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Tuesday's Gone

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July 1976—Kansas City, Missouri

 

“Come home, baby. Just come home.”

 

Fireworks exploded outside where a crowd had gathered at the riverfront. With each pop, Sansa’s heart beat wildly in her chest. A sound echoed in the hall outside her apartment door. In the foyer, she froze. He’s here. He’s coming.

 

Her eyes darted to the kitchen. She crept there in slow movements to arm herself with anything she could find—a knife; that gold-plated pepper grinder; those heavy serving platters he insisted on for all their lavish soirees. Her frantic gaze snapped back to the front door, and she waited for the handle to jostle, the jangle of his keys, the anger in his voice.

 

Whoever was in the hall moved along, but the exquisitely carved clock in the living room chimed the time. Ten. Every toll resounded in reminder. He’s coming. 

 

Sick to her stomach, Sansa sprinted down the hall with horror in every step. In the bedroom, she slammed the door shut and locked it and, if it weren’t for dwindling time, she might’ve hoisted whatever she could in front of the door.

 

She dashed into the closet and reached for her heavy leather bag from the shelf. Sansa hadn’t used it in years, but it was one of the last relics of the small-town girl she used to be. She landed in Kansas City with the scuffed up leather bag; a Texas beauty Queen with a heart full of dreams and head in the clouds. What a fool she’d been.

 

Sansa pulled the leather bag from the shelf and with it came a downpour of expensive purses that landed at her feet. It didn’t matter. She crashed to her knees on the closet floor. She shoved fistfuls of clothes into the bag with trembling hands. Everything would be ruined and wrinkled, and she couldn’t care less. It didn’t matter. She’d leave all the fine things she owned behind—dazzling jewels, extravagant shoes, anything and everything she could’ve ever hoped for in the material. It didn’t matter.

 

Sansa wrangled the only sensible shoes she owned into the bag and something about being on the closet floor with mascara staining her cheeks and an ache in her chest felt like repeating the past.

 

“He cheated on me, momma,” she’d cried around Christmas time into the phone. The cord had stretched into the walk-in closet and Sansa had huddled amongst the glittering gowns and pageant crowns. Big city life had rendered her into a sad, sobbing shell on the floor. “He’s got an apartment with another woman.” On Joffrey’s arm, Sansa had seen that woman—butter blonde hair and the greenest eyes she’d ever seen.

 

“Come home, baby. Just come home,” her mother had cried right along with her into the phone. She said it once more a week before her death, but Sansa hadn’t made it in time. By her best estimate, she’d crossed the Oklahoma line into Texas right around the moment her mother took her last breath.

 

Sansa swiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand and eyed her beautiful dresses one last time. Leave it behind.

 

The sparkling evening gowns hung like pristine memories of what should’ve been the sweet summer of her youth; all the parties and the prestige of the life she should’ve had. Everyone back home said Sansa Stark was destined for the gold-dust glamor of the big city. And here she was—lucky to be alive, but first she’d have to survive the night.

 

He’ll be here soon.

 

With the bag in tow, Sansa sprung to her feet and flung open the closet door that led to the bathroom. Clumsy hands rifled through the top drawer. Just get out, the voice screamed in her head. Each ragged breath wheezed from dry lips as she threw ragtag items into the bag. It didn’t matter what was hers or his; she tossed it in and the rest she’d figure out later. Bottles of perfume, makeup, a toothbrush, Tylenol. She could replace anything that was missing. Just get out. Go.

 

Sansa threw the tattered leather bag over her shoulder, flipped up the toilet seat, and slid the engagement ring off her finger in the final act of shedding this life. All that glitters…

 

She dropped the enormous diamond into the toilet and flushed, watching with grim satisfaction as the water swallowed it down. That diamond deserved to end up in shit. The corner of Sansa’s mouth lifted in a smile for what little justice she could claim for herself. She’d take it. He’d made her life a living hell.

 

Beyond the bathroom and down the hall, the front door exploded open, slamming into the adjacent wall so hard it shook the studs. Sansa’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle a yelp, and she pressed herself against the bathroom wall.

 

“Sansa!” Joffrey screamed and bounded down the hall.

 

Her legs trembled fierce enough that she knew she’d toppled over if she moved. Stay still.

 

Tears of defeat welled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She eyed the other bathroom door; the one leading to the hall and her only way out because Joffrey’s foot now smashed into the bedroom door. With each hit, Sansa flinched but edged closer to her escape. You have to try.

 

Her stomach flipped and mouth filled with saliva. With a shaking hand, she reached for the knob. The timing meant everything. Into the hall too soon or too late meant he’d be on top of her before she knew it.

 

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” he howled like a feral animal and with rage burning through him.

 

The bedroom door busted open as the wood ruptured beneath the sheer force of his kicks. She could see him now—red-face drunk, incensed that she’d stood him up for America’s Bicentennial Jubilee and the fete held in honor of Lannister Petroleum.

 

Joffrey screamed again, more unintelligible threats, and Sansa counted down the seconds. This was it. Time slipped away. She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and mouthed a silent prayer as he careened into the bedroom. Pounding step after pounding step, he hurtled himself into the closet.

 

Now.

 

Sansa flung open the door and darted into the hall. Priceless pieces of art that adorned the walls whipped by in a haze. She sprinted through the living room, but his irate footsteps collided against the floor behind her.

 

He was closer, gaining on her though her legs burned, and blood pumped hard through her veins. Purse. She needed her purse. Sansa spun on her heel and snatched her bag from the sofa table just as Joffrey reached her.

 

A tremendous force wrenched her backwards as his fingers coiled around the leather bag’s strap. Sansa’s knees buckled, but she remained on her feet. She jolted hard to the right and then to the left, forceful enough that he let go.

 

As she hurled herself around, one balled fist landed hard and with a crack at the center of his face. Joffrey’s nose gushed blood and, in the moment it took him to lift a hand to his face and stare in bewilderment at the blood staining his fingertips, Sansa bolted out the front door and ran down the hallway of their high rise.

 

When she reached the end of the hall, Sansa jabbed the elevator button with panicked insistence. Joffrey raced after her. His eyes had gone black with rage and his face was a bloody ruin. The elevator door opened, and Sansa tumbled inside. She whimpered as she pressed the button for the doors to close again, jamming her thumb against it with all her might.

 

Closer, he was burning through the distance between them. The doors closed in an agonizing crawl as he neared enough to reach.

 

He didn’t scream. He knew better. “Don’t make a scene, Sansa,” he liked to taunt, usually as he crushed her hand in vice-like grip, daring her to react in front of others. Joffrey was a Lannister, a monster behind golden smiles and a carefully crafted reputation, but she saw the manic fury that contorted his face now, the monster unmasked.

 

Sansa pressed herself against the back of the elevator and squeezed her eyes shut. It was too late. He’d caught her. Any moment he’d intervene because, if there was one thing she’d learned about him, it was that he always got his way.

 

The collision never came, though. Just a resounding thud as Joffrey slammed into the elevator doors already shut. With quivering hands, Sansa fumbled in her purse past tubes of lipstick and her wallet and dug out her keys. She eyed the elevator’s numbers lighting up with each passing floor.

 

“Come on. Faster. Go,” she pled between the seventh and sixth floor. With each panting breath, she paced the elevator.

 

Five.

 

Surely, he’d be flying down the stairwell. He wouldn’t quit. He’d never quit.

 

Four.

 

How many flights was it? Twelve. Sansa’s limbs went numb. She hovered in front of the doors. She’d have to make the most of the time she had to get to her car. She’d parked it close to the elevator for good reason and the reason was this. By the grace of a cruel God perhaps, he always got his way. Always.

 

Three.

 

What if he was there already? What if he’d made it? Everything always worked in his favor. Inexplicably. Always. And never in hers. God give me this, she prayed to the mirrored ceiling of the elevator.

 

Two.

 

Sansa gripped the keys. They dug into her palm that was slick with sweat. Her heart slammed in her chest, a resounding and sickening beat.

 

One.

 

This is it. Run, she’d have to run. It didn’t matter if he was there. Sansa gulped down a panicked breath. The elevator slowed as it rumbled towards the garage level. The doors slid open.

 

Now.

 

Sansa shouldered through the sliver of space between the doors and sprinted to her car, feet pounding against the pavement. Her trembling hands fumbled with the keys and her eyes snapped to the stairwell. This was her moment, her chance, the only one she’d get.

 

Sansa ripped open the car door and hurled her bags inside. She collapsed into the seat and yanked the door shut. When the engine fired up, Sansa peeled out of the garage and sped onto the city street beyond.

 

A horn blared as she cut across the intersection and raced down the hill towards the riverfront. Red, white, and blue lit up the sky with dazzling splendor and a boisterous crowd gathered along the streets, all waving the flag with eyes peeled to the black heavens and unaware of the horror from which she’d narrowly escaped.

 

Sansa adjusted her rearview mirror and spared one last glance to the high rise she’d called home for the past few years. She navigated onto the highway west bound towards Wichita and across the empty plains leading back to where she belonged.

 

“Come home, baby. Just come home.”                                                                                                 

            


                                                                                     

May 1977—Devil Creek, Texas

 

“Another?” Sansa asked with a smile and let the coffee carafe hover over the stranger’s half-empty mug. His mustache—jet black except an off-center patch of gray—twitched as he thought it over but ultimately shook his head and slid two dollars across the laminate counter.

 

He stood from the stool and, before pushing through the door, tipped his hat to her in polite departure. Sansa observed him through the window and cleared away the mug and plate emptied of a tuna melt. How the hell a stranger ended up here, she hadn’t the foggiest.

 

Devil Creek sat smack dab between Abilene and Lubbock, not quite lost to time but still just a dusty little town off the state road, not visible enough to even get lost in. People who came did so for a reason, and the ones who were born here rarely ventured far.

 

The afternoon sun drenched the high plains and spilled through the diner’s windows to bathe her in its warmth. Perched at the end of the counter, Sansa sipped on cold lemonade and twirled the ends of her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Outside, the clouds ambled by and left shadows that rolled lazily across dry earth. In her past life, she’d taken big sky and cotton clouds for granted. Never again.

 

“You gonna help me with this or daydream out that window?” Jeyne broke in with bubbling laughter as she carried a tray of empty salt shakers.

 

“How about both?” Sansa circled around the counter and eased into an empty booth next to the far window. Jeyne settled across from her and removed the shaker’s lids one by one, but her gaze drifted to Sansa and lingered a little too long to be all that innocent.

 

“What?” Sansa asked and carefully poured salt into each shaker, mindful not to spill. She wasn’t raised on superstitions but believed it best not to tempt fate.

 

“I have something.” Jeyne abandoned the salt shakers and pulled out an envelope hidden beneath the tray.

 

“What’s that?” Sansa probed.

 

The girl responded with a sly smile, her big brown eyes alight with something that made Sansa’s stomach flip. She’d known Jeyne since they were girls playing in the schoolyard in their gingham and lace dresses while Arya chased them around with worms dangling from a stick.

 

Sansa returned the salt container to the table and settled back in her seat with her arms folded over her chest. This wasn’t about the salt. “Jeyne, what is it?”

 

A conspiratorial smile creased Jeyne’s lips once more, and she leaned forward but lowered her voice despite the radio lilting from the kitchen. The cook whistled along with the tune, blithely unaware or uninterested in whatever secret Jeyne was about to share.

 

“Remember that prisoner pen pal program?”

 

Sansa nodded. Jeyne used to come into the diner sometimes with an inexplicable airiness and an unusual pep in her step. It’d taken weeks to pry it out of her. The girl had been writing to a prisoner and claimed it opened up a fresh perspective on life.

 

Sansa pegged it as the beginnings of falling in love, but she’d gotten it all wrong. It was a service to the community, a way to heal, or so Jeyne said, and the last bit got Sansa’s attention. If she was in bad need of anything, it was healing. She gave it a go, submitting her information to Jeyne’s church that liaised with the program, and swiftly forgot about it until now.

 

“You got your match.” Jeyne lit up like a lightbulb and handed off the thin envelope that she had already opened.

 

Sansa took it and felt one brow lift as she contemplated Jeyne across the booth. “My match?”

 

The term rang odd and disingenuously implied a chosen one. In reality, they’d probably plucked Sansa’s name from a bucket to pair with an inmate also selected at random. This wasn’t kismet.

 

“That’s what they call it,” Jeyne explained the terminology with a shrug. “I haven’t looked yet. I wanted us to find out together.”

 

Sansa held up the torn-into envelope with a smirk. Jeyne hadn’t exactly covered her tracks.

 

“Okay, maybe I peeked,” she conceded. “All I know is his name is Sandor Clegane.”

 

Clegane. The last name was unusual enough that she’d remember ever running into that lineage. The pageant queens of small-town Texas chased after the bloodlines of big oil, the might and wealth promising a way out of dead end towns. Sansa already made that mistake. It wouldn’t happen again.

 

“He’s a war vet.” Jeyne replaced the lid to a salt shaker, but gazed out the window. An enormous cloud rolled over and cover the vacant parking lot in its shadow.

 

“Aren’t they all?” Sansa mused, but it came out wrong and she bit her tongue. Some people painted those who fought in the war as criminals, the slaughter just as much their cross to bear as President Johnson who sent the boys over to Vietnam in droves.

 

Sansa wasn’t one of those people. She knew the pain of the draft well. Robb and Jon’s draft cards came and cast a somber shroud over their family that left her mother crying one too many times at the kitchen table.

 

“What’s he in for? Murder?” Sansa asked and stared at the envelope in her hands. She’d had her fill of monsters and couldn’t quite stomach the thought of corresponding with a man who brutalized women, in particular.

 

“I don’t know,” Jeyne replied. “They don’t tell you.”

 

“What does he look like?” Intrigue gnawed at her and Sansa ran one finger across the envelope’s tattered flap that sheltered a mystery.

 

“Does it matter?” Laughter rippled through Jeyne’s question. “It’s not like you’ll ever meet him.”

 

Sansa lifted her eyes to the girl. “Why shouldn’t I? If he’ll be my pen pal…”

 

Jeyne’s hands dropped to the table, and her mouth hung agape. “You wouldn’t actually meet him!”

 

Was it a question? No, not quite. The look Jeyne cut was a dubious warning, but curiosity danced right behind it.

 

“I just want to know who I’m writing to,” Sansa explained to head off the strange affront at the idea that she might ever sit face-to-face with Sandor Clegane. Sansa flipped open the envelope. “That’s the whole point, isn’t it? You get to know them? That might lead to a meeting.”

 

Jeyne had never met her prisoner. Going on six months’ worth of letters now, the possibility never even came up in discussion either.

 

“Go on!” Jeyne motioned to the envelope with waning patience despite a bright, white-toothed smile. “I’ve been waiting all day for this.”

 

Sansa pulled out a single note card and skimmed the description with its sparse details, hardly a description at all.

 

Sandor Clegane. Prisoner 131906.

Age: 35

Hometown: San Antonio, TX

Military Service: 1967-1970

Incarceration Year: 1972

Marital Status: Single

Appearance: Caucasian. Black hair. Gray eyes.

Religion: None

 

Sansa flipped the card over. Empty. She pried the envelope wide open. Nothing.

 

“Well, they don’t give you much,” Sansa commented and turned the card over again as if that might manifest more of this man. “Yours had a picture and more of a description.”

 

Jeyne’s prisoner looked like a kindly old man, but he’d killed his wife amid a lovers’ quarrel and specifically noted in his first letter to Jeyne that he’d found Jesus behind bars. He was looking for a prayer partner, someone to share in the good Lord’s word.

 

He’d hit the jackpot with Jeyne. She was a Jesus girl, a prayer never far from her lips. Everything she did, she prayed. When Sansa dropped a dish to the floor, Jeyne prayed. Storms rolled across the tall grass with a sky gone black, Jeyne prayed. Like a good Christian girl, Jeyne prayed for everyone she knew and even those she didn’t.

 

Sansa tucked the description card back into the envelope. Sandor Clegane.

 

“What if he’s the Son of Sam?” she quipped with a nervous laugh to match the flutter in her belly. She joked, but girls went missing all over the country with crazed killers on the loose. Across the plains of West Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, girls ended up dead in the cornfields.

 

Jeyne rolled her eyes. “He’s not the Son of Sam. You said you wanted someone who’s never received a letter.” The girl pointed to the envelope. “This is him.”

 

A forgotten one was how Sansa put it. If she would do this, she wanted a lost soul, the one put away and left behind, nothing and no one to call their own, no future or family to count on. Apparently, her forgotten one was Sandor Clegane.

 

Behind the counter, the phone rang, and Sansa slid from the booth. “I’ll get it. You stay here.”

 

Along the way, she grabbed up the envelope in an odd afterthought and carried it with her.

 

Sansa snatched up the receiver and pressed it to her ear. “Poole’s Diner.”

 

The faint buzz of an empty line drifted through and Sansa almost hung up, but a soft breath stilled her movements. A chill shot up her spine. She gripped the phone with both trembling hands and spun away lest Jeyne hear.

 

“Who is this?” she whispered and cupped the sides of the receiver to listen. Sansa waited. One more breath puffed through the line before it went dead.

 

She hung up the phone and clutched the envelope to her chest that rose and fell in an erratic rhythm.

 

“Who was that?” Jeyne hollered from the booth and finished up the last of the salt shakers.

 

Sansa swallowed hard. She didn’t know. She never knew who it was. The calls started in early spring and always the same way—no words, just an exhaled breath. The few people she’d mentioned it to in passing assured it was just an accident or a prank call. Why then did it follow her to work and then back home, always knowing where she was? That hardly seemed a coincidence.

 

The diner’s bell rang to announce a customer and Sansa jumped with a startle, on edge and still reeling as she turned around with a smile. Along the way, she spotted the clock barreling towards the end of her shift, just an hour left.

 

Old man Miller shuffled in and his tongue peeked out the side of his mouth with the concerted effort it took to scoot his walker across the floor. With his pants hung high on his hips, the old man still proudly wore his large belt buckle. Every Thursday, like clockwork, he wandered in to drink coffee and regale Sansa and Jeyne about the good old days.

 

Long ago, when Sansa’s father was a young man, Mr. Miller hired him as a ranch hand. The old man must’ve seen the hole in Sansa’s heart and tried to fill it up with stories of her father. She had so few of those, her fifteen years with him just weren’t enough. 

 

“Look at you!” Sansa beamed. “That a new hat?” She met him halfway from the door to the counter and motioned to the Stetson sitting on his head.

 

“I wore it for you,” he declared on the tail end of a laugh as Sansa escorted him to a stool. “You look like your momma, Ms. Sansa.”

 

Mr. Miller gripped her forearm as Sansa helped him into his seat and she tossed him a smile just like she always did every Thursday when he paid her this same compliment. Sometimes it was the way she wore her hair in long auburn waves, darker now that she was older. Other times it was the blue of her eyes or the way she smiled. He meant well, but the comparison to her mother stung and Sansa had only recently managed to talk about her without going misty-eyed.

 

“Thank you,” she replied sweetly and leaned against the counter across from him, only now aware of the envelope still tucked in her hand. She discreetly slipped it into her purse. “How did the sweet peppers come in?”

 

He squinted at Sansa, and his unruly brows pulled together, deepening the crease between them. “The what now?” 

 

“Your garden,” Sansa called over her shoulder when she turned her back to him to pour his coffee. “You said last week the rabbits are going to town. They even got into your sweet peppers.”

 

“Well, shit, I probably shot them then. I can’t quite remember.”

 

Mr. Miller’s raucous laughter dissolved into a fit of coughing. He pulled a handkerchief from his front shirt pocket and swiveled in his stool. He waved the cloth towards the empty road outside the diner.

 

“I saw someone new come into town. He went barreling by like a demon straight out of hell. I guess he figured he belonged in a place named after the Devil.”

 

Sansa set the mug in front of Mr. Miller and followed his gaze to the road. Unease crept in at the corners, but Sansa blotted it out with another smile when Mr. Miller turned to her again. She veered the subject away from the stranger and buried the phone call in the pit of her stomach where she kept the rest of her fears. Just a prank call. Just a stranger.

 

Sansa wiped down the counter as she listened to Mr. Miller’s stories, but her eyes drifted here and there to the envelope poking out of her purse. At some point, Jeyne retreated from the kitchen at the end of Mr. Miller’s tale. A devious smile spread about her lips as she shifted a glance between Sansa and Mr. Miller.

 

“You know, Sansa’s gonna write to a prisoner, just like me,” Jeyne announced and bit her bottom lip that still curled with delight. “He’s a war vet.”

 

Mr. Miller gnawed on the information and stared at Sansa as he stroked his chin.

 

“If you need a war vet to write letters to, you can write them to me!” he chuckled and might’ve descended into another story about his glory in the Great War but stopped himself short.    

 

“But I see you every Thursday,” Sansa reminded him. “If we wrote letters, we wouldn’t have much to talk about here, now would we?”

 

“I guess.” Mr. Miller lifted the mug to his lips and downed the likely tepid coffee with one hard gulp. “I better be off. I’m busier than a jackrabbit in springtime these days.”

 

“I have something for you!” Sansa dashed to the end of the counter and retrieved a small plastic bag from underneath. She handed it off to Mr. Miller, careful not to overload him with the weight of it.

 

“I’m giving you an extra jar of mint jam this week. You seem to like it.”

 

Like it was an understatement. Sansa swore the man ate nothing but butter and jam toast at the rate he tore through the jars week after week.

 

Mr. Miller took the bag and gave her one last doting smile. “Sweet peppers couldn’t hold a candle to you, darling. Sugar and spice, and you know the rest.”

 

Sansa nodded with a soft laugh. “You take care now.” She waved and rested against the wall behind the counter.

 

“If I see those rabbits again, I’m gonna skin them alive,” Mr. Miller hollered on his way to the door that Jeyne held open for him. “That man you’re talking to, Sansa, better not be a scoundrel or I’ll do the same to him. Makes no difference to me!”

 

The wind swallowed up his last words. The clouds had darkened and raced by at a faster clip, swept along with a steady breeze that whipped up dust.

 

Sansa reached around to the small of her back and untied the apron at her waist. She folded it into pristine squares that she smoothed out and set beneath the counter. Jeyne yanked the diner door shut against the force of the wind.

 

“A storm’s on its way.” Sansa tipped her head to a blackening sky where distant lightning rippled across. “I better be on my way before it comes.”

 

“Oh!” Jeyne’s eyes widened, and she bolted behind the counter. “Before you go, I borrowed my momma’s Polaroid camera so I can take your picture. You can send it along with your letter to Mr. Sandor Clegane.”

 

Jeyne carefully pulled out a black soft-sided case and gingerly unpacked the camera.

 

Sansa stared down at the striped terry-cloth t-shirt she wore tucked into denim shorts. “Jeyne, if I’d known, I would have—”

 

“You’d what?” The girl stared at Sansa from beneath her lashes and fiddled with the camera. “Slip into one of those old pageant dresses hanging up in your closet?”

 

I should get rid of those. Sansa went around in circles with herself on the matter. Those gowns reminded her of her mother, who stayed up late some nights to meticulously tailor them. Then again, she wasn’t that girl anymore and never would be again.

 

“Alright,” Jeyne sighed and surveyed the light of the diner, dimmer now as dark clouds crowded the sky. “Stand over there and maybe take down your hair.”

 

Sansa followed Jeyne’s pointed finger to an empty wall and pulled her ponytail free from the hair tie. She ran her fingers through her hair’s cascading length, mid-waist by now and left in soft waves, having recovered from the years she’d spent straightening it all because it was what Joffrey preferred. She counted it as a lesson and recovered what she could of her life and of her hair. Against the wall, Sansa stood with her shoulders squared and hands tucked behind her back.

 

Jeyne squinted as she pressed the viewfinder to her eye. “Smile!” she said but yanked the camera away from her face. “No, an actual smile. And try to look less stiff.”

 

“I am smiling!” Sansa protested with a laugh that sent her arms to her sides and relaxed her shoulders.

 

Jeyne quickly snapped the picture and retrieved the film from the camera. Sansa watched the picture develop from a murky gray, certain her eyes would be closed, or her face contorted in some horrid expression.

 

The picture that developed showed Sansa laughing, a candid and unstaged moment. She didn’t look like a pageant queen. Instead, she looked happy.

 

“There.” Jeyne handed the Polaroid to Sansa with a pointed look already halfway to disappointment. “Are you gonna do it? Actually, do it?”

 

Sansa took the picture and, when she retrieved her purse, slid it into the envelope with the details of Sandor Clegane still a mystery to her. She toiled over a question she should’ve already known the answer to. What was the point of talking big about forgotten souls if she didn’t plan on following through?

 

She settled her purse on her shoulder and gripped the straps. Thunder boomed outside and the diner’s windows rattled in response. “We’ll see,” she murmured.

 

Jeyne’s lips sunk in a frown and she pushed back glossy brown curls behind her ears. “It starts with forgiveness, Sansa.”

 

“What?”

 

“Forgiveness,” she repeated, but Sansa had heard just fine. What she needed was an explanation. Jeyne stared at her hands pressed to the counter. “Part of their rehabilitation is forgiveness; knowing that society forgives them and maybe then they can forgive themselves.”

 

“What if we don’t forgive them?”

 

“You should.” Jeyne lifted her eyes with a serene smile. Outside, the wind howled.

 

The shift from the Royal We to Sansa singular wasn’t lost on her. This wasn’t about forgiving Mr. Sandor Clegane, the war vet who’d committed a crime egregious enough that he’d already served five years behind bars. And it wasn’t really about the greater whole of society forgiving men like him. Monsters roamed the earth, free to terrorize innocents, and no one spoke much about their benediction.

 

This was about her and all the ways Sansa had been searching for the path to forgive herself—forgiveness for leaving home to chase dreams too big with a man who was all wrong and forgiveness for coming back one night too late to send her momma off with the angels.

 

“Go on now,” Jeyne urged. “Before the skies open up.”

 

Open up, they did and just as Sansa pulled her car into the driveway of her childhood home. She didn’t bother with the garage because it was more trouble than it was worth but gripped her purse tight to her side and ran for the front door. Even in the short distance, Sansa trudged inside with her shirt soaked. She tossed her purse to the couch near the front door. Down the hall and into the bedroom that used to be Robb’s, she peeled out of her rain-soaked work clothes and into a plain t-shirt and jeans.

 

Sansa didn’t have the heart to take over the master bedroom. She kept it sealed shut and used it mostly for storage. She’d made the house her own bit by bit, but it still felt like living in the shadow of her past. Over the last year, she sorted through her mother’s belongings and cleared out the closet. Her father’s possessions were fewer and farther between and already culled through years ago. Robb’s were even less.

 

Still, the ghosts of her family remained—photographs that lined the hall to the bedrooms, her mother’s wedding china packed up and dominating an entire corner of the basement, Robb’s military regalia. Every time she turned a corner, something was there to remind her of all she’d lost.

 

With the radio as her companion in the kitchen, Sansa prepared a meager dinner, a meal for one as it usually was, except for the nights Jeyne came over to keep her company. Sometimes a neighbor would demand that she stay for supper. More often than not, Sansa sat down at the dinner table just like now, alone with her thoughts or the TV humming in the background.

 

I’d rather be alone than with that monster.

 

That thought alone usually killed the pity party. And what about all those other parties? The gleaming riot of greed, gluttonous in food and drink and sex. She’d been out of her depth, entirely lost, an outsider planted at the center of it all.

 

I like this better.

 

Sansa didn’t bother with the TV or radio tonight. In the fluorescent glow of the kitchen, she sat at the table with her back against the wood-paneled wall and listened to the storm outside. Rain pounded the windows, and the lights flickered. In the silence, she cleaned up the kitchen and washed dishes as she gazed at the storm through the window.

 

Outside, a bird, larger than the robins and blue jays she usually saw, struggled against the wind. It flapped with enviable determination towards the tree in the far corner of the backyard. When it finally managed the task and landed on a branch rocking in the wind, Sansa saw it wasn’t just any bird but an owl that gazed back at her with big yellow eyes.

 

By the time she finished the dishes, the owl had flown off somewhere else to shelter in the storm that blew past just as quickly as it had arrived. Sansa opened the kitchen window and invited in the cool breeze that danced on the lace curtains.

 

She retired to the living room, but her eyes wandered to her purse still on the couch. The envelope poked out of the top and she ignored it through the better part of the evening news, but long after the sunset and the beckoning became too much, Sansa pulled it free and ran her fingertips along the flap.

 

Sandor Clegane.

 

She read his description again, but gained no further insights hidden between the lines. In the vacant spaces, she envisioned what he might look like. Black hair and gray eyes. A man of war.

 

In the kitchen, Sansa retrieved a fountain pen and her mother’s stationery set from a drawer and settled at the table. What was she supposed to say to him, a complete stranger? Jeyne wrote about many things—big and small—in her letters. Sansa knew nothing about this man or what he’d be interested in hearing from her.

 

“Dear Sandor,” she wrote, but stopped. The pen’s tip pressed against the page and bled out ink in a growing pool.

 

Too familiar. You don’t know him. She crumpled the page and tossed it in the trash, but just as she was about to pen “Dear Sir” Sansa stopped herself once more. Her mother’s stationery was finite. Make it count.

 

He was a forgotten one, Sandor Clegane, and that meant making this worth the effort, for him and for her. Sansa started again and let the pen flow across the page with no barrier between her thoughts and the nib.

 

Dear Sandor,

 

I’ve never done anything like this before, so please pardon any gracelessness on my part. I’m not sure where to start so I’ll tell you a bit about myself and I suppose we can go from there.

 

My name is Sansa Stark. I’m twenty-five and, like you, was born and raised in Texas, although I spent a few years in Kansas City. My daddy was a rancher and died too young. I was fifteen at the time. I helped my momma with my younger siblings—two brothers and a sister. My older brothers were both drafted. One made it back, the other didn’t.

 

I read that you’re a veteran. I hope the years since the war have been kind to you but, recognizing your situation, I can’t imagine they’ve been all that sweet. I hope there’s been light somewhere.

 

My momma passed this time last year. Sometimes I still don’t believe it’s been this long. The days seem long, the weeks short, and I’m left drifting in between. I came back home after my mother died to go through her things and to sell the house. Even with my siblings here, that task was harder than I ever could have imagined.

 

So here I am—back in my town, living in my childhood home, though it’s just me these days. My siblings are off conquering the world! I didn’t imagine I’d stay this long. The time slipped away, and I guess I’m still trying to sift through what’s left behind—inside and out.

 

I work down at the local diner. My best friend’s family owns it and they’ve been kind enough to hire me. I garden and cook. I like to bake too and share with my neighbors. I sing at the local bar on Saturday nights. I even write my own songs and wanted to be a famous singer like Stevie Nicks. She’s my favorite. Maybe someday, but for now I’m happy and enjoy my life for all its simplicities.

 

I’ve rambled on enough about myself for one letter. Please tell me more about you, anything and everything you’d like to share—who you are, where you’re from, the things that bring you happiness, your dreams.

 

If nothing else, I hope this letter brings you some measure of comfort, even if it’s from a stranger, and you’ll know that someone in the world is thinking of you. You’re not forgotten.

 

Before I go, I’ve included a picture of myself, so you’ll know what I look like.

 

Take care,

Sansa Stark

 

Apparently, making it count meant bleeding herself dry on the page and Sansa read through her words whose candid revelation paled in comparison to a mere “Dear Sandor”. She didn’t know this man, but the letter meant he’d know her; her own parts forgotten. If he couldn’t appreciate the content, maybe he could at least appreciate the sincerity.

 

Once the ink dried, Sansa folded the letter into thirds and stuffed it, along with the Polaroid, into a crisp new envelope that she sealed, stamped, and addressed. On her way to bed, she placed the letter in her purse with every intention of leaving those words sealed shut in the envelope.

 

That task was hard won, though. Sansa tossed and turned with the words she’d written. They were too much and why should he care about any of it. She flipped to her back and stared at the popcorn ceiling. Really, she had revealed little. Her past was a completed tapestry and Sansa had only described the pattern.

 

When sleep finally prevailed, it came dreamless and Sansa woke the next morning before her alarm. Dreamless her sleep might’ve been. Restful it was not. She dragged herself to the shower and bumbled through her routine of drying her hair and applying her makeup. The usual grace wasn’t there and, out the door for her shift, Sansa snatched up her purse.

 

Halfway to her car, she stopped dead in her tracks. The letter.

 

She contemplated the mailbox at the end of the driveway. The urge to rewrite the thing buoyed up from within, afloat on nerves and hesitation and something she couldn’t pinpoint. It’s just a letter.

 

The self-consolation wasn’t enough to inspire a trip to the mailbox, so she climbed into her car and tossed her purse to the passenger seat. When she fired up the engine, Sansa let it run idle.

 

A minute passed.

 

And then another.

 

A whole Rolling Stones song played on the radio and Sansa sat with the letter heavy in her possession.

 

It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to him. I wrote it for him.

 

Sansa plucked the envelope from her purse and studied the delicate border of English roses printed on thick linen paper. She set it in her lap and backed out of the driveway. Sansa eased the car next to the mailbox where she placed the letter inside and flipped up the flag.

 

“Alright, Sandor Clegane, let’s see where this takes us,” Sansa mumbled to herself before driving away.

Chapter Text

                                                                                                                                                      

                                                                                               

 

October 1972—Cactus, Texas

 

The hair on Sandor’s neck stood on end and an icy shiver trickled down his spine. Behind the bar, Bronn hovered near him and clapped Sandor on the back. He winced at the contact. At some point, he’d stopped hitting the ceiling, but his skin still crawled.

 

“The fuck I tell you about doing that?” Sandor grumbled and peered at the man from beneath his black Stetson’s brim.

 

“Ah hell,” Bronn sighed and dropped his head. “I’m sorry.”

 

“No need. Just quit doing it,” Sandor chided with a smirk and popped the top off a Budweiser. He slid it to an old man at the end of the bar.

 

Bronn had offered Sandor a job here. He wasn’t in any position to complain or demand apologies. And he’d be damned if he would be a shell-shocked Nancy that sent others tiptoeing around his emotional tripwires, those invisible lines that set him off. Sandor came home from war knowing that those lines—crisscrossed like a mess of yarn—existed in him but didn’t know the first thing about how to untangle them.

 

The dingy bar was a shithole on the best of days, but well-positioned off the main drag, the only watering hole on this side of the railroad tracks that bisected the dusty town. The Union-Pacific rolled by two times a day and sometimes stopped altogether.

 

Bronn’s genius wasn’t the aesthetic of neon beer lights and a couple thrift store pool tables, but rather preying on the impatient. The flow of traffic meant that the steelworkers had to rumble by but, when that train creaked along or stopped altogether, those men ambled in to sate their thirst and blow off steam. They stuck around for more than one beer and long after the train moved on.

 

Now and then, the same woman would wander in and perch at the end of the bar. She sipped on Southern Comfort, chain-smoked Virginia Slims, and scoped out a cowboy for the night.

 

Like clockwork, fights erupted the nights she came. Sandor’s height and the muscle he’d packed on in the war designated him as the one to handle the rowdy. All it took was stepping out from behind the bar with his boots stomping against the scuffed-up floor. The unruly scattered, at least enough to settle their differences outside his best friend’s place of business.

 

It was the least Sandor could do. He came back home with no prospects, just more years of drifting ahead of him. During the war, Bronn had kept up with Sandor’s house and car, his only possessions worth anything, and promised him a job when he returned. The pay was decent, and that was all Sandor could ask for these days.

 

He wiped down the bar with a damp rag, but the door flung open and a cacophony of boots shuffled in. The cadence of the footfalls said the three men came looking for trouble.

 

“Turn this shit off!” one of them hollered over Waylon Jennings warbling from the jukebox in the back corner.

 

Two others cackled with laughter, already drunk as they stumbled to the bar. The old man enjoying his beer in silence had sense enough to snatch up his bottle and disappear to one of the laminate-topped tables near the dart boards.

 

Sandor dropped his rag into a bucket of soapy water and stood at full height. He crossed his arms over his chest and settled against the mirrored wall of liquor behind him.

 

The three men eased onto bar stools and each found some way to draw attention to the pistols hanging from their hips. The cracked leather of their hats that peeled apart at the brim said these weren’t those uptight assholes who traveled here from the city for the novelty of a dive bar.

 

The middle man’s cheeks were ruddy and cracked with broken blood vessels. He chewed dip that’d blackened his bottom teeth and the wad sat in a bulge beneath his lip. He leveled dark eyes on Sandor’s folded arms and legs and must’ve seen some threat in Sandor’s height and the way he stared right back.

 

“Get me a beer.” The man’s brusque demand earned him a round of raucous laughter from the other two.

 

Sandor lowered his gaze and pushed himself from the wall. The Stetson hid his scars well enough to shut people up. Most assumed he got them in Vietnam. The peaceniks were the worst. They wanted a story to build up their anti-war soap box and stack the injustices to hoist themselves high enough that someone might listen. No one listened, and Sandor didn’t want to talk about it. These men weren’t here for stories, but Sandor kept his head down and scars hidden anyhow.

 

Beneath the bar, he plucked out a piss-water beer from the cooler and slammed the bottle in front of the shit-stain now gaping at him.

 

The man spit his dip on the floor. “What’s the matter with you, boy? Your momma not teach you any manners?”

 

Sandor lifted his head and pressed both hands to the edge of the bar. He leaned forward, poised to give this fucker a piece of his mind, but the man on the left flicked the brim of Sandor’s hat hard enough that it tumbled off his head.

 

The men gawked at Sandor’s scars, the patch of dark pink skin beginning at his forehead and extending beneath his chin.

 

“Christ almighty, you’re an ugly son-of-a-bitch!” one man hollered while the other two hooted with laughter. “Shit, if I had to serve with you, I’d’ve napalmed your ass too.”

 

Sandor’s blood rose with a quickened pulse. A familiar warmth spread down his arms and tingled in his fingertips that twitched for a trigger. He stepped back and almost crushed his prized hat on the floor. He sunk against the shelves again. The bottles rattled but sounded too metallic. Victor Charlie two clicks away.

 

Sandor closed his eyes. Not now.

 

The men laughed.

 

“Are you fucking stupid?” the middle man shouted and brown spittle dribbled from the corner of his mouth. “You one of those retards?”

 

Sandor didn’t answer. Call in air support, Clegane. You deaf or stupid? Call it in.

 

“Probably. Look at his face!”

 

They pointed at him and laughed again, either at his scars or the way he’d undoubtedly gone ashen. Sweat slicked Sandor’s brow. The bar was hot, on fire, an impossible inferno.

 

“Zippo raids get the best of you? You were supposed to barbecue Charlie, not yourself, you fucking moron!”

 

The laughter faded on the edges and the screams came, along with flashes of images—tiny women running from huts and clutching their babies; butchered, all of them, and blood soaking the earth. The airplanes rumbled overhead. The heat hit his face now and Sandor dashed forward. He grabbed the piss-water beer bottle by the neck and smashed it to the edge of the bar.

 

“Leave!” he screamed, and his voice trembled in a terrible way. “I won’t tell you again.”

 

Go. Go. Go. The mortars fell with each command, exploding on impact. He never heard what else his commander screamed. He ran. Through thick overgrowth and plumes of smoke, he ran. He was dead. They were all dead.

 

Sandor gripped the bottle and the glass splintered beneath his vice-like grip. His heart raced and vision blurred. The smoke was too thick. It made him tear up.

 

“Look at him! He’s some kinda burnt up!” a voice shouted; someone who made it out. Sandor hurried forward as the shouting man came into focus with blackened teeth and broken blood vessels. That man pulled his gun from the holster as glass shattered around Sandor. It rained to the floor in glistening splinters and shards.

 

Take cover!

 

Sandor ducked with the last order his commander ever said, screaming like a loon for Sandor to get down, but a bullet had ripped through the man’s temple. His brain, bone, and blood had bathed Sandor’s uniform. He never could get those stains out.

 

Sandor bolted around the bar and the man raised his gun again, but Sandor slashed the beer bottle. It ripped through the air as easily as it ripped through the man’s skin. He cried out and collapsed to the floor.

 

You wanna ride the freedom bird in a body bag, Clegane?

 

A horrid scream echoed through the bar. Sandor straddled the man, and the bottle tore into his face again. And again. With each blow, blood oozed, and the iron scent filled Sandor’s nostrils. The screams weren’t from the man. It was Sandor hollering like a feral dog. The bottle slipped from his hand and sliced open his palm. He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Survive. Get out of here alive.

 

The red rage came.

 

He’d seen it in others, but never knew it in himself—red in his eyes, red on his hands, red across the floor. The man no longer had a face; just a flap of flesh and an eye dangling from the socket. A sharp pain cracked through Sandor’s side and a violent force yanked him backwards.

 

He tumbled and fell and maybe closed his eyes because all that crimson faded to black, but the sounds remained—screams, curses, moans; more boots running through the door. A trio of flashing lights streamed through the window, probably Ranger Battalion coming in to drag him out. All three shone their lights through the jungle brush in dire need of beating down. Turn your lights off. VC two clicks away, Sandor screamed in the darkness.

 

“Look at me, son.”

 

The deep voice pulled him from what seemed a dream. The black and red faded and it felt like coming out of a deep sleep. Sandor’s limbs loosened. His vision focused on the jukebox, a beacon in the back with bitter irony as Willie and Waylon cautioned Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys.

 

His eyes shifted to Sheriff Clyde Griffin. He’d known the man since he was a boy, back before Griff’s thick mustache and hair had gone white. Only now, the man’s ashen pallor also looked two shades from death.

 

Sandor squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. On the floor, he sat propped up against the wall. Someone had wrapped a bar towel around his hand, but it was now soaked in blood. It looked like quite a lot until his eyes drifted to the red puddle a few feet from him that put it into perspective.

 

“Shit,” he grumbled.

 

His head lolled back and hit the wall. He stared up at a water-stained ceiling tile. Somewhere near the pool tables, Bronn shakily recited to Griff’s deputy whatever had happened here. Sandor remembered now the eyeball dangling from that shit bird’s head and the hollow cavern it left behind.

 

Sandor leveled his eyes at Griff crouched in front of him. “How bad is it?”

 

He meant the bar, all the liquor on the floor. The smell of booze was too overwhelming to mean anything other than a fine fucking mess and, while Sandor would have to clean it up, poor Bronn would eat the cost.

 

Griff didn’t mince words, even in the worst of times, but the man had a wicked sense of humor that Sandor wished he might spare in a moment like this.

 

“Bad. I’ll have to take you in, and we’ll see how the charges pan out.” Griff eased from his squatted position and pulled the handcuffs from his belt loop. “Better pray that man survives the night.” 

 

Sandor eyed Griff and pushed himself from the floor.

 

“Get my hat,” was all he had to say about that. Griff gathered his hands behind his back and secured the cuffs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                       


May 1977—Wichita Falls, Texas

 

The rain pelted in steady sheets of quarter-sized droplets. At least, it felt that way slick against the back of Sandor’s neck and ratta-tatting the barrack’s metal roof. The steam rose thick from sodden earth in a blanket of humidity. In the Suck, as he dotingly called it, keeping his shit dry was a full-time gig. With his socks sopping wet, Sandor dried his feet with an awful fear that jungle rot would take his legs. He stepped out of the barracks when someone hollered about the sun breaking through the clouds, the end of rainy season.

 

Like a solar-deprived fool, he bounded outside just in time to hear the familiar pin drop followed by a bounce and roll that only grenades made. Flash and bang, a piece of that tin roof would’ve sliced off the top of his head if it weren’t for his bare feet sinking into the mud. Charlie didn’t do it; didn’t have to.

 

“That boy ain’t right in the head,” his friends—most of whom were blown to bits in their own beds—said about the fucked up kid in their unit who kept to himself but had that crazy look in his eye.

 

Mud between his toes, Sandor screamed. His feet were wet. Jungle rot would set in and, if that didn’t take him, the enemies to the North and the ones inside his very unit would. He screamed because he figured he wasn’t coming home. He screamed because no one was left to care much that he wouldn’t.

 

His body jostled with a firm grip at his shoulder. Sandor cracked his eyes open. His cell mate—a one-eyed, arrogant son-of-a bitch named Beric—leaned over him.

 

“You’s screamin’ again,” the man grumbled. His strawberry blond hair grew in wild waves from his head.

 

Sandor shot up, and Beric took up his post across the cell and against the wall. The man’s jumpsuit was one size too big and swallowed up his gaunt frame. All the hunger strikes withered away his body until his sallow skin hung loose and his cheeks sunk beneath sharp bones.

 

“You would too,” Sandor said and sat with his forearms draped across his knees, but eyed Beric. Two years as cell mates, he still didn’t trust the man.

 

Those who knew Beric before claimed he never had the stink of religion on him like he did now. He drank and fucked and fought like any other red-blooded man, but the God-fear hadn’t gotten into him yet. Chasing after the worm, he drank to the bottom of a tequila bottle and damn near killed himself. The good doctors pumped his stomach and Beric claimed he puked up pure black—all the awful in him—and it put him back on the right path.

 

It didn’t stop the man from robbing banks and raising hell with his motorcycle club. He came to prison a man of God and proselytized to his heart’s content. That holy rolling righteousness attracted fists to his face, not disciples to the faith. Beric survived more prison fights than anyone else on the cell block. With each brush with death, he descended further into Gospel and claimed that he was a chosen one, even after an inmate from a rival gang scooped his eye out with a spoon.

 

A whistled church hymn came down the row of cells and Sandor sat up straight. He squared his shoulders and looked to the cage door just as Boros waddled up.

 

“What do you want?” Sandor grunted and glared at the man.

 

“You gotta visitor, Clegane.” Boros’s jowls jiggled when he talked, and the dull fluorescent lights reflected in the bald sheen of the man’s bulbous head.

 

Sandor stood and eased towards the cell door where he offered his wrists through a slat. He stared daggers at Boros as the man adjusted the cuffs tight enough that Sandor swore he was trying to sever his hands at the wrists. He bit his lip and refused to fuss because he knew Boros like the back of his hand.

 

Drunk on whatever power the man eked from his shit-paying job as a guard, Boros zeroed in on Sandor the moment he walked through the prison’s doors in shackles. Sandor’s greatest offense—his refusal to comply with buzz cuts because of religion. The only God Sandor claimed was the one who spared him the clippers and Boros was just smart enough to uncover the ruse, but there wasn’t shit he could do about it.

 

The door gave a metal groan as it opened, and Sandor slipped out.

 

“Get right with God and those demons won’t haunt you,” Beric hollered and held his bible to his chest. 

 

“Fuck you and fuck your God,” Sandor spat back with venom in his voice.

 

“You watch your mouth, boy!” Boros shoved Sandor forward. “I should whip you upside the head for taking the Lord’s name like that.”

 

“I’d like to see you try, you fat fuck,” Sandor chuckled as Boros wrenched him at the elbow. Sandor stared down at the man’s grubby fingers with a smirk. “Can’t reach my head with stubs for arms.”

 

Sandor towered over the man and laughed again at the image of Boros the Bloated swinging for his head and missing by a foot or more.

 

Only three people ever visited Sandor—his lawyer, Griff, and sometimes Bronn when he could manage the trip. Boros blazed past the phone room, which meant one thing. Griff was here.

 

The man favored contact visitation where he and Sandor could sit across the table from one another. Sandor swore the sheriff’s badge Griff still wore allowed him certain liberties, including the warden’s blind eye. Griff denied it, but a glint in his eye confirmed that he pulled strings where he could. A small-town sheriff, the man had big clout.

 

“You’ve got thirty minutes.” Boros unlocked the visitation room door, uncuffed Sandor, and shoved him inside. The door crashed behind him.

 

Griff stood and greeted Sandor with a firm handshake and a faint smile hidden beneath his thick mustache. Polite as ever, Griff had even removed his hat and placed it on the table. Short but stocky, he carried himself like a tall man might—pride lifting his shoulders and sending his steps colliding to the ground with heavy determination. Sandor liked to joke that big balls bowed Griff’s short legs.

 

“What did you do to shove a burr up his backside?” Griff motioned to the door where Boros hovered on the other side. In faded Levi’s and a shiny belt buckle prominently displayed, Griff resumed his seat at the table.

 

“I haven’t done shit.” Sandor sat with his arms crossed over his chest and back against the wall. A wry smile creased his lips.

 

Griff leveled a sharp look that he sanded down with gruff laughter. “I don’t buy that.” 

 

“You shouldn’t.” Sandor peered out the slit that passed for a window.

 

In the distance, the wind swept through a line of trees hard enough that even from here Sandor saw the canopies sway. “To what do I owe this pleasure, two visits in a month? I know it’s not because you miss me.”

 

“You’re damn straight it’s not,” Griff japed with a scowl on his lips, but the levity gleamed in his eyes. “I’ve got something for you.”

 

Griff lifted his hat from the table to reveal the tattered backside of an envelope. “A letter came,” the man announced, and something in stating the obvious irritated Sandor. 

 

He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You some kind of magician now? Pulling shit outta your hat? Don’t fuck with me. What is it?”

 

Sandor scrutinized the wrinkled envelope. It looked like it’d been through hell a couple times and spit back out again. Sandor knew the feeling, but it did little to endear him to it.

 

“Someone wrote to you.” Griff eased back with a satisfied smile.

 

“It better be about my parole hearing.”

 

It likely wasn’t. That was his lawyer’s burden to bear. The poindexter pencil dick was good for one thing—negotiating Sandor’s parole. He would’ve preferred a bulldog; someone like Griff who took no shit and didn’t speak to Sandor in legalese. What his attorney lacked in dogged ferocity, he made up for in studious understanding and meticulous execution of strategies to get Sandor the fuck out of here.

 

“This is your new pen pal,” Griff said with wayward hesitation, enough that Sandor narrowed his eyes at the man.

 

“The phrase ‘pen pal’ assumes I want a friend and that I’ll write back. I’m more likely to wipe my ass with it. And I don’t want a friend.”

 

Sandor didn’t like most people and couldn’t be bothered with conversation. Writing letters was a hop, skip, and a jump past chit-chat that he could walk away from. Letters took commitment and intimate thought. He had no interest in giving either to a stranger.

 

Griff’s jaw set hard enough that Sandor knew the man ground his teeth. The corners of Griff’s mouth sunk past the ends of his mustache, which was a feat in its own right.

 

“Sandor, this can’t be a one-way street.”

 

Sandor exhaled a hard, derisive breath, and his smile was just as denigrating.

 

“I like you, Clyde, but let’s get something straight. Precious little in my life is my own anymore. It’ll be a frigid day in blazing hell before I let someone dictate what few decisions I have left.”

 

Griff bristled at the sound of his first name. Sandor used it as a weapon against the man who, for his part, wielded the double-edged sword of his relationship with Sandor. They could take well-meaning digs at one another but, when it came down to brass tacks, Griff exacted his paternal authority with a sniper’s precision.

 

“You were enrolled in the pen pal program on the advice of your lawyer, and it was good advice.” With the tip of his finger, Griff prodded the table with every third word as if to pound in meaning. “Your parole hearing is coming up. If the judge sees you’ve made connections on the outside, he might be inclined to think you’ll have a support system should he grant your release.”

 

Old man Griff had the right of it after all these years of declaring Sandor a stubborn bastard. Sandor wore that badge with honor now, even as the annoying truth unfurled his defiance. He wouldn’t say as much, though. Instead, he stared at Griff until the man spoke again.

 

“You’ve got me and who else? Bronn? A cop and a bartender? That isn’t enough, son. That lawyer of yours ain’t your friend.”

 

Look at me, son. Sandor loathed the term of false endearment. “I ain’t your kid,” he’d correct Griff with biting insistence that he hoped would stick. It never did. Griff would just laugh it off and do it again.

 

“Do what you want.” With his calloused palms facing Sandor, Griff lifted his hands in acquiescence. “In the very least, I suggest you respond to help your cause. However, I think you’ll find a very sincere letter in there.”

 

“You read my mail?” Sandor huffed. “Isn’t that a crime?”

 

Griff ignored Sandor’s sardonic commentary on the justice system and leveled his eyes across the table. “Privacy is a luxury of the free. You ain’t that. Besides, I’m a nosy son-of-a-bitch. Course I read it.”

 

Griff’s slow, rumbling laughter hit the cinderblock walls in a damp echo.

 

“That it?” Sandor asked and nodded to the letter. “You wanted to hand it off? Make a little ceremony out of it?”

 

“No, that’s not all,” Griff sighed, and his demeanor darkened, smile faded, and the light dimmed in his eyes. “How you holdin’ up?”

 

There it was again—the hesitation, the maneuvering around those trip wires that remained. Only now, they were covered in dirt and it was anyone’s guess where they were or how many.

 

Sandor shrugged. “Same shit every day. Nothing changes.”

 

Five years in, Sandor lost track of the days. They bled together in one long continuum of misery. He saw what happened to men who let their sanity slip through their fingers. It always started the same. They forgot what day it was. Sandor kept a calendar and marked each day with a slight change to his routine. He liked his Thursday schedule the best.

 

“Warden says you’ve been having those nightmares.” Griff rested clasped hands on the table and studied Sandor. “If you want to talk—”

 

“I’ve never wanted to talk about it,” Sandor interjected before the thought got too far. “I lived it and that was enough.”

 

Sandor could tell by Griff’s eyes that a sad smile graced the man’s lips, though his mustache obscured it. “You’re a stubborn bastard.”

 

“And you’re an old man. Too old to sling a gun and badge around Cactus. You’ll break a hip before too long.”

 

Griff broke with hearty laughter emanating from his belly. He pointed a finger at Sandor.   

 

“You haven’t changed one bit in here—mad as a hornet and cantankerous as hell. I pray to the good Lord that you’ve found enough regret to at least play the part for your hearing.”

 

Sandor fought the instinct to roll his eyes. They asked all the fucking time—judges, lawyers, wardens, and priests—if he regretted what he did. Regret wrapped itself around awful memories; the night where God himself couldn’t have convinced Sandor he wasn’t right back in Cholon with the taste of blood and gunpowder in his mouth and VC chattering through the wrong radio frequency. The man he damned near killed was no different than the enemy he’d been trained to fight, and the stakes no less than they had been in war. Sandor couldn’t decouple the difference, so he claimed regret on the surface, but the sentiment hadn’t seeped into his soul.

 

The door slammed open and Boros bounded in. “Time’s up,” he barked but couldn’t manage the bite, so it came more like a yap.

 

Sandor ignored him and stood from the table. Griff shook his hand again and handed off the letter.

 

“Thanks for the TP.” Sandor lifted the envelope and winked over his shoulder. “See ya, Griff.”

 

He returned to his cell just as Beric’s group rotated into the yard. His block was blessedly quiet, and he didn’t have to suffer through an earful of Beric’s bible-thumping. Sandor crawled into the bottom bunk and slumped with his back against the wall. He had every intention of tossing the envelope to a small stack of belongings on his desk, but the handwriting on the front caught his attention as did the border of printed roses.

 

In blue ink, the letters swooped and swirled and spelled a name he whispered to himself.

 

“Sansa Stark.”

 

Her first name was like a breathy hum, soft on a whisper and supple in his mouth. Sansa.

 

Someone blacked out her address and Sandor barked a rough, rasping laugh at the irony—the forced connection of a pen pal held at arm’s length because they were all just shit birds here, not worthy of the trust. Some part of him got it. The other part resented being lumped into the categorical untrustworthiness of rapists, wife beaters, and child molesters.

 

Curious now, Sandor flipped open the envelope and pulled out the letter. The paper had some weight to it, and its linen-like texture said something about this Sansa Stark. She didn’t send him some torn-out notebook page with chicken scratch that he could barely read. He opened the folded stationery to find neat rows of cursive letters that filled the entire page.

 

He might’ve only admired the look of it, the feel of the paper, and the feminine detail of a floral border and tossed the letter aside, but the first two words hit him with strange familiarity.

 

Dear Sandor. 

 

He studied the way she wrote his name, the first three letters well-rehearsed from her own and her penmanship still deftly managing the last three. He read on, soaking up the sincerity Griff warned would be there. Sandor hadn’t expected it like this. Sansa Stark packaged up her little letter with sweet details like a matching envelope and fine paper, but she’d left something else in it too—concern over Sandor, a man she didn’t know.

 

He laughed at the naïveté—such an innocent gesture presented in good faith and a kind heart. His mirth at her expense said he didn’t deserve the kindness she offered, but she left it with him anyway and ended the letter with a comment about a picture. Still chuckling, Sandor dug into the envelope for the picture. She went through all the trouble. He might as well humor her.

 

One glance at the Polaroid and he wasn’t laughing anymore. Even the smile was wiped clean from his lips and if she were here—God have mercy on her if she was—she’d be the one collecting the last laugh.

 

The girl wasn’t a girl. She was a woman. Full breasts, the dip of her waist, and the flawless expanse of long legs made that clear enough. Long auburn hair fell past those perfect breasts, rivaled only by her gorgeous face—big blue eyes, slender upturned nose, and full plush lips he’d put to good fucking use if it were up to him.

 

It wasn’t just all that. The ineffable existed in the Polaroid too, something in the way she smiled—too genuine and sweet, back lit with a million miles more kindness than he’d known from other women. Her letter alone was a testament to that, but the proof now rested in his palm with a red-headed beauty staring back at him.

 

Sandor read her letter again with Sansa’s picture propped up against the wall of his bunk. He envisioned the words dripping from those captivating lips and imagined what had to be the dulcet sound of her voice. His thoughts meandered to other sounds that might spill from that mouth—breathy gasps, honeyed sighs, and begging moans.

 

His dick responded to the thought, hard now and pushing against the cotton fabric of his jumpsuit bottoms. Sandor turned with his back to the cell door and slipped his hand beneath the elastic waistband. He gripped his cock and closed his eyes with the vision of sweet Sansa, so seemingly innocent, and imagined her gentle hands wrapped around his shaft. He’d probably have to tell her she could be rough. He’d have to show her and guide her movements. Sandor stroked himself and his eyes cracked open to drink in the sight of her bare legs, so long and slender.

 

He’d ease those legs open and imagined her full breasts heaving in anticipation. A guttural groan rumbled at the back of his throat. A pant passed his lips as he stroked fast and gripped himself hard. She’d be soaking wet for him with her pink lower lips wrapped tight around his cock.

 

She’d be a good girl and take all of him in. He’d make sure of it and toss those long legs over his shoulders and lick her until she begged him to fuck her. Courteous and kind woman that she likely was, she’d say please.

 

Fuck her, he would, and in any way she wanted—hard from behind, his hips slamming against her firm ass, his dick buried deep inside her. Or maybe he’d climb on top of her, fuck her deep and slow, relishing every bit of how warm, wet, and tight she was and savoring her beautiful mouth. Or maybe he’d tell her to ease on top of him and he’d watch her go wild, riding him like her life depended on it, breasts bouncing as she sighed and shuddered and screamed his name.

 

He wanted it all. The thoughts came rapid, and he stroked faster with his eyes matched to her smiling face, envisioning her panting breath loud in his ear. He could almost savor how sweet her lips must be, how good she tasted between the legs, and how he’d feast on her every chance he could.

 

Ragged breaths escaped Sandor’s lips, and his hips bucked as if he were fucking her. He wanted her. She’d come so pretty for him and moan right along with him, her legs coiled around his hips. Sandor seethed through clenched teeth. His throat ached, and he fought the urge to scream his release. His balls tightened and Sandor rolled forward to snatch the small towel hanging from his bunk. With three fast strokes, the blinding pleasure erupted, and his release came quick. He closed his eyes and rode the wave of ecstasy, relishing every moment.

 

Sandor rolled onto his back and stared at the bottom of the mattress above him and the four thick slats holding it up. Once he caught his breath, he cleaned himself up and tossed the towel to the laundry pile. A quiet laugh passed his lips as a pleasured buzz slackened his limbs and loosened his muscles. Never quite summoning the inspiration, he hadn’t come like that in ages.

 

As Sandor dried his hands with a clean towel, he stared at the picture on the crumpled ruin of his bed sheets. Kind, innocent thing like Sansa probably didn’t deserve to have him using her photo like that. He sunk to the edge of his bed and gathered up her letter that he stuffed into the envelope. Careful not to smudge the edges, Sandor plucked the Polaroid from the bed and studied it once more.

 

Sansa’s smile and the light behind her eyes brought on his guilt, so Sandor stashed the Polaroid beneath the mattress and decided the best way to vanquish his guilt would be to write the girl back. It was the least he could do for defiling her pretty picture. A soft smile cracked Sandor’s lips. Perhaps she knew damn well what she was doing sending her photograph with the letter. He hadn’t much time to ponder it and even less to write her back. Escorted by a guard, Beric wandered in and the guard whistled for Sandor to come out.

 

For the better part of the afternoon, Sandor ignored Sansa’s letter. In the yard, he kept to himself, like he always did, and executed his regimen—the circuit of pull-ups, push-ups, and other routines that kept him in shape. He decided that if he ever had advice to give on how to survive this shithole, it’d be to keep both body and mind in check. If either slipped, it’d be a slide right into insanity and Sandor knew the evil bastards here preyed on that descent, watching like rabid dogs in the wings for poor souls to lose themselves.

 

A storm brewed in the sky and stirred up the yard. Like caged animals, the bastards and brutes paced the asphalt. A scuffle broke out in the corner between two men who normally stuck close to one another. It ended quick enough, but Sandor saw trouble on the rise just as sure and tumultuous as the ominous clouds marching towards them.

 

In the showers, the adrenaline and testosterone (or whatever mix of madness) spread like wildfire and rose with a fever. Sandor minded his own business when it came to couplings, but the forced intimacy, as Beric called it, delivered a cold slice of fear into him despite the warm water running over his body. It didn’t happen often in the showers and never as violently as it had today. He’d toweled off as the guards rushed in and whisked the unfortunate soul to the infirmary.

 

The chow hall wasn’t much better. An entire table howled like beasts as two men fought over a coveted pudding bowl. The pudding ended up on the floor and no clear winner emerged from the fight. Both men met the business end of a billy club and had nothing but bloody faces to show for it. Sandor ate in silence, chewing slow like he always did. That would probably be the only other advice he had—consider every meal the last. Chew slow and savor, even if it tastes like shit. And it always tasted like shit.

 

Sandor fell in line with the other inmates back to his cell, keenly aware of the fucker behind him walking too close and breathing too hard. The man’s presence sent up those hairs on Sandor’s neck and his fingertips tingled. Thunder pounded somewhere up above, and the inmates hollered like banshees in an uproar. Sandor’s stomach soured and, if he didn’t have a belly of steel after eating inedible slop for all these years, he might’ve vomited his dinner on the son-of-a-bitch behind him to teach the fucker a lesson.

 

Beric must’ve sensed the dreadful shroud that descended on the cell block. Inside their cage, the man dove headlong into scripture with his eyes shut and lips mumbling. The incessant, wispy murmurs would’ve normally sent Sandor on edge and incited an argument. Tonight, though, the unused paper and the sorry excuse of a writing utensil at Sandor’s desk beckoned. He’d never written a letter. He had no one to write to. Even if he did, the stubby golf pencil made the task annoying at best but mostly damn near impossible given the size of his hands.

 

Guilt wasn’t what sent Sandor to the desk where he huddled on the small stool despite how it pained his back. And it wasn’t the charade of repentance—the kind that might move a judge to sympathy—that urged him to dig a clean piece of paper and the tiny pencil from beneath a stack of books and parole documents.

 

It was three simple words that forced him to tuck the stubby pencil into his palm; three words that called forth his own version of sincerity, though far less polished and compassionate than Sansa Stark’s had been. Those three words encouraged Sandor to finish his letter, despite the way his hand cramped and his back ached for how he lurched over the desk.

 

The letter he wrote was shorter than hers and simpler too, and he might’ve spared more words if it weren’t for the fading tip of the useless pencil or the guard hollering.

 

“Lights out!”

 

In the last few moments, Sandor scribbled a hasty postscript that he probably should’ve erased. Too late now. The pencil didn’t have an eraser, so Sansa Stark was getting his unfiltered thoughts whether she liked it or not.

 

Sandor folded the paper into haphazard and asymmetric thirds and stuffed it into an empty envelope that he sealed shut. He didn’t know the first thing about getting mail out and wouldn’t have the chance to figure it out tonight.

 

“Get in your bunks! Lights out!” multiple guards shouted in near unison along the cell block.

 

One by one, the fluorescent lights flicked off and Sandor crawled into bed. Beric climbed onto the top bunk and said his nightly prayers louder than normal. With the prison plunged into darkness, the storm made itself more apparent. Each boom of thunder seemed to shake the walls. Lightning ripped through the stray windows well beyond the cell door.

 

Sandor closed his eyes and might’ve drifted into sleep, but a riot broke out as the storm swept through. The rowdier inmates used it as an opportunity to indulge their baser instincts. Sandor saw it for what it was—something electric and sinister charged the air and summoned the depths of depravity and darkness in those men.

 

He closed his eyes and counted the seconds between each clap of thunder, but it only inspired nauseating anticipation that sent his pulse pounding. Don’t go back there. Don’t go back.

 

A few cells down, a guard tried to subdue an inmate. Sandor knew by the screams who had the upper hand. The guard wailed for help. The cell mate joined the fight. A trio of guards in riot gear bolted by. And then four others. The screams grew louder along with the dull thud of batons against limbs and the cracking of bones.

 

The screams are only screams. They’re not your brothers here, Sandor bellowed inside himself. He tasted the blood in his mouth even after all these years, and those screams sounded an awful lot like the men he came upon with missing limbs or eviscerated from shrapnel and clutching their own insides blown out. They’d asked for mercy. They begged for it on their dying breath. He’d given it to them. A few screamed in their final moment as if second guessing and wanting their life back.

 

Thunder is only thunder, he reasoned with himself but each rumble reverberated through him in a familiar way, like mortars hitting the ground—the whizzing of a fuse, the static before the explosion, that moment they knew they were in deep shit and there was nothing he could do but run and hope he had his limbs at the end of it.

 

Sandor gripped the loose fabric of his pillowcase. On nights like this, he wished Beric would smother him with it in his sleep. He entertained wild ideas of waking the man up and begging for mercy, just like those boys in Vietnam; the ones missing limbs; some so bloodied and mangled their uniform was the only thing that identified them as any different from those they fought. That enemy ended up just as bloodied and mangled. Somewhere across the world the survivors suffered just like he was. 

 

You’re the lucky one, Sandor reminded himself, but his heart raced. It’d explode out of his chest like this. He’d die here. He couldn’t breathe. He thought to scream, but that’d only draw attention to himself. Stay quiet, hide. He squeezed his eyes shut.

 

I don’t want to go back. He didn’t mean to say it out loud. Only to think it, but the tremulous whisper spilled from his mouth, betrayed by his own lips, once and then twice. A third time. Three times. Three words.

 

Sandor opened his eyes and reached around the side of his mattress. He jabbed his hand underneath, and no longer cared if he smudged up the Polaroid’s edges. He pulled it out and rolled to his side where he huddled against the wall.

 

With his eyes well-adjusted to the dark by now, Sandor made out the way she smiled sweetly at him, the light she radiated, and the compassion she paid a complete stranger. Each time his ragged breath quickened, Sandor studied another part of her—the shine of her hair, the curl of her lips, the innocence in her eyes—until his breathing slowed and his pulse steadied.

 

The riot raged until the storm passed and three words got Sandor through the night: You’re not forgotten.

Chapter Text

                                                                                     

                                                                                     

The letter came on a Saturday afternoon as Sansa clipped sweet tomatoes from the vine in her backyard. The grass had grown past her ankles, and patches of weeds dotted the fenced-in space. With a gloved hand raised to her brow and shielding the sun, Sansa contemplated the shed. The reel mower needed sharpened just as bad as the grass needed cut. Neither would get done today and not tomorrow either.

 

Most summers, Jon landed in town once a month. He’d mow the yard and tend to other household matters, but his visits had become fewer and further between. Some part of Sansa suspected that an empty house was worthy of sadness, or at least self-pity. Take the best of it, leave the rest of it, her father used to say when things got hard.

 

Sansa wielded that advice and “the best of it” were small things that brought her joy—pancakes for dinner; bubble baths on crisp autumn nights; walks down country roads, singing amongst the trees. Life’s little treasures could be found anywhere, even growing in the weeds.

 

When the mail truck rumbled up, Sansa counted that as another unexpected treasure. The engine idled loud enough that it meant the truck had stopped at the end of the driveway. She didn’t get much mail, just a couple times a week, and scarcely on a Saturday. A soft voice within said a letter would be there. The letter.

 

Sansa rounded the shaded side of the house and relished its cool reprieve before unlocking the gate and cutting through the front yard. Thick air clung to her skin; the promise of a warm, humid summer invading the tender breeze of spring. She tugged off her gardening gloves dusted in soil and regarded the mailbox with flushed anticipation not typically reserved for such banality.

 

Don’t get your hopes up.

 

Sansa’s adherence to her own silly rule was fickle at best. By now, she held her breath with every trip to the mailbox and cursed each bill that came and not for the money that she owed.

 

She blamed Jeyne. With no expectations, Sansa had sent off her letter to Sandor Clegane like a dandelion wish on the wind. Jeyne asked each day if Sansa received a reply. The answer was always the same, but the question planted a seed, nourished each time Jeyne asked, and grew wild with the week; so too had the doubts.

 

Sansa had been far more honest in her letter than she ever intended and blamed that bit on nerves and inexperience. Not all men appreciated the exhibition she’d given Sandor; that glimpse inside a glass heart and all that remained within.

 

When she reached the mailbox, Sansa closed her eyes and soaked in the scent of pavement baking in the sun, redolent in stone and earth. The mailbox’s metal handle was warm to the touch as she opened it. Sansa cracked her eyes and found one letter sitting near perfect in the middle of the mailbox. The envelope itself couldn’t claim such perfection.

 

Sansa studied it in her hands. She could’ve rolled over the letter with her daddy’s pickup, and it might’ve looked better. Black scuff marks marred the white envelope, tattered on two opposite edges, and the flap hung on for dear life. The imperfections didn’t matter.

 

Sandor Clegane.

 

The envelope didn’t have his name on the return address, just the prison in Wichita Falls. An untamed smile blossomed across Sansa’s lips and she glided like a dream up the driveway, across the porch, and through her front door. Transcendent and light on her feet, she slipped through the living room and into the kitchen.

 

Sansa sat at the table and clutched the letter to her chest. Splendid merriment bubbled up on strange butterflies for an unknown man. Maybe that was the allure. She didn’t know him, but he didn’t know her either; not how the folk from Devil Creek knew her.

 

Sansa was once this town’s only claim to fame. With her Miss Texas crown, she’d been on her way to the Miss America pageant until Joffrey Lannister-Baratheon swept into her life. He uprooted her as swiftly and violently as summer storms ripped up saltbush across the plains. Sansa never made it to the big stage or any stage for that matter.

 

She’d stayed in Kansas City, too embarrassed to run back to Devil Creek with her tail between her legs. She rode out of town on a high horse called pride and waxing lyrical about making it in the city. In the end, she swallowed down that pride like the bitter pill it was. Sansa paid her penance down at the bar on Saturday nights, singing on a small stage for the drunk and distracted. Those familiar faces offered a painful reminder of her fall from grace.

 

But Sandor Clegane couldn’t gawk at that fall like the others. He couldn’t whisper to town folk about what a shame Sansa Stark’s fate turned out to be. A perfect stranger, he hadn’t seen the way life knocked her on her ass and left her in the ashes of broken dreams.

 

Sansa held out the envelope and admired it, imperfections and all. For a moment, she considered milking the mystery. She could save it for after she showered off the sweat and dirt and dolled herself up for tonight’s gig. Sansa quickly abandoned that notion and didn’t bother with the letter opener that would’ve neatly sliced the envelope’s top. Instead, she ripped open the flap and pulled free a single piece of thin paper.

 

For as much savagery as Sansa paid the envelope, she treated the letter itself with equal delicacy. She unfolded it, careful not to tear its edges.

 

His blocky handwriting was neat for a man, though the pencil marks blunted in the middle and faded towards the end. The postscript peeled away from the letter’s straight lines and fell along a haphazard diagonal. Sansa drew a deep breath and read slow to savor each word.

 

Sansa,

 

I’ve had my fill of the graceless. You’re not that. I’m not entirely sure how you ended up writing to me, but here we are. 

 

I’m sorry to hear about your family. The best I can offer—hold on to who you do have. But I’m sure you don’t need a stranger to tell you that.

 

You had the right of it. The years haven’t been particularly kind, but I don’t dwell on the past. What’s done is done. I did my duty in Johnson’s war, and now I’m serving my time here. There wasn’t much daylight in between. Before the draft, I mostly drifted around Texas and took jobs where I could—behind a bar, on ranches, oil pipelines, whatever paid well and put a roof over my head. I was born in San Antonio but didn’t stay long after I was grown enough to work.

 

I suppose you’re wondering what I’m in for. You didn’t ask, but you don’t need to, and we won’t two-step around it. I beat a man close to death. For a while, I figured the biggest mistake I made was not finishing what I started. He lived. Just barely. I don’t claim God, but I figure it all happened for a reason. I’m not sure what.

 

I don’t reckon you’ve got a man. If you were mine, you wouldn’t be writing to the likes of me. That’s for goddamn sure.

 

You asked about my dreams. A man like me doesn’t attach himself to luxuries like hopes and dreams. My life’s been easier since I let those go. For you, whether or not you ever make it as a singer, you’ve carved out a life for yourself. Of that, you can be proud.

 

Write if you want. Stop if you don’t. I’m not fond of bullshitters and offering kindness through obligation is bullshit by any other name.

 

Sandor

 

P.S. I wouldn’t exactly complain if something inspired you to send more pictures. The one you sent certainly inspired me.

 

When she finished reading, the letter floated like a feather from Sansa’s trembling fingers. She gazed at the old coo-coo clock on the kitchen wall tick-tocking to the quickened thrum of her heartbeat. Sansa peered into the envelope, looking for more of him, but found it empty. So too was the back side of the letter, just vacant white space.

 

Sandor was blunt and maybe even assumed too much and took too many liberties in his response. Sansa Stark—the darling of Devil Creek—would’ve surely taken offense, but she wasn’t that girl anymore. Take the best of it, leave the rest of it.

 

She left the sullied pieces in Kansas City and collected back the better parts of herself; the bits she’d stowed away too deep for bad people to find. But she’d put herself together differently and, perhaps by divine design, was primed to appreciate Sandor Clegane’s honesty.

 

Even the cheeky post-script bid her lips to curl in a flattered smile with no trace of the scandalized. Sansa read Sandor’s letter again and whispered the words to herself, conjuring up fantasies about how his voice might sound. She’d wondered if his response might spoil the mystery and deconstruct her daydreams of him. Intrigue hardly satiated, Sansa wanted more.

 

Sandor had spared few details, but his presence was vivid on the page—his turn of phrase; the plain way he spoke with no concern for mincing words and certainly sparing no feelings; his unapologetic honesty. In the past, Sansa would’ve written him off as rude and cast him aside as a mannerless brute. These days, that breed of man beckoned in ways gold-plated bullshitters like Joffrey never did.

 

Sansa already had a well-crafted plan to reply. She’d write him a poised letter full of grace and polished words. She tossed that plan out the window. It was bullshit and Sandor Clegane didn’t like bullshitters and Sansa didn’t either; not in others and especially not in herself.

 

When she stood from the table, her legs were far too wobbly from just a couple hours of gardening and her hands still quivered as she pulled the stationery from the drawer. In her grass-stained tank top and shorts, Sansa took a page from Sandor’s book and wrote him a letter of unrehearsed words and more candid thoughts.

 

Her response was plain and honest and toed the line on cheeky. One might even say she danced towards flirtation in a way that thrilled her and melted away inhibitions. When she finished, Sansa neatly folded up the letter and stowed it safely in an envelope.

 

She might’ve stuffed Sandor’s letter in a drawer with old birthday cards and other minor mementos, but instead retreated to the bedroom and placed his letter where she felt it belonged—her bedside drawer.

 

The thrill followed her into the shower where the washcloth trailed soap bubbles across her skin. Sansa hummed to herself in sublime reverie and all her senses resplendent, soaring with the stars in dreamy revelation. The soap smelled sweeter, the olive shag carpet plusher beneath her feet as she toweled off in the bedroom, and the dresses hanging in the closet were more vibrant with their bursts of color. Sansa flipped past her normal attire for gigs and to the back where the chosen one hung in a garment bag.

 

She called it her goddess dress and not just because it looked like it might grace the body of a Grecian queen. In it, she felt every inch a goddess in her own right.

 

The emerald green chiffon draped elegantly against Sansa’s lithe frame, and the plunging neckline left just enough to the imagination. The straps crisscrossed her back left bare from her waist up to her shoulders. When she walked, the long skirt shifted in ethereal wisps about her legs.

 

Devil Creek didn’t boast an establishment fit for this dress, but Sansa slipped into it anyhow. She’d extricate the sour memories of Kansas City attached to it and break ground on new ones. You’ve carved out a life for yourself. Of that, you can be proud.

 

Sansa fiddled with the curling iron for perhaps the first time in months and pinned back her hair at the temples. The rest tumbled down her back in loose curls. Where she might’ve worried it was all too much, Sansa sidelined those concerns as she did her makeup. The second coat of mascara and the glittering cocktail ring she slipped onto her finger were for stage effect, of course. She was an entertainer after all.

 

But even Sansa couldn’t quite keep up that ruse. She picked up the phone and dialed Jeyne and asked the girl to bring her momma’s camera down to the bar tonight. Sansa promised to explain the reason later. That reason rested in her bedside drawer; the same one that bid her to make an extra effort tonight; the same one that seeped beneath her skin and felt like sun kissed warmth after a long, hard winter.

 

Before she left, Sansa retrieved Sandor’s letter and gingerly tucked it into her evening purse. Outside, the owl that’d been hanging around the past few weeks sat silent on a tree branch and watched Sansa hurry to the car.

 

If her neighbors thought she was an odd girl before—single in her mid-twenties and living alone—Sansa solidified that strangeness. Dressed to the nines, she climbed into her mother’s gold Cutlass. Across the street, Mrs. Marshall peered from her living room window and hovered in the sliver of space between her curtains drawn shut. That woman would fire start the rumor mill, and Sansa didn’t have it in her to care as she peeled out of the driveway.

 

At one of the few stoplights along Devil Creek’s main street, Sansa eyed her purse with an indulgent urge to read the letter again. The light turned green and Sansa headed for The Iron Kraken on the far edge of town. The old brick building possessed a run-down charm with its yellowed plastic sign and flickering neon lights. The roof leaked when it rained, and splotches of exposed concrete marred the front steps once painted red.

 

Sansa hurried up those weather-worn stairs as fast as her sling-back heels would allow, careful not to twist her ankle on the uneven slant of the vestibule floor. She breezed through another door and into the bar.

 

A low-hung ceiling and wood-paneled walls imparted a cavernous ambience to the space. Golden sconces dotted the walls but struggled to fill the place with light. A black and white checkered floor was dull and sticky beneath her feet and the bar smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Despite the flaws, or maybe because of them, Sansa regarded the place with fondness and cherished memories resided here.

 

Theon—the bar’s owner and her brother Robb’s childhood friend—didn’t notice as Sansa approached the long, wood-topped bar in need of a sand and stain. She squeezed between two leather-topped stools, but her presence alone didn’t rouse him from stocking the beer cooler beneath the bar. She cleared her throat and Theon lifted his eyes but shook his head. He pointed to a sign behind the bar that read “Leave Disco at The Door”.

 

“You know how to read,” he chided through a wicked smile. Over the past few years, he’d let his hair grow to his shoulders in ashy waves and even sported a thick mustache too.

 

Sansa rolled her eyes and reappraised her attire in the adjacent gold-veined mirror. “This isn’t a disco dress,” she chirped on a cheery laugh.   

 

“It ain’t a dive bar dress either, but you do look pretty,” Theon commented with a wink, but his eyes strayed to the door as Jeyne marched in. Her platforms stomped in an awkward rhythm. “Doesn’t she look pretty, Jeyne?”

 

The girl’s glossy red lips parted with a gasp and her doe eyes roved over the green dress. “Sansa Stark! Where did you even get a thing like that?”

 

“I had it in my closet.” Sansa shrugged but winced as the words left her lips sounding a little too much like the forced nonchalance of, “Oh this old thing? I’ve had it for years”. 

 

If Jeyne noticed, she was too polite to say as much. She tucked her hair behind her ears and perched on a stool that she nearly missed as her attention turned to Theon.

 

“I’d offer you a beer, but I don’t think that’s a beer drinking dress,” he teased and lifted one brow at Sansa.

 

“Nothing for me tonight,” she replied and tossed her purse to the bar. “Just tonic water and lemon, please.”

 

“And for you, Miss Jeyne?” Theon asked with his back to them but glanced over his shoulder when Jeyne’s tongue twisted around her words.

 

“I’ll take a beer,” she replied with a shy smile and her dreamy gaze trailed after Theon as he fetched their drinks.

 

The schoolgirl crush of Jeyne’s youth had matured into very womanly desires that ran perpendicular to a puritanical upbringing. The girl didn’t know it but, when Theon came around, she clutched the delicate gold cross hanging around her neck. She’d whip it back and forth along the chain in nervousness or maybe arousal. Sansa never quite knew what, but she knew that look. Even now, Jeyne fiddled with her necklace as Theon handed off their drinks and wandered away.

 

Sansa slipped onto a stool and turned to Jeyne. Her body hummed with an exhilarated flush hardly contained behind a sweeping smile. “Guess what came in the mail today?”

 

For a moment, Jeyne’s expression flattened with confusion before a beaming grin erupted across her lips and she bounced on her stool. “He wrote you back?”

 

With a giddy nod, Sansa pulled the letter from her purse and handed it over. Jeyne scanned the page with eager eyes, and Sansa observed a pink blush seep across the girl’s cheeks.

 

“That’s it? Seems awful short.” Jeyne flipped the page before handing it back to Sansa. “I see now why you asked me to bring my momma’s camera.” She patted the soft-sided case sitting on the bar top next to her purse. “You’re not honestly gonna send him more pictures, are you?”

 

“Of course, I am!” Sansa’s declaration straightened her spine and lifted her chin. “It’s the least I can do.” She motioned to the letter in her hands. “You heard the man. He’s suffered enough.”

 

“He says you inspired him,” Jeyne remarked with no hint of the coquettish in the way she stared blankly at Sansa. “What is that supposed to mean?”

 

Sansa’s head lolled to the side as she cut Jeyne a look, one that must’ve been enough to fill in the blank. The girl expelled a sharp laugh.

 

“What sort of man writes that?”

 

Sansa shrugged. She didn’t quite know and plucked her drink from the bar. “Maybe he meant inspired in a different way. Inspired to friendship perhaps, something innocent enough.”

 

That was a lie. She knew what it inspired, but couldn’t quite find the scandal in it, only another wave of intrigue. Sansa chased the straw around the rim of her glass and sipped her drink with eyes peeled to the small stage at the back of the bar. It was big enough for Sansa and her guitar player, Harwin, and not much else.

 

Jeyne gazed at Sansa with her smile now in conflicted ruin, something between selfless happiness and cautious concern.

 

“All I know is he doesn’t like bullshit,” Sansa cut in before Jeyne could speak and with the impulse to explain her errant enchantment with Sandor’s response. She tucked the letter back into her purse. “And I don’t either. His honesty is—”

 

“Brutal?”

 

“No, Joffrey was brutal,” Sansa corrected because the distinction mattered, and she would know. “This brand of honesty is refreshing. And I quite like it.”

 

“To each their own.” Jeyne slid from her stool and grabbed the camera bag along the way. “Let’s take your picture before your makeup and hair get all mussed up.”

 

Theon reappeared behind the bar, conveniently missing the conversation that would’ve sent him up the wall with brotherly instincts.

 

“Sansa, when you’re finished with your close up, Harwin’s been waitin’ on you.” Theon tipped his head to the side of the stage where Harwin tuned his guitar with a scowl noticeable even from here. “Better put the man outta his misery or I’m gonna do it for you. I don’t know what the hell has gotten into him tonight.”

 

“I will,” Sansa replied. “He can hold his horses for another few minutes.”

 

Sansa followed Jeyne across the bar. They wove through the lounge tables that each boasted two wooden bucket seats. Familiar town folk already occupied half the tables. Others had traveled from neighboring counties and places even smaller than Devil Creek.

 

The stage offered the best light for a picture. The rest of the bar was dim, and Theon favored red-shaded pendant lights that added to the ambiance, but not much else.

 

With one arm reaching for the microphone stand, Sansa’s other hand settled on her hip. Jeyne snapped the photo and fanned the Polaroid while she and Sansa waited for it to develop. When it did, Sansa recognized the difference in herself before Jeyne commented on it.

 

Her smile had changed but was no less candid than it had been in the first picture. Sansa posed in this photograph with the knowledge of what it would inspire and, if she should feel bad about enabling it, she couldn’t quite summon the contrition.

 

“You look happy again,” Jeyne observed with a sweet smile and regarded Sansa with soft eyes. “You had a dark cloud over you for so long. I’m just glad the sun is finally peeking through.”

 

Sansa glimpsed the picture again with a swell of pride; not the superficial kind that she’d donned in the beauty pageants of her past, but a new kind—honest and simple and well-earned for the path she’d traveled to get to this place.

 

“Alright, Sansa,” Harwin grumbled behind her and stepped onto the stage, his boot landing with one hard stomp when he did. “You about ready?”

 

She nodded but didn’t turn around and instead planted a hasty kiss on Jeyne’s cheek. “Can you put the picture with my purse? I don’t want to forget it.”

 

Jeyne obliged with a gentle squeeze to Sansa’s hand and headed for the bar, now lined with patrons and the din quieting as Sansa took the stage.

 

“You gonna be a grump all night?” She flashed a smile at Harwin, a longtime family friend. The plaid shirt he wore only made him appear stockier than he was, and, like Theon, he’d let his hair grow long and his beard thick.

 

“Not to you,” he muttered and gazed out at the crowd gathered around lounge tables. He strummed a chord on his guitar that drifted through the speakers, and a whistle sounded when Sansa stepped into the pool of light on stage.

 

“Our band doesn’t have a name,” she spoke timidly into the microphone and filled up with butterflies, even though she did this every Saturday night. “Y’all know who we are. We play for fun but don’t mind the tips and, if you have any special requests, we’ll always see what we can do.”

 

Harwin cut in with another chord, and the bar broke with more whistles and cheers. Encouraged by the reception, Sansa began Jolene, both the song and the sentiment behind it she knew all too well. Memories of that butter blonde girl with green eyes still stung in some unusual way.

 

Three songs in, Sansa conquered her nerves. The tension in her limbs loosened, and she closed her eyes as she sang, relishing the warmth of the lights against her skin. One by one, almost every patron ambled up to the stage, tossed coins or even some bills into the old coffee tin, and tipped their hats to her before returning to their seat.

 

As the night wore on, cigarette smoke rendered the bar a vermillion haze, but halfway through a Fleetwood Mac song, Sansa spotted a stranger skulking through the crowd. With his head downturned, he puffed on a cigarette and eased towards the stage. When he lifted his head, Sansa recognized the face peering out from underneath his hat’s wide brim and the patch of gray in his mustache. She’d served the stranger a cup of coffee at the diner just a few weeks ago.

 

Mouth suddenly dry, Sansa missed a beat of the song. Harwin stood from his stool and lingered near her. He must’ve sensed the unease or heard the way her voice faintly quivered on a lyric too simple to blunder.

 

The man’s mustache twitched with a smile as he dropped a dollar bill into the coffee tin. Sansa’s eyes frantically darted to the back of the bar where Theon, Jeyne, and Wade—a rancher from the next town over—all scrutinized the stranger in unison.

 

Sansa finished the song with her heart racing and her hands trembling despite how she gripped the microphone now slick with a sheen of sweat. The stage lights beat hot against her skin, no longer subtle warmth but blazing heat. Sansa turned to Harwin with fresh fear surfacing.

 

“Let’s take a little break,” he suggested and returned his guitar to the stand next to his stool. He offered her his beer and Sansa took a long pull from the bottle. She scanned the tables, each one now filled, and the patrons forming a line at the bar to quench their thirst before the music started up again.

 

The stranger had returned to his perch against the back wall. He didn’t drink but stood alone; no friend by his side, no companion to converse with. Just a lone man who didn’t belong. Harwin settled next to Sansa and glowered at the stranger through narrowed eyes.

 

“I’ve seen that man twice now in this town,” Sansa divulged on a tremulous hush. “Who is he?”

 

Harwin shrugged and let his gaze sweep across the room. “No one knows. He shows up, then leaves, comes back again. The sheriff’s on it. He’s watching him.”

 

At least I’m not the only one who noticed. Relief washed through her, but the smile Sansa gave was emptied of joy.

 

“You gonna run him outta town?” she asked on a soft laugh, just as mirthless.

 

“I might,” Harwin deadpanned, but mischief stirred behind his eyes in that familiar way where Sansa didn’t quite know where his facetiousness ended, and the quiet threat began. She wouldn’t find out now. Harwin stepped off stage and crossed the room, disappearing amongst the crowd that clapped him on the back as he went.

 

Not content to navigate the hoard, Sansa knelt at the front of the stage and gathered up the coffee tin. On most Saturday nights, only change filled the bottom. Sometimes a few dollar bills showed up and once a drunk had dropped in a ten-dollar bill, probably by accident. Tonight, dollar bills filled the canister and a layer of coins covered the bottom.

 

“As much as I love Dolly and Fleetwood, I have a request, if you don’t mind.”

 

Sansa stilled. Her hands, now clumsy and shaking, almost dropped the coffee tin altogether. It’s him.

 

His voice matched his presence—ominous and dark in the deep rumble that poured from his lips. He had a northern accent too, clearly not from Devil Creek. His words sounded as flat as the Midwestern plains to Sansa’s ears, and the difference only set him further apart and illuminated that he didn’t belong.

 

She lifted her eyes. The stranger loomed over her with his arms crossed about his chest. Another difference—most regulars never requested songs in between sets. They waited until the end of the night and the requests were more of a suggestion for the following week.

 

“Oh, yeah?” was all Sansa could muster. Her pulse pounded loud in her ears and her breaths came tattered through parted lips. She swallowed hard and eyed the crowd, hoping like hell someone would wander over.

 

The stranger shuffled forward until the tips of his boots collided with the stage’s wooden edge. “You wouldn’t happen to know Season of the Witch, would you?”

 

Sansa knew it and so did Harwin, but they only played it in the run-up to Halloween. It had a way of infusing the macabre into gigs that were meant to be lighthearted.

 

“No, I don’t know that one. Sorry,” Sansa lied and avoided the stranger’s gaze. Instead, she gathered the bills from the tip jar and smoothed them down in an orderly stack.

 

Gruff laughter spilled from the stranger’s mouth. “That’s a cryin’ shame.”

 

“I don’t see anyone tearing up over it,” Sansa replied, and something possessed her to meet the man’s black eyes.

 

She didn’t put a smile on the end of it either, something to honey coat the churlish way she stared daggers at him. The man received the message loud enough that he chuckled again and walked away.

 

Too fearful to venture out into the crowd, Sansa stayed on stage but abandoned the tip jar. Harwin cut across the room again with a tonic water and lemon for her.

 

“One more song then we call it?” Harwin asked, and Sansa nodded as she took the glass from him and murmured a “thank you”.

 

She never pegged Harwin as a particularly insightful man. He was a few years older than Robb but had worked as her father’s ranch hand since the age of fourteen. He knew the shift in the winds, her father used to say, and Sansa always nodded like she knew what that meant, but never did until nights like this.

 

Harwin felt the shift towards the sinister just as surely as Sansa had. The crimson glow of the bar just made it worse, but something oppressive lingered in the air, rising on the smoke and dampening the raucous laughter.

 

They played one last song, but Harwin missed the beat and Sansa forgot a few lyrics. It didn’t matter. The audience had stopped paying attention and half the crowd had thinned out. Those who remained clapped at the end, more out of courtesy than admiration.

 

When they stepped off stage, Sansa walked with Harwin to the back of the bar where Jeyne, Theon, and Wade huddled together, engrossed in something sitting on the bar top and garnering their full attention.

 

“My voice is shot tonight,” Sansa fibbed, hoping the lie would work double time in calling it an early night and explaining the way her voice wobbled through the last bit of the set.

 

Harwin shrugged. “We all have off nights. This is surely one of them. For all of us.”

 

For all of us. Sansa didn’t like the way he said it with more dread than he probably meant to reveal. He tried to mask it with a bit of laughter and ignored the worried glance she gave him as they approached the bar.

 

Jeyne lifted her head from the huddle with the promise of tears hanging in her eyes and her cheeks absent their normal flush that should’ve been there given how close Theon was to her. He too looked overcome with something—not tears but the equivalent for him; solemn unease that drew his mouth into a frown.

 

“What are you looking at?” Sansa’s throat constricted, and the question came hoarse.

 

“They fetched a missing girl from a creek in my town,” Wade intoned and stepped aside for Sansa to see the Saturday newspaper resting on the bar top.

 

Sansa hadn’t much supper to speak of, but her stomach roiled as if she might bring up what little she’d eaten before leaving the house.

 

Life Imitates Horror Film: Texas Chainsaw Maniac Slaughters Again

 

In bold letters, the headline stretched above an image of five police officers gathered around a white sheet with a body underneath. Sansa had paid little mind to the evening news she caught snippets of while fixing supper or the newspaper headlines she’d spied while serving coffee at the diner.

 

Missing girls were big city problems, but in the last month it became apparent that these girls weren’t just runaways or victims of unfortunate tragedies. The pattern emerged. Young girls in small Texas towns disappeared and ended up dumped along roads or in ravines. It’d happened enough that the monster earned themselves the moniker now splashed across the headline of Wade’s hometown paper.

 

“It’s disgusting,” Jeyne remarked and rubbed her bare arms blanketed in goosebumps. She stared up at Theon, who nodded in somber agreement.

 

“The murders or the headline?” Sansa asked and skimmed the front-page text. The girl was young, only seventeen. Out of respect, the authorities hadn’t named her yet, but the way Wade had gone ashen said he knew who she was. Secrets didn’t last long in small towns.

 

“Both,” Jeyne answered and flipped over the newspaper to hide the horror, as if it were that simple. 

 

“Maybe whoever it is will skip past Devil Creek. Nothing ever happens in this town.”

 

Sansa only meant it as consolation, as much for Jeyne as herself. A chill shot down her spine at the prospect of leaving the safety of numbers to head to an empty home.

 

“That’s not funny,” Jeyne whispered and shot Sansa a faintly offended look.

 

“I wasn’t going for humor, just looking for a bright side.”

 

Jeyne wrapped her arms tight across her middle. “Well, you accomplished neither.”

 

“If he comes around here, he ain’t coming back out,” Harwin intervened with what sounded like a vow and Sansa believed him. Perhaps the only saving grace—a murderer in Texas was bound to meet the barrel end of a pistol or shotgun at some point.

 

Jeyne’s eyes went wide and her voice wavered with worry. “I hear he’s a drifter. Doesn’t stay long in one place.”

 

“Where did you hear that?” Sansa pressed and crossed her arms over her chest. The bar held a sudden chill, as if someone invited in the cold. “Just sounds like gossip to me.”

 

“My sister’s cousin-in-law,” Jeyne divulged and lowered her voice. The circle drew close to listen. “She was driving home late one night after choir practice up at the church. She came up on a car on the side of the road. She almost stopped, thinking the driver needed some kind of help, but she got that twisty feeling in her stomach that told her to move on, so she did. Two days later, a girl washed up along the creek, right near where she saw that car. I know it in my bones. It was him.”

 

Jeyne prodded the newspaper to solidify her story and perhaps garner belief. Sansa didn’t doubt her but clung to the comfort that it was nothing more than small town hearsay and Jeyne had relayed a bastardized version of what really happened.

 

Sansa locked eyes with Jeyne with what had to be congruent concern painted over their faces. Men had it easier in this world; it was just a fact that seemed to dawn on Wade, Harwin, and Theon at the same time. Theon wrapped one arm across Jeyne’s shoulders and Harwin paid Sansa a sympathetic smile. As for Wade, he tried his best. His voice carried across the bar, almost empty now. 

 

“You girls get yourselves some husbands and spare those pretty faces the wear and tear of worry.”

 

Sansa rolled her eyes, though she knew what he meant despite his unintended carelessness—the world could be a dangerous place for a woman on her own. It was an unfortunate truth, but the truth nonetheless.

 

Other than Jeyne, none of them knew about Joffrey, not from her mouth anyway. But sometimes they’d look at her in a pitiful way reserved solely for women who’d suffered through the same affliction that she had. Rumors spread in this town that was too small for dark secrets.

 

“I manage just fine,” Sansa retorted with haughty defiance to mask surmounting fear. “Sometimes a woman’s got to stand on her own two feet without a man.”

 

“I admire your spirit, Sansa,” Wade rumbled with laughter and swayed with one too many drinks. 

 

Dubious, Sansa lifted one brow at him. “I see you admiring much more than my spirit.”

 

Strained laughter traveled the circle until they all fell into an uneasy quiet and eyed one another with hesitation to go their separate ways. The night had ended on an eerie and unnerving note that left Sansa sick to her stomach.

 

Wade departed first and stumbled to the door with Harwin guiding the way and insisting the man sleep it off either in his truck or on Harwin’s couch. Jeyne walked out with them, too afraid to be alone now and planning to drive straight to her sister’s house to stay the night.

 

Sansa gathered up her purse with Sandor’s letter inside, bid Theon good night, and began towards the door just a few steps behind Jeyne and the others.

 

“You better lock up your doors and windows from now on,” Theon hollered after her.

 

He always erred on the side of jovial humor that took nothing too seriously, even grave matters like war and death. When Sansa turned around, Theon regarded her with entreating eyes devoid of mischief and he didn’t spare a smile either.

 

“I will,” she promised and retreated into the night not cold by any means, but the wind picked up and a dry breeze chilled her bare skin. In the parking lot, Wade had already climbed into Harwin’s truck. With his hat covering his face, he was probably well on his way to sleep. A few cars down, Harwin held the door of Jeyne’s car open for her.

 

Before Sansa could reach the Cutlass, gravel crunched behind her. She spun around with her keys in her hand and the jagged edges digging into her palm.

 

The stranger stood before her, not tall or stocky but his presence still imposing. Black hair jutted out from underneath his cowboy hat. Sansa took slow steps away from him, fully prepared to tell him she’d scream or call the sheriff who already had his eye on him.

 

“Ma’am,” he said before Sansa could speak and tipped his hat to her. “You watch out for those bad people in this world.”

 

Possessed once more with strength she hadn’t expected or perhaps sheer madness of wild will, Sansa matched his eyes. When she spoke, her words came as cold as the evening chill and deliberate in the closest Sansa might’ve ever come to threatening a stranger.

 

“Oh, I’m watching, mister.”

 

Sansa clutched her purse where Sandor Clegane’s letter rested safe inside. She held it to her chest as if drawing the man himself near. Blunt words, simple honesty, and something else heavy between the lines—it all brought some wayward comfort as the stranger disappeared into the night.

Chapter Text

                                                                                             

                                                                                             

Colman. Andrews. Penczak.

 

Anticipation hung heavy in the air along with the scent of sweat and grime and even blood long since cleaned. That smell was one Sandor would never soon forget. It was the way of the world and the scars of war.

 

At the front of the cell, he stood upright and rigid in one corner. Beric stood in the other but surveyed him with a shit-eating grin. Sandor stared back and would move heaven and earth to slap that smile clean off Beric’s face.

 

Mail call was as much punishment as it was privilege. A shaming ritual was more like it. Week after week, the same bastards received letters from loved ones—spouses, children, parents, siblings, aunts who hadn’t given two shits about them on the outside.

 

Sandor had long ago memorized the order of names. He mouthed them to himself as the guards shouted for all to hear. As if the loss of privacy wasn’t enough, they hurled envelopes into the cells and snickered as inmates fought over those letters because sometimes they contained pictures of pretty girls.

 

On it went down the line with names called out. Sandor had never received a letter at mail call. He had no family to begin with, no one back home counting down the time until he’d see the light of day. It’d been that way during the war too, and he’d gotten used to the unusual sting of getting passed over. These days it annoyed more than it wounded.

 

Even Beric received mail, mostly letters from adoring women who’d adopted his bizarre interpretation of scripture. His teachings had gained traction in the strung-out hippie communes. The man led a cult from behind bars and, in the meantime, meticulously tracked which inmates received mail. Beric reminded Sandor every so often that only he and a few other inmates—mostly child molesters—had never received a letter. With a sneering smile and his good eye alight in sick amusement, he’d taunt Sandor with that bit of trivia.

 

Lighthorse. Simon. Waite.

 

Boros’s voice echoed through the cell block. Whipped up in a frenzy, the inmates shouted and pounded the metal bars. Boros slowed to a stop in front of Sandor’s cell. His face was a mask of fury as he flicked two letters at Beric through the bars.

 

“Dondarrion!” His voice boomed and his face flushed redder than Sandor had ever seen.

 

“Clegane!” Along with Sandor’s last name, spittle flew from Boros’s thin, cracked lips

 

The cell block erupted. If Boros wasn’t standing so near, Sandor might not have heard the man amongst the chaos.

 

Incensed and with hands shaking, Boros pelted the letter at Sandor. It hit his chest and flopped to the floor. Beric shrieked and collided to the ground. He scurried and slid across, but Sandor snatched up the letter before Beric could reach it. The envelope crumpled in his fist and his chest heaved as he glared at the man.

 

“Touch anything in this cell that belongs to me and it will be the last thing you ever do in your shit-filled life.”

 

Beric sprung to his feet and backed away in slow steps. Only a fool would’ve assumed that the warning stuck. Something sinister and calculating stirred within the man, and Sandor could already see the wheels spinning in his demented mind. Beric relented, at least for now, and plopped to his mattress. He tore open one of his letters, a fat envelope probably filled with the deranged rantings of a follower.

 

Sandor turned to his own bunk and cradled the letter against his chest. Only one person would’ve written to him. His mouth went dry and breath hitched as he peeled the envelope away from his body.

 

Printed roses and Sansa Stark’s handwriting adorned the envelope, and Sandor spared a soft smile.

 

He kept her picture beneath his mattress, and, at some point, her first letter had joined it too. They existed in effortless tandem with one another. So too did the salacious desires that her picture inspired and the way her sweet words had planted themselves in some vacant space he hadn’t noticed in himself.

 

Some nights he stared at her photograph as he drifted towards sleep, only tucking it away when fatigue besieged him and his eyes grew heavy. Other nights, the arousal was too much. He’d take himself in hand, stroking as quiet as he could to visions of her lips wrapped around his dick or the gasps she might make as he fucked her fast and slow, whatever the hell she wanted.

 

He’d been shameless. Lecherous. Insatiable. For a great long while, Sandor had left her letter on his desk. Maybe for the shame. He didn’t quite know, and it didn’t seem to matter until he read it again. And then once more.

 

He knew most of the words by now, the way she crafted her sentences, and the sentiment it imparted. The letter then joined her picture beneath his mattress and his thoughts of her expanded beyond just how she might make him feel or how he might return the favor, but to running down whatever existed between the lines.

 

Sandor sat on the edge of his mattress and waited for the moment Beric was engrossed in his own letters. Only then did Sandor rip open the envelope’s flap and pull out not one but two pages of stationery.

 

Her handwriting was the same—pretty rows of swooping letters—but Sandor set the pages aside and peered into the envelope for what he hoped was there. Sure enough, she had included another Polaroid.

 

Beric’s eyes snapped to Sandor. He set the envelope down and discreetly covered it with his leg, obscuring both the object of Beric’s sudden interest and the treasure tucked inside. When Beric flipped to his stomach and continued reading, Sandor expelled a quiet breath and lifted the linen pages of Sansa’s letter.

  

Dear Sandor,

 

Your letter came today as I was in the garden claiming what I could of my sweet tomatoes. The rabbits got the rest. I suppose it’s my fault. My backyard could pass for a jungle. I might as well have invited them in for tea too.

 

You don’t like bullshitters and I give you my word I won’t bullshit you. To prove it, here’s a bit of honesty: 

 

I still haven’t changed out of my gardening clothes. I wanted to write as soon as I could. I hope that’s alright. I don’t want to burden you with more letters than you know what to do with, though I suspect you’ve got some time on your hands. I’ll send you as many as you’d like!

 

I’m sincerely sorry that you’ve suffered. I do think of you, if that’s any comfort at all. A storm came through Devil Creek, and I wondered how long it took to get to you. The next day, I pulled out a map from my glove compartment to measure the distance between us. It’s not that far.

 

I didn’t ask what you were in for because I decided it didn’t quite matter. I’d write to you anyway. But here’s some more honesty: I’m relieved to know that you aren’t in for brutalizing a woman or a child.

 

You reckon right about a man. It’s just me. You aren’t the only one who doesn’t like bullshitters, and I was once engaged to the king of them all. He was fool’s gold, and it didn’t take long to see all that was rotten underneath. Thank you for the advice. I’m a good Texas girl, so we’re no longer strangers and I consider your words those of a new friend.

 

And what about you? Did you leave a woman behind, someone pining for you? If you did, will she care much that I’m writing to her man and measuring the miles between us? Do you have any other family?

 

You said you weren’t sure why I wrote to you and that you don’t claim God but suspect that things happen for a reason. I left God behind when I moved to Kansas City and haven’t picked him back up again, so I suppose you could say I don’t claim religion either. I agree with you—there’s a purpose behind certain things. And there was a purpose for us connecting through these letters. I suppose we will have to find out what that purpose is. 

 

I sing down at the bar tonight, so I’ll see about getting another picture. I’ll even wear my favorite dress just for you.

 

With compassion and intrigue, not obligation—

 

Yours,

Sansa

 

P.S. Might I get a picture of you too? If not, perhaps you’d paint that picture with words.

 

The smiled that rested on Sandor’s lips broadened, racing from one corner to the other. There wasn’t much he could do to stop it, so he grinned like a fool and scratched at the stubble on his chin.

 

He hadn’t hung his hopes on her writing him back. He didn’t spare cleverly crafted words in his first letter and took no interest in putting up appearances of gentility for the sake of a pen pal he hadn’t asked for. He gave her an out and fully expected her to take it. He had even tacked on a postscript that should’ve sent a good Texas girl running for the hills.

 

But it hadn’t.

 

Sansa’s words were bolder than her last letter, and more honest because of it. She’d found her intrigue in him and he was finding his in her too. Between the lines of her pretty words and the margins filled up with sweetness she seemed to so effortlessly exude, a fervent curiosity surfaced and spread like vines. Refusal to tame them, she’d let them grow instead and it seemed to him that they were each cultivating something that neither had anticipated.

 

A familiar cadence of stomping footsteps tore down the line of cells. Sandor folded Sansa’s letter as Boros materialized at the cell door.

 

“Dondarrion, preacher’s here,” he grumbled. “Chapel time.” The man glowered at Sandor with all his scowling hatred behind it. 

 

Beric hopped from his bunk and gathered up his Bible that looked like it’d come straight from hell with its tattered, dog-eared pages and missing cover. All that time Beric spent with the preacher didn’t do shit to set the lunatic straight. He bounded to the door with the same fervor he probably reserved for the Promise Land.

 

After Boros shackled him up, Beric glanced at Sandor. “The Lord would welcome you into His house of worship.”

 

Sandor snorted a derisive laugh. “He can shove the invitation up his holy ass. It’s safer outside that house than in.”

 

I’ll pay for that later, Sandor surmised as he observed Boros reach new heights of haughty fury. The man yanked Beric from the cell and slammed the door shut so hard that the metal still vibrated after Boros disappeared with Beric down the row. Sandor was frugal with his digs at the man but had finally sorted out the exchange rate of what was well worth it, and this certainly was.

 

Beric would pray for Sandor’s immortal soul. For his part, Sandor would undo all that spiritual work as he pulled free the envelope still under his thigh. He gnawed his bottom lip in anticipation of what was inside—another picture of sweet Sansa Stark.

 

He retrieved the Polaroid and let the envelope drift to the floor. Sandor studied her picture and tried to wrap his head around what a divine creature like Sansa was doing sending him something like this. The green dress obscured her long legs, but it made up for the discretion by showcasing gorgeous tits, firm and perfect as far as he could tell. The way she posed and the look she gave the camera danced somewhere on the line between coquettish and seductive. If he didn’t know any better, Sandor would say that dalliance was deliberate.

 

He swung his legs onto the bed and eased back with one hand propped behind his head and the other holding up the Polaroid. A wicked grin creased his lips. With it came a drop of happiness in an otherwise hollow existence. Sandor reached for her letter and read it again with her picture pinned against the pages beneath his thumb.

 

She was a good Texas girl with the right kind of sweetness—the kind that suggested she knew how to cherish someone, heart and soul, but not so good she wouldn’t sink to her knees to cherish in another way.

 

In return, he’d worship between her legs and the closest thing to God he was ever bound to know was the embrace of a woman like her. It was the only religion he was interested in and he’d fuck her good enough to make her a believer too.

 

The thought and her picture left him hard and, weeks ago, he would’ve abandoned her letter in favor of fantasy. Now, he was a man at war with himself as his eyes roamed her handwriting and drifted to her bright smile and the ineffable radiance that she carried.

 

Don’t go thinking she’s yours. Past precedence tore into his daydream of Sansa, the little songbird. And what a little bird she was…

 

Sandor rolled out of his bunk and put that turbulent thought on a shelf because he’d write his own rule book for the paltry bits of free will he still possessed. That free will sent him to his desk and to the sawed-off end of what used to be a proper pencil. He’d at least gotten a fresh one and extra paper because he too had more to say on this round.

 

He wasn’t deliberately clever. Sandor’s cunning was more akin to biting sarcasm that dabbled in brusque flirtation, too rough-around-the-edges for most women. He knew enough of Sansa—all the traces of herself she’d left on the page or tucked in the envelope—to take his chance. She didn’t seem to like bullshitters any more than he did, and two could play the game of running the proverbial ball up the field. And if she wanted honesty, she’d be getting it in spades with his letter.

 

When he finished, Sandor stuffed the pages in an envelope with a perpetual smile painted on his lips. He retreated to his bunk to take care of other matters.

 

Sandor took himself in hand like he had so many times in the past week and closed his eyes with new manifestations of her—the way she posed, her sultry gaze, her auburn hair lit up with stage light and sweeping down her back. He stroked slow and savored his own touch and bit his bottom lip to stifle the groans.

 

He imagined spilling that green dress to the floor and reaching around from behind to swipe between her legs. His visions of her had changed, though. They weren’t of him bending her over and fucking her rough from behind. Rather, he thought of draping her legs over his shoulders and tenderly kissing the inside of her thighs until she shivered and sighed. They were of him rocking slow with her straddling his lap, each movement driving his cock deeper inside of her to relish every inch that he could.

 

Sandor stroked quicker. His panting breaths matched the pace and he thought of her arms wrapped around his shoulders, holding on and sighing his name. She’d kiss him willingly and whisper that she was his. “Yours.” She’d even signed her letter that way. Mine.

 

He gripped his shaft hard, tight like he imagined she’d be, warmer than his palm and soaking wet for him. All for him. His pleasure crowded out the thoughts, singular as the pressure rose. Noises sounded outside the cell and came closer. He gripped harder and stroked faster until his peak broke upon him, surging as he buried his face in the pillow and cried out her name with his release. With his seed spilled in his palm, Sandor quickly tucked himself back into his jumpsuit bottoms. He rolled out of his bunk and to the sink attached to the back wall.

 

Two guards and a few inmates passed Sandor’s cell. He washed his hands with bitter disappointment that he’d been robbed of the quiet moments after his release; the time he might spend wondering how she’d feel in his arms and with her head against his chest.

 

When the dinner call came, Sandor took Sansa’s picture, admired it once more, and hid it beneath his mattress with the other Polaroid and first letter. His smile lingered as he filed out of his cell and fell in line, but the mirth must’ve followed him out too.

 

In the chow hall, the other inmates watched him and whispered amongst themselves. Their attention on him was an oppressive presence and sent the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end. Sandor ambled down the line to receive his slop on a tray; a brown blob on a bed of rice that hoped on a good day it could pass for beef and gravy. Not even the cooks knew what the fuck it really was.

 

Sandor took up his usual spot—the far corner with his back against the wall. He sat at the end of a table that was bolted to the floor, just one big hunk of metal with a bench connected to it. Sandor ate fast tonight, though this dish defined new levels of rancid. He gulped down his carton of milk and glass of water, keenly aware that he was still being watched.

 

The others at his table shoved their food around their trays but hadn’t eaten much. The inmate at the end, Lem, was a skinny fucker but mean as a hornet. He leaned forward and glared at Sandor with unabashed intensity.

 

“Whatchu get in that letter?” Lem growled.

 

The din fell away. Sandor scanned the room and, sure enough, the inmates at adjacent tables had all turned to look.

 

He dropped his eyes to his tray and plate emptied of food, though his stomach was no happier for it.

 

“Not a damn thing that’s any of your concern.”

 

“You got no family,” an inmate at another table jumped in. “Even if you did, I doubt they’d write to your ugly mug.”

 

Half the hall rolled with laughter and the other half turned towards the commotion. Three tables over, Beric stood on the bench and projected his voice as if preaching to his disciples.

 

“It’s a woman!” Beric shouted and the words rung loud through the hall. “Her name’s Sansa.”

 

Malignant rage ravaged Sandor with the thought of Beric rifling through his only possessions and the prize among them—Sansa’s letters and the sweet words meant only for him. Beric received more letters than any other inmate, and yet it clearly hadn’t been enough. He consumed what wasn’t meant for him.

 

“She must either be blind or stupid to write to the likes of you,” Lem cackled with food in his mouth. “She send you a picture?

 

Sandor’s silence spoke on his behalf. He shook with unreleased fury and pushed himself from the table, ready to propel from the seat at any moment.

 

“Just wait until we all get a hold of it!” A man’s thundering voice boomed from the corner. Sandor didn’t know who spoke, but the words prompted half a dozen men around him to smack their lips in a show of perversion that boiled Sandor’s blood.

 

An inmate from the adjacent table turned around with his face flush from laughter and tears spilling down chubby cheeks.

 

“I’m sure someone would let you put it on the back of their head. All you gotta do is close your eyes and pretend it’s her. It all feels the same.”

 

Sandor felt his face contort in disgust. Years ago, a few had tried to seduce him into whatever carnal pleasure they hoped he could provide, assuming his dick matched his height in proportion. Sandor had summarily beaten the notion clean out of one of them. No one ever approached him again. 

 

His hand curled around the metal spork and his jaw set so hard that pain radiated in his cheeks. His pulse rose and brow beaded with sweat as the heat of the room sunk into his skin.

 

“You gonna shank me with that?” Lem taunted on something close to a howl.

 

“You wanna try me?” Sandor seethed through clenched teeth. “I’m sure I’d find a way to make you suffer.”

 

The spork didn’t threaten in the same way that makeshift shanks did, but the dull, serrated edge and the short prongs could do enough damage in the right hands, including his. Lem looked unimpressed.

 

“Problem is,” he started and swiveled to straddle the bench. “You think you’re better than the whole lot of us.”

 

“It’s not a thought, it’s a fact,” Sandor sniped without hesitation.

 

The others had taken unusual affront to the fact that Sandor never fell in with a clique. He kept to himself and somehow remained unscathed and largely unbothered as a lone wolf. One by one, each faction failed to recruit him and saw in Sandor the unaffiliated waste of strength and brutality.

 

Lem scooped up a spork full of slop, but the utensil didn’t travel to his mouth. Instead, he held back the prongs and flung the food that landed square on Sandor’s cheek. Another round of raucous laughter rippled through the chow hall like a stone dropped in water.

 

Sandor sucked in a breath and slowly wiped his cheek with a napkin that he tossed aside. He flew from his seat and hurled towards Lem, who shrieked and fell to his ass. Eyes wide with fright, Lem scrambled away and just as Sandor lurched forward a hard blow landed at his ribs.

 

He groaned in pain and spun towards Boros who wielded his billy club and reared his hand back for another hit. By instinct, Sandor’s arms lifted in defense, but Boros cracked him in the ribs again and solidified little more than the fact that he was a coward.

 

Four more guards rushed into the chow hall. Where his blood smoldered mere moments ago, a chill now worked its way through Sandor. The spork was still secure in his clenched fist, but he tucked it into the waistband of his pants near the small of his back.

 

This many guards pouring into the hall usually meant trouble, and tonight was no exception. After the inmates cleared away their trays, Boros strutted to the center of the room with his thumbs hooked on his belt loops.

 

“Cell search!” he bellowed. “Line up!”

 

The inmates fell into a single file line. It didn’t matter if they hadn’t eaten. The others had occupied themselves with taunting Sandor instead of finishing their meals. They’d go hungry tonight and Sandor would feast on that knowledge well into morning.

 

He took his spot in line and marched to his cell where he and Beric stood outside, one on each side of the open door. They waited their turn as the guards systematically tore through each cell. After a while, Sandor recognized a glaring anomaly in tonight’s search—it was taking far longer than it should. By the wails alone and the sheer volume of inmates being carted off to God knew where, Sandor concluded that the searches were more thorough than they had been in recent memory.

 

I got nothing to hide, he consoled with grim reprieve, but a realization blindsided him with the speed and force of a freight train.

 

Sansa’s pictures.

 

He peered over his shoulder to his mattress, as if that might magically inspire those Polaroids to disappear long enough that Boros wouldn’t get his grubby hands on them.

 

As the guards reached the neighboring cell, Sandor’s mouth filled with saliva and his breaths quickened to short little bursts. His mind raced with the possibilities. If only he could slip in there and hide the pictures somewhere safe. In his periphery, Sandor noticed Beric staring at him and the man seemed to read his thoughts. It sent a devious smirk to trail across Beric’s lips.

 

The message was clear. If Sandor made a move, even just an inch, Beric would sound the alarm. It didn’t matter anyhow. The guards reached their cell and Boros shuffled up to Sandor. He stood toe-to-toe with him and sported a smile that said he would savor this.

 

“You look nervous. You hiding something?” Boros goaded.

 

Sandor kept his eyes straight ahead and wouldn’t give the fucker the satisfaction of seeing him flinch.

 

Beric cleared his throat. “I’d check under his mattress if I were you.”

 

Boros erupted with a smile, and he and the other guard strode into the cell. They upended everything on Sandor’s desk. The books hit the floor, and he heard the useless golf pencil roll across the ground, and Sandor didn’t think it was all that useless anymore. He needed it. He closed his eyes at the sound of paper tearing. He didn’t believe in God but prayed like hell that Sansa’s letter had been spared.

 

A mattress hit the floor and Sandor’s eyes snapped open. “Clear!” He heard the other guard shout, but the thud of the other mattress followed.

 

“Bingo!” Boros cried with glee and whooped and hollered as he tore out of Sandor’s cell with just as much gusto as he had entered. Only now, he’d found what he was looking for.

 

The man’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and his lips split with a broad smile. Boros removed his hand from behind his back and held up the two Polaroids. The top one contained Sansa’s smiling face and the green dress just as pretty as ever, but Sandor endured a sharp pang in his chest at the thought that he’d only just received that picture. He hadn’t even had the chance to study it like he had the other, noticing all the little details of her.

 

“What do we have here?” Boros taunted, his words slow and drawn out. “You wanna explain this to me?”

 

Sandor bit his bottom lip hard to stop the vile words from spilling out. They came anyway and so too did his furious gaze drilling into the fat fuck in front of him.

 

“You that fucking stupid that you need me to tell you?”

 

Boros’s lips collapsed with a scowl. He reared back and spit in Sandor’s face. Still matching Boros’s incensed glare, Sandor turned his head and wiped his cheek against his shoulder. 

 

“Pretty thing,” Boros hollered and waltzed down the line of unchecked cells. The inmates stood at attention, but all gaped as Boros waved the Polaroids over his head. “What do we think, boys? Y’all like redheads?”

 

Up and down the line, the cell block exploded into chaos—whistles and feral howls, vicious animals, all of them. Sandor’s fingers curled to his palms where his nails cut into the flesh. Dizzy from rage, he swayed lightly in place.

 

Boros spun on his heel and retreated as if remembering the pleasure he might claim from Sandor’s reaction. His boots collided against the ground in triumphant strides towards Sandor’s cell.

 

“Long legs, perky tits, dick-sucking lips! Looks like Mr. High and Mighty has himself a little redheaded singing girlfriend.”

 

The wall shook. Feet pounded against the floor. Every inmate seized the opportunity to unleash all that roamed wild within. Sandor’s heart beat loud. Then louder. Louder still. The buffeting of a helicopter. Wet heat seeped beneath his uniform. He was overcome with the stench of sweat and blood. So much blood. Sticky against his skin.

 

He squeezed his eyes shut and, when he did, it was her face he saw; beautiful smile, bright blue eyes. Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe.

 

Sandor opened his eyes again when Boros’s stench filled his nostrils. The man thrust the pictures in Sandor’s face and forced him to look.

 

“It’s a shame you’ll never see her,” Boros snarled. “And if you do, she’ll take one look at that ruined face of yours and hightail it out of Wichita Falls, never to be heard from again.”

 

Sandor’s gaze fell to the dingy concrete floor between him and Boros, but the man held the Polaroids in Sandor’s field of vision.

 

“I think I’ll take these home with me and make good use of them.”

 

The words alone catapulted Sandor to the bounds of his wrath, the place where he teetered on the edge of losing it altogether, but the way Boros licked his bottom lip and the seedy glint behind his eyes sent Sandor lunging towards him. Boros stumbled backwards. His fleshy jowls wobbled with disbelief as the other guard landed a swift blow into Sandor’s stomach, hard enough that he doubled over and gasped for breath.

 

“I’ll fucking kill you,” Sandor choked and something inside him felt like it was crumbling with a loss he hadn’t felt in years.

 

He stared at the pictures in Boros’s hands, his singular focus, the only thing that mattered. The backdrop of hollers and shouts was snuffed out and replaced with whispers.

 

As if a switch had been flipped, Boros took one large step away from Sandor and stood upright like a soldier standing at attention. His expression went vacant, wiped clean from the vitriol that’d just been there.

 

Only one man inspired such a collective reaction, and Sandor knew the warden’s footfalls well after all these years—determined and firm and lacking the false prestige of Boros and the other guards. The warden marched down the line of cells towards Sandor. He was a tall, lean man with a buzz cut despite having long retired from the service. The only liberty he offered himself was a well-groomed mustache two shades lighter than the dark brown hair on his head.

 

The warden stood between Sandor and Boros with his hands planted firm on his hips.

 

“What the hell is this?” he demanded.

 

Boros couldn’t seem to look at the man and answered on a meek hush.

 

“Sir, we found contraband in his cell.” He handed over Sansa’s photographs. The warden ripped them from Boros’s stubby fingers and paid them only a brief glance. 

 

“You know damn well these aren’t contraband,” the warden snapped and flung one arm towards the unsearched cells. “Quit being an asshole and keep moving.”

 

The warden spun smooth on his heel and bounded in the direction from which he’d come.

 

“Walk with me, Clegane,” he barked, and Sandor trailed a few steps behind with a guard taking up the rear.

 

The man spared no small talk or pleasantries as Sandor followed him through a maze of corridors and secured entries. The warden had taken a shining to him and Sandor couldn’t quite say why. As Griff told it, the warden didn’t believe Sandor belonged here and that a combat veteran should be treated with sympathy, not thrown behind bars for transgressions that grew from war’s invisible foe.

 

Sandor didn’t know what inspired the warden to treat him with the respect he did today, but it was enough that the man led the way to his office and motioned for Sandor to sit on the other side of a large wooden desk. The guard hovered outside the open door.

 

The warden eased into his seat, leather crackling against his weight. He spared few decorations for the wood-paneled space—just a bookshelf with a folded flag and a few other medals from his service; an old typewriter; and a rust-splotched filing cabinet. Behind the desk, Sandor admired the large window that overlooked a long expanse of grass and trees and the sun setting against the horizon. The man stared at Sandor and rested his elbows on the desk with his fingers steepled beneath his chin.

 

“Your parole hearing was scheduled,” he began and glanced at a calendar hanging on the wall. “Six weeks from now you’ll be in a courtroom. Your lawyer will plead the case to the judge and then I’ll climb my happy ass up on that stand and swear with God as my witness that you are fit to return to society; that you’ve been under my watch for five years without incident.”

 

Awash in a torrent of strange emotions—relief, fear, anticipation—Sandor didn’t know how to respond.

 

“I appreciate the education, but I know the process,” was all he could muster. 

 

Unimpressed, the warden shook his head with a frustrated chuckle and dug through the desk drawer for his tobacco pipe. Sandor watched and waited as he stuffed the pipe with slow precision. He eyed Sandor and lit a match, puffing until fragrant plumes billowed from his lips. The warden leaned forward with his features as inscrutable as they were stern.

 

“Let me tell you something. There’s not a goddamn place in this world where misery loves company more than here. Beric and the others, they’ll do whatever they can to derail your chance at freedom. They’ll do it for no other reason than it gives them endless joy to see others in the trenches suffering.”

 

The warden paused and pointed the pipe’s mouthpiece at Sandor. “Do not give them that satisfaction.”

 

The man was right. Boros and Beric would try to push Sandor over the edge of no return and relish every bit of that fall. Sandor swallowed hard and nodded.

 

“Yes, sir,” he mumbled. 

 

The warden handed over Sansa’s Polaroids and Sandor spared a faint smile as he took the pictures and sheltered them in his palm with dizzying relief.

 

“Six weeks. All you gotta do is walk the line,” the warden warned, and his voice rose in volume with the gravitas of his message. “One toe out of step and you force me to either lie in court or keep your ass here for another five years. I don’t want to do either. Go on now.”

 

The warden tipped his head to the open door and Sandor stood, but as he shifted, he felt the cool kiss of the metal utensil still tucked in his waistband. Before he could reach the door, the warden issued another grave warning.

 

“If you stay here, we’re cutting that hair.”

 

Sandor halted beneath the doorframe and turned his head over his shoulder, just enough to glimpse the warden’s solemn gaze. 

 

“I guess I better find a way out then,” Sandor replied, just as solemn and serious, and didn’t linger in the warden’s office long enough to see if the man registered his words as a threat.

 

Sandor stepped into the hall and the guard retraced the path back through the belly of the building. The promise of freedom grew more distinct with each hall they walked and, by the time the guard led the way into the cell block, the frenzy in Sandor had already begun; the aching and unabated need to get out of this place.

 

Maybe the warden had been right all along. Sandor never claimed innocence—he should’ve killed that man in Bronn’s bar—but he also never carried the guilt either. Some might’ve said that was the mark of a soulless man, but Sandor didn’t belong here, and this wasn’t how his story would end.

 

In the cell block, the searches had already ended but, as he neared his cell, Sandor observed Boros slip a pack of cigarettes through the bars and into Beric’s hand. The collusion was clear between them even as their whispers trailed off when Sandor approached.

 

“I’ll take it from here,” Boros grumbled to the other guard, who gave a curt nod and scurried off.

 

Beric hovered near the front of the cell. His shoulder pressed against the bars and he packed the cigarettes. Boros stepped to Sandor, who kept his arms behind his back and the pictures hidden between his palms.

 

“You’ll never leave this place,” Boros spoke with smoldering anger only mildly quelled for now. “I’ll make sure of it, even if it’s the last thing I do.”

 

“It will be if you try to stop me from getting out,” Sandor threatened with a laugh, though he relished no joy from it. He’d have to bite his tongue and bide his time, but six weeks now seemed an eternity.

 

Boros hastily unlocked the cell and shoved Sandor inside. He slammed the door shut and shifted his gaze to Beric with a knowing smile. Beric nodded in response before Boros bounded off.

 

Sandor dug through the books and paperwork on the floor, paying no mind to how Beric watched him. Crouched down, he tore through the mess until he spotted a border of roses peeking from the pile of upended belongings. Sandor plucked free the letter and sat back. He cradled the envelope against his chest and closed his eyes with a heavy sigh of sweet relief that her letter had survived.

 

“The good Lord is gonna make you pay for your sick defilement of such purity,” Beric warned, self-satisfied with his fraudulent sense of piety.

 

Sandor pushed himself from the floor and tossed Sansa’s letter and pictures to his bed. He spun to Beric who’d retreated to his bunk. The man made the mistake of turning his back to Sandor who seized the opportunity.

 

In two quick strides, Sandor closed the distance. He grabbed Beric by the back of his shirt and yanked him from his bunk. Beric barely loosed a squeal. From behind, Sandor wrapped one hand around the man’s throat and the other hand pulled free the spork from his waistband.

 

Beric gargled and gasped for breaths and, with his back against Sandor’s chest, writhed like wild. Sandor dug the utensil into the socket of Beric’s one good eye.

 

“You and your good Lord can get fucked, you bible thumping freak,” Sandor growled in Beric’s ear, only loud enough for the man to hear and careful that his voice didn’t echo. “I don’t know what you and bitch boy Boros are planning, but if you ever touch her letters or pictures or ever speak her name again, I’ll carve your eye out of your head. We’ll see how well you fare when you’re blind and thrown to the ass-fucking wolves.”

 

Just as he felt Beric starting to go limp against him, Sandor released his hold and shoved the man hard across the cell. Beric’s face collided into the metal bed frame and he collapsed to the floor, gasping and clawing at his throat. With his face a moribund shade of violet, Beric gaped at Sandor who loomed over him.

 

“You’re gonna die here.” Beric could scarcely manage the words. They came on a hoarse rattle and a heaving fit of coughs. He crawled into his bed and curled up in the fetal position facing the wall.

 

“No, I won’t,” Sandor vowed and dipped to the floor where Beric had dropped his cigarettes.

 

Sandor upended the pack into the toilet, flushed them down, and pelted Beric with the empty box for good measure.

 

That night, for perhaps the first time in weeks, Sandor indulged in the cell’s quiet peace. Beric stirred only long enough to pull the bed linens over his head, and Sandor was alone with his thoughts. Most times, the silence left his mind turbulent with memories and lost dreams, the things he could never hope to have.

 

Tonight, Sandor tucked Sansa’s pictures in the slats above him. He stared up at the Polaroids and let the calm wash over. He marveled at the way this woman he hadn’t met gentled something inside of him. She eased the worries and fears and imparted in him such blissful serenity.

 

“I’m getting out. One way or another,” he whispered to Sansa Stark.

 

She was perhaps the only one smiling down at him from up above; a sweet singing little bird who even knew the distance between them and it wasn’t all that far.

 

Chapter Text

                                                                                           

                                                                                           

 

Through June, a dome of heat berated the Texas plains and the sun-parched earth begged for rain. Only paranoia sunk in, though, when a girl from Devil Creek went missing. The town folk might’ve once pegged her as a runaway fleeing a dead-end life, but the sinister truth spread on whispers up and down the main drag. It drifted from the barbershop to the hardware store, the florist to the salon. Everyone knew.

 

In neighboring towns, someone preyed on young women. It was only a matter of time before they showed up in Devil Creek. The term “serial killer” held weight, though, and the sheriff carried it along the delicate line of warning the public without inciting panic. It was too late. The town’s secluded safety was shattered, and the sun set with terror in Devil Creek these days.

 

The town traveled in packs on the sheriff’s good advice. Women shopped in groups. Men patrolled the streets. When wild night rose, folks locked their doors and peered out their windows at all who passed. Unease even drifted in the door at The Iron Kraken on Saturday nights. From the stage, Sansa would observe the stilted patrons and their tight smiles that even liquor couldn’t loosen.

 

For tonight only, the sheriff lifted the town’s curfew and touted the Fourth of July celebration as the safest place to be. People would come for barbecue and fireworks but stay for protection in numbers.

 

Sansa walked between Theon and Jeyne down the town’s mostly empty square. A warm breeze kicked up dust and a bright blue sky filtered through the haze of humidity that was sticky against Sansa’s bare arms.

 

“Fear mongering,” she scoffed at the once thriving town center, now mostly shuttered and not just for Independence Day festivities.

 

The street was emptied of cars and an unnatural stillness descended. No birds chirped. The cicadas didn’t sing. Nothing; just hollow silence.

 

They eased down the street towards the record store and Sansa’s white maxi dress whipped around her legs with the wind. She circled around a ladder where Mr. Mormont strung up red, white, and blue bunting to a lamppost while a few others from the hardware store looked on. Theon waltzed beneath the ladder with no mind for tempting fate.

 

It earned him an annoyed glance from Jeyne. Over the past month, the girl had planted herself in the crosshairs of rampant caution and fearful superstition. It left her perpetually on edge and jumpy. Sansa did her best to ease Jeyne’s frazzled nerves, for all the good it did. The girl accused Sansa of clinging to stubborn resolve, the kind that assumed safety from inexplicable tragedy, but Sansa too laid down with fear as her bedfellow each night.

 

“I agree with Sansa,” Theon said and held open the record store’s door and Sansa slipped in after Jeyne.

 

Behind the counter, the owner, George, had planted himself in front of a fan and bobbed his head to the Grateful Dead. The door chimed, and he leapt from his seat with a cigarette dangling between his lips. His bloodshot eyes and the smell wafting through the musty shop suggested he’d been smoking more than just cigarettes to pass the time.

 

“You agree because it’s bad for business,” Jeyne retorted and tossed a smile over her shoulder at Theon.

 

Her gaze lingered just long enough for him to notice, but Jeyne retreated behind her timid reserve. Had she not dropped her eyes to her sandals, she might’ve noticed Theon grinning back at her. He ran his fingers through his hair and leaned against the glass counter across from George.

 

“Shit,” Theon chuckled with wayward amusement at his own misfortune. “The only reason I’m breaking even anymore is the crowd this one brings in on Saturdays.” 

 

He pointed to Sansa who smiled politely though the compliment wasn’t quite the truth. Even the Saturday crowd had thinned out.

 

“You’re the only customers I’ve had all day.” George shook his head and ashed his cigarette. He scrutinized the vacant street and scratched his chin beneath the tangled mess of a gray beard. “Sheriff says they’ve got no leads. Damn shame about that girl.”

 

Damn shame indeed.

 

In times like this, Sansa imagined what her momma might say, the advice she’d give. ‘You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, child. Use it but don’t overthink.’  That was easier said than done. This town offered few distractions in the best of times and even fewer in the perilous.

 

Sansa began down a row of records, some new and others well-used in their tatty sleeves. Jeyne trailed behind her as Theon talked shop with George, who’d been running the record store for as long as Sansa could remember. Some of her earliest memories were trips here with her father. The place was a novelty and packed to the gills with as much nostalgia as music.

 

Sansa stopped in front of a collection of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and their contemporaries. Beside her, Jeyne swayed gently back and forth, but kept her eyes downturned.

 

“I still think you should come with us tonight, Sansa,” Jeyne cajoled and mindlessly thumbed through records. “I can’t imagine why you’d rather stay home.”

 

Incredulous, Sansa discreetly lifted one brow at Jeyne. The girl’s face bloomed with sudden and sympathetic recognition of the elephant in the room. Though it’d become emaciated in the past year, the wretched thing still existed in shadows.

 

Last Independence Day, Sansa waited by the riverfront for Joffrey. A band played on the stage and a sea of flags waved as the crowd gathered for the fireworks display. As the sun dipped beneath the horizon, the nauseating pit in Sansa’s stomach had grown.

 

When the crowd broke, she saw Joffrey with that blonde-haired, green-eyed girl who hung on his arm with all the delirious happiness Sansa had always wished for herself. According to the rumor mill, the girl had landed in town a month prior, fresh blood in the big city.

 

Joffrey had locked eyes with Sansa. She’d wanted contrition, empathy, anything other than the icy cruelty she’d found. His eyes had gone black with incongruent rage that erupted as soon as he saw her. Sansa had bolted through the crowd and back home as fast as her legs would carry.

 

On the surface, it looked like she was a woman who’d had her fill of infidelity and broke free. The others didn’t know that Sansa had gotten away with her life that night and had had an entire year to sit with the knowledge. The seasons had changed. Summer faded into autumn that decayed into winter. When spring blossomed and sizzled back into summer once more, those memories waxed again and reached a fever pitch now on the anniversary of her escape.

 

Guilt ravaged Jeyne’s face, and Sansa gently gripped the girl’s elbow.

 

“I’ll be fine,” she assured and solidified her subtle declaration with a smile.

 

Sansa was skeptical, not stupid. She’d hauled out her daddy’s shotgun from beneath the bed. Her skills had grown rusty over the years and Sansa never imagined she’d need the gun but slept easier with it by her bedside.

 

“Besides, I’m busy tonight.” Sansa continued down the aisle and ran her fingertips across the orderly rows of records.

 

The deliberate detour towards nonchalance was her tell and, when Sansa raised her eyes, Jeyne sported a conspiratorial grin that said she knew damn well what Sansa meant.

 

Sansa wrote Sandor every Monday night. With the weekend behind her, Monday nights meant she had stories to tell—the things she did to occupy her time; odd occurrences on her Saturday night gigs; reflective musings on a new week. It worked out well. She had even started writing to him on Thursday nights after Sandor proclaimed that he wanted more of her. Sansa assumed he meant letters, but learned the man relished double meanings and wordplay functioned well enough as foreplay.

 

“Isn’t there a limit to how many letters you can send one inmate?” Theon chuckled and came up behind Jeyne, who stiffened at his presence.

 

The girl wore the shortest pair of shorts Sansa had ever seen her in and looked tempted to tug at the bottom, even though her ass was fully covered, though Theon wouldn’t rightly mind if it wasn’t.

 

“No.” Sansa shook her head and felt her hair sweep against her bare shoulders and back. “It’s not like I write that many. Just two a week.”

 

She evened out the edges of defensiveness, the part of her that suspected she might be overdoing it. It’d been six weeks, twelve letters. Jeyne wrote her inmate just once a month. Sansa was poised to overtake the girl’s total, but there wasn’t anything to explain. She’d found catharsis in writing to Sandor, and he seemed to enjoy her letters too.

 

“The town bought double the fireworks this year on account of more people showing up. Sure you don’t wanna come?” Theon coaxed.

 

“I don’t like fireworks.” 

 

It was the truth. The noise had wrapped itself around the chaos of her escape from Kansas City. Jeyne frowned and so too did Theon and, with their twin expressions of disappointment, Sansa felt guilt creeping in. Don’t be a downer.

 

“I’m sure it will be lovely,” Sansa added with a saccharine smile, artificial in its origin though no less sweet. “Maybe I’ll be able to see them from my backyard.”

 

Content to let it go for now, Theon nodded, and Jeyne shrugged with graceful albeit solemn acquiescence. They split off towards their respective tastes. Theon headed for the back corner where prog rock met psychedelic holdovers from the last decade. Jeyne perused the extensive selection of country music. Sansa would normally be there too, only abandoning Jeyne’s side when the girl drifted into gospel.

 

Today, she ventured into uncharted areas a row over from Theon. He regarded her with something between appreciative respect for new musical horizons and suspicion at her presence here.

 

He had every right to the latter, and Sansa turned away just as the heat hit her cheeks. It’d give her away, but it didn’t have to. She scanned the row of alphabetized records and ultimately ended up next to Theon as the “P” artists stretched around the corner. Sansa flicked through an upright stack of records until she found the one she was looking for—all black with a triangular prism and a ray of light refracted into a rainbow.

 

“I didn’t take you as a Pink Floyd fan,” Theon commented with a smirk. “Let me guess—Sandor recommended them.”

 

Sansa’s back stiffened like it did when she was a schoolgirl caught red-handed in troublemaking. Was it that obvious? In times like this, when Theon donned that infuriating and knowing smile or Jeyne fell into contemplative quiet, Sansa could step outside herself and see what others might see—gushing with hands animated and voice lifting in jubilation she’d only recently recovered. Even Sansa heard the way she fit Sandor into the nooks and crannies of conversation.

 

If someone talked about the trend of avocado kitchen appliances, she’d pipe up with Sandor’s hatred of the color green—OD green, green of the rice paddy fields, any shade of green really. And Lord help anyone who mentioned San Antonio. She’d be quick to relay that that’s where Sandor was from. She might even throw in that he’d moved further north to escape the heat but mostly the humidity.

 

Her friends blessedly tolerated Sansa’s effusive and emphatic trivia about Sandor Clegane, and Sansa repaid their patience by shutting up about him every so often.

 

“Perhaps,” was all Sansa said and scooted around Theon. “I figured I’d try something new.”

 

“I meant to tell you. I remember where I heard his name now,” Theon offered with hesitant reserve and flipped through a stack of records. He’d sworn up and down he knew a Sandor Clegane but couldn’t place the name.

 

Sansa spun towards him with her stomach in knots. She bit her lip to wipe clean her hopefulness.

 

“You know he was a bull rider?” Theon glanced at Sansa and shook his head. “A damn good one too. The Hound was what folks called him.”

 

The Hound. Sansa stilled and held the record to her chest. She willed her countenance towards indifference. “No, he never mentioned that. Did you see him ride?”

 

Theon shook his head.

 

“I heard about it from Wade. Texas is just one small town; everybody knows someone who knows everybody else. Wade says Sandor shipped off to war just as his star was rising. He didn’t know the bit about Sandor being in prison, just thought he stopped riding because of Vietnam. I’m surprised he didn’t mention it to you. Y’all seem awful close.”

 

Theon stifled what would’ve been a wicked grin and settled for a wink. Sansa shrugged and wandered away but carried the new bit of knowledge with her. Why wouldn’t Sandor tell her that? Perhaps out of modesty. Then again, he was anything but modest. He wasn’t a braggart either, though. He revealed mostly non-consequential things about himself and left entire parts of his history untouched.

 

Sansa let it go for now and searched the discount bin where she discovered a few treasures. Afterwards, she settled next to Jeyne, who worked through the gospel section. Sansa leaned against the record stand and stared at the back wall lined with posters. A question warmed her lips, one she’d been too timid—or perhaps too conflicted—to ask.

 

Eventually, she’d reach the end of her friends’ good graces, the point where they’d have their fill of discussing Sandor, and yet Sansa had avoided the biggest point of discussion and epicenter of her intrigue. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words didn’t come; only a soft noise that caught in her throat. She cleared it away.

 

Jeyne glanced at Sansa and gave a faint smile as she thumbed through the records. “I feel like you wanna ask me something.”

 

After a cumbersome silence, Sansa turned to Jeyne.

 

“Your prisoner,” she started but couldn’t keep the girl’s stare. “Have you two ever talked about meeting?”

 

“No. He’s down at Texas State Penitentiary. I’m not going all that way. Besides, it’s not like that.”

 

“Like what?” Sansa pressed, but the implication was already clear as Jeyne circumnavigated the obvious.

 

The girl abandoned the records and faced Sansa. “I write him letters to provide comfort.”

 

She left the rest unsaid, whatever it was—a warning, the gentle judgment of a friend—but Sansa wasn’t looking for permission, only precedent and a way to move forward. 

 

“I think I want to meet Sandor,” Sansa confessed, though she had mostly decided. There wasn’t much left to think about.

 

Jeyne’s head tilted, and her ponytail draped over her bare shoulder. When she said nothing, Sansa started again to fill the void lest Jeyne or Theon or God himself stuff it full of scrutiny.

 

“Wichita Falls is only a few hours from here. I bet I wouldn’t even have to miss work. I could do it all in one day.”

 

Jeyne shook her head and pursed her lips. “I don’t know, Sansa.”

 

“He’s sent me half a dozen letters and I’ve sent him double that. What’s the harm in going for a visit?”

 

“What’s the reason in going for a visit?” Jeyne countered, but sweetened the question with the charade of a smile.

 

“To see him! And for him to see me.” Sansa distracted with the obvious answer to a question Jeyne hadn’t asked. She knew what the girl meant.

 

“He’s already seen plenty of you.”

 

There it was. Judgment. Sansa had waited for the other shoe to drop, and Jeyne had certainly been dangling it all these weeks.

 

Deflated, Sansa stashed her records to the stand, not caring that Pink Floyd and Neil Young didn’t belong with the high and mighty gospel singers. An incensed lump in her throat already burned, her anger not quite a distinct emotion from hurt, and she flounced down the aisle.

 

“Look, I’m sorry!” Jeyne hollered but lowered her voice when Sansa spun around. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just want you to be safe.”

 

Plain as day, Sansa discerned the misplaced worry rising in Jeyne. They were all on edge, even George, high as a kite and gazing out the window where the sun must’ve disappeared behind clouds. A shadow fell along the street.

 

“He’s locked up, Jeyne,” Sansa said and strolled back to her friend. “What exactly do you think he’s gonna do to me? I trust him. I can be honest with him.”

 

Sansa stood across from Jeyne in the narrow aisle but glanced out the window. “Besides, I’m probably safer with him than in this town with all the weirdos roaming around.”

 

At least one weirdo had apparently moved on. Sansa hadn’t seen the stranger since he requested Season of the Witch at a gig in May. She liked to think her frigid reception of his bizarre request had sent the man out of town. Something told her that probably wasn’t the case.

 

“Have you told Sandor about Joffrey?” Jeyne asked.

 

“Some. Not the whole story. Just the part that matters—that I left him last Fourth of July, that he was a monster.” Sansa felt her lips curl in a fond smile and the inclination to gush about Sandor bubbled up. “He said he was proud of me, that I was brave.”

 

“I know, silly,” Jeyne giggled and nudged Sansa with her elbow. “You called me when that letter came, remember?”

 

Sansa laughed along and pretended to recall. The truth was that Sandor’s letters often left her breathless and blushing. The things he said barreled past the appropriate but tantalized all the same. He was seasoned in exploring the boundaries, and Sansa was a willing participant in that particular expedition.

 

Jeyne would’ve been wholly offended and scandalized that a man took such liberties with Sansa. With Jeyne on the phone, Sansa would redact entire portions of Sandor’s letters and only relay what remained—his indulgence in Sansa’s questions or the parts where his suggestive language turned towards the affectionate.

 

Something must’ve come over Sansa now, the tenderness of daydreams perhaps, and Jeyne relented.

 

“If you want to meet him, then you should,” she murmured and parted with her judgment in favor of support, even if she couldn’t quite relate or understand. 

 

Sansa flashed a bright smile. “I’m gonna write him tonight and I’ll ask him then.”

 

A sudden flush of butterflies besieged her stomach but sent her drifting with her head in the clouds and beaming like a loon.

 

“If I didn’t know any better, Sansa, I’d say you’re sweet on him,” Jeyne remarked and shooed Sansa down the aisle and towards the counter where Theon paid for his stack of records.

 

“Being sweet” implied pure innocence and chastity. But chaste girls didn’t go wet between the legs and indulge in that ache with thoughts of men like Sandor and all the promises he’d been making in so many words to her. She was more than sweet on him, and he was more than just intriguing.

 

Sansa stashed the thought away long enough to pay for her records and waited for Jeyne to do the same. They said their farewells to George and rambled down the street. Mr. Mormont and the others had finished with the bunting. With not another soul in sight, the eeriness only further infested the square.

 

“This place is a ghost town,” Theon commented and, though he said it with a smile, he scrutinized the empty road as he unlocked his car. He held the passenger door open for Jeyne and the back door for Sansa.

 

As Theon navigated the streets back to Sansa’s house, attempts at light conversation waned to uneasy silence. The short drive and handful of turns stretched on and Sansa gazed out the window, finding Theon’s observation just a little too apt.

 

For a balmy summer day, backyards went empty. No children played in the local park. No one was out for a stroll or a bike ride. If she didn’t know any better, Sansa would’ve said they were the last souls on earth.

 

When Theon’s Trans Am rumbled to a stop in front of Sansa’s house, she scooted forward and planted a kiss on Theon and Jeyne’s cheeks.

 

“Be safe tonight and lock your doors,” Jeyne urged with that worried look again. “I’ll call you later.”

 

“You two have fun,” Sansa said and climbed from the car. She jogged up the driveway to her front door, aware of the engine idling as Theon and Jeyne watched her get safely inside.

 

With her back against the door, Sansa dropped her purse and shopping bag to the floor, closed her eyes, and drew a deep breath. She hadn’t strayed from home all that long, but still relished the coming back and the quiet respite of the evening ahead. She slid out of her platform sandals, locked up the house, and poured a glass of iced tea.

 

From their sacred place in her bedside drawer, Sansa retrieved the small stack of Sandor’s letters. He wasn’t the only one who laid awake some nights, thinking over their conversations and the words exchanged between them that’d evolved over time. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, Sansa pulled out his letters and read them again, wondering what his voice might sound like or how his body would feel against hers.

 

Sansa slipped back down the hall to the record player in the living room where she sunk to the floor and studied the envelopes in her hands. Sandor wrote less often than Sansa and not because he wouldn’t have written more if he could. What they lacked in frequency, his letters made up for in content that left Sansa with that flutter in her belly no matter how many times she read them.

 

She abandoned the letters long enough to drop the needle on her new record. On the floor and propped up on the heels of her hands, Sansa eased back and closed her eyes. She soaked in the music; the strange but enticing tones that sent her drifting on a calm sea. Her breaths came slow and even, and the tension in her limbs fled as she laid down on the plush carpet. From the stack of envelopes, Sansa plucked out Sandor’s second letter to her.

 

They were all special in their own way and contained something that moved her and Sandor down the road towards an unknown horizon. Where the mystery of that journey might’ve once scared her, it now left her enthralled.

 

In his second letter, Sandor had called her little bird for the first time—apparently something to do with her singing—but had once implied there was more to the nickname. Sansa didn’t know what.

 

All she really knew is that she liked it—his pet name for her; the compliments that were bold but lacked the distinct look and feel of bullshit; the clever suggestiveness of his words and the undercurrent of growing fondness.

 

In what Sansa could tell was a rare expression of outright affection, Sandor had divulged that her letters were often what kept him sane and her words ran through his mind at night, the hardest times for him. And where mail call had once been a source of annoyance and misery, he now regarded it with joy in an otherwise bleak existence.

 

What he might not have known, and what Sansa ultimately told him, was that he too had become the bright spot in her weeks filled with monotony; day after day, the same existence that she struggled to find much meaning in. And she might’ve been content if she had this life to share with someone but, as it stood, she was alone. With every story of another missing girl or tragedy in the next town over, the concerned town folk reminded Sansa that she didn’t have a man at home to protect her.

 

I’ll just have to protect myself.

 

She sat up and stared at the front door and the living room window where the curtains remained shut. Summer splendor deceived with sultry nights where the air smelled sweet, but something ominous lurked in the darkness.

 

As one song bled into the next, Sansa read through Sandor’s letter. The folds had worn deeper with each read and the paper was slightly tattered too. 

 

Little Bird,

 

The nickname seems fitting given your apparent love of singing. I expect you to tell me if you take offense to it. Then again, there’s plenty you might’ve taken offense to in my first letter and you still wrote me back. That must count for something, especially since you already consider me a friend. I’ll try to live up to the distinction.

 

Sounds like you dodged a bullet with your fiancé. Add that to the list of things to be proud of. Since you’re a good Texas girl, all that pride isn’t apt to go to your head, though I’d say you’re well within your rights if it did.

 

I had my share of women both before and after the war, but none are waiting for me. If one of them were, I can’t imagine she’d appreciate the things I do when I think about you.

 

Thank you for indulging me with another picture. Nice dress. I see why it’s your favorite. It’s my favorite too and I imagine the only thing that would look better on you is nothing at all.

 

I suppose you hear how pretty you are from plenty and don’t need another voice in that choir. I don’t rightly give a fuck about that and will say what bears repeating—you’re beautiful.

 

Since you offered honesty in your last letter, I’ll offer some too—my thoughts of you aren’t exactly pure. I’m not wondering what it might be like to go on a picnic with you, but I sure do think of other things we might do in the great outdoors on a blanket. I’ll let you fill in the rest until I can fill it in for you.

 

I don’t have a picture to send. I’m not a looker like you are, but where my face ain’t much, I make up for it in height and strength and a few other important ways too.

 

I’ll tell you something else. Yours was the first letter I ever received here, and it was a bright spot in a whole lot of darkness. There won’t come a day where I consider a letter from you a burden and not a blessing. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

 

I look forward to hearing from you again.

 

Sandor

 

Sansa held the letter to her chest, careful not to wrinkle the paper. His words resonated almost tangible, as if she could feel the weight of them against her skin, breathe them in, taste them on her lips, everything short of manifesting him in the room.

 

The phone wailed from the kitchen and broke Sansa from her daydream. She yelped with a startle and killed the record as she pushed herself from the floor. When she rounded the corner into the kitchen, Sansa pulled the receiver from its cradle.

 

“Hi Jeyne.” Still riding the high from Sandor’s letter, she chirped merrily into the line and leaned against the wall. 

 

Sansa’s presumptive greeting was met with a quiet intake of breath, undeniably masculine and unmistakably not Jeyne.

 

“Who’s Jeyne?” A deep voice as dark as distant thunder rumbled through the line.

 

Sansa peeled away from the wall and wrapped her finger around the phone cord with nervous vexation. Her hands shook and voice trembled.

 

“Who is this?”

 

The wild thrum of her heartbeat had little to do with receiving another mysterious call. Anticipation coursed through her as Sansa waited for a reply. Could it be?

 

“I knew your voice was sweet, little bird.”

 

Another rumble and it felt like being submerged in warm water. Goosebumps laid siege to her skin and Sansa felt her lips part, but the chasm between her mind and mouth grew and she scrambled for something to say.

 

“S-Sandor?” she stammered and gripped the receiver with both hands. “Is it really you?”

 

“Well, it sure as hell isn’t Jeyne,” he laughed.

 

With the sharp shock of the unexpected wearing off, Sansa memorized the tone and cadence of his voice with its subtle San Antonio twang and a close match to all she’d imagined. The familiarity left her reeling. 

 

Questions blazed across Sansa’s mind in rapid fire succession—how did he get her number? How long did he have to talk? Did he receive her last letter?

 

“How are you?” was the only question Sansa managed. She nearly collapsed into the kitchen chair, still flustered and afflicted with timid reticence that left her weak-kneed and barely breathing. 

 

“Better now,” Sandor said. His deep timbre was ripped from a dream—husky, low, and commanding. “They don’t give us much phone time, but I thought I’d surprise you today. Hope you don’t mind.” 

 

Sansa sat up straight with the fear that she’d been impolite. Or perhaps he was second guessing himself. That alone inspired the sweetness she infused into her voice because what he couldn’t see now was how she smiled, dumfounded and wholly mesmerized by him.

 

“I don’t mind at all!” Sansa proclaimed just a little too loud and, though she quieted her voice, it still came sodden with exuberance. “This is a very pleasant surprise.”

 

On the other end, she heard Sandor release a soft breath, something like a sigh. “Good. It’s Independence Day. What are you doing at home?”

 

“Nothing much,” Sansa shrugged and stood from the table. She paced the room with the telephone cord stretching behind her. “I’m celebrating my own independence today.”

 

“I remember. You left Kansas City a year ago.”

 

He remembered. Sansa’s heart raced again, and her hands still trembled as she stared out the sliding glass door to her backyard that’d been freshly mowed a week ago.

 

It was her turn to talk but, tongue-tied and suddenly shy, every word she had for this man failed her now and fled the room when she needed them the most. She settled for the truth, not bothering with something clever to say. She’d only bungle it.

 

“I’m sorry if I sound rude.” Sansa exhaled a heavy breath and anxious laugh. “I just can’t believe you’re calling me! It’s good to hear your voice after all this time. It’s like a dream.”

 

Sandor chuckled. “I admire your definition of a dream.”

 

“Well, it feels good to be admired, so I’ll take it.” Sansa smiled at finally finding the right rhythm of conversation and paying him more than just bewildered silence.

 

“I’m sure I could find more of you to admire in ways that feel just as good,” Sandor replied, his rhetoric as free and unabashed now as it was in his letters. “You don’t sound rude, just nervous.”

 

“Nervous, yes, but the rest of it is happiness.” Sansa rested with one hip against the kitchen counter and the phone cord wrapped around her waist.

 

“Nervous happiness,” Sandor repeated slowly. “That’s quite the combination. I think some might call that anticipation.”

 

Sansa discerned stray bits of relief in his voice. He didn’t let on much in the way he spoke but, if she listened close enough, the nuance was there.

 

“There’s plenty of that too.” Sansa felt the heat surface on her cheeks and, if Sandor latched onto the coy suggestion, Sansa wouldn’t have known. She continued before he could speak again. “Guess what I bought today?”

 

A deep resonant hum drifted through the line, and that wobbly feeling and pleasured buzz rippled through Sansa again. “Another dress like that green one?” 

 

They laughed in unison at the suggestion, and Sansa marveled at the way it sounded together, quite the duet.

 

“No. I bought a record. That Pink Floyd one you suggested.”

 

With a graceful spin, she untangled herself from the telephone cord.

 

“No shit?” He sounded happy now, as if he were grinning into the phone.

 

Sansa often wondered what he looked like when he smiled and imagined he didn’t spare much outward joy but hoped he might with her.

 

“I’ve been listening to it! My favorite so far is the clock song.”

 

“The clock song,” he repeated with another chuckle. The fondness seeped through; for her or the music, she wasn’t quite sure. “That’s my favorite too.”

 

Sansa leaned against the archway leading to the living room, gazing at the letters on the floor and the empty record sleeve.

 

“I wish you could be here to listen to it with me.” The flutter in her belly morphed into an ache in her chest.

 

“You and me both,” Sandor sighed, and Sansa swore she heard the same longing in him too. “Although, I reckon I’d rather hear you sing.”

 

“What would you want to hear?” she asked tenderly.

 

On Saturday nights, up on stage singing to the lonely cowboys, Sansa pretended Sandor was in the crowd. She’d envision him perched against the far wall and with a hat obscuring his face as he watched and listened. With that fantasy, Sansa would sing her heart out.

 

Sandor released a quiet laugh into the line. “Not a song like you’re thinking, but I’d find a way to make you sing for me.”

 

“I’d sing for you gladly.” Sansa gnawed her bottom lip, not entirely sure anymore what song he was referring to and supposed it didn’t quite matter. Any song he wanted, she’d give it to him.

 

“If I had more time and more privacy, I’d make you sing for me now,” Sandor murmured with strained frustration, his voice almost akin to a groan.

 

She knew now the song he wanted. The heat spread down Sansa’s chest now faintly heaving with quickened breaths. “You’re making me blush.”

 

That was an understatement. Sansa eyed the morning paper on the table, anything she could fan herself with, and swore the room was on fire for how she was burning alive in her own skin. And what a gorgeous heat it was.

 

“I better be doing more than just making you blush.” Sandor’s words came hushed now and more serious too. 

 

“Oh, you are,” Sansa breathed into the line with a familiar pulse at the juncture of her thighs and the desire to be touched there. “You’ll just have to take my word for it.”

 

“If I was there, I’d figure it out for myself. Maybe I’d spend all evening exploring every part of you.”

 

The deep and slow drawl of his voice allured and teased with splendid torture that sent Sansa back into the chair.

 

“I’d love that,” she said in quiet confession to him.

 

“Yes, you would.” It sounded half a threat and half a promise, and both left Sansa equally enthralled. So too did his laugh, fully satisfied with explicit knowledge of the unrevealed. “I bet a man’s never talked to you like this before.”

 

“There’s plenty a man has never made me feel before that I’m sure you could. Or that you already have,” Sansa replied without missing a beat and it wasn’t meant to placate. It was the truth.

 

No man had ever made Sansa feel the way Sandor had. If Sansa strayed too far off the pedestal of propriety, there’d be a man there to warn her that a good Texas girl brought up with Jesus on her lips should mind her place. But curiosity beckoned for a taste of what existed beyond those boundaries. Sandor had been the only man to lure her to the edge rather than shove her back into the confines of a pageant queen and small-town darling. With him, that liberation felt natural, not sinful, and she wanted more.

 

With a pause on the line, the heat fled Sansa’s body and an icy chill rippled down her spine with the thought she might’ve offended him. When his voice came again, Sansa understood with crystalline clarity the change in the wind where his devilish tenor turned towards amorous affection.

 

“You’re sweet, Sansa Stark. You know that?”

 

He sounded like he was smiling again, and his words dawdled with doting admiration as if drawn out to relish the sentiment behind them.

 

“I’ll always be sweet to you,” Sansa said and, once more, matched him in the meaning behind her words. “All I ask is that you make it easy on me.”

 

“It’s a deal. I think I’m getting the better bargain, but I have ways to uphold my end of it.”

 

A small uproar punctuated the line with rowdy shouts and raucous laughter. The interruption served as a crude reminder that, as much as they had slipped into another world with one another, Sandor’s time was not his own and an urgency set in with the question burning on her tongue now.

 

“Sandor, there’s something I want to ask you,” Sansa began haltingly and twirled the phone cord around her finger again. “I was gonna put it in a letter, but I’d rather ask you now.”

 

“I’m listening, little bird.”

 

There it was again—the affection finding its way and easing a path for Sansa to speak freely as she paced the kitchen floor once more.

 

“I’ve been thinking it over and I know we’ve only been writing to each other for a little over a month but I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other and I only live a few hours from you so I wouldn’t mind at all making the drive if it meant I got to see you and finally put a face to the man I’ve been writing to and now to your voice too, which is very nice; I should have said so in the beginning.”

 

When she finished, Sansa gulped down a breath, slightly dizzy and embarrassed for having rambled on. Broaching the topic in a letter would’ve bought her some grace but not the benefit of an instant answer. Sansa was more than willing to sacrifice poise as she waited for an answer or any sign that he’d heard.

 

Only silence came through the line.

 

“So, what do you think if I came to visit you?” Sansa asked again when Sandor had said nothing.

 

The pause wore on.

 

“Sandor? Hello?”

 

Sansa pulled the phone away and stared at it as if that might materialize something. When nothing came, she pressed it to her ear again. “Are you there?”

 

The phone tolled with a dead line. The call’s abrupt end came with burgeoning disappointment and Sansa hung up the phone with a storm of confusion clouding her thoughts.

 

Surely, he wouldn’t have taken offense to her suggestion that they meet. Of course, he wouldn’t. From what Sansa knew of him, Sandor lacked the mercurial volatility that afflicted her relationship with Joffrey, whose moods shifted like a storm-battered sea, whipping Sansa about and leaving her sick to her stomach.

 

He’s not that, Sansa assured herself and settled on the most obvious explanation instead of tying her heart up in knots with the twists and turns of an unlikely scenario. He simply ran out of phone time and didn’t have even a moment to answer or say goodbye.

 

Despite the call’s unceremonious end, Sansa floated back into the living room, waiting for the moment her feet might hit the ground again. A dream, it all felt a dream—beautiful and gossamer at the edges. Her thoughts of him burst with sonic vividness, the shades brightening from the black and white of his letters to vibrant color now.

 

Sprawled out on the floor in front of the record player, Sansa read through his letters twice with the backdrop of Waylon Jennings and Sandor’s voice now narrating the words. The combination was fitting.

 

The sun had set when Sansa finally peeled herself from the floor and scrounged up a meager meal of leftovers from the fridge. When she finished eating and cleaned up the kitchen, Sansa drew all the curtains shut and checked the locks on the windows and doors.

 

Somewhere in the distance, fireworks popped, and Sansa imagined Jeyne and Theon together and maybe one of them had mustered up the courage to slip their hand in the other’s. Perhaps they might even share their first kiss beneath glittering red, white, and blue in the sky.

 

The romance of the day wasn’t lost on Sansa, though she mostly associated the holiday with horror. The sweet surprise of Sandor’s call remained as she drew a warm bath with fragrant bubbles and even lit enough candles that, when she killed the light, the bathroom held a dull glow.

 

Sansa shed her clothes and, where she normally didn’t linger long in front of the mirror, she stood before it now and took in full sight of herself—bare breasts with pink buds for nipples; the slope of her waist and hips; her body slender but feminine in its curves. More of Sandor’s words to her flooded Sansa’s mind.

 

“It’s like you were torn from some of the only good dreams I have.”

 

She abandoned the mirror and dipped a toe into the tub where she eased slowly into the water. It was a warm embrace against her bare skin. Sansa laid back and rested her head against the back of the tub. In the absence of music or the television murmuring in the background, she surrendered herself to the silence and the thoughts of Sandor swept in.

 

She’d been forced to paint a picture of him with the details he’d given—black hair kept long because that’s how he liked it; gray eyes and what had to be masculine features because God didn’t give a rumbling voice like Sandor’s to the effeminate; tall enough that he almost had to dip his head in most doorways; and strong because he’d always been inclined to muscle mass, but prison offered no excuse for not staying in shape.

 

Where Sandor seemed at least marginally worried that Sansa was building castles in the sky over him, she thought there was something to be said for the mystery of it all. Though her visions of him were still largely shrouded in shadows, the slow, sensory revelation of one another meant that they savored every new detail.

 

“I lay awake some nights grappling with the stroke of sheer luck that a woman like you would take such interest in me.”

 

Sansa ran a palm up her stomach, and her fingertips brushed over one nipple. If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend it was his touch. When she pushed her breasts out of the water, she could imagine the lingering wetness was similar to his tongue swirling over each nipple. It had been longer than a year since a man had touched her, a fact she hadn’t quite admitted to Sandor, but he seemed to piece together.

 

“Those nights, I think of you; the ways I might touch you, where my lips would end up on your body, all the pretty ways you’d respond, every sound from your mouth.”

 

Sansa’s hand at her breast disappeared beneath the water and trailed down her belly. Her middle finger swiped gently between her legs, spreading her lips and stroking her clit in the tender way his tongue might, and she imagined he’d savor that too, the way she tasted and responded to his kisses and licks between her legs.

 

She dipped one finger inside of herself and released a breathy moan as a second finger slipped in. Sansa licked her bottom lip as she slowly eased her fingers in and just as slowly out. Her legs spread as far as the bathtub would allow, and she writhed against her own touch.

 

She wanted his weight on top of her, his hardness inside her just like this, slowly at first, feeling every bit of his length. He’d consume her, Sansa knew. He’d want every inch of her—his lips at her neck, hands at her breasts, the ends of his hair sweeping against her skin.

 

Sansa bucked her hips and her panting breaths filled the bathroom in faint echoes. Her brow was damp from sweat and steam. Her free hand joined the other, circling her clit in tight, quick swipes as she imagined riding him. He’d grip her waist and command her movements. With her head thrown back, she’d surrender control to him. Anything he wanted, he could have it all.

 

Sansa’s eyes squeezed shut and her head rolled back. She traced the sound of his voice, the deep rumble she’d memorized, and extrapolated it to the sound of his lovemaking—the way he’d moan and breathe her name as he came hard. Sansa’s pace quickened, chest rising and falling with soft gasps, and her pleasure coming fast upon her. When it broke, it blinded, and Sansa rode that wave with his name a sigh from her lips.

 

“You intrigue me, little bird. What a rare find you are. You’re good—sweet and kind—but bad in the best way because I know you must think of me and I’m sure by now it inspires in you what it does in me.”

 

Sansa opened her eyes, and as the ecstasy dissolved away, the spell was broken. Sandor seemed further than the distance she’d once measured between them. She wrapped her arms around herself and her cheek rested against her shoulder in a lonely embrace. The silence no longer comforted. I wish Sandor were here.

 

She eyed the bathroom doorway and visualized his height beneath its frame, the way he might look at her now, curled up in the water and wanting him near. The lonesome thought sent Sansa out of the tub, though the water was still plenty warm, and the bubbles hadn’t dissipated yet. Wrapped in a towel, she emptied the tub, blew out the candles, and readied herself for bed.

 

The fireworks had slowed with the festivities drawing to a close, and Sansa thought it was just as well. She slipped into her nightgown and crawled into bed. With a pillow clutched to her chest and hair fanned out behind her, Sandor’s invisible presence followed her here too.

 

“I think of you often along with whatever it is that’s grown between us.”

 

Maybe he’d hold her and stroke her hair, and she wondered what it might be like to fall asleep in his arms. The sweet thought delivered her into slumber for a few hours. At some point, Sansa surfaced in the twilight of sleep, losing and gaining shades of consciousness as her surroundings slipped in and out of focus. The phone blared from the kitchen with shrill urgency, louder and coarser in the dead of night.

 

Sansa shot up from beneath the covers and her hand fumbled for the bedside lamp. She flicked on the light and squinted against the invading brightness. With another ring, Sansa hurried out of bed and down the hall to the kitchen.

 

On the third ring, she caught sight of the clock—a quarter after midnight.

 

A fourth ring.

 

This wasn’t a misdialed call or a prank. In the groggy haze of sleep, her mind grappled with who would call this late. Arya. Maybe her sister was in some kind of trouble, but the girl had a million friends and had never met a stranger in her life. Jon. But the war was long over and the danger he’d found himself in was years behind. Jeyne. She’d never called earlier like she was supposed to.

 

A fifth ring.

 

Sandor! Maybe he’d found the way and the will to call her back. Her heart strummed a frantic rhythm despite the realization that there was no way in hell an inmate would be allowed to place calls at this hour.

 

On the sixth ring, Sansa reached the kitchen short of breath and her hands shaking as she picked up the phone.

 

“Hello,” she croaked on a voice hoarse from sleep.

 

No one spoke. Only a puff of breath rustled through the line and snapped Sansa awake. Her blood ran cold. Small though it was, she knew that sound in all its horrid and skin-crawling simplicity.

 

“Who is this? What do you want?” she demanded and didn’t expect a response, but when it came her legs crumbled and she collapsed into the chair next to her.

 

“Still think this is fear mongering?” the voice—mechanical and manipulated, hardly human—crackled through the line.

 

With a sharp gasp, the phone plummeted to the floor. A plastic piece broke off the receiver and skid across the yellow, patterned linoleum. Sansa ducked to the floor as her mind blurred with muddled thoughts. Who was on the street? Who could’ve possibly heard her? Remember. Remember. Remember. Who was there?

 

Sansa snatched up the phone, only now registering the tears that wet her cheeks. “Who are you?”

 

An eternity passed. With her eyes steady on the kitchen clock, the seconds ticked agonizing and slow. It taunted her just as much as the sudden silence on the other end of the line. The breath returned, but this time soft and sickening. 

 

“Soon.”

 

The line went dead.

Chapter Text

                                                                                           

                                                                                           

The hall quieted from the unwelcome outburst. Two inmates scuffled, and a guard laughed. The commotion infiltrated the small room where Sandor hunched over a table too short for his hulking frame. The rickety thing wobbled on a metal base.

 

With his back to the door, his skin crawled and the hair on his arms stood on end. The guard loitered outside, as if that paltry distance should suffice as privacy. Every word Sandor said was privy to prying ears. Pry they did, and in search of something that could be used against him later.

 

Part of Sandor didn’t care if the guard heard how he spoke to Sansa. Sweet as can fucking be, her dulcet voice sent him closer to heaven than any living creature could get without crossing the great divide. The sultry edge to all the soft tones encapsulated what he knew about her already—a good, faithful woman who loved just as passionately as she probably fucked, eager to please and easy to love.

 

The other part of Sandor recognized the sanctity of this conversation and loathed that anyone here knew about her. Sansa Stark didn’t belong in a place like this, even if her presence only manifested on others speaking her name or seeing her face in photographs. That alone threatened to send Sandor over the edge, and the mistake he’d made had been in showing that hand. Misery reigned supreme in these walls and some here would weaponize that knowledge.

 

With the phone pressed to his ear, Sandor scooted closer to the table. A smile creased his lips as he listened to Sansa talk with renewed nervousness. She’d gotten herself tongue-tied and twisted and Sandor found it wholly endearing. She spoke now in one long sentence about coming to see him and barely took a breath until the very end.

 

“I only live a few hours from you so I wouldn’t mind at all making the drive if it meant I got to see you and finally put a face to the man I’ve been writing to and now to your voice too, which is very nice; I should have said so in the beginning.”

 

Sandor hadn’t smoked in years. A decade, even. Longer than he could remember. This feeling now—floating out of his body, smiling like a fucking lovelorn idiot, and twisted up in his own right over the woman on the other end of the line—he likened to getting high. Sandor eased back in the chair. He lifted the arm crossed over his middle and rested it behind his head.

 

“You don’t owe me any compliments. The biggest one you’ve paid me is right now. Of course, I want to see you.”

 

When he was a younger man, he might’ve turned her away to preempt judgement at the thorough wreck that was his face. Older, wiser, and less inclined to giving a shit, he’d gotten better about fussing over his scars. They’d itch and twitch whenever he thought about them too long or worried what others might think.

 

He’d learned to cast those concerns aside. There wasn’t shit he could do about them other than manage his own self-consciousness. He accomplished that feat during the war. Sandor had seen too many mangled bodies or soldiers heading home short a few limbs. He counted his blessings and shut the fuck up about his scars because some poor bastard in the world had it worse.

 

He waited, but the line fell quiet. Perhaps Sansa was gathering her composure again. She’d spun herself up into a flustered and entirely enticing tizzy, and now Sandor waited for her to come back down again.

 

But nothing came; not even the alluring little sighs she made that he’d take back to his bunk later. He’d overlay those sounds with visions of her writhing beneath him, moaning and gasping and begging for more.

 

“Sansa?”

 

When she didn’t answer, Sandor sat up straight and leaned against the table. The guard hadn’t given a two-minute warning, but the line held only dead silence, not even a toll of a hung-up call. Sandor twitched at the presence of someone lurking close behind him.

 

He spun around in the chair and found Boros leaned against the wall right above the phone jack. In his grubby hand, he held the disconnected phone cord and twirled it in circles with a shit-eating grin.

 

“Time’s up,” Boros taunted with smug self-satisfaction gleaming in his beady black eyes. “Hope you weren’t getting to the good part.”

 

Sandor observed the expectant glee on the man’s chubby face. Boros clearly anticipated getting the better of Sandor. His jabs functioned like stones tossed at a worn-out monolith and Boros waited for Sandor to crumble from the relentless assault.

 

It wouldn’t happen today.

 

Sandor huffed a derisive laugh and slowly stood. He shoved the chair hard and relished the way Boros flinched as it slammed into the table. Where normally Sandor might’ve counted this as yet another annoyance in his run-ins with Boros, today the anger came hard knowing that Sansa Stark was in Devil Creek waiting for an answer to her question.

 

“I see you didn’t bother to spare a two-minute warning,” Sandor rumbled but capped the volume of his voice. It filled the small room anyhow.

 

“Not for you.” Boros shook his head but backed away in a shuffled step as Sandor closed the distance between them.

 

He approached Boros but knew if he came any closer, the man and his cohorts would take it as an invitation for a beating. They’d say he asked for it to justify three or more armed guards beating him senseless. 

 

They were no better than some men here. In some ways, they were worse; thugs granted the power and means to brutalize in the name of order. As it stood, Sandor had a point to make, so he pushed the line as far as he could. That meant looming just a foot away from Boros. Sandor let his gaze close the rest of that distance with a scowl on his lips and a searing look that could catch fire and burn a hole right through Boros.

 

“I suppose it’s too much to ask a back-country inbred like you to read a clock,” Sandor sneered.

 

For a moment, Boros looked rightfully overcome with fear, but must’ve quickly remembered the upper hand. His incipient cowardice fled behind a facade of bravado. He patted the billy club hanging from his hip and his mouth split with a smile.

 

“Careful now. We wouldn’t want news to travel to your parole board that you’ve been making trouble.” Boros stepped to Sandor and lifted his chin, perhaps to feign height and bravery now. “Or maybe I should enlighten them anyhow. What do you think about that?”

 

Menacing laughter poured from Boros’s crooked mouth and crimson flooded his fleshy cheeks. Week after week, the man had dangled this over Sandor’s head. The omnipresent threat grew and gained traction. Other guards had written Sandor off as straddling the divide to freedom, one foot in this world and one foot out. Boros seemed in denial and promised that he’d watch Sandor sabotage his chance at freedom.

 

Still, Sandor couldn’t quite help himself and got his digs in where he could. He nodded with deliberate and dawdling ease and sized Boros up. There wasn’t much to the man who was almost as wide as he was tall.

 

“I think that would require you to do your job for once,” Sandor sniped with a snide smirk. “I won’t hold my breath.”

 

If Boros’s face was red before, it looked almost purple now. The rare shade of anger warned that Sandor was close to the precipice and could back off now. He reminded himself that in this battle of wills, there would always be one winner who came out on top and it wouldn’t be him. It was the way the scales of justice worked around here.

 

“I’ve had enough of you!” Boros seethed through gritted teeth. Spittle flew out one edge of his mouth. “Get the fuck out of here!”

 

Boros shot one furious finger towards the door. On the way out, Sandor winked at the man and retreated into the hall where another guard escorted him back to his cell. Along the way, inmates hooped and hollered as Sandor passed.

 

He supposed it came with the territory. His freedom was on the horizon and the warden had the right of it. Misery loved company and word spread like wildfire. Men who Sandor scarcely knew had heard about his parole hearing. They hassled him for details. They taunted him about it. A few even wanted the name of his lawyer. One day, Sandor was apt to disappear, bunk emptied and desk cleared. The others didn’t know when that day might come, so they treated Sandor as if every day might be his last.

 

He had no friends here. For the few he tolerated, Sandor still had to read into passing pleasantries for them to resemble a friend. The rest took their shots where they could and, for some of them, right now must’ve been that moment. A few hung from the bars at the front of their cell with everything from mischief to pure hatred in their eyes.

 

Any day now.

 

He held fast to those three words. The anticipation that the promise of freedom brought took on a feral quality, like a restless animal pacing a cage.

 

His parole hearing was done. Sandor’s lawyer supplicated the judge and the warden and Griff spoke on his behalf. Both men said a great many things that bore shades of truth, though some colors were truer than others. No outright lies, though—Sandor was honest; a soldier who’d done his duty and served his country during the worst years of the war; he worked hard and would live a simple life. He hadn’t broken the law before and didn’t intend to again.

 

As Sandor understood it, the judgment would come down as soon as the board got off their asses and talked it over. If the system wasn’t broken, then it sure as hell was slow as molasses in the dead of winter. The silver lining—the judge seemed keen on granting Sandor’s parole, and Griff was certain that counted as a victory by any other name.

 

Where that bit of insight might’ve sent him prematurely packing up his belongings, Sandor knew better than to hang his hopes on it. He wasn’t a superstitious man but tempting fate in the eleventh hour felt awfully dangerous. He didn’t speak of his parole and wouldn’t until it was a sure thing. He hadn’t even mentioned it to Sansa; something about putting it in writing and having it ripped away felt unusually cruel, and he knew enough of this world to understand it wasn’t all that kind, and certainly not to men like him.

 

Back in his cell, Beric perched against his bunk with the Bible in his hands. The work bell would soon ring, signaling an end to their miniscule free time. Sandor’s size and strength meant he was assigned hard labor, the back-breaking work that men with weaker temperaments couldn’t handle. Those men got sent to the kitchen to bake cookies while Sandor nearly broke his body out in the heat, hauling scrap metal to patch up holes in the fences or digging out concrete to repave roads. 

 

With little time left before work, he disregarded Beric’s gaze as it followed him. His focus remained unwavering and singular, eclipsing everything else that might’ve drawn his attention away from the task at hand.

 

At his desk, Sandor even ignored the muscles in his back protesting yet another awkward position he sat in. He didn’t give a fuck about Beric or his back as he retrieved blank paper and a fresh golf pencil.

 

He wrote more haphazardly than usual. His thoughts were less deliberate, and his handwriting was rough. The letter was shorter too, only long enough to explain the abrupt end to their phone call and assure Sansa that he wanted nothing so much as to see her. The thought of being face-to-face with her stilled his movements, and Sandor dropped the pencil to the desk.

 

He’d give the notion only passive entertainment and usually dismissed it as a pipe dream. Sansa was a nice girl, but he’d debated if her good graces extended from Devil Creek to Wichita Falls. The ideal outcome was Sansa suggesting it herself, without him prompting, cajoling, or flat-out asking, though he eventually would have.

 

With a faint smile tracing his lips, Sandor indulged the urge to read her letters and the sweet words she’d been paying him twice a week. He had the luxury of her voice now, the sound of his name on her mouth, and the captivating nuance in the way she spoke.

 

Her courtesies had waned too, but not for the ruse being up. Instead, Sansa shed a layer of shy reserve that asked polite questions and kept the tenor of discussion in the realm of the appropriate. Beneath that reserve and mask of polished manners, Sandor usually found the worst parts of people. Sansa was different and possessed a wealth of intriguing complexities.

 

With most women, he didn’t bother excavating the layers. He got what he needed from them in trysts that felt more transactional than intimate. He didn’t care about their family, what they did for a living, or if their boss was an asshole or not. He didn’t give a shit about their hopes or dreams. And they didn’t give a shit about him either. Only a few women had ever held his fascination long enough to plumb the depths, but the enchantment eventually wore off. He’d either find them rotten at the core or the relationship would run its course.

 

With Sansa, the ineffable existed in her letters. He struggled to place it and hoped it’d reveal itself if they ever met. She left more on the page than just pretty words and enthralling details of herself. One thing he knew for certain—kind and compassionate strength prevailed in her. Funny thing, she never boasted about it, but Sandor had pieced together the mystery of this girl who fascinated in unexpected ways. For the parts that remained missing, he wanted more and sensed they’d soon reach the bounds of their correspondences. Eventually, certain things could only be revealed in person.

 

Sandor dug through the papers on his desk. He flipped through parole paperwork and the few books he had to his name but hadn’t yet read. Notably absent were the letters from their usual place in the back corner. He’d remember if he’d moved them. Of course, he would. He wasn’t prone to forgetting something as significant as Sansa’s letters.

 

He retraced his search in the same spots. Once, then twice. With rising panic, he tore through the papers. His hands trembled, and he wracked his brain at where he might’ve misplaced them.

 

The faint smell of cigarette smoke wafted towards him, innocuous at first, but then the horror sunk in.

 

Sandor turned to Beric who perched against the wall. He’d ditched his Bible for a cigarette and matched Sandor’s eyes as he took a long drag.

 

Sandor flew from his seat and bound the scant distance across the cell. Beric didn’t flinch, only smirked in that same sickening and knowing way that Boros did. Sandor grabbed Beric by the front of his shirt and shoved him hard against the cinderblock wall.

 

“You son of a bitch! Where are they?”

 

Sandor didn’t care how loud he was or that his voice echoed through the cell block. The inmates in surrounding cells cheered and pounded on the bars in a rising and bellicose cacophony. Pressed against the wall, Beric spared enough breath for a quiet laugh but saved the rest to blow smoke in Sandor’s face.

 

He dumped Beric to the floor where the man broke with maniacal laughter. It rose above the savage howls that ripped through the cell block now with blood lust bursting at the seams.

 

Sandor shook his head. It was a bluff, a ruse. Beric wasn’t so fucking stupid to have pawned off Sansa’s letters for a pack of smokes. This was just another jab, a way to pull Sandor down into the depths. Beric didn’t need to. Sandor eagerly descended into rage, riding right into that fire as soon as he toppled his mattress to the floor.

 

Gone. The pictures were gone.

 

He ripped off the bed linens and tore the pillow from its case. Sweat beaded his brow and his head swam in a frenzied daze. No. Please no. Not this.

 

“Eye for an eye,” Beric goaded and pushed himself from the floor with the cigarette still between his lips. He lifted the corner of his mattress to reveal not one but three packs of cigarettes. “You took what was mine, so I took what was yours.”

 

In one violent motion, Sandor upended Beric’s mattress to the floor and ripped through the piles of letters underneath; hundreds, maybe more, in uneven stacks of lunatic ravings. With frenzied urgency, he searched for anything he could find. Her picture. One letter. Whatever could be salvaged from the carnage of this injustice.

 

“You ain’t gonna find any of it here,” Beric chuckled and the depraved undercurrent running through his voice said this was no bluff.

 

Sandor stopped. He stood and slowly turned to Beric. His stomach roiled with nausea, and bile hit the back of his throat in a horrid combination of wrath and loss. They worked in tandem, tearing at his resolve and what little of his composure remained.

 

“Who has them?” Sandor demanded on a panting breath. His nails cut painfully into the flesh of his calloused palms. “Who has them?” Sandor screamed when Beric hadn’t answered.

 

The man placidly took another drag from his cigarette and cocked his head to the side. He devoured the sight of Sandor unraveling with chest heaving and body trembling, wound up like a spring with no avenue for release.

 

“The boys have been out in the yard, talking about all the things they’d do to that girl, whether she likes it or not. Don’t matter to them.”

 

Sandor spared Beric only a moment of heinous reverie. The man stared fondly out the cell bars, but Sandor hurled himself at Beric. When his body slammed into the man, the cigarette flew from Beric’s mouth. With the wind knocked out of him, Beric gasped for breath.

 

A tangle on the floor, Sandor landed hits in the soft flesh of Beric’s belly. A crack came across Sandor’s face and with it the taste of blood in his mouth. He didn’t care. He rained fists down on the freak, fueled by pure rage and the notion that Sansa—beautiful, sweet Sansa—was the subject of such obscenity.

 

“I’ll fucking kill you!” Sandor raged, matched now in lunacy with the monster beneath him.

 

Straddling Beric, Sandor’s fist slammed into his cheek. The skin split with a spray of blood and the crunch of broken teeth. More. He wanted more. He’d squeeze every inch out of the maniac who wailed for help.

 

With one hand, Sandor pinned Beric to the ground by the neck. The man flailed and screeched. The cigarette had rolled to the edge of the cell, just in reach and its cherry ember beckoning. Sandor snatched it up.

 

Blood and sweat rolled down Sandor’s cheek as he lifted the cigarette and inched it nearer to Beric’s remaining eye. Only now did Sandor register the cell block in chaos; the blaring echoes and Beric’s voice lost in the sea of chants and cries. Madness. It was absolute madness.

 

Walk the line.

 

It wasn’t the thought that plucked Sandor out of the pandemonium. It wasn’t even a recollection of the warden’s words. The inner voice wasn’t his own. It was Sansa’s.

 

Disoriented and reeling, Sandor dropped the cigarette to the ground and let it roll through the bars and to the cell block beyond. He let go of Beric and stood, but the man’s bewildered stare turned dark and unnatural. Beric expelled something that sounded like a demonic growl, heaved himself from the floor, and tore across the cell to his own desk. With one arm, he swept off the disorganized and dusty stacks of books and papers.

 

He spun towards Sandor with the spork clenched in one trembling fist. His knuckles had gone white and his face appeared possessed with rage. The vein at his temple bulged and his eye had gone dark blue.

 

His eye.

 

He wielded the utensil, and Sandor lifted his hands in defense, but the assault he expected never came.

 

His eye.

 

Beric turned the stubby prongs towards his own face.

 

The walls pulsed. The fury rose, pounding and howling. The cellblock would split the earth itself open.

 

“What are you doing?” Sandor demanded over the horrible din. His blood pumped cold in his veins. The contrast to the heat still rolling off his skin left him dizzy. “What the fuck are you doing?”

 

With one quick jab, Beric buried the spork into his good eye and twisted hard. Something gelatinous spilled down his cheek, and Beric collapsed to the floor with a blood-curdling shriek.

 

“No!” Sandor screamed.

 

“Guards! Guards!” Beric cried and writhed like a man possessed in front of Sandor who froze with shock rendering his limbs useless and his mind stalling to comprehend.

 

Boots pounded against the ground outside Sandor’s cell, and three guards tore inside.

 

“No,” Sandor heaved, but his voice came rasping and thin. “I didn’t. No!”

 

“He blinded me!” Beric yowled between hyperventilated breaths as two guards dragged him from the cell.

 

A blinding blow cracked across the back of Sandor’s head. He collapsed to the ground but fought like mad for his consciousness. A tremendous force yanked him backwards and a guard forced him to his knees.

 

Before Sandor could fully register Boros in front of him and wielding his billy club, the man swung the club with all his might and landed a blow at Sandor’s ribs. The pain exploded through him and bone surely broke. Sandor doubled over, but a guard held Sandor’s arms up. Another hit cracked his side, but this time from the steel tip of Boros’s boot.

 

Whatever came over Sandor possessed him with red wrath. He wrenched his arms back and sent two guards tumbling to the floor. Sandor jumped to his feet and dodged Boros’s club with unusual grace. Boros stumbled backwards towards the open cell door. More guards sprinted in and the inmates descended further into the inky depths of abhorrent madness.

 

Grinding teeth and wild eyes, Boros swung again, but the club landed against Sandor’s palms. He gripped it hard. His strength was unmatched and Boros knew it as fear rippled through his wide eyes that gaped at Sandor. 

 

War. This was war. He’d have to fight. He wouldn’t get out alive if he didn’t at least try. He’d come back in a body bag like those boys missing limbs.

 

With one hard yank, Sandor pulled Boros towards him and head-butted the man. Boros’s nose exploded open with gushing blood. He dropped the billy club and lifted one trembling hand to his face.

 

The other guards descended on Sandor quicker than he could respond. He whipped his body back and forth to break their hold. A flurry of fists and clubs seized on him and forced him to the floor. He shielded his face but screamed when another hit slammed into his ribs.

 

Sandor lifted his head for only a moment. The ghastly fluorescent light blinded from up above and he squinted against it, but not before a fist came into focus and collided into the bridge of his nose. With a sharp pain between his eyes and the bitter taste of blood in his mouth, Sandor’s vision faded to black.

 

Usually, that black void held nightmares and visions from the hell he’d endured during war. This time only silence came, and the distant sense of being weightless and floating. A vision surfaced. In a two-toned Chevy, Clyde had killed the engine and stared with somber dread at the prison looming outside the windshield against a slate gray sky. Sandor sat in the passenger seat with his Stetson on his lap.

 

“This place ain’t about fixing the wicked,” Clyde had warned with a tremor in his voice. He sounded tired too. “You’re not wicked and they won’t try to fix you. Don’t let them tell you who you are. Just keep your head down and survive.”

 

The parting advice had been eerily similar to what Sandor had heard before being shipped off to war, and he wondered when it would end—the concerted effort it took to survive. Some folk didn’t have to think much about it. He supposed he wasn’t fated to be one of them. He’d nodded, handed off his hat to Griff, and figured the man was probably still young enough that Sandor would see him again in ten years.

 

Ten years. 

 

The vision faded, and the sensation returned to Sandor’s legs that dragged along a concrete floor. His side screamed with pain and his face throbbed to the point of numbness. Sandor’s eyes cracked open as they tossed him to the ground in another cell half the size of his normal quarters. The lights flickered, and he rolled to his uninjured side. With his hands shackled in front of him, he grunted and struggled to sit. 

 

Sandor squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, wide enough to take in his surroundings. He’d never known this place personally but had heard plenty of stories.

 

“No,” Sandor groaned. His throat was dry. He’d give anything for water. “No, not here.”

 

The others called it the gray palace on account of its dark gray walls, a metal slab sticking out of cinderblock to suffice as a bed, and the stainless-steel toilet in the back. The height of the ceiling created a haunting echo. No window, not even on the door, meant the room had no light except the feeble and fading fluorescent bulb up above.

 

Rumor had it a man once stayed in here for ten years and got his yard and shower time on his own but feared open spaces so thoroughly, he damn near had a heart attack out in the yard by himself. Another man spent five years locked up alone, no one to talk to and not much to do other than plan his own death, which he successfully carried out by slaughtering a guard.

 

Sandor had done nothing so vile, but he knew where he was and knew what it meant. The implications careened into him like a violent wave. Boros hovered near the door of the musty cell that reeked of piss. In his hand was a bucket he dropped to the floor.

 

“Warden ain’t too happy with you,” Boros informed with pleasure, positively in raptures. His eye would surely blacken from Sandor’s hit, but he had already wiped clean the blood from his face. “He’ll send word to your parole board about the stunt you pulled.” 

 

A hollow sense of defeat ravaged Sandor from within. It’d eat him alive in here and hound him in the darkness. He’d face a devastating reality all alone—the taste of freedom within reach, just a breath away, but gone on the fickle wind and by fate’s cruel hand.

 

A soft laugh escaped Boros but gained some weight and volume in a throaty chuckle that descended into his belly with booming hilarity. The man nearly doubled over. His jowls shook and, just when the echo had become unbearable, he lifted his head to Sandor.

 

“You’re locked up for beating a man within an inch of his life and…” Boros choked on sharp chortles and tears streamed down his fat cheeks. “Days of being granted parole you…” He gasped for breaths, barely able to speak. “You pluck out your cell mate’s eye and beat a guard!”

 

Sandor pushed himself against the back wall of the tiny, squalid space. “You know I didn’t do it.”

 

The insult to injury wouldn’t soon be over and he’d be forced to swallow it down, every fucking drop. Devastation came quick on the heels of heartache.

 

He once told Sansa Stark that no woman waited for him on the outside and she’d responded, with all her graceful and tender-hearted compassion, that that wasn’t true. She was on the outside; thinking of him, waiting for him, worrying after him. If only he’d held on for a little longer and not reacted the way he had, perhaps he’d know the flesh and blood comfort of the woman herself.

 

Boros composed himself and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. He patted his forehead and ruddy cheeks stained with tears. 

 

“Don’t matter what I think. No one saw what happened. Just you and Beric. It’s your word against his. What kind of lunatic would carve their own eye out?”

 

Sandor’s gaze snapped to Boros. “You know exactly what kind.”

 

“No. What I know is that you’d crack,” Boros gloated. The joy departed his eyes and left behind vicious hatred. “You’ve always put yourself above everyone else here. Turns out, you’re no better.”

 

Don’t let them tell you who you are.

 

Boros paced the width of the cell, all four feet of it, in staccato steps, and he stared up at the ceiling. 

 

“Whaddaya got? Another five years plus whatever comes from maiming Dondarrion?”

 

He halted and crouched in front of Sandor. Voice just above a whisper, every word came slow.

 

“Tell me again who the back-country inbred is. Your momma fuck that brother of yours to make you or what?”

 

Sparing no thought, Sandor spit in Boros’s pudgy face. The man sucked in a sharp breath and, in one quick motion, the back of his hand cracked across Sandor’s cheek. Shooting pain ripped through Sandor’s head.

 

Boros stood and turned to the metal bucket near the door but didn’t pick it up. Instead, he nudged it along the concrete with his foot until it was a few feet from Sandor.

 

“I tell you what,” Boros said. “I thought about sparing you this as a last gesture of goodwill. Seeing as how you just don’t know when to quit, I think it’s fitting we do this together.”

 

Bent over, Boros reached into the bucket and pulled out a matchbox. He gave it a shake as his lips peeled in a salacious smile. “Just you and me.”

 

No.

 

Sandor’s heart plummeted past his stomach now sick and through the floor where the cold seeped in. It must’ve gotten in his blood that now pulsed through his veins with a grim chill.

 

He dropped his eyes. He didn’t need to see. He already knew what this was and, in the periphery of his down-turned vision, Boros produced a bundle of envelopes. The border of roses was familiar to Sandor now and unmistakably Sansa’s letters. When he glanced up, Boros had her photographs too.

 

He might’ve begged and pleaded that the letters and pictures be spared. He’d do his time, whatever it ended up being, but he needed those to get through. And though solitary confinement was a cruel punishment in its own right, Sandor would gladly do his time in here too if it meant something of Sansa was waiting for him after.

 

He didn’t beg, but only because it was what Boros so clearly wanted. The man waited a beat longer than he should and stared at Sandor with silent anticipation of pleas for mercy. When that didn’t happen, the man slowly pulled Sansa’s letters from their envelopes, balled them up, and tossed them in the bucket. When he had a sufficient layer of kindling, Boros lit a match and dropped that in too. Slow at first, the flames consumed the letters and Sandor closed his eyes.

 

Gone.

 

All her sweet words—the one’s that brought him comfort, the only thing here that made him smile and reminded him he wasn’t forgotten—were gone. With the scent of burning paper, Sandor’s heart pounded a faster rhythm, drumming an awful beat that pulsed at his temples. He swore he felt the heat too; the flames close to his face.

 

Most of the time, Sandor ignored his scars, the worst of them having healed up with medical intervention but the lasting damage still visible. With the fire came the memories he pushed aside to live his life—the feel of flesh burning from bone; the smell; the sound of screaming. In the years he spent in war, those screams echoed again, louder and with more voices joining the choir—women burned alive, their bodies covering children who suffocated from smoke and a mother’s sacrifice. All these years, he fought a silent war inside himself.

 

I can’t do this. I can’t.

 

The memories threatened him and gathered behind the levee he’d built to keep them away. It’d topple over in here. All this time, he held it together and now it was coming apart. The levee would break, and he’d get swept away.

 

When he thought that time might be now, Sansa’s words surfaced within him.

 

“I think life brings us the things we need, when we need it. You mentioned whatever has grown between us. I too think of it often and how I had been wishing for you, Sandor Clegane. All this time, I wished for you. What a gift you are.”

 

It occurred to him then that Sansa’s letters didn’t just exist in the tangible that burned now. Just as much as she’d written them on linen stationery, she’d inscribed them in some haven of the heart, a place where fire couldn’t reach. That was the ineffable quality, he realized now; her words imperishable and, more strikingly, the compassion behind them had started to bring his wrath and pain to heel.

 

With a crumpling sound, Sandor cracked his eyes open. The flames had reached the top of the bucket where smoke billowed out. Boros set in with the rest of the letters, balling up each and tossing them in. On the last letter, he skimmed the page as Sandor looked on. His throat burned and chest ached with a heaviness he hadn’t felt in years.

 

“Last you’ll ever hear from her,” Boros said and held the letter above the bucket. “Hope you memorized all those words she wasted on a piece of shit like you.”

 

Don’t let them tell you who you are.

 

He dropped the letter, and Sandor watched it drift to the bucket where the flames eagerly consumed it.

 

“You ain’t getting letters from her no more. You won’t be sending them either. As far as she’s concerned, you died on this day.”

 

Sandor shifted uncomfortably in his spot and stared at his lap. His mouth filled with saliva and his eyes stung. The letters were gone now, and he would’ve been happier if Boros had just gutted him and left him on the floor to bleed out. It seemed a kinder fate.

 

Boros reached for the Polaroids but took a moment to study them, stoking Sandor’s fiery hatred once more. He must’ve given himself away. Boros’s eyes snapped to him with a silent warning.

 

“Last you’ll ever see of her,” he mumbled and jabbed both pictures towards Sandor.

 

“Take a good look at that pretty face. You’ll never see it. Maybe I’ll make a trip to Devil Creek to that bar she sings at. Might be she needs a man. Awful shame, her being there all alone. You heard about what’s happening? A killer on the loose; ripping apart young women just like her. A girl’s already gone missing in her town. They haven’t found the body yet.”

 

Sandor would’ve laughed—long and hard—at the thought of Boros rumbling into Devil Creek and slithering up to a divine creature like Sansa, as if she wouldn’t see right through his bullshit. That didn’t matter. He barreled past the opportunity to get his dig in and sat up straight, ignoring the searing pain at his side. He hadn’t heard about a killer and didn’t rightly care about Boros’s taunts either. They rolled right off as Sandor stared down the man.

 

“A killer,” Sandor repeated. “How long has it been going on?”

 

In an agitated huff, Boros tossed both Polaroids into the metal bucket with no further pomp and circumstance. “None of your concern now. Not like you can do anything about it.”

 

Boros watched Sandor and waited. A long bout of silence stretched between them. Small at first, a faint smile lifted the corner of Sandor’s mouth and Boros gaped at him in irate confusion.

 

“What the fuck do you have to smile about?” he snapped, but his outburst wasn’t that of a man incensed. It was the outburst of a child who hadn’t gotten his way. This was it. Something Sandor could sink his claws into, and Boros was stupid enough to walk right into it.

 

“That it?” Sandor tipped his head to the bucket and smirked, but not because the hole running through his chest hurt any less. He’d flipped the script to take back his power.

 

Boros seemed to recognize now that he’d just burnt up the only thing he had over Sandor and had rendered all that satisfaction to nothing more than ash. Sure as the sun would set on Sandor’s heartache and loss, he’d gained something too—the upper hand that only a man who has lost everything can claim. With nothing left to lose, Sandor was more dangerous now than ever, and that realization seemed to dawn on Boros. The man picked up the bucket of dying embers and backed towards the cell door.

 

“Enjoy the silence,” Boros seethed and spared one final glance at Sandor, perhaps hoping to find a paper-thin bluff in tatters and Sandor in tears.

 

Instead, Sandor lifted his shackled hands and raised one middle finger in a last stand of defiance. Furious at having lost the last word and possibly this battle, Boros slammed the door shut.

 

The shifting tide brought with it another unexpected blessing—Sandor had conquered a piece of those flames and they too had lost a bit of their power. He’d might’ve lost the letters, but not the sentiment behind them. Somewhere in Devil Creek, sweet Sansa Stark was thinking of him and waiting for him, and all he’d really lost was the physical rendering of that blooming affection.

 

If he closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall, he could still hear her voice, trace her face in his memories, and conjure what she might say to him now, the comfort she’d give.

 

Sandor climbed onto the metal slab and spread out. He stared up at the void above him, but a grisly thought lingered. By the time a guard came, unshackled his hands, and served him a meal that could scarcely pass as food, the thought still haunted him. A killer in a small town meant Sansa might be in trouble and that above all else, including his own freedom, galvanized Sandor’s resolve.

 

“I think life brings us the things we need, when we need it.”

 

He’d crossed paths with Sansa for a reason, and it wasn’t for their end to come like this. For the first time in so long, Sandor surrendered to fate and, more significantly, to faith. Not faith in God or some other bullshit, but in her; faith that she was right, faith that this wasn’t the end, and faith that he’d find his way to her come hell or high water.

Chapter Text

                                                                                           

                                                                                           

“I have to make a phone call,” Sansa announced in the diner but was met with comical silence; the kind where everyone stopped and stared all at once. 

 

Jeyne smiled politely with a coffee carafe in hand and a pencil behind her ear. The line cook gawked with worried curiosity and spatula hovering over the grill. Even the family in the corner booth turned to look. They’d rolled up in a station wagon with Tennessee plates, all stretching and moaning and the man of the household keeping quiet watch over the parking lot. The Texas plains were infamous these days and travelers didn’t linger long.

 

“Well, alright then,” Larry the line cook chuckled, and the diner resumed its activity.

 

Sansa dug through her apron’s pocket for the phone number she’d gotten from the operator and scribbled on scrap paper. She squinted at the digits where a “4” might’ve been a “9” and punched in the number on the diner’s phone.

 

As the line rang, Sansa ducked around the corner and down the narrow hall that led to the bathrooms. The phone cord stretched to its limits and, with each ring, the doubts seeped in deeper than she could’ve imagined.

 

What am I doing?

 

She was about to hang up and consider this just a silly endeavor, but the line picked up.

 

“Wichita Falls Correctional Institution. Inmate Visitation Department. Rita speaking.”

 

The woman on the other end spoke in curt tones that snipped off the ends of her words. She didn’t sound rude exactly, just exhausted with the long, languid sigh she gave.

 

“Hi Rita, I’m calling because I’d like to arrange a visit with an inmate,” Sansa chirped with all her courtesies put to good use. “Are you the right person to speak to for that?”

 

“Name?” The woman demanded and apparently had far fewer courtesies to spare. Rustling papers and distant laughter drifted through the phone.

 

Sansa dampened the merriment in her voice. “My name is Sansa Stark, ma’am.”

 

“No, love, the inmate’s name,” Rita said with sympathetic condescension, the verbal equivalent to a pat on the head.

 

Sansa cleared her throat and stood tall with her shoulders squared. Not that it mattered.

 

“Oh, um, Sandor Clegane.” A smile bloomed as his full name eased off her lips. “I don’t have his inmate number.”

 

“Hold please.”

 

The line fell silent before Sansa could thank Rita for her courtesy, a subtle jab at the lack thereof. Eternity passed and Sansa leaned against the wall. The woman from Tennessee and her young daughter headed for the bathroom. Sansa smiled sweetly at them and smiled again, though a little less sweet, ten minutes later when they retreated to their table and she was still on hold.

 

A sinking feeling took root. Maybe Rita had given up and perhaps she should too. Maybe this was a sign just to leave it well enough alone. Two weeks ago, her phone call with Sandor had ended abruptly. It was the last she’d heard from him. Her letters since then had gone unanswered.

 

With each passing day, Sansa would check the mail with dwindling joy. It’d become harder to explain away the sudden end to their correspondence. Self-doubts quickly evolved into hallow dread that something terrible had happened to him.

 

When Rita returned to the line, Sansa sucked in a sharp breath.

 

“That inmate is serving additional disciplinary action and won’t get his visitation rights back until next week.”

 

Additional disciplinary action. Sansa turned the phrase over in her mind and grappled with it long enough that Rita intervened.

 

“Solitary confinement, ma’am.” Her monotone voice veered towards the dismal. “For your awareness, he’s not receiving mail either. I see you’ve sent him letters. If you want to come next week, I’ll get you on the books.”

 

The weight of the world lifted, and Sansa released a heavy sigh. Weeks’ worth of tension and worry fled her body and left her feeling weightless and woozy. Her heart soared at the prospect of meeting him, but her stomach sank at what Sandor must’ve been through these last few weeks. It only solidified her resolve. She stood upright and bounced lightly in place with the phone cord whacking the wall in response.

 

“Yes, thank you so much. That’d be wonderful!”

 

“Now if this is a conjugal visit, there are a few more steps involved and you’ll have to wait a bit longer,” Rita informed rather plainly. 

 

“Conjugal?” Sansa repeated. She’d never heard that word before. It sounded odd and unformed coming out of her mouth.

 

Rita paused before speaking again. “Are you looking to have relations with him?”

 

“Well, yes, why else would I come see him?” Sansa replied with a bright giggle to mask any offense Rita might take.

 

It seemed a strange question to her. Wasn’t that the point of a visit—to relate and converse, get to know one another face-to-face? Rita spared no laughter, though. The other end of the line went dead for a fraction longer than what was normal.

 

“Sexual relations, Ms. Stark,” Rita sighed into the phone. “Conjugal visits are for intimate activities.”

 

“Oh!” Sansa yelped. “No. Yes…well, no.” She squeezed her eyes shut. Her tongue was heavy in her mouth and her cheeks burned. “No. I just want to see him. Not in that way. Well, I mean…for now…no, just a regular visit.”

 

She shook her head that swam just thinking about these conjugal activities. What if Rita hadn’t caught onto Sansa’s confusion and signed her up for a visit like that anyway?

 

If nothing else, the gaffe broke the ice and Rita released a hearty chuckle, one that even Sansa could tell wasn’t at her expense. When the woman spoke again, it was kinder and gentler too.

 

“Next Monday at five in the evening is the soonest he’s eligible for a visit. Tuesday morning is also available if that works better. You’ll have thirty minutes on account of his recent discipline. In a few weeks, he’ll get his full hour back, if you’d like to wait until then.”

 

Sansa scanned the old photographs of Devil Creek that lined the wall. Her schedule scarcely changed and yet all the days and hours she normally worked fled her mind as the reality set in. A week from now she could be sitting across from Sandor, as close as they’d ever been.

 

She had picked up the Monday evening shift, though, and worked Tuesday mornings too. Sansa glanced at Jeyne who looked dead on her feet after working back-to-back shifts. All the waitresses refused to work nights. The fair solution—they rotated those shifts. Three waitresses had already quit, finding that compromise unappetizing and unacceptable.

 

“Ms. Stark?” Rita pressed. “Will either of those times work for you?”

 

“Next Monday is fine,” she replied before better judgment could stop her. She’d figure out the logistics later. “Thank you, ma’am. Will…” Sansa turned her back to the diner and lowered her voice. “Will he know that I’m coming?”

 

“He’ll know he has a visitor.” Rita sounded uncertain and something in her voice darkened too, all the previous levity spent. “Given the circumstances, I’m not sure he’ll get word it’s you, specifically.”

 

“Oh.” Sansa slumped against the wall, dejected though she couldn’t say why. Part of her thought it might be nice to surprise him, but a greater part sensed what Rita left unsaid. He’d suffered the last few weeks without her letters and with whatever punishment he’d endured. What she wanted now was for him to find comfort in knowing she’d be there.

 

“I tell you what,” Rita mumbled as if revealing a secret. “I can’t make any promises, but I’ll see what I can make happen. I have no doubt he’ll need some good news coming out of solitary.”                                                                                                                                                


On the verge of tears, Jeyne handed off the leather overnight bag. Sansa tossed it in the Cutlass’s back seat and shoved her sunglasses to the top of her head, still not sure why Jeyne insisted on the fanfare of seeing her off.

 

“Don’t look so sad,” Sansa laughed and shut the back door. “I’ll only be gone for the night.”

 

Jeyne nodded with a weak smile, though it was strong enough to drive away emergent tears. “I just worry about you.”

 

Sansa examined the empty neighborhood street, and Jeyne’s eyes followed. The better part of July had burned away with sweltering heat and the occasional wild storm. Fear had robbed Devil Creek of summer’s sweet joy—carefree nights and leisure-filled days.

 

Just north of town, the missing girl was found in a tangle of weeds by the railroad tracks. News traveled fast, and the coroner confirmed she’d died only hours before being found. The implication went unspoken but hardly unnoticed—four weeks missing, but only four hours dead. Killing wasn’t the maniac’s only thrill.

 

Suspicion blanketed the town heavier than ever and, to make matters worse, the stranger had rambled in during Jeyne’s shift. She’d served him coffee but trembled so fiercely she spilled it all over his pancakes. He’d only laughed about it, but the poor girl was convinced he’d added her to a list of victims because of the transgression.

 

Jeyne stuffed her fingers in the pockets of her high-waisted shorts. “You hear anything else from the sheriff?”

 

Sansa fiddled with her keys and shook her head. Jeyne asked this question every other day, as much for her own comfort as Sansa’s.

 

“They still say there’s nothing they can do about it and that it’s not illegal for someone to be calling me.”

 

“They’re not just phone calls. You’re being harassed!” Jeyne protested but quieted her voice when it traveled an unusual distance down the desolate street. She was preaching to the choir. “Given what’s been going on, they need to take this more seriously.”

 

Sansa drew a heavy breath and adjusted the straps of her powder blue dress that tied at the shoulders.

 

“I know,” she agreed with a shrug. “That’s what I told them, but they said they’re stretched thin and are busy, and have no time to run down some silly late-night calls. I’m sure they’ll find the time eventually.”

 

There it was again. Sansa undersold the seriousness to Jeyne, Theon, and even Harwin who ranted about all sorts of technology the sheriff could use to identify the caller. The calls had come more frequently than Sansa let on; not just once, but three times now and always the same. Soon.

 

Sansa’s sound bite—it was just a sick joke, someone using the terror and uncertainty to entertain themselves. In reality, she hardly slept well most nights and, if she turned inward long enough to listen to the knowing voice inside, it told her this was more than just a joke.

 

“Are you gonna tell Sandor when you see him?” Jeyne asked. She pulled a hand from her pocket and shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun.

 

“I don’t know. There’s nothing he can do about it, and I wouldn’t want to worry him.”

 

That seemed to be the right answer on paper where logic prevailed and Sansa considered herself sensible. In her heart, she wanted to confide in him and gain some comfort in whatever he might say about it. Sansa chewed her lip and rested her hands on her hips. If nothing else, she had a long car ride to think it over.

 

Jeyne gazed into the back seat at the leather bag and two batches of home-made chocolate chip cookies.

 

“I still can’t believe you’re doing this.” She flashed a doting smile, one that left Sansa awash in memories.

 

In the weeks before Sansa left Devil Creek, Jeyne would smile at her this way, a smile replete with distant admiration. Jeyne had confessed how much she envied Sansa’s bravery and wanderlust for new horizons. Sansa had collected the compliment but knew it wasn’t really bravery or wanderlust that sent her to Kansas City. It was a foolhardy indulgence in her own naivete about dreams and love and a golden cowboy who’d give her the glittering life she was meant for.

 

Sansa dropped her eyes to her nude platform sandals. Her red polished toes matched her fingernails. 

 

“You think he’ll turn me away or something?” Sansa laughed and nervously tucked a lock of straightened hair behind her ear.

 

She lifted her gaze and searched Jeyne’s eyes for trepidation or the words the girl might never say because she was too polite and because Sansa was too far down this path to turn back now. Sansa found none of that, only mild concern and those stray bits of envy again.

 

“No.” Jeyne shook her head. “I just think showing up unannounced is like turning up to a party without an invitation.”

 

“It’s not a party, Jeyne. It’s prison.”

 

The tension broke with Jeyne’s girlish laughter that Sansa matched. Jeyne squeezed her in a tight embrace. When she let go, she took Sansa by both hands.

 

“Have you asked for signs?”

 

With Jeyne’s question, Sansa contemplated the gold cross around the girl’s neck. Jeyne looked for signs in everything and half the time found nothing.

 

Sansa shook her head. “I don’t believe in all that.”

 

“Well, I’ll pray you get one anyway,” Jeyne whispered. “Are you nervous?”

 

Sansa nodded softly and reevaluated her sun dress—light linen, ruffled at the bust with a hem of eyelet lace and falling just above the knees. A brown leather belt cinched her waist.

 

“Very,” Sansa admitted and forced a smile.

 

The sun beat hot against her skin now flush and her heart thrummed a faster beat. She’d vanquished her doubts all morning and staved them off as she packed her bag and combed her hair until it shined in long, glossy sheets of auburn. It danced on the breeze now.

 

Jeyne lifted a hand and lovingly brushed the hair from Sansa’s cheek.

 

“Why? He sounds smitten with you already. It’s not like you’re going there to win the man over. That’d be like retracing your steps.”

 

Sansa studied the crack in her driveway’s concrete between them. The question was tangled up with others—why she was going in the first place, what she hoped to gain, and where this was going. Unearthing the answer to one meant ripping up all the others, the roots and stems all bundled together.

 

She couldn’t meet Jeyne’s imploring stare and instead looked over the girl’s shoulder and across the street to where Mrs. Miller peered out the window.

 

“I left this town certain of who I was—Miss Texas, marrying into an oil family, on my way to being a singer—and I came back untethered to all those identities and not knowing a damn thing about myself anymore.”

 

She shifted her eyes to Jeyne and spoke to the heart of it all because it wasn’t as if Sansa didn’t know what this came down to. She’d been staring down that truth all along and all alone.

 

“I’m nervous because I want him to see me for who I am now; not who I used to be or even who I wanted to be. And I want it to be enough.”

 

Jeyne shuffled forward and regarded Sansa with heartfelt sincerity.

 

“Every version of you has always been enough,” she murmured. “Now get gone and drive safe.”

 

With a bright smile and the nerves morphing to butterflies in her belly, Sansa hugged her friend and yanked open the car door. She turned to Jeyne who was already retreating to her car parked on the street.

 

“Thank you for covering my shift,” Sansa hollered. “If that strange man comes around…”

 

“I know. Larry’s looking out,” Jeyne laughed, but Sansa discerned the undercurrent of unease well enough. “Call the diner when you get to your motel for the night.”

 

“I will.” Sansa sealed the promise on a kiss she blew from her fingertips. She climbed into the car and honked as she passed Jeyne.

 

The three-hour drive commenced with nervous tedium. Sansa tapped the wheel and sang along to her favorite songs on the radio until the station cut in and out with static. In the last hour, she drove in pensive silence but with her mind quieted. Perhaps she’d spent all her mental currency on worrying about whether this was right and if he’d even want to see her. She never got her answer from him but, if Sandor turned her away, she’d chalk it up to grossly misunderstanding his letters.

 

The stretch of highway connecting Devil Creek and Wichita Falls possessed nothing all that fascinating. Wide stretches of open land extended as far as Sansa could see. The road eventually narrowed to two lanes with an overgrown grassy median in the middle. Along the way, Sansa glimpsed abandoned farmhouses and barns, some of which had collapsed in on themselves, just a pile of sun-bleached wood with tall grass poking through.

 

She even saw one large dilapidated mansion surrendered to time and the elements. With its stained-glass windows partially smashed out, the palatial structure had decayed away in shades of gray, just like those prairie houses. Sansa wondered who would’ve deserted such beauty and left it to rot.

 

So much seemed forgotten with time around here—the billboards with entire panels missing and the remaining ones faded; houses and farmsteads left abandoned; entire existences wiped away with passing years. As the miles slipped past, the highway took on a haunting desolation and something eerie seemed to shift in the grass and shrubbery that swayed with rising wind.

 

Sansa pulled off the highway towards Wichita Falls as clouds rolled in, thick as mud and dark as ash with a storm gathering on the horizon. At a stoplight in town, she grabbed the map from the passenger seat and traced the remaining route with her finger. Up the road, to the left, and then a right.

 

She navigated those turns with her stomach in knots, palms slick with sweat, and lightheaded as if she couldn’t quite catch her breath. The prison loomed at the end of a cracked road dotted with potholes. The blocky monolith had no features to spare, just small slits for windows and three layers of fences with curls of barbed wire at the top. Sansa approached the visitor’s gate and announced herself with a put-on smile, but the bundle of nerves had already snowballed in her belly. Her voice shook and so too did her hands that gripped the wheel.

 

In the parking lot outside the visitor entrance, Sansa killed the engine and sat in silence. She stared at her hands in her lap and could almost visualize her resolve dissolving away as the doubts crept in again. What am I doing?

 

He hadn’t asked her to come and showing up unannounced and uninvited flew in the face of all her manners. It’s prison, not a party.

 

The reminder was enough to stopper her worries. Sansa adjusted the rear-view mirror, slathered on a layer of lip gloss, and dabbed more perfume on her wrists.

 

In the end, the last bit was for naught. After a lengthy check-in process, Sansa waited behind thick plexiglass. Dividers on either side of her offered feeble privacy and Sansa could hear the other visitors—parents, siblings, spouses, children—shifting in the metal chairs that made a raucous noise against a polished concrete floor.

 

She hadn’t known what to expect. What pie-in-the-sky expectations she’d cobbled together on the drive up, Rita had swiftly shot down. Sansa had come in smiling like an idiot and carrying two containers of homemade cookies. She’d handed one off to Rita—a short and stout blonde—and thanked her for her kindness, but Rita only stared blankly at Sansa, clearly having forgotten who the hell she was.

 

The woman accepted the cookies gratefully enough but informed Sansa that prisoners weren’t allowed homemade food items. Sansa had stood on the other side of the counter, flush with embarrassment and laughing at her own expense. Rita had handed off a visitor badge and asked Sansa to fill out paperwork. With blasé disinterest, the woman also told Sansa that she’d be meeting Sandor behind a partition.

 

And just like that, Rita had deflated Sansa’s visions of turning up with cookies and sitting next to Sandor, smelling sweet like lemon cakes and perhaps even holding his hand too. It’s prison, not a picnic, was just as apt a saying, and Sansa should’ve taken her own wisdom to heart. The girlish simplicity of her vision was at tremendous odds with the reality now.

 

With her legs tightly crossed, Sansa’s top knee bounced incessantly. It tapped against the underside of a small counter butted up against the plexiglass. The other side of the glass was empty, just a mirror image with a phone, a small counter, metal chair, and white cinderblock wall. Fluorescent lights flickered up above.

 

Something in the sterility intensified her nerves. It left her nauseous and dizzy. She fiddled with the bottom hem of her dress. The skirt was faintly wrinkled for having been in the car for so long.

 

She ran trembling fingers through her hair and cleared her throat. Without a clock, she waited in timeless limbo, each moment passing with anticipation and unbridled anxious energy running wild within her and ravaging what composure she had left. Breathe.

 

The reminder was futile. Her palms were clammy and breaths shallow. Just breathe. Relax. Breathe.

 

Without prelude or warning, a buzzer sounded on the other side of the glass. Something heavy slammed against the wall, a door perhaps. Sansa sat up straight. Her heart pounded. One by one, inmates dressed in orange jumpsuits passed the glass. A few lingered before moving on and Sansa waited with tattered breaths passing parted lips.

 

On it went.

 

Surely, there couldn’t be any more inmates. Sansa leaned back enough to peer beyond the partition and counted each stall of visitors. Ten or more stalls for the ten or more inmates who’d already poured in. Movement in her periphery caught her attention. A form loomed on the other side of the glass.

 

She wouldn’t have had to look. Sansa intuited that Sandor Clegane had a presence to him—unmistakable, heavy, and filling whatever space he occupied, big or small. A man like him commanded and consumed the room.

 

Sansa drew a deep breath, anything to calm the tremors that seized her limbs. She turned to look. Sandor was quite possibly the tallest man she’d ever seen and a solid block of muscle. His form blotted out the light with a broad chest and even broader shoulders.

 

He whipped the metal chair from the counter. The muscles in his arms rippled with tension and he sat in what looked to be an uncomfortable position. His hulking body dwarfed the metal chair and his legs were probably stuffed beneath the small counter. Long, jet black hair tumbled far past his shoulders and suited him quite nicely.

 

It wasn’t his height or imposing build that sent a shock wave through Sansa, stealing her breath and stilling her movements. She’d envisioned him for so long and everything she willed into existence with her thoughts and sheltered in her heart fell short of the man staring through the glass.

 

Sansa matched his gray eyes, mesmerized by the sheer intensity behind them. Neither made a move for the telephone. Suspended in time of which they had so little, they each savored the sight. Unbridled, their respective gazes roamed over the other. Manners fell away. She didn’t care. It was him. Even if he told her he hadn’t wanted to see her, just this moment made it well worth it all.

 

The unexpected intimacy left Sansa reeling, but she noticed now—or at least paid deliberate attention to—a patch of scars on the left side of Sandor’s face from his hairline to his chin. The skin was a darker pink and held a subtle shine. The unmarred side of his face was decidedly masculine and handsome—strong and square jaw, sharp cheekbones, and a nose she could tell was hooked despite the splint that covered it.

 

The urgency set in now; as if her feet had finally touched the ground and she remembered what this was all about. Without breaking eye contact, Sansa reached for the phone and Sandor did the same. Both her hands clung to the receiver as she pressed it to her ear.

 

“Hi,” Sansa breathed on a shaky exhale and smiled with a thrill she hadn’t felt in years. “Are you surprised?”

 

Sandor didn’t quite smile back, just slowly nodded in thunderstruck wonderment and a smirk that gently lifted one corner of his mouth.

 

“That doesn’t even begin to cover it,” he said on a deep rumble, every bit of him coalescing together now. Sansa had received just pieces of him in his letters and glued them together the best she could, but only managed an approximation. The details dazzled her now—his voice; his presence; his form; the way he looked at her as if she were a phantasm apt to disappear if he so much as blinked. 

 

“I never thought I’d see this day,” he whispered, and his eyes sunk to the counter when a pained expression surfaced. 

 

Sansa scrambled to drive it away. “I know our phone call was cut short and maybe you didn’t want to see me, but I—”

 

“No,” he interjected and left no margin for misinterpretation in the way he spoke or how he looked at her now. “I wanted you here,” he assured. “I want you here, little bird,” he corrected to account for the present, the two of them face-to-face now.

 

A shiver ran down Sansa’s spine as she watched her nickname form on his mouth. He licked his bottom lip and evaluated her, but his appraisal was different. A smile spread across his lips. No man had ever looked at her this way—lustful to be sure, but with deep satisfaction and awe, a veneration of sorts.

 

Sandor leaned forward and rested one arm on the counter with his other elbow propped next to it. Beneath his eyes, purple bruises had faded to yellow.

 

“You’re hurt,” Sansa remarked softly and mimicked his movement. She scooted forward as close as she could to the glass. The edge of the counter dug against her ribcage.

 

Sandor shrugged, and not in some facade of strength. Physical pain seemed to register little with him. “Just a broken nose, and a few bruised ribs. Nothing for you to worry about.”

 

His gaze fell to her lips before wandering to her eyes again. With that sweep, Sansa’s pulse rose. She liked the way he looked at her; no stolen glances and entirely enticing with how he stared as long as he damn well pleased. Beyond the brazen, there was raw tenderness that matched what she’d discerned in his letters and had heard in his voice.

 

“What happened?” she asked. “I heard you were in solitary.”

 

Sandor’s eyes narrowed as he settled back in his seat, obviously perplexed that she’d have this detail. In his letters, he spared little of his life here and used the space to focus on her.

 

Sansa cleared her throat, flustered at the thought that she’d pried too much. “They didn’t say for what,” she added quickly.

 

“I was defending your honor, believe it or not,” Sandor chuckled. His laugh was warm and deep, and Sansa fought the instinct to close her eyes and let the sound wash over her. “How’s that for those cowboys you seem to love?”

 

The last bit came faintly mocking. In one of her letters, Sansa had confessed her affinity for real cowboys—salt of the earth men who were strong and brave; both wild and generous of spirit. She’d also bemoaned Rhinestone cowboys—the pretty boys from Houston and Dallas who liked to look the part with a Stetson on their head and Luccheses on their feet but took no interest in being the kind of man worthy of the distinction.

 

Sandor’s response had stuck with her. His words had been apt as always and striking at the heart of the matter: 

 

“A lot of men ride in that long shadow of what a real cowboy is. When the noon sun comes and that shadow disappears, I think you’ll find only city boys and shit heads are what’s left.”

 

Sansa smiled at him again. Head tilted, her hair tumbled from her shoulder. “I’d say you shouldn’t have, but it looks too late for that now.”

 

The capricious nature of Sandor’s gaze revealed itself again. His eyes traced her features with studious concentration as though he were memorizing. She did the same with him, though her hands still trembled, and skin felt flush despite goosebumps prickling her arms.

 

“You drove all this way to see me,” he said. “Now that you’ve gotten a good look, I can’t imagine you think it was worth the hassle.”

 

He laughed again, rough and sardonic, but contemplated his fingers that tapped against the counter.

 

His scars, Sansa realized. Of course. He had never truly answered her when she asked what he looked like and didn’t have a picture to send either. The reticence on the matter fell into place now.

 

“That’s not true at all,” Sansa insisted and the firmness in her voice drew his attention. “You’re so handsome, Sandor. Your scars suit you.”

 

He barked another laugh but stared at her incredulously. “I’ve never heard that take before.”

 

Sandor earned his experiences. The trouble with pretty boys were the tall tales of valor and bravery that didn’t match their perfectly put together lives. And if Sansa weren’t still stumbling over her words with her heart pumping a frantic beat, she might’ve told Sandor that.

 

“There’s a first time for everything, I guess,” was all she could manage with a breathy exhale. 

 

When his eyes roved over her body again, the intensity of desire had returned. “Yes, there is.”

 

It took everything she had to meet his eyes and not for fear or disgust like he might’ve assumed. Sansa studied his scars, and Sandor let her. He didn’t look away or hide—there wasn’t anywhere to go anyhow—but Sansa knew he was watching and waiting for some breach in her courtesy where disappointment or repulsion broke through.

 

“Did it happen in the war?” Sansa asked when the curiosity got the better of her.

 

Sandor’s jaw clenched and irritation flashed in his eyes. “Why does everybody fucking assume that?” 

 

“I’m so sorry,” Sansa murmured to assuage his sudden harshness. “I shouldn’t have assumed.”

 

A soft sigh rustled through the receiver, and Sandor seemed to toil over something. A heavy creased formed between his brows, now pulled together. He opened his mouth to speak but thought the better of it, hesitating over whatever rested on his tongue.

 

“You can tell me anything you want to,” Sansa soothed and leaned closer to the glass.

 

Sandor looked towards the door from which he’d entered, and, for a moment, Sansa assumed he was content to not tell her much, to keep his secrets and move past whatever was suddenly so insurmountable between them. It rested heavy and formidable like a boulder, and Sansa opened her mouth to change the subject, but Sandor finally spoke.

 

“No, it wasn’t the war,” he said and looked to her again. “My brother did this to me when I was a kid.”

 

“I didn’t know you have a brother,” Sansa replied, uncertain of how to navigate this new bit of information.

 

“No reason you would.” Sandor shrugged and shifted his gaze momentarily. His Adam’s apple bobbed with a hard swallow. “I never told you. I don’t talk about him.”

 

Sandor stiffened, his spine rigid and jaw set firm, but just as Sansa was about to assure him that he didn’t have to talk about his brother, Sandor revealed more.

 

“I was eight. I’d gotten into his set of cowboys and Indians toys. He was older, never played with them. They just sat on a shelf in his bedroom. I reasoned it was a waste and figured if he didn’t know, there was no harm in playing with them myself. Well, he found me with them and dragged me kicking and screaming to the fireplace. He shoved my face into the embers still hot enough to do this.”

 

He pointed to his scars and, if he felt better for having exposed what was obviously a dark and agonizing secret, Sansa wouldn’t know. Face impassible, Sandor retreated behind his reserve again. Sansa shook her head and gathered what words she could.

 

“Sandor, that’s horrible. I can’t even imagine. I’m so sorry.” It hardly seemed enough, and Sansa felt the sting of tears. “Where is he now?”

 

“Where he belongs,” Sandor sneered with smoldering anger behind his words. “He was a bull rider, well-known in the San Antonio circuit for riding the meanest bulls in Texas. The dumb ass got himself skewered during a rodeo. He bled out right there for everyone to see.”

 

Sandor stared fondly at the ceiling with a grim smile spreading across his lips. “When I got the news, I celebrated with the best whiskey I could find. The night he died some part of me came alive, just in time to be shipped off to war.”

 

When she thought he might grieve his lot in life, Sandor chuckled again and shook his head, perhaps perplexed at the irony of it all but claiming what humor in it he could. Behind that partition of humor, Sansa discerned the shape of what remained.

 

She lifted a hand and pressed it to the glass. The gesture quieted Sandor and, when his laughter faded, he stroked with one finger where her palm was. Locked at the eyes, the unspoken passed unfazed and unabated between the glass, the only barrier between them now. If only it could fall away. Sandor nodded slowly, as if he’d heard her thought.

 

“Enough of that,” he murmured with a doting smile, this one meant for her because his bitterness fled and there was that tenderness again. The sweet flutter of butterflies emerged in Sansa’s belly once more. “You didn’t come all this way for me to tell you sad stories.”

 

“You can tell me any stories you want. I’ll always listen.” Sansa replied on a soft breath. “You wanna hear something funny?”

 

“As a matter of fact, yes, I do,” Sandor replied and reclined in his seat when Sansa pulled her hand from the glass. He appeared more at ease now, as if that great big boulder between them had been worn down to a pebble and kicked away. 

 

“I brought you cookies, but they confiscated them,” Sansa giggled with a wave of giddiness. “What was I thinking? Of course, they did. Who brings cookies to a prison?”

 

“Too few in this world. A woman like you.” The statement came with a different brand of heaviness, but no loss of longing. “It worked out. I don’t want your cookies.”

 

“Yes, you do,” Sansa teased with a coquettish smile. The nerves had melted away and left behind a pleasured buzz and the desire to be closer.

 

“Sansa Stark,” Sandor said her name long and slow and leaned forward in his seat. His eyes darkened with delight. “Already calling my bluff.  Yes, I’ll happily eat your cookies.”

 

He bit his bottom lip and the grunt he gave was faint, but Sansa saw the sentiment behind it plain enough. If looks could consume, he would eat her alive right now, and she surmised she’d enjoy every bit of it. 

 

The heat crept down Sansa’s chest that subtly heaved with quickened breaths and earned Sandor’s attention.

 

“I just want to look at you,” he veritably groaned. He gripped the phone receiver tight enough that his knuckles flushed white.

 

The attention he lavished on her might’ve once made Sansa nervous or eager to flee. She’d had her fill of men devouring her with lascivious gazes. But Sandor’s empowered in a way and emboldened her now to toss her hair behind her shoulders. Her dress wasn’t exactly low cut, but in a shameless gesture, Sansa tugged lightly at the bust to reveal a supple curve of cleavage.

 

“Fuck,” Sandor sighed and ran one hand over his mouth. “You are something. You know that? I’ll be sleeping well tonight.” 

 

“I hope you will. I’m sure it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep here.”

 

Sansa only meant to be supportive and sympathetic, but Sandor broke with a rumbling laugh at a joke Sansa wasn’t quite following.

 

“I heard you didn’t get my last few letters,” she said. “I was worried about you.”

 

“Don’t be. They took all the other letters and pictures you sent too. I got nothing of you here.”

 

Grief seemed to fall over Sandor like a shadow he couldn’t escape, so he shrugged and shook his head as if he’d accepted that cruel fate. He hadn’t, Sansa could tell, and the pain it imparted ran deep and enduring in him.

 

“You always have me here,” Sansa murmured and cast an imploring gaze at him through the glass. What she wouldn’t give to crawl right through and into his arms. “Remember what I said in that first letter? You’re not forgotten. I didn’t forget you. I was never going to just let it go and forget.”

 

Her words must’ve resonated. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. When he opened them again, he lifted his hand to the glass. Sansa pressed her palm to the other side and smiled at how large his hand was compared to hers. Neither spoke for now. Words wouldn’t do the moment justice anyhow. Somethings just couldn’t be spoken.

 

“I’ll just have to send you more letters and pictures, I suppose,” Sansa finally broke in.

 

“Yes, you will,” Sandor said matter-of-factly, and the shift in tone served as an appropriate segue to another somber change in his demeanor. “Since you’re here, flesh and blood, I need to ask you something and I need you to tell me the truth.”

 

The look in his eyes bid Sansa’s heart to beat a faster rhythm. “Of course, anything,” she responded on a voice drawn thin.

 

“I heard there’s been trouble where you live. Something about a girl gone missing and others turning up murdered in nearby towns.”

 

Sandor evaluated Sansa closely, and she knew he saw the shift in her demeanor as well—the way her back pulled away from the chair, her lips parted, brows furrowed, and perhaps even the fear behind her eyes.

 

“Yeah, it’s a shame.” Sansa evened out her voice and twirled the phone cord around her finger. “They found the girl from Devil Creek.” 

 

She dropped her eyes and shook her head at the last bit. Sandor shifted in his seat and cleared his throat.

 

“I don’t mean to be an asshole, but I don’t care about the other girls in Devil Creek,” he intoned sharply. “I’m asking about you. You haven’t had any problems, have you?”

 

Tell him. Sansa loosed a slow sigh, but wavered. The truth bubbled up at the back of her throat, but she bit her bottom lip and stifled the urge to divulge it all, all the things she’d been holding onto for the sake of others. That brief hesitation was more than enough for Sandor to see right through her. She already knew he was a perceptive man, but his gaze penetrated more than just the glass between them.

 

“No.” Sansa shook her head. “I just keep my doors locked and my head on a swivel.”

 

Sandor nodded slowly but kept his eyes steadfast on her. “Remember what I said about bullshitters,” he warned. “Don’t lie to me.”

 

“I’m not lying,” Sansa insisted and fiddled with the strap of her dress. “I’m fine. Nothing has happened.”

 

He fell silent. The pause felt like an eternity, long enough that Sansa almost lost the battle against coming clean. That was probably the point. The longer the silence stretched on, the more disappointed he appeared.

 

“We don’t have much time left,” Sandor said and eased back in his seat with one arm crossed over his broad chest. “Look, I hoped that when this day came, I’d have better news for you. I’ll be honest—I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here. Another five years at least. Probably longer on account of the trouble I’ve been in.

 

“You’re young and you’re beautiful and the last thing I’d ever want is for you to squander your best years waiting on me or whatever it is you’re doing or plan to do. Write as much as you want. Someday they’ll give me your letters again. But I don’t like liars, and I sure as hell don’t lie to myself.”

 

He hesitated a moment and, though his words possessed a chill, his eyes burned with heat behind them.

 

“I know what’s coming down the line. You’ll meet a man someday and, if he’s anything like me, he’ll want you all to himself and will want you to snip the heartstrings you’ve wrapped around me.”

 

Sansa shook her head and clambered for a response, but her chest ached and stomach flipped. “Don’t say that. I’m not going to do that. Don’t push me away.”

 

“I know you’re not that naïve, Sansa,” Sandor sniped as the cold came over him. “I’m not pushing you away. This is reality, girl, and you’re gonna have to face it. This isn’t gonna work if you go burying your head in the sand when things aren’t so pretty to look at. And my life ain’t pretty.”

 

The buzzer cut through the air, now thick with tension, and the door slammed open again.

 

“I gotta go,” Sandor mumbled and matched her eyes. “Any last confessions?”

 

Tell him, Sansa. Her mouth fell open, but the guards spilled in and rounded up the inmates who filed out. Tongue tied and twisted, her mouth couldn’t form the words. Say it! Tell him!

 

“Let’s go!” the guards boomed.

 

“I…I promise I’ll write,” Sansa stammered. It wasn’t enough. Sandor smirked, but she saw the letdown clear enough on his features and the crestfallen way he nodded. 

 

“Thanks for coming, little bird.”

 

Sandor hung up the phone with a frown painting his lips and, when he walked away, Sansa hoped he might look back. He never did.                                                                                                     


                                                                                                    

“I hope you slept well,” the motel clerk said because it was the polite thing to say, but he eyed Sansa with a forced smile that meant she looked like she’d had a hell of a night. She had.

 

Sansa hid behind her sunglasses, hair still drying from the shower, and the humidity would do it no favors today. The ends had already curled. She slathered on just enough makeup to look alive for her evening shift at the diner.

 

“Yes, thank you,” she lied and handed over the room key.

 

The place was comfortable enough, despite starchy sheets, a window AC unit that rattled something fierce, and an army of ants that’d invaded the bathroom. None of that mattered. She hardly slept anyhow.

 

In the postmortem of her visit with Sandor, Sansa had tossed and turned and rehashed the details in her head. The task occupied her well past three in the morning. She’d stared at a water-stained ceiling and with a pit in her stomach that hadn’t departed when she woke after a few hours of sleep.

 

After Sansa paid for the room, she tossed her bag to the back seat of the car. The sun rose hot today and baked the rain-soaked ground. Steam rose off the cracked asphalt as Sansa pulled out of the motel parking lot and ambled down a two-lane road towards the highway.

 

Though she’d lied to Rita that her visit had ended nicely and lied to the motel clerk that she rested peacefully, another lie cast a heavy shroud over Sansa. One of the first things Sandor ever told her was that he didn’t like bullshitters and liars. Though she’d only lied to spare him some worry, he had no way of knowing that was the reason. The look he’d given her before he left made that abundantly clear.

 

On a lonely road leading out of town, Sansa approached the railroad tracks just as the flashing lights and gate came down. A Union Pacific train crawled by at a dawdling pace, slow enough for Sansa to get in her head again with the crux of the matter.

 

She’d uncovered it in the dead spaces of night that facilitated only two things—troublemaking and self-reflection. Sandor had never lied to her, not even when she asked about his scars. He’d laid bare what she sensed was perhaps the most personal story from his history. When he asked for the truth, Sansa had refused him. Even at face value, she could see the slight.

 

All night, she’d vacillated between raking herself over the coals for it and accepting it as an inevitable misstep between them. What she knew for certain was that the ending of their conversation had imparted a sick, hollow feeling in her.

 

She tapped the steering wheel. The car engine hummed. The train rumbled past.

 

Tuesday morning. He was eligible for a visit on Tuesday morning. This morning.

 

Rita hadn’t said what time or if he was even allowed back-to-back visits, the logical part of Sansa argued. That same part of her had also argued against writing to Sandor in the first place. It had hailed Joffrey as a prize to be won and sent Sansa down a path of ruin. And she was tired of indulging the logical part that knew little of her heart.

 

Movement out the driver’s side window drew her eyes to birds perched atop a tattered billboard. The thing was barely discernable with a cross and an effigy of the Virgin Mary long since faded. The sun and rain hadn’t washed away the scripture passage at the bottom that read:

 

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

 

It was a sign. And it was enough.

 

Sansa threw the car in reverse. She backed onto the shoulder of the road and sped into town towards the prison; far from logic and all the things it’d been telling her to do, and all the ways it ran counter to what her heart wanted. Sansa didn’t believe in signs but knew well enough to heed them.

 

Tell him the truth. Set him free.

Chapter Text

                                                                                         

                                                                                         

Morning came with all the tedium Sandor was used to—breakfast, roll call, leisure time, as if he gave a shit about the rehab programs he’d been shoved into. The connection between learning how to paint and write and being a functioning member of society was lost on him. Sandor endured that bullshit with reserved skepticism and only participated if he had to.

 

Otherwise, he used the time as a well-earned opportunity to daydream about Sansa. Only now, those visions had a flesh and blood tether point to latch onto. And latch he did; all night envisioning those plump, pouty lips around the tip of his cock or breathing his name as he lavished kisses against her long, graceful neck.

 

In the library, Sandor cracked open a book to occupy himself. The spine hadn’t been broken in and he didn’t know what the damn thing was even about. The dust jacket was missing, so it was anyone’s guess, but the words on the page were a blur anyhow. He read them, but the meaning didn’t register as his thoughts all flowed back to her. Always back to her.

 

Chatter broke amongst the guards who stood watch at the library doors. When Sandor lifted his gaze, Boros stared daggers right through him and turned that unusual shade of crimson he reserved only for Sandor. Son of a bitch.

 

With his nose splint finally off and his ribs healing up nicely, or so the prison doc said, Sandor was almost put back to rights. Almost. Boros seemed to have expected more; an epic downfall perhaps, spiraling towards black oblivion of endless rage and time tacked onto his sentence. Whatever Boros had hoped for, he’d squandered his opportunity to make it a reality.

 

Sandor wasn’t stupid, though, and he knew he’d pay for Sansa’s visit yesterday. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but Boros had a way of consuming Sandor’s only joys here and a visit from Sansa was high on that list. So high, in fact, it caused another uproar at dinner last night with flung food and swinging fists. An angel like Sansa Stark didn’t belong in a place like this and, as much as Sandor wanted every bit of her, their interactions carried a price.

 

A guard cut across the library, weaving in between tables where inmates read in silence but watched and waited for whoever was on the receiving end of this sudden attention. Nothing good ever came from it. Men plucked from leisure time usually had something to answer for.

 

At the back of the library, Sandor kept his head down and feigned sudden interest in the book but, as the guard passed each table, it became apparent who he was after.

 

The man hovered in front of Sandor and stared through a frigid gaze. “You have a visitor.”

 

“Fuck off,” Sandor grumbled and gripped the book. His mood soured because only on extraordinarily rare occasions did the warden allow back-to-back visits.

 

“Suit yourself,” the guard huffed on a derisive exhale. “It’d be a shame to waste twenty minutes with that pretty little redhead.”

 

Sansa.

 

Sandor’s gaze snapped to the man. He flipped the book shut and stood from his seat so abruptly that it slammed into the wall behind him. The commotion attracted the attention of the room. Sandor didn’t give a shit about disturbing the silence and certainly didn’t care about prying eyes that followed him across the library and to the door.

 

He trailed behind the guard with all his faculties now singularly focused. His pulse quickened and senses heightened with adrenaline. The skeptical part of him warned that this was a joke, another orchestrated stunt to send him over the edge and back to the gray palace. He’d emerged from there with his sanity and spirit intact, a feat he was rather proud of and only accomplished with a regimented schedule he’d created for himself. Sandor knew well enough he wouldn’t be so lucky a second time around, so he steeled himself the best he could as he approached the visitation room.

 

The guard swiped his badge, and the thick metal door buzzed before swinging open.

 

“Station three,” the man grunted. “You’ve got twenty minutes.”

 

Sandor slowly crossed the threshold and glowered at the guard with an unspoken threat burning in his eyes. Though he was still half-certain this was a setup, his heart raced as he passed station one. He put some rigor in his step past station two but held his breath and dropped his eyes to the floor.

 

At station three, he lifted his gaze.

 

Sandor couldn’t help the sigh that eased from his lips. Sure enough, Sansa sat on the other side of the glass but shot from her seat when he appeared.

 

Yesterday, the girl had arrived with cookies and all dolled up in a nice blue dress; as pure as the driven snow and sweet as the breath of spring that follows. She was stunning, no doubt, but today she’d come stripped bare—cut-off shorts showcasing toned thighs, a sheer white tank top with thin straps, her hair in mussed up waves, and less makeup too.

 

The presentation enticed in an entirely different way, and Sandor marveled at the chameleon quality of her sexiness. He could dress the girl in a paper bag, and she’d turn heads like nothing else. Something in the simplicity today knocked him off his feet, speechless as he sat down and watched the way her shorts rode dangerously high up her thighs as she resumed her seat.

 

Sandor snatched the phone from the wall and, once more, Sansa followed his lead. Even in the dingy fluorescent light, he could see the outline of her bra through her shirt, the swell of cleavage, and her nipples hard.

 

“I take it yesterday wasn’t enough for you,” he murmured with a raspy chuckle into the phone.

 

“No, it wasn’t.”

 

Sansa stared Sandor dead in the eye and responded with deliberate certainty that would send him through the fucking ceiling. She meant it too. Even her courtesies were stripped away, but what was left behind was far from bullshit—only raw sincerity that was bound to drive him absolutely wild.

 

“Me neither.” Sandor eased back in his seat with a satisfied smile and stretched his legs in front of him.

 

She wasn’t the only one deliberately casting her net of allure. Sandor was well aware of the way Sansa eyed him through the glass; the way her lips parted as her gaze settled on his broad chest and the bulk of his arms now resting behind his head with the phone held precariously to his ear.

 

“You gonna ask if I slept well last night?” his voice rumbled, and he imagined she liked that too given the slow, deep inhale she took. Flustered, her lashes fluttered as her eyes darted over him. She bit down on the fullness of her bottom lip.

 

“Did you?” Sansa implored with somber concern, blithely unaware of the trap he’d laid. The poor thing walked right into it. She leaned forward and her brows drew together with preemptive sympathy. On full display, her tits rested atop her forearm on the counter.

 

“Like a rock.” Sandor winked, and his tongue slowly traced the corner of his mouth. “Looks like I will again tonight.”

 

His gaze drifted to her breasts and lingered long enough to dispel any confusion about what he meant. Understanding bloomed over Sansa’s pretty face. Her blue eyes widened as she stood at the crossroads of being simultaneously scandalized and tantalized.

 

When he wondered what path she might choose, Sansa’s lips, perfectly pink and so ripe for the taking, curled in a smile he wouldn’t soon forget. With innocence gleaming in her eyes and seduction resting on that gorgeous mouth, Sandor was intoxicated with both. 

 

“We don’t have long so listen to me,” she said and once more matched his gaze with all the resolve she’d showed up with today. “I needed to come back because yesterday I didn’t tell you the truth.”

 

When she paused and searched his eyes, Sandor saw clearly enough the contrition in her. He knew what it meant to lay awake with regret and carry it day after day, year after year. Where Sandor had been mostly disappointed that she’d lied to him yesterday, he found himself enraptured now that she’d come here just for this.

 

He sat up and scooted his chair towards the counter. “I know you didn’t. You’re a terrible liar, little bird, and I think you know it.”

 

The girl wasn’t that hard to read. Every damn thing surfaced on her face that betrayed her emotions. She’d give herself away time and time again. The only thing worse than a liar was a fool, and Sansa wasn’t that. She seemed to know herself well enough to understand she couldn’t get much past him, and that bit of self-awareness captivated him now too.

 

Sandor contemplated her through the glass and Sansa shifted closer as if she wanted to crawl right through. A smirk played on his lips at the thought and must’ve encouraged her to speak again.

 

“I don’t want to lie to you, and I shouldn’t have,” she intoned with another wave of contrition disproportionate to the offense. “I came because I wanted to see you again and because I want to tell you the truth. You deserve to know.”

 

Sandor leaned forward and his chest pressed against the edge of the counter. “I’m listening.”

 

That truth came in a deluge, like a levee breaking and there was no sense in trying to slow it down. Sansa talked a mile a minute with animated urgency that said she not only withheld this from him, but from everyone. This wasn’t some rehearsed monologue meant to placate. This was the kind of honesty that bid her to stumble over her words and reveal things she might not have otherwise. And where at first Sandor was in raptures over the way she talked, her beauty, her body, every movement she made that he couldn’t quite get enough of, the truth of the situation was ugly.

 

Sansa relayed the newspaper headlines of missing girls who’d turned up dead, most in pieces and brutalized in ways she wouldn’t repeat, but Sandor had been in this hellhole long enough to know the disgusting atrocities men were capable of.

 

That wasn’t what sent his blood boiling, fists clenching hard, and fingernails digging into his palms. He didn’t care about other women. He cared about her. Those headlines hit close to Sansa with midnight calls that taunted her and a stranger who’d come to Devil Creek. He’d showed up at the diner and at one of her Saturday night gigs. For the first time in ages, Sandor felt helpless and where that might make some folk sad or angsty, it only infuriated him.

 

When she finished, Sansa looked no better for the confession. On the verge of tears, her skin paled with terror. She clutched the phone with both hands and peered through the glass expectantly.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Sandor demanded on a gruff exhale, and his mouth twitched in misplaced agitation. “I know people on the outside who can help, who can look after you, Sansa. I would’ve sent them to you in a heartbeat.”

 

Sandor had long ago accepted his fate here. With no family or woman to worry after, something in his lonely existence absolved him from the rage he saw in other inmates; the way they regarded the shackles and bars with abject fury and longing for what existed on the other side. It wasn’t just freedom those men were after. 

 

His breaths quickened and Sandor eyed the plexiglass with new empathy and fresh knowledge of what those men grappled with. He’d burn the entire place to the ground and pay whatever price that carried if it meant getting the fuck out of here and handling this situation. 

 

Sansa must’ve seen clear enough the anger rolling off of him. Her head tilted and concern pooled in her eyes as she scrambled to gentle his rage.

 

“The only reason I didn’t tell you is because I don’t want you to worry about me,” she soothed with calm insistence. “I didn’t want to put that burden on you when you’ve already suffered so much in here. That was the only reason, Sandor.”

 

Strange serenity washed over him, and anger took the knee. He stared at her through the glass and, though his frustration at being separated remained, Sansa seemed to recognize the origins of his agitation.

 

“I’ve known plenty of burden in my life. You’re not it,” Sandor corrected, and Sansa nodded. “You have no idea who might be calling? What about that dip-shit you were engaged to?”

 

Sansa mulled it over, but ultimately shook her head. “I don’t think so. He wouldn’t spend all this time and effort just to intimidate me. He never tried to contact me after I left him. It’s been over a year, so why now? I’m sure he’s long moved on.”

 

Sandor observed the worry still lingering on Sansa’s face and the way she self-soothed with rose-colored hopefulness. He couldn’t quite fault her. She’d found a way to cope, and this was apparently it.

 

“I want you to stay with someone else,” he insisted and his firmness—the way he wasn’t taking no for an answer though he couldn’t do shit to enforce it—drew Sansa’s eyes. “That friend of yours. Janet. I want you to stay with her.”

 

Sansa broke with laughter. It drifted merrily through the line and Sandor relished the sound of it and the way she lit up from within.

 

“Jeyne,” she corrected.

 

Her bright smile wasn’t about his unintended humor. It was that someone in this world gave a shit about her. He didn’t doubt her friends cared, but Sandor’s concern for her was hardly platonic, and Sansa seemed to cherish that difference.

 

With the mood hoisted up and floating on levity, Sandor allowed a soft breath of laughter to pass his lips.

 

“Jeyne. Janet. I don’t care if it’s Janis Joplin’s fucking ghost. I don’t want you alone in your house, unprotected.”

 

“I can protect myself.” Sansa lifted her chin slightly and squared her shoulders, beaming with self-pride that Sandor admired in other contexts, but not this.

 

“No,” he rasped and shook his head with finality that Sansa also seemed to enjoy if the coy little smile on her lips meant anything. “We’re not going down that path of bra-burning bullshit. You’re obviously a strong woman. I get it, but now’s not the time to be stubborn. I need you to listen to me.”

 

Her smile spread and she bit her bottom lip once more. “I don’t burn my bras.” One of her brow’s lifted suggestively.

 

“I wouldn’t care if you did. Frankly, I like the thought of you without a bra.” Sandor’s gaze fell to her breasts again and he couldn’t help the image of them bouncing, his hands cupping them, and his dick nestled between. “You get my point.”

 

She flashed that same innocent little smile again and the enthralled glint behind her eyes spoke on her behalf. Sandor read between her lines both forwards and backwards just fine.

 

Sansa liked when a man took control. And she could wax poetic all day about women’s rights, and Sandor loved women. It wasn’t about that. It was about Sansa knowing damn well he could fuck her good and right and make her feel like a woman—cherished and looked after, protected and loved. And for his part, he’d know she’d keep coming back for more because all those women talking wild about liberation still wanted a real man to fuck them senseless. For Sansa, he’d gladly be that real man.

 

With his cock half hard at the thought, Sandor shifted in his seat. He leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees that struggled to fit under the counter.

 

“Look, my good friend Clyde is the sheriff in Cactus. I’m gonna have him check up on you. I’ll see what else he can do; maybe convince your town’s sheriff to get off his ass and take this seriously. Until then, I want you to stay at Janet’s.”

 

Sansa nodded with a soft smile, and the tension in her shoulders seemed to ease. “I will. I’m sorry I lied to you.”

 

Sandor stared at her from beneath his brows and lowered his voice to a deep grumble. “You’ll just have to make it up to me some time.”

 

“How am I supposed to do that?” Sansa asked on a quiet breath, almost a sigh, and tossed her hair over her shoulder, exposing the bare skin there and licked her bottom lip in some bid to drive him straight into insanity with how fucking effortlessly sexy she was.

 

Sandor wasn’t sure if Sansa knew what she was doing and, apparently, she wanted an actual answer, so he settled back with a smirk and gave her one.

 

“On your knees. That’s how most people ask for forgiveness.”

 

Her mouth dropped open and, for a moment, he thought he might’ve gone too far, but she smiled with her own brand of gentle mischief. It knocked away all that flimsy affront shielding deep desire and intense intrigue.

 

“Of course. It’d be bad manners not to.” Her smile faded as she gazed at him from beneath dark, thick lashes.

 

Sandor’s jaw clenched, and a throaty groan vibrated in his throat. “I swear to God, girl, if it weren’t for this glass…” he warned as all his muscles seemed to tense at once.

 

“Then what?” Her brow lifted with curiosity as she danced dangerously close to the edge of indecency but did so with all her grace and poise. The combination of sweet and sultry was pure torture.

 

“You know exactly what,” Sandor murmured and leaned towards the glass as he spoke low and slow. “I’d bend you over that counter, spread your pretty legs, and have you begging for a whole lot more than just forgiveness.”

 

“I believe you.” The pink blush burning on her cheeks spread down her chest that now rapidly rose and fell as if she were breathless. “Though I might have to see it before I believe it,” she teased.

 

Sandor nodded, and a wicked grin creased his lips.

 

“Well, sometimes you only see things when you believe in them enough. So, when you get home, you think it over good and hard with your hands between your legs and maybe you can manifest my freedom and I’ll come lend you a hand and a few other things.”

 

“I’ll see what I can conjure up,” Sansa said through another shy smile, though her eyes gleamed with delight. “Until then, you have some making up to do too.”

 

Sandor crossed one arm over his chest, and a rough laugh escaped him. “Is that right? And I suppose you want me to earn my forgiveness in the same way?”

 

Sansa said nothing, only nodded with a doe-eyed gaze and those plush lips subtly pouting and begging to be nipped and kissed and would look so perfectly sweet wrapped around his cock.

 

“I don’t ever need a reason to return the favor,” he fired back with renewed fervor. “I’ll bury my face between your legs just because it’s a Tuesday and I feel like it.”

 

Few things inspired him like the thought of his tongue sweeping between her folds until she writhed and lost herself in the pleasure and attention he’d lavish there. Half hard before, his cock strained against his jumpsuit bottoms now.

 

“You gonna tell me what I did?” he groaned with arousal and frustration both on the rise because where there was one, there was usually the other and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it now.

 

“You never told me you were a bull rider.”

 

Sandor drew in a long breath and nodded. He figured the time would come when she’d either figure it out or he’d tell her. He’d made a name for himself only to find he preferred obscurity. While two years at war hadn’t been enough to buy the anonymity back, he’d hoped five years in prison just might.

 

“It never came up in conversation,” Sandor replied and hoped it’d suffice, but Sansa shot him a pointed look that even plexiglass couldn’t guard against. 

 

“Yes,” he relented with a sigh. “I was but then the draft man came, and you know the rest. You gonna go on about me being a real cowboy now?”

 

He meant it as a subtle jab at her ideals he sensed had already long been shattered. What Sansa was really after was a true man—not those turquoise and silver-gilded assholes who rode mechanical bulls on the weekend and called themselves a cowboy. She wanted grit and muscle, simplicity and strength. A real cowboy, she called it.

 

“No. I already suspected you were.”

 

Her sincerity revealed itself again, and Sandor knew this wasn’t some false compliment meant to stroke his ego. That wasn’t the part he wanted stroked anyhow. Before they met, Sandor had worried if Sansa would see him for who he was or if she’d adorn him with some applique of the man she wanted.

 

Those worries washed away now. Sandor’s lips curled with a faint smile, just as adoring as it was lustful, and he hoped she’d know the difference.

 

“I’ll give you a ride and you can see for yourself. How’s that for reparation?”

 

“That sounds more than fair,” she breathed with wistful distraction. 

 

Her fingers mindlessly traced her collarbone, and Sandor found himself mesmerized by the way she touched herself.

 

“From now on, we tell each other the truth,” he murmured, only half hearing himself speak as he watched her closely. Their eyes flicked up one another’s form, drinking in the sight and gathering all they could with the time they had left.

 

“Deal,” she whispered as her eyes drifted over him.

 

Sandor scooted close to the glass, and she did the same. In a moment of simple intimacy, the only kind that their predicament allowed, Sansa and Sandor contemplated one another. Neither spoke, and the reverence somehow communicated more because of the silence.

 

When she rested her forehead against the glass, he did too, and where she held her palm up, his hand curled in a fist that gently pounded against the glass in one soft tap. Her longing and his frustration eased through on either side.

 

The buzzer sounded. Their time was done. They both pulled away from the glass but, locked at the eyes, neither moved other than the congruent smiles that peeled at the corner of both their mouths.

 

“Do you really have to go?” Sansa whispered as inmates filed past Sandor.

 

“Looks like it. I wanna watch you walk away,” he muttered so the others might not hear, though the room was almost empty now. 

 

“Why?” Sansa asked, dulcet and dreamy and looking at him in a way no woman ever had.

 

“You know damn well why. Call it inspiration for my bedtime ritual,” he said on a deep, rasping laugh that faded into tenderness.

 

After they said their goodbyes, Sandor stood. He hung up the phone and bent over slightly with two balled fists resting on the counter.

 

Good Texas girl that she was, Sansa obeyed, walking slow and swinging her hips. Long legs disappeared beneath denim shorts that barely covered that delicious ass of hers, just enough to hold on to for fucking her on all fours and licking her from behind.

 

Sandor drew a deep breath and chewed his bottom lip hard. Sansa turned around just before leaving the room. For her own enjoyment, he stood with his manhood painfully hard and in dire need of some attention. Her lips fell open slightly and eyes widened at the sight of his full-length straining against his pants, and maybe it attached new meaning to his statement that he made up for his scars in ways that mattered.

 

If he had to suffer from anticipation and frustration in here, she’d do some suffering too. Sandor reached down and gripped his cock to adjust it against the waistband. In doing so, he pulled his bottoms down just enough to reveal the tip of his dick that he stroked with his thumb, circling the seeping wetness with one quick swipe. He pulled his pants up, gave her a wink and a smile, and walked away, leaving sweet Sansa Stark blushing and probably soaking wet between the legs.

                                                                                                    


Out in the yard, a wall of heat beat at Sandor’s back with the sun blistering in the clear sky, no clouds for reprieve. The upside—most of the others in his recreation block opted to stay indoors. Only a handful of other inmates dedicated themselves to outdoor time the way Sandor did. Rain or shine, if he had the opportunity, he’d be out here.

 

His t-shirt hung on the pull up bars he’d made good use of. Sandor breathed through another round of push-ups. His palms warmed against the scorching asphalt. Through clenched teeth he pressed on, anything to burn up the frustration still roiling through his veins. Even after he’d stroked himself slow and hard yesterday morning after Sansa left, the desire still raged in him and kept him up well into the early morning hours today.

 

If he couldn’t fuck it out, he’d sweat it out, and the plan was going well until something blotted out the sun and cast a long shadow across the ground in front of him.

 

Sandor pushed himself up and settled back on his knees. The warden loomed above him with both hands firmly on his hips. The man squinted against the sun and, whether or not he intended it, he appeared displeased.

 

“What do you want?” Sandor panted. Beads of sweat ran down his bare chest and he swiped at his brow.

 

The warden’s jaw set firm with a scowl and he paused a moment, eyes trained on Sandor with quiet warning.

 

“Someone should’ve beat some manners into you, boy. Get up.”

 

Sandor eased from the ground and snatched up his t-shirt. He pulled it on as he followed the warden inside and wracked his head for what trouble he might be in now. He’d paid his dues in solitary and had stayed in line since coming out. He hadn’t even mouthed off to Boros, who’d been doling out verbal blows left and right.

 

Through a series of secured entrances, Sandor trailed after the warden down the sterile corridors and past doors that all looked the same. How anyone navigated this labyrinth was beyond Sandor. Eventually, the halls bore some modicum of familiarity just in time for the warden to lead the way into his office. One chair at his desk was already occupied.

 

Sandor stopped two steps in the door. His lawyer swiveled around in the chair and nearly upended the open briefcase on his lap. The warden gestured for Sandor to sit.

 

When he did, the room went quiet and Sandor crossed his arms over his chest, fully prepared for this conversation to head south. He’d rather get this shit over with and almost said as much, but the warden abruptly shattered the silence.

 

“I don’t know who you’ve been praying to, but your parole was granted.”

 

The warden and Sandor’s lawyer stared at him, both waiting on bated breath for his response. Maybe they expected him to break down in tears or fall to his knees and thank the good Lord. He hadn’t prayed to anyone. The only thing Sandor had done was insist Sansa take those slender fingers of hers and slide them inside of herself with him on her mind. Apparently, it worked.

 

He didn’t cry. He didn’t pray.

 

Instead, Sandor’s head fell back, and delighted laughter poured from his mouth. Maybe Sansa had some divine influence after all, coming so hard that God himself must’ve heard and done something about it. And though Sandor wasn’t a man of God, he’d worship between her legs with the same delirious vigor and wild veneration as all those other religious zealots. Only difference, he’d have a better time of it.

 

“Ah fuck,” Sandor sighed on dying laughter that left the warden unamused and the lawyer stupefied. “Dare I ask how this happened?”

 

The warden nodded but took tremendous time in opening his desk drawer and stuffing tobacco into his pipe before lighting it. He finally spoke between puffs.

 

“You’re a smart man, Beric Dondarrion is a lunatic, and Boros is a shithead who I’ve had my eye on for a while and who I know damn well has some sort of hold on Dondarrion. That equation doesn’t add up to you scooping out someone’s eye so close to getting paroled. I told your board as much. They took my word for it and agreed.”

 

Smile wiped clean, Sandor let the information seep in, filling up all the cracks of disbelief and all the ways he’d been refusing to accept that this was even possible.

 

“Thank you, sir,” he breathed with astonishment that softened the warden some. The man lifted his hand and waved away the gratitude.

 

“Save it. You and I both know that you don’t belong here. You never did.”

 

“What are the terms?” Sandor asked.

 

The warden motioned to Sandor’s lawyer, who looked small and scared in a suit two sizes too big for his scrawny frame. The man glanced at Sandor from behind coke-bottle glasses that he nervously pushed back up his nose.

 

“It’s all in here.” He handed Sandor a stack of papers lined up neatly and clipped together. “It’s very standard. Don’t break the law, meet periodically with your parole officer. The biggest point to note—you cannot leave Texas for a year.”

 

“I don’t wanna leave Texas,” Sandor muttered and took the papers from his lawyer. The exchange solidified the reality. It sunk deeper into Sandor and a smile spread across his lips. He shook his head in languid wonderment. 

 

“Then it won’t be a problem,” his lawyer commented and latched his briefcase. “Don’t violate your parole terms and you’ll be fine.”

 

The man stood from the chair. He shook the warden’s hand and then Sandor’s with stilted rigidity he still hadn’t shed after all these years.

 

“Congratulations. If you have any questions, call my office.”

 

With a stiff bow, the lawyer smoothed down his suit jacket and retreated from the room. The warden stood as well and reached into his desk drawer where he produced a pair of folded jeans still bearing a belt and buckle, a white t-shirt, a pair of well-worn boots, and a wallet.

 

The warden dropped the bundle of items on his desk. The belt buckle clattered against the wood and the boots hit with a hard thud.

 

“Griff’s waiting for you,” he informed and motioned to his office door where a guard hovered outside. “Go change and get the fuck out of my prison.”

 

Sandor didn’t have to be told twice. He gathered up his belongings and spared no parting words for the warden, only a nod of appreciation that the warden returned.

 

“Oh, and deal with those nightmares,” the warden hollered after him in an afterthought, though no less important with weight behind his words. “They don’t go away on their own.”

 

Sandor glanced back only momentarily and swore he spotted a barely discernible smile on the man who turned away to puff his pipe.

 

A guard led Sandor to a private bathroom, a luxury he hadn’t had in five long years. Sandor stripped out of his jumpsuit, and it might as well have been a ritual of shedding his skin and being born anew. He unfolded the faded Levis he’d worn when he walked through the doors here in handcuffs. On the toilet seat, Sandor sat and ran his thumb over the swirling pattern of his father’s silver belt buckle.

 

A handful of moments in a man’s life truly mattered. The rest were just a blur of bullshit or tedium or something in between. Like everyone else, Sandor had surrendered entire epochs of his life to the oblivion of lost memories; years’ worth of things he said or did that he’d never remember.

 

But, even now, in this bathroom with its yellowed floor and half-burnt out fluorescent lights, Sandor knew this memory would count. He would remember this moment as he stood and eased into his jeans. He’d savor the feel of his boots that fit his feet like a glove. He’d relish gaining his identity back with something as simple as a white t-shirt that he tugged on now.

 

When he left the bathroom and the jumpsuit crumpled on the floor, Sandor left five years of his life behind; five years he’d never get back. He emerged in the inmate release area no longer just a number—inmate 131906—but himself again.

 

A nice woman dealt with his paperwork and handed off a bag with the belongings from his cell. With a knowing look, she commented on Sansa Stark, who’d brought cookies for the office ladies. Apparently, those ladies told the warden about Sansa. Sandor smiled at the sound of her name and signed his way to freedom.

 

The fervor set in, the indelible fear that something would go wrong—they had the wrong inmate or that the parole board might change their mind in the eleventh hour—and yet again Sandor would have years of his life taken from him with no recourse to gain them back.

 

His boots stomped down the hall to the waiting area. The cadence was music to his ears with the way the heels cracked against the tile. A guard let Sandor through a set of double doors where Griff waited on the other side and paced a hole through the floor.

 

Sandor bounded through in heavy steps that drew Griff’s gaze and put an abrupt end to his pacing. A smile erupted across the man’s mouth and even lifted his white mustache to reveal a row of equally white teeth.

 

“No flowers?” Sandor barked and held his arms out at his sides.

 

Griff appraised him with a glimmer of glee behind his eyes and a slow nod. “I like the new look.”

 

“It ain’t new. It’s reclaimed,” Sandor chuckled and patted Griff on the back. He started for the doors but eased his steps to a dawdling pace to savor every second of this moment.

 

“Got any goodbyes you need to give?” Griff glanced at Sandor as they hovered in front of the glass door leading to a crystal-clear day outside.

 

“Nope.” Sandor pushed into the balmy afternoon. He closed his eyes and drew a deep inhale with the sun seeping into his skin. Whereas before it burned, now it was a warm reprieve from years out in the cold.

 

Though he had already breathed this same air, the breeze felt softer, a gentle caress against his skin, and smelled sweeter with fresh-cut grass and warmed dirt. Sandor opened his eyes again and strode in step with Griff down the long walkway to the parking lot.

 

Griff wrapped his arm around Sandor’s shoulders and, in a rare show of outward elation, belted out a joyous chuckle before releasing his hold on Sandor.

 

As if the stars themselves aligned for this moment, Boros stood at the end of the walkway, smoking a cigarette and scratching his ass, but whipped around at the sound of Sandor and Griff’s boots colliding against the pavement in pounding unison.

 

“Small world,” Sandor growled as he passed Boros whose cigarette tumbled from his mouth and his eyes damn near popped out of his head. “I’m sure I’ll see ya around.”

 

With the grim threat, Sandor spat at Boros’s feet and kept walking.

 

“Your day of reckoning is coming,” Griff warned and spat at Boros as well.

 

At Griff’s beat up two-toned Chevy pickup, Sandor eased into the passenger seat with levity he hadn’t felt since he was a child, probably well before Gregor set ruin to his face. Griff climbed in and reached behind Sandor’s seat. In a celebratory move, he handed over Sandor’s prized black Stetson.

 

Sandor took the hat and admired the feel of the leather against the pads of his fingertips. He turned his eyes out the windshield. It felt as though a crushing weight was lifted from his shoulders and he relished the feeling of release he’d never quite known in his lifetime, not even after he was shipped back home from war.

 

“I’ll take you back to Cactus then I reckon you’re off to Devil Creek,” Griff asked more than said but smirked in a way that intimated he already had the answer.

 

In a ritual of putting himself back to rights, Sandor placed the hat on his head and pulled down the brim to secure it in place until he felt whole again.

 

“You reckon right.”

Chapter Text

                                                                                       

                                                                                       

“Looks like you still got the touch,” Bronn commented from an aluminum lawn chair conveniently placed in the shadow of the afternoon sun. From his spot, he twirled the radio antenna in slow circles until the static faded and a tune lilted from the worn-out speaker.

 

Sandor peered at Bronn from beneath his F-150’s hood. “Don’t bet on it too soon,” he warned. “You’ll jinx it.”

 

Bronn hadn’t changed much since Sandor had been gone; all but his wardrobe. It was a wonder that his balls hadn’t flopped out of the Kelly-green shorts he wore, and that might’ve been distracting if it weren’t for the tube socks pulled up to his knees. Then there were his Adidas basketball shoes, though Bronn hadn’t taken up the sport.

 

Sandor wiped his hands on the front of his white t-shirt and ambled to the open garage where he plucked a tool from his toolbox.

 

Distraction was exactly what he needed, and Bronn had delivered in spades with jokes and memories from their past. Sandor laughed along, but with frustration on the rise, he twitched at the thought of Sansa and decided it best not to dwell.

 

On the way back to the truck, Sandor lifted one curious brow at Bronn and motioned to the man’s garish outfit. “Question for you. Why the fuck are you wearing hotpants?”

 

Bronn pushed his aviator sunglasses to the top of his head and evaluated his outfit.

 

“They’re not hotpants. You were gone five years, brother. Times change. This is what people wear now.”

 

Sandor’s eyes flicked over Bronn once more with a shit-eating grin. “It’s what city folk wear. You a city boy now?”

 

He ducked beneath the truck’s hood just as Bronn fired back in playful protest.

 

“It’s summer! I’d rather wear this than sweat to death in jeans and boots.” He cast a cutting look at Sandor, who sweltered in the heat, though he’d be loath to admit it now. “Soon you’ll be wearing these too.”

 

“The hell I will!” Sandor hollered as if the vehemence might reach into his future and snuff out the possibility of him ever sporting such a horrendous get-up.

 

With his hands resting behind his head, Bronn settled back in the webbed lawn chair and flipped his sunglasses back in place. “Suit yourself. If that’s the hill you wanna die on…”

 

“It is. And you can bury me on that hill because over my cold, dead body is how you’ll ever get me in an outfit like that.”

 

Bronn erupted with laughter, the knee-slapping kind that died off on a loud sigh and unspoken fondness. “Ah, see. I missed you.”

 

“So you say, hotpants,” Sandor chuckled and loosened a bolt beneath the hood.

 

He’d missed his friend too and might’ve said so, but the task at hand was thieving the high spirits he’d found. His truck was too young to be this broken down, but he couldn’t expect much from the thing. It’d been sitting idle for five years other than Bronn taking it for a spin around the block a few times to keep the parts oiled. Apparently, the man had stopped doing that altogether at some point. Sandor arrived home to his black truck covered in a layer of pollen and dust and refusing to start.

 

Prior to that, the drive from Wichita Falls to Cactus had whipped by like a fever dream of colors Sandor swore he’d never seen before. The wildflowers burst in near-psychedelic vividness and the Texas sky dwarfed a long flat horizon. Sandor had spent most of the ride lost in a daze and coming down from adrenaline that left him both enthralled and exhausted in equal and ardent measure. 

 

Freedom felt like waking up from a dream and, once the stupor lifted and Sandor landed in town, the full force of reality rolled in as swift and brutal as the storms that swept across the plains. For long years, he had fantasized about the moment he’d cross back into Cactus and pick up his life where he’d left it. The manifestation of those daydreams lacked the details he now faced. Those weren’t so glamorous—an expired license and registration, unpaid bills, and now a truck sitting useless in his driveway.

 

It never quite occurred to Sandor that he’d only pressed pause on his life, but the world had moved on and it wasn’t so simple as walking back into the existence he’d left behind. He had five years’ worth of catching up to do, racing to close the distance all while shouldering the expectation to assimilate. The endeavor overwhelmed. In some bout of absolute insanity, he craved the simplicity of the life he’d left behind.

 

You’ll just have to make it that way for yourself, he’d reasoned and sent the foul notion packing to some dark recess of his mind.

 

Sandor lifted the tan leather Stetson from his head and swiped the sweat from his brow. One bright spot he hadn’t accounted for was rediscovering his belongings—clothes, books, records, and all the other carefully curated pieces of his life. He’d been quick to reclaim his boots and hats, relishing in his own simple and rugged style, although apparently the city boys still glommed onto some bastardized version of it. He reckoned that was better than hotpants.

 

Sandor retreated to the garage once more and squatted to the ground where he sifted through his toolbox for a socket.

 

“You know, in another life, you could’ve been one hell of a mechanic,” Bronn hollered and kicked up his feet on the cooler. “Speaking of, what are you gonna do now? I can’t imagine you’ll go back to bull riding.”

 

Another thing that hadn’t changed—when Sandor worked on his truck, Bronn wasn’t good for much other than company and occasionally handing off tools. The man knew the difference between a socket and a torque wrench and had a hell of a sense of humor. For Sandor, that was enough for Bronn to earn his keep. If it were anyone else, the annoyance might drive him up a wall, through the ceiling of his patience, and straight into irritation.

 

Sandor grabbed a socket from his toolbox and fetched his beer from the ground. Bottle to his lips, he pondered the question and took a swig of what he knew damn well was piss water passing as beer. It was cold enough to suffice and his palate was too unaccustomed to alcohol to glean much difference between this swill and liquid gold.

 

He wandered out to the driveway and contemplated the oak tree growing tall and proud in his front yard and casting its shadow over the house.

 

Sandor shook his head. “Nope, not back to bull riding. I buried that in the past where it belongs and don’t intend to dig it back up.”

 

The easier question to answer was what he didn’t want to do. He’d lived the life of a bull rider and it ran its course, weaving a path that ultimately brought him too close to his brother. Living parallel lives was bad enough, but as those lines had turned towards one another, Sandor saw the writing on the wall. Eventually, their paths would’ve crossed, and he’d have seen that son-of-a-bitch again.

 

He set the bottle to the ground and returned to his truck where he wrenched a bolt free and released a heavy sigh. Staring down the big decisions too long only left Sandor drowning in the immense and near-crushing desire to get back on his feet. He didn’t like depending on people and certainly not the parole officer to which he’d be assigned; some asshole who’d shove him into a shitty job or rehab program where he’d have to sort through all the loose ends of his new life.

 

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” Sandor grumbled with a foul mood on the rise. “I’ll sort it out as it comes.”

 

Just keep busy. And don’t think about it. He steered clear of unsavory thoughts and poured his attention back into the engine block and the sound of Bronn’s voice over the radio.

 

“You’ll always have a job at the bar if you want it.”

 

As Sandor willed the deftness back into his out-of-work hands, he could hear Bronn’s sincerity clear as a bell.

 

“Even after all that trouble I caused?” he asked on a raspy laugh and only now, looking in from the outside and through a rearview mirror, did Sandor find a shred of humor in the whole situation.

 

“I figure it’s the least I can do on account of you letting me stay here all these years.” Bronn downed the rest of his beer and tossed the bottle to the thick blanket of grass next to him. “My point is I’d be happy to have you back.”

 

Sandor loosened another bolt but eyed his house—an old brick home passed down through his family. It wasn’t much, but it was his and fit his life just fine. What it lacked in bells and whistles, it made up for in a big front yard and sturdy craftsmanship scarce these days. And where Bronn had done a piss-poor job of taking care of Sandor’s truck, the man had minded the house with obvious attention.

 

“I’ll take you up on it as soon as I get things settled,” Sandor replied, but once more scooted around the obvious and the only reason he was still in Cactus right now. “How is the bar? I meant to ask.”

 

He’d meant to ask a great many things. He’d come back with high hopes of cutting up with Bronn and having one of those deep, insightful talks with Griff where hours slipped by in the blink of an eye. Those things had taken the back seat to more pressing matters.

 

“Same, I suppose.” Bronn gave a shrug, and, in a rare show of thoughtfulness, he seemed to search for his words before starting again. “Father Bill has provided some interesting inventory from Mexico.”

 

An irreverent breath passed Sandor’s lips and he shook his head. He’d never met Father Bill, only heard about him periodically over the years. Bronn spoke about the man on hushed tones and talked cryptically around dealings that sounded not quite legal. Sandor assumed the man was more legend than flesh and blood.

 

Bronn swore that Father Bill’s business was merely importing mezcal with worms or scorpions or other odd creatures at the bottom that the bolder customers chased after. That seemed hardly worth the cloak-and-dagger shit Father Bill espoused. Coincidentally, since knowing Father Bill, Bronn seemed to have picked up a fair bit of knowledge about ayahuasca and the visions it brought forth.

 

Sandor paused his ministrations momentarily and pulled his head out from under the hood to point the socket wrench at Bronn.

 

“I’ll tell you one thing—you best land on the right side of the law because if you think those scales of justice are calibrated fairly, you’re a bigger fool than I’ve pegged you for all these years.”

 

When Bronn fell silent, Sandor let the matter go and scooped out what he hoped was the dead part causing all the trouble beneath the hood.

 

What satisfaction and sense of accomplishment he might’ve garnered from this minor success landed hollow as he blazed the trail right towards solemn frustration. If he thought of it too long, it’d burn him up, so he busied his hands again and did the best with his mind in the meantime.

 

The endeavor was invariably useless, and his thoughts ultimately funneled back to one place.

 

Sansa.

 

Like a beacon of light in the dead of night, Sandor had been singularly dedicated to getting ahold of her. With foolhardy anticipation that veered dangerously close to giddiness, he’d phoned her the second he waltzed through the door of his house. He’d spared only enough time to toss Bronn an emphatic greeting and to thank Griff for coming to fetch him.

 

She hadn’t answered the call.

 

That first night, he figured she was working at the diner and almost phoned there too. The next morning, he consoled himself that she was busy running around, taking care of whatever needed to be done. Friday came and went with more unanswered calls and dead ends. Now Saturday had eased past noon and would soon start barreling towards early evening, and it all felt like lost time.

 

And here he was again with crushing frustration and now fear. With a heavy sigh, Sandor tossed the broken part to the ground. Hands on his hips, he gnawed his bottom lip and set to pacing. His boots collided against the driveway and he launched a furious scowl at his truck.

 

Frustration was easy. He’d grappled with it plenty over the past five years, enough to have devised wicked schemes to outsmart himself with distractions. Fear was the devil he didn’t know, and it conspired with that frustration to become a whole new beast that’d surely best him by the end of the weekend.

 

The seed had already been planted—the sickening thought that something had happened to her—and was primed to run wild now. Every moment, every second he paid attention to it, it sprouted and grew like a vine, wrapping itself around his insides and paralyzing him despite the fervor to break free. 

 

“You still can’t get ahold of her?” Bronn hesitated over the question, navigating around the flash points that might send Sandor into antsy and enraged oblivion where he’d damn near crawl the walls.

 

“I call her a couple times a day,” he huffed, and the situation felt like a swift punch to the gut. “Still no answer as of this morning.”

 

Sandor grabbed the shop rag that hung from the propped-up hood and wiped his hands to spare his white t-shirt, though the thing was already a lost cause and had now earned its place as a dedicated work shirt.

 

“Well, of course you’ve got no way of getting ahold of her. Maybe you shouldn’t have told her to stay with her friend,” Bronn chuckled as the voice of reason. “Look on the bright side, she’s a good girl. This just means she listened to you.”

 

He gave a wink and pushed back the sweat-dampened strands of his ash brown hair plastered to his forehead. He had the right of it. Sandor was full of good ideas that had an unusual way of biting him in the ass.

 

“Oh, believe me,” he rasped on a deep breath, feeling marginally better with Bronn illuminating the most likely and logical reason for Sansa’s absence. “I’ll put that instinct to good use soon enough.” 

 

Bronn eased forward in the lawn chair and cracked open the cooler to fetch another beer. He pulled free two bottles and tossed one to Sandor.

 

“I’m surprised you haven’t fucked one of those girls who flock to the bar,” Bronn japed, but Sandor knew him well enough to know this wasn’t quite a joke, even if the delivery suggested it were. “They’re all the same—wanting their cowboy for a night. I’m sure you’d clean up just fine, and it’d tide you over.”

 

Sandor popped the cap off of his beer, took a long pull, and went back to work, but not before firmly shaking his head.

 

“Not interested in fucking a bar rat.”

 

Sandor left no recourse for discussion, much less argument, and he shot Bronn a look with fire behind it. The man settled back in his seat with a slow nod of appreciation. While Bronn probably couldn’t relate, he looked no less impressed by Sandor’s emphatic outburst of loyalty and dedication to a woman he couldn’t even get ahold of.

 

“You know I’m not sentimental,” Sandor explained and retrieved the new part next to his toolbox. “But the universe ain’t tossing women like Sansa around left and right, and certainly not in my direction. She’s different. I haven’t fucked in five years. Waiting until I can get ahold of her won’t kill me.”

 

Bronn propped his elbows on his knees. “You still can’t think of her friend’s name?”

 

Sandor shook his head. “It’s not Janet. I know that for sure. She corrected me on it, but I just had to be a smart ass and keep calling the girl that. Now I can’t get that name outta my head.”

 

“Sounds about right,” Bronn snorted. He cupped his chin and narrowed his eyes in concentration. “Judy? Jessica? Jeanne?”

 

Each name thundered into Sandor, pelting him with the obvious that rested on the tip of his tongue but he couldn’t shake it loose.

 

“No.” His pulse quickened, and fingers had gone graceless as he put the new part in place. Sandor tried to steady his tattered breaths to instill some calm, but the exercise only left him more on edge.

 

“Look, you’ll find her,” Bronn reasoned with infuriating nonchalance. “I know shit’s bad—”

 

Sandor whipped his head out from underneath the hood. “Bad? How many girls are there now? Ten? Twelve? All showing up in pieces from Lubbock to Amarillo, Devil Creek and now here! What the fuck am I supposed to think? I had no idea it was this bad!”

 

The flood gates opened, and the deluge came with torrential force as he paced the driveway again in pounding steps. Sandor’s voice boomed and carried into the street. His neighbor on the corner quickly ushered her children inside. Sandor didn’t give a shit who heard or saw him unravel at the seams. He’d gladly accept his new role as the crazy convict that’d come home and was now raging in his driveway for all to hear.

 

He dipped to the ground and snatched up his beer, downing half of it in some deluded effort to wash down the irony. A serial killer was brutalizing young women, and yet Sandor had been welcomed back into the fold of society with side-eyed judgement and the cold austerity that comes with being shunned.

 

He didn’t give a shit for himself and didn’t like most folk anyway, but the bitterness of it all foretold a hard path ahead. All he wanted was to return to a quiet life and be left alone. And now he couldn’t even do that because he’d wrapped some part of himself around the dream of a woman like Sansa and extracting himself from it felt more like an exercise in futility.

 

Sandor tossed his beer bottle to the yard where it landed with a soft thud. The remaining liquid poured from the bottle and pooled in the grass.

 

“Of course, the second I get out, right, the second I’m out, she falls off the face of the goddamn earth! And all I can think is that something is wrong, and, with my luck, I was two days too late.”

 

The sun ducked behind a smattering of clouds and cast a gray haze over him. And while he might relish this reprieve, Sandor’s skin burned hot and his blood pumped hard through his veins. The indelible urge to hit something raced through him. His fingers curled to his palms as he paced like a restless animal. He ripped off his hat and tossed it towards the garage where it sailed to the floor.

 

“Alright, alright. C’mon now,” Bronn consoled and sprung from the flimsy lawn chair that wobbled from his sudden movement. “That’s not gonna help. Let’s think this through.”

 

A brave man, he corralled Sandor by the shoulders and looked him square in the eyes. “It’s Saturday. She sings on Saturday nights. What bar does she sing at?”

 

“The fuck if I know!” Sandor snapped and wrenched himself away from Bronn and back to the truck, yet another source of his vexation. He could add it to the insurmountable pile now threatening to overtake him.

 

Hands trembling, Sandor fit the bolts back in place and torqued them harder than he intended and enough to risk stripping the threads. Bronn hovered next to the truck and blotted out the sun that triumphed once more.

 

“Devil Creek is tiny. It wouldn’t be hard to track down the bar she sings at. Shit, you could probably roll into town and find it on your own! That place is even smaller than Cactus.”

 

“I’m not going anywhere until I can get this shit fixed.” Sandor tipped his head to the engine and stared at Bronn from beneath his brow. “Speaking of, make yourself useful and give it a go.”

 

He tossed his keys to Bronn, who climbed into the driver's seat of the truck. Sandor settled back on his heels and stared into the belly of the vehicle and all its mechanical innards. Bronn tried the engine that cranked and strained and ultimately failed to turn over.

 

“Piece of shit,” Sandor hissed through clenched teeth. He tore towards the garage, ignored Bronn who hollered about trying again, and ripped his rubber mallet from the toolbox.

 

His boots slammed against the concrete, and his vision blurred crimson at the edges. Sandor wielded the mallet and struck a heavy blow against the newly replaced part. With another go, Bronn tried the engine that turned over and roared to a start. Incipient fury seeped from Sandor’s skin and rolled off altogether with a deep, resounding sigh.

 

“Jesus Christ,” he breathed, closed his eyes, and soaked in the sweet sound of the engine.

 

When he opened his eyes again, Bronn had hopped out of the front seat and stood next to Sandor. The man swiveled his wrist to check the time.

 

“It’s just shy of three now. If you clean yourself up and get the fuck outta here within the hour, you’ll make it to Devil Creek just as the sun goes down. I’ll take care of cleaning up out here.”

 

Sandor nodded, and all the urgency he’d forestalled the past few days sent him inside and straight to the shower. The warm water washed away the frustration right along with the sweat and grease, and he emerged with a new sense of purpose he hadn’t felt in years. All that time spent drifting and feeling useless abruptly departed.

 

With a towel wrapped around his waist, Sandor stood in front of his bedroom closet and unearthed more clothes he’d forgotten about. In the past, he rarely thought too much about what he wore because it never quite changed and erred on the side of utility more than anything else.

 

As he thumbed through the hangers, Sandor rediscovered his red and black buffalo plaid shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps; about as close to a dress shirt as he owned. The fabric fit snug across his shoulders and biceps on account of the muscle mass he’d put on. He rolled the sleeves to his elbows and left the top few buttons unsnapped. A fresh pair of Levis fit well over his black boots with a matching belt and his silver buckle.

 

In the bathroom, Sandor combed out and towel dried his hair that hung loose in waves about his shoulders. He decided that he looked a hell of a lot better now than in an orange jumpsuit, and that at least counted for something. Down the hall, he grabbed his black Stetson along the way.

 

“Well, shit,” Bronn hollered and hopped from the tweed couch. The TV hummed in the background with some show Sandor didn’t recognize, another relic of the world blazing by. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. You even smell nice too.”

 

Bronn clapped Sandor on the back and retreated to the kitchen where he fetched another beer from the fridge and was probably half-way to being tipsy if his unsteady movements were any measure.

 

“Fuck you. I ain’t interested,” Sandor barked through gruff laughter and shoved his wallet in his back pocket.

 

Beer in hand, Bronn leaned against the doorway that separated the living room from the kitchen.

 

“Listen,” he said and the lines on his face deepened. “I know you spent the better part of a decade bunking down with others between the war and being locked up. I don’t assume you really want a roommate. I’m gonna stay with Griff for a while and find a place of my own. All that to say, I’ll be outta your hair soon.”

 

Sandor placed his hat on his head and gave a firm nod. He wasn’t so polite that he’d correct Bronn with some bullshit about his presence being no imposition. For Bronn’s part, this wasn’t just some ploy to extend the invitation. And that was perhaps the thread that held their friendship together all these years, many of which Sandor hadn’t even been around. There was no bullshit between them, and Sandor liked that just fine.

 

“Alright, I’m off,” Sandor said and plucked his keys from the end table near the front door. “If all goes well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Bronn patted Sandor on the back with a cheeky grin and retreated to the couch where he collapsed to the cushion with a resounding sigh and lifted his beer in salute.

 

“Good luck. I hope you find her.” 

 

Something in the parting words stuck with Sandor well after he fired up the truck and whispered his gratitude that the engine hadn’t given out again. Long after he cut through Cactus and navigated the lonesome country roads to the highway, the sentiment still rung dissonant at his core. It echoed through the vacant spaces of his mind in a ghastly tune that he couldn’t drown out even with the radio blaring.

 

I hope you find her.

 

The paranoid part of him thought it sounded an awful lot like condolences; perhaps the same muttered assurances offered to the loved ones of all those missing girls. With each passing mile and song played over the radio, the insistence only grew. His hand tapped the wheel in a nervous rhythm, off beat with the music, and his foot fell heavier against the gas pedal.

 

The rural highway between Cactus and Devil Creek was one long stretch of farmland and fields. A zephyr rustled through tall grass in a gentle caress. That movement and the highway lines mesmerized, but the pit in Sandor’s stomach grew.

 

Long drives were among the few things that could soothe him. He’d let his mind wander as wide and wild as the open landscape dotted with trees and rolling hills. The destination never quite mattered. It was the forward movement, the sense of being somewhere other than where his problems resided. And while he wasn’t so dense as to think he could leave those worries behind, the drive was an exhibition in escape.

 

Only tonight, there was no escape. His worries raced alongside, keeping up and closing in, and chief among them was the prospect of not finding her. Sandor wasn’t one to dwell on things that hadn’t even happened yet, but the idea of leaving Devil Creek empty-handed left him nauseous and preemptively reeling.

 

The only distraction he had was the brilliant way twilight fell in radiant reds and golds as the sun bled out in a kaleidoscope of colors like he’d never seen. It occurred to him only now that he hadn’t witnessed a sunset in far too long. With wonderment on his side, he tossed his troubles to the wind and decided he’d collect them again only if the need arose. Otherwise, there was no sense in bothering.

 

Just as Bronn said, Sandor crossed the border into Devil Creek as the sun died on the western horizon. Like all small towns, the state road became Main Street running right through and punctuated with a handful of stop signs and one stoplight.

 

Grain silos next to the railroad tracks stood as silent sentries looming in the night. Sandor slowed to a near crawl as he reached the main drag. His eyes scanned the storefronts all closed up for the night. Further ahead, a neon sign flashed like a beacon leading the way and Sandor pulled into a parking lot surprisingly crowded for the ghost town he’d just rolled through.

 

Along the back of the brick building, he grabbed the last parking spot available in the large lot and it was hardly a space at all, just an empty patch of grass that he eased into as one in a long line of pickup trucks.

 

Sandor killed the engine and exhaled a laugh. Every small town was the same; all with their run-down bar boasting two-step and live music. Some bars even invested in mechanical bulls with the naïve hope of becoming a tourist trap that’d catapult the town from obscurity. He didn’t rightly care about all that. The only thing that mattered to him—singular in his mind and now carrying the full load of his hopes—was that this shitty, small-town bar had a gorgeous redhead who sang sweet on Saturday nights.

 

He registered only now the way his heart raced, and his palms were slick with sweat. He hadn’t bothered to think through what he might say to her, how he’d explain his sudden presence, or soften the blow of an unwelcome surprise. It was too late now, so Sandor climbed from his truck and adjusted his hat.

 

He walked bowlegged, working out the soreness of his legs from sitting too long, and scanned the lot as he traversed it. Hand in hand, a couple eyed him with staid aloofness as Sandor followed a few steps behind towards the entrance. He realized now that he was the stranger in town, the outsider who no one recognized. Months ago, they might’ve shaken his hand and asked for his name, but even Sandor could feel the foreboding thick in the air of a town on edge.

 

He slowed his steps and let the couple go ahead but approached the door and drew a deep breath. He was nervous in a way he hadn’t been since shipping off to Vietnam, except this was a much different war and the consequences of losing seemed greater.

 

In moments like this, most folk lifted their eyes to the sky and whispered a prayer. Those same idiots claimed that, because the sky was bigger in Texas, God’s blessings were bigger too. Sandor wasn’t an idiot and knew well enough that the sky was just the sky and there wasn’t anyone up there looking after the dumbasses on earth, least of all him.

 

But just in case anything was listening, Sandor lifted his eyes to the inky darkness and dusting of stars, but it wasn’t a prayer that left his lips as he narrowed his eyes at that great big Texas sky.

 

“Don’t fuck with me,” Sandor rumbled to whatever was up above and yanked open the door to The Iron Kraken, the only bar in Devil Creek.

Chapter Text

                                                                                         

                                                                                         

Theon threatened to cancel Saturday night’s gig.

 

“You girls stay home,” he’d said to Sansa and Jeyne and reasoned it was safer that way because only the drunk and depraved would be out on a Saturday night.

 

The precaution was just until things calmed down, of course, but that had been the excuse used all over town—suspended existence until things settled and the maniac was apprehended. That logic suggested things were apt to get better, but they had only gotten worse. More suspicion, more fear, more bodies fetched from rivers and creeks and overgrown tracks of railroad no longer in service.

 

Sansa had refused.

 

Her reasoning—folks needed comfort of the familiarity now more than ever. She wasn’t so arrogant as to think her Saturday night gig would save this town from itself. Her singing was a service of sorts and an example that life moves on and there was something to be said for banding together until the storm blew past.

 

Her instincts had been right. Up on stage, Sansa found new life in her songs, even the worn-out ones she’d been singing every weekend. The entire town had packed into The Iron Kraken tonight. Theon had cleared away the lounge tables and, small though it was, the patrons paired off on the make-shift dance floor and moved in a synchronous two-step rhythm. Wall to wall, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house and the fire marshal might’ve kicked people out for violating code, but the man was too busy drinking and dancing to mind.

 

Even Harwin was in high spirits that infused the chords he played and rhythm he kept. Sansa responded with extra levity in her voice and the sound sweet to even her own over-critical ears. She swayed on stage with the lights a warm caress against her skin.

 

Tailored at her waist, her red satin dress delicately draped over her body and the color suited her sun-kissed skin. She’d even taken extra time to curl her hair, an endeavor that normally wasn’t worth the effort but, if this was her only night out of the house, Sansa intended to make a glamorous affair of it.

 

Well into the second set, the room pulsed with music and laughter, a joyous reprieve from the terror that lurked in the shadows and swept through the town after sunset. We’ll take back the night, Sansa mused with a soft smile as she sang a new song and harmonized with Harwin.

 

She scanned the crowded room and clusters of people—families, neighbors, friends—who savored the collective merriment suffusing the dance floor, lounge, and the bar where Theon and two other bartenders weaved around one another. They worked double-time to keep up with drink orders and only now looked as though they could catch their breath. 

 

With each passing song, another handful of couples departed the dance floor and said their goodbyes. The bar slowly cleared out and felt like a sigh after an adrenaline rush, a gentle end to a wild night. As Sansa’s view cleared, something drew her gaze to the far back wall. A tall man in a buffalo plaid shirt stood there with his face obscured beneath the brim of a black cowboy hat.

 

Inexplicably, Sansa’s heart thrummed a loud beat in her chest, incongruent to the dawdling rhythm of the song she sang. Broad chest and thick arms, the man’s build rather accurately resembled that of Sandor’s whose size and bulk were hard to forget. In fact, Sansa hadn’t been able to get it out of her mind. A welcomed invasion, his presence filtered into all of her daydreams, afternoon desires, and sultry nights where she fantasized about him in ways she never had with any other man.

 

The last note of the song hung tremulous in the air. The remaining patrons whistled, clapped, and called for an encore, but Sansa breathed a distracted laugh into the microphone and eyed the mystery man who reclined against the wall and didn’t move. From beneath his hat, Sansa discerned his jawline—strong and sharp—and the smirk playing on his lips. She swallowed hard and released a breath.

 

It can’t be him.

 

The thought rooted her heart that would go soaring on a breeze of hopefulness if she wasn’t careful. As it stood, Sansa’s feet had only just hit the ground after seeing Sandor face-to-face. She couldn’t afford to be sent off on cloud nine again, drifting somewhere amongst the stars.

 

A handful of folks drifted in front of the man. Vision now obscured, Sansa gripped the microphone and remembered her purpose on stage.

 

“I have one more song.” A tremor ran through her in an unexpected bout of stage fright. She licked her bottom lip and willed the people still talking and laughing and blocking her view to move out of the way. “I suppose it’s a love song and a nice way to end the night. Y’all stay safe out there.”

 

The lingering crowd clapped and erupted into cheers. Sansa turned to Harwin, who counted off the beat and began with a heartfelt strum on his guitar. Her gaze returned to the back wall and the man still there. He’d shifted with his arms now crossed over his chest and lifted his head enough that Sansa swore she saw half his face marred with scars but couldn’t be sure.

 

It’s just a trick of the light.

 

When she missed a note, Harwin gaped at Sansa until she recovered. Her hands shook and her voice was no better. All these weekends, she’d eyed that exact spot and sang her heart out as if Sandor was watching and listening. And now a man who bore such an uncanny resemblance to him had taken up that mantle. She squeezed her eyes shut.

 

It’s my imagination. He’s not really there.

 

She opened them again. He was there and real enough that Theon navigated around him and patted the man on the shoulder as he passed.

 

How could it be him? There’s no way. 

 

Her mind raced and battled to focus on the lyrics, the ones she’d already bungled and stumbled over. And where she normally ended the night on this song because of how much she adored it, Sansa now wished it away, measure by measure. The slow beat was an agonizing crawl to the finish as her pulse picked up and sweat slicked her brow from the stage lights beating hot.

 

The man rested with one leg bent and his black boot pressed to the wall behind him. His thumbs hooked on his belt loops and drew Sansa’s attention to the silver buckle he wore. Her body responded in the same way it had with Sandor; such a sweet ache it was, both torrid and tortuous and born from passion and wanting him near. She missed a man whose touch she’d never felt, whose lips she’d never kissed, whose arms she’d never fallen asleep in. And here she was now, indulging in fantasies that this man might be him.

 

It’s not him. Of course, it’s not.

 

Sansa ended the song two beats too soon and mumbled a thank you into the microphone before unceremoniously exiting the stage and leaving Harwin dumbfounded and fielding all the accolades. She smiled sweetly enough as she crossed the dance floor and accepted the handshakes and compliments folks gave.

 

With distracted courtesy, Sansa drifted across the room; her legs moving without consent and platform heels pounding against the floor in a purposeful rhythm. That purpose was to put this all to bed. She’d confirm this was only an impossible coincidence, apologize to the gentleman for the confusion, and carry on with Sandor existing only in her heart, hopes, and dreams.

 

As she crossed the room, the man didn’t move, but she saw him smile and, when he lifted his head, saw the scars too and his eyes filled with just as much delirious desire as she felt now.

 

Sansa quickly navigated the tables at the edge of the dance floor and ignored the folk vying for her attention. She brushed them off with a mumbled “excuse me” and continued to close the distance between her and a man who was one hell of a dead ringer for Sandor Clegane.

 

Her knees quaked. She’d fall. She’d go right to the floor and her trembling hands would be useless to stop her. She tossed her long hair behind her shoulders and the man stood upright, back straight and arms by his side, as Sansa approached in slow, graceless steps. She stood before him, awestruck at the sight before her eyes, and every thought fled.

 

“Is it really you?” She hardly heard herself speak and knew it was a ridiculous question; absurd and stupid, but the only words that would manifest.

 

His laughter—rough and deep—sealed it. “I don’t know who else it’d be,” he rumbled with a smile. 

 

Sandor stepped out of the shadows and stared down at Sansa, just a breath of space between them now. The indelible and confounding urge to break into both laughter and tears coursed through her. She did neither.

 

Speechless and floundering and now dizzy enough that she was almost certain she’d pass out if she moved, Sansa’s eyes swept over him. Tight jeans clung to his long legs and the silver buckle hung prominently over the bulge in his pants that she gaped at until he laughed again, apparently delighted by her reticent wonderment.

 

Standing in front of him, Sansa appreciated now just how tall he really was and felt the way his presence commanded the room. The top few buttons of his shirt had been left undone to accommodate how muscled his chest and shoulders were. A small patch of chest hair was visible in the open space. No longer distracted by the details of him, Sansa took him in full sight and was rendered speechless by how painfully handsome he looked in a hat, boots, and those jeans.

 

“What…how? Are you allowed to be here?” Sansa heard herself ask as she floated somewhere up above, looking down and feeling every bit as flummoxed as she probably appeared.

 

“That only depends on you,” he answered, shifted nearer, and matched Sansa’s eyes with an imploring gaze. “Are you allowing it?”

 

Sansa stared up at him. The peppery and masculine scent of his aftershave filled the shrinking space between them as he hovered close. She nodded when she registered that he’d asked her a question and hoped “yes” was the right answer because she hadn’t been listening; too mesmerized by his presence and her hands overcome with the urge to touch him. A rapid and frenetic misfiring of all her instincts rendered her paralyzed with silence.

 

“You’re a hard woman to track down.” A smirk lifted one corner of his mouth in a rugged smile that would probably do her in if he did it again, and his eyes danced with something she hadn’t seen in Sandor during their visits. Whatever it was, butterflies besieged her belly, their flutter beckoning another wave of timid reserve. She sweetened it with a shy smile.

 

Say something!

 

“I…I can’t believe you’re here.” She shook her head, still astounded by this turn of events, but the tears finally manifested and welled in her eyes. “You’re really here.”

 

Solemnity must’ve taken over Sandor and wiped clean his smile. His eyes drifted to her hand, which he reached for. His fingers slipped between hers with unmistakable tenderness, a lover’s touch. A shuddering breath passed Sansa’s lips as his thumb swept over her knuckles and she marveled at their hands entwined before gazing up at him again.

 

An unspoken understanding passed between them—no longer sullied by barriers of glass and time and impossible circumstances. Transfixed, they both reveled in their first touch with muted awareness of their surroundings. The world was theirs, and that knowledge—pure, unadulterated, and threatening to burn her alive with the sheer heat of it—sent her into his arms.

 

Sandor stumbled back on his heels at the abruptness as Sansa tossed her arms around his neck and pressed her body against his. When the shock wore off, he wrapped his arms around the small of her back and nuzzled his cheek against hers. She memorized the feel of his stubble softly scratching against her skin, how he smelled, the way he felt, the sound of his ragged breath rustling in her ear as he dipped into their embrace. One hand slipped from her back and he buried his fingers in her hair. When he drew in a deep inhale, Sansa felt his chest expand against her.

 

“It’s you,” she whispered and clung to him tighter and, if it weren’t for her dress or increasingly wayward adherence to ladylike manners, she would’ve jumped in his arms and wrapped her legs around him.

 

Sandor exhaled a quiet laugh, and Sansa closed her eyes to soak in the sound of it. He loosened his hold and she let go too, but he took both of her hands and gave a slight squeeze. Sansa realized only now that she was still shaking like a leaf. In his own brand of nervousness, Sandor rubbed the back of his neck and eyed the dance floor. Sansa followed his gaze to find only a few couples still swaying to the music.

 

“I don’t two-step so I won’t ask for a dance, but I could use a drink and you look like you could use several. And I suppose we’ve got some catching up to do.”

 

Sansa watched the way the words left his mouth and that, along with his voice, sent her adrift on a great big sea of fondness, but she gained more of her speech now. The price she paid for her words was the impossible heat hitting her cheeks. 

 

“I’d love that,” she said through a bright smile.

 

With a coy grin, Sandor took her hand and led the way to the bar and Sansa admired him from behind—the way his toned ass looked in those jeans, the breadth of his arms, his black hair hanging well past the center of his shoulders which were massive.

 

She inspected him with all the gauzy and girlish affection of a lovesick fool, enough that, when Sansa settled next to Sandor at the bar, her eyes fixed on him and she forgot all her manners. In her periphery, she was only vaguely aware of Theon flashing a mischievous grin and extending his hand to Sandor.

 

“Theon Greyjoy. Judging by Miss Stark’s current condition, you must be Sandor. Nice to meet you.” 

 

“Likewise.” Sandor accepted Theon’s handshake and gave their drink order—bourbon neat and a seven and seven. He leaned against the bar and turned to Sansa. The smile he gave was enough for her to rediscover her courtesies and introduce him to Jeyne and Harwin.

 

Wade wandered over with stars gleaming in his eyes and blathered on about Sandor’s bull riding career. Sansa intervened after reading the cues—Sandor’s terse smile and clenched jaw—and sent a tipsy Wade on his way. Jeyne was polite enough but didn’t talk much and looked just as perplexed as Sansa felt. The alcohol running through Harwin and Theon left them far chattier than usual and likely to go on all night.

 

With one foot propped on the bar rail and his forearm resting against the bar top, Sandor turned to Sansa once more. She mirrored him and shifted closer so he could hear her over the music.

 

“We should find a more private place to sit,” she suggested. Her gaze fell to his muscled and tanned forearm as he slid Theon cash to settle up the bill. “I think my friends are a little excitable tonight.”

 

“They wouldn’t be the only ones,” Sandor replied, and his eyes drifted to her lips. Theon returned with their drinks and the change that Sandor left behind as a tip.

 

“Thank you,” Sansa said, and her hand trembled slightly as her glass clanked against Sandor’s in salute.

 

If he noticed, he didn’t let on and instead gave a nod before scanning the lounge. 

 

Sansa led the way to a quiet area that offered perhaps the best chance for privacy—a half-circle booth nestled in the far corner and with a tall back. A dimmed Tiffany lamp hung above the table and a tea light candle flickered in a red glass holder.

 

Sansa scooted into the booth with a buffer of space between her and Sandor, respectable enough to ward off the gossip—Sansa Stark canoodling with a stranger—that’d rip through town otherwise. Besotted by Sandor’s presence, though, that mindfulness would surely melt away.

 

“You’ve got a beautiful voice,” Sandor remarked and tipped his head to the empty stage across the room. His gaze glided down Sansa’s body before returning to her eyes. “Beautiful everything.”

 

“Thank you,” she laughed on a wavering breath and sipped her drink. “You haven’t seen all of me, though.”

 

She hadn’t meant to be cheeky, but Sandor regarded her as if she had. His lips tugged into a grin and longing surfaced in his eyes a darker gray in the murky light.

 

“I intend to.” He spoke in a deep voice against the glass that hovered near his lips and peered at her over the rim.

 

Entirely unbidden, a thin sigh escaped Sansa and she could do even less to help the way she stared at his hands cradling his glass on the table. It looked small in his grasp and she imagined what it might be like to have those strong fingers gripping her thighs or hips.

 

“I have no doubts,” Sansa commented mindlessly. “How long were you here?”

 

Sandor shrugged and swirled his glass against the table. “Half hour, maybe longer.”

 

A flutter rippled through Sansa at the thought of him having watched her for so long. Some part of her had known. His gaze was always heavy against her skin, a signature of sorts, and no man had ever managed its equal.

 

“You could’ve come over.” Sansa nudged him gently with her elbow, and even that slight touch left her giddy and seemed to fire start something in him too. Sandor’s attention, with all its characteristic and wholly consuming weight behind it, landed on her. He eased back in the seat and, in doing so, inched closer.

 

“I liked watching you, hearing you sing,” he murmured.

 

“I saw you,” Sansa replied, just as softly, and did her part to close the distance between them as she scooted closer. Beneath the table, her knee brushed against his. “I didn’t know it was you, but I hoped it was.”

 

Closer now than they’d ever been, Sansa studied his face and Sandor let her in what she suspected was another show of trust. She noticed a faint scar above his lip, the stubble on the unmarred part of his chin, the subtle crease between his brows. And where he might’ve been concerned that she’d find him less handsome up close, nothing diminished except her inhibitions. She’d cede a victory to what she craved and didn’t care what the consequences were.

 

“I told you,” he smirked, and his gaze circuited her face—between her eyes, along her lips, across her cheeks. “Believing is seeing. You must be a real devout believer.” His eyes deliberately dropped between her legs with unmistakable and unabashed brazenness before lifting again with a wink. He looked away and sipped his drink.

 

“I tried calling you the day I got out,” Sandor continued, more serious now. “And every day since,” was the afterthought, quieter and something of a secret he may have thought twice about sharing.

 

“Oh no!” Sansa’s hand flew to her mouth, and the other rested on Sandor’s forearm on the table. “I’ve been staying with Jeyne. I wrote you a letter with her address so you could reach me.”

 

An embarrassed heat surfaced across her cheeks and poured down her chest. There was no way she could’ve known, and the bad timing had little to do with her, but Sansa shouldered some blame anyhow.

 

Sandor cradled his glass between both palms and studied the amber contents for a great long while. He toiled over something unspoken and, just when Sansa had given up hope that he’d share, he stared at her.

 

“I was worried about you. I’m not one to make a mountain out of a molehill, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what’s been going on. I didn’t know it’s as bad as it is. I’m just happy you’re safe.”

 

Sansa gave a smile meant to soothe, but her heart picked up its rhythm and sent her easing even closer to him.

 

“And I’m happy you’re here,” she said and felt her brows knit together. “I still can’t believe it. It’s like a dream.”

 

For a moment, they stared at one another with mutual fascination, similar to how they’d regarded each other from across the glass. As if he remembered the barriers between them were no longer physical, Sandor reached towards her and tenderly brushed the hair from Sansa’s bare shoulder. His fingertips traced the dusting of faint freckles there in a simple touch sodden with intimacy.

 

Sansa’s head swam in a muddled mess that did her limbs no favors either as a numbing buzz vibrated through her.

 

“How long have you been out?” Sansa asked and occupied her hands with her drink, lest they get her into all sorts of trouble with him. “It seems so sudden. I thought you said you had years to go.”

 

Sandor’s head fell against the padded back of the booth and a chuckle poured from his mouth. He appeared no less mystified by the sudden turn of events as she was.

 

“I got out Wednesday. I didn’t expect I’d get parole. It’s crazy to think a week ago I hadn’t even seen you yet.”

 

Sansa regarded Sandor as if he were a mirage ripped from one of her dreams and dropped into reality. When his eyes fixed on her again, he too seemed afflicted with that same sentiment; as if this were all apt to disappear.

 

“Is it strange for you?” Sansa asked.

 

He nodded, and his quiet bewilderment turned melancholic, though he spoke through a soft smile.

 

“Like you, I’m afraid it’s just a dream and I’ll wake up back where I was. My Pop called those white nightmares—where the dream is far sweeter than reality, which is the true horror.”

 

Sansa slipped her hand in his. One thing she hadn’t accounted for was the real-time swapping of anecdotes, no delays or worry that the other might misinterpret. She ran her thumb across the top of his hand and Sandor closed his eyes and drew a deep breath as if to luxuriate in the sensations. When his eyes opened again, he contemplated their hands joined together.

 

“It’s real,” Sansa whispered and edged a little nearer, the space between them now halved and the closing distance not lost on Sandor who observed that space with a devilish glint in his eyes. He gazed at her mouth again and licked his bottom lip in a prelude that quickened Sansa’s breaths. When she thought he might kiss her, Sandor broke with a devious smirk.

 

“You can prove it to me later and we’ll ride out this dream as long as we can, just in case.” He paused momentarily and sipped his drink before glancing at her. “It’s a good thing you live here. I can’t leave Texas for a year. That’s part of my parole terms.”

 

“Who’d ever wanna leave Texas?” Sansa laughed.

 

Sandor chuckled too and lifted one brow at Sansa. “That’s exactly what I said. Although, you’re one to talk. By the sound of it, you ran off the first chance you got.”

 

“I did,” Sansa conceded and sat up straight with a measured inhale. “And I still regret it. I never should’ve left.”

 

She had revealed enough of this story in her letters that she hoped Sandor understood this bit still wounded her in a way. She quieted and couldn’t quite look him in the eye but gazed down into her seven and seven and watched the bubbles disappearing one by one.

 

“Don’t go giving regret any more rope. It’s bound to tie you up.” Sandor offered his wisdom just as Sansa had always imagined it from his letters—a deep voice with a slight twang, simple and firm. “You have a lot to be proud of. Cling to that instead.”

 

Sansa turned to him with one leg partially pulled up on the booth and, though it wasn’t quite ladylike, she didn’t care and neither did he by the looks of it.

 

“You talk about nightmares,” Sansa began with hesitation over words she’d thought but had never spoken, the shape of them foreign on her tongue. “My time in Kansas City was just one long nightmare. I don’t know that it was worth it, though I guess I’m stronger for it.”

 

Sandor’s eyes roved over her, but his appraisal had changed, and a faint smile creased his lips that Sansa noticed were nicely shaped and looked soft.

 

“You were a strong woman before all of that, little bird. You’re the right kind of strong.”

 

Sansa tilted her head and ran one fingertip around the rim of her glass, a movement that momentarily drew Sandor’s attention. “What does that mean?”

 

He shifted close enough now that the space between them no longer existed. “Quiet strength,” he said. “People conflate being cruel and cold with being strong. It takes no courage to be a mean bastard like me. Some of the strongest people I know have the biggest hearts. That’s usually the way it goes.”

 

“You have a gentle heart,” Sansa’s mother used to say, and she never quite knew if it was a compliment or consolation for lacking Arya’s adventurous spirit. The comparison always stung for both her and her sister. The way Sandor looked at Sansa now left no room for misinterpretation.

 

She licked her bottom lip and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “You’re sweet.”

 

“I’m not,” he countered and, with his bicep pressed against her shoulder, leaned into her. “It’s just the truth.”

 

“Well, thank you for saying so.” Sansa nursed another sip of her drink and glanced at him. “Now that you’re free, what are you gonna do?”

 

Sandor thought it over with a deep sigh, but ultimately shook his head and turned his gaze to the ceiling.

 

“The million-dollar question,” he remarked and paused for a moment before looking to her. “You know what’s crazy? I had five years to think about it and never really did. I guess it seemed too far off. My place is in Cactus and my buddy Bronn owns a bar, sort of like this one. I’ll probably go to work there and figure out the rest.”

 

He made it sound so simple and with a nonplussed air that blotted out any obvious concern for his future, but Sandor stared into the remnants of his glass almost empty as if he might find the answers there.

 

“What would you do?” he asked and searched Sansa’s eyes. 

 

She mulled it over for a moment and retraced her own path to freedom and the things she had sought to reclaim of herself.

 

“Anything I wanted,” she responded with a tender smile, in raptures on his behalf that his life was now his own again. “Sing a little, love a little.”

 

He stared at her lips with brow slightly furrowed, battling some invisible foe that she hoped he’d lose to because it probably meant he’d kiss her. She hoped he might.

 

“Just a little?” Sandor sipped his drink but exhaled a laugh into the glass.

 

“No, you got me.” Sansa stared at her hands folded on the table. “I’d love a lot.”

 

“I know,” he whispered with enough affection that it drew Sansa’s gaze back to him. His head tilted slightly to the side. “That’s just the kind of woman you are. For tonight, you can do both.”

 

Sansa bit her lip just as a timid smile bloomed across. “But I already sang.”

 

Her stomach flipped with more butterflies, and heart pounded a driving beat. Sandor reached across her shoulders and drew her to his side. He smelled like bourbon and leather, entirely masculine, and Sansa’s chest rose and fell in frantic movements.

 

“You’ll sing in a different way,” he muttered and leaned so close she could feel the warmth coming off him.

 

She had dreamed of this moment; the luscious and heady romance of their first kiss, the sensations ravaging her body as they were now—heart beating and spirit soaring with dizzying delight—and she could almost taste it.

 

The tip of his nose faintly brushed against hers. “Do you care what people might think?” Each of his whispered words was a caress against her lips.

 

She couldn’t speak, the words all fled, so Sansa merely shook her head as his palm slowly settled at the dip of her waist.

 

“Are you sure?” His lips grazed hers with the slightest of pressure, teasing with what was to come.

 

“Yes.” The question didn’t matter and the answer even less. She could feel the pulse between her legs, the ache for some kind of release.

 

Sandor’s lips—just as supple as she imagined—pressed against hers in a tentative kiss that Sansa thought was chaste and sweet, especially with how his fingers sunk amongst her hair and cradled the back of her head. His tongue ran against her bottom lip and slipped into her mouth, and the fervor set in then. Sansa sunk into the kiss that was as deliberate as it was delicious. The taste of him, his warmth, the urgency and fire behind their first kiss, it was likely to send all her senses flying into the sun and burning up.

 

His mouth worked in concert with his palm that slipped from her waist to stroke the outside of her thigh and disappear beneath her dress. Sansa might’ve protested in some other life where she cared that people were surely watching, but her legs fell apart against his touch. As if he worked some sort of charm on her, she responded to him just as he wanted her to. His hand traveled further up her thigh until reaching the juncture between her legs.

 

His thumb swept against the outside of her cotton panties where wetness soaked through and, inebriated on her desire, Sansa gasped softly and bucked her hips enough to meet his touch, a movement that rewarded her with a throaty groan from Sandor. He slowed the kiss and faintly panted against her mouth.

 

“Fuck,” he sighed with his forehead resting against hers. “We gotta stop or I’m liable to take you right here and put on a show like this town’s never seen.”

 

Sansa protested with a disappointed hum and her palms smoothed up his chest, a solid mass of muscle strong beneath her touch. Her fingertips traced a fastened mother-of-pearl button and her mind toyed with the untamed and entirely uncouth thought of ripping open his shirt with one solid tug.

 

Sandor settled back slightly and flashed a suggestive smile. “I think this is the part where you ask to take me home.”

 

His eyes roamed her body again like a man starved, ravenous in the way he’d consume her, and she could only imagine what thoughts tore across his mind to manifest the way he looked at her now.

 

“I’ve never done that before. I hope you know that,” Sansa admitted with a bundle of nerves in her belly and her voice shook. She wasn’t the kind of girl to take a man home like this, but he wasn’t just any man.

 

Sandor nodded and responded with an adoring grin. The whiplash of competing sentiments—burning desire and tender admiration—sent Sansa’s heart soaring, mind swimming, and body responding.

 

“I do know that. You’re a good girl.” He leaned close again, head tilted to account for the brim of his hat as his mouth hovered just a breath away from hers. “You gonna be a good girl for me tonight?”

 

Sansa nodded and released a soft sigh as his lips grazed her neck. Her head fell back in response as he trailed kisses towards the spot right beneath her ear. He gathered up her hair in his fist and gave a gentle yank.

 

“You know what I mean when I say that?” His words were a low rumble in her ear but effectively pulsated through her.

 

“Yes,” Sansa gasped, and her eyes fluttered shut, entranced by the control he exerted over her with so much ease.   

 

When he pulled away, Sansa opened her eyes and Sandor leisurely traced the pad of his thumb along her bottom lip.

 

“Good,” he said with a faint grin. 

 

“But you’re the man, so you’re supposed to do the asking,” Sansa murmured and steadied her voice, though she veritably floated to the ceiling in disoriented bliss.

 

“I am that,” Sandor replied distractedly and seemed to have not heard her for how singularly focused on her mouth he still was. “Will you let me take you home?”

 

She nodded and whispered, “Yes, I will.”

 

“Good, let’s go,” he mumbled and discreetly reached down the front of his jeans to adjust himself, though there was no hiding a manhood like his in pants like that. Sandor glanced at Sansa, downed his drink, and donned a wicked smile. “Don’t worry. You’ll get your look,” he teased and extracted himself from his seat. 

 

Sansa gathered enough of her composure to slide from the booth. Sandor eyed her from beneath the brim of his hat and held out his hand. She contemplated his calloused palm and long fingers and slipped her hand into his.

 

The town would surely talk and Sansa didn’t have it in her to care; not as curious eyes followed them across the room, not as she gathered up her purse from behind the bar and bid Theon, Harwin, and Jeyne goodnight, not even as she told Jeyne she wouldn’t be staying with her tonight but was going back home instead. Sandor hadn’t flinched at the folk gawking at them and made no bones about taking Sansa home, so neither did she.

 

Hand in hand, he led the way outside and across a mostly empty parking lot to a black truck with polished chrome details that caught the streetlamp’s dull light. Sansa chased down her frenzied thoughts for something to say and hoped he didn’t notice the way her hand trembled.

 

“Did you drive here?” Sandor asked almost as an afterthought as they approached his truck.

 

“No, I rode with Jeyne.” Her response sounded meek and frazzled even to her own ears.

 

He glanced at her and cleared his throat, and it occurred to Sansa only then that he might be nervous too. She’d never know it for the way he carried himself—assured, confident, and lacking all the put-on airs of a rhinestone cowboy. Sandor Clegane was the real deal, and Sansa was both terrified and enraptured.

 

He opened the driver side door and helped Sansa climb in. She slid across the bench seat to the passenger side and watched as Sandor settled behind the wheel. The truck’s rumbling engine provided enough white noise to break up the silence between them. She directed the handful of turns back to her house and wove some sweetness into her voice so he wouldn’t mistake her nervousness as second-guessing.

 

Sandor kept his eyes on the road and drove slowly through her neighborhood and Sansa took the opportunity to study him. He must’ve felt her gaze. His back straightened, and he swallowed hard with his sharp jaw tensing.

 

“This one right here.” Sansa pointed to her house and Sandor responded with a silent nod and pulled into the driveway next to her Cutlass. 

 

He killed the engine, exposing the anxiousness that existed in the quiet between them, and turned to Sansa with his arm draped over the back of the seat. Beneath the burden of his intense gaze, she stared at her hands folded in her lap, feeling like a fool. She’d been brave behind the glass that’d separated them on their visits and talked a big game that she’d have to make good on now.

 

“Aren’t you scared of me?” Sandor asked on a gruff voice, but she heard the doubts clear enough. “A convict, a man you just met.”

 

It never occurred to Sansa to fear him like that, not even now as she was moments away from inviting him into her home and into her bed, and she knew herself well enough to know that that would double as an invitation into her heart too.

 

She searched his face cast in shadows. “Should I be?”

 

“No,” he replied firmly and matched her eyes. “I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you. You know that, right? I hate fire, but I’d burn this whole world up if anyone ever tried.”

 

With his arm resting behind her, Sandor’s fingers wound through her hair and he licked his bottom lip. His hand cupped her shoulder and urged her path along the seat. Nestled against his side and with his arm wrapped around her back, Sansa stared at him. Sandor’s palm cradled the side of her face and his thumb traced her cheekbone.

 

“I believe you,” Sansa murmured.

 

When she dropped her eyes, he leaned closer and pressed his lips to hers in a surprisingly gentle kiss for such a hard man. Her lips parted and Sandor’s tongue slipped into her mouth with slow and sensuous ministration. The nerves dissolved away, and Sansa sunk into him.

 

With his forehead resting against hers, the tension in his body seemed to dissipate.

 

“Wait here,” he said and, with a quick kiss, slid from the truck and circled around to the passenger side where he opened the door.

 

Sansa accepted his hand with a winsome smile as she slipped from the truck.

 

“What?” he asked on a small, exhaled laugh and looked to her as though he couldn’t reconcile the fondness he surely saw in her.

 

“You’re a gentleman.” Sansa gripped his hand along the way to the front door and, with the other, fished out the keys from her purse.

 

“There’s nothing gentle about me, not unless you want it gentle,” he quipped. “But a real man knows how to treat a woman right.”

 

They reached the door which Sansa fumbled to unlock as her fingers suddenly lost all dexterity or will to cooperate. It didn’t help that she knew Sandor watched her in the pale light. When she managed the task, Sansa pushed through the door with Sandor following behind.

 

He hovered in the living room as Sansa turned on the table lamps that put off a hazy glow. She wasn’t trying for romance exactly, but it must’ve seemed that way as she put on the record player, asked Sandor to make himself at home, and offered him a drink.

 

He removed his hat and smoothed back his hair but didn’t sit, and Sansa didn’t bother with the lights in the kitchen. Her trembling hands groped around the cabinets for two highball glasses and, in a bout of bumbling tension, she forgot where she kept the whiskey. She stilled when his shadow blotted out the dull light spilling in from the living room.

 

With her back to him, she heard Sandor move across the room, his boots hitting the floor in slow thuds. Her pulse raced and she clung to her poise, but it slipped through her ungainly fingers that pulled the whiskey from the cabinet and almost knocked the bottle over as she set it to the counter.

 

As his presence neared, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Sansa closed her eyes when she felt the warmth and pressure of Sandor’s chest at her back. Wedged between the counter and him, she gripped his forearms now snaked around her middle. One of his hand’s slid up her stomach to cup her breast and the other grasped her waist. She felt small in his arms and loosed a broken sigh when his lips delivered kisses up her neck.

 

“You’re shaking,” he muttered in her ear, his breath divine against her skin. “I thought you said you aren’t scared.”

 

“I’m not. I’m just nervous.” Sansa clumsily poured two glasses of whiskey that splashed against the counter in a fine mess. Just give it up. 

 

She slammed the bottle down harder than she intended and turned in his arms. Too ashamed to look at him, she fixed her eyes to his chest and the buttons undone on his shirt. The dark chest hair and thick swathes of muscle didn’t help her cause.

 

“It’s been a long time for me and I know it has for you too and I don’t want to disappoint you because I feel like we’ve been building up to this and I just didn’t expect you to be here tonight and I—”

 

Sandor’s lips crushed against hers in a fevered kiss that halted the rambling torrent of words spilling from her mouth. He bucked his hips against hers in a languid roll, his manhood rock hard against her.

 

With his large hands gripping the edge of the counter on either side of her, Sandor eased forward to meet her eye line.

 

“I don’t think you could disappoint me if you tried,” he muttered against her mouth between soft kisses and reached behind her for a highball glass. “This will help.”

 

Sansa nodded, perhaps a bit too eager and just as eagerly sipped the whiskey that burned the back of her throat. She coughed but swallowed it down, and Sandor breathed a rasping laugh as he took the glass from her. He downed the rest of the contents and returned the glass to the counter.

 

With effortless ease, he scooped up Sansa who wrapped her legs tight around his hips. Much like the drive home, she pointed the way to the bedroom, but relished the taste of whiskey on his lips the whole way down the hall and intensified the kiss with each step he took.

 

Sandor nudged open the bedroom door with the tip of his boot in what was probably meant to be gentle. When the door collided against the adjacent wall, Sansa laughed against Sandor’s mouth as he dropped her to the bed before turning on the lamp.

 

Sansa settled back on her elbows that sunk into the mattress and drank in the sight of Sandor as he shucked out of his shirt and kicked off his boots. His stomach was a rippled expanse of taut muscle, tanned and well-defined in the gauzy light. She’d never seen a man like him—the sheer magnetism of his strength and masculinity, the power and intensity behind his eyes now squarely on her.

 

“Your turn,” he commanded and, with one hand extended to her, pulled Sansa from the bed. She slipped from her platforms and released a fragile breath as Sandor settled behind her once more. With her back pinned against his bare chest, Sandor turned towards the dresser mirror opposite the bed.

 

He met her gaze in the reflection as the two of them discovered in unison the pair they made—his ruggedness and strong profile in splendid contrast to Sansa’s delicate features and femininity she wholly embraced. Without breaking his stare, Sandor swept the hair from Sansa’s neck, and she tilted her head to expose its length. He dipped to kiss the top of her collarbone.

 

“Tell me this is what you want and it’s not just something you’re giving me.”

 

His grumbling voice vibrated through her and Sansa’s head fell back against his chest. Her lips parted in aching expectation and her heaving chest drew his eyes.

 

“I want this too.”

 

The declaration came almost like a moan, breathy and yearning. If he couldn’t take her word for it, he’d see it clear enough in the red of her cheeks and the desire running ravage behind her eyes.

 

Sandor’s fingers slipped beneath the thin straps of Sansa’s dress and he slid them from her shoulders and down her arms. With one tug, the dress passed her hips and pooled on the floor. Her bare breasts rose and fell in time with her tattered breaths, and Sansa lifted her arms to clasp her hands gently behind Sandor’s neck.

 

He stilled behind her, all but his hands that ran up the bare expanse of her stomach and palmed her breasts. Even in the reflection, Sansa saw the hunger in his eyes. He’d feast on her tonight, and the thought alone sent an enthralled chill up her spine. She shuddered beneath his touch as he rolled each of her nipples between his thumb and forefinger.

 

“My God, you’re a gorgeous woman.” His chin rested on her shoulder and he stared at her in the mirror. A pink blush seeped across her chest and she bit her bottom lip as a small moan hummed at the back of her throat. One of Sandor’s hands slipped between her legs and, with his forefinger, he traced her slit from the outside of her underwear in a light touch.

 

“I know how to make you feel good,” he whispered in her ear and flicked her earlobe with his tongue. “And you know it, don’t you?”

 

Sansa swallowed hard and nodded.

 

“You just need to relax,” he said and kissed her cheek.

 

Something softened in his eyes and Sandor took Sansa’s hand and led her to the bed where he encouraged her to lie down. She eased back on the pillow with stilted rigidity and watched Sandor shed the rest of his clothes.

 

As he stood at the edge of the bed, an inadvertent peep escaped Sansa at the sight of his erect manhood, far bigger than the only other man she’d been with. She couldn’t help how she gaped at him with splendid glee and didn’t care if he saw how her eyes widened or lips curled in a smile.

 

A dark chuckle rumbled from Sandor as he took himself in hand. His thumb swirled over the tip and spread the liquid pearling there. He gave two strokes of his shaft before crawling onto the bed and climbing on top of Sansa.

 

Huddled under him and with their legs intertwined, Sansa craned her neck for a tender kiss, but Sandor’s tongue plunged into her mouth. He sent the nerves away and Sansa bloomed beneath him, losing herself in his taste, the warmth, the roiling passion behind every touch and kiss, like a storm gathering electric and powerful on the horizon.

 

Her fingers sunk into his hair and she pressed her thighs against his hips, well aware of his thick manhood brushing between her legs. She felt her lower lips part, wet and pulsing with the promise of what was to come. Sandor’s hands roamed the silhouette of her curves with unbridled desire she felt in his touch and the way he held her against him as if she might fly away.

 

When he finally broke the kiss, it was only for his mouth to explore the path from her neck to between her breasts. He took one in hand and brought her nipple to his lips that teased as he spoke.

 

“Did you touch yourself thinking about me?” Sandor gazed up at her and his tongue flicked her nipple in a delectable prelude to his lips as he sucked with more tenderness than she expected.

 

Sansa exhaled a quivering breath and nodded. Her knees fell apart by some instinct burning through her now, leaving her skin hot and mind numb. The only faculties she had left were dedicated to the way he was making her feel, and he had only just started.

 

“Good girl.” Sandor’s voice resonated from his chest in a sweet vibration against her. His fingers curled around Sansa’s underwear at the hips and he slid them to her knees.

 

Gazing at her with eyes heavy-lidded and lust-laden, he propped himself on his elbow next to her.

 

“Like this?” His mouth swept against hers as one long finger swiped between her slick lower lips. Sansa nodded again and sighed into his kiss.

 

“And this?” The pad of his finger grazed her clit with a delicate pass and Sansa’s head fell back against the pillow with some muttered nonsense.

 

“Yes,” she whispered, spread her legs, and writhed her hips against his touch. “Like that.”

 

Sandor bundled two fingers and slid them inside of her. Sansa gasped and her eyes fluttered as he guided her hand to wrap around his shaft. “You think about me, hard and inside of you?”

 

His breath was a hot pant against her lips, interspersed with licks and nips. She felt him tense beneath her touch as her fingers slid up and down his hard cock, and Sansa fully savored the sensations rolling through her body now.

 

“Show me what else you thought about,” Sandor murmured with his head lolled back and eyes squeezed shut. 

 

Encouraged by the desire to please him and explore in her own right, Sansa extracted herself from underneath him and, with a gentle nudge, urged him to lay back on the pillow. He obliged and observed as Sansa maneuvered down his body. She pressed her lips to his chest damp with sweat and followed the trail of hair down his abdomen.

 

On all fours, she balanced on one forearm and wrapped her hand around the base of Sandor’s shaft. In a tantalizing sweep, her pursed lips ran up his length until reaching the head of his cock where she teased with a lady-like lick.

 

Emboldened, Sansa gazed up at Sandor. He stared back, chest heaving and seemingly overcome with wild anticipation. It pushed him towards the edge where all prelude ended, and he’d fuck her senseless just like he promised.

 

His eyes drifted to the mirror across the room and Sansa gazed over her shoulder. On all fours, her pink lips peeked out from between her legs still pressed together. Slowly, she straddled his knees, spreading her legs for him to see and revealing her glistening wetness. Sandor responded with a ragged grunt as he ran his palms over his face.

 

When she turned back around, Sansa took as much of him in her mouth as she could. Her tongue swirled over the head of his thick cock and she listened in rapt to every sound he made—each deep, rumbling groan that left her pulsing between the legs; the way he breathed her name or muttered through indiscernible moans.

 

“Goddamn, that gorgeous mouth of yours. Fuck,” he panted with a hand at the back of her head and his fingers buried in her hair.

 

His hips rolled, forcing more of himself into her mouth, and Sansa sucked harder, her lips meeting the top of her hand that curled around his shaft. A sudden movement, Sandor pushed Sansa from him and sat up. She shot up as well, wide-eyed and ready to apologize for having done something wrong, but Sandor reached forward and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand.

 

“We’ll have to go slow or this will be over too soon.”

 

If he was embarrassed, Sansa wouldn’t know. His cheeks flushed and chest heaved and Sansa smiled as she settled back on her knees, beaming with both pride and a rush that she could leave a man like Sandor nearly indisposed as he was now; still panting to catch his breath and gazing at her like he never wanted to look away.

 

“Turn around,” Sandor commanded and leaned forward to yank Sansa by the hips and drag her towards him.

 

“Hmm?”

 

Her quizzical response went unanswered as her body followed his subtle demands. She turned around and found herself on hands and knees and straddling him backwards. With one hand, he guided his cock towards her mouth, and, to Sansa’s utter delight and confusion, she felt his tongue between her legs, licking her folds with no moment of hesitation or introduction. His manhood in her mouth dampened Sansa’s moans.

 

No man had ever done this to her. She’d been curious, but Joffrey had refused. And where he had been disgusted at the thought of putting his mouth between her legs, Sandor feasted to satiate a ravenous appetite with savoring licks, soft kisses, and gentle sucks of her clit.

 

“This is what I thought about.” Each exhaled breath was a cool burst at the heat between her legs and interspersed as he tongued her. Sansa tried to focus, to pleasure him the best she could, but her movements became altogether graceless.

 

“All those nights alone…” Sandor slid one finger inside of her. “With your pictures…” As his finger thrust into her, his lips dove between her legs again and the tip of his tongue slowly circled her clit. “I thought of this. How your sweet little pussy tastes. How fucking wet you are, soaked between the legs. Tight. Just for me. How hard I’ll make you come.”

 

Sansa couldn’t see straight. Her vision blurred, so she closed her eyes, but trembled on her forearms. Focus. She tried to focus on sucking, on making him feel like she did now. Her heart slammed in her chest and the moans pouring from her lips filled the room. Sansa took more of Sandor in her mouth, every sound of pleasure she made vibrating in the back of her throat.

 

As soon as she found some rhythm, she lost it again as Sandor sat up, grabbed her by the waist, and tossed her to the mattress, paralyzing her yet again with the abruptness. He settled between her legs that wrapped around his hips and kissed her hard. As his mouth crushed against hers, Sansa felt his length slide between her lower lips and the pressure of his tip at her opening. She clung to his shoulders and sucked in a sharp breath as he eased inside of her.

 

“Fuck, girl,” he seethed and hung his head.

 

The curtain of his hair fell against Sansa’s cheeks as he rested his forehead against hers. At first, he moved at a languid pace, pulling his length out to the tip before gliding back in. Sansa matched the cadence he set and rolled her hips against each thrust. Her arms circled his broad shoulders and she marveled at the way he filled her up, the pressure at her clit, and the weight of him on top of her. Even her wildest fantasies of him fell short of the reality now.

 

He eased up to kneel and, with the crook of Sansa’s knees hooked on the inside of his elbows, Sandor spread her legs further apart. He bit his bottom lip hard with a loud grunt as he watched the way he moved in and out of her, his shaft slick and Sansa taking as much of him inside as she could.

 

Her eyes squeezed shut and the solid thud of her heart came disjointed with her frantic breaths. The sensations burst against the black behind her eyes as Sansa cried out and her peak surged through her.

 

When she opened her eyes again, she pulled Sandor towards her with an ardent and primitive desire to feel his weight on top of her again. Lost in pleasure, Sandor obliged and leaned forward with his palms on either side of her shoulders as he drove himself deeper inside of her.

 

Sansa cupped both of his cheeks, but he pulled away slightly as if by instinct; perhaps he’d never let a woman touch the burned side of his face, or maybe he wasn’t accustomed to the kind of intimacy Sansa sought to establish between them.

 

She kept her eyes open, matched to his, and held onto him like a lover would. He relented and leaned his burned cheek into her palm. With that simple gesture, they turned a corner from the pure pursuit of carnal pleasure and fell into a rhythm as one.

 

As Sansa kept his gaze, Sandor’s pace slowed and, when he leaned forward, the way he kissed her changed too with the passion behind it seeking more than just release. He collapsed to his forearm and caressed her cheek.

 

“You feel so good, little bird,” he panted against her mouth. “You gonna sing again for me, hmm?”

 

Her arms coiled tighter around his shoulders. She drew Sandor close and nodded with a breathy moan that he interrupted with another soft kiss, sweet on her lips and even more so sheltered in her heart.

 

I want you. I want all of you.

 

Thoughts a dizzying mess mismatched to her tongue, the only words Sansa could manage were poor consolation to how her heart wanted him in ways she hadn’t acknowledged until now.

 

“More. Please. God, more,” was all she could muster, and Sandor lifted himself from her with a throaty chuckle, not recognizing the way she longed to be closer to him.

 

He flipped Sansa around and guided her to all fours. Once more, she obliged on her hands and knees. From behind, he buried himself inside of her and Sansa collided to her forearms, forgetting all about what her heart wanted. Now all she wanted was this. More. Harder. All of him.

 

Sandor pumped in a faster rhythm and Sansa gripped the sheets and threw her head back with a resounding moan. His hands circled her waist as he thrust, his hips slamming into her backside.

 

“You want more?” he rumbled on a seething breath. “Say it again. Tell me you wanna be fucked hard.”

 

“Please,” Sansa begged and sang with rising ecstasy that threatened to break upon her now.  “Fuck me, please!”

 

With one hand, Sandor gathered up the length of Sansa’s hair and gave a firm yank. The other hand pressed her into the mattress as he thrust deep inside of her. Another blinding release came hard and quick for Sansa. She buried her face in the mattress that dampened her cry. Her knees slid apart and every part of her felt like it was coiling and uncoiling and pulsing around him.

 

As Sansa rode the long wave of dazzling pleasure with her vision a blur and limbs numb, Sandor quickly pulled himself out of her. He took his cock in hand and, with a few quick strokes, thundered his own release, head tossed back, his long hair sweeping down his back. He gripped her hip for purchase as warm liquid splattered Sansa’s back all the way up to her shoulder blades.

 

With her cheek pressed against the pillow, Sansa didn’t move and listened as Sandor caught his breath behind her. When he hadn’t stirred or said anything, she lifted her head from the mattress and turned over her shoulder. For a moment, he simply chuckled with eyes closed and a smile Sansa hadn’t yet seen on him.

 

In a clumsy fall, Sandor hunched over her and planted kisses to her cheek. When Sansa turned to search out his lips, he’d already removed himself from the bed and strode into the hall. She collapsed to her stomach, too spent and her limbs unable to bear her weight any longer as a luscious hum coursed through her body that was covered in a sheen of sweat.

 

Sandor returned with a hand towel from the bathroom and wiped his seed from her back before tossing the towel to the floor. He flopped next to her and propped his arms behind his head with his lips lifted in a sated grin.

 

When he closed his eyes, Sansa studied his face in the soft yellow light. His hooked nose now sported a subtle line where the bridge had healed up slightly crooked from the break. Stubble dusted his chin and his cheekbones appeared sharper up close. A handsome man and a lover like she never could’ve imagined, Sansa couldn’t take her eyes off him. But it was a different kind of desire that drew her closer and scooting across the rumpled bed linens between them.

 

Sandor cracked an eye open, and his brows knit together in fleeting confusion that quickly vanished.

 

“Come here,” he grumbled and reached one arm over to scoop her up and tuck her against his side. His fingertips traced her spine and Sansa nuzzled her cheek against his chest. Her palm rested against his breastbone and Sansa watched the rise and fall of her hand slow. Just when she thought he was well on his way to slumber, Sandor’s mouth crooked in another smile.

 

“Don’t get too comfortable,” he said with sleep quick upon him whether he liked it or not. “We won’t be sleeping much tonight.”

 

He kissed her forehead and, with his arm draped over her side, pulled her nearer in what Sansa decided was a hallmark of his affection.

 

The thrill of it all left her faintly lightheaded but wide awake now and back to where she had begun—enthralled and fearful. That fear had taken on a different shape, no longer conceived from anticipation and mystery of what was to come.

 

All had been revealed now, and Sansa should’ve known it would happen this way. As she watched him fall asleep, it felt like tossing her heart to the wind, soaring and sailing and worrying about the eventual fall; how bad it might hurt, or perhaps the coming down wouldn’t be so painful and she’d find a soft place to land in his good graces.

 

In his letters to her, Sandor had issued a ribald warning—he wanted her in this way and would take her as he just had. Sansa probably should’ve issued a warning of her own—her heart had ended up back on her sleeve, even though it had been so thoroughly broken, and he needed to take care because she never had learned the art of loving just a little. 

Chapter Text

                                                                                       

                                                                                       

Dawn broke on a new day and it might as well have been another reality. Sandor couldn’t retrace the path that brought him here. Pastel hues drenched the bedroom in the murky light of fresh morning. He looked over to Sansa, peaceful in her sleep and her auburn hair fanned across the pillow. With her back to him, he reveled in the dip of her waist, the slope of her hip; her smooth skin and gentle heart that’d already made a place for him.

 

Throughout the night, she had offered him foreign tenderness he hadn’t incorporated in his fantasies of her. The best he’d hoped for was her trust, enough to let him into her bed. The bit about her heart was another matter.

 

The danger in fulfilled fantasies, Sandor knew, was that they had a funny way of being lackluster. It only occurred to him in hindsight that he might’ve prepared himself for that possibility on his drive to Devil Creek. It wouldn’t have mattered, and he wouldn’t have needed a preempt to disappointment.

 

Nothing about Sansa had disappointed and he realized now how thoroughly he had undersold the girl in his imaginings—the way she moved, talked, laughed, and loved. Above all, he’d gravely miscalculated the swift and firm hold she had on him, and Sandor’s own heart was in quite the quandary too.

 

Content to sort it out later, he and Sansa rose and washed up in the shower where they took the time for languid exploration. In the heat of the night, Sandor had consumed Sansa like a wild tonic that wholly inebriated. He wasn’t a man of God, but now found reason to worship on Sunday morning. And worship he did; testifying to all the sinful ways he’d indulge in her, and each panting breath and resounding moan was a covenant between them.

 

Out of the shower, Sandor had gotten another glimpse of Sansa when she led him to an unused bedroom and dug through the closet for one of her brother’s t-shirts.

 

Sansa never boasted about her distant past, but the room spoke where her humility didn’t. Trophies and tiaras lined shelves on the wall that held framed pictures of Sansa dolled up and smiling with light that damn near rivaled the sun. On the back of the door, a Miss Texas sash hung faded and precarious on a hook like a sad endnote to a dead dream.

 

He didn’t ask about it, and she didn’t tell, but the stories gathered in the corner of the room like cobwebs, vacant artifacts of what used to be. Sansa found a white t-shirt that held the greatest promise of fitting him and kissed him sweetly.

 

By the time Sandor got dressed, brushed out and dried his hair, and wandered into the kitchen, Sansa had already dug out fixings for breakfast; everything she could find and anything he wanted. She announced she’d feed him right today and approached the task with as much zealous tenacity as she did her lovemaking.

 

Sandor sat at the kitchen table with his back against the wall. Crossed at the ankle, he stretched out his legs and folded his hands over his middle. His gaze fixed on Sansa and followed her as she moved gracefully about the kitchen. He already knew she was the kind of woman who relished taking care of her man, but he still marveled at the propensity.

 

Sansa fried him up steak and eggs and chattered a mile a minute about the rabbits getting into her garden and projects she planned for the house. He’d only cleared half his plate when she heaped bacon on it and planted a kiss on his cheek. She made her coffee strong, pancakes sweet, and Sandor studied her now over the brim of his mug.

 

“This is my mother’s recipe,” she told him with a mixing bowl balanced on her hip. As she whisked the batter, her voice trilled like a bright song in the small kitchen. She gave him an equally luminous smile. “I just adore lemon cakes.”

 

The whisk whipped quicker in the bowl, and Sansa didn’t seem to notice the bits of batter that flung against the apron around her waist. She gazed at him with dreamy distraction, a look Sandor had seldom received from a woman. When he had, they were usually drunk and looking for a man who knew how to fuck.

 

Head resting against the wall, Sandor cracked a smile.

 

“What?” Sansa beamed and turned half-way to the counter where she upended the mixing bowl over a greased pan but still kept Sandor’s eyes.

 

“You’re a good woman.”

 

“Thank you,” she laughed and ran a spatula around the bowl. While she picked up on the sincerity of his statement, the gravity hadn’t sunk in.

 

Good girls were a dime a dozen in Texas. They loved Jesus and took care of their families. They got married and had babies and lived their lives in quiet desperation. They smiled nice on Sundays and had enough manners to judge harshly behind closed doors. Good girls didn’t appeal to Sandor, and perhaps that’s what Sansa thought he meant.

 

Good women stepped out of the shadow and sham of the good girl—brave enough to stand on their own when it wasn’t the easier path; strong enough to not compromise compassion or turn cruel; and generous enough to love deeply and sincerely. And sometimes they made their man lemon cakes too.

 

If ever there was a good woman, Sansa was one of them, and Sandor contemplated her now with mounting fondness. She popped the pan into the oven and spun around to him. The skirt of her yellow sundress and the frilly bottom of her apron swirled about her legs as she held out the spatula covered in batter.

 

“Do you want to lick it?” she asked with exuberance at sharing this part of the baking ritual with him.

 

With the way the girl talked about lemon cakes, Sandor deduced the great honor it was to be offered the spatula. He shook his head and, in deliberate movements, sat up from the wall and planted his feet to the floor. Sansa’s plush lips parted with an almost indiscernible gasp that meant she knew damn well what was coming, enough that she tossed the spatula into the mixing bowl.

 

“No, I wanna lick you.” He leaned forward and corralled Sansa by her hips. A sweet blush surfaced on her cheeks, and she settled between his legs with her hands resting on his shoulders.

 

“You’ve been licking me plenty,” she giggled and bit her bottom lip as Sandor’s palms ran up the back of her thighs and beneath her skirt.

 

He matched her blue eyes gone wide with what he understood now was doe-eyed anticipation—innocent enough to allure, but not so much that she’d refuse all the ways he meant to bring her pleasure. That was another distinction between a good woman and a good girl. A good woman shouldered no shame in being properly fucked.

 

“I intend to lick you more and in places you haven’t thought of yet.”

 

Sansa’s smile hadn’t diminished, and she didn’t flinch, though Sandor wondered if she truly knew what he meant. He gripped her ass that was firm and pert and wasn’t so small that it’d disappear in his palms. When he massaged it, Sansa closed her eyes with a sigh. That alone was proof she’d like what he had in mind, whether she realized it or not.

 

He turned Sansa around and urged her to sit on his lap. One hand cupped her breast, and the other swept her hair from her shoulder where Sandor trailed kisses. As his lips meandered up her neck, she sunk into him and her hands clutched his forearm.

 

“In the meantime,” he grumbled against her ear and sucked the lobe.

 

Sandor lifted Sansa from his lap, and she turned over her shoulder with a tantalizing smile when his hands dipped beneath her skirt once more. He slid her underwear down her thighs and let it fall to the floor.

 

“Lift your skirt and bend over.”

 

With his subtle command, Sandor gently nudged her towards the counter. She rested her forearms against the edge and walked backwards until bent at the waist. Sandor stood enough to grab the seat of the chair and drag it across the kitchen to settle behind Sansa.

 

She lifted her skirt and gathered it around her waist but said nothing. For a moment, he mistook her silence as trepidation. Throughout the night, Sandor had confused that reticence as fear until he realized, while Sansa wasn’t inexperienced, she hadn’t been with a man like him; one who paid attention to all the gorgeous sounds she made and recognized both the challenge and reward in bringing her pleasure.

 

Sansa swiveled her head over her shoulder with anticipation already tugging her lips into a coy smile. Sandor smoothed his hands over her ass again and admired once more its perfection; how it begged to be kissed and licked. He lifted one finger and traced the slit between her perfect pink lips peeking between her legs and, while he wanted nothing more than to slide the length of his hard cock between those supple lips, this wasn’t about him.

 

His mouth lavished her firm ass with attention, tongue tracing the shapely slope down to where the cheek met her leg. The tip of his tongue parted her folds in one tender lick that earned him a breathy exhale from Sansa.   

 

“Spread your legs,” he muttered against her lower lips that were soaked and warm, the taste of her faintly sweet and to be savored.

 

Savor he did; as much for his own enjoyment as hers with kisses just a prelude to the flick of his tongue. Sansa collapsed further against the counter, her forehead resting on her folded arms and her moans came muffled. Sandor gripped her hips and sucked on each lip before his tongue teased its way to her clit.

 

Lost in the symphony of sounds she made—each more irresistible than the last—the heat between her legs, the wet flush against his lips, Sandor groaned and something about the rumble in his chest drove her wild. Sansa’s legs trembled and fell further apart, and he swore she’d fall to the ground if it weren’t for the grasp he had on her. She ground against him, hips rolling to meet every lick, and her head fell back with a loud cry.

 

Sandor pulled his mouth away and slid two fingers inside of her.

 

“You gonna come hard for me, little bird?” he panted with quick, shallow strokes of his fingers and filled with awe at the cascading length of her hair down her back and her beautiful face contorted in ecstasy when she turned around to look at him.

 

“Please,” Sansa gasped. “I want you! Please!” she cried out and pulsed around his fingers, tighter and wetter with her climax.

 

Sandor chuckled because no woman had ever begged so sweetly for him to fuck them. “No, you have to wait.”

 

His fingers were drenched, and he sucked on them to savor her taste. Chest heaving and her cheeks crimson red, Sansa turned around to Sandor again and, whether she meant to or not, a soft whine eased from her lips and her eyes flicked to his cock straining against his pants.

 

“Is that not enough?” His tongue delved between her soaked folds once more and circled her opening that she so badly wanted fucked. “You want another?”

 

Sansa wasn’t too proud to nod and ease her ass forward once more in shy command but was perhaps too polite to beg him to bury himself inside of her. Sandor went to work between her legs, his thumb lightly stroking her swollen clit and each swipe of his tongue casting its own rhythm. Where she might’ve tempered herself before, Sansa tossed her inhibitions aside now. She gripped the edge of the counter and arched her back. Her body loosened as she rolled her hips against his lips with untamed abandon now.

 

Her second peak came quicker but harder too and ended with a heavy sigh as she crumpled to the counter. Sandor stood from the chair and bent forward to kiss Sansa’s cheek. Eyes closed, she gave a sleepy smile and hummed softly. When she eased from the counter, Sansa smoothed down her skirt and apron, and Sandor handed Sansa her underwear.

 

“What about you?” she cooed and snaked her arms around his middle.

 

He brushed the hair from her cheek and his palms cupped both sides of her neck.

 

“You’re sweet. I’ll give you a ride later and we’ll call it even. How’s that?”

 

For Sandor, a woman’s come down from passion normally meant reality setting in again with distant civility that bordered on being cold. He never minded much and dished it out too, and it seemed a more honest existence. With Sansa, her release beckoned warmth and a desire to be nearer. He held her in his arms that slipped to the small of her back.

 

“I love that idea,” she whispered, but every bit of her was possessed with something of the heartfelt. She spoke with softness that carried the weight of so much behind it. 

 

“Me too.” Sandor dipped his head and parted her lips with his tongue in a heated kiss. He lacked her command of loving words and tried to make up for that deficit in other ways. Only now, it occurred to him it might not be enough, so he held her tighter. “Better get those lemon cakes outta the oven,” Sandor murmured against her mouth. “I wouldn’t want all your hard work to go to waste.”

 

“It wouldn’t be a waste.” She smiled, rolled to her toes to deliver a soft kiss, and pulled her lemon cakes from the oven. 

 

As she poured a glaze over the cake, Sansa chirped about wanting a picnic and gazed with childlike wonderment out the kitchen window at the clear blue sky and big cotton ball clouds ambling across. And because Sandor was well down the unpaved path of giving her anything she wanted, he agreed with a doting smile. She squealed and bounced over to him with unbridled joy at something so simple. It occurred to Sandor then that he could do far worse than to be with a woman who cherished such small pleasures with boundless delight.

 

Sansa packaged up slices of lemon cake and hummed happily to herself, perhaps unaware of how Sandor observed her and how he wanted her now in a way he hadn’t expected but probably should’ve seen coming. A blinding epiphany, he understood now all the ways she wanted him closer. He wanted it too.

 

When she was finished, Sansa kissed him on the cheek and dug out a gingham blanket. It matched the lining of her picnic basket she handed off to him. On the way out the door, Sandor retrieved his Stetson and secured it on his head. He loaded the basket, heavy with the whiskey bottle and sweet wine, and blanket into the bed of his truck and helped Sansa into the passenger seat. The heat and humidity broke today, and the sun dipped behind voluminous clouds that raced across the sky. Sandor’s truck rumbled down the empty neighborhood street.

 

As the radio hummed low, they rolled down the windows. The warm breeze whipped through the truck and lifted Sansa’s hair as she giggled at half the things he said. Sandor never pegged himself as humorous, just observant of other people’s buffoonery. His quips now made more appearances than usual, anything to encourage Sansa’s laughter or bring on her smiles.

 

Sandor followed Sansa’s directions down a narrow country road heading out of town. The corn fields reached high, almost ripe for harvest, and beyond the farms, a thin grove of trees poked from the horizon.

 

“Right over there!” Sansa shifted forward in her seat and pointed to a hill crest dusted in green and gold.

 

Sandor followed and, atop the hill, pulled off the road and onto the grass. He killed the engine and hopped from the truck to circle around to the passenger side.

 

“I’ve been here before,” Sansa confessed with breathless and hushed wonder as if sharing a piece of herself she didn’t usually offer up. She took his hand and paid him a delicate smile, but her eyes lit up.

 

“I figured as much,” Sandor chuckled and carried the picnic basket.

 

Sansa led the way along the hill’s ridge, weaving through the trees and down to a flat bed of grassless earth beneath an old oak. Its full canopy rustled in the wind as she shook out the blanket and laid it on the ground. She slipped out of her shoes and, when she sat down, patted the spot next to her.

 

“I see why you like it here,” Sandor commented and took his place by her side. He tilted his head to the view painted before them—green hills that rippled lush towards the horizon; yellow fields with symmetric lines running across; and the shadow of clouds rolling over.

 

This is freedom.

 

He breathed the warm air, sweetened with Sansa’s perfume and redolent in earthen headiness. He listened to the song of the trees with veneration he’d never paid before. Sandor had lost years of his life but gained an appreciation in that time and it offered the chance to earn back what’d been taken from him.

 

“My sister and I used to come here when our father visited the farmer who lives right down there.”

 

Sansa pointed to the farmland in the valley below and seemed overcome with a bought of nostalgia. Sandor didn’t quite know if those memories were welcome or not, so he eased back on his elbows and didn’t ask after it.

 

Sansa unpacked the picnic basket and set out the lemon cakes. She handed off the whiskey to him with a sultry smile and uncorked the bottle of strawberry wine that she poured into a plastic cup.

 

Sandor took a swig of whiskey and relished the warmth that spread down his chest. The sun drenched through a break in the clouds and cast Sansa in a halo that lit up her hair in red and gold. With her serene gaze scanning the landscape, Sandor studied the doll-like features of her face, both stunning and feminine.

 

He’d never seen a woman like her before, and half the time wondered if she’d been ripped from a forgotten dream. It wasn’t just her soft lips, the upturned slope of her nose, full rosy cheeks, or radiant blue eyes. Sansa possessed something of the ethereal, an ability to shift the room or fill up a space with unending light. Moth to a flame, he followed her deeper into whatever they’d discovered with one another and trusted she knew the way.

 

As if remembering herself, Sansa exhaled a relaxed sigh and served up the lemon cake on bone china plates. Cross-legged, she turned to Sandor and fed him a forkful. Even if he hadn’t liked it, he wouldn’t have the heart to tell her; not with how she waited on exuberant and splendid breath for his approval. He didn’t have to lie. Sansa had mastered the bedroom and apparently the kitchen too.

 

“It’s good,” he mumbled through a mouthful of cake that was light and sweet.

 

Sansa bounced in place and clapped her hands, and Sandor didn’t know what was more enticing—the way her tits bounced in her low-cut sundress or the way she veritably glowed with a smile. She lovingly fed him another bite before turning to her own plate.

 

“Keep feeding me like this and you’re gonna give me a heart attack, woman.” Sandor lifted one brow and polished off the last of his lemon cake.

 

Sansa tossed her hair behind her shoulders and licked a bit of glaze from the corner of her mouth before Sandor could. 

 

“My momma always said a well-fed man is a well-loved man,” she declared with a fair bit of pride.

 

“Winning over my heart through my stomach?” Sandor laughed and removed his Stetson. He pinned its brim to the ground with the whiskey bottle and laid back on the blanket.

 

Sansa bit her bottom lip and gave a shy nod. She turned to him with her knees drawn together and propped herself up on the heel of her hand. One slender finger traced the blanket’s weave.

 

“There are a few other entry points to my heart, darlin’.” With his hands resting behind his head, Sandor stared up at the sunlight filtering through the tree’s canopy. “You already found one. This is just a mighty fine extra.”

 

“Are you saying I’ve won your heart?” Sansa asked with a bright smile blooming across her lips. She laid down next to him with her elbow sunk against the blanket and her head resting in her palm.

 

Sandor turned to her with a smirk. “Might be.”

 

It wasn’t like him to so freely admit something like this, but he imagined it came with the territory of a woman like Sansa. Some part of him still clung to secrecy. Locked away for so many years, he’d had plenty of time to explore his own depths. Now that he’d come up for air, it seemed best to leave those parts in the abyss below.

 

Sandor rolled to his side, propped up to mirror Sansa. When he cupped her cheek, she closed her eyes that were framed by long, dark lashes. She hadn’t fussed with her makeup today and, while she stunned last night, the innocent simplicity held just as much allure for Sandor.

 

“Beauty queen and a bull rider,” he muttered as his thumb swept along her cheekbone where a smattering of faint freckles had appeared against flawless skin. 

 

Former beauty queen,” she gently corrected and opened her eyes. She scooted closer and traipsed her fingertips over the fabric of the white t-shirt stretching tight across his chest. 

 

Former bull rider,” he added and gazed at her as she quietly contemplated him. “Aren’t we a pair?”

 

“I certainly think so,” she whispered in sullen revelation, as if it were subject to ridicule or debate.

 

He brushed his fingers through her silky hair in tender strokes. “No word to the contrary from me.”

 

Sandor pulled Sansa towards him. He drew a slow breath before delivering a leisurely kiss against her lips that were sweet with sugar glaze.

 

“Why did you give it up?” Sansa asked when she pulled away and fixed her eyes on him.

 

Sandor chuckled and she mimicked him with a nervous laugh, though she couldn’t know the source of his bitter mirth. He’d hoped to avoid this bit and that her curiosity of this subject had been well-sated by now.

 

“It was just time to move on. I couldn’t do it anymore.” Sandor glanced at Sansa who listened in rapt, collecting every word he spoke as if it were a treasure.

 

He wasn’t so dense as to not know what she was after. Sansa wasn’t a voyeur looking to peel away parts better left alone. Her curiosity was genuine and well-placed and a product of wanting to be closer to him. And he’d meant what he said—he’d already let her into his heart—but she was perceptive enough to know that there were parts boarded up and abandoned. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to see inside. The best Sandor could offer was the gist of it and hope that was enough.

 

“My mother died when I was young, as you know,” he began, but the words still stuck like molasses in his throat. “I lost my father fairly young too. I left home as soon as I could with one goal in mind—get as far away from my brother as possible.”

 

Sandor paused. He’d never told Sansa his brother’s name and supposed he wouldn’t start now. He always believed that people died two deaths—first in body and then in name. Time wipes clean the legacy of most, and a person truly perishes when no one utters their name again. Generations pass with no one left to remember and the name dies, as if the person never lived. For his brother, Sandor did his part to deliver that second death.

 

Sansa slipped her hand in his and cast a sympathetic smile. “You think it’d be easy to get away from someone in Texas.”

 

“You’d think,” Sandor huffed. “Our worlds collided in the bull riding circuit. Seeing him at rodeos and having our names associated with one another, it was a constant reminder that I was bound to that monster by blood. It was burning me up with rage that would’ve ruined me. In a way, the war saved me. It plucked me out of that maelstrom, and sometimes I wonder what my life would’ve turned into if I hadn’t been drafted.”

 

Sandor shook his head to knock out the thought and gave a resounding sigh but intervened before Sansa could find her words. 

 

“What about your family?” he asked and brought her hand to his lips where he kissed each knuckle. “Seems like you don’t see much of them.”

 

Sansa shrugged and dropped her eyes to the sliver of space between them.

 

“They come around when they can. I try to be the connection back home for them, the port in the storm whenever they need it.”

 

She lifted her eyes again with the expectant vulnerability of someone who’d just offloaded a secret. Where Sandor ignored the inconvenient excerpts of his past, Sansa sugarcoated hers with brightly spoken words and honey smiles. He saw the sadness in her eyes well enough.

 

“And who’s your port in the storm?”

 

Her shoulders stiffened and back straightened with tension, hardening up because that’s how she’d been getting by.

 

“Sometimes you have to weather it on your own.”

 

Sandor nodded, though he didn’t like the thought of that for her one bit. “I know the feeling.”

 

A doleful smile played on her lips but disappeared as Sansa continued.

 

“My parents didn’t have much to their name, but what they left behind was enough for my younger siblings to go to college or pursue their dreams. It’s important to me that they have those opportunities; to leave home and try at something that makes them happy. We’re all scattered. I think that’s natural when you have a big family. 

 

“Arya goes on adventures. Rickon is wild now that he’s got some freedom. Bran is dedicated to his studies. Jon came back from war not quite right. I worry about him the most.”

 

She didn’t have to say it. Concern lined Sansa’s face, drawing her lips into a frown and folding her brows together. She stared towards the golden fields as a cloud passed overhead and spilled shadows where the light had been.

 

“He’s worthy of the worry, I’m sure,” Sandor replied honestly because there wasn’t much sense in talking around these horrors. “Most men never came back; some not at all, others just an echo of who they once were.”

 

Sansa nodded with genuine understanding. “And where does that leave you?”

 

No one had ever asked him that. Only Griff and Bronn knew Sandor well enough to discern the delta between the man who left for war and the one who came back. Sandor never spent much time sorting out what parts he left in Vietnam, if they were the good ones or bad ones or maybe a mix of both.

 

“Somewhere in the middle,” he replied, yet another truth. “And reclaiming what I can.”

 

Sansa surveyed his face with a fair bit of trepidation and a question formed on her lips but disappeared as she thought it over. The cycle repeated a few times more before she finally breathed life into whatever was on her mind.

 

“What was war like for you?”

 

Her eyes widened and lips parted as if anticipating outright refusal from him. She was right to hesitate on this question and perceptive enough to know not to go asking just anyone, but Sandor considered it a hallmark of trust; that she felt secure enough in his presence to ask things that her manners normally wouldn’t let her.

 

Despite that show of trust, he was the one now hesitating and clambering to rise to the occasion and meet her on the hallowed ground where she now stood; a vacant space on which to build with one another and it meant they both had to show up.

 

“Hot and scary,” was what he settled on because the words failed him, and he realized now how little he thought of it and how he talked of it even less. “I wasn’t supposed to come back.”

 

“Says who?” Sansa countered firmly and shifted closer. Sandor steadied his hand in the dip of her waist. 

 

“Fate, I guess,” he rumbled with misplaced laughter and voiced a memory that had never passed his lips and he couldn’t reconcile why he chose this one. “We went through a village once. There was this fruit cart selling shit I hadn’t ever seen before. The vendor didn’t speak a lick of English. I had no idea what any of the fruit was, so I called my buddy over who’d been in country longer than I had. He pointed out a few things, native fruits and whatnot, but I got called back by my commander. Not ten steps from that cart, the vendor, a VC sympathizer, blew himself up with a grenade and took my friend with him. I survived with just a few bruises and a headache.”

 

Sandor gnawed his bottom lip and squeezed his eyes shut. In the past, when he retraced the event, all he ever really got was the sticky spray of foreign fruit, the sound of splintered wood hitting soggy earth, and the daze of smoke and screams. In all this time, he’d never put the full narrative together and the guilt he carried was somehow divorced from it all, a nebulous mass never tethered to anything real.

 

Her hand at the burned side of his face pulled him back and Sandor opened his eyes, anchored to reality with Sansa staring at him with tears streaming down her cheeks.

 

“Sandor, I’m so sorry,” she whispered on a tremulous voice. “None of that was your fault. There’s no way you could’ve known.”

 

“I know it wasn’t my fault,” he soothed but never would believe it; not truly, and not enough to stamp out the burden of responsibility. “After too many close calls, it’s easy to believe the reaper’s got your number.”

 

Sandor wiped away her tears in one soft sweep of his fingertips and marveled at Sansa’s beauty once more and her heart that bled for others. Pretty when she cried, her lips were plump and eyes dazzling blue. Her strength shone through too and she lifted her hand to cover over his palm at her cheek. Sandor watched something solidify in her, a calm resilience that would never fail to captivate him.

 

“You’re meant to be here,” she affirmed, deliberate but gentle at the same time; a combination he hadn’t known could exist. “In this moment. Right here with me. I know neither of us believe much in God, but I have to believe there are reasons for things. The timing has to work out, all the decisions we make guiding us to the points of significance in our life.”

 

Sandor sat up slowly and Sansa did too. They sat face-to-face and he leaned forward to rest his forehead against hers.

 

“This is significant,” he murmured against her lips, the distillate of all he wanted to say to her.

 

Her arms snaked around his neck and she pressed her lips to his in a loving kiss; one he knew well enough was meant to drive the pain away and overtake it with compassion, a light in the darkness.

 

“Well, this is certainly the heaviest picnic I’ve ever been on,” Sandor japed with an exhaled laugh against her mouth. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Sansa sighed and broke with a smile. With her forehead now resting in her palm, she shook her head and peered at him from beneath her lashes. 

 

“Don’t be,” Sandor assured and grabbed the whiskey bottle. “Too many people can’t talk about things like this. They stay on the surface because they think it’s safer that way.”

 

He took a swig from the bottle and handed it over to Sansa. “Now that I’ve bared my soul, what about you? I saw all those tiaras and trophies gathering dust in that room of yours, Miss Texas.”

 

In a communion of sorts, she took the bottle from him and pressed it to her lips in a delicate sip. Her face contorted when she swallowed it down and she coughed as she handed it back to him. A breeze swept through their sanctuary and Sansa breathed it in with a deep inhale and quietly exhaled through parted lips.

 

“Just like you,” she said. “It was time to move on. For me, all the lights and glamor of city life sounded like a dream; enough that I hitched out of town with the first sham of a cowboy who came my way. And it was a dream for a while; just not mine. When you’re trapped in someone else’s dream, it has an awful way of turning into a nightmare.”

 

Sandor nodded and observed as Sansa wrung her hands together in her lap. Her skin flushed, and she flashed a flustered smile that dissolved almost as soon as it formed. There she went again—talking in circles around something that Sandor had only passing knowledge of. He stared at her and lifted his brows in a gesture for her to continue.

 

“Joffrey was a monster,” she said so quietly Sandor swore she believed that saying the man’s name would manifest him. “He really was. Shame kept me chained to him. I left this town high and mighty—Miss Texas, beauty queen with big city dreams. I left behind all the tiaras that I swore were just poor consolation to what I really deserved. I paid for that arrogance and came back here thoroughly humbled, but better for it. To this day, I can’t believe I ever acted that way or that I stayed with him for so long.”

 

When her confession was done, Sansa averted her eyes and busied her hands by pouring herself more wine, but her fingers shook and the liquid splattered. Sandor took the bottle and poured it for her. A storm of shame and fear seemed to take hold in her, and now Sandor found himself helpless at how to vanquish it.

 

“It’s not a sin to put faith in the wrong people,” he offered. “It’s only if you leave it there. You didn’t.”

 

Sansa grew quiet as she sipped her wine and contemplated his words that seemed poor comfort now. When she matched his eyes, Sandor saw she’d regained her resolve. 

 

“You asked me if I’m scared and the answer is yes,” she said. “I’d walled off some part of my heart just to survive, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to bring that wall down again. I never wanted to turn cold because of the things he put me through. I was afraid that if I found someone worthy of my heart—someone like you—I wouldn’t have it all to give.”

 

Sansa unearthed what Sandor had already surmised in her, but he saw it plain as day now as the clouds cleared overhead and blue sky triumphed. She feared losing herself to others or to the world, just as he had; bits and pieces of their beings broken off and left behind with war and heartache and all the shadow spaces of life. Sansa Stark had been after her own reclamation, it seemed.

 

“Well,” Sandor drew out the word and interlaced his fingers with hers. “What’s the verdict?”

 

“It’s all there. I still wear my heart on my sleeve, just a little more cautiously.” She paused for a moment and gazed at him from beneath her lashes. “I suppose you can have it all.”

 

The nonchalance she put behind it was a ruse, of course. She’d just placed with him a rare jewel—precious, priceless, and more than he’d ever known—and entrusted its safety with him. If she were scared, he was right there with her and something in that togetherness soothed.

 

Sandor smiled and gathered her into his arms because, where she had all the pretty words, his language of adoration was the way he held her now, hard against his chest, the way his lips pressed against her forehead, and how, when he pulled away, he studied her mouth and flushed cheeks before meeting the doe-eyed gaze she gave him.

 

“That’s a lot of responsibility,” he quipped and kissed her cheek before murmuring in her ear. “How do you know I’m a responsible man?”

 

Sansa softened against him. “I don’t. That’s faith,” she whispered and kissed the tip of his nose. “Don’t make a sinner out of me.”

 

“I won’t.” His words came like a somber vow, but Sandor lightened it with a wry smile. “Not entirely. We’ve been fucking enough out of wedlock that I think some might call us sinners.”

 

A giggle passed Sansa’s lips, and she lit up again, along with the sun streaming through the trees on a sweet summer breeze.

 

“So, where does this leave you now?” Sandor asked through a faint smile as he admired her once more—the length of her bare legs, the dress creeping up her thighs, the soft curve of her breasts. “Are your other dreams gathering dust up on those shelves next to your tiaras?”

 

“No, not quite.” Sansa shook her head and bit her bottom lip as if to quell her exuberance at remembering the future was hers. “I just needed a place to land for a little while and this was it.” She turned a wistful gaze towards the amber fields that swayed in the wind. “And some time to heal.”

 

Sandor grabbed her by the waist and yanked her towards him. “How’s the healing going?”

 

He laid her down on the gingham blanket with her hair fanned beneath her. Sansa’s chest rose and fell with a quickened breath. Her arms draped around his neck as he settled on top of her, careful not to crush her beneath his weight.

 

“Better now,” she whispered, and her tongue ran along his bottom lip in a teasing gesture and, if she wanted to start something now, he intended to finish it.

 

Sandor lifted her dress up to the underside of her breasts. His hand smoothed over the taut expanse of her stomach and along the shape of her curves. He planted kisses down her abdomen and felt her tremble when he reached the band of her cotton panties.

 

“I could help,” he whispered against her skin and cupped her breast with one hand. His other hand softly snapped the band of her underwear as he gazed up at Sansa.

 

“Oh yeah?” she breathed, and her lips curled with a smile. She reached down and brushed the hair from Sandor’s cheek. “How do you plan to help?”

 

He left her question unanswered but matched her eyes and slid her underwear down her thighs and tossed it aside. In last night’s delirium of ardent urgency, he’d sacrificed some veneration of her body. He sat up to make amends for that and worshiped now with fingertips grazing her skin and his gaze ravishing the slit between her legs, full pink lips slick with desire.

 

Sandor gripped her thighs and encouraged them to spread. Sansa released a shaky sigh but ultimately obliged, though her skin flushed pink at being so exposed.

 

“You’re so pretty,” he breathed, lost in reverie at the sight of her.

 

He traipsed the tip of his tongue between her soaked folds and tenderly circled her clit. From this vantage point, he watched her head fall back against the blanket and her legs drifted further apart. She’d had the right of it—he’d licked her plenty all night and this morning too—but the act now felt more erotic for its intimacy with soft kisses and slow swipes and how he matched her eyes when she gazed down at him.

 

“Please. I want you now,” she whispered and faintly writhed against him. 

 

Sandor slid one finger inside and eased on top of her. His mouth swept against hers and his tongue parted her lips.

 

“I know you do. I can feel it,” he chuckled and relished each of her warm panting breaths against his mouth. “I wanna feel it here.” Sandor took her hand and guided it to his cock, hard and straining against his pants and in bad need of release.

 

Sansa gave an eager nod and her eyes blazed with fervent delight. Sandor kissed her forehead and sat up. He made quick work of his belt buckle and shoved his pants to his knees. He laid back on the blanket and Sansa bit her bottom lip as she eyed his cock standing upright and ready for her. A deep groan rumbled from Sandor’s throat as she straddled his thighs and, though he’d fucked her soundly throughout the night, Sansa eyed his dick with trepidation that hadn’t yet fled.

 

Sandor grabbed Sansa by the waist and encouraged her to rise on her knees. He slipped one hand into hers, fingers entwined, and wrapped the other hand around his shaft until only the tip and a few inches of his length were exposed. He slowly circled the tip against her opening.

 

Sansa released a moaning sigh and eased down on his cock, taking as much of him in as his hand would allow. In a bid to drive him wild, she rolled her hips and Sandor squeezed his eyes shut at the sensation—warm, wet, and tight around his tip. No woman had ever felt so good.

 

He opened his eyes again to Sansa peering down at him through lids heavy and a wicked smile. She wanted more and he wouldn’t deny her anything, least of all this. She rocked a little, enough to encourage him to uncurl two fingers and reveal more of his shaft.

 

Drenched between the legs, Sansa slid down the rest of his exposed length and her head lolled back with a whimpering moan. Her knees spread further apart along the blanket and she muttered something to the tree canopy up above. Sandor sucked in a sharp breath and pulled his hand away.

 

“You like taking all of me inside of you, don’t you?” he groaned and bucked his hips, just enough to drive more of his length into her.

 

Sansa gasped and nodded but eased up his cock as she leaned forward and rested her hands on his stomach. Her hair picked up on the breeze that stole another sigh from her lips.

 

“I know you do,” he rasped, his voice gritty and deep. “Hold up your dress. I wanna see.”

 

Sansa slowly lifted the skirt, revealing the treasure between her thighs with a blush sweeping across her cheeks. Sandor stared at her lower lips stretched around his cock that glistened from her wetness. Her eyes darkened as she watched him, and she slid the straps of her dress off her shoulders and unstrapped her bra to free her breasts that she cupped in her hands.

 

Sandor grunted and watched her touch herself, savoring the sight of her fingers working her nipples. He guided one of her hands to her clit and Sansa quickly swiped there. Sandor swept two fingers against her lips and into her mouth. Good girl that she was, Sansa sucked without him having to tell her, and he damn near lost himself when her eyes fluttered open and landed on him.

 

She knew what she was doing—touching herself in a soft sweep between her legs, sucking gently with her plush lips wrapped around his fingers, swiveling her hips with him inside of her. Sandor closed his eyes. He’d finish too soon if she kept it up. He listened to the breeze, focused on the rustling leaves, and steadied his breaths. It was subterfuge. He couldn’t do it. His mind snapped to Sansa slowly riding up and down his length, taking more of him in with each pass and quickening her pace.

 

“Just like that,” he groaned and pulled his fingers from her mouth to grip her hips. 

 

She found the rhythm that would ultimately undo him, and Sandor couldn’t help himself. He had no control. His eyes cracked open, and he drank in the sight of her riding his dick soaked from her wetness. He licked the pad of his thumb and replaced her fingers to run a tight circle over her clit. Sansa gasped at the contact and her hands sunk into her hair at the side of her head. She licked her lips and arched her back.

 

“You feel so good,” she exhaled shakily, and her words dissolved into a whimpering moan. She rode him with wild abandon, blissfully unconcerned that the farmer down the way or a passerby might hear.

 

The wide-open space swallowed up her cries and she breathed his name like a prayer. It all became too much—the feel of her tightening around his cock, the sight of her breasts bouncing, legs spread, another flush of her wetness as she came hard, and the way she collapsed to his chest, breathless and panting.

 

Sandor held her against him. His lips crashed against hers in a frantic kiss, his tongue sweeping against hers as he moaned into her mouth. He thrust deeper and his climax threatened to overtake him. Sandor broke the kiss long enough to lick his finger and reach down and around to where she was spread. His finger traced the tight bud of her asshole. With a sharp gasp, Sansa’s eyes snapped open, but her shock dampened to a breathy sigh.

 

“I’ll be gentle,” he muttered against her mouth as his breaths heaved from his chest. His balls tightened at the thought of all the ways he wanted to bring her pleasure, all the ways he’d make her sing and call out his name. “And maybe I’ll lick here too. You’d like that, hmm?”

 

Sandor applied light pressure in a tender touch and Sansa’s mouth hung agape as she desperately nodded, as if he’d unearthed new horizons she’d only heard of and hoped for but had never seen herself.

 

“God yes,” she breathed and regained the rhythm. With palms planted against the ground on either side of his head, Sansa rode him hard and chased after another climax, determined to take Sandor with her.

 

He expelled something between a moan and hearty laugh as she lost herself in the cadence, rolling her hips and gasping each breath.

 

“Fuck. You’re gonna make me come,” Sandor seethed, his body tensing tight as he held onto her hips with ecstasy unfurling in him.

 

His head fell back, and he squeezed his eyes shut with the blinding sensations slamming into him. A bellowing moan escaped him, and he almost forgot himself until Sansa rolled off and stroked him until his seed spilled into her palm.

 

In the dazed aftermath, Sandor stared up at the lush canopy and thick tree limbs above. He was only partially aware of Sansa wiping up the mess with a napkin and putting herself back to rights. He didn’t bother with his pants and left them around his knees to spend the last bit of energy he had to pulling Sansa next to his side.

 

“Come here. I wanna hold you,” he muttered.

 

She settled against him with a smile that barreled right into being giddy; the same satisfaction she had in stuffing him full of food and lavishing her doting affection on him. She gave a happy sigh and nestled her head in the crook of his shoulder. Sandor wrapped his arm around her and ran one hand over his face.

 

“Goddamn,” he breathed into his palm. “You sure are hell-bent on cooking and fucking your way into my heart, aren’t you?”

 

She laughed and Sandor shifted enough to gaze down at her. She was already staring back at him with misty-eyed adoration and perhaps another product of plucking her heart from her sleeve and handing it over to him. And what he said had only been half a joke—he took on the responsibility and hoped he could love her right. It wasn’t for a lack of desire, but fear of failure. The costs were too high, and he had no choice but to get it right.

 

“It’s working,” Sandor said against her lips and kissed her with as much tenderness as a man like him could offer.

 

When the kiss broke, they remained wrapped up in one another, listening to the birds chirping and the wind picking up around them. Sandor felt Sansa’s breaths even out to a peaceful rhythm. Though the sun still shone in rich golds, Sandor thanked the stars somewhere in the impending night sky for this moment, for the woman in his arms, and for the way his life was just beginning now.

 

Eventually, Sansa shifted and propped herself on her elbow.

 

“You should probably put your pants back on.” She laughed like a song, head tilted to the side and lovesick already. He wasn’t so far behind.

 

Sandor glanced down at his dick, now exposed for the whole world to see.

 

“I suppose you’re right,” he agreed and stood. When his pants fell to his ankles, he turned to the open wilderness in the valley down below, stretched out his arms, and spread his legs wide.

 

Sansa burst into laughter and Sandor turned over his shoulder and gave her a wink.

 

“I hope no one is bird watching,” he chuckled. “They’re gonna get an eyeful.”

 

Sandor pulled up his pants and fastened the buckle as Sansa packed up the picnic basket.

 

“Will you stay tonight too?” she asked with the blanket tucked under her chin as she folded it. Sandor snatched his hat from the ground and cracked a smile.

 

“If you’ll have me.” He put his hat on and strode towards Sansa. She tossed the folded blanket on top of the basket and settled in his arms.

 

“Eventually, I’ll have to go back home,” he said, pressed a kiss to her lips, and lightly tapped her ass. “But not tonight.”

 

They walked hand-in-hand up the hill, both drunk on merriment and one another and not much else. The whiskey and wine had gone relatively untouched, and it was a good thing it had. The two-lane road back towards town was just a vacant expanse that rose and fell with the soft slope of the terrain. The truck eased up a hill and, at the crest, Sandor saw the flashing lights of four cop cars off in the distance.

 

He cut the radio and slowed his speed, though he hadn’t been in a particular rush. Sansa stirred in the passenger seat and, where her cheeks had been flushed powder pink from laughter just a moment ago, her face now paled with joy extinguished.

 

“I wonder what happened,” she asked more than speculated. The fear rapidly pooled in her eyes and bid Sandor to skirt the messy truth that they both seemed to acknowledge in their own way.

 

“Probably just an accident.” He reached over and took her hand but knew damn well this wasn’t an accident. He didn’t have to be town folk to know this road wasn’t often traveled.

 

They neared the scene, but there was no car stuck in the ditch or wrapped around a tree. Instead, six uniformed officers huddled around something beneath a white sheet. As Sandor’s truck neared, a policeman jogged to the edge of the road and frantically waved Sandor on, a gesture to pick up speed, to keep going and not loiter.

 

He didn’t need to be told and pressed his foot to the pedal, but the sheet whipped up on a powerful gust of wind and revealed a bloody mess underneath. Sansa shrieked and, by protective instinct, Sandor’s hand flew up to cover her eyes.

 

“Look away, little bird!” he hollered, but it was too late. She’d already seen the body on the ground, the blood-stained grass, and insides torn out.

 

In horror and disbelief, tears welled in her eyes and Sansa covered her mouth with one hand as she heaved sharp, hyperventilated breaths. Sandor gripped the wheel and his thoughts raced as fast as the cornfields whizzing by.

 

Flying towards the scene, an unmarked police car tore past them—an odd-looking vehicle, hearse-like and matte black and with a portable warning light stuck to the roof and flashing red.

 

The rest of the drive commenced in a fog, the three minutes like three lifetimes as Sandor settled into the sickening reality of what they’d just seen. He pulled into Sansa’s driveway and shifted the truck into park but let the engine idle with the white noise an escape from dreadful silence.

 

He turned to Sansa who bit back tears that rolled down her cheeks anyhow and she swiped at them with a trembling hand. Sandor reached over and collected her, pulling her across the bench seat to his side.

 

“It just keeps happening,” she cried.

 

Sandor rested his chin on top of her head. Out the passenger window, he scanned the empty street, a horned owl perched on a nearby streetlamp, and the sky darkening with gray clouds rolling in.

 

“I’m not going anywhere.”

 

It was all he could think to say and served the dual purpose of comforting Sansa in the immediate and was his vow for the long road ahead.

Chapter Text

                                                                                     

                                                                                     

At a quarter past four in the afternoon, Griff knocked on the storm door in a rhythm Sandor had forgotten. The recollection came swift, and the door flung open with no more introduction. Poised at the kitchen sink, Sandor turned with a clear view of the door and Griff standing beneath it with a bouquet of white roses.

 

Sandor cracked a smile and flicked his hands over the sink to shake off the excess water before snatching up a towel.

 

“You shouldn’t have,” he cracked and motioned to the flowers as Griff crossed the living room and joined him in the kitchen. 

 

“I didn’t,” Griff chuckled, shoved the bouquet at Sandor, and patted him on the back. “Women like flowers.”

 

“Women don’t like flowers. Flowers die and beauty fades.” Sandor set the arrangement on the kitchen table covered with the only tablecloth he could find. With its holly berry and pine needle pattern, it was meant for Christmas, but would have to do.

 

He was right about the flowers, though Griff wouldn’t admit it. The man was old-fashioned, times were changing, and white flowers were especially prone to going brown along the edges. Griff didn’t look so certain and eyed the bouquet with its blue ribbon cinched around the stems.

 

“Charming,” Griff commented on an amused huff. “Here’s some advice—keep that thought to yourself tonight.” From behind his back, he produced a bottle of bourbon that gleamed like an amber gem. “This is for you.”

 

Sandor accepted the bourbon with more graciousness than he had the flowers and admired the bottle in his hands—the weight of it, the sound of liquid sloshing, the label’s gilded print, the anticipation of its spice and bite on his tongue.

 

He gave the bottle a shake with a broad smile. “This is more like it. Thank you.” Sandor set the bourbon down and resumed his place at the counter chopping vegetables. “You can keep your advice, though. I do just fine.”

 

“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that,” Griff grumbled.

 

In his sheriff’s uniform, he leaned against the wall, but poked his head into the living room. Sandor had cleared the space of all the crap Bronn collected over the years. Clearing out stacks of magazines and newspapers was the price he paid for Bronn keeping an eye on the place. Sandor liked his house like he liked his life—simple, free from the extraneous, and everything having a purpose. That didn’t leave room for much.

 

“The place looks nice,” Griff said and crossed his arms over his chest. The gold badge pinned to his front pocket caught the kitchen light.

 

“Thanks,” Sandor sighed and cut celery in strips, methodical but slow with the knife. His hands were out of practice and knives dull.

 

Griff quietly observed and, for a moment, Sandor assumed he was about to break his balls. Here he was with a clean house, candles strategically placed throughout, doing his damnedest to cobble together a meal worthy of Sansa Stark, and dressed in the nicest shirt he owned. He had even polished his boots. Sandor wouldn’t blame the man but, after Griff cleared his throat, he spoke with obvious sincerity.

 

“It’s good to have you back.”

 

Sandor paused with the knife blade hovering over a celery stalk. In the oven, a roast braised and sizzled. His feet were comfortable in his favorite pair of boots. The dying sun was warm against his skin and somewhere out there Sansa was on her way to him. She’d called two hours ago, just before she left.

 

“It’s good to be back,” he finally replied with a smile gently lining his lips. For the first time in so long, all felt right with the world. “This normalcy thing is surreal,” Sandor added with an exhaled laugh and shook his head, but resumed his activity, now halving strawberries. In one of her letters, Sansa had mentioned they were her favorite. 

 

“The mundane will find its way soon enough,” Griff cautioned with a hearty chuckle. He paced to Sandor, plucked a strawberry from the cutting board, and popped it into his mouth. “You got your house in order, back to work at Bronn’s, a good woman who adores you by the sound of it. I’d say normalcy’s a good look on you.”

 

Sandor’s eyes shifted to Griff, who chewed slowly with a look of pride beaming in his pale eyes. For a moment, he reminded Sandor of his father, though he never could remember if his father ever regarded him this way. Maybe.

 

Griff leaned against the counter next to Sandor and lowered his voice as if the walls themselves were listening. “How’re you getting along otherwise? Sleeping okay?”

 

The question came with enough wayward trepidation and obvious interest that Sandor knew precisely what Griff was after. Sleep wasn’t the problem. It was the twilight before waking. Sometimes he’d swear he was back in his cell with Beric hovering near him and sending his senses into high alert.

 

A few times he even swore he heard the pounding on the cell bars, or some poor soul being dragged off to the infirmary. He’d wake with cold sweat dampening his brow, gulping for a breath that seemed to elude him, and the sheets tangled around his legs. Funny how those visions replaced his nightmares of war. Sandor didn’t rightly know which was worse.

 

“Yeah, I sleep fine.” The truth was too much to get into now and bound to just rile him up, so Sandor settled for an approximation of honesty. His eyes drifted to the clock. “I’ll sleep better once Sansa’s here. I don’t like being away from her for too long. Makes me antsy.”

 

Antsy was one hell of an understatement, enough that, if Griff knew any better, he might rightfully peg it as just another half-truth. Sandor had veritably climbed the walls the two nights he’d gone without her. He had torn himself away from her only after Sansa swore she’d stay with her friend and only because he needed to see about work. Those nights apart, Sandor slept worse than he did in prison and woke early in the morning, waiting for the sun to rise enough to call her.

 

“Some might call that falling in love, son,” Griff noted and smirked in a way Sandor hadn’t quite seen before. “How long will she be staying with you?”

 

Too much to wrap his mind around now, Sandor ignored the first bit and shrugged at the question. He and Sansa hadn’t really discussed it. The unspoken agreement they landed on—they’d take turns seeing each other on their days off and limit their time apart.

 

“As long as she can. She’s taking some time off work on account of what’s been going on. I don’t want her in Devil Creek alone.”

 

Sandor halted his ministrations again but dropped the knife to the cutting board as he turned to Griff.

 

“I haven’t asked, and I don’t pry into your work, but if you know something about these disappearances and murders, I wouldn’t mind hearing about it; as much as you can tell me.”

 

A shadow seemed to fall over Griff with a deep crevice carved between his brows. He pushed from the counter and stood up straight, but matched Sandor’s eyes.

 

“If I had something to share, I would,” he murmured, and Sandor believed him. Griff wasn’t forthcoming with details about work and most times Sandor didn’t care to hear about it, but the man didn’t mince words and, when asked for the truth, he would either give it or explain why he couldn’t. He didn’t bother with spinning a lie.

 

“There’s some talk about the FBI getting involved,” Griff continued with frustration that put an edge on his words. “You know when they come around, I won’t be hearing shit. They’ll set up a task force and strong-arm local law enforcement out of it. I’ll let you know if I hear anything, though. For now, I’m setting up more patrols in Cactus and I’ve had a couple conversations with the sheriff in Devil Creek about those calls Sansa’s been getting. They’re gonna look into it.”

 

Sandor nodded like he understood, or perhaps like he agreed. He didn’t on either front. How a maniac ran roughshod all over Texas without befalling vigilante justice and mysteriously “disappearing” was beyond Sandor.

 

Griff’s hands settled on his hips and he stared at Sandor with a knowing grin and the warmth returning to his features.

 

“Will I get to meet her?” he asked with insistence that suggested it was an expectation disguised as a question. 

 

Sandor tossed the cut-up strawberries into the nicest bowl he owned. “If you behave.” His lips lifted in a mischievous smirk when he glanced at Griff. “She and I will be busy. Maybe when we come up for air.”

 

Rough laughter poured from Griff and dispersed the tension that’d gathered in the room. “You trying to make up for lost time?”

 

“Just about,” Sandor chuckled, though it wasn’t just five years he was making up for. In so many ways, it felt like a lifetime of lost opportunities with her. Sansa insisted timing was everything. He supposed she was right.

 

Griff sighed and, on the way to the door, clapped Sandor on the shoulder. “Until then, you enjoy yourself and give my regards to Miss Sansa.”

 

“Thanks again, old man,” Sandor hollered after him and flashed a wicked smile. “I’ll tell her you brought the flowers and ask that she not hold it against you.”

 

Griff shook his head with a quiet laugh. “You’re a jackass.” With his middle finger, he tipped his hat before disappearing out the door.

 

The next two hours were a slow crawl. Sandor quickly expended all the minor tasks that might’ve occupied his mind. He tussled with an unfamiliar foe of nervous anticipation that sent his eyes drifting to the clock only to find mere minutes had passed. On it went on the waiting end where he’d never quite been before.

 

There’s a first time for everything, Sansa once said to him, and it seemed apt that he experience everything as a first time with her. Almost everything…

 

When six-thirty rolled around, he paced the living room floor that creaked beneath the deliberate rhythm of restless steps. A few minutes later, an engine rumbled in the driveway and sent his heart pounding with wild exertion as he eyed the door with an even wilder thought that perhaps it was only a solicitor. The graceful clack of heels coming up the walkway were familiar, though. He froze when the storm door opened and the delicate knock said it was her. Of course, it was her.

 

With his heart in his throat, Sandor wiped his palms on the front of his black jeans and released a breath meant to soothe. He gripped the door handle and meant to open it in a slow sweep to feign composure, but his limbs did him no favors with ungainly movements. The door flung open and Sansa stood beaming brightly on the other side, a vision in a white cotton dress back lit by sinking sunlight.

 

Sandor couldn’t help the smile that erupted across his lips as he stood aside and let her in. As she crossed the threshold, he shed the vexation that’d hounded him in their time apart.

 

“You made it,” was all Sandor could manage as he took her bags and placed them on the couch for now.

 

“I did,” Sansa replied, faintly breathless and her cheeks flushed a dusky pink. She eased into the room in tentative steps as her eyes roamed the space.

 

Sandor sat on the arm of a wingback chair next to the door. He gathered up Sansa by her hands and she stood between his legs. Her hands rested on his shoulders and she looked at him as if she hadn’t seen him in years. Her gaze flicked between his lips and eyes, and her mouth held a wistful smile. Sandor wrapped his arms tight around the small of her back and drew her near.

 

Sansa’s hands slipped from his shoulders to cradle the sides of his face. The kiss she gave was delicate and warm; her pillowy lips sweeping against his in tender affection that he deepened when she leaned into him. It seemed sweet to him—that he’d thoroughly consumed her in every way, and yet she still quivered slightly in his embrace and kissed him with shy intimacy, as if it were the first time.   

 

He caressed the tip of her nose with his own. “You’re trembling,” he whispered against her mouth. 

 

“I get nervous,” she admitted and something in the confession released a fair bit of tension in her body. “Good nervous,” she quickly added as if he’d ever doubt. “Butterflies.”

 

“Butterflies,” he repeated on a murmur. Sandor didn’t get butterflies but knew how she felt. He pulled back enough to drink in the sight of her; a beautiful creature, so full of radiant warmth and light, and yet he was the one who made her nervous.

 

“I missed you,” Sandor divulged, his own confession delivered on a pleasured sigh. He hadn’t planned on saying it but couldn’t remember why.

 

As if someone turned on a light, Sansa’s eyes danced with delight and she tossed her arms around him, holding on as if her whole world depended on it.

 

“I missed you too,” she whispered and buried her face against the side of his neck.

 

They held onto one another. Sandor’s palms smoothed up and down her back and he drew a deep inhale, breathing her in and relishing her body warm against his. Yet another first, the tranquil quiet—lush with pure peace and serenity—washed over him. With his eyes squeezed shut, he kissed her cheek and thought he might reveal more whispered confessions to her but let that instinct pass.

 

Sandor stood from the chair and noticed now the effort she’d clearly taken in her appearance—pretty make-up, but not overdone; long hair in waves; and a strapless dress that displayed the length of her legs and swell of her breasts and would look just as nice on the bedroom floor later.

 

“You look beautiful,” he said and took Sansa’s hand. She bit her bottom lip and eyed him too. It wasn’t an accident that he wore tight jeans and a shirt that showcased just how much he’d filled out with muscle behind bars.

 

“Thank you.” Sansa licked her bottom lip. Her eyes quickly swept from his chest to between his legs and back again. “You look very nice yourself. I love this on you.”

 

“I can see that,” he chuckled, and the blush seeped down Sansa’s cheeks to her chest. “I’ll give you a tour. It won’t take long.”

 

With his free hand, Sandor pointed to the living room where candles lined the fireplace mantle in the corner, and he’d taken care to ensure it was immaculate by the time she arrived.

 

“Living room needs no introduction.” He led her by the hand towards the hallway. “Kitchen,” he announced and marveled at how he’d kept it clean despite all the effort he’d gone to for dinner. “I tell you what—I’ve spent more time in there today than I have since I’ve owned this place.”

 

With an effervescent laugh bubbling from her lips, Sansa squeezed his hand and, though Sandor wasn’t prone to butterflies, she sure had a way of sending him in a tizzy with just a touch or a look, a laugh or a smile. Down the hall, she followed close behind and settled next to his side as Sandor pointed out each room.

 

“Bedroom. Bedroom. Master bedroom.” He smirked at her and allowed his shameless gaze to roam over her body. “We’ll be spending a lot of time in there. Bathroom,” Sandor pointed out on the way back down the hall. “I’d like to see you naked in there at some point.” 

 

He tossed another lascivious grin over his shoulder, one that she returned, and led the way back into the kitchen. He let go of her and settled against the counter with his hands in his pockets.

 

“That’s it,” he shrugged. The house wasn’t much, but it was his and there was great pride to be had in that and Sansa seemed to understand. 

 

“I love it here.” The smile she gave and the adoring way she tilted her head to the side said it was no bullshit or a compliment courtesy of manners and not much else. With another swell of pride, Sandor admired her standing with her hands gently placed on the back of a kitchen chair.

 

“Well, I love having you here,” he murmured, no bullshit on his end either.

 

Sansa’s gaze drifted across the table and he thought she might comment on the tablecloth but instead her lips lifted with a soft smile. “Flowers?”

 

“Yeah, they’re from my friend Clyde Griffin, who I told you about in one of my letters,” Sandor said. “He thought you might like them.”

 

Her smile faded as Sandor was about to divulge how he’d busted Griff’s balls for the bouquet. The collective effort seemed to sink in, and she stared at him with so much raw emotion behind her eyes that Sandor’s words died on his lips.

 

“That’s very sweet,” she gushed with heartfelt enchantment. “All of this is so sweet.”

 

“It’s what you deserve,” Sandor replied and traversed the kitchen to seal his declaration with a kiss.

 

Much like she’d done with him their first morning together, Sandor bid Sansa to sit at the table and offered her a glass of sweet wine he’d picked up at the store and hoped like hell she’d like.

 

From her perch, Sansa fidgeted in her seat as he tended to the rest of their meal, and she intervened twice to ask if he needed help. He let her set the table, but only so he could watch the way she bent over in an exaggerated reach to place the silverware next to the plates.

 

He caught on quick enough when she cast a coquettish and faintly deviant glance over her shoulder to see if he’d noticed. Of course, he had. Once that task was done and she had nothing left to tend to, he repaid the favor with deliberate moves all his own—bent over pulling the roast from the oven or the way he flexed when setting the food to the table. Ever the observant woman, Sansa noticed too, and fiendishly bit her bottom lip as she watched him.

 

Once he finished, Sandor topped off Sansa’s wine and refreshed his bourbon before settling at the table in the chair adjacent to her. He paused and scanned the table setting before realizing what was missing. Amused, Sansa giggled as he pulled matches from a drawer and lit the candles at the table. They were mismatched in height and in color too, but the only ones that fit in the silver candlesticks he’d found.

 

“There,” Sandor said with a nod and resumed his spot.

 

Sansa reached for him and her palm smoothed across the Christmas tablecloth. She was too polite to comment on it, or maybe she hadn’t noticed. She’d been watching him all night with wonderment that he still couldn’t believe a treasure like her was paying him.

 

“Thank you for all of this.” If she hadn’t flashed such a warm smile, Sandor might’ve thought she was on the verge of tears for the way her eyes glistened.

 

“Don’t thank me yet,” he laughed and slipped his hand into hers. “It could be terrible.” He eyed the roast sitting on a bed of vegetables. It smelled good enough, and that surely counted for something.

 

“It won’t be terrible,” Sansa assured with a subtle squeeze of his hand.

 

He matched her eyes, and, in that quiet moment of bliss, he remembered himself and what his life had been like not so long ago. 

 

“I don’t say dinner prayers, but I will say this,” he began and lifted her hand to his lips where he placed a soft kiss. “I’m thankful for you, little bird.”

 

“I’m thankful for you too.”

 

Now he’d really done it. Her eyes sparkled with tears that would’ve fallen down her cheeks had she not delicately dabbed at them with her napkin. Sandor lifted his glass to her, and she did the same and so commenced their dinner together with easy conversation and laughter that poured from her, and it was as sweet as a song as far as he was concerned.

 

“You’re a good cook,” Sansa commented halfway through dinner, though earlier she’d already complimented the meal he’d prepared. “You undersold yourself.”

 

Sandor lifted one brow at her and pushed his empty plate away in favor of his bourbon.

 

“I did that on purpose. I’m not like you in the kitchen, but I can manage the simple things.” He sipped his drink and swirled the glass against the table. “I’d hoped you wouldn’t be disappointed we weren’t out at a restaurant. If there were a place worthy of you around here, I would’ve taken you.”

 

Sansa dropped her silverware to her plate and wiped her mouth with the napkin as she gave a firm shake of the head. For a moment, she contemplated the kitchen, just a tad bigger than her own but not extravagant by any means.

 

“No, this is perfect. I like simple,” she said and stared in earnest at him.

 

Sandor dropped his eyes, and it wasn’t as if he didn’t believe her, but some part of him wanted to be sure.

 

“Do you?” he implored but kept his eyes on the ice cube melting in his glass.

 

“Yes,” Sandor heard her say, and he lifted his gaze. She meant it. “I don’t think I appreciated it enough before. It really is better.”

 

Sansa’s admission carried weight. He heard it and now saw it clear enough as she mindlessly pushed the remaining peas around her plate with the fork tines.

 

“Kansas City brought that change in perspective?”

 

Posed as a question, it was really just an observation. She spoke of that era with dismal heartache, the kind that etches itself in a person and, even after they’re whole again, the marks remain, encased in new growth.

 

Sansa set her fork down again and stared at the flickering candlelight but gave a weak nod and hesitated before speaking again.

 

“I used to go to these parties—everyone dressed to the nines; ridiculous amounts of food and alcohol; just crazy. People always asked what you did, but what they really meant was how you came into money.”

 

She glanced at Sandor, who listened intently. He knew parts of this story, but now recognized the glimpse she’d given him in her letters and just how much of herself she’d revealed in them.

 

“I didn’t know that, so I used to answer that I wanted to be a singer and songwriter. Eventually, it became apparent to me that, to those people, I wasn’t anything on my own, so they kept me out. I’d watch from the sidelines, waiting to be let in. From the outside, I saw the cracks. When it all came apart, the people I’d left behind in Devil Creek welcomed me back with no questions asked and no expectations that I had to be something. It was simpler, and it was better.”

 

When she finished, a sullen smile spread across her lips but quickly dissolved and her brows folded together. The pain of this wound ran deep in her. Sansa cleared her throat as if looking for a way out of the sadness and back to the light; as if her misfortune might impose or take up too much real estate in their togetherness, as if that’s the way these things worked.

 

There was a time, though, when things had worked that way for Sansa, Sandor knew. She never said as much but, in her last relationship, she’d apparently been given minuscule space in which to exist and had been told not to test the boundaries—to not make a fuss, not want for too much, to be grateful for what precious little kindness others had given her.

 

Sandor saw how her hand trembled when she brought her wineglass to her lips. He scooted his chair around the corner of the table and leaned forward to grab the base of her seat. He turned her chair towards him until they were face-to-face.

 

Confusion clouded her pretty features—bright blues that sometimes held so much sadness, full lips, soft skin. Sandor cradled her face in both hands and tried to wrap his head around who the fuck these people were and how the hell they hadn’t clambered to spend all the time they could with her.

 

“You are something on your own,” he whispered. “You’re everything, just how you are, right now, in this moment. Everything.” His voice fell to a hush and his eyes drifted to the floor. “And you mean everything to me.”

 

He kissed her before she could answer or protest or whatever it was she meant to do. It didn’t matter. He’d make her believe. When he pulled away, she was smiling again and lifted a hand to settle her palm against his neck, looking at him as though she were the lucky one.

 

“You’re a good man,” Sansa said, and her voice wavered. 

 

“I’ll be good to you,” he vowed, and if there were one thing he planned on getting right, it would be this. “Everyone else can fuck off.”

 

Sansa expelled a breathy laugh and nodded. With a gentle touch, she brushed her fingers through his hair. “I’ll be good to you too.”

 

“I’ve never doubted that you would,” he murmured and kissed her forehead and disbelief gathered at the edges like a dream.

 

It’d been ebbing and flowing since he left the terror of his old life behind. Moments like this had a way of eluding him or being revealed as subterfuge, but his hesitant joy blossomed with Sansa around. The possibilities stretched as wide and endless as the horizon, and he knew his freedom would mean far less without her.

 

When Sandor scooted his chair back to the head of the table, it seemed as good a time as any to consider their dinner finished. Sansa helped clear the table and insisted with no recourse for refusal that she would assist with the dishes too.

 

With the kitchen sink filled with soapy water, Sansa evaluated her white dress. “Do you have an apron I could borrow?”

 

Sandor grinned and headed for the hall. “Yeah, follow me. It’s frilly. You’ll love it.”

 

“No, it’s not!” Sansa giggled and took his hand.

 

Apparently, hand-in-hand was how they traveled everywhere now. He’d been doing it by some instinct that’d never afflicted him before and, with glittering smiles and eyes gone dreamy, she was in raptures over such a simple gesture of affection.

 

Sandor glanced at her with a serious expression willed onto his features as he pushed into the bedroom.

 

“Wait, is it?” Sansa asked, solemn and confused that she’d misjudged the kind of man he was.

 

“Fuck no.” Sandor broke with laughter and tossed the closet door open. “I don’t own an apron. Let’s see what we can find.”

 

Sandor pulled out a white t-shirt that’d function well-enough as an apron and could probably double as a short dress. The selection was intentional, and Sansa seemed to notice when he held it up for her approval. She bit her bottom lip and nodded, and he would’ve given her privacy to change, but she turned around for him to unzip her dress and gathered her hair over one shoulder.

 

“Can you offer a hand?” she asked and flashed a coy smile.

 

Sandor settled behind her and dipped his head to press his lips to her bare shoulder. He took his time unzipping her dress and let it fall to the floor. When it pooled at her feet, Sansa turned around and rolled to her toes to wrap her arms around his neck.

 

“Thank you,” she whispered against his mouth as a prelude to a kiss already well past sweet and sentimental and now sodden with lust.

 

“Can I offer anything else?” Sandor grabbed her hips and held her securely against him, enough that his hard manhood pressed against her bare belly.

 

“I’d like to save that for later,” she cooed, her voice sensual and lush, but it didn’t stop her from palming the front of his pants in a teasing touch.

 

“You better keep your hands to yourself then or I’m apt to grow impatient.” Sandor cupped her ass and gave a firm squeeze before tearing himself away from her with more difficulty than he expected.

 

After Sansa had slipped into his white t-shirt, she joined him in the kitchen again. In front of the sink, she washed dishes and Sandor decided he wasn’t quite done teasing her, so he settled behind her with his chest against her back and the bulge in his pants firm against her ass.

 

As she finished scrubbing the dishes, Sansa handed them off to him and, with his arms reached around in front of her, he dried them the best he could while planting kisses against her cheek, neck, lips, anywhere he could manage. The dishes likely suffered because of it, and he didn’t have it in him to give a shit.

 

With the kitchen cleaned, Sandor fetched the strawberries from the fridge. When he revealed them to her, Sansa gave a luminous smile and clapped her hands with pure, innocent glee. They opted for dessert outside on the back patio as clear night rose with a smattering of stars up above.

 

Candlelight danced between them and its hazy globe of light cast Sansa in a suffuse glow, warm against her delicate features. With her eyes to the sky, Sandor marveled at her once more as she licked the strawberry juice on her luscious lips and seemed to find such honest peace in gazing at the stars.

 

Sometimes Sandor speculated that the city could offer the anonymity he craved; a place to slip in and out of focus and live his life in humble obscurity that small towns just couldn’t offer. His past would always define him here no matter how he made amends. But moments like this appealed with wild wonder—inky nights where the stars shone brighter than he’d ever seen; vacant spaces that felt like a deep breath; the raw embodiment of true freedom.

 

He eased back in the patio chair and sipped his bourbon. The liquid was smooth as silk on his tongue and the spice just right. He stared at the glass in his hand and, in this moment, found perfection in things other men took for granted. Perhaps that was one blessing he could gather from his time locked away. A gentle weight fell over him as Sansa watched him now with the same fond observation as he often regarded her.

 

With her elbow propped against the table, she rested her chin in her hand and smiled softly at him.

 

“What is it?” He masked the question with a husky laugh to hide his ineptitude at being looked at this way. He still wasn’t certain of how to gracefully accept the loving gazes and affectionate touches she gave him.

 

“This is romantic,” Sansa remarked and studied her wine glass that she swirled in circles against the patio table. 

 

“Is it?”

 

Sandor supposed it was—candlelight, stargazing, a nightcap—but couldn’t stop his mind from fussing over all she deserved and all the ways he might fall short of giving it to her. In the strange artifact of the connection they shared, Sansa seemed to trace his thoughts. She reached for him and tucked her hand in his.

 

“Yes, this is all I want,” she assured and swiveled towards him in her seat. “To be right here with you.”

 

Sandor nodded slow, and the corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. With their chairs side by side, Sansa crossed her legs and draped one arm over his lap. While she gazed up at the sky, he did some gazing of his own, just as riveting and awe-inspiring. His t-shirt barely covered her ass and left her long legs on full display and, when she shifted in her seat, he’d even catch sight of her lacy white underwear.

 

She’d taken her bra off too, and the night didn’t hold any kind of chill, but her nipples were still hard and poking through the shirt’s cotton weave. His fingers traced the outside of her thigh and he licked his bottom lip. Here she was submerged in romance and all he could think about was slipping his hand between her legs, lifting off the t-shirt, and having her ride him for all the stars to see.

 

“You’re not looking at the sky,” she giggled and only momentarily glanced at him with a devilish look behind her eyes that intimated she wasn’t issuing a complaint, only a studious observation. 

 

“I got distracted.” Sandor ran his palm down her leg and pulled his hand away before he got himself in trouble for spoiling the moment with his insatiable desire. “You know all the stars?”

 

He tipped his head to the celestial expanse above and paid deliberate attention to it, noticing how alarmingly gorgeous it really was. He tried to formulate some compliment—that her beauty could rival the heavens—but decided he’d only sound like a lovelorn jackass, so he kept it to himself.

 

Sansa drew a deep breath that she exhaled on a hum.

 

“Some of them.” She tossed her hair behind her shoulder and Sandor battled the instinct to touch her again, only because his will was wearing down and sooner rather than later he’d haul her off to the bedroom. Sansa pointed to the sky and traced with her finger a constellation. “That’s Orion’s belt. Big Dipper is there. Little Dipper.” She paused, bit her bottom lip, and shifted her eyes to him. “Um…that’s Medium Dipper.”

 

He followed her finger but couldn’t make out which stars she was pointing to.

 

“Medium Dipper,” he repeated and matched her gaze that she suddenly couldn’t seem to keep. 

 

“Yes.” She held her ground with a firm nod. The harder she bit her bottom lip, the harder Sandor gripped his bourbon glass, as if scrambling to keep hold of his composure. Sansa had a way of making this part difficult on him.

 

He set his glass down and crossed his arms tight over his chest with his narrowed eyes trained on her. “I’ve never heard of that one.”

 

Sansa battled an emergent smile and willed her beautiful face towards placid indifference but failed miserably as mischief ravaged her features.

 

“It’s very important in astronomy. Just recently discovered. It even made the evening news.”

 

“Really?” he pressed and surveyed her with obvious incredulity.

 

“Yes.” Sansa held fast to the ruse and lifted her wineglass to her lips but seemed to monitor his reaction with a stolen glance.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

His rumbling question, full of suspicion, catalyzed her merriment and she broke with bright laughter and a beaming smile. Now, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her—the intoxicating combination of the way she laughed and how she looked in the candlelight, the way she seamlessly fit here, in his home and in his life; as if she was always meant to have a place in both.

 

“What did I say about telling lies?” Sandor chuckled and leaned towards her. His lips swept against hers in a kiss that tasted like strawberries and peach wine. “Come here,” he grumbled and she came willingly into his lap.

 

With her back against his chest, she draped her legs over his thighs. Sandor wrapped his arms around her middle as they both gazed up at the sky and soaked in each other’s warmth. She burrowed against him and Sandor rested his cheek against her head. Though she still stared at the stars, he closed his eyes and delighted in the way her chest rose and fell with each serene breath she took.

 

“Some people believe that there are infinite universes,” she told him, soft though not quite a whisper. Her hand slipped into his. “Every decision we make sends us off into another reality, a parallel existence. My brother Bran is into learning about all of that.”

 

“That’s wild.” Sandor shifted enough to look at her and, with her head against his shoulder, Sansa craned her neck to stare back. “So, if you decided not to write to me, you’d be off in some other universe, with some other lucky man, fabricating stories about the same stars?”

 

Sansa reached up to cup his cheek. “No,” she corrected with a doting smile. “I said some people believe in that. I didn’t say me.” She pulled her hand from his face and settled in his arms again but traced her fingertips over the top of his knuckles. “I believe that some things are always meant to be, no matter the existence or universe.”

 

She lifted her hand and bid him to do the same. Her palm pressed flat against his and they both admired the difference—his rough skin against hers that was smooth; her slender fingers against his long, thick ones. She lifted her eyes to him, and the meaning passed effortless and unspoken between them. Not so long ago, they’d done this same thing, but with glass between them and the crushing belief that that might be as close as they ever came to one another.

 

When Sansa spoke now, she captured with unearthly eloquence all that he couldn’t.

 

“In every universe, all our decisions would’ve brought us together, eventually. Maybe just different timing. I don’t think there’s an existence where we don’t belong together.”

 

Sandor nodded. Whether he believed in it or not, he believed in her and this moment together and the extraordinary chain of events that led them to one another. It was enough for him. He kissed her temple and let his lips linger there as he spoke.

 

“So somewhere, in some other universe, there’s a ‘you’ and a ‘me’ and maybe they’re doing what we’re doing now.”

 

Her fingers slipped into his. “Yes, or maybe their story hasn’t been written yet and they’re still finding each other.” 

 

A breeze picked up, and the candlelight fell differently across her face, though no less bewitching. The desire running through Sandor changed its course too and, if he had the right words for her, he’d expose his heart now. He didn’t have those words, so he dropped his eyes to their hands entwined.

 

“I like that,” he murmured and let go of her hand. His palms slipped beneath the t-shirt and smoothed up her stomach. He cupped her breasts and lightly pinched one nipple. “We better get busy then, so they don’t catch up to us.”

 

A smile bloomed on her mouth and she pressed a honeyed kiss to his lips, pure and sweet and she needed more from him; the words he couldn’t find but felt. He hoped she knew in other ways—how he touched her, the things he did, how he watched her. He didn’t know the way like she did. 

 

“Does it scare you or excite you?” Sandor asked and searched her eyes for the answer.

 

Sansa toiled over the question for a moment before asking, “The universe or us?”

 

He motioned to the sky that seemed to deepen in color and the stars shone brighter because of it.

 

Her features went winsome again, angelic and devastatingly beautiful. “Excites. Endless possibilities.”

 

Sandor wrapped his arms tighter around her and pressed his lips to the graceful length of her neck. Her pulse beat wild against his kiss. “And what about us?” he whispered.

 

“Both,” she replied honestly and turned to look at him. “And you?”

 

He faltered. This was all like breaking new ground and he found himself in unknown territory, wild with possibility, but the uncharted path would strike fear in any man, if nothing more than the potential to bungle it without the blueprints. When he couldn’t summon the answer in time, Sansa spoke again.

 

“Don’t be scared,” she soothed so tenderly that Sandor couldn’t help the smile that drifted across his mouth. “What if it were just us in the universe and everything else was made for you and me?”

 

He rested his head against hers and closed his eyes. “I like that. So we agree—everyone other than us can fuck off.”

 

Sansa laughed and her mirth drove away the fear in him. “Yes. It’s just us,” she agreed. 

 

It felt like she’d taken his hand and was leading the way with patient acceptance and compassion he’d never known. He realized then that she’d been down this path before and it’d treated her unkind, and the road hadn’t been easy for her either. And yet, here she was—guiding the way with faith in the fate that brought them together and trust that it wouldn’t tear them apart.

 

Sandor had his ways of communicating back what she so effortlessly found the words for. He kissed her cheek and moved to stand. Sansa climbed from his lap and he blew out the candle before taking her by the hand. He led her inside and turned out the lights as they went; first, through the kitchen, the living room, down the hall, and into the bedroom where he shut the door behind him and might as well have been shutting out the rest of the world.

 

As she’d said, it was just them.

 

They exchanged no words as they stood in the incandescence put off by the bedside lamp. Sandor sat at the edge of the bed and Sansa stood in front of him. He lifted the t-shirt over her head and deposited it on the floor. His own shirt ended up there as well. Sandor gazed up at her and reveled in the way she looked back at him. With his hands at her hips, he bid her to turn around and, when she did, his lips grazed her spine and the hair that cascaded down her back swept against his cheek.

 

The urgency fell away in favor of soft touches, the feel of their skin against skin as he laid her down on the bed and settled on top of her. In an unhurried embrace, he held her against him and relished everything he could—the rise and fall of her chest in time with his; each anticipatory breath rustling against his skin as she kissed his neck; the slight tremble of her fingers because she too recognized this was turning a page for them. He didn’t know about those others in the universe, but this story was theirs to write and they’d take the pen together.

 

Sandor eased up enough to prop himself on his elbow next to her. As she lovingly caressed his cheek with her palm, Sandor’s fingertips trailed between her breasts and down her stomach in a whisper of a touch that bid her eyes to flutter shut. When his fingers disappeared beneath the band of her pretty lace underwear, she drew a deep breath and her knees fell apart.

 

He swiped slow between her legs, gently parting her lower lips and trailing one finger through the pool of wetness there. Sandor watched her, enraptured by every pant from her lips and the way her body moved to the pace he’d set.

 

“I want you,” she whispered with breathy insistence and head sinking further into the pillow. “In every way.”

 

Sandor dipped one finger inside her and back out with dawdling ease. Hovering above her, he took one breast in his hand, pert and soft against his palm. He leaned forward and the tip of his tongue swirled around the hard pink nipple. Sansa buried her fingers in his hair and bucked against his touch, now the one losing her patience. A rasping laugh escaped him, and she opened her eyes, heavy-lidded with want. His lips pressed against hers, tongue sweeping over her bottom lip before delving into her mouth, warm and willing and filled with the urge to have him closer.

 

Just as she was about to tug him nearer and probably climb on top of him to set her own pace, Sandor sat up. Sansa bit her bottom lip and her palms smoothed up and down his bare chest and abdomen. Her cheeks flushed pink, but her eyes darkened with ardent need, the passion burning through her.

 

Sandor shucked out of his jeans and underwear and, standing at the edge of the bed, took himself in hand and stroked his length. Sansa pushed herself up on all fours and crawled to the edge of the bed. On her hands and knees, she gazed up at him with all her sultry sweetness, the combination that drove him wild. He stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. The other hand guided the tip of his cock to her lips, swollen from kissing and pretty pink.

 

“This what you want?” he groaned and gazed down at her.

 

She flashed an enthralled smile and nodded.

 

“Go on then.” The teasing chuckle that escaped him was short lived as Sansa spared no bit of introduction. Her hand replaced his around his cock and those gorgeous lips circled the tip.

 

The pleasure that rippled through Sandor always took him by surprise, but now it blindsided. He gathered up her hair in his fist and his eyes went to the ceiling as she took him in her mouth. She sucked tentatively at first, and her tongue swirled around his length. Her hand stroked the rest of him that she couldn’t quite manage, and the concert of her movements was enough that his knees weakened.

 

A shuddering sigh escaped him, and Sandor looked down to find Sansa staring up at him, her cheeks hollowed and that heavenly mouth finding all the right rhythms that would bring this evening to an abrupt end if she kept going. Sandor’s breath seethed from clenched teeth. With tremendous difficulty, he pulled away and pushed Sansa to the bed.

 

Deer in the headlights, her blue eyes went wide as she scooted backwards, knowing damn well what was coming for her and smiling with anticipation. Sandor crawled after her and yanked her underwear down her thighs with no more ritualistic ease. In one movement, he tossed them over his shoulder, urged her knees apart, and where she looked convinced he might delve between her legs like a man starved, Sandor teased instead.

 

His lips grazed the shape of her body—the dip of her waist, the rise of her hips, down the outside of her thigh. Something between a whimper and a moan escaped her as she watched him. He smiled up at her and matched her eyes as the tip of his tongue trailed down one of her plush lips and then the other. And just when she might’ve protested for more, he sucked softly on her clit.

 

She had no protests now. She barely had words. She wasn’t the only one adept at this practice and the divine sounds pouring from her mouth became increasingly incoherent as he licked and sucked, teased and kissed between her legs, following each breath she took until he felt her thighs trembling against his cheeks.

 

Sansa released a sighing moan and gripped the bedsheets as her legs fell further apart. She writhed to meet his mouth in a way she hadn’t before; with carefree and surmounting abandon, coming undone underneath him. Her fingers combed through his hair and she tensed. With her loud cry, Sandor felt the flush against his lips. He gave a satisfied smile and one last lick that sent a tremor through her. Mine.

 

Sansa sunk into the mattress, her limbs loose now and one arm tossed over her eyes, though her lips were parted as she panted. Sandor wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He might as well have been wiping away the smirk at having left her in gorgeous ruins after coming so hard.

 

When Sansa pulled her arm away, the hunger and determination in her eyes stilled his movements. Paired with her seductive smile, Sansa rose to her knees and crawled towards him. Sandor settled back against the pillow. He didn’t have a choice. With one hand to his chest, she pinned him down and straddled him before tossing her hair behind her shoulders.

 

Her lips met his with a fever he hadn’t known in her. She kissed him hard and deep, not caring one bit about the taste of herself on his lips. She moaned into his mouth and that fervor was infectious now. Sandor held her firm against his chest. His hand slipped to the back of her head, sinking in her hair and deepening the kiss. His other hand fumbled between them, encircling his cock and positioning it at her opening.

 

When he went to drive himself into her, Sansa lifted enough to let him know who was in charge. His frustrated grunt was met with a gentle hum from her. If he had any doubts, when she pulled away from the kiss, her hand at his chest urged him to lay back again and the tender deviousness had gathered behind her eyes. Sandor cupped her breasts, palming them gently, and he almost thought to plead with her as he drank in the sight of her supple lower lips, drenched and glistening and spread at the tip of his cock.

 

“This what you want?” she whispered on a shy breath, so at odds with how she smiled at him now.

 

Before he could answer, Sansa eased down his length, taking him in slowly. A slew of words Sandor couldn’t repeat even if he tried escaped him. They all came on one groaning exhale, incoherent and matching the indistinct way the light filtered through his eyes squeezed shut. His hands gripped her hips. They smoothed up her thighs when she rose and fell along his length, each pass taking him in deeper and with a quickened cadence. He watched, mesmerized and indisposed and in utter disbelief at the sensations rolling through him.

 

Back arched, she swiveled her hips in a fluid, grinding rhythm that allowed him to feel every inch of her. And if he believed in God, he might’ve seen that divinity in this moment—Sansa losing herself in the rhythm she set, riding him hard, legs falling further apart, her hands gripping the sides of her head, as she panted and moaned, and eventually collapsed against his chest.

 

The urgency didn’t abate, though. Sandor took over the pace with his hands at her hips and fervent kisses as his tongue swept against hers. Every noise they made was one. He felt her tighten around his cock, the sensation almost blinding. Another flush between her legs and he thrust deeper and harder. She squeezed her eyes shut and dropped her head to his shoulder and called out his name as she came. Mine.

 

The thought alone drove him over the edge, and he held her limp body hard against him. His hips bucked against her, pressure surmounting, and Sansa lifted just in time for him to release with blinding ecstasy, the kind that felt like he might depart his own body.

 

She rolled off him with her thighs trembling, hair a mess, and her skin flushed. As his seed spilled over his chest, Sansa collapsed to the mattress next to him. In the aftermath, Sandor couldn’t say how long they laid next to one another. Hand-in-hand, they stared at the ceiling, catching their breath and coming down from the otherworldly heights they’d sent each other.

 

When Sansa slowly turned her head towards him, Sandor did the same and squeezed her hand. A small laugh escaped her, one that Sandor matched.

 

“That was…” she sighed and stopped because the world didn’t make words for moments like this and Sandor was apt to believe it was because a rare few ever had the pleasure of experiencing what they just had.

 

“Yeah,” he agreed and tossed his arm around her. “It was.” He kissed her forehead and couldn’t help the smile that erupted across his lips. With it came another chuckle that bid Sansa to gaze up at him.

 

He rolled over to the edge of the bed and grabbed his t-shirt from the floor to clean himself up. When he laid back down, Sansa settled next to his side, her head resting in the crook of his shoulder and still staring up at him in that adoring way.

 

“You’re incredible,” Sandor murmured against her mouth because he apparently wasn’t done trying to define the ineffable between them. He kissed her in dawdling wonderment at how she felt against him, the way she tasted sweet, the smoothness of her skin. 

 

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and Sandor eased on top of her once more. For a great long while, they cherished the intimacy of slow kisses and soft touches until the desire in him rose again and in her too. He reached between her legs and found her wet and willing and she whispered again that she wanted him, but the unrestrained affection in her eyes spoke in ways her lips couldn’t and he understood.

 

Sandor eased inside of her, and his palm cupped her cheek. The kiss he placed against her lips was simple but lost no devotion because of it. Sansa cradled the back of his head and her legs wrapped around his hips as he thrust tender and slow. When the kiss broke, he rested his forehead against hers and felt each of her pants against his lips.

 

He normally had words for these moments—narrating the feel of her body; the things he wanted from her; the promises of what was to come. Sandor remained silent, and not for the lack of words. There was so much he’d say to her right now if his heart would only let him, if only it knew how.

 

Sansa seemed to already know. She understood in the way he held onto her, the caress of his palms along the silhouette of her curves, and his hands cradling her face. She was already there, and he was merely racing to keep up with the erratic fear that she’d slip away. With his mouth covering over her own and their lips sweeping together, he captured every gasp and revered it with a kiss, deep and consuming. He savored the feel of her, and they reached their peak together, unrushed and unrelenting.

 

Sandor’s hands slipped into hers and he buried his face against the side of her neck, damp with sweat. Her body was flush and warm against him. The pleasure that came was different, but no less intense. When it came for both of them, the aftermath also held silent veneration, but they did so wrapped up in one another.

 

With Sandor on top of her, Sansa held onto him, her cheek pressed against his and arms encircled tight around his shoulders. Sandor’s arms slipped around her lower back, tucked between her and the mattress. He pressed his lips against her temple, cheek, the tip of her nose, and then her mouth.

 

Whereas the moment before had no words, this one had plenty. Humanity had been singing about it, writing about it, agonizing over it, and exalting its splendor since the dawn of time. For Sandor, it’d gone shapeless, a mirage on the distant horizon that wouldn’t truly exist if he ever reached it. Now it had a shape, a name, a look, a touch, a sound. He held Sansa tight against him and released a heavy sigh. Mine. To love. To cherish. Mine. 

 

“Did you really wish for me like you said in your letter?” he asked on a quiet breath and lifted himself enough to stare down at her. The lamp’s golden light danced against her skin still flush and glistening.

 

Sansa lifted a hand to the ruined side of his face. She matched his eyes and gave a faint nod. “On every star in the sky.”

 

Sandor cracked a smile and averted his eyes to his fingertip that traced her collarbone in a light touch. “Including Medium Dipper?”

 

“Yes,” she laughed bright like a bell beneath him, but quieted once more as she gazed up at him as if he were a dream brought to life. “And here you are.”

 

He closed his eyes and would remember to count his lucky stars, even the ones she invented just to wish upon for him.

 

“Here you are,” he whispered. When he pulled her nearer, he felt her heart beating against his and her exhale against his skin. “It’s just us,” he said. “And I want you in every way too.”