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The Stark girls were going to kill him, that much he knew. Better, though, to die at the hands of those wolves than the lions.

Where the fuck was she?

This is not how he’d imagined this going. He always thought the girls would be safe at home in Winterfell; if nothing else they could close their gates and lock out even the North itself. The Night King and his dead dragon had proved him wrong; the Dragon Queen and her children more the same. Winterfell itself was aflame.

It seemed impossible that stone could burn--Harrenhal and Summerhall were proof enough of it and still, it amazed him--but dragonfire was magic and so...fire was everywhere.

The keep, the guard’s hall, the gates, the walls, they would all burn down to the foundations from the looks of it. Perhaps even the Kings of Winter buried deep in the crypts below would burn.

And him, he would burn, too, at last. He’d been waiting long enough to be consumed again by the pain and the smell, and to shame himself screaming and crying and begging.

He would die, so be it. All men must die. But first he would serve her one last time. He’d wanted to do more, but it would have to suffice to pull her out of this furnace. She would live. She must.

Still, he couldn’t help resent her.

The brother was gone. His wolf-girl gone too, all fled in confusion and panic. The armies. Fled into the wolf’s wood and beyond, running still, no doubt, running for their lives, all gone out into the snow.

They had sense.

Sansa Stark--he’d been told by a young mother clutching a towhead tot to her chest--had emptied every last frightened hen and chick out of the crypts, led them through the falling timbers of the palisade and the rain of burning ash and sent them out through the gates to safety.

And then, said the mother, the Lady of Winterfell had said something about the horses and the hounds, and so she’d vanished back into the burning wreck of Winterfell.

Winterfell was as damned as Harrenhal, he thought. Cursed to burn first at the hand of the Ironborn, and then by the Boltons, and now by the warrant of the impossible: dragons.

Where was she?

He didn’t know where to look. Pathetic. He would wander sadly to his death. Maybe the choking smoke would take him before the fire itself. He’d always hoped he would die bloody, not suffocating slowly, like a old man who welcomed the rattling chest cold that would finally bring him to his rest.

Is that a dog?

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw not just one dog, but many, moving as a pack, frightened, but not so afraid that they were frozen. The lead dog sniffed the air and then sneezed and then sniffed again. He barked and then dashed ahead, past Sandor Clegane and toward some open gate to freedom.

As Clegane watched the pack gather and then bolt, he thought he saw a flash of red darting behind them. It was hard to see. Everything was red now. Everything was burning like her hair burned him every night, tangled in his fingers, spread across the pillow as she looked up at him.

Sansa. Damn you to all seven hells, little bird.

He ran to where the red had flashed and then saw it again, ahead of him. He’d swear she was running from him on purpose, except he knew, somehow, that she didn’t fear him anymore. The look on her face when he’d ridden into Winterfell that morning had been plain enough.

If only they’d been able to speak before this, maybe he could have talked sense into her, but no, she was determined to kill them both.

She wanted to die here. He felt it in his heart.

But he wouldn’t have it.

The god of death will not have you today, little bird.

Not today.

And there she was.

He found her in the stables. She was clear across at the other end, and the smell of burning hay was everywhere around them. A storeroom across the way was burning fast, and whatever lay inside was popping apart as it was heated by the fire. Dry grain exploding?

The horses were, to a one, hysterical, kicking in their stalls, eyes white and wild.

Sansa hadn’t seen him yet. She’d just begun? She was...talking to one of the damn horses? No, not talking, the only sound was the crackling, cracking wood around them, but he saw that the big bay was listening just the same. She opened the gate to his stall, and he trotted out to freedom, as calm as can be. He should have kicked her in the head in his panic as he fled. But he didn’t.

Then she began with the next one. Clegane caught a glimpse of dapple grey, thrashing and smashing her body against the gate. And then the horse whinnied, and calmed, and...listened to her?

And then she opened that stall door, and the gray mare, too, trotted calmly out of the stables into the burning yard.

“Sansa!” he hollered, unable to speak softly in his own panic.

She gasped, surprised at the human voice, and then she saw it was him and her eyes softened. She was going to cry.

“I have to save them. I am responsible for all of this. I’m the Lady of Winterfell. I won’t leave until they’re all safe,” she declared.

“You are very brave, Lady Stark. But they’re fucking horses,” he said, edging toward her.

“I can save them,” she insisted, even while knowing that it wasn’t true. She looked desperately about. 

“Winterfell is my home. It’s my family’s home. It’s all I have left...of them. Of anything,” she said, afraid now too, covering her mouth, half to keep the tears from overcoming her and half to keep the smoke and ash from burning her throat as she spoke.

“It’s just a castle, and it’s not all you have left. Don’t be a damn fool,” he raged, hoping that he was terrifying her, hoping that his rage would force some sense into her, force her to understand what she was doing to him.

“What are you doing here? You hate fire,” she said, crying now, the tears cutting white tracks down her ash-smudged face.

He caught a mouthful of smoke and coughed it back.

She was protecting him from his own shame, by lying. He didn’t hate fire. He was afraid. He feared it. Hate was something different.

He took a deep breath and tried not to choke. She released another horse, a white, and it trotted past him, calm as can be. He walked toward her, feeling as strangely calm as those horses. How could that be? He was surrounded by flame.

Meanwhile she was skittish, eyeing him, knowing full well that he could overpower her. She didn’t want to go, she had set so much stock in this, her home in the North. He could feel her fear of failing her people, failing her father, failing all the Stark ancestors that slept beneath her feet. She was the Lady of Winterfell. The title was echoing in her mind. Fuck your titles, girl.

“I promised the gods a thousand times that if they let me see you again, I'd do right by you. I failed you, little bird. I was stupid and sick and drunk and a damn craven...I stood there in my white cloak and I let them beat you,” he said, hoping that her tears were not contagious.

“I was no one to you,” she said, smiling and yet sad. He saw something in her eyes. Gratitude? “And yet you did more for me than anyone. You looked out for me. You saved my life. More than once.”

Pardon me, ser. I should have come to you...after...to thank you for saving me.

“You weren’t no one to me,” he told her, eyes watering. “Not no one from the very beginning, although I couldn’t tell you why. And I knew who those people were, and I let them have you. I let them hurt you,” he said.

He felt like he might choke on the words. Gods knew he’d said them to himself enough times. But practicing them alone seemed to make it no easier to say them aloud to her.

She took a step closer to him. And then another. Good. Trust me, my beautiful wolf. I won’t hurt you.

“I promised the gods a thousand times that if they let me see you again, I would show you what you meant to me. What I thought about you. I know who you are, Sandor Clegane. I know what you are. I see you. I. See. You.

His heart hurt. His eyes were burning from the smoke. But mostly his heart hurt, because of what she was saying to him, with her words and her eyes.

He stepped closer again and grabbed her arms to pull her flush with him, so she had to look up at him. She melted into him, like snow melting in the face of fire. She never used to do that. That was new.

“Now listen to me, little girl. I need you to live, so I need you to accept that it’s you or these horses, and that you are more important, and that they will die screaming and there’s nothing you can do about it but kill yourself trying to save some or all. And your death won’t make it better for them. And it won’t make things better for your sister, or your brothers, or your people. Or me,” he said. He wasn’t sure why he dared to suggest that his fate mattered to her, but suddenly he felt that it might be the only thing that could persuade her, and that amazed and pleased him.

Then, a crack from above. The roof was burning, and it going to collapse and they would both be crushed under the burning beams. No more talking, stupid girl. He scooped her up and threw her over his shoulder--as he had done once long ago--she screamed this time and wailed and hit him with her tiny fists. He cherished the sound because if she was screaming and striking him with the bolts of her fist, she wasn’t dead.

She’s not dead. Not dead. Not dead.

Somehow that became the song that kept him going through the burning castle, past the burning wagons and the burning bodies and the burning walls and the unbearable smell of all the burning and the memory of being a little boy crushed to brazier by a huge, merciless hand attached to arm that was attached to his own brother. My brother. My family.

My family.

She’s not dead. Not dead. Not dead.

And then somehow they were in real snow, far enough from the trampled, iced, rock-hard mud that surrounded the castle.

It was deep, wet and cold.

He threw her into it, out of spite and resentment, and huffed. And she growled up at him the way Arya would have, and she was still alive. Not dead.

She pulled herself up, and she was wet and cold, and now he regretted throwing her down. She hugged herself and turned to look at the fire. How had they gotten so far away? They were on the wrong side of the castle, north, not south. Her people had fled. Her brother’s armies would make their stand somewhere south. But the dead were probably still walking right toward them.

He’d fight off what was coming, the skeletons and the dead giants with their rotting flesh, for as long as he could, but one man armed with dragonglass wouldn’t do much, even if he could take out a few ice knights before he was done.

They’d come for her soon enough after he fell, and they’d tear her apart, ripping into her flesh, gouging out her eyes, ripping at her throat and her breasts, and chewing on her fingers and toes, and she would be in pain, and she would be alone, and she would feel it all until she didn’t feel anything anymore.

What the fuck? Was that sound...a whinny?

Gods, the horses. The horses she’d released were right there beside them, pawing the snow in hopes of turning up some lichens or dead grass. A big bay and a little gray.

She looked at him. Suddenly, there was some kind of hope for them both. She smiled a little.

Did Sansa Stark just wink at me? Seven hells.

She walked up to the two horses, without so much as a horse blanket to keep them warm. No reins, no saddles, no stirrups. Nothing.

She reached out to them, and they came to her, and again, they listened to her even though she wasn’t speaking. What the fuck is that?

Sansa Stark, his queen--filthy as a street urchin, covered in ash and smoke, skirts wet with snowmelt near up to her waist--turned to him and smiled.

She loves me. She’s happy to be with me.

Why do I know this?

How can that be?

What the fuck is happening?

“Clegane, will you help me get on her back? I’m not sure I can do it myself,” asked his little bird. Then she was anxious.

“Do you think you can ride him?” she asked, nodding to the bay, worried, and he tried not to sneer at her because she was being kind and warm, and he wasn’t used to that at all, but he thought perhaps it was customary to reciprocate.

“I’ll manage, little bird,” he said. He’d meant to call her Lady Stark, while he was here, as was proper, but now that they were alone, he couldn’t bring himself to form the words.

She was his.

His little bird.

Mine.

He’d call her what he liked, and he liked the way she’d always accepted the name as easily as if it were her noble title, Lady Sansa of House Stark, trueborn daughter of Lord Paramount Eddard Stark, rightful heir to Winterfell, Wardeness of the North.

He hoisted her up on her sweet gray, and he climbed onto the bay, and they looked back at Winterfell and to the east where the Army of the Dead must be marching and tried to imagine where they should go.

“What should we do now, little bird?” he asked. She was better at surviving than he’d imagined she could be. She’d lasted this long. Somehow.

She leaned over her gray and petted her neck. “I think the horses know where to go. I think they can get us away from here, to somewhere that’s safe for now, if we just let them go,” said Sansa. Her hair hung down her neck and mingled with the horse’s mane. I’ve got to keep her warm. We need food and shelter but we’ll freeze to death before that if we stay here.

“So we’re just trusting the animals?” he scoffed. He knew that to be lunacy, the kind of thing only a simpleton would do. He must be a simpleton then, because he thought perhaps it was right.

What are you doing to me, little bird?

“Yes, I think they can be trusted, don’t you?” she said.

“Good. Fine. Let’s let them go then,” agreed Clegane, nodding at her. Fuck me, if I can follow you into fire, I can believe in your animal magic.

She smiled, perversely happy, her blue eyes alight with a flame that reminded him the fire from belly of the Night King’s stolen dragon.

Her smile was a new kind of smile that she hadn’t had when he’d known her before. It was a challenging smile, a promise of battle. He felt something stir below his sword belt.

She wrapped her long fingers in the gray horse’s mane and kicked the mare’s flanks and then they were off, throwing themselves on the mercy of the North. They would live or die on the mercies of the gods and the animals--and each other.