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This Bird Will Learn To Fly

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Sansa Stark slammed her front door behind her and leaned up against the pale green siding of her townhouse. Her legs were molten lead, weak and heavy. Her hands trembling violently. Her blood was pounding in her ears.

She could still feel the ghost of Joffrey’s hands around her neck, arms, hips and the sharpness of his teeth lingering on her lips. The floor underneath her bare feet swayed.

From inside she could hear Joffrey’s muffled voice call firmly as if she was some unruly dog, “Sansa?”

Pause. And then again, sharper.

“Sansa?”

“You better not fuck off like that. If you’re upset about something, then you need to use your words and talk to me respectfully like a woman and not a pathetic whore.”

She could hear him stomping towards the door and without a second thought, bolted down the front stairs. She had to leave this monster.

As she ran down the sidewalk, memories of their long history together flooded her mind.

They started off as close family friends, both of their fathers had grown up together and built highly successful businesses together. Since Joff was only a few years older than Sansa, she had always felt they were destined to be together. They started dating when Sansa was just 16 and Joff just 18. And that was 8 long years ago.

At first, they’d been the perfect high school “IT” couple. They brought each other extra large stuffed animals, balloons and tiered cakes on their birthdays and decorated their lockers for anniversaries. They went out together almost every week, football games, after party milkshakes at The Crossroads Diner and a late night movie at the drive-through theater.

Sansa remembered never feeling more special than she had sitting on the hood of Joff’s car, wrapped up in blankets and each other’s arms, nibbling on each other’s ears and feeding Joff popcorn.

Everyone just fawned over them. Homecoming King and Queen multiple years in the running.

She inwardly cringed. Those were such different days — a completely different time. She couldn’t decide if they were happier or if she had just been lying to herself. Because as time went on, and they moved on to college and then graduated out into the real world. Joff became exceedingly jealous, controlling, and violent.

As she crossed the street, Sansa risked a glance over her shoulder back towards her apartment building. Joff was standing looking out towards the street, the porchlight casting ghastly shadows across his face making him look exactly like the monster he kept hidden under that golden brow and manicured nails.

She had no idea if he’d seen which direction she ran off, but she didn’t care. She put her head down and kept running.

After what seemed like hours and hours, and miles and miles, Sansa finally slowed as a new wave of horror dawned on her. As she clutched the stitch in her side, she realized that she didn’t recognize the neighborhood at all. The shops that lined the streets were all dark, rolling shutters clamped down. Only a few cars remained parked on the street. It was quiet.

A car passed by and she flinched, fearing Joff had caught up with her. But the glaring headlights continued on down the street. Sansa hobbled onward desperately looking at the shops and the street signs trying to get her bearings. She gingerly leaned up against the wall of what appeared to be a hardware store and attempted to pick out the bits of gravel out of her feet. She was missing half a toenail from her left big toe, and she was pretty sure there was some glass lodged into her right heel. She shivered.

This felt terrible. She started off going, was it east? She knew she was heading away from the river so she figured she must be somewhere near Flea Bottom. Maybe? But that also didn’t seem right either. Flea Bottom at least had some people, even this late at night. Where were the bar hoppers, where were the working girls?

“Gods. What time is it,” she wondered, patting her pockets and realized she didn’t even have her phone.

Definitely left it on her bedside table. Joff was certainly going to kill her if she managed to make it through the night.

More tears leaked out. Sansa shivered again. She could feel the cold sweat that drenched her skin prickle at the breeze and the ground swayed under her feet.

Boisterous voices and laughter broke her out of her frantic thoughts.

“Alright, Hound. We’re leaving. We’re leaving! No need to give us cheek.”

Sansa glanced up. About two blocks up ahead she saw a small group of people walking out of an ally, laughing. Squinting into the half-darkness, Sansa just made out a small, carved wooden sign for a pub called “The Stranger,” in the flickering streetlight.

***

Sandor Clegane was about halfway through flipping chairs up over the tables and still not even close to finishing up all of the closing tasks when he heard the bell on the door jingled behind him.

“Can’t you read? We’re fucking closed,” he snarled, head lifting to the ceiling in exasperation. Sandor immediately regretted not locking the door at the stroke of 2:30 am when Podrick Payne and his friends left. It had been a long night. He was tired. His feet were aching and his back and arms were sore. He did not want to deal with anymore unruly drunk people like the group that he’d just managed to get rid of. He wasn’t even supposed to be closing.

“I-I-I,” A soft voice stammered. “I saw that you were closed, b-but I was hoping you could h-h-help me, please?”

Sandor turned to look at the voice so small, defeated, pleading, his anger immediately puttered out. The voice belonged to a tall girl with the reddest fucking hair he had ever seen. Her face was smeared with black makeup and her swollen lips dry and covered with dried blood. The neck of her sweatshirt was cut out and hanging across her shoulder. He noticed a feathery bruise blooming around her neck, collarbones and another one across her cheek. She had her arms wrapped around her middle and was looking at the ground.

Concern darkened his eyes as he turned around, flipped the rag he’d been using to wipe down tables into his back pocket and made his way over to the bar.

Poor girl. What happened to her?

“Rough night?” he said sardonically, pulling out a bar stool. “Let me do you a favor and get you a drink.”

The girl gingerly stepped forward, favoring her left foot and wincing. He glanced down, fucking hells, she was barefoot, too. Did she just run away?

“Wait, please don’t,” she said frantically, her wide eyes locking on his. She flinched slightly and turned away and fidgeted with her sweatshirt. “I-I-I don’t have my wallet or money or anything.”

Sansa looked up into the dark eyes of the biggest man she’d ever seen in real life. And she felt her face twist into a frown. The right side of his face was a mass of twisted, ropey scars that tugged down on the corner of his mouth and eye giving him a permanent lopsided grimace. Her heart froze for a moment but she managed to wrench her eyes away, not wanting to be rude or provoke him and hobbled over to sit. Sansa knew very well that men always liked playing the hero.

“Don’t worry about it, girl,” Sandor shrugged. He poured two healthy glasses of whiskey opting for a peaty, mid-shelf bottle because he wasn’t about to drink the well shit neat. He pushed one towards her and took a long drink from his glass.

She just nodded mutely unable to turn thoughts to words. She looked around the bar. It reminded her of something out of a mobster movie. Dark wood paneling covered the walls and soft yellow lamps lit the space. If she’d been in a different situation, she would have liked coming here.

“Boyfriend do this to you?” Sandor asked. His gesture towards her face drew Sansa’s attention back to him. She refused to meet his gaze. It couldn’t be that bad, right?

“Uh.” She squeaked, heat rising into a splotchy blush across her cheeks. She felt her heart start to race. “It was just a misunderstanding.”

“Right,” Sandor said nodding slowly.

Sansa knew he didn’t buy it. If she was being honest with herself and saw someone stumble into her bar with a busted lip, finger bruises all over their neck and barefoot, she would not believe that it was “just a misunderstanding” either. But Sansa was not about to let the last of her pride go.

He finished the rest of his drink in one swallow and walked back over to the door to locked it. “Well, no else is coming in. So you best get on with it. What happened? Do I need to call the police?”

“Oh, gods. No!” She cried, whirling around to look at him, shoulders tense and hands trembling. There was such a deep fear reflected in her dilated pupils. “Please don’t. That’ll just cause more trouble.”

“Okay, girl. Whatever you say.” Sandor said, shrugging. “Well at the very least, drink your whiskey and tell me your name. I’m Sandor Clegane.”

She reached over to the glass and knocked it back in one go.

“My name is Sansa,” she said, wincing as the liquor burned down her throat. “Can I have another one?”

“That’s it,” Sandor chuckled. And he walked back over and poured her another one.

“Thanks,” Sansa murmured. As she reached out to drink the glass, her hands were shaking so violently that she ended up spilling half the contents all over the bar and her lap. “Oh no, I’m so sorry,” she almost whimpered. Grabbing a couple of napkins to try to clean up the mess.

“Hey. Don’t worry about it,” Sandor said harshly, taking out his towel and mopping up the bar.

She flinched at his hard voice. “I’m so sorry, I’m such a mess,” Sansa said again her voice wavering.

“Uh,” Sandor said, taking another cautious look at her. He noticed the rapid rise and fall of her chest and the frantic look in her eyes again. He easily recognized the early signs of shock from his days in the military. Whatever happened to her was not good. He tried again, forcing his voice into something a little softer. “Hey. I said it’s okay. You’re fine. You’re safe now.”

Sansa just looked at him, her eyes wide and glassy. “What’s going to happen to me?”

He reached under the bar near the register to the stock of sweatshirts with a great, black dog on the front and handed it to her. “It looks like you’re going into shock. You’re probably going to want this, keep yourself comfortable. Relax if you can.”

She accepted the sweatshirt but made no move to put it on. “What’s going to happen to me? Are you going to take me home?” She said again, her voice high and pinched.

“Well, first,” Sandor said evenly. “I’m going to get us some food because I’m famished, and it will help you feel better, too. And then we can go from there. Sound good?”

Sansa nodded.

In the kitchen, Sandor quickly pulled together a couple of grilled cheese. He thought about adding some bacon but decided against it in case she was like a vegetarian or some shit and didn’t want to cause her any more stress. So he opted for fried eggs and a slice of tomato instead.

When he returned about twenty minutes later, he noticed that Sansa was wearing The Stranger sweatshirt her head buried into her arms.

“Are you feeling better?” Sandor asked as he set both plates on the bar. And got two glasses of water.

She jumped slightly and looked up. “Oh, I,” she stammered. “Yeah, I’m warmer now.”

Sandor wolfed down his sandwich doing his best not to stare at her. But it was nearly impossible. Thoughts whirled in his head.

That cunt who hit her better get locked up. Did she have a safe place to stay tonight? Was he putting her in danger if he did bring her home? This probably wasn’t the first time she’d been assaulted. Had she been raped?

Sandor pushed that thought from his mind. He wasn’t about to ask that. Instead, he took a big breath and decided to tackle the most immediate concerns.

“Do you have a safe place to stay tonight?”

Sansa had finished off her glass of water but was just picking at her sandwich passively not making much progress. At his words, her eyes filled with tears and she covered her face again and cried.

“I don’t have my keys,” She forced out between ragged breaths. “I’m probably locked out.”

Sandor’s gut wrenched. This guy, whoever he was, was absolute scum.

“Well, I wouldn’t even be dropping you off there anyway. I meant is there a friend you can stay with?”

“My friend Jeyne, sh-she’s out of -she’s on vacation,” Sansa stammered. “I don’t know anyone else.”

“Okay, well,” Sandor said rubbing the back of his neck. He reached into his pocket to check his phone. It was definitely too late to call his friend Margaery. “I’ll take you back to my place. Okay?”

“Your place?” Sansa said her voice wavering. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. What if —”

“You’ll be safe. That’s what matters. I’ll sleep on the couch,” Sandor said briskly, cutting her off. “And your cunt of a boyfriend won’t know unless you tell him.”

“Are you sure?” Sansa asked. “I don’t know. I already imposed so much.”

“Yes. I’m sure. It’s fine. Okay? Now, girl, eat that food before it’s dead cold and let me take a look at those feet.”

Sansa nodded again and bit into her sandwich.

With a fair amount of effort, Sandor was able to extract the pieces of glass, gravel from her feet. To his surprise, she barely protested. He made a mental note to thank Pod for having enough wits to keep the first-aid kit stocked.

***

After putting Sansa to bed in his bed — he was so relieved he decided to wash the sheets yesterday — Sandor stretched out on his couch and groaned as he checked the time on his phone: 03:22. Gods Fuck. It was late. He closed his eyes and balled up the pillow into something a little more comfortable under his head, but he knew that sleep would evade him tonight.

Groaning again, he walked over to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. He opened a bottle of allergy medication and popped two before going out to sit on his balcony to smoke a cigarette and wait for the drug-induced drowsiness to hit.

The air outside was cool and damp, a soft rain coming down. Faintly, Sandor could hear the sound of an early morning ship coming into the harbor. Stranger came padding over and plopped his head onto Sandor’s lap. Absentmindedly Sandor stroked the rottweiler's head, giving extra attention to his ears.

Sandor wasn’t a stranger to insomnia. Growing up in foster care and with a brother like Gregor, he learned at an early age to always keep one eye open even in his sleep. It served him well during his childhood and teenage years. But he had come to resent it after his deployment when the only time he could escape the hot desert hell was in his dreams.

When the cigarette was almost done, Sandor felt his eyes grow heavy. He put it out and walked back into the living room, Stranger at his heels. Kicking off his shoes one last time, he collapsed onto the couch and pulled the blanket over his face.

***

When Sansa blinked her eyes open, just a little bit of light crept out from under the dark curtains. The sheets were soft, the covers warm and she relished the quiet darkness. She turned back on to her stomach, shoving her face into the pillow.

She breathed in a deep breath, willing sleep to claim her again. The faint smell of soap that registered was a nice piney smell and with a touch of cigarette smoke. But as she lay there half asleep, she realized that Joff’s bed would never smell like smoke. Her bed would never smell like smoke.

She sat bolt upright.

Panic pulsed up her spine and her stomach churned as she looked around and failed to recognize the bed she was lying on.

Oh fuck. Did she get drunk and hook up with someone?

She threw herself out of bed and winced as her feet hit the ground. As she looked down at her bloody toenail she remembered.

She and Joff had a fight last night. And she decided to be an idiot with a death wish and ran away. She was safe thanks to the kind actions of a complete stranger.

She took in a big deep breath and exhaled for a full six seconds before turning to the door to walk out into the hall. The apartment was not very large. Sandor was still asleep on the couch, his arm thrown over his face to block out the watery sun. And his dog was still curled up on the floor next to him.

Sansa made her way over to the bathroom to wash her face, shower and use the toothbrush Sandor left out for her. In the shower, the hot water felt incredible running down her body, melting the aches away and clearing her mind.

After getting out, she gazed into the mirror examining the markings left by Joff. The bruise on her cheek would be taken care of with some full coverage concealer but the ones on her neck would be a little more challenging.

“Thank The Seven for scarves,” she murmured to herself. She was pleased the weather was getting cooler again so it wouldn’t look so out of place.

In an attempt to get her mind off her pathetic situation and utter stupidity, she let curiosity get the better of her and she opened the medicine cabinet.

Inside there was a very old bottle of cough syrup, a half-empty bottle of allergy medication, ibuprofen and a prescription bottle for sertraline. She made a mental note to check what that was when she got home.

She also went through the drawers and found a hairbrush, hair ties, a couple of random, light-colored bobby pins, a shaving kit, deodorant, nail polish remover, a handful of tampons and a box of opened condoms. Sansa immediately felt embarrassed. But what did she expect, rummaging through some grown man’s stuff? He clearly had a regular partner. And she really wanted to know who it was.

Taking another long, deep breath Sansa looked back into her reflection feeling herself to detach from her bruises and the haunting memories of the night before.

She quietly shut the drawer door and went back out to the kitchen to make some breakfast. The very least she could do for this kind stranger was make him breakfast.

Chapter Text

Sandor woke up to the sounds of cooking coming from the kitchen. Groggily he pushed the hair out of his eyes and cursed as he remembered the night before. What was he going to do about Sansa? He decided that question would wait to be answered until after breakfast.

He got up and went into his bedroom to pull on some sweatpants and change his shirt. He ducked into the bathroom to make sure his hair wasn’t a complete disaster and quickly take his prescription.

“I hope you don’t mind dogs,” Sandor said quietly as he walked into the kitchen. He didn’t want to startle Sansa as she cooked. “This is Stranger.”

Sandor helped himself to some of the fresh coffee that was still steaming in the pot. Stranger was already following Sansa around the kitchen desperately hoping for some food to fall onto the floor.

“Hello there, Stranger” Sansa replied brightly, giving the dog a firm pat on the neck. “I love dogs. I have a dog named Lady.”

Sandor opened the pantry door and took out a big bag of dog food. And Stranger bolted over to his food bowl tail wagging.

“You do?” Sandor asked. Taken aback by her chipper voice. He poured out two big scoops of kibble.

“Yeah,” Sansa replied. Looking at him full in the face. “She still lives at my parents' house. I didn’t get to take her when I moved here for school.”

“What? You’re still in school?” Sandor asked. He was shocked. Both by her daring eye contact at his disfigured mug and by her answer. Was this girl even old enough to drink? He immediately felt guilty for even noticing that she was stunningly pretty.

“Haha,” Sansa laughed. “No, but, honestly, I wish I was. I graduated two years ago, I’m 24. I promise you didn’t give alcohol to a minor. But grad school is something I’m thinking about.”

“Oh, well,” Sandor said awkwardly. He pulled his gaze away from her striking blue eyes. “I was going to feel really weird for a second there.”

Sansa reached down to rub Stranger’s ears. “You’re such a good boy Stranger, yes you are! Does his name have anything to do with the bar?” She looked back up at Sandor.

“Uh, actually yeah,” Sandor said nodding. “I named the bar after him. He’s the dog on the shirts and stuff.”

“Oh! I should have made that connection,” Sansa replied turning her attention to a bowl of eggs. “I hope you didn’t mind me cooking. It was the least I could do.”

She felt a twinge of embarrassment and didn’t want Sandor looking at her. She feared he could see through her façade to the broken girl underneath. We just have to make it through breakfast she reminded herself.

“Bloody hells no. I don’t mind someone cooking for me,” Sandor said. “Sure doesn’t happen very often.”

Sansa nodded and busied herself with breakfast. After her curious rummaging in the bathroom, she wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth.

While she cooked, Sandor stepped out of the kitchen and returned with his computer to answer a few emails and he sent off a quick text to Margaery asking for some advice about the present situation. He was in over his head.

Margaery Tyrell and Sandor had been friends for several years. They’d met in the ring when she was the preferred ring girl for her brother, Loras. Eventually, she’d worked her way up, taking a more active role beside the ring wrapping hands, administering first aid. When Loras had to stop fighting because of a severe shoulder injury, she’d stayed on with Sandor. Margaery would know what to do. She’d gotten herself out of a violent cult before, and Sandor figured that the poor girl in his apartment would appreciate a less scary person hovering.

As Sansa stirred the eggs, Sandor noticed that the girl he brought home looked a lot better than she had the night before despite her worsening bruises. Her hair was damp and her makeup cleaned up. But there was a whole different air about her. Sandor wasn’t sure what to make of it. She seemed like a new person.

That made Sandor a little nervous, but he wanted to make sure that Sansa had at least some peace this morning before she had to deal with whatever happened. He wasn’t sure what to say so he said nothing at all.

Stranger continued to follow Sansa around like a lost puppy, begging for a strip of bacon. Sansa felt comforted by the silence. She didn’t have anything to say and she was relieved that she didn’t have to engage with awkward small talk.

But it didn’t last long. The pleasant magic of the silent kitchen broke when Stranger came over to put his head in Sansa’s lap while they were eating and she jumped. Her fork clattered to the ground.

“Hey!” Sansa gasped pushing him away.

A loud buzzing sound filled Sansa’s head and the light streaming in from the open curtains hurt her eyes. Where Stranger’s head had touched her thighs, she could feel Joff’s hands pry her thighs apart, the hard bite of his mouth on her hips, his hands crushing her windpipe.

She couldn’t pull herself back into the calm safety of Sandor’s apartment. She was just stuck reliving every vile thing Joff had ever done to her.

“Stranger. Down.” Sandor barked out, alarmed. “Don’t be an ass. You know better.”

Obediently, Stranger stepped back and curled up under the table.

Sandor saw Sansa’s confident appearance dissolve. She absolutely crumpled. Her face fell, her shoulders slumped forward. Furious, Sandor got up and hauled Stranger out onto the balcony. His own heart racing.

When he got back, Sansa was just sitting in the chair fiddling with a strand of her hair. Her cheeks gleamed with silent tears. He could still feel the tension lingering in the room. It felt much too warm and stuffy.

“Sorry about that,” Sandor apologized gruffly. “He can be a right pig.”

Sansa just ignored him her thoughts racing again. She needed to take another shower and scrub every last feeling off of her body. She just wanted everything to stop. She wanted the sun to fade, the world to stop spinning, and gravity to cease.

She couldn’t deal with it anymore.

Without replying Sansa got up and went straight to the bathroom. Once the door shut, Sandor immediately got up and crept to listen at the door. The shower was running, but he could still make out the sounds of her heaving the breakfast she’d just made for him into the toilet.

Sandor felt his stomach clench, he empathized with this poor girl. He knew intimately what it was like to be stalked by such pain. Hands trembling, he walked back out into the living room to find his pack of cigarettes on the cluttered coffee table and let himself onto the balcony with Stranger who was cheerfully wagging his tail. Completely ignorant to the disaster he’d just caused.

Margaery answered on the third ring.

“Hey,” she said, sounding tired. “I just saw your text. Everything alright?”

Unsure where to start, Sandor just jumped in. “So, uh, a girl came into my bar last night after I was closed. And she looked really beat up. Had a bloody lip and finger bruises all over her neck. She also was barefoot and they were all torn up like she’d been running for a while.”

“Oh gods,” Margaery gasped.

“I assumed her boyfriend did it, and that she just took off. But all I got out of her was it was just a misunderstanding,” Sandor continued his voice almost a growl.

“Sounds about right,” Margaery said weakly. “Us pretty girls always cover for our monsters. I hope you got her out of there.”

Sandor took a long drag before continuing.

“Yeah. She was having a real rough time of it so I took her to my place. And then, this morning, you know how Stranger can get. Well, he scared her. And she just freaked out, I think she had a flashback or some shit and ran into the bathroom and I heard her throwing up.”

“What?!” Margaery gasped again. “Is she okay?”

“I have no idea. I have training at 11 that I can’t get out of but I also really don’t want her to be by herself. Plus, I thought you’d be able to, you know. Help her out?”

“Absolutely. I’ll be right over there.” And she hung up.

Sandor stuffed his phone into his pocket, snuffed out the cigarette in the ashtray and quickly returned inside.

In his bedroom, he rummaged through his clothes and pulled out some too small clothes he hoped wouldn’t be too big on Sansa. He made sure to find sweats with a drawstring so at least those wouldn’t fall down. He left them outside the door of the bathroom before going to clean up from breakfast.

When Sansa came back out she lingered in the entrance to the kitchen. Her eyes were dark and rimmed with red and her hair was pulled back into a braid. His pants were definitely too long for her. They completely engulfed her feet and the shirt looked more like a baggy dress.

“I suppose we need to talk…” Her voice was hoarse.

“I suppose we do,” Sandor growled. He looked into her face but she had turned her attention to a fraying seam on the sleeve of his shirt.

“He’s going to be so mad.” Her voice was barely louder than a whisper. Tears started leaking down her cheeks. “I really don’t want to go back.”

“That’s what I’m worried about. Do you live with him?”

“No,” she whispered. “But he as a key.”

“Okay. We can call a locksmith. But come on. Let’s go sit on the couch. No need to worry about that now.”

Sandor felt his phone vibrate as they walked over to the living room. Glancing at the screen he saw the text, “I’m here!!”

“Um. I’m sorry Sansa. I really don’t want, um, overwhelm you,” Sandor started, unsure how she would take the news. “But I have to get going pretty soon. My, um, friend, Marg, is here right now and she’s coming over so you won’t have to be alone.”

“Your girlfriend?” Sansa sniffed wiping her nose. She didn’t know what to think. She was just overwhelmed and wanted to go to sleep.

“No. Not my girlfriend.” Sandor repressed a chuckle. “She’s just a really good friend. I’ll be back later today.”

A soft knock came from the door. Sansa flinched, closed her eyes and hugged her knees into her chest. Someone in the building must have let Margaery in.

“That’s just Margaery,” Sandor said gruffly. “I promise she’s a lot less scary than me.”

Sansa gave a small nod and Sandor got up and went to the door, glancing to the peek-hole just to make sure. Margaery was standing outside with an anxious furrow in her brows. She had a big bag with her slung over her shoulder.

“Hi Sandor,” Margaery breathed as she reached up to give him a small, side hug. “Where is she?”

The pair of them walked over to Sansa who had squeezed herself into the corner of the couch with a pillow hugged in her lap. Margaery came over and knelt down in front of Sansa.

“My name is Margaery,” Margaery said softly. “You’re safe.”

Sansa just nodded again.

Not wanting to linger, Sandor left the two women to whatever it was they were going to do and retreated into his bedroom. Inside, he collapsed onto his bed and rubbed his eyes. Gods he was tired. He had no idea how he was going to make it through training today. Grumbling to himself he packed his gym bag and returned to the kitchen for some pre-workout.

In the living room, Sandor could hear that Margaery turned on the TV to some nature documentary before he ducked out of the door.

***

Sandor was in a foul mood when he got to the gym. He was still exhausted. He knew he was going to have a bad time and he couldn’t get the events of last night and this morning out of his head. Storming into the office he shared with Bronn Blackwater, Sandor flung his bag down and chugged his pre-workout before going through the mail Gendry had left on his desk.

It was mostly junk mail in the form of unwanted gym equipment catalogs. Why companies still sent catalogs when they listed their full stock online was beyond his comprehension. He paused only when he saw a hand-addressed envelope with his name on it.

Tearing it open he felt his stomach drop when he realized it was a wedding invitation from his brother Gregor. Groaning loudly, Sandor tossed the invitation to the side and grabbed his gloves before huffing off to jump rope.

From the side of the ring, Bronn watched his mate tear into an amateur fighter. Most days Sandor was a beast sparing, but today he was something out of a nightmare. He usually only brought this kind of fury to sanctioned fights.

“Woah there!” Bronn called as the poor kid getting his ass handed to him staggered to his knees. “Clegane, fuck off, you are done. Let’s have you running some drills.”

Wiping his forehead with his glove, Sandor nodded. He pulled off his glove and offered his hand to the kid and pulled him up.

“You did well,” Sandor said lamely. It was true. The kid had done well, it just sucked for him that Sandor was twice as big and had a good six inches on his reach. “What’s your name again?”

“Uh, Garren Stone. And uh, thanks,” Garren said before scooting off.

Once Garren was out of earshot, Bronn came up to Sandor.

“What the fuck were you doing? He’s just a greenboy. This is training!” Bronn scolded. “You’ve been out of sorts all day. Come on. What’s going on?”

“What?! Don’t ask me to spar if you don’t want me to fucking fight,” Sandor growled, defensive.

“Well let’s go take out all that excessive frustration on a bag of sand instead of a living person’s face. I’ll join you.”

Two hours later, a very sweaty Bronn followed an equally sweaty Sandor out of The Mad Huntsman Boxing Gym to The Stranger around the corner.

“Have you talked to Margaery lately,” Bronn asked, as the took their seats at the bar.

Sandor felt a bit strange sitting at the same place where Sansa had sat just the night before. But he pushed that out of his head.

“Yeah, I talked to her this morning,” Sandor said looking at the menu. He knew his order already, hell, he’d help make the fucking menu and knew he would never get anything else, but would always take a menu out of habit and just to make sure there wasn’t anything that he might like more. There never was.

“Yeah, she took off in a rush this morning and hasn’t been answering my texts all day,” Bronn said. He reached into his pocket to check his phone for the twelfth time since they’d left. “Do you know anything?”

“Uh, actually I do,” Sandor said as casual of a tone as he could manage. Despite how tired he was, Sandor was grateful that he’d have the past few hours of hard training to get his mind off Sansa and his asshole brother and he was reluctant to return to the cold hard rocks of reality. “A really beat up girl came in here last night after I started closing up.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Bronn asked.

“I think she was running away from a shitty boyfriend. I brought her home because she was terrified and then I asked Marg if she could help,” Sandor rubbed the back of his neck.

“Ohh, psh, Sandor. Playing the big hero now?” Bronn laughed, refusing to take anything seriously. “Rescuing a damsel in distress. That’s unlike you.”

“You didn’t see her, Bronn,” Sandor growled. “She had finger bruises all over her neck and totally freaked out when Stranger came over to ask for pets. Oh, and she was fucking barefoot when she came in.”

“Yikes. That’s not good,” Bronn said, his eyes wide. “Marg told me once that strangulation is like the first indicator that domestic violence will escalate to murder. But maybe it was just a kinky night gone wrong?”

“Mmmm. I don’t think so,” Sandor said, glaring at no one in particular. “She literally told me this morning that she didn’t want to go back.”

“Alright boys, what will it be today? The usual?” Lollys, Sandor’s newest hire asked cheerfully, butting into their conversation. Both men grunted affirmatively. “Got any fights coming up soon?”

“Yeah, actually,” Sandor nodded. “In two weeks.”

“Who is it going to be this time?” Lollys smiled.

“Renly Baratheon,” Bronn laughed. “And The Hound is going to beat that kid into a pulp.”

“Oh, I bet you are,” Lollys chuckled. She handed the two men glasses of chocolate milk and took their order to the kitchen.

“So you were saying you brought out The Hound to a little sparring session because of some tender heartstrings?” Bronn chuckled, checking his phone yet again.

“Fuck off,” Sandor growled. “At least I’m not pining my soul away because the lady I’m fucking hasn’t texted me back for a few hours.”

Bronn hit him in the arm.

“What are your plans later? I thought Gendry and I would catch the game tonight. Want to join us or are you playing babysitter?”

“Not sure,” Sandor shrugged. “I had some bookkeeping stuff I needed to do, run payroll and probably just call it a day. I’m fucking exhausted.”

“Alright whatever you say,” Bronn said. And then he added with a wink. “Better make sure Ros is okay with this new girl. She might get jealous.”

Sandor knew that Bronn was just teasing him but he was absolutely not in the mood. So, he pointedly ignored Bronn’s last jab and got out his phone to watch some of the training footage from the fight with Garren. At the very least he could give the kid some pointers.

As he watched, he shuddered a little bit. He really had unleashed The Hound.

After eating, Bronn took off to go meet Gendry while Sandor walked back over to his office at the gym. He poured himself some hours-old coffee and got to work checking on the status of production orders and running payroll.

Things were going well for Sandor. The Stranger was in its sixth year of business and he was finally able to start thinking beyond just the next quarter and make some plans for the future. On top of that, after taking on a coaching role with Bronn at the gym, hiring Podrick to step in as the bar’s manager and his own fighting career gaining some more momentum, he was really pleased.

His phone buzzed. It was Margaery.

“Sansa and I are going to head over to her place and pick up her phone and some other stuff. And then we’re going back to my place.”

“Do you need me to be there?”

“Nah, I think we’ll be fine 😘”

“How is she?”

“She’s surviving.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“Will do!”

After hanging up, his eyes fell on the wedding invitation he’d left there earlier. And the rage he’d worked so hard to repress surfaced.

Gods fuck. Sandor ran his hands through his hair and across his face. Every fiber of his being was angry. In a half-ditched effort to gather his thoughts, he grabbed his gloves off the desk and hurled them at the wall with a loud thud.

Why did this always have to happen to him? As soon as things were at something that felt normal, good, okay, like clockwork, Gregor would come whirling into his life again like a tornado to destroy it all. And with his new found concern for a complete stranger. Sandor felt uncomfortably stretched like a balloon right about to explode.

In a rush, he got up and threw his gloves, towel, and water bottle back into his bag before storming out to his truck. When he was sitting in the cab he pulled his phone out.

Ros answered immediately.

“Hey big guy.” Sandor could hear the smirk in her voice.

“Are you busy?” Sandor growled.

“Now? No babe. Want me to meet you at your place?”

“I’ll be right there in ten minutes.”

Sandor hung up and pulled out of the parking lot.

Chapter Text

Once Sandor left the room, Margaery fiddled with the video game console to turn the TV on for what she hoped would be some inoffensive background noise. Not sure what might accidentally upset Sansa, she opted for a very pleasant nature documentary about polar bears beyond The Wall. Margaery carefully draped a blanket across Sansa’s lap before plopping down on the couch next to her.

For a while, they just sat in silence while Sandor banged around the kitchen. The soft narrator’s voice talking animatedly about polar bear mating habits. 

“My brother, well, half-brother.” Sansa started, eyes on the documentary. “Well actually, he’s my cousin but we grew up together.” Sansa sniffed. “Anyway, he’s up at Castle Black doing research. He was getting his doctorate in anthropology. ”

“Oh really? What is he researching?” Margaery asked.

“Human bones, ancient cultures? Honestly, I’m not really sure. We were never that close,” Sansa replied, her voice getting thick. “We haven’t really talked since my sister left King’s Landing.” 

They could hear the front door shut loudly and Margaery just absentmindedly patted Sansa on the knee.

“Where is he going?” Sansa asked a few moments later. “He never told me.”

“He’s going to the gym. He has a fight coming up and needs to train,” Margaery replied. 

“Oh,” Sansa said simply. She really wasn’t sure what that meant.

“Sandor’s a professional boxer,” Margaery supplied, running her hands through her hair. “He’s damn good, too.”

“A professional boxer? Isn’t that like violent and dangerous?” Sansa asked, a stunned look plastered on her face.

Margaery chuckled. “It’s both of those things, yes. But honestly, it one of the oldest sports to have ever existed. It’s prehistoric.”

“Do you box?”

Margaery laughed. It was a pleasant, good-natured laugh that instantly made Sansa feel like she belonged.

“No, I don’t box, but my brother used to. That’s how we met. I’m just Sandor’s cutman, well, cutwoman I guess. I patch him up during in between rounds.”

Sansa was shocked. She’s never given boxing or any other kind of sport fighting a second thought before. Whenever she’d seen it on at bars she’d always shuddered at its barbarity, the bruised lips, and blood, and never bothered to pay attention.

“What’s the worst injury he’s ever gotten?” Sansa asked, her morbid curiosity getting the better of her.

“Oh, he fractured some of the bones around his eye once. That was bad.”

Sansa grimaced and closed her eyes, sinking deeper into the couch. A violent image of the man she’d just seen walk out the door getting decked in the face flashed across her mind.

Joff had done that to her before. He was upset because she’d embarrassed him at a charity ball by being late. She had been shut up in her townhouse for weeks while her face returned to a normal color and the fractures healed. Joff’s mother had even called their private doctor to make sure there would be no “unexplainable permanent damage.”

She unconsciously reached towards her temple and her heart rate began to pick up. She closed her eyes. You’re fine. You’re fine. She repeated to herself silently.

“Sansa, you’re safe right now,” Margaery murmured as she watched Sansa white-knuckle the pillow on her lap. “We don’t need to talk about that anymore. Shall I get you a glass of water?”

Sansa just nodded. Her eyes still closed. She took a couple more deep breaths.

When Margaery returned, she carefully slid the glass into Sansa’s hand.

After finishing her water Sansa got up slowly.

“Do you mind if I go take a nap. I really just need to check out for a bit.”

Margaery frowned slightly, her eyes filling with concern.

“Of course. Do what you need to do. I’ll be here.”

With another nod, Sansa got up and retreated back into Sandor’s bedroom. She was asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.

During her nap, she dreamed strange dreams. A kaleidoscope of all the horrors that happened to her over the past 48-hours. She dreamed of Joff with fangs coming to devour her alive. Sandor getting punched in the face repeatedly, blood pouring from his nose and mouth. The contents of her stomach erupting into a toilet bowl.

Stranger’s barking woke Sansa with a start. She rubbed her eyes and tried to regain her bearings.

From outside the bedroom, she could hear Margaery negotiating with Stranger. “I’ll take you out for a walk soon, okay? We just have to wait until Miss Sansa wakes up.” The rottweiler grumbled in response.

Sansa’s mouth was bone dry. She crawled out of bed to refill her glass of water. When she emerged, Margaery asked how she was faring and suggested they take the dog out for a walk.

“I don’t have any shoes,” Sansa said fidgeting with the hem of Sandor’s baggy shirt. She did not want to go outside barefoot again and in clothes that did not fit. What if someone she knew saw her. How was she going to explain this?

“Ah! I’m so sorry. I forgot to mention earlier” Margaery cried, hurrying over to the bag she’d left by the door. “I brought some better clothes for you and a variety of shoes that should more or less fit, I think.”

Sansa picked out a pair of white slip-ons that were a still a little too small but were better than nothing, pulled on a pair of black leggings and an oversized sweatshirt that smelled like honey and the three of them set off for the elevator. 

Outside, Sansa really had no idea what neighborhood in King’s Landing they were in. There were several, taller residential buildings with shops on the ground floor and a couple of smaller office buildings but it wasn’t anything like the bustle around the Red Keep.

“Where in the city are we?” Sansa asked as she peered into the window of Forel’s: Straight Razor Haircuts. 

“Oh, we’re near the Street of Sisters,” Margaery replied. “We can see the Dragonpit if we continue down that way for a bit and take a right.”

Sansa sort of knew where they were. She’d attended school at the University of King’s Landing which was just south of the Sept of Baelor. She’d been familiar with that area but not this far east. 

As Stranger pulled them along the sidewalk, Margaery slipped her hand into Sansa’s. Sansa was immensely comforted by this gesture. It made her relax a little of the tension she’d felt building between her eyebrows.

“I have a story for you. It’s not a very nice one but it has a good ending. Want to hear it?” Margaery asked.

Sansa looked over and nodded, her blue eyes locked on Margaery’s brown.

“My family was deeply religious. And my brothers and I were raised in a militant sect of The Seven. You’d probably call it a cult. You wouldn’t be wrong.”

Sansa nodded again but she wasn’t exactly sure why Margaery was telling her this.

“In my defense, I didn’t know any better because it had been my whole life. I spent a lot of my childhood thinking it was really great. Sure the rules were strict and the High Sparrow’s punishment for breaking them was harsh, but I had friends. We had a very close-knit community. Everything was fine until I found out my brother Loras was gay.” Margaery continued.

“I was just 14 at the time and accidentally walked in on him and this other boy I’d had a big crush on. I was mortified and deeply ashamed,” she pressed on. “I kept that bit of information to myself. If we got beatings for being late for dinner, I couldn’t even fathom what they would do for a mortal sin.”

“As you can imagine, things got much darker and eventually my brother was caught by someone else who didn’t want to keep his secret,” Her voice darkened slightly. “I was accused of covering for him, enabling him actually.”

“It was my other brother Willas and my grandmother that ended up getting us out,” her voice trailed off a little and Sansa could see tears welling in her eyes. They’d stopped walking. Stranger occupying himself by sniffing a newspaper rack.

“I’m bringing this up not for pity, or anything like that,” Margaery sniffed, wiping her nose on the back of her sleeve. “But because I want you to know that you can trust me, trust us. Sandor is a good man. He was one of Loras’s trainers. We can all help you get out of this.”

Up until that point, Sansa hadn’t realized the tears that were steadily streaming down her face. She knew she had to leave Joff. She realized she’d known years ago and just never had the courage.

“I know,” Sansa whispered. “I don’t want to have to deal with this anymore.” She gestured at her face.

Magaery reached over and wrapped her arms around Sansa, holding her close.

“How about we go back to your place and we can pick up your clothes. You can stay with me until we figure out what to do next. Okay?”

Sansa let out a couple of harsh sobs that wracked her body. She was going to leave. She was going to have her life back.

“Yes, I would love that,” Sansa said. “Thank you for helping me.”

“Now I’m really feeling some ice cream, do you want some?” Margaery asked brightly. Wiping the tears from Sansa’s cheeks. “There’s a good spot just a few blocks from here.”

Sansa nodded again and the three of them continued on.

***

Back at Sandor’s apartment, Margaery sent off a few texts to let Sandor know about their plans. He replied back quickly.

“Do you need me to be there?”

“Sansa!” Margaery called from the kitchen. She was heating them up a garlic and chicken frozen pizza. “Do you think we need Sandor when we visit your place?”

Getting up from the cuddle puddle with Stranger, Sansa walked over to the kitchen.

“Um,” she said, thinking. “I don’t think so. Joff usually doesn’t usually hang out at my house.”

He likes his mom’s fancy mansion in Maegor’s Holdfast better than anything that belonged to me she almost added but thought better of it. Margaery was nice and all, but Sansa wasn’t entirely ready for her to know all of the terrible details about Joff and his mother.

“Are you sure? I don’t want you to feel unsafe.”

“Oh, I think it’ll be fine. We might just have to call a locksmith. He probably locked me out when he left.”

“Okay, I trust you,” Margaery shrugged. The timer went off and both of them jumped. “I think Sandor has some chocolate milk in the fridge, can you get me a glass?”

“I haven’t had chocolate milk since I was a kid,” Sansa laughed as she dug through the cabinets.

“Sandor uses it to mix with his protein. Says it’s a good post-workout recovery snack. Lots of carbs and stuff. But who knows he could just be an over-grown ten-year-old.”

“Ah,” Sansa said. “Maybe I need to pick up boxing so I can have an excuse to drink chocolate milk all the time.”

“Or you can just be like me and drink it anyway,” Margaery laughed in return.

“Is being a cutman the only thing you do,” Sansa asked while she waited for the pizza to cool down.

“No, I also work in PR and do freelance marketing work for my partner Bronn’s gym where they all train, also Sandor’s bar and a bunch of other small companies.”

“Ohhh! I sort of do PR, too.” Sansa replied. “I help manage external communications for different lobbying groups.

“Don’t worry, not like a bad, corporate interest lobbies,” She added, “I’m working right now with a house the homeless campaign to get legislation passed for more public housing in Flea Bottom.”

As the words escaped her lips, Sansa’s eyes went wide. And then she started laughing hysterically. Nearly choking on her pizza.

“What is it?” Margaery asked, her eyebrows raised.

“Oh my god, I just realized that I won’t have to fend off obnoxious “taxation is theft” or “poor people are just lazy” comments from Joffrey’s family anymore. Ah! You have no idea how pissed off I used to get.”

“I bet that will be nice.” Margaery smiled, relieved that Sansa was able to imagine herself outside of her relationship with Joffrey.

They both finished off the pizza. As they talked about their time at college, Margaery’s cult drama, a very tame version of Sansa’s time with Joff, Sansa made the realization that outside her co-workers, she was making the first new friend in several years.

***

When they neared Sansa’s townhouse, Sansa could feel her pulse increase. She wrapped her arms around her middle and stared out the window watching the familiar houses and trees go by.

“Take this right, here, and then just find a parking place. Mine is that green building.”

Margaery pulled her bright yellow car directly in front.

“Will this work?” Margaery asked.

“Yes. Now let’s get this over with. I don’t want to be here longer than I need to.”

As they quickly got out of the car, Sansa peered up into the dark windows of the other apartments. All the windows were drawn. They always were. When she’d talk to the property management company during the tour of her unit, the woman mentioned it was a pretty private, quiet building. Plenty of sound-proofing between the walls. Joff had really liked that. “You won’t have to hear some screaming kid every night anymore, babe,” he’d said. Sansa was sure she’d never be upset about hearing her neighbors stomp around ever again.

“I’m number five,” Sansa said as they walked up the garden path.

She was relieved it was daylight. Margaery took the lead and went to the door first.

“There’s a note under your doormat,” Margaery said bending down to pick it up. Not wanting to pry, she passed the note on to her.

Glancing at it, Sansa could see ti was just a folded piece of her personal stationary Joff must have taken from her desk whenever he’d left.

Sansa, I didn’t lock the door because you ought to be more careful when you leave the house. Don’t cry to me if anything is missing. -J

“Is it a threat?” Margaery asked, her voice tight.

“No, Joff is just a dick. He didn’t lock the door because he thinks  I deserve to have my stuff stolen.”

“Yeah, a right prick.” Margaery scoffed and flung open the door. “I hate him so much.”

Sansa was relieved to find that nothing obvious had been stolen and that Joff had left her phone charging next to her bed.

Cringing slightly as she looked at the screen, she saw no less than 47 missed calls and 13 voicemails from Joff, his mother and, she felt her stomach drop, Arya.

Immediately she hit “call back” and waited impatiently for the phone to ring.

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” Arya yelled into the phone, her voice breaking on a sob. “I WAS SO WORRIED. JOFF SAID YOU HADN'T COME HOME."

“Arya, I’m so sorry,” Sansa said starting to cry again. “He called you?”

“No, he texted me this morning, like the pansy he is. Honestly, Sansa. I was worried that he’d finally killed you or some shit. Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Sansa hiccuped. Wincing at her sister’s frankness. Arya missed absolutely nothing. “I’m, alright. We just had a bad fight last night and I just took off. I left my phone at home. I only just got back. I’m-I’m leaving him.”

“Did you just get a hotel?” Arya asked.

“Oh no, I actually just went to a bar and the bartender took me home. I’m going to stay with his friend this week.” Sansa replied.

“HIS?! I can’t believe you’d trust a random guy enough to go home with him,” Arya said slightly aghast. Sansa was not known for going home with strange men, that was something fully within Arya’s court.

“Honestly? I really didn’t care at that point, I just wanted to sleep and he was really nice about it. Not at all weird.” Sansa said very matter-of-factly. She walked over into her closet to fish out her overnight bag and started packing.

“Okay, that’s good. Well, I’m really proud of you for leaving,” Arya continued. “I know that’s a really scary thing to do. Can you get a restraining order or anything? Knowing what I know about Joff, he won’t like it.”

Sansa hadn’t thought much about what she was going to do next. She’d been fully consumed with worry about getting home, packing her bags and then leaving. What does one do when they leave an abusive partner?

“I hadn’t really thought that far. I probably will want a restraining order, not sure if he’ll follow that but it’s still worth getting.”

“I started volunteering at women’s shelter,” Arya offered. “I can probably ask some of the social worker’s there if they know of any good resources in King’s Landing. I know a couple of the women I work with are from here.”

“Oh thanks, Arya,” Sansa said. Smiling at her sister’s kindness. Arya wasn’t known for being kind so Sansa was determined to savor this moment.

“Ah, I’m so sorry Sans,” Arya said her voice getting quiet. “I gotta go. I’m supposed to be working right now..”

“No worries Arya. Sorry for worrying you so much.”

“You’re really-really-really fine and not dead?” Arya asked her voice fast and breathless.

Sansa chuckled. “No. I could be better, but I’m here and I’m leaving.”

“Okay, bye! I love you!” Arya said and she hung up.

Sansa took another deep breath and went over to her chest of drawers to get enough socks and underwear for a week. A few minutes later she heard her phone vibrate.

Margaery poked her head in the door.

“Do you mind if I clear out your fridge. I wouldn’t want you to come back later with liquid lettuce and clumpy milk.”

“Oh no,” Sansa said hurriedly. Stuffing more clothes into her bag. “You don’t need to do anything. I got it. Let me just finish up in here.”

Sansa could feel heat rising in her cheeks. She was suddenly very aware of the magnitude of what she was doing. She was leaving a man she’d spent eight years of her life with. She’d run away from him last night and spent the night with a completely strange man. She was going to be staying with another stranger. She felt like her whole life was under a microscope. And did not need Margaery going through her things.

“I’m not doing anything right now,” Margaery said, taken aback. Her brows furrowed.

“Just give me like two minutes.”

“It’s not a big deal or anything,” Margaery insisted. “Let me help you.”

“Okay,” Sansa snapped. “Fine. Do whatever you want.”

Margaery stared at her for a moment brows nearly disappearing into her short bangs.

Sansa looked away to check her phone. Her ears were ringing. It was a text from Arya. 

“Here you gooooo!”

Attached were several links about services that helped survivors of domestic violence get restraining orders.

“Thanks”

Sansa got up quickly and ran to the bathroom to get her toiletries and an extra toothbrush before returning breathless into the kitchen. Margaery was tying off the garbage bag when Sansa walked in. 

“Are you ready to go?” Margaery asked. Sansa listened for any tightness, or discomfort that would hint at what her new friend was thinking. Margaery's voice betrayed nothing.

“I am,” Sansa replied.

“Got your phone, charger, wallet, and keys?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, let’s get the fuck out of here,” Margaery said smiling, arm gesturing to the door.

The pair of them walked out into the dwindling sunlight. Sansa felt a pang of shame at her outburst at Margaery and exhaustion hit her like a ton of bricks.

“I’ll just meet you at your place then?” Sansa asked as walked towards her car, bag draped over her shoulder.

“Yes! See you very soon!” Margaery called as she got into her own.

Sansa plugged Margaery’s address into her GPS and pulled out into the street. As she passed by Margaery idling in her car, Sansa wondered if she would ever be forgiven.

Chapter Text

Sansa woke up early the next morning filled with nervous energy. It was uncomfortably bright with just simple blinds covering the windows. Blinking, she checked her phone, it was 5:26.

She had three more texts from Arya asking if she’d taken a look at the survivor resources. Sansa lied and typing out that she had and thanking her sister again. And another missed call and voicemail from Joff that she deleted without giving it a listen. She already had a sense of what it would be and didn’t want to the growing sense of unease building in her stomach.

When that will through, she still had another hour or so before getting up so she adjusted the covers, re-plumped the pillows and decided to do a little online creeping of the people she just met.

She first searched for ‘Sandor Clegane.’ He was the person she was most intrigued about. Most of the search results were about his fighting career. First, she read a profile about him for a sports magazine. She learned that he was a boxer-puncher, whatever that meant. He used to be in the military. He was 36, old for a fighter. He had an older brother who was a competitive strongman, whatever that was, but had just retired. He had grown up in the Westerlands and loved dogs. His fighting nickname was “The Hound.” His most recent fight payout had been 7,000 gold. There was no mention of his facial scars in that profile or in any of the other articles she could find.

Relieved to find that he wasn’t one of those really cocky, elite fighters who liked to talk a lot of shit and said lots of misogynistic things to their opponents, Sansa decided to give him a follow. His professional Facebook profile was mostly used as a promotional tool, she assumed Margaery kept that updated for him.

As she looked through the photos, she was once again struck by the immense size of this man. He was well over six feet tall, broad-shouldered and maintained a cut figured. During fights, his hair was always pulled back accentuating his intense facial scars. Sansa wondered if he liked being intimidating.

It was a completely different kind of intimidating to what she had become accustomed to with Joff.

Moving onto other social media sites, she saw he had a pretty large subscriber base on YouTube. And in addition to the highlight clips of his fights, had uploaded several playlists about fighting and fitness tips. She tapped on one of the videos. The loud intro music made her jump and she hurriedly turned down the volume, not wanting Margaery to hear.

Damn, he looks so good, Sansa found herself thinking. Heat crawled her spine and she cringed, feeling the backs of her knees get a little sweaty. She kicked one leg out of the blankets. Not even twenty-four hours out of a relationship, not even officially ending a relationship, she amended, and she was already ogling shirtless men. Big, strong shirtless men. Well at least Sandor is a semi-public-figure, she justified. It’s fine. It’s fine. She was already going to burn in the Seven Hells anyway.

Still feeling restless, even though she only wasted about a half-hour on her preliminary creeping, she fully intended to do a more thorough investigation when she was at her computer at work. Sansa decided to get out of bed and take a hot shower.

Margaery had a spare bedroom but they had to share a bathroom. Margaery had apologized again and again for the inconvenience but Sansa didn’t mind. She never wanted to live alone, ever again. But she did fret that there would be more frantic bouts of anxiety induced vomiting to monopolize the only toilet. She remembered with embarrassment yesterday morning in Sandor’s apartment. What must he think of me? She pushed the memory away in shame.

After her shower, she got out and inspected the bruising on her face, neck, and lip. She spent a long time layering and blending concealer over her bruised cheek, building up the coverage until there was only a hint of discoloration. Her lip was still tender and swollen but there was nothing she could do about that, but with a more muted lip color, it would be almost invisible. Pleased with her work, she went back out into the living area. Margaery was already seated at the island bar.

“Morning, love,” Margaery smiled. “I have some coffee ready for you. Did you sleep alright?”

“Thanks,” Sansa replied going over to pour herself a cup. “I slept alright, much better than my night at Sandor’s.”

“What time do you need to leave for work?” Margaery asked.

“Oh, not until eight. I just couldn’t get back to sleep,” Sansa shrugged. She glanced at the clock on the oven, it was only 6:20. She had time to take things slow.

“Yeah, my sleep patterns always get a little bit screwy when I’m in a different place.”

Sansa dug around in the fridge helping herself to the last, almost-too-ripe avocado and popped two slices of bread into the toaster.

“Um, Sansa,” Margaery said slowly drawing out her name.

“Yes?” Sansa replied turning her head over her shoulder to look at her host, fear pitting in her stomach.

“Your makeup looks, good by the way. But, uh, I was wondering if you had anyone else you could call about what’s going on?” Margaery did her best to sound measured and concerned but not too pushy.

“Oh, thanks, I have a lot of experience.” She paused for a minute before adding. “Not really. My only friend here Jeyne is on vacation in Bravos, I was going to tell her on our next Facetime date.”

“Mmmm,” Margaery murmured, her brows furrowed.

“Most of my friends weren’t even my friends at all, they were Joff’s. We’d been dating for a while,” she explained.

“I see. Gods. I’m so sorry Sansa,” Margaery said as she got up from her stool and came around the counter to where Sansa was and gave her a hug.

Margery’s arms felt like she was soaking in the warm sun, Sansa relaxed into the embrace.

“I promise I’ll be your friend. And I’ll share my other friends with you, too.” Margaery continued, resting her head on Sansa’s shoulder.

As much as Sansa wanted to believe those words and maintain the warm contact with another caring person, her outburst from the day before pulled her back down to the ground. Tension rose in her shoulders, and she turned away busying herself in her breakfast and meticulously mashing up the avocado with a fork until it was completely smooth.

Margaery’s heart sank. She could almost see the fear and shame whirling around in her friend’s head, but not wanting to push her new friend further, Margaery let go and went to refill her own coffee cup.

“Can I give you a warm up, too?” She asked.

Sansa only nodded in reply.

***

When Sandor awoke every muscle in his body protested. He groaned and turned over, taking his time to extend his sore limbs. As he exhaled, he unconsciously reached one arm out towards the center of his bed towards the other warm body that slept next to him.

“You’re awake,” his bedmate murmured cozying herself into the crook of Sandor’s shoulder to plant a kiss on his chest.

Sandor didn’t reply, he just closed his eyes and willed sleep to take him again, desperately wanting a reprieve from his soreness. Bronn wouldn’t be happy he’d pushed himself so hard especially so close to another fight. He was going to have to take it easy.

A soft touch trickling down from his body from the top of his right shoulder, down his arm and around his waist dragging him back towards awareness. He opened his eyes again, blinking a few times.

“I’m also awake,” she said, her voice bearly above a whisper.

Sandor felt her hand tuck into the waistband of his boxers as she reached her face into his neck. She gave a long, breathy exhale grazing him with her teeth. He felt his cock twitch and his heart rate increase.

Reflexively, Sandor tucked his right arm under her sleep shirt and began toying with her nipple, teasing it up and palming her breast.

“If I recall,” she teased as she stroked his length. “You invited me over as a distraction. Do you want another distraction?”

Sandor groaned in response. He closed his eyes and lost himself for a moment in her measured, even pulls until he was fully erect. Pushing up over her, he boxed her in with his arms and gently pressed his lips onto her eager mouth. They were long, deep kisses. He ground his hips down against her pelvis responding to her body.

He slid two fingers down between her legs, wetting his fingers and circling her clit. She moaned and he every so slightly picked up the speed until he felt her body tense and splutter around his fingers. She remained still for a moment while Sandor took in her pale skin, and tight curls that framed her face. He reached down to kiss her again.

“It’s my turn to distract you, again,” she smiled as she placed her arms on his chest, signaling him to take her place. He rolled to his back and grabbed her around the waist to straddle him.

Coy as ever, she moved back and bent down to take him in her mouth as she continued to stroke him with her hands. Sandor leaned back and closed his eyes. Savoring her tongue and the gentle graze of her teeth. After a while, she knelt over him and slowly lowered herself onto his cock, taking him in entirely.

“Fuck,” Sandor groaned, working his hips in a circle against her.

“Let me, babe.” she insisted. And Sandor let her take over.

It was only a little while later that he felt his peak come and he erupted with one more thrust. Sighing heavily, he reached over to the side of the bed to pick up his shirt he’d tossed there the night before.

While Ros was cleaning herself up in the shower, Sandor made his way to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Glancing at the sink he realized the bowl Sansa had used for eggs and a butter knife were still left from the morning before. A rush of annoyance took Sandor by surprised. He seethed at Margaery and Sansa for not properly cleaning up before they left. He gruffly washed the dirty dishes, making no effort to be careful or quiet and slammed cabinets as he emptied the dishwasher.

“Grumpy already, Sandor?” Ros said walking into the kitchen as she toweled off her hair. “I think that’s a new record.”

“What?” Sandor said confused.

“Normally, a good fucking takes your edge off,” Ros replied. She walked over and got her self a glass of water. “Today, not so much.”

Sandor just made a noncommittal noise and went back to the pot of coffee. Why did it matter if he was in a bad mood or not? It wasn’t like it mattered to Ros anyway. She would be off later.

“Woah. You don’t have to be defensive,” Ros snapped.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, hoping she would just drop it. Sandor hadn’t realized he’d spoken his thoughts out loud.

“What did you mean by, ‘you’ll be off anyway,’” Ros pressed on. “I thought that’s what works for us? But if you want that to change, by all means, I don’t have to come back. Or leave.”

It took every ounce of Sandor’s self-control to carefully set down the glass coffee pot back down and turn around. He opened his mouth to try and form words. But Ros beat him to it.

“What’s actually going on?” She asked the bite that had been there just moments before, strangely absent. “Margaery mentioned that something happened yesterday but was being vague about it.”

“It’s nothing really, I just had a strange night and an even stranger morning yesterday,” Sandor said, trying to sound casual.

“Yeah, and?” Ros said expectantly.

Sandor sighed. He really didn’t want to be talking about this with Ros. It entered too far into the messy space of relationships — a place he didn’t ever want to go with Ros. They were just friends who fucked. Simple as that. And even worse, he wasn’t even sure how he felt about Sansa or anything else that happened.

Ros folded her arms and raised an eyebrow.

“My brother is getting married again,” Sandor half-feined, casting his eyes downward. He wasn’t lying he told himself that was part of why he’d spent the last 24 hours on edge, but not everything.

“Oh, Sandor,” Ros murmured. She walked up to try to give him a hug but he just stood there passively. “Is there anything that I can do?”

“I haven’t decided if I’m going or not,” Sandor said, extracting himself from her arms. He took a sip of coffee.

“I don’t think you should,” Ros said abruptly. “Seeing him never does you well.”

“Bloody hells, Ros. Just keep your opinions to yourself for one second,” Sandor groaned.

“Ha. You wish,” Ros smirked, giving his shoulder a small shove. “You need someone to push you around a little. Keeps you on your toes.”

Ros laughed and also helped herself to a cup of coffee. Sandor felt the tension building up inside him dissipate. This was why he liked Ros, their banter, not their vulnerability.

“Are you working today,” he asked. Hoping the change of subject wasn’t out of place.

“Yeah, I’m seeing a client later,” Ros nodded. She popped two pieces of toast into the toaster oven. “He’s promising me a lavish dinner. And paying to get my hair done.” At that, she flipped her long damp hair and Sandor got a whiff of her floral conditioner.

“He’s some rich fuck who said his wife is a frigid cunt,” Ros said rolling her eyes.

“Aren’t they all?”

“Some? Lot’s of these guys are just gross and need a weird power trip to get off.” Ros checked the clock on the stove. It was after nine. “Shit. I need to get going.”

“I’ll finish up your toast,” Sandor offered. “You go get your stuff.”

“Oh gods. Thanks a million,” she called over her shoulder as she took off to collect her things.

After Ros dashed out the door, he made his way over to the living room and called Stranger up on the couch for some puppy love. He turned the TV on and it was the same documentary that Margaery had started for Sansa the morning before. He pressed play and picked up right where they had left off.

Digging his phone out of his pocket Sandor tried typing out a message to Margaery.

How’s Sansa doing?

He shook his head and deleted it. He didn't want to be weird.

How did things go yesterday?

He chickened out and deleted it again. If Margaery had an update for him, she would tell him. So he put his phone away and went back to polar bears and the sleeping dog on his lap, killing time before he had to leave for the gym.

***

When Sansa got into the office she made her usual route through the cubical farm to greet the teams she would be meeting with later that day. They had several policies they were helping to draft for the upcoming legislative session, and she wanted to make sure she got all of the more nuanced details right before putting together a press package.

As she entered her office, she heard her phone buzz — it was Joff calling, again. Her breath hitched in her chest. But she took a big deep breath and let it go to voicemail before immediately deleting it.

She wondered if she would regret deleting his voicemails later when things inevitably blew over. Maybe it would be good evidence for a restraining order.

If she was being honest with herself she was nervous being at work, being away from people who knew what was going on. She realized she hadn’t been alone in over a day. That thought scared her.

Glancing at her agenda she saw that her first meeting wasn’t for a couple of hours, so she decided it would be a better use of her time to finally check out the resources that Arya sent over. Sansa pulled out a small empty notebook from her desk, her favorite sparkly blue gel pen and began reading. She wanted to make sure she was doing everything right.

In one of the resources titled “Preparing To Leave,” it recommended keeping evidence of any abuse and noting dates and times. She felt irresponsible for not paying more attention to her own situation.

She tried to remember other big events and violent outbursts but everything kept being clouded over by what happened during the weekend. She knew that there was more. When was the last time Joff had hit her? Or forced her to have sex with him? Was it a couple of weeks ago? But she was drawing up a complete blank. Frustrated she flung her pen down and put her head in her hands.

The door to her office burst open. Sansa jumped. For a split second, she was sure that Joffrey had come and that she was about to face his wrath. He would announce to everyone at the office that she was a whore and he would force her to resign and she would probably be locked away forever.

But looking up, it was only her co-worker Andrey Dalt.

“Sansa, the meeting is about to start. Are you coming?” Andrey said, his voice cheery. “Oh, did I scare you?”

“Oh, what?” Sansa’s heart continued to race on. She looked at the lock on her computer screen. It was 10:27. “Shit. I didn’t realize the time.”

“Miss Stark, running late?” Andrey gasped. “That’s unusual. And are you hungover, too?”

“Uh, yeah. Wild night.” Sansa’s perception of her office change. She felt detached from her surroundings like she was existing in one of her brother’s third-person video games. She saw herself grab her pen, the file folder for this policy draft and her agenda.

“ I hope it’s not the pressure of this session getting to you already. We need your brilliance.”

Sansa heard herself say. “Of course not, I just got carried away.”

Andrey smiled and held his arm out. “Ladies first.”

She walked briskly to the conference room, Andrey at her heels.

After the meeting, she walked to the bathroom to try to pull herself together. She was exhausted from trying to keep her self together, from trying to stay on top of what was being said, from trying to seem normal. She wetted a paper towel and gently wiped her eyes, careful not to mess up her makeup and she reapplied her lipstick.

You’re okay. You’re okay. She murmured to herself and staring directly into her reflection.

It was lunchtime. She only had one more afternoon meeting and then she could say she was going to work from home. No one would care. And then she could just go to sleep for the rest of the day. Nothing had ever felt more inviting. The next four days felt impossible. How was she going to be able to get through her disastrous personal life and make it through work?

On her way to the breakroom for some more coffee, she nearly ran into Barra from the front desk.

“Oh Sansa, I’m so sorry. I was just looking for you.” Barra cried. “Joff is here to see you. He’s said he’d be waiting in your office.”

Sansa froze. What if he saw her notebook with her notes about leaving. Oh, gods. The floor seemed to sway under her feet. She closed her eyes, thankful she was still holding onto the wall.

“Sansa?” Barra said slowly. Her mouth in a slight frown. “Did you two break up?”

“Uh, yeah, we did,” Sansa struggled to regain composure. “It’s fine. I’ll go see what he wants.”

Barra asked reaching out to touch her shoulder. “I’m so so sorry. Sansa.” She seemed to understand that everything was not fine.

Once Sansa was around the corner, she took off in a run to the fire escape, frantically trying to get a hold of Margaery. She called three times, every unanswered ring pumping more adrenaline through her body. What if Joff started looking for her? What if he found her hiding here? In a last ditched effort to talk to somebody, anybody. She called Sandor.

The night before, Margaery had suggested that Sansa put his number in her phone. Sansa was hesitant at first, remembering the tampons and extra toothbrush she’d found in his bathroom. She didn’t want to cause any drama.

“What if I don’t pick up the phone and you need someone to rough up Joff,” Margaery had countered.

And sure enough. Margaery wasn’t answering her phone and she needed someone to play bodyguard.

“Hello?” Sandor’s gruff voice answered on the first ring.

“Uh, Hi Sandor, it’s Sansa,” Sansa couldn’t keep her voice from wavering. “I’m so sorry to bother you —”

“What’s going on?” Sandor cut her off.

“Um, J-J-Joff just showed up at my work. He’s waiting for me in his office,” she stuttered.

“Where’s your office?” Sandor asked his voice hard.

“Um, it’s at Rhaenys’ Tower. Twelfth floor.”

“Where are you now?”

“I’m hiding in the fire escape,” Sansa whispered and her voice broke into a violent sob. She hated this so much. She felt so small and insignificant and utterly defenseless.

“I’ll text you when I get there. Give me ten minutes,” Sandor said and the phone call ended.

The next ten minutes were excruciating. Sansa sat on the floor and hugged her knees. She did her best to calm down but every time she managed to get her breathing measured her mind would wander to something horrible Joff had said to her during their years together and she would erupt into hysterical sobs all over again.

On the ground, her phone buzzed a text from Sandor.

I’m in the elevator.

Sansa gingerly got to her feet and checked her reflection in the window. It wasn’t too bad. Smoothing her shirt down she marched her feet forward and walked directly towards Barra’s desk. She arrived just as the elevator dinged and the doors opened. Thankfully Barra was absent from the desk and Sansa hurried over.

She was so relieved to see him walk out of the elevator. His hair was damp and pulled over his scarred cheek and he was wearing a dark grey shirt that clung menicingly to his wide chest.

Without thinking, she reached her arms out and Sandor accepted her into a tight hug. She felt him lightly stroke her back. She really wanted him to just carry her away and tuck her into bed again, like some knight in shining armor. She noticed he still smelled like smoke and pine.

“What do you want me to do?” He asked, his voice surprisingly low and soft.

“I’m just going to go home for the rest of the day but I need my bag. And Joff’s in there.”

“Should I come with you?” He asked hesitantly, “Or do you just want me to get it for you?”

“Please just come with me. I have some other stuff in my desk that I need to get,” She was unable to keep a pleading note from her voice.

“Lead the way,” he replied giving her a slight turn. Sansa moved out of the embrace and walked determinedly back towards her office.

***

Sandor could feel the eyes of Sansa’s co-workers bore into him as he followed her back to her office. He could hear the hushed whispers of people wondering what was going on. As much as he didn’t like it, at this moment, he didn’t care. At this moment all that mattered was helping this poor girl deal with her shithole ex and making sure she was safe.

He was relieved he’d gotten out of the shower when he had. He’d just been at the gym working his way through a light set before deciding to call it in early. He didn’t want to think about how long she would have had to hide into the fire escape if he’d decided to work a longer set or waste another minute in the shower.

Sansa stopped abruptly in front of a door with “Sansa Stark” on the plaque. Good Gods, Sandor thought, she’s a Stark? He hadn’t even realized. She turned around to look at him.

“This is it,” she said, her voice barely over a whisper.

Through the clouded glass of the window next to the door, Sandor could just make out the head of a person sitting right on the other side. The offending Joffrey was only a few feet away. He took a deep breath and gathered his courage before carefully brushing passed Sansa towards the door.

The doorknob turned and he heard Sansa’s quick intake of breath. When the door started to open he heard a soft voice drawl, “So there you are, love. You’ve kept me waiting a long time.”

Sandor opened the door all the way and walked on through without saying a word.

“Sansa, what’s this?” Joff said, standing up and glaring up at Sandor’s hulking figure.

Sandor brushed his hair back behind his ruined ear, making his jagged scars all the more visible. He was surprised when Sansa turned to confront the man sitting on the small loveseat in her office.

“Joff, I’m done. Please leave me alone and never talk to me again,” Sansa said her voice quiet but firm. Her brows were furrowed in determination.

“Sansa, love. You don’t mean that? It was just a misunderstanding. We’d been drinking and things got out of hand,” Joff cooed, putting his hands into his pockets and looking down.

“No,” Sansa said, firmer this time. She took a step back and shook her head. “I’m no longer interested in your non-apologies. I don’t want you in my life anymore. Don’t make me ask you again, please, leave.”

“A non-apology?” Joff started, his subdued demeanor instantly gone. “What do you think I’m doing here? I’m trying to apologize. I was going to invite you to take the afternoon off, we could go see a movie and get dinner, but I guess nothing is good enough for you is it, Sansa Stark?”

Sansa could only nod, tears spilling over her cheeks. Anger boiled through Sandor’s chest.

“You best be gone, boy,” Sandor rumbled, stepping in front of Sansa and gesturing to the open door. “She doesn’t want you.”

“You, can’t be serious Sansa. You’re leaving me for this, ugly dog?” Joffrey looked up at Sandor, his wormy lips pulled back into a sneer. Joff brushed invisible dust off his pants before turning back to Sansa.

“When this falls apart,” and he waved his hand at them. “When you decide that this dog isn’t up to your standards, just don’t come crawling back to me. I don’t want any filthy leftovers.” And he stormed out of the office without shutting the door.

Cursing under his breath, Sandor stepped forward to shut the door. Sansa took the same spot Joff had been sitting in before. Her head in her hands.

“Oh gods, that was horrible,” she half-moaned, half-sobbed. “I’m sorry he thought we were together. I didn’t mean for that at all.”

“I don’t care,” Sandor replied. Thinking it was odd she’d latched on to that. “He was cunt just trying to humiliate you. I am an ugly dog, no way around it.” Sandor squatted down to be at the same eye level as Sansa. “Do you think he’ll be back?”

She took in a few shuddering breaths and avoided his eyes before answering, “Probably, he was always very possessive.”

“Well, you can call me anytime. C’mon. I’ll take you back to Marg’s place.”

Chapter Text

Once Sansa was standing in the elevator clutching her bag in a death grip, she felt the adrenaline that seemed to be holding up her entire body dissipate and her breathing slow down. She leaned up against the railing unsure if she could support her own weight. Sandor stood next to her staring intently at the floor indicator watching the numbers tick down. His hands planted firmly in the pockets of his jacket.

Sansa closed her eyes wanting to block out everything that had just happened. Every mean thing Joff had said. Every alarming glance that followed them out of the office. A stray tear trickled down her cheek and she sniffed. How utterly embarrassing. She dreaded what Sandor was thinking. She dreaded what her coworkers were thinking.

The sound of blood pounding in her ears was replaced with the echoing words Joff shouted at her over the many years they’d been together. Worthless slut. Whore. Her ruminating thoughts were interrupted as the elevator doors opened on the first floor with a loud ding. Sansa tensed, bracing herself against the railing. She half expected Joff to be waiting to ambush her when she walked out.

Sensing her discomfort, Sandor exited first. He held his hand out to prevent the doors from closing and glanced around the lobby. “It’s alright,” he said gruffly. “He’s not here.”

Relieved, Sansa reached out and grasped his arm, clinging to it like a lifeboat in a hurricane. Sandor pulled her in close to his body and half-carried her through the lobby. Their lopsided footsteps reverberated strangely across the marble floor, bright sunlight streamed through the big, glass windows. As they turned around the corner from the elevators, Sandor’s eyes met the startled afternoon receptionist by the main entrance.

“Uh, is everything okay?” She asked, her voice cut sharply through the air. She stood up from her chair, shoulders tensed unsure of the situation.

Sansa opened her mouth and tried to find words to reassure her but nothing came to mind.

“Uh, yeah, ma’am,” Sandor said, tugging Sansa even closer to his body. “Everything is fine.”

Sansa just nodded weakly as they continued to limp forward. The receptionist watched them leave, her eyes narrowed. Once they were out the doors, Sansa shuddered. She’s going to think you’re such a basket case. How are you supposed to walk in there tomorrow?

“You’re okay,” Sandor grumbled, rubbing her with his thumb. His hand spanned the entire circumference of her arm. “Don’t give a fuck about those twats.”

“How can you read my mind?” Sansa let out a hysterical laugh.

Sansa could feel Sandor shrug the firmness of his body a welcomed comfort. She wondered if that gesture was on purpose.

“I could just tell,” Sandor said and he pulled her towards his truck parked in the 15-minute spot right outside the front doors.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sansa demanded as she fumbled with the door. She desperately willed her jelly legs to hold her up when Sandor’s arm reached around her, jerked the door open and hoisted her up into the seat.

“You’re just easy to ready, girl.”

She sat in silence, afraid that a murmur or the slightest change in her posture would betray her even more.

Carefully, Sandor closed the door and walked around to the driver’s side. When he got in, he flipped the radio to a jazz station and pulled out into the road. Inside the cab of the truck, it smelled faintly like cigarettes and a gym bag. And a faded air freshener hung from the rearview mirror.

They drove through a few intersections before Sansa’s anxiety bubbled up again.

“I am so, so sorry he insulted you. That was utterly inappropriate,” Sansa apologized again gazing out at the buildings going by. She unbuttoned and rebuttoned the cuff of her blouse. “He always so mean.”

“You don’t need to be apologizing,” Sandor said, his voice low and harsh. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“Well if I don’t, no one will,” Sansa replied. She rolled her eyes.

“Don’t fucking baby him. He’s a grown-ass man who can make his own insults,” Sandor countered. “Plus it’s not like I’ve never heard what he said before.”

“That’s not the point,” she snapped, color flooding her face. “I’m not trying to take responsibility. I just want to make sure you know that’s not what I think and that I’m sorry you had to experience it.” Her own excuse sounded flat in her ears. “You know what? Forget it.” 

Sandor just shrugged. He didn’t buy it. She was just a pretty little girl used to cleaning up the shit people like Joffrey dropped all over them and everyone else.

During the rest of the drive back to Margaery’s apartment, Sansa fumed. She absolutely regretted calling Sandor. It was only going to make Joff more upset. She was sure Joff was going to retaliate. And now she was also sure Sandor thought she was incapable of making responsible decisions.

Sandor pulled into a handicapped parking spot outside of Margaery’s building and got out, his truck still idling as he walked out and opened Sansa’s door. She reached down to get her bag from the floor, but Sandor grabbed it and slung it over his shoulder.

“It’s fine. I can take it,” Sansa huffed, refusing to take his outstretched hand as she hopped down. “I’m not an invalid.”

Sandor just shrugged as he stepped up onto the curb. He quickly punched in Margaery’s building code and headed inside.

“Sandor, give me back my bag!” She cried storming after him. “I don’t need your help.”

He continued to ignore her until she ran up to him and wrenched it down his arm.

“What are you doing?” He spat. His furrowed brows pulled the scarred side of his face into a garish glare.

“I should be asking you that. Give me back my bag.”

“I’m just trying to help you,” he snapped.

“Well I said I don’t fucking need it,” she snarled turning on her heel and heading towards the stairs. She did not want to be stuck in another metal box with his oaf. He might be able to overtake her but at least on the stairs, she could keep moving.

Sandor let her walk a few paces ahead of him before he calling out to her.

“I need your car keys.”

“What?” She said turning over her shoulder glaring at him. Why would he need her car keys?

For a split second, Sandor marveled at her eyes flashing and the lovely flush that came over her face but he shook the thought out of his head.

“Your car keys?” He said reaching out his hand. “Bronn and I can drive it back this afternoon so you don’t have to leave it in the garage.”

Sansa looked down as a deeper blush colored her cheeks. She extracted Margaery’s apartment key from the ring and let the rest fall to the ground with a loud clatter. Then she took a few steps back before turning towards the stairs.

Sandor let her leave, recognizing her defensiveness as self-preservation and waited for her red hair to disappear behind the slam of the fire door. As he bent down to reach for his keys an absurd chuckle escaped his lips. In spite of everything, she has some bite after all.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, lighter and a cigarette. Walking back out to his truck still idling thunderously in the parking lot he lit up and searched his contacts for an “Elder Brother.”

***

After Sansa was sure that Sandor wasn’t following, she took off in a full sprint up the six flights of stairs to Margaery’s apartment. She slammed the door behind her and flipped the deadbolt before collapsing in a heap on the living room.

She doubled over and pressed her palms over her eyes and sobbed. Her entire body shuddered and convulsed. Her heart pounded in her chest and she drew long ragged breaths.

Her phone buzzed, pulling her back into reality. She checked the notification, it was just an email from Andrey asking if she was alright. Was she alright?

She just wanted to sink into the floor and disappear from everything happening around her. She just wanted the whole world to pause, to just fucking stop until she could wrap her mind around what was happening.

Her life had completely turned upside down. She’d left the apartment she’d lived in, finally left the man who’d made years of her life miserable and half-moved in with a complete stranger. A complete stranger who seemed fully accepting of her and seemed to want to create a lasting friendship.

But she was alright for now. She was locked away in a secure apartment building, one more obstacle between her and whatever rage she was certain to have catalyzed in Joff, from the humiliation she felt at needing to ask Sandor for help, again.

She was relieved there seemed to be people who were kind, who rescued her, who had clearly known pain themselves. It meant they could be safe, they had shared experiences, too.

But as she reflected on the kindness of her new friends and of Sandor’s scars and remembering Margaery’s story caused her heart to seize up and her palms to sweat. Both of these people had known such incredible pain, could her presence trigger any unhealed wounds? Was she inadvertently causing harm to them?

She immediately started going back over everything that had happened since Sandor let her hang out in his bar after hours, to the ride he’d given her just now.

How could they bother themselves with her? 

Her pathetic problems with her rich kid boyfriend were nothing compared to families being torn apart or the trauma from physical violence. She really had nothing to worry about. Joff had never been that bad. He’d only been firm when she’d really been out of line. When she’d pushed him beyond what was acceptable. When she’d caused harm.

Sansa remained in a puddle of her own tears until she could feel dehydration tugging at the center of her forehead and her eyes were puffy. Nothing is going to get better unless you pull yourself together. What would Jeyne say if she saw you right now ? In a daze, she got up, poured herself a glass of water and walked into the guest room.

Digging through her toiletry bag, Sansa pulled out a small bottle of Valium, prescribed by the Baratheon’s private doctor for her anxiety and as a sleep aid. She unscrewed the cap and slowly tipped the pills into her palm.

Joff had always made snide comments about her getting ‘doped up’ but she always relished the nights that she would fall asleep before dinner and wake up after he left for work.

She slipped two pills into her mouth, took a swig of water and screwed the cap back on. Climbing into bed she stared at the ceiling until sleep took her entierly.

***

When she woke up, it was dark. Her mouth felt like it was full of cotton and a headache thudded against her temples. It took her eyes a few seconds to adjust before she noticed that someone had closed the curtains to her window. A jolt of fear shot down her spine, but she realized that it was probably Margaery being kind.

She extracted herself from a tangle of blankets and pulled on a pair of joggers before slowly turning the handle of the bedroom door. She paused to listen as she pulled the door open half an inch. From the living room, she could hear the voices of Margaery and Sandor talking.

“-- he just stormed into her workplace? Who does that?” Margaery said her voice low.

“This prick, apparently,” Sandor growled. “He’s an absolute nightmare.”

“Oh no. Do you think he’s going to retaliate?”

“Honestly, maybe?” Sandor replied. “Oh and guess what, she is Sansa Stark. Like a member of the biggest political dynasties in Westeros.”

“No shit?” Margaery laughed. “How did we not know this?”

“Fuck if I know,” Sandor groaned. “But I bet that scrawny kid will make an appearance again. He really seemed like one of those entitled rich kids who don’t take no for an answer.”

Sansa didn’t want to listen anymore. In an attempt to restore some of her pride, she slowly closed the door before loudly grabbing the handle and opening the door wide. Hopefully, they would hear her come out and drop their discussion of Joffrey.

From the living room, Margaery called, “Sansa? I have some food for you in the fridge, and you’re more than welcome to help yourself to the bottle of wine.” 

Sansa walked into the kitchen to refill her glass and rubbing her eyes.

“Thanks, Margaery, you’re too kind.” Her voice sounded hollow in her own ears.

“Nonsense, from what Sandor’s been telling me, you’ve had an awful day and I want you to take care of yourself.”

Sansa just shrugged. She didn’t want to hear about what they’d been saying about her.

“Um,” Sandor cleared his throat. “Your keys are right on the counter.” He gestured toward the island bar.

“Thanks,” Sansa nodded. “I appreciate it.”

Feeling the weight of their eyes watching her, Sansa turned back around and headed for a hot shower.

***

With the water running in the bathroom Margaery turned back to Sandor to continue their conversation.

“What I want to know, does her family know she’s in an abusive relationship?” Margaery asked.

Sandor frowned. “I honestly have no idea.”

“I would assume no because how could you just watch that level of violence happen and not tell someone!”

“I really don’t know,” Sandor repeated. He really did know that level of violence went unchecked inside a home but didn’t want to elaborate. These things were often more complicated than just “telling someone.”

“What’s on your mind?”

Sandor shrugged.

“Just this whole thing?”

He gave a noncommittal grunt and stood up.

“I should be heading out. I have to train early tomorrow. You’ll keep an eye on her right?”

“Of course, you won’t have to worry. She’ll be safe with me.”

Sandor gathered his things from the couch and the coffee table and walked to the door.

“Have a good night,” he said and he quickly shut the door behind him not waiting for a reply.

In the hallway outside he sighed. He had an uncomfortable feeling that Sansa had been listening to their conversation. The door banging open had felt a little too loud. She’d been so stiff and timid when she was filling up her water glass. And that little spark he’d seen in her earlier that day was gone from her eyes, like she was now afraid of them as well. A pit formed in his stomach and he lit a cigarette.

***

The next morning when Sansa’s alarm went off she rolled over and in utter defiance screamed into the pillow. She let out a half-laugh. Arya would have been pleased with that outburst of rage? Despair? Something else?

It had been another Valium fueled night and her sluggish body wanted to deal with the day even less than she thought was physically or emotionally possible. She wanted nothing more to be swallowed up and drowned by the pillows.

When her snooze alarm went off, she reached for her phone to silence to the incessant beeping. She typed out an email to Andrey saying that she would be working from home and asked him to forward her the notes from their afternoon meeting. He immediately shot back a double heart emoji with “You got it, love.”

Love. Sansa stared at the word, trying to make out the tiny pixel squares inside each letter on the screen. 

Love. Love. Love. Love. Love.

Her heart began to steadily pick up speed. And her fingers felt sticky against her phone case. How could anyone love her? How could anyone even care about her? She wasn’t worth that. She must be tricking them, lying to them. And what would they do when they found out that she was a manipulative bitch who always put herself before others? She would just end up disappointing everyone. Serves you right.

A few soft sobs burst from her lips. Her hands trembled and she dropped her phone onto the bed. She knew she couldn’t stay here. She knew instinctually that her presence was stressing out Margaery. Sansa could tell by her tone of voice that she has to tiptoe around her every move. She had to change her plans to accommodate her. Margaery, surely, would much rather she not be here.

 

Chapter Text

“Hound, your phone’s ringing, again!” Brienne Tarth yelled from across the gym. She could hear it rattling against a loose cord on the sound system despite the volume of Rage Against The Machine that was playing. It was very distracting.

“Ugh,” Sandor panted. “Can you check to see who the fuck is bothering me?” He was in the middle of his warm-up and had a long and hard training session ahead. This was most definitely not the time.

Rolling her eyes, Brienne wiped her face with a towel and plucked away some of the strands of her blond hair that had gotten stuck to the back of her neck. She walked over to the sound system and flipped over his phone that was sitting on the shelf. “It’s your darling Margaery Tyrell. Looks like you have six missed calls and two voicemails.”

“Fuck,” Sandor bellowed throwing his head back. He had just had a conversation with her the other week about how he should not be interrupted mid-training. Not for PR requests, not for business development, and most definitely not for casual conversation. He walked over to Brienne taking a long drink from his water bottle.

“You missed it,” Brienne nodded towards the phone.

“Well if she’s left multiple voicemails I’m sure she’ll call again,” Sandor replied snatching the phone from her grasp. The second it was in his hand, it started vibrating again. Another incoming call from Margery Tyrell.

“What do you fucking want?” Sandor spat irritation dripping from his voice. “I’m supposed to be training right now.” His arm waving angrily towards the gym.

Brienne chuckled to herself as she wandered back over to her jump rope lying on the ground.

“Sandor, Sandor! I am so so very sorry,” Margaery said, her voice high and breathless on the other end. “I know I promised I wouldn’t call you unless it was important. And this is really important.”

“What’s so fucking important, then?” Sandor bit out. 

“It’s Sansa. She’s not at home and she’s not answering any of my calls,” Margaery rushed. “I’m so worried. Wha-what if her boyfriend did something?”

“She’s not at your place? I thought you said you were going to work from home today.”

“I was! I just had an early dentist appointment I completely forgot about and stepped out for an hour at most. She was still asleep when I left.”

Sandor felt his heart sink. He ripped the phone from the stereo auxiliary cord, the music cutting to a sudden silence and briskly started walking towards his office. “Hold on, let me try.”

Hurridly, he hung up on Margaery and went to his recent calls to find Sansa’s number from the day before. He made a mental note to save her information. He listened to the rings until he heard her chipper voice recording, “Hi it’s Sansa, I’m sorry to have missed your call. Please leave me a message and I’ll call you right back.” Gods fuck. He slammed the door to his office door closed. Not bothering to leave a message he called Margaery right back.

“Sandor. She left a note on the bedside table. I just found it,” Margaery said the moment she answered. “It says: ‘thanks for the hospitality, but I can’t intrude on you and your friends any longer.’”

Sandor could feel his temper rising. “You weren’t supposed to leave her!” He yelled, pulling on the end of his hair that was tied back.

“Don’t you fucking start with me Sandor Clegane,” she snapped. “She’s not the one who came to me asking for help. I’m over here completely upending my work schedule because of this. And it’s not like you would change your training schedule. Sorry I misjudged.”

“Yeah but your schedule is flexible,” Sandor bit back, temper rising again. “Isn’t that what you always go on about? Isn’t that why you hate having scheduled matches? Because you can’t move them I can’t just call up my next opponent and ask him to move the fight date because ‘something’s come up’ or close the bar early for this or that reason.”

“You really could if you wanted to Sandor, people do that for emergencies. And I think this is exactly an emergency. But that’s not the point!” Margaery stifled a sob. “Sorry I got defensive. I just feel so bad. What if she feels abandoned by us or what if her abuser tried to take her back?”

“Yeah, emergencies like car accidents, extreme weather, kids with cancer! I don’t know if it’s quite an emergency just yet, her note seems pretty clear,” he replied.

“Well, what if she was coerced? What if he threatened her to leave quietly or he would hurt her again,” Margaery continued, panic in her voice.

“Margaery, calm down. This isn’t helping. She left him already. I think she’s stronger than you give her credit for.”

“Okay, well what should we do?” Margaery said, exasperated. “What do we do?!”

“I don’t fucking know! Let me think!” Sandor snapped. “You’re so impatient!” And he hung up the phone.

He knew Margaery didn’t deserve to be hung up on, he would have to apologize later. But he felt his own cortisol levels rising in his body and listening to her whinging. He slumped back into his office chair. What were they going to do?

He knew the many contours of domestic violence growing up. Lived it every day.

Slowly, he pulled open one of his desk draws and extracted a mint tea bag from his stash and plunked it into an empty mug on his desk before trudging his large, tired body over to the water dispenser for hot water. Sometimes the boys gave him shit for drinking mint tea when he got stressed, but it was a habit he picked up from his time in in-patient therapy. It calmed his nerves, gave him a clear head but didn’t over caffeinate him.

He remembered his mom leaving and coming back to his dad time and time again. He remembered that something would happen, a new line would get crossed and she’d pack him up in the back of her shitty car until they’d inevitably return.

The first time they returned was because his father had frozen her bank account. They left after Sandor’s dad had thrown him against a wall and hit him until his nose bled. They stayed in a shitty motel on the edge of Lannisport. His mom played jazz music loudly on the radio to drown out the sex noises and the fighting coming from the rooms next door.

He and his sister played with toy knights mounted on strong destriers. Their mom had seemed so free, so full of a renewed sense of life. She talked about enrolling them in a new school where they had a shot at actually making friends. But all that vanished when they tried to buy groceries for the week and all of her cards kept being declined.  She grabbed him by the wrist stormed out. She just drove them home immediately, leaving his toy knights abandoned on the hotel dresser.

After Gregor burned his face, his mom brought him and his sister to stay in the basement apartment of a childhood friend who had a son his sister’s age. He remembered the flower fairy wallpaper pattern and the pastel curtains on the tiny sunken window of the room they all shared.

Being in so much pain he didn’t remember why they’d returned to their father, but that was when he and his sister decided they both couldn’t trust anyone despite the chorus of “I love yous” and “It’ll get better.” From then on it was just the two of them against the world until she was taken from him, too.

He closed his eyes and sighed. This isn’t important now, you can cry about your broken family later. What’s important now is Sansa, something must have happened for her to go back. Did he convince her with a fancy vacation to Volantis? Did he promise to enroll in anger management or make an appointment for couple’s therapy?

He took a big gulp of tea and sent scalding liquid down the back of his throat.

“Fuck,” he hissed. That was going to be uncomfortable for days.

In a huff, he reached for a cigarette and a lighter. Bronn was going to have his head for this but he didn’t care. He lit the cigarette and took a long drag. His hands trembled slightly.

The smoke and the nicotine sent his mind into a whirl. He ashed the end over his wastebasket.

What if he and Margaery could confront Sansa at her house, and convince her to come back with them again. He would share his therapist’s contact information with her and they could get her in a more stable position. He knew from his time fighting with his own shadows, that it would be a slow process.

But the vision of Sansa sanding in the middle of his bar in her bare feet with her bloodied lip and finger bruises on her neck stopped him. He shuddered at the image. And a realization fully dawned. She probably would not live through another encounter like that, again.

He slammed his palms into the desk in front of him pushing it forward a few inches and stood up. He stormed over to grab his sweatshirt and pulled open his office door.

“Brienne, I’m heading out. Tell Loras he’s in charge of training today.” Sandor called through his teeth and lit cigarette as he gathered up his tape, water bottle and threw it all into his bag.

“Wait –” Brienne started.

He spun on his heel, opened his arms and took a slight bow as he interrupted her.

“Yes, The Hound is leaving early. There are firsts for everything.” And he pushed open the door outside.

In his truck, Sandor pulled out his phone and called Margaery back. She picked up on the first ring.

“Yes, Sandor?” Margaery said, an air of coolness in her voice.

“I’m sorry for hanging up on you earlier, that was very rude of me,” he answered immediately.

“You know and I know you’re better than that,” she scolded.

Sandor ignored that and continued on.

“After thinking about the full situation, I really do think we should go see if she’s home. I have a really bad feeling about that prick. You remember where she lives, yeah?”

“Um, yeah, I can probably pull it up from my search history.”

“Okay well, we should at least check on her, maybe bring her some lunch? I’m in the car, I’ll come over to your place right now.”

“Uh, okay Sandor, sounds good. I’ll order some take-away from that Braavosi place down the street.”

“Kay-bye,” Sandor grunted and he tapped end on his phone. For a second he worried if that could be considered hanging up on her again, but he realized he didn’t care. That is not an important priority, you ass.

***

Sansa walked across the front garden to her apartment’s mailbox near the street. Her box was mostly full. It had been days since she last checked the mail. She grimaced internally, what would the mail carrier think of her now? She was sure to look at the very least careless and at the very worst negligent.

Her mind wandered with a sudden, morbid thought when people who die alone are found in their homes, how does the post office know to stop sending mail?

As she walked back, she sifted through the mail. It was mostly junk, coupons for the grocery store in the neighborhood, some magazines she knew she’d unsubscribed to ages ago and one heavy cream-colored envelope with her name and address in clear green ink printed on the back. The front of the envelope featured a large debossed lion’s crest — her heart stuttered.

She rushed inside slamming the door and turning the deadbolt before sinking to the floor to open the one that was stamped on the day after she left Joff on the porch, mere inches from where she was sitting now.

Her hands shook as she pried open the envelope flap and extracted a small stack of neatly folded papers.

To her sinking horror, it was a full invoice of every home visit Maester Pycelle performed for her in the wake of Joffrey’s violence. Every bag of fluids, x-ray, splint, and well-check totaling $11,568, all due two weeks from the date of postage.

She had two weeks to pull together over ten thousand dollars.

Her breath hitched and she struggled to convince her diaphragm to contract and pull more precious oxygen into her lungs. It was more than she had in her savings, it was more than she had available on her credit card.

Fear flooded her thoughts. Sansa, what are you going to do? How the name of the Seven am I going to pay for this? Just call up Maester Pycelle’s office and ask for a repayment plan? Cersei’s probably waiting for that call, she’s had this planned for months.

Sansa’s stomach rolled, bile rising up her throat and she bolted for the bathroom, dropping the rest of the mail onto the floor. The smell of stomach acid filled the whole bathroom as she heaved and heaved until nothing remained.

She stood and stared at the blue eyes, deep purple eye bags that were reflected at her in the mirror. Gods you such a mess. You are a disappointment.

She knew that Joff didn’t need to see this. Arya didn’t need to see this. Mom didn’t need to see this. Not Jeyne, not Margaery, not Sandor.

No one needs to see your meltdown. No. One. Cares.

She staggered back into the kitchen gripping the counter hard to steady her weakened knees. She reached up to the cabinet by the sink to get a glass of water and drank glass after glass until the taste of vomit was gone.

The vibrating of her phone pulled her back into reality. She extracted it from her back pocket to check who was calling. Margaery again. Sansa rolled her eyes. Ugh, can’t she just leave me alone? She hit ignore and went to go find her purse.

If she was going to stay here, do whatever this was on her own terms, she at least knew she needed to replace the locks on the front door.

***

Four hours, two trips to the hardware store, a locksmith and several YouTube tutorials later, Sansa pushed the hair out of her eyes and stood back to admire her handiwork. Both the deadbolt and the doorknob lock were replaced.

It was considerably more effort than she had originally anticipated. She giggled the knob to make sure that it was tightly fastened, locked the deadbolt and ran her shoulder up against the door to make sure it felt secure.

That’s not so bad she thought, enjoying the sense of accomplishment that washed over her. Joffrey isn’t going to know what to do. She could do this. She could do this.

Sansa walked back into her apartment and cheerfully locked the door behind her. She’d decided to keep the old locks so when she moved out she could just replace the new ones. She knew she was being a little paranoid but the anxiety that Joff could maybe strong-arm the property management company to give him a spare key terrified her.

There were only a few months left on her lease anyway and this way she could feel safe with just two copies of her new key in the world. It would be fine. She stashed the old locks in a shoebox that she placed in the hall closet and returned to the kitchen to make a list of groceries.

She was going to treat herself to a nice dinner, bake some bread and drink wine the rest of the afternoon.

***

For the second time that day, Sandor pulled his truck up to the curb outside Sansa’s green apartment building and killed the ignition. Margaery peered out the window, looking up and down the street for Sansa’s car.

“I don’t see her car again Sandor,” Margaery said, her brow furrowed.

Sandor groaned and ran his fingers through his hair. “Well do you want to go check the door anyway? Maybe she parked somewhere else to keep Joff off her back?” He asked.

“Well, I guess so. Can you come with me, again?” Margaery asked, opening the door and hopping down. “I don’t want to go by myself if he is there or something.”

Sandor nodded and unbuckled. He reached into the back of the cab to pull out his jacket and put it on.

Once outside, the pair of them walked across the street and passed the two rows of apartments on either side of the courtyard. Sandor glared into the darkened windows of Sansa’s neighbors. One of the doors had a floral wreath on the door and another had several well-maintained flower pots with one of those embarrassing signs that say “home sweet home” in a brush font.

“Some fucking neighbors,” he growled under his breath.

“Sandor shut it,” Margaery hissed back. “You don’t know these people, maybe they have tried to intervene and Joff just kept her isolated.”

At number 6, they paused for a moment. Margaery took a deep breath.

“The curtains are still drawn and it’s still dark,” She whispered.

“Gods, I have eyes, too,” Sandor snapped.

“Okay, okay. Sorry. I’m just nervous,” Margaery said hurriedly. She then squared her shoulders and stepped forward to knock firmly on the door.

There was no sound of someone stirring on the other side and no footsteps approaching, so she knocked again with a little more force.

Feeling defeated, Margaery turned back around to look at Sandor.

“Should we see if any of the neighbors saw her today?” Margaery asked, her eyes wide. They hadn’t considered not being able to find Sansa at her home.

“Let me try,” Sandor said. “Maybe it wasn’t loud enough? She could be in the bathroom with the music turned up.”

Margaery let out a chuckle and gestured towards the front door. “Fine, Mr. I-Can-Do-It-Better-Than-You, it’s all yours.” She stepped aside to let Sandor past.

Sandor knocked on the door five times, hard enough to make the glass panes rattle in the door. And waited with a huff. Come on, Sansa, he pleaded, please be here, he added silently, please be safe. He knocked on the door again and then reached down to giggle the doorknob.

It was still very much locked. But he paused for a second, looking down at the knob and frowned.

“Marg, can you check this. Do you remember if this was the same doorknob as before?” He asked, turning his head around to Margaery picking at her nails. “It looks different.”

“Hmmm what, Sandor?” She replied looking up.

“I think the doorknob looked less polished before. This one looks way newer. Please tell me I’m not crazy,” Sandor said.

Margaery nodded and examined the door herself. “Yeah,” she agreed. “You’re not crazy. I think this panel thing is a different shape, too. You can see the old shape left from the paint.”

“Fuck!” Sandor barked, rubbing his face with his hands. “Fuck!”

“What do you think that means?” Margaery turned to look at Sandor her eyes wide with concern.

“Nothing good that’s for sure,” Sandor groaned.

“What if she changed the locks for her own safety. Like to make sure that Joff doesn’t get her?”

“Well, why would she do that and also ignore all of our calls?” Sandor countered. “Let’s go back into the car and think of what to do next.”

“You go on,” Margaery replied. “I want to ask some of these people just to double-check. Maybe it’s not actually sinister and we just missed her.”

Sandor ignored her and returned to his truck. He turned on the radio to some country station and lit up a cigarette. He felt utterly defeated. And angry. This beautiful woman, who just seemed to light up the room with her fiery red hair couldn’t just disappear from your life and you not notice.

The door opening pulled him out of his thoughts.

“Only the person in number 2 was home, and they said they hadn’t seen Sansa for a couple of days but would keep an eye out. I have their number,” Margaery said as she climbed up to the bench. “Also, can you please open a window, it stinks in here.”

Sandor made a non-committal noise but rolled down the window anyway.

“What is beyond me,” Sandor started, turning to look at Margaery. “Is that her family is very much alive and prominent in politics. Like her father Ned Stark spearheading this bill, or her mother appearing at some charity gala bullshit.”

“I know,” Margaery agreed. “You’d think that someone would be checking in with her, or at least trying to get her out. She seems to have more progressive politics than her family, so maybe there was falling out?”

Sandor sighed. He was aware that even perfect looking families could have some dark histories and that in abusive relationships a lot of work was done by the abuser to isolate their victim from all lifelines and supportive connections. Margaery’s continued musings mirrored his thoughts.

He reached into his pocket for his phone and searched “Stark family.” He saw what he assumed were her parents, older brother, and younger siblings in various headshots or in appearances at events. He tapped on the “Arya Stark” result and an artistic portfolio website open. She appeared to be some sort of performing artist and women’s rights activist.

Sandor’s jaw tensed. Some activist sister . And in a moment of impulsive bravery he tapped the phone contact button.

“Hello?” A bright voice answered.

 

Chapter Text

“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.

 

Chapter Text

Sansa sat in the corner of the waiting room with her bag laid protectively over her lap. There were several of those miniature rock gardens with rakes to make soothing designs left out on the side tables throughout the room. How many sweaty hands have touched these over the years , she wondered imagining the ghosts of past patients, or were they clients, all picking up the tiny rakes to draw concentric circles in the sand. She turned to stare at the glass door, the closed side of the sign hung from a dusty yellow ribbon visible from inside. She prayed to all of the gods that no one else would walk through the door as she waited for her appointment. Least you humiliate yourself, even more, she thought bitterly.

The opening of the office door pulled Sansa from her thoughts.

“Sansa?” A woman called.

“Uh, hi yes,” Sansa replied, still clutching her bag to her stomach.

“Hello Sansa, it’s nice to make your acquaintance. My name is Melissandre,” she said.

They continued down a hallway to the back of the building, thick grey carpet muffling their footsteps as they continued. There were several large paintings of sprawling vistas hung along the walls and the soft scent of vanilla hung in the air. Melisandre opened the door to her office and showed Sansa inside.

“It looks like you’re here for a therapy consultation.”

“Um yes,” Sansa hesitated, still unsure if this was something she wanted to pursue. She took a seat in one of the velvet armchairs. 

“During our time together we’ll talk about what brought you in today, what you’ve been struggling with and we’ll wrap things up with some treatment recommendations. These are just recommendations, nothing I say is mandatory but rather based on your situation and your goals. Does that sound alright to you?”

“Okay,” Sansa nodded.

“Alright, so what brought you in today?”

Sansa tucked her hair behind her ears, sitting with her legs pulled in tightly under her body right at the edge of the seat. Her gaze wandered around the room. The walls were lined with lit candles and their dancing shadows gave the space a warm glow. Her therapist’s face betrayed nothing but a causal interest but her eyes bore deeply into her own.

“I didn’t really have much of a choice. I’m in the process of distancing myself from an abusive ex and I’m staying with a friend on the condition that I talk to a therapist,” Sansa said

“You seem to be having a lot of conflicting feelings about this. How does that resonate with you?”

Sansa wanted to roll her eyes. Obviously, she was having conflicting feelings about this. Her whole life a continual struggle between conflicting feelings.

“Yeah, I want to get rid of Joffrey, my ex, more than anything. But when I went to Sandor, the friend I’m staying with, for help he gave me an ultimatum but tried to pass it off as upholding boundaries and demonstrating commitment. But it feels kind of coercive. It feels like I didn’t actually have a choice to come here or not. It’s either this or Sandor kicks me out and I essentially have to go back to him.”

“But you just gave me two options there. And coming here was the choice you made. Do you not want to be here?”

“I don’t know.” Sansa paused watching a candle sputter on the side table next to her before honesty just bubbled up through her mouth. “No. I don’t really want to be here. No one really wants to be going to therapy but I’m not going back to a place where Joff can access. I can’t. That is not an option.”

“Do you have other places that are safe where you could stay?”

“Well, sort of but not really. It’s kind of a long story,” Sansa hedged. Shame washing over her as she recalled the past couple of days, and the last couple of years.

“We have time,” Melissandre replied. “I’m here to get the full picture.”

Then Sansa launched into the full story. Once she started talking the words just poured from her. She went all the way back to the first time Joffrey pushed her up against a wall in her high school locker room, to the grand bouquet of winter roses he sent to her as an apology, to the trips to see Maester Pycelle, to the fight that introduced her to Sandor and Margaery. She talked about how Joffrey isolated her from other friends and family. And recounted what had happened in the past few days.

“Help me understand why you left Margaery’s place, especially if you weren’t required to see a therapist. You mentioned not wanting to be here, and that makes sense, therapy is hard work, but Margaery didn’t ‘make’ you go to therapy.”

Sansa sighed, she ran her fingers over the arm of the chair folding the velvet fibers back and forth. She’d left Margaery because she couldn’t handle the pressure. Just like every other time before. She felt the weight of her shame building in her shoulders.

“I felt like Margaery was just being nice. And I wanted to be her friend. I miss having friends. But I don’t feel capable of being a person who can have friends. Or deserves any sort of kindness. And then I just felt so pathetic that I knew she wouldn’t want to be around me anymore.”

“Yeah, abuse like you talked about can really mess with our ability to trust kindness especially when it was used to manipulate. How is Sandor different?”

“Sandor isn’t nice.” Sansa barked out a laugh. “I mean he’s not cruel, but he’s not — I don’t know, he swears a lot and makes me go to therapy? The night I met him he was mad that I was in his bar after close but still cooked me food and helped me get the glass out of my foot. With Margaery, she, like, tried to connect with me and told me about her own history. I guess I’m not ready for that.

“And I know, if I am being really honest with myself, I do probably need help, so maybe it’s good that I like Sandor’s tough love, or whatever, I’m just worried. This is all so scary. I don’t know what the future is going to look like, and honestly, I’d much rather just like take a nap until it’s over.”

Silence hung in the air as Sansa paused and took a ragged inhale. Now that she was saying all of this out loud, it felt so real. She felt so much pressure from Sandor, from Margaery, from Arya, from Melissandre, to do the right thing. But the right thing felt so elusive and so out of reach. She felt as if she was standing on a precipice with an open-mouthed dragon ready to devour her if she dared to leap to safety. She felt tears welling up in her eyes and she exhaled to continue.

“And part of my thinks that this is all just a lost cause already. Like my family has been trying to get me to leave him for years but I never listened or never really tried. Actually, I actively covered for him and explained away some of the signs of his abuse. And some of them gave up on me. And I feel like I’m wasting my time because I’ll probably just go back. Like I always do. And I don’t really want to be here because I’ll fail you and I’ll fail Sandor and I’ll fail everyone, again.”

“Ah, that’s really hard. Let me know if I’m understanding this is right; getting help doesn’t really feel like a choice because you feel strong-armed into coming. And you worry that coming to therapy and accepting help from the people in your life is just setting you up for failure,” Melissandre said calmly.

Sansa let those words wash over her as a tear leaked down her cheek.

“Ugh, yes. And I hate that,” Sansa whispered. “I completely hate that’s who I am as a person, now. I am completely disgusted with myself, about so many things. That’s not who I want to be, and I want so desperately to be different. But at the same time, I don’t want to be held to my word, I’m not trustworthy. I don’t want anyone to have any kind of expectations put on me, because turns out I will just let everyone down.”

“I’m curious, what makes you think that you’re letting everyone down? From my perspective, you’re not letting anyone down. On the contrary, you’re showing them you are trustworthy, you’re upholding your friend’s boundaries in good faith.”

She sniffed again, pulling out a tissue from the box on the side table and blew her nose, an ugly sound. She felt the heat rise up into her cheeks and wondered how many other people sat in this same chair and cried each day.

“Because like every other time, I wasn’t able to leave. It also felt that staying was my only real choice because. And the further I go down this path, the further from grace I have to fall, all over again.”

“Yeah,” Melissandre nodded. “Leaving abusive relationships is so hard because abusers do a really good job of making you feel like you have no other options. But what’s different this time?”

“Ugh, that’s not helpful,” Sansa exhaled heavily as she crossed her arms. “Nothing is different! I am exactly the same. The same pile of gods-damned trash I’ve always been!”

“Feeling the change in yourself might take a while. It seems to me that you have a long history here that will take some time to untangle. But I heard you say that going back to Joff wasn’t an option.”

Tears filled Sansa’s eyes again. Maybe this time she would actually be able to leave.

“That’s a decision you’ve made, that maybe wasn’t there before. Where else do you still have a choice, Sansa?”

 

***

 

Forty-five minutes later Sansa made her way back to the car. Tossing her bag into the passenger seat, she got in and screamed as loudly as she could. The sound burst through her chest and pressed up against her eardrums. Condensation from her breath clouded the windows. She rested her head on the steering wheel and screamed again and again until she felt her throat go hoarse.

Melissandre made Sansa go through everything that was different about now than any other time that she had dreamed she could have something better or when Arya had put the idea into her head.

Her thoughts circled around Sandor. During breakfast earlier in the morning Sandor had brought up that since it had been a week, he wanted to remind her of the conditions she agreed to by staying with him. He’d been his usual gruff self, during the confrontation. She’d told him that she knew what the conditions were and that she was following through, but she did not mention her appointment. She had been surprised he’d taken her word and let the conversation drop.

Her hands trembled violently as she turned the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot. Her pulse pounded in her ears. But the adrenalin was accompanied by the sense that she had fundamentally changed. She was on a ship heading west of Westeros and it was too late to turn back. And this time she had a plan.

She checked the time, she still had 20 minutes before her favorite fast food restaurant stopped serving breakfast. She desperately wanted a hashbrown and a bacon sandwich. This is a choice.

Crumpled paper bag in hand, Sansa walked down the hall to Sandor’s apartment. She paused, looking down at the doorknob. This is a choice . She took a deep, steadying breath, willing the redness in her eyebrows to disappear and opened the door. A loud ‘ FUCK YOU ROS’ combined with the cacophony of Stranger barking greeted her when she stepped through the threshold. Sandor was sitting on his couch with a giant protein shake, headset on and snarl pressed on to his ruined face.

“What was that about?” Sansa asked a hint of amusement in her voice. She set her bag down and kicked off her shoes by the door.

“Just a load of bullshit. That girl doesn’t have any right being as good as she is at that game,” he grumbled, picking up his phone. “Don’t you have work?”

Sansa walked into the kitchen behind him to throw her garbage away and poured herself another cup of coffee. She glanced at the clock on the stove, she had to get going.

“Yeah, but I took the morning off. Don’t you have work? Who plays video games in the morning?” Sansa called back. She wanted to make sure not to draw too much attention to her morning appointment.

Sandor walked over to the kitchen sink to rinse out his protein shake and just shrugged.

“Ros usually goes to bed pretty late,” he replied.

“Going to bed at eleven in the morning? Wow, yeah, that is pretty late. You keep such interesting company. What does she do?”

“Interesting company, eh?” Sandor snorted. He knew there was judgment wrapped up in that statement. “She’s a stripper, she was probably with a client.”

He stared at her as he said those words, daring her to respond.

“Oh,” was all she could say. She just assumed Ros was an emergency room nurse or worked some other night shift.

“Not everyone gets to work in a fancy high-rise, girl,” Sandor added as he reached for a cigarette from the pack he left on the counter. “I’m going to take Stranger out and then I’m going to the gym. Tonight, I do want to have a real conversation about how you’re following through with our agreement here. I’m getting pretty fucking tired of sleeping on the couch.”

Sandor immediately regretted the jab he made at Sansa’s lifestyle as he walked Stranger around the city block. But he was irritated. He’d been irritated since their conversation that morning when she’d brushed off his reminder to see a therapist. It hadn’t helped that Ros had spent their morning gaming session teasing him about Sansa and then beating his ass.

After a week of sleeping on the couch with a dog who snored like a chainsaw, his back was sore, he was tired of being tired. He realized that this was not a tenable situation.

Sansa blinked, cream in hand as Sandor leashed up his dog and headed out. Taking another deep breath she willed away the dread that was pitting in her stomach. Things are different . You have choice .

 

***

 

Once Sandor left, Sansa grabbed one of his cigarettes and went to make a call on the balcony. Unsurprising, the first drag tasted like smoke. Why did anyone like these? But after a while, her head felt a little bit floaty. Before her fleeting moment of courage was gone, her sister answered on the second ring.

“Hi Sans,” Arya said. “What’s up?”

“Oh um, well I had my first therapy appointment today and I just wanted to tell you about what’s going on.”

“Wait, you actually went to a therapist. That’s so brave of you! I’m so proud you’re taking steps to take care of yourself.”

“Thanks, I really appreciate that. It all feels really like big and out of control and weird, but that’s to be expected I guess.” Sansa felt like a weight had been lifted off her chest. “Based on my therapist’s recommendation, I think I’ll be seeing her two times a week, with some additional group therapy. I’m going to take a leave of absence from work, maybe get into some new hobby for a change. And I think I’m going to make a trip back to Winterfell to see mom and dad.”

“Okay, and what does your support system look like outside of therapy?”

“Jeyne will be back in a few weeks and it will be good to see her. And then just Sandor and Margaery. Sandor was actually the one who made me make the therapy appointment.”

“Oh, he did? Well, that was good of him,” Arya said, surprised. “He’s a boxer, right? I did some snooping. A bit rough around the edges.”

“Yeah, but he seems to be a good guy. I think he gets what I’m going through a little bit more and has been less smothery than mom or Margaery.”

“You know,” Arya paused along time before continuing. “I’m sorry I was so impatient with you and unsupportive.”

Tears welled up in Sansa’s eyes. She was turning into such a crybaby.

“It’s alright. I know it was really stressful for yourselves. And I know you were just doing your best. It just clicked for me today that while I didn’t get to have a lot of choices in my relationship or my life around my relationship because Joff made them for me, I do get to have a choice in leaving and staying away from him. And I know it’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to keep choosing me."