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When The Snow Melts

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He doesn’t know what he's doing here.

Sandor Clegane, false knight of blood and dirt, bringer of death, scarred of face and soul, last of his line—if he has anything to fucking say about it, which doesn’t seem as likely now as it did three days prior—has been bathed and brushed like a wild pup who wandered into the wrong castle, and shoved into his lady’s bedroom to wait like said errant pup for her to appear.

His lady.

He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like any of it. Especially not the bit where he found himself married to Sansa Stark not an hour past. What is he to do with a wife? Besides the obvious, which is a bad bet considering his face. He's always had to pay for a woman to spread her legs for him, and even then it's a joyless process. A woman like Sansa can have any man she wants with the crook of her finger. He doesn’t know what she expects of him, but he’s certain he's not here because she couldn't resist his body.

Setting his jaw, he turns in a slow circle, inspecting the room. The only source of light comes from the wide fireplace, but the servants built the fire high and strong before abandoning him to his fate, the pillars of flame push back even the shadows pressing together in the corners of the stone room. He takes in the two worn but well made armchairs positioned in front of the hearth, a small table set between them with a carafe of wine and two delicate looking glass goblets. Maybe later. Most definitely later, he corrects himself. Lord of Light knows he’ll need it to get through this evening. The chambers are surprisingly sparse, beyond the grouping of furniture at the fireplace. An ancient looking tapestry covers near to one entire wall, there’s a large chest for her clothing, and there’s a smaller one for… well, how the hell is he to know what ladies keep in their boxes, bags, and baskets? There’s also a small writing desk piled high with correspondence and ledgers; Sansa minds every detail of Winterfell, he knows, working hand in hand with her stewards. She’s not one to be content sitting back and letting others, especially men, run her hold for her.

He doesn’t mind that. The sort of responsibility required for running a holding isn’t anything he knows. What he does is kill things, and he does it well. How to keep them alive… well, that’s not a skill he’s learned as of yet. Something to work on, perhaps.

There’s one piece of furniture he's deliberately avoiding: an enormous, fur covered, plush looking bed set against the center of the far wall. A glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye sends a near imperceptible shiver through him. The door swings open on quiet hinges just then, interrupting his train of thought, and the woman in question enters. Sansa pauses in the doorway and turns back to speak in hushed tones, sending her maid away, he can only surmise, when she steps in alone. Not quite meeting his eyes, she leans back against the door for a moment, hand still clenched around the knob as if she expects someone to try to force their way in. Or if she needs the assurance of a quick way out.

But after a long moment, she straightens away from the door and meets his eyes, a small smile appearing on her lips. The scent of winter roses fills the air as she moves past him, lifting the wine carafe from the table to look to him with one perfectly arched brow of inquiry. Mouth suddenly as dry as the sands of Dorne, Sandor only nods, saying nothing. He takes the goblet and tosses back half the contents in one long swallow, not even tasting what was most likely a very old, very expensive vintage. He lowers the glass and wipes the back of his hand across his wet lower lip, his gaze snapping back to Sansa as she lets out a low, musical laugh.

“That bad?” The icy blue of her eyes warms as she gestures to his half-empty goblet with her own yet untouched wine. A strand of hair has escaped the braids that hold back thick waves of copper and he finds himself envying the silken lock as it caresses her cheek, instantly hating himself for it. What right does he have, to think of touching something that fine with hands that have wrought so much destruction? Again, he wonders what in the five hells he’s doing here.

Sansa’s brow furrows when he doesn’t reply, head tilting slightly as she studies him. “Are you well? Husband.”

“No.” He almost starts at the rough tone of his voice, forcing himself to gentle it when she flinches. “No, nothing is wrong with the wine. Yes, I am well. And it’s fair disturbing to hear that word out of your mouth in regards to me.”

Ah, balls. He probably should have kept that last part to himself.

But she only laughs again. “I can stop if you like, but it’s a bit late now. If you didn’t want to get married, this afternoon would have been a better time to speak up. Before the septon arrived.” Her tone is airy, not insulted, as if she’s fully aware he’s not unhappy to be her spouse. Not exactly. It’s more that he’s… uncomfortable. Unbalanced. Unarmored.

Unsure. He doesn’t like that either.

Moving into Sansa’s space just to prove to himself he’s not affected by her beauty, ignoring the way her breath catches as he leans close, Sandor reaches past her to grab the wine bottle. He likewise ignores the slight noise of exasperation she makes when he just pours his goblet full to the rim and lowers himself into an armchair with care. He is a large man after all. Well built or not, the chairs are old, and wouldn’t that be embarrassing, his seat collapsing and dumping him on his arse in front of his new bride? Bride. Lord of Light, they should have left two bottles.

Sansa takes the seat next to his, her movements graceful as she settles back into the cushions, pulling her fur-lined robe tighter across her body. The air holds a nip this evening, despite all these Northerners crowing about spring coming. There’s still melting snow on the ground, for fuck’s sake, when there should be calves in the fields and green things blooming. And this is the place he’d agreed to wait out the rest of his godforsaken miserable life. He’s going to die cold.

Or maybe not, he thinks as he glances over at Sansa’s profile. A warm flush spreads through him as the firelight flickers golden over the high arch of her cheekbones and slides down the fine skin of her neck to nest in the hollow of her throat. He wants to press his lips there. To nibble at the delicate ridge of her collarbone. To palm one small, firm breast and hear the noise she’d make when he did so.

He wants to hit himself in the face with the butt of his sword.

This is going to be torturous enough; a marriage in which transactions are exchanged, not love. He doesn’t need to make it more difficult by letting himself want things he can never have. Sansa needs a legitimate heir, if she’d wanted a lover she’d have picked any of the handsome young gits panting after her once the man they'd all thought was her brother (is still her brother, she insists, though perhaps not by blood) had granted her Winterfell free and clear the moment he took the throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Well, Six Kingdoms now, as she’s also Queen of the North, declared so by both her people and the new king to the south.

“You’re staring, husband.” Sansa speaks to the slowly dying flames, not looking at him. Her gaze is focused on the popping wood in the hearth, her features the most relaxed he’s seen in months, if not years.

“I thought you weren’t going to call me that.”

She turns her head to look at him then, eyes near colorless in the dimming light. “No, I said I would stop if it made you uncomfortable. Are you uncomfortable?”

Yes. Very.

“No. It doesn’t matter what you call me. M'lord, husband, uh… Sandor. Hullo, you over there.” He pauses, cup halfway to his mouth in an arrested movement as he slides his eyes sideways towards her. “Don’t call me Hound. It’s a name I’d like to leave behind.“

She leans forward then with a swiftness that’s startling, the soft beauty of her face transforming into something fierce and he’s suddenly reminded why he’d stuttered out a yes when she requested his hand in marriage. There’s a core of steel within her, unbreakable, as sharp and dangerous as his sword. Not dangerous to those she deems hers, and unaccountably she now seems to include him in that number, but lethal to those who would attempt to hurt or destroy that which she protects.

“I will personally cut the tongue from anyone who dares to call you Hound under this roof,” she says, and fuck, this desire he has for her is damned inconvenient. He doubts she knows which end of the blade is the stabbing one, to to speak, never having the training or interest in fighting like her sister. But he appreciates the sentiment. No one's ever bothered to care about his feelings or protect them from arrows and slings, it's an unfamiliar but not unpleasant sensation.

“Or have Arya do it.” She flips her palms over with an ironic twist of her lips to show the soft flesh there, unmarred by sword calluses. "She has a tolerable affection for you now, I believe. Says you've grown on her. Like mold."

This draws a unbidden chuckle from him, and he pretends not to see the way her lips part in shock. Surely he’s laughed around her before, he’s not that dour. Is he? "Who knew you’d grow up to be such a bloodthirsty little thing?”

“Oh, shut up.” The fierce look fades from her eyes as she laughs. “You’re lucky I am, no one else could handle you. The way you scowled at the serving girl at dinner this evening! We’ll be down to serving ourselves if you don’t stop acting like you’re going to gut the next person who serves you overcooked redfish.”

“I will gut the next person who serves me overcooked redfish,” he grumbles, annoyed to find the wine bottle empty when he goes to refill his glass. Who drank it all…? Oh right, it was him. “How horrible, my lady, the prospect of doing things for ourselves like common folk. I will also gut the next person who attempts to remove my clothing for me. I barely escaped my new valet with my drawers intact.” He gestures at the loose pants and sleeping shirt he wears, both a fine, clean linen that certainly didn’t come out of his own meager wardrobe.

She stands at his words, moving towards the small mirror on the opposite wall so quickly he almost misses the flush that spreads across her cheeks. Almost. Hmm. Watching her pull the pins that hold her braids in place, running her fingers through the tight waves to spread them over her shoulders, he wonders what they’re doing. Getting to know each other in a way war hasn’t afforded them until now or staving off the inevitable as long as possible? The large bed, piled with furs and blankets, calls from the corner of his eye, wanting acknowledgment. With a resigned sigh, he stands, bones popping as he stretches.

“Well, might as well get on with it. Long day for us both tomorrow.” Walking to bed with all the cheer of a condemned man, Sandor gestures towards the mattress hidden beneath the mound of covers.

Sansa’s eyebrows shoot up as she turns to face him. “I had no idea you were such a romantic. Woo me with your charming ways, my lord.”

“I’m not a courtier, you knew that when you married me. I don't care what your title is, I'm not fit to be a lord. Just a retired soldier for hire. I have no sweet and silken words for you.” He scowls, trying to hide the embarrassment at his rough overture.

She studies him with narrowed eyes for a long moment, then squares her shoulders as she clearly comes to some sort of decision. With a careless shrug, she removes her robe and carefully lays it over the back of one armchair. He crosses his arms over his chest to hide the slight tremor that starts up in his hands as the firelight transforms her nightgown into something close to sheer. The slight curve where her torso meets her waist is outlined by the light, long, well-formed legs on full display, and his heart feels like it’s going to leap out of his chest. His desire for her is a living thing, twisting and snapping instead him, urging him to fall upon her like the beast he is.

But Sansa’s had enough of that, too much of that, he’ll never touch her in any way but gentle, and with her permission. He’ll never be them.

Sandor clenches his jaw as she moves closer, her steps measured with a purpose he cannot name. She halts before him, angling her face up to look directly into his, holding his gaze as she reaches forward and pulls his arms from their defensive posture. He lets her, lets them drop to his sides, hands dangling uselessly until she slides her fingers through his and brings them to her waist. His fingers spasm on the soft flesh separated from his touch by only a thin layer of material as she slides her own hands up his arms to rest on his shoulders. Now he’s just standing there like a lad with his first woman, heart slamming in his chest as she continues to look at him in silence.

He allows her searching gaze until he cannot bear it any longer.

“Don’t,” he says harshly, turning the seared and puckered skin of his right side from her, the shadows swallowing the horror of his face.

“I don’t care.” Her soft words fracture his breath, a yawning pit opening beneath his frantic heart. “Sandor. I don’t care, beyond not wanting to hurt you. Your scars are part of you, just as mine are part of me. They don’t define us, but they cannot be ignored. I don’t want to ignore them. But I won't allow them power over me any longer, I refuse it.”

Shame flashes through him at the memory of his words to her the night they celebrated victory over the White Walkers. “I... I’m sorry for what I said. I should have never said it, it was cruel and you didn’t deserve it.”

“No, I didn’t,” she says, her voice clear but firm, understanding exactly what he was apologizing for. “It was very possible I could have avoided those traumas had I heeded your advice, had I left the keep with you that day, but it is equally as possible I would have only been delaying the inevitable. We will never know. My words to you were just as foolish, acting as though I was almost grateful for what those men had done to me because it made me stronger.”

She pauses, thoughtful. “What's been done against my person and soul has changed me, of course it has. But I'm not strong because of those men. I'm strong in spite of them.”

“Little bird,” he murmurs, bringing his hands up to cradle her face, letting himself lose the inner battle to stay aloof, to remain apart, to maintain his distance. “You are the strongest woman I know.”

Her lips part, pale eyes the color of the Northern skies searching for something he cannot define, then she pushes up on her toes and presses her mouth to his. It’s a chaste kiss, but it steals the breath from his body when she sighs and melts against him. Without thought, he slides one hand through the mass of red waves to palm the back of her head, holding her still as he presses the other hand in the small of her back and urges her body forward, flush against his.

She breaks away with a gasp as her hips met his, the long hardness he cannot not deny nudging against her belly. Immediately, he loosens his grasp as she wedges her hands between them and pushes at his chest, the set of her mouth tight and unhappy.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,“ she repeats, her face drained of color, beautiful eyes wide with panic. “I want this. I do. I don’t know why I’m shaking, the wine’s not sitting right in my stomach, I—”

She stumbles to a stop, breath coming too fast for his liking. Pushing down the reflexive hurt, Sandor guides her to sit on the edge of the bed, half carrying her when her knees give out. He believes her words, the sincerity in her voice strong and sure. She isn’t rejecting him. This is something else. The closeness to his body was clearly what set her off, so he doesn't draw her into his arms again, despite the ache to do so as she trembles. He reaches for the tightly clenched hands in her lap instead, gently peeling back bloodless fingers until he can hold them in a loose grasp between them.

“Sansa, look at me.” She shakes her head, the jerky movement causing her hair to spill over one shoulder. “Little bird, look at me.” The steel he infuses in his tone has her flicking her gaze to his in shock, fingers twitching as he squeezes them gently. “I should have known this might happen, it’s not uncommon in women who’ve been treated as you have. We don’t have to do this now, we can wait.”

“But everyone expects a wedding night.” She sounds numb, her gaze unfocused as she speaks.

“Screw everyone and their expectations,” Sandor says with a short laugh. “Neither of us have ever done what anyone wants of us, why start now? So we do what we want. If you need time, I have all the time in the world to give you.” He swallows now, this part harder to say, shoving his own want deep into the dark remains of his tattered soul. “If you can’t ever visit the marriage bed without an attack of horrors… I understand that as well. To be truthful, I never thought a wife and children were in the cards for me anyway. If all you can offer me is a smile over a glass of wine in the evenings, it more than I deserve, and I’ll take it. Maybe Arya will chose some unlucky devil one day and push out a few brats, so you will have your heir after all.”

Sansa laughs wetly, her breath coming slower now, the tension that had gripped her body starting to fade.

“Not likely.” She blows out a long breath, and he releases her hands so she can wipe away the trickle of tears that drip from her chin. “I appreciate your words more than you can ever know. They’ve loosened a tightness in my chest I hadn’t even realized was there until I suddenly couldn’t breathe.”

Sandor forces a smile. He’d meant what he said, but he can’t stop the unhappiness from settling heavy in his stomach. It should come as no surprise, this unlucky turn of events. He’d never gotten what he wanted before, why had he thought anything would change now? Long, elegant fingers grip his hand, breaking him out of his morose thoughts.

“I do think I need time.” Sansa doesn’t smile but her eyes were warm again, lit with something he’d call affection if he didn’t know better. “But I want the marriage bed. I want my own children if it's possible, and Sandor, I want you. I have for a while now. Asking you to be my consort wasn’t a whim, you know.”

What is there to say to that? She’d had her reasons for asking him, unfathomable as they were to him. Sansa never does anything without purpose, he knew. But… he’d thought perhaps he was to be a deterrent against anyone who would dare rise against her, a warning not to test her patience and mercy. A cudgel and a sword rolled together into a package that would help pacify the backwards, crusty old shits on the Queen's Council who groused about an unmarried woman on the throne. He never expected this. Sandor presses his lips together, ducking his head so his long hair swings forward to mask his expression, the sudden urge to cry he hasn’t felt since before flames took half his face pushing against his closed eyelids.

“Can we just… can we just rest now?” He scrubs one hand down his face, a gesture designed to convey tiredness and hide the quick pass over moist eyes. But as he speaks, he realizes in truth, exhaustion is weighing down his slumped shoulders. Months, years, of sleep deprivation are finally catching up with him in this warm, safe room, sitting next to this resilient, fascinating, beautiful woman.

Please. Today has worn me down to the bone.” Sansa stands with a yawn, walking around one side of the bed as he manages to haul himself up and make his way to the other.

They awkwardly crawl under the covers, her snorting with laughter as he grumbles his way through the layers, near unable to find the thrice-damned mattress. He leaves an arms length of space between them until Sansa makes an irritated noise and scoots closer, pushing up against his side. He lays stiff, not wanting to frighten her, unsure of what she wants from him. After a long moment, she lets out a gusty sigh of exasperation and shoves at him, pushing his arm up and around her, rearranging his limbs to her liking. Amusement flashes through him, despite the new and foreign experience of having a woman actually wanting to be this close to him.

“Are you done, your highness?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. You’re not very soft.” She yawns again and settles her head in the hollow of his shoulder, loose strands of her hair tickling his nose. The scent of winter roses fills his senses once more, loosening tight muscles he didn’t even know he had.

He lets himself rest his lips against the crown of her head, a thrill running through him at the hum of contentment she lets out. “You don’t want me soft. Soft can’t protect you.”

“You don’t always have to try and protect me, you know. I have guards for that now, an entire army of them to be exact.” Sansa doesn’t lift her head as she speaks, eyes closed, her low voice sleepy.

“I’ve spent half your life trying to protect you, little bird. Old habits are hard to break,” he replies, tucking her even closer, the warmth of her body making him want to melt into the mattress. Her only response is a fumbling pat on his chest before her hand goes slack, resting there as if she’s protecting the heart that beats beneath it.

This isn’t so bad, Sandor supposes, thoughts sluggish as sleep drags at the corners of his mind. Having a place to finally rest. A home. A wife. A wife he’s in love with, he'll admit, despite fighting himself every step of the way, and has been in love with longer than he wants to say. A wife that he suspects, against all odds, just might love him back.

No, this isn’t bad at all.