“Hi,” Sandor grunted into the mouthpiece, rage immediately igniting in his chest.
“Can I help you?” The voice asked, static crackling slightly over the call.
“Is this Arya Stark?” Sandor bit out, his own pulse surging in his ears. To his right, Margaery turned to him with her eyebrows raised.
“Sandor, what the fuck are you doing?” She gasped, trying to reach for the cell phone over the center console, but Sandor swatted away her hand. “Sandor, no! Let me talk.”
“Yes, this is Arya Stark. If you’re looking to book a performance, please contact my manager.”
“I’m, uh, trying to find your sister actually. Have you talked to her today?”
“Uhhh. Why do you want to talk to my sister?”
“Because we’re not sure where she is,” Sandor spluttered. Ash fell from the tip of his cigarette as he waved his hand around in frustration. “We were hoping you’d talked to her today so we know that she’s not in trouble.”
“Who’s we? Why should I tell you about my sister?”
Exasperated, Margaery reached over and yanked the phone out of Sandor’s hand. He let her take the phone and turned to wait impatiently.
“Hi, uh Arya Stark?” Margaery said in a very cheery, customer service voice. “Sorry about that, my name is is Margaery Tyrell and I’m—”
“What the fuck’s going on?” Arya bellowed. Margaery jerked the phone back away from her ear. “Joff, if you’re fucking with me again. I know she left you, you can’t—”
“No, no, please! We have no association or connection whatsoever with her EX-boyfriend, Joffrey,” Margaery continued trying to regain control over the conversation. “My name is Margaery and Sandor Clegane is the one who called you. We are actually friends of Sansa and we’ve been trying to help her get safely untangled from him.”
“Okay Friends of Sansa,” Arya said, her voice slow and hesitant. “You want to know to know what now?”
“She’s been staying with me, but left a note and disappeared this morning and we’ve been worried that she went back to him. Actually, we were hoping she’s been in contact with you because she’s not answering any of our calls.”
“Ohhh I remember, you’re those people,” Arya sighed, the connection continued to crackle. “Sansa mentioned you. I haven’t heard from her today, unfortunately. Usually, after a big blow-up with Joffrey, she isolates herself and I never hear from her until she reappears put back together and completely in denial about everything.”
“Can I ask you one more thing?” Margaery asked. She wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to bring this up immediately but she would rest better knowing she’d confronted Sansa’s family.
“You just did, but yes, you can ask another one.”
“Why didn’t you call the police when Joff said that Sansa had gone missing?”
“I know, I know this probably sounds bad, but he sometimes would cry direwolf and say shit like that just to get a rile out of me. For a while, I would call the cops, but they would always say something like ‘has to be over whatever-many-hours before we can take a missing person case’ and I’m honestly convinced that Joffrey or his mother pays off the Lord Commander, because I’ve called so many times to accuse him of domestic violence and nothing ever happens.”
“But what about the rest of your family? You come from a political dynasty.”
“Family is always complicated, isn’t it Margaery?” Arya replied, the tone of her voice putting an abrupt end to the conversation. “I’ll give Sansa a ring and I’ll let you know if I hear from her.”
The line went dead. Margaery exhaled passing the phone back to Sandor.
“What did she say?” He asked.
“She seemed like a piece of work. And got really cagey there at the end.” Margaery replied. “Mostly stuff that I probably should have guessed. That her ex pulls strings, that he cries wolf and gaslights the people around her. And that she completely goes into denial.”
“Oh so the sister knows about Joff and she’s letting her suffer alone?” His voice thundering through the car.
“Sandor, to be fair it’s not that easy,” Margaery sighed again, rubbing her face with her hands. “Like, look at right now, she just got up and left a place where she was safe and away from Joffrey and then left of her own volition and may have gone back to him. Sure it could have been coercive but she still has her own autonomy! People don’t use the help they’re offered until they want help.”
“Fuck, this,” Sandor swore, slamming his hand down on the dashboard. Panic prickled through him. Holding his cigarette between his lips he wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans. He of all people should understand how hopeless this whole situation really was. “There’s nothing we can fucking do.”
Seeing this Margaery turned to look at her friend, a slight smirk pressed onto her lips.
“Aww, You’re sweet on her! You are totally sweet on her. I know you’re an angry man in general but this just seems a little intense, at least without a good reason, even for you.”
“Shut the fuck up right now Margaery, this isn’t the time,” Sandor growled taking another drag before turning his head to exhale the smoke right into her face. “You didn’t see her when she came into The Stranger. Gods, she ran all the way from here barefoot. Is that not a good reason?”
Margaery coughed and opened the passenger side window. Sandor turned his head back to stare at the bee that had landed on his windshield, its legs covered in dusty yellow pollen.
“I guess that was inappropriate,” Margaery murmured. She slowly unscrewed the cap of her water bottle and took a long drink. “I’m going to wait for her on her front step. I’m sorry. Let me know if you get a hold of her, or if her sister calls you back.”
Sandor let her go without a word. He was seething. This wasn’t some game to him, to be gallant for once. He thought back to their morning together in his apartment when they had talked about their dogs when she’d seemed so relieved and hopeful before his asshole dog scared her. He remembered the tremble in her voice when she called him from her office building. Why are you doing this Sansa? You know it can’t end well. You’re a smart girl.
He opened up one of the to-go boxes that Margaery had brought and dug into the fried noodles. They were a little cold but he didn’t mind, his stomach growled. Sandor groaned and checked his watch. It was past noon. This whole fool’s errand was going to cost him a day of training. A day of training for a fight that he actually needed to win. And he didn’t give a rat’s ass about it. Everything that seemed to matter so deeply to him before, his training schedule, Brienne kicking his ass, Podrick breaking four pint glasses a night, seemed like child’s play.
He was waiting outside the house of a girl who he’d just met. Who was staring down the barrel of a gun. He saw the bruises on her neck. He knew it was a matter of time before Sansa ended up in a morgue. Margaery’s guess wasn’t too far off the mark. He was in a sense sweet on her, but that failed to capture so much more.
Sandor’s phone vibrated loudly against some spare change in his cup holder. He snatched it up. It was a text from an unknown number with a Northern area code — it was Arya.
“ I called, she didn’t pick up. Let me know what your next move is. ”
Flicking his cigarette butt out the window, Sandor typed out, “Margaery wanted to wait at her front porch for a while.” But deleted it. “We are waiting at her house now.” And hit send before he lost his nerve. He reached into his glove box for another cigarette. This ordeal was going to be wreaking havoc on his lungs. He hadn’t smoked this much in years.
Sansa parked her car a block away from her apartment, hoping to make it less obvious to Joffrey that she was staying there. She gathered up her grocery bags and quickly walked down the sidewalk. In her rush, she felt the toe of her shoe catch a crack in the pavement and she stumbled forwards a few steps and her keys slipped off her finger clattering to the pavement.
“Dammit,” she groaned, trying to carefully crouch down to readjust the bags so she could find her keys. Standing back up she looked to see how much further she had to go when the sight and sound of a big truck idling on the street caught her attention.
Her stomach did a flip. Sandor couldn’t be here, didn’t he have training to do? She checked her phone. She saw the several missed calls from Arya, Margaery, and Sandor from earlier. But to her horror, 24 missed calls with 13 voicemails from Joffrey all within the last 15 minutes.
The memory of pain welled up inside her body. She could feel Joff’s hands gripping into her shoulder, yanking on her hair. The anger she’d been feeling earlier towards her new friends evaporated leaving behind a swelling sense of shame.
Joff wasn’t going to leave her alone, she was stupid for thinking a new lock would keep him out. Over the years their fighting had turned into a choreographed dance. She was falling into the same patterns she’d been falling into for years. You are so stupid, so naive, it’s a wonder you have any friends at all. A sob burst from her mouth. She picked up her keys and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her shirt before reaching for the grocery bags again.
In a daze, she walked over towards Sandor’s truck and stopped, her reflection just visible in the side view mirror. Sandor was eating noodles and smoking with the window cracked open and he was playing the same jazz station he’d played when he’d brought her back to Margaery’s. The exhaust from his truck hung in the air.
She stared at his ruined cheek, noticing for the first time the extent of the scarring, his skin warped and stretched over his high cheekbones and down his neck. A mass of ropey scars pulled down the edge of his left eye. She shuddered violently at the thought of the pain he must have endured. Her movement caught his eye in the mirror’s reflection and slowly opened the door, swinging his legs around.
“Thank fuck. Sansa,” he growled softly, sending a shiver down Sansa’s spine. His face was stoic and unreadable. “You’re safe.”
All she could do was stand there and cry, like a toddler in a public meltdown. Without words and without thinking, Sandor took the grocery bags and set them on the ground before pulling her into his arms.
“You’re okay,” he murmured, pressing the good side of his face into her hair. He could smell her conditioner and a warm, musky perfume. Her whole body shook with her sobs. She was so warm pressed up against him.
“I’m so sorry. I’m stupid Sandor. I don’t know what I’m doing but I don’t want to keep doing it anymore. I just want to go home,” she cried into his shoulder, not caring if she got spit or tears on his shirt. He smelled like sweat.
“I’ll get you safe to Marg’s,” he said, gingerly stroked her back.
She whimpered, gripping his arm tight, refusing to let him go. Sandor felt her shake her head against his neck.
“What’s that? You don’t want to go to Margaery’s?”
Sansa pulled back and shook her head again, keeping her gaze fixed on Sandor. His eyes were a steely grey, his pupils blown wide. The scarred side of his cheek turned pulled down on his left eyelid giving his returning stare a more lopsided look.
“I don’t want to, I want to go with you.”
Fuck me. Sandor nodded. He walked with her slowly around to the passenger side door. He extracted his arms from their embrace and helped her step up into the cab. Their actions mirrored the day before but this time Sansa welcomed his assistance.
“Give me your keys, Margaery is waiting on your front step. She can bring your car and your stuff back over to my place.”
Sansa nodded, tears streaming down her face. She pushed her keys into his hand.
“I’ll be right back.”
Sandor took big strides as he made his way over to Margaery. She had her head resting on her knees. He kept himself from running, not wanting to act too suddenly and startle Sansa or trip and embarrass himself.
“Sansa is here. She’s waiting in the truck.”
“Wait, what?” Margaery looked up, redness coloring around her cheeks and eyebrows. She’d clearly been crying.
“She was grocery shopping, I guess. She came up to the car and just started crying,” Sandor continued, seeing his own relief in Margaery’s face. “Seemed to have a change of heart and wants to come back to, uh, my place.”
Sandor rubbed the back of his neck. “She said she wanted to come home with me. Can you grab her stuff and bring it over?”
“Oh okay,” Margaery replied, looking a little crestfallen.
“Here are the keys, I’ll see you in a bit then.”
Once Sandor was back in the car with Sansa’s groceries carefully placed in the truck’s bed box, he heaved a long, heavy sigh, trying to expel the very anxiety that gripped his body. As he drove out of Sansa’s neighborhood, he followed traffic laws like he was taking a driving test. Full stops at all stop signs. Plenty of time with the turn signal on. Sansa was leaning against the window with her eyes closed bouncing her leg nervously. Palpable tension filled the cab.
Sansa’s thoughts raced. Why are you trying this again, Joff is just going to get you back anyway. Why are you making this harder on yourself? You can’t even leave your abusive boyfriend the right way, why would anyone take you seriously?
When they were merging onto the highway behind a semi with a Northern license plate, Sandor cleared his throat and turned down the radio. Sansa cringed, bracing for a barrage of harsh words that never came.
“I don’t blame you for going back,” he rasped. “But do you want to die?”
Sansa opened her eyes. The question surprised her. Do I want to die? The answer to that question seemed to vary second to second. In this moment she almost wanted to die; no, she just wished the Mother had never brought her forth in this world because then no one would miss her or be disappointed in her. She would have only known the darkness of the Stranger.
“Is Margaery going to be mad at me?” Sansa asked, ignoring his question.
“Mad? No, why would she be mad?” Sandor scoffed.
“I don’t know, because I let her down. Because I left. Because I didn’t want to go back with her.”
“Why didn’t you want to go back to Margaery’s?”
Sansa breathed in slowly, turning to look out the window. She felt a pang of embarrassment at her own answer and didn’t want to see Sandor looking at her. She played with the ends of her hair, weaving it in between her long fingers.
“It’s because she’s too nice. It’s like with my sister and my parents for a while. I feel like I’m taking advantage of their, uh, patience, kindness. I feel like I’ve already let them down, that they’ll be disappointed in me and pity me.”
“The only way you let people down is you choosing to put yourself in danger, girl.”
“Fuck, I know that, okay. I know that I’m stupid and can’t take care of myself,” Sansa snapped, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. “I don’t need you reminding me of that either.”
“No, this isn’t about you being able to take care of yourself,” Sandor countered. He was frustrated with the implication that he was meaner and therefore more palatable to Sansa’s fucked up perception of reality. He thought she deserved joy, tenderness, and kindness. “You’ve demonstrated the ability to care for yourself or you wouldn’t still be here. This situation isn’t tenable, it never was and you’re just fighting a losing battle.”
“Then what is it actually about, Sandor? Tell me. Don’t pretend you know me or care about me. I’m not your white knight pet project because you feel bad you hit people for a living,” she said with as much venom as she could muster, regretting words as soon as they were out of her mouth. Why am I like this? He’s just trying to keep you safe.
“Because I grew up in a household full of violence. It eventually killed my mom, and my sister and got me this fucking face,” Sandor growled, hitting the accelerator. The truck roared. “And I wished that someone had just been straight with them. You will die if you play it docile and nice, he will trample you without a second look. He’s already doing that now.”
Sansa leaned back in the seat, she knew he was right. She rubbed the half-healed bruise on her neck and shoulders. Her heart felt like a butterfly with crumpled wings. Everything around her felt so precarious, like a house of cards. One small bump and everything would topple.
They continued driving, the radio barely audible over the sounds of traffic. Sandor kept glancing over at her, half expecting her to open the door and bail out of the car. But she stayed, eyes closed again listening to the sounds of her new world, her new leaf.
When they got to Sandor’s apartment, he put Sansa’s groceries away and got out plates and utensils before reheating the now very cold take-out. Sansa plopped down on the couch, patting on the cushions to try and get Stranger to hop up and cuddle with her. She relished the simple and genuine comfort the dog gave her. It was pure, no strings attached.
“Want anything to drink with this?” Sandor asked as he brought over noodles and a napkin.
“Oh, some water is fine. Thanks,” Sansa said sitting up and readjusting her legs to better balance a plate of food.
Sandor appeared a few seconds later with a glass of water before joining her on the other side of Stranger. When they were almost finished eating Sandor’s gruff voice broke the silence.
While they ate, he’d thought long and hard about what he wanted to say, to choose his words wisely. He didn’t want to smother her or try to offer too much love, as she’d put it. But he did want to establish some boundaries.
“One of the,” he started, but his voice grew thick and he had to clear his throat. “One of the most important things I learned in therapy over the years is that it’s important to have someone to remind you that you get to prioritize your needs. You need space, emotional support, comfort. Those are all things that you get to just have by virtue of being a human taking up space in the world. But you also need boundaries.”
“Oh yeah,” Sansa responded. “Thank you for reminding me that my needs are important. Please let me know what your house rules are I guess, I don’t want to get in your way or disturb your privacy.”
Sandor chuckled darkly.
“I mean, I’m crashing on the couch for the foreseeable future. That’s pretty in the way. But I don’t care, that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Sansa shrank back a little at his words. Anxious thoughts swirling. How selfish of you to think that you wouldn’t be imposing. He probably wants you up and gone.
“What I mean is, in order for this to work, you have to take this whole leaving an abusive ex seriously. With accountability and support. Whatever you want that to look like, but more than just me and Marg, because honestly, this is way fucking bigger than me.”
“You mean like a shrink?” Sansa asked, her voice barely above a whisper. She felt a familiar pit forming in her stomach. “I’m not that bad. Surely there are more people out there who need access to these resources more than me.”
Sandor checked himself before an exasperated sigh escaped his lips. Does she really not see how dire the situation is now? He felt much more confident in his decision to set this boundary.
“Sure, but you get to take care of your needs, right? And why don’t you let the shrink decide what support that could look like, okay?”
She tried to protest but Sandor cut her off.
“No, this is a condition of you staying here. You told me earlier that you didn’t want to do ‘this’ anymore. And I’m telling you this is how it starts.”
Tears welled up in her eyes again. She pulled her legs away from Stranger and tossed her fork back on to her empty plate with a loud clatter. Stranger jumped at the sound.
“I can give you my therapist’s contact info, I’m sure the office could put you in contact with people who—”
“I told you not to white knight me,” Sansa snapped, abruptly grabbing her plate and getting to her feet. Her long red hair shone brightly in the sunlight from the tall windows. “That’s a need of mine!”
“A knight would keep you locked up in a gilded cage. And I am no knight. But you will find your wings, little bird.”
“I’ll think about it,” Sansa replied and stomped back into the kitchen.
Sandor only allowed himself to breathe again when Sansa went to the bathroom to shower. You’re no poet, why the fuck did you say that shit. He cringed. He needed to go work off the anxious energy that was building inside himself.
He went to his room to find his gym bag and changed into some new workout clothes. He found an old receipt and scrawled a quick note on the back.
“I need to get back to the gym. I’ll be back by 6. Make yourself at home.”
He included the Elder Brother’s office number and headed out. Please call him, he pleaded as he shut the door behind him.