tune from the picture.

Sandor laughed. “Little songbird, aren’t you? You’ve pretty airy-fairy thoughts in your head even now, haven’t you? Christ. Well, come on, let’s hear it? What’s the name of that number?”

Sansa was embarrassed and let down, staring at her shoes. “ ‘Castle of Dreams’,” she mumbled.

“Well, come on! Give us the words.”

She simply shook her head and turned away.

The girl loved music. Sandor accompanied her to record stores, and walked past her bedroom door at night to hear the soft strains of “Castle of Dreams”, “You Made Me Love You”, “Cheek to Cheek” floating from the small phonograph she was allowed to keep. Gertrude Nielsen’s version of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” was Sansa’s especial favorite.

There was something eerie yet enchanting about walking down the darkened hallway as Nielsen’s deep voice drifted out somberly, mysteriously.

“When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes….”

And so the months passed. He sensed the growing desperation within her. Arya was still not found, and Sansa had not spoken to her mother or any of her other siblings since. Surely the Lannisters meant her to go home sometime, didn’t they? What were they waiting for? Once, when she’d narrowly avoided a lamp Joffrey in one of his uncontrollable rages had hurled across the room at no one in particular, Sansa had pounded on Sandor’s door and almost collapsed in his arms.

He could tell right away what the problem was. He’d seen enough traumatized cops and gangsters, burnt out on gunfire and fearing for their lives, to recognize the symptoms of a panic attack.

Still, he felt unequal to the task of comforting her, so he said nothing as she held on for seemingly dear life to his shirt sleeves. She stammered rapidly, “What do they want? Why am I here? They have to let me go. They have to. They have to. Why, why don’t they?”

“Calm down, girl. They’ll hear you.”

Eventually she relaxed. He couldn't see her face as she bowed her head, trying to catch her breath. Finally she recovered enough to return to her room, after apologizing in a soft voice for disturbing him in his privacy. Sandor stared at the vacant doorway for several minutes after she left.

She comes to me. Why, why does she always come to me?

He knew why she was still here. Catelyn Stark still refused to relinquish the papers Ned had sent her.

In fact, Sansa’s mother had apparently tried playing this little game of espionage herself. She’d called Tywin, stating that if her girls were not returned to her safe, Cat would take the papers to Stannis. If the girls were returned, then she would destroy the papers and all would be forgotten.

Sandor pitied the woman when he saw a serene darkness enter the old lion’s face during the call. The Hound knew what that meant.

But he hadn’t expected a slaughter. He hadn’t expected Sansa’s last hope to be ripped so violently from her.

It was Cersei who told him. She was half drunk and half stoned on something when she called him down to her private office.

She never once made eye contact with him, but not because of fear like other people. The eldest Lannister progeny was merely too preoccupied staring into her drink, and he meant so little to her.

When she spoke, there was no triumph in her voice. Only exhaustion. Loathing. “I’ve called you down here, Clegane, because I’m told you’re nice to her.”

Sandor didn’t bother asking who she meant. That would have insulted both their intelligence.

“Therefore I’m giving you a hell of a job.” A self-mocking smile made her beautiful face both pitiful and horrible. “Tell her that her darling mother and oldest brother are dead. Home invasion. The police haven’t caught the assailants. Her two younger brothers are missing. The house is mostly burned down.”

She took a sip from her martini. “Then let her cry, scream, kick, throw things, and if you can, try to keep her from throwing herself out the window. Then tell her in the morning, the game continues. The placid ladylike face goes back on.”

She lit a cigarette. “Thank you, Clegane.”

 

There was no screaming when he visited her bedroom and told her. No crying, either. There was a low keen from deep in her throat and then she clutched at her heart. Sandor almost hysterically thought for a moment that her heart was failing her, but her shoulders merely slumped and she fell silent, her head hanging down limply.

And rage and loathing he hadn’t known since Gregor burned his face filled Sandor.

They’d broken her. She might well go mad.

He felt helpless, like he were watching his favorite pet canary ripped apart, feather by feather.

But then she spoke in a startlingly calm voice. “What will happen next?”

“I don’t know, little bird. I don’t know.”

“They’re never letting me go, are they?”

“You will get out of here, bird. I promise you that.” He pat her shoulder clumsily, frustrated by his inability to comfort further. “Just hang in there, girl. Hang in there.”

Her eyes swam to his and seemed to find a strength there. She suddenly jumped up and hugged him fiercely. Almost immediately she then ran to her bathroom, closing the door behind her.

Shaken, Sandor left the room. He descended the steps to see Tywin’s limousine pull up in the driveway.

 

Tywin brushed past him and the other security guards. Sandor was surprised Gregor was not with him.

Tywin strode into the drawing room, where his daughter and son waited.

Sandor took his usual position, right outside the door.

If he pushed himself full against the closed door he could just hear….

“I’m sorry, father, but I think that’s ridiculous,” Cersei was saying. She sounded almost scandalized. “The girl's not yet sixteen! Joffrey is eighteen! Marriage? Really.”

“Can’t we give the girl a break?” Jaime asked.

Tywin refused. “The time for sympathy is long past. Catelyn Stark assured that with her thickheaded refusal to release the papers to us. Luckily I sent Clegane to Germany with them, so we won’t have to worry about those copies falling into the wrong hands, at least. Still, the best way we can avoid the public’s scrutiny is showing that Sansa Stark is so sure of our innocence she’s willing to marry into our family.”

“It seems so extreme” –

“It was an extreme risk Ned and then Catelyn Stark took, Cersei. The sins of the parents must be visited upon the child in consequence. Sansa Stark will be Sansa Baratheon by the time the year is over and she's sixteen.”

“Joff will destroy her.”

“Hopefully by then the public will have moved onto something else and Joffrey can do as he likes – though I do recommend reigning him in a little just on general principles. If he is to inherit the business, that is.”

Sandor stopped listening. The blood pumped in his ears and his vision blurred.

He felt on fire again.

Sansa Baratheon. Mrs. Joffrey Baratheon.

A strong wave of nausea almost brought him to his knees.

Just a half hour before he’d assured Sansa she’d escape someday. That he’d keep her safe.

Sansa Baratheon.

No.

No.

Sandor called Meryn over to replace him. “I need to see to something,” he rasped. He rushed out of the house with an empty suitcase.

 

There were only two people outside the Lannister family who knew the combination to Tywin Lannister’s safe: Sandor and his brother, who was now in Germany. Sandor was the one who delivered most of the money and documents there. So no one at the office that night, the janitors cleaning up after closing or the security passing through, paid him much mind.

He extracted every paper link to Germany, to local crime affiliates stowed away in the safe. He took out money that was unaccounted for. He unlocked Tywin’s desk and removed the phone recordings.

He secured them in his now heavy suitcase.

He attached a hastily written note of explanation and sent both note and the box by special delivery to Stannis Baratheon at his offices in the FBI.

 

Sandor felt almost like an old man when he made it back to the Baratheon house. It was close to two o’clock in the morning.

He had no time for sleep, however.

Once Tywin Lannister saw the open safe he’d know.

Sandor grabbed another suitcase in his room and started packing with methodical weariness. He was drained.

He recognized her footsteps as they approached the slightly opened doorway. “Sandor?”

There was alarm in her voice.

He turned to her. She stood in her light blue night dress. She stared at him questioningly. "I...I had a strange feeling...." She took in the suitcase. She took in his bleak expression.

Her knees shook. “What…what are you doing?” She tried to keep her voice steady.

Quietly he said, “I’m leaving, little bird.”

Her eyes widened in horror. She shook her head violently. “No. No.”

He sensed she was on the verge of hysterics so he hurried to her, shaking her. “Shh."

She just continued shaking her head. “Why? Why are you leaving me?”

He tensed at the me. “I’m a dead man here, little bird, or soon will be.”

“What do you mean?” Her question came out in a terrified whisper.

He stared at her, this young doll of a girl who’d somehow come to actually mean something to him. He lightly touched one of her loose auburn tendrils. “I told you I’d keep you safe, little bird. I told you you’d get out. Well, I’m a man of my word. I’ve sent every piece of evidence I could find about these scumbag bastards and sent it all to Robert’s brother, Stannis.”

“The one in the FBI?”

“Yes.”

Sansa’s eyes raced across his room and her lips moved silently. Sandor could tell she was quickly trying to work out something in her mind.

She grasped his arm. “Take me with you.”

He hadn’t expected this. “Little bird”—

“You’re the only one I feel safe with. Please, please take me with you.”

He twisted his cheek, his eyes sad. “I can’t do that, little bird.”

Her eyes were hard gems. “Why not?”

“You don’t know what you’re saying, for one thing. You just found out your mother and brother are dead. That the house you grew up in is basically gone. You’re not thinking straight.”

“Don’t you talk down to me!” She was fiery Scarlett O’Hara again. “I know what I’m about, Sandor Clegane. For the first time in ages, I know what I want.”

But her voice quivered on the last word.

Sandor shook his head. “It’s too dangerous right now. Stannis should be here in a few days, and he’ll take care of you. But once the Lannisters figure out I was the one who leaked the information, they’ll send goons out to take care of me. I can’t bring you along with a risk like that, Sansa."

Tears filled her eyes as he used her given name for the first time.

Unable to bear the look of pain there, Sandor turned around and continued packing.

“I love you.”

He froze, unbreathing.

Stillness except for the ticking of his bedside clock.

She hadn’t said that. She hadn’t said that.

She repeated herself. “I love you.”

His eyes closed. Delusional. She was delusional. Or else she was trying to get something out of him, like everyone else.

No, she wasn’t. Not her.

At last he regained a sense of composure. He snickered over his shoulder, “Aye? And what kind of love would that be, little bird? The love a little girl has for her big dumb dog?” He clicked shut his suitcase with more force than necessary.

She gently took his shoulder and turned him around to face her. “Look at me.”

He felt a painful thud in his chest to hear the words he once spoke to her come back to haunt him.

Her face was as simple and honest as when she told him he was worth more than his brother. Very clearly she said, “I love you as a man. I love you for your kindness, your strength, and your compassion. I love you, Sandor Clegane.”

Her eyes never left his face.

Breathing remained a struggle.

Oh, god. She can’t mean it, she can’t. I’m a burnt up mutt, and she...she’s better than anything else in this world. And still a child.

He winced away from her, grabbing his case. “You’re daft.”

“Maybe. Maybe. I don’t care. I love you, that’s all I know. And I want to be with you. Sandor” – She grabbed his arm frantically as he made for the door. “Take me with you. Please, please let us be together.”

He shuddered at the new note of maturity in her voice.

Yet when he stared into her face it struck him again how young she was.

She wasn't quite sixteen. He was thirty-two. She was half his age.

Poor, confused little bird.

He knew what his last act of kindness must be. He must break her heart.

“Don’t be stupid, girl,” he rasped, jerking his elbow out of her grasp. “I’m not about to slow myself down for a wee chit like you. Get your damn head out of the clouds for once. I thought you’d at least learned not to believe all the silly romantic bullshit you used to eat up.”

The dreamy look on her face only intensified. “I know you’re only saying this so I won’t insist on going. But Sandor, if you just trust me”—

He was truly frustrated now. “I’m saying this because you’re a damn kid and I’d be worse than scum to take you with me. Now get that through your head.”

The ludicrousness of the situation, the years of stress, fear, and violence suddenly overtook him. His hands squeezed her upper arms and he almost relished the squeak of pain she made.

“Think I’m a nice man, little bird? That I’m your knight in shining fucking armor? Fuck that. I am what I am.” He shook her hard, hoping the message would come across now.

He saw the tears roll down her cheeks.

He released her.

Fucking hell, dog.

He sniffed in a weak show of disdain and picked up his case again. “Goodbye, little bird.” His voice almost broke.

He took one last look at her and laughed. “Hey, I never got a song from you. ‘Castle of Dreams’, remember?” He shrugged. “Oh, well. Take care of yourself, girl.” He turned to the door.

His hand was on the knob when she started singing.

It wasn’t “Castle of Dreams”, however.

“They asked me how I knew
My true love was true.
I of course replied,
‘Something here inside
Cannot be denied.’

“They said someday you’ll find
All who love are blind.
When your heart’s on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes.

“So I chaffed and I gaily laughed
To think they could doubt my love.
Yet today, my love has flown away.
I am without my love.

“Now, laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide.
So I smile and say,
‘When a lovely flame dies,
Smoke gets in your eyes….”

Her voice was not as low and sultry as Gertrude Nielsen’s. It was high, sweet, innocent, with a reedy note of deep melancholy.

When she cupped his burnt cheek, he was not surprised she felt tears.

Her eyes were so close to his. He was drowning in an unfathomable bright sea.

“Little bird,” was all he could say.

He ripped off his cop’s uniform jacket and let it fall to the floor.

He left without another word or backward glance.

 

Sandor had made sure to drain his bank account before leaving. He was glad he’d had enough foresight over the years to forge various identities. He relied on roadside motels and rented cars, then finally busses, to get him across Illinois into Indiana.

He avoided newspapers. He wanted to forget everything.

Yet he still saw thick auburn waves of hair framing deep blue, bright blue, endless blue.

He’d just finished a cup of coffee and a dry piece of toast at a diner when he noticed a skinny young boy out in front, trying to hitch-hike. He wore a pageboy cap and a baggy trenchcoat.

Sandor got a glimpse of the face and felt a jolt. He ran out the door.

“Girl!” He called, racing toward Arya Stark.

The sudden fright and alarm in her eyes reminded him painfully of her sister.

This painful throb increased his pace, so that this time he caught her before she disappeared down the road. “Let me go, Hound!” She yelled fiercely, trying to kick at him.

He twisted her around so that her head was firmly in his elbow, until she gave up and no longer moved. “Listen, you little brat,” he huffed. “I’m not here to hurt you, to send you back to the Lannisters. I’m done with that lot.”

“You are?” She asked doubtfully. She’d become such a bony thing on the run.

“Yes. Now, where are you going?”

“I’m not telling you!”

“Let me guess, you think you can hitch a ride down South to the FBI, don’t you? Tell Stannis Baratheon everything? Well, don’t bother. That’s already happened.”

Her gray eyes shot up to his. “Really?”

“Yes. He should be there to help your sister soon.”

Arya was still and silent.

“Now. Where are you going?”

A few cars rolled by but took no notice of the little boy in the large, burnt man’s stranglehold. Such was the emotionally stunting effect of the Depression on rural America.

“I don’t know,” she said at last.

Sandor sighed, closing his eyes. He still had that damn song of her sister’s in his ears. He couldn’t just leave this little wolf bitch be.

He rummaged for his wallet. $700 was all he had left in the world.

“Here.” He shoved the money in her hands after freeing her from his grip. “I heard a bus driver talking about a girl’s school a couple miles up the road. Go there. Once you hear the Lannisters are in prison, get in touch with Stannis Baratheon. He’ll get you to your sister.”

Arya stared dumbfounded at the money. She regarded him with frank curiosity. “Why are you doing all this for me?”

He laughed roughly, shaking his head. “I have no fucking clue.” He checked his watch. He’d have to hitch-hike now. “So long, Arya Stark.”

 

He hitched a ride to New York with a trucker who sang blues songs nonstop. By the time they reached the big city, Sandor’s head ached and he hated everything in sight.

He slept in bars and restaurants, washing dishes for room and board. Then came December 7th, ’41.

With nothing else to lose, he enlisted a couple months later. His physique and skill sent him overseas almost immediately.

He was put in charge of a platoon. He performed secret missions. He brought down more than one Nazi commandant. He did indeed receive a shinbone full of lead that still made him limp on occasion. He was sent home.

All this he would think back on in the same stunted sentences, with the same unemotional lack of detail.

For the war, the death, the blood – it was all a terrifying, benumbing whirlwind. He’d seen men dismembered by bombs, his own men. He’d seen dead children lying alone by the side of the road. Yet he couldn’t truly feel it all, make sense of it all.

He was sent back to New York. He was paid compensation leave and found himself a small dilapidated apartment. He received word there that his brother had been arrested and executed as a traitor abroad.

He drank. And drank. He fought with his landlord and was kicked out. He drank some more.

He battled at night on park benches with the sound of gunfire and German shouted from across enemy lines, and auburn hair and blue eyes and

“So I smile and say….”

He started a bar fight. It took five men to push him out into the street. More drinking.

“When a lovely flame dies….”

At some point one night in ‘43, he passed out after beating up a mugger in the park.

“Smoke gets in your eyes….”

He woke up crying in a pool of his own vomit, whimpering ‘little bird’ into the cool night air.

He saw a black pair of shoes enter his line of sight on the cold ground. He passed out again.

 

His hangover was so fierce he couldn’t take in his surroundings at first. Then through his slanted vision, he had it: bars. He was on a hard cot in a jail cell.

Drunk tank.

He chuckled. Top Chicago cop and war hero Sandor Clegane reduced to the drunk tank. Fucking perfect.

He heard a whistle of amazement. He glowered at the officer leaning his elbows against the bars.

He had a humorous face with bags under his green eyes, and a mop of curly black hair liberally streaked with gray. “Welcome to the land of the living, son.”

“Go to hell,” Sandor mumbled into his knees.

“Some say those of us in the big city are already there.”

Sandor simply closed his eyes without replying.

The man spoke again, and Sandor thought he heard a whiff of Scotland in his voice. There wasn’t even a faint touch of homesickness in Sandor at the recognition. “I’m Chief Ray. I’m in charge of this precinct. And I’ve heard of you, Sandor Clegane.”

“Mmph.”

“The Hound. Former cop.”

“Mmph.”

“War hero.”

“Mmph.”

“Strength of three men.”

“Mmph.”

“Drunken layabout.”

“…Mmph.”

Ray laughed, and Sandor was surprised he didn’t mind the sound.

He heard a lock turn and then the bars swung open. Smiling wryly, Ray gestured to the table outside. “Come on, I got bacon and eggs delivered from the café down the street. Hot coffee, too.”

Despite his black mood, Sandor was moved by this picture.

As they ate, they talked. Or, rather, Ray talked and Sandor grunted. However, little by little, oddly soothed by the man’s laid back nature, Sandor revealed bits and pieces. His corrupt past. His life with the Lannisters.

The little bird he never named.

He looked down in horror as a tear fell from his cheek onto his eggs.

He covered his face in his hands.

Ray said nothing and let Sandor weep. Occasionally Sandor heard him sip his coffee, but nothing more.

When Sandor’s tears were spent, Ray spoke again. “Want a job?”

Sandor raised his good eyebrow at him. Ray returned the look.

 

Under Ray’s guidance, Sandor sobered up a bit. He took more part in life. He even came to like his various partners.

He rose with lightning speed through the ranks. With Ray’s help, he passed his detective examination and soon broke records with the cases he’d solved.

He’d never known Sansa was in New York until he saw her murder in the headlines.

The paper had slid from his hands. Everything was sick and colorless. Ray entered the officer’s lounge and announced they were taking over the investigation.

“Let me get this one, chief,” Sandor heard himself say.

Ray blinked. “Any special reason?”

“I just have a feeling.”

Ray knew enough of Sandor to understand he meant it. So he nodded.

Rationally, Sandor knew he shouldn’t have taken the case. No one who knew and cared for the victim should ever take over that victim’s case. Yet he could trust no one else with solving her murder.

The little bird.

He’d failed her after all.

 

After his dinner with Baelish, Sandor found himself walking the pavement until he reached her apartment again. He dismissed the officer in front of her door.

He walked up the steps, where she’d once walked many times. He opened the door and let himself in as she did, for years.

Yes, he could smell lemon and vanilla in the spacious apartment.

He traced his finger over her couch. He inspected her portrait. His eyes stung.

He hadn’t brought himself to even so much as glance at the crime scene photos. He…he couldn’t see her like that. He depended instead on the written reports.

He flipped through his notepad to study the inventory.

Her diary was in the credenza.

He unlocked the drawer and found the small black leather-bound book.

Feeling like the lowest, most unworthy scum imaginable, he opened it. He knew it was his job, but...it was invasive, because it was her.

His head and heart were too full to at first take everything in. Only sparse passages jumped out at him.

“…Petyr took me dancing tonight. The ballroom was hot and reeked of tobacco. Still, the food was all right. If you can get that, it’s hardly a wasted evening.”

…Mr. Waxley got back to me with the proofs, and so far, so good…Grabbed lunch with Randa. Boy trouble, as usual. She shrugs it off like an out of season fur coat. ‘What a woman’, Clark Gable might say.

What a pair of pipes Harry has. He entertained everybody at Willas’s birthday party, banging away at the piano. Wish his eyes wouldn’t rove over every girl in sight, though.

He stopped at an entry late on November 18th, 1946. The night before her twenty-second birthday that Baelish had mentioned.

It was a relatively short entry, but it made Sandor’s breath stop.

They played ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ at the restaurant tonight. I about fell apart. Hokier and more cheerful than the classic recording, but still the song will always have this strange power over me. I could almost feel him in the room with me, sitting beside me. Feel his hand in my hair again. Hear him say ‘little bird’ right in my ear. God, I haven’t changed a bit over the years, have I? Still stuck in 'airy-fairy land', as he'd say. I almost told Petyr about him, but saw that proprietary gleam in his eyes and thought it best not to.

“I wonder what became of him. Where did he go? Is he safe? Is he even alive? He has to be. I know I sound sixteen again, but dammit, I just know I’d feel it if he died.

“I wish I knew for sure. I could sleep better, I could maybe move on with my life.

“I think I’ll play the record tonight.”

Sandor shut her book gently. He rose from his chair and flipped through her records underneath her stereo. He couldn’t find it.

Yet there: a box behind the rest, almost hidden in the back.

Sandor pulled it out.

There it was: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by Gertrude Nielsen. The same weathered copy.

Underneath was a dark jacket: Sandor pulled it out.

His policeman’s jacket.

He swallowed a groan.

Little bird little bird

She wrote that she’d feel it if he died. Why, then, hadn’t he felt it when she had? Why could he not feel it even now, in her empty apartment? Was it just because his heart could not cope?

He’d snitched on the Lannisters to protect her. He'd left to protect her. And she had died. Everything was for nothing.

His eyes scanned the room again.

She’d apparently at least achieved some semblance of a fairytale life, before her death. That frightened, traumatized little girl had grown into an elegant, sleek, witty young woman with the world at her fingertips. Pride warred with tragedy in his chest.

He remembered the mesmerized voice of Petyr describing her beauty, her charm. He remembered the sincere mourning in Myranda Royce’s eyes.

She’d been beloved.

By her fiancé?

Sandor growled to himself at the thought of Harrold Hardyng.

He wondered why. Why should Harrold Hardyng of all people in this case annoy and sicken Sandor so overwhelmingly? He was hiding something, sure, but Sandor’s hatred ran deeper than that.

Because he was engaged to her. Because even if she still carried a torch for you, it was he she decided to marry.

And who had stopped her? Who?

She’d survived so much, only to die here, when she’d taken control of her life.

His little bird had become a phoenix in the Chicago flames, and emerged in New York as a bright and powerful raptor. He’d catch whoever shot her down mid-flight if it was the last thing he did.

He slowly removed the record from its sleeve.

As Nielsen’s husky voice filled the room, Sandor sat in her armchair and gazed at her portrait.

She gazed back, lively, animated, beautiful, and quite dead.

Chapter Text

Sandor was in her apartment again the next morning, dialing her telephone.

He’d made a discovery the night before.

He had absently examined her liquor cabinet. Among the bottles of claret and fine wines was an addition as glaring as a paper plate mixed in with fine china.

He waited until morning to call, after doing some research. “Dornish Red?” He asked. An erudite-sounding man replied in the affirmative.

“I understand Sansa Stark had been ordering her liquor from you for several years, is that correct?”

“Why, yes. What can we help you with, lieutenant?”

Sandor held up a large bottle with a crude drawing on the label of a serpent-like dragon wrapped around a naked blonde, just covering up the private parts. “Did she ever order a brand of Scotch called ‘Black Dragon’?”

He’d expected to wait while the voice on the other end checked, but instead was told right away, “Oh, goodness, no. We don’t carry that brand at all. I’ve never even heard of it.”

“You sure?”

“Oh, yes. Besides, I happen to know Miss Stark disliked Scotch intensely. Often even our wines were too strong for her.”

Of course, Sandor thought. Lemon cakes, mimosas, fresh raspberries…those were the things the little bird liked. Sweet, with just a hint of sour. Scotch? Hell, no.

He heard the door open. “Thanks for your help,” he mumbled into the receiver and hung up. He studied the bottle for a moment more before one of his officers approached him.

“She’s here, Clegane. The maid.” He smirked. “And her little companion.”

Sandor frowned, but nodded to let them in.

A pretty woman with dark hair and flashing eyes walked in with sharp, resolute steps. Behind her was a man Clegane hadn’t seen in years: Tyrion Lannister, all four feet and two inches of him. He’d grown a beard since Sandor had last seen him, and he looked perhaps even more world weary, but he still had his trademark expression of bemused wryness about his bearded face.

Huh. I invited them both over, but didn’t expect them to arrive at the same time.

Tyrion smiled and tipped his hat. “Well, Clegane! Long time, you bounder. I see you've still got that rotten mug, but then again, I still have mine, too.”

“Lannister,” Sandor grumbled. He looked up to the woman with him. “Come in, Miss” –

“Never mind the ‘miss’,” She snapped in a thick accent. Turkish, Sandor remembered from his notes. “My name is Shae. I’m a domestic, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

She took off her gloves with head held high, and Sandor thought she looked pretty well dressed for a maid.

“Fine. Sit down, both of you,” he said.

Shae’s eyes fell on the desk and they widened in indignant horror. She touched the papers there. “Her letters! And her private diary!” She picked it up and snapped it shut. Her dark eyes glared daggers into Sandor. “Look at him, Tyrion!” Sandor raised his eyebrow at that. ‘Tyrion,’ not Mr. Lannister. Interesting. “Pawing over her private correspondence. Her diary, for God’s sake! It’s a shame in the face of the dead, that’s what it is, it’s a shame!”

“Hounds aren’t capable of shame, my dear,” Tyrion chuckled, seating himself and looking around for what Sandor guessed was booze.

“Sit down, Shae,” Sandor repeated in an even voice.

“I’ll stand on my own two feet, thank you. I’m not afraid of you, or of any cop. I learned to spit at them from an early age.” She busied herself stacking Sansa’s letters, her movements quick and full of anger.

Sandor shrugged. “Go ahead and spit if it makes you feel better.”

She barked a dismissive laugh. “What will make me feel better is knowing why you brought me here. What do you want to know?” She eyed him cagily.

“What do you think, woman? Same as everyone: who killed Sansa Stark.”

Another harsh laugh. “And how should I know?”

Sandor gave her one long look.

“You don’t think I did it? Or Tyrion?” She was incredulous. “You cops and your idiotic notions. Ask anyone. Anyone who’s ever been here. They’ll tell you. I loved that girl. I would have killed for her.” Her cheeks were aflame, her eyes moist.

Sandor’d once overheard Robert Baratheon telling one of his advisors that the Starks had a way of inspiring devotion in people. Well, Sansa certainly possessed that power. She had suitors fawning all over her, friends adoring her, even a maid was willing to kill for her.

And you, too, Hound -- you who were only supposed to look after the Lannisters and Baratheons. Not some pretty little bird.

Sandor studied Shae closely. “That’s a lot of dedication for a maid. What gives?”

“Settle in, Clegane,” Tyrion sighed, eyes rolling to the ceiling. “‘Tis a long tale.”

Ignoring him, Shae answered. “You want to know about me? Well, I’ll tell you. I left my country a whore, and I came to this country a whore. I walked the streets at night, welcoming soldiers back home. I feel no shame. I had no other choice. Well, one night a creep who I knew had no money started harassing me and threatening me, so I gave him a black eye. Well, I was the one who ended up in night court for public disturbance, bodily injury, and suspected vagrancy.” Her voice softened. “But someone posted my bail. A young woman who’d been observing in back came up to me, prim and proper as can be. She told me she did it. More than that, she offered me a job on the spot. She said she liked my ‘moxy’, and that she admired someone who stood up to bullies. She asked if I wanted to be a maid at her apartment on Madison Avenue. After sleeping in dank, run down hotels and whorehouses, this sounded like heaven.” Her eyes softened. “And it was. This lady, of course, was Sansa. She’d tagged along that night with that insipid friend of hers, Petyr Baelish, who was writing a ridiculous column on local crime. Huh, what would he in his fine suit and swanky digs know about local crime?”

“And you’ve worked for her ever since?”

“Yes. And at times I forgot I was a domestic. She treated me as a friend – dammit, she was my friend. We stayed up all hours sometimes, giggling like schoolgirls together over wine and lemon cakes – her favorite. She’d always leave me little presents, sew me dresses and scarves. She gave me ample time off. She gave me everything.” Her soft gaze wandered to Tyrion. “Everything.”

Tyrion returned her tender look and Sandor was officially intrigued.

“Okay, spill it, you two. Tyrion, I know you must have hated Sansa Stark. She indirectly lost you your job.”

Tyrion sat up, his own eyes on fire now. “Littlefinger. Littlefinger lost me my job. Sansa had nothing to do with it. That slimy snake Baelish fabricated my great romantic intentions inside his twisted, reptilian brain. I was never in love with her. Oh, I’m a red-blooded man, so sure, I wanted a roll in the hay with her. Ow!” He cringed as Shae swung her heavy purse at his arm. He looked up at her fondly. “But it was Shae I fell in love with.”

Ah. The little bird was a matchmaker, too, eh?

A twist of pain, imagining how happy she must have been setting the two up.

Tyrion continued. “In fact, I felt nothing but gratitude and affection for Sansa. Not only did I meet Shae through her, but she’s the only reason I make a living at all anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

Bitterness and melancholy dripped from Tyrion’s next words. “As you well know, after Baelish’s venomous little article about yours truly, I became persona non grata in the upper echelon of the art world. No one would hire me. Except one person: Sansa. She hired me on the sly to create artwork for backdrops, print ads. That sort of thing. Is such work my heart’s desire? No. Because of my soiled reputation, I’ve had to keep my name off my work, become anonymous. But has it kept me off the streets? Kept me comfortable? You bet it has.”

He gazed again lovingly at Shae. “And Sansa was also a shrewd woman. She observed the two of us during our sittings together when I painted her. She knew. After she hired me at the magazine, she’d invite me over to look at my art for this issue or that issue. She’d call Shae over to get her opinion. Shae would nitpick and drive me crazy, and while we squabbled, Sansa would suddenly make herself scarce. Brew us tea in the kitchen or something. And so….” He took Shae’s hand. “We happened. As you see, Hound, I had no earthly reason to desire Sansa Stark’s death. But plenty reason to want to see the actual asshole caught and tried.”

Sandor examined the two of them. They certainly seemed genuinely invested in the other.

“And what about your family, Lannister? It was Sansa’s testimony that helped put them away. Your father died of a heart attack brought on by the scandal. Your brother and sister killed themselves behind bars. Your nephew was beaten to death by his cell mate. They’re all dead, except for Tommen and Myrcella." Stannis Baratheon had taken them in at his young daughter's urging. "You're telling me losing practically your whole family doesn’t rankle with you?”

Tyrion merely laughed. “Oh, come, come! You know I had no love for my family – except Jaime, that one did hurt. But the rest? Bah. All I felt was a regret for the relationships I never had with them. I grieved in my own way, I suppose. But to the point of planning some elaborate revenge? They weren't worth the effort. Moreover, Sansa was just a child then, an abused child! I hold nothing against her. I’m just glad she didn’t hold my family’s crimes against me."

So Tyrion had no problem with Sansa, and neither did Shae. Both loved her.

But the maid…her eyes kept darting toward the bottle in Sandor’s hands, which she only now noticed. Nervously.

Bingo.

Casually, he asked, “Say, since you were such a devoted maid, Shae, maybe you could tell me how this bottle ended up in Miss Stark’s liquor cabinet?”

She swallowed but then lifted her head again, back straight. “Yes. I put it there.”

He raised an eyebrow, his look ambiguous. “But Miss Stark never bought Scotch or any cheap shit like this. Not a lady like her.” His voice held a new gravelly undertone that caught Tyrion’s attention. He disliked the probing glance the Hound gave Shae.

Shae fidgeted, then ceded, “No.”

“What’s this all about?” Tyrion asked.

Sandor ignored him. “When did you put it in the cabinet?”

Shae would not meet his eyes or Tyrion’s. “Saturday.”

Sandor was unsatisfied with her one word answers, but he knew patience was key now. “You mean, before the police came. Aye, I see it now. Was it there Friday night before you left?”

Again she was monosyllabic. “No.”

There was a hard, adamant edge to Sandor’s tone now. “Are you sure about that, woman?”

Her shoulders slumped. “I cleaned out the cabinet on Friday. I put the empties in the basement. No, it wasn’t there.”

Sandor placed the bottle back on the desk and then perched on the edge, his arms crossed as he stared bullets into the resigned but still rigidly determined woman before him. “Then someone was here in the apartment Friday night – someone who brought the bottle with them.”

She closed her eyes and when she spoke, it was as if he had tortured it out of her. “…Yes.”

Tyrion was about to interject with another question, but Sandor was too quick. “Who?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Sandor raised his voice. “But if you knew someone was here, why didn’t you tell”—

“Because I didn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea about her,” the words spilled quickly out of her now. “God rest that dear child’s soul. That’s why I….” She stammered, which Sandor took to be uncharacteristic of the self-assured lady. Her voice shaking, she finished, “That’s why I took it out of her bedroom and put it in the liquor cabinet before the police noticed.”

“Shae!” Tyrion stood up swiftly and crossed over to her, his face pale with anxiety. “Shae, don’t say anymore. Not until we get a lawyer.”

Yet Shae was righteous now. There were flames of pride in her eyes as she said, “And that wasn’t all I did, police dog. I also cleaned the glasses and bottle, too.”

Shae,” Tyrion said miserably. “Don't go on!”

Very coolly, Sandor asked, “Do you know what happens to people who destroy evidence?”

Tyrion snapped back, “Do you know what happens when a high-priced lawyer rips you to shreds for your tactics in court, Clegane?”

But Shae was uncaring either way. “I don’t give a shit what happens to me, I’m sure I’ve faced worse before. What I care about is that the newspapers don’t drag her name through the mud. For that reason alone you should forget what I’ve said.”

When Sandor did not reply but only unwrapped a stick of gum with seeming indifference, she snapped at him. “Go ahead! Try if you dare! No one will believe you! I’ll tell them you lied, that you forced me to” –

“Yes, we’ll both testify that you coerced her into admitting to obstructing justice” –

“Shut up, both of you,” Sandor said lazily, popping the gum in his mouth.

The doorbell buzzed.

Sandor turned back to Shae. “You’re still technically on the clock, aren’t you? How about grabbing me some ice and a setup? Four highball glasses.”

Tyrion scoffed. “You can’t be serious?”

But Sandor was already leaving the room to answer the door.

Shae exchanged a glance with her lover and shrugged. At least he doesn’t seem inclined to arrest me for now, her look said as she disappeared into the kitchen. Tyrion sighed and rolled his eyes again.

“Good timing. Everyone’s arrived at once,” Sandor observed as he opened the door. There stood Baelish, grinning blandly as he leaned on his walking stick, Harrold looking as charmingly uncomfortable as always, and a little too near him was Myranda, in a chic leopard print outfit.

“Ah!” Petyr smiled, stepping into the room. His eyes squinted malevolently at the stony-faced Tyrion. “I thought there was a whiff of the bordello in the air. That is, if you can afford that sort of luxury anymore, Tyrion.” An ironic incline of the head.

Tyrion’s smile was congenial, but his eyes were also poison. “Hullo, Littlefinger. Ruin any careers lately out of petty sexual insecurity?”

Petyr’s light laugh was forced. “Glad to see unemployment and increased drunken debauchery haven’t dulled your wit, Lannister.”

Tyrion shot Sandor a glance. In that glance he pleaded with Sandor not to tell Petyr that Tyrion was employed at the magazine. Littlefinger would take that away, too.

Sandor gave a subtle nod. Tyrion visibly relaxed.

“All right, all right. Everybody sit down.”

Only Myranda acquiesced. Petyr seemed to enjoy looming behind them all, and Harrold stood fidgeting with his hat again, shifting his weight from one foot to another.

Shae emerged with a tray of glasses. “Anyone for a drink?” Sandor asked.

“Sounds fine,” Myranda replied. She turned to Harrold, “Harry, would you like one?”

Asks that like the dutiful wife. Woman couldn’t be more obvious if she tried. Sandor suppressed his bitter laugh.

“Sure thing,” Harrold replied.

Shae placed the tray on the table.

“Why, Shae!” Myranda was surprised. “What are you doing here working?”

Shae glared at Sandor as she answered. “Someone reminded me I’m still on the payroll for the week.” She marched back into the kitchen.

Sandor turned next to Tyrion. “Want a drink?”

“Tsk, tsk, Clegane. You seem to have forgotten what sort of man I am. Has anyone ever needed to ask if I wanted to drink?”

Smirking, Sandor then addressed Petyr. “How about you, Baelish?”

Placing his hat and stick on a nearby chair, Petyr said, “I see no reason to exclude myself from this little bacchanal.”

Sandor showed him the bottle of Black Dragon Scotch. “This do?”

Petyr glanced mockingly at the label and with a slight look of distaste said, “I suppose it will have to.”

“Miss Royce?”

She was fixing the netting on her hat and said indifferently, “Sure, I’ll try anything once.”

Sandor walked slowly up to Harrold, holding the bottle so that the light picked up the cheap yellow in the girl’s hair on the label. “How about you, Hardyng? Cheap but potent.”

And there it was, if only for a moment: a pale countenance full of dread, eyes wild. Harrold recovered himself quickly but still backed away as if the bottle had indeed transformed into a fire-spewing monster. “Actually, I think I’ll decline. I’m not much of a daytime drinker.” His laugh was shaky, his smile nowhere close to meeting the fearful eyes locked warily on the naked girl in the dragon’s clutches.

Sandor said nothing.

Shae handed him a glass. “That’ll be all, Shae. You and Lannister can get out of here.”

She gave him a sharp look of surprise. “But” –

His half smile was oddly comforting. "You're free to go."

Relief flooded her. “Yes. Come on, Tyrion.”

"But my drink!"

"Come on."

She turned quickly, and Tyrion raced after her. At the door, he turned around.

He looked at Sandor with a wondering mix of gratitude and consternation. He’s changed. The Hound is human after all.

Very genuinely, he said, “Thank you, Clegane. Thank you.”

Sandor merely shot him a wry grin.

Over his shoulder, Tyrion called out, “Farewell, Littlefinger. Don’t choke on the Scotch, or fall down the steps on your way out.”

He was gone.

Petyr had not heard Tyrion’s parting dig, as he was immersed studying the glasses Shae had laid out. “I remember when Sansa bought these. She loved them. She loved all her things so.”

“What are you going to do with them, Petyr?” Myranda asked. “Go through them with Arya and the boys?”

Petyr sniffed. “Sansa named me administrator of her estate, so frankly, I don’t have to go through her things with anyone. The decisions are mine.”

Sandor’s shoulders hunched to think of Littlefinger in charge of her things – which she loved and fought for with her own talent, her own earnings.

Myranda, too, was uncomfortable. “You’re not even going to ask Willas for help? You know how Sansa valued his opinion.”

“Willas Tyrell? The art dealer?” Sandor asked, vaguely remembering his name from her diary and letters.

“Yes, he was a friend of Sansa’s.” Myranda glowered at Petyr. “So I’m sure she’d want him to help sort out her estate.” She was frank now. “Come on, Petyr. Let him help go over everything with her siblings. Let them dispose of her things together. Less gruesome that way.”

“Not everything is disposable, Myranda,” Petyr said archly. He took a sip of the Scotch, winced at the cheap taste, and then gazed about the room. “Some things here belong to me. This vase, for example.” He gestured to something that looked like a long urn with Grecian figures painted all around it. He gestured over his shoulder. “And that grandfather clock. The antique poker and fire screen.” He picked up the vase. “I only lent these to Sansa, you know.”

Myranda snorted in disgust. “You’re absolutely shameless, you know that?”

“I intend to get these back, Myranda. They’re the gems of my collection. I have every right as administrator to her estate.”

Even Harrold roused himself. “Listen here, you gave those to Sansa, don’t pretend otherwise. I won’t permit this.”

Petyr addressed Sandor with his usual face of serene mockery. “Does the alleged fiancé have any say in the matter? I think not.” He took another look around, scouting out the poker and screen. “I’ll take the vase now, I suppose, and have somebody come by to collect the rest, perhaps this very day” –

He was interrupted by Sandor, who took the vase out of his hand and placed it back on the end table. “I’ll collect your teeth off the ground if you don’t leave this place empty handed right now, Baelish.”

Petyr raised his eyebrows. “I see! This can’t be your quaint way of dismissing me, is it?”

Sandor looked at his watch. “We’re all leaving. Let’s go.” He headed toward the door.

The three he’d invited exchanged bewildered glances. “But, lieutenant,” Myranda said, “What's going on? Why did you send for us?”

Harrold was especially anxious, at Sandor’s heels again like an overgrown puppy. “Didn’t you want to see me? Ask me questions?” A faint mustache of sweat coated his upper lip.

The last thing he wants is for me to ask him questions, Sandor thought drily. But he figures he’d better appear eager to answer any, as a sign of supposed innocence.

Sandor’s eyes flickered back to the bottle of Black Dragon, untouched by Hardyng.

He returned his gaze to Hardyng with a dark smile. “I’ve had all my questions answered. I need to get back to headquarters by noon. Let’s go.”

He led them out, uncaring how his casual dismissal unsettled them all to the very bone.

Chapter Text

There was a torrential downpour all the next day, late into the night. Sandor spent the majority sequestered in his office. After spending so much time in Sansa’s apartment, this cramped hole struck him as especially musty and unkempt. Papers were stacked to the point of overflow on his desk, and dust lined the blinds of the window shade. The fly-specked bare light bulb buzzed each time a fly hit it, the light flickering down in judgment on Sandor from where he numbly flipped through the sundry pages there.

Receipts, letters, bills, photographs…all were supposedly vital in piecing together a portrait of Sansa more honest than the painting in her apartment. He was doubtful.

He glanced at a candid taken of her at some picnic or another. Her head was thrown back; she was laughing. Her eyes squeezed shut and the sun peeked through her thick locks. He imagined how fiery that mane must have looked on such a bright day, and wished it was a color photo.

With an agitated jerk he pushed the picture and the other papers away from him, uncaring that a few landed on the floor.

He stood and shoved his hands in his pockets. He was restless.

He scarcely realized he’d crumpled up some notes he’d taken, notes trying to connect the clues with the suspects. Harrold and the Scotch, Myranda and her jealousy, and what of Saffron Redfern?

He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be at Sansa’s.

It wasn’t that he’d suddenly decided the luxury of her lush home suited his tastes; he belonged in this office, in this building drenched in the stench of stale cigarettes and second-rate hot coffee. This was his domain, and he’d had some of his best professional epiphanies here in this very room. He'd cracked more than once case in the confines of this stuffy little office.

Yet for some unknown reason, he couldn’t concentrate on her here. At least, not in any useful way. He couldn't think clearly. He glanced at the balled up paper in his hand, the scattered notes on his desk.

Dry testimonials, statements, faded photographs -- these weren’t her. The little bird’s sweetly furnished elegant nest – that was where she was, lingering in the lemon-vanilla scent, in the view outside of a gray birch tree shading a garden. There he’d find Sansa – and what happened to her.

He swallowed as a tight knot twisted in his stomach. He tasted bile. When he thought of her home, her things, her face, he forgot that she was dead. Each time he was forced to recall, the truth was harder to accept than the last.

He glanced at his clock. 20:00 hours.

He yanked his jacket off the back of his chair. He had an itch and it was unbearable – he needed to go to that apartment. It was a sudden anxious ping in his mind, in his heart. He had to go there.

He rushed out of the office, staring straight ahead of him, charging past Meribald’s desk who sat at his crossword puzzle. Ray was pouring himself a cup of coffee. He frowned as Sandor rushed by.

“Where you going?”

“Relieving Dalt at the apartment.”

His chief raised one of his eyebrows. “You’re going to her place? Again?”

Sandor grabbed his hat and was gone.

Ray looked incredulously to Meribald, who sat with his feet up on his desk. “What’s he going there all the time for? I know it’s the scene of the crime, but hell! He’s been agitated all day, like he couldn’t wait to get back.”

“Maybe he has a crush on her,” Meribald joked. “You seen a picture of the dame?” He whistled and laughed, turning back to his crossword.

Ray hummed deep in his throat and studied the door Sandor exited through with a growing skeptical concern.

 

Sandor marched down the street in a state of detachment. The rain battering against him felt more like a mere drizzle, distracted as he was. He only felt vague annoyance that visibility was so rotten.

His heart beat gratefully in his chest, whispering home as her apartment finally came into view. The birch tree’s long branches slooped forward, weighted down by the rain. They looked as if reaching down to him in greeting – the same strange, sweet impression he got from her portrait.

Dalt stood just beneath the eaves, the rain splashing him from the gutters.

Sandor handed him a ten. “Here, go get yourself something to eat, go see a picture. I'll take over.”

Dalt, too worn down by his long watch in the miserable weather to argue, acquiesced without question.

“Take your time,” Sandor called after him as Dalt made his way down the steps.

 

Sandor could finally breathe as he entered her home. The lack of illumination save for the streetlight through the curtains gave the place a twilight air of calm, of gentle isolation.

He turned on a lamp.

He stood in front of her portrait.

God, each time she looks more beautiful that before. She looks like if I reached out, I could feel her skin….

He was too much in quiet awe to feel embarrassed by his musings.

Yet he felt strange, too, staring at her this way. He remembered a frightened, fawn-like young bird, but when he looked into the refined, ecstatic beauty of the woman in the painting, he saw both the little bird and the brilliant editor at the same time. It was like an image superimposed over a photograph, mingling until they were one eternal nymph, one youthful immortal.

He felt no sorrow now. He’d forgotten again, purposefully shoved reality out of his mind.

He shrugged off his coat and tossed it onto her armchair. His lips twisted. His drenched raincoat lying crumpled on the floral cushions was like a blot on her home.

We were all blots on her, those of us who knew her. Every last one of us.

After throwing his hat on top of the coat, he sat at her desk. He took off his undercoat so that he was in his shirtsleeves, which he then rolled up. As terrible as he felt reading her diary in her own home, the thought of doing so at headquarters was unthinkable. He could only do so here.

“Fourth of July at Randa’s was all right. I suppose I just wasn’t in the partying mood. Something is deeply wrong with everything. Harry’s made his feelings about me clear, and I suppose I should be ecstatic. A young, handsome, and charming man wants to court me. And I do like him awfully.

"Awfully. Yes, maybe it’s an awful sort of liking. Like when you eat too much candy, the rich stuff, and with each mouthful you get sicker and sicker, but the nougat and the chocolate are so overwhelmingly seductive you can’t help yourself. It even begins to taste bad after a while, but you just can't stop.

“But no, that’s not really apt. I’m making Harry sound bad for me but irresistible. Really I think it’s the opposite: his happy-go-lucky type is probably just what I need, but I do find him resistible. I do.

“Then why do I persist in seeing him? Why do I encourage him? I do want him, in a way. But love him? I think that capacity might be broken in me. What I felt with S. when I was just a kid I haven’t felt since. Whenever I try, I see Dad, his head just blood. Stops me cold. Or else I see S. on that last night – as he cried into my cupped hand.

“Maybe I’m just trying in my own small way to defy Petyr. His hatred for Harry is palpable. As was his contempt for the shrimp cocktail tonight.”

Sandor could smell too much of her on the pages. His stomach churned with an odd yearning and he shut the diary. He lurched away from the desk as if it had grown a spider’s hairy legs.

But he couldn’t escape her; she was everywhere here.

In spite of himself, he was drawn to the double doors of her bedroom.

Scarcely breathing, he nudged them open. He stepped inside.

He turned on the light and his chest burned. The room looked so alive, as if waiting for its owner to return. The décor evoked her more than anything else in the apartment. It was elegantly feminine; feminine, with a dash of the wild. Birds were printed on the satin chair by her vanity, on the poles of the canopy on her bed; but they were not the little swallows or canaries he once associated her with. They were mighty herons, strong and regal.

The art on her walls consisted of warm browns, purples, and grays, and while pleasant to look at, under closer inspection they were too abstract for conventionality. They left an ambiguous, almost teasing aftertaste.

He felt his own ghost walk with him as he passed by the full-length mirrors that constituted her closet doors.

He stared at her bed. Just faintly he saw a slight indentation forming from beneath the white bedspread. There she had slept.

Floating as if through a dream, Sandor turned to her vanity, a marbled desk of drawers with rosebuds carved into the mahogany handles below a circular mirror.

He slowly opened one drawer. His head swam as he took in the pale blue, gray, and lavender silks within. There were negligees, pockets of lemon verbena sachet, and handkerchiefs. All were made from the lightest silk.

Except one handkerchief, separated from the rest in the corner, folded in tightly. This one was harsh and yellowed. Old looking. He pulled it out and recognition hit the moment he saw the darkened, browned speck of blood there.

This was the handkerchief he’d cleaned her mouth with when Joffrey struck her.

Fighting his dizziness he shoved it back in and shut the drawer, hard.

In the back of his mind he heard a sweet high sparrow voice sing, “They asked me how I knew my true love was true….”

Oh, god, help me….

His hand landed on a glass perfume bottle, in a row with various lotions and other scents. The song still in his ears, he removed the stopper and held the bottle to his nose.

The scent was cool and sweet like citrus in winter…yet with an earthier undertone of maple…maple leaves in winter, no, autumn…he imagined the scent in her silken hair…yes, autumn, like her hair…she had autumn-colored hair…..

And eyes as deep and bright as the summer sea.

He looked in the mirror. He saw a lumbering giant nearing middle age in crumpled shirtsleeves who hadn’t shaved that morning, his stubble bristly and dark, his scars sickly pink in the dim light. This caveman figure was holding expensive perfume to his nose, and the picture was so comical it was tragic – the image hurt and enraged him.

He quickly replaced the stopper and backed away.

He tried to turn his thoughts to a more useful direction. He was in her bedroom, this time without cops around. He now had time to look for anything he might have missed the first time. There could be another clue, something left behind. Maybe Shae had missed something in her panicky rush to rid the room of the Scotch and the glasses.

A hard anger filled him as he recalled the Scotch. Oddly enough, the anger this time was not directed solely at Hardyng (he was here that night, he was here), but at her. No, he wasn’t angry at her – he was angry at the circumstances she put herself in. The image contrasted too much with the pretty dignified bird in the portrait.

But that image isn’t her, dog. She’s not some delicate piece of art for Baelish and the like to drool over. She was brave, strong, stubborn, flawed, a human. Real and broken.

Just better than any other human, that’s all.

He crossed over to her closet.

The mirrored doors were very fragile, and so he opened them gingerly. Another strong whiff of lemon verbena. There in a neat row hanged her dresses. Her hats were grouped in the compartment above. Sandor knew little about fashion, but still he couldn’t help imagining her in each frock. Sansa, in this sleek wrap with the dark brown reeds printed on a cream-colored fabric, lounging in her armchair with a novel or a book of poetry. Sansa strolling alone through Central Park on a clear day in this sunset-colored summer dress, the long straw hat with the white silk ribbon shielding her from sunburn, as she licked an ice cream cone. Sansa standing aloof and bored in this black velvet cocktail dress. Sansa dancing wildly to swing music in this cherry-red knee length frock with the pleated skirt. Beneath this were a pair of shining black heels. Yes. He could see it, could see her laugh the same way she did at that picnic in the photograph, her carefully curled hair shining in the sun – or in the light of the ballroom.

He shut the doors, scared of himself now, and the way his body hummed with need.

Again, he faced his twisted reflection in the mirrors. God, he was a fright. Something husky and primeval, dreaming of a girl in a beautiful dress with smiling red lips.

He turned and saw, against the wall kitty-corner to the closet, what looked to be a sort of shrine. A small black canopy shaded a plain dark wooden table. Sandor spread the curtain to take a closer look.

Within, the Star of David hanged from the wall. Beneath was a cross. On the table was a copy of the Torah side by side with the Bible. A prayer shawl was folded neatly in back, on top of which lay another cross in a necklace. Sandor gently ran his finger across it and traced the fringe on the shawl. The subtle scent of incense caressed the books.

Against the wall stood a double picture frame. In one frame was her father’s military portrait, and in the other was her mother in her nurse's uniform. Her father was younger than when Sandor had known him, but he still wore that remote look of somber piety, unchanged across the years, apparently. Sansa indeed resembled her mother, but Catelyn Stark’s face held a more realistic, grounded expression; she was not ethereally fantastical like her daughter. These photographs were obviously clipped from newspapers, probably from their respective obituaries.

Very few home photographs survived the fire that ravaged the house in Winterfell.

Sandor remembered peeking through her partly opened bedroom door in Chicago in the months following her father’s murder. She was kneeling at the foot of her bed, her hands clasped. Her eyes were on two open books, glancing dreamily from one to the other. Leaning forward, he saw they were the Torah (called Chumash in book form, she later told him) and the Bible. Her lips were moving, but no words came out.

His harsh laugh made her start. She glanced at him with her usual wide sad look, but without the expected embarrassment. She was very pale.

“Don’t you know, little bird, that those are two differing texts you’re reading? Figured your parents would teach you better than that.”

Her face was blank with the serenity of those in the deepest well of heartbreak. In a voice mild and childlike, she explained, “My parents taught me both ways. They said it was all right if I took the most comforting parts of both and made of them my own solace.” Her hollowed dead eyes turned first to the texts, then upward. “It’s all I have of Dad now. And Mom, so far away. The only way I can reach them. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu….Amen.”

Sandor was uncomfortably humbled by the sight of her eerie, contradicting ardor, but he would not admit so to himself. He snorted in half-hearted derision and turned away. He was brought back by her odd little giggle.

Her eyes hadn’t moved from the wall. In a high, self-deprecating voice that didn’t reach her empty eyes, she said, “It’s funny. I never used to care so much about religion. My parents actually annoyed me with it, hammering both Jewish and Protestant histories into our skulls. Both teachings differed, like you said. It all gave me a headache. But lately…lately….”

She trailed off, never once blinking or moving her eyes away from whatever enraptured her within the wall.

After a prolonged silence, Sandor left her.

Her deep connection to her roots never faded. This shrine was evidence of that.

His hand fell from the holy articles.

In the corner by the closet sat a basket, full of crumpled comics. He crouched down and skimmed through the pile. Batman, Superman, Donald Duck. A baseball bat stuck out, and a catcher’s mitt was stuffed inside as well.

The juxtaposition between the old religious relics and these contemporary juvenile objects for a moment disoriented him. Then he remembered Rickon. He'd be what, about…twelve by now? Just about Arya’s age when she first came to Chicago.

Sandor knew from Littlefinger that she had her brothers and sister out to visit every chance available. She must have collected these for the youngest boy.

On the one side were old, sacred relics of the past, her parents; and here, toys and comics for her brother.

Little bird covered everything, past, present, and future.

The marbled vanity, the perfume, the abstract art, those were her ornaments. Here, where the prayer shawl and the wrinkled comics were, these were her heart. Her soul.

He shivered and ran a hand through his hair. Standing, he forced himself out of the room.

He was too full of her. Too outside of himself. But he was the Hound, and the Hound never lost his footing. Couldn’t. Couldn’t afford to.

With a deliberate callousness, he wrenched open her liquor cabinet and removed some red claret. Claret was lighter and fancier than his usual choice of poisons, but his fucks in this case were dangerously limited. With a freak sense of rebellion, he poured himself a glass.

Drinking a dead woman’s booze. A new low, dog. Not to mention a severe break in protocol.

But he didn’t care, didn’t care; he was going mad or he was enraged at his preoccupation with this dame, this broad, who gives a fuck, I’ll take her booze and not give a shit, who cares, who cares –

Her portrait entered his line of sight again. She gazed at him with such sincere loving forgiveness that he forgot himself, then felt shamed.

The ocean blue of her eyes reached out to him. The tender hint of a smile curling the corner of her pink-red lips….he could almost hear her sweet bird voice speak from them…

He downed the glass in one go. He didn’t drink much these days thanks to Ray’s influence, but he needed this now. Made him feel like himself again. His own dog.

He turned his back to the portrait. But he swore he could feel her blue eyes on him…just as they followed him as he walked out the door in Chicago, leaving her in that lion’s den.

He eventually calmed, taking a deep breath.

He noted the time and trudged over to her phone. He tapped the dial. “Hello? Meribald, you down there? C’mon.”

At last a click and an answer. “Yeah?”

“What’s a matter, fall asleep at the switch? Any calls come in about Redfern? Anyone locate her yet?”

“Nope, no word yet. Her father hasn’t seen her since Friday, but apparently she’s prone to taking off.”

Sandor’s cheek twitched. “Yeah, maybe this time to Mexico or anywhere else abroad. And maybe she ain’t coming back.”

“You thinkin’ now she did it? Redfern?”

Sandor grunted. “Hell, I don’t know. But it’s weird her disappearing right as Stark’s murdered.”

“Yeah. Real weird.”

The door buzzed. Must be Dalt back already. But he has a key, why not just come in? “All right, keep listening," he told Meribald. "No, nothing new on this end.” He hung up and crossed over to the door.

It was not Dalt but Baelish. He snapped his umbrella shut and swept past Sandor as if the lieutenant were the butler. “I was strolling by and noticed the light on. Thought I’d check in.”

“This is a crime scene, you know. Social calls aren’t a regular thing here.”

Petyr removed his hat and glanced at Sandor over his shoulder. “You’re one to talk of paying calls on dead women, Clegane. You’re here often enough you might as well pay rent.”

“Any objections to investigating the place where she was murdered, Baelish?”

Petyr's green-gray eyes fell on her desk, where the letters and diary lay on top. “Yes, one. I strongly object to you prying into Sansa’s correspondence and diary. In particular, her letters from me.”

“If it makes you feel any better, yours were the most entertaining.” And arrogant, and pretentious, and possessive. He wrote at her, not to her.

Petyr sniffed. “Thank you for the kind review, but I did not mean those words to reach your eyes. Only Sansa’s.” He leaned his head back, affecting a look of lofty superiority. “Haven’t you any sense of privacy? Decorum?”

Such a question was downright ignorant in the face of a murder investigation, and Baelish was many things, but not ignorant. He was getting at something. For now, Sandor would simply reply truthfully. He figured that was the only way to disarm him.

“It’s my job. And murder victims have no claim to privacy.” His throat grew thick as it always did when he had to refer to her as such. He busied himself at the armchair, removing a stick of gum from his coat pocket.

Then came Petyr’s voice, as affable and breezy as ever. “Have detectives who purchase portraits of murder victims any claim to privacy?”

Sandor halted mid-unwrapping.

Yes, Petyr had certainly gotten at what he was after.

Damn me, Sandor thought, sitting on the arm of the chair, facing away from Baelish. Damn me.

Yet Petyr advanced, words slithering out of his serpent’s mouth. “Willas Tyrell unwittingly revealed all when I called him earlier. As you know, Myranda finally convinced me to let him take charge of the artwork at least. He said you already put in a bid for it.”

He was practically circling him, like a shark.

Sandor would not move his eyes from the partially unwrapped chewing gum. “That’s none of your business,” he rasped. His voice was so even that it was obvious danger coiled within.

Yet Petyr’s words still came, prying, probing, looming above him. “Clegane, did it ever strike you that you’re acting rather strangely? It’s a wonder you don’t come here with roses and a box of candy like a regular suitor – drugstore candy, of course.”

Sandor shot him a quick glare, taking in the pale eyes with their venomous, nasty, interrogative glint.

He returned to unwrapping the gum, twisting the foil in his hands.

His blood boiled as Petyr next asked, so unassumingly, “Have you ever imagined Sansa as your wife? By your side at the policeman’s ball, which you’d only ever attend if she was with you? Or does she sit in the bleachers watching you play on the department’s baseball team? Maybe you see her curled up on the loveseat, listening to the heroic tale of how you earned your silver shinbone apprehending Nazis in war-torn Europe?”

Sandor’s fist squeezed the gum and foil into a sticky, crinkled mass.

“I see that you have.”

He stood, his back to Baelish, to her portrait. “Why don’t you beat it? I’ve got work to do.”

Petyr switched tactics, a needling sort of bargaining entering his tone as he trailed the pacing detective. “Perhaps we can come to terms now. You want the portrait – that’s fine. I want my possessions – the vase, the clock, the screen – and all the rest. Perfectly understandable, don’t you think? A fair trade. If you would just” –

He momentarily blanched as Sandor whirled around, his eyes death. He snarled, “Get. Going.”

His deep voice seemed to rise from the very bowels of hell.

Petyr recovered himself. He was steel as he looked Sandor over slowly. When he spoke, it was with quiet and devastating emphasis. “You better watch out, Clegane, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”

Retrieving his hat, he drifted away. The door shut noiselessly behind him.

 

When Dalt returned, Sandor dismissed him for the night. Sandor would stay all night if he had to, in the hope undiscovered evidence might appear. He tread her bedroom again. He studied once more the pictures of her father, her mother, detecting her in both. He leafed through the pages of Batman beating the Joker into submission.

I’m cracking up. It’s finally fucking happening. I’m cracking up and I'm gonna fall apart because of this auburn-haired, dead little loon.

He hurled the comic onto the floor, then massaged his face with his hands.

What the fuck had possessed him to put a bid in for that damn portrait? He recalled sitting at his desk, drumming the top with his fingers. All at once an uncontrollable impulse made him pick up the phone and dial Tyrell….

Fuck me straight to hell.

Fallen in love with a corpse.

Fuck Baelish. Fuck the prick. Planting ideas in his head, sick ideas….

What sick ideas, you fool? What, like the thought hadn’t occurred to you already?

He shook his head, aghast at his own thoughts.

She was a child when he last knew her. A hopeful, beautiful child who aroused in him the powerful protectiveness of the older brother, the father, the older friend or mentor.

Yet now here he stood in her bedroom breathing in her scent, treasuring her essence still lingering about the sheets and curtains.

He had that feeling again. That feeling when she told him he was worth more than his brother. The feeling that she was wiser and better than he was, but that she was him in some strange way, but an unsullied version.

This sensation came back to him, but…different now. Different. Instead of merely occupying the opposite side of the same coin, she instead occupied....

His soul.

Soulmate.

No. Shut up, dog. She’s dead. She’s cold on the coroner’s slab.

You can’t fall in love with a dead woman. Remember the girl, the youthful, naïve girl who by turns amused and infuriated you with her gullible recklessness. The woman…the woman was never for you.

But she wrote of you in her diary. The infatuation was still there.

Yet she was a woman. It was a woman who treasured you, yearned for you, and was adored and worshiped by all who fucking knew her.

...And one of them killed her.

The frantic fiancé? The possessive uncle? The jealous friend? The rival?

He tried to parse this out clearly, but he couldn’t with her voice in his head and her image always fresh before him.

He hung onto her canopy as if for support.

The little girl pleading with him to take her away battled with the unearthly sophisticated beauty of the woman in the portrait. The woman was winning, but the woman was also the little girl. They were one, and they were magnificent.

And he yearned for her, yearned for her cool soft flesh, her soft auburn hair in the moonlight, the sunlight…the rain….

Sansa.

He suddenly stiffened. He was as alert as a bloodhound picking up the fox’s scent.

A soft click. Then another.

A door, that’s what it was – opening and closing.

The front door.

My officers would announce themselves. They wouldn’t hover quietly inside.

By rote he immediately adopted the cool stance inherent in his training. He reached silently for his gun.

He swiftly pressed his back to the wall by her bedroom door. He heard something land on the floor outside, as if some kind of case or small trunk. There was a slight shuffle of feet turning on the carpet.

Quite quickly he ran through a list of who might possess a key to the apartment. Harry already gave me his, but he could have another hidden away. Petyr? But he’s already been here tonight. He couldn’t hope to sneak in and make off with his things. Myranda? Saffron Redfern?

He cocked the gun.

He whirled into the doorway to confront the intruder.

The world rocked and swayed. Hysteria and disorientation, wild and rampant, tore through his entire being.

Sansa Stark stood just inside her entryway.

Sansa Stark stood in her damp raincoat and sloping yellow rain hat. Sansa Stark stood next to her suitcase. Sansa Stark glanced puzzled around her apartment, wondering why the light was on, why an empty cup and coat and hat were in her sitting room.

Alarm entered her expression as each strange article crossed her line of sight.

At last Sansa Stark’s eyes reached Sandor.

He took her in fully. Her face was more intensely vivid than anything he’d ever seen.

She was also more beautiful, more vibrant, more alive than any portrait could do justice to. The young rosebud he left behind was in full bloom now, more astounding and glorious than he could have imagined.

Sansa Stark stared him straight in the face. Sansa Stark recognized him and looked struck by lightning. She paled.

Very soon the storm passed and bright sunlight illuminated her from within. “Sandor!”

He was undone.

Chapter Text

He had no time to react.

Sansa sped across the room and threw her arms around his neck, hugging him to her.

“You’re here!” Her voice was full of disbelieving joy, her chin trembling against his shoulder. “My god, you’re here!”

There, there was the lemon scent upon her hair, mixed with rain and autumn. Her hat fell to the ground.

He couldn’t touch her.

She was a ghost. She was a figment of his drunk madness.

She pulled away from him and he saw the tears in her eyes and her brilliant smile. Her cheeks were flushed pink, with life.

He felt her warmth all around him.

His lips cold and numb, he somehow was able to croak out, “You’re alive?”

The smile faded. Her hands slid down from around his neck. She shook her head and blinked, sharing Sandor’s doubt of the reality of the situation.

“Sandor, I…I seem to have missed something. I was just so thrilled to see you. But….” She cleared her throat. “Let’s come back to earth, shall we? What, sir, are you doing in my home? And” – Her eyes widened as she at last noticed the pistol he still held frozen in his hand. “A gun? The hell is going on?”

Her urgency, her confusion, at last convinced him. She was no dream, no figment. No dream would be so obviously befuddled. Sansa Stark was alive.

And the big jaded detective felt like breaking down in tears, falling to his knees and hugging her around her waist.

Too much, too much for his heart. What had he done in his sorry life to deserve such a miracle?

Instead he put away the gun and stared and stared at her, his eyes burning and soft. She almost collapsed herself at this look. His eyes were just as naked and full as the night he left her, when he cried as she sang….

He even – he even ran a hand through her hair again.

“Fuck’s sake, little bird,” came that husky voice that haunted both her sleep and when she was awake, at odd moments throughout the day. “You never cease to surprise me, girl.”

She closed her eyes and leaned into his hand. She couldn’t speak right away, her throat was constricting too painfully. At last she placed a hand over the one cradling her face and looked straight into his eyes. “Sandor….” She whispered. “Tell me. What is it?”

And the sun receded into the clouds again as he remembered. The hand dropped from her cheek. “You really don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“Haven’t you heard?”

“No.”

He was now as confused as she. “Haven’t you read the papers? Where have you been?” His voice was rougher than he meant.

“Up in the country. I don’t get a paper.”

Perhaps she was a dream, all along. A dream girl who floated from this place to that, never touching the ground, completely out of touch.

You’re a detective, Clegane. You have to get at the truth. Find out. “No radio up there?”

“It was broken.” She tilted her head, lost. “What….”

Sandor headed to her desk, where the newspaper lay.

He showed it to her.

She read the headline.

Then she had to hold onto the back of the loveseat to support herself.

She lowered the paper and her expression was stunned – dead.

Her eyes were alive, however, and he read terror in them.

She was the fragile teenager again, a swallow battered by a rainstorm, and Sandor had to resist every temptation in his body to reach out and comfort her.

Still his voice was a soft, low rumble. “Someone was murdered here, Sansa.”

A whole array of emotion crossed her face – horror, disbelief, confusion, and loss.

Sandor continued. “Do you know who it was?”

Very slowly she shook her head, still staring straight ahead of her.

“Who had a key to your apartment?”

Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Nobody.”

Sandor frowned. Harrold Hardyng had a key, this much he knew. Surely Sansa must have known that. Did he steal it? Or was the little lady lying in an effort to protect her reputation?

He watched her closely. She seemed too honestly benumbed to cover her tracks so swiftly.

But he was thinking of her in terms of the guileless young girl he once knew. This sophisticated beauty before him might have secret layers he was not privy to.

Yet the tragic blue eyes that met his were as yielding and lost as they were then, those seven years ago. “What’s going to happen now?”

He threw back his shoulders to work out a kink at the base of his neck. “I’m going to find out who was murdered, then find the murderer.”

She looked him over speedily, took in the gun once more. Understanding soon dawned. “You’re a policeman again!”

“Aye, and more than that: the detective assigned to this case.” He neglected to mention that he’d volunteered for the assignment.

There came into her puffed up chest and raised chin a look that Sandor treasured: pride -- pride in him. The corners of her mouth curled upward into a tiny wistful smile.

There was a warm, solemn joy rolling in the waves of those eyes now. He was drowning all over again, but with a shiver of desire wracking through him that he hadn’t felt in Chicago. When she was a child.

No, she was definitely a woman now. The lines of her face were more sculpted and clear, her dress and manner more subtle, her body –

He stopped himself. There still gleamed that youthful innocence in her bright eyes. She was still young.

And so it was the protective Chicago Hound who said, “Better change out of those wet clothes, little bird. You could catch cold.”

She blinked, and the weary weight of the situation came back to her. “Yeah,” she breathed in a distracted voice.

She moved sleepily to her bedroom, and Sandor suddenly wanted to tell her so much. He wanted to cry out in joy that she was alive. He wanted to sob out how he never stopped thinking of her, and regretted that he wasn’t able to do more for her. He wanted to spin her joyously around the room, hear her laugh like a little girl. He wanted to tell her how proud he was of her, for her accomplishments, for her kindness, for her steely resolve to defeat the obstacles in her life, and how she ultimately triumphed.

Instead he watched as she gently closed the door behind her. He fought down the panic.

Now that she was back, he never wanted to lose sight of her again.

 

She came back out quickly, having only taken off her raincoat. Over her arm was draped a light blue dress Sandor had seen briefly when he’d examined her closet.

Her face was tight with anxiety.

“Sandor, look! This isn’t my dress! It belonged to Saffron Redfern! She’s one of our models!” She stared at it, the material hanging limp like a dead butterfly. “It wasn’t here when I left!”

The clouds were beginning to part. Ah, Sandor thought. Ah. “She was about your size?”

“Yes!”

“Hair like yours?”

“Mm, sort of, I suppose. Similar style, and thick like mine. Hers is more of a golden-brown instead of a reddish-brown, though. But….”

“ – But covered in blood, who could tell the difference?”

She paled. “You mean, you think she…?”

He nodded, once. His eyes were very dark.

Sansa groaned and sank into the couch. “Oh, that poor kid. That poor, poor kid.”

She shook her head and looked down at her feet.

Meanwhile a lightning storm played up and down Sandor’s spine. Something terrible, unthinkable encroached on him.

It was one sickly, venomous thought.

Detective Clegane spoke to Sandor Clegane in a wicked whisper:

Saffron Redfern was fooling around with Sansa's fiancée. Sansa disappears for the weekend, and apparently no one saw her that whole time. Saffron dies in that time.

Who…who else would want Saffron dead….

…If not the jealous fiancée?

He almost growled at the treacherous voice inside him. He wanted to tear that deduction out, trample it beneath his feet.

After all, look at her: quietly devastated. This can’t be faked.

She can’t have returned to me just to be the killer. She couldn’t.

The ache, the fear, pounded in his head until he knew he must take control to get rid of it.

He turned around to her desk, saying in as even a voice as he could muster, “Come and sit down here, little bird.”

And without a hint of suspicion or distrust, she complied.

Without looking at her, he began. “You left Friday night. Today’s Tuesday night. Kind of a long weekend, isn’t it?”

She shrugged. “Yes, well, it’s Labor Day weekend. Since we didn’t work Monday, I thought I wouldn’t be too behind if I came in a day later.”

“What train did you take?”

“The 7:26.”

“See anybody you knew on the train?”

“No. In fact, not many people were on it at all.”

He tried, tried so hard to quiet the voice that asked, isn’t that convenient?

“How about when you got there? See anyone you know?”

“No, it was pretty late.”

He pressed on. “Then what?”

“Then I went to a private garage where I keep my car. And before you ask, no, I saw no one then, either.”

He finally looked at her. Her chin was lifted with a vague combination of hesitation and obstinacy. She knew without knowing that there was a distasteful motive driving these questions.

“After that, I drove to my cabin.”

“And did what for four days?”

“Worked in my garden, sewed a little. I have a craft room there I like to busy myself in.”

There was now a forced casual note in her voice, but whether out of fear of revealing anything or just out of generalized anxiety, he couldn’t tell.

She is as beautiful and fresh as mountain wildflowers. Her hair still shines like copper in the dim light.

“You didn’t go out in all that time?”

“No, I had everything I needed in the house. I…wasn’t exactly in a social mood.” He noticed her toying with the pink diamond ring on her finger.

And he wanted to bash Harry’s brains in.

Instead, he asked, “If that’s the case, why didn’t the police see you on Saturday? They went there to check the place out.”

Her eyes brightened as if he’d given her the answer to a long-standing question. “So that explains it!”

He frowned. “What explains what?”

“I did leave the cabin Saturday, that’s right. I took a long walk in the woods. I spent hours there….” An intense dreamy look that Sandor saw on her many times after her father’s death crossed her face as she said, “The trees are so thick there it almost reminds me of home. Of Winterfell. I suppose I lost track of time.” That bright look in her eyes again. “But when I got back, I had the distinct feeling someone had been there! I felt like a few things had been rearranged, some chairs out that weren’t before. It must have been the police!”

Sandor felt a sudden surge of anger – anger at her, for making him lose himself watching the various emotions swell in her beautiful face. And so there was steel in his voice as he asked, “You were due to marry Harrold Hardyng by the end of this week, on Saturday, correct?”

Another flush of her cheeks. She…she didn’t like Sandor asking her about Harry. Made her feel queasy, unnatural. Like a phony. But why?

“Yes,” she just whispered.

She stiffened as his voice grew more biting. “Yet the weekend before you get married, you disappear.”

“I was tired! I’d been working such late nights.”

Her evasion infuriated him further. “You know Hardyng has a key to this apartment. Why lie about it?”

She was on her feet, and he hated how his heart leapt at the fiery flash of righteous indignation there. “I know no such thing! He has no key to this place!”

Either she was telling the truth, or stubbornly clinging to a very provable lie.

“Oh, yeah? How else did the girl get into the apartment, then? She sneak up the fire escape? You knew she was hot for Hardyng. You knew that your gallant fiancé gave her your watch. You knew all that, but don't know shit about the key?”

Her eyes merely gleamed with fierce pride as she shot back, “I knew she was in love with him, sure. She told me so herself.”

“When?”

“Friday, at lunch.” Their mutual frustration and anger sparked into a deep electrical current between them. Fighting this heat, Sansa continued in her most haughty tones, “I also know he wasn’t in love with her. I understand Harry better than you do.”

Sandor resisted the urge to bring his fist down through her desk, to rage at her for her pigheaded devotion to that sickening playboy.

He settled on rounding on her and rasping out, “Yet she was found in your nightgown and slippers, here in this apartment! Even if he wasn’t in love with her, this was hardly the regulation outfit for an impersonal chat between a man and a woman.”

Now came the hardest part. He must wound her with what she couldn’t help but feel was direct accusation. “Did you know, or did you at least suspect that he was bringing her here Friday night?”

He could have bawled at the look she gave him. Crushing fury and disappointment: would you really think such a thing of me, her look seemed to ask.

She spat out, “No, how could I? I don’t know that he actually brought her here, and neither do you! You’re just assuming.”

She felt fit to explode at his mocking laugh. “Aye, just assuming. Tell me, Miss Stark, what other assumption is there to make?” His eyes narrowed and she shivered. His voice was quite low as he asked, “Are you so in love with this arse that you’d risk your own safety just to protect him?”

The fury and disappointment were back in her face, with an added hint of fear. “My own safety? What does that mean? Do…do you suspect me?”

No, no, every personal instinct in Sandor wanted to yell at her. Of course not, you stupid, beautiful, precious thing. You’re the only honest, good person in this wreck of a world. You’re not capable of murder.

But again, that treacherous shadow of his professional self whispered, but think what she’s gone through. Trauma like that can change a person. Just think: she thought she’d found happiness at last, but then Redfern waltzes in and turns her man’s eye. Could be the little bird finally…snapped.

He shuddered and turned away. “My job is to suspect everyone and no one.” He rummaged for his pencil and notepad. “I’m trying to get at the truth, little bird.”

Sansa watched as he flipped through the pages, and that’s when she noticed her diary and her letters open on the desk.

“I see you have been trying to get at the truth,” she said wryly, picking up her diary. Yet there was nothing wry in the sad eyes she raised to his, saying, “You’ve read things I meant no other person to see.”

How many times had he imagined her reproachful gaze as he’d read through her private words? And now here she was in the flesh to punish him.

A hoarse note of gentleness hid in his voice. “Strictly routine, little bird.” His eyes were warm and unreadable. “I’m sorry. Really.”

She lost her voice for a moment. She’d never heard him apologize before.

Rather sheepishly, she glanced back down at the diary. “I…I suppose you know, then, that I’ve never forgotten you.”

Sandor knew he was nearing a precipice, a precipice he feared and desired tumbling down into. Thus he only said, “Forget it. Like you said, you didn’t write that intending me to see it. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“But there is something I need to say to you!” Her face was a rose in full bloom. “You’re the one who gave Arya the money to go to that school! She told me. Without that, who knows what would have become of her on her own!” She gazed and gazed at him, shaking her head softly. “You’re rather wonderful, you know that?”

He closed his eyes to her gratitude. “Forget it,” he mumbled again.

“No, Sandor, I can’t. It means everything to me.”

He couldn’t help kidding her. “This mean you don’t view your sister as quite the pain in the ass you once did?”

She threw her head back and laughed (laughing in color at last). “Oh, I wouldn’t say that! But really, I think she sees me more as a pain than I do her now. Where once I was the one who spurned her attempts to follow me around, she’s now the one who tells me to back off. I’m so protective now. I so wanted her to go to school close to me, but I can’t blame her for choosing Western. It’s so close to Winterfell….” Her face dimmed. “She has more strength than I do. I haven’t been back yet.”

She shivered and rubbed her arms. “I suppose I’m afraid of ghosts….”

The air was eerily thick and quiet between them.

His large warm hand suddenly wrapped around her wrist. “Don’t be.” He pressed her. “Don’t be.”

Their eyes met and their gaze said more than either could in that moment.

And it was enough.

Sandor put his hat back on. “I’d better go and let my chief know.”

“How long have you been working in New York?”

“Since I was discharged in ’43.”

“Discharged?” Her eyes widened. “Heavens, you fought in the war! What happened?”

He wouldn’t deny feeling slightly smug at her concern. “Ask your friend Littlefinger. He calls me the policeman with the silver shinbone.”

He regretted his joke at the look of pain in her eyes. “Sandor….”

“Don’t worry about it, little bird. I cope.”

He shuffled a bit awkwardly. “I’ll be going, then.”

“Wait!” Sansa pleaded. “This isn’t fair! You know everything I’ve been up to these last seven years, but I know next to nothing about you!” She placed her hand on his arm. “Please, tell me everything."

He almost laughed. She was like the beseeching, spoiled little Stark girl again, coquettishly trying to pry a favor from him. She tore playfully at his heart. “Later, little bird. Later.” He tried unsuccessfully to hide his smile at her childish look of disappointment.

His manner became more serious as he said, “Hate to do this, little bird, but you’ve got to stay in your nest for the time being. I’ll send a cop along to stand guard soon as I can, though it might take a while to call in the ones looking for Redfern. Don’t use the phone, either.”

Sansa hurried after him as he headed to the door. “But I have to let my friends know I’m alive, not to mention my employer!"

“Sorry, kid, but I insist.”

Her hands placed defiantly on her hips, she asked, “What, am I under arrest?”

He smirked. “No, but if anything should happen to you this time…” again, those gruff eyes turned so warm. “I wouldn’t like it.”

She chided herself for the flutter in her heart like a giddy school girl’s.

In a quieter voice she asked, “But what about Arya? And the boys?”

He paused. She recognized the twist in his cheek. “I’ll send them a telegram,” he answered, so much gentleness packed into that harsh, rasping voice.

She sighed in relief.

“All right,” she agreed.

He finished putting on his coat.

“Just one more thing….” There were deep flames in his eyes now. “You might as well know what I know, some of it, at any rate. Save a lot of unnecessary fencing. I know you ran up to your cabin this weekend to make up your mind whether or not you were going to marry Harrold Hardyng.” A tense beat. “What did you decide?”

Hard as he was trying to pass this question off as police business, he fooled neither himself nor Sansa. Both had her journal entries about Harry, about Sandor, in the back of their minds.

But what does he want my answer to be, Sansa thought, studying him. Does he want me to get over him and marry Harry, or…does he want me to really mean what I wrote about him in my journal?

Their eyes locked and without even thinking, she heard herself reply, “I decided not to marry him.”

Again he was unreadable, but she caught the quick upward twitch of his mouth.

“Good night, little bird.” His voice was heavy. His great hand just scarcely brushed her cheek, but she melted anyhow. Still fifteen and stupid as hell, she thought dreamily.

He was gone.

She waited but a moment before speeding to her phone.

Her hand was on it, but she hesitated.

She looked at the door thoughtfully.

Sandor….

She closed her eyes. Had he really been here? Was she awake, or dreaming?

Sandor.

Chapter Text

Sandor knew if he wasn’t to keel over after the emotional upheaval of her return, he had to focus. One step at a time, one task at a time. The stoic policeman again.

He sped down the precinct’s steps to the basement. He knew Meribald would still be at the switch, and with any luck, the chief would be down there, too.

Sandor could already hear the two men speaking in tense, surprised voices as he neared the bottom floor.

“Does Sandor know?” Meribald was asking.

“I just got the news myself! Try to get him on Stark’s phone.”

“No need, chief,” Sandor said, entering the room, avoiding their eyes.

Meribald sat at the switch, and Ray stood with a report in his hand that he waved at Sandor. “Clegane, you’ll never believe it! This is the medical examiner’s report. It wasn’t Sansa Stark that got bumped off. It was Saffron Redfern!”

The heat in his eyes hidden by the rim of his hat, all that was visible was Sandor’s dark smirk as he said, “Kinda shakes up the whole operation, don’t it?”

Ray laughed, darting a bemused glance at Meribald. “Yeah, no kidding!” All at once he frowned, turning back to Sandor. “You’re certainly taking the news well.” He tilted his head, studying Sandor with that skeptical look back on the chief’s face. “Know something we don’t?”

But Sandor stilled him with a hand on his arm; they all heard the tell-tale tapping. A call was being made from Sansa’s apartment.

Sandor picked up the receiver and held it slightly away from his ear, so the two men gathering around him could hear.

“Hello?” Sandor’s jaw tightened. Harrold Hardyng’s sleepy southern drawl.

Another dart in his chest as the other voice answered, “It’s Sansa. I”

The sleep fled Harrold’s voice instantly. “Don’t say a word over the phone. Meet me in front of Highgarden right away, I’ll be there in my car,” he instructed rapidly.

He hung up. The connection was broken.

Meribald pointed dumbly at the phone. “Wait a minute, was that--?”

“Yeah,” Sandor answered in distraction. A primal rage was brewing inside him, and he knew Ray was observing him closely.

But he couldn’t care at this point.

She’d lied to him. Worst, she’d lied to him then called Hardyng.

Hardyng, whose tense, desperate voice held no hint of surprise hearing his dead fiancée’s voice on the other end of the phone, in the dead of night.

“Birds are always pulling a switch on you,” he ground out in a bitter growl.

“You knew she was alive,” Ray said, head leaned back as he took in his detective. “You saw her there at the apartment tonight, didn’t you?”

He at last got a close look at the flames in Sandor’s eyes and came to the conclusion something deeper than even this strange case was tearing at Sandor. He’d never seen him like this except when remembering a certain little –

“I’ll explain on the way to Highgarden,” Sandor answered. “Come on.”

 

The rain had not abated. If anything, it seemed to grow ever stronger as it beat down on the car concealing the huddled form of Sansa Stark and Harrold Hardyng in the front seats.

From across the street in his own car, Sandor could not easily make them out.

A streetlight near the car was the only illumination. Sandor thought he saw in Sansa’s stance an unwillingness to stay for long, as if she were ready at any moment to speed out. But she was speaking in a calm, measured way; therefore it wasn’t out of fear of Hardyng.

She was a smart young woman. She remembered Sandor was going to send a policeman to guard her door. She simply wanted to get back before he arrived.

After a silent half hour, during which he knew Ray was burning holes in the side of his head, Sandor saw Sansa at last leap out and rush into her own car, parked behind Hardyng’s.

Swiftly Sandor said, “I’ll tail Hardyng, chief. Just make sure she gets back all right.”

“Hey, who’s the one who gives orders around here?” At Sandor’s look, he said, “All right, all right. Just don’t lose your head, Clegane.” He left to hail a taxi, and Sandor drove off in the rain, after Hardyng’s car.

 

Great, now there’s thunder and lightning, Harrold thought to himself an hour and a half later as he made his way down the narrow road through the trees. The weather was even crazier up north, here in the middle of the woods.

Just like out of some old gothic story. Feel like I’m entering Castle Frankenstein.

But he braved the downpour anyway, his jacket collar up as he hurried inside.

Once he was in and he turned the lights on, he took his time. He’d been to Sansa’s cottage a few times; never alone, always with a group. Empty he would have ordinarily appreciated more the quiet décor and woodsy atmosphere Sansa had cultivated, but right now he simply craned his head around corners and peeked upstairs – for what, he wasn’t sure.

But caution was his watchword as of late.

Once he was comforted he was alone, he approached the mantelpiece. He grabbed hold of the shotgun –

“Are you taking it down or putting it away, Hardyng?”

Harry whirled around, unconsciously clutching the gun closer.

Sandor Clegane leaned against the door, spinning the police copy of the key around his finger.

His lips were twisted in his usual smug way, but his eyes were even more searing than usual.

Harrold felt real fear as the detective approached.

But Sandor only took the gun from Harrold – the southerner was too numb to put up a fight – then cocked it and stared down into the barrel.

“Hmm, it’s been fired recently.” That thick eyebrow on the good side of his face twitched. “How about that?”

Promptly Harrold answered, “Yes, shot some rabbits with it a few weeks ago when Sansa had a few of us up. Sansa about had a fit, she hates that sort of thing.”

Sandor observed that Harry was already shifting back into his casual, affable man about town role; his hands were in his pockets, and he rocked slightly back and forth on his feet. Only his face was too immobile, and his eyes strayed too far away, up to the ceiling.

Sandor peered down the barrel again. “Country boy like you knows about guns, right?”

“Sure.”

“How come you didn’t clean it when you were done?” He put the barrel back up.

Harry shrugged. “Forgot, I guess.”

“H.H.,” Sandor read off the hilt. “Your initials?”

“Yes, I gave it to Sansa for protection up here. She didn’t want it, but I insisted. This place is pretty isolated, you know.”

“Did you teach her how to use it?”

“No.”

“Does she know how?”

Harrold’s voice became more clipped. “I don’t know, I didn’t think to ask.”

Sandor’s gruff laugh came from deep in his throat. “You’re a vague bastard, aren’t you, Hardyng?”

“Haven’t spent a lot of time studying my own character, detective.” His voice was dead. He buttoned his jacket, cast his eyes down to the floor.

Sandor was quite casual as he sat down in a nearby armchair, the gun lying across his lap.

“You’re not going to tell me you borrowed it recently, are you? You’re not bringing it back.”

“You followed me here, you saw me take it down, you know!” Harrold, finally exhausted in his efforts to remain cool, collapsed in the rocking chair opposite Sandor.

Sandor merely unwrapped another stick of gum. “You realize the spot you’re in, bub?”

Harrold still would not look at him.

Sandor popped the gum in his mouth then said in-between chomps, “You took Saffron Redfern up to Sansa’s apartment that night. You knew all along it was she that was murdered, not Sansa.”

Harrold said nothing.

“It never occurred to you that Sansa would come back and spoil the whole thing?” His hand suddenly curled into a tight fist from where it rested on the arm of the chair. “Or did you plan to kill her, too? Stash the body away someplace and cover the whole thing up?” His voice was a Rottweiler’s growl over grinding gravel.

Harrold offered a weak laugh, but his face was pale. “You’re getting almost as melodramatic as Baelish, Clegane.”

“Shut up.” The words were a whip on Harry’s neck. Sandor was through with games. He slowly lifted himself off the chair and loomed over Harry. With the rain shaking the branches in the windows behind him, Sandor’s scars and coal-like eyes were lit by an inhuman, supernatural play of shadows. His eyes probed deftly into Harrold’s guilt. “Where’d you get that key to her apartment, Hardyng?”

Panic bright in those country blue eyes. “I – I told you! Sansa” –

“Sansa never gave you a key, don’t give me that crap.” In his fervor, Sandor forgot his own suspicions, and Sansa was vaulted again far above the perspiring blond sap before him.

Sandor crouched down on the foot of the fireplace, eye to eye with the shrinking Hardyng. “Spill it.”

The rough urgency got to Harry. He broke.

“Sansa keeps a spare key at the office. I went over and got it. I’d asked Saffron to have dinner with me. I wanted to…settle things between us. Once and for all. The crazy kid. She – she, well, she talked herself into thinking she was in love with me.”

Sandor said nothing as the bile rose in him, watching Harrold struggle so valiantly with his precious modesty.

“I couldn’t take her out in public anymore, she was starting to make scenes she was so upset! She couldn’t take me home to her father’s, and there are always a lot of people buzzing around my hotel lobby – so, I – well – I just sort of decided it would make sense to take her to Sansa’s.”

Sandor flinched in amazed contempt. “Your fiancée’s home? Really? That’s where you thought it would be best to take your lover?”

Harry shook his head helplessly. “I know how it sounds, and who knows, maybe I was crazy to do it, but things were getting so frantic with Saffron I wasn’t thinking straight! All I knew was that Sansa was going away for the weekend. Her place is so quiet and private.” His hands were as heavy and lifeless as a dead man’s as he flopped them up and then back down in a helpless gesture.

Maybe. Or maybe they both got a secret thrill fucking around in his intended's digs.

“Okay, fine. Go on.”

Harry swallowed and his eyes raced around, and so Sandor knew to be on the lookout for omissions, embellishments. “Well, we – we talked for about…oh, I can’t remember exactly. But it was dark.” He sped over this. He apparently hoped Sandor wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t come to the natural conclusions about what sort of “talking” they did.

Harrold’s face suddenly grew white as chalk, forgetting scandal for the moment. “Then…then the doorbell rang.”

Another swallow, and this time Sandor saw honesty in the glazed look of fear in Harrold’s staring eyes as he looked back in his mind at that night. “Saff was frightened. But I wasn’t taken aback, because knowing Sansa as I do, nothing surprises me.”

Sandor’s eyes narrowed and his voice was sharp. “What do you mean by that?” She’s not hiding anything. She’s not. She is, but not…not….

He breathed a quiet sigh of relief at Harrold’s innocent explanation. “Oh, a girl like Sansa, her friends come to her at all hours of the day and night with their troubles. They know they’ll never be turned away.” An odd flicker of pride in Sandor, which he quickly shoved down.

“All right, all right. Keep going.”

“I told Saffron to go answer the door.”

“Saffron? Why not you?”

“Supposing one of Sansa’s friends found me there! How would that look?”

Like you were a conniving, cheating bastard. “Why open the door at all, then?”

“Whoever it was must have seen the light.”

Sandor snorted. “And Saffron and her reputation? I suppose she didn’t count?”

Harrold shrugged with infuriating simplicity. “I told her to say she was looking after the place while Sansa was away. Anyone who knew Sansa would believe that.”

Sandor arched his eyebrow. “And if this friend just happened to mention Saffron’s presence to Sansa when she came back? Didn’t you think of that?”

God, but he hated that sad puppy look in Hardyng’s eyes. “I couldn’t think that far ahead! The doorbell was ringing again, and we had to act fast! I just wanted whoever it was to go the hell away, and I’d worry about the rest later!”

Sandor shook his head and laughed silently. Sighing, he said, “Go on.”

He noticed Harrold’s hands tremble. His upper lip was covered in sweat. His face was grim.

When he spoke again, it was as if his voice were far away, back in the apartment. “I could hear Saffron’s mules – Sansa’s, they were – clacking across the bare board between the rugs. I heard the doorknob turn.” He sucked in a great breath and said in a startlingly clear voice, “Then I heard the shot.”

He seemed to collapse in on himself. He was actually wringing his hands. “Holy shit, it was a terrible explosion. Shit. My heart just about stopped. I felt like I was sleepwalking when I rushed out. By the time I reached her the door was closed, as if no one had ever been there. She lay there on the floor….” He trailed off, his eyes still wide open in remembered terror.

“Didn’t you go outside, try to see who it was?”

“I couldn’t do anything!” He practically screamed. “I was in shock! I was confused, horrified, I don’t know what. I – I don’t think I even fully grasped what had happened at first. See, it was so dark – the light was only on in the bedroom and the living room -- and all I saw was a vague heap lying there.” He furrowed his brow, trying to recall. “I think I called her name, but I sure as hell can’t be certain. I eventually got my wits together enough to feel for her heartbeat…when I knew she was dead, I…I wanted to call the police….”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he covered his face in his hands, massaging his temples. “I just ran out of the apartment. You see, I – I was afraid for myself, yes. But also for Sansa!” Sandor was unnerved by the honest look of pathetic affection in his face. “In a panicky sort of way, I felt I must keep out of it to keep Sansa out of it.”

And poor Saffron. She didn’t figure in at all. Sandor chewed his gum fiercely as Harrold continued, “Oh, I know now how stupid and poorly thought out it all was, but only one thing was on my mind – the safety of someone who meant more to me than my own life. Don’t you understand that?”

What Sandor understood with detached clarity in that moment was that Harrold completely believed what he’d said, but still, still, it was a lie.

He turned slowly to Harrold. “Did you think she’d done it? Sansa?”

He expected an immediate answer, and so was disconcerted by the way Harrold continued twisting his hands together before he answered. “I don’t know what I thought. I was too mixed up.”

Sandor watched him very carefully. “Do you think so now?”

“No.” Here the answer was immediate, and right away Sandor knew that it was not the true answer.

“Because you did?”

“No.”

Sandor ran a tired hand through his hair then stood, pacing. “I’ve read the police reports. When our men told you the news Saturday morning, they reported you seemed genuinely shocked Sansa was dead.”

“Well, I was! I hadn’t expected that mistake!” He was standing next to Sandor, practically breathing down his neck in his efforts to convince him.

Sandor merely shrugged him off with the same sardonic bark of a laugh. “But you had that alibi about the concert ready no matter who was reported dead. But once Sansa showed up, you knew it wouldn’t stick, that everything would fall to pieces.”

“I tell you, I was incapable of thinking that far ahead!” Harry hounded the Hound’s steps, always at his back as the words tumbled out. “I couldn’t think about anything.” Yet you were still able to turn up the schmooze, the charm throughout; lying through your teeth in that honeyed southern drawl.

Sandor crushed his gum into a nearby ashtray. “What did you and Sansa talk about tonight?”

Again the shrug, again the rise and fall of dead, useless hands. “I told her everything I’ve just told you. The whole story.”

Sandor couldn’t look at him anymore. He spoke in a low rumble. “She called you after promising me she wouldn’t reach out to anybody. What’d she want?”

The shuffling southern evasions were back. “Well, I’d say it’s natural she’d want to see me after everything that’s happened” –

“You mean she knew you’d be the only one dumb enough to bring Saffron to her apartment, so you’d know all the details.” He shot him an unfathomable glare. “She didn’t send you up here to get rid of that gun, did she?” His voice was strangely hoarse. He turned to her radio, studying it so that Harry couldn’t see his face.

Harry’s answer was testy. “No, she did not. She has no idea I’m even up here. It was all my idea.”

Sandor was almost comforted by the answer – until he turned the switch and the radio blared out big band music, loud and clear.

His veins felt on fire. His hand hovered over the radio’s knob.

He heard his voice ask, “Sounds just fine, doesn’t it?”

“Did you expect it wouldn’t?”

Sandor closed his eyes. The pain, the heartache, was unendurable.

“I’d hoped it wouldn’t.”

Harry noticed the shudder that ran up the detective’s broad shoulders.

“Come on, let’s get the hell out of here,” Sandor said at last. He walked toward the door like to his own gallows. “You’re not under arrest, but you’re not to leave town. You’d be a fool to try.”

He opened the door and the two men walked into the rain. They both were oddly relieved that the rain was there, to flood over them and wash away the storm of emotions brewed inside the quiet cabin.

Chapter Text

Sansa could barely sleep that night. Whenever she started reflecting on Harrold and her conversation with him she’d shudder and turn away, seeking desperately for something else to think about – which would lead her inevitably to Sandor. No help with sleep there. Here were emotions just as conflicted and mystifying as after speaking with Harry; but for different, subtler reasons.

She stared up at the ceiling, dyed a deep blue in the darkness. Should she be feeling fear, uncertainty?

It was hard to feel truly afraid now that she knew he was so close by.

Alive.

She suddenly laughed to herself joyfully, covering her mouth.

He was alive. He was safe. He was a detective -- a detective! -- watching over her as always.

Only now –

Now he was the one afraid; not because she threw herself at him like she did as a young girl, but because he –

He might suspect her.

But could he really? After all they’d been through?

At this a wave of indignant fury. What was his game, anyhow? She turned restlessly in her sheets. She raced rapidly through her memories of their time together, the images whipping past like the pages of one of those children’s flip books she used to read to Rickon.

She tried to examine each image dispassionately, in order to finally figure him out. First there was the picture of the terrifying Hound growling at her at the airport, his scars a mottled, angry red slash against the gray Chicago sky. There was the night he told her drunkenly all about his burns, his brother, and his family, alternating between a rough sardonic humor, a murderous rage, and a haunting despair staring out of his wild eyes.

Then –

Then there was the gentleness. A quiet, distant gentleness, revealed only after her father’s death. She knew even then there was a fair amount of pity underlying his kindness to her in the aftermath, but that wasn’t all he felt. No, that wasn’t all.

After all, when she told him how she felt and sang for him, he rejected her but he cried in her hand. He left her his police jacket.

He kissed her.

He took a song and a kiss, and left me nothing but a dusty old policeman’s jacket.

But what good did all this wondering and worry about Sandor Clegane do her in the end? Either way, nothing would ever happen between them. Not now. Tears stung her eyes. She’d decided that tonight…she and Harry.

She slept late next morning. When she finally woke, her face looked pale and wan in the mirror. With the faraway but still vital memory of the Hound’s cruel mouth on hers, she methodically brushed out her hair, pinned it up, and got dressed.

Yet she still sat staring into her own eyes. She asked herself the same question she had obsessively for years: was the kiss out of pity, or --

She started at the knock on her front door.

She nervously hurried out and looked through the peephole. Her breath hitched. She waited a moment, then opened the door.

Sandor entered holding a paper bag full of groceries.

He avoided her eyes. “Good morning,” he grumbled.

“Same to you.” She indicated the bag. “What’s all this?”

At last his eyes met hers, coolly. “You didn’t do any shopping when you went out last night.”

He said it in such his old careless, bitingly sarcastic way that immediately flames lit her cheeks. She resented how casually he ambled into her kitchen. Head deliberately held high, she followed him.

He placed the bag on the counter, and spoke with his back to her. “I’ll start the bacon and eggs. Where’s your coffee pot?”

Her voice was just as cool as she answered him. “I don’t drink coffee. Upsets my stomach. But I can take care of the eggs if you like.” She turned on the burner.

She bristled as he laughed. “Don’t tell me the little lady learned how to cook?”

She sniffed in such a lofty way he felt a secret delight. She was almost like the carefree young Stark girl again, putting on her innocent airs. “I’ll have you know I’ve picked up a few things from Shae over the years.” Her eyes darted to him with an almost shy humor. “Although I don’t claim to be Betty Crocker, of course.”

He chuckled as she breathed a sigh of relief when the yolk didn’t separate after she cracked the first egg. She mock-frowned and said, “I don’t remember you being such a cheerful morning person.”

“Same to you.” He looked her over, took in her pale drawn look. “Can see you still aren’t.”

This time she meant her frown. How dare he come waltzing back into her life again, only to make her feel the gawky teen all over?

A sharp word was on her tongue but was stilled by the sound of a latch unlocking. It was the kitchen door leading out to the corridor.

Serious now, Sandor held out his hand to her for quiet. “Don’t move.” He flattened himself against the wall by the door. They could hear voices in the corridor, one masculine and one feminine.

The masculine one said, “I can’t believe you let the Hound trick you into thinking you have to come back here the rest of the week. What do you expect to accomplish?”

The feminine one, heavily accented, said, “Her sister and brothers will probably stay here when they arrive, so the least I can do is make sure it’s clean and comfortable for them. I” –

The voice said no more, for Shae finished unlocking the door, entered, saw Sansa, and screamed, covering her face.

Tyrion stood behind her, mouth uncharacteristically dropped open at the sight of Sansa standing there.

Sansa immediately rushed to her friend’s side, grabbing her in a fierce hug. “Darling Shae, beautiful Shae! I’m so sorry for the nasty shock!” In truth, it was difficult for Sansa to see Shae in such a state, breathing out shuddering sobs. Shae was like an older sister to her, always the cool and collected one who took control when Sansa was unsure and afraid. Now –

Sandor watched as Sansa stroke her friend’s back. “It’s okay, Shae. I’m alive. It’s all been a mistake. It was Saffron Redfern who was killed. Tyrion, why don’t you take her to my room, get her a drink and let her lie down?”

Shae pulled away, a look of shocked befuddlement on her tear-stained face. “But – I saw you with my own eyes” –

Sansa smiled. “Did a ghost ever offer you a drink before?” She squeezed her arms. “You’ll be all right.”

Shae seemed to relax, slowly. “Dear girl,” she whispered. She hugged her again, holding her tightly. “Dear girl.”

“Come, Shae,” Tyrion at last said quietly, taking her hand and steering her away. Still a little speechless himself, Tyrion nodded dumbly at Sansa, who couldn’t help feeling amused at the usually suave artist’s deer-in-the-headlights look.

After they left, Sandor rasped close to her, “Forget something?”

Sansa glanced at him questioningly. Then she smelled the smoke. “Oh, for the love of --!” She quickly turned off the burner. She waved away the smoke from the pan and her shoulders slumped at the sight of the blackened eggs. With a weary gesture she threw them into the garbage.

Sandor’s chuckling was the last straw.

“Look.” He was amused by her stance, hands on hips as she took him to task. “Instead of standing there yukking it up, why don’t you explain why you didn’t inform Shae and Tyrion I was alive? That was cruel.”

He followed her out to the living room. “Reactions are important right now. Genuine reactions. With that in mind, I’ve invited Petyr Baelish over this morning.”

She whirled around, eyes wide. “Without telling him about…?”

He nodded.

She sat heavily on the couch, groaning. “Sandor….”

“I’m not doing this for kicks, little bird.” His eyes narrowed on her. “Now. Tell me. Why did you break your promise to me? Why did you go out last night and see Hardyng?”

She shivered at the way his voice snarled around Harry’s name.

But it was a composed countenance she gave him as she said plainly, “You forced me to give you my word. After everything that happened in Chicago, I made a promise to myself. Never again would I be bound by anything against my free will.”

His mouth twitched. In a way, he was pleased she showed no remorse. Her clear-eyed frankness was preferable to any apologetic simpering.

She owns that fierce wolf in her now. She still chirps and flutters about, but nonetheless the little bird's grown admirable fangs.

Before he could reply to her, the doorbell rang. He saw her jump in her seat. “Wait here,” he told her.

He could sense her anxiety about facing Petyr.

But when he answered the door it was Hardyng standing there. His expression was quite different from the defeated lug of yesterday. There was a cheerful smugness in his dancing eyes, his lopsided smile. He held his hat in one hand, a corsage of white orchids in his other.

The hell is he doing here?

Hardyng bowed his head. “‘Morning, lieutenant.” He sauntered past him with the dangerous grace of a panther, stopping in front of Sansa.

“And good morning to you, angel.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek. He handed her the corsage.

Sandor’s heart raced, but still he expected her to stiffen and dismiss him.

Instead an enigmatic grin graced her face. “Why, thank you, dear.”

She sniffed the orchid and looked into Harry’s eyes with bright, friendly, bland eyes.

Sandor’s voice sounded very far away when he said, “So. Back on, I see.”

She shivered again. She recognized the strain of…violence…of resigned grief in those distant tones.

Could he really care? His mouth was so hard on mine that night….

But Harrold simply laughed. “Why, do I need a permit to kiss my lady good morning?” He sat down beside her and squeezed her knee.

Blind little bird, Sandor thought with a growing ferocity under his numbness. Blindly flying into the sun.

He swallowed against the thickness in his throat. He stared down at her, his hands on the back of the sofa. “So, that’s what happened last night. He made you change your mind.” Look at me, he silently implored her. Look at me. Tell me you’re not falling into that old trap again. Did you learn nothing from Joffrey?

But she just passively sniffed the orchid again, letting Harrold speak for her. “I’ve actually changed my mind about something, lieutenant. It’s about what I told you last night.” He spoke with the buoyancy of the arrogant sportsman. “You see, I just paid a visit to my lawyer. He told me that anything I might have said last night was made under duress and can’t be used against me. Anyway, none of it was true.” He grinned at Sansa as if they were sharing a private joke. Her face was empty.

Sandor ground his teeth. So the trust fund matinee idol is smarter than he looks.

He balled his fists. “Clever lawyer you've got there, Hardyng. I’m sure he’ll be able to weave a pretty web of lies in court. I’m sure he'll find it easy to explain why Saffron Redfern was here that night, why she was drinking your liquor, why” –

The doorbell again.

A heavy silence. Sansa’s face went white: she knew for sure who it was this time.

She closed her eyes as she heard Petyr address Sandor once he opened the door. “Well, Clegane? Have you thought over my proposal from last night? All I need do is call the collection agency and” –

He lazily turned toward the drawing room.

He jerked still as if struck by lightning.

All life fled the green-gray eyes locked on Sansa.

And nothing had frightened Sansa so much since coming to New York than seeing her ever-composed, knowing, and masterful mentor fall to the floor in a faint. “Petyr!”

She rushed to his side, helping Sandor get the weak man to his feet.

But Petyr lagged limp, his head lolling, quiet whimpering noises his only articulation.

Shae, fully recovered, ran out at the sound of the thud, Tyrion behind her. “Here, Sansa, put him in here!”

Shae, Sansa, and Sandor at last succeeded in getting him inside, closing the door behind them.

Tyrion and Harrold stared at each other for one silent moment.

Then both men burst into laughter, thrilled at the sight of their fallen foe.

 

Yet when Sandor and Sansa finally emerged, leaving Shae in charge of pouring whisky down the prostrate Petyr’s throat, Harry had sobered and addressed Sandor sternly. “Lord knows I don’t like that man, but there ought to be a law against your methods, Clegane. Just not right to put a man through that.”

Sandor grunted. “You’re one to talk about what’s right and what isn’t, Hardyng.” He squinted at Sansa. “Why the hell you covering up for a puffed up moron like him?”

Harry flushed red. “Now see here, I” –

But Sandor ignored him, pinning Sansa with his glare. “What cockamamie story did he feed you last night, anyway? Huh?”

Sansa fidgeted and raised her head, an odd mix of awkwardness and affronted pride in her stance.

Once again, Harry spoke before she could. “Don’t answer him, honey. Let him talk to our lawyer.”

Sansa flinched at the steely rasp in Sandor’s loud laugh. “Our lawyer? What, you both covering up for each other now? Is that it?”

At last Sansa faced him, panic in her blue eyes. “Sandor, please! It’s not like that, I” –

“Oh, ignore him, Sansa,” Harry sneered. “Our fine detective here is cracking up, that’s all. He’s so used to being a big shot in the headlines that he’d do anything to make an arrest.”

“This is getting awkward,” Tyrion interjected casually from the bar.

Sandor grimaced at Hardyng. “Oh, I have more than enough to put you behind bars right now, Hardyng.”

A slithering voice from the bedroom doorway. “Quick, Clegane! The handcuffs! Trundle him off to the hoosegow.”

There was no trace of shock or weakness left in Petyr Baelish's erect posture, in his serene expression.

“You stay out of this,” Harrold spat.

“But I always fancied the idea of you in handcuffs!”

Harry rounded on him. “Why don’t you play the prima donna again and swoon away? That was the only time you ever kept your damn mouth shut.”

“Oh, stop, all of you!” Sansa at last snapped. The fire in her eyes turned them into brilliant sapphires. “You’re all acting like maniacal little children.”

Petyr’s gaze simmered as he took in Sansa. “My dear, you have no idea how delightful it is to be scolded by you again.” He touched her hair. Sandor thought he saw her recoil, just slightly; involuntarily, he guessed. As if following a physical instinct.

Petyr turned to Sandor. “Well, Clegane, what does Sansa’s miraculous resurrection mean for your case?”

“It’s too bad Saffron Redfern can’t come back from the dead,” he said darkly.

Petyr raised an eyebrow, taking in the somber downcast looks of Sansa and Harry, the grim expression on Tyrion’s face over his drink.

The columnist’s eyes at last brightened. “Ah! I see it now! Saffron Redfern is the poor corpse in question! Well, that clears up my confusion.” He straightened his lapels and stared directly at Harry. “There can be no question who the guilty party is, then. Go on, Clegane. Do your duty!” His face was impish with glee as he continued staring down Hardyng.

Sansa read disgust on Sandor’s face as he turned away. “You’ve made me change my mind, Baelish. For the moment. Can't stomach your satisfaction right now.”

Surprisingly unperturbed, Petyr shrugged and said with crisp efficiency, “Pity. In that case, however, we’ll have plenty of time for a little get-together tonight. You better have that maid of yours order some food and liquor, Sansa.”

She looked puzzled. “Why?”

He acted as if it were the plainest thing in the world. “We’re having a party, my dear! Everyone is coming – the head honchos at the magazine, Myranda, Willas, everyone!”

Sansa shook her head. “But – who asked them?”

He grinned. “I did! When I was in your room, and your maid was in the bathroom dampening a rag to wake me. I called my party planner, and he’s calling everyone.”

Sansa was aghast. “Petyr, why on earth did you do that?”

Tyrion snorted. “Remember, this is the delightful man who destroys lives for a living. Why does he do anything?”

“You’re wrong, Lannister,” Baelish replied. “It’s to celebrate life, not destroy it. Sansa’s life. Her return to the land of the living. Seems fitting. Don’t you agree, Clegane?” His eyes glittered nastily as he spoke to the detective. “Perhaps you can use the opportunity to tie all loose ends into a noose, eh?”

The detective in question merely marched past him impassively. “Sorry you went to all the trouble, I’ve already called them.”

Without a word more he left the apartment. Sansa cringed when the door closed behind him, as if he’d shut it right in her face.

Chapter Text

The rest of the day leading up to the party was an irritating blur for Sansa. She delved so deeply into worker bee mode – “Shae dear, help me move the coffee table; hi, Fred, it’s Sansa – yup, I’m alive – could you be a dear and send your boys over with about five cases of champagne – no, this isn’t a prank, I’m really, truly alive; Shae, where’s the iron? I want to wear that violet dress, nothing flashy tonight” – that by the time her guests arrived she was already emotionally drained.

Yet she was warmed by the happy tears in her friends’ eyes as they took her in their arms when they arrived. Editors, photographers, models – all seemed genuinely ecstatic she was alive.

How surreal: as if she was hosting her own wake.

However, sometimes there was an edge to their glances, a remote way they looked at her….

She tried to shrug it off.

Oddly enough, Sandor was one of the later arrivals. He’d predictably made no effort to dress up, and so he stuck out like a sore thumb among New York’s elite. The same rumpled trench coat, the same unshaven face.

But I wouldn’t have him any other way, she thought with a sharp pang as he approached her. “Quite the turn-out,” he said, scanning the room. He frowned disapprovingly at Petyr pouring glasses of champagne and welcoming each guest; it was too much like playing the host – or circus ringleader. This was especially comical because at the other corner of the room stood ingratiating Harrold Hardyng, mixing cocktails.

Competing hosts, eh?

He looked Sansa over. “How are you doing, little bird?”

She whistled and breathed out a disbelieving laugh. “Damned if I know. Ask me tomorrow, maybe my mind will be clearer then.”

She felt her stomach flutter like a fool’s when warmth gleamed out of Sandor’s eyes. “I remember a time when you loved parties. Like that dance held in your father's honor. You wore a pretty green dress. Pearls around your throat. You looked nervous like now, but there was pleasure and excitement that’s missing now….”

He trailed off, melancholy mixed with the warmth. “Guess I know what killed that.” He took an angry bite out of a salmon roll.

Sansa was speechless for a moment. She looked down, overcome by the raw honesty she’d never quite seen in him before. She finally gained courage and stared deep into his eyes. The violet in her dress lent her eyes a faint dark purple shade. “You know, don’t you, that you were one of the only things keeping me sane in that household?”

He looked away and ground his teeth. “I should have done more. Hell, maybe I should have taken you with me.” He gave her a rueful half-smile. “But then again, if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to provide for you like – well” -- He doesn’t want to mention Petyr, Sansa realized. “Who knows if you’d have been able to achieve what you have with some penniless mutt like me as your protector.”

Sansa lifted her head with shoulders squared. “Oh, don’t worry, Sandor Clegane. I’d have found a way.” Her eyes sparkled and her soft smile was self-assured. “I’d have found a way.”

Sandor felt drunk on her confidence, her brilliant self-possession. The little bird is a phoenix in truth. Excitement he’d never known hummed in his veins.

Yet still that cloud remained: the unbroken radio. The motive.

But that purple shade in her vast blue eyes. Her childlike smile and laughing eyes. Oh god, Sansa.

He inwardly grimaced at what he knew he must do.

 

Harry ignored the sweat prickling the back of his neck as he poured in a splash of triple sec, a shot of lemon juice. Shot of vodka.

His shoulders relaxed at the sound of a familiar, lowered voice behind him. “You’re working yourself to the bone, babe. You ought to be charging by the hour.”

He grinned at Myranda. “It’s a thirsty crowd.” His eyes softened as he took her in. “Don’t you look sweet, doll? That’s an adorable hat.”

Her smile was caring but distant behind the hat’s black netting.

Hardyng returned to the drink, closing the bottle of vodka. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Sansa wants a cocktail and I’ve left her waiting long enough.”

He moved off, but her gentle gloved hand grasped his arm. “Come on, Harry. You know this is all going to come to a head one way or another. I’m crazy about you, and you’re crazy about me. And we’re both crazy about Sansa. For her sake, we need to fix this. I’m sick of hurting her. She’s done nothing to deserve that.”

Harry took a quick look around, straining to come off casual. No one seemed to be paying them any mind.

“Well, what do you expect me to do, ‘Ran? Break it off with her? With you?”

“With her,” she said firmly.

“That’s a little nasty of you, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s a kindness. She doesn’t understand you yet, Harry. But if you marry her, eventually she will. And she’ll be miserable.”

“Boy, you sure are a sweetheart tonight, Myranda. A real sweetheart.”

“Shut up and listen to me. I understand you. I know you’re weak and can’t help yourself. Because I’m nuts, I love you for it. And you love me and need me. We belong together, because we’re both out for ourselves and know how to hustle. Plus, I can afford you.” She paled a little. “I’m not as wealthy as Sansa, I know that. I know that’s why you proposed to her instead of me. But I have enough, Harry. I have enough. Sansa isn’t a part of our world, not truly. She has charm and poise and is the best at what she does, but she still isn’t one of us. She wants a storybook romance, which you know you couldn’t sustain for long. You'd soon be wandering off to the racetrack and to another bed. You know I don't care about the other women, just as I know you don't care about the other men. But Sansa is the type to care. You can’t do this to her, you’ll make the both of you unhappy. But you have the chance to make us happy – you and me.”

Harry said nothing, just gazed ahead of him, away from her.

She squeezed his arm. “Think about it, Harry. Just think about it.”

He closed his eyes. He waited a moment, then coughed. “Excuse me, ‘Ran. Sansa needs me.”

He walked away, and Myranda’s hand fell to her side.

 

“There is one thing I don’t know that I’d like to,” Sansa said to Sandor. “You followed Harry last night, that much I picked up. But where did he go? What did you do?”

Sandor swallowed the last bit of celery stuffed with crabmeat. “He drove to your cabin.”

She was surprised. “My cabin? Why?”

Sandor raised his hooded eyes to hers. “Here he is now. Why not ask him?”

He turned away and headed toward the bar just as Harry reached her. Sansa watched Sandor skulk away. She was haunted by the look of deep hatred he shot at Harry.

“Hm, what a fellow,” Harrold observed. “Noticed him schmoozing with you. Guess he’s trying to butter you up, so you’ll talk.”

Sansa eyed him uneasily. “Talk about what?”

Harry just gave her his usual thousand-watt grin and shrugged. “Who knows? Like I said, he’s getting desperate now.”

He didn’t notice the anger in Sansa’s face. His insults to Sandor rankled with her, and why on earth –

“Harry, San – Lt. Clegane just finished telling me you went up to the cabin last night. Why?”

His voice was very low and hurried. “Well, darling, you know! I was worried about – well, that shotgun! I thought you might have forgotten about hiding it.”

Sansa squinted, mystified. “What shotgun?”

“The one I gave you!” His voice and face were as tender as a musical leading man’s when he cooed, “You don’t have to lie to me, darling.” He held up her lemon drop martini. “I’ll stand by you.”

Sansa’s face was a white mask of horror.

She sped away without looking back. She left him standing with her martini raised.

She slammed her bedroom door behind her.

Her breath came out knife-sharp, in shuddering gasps.

He – he thinks --

She jumped and then sighed exasperated at the rapid, loud knocks on her door. Oh, who the hell wants to freshen up right now?

She answered the door and could only say oof as a mass of dark hair, plaid, and rolled up jeans jumped into her arms, wrapping her skinny legs around Sansa’s waist.

“You’re alive, you’re alive!” Arms squeezed around Sansa’s neck, the head burrowing into Sansa’s shoulder.

Sansa closed her eyes joyfully, squeezing back. Through happy tears of her own, she said, “Hello, Arya.”

Arya hopped down and then punched her sister in the arm.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“For scaring me silly, thinking you were dead.”

“Well, that wasn’t exactly up to me, you know. Whoa!” Arya pulled her into a fierce bear hug. “You’re all over the place even more than usual, li’l sis.”

Nothing had touched Sansa more since coming back to life than the silent way her reckless sister hugged her, so tightly.

At last Arya pulled away, and for the first time since before Chicago Sansa saw tears in her gray eyes. She also wore a big, lopsided smile. “Glad to have you back, sis.” She said, her voice quivering.

Sansa swallowed her own tears and stroke her sister’s wild dark hair stuffed into a loose ponytail. “Boy, you got here fast.”

“I was originally going to come out for your funeral, but when the Hound wired me you were alive, I thought, hell, might as well come out anyhow!”

Sansa pressed her hand urgently. “How are Bran and Rickon? Jon?”

Arya laughed. “They were both so devastated when they thought you were dead; I thought Rickon was going to charge off to New York and track down whoever it was himself. When they found out you were alive? Rickon ran around like a wild child, actually howling like some victorious wolf cub! Bran was much calmer. He laughed and cried, and said he knew deep down it couldn’t be true. They both wanted to come, but Bran's laid up with a cold. Don't worry, he's all right. Jon’s in Canada right now with that red-headed fiancée of his. I haven’t heard back from him yet; hell, I don’t know if word even reached him yet that you were supposedly dead!”

Sansa groaned and massaged her temples. “Those poor boys. And you. I’m so sorry for putting you all through this.”

Arya swatted at her arm again, more gently this time. “Oh, shut up. I was just kidding, I know it’s not your fault.”

Sansa raised a wry eyebrow. “I don’t know if some of my friends agree with that. Most of them have been happy to see me, but a few….” She shook her head wearily. “Maybe I’m imagining things. It’s just the way some of them look at me. Like they suspect me,” she finished quietly, rubbing her arms.

Arya snorted, flopping down on Sansa’s bed. “You, kill someone? You know the only person you’ve ever thought about killing was Joffrey, and maybe me on occasion.” She beamed.

Sansa sat down beside her. “Only when you deserved it.”

“Besides, I’ll bet the Hound doesn’t suspect you.”

Arya noticed her sister's cheeks flush crimson. “I think he might.”

“Bullshit! He’s always liked you.” She twisted around to face her sister. “Can you believe he’s the one in charge of the case? What are the odds he’d enter our lives again and in this way! Did you know when he picked us up at the airport, he asked me not to tell anyone I knew him? And to not be upset if something ‘happens’ tonight?”

Sansa furrowed her brow. “What ‘something’?”

“I don’t know! He wouldn’t elaborate, but he wouldn’t let his men bring me here till I agreed.” She threw out her hands. “So….”

Sansa looked away, worrying her bottom lip. “Why would Sandor say something like that…?” she asked almost to herself.

Arya studied her closely, a sly grin crossing her face. “You like him, don’t you?”

Sansa glanced at Arya and then away again. “What are you talking about,” she scoffed unconvincingly.

Arya snickered. “I had my suspicions ever since I told you what he did for me. Your face went all gooey and sentimental, like that idiot Jeanette MacDonald you always dragged me to go see at the movies.” Her grin was wide and toothy. “You like him still, don't you?”

“Oh, Arya. I only met him last night for the first time in seven years.”

Arya noticed Sansa still wouldn’t meet her eyes. “That’s more than long enough sometimes. Anyway, he’s a lot better for you than Harry the Arse.” She stuck her tongue out in distaste.

“I thought you liked Harry.”

“Oh, I like him well enough as someone to talk about horses with, play cards with, get drunk with, all of that. But as my sister’s husband? Hell, no.”

“Why not?” Sansa’s gaze was locked steadfastly on her feet.

“Oh, come on, San. You know why. He’s – he’s never been faithful to you. You know that. Not since day one. The thing is, I don’t think he’s a deliberately bad guy like a con artist or something, I just don’t think he can help himself! He might really care for you, but that won’t stop him from spending all your money on girls and gambling. You know this, Sansa. You know you’ll never be happy with him.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Her voice was so quiet, distant.

Arya fidgeted. “Well, I” – she sighed. “I thought that maybe if he could get you away from Littlecreeper, a few years of unhappy marriage might be worth it. You could dump him after awhile and then be free of him and Baelish.”

Arya braced herself. She expected Sansa to scold her as she always did when Arya went after Petyr. Instead, Sansa merely gave her a very long -- and frightened? – look.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, Arya knocked shoulders with her and said, “Besides, I know how stubborn you get when you’re infatuated. No way was I going up against that.”

Sansa closed her eyes and laughed softly. “Okay, okay.” Sighing out her tension, Sansa stood. “I’m so glad you’re here, Arya. The guest room is already made up, so you can” –

“No need,” Arya said, running her hand back and forth on Sansa’s bedspread. “Gendry and I booked a hotel room. That’s why we’re a little late, we had to check in.”

Sansa blinked. “Um, you booked a hotel room with whom?”

Arya rolled her eyes. “Gendry! Gendry Waters! I’m sure I’ve mentioned him to you before.”

Another blink. “Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. That’s not what’s concerning me. You’re spending the night in a hotel with him? Just who is this young man?” She was practically huffing, protective anger brightening her eyes.

Arya grimaced at Sansa’s motherly tone. “He’s a mechanic in Bellingham. He takes night classes at the college.” She shot Sansa a death glare. “And don’t you dare wrinkle that hoity-toity nose at me, lady.”

Sansa settled on sniffing. “Still, a gentleman wouldn’t” –

“We’re going to get married.”

Sansa’s jaw dropped. “What? When?”

Arya shrugged maddeningly. “I don’t know. Sometime.”

Sansa’s eyes rolled to the heavens. “Sweet Jesus.”

“Oh, don’t be such a crank. We want to wait until I graduate.” She grabbed Sansa by the hand and made her peek outside the door. “See? He’s the looker standing awkwardly by the h’orderves.”

It wasn’t difficult to spot him. Like his girlfriend, he wore a button-up plaid shirt with blue jeans. He was currently shifting his weight from one foot to another, glancing around uneasily at the guests in their expensive evening dress.

He was a startlingly handsome boy, with black hair and blue eyes. He looked around Sansa’s age. She couldn’t help but admit to herself that he and Arya would make a very good-looking couple. Although Arya might not have inherited Catelyn’s classic beauty like Sansa had, she was strikingly attractive in a more unconventional way – a ravishing wolf instead of a delicate dove. She did look eerily like pictures of Lyanna that Sansa had seen: dark-haired, gray-eyed, with a long narrow face that held a willful force of life, barely contained.

Sansa felt Arya pinch her arm. “Ain’t he swell?” There was lust in Arya’s voice.

When she looked into her sister’s face, Sansa saw true love in Arya’s tender eyes, hooked on Gendry.

At that, Sansa's resistance broke. “All right. Just be careful, huh?”

“Atta girl!” Arya slapped her sister ungracefully on the back. “Not that you have any say in the matter.”

Suddenly her voice took on a lower, more meaningful cadence. “You know, there’s nothing quite like a down-to-earth guy by your side who works hard and who has your best interests at heart.” Lacking subtlety, Arya nodded her head toward Sandor.

Sansa said nothing, but her expression spoke for her.

“Welp! Time for a martini!”

Arya slapped her back again and rushed off. She left her sister behind to reflect.

 

When Sansa finally emerged from her room, still pale but composed, Petyr made an immediate beeline for her. “Are you ill, dear? The delightful bloom is off your cheek.”

She was distracted. “Hm? Oh no, no, I’m fine, Petyr.” She touched his wrist lightly, but he saw that her eyes were not on him, but on the tall, broad-shouldered figure in the musty jacket with the fiery gaze and scarred face, leaning against the wall.

Petyr looked at Sansa again. He had memorized the graceful slope of her cheekbone in profile, the fine shape of the lips and eyes. These lips were parted now and the eyes misty as they took in Detective Clegane.

Petyr felt the tell-tale hatred buzzing and beating inside his blood.

“I’m in love, and his name is Brandon Stark.”

His clenched fist shook.

 

Sandor took care to look as though he were surveying the whole room with weary nonchalance; in reality, his gaze was on Sansa as she moved dream-like through the room, as she was fussed over by Baelish. The fucker’s green-gray eyes sped over her like a mockingbird pecking away at its hard-won meal.

She looked so pale. So worn out. With what? General worry about the case, or a more specific worry?

He fought the shiver working its way up and down his spine.

He had little time to dwell as the phone rang.

“I’ll get it,” he told Sansa gruffly as she reached for it.

He answered. “Yeah? Yeah, this is Clegane. Yes, that’s right. I told you I’d bring in the killer tonight.”

His bass voice reached every corner of the now silent room. All eyes were on the detective, who spoke as if discussing something no more important than the weather.

“I was just about to make the arrest when you called.”

He ignored the crowd that gathered; Harry and Myranda on one side near Shae and Tyrion; Arya holding Sansa’s hand from where she stood near Baelish.

All eyes were frozen on Sandor.

“No, I can’t tell you now. I’m not alone. You’ll see when I come in.”

He hung up the phone. The sound seemed to reverberate throughout the room.

Sandor turned to his right. Harry wore his usual mustache of sweat. Myranda stood rigid beside him, her face sharp and searing.

He approached them. Myranda recklessly took Harry’s hand. She was a lioness, and he had no doubt she’d pounce if he made a move more toward Hardyng.

Sandor smirked and walked away.

He stopped in front of Sansa. His face was unreadable as he took her in.

Sansa couldn’t breathe. His eyes seared into her, practically sizzling. She felt like they were the only two people in the room.

He turned next to Baelish. Petyr straightened and refused to break eye contact. His lips were tightly compressed.

The air hummed with an almost electric intensity.

At last Sandor's lips twisted and he turned back to Sansa. “All right, let’s get going,” he said quietly.

The blood drained from Sansa’s face. “You mean…?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“Yes.”

“You bastard!” Arya lunged at him, trying to kick him in the shin and scratch his burnt face, but Gendry Waters grabbed her around her waist.

As she struggled, he whispered in her ear. All Sandor could catch was, “Remember what he said at the airport!” This seemed to calm the girl down enough to settle on glowering and growling at him.

Shae, outside of her uniform as Sansa insisted she come as a guest tonight, sped over to Sansa, clasping her hands. “This is ridiculous! Ridiculous! You’ll get out, Sansa! They can’t possibly keep you on such flimsy pretexts!”

“And here I thought you’d changed, dog,” Tyrion said bitterly from where he stood next to Shae.

Half the room glared at the detective with Tyrion’s rage, the rest merely shell-shocked.

Myranda stumbled forward. "Oh god, Sansa," she whispered terrified. "Oh god, I'm so sorry. So sorry for everything." She stammered, close to hysterics.

“Thank you, Myranda,” Sansa said. Her voice was warm but far away, her face like one in a delirium. “Thank you. Shae, if you and Arya could be so kind as to grab me my things, please.”

A humble vibe permeated the air after her words. Everyone was slightly awed by her gracious acceptance of the situation.

Shae blinked back her tears. She grabbed the fuming Arya by the arm and dragged her to the bedroom.

“Sansa.” She turned slowly to Petyr. His face was pinched with dismay. He gripped her arms almost to the point of pain. He was but an inch away from her face, his mint-scented breath filling her nostrils. “Don’t worry, dearest. Let the pathetic flatfoot try to accuse you. We’ll fight him.” His eyes gleamed with righteous purpose. “You know I have connections. Money, influence, prestige. And my column! My radio show!” An odd smile played about his shaking lips. “Every day, millions will read and hear about you, and come rallying to your defense!”

Sandor strode forward, coming almost between them. Despite placing her under arrest, he was protective. “You sound as if you wanted to see her tried for murder.”

“Yes!” Petyr spoke in his most commanding, accusatory tones, which he usually reserved for his show when speaking of public figures who’d earned his ire. “Rather than let you blacken her name with suspicion and rumors! Try, just try to prove her guilty! Get on that witness stand with your poor shreds of evidence. I’ll expose the cheap methods you used on her. How you” –

Harry stepped up, recovering from the shock and recalling that he was the fiancé. And so it was the ghost of proud Southern Rebels that barked out, “Sansa, I warned you about this guy.”

Sansa quietly thanked Shae for her purse and jacket. “Can we go now,” she asked Sandor, turning away to the door.

“I warned you!”

Sandor cast him one black look then left, with Sansa in front of him.

The door shut and the silence hanged heavy on the stunned crowd.

Harry flinched at the voice behind him. “Too bad it wasn’t you who answered the door that night, Hardyng.”

Harry turned, surprised to see Arya so livid in front of him. “Now, wait a minute, missy. That’s no way to talk to your sister’s -- UNHH!”

He lurched forward as Arya punched him lightning quick in the stomach. She stormed out of the apartment with Gendry behind her.

The act brought life back to the crowd. The room hummed with murmured exclamations, and a group gathered around Harry, cowering in a chair. He rubbed his stomach.

“Harry! Darling, did she hurt you?”

Myranda was by his side, stroking his hair.

He suddenly grabbed her hand, nuzzling it as if for dear life. “ ‘Ran,” he whimpered. He kissed her hand and pressed it hard against his cheek in front of everyone.

Chapter Text

The sterile environment of the police interrogation room fit Sansa’s current frame of mind. She felt empty, cold; as if an iceberg had taken root where once were living organs.

Sandor looked the same – expressionless, but with a morose determination written in every line of his face, in every stiff motion of his body.

“Come in,” he said in the same expressionless tone. He turned on the light, dismissed the accompanying policeman. They were alone in the small gray room.

“Sit down.”

She took a seat at the plain mahogany desk. What looked like two spotlights supported by wiry stems were situated on both ends of the table. She felt as nervous as a child visiting the dentist, frightened by the strange foreign instruments staring her in the face.

Sandor joined her on the other side of the desk.

Her heart hammered and she felt close to hyperventilating. Sandor, my first love. Sandor, my friend. My protector in that lion’s den.

Sandor, my accuser.

She was suddenly overcome by the urge to bawl, but she was a Stark, dammit, and she wouldn’t let any man break her anymore – not even him.

And so it was a proud, haughty set of blue eyes Sandor stared into across the table, her chin stiff and immobile.

“All right,” he said at last. He moved from the chair and sat on the desk in front of her.

She flinched as he turned on the spotlights. They blazed mercilessly in her face.

He forced himself to ignore her eyes fluttering in the light, how the glare highlighted every one of her exquisite features in an oddly heavenly glow.

“Come on, let’s have it.”

He damned the excitement still thumping inside him when she turned her electric glare on him. “I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish here. Force a confession out of me? Unlikely, sir.”

How that ‘sir’ stung.

His eyes were two black holes against the incessant lights. “Why have you been holding out on me,” he rasped. “That’s what I’m trying to find out. The truth, girl. Tell me the truth. It’ll be easier on you in the long run.”

She hated the lingering kindness in his voice. She hated that it might be a trick. So she simply sneered and said, “I doubt it will make much difference. You’ve already made up your mind that I’m guilty, haven’t you?”

Bitterness she’d never known swept through her. You cried in my hand, called me little bird and touched my hair. You kissed me. And now, now, this is what you think of me?

She didn’t expect him to ask, “Are you guilty?”

“Ha! Don’t tell me you have any doubts! After humiliating me that way” – She suddenly covered her face with her hand, hiding both from the harsh light and the memories. “Dammit, I just can’t. Please, do I have to have those lights right in my face?”

A quiet moment passed, and then she released a tension she didn’t realize had collected in her shoulders as he turned the lights off.

The darkness was like a balm to her eyes as she removed her hand. “Thank you.” Always the good girl who remembers her courtesies.

He said nothing, just gazed at her. She couldn’t read anger, suspicion, or doubt in his face. But that warmth was still there, agonizing her. “No, I didn’t kill Saffron Redfern,” she finally answered him.

He stood, never taking his eyes from her. He walked around the desk to face her. “Then tell me, little bird. Why did you say the radio was broken at your cottage?”

“Because it was broken!”

“Not when I turned it on when I trailed Harry there.”

Her eyes were still gleaming proudly, her chin still stiffly raised. “Before catching the train back, I left a note at the local handyman’s to fix it.”

“Oh, yeah? How’d he get in?”

“I always leave a key under the flowerpot by the front door.”

“Uh-huh. And the handyman just happened to miss the fact that your name was Sansa Stark, who was all over the papers at that point as a murder victim?”

Sansa raised her eyebrow. “I don’t think I even left him my name, just my address.”

His lips tightened, his face a mixture of skepticism and relenting belief. “You’re far too intelligent to make up a story I could so easily break. But…you are intelligent enough to break your radio to strengthen your story.”

“Oh, brother,” Sansa muttered.

Her exasperation irritated him. In a hoarse voice he asked, “What I really want to know is why you pulled that switch on me about Hardyng?” She closed her eyes at just the faintest hint of desperation in him as he said, “You told me last night that you were calling it off.”

“I guess so,” she whispered, staring at her hands in her lap.

“So what made you change your mind?”

She wouldn’t look at him. “I don’t know. I just did.”

Letting out some of his restrained violence, he slammed his hat on the desk and perched there close to her, surrounding her.

She lost herself in that deep harsh rasp that seemed to invade every cell of her body. “Quit lying, little bird. You’re involved in a murder, girl. Unless you’re on the level with me, it won’t be easy to get out of this jam. Drop the act and tell me: did you really decide to call it off, or did you just tell me that because you knew it was what I wanted to hear?”

His stomach dropped the moment he realized what he’d just unwittingly revealed.

She turned slowly to face him. Her eyes were endless, fathomless pools, staring into him, probing….

Filled with shame and humiliation, he sharply stood and stepped back behind the desk – a professional distance. “Spill it. What did you and Hardyng talk about last night? Did he convince you to make up?”

She cringed at the light suddenly dawning in his eyes as it occurred to him…. “Or did you just agree to pretend you had?” He leaned forward on the desk, pinning her with his glare.

She glanced sideways. “Well – the way things were – I” –

He slapped the desk. “He told you that if you were to publicly break the engagement, everyone would think you did it because you believed him guilty.”

He can’t keep still, Sansa thought remotely. He came around and perched on the desk in front of her again.

She closed her eyes and slumped slightly in her seat. “Yes,” she admitted. “At least, partly. You see, I’m sure he’s not guilty. But the lug got himself into an awfully suspicious position, and people are always ready to think the worst of him.” She gave a sad shrug. “So I thought I could protect him. Well, that’s what I believed at the time. I found out tonight he only convinced me because he thought I was guilty.” She smiled cheerlessly. “In a way, it was almost noble on his part. At least, as noble as Harry is capable of.”

Sandor’s eyes swept over her, his mouth partly open in consternation as if she was a vast puzzle he didn’t have all the pieces for. In a swift, deliberately emotionless voice, he asked, “Are you in love with him?”

She stared into nothing and spoke mostly to herself. “Let’s see, the man used me for his career, cheated on me, brought a girl into my home, let her dress in my things, and inadvertently got her killed. He thinks I’m a murderer.” She shook her head, sad but sure. “I don’t see how I ever could have loved him.”

She could see out of the corner of her eye his body relax; but she couldn’t see the quick upward jerk of his lips, into a true ghost of a smile.

“Tell me again that you didn’t kill her.”

Her eyes were honest. Innocent. ‘Blue as the sunlit sea.’ Yes, Baelish is right about some things.

“No, I didn’t kill her.”

She kept her gaze steady.

Something soft and unknowable glowed deep within those hard eyes of his.

One hand in his pocket, the other on the back of her chair, he nodded toward the door. “Come on, little bird. You’re going home.”

She stood confusedly. “But – you arrested me” –

He was calm yet yearning for her to understand. “That’s what I wanted you to think, and a few others. If the true murderer thinks the heat’s off, they’ll get sloppy. Make it easier to track them.” Always, even in the midst of a strange, obsessive passion, the Hound was on the alert.

Her brows came down violently and he cursed himself for feeling so on fire at the sight of her fury. “So this was all some game? You were using me?”

“I knew you didn’t do it. Couldn’t. But I had to clear up some things first. I didn’t even book you.”

She was confounded. “What, there was no easier way?”

He stood straight and still, but she saw in his face a child – a frightened, vulnerable child. “It – it had gotten to the point where I needed professional surroundings.” His hand twitched. She saw longing in him.

She was still mad and embarrassed – but trumping these emotions now was the ecstatic teenager and the ecstatic adult, understanding what he truly meant.

His eyes shut as she once again cupped his burnt cheek. “I suppose it was worth it then.” He swallowed his groan as she kissed that burnt cheek. “Sandor.”

His large warm hand held hers.

Her heart burned when he opened his eyes and tears brimmed in them. “Let’s go,” he croaked out.

Together they left the room, Sandor shutting the door behind them.

Chapter Text

They couldn’t say much to each other on the cab ride over, with the driver just up front. Still, Sandor feasted on the gentle, mischievous looks she gave him.

At one point, she did lean over and whisper, “You know, first thing I better call Arya. You’ve almost made an enemy of her again.”

He chuckled. “Aye, I suppose so. Spitfire, that one. I’d have told her what I planned on doing, but her reaction had to be real. I only told her enough so she wouldn’t kill me on the spot.”

Sansa laughed. Sandor warmed at the sound. To think just a day ago I thought I’d never hear her laugh again.

The thought made him want to crush her to his chest, press her to him so he could feel nothing but her skin against his. He settled on squeezing her hand instead.

They arrived at her apartment, where Sandor insisted a plainclothesman still stand on guard. It was Meribald’s turn.

With a usually suppressed chivalry that only Sansa seemed to arouse, Sandor held the cab door open for her.

“I’ll see you in the morning, little bird," he said softly.

She swallowed a small grin, touched by the yearning light in his eyes. The statement had practically been a question: asking for permission.

“Until tomorrow morning then, Sandor,” she nodded to him in a parody of polite formality. Still smiling, she headed inside.

Sandor stood for a moment, watching her disappear into the building. He tried to ignore Meribald's knowing smirk.

He took one more look at the apartment.

My little bird. Safe back in her nest.

For the first time, he truly let himself analyze her re-entrance in his life, and…the way things were between them now.

How did that sweet little naïve snot from Chicago become his entire world? His very life?

How did he fall in love with her?

He swallowed. Yes. He was in love with her.

He’d known of courteous girls before. He’d known of dreamy, romantic girls. Pretty girls. So what was so different about this one?

He closed his eyes, leaned his head back. They’d always had that deep connection, he realized that now. Ever since she was a girl.

I cried her name into a pool of my own vomit. Even then, I knew how much she meant to me, even if it wasn’t the love I feel now.

He straightened his jacket, forcing himself back to reality. Underneath the dazed elation came back the central problem: who killed Saffron Redfern? He still acknowledged that Sansa had the best motive – kill the woman who stole her man. But she was innocent. He knew this now so deeply that there was no more lingering question.

Hardyng was still a viable candidate. Maybe Redfern threatened to blackmail him, and threatened to tell Sansa that she was at the apartment. Myranda, too, could not be discounted, for similar reasons as Sansa.

Yet there was something else niggling at him. He couldn’t explain it, but he suddenly knew where he wanted – needed – to go, after a quick trip to the lab.

 

“I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Baelish is not in,” Petyr’s butler told Sandor not an hour later.

“That’s all right, he told me to wait for him here.” Sandor didn’t know what impulse led him to lie, but there was something itching in him – he had to get inside.

Kettleback was obviously skeptical, but Sandor’s formidable presence and police badge made him relent and stand back.

Sandor took another look around the spacious drawing room as Kettleback disappeared into the kitchen, after darting Sandor another disapproving glare.

Yes, the décor was eerily like Sansa’s. The same delicate crockery, antique furniture, lush rugs. Yet there was a hearty warmth in Sansa’s apartment, even when he thought she was dead, that was missing in Petyr’s. Sansa’s home was filled with light lavender colors, pale blues, and soft pinks. There was something sterile and aloof about the color scheme in Petyr’s home: clinical greens, browns, and grays.

Still, it was a gorgeous place, with a glorious view of the city skyline from the large windows.

Sandor wasn’t the type to believe in psychic energy or any of that crap, but still…. Sansa’s home held a melancholy gentleness in her absence, while an air of violent stillness filled Petyr’s empty drawing room.

Just why am I here, checking every corner as if a ghost were to appear at any moment?

He raised his shoulders, working out another kink in his neck. There are other things you could be doing, dog. Better things than sniffing at Baelish’s interior design.

Resigned, he headed for the door.

Petyr’s antique grandfather clock chimed the hour.

As Sandor was suddenly seized by an icy shudder, he remembered the saying “goose walked over my grave.”

He turned sharply to the clock. The twin to Sansa’s.

He stepped forward slowly, studying it as if it were a suspect in a line-up. Sandor didn’t know much about antiques, but this one was obviously a beaut. It looked sturdy yet delicate, made of cream colored marble with ivy painted in a deep violet along the sides. 17th century shepherdesses were engraved on the front, winged cherubs carved on the top.

Sandor’s eyes trailed down to the long, vertical bottom panel of the clock. A dark golden key stuck out at the side, not very noticeable.

He frowned and crouched down. A key? Why a key?

Sandor turned it and the panel opened – revealing another panel inside.

There were little knobs in the same color on the inside panel that came off easily when Sandor turned them. The panel itself did not budge.

It appeared to be a dead end.

But why the key, then? Whey an inner panel at all?

He picked up one of the knobs and tapped it against the panel.

His eyes darkened.

Hollow.

He desperately felt around for anything, a switch, or more knobs.

His hand wandered to the back of the clock, just inches from the wall. There he felt a small nub, like a miniature lever. He pushed down.

The panel swung silently open.

Sandor reached around in the darkness within. There wasn’t a lot of room but it was just spacious and long enough for –

But nothing. The panel was empty.

An electric shock ran down his spine: the other clock in Sansa’s apartment.

Sandor felt suddenly ill. Where else would Baelish disappear to at this time of night?

Heart hard in his throat, Sandor sped out of the apartment.

 

Sansa already regretted calling Petyr. Why didn’t I call Arya instead, like I planned?

She sighed as she realized still, after all that had happened, Petyr was her confidant, the first one she turned to.

It had been trained into her.

She was sitting staring ahead dreamily as Petyr circled her, his voice clipped. “I just don’t understand this, Sansa. He must be playing some sort of game with you.”

He’d noticed right away that something had happened between them. There was a romantic softness to her face that he had never quite seen before. She then told him she was dropping Harry; in the next breath, she informed him she was taking up with Clegane.

Sansa recognized right away the desperate venom that entered Petyr.

“I don’t deny he’s infatuated with you in some twisted way of his own, but a man in his field isn’t capable of any normal, human relationship.”

Sansa thought detached how little impact Petyr’s words had. Although she’d tried acting indifferent, his barbs about Harry throughout their relationship succeeded in getting under her skin. So why not now?

Because even though he was motivated by bitterness, he wasn't wrong about Harry.

He is about Sandor. He's grasping at straws.

The comfortable realization made her smile to herself.

This was not lost on Petyr. He stood right beside her, the devil on her shoulder disguising himself as her angel. “When you were unattainable – when he thought you were dead – that’s when he wanted you most.”

His blood burned as she laughed. “No, Petyr, you’re wrong. He was only happy when I came back.” Her ocean eyes swirled with fond mysteries Petyr couldn’t reach. “As if he were waiting for me.”

Petyr hid his twitching hands in his slack pockets. She wasn’t huffing or annoyed like she was when he ruined Tyrion, when he exposed Harrold. She – she didn’t seem to mind Petyr at all.

As if what he said were nothing.

And this, this was unbearable.

He became frantic. “Do you know what he called you during the investigation? ‘Bird.’ ‘When a bird is murdered, she doesn’t care how she looks.’ His exact words.”

Again, that damnable lighthearted laugh. “Oh, yes. And I’m sure he says ‘dame,’ ‘doll’, and all the rest. The full Humphrey Bogart vernacular.” She turned sparkling eyes to Petyr. “But this is a case of actions speaking louder than words, Petyr. He isn’t like that. Not really.” I also love nothing more than when he calls me little bird, thank you very much.

Her heart surged as she conjured images of him calling her that in his deep, rumbling, unspeakably warm voice.

Petyr’s words cut through her reverie like a knife. “Sansa, you have one tragic weakness. To you, a large feral mutt is the measure of a man, and you always get hurt.”

Sansa did feel a flash of anger now. It wasn’t the anger she felt when he spoke the truth about Harrold. It was the anger of knowing he’d say anything right now, anything to shame her and taint what she felt.

She controlled herself expertly as she stood and turned her back to him, staring out her window. “Yes, that’s true: too many men have hurt me in my life, ever since I was a girl. Well, no man is ever going to hurt me again. Not even you.”

When he spoke, his voice had an eerie, gentle lilt of sincerity that she’d never heard before. “I? Hurt you? Sansa, look at me.”

Quite gingerly he turned her around, his hands on her arms again. Sansa was an inch taller than Petyr without shoes; in her heels as she was now, about three inches. Yet still, still, she had to hide how cowed she was by the frenzied light in his eyes as they bore into hers. “When a man has everything in the world that he wants, except…the one thing he wants most….” He shook his head sadly. “…he loses his self-respect. He becomes bitter, Sansa. He wants to hurt someone, as he’s been hurt.”

When he placed his hands gently on the sides of her head, his fingers in her hair, she fought a wave of disgust. She silently compared how right Sandor’s heavy hands felt there to how wrong and incestuous it felt from Petyr.

He was uncaring of her physical reaction. He continued in that low, thin voice. “You were a long time realizing how unworthy Harry was. But that’s all over now. We’ll go back to the way things were.” He strived to exude his old confidence. “Besides, you can’t throw away what we have for someone you only met last night.”

He couldn’t read her slightly smiling expression, and it terrified him. “You’re wrong, Petyr. I’ve known him for years and years.”

Petyr squinted. What does she mean? She can’t be so maudlin as to suggest their love is so eternal it’s like she’s known him forever….

His heart plummeted when she explained. “He, Petyr. He was the man I spoke of the night before my birthday.” Her entire form seemed to take on a warm glow. “The man from Chicago. He was a cop who worked for the Lannisters, but betrayed them. For me.”

He lost his breath. Sansa concealed her surprise at his stricken look. “He? He’s the man?”

They heard the front door open and both froze.

Irritation filled Petyr.

“Don’t they teach anything but breaking and entering at the police academy,” Petyr spat as Sandor entered. “There is such thing as a doorbell, you know. Science’s newest find.”

Sandor didn’t miss the look of absolute crazed fury just barely contained in Petyr’s face.

And Petyr didn’t miss the sneer on the detective’s face as he leaned against the door and said, “That was the murderer’s calling card. I don’t like to remind you.” He was addressing Sansa now, coming fully into the room and stopping just a few inches away from her.

Petyr watched the sickening gentleness enter the hulking brute’s eyes as he gazed at Petyr’s -- Petyr’s -- Sansa. It was like watching a primitive caveman, a Neanderthal, approach a living, breathing Galatea.

He, he is the man? No. No. The – the world would not make sense if it were so.

Sandor spoke to Sansa. “I visited the lab after dropping you off. Thought you might like to know they tested your shotgun. It isn’t the one. The handyman also confirms your story about the key.”

Petyr stood almost between them, his eyes wide and rabid. There was a similar tinge to his words. “You see? The true key to the man’s character. First he tells you he believes you’re innocent, then proceeds to check up on you!”

Sansa inwardly cringed at the phony triumph in that desperate pronouncement.

Sandor in contrast was all calm, completely steady. He perched on the back of her sofa, skimming through his notepad lazily. “When I say I believe she’s innocent, it’s my opinion. When I submit hard evidence, it’s the opinion of the department.”

“Don’t fall for his act, Sansa,” Petyr hissed, his eyes never leaving the burnt officer. “He’d say anything to get your off your guard.”

“I could,” Sandor said. He finished a note on his pad and snapped it shut. “But I’m not.”

“I understand, Sandor.” The mischievous, loving look she saved only for the Hound pierced Petyr straight through the heart.

He snapped. His voice came out as a vicious bark. “It’s the same obvious pattern, Sansa. If Clegane wasn’t rugged and vulnerable like some great dying beast, you’d see through him in a second. He betrayed the Lannisters for you. Well, who’s to say he won’t betray you for a splashy arrest? Eh? He’s disappointed you once, remember. That’s what you said that night. ‘Disappointed in love.’”

A protective rage heated Sansa’s cheeks but when she spoke, she projected ice and winter. “Petyr, I mean to be as kind about this as I know how, but I must tell you: you’re the one who follows the same obvious pattern.” A frigid flame danced in her eyes. “Ever since I first met you, you’ve shown me off in public, but isolated me whenever anyone grew too close. First it was Tyrion, then Harry, and now I guess” –

Petyr interrupted her, clutching her hands. “Sansa! Stop this!”

Sansa looked into his aching eyes. Here was the man who took her in when her whole family seemed gone. Here was the man who coached her and helped her dreams come true.

Now she saw him for what he truly was: sad. Pathetic. Desperate.

He would never stop trying to control her. He would never let her go.

She said quietly, “I don’t think we should see each other again.”

Petyr’s face went blank. His mustache jerked twice into a disbelieving grimace. “You’re not yourself, darling.”

Sansa raised her head, and her face was like a snowy sunrise. “Oh, yes,” she whispered. “For the first time in ages, I know what I’m doing.”

Petyr could not speak for a long moment.

At last a slow black magic overtook his features. His uncharacteristic stupor transformed into a hooded-eyed, razor-sharp serenity. “Very well,” he replied in his most clear-cut tones. “I hope you’ll never have any reason to regret what will prove to be a disgustingly earthy relationship.”

His boiling eyes were now on Sandor, who was busying himself playing with an old gum wrapper from his pocket. The detective allowed Sansa her own moment without his interference.

Petyr smiled at him, giving him a slight nod. “My congratulations, Clegane. It appears you’ve won the lady fair. Do listen to my broadcast in fifteen minutes. I’m discussing the great lovers of history.”

Sansa and Sandor did not answer him. They would let him have the last word.

He turned and left. He shut the front door behind him.

He made it to the staircase when he froze.

He heard laughter. Catelyn’s laughter. Brandon’s. The sound laced the air like invasive birds chirping far above him, out of his reach.

He felt outside his body, like he might vomit or pass out.

Instead he turned and spotted Sansa’s outside kitchen door.

 

Inside the apartment, Sansa’s clock chimed the hour as it had in Petyr’s apartment.

The proud ice sculpture Petyr had left behind was thawed now, melting against the sofa by Sandor. She stared at the door Petyr had exited with a mixture of pity and relief. “Besides pretending to love Joffrey, that was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Sandor was swift. He dropped his careless act and sped to the clock. “All I need is the gun.”

Sansa watched perplexed as Sandor knelt down.

She joined him. “What are you doing?”

She gasped as he turned the key she’d never truly noticed and revealed the hidden panel inside. “What on earth…?”

“He ever give you a combination for this?”

Sansa shook her head, astonished. “I had no idea there was one!”

Sandor felt at the back and found it: the lever.

Sansa shook her head in disbelief and gave a startled laugh as the hidden panel opened.

But the laughter stopped and the blood drained from her face when Sandor opened the panel wide to reveal a shotgun. It stood out like a black streak of lightning against a calm, creamy sky.

Sandor’s cheek twitched and he took out a handkerchief. He used it to pick up the gun and held it out for Sansa’s examination, as if he were a zookeeper displaying an exotic animal.

“Seen this before?”

He didn’t need to ask. Her stricken look was answer enough. “No,” she breathed.

His voice was dark with meaning. “This clock. A gift from Petyr, correct?”

Sansa’s wide eyes met his.

Sandor stood. When he spoke, it was Detective Clegane giving his official summation. “The doorbell rang. Saffron answered the door in your negligee.” He crossed to the door and his eyes swept the space around it. “This area was dark when she opened the door. Petyr saw a girl standing there, dressed in what he guessed correctly were your things. He assumed it was you. He figured you'd lied to him about leaving town and that you were now reconciling with Harry. If Petyr couldn’t have you all to himself, he was going to make damn sure no one else did. So he let poor Redfern have it.” He suddenly cocked the gun open, almost making Sansa jump. He removed the remaining bullets.

An ancient compassion was written in every line of Sandor’s face as he said, “Both barrels, right in the face. She fell, and Petyr heard Hardyng running from the next room. So he hid somewhere, probably under the staircase. Harrold panicked and ran off. Petyr came back in and stashed the gun away in the clock. That’s why he’s been so adamant about getting it back.”

So saying, he followed Petyr’s movements and placed the gun back where he found it. He faced Sansa.

He feared for a moment that she might faint. Instead she breathed in sharply, tears in her eyes. “I knew it. Ever since I came back, I somehow knew. But I couldn’t make myself believe – Petyr, who’d taken care of me, taught me, loved me….I couldn’t believe he was a killer.”

“Those are the facts, little bird,” Sandor murmured.

Sansa shook her head. “No, it wasn’t him,” she replied numbly. “I killed Saffron.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Life returned to her features as she castigated herself. “I did, Sandor, I did! Just as though I had pulled the trigger myself.” A furrow appeared in her brow as she reasoned with herself. “Not for anything I did…but for what I didn’t do….” Her eyes were vast and tragic. “But I was weak. I couldn’t help myself. I owed him too much.”

She collapsed back in her chair, rubbing her forehead. Petyr. I let him lead me through adulthood and success…and I in turn led Saffron to an early grave.

She relaxed as Sandor’s warm hand massaged her neck. “That’s nonsense, girl. Forget it.”

“No, I can’t, Sandor. It’s in front of me all the time.”

“Listen to me, girl,” he rasped. “You’re no more responsible for his actions than you were for Joffrey’s. You hear me? Men of their sort don't need anyone to inspire them to commit murder. Their actions are their own.”

 

Petyr knew that at any moment Sandor could leave. He approached the kitchen door quickly, careful to make no sound.

He tried the handle. He was elated as it turned. The door opened silently. There was such a stampede out the apartment after Sansa’s phony arrest that no one thought to lock this door.

 

Sandor leaned over her, his hand on the back of her chair. “What I can’t understand is why you tried so hard these past few days to protect Harry.”

“I told you! I was terrified you’d arrest him! I could tell he was innocent. Harry hasn’t the courage to kill a fly. But Petyr, Petyr was doing everything he could to incriminate him.” Understanding dawned in her. “It was his way of getting rid of Harry, like he got rid of Tyrion.”

Sandor raised his eyebrows, shook his head. He grabbed his hat. “I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl, you’ve certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”

“Thanks.”

He shut the panel securely with his handkerchief. “Don’t touch anything,” he instructed. “Fingerprints will be important. I’ll need to grab some photographers, so I’m going to leave everything as is. I shouldn’t take long.” He picked up his hat. “But before that, I’m going to arrest Petyr.”

Sansa held out a hand and looked about to protest. She changed her mind and let her hand drop to her side, her gaze cast downward.

She felt his tender fingers on her chin, tilting her face up to his. “It can’t be helped, little bird. I’m sorry.”

She savored his touch. How can such a gruff voice sound so gentle?

“I understand,” she said, fighting back her tears.

He felt a pang at her brave acceptance. He shifted awkwardly.

“What is it?”

“You know, Baelish might have a point.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am an earthy sort of guy, little bird.” He looked around the apartment. “All the swanky soirees and events you go to…” a shadow fell over his eyes. “That’s not part of my world.” He studied her closely. “Can you handle that?”

He loved the piquant little look she gave him. “Well, I’m not going to stop working, if that’s what you mean.”

He laughed. “No. Believe it or not, I’m proud of having a smart girl with a good job.”

Sansa beamed. “Good. The rest doesn’t matter to me. Once upon a time I wanted nothing more than the fancy parties, the dresses, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, I still love a good dress and always will, but….” Her smile widened still. “All that is filler now. I’ll keep the friends I love close. I’ll keep you close. And I’ll work. The rest I can take or leave.” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “But I still love good food and dancing. So you will have to take me out, but I’ll let you sit out the dances.” Her eyes glittered humorously.

“Deal.” She laughed as he solemnly shook her hand.

He turned serious. “You know I’ve never forgotten you, either? All these years. You haunted me, little bird. Being apart from you was like” –

“A physical pain?”

His eyes shot to hers. “Yes,” he whispered.

“I know,” she said. “I know.”

Sandor stared at her like a desert wanderer who sees water ahead. Quite hesitantly he leaned his damaged, rough face toward her fragile one –

--And she pulled him by his tie into a passionate kiss.

Nothing had ever felt so right for the other. His hot trembling lips pressed hard against her cool, soft, and sure ones…they both felt complete.

At last he pulled away and gazed at his magnificent phoenix girl.

She gave him a small kitten's smile, her lids heavy over her eyes. “I must say, that lacked the violence of the first time.”

He started to smile, but stopped, confused. “…First time?”

“Yes! The first time you kissed me.”

He blinked. “The first time I kissed you?

Sansa felt a faint alarm at his obvious befuddlement. “Yes! Heavens, you couldn’t have been that drunk you’ve forgotten!”

“Little bird, when in god’s name did I ever kiss you?”

She was full of fury and humiliation. That kiss has obsessed me for years, and he doesn’t even remember it! Men! “You fool, that night you left Chicago! I sang for you and then you kissed me. Your mouth was so hard on mine. You were so passionate and vital.”

He was suddenly looking into the face of the starry-eyed fifteen-year-old. There was such an urgency there, a childlike trust in this delusion that he was loathe to shatter it.

And what an odd delusion it was.

But no. No, they couldn’t start out with lies.

He instead grasped her arms and growled. “No, girl, I didn’t kiss you then. But if it’s vital passion you want….” He pressed his lips to hers more firmly, with every ounce of his devotion and ardor.

When finally he pulled away from her, her mouth was swollen and she emitted a small squeak. He couldn’t help laughing, just a bit.

Humor crept into her dazed expression as well. “It must have been a dream, then.” Her fingers absently tapped her lips. “I don’t remember it being quite as dazzling as all that.”

They were both drunk on their mutual happiness.

She reveled in how hoarse his voice was. “Try…try to get some sleep for a few hours. I’ll call when I’m ready to bring the boys over.” He opened the front door and locked it from the outside, testing the handle. “Don’t let anyone in who isn’t me. All right?”

She grinned. “All right.”

He turned to the door but looked back. She saw tears deep in his eyes again and about started bawling herself.

He nodded to her and then left, closing the door behind him. Outside, he tested the handle once more. His gentle smile lingered on his face as he headed downstairs.

 

Sansa stood staring dreamily at the door several seconds after. It wasn’t until she turned the light off that her sudden loneliness struck her.

She stared at the clock and shivered.

She didn’t want to be alone right now.

As she had every day since their deaths, she wished her mother and father were with her.

Maybe I should call Arya, after all. No, she’s with her young man right now. I could suggest he sleep on the couch, or maybe even sleep with Arya in the guest room…? She squared her shoulders. No. No, dammit, you’re not that much of a senseless ninny. You can handle yourself. Besides, Gendry already has an awful first impression of you, getting dragged off by the police. What would he think if you then acted like the paranoid, hysterical nitwit who drags him out of a nice hotel to babysit you with his fiancée?

Resolved, she headed to her bedroom. She was exhausted, and Sandor did say she had a couple hours to herself before he arrived with the photographers. Might as well try to get some shut-eye.

 

The inside kitchen door nudged open. Petyr waited until her footsteps retreated before emerging. The place was plunged in darkness, but he could see enough from the light in Sansa’s room, from where it shone from her opened door.

His eyes were frozen on that light as he very quietly entered the living room. He shut the door very slowly, careful not to make a sound.

Yes, he was floating, floating above it all. But how efficient he was, even as he hovered unattached over his own body! Look how carefully he knelt by the clock, how he popped the panel open just so –

 

Sansa stopped brushing her hair in front of the vanity, as alert as a cat. She listened to the darkness outside. Probably nothing. Probably just someone opening a car door outside.

She shivered. She grabbed her floral wrap from her chair and tied it snugly around herself.

She turned on the lamp.

She stared at the radio by her bed.

She noticed her hand was raised. By force of habit, she was about to turn it on. As she had for over five years, she was about to turn on Petyr’s evening radio program.

Her hand was still raised.

All at once her heart broke.

Petyr. My friend. My mentor. How, how…?

She’d once been enthralled by his wit, his intellect. He was a fairy godfather who whisked her through New York’s high life, giving her the upscale, elegant life she’d craved in Chicago before the world shattered around her.

Always there was his approving smile in the background of every one of her successes.

But….

But there were other things, things she’d shoved away from her consciousness. Touches that lingered too long. Kisses on her cheek that pressed too hard. A scaly look in his green-gray eyes that made her feel like a caged, exotic animal he'd purchased for his pet.

She’d avoided thinking of the lustful glances, the possessive affection, for all these years. If she did pay them mind, she might well have gone mad.

How to reconcile the two sides of the man? The generous uncle with Saffron’s lustful killer?

Her hand was still suspended mid-air.

Quick, not daring to think, she turned the radio on.

 

”And thus, as history has proved, love is eternal.”

Petyr checked his actions as he heard his own voice speak to him from the other room.

“It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout centuries.”

Petyr felt almost like laughing. She’s listening to me. She can’t escape me. Why did she ever think she could? She pines for him, but it is my voice she carries with her.

“Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.”

He cocked the gun, grinning at how clever he was to do so with nary a sound. How brilliant of him to keep extra bullets in his breast pocket. A small measure of security.

 

Sansa stared at her reflection as she numbly removed her bobby pins.

“I close this evening’s broadcast with some favorite lines by Dowson.”

Sansa closed her eyes. She knew the poem. He’d read it to her often.

She fought the nausea of pain, of grief, as he recited it for the last time.

“‘Brief Life.’

“‘They are not long,

“‘The weeping and the laughter,

“‘Love, and desire, and hate.

“‘I think they have no portion in us,

“‘After we pass the gate.”

 

Sandor hung up the downstairs phone. He wanted to get the photographers here as soon as possible, so he left word at the station to meet him there when he was done arresting Petyr. When he stepped outside the building, the first figure he saw was Ray, leaning against his car and smiling with a cheerful smugness.

“What’s up, chief?”

The older man raised his thick dark eyebrows. “What’s up yourself, Clegane? I know your game now.”

Sandor was wary. “My game?”

Ray nodded. “Uh-huh.” He inched closer to Sandor, mock-whispering in his ear. “One of the men heard you call her little bird.”

Ray laughed at the way Sandor uncomfortably twisted his lips, moving from one foot to the other.

But his chief only slapped him on the back. “You idiot! Why didn’t you tell me it was her?”

“Would you have let me anywhere near her case if I had?”

“No,” he admitted. “In fact, I’ve a mind to write you up for it.”

“All right, all right. Next lunch is on me.”

“Charges dropped.”

Sandor suddenly frowned. He heard laughter behind him, too. He looked and Meribald was there, by the door, as pleased as Ray.

But all humor fled Sandor. “Weren’t you supposed to tail Baelish? Who is if you aren’t?”

Meribald shrugged. “I was going to when he came out.”

Sandor’s eyes were dark pinpricks. “He left before I did! A little over five minutes ago! Come on, let’s check the back, maybe he left that way.”

All three men dashed inside, their hands hovering instinctively over their guns.

 

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses.”

Sansa tried not to think, to feel, as she tore the bobby pins out almost violently from her hair. She could hear now, so clearly, the serpent beneath the honeyed tones. I’ve been an over trusting fool, all my life. Tears stung her eyes, but some inborn pride kept them from falling now.

“Out of a misty dream,

Our path emerges for a while,

Then closes within a dream.”

All at once Sansa was rocked by what felt like an electrical shock as Petyr’s voice spoke to her -- beside her, not from the radio.

“A dream, Sansa. That’s how it is, isn’t it? You were always a dream made flesh, and you’ll stay that way forever now.”

“Petyr!” She faced him, paralyzed. Both ignored the radio announcer ending the program.

The world whirled around Sansa. She was seeing Petyr for the first time totally bare, stripped to the bone. The eyes were wild and glassy, and sweat beaded his twitching forehead.

She saw his gun.

Oh, Sandor. Too late, my love.

“Petyr,” she struggled to sound calm, but her throat constricted. “Petyr, you already killed Saffron. That’s one life. God, isn’t that enough?”

A soft cloud crossed his face. He spoke in the quiet, tender tones of a lullaby. “One? One life is all you think I took for you? Oh, my dear sweet girl.” He clutched the gun closer to him, caressing it as if the weapon were his beloved. “Sweet thing, I’ve taken more lives than that. You innocent love, you really thought all this time Lysa’s death was a suicide?”

Another shock up her spine. Sansa shook her head adamantly. “No. No. Petyr, you’re delusional. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Yet for all the insanity emanating from him, there was hard honesty, too. For the first time. “Oh, but I do. You see, she found out about my love for Cat, even after death. She uncovered my plan to bring you here. She was hysterical. She said she’d tell the press and do whatever it took to keep you from me.” His lips curled upward into a snarl. “So I pushed her out the window. Oh, it was a glorious sound of shattered glass mixed with her banshee scream. I looked at the pool of blood under her head, far down below, as though it were a blot of paint from my own brush: the artist's masterpiece."

Sansa made a strangled sound.

He gentled, speaking in a hushed voice. “Oh, my dearest, listen. You don’t understand. It was love, Sansa. Not hate. Love that led my actions. I will show you how deep my love is. I’m sending you to the gods – what better proof of love? What better evidence of my devotion than all the blood I’ve spilt?”

A tear fell down her cheek. “Please….”

“Yes, even your father. My love was so strong it destroyed him, killed him. He might have taken Catelyn from me, but I, I, I took his life. I took his happiness with her and ripped it to shreds.”

“What --?” He was rambling, completely out of his mind. Joffrey killed her father. Why was he taking credit for that?

Then like a sickly cold hand on her spine, she remembered….

Joffrey’s secret talks on the payphone across the street.

The oblique references to an important friend, an influential friend.

An important, influential friend from New York.

From New York.

Sansa’s face was as empty as a doll’s as she asked, “You…and Joffrey? You helped him kill my father?”

Petyr’s manner was still warm, his eyes still glassy. He chuckled like he used to when she was a teenager and her naiveté amused him. “You think that inbred Lannister miscreant could have handled all the logistics himself? He was but my weapon, my means to enact my vengeance.” His face suddenly turned green with hatred. “Your father deserved no better death than at the hands of that perverted little oaf. But it took my brains to do it.”

Sansa remained still, silent.

Petyr killed my father.

There was nothing. Nothing in her heart, nothing in her mind. In the world. Everything was just flat, unreal. Nothing.

Petyr killed Dad.

Vaguely she heard the doorbell, and loud thumps against the front door.

Petyr raised his gun. “That’ll be him, Sansa. Him.” He cocked the gun. “The best of myself, that’s what you are. Do you think I’d leave it to the pawing of a second rate, disfigured, vulgar detective who calls you a bird?”

Sansa heard Sandor’s voice, muffled by the door. “Sansa! It’s me, Sandor! Open the door! Sansa!”

His voice roused her.

“He’ll find us together, Sansa. As we always were, as we always should be, as we always will be.” His finger closed in on the trigger. He aimed.

Dad.

A fire she never knew filled her to the roots of her hair.

Petyr faltered as Sansa Stark transformed into a wolf before his eyes.

Howling in unearthly rage, Sansa suddenly lunged at Petyr. He lost his balance and the gun shot off into the air as she pushed him.

Before he could regain his footing, Sansa with a great growl broke a vase over his neck, and he fell weakly to his knees at the impact. “Go to hell, you miserable piece of shit!” She hissed in a voice so deep with primal hatred it cowed him more than the vase.

However, another surge of mad strength ran through him as she hurried out the door.

 

Sandor had heard Sansa’s cry and the blast from the shotgun. His blood ran ice cold. Little bird – little bird – god, god, please no.

While Ray and Meribald threw themselves against the front door, Sandor with a war cry of his own kicked in the kitchen door and charged through. Ray and Meribald followed him.

He made it to the clock when Sansa flew into his arms. His profound relief was offset by the hysterical, bestial way she teared at his chest, howled into his neck. “He killed him! He killed him!” Her voice was strained and wild, and nothing had ever frightened Sandor so much since fire than seeing her so changed.

But all at once he was whipping her around, shielding her as Petyr stumbled out. The columnist was still wielding his gun, eyes only for Sansa.

He shot the gun –

Then crumpled to the ground.

Ray’s answering shot had entered his chest.

All that could be heard were Sansa’s shuddering, keening sobs, muffled against Sandor’s chest. Ray and Meribald stood grim and somber at the sight of the dying man, whose fading eyes still sought the auburn hair and blue eyes of the girl in the detective’s arms.

He struggled to speak. “Goodbye, Cat….”

A faint flutter of joy as Cat lifted her face from Brandon’s chest and looked at him.

The joy was crushed as he saw contempt and hate there, as she stood by Brandon’s side. She was looking down on Petyr as a goddess sneers at a misshapen bit of clay calling itself a man.

His eyes swam to the clock above Cat’s head. The shot meant for her had shattered the clock’s face.

“Goodbye, my love.”

Brandon, the clock, and Cat faded into oblivion.

Chapter Text

November 20th, 1949

 

It was beginning to snow.

Sansa stood in the backyard, her heart as free and gleeful as a child’s as the first flakes floated down to her. Quietly, gracefully they fell.

She smiled.

Home. She placed her hand on the trunk of a nearby Evergreen. The sturdy tree had shaded the home in Winterfell all her life, and continued to watch over the rebuilt house, for hopefully decades to come. She could feel the frozen sap beneath her palm, the rough bark scratch her skin.

Home.

She heard the crunch of footsteps behind her. She turned. She grinned and reached her hand out to her husband.

“Good morning.”

Sandor’s eyes glinted against the steel gray sky. “Good morning. You’re out of bed early for once. Figured you’d be sleeping off the party from yesterday.”

The night before was Sansa’s birthday. Faithful employees of the re-opened Stark Lumber Mills (run by Jon) had filled the new house, along with Arya, Gendry, Rickon, Jon, and his wife Ygritte. They were all a raucous bunch, who drank locally brewed beer and serenaded Sansa with bawdy birthday tunes.

Also present, of course, was Bran: the youngest working architect in the country. He was responsible for the newly designed Stark home. He stayed close to the original design, but the walls were sturdier now, with more bricks to fend off any potential fires.

Sansa looked over her husband. He’d been a good sport about the party, probably because the rustic get-together was more his speed anyway than some of the swankier do's back in New York.

He also looked very much the part. He wore a red flannel shirt with hiking boots, and his beard was fuller now.

My rugged mountain man, she thought with a spark of lust.

“You know I always get up early when we stay at Winterfell,” she told him. “I just can’t get enough of this place, now that Bran’s done such wonders with it.” He watched transfixed as she took in the light snow and forbidding trees around them. “Now that it’s snowing…I can almost go back to the way things were.”

She said this nostalgically, but without the haunting grief of times past. He was glad. He’d been nervous when he suggested Winterfell as their honeymoon location two years ago. That trip was her first time back. She’d been quiet and pale during the flight to Washington. She never let go his hand.
Yet once they arrived at the homestead and she saw Bran there, supervising from his wheelchair as the construction crew worked on fixing the place brick by brick, his heart soared as she threw her arms first around Bran and then her new husband.

There was true happiness in her tears. She was home at last.

They came back every chance they could get. Someday they would retire here. They would share the home with Sansa's siblings and cousin, as the house was left to all five of them.

Two years they’d been married. Two of the happiest years in Sandor’s life.

He’d never been happy before. He was therefore dazed at first, struggling to take in the flood of emotion that came with the happiness of domestic life. They found a comfortable house in Hudson Square. Now that Shae had married Tyrion, they hired new staff to run the house so Sansa could be free to work on the magazine’s issues and Sandor could continue working his odd hours on the force.

They always found plenty of time for each other. Each night he fell asleep with Sansa in his arms. He felt like a fraud at first. For all the miserable things he’d done in his life, here was an angel -- his good angel – resting peacefully in his arms. Where was the justice in that?

Eventually, the feeling became so much like home that instead of an imposter, he felt like for the first time in his life, he truly belonged somewhere. With someone.

Of course, they’d had to battle the media firestorm from Petyr’s death, and the minor scandal their relationship caused.

Yet Sansa had weathered it all brilliantly – she stood with head raised high in press conferences, eyes unflinching as she spoke in clipped, succinct tones.

She was gloriously brave and strong.

It was only alone that she would collapse in his arms and cry.

Their wedding was a quiet ceremony, with only her closest friends present. Ray was Sandor’s best man, Arya Sansa’s maid of honor.

Sansa wore a lovely, simple dress she designed and made herself.

The ecstasy from that day hadn’t faded for either of them.

Sandor rubbed her back in the present. “Would you like to stay an extra day, little bird?” Today was Sunday, and they’d arrived Friday.

She shook her head. “No. The winter program is coming, and I need to make sure Randa has everything she needs.” Randa and Harrold had tied the knot themselves, enjoying an open marriage that Sandor couldn’t begin to understand. He’d come to terms with the fact he’d never like Harry, but admitted that now he no longer had his mitts on Sansa, he was a generally harmless dullard.

“Besides,” Sansa continued, her eyes still on the snow all around her. “There’s another big project coming up.” She hid her smile but her upturned eyes - still on the snow - were vast with tender joy. “A more personal project.”

Sandor frowned. “Don’t talk in riddles, girl. What do you mean?”

He sucked in a breath as she suddenly turned to face him. It didn’t matter how long they'd been together, his heart always stopped a little when confronted by her magnificent beauty.

Right now this beauty was touched by a grand love, a happiness so deep it looked almost painful. She was radiant.

“Sandor,” she said in almost a whisper. “When I think back to two years ago, I can’t believe how far the two of us have come. I never thought I’d recover from learning the truth about Petyr, but here I am. Here we are. Life often gives you a little joy through all the heartache. In all that horror, I found you again. And in all that death….”

He saw now that her hand was on her stomach.

“….We’ve created a life.”

The world stopped spinning for Sandor. Realization dawned with the slow clarity of the pure snow falling in lazy patterns all around them.

He stared and stared at the slender hand on that sweatered stomach.

Fear seized him. “You mean…?”

The hand on her stomach was now on his hand. “Congratulations, pa.”

She saw his fear, his shock. But she also saw, through the tears brimming in his dark eyes, a tremulous hope.

His eyes locked with her sure ones and a sudden burst of joy wracked him.

“Little bird,” he rasped.

They kissed as the snow fell with increasing steadiness all around them. In the distance, wolves howled in the mountains.