Actions

Work Header

The Thief and the Hound

Chapter Text

The most embarrassing night of Sansa’s life was caused, naturally, by alcohol. She was the most basic white girl who ever walked the earth, as her sister Arya constantly reminded her, so of course her complete humiliation had started with raspberry cider and shots of something fruity and sweet with a sexually suggestive name. And drinking buddies Margaery and Loras Tyrell to egg her on as she trash-talked her ex in one of King’s Landing’s loudest night clubs.

“He’s an absolute jerk,” Margaery kept yelling over the music, which turned out to be ironic when Joff and Margaery became Instagram’s hottest couple only a week later.

Margaery’s brother Loras handed Sansa a full shot glass. “And he’s a terrible kisser.”

Sansa was too far gone to ask Loras how he knew. By then, it was after 1 in the morning, and Sansa was not a night person. She was drunk and overtired, and as drunk and overtired people are prone to do, she was obsessing. Not over Joffrey Baratheon, absolute jerk and terrible kisser. That would be pathetic. No, she was obsessing over a wall hanging, specifically the handmade reproduction tapestry depicting direwolves that hung in a hallway of Joff’s mother’s estate.

“They don’t appreciate the work that went into it,” Sansa grumbled. “Some of those thread colors are very rare. And the texture of the wolves’ fur! That’s a special technique, you know.”

Margaery and Loras were not listening attentively enough to her very important points, so she stood on her chair. It wobbled a bit, but she kept her balance, even while hanging on to the death to her pint of cider. “That tapestry,” she announced, “is rightfully mine.”

“You go, Sansie!” Loras called out. Sansa felt affirmed, although she was getting vertigo from the unfamiliar vantage point. A little dizzy, actually.

Fortunately, Margaery helped her down. “We should go get that tapestry right now,” she said in Sansa’s ear.

Sansa gasped. What a wonderful idea! Margaery always knew what to do, didn’t she? That was why she was so much more confident than Sansa. Margaery was smart. “We should. We should!” Sansa said. “Let’s do it!”

Loras called an Uber to take them to the Baratheon mansion, Storm’s End. Joff’s father had moved out a few years ago to chase scantily clad women somewhere that sounded Mediterranean, like Cyprus or Crete. Sansa was unclear on the details. Joff’s younger siblings were away at school, so the only people who lived at Storm’s End were Joff and his mother, Cersei.

“She’s a real b-i-t-c-h, you know,” she confided to Margaery. “And not in the good way.”

Margaery sighed. “Did you really spell that out instead of saying it?”

But Sansa’s mind was racing ahead. She wanted that tapestry. It didn’t belong with Joff, that was for certain. He wouldn’t take care of it properly. And he wouldn’t be home, not on a Saturday night.

Joff had recently gained notoriety as an EDM DJ, although Sansa wasn’t quite sure what he actually did. As far as she could tell, he showed up at nightclubs that paid him to stand in the DJ booth in designer clothes and announce a few tracks. She’d done the rounds with him, wearing what he told her to wear and drinking the vodka he told her to drink while he assured her that her obedience would pay off some day. And it had, for Joff. He was now advertising that vodka and spending the money on his retinue of hangers on. The bigger the retinue, and the more trouble they caused for the tabloids to gobble up, the more night spots contacted “the King” DJ Joff. It was a miracle his entourage of bully boys hadn’t all been arrested for fighting, drug use, and seducing underage girls, but Joff was untouchable – his uncle Jaime was Kings Landing’s police commissioner.

Sansa was well out of it. No, really, she was. She hated EDM, she hated vodka, and if she’d been thinking clearly, she would’ve broken up with Joff months ago. But she’d had way too much going on after barely graduating university, namely getting settled into an apartment with her sister and finding a job. She hated the graphic design job, too, which basically came down to scanning old pictures and making them into usable electronic files, but that was a worry for another time. Tonight, she knew her every problem could be righted by her possession of the direwolf tapestry.

Loras packed them into the backseat of the Uber. “One of the direwolves on the tapestry looks just like Lady,” Sansa said. “Have I told you that?”

“Yes, several times,” Margaery said. Margaery pretended to be afraid of Sansa’s wolfhound, Lady, but Sansa suspected that Margaery wasn’t really afraid of anything. She was a true role model. Sansa folded her best friend into a sloppy hug.

“So,” Loras said, stifling a laugh, “we’re really breaking into Storm’s End?”

“No, not us,” Margaery said. “This is a job for sneaking around quietly, and we don’t know where the tapestry is. Sansa will have to do it on her own.”

Sansa gasped, and Margaery squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry, sweetling, we’ll be waiting outside for moral support. But you’re the only one who can get past the dogs.”

This was true. The Dobermans at Storm’s End were darlings, but they didn’t get the love and attention they deserved. They adored Sansa, but other people, not so much.

“I suppose they are guard dogs,” Sansa said, “but really, who could be afraid of a sweet, mushy dog?”

“I can,” Margaery said. “But since you’re so brave, go and get that tapestry like you deserve.”

Loras took out his phone to capture Sansa in the Uber. “Go get it, Wolf Princess,” he said.

“I will do that. I will go and get it.” She rather liked being called Wolf Princess. Maybe that could be her new nickname. She’d always wanted a better nickname than “Joff’s arm candy.”

While Margaery and Loras stayed in the car, telling the Uber driver only the gods knew what, Sansa moved like a shadow through the grounds of Storm’s End. She stuck to the darkest parts of the expansive yard, although she suspected nobody was home but the Dobermans, Osmund and Balon. With any luck, Joff would’ve forgotten to change the security code after their breakup. He probably didn’t think Sansa was smart enough to have it memorized.

In her drunken state, she imagined that she moved past the dogs with style and grace, only stopping for the absolute minimum amount of cuddles. She typed the 6-digit code on the keypad near the employee entrance by the kitchen, unsurprised when it beeped once, demurely, and the door unlocked. Style and grace. Move like a shadow. She knew exactly where the tapestry was, just beyond the library. Even if anyone was home, Sansa would bet Joff and Cersei wouldn’t spend time near a library. She giggled to herself. She was being catty for a Wolf Princess, but that had been clever. Not that she could ever let anyone in on the joke without coming across as unspeakably rude.

And there it was! The metallic silver threads in the direwolves’ fur sparkled in the dimmed lighting. Her tapestry!

“Baby, I’m taking you home tonight,” she purred to the wall hanging.

Quietly, like a graceful shadow, she removed the tapestry from the wall hooks and folded it ever so carefully so that it fit under her sweater. She had to tuck it into her skinny jeans on bottom and her bra on top, and really, she was fortunate she wasn’t with Joffrey anymore and wasn’t wearing the crushingly tight minidress he liked her to wear. With her chunky, cable-knit sweater, nobody would be able to tell she was smuggling a work of art over her stomach.

She tiptoed back to the kitchen, mentally patting herself on the head for a job well done. Ozzy and Balon flanked her silently. What good doggos they were! They hadn’t made a sound. She couldn’t have pulled this off without their help, and they deserved all the treats. Sansa didn’t have any dog treats with her – an oversight she should’ve rectified after Loras called the Uber – but there were probably cold cuts or sliced cheese in the refrigerator.

As soon as she opened the fridge, the alarm sounded, wailing through the empty house like a high-pitched screaming ghoul. Sansa shrieked in surprise and teetered on her espadrilles. Ozzy tried to settle her, but his wet tongue on her hand surprised her, and she tripped over the leg of a kitchen chair and crashed to the floor, twisting her ankle because of course she would, that was so typical Sansa. And who the H-E-double-hockey-sticks would put an alarm on a refrigerator? What kind of maniac would guard leftovers from the staff—oh, right, the Cersei Baratheon kind.

She scooted on her butt over the slick floor tiles to the chair and pulled herself upright, then hopped to the fridge to see if shutting the door would cut off the awful alarm. Thank the gods nobody was—

“Who’s there?” someone called. The voice was unfamiliar and male.

With the fridge alarm silenced, every hop Sansa took toward the door sounded like a falling boulder. Why oh why hadn’t she taken her shoes off before she came indoors? Tears sprang to her eyes as she struggled with the doorknob. She’d made so many mistakes, and not just in this burglary attempt. Her whole life was a series of stupid choices that had seemed like the path of least resistance at the time. Dating Joffrey. Staying in King’s Landing after graduation on Joff’s suggestion. Neglecting to apply for graduate school. Applying to office jobs despite her art degree because art was hard. Letting Margaery and Loras get her drunk and talk her into a life of crime – that had been the biggest mistake of all.

The mystery man grabbed her arm above the elbow and pulled her away from the door. He wore a velvet robe, and his obvious annoyance at her made her thankful Ozzy and Balon wouldn’t leave her side. Then Cersei appeared in the doorway, also wearing a robe. Great, she’d interrupted a romantic tryst. That wouldn’t make Cersei feel charitable.

“Sansa Stark?” Cersei said. “Is that you? Did you break into my house?”

Some girls were pretty when they cried, with gentle tears that rolled down their cheeks one by one. Not Sansa. She burst into sobs like a broken pipe, snot dripping from her nose, and she just knew that her face was blotching up red and ugly. Joff always told her she was too emotional, as did Arya, and her brothers, and Margaery and Loras, and pretty much everyone. She struggled to get her breath back so she could invent an explanation, but she’d never been a good liar, and now she was going to be in so much trouble, and this was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened, she was sure.

“Who is this?” The heavyset man shook her arm without releasing his grip.

Cersei’s face twisted. “That’s my son’s former girlfriend. It looks like she doesn’t understand that Joffrey wants nothing more to do with her.”

“Damn, she’s tall for a girl. What is she, six feet tall?”

Five foot nine and a half, she thought desperately, but she couldn’t make herself stop crying long enough to get any words out.

“Stop whining, girl,” the man said impatiently.

She gasped in a huge lungful of oxygen and managed to croak, “I’m so sorry.”

“Poor thing,” the man said, and Sansa felt a little better. Maybe an apology would be enough. But he didn’t let go of her arm despite Balon’s growls.

“What do we do with the girl?” he asked.

“Call the police, of course,” Cersei said.

Sansa hugged her arms around her stomach, securing the tapestry. If she played her cards right, Cersei would never figure out that she’d stolen it. Then again, Sansa wasn’t exactly a poker ace. Her life in Kings Landing had started with a royal flush, and she’d managed to toss all her good cards away without realizing she’d left herself with nothing.

 

 

There were a thousand sordid stories in this corrupt cesspool of a city, and Detective Sandor Clegane had heard every one of them twice. And they were all fucked up beyond belief. Every day that passed him by as a member of the Kings Landing police department was a testament to the stupidity and greed of mankind. People knifed each other for a few gold dragons or for their next high. Young girls and boys were forced out on the streets, brutalized, and prison broke them into pieces that could never be put back together. That had been the way of the world his entire life, the only world he’d ever known, and often he wondered why he’d bothered with the police academy when he could’ve taken the path of least resistance and joined the profitable Clegane family business of meth production. But that would’ve meant dealing with his brother Gregor. Fuck that.

Anyway, he was good at police work. When it came to busting heads, the criminal element of Kings Landing lived in fear of Sandor Clegane’s steel-tipped motorcycle boots. It had taken him a while to make detective because he wasn’t friendly with any of his fellow officers. Half of them were on the take, and the other half too dumb to find their asses with GPS coordinates. They all assumed he was on the take since the Lannisters had sponsored his police academy education after his first failed attempt at college, and that little wanker Joffrey Baratheon, Commissioner Lannister’s nephew, was constantly getting let off the hook. Well, what choice did he have? Making charges stick to an overprivileged trust fund baby was well above his pay grade.

Maybe there was more honor in cooking meth. It felt like it, most days. That was why he mainly worked nights. No, that wasn’t right, he could be honest with himself – nobody else would be. He worked nights because the other detectives didn’t want to see his ugly face in the daylight.

On this night, a crummy Saturday night at 2:30 am, that time of night when the scum of the city rose to the top and the rats came out to feast on the vomit-covered streets, not that he was brooding over anything, he stared at the tiny keys on the keyboard on his desk, wondering yet again how the hell anyone was supposed to type on keys that small, when one of his friendly and helpful coworkers grunted the name “Joff Baratheon” and threw a folder on his desk. Sandor growled in response. What did he have to bail the cunt out of this time?

He looked away from his keyboard and met the eyes of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

He’d seen hundreds of women rotate through the police station, many of them desperate and hungry, although not desperate or hungry enough to give him the time of day, but never, never had he seen a woman who carried herself with this much grace. She sat in the chair next to his desk as if it were a throne and she was the queen of love and beauty. Her luminous auburn hair fell in long waves over perfectly formed shoulders. A faint spray of freckles highlighted cheekbones that had been shaped by the gods. She’d been crying; he could tell by the red rims around her eyes, which he now noticed were blue. No, not just blue. They were the blue of the summer sky in the Westerlands, high in the mountains where the creeks ran clear. They were cerulean, they were—

“Am I in a lot of trouble?” she asked timidly, and he gave up trying to think of another word for blue.

“What did he do to you?” He sounded rougher than he intended, but just the thought of that Baratheon douchebag touching this woman filled him with even more rage than the usual amount of rage. If that asswipe had hurt this girl, he was not going to sweep that under the carpet for the damned Lannisters.

She studied his face, and he watched her cringe. Dammit, what had he expected?

“What happened to your face?” she said.

“It was a long time ago,” he said through gritted teeth. “That the kind of thing you usually ask people?”

Her hand flew to her soft, pink-tinted lips, not that he was paying attention to her appearance anymore because he was not. “I’m so sorry, that was incredibly impolite,” she said. Her voice was like warmed honey, sweet and melty, and this was fucking pathetic, he needed to stop. “I don’t know what could have come over me. Will you please forgive me?”

He snorted. “What, are you drunk?”

“Duh. Obviously.” She rubbed at her eyes. “Can we start again? I’m Sansa Stark, and I believe I’m being arrested. And you are?”

Oh, this one thought she was royalty, sure enough. “I’m your arresting officer,” he said, a little rougher than was strictly necessary.

She reached across his desk, and damn, did she have a reach. She had to be one of the tallest girls he’d ever seen. She turned his nameplate around and read it out loud.

“Detective Sandor Clegane. Oh, what a nice name. Sandor.” The way she rolled those two syllables on her tongue should’ve been a crime. “It sounds like my name.”

He breathed in and out, getting control of himself. When was the last time anyone had used his first name? It could’ve been a year. “What am I arresting you for?” he barked.

She scrunched up her perfect nose. “I kind of broke into my ex-boyfriend’s house. Well, I didn’t really break anything. Is it still considered breaking and entering if you’re friends with the guard dogs?”

“The hell you talking about, girl?”

“It’s just that Balon and Osmund are super sweet dogs.” She leaned closer to him, and her arm rested on his desk, right next to his. He could feel heat being generated in the fraction of an inch between them. “The Baratheons don’t know how to treat dogs right.”

His breath caught in his throat, and a neglected part of his brain begged him to get down on one knee and tell his woman that he’d follow her forever. Fortunately, the more intelligent part of his brain, the detective part, put two and two together. “Your ex-boyfriend is Joffrey Baratheon.” Of course he was. Why would the world work any other way?

She sighed. “I hope you won’t hold that against me.”

“Hold that against—” The long-neglected romantic part of his brain, which wouldn’t shut up all of a sudden, had several ideas of what could be held against Sansa Stark. He shook it off. “So you broke into the Baratheon’s house. Is this a confession?”

“Is it?” she asked. Her eyes were so innocent and trusting, like she believed that he’d never mislead her. “I only wanted to get back what was mine.”

Well, that was likely. He couldn’t picture the Baratheon boy giving anything back willingly, no matter whose it was. He sighed. “Alright, you’re here, the uniforms picked you up. Now I gotta fill out the paperwork.”

“I understand,” she said. “You seem very responsible.”

The part of his brain that really needed to die pointed out that she no longer had any trouble looking him full in the face. It was rare to meet a woman tall enough to look him directly in the eye.

“How tall are you?” he asked, like the idiot he was.

“Is that on the paperwork?” she said, twisting to try to read his monitor.

“Yes,” he lied, and what the fuck was that? He didn’t lie to people, especially not about things that stupidly trivial. How had that been worth it?

She scooted her chair closer to him and leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Can I tell you a secret?”

The whispering tickled against his earlobe and drove a hot trail down the side of his body to rest in his lap. Before he was able respond with anything rational – which might not have been for a week in any case – she giggled. Also in his ear. “I’m actually five foot ten.”

He stared at her, completely gobsmacked. “You’re five foot ten,” he said stupidly.

“Yes!” She put a finger to her lips. “Shh. Joffrey told everyone we were both five foot nine and a half because he didn’t want anyone to know that I’m taller than him. But I am! Also, he told me not to wear high heels.” She looked at her feet. “He might’ve been right about that.”

“Fuck that. A lady as short as you should wear high heels whenever she wants,” he said, and the most beautiful smile broke out on her face. She was beaming at him and how clever he was, and he realized he was never going to see a smile that gorgeous aimed at him ever again.

“Oh! Am I supposed to get a phone call?” she asked.

“Are you?” he said, his cleverness apparently depleted for the night. “Do you have a phone? Anyone you can call to take you home?”

Her smile was a little shyer now, but no less attractive. “Thank you for your concern, Detective. My friends are waiting for me in the lobby.”

“Call me Sandor, since you like the name.” Was he flirting? Were they flirting with each other? What the hell was going on?

“Okay, Sandor.”

It was absolutely criminal how she pronounced his name. He’d be trying to recreate that sound in his head for many nights to come.

“So,” she said, after what he belatedly realized was an awkward pause, “am I supposed to call a lawyer?”

“Uh, I have to fingerprint you first. Have you ever been arrested before?” If she’d ever come in with any of Baratheon’s gang, he damn sure would’ve noticed. He couldn’t picture her hanging out with the usual gaggle of goons and flunkies the trust fund baby surrounded himself with, doing the stupid shit they did.

“This is my first time,” she said, and then she blushed, and goddamn if watching her get flustered over such an innocent innuendo wasn’t a turn on. He’d better stand up while he still could.

“Fingerprints are done over here,” he said, motioning her to the high table with the inkpads and blotters.

She tried to stand, but she collapsed back into the chair, wincing in pain, and how the fuck did she manage to make that look enticing? “I’m sorry, I twisted my ankle.”

“Why are you apologizing to me for that?”

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “It’s just that I think you’ll have to help me over to the fingerprinting station.”

“I think I can manage a little thing like you,” he said, as if that wasn’t the most inappropriate thing to say to someone he was arresting, for fuck’s sake.

Her eyes roamed over his arms and shoulders, and he could feel the weight of her appraisal. “Hmmm,” she said, “it does look like you can manage, doesn’t it?” And then she turned completely red, and it brought out the fire in her incredible hair. “I’m sorry, that was …”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, his voice now rough for a very different reason than earlier.

He reached out his arm, and she stood, balancing her weight on her left leg. He took her right arm in his, and her skin was warm, and her sweater was soft, and the smell of her! By all rights, she should smell like booze and the back of a police cruiser, but instead she smelled like fresh cut grass in a sunny meadow. What he wouldn’t give to bury his face in her neck and sniff her hair like the hound he was.

Alright, maybe, maybe, he could assist her over to the fingerprinting area and not fuck it up. It only felt like every set of eyes in the station was watching him. Most likely, they were staring at Sansa Stark, because who wouldn’t? She draped herself over him, pressing the length of her long, supple body next to his, and she stretched her perfect neck up to speak into his ear again.

“I forgot to tell you the other part of the story,” she said. “Joffrey isn’t five foot nine and a half. He lies about it. He’s five foot eight.”

“Ah,” he said, “obviously too short, even for a little girl like you.”

She laughed, and it sounded like a bubbling brook. No, no it didn’t, what the fuck was wrong with him. He was beginning to think the girl had poisoned him somehow.

“So you broke into his house,” he said, trying to get back on track.

“I didn’t break anything,” she said. “That makes me sound like a hardened criminal.”

Something was hardening, that was for sure. “So you just flew in and out the window like a bird.”

Her laugh was musical and breathy. “That’s right, Detective Sandor. Although I was aided and abetted by the dogs. Do you have a dog?”

“Of course,” he said without thinking, too distracted trying to sit her down in a chair without touching her glorious ass.

“Of course!” She did that beaming thing again where her whole face lit up from the inside just because of something that had come out of his mouth. “I knew you sounded like a dog person. What kind of dog is it? Something big, I’ll bet.”

She untangled her arm from his, and he tried not to grieve over it. “Yeah, uh, he’s a rescue, so I’m not sure. I think maybe he has some Newfie in him.”

“A Newfoundland!” She clapped her hands together in glee, which he didn’t think people actually did. He’d never met anyone before who was angelic enough to pull it off. “Dog owners sort of resemble their doggos, don’t you think? I can see you as a Newfie. Big. Floppy, long hair.” Her smile got a little wistful. “Soulful eyes. The heart of a teddy bear.”

His heart stopped in his chest. He was struck dead. “You’re still drunk, I see,” he managed to say despite being a corpse.

“Oh! Right. Yes. Maybe.” She frowned, and it created a little line between her eyes. He curled his hand into a fist so that he wouldn’t touch it, which was of no help whatsoever in getting her prints taken. And he could already see where that was going. He’d have to lift her aristocratic hands to press each finger into the inkpad, and he’d have to do that ten times, and then there would be nothing left of him. The cynical detective part of his brain came to his rescue and told him to get a fucking grip.

“Right, so I’m gonna ink your fingers and then put the prints on this sheet of paper,” he told her.

He leaned over her, and his eyes wandered to the neck of her sweater, but she caught him and startled, crossing her arms over her chest.

“I kind of need your hand to do this,” he said, hoping she didn’t hate him for staring.

“Right, right.” She adjusted her bra straps before holding out a dainty hand to him, as if she were a medieval princess and he was her supplicant knight, and where the hell did his mind keep getting this bullshit? He obviously hadn’t killed enough brain cells over the years, as unlikely as that fucking seemed.

He took her hand carefully. It was soft as satin.

“Guess what kind of dog I have?” she said.

He almost asked her what the most beautiful breed of dog in the world was, but come on, the poor girl shouldn’t have to suffer through any more of his pathetic attempts at flirting. “I don’t know.” But he had to guess, didn’t he? “Something red, to match your hair.”

“Yes!” she exclaimed. He’d never met a girl who did so much exclaiming. “She’s a Northern wolfhound.”

He was a little surprised – he thought she’d have a toy dog, but no. Miss Sansa Stark liked the big dogs. That was … that was freaking hot, actually.

“I need your other hand,” he said, and when had his voice gotten so low and throaty?

She gave him a flirty smile, and even he had to admit she was flirting with him, mercilessly. Maybe she flirted with everyone, although she didn’t seem the type. He forced himself to remember how her face had looked when she’d first seen his burn scars.

“So, Detective Sandor, I told you a secret about me. Tell me a secret about you.”

“I don’t have any secrets.” All of Kings Landing knew everything they needed to know about him, from the burns on his face due to his brother’s exploding meth lab to his washout at Kings Landing University after he lost his football scholarship to the Lannisters having to bail his sorry ass out every time.

“What’s your favorite breakfast food?” she asked.

“Strawberries,” he said. Who the fuck said strawberries? How was that a breakfast food? Something about the girl reminded him of ripe fruit. Maybe it was her lips.

“Strawberries!” She couldn’t start a sentence without an exclamation. He was undecided whether it was annoying or adorable. “Good, now I know a secret about you.”

“That’s not a secret.”

He gently tugged her hand to press her finger into the inkpad. She moved her entire body forward, resting her chin on his bicep.

“Does anyone else know you like strawberries?” she purred.

“No,” he said, mentally congratulating himself on getting the syllable out.

Her eyes glittered as she stared directly into his soul. “Then it’s our secret, isn’t it?”

Seven. Fucking. Hells. What was he supposed to do next?

“So, uh, I think we’re done here, Ms. Stark. You’ll get a court date, and maybe you should call a lawyer.” That wasn’t what he was supposed to do, but he couldn’t think straight.

She grabbed his arm again, and he hoisted her up easily. She hardly weighed a thing, but he liked how her head reached to his shoulder, like she was meant to lean on him forever.

“Please, call me Sansa,” she said.

“Okay, Sansa.” The long-starved romantic in him protested. He shouldn’t have said her name. It burned into him, and now he was hers forever. He consulted the cynical part of his brain, but unfortunately, it agreed. Damn.

He walked her to the lobby, arm in arm, where her friends were waiting. A silly looking girl was waving her hands, all excited, while an equally silly looking boy had his phone out.

“Thank you very much, Detective Sandor,” she said.

“You don’t have to thank me for arresting you,” he said.

She licked her bottom lip. Probably thirsty. “Well, you made sure it wasn’t an unpleasant experience.”

He smiled at her, and she smiled at him, and he became aware that this was another one of those prolonged, awkward silences.

“Don’t fly in any more windows now,” he said.

“I won’t. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”

“You hang around the police station much?”

She shrugged. Her friends were coming to take her back, but he didn’t want to let go of her. Still, there wasn’t much he could do when her excitable girlfriend tugged Sansa’s arm out of his.

“You poor girl, I’m sure this has been an ordeal,” her friend said, ignoring him as if he wasn’t even in the room. Well, that was typical. What had he expected?

He watched them leave, her friends helping her hop along. At the door, Sansa turned and gave him a little wave. He gave her a little wave back and stood there for a minute more, letting his thoughts run away from him. Just for a minute.

Someone clapped him on the back, and he snarled under his breath. Fortunately for everyone else on duty, it was his captain, Barristan Selmy, the one man he couldn’t chew out for disturbing his train of thought.

“So,” Selmy said, “one thing I love about this job is that you never know what to expect to come through the door.”

“Sure,” he said. An hour ago, he would’ve argued the point, explained that it was the same load of shit every night. But right now, he didn’t feel like it.

“Still,” Selmy said, “I never thought I’d live to see one of my detectives miss a clue as large as ‘what do you want for breakfast?’.”

He whirled around. “No, that was … “ What was that? Fuck. Fuck. “That was Joffrey Baratheon’s girl.”

Selmy frowned. “Whatever you say, Clegane.”

The captain didn’t understand, that was all. It wasn’t every day you met your soulmate, fell in love, realized she was so far above you she might as well live on the fucking Moon, and watched her leave knowing you were never going to see her again. But if, by some unbelievable quirk of fate, he had another chance to talk to Sansa Stark, he wouldn’t fuck it up again.

Who was he kidding? That wasn’t how his life worked. Lady Luck wasn’t going to deal him a better hand, and the sooner he remembered that, the better.

Chapter Text

After the most humiliating episode of her life, Sansa wanted to sleep in and baby her hangover, but Arya had a creepy sense about these things. Even though Arya usually lounged in bed past noon on Sundays, her “torture Sansa” radar was activated, and she got up bright and early to make as much noise as possible in their two-bedroom apartment. Pots clanked together, curses rang out, rap music blared. What Sansa wouldn’t give to curl up with Lady all day, but Kings Landings apartments that allowed wolfhounds were few and far between. Lady and her sister, Nymeria, were back home with Sansa’s parents.

Home. Didn’t that sound wonderful? But Sansa had a mandatory work meeting in the morning, where her arrogant boss started the week by making everyone miserable with unrealistic projections for how much work their office could handle. Ugh. There was no escape from the life she’d fallen into.

Her phone buzzed repeatedly with notifications, probably from Margaery, but Sansa simply couldn’t look. The only thing she had to comfort her in her despair was the direwolf tapestry. She spread it over her mattress and scrutinized it for damage. Was that a red wine stain? She peered closer. It was! How disrespectful. Her criminal record almost seemed worth it now. Almost.

Her bedroom door banged open. In Arya’s world, knocking was for other people. “Seven hells, San,” Arya cried, “you’ve gone viral.”

“What are you talking about?”

Arya held up her phone. A video was playing, and Sansa heard her own voice, with that weird distortion she always heard in her voice on a recording, not to mention some seriously inebriated slurring. She took the phone from Arya. A caption read “About to break into Joffrey’s house!” Sansa in the video was in the back of an Uber, so drunk she was swaying, going on and on about how much she missed snuggling and cuddling. The video had been edited so that there was no mention of Lady or Balon or Ozzy, the dogs she’d been talking about cuddling. This was Loras’s doing, that, that, miscreant.

“Remind me never to trust a Tyrell again,” she said.

“Pfft, like you’d listen to me.”

The second part of the video showed her being packed into the back of a police car, wailing piteously, her nose bright red and her face the blotchiest mess. The caption here simply read “Busted!” She was going to kill Loras. Didn’t he realize she had to go to court over this and he was sharing evidence?

There was a third part to the video, set in the police station. The caption here read “And now she’s flirting with the cop!!”

Sansa and Detective Sandor Clegane faced each other in profile. Wow, he was a tall man. His black and tan tweed sports jacket did nothing to hide his broad, muscled shoulders. Filmed from the side like this, the burn scars on his face weren’t visible. His long, dark hair was tucked behind his ear, and the line of his jaw was strong. He’d never be a handsome man, not with his disfigurement, but up close and personal, his stormy gray eyes had been incredibly striking. Maybe even sensuously striking. And damn if he didn’t look like a rock in this video. Sansa had always wanted to take up rock climbing. Oh, gods, what was wrong with her? Stress was cracking her into pieces.

In the video, he was holding her arm, supporting her effortlessly, and she was smiling so widely, her cheeks still hurt. Oh, no, had she really asked him what his favorite breakfast food was? Thank the gods that wasn’t on camera because just recalling her boldness made her squirm in embarrassment. Why did Loras have to get Detective Clegane involved in this? The man had been so helpful, even though being arrested should’ve been a completely miserable experience, and this was his payback. She wondered if she should ask Arya if it were ever appropriate to send a thank you note to your arresting officer.

And Loras’s aggravating captions! True, she had come on to the detective, rather shamelessly, not that it had worked. But she was sure police officers didn’t make a habit of asking out the people they were fingerprinting. That would be too weird. Gah, what had she been thinking?

Detective Sandor Clegane was very good at fingerprinting. He had toned arms and a warm, solid grip. And an extremely sexy, gravelly voice. She hadn’t been daydreaming about that too much, but only because she hadn’t had enough time to recover in bed.

“I can’t believe you broke into Asshole Joff’s house looking for a hookup,” Arya said.

Sansa gasped. “Arya Stark! That is not what happened. That’s just poor video editing.” Or excellent video editing. She was never speaking to Loras Tyrell again. “I broke in to get that.”

She pointed to the tapestry, and Arya’s eyes lit up. She tried to pet the wolves’ fur, but Sansa tapped her hand. No touching. This was too delicate, and she’d have to do repairs to fix the red wine stain. She could already tell it wouldn’t be easy: she’d have to remove the stitches in that corner, match the thread colors to the sages and grays of a Northern forest, and embroider the undergrowth using a satin stitch for the leaves and shorter stitching for the spiky branches. It would take hours. However, she had no boyfriend and no trustworthy friends, so she’d have plenty of free time.

“Good for you,” Arya said, “I think I may be proud of you. Although I can’t believe you racked up an adult criminal record for breaking and entering before I did.”

“You’re only nineteen.” Sansa hadn’t missed the insertion of “adult” before “criminal record.” “Oh, no, how am I going to break the news to Mom and Dad?”

“You know they’ll forgive you,” Arya said. “They forgive you for all your stupid choices.”

Before Sansa could interrogate her about what that was supposed to mean, Arya volunteered to make coffee and darted out of the bedroom. Sighing in defeat, Sansa dragged her quilt to the living room, limping on her sore ankle, and snuggled on the couch. She checked her phone, pointedly ignoring the messages from that traitor Margaery. She’d just watch the video one more time. Not the whole thing; she certainly didn’t want to see her face looking like it had been dragged through poison ivy. She only wanted to watch the very end. Detective Sandor Clegane. It was really quite a nice name. Sort of rolled off the tongue, didn’t it? Sandor Clegane. Not that she’d ever see him again.

Sometimes she was amazingly slow on the uptake. She hadn’t realized people were leaving comments under the video, although that was the way it usually worked, right? She scanned the first few comments, and her stomach twisted in a cramp.

“What a f*cking slut! Joff you should f*ck that bitch up.”

“I’d screw her if I was drunk. 4 out of 10. Joff, give me her number, bro.”

“That’s the Stark girl! Stuck up bitch, look at her try to f*ck her way out of trouble.”

“That’s Sansa Stark, she lives in the new KLU apartments!!”

Arya came in with coffee. “Three tablespoons of sugar and a shitload of cream, just the way you like it, weirdo.”

“Can you please stop criticizing my choices?” She knew it was inappropriate, she knew she sounded like a stuck-up bitch, but she just wanted to scream and tear her hair and rend her garments. She wasn’t sure exactly what that entailed, but it sounded almost dramatic enough.

“Is sugar addiction really a choice?” Arya said.

No, all of Sansa’s choices had been non-choices. And now she was being doxxed by DJ Joff’s fan club. It served her right.

“Aren’t you supposed to be studying?” Sansa snapped.

Arya was in her first year at Kings Landing University. She was struggling with the academic life and had already switched majors four times. Arya retreated to the kitchen at the mention of studying, as Sansa had expected, leaving her to read the toxic comments in – well, not peace and quiet, but at least quiet.

“Dude thats the hound, sandor clegane, holy shit, i can’t believe he’s still alive”

She whimpered out loud and burrowed deeper into her quilt. Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse. Now the trolls were going after the nice detective. She scanned down further to see if he’d been mentioned again.

“The Hound! I remember that ugly bastard.”

This comment included 2 hyperlinks. She clicked on the first one and choked on her coffee. It was a news article with a photo of the largest, meanest-looking man she’d ever seen. This bearded ogre with the tiny, pebble-like eyes was handcuffed in front of a police cruiser, and his hips literally hit the top of the car’s side window, the man was that big. The caption read, “Gregor Clegane, alleged head of a local methamphetamine operation, was apprehended thanks to a tri-county, cross-department task force.” She scanned the article. It didn’t mention Sandor, but she caught the phrase “family operation” next to Gregor Clegane’s name, and later in the article, it mentioned that Clegane’s father was serving time in prison, although bringing that up didn’t seem like journalism ethics in action. Her eyes began to itch and her throat tightened. She couldn’t even imagine having a family like that. Arya was right: her parents, and her brothers, would support her no matter what.

Reluctantly, she was compelled to go back and click the second hyperlink. This news article was titled “Football Player Found After Motorcycle Accident.” It had a picture of Sandor in a football uniform, standing on a sideline, and it was almost a shame he’d been promoted to detective because he was a man whose efforts had sculpted him to look divine in a uniform. He even had a cape draped over his padded shoulders. A cape! His helmet was off and his scars were visible. He looked away from the camera lens, unaware he was being photographed. She checked the date on the article – it was eleven years old. He must’ve had those scars for a long time, probably as a teenager. He’d probably gone to high school like that, with people staring at him and calling him an ugly bastard. Maybe he’d gone to middle school with those scars, with those cruel middle school monsters. Her eyes really began to itch, and when she swiped at them, she realized she was crying. Again. Gods, she was so sick of being silly, stupid Sansa. Now this information about Sandor was circulating the web again and it was all her fault.

Arya loomed over her. “Are you back on your bullshit again?”

Sansa quickly hit the back button on her browser, returning her to the video, just before Arya grabbed the phone out of her hands. Arya scrolled through some comments, her eyebrows drawing down in a heavy scowl.

“That’s enough phone for you,” she announced. “There’s nothing helpful in reading nasty ass shit from basement-dwelling losers.”

Sansa found her box of tissues on the side table and tried to stem the tide of tears and snot. “I need my phone back. What if Mom calls?”

“If anyone from home calls and they can’t reach you, they’ll call me,” Arya said. She sat down on Sansa’s quilt, next to her legs. “Now, no hugging, but tell me what else I can do.”

Sansa buried her face in her arms. Comments had mentioned where they lived, and Arya was still being sweet, for Arya levels of sweet. “I’m so, so sorry. This is all my fault.”

“You need to stop apologizing all the time. And scoot up, you have legs like a freak giraffe and I’m uncomfortable.”

Sansa tucked her legs under her and tried to get control of her hitching breaths. It wasn’t working.

“Hey,” Arya said, not unkindly, “at least you got the tapestry.”

And if it were only her involved, that would’ve been enough to make her feel better. But it wasn’t only her. It was internet trolls targeting Arya’s apartment, their shared refuge. It was those stupid, ancient news stories about the detective. Thank the old gods and new that she’d never have to face him again.

 

If there was a contest to see if Sandor Clegane could be in a worse mood than his usual rock bottom and still be functional, he was crushing it. Sunday night was usually quiet at the station, but everything was tinted the color of shit. His coffee smelled like motor oil. The overhead fluorescents didn’t shed any real light on the dingy bullpen, which was just as well because the place was crowded with the usual petty thieves, some of them his fellow officers. He didn’t have any friends here – he never had any friends, just Enemies and Not-Yet-Enemies – and there wasn’t anybody he could confide in that the only colors he could remember seeing in his entire fucked up life were the robin’s egg blue of Sansa’s eyes and the red of Sansa’s sunset-kissed hair. If the burning of his rage could warm anything, not a soul in Kings Landing would pay a heating bill again.

Everybody in the station kept a wide buffer of space around him, nobody crazy enough to poke the demon. But there was always one stupid cunt, and no cunts came stupider than Joffrey Fuckface Baratheon. The slimy bastard dropped into the chair next to his desk, the one he already thought of as Sansa’s chair, and spread his arms over the back of the damn thing like he was staking a claim.

“What do you want?” he spit out through clenched teeth, marveling that he didn’t crack a molar. As a child, dental hygiene and adequate calcium had not been among his family’s priorities.

“There has been a theft, Hound.” The Baratheon brat always spoke in a sneer, or at least he did when he was talking down to a Clegane. And he hated that old nickname Gregor had given him. It needed to die. “My former bitch girlfriend stole a very valuable piece of art from my home.”

Bitch. Girlfriend. The words flashed in neon under his eyelids. “What the fuck do you want me to do about it?” he growled.

Smarter men would’ve fled in terror. Baratheon simply made a snotty brat-boy face at him. “You’re supposed to be a detective now. I want to press charges.”

“You don’t decide to press charges, the police decide to press charges,” he said, amazed the assmonkey hadn’t picked up any sense of how criminal law worked during his misadventures.

Baratheon grinned. “Great. Press charges then. I want Sansa Stark prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. She broke into my house and stole a medieval tapestry.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. “You’re bitching to me about a tapestry? That something you really can’t live without?”

“Do you know what a tapestry is, Hound?”

He knew what a tapestry was, he wasn’t that uncultured, but there wasn’t any point in defending his art knowledge to a punk kid who promoted EDM. It wasn’t like the cockstick was going to listen to him. Instead, the punk flipped through his phone before showing Sandor a picture of a white wall. It wasn’t entirely bare: there was a small light fixture, the kind usually used to display a painting. There was also a display card, which probably described the missing piece.

“That’s where my tapestry was before the bitch stole it last night,” Baratheon said.

“So report it to your insurance company,” he said, showing, he thought, admirable restraint and tact under the circumstances.

“Funny, I thought the police were supposed to help with property theft.”

Could he push this budding sociopath onto someone else? “Why didn’t you come in during the day, talk to your uncle Jaime?”

“I just woke up.” Fucking predictable. Sandor had just woken up, too, from extremely fractured sleep punctuated by dreams of chestnut red wolfhounds running through the woods, but he worked for a living. Whatever Baratheon did in nightclubs could not, would not, be called work, not by him.

“Anyway,” and here Baratheon flashed him what he probably thought was a winning smile, one that displayed how much his nannies had valued dental hygiene and adequate calcium, “you’re our dog.”

His rational thoughts fled to a place of incoherent rage. By the time he clawed his way back to being able to think in words, Baratheon had fled. There was some tiny satisfaction in that, but not much, and he’d likely pay for it later after the police commissioner heard from his shit-for-brains nephew. Plus the twatweasel had left a card on his desk. It was a rectangle of heavy card stock, about the size of an iPad, and it read:

Direwolf Herald Tapestry

This reproduction of medieval embroidery arts uses symbols from the heraldry of the Northernmost families in the foreground, with a background of flora and fauna from the Wolfswood near the White Knife River. Needle techniques are typical of the early feudal period, when direwolves were last seen north of the Barrowlands. On loan to the Baratheon family from Kings Landing University, Art Department.

This must be the card that hung on the wall next to the tapestry, which he noted didn’t technically belong to the Baratheons. Shit, though, it sounded expensive. This could’ve been missing for years, but now Joffrey Fuckface wanted his revenge on Sansa. Even worse, if he didn’t do some cursory investigation, Commissioner Lannister would be on his ass. Eh, with luck, the Google machine would do his work for him.

So, heraldry. He Googled “Baratheon Direwolf Tapestry.” Nothing interesting popped up. Then he Googled “Stark Direwolf Tapestry,” and that was fascinating reading. The Starks, it turned out, were an old family from the far North, rich in traditions if not in actual cash. The family was old enough to have a coat of arms: a black direwolf on a gray background.
It was nauseating, but the Baratheon prick had a point. If this tapestry had been stolen – big if, and he wasn’t looking forward to his inevitable trek to Storm’s End to find out – Sansa Stark would be the prime suspect.

Maybe that wasn’t nausea. Maybe there was a nervous lump of anticipation in his gut. He was going to have to interview Sansa Stark. He was going to have to find out where she worked and pay her a visit. Not because he wanted to or because he was some kind of pathetic stalker, but because it was his responsibility. There was a slim chance that she was a cat-burglar art thief, which shouldn’t be even a little bit sexy – fuck, though, it was immensely sexy – but it was highly unlikely. How could she have smuggled a tapestry out of Storm’s End? She wouldn’t have been able to hand it off to her friends. The uniforms made it sound like Sansa had never been out of Cersei Baratheon’s sight. He’d have to interview them first. He was going to have to treat this like a serious investigation.

Maybe he could find out why she’d asked him what his favorite breakfast food was and why she wanted him to share a secret with her.

No, no, there was no point in going down that road. That way lied madness. The girl had been drunk. She’d been talking about flying in and out of windows like a bird, for fuck’s sake. She had to have been sloshed off her ass to flirt with him. And she damn sure wasn’t going to keep hitting on him while he was accusing her of theft.

Still, it was all the justification he needed to look up her home and work addresses. He’d talk to the officers on the scene, pay a visit to Storm’s End, and then perhaps surprise his little bird with an impromptu visit. See if she had anything to sing for him.

Chapter Text

The graveyard shift was where the department put rude assholes, such as himself, so when Sandor tracked down the officers who had responded to the 1:30 am call at Storm’s End, he didn’t expect much from them. For once in his life – alright, twice, if he counted Sansa Stark coming on to him – he was pleasantly surprised. Although, damn, the academy was graduating them young these days. The two uniforms he spoke to were on duty and happy to take a break from handling domestic calls to tell him about “the crazy ginger” they’d apprehended. He didn’t think either of the boys would make it to detective if they thought Sansa was a ginger. That demonstrated piss poor observational skills.

But they were clear on the facts of the case. Sansa had been caught snooping in Storm’s End’s kitchen when she’d triggered the refrigerator alarm. What kind of douche rigs up a refrigerator to keep people away from food? Ah, right, the Cersei flavor of douche. He resolved to push off his visit to the scene of the crime until it couldn’t be procrastinated any longer. No good could come of an interview with Cersei Lannister-Baratheon, and he wasn’t rushing into letting another Lannister snap her fingers at him, down, dog; sit, dog; heel, dog.

Anyway. The case. The uniforms said Sansa didn’t have a bag with her and no opportunity to get to an accomplice before Sandor had booked her. She’d been at the station with two friends, but the uniforms said the “really hot” friends hadn’t come on the scene until after Sansa had been walked out to the cruiser. He was slightly concerned about the department hiring officers who were so shit at observation they’d describe other people as “really hot” in comparison with Sansa, but it wasn’t like KLPD paid enough to get the cream of the crop. He believed them when they said there wasn’t any way Sansa could’ve handed off the tapestry to someone else.

His shift ended at 6 am. Right before he left the station, he looked up the number for the head of the art department at KLU and left a message regarding the direwolf tapestry. Then he entered the address for the office building where Sansa worked into his phone. Maybe he could catch her on her way in, no big deal. Just “accidentally” run into her, ask her a few questions.

He hit the gym and the showers and changed into what he would forever think of as street clothes, even though he wore plain clothes to work these days. He picked out a clingy t-shirt since he’d be wearing his leather jacket so he could take his bike, and the sun was out for once, and … what the fuck was the point of lying to himself? The stupid lizard part of his brain that should’ve burned away in the fire wanted Sansa to notice him in a t-shirt. He remembered the way her gaze had rested on his arms. He’d seen girls in the gym stare at his arms until they caught sight of his face. He never thought he’d have to wrestle with vanity, for fuck’s sake, but there it was.

It would be good to see her and get this insanity out of his system. He was tired of thinking about her. Most likely, when she saw him while she was sober, she’d be disgusted, and the world would right itself and go back to normal. She probably wasn’t as pretty as he remembered. Nobody was, not in real life. A healthy dose of reality would finally shut up the part of his brain that kept trying to break out in song lyrics.

The lobby of her office building was pseudo-posh, with a wide atrium leading to a bank of elevators, a pretentious fountain, and a café crowded with people in suits going through caffeine withdrawal. He stationed himself at a table near the glass wall between the café and the lobby and did what policemen did best – he waited. He wondered if he’d realize it when she came in or if she’d slip right past him.

Suddenly, she was there, in the lobby, and any idea that he wouldn’t have noticed her seemed laughable. Her presence jumped like electricity on his nerve endings. She stood head and shoulders above the other office drones, her auburn waves glowing among the monochrome surroundings. She was dressed like a model in a gray pleated skirt, snug white sweater, and a tan peacoat. She was wearing flat shoes, though, and he inwardly cursed Baratheon to the seventh hell for robbing him of the sight of Sansa’s calves in high heels. She headed toward the café and got in line, and he managed to insert himself in line behind her without body checking anyone into a nearby wall.

“Miss Stark?” he said in a low voice.

“Oh!” She whirled around and her eyes grew wide. “Detective Clegane! You’re … you’re wearing a shirt.”

“Uh-huh.” He could feel unfamiliar muscles on his face stretch into a smile. Damn if that hadn’t been the most gratifying thing ever.

A pretty pink blush spread across her cheekbones. “I just wanted to apologize. Sincerely,” she said. “I assure you, I had absolutely no idea what Loras was doing, and I’m so sorry if it caused you any trouble.”

She tossed her hair over a shoulder, releasing the scent of her shampoo, sweet and delicately perfumed. Her eyes kept darting to his arms and back up to meet his gaze. She touched her tongue to her lips, and he shook himself, realizing he’d fallen into an awkwardly long silence.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.

“You didn’t want to talk about the video?” Her voice was silk. Her hair would feel like silk if he dared to touch it. She smelled like roses and new soap. She smelled like heaven. The stupid part of his brain was composing entire musical scores in her honor. Wait, what the hell was she talking about?

“I just wanted to ask you a few questions,” he said. “Is that alright with you?”

“Oh, of course, how sweet of you to ask.” She smiled, and he forgot how to blink. “So I guess I’m supposed to be figuring out what I want.”

He tilted his head down. “What do you want?”

Her blush deepened. He wondered what the unexposed skin of her neck looked like with that blush spreading down her chest.

“Maybe you should go first,” she said.

“Maybe,” he repeated, utilizing the silver-tongued charm he was known for. Damn, he sucked at this flirting thing.

“Can you order? You’re holding up the line,” someone said. The barista. Right, the conversation made more sense in that context. Fuck, this was embarrassing.

“Coffee,” he barked.

The barista had a hoop in her nose and tattoos of tentacled squid arms reaching out of her shirt sleeves. “I need your name,” she said with a shit-eating, completely humiliating, ‘I know what you’re trying to do’ grin.

“Why the hell do you need my name to get me a cup of coffee?” he asked.

Sansa gently tapped the counter in front of him. “His name’s Sandor. We’re together.”

It was as if everything she said was designed to make his heart stop beating. While he recovered, the barista asked for Sansa’s drink order.

“I’ll have a vanilla coconut milk latte with caramel and mocha. And whipped cream,” she said. His expression must’ve registered surprise because she somehow managed to blush again. “I have a bit of a sweet tooth.”

“You might as well order cake then,” he said. Would she get this flustered if she were aroused? Oh, hell, no, he couldn’t afford to get sidetracked that way, he’d never make it back to the present.

She studied the cake display. “Ohhh, yes. I’ll have the strawberry cheesecake. The slice with the most strawberries on it, please.” When she smiled, her nose crinkled. “After all, this is breakfast.”

“Almost lunch at this rate,” the barista complained, which at least saved him from having to come up with a response that didn’t involve kneeling at Sansa’s feet.

She struggled with her leather tote bag, and he realized she was trying to pay for her order. “No, I got this,” he said quickly.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly. You only ordered a plain coffee.”

“Yeah, but … but this is business,” he said. “I’m taking up your time.”

She rocked up on her tiptoes and clapped her hands. “Yes! It is! That means I have a reason to go into work late.” She turned to the barista, speaking to her as if she was a personal friend. “Isn’t that wonderful? Would you mind making our drinks in cups for here instead of to go?”

The barista rolled her eyes. “Sure, Sansa, I love talking to you two all morning. Any other orders I should remake?”

Sansa nodded enthusiastically. “Would you please bring us two forks with that cake?”

“Double forking, got it.” The barista wiggled her eyebrows at him, telling him wordlessly that she knew perfectly damn well he’d have to overtip no matter what since Sansa was watching.

“I really didn’t want to go into work this morning,” Sansa confessed to him. “My boss can hardly complain if I tell her I’m helping the police with their inquiries.”

The barista handed him the plate and forks. “My, what a generous tip. If you’re looking for a private corner to talk, I recommend taking a right out the door. There are some quiet tables for two beyond the fountain.”

“Thank you so much,” Sansa said. She walked next to Sandor to the lobby. “She’s really nice, isn’t she? I’ve known her for ages.”

He grunted in reply. Honestly, he was glad the barista was obnoxious because it made him realize Sansa was like this with everyone. It wasn’t just him. He’d been acting like a fucking teenager because he’d thought he and Sansa had some sort of connection, but in reality, she gushed over everyone like an effervescent puppy. At least he’d figured it out before he made a complete ass of himself.

Why had he thought she’d be interested in him? Fucking delusional, that’s what it was.

The table was secluded, with the noise of the fountain giving them a curtain of privacy. She took a sip of her latte and licked the whipped cream off her upper lip. For fuck’s sake. He needed to start treating her like a suspect.

“What do you know about a direwolf tapestry?” he asked.

She didn’t meet his eyes, but people rarely did. “Gosh,” she said, like they were in some Victorian children’s story, “you didn’t come to ask me about the video?”

She’d mentioned that earlier. “What video?”

She squirmed, studying the contents of her mug. “My friend took a video at the police station. It got a lot of shares.”

“You’re not allowed to film in the station,” he said.

“It was just the lobby,” she said quietly. “It was when you were letting me lean on you. You know. Because of my ankle.”

As if he could forget. “And you thought I wanted to ask you about this video?”

She finally met his gaze. “People made very unkind comments online. It’s embarrassing.”

Like he didn’t know everything there was to know about people’s “unkind” comments. And of course she was fucking embarrassed. He could just imagine the shit she’d gotten for letting him touch her. It probably started at “disgusting freak fetish” and moved down from there.

She put a forkful of strawberry cheesecake in her mouth and moaned very quietly. “Ohh, this is so good, Sandor. You have to try it.”

His brain battled it out, rushing endorphins from watching Sansa eat versus overwhelming adrenaline from his anger about the crap she’d read online. The synapses accustomed to anger were stronger and won the war. They always won.

“Why the fuck did your so-called friend post a video of us online to embarrass you?” he snapped.

Her fork froze halfway to her mouth. Her usually cheery expression clouded over. “I … He … it wasn’t a video of us. That was just one part. It was mostly me getting in the back of the police car.”

“I’m going to need the name of this friend. It sounds like he’s posting evidence.”

She slammed her fork on the table. “I’m not tattling on my friends.”

“They were with you when you got picked up at the Baratheon’s. Maybe they’re accomplices.”

“Accomplices to what?” So, she had a backbone. “I told you, I didn’t break in.”

“Right, you flew in the window like a little bird.”

She sat up straight in her chair. “I had the security code memorized.”

“You just happened to have the security code memorized?”

“Uh, yes. It’s 112233.”

Crap, didn’t that just figure. “That’s the fucking dumbest security code I’ve ever heard,” he muttered.

“I know!” She leaned over the table. “And they don’t ever change it. Thank the gods it’s only six digits. If it were seven, Joffrey would have to live on the streets.”

That startled a snort out of him. “The sack pimple probably texts himself the code every night so he doesn’t forget it.”

“Did you just call him—” Her hands flew over her mouth, but not in time to hide her glee. “You really have to meet my sister. She’ll love that one.”

Somehow, they’d moved from interrogation to talking about meeting her family. How he could stay angry at her? Whatever shit people had said about him, it wasn’t her fault. Their little – what could he call it, a spat? – only made her more interesting. Sansa wasn’t just a fluttery pixie. She had spirit. She could stand up for herself. And he hadn’t completely terrified her. Yet.

It was kind of a personal best for him to recover from a fit of temper this quickly. Too bad he didn’t know anyone who’d be impressed.

She touched his forearm. “You should really try the cheesecake. I got it to share.”

He picked up a fork and she pushed the plate across the table. Naturally, it was the most delicious fucking cheesecake he’d ever tasted.

She lifted an eyebrow and gave him a devilish smile. “Good, right?”

The wave of lust that slammed through him made him bite down on the fork. He was lucky it didn’t impale his tongue completely, but he could taste blood. He wasn’t sure if he managed to nod, but Sansa’s expression indicated satisfaction with whatever he’d done.

“So, Detective,” she said, “what did you find out about the direwolf tapestry?”

He swallowed and cleared his throat. “I left a message with the Kings Landing University art department.”

“Oh, good,” she said. “That’s where I graduated. Did you find out what the direwolves stand for?”

He nodded. “Stark family heraldry.”

“I’m impressed.” She took a sip of what she considered to be coffee. “I’m sure with your excellent investigative skills, you’ll be proving my innocence in no time.”

“I hope so, Little Bird,” he said, surprised by her faith in him.

She gasped. “What did you just call me?”

Oh, shit. “Nothing,” he said. “I had cake in my mouth. I wasn’t speaking clearly.”

“Hmmph.” She didn’t seem angry or disgusted, but he couldn’t make any sense of her mood change. Thoughtful, maybe. He was usually good at reading suspects, but this was too far out of his wheelhouse. He’d never questioned anyone while he considered whether grabbing her hand and sucking on one of her fingers would be a good interrogation technique. Maybe the problem was that she could spot when he wasn’t being truthful.

Maybe he could spot it when she was lying. It was one of his real skills as an investigator, although it was normally easy as breathing: just assume everyone was lying and you were golden.

“What made you decide to visit Joffrey in the middle of the night?” he asked.

“I knew he wouldn’t be home,” she said, and he liked the sound of that a little too much. “So, um, do people ever tell you they did very idiotic things because they seemed like good ideas after a few drinks?”

“Pfft, every night.” She was pretty damn naïve. Then again, she wouldn’t be talking to him if she was any kind of criminal mastermind. “You got a lawyer, right? You should do that before you talk to anyone else.”

“Yes. I’m meeting him this afternoon.” She fluttered her eyelashes at him guilelessly. “Thank you for asking, Detective. I appreciate you watching out for me.”

“What happened to Sandor?”

“I appreciate you watching out for me, Sandor. Maybe I should give you my phone number in case you have any other questions.”

“Uh, yeah, right,” he said. That Clegane cosmopolitan charm at work again. “Let me give you my card.”

He pushed his phone across the table so she could do whatever millennial thing she wanted, as long as he ended up with her number when she was through. He took his business card out of his wallet and handed her that, too.

“Oh, what an attractive card,” she said. “Very classy.”

He almost laughed at her. “Do you like anything that people put in front of you?”

“That … that is something I’ve been trying to work on.” It sounded like a serious confession, like she was telling him something important that she hadn’t told anyone else. Another secret between them.

He watched her walk to the elevators. Hell, half the people in the lobby watched her walk to the elevators. It was the best view they’d get all day. Then he checked his phone. She’d put her number in his contacts under the name Little Bird. His chest felt hot and burny, and he had to dig his fingernails into his palms to stop himself from texting her that he was going to clear her name, no matter what it took.

Chapter Text

After she left her breakfast date with Sandor – no, not a date, she shouldn’t be thinking of it as a date when it clearly wasn’t one – she texted Loras in the elevator: “Take down that video immediately, it’s evidence that can be used against me!”

Fortunately, he texted right back: “So sorry I’m so stupid I didn’t even think. Doing it right now. Forgive me. XXOO”

She believed him. Loras never meant any harm, he was just a romantic drama addict, as soppy as Sansa herself but with a taste for adventure she didn’t share. He was rich and beautiful, and he could conquer Kings Landing every Saturday night and bend everyone he encountered to his narratives.

Taking the tapestry out of Storm’s End had been her one big adventure. Now she knew for sure that the police were looking for the tapestry. She was going to end up on probation, or worse. She’d Googled the punishments for petty theft, and she could be looking at up to a year in prison! If the theft was ruled a felony, it could be even longer. It was completely unfair. Where was the justice in that? The tapestry was based on the Stark coat of arms! It was hardly theft when the tapestry had been loaned to the Baratheons on her recommendation in the first place. The courts just had to agree with her.

Needless to say, her parents had not been thrilled that the police had hauled her out of Storm’s End, and even less thrilled when she tearfully confessed to stealing the tapestry. Still, they’d found her a lawyer. He was an old friend from her mother’s hometown who was now a criminal defense attorney in Kings Landing. That had been a stroke of good luck, especially when her mother had called last night to tell her Petyr Baelish could meet with her today.

She should’ve told Sandor she couldn’t talk to him until after she met her lawyer. That would’ve been the smart move. She tried to remember everything she’d told the detective and if any of it had been incriminating, but she was having a hard time recalling what she’d said exactly. She’d come across as a scatterbrained idiot, of that she was sure, but he was so sweet. She didn’t think he’d try to trick her into confessing anything that would land her in hot water.

Obviously, though, Sandor was very good at his job because she would’ve answered just about anything he’d asked. His voice was deep and rumbly, thick with unspoken emotions. And honestly, that shirt he was wearing? Should he be allowed to question suspects like that? It seemed like an unfair interrogation tactic. She’d spent the entire conversation darting glances at his chest and then quickly looking up at his face before he realized it.

The burn scars were bad, hard to look at for more than a few moments. It looked like they’d tightened the muscles on that side of his face, giving his rare smiles a lopsided appearance. She had to steel herself not to give away any sympathy or pity in her expression. How could she have ignored him when she’d thought he’d seen Loras’s video and the awful, hateful comments?

She was absolutely useless at work after her breakfast. Her coworkers kept shooting her jealous looks for missing the Monday morning dressing down. She couldn’t tell her boss she was hoping not to be arrested for theft, so she’d invented an imaginary doctor’s appointment to get out of work early. Her cover was almost blown when Arya showed up out of the blue as Sansa was flying out the door.

“What are you doing here?” she said, dragging Arya onto the elevator. “Don’t you have class this afternoon?”

“No, I have Monday afternoons free,” Arya said, her eyes too wide and her tone falsely chipper.

“I thought you have Thursdays free, and on Mondays, you have lab.”

Arya began a very long explanation about lab work and library time slots and her professor’s office hours, no doubt to get Sansa to back off and agree that Arya knew her schedule best.

“Ugh, never mind, why are you here?” Sansa asked as the elevator spit them out. Mr. Baelish’s office was only four blocks away, and it was sunny enough for a walk. Her ankle was doing much better after she’d spent an hour in the bubble bath last night. With all the excitement of talking to Sandor this morning, she’d forgotten about the pain.

Arya stuck to her like Velcro on a sweater. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t screw this up and go confessing to the police before we get this lawyer locked down.”

“That’s … that’s totally insulting. I’m not that naïve,” she said.

“Yeah? You seemed awfully cozy with that ginormous detective.”

She startled and felt heat flood her cheeks. “Please don’t tell me you skipped class this morning, too.”

“What are you talking about?”

Oh, shoot. She bit down on her bottom lip. Arya hadn’t been stalking her all day, and she didn’t know about breakfast. She’d been talking about Loras’s video, and now she was never going to let this go. When Arya sensed blood, she never skipped the kill.

Arya growled, doing the scary eyebrow thing she did when she was angry. “Do not tell me you spoke to the detective this morning.”

She considered not answering, but it wouldn’t stop Arya from pestering her. Best to skip straight to her defense. “He was very nice. And I found out that he knows the tapestry is missing.”

“Of course Asshole Joff ratted you out! Seven Hells, San, you are the biggest idiot sometimes. That’s why I’m here watching you instead of in class.”

“So you do have class now!”

“I meant theoretically,” Arya said with no apparent guilt at all. “That fascist goon actually questioned you without a lawyer? Did he read you your rights?”

“Fascist …. “ Sansa was terrified to find out where Arya had picked up that phrase. “He didn’t drag me to the station. Actually, he bought me breakfast.” Her cheeks burned, and she focused her gaze on the cracks in the sidewalk.

“Oh, really?” Arya’s voice dripped sticky sweet. “Awww, did he buy you one of those liquid cakes you call a coffee drink?”

“There was actual cake,” she muttered. Hadn’t they reached Mr. Baelish’s office yet? She stared at the buildings they were passing, willing the next one to morph into their destination.

Arya threw her arms in the air. “That is so you. All that manipulative bastard had to do was buy you a slice of cake!”

“It wasn’t just any cake.” Why had she said that? It definitely made Arya’s scowl more pronounced. “Look, the cake is complicated. My point is that Sandor wasn’t manipulating me.”

“Sandor, is it?” Arya snorted. “No offense, but you dated Joffrey for practically a year. You wouldn’t realize a man was manipulating you until he stepped on your neck.”

“Nooo, no offense intended, I’m sure.” She hugged her coat tighter to her chest.

They reached the correct address, one of the tallest buildings on the Kings Landing’s skyline, a monstrosity of glass and polished green granite. A uniformed doorman ushered them into a whisper quiet lobby. By the elevators, brass plaques listed the names of several law offices. Petyr Baelish had his own practice on the seventh floor.

As they rode upstairs, Sansa said quietly, “You may have a point.”

She didn’t actually think Arya was right, but she couldn’t argue any more. Her stomach was brewing a white hot nugget of anxiety that was working its way up to her ribcage. She resented the way Arya acted like she knew how to live Sansa’s life, but it wasn’t as if Sansa had been doing a very good job of it, either. She really, really needed to figure out what she wanted for herself. In the meantime, it was easier to go along to get along.

“I’m just trying to keep you out of prison,” Arya said. “Who would pay my rent then?”

The elevator let them out on the seventh floor. Sansa gave her name to an extremely willowy receptionist and joined Arya on a flawless white loveseat, where her sister looked totally out of place in her ripped jeans and scruffy Vans. The interior decorating in Mr. Baelish’s office was to die for, so modern and clean. She appreciated the Expressionist painting on the wall over the receptionist’s desk. In school, her tastes had been called old-fashioned by the other art students, but she could still enjoy something refreshingly novel, like this piece in pastels that spoke to her of the shore at sunset.

“Did you at least tell the fascist goon about the death threats you’ve been getting from Joff’s fan club?” Arya said.

“Nooo, I’m sure that won’t happen again. Loras is taking the video down, he promised.” She took out her phone to check. “See, it’s down already.”

Arya glared at the screen. “It better stay down.”

Poor Arya was probably afraid that their address was all over the web, but she’d never admit it. Sansa was nervous about that, too, but she never considered telling Sandor. She’d been too thrilled that he hadn’t seen the video comments before she could get them taken down. She squeezed Arya’s hand in solidarity.

“No touching,” Arya said automatically. “I’m going in with you, okay? I want to make sure this guy keeps the gallant detective off your back.”

Gallant. That was a good word, wasn’t it? No, no, Arya was right to use that sarcastic tone. Men weren’t gallant any more, and she wasn’t living in some medieval tapestry. Plus Arya was definitely more knowledgeable about the criminal life. No more talking to the police. If she spoke to Sandor again – and she could practically sense where his business card was nestled inside her leather tote, as if there was a thread in her brain tugging from that direction – she’d refer him to her lawyer. Cake or no cake.

 

Petyr Baelish was almost as short as Arya, not that Sansa wasn’t used to feeling like she had to duck down when certain men shook her hand. At least he didn’t make a snippy comment about it. His tailored navy wool suit coupled with the Braavosi wingtips presented an image of prosperity and professionalism. If she could judge him as a lawyer by his outfit – and naturally, she did – he must be very successful.

“I’m sure we’ll be able to clear this up in short order,” Mr. Baelish said after Sansa and Arya were seated in front of his cocobolo desk. “You’re a good citizen with a good job and a clean record. I’ll make a few calls and have the charges reduced.”

The ball of anxiety in her stomach finally dissolved.

“What, just like that?” Arya asked.

“That would be wonderful, Mr. Baelish!” Sansa exclaimed.

He winked at her. Not too many people could pull that off, but he seemed to have some winking practice. “Please, call me Petyr. And it’s not a problem at all. I have connections in the district attorney’s office, where Jon Arryn owes me a few favors.”

“So Sansa gets away with it.” Arya sounded almost resentful.

“I’m not sure the Baratheons will let go of this so easily,” Sansa said, although she was hoping against hope. But she knew from experience how difficult it was for Joffrey to let go of an imagined slight, let alone a real slight.

Mr. Baelish – she didn’t feel ready to call him Petyr – gave her a fatherly smile. “It sounds like it’s been a big misunderstanding. Undoubtedly, the tapestry will turn up. In the meantime, I think everyone will agree there’s no point in hashing this out through the justice system.”

She nodded. Nobody could call the tapestry stolen if it was returned to the university, its rightful owner. She’d sent a carefully worded email to her former academic advisor yesterday before spending a couple of hours removing the wine-stained threads, and she resolved to stop sleeping and spend all of her time mending the blank spot in the fabric so she could bring it back whole.

“In Kings Landing,” Petyr Baelish said in a conspiratorial tone of voice, “it’s all about who you know. Fortunately, I know the right people to make this go away.” He shuffled through some papers on his desk. “Unfortunately, the first assistant district attorney is Tyrion Lannister.”

Oh, dear. Tyrion Lannister was one of Cersei’s two brothers. The other was the police commissioner. Sansa had met them both briefly when she’d accompanied Joffrey to his family functions, which bore as much resemblance to loud, rambunctious Stark family functions as this sophisticated law office did to a children’s jungle gym.

“If it’s all about who you know, I don’t think anyone knows more influential people than Cersei Baratheon,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady.

“You don’t need to worry about a thing,” he said. “I’ll work fast and get you pled down to community service before this case ever hits the Lannisters’ radar.”

“I hardly know how to begin thanking you,” she said.

He held up a finger. “Aha. Don’t thank me yet.” His gaze ran down her legs and back up. “I should explain how the district attorney’s office works. Perhaps over dinner tonight?”

Sansa stammered, unsure how to turn him down when she owed him so much. Arya’s presence came in handy for once when she said, “I don’t think we should rack up any more billable hours on our parents’ account.”

“Yes,” Sansa agreed quickly, “maybe we should put off dinner until after our business is concluded.”

“Fair enough,” he said. Oh, that had been easy. Maybe she’d misjudged him. Was it really his fault that he kept staring at her legs? Sansa herself hadn’t been any better this morning with Sandor’s biceps.

He shook both Sansa and Arya’s hands again, drawing out the moment he held Sansa’s hand a little too long for comfort. She was probably being silly, though, imagining men falling all over her today. Arya would call it delusional. Mr. Baelish asked her to give her mother his promise that he’d take care of “Catelyn’s little girl,” and she couldn’t imagine her mother sending her to meet privately with a creep.

As they were leaving, he casually asked if she’d heard from the police since her arrest.

“Ha! Ask her about her Breakfast Club sponsor.” Arya’s eyes sparkled with amusement.

“Oh, right.” Sansa didn’t know why she felt so flustered. “Detective Sandor Clegane.”

Mr. Baelish’s cheerful demeanor changed instantly. “The Hound. That might be a problem.”

“He’s called the Hound?” Arya sounded much too interested. “Why?”

“He rescued a large dog, part Newfoundland,” Sansa guessed. “I’m sure dogs that big are hard to find homes for.”

“Really?” Arya was impressed, Sansa could tell.

“Ah, no, that’s not why.” Mr. Baelish leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. Sansa’s stomach did a free fall. “It’s a scandalous story. Do you know how he got those burns?”

“What burns?”

Sansa elbowed Arya in the arm. “Not now.”

Mr. Baelish ignored Arya completely, catching Sansa’s gaze. “His father and brother were running a lab for manufacturing methamphetamine in the woods north of town. The Hound was just a puppy then, but they used to leave him to watch for intruders. With the dogs. He was alone there when the meth lab exploded.”

She could feel her jaw drop. “That’s … that’s terrible. What happened after that?”

He shrugged. “The foster system is perpetually overloaded. Not much of a chance for a boy in need of extensive medical attention.”

She’d felt sickeningly hollow looking at the news articles people had left as comments to the video, but this was so much worse than she could’ve imagined. She was speechless, left chewing the insides of her cheeks. Even Arya didn’t say anything.

“The Lannisters got him into the police academy after he failed out of school,” Mr. Baelish said, “and Jaime Lannister found him a place on the police force. If he’s assigned to the case, there won’t be much chance of getting this past the Lannister brothers.” He patted Sansa’s hand. “As you can see, I know how everyone in Kings Landing is beholden to everyone else. If the Hound bothers you again, send him directly to me. You shouldn’t worry about him.”

She didn’t know how to respond. There was something wrong with what Mr. Baelish had said, but she couldn’t put her finger on it yet.

For the second time, she was grateful that Arya had ditched school to come along. “If he’s the Lannisters’ dog, it’s already too late,” Arya said. “If Sansa will get a plea bargain as a first-time offender, how does the Lannisters knowing about it change anything?”

“As long as the tapestry is where it belongs, everything will be fine,” Mr. Baelish said, all smiles again.

“That won’t be a problem,” Sansa said with as much certainty as she could muster.

The anxiety bullet was lodged in her gut again when she and Arya reached the sidewalk, even though she should’ve been feeling free and easy knowing she was only facing community service. She reviewed Petyr Baelish’s parting words and realized what had bugged her.

“Why did he tell me I shouldn’t worry about Sandor?” she said out loud. “Who could hear a story like that and not worry about someone?”

Arya grunted. “I don’t think that’s how he meant it, but you’re right, it was weird. Who shares dirt like that about someone in a business meeting? He probably made it up. I think your lawyer’s a little cuckoo bananas. And a pervert, too.”

“He’s friends with Mom.” Although Sansa thought Arya might be onto something. As a rule, she didn’t trust Arya’s instincts, but everything about today seemed like an exception to the rules.

“After that ridiculous sob story, I can’t picture you telling the Hound to go chase Baelish,” Arya said.

“You shouldn’t call him the Hound,” Sansa said, “and neither of us should listen to idle gossip, however well meaning.”

“Well meaning?” Arya laughed. “I hope community service toughens you up.”

“I’m sure it will be fine. I’ve always wanted to be of service to the community.”

Arya’s laugh grew feral, but it had the benefit of stopping her from talking. Sansa’s phone beeped. She fished it out from her tote bag, purposely not looking at Sandor’s business card. Someone had texted her from an unfamiliar number. For a moment, she wondered if it was him.

It wasn’t. It wasn’t anyone she knew.

“Yo bitch you wanna break into my house or should I break into yours?”

The attached picture was … obscene. She deleted it right away. Something must have shown on her face, though, because Arya said sharply, “Who’s that?”

“Nobody. Nothing. Spam.” She’d worried Arya enough.

Arya scrutinized her silently. It felt judgey.

“I’m just out of sorts,” she said. “I won’t feel right until I get that tapestry repaired and bring it back to the art department.”

“That’s the first logical thing you’ve said all day.”

“Thank you,” Sansa said. “For coming with me. You were very helpful. Do you want me to email your professor about the missed lab?”

“I told you, I have Monday afternoons free,” Arya grumbled, refusing to meet Sansa’s gaze. “Anyway, someone has to watch out for you.”

“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.” When Arya’s cough sounded remarkably like the word bullshit, Sansa said, “I am. I’ve been in Kings Landing a lot longer than you have.”

Not that she had anything to show for it. But she shouldn’t complain. Most people had it much worse. She should be thankful for all of her blessings, even mixed blessings like her sister. It had been a good day, with a very productive, positive meeting with her lawyer.

So why did she feel like going back to bed and crying?

Chapter Text

How long could the worst be avoided? In Sandor Clegane’s experience, there wasn’t even a fucking point to trying. Cersei Lannister-Baratheon kept texting him all day Monday, waking him from sleep every couple of hours, to repeatedly reschedule an appointment she’d set in the first fucking place. Jerking him around just because she could, knowing there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. The last text she sent Monday evening announced that she’d condescend to be available Tuesday at 7 pm, which had its good points and bad points. Good point: it was right before his shift started, so some of the interview would get him out of sitting at the station booking petty criminals. Bad point: by 7 pm, she’d be drunk as a fucking lord.

Before he left for Storm’s End on Tuesday, he tried yet again to get in touch with the owners of the tapestry, the Kings Landing University art department. If the tapestry had been there the whole time, it would be the best fun he’d had all year to show up to his appointment with Cersei with that fact in his back pocket.

Typically, that went all to shit. The Dean of Fine Arts directed him to the professor who kept track of the physical artwork owned by the University – Professor Renly Baratheon. For fucking real. The Lannisters and Baratheons were a plague of corruption on his city, and they multiplied like cockroaches. Professor Baratheon wasn’t available to take his call. There was a fucking surprise. He left another message, realizing he’d have to haul ass to the university in person tomorrow to get anywhere. But first, the scene of the crime.

He’d never been to Storm’s End, which wasn’t a Lannister family property but was owned by Robert Baratheon, the rare Baratheon with enough sense to get the fuck out of Kings Landing. From the driveway, the place looked like an oversized, mafioso dental office. As predicted, Cersei Baratheon was half in the bag when he showed up at 6:55. Not that she answered the door herself. She had a flunky to do that, and however else Sandor had screwed up his life, at least he wasn’t that poor bastard.

“Hound,” she said from her perch on a barstool-like chair in the kitchen. “Make this quick, I have plans for the evening.”

He never thought he’d see Cersei in a kitchen, but he’d lay odds that she wanted to be in the tallest chair in the house when she met him. The dogs Sansa had mentioned as her accomplices, Osmund and Balon, rubbed against his calves. They hadn’t barked when he’d come in, and they were much quieter than his own dog, Stranger, although obviously not as fucking adorable.

“So you found her here?” he asked. The kitchen looked more decorative than functional, with French white cabinetry and sparkly gold-veined granite counters. It smelled too new to be comfortable, like the appliances had just been unpacked. Cersei had a very Sun King at Versailles decorating style. Even the fucking sink drains looked gilded.

“She was brazenly rummaging through my food,” she said. “I thought she was waiting for my Joff to come home so she could throw herself at him again. Girls are so aggressive these days.” Cersei sniffed. “Well, not like you’d know. But they are.”

He tried not to absorb the casual cruelty, but it stuck, and he doubted it would be the last insult she’d dish out before he could leave. He reached down and rubbed one of the dogs’ ears. He got a friendly lick that he wiped on his pant leg as he examined the keypad to the security system next to the kitchen door. He typed in 112233, and it lit up green. For fuck’s sake.

“These are not guard dogs,” he said. “That is not a security system.”

She put her glass down on the counter without spilling too much red wine. “You’re not my security consultant. Get me my tapestry back and throw Sansa Stark in jail.”

“You saw her leave with the tapestry?”

“Do I have to do absolutely everything myself?” she said. “The girl broke into my home. My sanctuary.”

“She walked in,” he replied. “Giving her the security code was legally an invitation.”

Cersei narrowed her eyes. “I can’t tell if you’re defending the slut or just being your usual charming self.”

Shit, she’d dinged him and Sansa both in one sentence. Cersei hadn’t lost her touch. He shared a sympathetic expression with either Balon or Osmund, wishing he knew how to tell which name went with which dog.

“When was the last time you saw the tapestry?” he said.

Cersei waved him away. “I don’t know. Let’s say Saturday morning.”

“Where did you see it?”

“My hallway. It’s supposed to be hanging next to the library.”

“I’m gonna go look there.” He considered thanking her for assisting him with his inquiries, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

Balon and Osmund followed him as he walked around the ground floor for a while. It was laid out like the lower deck of a destroyer, all twisty passages and low ceilings, and he’d throw himself off the fucking roof before he went back to the kitchen to ask for guidance. He decided to go where the eggshell carpet was least trafficked, assuming – correctly - that would be where he’d find the library.

He found the empty spot on the wall and took the placard Joff had left him out of his briefcase. The hooks on the wall were simple. Sansa wouldn’t have needed any tools to remove the tapestry, assuming Sansa had taken it. Had it been framed, or under glass? Or simply hanging here like an abandoned coat in a bar at closing time?

The dogs erupted in loud barks, running a few feet away from him and returning to his feet. He heard Joffrey yelling at them to shut up. Apparently, Balon and Osmund could act like guards if they were provoked by someone they didn’t like.

“Shut up, you stupid beasts,” Joff snarled. He came over to check out the dogs milling nervously in the hall, running their sleek heads under Sandor’s open palm. “Oh, it’s you, Hound. Shocked to see you doing some work.”

Joff had a girl with him, and Sandor recognized her. “You’re Sansa’s—uh, Ms. Stark’s friend.”

The girl smiled, activating dimples, and tossed her long curls. “And you’re Sansa’s detective.” She held out a hand without looking at his face. He was used to it. “I’m Margaery Tyrell. It’s a pleasure to meet you somewhere nicer than a police station.”

He shook her hand. Did she understand that he worked in a police station, every day? Storm’s End might be cleaner, but he wouldn’t call it nicer. She was awfully blasé about giving her name out after Sansa had tried to protect her friends. Figured not all of Joff’s girls would be as smart as Sansa.

Joff scowled at them both. “What the hell do you mean, Sansa’s detective?”

Margaery squeezed Joff’s arm playfully. “He arrested her. What did you think I meant, sweetling?”

“He probably drooled all over her. She’s probably traumatized.” Joff cheered a little at that thought, the corners of his mouth tilting up.

“I’m sure Sansa will survive somehow,” Margaery said archly.

Joff snapped at the dogs to shut up again, and Margaery winked at him while Joff wasn’t looking. What the fuck was going on with his life? Now he was in a secret conspiracy with another pretty girl, this consipracy so secret, he didn’t even know what it was.

“Have you found the tapestry yet?” Joff said.

“Inquiries are proceeding.” The best thing Selmy had taught him was to spit out that phrase on autopilot. He decided to see if Joff could be led in another direction. “I’m trying to reach Professor Renly Baratheon. It may be in his possession.”

“Isn’t that your uncle, Joff?” the girl asked.

Joff snorted. “He’s the best of a rotten bunch. Uncles. They’re the worst. Don’t know why they don’t all fuck off like my father did.”

It was an excellent question, Sandor had to admit.

“I can see how Renly would be your favorite,” Margaery said. “He seems very sophisticated.”

“He’s the only one who’s not a freak,” Joff complained. He waved at Sandor. “Whole town is filled with freaks. I think my family collects them.”

He ground his molars together. This would normally be when he’d stomp away, ready to take his anger out on his bike with some good, old-fashioned, Kings Landing style road rage. But if he wanted to talk to Margaery without her realizing she was being questioned, this was his only opportunity. So, for Sansa’s sake, he put his temper on simmer and let it flow into the ground. Mostly.

“So, you were with Sansa Stark on the night in question,” he said oh so casually.

“I was.” Margaery grinned like it was all a big joke. “First, we went bar hopping. Loras bought her so many shots!”

Whoever Loras was, Sandor hated him immediately. “And you have a video of these events?”

He’d searched all over for it online, but it must’ve been taken down, because he couldn’t find it, and he didn’t have enough probable cause to ask the tech guys to figure it out.

Her expression turned to mock horror. “Me? I wasn’t there the whole night. I didn’t enter the house. Those dogs are terrifying.”

He checked the floor, where Balon and Osmund were taking an impromptu nap, nestled into each other.

“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from the savage monsters,” Joff said, and Margaery giggled and wrapped her arms around him.

“But you do have a video,” he prompted. “Can you see the tapestry in the video anywhere?”

“I never saw the tapestry,” Margaery said.

“So Ms. Stark didn’t leave here with it?”

“For the love of the gods, Hound,” Joffrey said, “the direwolf tapestry was here before Sansa broke in, and now it’s gone. Even a detective like you could figure out the mysterious case of who stole the tapestry.”

Margaery stroked Joffrey’s hair. “It’s a Stark thing, the direwolves. Sansa felt very strongly that she needed the tapestry more than Joffrey.”

“She wanted revenge for me dumping her,” Joffrey said.

“Or revenge for something else?” He tried to keep his voice even, but there was definitely an audible touch of bitterness in there. The dogs perked their ears up, attentive.

“This is boring,” Joffrey said. “I’m bored. Come on, Marge, you said we were going to plan my social media campaign.”

“I’m thinking of an All Hail the King hashtag,” she said. “People will love that. Oh, good luck, Sansa’s detective.” She gave him another conspiratorial smile. “Something tells me you’re just the man to get to the bottom of this mystery.”

Whatever the hell that meant. Joffrey dragged her off without a second glance. If Sandor wanted anything else out of her, he’d have to ask her to come down to the station, and that seemed as fucking likely as getting her to take Sansa’s predicament seriously. Some friend.

The dogs whined in protest when he marched to the front door. He’d done all he could do here with these assholes. People didn’t have half the loyalty these poor, maligned dogs did. He’d learned a long time ago that supposed bonds of family and friendship didn’t mean shit compared to the bond with a dog.

 

Captain Selmy was expecting him at the station late due to the Storm’s End visit, so he missed the usual shift change chaos. He was stowing his bike helmet in his locker when Detective Brienne Tarth came up behind him. She wasn’t an enemy, so he classified her as a Not-Yet-Enemy. Still, she’d been a Not-Yet-Enemy longer than most. They’d been promoted to detective at the same time, although she was almost a decade younger than him. Rumor had it that her score on the civil service test had been the highest seen in years. His had most certainly not been.

“Clegane,” she said in her deep alto voice, “there’s a girl here waiting for you. She asked for you by name and won’t speak to anyone else.”

His heart stuttered. Sansa. She’d come to see him. Except that didn’t make any sense. He’d told her she should go through a lawyer from now on, stupid sap that he was, and why would Sansa want to talk to him in any case? But he couldn’t stop himself from asking, “Tall young woman? Auburn hair?”

“No.” That was all Tarth gave him before turning her back on him. She was one of a handful of people who wasn’t afraid of him, and the only officer in the precinct who could whip him in a fair fight. And Brienne Tarth would fight fair; she didn’t know any other way. He’d tried to do her a favor and introduce her to the night cop’s best friends of truncheon and blackjack, but she’d gasped in indignation at the mere suggestion. He hoped he’d never have to drag her unconscious body away from a street fight as a result. The woman was goddamn huge, and he didn’t think that about many people.

Sansa was tall, but she was like a reed on the shoreline, flowing and dipping with the breeze. But with a solid core to her. He was becoming fucking obsessed, and he knew that should worry him more than it did. He was setting himself up for severe disappointment when reality came crashing down. His world couldn’t revolve around Sansa Stark much longer.

The girl balanced on the back of the chair next to his desk – dammit, could anybody treat that chair with respect? – was a short, elfish brunette, about 18 years old, he’d guess, and she was helping herself to the papers in his inbox.

“Who are you and what do you want?” he growled at her.

“Seven Hells!” she said. “You’re a scary guy. Sansa didn’t tell me you had so many burns on your face.”

“Yeah, you seem really fucking scared.” She was grinning like a loon, kicking the seat cushion of his chair with dirty canvas shoes. He was tempted to boot her out of the chair for being a rude asshole, but she’d said the magic word, and he couldn’t do it.

“Ha!” she said. “I came to ask you some questions.”

“Now you’re the cop?” he asked, buying time, trying to figure out why she seemed familiar.

She smirked at him. “Oh, gods, Sansa told me like five times how sweet you are. I swear, someone must’ve dropped her on her head as a child. Probably Robb.”

She started her sentences with exclamations. “You’re the sister? You?”

“Expecting someone better looking?” She shrugged. “Not bad, though, you figured it out faster than most people. What tipped you off?”

“Don't know what you're talking about. You look exactly like her,” he drawled as he tried to reorganize his desk. It was hard to imagine a girl as different from Sansa as her sister, but he knew how fucking worthless assumptions were about siblings being alike.

She was silent for an entire 20 seconds. “Daaamn, you know what I got out of that? Sansa’s already telling you about her family, and that’s not what I wanted to hear.”

“Uh-huh.” Should he ask if she’d been telling the truth when she’d said Sansa thought he was sweet? Nah, that had to be a lie, and the girl didn’t seem like the type to retract her claws when she took a swipe at someone’s psyche. “What’s your name?”

“Come on! You’re telling me you don’t have a dossier prepared on every member of the Stark family?” She snorted. “Maybe you’re not the stalker I thought you were.”

“I’m not stalking anyone.” He figured he’d give it a shot. “Did Sansa steal the direwolf tapestry?”

“Gods, really? That’s a bit pathetic.”

He shrugged it off. “I still don’t know your name. That makes you the stalker.”

“How do I know you won’t take my name and dig up my supposedly sealed juvenile record?”

He fixed her with a serious stare. “Because I’ve got fucking standards.”

She appeared to accept that at face value and slid into the chair to sit properly. “I’m Arya Stark. I’m the one who will make your existence miserable if you screw over my sister. I’m talking even more miserable than it already is, Clegane.”

Not fucking possible. “She get a lawyer?”

Arya Stark made a sour face, like she’d bit into a lemon. “Petyr Baelish.”

Fuck. Baelish was the most hated man in the police department. The little fucker was always pinning cops to the wall in court, twisting their words and painting them as overly aggressive psychopaths who should be kept on shorter leashes. Sandor had testified a few months ago in a case against one of Gregor’s former associates who was still dealing crystal. Baelish had torn him apart on the stand, making it sound like he was there because of a personal vendetta against his brother. True, but it didn’t make the scumbag asshat any less guilty. Yet he’d walked free.

Arya caught the vibe of his thoughts. “We’re not thrilled with him, either, but we had to act fast. There’s some stupid ass detective following Sansa around, using her sugar addiction to pry information out of her.”

“Alright, you told me she got a lawyer. You need anything else?”

She didn’t answer him but floated over to a bulletin board to read the Most Wanted bulletins. Why was Arya Stark here, really? Ever since Sansa had staggered into his precinct, young women were acting strangely toward him, knowing who he was and noticeably speaking to him. Of all the crappy police departments in all of Westeros Sansa could have been taken to, why did she have to walk into his?

Then all hell broke loose. Lieutenant Dondarrion brought in a suspect cuffed properly behind his back, a man over six feet tall with the sweaty forehead and rapid eye movements of someone hopped up on speed. Dondarrion had a firm grip on the perp’s arms, but it wasn’t enough. As Dondarrion passed Tarth, the perp lunged toward the young detective, trying to bite her face. She threw up an arm in time to protect her cheek, but the biter sunk his teeth into her forearm, and she yipped in surprise. Sandor jumped over his desk and grabbed the perp’s jaw, forcing his mouth open, while Dondarrion butterflied the man’s shoulder blades. Tarth knocked the sense out of the asswipe with a left hook to the temple, and he staggered in Dondarrion’s arms.

“First aid!” Sandor cried, locking his hand over Tarth’s arm to stop the bleeding while Dondarrion and Lieutenant Hunt dragged the cumbucket off to the holding cells.

“I know where the bandages are,” Tarth said stoically. “You can let go of me.”

Unbelievably, Arya Stark was at his elbow, holding a red and white first aid kit. “Holy crap! That was freaking awesome.” She stared wide-eyed at Tarth. “You almost knocked him unconscious.”

Sandor opened the kit and found the antiseptic. “This is gonna sting.”

Tarth tilted her head to the side, as if checking to see if he was as boneheaded as he sounded.

“Let me do it,” Arya said. “I have loads of experience with bite injuries.”

He spread the antibiotic ointment on Tarth’s arm. She didn’t even flinch. “You a nurse?” he asked Arya.

“No, my brothers and I play hockey.” She huffed her breath out, amused, as she unwrapped a gauze pad. “You didn’t check to see how many brothers Sansa has? You might want to do that.”

“Why?” Tarth asked, which was not what he fucking needed right now, so he didn’t respond.

Captain Selmy came over to check on Tarth, who assured him she was fine and didn’t need a break. Arya gaped like Tarth was the next incarnation of the Warrior. Seven hells, he’d leaped over a desk and pried the perp’s teeth out of Tarth’s flesh, how come that didn’t impress the little she-wolf? Not that he was imagining her telling Sansa about this clusterfuck. Nope, not even a little bit.

“Who’s this civilian with our first aid kit?” Selmy wanted to know.

“She’s talking to Clegane about the Baratheon case,” Tarth said. He was surprised she knew that much. Had she been listening to their entire conversation? That wasn’t going to make him look good.

After Selmy gave Sandor a warning glare and Tarth a fatherly pat on the back, he went to look for Dondarrion to write up the incident. Arya helped Sandor wrap a bandage around the gauze on Tarth’s arm.

“Actually, I wanted to find out about cyber harassment laws,” Arya said quietly, or at least quietly for her.

“Is someone bothering you?” Tarth asked her. He figured it was even odds that it was the other way around, but he wasn’t stupid enough to say so.

“This is just in theory,” Arya said, “but if someone was texting threats and dick pics, could I legally hunt him down and shove his scrotum down his throat?”

His hands curled into fists. Some fucked up cunt dared to text a Stark girl like that? “Legally, no,” he growled, “but if you find him, let me know and I’ll teach him some fucking respect.”

“If this man is threatening you, that's illegal,” Tarth said. “You should report it to us.”

“You know any way to hack the system, get someone’s identity?” Arya asked.

“You get a threatening text, you come to me,” he said. “We’ll sniff out the douchecanoe and make him sorry his mother wasn’t on better birth control.”

Tarth adjusted the butterfly clips on her bandage. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” she said, and took a direct line back to her laptop and her reports as if nothing had ever happened to her. Arya stared in open-mouthed admiration before following Tarth back to her desk. Yeah, there was no way in any hell that he was coming across as the hero of this story.

The rest of the night was same shit, different shift, except he couldn’t shake Arya Stark. She didn’t say anything to him, although she talked a mile a minute to Tarth whenever the woman tried to take a breather. Arya was just there, reading everything posted on the walls, staring at the usual parade of misfits and fuckups, looming over his shoulder with sarcastic quips when he tried to fill out paperwork. She’d make herself scarce when Selmy left his office, but she’d come right back when the captain was out of sight. She even got Sandor a cup of coffee, which was a novelty. Nobody had ever fetched him coffee before. He could’ve demanded to know why she was hanging around, but it wasn’t that bad, actually. He could live with it.

Oof, he was indulging her. He’d never indulged anyone before – that was another first.

Finally, after midnight, she yawned and perched on a corner of his desk. “Hey. Baelish said Sansa’s gonna get community service. I was wondering if you had any advice. Like, maybe you know some place she could get her hours where they wouldn’t eat her alive.”

She wanted his advice? The she-wolf listened to other people?

“I can look into it.” He meant it, or he wouldn’t have said it. He didn’t want Sansa going into some crack neighborhood to fulfill her debt to the so-called community.

Arya glanced around the precinct, not looking directly at him. He was used to it. “Sansa says you have a rescue dog.”

“Yeah?” Damn, how much did Sansa remember about him, and why was she telling it to her sister?

She stood. “You aren’t what I expected.”

“I didn’t expect you at all,” he said.

She grinned. “Just the way I like it.” She waved to Tarth and took off, just like that. Huh. That had been a thing.

Despite the late hour, he left another voice mail at Kings Landing University for Professor Renly Baratheon, who had to be actively avoiding him at this point. Then, while the precinct was quiet, he looked up Sansa’s court date and started researching community service options. If shit kept up like this, Sansa Stark was going to consume every free minute of his life.

That didn’t seem like the worst idea he’d ever had, though.

No, it was. It was the worst fucking idea in the world. He knew what waited at the end of this case. Sansa avoiding his gaze, politely pretending he didn’t disgust her, and then he’d never see her again. That was the best case scenario. She’d turn him inside out and devour his heart without ever realizing it. And it was too late for him to walk away. He was in too deep.

When this was done, he was going to drown the sentimental remnant of his brain that had survived against the odds in so much Westerlands whiskey, Casterly Rock would have a shortage of grain.

Chapter Text

The next few days were the busiest of Sansa’s life. She was running on adrenaline, caffeine, and plenty of sugar, only sleeping five hours a night as she worked on the tapestry repairs. The fishbone leaf stitches were killing her; they always did, and she had to keep redoing them. She was afraid to use her vacation time to skip work because she needed it for her court dates. The first had been scheduled only a week and a half after her arrest. Petyr Baelish assured her he’d simply have himself noted as her attorney of record and postpone her actual hearing; all she had to do was make an appearance.

That was some relief, as was her former academic advisor’s reassurances that he had her back. Professor Baratheon helped her find thread colors that matched the tapestry and promised he’d dodge the police until she returned the tapestry to the university. She felt terrible asking him to play hide and seek with Sandor, who Professor Baratheon complained was as persistent as a bloodhound and kept lurking on campus looking for him. Sandor hadn’t been as persistent with her, but Petyr – she was trying to accommodate his preference to be called by his first name – insisted that Sandor should go through him if he wanted to question her. Sandor was being very professional, she was sure. She could stop looking for him in the lobby of her office building every morning and resign herself to drinking her coffee alone.

Despite knowing that nothing was going to happen at her first court date, a whole army of butterflies took up residence in her stomach on the appointed morning. She dressed with much forethought, choosing a conservative pair of gray, straight cut, high-waisted slacks, a tailored blazer without lapels, a rose-colored blouse that didn’t clash with her hair, and black suede boots. She spent almost an hour on her makeup, aiming for the natural look but not too natural. She couldn’t find a tutorial to tell her if eyeliner wings were appropriate for court; she’d have to ask Margaery about that if she ever spoke to her again. Dating Joffrey just to manage his career! Worse, Sansa had found out about it through Instagram, not from her friend. So much for Margaery’s alleged courage.

Petyr had promised she’d be in front of the judge for all of a minute while he arranged the postponement. But Arya insisted on coming with her, and she was glad of the company, although Arya squirmed when she admitted it. The Kings Landing Hall of Justice shared a parking lot with Sandor’s police station. She tried very hard not to look for him. Silly, she was being silly. Fortunately, Arya was glancing around, too, and didn’t notice. Being highly distractible was one of the few traits they shared. Without one of their parents or brothers as a go-between, their weekly supermarket runs usually turned into three-hour long nightmares. It was a small miracle they’d made it to court on time, especially when Sansa began to second-guess wearing the short boots.

Petyr waited for them in the hall outside the courtroom, but she wasn’t his only client that day, and he stayed in the hallway to make sure all of his defendants arrived. On his instruction, she entered the dim, windowless courtroom and signed her name to a ledger with the clerk. She and Arya waited in hard, uncomfortable chairs for her name to be called.

Her gaze was focused on the hall, searching for Petyr, when Sandor paused in the doorway. There was no mistaking him with the light streaming from behind him, outlining his broad shoulders, and his head just about clearing the top of the door frame. He wore a black leather jacket and jeans that clung to his thighs. Her pulse ratcheted up to a faster speed, and the room suddenly seemed too warm. He was here for his job, she told herself, it had nothing to do with her. Although if she’d known he’d be in court, she would’ve selected a different outfit, like her cute navy skirt with the polka dots, and definitely different shoes.

He dropped heavily into the chair directly behind her. His legs were so long that his knees touched the back of her chair and his biker boots reached under her seat. He smelled like leather and gasoline, an intoxicating combination. Was he a biker? She’d always wanted a ride on a motorcycle. Somehow, him sitting behind her instead of next to her felt more intimate, especially when she twisted around to speak to him.

“Hi!” she said, and it came out much too chirpy and high pitched. She felt Arya’s piercing stare and refused to acknowledge it.

“Hello.” His deep voice rumbled, prickled her skin.

He didn’t say anything else. Why did she let her imagination run wild? He wasn’t here for her.

Petyr walked straight to the front of the room and conferred with the judge. To her surprise, her name was called first. She took a deep breath and looked to Arya for reassurance, realized quickly that Arya was much more interested in their surroundings, and found herself locking eyes with Sandor. He gave her one of his rare, small smiles, practically invisible, that crinkled his eyes and softened his sharp features. She nodded and joined Petyr and the judge, lacing her fingers together to stop from playing with her hair.

It went down just as Petyr had predicted. She admitted to being Sansa Stark, her heart beating a mile a minute, Petyr admitted to being her attorney, and the judge told her to return in three weeks. And that was that – she was free to go. Her breathing evened out as she rejoined Arya, tension draining from her shoulders in relief that it all gone according to plan.

“Everything alright?” Sandor asked her. His voice was soft, almost a whisper. Did that mean he didn’t care very much, was just killing time while he waited around, or did that mean she was so obviously a nervous wreck that he was afraid she’d become hysterical?

“Yes. Yes, everything’s fine and dandy.” Oh, shoot, who said dandy? She sounded like she was eighty years old. “I’m all done here. We’re just headed to lunch, I expect.” That’s right, Sansa, keep rambling, that won’t make it more embarrassing. “May I introduce my sister, Arya? Arya, this is Detective—"

“I know who he is,” Arya said. After Loras’s video, it probably didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Arya was smirking, amused by something. If she said anything to him about his burns, Sansa was going to sew her to her blanket while she slept.

Instead, Arya said, “You going to lunch with us, Detective?”

He stood. “Sure.”

“What, really?” Ugh, she was squeaking again. Just when she’d reclaimed her equilibrium, she was losing it, being ridiculous. It was only lunch. People ate lunch. “I don’t know where we’re going, actually. You work here. What would you recommend?”

“You like burgers?” She couldn’t tell if he was asking her or Arya. “There’s a good place around the corner.”

“Great!” Arya said. “I’m starved.”

Arya pushed past her to get to the center aisle. Sansa needed a moment to catch her breath.

“You sure everything’s alright?” Sandor asked her.

“Right. Yes. Definitely.” She cleared her throat, falling back on her manners. “We’re very pleased you can join us for lunch.”

He raised his good eyebrow, and she was pretty sure she heard Arya laugh at her.

Maybe he had come to see her. She’d ask him, but the answer was most likely no, and it was much more fun to imagine him saying yes. To pretend he’d say, “Yes, Sansa, of course I came to see you.” The “of course” was probably pushing it. It was hard to imagine him saying that. How about just “Yes, Sansa” in that rough, deep voice. Or even better, “Yes, Little Bird.”

Mercy, she needed to get hold of herself. Nobody had warned her court was so stressful.

 

The Blackwater Brewery was more like a pub than a restaurant, with a long, curving bar, dark wood tables, and dim lighting. She and Arya sat in a booth across from Sandor, who buried his face in a menu. Any fear she had that this would be awkward, though, dissipated when their waiter came to take their order.

“Yara!” Sansa said happily. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

Yara gave her the typical Greyjoy smile, apparently mocking but actually genuine. “Hey, it’s my favorite Stark girls. With my big tipper. Hey, big tipper.”

Sandor narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You know each other?”

“I’m her barista, remember,” Yara said. “You’ve seen the complicated crap she orders.”

“This isn’t the coffee shop,” Sandor said.

“Sorry, copper, even the way you tip, some of us need a couple jobs to get by.”

While Arya admired Yara’s latest kraken tattoo, Sansa tried to explain. “Yara’s brother Theon is our brother’s best friend. Theon’s sort of an honorary Stark.”

“Right. I’m practically family,” Yara said. “Remember that while you’re calculating the check. I’m assuming the big guy’s paying.”

Sansa went to object, but Arya said, “Yeah, he’s the one bringing home a detective’s pay. I’m just a poor student.”

Sansa’s face burned with embarrassment, but before she could get Arya to take it back, Sandor said, “Sure, your taxes pay my salary, right?”

“I’m not aware that Arya pays any taxes,” Sansa said. She could tell he was amused by the whole thing. His lip twitched on one side, and his unusual gray eyes had a little bit of sparkle.

“So, Sansa,” Yara said to get her attention back, “you know we serve milkshakes? Today’s special is salted caramel double mocha malted. Right up your alley.”

“Ooooh!” She rubbed her hands together in glee. “I’m definitely having that.”

“That sounds so horrible, I almost want to know what it tastes like,” Arya said.

“What about you, Detective?” Sansa asked.

He still had that bemused look on his face. If he were someone else, she thought he might be laughing. “People drink milkshakes in the middle of the day?” he asked.

“There’s a time limit on milkshakes?” she countered.

He handed his menu to Yara. “Cheeseburger, fries, and a strawberry milkshake.”

“You’re going to wish you’d ordered chocolate,” Sansa said, because who wouldn’t prefer something on the chocolate palette? It was ice cream, for the Maiden’s sake.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“Hmmph,” she said, trying to convey her total disagreement while fighting down a giddy smile.

“I’ll just have a cheeseburger and fries,” Arya said. “Make mine to go, please.”

That wiped the smile off her face. “Oh, we’re leaving?”

“Just me.” Arya stared at her phone. “I’m gonna catch the bus. Places to go, people to see.”

“You need to be on campus?” Sansa asked.

Arya shrugged. “Okay, let’s go with that.”

She tried not to let her disappointment show. This was supposed to be a celebration that she had three more weeks to avoid the legal consequences of her actions. Huh, that did seem like a tacky thing to be celebrating, but she had to take the good where she could find it. They certainly weren’t going to be cheering about Arya’s grades for the semester at this rate. She resisted the temptation to lecture Arya about studying and going to class. It wasn’t going to change Arya’s behavior, and she didn’t want Sandor to think she was a scold. But it was hard, so hard not to shake her sister and tell her not to make the mistakes she’d made, skating through school only paying attention to her art classes and her social life. Arya was smarter than her, as she never tired of saying, and she should know better. When Arya left, she exhaled in relief.

Although that did leave her alone with Sandor. “Having trouble with your sister?” he asked sympathetically.

“She and college aren’t a great fit,” she admitted. “I don’t understand it. She’s so intelligent, and she has so much potential. I don’t know what she’s going to do if she fails out.”

“Kings Landing University?” he asked.

“Yes. I tried to steer her to some of the more interesting courses, but honestly, I wasn’t the best student myself.” Nice, Sansa, just tell the guy you’re a ditzy scatterbrain. “I did well in my major, but art isn’t Arya’s thing. I don’t know what her thing is, but I hope she finds it.”

He didn’t answer right away, lingering over his fries. “It takes a while,” he said. “She, uh, didn’t tell you she stopped by the station last week, did she?”

She resisted the urge to bang her forehead on the table and smacked her forehead instead. “Oh, gods, please tell me you didn’t arrest her, too.”

It was so quiet, she hardly heard it, just like an audible breath. “Why, Sandor Clegane, I think you’re laughing at me.”

“At you? Nah.”

“You are!”

He leaned back, spreading his arm over the top of the booth, showing off his pectoral muscles, damn him. “Ah, maybe a little,” he said.

Fortunately, Yara showed up with their milkshakes. Sansa covered up the blush she felt spreading across her cheeks by taking a huge swallow of her mocha malted. The ice cream cooled her off, which could only be a good thing, and the chocolate, caramel, and coffee together were divine. “Oh. Ohhh, that is scrumptious.”

Sandor stared at her, eyes wide. Could she get through one lunch without humiliating herself?

“What?” she said defensively. “It’s really good. Probably better than yours.”

He scoffed at her, huffing his breath. Then he tried his milkshake. “Holy fuck, that’s good,” he exclaimed in obvious surprise. She laughed, delighted.

“Are you laughing at me?” he asked.

“Maybe a little,” she said. “Ugh, you might as well tell me what Arya did to get in trouble with the police.”

“She didn’t do anything wrong.” When he wanted to be reassuring, he was very good at it. He spoke with a certainty that she was compelled to believe. “She wanted to ask some questions about being harassed online. I think some asshole’s been texting her shit that has her freaked out. She hasn’t said anything to you, has she?”

Her stomach dropped. The number of obscene texts she’d been receiving since Loras posted the video had gone down as Joffrey’s bully boys had grown bored and moved on to something – or someone – else. She still had one persistent creep who texted her a few times a night, but he’d get bored, too, as long as she didn’t respond. But if one of Joff’s hangers on harassed Arya, her sister would never let it go. She’d engage and make things worse.

“I’ll ask her about it. She’s not one for telling me what’s going on in her life.” She stared into the depths of her milkshake, as if it had answers. “I guess you’ve figured that out.”

“She’s lucky to have a sister who cares as much as you do,” he said.

Aw, that was sweet. But that was just how siblings were, just what was expected of her. That made her remember the story Petyr had told her about Sandor’s family. Could any of it possibly be true? Sandor seemed so well adjusted.

“I was at KLU for while,” he said. He was kind of shy about it, fiddling with his straw. It was endearing. “I wasn’t a good student, either. They made it clear I was there for football, and when that didn’t pan out…” He shrugged.

That didn’t seem fair. If his family wasn’t offering him support, the school should have stepped up. “Well, it obviously didn’t stop you from being successful.”

She took a sip of milkshake, and she liked that he let her be silent without feeling the need to fill up the space with his own opinions. “Having my degree hasn’t helped me much. If I were serious about my career, I’d get my Masters, but the idea of being back in the classroom? Yuck.” It filled her with existential dread.

“Aren’t you an artist?” It sounded a little like a challenge.

“Oh, believe me, I’m practicing my art.” For a crazy moment, she was tempted to confess everything. The late nights embroidering, begging her professor to avoid him, the fact that she’d smuggled the tapestry into the police station under her shirt.

But then he’d know she was a thief and a liar. She couldn’t do it.

Yara brought the check, and Sandor insisted on paying, and she knew he’d overtip again. Yara knew it, too, judging by her smug smile.

“Thank you so much,” Sansa said. “This has been lovely. And a wonderful choice of restaurant. I’ll have to come here again.”

Sandor seemed taken aback, like she’d said something unusual. She realized there was nothing keeping them together anymore and was assaulted by an intense feeling of disappointment. The lunch had been a lot more fun than she’d expected. Sandor was so easy to talk to, such a good listener.

“Ah, shit,” he said suddenly. “I forgot to bring my notes. I made some notes on where you could sign up for community service hours. I left them at home. Fuck.”

Sansa’s skin tingled with prickles of energy that drove her sleep-deprived fatigue from her bones. He had come to the court for her. He really had.

“I could go to your house.” That was not polite at all. Her mother would die if she’d heard her invite herself to someone’s house. “I mean, you’re a police officer, that means you’re a good guy, I’m sure it would be totally safe, ha ha.”

Oh. Gods. This was how it always started, with her making a fool of herself. All the guys she’d ever dated – Joffrey, Harry – initially thought she was charmingly flustered and quickly decided she was stupid. And she wasn’t stupid. She had a good head on her shoulders. She was an independent woman. She just got overwhelmed by other people sometimes, that was all.

Anyway, she wasn’t romantically interested in Sandor. Sure, there was definitely a physical attraction there, but he wasn’t her type. She didn’t know what her type was, but it wasn’t a cynical, scarred, six-foot-six policeman. She’d just tell him maybe next time and—

“I rode my motorcycle here,” he said.

She gasped. “You have a motorcycle! I always wanted to ride on a motorcycle. It was the one dangerous thing my brothers never brought home. You see, my Uncle Benjen crashed his bike and my father was like, that’s it, no more motorcycles.”

Okay, she was babbling again, and she hadn’t said maybe next time. Counterpoint – she was going to ride on a motorcycle! Plus she made Sandor crack a smile again, so point to her. Making the angry detective smile in spite of himself was becoming her favorite game.

“I don’t have an extra helmet,” he said.

“Oh.” She rallied from her disappointment. “Well, thank you very much for the thought.”

He looked off in the distance, trying to sound casually off-hand. “There’s a bike shop a few blocks down. I could get another helmet maybe.”

“Really?”

“Not just for you,” he said harshly. “I need a spare, alright?” He made it to the door before he threw over his shoulder, “You coming?”

“Absolutely,” she said, and he smiled again, although he tried to hide it by looking away. That was definitely another point racked up for Sansa.

 

The bike shop was hidden in the rear of an office park, and Sansa never would’ve found it on her own. It was like a secret place in Kings Landing, and you had to be in the know to admitted. She didn’t quite understand the signs posted next to each bike on display, but she could admire the bikes with nice designs. Sandor hadn’t said a word to her on the walk over, so she tried to draw him into conversation.

“Look at this one, it has flames,” she said. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Sandor muttered something under his breath about clichés and people who painted pictures on their bikes.

“I’ll bet I could do that if you ever wanted a custom design,” she said.

She had no idea if she could put graphics on a bike, but she knew she could work up a design. It seemed like the least she could offer in return for his help. He gave her a strange look and walked off to look through the aisles of merchandise. She didn’t know him well enough to interpret his expression.

Once she was standing alone, an employee bustled up and asked if he could help her. That made her a little uncomfortable. She wasn’t the one in leather, and she obviously didn’t know what she was doing, but that was exactly why people offered help, she supposed. She told him that she was with Sandor and he was the one looking for merchandise, but the employee wandered back behind the counter. Sandor was over by the helmets, so, having exhausted the entertainment provided by the custom paint jobs on display, she joined him.

He held a helmet out to her. “Try this one.”

She took a few moments to gather her hair back in a hasty braid while he rolled his eyes at her. Really, what had he expected, that she’d let her hair get trapped in front of her eyes under the helmet?

“Don’t you pull your hair back before you go for a ride?” she asked him. He had long hair, and she loved it when men wore their hair long. Really, they should all have long hair, it was a confident style choice.

“No. Because I wear a helmet.” He made it sound like she’d asked him if he normally stuck his hand in wasps’ nests.

“Oh, well, that’s a shame. Your hair looks like it would be fun to braid.”

She was winding him up a bit, but she couldn’t resist. Sure enough, he narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously.

She took the helmet out of his hands. He had huge hands, and it was impossible to avoid brushing them. She ignored the spark his touch ignited in her chest. “Doesn’t this come in pink?” she said.

“It’s trying on a damn helmet,” he said. “How do you find so much to chatter about?”

“Good conversation is a practiced skill.”

It was awfully fun trying to get him to smile. That hadn’t worked, but she could tell his exasperation was faked. She knew what real exasperation with her chattering sounded like. Joffrey would’ve just told her to shut her mouth. She put the helmet on, and he pounded on the top of it, rattling her brain in her skull with a dull, muffled thump.

“Could you not?” she said, loudly because she was wearing a helmet.

He frowned. “I’m not gonna hit it hard. I’m checking the fit. You know, I’m trying to protect your pretty head from being crushed.” He hit the helmet again, but this time, it was considerably gentler and only made the foam near her ears rub against her earlobes.

“Is everyone doing alright back there?” the employee called out from behind the counter in a shaky voice.

Sandor instantly took a large step backward, away from her. Her first impulse was to smooth everything over with the clerk, tell him that he didn’t need to worry, she was fine. But the situation ticked her off. Here she was with a regular customer, a police officer, and the clerk wouldn’t even acknowledge him. She obviously wasn’t in any trouble. If she were any more flirtatious, she’d be simpering. If the clerk actually thought she was being intimidated, he could have the courage to come out from behind the counter and check it out. Chickenshit.

“We’re planning a robbery,” she said to the clerk.

“We are not planning a robbery,” Sandor said loudly. “Fucking hell, girl, are you mad?”

“I’ll have you know that I’ve been questioned by the police for thievery,” she said. “I have street cred.”

He covered his eyes with his hand, but she was almost positive he was trying not to laugh. “Street cred. You just … you … fuck, let’s get out of here before he calls the cops.”

“Wouldn’t that be fun though?”

His only response was an expression of wide-eyed disbelief. She handed him the helmet and followed him to the counter, where she gave the clerk a nasty glare, arms crossed over her chest.

“She’s fine,” Sandor said as he paid for the helmet. “She’s just hard to take out in public.”

“Oh, really?” She punched him in the arm. It was like punching a concrete pylon. “Am I embarrassing you?”

“It’s gonna take more than you chirping to embarrass me, Little Bird.”

The clerk wouldn’t look either of them in the eye while he processed the transaction, which was probably just as well because she suspected her face was turning red in a way that totally clashed with her hair and her blouse.

Soon enough, she was in the police lot next to all of the official police vehicles, stowing her purse in the back of Sandor’s motorcycle. This was so exciting! She couldn’t wait to tell Arya, who was hardly ever impressed by what Sansa did in her free time. First the direwolf tapestry, and now an impromptu motorcycle ride like a biker chick. She straddled the seat behind Sandor.

“You’re going to have to hold on to me,” he said as if every word was being pulled out of him against his will.

“I know. I’ve seen this in movies.” She couldn’t stop grinning at him.

The engine started, and she squeaked in surprise. It was so loud! The vibrations were crazy intense, like the whole parking lot was shaking apart. Sandor hit the gas, the bike banked into a large, graceful curve, and she screamed.

“Scared?” he yelled.

“No, this is awesome!” She snaked her arms around his leather jacket and clung tight. They reached the highway, and he accelerated, the wind whipping by them, the world rushing away. She wanted to scream again, but she didn’t want him to think she was scared. So she bellowed the direwolf call her family used at Robb and Jon’s hockey games – the wolf howl.

Sandor was saying something. She leaned into his shoulder and yelled, “What?”

“Louder!” he said.

She screamed out the wolf howl at the top of her lungs, feeling wilder than she had in a long, long time.

Chapter Text

Riding on the back of Sandor’s motorcycle was glorious. It was a little scary at first, flying so close to the asphalt with the cars whooshing by them. But the bike was big and heavy, and Sandor’s leather jacket soaked up the sunlight and warmed her up, and it felt like even a tornado couldn’t knock them over. He leaned into each curve of the road expertly. She couldn’t hear any of her anxious thoughts over the roar of the engine, and her perception narrowed down to the intoxicating smell of Sandor’s jacket and the rush of accelerating on the straightaways. He was her shield against whatever the highway could throw at them.

It felt like only a few minutes passed before he took an access road that led to a less busy street. Traffic thinned and he drove slowly. The houses here were old and almost quaint, small enough to be called cottages, and most were surrounded by elms and poplars. It reminded her of the North, of home. He turned down an unpaved drive with a little house tucked away behind a copse of trees and cut the engine.

“This is your house?” she screamed, still used to the road noise. “It’s so pretty!”

The cedar-shingled siding was accented with light gray shutters and trim, although the front door was bright, sunny yellow. There were shrubs with red leaves around the front of the house, and she could just make out a fenced backyard with a deck made of new lumber. She could picture it in the summer with peonies by the shrubs and potted marigolds by the door. She took off her helmet and checked her phone. The trip had taken over half an hour. Wow, the time had flown by like nothing.

Sandor lent her his arm so she could hop off the bike with something approaching style and grace. She was shaking all over from the bike’s vibrations, and she held onto him a little tighter than she might have. If he noticed, he didn’t say anything. She followed him to the door, where a dog barked loudly and with some desperation.

“That’s Stranger,” he said. “He’s not good with new people. I’m gonna have to let him out back.”

“Stranger? That’s just a tiny bit blasphemous, isn’t it?”

He shrugged. “He’s not that religious.”

“Oh, you,” she said, swatting him on the upper arm, and he squinted at her, confused. It was very easy to confuse Sandor Clegane, she was realizing. All she had to do was act like they were friends. But they were friends, weren’t they?

Stranger stopped barking when he unlocked the door. She caught a glimpse of an enormous dog with a mop of black hair and a huge tail. He whined piteously. Obviously, he’d been missing his Daddy all day. Sandor leaned down and whispered soothingly to him, and she bit her lip. It was just so adorable. Not that she’d tell him it was adorable. She could already picture the scowl she’d get in return.

Sandor led Stranger by the collar through the house, talking to him so quietly, she couldn’t make out the words. She peered inside, consumed with curiosity. The front door opened onto a neat living room with a gigantic TV and an overflowing bookshelf. There were no photos on the walls, and the only artwork was a generic landscape of someplace green and hilly. The couch and recliner were covered in blankets, the sign of a dog owner who let his baby climb all over everything. That didn’t surprise her in the least.

He came back and let her in, and she was sure to compliment his home. “This is very lovely.”

“Pfft, lovely.” He kicked a rope bone under the couch. “There’s shit all over the place.”

She waved that away. “It’s only dog toys. Is it just the two of you?”

“Yeah.” Hmm, that was almost a smile. But why was she overanalyzing his reactions like this?

A glass-fronted French door in the cute, modern kitchen led out to the deck. Stranger was whining from outside, staring through the glass as if he’d been punished. He had a point, poor baby. Sansa went to the door to see if he’d lunge at her, but he only drooled on the glass some more.

“Would he be alright if we sat outside with him?” she asked.

“You don’t think it’s too cold?”

She laughed. “You southerners. In the last 4 years, there have been like, what, two cold days in Kings Landing?”

He shook his head. “You northerners. It’s fucking cold.”

“If you can’t handle it, I suppose you could put on a sweater.” She wanted to know what he looked like in a soft, cozy sweater. Oof, she needed to stop. He wasn’t her type. It wasn’t his fault his chest and biceps were that noticeable. Then again, it wasn’t her fault, either.

Stranger was settling down, sitting on his haunches with one of those pleading looks dogs give to convey that they’ve been cruelly neglected by a lethal absence of hugs. Why couldn’t she give someone eyes like that?

“He seems calm,” Sandor said. “I’m gonna make some tea. You want some?”

“That sounds nice.”

“What kind do you want?”

“There are kinds on offer?” More hidden depths to Sandor Clegane. “I’ll take something—"

“With sugar, I know,” he said. “I’ll make some chai. Don’t go outside with him before I do.”

He reached over the stove to open a cabinet, causing his shirt to ride up his torso. She got a view of his exposed, thickly muscled abdomen, dark hair trailing in a line down his waistband, before she shook herself and turned away. Mother have mercy. Sculptors had labored for centuries trying to emulate a form like that.

She’d be better off paying attention to the dog. She couldn’t place a breed in him. He had the crazy tufts of hair and the size of a Newfoundland but didn’t have the square face. He had more of a snout, like a Shepard or Husky. When she put her palm against the glass, he barked once, annoyed but not frightened.

With the tea brewing, Sandor dug a notebook out from under a stack of paper on the kitchen table. “Community service notes,” he said, tearing the pages out and handing them to her.

Warmth blossomed in her chest. He'd taken the time to write out options for her, places where she could do community service like nursing homes and day care centers. The writing was neat and organized into rows and columns. “Thank you. This was really thoughtful, and I appreciate it. I’m sure it will be a lifesaver.” She tucked the notes into her faux-crocodile purse, aware that she couldn't stop smiling.

“You don’t always have to be fuck— uh, thanking me, you know,” he said.

“Habit.” She shrugged. “You don’t have to stop cursing on my account, you know. I’m used to it. Arya curses just as much as you do. My brother Rickon talks like that all the time, and he’s only 14.”

His eyes were intense. Maybe smoldering eyes were an actual, real life thing. “Are you telling me,” he said slowly, “you think I curse like a 14-year-old boy?”

She burst out laughing, which made Stranger whine softly, probably out of loneliness. Sandor poured the tea into coffee mugs and fixed them with milk and sugar. No, he wasn’t anything like a boy. She’d only ever dated boys in the past, but … nope, not going there, he wasn’t her type. Despite the dog, and the perfect house with the perfect fenced yard.

The chairs on the deck had striped cushions. She sank into one while Sandor petted Stranger and made him feel secure. She didn’t find it that cold outside, but she wrapped her hands around her mug, letting the warmth seep into her fingers. The tea was heavily sweetened and smelled of ginger and cloves. Sandor half-whispered endearments to his dog in his deep voice, and it made her think of just staying here forever, listening to the bird song and chittering of the squirrels, never going back to her dogless apartment or her herringbone stitches or her crappy, low paying job or her appointments with Petyr Baelish. She could blow it all up and start over again.

How did one go about deciding what they wanted out of life?

“How did you decide to become a detective?” she asked.

He was rubbing Stranger’s ears. “A guy like me is either going to be a cop or a criminal.”

“It’s a good thing you’re a cop. You’d be a terrible criminal.”

“I would?” He sounded so surprised, she wasn’t sure if she’d offended him. Why did everything she say surprise him so much?

“Hmm, I suppose you could run interference with dogs and drunk girls.”

“I don’t think a criminal gang would ask me to do that.” He was trying not to laugh, his mouth twitching. Another point to Sansa. “Not a big call for those skills.”

She thought of his neat handwriting, practically done in tables. “You could be one of those people who buys and sells stolen goods.”

“A fence?” He wasn’t even trying to hide his smile this time. “Maybe I’ll do that after I retire.”

She shook her head. “No, you’re too honest to be a criminal.”

They sat in silence, and she hoped he’d never find out she hadn’t been honest with him about stealing the tapestry. It wasn’t Joffrey’s, but it wasn’t really hers, either. She wanted it off her conscience already. But at least with the tapestry, she had specific goals. Fix the embroidery, give the tapestry to Professor Baratheon, never lie about it again. But what did she want after that?

She wanted this. A house and a dog and a yard.

The problem was that the things Sansa wanted were fluffy and cuddly. Nobody supported fluffy and cuddly goals. Her parents told her that she could be anything she wanted, do whatever she wanted to do, but if she told them she wanted more than anything to find someone who would hold her in his arms while Lady snuggled at her feet, that wouldn’t qualify. Finding her soulmate wouldn’t be enough.

“You make a terrible criminal,” he said, interrupting her thoughts.

She sighed. “I know. Starks are supposed to be fierce, not soft.”

He snorted. “Fierce is overrated.”

“It’s nice to meet someone who thinks so.”

Yup, nice. That was definitely the word she’d use. Because they were friends, and he totally wasn’t her type. Not even when he came to court to help her like her knight in shining armor. Not even with the house and the dog and the comfortable silences and intense, smoldering looks – oh, oh, damn, she was in so much trouble. Damn, damn, damn. She needed to get home right away.

 

The ride back to midtown was slower and quieter than the earlier trip. Sansa had to fight herself not to rest her body against Sandor’s back and let his strength hold her up. Her heart beat too fast, her mouth was too dry. You couldn’t fall in love with someone that quickly, right? It wasn’t something that should happen like this, without a kiss or a date, without wanting it to happen. She’d forced herself to fall in love with Joffrey, which wasn’t falling, come to think of it. This, this crush she was developing felt totally out of her control, like she hadn’t been given a choice in the matter, and she didn’t want to live like that. She wanted to know what she wanted. Although a boyfriend with a motorcycle who loved dogs would obviously be at the top of anyone’s list. The long hair and the football player physique were just icing on the cake, really.

It wasn’t that hard to sober herself up. She was lying to him. She was a thief, and he was the detective investigating the crime. He was a wonderful man, but he deserved more than her dishonesty. Anyway, she’d been throwing herself at him since the night they’d met, but he’d never shown any reciprocal interest. He just liked her as a friend. He probably had a lot of friends. Sure, there was a hungry look he got sometimes, like he was studying her body to take a test on it later, but if he was really interested, there was nothing stopping him. Although for such a large man, he could be charmingly shy. It was endearing, the way he’d been afraid to tell her to hold onto him on the bike, as if she hadn’t known. As if that hadn’t been half the reason she'd wanted a ride.

It took all of her energy to tell Sandor where she’d parked her car. It wasn’t just the lack of sleep catching up with her. She felt hollow, like she could float away, overcome with emotions that were more appropriate for teenaged Sansa. She jumped off the bike, simultaneously ready to hurry away and reluctant to leave just in case he said something she wanted to remember.

“What the hell did you do to your car?” he said. Huh, not all that memorable. Her father had said that to her more times than she could count.

“Oh, the flower decals?” She smiled at him. She only fluttered her eyelashes a little bit, and she let her hips sway just the tiniest amount. “Isn’t that cute?”

He closed his eyes for a moment, although she wasn’t sure why. She didn’t think she’d gone overboard decorating her car.

“Detective Clegane!” someone yelled across the parking garage.

“Shit,” he muttered, and he shut off the bike’s motor.

An older man rushed over. “I’m glad I caught you,” the man said, catching his breath. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Sorry, Captain, but I’m not due on shift for another few hours.”

She’d totally forgotten that he worked nights and was missing sleep to help her. He was probably just as tired as she was. She should’ve remembered that back at his house. They could’ve taken a nap together. Oh, now seriously, there had to be something broken in her brain to keep coming up with things like that. This was Sandor’s captain, for the love of the Maiden. She wondered if she should introduce herself until she remembered that she was on the wrong side of the law and should keep her name quiet.

“You forgot to pick up your tickets,” the captain said.

Sandor tilted his head. This was his adorably confused expression. “What tickets?”

She smiled blandly. She couldn’t leave in the middle of their conversation without being incredibly rude, but she felt stupid just standing there unintroduced.

“The tickets to the mandatory annual Police Department Gala,” the captain said, and suddenly Sansa didn’t feel stupid at all.

A gala! An actual gala for adults, not some cheesy prom in the Wintertown high school gym with Robb and Jon and Theon spiking the punch and threatening anyone who asked her to dance. Not some depressing EDM club with seizure-inducing lighting, listening to Joffrey pretend he hadn’t been grinding against other women. A real gala!

“What the fuck?” Sandor said. “Since when is that mandatory?”

“Since you became a detective, it’s mandatory.” She thought the captain tried to catch her eye for a second, but no, he was talking to Sandor. “It’s mandatory attendance at the Targaryen Arms in the Florian and Jonquil ballroom.”

The Florian and Jonquil ballroom of the Targaryen Arms Hotel! That was the swankiest place in Kings Landing, in all of Westeros. She’d never been there, but she knew it just the same.

“It’s this Saturday,” the captain said. “Did I happen to mention that the presence of all my detectives is mandatory?”

“Shit,” Sandor said.

The captain addressed her directly. “Does he understand this is mandatory?”

“Oh, I hope so,” she breathed.

“Great!” He clapped Sandor on the back, although he had to reach up to do it right. “Two tickets are on your desk. Wear your dress uniform. That’s also mandatory.”

Sandor owned a dress uniform?! She leaned against her car, lightheaded. She had the absolutely perfect dress to wear, too, a silvery gray dress with a geometrically cut neckline, like a police badge. She could totally be done with the tapestry by Saturday night, herringbone stitches be damned.

The captain waved and left, and Sandor kicked the cracked pavement and mumbled something about mandatory crap, and Sansa knew two things with crystal clear certainty. First, Sandor was never going to ask her to the gala. She could tell just by the way his shoulders sagged, his normally strong posture slumping into his seat. He was never going to ask anyone to that gala because of the scars on his face. He didn’t think anyone deserved a fate as awful as going to a gala with him, on his arm, in his dress uniform, at the poshest place in Westeros.

Second, she knew it was time to step up and demand that life give her what she wanted.

She bent over the motorcycle seat and planted her hands on his knees. “Sandor,” she said in her best no nonsense voice, the one she used on Bran and Rickon, “I want to go to that gala.”

His gaze locked onto her hands. “Alright,” he rumbled, “I guess someone—”

“No. I don’t want to go with someone. I want to go to the gala with you.”

He wouldn’t look up from her hands. His breathing was ragged, and it shocked her to realize that he was terrified. She stood her ground, pushing into his knees, hoping she was doing the right thing.

“Sansa,” he said, still not meeting her eyes, “would you go to this gala with me?”

Oh, the way he said her name! It was the most romantic invitation she could imagine. “Yes,” she gushed, “I would love to go with you.”

She reached up on tiptoe and kissed him on his unscarred cheek. He smelled like fresh air and clean dog and chai tea and leather. She wanted to throw her arms around him, but she knew instinctively that she was already pushing him to his limit. He was scared, but he’d asked her anyway. She wanted to spin around in a circle. He was staring at her like maybe she’d broken him.

“You have my number,” she said, sounding a little breathless and giddy. “Text me the details when you get the tickets.”

He just kept staring at her, struck silent. That was a beautiful thought, struck silent. Damn, she couldn’t wait to see what he looked like in a dress uniform. She was going to wear six-inch stilettos, at least. It would be the most magical night. This whole day had been one of the best days she’d had since she moved to Kings Landing.

She got in her car, and he was still staring at her, motionless, but she knew him better now, and she was pretty sure he was trying not to smile.

Chapter Text

Fuck, fuck, how had he gotten himself into this fucking mess? It was Selmy’s fault, Sandor knew it was. He couldn’t go to a fancy banquet with Sansa Stark! It was fucking laughable, a cruel joke, a karmic screwing courtesy of a heartless universe. What had the girl been thinking? And why was he compelled to give her any damn ridiculous thing she wanted?

He managed to get about 2 hours of broken, restless sleep before his shift. Sometimes he liked to take a nap when he was angry as a little “fuck you” to the conscious world, but his feelings were closer to horror than anger and his thoughts circled in an infinitely descending spiral. Dammit, he knew what would happen if he walked into the Targaryen Arms with Sansa. People would laugh at her; they’d want to humiliate her for sinking low enough to show up with him. Why had she been so damn pushy about going with him? If it was pity – and it probably was – why had he fucking allowed it? And where was the sentimental part of his brain now, when he could use its support? Because no part of his brain was willing to reassure him that this gala wouldn’t be a complete clusterfuck shitshow.

Despite the piss-poor excuse for an angry nap, he woke to three missed calls and three voicemails. He hadn’t had three voicemails since his motorcycle accident a decade ago. The first was from Sansa. He ground his teeth, clenched his fists, but he couldn’t force himself to delete it without listening to her lilting voice.

“Hi Sandor, um, it’s me? Sansa? You’re probably sleeping. I’m so sorry if I woke you. I just wanted to check to see if my dress was going to clash with your, um, dress uniform. I was hoping to wear silver. It’s not really silver silver, it’s like gray silver? If that’s okay? Anyway, I thought it would be proper to let you know my color, and you don’t have to return my call, but please text me and let me know what time I should be ready. Did I thank you for asking me? I’m really excited! Okay, I think that’s all, bye, have a great night.”

Fuck, he couldn’t delete that. It was too adorable. He didn’t know how to save voicemails on his phone. He’d never tried before. Stranger rested his nuzzle on his bed, as if Sansa’s voice had attracted him to the bedroom. He absently stroked Stranger’s head. His fur smelled like Sansa’s flowery hand cream. His whole house still smelled like Sansa. When he walked by the French doors to the deck, he could picture her sitting out there like she belonged, a mug wrapped in her hands and Stranger at her feet. No wonder he couldn’t relax. Bringing her here had been a mistake.

“She just wants to wear her formal dress, that’s all,” he said to the dog. “She probably bought it to go somewhere with Joffrey and never got to use it, and now she wants to play dress up.”

He was fine with that. She deserved to be surrounded by pretty things. He could take her to the gala in her fancy dress, and she could ignore him for the rest of the night and dance with whoever she wanted. Although the idea of her dancing with Hunt or Dondarrion or any of those other ass cracks wasn’t calming the yowling horror coursing through his bloodstream. But if that’s what Sansa wanted, that’s what Sansa would get. He could stay and guard her, make sure the next guy wasn’t a dickweasel like Joffrey. Sure, he could do that. Just stand there while she picked out her next boyfriend in the Targaryen Arms. Sure. Fuck.

The next voicemail wasn’t adorable, although the man who left it in a cutesy clever voice might have argued otherwise.

“Detective Clegane, this is Professor Baratheon. I can’t believe I’ve somehow missed you again. What are the chances? I think the department secretary told me you were looking for a piece of artwork for your walls? I might have that wrong. Can’t remember everything, right? Anyway, my office hours are late today, until 6, so please feel free to stop by. Ta.”

What kind of coy bastard left a message like that? Ta. For fuck’s sake. It was 5:15. If he hurried, he might catch Baratheon leaving, although he was getting damn sick of that campus and how it always smelled like skunk weed.

The last voicemail was a punch in the balls.

“Hound! Commissioner Lannister here. My sister commanded me to check on your quest to reclaim the direwolf tapestry. We don’t want Joffrey blamed for that going missing, do we? I’m sure it’s an expensive and hideous monstrosity if Cersei misses it, but you’re just the dog to track down hideous monstrosities. Also, Tyrion said something about that dickhead Baelish trying to get the charges dropped against Joff’s ex-girlfriend. That is not going to fly, Hound. Baelish doesn’t get to win. I’ll call Selmy and make sure he knows you’re on a personal mission from his boss. Good boy.”

His growl was more like a roar, and he couldn’t press delete fast enough with his fat fucking fingers, why did they make all these phones so fucking small? Fucking Lannisters. Good boy. The next time he saw Jaime Lannister, he was going to smash his girlish face in.

Well, no, he wasn’t, not if he wanted to keep his job. Fuck.

He hurried through feeding and walking Stranger and flew to campus, ignoring the speed limits. He sprinted to the Fine Arts Building. 5:57. He’d made it on time.

“You must be mistaken,” the secretary told him. “Professor Baratheon only has late office hours on Mondays. He left over an hour ago.”

“I have a voicemail from him that says he’ll be here,” he ground out through a tight jaw, as if he could change anything with words. The numbnuts professor had given him the runaround again.

“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do other than leave him another message.”

He got the secretary to give him a full sheet of paper and a Sharpie, and he wrote “Direwolf Tapestry” in huge block capital letters. He thought about drawing a little frowny face, maybe with a knife in it, dripping blood, since it was the art department and all. Nah, too cute. He taped the note to the cock-knocker’s door.

He knew Baratheon had the tapestry. It was the only logical explanation for his fugitive act – he was throwing poor Sansa under the bus. If Sandor ever caught up with him, he’d strangle him. Well, no, then he’d lose his job.

He’d just leave a message with the Commissioner and explain that the tapestry was at the university with Professor Piss Breath. Case closed, and just in time.

Now all he had to worry about was Saturday night. Texting Sansa to let her know when he’d pick her up. Getting his dress blues dry cleaned. Polishing his shoes. If he was going to pick her up in his truck, he’d have to get that cleaned, too. The seats were covered in dog hair. Shit, he needed a list. A list! He didn’t even want to go to the damn mandatory thing.

Except the romantic part of his brain was busy again. It kept throwing up an image. Sansa in a beautiful silver dress and high heeled shoes, her auburn hair cascading down her back, clinging onto his arm in the lobby of the Targaryen Arms and looking up at him with those clear blue eyes like he was her champion. Fuck. No wonder he couldn’t refuse her anything. He never should’ve asked her to the gala, but he knew if he tried to get out of it, called her to say it had been a mistake, her voice would wilt in disappointment. The girl had no guile – it was part of her attraction. And if he heard her disappointment and knew he was the cause of it, he’d cave to her wishes. So he had to go, he had no choice, but he was damned sure he was going to do this right.

 

By Saturday, he was a fucking mess, unable to sleep. He tried to get Selmy to schedule him on call for Saturday night, only to find that Tarth had beat him to the punch and had also been refused. She and Lieutenant Hunt had arranged to go to the gala together, and Hunt’s glower when he found out Tarth had tried to back out of it didn’t cheer Sandor up as much as it should have.

He was obsessed by the details, by his list. He’d take the truck, which he had cleaned and detailed inside and out, and he wouldn’t drink any alcohol, which was going to sting when she abandoned him to dance with other guys, but he didn’t want her to worry about how she was getting home. He texted her that he’d pick her up at 7, and she texted him back a bunch of happy face emojis with exclamation points for which he had no response. The benefit of working at night and sleeping during the day was that he wasn’t tempted to text her inane little questions, not that he could think of any. As it was, she started texting him early Saturday morning with a countdown: “only 11 hours to go!!!” The woman loved exclamation points, and how pathetic was it that he was keeping track of her favorite punctuation, for fuck’s sake.

By Saturday evening, he was pacing loops from his kitchen to his bedroom, stopping on each cycle to nestle his fingers in Stranger’s fur for reassurance. He didn’t have a lint roller, and the cheap cotton-polyester uniform shirt attracted dog hair like a magnet. Everything he owned was covered in dog hair, so it was usually futile to try to get rid of it. In a way, it was comforting, being marked like that, having a purpose outside of himself.

“Nothing I can do about it now, right?” he said to Stranger, who looked about to collapse from nervous exhaustion from following him throughout the house. “She won’t notice. She just needs the ticket to get in, that’s all.”

But his traitorous memory kept thinking of the way she’d said, “I don’t want to go with someone. I want to go with you.” Could she lie so baldly? No, he didn’t think she could. She wasn’t deceptive. She was kind and honest and as open as summer sunflowers—

Fuck, he forgot to buy her flowers. He rushed through Stranger’s routine – he’d buy some extra treats tomorrow and make sure they got outside time – and drove around the shopping centers off the highway. His palms sweated and slipped on the steering wheel. Were florists open on Saturday nights? He’d never walked into a flower shop and didn’t know where to find one. He was such a fuck up. A high school junior would be doing a better job of this. Finally, he darted into an upscale supermarket, hoping they sold corsages.

He passed the chocolate counter on his way to the florist’s area, and something caught his eye and pulled him back. There. That was what she’d want.

“Give me a half dozen of the chocolate covered strawberries,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

“Ooh, how romantic,” she said, and he didn’t correct her, especially not when she wrapped them in a gold box with a pink ribbon.

By the time he got to Sansa’s apartment complex, he was so nervous that his mouth was flooding with saliva that he couldn’t swallow down. He couldn’t change what he had to wear or how he looked. There had been no point in trying to do something with his hair. She had chosen to go with him. She’d have to live with it, at least for the first few minutes before she could get away from him. He rang her doorbell, nervously jiggling the box of candy, tempted to close his eyes so he didn’t have to see the expression on her face when she first saw him.

She opened the door, and all of his thoughts were ground to dust. Holy fuck, she was beautiful. She wore a short, clingy dress with a high neckline made of some netlike gauze material, and her fiery hair was pinned up on the sides but hung loose in the back, skimming her waist. Her legs were shimmery and stretched a mile long. Her eyes were wide, luminous, barely blinking, and her lips were glittering pink. He wanted to run a finger along her bottom lip and suck off the lip gloss. He wanted to touch her hair so much, his hands shook, and he was about to drop the candy.

“Here,” he said, thrusting the box at her. Pure class, as always, Clegane. “Uh, these are for you.” Why hadn’t he bought her flowers instead?

She sucked in a breath. “Oh, Sandor, they look amazing.” Her gaze travelled over him. “You look amazing.”

The way the muscles in her face went slack while she studied him, he almost believed she meant it.

“You look good enough to eat,” he blurted out, and then wished he could punch himself in the face. But she flashed him such a dazzling smile. Yeah, so maybe that had been alright, then.

She had a little trouble walking through the parking lot. Her heels were ridiculously high, but damn, her calves looked curvy and tight. He opened the passenger door of the truck for her and helped her in. She rewarded him by brushing her hand up his arm to his shoulder. He inhaled and exhaled and managed to walk around the truck to the driver’s seat.

“The shoes are a bit much,” she said nervously, playing with the hem of her dress. “But I couldn’t resist. If I twist my ankle again, I guess you’ll have to carry me.”

“I’ll carry you anywhere,” he said. “Just say the word.”

Her face and neck turned red, and it did feel steamy in the confines of the truck’s cabin. “You’re hot,” he said. “I mean, are you hot?”

“No!” she squeaked. “Ha, you know me, northern girl.”

He decided he’d better stop talking before he dug himself in deeper. As it was, the tension in the cabin was thick enough to suck the air out of his lungs. The truck was going to smell like her floral perfume for days. He’d be dreaming of that smell tangled up in his sheets. Fortunately, he only drove a few blocks before Sansa launched into a story about Arya going up north to see her brothers’ hockey game, or maybe her cousin’s game. He struggled to follow the convoluted family relationships between the Starks and the Snows and the Greyjoys as if it was vital, lifesaving information while he navigated the midtown streets, wondering why she needed to tell him about Arya’s weekend like it was his responsibility to keep track of the she-wolf who’d left Sansa home alone—

Oh, fuck, was that what she was trying to tell him? This was … that was … She hardly knew him! He could be a serial killer for all she knew. But no, she’d already told him she thought he was too honest to be a criminal. Gentle little bird was way too trusting. He glanced over to where her skirt rode up her thighs, letting her voice wash over him. There was no way in seven hells he was letting her out of his sight tonight.

She hadn’t thought he’d be a thug or a goon, the stupid muscle in a criminal gang. It had never occurred to her. He’d been trying to push away that memory for days, like it was too warm to be touched or relied upon.

At the hotel, he had to relinquish the keys to a valet. Then he helped Sansa out of the truck, picking her up by her delicate waist to place her on the ground carefully. A feminine blush bloomed on her cheekbones as she looked up at him through her eyelashes. And when they entered the ballroom, it was exactly as he’d pictured it, with Sansa resting her fingers on his forearm, gasping at the chandeliers and towering flower arrangements and smiling at him as if he’d picked it all out just for her. It was something from a storybook, a warped one where the troll under the bridge somehow won the princess.

When they sat at Selmy’s table, Sansa scooted her chair closer to his, and their knees touched. Maybe there were other people at the gala. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. The music played for her and nobody else. Reality would kick him in the nuts eventually, but eventually wasn’t now.

“Can I get you something to drink?” He motioned to the bar.

“Oh, right,” Sansa said in that distracted, dreamy voice of hers that he swore shot straight to his cock. “What are you having?”

He stood before he started sniffing her hair. “I’m gonna have a club soda.”

She hummed, maybe relieved and maybe a little impressed. “You know what? I’ll come with you.”

They waited in line to get to the bar. Tarth and Hunt got in line behind them, so Sandor introduced them to Sansa, who of course acted thrilled to meet them. Tarth quirked an eyebrow at him when she caught Sansa’s name, but she gave Sansa a firm handshake and left it at that. Hunt didn’t bother. They shuffled to the front of the line and—

“Fancy meeting you here!” Oh, for the love of the Warrior. The bartender was the Greyjoy woman with the squid tattoos.

“What the hell, do you work everywhere?” he said.

She laughed. “Hey, this gig pays very well, and unlike you two, I have nothing better to do on a Saturday night.” She turned to Sansa. “You’re a hard person to get in touch with lately.”

“I’m so sorry, I’ve been really busy.”

“I can see that.” She grinned at him. Yara, that was her name. “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner date, the complete trifecta. Have you two had other romantic dates without me?”

He gaped at her, the meaning behind her teasing refusing to register. Sansa giggled and put her elbows on the bar. “Actually, we went on a motorcycle ride, too.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Hunt said, as if he didn’t care if he was overheard. Sandor squinted at him, but he wasn’t going to start a scene, not here, not now. Next work shift, though, he was dead meat.

“Can we get a ginger ale and a club soda?” Sansa asked.

“Of course. You know you’re my favorite customers.”

“Because I’m paying your rent this month,” he said, which both women found hysterically funny for some reason.

Hunt snorted. “Hey, Clegane, be useful and get me a whiskey and cola, why don’t you?”

He breathed in deeply, keeping control. “Tarth, can I get you anything?” he said, trying not to sound like he was spitting it out.

“Club soda, please,” she said.

He tried to place the order, but Sansa and Yara were in the middle of an intense conversation. He heard “chocolate covered strawberries,” and Yara’s eyebrows rose. His cheeks grew hot. Holy hells, when was the last time he’d blushed in embarrassment? Everyone was looking at him, except for Hunt looking at Sansa’s ass, and he wouldn’t forget that, the twatmuffin. Being with Sansa meant being the center of attention. He’d be more comfortable standing guard behind her with nobody expecting him to talk.

He pointed a thumb behind him. “They want a club soda and a whiskey and cola.”

“Everything alright up there, Hound?” Fuck, that voice. Commissioner Jaime Lannister was waiting, with the obvious lack of patience of a Lannister having to wait for anything. There was no point in responding; Lannister could learn to queue like the peasants for once.

Yara handed him their sodas. “Text me tomorrow. I want to hear all about your night.”

“I can’t wait to tell you about it!” Sansa grinned as if the bartender wasn’t right in front of them with a front row seat to their night. At least the part of the night here in the ballroom. Fuck, he really, really, really shouldn’t get his hopes up. He was smarter than that.

He walked back to the table because where else was he supposed to go? He wasn’t about to take her out on the dance floor. Tarth followed them and sat next to Sansa while Hunt hung out at the bar sucking up to Lannister. Of course, Sansa wanted to know all about Tarth and become her friend. Lannister and Hunt were looking at his table and laughing. This was what he’d expected to happen, but expecting it didn’t make it burn any less, especially when Lannister was making it so fucking obvious. All Sansa had to do was tilt her head and she’d see them laughing at him.

“He did what?” Sansa said loudly, and he snapped out of it and tuned into her conversation with Tarth.

“He jumped over the desk and pried the perp’s jaw off my arm,” Tarth said in her matter-of-fact manner.

Sansa’s eyes were wide, sparkling under the chandeliers. “That’s so dashingly heroic,” she said.

It forced a broken laugh out of him. “Yeah, getting some hopped-up thug’s spit on me was real heroic.” He honestly was his own worst enemy. He’d fantasized about Arya telling Sansa the story, and now Sansa was hearing it and actually being impressed, but nope. He had to go and ruin it.

“Oh, no, I didn’t even think of that!” Sansa said. “Sandor, that’s terrible. What if he was carrying a virus?”

She rested her hand on his knee and gave him a reassuring squeeze. He felt the aftershocks of it in every nerve ending on his body. He was still unused to her using his first name, and the sound of it echoed in his eardrums. It was so sweet on her tongue, sounded so good.

“You know, his saliva was inside my arm,” Tarth said, and he couldn’t tell if she was teasing because he’d never seen the woman crack a smile.

Sansa turned back to Tarth, making appropriate noises of sympathy, letting go of his knee. Impulsively, he caught her retreating hand in his index and middle fingers and tugged it back. She smiled shyly and entangled her fingers in his.

Holy shit. She was holding his hand.

His teens and twenties had been a blur of football and dodging his brother and binge drinking. He’d had hookups, but he’d never had a serious girlfriend. Nobody had ever wanted to go out in public with him and hold hands. His fingers in hers ached like they were bruised. It tipped beyond painful into agony. He never wanted to let go for the rest of his life.

When Lannister tapped him on the shoulder, he jumped in surprise. How had the bastard snuck up on him like that?

“Hound, a word in private?” Lannister said, packing a lifetime of smugness into five words.

“Hello, Mister Lannister, it’s nice to see you again,” Sansa said, always polite – although not always, he knew, but it took patience to get her to show her streak of mischief. He had put in the time that an arrogant asshole like Jaime Lannister would never bother to take. And she hadn’t let go of his hand. He desperately needed to know what that meant.

Lannister faked a surprised expression. “Sansa Stark, right? We met at Joffrey’s graduation party, didn’t we? How nice that you could make it here tonight.”

“Yeah, everyone’s real nice tonight,” Sandor said. Own. Worst. Enemy. Sansa let go of his hand, giving him circulation in his fingers again, which wasn’t close to a fair tradeoff. Who needed blood vessels?

Lannister scrunched his nose at Sansa; probably someone had told him once it was a good look on him. “Ms. Stark, I promise I’ll bring your date right back.”

“Please do,” she said. “Sandor, I’ll wait right here.”

“As long as Sandor is okay with you sitting with another gentleman,” Lannister said sarcastically. Hearing his first name out of Jaime Lannister’s mouth in that snide tone made him cringe, so he missed the meaning of the rest of his sentence.

“What are you talking about?” he said.

Lannister’s granite jaw dropped. “Is that a woman? Gods, I think it might be.”

Tarth didn’t take that kind of bullshit. “Commissioner. I see your reputation for political acumen is overrated.”

“Never trust what you’ve heard about my reputation,” Lannister shot back.

If this was turning into a whole back and forth thing, he didn’t see why he couldn’t still be holding hands with Sansa. But then he’d have to reach out and take her hand back on his own. Crap. Fucking Lannisters. Might as well get this over with. He headed to a quieter corner of the room, away from the bar and the dance floor. Lannister followed.

“Who is that?” Lannister was still staring at Tarth, walking backward to do it.

“Detective Brienne Tarth,” he replied. “One of your employees. Thought you’d know all your detectives.”

“On paper,” Lannister said. “That’s the wunderkind Tarth? The one breaking department records in the shooting range and on the mats?”

He grunted assent. Lannister hadn’t pulled him over here to talk about Tarth. Sure enough, he launched right into it. “So, Hound, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Beats the fuck out of me,” he said. “What am I supposed to be doing?”

Not that he was requesting advice from Lannister. Despite having lost his hand while in the military during a skirmish in Essos, Lannister remained society’s golden boy. He couldn’t see who’d accompanied Lannister to this gala, but he doubted it had been mandatory for either of them. A little advice might not be such a bad thing – seven hells, he could use a fuckton of advice – but Lannister’s rules of seduction most likely consisted of “look pretty” and “throw around money.”

“I can tell you what you’re not supposed to be doing,” Lannister said. “You’re not supposed to be dating a suspect in a crime you’re investigating.”

“I told you, the tapestry’s at the university,” he said. “And what the fuck, Lannister? I gave her a ticket to the gala. That’s all.”

“That’s not what I hear. Your coworkers think you’re in the middle of a whirlwind romance.”

How Lannister was saying that with a straight face was beyond him. Fucking Hunt was behind this. His temples pounded from grinding his jaw. Nobody was allowed to ridicule Sansa.

“C’mon,” he said, “you really think Sansa Stark would date me?”

Lannister shrugged. “She might if it got her out of legal trouble.”

Sandor thought he fully understood anger, his constant companion. Frustration, jealousy, rage, fury, he knew them in all their gradations like he knew the lines of his scars. But the black mood that stopped his words in his throat was entirely new. It was outrage on Sansa’s behalf, and it made everything else that bothered him feel like minor irritations, like mosquito bites in comparison to a bear mauling. He didn’t trust himself to move a fraction of an inch. He wouldn’t hesitate to tackle Lannister to the ground if he so much as twitched in Sansa’s direction, even though the man was one handed.

“Look,” Lannister said very slowly, as if he’d glimpsed a lit fuse, “you may have to consider the possibility. That’s all I’m saying.”

If he expected an answer, he’d be waiting a long fucking time. Sansa wasn’t some manipulative hardcase criminal out to play him. He knew how she looked at him, how she was compelled to lean on his arm and take his hand. None of that could be a lie. None of it.

Lannister tried again. “She was with Joffrey not too long ago—"

Fuck no, he wasn’t listening to a dickhead Joffrey story. “You done delivering your warning, Commissioner?” He didn’t recognize his own voice.

“Right, right.” Lannister waved him away in dismissal. “Just … I’m watching this one closely, Clegane.”

As if he believed a Lannister was worried about ethics in policing. He wasn’t going to lose any sleep over Jaime Lannister’s opinion of him, that was for damn sure. The case was closed. The tapestry wasn’t owned by Cersei Baratheon, it was owned by the university, and Renly Baratheon was its caretaker. End of story. He wasn’t doing anything wrong.

Sansa was waiting for him exactly where she said she’d be, deep in conversation with Tarth. Although she stopped chatting to watch him approach, her eyes half-lidded under thick makeup, her expression completely unreadable. He wanted to take her out of here right now and get her alone. When he ruined this – and he knew himself, he’d ruin it at some point – he was going to force his heart to stop pumping.

“Important police work?” she asked him.

He rolled his eyes as he took his chair. “Lannister wouldn’t know what that was if it slapped him on the ass.”

“Oh, no, that’s Margery’s grandmother, she’s like that,” Sansa said.

“What?” he said.

“Never mind, I thought you were talking about … you know what? Forget it.” Sansa twirled a strand of her hair.

“So that’s really the police commissioner?” Tarth said. “I expected someone …”

“Older?” Sansa said.

“Smarter?” Sandor said.

“Taller,” Tarth answered, “which makes me realize I’m shallower than I should be. But yes, older and smarter work, too.”

He might have to start a new category for Tarth, move her from Not-Yet-Enemies to Probably-Not-an-Enemy, or Friends-with-Sansa, although Sansa was pretty damn indiscriminate and would try to be friends with anyone. He half wished she understood how dangerous that attitude could be, and half wished she’d never have to learn.

He studied Sansa’s profile, letting his outrage flow into the ground. He was doing well here, all in all. If he didn’t lose his temper again in the next couple of hours, she could tell her sister and her friends that she’d had a wonderful time, there had only been one tiny blip with Jaime Lannister, that was all. And he’d make it into her apartment tonight. He just had to keep up what he’d been doing for the last … fuck, they’d only been here 20 minutes?!

Right on cue, Hunt sauntered over, accompanied by some of the day shift asscrusts, Connington and some other guy whose name he didn’t want to know. Hunt shoved his way in between Sansa and Tarth’s chairs. Sansa smiled at everyone vaguely. Was he supposed to introduce her? Even if he really, really didn’t want to?

“Hey, how’s it going?” Hunt said it more in Sansa’s direction, although the fishy bastard didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.

“I hate mandatory socializing,” Tarth said, which was only fucking reasonable.

But Hunt took it personally. “Seriously? I thought you’d have a little more gratitude.”

Tarth’s face flushed red. “Gratitude?”

Sansa jumped up. “Umm, you know what? I need to excuse myself. Brienne, would you please come with me? I swear, I’d get lost on an escalator without help.”

As Tarth got up, Sansa rested her hand on Sandor’s shoulder and whispered, “Sorry. I’ll be back soon.”

He watched her leave the ballroom because damn she looked amazing in that dress. As if he could stop himself from watching her. Hunt and Connington took an eyeful themselves, and he scowled at them, expecting them to wander off. Instead, Dondarrion joined them as if this was some twice damned social event. Which it was, he supposed, but still. They didn’t need to talk to him. He wasn’t talking to them.

“That’s some girl, Clegane,” Hunt said, somehow misreading his mood. “Where did you meet her?”

As if he didn’t know, as if he hadn’t been there. “I meet all sorts of fucking people.”

“I don’t meet anyone like that,” Hunt said. “Of course, the Lannisters aren’t funneling me the easy cases.”

So it was going to be like that. He moved Hunt to the Enemies list, which he honestly should’ve done a fucking month ago.

“What’s wrong, you and Tarth aren’t getting along?” Dondarrion said.

“That was a mistake,” Hunt said. “I thought she’d be appreciative, maybe loosen up and have some fun.”

He’d met dicks like this before, men who thought being polite to a woman entitled them to claim their “fun.” He told himself it wasn’t his problem, but it rankled, another minor annoyance in a giant fucking ocean of them. Whatever, he wasn’t going to let Hunt ruin his night.

“You’re just bent out of shape because Clegane’s date is such a babe,” Connington said.

“Nah, she’s too tall,” Hunt said. Sandor almost laughed at the world’s pissiest example of sour grapes.

Dondarrion waved someone over. “She’s gorgeous alright,” he said, “but Clegane’s tastes are too innocent for me.”

The woman who joined him wore a black, low-cut gown held together with a zipper up the front. “That’s right, baby,” she said, writhing against Dondarrion. “Does that mean we can go fuck in the elevator now?”

Dondarrion smiled placidly. “See you boys later.”

Well, damn, who knew? He should’ve been asking Dondarrion for advice. Not that he actually would. But elevator sex sounded like the best idea he’d heard. Would that work? He needed to know what would happen if he embraced Sansa in the elevator, lifted her a few inches off the floor. Maybe she’d wrap her legs around him—

“Hey, Clegane,” Connington said, “how did you meet that girl? She a paid escort?”

He got up and pushed past them, headed for the hallway. Only 30 minutes had elapsed, much too early to find out if he had a shot at taking Sansa home. He was never going to get through this.

But he knew why he was here. She’d wanted him to bring her. If she’d asked him to march across the sea floor to the Iron Islands, dangling the opportunity to get her in bed, he’d dive in a second. Right now, the underwater trek seemed like the easier option.

Chapter Text

It was the most incredible, perfect, romantic night Sansa ever could imagine, and she’d spent years imagining romantic dates. She had a diary from high school – okay, perhaps from more recently, if she was being honest – with a list of what would comprise the perfect date. She’d been short of the mark. First off, she’d missed “sexy civilian dress uniform” because she hadn’t known until she met Sandor that she had a uniform fetish. Huge, unforgivable oversight. Secondly, candy was far superior to flowers. Not that there was anything wrong with flowers, but chocolate-covered strawberries were like a promise that they’d be devoured together later that night.

The problem with young Sansa’s diary list, she realized, was that it described a G-rated date. That was fine for teenagers – alright, the list was a teensy bit more recent than that – but she’d realized the moment Sandor had helped her into his truck that this was not going to be a G-rated night. And when he picked her up and lifted her out of the truck, as if she was light as air, her pulse had fluttered like bird’s wings. She’d been literally swept off her feet. Literally!

She’d never felt like this with anyone before, so magnetically drawn in. So needy. So short of breath. Then again, nobody had ever put so much effort into romancing her. She’d looked forward all week to being in the Florian and Jonquil ballroom with the music and the crystal chandeliers and the ballgowns, and now that she was here, all she could concentrate on for more than a minute at a time was ending the night and getting Sandor in her bedroom. Shameless.

Not that she wasn’t trying to pay attention to Brienne. It was just difficult to focus. She stared in the ladies’ room mirror, her lipstick in hand, examining Brienne’s reflection. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?” she said for about the fifth time since they’d met.

“Don’t worry, it wasn’t important.” Brienne didn’t seem angry – more amused than anything, if her subtle smile was any indication. What had Sansa been doing again? Oh, right, lipstick in hand.

“You seem like you’re having a good time,” Brienne said. “These social things give me hives.”

Brienne fidgeted in the restroom’s lounge, picking up the soft hand towels and fancy lotions set out for guests and putting them down. Sansa put her hand on Brienne’s arm to reassure her. “I’m having an amazing time. And everyone looks so good in uniform.”

Brienne rose one eyebrow. “Everyone? Or someone in particular?”

Sansa bit back a grin. Good was not the word she’d use to describe Sandor in uniform. The word she’d choose would be more like jacked. “Ahem. Well. You look great in the uniform, too. Blue suits you.”

Brienne snorted in skepticism, but her mood seemed improved by the break from her rude date and Jaime Lannister’s snide comments. Men could be such jerks. It was quite a contrast from Sandor’s silent but reassuring gestures that reassured Sansa. It was wonderful to have an evening out without constantly being on her guard for barbed remarks aimed at her intelligence or her upbringing. Sandor didn’t just make her feel beautiful – he made her feel safe to be herself.

Brienne tapped her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Sansa said, “were you saying something?” Gods, maybe she should be just a bit more self-conscious, if only to be polite.

Brienne laughed. “Are you ready to head back?”

Sansa decided not to mention that she’d only retreated from the ballroom to give Brienne room to breathe. They left the ladies’ lounge, Sansa babbling about how she knew Yara Greyjoy as they headed to the lobby, as if Brienne had asked.

They ran straight into Tyrion Lannister and Petyr Baelish, who seemed caught up in an argument outside the restrooms. Both attorneys wore elegantly tailored, three-piece suits and silk ties, and they both held large glasses of amber liquid – real glasses, not the plastic ware Yara was serving. Tyrion Lannister was scowling, and Petyr was snarling something under his breath, but he stopped as soon as he spotted Sansa and Brienne.

“Well, well, good evening, Sansa,” Petyr said. His broad smile wasn’t quite friendly, and his eyes glittered coldly.

For the first time, Sansa realized it might not look proper being here with Sandor while he was investigating her crime. It simply hadn’t occurred to her. She’d been too wrapped up in wanting to spend more time with him, with … with wanton lust, to be totally honest. Not something she could explain to her lawyer.

Joffrey’s Uncle Tyrion seemed thrilled to see her. He handed Petyr his glass so he could fold one of her hands inside both of his. “Sansa Stark! What a pleasure to see you again. What brings you here tonight?”

“Umm …” She wasn’t going to try to lie, was she? She didn’t have a cover story. “Just enjoying the night, I suppose.”

“But you must be here with a date, right?” Tyrion said. “Although I know Joffrey wouldn’t skip a night painting the town red to socialize with us old people.”

It suddenly felt like Brienne, Petyr, and Tyrion had her under a microscope. A strand of hair fell across her nose, and she forced herself not to bat it away. Brienne’s weighted stare bothered her the most. Would she tell Sandor that Sansa had acted embarrassed to be here with him? That was unthinkable, absolutely unacceptable.

Sansa squared her shoulders. “Actually, Detective Clegane was nice enough to ask me here tonight, and we’re having a wonderful time.”

“Oh, really?” Tyrion stepped toward her as if he was questioning her on the stand. “I’m so very glad to hear that you’re enjoying yourself with Detective Clegane, as unlikely as that sounds.”

“Why would that sound unlikely?” she asked.

Tyrion simply grinned in response and reclaimed his drink.

Petyr rested his hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you and I take a little walk? I’m sure your friend won’t mind if I talk to my client for a moment.”

Tyrion nodded at Brienne. “That will give me a chance to get acquainted with the accomplished Detective Tarth, whose testimony could be such an asset in court with just a little coaching.”

Brienne’s eyes widened in apparent alarm. Sansa silently mouthed an apology and let Petyr lead her a few feet away, his hand on the small of her back. He walked so close that she could smell scotch on his breath.

“I can’t abandon Brienne to another Lannister,” she said. “Maybe we should do this another time?”

“I’m just watching out for you, my dear,” Petyr said. They’d stopped walking, but his hand was still touching her back. “I thought we decided it was a bad idea to talk to the Hound without your lawyer present. You don’t want to incriminate yourself.”

“I thought everything was settled,” she said.

But her case wasn’t finished, of course, and she knew that. Out of habit, she reached up to twirl her fingers in her hair. Petyr intercepted her hand and brought it back down to her side. She was torn between annoyance at his interference and irritation at herself for having such a childish habit. Just as she thought that at least he was no longer touching her, he returned his palm to her spine. Ugh. If only she could afford to push him off.

“Listen to me,” he said. “The Hound didn’t ask you here to be friends. He doesn’t make friends. This stinks of a Lannister scheme to me.”

“But, but I just don’t think so, Mr. Baelish—”

“Uh-uh. Petyr, remember?” He stepped closer, even though it forced him to look up at her. “Listen, this isn’t the best timing for you. I’m trying to settle your case with Tyrion Lannister right now.”

“Right now?” she squeaked.

“A successful man never rests. I’ll bet the Hound knows that. People have called him many things, but nobody’s ever accused him of being lazy.”

She took a step backwards. “I should go. Thank you for your advice, really, but I need to find Brienne …”

Except now that Sansa glanced around the lobby, Brienne was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Sandor was there, purposely studying the generic hotel artwork instead of her, which didn’t fool her for a second. Tyrion Lannister was still there, too, appraising Sandor openly. His expression was gleeful, quite the contrast to the Lannister family functions, where he’d always seemed so glum.

Sandor’s fists were clenched at his sides, and although he was completely still, she could almost hear him grind his teeth. Oh, he was angry. This wasn’t good. She hurried across the lobby, pretending she couldn’t hear Tyrion calling her name, and steeled herself for Sandor’s outburst.

“Is everything alright?” he said quietly.

That was it? She stayed in placating mode, just in case. “Um, yes, fine, I just didn’t expect to run into my lawyer here, ha ha.”

“You seem nervous.” He narrowed his eyes at Petyr, who had already caught up with Tyrion and was gesturing at him rather forcefully.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I could use another drink.”

He wasn’t angry at her. He was angry at Petyr on her behalf, which warmed her skin all over. Protectiveness was familiar and manageable and – dare she think the word – gallant. She wanted to hold onto his arm again, but she could feel Petyr and Tyrion’s stares. Better wait until later. She’d just make sure Sandor’s captain saw him being mandatorily present and then blow this popsicle stand. She’d never wanted to leave a party this much before, and she’d desperately wanted to leave a lot of parties. It was practically her trademark. But tonight was different. Just thinking about how she’d ask Sandor back to her apartment had her inhaled breath pounding against her chest.

How dare Petyr imply that Sandor had asked her here to interrogate her? Anyway, she’d asked him to the gala. Well, no, he’d asked her. Ugh, it was complicated, but it had nothing to do with the tapestry. She was almost positive.

Back in the ballroom, she was tempted to order a glass of champagne, even if the flutes Yara was giving out weren’t elegant crystal. How had Petyr connived a way around that? Sandor was still like a compressed spring waiting for the chance to leap. He hadn’t said a word to her since the lobby, and his quiet seething was starting to worry her again. He kept looking around as if they’d be ambushed. She knew he wasn’t angry at her, but she didn’t know how to reclaim the golden glow they had at the start of the evening. She couldn’t come up with any small talk, and she was usually so good at that. Thinking of the lawyers talking about her, right here, right now, made her nauseated. What if she’d just messed up her chance to have the case dropped?

When she and Sandor approached the bar, Yara was simultaneously pouring drinks for men in tight designer suits and gesturing with desperate head twists to the corner of the room behind the bar. Sansa followed Yara’s pointed looks to where Brienne was surrounded by her date, Hyle Hunt, and two other men in dress uniform. Brienne’s cheeks were bright red and her shoulders were hunched. Hyle Hunt grabbed Brienne’s jaw and forced her face into a smile.

Before she could say anything to Sandor, he plowed through the bar crowd. She skipped to catch up in her high heels. Sandor shoved Hunt’s shoulder, pushing his way into the circle.

“What the fuck’s going on?” he growled.

“Fuck off, Hound,” Hunt said. Like, really? Did the man have no common sense?

Sansa’s nerves were jumping like popped corn, but she told herself that she didn’t have anything to worry about. These bullies surrounding Brienne were no match for Sandor, who was four or five inches taller than any of them.

“Brienne, are you okay?” she said, attempting to sound cool and probably failing.

“I’m fine,” Brienne said in a resigned tone. “There’s no reason to make a scene.”

Sandor talked right over her; he probably hadn’t even heard her. “I’m trying to have a perfect fucking night here and you assholes are fucking it up.”

Oh, he was trying to have the perfect night, wasn’t he? “That’s so sweet,” she said, without meaning to say it out loud. All four men whipped their heads around to stare at her.

“This is none of your business, Clegane,” one of the men said, a freckled redhead with knobby hands who did not look good in the dress uniform. “Why don’t you and your teenage date shove off before she has to watch you lose your temper?”

Sansa gasped. “I’m in my twenties, thank you very much.” She thought her dress was more flattering than that. Honestly, the nerve!

Sandor was in the guy’s face, snarling down at him. “You asscrack, you say anything about her again, and I’ll fucking fold you like an envelope.”

“Three of us, one of you,” Hunt said offhandedly.

“What a stupid man,” Sansa said to Brienne, who put a hand to her forehead. Undoubtedly, her horrible date had given her a headache.

“What the hell?” Ah, Commissioner Lannister was here. Sansa was sure that would fix everything. “Hound, what are you doing this time?” Eh, maybe not. Jerk.

“There’s no cause for any kind of public incident,” Brienne said.

Jaime rolled his eyes. “Tarth. Aren’t you supposed to be the Girl Scout? Why are you in the middle of an impending brawl?”

When Brienne straightened out her slouch, her height was impressive. She practically loomed over Jaime Lannister. “You are the most useless man I’ve ever met. Are you sure you’re the commissioner?”

Sansa wished she had time to be amused by that. She wove around Brienne and Jaime so she could see what Sandor was doing. He had Hunt by the scruff of his neck, shaking him, while the scrawny ginger yelled in his ear, and the third idiot circled them. This was so brave, coming to Brienne’s rescue. Although it was dawning on her that three men were more than he should’ve taken on at once. The ginger elbowed Sandor in the stomach, and he dropped Hunt, snarling wordlessly. If only there was something she could do to help him.

“It would be nice to have one public function where the Kings Landing police department didn’t completely embarrass themselves.” That was Petyr’s voice.

Sure enough, Petyr and Tyrion came over to question her. “Are you alright, Sansa?” Petyr asked.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Tyrion asked.

“Do you suppose—” No, Jaime Lannister was going to be of no help. Brienne went to jump in, but Jaime restrained her by the arm, hopping in front of her while flashing her the world’s smuggest grin.

“Get the fuck off me,” Sandor said. Hunt managed to push him off balance, and he stumbled but remained standing.

“This isn’t looking so great,” Yara said, coming up next to Sansa with a bottle in each hand.

“No, it’s not,” Sansa admitted. “Sandor was very chivalrous, though, don’t you think?”

“It’s not my opinion that matters.” Yara handed Sansa one of the bottles. It was champagne. “Do you know how to open that?”

“Sure. Hey, do you think I look like a teenager tonight?”

Sandor slammed his skull into Hunt’s forehead, which would’ve been a fantastic way to end things if the other two henchmen weren’t throwing their jackets to the ground, loosening up their shoulders.

“You look very sophisticated,” Yara said. “So, give that a good shake, and let’s step a little closer.”

“Thank you. It’s been a very sophisticated evening, for the most part.” Sansa shook the champagne bottle and lost track of Sandor for a moment so she could grab the cork. Fortunately, Yara had already loosened it. “Ready?”

The three goons closed in on Sandor in tandem, trying to pull him down so they could reach his face. Behind her, Petyr was still talking about deplorable police behavior. This was not going to look good on her permanent record, however that worked in the real world, but she couldn’t leave Sandor to defend himself alone. Her only real regret was that she’d gotten hardly any pictures for Instagram earlier. She should’ve coaxed Sandor into standing still for selfies before they got here. Oh, well, hindsight was 20/20.

“Release the kraken!” Yara cried.

Sansa popped the champagne bottle just as Yara did. The liquid spurted up with a force that resisted her effort to aim the stream at Sandor’s attackers. She lifted the bottle with both hands, champagne shooting like a fire hose. The sight of it landing on the knot of people around Sandor opened something in her chest and made her feel light and full of air. She gave out a little, demure wolf howl – wooop! – just enough so Sandor knew it was her, and as the last of the champagne landed in her hair, she tried not to dissolve into giggles.

She and Yara high-fived as the four policemen stopped fighting to wipe champagne out of their eyes. Blech, it really was sticky stuff. Sansa hoped her dress wasn’t ruined – it did not make her look too young just because her cleavage wasn’t hanging out of it, for the love of the Maiden.

Sandor caught her eyes, and she was transfixed by the intensity and heat in his stare. His gray eyes were definitely smoldering, and that was so much a thing with him. “You,” he said. The roughness of his voice on that one syllable reverberated through her body. “You … just … get over here.”

The adrenaline rush from the champagne attack kicked in, and she started shaking, frozen to the spot. Sandor reached her side and took her hand, and goosebumps traveled up her arm. He led her out of the ballroom, storming through the onlookers without a look back at her trailing him, clutching his hand.

“Where are we going?” she said, her mouth suddenly dry.

“Elevators.”

Sure enough, he took her to the elevator bank and slammed the button with his free hand, still not looking at her. Her heart pumped like she was underwater. A door dinged open, and she followed him into the elevator, not sure how to explain herself.

When the elevator door closed, he put his hands around her waist and lifted her up until they were eye to eye. If his gaze had been intense in the ballroom, now it was molten silver, sending sparks shooting through her lower belly. She gasped as her back touched the wall. She needed him closer and threw her arms around his neck. His lips were on her ear, sucking her earlobe, trailing kisses down to her collarbone. She moaned at the contact. He was still holding her off the ground, and it was absolutely incredible how strong he was. She wound her legs around him, reeling him closer, nuzzling his face to get his lips up to hers.

Ding! The elevator opened right next to the ground floor reception counter.

“Shit. Fuck.” Sandor put her on the floor and flailed at the buttons. “I forgot to … which one is the close button? Fuck, that’s open, fuck.”

“Sandor.” She came up behind him and rested against his back. “Forget the buttons and take me home.”

Her breath was quick and shallow, but so was his, and it took him a few seconds to strain meaning out of her words.

“You want to go home?” he said uncertainly.

“With you.” She hadn’t had a taste of him yet, and she took his hand off the elevator buttons and nibbled the back of his hand, tasting champagne and salt. Her breath caught in her throat. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, wondering if he could hear the hammering of her pulse.

“Right,” he said. “Right, yes, driving, valet guy, now.”

“Now,” she agreed.

As they hurried outside, she wondered if she’d be able to keep her hands out his hair while he drove back to her place. As it turned out, she couldn’t, but honestly, a ten-mile drive had never felt so much like forever before. Fortunately, the night was just beginning.

Chapter Text

Their first real kiss was in the truck in the parking lot of her apartment complex. Sandor shut off the engine, and Sansa unwrapped herself from her seatbelt and lunged over the center console. She dragged her hands through his hair, tugging at the long, silky strands, undoing knots where the champagne had tangled them up. Her kiss was close mouthed even while her fingernails raked the back of his head. She stopped to study his face, needing to be sure he was as enthusiastic as she was, and he closed his eyes and kissed her again. This kiss was longer, slower, and she tasted the heat inside him on his lips. He groaned and pulled her closer.

“Inside,” she whispered into his mouth. “Upstairs.”

They barely made it to her second-floor apartment. On the stairs, she wanted to get above him, lean down, and nibble on his lips. He smelled fabulous, like fancy hotel air mixed with champagne and something more masculine underneath. He ran his large, capable hand over the back of her dress, lingering on her butt and her thighs. She had to keep breaking contact to remember where they were. She fumbled with her key, taking three attempts to get the door opened while he buried his face in her hair and she felt his hot breath on her neck. Finally, she kicked the door open and led him inside.

“Are you sure?” His voice, Gods, his voice was so gravelly and low pitched.

She locked onto his gaze. “I am so sure.”

She toed off her shoes, lost her balance, and collapsed on the loveseat. He stood over her uncertainly, so she spread her arms wide and gave him a pleading look, trying to draw him to her. He fell on his knees in front of her and pushed between her legs. Good, she could reach his hair again. His deep humming exhale inflamed her, and her kiss this time was ravenous, coaxing his mouth open, tasting the tip of his tongue. He broke the kiss, and she went back for another. His hands came up to caress her shoulders. She kissed him yet again, pushing her lips hard against his, feeling the crackled skin on the left side of his mouth where his lips had burn scars. The roughness of his skin there tickled her receptive nerve endings. She realized she was making a high-pitched mewling sound, something she’d never done before. She licked the corner of his mouth, wanting to feel him against her tongue, and he stopped her. It was almost painful, that stop, the distance he created between them.

“Is everything okay?” she asked. Her eyelids were heavy. Her shoulders were cold where his hands had left her. Oh, please, let everything be okay.

“It’s just a lot,” he said. He ran a finger gently down her jaw. His pupils were wide, and his voice was so tender. “It’s a lot of kissing.”

Oh, hells, she’d just gotten started. “What do you mean?”

He dropped his gaze as if he was afraid to look at her. “I don’t know what I’m … done everything else before, but nobody ever wanted … fuck, I’m not saying this right.”

But she thought she understood a little bit. Life had been hard on him, people had been hard on him, and she wanted to cherish him, to show him how much he made her feel safe and cherished.

“Would you come sit next to me?” she said softly.

He nodded, and she sensed his hesitation, his fear that she’d turn on him. She’d have to slow down a little, but that was fine. That was great, really, and her anticipation to do this with more care surprised her.

When he sat on the loveseat, she straddled his lap, not kissing him yet, just studying his face. “Is this okay?”

“Of course it’s okay.” He explored her hips and her thighs, pushing up the hem of her dress. “You are so fucking hot.”

“Well, if you’re going to talk like that, now I have to kiss you.”

She kissed him lightly on the lips. He tried to deepen the kiss, but she pulled away to slow things down. She kissed him tenderly on each corner of his lips, tasting his saliva. She kissed his smooth cheek, and then she kissed his scarred cheek, feeling out the rough edges with her mouth. He closed his eyes, so she kissed each of his eyelids. She kissed him on the lips again, this time opening her mouth, touching their tongues together and enjoying the thrill it sent through her.

He rested his forehead on hers, breathing heavily. “Fuck, you’re amazing.”

Her pulse was wildly out of control. “Nobody’s ever said anything like that to me before.”

“How is that possible?” He pulled her closer, his right hand trailing down her leg, leaving tingles where he touched her.

He was going to think she was obsessed if she kept playing with his hair. This was another fetish she should’ve realized she had a long time ago. She tilted forward, putting her forearms on the cushion behind his head, and leaned in for a slow, exploratory kiss. As soon as he groaned, she wrapped his hair around her fingers, unable to resist any longer. His arms encircled her waist, bringing them closer together. Hot arousal pulsed through her, and she rubbed herself against his groin, and this was not at all going slow, how had they gotten here already?

She broke off for breath. “Okay,” she said. “I’m trying to slow down.”

“Are you?” Almost lazily, he circled her nipple over her dress with one finger. She bit her lip and tried to keep her eyes open, watching him. His thumb came up and he pinched her nipple, and she arched her back, her breath escaping in a hiss.

When she opened her eyes, he was giving her a self-satisfied grin.

“I can play that game, too,” she whispered in his ear.

She sucked on his earlobe as she undid the knot of his tie, loosening it and dropping it on the ground. Gods, did he still have his jacket on? She scooted down his thighs to give her room to push his jacket down his arms. Except slowly, she reminded herself. Like unwrapping a very special gift. She wanted her hands all over his chest muscles and his biceps, and she’d bet anything he had washboard abs. He tried to reel her closer in, but she shook her head and took her time unbuttoning his shirt while his hands worked their way up her legs, kneading and heating her skin. He wore an undershirt under his dress shirt.

“Gah, how many layers do you have on?”

He laughed his quiet, private laugh. “Didn’t you want me to look like a gentleman tonight?”

When she looked into his eyes, they were practically glowing. Overcome with the emotions bubbling up inside her, she wound her whole body around him, squeezing. He was so strong, she couldn’t hurt him like this in the slightest. She buried her face where his neck met his shoulder and nipped at the salty skin under the collar of his shirt. By the time she bared his muscles, she’d be grinding against him. So much for going slow.

Carefully, he lifted her up and settled her on the couch next to him. Then he dropped to the ground, back on his knees. He lifted one of her feet, running a finger along the arch, and slowly peeled off her thigh-high stocking. Inch by inch, with Sansa watching his muscles flex below his thin undershirt. His fingertips grazed the sensitive skin on the back of her knee, and she let out a sound that made him stop and give her another prideful grin. He traced her ankle bone with precision, as if they had all the time in the world. He was so careful, and repeatedly looked up at her to make sure she was still enjoying the sensations of being adored.

When he reached under her dress to unravel the second stocking, the feel of his rough hands on her thigh was almost too much, and she whimpered. She was getting wet with needing him, her hips rocking to try to get closer to his hands. She’d never wanted anyone this much, hadn’t even known she was capable of it.

“I don’t think I can go slower than this,” she said breathlessly.

He stripped off the stocking and leaned back on his heels. “Come here, little bird.”

She flew off the couch onto his lap and snuggled in his embrace. They stopped to kiss, and this time, she felt his hunger in it. His erection strained against her, and she pushed up against him as he explored her mouth.

She broke away long enough to ask, “You wanna take this to the bedroom?”

“Are you sure?” His voice – she loved his voice – it was deep and needy, and she wondered briefly if he could bring her to orgasm just by talking.

She stood and reached out her hand. “You could lose the shirt.”

He didn’t need to hold her hand to stand up, but he took it anyway. “Wait,” he said, “I’ve been wanting to do something.”

“Oh? Something we’re not doing?”

He slid her index finger in his mouth, suckled it and gave it a gentle bite. She had to wrap her arm around his waist to stay on her feet, and she pressed her face into his chest, inhaling him. He smelled clean but also musky, ready for her.

He licked her middle finger. “Been wanting that since you ordered that damn strawberry cheesecake.”

“That was …” She inhaled sharply. “Seductive.”

“Not as much as you eating cake.” He ran his fingers through her hair, and it tumbled out of the updo.

“Come on,” she whispered.

She’d never needed someone to touch her this much. Her body was responding to his smell, his voice, his tongue, oh definitely his tongue. Her panties were already soaked through. She led him to the short hall to her bedroom, where he pushed her against the wall, one thigh between her legs, the pressure making her arch into him. Not that she was planning to hump his leg, but if they didn’t get to the bedroom, that was where this was going. He stripped off his shirt – finally – and yes, washboard abs. She touched each ripple in the muscles. She wanted him on his back in her bed so she could explore those muscles with her mouth.

It took gigantic effort to squirm away so she could open her bedroom door. He followed her in, and she turned her back to him and lifted her hair off her neck.

“You’re going to have to unzip me,” she said in what she hoped was an alluring tone.

Silence. He’d gone very still and very, very quiet. “Sandor?”

Her heart, already starved for oxygen, jumped into her throat. Something was wrong. She knew it was her fault. It was always her fault. Images of bad nights with Joffrey tried to creep into her head, and she battled them back. She had to stay in the present and put her full attention on Sandor so she could figure out what had happened.

He pointed to her bed. “What is that?”

“Oh. The tapestry.” That was awkward, but she could explain. “I thought I’d be finished today, but I got caught up looking for shoes for tonight. I’ve got about an hour left and then I can—"

“You fucking had it this whole time.” His jaw was locked and his breath was ragged.

“I’m … I’m just making a repair.”

Her voice shook. Her whole body trembled. It was too late. Everything was broken, and she couldn’t put this back together. It was obvious in his curled fists, in the fury that crackled around him like a red aura.

“Where was it when you were at the station?” He wouldn’t meet her eyes. He didn’t want to, he didn’t want her, and it was entirely her own fault.

“Please,” she said. “Don’t—"

“Where was it?” he yelled. The force of it made her close her eyes.

She didn’t want to answer him, but nothing in the world could have compelled her to lie to him. “It was under my shirt.”

His nostrils flared as he breathed in and out. “You fucking lied to me.”

She already knew there was no point in trying, but how could she not try? Even if she made a fool of herself, she had to make the attempt. Her heart, still in her throat, crumbled into pieces, and she had to croak around them. “I told you I was taking back—"

“This isn’t yours.” He gestured at the tapestry with a shaking arm, just as upset as she was. “You don’t own it. You stole it and you fucking lied to me.”

Her eyes overflowed, caking her mascara. Stupid, stupid Sansa, always putting herself in this position. “You don’t understand. Please just let me—"

“You don’t even own a dog,” he growled.

“What?” The unfairness of the accusation stung her out of her self-pity. “I do so!”

“Then where’s the dog, Sansa? Where’s the fucking dog?”

He ran his hands through his hair, disheveling it further, and she hated that she wanted to pet him while he was angry at her. She sucked in a breath, tried to ground herself. “I’m sorry, Joffrey, but—”

He froze, unnaturally still. “What did you just call me?”

Well, fuck. She’d just made everything a lot worse. She knew why she’d slipped. Just like Joffrey, he wouldn’t let her finish a sentence to defend herself. It wasn’t fair, but once the comparison had been made, she couldn’t unmake it.

“You’re supposed to be the detective!” Now her traitor nose was clogging. “Don’t you even know where the tapestry came from?”

“You know what, fuck this.”

He pushed her bedroom door out of his way, and it crashed against the wall. She followed him through the apartment, watching him pick up his clothes, her throat sealed up tight. At the front door, he stared into the middle distance, his gray eyes hazy.

“I can’t believe I trusted you,” he said, almost like he was talking to himself. “I can’t believe I thought …”

He wasn’t going to finish that sentence out loud. And why should she keep trying, really? He wouldn’t listen to her. He wouldn’t even look at her.

“Get out of my apartment,” she said, shocked at how wrecked she sounded. Her words were barely words, only broken syllables.

He understood, though. He didn’t look back. He just left.

How had this gone from the perfect romance to tragic disaster so quickly?

But she knew the answer. It stabbed at her gut. It was her, it was always her. She should’ve told him she was fixing the tapestry back when she was at his house. She’d been scared to tell him then, sure he wouldn’t like her anymore.

That instinct had been correct, hadn’t it? What had she expected, that he’d hear her out and take her side, defend her? That was ridiculous. Nobody was going to do that for her.

Her brain tried to argue with her, tell her that Sandor was different. No, he wasn’t different just because she wanted to sleep with him. No, it was more than sex between them, she knew it was. No, it had only seemed like more than sex because she couldn’t get over her romantic delusions. But it felt so real this time!

The direwolves on the tapestry stared at her accusingly. “Shut up,” she told them. “It’s your fault I screwed this up. I hate you.”

It wasn’t entirely her fault. He’d made the choice to leave without hearing her side of the story. He’d called her a fucking liar. So maybe it had just been about sex to him. There wasn’t much point in circling the thought over and over again, was there? Sandor was gone, and he wasn’t coming back.

Chapter Text

After Sandor stormed out, Sansa didn’t attempt sleeping. She paced in a circle crying for a while, then she changed into pajamas and curled in a ball on her bed where she may or may not have dozed. Finally, she got up and finished the stupid, cursed herringbone stitches on the tapestry, vowing never to sew anything again. So she was talented at it, so what? Nobody cared. Nobody would ever care. She couldn’t wait to bring the tapestry back to Professor Baratheon and convince him to burn it to ashes.

She checked her phone, knowing she wouldn’t hear from Sandor and checking obsessively anyway. Nope, nothing to do but delete the latest graphic text from her virtual stalker. After that, she turned to music as an outlet for her crappy emotions. By the time Theon dropped Arya home on his way to visit his sister, she’d been belting out lyrics at the top of her lungs for so long that her throat felt raw.

I know I left too much mess and destruction to come back again!
And I caused nothing but trouble, I understand if you can't talk to me again!
And if you live by the rules of it's over, then I'm sure that that makes sense!

“Seven hells, look at you,” Arya said. “You’re a raccoon. You told me if I didn’t wash off my makeup before I went to sleep, I’d get ginormous pimples.”

Sansa stuck out her tongue. “I have told you lots of idiotic things.”

“Well, yeah.” Arya turned down the music. “How was your police gala?”

“Uneventful,” she said.

“Really? So the text I got from Yara saying you’re both permanently banned from the Targaryen Arms?”

“Mmm, that sounds like a misunderstanding.”

Arya narrowed her eyes. “And your date with the Hound?”

“Don’t call him that.” Sansa remembered herself. “Also, never mention his name again.”

“Gods, doesn’t this just figure?” Arya muttered. “You’re not going to try to talk to me about him, are you?”

“About who?” she said mock-innocently, and pumped up the volume again.

Arya retreated to her bedroom. Sansa considered yelling after her to do her homework, but who listened to Sansa? Nobody with any self-respect, that was for sure. And she certainly wasn’t going to spill her guts about last night, not to Arya and not to anyone. Flashes of the evening kept coming back to her like shards of glass scraping against her eyes. Sandor helping her out of his truck, his hands encircling her waist. Sandor kissing her neck in the elevator, effortlessly holding her up against the wall. Sandor stripping off his shirt in the hallway, his gray eyes heavy with longing. If only she could delete the images from her memory somehow.

She found the box of chocolate-covered strawberries in the refrigerator. For a moment, her resolve weakened. The gold box with the beautiful pink bow was so pretty. But that was the point, wasn’t it? Everything Sandor had done had been so courtly on the surface. It was all a cover for the fact that he didn’t care what she thought. She yanked the ribbon off the box and stomped to the window. It took her a minute to open the storm window, and then cold wind whipped through the living room. She chucked the first strawberry into the parking lot below, where it bounced off somebody’s sports car. Oops, she’d perfect her aim on the next try.

She didn’t hear Arya over the music until her sister was at her elbow. “What are you doing? It’s windy as the top of the freaking Wall out there.”

“I’m throwing fruit,” Sansa explained.

Arya shrugged. “You got me there. Can I throw one?”

“No, I’m purging my consciousness of sentiment and romance.” Sansa tossed another strawberry. This one splatted on the sidewalk in front of their apartment. Darn it.

Arya heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Don’t you have a girlfriend you can talk to? Even that“ – and here Arya shuddered – “Margaery chick?”

“I have no friends at all. I’ve never had friends.” She pitched the next strawberry as hard as she could, but the wind picked up and smashed it into the side of the building.

Arya shut off the wireless speaker and sat on the counter between the kitchen and the living room. “What did he do, how bad was it, and what can I do for revenge?”

Sansa peered outside. “Can you throw a strawberry for me? I suck at this.”

Arya leaped off the counter and took the box from the windowsill. Sansa suddenly felt drained of the energy that had propelled her to sing her way around the apartment. She sank onto the loveseat. “It was mostly my fault anyway.”

Arya appeared to be testing the wind direction with an upturned finger. “This doesn’t surprise me.”

“Thanks a lot! I don’t know why I try to talk to you.”

“Me either. Hey, did you see how far that berry went? That was impressive, right? Had to be at least 50 yards. Let me try this again.”

Sansa slumped over and lied face down on the couch. Maybe she could cut off the flow of air into her lungs like this. She covered her head with her arms, trying to block the light. If only she could weave herself into a cocoon here and wait until she emerged as someone else. Butterfly Sansa, who would never withhold the truth from the bravest man she’d ever met.

A car alarm whooped in the parking lot, and Arya quickly slammed the window shut.

“Really, though, you should talk to someone. Just because I suck at it, you should still do it. Text Margaery.”

“I don’t want to.” The fabric of the cushion scraped against her cheek as she talked. “She’ll think I’m stupid.”

“Ugh, she’s dating Joffrey after she saw how he treated you. She’s obviously got you beat in the stupid race,” Arya said reassuringly. “In the meantime, if you want me to slash the Hound’s tires, just say the word.”

Sansa cracked open an eyelid. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Great.” Arya held up the empty chocolate box. “Right now, though, I have to get rid of some evidence. If someone knocks on the door, whatever you do, don’t answer it.”

If Arya thought she needed girl talk, she supposed she desperately needed girl talk. Thinking Margaery would probably ignore her text, she sent one anyway: “Heartbrokenly crushed after date last night, need moral support that is not Arya” with the sad panda emoji. Then she texted Professor Baratheon and told him she’d drop the tapestry off on her way home from work Monday, and Detective Clegane knew all about it so there was no longer a point to avoiding him.

She missed Lady more than ever. She really needed dog cuddles. Instead, she piled up all the throw pillows she could find on her bed to make a fortress, climbed in, and forced herself to take an angry nap. Surprisingly, that worked, and she fell asleep without realizing it until her phone buzzed relentlessly, waking her.

She rubbed bleary sleep out of her eyes and read her phone. It was almost 9 at night, and Margaery was texting her from the front door: “Sansa”; “Sansa, I’m here, let me in”; “I have bakery cookies”; “Let me in. I’ve been knocking for like five minutes”; “Your neighbor is going to steal the cookies”.

That last text was highly motivational. Sansa breached the wall of pillows and met Margaery at the door to let her in. Margaery wore casual jeans, a rose-colored hoodie, and an expression of sympathy, and she grabbed Sansa into an embrace. It was a surprise, but a welcome one.

Arya flew out of the kitchen. “I told you not to answer the door.”

Margaery let go of Sansa and held up a white bakery box. “I brought fresh cookies.”

“I’ll make chamomile tea,” Sansa said. Maybe Arya had been right. Maybe Sansa could forget about The Detective Whose Name Would Not Be Mentioned and have a lovely evening with a girlfriend.

“Sorry to come by so late.” Margaery put the cookies on the coffee table. “Oh, someone left a note on your door.”

“They have the wrong apartment,” Arya said. “We would never throw anything out the window.”

Margaery handed Sansa a plain envelope without marking. Figuring it would be her job, not Arya’s, to make nice with whoever had a complaint about flying fruit, she opened it and pulled out a scrap of paper. She recognized Sandor’s neat handwriting instantly.

Her hair is my fire
Her eyes are my sky

Her brain stuttered to a stop. Broken, she was irretrievably broken into her individual atoms, and she could never be put back together.

“Noooooooo,” she wailed, her brain starting up again. How could this be happening? Why was he writing her poetry? How had she lost her chance with someone who wrote love poetry? At times like this, she believed her father was right about the old gods. How else could the universe be so inexplicably cruel?

Margaery peered over her shoulder, and Arya tried to grab the poem from her hands.

“Don’t touch this,” she hissed. “This is the most significant thing I’ve ever received in my life.”

“Sansa, this is so romantic,” Margaery said, her eyes shining.

“Ugh, she’s thriving on the drama,” Arya said. “Let me know when we get to destroy it.”

“Never!” She didn’t know why she’d thought Margaery, or anyone, could help her. She was beyond help. She would pine away forever. She curled into a ball on the loveseat, careful not to wrinkle her poem. The poem written for her. “I’ll keep this until I’m a hundred years old.”

“So what happened last night?” Margaery asked.

Sansa couldn’t figure out where to begin. “Everything. Everything that could possibly happen.”

“The detective who arrested her for stealing the tapestry took her to some fancy dress dinner,” Arya said, which Sansa thought was not at all a proper summary of events.

“The mysterious detective!” Margaery clasped her hands together. “I knew he’d fix everything. He seemed quite taken with Sansa. Oh, but I didn’t realize he was such a romantic.”

“He is. He’s the most romantic man in the world.” Sansa’s throat was tight again, as if she could possibly have any more tears left to shed. “Also, nothing is fixed and the stupid tapestry ruined my life. Utterly. Sandor didn’t think I actually stole it, but now he knows I did, and he hates me for not telling him the truth. But he wouldn’t listen when I tried to explain.”

“He wouldn’t write an ode to your beauty if he hated you,” Margaery said.

Was that what Sandor had written? She excused herself to put the poem in her room. She’d never forgive herself if she got cookie crumbs on it. She placed it carefully in the drawer of her bedside table, where she could reach it when she first woke up every morning, and every night before she fell asleep. When she returned to the living room, Margaery and Arya were deep in conversation.

“Obviously, the police need to drop the charges,” Margaery said.

Arya talked with her mouth full of cookie. “Pfft, not likely while your boyfriend insists that Sansa’s public enemy number one.”

“You leave that to me,” Margaery said. “I know exactly how to get him to ask his Uncle Jaime to drop the charges. Highgarden Public Relations is going to insist that Sansa’s tapestry is bad publicity.”

Arya raised an eyebrow skeptically. “Isn’t all publicity good publicity?”

“Not if people think Joffrey is carrying out a vendetta against an old girlfriend. That’s very, ahh, let’s call it unwoke. As Joffrey’s agent, I’m in charge of pushing away his vindictive side.”

“Have you tried using a sledgehammer?” Arya laughed. “C’mon, San, I know you thought that was funny.”

“I have no sense of humor,” Sansa said. “I am distraught.”

Margaery pouted. “Of course you are, poor thing. You’ve been through an ordeal. Have a cookie. I bought them just for you.”

The cookie tasted like dust and ashes. “There has to be a way to make things right with Sandor,” she said.

“Are you sure he’s worth it?” Arya asked. “You said he wouldn’t listen to you.”

“But then he wrote me a love poem.” She was not going to cry again. Newborns didn’t cry this much. “He had good reason to be angry with me last night. I’m a sneaky, no good, thieving liar.”

“We need to remove your legal problems from the equation,” Margaery said, and Arya agreed. Which made sense. Even if she could never find love again, it would be nice not to have to go to court and wonder the whole time if Sandor was going to turn up.

Margaery’s face lit up. “I have a brilliant idea.”

“Oh, another one?” Sansa hugged her stomach.

“You and your brother’s ideas kind of started this mess in the first place,” Arya said.

“You’ll thank me at your sister’s wedding. But first, let’s get Jaime Lannister to call off the hounds.”

“Don’t call him that,” Sansa said.

“Sorry, poor word choice. Anyway, Joffrey is DJing a ladies’ night event at a new nightclub on Thursday. Why don’t you and Arya come along? I’ll use the opportunity to make Joffrey apologize to you.”

Sansa couldn’t believe it. Arya had been right. For all her charisma, Margaery could actually be quite stupid. “Marge, honey, Joff’s never going to apologize. That’s … that’s just not going to happen.”

Arya scowled. “And I am not going to one of your awful Instagram hashtag parties. I hate his music.”

“I can make sure you and your friends aren’t proofed to buy drinks.”

“I will totally be there,” Arya said. “What do you think, San?”

“Come on, Sansabelle.” Margaery rubbed her shoulders. “What have you got to lose? Let’s give it a shot. I’ll make it so Joff will feel like the magnanimous ruler saving the damsel in distress.”

This was a terrible plan. She knew better than to depend on Joffrey to bail her out of trouble. But right now, even a bad plan seemed superior to no plan. If she wanted to get Sandor back, she couldn’t be a suspect in a crime he was investigating. Maybe once he realized where the tapestry came from and why it wasn’t such a big deal for her to have it, and that Joffrey and his mother had totally overblown the situation, maybe then he’d be willing to listen to her. Because he thought her hair was his fire. A gorgeous sentiment like that should not be left to die on the vine, no matter what Sansa had to do to keep it alive.

“Umm, I suppose so,” she said.

“Yay!” Margaery hugged her.

Sansa didn’t have the heart to hug back very enthusiastically. But that was fine. Margaery knew she was distraught. And, as usual, despite her very reasonable objections, the plan was going forward no matter what Sansa tried to say. Some things never changed.

 

Sandor got through Saturday night somehow. It was all a blur after leaving Sansa’s apartment. He started drinking as soon as he got home, passing out on the couch with Stranger fighting him for space. He woke up around noon when Stranger won and shoved him to the floor.

Then, like a wounded animal, he retreated to his childhood den. He took his bike out to the empty, overgrown lot where, once upon a time, before fire washed it clean, there had stood a trailer filled with mongrel dogs and a scared, lonely boy. He stared at the weeds and tried to focus on the present and shut off his thoughts. Unsuccessfully.

When Sansa was kissing him so sweetly in her apartment, he’d thought it could be the beginning of something really good. It had been years since he’d had such a strong feeling of hope. Of course he’d ruined it. Hope never led to anything but grief, and grief was easier, more familiar. He was used to grief. Hope was too sharp, too dangerous. Maybe this misadventure would finally kill off the romantic part of his brain that couldn’t do anything now but cringe in misery. Good, his brain should be feeling pain. It deserved pain.

But that part of his brain spoke up in self-defense, to complain that the scared, lonely boy who’d survived this shithole had grown into a scared, lonely man. That was his cue to ride back to town and find a goddamn liquor store and shut his brain the fuck up already.

He woke up on the living room floor again, like Groundhog Day, except he was even more incredibly fucking hungover than the previous day. The inside of his skull was black scribbles; the outside of his skull was being squeezed by a vice. There wasn’t enough toothpaste in the entire damn world. He had no memory of the night before, and it was almost time for his Monday shift to begin.

In the shower, he remembered taking an Uber home from the bar near the police station. It was a partial image of slippery, unfamiliar car upholstery, the smell of takeout fries, and the sound of him barking out directions. He couldn’t remember—

Oh, shit. He didn’t make a stop at Sansa’s, did he?

It all flooded back to him, every excruciating detail. The fucking poem. The fucking poem! What the hell had he been thinking? Why had he given her those words? They were his truth, but that was no fucking excuse. She was a liar, right? And what had Jaime Lannister said? She was using him. Right. She had to be. All those soft, fond kisses and hand holding, the mischievous laughter that made her eyes glitter when she was teasing him, it was all too good to be true.

What was he going to do now? He knew where he should be. He should be standing on the edge of a cliff with his knees in the dirt screaming at the clouded sky. Instead, he was dragging his sorry ass into the station with an ice pick taking apart his brain. Because the gods loved him so much, he was called into Selmy’s office as soon as he arrived, along with that anal parasite Hunt.

“Commissioner Lannister has expressed his displeasure with the events of the police gala,” Captain Selmy said. “He feels that your conduct was an embarrassment to the force.”

Sandor shrugged. His conduct was usually fucking with someone’s happiness. Jaime Lannister was as good a target as anyone else.

“I’m very sorry, Captain.” Hunt was such an ass kisser. “I’m willing to apologize to the commissioner, if you think that’s the best way to proceed.”

“He’s more concerned that you’ve learned a lesson from this,” Selmy said.

“Absolutely,” Hunt said. His voice was on a dog whistle frequency. Selmy didn’t seem bothered, but it split Sandor’s skull open and flayed it bare. “The commissioner can count on me to show unity with my fellow officers.”

Selmy nodded at Sandor. “You learn a lesson, Clegane?”

“Yeah. Jaime Lannister’s a dick.”

Selmy targeted him with a look that could melt glass. Hunt snickered under his breath but put on a phony, slack-jawed, shocked expression.

“What?” Sandor said. “Lannister was right there with us. He was even giving Tarth a hard time.” His hands shook, so he curled them into fists. He hadn’t been on a drinking binge like that for a long time, and now he remembered why.

Selmy ordered Hunt to get back to work and closed his office door behind him. This wasn’t going to be ideal. Whatever. Get it fucking over with so he could find coffee and some electrolytes.

“I sympathize with your position,” Selmy said.

That was unexpected. “My Jaime Lannister is a dick position?”

“No!” Selmy studied his face, eyes sharp and probing. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Yeah, fine.” He’d murder someone in cold blood for half a cup of water.

“I meant I sympathize with your position at the gala,” Selmy said. “I know that wasn’t entirely the fault of you or your girlfriend—”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” The edges of his vision got gray and fluttery.

Selmy sighed. “You know what? Forget I said anything, Clegane. You’re going to have to take this one on the chin.”

Yeah, suck it up, buttercup. Some things never changed.

“Hand over your files on the direwolf tapestry case to Dondarrion,” Selmy said.

“What case? There’s no case.”

“You have files, don’t you?” It was a rhetorical question. “Give ‘em to Dondarrion.”

Selmy dismissed him, and Sandor went out to the bullpen muttering to himself about there being no case. But there was, and he knew it. Sansa had stolen that tapestry, and she’d had it with her while he fingerprinted her, right under his goddamn nose. He didn’t even care whether she’d stolen it from the Baratheons. She could’ve told him the truth. She hadn’t trusted him. It stung a hell of a lot more than it should have. It felt like a deadweight on his chest.

An hour or so later, coffee and water hadn’t helped his headache in the slightest fucking bit. He was struggling to stay awake while he filled out forms regarding petty shoplifters – how, how did crap like this end up on his desk? – when his phone rang. Unbelievably, it was a return call from Professor Renly Baratheon. And Sandor had no fucking intention of passing it to Dondarrion, not until after he vented on this pretty rich boy.

“Detective Clegane?” Baratheon said in a nasal, overeducated, Eastern Westeros accent. “You have some questions about the reproduction direwolf tapestry?”

He wasn’t in the mood for small talk. “Do you have it?”

“No, it’s with the artist.”

“The artist?” Suddenly, it was incredibly hard to breathe. The deadweight on his chest was sinking into his lungs.

“Yes, the artist.” If he wasn’t mistaken, Baratheon sounded pissed off. “Sansa Stark. The tapestry was her creation. She spent a year and a half designing it, researching authentic period materials, and doing the work. It’s an amazing accomplishment. One of my favorite student pieces, and I’m eager to get it back on display tomorrow after Ms. Stark finishes a repair for the university.”

Oh, fuck no. He had screwed this up so badly. Why the fuck hadn’t Baratheon told him this weeks ago?

“Do you know why it was at Storm’s End?” he heard himself ask. How was he still talking when he couldn’t breathe?

“Ms. Stark went out on a limb to get the tapestry displayed there. I can’t remember why, but it was probably some charitable fundraiser. Ms. Stark has a generous spirit.”

Fuck. “So why did Cersei Baratheon report it stolen?”

“I don’t know, maybe because the police are so quick to do the Lannister’s bidding.”

Sandor didn’t say anything to that, just let it burrow into his head like a maggot.

Baratheon cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I’m sure the artist could’ve approached Cersei reasonably and dealt with her in a completely sane, logical manner about returning it.”

After laying on the sarcasm that thick, Baratheon still had the nerve to laugh at him as he hung up the call.

His head was throbbing behind each eye socket. If he didn’t get some air, he was going to lose the use of his left eye entirely. He stumbled out to the concrete steps in front of the station and stared at the sky. The light pollution made it hard to see the stars and impossible to connect them into constellations. Fucking city, it destroyed everything.

He’d made this into a goddamn trainwreck of a disaster. Of course it was Sansa’s tapestry. Of course it was. She should’ve just told him she’d made it, spent a blessed year and half on it. Although he probably would’ve found another way to fuck things up. The best thing he could do now was put her out of his mind entirely, forever. Find a way to forget everything he’d ever said to her that made her smile, every time her pretty blue eyes had wandered over his body, every touch, every kiss. And forget it all quick before he fell deeper in—

No, he wasn’t going to think that word. There was no alternative dimension where he and Sansa got married and lived happily ever after. That only happened in songs and stories. It definitely wouldn’t happen to a guy like him.

Chapter Text

Sansa had felt caged in a life of her own making for years, but she didn’t realize how far she’d flown from it until she stepped into the dark, low-ceilinged club named Maiden’s Hell for Ladies’ Night. Gee, she wondered, with a name like that, how could they be having trouble attracting women? As usual, there was nobody she could comfortably share the catty thought with. She blew out her breath, knowing no one could hear her over the pounding bass line. Spotlights crawled over the dance floor, keeping the rest of the club dim and flickering. The odor of bad cologne clouded around her. She hated places like these, just hated them, and couldn’t believe she used to do this twice a week for Joff.

Arya ushered in a couple of young men from the university, or at least Sansa chose to assume they were from the university. Their non-designer hoodies were pushed up their arms to reveal surprisingly generic tats that gave nothing away. Arya had always preferred guys who looked rough and tumble instead of studious. Not that there was anything wrong with the muscular, biker look, and Sansa was totally not going there, not even to herself.

Loras darted over, and Arya asked him about free drinks. Arya wouldn’t be drinking – she just wanted to impress her friends, who were glancing around as if they’d been suckered into a medical experiment. Arya hadn’t bothered to introduce them to Sansa, and Sansa didn’t have the motivation to rectify her sister’s lapse in manners.

Loras took both her hands in his. “Sweetling, I really am sorry about the video. I wouldn't blame you if you're still angry with me.”

“Nobody can stay angry with you, and you know it.”

She had no room for anger, no room any emotions not related to Sandor, other than the desire to be somewhere else. Loras smiled and led her toward the bar, Arya and her boyfriends following in their wake. Arya and her friends began bonding by making fun of girls who were dressed like Sansa and who danced like Sansa and who talked like Sansa. True, her champagne-colored minidress was very generic club girl, but she’d had trouble figuring out which outfit went best with heartbreak.

She looked around for people she knew and unfortunately spotted a few: Meryn Trant, Lancel Lannister. They pretended not to notice her, which was really the best-case scenario.

A stocky guy with round, ruddy cheeks approached her. “Haven’t seen you around in a while.”

He sounded familiar, but she couldn’t match a name to the face, perhaps because of the guy’s obnoxious leer, which was aimed much lower than her eyes. He was most likely someone who ran in Joff’s circles. She flashed him a sickly smile. For a second, her traitor brain conjured up an image of leaning into Sandor’s brick wall of a chest, fluttering her eyelashes up at him while she introduced this creep to her boyfriend. No, her fiancé, while she was daydreaming. And then maybe she’d wish for a pony and an ice-cream sundae.

“Are you alright?” Vaguely Familiar Creep yelled over the electro pop. “I heard you were taking the breakup with Joff, you know, hard.”

“Taking it hard?” Sansa said, realizing too late that she’d blundered into some pretty nasty innuendo. Vaguely Familiar Creep snickered. Seven Hells, this was a nightmare.

Fortunately, Loras returned and handed her a drink. She almost asked what it was, but it was sure to have a name like Fast Screw on the Beach, so she sucked it down instead. Maiden’s Hell indeed. She’d already lost Arya, which could be a curse or a blessing. Really, she should just ditch her sister and Margaery’s stupid plan and go home and curl up with a book. Or read her poem for the millionth time.

“So, wanna dance?” Vaguely Familiar Creep said, leaning in much too close.

“No thank you.” Was that any way to ask someone to dance? This, Sansa reflected, was the difference between the life she wanted, the life she’d glimpsed last week, and her old life: being wined and dined as opposed to being brewed and screwed.

“I think Margaery is looking for you,” Loras said, motioning to the DJ booth.

Margaery was leading King Joff down the steps to floor level with his subjects. Her emerald green dress sparkled under a strobe light, and her shiny curls bounced as she looked back at Joff with an enticing smile. Such a shame to waste all that on Joff, whose expression of impatience was one Sansa knew down to her bones.

She knocked back the rest of her mystery beverage. “Let’s get this over with.”

Vaguely Familiar Creep pushed a lock of her hair behind her ear. “Don’t forget to come back to me, Sansa Stark.”

She shuddered and hurried off towards Margaery. Loras gave the creep a withering look as they walked away. Sansa grabbed Loras’s sleeve for reassurance. He might look like a pretty boy in his flowered, satiny shirt and skinny jeans, but he could pack a mean punch if it was necessary.

Margaery greeted her with a hug. Despite standing right next to Margaery, Joffrey’s gaze lingered on Sansa’s cleavage. Sansa really didn’t want to have this conversation without Margaery, but an older man with a staff badge pulled her away, leaving Sansa alone with her ex-boyfriend.

“Margaery said you wanted to talk to me,” Sansa said, immediately deflecting the blame for this encounter. She twisted her hand in her purse strap to keep it out of her hair.

Joffrey actually gave her a friendly smile. “Come on up.”

She followed Joff into the DJ booth a few steps up, overlooking the dance floor. She thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, but when they crowded inside the tiny booth, Joff snaked behind her and shut the door. She spotted Meryn Trant and Lancel Lannister move into position to block the steps, and her stomach twisted. She knew right then that she wasn’t getting a promise from Joff to back off about the tapestry theft.

He came up close, forcing her back against the door, and his smile took on a predatory glint. “So, I heard you missed me.”

“Um.” There was no possible response that might not send him into a tantrum. “I think Margaery is coming right back.”

“I’ll have plenty of warning. I always liked you in this dress. I’m glad you remembered.”

No, she was almost sure Joff was making that up on the fly. Or had she subconsciously remembered when she was picking out her outfit? She was already second guessing herself. Joff rested his hand on her thigh, and she flinched out of his contact.

“What’s the matter?” She knew that sullen tone of voice. It sounded alarms throughout her nervous system. He had her trapped against the door, and she couldn’t squirm any farther from him. His breath was sour with the scent of alcohol. She kicked the door with her heel twice, but that only made him scowl.

“You wanted something from me,” he said.

Yet again, for the millionth time, she regretted the moment when she’d mistakenly called Sandor by Joffrey’s name. As if there was absolutely any similarity between this entitled, bratty boy and the man who’d broken her heart. But thinking of Sandor reminded her that this part of her life was over, and nobody could force her to go back to it.

“I don’t want anything from you,” she said. “I want to leave. Now.”

He took her chin in his hand and stilled her jaw. She straightened up, hoping her height might intimidate him. His eyes were cold as they studied her, but she thought she saw the old darkness rippling in their depths.

“I’m the one who dumped you,” Joff said, his fingers digging into her face. “I traded up. So don’t act like the stuck-up bitch with me.”

“Let go of me,” she said as loudly as she could. Nobody could hear her in this madhouse. She pushed against his chest with both hands, and when he staggered, she stomped on his foot. He loosened his grip on her, giving her enough wiggle room to get to the doorknob and crack open the door. It swung inward, though, forcing her closer to him. He took her by the shoulders.

“What’s gotten into you?” he spat at her.

“Leave me alone or I’ll kick you in the balls,” she said, her voice sounding hysterical in her ears.

Lancel poked his head in. “It’s alright, Marge,” he called down. “They’re just talking.”

Joff released her. She sucked in a gasping breath, knowing she wasn’t going to get her composure back, not for a while. Her pulse hammered at her neck.

Joff threw up his arms. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Seriously, you should see a psychiatrist. Breaking into my house, coming up here and threatening me. Stay away from me from now on.”

“I didn’t want to be here!” She opened the door to leave. Lancel blocked her way, shaking his head as if she should be ashamed of her behavior. She wanted to push him down the stairs. Instead, she tried to shimmy past him.

“I can get out of your way,” Lancel drawled. “You only had to ask.”

“She’s crazy, bro,” Joff said.

Her fingernails dug ditches in her palms. This had gone so much worse than she’d imagined. Margaery tried to stop her, but Sansa shook her head and kept going towards the exit. She heard Margaery snap at Joffrey, but she didn’t want to look back. She weaved through the crowd and past the bouncer, staggering out the door and into the chilly night air.

She walked up the road a few feet. There were people around her, calling to their friends, excited for a night out, but her vision was clouded by unshed tears and she couldn’t see clearly. She stopped to lean against the building next to the club, a closed shop, and caught her breath. Cold felt good in her lungs. Just a few minutes more and she’d text Arya that she was going home.

What a stupid idea this had been. Now Joffrey was probably telling Margaery that Sansa had attacked him for no reason. Would she believe him? Everybody believed him over her. They always had. It was ridiculous to expect that to change. When she texted Arya, she’d probably get a text back asking her how she’d managed to screw up again.

Her thoughts were still spinning on a gerbil wheel, but fresh air always calmed her. She could make out her surroundings now. It was the typical college party scene, guys shoving each other over imagined slights, girls shivering in short skirts, and everyone doing their best to look older than 21. She was too old for this and so done with it. Across the street, two uniformed police officers examined a line of club goers waiting to get into someplace that looked as sketchy as Maiden’s Hell. She couldn’t make out the song playing from that club, but the bass pounded hard, like a sudden migraine. Another hellhole. She couldn’t stop staring at it, and in a second, she found out why.

It was as if she’d known, as if she was drawn to his presence. Sandor ducked to clear the doorframe leaving the club. He was obviously working, in his suit jacket, ushering out a man in his fifties who was gesticulating wildly. Sandor held up a hand in a calming motion. He exuded authority, which she imagined he would when he was working, and it was hot. Gods, his hands were so large. She could remember how she felt with his hand skimming the back of her leg, so warm and cherished, the roughness of his palms catching on her skin and raising goosebumps. It was nothing like Joffrey touching her, which had filled her stomach with a crawling revulsion she couldn’t shake off.

“Hey.” A light touch landed on her shoulder, and she jumped. “It’s just me,” Loras said quietly. “I needed to see how you’re doing.”

She shrugged, unable to formulate words and sentences. She wanted to be left alone to stare at Sandor without him noticing, to watch his hair fall in his face when he leaned down to talk to the excited man and imagine how his hair would feel running through her fingers.

Loras squeezed her hand. “Can I do anything for you?”

Sandor’s eyes caught hers, and she stopped breathing. They locked gazes for a moment. Her blood felt like molten liquid heating her veins. She wanted to run across the street and throw herself in his arms. She wanted to stay here forever, staring at him, memorizing him, frozen in time. He scowled and turned away, and the moment was gone forever.

Didn’t he know? Didn’t he feel like she did, with this pain in her chest when she watched him? Didn’t everything feel empty and awful and meaningless to him after they’d fought? He’d meant what he wrote to her, didn’t he? She hadn’t imagined how she’d felt when they were together. She wasn’t really crazy. Why was he walking back into the club like he hadn’t noticed her?

But he’d contacted her last, with that beautiful poem. Maybe he’d expected her to respond.

“I’d feel better if you said something,” Loras said.

“Right,” she said. “Would you mind turning around so I can write something on your back?”

“Would I what now?”

She tore through her purse, looking for a pen and something to write on. An envelope from an unpaid bill would have to do. She physically directed Loras to face away from her. “Now duck down so I can use your back as a desk, please.” She knew exactly what she wanted to write, so it only took a minute. “Thanks. I have to go.”

“Oh, no.” Loras spun around to stare her down. “You are not walking away alone. Come inside and call an Uber, or find your sister.”

She knew he meant well, but it seemed life or death that she get her note on Sandor’s truck or motorcycle in the municipal parking garage right away. She really didn’t want to go back inside Maiden’s Hell. Just the thought made her nauseated. But she agreed to go find Arya, mostly because she couldn’t think of a way to get Loras to leave her alone otherwise.

When they entered the club, she yelled over the noise, “I don’t see Arya. Do you?”

Loras shook his head. “Let’s go find her.”

“How about you go that way and I’ll go the other way?” Sansa said.

As soon as the crowd swallowed Loras, she ducked out the door. She felt a bit guilty about it, but she couldn’t stay in there another minute. The whole place smelled like Joffrey’s aftershave. The parking garage was only three blocks away, and she was sure she could make it there and back so quickly, Loras would barely have time to realize she’d gone.

The first part of her plan went flawlessly. She walked through the first floor of the parking garage, and then the second floor, where she spotted Sandor’s truck. He should notice the envelope tucked under the driver’s side wiper blade. Even if this wasn’t enough and he never spoke to her again, he deserved a return poem. He deserved honesty from her for once, no matter how it tore at her defenses and left her exposed.

As she headed back to street level, she heard footsteps echoing in the deserted stairwell. It spiked her fight or flight responses, flooding her with adrenaline. She hadn’t realized the garage was so empty, and the stairwell was dark and narrow, making it impossible to see who was coming. She rushed back upstairs and crossed the garage to get to the elevator. The sound of footsteps only grew louder. She tried to calm her fluttering pulse rate. It was fine, just fine, she was next to the police station, the elevator would be here in a second. No need to panic.

The person behind her whistled. She whirled around, panicked.

The creep from Maiden’s Hell was striding up to her. She slammed the elevator button again and again, but nothing happened.

“Hello, Sansa Stark,” he said, his voice echoing through the cavernous garage. “You haven’t been answering my texts.”

Chills prickled the bundle of nerves on her lower spine. She should’ve listened to Loras. This whole evening had been an unreal nightmare. Did she need a guard to walk her everywhere? That would be a crappy kind of life. She could get to the police station, though, she just had to think it through.

“I didn’t realize you’ve been texting me,” she said.

He grinned. The elevator dinged, the doors rolling open so slowly.

“Where are you going?” Vaguely Familiar Creep asked. “You don’t want to go back to Joffrey. He’s telling everyone you’re crazy.”

Up close, she could see his eyes, black, shiny pebbles in his grinning face. Fuck the elevator. She ran to the stairwell, hoping she’d surprised him enough to outrace him to the police station.

She panted as she flew down to the landing. Halfway to street level. He was right behind her. If only she had time to rip her shoes off. She jumped over the last step to ground level. There was the garage entrance and the police station, right in front of her.

“Sansa.” He was right behind her, practically talking in her ear. “I just want to talk to you.”

He grabbed her elbow as she reached the exit. She could see three people pacing in front of the police station.

“Get away from me!” she cried.

The people outside turned to her sharply. Arya and her big, muscled friends. Thank the gods, although after the past month, Sansa wasn’t sure she knew which gods to thank. Arya and her friends ran over. One of the guys pushed the creep and told him to back off.

Sansa blinked at Arya, wishing she was allowed to enfold her sister into a hug. Arya’s nostrils flared as she exhaled righteous fury.

“Hey, I’m Sansa’s friend,” the creep said. “I was just keeping her company on her walk.”

“Really?” Arya’s tone promised danger. “And where were you walking?”

“The police station,” Sansa said. “And I don’t know who this is. I don’t even know his name.”

“Come on, Sansa, we text all the time.”

Come on, Sansa. Come on, Sansa. She bent her head and stared at the pavement. Everybody thought she was delusional, didn’t they?

“So let’s go into the police station,” Arya said. “We have some friends there who would love to have a talk with you, you stupid piece of shit.”

She couldn’t have this ass telling Sandor all about how he texted with her all the time, how they were such good friends, you know what I mean, officer? Good, good friends. No, she’d lie down in the highway before she’d allow that to happen. She put a restraining hand on Arya’s arm.

“We’re going to the police right now,” Arya said.

“Alright, you fucking crone, I’m leaving.” Sansa didn’t watch him walk away, although Arya’s friends did. Sansa didn’t need to look. She had his face memorized, those shiny eyes, that ugly, twisted grin. She squeezed her eyes shut as he left.

“I know I messed up, okay?” she said, her voice cracking.

Arya finally blew out her breath, her shoulders relaxing. “I’m just glad we found you. And lucky for that prick we found him before the Hound did.”

“Can we just wait in front of the station until our Uber comes?” She really hoped Sandor wouldn’t show up first. She didn’t think she could face him.

“There’s a car on its way,” one of Arya’s friends said. Sansa felt guilty that she hadn’t introduced herself. Gods, or whoever, she couldn’t do anything right.

To her surprise, Arya reached up and smacked her shoulder blade. “There. There.”

“What are you doing?” Sansa tried to see behind her. “Is there a spider on my back?”

“I’m trying to comfort you,” Arya said through clenched teeth.

“Oh. Oh! Really? That’s sweet.” It was actually a little comforting, or at least distracting.

“Ugh, I know I suck at it.” Arya destroyed her short hairdo by running her hand through it.

“No, not at all. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you.” Huh, that was the truth. She’d never been so glad to see her sister in her life. Without Arya, she realized, the last month would’ve been unbearable.

“I don’t know what you’d do either.” Arya sighed. “Alright, since Loras got me to go looking for you after you gave him the slip, maybe we can take him off the shit list, but we are never speaking to Margaery Tyrell again.”

“But that means you can’t pawn off being nice to me,” Sansa said.

“I’ll pawn it off on someone, trust me.” Arya didn’t meet her eyes. Instead, she stared at the police station. Fortunately, their ride arrived before they had to say anything else heartfelt to each other.

Arya had been so sure that Sandor would protect her, and that was comforting. He would, of course, because he’d protect anyone in that position. She was both relieved that he hadn’t seen her panicking and desperate to talk to him again. But he’d scowled at her, turned his back on her. Maybe her poem would change his mind, but maybe it wouldn’t, and she’d have to live with that. At least he’d know that she hadn’t given up on him easily.

 

As soon as Sandor started his shift, Selmy sent him and Tarth out on a call to a nightclub. Some girl had locked herself in the bathroom, drunk and crying. The uniforms assigned to the area were both male, and they thought a woman might have better luck resolving the issue. Selmy asked him to check in with the club owner, if he was there, while Sandor was watching Tarth’s back. If the guy was serving liquor to underaged girls, it wouldn’t be his first offense.

Sure enough, the twat was setting up shots for a couple of girls who looked fresh out of high school. While Tarth headed to the ladies’ room, Sandor clapped a hand on the club owner’s back and asked him for a friendly little chat. The weaselly dick had all sorts of things to say then. The electronic squeals and stutters that passed for music hurt Sandor’s ears, like tiny little mallets striking over and over. He hadn’t been hitting the booze as hard as earlier in the week, but his head still hadn’t recovered. Fuck, getting older sucked balls. And this fuckwit kept yammering at him about his constitutional rights or some shit. Finally, Sandor took him outside to calm his ass down before the martyr-to-overzealous-prosecution speech ramped up to hysterics. He figured the pussy would sound less righteous without an audience of beholden employees.

He was right. Once they were outside, he was able to get the guy to settle down and agree that the safety of the girl in the bathroom was the highest priority. The uniforms asking the kids in line for the club for their proof of age probably helped bring home the seriousness of the situation more than Sandor looming over the dickweed, although he did pride himself on his looming. Few people could get more cooperation out of a suspect with looming than he could. It was a lost art. Just to emphasize his point, he loomed over the guy some more, and was gratified when he got real quiet.

He didn’t like the club scene, never had. He was more comfortable with quiet places, like being at home watching nature documentaries with Stranger. That was how he knew about the Laysan albatross, which mated for life. The male Laysan albatross would, once a year, fly several thousand miles over a period of five months to find the very spot where he’d met his mate the year before and somehow get there just hours before she did. How did the albatross know when to meet his mate? It was a big fucking ass mystery, just like he didn’t understand how he knew Sansa was across the street watching him, or how they’d both ended up here at the same time. But he could feel her stare pulling on him, forcing him to look at her. That hair of hers was like a homing beacon.

She was so goddamn beautiful. Every time he saw her, it stopped his breathing, stunned him like the first time they’d met. She also wasn’t alone. Some prissy pretty boy with expensive clothes and a flawless face was grabbing her hand. And what the fuck? She had tarted up in a clingy dress (very clingy, he couldn’t stop noticing) to go out clubbing and now she was just going to let some rich, entitled prick fawn all over her when he was right in front of her? Well, fuck that.

He marched back into the club to find Tarth and get the fuck out of Dodge. Sansa had gotten over him that quickly, huh? Hadn’t even been a week. He couldn’t get over her that quickly. No, he was a fucking stupid albatross.

Tarth must’ve seen something on his face – ha ha, yeah – because she nodded and headed for the exit. “The girl’s fine. I don’t think anyone slipped her anything, I think she’s just an inexperienced drinker.”

“That must be nice,” he growled.

“Obviously, it isn’t, and you’re not listening. I’m going to ask the uniforms to let her sit in their car until her mother arrives.”

He ground his teeth. “Can we arrest this jerkwad for selling booze to children?”

“She used her older sister’s license to get in, so the bouncers weren’t totally at fault.” Tarth gave him the once over. “We’re not going to arrest someone because you’re in a mood.”

“Pfft, whatever. The sleazebag will keep sleazing then, with our permission for fuck’s sake.”

Tarth stopped him in the doorway and pinned him with a surprisingly authoritative glare. She could probably do a decent loom herself. “Stay right here. I’m going to talk to the uniforms.”

Fuck that. He had to know if Sansa was still there. He stepped outside with Tarth. Sansa was gone. She was probably dancing with her fucking pretty boy in the flowery blouse. Although the kid must’ve noticed the way she stared at Sandor, as if she never intended to stop looking and looking until she uncovered his secrets and peered all the way to his soul.

He could search for her. Should he do that? No, it would be a very bad idea, the worst fucking idea ever. What would he say to her? “I’m sorry I said you didn’t have a dog?” Let her go. She’d be better off without him.

All he deserved – hell, all he’d ever asked for – was his mind numbing routine. A job that distracted his thoughts and to be left alone in peace afterwards. Alone, that was the key. Alright, maybe with his dog. But fewer nature documentaries, those were fucking cancer. He could concentrate on work for a while. It might even be good for him, pretending he had a career and shit.

He let Tarth’s summary of the call wash over him as they proceeded back to the station, saying “uh-huh” in all the right places. Nobody ever wanted to examine him too closely, so he could fake paying attention pretty easily. He could keep doing that for a few more years until the routine let the gashes in his psyche scab over. Yeah, that was the ticket, just bury himself in the job.

As soon as they got back to the station, Selmy called him into his office. “I’m sorry, Detective Clegane, but I have to send you home.”

“What? What the hell did I do?” It had to be a complaint, but for what? He’d been a good dog and done everything he’d been asked.

Selmy actually did seem sorry, and he shook his head ruefully. “Our favorite defense attorney Petyr Baelish has filed a complaint against you on behalf of Sansa Stark.”

“But—” He didn’t know what the fuck he could say. He knew Sansa would be his downfall, but not like this. He wouldn’t peg her as vindictive, but maybe he was wrong. He’d been quite the bastard to her, a real fucking asshole. “Right,” he said. “Right.”

“I’m sure it’s just Baelish being Baelish,” Selmy said. “Commissioner Lannister wants to see you first thing tomorrow and get this straightened out.”

Oh, what the fuck, how was talking to Jaime Lannister going to help? He felt his temper start to get the better of him and clenched his molars together. He didn’t want to take this out on Selmy, who tried to have his back, other than that goddamn mandatory gala crap that had bested him in the end.

Defeated, angry, tired, and with an ache in his head that the jaw grinding was making a thousand times worse, he dragged his sorry ass to his truck. Over, it was all over. He didn’t even have routine anymore.

There was a note on his windshield. If it was a fucking parking ticket, he was going to shove it up someone’s craphole.

It wasn’t a parking ticket.

He’s my knight in shining armor
Chivalrous and brave

Instead of a signature, Sansa had drawn a songbird. Damn, she was talented.

After all that, after everything, she’d written those words to him, drawn a picture just for him. What the fuck was he supposed to do with these strange things closing up his throat? Feelings, that what they were. How was he going to kill them off this time?

Huh, so much for being brave.

He drove around in circles, thinking. He didn’t deserve Sansa’s affection. She shouldn’t be writing him a poem. Giving affection to him was like throwing it down a well. A dank, abandoned, crumbling, rotten, stinking pit, not that he was being overly emotional about it or anything.

He should’ve been her knight, but he hadn’t been. He hadn’t trusted her. But maybe there was still time to make up for that.

Chapter Text

The police commissioner’s office was in City Hall, near the offices of Mayor Mace Tyrell and District Attorney Jon Arryn. Sandor wanted to feel resentment as he waited for hours for Jaime Lannister to become available, but City Hall was distractingly beautiful. It was hard to stay angry as he walked over a floor of blue mosaic tiles that represented the Blackwater, and under skylights that opened up to a new law library, which featured a marble statue of the same dragon on his police badge. On the job, putting the law into practice involved compromise after compromise. Here, it was all so neat and clean, lofty ideals represented by empty libraries and statuary of extinct animals. It seemed as if a person could take a stand on principle here and be taken seriously. He liked that idea. Not that anyone had asked him, but he’d prefer a world that was less gray and more black and white.

Then Jaime Lannister finally showed up, proving that the ideals of law and justice didn’t mean shit in Kings Landing. He sauntered into the building around 11 am with a coffee cup in his one hand. Everyone in that family believed mornings were reserved for the working classes, except that scary bastard Tywin.

“Hope I didn’t keep you waiting, Hound.” The shit-eating grin was a dead giveaway that he meant the opposite. “Justice never rests, right?”

“Nah, it just sleeps in,” he said.

The Commissioner got a uniform. Sandor was surprised Lannister wore it on a daily basis, but the guy was ex-military, and he knew from personal experience how hard it was to get used to picking out your own outfits after wearing a uniform for a few years. Still, it was fucking weird that Lannister hadn’t jumped on the chance to show up for work in bespoke clothing. The Commissioner’s uniform must’ve given him the same sense of superiority, with its fucking gilded braid and hardware. Lannister didn’t bother with the hat, of course. He’d always been vain about his hair.

He followed Lannister into his office, which was swimming with diet soda cans, unmoored cables, and indecipherable post-it notes. For ex-military, Lannister was a slob. He felt sorry for the guy as he watched him struggle to open his laptop with his left hand and log in, but when he went to help, Lannister snapped, “Stay on your side of the desk.”

That was Jaime Lannister all over. If you started to feel sympathy, he had to order you back in your lane.

He sat down in one of the too-small chairs Lannister kept for company, the only one not covered in piles of crap. “So, I’ve been here since first thing in the morning, like you requested.” As if there was a point to harping on it, as if he was going to get an apology.

“I didn’t disturb your beauty sleep, did I?” The sarcasm would’ve been more intimidating if Lannister wasn’t squinting at the laptop’s screen.

“People your age usually use reading glasses,” he said, because he apparently had to make sure he was still his own worst enemy, for fuck’s sake.

Lannister scowled at him. “Cute, Hound, cute. Anyway, this Baelish thing. He’s filed a complaint against you on behalf of Sansa Stark. It’s not a criminal complaint or anything—"

“How in seven hells could it be a criminal complaint?”

“I just said it wasn’t.”

“Yeah, but how was that something you had to say?”

Lannister leaned back in his fancy office chair and crossed his arms. “Can you not be a pain in the ass about this? For once? For me?”

Sandor inhaled deeply. “You’re right. Not your fault Baelish filled out a fucking piece of paper.”

“An internal affairs complaint,” Lannister clarified. “And those go to me, fortunately for you, because this isn’t the first complaint against you. Actually, it’s not even the first complaint against you from Baelish.”

“There’s only two complaints, and they’re both from Baelish. He’s a complainer.” That was good, he didn’t curse Baelish that time, the twatwaffle.

“True, but this one’s a little different than his usual brand of butthurt. He says you violated Ms. Stark’s constitutional rights by not recusing yourself from her case.” And here the shit-eating grin returned. “Since you’re dating her.”

“I’m not dating her.”

“See, I watched you dating her, on an actual date.” The grin intensified. “In fact, I warned you on that date, that very datey date, this could be a problem.”

“No, you told me she was using me.” Damn, he hated the way Lannister glossed over the truth. “Anyway, I’m not in a relationship with her, and I’m no longer assigned to her case, which is all bullshit from your sister anyway, and are we done here?”

Lannister squinted at the screen again. “I’m reading your case notes from your investigation. It doesn’t look like bullshit to me. Your notes are pretty clear that the Stark girl stole the tapestry, and that it doesn’t belong to her.”

Shit. “I have new information. Renly Baratheon is holding the tapestry for the university.”

“Goodie for him. Back to the Stark girl. Was she using you?” When he growled in response, Lannister added, “What? I’m curious to see if I was right.”

“When are you ever fucking right?” That was too much and he knew it. He cracked his knuckles one by one as a self-soothing technique. “The tapestry is back where it belongs. Don’t you think we should let this go?”

“No. I have a responsibility to the citizens of Kings Landing to find out if you’ve violated anyone’s constitutional rights.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” He was trying to hold onto his temper, but dammit, why wouldn’t Lannister meet him halfway? Why did he have to keep poking at his soft spots?

“Look, if she asked her lawyer to file a complaint against you—”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh, come on, you don’t know that.” Lannister wheeled his chair closer in. “You’re not in a relationship with her. You said it yourself. Maybe when her plan to get out of trouble by flirting with you didn’t work, she moved onto Plan B.”

“What the fuck?” Acid bubbled in his guts. He could not take the bait here, he had to get through this conversation without throttling Lannister. “There’s no fucking Plan B. There’s no fucking theft. Go talk to your brother-in-law at the university. He has the tapestry.”

“I don’t care about the tapestry. I don’t even know what it is.” Lannister’s forehead crinkled. “What is it, anyway, some kind of blanket?”

“Fucking idiot,” he muttered under his breath.

“I heard that perfectly well, despite my advanced age,” Lannister said. “You know, I’m trying to help you, asking you about your relationship problems and everything.”

“What is this, a slumber party? I don’t have any fucking problems, for fuck’s sake. This is Baelish being a twatwaffle again.” Shit, he’d just congratulated himself for not saying twatwaffle out loud.

“Alright, so tell me how you know for sure that she didn’t ask Baelish to file the complaint.”

He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t share his poem with Lannister, and he couldn’t explain that Sansa thought he was someone better than he actually was. He’d failed her. He was supposed to be her knight in shining armor, but here he was, taking his marching orders from Lannister again.

“This is all bullshit from beginning to end,” he said, being careful to moderate his volume. “The tapestry’s Sansa’s work in the first place—”

“Ah, now you’re on a first name basis.”

Gods, Lannister was so fucking smug and annoying. “Yeah, you saw us on a date.”

“Aha! I knew it was a date.”

Smug and annoying and a fucking idiot. He closed his eyes for the space of a breath. Inhale, exhale. He’d be home enjoying peace and quiet in just a few minutes.

“What you want to do,” he said calmly, “is drop the case completely before Baelish starts telling everyone that you arrested Sansa for stealing her own work.”

Lannister shrugged. “I didn’t arrest her. You arrested her. That’s why you’re here, remember? Violating her constitutional rights.” He lifted a perfect, golden eyebrow. “Hey, you’d let me know if you violated anything of hers, wouldn’t you?”

He stood up. “Yeah, we’re fucking done here.”

“You don’t honestly think she’s innocent?” Lannister seemed on the verge of laughter, which was just fucking insulting. “She broke into Cersei’s home, stole something valuable that doesn’t belong to her, and then leveraged the way her ass looks in a dress to get you to back off. Very nice ass, but—”

“You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. No fucking clue.”

Lannister was on his feet. “Stay on your side of my desk.”

Shit, when had he moved? Whatever, wasn’t important. “I’m doing you a favor by telling you to drop the charges against her before Cersei’s shit backfires on you.”

“Your own case notes say something different. Your notes make it clear that this is at least a misdemeanor theft, if not a felony.”

Only a few minutes ago, Sandor had been thinking that City Hall was a place to take a stand on principle. He knew he could swallow his pride, apologize, and let Lannister’s inane conversation wash over him. He was capable of it. But he had principles, dammit, didn’t he?

“That tapestry never belonged to your sister or your nephew,” he said. “They can’t just decide what they own and then make us run around fetching it for them like …” He wasn’t going to say dogs. “That isn’t real police work. We could be spending this time going after actual criminals.”

Lannister looked just like his father with his cold, disdainful sneer. “Well, that’s rich, coming from you. Pretending you have the moral high ground after trying to fuck the suspect.”

He curled his hands into fists while blackness threatened to overtake his vision. “Fuck this. I fucking tried. You want to let your sister drag your reputation through shit, that’s your business. Leave me the fuck out of it.”

“That’s exactly what I plan to do.” Lannister was cold as marble. Sandor tended to forget that the flighty playboy act was just that, an act. “Give me your badge.”

“What?”

“You heard me.” Lannister thumped the desk with his stump. “I’m suspending you based on the number of citizen complaints against you. Badge. Now.”

He couldn’t be serious. He couldn’t be losing his job over this. “You doing this on account of Baelish?”

“I could give a flying fuck about Baelish.”

“On account of Cersei?”

Lannister blinked, and it was just enough to prove the remark hit home. “I asked you to make a case against Sansa Stark, and you won’t do it. I’m letting you know what the consequences are. Unless this changes your mind and you will do it?”

So much for principle. Why had he thought the truth would stand a chance here? He shouldn’t be surprised. He’d always known there were consequences for not playing along with the Lannisters. That was why he’d always played along.

He pulled his badge off his belt, the metal edges scraping his palm. It wasn’t like the badge represented anything. Maybe it had long ago, when dragons were real, but maybe not. Kings Landing had always been a corrupt hive of scum and villainy.

He threw the badge on Lannister’s desk and left without looking back.

That felt good in the moment, but even before he exited the building, he realized he couldn’t take a stand and keep his fucking job. He wouldn’t be able to get a job anywhere else, either, not after being suspended due to citizen complaints. Eventually, he’d have to go crawling back and apologize. And sure as the sun rose in the east, Lannister would make him fucking grovel.

 

The creep from Maiden’s Hell hadn’t given up. She’d blocked him on all of her social media accounts, but he started sending anonymous messages, a whole grab bag of nice guy clichés, everything from “I’ve always treated you like a lady” to “I guess you think you’re better than me.” A few days after her disastrous meeting with Joffrey, she saw an unfamiliar car cruising her apartment’s parking lot and got so scared, she hid in the bathroom. As she sat on the fuzzy bath mat, afraid to stand even though the bathroom window was smaller than her sketchbook, she realized she couldn’t face this alone. It was sobering that the only person she trusted was her little sister.

“We need to go to the police,” Arya said as she sat on the edge of the bathtub. “This could be a reason to talk to your Hound again.”

Sansa shook her head. If her poem hadn’t changed his mind, she didn’t think anything would. She’d hoped so much that her heartfelt words would make him need to find her. It was just another one of her childish daydreams.

“I did meet one of his friends who might help,” Sansa said. “Her name’s Brienne, and—"

“Brienne Tarth?” Arya’s eyes lit up. “She’s perfect!”

“How do you know Brienne?” Sansa reconsidered. “Do I want to know the answer to that?”

Arya grinned. “Nope. Let’s go.”

Sansa almost pointed out that Arya didn’t need to go, but honestly, she didn’t feel like going anywhere by herself. She drove downtown and circled the municipal parking garage, searching for Sandor’s truck and failing to find it. With any luck, she wouldn’t run into him in the police station. Although if she did meet him accidentally … no. She had to get her head out of the clouds. If her writing had any effect on him, he’d have let her know by now.

Sandor wasn’t in the police station, but Brienne was there, attacking her keyboard with hard, staccato bursts of typing. She looked up in obvious surprise when Sansa and Arya approached her desk, which they made more confusing when they talked over each other, Sansa trying to introduce Brienne to her sister properly and Arya asking after Brienne’s arm injury.

Brienne glanced between them, shifted as if she wanted to say something, swallowed, and started again. “Maybe you’d better tell me why you’re here.”

“Sansa’s being stalked, and it’s gone from cyberstalking to IRL stalking,” Arya said.

Sansa tugged her hair. Brienne’s demeanor was making her feel overexamined and nervous. “I can show you some texts, but I know there’s not a lot you can do about that.”

“I can. If this guy is haunting our apartment, I’m going to scare the crap out of him,” Arya said.

Brienne side-eyed them before she looked over her shoulder, as if she was expecting eavesdroppers. “Arya mentioned this to me before. I want to help you. It’s not your fault that this isn’t the best time.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, should I come back later?” Sansa asked.

“That … won’t help.” Brienne sighed. “The complaint your lawyer filed against Detective Clegane is making people here—”

“The what?” Sansa’s heart beat inside her eardrums. “My lawyer did what?”

“Holy shit,” Arya said. “That explains a lot.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Sansa said, her voice sneaking up to a high-pitched squeal. “It doesn’t explain anything. How could that, that …”

“Bastard,” Arya suggested.

“Yes, that bastard file a complaint without telling me?”

Brienne frowned. “You’re not going to like what I tell you next.”

It got worse? Sansa took the chair next to Brienne’s desk. If she stayed on her feet, she might faint in the middle of the police station without Sandor there, which would be a total waste of a faint.

Brienne looked at the ceiling as if it could rescue her. When it didn’t, she said, “Because of his handling of your case, Detective Clegane has been suspended.”

“Holy shit,” Arya said.

Sansa buried her face in her hands. Ohhh, this was a disaster of epic proportions. The next time she saw Petyr Baelish … well, she didn’t know what she was going to do, but it would be incredibly drastic. No wonder Sandor hated her. She’d never be talented enough to write a poem that would outweigh him losing his job over her. If only she could explain—

She could explain! She could go to his house and tell him she had nothing to do with her lawyer’s complaint. She didn’t expect him to believe her, not after she’d withheld the truth about the tapestry and got him into this mess, but she owed him the truth. She owed herself a chance to tell the truth. It would be up to him whether he trusted her. The alternative was to do nothing, and she couldn’t do nothing. Every bone in her body ached for action. She couldn’t sit here another second.

“Where are you going?” Arya called after her.

Oh, right, Arya.

“You’re going to his house, aren’t you?” Arya said.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Brienne said, her voice level but her eyes filled with real concern. Sansa was glad they’d met. It could be the silver lining in this catastrophe. No, it was an uncatastrophe because Sansa was going to fix it.

“She’s a Stark,” Arya said. “She can’t sit here when she could be doing something reckless instead.”

I’m not the reckless one, she thought. I’m the Stark who can sit still, who can do what she’s expected to do, but screw it. Her heart was pumping blood through her so fast that sitting wasn’t an option. Some things were worth being reckless for.

“You can wait in the car,” Sansa said.

“As if. I’ll stay here and catch up with Brienne,” Arya said. “You can call me after your frontal assault.”

Brienne could deal with Arya. Sansa had a mission. She was going to fix everything between her and Sandor, and then they could get back to the romantic part where he was courting her and lavishing her with his full attention. And kissing, they definitely had to get back to the kissing part. Maybe she should skip the talking and go straight to the kissing. But first, she had to apologize for her lawyer.

She was all jittery, driving too fast, and the impatient, squirmy feeling was worse when she got to Sandor’s house. The last glimmers of the sunset created patches of pinkish orange light on the lawn, illuminating a burst of blooming daffodils. Stranger started barking as soon as she got out of her car, but not loud enough to cover the songs of crickets. It was all so domestic. Not that it stopped her anxiety from making her legs weigh a thousand pounds as she made her way to the yellow front door.

Sandor stepping outside took her breath away. She froze, studying his face for any clue of his feelings toward her, any hint of what she should do next. His gaze swallowed her whole, left her no room for coherent thought.

“Why are you here?” His gravelly voice echoed in the empty space inside her.

I love you and I want to stay here forever seemed too strong for an opening line. While her brain rebooted, her body drifted to him of its own volition.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she said when she could talk again. “Can I come in?”

He was piercing her with his scrutiny, and she wanted to turn herself inside out so he could clearly see everything in her mind and her soul. But whatever he was looking for, he must not have seen it. He turned away from her and shrugged, as if it didn’t matter, as if nothing mattered.

She followed him in the house. Stranger was a good distraction for a minute, and she tried to pull herself together while she let the dog sniff her hands and confirm that she belonged.

“I didn’t ask you to come here,” he said, and he moved away to sit on the couch, creating more distance between them.

“I know.” She decided to start at the very beginning. She buried her fingers in the fur on the top of Stranger’s head for comfort. “When I met you … I didn’t think taking the tapestry would hurt anyone other than myself.”

“And your boyfriend Joffrey.” There was a glass of dark liquor and ice on the coffee table in front of him. He stared at the glass but didn’t reach for it.

“It wasn’t about him.”

Stranger trotted over to Sandor, which was proper and the way it should be, but Sansa felt bereft. She tried to pick up the story. “I’m sorry. I should’ve confessed in the police station when I met you. I was just … I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You were drunk.” He tapped his fingers on his knee. “You did what you had to do. Only a fucking moron would’ve confessed to the police.”

What was she doing wrong? How was she unable to bridge the gap between them? She should jump ahead in the story, gather her courage and be totally honest. “Then you brought me back here on your motorcycle and I thought I was in love with you.”

His head snapped up. Finally, she could see his smoldering gray eyes clearly, and could tell he wasn’t being casual at all but was holding back from showing his strong emotions.

“You … but … “ He ground his teeth together, and a muscle tic jumped on his jaw. “When did you come to your senses?”

“What do you mean?”

“When did you realize that you would’ve been better off if you’d never met me?”

“Never.” He was avoiding her eyes again. She needed him to look at her, she needed him to understand this. She sat down next to him on the couch. “I’m never going to think that.”

“You should. It’s the truth.”

Then he did look at her, and his expression reflected the pain he was holding back from slicing her to ribbons and turning on himself instead. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it as hard as she could.

“I’m here because I want to be with you,” she said. “Because I always want to be with you.”

He threw off her hand. “Well, that’s fucking stupid.”

She was so surprised that she slapped his arm without thinking. “How dare you say that me? That was a heartfelt confession.”

He grunted and hid his face behind his hair, as if he realized he was in the wrong but wasn’t ready to admit it. Stubborn man.

“You think talking about feelings is so easy, you try it,” she said, “instead of leaving me anonymous notes.”

“Don’t start on me with the anonymous notes,” he said. “Your note got me suspended.”

“How does that follow? You didn’t show it to anyone, did you?”

He blew out a breath. “Who would believe me? Look at you. You’re beautiful, talented. You’re young and … and you’re good at talking to people. You have gorgeous legs.” He traced her jawline with one finger. “Beautiful eyes.”

“Oh.” Suddenly it was hard to breathe. She inched closer to him until their legs were touching, and he didn’t push her away. She had to remember to go slow with him and resist the urge to rest her head on his broad shoulder, even though it was an overpowering instinct. She dipped forward so she could inhale his scent better.

“Sansa,” he said, “what are you doing?”

She peered up at him through her eyelashes. He was so close now. She couldn’t be expected to string words together when his body heat was soaking through her jeans.

“Dammit, stop looking at me like that,” he said, but it was so quiet, she knew he didn’t mean it. It wasn’t as if she could stop. She wasn’t jumping in his lap and burying her face in his neck, and that was taking all of her concentration. Going slow was excruciating, it was torture.

“You don’t want this.” His voice was hoarse and cracked.

“You shouldn’t tell me what I want as if I can’t speak for myself,” she said. She trailed her fingers up his thigh, feather light touches she didn’t know if he could feel.

“Fuck,” he said, and he finally, finally, finally kissed her.

His hand covered her shoulder, pulling her closer. His lips opened against hers, his tongue urgent and needy, and there was nothing slow about this kiss at all. She flung an arm around him, scrambled to her knees to reach him better. He moaned into her mouth, and hot lust snaked from there to her belly. She pushed into him, greedy, desperately trying to get him to make that noise again. His arm came around her waist, lifting her onto his lap as if she was weightless, only the rough sensation of his lips against hers keeping her tethered to reality.

When he backed away from her and put her back on the couch, she whined at the loss of contact.

“You don’t want to do this.” His deep voice was wrecking her. “Look at me.”

She widened her eyes so he knew she was looking. Then she ran her fingers over his scarred cheek. “I know what you look like. Maybe you should be looking at me.”

She could imagine how she looked right now, hair mussed, eyes dark with desire, and lips swollen from kissing.

He squinted at her suspiciously. “Stop trying to look adorable.”

“I’m not.” Well, she was a bit, but the situation definitely called for feminine wiles.

“This is fucking unfair, you know, expecting me to stop this.” It was as if he was forcing himself to be angry at her, as if he needed anger like a security blanket.

She wound her fingers through his and rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb. “I don’t want to stop this.”

“You should. I have nothing to offer you. I look fucking terrifying, my family is shit, I didn’t have faith in you when you needed me, and when I tried to make a stand for you …”

“What did you do?” It was something amazingly gallant, she was sure. She should’ve realized that losing his job over her had been the ultimate romantic gesture.

Very gently, he put her hand back in her own lap. “Nope. Not doing this. I can’t do this to you. You have to leave now.”

“I can’t leave now. You can’t just, just …” Why weren’t there words to make him see sense? “You can’t give me all those wonderful compliments and kiss me like that and then make me leave you.”

He stood, his expression turning to granite. “You need to go.”

She leaped in front of him and grabbed his arms, trying to make him meet her eyes. “But I can’t go. I think … I think maybe you’re my soulmate.”

He gasped, and she had done that, she made him gasp. His gaze bore into her, making her dizzy. She dug her fingers into his arms. “Don’t you need to know? If you’re my soulmate?”

His lip curled into a sneer. “I’m not your soulmate. There’s no such thing. You think life’s some sort of love song? Get a grip.”

It hurt hard, like a sledgehammer to the chest. She had to close her eyes. She couldn’t look at him with this much pain echoing between them.

“I’m a bad person and I’ve done bad things,” he said. She hadn’t realized she’d started crying until he gently wiped her cheek. His switch to tenderness made her hurt worse. “Are you listening, little bird?”

“I hear you saying that you think you’re a bad person, and you feel guilty about things you did.” Her voice sounded so wobbly. “A bad person wouldn’t feel guilty. A bad person would lie to me. We’ve both known bad people, and we both know you’re not one.”

He sighed. “Yeah, well, there’s worse to come.” He dropped his hand. “I can’t help you anymore, okay? Not that I ever fucking helped at all.”

“I don’t care. I’m not trying to get you to rescue me. I just want to be with you.” Stupid tears, stupid childish, immature Sansa. Of course he didn’t want to be with her.

The tic was back in his jaw. “Stop it. You need to stop. Just go.”

He didn’t give her another chance to make her case. He walked away from her, Stranger following, leaving her alone in the living room. She heard a door slam further in the house. He was dismissing her. She couldn’t see well enough to drive, but she couldn’t stay here a second longer. He didn’t want her here, and she was just going to keep crying and saying things that made them both feel worse.

The sound of him saying ‘I’m not your soulmate’ was seared into her. It played on repeat as she staggered to her car, as she waited behind the steering wheel to calm down. As if she could wear down the sharpness of it with repetition. She hoped he’d come outside to stop her from crying. Even as she told herself it was a forlorn hope, she kept hoping it. He didn’t.

What could she do next? Become a septa. Fire her lawyer. There had to something.

She wiped away the last of her tears. She knew what she had to do. She had to go home, and be an adult, and stop thinking she was worthy of some grand romance. That was all fairy tale stuff. Sandor wouldn’t accept her love or her affection, and she was powerless to change that.

Chapter Text

Sandor wasn’t accustomed to second guessing himself. If there was the slightest fucking tendency to think twice in the Clegane genes, his father and brother wouldn’t be enjoying the free meals and entertainment in prison.

However. Telling Sansa to go away had not been his finest moment.

On the other hand, he was fucked, wasn’t he? He had no choice but to get on his knees to Jaime Lannister and suck his dick, figuratively speaking. Once Sansa had her court hearing, she’d know it was his own investigation making her out to be the guilty party. Lannister had been clear as glass: make the case against Sansa or give up his career.

He could do something else for a living. He had skills. He knew all the street-level drug dealers and informants in Flea Bottom. That had to be worth … something? Fuck. He couldn’t even try to make himself into a private investigator, not with Tyrion Lannister and Petyr Baelish blacklisting him. Fuck. Alright, he had other skills. He just couldn’t think of what they were right now.

He could starve. Not like he’d never been poor and hungry before. But he knew from experience how fucking hard it was to climb out of that hole, and he wasn’t 20 years old and bulletproof anymore.

Sansa had thought he’d been joking when he’d said he could either be a cop or a criminal. She thought he had all sorts of valuable skills, like dog wrangling and poetry writing and making out in elevators.

She was better off without him. There wasn’t a single person in Westeros who wouldn’t swear to the Seven that Sansa Stark could do a hell of a lot better than him. He’d never been worth anything to anyone. A few short days as her knight in shining armor shouldn’t be enough to ruin him. Someday, in a future decade, it was bound to stop feeling like he’d replaced his fucking useless heart with a ravenous black hole. At least the romantic part of his brain had shut up for good. He’d always wanted that, right?

All there was left to do was make the call to Lannister and kiss his ass. Which he’d be doing any time now. It could wait one more day, though, at least. He couldn’t feel this damn miserable forever.

Soulmate. Why did she have to use that word? What kind of sick joke were the gods playing on him? If only he could stop that word from echoing in the air around him.

He was dozing off in front of a nature documentary – lions this time because he really fucking hated himself – when his phone dinged with an incoming text. Ding. He chose to ignore it. He didn’t want to hear from anyone, not a fucking syllable.

Ding. What if it was Sansa? He didn’t want to hear from her either. Shit, he did, but he shouldn’t. So, no reading his phone.

Ding. But what if it was her? It could be the last text she ever sent him. Nah, fuck it, he was not going to look at his phone. She’d given up on him. She had. She would.

Ding. Dammit, he had to fucking know.

It was not Sansa. It was the Blackwater Brewery claiming they had his credit card. See, he’d moved for nothing. He may have been there piss drunk the night he decided he was a fucking poet, but he’d checked his wallet since then. Wrong guy, he texted back.

You’re Sandor Clegane, right? There was a photo attached to the text, and he’d be damned if that wasn’t his credit card with his name on it. What the fuck?

I’m only going to be here between two and four this afternoon. Can you come get your card then?

OK but who is this? He texted back.

He got no answer. He had a feeling it was the kraken lady, Sansa’s friend who worked at the restaurant. He knew he had his credit card in his wallet, but he wouldn’t put it past her to have taken a picture of it when he was blitzed. She probably wanted to tell him he was a fucking asshole, as if he didn’t already know. Might as well get it over with. It was either that or lie here in front of the TV, where the lioness was grooming the cute little cubs with her tongue, and it was making him all teary eyed because he was a pussy. He didn’t need to make that worse by cowering at home, scared of a barista. If Sansa was at the restaurant, he’d walk out.

Just in case, he changed his clothes into something less slept in. Not that he’d stay there long enough for Sansa to notice. She had a pretty sharp eye, though. Hard to get things past her. He didn’t want her to think he’d spent the last 16 hours curled in a fucking ball sobbing at baby animals.

When he walked into the pub, the first, most obvious thing he noticed was no sign of Sansa. A complete absence of the smell of her perfume and of the sensuous electricity she sparked around her. For the rest of his life, the first thing he’d notice about every room he entered was that she wasn’t there.

Tarth was there instead, sitting at the bar with a garden salad and an ice water, which was probably all she consumed. Maybe ethically sourced tofu, too, because she must eat a lot of protein. She wasn’t a small woman, that was for sure. Tarth gave him the once over, and he felt himself blushing under her scrutiny. For fuck’s sake, what did he have to be embarrassed about?

Everything. His entire life. Right, he’d almost forgotten for second there.

Kraken Lady waved at him from behind the bar. He knew her name was Yara Greyjoy, but he didn’t feel obligated to use it.

“Where’s my card?” he asked.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She had a grin like she’d blackmailed a dentist into making her teeth look pointy.

Suddenly, a blur of feral energy was rushing toward him, making him flash back to the TV carnivores on the savannah. The she-wolf had come out of nowhere, and he realized too late that he’d walked into an ambush.

“You.” Arya Stark pointed at him, a vicious jab. She wore fingerless gloves, and what kind of cunt wore fingerless gloves in public? He’d have to set her straight one of these days.

He looked at Kraken Lady behind the bar. “You got me. Happy? Now I’m leaving.”

Arya’s jaw dropped. “I can’t believe you. Here my sister is in all sorts of trouble, being harassed by a stalker, and you don’t have time to hear it.”

His central nervous system uncoupled from his brain, stopping him from leaving and making his hands want to curl around something hard and wreck the shit out of it. “What did you just say?”

“I know that tone of voice,” Tarth said blandly. “Sit down and we’ll approach this rationally.”

“Oh, please, Brienne.” Arya hoisted herself up on a barstool. “The last thing we need is rationality.”

“That’s why I texted him,” Kraken Lady said.

“Well, what the fuck does Sansa have to say?” he said.

Arya rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. While we were figuring it out, Sansa left to go talk to some jackass who blamed her for getting him suspended.”

“That’s not—” Fuck it, trying to address that was pointless. He could ignore the internal bleeding. “So you’re going to, what, come up with something behind her back? Not even consult her?”

“You don’t get to complain about that,” Arya said, not even denying it. She swiveled her chair, knocking Tarth’s elbow. Tarth either chose not to point it out or was zen enough not to care.

“Sit down and let me get you a burger,” Kraken Lady said. “Don’t worry about paying, I got your credit card number already.”

“Clegane, you know what the problem is,” Tarth said. “He’s not somebody she knows, and she doesn’t have a protection order.”

He grabbed a cocktail stirrer from the bar and put it in his mouth so he’d stop grinding his back teeth. He knew what the problem was alright. The police couldn’t do much without a restraining order. And when someone was stalked by a stranger, they didn’t have enough information on the perp to get a restraining order.

“She thinks he’s been lurking in his car in front of our apartment.” Arya spun her barstool as she spoke. “I’m going to stake him out tonight and get a license plate number.”

Tarth locked gazes with him before he could say anything. “I am not condoning anything illegal. Having said that, if this creep does show up, a strong warning might be enough to scare him off.”

“A strong warning,” he repeated.

Why hadn’t Sansa told him this? He was supposed to be her knight … oh, right. He’d never saved her from shit. He kept failing her. It may have taken her a while to figure it out, but she was smart. It must’ve clicked eventually.

The Greyjoy woman handed him a soda water with a lemon wedge. “I’m working tonight, and so is Brienne. But we don’t think Arya should wait for this asshole on her own.”

“I could totally scare him off myself.” Arya grimaced at him. “I’ll never look as scary as you, though.”

“You’re fucking annoying me, she-wolf.”

But Arya knew he was going with her tonight. He could make this dickweasel piss himself in fear and get his name and license number at the same time. Then Tarth could run the number at the station, and he could look forward to fucking up someone’s life very badly. Somebody’s else’s life for once, not his own.

Sansa should’ve told him. Didn’t she know he’d do anything she needed, anything she asked? Of course, all she’d asked him was to spend time with her, and he’d kicked her out of his house. Goddamn it, adjusting to life after Sansa would be much easier if this motley crew had tricked him into coming so they could call him a dick instead of bringing him lunch and a mission. They knew he was a dick, right? They’d met him, so yeah, they must know.

“I know you have a truck because Sansa keeps looking for it,” Arya said, making him feel even worse, “so here’s the plan. You pick me up outside of my apartment complex right after sunset. We drive around the block until this scumbag shows up.”

“You know what kind of car he drives?” he asked.

“No, but I’ll recognize the bitch boy on sight. I should’ve kicked him in the fork when I had the chance.”

Yara put two plates of cheeseburgers and fries on the counter, one for him and one for Arya. “If you’re not careful, life will keep presenting you with missed opportunities, chances you’ll wish you’d taken. Right, detective?”

He shoved the burger in his mouth so he didn’t have to answer. It was a good burger, he hadn’t eaten all day, and, lost job or not, he was sure he was paying for both plates. He should really stop indulging Arya one of these days. He wasn’t sure why he’d started, although he could take a good fucking guess.

“Again, I’m not condoning violence,” Tarth said.

“Noooo,” Arya said. “We get it. No worries.”

He wasn’t thrilled about staking out Sansa’s apartment without her knowledge, but the alternative was to call her and warn her. Except if he heard the sound of her voice, he’d throw himself at her feet and beg for her forgiveness. He didn’t have the willpower to push her away a second time. The only way he could remain noble and give her up for her own sake was to never speak to her again.

He consulted the romantic part of his brain for its take on the situation, but he’d finally killed that part of him. The soup that remained of his thought processes informed him he’d fucked up enough and he should let someone else tell him what to do for once. Arya, though? Seemed a stretch, but what the hell did he have to lose?

Nothing. He had nothing. That was the whole point. It was the reason to give up Sansa. It was the reason he was desperate to hang onto a few more hours in her orbit, even if she wasn’t actually there. It was the reason Sansa’s friends knew they could rope him into being the Scary Asshole, the only role he ever seemed suited to play.

“I don’t expect you to be suspended forever,” Tarth said in an almost friendly voice. “If I were you, I wouldn’t do anything tonight that could jeopardize your return.”

“I know what I’m doing,” he replied.

He wasn’t sure when he’d lost his Scary Asshole reputation, but the three women didn’t hesitate to laugh in his face.

 

Right before it got dark, he parked on the side of the road in front of Sansa’s apartment complex. There were only a few trees, spaced far apart from each other, lining the curb in the parking lot, and he didn’t want to idle the engine where there was no cover. He’d be too easy for Sansa to spot. Arya jumped in the truck’s cab after only a minute or two. She was hauling a gray Wintertown Wolves backpack, which she threw on top of his duffel bag.

“What’s in the backpack?” he asked as he merged into traffic for a swing around the block.

“Flashlight. Binoculars. Extra battery and charging cord for my phone. A water bottle. Pair of gloves.”

That was about what he carried in his duffel bag. He had some experience with stakeouts despite suspects finding him noticeable. It turned out that he was good at focusing on his surroundings without losing interest and getting distracted, even at night. Yeah, there were some more skills to add to his resume: sitting still and staying awake.

He wasn’t going to say anything to Arya about Sansa. He’d had a stern talk with himself about that on the drive over. He circled the block before doing a drive through of the apartment complex’s parking lot, all the while keeping quiet. Arya would not be helpful when it came to relaying Sansa’s state of mind. In countless ways, she was the worst fucking possible person he could discuss Sansa with.

“Why didn’t she tell me about this asshole?” he asked.

“Ugghh, it’s so obvious.” Arya lolled in the seat as if he was torturing her. “You already forgot how you met her?”

He found a secluded spot across the street from the apartments to park the truck and killed the engine. He’d been right. There was no point in talking to Arya about this.

“No, I didn’t forget,” he said. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Arya shook her head. “I swear to the Mother, I don’t know which one of you is worse. She’s embarrassed. She’s been trying to impress you.”

He narrowed his eyes and studied her closely. She didn’t look like she was joking.

“Think about it from her point of view.” Arya undid her seatbelt and sat cross-legged. “Every time she sees you, she’s drunk or in court or getting you suspended or being tortured for dating that douchecanoe Joffrey. She doesn’t want you to think she’s a walking disaster.”

“I wouldn’t think that,” he said slowly.

“Good, because she’s not a walking disaster, not entirely.” Arya peered out the side window, studying parked cars. “You obviously care about her, so I’m not sure why you’re working so hard to make her miserable.”

“I’m making her miserable?” But Arya wouldn’t look at him. He couldn’t be the one making her miserable. That was everyone else in Sansa’s life. He couldn’t be that important to her already when she had so many people who cared about her. “Hmmph. She worries about you, too.”

“Hey, I never said I worry about her.” She dug around in her backpack and fished out a pack of gum. “Wait, what did she tell you about me?”

“You don’t know why you’re going to school.”

“Pfft,” Arya said, and nothing more. The sound of her chewing gum was going to be mighty annoying in a very short time, especially since she kept blowing little bubbles and cracking them.

He didn’t expect Sansa to be perfect. Yeah, she’d gotten arrested, but who didn’t have a drunken misunderstanding with the law in their past? Sure, the Joffrey thing showed she didn’t have the best taste in men, but that was a point in his favor, or it would’ve been if he hadn’t fucked it all up.

Arya, fortunately, got bored with the gum cracking and was quiet for a good 40 minutes before she picked up the conversation where she’d dropped it. “I don’t know why I’m going to school. It feels so pointless. Everyone in my classes annoys me, I never have any money, and I haven’t learned anything practical.”

“So take an accounting class,” he said.

“I said practical, Hound. Would you trust me with your money?”

“Where the hell did you pick up that name?” he growled at her.

She shrugged, which seemed to be Arya-speak for an apology. “It kind of suits you.”

“Got that from douchecanoe Joffrey.”

“I didn’t, I swear! Damn, you’re sensitive.” She put her feet on his dashboard, and he opened his mouth to tell her to stop, but she was back to pouring out her problems to him. “I wish I could go fishing for a living. Or roller derby. Something useful, you know? And the people I go to school with are constantly whining about the stupidest shit. I don’t know, maybe I hate people.”

“Why did you leave the North to come to Kings Landing then?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Did Sansa tell you we grew up in an igloo? There are people in the North.”

“Get your shoes off my truck,” he said.

“Bossy,” she complained, but she put her feet down. “I’m guessing you think you hate people. What are you doing in Kings Landing?”

“Babysitting you, apparently.”

She grinned at him. “You’re not doing this for me, you’re doing it for my sister. Anyway, you don’t fool me. You don’t go to the police academy unless you want to help people. Otherwise, you’d find that magically deserted northern tundra and collect animal pelts for a living.”

It may have crossed his mind while he was binging Animal Planet documentaries that it would be a nice life, setting up cameras in the wilderness and never talking to anyone but the more intelligent predators. But, as Arya noted, he was still here in Kings Landing.

When he was young like her, hard as it was to imagine, he’d believed in all that shit that ran through his mind in City Hall. Principles of the law. Defending the powerless. Protecting women like Sansa, who got noticed by the wrong people through no fault of their own. Watching out for abandoned kids whose parents were too drunk or high to give a shit. Even then, he’d been bullheaded about it. His father and brother were bad guys, so he’d prove everyone wrong and be a good guy. Ha. Joke was on him.

“I should do that, go into law enforcement,” Arya said, somewhat predictably.

“You wouldn’t like it,” he said. “People suck, and you gotta deal with them every day being assholes to each other. Even if you meet good people, it’s because bad shit happened to them, and you’re all alone trying to fix it, and you can’t.”

“Well, duh, not all alone. Everything’s too hard alone. Why do you think I live with Sansa?” She snorted. “Shit, I can’t even get a decent meal on my own. College is the worst.”

“The city’s too corrupt,” he said. “Go back home if you want to be a cop. Nobody can fix anything here.”

“That sounds like a challenge.”

Fuck, had he ever been that young? He didn’t remember wanting to take on the criminal element of Kings Landing by himself. Of course, he’d already been facing it on his own, his whole life. He’d joined the police thinking he wouldn’t be on his own anymore.

Oh, shit, had he really? That was a fucking thing to realize. Between his face and his personality, he should’ve known better.

“What I think is—” He never got to hear what Arya thought. She bolted upright and popped open the passenger door. A dark-colored, tricked-out Honda drove very slowly into the apartment’s parking lot. Arya darted across the street and disappeared behind an apartment building. This must be the perp, and it proved his longtime personal rule to never trust anyone who put a spoiler and fins on a Civic.

He maneuvered the truck across the street and got right on the suspect’s tail, reading the plate. It was personalized: DONTOS. There was only one entrance to the parking area, so after the perp inched past Sansa’s building, he had to make a three-point turn. Sandor threw his gearshift into Park, blocking the way out.

As soon as the scumbag got his souped-up Civic turned around, Arya burst out from behind a row of parked vehicles and flew to the driver’s window, which she pounded with her fist. Sandor got out of his truck while the suspect rolled down his window. He couldn’t hear what he had to say to Arya, but the she-wolf’s voice was loud and clear.

“No, what the hell are you doing here? If you go looking for my sister again, you’ll be lucky if the police find you before I do.”

Arya couldn’t weigh more than 100 pounds with her boots on, but she was damn convincing. He wondered if he was needed here after all. Just in case, though, he stood behind Arya and peered inside the Civic. The perp was much older than he’d suspected, with a round face and burgeoning beer gut, and he was giving Arya his best attempt at indifference.

“I don’t know what you mean. It’s an open lot. Lots of reasons I could be here.” His voice was unsurprisingly smug.

“We have your plate number now, asshole,” Arya said. “I know what you drive. Consider this your last warning.”

The perp actually smiled. “Last warning of what?”

“I’m not above revenge,” Arya said faux-casually. She looked at Sandor. “What about you, are you above revenge?”

The perp’s eyes widened. “Who is that?”

“This is Sansa’s boyfriend, so you better cut the crap,” Arya said.

Sansa’s boyfriend. He didn’t have time to analyze how he felt about that. The perp laughed nervously. “Like that monster is Sansa Stark’s boyfriend.”

That was more the kind of thing he was used to hearing. Arya looked up at him. “I can see why you think people suck. This guy sucks.”

He was very calm when leaned down to capture the assgibbon’s gaze. “I’m invited here. You’re not. Sansa’s got a lot of people around her who aren’t going to let you scare her.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m the one scaring her.” The perp was muttering, though, looking at his dashboard uncertainly.

“He’s the cop we were looking for downtown, moron,” Arya said. “And now he knows who you are."

Sandor tapped the roof of the Civic. “Have fun being scrutinized by every patrol car from here to the Trident.”

The guy pouted stupidly. “This is not what you think it is.”

“Yeah, you’re innocent as a newborn,” he said. “This is your warning to leave Sansa alone. Next time, you don’t get a warning. Understood?”

When the bum didn’t say anything immediately, Arya jumped in. “He asked you if you understood. Also, apologize to him.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake, the idiot wasn’t going to—

“Gods above, I’m sorry, alright?” It was sullen and snotty, but Sandor would be damned if it wasn’t an apology.

“Now get out here and don’t come back,” Arya said.

Now that the maggot was warned and pacified, Sandor walked to his truck to move it out of the way. Tarth would run the plate, and nothing scared an entitled bitch like this one more than the horror of being watched and having to behave like the normies. As soon as he put the truck in reverse, the Civic roared around him, dangerously fast for the cramped space.

Arya had gotten out of the way, though. In fact, she was skipping over the curb and running up to an elm. And then she leaped up and grabbed a branch. Why the fuck was she climbing a tree?

The Civic’s tires squealed as it left the parking lot and hit the open road. Sandor got out of the truck yet again, this time carrying Arya’s backpack, and approached her tree. He watched her hoist herself up from limb to limb until she was on the same level as the roof of the nearest building.

“What are you doing up there?” he called.

“I’m gonna see if our douchebag pulls into a driveway,” she called back.

“Why? We got his personalized plate.”

“I just want to see if he lives nearby. Fuck, I can’t see him anymore. He’s gone.” She stepped down onto a shaky branch. “Huh. Help me down.”

He shook his head. “You climbed a tree without knowing how to get down? I thought you were a wolf, not a kitten.”

“Shut up, I’ve done this before.” She hugged the trunk and reached her foot down before chickening out. “Just stand under me and let me jump on your back.”

“I thought you’ve done this before.”

“Duh, I’ve never done it by myself. Wolves are supposed to run in packs, remember. Hounds too, I think.”

“You’re awful mouthy for someone stuck in a tree.”

“Argh, if you’re going to be stubborn about it …” She stepped down, slipped, squealed loudly, and wrapped her arms around the trunk with a death grip.

He was tempted to leave her there for a while, but Arya could find a way to make trouble up there, he was sure. She’d find something to throw at Sansa’s window. He sighed so she could hear him, dropped her backpack, and stood next to the trunk, balancing the balls of his feet on a tree root. Then he hunched over and bent his neck. “Alright, see if you can get on my back.”

He heard the leaves rustle, and a dead weight collapsed painfully on the back of his neck. Fuck, she wasn’t heavy, but all her weight was concentrated on the top of his spine, pushing his head down. She flung her arms around his windpipe, choking him, and instinctually, he tried to shake her off. His hair covered his eyes, not that he could see the feral girl anyway. At least the pressure around his neck loosened as she shimmied down until her hands were on his shoulders before jumping to the ground.

He straightened up and pushed his hair back so he could see. Sansa was glaring at him from the parking lot, her arms crossed in front of her. The wind streamed her hair behind her. “Why are you putting my sister in a tree?”

On seeing her there, so beautiful and so, so angry at him, all he could feel was the blood course through his ears and his fingers. His palms got sweaty, and his mouth dried up as he struggled to talk. “I was getting her out of a tree.”

“Oh, would you look at the time?” Arya was never going to cut it as an actor. “If I don’t call Brienne right now, she’ll be worried sick.” She scooped up her backpack and scrambled away, probably. Sandor couldn’t take his eyes off Sansa to check.

“What are you doing here?” Sansa demanded, her eyes flashing. She looked like a classical avenging angel, ethereal and heavenly.

He’d never seen her furious before, despite all the shit he’d seen her go through. That made him special, that he could rile her up more than an asshole ex-boyfriend, a stalker, a bullshit criminal charge, her supposed girlfriend selling her down the river, her lecherous lawyer, and whatever Arya was, all combined. Maybe he was making her miserable. He couldn’t just stand here fucking gaping at her. He had to answer the question. He wasn’t going to lie to her. He was going to stop the deceitful crap right now, just ignore the thumping in his chest and tell her the truth.

“Will you marry me?” he blurted out. Fuck, what the hell was wrong with him? The romantic part of his brain wasn’t dead – it had coiled up underground in readiness for a fatal strike.

It did not go over well, which … of course it didn’t. Her face paled except for red spots that bloomed over her perfect cheekbones. “Are you making fun of me? I’m trying to resign myself to never seeing you again, by your choice, not mine, yours.” She sucked in a breath. “And you come out with that?”

Nothing to do but double down. “Run away with me,” he said. “I’ll take you back to your family up North. We can trap animals, sell the pelts.” The fuck? He was never listening to Arya again, that girl had screwed up his head.

“Pelts?” She scrubbed her forehead. “Well, now I think you’re making fun of my family.”

“I’m not. I want to run away with you. We can get the hell out of Kings Landing, leave all this shit behind us.”

Her jaw dropped, and she stared at him wordlessly. Was she considering it? Holy crap, she was. It suddenly seemed like a genius idea and not a stupid act of desperation and despair. He’d take her North, it would just be the two of them, and they’d never speak to a Lannister or a Baratheon again. He edged closer to her and tried to take her hand.

But when his fingers touched hers, she yanked them back as if she’d been scalded. “No. That’s not … no, you can’t keep doing this to me. You and your romantic ideas. I have to go to my hearing and go to my job and, and, and I don’t even know what you’re doing here with Arya, but she’s my responsibility. And you have responsibilities, too. We don’t just get to run away.”

He knew she was right. Worse than that, he knew he wasn’t getting her back. Already, the future felt like a gaping, yawning chasm of blackness and emptiness. What did it matter where he was if he wasn’t with Sansa?

“Alright,” he said slowly, “if you change your mind—”

“Don’t you dare pin this on me,” she said, furious again. “I told you how I felt, I told you I thought you were my soulmate. You said, ‘well, that’s fucking stupid’.”

He couldn’t stop himself from cringing. No, there wouldn’t be any coming back from something that fucking cruel. “I’m sorry, I’ll go now.”

“Thank you.” Her eyes were dry.

He held his breath as if that might stop his eyes from overflowing. He stumbled to his truck, head down, just in case any traitorous tears escaped and made her feel guilty. But she didn’t move, and he was compelled to look back at her before he left her forever.

“I don’t regret proposing,” he said. “Just so you know.”

She didn’t answer him, probably because that had been the worst fucking proposal that any lobotomized piece of shit had ever come up with. It was insulting to her, that’s what it was. He doubted he’d be able to face himself again. Pelts, for fuck’s sake. It wouldn’t get any better after Arya confessed what they’d been doing behind Sansa’s back.

Responsibilities. Sansa had them, but he didn’t, not really. He could disappear entirely, and nobody would miss him. All he had to do was wrap up one or two loose ends first.

Chapter Text

Sansa floated back to her apartment, completely unaware of her surroundings. He had proposed, Sandor had asked her to run away with him and he’d proposed. It was absolutely ludicrous. They barely knew each other! They’d met less than a month ago! They’d never gotten to the stage where they texted each other to ask about their days. Certainly, she deserved that, didn’t she? A boyfriend who texted her to ask how her day was? That should probably come before the wedding. Why had he proposed to her?

In her high school diary, she had a few preferred scenarios scripted out for a romantic marriage proposal: hot-air ballooning, ice skating, drinking champagne on a lakeside picnic. There was nothing romantic about getting Arya out of a tree! Although those old scenarios seemed very cliché now that she’d actually been proposed to, except for ice skating, which was still legit. She’d always pictured being blissfully happy when her soulmate asked her to spend the rest of her life with him. Not in a million years would she have guessed she’d be so annoyed.

She didn’t expect to find Arya apologetic when she got home, because Arya. In fact, Arya was on the living room couch eating directly from a tin of sardines, making the whole apartment smell like cat food. Sansa had a million things she needed to say, but Sandor had asked her to marry him, so all she could manage to articulate was, “Why?”

“Okay, don’t be mad,” Arya said, pretty much guaranteeing she’d be mad. “Remember that guy from Maiden’s Hell who followed you into the parking garage?”

Sandor had asked her to marry him. She had no idea what Arya was talking about. “No.”

“What, seriously? The stalker guy! He texted you like twenty-seven dick pics. You don’t remember this?”

He wanted them to run away together. He offered to take her up North, and she knew he hated the cold. She really needed to get him some warm, cozy sweaters. No, no, he wasn’t her boyfriend, and he certainly wasn’t her fiancé. He wasn’t her anything.

“San, are you listening to me at all?”

“You said don’t be mad.” That reminded her – she was mad. “Why were you and Sandor climbing a tree without me?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. We were scaring away your stalker.”

“And how did Sandor know about my stalker?”

Arya didn’t seem to notice that Sansa’s voice had turned to chipped ice.

“Does it matter? It’s not like you’re planning to see him ever again.”

“Yes, Arya! Yes, it matters!” She collapsed in the armchair. Sandor had proposed to her. Was he trying to save her? Why did he want to marry her all of a sudden? “Why are you sneaking around with him without telling me?”

Arya pinched a sardine out of the tin. “You seemed busy.”

Sansa decided to count to ten. One … two … “You went to Sandor with my problems behind my back! You didn’t even ask me if it would hurt my feelings. You didn’t care! And you’re eating sardines indoors, which you said you wouldn’t do!”

Of course, Arya yelled back. “Hey, we were helping you! Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Sansa’s blood was boiling, which she’d always thought was just a figure of speech, but it was real and she could feel her blood literally boil. “You don’t get to do this. You can’t live my life for me like you’d do it better. You can’t kick me out of your house and then ask me to run away with you!”

“I … well, alright on the last count, I won’t do that, but … seven hells, did that idiot ask you to run away with him?” Arya shook her head. “I mean, you’ve done worse, but that was terrible timing on the Hound’s part.”

“Don’t call him that. And never mention him to me again.” Arya always thought she was in the right, no matter how wrong she was. How could she not see how wrong she was? “You sneak around behind my back with the man who broke my heart, and now I’m supposed to thank you for doing me a favor?”

“Oh, right, like you’d thank me for anything. I mean, forget it, Sansa, how dare I help you?” Arya snort laughed. “You obviously have your life totally under control.”

“Maybe I would if you weren’t making everything worse!” She was pulling on her hair, and it hurt, and Sandor had asked her to marry him, and she was never going to see him again. “You’re the worst sister in the world. I want you to … I want you to move out.”

Yes, that was good, that was exactly what she wanted. Living with Arya had been a stupid experiment, and she had no idea why she’d once thought living with family was important enough to tolerate Arya’s constant condescension.

Arya did that scary thing with her eyebrows. “I can’t move out. This is a student apartment, and I’m the student. If you hate me that much, you move out.”

“I’m going to!” Maybe she’d go home, to Winterfell. She could trap animals for a living.

“Good!” Arya yelled.

“Good!” Sansa yelled back. “Because you suck.”

“You suck worse.” Arya picked up a sardine and wiggled it in front of Sansa’s face. “And this is my apartment and I’ll eat whatever the hell I want.”

“And stay away from Sandor,” Sansa warned. “That was a crappy thing to do.”

“Well, what do you expect from the worst sister in the world?” Arya sprawled out on the couch, making herself look as comfortable as possible. “Maybe I’ll ask him out on a date.”

“Grraahhh, I hate you!” Sansa stomped into her room and slammed the door so hard that it bounced back.

“I’m calling him right now!” Arya yelled as Sansa closed the door properly.

Good. Good! Because Sansa wasn’t ever getting married, not for the rest of her life. In just a few short days, her father would be here to take her to court for her hearing, and then she’d pack her bags and run away to Winterfell. Alone. Or maybe she’d get lucky and be sent to prison, where nobody would be allowed to eat bad-smelling food or climb trees behind her back or propose marriage right after kicking her to the curb. It would be paradise on Earth.

She prostrated herself on her bed and buried her head under her pillow to block out the sound of Arya’s chewing, which she could hear through the door because Arya was disgusting. She’d been so stupid to think her back-stabbing sister cared about her. What did she and Sandor talk about without her anyway? They probably laughed at how foolish she was. They laughed and laughed up in that tree of theirs, and maybe Sandor’s proposal was just one big joke to him.

No, it wasn’t. She’d seen how hands shook, how stunned he’d looked when she’d turned him down. Well, what had he expected? He’d told her he wasn’t her soulmate.

She had to face the facts. There was no such thing as soulmates, and she was just a childish and sentimental sap. If only the sentimental part of her would grow up so she could learn to think like everybody else did.

 

Sansa’s father arrived three days later to accompany her to court. She’d taken the day off work, but she was out driving when her father got to the apartment. She’d taken to driving around in circles to kill time, not looking for anything in particular, or at least not anything she’d admit to herself.

When she got home – no, when she got to Arya’s apartment – her father had obviously had a heart to heart with Arya. After Sansa gave her dad an unenthusiastic hug, he told her, “Your sister wants to apologize.”

“That’s not necessary,” Sansa said. “I don’t need a phony apology.”

“It’s not phony,” Arya said. “I thought about it, and, looking at it from your point of view, I can see why you had a reason to be angry with me. Under the circumstances.” She kicked the floor. “I really am sorry, San.”

“My, how generous of you.” Sansa brushed past her sister to get to her room and change into what she’d decided was her most depressing outfit for court. Not that any decisions she made ever seemed to make the slightest difference to her life.

Sansa and her father had to meet Petyr Baelish in the lobby of the courthouse for a pre-hearing conference. Arya came with them, and Sansa didn’t have the energy to object. The lobby was crowded near the double doors to the courtroom, but less busy near the displays of historical photos of Kings Landing, where benches and chairs were situated. Sansa found a chair next to a window where a sunbeam came in and curled up like a cat. She could hear Dad and Arya whispering about her and ignored them, even after they sat down next to her, even after her father gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.

Petyr was all happy smiles when showed up in his finely tailored suit and silk tie, greeting her father by asking after her mother. Then he turned to Sansa.

“Well, my dear,” he said, making her cringe, “what are you hoping to get out of today?”

“I’m hoping to be sent to prison so I don’t have to live with Arya,” she said.

“You’re not bothering me,” Arya said. “I know you’re only angry because of what this ambulance chasing shyster did to the Hound.”

“Why should that make me angry? I’m used to people going behind my back because they think they know how to live my life better than I do.”

“Girls, cut it out,” Dad said, mostly out of habit. There was an awkward pause before he asked, “What’s the Hound?”

“Ah, that’s our strategy.” Petyr couldn’t have sounded more satisfied with himself. “With the case I’ve made for police misbehavior, the district attorney’s office will have no choice but to drop Sansa’s charges completely. Her record won’t have a smudge.”

“There was no police misbehavior,” Sansa said. “And believe me, I tried.” She was never making that much of an effort for a man again as long as she lived. As it was, the last few weeks had totally ruined her internal dialogue. She hadn’t realized how often she’d come to think about Sandor until now, when she was supposed to stop. What did she used to think about?

“Petyr, I don’t think we need a complicated strategy,” Dad said. “I’m sure if Sansa makes a heartfelt apology for her actions, it will make a good impression.”

“Ha!” Arya said it at the same time Sansa did, but Sansa refused to acknowledge that.

“Listen to your daughters, Ned,” Petyr said. “The judge today is Emmon Frey, who used to be married to Cersei Baratheon’s aunt. Rumor has it that he’s suffering from terrible seasonal allergies, so he’s more impatient than usual. We need every advantage we can get. And Cersei’s twin Jaime Lannister is here today as well, in his role as police commissioner.”

“Holy crap, the Hound was right about outrageous municipal corruption,” Arya said.

“Would you stop talking about him?” Sansa would’ve thrown one of her sensibly heeled shoes at her sister if she could bring herself to expend the energy.

Dad set his jaw and pinned Sansa with one of his sternest expressions. “I think someone had better tell me what’s going on.”

Petyr stood. “Unfortunately, the bailiff is waving us inside. I’m sure it will all become clear when it’s Sansa’s turn in front of the judge. Trust me, Ned. I understand how Kings Landing works.”

Petyr paused to put his hand on Sansa’s shoulder, and she managed not to throw him off by biting down on her lower lip. Then he hurried into the courtroom, brown-nosing the bailiff with compliments as he went.

Dad sighed. “Come on, Princess. We’d better take our seats. I’m sure this will all look better after you’ve spoken to the judge.”

“Okay, but I’m still hoping for prison.”

She let her father lead her inside to the uncomfortable plastic seats, weighed down with the knowledge that Sandor wouldn’t be coming to her rescue this time. Or any other time, ever again. They were just about the last people to enter the courtroom, and the bailiff shut the double doors, blocking the sunlight and throwing their corner of purgatory into shadows.

Commissioner Lannister was in full uniform up front, at a table to the left of the judge’s dark cherrywood bench, conferring with his brother Tyrion, the assistant district attorney. Petyr was already at the table to the right of the bench, talking with his first client of the day’s session. The judge was a thin, sour-faced man with an irritated nose. He stared down that nose from his raised bench as if the collected assembly of defendants and loved ones were spreading contagion.

The first defendant was up on shoplifting charges, but Tyrion Lannister made an impassioned speech about the man’s gang affiliation with a mysterious criminal organization known as the Brotherhood. Petyr countered with a tale of bureaucratic bungling forcing the defendant’s family restaurant to close, depriving him of a living. The defendant’s family rallied around him, but Judge Frey was not impressed. Only a few minutes after his hearing started, the defendant was being marched away in handcuffs.

Arya was looking things up on her phone in explicit defiance of the signs forbidding cell phones in the courtroom. “This says Emmon Frey is known as the Sloth.”

“I’m sure it’s because he deliberates slowly and carefully,” Dad said.

Arya consulted her phone. “No, it’s because he’s a hanging judge.”

Sansa’s father patted her hand. She felt all the blood drain from her face.

“Next up,” the bailiff intoned, “the State versus Sansa Stark.”

With her heart blocking her windpipe, Sansa slipped past her father and Arya to stand in the aisle. She swallowed and walked slowly to the bench. She had never felt so alone in her life. Petyr coming to stand next to her did nothing to dispel her sense of isolation.

Tyrion Lannister stood in front of the bench, which was easily as tall as he was. “Your Honor, the defendant is charged with breaking and entering and with theft of a valuable work of art.”

Petyr parried right away. “Actually, the defendant is the artist, and her artwork was simply returned to its legal owner.”

“But the defendant is not the legal owner,” Tyrion said, his voice carrying over Petyr’s. “She took the artwork without permission.”

Sansa thought Petyr would interject to say that she had the University’s permission, but instead he said, “You don’t know whether she had permission because the investigating officer bungled the case.”

“That’s not what happened,” Sansa said.

Petyr shushed her, and Tyrion gave her an appraising look, like he had never met her before and was trying to figure out why she was here. The judge simply waved at Tyrion to continue.

Tyrion nodded to the judge. “The count of breaking and entering is clear. At 1:35 in the morning in question, the defendant entered the address listed in the charge without permission.”

“Allegedly without permission,” Petyr said.

“I have affidavits from the homeowners,” Tyrion said.

The judge rubbed his nose. “That does seem very clear, Mr. Baelish.”

She could sense that none of this was going well for her. “But the security code is 112233,” she said. “Sandor said that since I was given the security code—"

“Yes, let’s talk about that,” Petyr said. “Let’s talk about Sandor.”

“Hold on,” Jaime Lannister said, staring at his phone. “I’d like to address that. But first I have to text my idiot sister and tell her to change, uh, something.”

“We don’t have time for that, Commissioner, and you aren’t being called as a witness,” the judge said. “I’m not sure why we haven’t moved onto the sentencing phase.”

“Based on the illegal nature of the investigation, I’m requesting that this case be dismissed,” Petyr said, “as you can see from Exhibit A, which I have asked the court to be accepted as evidence.”

The judge moaned as he rustled through paperwork. “Commissioner, which one of your officers screwed the pooch this time?”

“It’s a pattern of unprofessional behavior,” Petyr said. “Commissioner Lannister’s police department is out of control.”

“But that’s not true,” Sansa said. “The Kings Landing police department is very professional, especially Detective Sandor Clegane.”

“So, it’s Clegane,” the judge said.

Sansa couldn’t figure out who looked happier, her lawyer or Tyrion Lannister, who grinned at her. Petyr patted her on the back, touching her again, and she clenched her fists. “Now, just leave it to me, my dear,” he said under his breath. “It will be better for you if you keep quiet.”

“But she’s so interesting,” Tyrion said. Apparently, his hearing was quite sharp. “She’s destroying my case, but look at how much we’ve learned together. 112233!”

“This isn’t kindergarten circle time, Counselor,” the judge said. He looked up from his reading. “That’s it, Baelish? Your whole accusation is that the investigating officer and the defendant attended a charity event?”

Jaime Lannister strode to the bench, his phone out of sight. “Not that I admit any wrongdoing by any member of the police department, Your Honor, but if it would move things along, I could suspend Clegane without pay for a month or two.”

“What?” Blood rushed through her ears. She must’ve heard incorrectly. “No, you can’t do that.”

Judge Frey was definitely cheering up at Jaime Lannister’s suggestion, and he looked much creepier when he was smiling. She told herself she absolutely couldn’t faint. She’d end up being caught by Petyr Baelish while Sandor was suspended from the force, banished to roam the lands like a lone hedge knight. The Lannisters and her lawyer and the judge would all pat each other on the back for a job well done. She’d thought prison would be the worst possible outcome. Oh, how naïve she’d been.

Just when things seemed at their darkest, the double doors flew open with a bang. The breeze lifted her hair and raised goosebumps all over her skin. Of course, it couldn’t be anyone but Sandor, his incredibly muscular chest filling the door frame. He looked like a Germanic gothic sculpture come to life as he marched into the courtroom, the bailiff hurrying out of his way.

“Why does this case keep getting interrupted?” the judge said.

“Because Sansa Stark has done nothing wrong,” Sandor said. “I have an affidavit here from Professor Renly Baratheon that states she had full permission to take the tapestry and repair it.”

“About time!” Arya cried.

Sansa might have said something like “Eeep.” But she couldn’t be sure. She was too overcome.

Sandor levelled the men in front of the courtroom with a look of pure righteousness. “You brought her to court after derailing my investigation. You knew she was innocent. She wouldn’t steal anything that wasn’t hers. She’s too good for that, and too trusting, and, and too smart. And she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. And if it takes me years, I’ll put this case to rest. However long it takes.”

This was not the most romantic thing that had happened to her. This was the most incredible, amazing, romantic thing that had ever happened to anyone throughout the entirety of history.

“You wonderful man, of course I’ll marry you!” She ran down the aisle and threw herself against his chest. She had to leap up to get her arms around him, but she held on as hard as she could.

“You …. What?” He was absolutely adorable when he blinked at her all confused like that.

“Personally, I always thought this case was a dog,” Tyrion said. “I feel confident saying that the district attorney’s office is willing to drop the charges.”

“Huh?” Sandor said. He was holding her up, though, and that was where his concentration belonged.

“What the hell is going on here?” came from the audience.

Sandor took his eyes off her to find the speaker. “Oh, that’s my father, don’t worry about that,” Sansa said.

“That’s who?” Now he looked confused and worried, which was somehow even more adorable.

“Can we at least suspend him without pay?” Jaime asked Tyrion.

Sansa whirled on the brothers Lannister. “Oh, no, absolutely not. You have no idea how lucky you are to have an honest, hard-working police detective who isn’t afraid to do the right thing. Also, he’s getting married, so without pay is completely off the table.”

“I don’t see how you can argue with that, Jaime,” Tyrion said. He looked very happy for her. True love was bound to make anyone happy.

Jaime sighed. “Fine. I suppose I overreacted. But in my defense, the Hound was rude.” He pouted. “He told me men my age need reading glasses.”

“Another shining example of speaking truth to power,” Petyr said. “The detective has a valid case against the city for violating his rights. Fortunately, I’m available on contingency.”

“Huh?” Sandor said, still a little dazed from all this romance.

“We’re good, thanks,” Sansa said. She rested her head on Sandor’s chest. They weren’t good, they were perfect. Everything was going to be perfect from now on.

“So,” Arya said, “I think this is the best time to mention that I dropped out of school.”

Bang! Bang! Judge Frey hammered his gavel until everyone quieted down.

“Detective Clegane, do you have a marriage license with you right now?” the judge asked.

“Um, no?” Sandor said.

“Then get out of my court! Case dismissed.”

Sansa wasn’t too mature to squeal out loud. How could she possibly have ever doubted her knight in shining armor? “Let’s go home,” she told him.

He scooped her up into a bridal carry, and she squealed again. Then he cradled the back of her head in his hand and entangled her hair in his fingers. She caught the intense glow of his eyes before he tipped her into a long, lingering kiss. He tasted like he smelled, warm and earthy and intoxicating. She snuggled her face into the sensitive skin of his neck, inhaled him deeply, and gave him a playful nip that made him growl.

“So, Detective Clegane, it seems like we have a lot to talk about.” Ah, shoot, she’d forgotten about her father. He was really leaning into that northern accent, too, which was never a good sign. Sandor put her back down on the floor very carefully.

“Don’t worry, Dad, we like this one,” Arya said.

What a great sister she had, the best sister in the world. “Oh, I’m sorry, did you say something about school?” she asked Arya.

“I’ve been here one day and …. Your mother is going to kill me,” Dad said. He turned his glare on Sandor. “But first, I want to hear every single detail about Sandor Clegane’s life.”

“Riight,” Sandor said uncertainly. He’d been braver facing down the entire justice system of Kings Landing for her.

But Sansa wasn’t worried. She’d head them to the brewery so she could introduce her father to Sandor properly and tell Yara the good news. If push came to shove, Arya could always create a diversion.

She wrapped her arm in Sandor’s arm as they left the courtroom. She loved leaning against him, he was so solid and strong. She planned to do it all the time. He pushed her hair back to speak into her ear with that sexy, whiskey voice. “You said you’d marry me. In a courtroom in front of witnesses.”

“Mmmm, sounds very binding,” she said, lacing her fingers through his. “I don’t think we can get out of it. Legally speaking.”

From behind her, Dad said, “This had better be the longest engagement ever put on record.”

“Don’t worry, he’s prone to hyperbole,” she told Sandor. "Fortunately, it's not a family trait."

But a long engagement would probably be for the best. They still hadn’t texted each other adorable photos of their dogs, or snuggled up on the couch to watch a soppy movie, or lost track of time in a museum, or lazed around in bed while she braided his hair. This was going to be the best, most perfect long engagement, and she was going to love every second of it. Getting arrested was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her.

Chapter Text

It was a gray, drizzly day, and Sansa was immensely looking forward to a night in, cooking dinner at Sandor’s house and then snuggling on the couch together. Sandor picked her up on the way to the supermarket – they’d decided to plan the menu in the store depending on what looked good. They ended up with steak and a green tossed salad, along with early sweet corn from a warmer climate, and delectable-looking lemon bars from the bakery for dessert. Sansa had been worried that she’d be nervous and shy, but they didn’t have trouble talking to each other at all. Now all she had to do was figure out how to keep it that way, and how to get them talking about subjects more important than dinner and nature documentaries. After all, they were engaged now.

Still, the teasing was fun, even flirtatious. The light conversation kept up through shopping until Sandor pulled his truck into his driveway.

“But have you seen the documentary where they interview the scientists getting ready to clone a direwolf?” she asked.

He snorted. “That’s crazy. Nobody’s going to clone a direwolf.”

“They are too,” she insisted. “Let’s watch that.”

He opened his door. “Why, are you planning to steal the clone?”

“Ha ha, very funny.”

She jumped out of the truck with her backpack and the bakery box before he could come around to help her. In the supermarket, he’d insisted on carrying everything. She didn’t want him to think she expected that kind of service all the time.

That would’ve been fine if it wasn’t for her shoes. She’d gone a little crazy with the shoes lately. After months of Joffrey shooting her dirty looks when she wore anything but flats, she’d been dying for an occasion to break out some of her old, favorite shoes with heels. For “quiet dinner date at home,” she’d selected jeans, a white flowing top, and her gorgeous half-black, half-gray pumps. The four-inch heels shouldn’t have been too much, but it was misting and it had rained earlier, and the path to the front door was muddy. When she looked back to see if Sandor was behind her, her feet slipped out from under her. She squeaked and tried to balance herself, but with her hands full, she plopped down in a mud puddle.

“Ohhh, not the lemon bars!” Didn’t that just figure? She must be the picture of grace and style, as always.

“Are you okay, little bird?” Sandor squatted down, his voice so full of concern that it was almost worth taking the spill so she could hear it.

“Fine, fine. I’m just wet and cold.” The fall hadn’t hurt at all, so that was one bonus compared to the spill she’d taken in Storm’s End’s kitchen. On the other hand, when she got on her knees to let Sandor boost her up, mud squelched through her favorite pair of jeans. Ugh.

Sandor picked up her backpack and now ruined box of lemon bars. “I thought you didn’t get cold. Why didn’t you let me carry this crap?”

“I can carry things.” Although apparently not. “I swear on the old gods and the new, I will learn to walk in heels again.”

“Maybe. You sure look damn good in them.”

When she stretched, she could just reach to give him a kiss on the cheek. And that right there was the point of the tall shoes.

When Sandor unlocked the door, Stranger started his desperate, lonely barking. It was a ruse and she knew it. She’d never met such an indulged dog, and she’d once bought Lady bacon-infused wine for dogs in both red and white because she wasn’t sure which one Lady would like best. Sandor took his puppy out first thing after carting in the groceries, leaving Sansa to get cleaned up. Which posed her a bit of a dilemma.

She’d packed a backpack full of overnight clothes, but she hadn’t actually told Sandor that she was bringing stuff to stay the night. She hadn’t known how to bring it up. She didn’t want to invite herself, as that would be rude, but on the other hand, she didn’t think he’d have any objections to her sleeping over. But maybe she was moving too fast. Her plan had been to bring her things but not say anything about it and let the night lead where it would. Except now, wet denim was tightening on her legs, and she couldn’t sit on any furniture without getting it dirty.

She paced in a circle, trying to figure out what to do next. This was ridiculous. She was completely overthinking this. She was uncomfortable, and she had dry, warm pajamas in her backpack. He hadn’t asked her what the backpack was for, so maybe he’d guessed? Anxiety fluttered under her ribs. He wouldn’t want her to be uncomfortable. Steeling her courage, she marched into the bathroom and peeled off her wet clothes. This would be okay. He wasn’t going to find it presumptuous. She was fortunate, really, that she’d planned ahead. That’s exactly what Sandor would say when he saw her in the silky, lace-trimmed matched pajama set – she was fortunate that she’d planned ahead. Right.

She returned to the living room just as Sandor came in with the dog. He took one look at her and tripped over the ottoman. Heat rushed to her cheeks. Shoot, she’d been moving too fast, and now this was embarrassing. He somehow managed to unleash Stranger and hang up the leash without ever taking his eyes off her.

“I just … well, my clothes were all wet.” He kept staring at her in his blisteringly intent way, making her wonder what that intent was exactly. She was frozen in place, standing in front of the couch, too unsure of herself to move. “So, ha ha, I guess you’re wondering where I got these clothes. Umm, I brought a backpack. You probably noticed that. Did you notice that?”

Somehow, he was in front of her in the blink of an eye. He reached down and gently pushed her hair out of her face. “You’re nervous. Why?”

“I didn’t want to presume anything.”

He grinned, and oh, that was what a lascivious grin looked like. Interesting. He traced his fingers from her temple to her neck and behind her ear. Her pulse danced under his touch, although not so much from nervousness.

“The only thing you need to presume,” he said, “is that dinner is going to be late.”

He leaned down for a soft kiss. It wasn’t pushy at all, but fond and warm and reassuring. After kissing her, he studied her expression. Could he read her well enough by now to know that everything about today was making her very happy?

She was suddenly struck by an idea. “Let’s make a pact,” she said.

His eyebrows rose. “Alright. If that’s what you want. Can we sit on the couch while we do this vow thing?”

“It’s not a vow thing, and yes, of course.” She arranged herself cross-legged on the middle of the couch. He sat next to her and looked her over appreciatively. Her pajamas, she had to admit, were super cute. “I’m proposing an agreement.”

He squeezed her thigh. “Can you sit on my lap while you propose this agreement?”

“Oh, definitely.” That was actually a great segue to her idea. She snuggled herself into his chest on his lap. “Do you like it when I sit on your lap?”

“Always. Any time you want.” He rubbed his short, trimmed beard against her cheek. She was beginning to realize that Sandor could be a very tactile person with the right encouragement, open to nuzzles and cuddles. She scratched his beard and then the back of his neck, making circles with her fingernails. He closed his eyes and tipped his neck to give her better access.

“Mmmm, you’re trying to make me agree to your pact before I even hear it,” he said, but it definitely wasn’t a complaint.

“No. I just got distracted.” That definitely wasn’t an apology. She ran her fingernails up the back of his head and listened to him hum with pleasure. “Do you like that?”

He tried to glare at her suspiciously, but it fell apart as he fought a smile. “Why do you keep asking me that?” he said.

“Because that’s my idea.” A little anxiety spiked through her, but she took a deep breath and persisted. This was a good plan, and he wouldn’t dismiss her outright, and she shouldn’t worry. “I think we should agree to tell each other what we like and what we don’t like.”

He put his lips on her ear. “You want to know what I like,” he said quietly, breathing heat into her, his words leaving an echo that took away her power of speech. So she nodded and kissed him. This was a much deeper kiss, and she opened her mouth to let his tongue touch hers and send electrical shocks down her spine.

But then she broke it off. “Wait, I’m serious.”

“I never said you weren’t.”

“Okay, but …” She was already second-guessing herself. Courage, Sansa. “I’ll start. I like it when you talk to me because I like your voice. You have a sexy voice.”

He froze, because Sandor was absolutely terrible at listening to compliments. He opened his mouth to say something and stopped. Then he slipped his fingers under the lacy shoulder strap of her pajama top. “You’re not wearing a bra under this.”

She felt herself blush. “No, this is pajamas. They’re for, um, sleeping in.”

“I like that.” He pushed down the strap and kissed her bare shoulder. “Your turn.”

“It’s not a game.” He trailed kisses down her chest, and she struggled to keep on topic. “It’s just that I think we should talk to each other more. I really want to know what you’re thinking.”

He splayed his palm over her stomach, skin touching skin. “You want to know what I’m thinking right now?”

“No.” That came out wrong. “I mean, yes, I do. But I also want to know what you’re thinking in general. Like … what’s your favorite color?”

He laughed suddenly, but it wasn’t a mocking laugh. Then he messed up her hair, saying, “This is my favorite color, right here.”

“Oh, you’re so sweet.” She kissed the hollow of his neck, tasting salt and rainwater. “Do we have a pact then?”

“Sure, why not?”

They met each other’s eyes, and before she knew what she was going to say, she blurted out, “This is going to work out, isn’t it?”

He looked away so quickly that she almost missed the worry line creasing his forehead. “I mean, you’re here,” he said. “I like it when you’re here.”

“I like being here.” She snuggled in closer, leaning up against his chest. “I really, really like being here.”

“And I got my job back.” He wrapped his arms around her.

As if that was of the utmost importance. “I’m glad you got your job back, because you deserve it, but I’d love you if you were poor and homeless.”

There it was, the first time she’d told him that she loved him, and it had just sort of slipped out.

He rolled his eyes. “You could do a lot better.”

Gah, he was so stubborn. She poked him in the ribs, but he didn’t even flinch. “You need to learn to take a compliment. Now sit and listen to me. I love you just the way you are.”

He wrapped a strand of her hair around his fingers. “I love you too, Sansa. Just the way you are.”

Warmth and happiness and a feeling of rightness radiated from her heart. Per their pact, she tried to put it into words. “That makes me very happy, you know, hearing you say that.”

He kissed her on the forehead. “Me too, little bird. Me too.”

“So … not super presumptuous of me to bring a sleepover bag?”

He cupped the side of her face and made sure she was looking directly into his eyes. “Never. You belong here. Everything here is yours.”

She ran her hands down his arms, which, my goodness, wasn’t he a powerfully built man? “Everything here is mine, you say?”

She liked that. She liked that a lot.

Dinner was very late that evening. Stranger was the only one who seemed to mind, but he generously allowed Sansa to make it up to him by sneaking him pieces of steak and lulling him to sleep with belly rubs. Dogs understand love, after all.

Chapter Text

Although they had agreed to take it slow, everything moved very, very fast after that. Between Sandor losing a weeks’ pay from his suspension and struggling to make his mortgage payment and Sansa losing her apartment, it only made sense that she should move into his house. Then Sandor’s life took a bizarre turn. The first morning he came home from work and found Sansa cooking him breakfast in a lacy peach negligee, ready to hand feed him strawberries one by one, he realized he’d fallen into an alternate reality. Living with her was a bubble of perfection in an otherwise ugly world, and the thing about bubbles was that they always popped.

Maybe she wouldn’t notice that she’d picked the wrong fucking guy. He could keep working nights and she could keep working days, and they’d hardly see each other, and just maybe he could get away with this. And if he couldn’t keep fooling her into thinking she wanted to marry him … if they didn’t spend too much time together, it wouldn’t hurt as much when she left. Yup, it was the perfect plan.

He should’ve counted on the feral sister to fuck that up.

“Wow, this is a nice house,” Arya said. She literally opened every single drawer and cabinet in his bathroom and his kitchen.

“Looking for contraband?” he asked. “Think I got unmarked bills or bricks of cocaine?”

“Just getting the lay of the land.” She perched on the kitchen counter, letting Stranger sniff her feet. Stranger had taken to Arya at first sight. Sandor wasn’t sure if that made the dog smarter or dumber than he was.

“Um, sweetheart?” Sansa said nervously, and that was another thing, she kept calling him sweetie and sweetheart, and how was he supposed to defend himself? He did what he always did when she talked to him like that. He closed his eyes and pushed away his feelings and nodded as if he could hear anything she said after her terms of endearment.

This time, though, he caught the end of her speech. “ … so we were wondering if she could move in while she’s attending the police academy.”

“Here? You want your sister to move in here?” Not that he could deny Sansa anything, but damn, that was a big ask.

“Hey, look at this yard,” Arya said. “We can get Robb to drive Lady and Nymeria down.”

Sansa’s face lit up. He should’ve thought of that, he should’ve asked her if she wanted her dog here. Why couldn’t he think of things that would make her happy? He wasn’t the right fucking guy. He should just tell her no and let her get used to disappointment. No dog, no crazy sister, no crazy sister’s dog.

“If that’s what you want,” he muttered.

She threw her arms around him and told him that he was the best fiancé in the world. Again, he was totally defenseless against an onslaught like that.

The next thing he knew, he was carrying all the furniture out of Sansa and Arya’s old apartment, putting it in his truck, and dragging it into his garage. Sansa stopped whatever she was doing to watch him pick up the heavy items. Actually, the part when she ogled him was pretty alright. She made it very damn clear that she had a thing for him lifting heavy objects. Her pact that they should talk to each other and tell each other what they liked was actually a genius idea. The sex afterwards was fucking phenomenal. If he could spend the rest of his life picking up heavy things and telling Sansa how much he liked her sexy outfits, he might be able to get away with calling himself husband material, but that seemed like a long shot.

Having Arya around wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. She liked to hear about his job after Sansa left for work, and she never told Sansa the worst stories. He didn’t like Sansa to worry about him. It was nice knowing she wasn’t alone when he was at work and that there was someone home to take care of Stranger. He quickly fell into the habit at work of thinking, “Arya would find this funny” or “Sansa would be scandalized by this.” Too quickly, all fucking things considered.

One morning soon after Arya moved in, Sansa announced that her brother Robb was driving down with Lady and Nymeria, plus her cousin Jon and her sort-of-but-not-really foster brother Theon Greyjoy, who were obviously coming so they could pronounce judgement on Sansa’s fiancé.

“I can just get them beer and pizza,” she said as she made him pancakes, because that was another fucking thing she kept doing, cooking for him. He felt a little guilty about that, but trying to stop her would only make her feel bad, and she was a damn good cook.

“I’ll have to invite Yara over to see Theon,” she said. “Oh, we should invite Brienne over, make it into a dog housewarming party.”

“A dog housewarming party?” He had to check that he’d heard her right. He wasn’t the sort of person who had housewarming parties, but maybe it would be okay if it was Sansa doing it for the dogs. It wasn’t like she’d asked for an engagement party, which … shit. If she were marrying some guy she was supposed to marry, she would’ve had a big, swanky engagement party. Fuck.

“Sandor, sweetie? Is that okay with you, having people over for pizza?”

“If that’s what you want.”

She studied him carefully, and he avoided her piercing gaze by concentrating on eating the pancakes. She’d added vanilla or some shit like that. They really were fucking delicious.

“You’re allowed to have an opinion about this, you know,” she said. “You said you’d talk to me and tell me what you were thinking.”

Shit, she was catching on. “I, uh, that would be great, meeting your family.”

That sounded suspicious as hell. He couldn’t meet her eyes.

“Uh-huh.” She tapped her fingers on the table by his plate, then suddenly stung him with, “I’m sure everyone will want to hear about our wedding plans.”

Fuck, they didn’t have any wedding plans. What would be the point? At this rate, in two, three months tops, she’d get over this delusion that she wanted to marry him.

Still, her family was going to be here in a few days. He was going to have to come up with something, or else he wouldn’t even get two more months. And it wasn’t like he didn’t know what he had to do. He just had to fucking man up and do it.

He had to talk to Gregor.

 

There aren’t a lot of family days at maximum-security prison complexes. Sandor could only get in the very day of Sansa’s family’s arrival, and even that had been hard to schedule. It turns out that when you come back from being unjustly suspended, everyone resents your “vacation” and assigns you all the shit work it takes forever to deal with. His days off were at a premium, and wasting part of one on his asshole brother was infuriating.

Not that he could show his anger. Gregor would like it too much. Psychiatrists were redefining the term psychopath, renaming it antisocial personality disorder, but Sandor knew better. He signed in with his badge number and waited in the guarded visiting room, his stomach roiling with acid. He willed his hands not to shake. He had nothing to be afraid of here. Gregor couldn’t touch him here.

Soon, his brother was led in by a pair of guards. Gregor’s wrists were cuffed. The guards let him sit down, but they didn’t leave the room. At least Sandor didn’t know either of them.

Gregor hadn’t lost a pound since he’d been sent up the river. If anything, he’d built more muscle. He smirked at Sandor, a predatory grin. His teeth were still good, too, despite the meth. Bastard.

“Look at you, all grown up,” Gregor said.

“What the fuck, I’m 36.”

Gregor shrugged. Like he’d keep track. “You here to see how I’m doing?”

It was important to keep his voice even and his expression neutral. “I just wanted to ask a couple of things.”

“The food’s not that good here,” Gregor said. “But I got plenty of money in my commissary account.”

It took him a second to process. His brother had thought he’d be interested because Gregor only knew of one interesting subject: himself.

“Yeah, I was more kinda wondering whatever happened to our mother’s stuff,” he said, trying to sound casual.

Gregor barked a nasty laugh. “What mother? What stuff? You think she left you something?”

“No, it’s just, after she died—"

Gregor leaned in closer, and now Sandor could see some of the damage he’d taken over the years, white scar tissue on his neck. Almost invisible. “I barely remember our mother. What makes you think she’s dead?”

Shit, he wasn’t here to play mind games. “Look, our old man told me she died when I was six.”

“Maybe. Who the hell knows?” Gregor laughed again. He always could find something to amuse him. “You think there’s a treasure hidden away for her baby boy? A box of jewelry? A secret treasure map? A finely embroidered wedding cloak?”

Sandor stared grimly at the wall behind Gregor’s left ear, but something must’ve flashed in his eyes because Gregor pounced. “A wedding cloak, are you shitting me? That’s fucking funny. Like you’d find a bitch willing to marry a dog like you.”

It was so fucking tempting to show the douchebag a photo of Sansa. But he’d left his phone with the main office, and anyway, Sandor knew better than to share anything about his life with his asshole brother. He’d never expose Sansa to him. Why had he decided to come here? It should’ve been glaringly fucking obvious that Gregor wasn’t going to be a reliable source of information. But he had to try. He owed it to Sansa.

So he asked one more time. “If you can think of anything in storage that I should look into—"

Gregor leaned back in his chair, the wrist restraints scraping the table. “I knew it wouldn’t take long before you needed my help with something. Couldn’t live without your family forever, could you, little brother?”

He stood. “You know what? Fuck this. This is a waste of my fucking time.”

Gregor just laughed. “You want to get married the right way, I think. Like people do in stories. You were always soft like that. So do you want my help, or don’t you?”

“I never needed your help before. Why start now?” he muttered.

Gregor didn’t respond. Sandor knew Gregor would try to wait him out, make him ask for it. But he wasn’t going to ask for it. It would only lead to more fuckery. He wasn’t a child anymore. He didn’t have to play this game.

He’d made a mistake coming here. He’d followed his detective’s instincts, chasing down leads. What he should’ve done instead was confess everything to Sansa. He should’ve told her straight out that he didn’t have a wedding cloak, or any family to come to a wedding. He should’ve trusted her to understand.

Gregor was losing patience. “You gonna ask me for something?”

“Nah,” Sandor said. “Whatever you have to offer can’t be that important.”

“You don’t know that.”

And Sandor found himself smiling. “I know it. Whatever you have to say, it wouldn’t make any fucking difference to me.”

As he walked out, he heard Gregor yelling at him, but he’d had enough revisiting the past. Whatever he’d made out of his life, he’d done it without his asshole brother, who didn’t have the power to do anything but drag him down. If he wanted to make his life better, maybe he couldn’t do it alone, but that didn’t mean coming here. He had better people to trust these days.

 

When he got home, the van was already there. Robb was early. His drive must’ve been easy, even loaded up with wolfhounds. Sandor was anxious to meet the dogs, but there was another car in the driveway, one he didn’t recognize. Probably Yara Greyjoy or even Tarth. All of a sudden, it felt like too much. Stranger was barking like mad in the garage, similarly overwhelmed. Before he could get inside, Arya flew out the door.

“Don’t worry. Sansa’s in the garage with Stranger,” she said. “He’s a little nervous with all the people, but she’s calming him down.”

He nodded and veered toward the garage, but Arya put a hand on his forearm to stall him. “Where were you, anyway?” she asked. “Sansa tried to text you.”

“I was someplace stupid, doing something stupid,” he admitted.

She squinted up at him. “You’ve been acting really weird lately. You’re not about to do something else stupid, are you?”

She crossed her arms over her chest, fully entering protective mode, just like Stranger. It made him chuckle. “I’m over it,” he said. “Can I go inside now? My dog is crying and it’s fucking freezing out here.”

“Cold wimp.” She rolled her eyes and headed to the front door while he entered the house through the garage.

It wasn’t much of a garage, not big enough for the truck, but it worked for the bike. Stranger lunged at him, wiggling in excitement and whacking him with his huge tail. Sansa smiled at him uncertainly. Watching the two of them, Sandor felt an unfamiliar prickling behind his eyes. Feelings again. He was going to have to get used to them.

“I’m sorry, they’re here early,” Sansa said, and he wondered how long it would take her to stop apologizing to him for everything, and what he could do to fix that. For now, he enfolded her in his arms.

She leaned into the embrace, resting her head on his chest. “Stranger’s being a good boy. Now that you’re home, I’m sure he’ll be fine with the others.”

“Uh-huh.” He took a deep breath. “Listen, I have to tell you something. About, uh, the wedding.”

“Oh.” She pulled away from him a little to look up and meet his eyes. He kept his arms loosely around her waist. “I sort of have to talk to you about that, too.”

Shit. His stomach dropped into free fall. She was frowning and hesitant, and this was it, wasn’t it? She’d talked to her family, and now she was going to break their engagement. He didn’t want to hear this. It took all of his courage not to pull away from her.

She spun her fingers in her hair. “My family is really keen on a Northern wedding. You know, in the Godswood? It’s probably not what you had in mind. I’ve seen Southern weddings with the cloaks and everything, and a Northern wedding would be, I don’t know, maybe too different for you?”

He couldn’t think of a thing to say. He was an idiot, an absolute fucking idiot. She didn’t even want a wedding cloak. He’d done this all wrong.

She rushed to fill the silence. “They’re really beautiful weddings. All the candles lit in the Godswood at night. But if you’d rather—"

“Sansa,” he said, “is that the wedding you want, or is that what your family wants?”

“I want what you want,” she said.

He cupped her cheek and lightly traced the gorgeous bones of her face. “I think we have to talk to each other more. We have to trust each other, right?”

“I trust you completely.” It looked like there were tears in her eyes. “It’s just that, you know, when you get angry, you might not listen to me.”

He stomped down the impulse to get defensive. He knew he was angry all the time, although not as much lately, come to think of it. “I always want to hear what you have to say, little bird. If I don’t listen to you, remind me to stop being a dick.”

She nodded. “I don’t really care about the Godswood either way, but an outdoor wedding is so pretty, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, outdoors would be perfect,” he agreed. “No religious shit, though. I don’t want to be a hypocrite on my wedding day.”

“Oh, so you do have an opinion on something,” she said playfully. “I was beginning to wonder.”

“It all just seems too good to be true sometimes,” he said, and it felt right to get that off his chest.

To his surprise, she started laughing. “Sooo, I have your dog sequestered in the garage, a bunch of loud, obnoxious hockey players in your living room drinking your beer, my unemployed sister living in your spare room, and two large wolfhounds you’ve never met before shedding all over your furniture, and all this seems too good to be true?”

“You left out the part where I get to spend the rest of my life with the most understanding, beautiful woman in—wait, your brothers are drinking my beer?”

Her smile was contagious. “You better go see for yourself.”

He took Stranger inside carefully, but he seemed to be okay as long as he stuck like a burr to Sandor’s calves. Lady and Nymeria approached slowly to sniff Stranger’s fur. They both had regal bearings and shiny coats like show dogs, and they wanted nothing more than to circle Stranger and inspect him from every angle. Robb Stark, Jon Snow, and Theon Greyjoy were much the same. They circled him in a tightening spiral, full of youthful energy and curiosity and, if Theon’s wobbling was any indication, intoxicating substances. Yara Greyjoy and Brienne Tarth looked on in evident amusement, each holding one of his bottles of good beer. Sansa was right – this was a lot.

He sat on the couch, Stranger still refusing to move more than an inch away from him. Sansa immediately perched on his lap and rubbed Stranger’s ears. Robb and Jon stared each other down in a contest of wills. He guessed that Jon won when he spoke first.

“Does your dog know hand signals?” Jon asked.

That was the first question he was getting? “No,” he said. “I never taught him. But he’s a smart dog.”

“He’s a sweetheart,” Sansa said. “Lady and Nym are going to love him.”

“Can I take out your motorcycle?” Theon asked.

“No, you look drunk.”

“Eh, he always looks like that,” Yara said, distracting her brother, who tried to poke her in the ribs.

“Did Sansa finally get the courage to ask you about a Northern wedding?” Robb asked.

Ah, they were saving the real questions for Robb, the Bad Cop. Fair enough. “She did. Sansa knows she can ask me anything she wants.”

“We’ve decided on a nondenominational wedding, but it will be outdoors at night with candles,” Sansa said, and she handed Sandor her beer from the coffee table.

“I’m taking bets right now that Sandor cries like a baby at the wedding,” Arya said. “Anyone care to bet against it?”

“Sucker’s bet,” Yara said. “Nobody’s taking you up on that.”

He wanted to deny it, but he didn’t think he could honestly. Anyway, Sansa insisted they would both cry because it would be a romantic, emotional day, and he didn’t want to disappoint her by pretending he wasn’t going to be a godsdamn disaster.

It got better eventually. The muscles in his chest relaxed and allowed him to breathe again. Jon, Robb, and Theon played a few more rounds of Good Cop, Bad Cop, and Idiot Cop before getting distracted by the game on the TV. Stranger decided that Lady and Nym weren’t threats after all, and even let Nym play with his rope bone. Tarth surprisingly hit it off with Robb and Jon right away, and it turned out that she’d played ice hockey in college, which Sandor kind of wished he’d been around to see. Yara wouldn’t stop playing bartender, although that was probably so she could cut off her brother when he drank too much. Arya took the dogs out and watched them in the backyard for a bit. It wasn’t comfortable yet, but Sandor could see how it would be one day. How maybe having family wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.

“You doing okay?” Sansa whispered in his ear.

He rested his hand on her hip. “Yeah, and you?”

She nodded. “Are you really okay with all this?”

“I’m telling you the truth. No more secrets,” he said. “I promise.” He hoped she realized how serious he was about promises.

“Me too, I promise.” She snuggled up to him, and somehow, it finally sunk in that she loved him. Against all the odds, Sansa loved him, and she wasn’t going anywhere, not in two or three months, and maybe not ever.

Arya shoved him with her shoulder. “I’m glad you two are finally back to being your ridiculous selves.”

The pizza delivery arrived. Robb and Jon insisted on paying, and Sandor and Sansa retreated to the kitchen for plates and napkins.

“There’s one more thing I forgot to mention, sweetie,” Sansa said. “I’d like to keep the northern tradition of baptism by drowning before the wedding.”

“That’s … “ He was totally confused. Wasn’t that from the Iron Islands? “Wait, what? Drowning?”

Sansa nodded solemnly. “Drowning. If we survive, that means our love will be eternal. What is dead may never die.”

“Fuck no. Nobody’s drowning you on my account,” he growled.

Then he caught the gleam in her eyes and the twitch of her lips. She was putting him on again.

He tangled his fingers in her long, sun-kissed hair and tugged her head back. “That streak of mischief is going to be the death of me someday.”

“That soft heart of yours is going to be the death of me someday,” she said before getting on tiptoes to give him a long, lingering kiss.

See? The romantic part of his brain told him. Being in love isn’t so hard. But that was wrong. Love was like crawling over broken glass, like unravelling barbed wire with bare hands, all pain and jagged, sharp things tearing and ripping. But Sansa was soft and sweet and warm, like wrapping his broken edges in cozy scarves and mittens. It wasn’t enough to fix him completely, but it was the most right he’d ever been. Not that he wanted to get too optimistic, but this might be what being happy felt like.

Yeah, he was definitely going to cry at the wedding.

 

END NOTES

A year after they met in the police precinct, Sansa Stark and Sandor Clegane were married in an outdoor nondenominational ceremony in the Kings Landing arboretum. Neither of them cried during the ceremony, although it was very beautiful with all the LED light candles (there were no open flames). The reception party afterwards also took place in the arboretum. The groom complained about all the picture taking, as usual, but everyone does at a family wedding, and the bride was too happy to be bothered by it.

Yara Greyjoy made a point of not serving anything to anybody at the reception. She and Robb Stark may or may not have made out behind the arboretum’s maintenance shed. Hickeys may or may not have been exchanged.

Margaery Tyrell broke off her cynical relationship with Joffrey Baratheon immediately after his ill-fated meeting with Sansa in Maiden’s Hell. She and her brother Loras Tyrell spent the reception competitively flirting with Sansa’s favorite professor, Renly Baratheon. After Renly picked an ice cube out of Loras’s drink and sucked on it, Margaery happily admitted defeat.

Tyrion Lannister begged for an invitation. He brought his brother as his plus one. A week later, he sent the newlyweds a lovely note thanking them for inviting him to such an interesting and beautiful wedding, especially praising the wedding attendants for being the best behaved wedding party members he'd ever seen. This praise was passed along to Lady and Stranger, who ate it up, as always.

Jaime Lannister had too much to drink and challenged Brienne Tarth to an arm wrestling contest, which he lost.

Brandon and Rickon Stark may or may not have been caught by their new brother-in-law vaping behind the maintenance shed.

Ned Stark was completely civil and even friendly to his new son-in-law the entire day, although both Sansa and Catelyn thought that, even though Ned and Sandor would be fine in the long run, it was a good idea to hold the wedding in Kings Landing and not Winterfell.

Jon Snow and his girlfriend Ygritte convinced the DJ to play the Chicken Dance and tried to get everyone on the dance floor. The first people to join them were Jaime Lannister and Brienne Tarth, who had been challenging each other to drink tequila shots.

Catelyn Stark made an honest assessment of her children and their likely futures, and decided that her best chance at planning a formal wedding rested in Theon. Catelyn and Theon had a wonderful time at the reception discussing floral arrangements and tuxedo cuts.

The highlight of the reception was the presentation of a wedding gift made by Arya Stark. Sandor’s resistance to having his picture taken was well known, but Arya had used all her stealth powers to take photos throughout the year. The collage she displayed at the reception had candid photos of Sandor and Sansa during their engagement: walking the dogs, taking a motorcycle ride, picking out a wedding cake, being in love. Upon seeing this tangible symbol of their relationship, both the bride and groom cried for at least ten minutes straight.