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The Best Laid Plans

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The Quiet Isle had fallen, just as he said it would. It had taken longer than he thought, just short of six years to do so, but it had happened all the same. He had wanted the tranquil sanctuary to keep on going as much any man there but he always had kept one foot in reality. The world was a liar and he knew the truth. Winter blew in harsh and brutal only a year after he had arrived. The land had gone to shit and he knew his chosen home could only last so long.

 

He’d had enough time, at least, to convince the Elder Brother that some of their stashed away coin would be best spent on steel and light armor. It went against their way but when he explained there would be no one left to carry on their teachings if they didn’t try and defend it, the leader of their group had taken heed of his council. Some of the men had taken his training seriously. A small group of them was all that stood between raiders and the Stranger. When the time had come to draw steel again he’d taken no pleasure in it. His sword tasted blood and he wept afterwards for what he had done in order to keep on living. Their numbers had crashed from near one hundred to barely twenty, but they were still there. Still alive. Hope was not gone.

 

The village on the Quiet Isle had been burnt to cinder and ash. Nothing but a few horses, and what they had on their own bodies remained. They searched the rubble and found a few bits of clothing, some cookware and the dead. Everywhere dead eyes looked at him and there would be no time to bury them. He had one more thing to add to his list of regrets.

 

They took to the road. The life of the nomad became their way. From town to town and village to village they sought shelter. Most wouldn’t take them. Resources were too scarce to give aid to even the godly. Some gave them a few supplies but stated they had no roofs to house them. Others were beyond kind in those hard times, taking them in for a week or two and letting them rest before gently sending them on their way again.

 

It got harder as time went on. Six months out in the grasp of winter and they were suffering for it. All had lost weight and many were ill. They’d buried two or three along the way. And still they pressed on. He knew they’d all die soon. His faith was failing him but as they passed by Hornwood and were turned down once again, an idea struck him. He took the Elder Brother aside and told him they should take the road to Winterfell. The Elder Brother had looked at him puzzled. Winterfell was a great estate that was for certain, but would they give out charity to those they didn’t know in such desperate times, he was asked. And why would the Lady of the house have them?

 

They all knew of the mighty Brienne of Tarth’s peasant raid on the Boltons of Winterfell years ago. It had been bloody and many had fallen but Sansa Stark had been spirited away and Ramsey Bolton lay dead in pool of his own blood. It had taken time, but the Stark girl had rallied a small army of loyalists behind her and taken back what was rightfully hers. Her brothers were still assumed dead. No one had heard of Ayra for many years. Winterfell was now Stark territory once again and the self proclaimed Queen of the North had managed to fend off any attacks for the time being. It was rumored the Mother of Dragon’s was close to gaining the Iron Throne and that peace between the North and South was desired by both parties.

 

They had no where else to turn. They’d all be dead within a fortnight if he didn’t take action. He still felt a deep shame for the way he had treated the girl but lives were on the line. Lives that he cared about more than his pride. He wouldn’t let the sacrifice of so many thus far end because of him. He knew she would at least hear them out. She might still turn them away but his name should grant them a few minutes of her time to tell their tale. It was time for Sandor Clegane to come out of hiding.

 

……………………………………………………………………………………………

 

The gates of Winterfell seemed larger to him this time around then the last time he had seen them. But he was also half frozen and beyond starving at this point. They’d lost more men in the week it had taken to get to the gates. Now there were only a dozen left. They huddled in front of the massive wooden doors while two patrol guards eyed them up from a tower.

 

“State your business,” one shouted down to them.

 

“We are seeking shelter from the winter,” the Elder Brother called back, “Our lands were taken and our Brothers killed. We come from an Isle just outside of Maidenpool. We seek nothing but peace and warmth for as long as you can spare it. Please do not turn these men of faith away.”

 

The guards seemed to be debating amongst themselves. The first one yelled down to them again.

 

“We can offer supplies. Nothing more. Wait there and we will send out a party with them.”

 

“Please!” the Elder Brother pleaded, “We can’t go on any longer. If we could just rest out of the cold for a night or two. If your Lady would hear us out-“

 

“We can offer supplies, nothing more,” the guard cut the Brother off, repeating the orders.

 

He’d had enough. This was getting them no where. They’d all be dead, except for him self, by morning if he didn’t do something. One by one, they would freeze and he would use their corpses as shelter to keep on surviving as he always did. He’d done it before. He stepped up and brushed the Elder Brother aside.

 

“You tell your Queen that Sandor Clegane, the Hound of Westeros seeks an audience with her,” he growled to the men in the tower. The Hound’s helm had been buried long ago but he knew the title would grab their attention.

 

The guards were pushed out of the way as a woman’s shape moved to the railing to look at them. Her dress was like frost and her hair was like flame. His eyes had started to go a bit blurred when looking at distant objects but he knew her form. And he would know that red hair from a thousand miles away. The Little Bird had been listening all along. She gripped the railing in front of her.

 

“Sandor Clegane is dead,” she told him, her voice like ice. “Who are you?”

 

There was nothing left to do but pull the hood from his head. He shook his hair back from his face as well, holding it up on one side so she could see his ruin and know exactly who it was she spoke to. He didn’t think it possible for her fair skin to go any paler but it did. He’d seen snow with more color than her.

 

“Still not able to look at me then Little Bird?” he called.

 

She addressed the guards, “Let them in. Now!”

 

Then she turned her back in a swirl of furs and was gone. The men around him gasped and prayed in gratitude while he pulled the cowl back over his face. There was a few minutes wait but then they were all ushered into the courtyard by six armed men. Boys really, with light armor and short swords. He felt at the long sword on his back, under his robes. It was hard to get at that way but he had it all the same, just in case.

 

They were all herded to the main building and led into a hall that became cramped with all of them in it. The guards stayed with them and no one spoke. It was warm. Blessedly so, and they all shivered in the new temperature as their bodies adjusted. A door to the side opened and four servants entered. Two bearing trays of warmed wine and the others carrying baskets of dark brown bread. There was a larger, older guard with them. Older than him but not as large, he noted. He still towered over every person in the hall.

 

“The Lady Stark will see you shortly. She sends refreshment for you while you wait,” the big man curtly explained to them before taking off through another door.

 

The food and drink was passed out amongst the men. Many shed tears as they tasted the first decent food they’d had in many days. Time ticked by and when half an hour was up the older guard, clad in black, came back to them.

 

“Who amongst you is leader?” he asked gruffly.

 

The Elder Brother first raised his hand and then pointed to himself and Brother Linton.

 

“I am in charge, he stated, “These two are my council, Brothers Clegane and Linton”

 

“You’re Clegane?” the guard questioned of him.

 

“Aye,” he nodded.

 

“Good, she asked for the leader and Clegane. Bring the other with you as well,” he ordered beckoning them through the doorway.

 

The door led them to a spacious room, most likely for large celebrations and meetings. To the back of the room, a wooden platform had been constructed. An elaborate white washed chair stood at its center. Sansa Stark sat in that throne, every bit as regal as the Queen she claimed to be. He couldn’t help but grin. She’d grown into her self it had seemed. They neared and he got a better look at her. It took his breath away and every hope, every thought, every brush of disgrace he’d tried to keep buried inside of him for the past half dozen years came rushing back. She was fully a woman now. Her hair was plaited and went all the way down her back. He thought she might be taller but it was hard to tell with her sitting. She was more beautiful now than ever. He was a fool to think he would ever stop yearning for her light.

 

The three of them approached her but she kept her eyes on him alone. One by one they climbed the stairs to kiss her offered hand and give thanks. He was last. When he took her hand he was certain that hers shook just as much as his. He glanced at her face and his heart clenched in his chest. He knew when his Little Bird was crying on the inside. But was it happiness, sadness or anger that made her feel so? There was no time to ask about it now. He took his place at the Elder Brother’s left hand side. Sansa finally turned her attention on the leader of the three.

 

“I am sorry for the treatment you received at the gate. As I am sure you can understand, we must all be careful these days. It is not the first time we’ve had raiders disguised as beggars at our door,” she told the Elder Brother. He had to stop himself from snorting. She certainly hadn’t forgotten her courtesies. It seemed she knew his thoughts though anyway. She glared at him before continuing, “I hope the refreshment was satisfactory for now.”

 

“Indeed my Lady,” the Elder Brother thanked her, “It was much appreciated.”

 

“How many are you?” she asked, getting down to business.

 

“Twelve, my Lady. We started with eighteen,” the Brother answered, shaking his head in sadness.

 

“I am sorry for your loss,” she told him sincerely. “Do your men have skills? Can they be of any service other than preaching?”

 

“Yes, all of them are used to hard labor. They may need a day or two of rest to get back on their feet but all are useful. Brother Harper is best at wood working, Brother Allen, was a smith in his youth and Brother Tribuckle is an excellent brew master if you’ve any grain to spare. Brother Linton here –he pointed to the man at his right- has a talent for herbs and Brother Clegane is good with horses and swords.”

 

“I am well acquainted with Sandor Clegane’s use of a sword and dagger,” she said harshly. He winced. That had hurt but he deserved it. She focused her eyes on him.

 

“These are your people?” she queried. “You would vouch for them?”

 

“Aye, they are true men,” he stated. “Better men than me.”

 

She nodded her acceptance. “You are all welcome to stay then. It is late but I have asked the cooks to warm some broth. There should be salted pork and dried fruit as well. You will all take food and rest this evening. Tomorrow we will sort out who will do what to earn your keep. You three shall have guest quarters here in the main house. The rest of your men will take the second floor of the Maester’s long house. They will need to bunk two to a room but it is all I have to offer. Bullis, will show you to the kitchens.”

 

The black clothed guard started moving them out of the room. They all gave a quick bow and thanked her once again. He turned his back to leave but heard her speak out once more.

 

“Clegane!” she cried. He faced her once more.

 

“It is good to see you again.”

 

Her face was stern but her eyes were soft. His heart soared as he walked from the room.

Chapter Text

The following morning found him in a better constitution then he had been in for weeks. A warm bed to sleep in and the simple, yet satisfying meal of meat and broth had done wonders for not only himself, but a majority of the Brothers. Two were still weak, coughing and feverish, but the Maseter of Winterfell predicted a full recovery within a week. The ill ones were to rest for the time being before attempting any household chores.

 

The rest of them took a morning meal inside the dining hall of the main house. The gruel was plain and the rolls dry but they were hot and that was all that really mattered. Hells, there was butter and pressed apple cider on the table! It was a King’s feast compared to raw horseflesh and frozen vegetation. They all ate enough to satisfy and no more. There was no point in wasting food on gorging. Rationing was a skill they had learned early on.

 

The Lady of the house was not to be seen. He searched for her but never saw her. He tried not to let it disappoint him. She owed him nothing. But it would still be nice to catch a glimpse of her. She didn’t have to speak to him. He only wanted to look at her again. She had been so radiant on that throne of ivory. He remembered a shy, simpering child stumbling her way into adulthood. Now there was a forceful, curved woman in that little girl’s place. He had dreamt about her in the night and had prayed in the morning, without much feeling, to be rid of his lustful thoughts.

 

After the morning meal, the large guard came for the Elder Brother, Linton and himself. The surly guardsman reminded Sandor of a wild boar. He was stocky in the shoulders and his teeth were cooked and chipped. A boar probably smelled better though. Where ever Sansa had found that one, it was sure to be an unforgiving place.

 

The husky man led them to a small room this time. Sansa was already seated at the head of a table with six chairs. A tall, blonde woman clad in armor stood by her right side. The woman was nearly as tall as he! Brienne of Tarth, he guessed. He was proven correct when Sansa bid them to take a seat and introduced the woman as such. Brienne was her sworn shield it was explained them. Without Brienne she would not be alive to offer them shelter now. They would treat the armored woman with respect or be tossed out of the gates without question.

 

Terms were discussed next. They would be provided for, all of them, as long as they would earn their keep. There was a house guard led by Bullis and a small army led by Captain Holloway, who was out scouting to the east. The lands of Winterfell had good trading relations with neighboring towns. Everyone was warm, decently fed and relatively safe. It was one of the best places anyone could be in the North.

 

There was a main house, kitchens, a laundry house, the Maester’s long building, several live stock pens, stables, a wine cellar, servant quarters, and buried gardens. The Maester had learned in his time that if the earth was dug up it would insulate some plants and coax life from seeds. There were many places where new hands could be made busy. Several hours were spent deciding who would be best suited to what task. When it came time to place him self, Sansa was the first to speak.

 

“Bullis and Brienne are the closest I have to a council now a days,” she began, “I believe Bullis could use help in keeping track of the house guard. Too many of the boys are unskilled and he cannot train them all and advise me. He is the one in charge but you will be second in command of the house guard if you wish it.”

 

“Can you move with the leg?” Bullis cut in. The black clothed man had noticed his slight limp. Six years and it still bothered him, though it was far better now then it had been back then.

 

“Aye,” he nodded, “Not too fast. Never was swift though.”

 

“Clegane’s use is not in his quickness. It’s the force behind his sword that makes men tremble,” Sansa added. Was she defending or mocking him? Bullis grunted in answer and Sandor was reminded of himself several years ago. Sansa focused back on him.

 

“Do you accept?” she asked.

 

He hesitated. It was a fair offer. She knew nothing of him after they had parted the night of the battle of the Blackwater. She didn’t know about his near death, or the physical and mental healing that had happened after. His struggle was not known to her. She would assume he would snarl and fight like the dog he had been. The Elder Brother had taken him under his wing and Sandor had changed from beast to man. Near a man at least. As close as his sorry self was ever going to get. He had fought on the Quiet Isle in defense of those who were truly good but did he want to continue at it? There was no one more worthy of his protection than the Little Bird but it was a dangerous path she was asking him to walk down.

 

“Is there time to think on it?” was the only answer he could give her.

 

Her fingers rapped on the table. She was debating with herself. The Queen of the North wasn’t used to people not jumping to obey her commands. Her tone grew haughty.

 

“You have one day to decide. I expect an answer tomorrow morning.” She rose from her chair and so did all the men. Brienne had stood at her side the entire time.

 

“You are all dismissed. Brother, please let your people know what is expected of them. The mid day meal will be in another few hours. The evening meal is at seven. The gate remains shut at all times unless I order it open. Do not ask me to open it. You” – she pointed straight at him – “Will remain here.”

 

He was shamed to feel himself gulp under her glare. She was angry with him then? He had hoped time would help her perhaps not forgive, but at least forget, his past transgressions. She still was a beauty to rival the sun but inside she had changed. Where his edges had been blunted and dulled, hers had been honed and sharpened. Once the others had filed out of the room, she motioned for Brienne to join them. The woman tired to argue and Sansa firmly held her ground.

 

“He won’t hurt me,” Sansa reassured her. That statement stung worse than the one yesterday. He had hurt her. Many times. Why the sudden faith that he wouldn’t do so now?

 

Brienne left the room, her eyes glowing with suspicion. Sansa once again sat and bid him to do the same. His heart pounded in his chest. He’d dreamed of this hadn’t he? For years he had wanted the chance to see her, sit by her side and explain himself but now he had no words. His throat was sawdust dry, his hands clenched in his lap. Whatever she did now he would take it. He should be barreled, nailed and drug through the streets for what he had done to her. He stared at the fists in his lap. There was silence for a long time. And then he heard a quiet sniff. He looked up to find tears in her eyes.

 

“I thought you were dead. Brienne said so. Your Elder Brother told her!” she said. Her voice was calm and clear despite the water in her eyes.

 

“I’m not,” he shrugged.

 

She let out a wet bark of a laugh, “Yes, I can see that.”

 

Her eyes grew serious. “I mourned you,” she told him and he felt his own eyes burn. He didn’t deserve that. Not at all. Receiving her grief was certain to have earned him a chance to rot in all the Seven Hells.

 

“That’s not right,” he grumbled, clearing his throat. “You shouldn’t have spent tears on me. I’m sorry for it. The number of sins I’ve committed against you are too many to count. I am sorry for them.”

 

He looked her in her eyes and she only shook her head slowly.

 

“You and I do not recall events the same way. I can think of no actions you have committed that need my forgiveness. You may ask your Lord for it if you like but don’t ask it of me. I can not forgive a sin that has not occurred.”

 

“Not even . . . “ he trailed off. He couldn’t even say the words. They were vile. They were the worst of him self and she knew what he spoke of.

 

“Not even that,” she answered him. There was a sad, stern smile on her face. He held his breath and bit at the inside of his cheek. She wasn’t angry. It was a miracle. He fought the urge to sink to her feet and kiss the hem of her dress. She sighed and shivered in her seat before, rising out of her chair.

 

“I need air,” she explained. “Take your day to think. I will speak with you later. There are things we need to discuss.”

 

He stayed at the table until her heard her footsteps falling far down the hallway. Only after he heard them fade to nothing did he rise and make his way to the door. He felt the need for fresh air as well but went out the kitchen doors in order to avoid her and give her the space she needed. Just because she wasn’t furious with him didn’t mean she wished him to remain in her presence. The back door led to a muddy yard full of frozen slush. The sky was a crisp, clear blue though. Perhaps the snow would hold off for a few days.

 

The little yard was bustling with activity now that it was near noon. Wagons were being unloaded and men carried bushel baskets loaded with grain and root vegetables. Horses stomped impatiently while their wares were being unpacked. There was a goose girl herding her squawking charges through the muck. He heard giggling behind him and a half a dozen young children flew from behind him to run across the yard. They nearly knocked him over in their haste. The geese hissed at the little ones and they laughed, putting their thumbs in their ears and sticking out their tongues in response. It was pleasant to see new life thriving. There had only been a few children in passing on the Quiet Isle the first few years he had been there. Then less, until there were none at all in the final two years before it all burnt.

 

He saw two Brothers helping to unload a wagon so he stepped in to help as well. He needed to move for the time being. His conversation with Sansa, brief as it was, had left him restless and action was still the most efficient cure for him. He was better at sitting and waiting for answers now, but sometimes he still needed to release his pent up energy. He had no idea how some of the Brothers could sit for hours on end. Ten or twenty minutes was his limit for quiet contemplation.

 

The men were glad to have his help. He could carry twice as much as any of them even with the bad leg. It was the beginning of the month and extra supplies were coming in to last for the next few weeks. There were crates filled with honey and jams. Casks of wine were rolled out. The carcasses of goats and lambs were brought in as well. His mouth watered and he smirked. It seems they had timed their arrival well. Once the work was finished and he was sweating, he made his way back to his chambers. He stopped at the threshold though and instead of entering, knocked on the Elder Brother’s door.

 

The Brother let him in, smiling and offered him a seat. Sandor picked at a hangnail for a minute. The Elder Brother simply waited and busied himself with some papers in front in him on a small table. The room was much like his own. A narrow bed, a wooden chest, a hearth, a small table and two chairs. A few candle holders were stuck into the walls and that was all to the room. It wasn’t much but it was luxury compared to the open road.

 

“Do I take her offer?” he asked the Elder Brother.

 

“You know that is not a question I can answer,” the man told him still keeping his attention to the letters in front of him.

 

“Should I take her offer?” he corrected himself. The Elder Brother set his papers aside and sighed.

 

“You are the best judge of your own limits. If you feel you can step back into the role of soldier without losing the man you’ve become than by all means take her offer. If not, refuse and see what else she may have for you. I doubt she’ll throw you out. You two have history, yes?” The wise man had proved to be clever once again.

 

Sandor nodded. He had spoken many times of his days in King’s Landing, but never of his Little Bird. That was not something to be shared. He would be damned for some of his actions towards her, but other times he had been as gentle as he could be. She was the only bit of grace he had managed in his life before the Quiet Isle. He didn’t want anyone to have those memories.

 

“She was King Joffrey’s betrothed for a time. She was not treated well. I didn’t treat her kindly though I tried,” he muttered. That was all he willing to say.

 

“Take the time to think and make your own decisions. You are in control of your own life. You have been for quite some time. She can not make you do that which you do not wish to.” the Brother told him.

 

He almost laughed out loud at that. If only the man knew, he thought. He’d bugger himself with his long sword if she asked it of him. But there was truth behind the Brother’s words. He had taken hold of his destiny years ago and if he went where the Little Bird led him it was his fault entirely for letting it happen. He would need more time to think.

Chapter Text

It was she that sought him out the next day and not the other way around. He had visited the recovering Brothers early, near dawn, before the first meal and was trying to make his way back to the hall for sustenance. But she came marching through the great front courtyard, with her bodyguard trailing behind, before he could make it there.

 

“Clegane, you’re a difficult person to find,” she remarked. He was glad she chose not to call him Hound but saddened to hear his surname and not his first on her lips. But then again, he’d never given her any reason to think he would allow such liberties.

 

“I didn’t know you were looking,” he shot back and it was close enough to old times that he felt at ease for a moment.

 

“We were to meet this morning were we not? That will be all, Brienne,” Sansa told her sworn shield, waving the tall woman away with her hand. Brienne backed up several yards. Enough to give them privacy but close enough to keep an eye on them.

 

“Walk with me,” she said, holding out her arm to him. That arm would place her facing his burns and he automatically went to her other side. She’d never liked to walk close to his scars in the past. He held his arm out to her. The thought of touching her made his stomach knot but he didn’t want to look like an ill mannered pig. He was one; however, he didn’t want to bring any more attention to the fact. He’d done that enough already.

 

She let out a puff of irritated air and switched places once again with him, looking him directly in the eye as she did so. Grabbing his arm, she forced it under her own while she started walking.

 

“Sorry?” he tried. “Didn’t think you much cared for that side.”

 

“I’m not a child,” she snapped and sighed. “You’ve changed.”

 

“Sorry,” he mumbled again.

 

“Stop saying that!” she shouted.

 

“My deepest fucking apologies my Lady,” he rasped and then changed his tone. “Was that better?”

 

She laughed. Hard. And then she smiled right at him. His heart did that odd flip inside of his chest that had started the day he’d seen her on her throne. He’d never managed to make her smile or laugh before. Of course, he’d never really tried in the past. Too much wine and rage flowed through his system then. The little ray of happiness he had drawn out of her presently was all the reward he needed to make him want to do it again. And keep on doing it for the rest of his life.

 

“A bit,” she continued chuckling, “at least I can tell it really is you.”

 

“You’ve changed as well,” he noted and was dismayed to hear a quiet shyness in his voice. Sandor Clegane wasn’t shy that’s for damn sure. But she pulled things out of him no one else could.

 

“I’ve grown,” she stated. “There’s a bit of a difference.”

 

“Then I’ve grown as well,” he debated and she hummed her acceptance.

 

“You look the same though,” she observed.

 

“You don’t,” he rushed before he could stop himself.

 

“I’m not a girl anymore,” she reminded him. The conversation was getting out of hand for him. He could bloody well see she wasn’t a girl. Her teats that had just begun to fill in the last time he saw her were now on full display in her form hugging dress. Her hips were wider as well and she was indeed taller, as he had first suspected. He needed to get away from this line of thinking before he made a fool of himself.

 

“Is that what you wanted to talk about?” He tried to steer their talk in a different direction.

 

“No, you owe me a decision.” Her stance changed and she was back at being a Queen rather then someone who resembled his Little Bird.

 

“If you want me to train the boys, I will,” he confirmed. She stopped short and looked at him quizzically.

 

“You’ve misunderstood the offer,” she corrected him. He felt as of he was being scolded for being dim. “I wasn’t asking you to train the men. Bullis can handle that well enough. He’s better suited at combat training than giving council. He’s the one I want free of other obligations to better prepare the men. As second in command, it will be your duty to assist him in the training yard if necessary, but your main purpose will be to take his seat at my table. I was asking you to take his place in advising me.”

 

He dropped her arm and backed up a few paces. He had to have misunderstood her. There was no way in all the Seven Hells Sansa Stark wanted him as part of her council. He’d gone deaf or soft in the head; possibly both simultaneously.

 

“You what?” he barked and this time it was real and not forced.

 

“I wish for you to take a position at my table. To be council and guide to me during my reign,” she said again.

 

“The fuck for?” he shouted. If she was missing his past ways she was going to have them. He wasn’t going to take the time to silence his tongue if she was going to babble nonsense. But his gruff tone and coarse words only seemed to please her.

 

“That’s why,” she told him. “Because, when it’s needed, you’ll tell me exactly what you see and you won’t hide behind false words. You’re the only one I can trust completely.”

 

His head hurt. He rubbed at his brow. Had she forgotten everything at King’s Landing?

 

“You’ve gone daft,” he warned.

 

“I’ve never been more sane. There were many around me at The Red Keep and you were the only one who ever told me the truth. Every single time you spoke your words were true. You were course and harsh about it but I’ve had time to realize that was your way with everyone. I’ve seen more blood and battle myself now than I wish to speak of. I don’t presume to know your past but I have a sense of what life may have been like for you.”

 

“And,” he pressed.

 

“And I believe that anger breeds anger. Hate begets hate. It trickles down from one source to another. If one is treated in a foul manner then one learns to treat others that way. I haven’t forgotten your story about the little wooden knight and your brother’s cruelty. When you left I was numb for weeks. And then, when people would speak to me, I would hear your voice telling me what I should do. You’ve been here” – she pointed at her temple- “for years already. You may as well stay and make it reality.”

 

“You’re still a child!” he bellowed and Brienne stepped closer. Sansa held a hand up to the woman to halt her progress. “You haven’t learned anything. You want me for council? I’m the worst choice in Westeros.”

 

“Why,” she challenged him. He didn’t have an immediate answer so she continued, “Tell me one reason why and I won’t ask again.”

 

He sputtered and tried to come up with something quickly. He wasn’t fast enough.

 

“Would you ever lie to me?” she raised her voice to him, “Would you ever give false council or put your needs above my own?”

 

He had no reply. She didn’t need one. She knew the answers to her questions. She waited and he grew more irritated that he couldn’t rebuke her claims. He wouldn’t lie to her. Not ever and she knew it. She also was aware that, even at his worst, he would end up disemboweling himself before he would hurt her again. It was unnerving to know that she had gained that knowledge about him. He had only one event to argue with.

 

“There was a time I didn’t place you above me,” he growled. His statement was true in two ways.

 

“That is your opinion. I have tried to tell you that night holds no painful feelings for me. If you choose to keep dragging the memory behind you that is your own doing. I don’t need you to speak nicely to me. I need you to speak directly, as you’ve always done. We meet after the morning meal and before the evening one,” she instructed. “I expect to see you tonight in the small room. If you ever come up with your reason, share it and I will release you from the arrangement.”

 

And she was gone again. He felt worse with her absent from his side. For a few minutes he had felt normal and whole. She saw his faults but no longer shivered in fear before him. She had said the night the water had caught fire held no bad memories for her. It was inconceivable. And she trusted him? His guts felt like he’d swallowed ground glass. He was the one left shaking now.

 

He stood dumbstruck in the freezing wind, filled with trepidation. For the first time in a long while he missed Stranger. It had often been his custom in the past to take a ride on the stallion when he was feeling edgy. He didn’t have that luxury any more. Stranger had fallen during the fight at the Quiet Isle and he was glad for it. They had ended up having to eat all the horses that they had started their journey with. He didn’t think he would have survived the horror of having to partake of the flesh of one of his truest friends. He would have starved rather than sink that low.

 

The only other he had left was the Elder Brother. Brother Allen was alright but they didn’t speak of things as freely as he and the Elder Brother did. He couldn’t find the man he wanted in the guest chambers. Instead, he found the Brother in the sunken gardens with the Maester. The two were chatting away about the different plants able to grow in the deep holes in the earth. The Elder Brother broke away from the Maester when he observed Sandor’s uneasy features. Once they were far from the healing man’s ears, he could no longer contain himself.

 

“She wants me for council!” he blurted out. “Not for my sword and shield!”

 

The Elder Brother’s eyebrows rose but his smile didn’t dim.

 

“This is good though isn’t it?” the robed man asked of him.

 

“No!” he shouted, “It’s not good at all. She shouldn’t want that of me.”

 

“And yet she does,” was the simple reply. “You’ve proven to be a fair man and I’ve used you for guidance. Can she not do the same?”

 

“It doesn’t make any bloody sense,” he stopped short when the Elder Brother gave him a ‘tsk’ for the curse he had used.

 

“I treated her callously,” he continued, “I said terrible things to a scared little girl. I mocked her, threatened her. It doesn’t make any sense.”

 

“You must have done something of merit for her to take all of us in. For her to be glad to see you once again means that, perhaps, she does not find the past as damaging as you believe it to be. You are living in a time that doesn’t exist anymore. I have told you to stop that. Did you bury your sins on the Isle?”

 

“Not the ones against her,” he lamented, shaking his head.

 

“Then you did not do as I instructed.”

 

The Elder Brother’s tone had gone harsh. He knew he was being lectured. “You were to let go of your past. If you cling to those miserable memories you are going to fall into darkness again. She sees a light in you-”

 

“But she shouldn’t!” he yelled again. Would the man not listen to him? “I swore I’d keep her safe and I didn’t! Couldn’t even keep her safe from myself!”

 

He felt like weeping. The Elder Brother brought a hand to his shoulder.

 

“Then protect her now. Do as she asks and fulfill your promise to her. Atone for the past as you did on the Isle by taking action. Stop sitting, obsessing about what can not be changed. Stand and do something about what can.”

 

The man was right. He didn’t like it but it didn’t change the fact that he had been given solid advice. If she truly wished him to guide her he would do so. There was no rational to it that he could see but he would try for her. Somehow he would make it up to his Little Bird. One word at a time; he would lay them down like bricks at her feet to repair the bridge between them.

Chapter Text

Days were spent either seated at her table or busying himself with chores around the yard and household. He liked working with the animals best. Helping to load and unload supplies was also an appropriate fit for him. Collins, the kitchen master and Stallton the wagon runner appreciated the ease with which he could heft armful after armful of crates and barrels to their destination. Anything to keep moving and try not to dwell on the times he had to remain still at her side.

 

Three days into Sandor’s new position, Captain Holloway had returned from his scouting mission. The battle experienced man was the last person to complete Sansa’s council. Sandor didn’t much care for the ginger beard that reminded him of Trant but the man’s attitude was well enough. He found the soldier to be much like Bronn. His mouth certainly ran as much as the sellsword’s.

 

She’d asked him to talk in private again after that meeting. The room cleared and he was once more the only one to hold her full attention.

 

“So, is it Brother Clegane that I should address you as now?” she spoke.

 

“Pfft, call me what you will. Brother is a title I was given. I didn’t choose it.”

 

“Hound, Ser, dog, Brother. None of them you chose. What is that which you want me to call you?” she bid him. Her words were as tempting as a whore flashing her wares. He wanted a single word more than any of the flesh he’d ever paid for. Did he dare to ask for it?

 

“Sandor,” he mumbled quietly. And, Gods, he wanted to sink under the table.

 

She smiled warmly at him. “Very well, Sandor, tell me about the Quiet Isle. Did you truly find God there? I wouldn’t have thought it of you. It doesn’t surprise me but still . . . Sandor Clegane, a holy man? It has a bit of irony to it.”

 

His name seemed to roll off of her tongue with such ease; like she’d been practicing for the moment years in advance. He didn’t know why he hadn’t asked for the favor sooner. It was enough to make him bite his tongue to keep a few tears at bay. She had no idea. None at all at how easily she could break him.

 

“Don’t know about God. Found myself is all,” he grumbled.

 

It made him think on how it seemed that she had found herself, or a new version of herself, as well.

 

“When I was at the gate with the other men, the guard said you’d send out supplies. Was that the plan?”

 

“No, I told Bullis and his men to do what needed to be done.”

 

“And what was that?”

 

“To turn the snow red with your blood. Either you were raiders in need of justice or you were suffering men who deserved the gift of mercy.”

 

“The Little Bird’s got talons now.”

 

“And you’ve lost yours.”

 

“Not lost. Hidden.”

 

“I don’t enjoy being this way. Giving orders like that.”

 

“Neither did I.”

 

“Ah, then you did lie to me once!”

 

He looked at her puzzled.

 

“”It gives me joy to kill people,”’ she growled, trying her best to impersonate him. It was a terrible attempt and it made him bark out a sharp laugh. But then he grew reflective and answered her softly.

 

“I didn’t lie to you. I lied to myself.”

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Outside, near the livestock pens, the Elder Brother and he were spending their afternoon tending to the estate’s drift of hogs. The sound of heavy footsteps came up behind them and he turned directly into the oncoming fist of Brienne. The blow cracked him across the jaw, causing him to stumble back a step into the wooden fencing. It stung all the way up through his nose. He sneezed and groaned while his eyes watered. There was the salty, game like taste of blood in his mouth. The inside of his cheek had managed to catch and tear between his teeth. That was going to hurt tomorrow.

 

“Fucking bitch!” he swore, gaining his footing. He was furious. What right did she have to go at him like that out of no where? He’d take a swing at her face and see how she liked it.

 

“Sandor!” the Elder Brother shouted, “Calm down!”

 

He gave them both murderous glares. Staying clam was all well and good until someone challenged him. Then it was an even larger struggle to keep his temper. He pinched his robes between his fingers.

 

“This buys you one hit, Copper-bred,” he snarled. “Hope it was worth it. Try it again and, woman or not, you’ll be spitting teeth.”

 

“You were supposed to be dead!” Brienne yelled at him and then turned herself to the Elder Brother, “And you lied about it! I ought to hit you as well!”

 

Her accent reminded him of the Lannisters. Highborn and laced with gold. It made him dislike her all the more.

 

“I didn’t lie to you,” the Elder Brother stated. “The Hound is dead just as I said. Perhaps you haven’t met one of my most esteemed Brothers yet?

 

Sandor snickered. It was a nice change of pace to see someone else dangle from the Elder Brother’s words. It was almost worth getting belted across the face to watch this unfold. Brienne didn’t seem to find any humor in the man’s words.

 

“That’s the Hound,” she argued.

 

“This is Brother Clegane, a repentant and mostly peaceful man,” the Elder Brother smirked. “Did you ever find the man you were searching for on your quest?”

 

She nodded her head in answer.

 

“And who did you find at the end?”

 

She scowled at the Brother but pointed to Sandor and answered, “Not him.”

 

“And there you have it. The man you found was no more the Hound then the one that stands in front of you now.”

 

Brienne stepped close into Sandor’s face. He stood taller and matched her stare. He didn’t know what he had done to anger the woman.

 

“She cried over you,” the tall woman told him. “Years of it I had to listen to when I told her you were dead. If you ever disappear on her again, I’ll feed your heart to the crows.”

 

“I never asked for her tears,” he snapped. “She’s put me up on a pedestal she built herself. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I thought staying dead was the best thing I could offer her.”

 

Brienne shook her head and gave him a pitying look.

 

“You’ve no idea do you? None at all?” she sniffed in disgust at both men as she backed away to leave. “Don’t leave her again. I’ll be sure to find the right man next time if you do.”

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Sansa had excused everyone that evening but had asked him to stay behind. This was becoming a habit of hers he both loathed and loved. He didn’t often like the direction their talks would take them in but it was time spent by her side. It felt odd to complain about it. He should take what was offered and be glad for it.

 

His party of desperate men had arrived at her door step a week and some days ago. It felt like years already to him. He’d been away from her for far too long. Life had been dragging him along but he hadn’t truly been living until he crossed her gates. Now moments with her turned into hours in his mind. Days became weeks while he spent them lost in thought; the afternoons stretching on and on until he had a chance to see her again. It was pathetic. It was humbling. It was right.

 

There was a small table off to her left, behind him with wine and glasses. She poured two cups and offered one to him. He shook his head.

 

“Don’t tell me Sandor Clegane has lost his love for the red?” she snorted. “I’m certain the world would end if that were true.”

 

She didn’t understand how deep her words cut at times. He hung his head to answer, “No. I’ll have a cup or two every so often, no more.”

 

“Then have a glass now,” she said, trying to press the cup into his hand.

 

“I said no,” he growled.

 

“You’re being ridiculous,” she chided, once again putting the wine to his fingertips.

 

“I don’t want to drink!” he shouted. “Not with you!”

 

There was an eerily silence between the two of them. They both looked around the room avoiding each others eyes. She was the first to speak.

 

“Why not?” Her voice had gone small with a bit of a pout. The Little Bird of King’s Landing was back.

 

“You know bloody well why not,” he countered. Her chin trembled and he cursed a thousand times over at himself in his head.

 

“You honestly believe you would hurt me?” she breathed.

 

“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Best not to test it. You and wine don’t mix well for me.”

 

“It was a long time ago.”

 

“Doesn’t matter.”

 

She sighed loudly. It was long and drawn out. She wanted him to hear her frustration. She downed the ruby liquid in her cup and his eyes widened. He’d never seen her drink before. She tossed back the sour red as easily as he had done once. At least she poured the other cup back into the glass decanter though. The wine didn’t hold her captive as it had done to him. She put a hand out to him.

 

“Come with me,” she commanded.

 

“What for?” he asked suspiciously. Queen or not she was still a Little Bird to him and he wouldn’t be ordered about by her.

 

“I’m sick of looking at your guilt. I can see it trailing behind you every where you go. You wear it in place of the cloak you left behind. It’s in your eyes every time I look at you and I can’t stand it anymore.” She drew in a breath and stood up straight. She shook her hand at him bidding him to take it.

 

“I wanted to wait. Let you settle in for a bit longer, but I need to show you something.” She kept at him until he gingerly took her hand and rose from his seat. He wasn’t sure about her intentions or purpose. He tried not to think on how warm and soft and so fucking small her hand was in his.

 

“Where’s Brienne?” he questioned. He actually wanted to see the large woman right now. She’d knock some sense into both of them.

 

“I relieved her of her duties for the evening. Come,” she said again, pulling on his hand and leading him out of the room. She led him through a few doors to a stairway. His stomach churned and his heart sped up.

 

“Where’s that go?”

 

“To the North Tower.”

 

“And where’s your room?”

 

She had the good grace to blush but answered him quickly.

 

“Not in the North Tower.”

Chapter Text

He followed her up the long, winding staircase to a closed and painted door. Inside, he saw a plain, brown haired woman and a child he thought perhaps he had seen running through the halls during the past week. He wasn’t certain. He hadn’t paid much attention to anyone’s face but hers since he had arrived.

 

The woman stood and curtsied to Sansa, casting him a wary look. The child glanced up but then went right back to playing with the carved wooden soldiers and horses on the floor. A boy, Sandor took note, of perhaps four, maybe five name days. Healthy and good looking he supposed. He wasn’t a very reliable judge when it came to children.

 

“That will be all for tonight, Tessa,” Sansa told the nursemaid, “I’ll see Anteros to bed.”

 

The girl, once again, curtsied as she left the room. Sansa remained silent while she watched the child imagine his own world with the figures in front of him. He grew uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure why she’d brought him here. She’d beseeched him to come and now she was still.

 

“He yours?” he finally asked.

 

She nodded her head and smiled. “He is,” she declared.

 

That was news. She hadn’t mentioned a child before, though he should have expected it with two husbands under her skirts by now. It still took him by surprise though. The bastard had given her a child then? It was a cold, sickening thought.

 

“Ramsay’s?” he guessed.

 

“No,” she said quietly.

 

“Littlefinger’s?” he pressed with more volume in his voice. Bugger his holy calling. He’d find the lying whoreson wherever he was hiding and cut his cock off if he had forced himself on her. She only shook her head.

 

“Not the Imp’s?” he balked. He couldn’t even imagine it.

 

“No,” she told him once again, looking deep into his eyes.

 

His heart started a mad rhythm in his chest. If not any of those men then it was either some stranger he’d never heard of that had lain with her or it had been . . . him? No, that wasn’t right. Not possible. Alright, it was possible but not likely. He felt as if he couldn’t breath. The air around him was thick and smothering.

 

The night the Blackwater had burned he’d lost himself in a lake of wine. He was drunk enough to admit he wanted comfort and that had led him to her bed. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t there. The scent on her pillow was enough to satisfy his alcohol soaked mind. But then she had come and he should have sent her right back out the door. Or he should have left and never opened his mouth. He demanded a song, all the while wishing it was a different type of singing he could call forth from her body. She’d given him his desperate request and he had stilled his hand at her throat, tossing his knife to the floor. She touched his face and he had wept. Her lips had ghosted across his brow and he’d begged her. She felt his heat and he felt hers. Her legs parted and he didn’t question, didn’t think. She cried out but she also sighed. He gasped and spilled within moments. She’d turned him green as a fucking virgin boy. And then he’d realized the horror of what he had done. She hadn’t quite given but he hadn’t quite taken either. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. He left his cloak. He was no Ser.

 

He was still struggling to breath before her. The little boy was tugging on her skirts. His eyes took in the site of dark hair and gray eyes.

 

“Ma!” the child hollered, trying to gain her attention. She leaned down to him. The tiny leather saddle on one of the toy horses had come off. Sansa’s small hands got to work tying the thin cords back onto the figurine. The boy dug his toe into the worn carpet and stared at him. There wasn’t fear in his eyes; only childlike curiosity.

 

“What happened to your face?” the little one asked bluntly.

 

“Anteros!” Sansa exclaimed, “That isn’t polite to ask!”

 

“Sorry,” Anteros mumbled. But the little man still looked at him hoping he would ignore Sansa and answer the question.

 

“It was fire,” he managed to choke out. This was wrong. All of it wrong. This wasn’t how he was meant to give her children. He wasn’t meant to give her any children. He wasn’t fit to look at her let alone put a babe in her.

 

“Oh,” the boy stated simply. Then his eyes grew bright. “Are you mummy’s friend?” he squeaked.

 

He could only look at both of them in horrified confusion. The little boy lifted his shirt and pointed to a nasty looking welt on his chest. He remembered a time when his own flesh had taken on that angry crimson hue. It was now a faded shade of red. Time had helped to dull his ruin into a twisted landscape rather than an open sore. He was still a wreck and the thought that his face had actually been worse at some point brought him dark laughter sometimes.

 

“Mummy says I was little and Tessa left a hot iron out. I bumped the table and it fell on me. Sometimes I don’t like it but mummy says it will be alright. Her friend got burnt too all over his face and he was alright. She says one day the red will go away and I’ll be a good man like him.” –the little one turned to his mother- “Is that the burnt man?”

 

“His name is Sandor Clegane, and you will address him as Brother Clegane from now on. But yes, love, he’s the burnt man” she assured Anteros. She handed the boy his horse and patted his bottom as he skipped back over to the battle he’d created. Sansa turned and tried to reach for him. He backed up all the way to the door.

 

“Don’t,” he warned. He was barely holding on. There was a lump the size of a boulder in his throat and he felt the hot sting of tears threatening to fill his eyes. She had presented him with a child. A child she claimed was his. The boy looked like him and had said his mother called him “good”. He wasn’t good. Never had been. He tried to be now but it would never be enough to make up for his past sins.

 

“Sandor,” she soothed, “all is well.”

 

“It’s not!” he shouted and he saw the child across the room start. He lowered his voice.

 

“How can you say that?” he hissed. She shook her head and pointed at the boy.

 

“Look at him,” she breathed in awe, “That is not a mistake. He’s beautiful. I’ve had five years to think on it and you’ve had five minutes. You will see like I do one day. I love him so much; as I love his father.”

 

That brought the tears forth he’d been trying to hide. He’d dreamed of many things for his Little Bird to chirp at him but the one he had craved the most she had just given him. Slowly she brought her hands to his chest and laid her head upon his heart.

 

“Sansa, please,” he begged her for a second time in his life, looking upwards. If there was ever a time he needed the Elder Brother’s Gods it was now.

 

“Do you not want us?” she whispered and he heard a sob claw it’s way from his throat. He pressed his face into her hair and breathed in a scent he had thought lost to him forever. How was this happening? Life had spun him upside down in a matter of moments. He let his tears fall into the flames of her hair. His fingernails scraped into the door behind him. There was a pull on his robes. The little one was back, clutching at both Sansa’s dress and his clothing.

 

“Is he sad, mummy?” the boy questioned. The lad looked close to tears himself.

 

“I don’t think so,” she said, running her fingers through Anteros’ hair. “I think he is very happy. Soon I will tell you a story, dear one. A wonderful story about how you came to be. But right now I need you to pick out a dragon’s tale and I’ll read it to you before bed.”

 

The boy grinned in mirth as he tore off across the room to look through a short shelf of books. Finding one the pleased him, the child set it on his bed. Next, he made his way to a small chest at the foot of the bed and pulled out a nightshirt. The young one started pealing his clothes off with not a care in the world as to who was watching.

 

“He’s . . .independent and willful,” Sansa sighed, “but also sweet and loving.”

 

She put a bit of space between them. He rubbed at his face with a sleeve. Weeping always left him sullen and empty feeling.

 

“Let me settle him for sleep,” she bid him and then added, “May I come to your chambers after? I think a talk might do us some good.”

 

He nodded his head. There was nothing else he could do. He would never deny her.

 

“Did you want to stay?” she offered. “Help me read him his story?”

 

He looked at her in sheer terror and his breathing hitched in again.

 

“It’s alright,” she told him, “You don’t have to. I only wanted to let you know you were welcome to do so. I know it’s a lot to take in. Go and find something to eat. Rest a bit. I’ll take care of him. I’ll seek you out later.”

 

He was stunned and speechless. He nodded again and took his leave. The dining hall provided no relief. Everything was an assault to his senses. The food smelled rank and the chatter of the household was a din that could rival the loudest of skirmishes. It made him feel like he was on a ship. The floor lurched under him and his stomach rolled. He took to the outdoors instead. The moon and stars were just beginning to glow in the night sky. The air was cold and he could see his breath when he exhaled. It was calming though. The chill helped to clear his mind.

 

A son! He’d sired a boy. One of his greatest regrets had bore him a child. He didn’t regret his love for the Little Bird. Never that. But he did lament over the way he’d had her. He should have been a better man. Wine and an unfiltered, crushing need had held him tight until he had felt like he couldn’t continue on living unless it was from inside of her. He was certain she’d never come with him, though he wished for it like nothing else in his life. He knew he would have to leave her side. The thought of never seeing her again, without knowing for one moment what it was like to bask in her love, left him ready to cut his wrists. And so, when she had moved her thighs to his hips, he’d been helpless to stop a swift tug on some laces and a thrust into fire. Fuck him! Fuck her! Fuck them both! He made himself snort. That’s exactly what had led him into this mess.

 

But was it a mess? She spoke of love. Did she mean it? Or was it another one of her romantic flights of fancy? And what of his desires? He had thought the remainder of his path was a simple plan to follow. Live, forget, forgive, teach others a new way, die. Easy. It was no longer going to be anything close to easy. He took a deep breath in and let it back out again. He had learned to slow his pace and ask the right questions of himself. What was it that he wanted?

 

And that, was the greatest puzzle of all wasn’t it? What did he truly wish for in life? He’d never had much time to think on it before the youngest Stark girl had left him. The Quiet Isle had given him the respite to do so. He had concluded he was destined to live quietly and alone, digging graves in atonement and helping others to seek a better way of thinking. It may not have been exactly what he yearned for but it was close enough. Only she was missing. He had never thought he would see her again. When that became a possibility he thought perhaps they could talk once or twice. Maybe she wouldn’t hate him and he could somehow make it up to her. He hadn’t expected anything that had happened once he had crossed the gates into Winterfell. Nothing had gone according to plan after that.

 

The ground was ice cold underneath him as he sat down. There were too many questions that only she could answer. He couldn’t make up his mind until he knew hers first. Once his fingers and toes began to go numb he lifted himself up off the frost bitten grass and made his way to his chambers.

Chapter Text

The soft rap on his door sounded an hour after he had arrived at his chambers. He’d started a small fire and had been lost in thought for many long minutes. After a time he wondered if she was coming at all. Maybe he had imagined the whole thing. It wouldn’t be the first time he had dreamed of a family with her. Only, he was usually asleep when that happened and the encounter in the North Tower had seemed real enough.

 

He stood at the noise and then hesitated. Things were going to change. Drastically. And he was afraid. The feelings she stirred within him terrorized him more than flames ever could. There was a second knock and he shook himself, collecting his courage.

 

The door opened to reveal her standing in a light blue robe. Silky, shining material wrapped around her body, the shade of a robin’s egg. She had let her hair down as well. He almost shut the door in her face. What in the Seven Hells was she thinking! He didn’t have any wine in his system but that didn’t mean he was incapable of being aroused. Was she purposely trying to raise his blood? At least the robe was long enough to cover everything. It had a high, collared neckline and was synched tight around her waist. She still had some sense about her.

 

He glared at her, his stance rigid. Her attire made him wary but he stepped back to let her in. He would honor her. He hadn’t done so in the past and he would not fail her once more. Not one finger would he lay upon her. He wouldn’t beg of her again. Not unless she wanted him to.

 

There were only two chairs in the room, set by his small table. When he took one, she dragged the other over to sit near him. He set his hands in front of him, palms up on the table. It seemed the thing to do. A gesture of apology and supplication; she could do as she wished with it. His heart seized painfully when she didn’t hesitate to place one of her hands over top of his. Neither one of them moved. They both stared at her small hand trying to cover his large one. He realized that something momentous was happening between the two of them and all it took was the simple touch of palm on palm. Gods help them both if she ever asked any more of him.

 

“How?” he breathed.

 

It took her a moment to understand he spoke of Anteros. One eyebrow quirked up at him while she smiled gently.

 

“In the usual way,” she teased him. “Don’t tell me I need to explain the rabbit’s favorite pastime to Sandor Clegane.”

 

He scoffed and felt his face flush. “Not that part. How did you manage to wed if you were carrying my child?”

 

“What good is Littlefinger’s gold if it can’t silence a Septa or two?” she shrugged. “All of the godly are not as pious as they would have everyone believe.”

 

“It was quite simple really,” she explained further. “Once I had been found out, Littlefinger filled purses with coin. I told him it was the Imp’s after all and I had been too ashamed to say so before.”

 

She caught the look of worry in his eyes. “Anteros is yours. I promise. Tyrion never touched me. Ramsay did but not until long after your child had taken root in my belly. I was maybe two months along when we wed. The plan was to pass the babe off as Ramsay’s if need be.”

 

She frowned. “I suppose that’s what everyone assumes. I never said one way or the other. Brienne put her sword through Ramsay’s throat a little over a month after my marriage to the beast. I took back my house name and Anteros carries the same. He is the rightful Stark heir.”

 

“No one knows?” he asked.

 

“Only, Brienne. I couldn’t keep the secret in any longer when she came back from the Quiet Isle.” Sanasa’s eyes filled with tears while she sniffed. “I had to tell someone. I couldn’t be the only person to know what Anteros was to me. What you were to me.”

 

She spoke like she’d carried feelings for him at the Red Keep. He had to know.

 

“And what was that?”

 

“Something…,” she replied.

 

“You didn’t act like it then.”

 

“Neither did you. You were just as much boy as I was girl. You may have years on me but we’re not so different at times. You were harsh and I was inexperienced. Neither one of us had any idea how to talk to the other.”

 

She was right; there were ways in which he was just as unpracticed as she. She had certainly taken time to think of him, of them, during the years spent apart. He’d had time to reflect and learn how to seek answers with softer words. He pressed on.

 

“And now?”

 

“Something more.”

 

“More what?”

 

She sighed. He was pushing, he knew, without giving much back. But how could he give her his heart until he knew she desired it?

 

“The father of my child has returned from the dead. The man I had feelings for, the one I grew to love, the one I mourned isn’t gone. I’ve another chance. I’m elated,” she murmured, nervousness and excitement tingeing her voice. “I think we could try again.”

 

Her hand trembled on top of his own. It occurred to him that she was just as scared as he was. The urge to upturn the table and claim her lips held him fast. He fought it. She’d offered him a second chance and he’d be damned if he fucked it up this time around. If he gave into his eagerness now it would be the Blackwater all over again. He was a better man than that. He would continue to be so for her. If she wanted to try at being something with him, he would do things properly. He was no Ser but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be decent. He put his other hand over top of hers, enclosing her flesh within his own.

 

“Little Bird,” he soothed. She jumped in her seat at the endearment and tears fell from her eyes. But through her tears she kept her gaze steadily locked on his face. She’d been doing that since he had arrived. It tore at something inside him. “You can look at me now? You want to keep on looking?”

 

She laughed and smiled and sobbed all at the same time, while nodding her head. It was noisy and messy. He didn’t think she’d ever looked as beautiful as she did now, full of emotions all directed towards him. Using her free hand to dig into a pocket, she found a bit of cloth to dab at her face with. Once her face was clean she leaned forward in her seat to get closer to him.

 

He saw exactly what she intended to do and stayed still, half in shock and half in anticipation. Her face drew near to his own and it was she that closed the distance between them. A whimper caught in his throat when her lips settled gently on his. It was all backwards; the way things had worked out. He’d fucked her yet not kissed her. They’d started a family without a wedding first. It was completely wrong but the only way that they could ever be right. Both of his hands squeezed tightly around hers. It was bloody hard to remain passive as she continued to gift him with tiny, chaste kisses. The last one was longer though, with more pressure. She pulled back, sighing. Then her eyes widened while she blushed.

 

“I’m sorry!” she yelped, ripping her hand from the cradle his made. His hands were instantly empty and cold. It felt horrid.

 

“What for?” he barked. He was confused. He hadn’t been a brute about it. What had he done wrong?

 

“I – I shouldn’t have,” she stammered pointing back and forth between the two of them. “I mean you’re . . .,” she trailed off, gesturing at his robes.

 

“I’m not a Septon,” he growled, rolling his eyes at her. And, damn it all, he wasn’t going to let the night end like that. She was obviously alright with kisses. He could manage one with control. He grasped her chin in his hand with care and kissed her back. It wasn’t forceful but it held more meaning behind it than the ones she had given him. Hints of passion were in it as he pressed his lips to hers. He let her know the embers were there should she choose to stoke them. He pulled back to witness her smiling with her eyes shut. When they opened he saw longing.

 

“I should go,” she finally whispered. Her voice was low and thick.

 

“You should go,” he rumbled in agreement. They were going to get well ahead of where they should be if she stayed. She nodded at him, pecking a kiss to his forehead quickly before she scampered off into the darkened hallways, closing the door behind her.

 

Tipping his chair back, he rubbed at his chin and let out a breath. That had been enlightening. They hadn’t gotten far in their talk but at least he had a better understanding of where she was coming from. She’d felt something for him after all at the Red Keep! She’d been too innocent to explore it until much later and he had been so confused that all he could manage was anger. He had been in complete denial about his feelings towards her then.

 

At the Keep, what she gave him was beyond terrifying once he felt it settle within him. There was her obvious blossoming womanhood that made her attractive. More so than many of the women he’d seen in his day. Good breeding over the years had created a pale, curved, magnificent woman topped with a crown of glorious, shimmering fire. It was the one flame he wished to delve into with his hands. He had yet to do so and yearned for the feel of it between his fingers. Fingers that now twitched at the thought in his lap.

 

The first thing he had felt for her had probably been indifference. But that was quickly replaced by irritation. She was so fucking bright eyed when she looked at the world. It angered him. No one had a right to be that cheerful or to see the world in such a wonderful light. He thought it his duty to educate her. The den she found herself in would eat her up otherwise. Sansa was around the same age as his sister had been when she passed. He’d been unable to stop her death. Perhaps he could ease the torment of the girl that shared his sister’s eyes.

 

Irritation became a strange mix of hate and something else. Yes, there had been moments of pure hatred back then. Hate for the innocence she still kept in tact and that he had lost well before he should have. Hate for her songs; her skewed view of the world. Hate for the fact that he was sure, beyond any doubt, that the something else he felt for her would never be returned.

 

There was never any wrath directed towards her personally but it came upon him, none the less, whenever their paths crossed. It wasn’t fair of the Gods, if they existed, to toss him this scrap of what could be but never would. He would rather have felt nothing at all for the rest of his days then to continue having her worm her away inside of him. The hate faded but the other feeling grew stronger. He tried to wash it away with wine and whores and it only got worse. He’d end up sobbing in his chambers at night, pleading with it to leave him be. It coiled itself tighter, tying his heart up in knots in reply.

 

Looking back now it seemed like the events of the Blackwater were almost inescapable. He had probably been completely mad with both love and lust at that point. But it had always been more love than lust. He could see that plainly now. It wasn’t clear back then. It was beyond his experiences, frightening, and soul shaking. He had wanted, so desperately, to feel innocent again, with her, and in the end had soiled them both.

 

He sighed, chewing at a fingernail. But she’d forgiven him, he reminded himself. He’d come forward with words of apology days ago and she had tried to tell him he didn’t need to seek forgiveness from her. He understood now. There had been a part of her that truly had wanted his attentions that night. She’d been too much girl and not enough woman to ask for it outright but he hadn’t taken quite as much as he had once thought. She had given far more than he suspected at the time. And that made the guilt he had kept stagnate and frozen within him begin to thaw. It had still been crass of him to do but not vile.

 

Then there was the child! That was the absolutely insane part of it all. They shared blood now. It was odd to be at both the start and finish of a bond with her. He had ached with the idea of a family; of a house filled with sons and daughters that would know nothing of flames. But it had always seemed a fantasy far off in the distance. He had assumed that, should he try and ride towards the thought, it would never move from the horizon. It wasn’t even worth the effort of saddling the horse. There was nothing of note or merit within him to make a woman long to chase the dream with him. And his face! That was a disaster that made any hope of families, children and love evaporate like the morning dew when the heat of the sun hit it.

 

It made her feeling towards him all the more puzzling. He’d gone half hard from their last shared kiss but self doubt made him grow soft again. She had glanced at him in fear once. What had changed? She had let him put his lips on her, a simmering hunger clouding her eyes when it was over. He’d seen looks like that directed at Jaime and Loras but never at him. It was unnerving. There were still many answers she had yet to give him.

Chapter Text

Sleep did not come easily that night. He restlessly tossed for hours, his thoughts racing between the feel of her lips and the tug on his robes from a child’s hands. Towards dawn he managed to slip off, only to be woken three or four hours later by a cockerel crowing. It sounded like the damned thing was shouting into his ear at the side of the bed. He groaned, loudly, practically rolling onto the floor before his feet decided they would work after all, catching his weight so he could stand. There was a knock at the door so he shuffled over slowly, rubbing sleep from his eyes. It was probably the Elder Brother.

 

But it wasn’t the holy man. Sansa stood outside his door again, dressed and clean, with her hair twisted into plaits that piled up on top of her head. He’d have thrown his robes on if he had known it was her. Her early morning visit was completely unexpected, leaving him to stand awkwardly in nothing but a pair of breeches.

 

Her eyes went wide; laughably large and he had to bite at his tongue to stop from doing so. Shifting from one foot to the other she swept her eyes over him from head to toe. She stopped at his chest before moving down along his body where she, oddly, gazed at his bare feet for a few moments before yanking her head back up to look him in the eye. He smirked. Looks of yearning or adoration were lost on him but he’d seen that pleasantly surprised glimpse on a woman’s face before. There had been a few whores who had been taken with the same look when they realized that the ruin of his face did not extend to his body. There were numerous scars from battle of course, but nothing to rival what the flames of his youth had given him. Even he wasn’t blind to the fact that he made a decent enough specimen; at least from the neck down. Sansa was looking at his chest again.

 

“You need something?” he tried. Her attention was welcome but it was her after all. The fact that is was Sansa, not a random slag, giving him appreciative stares was a moored ship ready to be set free to sail into dangerous waters. It was best to try and sort out what she wanted, before sending her on her way.

 

“I . . . um, I,” she stammered. He did laugh then. The Lady Stark left speechless and without her courtesies? Because of him? It was fucking hilarious. She’d always kept her wits about her before.

 

“Did you want to come in?” he teased, opening the door wider. He couldn’t help it. This was new for him. She was nervous in front of him and it wasn’t because of his piss poor temper.

 

“No! No, I’m fine,” she hurriedly stated, waving her hands at him. “I only wanted to see if you were ready for the first meal. If you like you could sit with me and the rest of the council in my private dining chamber. The Maester and Bullis will be there. Anteros as well.”

 

It was a tempting proposition. It would mean more time with her. And there would be a chance to see the boy again. But he recalled the emotions that had tried to strangle him when he was confronted with the two of them at the same time. He didn’t know if he could make it through a meal, sitting as if nothing were out of place with others around him. He wasn’t even certain if he could manage to eat with both of them near.

 

He shook his head. “Another day . . .” he started. She pouted. It was expected. There was no gentle way to tell her that he could see. He offered a hand to her again which she took just as quickly as the previous night. The gesture brought him both satisfaction and a strange sort of grief for the Hound. How many Kings would he have told to bugger off years ago to have her reach for him without a second thought as she did now? Countless thousands if that had been what it took. But it had only taken one and time.

 

“Not yet, Little Bird. I’ll do nothing but stare at the two of you,” he explained. She still looked disappointed but gave him a brief nod of her head in understanding. Looking down at their hands, her eyes trailed up past his wrist, eyebrows raising in alarm at the scars the arm bore. Well, that was the end of impressing her, he thought. But she only furrowed her brow in concern, not fear, lifting the fingers of her other hand and letting them hover in the air above his second set of burns.

 

“What happened?’

 

“Fire,” he told her simply.

 

“Again?”

 

“Aye.”

 

“Not your brother!”

 

“No, not him. Those are more recent. A trial by combat. I won but not without pain.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“What for? You had nothing to do with it.”

 

“I just . . . I don’t like seeing you hurt. I don’t like thinking about it. The night of the Blackwater, I prayed for you. I prayed you would come back safe. That you would find peace. And then you did come back and I tried to give you what little peace I could.”

 

She let her fingers fall lightly on his arm, the pads skimming over his mottled, rugged flesh. There was no hair from his wrist to elbow. The fire from Beric’s sword had burned deep. He could barely feel her; the marks on his arm were nearly as bad as the ones on his face. It still made him pull in a breath though. If she were willing to touch those scars then maybe, one day, she would grace others with her hands.

 

……………………..

 

She had left him shortly thereafter. During their usual morning council meeting he swore his forearm itched and tingled like never before every time he looked at her. Later on in the afternoon she found him in the stables.

 

“Come,” she told him. “Take a break.”

 

The Elder Brother watched them exit the stalls. He would have to explain to the man soon why the Lady was demanding so much of his time lately. He followed Sansa around the back of the house to the large back yard. The activity of the morning had slowed, leaving only a few women hanging laundry and a group of children playing. Sansa led him up into an unmanned guard tower where they could look down on the yard. He spotted the hair that matched his own from their raised height.

 

“Do you see him?” she asked. He could only give her a grunt in reply. Words didn’t usually escape him. Hard or soft he always had something to say. It might be nothing but a string of curses and insults but it was rarely ever silence. That’s all he had to give her now. He grasped the railing in front of him. It had been wise of him to refuse her invitation earlier in the day. He would have had to excuse himself within minutes. It was just as overwhelming as it had been last night. Trying to put the lad and Sansa and he all together in his head was a devastatingly beautiful challenge.

 

There was warmth at his fingers. She had copied him, laying her hands against the wooden railing as well. The sides of their hands touched and she slipped her last finger over top of his. He stifled a biting bark of a laugh. He was a fool. He’d never make it through anything other than kisses with her. Anything more and he’d lose himself to weeping at her feet. She caught him gazing at her.

 

“Watch him, not me,” she scolded. He did as she instructed. The children were taking turns rolling a wooden hoop across the yard while several of them tried to see how many leather balls they could toss through the moving target. Anteros was doing well. While the other children stayed in place, the boy shifted his body to follow the hoop’s path.

 

“He’s seen his sixth name day?’ he asked of Sansa.

 

“Nearly,” she replied. “Two more moons and we’ll celebrate. He’ll start lessons with the Maester then. A few hours every morning to start if that sounds agreeable to you?” she continued.

 

“You’re his mother.”

 

“And you’re his father. You have a say in these matters.”

 

“I didn’t have any say these past six years.”

 

“That’s because you weren’t here. If you had knocked at the gate earlier you would have been welcomed and could have started sooner. But you didn’t, so you’ll start now.” There was a bit of a spark in her voice. It wasn’t malice, only stark truth.

 

“I don’t know anything about being a bloody father.”

 

“You’ll learn.”

 

“And if I don’t?”

 

“I think the important question is do you want to? You’re quite capable if that is your wish. I didn’t know a thing about being a mother but I’ve managed just fine.”

 

He didn’t have a reply to that. Not one that he could voice. She dug straight into the core of him, leaving him to feel as if his heart were being carved up piece by piece.

 

“If you don’t wish to be a father, you had better say so,” she cautioned. “That child is my flesh and I will protect him even from you. I thought it your right to know he was yours but if you’re not interested in anything further I’d like to know now.”

 

She had it wrong. He wanted all.

 

“I should have been there,” he said sadly.

 

“You were.” He looked at her, puzzled, and she tapped her temple. “You never left me completely.”

 

“I want to do right by him. And by you,” he sighed, stamping down on his pride. “I don’t know how.”

 

“By him or by me?” she tried to clarify.

 

“Both.”

 

Now it was she that was sighing. “Treat him fairly and honestly. You’re good at that. That’s the best thing you can do for a child and you already know how to do it well. Shower him with kindness often and when he needs it, correct him.”

 

“And you? What do I do?”

 

“Continue on exactly as you are. I have no wish to see you change. If you did I might not love you the same.” Her hand gripped his. He couldn’t help but stare again at her flesh on his. She giggled at him. “It’s only a hand.”

 

“Never had anyone want to do anything without payment. No one ruts with a dog for free,” he rasped. The confession left him before he knew what was happening.

 

“We’re not” – she leaned in close to him to whisper- “rutting. It’s only hands touching.”

 

He was starting to feel like he had back at the Red Keep. How could anyone have two men up under her skirts and still be that innocent? Hands, lips, cock or heat; it was all the same to him. It was freely given and she couldn’t see how one act was equal to all the others in that respect. It was infuriating. It was magnificent and he never wanted her to lose it. But she never saw what it did to him and it was maddening.

 

“No, we’re not,” he shot back at her in agreement, some of the anger he felt coming through. “You don’t understand anything, Sansa. You’re the only one who’s ever given without taking coin. But you take all the same. Every touch, every look you allow, you make me pay for it in bits and pieces of myself.”

 

“I don’t mean to,” she said, her voice nothing more than a whisper.

 

“Do you know how much of me you own by now? It’s nothing to you, fucking hand on mine, but it’s everything to me,” he choked.

 

“You’re wrong,” she argued. “It’s everything to me as well. You asked how you could do right by me. I want to do the same for you. Tell me what to do.”

 

He’d started to shake and it wasn’t from the cold. Love me, his mind screamed over and over again, love me and never stop. He wanted to feel her in his arms. But if he asked and she turned him away? He could take rejection from anyone but her. She saw his fear.

 

“Whatever you want, ask it of me,” she bid him. “I won’t deny you.”

 

All he could do was lift an arm, hoping she would know what to do. There was a pause while she looked him in the eye. Then she moved towards him, pushing on his chest and moving him backwards until he felt a low bench hit the back of his knees. He went down onto it but she stayed in front of him. She had two or three inches on him while he sat. The bench made it easy for her to slip her arms around his neck to hold him. He felt his body slump into hers. His hands clutched at the air around her until she used her own to guide his arms around her waist. He sensed pressure on his cheek. She’d put her face against the horror that was his. There was heat and the slick feeling of tears between them. He knew they weren’t hers. His face burrowed into the furs at her neck; he could smell them and her at the same time. Wolf and woman invaded his senses. It was much like another time she had given him comfort when he was weak with need for her.

 

“Little Bird,” he cried.

 

“You’re wrong,” she told him again, her voice wavering. It struck him that she was weeping as well. “You’re everything to me.”

Chapter Text

A pattern of sorts settled around him over the next fortnight. Meetings, labor and time with Sansa, observing Anteros from a distance, filled the days. She didn’t visit his chamber again at night and he was both glad and sadden by her discretion. He missed her anytime they were apart and he wished that she would seek him out, if only to talk as they had when she had visited before. But he was also glad that he didn’t have to fight with temptation the way he had that night. He was beginning to understand he’d captured her heart and he’d be the lowest of all liars if he denied his ache to lay a proper claim to her body as well.

 

The night of the Blackwater seemed to hardly count. There’d been nothing but his need thrusting into her heat for a few precious moments before the shock, thrill, and, what he assumed had been an illusion of love on her part, left him shuddering on top of her. He knew better now that it hadn’t been an illusion. There had been feelings enough behind her actions then, hesitant and shy as they were. There were more of them now. It frightened him. If a perceived illusion was enough to make him spill with haste then what in all of the Seven Hells would happen if she let him have at her again with his new knowledge? He tried his best not to think on it and took himself in hand when he could no longer do so.

 

A soft knock, three times on his door in the morning, meant Sansa would be outside, trying to persuade him to join her and Anteros at her table. He shook his head, nervousness getting the better of him every time. She would sigh and fuss. But some mornings she would pull him down to her level, placing her lips on his, delivering her small, quick kisses, while telling him his reluctance was unnecessary. It was high time he started talking to the boy, she informed him, eyes sparkling with both a Queen’s orders and a Little Bird’s understanding. Anteros knew nothing beyond the fact that his father was a soldier, whereabouts unknown, but assumed dead. He could continue to hide behind anonymity for the time being if that is what he wished, she told him, but he really ought to begin carving out a relationship with the lad.

 

Then, one morning, he nodded his head instead of shaking it. If he had been built less sturdy her reaction would have taken him to the floor. She jumped up, excitedly throwing her hands around his neck and he was left with no choice but to put his arms back around her, helping her cling to him faster. He’d had enough foresight to put his robes on when he heard her knock, thank the Gods. Otherwise, he was certain he would have gone firm as steel within seconds if he had been forced to feel her body on his bare flesh. It was hard enough to remain unaffected with layers of wool between them. Her forehead and nose touched his own. He hadn’t seen this look in her eyes in a long while.

 

“You’re happy,” he realized out loud. She’d been pleased with his return. She was loving when she looked at Anteros. Today was different. The last time he had seen delight like this in her features was back long ago, on a road to King’s Landing, with the future wide open to her and a wolf at her side. It wasn’t in his nature back then to draw happiness from anyone. It was difficult for him to do so now, but not impossible. And he’d done something exceptional it seemed, to earn the smile she bestowed upon him at this time. He would have consented earlier if he had known the act would bring her such joy.

 

“Very,” she agreed, giggling and pecking her tiny bird kisses along his lower lip. They were extraordinary. There wasn’t so much a passion behind them as there was love and affection. He wanted all three from her but he was satisfied, for now, with the last two. He’d take anything she was willing to give him. It was her way; soft and kind and he relished in the fact that she wanted to share it with him.

 

It was nothing like the very few whores who had dared to try and conquer his farce of a face. Hoping for extra coin, they mashed their lips to his own, keeping their eyes shut tight while they moaned out false calls of bliss. He knew it a lie but sometimes all a man had was lies to keep loneliness at bay. He felt no loneliness during the past few weeks. Sansa banished it away as easily and as effectively as one removed a splinter from throbbing flesh. All she had to do was keep her attention on him and the deep seated emptiness he carried inside him quieted to a point he sometimes forgot it altogether. He didn’t understand how but he managed to please her. In return she gave him love and companionship. It made him feel somehow more of a man that he was able to give and receive something; to work at a growing trust with her. He loved her, almost desperately, back. He had no idea how to go about saying it. A simple declaration seemed too small, demeaning and patronizing a gift to give her after all she had done for him. Attempting anything more than that left him tongue tied. He wasn’t a damned bard.

 

She waited outside his closed door for him to finish preparing himself for the day. In the hall he gave her his arm, scars facing her. He knew it to be useless to try and offer the other arm; she had yet to touch his burns with lips or hands but she was trying her best to show him they no longer scared her witless as they had done during her days as a girl.

 

He never expected her lips to grace him there. That was unthinkable madness. Hands might be nice. No one had ever done so other than the rough touch of a Maester long ago. Not one whore had been bold enough to attempt the act for any envisioned promise of more silver. He had asked one of the more kindly looking ones once, when he was younger and had his pockets stuffed with his first Tourney winnings. She had looked at him with wide, sad eyes and told him no. He suggested an exorbitant amount of gold and she grew angry, telling him to put his extra coin away and get on with it. He never asked again.

 

Sometimes he rubbed his own palm over the wreckage. He couldn’t feel the details of his hand but there was something. Mainly it was a feeling of pressure. He could feel heat and cold well enough. It wasn’t all numb though; some bits seemed keenly sensitive. It was as if the fire had bundled all the nerves of his face to a few spots scattered about. He didn’t know what it meant that sometimes, in the night, when he dreamed of Sansa reaching for him, she stroked at his face rather than his cock. He woke up just as stiff and swollen from either dream but the ones where she touched his face also left an ache in his heart.

 

Sansa’s private dining room was directly beside the one used for their council meetings. He realized why he was always the last to arrive to said gatherings. There was a long, dark polished table set with ten chairs. One at the head and foot and the rest placed evenly on the sides. Sansa sat in the empty space at the head of the table between Brienne and the Maester. Bullis was beside the Maester with nothing but empty chairs after that on Sansa’s left. To her right was Brienne, followed by Captain Holloway, Anteros and Tessa. Sansa sat daintily and gestured for him to do the same, telling the others she had finally convinced the missing piece of her council to join them. He opted for the chair next to Bullis and across from Anteros. He was used to the sight of the boy by now. It still amazed him but it no longer sent him into tearful musings when he looked at his own eyes staring back at him. From his seat he could focus on Anteros alone and leave Sansa out of the mix which was still the best way for his mind to handle his new family. One or the other was fine; together it was still overwhelming. Holloway reached over the table to shake hands with him while Tessa furtively glanced at him and pushed a plate full of brown bread near to his chosen seat. A servant’s hands came out of nowhere to lay a place setting in front of him.

 

The fare was respectably meager but it was a shade better than what was served in the common kitchen. The bread Tessa had moved towards him was thickly sliced and toasted. There were boiled eggs, fried rashers of bacon, chilled apple cider and pots of hot black tea on the table. Small dishes of deep hued plum jam adorned every setting. He piled what he thought was a decent amount of pork onto his plate, looked to make sure everyone else had some, and then took two more slices. It had been ages since he’d had proper fatback. The only person who was missing any food on their plate was Brienne, who stared miserably into her cup of tea. She yawned, letting the action take over her whole face, not bothering to cover it with a hand. She raised an eyebrow at him while she reached for more tea and he gave her a curt tilt of his head in return. The Maeseter had taken Sansa’s attention so he turned his focus on Anteros as he began tucking into his meal. Bullis paid him no mind, shoving eggs and pork into his mouth at the same time.

 

Anteros was spooning his entire pot of jam with deliberately careful movements onto the smallest piece of crispy bread to be found. The finished product was far more jam than it was bread. It made him chuckle. The boy had his mother’s taste for sugary treats. He didn’t mind them but he’d prefer piles of bacon, pools of butter and lakes of gravy any day over a lemon cake. Anteros finished his sticky monstrosity and used the corner of another piece of bread to circle around the insides of his jam dish, searching out any last traces of the purple sweetness. The boy frowned when the bread came out clean. He slid his own small dish over to Anteros but just as the lad’s little hands were about to start in on it, Tessa snatched it away.

 

“No, no” she told Anteros, “Too many sweets and you’ll rot your stomach.”

 

“What kind of tripe is that?” he barked at the girl. “I gave it to him. Let him be.”

 

Tessa gaped at him and looked to Sansa for help.

 

“It’s alright, Tessa,” Sansa called from the head of the table. “A little extra won’t hurt him. Tell Brother Clegane ‘thank you,’ Anteros.”

 

“Thank you!” the boy shouted, grabbing back the pot from Tessa with glee. The little one didn’t even bother with any bread this time around, instead, using his spoon to eat it directly out of the dish. Tessa and Brienne both glanced back and forth between Anteros and Sansa. Bullis and the Maester chewed thoughtfully at their food. Captain Holloway was the only one who looked to Sansa and then him, keeping eye contact for several seconds before moving onto his food as well.

 

After the morning meeting, Sansa asked him to stay behind. Holloway was the last out of the room and the man looked at him with warning before closing the door. He’d have to ask what that was about. Were Sansa and the Captain familiar or was the man merely looking out for the Little Bird as he himself had done long ago? Before he could make a sound, Sansa was hugging him tight around his chest. Her arms couldn’t make it all the way around him but she tried anyway. She took him by surprise and he rubbed at her back with one hand.

 

“Little Bird?” he questioned. She pulled back and looked up at him with shimmering eyes.

 

“My mother only ever allowed me one sweet at the table unless it was a special occasion. My father used to sneak his under the table to me,” she explained, swiping a finger under her eyes. “It’s probably a stupid thing to others but it’s one of the best memories I have of him. Anteros will remember as well.”

 

Sighing, he pulled her close once again. He had no damned idea how he kept doing right by the girl. Everywhere else in his life he had stepped he had fucked up but not with her. Not any more. Her arms folded between the two of them, while her cheek settled on his chest. Neither one of them spoke. He held her as he’d always wanted to back at the Keep, safely tucked away in his arms where only he could have her. Her eyes were shut but her smile nearly split her face. If she wished as much as he, that he could have given her this years ago, she made no sign of it. It seemed then or now she loved him just the same.

Chapter Text

They could both sense eyes on them. They were discreet but not completely hidden. The time they spent together grew with each passing day and those closest to him self and Sansa took note of it. Taking her aside one day, he asked for permission to tell the Elder Brother their story. She gave it, saying she would have a talk with Brienne as well. When he asked about Holloway she said she would handle him. The man had tried to court her years ago but she had been too clouded with grief to give him a chance. Later, she realized he was not the man she wished for and he found someone else to catch his eye. The Captain became much like a surrogate brother to her and an uncle to Anteros, replacing Robb or Jon’s role in her life. Any guarded glances he was receiving from Holloway were born from duty and protection, she tried to assure him.

 

Working alongside the Elder Brother one day, he tried his best to explain the situation. The robed man went from casually listening, to pausing in his work, to setting his pitchfork down, and then finally to sitting on a bench, silence taking him for once.

 

“The boy doesn’t know,” he told the Elder Brother. “I’ll tell him soon. But not yet. Only Brienne and you know I’m his father. I’d like to keep it that way.”

 

The Elder Brother nodded. “It is a shock to hear. But you may have found your true calling here in Winterfell. You’ve learned many lessons during your years on the Isle. This new role is well suited for you. The Lady and you are a strange couple and yet you both seem to balance the other. The young one will be pleased to find out his father is living.”

 

………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

Brienne pulled at him one day after the evening meal, leading him down a dark passageway. It was unexpected. The two of them hadn’t said much to each other. Sometimes he still felt his jaw crack when she stood near.

 

“I wanted to apologize,” she started. “For striking you. My Lady says I shouldn’t have. I think otherwise but perhaps I could have spoken first before I let my judgments take over my actions.”

 

“Fine,” he answered, not sure what else there was to say.

 

“Do you intend to marry her? I haven’t heard anything from her room in the night. You’ve honored what little innocence she has left?”

 

“Bloody . . .” he shouted. He didn’t want to have this conversation with Brienne of all people. But the woman stood between him and the door. It was talk or use fists to flee.

 

“I haven’t dishonored your Lady, not that it’s any of your business copper-bred. One day, if she’ll have me, I’ll wed her then bed her. Is that alright with you?” he grumbled.

 

“Good. Keep it that way. She needs to be treated properly for once,” Brienne warned.

 

“I know it already!” he snapped. “I don’t need you telling me so!”

 

“Settle down,” she chided. “You get so worked up over others caring for her. I’m only doing as you would if you were in my place. I’m the one who’s guarded her these past six years remember? I’m not the enemy.”

 

He continued to mumble curses at the floor. She was right. He hated when others were right and he was at fault It struck him though that Brienne had been by the Little Bird’s side longer than he. Dismay took him and then curiosity.

 

“You’re a woman,” he stated.

 

She let out a boisterous laugh. “Yes, thank you for noticing.”

 

“Shut it,” he barked. ‘I meant she’s spoken to you. You know how women think. What’s in her head right now?”

 

“Are you asking me to betray my Lady’s trust or assess you as a woman would?” she teased, winking at him.

 

“Forget it,” he growled, trying to push past her. She grabbed his arm.

 

“Now hold on a minute. I’m only trying to have a bit of fun. Stop! I’ll talk with you!” she yelped, pulling him back through the doorway.

 

“She adores you,” Brienne told him. It was a beckon of hope pushing through the darkness inside him. To know that she’d said kind enough words about him to give Brienne that impression. The blonde continued, “It’s not in the nature of our Lady to hold the worst side of a person against them. She searches for the light, even if it means digging through shit to get there.”

 

“And you gave her a child. No matter what the circumstances surrounding that were the outcome is still the same. She had feelings for you and you made them flesh for her. I don’t think a man can ever understand fully what a treasure that is to a woman. Marry her. Soon. Make more children with her. She’ll spend every day trying to please you.”

 

He scoffed. Brienne made it sound like one of the Knight’s tales Sansa used to be so fond of reading. It wasn’t that simple. Was it? The tall woman plowed on.

 

“Now, if you’re asking about you, specifically and not her well . . . “ she trailed off trying to find the right words. “You’re easy on the eyes from the one side. The other isn’t pretty that’s for sure but love does strange things. It causes some to go blind to flaws like yours. You’re blunt and to the point, and some sensitive souls might call you vicious but I’ve seen the way you look at our Lady. I’ve seen how she smiles back at you. You’re not as bad as some make you out to be. You can be when you chose. But I don’t think that’s your true self. Sansa says she’d rather have just one honest, plain man than a thousand handsome liars. I think she may be right.”

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

Holloway left on another scouting mission. There had been reports from the south that raiders were on the move again. The thick, wet, snow and ice kept soldiers from reaching the gates of Winerfell but desperate, hungry men only grew more so in the face of such bleakness. Neither Sansa nor he had the chance to speak to the man before he left. There had been a break in the weather, if you could call it that; snow had turned to sheets of icy rain. It was miserable to look at and walk through but it didn’t pile in heaps that never melted around the property. Sansa had opened up the great throne room for the children to run in since their usual place in the yard was nothing but a slippery space of churned mud. The horses tethered to the supply wagons spooked easily, the men were guff and irritated by having to work in such conditions and it was best for the children to stay out from underfoot. Tessa and another nursemaid, Beryl, tended to the small mob most of the day. Sansa joined when she could. Her duties as head of the household and the land took her from Anteros’ side for many hours at a time but he was proud, and perhaps a minute amount jealous, to watch her seek out their son’s whereabouts the moment she was left with any time to herself.

 

The late afternoon seemed the time when they could all converge. Sansa would try and engage Anteros, which would work for a few minutes before the boy shoved her off to get back to his friends. She would sit on her throne and watch the boy then. Brienne was told to take rest while he took the place at Sansa’s right. The large woman would leave the two of them, a smirk on her face. There would be time to talk or simply sit. Today Sansa’s eyes were glassy. When he asked what was troubling her she reached for his hand, which was surprising. They hadn’t yet shown one another signs of affection in public, though a handful of children and two nursemaids were hardly a full court.

 

“He runs farther from my skirts with each passing day,” she mused. “I know it upsets you to think you weren’t there for us while he grew from babe to child but he didn’t need you as much as he needed me then. He needs you more now then he does me.”

 

He scoffed at that. “He still needs his mother. Every boy does though they won’t admit it.”

 

Her eyes were on him now, causing him to shift uncomfortably. She was giving him that look she’d been at since she was small. She was trying to understand him. It was both irritating and secretly valued. He didn’t want to discuss his thoughts, but it was reassuring to know there was one person who cared enough to at least try and recognize him.

 

“I know he’ll always have a need for both of his parents,” she concluded. “But I’m grateful to the Gods you came back to us now. He’s at a stage when his need for his father’s guidance is only going to grow.”

 

It seemed the lad knew he was being spoken of. Anteros ran, with a clatter like an entire team of horses, up on the raised platform where his mother sat. He tried to remove his hand from Sansa’s but she gripped at him tighter and he let it be. The boy seemed not to notice at all, pulling at his mother to lean down. They chatted in whispers among themselves and he had to chuckle again. She was fooling only herself if she chose to believe the boy didn’t need her. He was a man fully grown and had know her for less then ten years, yet he was hopeless with need of all kinds for her. Anteros would be hers forever as well.

 

The young one raced out of the hall with intent. Sansa smiled cheerfully and still clung to his hand.

 

“What’s he after?”

 

“You’ll see,” she hinted. “Some black currents came with the supplies this morning. It’s not lemons, I haven’t seen any of those in a long time, but it’s something.”

 

He didn’t have to wait long. Anteros came tearing back into the room within minutes, red faced and breathing hard while carrying a basket. The boy took to his mother first, reaching into the basket to hand Sansa a small cake. Anteros’ cheeks were stuffed as fat as a squirrel’s with a sweet he must have shoveled in on his way back. The little lad’s throat worked to get the wad of sugary dough down before holding up the basket to him. He had to squat to reach the boy’s level. Picking through the proffered treats he found a small sweet roll. He didn’t really want anything but it seemed wrong to deny a child’s willingness to share. Once Anteros left the platform he tossed the roll to Sansa. She grinned at him.

 

“You’re learning,” she praised him. It seemed weak to him to feel pride from such a small compliment, but it washed over him all the same. Breaking apart the cake into small pieces, she continued watching the children.

 

“I wouldn’t let them take him from me. The first week. I did everything for him,” she recalled quietly beside him, nibbling at her cake. Anteros was passing out the basket’s contents to the other children and even the nursemaids. The boy had his looks but Sansa’s heart.

 

“No wolves for wet-nurses?” he tried, hoping she would understand the humor in it this time around.

 

“Absolutely not! I haven’t seen a dire wolf in years,” she scolded with a hint of a smile. “I wouldn’t let anyone have him. I nursed him myself, kept him as close as I could, when I could. He was a few months along when Brienne told me you had died.”

 

Her look grew serious as she talked on. “It was because of him I grieved so hard when I thought you gone. But he was also my salvation. I don’t know how I would have survived with out him. I mourned like I never had before. My father was one thing, my mother, my siblings. Nothing compares to knowing the father of your own child is gone. I carried him in my belly and you in my heart and then you were gone. The idea of you and I was over almost as soon as it had started. But I had to grow strong for him. I couldn’t let our child wilt because of my sorrow.”

 

“I didn’t know,” he told her, his voice its old rasp. “I never heard of you having a child and even if I had I wouldn’t have considered the chance of it being mine. I never thought my place was at your side. I thought I was doing you a service by letting you go. I tried to do one kind thing for you and it turns out I was still being cruel.”

 

“Cruel?” she spat. “You think anything you’ve ever done to me was cruel? I suffered under a Bolton for a month. You don’t have any idea what cruelty I’ve gone through. A few blunt words and an absence of a few years and I’m supposed to think you cruel? You did what you felt was best for me. You stayed true to yourself. You’re not a Bolton or a Lannister. I recall you were the one to cover me when Joffrey aimed a cross bow at my naked heart. You’re not a cruel man. Say anything like that again and I’ll be angry with you.”

 

All of this new information she was sharing with him gave him all the more reason to rage and feel guilt. What exactly had the bastard done to her? He heard rumors, as most of Westeros had, about Ramsay’s sinister pleasures, and he had purposely not thought on it. If the vile, demon’s spawn had done anything like what he had heard pass from the common’s tongues to his Little Bird, he’d dig up the corpse and desecrate the bones in every possible way that he could.

 

“I should have done more,” he reasoned.

 

“I’m tired of that argument. You did all you could at the time. Do you have any idea how much that meant to me? That cloak was the richest silk in all the land in that moment. You don’t give yourself enough credit. I wish you would stop.”

 

“It’s not easy.”

 

“No, it’s not.” she agreed. “That’s why we look to others to gain strength. You can look to me as I look to you. Do you think you’re the only one who struggles? I’m not proud of the way I acted around you. It pains me to know the first memory you have of me looking upon your face ended in tears. Or the first time I gave myself to you? I did little more than lay there wondering what exactly I was supposed to do. You deserved more than that. Do you blame me for those actions? Are you angry with me?”

 

“No.” He didn’t hesitate in his answer. She had been a child and he gruff with her. It was more than understandable that he had reduced her to tears. And the night of the Blackwater? She felt as if she hadn’t given him enough? If they weren’t surrounded by others he’d prove her wrong right there on the floor; with words and tongue and hands he’d show her what she’d given him.

 

She nodded her head once, pleased that he didn’t argue. “You’re not the only one that can find fault in their past. The point of it all is to learn and do better We’re blessed you and I. We don’t have to do it alone anymore.”

 

Her words were strong and true. He tried to offer her comfort back. “The night you wept. When I forced you to look at me. It didn’t end with your tears. I remember a fragile, beautiful girl touching me like I was an equal. Wine loosened my tongue and you gave me your hand despite your tears. You were far braver than I. You’re the stronger inside.”

 

“Not a cruel man at all,” she said, looking at him with awe while using a finger to bid him closer to her face. She whispered into his ear, “If the children weren’t here I’d kiss you.”

 

“Bugger them,” he growled, claiming her mouth for a few moments to the sound of giggling young ones.

Chapter Text

There were nights of good dreams and bad. The good outweighed the bad twenty to one instead of the other way around as it had been before the Quiet Isle. And then there were nights filled with nothing at all. Nothing but peace, rest, and darkness. No emotions of any kind to sort or analyze. No feelings given to him during the night to haunt him the following day. He could close his eyes, exhausted by work and leave everything for a few hours. The world didn’t matter, she didn’t matter, and best of all, he no longer mattered while he escaped into the deepest parts of his mind. Those nights he woke with the first rays of light and felt the smallest amount stronger. He could continue to go on. Everyone thought him strong because of his size and his use as a weapon. The Little Bird thought him brave. It didn’t take courage to wield steel. It took an iron stomach, an ability to disconnect and a talent for letting hate and anger take hold. There wasn’t a damned thing brave about it. Bravery was looking her in the eye when she spoke to him instead of lowering his head. Courage was lifting the boy onto one of his shoulders so the little lad could laugh, pretending to be a giant. Every step towards his own version of honor was slow, startling and sometimes painful. But it was also fulfilling; swollen with a grace he felt he didn’t deserve.

 

The dreams of Sansa and he writhing and tangled within each other’s limbs were welcome but tortuous in a way. Sitting near her after a night spent envisioning her wrapped in the sheets of his bed was nothing short of pure agony. The nightmares that still plagued him left him sitting up on his small pallet, clutching his knees to his chest in the dark for hours until the light of dawn allowed him to breathe again. He couldn’t stand to have a fire going as he drifted off to sleep no matter how small. Coals he could manage but not a flame. The room grew chilled in the night but it was a small price to pay in order to sleep. Sometimes the fire followed him in his dreams if he left the hearth burning. Thousands of arms, blood running down them, that seemed to never have any bodies, dragged him into world built of nothing but flames. His entire body burned while women and children stood sobbing, calling him murderer while watching him scream. At least he woke up these days with a pounding heart that left him unable to seek anymore sleep, and not continuing on shrieking as he did in the dream. The Elder Brother and he had gotten little rest his first few months on the Isle.

 

He had shut his eyes that evening and slipped into blessed silence where no dreams bothered to touch him. But he woke, too early, and didn’t know why. There had been a noise. A small thump, maybe, before he had pulled himself up out of his slumber. The coals were nearly out and the light of dawn had not yet started to creep into the room. His door began to open with a creak and he woke instantly, years of instinct kicking in to sit him up with haste. He was about to lunge under the bed for his sword when he saw a bit of fire flash in the light of a candle. Fire everywhere! He was going to burn in this place too. Lust, love, fear, joy. They were all going to strip him bare, he thought, watching the Little Bird shut his door and scamper over to his bed.

 

She stopped short of his pallet by a few steps and placed the candle on a shelf carved into the stone wall. Her robe was open, giving him glimpses of a long, dark green sleeping gown underneath. Her hair was in a single, long thick braid suitable for bed. She was barefoot and he swallowed thickly. He’d intended to wed her first before having her again, if that’s what she wished, but if she was seeking him out now for bedding he didn’t think he could refuse. If she said yes, and meant it, he wasn’t entirely sure he would be able to say no. She was shaking, eyes wide with panic. It wasn’t the right sort of look for coupling in the dark.

 

“I dreamt of Ramsay,” she managed to get out through her quaking, her voice choked with unshed tears. She hugged herself, unsure of what to do. His cock had sprung to life when he saw her burst through his door, but it quickly softened. She didn’t want that of him now. He didn’t know what to do either. Women didn’t seek him out for relief after bad dreams. The Hound was something most ran from not to. He sat up straighter, thinking to leave the bed and hold her or lead her to a chair but she dropped to her knees at the edge of his pallet.

 

“Please,” she cried, two fat tears leaking out of her eyes and trialing down her face. Fuck it, he thought, she was obviously distressed, begging him and he wouldn’t refuse her. It wasn’t right for the Little Bird to be kneeling in front of him. Lifting the furs of the bed, he moved over on his side to give her room while she hurriedly scrambled into the space he had made for her. She pressed her self flush against him, rubbing her face into his chest and clutching at the hair she found there. Her feet, cold fucking blocks of ice, sought out his own, bare flesh on flesh. They were soft and he could feel her toenails scraping into his shins as she stretched her self out fully against him. It stole his breath away. They’d never been this close before, though he’d felt her from the inside out, once, long ago. She started to cry, sorrowful little wails, muffled by his skin. He was torn. His heart told him to serve while his body said to take.

 

A flash of the night of the Blackwater came to mind. He’d felt more fear in the face of battle that night then he ever had before. The only thing that terrified him more was admitting he loved the Little Bird. When his world was falling apart he had sought her out. She was doing the same now as he had done then. She was asking for his love, his acceptance and comfort. Deep understanding took him and he felt a pride so awesome he had to bite at his own tongue to keep from bawling along side her. She’d come to him in her time of confusion, fear and despair. She needed him as he needed her!

 

It was something more than lust or love that took over at that point. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her kisses in her hair while she continued weeping.

 

“He’s not here,” he tried to reassure her.”You’re alright. You’re safe. It’s only me now.”

 

She cried harder and he remained silent, unsure if his words had helped or not. He could smell her. It wasn’t loud and obnoxious like some other women’s scent; perfumes that would enter a room before them and linger long after they left. One had to be close to her to sense her scent. She smelled exactly as one with her gentle nature should. It was light, delicate and left him thinking of bees and butterflies, flitting around an orchard to lazily lap at the blossoms found there. He held her tighter and rumbled in his chest, trying to calm her. He didn’t know what else to give her.

 

It seemed enough. Eventually her sobs died down to sighs and wet sniffling. Using her robe she wiped at her face and his chest that had been covered in the wetness of her tears. When she spoke her voice was so quiet he had to scoot down in the bed to bring him self face to face with her.

 

“I always felt safe with you,” she told him. “Always, deep down. You’re temper was wretched, and your steel cold, and the first few times you laid your hands on me I expected my arm to be ripped from the socket. But you never did. You touched me like I was something precious. You swept me up into your arms gently. You always touched me as I thought a man should touch the woman he loves. Your words may have frightened me at times but your hands never did.”

 

He had to swallow several times around the lump in his throat before he could answer her. The shade of darkness made it easier to speak to her.

 

“I didn’t know how to do anything when it came to you. Half the time I did want to scare you so you’d let me alone. It never worked did it. Not in the end?” he asked. She shook her head and he continued. “Sometimes I wanted you to be gone forever, but mostly I wanted you to see me. Really look at me and see me. I thought if you could see me maybe I’d be worth something.”

 

She sucked in a loud gulp of air. He felt one of her hands leave his chest to trail up his neck and towards his face. His good side was pressed into the pillow with his scars facing up. He hadn’t meant them to; it was just what happened in the moment. He knew the light of the candle would give him some cover. They weren’t as bad in candle light as they were when harsh daylight struck them. Her fingers were at his throat now and his hand automatically snapped up to catch her wrist.

 

“Don’t. You don’t have to,” he growled. “That’s not what I meant. You look at me and you don’t fear anymore. That’s all I need from you.”

 

But she shook her hand free of his. “I see you,” she soothed, determination in her tone. “All of you.” He felt a subtle pressure on his cheek and slammed his eyes shut. He absolutely could not look at her while she graced him with her touch. One, two, three, he could count the points of pressure where her fingertips stroked down his face from temple to jaw. She made the same pass several times and then there was the sweep of her thumb across his chin. He struggled to breath. He had meant to be her foundation but he was crumbling in her hands. It had never seemed possible to him that she would touch him there.

Then her lips were on him, the lower one easily felt on his tightly closed eyelid while the other was nothing but a soft press on the dead, numbed skin of his missing brow. He broke. It was too much, having her give attentions to him as if he were normal, as if his face was truly nothing but the flesh of her lover. His jaw clenched shut, teeth bared while his breathing went harsh. His eyes were stinging but he still couldn’t open them to look at her. If he did, he’d bring the whole household to his door with his wailing. There was warmth at where his ear should have been as she used her hand to touch him there and he could feel her nails scratch the skin behind the hole he was left with. He jerked in her arms; she had found one of the places where feeling remained. She gave a pleased noise and did it again, causing him to moan through his tears. She granted him mercy, moving on to comb her fingers through his hair. Waves of frightening pleasure took him when he felt her there.

 

“Sansa, Little Bird, that’s enough,” he sobbed. She did as he asked immediately, placing her hands back between the two of them at his chest.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

 

“Not used to it is all,” he got out, rubbing at his eyes and trying to calm his breathing.

 

“You’re not handsome,” she murmured, settling back into his embrace. “But you’re mine and I love you. All of you.”

 

She started to relax in his arms while he wiped the last of his tears away in her hair. One by one her muscles loosened and sank into the pallet. Her head fell forward onto his chest while her breathing slowed. He could make out her mumbling little phrases as she fell asleep.

 

“Your eyes are nice,” she told him in the space between awake and asleep. “And your hair’s soft.”

 

A few minutes pause and she’d whisper something else at him.

 

“Your smile. I love your smile.”

 

“You smell like the dry leaves in autumn and the feeling before a storm. And you're mine?”

 

“Aye,” he whispered, knowing it was the truest thing he’d ever said.

 

“That’s good,” she cooed, slipping off into slumber. He smiled. She’d fallen asleep in his arms talking of him in a pleasant way. It was far more than he had ever dreamed of. She could stay for a while. It was still dark outside. If she could find rest, here, with him, he’d stay awake to let her know when dawn approached.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

He must have dozed off. Opening his eyes, he saw that she had shifted in her sleep, though he couldn’t remember her doing so. There was the pale orange glow of sunrise in the room. She had her back pressed to him. One of his arms was flung over her side. She had pulled his hand right up to her face, her lips pressed to his thumb. Something was wet. He lifted his head to look at her and saw she was drooling, making him laugh. At least she didn’t snore! Gripping her tight, he dropped his head to kiss at the nape of her neck. If there was a heaven this was it. He was certain. Sighing and whimpering she woke in his arms. He couldn’t stop the one quick thrust of his aching cock into her backside while she stretched. She stopped immediately when she felt him, hot and hard against her. Moving his hips back a few inches he tried to make it clear she held all the power between the two of them coupling. She rolled over to look at him.

 

“Do you dream about me?” she breathed.

 

“Aye, day and night.”

 

“I dream about you too,” she confessed.

 

“You tell me when,” he rasped, placing his hand on her cheek. “Say you want me and I’ll make you sing, Little Bird. Sing like you were meant to. It won’t be the damned Mother’s Hymn. We’ll make a song all our own. I’ll give you new memories. Good ones. I can do better than the Blackwater.”

 

She grabbed at his hand, still cupping her cheek, kissing the palm lightly.

 

“I know,” she said, nipping at his fingertips. Then she looked at him seriously, a hint of apology in them. “I do want you. But not like this. Not with the whole household waking. I don’t want to rush like last time.”

 

He nodded his acceptance and kissed her forehead. His cock screamed at him to pound her into the mattress beneath him but he understood her want. It was his true wish as well. He yearned for time when he could have hours with her to treat her properly, as he should have done years ago. Moving himself farther from her body he kissed her lips one last time. He could make everything right by giving her the wedding night she had always deserved. She squeezed his hand as long as she could while she rolled out of his bed and stood. Taking back her burnt out candle, she quietly left, shutting his door with a click.

 

He groaned and drew the pillow she had been laying on to his face. It still smelled like her. His cock throbbed within his clothes. He had not a clue as to how he had managed not to beg her to at least touch him. His own fingers trembled as he sought out the laces on his breeches. He’d lain for hours with her pressed against him and he was ready to spill within a minute of two of pulling at his length. He shuddered something close to a sob as he spent himself on the sheets, stifling his cries into the cloth that carried her scent.

Chapter Text

The first time he’d held his son had been due to a bet. And not one he had made. He wasn’t much of a gambler. He’d tried in his day as soldier and shield but lost far more than he ever gained. Luck never seemed to favor him. It may have been the one thing in his life prior to the Isle he hadn’t raged over. His lack of talent with cards and dice only seemed right. He wasn’t much good at anything besides swinging a sword and staying alive; why should games of chance be any different? As long as he had wine to soothe his ego after he cared little over the coin he lost.

 

It wasn’t as if he had a wife to scold him over his poor behavior. Service under the Lannisters provided food and a roof. There was no one to answer to but himself. In his youth it wasn’t a bother; he had thought himself independent and free. He’d been a complete idiot. As his twenties rolled closer to thirty he realized his folly. It was lonely, sad, and spirit breaking. He had tried his best not to think on the things he was missing out on in life, choosing instead to push them to the back of his mind, burying them with vices and dark pleasures. Men in the tavern complained of their wife’s lectures while he fought the urge to brawl. Most of the time he was not successful. He’d take a tongue lashing, gladly, every so often, if it meant he could have a warm body to welcome him home by the end of the day. Someone to make proud and to be proud of. They were unappreciative swine who had gained a woman simply for having a whole face and it infuriated him; the unfairness of life. He’d lost life’s toss of the die over and over again. He was a shit gambler simply for being it seemed. 

 

No, it was his son that had made a bet and made him an unknowing partner. The children grew restless being forced to stay indoors day after day. The freezing rain and tiny specks of hail continued on for over a week. Sansa fretted over Halloway’s absence though she knew the harsh weather was more than likely the cause of his prolonged absence. He tried to reassure her that the man was soldier enough to make it through a rain storm. The only time there was a break in the sky’s out pouring was, unfortunately, at night when the children were fast asleep. They came up with more elaborate and creative ways to entertain themselves as the days of indoor confinement stacked up.

 

Standing next to Sansa in the throne room, he was approached by Anteros. The child never seemed to shy away from him or show any fear. Sansa accepted him at her side. The lad had witnessed everyone at the breakfast table acknowledging him and the boy had followed suit; welcoming him into the group without any fuss. Once, he’d seen the little boy grinning at his mother and he while Sansa held his hand.

 

“Can you lift me up?” the boy asked, already jumping in place, lifting his arms in anticipation of being picked up.

 

“What?” he barked, not sure if he had heard Anteros correctly.

 

“Please, can you lift me up?” the boy corrected and he snorted. He hadn’t been trying to draw courtesies out the boy.

 

“What for?”

 

“I want to touch the lights,” the boy answered in a tired tone, like it was too much effort to try and explain childish reasons to an adult. He looked to Sansa. He didn’t know what was expected of him.

 

“He’s asking you,” was her answer to his silent question.

 

She was no help at all sometimes! He didn’t know how to pick up a child. When did she think he would have been carrying children around? He’d been a sworn shield not a nursemaid! Where did his hands go? Should he pull or tug? He had no idea. So he frowned in frustration at his lack of experience, holding out his arms straight and firm like boughs on a tree.  Anteros tried to leap into his reach but came up short. They boy was an inch or two taller than his companions yet barely made it to his hip. If the lad was anything like him, he wasn’t going to gain any true height until his tenth name day had passed. In the end he had to lean down to grasp the boy under his arms and hoist him up onto one shoulder like a sack of milled grain. Anteros squealed and he froze until it dawned on him that the boy was happy. The child was laughing in his ear. It was as captivating as the Little Bird’s pleased sighs.

 

“Over there!” Anteros shouted, pointing to the wooden candle holders that hung from the ceiling. He could easily reach them and the boy would be able to as well from his shoulder. When he started to move the young one shrieked again, wrapping his arms around his neck with force.

 

“Loosen up!” he hollered at the lad. He was being choked! By a boy!  Anteros let his neck go, but chose to cling to his robes instead. They’d made it to their goal. All the children were watching at that point and it made him feel oddly on display. Little eyes were all around him, filled with wonder and disbelieving stares. Anteros wobbled on his shoulder, stretching to smack at the wooden frame once.

 

“See, told you I could!” the boy yelled to his friends.

 

“That’s not fair!” a blonde haired boy called back. “You never said you’d use him.”

 

“You never said I couldn’t,” Anteros countered. “You only said I had to touch it!”

 

The young one started wiggling like a damned piglet on his shoulder so he dropped him down to the ground. The children all started to grumble and complain while they dug in their pockets. Anteros held his hands out, collecting the bounty he’d earned through cleverness or cunning, depending on how you looked at it. That was more of him shining through in the boy; a knack for quick thinking and carefully chosen words. But then the boy turned and offered the prizes he’d won to him.

 

“You helped,” Anteros shrugged. “You get half.” And there was a Little Bird fairness in the lad’s actions. There was a walnut, a ribbon, a clay marble, what looked like a wolf’s fang and a copper. He shook his head at the boy.

 

“Keep it,” he told him. “But next time bet Holloway a Silver Stag you can do it. I’ll take half of those winnings.” Anteros grinned back at him.

 

Back at the podium Sansa huffed at him. “Are you teaching our son to gamble?” she scolded. Perhaps he should have felt shame. Instead, he stood a bit taller. He’d helped his son and gotten a reprimand from the one he loved for it. He remembered a time before his face had melted when the same had happened between his parents. For a few moments he felt something near to complete.

 

“Aye,” he winked at her. “Let the men be, woman.” She stared at him, shocked, with her mouth hanging open and then laughed so hard she had to clutch at her stomach. His heart skipped a beat at her happiness. It seemed life had finally allowed him to win the largest pot of all.

                                                                                              

From that day on Anteros begged him for a ride on his shoulders. Day after day without fail. Inside or out. In the stables, in the yard, even right after the first meal. Whenever the lad thought he had the best chance of having his request fulfilled was when he struck.  He never denied him. It was a calling like no other in his life. To be there when his son needed him; if only for the thrill of being seven feet up in the air. The other children tried to ask for or earn rides as well but he turned them down. It may have been childish of him to deny the other young ones but he couldn’t help himself. He was an infant as well when it came to dealing with Anteros and the moments they had together, small as they were, were his and the boy’s alone. He’d been given so little happiness in life; he didn’t want to share with others the precious few instances he’d gained. Anteros grinned down at the world, delighting in the fact that he seemed to be the only one capable of taming the gruff giant of Winterfell.

 

“Does it look like this to you?” Anteros asked one day, surveying the horses from his new height.

 

“Looks the same as always to me,” he replied. “I’m used to it. You’re not. If I crawled around on the floor and looked at things from your view it would be different for me as well.”

 

He could feel the lad nodding in agreement against him. Anteros was clever and good at grasping ideas. “I like it better up here,” the lad told him.

 

……………………………………………………………………………………………

 

He took his afternoon meal in the common kitchens with the Elder Brother and the original company he’d come to Winterfell with. Sometimes Stallton, Collins and a few scullery maids joined them. There was a rowdy blonde who talked with him more than he felt comfortable with. Growling, sneering and barking didn’t work to get rid of her. The Elder Brother tried to tell him it was as simple as taking the girl aside and explaining he had his heart set on someone else. He kept ignoring her instead, hoping she’d lose interest.

 

Evening meals were a toss up between the common kitchens and Sansa’s dining chambers. But more and more of them were being spent near his family. He always took his first meal with Sansa and Anteros. It made mornings worth getting up for. Anteros certainly never complained. As long as he showed up to the table the lad was guaranteed a second helping of jam, honey or iced rolls. Every morning, at Sansa’s insistence, he waited until Anteros had cleared his plate before he passed his leftover sweet to the boy. Anteros always thanked him, smiling a wide toothy grin which caused the boy’s entire face to scrunch up in joy.

 

Today, the lad was racing a crudely carved wooden horse around his place setting.  It had been painted black, or so he thought. On closer inspection, he noticed smudges of black on the boy’s hands as well. Soot and ash had apparently been smeared on the toy to give it its black sheen. Anteros was currently trying to feed the horse bits of fried potato.

 

“Did you make it?” he asked Anteros, pointing his knife at the figurine.

 

“Uh-huh,” was the reply while Anteros continued to try and shove food into the toy. “Mummy says you had a horse. A great, black horse big as a house!”

 

“You’re mother likes to exaggerate. Makes the world look better to her,” he explained. “He was big but no where near a house. Stood as tall as me.”

 

“What’s his name? Where’s he now? Why didn’t you bring him with you? Can I ride him?” the child rattled out all in one breath. It made his insides bristle. Sometimes Anteros reminded him of why he’d never bothered with children before. Anteros, glanced up with soft gray eyes, and he felt guilty for his thought. That was a bit of him sitting in front of him. He should treat it as kindly as he had wished to be treated at that age. Gods only knew he’d had childhood ripped from him all too soon. He shouldn’t be the cause of it in Anteros. He sighed before answering.

 

“His name was Stranger. You can’t ride him now because he died. It was before I came here so I couldn’t bring him along. You could have ridden in front of me back on the Quiet Isle. He was too big for you to ride on your own and didn’t tolerate anyone but me. Do you even know how to ride?”

 

“Mummy lets me ride one of the mares in the yard. Captian Hollway leads her,” the lad told him, then added, “my cat died. I cried but mummy said it was alright because he was my friend and Tessa let me bury him.”

 

He nodded at the little one trying to share in the loss of a loyal animal with him. “I didn’t have time to bury Stranger. Horse is too big to bury anyway. I’m sure he made a good meal for the crows,” he replied thoughtfully, surprised at the sorrow he still felt for the beast. Stranger had been the only thing close to a friend that he’d had at the Keep. The Little Bird had tried but he’d been too jaded to see her efforts for what they were. He stared at his plate, lost in memories and then felt a nudge against his fingers. Anteros had pushed the little toy, gleaming with grease from their meal, across the table to him.

 

“His name is Midnight but you can change it if you want,” the boy said. “You can have him. I’ve got lots others.”  The boy wiped at his nose, leaving black markings on his face. He chuckled while Tessa fussed and tried to clean her charge.

 

The horse ended up on the carved stone shelf near his bed. The one Sansa had set a candle on the night she had lain by his side; the morning they’d admitted their desire for one another. It was a place of honor in his room and the small piece of wood was worth more than an entire chest full of Gold Dragons to him. One evening, he looked immediately at the shelf as soon as he closed his door. There was something different about it his eye had caught. There, underneath the horse’s hooves, was a tiny twist of fiery red hair tied up with blue ribbons. 

Chapter Text

Tearing at the skin around the edges of his fingernails, he kept at it until drops of blood formed. Crescents of crimson rimmed the edges of his nails instead of pale half moons. He wiped the evidence of his frustration on his robes and glared at Sansa as she sat on their son’s bed. She was lost in the pages of a large, leather bound book; Anteros’s chosen story for the evening. Sansa had convinced him to join her and Anteros for the boy’s nighttime ritual and he had to admit he’d been looking forward to it. The sight of his son, peacefully settled with sleep heavy eyes, snuggled within the arms of his Little Bird was an image he wished to make a reality. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. It didn’t seem much like one now. He wasn’t even aware of what she was saying anymore. Anger had taken hold, and she’d told him to wait! Him! And what was even more infuriating was he was obeying her! He sat, biding his time for the sake of their son, and thinking on what she’d done. The only thing keeping him in check was the memory of his parents shouting at one another in their home while he hid under a table, covering his ears to try and drown out their shouts.

 

Sansa had met him at the base of the steps to the North Tower. She was, as usual, radiant and poised. They were, blessedly alone, allowing him the chance to press his lips to hers for a few moments. Which turned into a few more. It was harder to continue on with the chaste pace she had set for them now that he knew she dreamed of him as he did of her. Sometimes it felt unbelievable but the soft heat of her lips told him he wasn’t dreaming any longer.  He didn’t pressure or push, only tried to guide her to what he knew both of them wanted. Her lips had parted for him, affording him the opportunity to deepen the kiss between them. He could feel her light touch skimming at the neckline of his robes, slipping underneath the thick wool to find the lines of his collarbone. His hands he kept against the wall around her head, knowing they’d never make it to the young one’s room if he dared to do the same to her.  In the end he’d been the one to stop the growing build between them. They were going to visit their son after all. It wouldn’t due to arrive with his blood peaked. She blushed when they parted and told him she loved him. He felt a coward for not giving her the same back.

 

“Sansa, I . . .” he trailed off, still not able to think of the words, the perfect words, that his Little Bird deserved. He’d never had practice at telling a woman his deepest thoughts and desires; the hidden words the beats of his heart tried to express. He wanted, desperately, for her to understand.

 

“I know,” she assured him, touching his cheek before taking his hand in hers, leading him up the stairs to Anteros’ room. Once inside, Sansa had asked Tessa to step out of the room with her for a moment before the woman took her leave for the evening. Anteros’ name day was the following week and there were details to be discussed. He was left alone with the child, who started tearing off articles of clothing in the same manner as the first time he had been in the boy’s room. Anteros dressed for sleep, chatting to him about the day’s events that had occurred while away from each other. Taking the chair Sansa had pulled near the bed for him, he sat and nodded to the lad, trying to give him his full attention. All was fine until Anteros climbed onto his bed, book in one hand, and fished under his pillow with the other. The little one’s hand caught on whatever it was he’d been seeking, pulling from under the pillow a large, white cloth.  An earth and blood stained, enormous white cloth. His back stiffened, sitting him up tall and imposing in the chair.

 

“Where’d you get that, boy?” he barked, instantly sorry for the tone he’d taken when he saw Anteros jump, uncertainty taking hold of his small, gray eyes. Anteros glanced at the door his mother had walked through minutes earlier.

 

“Mummy gave it to me,” the lad answered in a hesitant tone. “It was my da’s.”

 

The Seven take them all, he thought, what was she doing with that damned piece of cloth? Why in all the Seven Hells was his son wrapping it around himself! It wasn’t right. He’d left that piece of him behind on purpose, to be lost and forgotten. What gave her the right to think she could keep it?

 

Sansa stepped through the door to witness absolute silence between the two of them. Where normally there would be laughter or talk, she sensed nothing but unease from her son and a growing tension in him. Her eyes darted from him to Anteros.

 

“Is all well?” she asked.

 

‘No, it’s bloody well not,” he spat, pointing at Anteros. “Why’s he got that?”

 

Anteros gave a distressed whimper, clutching the cloak tighter and Sansa took to his bed with haste, pulling the child onto her lap. She kissed their son’s brow while she spoke to him.

 

“It was his father’s; a good man. One who didn’t purposely frighten little children,” she told him with emphasis. “If you wish to talk about it, we can later. Right now is Anteros’ time with me and you if you can control your temper.”

 

His chest heaved with emotion of all kind. Anger, shame, confusion and love all swirled inside of his mind. It was so fucking hard to stay still instead of finding an outlet for the things he felt. She’d kept the cloak! He wanted it gone but she’d saved it for years. She’d kept a piece of him near her all this time. Images flashed relentlessly in his mind of her holding it, pressing it to her naked body. Of her crying into it in the blackness of night. Of Anteros as a babe, swallowed up within its folds. He wanted to pull her from the room so he could both rage at her and lift her skirts to hear her scream his name. He slammed his body into the back of the chair, crossing his arms over his chest instead, trying to remember the Elder Brother’s lessons on patience.

 

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled to Anteros. “I’m not angry with you,” he continued, letting his eyes settle on Sansa.  His Queen stared right back at him, pressing her lips to Anteros’ ear. She spoke quietly but still loud enough for him to hear, all the while never lowering her gaze on him.

 

“Did I ever tell you Brother Clegane was once a soldier?” Sansa questioned the boy.

 

Anteros’ eyes lit up with interest. “Like my da?”

 

“Yes, love, exactly like your da,” she shushed at their babe, smiling while tears gathered in her eyes. “Men trained in arms are used to doing. They take action with a quickness that leaves others astonished. They’re used to orders being shouted and no questions being asked. I’m sure your father’s cloak only reminded Brother Clegane of some bad memory of battle. If he raises his voice to you, you mustn’t be frightened. Though he’s a man faith now, the mind doesn’t forget the things it used to do in the past. If Brother Clegane acts a soldier to you, try to be understanding and brave. He’s not angry with you, dearest. He’s only doing as a soldier does when there’s something he wishes to fix. Can you understand?”

 

“I think so,” Anteros mused, pulling the white cloth in his lap between his fingers. “Like Bullis when he yells in the training yard?”

 

A knowing laugh escaped Sansa. “Something like that, yes. What story did you pick out for us tonight?”  And with that mother and child had moved on, while he was left speechless to think on what he’d done and what she had said. He’d been a beast to his son and she’d made it alright in the boy’s eyes. Fury at himself churned within him. Baffled anger at her actions mixed with his own self loathing to leave him as he was now; a restless, twitching, bleeding mess.

 

Anteros calmed in his mother’s arms. The rapid blinks caused by fighting sleep soon turned to lazy, slow ones. By the end of the story, the little one had relaxed completely in Sansa’s arms, head tilted back and eyes closed in slumber. He watched her lay the boy down with an infinite amount of ease and caring. She tucked the cloak close to the lad’s chin before drawing the furs up over him. Blowing out the candles in the room, she left the small, grated fire burning. By the dim light of the flames she gestured towards the door, walking in front of him. He rose and followed her. Torches lit the path of the stone staircase. He made if halfway down before he couldn’t contain his urges any longer.

 

Lashing out, he grabbed at her arm, gripping her hard and setting his feet firmly to keep her from losing her balance. He was angry, yes, but he would never cause harm to befall her. She yelped in surprise, while he swung her around, pushing her to the wall with more force than was necessary. There was an audible thump as her back hit the wall. A part of him inside cried out at his behavior but learned, imprinted anger from long ago won out over the Sandor born from the Quiet Isle. His palms smacked into wall by her shoulders, caging her in front of him.

 

“Why?” he growled. He wanted answers from her. Now.

 

She searched his eyes, trying to choose which why to answer first. “Why did I keep it?” she tried. When he didn’t argue she continued. “At first? It was all I had left of you. I know I wasn’t your first, but you were mine. I don’t regret it. I felt you,” she breathed, lips trembling. “We were as close as a man and woman can be and yet we were so far apart. The cloak helped me to span the distance between us. It meant something to me. The whole night meant something. I thought you left it for me. Did you not intend it that way?”

 

“’Course I fucking didn’t intend it that way!” he spat. “I was one step away from raping you! Fucking cloak around my shoulders and I begged you to let me have you. It wasn’t right! I was a coward, one of the pieces of filth I warned you about. You should have burned it!”

 

She was crying. Fuck every single God! He’d made her cry again! “But you didn’t,” she whispered. “You asked, Sandor. You asked. And I gave willingly. You wouldn’t have taken me. I know it. If I had clamped my legs tight you wouldn’t have forced them open.”

 

“How’s that?” he challenged. He was done with her fairy tales of that night.

 

“Because you loved me,” she said, a grave seriousness to her tone. “And you can continue to tell yourself how terrible you are or what horrible things you would have done but the fact of the matter is you’re not and you didn’t. You forget I’ve seen what true monsters look like and you’re not one of them.”

 

“I hurt you,” he argued, remembering her cries when he had entered her.

 

“I was a virgin,” she snorted, wiping at her tears. She was finding courage and badgering him with facts. “And you were . . . ,” she bit at her lip, trying to find a word while one of her hands flitted around his groin, “ . . . large. Was I supposed to be silent? I didn’t cry long. There was something other than pain after a moment. Enough to make me think back on it with pleasure.”

 

He’d gone hard. The rush of blood to his cock couldn’t be stopped. He’d never heard the Little Bird speak in such blunt terms. It was covered in polite twists of phrase, but still, she’d just told him he had an impressive cock and she’d felt some sort of pleasure from it. Hadn’t she? The open palms near her arms turned into clenched fists.

 

All the moments he had lost were crushing him. It should have been his flesh next to her naked form, not the damned cloak! It should have been his chest she wept into in her despair, not a bit of cloth. And it should have been his arms, not wool, that held his infant son.

 

“I hate that buggering cloak,” he admitted, grinding his teeth. She nodded her head.

 

“I understand that. I see what it was. But you have to see it for what it is now. What it became. When I knew I was carrying your child, all I had was that cloak to hold. When Anteros first cried out in the night all I had to give him was memories and a bit of cloth.”

 

She reached up to graze his scars with the back of her hand and his eyes shut automatically to the new touch she’d recently gifted him with. Numb as the ruin of his skin was, he swore that his flesh burnt all over again when she touched him there. She pressed herself closer to him as he felt the pressure of her fingers along his jaw. Any trace of hate or anger vanished under her touch. As it had always been, he was something better when she reached out to him.

 

“If it were up to me alone I would do as you want and burn it. I don’t need it any longer. I would do anything if it would help to quell your torment. But it isn’t mine anymore. It belongs to Anteros and he cherishes it. I can not take it from him and I won’t allow you to either. It brings him comfort. Let him have it.”

 

He felt dizzy, his feet seeming to give out from under him, as he felt hard stone crash into his knees. His hands ran down her from shoulder to arm, arm to waist and from waist to hip. Face buried in her dress, he could feel the weight of her breasts above him, brushing against his hair. He sighed, letting go of pain and regret, pressing his fingers harder into the sharp bones he could feel beneath cloth. She didn’t shove him away and for that he was grateful beyond words. Her fingers began combing through his hair, making him shiver beneath her. She leaned down to get closer to his ear. He could feel her warm breath as she said the most glorious thing to him.

 

“It may have started off tainted in darkness but it’s clean now. Don’t you see?”  He started and looked up at her, puzzled, until he realized she wasn’t talking about the cloak anymore. He’d been blind, stupid and bumbling along in ignorance. All this time, all the years spent apart, he’d worried endlessly on the stain he would bring upon her. He wanted her, loved her, and hated himself all the more for bringing shame upon her with his desires. But he’d had it all wrong. Every single moment, every interaction and word. He hadn’t been soiling her; she had been washing him clean.

 

Tucking his head back down to her belly he shuddered violently against her, terrifying knowledge coming to him. Understanding, clear and true, caused his lungs to seize up on him. He’d spent years trying to cleanse his soul on the Isle, never finding a way to fully complete the task. But she swept over him, granting him that piece of salvation he needed to finally be what he was always meant to. His eyes filled with water and he fought it. He was tired of gifting her with tears only. He was frantic to spend the salt of his seed in her, no longer content with spreading the salt of his tears across her skin and hair. They were meant to be; two halves of a whole destined to intertwine.

 

“Marry me,” he choked, gasping into her skirts. He could wait. Gods help him, he’d wait for a physical union if she said yes to a life at his side. It was going to kill him but he’d do one thing right in his sad, sorry existence. She deserved it. She was making him believe he deserved it as well. Struggling in his tight embrace, she made it down to the stairs with him, pushing at him so that he sat instead of kneeled. Climbing onto his lap, he cried out when she made contact with his throbbing need.

 

“Of course,” she told him earnestly. “I’ll marry you.” She kissed him as she had earlier in the evening, with fire and lightening in her lips. Her fingers twisted and wrapped around strands of his hair. He’d never known how much pleasure the act could bring a man until her. Whores didn’t spend time on anything unnecessary to the task at hand. He loved each shock of bliss that followed the tips of fingers, down his spine and straight to his cock. His hands traveled across cloth and skin he’d only ever dared to dream about. He gave her a light touch, learning the curve in her waist and the swell of her breast. The dip at the base of her neck and the edge of her jaw. Her sighs turned into tiny whimpers that made him rock under her, his length trying to find some way to end his ache. She pulled back from him, flushed with full, swollen lips. He almost spilled within his breeches.

 

“Should we?” she asked. “Do you?”

 

“Not about me,” he rasped. “I said for you to tell me when. If you don’t know the answer that’s not a yes.”  She wiggled in his lap and he grunted. “That’s not helping, Little Bird.”

 

She bit at her lip, thinking something over. “I want to keep on kissing you. But Petyr said not to raise my husband’s blood and then deny him. He said it would only anger him. I never wanted to raise the bastard’s blood though so it wasn’t an issue. But you . . .,” she hinted, moving on top of him again and grinning. “I don’t want to upset you. Tessa says there are ways without lying together. . .”

 

“You can never displease me. Not ever. Any thing you want to give Little Bird, I’ll take,” he told her hoarsely, wondering what exactly the women had been discussing. The fire he loved had learned some tricks to please a man? He groaned and pushed himself against her again. She had to do something or let him go to take matters into his own hand. It was torture to have her so close and not be able to let desire have him. He was ready to sob with the need for some sort of relief. He wanted to shove her hand straight down his breeches but sat still, waiting to see what she had in mind.

 

Her hand trailed down his chest, squeezing into the space between her thigh and himself, finding him swollen and ready to spend. He bucked his hips, as well as he was able, off the steps, praying she wouldn’t stop. He’d been near seven years without a woman’s touch and all the while he had only had thoughts of her. After the Blackwater there’d been no way for him to think on another woman in anything close to lust. If his urges ran out of control, all due to dreams involving Sansa, he had his fist to see him through. But it was her hand on him now, layers of cloth between them, but it didn’t matter. He’d yearned for years to feel her on him. It was blinding in its beauty. She rubbed and pinched at him, little cries of surprise and delight escaping her when she felt him move in her palm. Her touch was light at first but built in pressure as she learned his shape. The friction caused by wool and her body was driving him mad. A few more seconds and he’d lose himself, he knew it. He found her lips, lapping and suckling hard as he spilled into his breeches like a green boy first learning to touch himself. He keened, trying to keep from calling out in earnest least someone hear him, his voice echoing somewhat in the stairway. She kept rubbing at him, making him jerk and twitch until he pulled her hand away from his sensitive, satisfied flesh.

 

“Was that alright?” she asked, true concern wrinkling her brow.

 

“Aye, Little Bird,” he growled, kissing her forehead and sighing in disbelieving happiness. “You have no idea. I’ll make you feel the same soon. When do you want your wedding?”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

He sat with her on the steps for near an hour. It was uncomfortable and messy but she’d said she wanted to keep on with kissing. She’d been generous enough to pleasure him; he could give her what she desired in return. For long minutes he pressed his lips to hers, tilting her head to the left and right, learning new ways to make her sigh. She grew bolder as well, running her tongue along his own and nibbling softly at his lower lip. If he hadn’t felt so damned cold and sticky he might have let lust over take him once again. Instead he went slowly, enjoying the time he had with her to simply be and explore.  Though they had been parted for years their love for each other had only grown. The soil of feelings and memories between them was fertile enough to weather through time unchanged. Their recent reunion had given them each the opportunity at discovering the eagerness of freshly sown love that they had never had a chance at before. They continued on, smiling at each other, Sansa’s happy giggles bouncing off the stone walls, and kissing with the enthusiasm of new found thrills until Brienne stumbled upon them.

 

“There you are!” the tall blonde scolded Sansa. “I’ve been looking for you for twenty minutes! You’re never this late getting back from tending to Anteros. Now I know why!” She rolled her eyes at both of them. He tried to rise but Sansa pressed a hand to his chest.

 

“I’ll be along shortly, Brienne,” Sansa told her shield calmly. “Let me and my betrothed alone for a bit longer.” His spirit soared at her words.

 

“Betrothed is it now?” Brienne exclaimed, eyeing them both up and knowingly grinning. “It’s about time. You should come back though my Lady. It’s getting late.”

 

“You’re my sworn shield not my Septa,” Sansa reminded the large woman. “I’ll be along after awhile, I promise. Sandor can take care of me.”

 

Brinne huffed and frowned. “Fine. I’ll go to my chambers but I’ll not sleep until I hear your door shut.” With that the woman stomped off, leaving the two of them alone again.

 

Sansa rested her head on his chest, pulling at a loose thread on his robes. She spun it between her fingers as she spoke to him. “I think we should wait before telling anyone else. Anteros’ name day is in six days. All of Winterfell will be nothing but excited gossip if they hear their Queen is to wed. It will steal the moment away from him. Let’s wait until after to make an announcement. Breinne will remain silent if I command it. She has been both a loyal protector and friend over the years.”

 

He nodded his agreement. His brain was still trying to catch up to the words his heart had spilled out when emotion had taken over all of his senses. There was no fault in them. He had told her true; asked with all of his hopes on the line. But the moment had come upon him seemingly of its own accord. In the past, his wildest fantasies of her becoming his bride had always started with a proposal a bit more Sansa in nature than Sandor. More thoughtful care than spur of the moment action. But her words had moved him to such an extent that he had been left helpless in the face of such love and forgiveness. It was finally sinking in for him. Sansa was just as devoted to him as he was to her. She didn’t seem displeased in the least at the way he’d asked his question and that was all that mattered, he reasoned.

 

“And how long after that? Once we make an announcement?” He couldn’t hide the impatience in his voice. Now that she had agreed to wed him it seemed of the utmost importance that it happen as soon as possible.

 

“I would think a month should be the earliest we could manage it,” she answered.

 

“A month!” he shouted. “A whole bloody month? At the earliest?”  It seemed a life time. Bugger that! He’d drag her to a Septon at dawn and be done with it.

 

Sansa tsked but rubbed at his chest in consolation. “You’re marrying into a great house, my love. There is duty and courtesy to consider. I will need to send word to our supporting houses. They will want to attend and will need time to travel in this weather. This is going to be a grand affair. If you’d rather not . . . “ she let her voice fall at the end, hand starting to tremble on his robes. He grabbed at it and brought her fingers to his lips to grace her skin with a kiss.

 

“Stop. Do what needs to be done. I’ve waited near ten years to have you. What’s another month in the end? I’ll wait. I won’t bloody like it but I will,” he grumbled. Her smile was brighter than any newly forged and polished armor. She kissed him soundly and whispered at him.

 

“I will make it worth the wait.”

 

They spent another hour talking of the past. His breeches were a stiff mess and his arse was half asleep from sitting on stone for so long but he wouldn’t move her from his lap purposely. If she wanted to leave that’s when he would stand. They caught up on how she had gone from one point to another in her life. She spoke of her hasty escape from King’s Landing and Littlefinger’s assistance. The worm had always had a soft spot for Sansa’s mother and had begun to project those feelings onto the girl. Sansa understood the man had saved her, in a way, and felt an uneasy devotion towards him. In an attempt to gain favor he had paid a handmaiden and her man to steal Sansa’s chest from her room in the Red Keep and ship it to him.

 

The day Petyr presented her with the trunk she had wept with joy, but not at the man’s kindness. She knew, buried deep at the bottom, was the one thing in the world she’d rather have other than Sandor himself. She’d been so happy she had given Petyr a peck on the cheek and that was the last she had ever thought of the man in any terms other than a partner to gain back Winterfell. Littlefinger’s plan to win the Little Bird’s affections had backfired spectacularly. He laughed as he thought of the look of disappointment on the small man’s face. That night she had wrapped herself tight in his cloak, promising her self and her dead family that she would do whatever it took to reclaim their lands and to seek out the man that she was coming to love. The following morning she woke with a stale, bitter taste in her mouth and vomited bile.

 

For a week straight, every morning she would gag. Every meal smelled like refuse. Once the marriage to Ramsay had been arranged, and a Septa called in to confirm her innocence, the world had rapidly changed for Sansa. The Septa had looked up at her with accusing eyes.

 

“When was the last time you’ve lain with a man?” the woman had asked.

 

“I. . .I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sansa stammered back. She was genuinely confused. Tyrion had never put so much as a hand on her. She knew something had happened between himself and her but no one had ever fully explained things to her. She didn’t understand his shuddering had been his seed spilling into her waiting body nor the fact that it was possible for their hasty coupling to result in a child. He felt guilt at that part in the story. She had been too young to take on the sad burdens of a man grown and yet she had tried anyway. It wasn’t the most horrendous thing he’d done in his life, but he doubted it would ever truly settle right within him.

 

 The Septa told her to dress, in a haughty tone, and had called Petyr into the room. They talked in hushed tones. She couldn’t make out what they were saying but she did see Petyr draw a large purse from the inside of his coat and place several Gold Dragon into the woman’s hands.  The old woman took her leave. Petyr lead Sansa to a small table and poured them both a large glass of wine.

 

“The Septa says you’ve a babe in you. Is this true?” Littlefinger questioned.

 

“I don’t know!” she yipped, shaking and feeling tears gather in her eyes.

 

“She’s says it’s still early. A moon. Maybe a bit more. Honesty now, Sansa! Have you lain with a man? This is important if we are to gain Winterfell.”

 

“I  . . I. . . “ she shook harder, knowing who it was she had let into her body, yet terrified of revealing his name. If what the Septa said was true that would mean Sandor had given her a child. The timing was right and there had been no other that could have made it occur. They’re all liars, Little Bird, she heard the Hound’s gravely voice rasping in her ear. “Tyrion!” she blurted. “Only on our wedding night. He placed himself in me. I didn’t know what he was doing! I felt such shame! I didn’t know the one time would be enough for a child. I’m sorry, Petyr, I’m sorry!” she cried, covering their babe in protecting layers of untruths.

 

She had felt Petyr’s fingers in her hair. “It’s alright, little one. It’s alright. I have something the girls in the brothel use. It will purge the babe from you.”

 

“No!” she nearly screamed. “Don’t! Don’t kill it!” She recalled how she’d placed protective hands over her belly and begged Littlefinger to let her keep the child inside her. He had relented, unable to stand her tears, and told her that the wedding to Ramsay would need to take place no later than a fortnight. If she could marry the bastard with speed, and do her duty as a new bride, the baby would be safe. A month after the wedding she could reveal her condition and no one would be the wiser. They would all be one step closer to gaining Winterfell and she could have the Imp’s child as well, though Petyr looked at her queerly as he spoke to her.

 

“You are certain it’s the Imp’s?” Petyr asked of her.

 

She set her face, harsh and unyielding as the ice that covered her home land. “Absolutely certain,” she said with authority. The Queen of the North had been born that day.

 

After that there were a few weeks of relative peace for Sansa before a marriage and then a month of wretchedness. She wouldn’t give him one detail of her wedding night, only saying she’d done everything for the sake of their child. She learned early on that fighting Ramsay ended badly for her but so did acting the willing bride. The bastard wanted something in between and she did her best to play out her role in order to keep her body healthy for their child. Otherwise, she would have sliced his manhood off. After a month Brienne had led a large mob of soldiers and peasants alike onto the grounds of Winterfell. Most of the Bolton’s forces were South and while the battle was not without many casualties, it had resulted in a victory to those loyal to House Stark. Captain Holloway himself, just a soldier at the time, had carried Sansa over the dead body of her husband and into a life of freedom.

 

“I tried to seek out news of you. Discreetly, of course. I couldn’t believe the stories I was told,” Sansa continued explaining. “Two months away from Ramsay and I couldn’t hide the swell in my belly any longer. You’re son was strong just as you are. He stayed with me through hell and I tried my best to give him love and rest as he grew.”

 

 

“After Anteros’ birth, I sent Brienne out in search of you. She thought I wanted your blood just as badly as she did. When she came back with news of your death I’m told I fainted and took to some sort of fit for two days. They had to call in a wet nurse for Anteros. I don’t know what happened. I remember horrible dreams filled with searching for you and never being able to find you. When I woke, I asked for Brienne. I told her, and her alone, of Anteros’ parentage and wept. She was kind and offered comfort despite her feelings towards you. It took a few days to come out of my grief. I was so certain I would find you, present you with your son and we could start at a life together. I thought I might have just a page out of all those stories I read about but it wasn’t to be so. It wasn’t until they brought Anteros back to me and I saw your gray eyes living on in him that I found my courage once again.”

 

“I’m here now,” he offered, voice quiet and low. The last bit of her story saddened him. He had never meant to cause her such heartache. He would have come, at once, if he had known how wanted he was.

 

“You are,” she agreed, shaking off the last bits of memory. “And I thank the Gods for it every day. You’re the only ghost I’ve gotten back. I don’t intend to waste our time together. I’ll send out ravens the day after Anteros’ name day to all the nearby houses. We will wed as soon as it can be arranged. And then I will love you fully, as a wife should.”

 

He smiled at that and kissed her once, caught up in the promise her words held. Pulling back from her lips, details started to surface in his mind. His life, when he wed her, would become much larger than just the two of them. There was Anteros, of course, for one. But then there was also an entire estate and lands beyond that he would hold some responsibility over.

 

“Your loyal houses. Will they be pleased? I don’t give damn what they think of me but will your tie to me lessen you in their eyes?” He left much of what he was thinking unsaid. He wasn’t a proper match for a Lady of such high standing. Times had changed in the face of war and a long winter, but old blood remembered old ways. And some would remember exactly who he had been in the past.

 

“Am I the Queen of the North or aren’t I?” she countered. “I will marry whomever I please. I have no brothers or father to say otherwise. I am in charge of my own life and the people of the North will accept my decisions. Besides,” she added, tugging on his robes, “I can think of no better match for me than a man of faith. Who can argue with that?”

 

“I try,” he sighed. “It’s a troublesome path. Like all of them. I don’t know how much faith I have in all the ways of Gods. It seems something must have let me live, to work at finding something other than hate and find you. I don’t have answers for those moments. The Elder Brother says the Gods spared me for some other purpose, that they gave me rest and led me back to you. Sometimes I believe, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I wonder if I should wear this cloth anymore. It feels as if all the lessons I was meant to learn beneath it are done with.”

 

She nodded in silent agreement. “And if you did? Take of your robes that is. Then you would be Sandor Clegane, a true man and father and I would still marry you.” He restlessly bit at his lip.

 

“I could grant you a Lordship,” she tried. “It is in my power to do so, if it would make you feel better.” He glared and snorted at her.

 

“I could Knight you!” she teased and that was all the mockery he was going to tolerate on that subject. Biting into her neck suddenly, he held her tightly in his arms, preventing movement, and used his lips on her until she shrieked with laughter.

 

“Enough!” she managed through her wails of laughter. “I’ll never say the word again! Stop!”

 

He took mercy on her and did so. “See that you don’t” he growled softly. She continued on giggling, trying to calm herself and rubbing at the happy tears in her eyes.

 

“It’s late. Much later than I told Brienne,” she said at last. She rose from his lap reluctantly, stretching out her limbs. Stiffly, he stood as well, listening to his joints pop as blood flowed freely through them once again.  He wasn’t elderly but nor was he a young man any longer. Sometimes new creaks crept up on him. At the base of the steps, they parted; he out the door to the main rooms of the house and she to a smaller hallway he hadn’t noticed before.

 

He walked with discomfort back to his room. Snatching a new pair of breeches from his trunk, he made his way down to the kitchens. He was a bit disgusted with the state of his clothing but the memory of her hands bringing him to the brink was enough to make the mess afterwards tolerable. He needed a bath and the small basin of cold water in his room wasn’t going to do anything but turn his balls to ice. There were several elderly scullery maids still up, fussing and gossiping by candlelight in the kitchen. The annoying blonde was no where to be found and he was grateful for it. He was in no mood to deal with her.

 

The women fetched him several pails of hot water when he asked for them and he took them to one of the rooms set aside for bathing. Near the kitchens there were two large rooms, one for the ladies and one for the gentlemen that everyone, except the Lady of the house, used for bathing. Several copper tubs, two large wooden tubs and a few basins were in each room, allowing all a chance to bathe whenever they wished. He poured water into one of the wooden tubs, stripped and stepped into the hot water. They were of decent size but he couldn’t sit in one, His frame was too large. If he wanted to sit he’d have to fill one of the copper tubs and it was too late to bother with that much water. He bent and soaked a cloth, rubbing sweet smelling lye soap on it to wash at himself until he was satisfied. 

 

After he dressed, he doused his soiled breeches in the still warm, soapy water. There was a large hut on the grounds where a laundress, and several girls under her, spent their days washing clothing but he’d be damned if he’d give up the evidence of he and Sansa’s lust to them. The older laundress was a stout woman, with thick arms and chapped, red hands. She had five children of her own, four of them boys over the age of ten. There was no way in all the Seven Hells he was going to turn his breeches over to her. He could hear the tongue wagging already. Once he’d gotten his breeches back into a cleaned state, he made his way back to his rooms, where he sank into a well earned night of rest; dreams of stone, cloaks and Sansa’s touch running though his mind.

Chapter Text

Bells! There were bells ringing. Loud and bellowing, they carried their message into the black chasm of night, pulling him from sleep with a force like being shoved off his horse in a joust. Bells on the Isle meant prayer or food; all things simple and good. Bells in Winterfell, Sansa had warned him, meant danger, and nearby rather than far. If the walls had been breached the bells would sound. He rose from his bed and was on his feet before he was even fully awake and aware of his actions. The soldier that lived on in his mind reminded muscles of the movement needed to defend with haste. His long sword was in hand as he took in deep lungfuls of air and shook his head, clearing the last remnants of sleep from him. He should have dug under the bed for the one piece of leather he’d saved from the Isle. Hells, what he should have done was visited the armory weeks ago, he scolded himself. But he heard shrieks from the hallways and his stomach became a ball of lead within him, pushing all thoughts of “should haves” out of his mind to be replaced with only now.  

 

Anteros’ face and Sansa’s swam before him, urging his feet out of his door and into the poorly light corridors. He cursed at himself. Why had he remained in the guest chambers, leaving Sansa’s care to the tall blonde? Brienne had seen her through safely for years; it was obvious the woman had some skill, but still, Sansa was his duty. She had always been his duty and he swore more harshly at his folly. He’d been so wrapped up in hoping, in building dreams, and sharing kisses in stairwells that he’d forgotten the dangers of the world. Sansa’s gentle side had taken him in and he’d surrendered to it, disregarding the direct, honest words he’d given her weeks ago. Sansa had said Winterfell was blessed by his presence; the bells hadn’t rung out once since his arrival. He told her she was kind to a fault and to wait. They would call out, given enough time.

 

He had been proven right once again. There was never any true era of peace. No chance at a long, uninterrupted stretch of time where violence and ruin wouldn’t follow him. Only spaces here and there, like sleep. His life of peace and war was like dreaming and waking.  He was fully awake now, following the shouts of alarm coming from the first floor. Taking the short staircase at a side step, he was able to make it down to the bottom level of the household quicker on his bad leg. It didn’t like to bend on stairs without letting him know about it.

 

The great entrance-way to the house was in chaos. Soldiers and servants all crammed into the space, shouting and moving like warring storm clouds; each set a separate task and only managing to slow the progress of the other. And no where in the crowd did he see Sansa’s bright flame. Pin pricks of panic tingled at his spine. He grabbed at a passing soldier, a young man of perhaps twenty. The man had more mass than some of the other soldiers and was moving with intent, yet his grip spun the man on his heel to face him.

 

“The Lady Stark!” he barked. “Where is she?” He stood and hollered, shirtless, barefoot, scars bared and a good two heads taller than the other man.

 

“I don’t know!” the man shouted back at him. “All’s I know is there’s raiders over the wall. They’ve not yet taken the house. We’re to search the perimeter and make sure they don’t make it in.”

 

“Where are the Lady’s chambers?” he boomed. The man wasn’t giving him the information he needed.

 

“Wouldn’t know,” the man said, starting to move in place. “Not my business to be knowing where a Lady’s chambers are. Ask a maid,” the strong man offered, pointing around the room to the servants dashing about. The man shrugged out of his grasp and took off to where he’d been called to serve.

 

He scanned the room for a maid he knew. The only form he could recognize in the mass of people was the blonde who talked too much. She’d have to do. Pushing through the crowd, he seized her by the wrist, pulling her close to him. Her eyes lit with interest and he scowled at her. The light in her eyes dimmed but she didn’t cower.

 

“The Lady Stark! Sansa!” he shouted, making sure to use the Little Bird’s first name. “Where are her chambers?”  His stupidity left him enraged. The Hound howled in anger at him for not bothering to learn where her rooms were. He had been trying to be courteous. He should have told courtesy to bugger off as he had done in the past. Now he was at the mercy of damned scullery maid.

 

The kitchen wench batted her eyes at him before answering. “Back at the North Tower. There’s a hallway. Her rooms are set back there. But you don’t need to worry about her. I’ve seen that giant of hers slay three men at a time. She’s safe enough. But me?” she simpered, sticking out her bottom lip. “I could be in need of rescuing.”

 

He rolled his eyes at her. “Piss off,” he spat, shoving her into the arms of a passing boy soldier. “Lift your skirts for that one. I’ve no interest.” He might have taken her up on the offer years upon years ago. Back before, when he knew only how to hate and not how to love. Now, girls like her did nothing but remind him of a life he longer wanted to live. The tart had been useful though, as his mind recalled the small hallway he’d seen Sansa walk down after they’d finished seeing Anteros off to bed.  

 

There was a room before the North Tower and before that a passageway. Four soldiers were in the passage, at attention and alert. That was good though none of them seemed experienced. As he slid to a halt in front of them, none raised their weapons, only looked at him curiously. He laughed internally. He was one man with no armor and barely any clothing. There were four of them, yet they stood puzzled, wondering if he was friend or foe and not moving to find out. It wasn’t until he reached for the door of the next room that they moved.

 

“Here now,” one said, trying to grab for him and he growled, raising his steel. He didn’t wish to attack someone on his own side but he wasn’t going to let anyone stand between him and what lay in the North Tower.

 

“I know him,” the man on his farthest left called out. “He’s down in the yard sometimes. Bloody good with a sword. He’s the Hound, you bastards. He’s one of the lot came in with the monks. Not a raider that’s for sure.”

 

“The Hound!” the one who had tried to grab at him said, backing off. “What you need back in there for? The Lady’s got a guard already.”

 

“The Lady doesn’t yet have her guard dog,” he snarled. “A giant and dog’s better together than separate. Let me pass or I’ll pass anyway. None of you’ve drawn steel yet and Bullis will hear of it! You should have cut me down and asked after. Let me by!” he yelled his final warning. The first man stepped back as he glared his way through the door.

 

The door clicked shut behind him. It was pitch black in the room. There were no candles or torches to light the way but he knew from memory there would be a large table four paces ahead of him set with chairs. A buffet was to the right and the door he wanted was in the back left corner. He took a step and froze. The room was wrong. It was too cold. If he could have seen he knew his breath would be nothing but a clouded puff of air. It stung his lungs and made his skin pucker into goose flesh. And then he felt a breeze. The front right window was open and he immediately threw himself against the stone wall trying to scan the room with eyes still adjusting to the dark. There! In the far corner, near the door he wanted, was a flash. Two flashes. One the white of eyes and the other the glint of steel. His eyes darted, looking for more flashes in the night but there was only the one back in the corner.

 

Gripping the sword in his hand tighter, he advanced. There was no sense in calling for the men in the hall over one lone scavenger. He’d have it done and over with before they made it into the room. The raider must have separated from his ilk and found a lose board to pry off of the window. The eyes in the corner shifted to the right as the raider moved. The flash of steel in the man’s hands was small; a dagger. Even better. He had far more of a reach than the other man. He towered over the raider and lifted his sword, a feint to draw the man out. When the raider thought he’d missed with his blow, and lunged at him with the knife, it was easy enough to shift his weight, drawing back from the dagger and spinning to thrust his sword into the man’s back. He hit rib and pushed harder, through the initial thrust and up, hearing the crunch of bone as his sword made it into the man’s rib cage and up to his heart. There was the usual gurgle and groan of death. He could feel warm blood on his feet. It would always pull at him sweetly. The ease with which he could move and strike. It felt even better to do it for her sake.

 

He let the filth he’d slain lie on the floor. Someone else could deal with it. He still had his family to find. Pushing through the door to the North Tower, he stopped short. There was a blade at his throat. He’d let his guard down thinking the hallway would be safe. But then he heard a woman’s laugh, while the sword was lowered.

 

“If the Lady would have taken my bet she’d owe me a handful of gold,” Brienne chuckled. “She knew you’d come. I said you’d be less than ten minutes. She said there’s no way to walk that distance in such a short time. She was wrong. Looks like you ran! And blood on you too! Seven Hells! Are they in the house?” Brienne questioned, her tone growing more serious.

 

“Only the one I know of ,” he quickly answered back, holding his sword up. “Won’t get any trouble out of him. Where’s Sansa? Anteros?”

 

“Both back in her room. They’re fine. This has happened before. Many times. Only twice have they breached the house and I kept her safe each time,” Brinene assured him but he couldn’t help the worried glance he stole over her shoulder, down into the hall he knew must lead to Sansa’s chambers.

 

“Last door on the right,” Brienne laughed, clucking her tongue at him. “Go on. The worst of it is over. I’ll hold the door and shout if I need you. Here,” she added, reaching into her pocket for a bit of cloth. “Wipe your feet. You’ll trail blood down the hall.”

 

He did so hastily, throwing the handkerchief on the floor when he was done and took to as much of a run as his leg would allow. At her door he knocked and tried the knob, finding it locked, which pleased him.

 

“Sansa,” he rasped, letting more gravel take his voice so she would know it was him. “Open up!” He needed to see her. Brienne, the soldiers, the maid; everyone could reassure him of her safety until their last breath, but until he could look upon her with his own eyes none of their statements were true.

 

There was the sound of two bolts being undone and then the door slowly creaked open to reveal pale blue eyes through a crack. He pushed at the door, hard enough to force his way in and kicked it shut behind him. Sansa backed up as he entered, clutching a gold hilted knife in her hand, loosely and at the wrong angle. Anteros sat, in plain sight, on her bed. He’d have something to say about all that later. Now, his feet carried him straight to her and the same force he’d used to open the door, he currently used against her mouth. It was desperate and hard and he didn’t care. He’d been frightened; terrified that somehow he’d been too late. For what, he couldn’t even speak of and now relief had flooded his system.

 

There was truth to the notion of battle raising a man’s blood. Where wine started with a warm blossom in the belly, battle began with a snap; raw, sharp and alive somewhere higher in his chest. It sizzled through his veins, from heart to limbs, to the tips of his fingers and then back again, gathering momentum as it traveled. He’d protected what was his and won. He’d faced danger for her and he needed for her to understand. One man or one hundred it mattered not. There was something left inside him only she could draw out. She let out a surprised sort of gulp and let him do as he pleased. She seemed to sense his need to let his fear and anger out in the form of passion. The knife in her hand clattered to the floor. They both lost themselves in the moment until they heard Anteros’ voice.

 

“Mummy, he’s kissing you!” the boy shouted. The little one sounded both cheerful and disgusted. Sansa laughed into his mouth and stepped back a pace.

 

“Yes, dearest, I suppose he is,” she called, a deep scarlet creeping onto her cheeks. “He was worried about me. And you. But everyone’s fine, aren’t they?” She was reassuring both himself and their child. The lad turned to him. Anteros sat up a bit taller and it struck him the little one was trying to act a man.

 

“Are you and mummy going to get married?” the boy tried, hesitation in his voice. The child was speaking of adult matters he’d only just begun to understand. There was a pause for a bit as he thought on what to tell the lad. The question was directed to him and he would answer.  He wasn’t one for dodging the truth to begin with; lying to his own blood seemed a terrible thing to do.

 

“Aye,” he stated. “Not quite yet. Later on if that suits you?”  It was odd to feel nervous waiting on the answer of a child. He and Sansa were grown and could do as they pleased. But if for some reason the young one objected he didn’t know how right their actions would be. He’d only been at Winterfell for two months. Perhaps the lad hadn’t gotten used to him yet. Anteros bounced in his seat, kicking his feet and nodding. And that was all that seemed necessary as the child smiled at both of them.

 

“You’ve got blood on you,” the boy observed. Sansa gasped, taking in the sight he must have made. There’d been a spray of warmth as he’d hacked through the raider. He’d wiped at his feet but nothing else in his hurry to see to her safety.

 

“Are you hurt?” Sansa asked, the kiss of moments ago forgotten in the wake of threat against him. She flew around him, touching and looking him up and down.

 

“Don’t think so,” he chuckled, watching her fuss and allowing her to spin him around so she could check his back. “None of it’s mine, Little Bird. Stop worrying.”

 

She drew herself up sternly to face him. “Do you ever stop worrying about me?”

 

The truth she was trying to show him hit immediately as he answered. “Never.”

 

There was no more to say on the matter. She gave him a single nod of her head, indicating the issue was settled. There was a pitcher and basin in the room, which she busied herself at. He picked up her dropped knife in his hand, resting it in his palm and testing the weight. It was heavy in his grip. Too heavy for her delicate wrists and small hands. No wonder she’d held it wrong.

 

“Where’d you get this?” he asked flipping it in the air a few times while she rung out a cloth over the basin.

 

“Halloway,” she answered, walking up to him with the damp cloth. His laugh was short and derisive as he tossed the thing onto a nearby table with a small crash.

 

“The man’s got an eye for what’s pretty but not for what makes sense,” he informed her. “Later today we’ll find you something you can wield and I’ll teach you to use it properly.”

 

She didn’t give any indication that she had heard him. Dabbing at his chest and arms she made her way around him, wiping blood from his skin with her light touch.

 

“The boy needs to remain out of sight. Not under the bed. That’s the first place they look. We’ll need someplace else. The men at the door are useless. I’ll speak with Bullis. Either you need others or I’ll give them an earful and more. Are you listening, girl?” he barked. It had been a long time since he’d had reason to resort to that name but she was humming while she worked. Fucking singing when just minutes ago he’d slain a man at her door.

 

She smiled faintly. “We’ve managed so far,” she shrugged.

 

“And only the Gods know how! Brienne, Halloway, Bullis and I! That’s all you’ve got that’s any good around here. You’ve managed somehow, aye, but you’re not going to keep at it once winter breaks. When there’s soldiers at your door, and not raiders, this place will fall. You need men not boys! You need them properly trained. Bullis can’t do it alone. I’ll not be mucking stalls and unloading wagons anymore. I’ll be in the training yard trying to make something out of your mess!” He was yelling by the end of his lecture. She had grown bold and strong over the years, that was true enough, but she still only saw half the world for what it was. It was up to him to show her the other. She’d stopped wiping him down, her hands twisting into the wet cloth she still held. For a moment he thought she would break and weep, but instead she stiffened her spine and nodded her head.

 

“You’re right,” she told him. “When spring comes we need to be better prepared. You’ll remain on the council.” The last bit was a question but she made it seem a statement.  Mulling over the answer seemed to bother her. “I need you there as well,” she added.

 

“Fine,” he agreed, noticing a shadow at his side. Anteros had climbed off the bed to stand near them. The little fingers of their son reached out to touch his sword, curiosity dancing in the lad’s eyes.

 

“Don’t,” he warned. “It’s sharp. It will cut you.” Anteros pulled his hand back with speed.

 

“My da was a soldier.”

 

“I’ve been told,” he grumbled. The charade was getting old. He was going to go mad waiting on a wedding. Remaining quiet until a time when he could claim Anteros as his and Sansa as well. He’d remembered the last part of the changes that would be made in Winterfell. Looking to Sansa he gave her his final order.

 

“I’ll be taking a room back here. I’m not sleeping half the house away anymore.”

 

Sansa shook her head, eyes growing wide. “I understand your want but there’s no room. Brinne and Tessa occupy the hallway along with me.”

 

“I count four doors and three women.”

 

“The fourth is a storage room for linens, soaps and such. There’s nothing but a stone floor and shelves.”

 

“I’ll sleep there.”

 

“You can’t! It’s too small. There’s only a bit of floor.”

 

“Throw a pallet in there. Or don’t. That’s where I’ll be from now on.”

 

“Sandor, it’s a woman’s hall. You mustn’t. Not until we’re wed. It’s not proper.”

 

“Fuck being proper. You don’t want me there? Let’s go to your godswood today and I’ll stay right here from now on.”

 

Anteros giggled and Sansa cast a reprimanding look over to the both of them. “Must you do that in front of him?”

 

“Bugger being proper then?” he corrected while Anteros slapped his hands over his mouth, going red faced with laughter. It made his mood change for some reason. Somehow it had become he and Anteros that were standing together. “He’ll learn it from me or others. Better me than some stranger.”

 

She was gaining tears in her eyes now. He’d gone too far and he softened his voice. “It may not be proper but it’s what’s right. None of that highcourt rubbish matters stacked next to losing you. Or him. I’m second in command of the house guard am I not?” he tried to sway her with her own reasoning. “If I say you’re safer with me back here that’s the way it is. Bolt your door at night and let me do as I must.” He’d do what he wanted anyway, whether she agreed or not, but it would make it all easier if she would relent. She did, after a few more seconds of hesitation.

 

“I’ll have some of the maids drag in a pallet later today,” she said gently, pulling at his free arm until she was wrapped up in his embrace once again. Anteros had gone back to the bed, where he jumped on his knees, a giggled, “bugger” heard coming for the boy’s lips. Sansa sighed wearily and he laughed deeply. He tipped her head back so he could kiss her once again, glad that their disagreements could end this way now.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The rest of the day was a flurry of activity. Once all the raiders, eight in total, had been rounded up and dealt with, the sun had started to rise on the horizon. Everyone on the grounds was too full of anxiety or excitement to try for more sleep. Most had jobs to tend to at that hour anyway. Brienne had knocked at the door, separating Sansa from his arms. Two raiders had pleaded for mercy. They were being held by Bullis and several guards, who awaited her orders. Sansa had sent them all from her chambers, leaving Anteros with Tessa and he to dash off to his room and dress. Minutes later, he found her in the main courtyard, Bullis at her side.

 

“Take them outside the gates. I don’t want the children to have a chance at seeing it. Let the wolves have their flesh. There is no mercy for those who would attack my house.”

 

Her words carried across the frosty air to him. There wasn’t so much as a hint of a breeze around all who stood outside. Both raiders were on their knees. One spat near her feet and gave her a stony look. The other started to cry. He remembered words she had spoken to him earlier. I don’t enjoy being this way. There was a hurt inside him hard to describe. He was the one crafted to give and see orders through like that, not her. And yet she gave them anyway, despite the pain it must have caused her. Pride settled in him along with the hurt. She was gentle but fierce when needed.  She had learned hard lessons; she was still learning them, but her light never faded. Not like his had. She had so much of it that she could share it! He knew the truth of it for he felt his own spark coming back to life because of her.

 

It left him sincerely awed. He understood darkness well enough; how one could succumb to it and let it have hold over oneself. It made killing far easier when hate and anger were the driving force behind it. It was so very difficult to comprehend how she kept on shining. The shadows of the world kept trying to swallow her up and they failed time and time again. That was part of the draw to her, he supposed.  He was fascinated. He wanted to watch and learn and discover every tiny detail that made her what she was. It would probably take his lifetime to figure it all out but he was ready to start.

 

For the first time in weeks he took his breakfast in the common kitchens. It was cold and hurried but he needed all the time he could spare on this day. There was much he needed to set right. Things were going to change. For the second time since he’d come to Winterfell he realized this. She’d pledged herself to him as he had done, in his heart, to her years ago. It was high time he began making good on all the silent promises his soul had come to give her. On his way through the house, Sansa spotted him and shouted for him to wait on her. He explained his planned activities for the day to her. Insisting that she be allowed to accompany him in his first venture, she fell in step behind him.

 

The armory and forges of Winterfell were astounding. He had been apprehensive of their state, based on his impression of the house guard, but soon saw he had nothing to fear. The armory was stocked to bursting with gear. Four master armorers, six master blacksmiths and too many apprentices to count filled the great forge room. Armor was his main purpose for visiting, though he glanced at the weapons.

 

He had a longsword already and saw none that piqued his interest stacked along the walls. The one he carried now was his original from his service with the Lannisters; one he’d had since he was a young man. It had pained him to lay it into the ground but when the council of the Quiet Isle had decided to arm themselves he knew it was the one piece of his past he wanted with him. He knew every detail of the length of steel, old and pitted as it was. It was as much a part of him as his own arm. He’d dug it up and taken it to Brother Allen, who had hammered and scraped at it until it shone like new. He spent days sharpening it to an edge worthy of battles he hoped would never occur.

 

A dagger caught his eye. The heft felt right in his palm. The blade was long, near four hands and balanced correctly. Sansa had informed the men of the armory he was to have whatever he asked for. Taking the knife and the matching leather sheath and belt hanging on the wall, he immediately looped it all around his waist. It made his robes billow outwards in an awkward way. They would have to go. Sooner rather than later. He didn’t want to think on the sadness that would bring the Elder Brother.

 

“The Lady needs one as well,” he indicated, pointing at the dagger around his middle. “Something small she can use with ease. Something I’d stick in my boot.”

 

One of the armorers, Whitmoor, nodded his understanding, walking over to a shelf and moving various pieces of iron and steel. The man came back with a slim dagger, no more than a hand long. Whitmoor placed it in Sansa’s hands but looked to him for approval.

 

“Is it too heavy?” he asked her.

 

“It’s not like the other one,” Sansa contemplated, sliding her fingers around the hilt. “It feels like a dinner knife.”

 

“Good, that will do. Where are you going to keep it?” She looked at him, clearly confused. “Arm, waist or ankle. You need it near at all times,” he explained. “Ankle will keep it hidden but it’ll be hard to get at. Waist or arm will show it off but you’ll have better luck at getting to it.”

 

She looked at his dagger and belt. “Around the waist,” she nodded.

 

“She’ll need a belt for it,” he instructed Whitmoor. “None of these will fit her.”

 

“I have more in the back, Ser. For the boys. They should do.”

 

“Not a bloody Ser,” he growled back. “It’s Clegane or Sandor. Well, go on man. Fetch the belt!” he hollered, when the man stood in place. Whitmoor ran off to find something suitable. While the man searched, he looked over the assorted doublets, leather breastplates and chain mail. There were a few brigandines but all were too small for him. He might be able to find some mail and a breastplate to hold him over until one could be fashioned for him. All the rest he would need to be measured for. Whitmoor came bustling back, the requested leather in one hand and a shirt of mail in the other.

 

 

“We had a man not much more than a finger shorter than you. He put in an order for new mail but died a few months back right when I finished it. Seemed a shame to break it down. Thought we might have use of it one day. Glad I kept it. It might do you.”

 

He groaned but took what the man offered, mumbling a thanks that was most certainly not heartfelt. He hated fucking mail. It was heavy, damned hard to get into and even worse to try and get out of. His build was all wrong for it. His shoulders and arms were tremendously bulky, making the task of taking it off cumbersome. Grumbling and griping he removed his new belt and old robes, shaking the shirt over his head to let it settle around his body. It would do. It was snug but not tight. It would see him through for a month perhaps. He had lost weight during the trek through the North with his Brothers. He’d been gaunt, with ribs sticking out when he’d knocked on the gates of Winterfell. Since then he’d put on two or three stone, with the aid of decent food and rest out of the cold, but he knew, with training, he’d add more weight to his frame. Next came a leather breastplate, the largest they had, synched tight at the sides with buckles. It was all that could be done for the moment and it would have to do. It was better than the half naked stunt he had pulled earlier in the day.

 

“Will you be wanting a full suit?” Whitmoor asked, already looking him up and down, taking measurements with his eyes alone.

 

“No,” he declined while Sansa cut in with a sharp “yes” at the same time.

 

“No,” he said again, clearly and loudly.

 

“Yes,” Sansa repeated just as forcefully. Whitmoor’s eyes darted between the two of them, unsure of whom to answer to.

 

“Never used a full suit before,” he told her. “I don’t need it. It’s clumsy even when it’s done right. Takes too much time and I won’t tolerate a bumbling, snot nosed squire squeaking at me!”

 

“You’ll need one. For ceremonies, for the we-“ she stopped herself short before her tongue let slip their shared secret. Anteros’ name day was still two days away. “You’ll need it at times,” she finished. 

 

“You’re going to parade me around like a bloody Knight?” he huffed. This was not the wedding he’d envisioned. He was losing more and more of his dream to ceremony and duty.

 

“It’s not like that!” she protested. “It will be expected at certain times. I don’t mean to make you wear it all the time. Wear what you will day to day but you need a full suit all the same.”

 

They had both moved closer to each other with each outburst. Hands on hips, they stood mere inches apart. She stared up at him unblinking, challenging him to ignore her orders.

 

“A full suit to quiet the Lady,” he barked at Whitmoor.  “But I’ll not wear it!” he warned Sansa. Her only response was a satisfied smile.

 

“I want a brigandine,” he moved on, his attention back on the armorer. “With mail sleeves. Make it larger than you think you’ll have to or you’ll end up doing it over. Another month’s time I’ll need the extra room.”

 

The skilled man bobbed his head and whistled to his apprentices. Another master stepped over as well and they all began circling him, giving him instructions to lift an arm here or prop a leg up there. They had to get a stool for one of them to stand on to get at his head and shoulders. Using strips of cloth and rolls of leather, they marked and cut and scribbled out notes to themselves. Sometimes they used their own hands on him, feeling out how thick and broad his muscles were; how they flexed when he moved. Brother Allen had stepped over from the anvils to chat with him while the other men went about their business. The Brother offered to forge him a new sword but he shook his head, asking for only a baldric for the sword he already had. The one he carried now had served him well enough in the past; it would continue to do so. Sansa had taken a seat and watched the entire procedure with interest.

 

“Enjoying the show?” he questioned her. He wasn’t overly found of the process. Too many hands on him at once. It made him feel slightly caged and trapped. And it took forever as the men hummed and hawed over the various parts of his body. It was bothersome enough to keep him out of armories unless absolutely necessary.

 

“I watched Robb have a fitting once,” she recalled. “It wasn’t like this. I don’t think even I was fussed over this much for my wedding to Tyrion.”

 

That made him laugh. It was probably true that the first fitting for armor took more patience and time than a lady’s wedding dress. Of course that was a garment meant for only a day. His armor would serve him for years if formed properly.

 

“And when was that? When he was a lad of ten? I doubt the little Lord was even old enough for a cod piece. Nothing but some boiled leather and a half helm, eh?” he smirked. Her smile back was small and sad.

 

“Something near to that. By the time he was ready for more I was being carted off to King’s Landing. I never got to see him in armor,” she continued on, looking past him regretfully. He’d blundered into a bad memory and tried to lead her out of it.

 

“You can watch all you like now,” he offered. “And with Anteros too, soon enough. Once he sees you’ve put me in a full suit you know he’ll want one as well.” That made her face warm and hopeful once again.

 

The men around him were making their last pass over him. He was asked about his preferences; what to make leather and what metal. Did he require buckles and straps or ties? Did he wish for plating, details, scroll work or sigils? His answers were simple. Leather on the chest, metal on the limbs; buckles and straps, of course, what did he look like, a fucking squired, flowery Knight? Details, scrolls and sigils?  His eyes sent a scowled, stormy answer to that question.

 

“And for the final suit,” Whitmoor sputtered nervously, glancing to him and then Sansa. “On the breast plate? Shall I leave it blank?”  It was almost unheard of to men of his craft; leaving the armor of a great house bare.

 

“Give him the Stark sigil if he wishes it or the house guard’s scroll work. Or leave it untouched. He can decide,” she told them both. He measured each option before answering.

 

“Aye, the wolf’s head,” he nodded his consent. It was her that he would serve from now on and he’d wear her house’s emblem with honor. He found that he didn’t much care for dogs anymore. He felt no tie at all to the man who had passed that sigil onto him but he felt immense loyalty to the boy whom he could gain a new symbol from.

 

“My Lady?” Whitmoor asked, thrown completely off by what was happening. House sigils were for family and those Knighted into service, not strays found at the gate. The master had no idea that Sansa and he already shared blood.

 

Sansa drew herself up, back straight as an arrow. “Clegane may not be born of the wolf’s blood but he has proven his loyalties to house Stark. Give him the wolf’s head. He has earned it,” she ordered and Whitmoor bowed his head in dutiful respect. Brienne came rushing into the room at that point, puffing and gasping for air.

 

“My Lady,” she called to Sansa. “Holloway is back. He’s at the gate!”

 

Sansa cast him a look of apology and he waved a hand at her. He understood well enough she had duties to attend to. It had been nice to have her near but he knew they’d better get used to being continually interrupted. He slipped the dagger back around his waist, now covered in mail and leather.

 

“You’ll need an anchored doublet,” Whitmoor reminded him, ducking his head. “For the final suit. See Rose, the seamstress. She can set you right in no time. Give her a few days and she’ll have anything you want ready.”

 

“And the armor? How long for that?” he pressed eager to get out of the mail shirt already.

 

“For the brigandine and accessories? A week I’d wager. I’ll have the lads start on it right away. If you could come in every day for fittings at dawn, I promise it done by then. I’ll need a few more days for the gauntlets. Tricky work on all the joints that is.”

 

“And the suit?”

 

“A month perhaps. You haven’t asked for anything needing special care beyond the house sigil. Shouldn’t take us too long.”

 

“Take your time,” he told the man. If it ended up taking more than a month Sansa couldn’t force him to wear it on their wedding day.

 

…………………………………………………………….

 

He skipped the second meal of the day. There was too much still to accomplish with daylight on his side. His next stop was to see Rose as Whitmoor had suggested he do. She was a short, plump woman with twinkling brown eyes. She seemed near his age, perhaps a few more years than he. She circled him with a length of marked cloth. She was more cheerful then most when first encountering him. Smiling and laughing, she climbed up on  a chair to measure at his shoulders and insisted that the mail had to come off for proper measurements. He swore and began at the leather breastplate first. Once he was down to his mail shirt he had to bend at the waist, twisting and shaking to get the wretched gear off of him. If the Gods were there and listening he was grateful to them that Sansa hadn’t been around to watch the indignity of the act. And after it was all done he had to put the damned stuff back on! A week wouldn’t be able to pass soon enough to please him.

 

“I’ll have it done in three days time,” Rose told him. “It’ll be big enough to be a nightshift for me! I don’t get to make many pieces your size,” she giggled, shaking her head as he left.

 

After the seamstress, it was off to the training yard for him, where he asked Bullis for a dozen men to take outside the gates. It had been discovered that the raiders had scaled one of the protective walls, using the roof of the Maester’s longhouse as a place of entry. No grappling hooks had been found on any of the men so he assumed they’d found an over hanging branch to climb onto. Once Sansa had been found to open the gates, he walked the entire perimeter of the walls around the main compound. Any tree too close to the walls he marked with his sword and set the men he’d brought along to hacking them down. They told him they did the same themselves four times a year and he barked at them back that obviously that wasn’t good enough. Once a week, they would walk the wall, checking for weaknesses. Once a month they would fell trees. He walked ahead of the group, slashing at any tree he found too close to the roofs, leaving them for the men to work at for the rest of the day. Stalking back inside the gates, he took another half dozen men from Bullis and set them to repairing the shutters on any building that showed the slightest bit of rot.

 

Once he was satisfied with the progress that was being made, he stopped off at the kitchens. He spoke with Collins inside, where it was warm near the ovens. There had been two hogs butchered that very morning for Anteros’ name day feast. He asked that one be strung up in the smaller back yard. The Lady Stark was in need of a lesson in knives, he explained, while also assuring Collins that what he had in mind wouldn’t ruin the carcass for roasting. While Collins set a few kitchen boys at doing as he asked, he found Sansa deep in conversation with Holloway and Brienne. She tried to argue with him when he bid her to follow him, telling him the council meeting was in an hour.

 

“And you can talk more then,” he’d told her. “Right now, this is more important.” She let him lead her back out to the small yard, wrinkling her nose at the dead animal strung up in front of her. Brienne had followed, curious to see what was going on. The tall woman leaned on a fence, arms crossed over her chest. Tossing a butcher’s apron to Sansa he instructed her to put it on.

 

“Sandor, I don’t understand,” she pouted, doing as he asked. It pleased him that she would listen to him just as he did to her.

 

“Armor for an apron, Little Bird. I’m not going to be the only one uncomfortable,” he teased. Gesturing at the strung up hog he continued, “You need to learn how to use that new blade of yours. Doesn’t do you one bit of good if you don’t know how to cut a man with it. Hog’s flesh is close enough to a man’s.”

 

“You want me to stab the pig?” she clarified.

 

“Aye.”

 

She blinked at him then sighed, reaching for the dagger around her waist. Once it was in her hand, he came up behind her, trailing his arm down the length of her to close his fist around hers and the knife.

 

“I’m not teaching you to fight with it. Only to defend. If you ever have need of these lessons that means I’m dead, you understand?” Her head nodded against his chest and he thought maybe she sniffed once.

 

“You’re grip is too loose,” he lectured. “You need to hold it with your fist, not your fingers. Grip it tight. Grip it hard. Don’t ever let it fall out of your hand. You can hold it like this,” he said, placing the dagger so the blade stuck out from the front of her hand. “Or this way,” he finished, changing the position of the knife so the blade stuck out from the back of the hand. “This way you have more options. You can stab in any direction. If you keep it the other way you can only go forward and up with it. Keep it out the back of your hand and you can go side to side, up or down. Twist your wrist and arm.” He used his own hand to guide her through basic grips and hand movements. “You see?”

 

“Yes,” she answered back, watching their hands move together. He pulled back from her.

 

“Take a stab at the hog then. You have to learn the pressure needed to cut a man.”

 

She looked to him and then Brienne.

 

“He’s right,” the blonde told her. “It’s nearly the same. It’s a good way to train. Wish I had thought of it.”

 

“Go for the shoulder or haunches,” he instructed. “You don’t need to hit bone. Not where you’re going to strike a man. Like this.” He slipped his own dagger from its sheath and set it into the pig’s flesh as easily as a fish swam through water. Sansa stepped up beside him and did her best to copy him, getting her knife’s blade halfway into the carcass.

 

“Again,” he told her, not letting up until she’d buried her dagger fully to the hilt. “Better,” he nodded, “again.” He had her practice a few more times before he bid her to stop. Collins would give him hell if he allowed her to shred the hog’s shoulder.

 

“Time to move on,” he informed her. “Put your knife away.” Once she had done so he grabbed her from behind, under her arms with force. He twisted his arms up around her, locking his hands behind her skull. She yelped in surprise, trying to thrash and kick. Brienne stood up fully but then stopped herself. That action made him feel surprisingly tolerant towards the blonde. She was Sansa’s sworn shield and had enough sense to realize he’d never hurt their shared duty. By all rights she could have had him on his arse by now and it would have been completely justified. But she let him do as he would, understanding the lesson behind his sudden move. Sansa continued to squirm.

 

“Stop that!” he reprimanded, feeling her still in his arms. “A man has you like this there’s no use fighting. You’ll only tire yourself. Lift your arms up high and close to your head. That’s right. Now drop to your knees. I can’t keep a grip on you if you lift your arms high like that. You do it quick enough, you can slip down and out just like an eel.” She pulled out of his grasp, slowly at first. He made her go through the motion several more times until she could do it with speed. After a few more tries he told her to stay on her knees. Placing himself in front of her, he saw her go red as any sour wine. Her eyes looked everywhere but in front of her.

 

“You need to know where to strike a man. It’s alright to look,” he chuckled.

 

“It’s not,” she said, keeping her eyes lowered. “Not here. There are people about, Sandor, and I’m their Queen. Even if it’s a common’s title, I’m still Warden of The North and a Lady. This is unsightly.”

 

He rolled his eyes but saw what she was getting at. The Queen of the North was on her knees in front of the Hound of Westeros and already there were people stopping in their daily chores to gawk. He knew the purpose of the lesson but they did not. All they saw was some sort of act of supplication, or worse, something lewd. He backed up quickly from her.

 

“Brienne, take my place,” he shouted at Sansa’s shield. Brienne stepped up to the spot he had been, aware of his intentions.

 

“Better?” he asked Sansa. She nodded her head gratefully in reply.

 

“Any man in armor, no matter how thick, is going to have weak points here,” he continued on, sweeping his hand, several inches in the air above Brienne from knee to groin. “Get on the ground and wherever you see breeches, stab and tear with everything you’ve got. Go for the groin and he’ll drop. More than likely bleed out. Go for the thigh and cut and hopefully you’ll hit a spot that will bleed him out within a minute. You’ve seen an animal bled, yes?”

 

She was silent and still but nodded her head once. “It’s just like that. Find the right spot and a man bleeds just like an animal. He’ll squeal and kick for a moment or two just like a hog but it’ll be over soon and you’ll be safe. If he doesn’t bleed out fast enough go for his face, eyes and throat. Anything soft,” Her chin was trembling by the end of his speech. He wasn’t entirely sure why and it angered him. This was all in her best interest. He was only trying to make sure she’d be able to protect herself if there came a time when he couldn’t. It was important. If he fell she was all that was left to protect Anteros.

 

“Why the tears?” he snapped. “Did you forget already what it is that I do? I told you the talons were hidden not gone.”

 

“I know that,” she sniffed. “I’ve always known this side of you. I’ve never heard you speak in such . . . detail.”

 

“This is what killers do. It’s why it’s called killing.”

 

“I understand that!” she yelled, swiping at her face. “Why does everyone think I don’t understand that? I understand it and feel. Why is it wrong to both know of killing and feel sorrow for it! Why do you scold me for it!”

 

Brienne had stepped away, back at the fence and out of earshot, sensing she was no longer needed or wanted for the time being. Shoving a hand through his hair, he let out a long breath and sat beside her on the cold ground.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with it, Little Bird,” he soothed. “Nothing wrong with you. It’s what makes you beautiful. I forget sometimes that feeling doesn’t make you weak.” He wiped at her cheeks with his thumb, sorry he’d made her feel there was something the matter with her. Lifting himself off the ground he offered her his hand. “That’s enough of that for today. Let’s go see what else Holloway has to say, eh?” She took his hand. Helping her with the ties on the apron, he then gave her his arm to walk her back into the house.

 

 

Chapter Text

Holloway’s return brought welcome news to that evening’s council meeting. Signs of raiders were fading. Holloway was remorseful he had come too late to help defend Winterfell from what was hopefully one of the last groups, but grateful he had made it back in time for Anteros’ name day. The news from the South was heartening. There hadn’t been snow South of Maiden Pool for a month. It was the longest break in the weather for some time and the prophets were casting out fortunes of a great summer to be had soon. He hoped they were right, though he cautioned Sansa, again, that better weather would clear the roads and passages for soldiers. The Queen of the Dragons had found her place on the iron throne but still fought daily to defend it. With only one scaled beast left in her arsenal it was harder for her to keep the chair than it had been for her to gain it. He advised Sansa to prepare for ravens from the Dragon Queen. If the roads became passable for an army in the North, they would be asked to choose a side.

 

The final meal of the day was one of the most agreeable he could remember having at Winterfell. He was famished by that time, his stomach loudly complaining over having missed the noon meal. He’d grown spoiled once again with three solid meals available to him at all times, unlike his travels on the road with the littlest she wolf and his Brothers. Sansa had ordered goose to be served along with the usual chicken in celebration of Holloways return. Platters were piled high all around the table with steaming rolls, dried fruits, mashed turnips, greens fried in rendered fat and apples stewed in honey until they became a thick syrup to be poured over little round cakes. And on top of all that there was plenty of brown gravy for the meat and course, pink salt for sprinkling on the apples that he hadn’t seen since his days in King’s Landing. He tucked into three full plates that night not carrying if it seemed like overindulgence or not.

 

Anteros was beside himself with excitement over Holloway’s return. The ecstatic boy nearly fell out of his seat carrying on with questions for the soldier, barely touching his food to Tessa’s dismay. He chuckled at his son’s mirth and Tessa’s displeasure. The women fussed over the boy too much. The lad would eat when he was hungry same as everyone else. There was a slight tug of jealousy at Anteros favoring Holloway for the time being. He tried to reassure himself it was natural for the boy to feel happiness at his adopted uncle’s return. Holloway treated the boy in a well meaning way, never talking down at him while explaining what was happening in the world outside the gates and telling the young boy stories that sent the little one into peals of laughter. Holloway had married within the past year and was anxiously awaiting the birth of his first babe. The practice with Anteros was probably a good thing. But he couldn’t stop the bit of frustration at the fact that he wasn’t Anteros’ focus for the moment; like the food, he’d grown spoiled at having those little gray eyes marvel at only him.

 

There was wine on the table, as usual, and after a moment’s thought he poured a large amount into the glass at his place setting. It was alright to enjoy him self, he thought. He wouldn’t hurt her. He no longer felt like drowning in wine, only wishing to savor the taste of it with his meal. Two or three glasses would do little more than warm his fingertips. A decent red, hearty food and happiness in the knowledge that he felt something near to comfortable settled him into a state of relaxation rarely felt. Taking a large gulp of wine, which was sweeter than he preferred, he caught Sansa’s eye over the top of his cup. She was beaming at him and he understood her own happiness was due to the fact that she realized he felt at ease enough to drink in her presence. His laughter made him cough and sputter on his red. Sansa Stark smiling at his drinking! Fucking lunacy. Anteros giggled along though the lad had no idea what the shared dark jest was; his little shadow trying to imitate him once again. The world had gone mad. The product of fear, longing, a tender hearted girl and a man who thought himself alone, sitting across from him laughing like a true family while he partook in the very thing that had been part of the recipe for his years of torment and guilt. And Sansa only looked at both of her men, smiling and fighting back laughter of her own. Yes, the world had gone mad. Surprisingly, splendidly, beautifully mad.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

 

After the miniature banquet that all had delighted in, he asked Anteros and Sansa to let him tend to moving his things, rather than spend the hour before Anteros took to bed reading stories. Sansa kissed his cheek in acceptance while Anteros whined, but Sansa led the boy away, explaining soon he’d be close enough for Anteros to wake him by leaping on him in the morning. Anteros whooped at the thought while he groaned, giving Sansa a mockingly thankful look. She grinned back, telling him there were certain parts of parenthood he’d missed out on that he should fully experience. He hoped there was a bolt on the storage room door. He wasn’t as terrible at mornings as Brienne was, but not by much.

 

Back at his room in the guest chambers, he pulled the very few possessions he owned from the places they sat. A few articles of clothing he’d neglected to fold and put away, a wooden comb, a razor, the little toy horse Anteros had given him and the lock of Sansa’s hair tied with ribbon; all of it was piled into the trunk that held a few more pieces of clothing and his robes. That was all that he had in the world. Clegane’s Keep had been burnt to the ground, it had been told, and he couldn’t say that it bothered him. He had never wanted to set foot back into that house of misery. He supposed he may have been entitled to the land it had stood on, after Gregor’s death, but with so much time that had passed and a new Queen on the iron throne it was best to assume he had nothing. Nothing but a Little Bird and a shadow, which seemed like all the wealth he would ever need. He placed his robes on top of the closed lid of his trunk and made his way to the Elder Brother’s door. Setting down the trunk in the hallway, he knocked rapidly on the man’s door. He wanted to be done with this task as soon as possible.

 

His knock was answered slowly, a rustling of papers heard from within the Elder Brother’s chamber. It gave him time to gather his robes into his hands. When the door finally opened he stood mute for several seconds. The man in front of him had been more a father and brother combined to him than any other person he’d known. Though they were roughly the same age he would always look at the man with parental respect. Only Sansa and the holy man had ever seen the worst parts of him and continued on treating him with gentle dignity. It gave him no pleasure to be the one to tell the Brother of his life’s new calling. His hesitation gave the Elder Brother a few moments to observe him. The man gave him a knowing, thin lipped smile.

 

“I had wondered when you would be shedding those,” the Elder Brother spoke first. “Once you told me that the boy was your true blood line I knew it only a matter of time.”

 

“I don’t need them anymore,” he muttered, shoving the bundled cloth into the man’s hands. There were things he ought to say. He was grateful but it was a hard thing for a man of his nature to confess. “I never felt completely right in them.”

 

“No, you didn’t,” the Brother agreed, looking at the pile of brown in his hands. “But you made a valiant effort. You understand we can continue to talk? We can still be counsel to each other, robes or not.”

 

“Aye,” he said quietly. He was saddened, he realized with a start. He hadn’t expected to feel a small tinge of grief when giving up his robes.  

 

“You look different inside these walls. You stand taller and your eyes seem more focused. The path of faith was not your calling. It was a road that led you here. May I ask you a question?” 

 

He nodded his acceptance. The Elder Brother’s questions were sometimes encouraging and sometimes infuriating but always, ultimately, inspiring.

 

“Do you question the Gods any longer? Or yourself? Do you believe, now, that there was a purpose behind your suffering? Are you still searching for your answers?”

 

“That was more than one question, old man,” he grumbled. But the Elder Brother only smiled and waited. He held his breath for a moment as he’d been taught to do while he pondered on his answer. He heard Sansa’s voice in his ear telling him he was loved. He saw Anteros’ silly grin in his mind.  

 

“No, I don’t question any longer. I’ve found my answers here,” he rasped, tapping his chest. “And here,” he added, laying a palm on the walls of Winterfell. “Found them with her and him.”  He knew the Elder Brother would know of whom he spoke. The wise man gave him a warm look full of friendship, passing the robes back to him while he spoke.

 

“Take them and keep them close. Remember the road that led you here.”

 

…………………………………………

 

 

He managed to carry his trunk of few belongings through the household and back to the hallway where he’d bed for the next month. Dropping the trunk with a solid bang next to the door of the linen closet, he turned the knob to discover shelving just as Sansa had described. The floor was bare. Stone bare and he cursed. He was exhausted, wishing for nothing more than a few hours sleep after such a long day full of non stop activities. Even a small, worn pallet on the floor sounded like the Mother’s arms. But there was nothing but hard slabs of rock to greet him. Sansa had promised she’d get some of the household help to drag something suitable into the room for him. What in Seven Hells had happened? He turned on his heel, tired frustration edging him on, and was about to knock on Sansa’s door, when the door opposite hers, next to the linen closet, opened. Brienne stood in the wooden archway.

 

“She’s with Anteros still,” Brienne told him. “Is this about the closet?”

 

“Aye,” he grumbled. “You got a spare blanket? The damned maids didn’t bring a pallet up.”

 

“You’re not sleeping in there,” Brienne told him plainly, crossing her arms over her chest as she seemed to like to do.

 

“Now look! I already went through this with Sansa-” he started, his voice taking on irritation at having to explain him self twice. Brienne cut him off.

 

“You’re not sleeping in there because you’re going to take my room. This” –she rapped on the door behind her- “is Tessa’s room. She’s got a trundle. Anteros used to sleep in there with her when he was younger and Sansa away. She’ll fit in it alright and I’ll take her bed. It’s the next door over. That’s you now.”

 

He was dumbstruck. There weren’t enough good memories in his mind of people giving with out taking something in return for him to know what to do. Most of the time he wasn’t given at all. The Elder Brother had helped him learn and see acts of thoughtfulness for what they were. Sansa too, but that was all he had to go on. Distrust crawled up his spine, tightening his shoulders and causing his eyes to narrow at her.  

 

“I expect it back in a month,” Brienne cautioned with a small smile. “And don’t even think about touching any of my things! I know exactly where they all go and I’ll have your skin if you move anything!”

 

“You don’t have to,” he told the floor.

 

“I know it. Just as you don’t have to sleep in a storage room. But you were willing. If I didn’t want to risk a split lip I’d call you noble,” she teased, trying to get him to look up. When he did so, she continued. “The Lady is lucky to have you. You need proper rest and you won’t get it on a cold floor. Take the room and shut up about it.”

 

He moved then. Straight forward words always worked best for him and Brienne seemed capable of giving orders when needed. Opening the door and kicking his trunk into the room he gave her a nod of thanks, which she returned to him before closing her’s. It was a strange feeling inside him. A hollow, questioning feeling. He had hardly any experiences of someone doing something kind for him and even less of women doing so. Sansa was the exception. The Little Bird had tried from the very start to show him kindness. It had taken him years to accept it. Earlier in the day Rose had been cheerful enough with him and now Brienne had done something phenomenal by his standards. He knew Brienne wasn’t interested in him in the way Sansa was. There wasn’t even a whiff of what the kitchen wench exuded coming off of Brienne. He could smell lies miles away and sensed nothing but truth from Sansa’s shield. It made him think of his sister. He hadn’t thought of her in years and shook his head to clear the memories. Gods, he was too tired to walk down that path tonight!  

 

Inside the door he’d opened, he found a room three times the size of the guest chamber he’d been given when he first arrived at Winterfell. Shutting the door behind him, his first rebellious thought was to touch every bloody thing within arms reach. Brienne had said not to and there wasn’t a better way in all the Seven Kingdoms to get Sandor Clegane interested in doing something than telling him not to. He’d been a loyal dog long enough and when finally given full fledged freedom he found he liked doing the exact opposite of what others said, if only to rile them up. The thought was swiftly forgotten though when he caught sight of the bed. It was enormous when compared to the small one he’d had in his former room. Brienne was nearly his size and the bed was built for her to have enough room. He flopped onto it, leather, mail, boots and all. He could roll over if he liked and wouldn’t have to bend at his hips or knees to keep his feet on it! Lying on his belly, he thought of falling asleep that way. But then he’d wake stiff and sore from the mail shirt so he forced himself up off the furs.

 

For the last time that day he wriggled out of his chain mail, tossing it over the back of a chair. He pulled his wooden trunk farther into the room, setting it near to the bed. His holy robes still lay on top of it. He was eager for a chance at sleep but the words the Elder Brother had spoken tugged at him. He’d been told to keep the robes close and it struck him as to what he should do. Sitting on the bed solemnly, he took up his robes, hesitated, and then began ripping them down into strips of cloth. He’d need padding for his armor. Usually old clothes or rags were used. He had none; only brown robes, tattered at the ends, that had weathered through years of personal suffrage with him. It felt somewhat of a blasphemy to tear them but he was certain the Gods would understand the act was one done out of tribute not defilement.  This layer of prayer, solitude and healing would protect his body from the armor it would soon be asked to carry. He’d never lose this piece of him. Not if he kept it tucked away, under metal and close to his skin.

 

Fitting the torn bits of robe around his joints; knees, elbows, wrists and neck, he made certain to use every bit of torn brown he had. Each time he spun the cloth around a new part, making sure it all fit well, his mind picked out another piece of scripture the Elder Brother had taught him. There were lessons there if you listened long enough. He didn’t put stock into every word but the themes were true. Live, love, strive for peace, do the best that you can, family is precious, cherish the living and respect the dead. The Little Bird was wrong. He felt as well.

Chapter Text

Sometime in the night he heard a sound.  A click and the near weightless scuff of slippered footsteps he’d come to recognize. He was lost in a sprawling, well earned sleep. The day had depleted him of all energy and Brienne’s borrowed bed had ushered him, body and mind, into one of the deepest periods of rest in his life. One eye opened a fraction to catch a flash of familiar fire. And then it shut. If she had plans to try and bed him she never let on. There was a feeling in his hair, over the burns on his scalp, where her fingers wondered. They slipped through his dark locks with care, then smoothed their way down his back. Belly down, he sighed, trying to haul himself up out of the black that held him. If she meant to wake him she was going about it all wrong. Her movements were too gentle to do anything other then send him spiraling down back into his dreams. She kept her hands above the furs, using them to span the distance of his back. Her lips found his temple and then there was nothing. It was morning and she was gone. Perhaps it had been a dream.

 

But the following evening she did it again; found him asleep but not as drained as the previous night. This time he could push up on his elbows and look at her with inquiring eyes. The look she gave him in return contained far more questions than his had. Her robe was tied securely but her hair was loose and free. He had it sorted, he thought. She was willing, ready even, but waiting on him to lead the way. And he’d promised himself to give her what a woman such as she deserved. The past could be spun into a tale of love and sacrifice, but the truth of it was he’d selfishly, drunkenly taken a maiden and left her to face childbirth and motherhood alone.  If he could say anything at all, in regards to himself with conviction, it was that he was a man of truth. If there was any chance at all of him finding redemption after such an act, it was essential that he take his second chance and treat it with every remnant of threadbare valor he could collect within himself.

 

With an inner strength he hadn’t known he possessed, he lifted himself from his pallet, holding her eyes with his own and next, scooping her up into his arms. By the fire he sat both of them in a large, padded, leather backed chair.  The trek to it was a short distance but he marveled at the way things had changed. He’d carried her in the past, at the Red Keep. Strong of limb, he’d had no issue physically; she was lighter then, still a girl weighing next to nothing, but in his mind he struggled. He’d been caught in a whirlpool of thoughts and feelings he never asked for or thought that he wanted. The structure he’d built around his heart threatened to topple with every moment in her presence. He faltered and failed back then.

 

When he held her at the Keep she never fought him physically. They accepted one another in their own confused way. Sometimes she fought back with words, but not with her hands. She could have smacked him across the face many times. He would have deserved it. Instead she’d laid a timid hand of compassion on his shoulder. She’d sung to him and cradled the blood caked hole of his jaw while he wept. There’d been a piece of each other that only the two of them could see. He hadn’t been blind to the fact; it was more that he didn’t want it to exist at all back then. Anything beyond anger, hate and duty were too much for his damaged way of life to cope with.

 

And now things had almost reversed. Now his mind could fathom the idea that she was the part of him that had always been missing. It could sense that, remarkably, he filled a void inside of her. Walking with her in his arms didn’t send him into rattled rages of disjointed thoughts and rent emotions any longer. It felt like the only thing right in the world to ever come to pass for him. He would, most likely, continue to falter but he was determined not to fail. The only complaint to be had was from his damned leg that burned with each step. He’d felt worse. Far worse, and he silently told the aching muscles of his leg to fuck off.

 

Sansa didn’t argue with his chosen actions. Settling into his lap, closer to his knees rather than his cock, she placed her head on his chest allowing him the opportunity to delve into her hair. There were many fantasies his heated blood had come up with in regards to him and her but nearly all of them started with her hair. In his imaginings it was her teats he went after next but for now the hair would do. There was shame to be felt in looking back at his leering of her form when she was still a budding woman. But now she was a woman grown, and his betrothed besides, and he’d look all he bloody wanted too, here, in his room that she had decided to enter. They certainly weren’t the same as he remembered. Mother’s milk or simply woman’s growth had filled them out generously, giving him plenty of ideas to add to the growing list of what he would one day explore with her.

 

They never spoke a word. An hour, maybe two passed with both of them remaining silent and contemplative. He worked his fingers through her red tresses, while she closed her eyes and uttered something too short to be a moan that he was learning meant she was content. Her thumb stroked the bit of skin below his collar bone. Catching strands of her hair, he held them up to the low glow cast by the coals in the hearth. Sunsets and molten iron, waiting to be forged, gleamed back at him. It was a casual, unhurried pleasure but it seemed one of the best he’d ever had thus far. Holding her closer, he hoped she could understand that his silence was a form of adoration. There was no one else in the world he could sit still and quiet with for so long. He was hers as she was his and they would be alright.

 

Only when he saw her head tilt forward quickly, before she woke and caught herself, jerking back upright, did he rise from his seat and gently send her back to her own room with a kiss. He bolted the door behind her. Madness. It was still true. His life was madness. Keeping a woman from his room in an attempt to save both their lost virtues.  But she wasn’t just a woman. She was Sansa. She was his chance at grace and he’d continue on trying to be hers as well.

 

In the morning he woke to a scraping noise at his door. A sound that was soft, yet scratchy and he couldn’t place it. He stared at the door, wondering if someone had let loose an animal into the North Tower’s hall. There were barn cats and hunting hounds on the property. He’d seen a few mice but that’s what the cats were for. No, it wasn’t an animal. Then he saw movement at the bottom of his door. The gap between floor and door had a child’s hand sticking out from under it. Anteros giggled from the other side. So Sansa had tried to set the little one on him after all!

 

The bolt on the door was still in place, preventing Anteros from entering but that hadn’t stopped the lad from trying to amuse himself and wake him. He took his time making it over to the door way, watching Anteros’ wild waving from the floor grow more urgent. When he’d reached the door he put a bare foot over top of the boy’s hand, bracing his weight on the door frame to keep any real pressure off of the tiny digits. Anteros squealed out his surprise and tried to yank his fingers back but they were trapped. The boy floundered for a moment, twisting his wrist without finding a way to successfully free his hand. And then the rogue changed tactics and tried to tickle at the bottom of his foot!  He laughed at the boy’s ingenuity rather than the actual feel at the sole of his foot. Removing his foot, he opened the door to find Anteros on his back, arm still stretched out and a dark halo of black hair framing his face. The lad was already dressed smartly with freshly combed hair to match and he wondered where Tessa was.

 

“Your mother’s going to have something to say about you rolling on the floor,” he tried to warn the boy.

 

“Mummy’s getting dressed. Darcy’s helping,” Anteros calmly explained, using his feet to start scooting himself down the hallway on his back.

 

“All the same you’d best get up,” he said.

 

Anteros drew his little hands up to his face, peeking from between his fingers. Then the lad blew into his flattened palms, making an atrocious noise in response, followed by more giggling. Was he supposed to angry or amused? It struck him he was being tested. The young one was trying to see what sort of a father he was going to end up with. He didn’t know the answer himself but it seemed he was going to have to start figuring it out. All he knew was he’d never use his hands. Never. His son wasn’t going to grow up cowering in front of the man that should be his protector.

 

“You want Tessa to give you a second bath before the first meal?” he questioned, using a more stern tone then he usually took with the lad. Anteros’ hands fell from his face, a small frown spreading across his features. “Might be nothing sweet on the table by the time you make it there. Might be I’ll eat yours today instead of the other way around.”

 

Anteros shot up off the floor, wiping at the front of his clothing. “Is there dirt?” the boy asked. “Will mummy see?”

 

“Turn around,” he instructed and Anteros immediately complied. He had to kneel down to swipe the little one’s backside, removing streaks of dust with his hands. Antero’s hair had snarled in the back as well, so he quickly ran his fingers through it in an attempt to tame it back down into submission. And that’s how Sansa caught the two of them when she opened her door. Anteros, dressed in some of his best clothing with a slight look of guilt on his face and he on his knees, with his fingers trapped in a resisting tangle. She smiled at the both of them, stepping back into her room for a moment to return and place a small comb into his hand.

 

“Start at the bottom and work your way up,” she told him, before shifting her eyes to Anteros. “And you! Stop lying on the floor for one day and stay still for . . . Clegane.” She had stumbled on what to address him as now that he’d given up his robes but not yet claimed his proper title as Anteros’ father. Tessa came racing down the hallway toward them all, while a slender, mousy looking maid, Darcy, stepped out of Sansa’s room and took her leave.

 

“I’m sorry m’Lady,” Tessa breathed heavily. “He got away from me while I was folding up all his other clothes. That set was at the bottom of his chest. He didn’t muss it up too much did he?”

 

“No, all seems fine Tessa,” Sansa assured the woman.

 

“Oh, m’Lord! I can do that!” Tessa yelped, trying to remove the comb from his hands.

 

“It’s already done,” he stated, tossing the comb back to Sansa. He was about to stand and correct Tessa over the title she had given him but Anteros had turned around to face him. He was being studied.

 

They’d never been so close to one another’s faces before. Whenever he put Anteros on his shoulder he always placed the lad on his unmarred side. He’d been conditioned to assume that’s what people wanted of him. Across from the table at meals Anteros was near but still not directly in his face. And in addition to all that, he continued to use the curtain of his hair, as best he could, to block what he was able from the world. Tessa still trembled around him and some people on the property went so far as to cross to the other side of the path or room when he came near. Even Holloway had raised his eyebrows at him when they first met and he’d made at least one of the children cry. Not everyone in the world was as accepting as the Little Bird, Brienne and the Elder Brother. He never forgot it. Perhaps he’d grown slightly used to the sting of it but he never forgot what he was on the outside.

 

“Does it hurt?” Anteros asked of him. He saw Sansa draw in a breath, preparing for a reprimand and his eyes told her not to. Perhaps it was rude to ask of a stranger but they weren’t strangers any longer. They were blood and soon to be family by marriage as well. It was right for the lad to ask him questions without fear of discipline.

 

“I was your age. Hurt like hell when it happened. Sore for years after that around the edges. Most of it’s numb now. Doesn’t bother me much anymore,” he explained glancing at Sansa. It was probably a question she had herself but was too courteous to ask of him. She had tears in her eyes and he knew there was something she wanted to say to him alone. But she blinked the water away and pulled at Anteros’ hand.

 

“Come, love. Let Clegane dress for the day,” she bid their child. Anteros kept pace with her out of the hallway while Tessa trailed close behind the two of them.

 

“We’ll see you at the table,” Sansa called over her shoulder.

 

…………………………………………….

 

The first meal was its usual simple affair. Anteros let anyone within earshot know it was his name day. Everyone gave the little man a hug or a smile and good wishes in return. There would be a feast later on in the day to celebrate the occasion with more excitement. For now things were routine and quiet. He finished his meal, telling Anteros he’d come to collect him after the second meal, before heading off to the training yards with Bullis. When he mentioned there might be a name day present involved Anteros had begged him to share the secret with him. He told the boy to be patient and go enjoy his last morning free of lessons with his friends. He’d spoken with Sansa earlier about several ideas for the lad and had settled on two with her approval.

 

He’d taken to eating the afternoon meal in the training yard, growling out instructions between mouthfuls of salted pork, hard cheeses and bread while he sat on the top rails of a fence. His routine didn’t change that day, as he wiped grease from the last bit of pork onto his breeches, readying himself to go find Anteros. He didn’t get the chance to leave the yard. Anteros found him. The noon meal had ended an hour ago and the lad had grown tired of waiting on him. Sansa and Tessa delivered Anteros to him and for the first time he found himself in complete control of the boy’s care and safety. They made their way to the kennels, speaking briefly with Elers, the kennel master. He had visited Elers a few days ago to find out if there were any whelps ready to leave their mother’s teats. Elers had one batch ready. Four young whelps in total and it was this group that he led Anteros to.

 

He had first thought to let Anteros pick out a pup but then remembered the boy had once owned a cat. Perhaps that was what the boy would like instead. His attempts at capturing one of the mewling barn cat’s kittens had ended in scratches from his wrist to elbow so he’d gone back to his original idea of a dog. Sansa had thought it a splendid idea, smiling brightly at his want to give the lad something. It had been too long since Anteros had owned a pet, she had said. If Anteros couldn’t have siblings, a loyal dog was the next best thing, she’d told him, looking at him knowingly as she added the words “for now” to her thought.

 

Anteros’ laughed and rolled in the hay with the furry creatures in the kennel. He smirked at the good clothes that were becoming more and more dirty as the day went on. When he told Anteros he’d talked his mother into letting him have one of the pups for his name day he found his leg quickly being squeezed in a fierce hug. Laying a hand on his son’s head in return, he felt both uncomfortable and fortunate at the same time. He couldn’t recall a time when a child had ever shown him any sort of physical affection.

 

Anteros settled on a gray female. The pup was the largest of the litter, with clear, keen looking eyes. Anteros immediately named her Shadow and the kennel master showed him how to fashion a leather leash to keep her close for the first few weeks until she became accustomed to staying near her master’s heel.

There was just enough time to show off Shadow to several people before Tessa came to usher Anteros into the great hall. There was already a crowd starting to gather. Anyone within the walls of Winterfell was welcome to join in on the feast and to wish the heir of the North a blessed name day. The white throne had been replaced with a long table at which Sansa and her council, the Elder Brother, the Maester and several other masters of the grounds sat. He was given a seat next to Anteros. Eyes looked upon them and they had to know didn’t they? Watching the two of them, almost exact copies save for the size difference and the scars on his face, sitting next to each other. But if anyone questioned or objected they never said so.

 

The feast went on for hours. The roasted hogs were served up along with stewed lamb in spices and breads of every shade. There were many fermented and pickled dishes as well. He found he liked the beets done in vinegar and honey best, while the warm, fermented cabbage tasted sour in his mouth. Anteros tried the crisp, pickled radishes and onions, making a face and placing the leftovers onto his plate. It was a fair enough trade to him for all jam and honey he’d given up to the boy. Both he and Anteros seemed to favor the potatoes that had been baked with a crust of hard cheese and crackled pig skin over the top. After the savory dishes there were mounds of pastries and cakes passed out to all.

 

There were jugs of both brown ale and wine everywhere and most everyone indulged in as much liquid and food as they could hold.  Anteros tried the ale and spat it out before going back to his cup of mulled cider. A set of stringed instruments set a tune in the background while all enjoyed themselves. As the meal progressed people would approach the raised platform and climb the stairs to shower the next Lord of Winterfell with good tidings and gifts if they could be afforded. Anteros soon had a large pile of new clothing, sewn blankets, books, parcels of dried, sugared fruits and boiled sweets in front of him. Shadow yawned and dozed on her leash by Anteros’ chair.

 

Once things had seemed to settle he let Anteros know of his second gift. After a week, to get used to the morning lessons with the Maester, if Anteros liked he would give him proper riding lessons in the afternoon. Anteros reacted with even more excitement than before when presented with his choice of the kennel master’s stock, pulling on Sansa’s sleeve to tell her of their shared venture. She placed a kiss onto their son’s forehead telling him he was fortunate boy.  Her eyes glittered while she looked at him over the top of Anteros’ head. He knew she still had something on her mind. It would come out eventually. The Little Bird wasn’t good at staying quiet for long.

 

 

…………………………………………….

 

 

That night she knocked on his door looking the same as she had the previous evening; her eyes asking what it was she should do. He followed the pattern he’d set yesterday, leading her over to the large chair by the fire. He hadn’t yet tramped down on the flames so there was a small fire burning in the hearth. Climbing into his lap she moved quickly, placing her hands on either side of his face. He started in his seat, trying to keep focused on her eyes and ended up looking at the mantle over her shoulder.

 

“He’s six now,” she whispered.

 

He gave her a small grunt in this throat; an acknowledgment and an agreement. He wasn’t at all sure what was going on in her head. Inside he was warring against enjoying the warmth of her hands and yearning for her to stop touching him so intimately. The feeling of having his face trapped was new. It was a hard lesson to learn to accept her hands on him there.

 

“You were six . . . when your brother . . . when you . . .” she stopped, no more words coming to her. He chanced a hurried glance at her to see her biting her lip and tears ready to spill from her eyes. This is what had been bothering her all day.

 

“Anteros received his scar when he was four name days. I don’t think he remembers, thank the Gods,” she told him. “He screamed so long and so loud. It was awful. He’d never cried like that before. And there was nothing I could do! Nothing! I was his mother and nothing could calm him for days while it began to heal. I had to listen to my precious boy’s cries of pain for days.”

 

She shifted in his lap to straddle him, putting her face to face with him. He tried to look away, but she firmly held him between her hands, moving her eyes wherever his tried to roam. If the subject at hand had been different he might have been aroused. But she was walking into territory he seldom visited and it left him ill at ease. Everyone of value to him could sympathize with his story but the Little Bird was getting as close to true understanding as anyone could. She was a mother and had seen her own child suffer through something similar.

 

“Well it hurts like fuck,” he snapped. “Course he screamed.” He was being harsh and wished that he wasn’t but she was pushing him farther than anyone had ever done so before about his burns. The water that had pooled in her eyes began to fall while she nodded her head. His hands had tightened around the arm rests of the chair. He’d forced her to look at him once and made her cry. Now she wanted to do it on her own and he still made her weep. It took effort to breathe and make his hands move to cover her own still laying against his cheeks. He wanted this over with.

 

“Have your look and say what you will and be done with it,” he instructed.

 

“I . . . “ she started then stopped. It was her turn to dart her eyes around the room, her chin trembling as she tried to give voice to her thoughts. “He’s so young. Little more than a babe and you . . . “  She had to stop to sniff, leaning her head down to wipe her eyes on the sleeve of her robe.

 

“It’s not right,” she cried.  “I’m sorry I didn’t see it fully before. You said your age and it never struck me until today how horrible it must have been. It would be a terrible thing for anyone to bear. But a babe? I can’t imagine Anteros having to endure such a thing. To grow up with the memory and to live out a lie. To live under the shadow cast by a mountain. I am sorry my love had to.”

 

Tears and wet noises escaped her freely but she never let go of his face. If it had been anyone else, chances are he would have shoved them off his lap, barking out an insult and telling them to go bugger themselves. They didn’t know him or the pain he’d wallowed in as a child. It had been excruciating. There were details he would never tell her. How he’d had milk of the poppy forced down his throat till he vomited and still his face had burned like a thousand fires. How he’d pissed himself over and over again, losing all control of his thoughts and body the first few days. How he’d cried out in fright at his own reflection the first time he dared to look at it. He had no idea how he hadn’t lost his mind. Maybe he had, he thought darkly. His past deeds could well be the product of a broken mind.

 

But it was Sansa looking into his eyes with a chasm of empathy only she was capable of giving to him. She was grief stricken over the physical pain he’d endured, yes, but under that there was something she cried harder for. She was left desolate over the broken spirit he’d spent the last few years trying to set to rights. There was no way to repair his face, but his soul might one day find a way to mend. She was sobbing for a little boy, a crushed toy Knight and all the years between then and now. He’d never had anyone cry over his past. No one had ever taken his pain inside themselves and let it over take them.

 

This was an aspect of love wasn’t it? Her crying for him; not in pity, but in a shared bond in which she could imagine a hurt like his own. He was learning. Love wasn’t just one definitive thing. It was many smaller things pieced together to form a whole. He’d done nearly the same thing hadn’t he? Back when he’d watched her beaten by the so called chivalrous. Later on, alone and with wine in his belly, he had punched at the stone walls of his chamber in frustration until he bled from the knuckles. Each of them felt the sorrow and the joy of the other.

 

Moving his hands down to her wrists he rubbed his thumbs over the soft skin he found there. He let his head fall forward to touch hers, his eyes closing, yielding to her fingers still framing his face; submitting and letting her try and understand. It felt good to have someone care. And before, where he would have thought himself weak for taking comfort in her actions, now he tried to let the luxury of a loving touch sink in. There was a healing he required that only she was able to provide. His fingers traveled blindly though the air to land on her neck, where he trailed a path upwards to clutch at her face as she did to him.

 

“Aye, it was a hard way to live,” he heard himself mutter. “That’s why I need you.”

 

Chapter Text

“Aye, it was a hard way to live,” he heard himself mutter. “That’s why I need you.”

 

………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

He found himself under an attack of hands and lips after that; equally soft in feel and strong in purpose. He kept his eyes shut while she sought out every patch of skin, burnt or whole, that she could lay claim to on his face. Her nimble fingers pulled his hair back and out of her way, revealing all of him to her. It was a dreadful, alluring ache to have her pour her love out onto the wasteland of his skin. It made his gut clench, his heart pound and his cock rise all at once. He felt more naked and exposed than if she had actually stripped him bare. Never had he felt anything like it; the complete acceptance that bore it’s way through his skin and straight to his heart. He was flawed. Inside and out.  Horrendously so, yet she carefully, consciously, doled out her affections in a blatant display of tender awareness.

 

His hands remained fastened to her face the entire time, amazed at the feel of her jaw working against his flesh; matching and memorizing the way she moved when he sensed pressure on a particular place amongst his scars. There was wetness sliding under his fingertips. She wept and so did he and soon he couldn’t tell whose tears belonged to whom. Each one of them tried to find solace in the touch of the other; his promise to stop spending salted water lost in the atonement found within the wings of a Little Bird.

 

Once she suckled upon his lips the tears had ended for the both of them. Solace and comfort turned into a need to devour one another. She crawled higher onto his lap to find him straining within his breeches and he whimpered, much like the night of the Blackwater, at the feel of her parted thighs along side his. He’d had enough time before her visit to shed his armor but remained fully clothed otherwise. Fingers twined within hair greedily while lips nipped hungrily. It would be so easy to pull on the few ties keeping them separated.

 

And then what, he thought. He’d be no better off than that night long ago, with regrets and mangled dreams once again lying at his feet. So he tried to bring her down easily; tapering his passion and pulling her hands from his hair. It almost worked but then she moved in his lap. He didn’t think she was trying to play at the seductress. She had naturally sat herself down when he slowed their pace but the close touch made him gasp and reflexively thrust with a force that nearly sent her off of his lap. And the most tortuous part of it all was that she gave him a surprised cry of wonder back, latching onto his shirt to stay steady and remain solidly connected to him.

 

Her eyes still held questions and curiosity. She had said she’d never wanted to raise the bastard’s blood and he believed her. He’d given her a sorry attempt at coupling all those years back. There had been no thought of her needs then. The Little Bird might know of the score needed to bind one body to another but the looks she kept sending his way told him she’d truly never sung out a melody. She placed her hands on his shoulders, bashfully smiling and waiting. That was a blessing, he supposed. If she had the knowledge and courage to take matters into her own hands he would have been lost for certain. He could keep his hands off of her laces, but if she were the one to untie them no amount of honor was going to still his advances after that. As long as she let him lead there was a way for the night to end in satisfaction for the both of them without going beyond the boundaries he wished to stay within. Testing his theory, he pushed his hips up against her, letting his need press at her through fabric. He was rewarded with a flutter of eyelids and a silent “oh,” from her lips.

 

Things moved swiftly after that. It couldn’t be helped. The heat he swore he could feel even through layers of wool and silk urged him on. He grasped her hips and pulled at them, showing her how to slide herself along the solid length of his cock nestled between her legs.  Trembling, she followed his guidance and when he pushed at her, to send her through the motions of rutting atop him once again, she moaned. Then she moved on her own! He let out a great huff of air watching her roll her hips and bite at her lip. She dropped farther down onto him; he hadn’t known that was possible! He thought there was no more space to fill between the two of them but he had been wrong. His mouth crashed into hers while she continued to tentatively glide on top of him.

 

The night was going to end too soon, he realized. He’d always had a healthy appetite for women but she was something else entirely. His body responded to her wildly, sending him mercilessly towards completion. He began to move underneath her, trying to quench both his need and hers. It wasn’t going to work this way, he thought. It was too fast for him and not slow enough for her. She didn’t seem to mind though. She was crying out over and over again into his mouth. Every time he managed to match a thrust with her movements she whimpered and shivered on top of him. He tried to lift her gown; his intent was to press his thumb to her core in order to give her at least a taste of something before he spilled, but as his hand climbed higher up her thigh, she froze. He stilled the hand on her skin. Skin that was so smooth the silks covering her were course beggar’s hessian compared to her softness. He pulled back from her lips to see shy hesitation and some form of fear in her eyes. Gods, she was as innocent as a girl in her position could be. Bugger him! The thought made him throb harder beneath her.

 

“It’s only a hand, Little Bird, nothing more” he rasped through his arousal. He moved his thumb across a small section of her thigh, gauging her reaction.

 

She let out a shaky breath and nodded for him to continue. When his fingers found her mound, covered in linen and lace, she grabbed him tight around the neck, burying her face in his hair and letting out the most rapturous sound he’d ever heard. It was pleasure, confusion and love all braided together into a chord that made the base of his spine tingle in anticipation for what was to come within seconds. He tried desperately hard to hold on for her, circling his thumb into folds of both fabric and flesh, and failed when she shouted out his name into the ruined hole of his ear. His free hand balled into a fist at her lower back, urging her to grind against his cock until he spilled with a force that was nearly painful, murmuring incoherent words into the space between her neck and shoulder. Gasping for air, he shuddered in her arms, his hands twisted and caught within her clothing.

 

Rumbling out his satisfaction, he rubbed his face into her hair that had tumbled over her shoulder to spill down across her covered breasts. She continued on shivering; from enjoyment or cold he didn’t know. His head felt heavy. The smallest lingering effects of the wine he’d had at the feast and the release she’d given him tried to lure him to sleep right there, sitting upright in a chair with his head leaning into her. He forced his eyes open, rubbing a hand across her back to calm or warm her but she jerked at the touch. Lifting his head up quickly, he found her silently weeping. His stomach plummeted. Had he done something wrong?  He didn’t think so but sometimes he wasn’t aware of his own strength.

 

“Did I hurt you?” he asked, his tone almost pleading. He was pleading with her to answer in the negative. His heart couldn’t take it if he had wounded her in any way.

 

“No,” she answered, assertively shaking her head, though her eyes leaked and her teeth chattered. “No,” she said again, this time to herself and not him. One of her hands followed his forearm, under her robe, to find his wrist.

 

“It felt .  . . good,” she breathed, squeezing his wrist with emphasis till he heard bone and tendon creak against one another. It would have hurt if he hadn’t been trained already to endure pain on a scale much higher than most. He didn’t understand one thing that was happening. Tears kept on trailing down her cheeks. She didn’t uncontrollably bawl but she seemed unable to stop weeping. He’d seen women tear up when happy. Was she happy? If so, then why did she look shocked and scared? He wanted her to stop. He never could stand to see her crying but he had no idea what it was he should do. When he tried to move his hand out from under her gown she gripped him tighter.

 

“I didn’t know,” she confessed hurriedly. Her eyes held his for a long moment, willing him to find her meaning. “The handmaidens, when I was a girl, they chattered on when they thought I couldn’t hear. But I did. The things they said about men and women! I thought it all nonsense. Then I grew older and realized it wasn’t nonsense but it seemed like some sort of unbelievable story. And then you . . .” she trailed off, lost in memory for a moment before continuing. “I thought maybe the stories were possible after you. But then Ramsay had me and it was-“ she lost herself to trembling again.

 

“It wasn’t good,” was all she could give him, lowering her eyes to her lap where their hands still connected somewhere in her silks.

 

He was wrath. He had become the embodiment of rage and hatred. All his fury towards his father, his brother and every other piece of shit he’d run into in his lifetime was nothing compared to the feeling that seared in his veins after hearing her words. The lessons of the Quit Isle were ravaged by three chilling words. The heels of his boots dug into the carpeted floor beneath him as he yanked his hand free from her clothing. Did she mean what he thought?

 

“Did he force you?” he ground out through his clenched teeth.

 

She wouldn’t look at him, only shook at her memories and his tone. “He was my Lord husband,” she told him simply, her voice flat and emotionless.

 

He swore; every vulgar saying he knew pouring out of his mouth. The Hound howled out in vengeful fury, spitting and foaming from its jowls for the blood of the bastard. Ramsay’s name was cursed in ways not fit for a Lady to ever hear. He tried to stay his tongue near her, slipping at times, but now he lost every bit of control he’d ever had.

 

The man had been her husband in name, that was true enough, but that most certainly did not give the sick cunt rights to her body if that was not her wish. Husband and master, wife and slave; these were not interchangeable names. He was an ignorant babe when it came to the bonds of marriage but even he knew that simple rule. A whore was given more respect than the bastard’s definition of marriage, and coin as well, in what amounted to a fair exchange. There was nothing fair in taking.

 

Rape was not a concept he was able to fathom. It hadn’t taken long during his first years as a soldier to be introduced to the idea. It had taken even less time for his mind to make connections between a woman’s screaming struggles beneath a brute and those of a small boy face down in flames.

He’d never participated in such a demeaning act. He’d seen it occur a number of times and had usually had to drown himself in wine afterwards to bring on a sleep that held no nightmares. And now she was trying to tell him she’d been the one pinned down and forced? His Little Bird’s wings clipped and broken? She’d hinted at it before but he’d been too stupid to listen, assuming she meant she’d done her duty as a wife for Winterfell, with no feeling behind it. That hadn’t been her meaning at all. Ramsay had taken and Sansa had not given; not one infinitesimal amount. His stomach churned violently and he honestly thought he might wretch.

 

“You should have said sooner,” he growled, shaking harder than she was. She’d gone back to clutching at his shirt, crying in earnest now at his disturbing display.

 

“Why?” she asked of him, her voice nothing more than a quietest of whispers. “What good would that have done? It brings you grief.”

 

“I should have . . . I could have . . . “ he stammered, losing his train of thought. What exactly should he have done? It felt like there ought to be something  that he should have said or done, though he didn’t know what. Was there anything more to be done than what he already gave to her; free will, a choice, and no true pressure from him to continue on if she didn’t yearn for it?

 

And as far as “could have”. Again, what was it he was supposed to have done?  He counted back through years and months. The Quiet Isle received news long after others in its seclusion. The Elder Brother passed on his knowledge of the outside world sparingly. He hadn’t even known of her marriage to the bastard until well after it was over. She had probably been close to birthing Anteros by the time he had heard of her second marriage. It had wrung out his heart, just like the first time, to hear of her being used as a pawn for other’s gain but it had already come to pass by the time he knew of it’s existence. She was supposedly happy on her throne in Winterfell with loyal subjects around her. She didn’t need him anymore. Or so he thought. There wasn’t a bloody thing he could have done for her, yet he still loathed himself for allowing her to succumb to such a fate. If he had stayed, if he had forced her to come with him after the Blackwater, things would have been different.  

 

“”If” is a place in the past or the future where guilt and misery grow,” the Elder Brother had told him long ago. “”If” is not a place to linger. It will bring death upon your spirit. Now is where life is.”

 

“I would have come,” he told her, his voice thick with shame despite the words of his mentor lingering in his ear. “I didn’t know, Little Bird. About your second marriage. Not till long after. I was probably lame at the time it happened, fevered and half dead, but I would have come. I would have used the last of me to bugger every hole in the cunt’s body with my dagger before slitting his throat.”

 

He was scaring her. He could see it plainly, yet her eyes changed at his last statement. It was a twisted, crude and vivid description but she understood his feelings behind it. It was his own warped way of saying how much he loved her. He would have crawled to her, slain her demon and died in her arms if that had been what was required of him. She crumpled herself down onto his chest in response, his arms naturally folding and pressing her to him.

 

“You would have,” she concurred. “I know it.” There was so much trust and belief in her voice! He had to swallow down another round of his own tears. There was still one last thing that needed said. It was impetrative to him that she know he’d never purposely take from her. Not anything. Even if he had to content himself for all his days at her side with nothing more than her small frame to sleep next to and his own hand for pleasure, he would do it for her. His body all but screamed to be allowed to sink into hers but it was his soul that truly needed her. That was the part he couldn’t do without.

 

He worried he’d somehow pushed too far already. Had their previous trysts been her want or had she merely done what she thought was expected of her? He had been careful, blending eagerness with consideration, he thought, but now he wasn’t sure he’d been following the correct path.  

 

“Anything you want to give, I’ll accept” he spoke, closely repeating words he’d given her on the stairs outside Anteros’ door. He tried to keep his tone calm. He wasn’t angry at her. She needed to be reassured of that. “Anything you want to keep I’ll never force from you. Do you understand? Tomorrow, a year from now, ten years. I don’t care. You don’t want something you tell me to stop and I will. Don’t you do something because you think I want it.” Her head nodded on his chest. It wasn’t enough for him.

 

“Say it,” he bid her. “Say you’ll only give what you want.”

 

“I promise,” she said. “I love you. I want you to love me. In all ways.”

 

“I do. I will,” he vowed, tangling a hand in her hair once more.  He scratched lightly at her scalp, convincing himself she was alright. He hadn’t harmed her. The past had left her edgy and cautious to some of his touches; that was understandable, but he hadn’t done anything to further upset her. He’d go as slow as she required and, one day, he’d show her what rapture there was to be had between the two of them.

Chapter Text

Sansa had fallen asleep again. Balled up against his chest, with her legs still splayed around his hips, like an unruly child who had stayed up well past their usual bed time. The act made him think on the past. When they had first met they were both children. He had looked a man, tried to act the part, but truly he had been a child lost in both a never-ending fit of temper and a hurt that spread much farther than the evidence of his face. She seemed a girl in features and social graces yet carried a soul within her much older than her years. The mother inside her had reached out to the boy in him and he’d been so trampled by life he couldn’t sense it. Or maybe he had, somewhere hidden, and that is why he’d lashed out so fiercely. At that time, it had been impossible to go back and protect the boy but it was not too late to spare the girl. Perhaps, if the girl could be saved, the boy might be able to feel the same through her. The boy had fallen for her long before the man had become aware of the snare he’d tripped within his own heart. Then she had blossomed and that’s when things took a terrible, confusing turn. The boy had no idea what to do with a bleeding woman but the man did. They frightened each other; the boy horrified by lustful thoughts and the man terror struck by the idea of pure, unsullied love.

 

He had battled over which was truer; his want to claim her or his want to protect her from everything and anyone, including himself. The shaken man offered a bit of cloth and a growled, “enough”; the wounded boy spat curses and mockery in a useless attempt at maintaining the security found in anger. She choose for him, taking on both a boy’s and a man’s needs. She shouldn’t have wanted to and he shouldn’t have accepted, but it had happened none the less and it was time to move on. They were both grown and had left the symbolic struggles of childhood behind.

 

It touched his soul to think she could find a peace large enough with him to drift off into slumber. She loved him. There was no doubt, though he sometimes still wondered how such a miracle had come to pass. It was a fact that was invaluable to him but there was something of even greater importance, if such an idea could exist; she trusted him. It was a thing he had never known, until the past few weeks, that he yearned for; the want had been buried so deep inside him.

 

The love of Sansa Stark, the body, the hair, the spirit, the heart. All of these he knew well enough he had been chasing after. But the trust! The absolute trust she placed in his hands left him with a feeling he wasn’t quite sure he was ready for. In the peculiar circle composed of their love it was he who trusted her far more than he did himself. If she was able to have complete faith in him that meant he had to face the belief that he was worthy of such thoughts. The trust and love built by them flowed back and forth; growing at a steady pace, gaining weight measured in the mutual understanding that passed between blue and gray, and spreading out to all the far corners of the map of self doubt he carried within. Her feelings towards him were an army, marching across that map and stamping out every mutinous, self loathing thought, every degrading name flung his way, and any act of violence committed against him.

 

Sansa had her map as well. She had managed to keep the landscape unmarred for just over a decade before her own tragedies began marking the terrain with jagged crags and somber recesses. The time they had now allowed her to share memories with him he hadn’t known about before. Good and bad, they all gave him a better sense of her life prior to him, as well as their time spent apart. Her hardships were not the same as his but they affected her none the less. The glaring difference was that her map continued to lie flawlessly upon the table of life, while his had became dog eared, wrinkled and road worn, splattered with blood and wine. She had hundreds of warm memories, compared to his scarce few dozen that helped her to see the beauty hidden away inside of tragedy; the bird’s nest full of eggs, or the bright green shoot of new life, pushing through the crumbled ground at the deepest part in any of her ravines. Their eyes looked at the same piece of paper but did not interpret the lines and pictures in the same way.

 

A strange, amused smile crept over his face, as he realized her ability to continue on bright of heart and kind in nature was her own Lady like way of telling the world to fuck off as he was so used to exclaiming out loud. By not breaking, she effectively showed everyone who had hurt her that they could shove their mistreatment and dishonesty right up their arses! She was right. They were sometimes the same, if a bit different in their chosen methods of execution.

 

The only cavern that seemed to have not healed over with time was the one Ramsay had carved out for her. Anteros had helped, he was sure of it. The one speck of saving grace within the night of the Blackwater was that he had given her a purpose to fight and cling to life for. Their son was a reason to soldier on, with a heart of love, not hate or fear. And what was left of the cavern, he hoped his army would be just as efficient at filling in as hers was for him.

 

She shifted in his lap, reminding him he was, once again, in need of a wash. Debating over what to do with her, he stood, stiffly and with effort. It was an awkward position to try and move out of with her attached to him at the waist, limp and heavy with slumber. The leg wasn’t helping either. Moving to the door, he was, at first, intent on placing her back in her own room. But then he thought on the night she had woken from a nightmare about Ramsay and took to his bed for comfort. That night had occurred at only the slightest hint of her time spent under the bastard’s thumb. Their conversation this evening had dug much deeper and he knew from personal experience she probably wouldn’t make it through the night with out being visited by bad dreams once again.

 

Changing his path, he walked over to his bed. It was fine, he told himself, this wasn’t cheating his bargain. She was sleeping soundly and his intent, for once, was innocent. He’d already found relief and though his body had recovered enough to allow him another round of pleasure, the thought of keeping her wrapped up in the safety of his arms for the entire night seemed a much more satisfying idea in the present situation. She gave a tiny, displeased noise when he set her down, drawing her legs up high to her chest; ankles, calves and knees bared to him. He allowed himself a moment to look before lifting the furs up over her. Once he was certain she was settled he took to the other side of the room, with her back facing him to quickly scrub at himself and change into a fresh pair of breeches. The water in his basin was tepid but not freezing like it had been in the guest chambers. The rooms of the North Tower’s hall were significantly warmer. It was a risk to do so in the same room but she remained sleeping the entire time.

 

Opening the door to his room he propped it open a few hands wide with one of his boots. That should satisfy Brienne, or anyone else, if they questioned Sansa’s new sleeping arrangement for the night. He didn’t think it would become a habit and he would explain himself later if it became necessary. Curling himself behind her, he could feel the physical changes of her body when he pressed near to her. She relaxed, breathed easier and the fine lines on her brow disappeared. One arm looped over her to circle her hips tightly, ensuring they wouldn’t part in the night. His eyes closed in contentment and he slept. It was the first night in his entire life that he forgot to stamp out the fire before going to bed.

 

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Bored. He was bored. Bored out of his blasted, buggering mind. He hadn’t known his presence was going to be requested during the writing of the letters of their marriage announcement. In all fairness it wasn’t necessary; he had tried to argue that point with Sansa. She could write her letters and he could place his signature next to hers on all of them in one go at the end of the day. But she had looked so damned disappointed when he said he’d rather sweat in the yard than sit with her for the day that he had caved to her wishes. At least she was happy now.

 

She was beaming; head bowed in concentration at the council’s table, fingers stained with ink and her loosely bound hair beginning to frizz at the edges of her hairline. The Maester and Brienne were there as well. There were near forty letters to write and it would have taken Sansa days without help. The Maester, upon hearing their news and Sansa’s wish for his help that morning, had let Anteros run free for one more day. At the morning meal, Sansa had taken his arm and told everyone of their intent to marry. Brienne and the Maester had nodded their approval. Holloway clapped him on the back in congratulations while Tessa grinned at Anteros. The nursemaid may have still been nervous around him but she was fond of her charge and happy for the young one. Bullis had paid no mind at all, tucking into his plate of oatcakes and blood sausage with nary a sound.

 

He wasn’t helping with the actual letter writing. He could read and write well but his penmanship was sorely lacking; there had been no real chance at developing it in his life. On the Quiet Isle, all were encouraged to work and find tranquil distractions of the mind. He chose more physical outlets than mental. Grave digging, shoeing and brushing down the horses and helping to maintain the crop fields were more to his liking than reading and calligraphy when swords and sour reds had been taken from him. The Elder Brother had tried to find a more delicate art for him to enjoy. The holy man thought it important that all men have at least one gentler skill to call upon for times of inner reflection. Poetry, instruments, herbalism and more; he’d thought it all complete horse shit until he was given rough, yellowed paper and a stick of charcoal. For some reason he found his heavy hand useful in bringing haunting, shadowed visions to life on a page. They stayed there, trapped on pulped wood and linen, for the most part, instead of creeping back into his dreams. After a time there were no more dark images to draw and he turned to other sources of inspiration; usually animals, particularly birds. In public he horded the memories of his Little Bird, sketching out her beauty in the form of feathers and wings. A very few times, in private, he had allowed himself to try and transpose her face from his mind to parchment. He kept the finished portraits folded and tucked away at the bottom of his chipped, wooden chest. They had burnt along with everything else on the Isle.

 

He found himself unconsciously rubbing at his pocket where a year ago a blackened hunk of willow would have rested. Not wanting to sit doing nothing any longer he rose and told Sansa he would return shortly. The Maester had all sorts of supplies for sketching and painting within the long houses cabinets. Once he had found what he wanted, he made his way back to the council’s chamber and grabbed at one of the snowy white pages of parchment Sansa was using for her chore, settling himself in the chair farthest away from the others. There was no one and no reason to stop him now from doing whatever he pleased on paper. It was different with her sitting right in front of him. He didn’t have to work from memory but she kept moving, just like one of the spirited, hopping birds he used to try and capture. He wasn’t particularly talented but some of his sketches were a fair hand better than any others produced on the Isle. Once he had her basic features drawn out in a way that satisfied him, he took to the details, using his smallest finger to blend and shade. He didn’t hear Sansa approach behind him to lay an announcement by his hand for signing. Her breathe caught and then she smiled wider than he’d seen in days.

 

“I didn’t know you could do that. It’s very good.” Her tone held notes of praise.  

 

“It’s alright,” he shrugged, slightly embarrassed at being caught. He’d never gotten comfortable with the idea of compliments directed towards his person.

 

“It’s wonderful,” she marveled. “Don’t toss it out. I want it.”

 

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They had stopped only to eat the noon meal and it was well into the evening before they had all finished with their task. The last blob of wax had been sealed with the direwolf of house Stark and everyone rose, stretching and yawning. The ravens would carry out all the messages tomorrow. A wedding would take place in exactly one full cycle of the moon. Four weeks and all he’d ever dreamed of would be his. It caused a mix of both hope and dread to roil in his stomach. He’d never gotten what he wanted in the past. There was a slight fear that what he desired this time around would not come to pass.

 

The Maester gathered up all the scrolls of paper, placing them into a cloth bag, large enough for Anteros to fit inside of, and took his leave. Brienne and Sansa made to leave as well but he called them back. There was one more paper to write up. He made Sansa write out his words, asking Brienne to stand as witness. He wanted no claim to Sansa’s title, her lands or gold. That was hers. It had always been hers and he wanted it made clear that there was nothing behind his want to marry her except for the feelings in his heart. Sansa carefully wrote each word out, exactly as he stated, her eyes filling with water once or twice. When he was finished she added her own notes. She would keep the name Stark until Anteros came of age. At that time, Anteros would become the Warden of the North and she would carry her husband’s name with honor. Anteros was both a Stark and Clegane by blood; she swore upon the old and new Gods that it was true. When Anteros came of age he could carry on the Stark name, and give more heirs of that name to Winterfell, if that was his wish, or he could claim his father’s name. Any children begat of their marriage would carry the surname Clegane. She was adamant about that point. The Stark line continued or ended with Anteros. Once their first born son was the appropriate age to rule the northern territory, she told him, she wished for nothing more than to be Sansa Clegane, wife and mother for the rest of her days.

 

He‘d barked at Brienne to place her signature beside his and Sansa’s, sealed the document to be read in public at their wedding, and then ordered the sworn shield from the room. Once the door clicked shut he was immediately upon Sansa’s lips. She wanted to be claimed by him. She wanted their children to carry his name and one day she would take it herself as well. He’d never asked what name she intended to keep or which she would give to their children, assuming that wolves were far more important than dogs. She’d proven him wrong and it sent a fearsome swell of pride through him. He held her jaw in his hand. He could span the entire half of her face with his palm and fingers while seeking out the inside of her mouth with passionate strength. She would know how much fulfillment her words had given him; he would make certain of it. Breathless, she pulled back for a moment, trying to read his eyes and finding a deep happiness within them that he’d rarely been blessed with in his lifetime. Her smile was joyful as she pressed her lips against his, turning the tables and plundering his mouth with her darting tongue.

 

It went on for some time; kisses that spoke of knowing expectations, equal ownership and loving loyalty. Growls and quiet groans filled the room. Not until they heard a knock on the door and Brienne’s voice asking if they were ever going to emerge did they part, laughing at the thought of Sansa’s shield standing guard outside the door all that time. Based off of Sansa’s tussled, flushed features he knew he more than likely looked the same. They smoothed each other’s hair, tugged clothing back into place and laughed again when they discovered ink smudged on his face and charcoal smeared across hers. A month seemed too long to him when he was alone at night, but at times like these, when they stole youthful moments of discovery, he thought it one of her best ideas. He’d never taken the time to savor loving a woman; he’d never wanted to before her. She made him something more than himself. Something better and he could no longer find any complaints in the outcome.

Chapter Text

Holloway was the one he’d pulled aside and asked questions of. Sansa would have explained things to him, he was sure, but that would have alerted her to any plan he may have. He understood well enough how wedding ceremonies worked in the South having stood by the whining, bastard Prince turned King through enough of them. Northern weddings were still a bit of a mystery to him. On the Quiet Isle worship had been aimed at the Seven. In the far North there was still a hodge podge of old and new ways dotting the land. The South’s new Gods were taking hold but the old Gods still held sway. He knew Sansa preferred the Gods of her father; the new ways reminded her too much of her time as a prisoner of the Lannisters. He couldn’t find fault in her want to separate herself from those memories. He didn’t need any further reminders of the sweltering city of King’s Landing either. There was an aged, rooted calling inside him self, as well, to the woods and rocks that had stood forever and would continue on long after she and he had turned to dust. The old Gods and ways held his interest a bit stronger than the Seven had but he didn’t possess the type of faith Sansa did. He needed to understand more clearly for her.

 

So he’d gone to Holloway, a Northern man from birth, to get his answers. Some couples still married out in the Godswoods, he was told, by the weeping weirwood trees; most often the common folk. Sansa rarely went outside the gates for her own safety and spent her time set aside for prayer in the little garden of shrubs and pebbles tucked away for such use. Holloway suspected she hadn’t been to the ancient weirwood her father was so fond of in at least four years.

 

Great houses in the North had taken on the more somber and so called dignified ceremonies of the South.  If the New Gods were worshipped the vows of the Seven were made. If the old Gods still reigned in a household a ceremony much like what happened in the Godswoods occurred. A bride was offered, accepted and vows were pledged in a hall or Sept instead of the woods. Cloaking the bride was a fashionable trait of the South that some in the North had taken to. It was not required but some brides and bridegrooms enjoyed the act. Wedding gifts were usually exchanged. Again, it was not specifically required, but he could bet as well as Holloway that Sansa would not turn down the opportunity to do something kind for another.

 

That left him with plenty to think on and ponder. The thought of vows of any kind still, after years of being free from the pressure to be Knighted, left an unpleasant taste in his mouth, but at least the customs of the North allowed him to speak of whatever he wished. There were no preordained words to be spoken. He could remain silent if he liked. It was a tempting idea. He could stand tall and stoic in front of strange eyes and then lay his heart bare to her later on, under the protection of candlelight and the mercy of her skin.

 

Gifts and cloaks were another matter all together. He had no coin; no skills beyond swords, horses and hunting. There was no way to ask Sansa not to exchange gifts. He knew her too well. Even if she agreed, she would find him something anyway and he’d be left empty handed while she twittered on about how it was alright and not important. It was important to him that she have something.  

 

There wasn’t much to give her even if he did have any silver. She had all she could want being the Warden of the North and was well taken care of. She and Anteros might not have lived like those in the Red Keep but they were far from peasants. Material goods would be of no use to him as gifts. He might have given her a portrait but she’d already claimed the one from a few days ago and he certainly had no songs or poems to offer her.

 

He’d been trudging through the yard, watching two Brothers help Stallton and crew unload some wagons. Jars of preserved fruits and jam clinked inside of crates as they were carried indoors. He had a wild, crazed thought. She had said it had been years. Stallton gave him an incredulous look at his question.

 

“Aye, suppose it could be done,” the man finally answered after deliberating for a time. “I sees ‘em come in through the port in White Harbor sometimes. But you might as well buy dragon eggs for all the coin it’d cost you. The Lady herself asked once. She never asked again after I told her the price.”

 

That was just like the Little Bird. The price was certain to be outrageous but he knew she could have indulged herself once over the last half dozen years. But she chose to go without and spend the coin on warm clothing, fuel and extra food. If she wasn’t going to spoil herself, it was his right as her husband to do so; if he could figure out how to manage it.

 

He had gone to the bakestress next, gaining a list of needed items. Stallton had looked over the list, quoted him a price and he’d nearly choked on his tongue. Going back, once again, to the bakestress, he dragged her out to Stallton to amend the list; cutting corners and making substitutions where it could be done without taking away from the overall result. He let the two of them bicker and haggle until a final compromise had been reached. The number still made his eyes widen in shock but the original cost had been cut nearly in half. Next, he’d have to somehow find coin.

 

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Later on in the evening he was able to catch Sansa’s sworn shield in the northern hallway. Brienne had smiled warmly at his plan and then whistled through her teeth when he showed her the quoted price from Stallton.

 

“I’ll pay it back,” he told her, meaning every word he said. “Somehow I will. I’ll breed some of the horses or go out on the next hunt with Holloway and sell the furs. I won’t let the debt go unpaid. I can make money only I can’t get it in my hand now and I need it within the week if this is to work out in time.”

 

“You’re decent at hunting?” Brienne asked him.

 

“Aye, boar and auroch. Sometimes fox and badgers. Not very good at birds. Never touched a bow. Hard to spear a pigeon and leave something worth eating.”

 

Brienne laughed loudly at that. “Wait here a moment,” she told him, walking over to her own room; the one he was currently borrowing until he and Sansa were wed. She shut the door in his face but he could hear stone scraping from within. She must have had some hidden cache in the walls or floor. Brienne came back out minutes later and placed gold in his palm.

 

“I’ve got a proposition for you,” she started. “I’ll pay you for a few hunts. That should buy me two or three. My father never took me out on hunts. He let me learn nearly every other skill a man has but he never budged on the hunting. I want to learn. Will you take me out and teach me?”

 

He nodded his agreement, not knowing what to do with the grateful feeling that had sprung up inside him. Brienne had made things easy for him and it seemed purposely so. He was starting to think she had done a fair amount of kind things for him and he had yet to do anything in return. The Elder Brother’s voice buzzed in his ear that he ought to remedy that somehow. Someday, he told himself. He had far too much to worry about now with a wedding less than a month away. And now he was locked into three hunts over the next few months as well! Brienne could have asked for twice as many lessons for the amount of coin she’d given him.

 

“It’s too much,” he rasped, trying to hand her back half of what she’d given him. Brienne closed her hands into fists.

 

“I saw the list. You’re cutting costs and I can’t blame you, but I have the means so take it and indulge your wife. It’s high time some one started seeing to her needs and you’re trying. Use it. I have more and you’re going to earn it remember?”

 

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Sansa came to his room most nights. Sitting in his chair with him by the hearth, she would stay for an hour or two after they had seen Anteros to bed.  They were quiet some nights and talked during others. It didn’t take her long after they announced their wedding plans, five days maybe, before she was asking about his family. He hadn’t sent any birds and she’d noticed.

 

“They’re all dead. No use sending out ravens to graves,” he had said sadly, looking over her shoulder. She had straddled him again though she kept herself set back near his knees. There wasn’t anything else to say really. He’d give her details if she asked but he hoped that she wouldn’t. One day, perhaps, he could swim through those waters with her but not now. He didn’t want this time of happy anticipation ruined by his bleak past. Memories crept in and assaulted him regardless of his wishes as he continued to stare off into the flames. She moved her body, directly in front of him to block the fire so that he had no where else to look but at her.

 

“How many children will we have?” she asked, smiling. She was trying to distract him, he realized gratefully. “Shall we start right away or wait?”

 

Her questions did as she wanted. There was no way to dwell on despairing thoughts when she’d put the vision of children, and rather more vividly, the images of what it would take to gain those children into his mind. His imagination quickly supplied him with scenes of heated, oiled skin, red hair spilled across furs and tiny blue eyed babes.

 

“As many as we can manage,” he spoke back, both dreams and warnings in his tone. “And don’t drink any of that tea the whores use. That muck will rot your gut one day and leave it barren. I’d rather have a babe first thing than risk not having any at all.”

 

His answer seemed to please her. Her hands enclosed his face while she pressed her lips eagerly to his in a rewarding kiss. But her eyes changed as she pulled back from him.

 

“What if there aren’t any children,” she nervously worried out loud. “What if Anteros was the only one?”

 

His laughter was true and echoed off the walls. It made her start in his lap and look at him puzzled. “You think there’ll only be one?” he teased. “One chance at each other and we made a son. How many times do you think I plan on having you from here on out?”  He had made her blush. She raised a hand to her mouth while she giggled but stopped when she caught the storm of promise in his eyes.

 

“You’ll have your babes, woman,” he growled softly. “A whole brood of nestlings. As many as you like. I’ll make sure of it.”

 

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The weather calmed over the next fortnight after their wedding announcement. There were a few flurries of snow in the night but nothing to rival the inches that had usually fallen months ago. There was rain every few days. Cool, cleansing showers washed over the land and the temperature rose enough so that he couldn’t see his breath anymore during the height of the afternoon. The prophets, it seemed, were right. Spring was near. The small hills of snow and ice melted. Roads and paths turned to churned mud and everyone was happy about it despite losing boots and shoes in the mess.

 

Sansa’s visits were a regular occurrence in the evenings. They continued to share both memories and silent company. He learned she could make him laugh and that he enjoyed it. She was sensitive and ticklish behind her ears. He could put her to sleep by touching her hair and, once, she had done the same for him.

 

Anteros had taken to his riding lessons with ease. There was a mare of medium build and gentle temperament that he let the lad ride. He didn’t lead the horse as Holloway did, walking in front and controlling the beast’s every move. Instead, he kept to the side and taught Anteros to command the horse with words and gentle tugs on the reins.

 

Sometime in the late afternoon or early evening Tessa would bring Anteros to him in the training yard, or more specifically, Anteros would come running with Tessa hurriedly walking behind. Anteros would tell him it was time for his lessons and that would be the end of training the men for the day. Tessa stayed the first week’s worth of lessons until he told her she wasn’t needed and that she should find something else to do with her time. At the stables, he would take off the new armor he’d gained from Whitmoor, leaving on only his belt and dagger. As much as he had complained about having a squire he found himself with one anyway. Anteros couldn’t wait to get on his mare and had figured out if he helped with the armor that got him one step closer to his end goal. While he worked at his gauntlets and gorget, Anteros would start undoing the buckles on his greaves and the side ties to his brigandine, though the boy had to stand on a small step stool to do so.  At least the lad didn’t snivel or whine about it; he simply watched for a few days and then jumped in to help and kept out from underfoot.

 

After the lesson on horseback he would instruct Anteros in the care of horses. They would spend at least an hour in the company of the Elder Brother while they all brushed, fed, cleaned and mucked. It was good for the boy to learn the art of hard labor as well as the duties of his highborn status. The Elder Brother passed on life lessons and stories to Anteros as they worked. The boy was always flushed, sweaty and ravenous by the final meal of the day.

 

Ravens began to arrive. Perhaps half of the original batch had been responded to quickly. Most were polite letters of acceptance and confirmation of attendance. The Lady and he were asked questions of clothing size and food preferences for wedding gifts. A few notes were less accepting but it was all hidden in kind words and courtesies. They were so very glad for the Queen of the North’s marriage but unfortunately the head of the household would be unable to attend. They would send a ward or a second son in their place and he saw the back handed compliment for what it was. No one cared much for second sons. They were left the scraps and tasks no one else wanted; he knew. And now those houses that would balk at her choice sent a lesser son to witness the marriage of another scorned son into a house he didn’t deserve.  If the Little Bird chose to see the undercurrent of disapproval she didn’t let on, though he thought perhaps her eyes dimmed when reading one or two of the letters. It seemed wrong to him that her wedding day should be marred because of him. But duty was duty; it was a shared burden they would both face many times over together. He still wished though that there was some way to make the event more about the two of them and less about the entirety of the Northern territories. He pushed down the feeling that somehow all of it was a disservice to her. It simply was what it had to be.

Chapter Text

“Out! You get out!” Brienne yelled at him, shoving him back out of the seamstress’ work room and slamming the door shut on him. He hadn’t expected that to happen. The men in the training yard were advancing well, leaving him with some spare time, so he thought he might see Rose about a cloak for Sansa. It was one of the few traditions of the South he could see the sense in. It was a protective gesture and one he wished to give to Sansa. She had kept the damned Kingsgaurd cloak and that was not the one he wanted for her. He would give her a better one this time around. One that he had chosen specifically for her and wasn’t a symbol of all that had held them both down in the past.

 

He wasn’t at all sure how he’d pay for it but he was hoping he could strike some sort of bargain with Rose as he had with Brienne. She was a seamstress after all; he might be able to sway her with the promise of furs and hides from the forest. There were only two weeks left until the wedding and he was probably giving the poor woman no notice at all in coming up with a cloak worthy of the Lady Stark.

 

But nowhere in his spontaneous plan had he expected to walk in on a half naked Sansa, a gapping Rose and a bellowing Brienne. All he had wanted to do was to talk about a cloak. He had knocked and walked straight into the small building, assuming Rose wasn’t busy. Now he stood in the mud, a bit shocked, trying to decide if he should tuck tail and go or stand his ground and wait. She’d had on nothing but a bit of cloth over her teats and arse! A corset and some stockings that went up just past her knees completed her outfit of smallclothes. The stockings had, for some strange reason, drawn his eye. They were the purest white he’d ever seen on a woman and looked almost transparent stretched over her calves. He wondered what they would feel like if she left them on when he had her. Would they be as soft as the patch of skin he’d been allowed to touch weeks ago? Or would they feel rough, giving him a contrast to the heated silk he was sure to find between her legs? He could almost imagine it clearly; course fabric at his hips and an unbearable softness around his cock. He shook his head roughly to try and stay in the present, not the future and was grateful for the many layers of wool and leather that covered the growing bulge in his breeches.

 

After a minute he tried to knock at the door again. He waited this time. Brienne opened the door a crack. “She’s nearly done. Just wait a moment!” she hissed before shutting the door on him once again. It took another five minutes before the door opened and Sansa emerged. Brienne waited off to the side for her Lady to command her.

 

“Sorry,” he said hastily. “Didn’t know you were going to be here.”

 

“It’s alright,” she chirped back at him. He had expected blushing and sputtering from her but something had changed. She was all smiles and confidence now. “You’re going to have all of me soon enough. I was more worried you’d see the dress. I wanted it to be a surprise. Did you see it?”

 

“No. . .” he said quietly, “only you.” He was still amazed when she spoke like this. About wanting him in the same way as he wanted her. Ladies like her weren’t supposed to desire dogs. They simply weren’t; yet she did anyway.

 

She gave him a soft, pleased laugh that he was learning she only shared with him and leaned in closer, letting her voice drop. “Now you know how I felt when you opened your door in nothing but your breeches,” she teased. Then she winked at him! The Little Bird was becoming a minx! She was playing a game he was certain they were both going to win at. When she made her way from him, he asked to borrow Brienne for a short time and Sansa granted his request, promising she would stay within the main house and wait for her sworn shield.

 

He beckoned for Brienne to follow him back inside the seamstress’ rooms. He had grown to respect the woman and she could probably be useful in the task at hand. Inside, he tried to be patient while both women pulled out reams of silks, linens and lace. It was all the same to him but he tried to pay attention to the details he was given about each type of cloth and what colors would best go with Sansa’s chosen dress. In the end they settled upon a thick, light blue silk and linen combination to match her eyes. He was assured it would go with Sansa’s dress nicely. Rose would stitch the dire wolf of House Stark onto the cloak and line it with gray rabbit’s fur. Rose asked him for the design of his house’s sigil; she could work it in if he liked. He told her it wasn’t necessary but Brienne whispered into the seamstress’ ear.

 

“No dogs!” he warned, glaring at the both of them.

 

“No dogs,” they both agreed in unison, grinning together as well. He didn’t trust either one of the looks on their faces.

 

His offer of payment was turned down and he grumbled about it. Rose tried to tell him that having her name spread all over the country side as the one who had made Lady Stark’s dress and cloak was payment enough but it still didn’t settle right with him.

 

“He can draw,” Brienne mentioned casually. She understood he felt the need to earn that which he asked for and was trying to help him once again. “You just married didn’t you, Rose? Does your husband fancy a portrait?”

 

“Really!” Rose exclaimed, looking at his hands. “Maybe,” she mused, letting her fingers drift to her belly. Both he and Brienne noticed.

 

“I haven’t told Levi yet!” she yelped. “Don’t you dare say a word to him! I’ve only missed one moonblood.” They both nodded their heads at her, agreeing to stay silent. He didn’t have a bloody clue who Levi was anyway. “When the baby comes will you draw a portrait then? Once it’s a few months old?”

 

That was easy enough. He had sketched out a few children in his earlier years on the Isle. A deal was struck and the seamstress promised to have both dress and cloak ready a few days before the wedding.

 

 

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The meeting with Rose had kept him busy longer than anticipated. By the time he made it back to the training yard it was well into the early evening and Anteros was beside himself with pent up energy. Tessa looked as if she would fall over at any moment.

 

“I’ll take him,” he told Tessa, watching her curtsy to him gratefully before scampering off.

 

Anteros babbled on non stop the entire way to the stables. The lad wanted to know where he’d been, why he was late, why his mother needed a cloak, for she had plenty of them already, and why weren’t they married yet. The chatter went on and on while Anteros helped him with his armor. When would they be getting married? When would he be his da? All questions the lad had asked at least a dozen times before and he answered every day with a number one less then the last time he was asked.

 

After the riding lesson, dusk was creeping over the land. They had indeed been set off their usual routine by his visit to Rose. Usually the day was working towards dark when they exited the stables not before. There was still work to be done though. The Elder Brother was only halfway through feeding and bedding down the horses. They were low on fresh straw and sent Anteros up into the hay loft to push bails of it down to them on the ground. The Elder Brother lit several oil lamps to make their task easier. Shadow had curled up in a corner to nap.

 

He busied himself with helping the Elder Brother lay out new straw. Anteros had found a nest of barn kittens and he didn’t have the heart to call the lad back down out of the loft yet. Anteros would only be a child for a few more years and should enjoy himself when the opportunity sprung up.

 

A kitchen boy dashed into the stable to collect him. The Lady Stark was requesting his presence in Collins’ cramped study set off of the kitchens. They were going over the dishes to be served for the wedding feast and wanted his approval. He almost sent the scrawny servant back with a scathing word about how he wasn’t going to care about food of all things on that day but he sighed instead, setting his pitchfork aside. The Elder Brother told him he would look after Anteros for a few moments.

                                               

 

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The amount of time he ended up spending stuck in the kitchen master’s room was ridiculous in his mind. He gave short nods and grunts to everything asked of him. Sansa’s happiness was paramount, of course, and he had no true preferences in any of the details. The entire event was becoming something strange and foreign to him. All he wanted was Sansa. It was supposed to be easy and everyone was adding in details that seemed to make it all more and more complicated. He wanted her by his side. He didn’t give a shit about what filling to put inside of pastries. He yearned to feel her skin, all of it, against his own. He didn’t feel a need to pick out colored silks and flowers. He wished to let her know that she was the only one capable of stirring true love within his heart and that he would always remain loyal to her.  Always. There was no need to tell those things to strangers. They were thoughts that belonged to Sansa’s ears only. But that’s not the way things were done, especially in highborn society, so he chalked it all up to one final bed of coals he had to crawl through in order to get what he wanted.

 

There was a bustle outside Collins’ door. Loud voices and scuffling that made all three of them pause in their current discussion. They could see the shadow of Brienne’s feet shift under the crack at the bottom of the door. Then there were more urgent cries and the high pitched shouts of several women. He lept out of his chair in alarm. Gods, they sounded as if the fires of the ovens had taken over the kitchens. But it wasn’t the kitchens that had caught fire. It was much worse.

 

Tessa flew into the room, almost falling through the doorway. She was sobbing and blubbering. “He’s in the loft! It’s fire! All fire! Oh Gods, m’lady I’m sorry.”  Tessa collapsed, still sobbing, while Collins grabbed at her to try and break her fall.

 

Sansa looked confused but he knew. He knew. And something switched inside him. There was the part of him that felt separate from his own body that took control. Otherwise he might have ended up just as Tessa was. He was out of the room and the building well ahead of Sansa and Brienne. He ran. His leg hadn’t allowed him to run in years but he did now. He could feel the stiff muscles in his thigh that had never fully healed right, rip and tear. Someplace far off he realized that it hurt, like a knife slicing him, but it was distant; something to listen to later.

 

Outside he could see smoke already. Ominous, black clouds filled the sky. Past the wagon yards and underground gardens he ran. He knew where he was going. The worst of his nightmares was playing out before him in reality. The din of shouting voices got louder as he neared the stables. Smoke was billowing out of the doors and higher up the wooden structure through the small square opening to the hay loft. The Elder Brother came rushing over to him. The robed man rammed his shoulder into him at chest level, digging his heels into the dirt and making him stop several yards in front of the blazing stables.

 

“Sandor, you can’t!” the man hollered. “You can’t! It’s all flames on the bottom. We’ve tried. I tired! It’s all my fault!” The Elder Brother began weeping as well. “I told him to send down more hay. I wasn’t watching fully. The third one hit an oil lamp. I tried! The ladder caught first and he wouldn’t jump!”

 

“So you left him to burn?” he shot back. “Fucking useless old man!”

 

He pushed at the Elder Brother with one hand, flinging the man down into the mud. There were panicked cries from everyone as they formed a line to pass buckets of water from the wells. Others took spades and threw shovelfuls of heavy, half melted snow onto the lines of fire that crept outside the stable doors. Some of the horses had been set free but others screeched out in their death throes as the flames started to burn them alive. And above all of that he could hear the frightened sobs of a boy.

 

Looking up to the glassless window cut out of the side of the stables, high up to allow men to hoist hay into the loft, he thought he saw movement inside the smoke that continued to pour out into the night. It was too high for him to reach. He’d need to be at least three times his height in order to touch it. He stepped directly under the window, ignoring the heat that scorched his face and the smoke that burned his eyes.

 

“Anteros!” he shouted. There was no answer but he swore he could still hear the crying of a child. “Damn it boy! Answer me!” he bellowed. And then he saw a face in the smoke. The child was still alive. His son was still alive! There was still a chance. Horror tried to creep its way into his mind. It had to be fire. Of all the things it had to be fire. He felt weak and dizzy but he shoved it all aside. He could feel later. Not now. Now was a time to act. He looked around him, trying to find anything he could use to try and reach the window. And then he heard Sansa.

 

She screamed. Raw and ragged, her voice carried out across the night. She’d sorted it all out. It was the worst thing he’d ever heard. His own cries of pain in his youth, the thousands of men and women that had fallen before him, the horses that burned now; they were nothing compared to Sansa’s frantic wailings. He watched her try to run into the building, helpless to stop her. His feet wouldn’t move. The sounds coming out of her had frozen him in place. Brienne caught her in time, pulling Sansa back and wrapping her tight from behind in her massive arms. Sansa fought. She kicked, struggled and swore! He’d never heard words come out of her like that. Both Lady and sworn shield ended up on the ground. Brienne had to use her legs as well to hold Sansa down.

 

Time slowed for him. There was nothing but Sansa’s tears, the smell of cooking horseflesh and the beats of his own dying heart. There was something in his hand. Shadow nudged and licked at his palm, whining in worry. And then he looked past the dog to see Holloway shouting for the men to bring a ladder from the training yard. Someone else had seen. He wasn’t alone. The world snapped back into place and he could hear his own blood rushing in his ears.

 

It would be too late before the men got back though. They could all see the flames were working their way up from the ground floor to the second. There was a grappling hook on Holloway’s belt. He was calm. Like the space in between lightning and thunder. But when the thunder finally crashed he was left with the rage needed to see a task done with no questions or hesitations. And he was angry; furious at death for trying to rid him of his family once again. Hateful of the flames that wouldn’t leave him in peace.

 

“Can you hit that mark?” he bellowed at Holloway, pointing up to the beam used to lift bails of hay from the ground to loft that stuck out from the building.  Holloway caught on right away, a man of quick action himself.

 

“Aye,” the ginger soldier told him, stepping back a pace. Holloway hadn’t lied. His aim was true and soon there was a sturdy enough rope for someone to climb.

 

He looked over his shoulder to find Sansa’s eyes. He might not see them again. She was on her knees with Brienne holding her by the shoulders in case she tried to run towards the fire again. She looked at him with hope in her eyes, wetness streaming down her face. Her cream colored dress was ruined; splattered with mud and torn. With the darkness of night behind her, it looked like blood illuminated by fire. She was still beautiful.

 

He didn’t want to go up the rope. Everything inside of his mind begged and pleaded with his body to stop its next move. Then Sansa mouthed a silent, “please” and he was climbing. There were blisters and calluses on his palms from the new abuse in the training yard that burst and tore on the harsh chord in his hands. His bad leg was as good as useless and he had to rely on his shoulders and arms to keep going.

 

Once he reached the top of the rope, he could only manage to place one foot inside the window. He called for Anteros but there was no reply. So he swung his weight back and forth, gaining momentum until he was able to half roll and half fall into hell. The heat was unbearable. There was thick, suffocating smoke everywhere. He crawled on the floor of the loft, blind and gasping for air. His leg cramped painfully, his eyes watered and his lungs felt heavy and full of ash. He could hear Anteros crying and followed the noise. And there! Finally his hands felt a small leg, a body, and then Anteros was clutching at his face and howling in his ear.

 

Dragging the boy by his shirt, he tried to make his way back to the window but he couldn’t see anything! Nothing but tendrils of fire that were starting to lick at the bails upon bails of dry hay waiting to be set aflame. He moved in the opposite direction, trying to see where the smoke was moving towards. That was his goal as well. Anteros was lost in terror and he knew what that felt like. It had been the same for him when his world was nothing but his own face melting. There was no way to comfort or coddle the boy. They had to move swiftly before the straw caught fire. There would be no hope for either one of them after that.

 

He found the window, choking on the fresh air as it filled his desperate lungs. Brienne was beneath the window while a weeping Sansa paced beside the Elder Brother nearby.  Brienne’s arms were stretched upwards towards him. She was the tallest on the grounds next to him. If he lowered Anteros down by his wrists the lad wouldn’t have far to drop into Brienne’s arms. He pried the child’s fingers from his clothing and lay on his belly in order to lower Anteros as far as he possibly could. 

 

“You’re alright.” he coughed. “You have to go down. Brienne will catch you.”

 

Anteros suddenly stopped crying and looked at him. “And you’ll come next?” the boy asked.

 

“I’ll come next,” he said, holding onto gray eyes with his own and praying he could keep his promise. The straw had caught fire. He could feel the inferno behind him. His boots were so hot it felt as if someone had put coals inside them. Anteros hiccupped and cried out when he began lowering him out of the window. Once Brienne was near enough, he twisted his fingers to force Anteros’ hands out of his own. Brienne caught Anteros, stumbling a bit but keeping her feet under her. Then he saw Sansa gather the boy up and collapse once again into the mud. She rocked the boy, cried and kissed his hair.

 

It was a struggle to grasp the rope so that he could climb down. It was just out of reach. He could have jumped but he’d end up with a broken leg at the very least. Still, it was better than burning to death. The bottoms of his breeches had caught fire and he tucked into a ball to try and smack at the flames nipping at the flesh of his legs. Somehow he managed to draw himself up on his knees. The fire was right at his back and the smoke was so black he couldn’t see the rope any longer. Sansa was screaming his name now instead of Anteros’ as he leapt from the window; a true step of faith. For a second there was nothing but air in his hands and he wondered if Sansa could love a cripple. But then he felt rope and he closed his fists around it with a grip to match a cold, iron trap.  The force yanked at the joints in his shoulders but he didn’t hit the ground. He was miraculously alive, slipping down the rope onto legs that threatened to buckle beneath him.

 

He stayed solid. His stomach and bladder both wanted to empty themselves but he stood tall. He felt numb. Horribly numb and cold. Sansa was still on the ground, crying into Antero’s hair. She reached a hand out to him. His feet moved though he was not aware of them doing so. He had nothing more to give her at the moment. He was gone; lost and broken once again. He’d been on fire!

 

His fingers touched the crown of her head first and then Anteros’, assuring himself that they were both safe. He tried to walk past her. He needed to be alone; the sounds and smells around him were stifling now that his task had been completed. He’d done his duty and now he wanted to retreat. But she grabbed at his leg. One of her arms held Anteros while the other wrapped itself tightly around his thigh. She wept into his breeches and kissed the singed cloth that she discovered. He made himself become stone. Inside he trembled and wept but outside he didn’t move a single muscle. It was too much for him. It was feel nothing or everything and he chose nothing. Swallowing thickly, the world blurred as his eyes watered but no tears fell.

 

When she let go of his leg he kept walking past her. Up to the house and back towards the North Tower. There were no buildings near the stables. The fire wouldn’t spread. He was finished. He made it to his room and then had to dash for the basin he usually used for washing up. Retching and spitting into the bowl, his stomach decided that it wasn’t going to let him keep the remains of his last meal after all. He sank into a chair in the dark. There would be no lights for him that night. The room smelled of vomit and fear as he sat alone.

 

Chapter Text

“Sometimes I wanted you to be gone forever, but mostly I wanted you to see me. Really look at me and see me. I thought if you could see me, maybe I’d be worth something.”

 

…………………………………………………..

 

Sitting in a hard chair by the table in his room, he couldn’t say how long he remained unmoving. What made him stand was the smell. Not from the basin of sick that still sat somewhere behind him, but from the nauseating, charred scent that wafted from his own clothing. He stank of cold, stark terror and smoke. He felt his way over to his chest in complete blackness, not having the strength inside to light even a candle. Seeking out new clothing by feel alone, he stripped in the dark. His hands worked of their own accord, shock having overtaken him long ago in the evening. Fingers traveled over his flesh, assessing the damage though he could barely feel his own touch. He was still numb; frigid and unyielding. The slight depression in his leg, where rotted flesh had been removed years ago, throbbed in agony but it seemed such a small thing stacked next to the endless pit of torment he felt inside himself. His leg had escaped being burnt, his fingers told him. The skin there was tender and stung but there were no blisters or patches of skin to be peeled off like it had been with his arm and face.

 

He dressed fully, pulling on both his boots and buckling his belt and dagger once again, though he knew not why. It wasn’t as if he planned on leaving the safety of his room ever again. Not until morning at least, when there would be a light he could live with. So he sat, dazed and unfeeling, waiting for dawn to come. It was going to be a long night.

 

The first person to knock at his door had been the Elder Brother. There was a thump at the base of his door, followed quickly by another. Someone was kicking at the door. He turned his head at the noise but ignored whoever it was. He didn’t want anyone. No one wanted him. He was a coward; a cur, a fraud. The Hound had come back to prowl around some of its old hunting grounds it seemed. If all the parts inside of him that had tried to flourish in the past years were nothing more than slabs of meat, then the Hound, that had been raised and trained in anger and fear, tore into all those fragile bits of him like they were its very last meal. The Hound had been starved for far too long and tonight had given it a meal like no other. He had thought himself free of the beast but the fire that had tried to take his son proved him wrong.

 

“Sandor, open the door,” the Elder Brother called. “My hands are full. I can’t open it.”  He sighed heavily with a world of tiring thoughts struggling to escape him. It would do no use to try and act as if the Elder Brother wasn’t there. The Brother would eventually come in on his own if he didn’t invite him. Rising, he shuffled over to the door, opened it and held a hand up to block the light that strung his eyes from the torches in the hallway.

 

The Elder Brother didn’t say a word. The man had a large basket in his arms. It was resting on the Elder Brother’s forearms, not in the man’s hands, he noted. Then he saw the white bandages wrapped around the Elder Brother’s palms, specks of blood seeping through the fabric. In the light that poured in from the hallway he could see spots of black on the man’s robes; places where fire had eaten away at the brown garment. The Elder Brother had told him that he had tried. His stomach dropped ten stories below the ground. He had shoved and cursed at the man who had done his best to save his son; the evidence was all over the man’s hands. They wept with the blood of the holy man’s sacrifice. He wouldn’t be the only man on the grounds to carry scaring burns any more.

 

The Elder Brother took his bundle over to the table and dropped it, tsking at the unlit room. Without asking, he went to the mantel of the fireplace, lit three candles and brought them over to the table. At least the man had the compassion to set the candles as far back as possible.

 

“Sit,” the Elder Brother commanded and he did as he was told, after shutting the door. He was too weak to fight anyone. “I’m sorry,” the robed man continued, once he had sat down himself. He could only shake his head back in response.

 

“I wasn’t myself,” he choked out.

 

“No, you weren’t,” the Elder Brother agreed. “But I think the circumstances allowed for a bit of anger.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“I know it. As am I. The entire thing was my fault. I should have watched him better.” The Elder Brother started to unpack his basket as he continued to speak. “That was an exceptional thing you did. You should feel proud. I know you won’t but you should. Let me see your hands. I saw blood.”

 

He placed his hands on the table. The Elder Brother poked and prodded, grabbing some cloth and a jar of light green paste from his basket. The Brother walked over to the pitcher of water and basin, made a face when he saw the contents inside and then took it all over to the window to dump out into the snow. Next he rinsed the bowl out before putting fresh water in and carrying it back to the table. The Elder Brother gave him a sad, knowing look as he dabbed at his hands, cleaning them first. There was a terrible secret in him that made him want to die. Truly die. And there was only one person to tell it to.

 

“It wasn’t brave. It wasn’t something to be proud of. I would have walked away. I would have let that little boy burn if she hadn’t asked me to step into the fire,” he confessed quietly. His hands shook within the Elder Brother’s.

 

“I don’t believe that for a moment,” the Elder Brother told him harshly. “You keep the truth from yourself too often. You don’t count yourself worthy and you tell lies to keep it that way. I do hope your wife to be has learned how to deal with the sabotage you bring upon yourself.”

 

The Elder Brother spread the cool paste over his cuts. The man never offered to build a fire in the hearth and he was grateful. A candle was one thing; a fire was out of the question. After the Elder Brother had packed away his healing unguent there came a wooden bowl covered with a cloth. Inside there was hunk of brown bread, some diced chicken and sweet yams sprinkled with salt and rosemary. His stomach flipped at the sight.

 

“You know how this works,” the Elder Brother stated, placing the food before him. “You skipped the last meal of the day. Your body and mind need mending and they can’t do it without nourishment. Eat a few bites and I’ll leave you in peace.”

 

It had been like this between the two of them those first few weeks on the Quiet Isle. In the beginning, he’d been not quite himself as they fed him milk of the poppy and teas to bring on healing sleep. He had eaten well enough then, when he was actually awake, but when his mind cleared and they offered him no wine or steel he had tried to revolt by not eating. A week he went without anything but water until the Elder Brother had enough of his childish ways and had set him right with words he couldn’t argue with. If he wanted to walk away from the Isle so badly then he was going to have to eat in order to have the strength to do it. By the time his leg had healed enough for him to do so he found he longer wished to.

 

He picked at the food, getting through a few bites and washing it down with cool water. The Elder Brother had, wisely, brought him no wine. One glass would have turned into two. Two into a bottle and from that point on he probably wouldn’t have stopped until he’d passed out. It would be all too easy to fall back on that crutch.

 

The Elder Brother did as he promised, standing and collecting his things once a quarter of the food in the bowl was gone. The robed man gathered his basket up into his arms but left the food on the table and the candles burning. They nodded their heads to each other and that was all that was needed between the two of them.

 

…………………………………………………..

 

Holloway had been next. In a surprising twist the next knock on his door was loud, booming and repetitive. Holloway didn’t let up with his knocking for several minutes until he rose, angrily, to yank the door open. There was a bottle in Holloway’s hand.

 

“I’ve brought us something,” Holloway explained, holding the amber bottle up to the light. It wasn’t wine. It was something stronger. Brandy perhaps. He backed up to let the solider into the room. “It’s freezing in here” Holloway noted, popping the cork on the bottle and taking a seat.

 

“Then leave,” he shot back. “No one fucking asked you here.”

 

“I need a drink,” Holloway argued, “and someone to drink with. You need a drink too, I’d wager.”

 

He didn’t know if he needed a drink but he sure as hell wanted one. Holloway took a sip from the bottle and gave him an appraising look before looking at the fire place and then back to his face. The soldier was trying to work something out.

 

“It’s the sound of arrows what does it for me,” Holloway finally said.

 

“Does what?” he snapped irritably.

 

“Does me in sometimes. I took three arrows once. One in the leg, one in the meat of my shoulder and one in the gut,” Holloway spoke and sniffed indifferently. “The one in the gut should have killed me. It tried to. I spent weeks feeling as if all my insides were on fire. My blood turned to poison they say. I lost days. But I didn’t die. Now when I hear an arrow let loose it makes me cringe. Takes my courage . . .”

 

Holloway shrugged and took another pull from the bottle. This one was much deeper then the first. The bottle sat between the two of them on the table. Well, why the fuck not, he thought. This was a shit day turned into a shit night and he may as well continue on with it. Maybe it would help him sleep a few hours. He took his own long, deep pull from the brown bottle. It was brandy as he had thought.

 

The two of them sat in blessed silence for awhile, passing the bottle of sweet liquor back and forth. Soldiers didn’t need to talk. They understood plenty already and times when quiet could be had were welcome. But Holloway was the one to shift uncomfortably in his seat and speak first.

 

“You’re going to marry the Lady Sansa.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“And take on the boy as your own?”

 

That made his head lift up in intrigue. What was the man getting at? “Aye,” he answered, trying to make a jest of it and send Holloway off his scent. “Looks a bit like me already, eh?”

 

“Pfffft. Anyone can see that,” Holloway scoffed. Then the solider sobered a bit and looked him dead in the eye. “Do you know how fast you moved today? Like a damned snake striking. I’ve seen all sorts of men move in battle for all kinds of different reasons. Man doesn’t move like that unless it’s for blood.”

 

They both sat staring at one another. The silence was all consuming. Holloway had it all figured out and he worried as to what would come next.

 

Holloway backed off, leaning back in his chair and grinning. “Not that I’m judging mind you” –the solider caught his raised eyebrow- “alright, maybe I am. How the bloody hell did you manage it?” Hollway finished while pointing at his face. “No offence but I can’t see a girl swooning over that.”

 

He chewed on his lip trying to decide the best way to answer. “She’s too kind and I was too drunk and weak. It shouldn’t have happened.” He felt as if he should defend himself somewhat. “It was only the one time. I didn’t force her. She gave and I took and it wasn’t right of me but it happened. I left her after. I tried to let her alone so she could find happiness without me.”

 

Holloway drank again and so did he. There was little left in the bottle. “She’d talk about you every so often. She didn’t forget. It’s good that you're back,” Holloway stated, rising and slapping him on the back. “Try and enjoy your marriage a few months before you go making any more babes. They wreck havoc on a man’s needs. Grenna’s big as a melon and won’t let me near her anymore.”  They both chuckled the slurred laugh of the half drunk while Holloway scooped up one of the candles and made his way out of the door. And then he and a finger of brandy were all alone again. It didn’t take him long to finish it off.

 

 

…………………………………………………..

 

Two candles remained on the table, burning low and flickering softly. He knew he’d have to blow them out soon least they scorch the wood beneath them, but even with a bellyful of spirits he couldn’t find the courage to do so. A fucking candle! And Sandor Clegane too frightened to get near it! How had he ever survived the night of the Blackwater? He didn’t know for certain, though he had his suspicions. An incredible amount of wine, enough that it should have sent his body into shock, and the Little Bird’s care had seen him through. He didn’t have either right now and it left him empty, weary to the point of utter depletion and lost once again. The brandy had worked for a short time but then it had done nothing but heighten his nervousness. He doubted he would see Sansa during the night. Her duty was, rightfully, to Anteros. The boy needed her more than he did; but he needed her all the same. Not for the first time he found himself jealous of his own son and then angry for feeling that way. There had been no mother to see him through when the fire had taken him at six; only a sister he barely remembered.  Anteros was lucky to have Sansa with him.

 

He was about to give up with sitting and go. Where, he didn’t know. The yard perhaps? Out into the cold, misty air? Or maybe the wine cellars? He was sure to find an old friend there. The Elder Brother wouldn’t approve but he was beyond caring. There was a tremor in the hands resting on his thighs that wanted taming.

 

The light knock on his door startled him. Three knocks. A small sob caught in his throat, knowing who was on the other side of the etched, oaken door. She knew his need. He should have had more faith in her. Sansa didn’t wait for him to rise and answer her call. She opened the door on her own and let herself in almost as soon as she had stopped knocking. She squinted in the darkness, found his shape sitting on his bed, and then her eyes went wild. There was heat and permission in her pale, blue orbs that he’d been waiting for all along. But she’d picked a miserable time to try and have him. He wasn’t the faintest bit interested in coupling; lingering ropes of fear binding his vigor. Life was being terrible and cruel to him, he decided.

 

She practically sprinted over to him, jumping onto his lap and straddling his hips, high up near his length. She’d paid attention the last time she had done this and knew that it drove him straight towards lust. Her eyes were alight with her own shadow of unease and the knowledge of having been so close to a tragedy without actually having to touch it. She was shaken, like him. Not for the same reason but they had both faced numerous living nightmares that day; unspoken understanding once again passing between them. Her hands grabbed at his, placing them directly onto her breasts while she kissed at his lips. It was a brazen move from the Little Bird. When he kept still, she nuzzled at his neck and ground herself across his half swollen cock like he’d shown her how weeks ago. He wanted nothing more than to grant her wish and keep her happy; laying her down and helping the both of them to forget the entire day. He could spend his terror in pleasured screams and spasms of ecstasy while she cradled him gently. Just like the Blackwater, he thought while kneading her breasts and tilting his jaw to scrape his teeth across her neck. Her peaked nipples grazed his fingers through her gown. He felt the stinging threat of tears. Isn’t this what he had wanted? Then why did it feel so hollow? He didn’t think that he wanted to be aroused but how was he to stop the rush of blood through his veins as she licked him. Fucking licked him! Right across the hole that was meant to pass for an ear. He had been so scared! He still was. She knew it and she wanted him. She wanted to save him from it.

 

Just like the Blackwater.

 

He froze, seeing the empty bottle of brandy setting on the table, over her shoulder.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He’d never wanted it to be like this; fueled by liquor and fear. He wasn’t going to let it happen again.

 

“Sansa –“ he started, losing the rest of his words as her mouth covered his, silencing him for a moment more. He felt her hands at the buckle of the belt that he’d never taken off. The Seven help him! She had to stop! She had to stop this instant.

 

“Sansa!” he said more forcefully, frantically grasping her hands. “Stop. There’s no need.”

 

“Please,” she whined, twisting her fingers to place her hands palm to palm with his. “It’s alright. I want to, I do. You’ve been so good to me. It’s alright.” She tried for his lips again and he ducked his head. She was making it so damned difficult to remain true to his vow. Sitting back a bit, she pouted at his rejection. Couldn’t she understand? She wanted him but she didn’t want this. He didn’t want her gift like this. Not with her head full of the sickening feeling left when terror was both there and not there. Not with a speed that would once again leave her unsatisfied. Not with only pity and gratitude aimed at him. She’d regret. He knew. He’d felt the same half a dozen years ago.

 

“I said I wouldn’t,” he offered to her, sorry that she felt as if he didn’t want her. He did! Gods, did he want her, but it wasn’t right to let history repeat itself. “Not until we’re wed, Little Bird. Let me do one thing right.”

 

She shook a hand free, bringing it up to stroke her knuckles down the burnt half of his face. “It’s a noble idea, my love. But you said to tell you when. You never told me you wouldn’t until we wed. I don’t expect that of you. You’re not breaking any promise to me.”

 

“Not you!” he shouted, frustrated. She deserved it but that wasn’t his main reason for abstaining. He was the reason. “I promised myself! I did everything wrong. I need to do right.” 

 

She furrowed her brow at him, trying to grasp his full meaning. Rocking her hips against him one last time to try and sway him, he called out in both pleasure and pain.

 

“Please!”

 

Was that his voice begging? He never begged. Not since he’d asked for mercy from the littlest she wolf. He was doing it now with the elder. He would break if she didn’t stop and hate himself on the morrow. “Please, Sansa. Little Bird! Don’t make a liar of me!”

 

That caught her attention! Her eyes held shining sorrow now. She knew his deep need for truth above all else. She licked her lips. Her eyes widened and she whipped her head around; glancing about the room and spying the empty bottle behind her. Understanding dawned in her eyes. Sansa scrambled from his lap, sitting on her knees atop the pallet beside him as he let out a loud gasp of relief. Her robe pooled out around her.

 

“I’m sorry,” she cried, placing a few of her fingertips delicately on the top of his hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. That was wrong of me.”

 

His body shuddered, confused at what it was feeling. Was it supposed to fuck or weep? Continue on drinking or shivering like a coward? Rubbing at his face with his palm, he looked at her for the answers. He didn’t know anymore! She nodded her head once, closing the distance between them to circle her arms around his neck.

 

“Thank you for keeping our son safe,” she whispered. “You are a good man.”

 

He barked out something that was both a laugh and a sob. Sansa was the only person in all the world to think that of him. She shushed in his ear, holding him tight but keeping her body separated from his; trying to offer him the reassurance he desired without striking the passion they both wanted.

 

“May I light the hearth?” Sansa asked, tip toeing around the word she knew was the cause of his distress. She drew back from him and pointed at the cold, stone fireplace. “I could stay for a bit. Let the room warm and sit with you?” Like the Elder Brother she was trying to tend to him while allowing him to keep a bit of pride.

 

There was no answer to give her. He wanted to shout out his disdain at the idea but he’d already shown her what a wretch he was. He couldn’t say no and let her see fully the craven result of the shambles she’d agreed to marry. A yes was out of the question as well. It had been like this before. When he was young, the smallest flame would send him into terrible fits where he felt as if he couldn’t breathe and his heart would surely explode within his chest. After the Blackwater it hadn’t been quite as bad but fire in any form had rattled him for weeks. Now it felt like it had when he was a child.

 

Sansa waited patiently a few moments, letting him take his time in answering. When moments turned into minutes she plucked herself up from the bed fully. He tried to stifle the gurgled, choked noise of protest that climbed its way out of him. It was weak, pathetic and he didn’t care; not if it managed to draw her back to him. He thought she meant to leave him. Her slight hands pulled back the furs of his bed instead. Kneeling at his feet, she pulled one boot off and then the other.

 

“Take your belt off if you like and lay down,” she told him, keeping her hands to herself. He hesitated. She wouldn’t try at seducing him again would she? Not after the spectacle he’d just made of himself? Her hand cupped his face, over the thin tissue covering the bone of his jaw. “Trust me,” she breathed. He gulped and removed his belt as she had asked before settling himself on the pallet.

 

“On your side,” she bid him, pushing lightly at one of his shoulders. He rolled over, with his back to her and the door, his stomach trying to make him sick again off of the years that seemed to tick by in waiting for her next move. The furs were drawn up over him and he could hear her footsteps retreating. She was going to leave him after all! He felt more desolate and heartbroken than ever before. There were painful tears ready to spill behind his eyes. His throat tried to close with the effort of holding them back but he wouldn’t break with her still in the room. If she wanted to leave he would let her. This had never been a part of their bargain to marry; seeing to the leftover remains of a man who acted the brave one in public and caved to fear in private.

 

The room was thrown into pitch blackness as she blew out the candles. He waited for the click of his door shutting but it never happened. Her steps came back to him. The furs were lifted briefly so that she could slip into the bed behind him. She pressed her belly tight to his back, wriggling an arm under his to hold him.

 

“No fire,” she murmured, soft and soothing.  He trembled inside her embrace; harshly, like a fever had taken him. The noises that came out of him sounded more animal then human. “No fire,” she told him again, sternly. He swore he could hear her thoughts. I won’t let it have you. Her face came over his shoulder. Cheek to cheek, she snaked her other arm under his neck and held as much of him in her arms as she could manage. He couldn’t seem to stop shaking.

 

“I know what today took from you,” she whispered, “I know. I see you.” She hummed a song into his ear and he wept brokenly after the first few notes. It was the Mother’s Hymn.

 

Line by line and verse by verse she gave him something that his soul had known was absent though his mind could never fully comprehend what it was exactly. She made him feel complete, something close to whole. Sansa had seen a glimmer of this side of him before. She’d seen the scars he bore outside and now she had been witness, for a second time, to the ones he carried inside. The ones she saw now were far more hideous than those on his face. It was shameful and cleansing in turns. She was the only one who could go this far with him; dig this deeply into him. She took the shattered pieces inside him and did her best to stitch them back together. If anyone could try at mending him it was her.

 

It was everything the Blackwater had never been. Had he the courage and she the knowledge back then this is where the night should have gone. But it hadn’t, so he mournfully wept all those saved tears now. He cried for both his continuing struggle and the balm of true comfort that the Gods had seen fit to bless him with in the form of a red haired woman who possessed more heart and courage then he could ever hope to obtain. She saw and acknowledged all parts of him, dark and light. One of his hands found hers and squeezed with a force built of fear, love and a need he would never be able to describe to her in words. It was all that existed for a time; the power of her hand in his. It should have hurt her but she never cried out. His pain was not too heavy a burden for her flesh to carry for a time. She couldn’t shoulder it forever, but she could offer rest and a chance to gain strength in her arms.

 

Sansa gave him his song three, maybe four times before his tears began to subside. Once he had taken control of himself, he moved out of her arms and turned over to face her. They couldn’t see one another in the dark and they didn’t need to. It was enough that they were each there. She tucked her head under his chin, allowing him to hug her fiercely. There was no way to keep count of the number of times she told him he was loved while he offered thankful kisses into her hair. He would walk through fire every day if this was the reward that awaited him at nightfall. Sansa fell asleep long before he did; her steady, even breaths calming him enough to find slumber, eventually, as well.

 

 

Chapter Text

He woke to screams. Unsettling, high pitched squeals, like those of a baby rabbit assaulted his ears. There was a fleeting moment where he thought it was him that caused the disturbance. It had been known to happen in the past and his current dreams had been skirting the edges of a nightmare. But it wasn’t he that had made the noise. Sansa was still wrapped in his arms and the noise came from far away. Another piercing cry tore through the night. Sansa and he both sat upright, startled and confused.

 

“Anteros!” Sansa called, though it was impossible for the boy to hear her. He hadn’t been sure who had been making the noise. He’d never heard a child, let alone his own, cry out like that.

 

Sansa was up and out of the bed instantly, running blindly for the door. He was steps behind her, his mind racing through all the terrible things that could be happening to his son. His dagger was in his hand by the time he made it to the hallway. There he met both an armed Brienne and a disheveled looking Tessa. Sansa was already halfway up the stairs. Anteros continued to wail while the three of them shouted out to Sansa, telling her there could be danger, a trap, anything! He and Breinne should go in the room first but the panicked mother paid no heed to their warnings.

 

He took the stairs two at a time, wincing in pain, with Brienne on his heels. Tessa hiked up her robe and scrambled to keep pace with them. Once at the door, he found it hanging open. There was a low fire still glowing in the hearth giving him enough dim light to see around the room. Sansa was making her way to Anteros, who was sitting up in bed, crying with everything that he had. Powerful shrieks streaked with fear escaped the boy while tears poured down his reddened cheeks. Sansa was reaching for the lad but then something occurred that ripped his heart open, bled it out onto the carpet and left him well and truly lost in the love for his family.

 

Anteros ignored Sansa. She held her arms wide open before their son and instead of clambering into his mother’s embrace, Anteros shifted in the bed to look past her and directly at him. The boy cried out again, reaching his shaking arms out to him.

 

“There’s fire!” Anteros sobbed. “Make it go away!”

 

Sansa took to weeping then as well. She backed up out of the way, sensing whom her son wanted to draw comfort from. He didn’t know when or where his dagger fell. There was a sharp clatter of metal and then his arms were full of tearful, snot smeared boy. Anteros gripped him so tightly around the neck he felt as if he was being choked but he made no attempt to stop the lad.

 

“Stamp the flames down,” he told Brienne. One giant hand lay upon Anteros’ head while his other held the lad up onto his chest. “It was a dream. A bad dream,” he shushed at his son. He’d had enough of them himself to know Anteros’ exact fear. “There’s no fire now.”

 

Brienne did as he asked, quickly and quietly. The light in the room became a dull red glow from the coals that remained. Sansa crept up to the two of them as Anteros continued to bawl. Placing herself at Anteros’ back, she brought her arms around their boy, effectively trapping Anteros between the two of them. “You’re safe now, little one,” she said, laying kisses over his arm and Anteros’ back. “There’s no fire. Only mummy and Sandor. He’ll never let anything hurt you, sweetling.” 

 

Tessa, approached and offered Anteros the white cloth he was so fond of. Anteros seemed to settle with it in his hands. There were still tears and pitiful little whimpers coming from the boy but he no longer screamed. Brienne and Tessa backed out of the room, letting he and Sansa alone to tend to their son. His eyes sought out Sansa’s. He didn’t know why he’d been chosen over her.

 

“I wasn’t the one to pull him from the fire,” she told him, understanding his concern.

 

Minutes crept by as Anteros shivered and cried into his chest. Sansa moved behind the boy, swaying back and forth, encouraging him to do the same. He didn’t know how to comfort a child properly and was glad for her presence. Eventually Anteros’ shallow, gulping breathes settled into a more normal pattern.

 

“Do you want me to stay?” Sansa asked Anteros, wiping tears from the boy’s cheek. Anteros nodded weakly against his chest. “Sandor too?” she added. Anteros nodded again, vigorously, at that question and tightened his little arms in a noose around his neck all over again.

 

“Alright, love,” Sansa cooed, moving back to the bed. He gave her a skeptical look. He’d stay. There was no question but the bed was a small one made for a boy not a man. Certainly not for a man his size. Sansa lay on her side, pressing herself tight against the stone wall that the bed was set next too. She beckoned to him and he followed her lead, trusting she knew what was best. He was able to squeeze himself beside her, on his back with Anteros lying on his chest. His legs fell off the bed at his knees but it was worth the dull ache the angle created in his lower back, he surmised. His son wanted him to stay. It was terrifying to know he was more than simply a friend to Anteros. Like when he’d first realized he was capable of love, a confusing rush of feeling took him. There was a new emotion he had never known existed until this moment. Is this what being a father, a true father, felt like? Probably, he thought, while his heart raced and Sansa began to rub Anteros’ back in small circles. He felt near overcome watching her soothe their boy; watching his son’s body rise and fall with his own breaths. She was so good at taming both her men’s fears.

 

He didn’t sleep one wink that night. Anteros was first to drift off with Sansa murmuring words of love and assurance. Sansa was next once she was certain that Anteros was dreaming peacefully once again. And then it was only him. He couldn’t possibly sleep. It was too beautiful a scene to risk missing. Not one of his wildest, most satisfying dreams could compare to what surrounded him now; child on his chest and soon to be wife at his side. It was something he had never fantasized about because the very thought of it seemed so preposterous and far-fetched that his mind couldn’t envision it. He may as well have learned how to create stars or walk on water. Those tasks would have been easier to accomplish in his mind’s eye than imagining a place in time where both a woman and child did not merely tolerate him but wanted him. Wanted and needed him for exactly who he was and what he might yet still become.  They both needed far more from him than his steel and that was a gift, the like he’d never dared to dream of before.

 

 

Dawn seeped into the room one lazy ray at a time. He kept his silent vigil. Not until the room was brightly lit with sunshine did he find himself unable to fight with sleep anymore. He slept and dreamt of everything but fire.

 

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A soft but insistent knock at the door woke him. Breinne’s head came through the large gap in the door to stare at them all still huddled together in Anteros’ bed. Sansa stretched and blinked while Anteros mumbled.

 

“My Lady, it’s well past the first meal. Nearly the second. I thought it best to let you all be and kept Tessa away but the day is turning to afternoon,” Brienne explained. Sansa gave her thanks and sat up fully in the bed. Anteros took some coaxing to wake but the boy was soon alert and seemed happy. He was in good spirits himself having slept in what amounted to a dog pile of secure familial warmth, though his body protested, disgruntled at the treatment he’d given it. His legs were stiff and tingled from the knees down; his back not in the best shape either. Twin fists of knotted tension sat at the base of his spine. So he grunted his displeasure but rose anyway and handed Anteros over to the women after placing a swift kiss to the boy’s head.

 

It was time to let the boy know who his father was. It could wait a few more hours but it couldn’t be put off one more day. He was ready to claim all of the thrilling offers fate was thrusting into his hands.

 

The day was spent helping clear the debris left of the ruined stables. First he shifted through the rubble that had once been the main doorways. There had been a bench there that he had always set his armor on. Hefting slabs of burnt wood aside, he discovered the damned sword had survived. It was blackened but whole and intact; just like him, it refused to give up.  The armor was in a similar state, dented and tarnished but not unsalvageable. The many beams of wood that had fallen over it had provided protection. His brigandine was a different story. The leather had not fared as well as the metal and he would more than likely need an entirely new one. He groaned at the thought of going back to chain mail for a week.

 

Near twenty five horses had been spared but at least that many had perished. It was a gruesome, dirty task. Each able bodied person of the estate worked together to lighten the load on all. It felt right to him. Instead of trying to rip the ladder of life and ambition out from one another, the people of Winterfell held the ladder in place so that all could have a chance at climbing. What benefited one benefitted all, much like the Quiet Isle. And he had Sansa and Anteros as well. Startled, he realized he felt as if he had found a home.

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When he met Sansa on the stairs leading to the North Tower, as had become their custom, his stance must have spoken of his decision. Sansa smiled and took his hands in hers. It seemed as if they’d lived ten years at each other’s side during the past twenty four hours; their understanding of one another ran deeper with every passing minute.

 

“Do you want me to tell him?” she asked gently, seeing the wrinkles in his brow.

 

“Aye,” he mumbled, lowering his head. He knew what he wanted to do but the words to say it correctly weren’t there for him.

 

“It’s alright,” she said, her voice kind and without a trace of judgment. “He’ll be happy for it. You’ll see. He loves you.”

 

“You chirp more prettily than I do.”

 

“You’ve gotten better at it. Soon you’ll be singing as well.”

 

Her joke made him laugh which was probably her intent all along. Hand in hand they climbed the stairs while his heart acted as if he’d asked it to run a league in less than a minute. Once Tessa had taken her leave, Sansa sat on the bed with Anteros in her lap and patted the space beside her. Grumbling, he flopped beside her on the bed, hearing the wooden frame creak beneath him. He was going to end up breaking the bloody thing if she kept insisting that he sit on it. Anteros grinned at him and he forgot to continue to be annoyed. Anteros had picked out a book but Sansa carefully placed it aside.

 

“I have a different tale to tell you tonight, if you like,” Sansa told Anteros, sweeping the boy’s hair out of his eyes with a finger. “Do you remember I said I’d tell you about the night you were made?”

 

“No,” Anteros answered back, picking at something under his nails. “Is it a good story? With dragons?”

 

“No, no dragons, little one,” Sansa laughed. “But it’s still a good story. Shall I tell you?”  Anteros nodded his agreement for her to continue. “Years ago, before you were born, I lived in a great castle. Much larger than our home now. It was a beautiful, sprawling stone structure but the people who lived there were vile. I had to stay, since my father was dead and I had no where else to go. Sandor was there. He was a sworn shield to the King; one of the finest warriors in the land.”

 

“A Knight!”

 

“No love, not a Knight” -she paused to look at him for a moment- “He was much better than a Knight. One day there was a terrible battle.  Do you recall Captain Holloway telling you about the Battle of the Blackwater?”

 

 

Anteros nodded his head enthusiastically. “When the water burned?”

 

 

“Yes, that’s the one. The water did catch fire.  It burned a glowing green. It was almost as bright at the light from the sun at times. That night I was so frightened I ran to my room to bolt door and hide away until it was over.  Sandor was there. He offered to keep me safe and to take me where ever I wished to go. But I was scared and wanted to stay in the castle.”

 

“But why mummy? If it was a bad place, why did you stay?”

 

“I was so scared, dear one.  Like a little baby bird too afraid to fly from the nest. The nest was safe in its own way and I didn’t know what dangers would wait for me outside of it.”

 

Anteros laughed at her and reached a hand behind his coal crowned head to smack blindly at his arm. “Mummy, he could have beaten any monsters outside the castle!”

 

Sansa smiled at their son. “Of course he could have, but I didn’t know it then.  He knew what was best for me, but do you know what?  This is why Sandor is better than any Knight you’ll ever hear of. Instead off forcing me to go, he let me make my own choice. He wasn’t happy about it at all but he let me be my self. But listen carefully! This is the best part of the story. Sandor loved me very much and I loved him but we were both too shy to say so. He had to leave the castle. His service to the King was over and he was not allowed to stay any longer. He loved me so much, that before he left, he gave you to me so that I wouldn’t be lonely and could remember him better.”

 

“Like a present?”

 

“In a way,” Sansa giggled. “He lay with me as men and women do when they want to create a child made of love. You grew in my belly. I kept you safe and warm through many dangers. Months later you came out of my body a tiny, pink, squalling bundle. And I had a little bit of your father in you to keep with me always.”

 

“So . . .” Anteros began, working things out in his child’s mind and then turning to look at him, “he’s my da? My real da?”

 

“Yes, clever one. He’s your father. There was a mistake a few years ago and I thought he had died.  I never got a chance to tell him about you. I’m sure he would have come to us sooner if he had known.  But he is here now and you have both a mother and a father as you should have.”

 

Anteros hummed and hawed over the new information for a moment before twisting around to look at him straight on.

 

“Does this mean I still get the jam off your plate?” Anteros asked of him gravely.

 

He roared with laughter. All the worry he had carried over whether the child would accept him and the largest problem on the lad’s mind was fussing over their silent meal arrangement. Perhaps this would be easier than he had envisioned it. Sansa had been right in trying to assuage his fears.  Anteros didn’t mind that he had been absent for so long. Sansa had provided enough love for the boy to make up for the lack of one parent. It was as she had said a month ago; the boy needed guidance and a friend of sorts from here on out. He could fulfill the role with her by his side.

 

Anteros continued to give him a serious look.  “Aye,” he told the lad, “nothing changes.”  The boy beamed at him, adjusting in Sansa’s lap and pushing at her hip to get her to scoot over on the bed. When there was enough room, Anteros wedged himself between Sansa and he. The little one grabbed for the white cloak turned blanket, doing his best to spread it over all three of their laps and looked up at his mother.

 

“Can we read a dragon story now?”

 

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Sansa came to his bed every night there after. She didn’t let her hands wonder into territory that might tempt either one of them but insisted that she remain at his side while they both slept. The dark wasn’t a place for them to stand alone anymore, she argued. There wasn’t anyone to notice besides Tessa and Brienne; neither one of the women would give him any grief over the matter, she had seen to it already. And she wouldn’t dare be the cause of him breaking a vow. She knew he wanted for them to mean something though usually they proved false. She would help him find the truth in promises when it came to him and her.  

 

“I’m sorry for last night,” she apologized in a whisper the first night she climbed under the furs next to him. He’d been nearly asleep already but had unconsciously moved in the bed to give her room to settle herself. He wasn’t even facing her. How had things become so familiar so quickly?

 

“It’s alright,” he mumbled into his pillow, his mind heavy with half dreams. “Didn’t do anything wrong. Just didn’t want you and a bottle to mix.”

 

“I know. I understand. I feel terrible. That wasn’t proper of me.”

 

He turned his head to her. “You didn’t do wrong, Sansa. And stop with being proper. Not with me. Not in bed. You know better.”

 

She nodded but worried at her bottom lip. “Do you want me to go? I promise I’ll respect your wishes but I don’t want to be apart from you any longer. I only want to sleep and be near you.”

 

“Don’t go,” he said, moving him self from belly to back and raising one of his arms. She smiled at his gesture and put her head on his chest so he could put his arm back down around her. Gods, he truly did love her. Not once had he ever thought that Sansa Stark could lie in a bed with him and he wouldn’t go hard within moments but that was exactly what was happening. There was a twitch to be sure but it wasn’t an all consuming, frantic need. That passion was water tucked securely behind a dam of love they had both built together. Her actions towards him in the past weeks had made the dam rock solid. He’d have her and soon. He believed. The knowledge caused him to find a safe place for his longings to dwell. That future would come to pass and so it was easier to find the joy in letting her near him because she wished to be in his presence.  But, when the time came, when the damn cracked, there was a flood ready to wash over the both of them.

Chapter Text

“I thought I might have just a page out of all those stories I read about but it wasn’t to be so.” – Sansa, Chapter 13

 

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Ten days till the wedding and the last of the replies from the invited noble houses were coming in by raven and crow. Some families preferred one over the other. There were two flat out refusals to attend in the last batch and he had to watch the light in Sansa’s eyes dim. It tore him apart that he was the root cause of it all. Clegane was a tainted name; she could try and deny it all she liked but it was the truth. He was working hard to prove himself a man apart from the house’s dark history but it was going to take perhaps his life time to do so. Some of his own acts were part of the people’s hatred after all. He understood it well enough. It never bothered him to any extent until her saw her sigh or look at her almost untouched plate morosely at the end of the day.

 

She never once let her eyes dim when she looked at him though. He took heart in that. The disappointment she felt wasn’t directed at him. At night she still came to his bed and slept curled up within his arms.

 

Eight days remained and he’d had enough. There was anger mixing with his frustration at seeing Sansa’s sadness. Instead of sitting doing nothing it was bloody well time to take action. He went to Whitmoor and Allen, showing them his long sword and discussing with them his plans. They assured him all could be done in time. He’d show every one of the damned highborns the depths of his loyalty to house Stark and they could choke on their courtesies as they begged Sansa’s forgiveness.

 

The very next day Sansa all but dragged him to Rose’s shop while Brienne followed, a light blush on her sworn shield’s cheeks. He couldn’t figure that one out at all. What had the maiden warrior so flustered? Inside Rose laid a square of folded black cloth before him.

 

“I’m granting you a Lordship,” Sansa announced in that voice that told him the Queen was going to take no argument from him. “No one will call you Lord if you don’t wish it expect perhaps the servants. That’s the way of the North.”  She saw his clenched jaw. “I’m not doing this to anger you. I’m doing this for my home and people. If anything should happen to me, and Anteros is still too young to claim his proper title, I need someone to keep Winterfell safe for him. If, the Gods spare us, anything should befall him I need to know Winterfell will be kept safe. I know you don’t want it and I don’t intend to ever have to give it to you. But I must think of all the futures that could come to pass. I know that you would keep my home safe and that you would hand it back over to a Stark. If Bran or Rickon or even Arya ever come home you would give them Winterfell without any hesitation. Please? Promise you’ll do this for me.”

 

His scowling expression loosened at her words. She would hand over all of Winterfell to him, knowing he’d defend the home of her father with honor. If her brothers came back he would be all too happy to pass the stone walls back to them. It had never been his life’s ambition to be a Lord but he would do as she asked. His nodded agreement put smiles on all the women’s faces.

 

Brienne scuffed her toe on the wooden floor. “When my Lady told me of her intentions I thought you would prefer a new symbol to represent your house . The Cleganes of the past were kennel masters. I know enough house history to have heard the tale. But that was time under the Lannisters and that house is nothing but dying lions now. House Clegane serves the Lady Stark. You are the last of them and you should have something all your own to give to your children.”  He felt the cloth in his fingers, feeling somehow on display and nervous.

 

“I had Rose work with me. If you don’t like it you can say so,” Brienne told him.

 

Unfolding the cloth, he shook it out to get a better look. The cloth was smaller than most sigils. It was only a first rendering Rose explained, to make sure he approved. If it suited him she would work on a full sigil and tunic after the wedding. Whitmoor would be given the design so the smiths could fashion a shield for him.

 

He was speechless. There, on a black background, was an outline of a shield in yellow, a slight nod to his origins. He’d always liked the yellow of his house and was glad it still remained in this new sigil he’d been gifted with. A sword cut down the middle of the shield, tall and strong looking just as he stood. The handle was topped by a hound’s head he noted, smiling ruefully at the memories that image brought to mind. It was an appropriate touch. The Hound would always be a part of him; something that had caused him to change and grow in both good and bad ways. The part he liked best though was the spade that crossed at a diagonal over the sword. His rebirth. The tool that had seen him into a new life. Sword and shovel would forever remain entangled within him but the spade would always win now.

 

“It’s fine,” he told the women when he noticed they were all staring anxiously at him. And it was. The three dogs on yellow was his grandfather he’d never even known, his father who’d forgotten him, and his brother who had abused him for years. Three dogs and three men. There was no room on that field of autumn grass for him. It was his beginning but it wasn’t his ending. The ladies had given him a completely new start. He could wear the new symbol with pride. He had earned their respect and the sigil in front of him. He had done it. His vision blurred thinking on the sons that might one day carry this symbol on and he rubbed at his eyes harshly, mortified to be doing so in front of anyone but Sansa. Brienne and Rose pretended not to notice as they focused on Sansa, asking about wedding details and ignoring him while he cleared his throat and folded the piece of cloth back up. They knew well enough he was pleased with the gift.

 

 

By that evening the very first houses that were going to attend the wedding arrived. Three houses total. There were inns outside of Winterfell that had been readied in advance. Inside the gates there were guest chambers and a few empty cabins near the kitchens. People would fill in where they could. There was better food and drink on the table that night. Sansa seemed renewed but he watched her sink again over the next two days as second sons arrived, bowing politely to her during the day and scoffing over their ale at night. He would have given them all bloody noses and worse if he didn’t already know that it would upset Sansa further.

 

She was tense and jumpy it seemed, like a shivering colt that had been given the switch too early in life. The days were overwhelming her with guests and gifts she had to try and find homes for. Barrels of mead, sweet pale pink wines, and wagons of winter melons and harvests of plums were all welcome but they took up space. When the wagon of butchered oxen arrived she threw up her hands and took off to her secluded Godswood for an hour.

 

And it all suddenly became clear to him as to what he should do. It was bold and spontaneous; an ideal solution, he concluded. Early in the morning, three days till the high court wedding, he told Bullis he’d need men from the house guard. Tessa was next on his list of people to speak to. He explained that she’d need to keep Anteros busy after the final meal and see the boy to bed. He thought the woman might hug him when he told her why but she caught herself and only smiled genuinely at him for the first time that he could recall. Getting Brienne alone was a bit harder but she did hug him when he told her his plan. He stood unmoving and uncomfortable but let her express her happiness in the form of physical contact. She laughed at his embarrassment and told him she’d try very hard to never do it again. He didn’t believe her.

 

Holloway was easy to convince as well and the young soldier set off immediately to gather up the necessary house guard from Bullis. The Elder Brother beamed at the news and the Maester chuckled an old, approving laugh. The Master showed him the glass boxes that housed herbs and flowers, passing him some baby’s breath and telling him it might look nice in the Lady’s hair.

 

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He found her in the great room after the last meal of the day. All throughout the meal he had bitten at his tongue while his leg shook under the table. It wasn’t nerves that drove him. It was enthusiasm over having the chance at doing something great for her. All the things she had given to him and he now had a chance to repay her. He tasted little during the meal and rushed away after to shed his armor. Keeping his sword and dagger on, he found a cloak to cover himself with and went to seek out his betrothed.

 

Most of the guests had taken to sitting in Sansa’s great throne room in the evenings, drinking and catching up with the latest news from each house until late at night. At times there were games of chance and cards. The lights were low and the atmosphere cordial. Someone had brought a harp and music floated through the air. Sansa was speaking with a few Ladies but excused herself when she saw him waiting against a wall.

 

“You’ve decided to join us! Good, I can introduce you to some of our guests.” There was a cheerful tone in her voice while she addressed him and he was glad for it. Her features had been restless and troubled as of late. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks were flushed. The dress she wore was one he had seen before; a rich burgundy cloth, tapered high at the waist which helped it to flare around her hips. She still wore the preferred pastels of her youth most of the time but other times she liked wearing darker purples and reds. It wasn’t one of her best dresses though he knew it to be one of her favorites and that was good as well. A girl should wear what she loved on her wedding day, even he understood that.

 

He pulled the baby’s breath the Maester had given him earlier in the day from the inner pocket of his doublet and started dotting them into her hair. She giggled until she snorted at his uncharacteristic action.  It was something rare for him to be this delicate but this was an equally rare moment that should be treated as such.

 

“How many cups have you had, Little Bird?” he chided lightly.

 

“Only two! This is my third,” –she waved the glass she was holding under his nose– “It’s nearly my wedding day. Let me celebrate!” If only she knew how right her statement was.

 

“I didn’t come here to shake hands with your nobles. I came here for you,” he said, taking the cup from her hand and setting it on a nearby table. He offered his arm and she looked at him in amused puzzlement. Waving to the Ladies she had been speaking to, she allowed him to lead her through the house and out into the main front yard. Brienne, who’d been keeping close to Sansa for days, followed behind with a huge grin on her face.

 

Holloway waited outside, holding the reins to three horses and a heavy, woolen cloak for Sansa. The Elder Brother was already mounted on a large, dappled gray stallion. Sansa stared at everyone in turn. Brienne smirked and walked past them to mount one of the horses Holloway had been keeping near.

 

“What’s all this?” Sansa asked.

 

“We’re going for a ride,” he answered.

 

“Where?”

 

“Too many questions, Little Bird. Get on the horse.”

 

“It’s late, Sandor.”

 

“It’s not. It’s the right time.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Get on the horse and find out.”

 

“But the guests-“

 

“Won’t miss you. Forget courtesies for one night.”

 

“Others might arrive. It’s my duty to greet them.”

 

“The Maester says he’ll greet anyone that may come. He’s allowed to open the gate, right? Him and Holloway? You can slip away for an hour.”

 

“But where? Why won’t you tell me!”

 

He was frustrated with her hesitation and drew close to her. This wasn’t the time for her to try and act the assertive woman with him. Whoever was watching could bugger them selves; she needed to listen and listen well. He pulled her flush up against him, bending to place his lips at her ear. “You wanted a page, aye? One page out of all those stories and you never got it did you? I’m not a Knight. Not a Ser. But I’m trying, Sansa. Now get on the damned horse and stop making me look a bloody fool!”

 

Her face was a mix of shock and curious submission. She touched the flowers in her hair gingerly, mindful of their fragile nature. There was a shift in her eyes. He could see the tips of her fingers tremble against the tiny buds. She knew he meant to give her something of value but she couldn’t figure out the answer to the riddle of signs before her.

 

“Sandor . . . “ she spoke, hushed and low for only him to hear.  If she had anything else to say she never did. Sansa moved out of his arms and walked towards Holloway, who fastened the cloak around her shoulders and told her she looked pretty. He might have felt jealous if it had been another man but Holloway was all Sansa had in place of a male relative on this day and it was right that she hear words of praise from someone other then himself. Once he had mounted and settled on his horse, Holloway lifted Sansa by the hips, up into his waiting arms. She sat in front of him, side saddle, with her arms wrapped around his waist. Trusting him, he noted once again. He liked her better there than her noisy sister. As they rode, he wondered where the brat was. If he understood the little she wolf at all she was most certainly alive and he wished he could have gotten her to somehow attend the wedding. Sansa would have liked to have had at least one family member with her.

 

Out past the gates, they continued into the forests that made up the grounds of Winterfell. It was dark but the moon was full and high. The horses made good time over the paths that led to the weirwood of her father. As they got closer, Sansa recognized the direction they had taken. Her head swiveled around to look at her surroundings and then into his eyes. He only smiled back and kissed her hair. She shook in his arms, while he wrapped her cloak tighter around her. But she still shivered against him and he understood. It had happened to him when he’d been overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. The Little Bird was starting to work things out.

 

There were a dozen and a half of the house guard’s finest set in a perimeter around the weirwood tree. Holloway had brought them out hours earlier to search the grounds nearby and make sure that all was safe. Torches had been stuck into the ground and lit to provide a decent amount of light. Sansa sat straight up in front of him as they approached the tree. Once he had reined in his stead to a stop she jumped off on her own accord to stand looking at the white tree in reverence. He slid off the horse himself, giving the reins over to Holloway. Walking past Sansa, he stood at the base of the tree, waiting. Sansa stood gapping until Holloway nudged her in the back.

 

“He’s trying to claim you, my Lady,” he heard Holloway speak. “Best let him if that’s what you were wanting.” Sansa moved slowly, gracefully, like she was caught up inside of a waking dream. Once she was near to him everyone but the Elder Brother stepped far back along the edges of the established perimeter to allow them privacy.

 

The Elder Brother’s smile was large and warm. The robed man offered a hand to Sansa, which she took. The Brother then moved her small fingers securely inside of his own large hand. The Elder Brother took a moment to look at the both of them before speaking.

 

“I know the Lady of Winterfell does not hold to the ways of the Seven but all Gods look upon unions with blessings and love. May they look at the two of you tonight and seal your marriage with hope and good tidings for the future. You are both worthy of each other. Live a full, joyous life together from this day forth.”

 

The Elder Brothers words meant something to him; the man was the only family he had besides Sansa and Anteros. They spoke to Sansa as well, if the tears in her eyes had anything to do with her thoughts. Once he had said his peace, the Elder Brother walked away to join the others off in the distance. And then it was just the two of them holding hands, with the tree of her ancestors, the glowing light from the torches and an unsaid promise.

 

Sansa’s hand grasped his own tightly, the tears in her eyes beginning to spill over onto her cheeks. He used his thumb to whisk them away but more replaced the ones he made disappear.

 

“Tell me you’re happy,” he pleaded. He thought that she was, but perhaps he’d made a mistake. Maybe he’d read her wrong and this wasn’t her wish. “Tell me this is what you want.” She nodded her head, placing her free hand on his heart. “If you’re going to keep on weeping now than that means I don’t have to say anything else,” he tried in a teasing tone. Her tears bothered him, happy or not. Sansa used both of her hands to wipe madly at her cheeks while he laughed at her rapid attempt at clearing any trace of weeping from her face. She did want this as much as he.

 

“This is my wedding day?” she asked, eyes dry and clear.

 

“Aye, this is how it should be. You can have this and your high court wedding. I know the Queen has her duties. They can all gawk at us in a few days. They can watch their Queen marry herself off and tell all the land about it with their gossip. But you’re my Little Bird. My bird deserves her song and tree and only me. This is our day. No one can share in this but us.”

 

Her smile made his knees try to buckle. She was the one thing that could make him both strong and weak at the same time. But she stood in silence, waiting for something and he didn’t know what it was he should do.

 

“Is that all there is to say?” she questioned, her eyebrows coming together in worry. She wasn’t terribly upset, he could see that, but she wanted more. Then it was his turn to let a mix of elation and sadness have him. Did she not understand his devotion? Why hadn’t he the gift of words like her?

 

So he tired again, with actions first. His head dipped low to press his forehead against hers. He let his eyes close for a moment, breathing in her perfume that smelled of spring blossoms and reaching for her hands. He clasped her fingers and drew one of her hands up to his face, over his scars. She didn’t fight his touch or hesitate to spread her palm across him. He pressed at her hand, hard and demanding, forcing her to feel every pitted crag and uneven edge. And then he let go. He opened his eyes. Her hand never moved, giving him the pressure he had asked for and keeping her gaze locked on his face. And that was the point he’d been trying to make. He could shove her right into the worst of him and she wouldn’t back down or leave him.

 

“Do you not know?” he rasped, his throat becoming tight with his confession. It pained him that he couldn’t speak of love as freely as her. He’d been remiss in telling her as frequently as she did for him. If she didn’t understand fully his feelings for her he had no one to blame but himself. His eyes darted to the side where her hand lay. He could feel her thumb move over his cheek. “No one, Sansa. No one’s bothered with me like you have. Not ever. I couldn’t stand to think of anything good for so long until you came along. And you reminded me that maybe I wasn’t dead inside. I’m not. You did that.”

 

She bit at her lip lightly and shook her head ever so slightly. “All I did was offer a hand. You accepted it. You did that, Sandor. You were lost. You said so. I showed you the road to take to find your way back but you are the one who chose to walk it.” Her head tilted to kiss him tenderly, with the love and acceptance he’d come to both expect and crave from her. He exhaled deeply through his nose while her smile grew and pressed against his lips.

 

“I love you,” he whispered. “As well as I know how. Promise you’ll be my wife and I’ll spend all my days seeking out how to love and serve you best.”

 

“I’m yours, Sandor. And you’re mine.” She spoke the words right into his mouth, letting them fill his lungs and give life to both their heart’s desires. “You’re right. This is the way it should be. You and I. We can conquer it all together. This will be the day I hold in my heart as my wedding day. From this moment on you are my husband. I will be your wife for all our days.”

 

A tremor ran up his spine. His mouth eagerly worked against hers, permanently sealing the spoken bond between them. It was done. They were wed and he was going to break apart with relief. He had finally done something to be proud of. Want and need, lust and longing all crawled beneath his skin.

 

On the ride back to the inner walls of Winterfell her hand rubbed at his back. One of his hands gripped the reins but he let the other sink low, under her cloak to roam over her hips and just shy of her heat. He spread his legs far apart for her to press her self against him, feeling his growing desire for her. If she still wished to wait he would but he had said his vows. His mind was at ease and his conscious clear. Once again, he spoke in a hushed voice for only her to hear.

 

“You’re mine now. I’ll not feel guilt for having you. All that’s past. Does the Little Bird wish to sing tonight?”

 

He felt sure his heart would give out on him. It was beating so fast as she looked at him. She didn’t have to say a word or nod her head. Her eyes told him she was just as hungry and impatient as he to lie with one another. Husband and wife. Mother and father. A compassionate woman and a troubled warrior.  All would be one soon.

 

…………………………………………………………………………..

 

 

He surprised himself at his actions. Sansa was bare to him. Stunning and radiant, sprawled across the pillows and furs of her -no their, he corrected himself- bed. It was all he had ever imagined and more. She had managed to strip him down to his breeches. There had been starved, voracious moments of skin, teeth and tongues just seconds before. And then he had stopped in his course of action; transfixed by the thin, silvery lines he’d found on her belly. He’d bloody stopped.

 

They had gone straight to her room once they arrived back at Winterfell. All thoughts of duty and guests were gone. It was their wedding night and it was going to be celebrated properly. He lit every candle and lamp in her room. He hadn’t crossed the threshold since the night of the raiders but he felt no shame in doing so now. It was his rightful place as her husband.

 

Sansa shrugged out of her cloak and kneeled down at the hearth to stir the fire someone had already started. Tessa came minutes later, after seeing Anteros to bed, to help Sansa undress. He told the girl to fetch more candles instead. Fire be damned, he had waited nearly ten years to look upon Sansa and he would do so with a light to rival the midday sun. There was an almost festering need within him to see every bit of her. To see and feel and touch and taste would make it all real in his mind. And he wanted to be the one to undress her as well. It was a privilege he’d earned with the payment of blood and pain, years apart and tears on her skin.

 

He pushed his boots off and went for the clasp on his cloak but Sansa’s hands were there before his. That wondrous look of shy knowledge was on her face. Letting her do as she liked he stood still for her. Once she set his cloak aside, she reached for the buckles on his belt and baldric. Dagger and sword both found their way onto the floor next to his boots. Then she hesitated, twisting her fingers together in front of her. He was one breathe away from starting in on her dress when there came a knock at the door.

 

Tessa was back with an armful of candles and a basket. He met her at the door, taking the items from her hands and shutting her out of the room swiftly. The girl had been thoughtful. There were at least a dozen candles. The basket was packed full with wine, bread, cheeses and dried fruits. Sansa took the candles from him, lighting them all and placing them around the room while he placed the basket on the table. He wasn’t interested in its contents. Perhaps he would be later but not now. Not when he was so close to bedding his bride.

 

As she set the last of the candles in a holder near the bed, he approached her from behind. Her hair was half plaited and half free. A flowing waterfall of red with rivulets of braids and flowers scattered about. Brushing the loose strands out of his way, he placed a testing kiss at the nape of her neck, his other arm looping around her waist. He waited for any sign that he should stop. She gave him none. Leaning into his embrace, she hummed sweetly and reached back to grasp at his arm. So he gave her more force. Scraping his teeth along the few inches of her shoulders that were exposed, he started to pull at the ties at the back of her dress. Sansa sighed, relaxing fully in his arms and he felt an uncomfortable surge in his stomach.

 

With a slight sense of dread he realized the rolling in his gut was nervousness. It was all well and good to fantasize about this moment. But it was now suddenly upon him. It was no longer a dream. The dream was real; in his hands, warm and alive. They had been together once before but that single, brief encounter didn’t match what was presently happening in the least.

 

The memories of the Blackwater were hazy for him; distorted through the lens of alcohol. Like watching fish swim under the rippling surface of a river. The memories swam together into blurs and waves that made no sense in the end. He would have thought himself insane, the entire event a wild hallucination, if he hadn’t gone to take a piss the following morning and found the evidence of lust and her smell still on him. He had cried again when he realized it wasn’t a terrible nightmare. He had soiled her. He had failed her. He couldn’t remember the feel of her but try as he might he could never forget the scent that drove itself into his mind that morning. On lonely nights on the Isle he would stumble off into the woods, trying without success to not think on blue kindness and the scent that was all her own while his cock throbbed in his hand. It was wrong and he couldn’t stop himself. She had held him! She had taken his seed! It had to have meant something though he knew not what. His mind tortured him for years with his guilt and lust and his yearning to be free of the love he felt for her.

 

But now she was in front of him, willing and wanting to have him again. He hadn’t felt this much apprehension since he was a young man; green and fumbling through the awkwardness of his first few times in bed. It hit him hard, like a jab to his ribs that he’d never been with a woman he loved. Fucking nameless whores was the Hound’s way.  Sandor’s way was something yet undiscovered. His fingers faltered at her back. Sansa noticed.

 

“I’m nervous as well,” she told him, looking over her shoulder. “Not scared. But, I’ve thought about this for so long it’s a bit overwhelming isn’t it?”

 

He found he couldn’t speak so he let his head fall to her shoulder. She moved in his arms, turning to face him and captured his jaw in her hand. There was a moment before their lips touched when she met his eyes and he saw everything he’d ever prayed for in life staring back at him. When they kissed it was careful and slow. But only for a short while. His hands had traveled, almost of their own accord, over her hips and around to knead at her arse. He didn’t have to hold back any longer. She squealed happily at his touch and laughed against his mouth before using her tongue to open his lips to her. He could feel her fingers pinching at the buttons and ties of his doublet. And that was all it took to push him into frenzied passion. The feel of her undressing him was pleasurable in a way he’d never known it could be.  He’d never been undressed by a woman before. That had always been his duty if there was time for it. He moved to her throat and the spot near her ear he knew she liked, nibbling and moaning in his excited state as she undid the last of his buttons.

 

His doublet came off as her determined hands pulled it over his head when he ducked down for her. She was still fully clothed, though she’d slipped out of her shoes at some point, and it seemed unfair to him. Turning her around again, he made quick work of the last of the ties on her dress, trying to go slowly but losing his sense of gentle purpose now that he could finally have her. Her dress fell to the floor and he groaned when he realized she’d worn a corset that day. The ties on it were ridiculous! Tiny little wisps of spider’s web trying to tangle into smaller knots with every attempt at untying them from his hands. He cursed and she giggled.

 

“Tessa did try and help. You wanted to do this!” she scolded while trying to stop her laughter. He grunted at that unnecessary reminder and after trying for a few more seconds, reached down to grab for her knife still buried within the cloth of her dress on the floor. Sansa spun around and saw his intention.  

 

“You wouldn’t!” she cried.

 

“The hell I wouldn’t. Hold still.” She did as he told her, standing like a deer trying not to be noticed by a hunter. Her eyes were wide but she nodded and turned back around to let him cut the frustrating ribbons that kept her from him. There was the sharp sound of ripping cloth but he made sure to rub a hand over any place he may have been too rough. A reassurance, in case she’d forgotten, that the man behind her had nothing but loving intentions towards her. Then she was only in small clothes and that troublesome weight in his stomach was back. He ignored it, or tried to, as he pulled her back around to face him. There were hands everywhere. In his hair, down his stomach, on her breasts and softly around the base of her neck. She whimpered and he thought that he did as well.

 

He had no idea how or when her smallclothes left her body. None at all. Somewhere in all their grasping, pulling, and tugging she was suddenly naked. He was on his knees, blessing any patch of skin he cold find with his lips while she continued to scratch at his scalp. He was near level with her breasts; pale, heavenly mounds that fit so perfectly within his hands. There was a light speckling of freckles on the sides of each one. He licked at them and she shuddered, her legs wobbling beneath her. He looked down between them, saw copper colored curls and his cock sprang up, alert and ready to be of delightfully sinful use. Beautiful. She was too beautiful for the likes of him.

 

Then she was the one backing up to the bed, pulling on one of his hands and lying down amongst the furs. Whether he thought he deserved her became unimportant. She thought him true enough and he trusted her above all others. Moving over top of her, he started at the crown of her head and smoothed over every bit of her with his hands. Once he’d touched her with his hands, he followed the set path with his lips and tongue while she writhed and mewled beneath him. The farther down her body he went, the more urgent her responses became until he was sure he’d spill within his breeches again if he didn’t sink within her soon. It seemed like the whole room was moving; swaying and rocking with Sansa and he. He’d made his way down past her breasts, onto her stomach and so near to his goal, when he looked at her belly. There were thin little lines that made him pause. They were like fine strings of needlework embedded in her flesh; they almost sparkled in the candle light.

 

He trailed his fingers over them, dumbstruck by what he thought they were. Sansa sensed the change in him and moved her fingers underneath his. She ran her hands over her own skin, trying to hide the lines from him.

 

“The skin stretches there. When a babe grows. The lines don’t go away after,” she explained shyly. He had been right in his assumption. It made his next breath difficult. And the one that followed. Shoving her hands out of the way he laid his head on her belly. She was a goddess the likes to rival the Mother. Her body had held their love, let it change her and still bore the evidence of the life she’d given to the world.

 

“You’ve got scars,” he said, rubbing his against hers.

 

“Yes,” she said quietly back, twisting his locks around her fingers. He almost wept. Her scars were beautiful to him. He understood her love for him better. There would be time for tears later though. Starting anew, with a more tempered pace, he set about kissing each of her scars. The pause in their lovemaking had allowed his cock a chance to settle. When there weren’t any more lines to be found, he let out a shuddering breath before pressing his lips down into her heat. She cried out immediately, a sound new to him from her. It was a long, low moan of exquisite pleasure. He lapped and suckled until he was certain the wetness that covered half his face was more her than him. Her legs had come up around him while she continued to squirm beneath him. He felt her heels dig and push at his sides, trying to move him from her. He stopped, wiping his face with the back of his hand and looked at her questioningly.

 

“Please,” was all she said while she held her arms open. There wasn’t anything more precious she could have given to him. To almost beg him to join them. Moving back up her body, he laughed when he felt her toes between his skin and breeches. She was trying to pull them off with her feet!  One hand undid his laces while the other kept him up above her. She was already spread wide for him as he kicked and pushed his way out of the last of his clothing. He sucked in a large gulp of air when she touched him and knew for certain this time that he whimpered when she pulled at his length. His fingers drifted between her folds, slick and warm for him alone. She pulled him closer and he could feel both her and him all mixed together; fingers, cock and heat all moving against one another. Then she tilted up and he was there, slipping inside her with a familiar ease that took his breath away.

 

She was hot. Almost blisteringly so. That hadn’t been a false recollection on his part. She burned him with her flesh just a surely as any fire. But it was all pleasure and no pain. A scorching, vice like grip that sent him into uncontrolled motions above her. His rhythm was awful, something in the back of his mind told him, though he couldn’t be bothered to try and correct it. Sansa was cooing and moaning and, Gods help him, screaming when he moved just so. Kisses had stopped long ago as they both panted into each other’s neck. He tried to place a hand in between them but every time he moved to do so she’d shift her hips and he’d lose himself all over again to another frantic thrust. He swore he could feel her pulse surrounding and beating itself all around his cock; a mad flutter just like the heart of a bird.

 

He would have thought that the most intense moment would have been when he broke apart. But it wasn’t. It was when she did so. She’d drawn her legs up high, near his torso, which drove him deeper inside her. There wasn’t any way of knowing what she liked best yet but a sure stoke all the way out and back in seemed to work well for her. She was keening as he moved within her and then her eyes opened quickly in what seemed like panic. Holding her breath, she grabbed at his shoulders, gripping him with desperate force while he finally managed to bring his fingers back to her folds. She was swollen and hard under the pad of his thumb. It only took a few moments of his attentions before she let the held breath out.

 

“Sandor!” she cried once, before shaking and bucking underneath him. She sang out gloriously into the room for him, shuddering and quaking both inside and out. He could feel her bliss around his cock, pulling him down farther towards his own end. He felt like flight. If she were the bird, he was the fucking wind and sun and sky all around her. Feeling her end was better than any he’d ever had in his life.

 

“That’s how you sing,” he growled in her ear, forgetting all around him and letting her lead him over his own edge. She moved with him, still gasping at all the new sensations he provided for her.

 

“I love you,” she said in a thick, sated tone and he lost himself completely. He roared and thrust as hard as he dared while his seed spilled from his body and into hers. He kept at it long after he’d gone soft. He never wanted to do anything but this for the rest of his days.  Not until he slid out of her did he stop to rest on top of her. Sansa was crying. Quiet tears that smeared across his shoulder and down onto his arm. Rolling both of them over onto their sides, he held her close, probably too tightly but she didn’t object.

 

“Alright?” he asked just to be sure he hadn’t hurt her towards the end.

 

“Yes! Gods, yes,” she shouted, laughing and weeping at the same time. “That was .  . .you were. . . we were . . .everything!”

 

He smiled. A true, heartfelt act. He didn’t have words any better than that at describing what had happened between them. But he tried, kissing her temple and telling her again that he loved her as well. After she calmed herself, there was time for wine and food. A pattern was set for the entire night. Coupling, tears from both he and she, nourishment, and short rounds of sleep. Over and over again until dawn crept over the horizon and they fell into a lover’s slumber together.

Chapter Text

It was hard to choose between which he loved more; lying with Sansa at night or waking in the morning with her near him. Either way her bare skin touched him and either way it provided further proof that she was his. It was more than a dream made real. It was some sort of paradise built for only the two of them. She left her hair unbound for him and often it tried to strangle him in the night. He didn’t care. It made him smile all the more. He was the first to wake each day, letting his fingers stop just short of touching her face as she continued to sleep. There was the urge, every morning, to reach out and make sure that she was real. She caught him at it once, lifting her head and kissing his palm in response. It hadn’t taken long after that for her to show him just how real it all was.

 

They were careful with one another at first; their actions testing and exploratory. She wasn’t familiar with having a man’s body at her disposal for her pleasure and he wasn’t used to having a woman mix love with his. He hadn’t thought he would ever act like that in a marriage bed but the art of coupling was different with her. It wasn’t a quick fuck for relief. It was drawn out sessions of reciprocated affection and need.  Their first night together he had her over and over again until they were both exhausted. He couldn’t stop. Somewhere in his mind he feared that if he stopped it would end forever. But the next morning she was still there. And the following evening she dropped her nightgown to the floor before he could even get his boots off. He felt safer and had drifted off to sleep after a single coupling.

 

For a few days they had a secret between them that no one else knew. Brienne and Tessa might know they shared a bed but they couldn’t possibly know all the words spoken silently between them when they held one another till they both flew apart.  It was a game of sorts. A Queen and her loyal husband to be during the day; quick learning lovers by night. They understood one another’s minds well enough. Their bodies were all too eager to follow suit. Sansa wasn’t overly passionate with him but she was gentle, attentive and mindful. When he gasped, she remembered. When he moaned, she repeated her actions.

 

He was seeing what having a woman was truly meant to be. The screams that rivaled the calls of a cat in heat that the whores had given him weren’t cries of love. The soft sighs from Sansa’s lips and light scratches from her nails meant far more to him than any of the false performances he’d been given in the past. When he buried his face in her neck, thrusting through his end, with her hands tangled in his hair and her kisses at his temple he felt a normal man for the first time in his life.

 

The night before their second wedding she had laid him out, like he had to her their first night together.  She spent time on him just as he had done for her. He shivered and shook as her hands and lips left him feeling not only wanted but cherished. She’d kissed his fucking feet of all things. His face, his stomach, his thighs. She’d given his manhood a shy brush of her lips and he almost begged her to take him in fully that way. He’d pulled her up on top of him instead, showing her how to sit across him and ride at her own pace. She took his thumb into her mouth and bit him hard when she found her end that way. It left him a wreck soon after. They were going to find the most tortuous, exquisite ways to have one another; he could sense it. It would go slowly but that was all part of their journey together and he was going to enjoy every step of the way immensely.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………..

 

The morning of the high court wedding came too early for him. There seemed no reason at all to him to leave the warmth of their bed. They had already said their vows. Everyone else could go bugger themselves. He must have mumbled his last thought out loud because Sansa started to laugh in his arms.

 

“It does seem silly to do it all over again, doesn’t it?” she said smiling. “But how many couples get two weddings? And two wedding nights,” she added playfully, nipping at his ear.

 

“Do that again, we won’t be attending. I’ll keep you here all day. Explain that to your nobels,” he rumbled, trailing a hand down her spine. She did, taking his dare, and though he didn’t keep her from the day’s events entirely, she was late for the first meal.

 

Her hair was a ruffled mess and he smirked at her through mouthfuls of rolls and boiled eggs at the table. His place was now next to Sansa’s and he felt her kick at his leg under the tablecloth. It bloody well stung! So he reached under the same cloth and pinched her high up on her thigh which caused her to squeak and blush. She coughed into a napkin, covering her face while Brienne asked if she was alright. He gave her a gentle pat and Sansa nodded her head to her sworn shield though she continued to clear her throat for several minutes. Good. That should leave his shins free of bruises for a time.

 

There had been little time spent with her after the first meal. The second meal of the day had been pushed forward several hours and the ceremony would take place beforehand. Sansa’s Ladies and maids swept her away the moment after the morning council meeting concluded.

 

“Bugger,” he cursed quietly, staring off at her retreating form. This was it then. There was going to be a whole roomful of eyes on him in a matter of hours. Best to get it done and over with. At least it all would please Sansa, and that was important thing, he tried to remind himself.

 

Holloway and the Elder Brother joined him at the armory. There he was presented with a full suit of armor and the newly forged sword he had asked for a week ago. He would wear the armor for her; a small concession, he now understood. He still hated the damned stuff but it was only for an afternoon. There had been much worse he’d had to do in his life time and unlike those times, this would grant him a reward at the end.

 

They took all of it back to the house. On their way to a room set aside for him to dress in, they made a detour towards Sansa’s room. Brienne stood guard outside the door. He handed the sword from Brother Allen over to her. Brienne preferred to keep her steel at her hip but he convinced her to place his new sword on her back.

 

“Tell the Lady it was a gift if you must. Save it for me?” he asked, hoping he hadn’t misread the growing signs of friendship between them.

 

“Of course!” Brienne answered. “She’ll love it. They all will. You’d best get moving. Only an hour or so left,” she continued, giving him a wink.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

There was a knock at the door of the small room he’d been allowed for dressing. Holloway was helping him into his armor. He hated having to ask for help with anything but a full suit was impossible for him to get into without an extra set of hands. The Elder Brother had left to make sure the great throne room was prepared along with the Maester.

 

Anteros pushed his way through the door after knocking a second time. There was a folded heap of cloth in his hands. Pale blue and silky looking. He felt his throat go dry. He wasn’t sure at all why this day was causing such turmoil inside him; he and Sansa were married already! And he was acting a green boy over having to do it over again? But there was something about the cloak that pulled at memories inside him.

 

He had given her his cloak twice in the past. It wasn’t intended as an act of marriage but there had been something symbolic about the act at the time. Something that had stayed with the both of them over the years. Otherwise why would the same cloak now be laying on their son’s bed at night?  But those past times were marred in a way; covered in memories of her frightened tears and his inability to end them. This day was another chance to set things right. If there were any tears today he would make sure they were joyful.

 

Taking the cloak carefully from his son’s hands, he thanked the lad and laid a hand in the mop of black hair covering his head. The small version of himself was a wonder; dressed in a set of matching brown breeches and a doublet that were both surprisingly free of any dirt. On the lapels of the doublet he could see matching dire wolves stitched to face one another. Beside each wolf, there was a tiny pattern no one would notice unless they were very close to the boy. A sword crossed with a spade was embroidered with fine yellow thread at the base of each wolf’s neck. No one had told him of that plan and it was the first of many things that day to try and make him swipe at his eyes.

 

A cloak, a son and a wife to marry all over again. It was a future that was now his present and his past self could have only thought it all up with the aid of wine and late hours spent alone. Anteros rocked on his heels, growing restless under his scrutiny. Suddenly, the boy stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyes back, making a face, and the oppressive feeling of it all being too much left him. Tessa called through the door, letting them know he was needed in no more than ten minutes. Anteros skipped from the room to join his nursemaid for the ceremony.

 

His gauntlets were the last scrap of iron to go on his body. Holloway made a pass around him making sure all his ties were tight while he flexed his fingers within the fitted joints of metal.  There was a half mirror in the room and though he usually avoided them altogether he stole a quick glance into it. The armor caught the sunlight filtering in from a window and nearly blinded him. It had been a long time since he’d owned a suit this well crafted. Once he’d found a better angle he could see his reflection better. Imposing was the right word he supposed. He wasn’t handsome; even without the burns his features were sharp and dark. But he was tall, strong and powerful looking with a huge dire wolf etched across his breast plate. It would do.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………

 

He was completely out of his element. It’s not as if he’d never been to a wedding. There had been many he’d stood guard at in his life time. But that had been different. He was an observer in the background at those. Now he stood on the raised platform of the great throne room. Long tables and benches were packed with glasses filled with assorted spirits and colorfully dressed guests. They all chattered and settled themselves, waiting on the Lady of the house. He had no one to talk to. Only the Maester, standing mutely nearby, and the cloak in his hands. People had started to stare at him. He clutched the fabric tighter in his fists and wished that Sansa would arrive already.

 

The cloak was a soft blue. Something close to the blue gray of the sky before a spring shower. Rose had worked a miracle in the short time she’d been given. The rabbit fur inside was fluffed and spotless. The outside layer had the dire wolf of House Stark stitched onto it in wide lines of silver. At the bottom of each corner Rose had also used the silver thread to stitch his new house sigil; the sword and spade once again making an appearance. What made his throat catch though was the silhouette of a bird that had been added. The sewn bird landed mid flight on the handle of the spade on the right hand corner.  It was doubtful that anyone would notice the detail but Sansa and he, and certainly no one but those closest to them would understand the meaning.

 

He stared at his feet. His freshly polished boots offered him no reprieve from the pointed fingers and hushed murmurings of the crowd before him. What is Gods names was taking so long? He’d been standing on the platform waiting for twenty minutes at least. If he had to go collect her he would at this point!

 

There was a loud creak at the doors of the back of the room. People turned in their seats, craning their necks to be the first to catch a glimpse of the Lady in her wedding finery. Holloway was at the door when it opened, but he quickly stepped aside to let the vision of Sansa through. He felt his hands shake within the folds of the cloak he would offer her. She’d always been beautiful. It was a natural trait she possessed. But she was stunning now. Her dress of dark blue spoke to him of a dimly lit chamber at the Red Keep where she’d shown him startling compassion and he’d realized his true love for her. The blue of her dress sparkled in her hair as well. Someone had spent time in piling her red tresses into a shock of tightly bound ringlets; all dotted with what he suspected were diamonds and sapphires. She was a loveliness that made his heart ache. And she was walking towards him with a light in her eyes that he knew to be directed only at him.

 

He knew he stood frozen on the spot. He couldn’t take his eyes from her. How in all the Seven Hells had this woman fallen for him? Perhaps the Elder Brother’s Gods weren’t the fable he thought them to be at times. Once she had ascended the platform, she touched her fingers to his elbow briefly to get him to turn and face the Maester, grinning as she did so.

 

The Maester gave a loud cough to settle everyone before giving him the order to cloak Sansa. She turned for him so that he could place the blue cloth over her shoulders with care. His hands lingered on her longer than was probably decent but he wanted the moment to last. This was a cloak he could be proud to give her; he hoped it would be enough. One of her hands reached up to touch his fingers for just a moment before she turned around and nodded at the Maester to proceed. She rubbed at the collar of the cloak with a growing smile on her face while the old man spoke.

 

“A marriage of North and South is to be an example to all. A grim past turned into a brighter future is a path we should all strive to take. Who comes before the Old Gods and New on this day to be wed?”

 

Sansa took a step forward. She’d told him of the basic actions and words that would take place during the ceremony and what was expected of him. Usually a male of her family would present her but she had none and needed none to speak for her, she had told him sternly.

 

“I do, Sansa Stark, Warden of the North and Queen to my people. Lady of House Stark and daughter of the late Lord Eddard Stark.”

 

“And who would claim her?” the Maester asked, turning to address him.

 

The words he should have said were never spoken; the sentence everyone expected him to say never occurred. It wasn’t right in his mind. He’d never had any claim on her. It was the other way around. She’d claimed him from the start. He shook his head

 

“I won’t lay claim over the Lady’s house. She can have mine if she likes,” he started, gesturing to Brienne, while he stepped near to his bride. Sansa and the Maester both looked at him as if he’d lit himself on fire. He was changing things and the whole court started to whisper behind him. Brienne took the sword from her back and placed it in his hands.

 

Drawing the old, Lannister sword from his back, he gently placed it in Sansa’s hand. He raised his voice to make sure everyone in the room could hear his words. “That sword is Lannister steel. That is not who I serve any longer. Take it. Bury it. Melt it down. Be rid of it. That sword as no place in this house. This,” he said with emphasis, holding up the new sword and kneeling, “was forged in the fires of Winterfell. This is the sword I will use to defend and protect my Lady from this day forth.”

 

He turned the blade, handle first and had to push it into Sansa’s stomach before she jumped out of her shocked state to hold it. She passed the old sword back to Brienne and stared at the new one in her hands. It was an excellent blade, made to his specifications and polished till it shone brighter than his armor. The handle had been topped by a wolf’s head. Or maybe it was a snarling hound’s? It was difficult to say either way. 

 

Time ticked by while Sansa continued to marvel at the steel in her hands and the man in front of her. He cleared his throat. She should know how to proceed. What was she waiting for? Finally, she smiled and offered the sword back to him.

 

“Sandor Clegane, heir to House Clegane and last of your line, protector of royalty, a great soldier and man of truth, I accept your offer of service to House Stark. I claim you as my husband, father of my child and Lord of Winterfell upon my death. Rise and take what is freely given,” she spoke just as clearly and loudly as he had.  She understood what he was trying to give her. He’d put all the power in her hands, assuring her people that she was still their Queen. He was there because she made it so and not the other way around. This was her choice and hers alone. He was hers to do with as she pleased. It was important for her people to understand he served her above all else. He wasn’t there to tear her house down and rebuild it in his name; he was there because she allowed him to stay.

 

She held one of his hands while he stood, leaving him the other free to place the new sword in its rightful place. The Maester faltered, wondering if he should go on as planned or if there was some other course of action he should take.

 

“Go on,” Sansa bid him in a hushed tone. Anteros had a role to play as well and neither one of them wished to take the moment from him.

 

“And who gives this woman?” the Master asked. Tessa stood with Anteros and gave him a pat to get the lad going up the steps to stand between the two of them.

 

“Anteros Stark, heir to House Stark and future Warden of the North,” Anteros shouted quickly and in a monotone. Someone had given him the line to memorize and recite no doubt. Another little bird crowing out repeated words, he smirked to himself. Anteros looked to his mother for approval. Her nod and a quiet round of applause from the matriarchs of the houses put a grin on his son’s face. Anteros jumped back down the steps to Tessa and sat, kicking his legs in happiness.

 

There was blood rushing in his ears. It made it hard to hear his next instruction. Sansa turned to look at him meaningfully. When he didn’t move she drew closer beckoning him down to her with her eyes. Then her lips were on him and he lost himself to feel of his wife, bound to him before the eyes of both man and all the Gods. There were cheers from their audience as they kissed. Everyone stood to clap thunderously and he felt the embarrassing heat of a blush on his face. Sansa laughed and kissed him again.

 

“Don’t mind them,” she hushed, “they’re not here. We’re out by our tree again.” He growled and gave her one last lingering touch of his lips.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

Their wedding feast was something to be talked about for years to come. Sansa had grown bolder with spending coin now that spring was near. She didn’t fear handing over a bit more gold to the celebration when she didn’t have to worry as much about hoarding it away in case of more cold, frozen years. Her purchases, plus the gifts from the attending houses, left the tables groaning under the weight of so much food and drink.

 

Flowers had been brought in from the glass gardens of a neighboring town. Purples, pinks and whites all dotted the room and hung from the rafters. Scented oil had been placed in the lamps. The room smelled of good food, flowers and exotic spice blends. A small group of musicians played at stringed instruments and a set of bells. It all seemed a bit garish and lush for his tastes but Sansa nearly bounced in her seat as Anteros did when he was excited.  He chuckled at his Little Bird’s happy bobbing.

 

Anteros sat to his right so that he and Sansa could be seated next to each other. Everyone was hungry having had to wait on the second meal and began loading their plates as soon as the dishes were set in front of them. Yeast rolls and brown breads, sausages and thick puddings. Roasted, braised hunks of oxen and ribs charred black with sweet honey. Eel pie, pigeon and rabbit. Vegetables of every variety were shared amongst all. It was a feast the likes of which hadn’t been seen in years by many attending. Trays of mouth watering melons and other fruits were passed out along with delicate, buttery almond cakes.

 

When Sansa’s plate was heaping over with delights, Collins approached the wedding table with a covered tray. The Kitchen Master placed it in front of her, telling her it was a gift from her husband. Sansa gave him a puzzled look while she took the lid from the tray. Then she looked at the treat in front of her before bursting into tears. Good Gods! They were only pastries! They shouldn’t warrant the flood of tears now pouring out of her.

 

“You remembered,” she wept, dabbing at her face with her napkin.

 

“Course I remembered,” he answered. “You never shut up about the damned things.”

That made her laugh and forget her tears. She eyed the dozen glazed lemon cakes before her with hungry eyes, sighing at the plate of meat and fruit in front of her.

 

“Go on,” he told her. “You know you want those more.” She reached for two and stretched to put one on Anteros’ plate.

 

“What is it, mummy?” Anteros asked, poking the cake with a finger.

 

“Heaven,” Sansa replied, sinking her teeth into the sugary treat she was so fond of. Once she was done with the first she reached for another two, this time putting one on his plate. He immediately set it back down on hers.

 

“It’s your gift. Don’t waste it on me,” he grumbled. She pouted at him and tore the cake in half, firmly setting a chunk back down at his place. He didn’t argue. It wasn’t worth it. She beamed at him with icing all over lips. He felt his breeches stir imagining licking that stickiness from her later.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………

 

After the feast there was dancing. Plates of food and jugs of mead still circled the room for anyone to peck at whenever they felt the need. When the music started several men looked to the high wedding table. It was customary to ask the bride for a dance but not until her husband had done so first. So he took her hand and led her down through the crowd. He held her firmly and moved her body in time to the tune in the air.

 

“When did you learn this?’ she nearly shouted, taken back by his secret talent.

 

He laughed at her. “The Little Bird doesn’t know everything,” he teased before feeling his face fall. “My sister taught me. A long time ago. And after that . . . it’s not all what you think going on at the brothels,” he explained. “If you put enough wine in me back then I’d sometimes sing as well.” Her mouth hung open at his confession. He closed it for her with a finger.

 

Later on she took both he and Anteros by the sleeves. The guests were starting to filter out of the room, drunk on liquid, food and merriment. The night was ending but Sansa had one last surprise for her men. She led them both outside where a stable boy held the reins of two horses. Stallions from the look of them; one larger than the other and both red as the hair on her head. The smaller one had a star of white on its forehead.

 

“Brothers,” Sansa told them. “Two years apart. That one,” she said, pointing to the largest, “is three years. The other is one. A yearling for Anteros and a trained, broken horse for his father. Now you can ride together.”

 

Anteros whooped and asked if he could ride right away. Tessa pulled him aside and explained he could ride on the morrow. He pulled Sansa to his side with one arm and kissed her hair, mindful of the jewels within it.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

Alone in their chambers at last, he sighed and looked to Sansa for help. He had suggested he go see Holloway or the Elder Brother first to aid him in removing his armor but Sansa had insisted she wanted to do it herself. She struggled with some of the ties, but it made for good fun and gave fuel to the coals of anticipation between them. There was something highly arousing about watching her remove the shining plates of metal from his body. She was the only one who could move past all his armor, inside and out.

 

Once he was free from his iron casing, he helped her with her dress. He took his time, savoring every pleat and bump of thread under his finger tips. Underneath the dark blue fabric, he found a corset bound with large ribbons which were much easier for his hands to grip and loosen.

 

“I had Rose rebind my corsets,” Sansa explained. “I don’t want them all ending up torn!”

 

Her face had a dreamy sort of look to it. They were close to the hearth and there was a chair near it close in size to the one in Brienne’s room. Sansa pushed at him lightly to get him to sit in it.

 

 “You were quite handsome today,” Sansa cooed, brushing the hair from his face. He snorted and rolled his eyes at her. “What?” she challenged. “You were. There is more to you than this.” Her fingers touched his burns and he jerked his head away. He didn’t think she was lying but it felt wrong somehow to hear words of praise over his looks. Her face contorted into an angry scowl. For fucks sake! Truly? They were going to spend their wedding night fighting? Over his face?

 

She placed herself down in his lap, schooling her features into something gentler. “Do you know what I see when I look at you?” she asked.

 

“I know what you should see,” he snapped. She shook her head, almost sadly at him.

 

“I see perfection,” she breathed, holding his face within her hands. “My perfection. Not yours. It’s mine. It is flawed and real. It is beautiful because it is mine. Because you allow me to love you.”   

 

She moved forward to kiss his cheek and speak in his ear, “You will have to grow used to this, my love. I don’t intend to ever stop.”  Then she had him. Right there in the chair by the fire they consummated their second marriage. The ties between them came undone by her own hands. He felt drained and useless under her caring caresses. She filled him up with words of beauty as she rode him at a slow, rocking pace that had him pleading for her to finish him off. She didn’t. She went slower still and murmured through years of memories and feelings while she held him deep inside her. A naked, angelic Queen, with gems in her hair, whispered to him over and over again how lucky she was to have him. She was right in front of him and there was no way to hide from her loving gaze or words. His climax came when she spoke his name tenderly and seemed to wrack through his entire body. By the end of it all he was left trembling and weeping in her arms while she told him once again how much she loved him.  

 

………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

Something was poking his shoulder. Insistent, sharp little blows to the place high up on his arm. He’d been sleeping and lost in a glorious dream when he woke to the outline of his son in the dark.

 

“You want something?” he mumbled. Anteros only shrugged. Shadow was a few paces behind the boy, sitting and wagging her tail. Sansa stirred in the bed behind him.

 

“Anteros?” Sansa asked, her voice cracking with sleep. “What is it, sweetness?”

 

Anteros again only shrugged. The boy had a piece of string he kept looping around one of his fingers. Sansa made to rise but he pressed a hand at her to stay put. Anteros had woken him after all. He could try at handling the lad. They were both naked beneath the furs anyway. If one of them had to leave the bed it was probably best that it was him. He groped for his breeches on the floor then stood to step into them swiftly.

 

“It’s late and you’re supposed to be asleep. You want me or your mother to walk you back to bed?”

 

Anteros remained silent but grabbed at his hand. The boy led him all the way to his room in the Tower. Once inside Anteros went over to the grated fire and stopped. One of the logs had shifted in the night causing a new side to be exposed and catch fire. The flames were higher then usual when they put him to bed. Gods, it was insanity! He was the keeper of fire now for his son. Using a poker, he managed to turn the log to a charred side and the flames died down to a low flickering. Anteros let out a long breath beside him.

 

“Better?” he asked, settling into a chair near the hearth. Anteros nodded with a smile and climbed up onto his lap without waiting to be invited. Shadow spread herself over his feet. There was a blanket on the arm of the chair that he shook out to lay across both he and Anteros.

 

He woke for a second time that night to Sansa combing his hair with her fingers. “He’s asleep,” she whispered. “Come back to bed.”

 

 

………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

Two months later he opened his eyes in the pink light of dawn. The glow of the new born spring weather highlighted his wife’s hair with sparks of copper and gold. She breathed steadily, still caught up in a dream, with her lips parted just enough to give him a peek at her teeth and the tip of her tongue.  Sansa’s eyelids fluttered as she woke; she always seemed to know when he was watching now. She smiled at him with boundless love as she did every morning. There was as shared grin as they both contemplated whether they would start at kissing, and see where it took them, or simply rise and dress for the day. Most days it was the former they indulged in.

 

He was ready to swoop in and start their preferred morning routine when her eyes went wide with surprised horror. Sansa’s hand flew to her mouth and she left the bed with surprising speed. His hard won ego took a blow for a moment while he watched her gag into the bowl near their bed. It wasn’t he that had set her off, was it? She’d never reacted like that before upon waking. Self doubt wasn’t his constant companion any more but he would never fully be rid of that particular foe.

 

But then she was rinsing her mouth with water and bashfully looking at him. She giggled and he was even more confused. Her robe of pale purple swirled around her body as she wrapped herself in its warmth. Humming, she splashed more water in the bowl to clean it and laughed again at his open mouthed stare.

 

“Something you want to tell me?” he growled, not liking the fact that there was clearly some information that she was privy to but not sharing with him.

 

“It was just like this with Anteros,” she answered coyly; a smug smile plastered on her face, waiting on him to respond.

 

It was like this with Anteros? What was? Vomiting first thing in the morning? When? His mind was too heavy with morning fog to try and sort out her half answers. And then a snippet of a conversation on the stone steps of the North Tower came to him. The day, long ago, when her body had told her she was carrying his child she’d been sick. They’d been married two turns of the moon now and he hadn’t been asked to leave her be due to moon blood. There hadn’t been one drop of it as far as he could tell. He had been too embarrassed to ask if this was normal and had remained quiet instead, assuming her cycle was irregular. But she was trying to tell him otherwise?  

 

The laughter that escaped him couldn’t be helped. It was the only way for his pride and shocked happiness to find some sort of release. “A babe?” he questioned. “So soon?”

 

“I believe so,” she replied, while moving towards him to hold his face within her hands. “I’ll see the Maester today but I should have had my moon blood a fortnight or so after our wedding. Likely you put the little one there on our wedding night.”

 

“Which one?” he teased. It pleased him to think that their first few ungraceful couplings would result in a child. Maybe it had been the night of their second wedding; when she had talked and loved him through the last of his self hatred. It was a thrilling, fortuitous sort of gift for them to share; the ability to create so often and with so little effort on their parts.

 

“I haven’t a clue,” she giggled as he pulled her between his spread legs while he sat on the edge of the bed. Her robe parted when he tugged at the loosely drawn knot at her side, revealing her naked flesh to him. Spreading his palms over her belly he squinted at the space between her hips.

 

“There’s nothing to see yet!” she shouted, warm laughter taking over her. “Not for another month or two.”

 

“You’re not looking hard enough,” he chided, placing a kiss above the curls of her heat. She continued on laughing at his attentions. He knew that place to be ticklish on her and he gripped her harder around the hips to keep her from escaping him. She squealed and dug her knuckles into his shoulders, twisting to try and free herself. He showed no mercy, too elated by her news to stop at blessing her body with his lips no matter how many times she begging for it.

 

Sansa fought back with skills learned from the days and nights spent rolling in the sheets together. Leaning over him she found that spot; the one right behind the patch of skin left of his burnt ear. She licked him there, a long, winding trail of bliss from jaw to hairline. He jerked and moaned immediately, forgetting his present task. Though he was often the one who drove her to madness, that patch of scar tissue was one of a very few places that could make him the slave and her the master.

 

“Cheating,” he ground out against her stomach. She purred back in satisfaction at his reaction and reached between them to find him rising already. It was still early and they had time to spend on each other. They could tease and taste for near an hour if they liked. Instead, the knowledge that they would soon be parents again, and together this time, sent them into a sweating frenzy of joyous abandon. No more than fifteen minutes in and they were both left spent, hot and gasping beside one another.

 

Shifting to look at her, his mood went serious now that their combined euphoria had been seen to. “Does it hurt?” he asked curiously, tracing his fingers over the child hidden withn her. There’d been so much he had missed with Anteros. Sansa knew already the changes that would occur. It was an entirely new process for him.

 

“Not now, no,” she assured him. “Later on it will be uncomfortable sometimes, but not terribly so. I’m told my pains with Anteros were mild compared to some women’s. I think that part of me was made to carry and birth our babes with ease. It didn’t hurt so very much. Not until the end.”

 

That displeased him. He didn’t know much about child bearing but had heard it was a long, excruciating process sometimes. Her words did little to relieve his guilt that he had caused her pain in the past and would do so again. Sansa’s hands smoothed over his ruin, a gesture meant to calm him when she knew he was troubled.

 

“It’s not the same as this,” she soothed, drawing a line across his burnt jaw with a finger. “It’s a pain made of love and life not hate and death. Can you see the difference?”

 

There was the twitch of a bittersweet half-smile on his lips. Could he understand pain built from love? From the first few months they had known one another he knew what that particular type of hurt was. It had ripped his previous beliefs to shreds and let all his hatred bleed out in searing streams. It had clawed at him ruthlessly for years, alone on an Isle without her. It had smashed his heart open when they’d been reunited and forcefully squeezed tears out of him many times over.

 

“Aye,” he sighed, kissing her closed eyes, “I see it well, love.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

I've decided to add a companion piece to this story and thought it best to inform you all here. It is about 11:30 am eastern time on 7/25/17, and I imagine the first chapter will be up in a little under an hour. This seemed the best place to let everyone who was into this story know. It will be titled simply The Best Laid Plans Companion Piece - Sansa's Prayers, and as indicated by the title, these seven chapters will be from Sansa's POV. They will be an expansion of some of the scenes in TBLP from her POV and also 2 or 3 scenes that happen after the events of TBLP. Excited? ME TOO!