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Gods and Monsters

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"In the land of Gods and Monsters, I was an angel living in the Garden of Evil."

-Lana Del Rey


A storm is coming. Of all times, the skies decide to open up tonight.

From behind her mirror, Sansa could see the darkening sky through her open window. A steady column of blackened clouds were rolling across the western horizon, the air thick with static as it blew through the window, dancing amongst the gauzy drapes. With a disappointed sigh, Sansa stared at herself in the mirror, smoothing the fabric of her dress and tugging at the hem which fell mid-thigh. A bit too short. I really should change.

"You look pretty."

Sansa shifted her stare to the reflection in the mirror; the reflection of the woman she would undoubtedly become in twenty years or so. Her mother's thick auburn waves were a shade darker than her own, but beautifully framed the graceful features of her face, and her eyes shone a radiant blue, still glistening dreamily despite her age. All her life others had fawned over how Sansa favored her mother, an almost exact replica of the woman. And it was true. A faded, time-worn picture of her mother at eighteen years old was placed in the corner of Sansa's mirror. The similarities were uncanny, to say the least. As a little girl, Sansa would spend hours flipping through photo albums of her mother and father when they were younger. The woman in the pictures, her mother, was everything Sansa wanted to be: gentle-hearted, beautiful, a free spirit, and most of all, impossibly in love with her father and him with her.

"It's a little short."

Once more, Sansa struggled with the hem, conscious of how high it came up her thighs before pacing towards her closet with a frustrated sigh, flipping through the many dresses she owned for something a little less revealing.

With gentle hands, her mother came up behind her, delicately brushing her fingers through Sansa's hair and her voice softly reassuring.

"You look beautiful, my love. If it were too short, I would let you know."

Letting her hands fall to her side, Sansa walked once more in front of the mirror, tilting her head slightly as she evaluated herself. I guess it's not that bad. One night of being a little less conservative won't kill me…

"Alright. If you say so. But if Dad puts up a fight, I'm telling him that you said it was okay."

Suddenly aware of time, Sansa let her eyes dart to the clock beside her bed before she turned to face her mother, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips and fading away as she once more looked towards the threatening sky outside her window.

"It looks like it's going to storm. We should get going or we'll be late."

Sansa looped her arm in her mother's as they retreated from her bedroom and out into the hall, their heels clicking against the hardwood floors as they walked.

"Is Dad coming tonight?"

With a languished sigh and an abrupt shake of her head, her mother disentangled her arm from Sansa's, wringing her hands together as she always did when troubled.

"No. It will just be you and I. Your father has been at his wit’s end preparing for the deposition for the witness in the Moriarti case. He wants to get some work done tonight."

Sansa gave a disappointed nod before letting her head hang, the understanding implicit. Since his brother's death, her father, Ned Stark, functioned as the district attorney in Portland, elected by voters to replace his older brother who was much loved by the public and much loathed by the west coast crime syndicates. The circumstances surrounding her uncle's death had been mysterious, to say the least.

The Moriarti mafia family had been untouchable for the past twenty years, according to her father. Money laundering, extortion, racketeering, loansharking, prostitution, and fraud were the least of it. Their influence expanded the length of the west coast, from Portland south to San Jose, California and dotted throughout the major cities in between. Since the Moriarti-Severelli alliance collapsed, the two families had been warring, the body count was steadily rising, and witnesses willing to testify were dropping like flies, many disappearing before their testimony could take place in court. Her Uncle Brandon had worked feverishly to convict the bosses of both crime families in hopes that by putting them away for life, the families would be splintered and crumble, forcing the crime and corruption of the city to come to an abrupt halt. Brandon Stark had been dreadfully wrong.

When the underboss of the Moriarti family was arrested and charged with multiple counts of racketeering and extortion, the back lash had been almost immediate. On a constant basis, Brandon was berated with a slew of death threats. Should he not revoke the sentence and drop the case, his demise had been guaranteed in graphic detail. Much like her father, Brandon was a man bound by honor and duty and refused to be intimidated. So the case proceeded, but not before six of the eight witnesses turned up in pieces, random body parts sent to the coroner, district attorney, and presiding judge's offices. The other two witnesses refused to go through with their testimony and had not been seen since, seemingly vanishing into thin air either by their own accord or by the influence of the Moriarti mafia.

Brandon's murder had only made Sansa's father that much more resilient, unwilling to let his brother's death be in vain. Quietly and for the past two years, her father had been building a case against the Moriarti family, bit by bit and as inconspicuously as possible. Could he hit them with the RICO act, every member associated with the Moriarti family and their crimes would be booked, tried, and locked away in prison for the remainder of their lives, essentially wiping out the organization. It was the largest and most high profile case the district attorney's office had ever pursued and had the ability to turn the entire city upside down, for better or for worse. For long days and even longer nights, her father worked tirelessly, often falling asleep at his desk, his head resting amongst stacks of testimonies, affidavits, crime reports, and the scribbling of his notes.

The case had taken its toll on him; he had aged ten years in the past two, or so it seemed. His eyes were constantly hooded with fatigue, the lines of his face had deepened, and his hair was beginning to gray. Sometimes Sansa would walk by his office and see him standing in front of the window, staring out at the thick blanket of woods that surrounded their home. For long moments, he would stand at the window, unmoving with his arms folded behind his back and lost in his thoughts a thousand miles away.

As she approached his office, Sansa found him this way, staring off into the distance as the trees swayed with the wind and his secret thoughts and worries churning in his head, as unsettled as the storm brewing outside. With a light rapping at his door, Sansa cleared her throat before hesitantly stepping into his office.

Turning his head over his shoulder, her father's face met her with a disapproving scowl.

"Sansa. That dress is...a bit revealing, don't you think?"

Suddenly self-conscious once again, Sansa looked down at herself. I could have guessed as much. I should have changed…

"Myranda let me borrow it for tonight. Mom said I looked beautiful."

The mini dress was a bit short; she already knew that. She was bustier than her friend and couldn't help that the fabric pulled tightly across her chest, revealing a soft curve of cleavage. If she tugged at the neckline of the dress, it rose up higher on her legs. If she tugged at the hemline, it pulled the dress down, revealing more cleavage. Undoubtedly, she would be playing an endless game of tug-o-war for the evening.

Removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes, her father turned towards her before crossing his arms about his chest.

"You do look beautiful. That's part of the problem. You're too pretty for your own good. And I can't imagine Myranda's father lets her leave the house in outfits like that. What do you think? Hmm?"

Sansa let her eyes fall away. She hated feeling as though she disappointed him, but she had come to hate feeling as if she was still a child even more. She had already graduated high school, was accepted to the University of Oregon with a full ride, and would be starting college in a few short months. By almost all definitions, she was an adult.

"Dad, I don't know. I don't think Myranda's dad really cares."

Her voice came out a whining huff as Sansa shifted her weight from one foot to the other and crossed her arms tightly around her waist, unwittingly letting her frustration show.

Myranda's father, Nestor Royce, had agreed to be a litigator in her father's case. Nestor and Ned had attended law school together and subsequently interned at the same law firm in San Francisco. It was always assumed the two would open a firm together; with her father's sensibilities and dedication and Nestor's charisma and persuasiveness in trial, the two would have been unstoppable. However, Nestor had taken a job at a high-profile firm in Portland, and her father took a job as the county prosecutor. Since then, their families had become close friends; their daughter, Myranda, becoming Sansa's dearest friend as the two grew up alongside one another.

Named one of the top litigators of the state, Nestor Royce had gained much publicity for the progress he had made in cases relating to the Severelli crime family. He had successfully put away two of the underbosses and a handful of street bosses from various cities. Nestor had suffered the same threats on his life; empty threats that were never followed through on. Perhaps it was his presence in the media or how well connected the man was, but Nestor Royce had relentlessly and successfully pursued the Severelli family, remaining unscathed and untouchable in his own right.

Every year, the Royce's organized a gala for the district attorney's office, as well as higher up city officials. Having come into great wealth, the party was always held at Nestor Royce's estate in Lake Oswego, a suburb outside of Portland. Every lawyer, politician, and socialite of Portland attended the lavish event. Truly, the Royces spared no expense for the annual fete; a team of chefs from each exclusive restaurant in Portland were brought in to create the many decadent dishes that were served, string quartets were set up on each of the three floors of their sprawling Victorian-style home. Even an interior decorator was hired to transform their home for the event. In recent years and given the impending Moriarti case, the party had become invitation only, and private security was hired.

Relenting, her father circled around his desk to stand in front of Sansa, placing his hands heavily on her shoulders.

"Well, I'm your father, and I'm just concerned is all."

Sansa couldn't help but smile. As he rested his weight against his desk, she could see the concern gleaming in his eyes. Ever since she was a little girl, he had always been over protective of her. When she was a freshman in high school, a senior boy had asked her to prom. She had come home bursting through the door and squealing with excitement. As Sansa and her mother instantaneously began planning what her dress would look like, how she would do her hair and make-up, her father stood silently with the same disapproving scowl before going into a stern lecture about how all boys only want one thing at that age, followed by a slew of prom night horror stories that surely never happened to anyone.

With some time and convincing by her mother, he had finally relented, but not before eagerly volunteering as a parent chaperone for the dance. The entire night he watched only her, his face turning red with anger when her date let his hands travel too far down her waist. As the last song played, her father cut in, pushing her date aside while mumbling some excuse about wanting the last dance with his daughter. Irritated and offended, her date threw his hands up in the air and left with some other girl. Sansa cried the entire way home, furious and refusing to speak to her father, turning her body as far away as possible and keeping her stare out the car window.

That was so long ago, it seemed, and as she reflected back on the event, Sansa realized how petty she had been and how truly lucky she was to have a father care for her as much as hers did. Sansa adored her father and how protective he was of her. Only recently had she truly come to appreciate how he looked out for her, worried about her, and did everything in his power to give her a happy life.

Letting her frustration melt away, Sansa nodded her head and rested her hands on top of her father's.

"I know you're concerned about me, and that's why I love you. But I'm not a little girl anymore. I'll be eighteen in a few weeks."

With that, Sansa made her way towards her father's desk, sighing as she saw the myriad of papers strewn about in haphazard stacks. Delicately, she picked up a stray piece of paper and scrutinized it.

"How is the case coming?"

With a groan, her father turned towards his desk, contemplating the stacks of folders and papers with a pained look.

"I don't know, Sansa. I feel like I take two steps forward and one step back. It just doesn't make any sense. This guy, the Moriarti boss, there's literally nothing on him. For the past two years, all my leads on him have been dead ends. Even the witnesses know nothing about the guy or else they're just not talking. It's as if he's a ghost, moving through the shadows. No one has a name on him. Moriarti can't be his true name; that much we do know. I have no idea where he operates from. Hell! For all I know, he could be based in a different city, state, or even country, just calling the shots from behind a desk. Everything surrounding this guy is a mystery."

Her father tossed his fountain pen on the desk where it bounced against a worn, coffee stained manila folder stuffed full of papers with torn edges. With a deep, frustrated sigh, her father ran his fingers through the thick waves of his salt-and-pepper colored hair.

Sansa could scarcely imagine his frustration. She had heard the stories of the Moriarti boss; if not from her father, Myranda would divulge the details, giggling like an idiot and with eyes wide as saucers. It seemed Nestor was more open with the particulars of the case than her own father. Little was known of the Moriarti boss besides the fact that his men referred to him as the Hound. Some said he garnered the name due to his notorious brutality and ruthlessness. Others claimed it was because of how loyal his men were to him and him to them.

Beyond that, the only other detail the district attorney's office had was that the Hound had to be young, late twenties or so. He had probably inherited the position from family or perhaps had gained enough respect within the organization that he was eventually promoted to the top position of the Moriarti mafia. The man was calculated, meticulous, and intelligent, having dodged the authorities and DA office for so long. The city had become corrupt; major corporations were intricately involved with the Moriarti crime syndicate, and high ranking city officials and law enforcement officers were being paid off for turning a blind eye to the illicit activities occurring in the criminal underworld.

Sansa gave her father a reassuring smile before softly taking his hands into her own. From outside, the grumbling of thunder groaned loudly, vibrating through the walls of their home.

"I'm sorry, Dad. Something will turn up eventually. It has to. He can't hide forever. I'm sure he'll show up where you least expect him."

With a half smile cracking across his lips, her father wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kissed her softly on the forehead before nodding his head.

"Thanks, sweetheart. One can only hope."

As her father let her go and walked around his desk, taking his seat once more in front of the heaping pile of papers, Sansa sensed his reluctance to return to his work.

"Mom said you're not going to make it to the Royce's party tonight. Can't you spare just a little time to come? It might do you some good to get away for a few hours. After all, you are the DA and the party is partially held for the district attorney's office, so…"

Sansa let her words drift away, the meandering inflection of her voice baiting him to relent to her subtle insistence. By the furrowing of his brow, she could tell he was contemplating the option: the opportunity to put aside his work for a bit and actually have a little fun for once. But ever the dutiful lawyer, her father shook his head, the regret lingering despite his soft smile.

"I really wish I could. But I'm going to have to bow out for tonight. This deposition has to go as planned, or else I'm back to square one. But you and your mother go and have fun."

Swiveling in his seat, her father turned his stare out the window behind him, contemplating the darkening sky which was rippled with lightening from somewhere far off in the distance. The trees were beginning to bend against the constant assault of the wind, which was picking up stronger with each passing hour.

"A storm's coming. By the looks of it, it's going to be a nasty one. You and your mother, be careful. And that's an order."

A playful smile spread across his face as he jokingly wagged his finger at her, eliciting a giggle to bubble up from within her.

"Yes, Sir."

Sansa kissed her father on the cheek before hurriedly retreating from his office and heading down the stairs, taking her steps as quickly as her legs would carry her without tumbling over her heels. Flats. I should have worn flats. Longer dress, shorter shoes.

Stepping into the kitchen, Sansa found her mother seated at the table, intently watching the weather radar while biting her lip. Laughing to herself, Sansa waved her arms in front of the television, rousing her mother's attention.

"I'm ready if you are."

With a sigh and a smile, Sansa's mother pushed herself from the table and grabbed the car keys from their hook, letting them tumble from one hand to the other.

"It's supposed to storm later tonight. A bad storm too. I hate driving in the rain."

Cocking her head to the side, Sansa extended her hand with the other rested firmly on her hip. She knew her mother too well; the woman's hinting around at what she wanted was thinly guised and fooled no one.

"If you want me to drive, you could've just asked. Give me the keys."

The air outside was thick with humidity, sticky against Sansa's skin and causing her hair to curl into soft waves. She could sense her mother's hesitation as the sky above was blanketed with angry black clouds, and lightening broke across the horizon followed by deafening claps of thunder.

Sansa tried to ease her mother's worried mind, cheerfully speculating as to what sorts of food would be served at the party, placing bets on who would get more intoxicated, Mr. or Mrs. Royce, and discussing the highlights of last year's party. It seemed they were heading into the storm; halfway through their drive, the wind picked up fiercely, lashing against the car and conspiring to toss it off the road. With her hands wrapped firmly around the steering wheel, Sansa drove the rest of the way in silence, her knuckles turning white and a strange sense of foreboding growing in the pit of her stomach as they neared their destination.

As they pulled up to the gate of the Royce estate, a line of cars were stopped in front of them, each handing their invitation to a security guard posted at the gate who gave the invitation a brief glance before passing the car through. Once the cars ahead of them were waved on, Sansa approached the security guard, rolling down her window.

"Your names?"

The man's abruptness startled her. With arms crossed, he barely looked at her, but instead looked back at the line of cars behind them.

"Sansa and Catelyn Stark."

The man's head snapped back towards her as she shuffled through the contents of her purse for the invitation. From the periphery of her vision, she could see the security guard eagerly peering into the car, evaluating both her and her mother intently.

As Sansa handed him their invitation, the man stared callously at her, his face unreadable, yet making her entirely uncomfortable all the same. By the way her mother was shifting in the passenger seat, she surmised he elicited the same reaction from her, as well.

The security guard set his stare at each of them in turn, as if memorizing the features of their faces, before waving them through. With a nervous laugh, her mother turned around in her seat, watching as the security guard waved the cars behind them through without so much as a second glance.

"What was that all about?"

With no insight to offer, Sansa shrugged her shoulders. Perhaps it was the electricity hovering in the air or the way the security guard had seemed to linger over them, but Sansa felt a heaviness beginning to press against her. Her stomach began to burn as they pulled up to the valet waiting at the top of the hill. Something about this night feels off.

An olive skinned boy, no older than her, with a mop of thick, black hair jogged up to the driver side door. As Sansa pushed the car door open, the boy extended his hand to her with a shy smile.

"Ma'am. Welcome to the Royce residence."

Sansa had barely heard the boy as her eyes were instantly drawn to the sight of the house in front of her. Mrs. Royce had it built as an exact replica of a gothic-revival mansion she once saw during her travels to England. As a child, Sansa thought the Royce's house looked like something from a dream, a life-size dollhouse she could roam around in. And roam she did. For hours, she would wander around the mansion and out in the gardens, pretending she was a listless princess in some English manor, waiting for her prince to come. Tonight, however, the house was more breathtaking than she had ever seen it before.

Garlands of peonies were wrapped around the railings and pillars of the half dozen porches situated throughout the front of the house, swathing it in soft floral hues of white, purple, red, and pink and filling the air with their scent. The path to the front of the house was lined with a dozen tall candelabras, each radiating a sphere of flickering light around them. Each of the bay windows were illuminated with gas lamps, beautifully lending their light to the vintage ambiance the house was so effortlessly exuding. Over the booming of thunder, Sansa could hear the gentle plucking sounds of a harp, filling the air with a lovely yet mournful song.

As they entered the house, the foyer was aglow with the soft, shifting light of the crystal chandelier above. The rooms adjacent to the foyer were filled with the murmuring of people exchanging jovial conversations. Heavenly scents wafted through the air as dozens of waiters with trays of food navigated through clusters of people, stopping here and there to explain what foods their tray featured.

With a girlish smile spreading across her rouged lips, Sansa's mother turned to her with eyes wide and her voice breathy and giggling.

"My goodness! This is even bigger than last year's party. Let's go find Myranda and her mother."

Sansa and her mother eased their way through a crowd of people gathered around one of the many cocktail bars that had been set up throughout the house. Stepping into the parlor, they found Charlotte Royce animatedly regaling a group of women about her recent trip to the Italian Riviera, her arms moving through the air as her excited voice bounced throughout the room between sips of wine.

Where her mother was demure, soft-spoken, and modest, Charlotte Royce was vivacious, ostentatious, and wholly enchanted by all forms of luxury, which her husband had happily provided her. A luminous smile swept across Charlotte's face as her eyes wandered over in Sansa and her mother's direction. As the woman waved her arms in the air, the wine went sloshing from her glass, splattering to the floor.

"Catelyn! Sansa! Over here…god damn it! I've been spilling this shit all night."

Charlotte extended her arms and shuffled over, her sequined dress glittering as she moved. The heavy scent of the woman's perfume lingered on Sansa even after the woman planted a kiss on each of her cheeks. Charlotte lifted the locks of Sansa's hair from off of her shoulder, working the strands through her fingers and standing back, seemingly to admire her.

"You, little darling, get more beautiful by the day! Who would've thought that the knobby kneed, gawky little red headed girl I used to know would turn into such a knock out. And yes, that is absolutely a compliment! Myranda is here somewhere."

Charlotte looped her arm in Sansa's mother's, whisking her away and chattering excitedly as she waved over a waiter with a tray of chardonnay.

"I am so happy you're here. I was just telling the gals about my trip to Italy. Oh my God, Cat, it was divine! Wine, you need wine, and I need wine, and then we need to catch up! I have so much to tell you."

Watching as the women fluttered off, Sansa smiled to herself, doting on how different they really were, but friends nonetheless. That difference was echoed in Sansa's friendship with Myranda. Even as a little girl, Myranda had always been outgoing, the center of attention who eagerly sought the adoration of those around her. Sansa had been drawn to Myranda's charisma and effervescence, which foiled Sansa's own shyness and cautiousness.

When they were six, Myranda had convinced Sansa to climb the tree in the front yard of her house. Skillfully and with ease, Myranda had climbed to the top, triumphantly declared herself the Queen of the World, and then effortlessly climbed back down, swinging from limb to limb as she went. 'See how it's done? Now it's your turn, Sansa.' Hesitantly, Sansa climbed the tree, her legs wobbling and her hands shaking like a leaf. Once at the top, Sansa had burst into tears, scared witless at the impending descent. Patiently, Myranda waited at the bottom of the tree, methodically and commandingly instructing Sansa on how to get down and encouraging her with each step. When Sansa finally reached the bottom and once again had her feet planted firmly on the ground, she had let out a sigh of relief and decided then and there that Myranda was her best friend. Since then, the two had been inseparable, as close as sisters.

"Oh my God, Sansa! You look fucking amazing!"

Spinning on her heel, Sansa found Myranda pacing hurriedly towards her, her dress shifting about her swaying hips and her brown curls bouncing with each step. Sansa had thought her dress was short, but Myranda's was at least three inches shorter and her heels two inches taller. Where Sansa's dress flowed easily over her curves, Myranda's clung tightly to her body. The girl was shorter than Sansa and a bit thicker too, but carried herself with a confidence that exuded her sexuality. Myranda had developed much quicker than the other girls. By seventh grade, she had a set of full breasts, and a subtle curve of her hips had begun to emerge. Much to the chagrin of the other girls, the boys were quick to take notice, and in turn Myranda was quick to lap it up, eager for the attention, even if the intentions were less than admirable.

Once developing, Myranda had been quick to explore her sexuality. When she lost her virginity at the age of fifteen, Myranda confided in Sansa, sparing no detail of the experience despite Sansa's urging to forgo the graphic retelling. When Sansa asked if she planned on ending up with the boy who took her virginity, Myranda laughed hysterically, clutching her side with tears rolling down her cheeks. Disbelieving, Myranda had asked if Sansa truly meant to wait to have sex until she found her 'prince', some perfect man who would fall desperately in love with her and her with him. In her naiveté, Sansa did not understand what was so outlandish about that thought. After all, her parents shared that sort of love. If they could find it, why couldn't she? From that day, Myranda had dubbed her with the nickname 'Alice,' a nod to the head-in-the-clouds girl from Alice in Wonderland, who Sansa seemed to emulate.

With an approving smile plastered to her face, Myranda circled Sansa, looking her up and down.

"Look at you! I never knew you had such amazing legs. You need to show them off more. And of course, your tits look great. They always do, though."

With a sigh, Myranda pulled down the neck line of her dress and pushed up on her breasts before shrugging her shoulders.

"I wish mine were bigger. Ah well, I've got the great ass. I guess that counts for something."

Flashing a warm smile and giving a soft giggle, Sansa gave Myranda a hug before releasing her hold and tugging at the hemline of her mini dress, once more becoming self-conscious and internally chiding herself about not changing.

"Thanks. You look beautiful as well. You don't think it's too short?"

Myranda rolled her eyes before sweeping them across the room of people, contemplating the men dressed in suits and ties as a devilish smile formed about her lips.

"Oh, my dear Alice. There's no such thing as a dress that's too short or heels that are too high. Plus, I do believe you are drawing the attention of almost every man in this room."

Feeling her cheeks warm with a slight blush, Sansa darted her eyes about the room. Most of the men at the party were her father's age, and each strutted about the room with self-importance and pompousness oozing out of them. Wrinkling her nose with a look of disgust, Sansa turned back towards her friend.

"Don't say that! They're so…old."

With a shrug of her shoulders and flip of her hair, Myranda took Sansa by the hand and led her through the room of people.

"Podrick is in the other room. He was asking if you were going to be here. The boy can barely contain his hard-on for you. Plus, his entire family is out of town for the weekend. Are you sure you aren't interested in him?"

Laughing, Sansa playfully nudged her friend. She was used to Myranda's crassness and knew she truly meant well. Podrick Payne was Myranda's neighbor, a shy boy who carried himself with as much awkwardness as anyone Sansa had ever met. When they were eight, Myranda introduced Sansa to Podrick. Many months later and with the encouragement of Myranda, Podrick had built up enough courage to ask Sansa if, when they were older, she would marry him and allow him to die happy. Later, Myranda confessed that she had told Podrick the right words to say, and that the poor boy had been mustering up the courage to ask since the day he had met Sansa. Not realizing this at the time, Sansa had gingerly and graciously declined his offer, telling him that she was promised to a prince. With defeat gleaming in his eyes, Podrick had smiled anyway before shoving his hands in his pockets and retreating off, but not before saying 'I hope you find your prince, Sansa.'

Many years later, Sansa had asked Podrick if he remembered any of it. Her question was met with a firm denial, but Sansa knew he remembered, just as much as she did. Since then, he had become a dear friend to her and Myranda. Sansa knew he retained the same affection for her as he did when they were younger. She loved him truly, but not in the same way he had come to love her.

Tugging at her arm and pulling Sansa from her reverie, Myranda led them into the great room, pushing through clusters of people with a steady rotation of 'excuse us' and 'pardon me’. Truly, there were more people at the party than in years past, a sea of faces Sansa scarcely recognized.

The great room of the Royce mansion was the true focal point of the house, the word 'great' a sore understatement. Open to the floor above, the room boasted marble floors and twin chandeliers whose tear-drop crystals glimmered like diamonds against the ornately carved wooden beams from which they were hung. Along two sides of the room, the hallways up above were open to the great room below, save a series of arches and hand-carved wood railings. At the far end of the room, floor to ceiling windows flanked an ornate fireplace and looked out to the lake whose waters were rippling with the wind. A number of couches and chairs were arranged about the room, separating it into two halves. On the far end of the room, an older man in a tuxedo was seated at the grand piano, filling the air with soft music which battled against the thunder reverberating throughout the house. On the opposite end of the room, a winding staircase led to the open hallways above, the iron spindles set in dark mahogany wood.

The room was dimly lit by the chandeliers above, as well as a series of candelabras placed at various points about the room. Flashes of lightening were coming more frequently and illuminating the subtle, dusky darkness. As thunder roared outside, the chandeliers above swayed slightly and the house groaned against the wind.

The room was astir as people shuffled throughout, exchanging greetings or engaging in heated discussions about business, sports, or politics. Merry laughter filled the air and mingled amongst the sounds of the piano before being blotted out by thunder. Waiters meandered about, carrying trays of champagne or hor d'oeuvres, steadying their trays as people eagerly grabbed items off as they passed.

Finally finding a pocket of space, Sansa slid along the wall and perched herself against it, avoiding the shifting clusters of people who were moving about the room. Grabbing a glass of champagne as a waiter scurried by, Myranda eased next to Sansa's side, shrugging her shoulders innocently as Sansa shot her a chiding stare.

"Oh God, Sansa! Don't look so offended. It won't kill you to loosen up a bit."

A part of Sansa knew Myranda was right. The other part of Sansa was afraid to admit it– afraid to let herself go, in fear that she might lose herself forever. And buried underneath it all, tucked deep away, was a part of Sansa that wanted to lose herself, to do at least one reckless thing in her life and free fall into the darkness, down the rabbit hole into another world.

A group of people standing in front of her cleared away, opening her vision to the other half of the room. Sansa's attention was drawn to a man seated on a plush couch situated across the room– his legs open and one arm casually draped over the back of the couch, the other resting in his lap with a cocktail in hand. The other men moseying about the room were stuffed into designer suits, expensive ties wrapped tightly around their necks. However, this man was different; he wore a white dress shirt, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, exposing muscled forearms, the top three buttons unfastened, his black tie undone and draped around his neck.

Where the other men pompously sauntered about with heads held high in arrogance, this man remained seated, silently evaluating the room with one corner of his mouth pulled up in a half smile. Perhaps his most distinguishing feature was the scars that covered the left side of his face. Starting at his forehead and extending halfway down his cheek, the skin of his face was a gnarled tangle of flesh. Strands of his shoulder length, raven colored hair covered the worst of his scars. The right side of his face was entirely masculine, framed by a sharp jaw line and high cheekbones. His nose was hooked, and his eyes glimmered grey as stainless steel.

Something about the man captivated Sansa, his presence such a dichotomy to the rest of the men at the party. Where they feigned their confidence and masculinity, this man exuded his. To his right sat another man, similarly underdressed and watching the room, every now and then leaning in and exchanging words. Adjacent to the couch, one more man sat in an arm chair puffing on a cigar, his elbows resting on his knees as he set his glare about the room.

Seemingly feeling her eyes on him, the man shifted his gaze to her, stifling her breath and causing her heart to pound steadily in her chest. She expected the man to look away– for his eyes to pass over her and roam about the room as they had been. Instead, he fixed his stare, lowering his head and lifting his drink to his lips, but keeping his eyes glued to her. Unable to maintain the stare, Sansa let her eyes flutter away and felt the skin of her cheeks beginning to burn as she blushed uncontrollably.

Breathless despite standing still, Sansa turned towards Myranda who had already gulped down her champagne and was swaying slightly with drunkenness.

"Who is that?"

Sansa winced as Myranda snapped her head over her shoulder, her eyes landing directly on the man. Subtly is lost on her…

"Mmm. That guy there? Does it matter? He's eye fucking you like crazy, Sansa."

Myranda turned her body towards the man, her back flush against the wall as she lifted her champagne glass so that it rested between her breasts. Despite Myranda's attempt at a seductive stance, the man kept his eyes intent on Sansa. Feeling a wave of heat move through her body, Sansa shook her head.

"Don't say that! He is not. Seriously, have you seen him before?"

Dropping her arm to her side and turning back towards Sansa, Myranda leaned her weight against the wall, her left knee buckling slightly as she momentarily lost her balance.

"Oh calm down! You're such a god damn prude. No, I think I'd remember if I'd seen him before. I imagine he's some big shot lawyer out of law school, looking to kiss enough ass tonight to land a job."

Somehow Sansa highly doubted that. The way the man composed himself suggested he was a man of power and influence. He carried himself with an assuredness that resonated from his body. If anything, people would be seeking him out tonight, not the other way around.

With her words slightly slurring off her tongue, Myranda turned her glance back towards the man.

"Even with his scars he's kind of hot…got that dark and brooding thing going for him. Not to mention, he has an amazing body. Mmm…and he looks to be tall too. You should talk to him!"

Huffing out a laugh and smiling nervously, Sansa shook her head adamantly, feeling her heart beat hard at the thought.

"And say what? 'Hey! I saw you eye fuc…" Embarrassed, Sansa let her voice drop off before beginning again. "'I saw you looking at me from across the room.' No. I think I'm okay."

Myranda shrugged her shoulders before pushing herself from the wall, her cheeks flushed from the champagne.

"Suit yourself. If I were you, I'd go for it. For right now though, I need another drink. I'll be back."

With an impish smile, Myranda sauntered away, leaving Sansa standing against the wall as she shyly let her eyes avoid the direction of where the man was sitting. From the periphery of her vision she could see that he was watching her, evaluating her as his focus remained solely on her and her alone despite the dozens of people moving about the room.

The other man sitting to his right leaned over and whispered something in his ear as he shot a fleeting look at Sansa. Still the scarred man kept his stare on her, intently eying her as he sipped on his drink. She knew not what the other man told him, but it beckoned his lips to curve into a mischievous smile, his eyes dark and lustrous as he slowly nodded his head.

Sansa felt her heartbeat quicken and her knees beginning to shake with weakness. She squirmed under his stare, but found herself utterly entranced by it, unable or perhaps unwilling to move. Something about his eyes on her sent shivers throughout her body. She relished the feeling until his attention turned to a woman who seated herself to his left. The leggy blonde wore a dress that made Myranda's look like a nun's habit in comparison; skin-tight, plunging neckline, backless, and barely covering her ass, the dress was tasteless at best. Leaning into him and pushing her breasts up against his side, the woman brushed her fingertips along his bare forearm.

Sansa let her eyes fall away, feeling her cheeks burn as she saw from the periphery of her vision as the man brushed the woman's long, blonde hair from off her shoulder. In an obnoxiously overt display, the woman bit her lip and gave out an audible gasp as he brushed his lips against her ear. Sansa stifled a laugh. You've got to be kidding me. I didn't realize women actually acted like this.

After the man whispered something in her ear, the woman abruptly pulled away, her mouth agape as she gathered her purse and lifted herself from his side, shooting him a furious glare. As she stood up, the man lifted his glass to the woman and curtly nodded his head, a mocking gesture which only infuriated her more and sent her stomping off across the room.

Wide-eyed and amused, Sansa watched the woman push through clusters of people, shoving them out of her way as she muttered expletives under her breath. She knew the man had resumed watching her; she could feel his eyes on her, threatening to burn her alive under the heat of his stare. As Sansa let her eyes flutter towards him, he was indeed watching her still. In one regard, she felt as if she was on display for him; something for him to stare at lustily. Much to her surprise though, she found that she liked it, and her body was responding, emanating heat from her skin and her breaths coming ragged from her trembling lips.

The scarred man shifted his stare to the man seated on his right, talking in hushed tones whilst motioning his head towards the staircase adjacent to them. Without hesitation, the man to his right lifted himself to his feet and headed towards the stairs, but not before eying Sansa coldly. Two more men followed behind him, each keeping their eyes straight ahead and their faces stoic as stone as they ascended the stairs.

As the scarred man lifted himself to his feet, Sansa saw how tall he really was; he towered over everyone around him and had to be well over six feet tall, closer to seven feet, most like. Beyond that, he was muscled like a bull, his thick arms emanating from broad, heavy shoulders.

Sansa felt her breath quicken and her heart race as he cast his gaze once more towards her, his eyes softening a bit and the scarred side of his mouth twitching ever so slightly. Oh God. What if he comes over here? What the hell am I supposed to say?

Sansa felt her heart begin to beat furiously against her chest and her head become dizzy. To her simultaneous relief and disappointment, the man didn't come to her, but instead finished his drink in two gulps before setting it down hard on the table and heading for the stairs in striding steps.

"Sansa? Are you feeling okay?"

Startled, Sansa jumped and turned to find Podrick standing behind her, his hands in his pockets and uncomfortably shifting from one foot to the other. His hair, which was normally a shaggy mess that fell into his eyes in loose curls, had been smoothed back, easily revealing the boyish features of his face. With her heart beat slowing a bit, Sansa let out a deep sigh to steady her breath.

"Hey Pod. No…I mean, yes. Yes, I'm fine. You look really nice. I like what you've done with your hair. How's everything going?"

Blushing slightly, Podrick ran his fingers through his hair and laughed nervously.

"Oh, yeah. My mom said I should get it out of my face. Things are alright, I guess. I got roped into a conversation with Mr. Mormont about football. I told him I didn't know anything about football. He responded by telling me everything he knew about it. Did you know that the Detroit Lions are the only non-expansion NFL team never to go to the Super Bowl? Whatever that means…"

As Podrick began to ramble, Sansa unwittingly let her eyes drift towards the stairs and the landing at the top of the stair case, lost in a daze and searching out the man who had somehow captured her attention in such a short amount of time.

"Hmm. Yeah. Well, that's interesting." Mindlessly, the words left her lips while her focus and her eyes remained fixed on the stair case.

"Sansa, are you sure you're okay? You seem distracted."

Instantly, she was roused from her musings and turned towards Podrick, taking his hands into her own and smiling softly before her mind drifted again despite her willing it not to.

"I'm sorry. No I didn't know about the whole Detroit Lions thing. Stay here, Pod. I'll be back in just one second, I promise."

Much to her own surprise, she felt compelled towards the stairs, her legs moving without her consent and carrying her across the room, shifting through the crowd. Sansa ascended the stairs, her eyes searching the upper balconies as she went, but not finding the man. As she reached the top of the stairs and headed down the corridor that opened to below, she could hear faint laughter coming from the end of the hall. In slow, quiet steps, Sansa headed down the hall, her heart beginning to beat faster and the breath beginning to catch in her throat.

As she rounded the corner at the end of the hall, she found a woman pressed up against an older man in a suit, her lipstick stains smudged across his cheek and neck. Startled, Sansa backed away and let her eyes fall to the floor as she muttered her words.

"I'm so sorry. I was just…"

Flushed, Sansa's apology was cut short by another sound. This time, instead of laughter she heard arguing followed by a series of thuds. The couple exchanged a wide-eyed look before pushing past Sansa and retreating back down the corridor. Sansa remained fixed in her spot and steadied her breaths to hear. Again, angry shouts were punctuated with the sound of scuffling, as if two people were struggling against one another.

Part of her knew she should turn back and head downstairs, perhaps informing one of the security guards to check it out. But the other part of her was encouraging her forward, towards the service staircase that was tucked away in the back corner of the hallway and towards the direction of the sounds. Slowly, Sansa gave into the encouraging, her legs propelling her forward in tiny, tiptoed steps until she reached the stairs.

The shouting became louder as Sansa climbed the staircase and was now accompanied by the pleading wails of a woman and the pained screams of a man. As she shifted her weight slightly, the wood of the staircase underneath her groaned loudly. Instantaneously, the shouting stopped and was replaced by a muffled exchange between two men. Sansa's heart threatened to beat out of her chest as she worked her way back down the stairs as quietly as possible before pushing herself flush against the far side of the wall, away from the landing at the top of the stairs. Suddenly, a door upstairs flew open and she heard heavy footsteps descend the steps. One at a time, the footfalls got louder and her heart responded by beating fast and frantic in her chest. Stupid. This was so stupid. Please. Please. PLEASE don't let him come down here.

Sansa's silent pleading was answered. Above her, she could hear the heavy breathing of a man before he turned around and retreated back up the stairs, shouting as he reached the top of the landing.

"No one's out here. The house must be haunted or something."

Breathing a silent sigh of relief, Sansa wiped off the sweat that had beaded on her brow before carefully tiptoeing from the corner. Suddenly, the door upstairs flew open once more, and the sobs of a woman filled the stairway, echoing from the walls as the woman scampered haphazardly down the steps. Sansa found herself frozen in place, unable to move her legs despite her mind screaming for her to flee.

As the woman rounded the banister of the last stair, she came running towards Sansa, stumbling over her feet. It's her. It's the blonde-haired woman. With blood trickling down her forehead and her mascara smeared across her face, the woman looked a fright. Her dress had been torn, somehow she had lost both of her shoes, and there was blood staining her platinum hair.

With her mouth gaped open in horror, Sansa stumbled backwards as the woman ran limping towards her and grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her furiously.

"You have to get out of here! Go, run. NOW!" With that, the woman pushed Sansa towards the set of stairs leading to the floor below as she limped off down the main corridor.

Two popping sounds rang out from the room above, followed by a thud. Suddenly regaining the use of her legs, Sansa flew down the service staircase to the floor below. As she reached the bottom floor, she heard the same popping sound coming from all around her, echoing through the walls and rattling the windows. Somewhere within her, she instinctively knew what the sound was. Please, God. Let that be fireworks. Let it be something else.

Sansa was halfway down the stairs when she first started hearing the screams, followed by more popping sounds, followed by even more screams. She could hardly hear anything over the desperate and blood curdling shrieking which was punctuated by the thunder booming outside. When Sansa emerged in the kitchen, a man in a suit was on his knees clutching his throat, blood squirting between his fingers as he looked up at her and tried to speak. As Sansa darted her eyes about the room, she saw more bodies, more than she could count, lying amongst broken dishes and glass and people running, shoving past one another as sparks of light accompanied the popping sounds.

Stepping over the bleeding bodies, Sansa ran towards the great room, her legs shaking beneath her, her steps unsteady and stumbling as her vision started to become blurred and the smell of burning filled the air. When she entered the great room, the sight before her made her blood run cold and curdling through her veins. The room was half engulfed in flames eagerly licking up the sides of the walls, all the way up to the ceiling and filling the room with thick columns of black smoke. Amongst the flames, Sansa saw as men were dousing the walls in kerosene before kicking over the lit candelabras placed throughout the room. Beneath the smoke, Sansa could see the bodies of people she had seen eating, drinking, and talking not fifteen minutes before.

She felt the acidity of vomit hitting the back of her throat as she ran from the room and down the adjoining corridor. In front of her, a security guard was pacing hurriedly towards the foyer. As she tried to call out to him for help, her voice caught in her throat, her words coming out as whimpering gasps. Before she could clear her throat and try again, the security guard lifted his gun and pointed it towards the crowd of guests that were pushing towards the front door, their screams reverberating off the marble floors in a deafening cacophony.

Sansa felt a strong pull behind her and her feet slide across the floor. A hand flew up to her mouth, stifling her screams so they came as a muffled whimpering sound while her legs flailed violently.

"Sansa. It's me. Pod."

Podrick released his hold on her before pulling her into the butler pantry of the kitchen.

"My mom and Myranda. Where are they?"

Sansa's voice quivered uncontrollably and came out as frantic shouts, louder than she intended. Podrick paced wildly about the pantry, his eyes frenzied and darting about.

"I don't know. I heard shouting and then the gunshots. And then screaming. I ran, Sansa. I just ran."

Suddenly, he stopped and grabbed her wrist, pulling her around hard to look at him. His eyes flickered with terror.

"We have to get out of here."

As they emerged cautiously from the pantry, the kitchen was beginning to fill with smoke. The frantic shifting of a form through the smoke caught Sansa's attention. Myranda broke through the smoke, coughing and tears streaming down her face. On her left side, blood was saturating her dress. Sansa broke away from Podrick and ran towards her friend, pulling her into her arms.

"Myranda! What happened?"

Gasping for air, Myranda choked out sobs as she collapsed in Sansa's arms, pushing her weight up against her and her voice screaming.

"I...I don't' know. They're…they're killing everyone. Oh, God."

Myranda's words were interrupted by hysterical sobs as she doubled over in front of Sansa, gasping and clutching her side. Once again feeling an insistent tug on her arm, Sansa heard Podrick's voice cracking with fear and desperation from behind her.

"We have to go. Both of you! We have to go now."

Sansa pulled free of his grasp and spun around to face him, her voice quivering, yet insistent all the same.

"My mom is here somewhere. I'm not leaving her!"

Sansa turned towards Myranda who had slumped to the floor, her body wracked with heaving sobs. With all her might, Sansa tried to pull Myranda from the floor, but the girl was inconsolable and refused to budge.

"Myranda, come on! We have to go. Get up!"

The crunching of glass forced Sansa to snap her head up. When she did, she saw the man in front of her, the scarred side of his face gleaming grotesquely in the light and his white shirt splattered with blood, a pistol clutched in his right hand.

Feeling her blood run cold, Sansa tried to back away as the man paced towards her, glass breaking under his feet with his eyes glazed over in ferocity. Sansa's legs wouldn't budge as Myranda clung to her, clawing at Sansa's legs and squealing out her pleas for the man to go away. With one forceful pull, Podrick yanked Sansa free from Myranda's grasp and took a hold of her wrist before running at a furious pace towards the service staircase.

In a few hurried strides, the man crossed the kitchen, almost effortlessly closing the distance between him and Sansa. One of his hands wrapped around her arm and pulled her backwards as a stunned Podrick let go of her wrist. Spinning her around to face him, Sansa stumbled into the man, her legs melting beneath her as her knees refused to hold her weight any longer. Still clutching his pistol, the man caught her in his free arm and steadied her to her feet.

As the man tried to pull her back across the kitchen, Sansa fought feebly against him, turning in his arm so that her back was to his chest as she reached out screaming for Podrick who stood by helplessly, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly.

With as much force as she could muster, Sansa swung her elbow into the man's stomach, loosening his grip on her just enough so that she could break free of his arm. As she took two wobbling steps forward, Sansa stumbled and fell to the ground, wincing in pain as shards of glass cut into the skin of her arms and legs.

Flipping her over to her back, the man tried to pull her up. His effort was futile as Sansa frantically flailed her arms and legs to stave the man off as she struggled to get back to her feet and flee. Before she could crawl away, the man flipped her to her back once more and straddled her, sitting on her legs and pinning her arms down above her head, one of his large hands easily encircling both of her wrists. Sansa squirmed underneath him and whimpered as she felt the glass pushing further in her skin.

"Please! Please, don't!"

The man lowered himself on top of her, still holding her hands above her head and resting his other forearm next to her face, his pistol looming dangerously close to her cheek. As his face lingered a few inches above hers, Sansa could smell the scent of blood and whiskey on him, mingling amongst the faint smell of his cologne. Strands of his hair brushed against her cheek, sticking to the tears that were streaming from her eyes.

"Unless you want to die tonight, Sansa Stark, you had better fucking cooperate with me. I'm not a patient man."

Sansa could feel his voice vibrate through her as it came deep and bellowing from his chest, flickered with a strange calm despite his threatening words.

With his weight on top of her, Sansa's pleas came as stifled mewling sounds, indistinguishable through her trembling lips. More tears filled her eyes as the smoke began to stream into the room, blurring her vision and further siphoning the breath from her lungs in gagging coughs.

Through the smoke, Sansa could see that Podrick had somehow managed to glide his way past them and was standing above the man, clutching a knife in both of his shaking hands. Seeing her gaze shift, the man pulled himself up from Sansa, but it was too late. Podrick plunged the blade of the knife in the man's lower back.

Groaning in rage and frustration, the man pulled the knife from his back and tossed it aside. As he lifted his weight from her slightly, Sansa pulled her legs out from underneath him with a sudden jerk. Stumbling to her feet and with Podrick pulling her by the wrist, Sansa ran to the back staircase with her eyes searching the kitchen for Myranda. The girl was nowhere to be found, seemingly having slipped away.

As they burst through the back door and into the night, a steady rainfall lashed against their faces as the wind was a deafening roar against their ears. With Podrick leading the way, they ran through the gardens behind the Royce estate, weaving through the tall shrubs and trees, trampling over flower beds and herb patches. Turning her gaze momentarily behind her, Sansa saw as half of the mansion was engulfed in flames, the peonies garlands and beautiful turrets of the house melting into grotesque shapes under the blaze. Gunshots pierced through the night, but the screams softened as they ran down the hill that separated the Royce and Payne properties from one another.

Sansa kept her stare forward as they neared Podrick's house, her legs burning as the embedded glass worked its way further into her delicate flesh. Lightening flashed above them and illuminated the sky so that it shown like daytime. Petrified that the scarred man was fast on their heels, Sansa reluctantly turned her gaze around her shoulder, almost certain she would find him there. Behind her all she saw were plumes of violent flames stark against the churning of the stormy sky. Beyond that, the expanse behind her was empty.

After running for what felt like an eternity, Sansa and Podrick pushed through the back door of his house, both falling to the cold tile floor panting and gasping for breath. Bursts of lightening illuminated the house, which was pitch dark and dreadfully silent. Podrick sat with his back against the wall, dazed and shaking and his mouth opening and closing ever so slightly as he mumbled to himself.

Scooting across the floor, Sansa slid next to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. Panicked, Podrick snapped his stare towards the ceiling as the sounds of footsteps creaked above them. Pushing himself quietly to his feet and pulling Sansa up with him, he pushed his index finger to his lips, shushing Sansa despite her silence.

The footsteps above them moved slowly and deliberately, pacing towards the front of the house towards the staircase situated near the foyer. With his eyes wide and his body trembling, Podrick turned towards her, his words a barely discernible whisper.

"Someone's here. We have to go."

In soft, silent steps, Podrick led the way through the darkness to the door of the garage. Pushing his hand in his pocket, he pulled out his car keys. Through quivering fingers, the keys hit the ground with  an echoing thud against the tile floor. The pacing steps above them turned to hurried stomping down the foyer stairs. In one sweeping motion, Podrick snatched the keys from the ground and swung open the door to the garage, pulling Sansa with him.

As Sansa swung into the passenger seat of the car, Podrick fumbled with the keys, his hands shaking uncontrollably.

"Podrick! Hurry, please! We have to get out of here."

Finally, his clumsy fingers pushed the keys into the ignition as the garage door opened behind them. With her breath catching painfully in her chest, Sansa saw the form of a man behind them, a silhouette against the volatile sky. As the man neared closer, Sansa's blood ran cold through her veins. The security guard. The one from the gate.

With a devious smile spread about his face, the man clutched an assault rifle in his hand and started towards them. Throwing the car into reverse, Podrick slammed on the acceleration, hitting the man with a thud and sending him flying through the air.

The tires squealed loudly as they flew at a furious pace out of the driveway and down the street, away from the hellish nightmare the evening had become. Turning in her seat, Sansa looked through the rear view window and saw with horror as the Royce estate was fully engulfed with flames. Her heart pounded and her eyes were stinging with tears at the thought that her mother and Myranda might still be there. But she knew, with crystalline and painful clarity, they could not turn back. So with a storm raging above them, Sansa and Podrick fled into the night and into an entirely uncertain future.

 

Chapter Text

 Gods and Monsters

Chapter Two


'Emergency dispatchers received the first call at 9:22 pm this evening. Security guards hired for the event apparently turned gunfire on party goers...'

The crackling sound of radio static interspersed with the squeaking of the wiper blades filled the car as Sansa and Podrick sat in silence, dazed and driving through sheets of pounding rain. They had been driving south on Highway 5 for the past hour, each lost in their own thoughts and trying desperately to wrap their heads around what had transpired just a short time ago. Sansa knew not what to say, let alone what to think. She hadn't even bothered to pick out the bits of glass that were embedded in the skin of her legs and arms. The sharp, driving pain of the glass-filled gashes was eclipsed by the dull aching she felt in her chest, as if her heart had been ripped from her body, leaving a gaping hole in its place.

When they reached Highway 5, Sansa had held her breath; if Podrick headed north, they would pass by the turn-off for her house. And south. South led nowhere, at least to her. Everything she loved, everything she had ever known, was north on Highway 5. As Podrick turned on the southbound I-5 ramp, Sansa felt her heart sink into the pit of her stomach. She wanted to plead with him - to tell him to turn around so that she could find her father and hopefully her mother too. Perhaps her mom had somehow escaped and was at home, worried sick and waiting up at the kitchen table for Sansa to come home. The thought brought the sting of tears to her eyes; tears because she desperately wanted this vision to be true, but mostly because somewhere within her she knew it was not. She sensed that her mother hadn't made it out, and that she wasn't waiting up at the kitchen table.

'The total number of dead and injured remains unclear at this point, but emergency vehicles have just recently arrived at the scene.'

The radio was coming in and out of frequency as they neared Salem, the broadcaster's voice interrupted by the twanging of some lovelorn country singer. When they left Portland at a speeding pace, Sansa had frantically flipped through each and every radio station, waiting patiently for songs to finish and the radio host to come on with a breaking news announcement. For forty-five minutes she did this - up and down the dial, back and forth between AM and FM. Finally, she had found news coverage, yet it did little to ease the aching in her heart and the sourness of her stomach, which was churning as she played the events of the evening over and over in her restless mind.

'Currently, the main effort has been focused on containing the blaze which has completely engulfed this entire residence and threatens surrounding homes.'

It didn't make any sense to her. If the first emergency call came in at 9:22 pm, why did it take so long for police to respond? Biting her lip hard at the thought, Sansa let her cell phone tumble from one hand to the other, fighting the urge to turn it on and call her father. At the very least, she wanted to let him know she was okay and that she loved him with all her heart.

'As mentioned, a lot remains unclear at this point. Police are refusing comment until more details emerge. For now, they're suggesting residents of the Lake Oswega community remain in their homes until the area has been secured by law enforcement.'

With one hand covering the screen of her phone and the thumb of her other pressing and holding the power button, Sansa turned on the phone and awaited the vibration of missed text messages, voicemails, and phone calls coming from her parents and Myranda. For what felt like an eternity, she waited and with each passing second felt her heart sink deeper within her chest. Slowly, she removed her hand covering the screen only to find the background picture of her and her parents at graduation, no voicemail icons, no blinking LED light for text messages. Heart sick, Sansa swiped the screen and pulled up her dad's cell phone number before pressing her thumb against the call icon and raising the phone to her ear.

With her hand trembling, Sansa heard one ring and then his voice. 'You've reached Eddard Stark. I'm sorry I am unable to take your call right now. Please leave a name, number, and a brief message and I will get back t-'

Suddenly, Sansa felt the phone being yanked away from her face, the soothing tone of her father's voice drifting away from her ears. With one hand still on the steering wheel, Podrick pulled off the back cover of her phone with deft fingers and rolled down his window. As rain dribbled in, Podrick tossed the battery out of the window to go tumbling down the highway behind them.

Sansa turned in her seat towards him before shifting her head over her shoulder, looking out the rear view window in disbelief.

"What did you do that for?"

She slumped back in her seat and crossed her arms about her chest, suddenly feeling the pieces of glass digging into her skin with a painful throb. Glancing over, she saw as Podrick's jaw clenched in frustration, and his eyes blinked rapidly in agitation.

"People can track you by your cell phone, you know? Your signal bouncing off of the cell towers is like connect-the-dots; just follow the lines until you find what you're looking for."

Sansa knew he was right. Throughout the drive, his eyes shifted constantly to the rear view mirror, studying the highway behind them for any cars that seemed to be tailing them. If a car hovered too long, Podrick would speed up or slow down and patiently wait for the other car to either fall behind or pass them. She didn't want to admit his instincts were right. Admission would mean that the nightmare was real and that they were most likely being followed. Instead, she feigned ignorance, not willing just yet to let go of the idea that they were traveling towards safety.

"What are you talking about?"

Throwing his hands up in the air, Podrick turned his glare towards her, his eyes flickering with exasperation but his voice somehow pleading with her, willing her to understand.

"You still don't get it, do you? Put it together, Sansa! Connect the damn dots! Your dad is the district attorney. The district attorney before him, your Uncle Brandon, was murdered. Everyone knows that the Royce's party is a microcosm of Portland high society shoved into the same house for an entire evening. Anyone who is wealthy or powerful is in attendance, including everyone from the district attorney's office. It was only a matter of time before something bad happened, something like this."

Sansa had never seen Podrick like this, his breaths huffing from his body and his hands swinging animatedly through the air and in time with the inflection of his voice. Leaning forward, he flicked off the radio, extinguishing the white noise of static that filled the gulf of silence which had settled between them. With a deep sigh, Podrick settled back in his seat and slumped his head against the head rest before beginning again, this time his voice softer and strained with grief.

"I'm not going to pretend I know why this happened because I don't, but it wasn't some freak accident. They planned this, Sansa. They knew certain people would be there. If you would've seen…"

Podrick's voice dropped off abruptly and gave way to a slight whimpering sound. Through the darkness, Sansa saw that he had begun to cry, tears glistening off his cheeks as columns of the passing highway lights streamed through the window. Choking back the tears and taking a deep breath, he began again.

"They were looking for certain people. They didn't come in right off the bat just killing everyone. They wanted certain people. Sansa…I think you were one of them. If I hadn't been able to get you away from that guy, I don't…I don't know."

Podrick let his words hang unspoken in the air as his voice once more broke off into a deafening silence. Sansa understood his implication, having already pondered the “'what ifs”. There were too many to count. What if the scarred man had pulled her away from Podrick? What if she had called out to the security guard just seconds before he opened fire in the foyer? What if she had never left the great room in search of the scarred man? Worse, what if she had found the scarred man, delivered herself right into his hands?

 

Connect the dots. Connect the damn dots, Sansa. Think. Think. Think. Once more, she sensed Podrick's instincts were spot on; the events of the evening seemed to be interconnected. If she could just piece them together, perhaps she could make sense of what happened, begin to understand. Then again, she wasn't entirely certain she wanted to understand. What she wanted, what she needed, was her family. More than that, she wanted to wake up - to open her eyes and find herself tucked safely in her bed amongst her blankets, to hear her father's soft snoring from down the hallway, to wake up and realize that perhaps this was just a terrible, awful nightmare, and none of it had actually happened. Over breakfast, she could tell her mother of the horrible dream she had and listen to her father's psycho-babble about the connection between dreams and external stressors in our lives.

But Sansa knew that this wasn't a dream. She only needed to look down at the scrapes and scratches on her legs and feel the painful ache in her chest, the ache of her heart breaking, to know that this was real, that her life had changed entirely, been turned completely upside down and torn apart within a few short hours. Once more, she allowed her mind to stray back to the events of the evening, to mentally walk through each and every moment, replaying it with as much objectivity as she could so that she might be able to piece together the details.

As she pondered the events, scrutinized each memory in her mind, Sansa kept coming back to the scarred man: the way he had silently observed the other party goers rather than mingle amongst them, the other men that surrounded him and seemed to take orders from him, seemingly waiting for his command, the blonde haired woman who unsuccessfully tried to entice him. Each obscurity of the night seemed to somehow circle back to the scarred man. 'Unless you want to die tonight, Sansa Stark, you had better fucking cooperate with me. I'm not a patient man.'

Sansa could hear his voice in her head, the way his words rattled through her own chest as he spoke, his calm insistence that intimated he was in control and was well aware of it. He knew my name. Somehow he knew my name.

True enough, her father was the district attorney; everyone knew who Eddard Stark was, and perhaps they knew that he had a daughter named Sansa. But as she filed through the faces she remembered from the party, none of them struck her as familiar. They had hardly seemed to recognize her either. Perhaps they knew that Sansa Stark was the daughter of Eddard Stark, but it was unlikely they could put a face together with the name. Her father had strived to keep his personal life and work life separate, only introducing a select few of his work associates to Sansa and her mother. Sansa could count on one hand the number of times she visited him at his office, and even then, those instances had been years ago when she was still a child. The scarred man knew her name. Beyond that, she sensed that he knew who she was - the daughter of the district attorney.

As she worked her way back through the evening, rewinding the time in slow motion, Sansa suddenly remembered the way the security guard at the gate had loitered over her and her mother. He had barely taken a second glance at their invitation, but instead had removed his sun glasses and peered his head in through the open car window, staring at each of them in turn. That's the connection…

Talking through her revelations as they came, Sansa turned towards Podrick, leaning her arm against the seat, ignoring the stinging pain from the shards of glass and letting the words spill from her mouth a mile a minute.

"Podrick, you're right. They wanted certain people. The security guard at the gate, the one you backed over, he was supposed to be checking invitations at the gate as people arrived, but he barely even glanced at most of them. He just let cars through without a second thought. Except when my mom and I got there. It was like he had been waiting for us to get there, for the Starks to arrive."

Clearly uncomfortable at the thought and growing increasingly listless, Podrick shifted his weight in his seat before biting his lip nervously, once again letting his eyes fleet towards the rear view mirror as his grip tightened around the steering wheel.

"Okay, so the security guards were in on it. But it's not like they were just a random group of vigilante security guards out to wreak havoc. Someone else was involved too."

Sansa sensed his uneasiness; the slight quivering of his voice broke through as he spoke. He's trying to be strong for me, but he's scared out of his mind. 

"Well, that's just it. Of course the security guards didn't just act on their own. The man with the scars, the one who came after me in the kitchen, he knew my name. And there were other men with him too. You saw them; they were in the great room. When I went upstairs, I heard those men arguing with someone. I heard a woman crying and a man screaming like he was being hurt. Then the woman came out; she looked like she had been hurt too. I heard the gun shots, and that's when I ran downstairs. I know who's involved. I just don't understand what they would want with me."

Rolling his eyes in frustration, Podrick slowly turned his stare towards her, carefully emphasizing each and every syllable of each and every word he spoke. The words rolled off of his tongue swathed in a bitterness she never knew to associate with Podrick Payne, the boy who was usually so timid and easy going.

"Your dad is the DA, preparing the case to end all cases against one of the most prolific crime syndicates on the west coast. The writing's on the wall, Sansa. Do I need to spell it out for you?"

She already understood, probably more than Podrick. It had already been spelled out for her long before the Royce's party. Her father had been eager to pursue the Moriarti case except for one glaring reservation she had overheard him confess to her mother one evening a few years ago. Her father felt strongly that the case put their entire family in a vulnerable position.

Sansa had never known her father to be afraid of anything, but that night, with her ear pushed up against the wall of her bedroom, she could hear the fear underlying her father's voice as he explained how dangerous a man the Hound was. Sansa let her mind wander once more to the scarred man, how he had effortlessly exuded strength and power, how the room seemed to move around him and how he seemed to be at its center even if he went relatively unnoticed to the others. The Hound…If the Moriarti mafia was involved, could the scarred man be the Hound?

The thought scared Sansa more than she could have imagined. If the Moriarti mafia was involved, this meant that her father wasn't safe. Even worse, her father was quite possibly one of the individuals that was being sought out earlier in the night. By serendipity and fate, he just happened to not be in attendance. Sansa considered turning to Pod, asking for his thoughts on the matter, and in turn, gaining the reassurance she needed in this moment. She wanted Podrick to tell her it wasn't planned and carried out by the Moriarti, that it was something, anything else. But she knew that he wouldn't do that. Podrick would never let Sansa kid herself into thinking something like that. So instead, Sansa hung her head, stubbornly refusing to meet Podrick's patient stare even after she could see from the corner of her eye the defeated guiltiness flooding his face.

A chiming noise roused Sansa's attention as her eyes lifted towards the flickering gas light that shone through the darkness of the car. Through the veil of blackness between them, Sansa saw Podrick mouth an expletive as he contemplated the gas light, almost as if he were willing it to go away.

"I think I saw a sign for a gas station a few miles back. The exit should be coming up here soon."

As she spoke, Sansa crossed her arms about her chest and rested her head against the window, feeling the condensation from the glass wet against her throbbing head and watching as the rain trickled from the windshield to run in droplet-sized streams across the window. The rain had let up some, but in its place a fog was beginning to envelope the road as the night began to grow chilly. The lamp posts dotting the sides of the highway had begun to thin out; the columns of light that would fill the car as they passed became less and less frequent. The only light illuminating the darkness inside of the car was the occasional beams of headlights from passing travelers and the soft crimson glow of the dashboard lights. Beyond that, Sansa and Podrick sat in a heavy darkness and an even heavier silence.

After a few miles and with the incessant chiming of the low fuel indicator, Podrick pulled off of the highway and headed towards a dimly lit gas station that was situated half a mile down a dusty two-lane road. As they pulled in, Sansa was fairly certain the gas station was all but abandoned. A rusted tin overhang feebly sheltered four pumps, two of which had paper signs precariously taped to the nozzles with the childish letters spelling "Out of Order”. Attached from the overhang was a metal sign reading “Frank's Fuel and Auto Repair” in faded letters, the paint having chipped off with time and wear.

As she stepped from the car, Sansa stumbled forward, her legs aching as she stretched them. The sign above her groaned loudly on its hinges with each gusting of the wind. Located adjacent to the overhang was a tiny gas mart with a meager mechanic's garage attached. The door to the garage was a series of glass panes, most covered with a film of brown grease and dirt, save a few of the top panes where the filth had been wiped away.

Through the glass, Sansa saw the flickering of fluorescent lights and a row of shelves filled with empty canisters, rusted tools, and boxes of old news papers, magazines, and envelopes. Whoever Frank was, he certainly wasn't repairing cars anymore; rather, the garage seemed to function as a storage unit filled with forgotten piles of junk that looked like they hadn't been touched in years. The gas mart didn't look any more promising and did little to set Sansa at ease. The glass door had been propped open with a chipped cinder block, and through it the mournful wailing of Hank Williams Sr.'s “Ramblin' Manpoured forth from a small, portable radio. It appeared as though the gas mart boasted a handful of sparsely filled shelves, the empty space between items blanketed with a thin layer of dust.

Through squinted eyes, Sansa peered through the gas mart windows but did not see an attendant behind the cash register, nor between the make-shift aisles of the shelves. Truly, it was as if the gas station had been deserted, left to rot away with time and be fully forgotten on the side of this lonely road.

"Damn it!"

Sansa spun on her heel towards Podrick who was standing in front of the pump, pushing frantically on the fuel grade button before shoving the nozzle back into its holder with a crashing sound of metal scraping against metal.

"What? What's wrong?"

"I have to pre-pay inside." Podrick lifted himself to his toes, shifting his head back and forth and setting his stare through the gas mart windows. "Let's hope someone's in there. I don't know if we can make it to another gas station."

Wordlessly, Sansa nodded her head, feeling her heart beating faster and the sourness returning to the pit of her stomach. Every instinct in her body wanted her to flee, to head down the highway until they came to another gas station, one that wasn't in the middle of absolutely nowhere. However, she knew Podrick was right once again; they had rolled into this gas station on little more than fumes. There was no way they would make it to another station, so this one would have to do whether she liked it or not.

"Stay in the car. I'll see if I can find someone in there."

Sansa paced back to the car and slumped into the seat, feeling the soreness settle heavily into her legs and the fatigue beginning to descend upon her. Her body wanted to sleep, to drift away into a dreamless oblivion, but as her thoughts raced through her mind, she knew sleep would not come easy to her, not tonight at least. Resting her head back in the seat, Sansa shifted her stare towards the gas mart and saw Podrick wandering about, peaking his head around the register and shouting out towards whoever might be loitering around.

Suddenly, a beam of flickering yellow light filled the side view mirror as a car pulled up behind her, the tires crunching underneath loosened gravel. Moving as slowly as possible despite the frantic beating of her heart, Sansa's eyes flew to the rear view mirror as she pushed herself up. In the reflection, Sansa saw twin headlights peering out from a beat-up blue Buick, the paint chipping off of the hood and the front bumper blotched with spots of rust. No. No. No. God, please no.

Sansa darted her eyes towards the gas mart and saw Podrick emerging from the open door and pacing towards the garage. Lost in the task at hand, he hadn't seemed to notice the car that had pulled up. Scooting back down in her seat as far as she could, Sansa turned her stare behind her and saw as a silhouette shifted in the driver's seat of the Buick. The lights above the tin overhang offered little light, but through the darkness Sansa could see as the driver leaned over the passenger seat and worked through the contents of the glove box. For many moments, Sansa sat entirely still, watching as the driver of the other car shifted back and forth, seemingly searching through their car for something. Having found whatever they were looking for, the driver suddenly flicked off the head lights of the car, leaving Sansa in almost complete darkness.

Terrified someone had been following them, Sansa turned herself forward in her seat and bit her lip, contemplating whether or not to flee from the car and get Podrick. Remembering she had seen his cell phone somewhere, Sansa searched the center console. If she needed to, she could call for help; surely they were within close enough range to a cell tower that she could find a signal. Sansa searched through the center arm rest, shuffling through empty CD cases and tossing aside a pair of sunglasses. A sudden, sharp knock at the window made her blood run cold. Startled, Sansa jumped and turned with her mouth contorted in a petrified gape towards the window.

Hovering in the window was the face of a thirty-something-year-old man; thick, black rimmed glasses framed his wide blue eyes, magnifying them such that he looked bug-eyed. His sandy blonde hair had been slicked back into a pompadour, stray strands sticking out here and there as the wind tousled through it. A dark blue flannel shirt was tucked neatly into his high wasted khaki corduroy pants. As he smiled through the foggy glass, Sansa noticed that one of his front teeth had been chipped at the corner, leaving behind a small, jagged hole in his smile. He faintly reminded Sansa of her eighth grade science teacher, Mr. Carlson; the same goofy look was plastered to this man's face as he peered in through the window with bright blue eyes. With a rotation of his wrist, the man motioned to Sansa to roll down the window.

Hesitating, Sansa's eyes darted towards the door lock situated near the far corner of the window. Following her eyes to the door lock, the man lifted his hands up in acquiescence, seemingly understanding her uncertainty. Shouting through the window, the man motioned towards the lonely country road winding behind them.

"I'm sorry if I scared you. I think I got turned around. I was wondering if you might be able to give me some directions."

Sansa froze as she felt her limbs become rigid. With his glasses fogging up at the humidity and his mouth crooked into a hopeful half smile, the man looked harmless enough, and he did seem legitimately lost. As Sansa reached for the door handle, the man held up an index finger for her to wait a moment before stepping away and shoving his hand into his pocket, pulling free a cell phone which he flipped open and lifted to his ear, retreating from her door as he answered a call.

Sansa's gaze shifted to Podrick as he circled around the car to the gas pump, pulling the nozzle from its holder before twisting off the gas cap. Once he had situated the nozzle, Podrick slid into the driver's seat, eying the bug-eyed man before flipping the lock on the doors.

"What did he say to you?" As the man paced back and forth next to his Buick, Podrick kept his eyes squarely on the rear view mirror, watching intently.

"He said he was lost, wanted some directions. I take it you found the attendant?"

For many moments, Podrick remained quiet, either having not heard her question or deciding not to answer. Either way, he scrutinized the pacing man in the rear view mirror.

"Yeah, I found him. That car doesn't have a license plate."

Sansa turned in her seat and looked out the rear window as the man slid into the driver's seat of his car, his phone held up to his face with one shoulder as he fumbled with his seat belt. Sure enough, an empty license plate frame hung on the front bumper. Before she could respond, Podrick jumped from the car and pulled out the gas nozzle, dribbling gasoline across the ground as he haphazardly shoved the nozzle back into its holder and twisted the gas cap back in place.

Once Podrick climbed back in the car, the Buick behind them began backing out from underneath the overhang. Sansa and Podrick breathed a sigh of relief in unison as the Buick headed down the country road away from the highway in the opposite direction from where they were headed.

As they pulled onto the Pacific Highway heading south once more, Sansa saw the clock turn to midnight; the time burned in the back of her vision so that when she closed her eyes she saw the flashing of red numbers in the veil of darkness behind her eyelids. Sansa contemplated the time, watching it dart about behind closed eyes until it disappeared. In doing this, she had somehow drifted into sleep, a dark oblivion that offered little by the way of rest, for when she awoke she felt worse for the wear; her legs throbbed, and the pain of the glass still embedded in her arms threatened to bring tears to her eyes.

Squinting until her vision once again came back into focus, Sansa looked out the window to find rows of fluorescent signs dotting the outer road of the highway and bleeding their light into the car, every imaginable icon of American consumerism standing proud and reaching towards the night sky.

"Where are we?"

With a sleepy sigh, Sansa stretched her arms above her head, wincing at the soreness she found there before rubbing her eyes and looking at the clock. She had slept for close to three hours, yet she felt as though she had barely closed her eyes. Her sleep had been blessedly dreamless, devoid of the nightmares she had expected to find waiting for her as soon as she drifted off to sleep.

"We're passing through Medford right now."

Podrick's voice was flat; his words grumbled from his throat, the fatigue deepening the timbre of his voice by at least an octave. As she shifted her gaze towards him, Sansa found that dark circles had appeared under his eyes which were glazed over as he stared mindlessly down the empty highway in front of them.

"Where are we heading?"

With his stare still fixed on the road ahead, Podrick shrugged his shoulders, offering her little more than that. It was apparent that not only was he tired, but he had probably spent the last three hours perseverating over their predicament, second guessing himself and battling with the uncertainties that were seemingly running rampant throughout his worried mind. Sansa knew Podrick too well. He spent much of his time up in his own head, lost daydreaming in his thoughts. She sensed he had retreated back within himself, replaying the night over and over in his head. He had stepped up in the heat of the moment, saving her from whatever uncertain fate she faced in the hands of the scarred man. With his resolve diminishing, Sansa felt it was now her turn to step up, to be the voice of reason and exhibit strength enough for the both of them.

"Podrick, listen. We can't just drive forever. Eventually, we're going to have to reach out to someone, let them know we're okay and that we need help. We need a plan, Podrick. We can't just keep running."

Pleased with herself, Sansa settled back in her seat and crossed her arms about her chest as the passing lights streamed through the windshield, reflecting through the rain drops as red, green, and yellow orbs. She saw as Podrick sighed out his breath, relenting as the tension in his body seemed to ease ever so slightly with the weight of the world now being shared between them.

"My parents and little sister went to Sacramento for the weekend. I was sort of heading that way. My dad will know what to do."

Sansa chewed her lip at the thought. The stretch of the Pacific Highway ahead of them was dangerous by day; the road wound through the mountainous terrain of the southern part of the state, passing here and there through small cities. With the rain returning steadfast and lashing against the windshield, their travel was becoming increasingly difficult and treacherous besides. They had been zigzagging through the western Cascade Mountains. Once they passed over the California border, the Pacific Highway would become a nightmare to drive at night, let alone in the rain. As Sansa looked over, she saw Podrick's head propped firmly against the head rest, his eyes heavily hooded and blinking slowly as sleep threatened to overtake him.

"Podrick, Sacramento is probably another five hours away, at least. Don't you think we should stop for a bit, get some rest?"

Once more, Podrick shifted his stare to the rear view mirror, silently evaluating the highway behind them before settling his drowsy stare on the clock, a glowing red reminder of how long they'd been running and how much further they still needed to go. Reluctantly, Podrick nodded his head before shutting his eyes tightly and reopening them widely in an effort to stave off the fatigue.

"Yeah, I guess you're right. But let's get into California first. We'll stop at the first town we come to and stay for the night. We can wait for the rain to let up a bit and then drive the rest of the way to Sacramento. Does that sound okay to you?"

Sansa nodded her head firmly, relieved to finally have some sense of direction. When the car slowly wandered over the white lines into the lane next to them before jerking suddenly back into their designated lane, Sansa insisted that she drive. To her relief, Podrick put up no fight and instead pulled the car off on the last Medford exit and stumbled to the passenger side of the car in a groggy haze of sleep.

Within fifteen minutes, Podrick was asleep in the passenger seat, his eyes squeezed shut tightly, his limbs jerking every now and then as he tossed his head in his sleep. He's having nightmares. No wonder he wanted to put off sleep for so long. Sansa could hardly blame him. Brought on by exhaustion, her own sleep had been dreamless. As Podrick twitched and groaned in his sleep, Sansa felt her heart wrench within her chest as a wave of helplessness washed over her. There was hardly anything she could do for him but let him sleep and relive the nightmare all over again in the darkness behind his eyes. Soon enough, she knew her sleep would be haunted by the same dreams. But for now, she drove with her hands tightly wrapped around the steering wheel. The suburbs had thinned out, and the red glow of Medford lingered in the rear view mirror until eventually fading away into darkness.

In front of her, the road curved through the soft slopes of the mountains, the hills beyond the guard rail black forms in the night which had become dangerously dark; the highway lamps struggled futilely to fill the darkness with their light. Every now and then, the head lights of an approaching car would illuminate the road in front of her before passing and disappearing into the folds of the road behind her. As the rain let up to a drizzle, Sansa let her grip around the wheel loosen slightly.

She had never driven this stretch of the Pacific Highway, even when she and her father had traveled to visit a handful of universities in northern California. He had refused to let her drive, offering a vague explanation that the Pacific Highway near the California border was best left to experienced drivers. She had rolled her eyes at him then and relented, letting him have his way if it meant she could spare him some anxiety at her driving. Squinting her eyes to focus, she now understood what he had meant. A small metal guard rail was the only thing keeping her from tumbling down the steep hills that surrounded the highway. Beyond this, the road was poorly lit and devoid of traffic. She felt as if the world around them was silent and still - that she and Podrick were the last souls on earth, running from fleeting shadows and imagined monsters.

As she passed over the Oregon-California border, Sansa leaned forward in her seat, resting her chest against the steering wheel as her eyes eagerly sought out exit signs. The first few exits snaked off into the pitch black hills that surrounded the road, offering nothing save random historical sites that surely no one had visited in years. It wasn't until twenty-five minutes after she had crossed the border and after a thick blanket of fog had rolled from the hills, that Sansa spotted the faint glowing of a fluorescent sign off in the distance.

Pulling off of the highway and towards the sign, Sansa saw a small, dusty town nestled in a valley of the mountain foothills. The town boasted little more than a church, gas station, and small school. Situated at the edge of the town, a small abandoned bottling factory stood grotesquely in the night; panes of windows had been broken, and the sides of the building were covered with faded graffiti. Piles of scrap metal and bricks created a perimeter around half of the building with the other half of the perimeter composed of rusted and corroding cars and trucks.

On the other side of the factory stood a motel, its out-dated neon sign flickering in the night, half of the letters having burned out. The motel was something out of a Hitchcock film, probably built sometime in the 1960s and having changed little since then. It boasted twelve rooms with two floors, six rooms to each floor and the doors opening to the outside. In front of the motel, a partially rusted wrought iron fence encircled a small pool, the cover of which was filled with rain water and algae, having obviously been out of use for a number of years. Around the dilapidated pool, molding plastic lounge chairs were scattered about, looking as if they had been tossed around in the wind.

Sansa pulled the car into the sparsely filled gravel lot, parking next to the only other car she saw. As she turned the car off and unbuckled her seat belt, Podrick shot up in his seat and through squinted eyes, looked around at the motel.

"You've got to be kidding me."

With the weight of his disbelieving stare pressing into her, Sansa swept her eyes towards the horizon behind them, liking what she saw no more than Podrick

"You said the first town we came to after the California border. This is it, Podrick. The first town."

Rubbing his hands over his face with a groan and shaking his head, Podrick gave a deep sigh before staring at the neon vacancy sign above the motel office door, his nose wrinkled up in a look of aversion as he mumbled his words.

"Jesus fucking Christ, alright. If this is it, I guess I'll just have to deal. Come on, let's go."

With that, Podrick pushed open the car door and stepped out onto the gravel lot, cursing under his breath as his feet landed in an ankle-deep puddle.

As he paced around to the trunk of the car, Sansa stretched her limbs, wincing as the shards of glass once more offered her a painful reminder of their presence. She watched as Podrick shuffled through piles of CDs, notebooks, and random pieces of clothing in his trunk before pulling out a blue and grey striped sweater. With a half smile and his hair tumbling into his eyes, Podrick tossed it towards Sansa, shrugging his shoulders when she caught it.

"You looked cold."

With that, Podrick started towards the motel office door, pulling it open for her as she folded his sweater over her arm. As they entered the motel office, Sansa felt as if she was stepping back in time. The walls were covered with dark stained wood paneling offset by linoleum flooring that was yellowed with time and peeling up at the corners. Across the room from the counter, a line of mismatched, plastic covered folding chairs were pushed up against the wall. With a cigarette between his lips, a young man probably a few years older than Sansa and Podrick was behind the counter, fumbling with the antenna of a small TV, moving it in circular motions as a re-run of I Dream of Geni' came in and out through static. Taking apprehensive steps, Podrick approached the counter, clearing his throat to rouse the motel clerk's attention as the man pounded against the TV and mumbled his frustration with a slew of curses. The motel clerk spun on his heel, the ash of his cigarette fluttering through the air before he flicked the butt into a heavy glass ash tray.

With a raised eyebrow, the motel clerk shifted his eyes back and forth between Sansa and Podrick, the implication written all over his face while his voice remained wholly monotone and apathetic.

"Will you be wanting the hourly rate?"

Shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, Podrick shook his head adamantly as his face immediately turned a deep shade of red and his eyes darted away from Sansa.

"No. We'll be needing a room for the night."

Shrugging his shoulders, the clerk snatched up a room key and tossed it on the counter before pulling another cigarette from the front pocket of his shirt and placing it behind his ear.

"Fair enough. It'll be $37.68. You'll be in room 6. It's at the other end of the lot."

Wordlessly, Podrick nodded his head and shoved his hand into his pocket, pulling forth two wadded up twenty dollar bills and placing them lightly on the counter. Sighing with annoyance, the clerk picked up the bills and flung open the cash register, staring towards the ceiling with a furrowed brow as he mentally worked through the correct number to give back to Podrick in change.

"Just keep the change." Podrick's tone was cutting, obviously sharpened by both his fatigue and his obvious misgivings at dragging out a conversation with the motel clerk.

Sansa pushed past Podrick, leaning over the counter as the clerk began to retreat away, lighting up his cigarette with a flick of his lighter as he turned back towards the TV.

"Excuse me, you don't happen to have a pair of tweezers do you?"

The motel clerk gave her a sideways glance before shifting his eyes down at her exposed arms, examining the blotches of dried blood running up and down her skin. Clearly unfazed, the clerk dug through a drawer, pulling out random tools and setting them on the counter with a thud before taking out a pair of needle-nose pliers.

"No tweezers. Will this work?"

Swallowing hard and suddenly feeling every bit of glass in her flesh, Sansa silently nodded her head and smiled politely before taking the pliers and clutching them against her chest. Without another word, the motel clerk turned back towards the tiny TV, grumbling as he fumbled with the antenna and puffed on his cigarette.

With each step towards their room, Sansa felt the glass digging deeper into her skin and contemplated how she'd managed to spend the last five hours with glass cutting into her. As Podrick fumbled with the motel key, Sansa swept her eyes behind them, wondering if she might find the scarred man lurking in the darkness, somehow having caught up to them. To her relief, she found only a silent emptiness half filled with a layer of fog.

The outdated motif was echoed through their motel room; the carpet was an obnoxious mauve and teal color and splotched with stains from God-knows-what. The outdated peach and lavender striped wall paper had become tattered near the corners of the ceiling. The faint smell of cigarette smoke had been futilely covered up with floral-scented air freshener while the stained lamp shade put off a dull, yellow sphere of light. It vaguely reminded her of the type of room Norman Bates might rent out to some unsuspecting female for the evening. Podrick fell back on the bed; the hideous paisley patterned bed cover rippled softly under his weight as he brought his hands up to his face.

Setting his sweater down on the bed, Sansa paced towards the bathroom and flicked on the light. With a buzzing sound, the fluorescent light attached to the ceiling fluttered on. Standing in front of the mirror for the first time since the beginning of the evening, Sansa contemplated herself. Her white dress was splotched with blood; whether it was hers or the blood that had come off of the scarred man, she knew not. Her arms looked as if someone had scrawled across them with a red Sharpie, the lines of dried, flaking blood ran down her arms and legs.

Across the tops of her thighs, her legs were beginning to bruise where the scarred man had rested his weight on top of her. Sansa let her fingers run across the bruises, pushing lightly into her thighs where the skin was beginning to turn a light shade of purple. Unbidden, Sansa's mind suddenly meandered to the way his body felt on top of her, his weight pressing into her and his chest flush against hers. She had been powerless underneath him, rendered helpless as she surrendered to his control. Pushing harder into her skin, Sansa forced the thoughts to flee from her mind as they were replaced with the pain shooting down her legs.

With her hair a tangled mess, her eyes heavy with fatigue and grief, and her skin appearing almost sickly under the fluorescent light, she looked like an absolute disaster. 'You look pretty.' Sansa envisioned her mother behind her, contemplating her with a soft smile while gently running her fingers through Sansa's hair. Since fleeing into the night, Sansa hadn't cried. The tears had welled in her eyes, but the heavy sobs she had expected to overtake her never came.

Instead, she had spent most of the evening enveloped in a silent daze as if she were in a nightmare and any moment she might wake up. But she never did wake up, and instead she tumbled through the darkness, the aching in her chest leaving her breathless and choking on the tears as they threatened to spill forth from her eyes. But now, standing in front of the mirror without the reflection of her mother behind her and not knowing if she would ever see that reflection again, Sansa felt the tears emerging from her eyes. In a steady, unrelenting stream, the tears gave way to sobs - deep, heavy sobs which doubled her over and left her gasping for breaths.

Collapsing to the floor on her hands and knees, Sansa let her grief take her as she fell to her side and pulled her knees to her chest. Suddenly, Podrick was hovering over her, blotting out the horrendous fluorescent light and pulling her up from the floor. For many moments, he held her silently in his arms, clearly at a loss for what to say or how to possibly comfort her in this moment. Instead, he let her cry and waited patiently until her sobs had lulled to a silent stream of tears. Gently, he pulled Sansa to her feet and grabbed the pliers from the bathroom countertop.

"I really can't imagine that it's comfortable having shards of glass in your body."

Breathing out a laugh, Sansa shook her head, loosening the last two tears that hung in each of her eyes. Carefully, Podrick took her arm in one of his hands and began pulling free each piece of glass and setting it next to the sink. Sansa winced in pain each time the pliers met her skin but sighed her relief when the glass was pulled free. Podrick worked methodically over each of her arms, squinting as he scrutinized each and every gash before he squatted to the ground and began pulling the glass from her legs. As he worked, she could feel his hands trembling and saw that he was blushing furiously as his face hovered near the hemline of her dress.

"There. That's the last one. The smaller pieces will work their way out, eventually."

Sansa stared at the tiny pieces of glass coated in a thin layer of glistening blood. There had to be two dozen or more that Podrick pulled from her arms and legs.

"Thank you, Podrick."

Sansa's voice was hardly above a whisper as she pulled a faded teal washcloth from the towel rack and submerged it in hot water from the sink. Gently, she ran the warm wash cloth over her gashes on her arms left by the shards of glass. The warm sensation prickled her skin with goose bumps but did little to soothe the stinging pain as the water trickled over the cuts and scrapes which were a constant reminder of all she had endured earlier that evening. Once she was done with her arms, Sansa rung the wash cloth out in the sink and watched as the water turned pink with clouds of blood. Slowly, she lifted herself up on the countertop, sitting next to the sink as she worked over the gashes on her legs. Once finished, she pushed herself from the countertop and felt her lips curl into a smile as she realized she could now move freely without the throbbing pain from the glass.

Retreating to the bed, Sansa plopped down next to Podrick, who was sprawled out with his eye lids slowing rising and falling as he slowly allowed himself to succumb to sleep. Sansa pulled her knees tight to her chest and with a sigh snatched up the remote from the particle board night stand situated next to the bed and flicked on the TV, desperate for any distraction she could get. After flipping through a dozen or so channels filled with black-and-white static, Sansa turned the TV off and slumped back on the bed, groaning as she felt the worn, paisley bed cover scratch against the skin of her legs.

She had hardly had her eyes closed for more than a minute when a loud knock came at the door. Podrick shot up immediately, whipping his head around to the door with his eyes so wide she thought they might roll right out of his head. Sansa could hear her heart beat loud in her own ears as her breath caught in her chest. As Podrick turned his terrified stare to her, Sansa slowly shook her head, silently pleading with him to remain absolutely still and let whoever was at the door move on.

Another knock came, this time louder and more insistent and accompanied by a nasally voice.

"It's Eric from the front desk. I need you to move your car."

Shaking his head and sighing out a deep breath of relief, Podrick pushed himself from the bed and started towards the door. Leaving the door chain on, Podrick cracked the door just enough so that his face could hover in the few inches of space allowed by the chain. From behind Podrick, Sansa could see the motel clerk shifting from one foot to the other, his eyes meeting her with a curious stare before looking back at Podrick.

"Yeah, sorry. Sometimes our lot floods when it rains. You probably want to move your car to the other end of the lot."

Podrick nodded his head curtly, the annoyance in his voice lingering heavily over the hesitance but his tone polite nonetheless.

"Yeah, sure. Thanks for letting me know."

Shutting the door and pacing across the room, Podrick snatched the keys from the night stand before giving Sansa a reassuring smile and a playful roll of his eyes.

"Gotta move the car. I'll be back in a second."

Sansa nodded her head nervously and considered jumping from the bed, insisting that she should go with him. Instead, she stayed where she was and leaned forward in the bed, pulling Podrick's sweater towards her. Sansa lifted it to her chest, feeling the fabric soft against her skin. She could smell his cologne, the same cologne he had always worn. The familiar scent seemed to calm her as she pulled the sweater on over her head, the fabric swallowing her up and wrapping her in comfort.

In the silence of the hotel room, Sansa waited, shifting her impatient stare towards the curtained window next to the door. For many moments, she watched, expecting to see the head lights of Podrick's car stream through or to hear the crunching of the gravel under his tires, but neither came. With each passing minute, Sansa felt her heart beat faster in her chest with a deafening thud as it pounded hard in her ears. He should be back by now. Something's not right.

Trembling, Sansa jumped from the bed, her legs shaking as her feet hit the floor. As she reached the door, Sansa stopped, turning around and contemplating the pliers that were resting next to the sink. Dashing across the room, Sansa snatched up the pliers and slowly stepped out into the night; the air hitting her skin was chilly and thick with humidity, but most of all, eerily still. Her breath came frantic as she saw Podrick's car still at the other end of the lot, the engine running and the head lights cutting through the darkness. In an instant, her legs were carrying her towards the car, her knees wobbling like Jello as her feet shifted precariously underneath loosened gravel.

As she approached, Sansa noticed that the driver side door was open, the incessant dinging of the door chime ringing loud in her ears over the hum of the engine. No. No. God. Please, no.

In a frenzy and whining out desperate pleas, Sansa dashed to the passenger side, circumventing the car completely as her breaths started coming ragged through her trembling lips. From her left, Sansa heard a whimpering sound and the soft scuffling of gravel. Whipping her head over her shoulder and clutching the pliers tight in her hand, Sansa saw a form slumped on the ground in front of the wrought iron fence surrounding the pool. With stumbling steps, she ran towards the form. As she made her way closer and with each step, she soon realized the form to which she was frantically running was Podrick.

Her blood ran cold through her veins as she found Podrick sprawled across the ground on his back, his breaths coming shallow from his chest, which was saturated in blood. As she collapsed to her knees in front of him, Podrick stared at the sky above, his eyes wide and his mouth opening and closing yet no words coming.

"Podrick! Podrick, please! Look at me. Podrick!"

Bent on hands and knees over him, Sansa rested one hand on each of his cheeks and gently turned his head towards her, tears spilling forth from her eyes. As if suddenly seeing her, Podrick focused his stare on her, his eyes beginning to glaze over and darken.

"Run, Sansa."

Podrick's words came as a rasp from his lips, rattling through his throat as blood gurgled from his lips.

"No. No. Podrick, please don't. No. I'm so sorry. We shouldn't have stopped. Podrick, don't."

Cradling him in her arms, Sansa cried out, her words ringing into the night as she pleaded with him. Once more, the crunching sound of shifting gravel roused her attention as she snapped her head up. Instantaneously, she recognized the face that met hers. With his hair tousled loose from the slicked back pompadour, the man had removed his glasses, his eyes no longer bug-eyed but still wide blue pools now flooded with an icy cruelty. He had also removed his flannel shirt and was wearing a white T-shirt, splattered with blood and exposing his arms, both of which were covered with tattoos: colorful images of pin-up girls, intricate Dia De Los Muertos Catrinas and sugar skulls, thick, bolded letters which formed sayings and quotes. The man from the gas station had seemed harmless to her, but now, standing in front of her with a pistol in hand, Sansa knew she had been dreadfully, stupidly wrong.

Podrick had shifted from underneath her and propped himself up on his elbow, the blood staining his lips a crimson red as it ran glistening from the corners of his mouth.

"Ru-ru-run, Sanss-"

Collapsing to the ground with a groan, Sansa felt Podrick gently push her away with a trembling, bloodied hand as the man from the gas station started towards her, a wild, almost feral look flashing in his baby blue eyes.

Crawling backwards on all fours and desperately scrambling to keep a hold on the pliers, Sansa struggled to push herself to her feet as her legs shifted under the gravel, her knees and palms of her hangs scraping against the jagged rocks on the ground. When she finally got to her feet, Sansa ran, stumbling as she turned her head over her shoulder to see the man from the gas station sprinting after her.

As she reached the end of the lot, Sansa could hear him behind her, his boots pounding against the gravel with a crunch that echoed through her ears. She could feel his fingertips brush against her back as he reached out to grab her. Quickening her pace with everything she had, Sansa bolted forward, her legs throbbing in pain as she ran from the motel lot down the slope of a hill towards the abandoned factory, the pliers clutched tightly in her right hand. The grass beneath her feet was slick from the rain, and the mud beneath it was saturated with rain water. From behind her, she heard the man groan as he slipped to the ground, landing with a soft thud and shouting loudly after her, his voice as maniacal as the look she found gleaming in his eyes.

"I'm going to win, Sansa. Just quit while you're ahead."

With her shoes caked in mud, Sansa ran frantically towards the road that ran behind the factory. With sharp, heavy cackles, the man from the gas station was laughing, his voice something akin to a shrill scream. The sound made her blood run cold and beckoned her heart to beat from her chest as she darted between the rusted cars that made up half of the perimeter around the factory.

Turning her head behind her, she found the man pacing down the hill in fast strides, no longer running but gaining on her all the same as she ducked between the cars, desperately making her way towards the road. Breaking free from the maze of decrepit cars, Sansa ran alongside the wall of the factory, stumbling over pieces of scrap metal that were strewn about the ground.

From behind her, she saw as the man climbed over the tops of the cars, jumping from one to the other, his feet landing on the rusted hoods with a deafening thud that echoed through the empty factory. Willing her legs to move faster despite the burning in her lungs, Sansa made her way towards the road. Through the darkness she saw a pair of headlights piercing through the night, small at first but growing larger as she neared the road. Let them stop. God, please let them stop.

Sansa felt her heart leap into her throat as the car slowed to a halt as she ran frantically towards it.

As she approached, both the driver side and passenger doors opened in unison, the faces of the men emerging frighteningly familiar and stopping Sansa in mid stride as she stumbled to a halt. Both of the men had been sitting next to the scarred man at the Royce's party; the driver had been the one speaking to the scarred man, whispering in his ear and glaring at Sansa, and the passenger had been the one smoking the cigar in the arm chair.

The men started towards Sansa, their strides quickening as she spun on her heel and darted down the road, away from the car and the abandoned factory. From her right, the man from the gas station seemingly appeared from thin air, sprinting towards her and gaining steadily. This time when the man reached for her, his hand clamped down on the back of Podrick's sweater, which was loose against her body.

Yanking her backwards, Sansa tumbled to the ground, hitting her head against the wet earth and feeling the pliers tumble from her hand. She could see the men from the car running towards her as the man from the gas station hovered over her, his eyes gleaming with exhilaration and a devilish smile forming about his lips, exposing his chipped tooth. As he reached for her, Sansa's hand frantically searched for the pliers. The man lowered himself on top of her and struggled to contain her flailing arms and legs. Suddenly, she felt the metal of the pliers brush against her fingertips. Sansa reached with everything she had for the pliers, pulling her arm so hard that she thought she might dislocate her shoulder. Wrapping her hand around the pliers, Sansa brought her hand up, and in a forceful, sweeping motion caught the man in the cheek with the pointed end of the pliers. With his eyes wild with fury, the man from the gas station lifted himself from her and stumbled backwards, the flesh of his skin hanging loosely from his right cheek, which was bleeding profusely as the other men approached.

"Stupid fucking bitch."

Turning his head to the side, Sansa saw as the man spit out a glob of blood before wiping his mouth, the blood smearing across half of his face. Flipping over and crawling on all fours, Sansa tried desperately to regain her feet. Suddenly, she felt a tremendous force as the man from the gas station threw himself on top of her, pushing her to the ground before flipping her over. Fisting the fabric of the sweater, the man lifted her slightly up off the ground. Sansa felt the powerful blow of the back of his hand come hard against her cheek, sending a sharp pain through her head while her vision blurred to a tunnel of black.

As quickly as he had thrown himself on top of her, Sansa felt as the man was being ripped from off of her by one of the men from the car - the one who had spent the evening conversing with scarred man. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, Sansa felt the warm sensation of blood pouring over her cheek as she heard the man's voice come calm but deliberate as he wrapped his hands around the man from the gas station's throat.

"The Hound explicitly told you that he wants her brought to him unharmed, did he not? So you do what? You bring her back bloodied. Do you have a fucking death wish, you goddamn psychopath?"

The man's voice met her ears muffled as she slipped further into the darkness behind her eyes. However, she heard him all the same. Please, no, not him. Not the Hound. The scarred man is the Hound.

With the black filling her vision, Sansa felt her body being lifted from the ground. She felt as though she was floating, her limbs becoming weightless as she finally shut her eyes and surrendered her consciousness, but not before hearing the man carrying her towards the waiting car chuckle out his words in a menacing laugh.

"I hope you like dogs."

Chapter Text

 

Gods and Monsters

Chapter Three

3


Finding herself in an impossible inky darkness, Sansa frantically threw her arms forward, feeling her way along a wall with soft fingers and tiny, shuffling steps tentatively leading the way. She groaned loudly and sucked in her breath as she pushed her right foot forward, stubbing her toe on the unforgiving and entirely unknown expanse in front of her. With trembling hands, Sansa pressed her fingertips against the wall and over what felt akin to wood; the lacquer finish rippled against the subtle peaks and troughs of the grain. Faithfully following the wood grain down and down further, she reached the handle of a door, the cold metal prickling the skin of her fingers.

Slowly, she pushed through the door and stepped into a small, dimly lit room. A sphere of light emanated from a small lamp which illuminated a desk, papers strewn about carelessly and rustling softly in a phantom wind. Behind the desk a large window extended from floor to ceiling. Larger at the top than the bottom, the window was an imperfect rectangle steadily sloping into an incongruous shape. The sky outside was blood-red, a crimson dawn which bled out into the retreating darkness of night. Stark against the sky were the silhouettes of trees; leafless, gnarled branches reaching towards the bedeviled sky like crippled limbs. In front of the window stood a man, his back turned to her and his arms crossed broodingly about his broad chest. As the fiery glow of the vermilion sky gradually filled the room, Sansa realized where she was; recognizing the coffee stained manila folder resting on the corner of the desk, the scribbling of notes tossed carelessly about, and the man standing in front of the window holding the weight of the world on his shoulders and the burden of duty heavy in his pondering mind.

'Home! I'm home!' Sansa started towards her father, but quickly found that her limbs felt like cinder blocks moving through water. With all her might she struggled to bridge the gap of space between her and her father's motionless form, but despite all her effort, her legs managed only mere inches. As she opened her mouth to speak, the man turned around, but the face that met hers was not the tender face of her father. Rather, it was a face half-ruined with a mass of scarred flesh glistening angrily in the scarlet shadows. Cavernous black holes filled the space where his eyes should be and his mouth curled into an impish smile.

With the weight settled in her legs finally lifting, Sansa stumbled backwards, tripping over her own feet and falling towards the floor. Manifesting from the darkness, two hands reached out towards her, cradling her body before she hit the ground. As the shadowed form pulled her to her feet, Sansa could feel it gathering her hands behind her back, holding her firmly by the wrists.

"Sansa, wake up."

Podrick's voice met her ears as an ethereal whisper, but she heard him all the same. With her heart soaring, she wanted to twirl around and see his face, to throw herself into his arms and run away from this awful place, away from the scarred man who was working his way towards her in bounding strides.

"Wake up!"

Podrick's voice was a scream this time and fractured with a seething cruelty which seemed to bore into her. As she struggled against him, Sansa felt his hands sharply squeezing into her wrists like the blades of a knife, digging into and tearing away at the delicate flesh.

"Wake up, you fucking bitch!"

His voice had deepened to a maniacal growl, hardly human as it pounded through her head. Suddenly, she felt her body being violently shaken; her head bouncing against something firm, yet soft as it slightly gave way to each blow. Slowly, the ruby colored darkness faded away and with it went the scarred man, her father's desk, and the hope of home.

"God fucking dammit, wake the fuck up!"

Sprawled across the back seat of a car, Sansa's eyes snapped open to find the man from the gas station straddling her, one knee on either side pressing hard against her ribs and his hands fisting the loose fabric of Podrick's sweater. With steady, unrelenting movements, the man slammed her down savagely against the back seat of his Buick. Even with her eyes open wide and the sound of her whimpering filling the car, the man continued his assault, lifting her up before smashing her down, all the while screaming for her to wake up as his baby blue eyes blazed with cruelty. The blood on his cheek had dried to a deep red, almost black, but as he screamed the wound reopened, oozing out a stream of fresh blood that splattered about the back seat in tiny droplets.

As she reached her hands up to push him away, Sansa realized her wrists had been bound tightly together with a thin, braided rope. As she struggled feebly against the man, Sansa could feel the rope dig sharply into her skin along with the wetness of blood emerging about her wrists. With the man still shaking her violently, Sansa saw the blur of the car door behind him swing open with a creaking groan.

"That's enough, Leon!"

Suddenly, she felt the weight of the man from the gas station, Leon, lift off of her as he was pulled from the Buick and dumped roughly to the ground, plumes of dust billowing up from his discarded form. Sansa's head was swimming, the light spilling into the car bright and blinding in her eyes as she struggled to focus. After a few moments, she felt as one of the Hound's men pulled her from the back seat of the car. She hadn't the strength to struggle against him so instead she let her body go limp, her limbs becoming dead weight as the man slid her across the back seat and placed her next to the car.

Sansa squinted her eyes against the oppressive noon sun piercing through voluminous white clouds smattered across the sky. Where the evening before had been chilly and humid, the heat of the sun was dry and hot against the exposed skin of her face and legs. Behind the car, a lonesome two-lane highway stretched in a straight shot towards both horizons, every now and then rising and falling over modest slopes of the land. Off in the distance and on either side of the highway, remote mountain ranges towered over the barren desert valley.

Dotted throughout the dusty expanse of desert were tufts of greasewood bushes and cactus scrub. Beyond that, the land was bleak and undoubtedly uninhabitable for at least another 20 miles. With a gritty layer of dust covering it, the old Buick had been pulled far off to the side of the road. Sansa lifted her eyes to the blinding sun riding high in the sky, ruthlessly bathing the desert in its sweltering heat. It had to be midday, she knew. What she didn't know was exactly where they were. The desert landscape extended from California well into Nevada and if they had driven through the night, for all she knew, she could be standing in the middle of Death Valley, in the hands of the Hound's men and burning alive in the heat.

With the pounding of the sun and a throbbing pain in her head, Sansa struggled to remain on her feet and swayed ever so slightly until she felt her weight rest against the side of the Buick which was roasting in the dry heat.

The Hound's men stood in silence, watching the desolate highway with impatient eyes and arms crossed about their chests, every now and then exchanging glances as Leon paced frantically in front of the car, mumbling nonsensically to himself under his breath. With each step, he kicked up clouds of sand and dirt which drifted to Sansa, sticking to the thin layer of sweat glistening on her body and caking in the blood about her bound wrists. For what felt like an eternity, they stood beneath the angry sun, waiting and sweating, sweating and waiting; waiting for what, Sansa did not know.

The Hound's men had remained quiet, muttering expletives from time to time as they wiped sweat from their brow and studied the horizon; west or east, Sansa could not tell. The twin horizons boasted the same features, shadow-less as the sun rode to a peak in the sky. Sansa wanted to retreat in the Buick even if it was an oven in the desert. She could feel her skin beginning to burn, the pink tint already emerging with the promise of future discomfort should she continue to stand beneath the sun. With her skin white as the driven snow, the prospect of suffering the sweltering heat inside the car seemed better than a severe sunburn.

Before she could ponder it further, a black car emerged on the horizon, its form blurring in the heat rising off of the scorched pavement of the highway. As the car neared them, Leon ceased his pacing in mid stride and ran his fingers through the strands of his greasy pompadour, the gel holding it in place melting beneath the sun.

"It's about goddamn time!"

Slowly, the black Mercedes sedan approached, growing from a wavy mirage on the horizon to a foreboding harbinger of her uncertain fate. Sansa's stomach churned as the car pulled off from the road and slowed to a halt alongside them, throwing up clouds of dirt as the tires crunched beneath the baked desert earth. With heavily tinted windows, Sansa could not see how many people were in the car nor could she make out any movement from within as the vehicle's engine was turned off.

As the driver's side door swung open, Sansa felt her heart beating at a furious rate inside her chest, the sound of it steadily pulsating loud in her own ears. The man who emerged from the car was unfamiliar to Sansa; medium height and lean of build, he was perhaps in his mid-thirties, with dark, shoulder-length hair slicked back in subtle waves to reveal a slightly receding hairline. A neatly trimmed mustache and goatee adorned his rough face which was lightly lined with age. Despite the devious arch of his heavy brows, the man's eyes were aglow with a jovial softness.

With dark pin-striped trousers and a pressed white, button down shirt, the driver of the sedan squinted against the sun, beads of sweat already glimmering off of his bare forehead. As his strained eyes shifted away from the glaring sun, the man spoke, his voice deep and masculine, but colored with a sort of humor.

"Well I certainly didn't dress for the weather. It's fucking hot out here."

Snorting his impatience, Leon paced angrily towards Sansa, yanking her roughly by the arm and pushing her with a forceful shove to the ground in front of the driver's feet.

"Here. Delivered as promised. Now I want what was promised to me. Two grand cash." Leon lifted his index finger to the gash about his cheek and glared through narrowed eyes at the driver. "And I expect to be compensated for my troubles."

Wordless and unmoving, the driver let his eyes fall to the ground where Sansa was struggling to lift herself up to her feet. The man squatted to the ground in front of her as she managed to push herself to a seated position. Furrowing his brow, he cupped his hand under her chin, turning her head and scrutinizing the dried blood caked around the cut across her cheekbone where Leon had struck her. Sansa let her eyes fall away as his stare roamed down her form, evaluating the bruises across her legs which were now heavy purple blotches set against red gashes where the glass had been. From the periphery of her vision, Sansa saw the man's jaw clench tightly as the playfulness retreated from his eyes and was replaced with an instantaneous flash of irritation.

Slowly, the man released his hold of Sansa's chin and lifted himself to stand. Even from where he stood, Sansa could feel the anger permeating off of his body in waves as his hands curled into fists. Unfazed, Leon continued his verbal assault on her, relaying how she had ran from him, attacked him with a pair of pliers, and how it was necessary that he incapacitate her by whatever means needed.

Crossing his arms about his chest and leaning against the black sedan, the driver turned his stare towards the Hound's men, cocking his head to the side as he spoke.

"And where were you two when she was being 'incapacitated'?"

Sansa saw as both of the men let their stares settle on the horizon behind the black sedan, each with their lips pressed together in a matching grimace. Shaking his head, the driver did not wait for a response, but rather shot his scowling glare towards Leon.

"You get paid when the girl is delivered to the Hound personally. That was the agreement. As far as compensation for your troubles, something can be worked out once the Hound sees her alive and well with his own eyes."

Leon hesitated, shifting from one foot to the other as his eyes darted between the Hound's men and the driver of the sedan before settling a fuming glare on Sansa. The look behind his eyes made Sansa's blood run cold through her veins despite the blistering heat of the sun. No one had ever looked at her with so much hatred. Her father had once told her that perpetrators of the most violent and gruesome crimes often had black eyes. It was the evil behind their eyes, he had told her; the evil that emanated from the eyes and cut through to the soul.

With Leon's baby blue eyes darkening to an impossible shade, Sansa understood what her father had told her all those years ago. The evil behind Leon's eyes was unimaginable and unwavering as he stared right to the core of her being. As he started his frantic pacing once more, she had half thought that Leon might lunge towards her, but instead he started towards the Buick, pulling open the passenger door while groaning out expletives. Laughing, the driver of the sedan pushed himself from the car and took sweeping paces towards Leon. In one swift motion, the driver reached towards Leon's back pocket, yanking free the pistol that had been tucked there and wrapping his arm tightly around Leon's neck.

"Oh no, no. If you're wanting to see the Hound, then you're coming with me."

With Leon in a choke hold, the driver dragged him towards the black sedan, pulling open the door with his free hand and violently shoving him into the backseat of the car before slamming the door shut behind him. Pulling free the rounds of Leon's loaded pistol, the driver tossed the bullets to the ground before chucking the empty gun towards one of the Hound's men, forcing the man to stumble forward to catch it.

"Do something with that. You'll follow us back. Rest assured, gentlemen, I'll be dealing with the two of you later."

Wordlessly and with matching scowls of defeat, the men slowly retreated back to the beat up Buick, glancing coldly at Sansa as they went. Still seated on the ground, Sansa stumbled forward as she swung one leg out from underneath her and struggled to regain herself. In quick steps, the driver pushed his weight against her and steadied her to her feet. Pulling open his car door, the man pulled out a bottle of water and uncapped it before pressing it to her cracked lips, tilting her head back with gentle hands.

"Here, girl. Drink."

With eager pulls, Sansa drank down the icy water and relished the cooling sensation that spread down her chest as she drank. Truly, nothing had ever tasted so sweet and with just that simple gesture, she felt a tiny bit better, although loathe to admit it. When she pulled her lips away from the water bottle, Sansa breathed in deep breaths, filling her lungs with the heavy dead heat. The man regarded her with curious eyes; his stare not leering, but lingered all the same as he wrapped one his hands firmly around her arm and led her to the car. As the man opened the back car door, Sansa could hear Leon mumbling incoherently to himself as he stared mindlessly out the window.

With the driver gesturing towards the open door, Sansa instinctively pulled away from him, struggling against his increasingly insistent push as her breaths came ragged in her chest and she fought to flee from him. As she dashed sideways away from him, the man swiftly caught her by the arm, his fingers clamping down iron tight as he yanked her back towards him and pushed her into the side of the car. With Sansa sandwiched between him and the car, the man loosened his grip slightly and began to speak, his voice low and calm and his tone matter-of-fact.

"There's no two ways about it, you're coming with me. But you're a smart girl, so I'm sure you already know that. You can make this harder on yourself by struggling against the inevitable. Or you can be a good girl and get into the car. The choice is yours, sweetheart. I, for one, would rather you make my life easier by opting for the latter. What do you say?"

Sansa considered his words, understanding the danger lingering behind them and knowing that he spoke truly. There was no way she was getting out of this situation, not now at least. When she and Podrick fled into the night, Sansa had held onto the frantic hope that her father was out looking for her, desperately searching and refusing to give up until she was safely back at home. As the hours melted away and that prospect was seeming bleaker by the moment, Sansa let go and surrendered herself to the situation, too tired and broken down to fight any longer. Lifting her head, she stared into the man's eyes, demanding him to meet her gaze. And though his stare was as resilient as hers and she could sense he could and would hurt her if push came to shove, Sansa saw a flicker of pity splinter through his eyes and with it she felt the satisfaction tug at the corners of her lips in a bitter half smile. Good. I hope you feel bad for this. Even if just a little bit…

Momentarily contented with what she saw in his stare, Sansa climbed into the back of the car and slumped down on the leather seat which was blessedly cool against the heat her body had soaked up from the unrelenting sun. To her right, Leon sat, still ranting to himself and shifting about erratically in his seat. Without a doubt, the man was demented and that scared Sansa more than the driver and the Hound's men combined. And maybe, just maybe, it scared her more than the Hound himself.

Sansa pushed herself as far away from Leon as she could, resting her head against the black tinted window and pulling her arms tightly around her chest. As the driver slid into his seat, Sansa could see him watching her through the rear view mirror, his eyes shifting back and forth between her and Leon. Pulling his seatbelt over his shoulder and turning the car on, still the man watched her before turning around in his seat and focusing his darkened stare on Leon.

"If you fucking try anything, I will slit your throat from ear to ear and watch as you drown in your own blood."

Leon seemed not to hear him, but instead chewed on his finger nails, his legs bobbing up and down as he twitched in his seat. Sansa knew little of the human psyche except the bits and pieces of forensic psychology her dad would share with her. He had been fascinated by how the criminal mind worked; all part of his job, he had said, but she knew there was some morbid curiosity to his studies as well. Sansa did not share in her father's curiosity of the disturbed human mind, but she knew with a certainty Leon was not only chronically afflicted with some severe mental illness, he was currently having a psychotic episode.

As they started down the lonely desert highway, Leon's rambling gradually became louder as he clawed at the gash in his cheek, tearing further at the flesh which elicited gushes of blood. Turning her gaze to the front of the car, Sansa saw the driver crank up the volume knob on the car stereo, releasing the baritone of Johnny Cash's voice before slumping back in his seat.

Sansa squeezed her eyes shut and tried her best to pretend she was somewhere else, anywhere else. With her breaths coming slower, Sansa began to feel the stinging pain of the rope cutting into her wrists. Any movement of her arms pushed the outsides of her wrists hard against the thin rope, cutting deeper into her skin. As best as she could, Sansa tried to keep her arms still, but found even that was becoming difficult. Her cheek itched as the blood began to dry around her wound. When she scratched at it, the skin opened up once more and released a stream of fresh blood. Sansa wished she could sleep, but she didn't know what was worse; the nightmare behind her eyes or the waking nightmare she had come to live in. Suddenly too afraid to drift into sleep despite her body desperately wanting it, Sansa remained awake, listening to the Man in Black croon his commiseration with Folsom State prisoners.

Lost in a silent daze, devoid of thoughts, Sansa felt the car shift as the driver navigated turns at what had to be a speeding pace. To the right, and then the left, left again before another right, Sansa felt the inertia pull on her body. She knew not how long they had been driving, but it had to be three hours at least before she could feel the car beginning to slow its speed, the pulls of the turns becoming less forceful. Through the heavy tint of the windows, Sansa couldn't see where they were, but she knew for a certainty they had reached their destination, however temporary it may be. As the man driving pumped hard on the breaks, Sansa flew forward in her seat and into the back of the driver's seat, the sweat from her thighs slick against the leather and offering little by the way of friction to stop her from flying forward. She winced as the side of her face slammed into the back of the driver's seat and scraped against the leather, once again reopening the gash on her cheek to trickle a beading of blood. With her hands bound at the wrists Sansa had done her best to shield her face from the collision which was unavoidable, but painful all the same.

Tucking one of her elbows underneath her, Sansa pushed herself up off the floor of the car and wiggled her way back into the seat. Leon watched her struggle with a smirk playing about his cracked, bloodied lips and his blackened eyes eagerly soaking up the sight of her wincing in pain and struggling to regain herself.

Swiftly and in one hurried motion, the man driving pushed the gear shift into park and unbuckled his seat belt before pushing open the door and jumping from the car.

A column of light filled the car momentarily as his door remained open. Through blurred vision, Sansa squinted against the light, unable to make out where they were. When the driver shut his door, Sansa could hear a muffled exchange between two, perhaps three men. With the timbre of their voices nearly identical, it was hard to tell, but succeeded in making her stomach churn. Sansa could hear the sense of urgency in their voices. Wherever they were, it seemed they had arrived behind schedule.

The man driving had been surprisingly gentle with her, almost apologetic. In stark contrast, Leon was vicious and wildly unpredictable, a loose cannon of psychosis ready to go off at any moment. The men on the other side of the car door could be like the man who was driving or they could be like Leon; truly, it was a toss of the coin and the thought was making the back of her throat burn with the promise of vomit despite her empty stomach. As she strained to listen to what the men were saying, Sansa felt something cold and metallic against the right side of her neck; the stinging pressure was eliciting a steady oozing of blood to flow from the skin of her throat. Slowly, Sansa shifted her eyes towards the sensation. The periphery of her vision was filled with the sight of Leon pushing a large butterfly knife against the soft flesh of her throat.

Sansa fought every instinct to jerk away, to push open the door of the car and flee. Every muscle in her body tensed as she willed herself to remain as still as possible. Still. Be still. If you move, he'll hurt you.

It wasn't a question in her mind, but rather a certainty and the slow, lingering hiss of his words reaffirmed her thoughts. With his knife shifting and pushing hard into her throat, Sansa could feel Leon's breath hitting her cheek in warm, moist spurts as he leaned in to speak, pushing her hair from off her shoulder and brushing his lips against her ear.

"I could kill you. I could say that you tried to run, tried to fight, and that I had no choice, but to slit your throat open. What do you think of that, you stupid little slut?"

Sansa squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed hard as salty tears streamed down her cheeks to come splattering against Leon's knife, baptizing the blade in blood and tears. Despite her best efforts to remain calm and collected, Sansa's breaths were heaving out of her chest, her body trembling uncontrolled and frantic. Letting his knife fall to the floor of the car, Leon coiled both of his hands around her throat; his fingers were cold as icicles and squeezing hard against her windpipe, choking off her breath. Sansa squirmed under his grasp, panicking as her empty lungs burned within her chest. She clawed desperately at his hands around her throat, digging her fingernails into his skin as hard as she could. Undaunted, Leon squeezed harder, his eyes once again almost black and delirious with mania. Slowly, Sansa's vision began to blur as a steady calm descended over her. The sound of her whimpering became increasingly faint as her eyes rolled to the ceiling of the car. From behind, she felt the door of the car give way to the weight of her body. This is it. I'm falling into death.

As the falling sensation continued, suddenly Sansa felt herself gasping for breath, the pressure on her throat released in an instant. As she hit the cold, concrete ground next to the car, Sansa realized she had been falling, quite literally. The car door behind her had been opened up by the driver and Leon had released his grasp on her throat to let her tumble from the back seat of the car.

With deep, hyperventilated heaves, Sansa filled her lungs with air, expanding them so fast and hard that she thought her ribs might break. As her eyes focused once more, Sansa's vision was filled with a pair of black shoes. She followed the shoes up a pair of pin striped trousers and up further until she saw the face of the driver. It was only then that she realized she had careened from the car to land sprawled out on the ground at his feet, her throat dribbling blood across his polished shoes.

Wordlessly and with his stare deliberate, the driver extended his hand to her. Sansa settled back on her legs and reached her bound hands up to meet him. Swinging his other hand to his back pocket, the driver pulled free a folded buck knife. With a gasp, Sansa wiggled away from him, snatching her extended hands back and cradling them protectively against her chest.

"I'm not going to hurt you. Now be a doll and give me your hands. Unless you want to be tied up all night. Personally, that's not my sort of thing, but to each their own."

As the driver playfully shrugged his shoulders and reached for her bound hands, Sansa heard the grumbling of laughter from two other men in the room. Only then did she look up and realize they were in a large garage which held three other cars, all black Mercedes sedans with dark tinted windows. Beyond that, the garage was empty and immaculately clean; above, long rows of fluorescent lights hung on chrome chains situated between concrete support beams while the walls were panels of thick corrugated steel flush against white painted cinderblocks, every sound echoing loudly throughout the vacuous space. Behind her were a series of four doors, wide enough to let one car through and each hooked up to its own automatic door opener. Situated on the opposite wall were two heavy steel doors, each with a numbered key pad.

Sansa held her breath as the driver flipped open his buck knife and slipped it under the frayed rope that was wrapped tightly around her wrists. With her eyes squeezed shut, Sansa felt a strong pull against the back of her wrists followed by the immediate release of the pressure of the rope digging into her skin. Opening her eyes, she saw dried blood flaking from her wrists in the places where the skin had been rubbed raw.

Still on her knees and rubbing her wrists, Sansa's eyes fleeted around the garage. The two men the driver had been talking to were unfamiliar to Sansa, but shared a similar style of dress; flawlessly creased dark trousers, starched white shirts adorned with satin ties, mother-of-pearl or platinum cuff-links, exquisitely shined shoes, cleanly shaven faces with hair slicked back. Both of the men stared at her with something between pity and fearful hesitance. It was the fear and hesitance gleaming in their eyes that frightened Sansa, as if they were keenly aware of the fate she awaited and were afraid for her.

With her own fear hitting her like a ton of bricks and suddenly feeling sick to her stomach, Sansa gasped out sobs, the tears gushing from her eyes in a steady, unbidden stream which flowed down her cheeks. She had tried to remain resilient and calm, softly reassuring herself that perhaps someone would find her and save her from this awful nightmare. Yet in this moment, bloody, exhausted, terrified, and uncertain of what awaited her behind the heavy steel doors of the garage, Sansa crumbled and let herself slump to the floor on hands and knees, her chest heaving out sobs which echoed loudly throughout the garage.

Much to her surprise, the men quietly remained where they stood and averted their eyes, either sweeping them towards the ceiling or floor, but avoiding her entirely nonetheless. After a few moments, Sansa felt a gentle tugging at her arm as the driver pulled her from the ground, placing an arm around her waist as he led her towards one of the steel doors.

"Come on. He has been waiting rather patiently for you. And that's not something I get to say very often."

Instinctively, Sansa knew who 'he' was. With this knowledge, she felt as though she might vomit as her fear filled her to the brim. Pulling his arm away from her waist, the driver turned towards the other men whose brows lifted and eyes widened as they stared at the twin gashes about Sansa's neck and cheek.

"Go get Leon. He's in the back seat. Make sure you frisk the bastard first though!"

With quick nods, the men did as they were bid and headed towards the car in hurried strides while the driver deftly punched in a series of codes on the numbered key pad. As he pushed through the heavy door and into a dimly lit corridor, Sansa felt as if she was reliving her nightmare, feeling her way through the darkness towards the Hound who she sensed was awaiting her in the shadows. The driver effortlessly navigated his way through a series of tunnels, leading her by the arm as he zig-zagged through the underground network of concrete corridors. As they worked their way further through the tunnels, Sansa began to hear the faint echoing of voices which continually grew louder as she was led down a long corridor lit with the flickering of wall sconces. At the end of the corridor was a heavy wooden door inlaid with iron hardware and outfitted with yet another numbered key pad. Sansa could hear the cacophony of men's voices emanating from the other side of the door; roaring laughter, bantering shouts, and the buzz of boisterous conversations.

With a polite smile, the driver pulled open the door and led Sansa through. For the second time within the span of a day, Sansa felt as if she had stepped back in time, transported to a prohibition-era drinking establishment tucked away from prying eyes and eager ears. Situated somewhere within the system of tunnels, the room effortlessly exuded the dingy elegance of a speakeasy lounge; old brick walls created the perimeter of the expansive room, pieces of mortar having been chipped away with time, while the high ceiling above was a series of exposed wooden beams, painted a glossy black which reflected the flickering of gas lamps situated at various points along the brick walls of the room. The floor was a series of wide planks of scratched and worn hardwood, covered here and there with faded, mismatched oriental rugs.

Situated against the far wall across the room, tufted brown leather couches partitioned off part of the room, creating a seating area centered around a series of small wooden tables, flickering tea lights and cigar filled ash trays placed about each. The seated men talked animatedly with one another, hands swinging through the air as each worked to talk over one another and to be heard over the noise in the room. Adjacent to the seating area and running the expanse of the longest wall, a mahogany bar created the focal point of the room; the dark wood was inlaid with square panel molding and beautifully offset by a shiny brass foot rail. Above the heavy lacquered bar top, a series of dome glass pendant lights hung from the ceiling, casting a dim glow about the bar which was reflected in the ornately framed mirror hung behind. On either side of the mirror three rows of shelves were crowded with every assortment of liquor one could imagine, the bottles illuminated and glowing likes gem stones set against onyx. The man tending the bar looked to be in his mid to late twenties. With the sleeves of his white shirt pushed up to his elbows, the bartender bounced between the ten or so men seated at each of the wooden bar stools, each of them nursing manhattans or martinis between pulls on cigarettes or cigars.

Through the thick veil of cigar smoke that wafted throughout the room, Sansa could see a series of tables on the side of the room closest to the heavy wooden door. Seated around each of the four tables were perhaps eight men with another six or so crowded behind them. Amongst ash trays and half full cocktail glasses and beer bottles, the center of each table was littered with poker chips and tattered cards haphazardly strewn about. And stark against all of it was the dull chromic shine of guns; pistols of all shapes, sizes, and calibers set in front of every other man as an unspoken threat. With a cigar hanging in his mouth, one of the men turned his cards over one at a time, deliberate and with a smug smile pulling at the corners of his lips. With each turn of the cards, a diamond appeared in consecutive order, one after the other, starting with the eight of diamonds and ending with a forlorn looking queen of diamonds clutching tightly to her flower. Without hesitation, the man leaned forward in his seat, greedily encircling the chips with thick arms and pulling them towards his barreled chest. Infuriated and turning a deep shade of crimson, the man seated across the table bound to his feet, flinging his chair hard into the gentleman standing behind him. With a hearty laugh, the man with the winning hand pulled the cigar from his mouth and motioned towards the chair careening backwards.

"Oh sit down! Not my fault you're a goddamn rabbit. You about took out one of the railbirds there."

Sansa had expected the other man to snatch up his loaded pistol and fly across the table in retaliation, but instead she looked on in amazement as the other man's scowl melted away into a sweeping grin as he lifted his empty cocktail glass to his lips, draining the contents before slamming it on the table and causing poker chips to bounce away from him.

"You're a son of a bitch, you know that? Fuck, I need another drink!"

Still hanging in the shadows, Sansa and the driver went relatively unnoticed as men loitered about the room, many swaying with intoxication and puffing on cigars, joking and laughing heartily with one another. Sansa sensed the camaraderie between the men who filled the room, each dressed in a similar style of dark trousers, white button down shirts, and some form of embellishment, either a luxurious tie, bejeweled cufflinks, or antique pocket watch. Watching as she contemplated the men meandering about the room, the driver leaned in towards Sansa, his voice swelling with pride.

"You've come to us on a special night. Tonight we have men to make."

Sansa's brow knitted in confusion at his words, the term entirely unfamiliar to her and instantaneously setting her ill at ease. Seemingly reading her mind, thought by thought, the driver chuckled as he leaned in once more while gently nudging her forward to emerge from the shadows as they pushed through the crowded room.

"Tonight we welcome two more men of honor into our ranks. To make a man is to initiate him into the hierarchy of our organization. He's one of us, bound by blood; a man to be respected and feared by others."

Sweeping her eyes across the room and evaluating the men she found there, Sansa chewed her lip and swallowed hard. Her heart began to beat loudly in her own ears, thundering over the sounds of laughter, arguing, and music that was pouring from the center of the room. Perhaps it was the driver's tone, something between a proud declaration and a cautionary threat. Or maybe it was the way his look lingered over her, patiently awaiting a reaction that she was stubbornly content to never give. Either way, her stomach flipped as they walked past the card tables and the men surrounding them lifted their eyes to her, jaws opening and closing in unison with cigars and cigarettes hanging precariously in the gaps of their mouths. Once again she was met with eyes filled with a sort of empathetic fear. They dreaded something; whether it was something that awaited her or awaited them, she knew not, but she sensed it was the former. One by one the men lifted their eyes as their voices fell to hushed whispers; a secret passing from lips to ears, ears to lips and kept far from her as it was breathed about the room in puffs of smoke.

With a firm pull at her arm by the driver, Sansa was led deeper into the room, which was hazy as the heavy blanket of smoke wafted through the air, stinging her eyes and filling her lungs with the scent of cigar, whiskey, and sweat. As they reached the center of the room, Sansa saw the men at the bar swivel in their seats as their eyes lifted to her over the cocktail glasses pressed to their lips. Like a domino effect, each man in turn shifted in his seat, some shaking their heads with knowing smiles while others considered her with a fleeting glance before returning undaunted to their respective conversations.

Easing past the bar, Sansa spotted an alcove tucked away in the furthest corner of the room, open to the rest of the expansive lounge save for a series of arched openings supported with wooden columns. With her intuition tugging insistently at her stomach, Sansa all but knew what awaited her in the alcove. The room was largely shadowed and filled with smoke, yet her eyes had searched for him all the same; darting to each darkened space of the room and peering through the clusters of men hovering about. However something told her that the Hound would see her long before she saw him. And she would know it too. She would be able to feel his stare penetrating her skin, cutting through bone, flesh, and blood to see right to the core of her. She would squirm beneath it and feel the urge to flee, but she doubted her legs would obey and carry her away.

The driver stopped before reaching one of the arched openings of the alcove and turned towards Sansa, sighing deeply as he assessed her form and lifted one of his hands to dab at the blood smeared across her throat. Motioning his head towards the alcove, the driver removed his hand from her throat and placed it on the small of her back, gently urging her forward.

"Right in there."

Sansa squeezed her eyes shut as she felt her knees beginning to tremble, each of her steps wobbling as she slowly placed one foot in front of the other towards the alcove. The driver was behind her, barring her path should she turn to flee. Somehow she doubted she would get very far if she did try to escape. The men wandering about the room were the Hound's men and loyal to him; loyalty bought by fear, she sensed, but she was unwilling to defy him nonetheless. Sansa lifted her head, loath to slink into the alcove defeated and petrified. She decided that when she met the Hound, face to face, she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her terrified. Despite the resilient promise to herself, Sansa could do little and less to quell the shaking that had besieged her body. What more, her breaths were coming thin and ragged from her trembling lips.

Approaching the nearest arch of the alcove, Sansa saw that thin, gossamer drapes had been hung from the arches, feebly offering a veil of privacy yet still allowing the occupants of the alcove to monitor the activities of the room. The driver reached an arm out from behind her, pushing open the curtains and nudging her through.

The alcove, much like the rest of the lounge, was dimly lit by two tiffany lamps situated on side tables. Two walls of the alcove boasted seating; an assortment of tufted leather club chairs with a heavy wooden coffee table at the center. After drifting through a sea of unfamiliar faces, Sansa recognized the man seated in the alcove; his face burned into the darkness behind her eyes and threatening nightmares whenever she meant to rest her weary mind.

He was much the way he was when she first encountered him; perched commandingly in the outskirts of the room, silently retreated from the festivities bustling about him yet somehow maintaining the center of it all. Despite having separated himself from the others, the room still revolved about him, the other men entertaining themselves all the same yet profoundly aware of the Hound's presence.

Strapped across both of his shoulders was a black leather holster, cradling two pistols tightly beneath his arms, one on each side of his broad chest. Like the others, he wore a white shirt and pin striped trousers, his shoes black, shined, and gleaming with the reflected light of flickering candles placed about the coffee table in front of him. Unlike the others, his shirt was unbuttoned at the neck and the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He wore no satin tie or platinum cufflinks or any other form of embellishment. Where the other men had slicked back their hair, the Hound's raven colored strands hung loosely to his shoulders and had been swept to the side to cover his scars. If she hadn't already known, Sansa would have never guessed by his appearance that he was the Boss of a crime syndicate, that every other man in the room answered to him. But she imagined he had designed his world to be this way; allowing himself the chance to work from within the shadows, quietly and masterfully maintaining his authority. No wonder no one knew anything about him, not even her father whose career had centered around the Hound and his organization for the past two years.

He was like the eyes of God, watching and waiting, seeing all and going noticed by few. However, they knew he was always there and they feared him. And in this moment, knowing nothing about him, Sansa feared him too, suddenly forgetting her stubborn resolve to feign otherwise. It didn't matter, she knew. She could hold her head up high, stand firm, and speak loud, but he would know. He would see the truth of what she was, lost and terrified, and that truth would be kindling to the fires that seemed to smolder within him.

Sansa was startled to find that somehow the memory of him had distorted in her mind. She had forgotten the way he filled a room with his presence and commanded attention without having to mutter a single word. Not to mention his size. Somehow she had diminished that in her mind as well. She knew he was tall and built of solid muscle, but as he sat in the sectioned off alcove of the room, he was so much larger than she could have hoped to remember. The Hound's form nearly engulfed the entire leather upholstered club chair in which he was seated, legs open and elbows resting heavily on his knees as he clutched a cigar cutter between his thumb and forefinger.

Battered bloody, covered in a layer of dirt, and with her hair a mess, Sansa somehow felt inadequate in his presence. Standing in front of him, she began to feel every cut, scratch, bruise, and gash about her body; from the wound on her cheek to the bruises on her legs, she felt them all at once and held him responsible. She had not suffered them all by his own hands, but because of him they had befallen her all the same. He had given the word, working from his shadows, and created the living hell that had become her life, sending a psychopath after her instead of retrieving her himself.

An older man was seated to the Hound's left, thinning grey hair slick against his balding head. With his hands folded softly in his lap and his eyes meeting Sansa's, the old man leaned into the Hound, muttering his words in hushed tones as the Hound cut the tip of his cigar in one swift motion. Striking a match, the Hound lifted the flame to the tip of the cigar, puffing at the end in his mouth and filling the air with the fragrant plumes of smoke.

As the Hound lifted his eyes to her, Sansa felt the breath catch in her chest as her fear gripped her. Slowly, he pulled the cigar from his mouth, letting the smoke meander from lips as he exhaled a deep sigh. Settling in his seat, the Hound's eyes roamed her form and with each pass, his eyes narrowed and his jaw seemed to clench tighter. Sansa had let her eyes fall away, petrified to meet his stare and trying desperately to steady her breaths. In a fleeting moment of courage or perhaps curiosity, Sansa let her eyes drift from the floor, across the coffee table, and up the Hound's seated form until her gaze settled on him. His mouth was twitching as his lips were set in a furious scowl; the anger pale in comparison to the rage that flickered in his icy grey eyes. Terrified, Sansa couldn't peel her eyes away. She wanted to, desperately she wanted to, but she couldn't. So instead she kept his stare; her eyes filling with tears as his filled with fury, her lips quivering with fear and his twitched with God-knows-what.

Shaking his head and snorting out his breath in agitated spurts, the Hound snuffed out his cigar in an ash tray, pushing the lit end into the glass so hard that the cigar nearly snapped in half. As the Hound bounded to his feet, Sansa felt her legs begin to give out underneath her and she stumbled backwards into the driver. Wordlessly and with his anger filling the small alcove with a suffocating heaviness, the Hound snatched up the half-full cocktail glass sitting on the coffee table, knocking his head back as he emptied the drink in two gulps before slamming it down on the table and crossing the alcove in a few pounding strides. Sansa flinched as he came towards her, expecting him to unleash his anger on her, but instead he stopped in front of the driver, flashing his furious stare at Sansa before turning towards the driver.

"Where is he?"

The Hound's words were a low growl, not the booming bark Sansa had expected. Before the driver could speak, the background noise of the lounge had dropped off and the room was filling with the maniacal demands of Leon. In an instant, the Hound pushed through the gossamer curtains of the alcove, the soft sound of ripping as he tore through them glaring in contrast to the bellowing of his voice as he turned his head over his shoulder to the driver.

"Bring the girl out here, Bronn."

Following his orders, the driver, Bronn, led Sansa from the alcove, sliding over a wooden chair and pushing it against the wall before motioning her to sit in it. Shaking like a leaf, Sansa gratefully did as she was bid and lowered herself into the chair, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest and clutching at the fabric of Podrick's sweater. Outside of the alcove, a large area of space in the lounge had cleared. Men silently perched along the wall, lifting themselves from card tables or swiveling in their chairs to watch as Leon was roughly thrown to the ground at the Hound's feet.

Leon convulsed on the ground, tearing at the wound on his cheek while mumbling to himself. The Hound lowered himself to the ground, crouching down and fisting his hands in the front of Leon's shirt so the maniac was forced to meet his enraged stare.

"What was it I told you before you left?"

The Hound's words were a seething rasp, his eyes burning wild with intensity while the corners of his mouth twitched uncontrollably. Either unfazed or unconcerned with the imminent danger he had found himself in, Leon snorted his derision, releasing a gush of blood to stream down the now gaping wound of his cheek and trickle to the floor. His words were punctuated with deranged laughs.

"You said you wanted the Stark girl. Well, here she is. So what if I broke her pretty face open? The stupid bitch got what she deserves. You're lucky I didn't fuck her into the ground while I was at it."

With a violent jerk, the Hound pulled Leon closer to him, almost nose to nose as his infuriated voice boomed through the room.

"What the fuck did I tell you before you left?"

Soft at first, Leon snickered out a chuckle which gradually gave way to an uncontrolled cackling laughter. For many moments, the room was silent as Leon howled with laughter, his body heaving as he struggled beneath the Hound's iron tight grip. The Hound stared at him, boring through him with unblinking eyes that were wide with fury before turning his head slightly to hover over his shoulder.

"Bronn, what did I tell Leon before he left?"

Pushing himself from the wall, Bronn sauntered over next to the Hound's side, crossing his arms about his chest with a darkened smile creasing his lips. Bronn let his stare wander to the ceiling as he rested a balled fist under his chin, feigning contemplation as he paced back and forth.

"Let's see. I seem to remember you explicitly saying you did not want her hurt. Of course, there was some profanity and death threats thrown in there too, but not wanting her hurt stands out in my mind."

Without reply, the Hound threw Leon back to the floor before lifting himself to his feet and sweeping his eyes towards Sansa, the unburned side of his face visible to her. With tears beginning to wet her eyelashes, Sansa met his stare before quickly letting her eyes fall to the floor as her fingers clutched the sleeves of Podrick's sweater hanging loosely about her wrists. In an instant, all the eyes in the room seemed to hover on her; the men in the room regarded her with heavy stares peering from the shifting shadows of the room.

As Leon writhed about the floor, the Hound paced towards her, his steps slow and deliberate. With her eyes lowered to the ground, she saw his silhouette looming over her in the periphery of her vision, blotting out the meager light that struggled to fill the room. Sansa sensed he was waiting for her to look at him, to let her eyes roam up his imposing form to meet his unyielding stare. With tears spilling over her cheeks, Sansa tried to lift her eyes, but found she couldn't do it. Instead, she let her eyes remain fixed to the floor at her feet. Reaching up to swipe away the tears, the loose sleeve of Podrick's sweater fell from Sansa's wrist, exposing the bloodied marks where the rope had rubbed her skin raw.

Before she could brush the tears from her cheeks, the Hound grabbed her by the forearm and tugged slightly until her arm was extended, her wrist turned over and exposed to him. The Hound stepped towards her until his legs were flush with hers and pulled her other arm from her lap, pushing up the sleeve and scrutinizing the matching wound about the other wrist.

As he let go of her arm, the Hound crouched down in front of her, one knee bent to the ground and the other brushing against her leg. Even in a crouching position, he still towered half a foot taller than her. For many moments, he said and did nothing, but let his eyes move about her form; first to her cheek, then her neck and finally down to her legs. Back and forth his eyes ran the circuit about her face and body.

With a gentleness that surprised her, the Hound placed one of his large, calloused hands under her chin, lifting her tear-filled eyes to meet his insistent gaze. With his jaw set firmly in an angry scowl, he tilted her head to the side to expose the gash on her cheek, silently evaluating it until his eyes lowered to the cut on her throat. With one hand still under her chin, the Hound reached to his back pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. In slow, methodical motions, he blotted at the blood on her throat, pulling away slightly when she winced in pain. Dropping the handkerchief to the floor, the Hound ran his fingers along her throat before letting the palm of his hand press slightly against her skin as his eyes flew up to meet hers. Her throat was tender where Leon had nearly squeezed the life out of her and he had apparently left his mark with emerging bruises. Hesitantly, Sansa held the Hound's stare, which had softened slightly as he spoke, his voice a low whisper and his words, she sensed, for her ears only.

"Did he do this to you?"

His eyes searched her demandingly as his nostrils flared with each exhaled breath. Trembling, Sansa hung her head, once more breaking the connection coming between their eyes until suddenly feeling the Hound grab her by her shoulders, his fingers gripping her tightly. Instead of a hushed whisper, his voice roared this time, clearly growing impatient.

"Look at me. Did he do this to you?"

Although she was beginning to surmise the Hound did not mean to harm her, at least not in this moment, Sansa thought it best not to try him. Taking a deep breath and swallowing hard, she lifted her head, letting her eyes settle directly on the Hound's irritated stare. Wordlessly, she nodded her head, solemnly and without letting her eyes roam away.

"Did it hurt?"

The question seemed absurd to her. The man hit me across the face, nearly slit my throat with a knife, and choked me out. Of course it hurt. Sansa smiled internally at her own inner thoughts. She wished she had the gall to repeat them. Instead, Sansa once more responded to the Hound's question with a silent nod, deciding it best to keep her thoughts to herself. With her gentle nod, the Hound stood up abruptly, leaving her side at once as he strode towards Leon.

"The girl says you hurt her."

As if conjured from his descent into madness, Leon pushed himself up from the ground, jumping to his feet as he snapped his malicious stare towards Sansa, the mania settled heavily in his blue eyes. In one swift motion, the Hound grabbed Leon by the throat, lifting the man so that the toes of his boots scraped against the floor.

"Don't look at her. You look at me."

Struggling feebly, Leon kicked his legs towards the Hound, whimpering as he struggled to breathe. Dropping Leon to the floor with a thud, the Hound pulled a pistol from his holster and aimed at Leon. Without hesitation, the Hound pulled the trigger, firing a round into Leon's right knee. Despite the maniac's blood curdling scream, Sansa heard the Hound seethe out his words acrimoniously with a rasping growl.

"That's for hurting her."

Without missing a beat, the Hound pointed, aimed, and fired at Leon's left knee, sending the man squirming across the floor, blood pooling beneath the ruins of his knees as he kicked his legs frantically.

"That's for hurting her when I told you not to."

In the midst of it all, Sansa's trembling hand flew up to meet her mouth, stifling the scream that hovered in her throat. As her eyes searched the room, she found that the other men looked on undeterred and with grim satisfaction gleaming across their faces as they puffed on cigars or sipped from drinks. This is nothing new to them. They've seen this before.

The thought terrified Sansa and for the first time, she let her mind slowly wrap around the reality of the predicament she was in. Her father had described the Hound as vicious and calculated, moving about the shadows and rendering himself untouchable. And now she understood, seeing it with her own eyes. Leon was crazed, no doubt, but was also slowly bleeding out on the floor, howling in pain and pleading for help. Callously, the Hound looked on, without a shred of remorse, and his men looked at him as if he were a God because of it, praising him with silent nods and half smiles. As she let her hand fall from her mouth, Sansa turned her eyes towards the Hound as he pushed his pistol back into his holster and turned towards two men leaning against the wall nearest to Leon.

"Shut him the fuck up. We have men to make."

With sweeping grins and stiff nods, the two men pushed themselves from the wall and scooped Leon up underneath his arms. The men pulled him off to the side, the blood beneath his legs a dark smear against the hardwood. One of the men removed his white shirt and gagged Leon until his screams were muffled moans.

Sansa watched as two other men pulled over a small table and covered it with a black table cloth. The Hound stood where he was, his arms crossed about his chest as Bronn stepped forward in front of the table. From his back pocket, Bronn liberated two Ace of Spades cards and placed them face up on the clothed table before motioning over two men from the crowd that had pushed closer to the table.

The two men that stepped forward were older, each with grey dispersed through their slicked back hair. With them, two younger men stepped forward, each in their early to mid-twenties Sansa guessed. While all the men in the room were dressed similarly, these younger men were dressed slightly different, but exquisite nonetheless. Outfitted in tailored black paints and matching black waist coats, these men wore black dress shirts. In fact, they were dressed entirely in black, from head to toe yet wore no embellishments in the form of ties, cufflinks, or pocket watches. With a smug smile, Bronn turned towards the older men.

"Can you vouch for them?"

Each older man in turn nodded their head before assertively speaking to the loyalty and dedication their younger protégés had exhibited. Sansa watched as the Hound looked on from the shadows, in control yet uneager to partake in the pomp and circumstance of what she assumed was an initiation ritual.

"Alright, glocks on the table."

The two older men stepped forward and each placed a glock pistol next to the matching Ace of Spades cards before clapping the younger men on the back and disappearing into the crowd of men.

Reaching once more to his back pocket, Bronn pulled forth his buck knife and motioned the young men forward. One at a time, Bronn took the right hand of each man in his before lightly pulling the blade of the buck knife over the palm of their hands. With faces stoic as stone, the men did not flinch, did not pull their hands away, but instead stared straight ahead, their eyes unreadable and their lips pressed tightly together.

Wordlessly, each man hovered his palm over one of the Ace of Spades, letting fat droplets of ruby colored blood splatter onto the card. With their left hand behind their back and their right hand extended palm up, Bronn placed the bloodied Ace of Spade in the palm of the young men's right hands. Without prompt, a man standing off to the side stepped forward and handed Bronn a cocktail glass half full with a clear liquid. Wordlessly, Bronn dipped his buck knife into the glass and dribbled droplets of the liquid onto each of the Ace of Spades before pulling out a lighter from his pocket.

With a flick of his lighter, Bronn brought the flame to meet the cocktail of blood and liquor pooling on the Ace of Spades cards. Slowly, the cards began to burn, the sides curling slightly as the flames spread. Bronn's voice was loud, his words gracefully pronounced as he paced slowly behind the small table, his hands folded casually behind his back.

"Silence, Omertá, above all else. We honor it, we live by it, we die by it. No God, no Devil, no soul on earth can save you if you dishonor the silence. You come to us as boys. Tonight you are made into men of honor and you die men of honor, loyal to the grave. We are your priority, your world, the center of your Universe. If we ask of you the truth, the truth you give. If we ask you to spill blood for our cause, then there had better be blood. We do not associate with men of the law. We do not associate with men outside of our organization unless they are a friend of ours. A member's wife is sacred to him. You do not betray that sanctity. Wives of members are treated with respect. The outranking members are treated with respect. You do not make decisions on your own, you are given tasks to follow and follow them you will. Show humility. We want you as you are, not you with an inflated ego. Show strength and courage. We want you as brave men, not scared boys. And above all else, silence."

As his monologue wore on, the young men began to wince slightly in pain as the cards smoldered in their bloodied palms. With a dark determination gleaming in their eyes, the young men clenched their jaws and steadied their stares to invisible focus points hovering somewhere far off in front of them. The men about the room seemed to puff with pride as they looked on, nodding their heads here and there at particular points throughout Bronn's monologue.

"The blood unites us. Death and death alone releases you from this unity. Should you betray these oaths, may your soul and body burn as the card burns."

In steady, monotone voices, the young men repeated Bronn's words, sucking in their breaths as the flames licked against their skin.

"Should I betray these oaths, may my soul and body burn as this card burns."

With that, the young men dropped the cards to the ground and stomped out the flames with their feet. Breathing out sighs of relief, the young men smiled gratefully as they received claps on the backs, painful handshakes, and playful chides from the other men who pushed forward to welcome them into their ranks. The room seemed to be abuzz and stirring until the Hound stepped forward, pushing himself from the shadows and emerging into the open space of the room, his scars creating grotesque silhouettes about his face in the meager light. The cheerful chatting died off until the room was quiet once more. The young men, the newly made men, nodded respectively to the Hound, eager to show their reverence.

Strangely entranced by what she had just been witness to, Sansa had all but forgotten about Leon until she heard his muffled whimpering and the soft thuds as he banged his head against the brick wall. As the Hound crouched down and pulled Leon up from the floor, Sansa was aghast at how pale Leon had become. His face was bloodied from where he had scrapped his skin against the brick wall, the white shirt functioning as a makeshift gag was saturated and red with his blood. Roughly and in one swift motion, the Hound pulled the shirt from Leon's mouth.

"You heard the words they said."

With a mouth full of his own blood, Leon spat at the Hound's feet and pulled his mouth into a monstrous smile, his teeth stained crimson as he hissed his words venomously.

"I don't play by your rules, Dog. I'm not fucking part of your little Cosa Nostra."

Sansa looked on as the Hound's lips curled into a darkened smile, his eyes narrowing to steely slits as he pointed towards the young men still standing next to the clothed table clutching their singed hands.

"No, but they are. And they need to make their bones."

Make their bones. Once more Sansa was at a loss for the term, but she could have guessed what the Hound was getting at. Somehow she sensed whatever "making bones" was, it didn't bode well for Leon, who was being re-gaged by a few men as the Hound paced towards the new initiates. When he reached the table, the Hound snatched up the glocks, one in each of his massive hands, and handed them to the young men, their eyes wide and considering the Hound with something between awe and veneration.

"You live by it and you die by it. Drown your fucking oaths in his blood. That's your first task as made men. Make it hurt and clean up after yourselves."

Sansa felt a soft hand rest on her shoulder, squeezing lightly. Sweeping her stare up, Sansa saw the old man who had been sitting in the alcove. Standing next to her, he was much shorter than she had expected although every man in the room was short in comparison to the Hound. His suit was immaculate, timeless and worn with pride, she sensed. However, his eyes betrayed a sort of weariness as if his life had been replete with tragedy. Smiling warmly, the man pulled her from her seat and looped his arm in hers.

"Come, child. This isn't something you want to see."

For the first time since this whole ordeal had begun, Sansa felt a flush of relief; relief that she wouldn't be forced to watch Leon's mortal demise and relief that she was being regarded with a gentle kindness.

The old man led her into the alcove, extending his arm in a gesture bidding her to sit. Once more, she obeyed and settled into the leather seat. Groaning, the old man lowered himself in an arm chair adjacent to her and pulled a smoldering, half-smoked cigar from an ashtray on the coffee table. The man puffed at the end of the cigar before turning towards Sansa.

"I find in my age, I don't have the stomach for that shit anymore." Tilting his head towards the main area of the lounge, the man smiled and pulled the cigar from his mouth, admiring it. "I'd much rather sit in here, smoke my Cohiba Esplendido, and talk to a sweet girl."

Sansa laughed softly and settled slightly in her seat, allowing herself to rest against the plush back of the arm chair.

"Thank you. You've been kind to me."

Lifting his pale green eyes to her, the old man exhaled a puff of smoke. "Save your thank you's. There's no reason not to be kind to you."

As the Hound pushed through the shredded gossamer curtains, Sansa felt her body become rigid again as her back pulled away from the chair. Once more, the room was filling with his brooding temperament and seemed to darken slightly with his presence. Settling himself into the large club chair across from her, the Hound kept his eyes steady on Sansa as Bronn handed him a manila folder. Nodding curtly in approval, the Hound tossed the folder on the coffee table and pulled it open before lifting his eyes to Bronn.

"Go find Mirabelle and bring her here."

As Bronn cantered from the room, the Hound began thumbing through the contents of the folder, slowly turning over each of the pages as he scrutinized them through narrowed eyes. Page after page he did this, once in a while taking a sip of his freshly prepared cocktail or taking a pull from a newly cut cigar. They sat in silence, all three of them; Sansa, the old man, and the Hound. Settling back in his seat, the Hound stared at Sansa, watching her as he puffed on his cigar and his eyes roamed her form. He likes watching me squirm. He knows he frightens me and he likes it.

With that thought roaming her mind, Sansa willed herself to remain calm, counting her breaths so that they came even. One, two, three, inhale. One, two, three, exhale.

Still the Hound watched her, a smug half smile pulling at the corner of his mouth as he seemingly puzzled out what she was doing. Leaning forward and resting forearms on knees, the Hound plucked one of the papers from the manila folder and let his eyes roam over it.

"Sansa Stark. University of Oregon. School of Music and Dance. You've declared double major in Bachelors of Arts in Dance and Bachelors of Music Education. Full ride too. Impressive. Says here, you are formally trained in ballet. You play piano and sing."

Tossing the paper down on the table, the Hound lifted his eyes to the old man.

"Seems I've found myself a little bird, likes to sing and dance. How fucking sweet."

The Hound laughed mockingly as he pressed his cocktail glass to his lips, pulling eagerly at the amber colored liquid. Sansa felt her hands curl into fists. She was tired; tired of being toyed with and tired of not knowing what fate lay ahead. With her fear suddenly fleeing, Sansa leaned forward in her seat, matching the Hound's willful eyes.

"Am I supposed to be scared? That information isn't hard to find."

Throwing his head back, the Hound filled the small alcove with his roaring laughter. Shrugging his shoulders in acquiescence, the Hound shoved the manila folder towards Sansa.

"The little bird is not impressed. Look for yourself then."

Slowly, Sansa leaned forward, keeping her eyes steady on the Hound while he considered her with a smug smile. The first few pages were her applications to University of Oregon, letters of intent, scholarship and housing paperwork. With her hands beginning to tremble, Sansa flipped through copies of her family's birth certificates, social security cards, enrollment records for every school she had attended from grade school all the way to high school. Tearing through the papers, Sansa saw her father's entire financial history laid out page after page followed by transcripts of recorded phone calls, copies of affidavits her father had requested, stacks of testimonies. On it went and with each frantic turning of pages, Sansa felt her heart beating faster in her chest and her brow beginning to bead with a cold sweat. As she turned over another page, Sansa gasped when she saw her father's handwriting; copies of his notes in the Moriarti case were laid out in front of her. Feeling sick to her stomach, Sansa closed the manila folder and shoved it across the table as her vision blurred with tears.

"The mighty Ned Stark. District Attorney. I bet he thought he was clever, keeping this case under wraps for the past two years. I bet he thought I'd be in for a big surprise when he dropped the hammer and johnny law showed up on my doorstep. He's a work horse, I'll give him that, but a fucking idiot. You must get your brains from your mother. Or maybe just your looks."

With angry tears hanging in her eyes, Sansa seethed in her seat.

"My mother was at the Royce's party. What happened to her?"

The Hound shifted his stare behind her, calling out to Bronn as the man strode into the alcove, breathless and smiling gleefully.

"What's the word on Catelyn Stark?"

Sansa's skin crawled as she heard her mother's name exit the Hound's lips. How dare you say her name…How fucking dare you…

She wanted to jump from her seat and lunge at him; release all of her anger in a violent frenzy, she wanted to hurt him the way he had hurt her, but she knew it wouldn't end well for her. Instead, she remained in her seat, chewing her lip and silently wishing away the tears that were hanging in her eyes.

"Mrs. Stark? Dead, probably."

Oblivious to the callousness of his own words, Bronn flopped into a chair adjacent to the Hound, casually draping his arm across the back of the chair. Sansa felt a knot in her throat as she fought the urge to cry, to release all of her anger, sadness, fear, and frustration in sobs. With hyperventilated breaths and her voice scarcely above a whisper, Sansa turned her tear-filled eyes towards the Hound, her lips quivering uncontrollably as she spoke.

"You're a monster."

Her words seemed to sober him somehow as the Hound's stare snapped towards her and his eyes darkened. But beneath the darkness and the fury, she saw the strange stirring of something she hadn't seen in him before. It was the faintest flicker of remorse. As quickly as she saw it, the trace amounts of guilt disappeared in an instant and he narrowed his eyes at her and leaned forward, lowering his voice to a cruel rasp.

"Maybe I am. But look around you, girl, and tell me what you see. To those men out there, I'm God." The Hound lifted his hands and let his stare sweep about the alcove. "Around here, I'm both God and Monster. You had better learn that quick."

The hurried clicking of heels against wood roused the attention of the room and Sansa turned in her seat to see a woman crossing the alcove. Slim in figure and long-legged, she looked to be in her mid twenties, was tall, maybe a few inches taller than Sansa, and beautiful too. Pin straight and glossy, her jet black hair fell to mid back and her face was framed with heavy, blunt bangs. With tight, black leather pants clinging to her legs and a form fitting red blazer over a white T-shirt, the woman looked like a modernized version of Bettie Page. Her grey eyes were outlined in thick eyeliner, her full lips outlined in bright red lipstick. With exasperated steps, she carried herself into the alcove with a confidence that intimated she was familiar with the men seated about the room.

When the woman's eyes meandered to Sansa, her mouth fell open, agape with horror as she gasped before turning her bewildered stare to the Hound.

"Jesus fucking Christ! Is this how you treat women? Huh? Look at her! She looks like she's been through hell and back."

With an apologetic voice, the woman turned her stare towards Sansa, placing a hand gently on her shoulder.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart, but you do."

Amused, Bronn and the old man chuckled as the woman seemingly flittered into the room and chided the Hound, unfazed by his stature, position of authority, or the way he was staring daggers through her. Clearly agitated, the Hound motioned towards Sansa with his drink in his hand.

"You think I did this?"

Once more, the woman turned her gaze to Sansa, biting her lip as her eyes roamed the collection of bruises, gashes, and scrapes Sansa had been collecting over the last 24 hours. Silently nodding her head, the woman turned towards the Hound, placing a hand firmly on one hip while the other wagged a finger at him.

"Leon. I told you not to trust that fucking psycho. You're too goddamn stubborn for your own good."

Once more, Sansa looked on in amazement as the woman seemed to fearlessly put the Hound in his place. Settling back in his seat and crossing his arms about his chest, the Hound looked at the woman with irritation pooling in his grey eyes.

"Leon will be handled. In the mean time, take her upstairs and make sure she's taken care of." The Hound shifted his stare towards Sansa, lowering his voice to a threatening timbre before pushing himself from his seat. "We'll continue our conversation over dinner."

After the men had retreated from the alcove one by one, the woman turned towards Sansa, shaking her head as she pushed Sansa's hair from her shoulder and scrutinized the gashes about her cheek and throat.

"Come on. I'll get you cleaned up." With that the woman took Sansa by the hand and led her from the alcove, through a discretely located door, and up a flight of stairs. As they ascended the stairs, hand in hand, Sansa saw light spilling from underneath the door at the top of the staircase.

The door at the top opened to a long hallway, the walls painted a deep burgundy color and lined with framed photos. As they walked down the hallway, Sansa eyed the photographs; black and white pictures of men in news boy caps, smoking cigarettes and standing next to post-World War II cars. Some contained pictures of women, hair pulled up in victory rolls or pin curls, standing next to uniformed men and proudly cradling babies in their arms. With each picture, the years passed by; the style of dress changed, the photos became colored, and the cars became modern. Sansa sensed each photo had a story, each person in the photo had their own history. As they emerged from the hallway and into a large parlor, Sansa quickly realized they were in what seemed to be a house, a rather large house too.

The woman led Sansa through a parlor to the adjacent foyer, which boasted a large staircase and was open to the floor above. Turning over her shoulder as they retreated up the stairs, the woman smiled softly at Sansa.

"My name is Mirabelle. Sorry you were left with the boys so long. If I would've known, I could've gotten you sooner."

Startled by the kindness she was encountering despite her situation, Sansa recoiled slightly.

"Thank you. I'm Sans-"

Sansa's introduction was cut off as Mirabelle turned around, a knowing smile spread about her red lips.

"Sansa Stark. I already know."

Biting her lip as she was led down the upstairs corridor, Sansa didn't know what to make of Mirabelle and beyond that she didn't understand how this woman fit into the scheme of things. Before she could second guess herself, Sansa blurted out the question that burned on the tip of her tongue.

"Are you his wife?"

Mirabelle stopped as she began to open a closed door situated halfway down the long upstairs hallway. Leaning against the frame of the door, Mirabelle's mouth curled once more in a smile, her eyes flashing with curiosity before narrowing slightly as she tilted her head.

"Why do you ask?"

Suddenly feeling as if she had been too forward, Sansa internally chided herself for asking and fumbled over her words as her eyes darted about the floor, her voice timid and hushed.

"You seemed like his wife. I don't know. I guess by the way you were talking to him."

Eyes widening merrily and her lips pulling into a sweeping smile across her face, Mirabelle pushed through the door, pulling Sansa through with her.

"Oh! I like you! You're a smart girl. Smart to notice that not just anyone gets to mouth off to the big, bad Hound."

Feeling a flush of embarrassment, Sansa's hand flew up to meet her lips, her eyes widening as her mouth hung open now sorely regretting her question.

"I'm sorry, that's not what I meant."

Mirabelle threw her head back and laughed heartily as she paced towards a heavy wooden armoire situated across the room, the room which seemed to be her bedroom.

"You've got nothing to be sorry about, baby doll. And you're right. Well, sorta. Mothers, wives, and sisters. That's who gets to mouth off to him. Not even Bronn, his underboss. Obviously, I'm not his mother and I'm sure as shit not his wife."

Throwing open the armoire doors, Mirabelle began sifting through clothes, pulling out random pieces and scrutinizing them before tossing some on the bed and shoving others back into the armoire.

"You're his sister."

With her back still turned towards Sansa, Mirabelle nodded her head as she busied herself with the task at hand.

"You got it."

Sansa had sensed the woman was close to the Hound, there seemed to be a connection between the two of them. Mirabelle seemed to possess the ability to pacify her brother and beyond that he seemed to listen to her. With her jet black hair and steel grey eyes, Sansa could see the resemblance.

He has a sister. The Hound has a sister.

Sansa pondered the thought. It wasn't unusual by any means, yet somehow it seemed strange to her that a man like the Hound had a sister. Beyond that, Mirabelle seemed nothing like her brother; where he was brooding and violent, she seemed compassionate and vivacious. Tossing a few more pieces of clothing onto the bed, Mirabelle fluttered towards Sansa, taking her by the hands and leading her to the attached bathroom across the room.

"We're about the same height, although you're a little thinner than I am. I think the clothes I have laid out will probably fit you. Get yourself cleaned up. Use whatever you want. Make-up, perfume, brushes, flat irons, and blow dryer are on the vanity. I'm sure you're starving so I'll see if I can find a snack for you in the kitchen. Something to tie you over until dinner."

As Mirabelle retreated from the bathroom, Sansa turned towards her, wringing her hands as she felt her nervousness growing within her.

"Do you live here?"

Mirabelle stopped in midstride and turned slowly to face Sansa. With her brow knitting and the smile melting from her face, Mirabelle sighed deeply and let her eyes fall to the floor. It seemed to Sansa that Mirabelle had suddenly become nervous as well, as if she wanted to tell Sansa something, but shouldn't or perhaps couldn't.

"Sort of. It's complicated. I guess you could say this is a temporary home. We won't be staying in one place for very long though."

We. She said we. If she was in any other circumstances, Sansa would have been instantaneously enchanted with Mirabelle, adore her even and look up to her like an older sister. However, she felt a growing sense of disquiet growing within her. She knew little of what the Hound wanted with her, but she sensed something was dreadfully off and whatever she thought she knew and believed to be true was terribly wrong.

Without another word and with Sansa reluctant to push for more details, Mirabelle turned from Sansa and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.

Mirabelle's bathroom was a girl's dream; neatly organized rows of make-up lined her vanity, a mirrored tray reflected beautiful bottles of perfume, a claw-foot bath tub was perched in the corner near a frosted window. A variety of bath oils and salon-brand hair products filled the window ledge, displayed in orderly rows. Once more, Sansa knew if she were in any other circumstances, she would be thrilled to use Mirabelle's bathroom; shower in a claw-foot tub, experiment with the make-up, brood over which perfume to wear.

As she pulled Podrick's sweater off and let it fall to the floor, Sansa stepped in front of the mirror, scarcely recognizing the reflection she saw there. Sure enough, Leon had left bruised outlines of his fingers across her throat underneath the bloodied gash where his blade has kissed her skin. The lesions about her wrists were caked with blood and sand. The gashes about her legs and arms from the glass were no better; dried blood was flaking away on some spots while others had been reopened to trickle fresh blood. Her legs and face were pink where the relentless desert sun had assaulted her skin.

Retreating from the mirror, Sansa stepped into the shower, pulling the curtain around as she turned on the water which ran off of her body in brown and red streams, stained with dirt and blood. Closing her eyes, she let the water run over her face and sore limbs, wincing at the stinging pain she felt from every cut and gash. Truly, she had never taken a more painful shower in her life and felt the tears beginning to well in her eyes. For as long as she could, Sansa stood under the water, pretending that with the dirt and blood, her painful memories were being washed away, whisked down the drain and far from her mind. However, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't ease the ache in her chest nor could she quell the fear that was rising within her.

She was alone. Podrick had been with her, but now he was gone. He had been left to die in some run-down motel parking lot in the middle of nowhere. His parents would mourn him, bury him in the ground and plead with the heavens, asking why they had to be so cruel to take away their baby boy. His little sister would cry at the loss of her older brother, her protector. Their friends would remember him, talk about all of his quirks and share their favorite memories of him.

She was alone. Her mother was gone too, it seemed. And the Hound had eyes out for her father. No one would be looking for her. No one would know where she was or who she was with. Truly, she was alone. To the rest of the world, Sansa Stark had disappeared, vanished into thin air.

After washing her hair and scrubbing her body, Sansa stepped from the shower and wrapped herself in a towel. Painfully she worked through the knots and tangles of her hair, wincing as the brush caught in the strands. When she emerged into the bedroom, the coolness of the air prickled her skin. Slowly she paced to the edge of the bed and contemplated the pieces of clothing Mirabelle had set out for her. Most of them were dresses, fabric that would cling to her figure or show off her legs. Sansa ran her fingers over the fabric, feeling sick to her stomach as she remembered the previous night when she had struggled with whether or not to wear Myranda's dress to the Royce party.

'You look pretty.'

Sansa closed her eyes. She could hear her mother's voice, feel her fingers running through her hair, see her smile in the reflection of her mirror. When she opened her eyes, it was someone else's bedroom she was in, it was someone else's clothes that had been laid out for her, and someone else that would be coming to tell her how pretty she looked.

Sansa felt her breaths coming faster and heavier in her chest as she looked about Mirabelle's room; the harlequin pattered satin bed spread, adorned with embroidered pillows, beautiful fresh cut flowers placed in colorful vases and set out on the side tables beneath expensive looking lamps, ornately framed mirrors hanging about the room and reflecting the light of a small chandelier that hung from the high ceiling. And the clothes. Another woman's clothes set out for her, meant for her to wear. And the make-up and perfume, she was meant to wear that too. In any other circumstances, Sansa would have been thrilled.

But it was under these circumstances that Sansa began to feel anger boiling up within her and her hands curling into fists. With a fury she had never felt before, Sansa swung her arm, hard and heavy, across the side table and the beautiful flowers, so perfect and fragrant, flew from the table. The vase crashed against the ground, the ruin of petals strewn about and the water slowing seeping across the floor. Along with the vase, the expensive looking lamp smashed across the ground, the base cracking into pieces and the light bulb flickering out as it shattered.

Feeling a dark sense of satisfaction beginning to fill her up, Sansa wanted more. She wanted to destroy the beautiful things so delicately placed throughout the room; to smash them into a million pieces and look on at them in all their ruined glory. Before Sansa could continue, Mirabelle flew into the room, frantic and breathless as her arms cradled a basket with food. Her eyes darted about until finding Sansa standing on the other side of the bed, breathless in her own right from the rage building within her.

With wide eyes, Mirabelle slowly paced across the room and around the bed. Hesitantly she reached out a hand towards Sansa, urging her away from the broken glass that had shattered at her bare feet. As Sansa turned towards Mirabelle, she saw the same flickering of remorse she had seen in the Hound; the same grey eyes rippled with the heaviness of guilt and an urge to make Sansa understand.

Tentatively, Mirabelle led Sansa away from the mess of flowers and glass before delicately sitting at the end of the bed, pulling Sansa down to sit next to her. Wrapping her hands around Sansa's, Mirabelle reached up and let her fingers run over Sansa's damp locks of hair.

"Let me do your make up. And your hair. What do you think? I do it for my girlfriends all the time. You'll feel so much better. I promise. I always feel better when I know I look pretty. Besides, my brother will be expecting you soon."

Adamantly shaking her head, Sansa abruptly disentangled herself from Mirabelle's grasp and flew to her feet, her voice enraged and echoing throughout the bedroom.

"I don't want to be pretty for him. I don't fucking care if he thinks I'm pretty or not."

Clearly taken aback by Sansa's outburst, Mirabelle lifted herself to her feet and strode towards Sansa, placing her hands heavily on Sansa's shoulders.

"It's not him you're getting dolled up for. It's you. You don't ever do things just because a man wants you to. You do it for you because you want to, because it makes you feel good."

Feeling the frenzy rise within her, Sansa leaned into Mirabelle, locking her eyes pleadingly onto the woman's bewildered gaze.

"I want to go home. Please, just tell him I want to go home. He listens to you. Just tell him, please."

Conflicted, Mirabelle sighed heavily, the same rippling of guilt flashing across her eyes.

"I can't, Sansa. I'm so sorry, but I can't do that. You know that. I may be his sister and I may get mouthy with him every now and then, but I don't get to make decisions."

With hyperventilated breaths, Sansa began to pace frantically, the desperate tears beginning to well in her eyes and spill over her cheeks. Reaching out with a firm grasp, Mirabelle caught Sansa by both arms, stopping her in mid stride.

"Listen. I know none of this makes sense to you right now. And it probably won't, not for awhile at least. There's so much I wish I could tell you. Fuck, there's probably a lot even I don't know. I may be his sister, but that doesn't mean he tells me everything. Things will get better."

Sansa angrily recoiled from Mirabelle, snatching her arms away and turning bitterly towards the woman. Standing in her beautiful bedroom, with her hair and make-up done immaculately, her life seemingly put together just the way she wanted, Mirabelle's gall to tell her that things would get better only succeeded in infuriating Sansa.

"You don't know that. You don't know anything about me. My Dad is a District Attorney. He's probably looking for me now and when he finds me, your brother will get thrown in jail and can rot away in there forever for all I care. He murdered my mother and had Leon murder my best friend. What kind of person are you that you can stand by and let him do things like this? You're just as bad as he is."

With clenched fists, Sansa stood tall as the angry spurts of her breath came heaving from her lungs. However, what pride she felt in herself dissipated as Mirabelle stepped towards her, the woman's eyes darkening with a blaze of her own fury. In that moment, Sansa saw the similarity between Mirabelle and the Hound, sister and brother who shared the same unbridled temper. As Mirabelle spoke, her voice seethed through clenched teeth.

"How old are you? 17, Barely 18? I bet you've lived a real nice life, huh? Is that right? I bet you've always gotten everything you've ever wanted. And I bet you think your Daddy will just swoop in and save you like he probably has so many times before. You don't know jack shit about me or my brother or what our life has been like, baby girl. If you want to keep your pretty little life, you had best not say shit like that again. And definitely not in front of my brother. Just because he brought you here doesn't mean he wouldn't put you in the ground without a second thought."

With her eyes falling away, Sansa stepped slowly away from Mirabelle, clutching the towel tight about her body as she somehow felt transparent and exposed. Softening slightly, Mirabelle eased herself back down on the bed, resting her face in the palm of her hands and sighing deeply.

"You think he's a monster. I heard you say it. You don't have a fucking clue. You want a monster? I'll give you a monster. That would be our other brother, Gregor. That's the real monster."

Sansa listened as Mirabelle's voice quivered slightly, colored with a strange sort of fear. She hadn't guessed that the Hound would have a sister and was just as intrigued to find that he had a brother as well. Somehow having a family, having people that he cared about, made him less a Hound and more a human. Curious, Sansa stepped forward hesitantly and seated herself next to Mirabelle.

"What do you mean?"

For many moments, Mirabelle remained silent, chewing her lip and staring off in a daze. Unspoken thoughts seemed to rest heavily on her lips, as if she wanted to let them spill off of her tongue, but hesitated. Tensing with her reluctance, Mirabelle turned towards Sansa, her brow heavy with worry and her eyes contemplating Sansa earnestly.

"Just forget it. I probably shouldn't have said anything. Look, I'm sorry. There's just so much you don't understand. So much."

Abruptly lifting herself to her feet, Mirabelle grabbed a black dress from the bed and tossed it at Sansa before gathering up the other pieces of clothing and dumping them in front of the armoire.

"Put that one on. I'll wait outside the room. My brother is probably waiting for you and trust me, the man hates to wait so you'd better be quick about it."

As Mirabelle shut the door, Sansa let the towel fall to the ground and stepped into the black dress, pulling the halter top up and tying it around her neck. As with Myranda's dress, the bust was tight and showed off more cleavage that she would have liked, but the hemline fell to her knees, for that Sansa was grateful. After slipping back into her shoes, Sansa met Mirabelle in the darkened hallway and followed her down the stairs.

When they entered the large dining room, Sansa saw that the Hound was waiting at the head of the table. True to Mirabelle's word, his eyes flashed with impatience as they entered. The large mahogany table could easily seat twelve or more people, but was empty except for two place settings. Like much of what she had seen of the rest of the house, the dining room was dimly lit by a crystal chandelier hanging above the table. As Sansa approached, the Hound pushed himself from his seat, the impatience retreating from his eyes and his scowl softening as his gaze settled on her. Towering over her, the Hound motioned for her to sit at the setting adjacent to his seat. As Sansa hesitantly sat, she saw that Mirabelle had disappeared from the room, the sound of her retreating steps eventually melting away to a silence.

Sansa shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she felt him watching her, silently eying her with his penetrating stare. The tension was broken as a man shuffled into the room.

"Can I get you something to drink?"

Shifting her eyes up, Sansa saw the bartender from the lounge standing next to her with his hands folded behind his back, a gentle smile creasing his lips.

"Tea, if you have any."

The Hound snorted a mocking laugh before shifting his scowl to the bartender, growling out his response.

"You think we drink fucking tea around here? She'll have wine, sweet red."

Growing agitated at his presumptiveness, Sansa snapped her stare to the Hound and met his eyes. Without breaking her stare, Sansa growled out her own response through clenched teeth.

"I'll have water with lemon. Thank you."

Hurriedly, the bartender retreated from the room, leaving them once more in an uncomfortable, tension-filled silence. Stubbornly, Sansa refused to look at the Hound and instead kept her stare to her hands folded lightly in her lap. She knew not how long they remained this way, the Hound boring through her with his icy stare and she defying him obstinately. With the passing of each silent minute, she could feel his anger slowly rising, the room gradually filling with the fury that was so easily stirred within him. After what felt like an eternity, the bartender entered the room, setting steaming bowls of soup in front of them. Unmoving and silent, Sansa remained with her hands folded in her lap until she heard the Hound's grumbling rasp.

"Eat, girl."

"I'm not hungry."

It was a lie. She was starving, absolutely famished, but stubbornly unwilling to share a meal with him. Remembering that Mirabelle had brought her something to eat and had left it in the bedroom upstairs, Sansa pushed the plate of food away from her and turned a defiant stare at the Hound.

In an instant, the Hound pushed himself from the table so abruptly that his bowl of soup went tumbling across the table. Bounding over to her with half a stride, the Hound pulled her chair out with her in it from the table and swung it around so that she was facing him. Petrified and suddenly regretting her defiance, Sansa clutched the arms of the chair, her fingers wrapping so tightly around the wood that her knuckles were turning white. The Hound crouched down to his knees, effortlessly wrapping his hands over the tops of her hands. As he leaned in close to her, she could feel his body pressing against her, his face hovering inches away from hers. Once more, his massive size was overpowering her and she felt helpless beneath him.

"You think you're brave, but I saw you before and I see you now. You crumble and all I need to do is look at you. Or touch you."

His voice was a low, lusty rasp as he spoke and she could smell the thick scent of whiskey and cigar smoke on him. Unwrapping his right hand from hers, the Hound rested four fingers around her neck underneath her ear and slowly traced her jaw line with his thumb. Reaching her chin, he lifted his thumb and ran it across her trembling lips.

"Feel that? Because I do. You're trembling, shaking like a leaf."

Through the dim light of the room, Sansa could see his eyes burning, but not with the fury she normally saw there. Rather, they were ablaze with a lascivious fervor. The Hound pushed lightly on her lips, parting them slightly as he continued to stroke them with his thumb.

"What do you want with me?"

As she spoke, her lips brushed against his thumb as it lightly hovered over her mouth. Pulling away from her, the Hound settled back on his legs, but remained silent, the desire slowly retreating from his eyes. Desperately trying to understand, Sansa's voice came tremulous from her lips.

"If you're wanting to ransom me, you'll be disappointed. My Dad isn't like Nestor Royce. He won't have the kind of money you're looking for."

The Hound smiled darkly, a knowing smile that intimated he knew what lay ahead for her and had orchestrated it himself. Sansa's stomached churned with disgust. She hated that smile.

"You think I'm planning to ransom you? You think I want money? You watch too many fucking movies. No, you're not going back to your family, you're not going home. You're staying here. Whether you like or not, I could give a fuck either way."

She felt as his massive hands slowly began moving up the outer part of her thighs, pulling her dress up with them. Sansa gasped at his touch and squirmed in her seat, remembering that her panties were crumpled beneath Myranda's dress all the way upstairs in Mirabelle's bathroom. And beneath Mirabelle's dress, she wore nothing, not that it made much of a difference. If he meant to force himself on her, there would be hardly anything she could do to stop it. Balling her hands into fists, she resolved herself to fight anyway if he tried.

But his hands stopped as soon as the dress had risen enough to reveal the dark purple bruises on her legs, which were beginning to turn yellow around the edges. The dim light of the dining room amplified the darkened colors, making them appear much worse than they actually were. Delicately, the Hound ran his fingers over the bruises, scrutinizing them with a furrowed brow.

"This is from me?"

With ragged breaths and wincing slightly at the pressure of his fingers on her bruises, Sansa nodded her head, watching as she saw the Hound's eyes flicker once more with guilt. Removing one hand, he swiveled slightly in his crouched position and slid his cocktail glass across the table and into his hand.

Lowering the glass to the tops of her thighs, the Hound ran it over her bruises, leaving a trail of moisture where the glass was sweating in condensation. Sansa sucked in her breath, grimacing slightly at the cold sensation across her skin. Exhaling slowly, she lifted her eyes to the Hound who was contemplating her with a mischievous smile pulling at his lips. She had expected to let her eyes fall away, either embarrassed or scandalized. Instead she kept his gaze, watching him as he studied her. Suddenly and without warning, the Hound lifted himself to his feet and pushed Sansa's chair back to the table before lowering himself into his seat.

Once more they sat in silence, but Sansa found it was no longer uncomfortable. With curiosity tugging at the back of her mind, she shifted in her seat towards him, tilting her head softly to the side as her eyes searched him.

"You have a brother."

As his eyes flew up to meet hers, Sansa wasn't sure if she had crossed a line. Mirabelle had seemed hesitant to discuss her other brother and shied away from the topic of conversation. With his eyes unreadable and his face stoic as stone, the Hound's voice was monotone and matter of fact.

"Mirabelle told you."

Suddenly sure this was a sore topic of conversation, Sansa silently nodded her head and bit her lip.

"Well, isn't Mirabelle just an oracle of information."

Much to her relief, the Hound chuckled as he brought his cocktail glass to his lips. Slowly he pulled on his drink before setting the glass on the table.

"Yes, Mirabelle and I have a brother."

"Is he here?"

With his jaw clenched, the Hound's mouth began to twitch as his eyes darkened at her question.

"If he were here, you'd know."

Sansa didn't know what to say, how she could possibly respond as his body became rigid and his face glazed with a brooding stillness. Instead, she sat quietly, keeping her mouth shut lest she ask the wrong question again or say something that triggered the fury she saw stirring in him. Sighing deeply, the Hound began to speak, his voice like gravel, a low rasp as he stared off into his whiskey glass.

"If you ask my men how I got my scars, you'll get about a dozen or so different answers depending on who you ask. Some will tell you it was an initiation ritual gone awry. Others will tell you I did it to myself to prove my dedication to the organization. I've even heard some say that it was an acid attack.

When I was eight, Gregor was thirteen and by then nearly six feet tall. Mirabelle is the youngest, she was six. Even then, she was a feisty little thing; curious too and always getting into stuff. But she was afraid of Gregor, we all were. One night, she got into Gregor's room. She wanted something he had, a toy I think. I forget exactly what it was, but by then, he wasn't interested in toys. He was already getting into alcohol, fighting, and girls. She thought Gregor was gone for the evening, but sure enough, he came home and found Mirabelle going through his room. It didn't matter that she was six, half his height and a quarter his weight. He went after her anyway. I heard her screaming and crying and ran up the stairs right as Gregor threw her into the wall. I shouted at him to stop, but he just kept going after her. He had a baseball bat next to his bed so I grabbed it. I knew that after one swing, he'd be coming after me instead of her so I had to make that one swing count. With as much power as an eight year old could manage, I swung at Gregor. I hit him behind the knees. I had seen that in a movie once and it seemed like as good a place as any to hit him. It got Gregor off of Mirabelle, but sure enough he came after me.

I ran down the stairs and outside. I don't know where I was running to. We lived near some woods so maybe that's where I was heading. Either way I ran, but Gregor caught up to me. He snatched the bat from my hands and swung with everything he had. He hit me in the stomach, knocked the wind out of me and broke some ribs. It was fall and our father was burning leaves. Once I was on the ground, Gregor dragged me to a leaf pile that was still burning hot, and shoved my face into the flames. It took two full grown men, my Dad and one of our neighbors, to pull Gregor off of me. He had burned half of my face and broke Mirabelle's arm. It didn't matter though. They were all scared of him. There was nothing anyone could do."

Sansa sat dumbfounded as the Hound, such a fearsome man, seemingly opened himself up to her, revealing a piece of his past, a painful one at that. She hadn't expected him to, but he did. And as the hatred gleamed in his eyes, she finally understood something of him. Her fear had melted away and in its void she found that she pitied him and Mirabelle. Slowly and hesitantly, Sansa extended her arm and laid her hand delicately on his forearm, a reassuring gesture meant to calm the rage she felt was rising in him.

"He's a monster."

To her bewilderment, the Hound chuckled lightly, his eyes settling on her gently.

"That he is, Little Bird. That he is."

With that the Hound pushed himself from the table, pulling his arm away from her and swaying slightly with a flush of intoxication as he downed the rest of his drink. As he circled the table, he came to stand next to Sansa, placing his hand under her chin and lifting her stare up to his.

"We're leaving tomorrow. I have some business to take care of in Vegas and you need to learn a thing or two about how things work around here. Be ready by noon, dress nice, and don't make me fucking wait."

Without another word, the Hound sulked from the room, his form disappearing in the darkness beyond the dining room. For many silent moments Sansa remained where she was, letting her eyes roam the room around her as the house became quiet as a crypt.

'Oh my dear Alice. You've fallen down the rabbit hole.' Sansa could almost hear Myranda's voice in her ears, the playful chiding masking dark words. Looking around the room once more and contemplating the soup spilled across the table, Sansa pushed herself to her feet.

Down the rabbit hole indeed.

Chapter Text

 Gods and Monsters

Chapter Four

4


2:17 am

A beacon of restlessness. The numbers were glowing red embers through the darkness of the room. The little colon separating 2 from 1 flashing annoyingly as Sansa tossed to her right side and pulled the covers over her head.

The sheets were itchy and stiff, as if they had been cleaned, starched, and tightly tucked around the lumpy mattress on which she was sleeping. Who the hell starches their sheets?

The thought elicited a tiny exhaled giggle. For much of the evening, she hadn't known whether to laugh or to cry. Or perhaps laugh until she cried or maybe cry until she laughed. She had oscillated between the two; her frustrated and fearful tears subsiding to an eerie calm until the pendulum swung wildly to the other side and she could do nothing more than bitterly laugh away her uncertain thoughts and the fretful rummaging through the mental Rolodex of 'What ifs.'

What if Podrick's family never found out what happened to him? What if her mother was still alive, laid up in a hospital somewhere? What if her father was still looking for her? What if he was hurt? And what if the Hound meant what he said, that she wasn't going home?

After her dinner, or rather non-dinner, with the Hound, Mirabelle had retrieved Sansa from the dining room. The woman had garbed herself in yoga pants and a T-shirt for bed. Having removed all of her make-up and having pulled her long hair up into a messy pony tail, she looked different to Sansa. Still beautiful, but different; like a little girl and all that comes with being young- uncertainty, insecurity, simplicity. Her stormy grey eyes had widened to the size of saucers when she spotted the smearing of ham and pea soup across the elaborate cherry inlay of the mahogany dining room table. Sansa had mused over how it must have looked; a bowl still balanced on its side, soup adhering to the wood as it slowly dried, and next to it all an empty cocktail glass with condensing water bleeding out onto the table. Like a child throwing a drunken, whiskey-induced tantrum then sulking off to pout or drink or do God knows what.

Mirabelle had not inquired about the spilled soup nor did she press for details of Sansa's dinner with the Hound. Instead, she quietly floated into the room with a half smile creased about tightly pursed lips and motioned Sansa from her seat before leading her back up the stairs in a reserved silence. The woman understood what had transpired, Sansa sensed, which rendered questions useless. Mirabelle seemed to have a grasp on her brother's demeanor. After all, she herself shared some of the Hound's ferocity. But while her fury manifested in bursts of agitated anger when provoked, the Hound's was a seething kind of anger, slow burning and smoldering and above all else dangerous.

Walking down the upstairs hall, Sansa had reached out to touch the wall and guided herself along as she followed Mirabelle who effortlessly meandered through the darkness, shifting every now and then to avoid a decorative chair or small hall table. Having walked right into one of those small tables, Sansa began mimicking Mirabelle's movements, side stepping to the left or right as required. For having told Sansa this was a temporary home, the woman seemed to know her way around well enough. Hell, even Sansa knew which door led to Mirabelle's room, but as they eased past it, she had nervously sucked in her breath.

She had assumed she would sleep in Mirabelle's room, the only room of the house she felt somewhat comfortable in. Not that she was about to kick off her shoes and make herself at home, but Mirabelle's room had provided a temporary retreat from all the horrors Sansa had endured. The comfort was meager, but it was something at least. As they headed towards the end of the hall and away from what little light had spilled from the foyer to the hallway above, Sansa froze in her tracks, suddenly terrified at what was housed in the darkness.

The Hound had told her next to nothing about why he refused to let her go home and why she was even here in the first place. He had told her that he wasn't going to ransom her. With that knowledge, Sansa had released some of the tension in her body until it dawned on her. If he's not ransoming me, then what does he want? He wasn't looking for money, which meant there were less than a handful of things he could want from her and each of them were more petrifying than the last.

Standing at the end of the hallway in a strange house with a woman she barely knew, Sansa had succumb to her fear, feeling it's icy grip squeeze about her throat and churn violently in her stomach. Yet again she was being led to a room which held some mysterious fate on the other side of a closed door. Perhaps it was the Hound's room and perhaps he meant to rape her. She hadn't let her mind perseverate on that conclusion, but it had lingered in the back of her head the entire night. She didn't want to acknowledge that possibility, to manifest it by just thinking about it. So instead, she had buried it away and pretended it wasn't there, but she wasn't stupid, no more than she was blind. She had seen the way he contemplated her, the way his eyes gleamed with a sort of desire when he looked at her. No, watched her.

Sansa had kissed a boy once or maybe twice, but definitely no more than that. Myranda had laughed at her and joked that all the boys knew Sansa Stark would never put out, not until a ring was put on her finger and a Mrs. was put in front of her name. At the time it had hurt Sansa's feelings. She couldn't understand why on earth she'd be ostracized for not being a slut. Besides, she had resigned herself to be in love before she lost her virginity and she certainly couldn't imagine ever being in love with the dipshit boys she went to school with. College would be better, she had told herself. She'd find a guy that was intelligent, kind, funny, and handsome and she'd fall in love with him. And then she would let him be the one to take her virginity. But the Hound forcing himself on her and taking her every which way he pleased terrified her more than she could have ever imagined.

When Mirabelle had reached the end of the hallway and turned back, Sansa could see the look of agitation and exasperation on the woman's face as she made her way back towards Sansa. She looked tired and beyond that she looked as though something was eating away at her, nagging at her conscious and gnawing on her intuition. With a terse slew of half-assed reassurances, Mirabelle had shuffled Sansa into a room at the end of the hall, flicking on the lights and jokingly asking Sansa if she wanted her to look for monsters under the bed. At that Sansa had laughed a little before wishing Mirabelle goodnight.

Laughing felt strange, she had decided. As though she was indulging in something she shouldn't, something entirely forbidden. Yet she reminded herself she didn't laugh because she was happy. No, she laughed because if she didn't, she might lose herself to sadness and fear. And that was not a rabbit hole she wanted to fall down.

Peeling off the sheets from over her head, she imagined some poor soul dousing them in half a can of spray starch and ironing them to immaculate perfection. Sansa smiled and once more offered up an exhaled breath of laughter to the darkness that crept through the room.

2:29 am

Turning over her left shoulder, Sansa sought out those three little numbers as she wished away the time and pondered on its fickleness. 'How is it,' she thought curiously to herself, 'that time zooms by when you want it to the least, but crawls to a halt when you're dreading something?'

She had dreaded the evening, but found she dreaded the morning much more. The Hound had told her to be ready by noon, to dress nice, and to not make him wait. If there was one thing she knew about him, it was that he did not appreciate waiting on people. Sansa had no idea, absolutely none, why the Hound needed to take her with him on his little business adventure to Las Vegas. Beyond being a mob boss, she didn't know what kind of business he might be in, but with Las Vegas being the City of Sin she imagined he must have no problem finding business there.

After Mirabelle had left her, Sansa flipped the lock on the door handle, ensuring that if anyone wanted to enter the room she would at least hear them first. Frantically, she had paced about, chewing on her fingernail and nervously biting her lip. She felt like a bird in a cage; a canary perhaps, waiting to be dropped down a mine shaft to an asphyxiating doom.

Her body was sore, as much from running and being thrown around as it was from the tension she had held in her muscles. She had hardly slept in the past 24 hours and knew that she needed sleep badly. However, sleep had not come even after she threw herself to the bed and sobbed into the pillow. If she couldn't even cry herself into sleep, she doubted she would get much rest for the night. But she didn't want to be awake because that meant reliving the nightmare over and over and over in her head.

The digital clock radio at the side of the bed had taunted her all night; glaring out at her with screaming red numbers reminding her that time was indeed still easing on by and with each second she was ushered closer to yet another unknown destiny awaiting her at noon.

2:32 am

Sansa shot up from the bed and pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers, desperately driving out the irritation and worry from her mind. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed and rubbing the blurriness from her eyes, Sansa flashed an agitated glance at the clock radio as its colon-for-eyes blinked flatly at her.

With a huff she slid from the bed and crouched to the floor, seeking out the cord to the radio as she pushed her hands underneath the night stand. When her fingers grazed the plastic of the cord, Sansa gave a hard yank and felt a gratified smile cross her lips as the red glow was extinguished and the room darkened ever so slightly.

Before she could push herself up from the floor, the sound of muffled voices swept into the room from somewhere downstairs. Slowly, Sansa let her body lower to the floor as she pressed her ear against the carpet and steadied her breaths.

The low grumbling timbre of a man's voice permeated through floor boards and carpet to meet Sansa's ear. By now, his deep and commanding voice was unmistakable to her. She strained to hear the other voice and although she couldn't make out any words, the low tones implied it was another man's voice. With a sudden flush of curiosity, Sansa pulled her head from the floor and pressed her hands against the carpet as she pushed herself up on all fours.

The voices had melted back into the darkness as Sansa took slow steps towards the bedroom door. As she pressed her ear against the door, the sounds reemerged and the Hound's voice was now laced with a vehement fierceness. However, the words were still incoherent mumbles. A nagging from within chided Sansa and urged her to crawl back into the bed and forget that the Hound was somewhere downstairs raging passionately about something.

But Sansa knew herself well enough to know that the curiosity would gnaw at her until she couldn't take it anymore and she'd end up right back where she was, pressing her ear against the bedroom door to listen.

Pulling in a deep breath, Sansa steadied her hand and wrapped her fingers around the door handle, turning it slowly until she heard the locking mechanism click and felt the door creep open. The crispness of the voices rushed to her ears as she pulled the door open a few inches and allowed her head to hover in the open space.

Angry footsteps pounded against the hardwood floor below, the walls shaking slightly with each heavy footfall. Sansa pieced together an image in her head from the sounds; the Hound pacing furiously about, hands clenched tightly by his side and his mouth set in a scowl as he seethed his rage. Sansa felt for whoever was on the receiving end of his tirade, the poor soul who had to endure his anger. She certainly did not envy them. With anticipation fueling her quickened breaths, Sansa waited and listened, but heard nothing more as the Hound's footfalls receded to silence. As she pulled her head from the crevice of space made by the open door and prepared herself to tiptoe back to bed, Sansa heard the Hound's voice once more, his tone had calmed to a low rasp tinged with something akin to guilt.

"Leon was a mistake, a misstep on my part. I already fucking know that. He wasn't supposed to hurt the Payne boy or Sansa for that matter. If I had known, do you honestly think I would have sent him after her? What was I supposed to do? Leon's a tracker, it's what he was good at. And I needed to get her here and fast. Tell me old man, how was I supposed to do that?"

Bringing a trembling hand up her mouth, Sansa stifled an audible gasp. Her name on his lips felt like an electric shock jolting through her body. Beyond that, his words were inconceivable to her. Podrick was never supposed to die. It wasn't supposed to happen that way. Doubling over, she felt like she might puke as the acidity hit the back of her throat and the Hound's words hit her like a ton of bricks straight to the stomach. Her mind flashed with the images of Pod sprawled across the motel parking lot, choking on his own blood and the light slowly leaving his eyes. Sansa did her best to quell her winded sobs. Over her inhaled breaths, she heard the Hound's voice once more, growing louder as he moved towards the staircase in the foyer.

"You have no answers I see. Well then, I'm going to bed."

With panic startling her from her sorrow, Sansa quietly shut the door and retreated back to the bed, pulling the covers tight over her head. I hate him. I hate him for what he did to Pod, even if it was a mistake.

A steady stream of silent tears spilled over Sansa's cheeks as she recanted in her mind all the reasons she hated the Hound. He had brought her here deliberately and with a purpose, sending Leon after her which ultimately resulted in Pod's death. With each of his footsteps coming down the hall, Sansa remembered one more reason why she hated him and blinked away the tears that wouldn't stop coming. From outside her door, she heard him fumble with a doorknob across the hall and after a few moments heard the door slam shut.

Suddenly remembering that she had foolishly forgotten to lock the door, Sansa half expected him to come into her room and was fully expecting to hate him for that reason along with the many others she had enumerated in her brain.

But he hadn't tried to come in. He hadn't even stopped at her door. Instead, he went into his own room to probably toss and turn the night away as she had. Although she had one less reason to hate him, it made no matter to her as the tears continued to fall from her eyes until they eventually lulled her into a sound sleep.

When the light of the morning sun warmed the back of her eyelids, illuminating the darkness behind her eyes with orange and red hues, Sansa felt as though she was being roused from an eternal rest, like Snow White waking up in a fucked up version of Wonderland, as if Wonderland wasn't fucked up enough as it was. Pivoting on the precipice of being awake and asleep, she had for a fleeting moment thought she was back home, tucked warmly in her own bed. As her eyes squinted against the glaring light filtering through linen drapes, Sansa remembered with a start that she was indeed still down the rabbit hole.

Rolling over to her left, a soft smile crept across her lips as she remembered her conquest of the digital clock radio and how she had vanquished the glowing red numbers with a tug on the cord. If only it had been that easy to stop the ticking of time. Just give a little tug and the world stops spinning, time stands still.

The clock had gone dark, but the sun had come up anyway and blinking away the remnants of her rest, she had no idea how long she had slept nor did she know what time it was. It didn't matter what time it was anyway. It's not like she had anywhere to be. It's not like she had to show up for work, or get to class, or help her mom with the Sunday morning grocery shopping.

'Be ready by noon, dress nice, and don't make me fucking wait.'

But then there was that. His words still pulsed through her head, audibly neon and everything, from tone to timbre, thick in her ears as if he were speaking them aloud next to her. He had said that she needed to learn how things worked around "here." Whatever the hell that meant. She didn't care how things worked in his world. She wanted to be back home in her own bed, in her own clothes, with her own family.

With a groan, Sansa pulled the covers over her head and willingly allowed the wistful thoughts to meander into her head. Maybe I slept past noon. Maybe it's well into the afternoon. Maybe he left without me.

Her musings were abruptly interrupted as the bedroom door softly squeaked on its hinges. From beneath the covers, Sansa's could hear her own heartbeat loud in her ears and felt like a child, desperately hoping a mere blanket might armor her against whatever monster was working its way towards her.

As they approached the bed, she could feel whoever it was standing over her and hear as they exhaled a hesitant breath.

"Sansa?"

The voice that met her ears was blessedly soft, feminine, and familiar to her. Tossing the covers off of her, Sansa glimpsed Mirabelle standing over her with her hands folded in front of her. The woman eased herself to the edge of the bed and sat down, leaning her weight on one elbow, her shined and straightened hair cascading over her arm as she considered Sansa with amusement in her eyes.

"So you are awake. Were you hiding or something?" A soft smile tugged at the corner's of Mirabelle's glossed lips. Sansa could smell the sweetness of her perfume mingling with the faint scent of shampoo in her hair. It appeared as though Mirabelle had been up for awhile, at least long enough to ready herself for the day.

As a look of concern flashed through Mirabelle's eyes, Sansa suddenly felt a tug of guilt at her center, clearly discerning the worry that had settled heavily on the woman's face and perhaps a trace of hurt; hurt that Sansa might have been hiding from her.

"No. I just…it's bright in here," she lied, sweeping her eyes towards the sunlight streaming in through the windows and pushing herself up to a seated position. Not that it mattered, but Sansa didn't want Mirabelle to know that for a split second she had been petrified that the Hound was coming to rouse her, that underneath the blanket her heart pounded and the hair on her arms stood on end. 'To fear something is to give it power.' Her father had once told her that when she was a little girl, sitting on the side of a pool at the YMCA and crying her eyes out because she didn't want to learn how to swim. She didn't need to, she had told him in desperate pleas. He had begged to differ. All the other children took to the water like they were born with fins. It had been just her and another little boy who would cry like the world was coming to an end every time they had to go into the water. Eventually, her father relented and pulled her out of swim lessons, deciding to teach her on his own. Her first lesson was how to conquer fear. 'Fear can swallow us whole, but only if we let it. Keep a level head when you are afraid and don't give in to the fear.'

In all her years, Sansa never imagined that the advice she had been given when she was six, advice on how to conquer the fear of swimming without floaties, would be needed in a situation like this. Resolved to at least feign fearlessness, Sansa threw the covers off of her legs and scooted to the edge of the bed and next to Mirabelle.

"What time is it?," she softly inquired as she mentally willed the time to be well past noon and for Mirabelle to tell her that she had overslept and that the Hound had had a sudden epiphany that he could go about his business without Sansa. It was a pipedream, but she held onto it nonetheless, riding it out as long as she could before it was ripped away from her.

"About 10, a little after maybe. I wanted to let you sleep, but we should probably get you up and ready. My brother wants to leave at noon."

And just like that, Mirabelle had unwittingly flushed Sansa from her pipedream to be dumped on her ass in reality. There was no getting it out of it; she was going to Las Vegas with the Hound to do whatever it was he needed to do. Swallowing hard and exhaling a defeated breath, Sansa reluctantly slid from the bed and followed Mirabelle out of the room.

As they stepped into the hall, Mirabelle pointed to the door across from them and silently mouthed her words, animatedly contorting her lips to exaggerate each syllable. "He's still sleeping." Sansa heard her loud and clear despite the lack of audible words. As Mirabelle took her by the hand and they tiptoed down the hallway, Sansa felt like she was playing "Don't Wake Daddy," a ridiculous board game from her childhood that she had been terrible at. Somehow she always woke Daddy and lost. Only now, it was "Don't Wake the Hound" and she didn't want to know what the consequences were for losing.

Once they reached Mirabelle's room and were safely sheltered behind the door, the Hound's sister erupted into laughter, gasping for breaths between giggles and breathlessly working to get her words out.

"I'm sorry. God! I don't know why that was so funny!"

Sansa couldn't help, but laugh along with Mirabelle or rather laugh at the sight of Mirabelle clutching her side with tears rolling down her cheeks as she erupted in another wave of giggles. Sansa was surprised to find that beneath Mirabelle's hardened exterior and my-way-or-the-highway attitude there was a girl not unlike herself; warm and giddy and gleefully giggling along with Sansa as if they were close girlfriends sharing a hilarious secret.

"Does he get mad when he's woken up?," Sansa interjected as she followed Mirabelle to the bathroom, letting her laughter recede to a nervous chuckle as if she had missed some sort of inside joke.

Dabbing at the tears forming on the corners of her eyes, Mirabelle inhaled a deep breath to steady her voice as she pulled out towels from a small linen closet tucked in the corner of the bathroom.

"He's usually up before everyone else," she offered, shrugging her shoulders as she handed Sansa a wash cloth and bath towel. For a moment, Mirabelle said no more, but Sansa saw as her face turned to a mask of solemnity. Suddenly, the woman who was only moments earlier overcome with fits of girlish laughter had now let her eyes fall to the floor as her brow knitted in worry. Once again her exterior hardened to an impenetrable facade.

"Last night was really rough for him," Mirabelle whispered, her voice strained as she folded her arms tightly across her chest and her eyes still steady at some invisible point on the floor.

Sansa worked to contain her own laughter, but hers, unlike Mirabelle's, was not merry laughter. Rather she snorted an exhaled breath of derisive bitterness as she silently shook her head. Rough for him? He's not the one who's been kidnapped.

Careening from the shadows of her memory, Sansa abruptly remembered the conversation she had overheard in the dead of the night. While the rest of the world was adrift in slumber, the Hound had been pacing furiously about as he offered an angry and remorseful confession to the darkness, to Sansa. He had not meant to have Podrick harmed, no more than he meant to harm Sansa. None of it made sense to her. If the Hound didn't want to hurt her and if he didn't want to ransom her, then what the hell did he want and why was she here?

Before Sansa could gently confess and inquire about what she had overheard, Mirabelle quickly changed the subject and feigned a bright smile with disquiet still clouding her eyes.

"When you're finished showering, find whatever you want to wear from my closet. I had your clothes washed last night and they're on my bed if you want to wear those. I'll come up when you're finished dressing."

Sansa gave a soft nod of the head and watched as Mirabelle retreated from the bathroom, shutting the door behind her without so much as a backwards glance at Sansa.

She had taken a shower the previous evening, a painful experience as the water lashed about her skin and as the memories of home caravanned through her unsettled mind. Stepping into the shower, the water still stung against the healing scrapes and scratches strewn about her legs and arms, but Sansa welcomed the warmth against her body, as if she was in an oddly comforting embrace. Normally, the shower was where Sansa did her best thinking. Standing beneath the shower head, Sansa Stark could solve the world's problems as the water rushed over her skin and soap suds enrobed her body. In the shower, Sansa was a problem-solver, a free thinker, a savvy, cosmopolitan mind that pondered thoughtfully on everything from fashion to politics; that is until she stepped from the tub. All the brilliant solutions and clever thoughts would suddenly flee from her as she wrapped herself in a towel and began going about her day.

Standing beneath Mirabelle's showerhead, Sansa suddenly felt as if she was damming her thoughts, barricading them from her mind lest they all rush to the forefront faster than she could handle them. There was too much to think about, too much to ponder, too much to perseverate on. She didn't want to face them, not now at least. So instead, she let herself become lulled to a dreamy daze as she relished the warm water against her skin and lingeringly let the soap bubbles encase her body.

When she was finished, Sansa toweled off the droplets dotting her skin and stepped from the claw-foot tub. As with the previous night's bathing, the mirror had fogged over, leaving her appearance a mystery, for better or for worse. She had looked like hell last night. She hadn't even needed to really look in a mirror to know that. Swiping her hand over the mirror in a circular motion, Sansa cleared away the fog and lifted her eyes to the reflection. The face looking back at her looked much more like her own. The gash about her cheek was beginning to scab over, the skin around the scab a pinkish-red as the wound was healing. Her eyes shone radiantly, the dullness from crying seemingly lifted as the color glimmered a bright blue. However, she somehow looked older; as if some of her innocence had been extracted, leaving her less naïve and more world-wary. Pondering her own reflection, Sansa realized she looked less of a girl and more of a woman.

Pulling herself away from the mirror, Sansa made her way into Mirabelle's bed room and towards the clothes that had been laid out on the bed for her. True to her word, Mirabelle had indeed had Sansa's clothes laundered. Picking up the white dress Myranda had let her borrow, Sansa let the fabric unfold as her eyes settled on the blood stains still smattered about the dress. She doubted those would ever come out, but she also doubted she would ever want to wear this dress again. Why would she? She had worn it through unspeakable tragedy, the night her life changed forever. No, she would rather see it burned to ashes than ever wear it again. Tossing the accursed dress aside, Sansa found her bra and underwear had been tucked underneath.

Funny how she had come to take something like underwear for granted. Sansa's mind wandered to the previous night when the Hound had slowly raked up her skirt and how she had wholly thought he wouldn't stop. But he had stopped and beyond that, he had seemed genuinely concerned about the bruises he left on the tops of her thighs. Still, she didn't wish to go commando any longer and gratefully pulled on her undergarments before pacing tentatively towards Mirabelle's closet. Truly, the woman had more clothes than anyone she had ever known, including Myranda. And they were nice clothes too; cotton, satin, silk. Not the cheap, synthetic blend fabrics that wore like a second skin.

Thumbing through the neatly hung clothes, Sansa spotted a tuft of blue fabric tucked between two sequence-embellished cocktail dresses. Carefully, she pushed aside the other dresses and found the hanger belonging to the blue dress. The color was gorgeous; a deep periwinkle that she imagined would compliment her auburn hair and porcelain skin quite well. Sansa stepped into the dress and pulled it onto her body. The skirt of the dress was softly pleated and fell right above the knees. Starting at the waist, thick bands of fabric made up the sleeveless, strapped top. Stepping in front of a mirror, Sansa fell in love with the color and the fit of the dress; it beautifully and tastefully elongated her legs and accentuated her slim waist. Unlike Myranda's dress, Sansa found she actually felt comfortable wearing this dress. She felt…well…pretty.

Apparently, Mirabelle agreed too. The Hound's sister floated into the room, cooing over Sansa's choice of dress with a million-watt grin sweeping over her face.

"I love this on you. You look gorgeous," Mirabelle gushed as she ran her fingers over Sansa's damp hair. "Let me do your hair and make-up. Please! I have been dying to!"

Sansa couldn't help but smile as Mirabelle's face seemed to light up, gleefully urging Sansa to accept her offer.

Technically, he only said to dress nice. He never said anything about having my hair and make-up done. Although she imagined a man like the Hound probably didn't know to specify that. To him, dress nice probably meant to look nice all around. Regardless, she wasn't used to wearing much make-up; her father flipped anytime Myranda would do her make-up. She couldn't really blame him though. From head to toe, Myranda's sense of style was something akin to that of a high-class escort.

Relenting, Sansa coyly nodded her head and let out a breathy giggle as Mirabelle bounced on her feet and led Sansa into the bathroom. Seating her at the vanity and in front of the mirror, Mirabelle set in immediately, pulling a paddled brush through Sansa's long auburn tresses as she ran a blow-dryer over her hair. Sansa let her eyes flutter softly as the Hound's sister worked gently and deftly, alternating between brush and blow-dryer until Sansa's hair was dry. Waiting as a straightener warmed up to temperature, Mirabelle sprayed product into Sansa's hair, lifting sections to maintain even application. Biting her lip, Sansa desperately wanted to tell Mirabelle about what she had overheard the night before and to file through, one by one, all the questions that were piling up in her mind.

"He told me about his scars, about what your brother did to him." Sansa hesitantly lifted her eyes to the mirror, searching out Mirabelle's reaction. Although it wasn't the confession she had in mind, it was a reasonable starting place.

Lifting the straightener from Sansa's head, Mirabelle let a section of Sansa's hair fall back into place as she stared into the mirror, her mouth slightly parted in a gape of bewilderment.

"He told you about that?" The woman's voice quivered slightly, something between shock and amazement.

Sansa silently nodded her head. She hadn't expected that. From what the Hound had told her, Sansa gathered that his men speculated about the origin of his scars. She hadn't known that he had kept it a secret from almost everyone surrounding him. With this knowledge in mind, Sansa found herself just as bewildered as Mirabelle. Of all the people to open up to, he had opened up to her, revealing a well-guarded secret of his past. Sansa didn't know whether to feel flattered or confused. She settled for confused and apparently Mirabelle mimicked that sentiment.

"Hmm. He rarely tells anyone. I think I'm one of two people that know. Well, three now, including you."

Mirabelle shook her head and sighed, retrieving a lock of Sansa's hair as she set back into her task. For long moments, Mirabelle remained quiet as she worked the straightener through Sansa's hair. While no words were spoken, Sansa knew that Mirabelle was lost somewhere in her own thoughts; the turmoil and restlessness were written all over the woman's face. When finished with Sansa's hair, Mirabelle pulled open a make-up drawer and began applying a series of creams to Sansa's face; first a moisturizer, then a primer, and finally ivory colored foundation.

Sansa closed her eyes as Mirabelle worked, feeling the slight pressure of the woman's fingertips against her face as Mirabelle smoothed the products over her skin in methodical circular motions. Even with her eyes squeezed shut, Sansa could sense Mirabelle was holding onto something as the tension began filling the room.

"Gregor is five years older than Sandor," Mirabelle began as she shuffled through her make-up drawer for concealer, powder, and a brush.

Sansa's eyes snapped open and caught Mirabelle's reflection in the mirror.

"Sandor?," she inquired with quiet pensiveness. His name exited her lips questioningly even though she surmised that that was the Hound's name.

"The Hound, my brother. His name is Sandor." Mirabelle's lips crept into a smile as she dabbed concealer underneath Sansa's eyes and over the edges of the healing gash about her cheek.

"I called him Sandy growing up. Sometimes I still do, just to see him get pissed. Now that never leaves this room. He would kill me if he knew I told you that," Mirabelle urged playfully as she caught Sansa's eyes with her own and chuckled softly.

"Your secret is safe with me." Sansa smiled up at Mirabelle, crossing her heart with her index finger in a girlish gesture to emphasize her sincerity.

Dusting powder over Sansa's freshly dried foundation and concealer, Mirabelle began again, talking as she worked, here and there rummaging through her make-up drawer and pulling out items as she needed them.

"Gregor is five years older than Sandor who is two years older than me. If you think Sandor is tall, Gregor is even taller, a beast really. By the time he was eight, Gregor was the same size as our mother. You see, we take after our father, he was really tall. My mom was a petite woman. Well, if Gregor didn't get his way, he figured out real quick that all he had to do was beat the shit out of our mom. There was nothing she could do about it. Even my father couldn't discipline Gregor no matter how hard he tried.

They took Gregor to behavioral therapists, I think they called them. They were some sort of specialized psychiatrist. He was put on meds, evaluated by every goddamn doctor you could think of, put through intensive counseling, the whole nine yards. My parents tried everything and nothing worked. When I was eight, my mother passed away unexpectedly. I always thought, and I still do, that the poor woman died of a broken heart. The whole ordeal with Gregor tore her to pieces. Not being able to protect Sandor and I tore her to pieces even worse. I just think eventually she couldn't take it anymore and gave up the fight.

After she died, my father was never the same. And Gregor just spiraled deeper into whatever it is that afflicts him. Sandor and I clung to each other. He was my protector and still is in a lot of ways. The occasions where I managed to piss Gregor off, it was Sandor who would intervene, take the blows that were meant for me. And that's what happened the night Sandor got his scars."

Sansa nodded her head, remembering the story Sandor had told her the night before and noticing that the pained expression on Mirabelle's face matched the pain she had seen gleaming behind the Hound's eyes. Sweeping a mascara wand through Sansa's curled lashes, Mirabelle continued working, but Sansa had noticed her fingers were now trembling ever so slightly.

"We grew up on the western edge of the Sacramento valley in an itty bitty town. Our house backed up to some woods so whenever things got bad with Gregor, which was almost always, Sandor and I would trek it the woods behind our house. We had found this little area tucked away and knew by heart how to get there. While Gregor would be having one of his fits, Sandor would take me by the hand and we'd slip away, hide out in our little forest retreat.

One night Gregor was having it out with our Dad. I was about eleven, Gregor was eighteen and Sandor was thirteen, almost fourteen. Anyway, my Dad was furious with Gregor. I forget exactly what Gregor did, but it was his typical shit; drugs, alcohol, getting into fights. I remember they were in the living room. Sandor and I were in the kitchen. I kid you not, it sounded like World War III was breaking out in our living room; glass breaking, furniture being knocked over, screaming and yelling. My father was a big man, but by the time he was eighteen, Gregor was even bigger than him and a complete nightmare by then. I ran into the living room and I saw Gregor on top of our father, just wailing on him. I just remember looking at him, you know? It was the look on our father's face. I had never seen him scared before, but with Gregor there on top of him, delivering blow after blow, it was like he knew what was coming. Sandor pulled me away and I remember running towards the woods. 'Run, Mirabelle. Run and don't look back,' he kept saying. And so I ran and ran, not looking back because I was scared Gregor was right behind us.

It was pitch dark out and cold, but we ran like hell. And we made it to our little hide out and huddled together. Sandor held me there while I cried my eyes out. I've never been so terrified in my life. I was almost certain that Gregor was coming for us. I still have nightmares of that night in the woods. God! It gives me chills just talking about it. After what felt like a fucking eternity, the sun finally came up. Sandor and I waited. And we waited. And then waited some more. After being in the woods for an entire night and half of a day, we decided to go back. When we got back home, Gregor was gone. He fled from the house and I haven't seen him since. And my dad."

Sansa opened her eyes as Mirabelle let her hands fall to her sides and her voice trailed off. As tears glistened in the corners of her eyes, Mirabelle let a compact of blush tumble from one hand to the other, avoiding Sansa's astounded stare. Quietly, she began again, her words quivering from her lips.

"My dad was gone too. He was lying on the living room floor, his eyes were open, but he was gone."

Sansa silently let her mouth fall open, but hadn't the words to say. Nothing she could come up with, no words of comfort seemed quite adequate in this moment as Mirabelle sucked in a breath and released it in a sorrowful sigh. Swiveling in her seat, Sansa turned towards Mirabelle, intently searching out Mirabelle's eyes with her voice softly pleading.

"I'm so sorry, Mirabelle. I had no idea. What did you do after? Where did you and Sandor go?"

Giving a soft smile, Mirabelle swiped at the tears that had fallen from her eyes and tilted Sansa's face back towards her before setting resolutely into her work once more. Sweeping blush across Sansa's high cheekbones, Mirabelle cleared her throat and continued, her voice darkening slightly.

"We didn't have any extended family, at least not any that we knew of. We just left. Sandor has always been street smart, you know? He just gets it. He understands how the world works, good and bad. He knew that if we called the police, they would just stick us with some relative we didn't know. Or worse, we'd get put into the system, probably separated and placed in foster homes until we turned eighteen. So we ran, but we didn't get very far. Everyone in our neighborhood had been looking for us after they found out what happened. Eventually one of our neighbors spotted us as we were trying to get a bus out of town. They brought us into the police station and we told them what happened with Gregor and they assured us they would find him, that he'd answer for what he did to our father. Sure as shit, we were put in the system, but to both of our surprise, a family agreed to foster us, both of us."

"That was good, right? If you had been placed in separate foster homes, that would have been worse," Sansa interjected, but somehow felt there was more to it as Mirabelle seemed to tense and she set in again, her voice laced with angry bitterness.

"We were in the same home. That much I was grateful for, but beyond that, no it wasn't good. It was a rich politician prick and his lush of a wife that fostered us. From the outside, they seemed a perfect family; lived in a big, nice house, drove fancy cars, had two teenage kids of their own. The whole shebang, just living the American dream. Then they decided to foster Sandor and I. It looked good for his campaign, you know? Fostering orphan children.

Yeah, the perfect little family. Behind closed doors, their kids, my foster siblings, fucking hated their parents. The boy snorted cocaine and drank himself into oblivion with his rich little friends and the girl spread her legs for every guy that paid her any attention, including some of Daddy's wealthy cohorts. And the wife was a drunk, downing a bottle and a half of wine every night before passing out cold on the couch.

And then there was him, the wholesome, family man politician who loved his wife and kids, even his foster kids. When I was fifteen, he started coming into my room at night. It started out innocent enough; wanting to talk about school, giving me expensive gifts, confiding in me how much he hated his work life and his wife's drinking problem. That led to kissing, which led to touching and you can imagine where it goes from there.

From the day he set foot in that house, Sandor hated that entire family, every single one of them. He especially hated our foster 'father.' The two butted heads all the time. Sandor wanted us to run away, to leave and set off on our own like we were supposed to in the first place. He knew though that we would eventually be found. There was nothing he could do. The only reason Sandor stayed was because of me. He was constantly getting into trouble at school; that is, when he actually showed up at school. He never cared much for it anyway so I guess it didn't really matter at the end of the day. Eventually, our foster family kicked him out of their house. He was 17 at that time and had dropped out of school anyway. He wanted to take me with him, but I was too afraid so I stayed. He made it a point to keep an eye on me still. He'd see me after school and on the weekends. He never let me out of his sight. At the time, I didn't know where he was staying or what he was doing, but he was here, establishing himself with this organization.

When Sandor found out about what my foster father was doing, he lost it and stole me away, brought me here. And this is where I've been ever since."

With that, Mirabelle turned away from Sansa and began carefully putting her make-up back in the drawer. Once more, Sansa was at a loss for words. She had grown up with loving parents in a safe home. She had lived a comfortable life with people who cared about her. She could scarcely imagine enduring all that Mirabelle and Sandor had endured. And then the realization hit Sansa with as much force as a Mack truck. Sansa was indeed enduring some of what Mirabelle and her brother had had to live through. She too had lost her mother more than likely. And the fate of her father was still a mystery to her. For all she knew, he could be in danger or worse. He could be dead. The Hound had a folder chocked full of information about her family, from birth certificates to admission records to notes on the Moriarti case. For a man who had lost both of his parents to a monster, why then was the Hound condemning her to the same fate? It seemed unspeakably cruel and heartless to her that he would make her suffer as he suffered. The thought simultaneously infuriated and confused her. The more time she spent in this awful place the less it all made sense to her.

Turning towards Mirabelle, Sansa felt genuine pity for the woman. Regardless of what she thought of Mirabelle's brother, Sansa couldn't help but feel sincerely sorry for the Hound's sister. Softly, Sansa took Mirabelle's hands into her own, squeezing gently to offer what little she could by way of support.

"Mirabelle, I don't even know what to say. Sorry just doesn't seem enough. I can't even imagine how hard it must've been on you."

Settling her stunned gaze on Sansa, Mirabelle gave an appreciative half smile although her eyes seemed to contain all the sadness of the world. The woman exhaled a small laugh as she shook her head and cradled Sansa's cheeks between the palms of her hands.

"You're a sweet girl, you know that? No need for apologies from you. The prick got his in the end."

Sansa couldn't help, but notice that Mirabelle had glazed over a good ten or so years worth of her past, explaining nothing about exactly how she and her brother became involved with the Moriarti mafia. Another question lingered in the air, a question Sansa had wanted to ask Sandor, but sensed was off limits, at least when it came to him. But Mirabelle was different; she was warm and graciously open with Sansa.

"And Gregor?," Sansa asked tentatively, lifting her eyes anxiously to search Mirabelle's face. The woman's brow folded in uneasiness as she contemplated something quietly in her mind, her thoughts sealed off even from Sansa. Crossing her arms about her chest, Mirabelle turned towards Sansa, the sadness in her eyes replaced with a fiery determination.

"Gregor. Well, Gregor will get his in the end too, I hope."

Despite her curiosity, Sansa did not press for details and instead watched as the woman stepped away from her, proudly admiring her work and taking Sansa by the hands to lift her to her feet.

"Are you ready? Let's get you something to eat before you have to leave."

Sansa felt her stomach knot violently as she swallowed hard. She wasn't ready, not in the least, but she gave a nod anyway and followed Mirabelle from the bedroom.


With the drapes pulled tightly shut, the darkness of the room offered nothing to indicate the time. It might very well still be early morning for all he knew. Or perhaps it was nearing noon. Somehow he doubted that. Bronn would have roused him long ago if that were the case. If the pounding in his head and the heaviness of his eyelids were any indication, he had hardly gotten any rest. Three, possibly four hours of sleep total. Even then, it had been fitful, interrupted at least once an hour when he would awake at the slightest of sounds. He would have been better off just finishing the bottle of Johnny Walker Blue and passing out in a whiskey-drowned stupor.

Sandor could give a shit about expensive cigars and he certainly didn't give a fuck about designer suits, satin ties, or bejeweled cufflinks like some of his men. No. The only thing he was particular about was his whiskey. He refused to drink the watered down piss that others called bourbon and he'd rather slit his own wrists than drink the shit that passed for scotch.

Rubbing his hands over his face to drive out his fatigue, Sandor turned to the night stand and flung his hand to the table, feeling through the darkness for his watch. When his outstretched fingers finally found what they were looking for, Sandor snatched the watch up in his hand and pressed the button on the side, illuminating the digital face with a dull green glow. Fucking hell. 10:30 already.

Sandor rasped out annoyed curses under his breath as he tossed the blankets off of his half clothed body and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He had wanted to be up earlier. He had needed to be up earlier. The men coming with him to Vegas needed to be briefed and given their orders. Each man would have a part to play and Sandor couldn't afford for any of them to fuck up. The men staying behind needed to know what was expected of them as well. While Sandor doubted anything would go down while he was gone, he also wasn't willing to take any chances. Not anymore. Not after what happened.

Hopefully Bronn had taken care of some of the details for him. While initially Sandor and Bronn had a strained relationship, Sandor had come to trust the man with his life and considered him a brother, the only brother he recognized. Sandor didn't care that Bronn didn't share blood with him. He had saved his life and was closer to him than Gregor could ever hope to be. For Sandor, that was enough. Blood or not, Bronn was his brother.

Flinging his watch back to the night stand, Sandor slid from his bed and paced to the bathroom door. As he flicked on the lights, he squinted until his eyes adjusted to the garish glow of the vanity lights. He pondered his reflection in the mirror; he looked like hell. Not only did he feel as though he had not gotten any rest, apparently he looked it too. The heaviness in his eyelids was apparent and he looked dazed. Or maybe hung over.

Contemplating his bare chest and abdomen in the mirror, Sandor brought his fingers to the bruise emerging on his muscled stomach, sucking in his breath as he pushed slightly at the tender area. It was where Sansa had elbowed him the night of the Royce's party as she desperately sought to flee from him. If only she had understood.

But she hadn't understood then, no more than she understood now. 'Unless you want to die tonight, Sansa Stark, you had better fucking cooperate with me. I'm not a patient man.Sandor remembered the way her eyes widened at his words. Whether it was their brutishness or perhaps that fact that he knew her name, he didn't know, but he had spotted the look of sheer terror in her eyes nonetheless.

The night of the Royce's party Sandor had perched himself in a sequestered area of the room, watching as the partygoers meandered about and engaged one another in loud, pompous conversations. It had been mildly amusing to Sandor; watching as the social elite indulged themselves in alcohol, food, and egotistical banter, each trying to outdo the last and establish themselves as the Johnny Big Cock of Portland high society. But that hadn't been the reason Sandor attended the soiree. He gave precisely zero fucks about Nestor Royce and his little club of upper echelon assholes. Sandor was there for other reasons and so he had patiently waited from his vantage point, sipping on his cocktail and keeping a close eye on the room.

He had spotted Sansa immediately as she slid shyly along the wall, seemingly trying her best to disappear into the periphery of the Royce mansion's great room. Perhaps the pricks in suits and women with fake tits hadn't noticed Sansa. In that regard, she may have been successful when it came to hiding from them, melting into the wall and going unnoticed. They were too busy up their own asses to notice, but Sandor had noticed. He had seen her almost immediately. She was hard not to notice and not just because she was beautiful. Sansa carried herself with an innocent sort of femininity and grace. Whereas women twice her age paraded themselves around in dresses too tight, five pounds of clown make-up, and half a gallon of perfume, Sansa seemed confident yet shy, naïve yet intelligent, caught somewhere between the innocence of being a girl and the self-assuredness of being a woman. With his head spinning from whiskey, Sandor had watched her and reveled in the way she blushed whenever her eyes met his. Scandalized, she would look away, shift her nervous stare about the room until relenting once more and would timidly let her eyes flicker back to him.

He had wondered who she was and why exactly she was at a party like the Royce's. A daughter of a lawyer or politician perhaps. Marco had leaned over to Sandor and whispered in his ear, knowing full well who he was looking at and seemingly intuiting his musings. 'She's Stark's daughter. Sansa.'Sandor couldn't help the smile that pulled on his lips. She was indeed a lawyer's daughter. Not just any lawyer, the District Attorney. And not just any District Attorney, but the one who had been clandestinely, or so he thought, building a case against the Moriarti Mafia, his Mafia.

Sansa. It was a pretty name; simple and sweet. He imagined how it might sound passing her lips. And her lips. She had beautiful lips. It hadn't taken him long to notice how they trembled when she was nervous.

Fuck that. The girl isn't nervous. She's afraid. Sandor knew there was a difference. He had seen it in other women too. He wasn't one to make women nervous, to give them butterflies and make their hearts beat fast with anticipation. He scared women. They feared him.

Sandor knew the women he had been with were never attracted to him, not really. They were attracted to what he represented; power, danger, dominance, intrigue. He was imposing, intimidating, and rough, never sugar coating anything. If you don't like the truth, then you won't like me. Apparently, it got some women off and he supposed it hadn't bothered him enough to stop them from spreading their legs for him. He would ride out until he reached an empty climax and then send them on their way, which they were typically more than happy to do. None had expressed any desire to stick around anyway, which was fine by him. They were usually desperate, attention seeking tramps. Not the type of woman he wanted to keep around him so he sent them on their merry way and none ever came back for more. Mirabelle had once tried to fix him up with one of her friends, a real nice girl she said. The woman had been nice, that much was true, and pretty, but she talked incessantly and grated on his every last nerve. Sandor didn't care much for bull shiting and pointless conversation that functioned just to fill the air. He had let the girl down easy, refusing a second date and telling Mirabelle she needed to get new friends. After that, he was done with dating. It didn't fucking matter anyway. He had given up on the idea of settling down with a wife and kids. Anything Sandor had ever loved or cared about, Gregor was hell-bent on taking away from him. Why put himself through that?

Snorting his defiance at the thought, Sandor pulled off his boxers and paced towards the shower. Reaching around to his lower back, he pulled off the bandages that covered the knife wound situated at his right side and stepped into the shower. The knife blade had missed his kidneys and lungs and the wound was mostly superficial. Still, it had infuriated him nonetheless. As the water rushed over the wound, Sandor pulled in an agitated breath; agitation because it fucking stung and because it reminded him of how close he had been to getting Sansa out of the Royce mansion.

He had been close; so fucking close and so intent on getting Sansa to calm the hell down that he hadn't noticed the Payne boy working his way around them. When the knife penetrated his back, Sandor had groaned more in annoyance than pain as he eased his weight off of Sansa. With just that little release, she had slipped out from underneath him and off into the night, setting in motion a series of events he was beginning to feel would haunt him for some time to come.

Indeed it did seem to haunt him. All through the night, he ran the scenarios over and over in his head. Wondering what he could have done differently, cursing his fate that he had to be there- the wrong place at the wrong time. He had tossed and turned, trying his damnedest to let the thoughts go as soon as they materialized in his head. There was nothing he could do about it now. Today needed to go as planned, to go off without a hitch. Eager to get the day started so he could get it over with, Sandor flipped off the water of the shower and pulled a towel around his waist.

The air outside of the bathroom was cold against his skin as he dropped his towel to the floor and stood in front of his open closet. Sandor chuckled to himself as he pulled out a pair of black dress paints and a starched, red button-up shirt. He felt like a cartoon character, wearing the same outfit almost every day; dress pants and a button up shirt. The Old Man had instilled in him early on that if he was going to be top dog of the Moriarti Mafia, he had to look the part. Sandor had been reluctant to oblige, but had done so anyway. He understood that the man spoke truly and relented as Mirabelle excitedly offered to fill his closet with dress clothes. Unwilling and admittedly unable to deny his baby sister anything that made her glow with that much happiness, Sandor had let Mirabelle pick out the clothes. After all, he had no desire to and she was good at that shit anyway.

After he dressed, Sandor put on his shoulder holster and secured his glocks before pulling on a suit jacket. He hated wearing a suit jacket. No matter how it had been tailored, the jacket always pulled tightly against his broad shoulders, making him feel claustrophobic and giving him an uneasy sense that he would have to work a little harder to remove his gun if the need arose. Swallowing hard and stepping into the hallway, Sandor hoped that the he wouldn't need his gun today.

As he paced down the hall, Sandor could hear Mirabelle's voice permeating from her bedroom. He couldn't make out the words, but he imagined she was tending to Sansa, talking the girl's ear off as Mirabelle was apt to do. His sister had seemed to have taken a shining to Sansa. So much so that Mirabelle had come to Sandor and expressed her genuine concern for the girl's well being. He had endured Mirabelle's lecture on how he needed to be gentle with Sansa and consider how scared and confused she must be.

Making his way down the stairs, Sandor scowled at the thought. He had already considered Sansa's fear and confusion. In fact, it was what had kept him up most of the night. He didn't need Mirabelle to remind him how scared the girl was. All he needed to do was look at Sansa to know she was terrified and furthermore she seemed to hate him although he imagined he couldn't really blame her on that tip.

Stepping into the parlor room, Sandor spotted Bronn seated casually in an arm chair. The man didn't so much as lift his eyes as Sandor slumped into the adjacent sofa with a groan. A chiming sound broke through the silence as the clock on the fireplace mantle announced the time with a series of reverberating tolls.

"Rough night?," Bronn asked nonchalantly as he picked at his nails with the blade of a pocket knife

Sandor remained silent, giving a slight nod of his head as Bronn stopped what he was doing and quizzically lifted his eyes to Sandor. Studying him for a few moments, Bronn began again, his voice tinged with hesitance.

"I heard the Old Man was giving you shit about Leon."

The Old Man hadn't needed to give Sandor shit about Leon. He had already known it was a mistake. A little chiding voice from within, a voice that sounded a lot like his sister's cautionary nagging, had told him it was a mistake from the beginning. Sandor had known Leon for eight years and had relied on him for previous jobs. The man was a tracker, his specialty was finding people. No matter how they covered their tracks or where they were hiding, Leon somehow managed to always find whoever he was looking for. Sandor never pressed for details on how he successfully completed his task. All that mattered to him was that Leon came though, time and time again. The man had always been eccentric, his habits bizarre and almost OCD. Bronn had held the belief that this was what made Leon so good at what he did. Sandor had somehow doubted that. Within the past couple of years, Leon's eccentricity had slowly evolved into full on psychosis. If he hadn't been desperate and if it hadn't been a last minute thing, Sandor wouldn't have called Leon the other night. But he was desperate and with each passing minute Sansa was getting further away and heading into an increasingly dangerous situation. Against his better judgment and Mirabelle's incessant yapping, Sandor had picked up his phone and called Leon despite the knotting in his stomach that told him it was a bad idea.

With each passing hour after he made the call, Sandor felt a darkening feeling starting to descend upon him. What if they got to her first? He didn't want to think about the thought, but as he waited for word from his men, from Bronn or Marco or Go-Go, Sandor couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen. He had sworn to himself that once Sansa was brought to him safely, he would never use Leon again as a tracker. The man was too much of a goddamn wildcard.

And then Sandor received the call that the Payne boy had been shot by Leon. He had thrown his phone at the wall with more force than he had thought he could. He wanted to rage. The Payne boy was to be dropped off back in Portland with his family. Sure, he'd be blindfolded, gagged, and thrown into a trunk. But he'd be safe; scared shitless no doubt, but safe. He was just a kid, a fucking seventeen or eighteen year old kid. Sandor wasn't his brother. He didn't kill kids just for the hell of it.

Sandor knew at that point Sansa wasn't safe. Leon could give a fuck what the plan was and what Sandor had requested of him. The man was mental, a psychopath. Even with Go-Go and Marco there, Sandor didn't trust Leon not to off them all so he had sent Bronn to personally bring Sansa to him. Not only did he trust Bronn, but the man was a tough son of a bitch, not someone to trifle with.

The Old Man had watched as Sandor paced about the basement alcove, pulling on a cigar and sucking down his whiskey way too fast. He knew what the Old Man wanted to say, he could see it behind his watchful eyes. I told you so, you stubborn jackass. I fucking told you. And now look what happens. But the Old Man hadn't said that. Instead he just watched and waited along with Sandor, both men quietly lost in their own thoughts.

When he finally saw Sansa, Sandor could scarcely believe his eyes. It was her alright, but it looked as though she had been through hell and back. He knew it was Leon, he didn't have to be told. Before Go-Go, Marco, and Leon had set out Sandor had told them he would murder them and rape their corpses if she came back hurt. Go-Go and Marco knew better than to defy him. Leon had snarled a bitter laugh at that.

Eying the bruises about her neck, bruises that formed a perfect outline of fingers, Sandor felt his blood boil. And then there was the gash on her cheek; a bloody wound that was bruising along the edges as if she had been hit and hit hard. To top it all off, her neck was bleeding, a straight line of blood drying on her skin. A knife wound most like.

Blind with rage, Sandor had flown from his seat and tore through the alcove towards the sounds of Leon's voice in the main room. The man's cheek was bleeding profusely and his eyes were wild with mania. If Sandor hadn't been so shocked at the man's appearance, he imagined he would have probably killed him right then and there.

Instead he went to Sansa and watched as she swiped at the tears falling from her eyes. The loose sleeves of her sweater had fallen from her wrists, exposing lesions where a rope had cut into her skin. Why the fuck had she been bound? Marco and Go-Go should have known better, they should have had enough sense to know that a seventeen year old girl didn't pose much of a threat to two grown men.

Furious, Sandor had fought hard to contain his anger long enough to wipe the blood from Sansa's throat. She flinched at his touch, as much out of disgust as pain. If only she understood. Although that probably didn't matter. Even if she did know the truth of everything, he imagined she still wouldn't care. He had taken her from her family and she was scared out of her mind. She thought he was a monster, even said so herself.

Agitated at the thought, Sandor abruptly lifted himself from his seat and ran a hand through his hair as he paced back and forth. Bronn's face was watching him intently, curiosity creasing the corners of his eyes as he waited for a response.

"I don't want to talk about it. It's done with," Sandor rasped, pressing both hands to the edge of the mantle and leaning his weight against it, avoiding Bronn's stare.

Indeed it was done with, Leon was in pieces and on his way to floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Relenting, Bronn lifted his hands up in acquiescence before leaning forward in his chair as he matter-of-factly inquired about the details of the day.

"I get it. I really do. However, I do need to know how many men we're taking with us today and how many you want to leave behind."

Sandor pulled himself away from the fireplace mantle and brought a hand up to rest beneath his chin as he slowly paced about the room. Mentally filing through how he imagined things might go down today, Sandor carefully enumerated the number of men he would require. Six. It should take no more than six. Double that number, twelve. The Old Man had always told him to double his number of men. Whatever he thought he needed for a job, he always needed to double that number. 'Better to have more men than you need than to have less,' the Old Man had always said. If the other night proved anything, it was that the Old Man knew what he was talking about.

"Ten men with us. With you and I that will be twelve of us. That should be enough to handle Emilio. The rest can stay behind and make sure things don't get out of hand here. I want Thomas watching Mirabelle though. She's not to go anywhere." Sandor pointed an index finger at Bronn, emphasizing each of his last words. Mirabelle was stubborn and hated being told what to do. She was likely to rebel just for the hell of it. If there was one day that he needed Mirabelle to listen to him, it needed to be today.

Bronn nodded his head, readily agreeing with Sandor's commands before inclining his stare up towards Sandor, mischievousness pooling in his eyes.

"Fair enough. And the Stark girl?"

Stopping mid-stride, Sandor turned towards Bronn, the seriousness gleaming in his eyes a juxtaposition to the playful curiosity plastered about Bronn's face.

"She stays with me," Sandor replied, his voice solemn and resolute.

Leaning forward in his chair, Bronn pointed the tip of his pocket knife towards Sandor, an impish smile curling about the man's lips.

"You're worried."

"What the fuck does that have to do with anything?," Sandor shot back, the irritation flaring within him. It was true. He was worried and he loathed that Bronn could always tell, but he wasn't about to fucking admit it.

"Everything. If you think something is going to happen, I need to know. We all need to know. We can take more men with us." Bronn's playfulness had melted away as he earnestly reasoned with Sandor, quietly beckoning him to put aside pride for the sake of safety.

Crossing his arms about his chest, Sandor's pacing came to a halt as he turned towards Bronn.

"Fine. Fifteen men, but I doubt he'll come, not now. He's waiting for things to die down, catch us when he knows we're not on guard. Still, I want her with me the entire time." Sandor's jaw set in a scowl as he relented. He hated that he needed to take more men with him. A week ago this job would have only required eight men tops. Now he had effectively doubled the number.

Pleased with himself, Bronn bounded to his feet and tucked his pocket knife away as he excitedly made his way towards Sandor.

"You got it, boss. I'll get them ready and briefed. We can giddy up on out of here at noon." Pushing his sleeve past his wrist, Bronn scrutinized his watch before continuing again. "I hope your little pop tart is ready by then."

Clapping Sandor on the back, Bronn sauntered from the room, whistling to himself as he wandered off towards the basement lounge.

Suddenly alone in the quiet room, Sandor shot a sideways glance towards the mantle clock. 11:30. What the fuck am I supposed to do for a half an hour? Sandor had told her to be ready by noon and not to make him wait. He fucking hated to wait. It drove him bat-shit crazy. The Old Man told him he had too much restless energy; that he bottled up his anger which made him restless and therefore he needed to find a better way to channel his energy. Usually his "release" involved some sort of physical activity, the bloodier the better. Boxing had become his go-to activity when he felt the anger rising within him. One by one, his men would step up to challenge him and one by one his men would walk away with their faces a bloody mess.

Except now, pacing about the parlor with restlessness and anticipation, Sandor had no one to hit and was instead left in his own thoughts. He wanted a drink, but knew that was a bad idea. He drank to damn much as it was and had been trying to get it under control. Sometimes he felt his efforts were in vain as the bottle would lure him back in to wash away his worries on a sea of whiskey. Besides, he needed to be on top of his game today.

Sandor paced down the clock, wandering mindlessly back and forth throughout the room adrift in his own thoughts. Once in awhile he'd glance over at the clock, wishing away the time only to find that a few mere minutes had passed.

True enough, he hated to wait, but he wasn't normally this listless. Usually he could find something to occupy his time with and take his mind off of things. Typically he would shoot the shit with Bronn; grab a drink together and talk about guns while they played a hand or two of Texas Hold'em. When the clock hands finally met up on the number 12, the chiming sounds once more wailed out the time, each tone a panging reminder that he was now officially waiting on her. He had told her not to make him wait.

Sandor was surprised to find his typical irritation was laced with something else, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. His strides quickened has he shoved his hands into his pockets and let out an exasperated sigh. He felt like he was in one of those stupid fucking movies where the poor bastard is nervously waiting for his date to descend the stairs.

Stopping mid-stride, Sandor shook his head and let out a snort of laughter. Was that what it was, the thing he couldn't quite put his finger on? Could it be that he was nervous?

Why the fuck was he nervous? It was a ridiculous feeling. Now that he thought about it, it was a feeling he hadn't felt in quite some time and one he wasn't about to give in to it. Instead, he focused on his irritation and how it was now nearing seven minutes past noon.

In the very least, he hoped his men would be ready, separated into the various cars and fully briefed. Waiting on Sansa Stark was one thing. Waiting on his men was quite another. They should know better than to keep him waiting. When Sandor told them to be ready by a certain time, they had better be ready well before that time. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him. It's about fucking time!

Turning towards the side entrance of the parlor, Sandor saw Mirabelle standing in the doorway, smiling sweetly as she often did in an effort to negate his anger.

"Ta-da!"

Mirabelle stepped aside, gracefully extending her arms out as if she were show casing something like some sort of Vanna White.

As Sansa stepped into the room with small, timid steps, Sandor had to do a double take. He knew nothing of dresses or make-up or what women did in the bathroom to get ready. All he knew was that the girl standing before him looked even more beautiful than she did when he had first seen her; a feat he didn't think was possible. Her auburn hair had been straightened and fell in glossy cascades to the middle of her back. He supposed Mirabelle had done her make-up; it looked similar to how Mirabelle applied her own, but was toned down some. Regardless, it brought out her eyes, making them the focal point of her face and rightfully so. And her lips. Goddamnit, her lips were doing that quivering thing again, something between a tremble and a pout. And fucking hell, he was staring at her again.

Pulling his eyes away from Sansa, Sandor swept his stare towards the clock and growled out the only thing he could think of to break the heavy silence that had descended in the room as Mirabelle and Sansa stared up at him anticipatingly.

"You're late." With that, Sansa bit her lip as she gave him a doe-eyed stare. Determined to maintain his resolve, Sandor held Sansa's stare until Mirabelle swatted him on the arm playfully before turning proudly back towards her "creation."

"Oh, calm down. She's well worth the wait."

Mirabelle had him there, but he sure as hell wasn't about to admit that out loud. Instead, he worked his way towards Sansa in hurried steps. As he approached, she let her eyes fall to the floor as she anxiously folded her hands in front of her and flinched away from him. It shouldn't have bothered him. It really shouldn't have. Almost a foot taller than the average man and boasting about twice the muscle mass, Sandor knew he was an intimidating man. Hell, he used that to his advantage most of the time. However the way she tensed and pulled back ever so slightly as he took her by the arm sent a wave of agitation through him. But once more, he couldn't blame the girl.

Turning towards Mirabelle, Sandor pointed at her with an index finger and mustered up all the seriousness he could manage.

"Thomas is going to stay here and keep an eye on you. You aren't to leave, Mirabelle. Not until we get back. Understood?"

Rolling her eyes and flashing an obnoxious grin, Sandor watched as his sister placed one hand on her hip and saluted him with the other.

"Yes, sir!"

Sandor narrowed his eyes at Mirabelle and groaned in annoyance.

"Don't call me that."

With that Sandor retreated from the room with Sansa close behind. He hated when people called him that.


Sansa struggled to keep up with the Hound as he strode down the hallway towards the open foyer of the house. She took her steps double time just to keep pace. He was angry. No, he was more than that. He was upset and angry. She had seen him angry before and the way he seemed to lash out in a blind fury. The man had a temper, that she knew for sure and she was relieved that it did not flare to its full force as she made the Hound wait a whopping eight minutes for her. Yet somewhere mingled with the anger was something she hadn't seen in him before. He seemed to be upset and troubled by something.

Mirabelle had gotten up early to bake banana chocolate chip muffins and insisted that Sansa eat at least two. The woman had felt bad after Sansa confided that she hadn't eaten much dinner the night before, seeing as how Sandor abruptly ended their dinner "date."

Giggling over muffins and orange juice, Mirabelle and Sansa had lost track of time. Shoving half a muffin into her mouth, Mirabelle squealed as she looked at the clock and realized it was close to seven minutes past noon. Pulling Sansa from her chair and hurriedly shuffling her down the hall, the two women made their way towards the parlor. Sansa was almost certain the Hound would lash out at her, tell her he told her not to make him wait. No, he told her not to make him fucking wait. He had thrown that in for good measure it seemed.

As Mirabelle presented her, Sansa was surprised to find that he did not lash out. Instead, he considered her with a strange sort of calmness, his eyes roving over her. He had been staring at her, but it wasn't the same way he had stared at her before. Something about it was different; it wasn't a lewd, drunken stare nor was it the furious glowering she had expected. It was almost- almost- like he had been nervous. Sansa shook her head at the thought. That was ridiculous. Far be it for the Hound to get nervous of all things.

As they stepped from the front door of the house, Sansa squinted her eyes against the glaring sun which rode to its peak in the sky. Suddenly the thought struck her. She hadn't really taken notice of where the mansion was situated. True enough, she knew they were somewhere in the desert still; the air was dry and the warmth almost suffocating. In the distance and on all sides, mountains peered from the horizon swathed in hazy colors of blue and green. The house maintained the style of a Mediterranean villa; the stucco exterior walls had been painted beige and the roof was overlapped layers of Spanish clay tiles. The front drive was a stone-paved semi-circle which boasted an elaborate decorative fountain at its center. The property was feebly shaded with palm trees and dotted with cacti gardens. Waiting outside the drive were five black Mercedes sedans, each with dark black tinted windows and humming as the engines ran.

Sansa followed Sandor towards the first car, still scampering behind him as he hurriedly paced towards the vehicle. Beyond telling her that she was late, he hadn't acknowledged her much and instead steadfastly made his way outside and towards the cluster of waiting vehicles. Therefore, it caught Sansa by surprise as he stopped in front of the passenger door, pulling it open and turning towards her. With slow steps, she closed the gap of space between them. As she hesitantly approached the open door, her eyes flittered up towards him. With a soft nod, he wordlessly motioned his head towards the open door, beckoning her get in. Sansa lowered herself into the sedan and felt the cool blast of the air conditioner against her bare skin. Once tucked into the car, the Hound closed the door shut behind her and circled to the driver's side. Turning her head over her shoulder, Sansa noticed the back seat was empty. Considering her ordeal in the backseat the previous evening with Leon, Sansa let out a sigh of relief.

Opening the driver's side door, Sansa watched as the Hound pulled his suit jacket off and tossed it onto the back seat of the car. Beneath his jacket he wore a shoulder holster bedecked with two pistols. He had worn it the previous night and she sensed it was a silent threat to any that wished to cross him. Although her father owned a gun, he certainly didn't wear it strapped to his body. Instead, it was tucked away in the night stand drawer. Ironically, her Dad had told her where the gun was when he started working on the Moriarti case. In case anything should ever happen, he had told her. Now here she was in a car with the Moriarti mob boss and his two guns. Sansa's reverie was broken as the Hound pulled down the mansion's drive and onto a two lane road.

"Do the guns make you that nervous, girl?"

The question caught her off guard. She didn't notice that he had shifted his gaze to her and seemed to pick up on her apprehensiveness. Swallowing hard, Sansa let her eyes fall to her hands folded tightly in her lap.

"I'm just not used to it, that's all," she replied, refusing to meet the Hound's intent stare. The better question was did he make her nervous. The answer to that was clear in her mind and a resounding 'yes.' She still had no idea, not a clue, why they were going to Las Vegas and what fate awaited her there. She imagined if the Hound felt the need to strap guns to his body, there was a chance that whatever was in store for her wasn't good. Sansa bit her lip hard at the thought and tried to quell the meanderings of her worried mind.

Settling her stare out the car window, Sansa noticed a highway sign fly by in her vision. They were heading south on highway 95. The interstate extended north through Oregon and Idaho and expanded south through California and Nevada before terminating in Arizona at the Mexican border. South on 95. But where? South from Oregon? South from California?

Evaluating the landscape outside the passenger window, Sansa imagined they were somewhere in Nevada or California. The desert extended on either side of the road, cacti whizzing by as they sped towards Las Vegas, the jewel of the desert. She had never been to Las Vegas, hadn't any reason to go really. There was nothing to do in Vegas, but drink and gamble; activities which required she be 21 years old. Myranda had once tried to talk her into getting a fake ID and going on a road trip to Vegas. Sometimes Sansa wondered if Myranda ever really understood her and truly got what kind of person Sansa was. Remembering the look of surprise and disappointment on Myranda's face when she had abruptly declined, Sansa imagined that Myranda either didn't know or didn't really care who Sansa was at the end of the day.

Shifting her gaze towards the clock, Sansa realized they had only been in the car for maybe 30 minutes tops, definitely no more than that. Why did time still seem as if it was dragging on? Not only did she not know why they were going to Vegas, she didn't even know how long it was going to take to get there. The Hound had been silent thus far, except for the whole gun conversation which had lasted precisely two minutes at most. Sansa let her eyes move towards him. With his left wrist hung over the steering wheel, his right elbow was leaning on the arm rest. He looked comfortable, which in her mind meant that this was going to be a long ride. God I hope not.

"What?," he growled out, the impatience wearing on his voice. Once more, Sansa hadn't thought that he noticed her staring at him. Come to think of it, she hadn't even noticed that she was staring.

"Nothing," she lied, turning her eyes away and crossing her arms tightly about her chest. The air conditioner was on full blast and was quickly becoming over kill.

Unrelenting and unwilling to let it go, the Hound pressed for more, his eyes narrowing to slits as he turned a knowing glance towards her with a smile playing about his lips.

"You were staring at me."

She had been staring at him, that much was true, but it was more that she had been lost in her own thoughts. Eager to spur the conversation to something less uncomfortable or to stymie it altogether, Sansa feigned her bemusement.

"Sorry, I didn't notice."

The Hound exhaled a laugh at that and shook his head before offering her a playful response.

"You're a terrible liar. It's not nice to stare at people, you know."

Sansa had to stifle her own laughter at that. Now that was ridiculous.

"You stare at me."

The words flew out of her mouth before she could stop them. Sansa had only meant to think them, not say them, even if they were true. He did have a habit of letting his eyes linger a bit longer than they should, but she doubted he would appreciate being called out on it. Sansa lowered her head, but out of the periphery of her vision she could see the Hound's jaw clench tightly and the corner of his mouth drop to a scowling frown. God! Why, why, WHY did I say that?

"I don't stare at you," he said flatly, his voice monotone and betraying nothing of his emotion. Sansa breathed out her relief and settled back into her seat. She had half expected him to rage at her smart-ass response, but he hadn't. Instead he seemed to retreat within himself and into a sulking silence.

Sansa mindlessly rubbed her bare arms and shifted her gaze out of the window. The highway had been desolate for much of the trip. They had passed maybe a handful of cars at most. Sansa surmised they were nearing Las Vegas; the highway gained a number of lanes and traffic was picking up. With the air hitting her full blast, Sansa shot an annoyed glance at the air vents. She wanted to turn down the air or at least shut the vents on her side. Seemingly, the Hound was a reader of thoughts. Before she could work up the courage to lean forward and flick her vent closed, his voice interrupted the silence.

"Are you cold?" Despite the question, the Hound leaned forward and turned the fan knob down.

"A little," Sansa responded, shyly lifting her eyes as the Hound reached towards the backseat and felt around for his jacket.

"Here. Take this."

Sansa hesitated a moment before reaching out and taking the jacket. The fabric was soft in her hands and smelled like his cologne. Although loathe to admit it, his smell was beginning to become familiar to her. She recognized it as easily as she had recognized his voice permeating through the floor of her bedroom last night. Sansa draped the jacket over her shoulders and pulled it shut in front of her. It might as well have been a blanket with the way his jacket seemed to swallow her whole. He was quite possibly the largest man she had ever known; tall, so tall, and absurdly muscular. Lifting her eyes to him, Sansa contemplated Sandor in the seat next to her. The unburned side of his face was visible to her and he seemed to be lost in his thoughts, his icy eyes focusing intently on the road. The longer she spent in his "world," the less things were making sense. He opened doors and offered jackets yet gave the orders for what happened at the Royce's party. He can't be a gentleman and a murderer. That was...well…it was just crazy.

"You're staring again. Out with it. What's on your mind?," he interrupted, glancing towards her with a half smile pulling on his lips.

How much time do you have? If she only could tell him everything on her mind. If only she could file through that mental rolodex that was amassing in her brain. If only….

"Why are we going to Las Vegas?," Sansa softly responded, her voice escaping her lips quieter than she had intended. It seemed as good a question as any and she held out the vain hope it might bring her closer to knowing the truth in its entirety.

"I own a gambling establishment," he replied, having heard her despite her sudden shyness. What that what it is? Shyness?

"A casino?"

The Hound chuckled at this, a genuine laugh that creased the corners of his eyes and pulled on his lips. It was the first time she had heard him laugh, truly laugh. Not a bitter laugh, not a mocking laugh, but an actual sincere, normal laugh. And although she didn't know what was funny, she took it anyway.

"Not quite. Casinos are regulated by the gaming commission. They oversee operations and make sure things are running legit. Most people who come to Vegas to gamble don't really care one way or another. But high rollers do care. Their winnings are taxable, they don't want them to be. I take away that burden from them, but for profit of course."

Sansa's brow furrowed in confusion as she turned towards the Hound, letting his jacket fall off of one of her shoulders.

"That's how you make a living then?"

Shaking his head, he turned his eyes towards Sansa, but let them flutter back towards the road as his eyes caught her bare shoulder.

"Partially. Racketeering, in many forms, is how I earn my living. I don't spend my time in Vegas though. And I sure as hell don't live there. I've never really seen what was so appealing about the city. So I have a man by the name of Emilio Ventimiglia manage my Vegas card rooms. We are going to Vegas to pay Emilio a visit."

Despite his calm, matter-of-fact tone, Sansa somehow doubted it was going to be a friendly visit replete with cookies, lemonade, and polite conversation.

"Has he done something wrong?," she pressed, her voice catching slightly in her throat with a swelling of fear.

"That's what I am going to find out," the Hound began as he turned to look at Sansa. This time he didn't look at her bare shoulder, but instead let his eyes settle on her worried face. Something in his expression had softened, almost as if he was trying to reassure her. "My men have told me that he has. I'll be the judge of that though. I can smell a lie a mile away. If the man lies to me, I will know and then he and I will have some problems to work out. Nothing for you to worry too much about, Little Bird."

It was too late. She was already worried. She didn't like the sound of it, not at all. If Emilio was indeed doing something he wasn't supposed to, she doubted that the Hound would sit him down, give him a stern talking to, and then leave.

"What did he do?" Sansa's curiosity had gotten the better of her, but she wanted to know. Besides, if the Hound was insisting she come along, she at least deserved to know what she was getting into.

For many moments, a silence filled the car as the Hound kept his eyes on the road. She had begun to think he hadn't heard her and was ready to repeat her question, but finally he broke the silence as the low timbre of his voice filled the car.

"Drugs. He's pushing drugs through my establishment for profit on the side. He's got familial tie-ins with one of the drug cartels. He has always sworn that he doesn't associate with the family business. I'm not fucking stupid though. He's a greedy man so I have no doubt he's dipping into the drug trade. I could care less what the man does on his own time. But I don't deal with drugs or the drug trade. Its dirty business and I have no tolerance for it in my organization."

Something about that surprised Sansa. From the outside, the thought was absurd; crime was crime. Whether it was the drug trade or racketeering or homicide, they were all terrible as far as she was concerned. Yet the passion and veracity behind his voice intimated a sort of moral code by which he was determined to live. It seemed odd to her; that he could massacre a house full of people without so much as a second thought yet he was vehemently opposed to the drug business. There seemed to be a disconnect that she couldn't quite understand. Why was one acceptable, but the other wasn't?

As they pulled off of the highway, Sansa hadn't the time to ponder it. From their vantage point she could see the Vegas skyline. With the sun still high in the sky, Sansa could only imagine what the city looked like at night. A disco ball perhaps. Or a pile of glitter in the desert. It had only taken them an hour and a half to get to the city. Sansa filed away that knowledge in her memory. An hour and a half north on Highway 95 from Vegas. That's where the Hound is.

Turning down side roads, the car began traveling west and from the passenger side mirror Sansa saw the city melting away into the distance. Suddenly, her heart began to flutter with fear. He said we were going to Vegas. He said we were going to pay a visit to his friend.

"This doesn't look like Las Vegas." Sansa abruptly broke the silence as the fear began to pulse through her body in time with the beating of her heart.

"There's more to Vegas than the strip, Little Bird. We're on the outskirts of the strip." Once more the Hound's voice was calm and tinged with an attempt at reassurance. He called her Little Bird. It had initially been a name to mock her. However, somehow it had evolved to him using it in instances she was sure he could tell that she was afraid. Somehow it seemed to work. Sansa let herself settle back in her seat as he continued once more.

"The goal is to keep my establishments off of the radar. If someone wants to come to my card rooms, they have to know where they are. The only way they're going to know that is if they know me or Emilio."

Sansa's brow knitted in confusion as they pulled into an old area of town, the buildings maintaining a kitschy 1960's Vegas façade. The Hound had said he didn't care much for Vegas. Sansa could see where he was coming from. It seemed cheesy to her and beyond that she didn't like the vibe the city was putting off. It seemed superficial, vapid, and indulgent.

The car rolled to a stop as the Hound parked behind a corner building, a building that boasted a vintage looking sign that read 'M. L. Berneski and Son's Drugs and Prescriptions.' Once more Sansa was at a loss. Really, a drug store? Sensing her profound confusion, the Hound shifted in his seat and turned towards Sansa.

"It's like a speakeasy, but for gambling. I can't very well put up a sign in bright lights that says 'The Hound's Illegal Gambling Establishment.'"

Sansa laughed at that. Not a nervous laugh or a bitter laugh, but a genuine laugh that wrinkled her nose and pulled on her lips. The Hound must have noticed the sincerity because he chuckled in return before swinging his door open and circling around to open Sansa's door for her.

Hovering in the space of the open door was Sandor's hand extended to her in a gentlemanly gesture to help her out of the car. Sansa shifted her stare up towards him as she placed her hand in his. Gently he wrapped his fingers around her hand and pulled her from the car. From her extended arm, the Hound's jacket fell off her shoulder. Sansa's eyes flittered to his gun holster and imagined he might want his jacket to remain a little more discreet.

In one motion, Sansa shrugged the jacket from her shoulders and made to hand it to Sandor. Settling his eyes on her, the Hound shook his head and draped the jacket back over her shoulders. Her body tensed slightly as she felt his fingers brush over her bare shoulders ever so slightly.

"Keep it. In case you get cold." His voice was oddly warm; a deep rasp, but warm.

A gentleman and a Hound. It made no sense to her. None at all.


It had been too long since he had come here last. Way too fucking long. But then again, where the hell was he supposed to find time to make trips out to Vegas? Wasn't that the whole point of having Emilio out here in the first place?

As he helped the Little Bird out of the car and draped his suit jacket over her shoulders, Sandor lifted his eyes to the store front. M.L. Berneski and Son's. The Old Man had secured the location long ago and situated one of the former underbosses to manage the business, the legit drugstore business. The style of the store was something out of an old movie; that was the style of the Old Man. Sandor imagined it was fashioned to look like an old soda fountain shop from the Old Man's youth. From the black and white tiled floors to the 1950's barstools to the wood and glass displays which showcased glass containers of candy, Sandor pictured the Old Man as a little boy spending his time someplace similar to this.

One by one his men filed out of the Mercedes sedans. With a head count, Sandor confirmed the number. Fifteen men including him and Bronn. Although he hoped that was overkill and he was just being overly cautious given the events of the other evening, Sandor couldn't help but acknowledge the twisting he felt at the pit of his stomach. He had felt the same way the night of the Royce's party yet he had ignored it then. He sensed that Sansa felt a similar anxiety, but then again he imagined her nervousness was a given considering he had kept her in the dark about damn near everything. The less she knows the better. Sandor convinced himself that that was true. However, he was now beginning to feel that perhaps that thought was a bit misguided. But now was not the time to explain everything to Sansa. He had business to take care of and the sooner he got it over with, the better. That he knew for sure.

With Bronn to his left and Sansa to his right, Sandor led his men into the drugstore through a side entrance. The overhead Tiffany lamps filled the shop with a dull glow as an Italian tenor voice bellowed through the room behind the soft static scuffling of a record player. Behind the counter, Sandor spotted Alonzo shuffling about. The man was old, probably 10 years older than the Old Man and spoke with a heavy Italian accent. Despite the fact that he immigrated to America some 40 years ago, Alonzo clung to his Italian heritage and spoke his native language whenever he could. For the past 20 years, the man had run the drugstore business. It was by no means thriving, but offered Alonzo the chance to bullshit with his costumers and gave him something with which to keep his mind and his hands occupied. Sandor saw as Alonzo brushed aside his thinning grey hair and lifted his eyes to men filing into his store. Lighting up with a million-watt smile, Alonzo dropped the broom in his hand and made his way around the counter towards Sandor. The man extended his arms and pulled Sandor in for a hug as his eyes swept over the room.

"Buon pomeriggio! You wait too long to see me. Did you get taller since last time you visit?" Alonzo's voice swelled with warmth despite his thick accent and somewhat broken English. He asked the same question of Sandor every time he saw him. Sandor hadn't grown for probably ten years, but he always humored the question anyway.

"It's doubtful," Sandor replied, smiling down at Alonzo and forgetting why he had waited so long to come back Vegas. He hated the city, but Alonzo was like a grandfather to him. If anything, he needed to come and pay the man a visit more often.

Slowly, Alonzo had pulled away from Sandor and went wide eyed like a deer in headlights. Something had caught his full attention. Enchanted, the man had fallen silent, something which happened only once in a blue moon.

"Who is this beautiful girl?," Alonzo called out over his shoulder as he took steps towards Sansa, beaming with merriment.

Stepping forward, Sandor took Sansa gently by the arm and led her towards Alonzo.

"Alonzo this is Sansa," Sandor replied almost proudly. Before he could say much more, Alonzo came forward and pulled Sansa away from Sandor as he grinned like a mad man.

"Saaaaaan-suh!," Alonzo drew out her name, emphasizing the last syllable with an animated nod of his head. "Your name sounds like music. You like music?"

"Very much so." Blushing sweetly, Sansa swept her eyes hesitantly across the room as she became timidly aware that much of the attention was solely on her.

"Do you know Jimmy Roselli?," Alonzo inquired at he took Sansa's hands into his own. Flashing a gentle smile, Sansa shook her head and shyly let her eyes fall to the floor.

"Ooooh! Sansa! Jimmy Roselli sings 'Malafemmena.' It's about a man who love woman. Woman break man heart and the man sing his sorrow. Beautiful Sansa too sweet to break man heart, yes?"

"I can't say that I've ever tried." With her sweet smile giving way to a devilish grin, Sansa lifted her eyes to Alonzo. They seemed to glisten bluer than Sandor remembered. He knew she had blue eyes, but he hadn't noticed they were that blue.

Alonzo threw his head back with a roar of laughter as he patted his belly. After catching his breath, Alonzo turned towards Sandor and shifted his stare to Sansa before bringing his eyes back to Sandor once more.

"Funny girl! Pretty girl! Is she your girl, Sandor?"

Just like that it was now Sandor who felt all the eyes of the room suddenly on him. And now it was him who let his eyes wander to the floor before lifting his gaze to Alonzo as he shook his head. With a wide grin, Alonzo shuffled over to Sandor and clapped him on the back. Reaching up to wrap his arm around Sandor's shoulders, Alonzo turned his stare towards Sansa who was biting her lip and staring wide-eyed directly at him. Fucking hell. Why does she have to look at me like that? And with the lip thing too.

"You sing 'Malafemmena' to her every day, Sandor, until Sansa is your girl. Capisci?"

Sandor may not speak Italian, but he understood what Alonzo was saying and that the man had misinterpreted why Sansa was with him. He supposed he could explain it to Alonzo, tell the man that not only did he not sing, but that he certainly wasn't going to be singing to Sansa Stark. Indeed he could have told him, but instead Sandor let Alonzo go on thinking that he'd be singing "Malafemmena" to Sansa every day until she was his girl. There was no harm in letting the man think that and besides, he had business to attend to. He didn't have time to explain things to Alonzo. Not now at least.

After allowing Alonzo to fawn over Sansa for another few minutes while he regrouped his men, Sandor slowly made his way over to Alonzo and patted the man on the back.

"I've got some business to take care of. We'll see you on the way out," Sandor interrupted as he gently took Sansa by the arm.

"You be good to her, Sandor," Alonzo chided playfully as he waged a bony finger at him before turning to Sansa and pulling her away from Sandor yet again and into a warm embrace. "Bella Sansa, call your friend Alonzo if you need me to come and straighten him out."

Sansa smiled and kissed Alonzo delicately on the cheek. In all the time Sandor had known Alonzo, he doubted he had ever seen the man smile as brightly as he was in that moment; his grin easily extended from ear to ear. The room buzzed with laughter as Alonzo made his way around the counter and picked up his broom.

Pushing through a door on the other end of the room, Sandor led the way down a dimly lit corridor which terminated in a stair case at the end of the hall. Down the staircase and through another door they entered a large open area of the card room. The room wasn't large by any means, but it catered to the lavish lifestyles of its patrons. Sandor didn't know shit about decorating so he had let Emilio take care of it. Looking around the room once more, Sandor realized how fucking ridiculous some of the décor was. Truly, it looked like he had unleashed Liberace in here; everything seemed to glitter with gold and jewels and if it didn't, it was only because it was lined in fur.

If the look on Sansa's face was anything to go by, Sandor imagined she mimicked his sentiment. She had slowed her pace to a halt as her eyes contemplated the room, from the crystal light fixtures to the gaudy, gold framed mirrors. From the corner of his eye, Sandor spotted one of Emilio's men making his way across the room towards him. Shifting his gaze about the open area of poker tables, Sandor was pleased to find his men taking their places. He had wanted his men securing all exits to the room. Sandor's trust in Emilio only went so far and if the man really was involved in business he shouldn't be involved in, the man very well may already be on the defensive.

The man who retrieved Sandor looked to be young and scared shitless. His slicked back hair was stuck to his head with about a pound of gel and he refused to meet Sandor's insistent stare and instead mumbled a few words in Spanish before leading Sandor and Bronn towards a private room in the back.

Still seemingly mesmerized by the garishness of the room, Sansa stood transfixed and didn't seem to notice as Sandor began towards the back of the room. Turning over his shoulder, Sandor finally caught her gaze and motioned her over with a nod of his head. As she made her way over to him in tentative steps, Sandor could see that her body had tensed up. She was nervous or scared or maybe both. Fuck, it didn't matter to him. She seemed to sense the rising tension in the room as much as he did. Stepping closer to her, Sandor tried to reassure her and set her at ease the best he could. It was the least he could do.

"Hopefully this won't take long. Just stay next to me and you'll be fine." Sandor searched her face and was surprised to find that the worried look in her eyes had softened a bit and instead of biting her lips, she had let them part slightly. Realizing Bronn was waiting for them, Sandor turned abruptly away from Sansa and paced towards the private room in the back.

Inside he found Emilio Ventimiglia, Mr. Liberace himself complete with a fucking ridiculous blue satin shirt that had been unbuttoned at the top and was exposing tufts of black chest hair. His fingers were bedecked with gold jewel rings while his jet black hair fell in greased waves past his shoulders. Hanging off of each arm and on either side of him were two women. If the absurd amount of make-up they wore or the amount of skin they were showing were any indication, these women were escorts. Everything was a show of power, from the prostitutes to his jewelry to the Cuban cigar he was smoking. Sandor chuckled softly to himself. This man was clearly already on the defensive and content to go out of his way to demonstrate some sort of bejeweled authority. Sandor found this simultaneously entertaining and infuriating.

As Bronn settled into the corner of the room, Sandor pulled a chair out for Sansa before seating himself next to her. She was trembling. He hadn't even needed to touch her to know it. Apparently, Emilio picked up on it too. Pulling in deeply on his cigar and puffing smoke rings into the air, the man shifted his gaze towards Sansa and smiled lasciviously before shooting an amused stare at Sandor.

"And who's this little coquette?" Emilio's words were thick with the lushness of a Spanish accent. He knew English and he knew it well, unlike Alonzo. To Emilio, his accent played into the Casanova character he so desperately seemed to cling to. Without it, he was nothing but a Mexican-American who grew up in a poor suburb of Los Angeles.

"Sansa this is Emilio. Emilio this is Sansa." Despite introducing Sansa first, Sandor kept his eyes steadfast on Emilio. And while Sandor knew he was boring through the man with his intense glare, he somehow couldn't find it in himself to care. Not even as the tension began to fill the room at a suffocating rate.

"Stark's daughter. Impressive," Emilio mused as he took a sip from his cocktail glass and let his eyes rove over Sansa. From the corner of his eye, Sandor could see her slink back in her chair, seemingly trying to put as much distance between herself and Emilio as possible. Fucking prick. I should have left her with Alonzo. God Dammit.

Undeterred and probably encouraged by Sansa's adversity to him, Emilio leaned in closer, his hideous gold chain falling against the table as he spoke.

"How old are you, sweet Sansa?"

Sandor had had enough. He needed to keep his cool. Despite this, all he wanted to do was lunge across the table and snap Emilio's neck. He wasn't sure where the man had gotten his gall. Working to maintain his demeanor, Sandor curled his hands into tight fists and growled out a response, but not before staring daggers at the man.

"I didn't come here so that you can interrogate her."

Lifting his hands in acquiescence, Emilio settled back in his chair and let out a chuckle before regarding Sandor with a disingenuous smile.

"Fair enough. I hope you have not taken offense my friend. I haven't seen you with a lady friend before. My curiosity must have gotten the better of me. Apologies."

The sentiment was fake and Sandor knew it. Everything about this bastard was insincere, from his pimp-like façade to his seedy smiles and guileful manners. It was a show and Sandor knew what was behind the curtain.

"Can I offer you something to drink?," Emilio chimed in as he feigned yet another toothy grin. "You're a scotch man. I have a Dalmore 62 I have been waiting to open. One of the last bottles left in the world."

Dalmore 62, a bottle of scotch that cost more than some people make in a year. Fantastic. Now Sandor knew for sure Emilio was padding his income. Who the fuck spends nearly $60,000 on a bottle of whiskey?

Shaking his head and feeling his impatience beginning to stir within him, Sandor rested his elbow on the table and leaned his weight against it. For many moments, he remained quiet and contemplated Emilio. The man was too cocky, too puffed up. He seemed to have forgotten that Sandor had pulled him off of the streets and graciously set him up with a steady income. It was enough to live comfortably, not luxuriously. If anything, Sandor needed to remind Emilio where he came from and just how easily he could go back there.

"How is business?," Sandor started in as he watched the man's eyes. He had told the Little Bird the truth. He knew when people lied to him. He could see it in their eyes; the way they shifted ever so slightly and seemed to dilate just a bit.

"Business is business," Emilio responded with a shrug of the shoulders as he let his eyes shift away from Sandor. "The regulars shuffle money through here and I shuffle it to you. The cash flow is quite nice, wouldn't you say?"

Sandor was annoyed by the question. In fact, it infuriated him. How dare this little prick try to one up him at his own game? Did he forget who he was dealing with? Sandor felt a rush of anger pump through him as he pounded his fist on the table.

"I'm not worried about the fucking cash flow, Emilio." His voice bellowed loudly through the small room and in the periphery of his vision he saw Sansa jump a little in her seat, startled by his reaction. At least he hoped she was just startled and not scared. He had hoped by now she was starting to realize he wasn't going to hurt her. Surely she has to know that. Somehow he doubted it and the thought bothered him more than it should.

"Alright then. What vexes you so, amigo? I take care of things here and you are free to take care of things where you are. I get my portion of the profit and you get yours."

Sandor snorted a mocking laugh as he extended his arm in a sweeping motion towards Emilio and his escorts.

"You're smoking Cubans and drinking Dalmore. You've got high class whores hanging off of each arm. I pay you well, but not that well. Now I'll ask you this once and only once. Where the hell is your extra income coming from?"

Sandor didn't know what to expect. What he had hoped was that Emilio would relent, give up the goddamn charade, and admit what he had been doing. But Sandor wasn't naïve and he knew how things worked in this business. He had been doing it too damn long. 'A man's most prized possession is his ego. That is especially true in our business. He will take it to the grave if need be. The only way to truly disarm a man is to strip him of his ego.' The Old Man's words rung in Sandor's mind and as Emilio's eyes narrowed to slits, Sandor knew the man wasn't about to relent.

"You're not the only one in this business," Emilio shot back derisively. "I have my own rackets. It's just that mine are more profitable than yours it seems." With that, Emilio turned towards his escorts and draped his arms over each of their shoulders, letting each of his hands snake beneath the tops of their dresses as he brushed their breasts with his fingertips.

Once more, Sandor could see Sansa shift in the seat beside him. He could feel her disgust radiating off of her. It seemed to match his own.

"You can keep your fucking profits," Sandor snarled at Emilio as he shifted closer to Sansa, as if that would shield her from this fucking creep.

"I pay for my lifestyle, for them," Emilio responded as he gestured towards both of his whores. "Some might say that's not a respectable way to live. I say it beats kidnapping. What do you say, mi carino?"

Emilio posed the question to Sansa who went stiff as stone as the man turned his shifty gaze towards her and patiently awaited an answer. Wordlessly, her mouth hung open as her eyes, wide as saucers, turned towards Sandor with helpless pleading. Sandor wasn't going to let her answer that question. He wasn't going to dignify it with an answer and furthermore he wasn't going to let Emilio talk to her that way.

"Ernesto Mendoza. Does that name ring a bell to you, Emilio?" Sandor's voice was thick with rage now as he leaned his weight against the table, the table which was the only thing- the only fucking thing- that was stopping him from ripping Emilio apart.

"You see, I had a very similar conversation with him. Do you know where he is now?," Sandor continued as Emilio stared blankly at him. The man recognized the name. Sandor could see it in his eyes which dilated slightly with fear.

"I couldn't tell you," Emilio shot back venomously. With that, Sandor knew he had backed the man in a corner and given him something to fear. It wasn't an idle threat. Sandor didn't offer those. Everything he threatened was real otherwise he didn't bother. What was the point? When he threatened something, he made sure to follow through on it.

"Neither can I. He's somewhere in the Colorado River, that's all I know for sure." Sandor settled back in his seat and crossed his arms about his heaving chest. He was angry. No, he was more than angry. He was fucking livid, but he had expected as much.

"What's your point, Ese?" Despite being in a corner, Emilio's ego and attitude were more resilient than Sandor would have imagined. The man wasn't going down without a fight and Sandor was tired of dealing with the bastard.

"Cocaine is a lucrative business. And heroin. Your uncles are involved in the heroin and cocaine trade. They've worked their way up the cartel hierarchy. This isn't the lifestyle of a racketeer."

Sandor gestured towards Emilio, his elaborately decorated private room, and all the things contained within it.

"All of this is bought and paid for by cartel money. The Moriarti don't deal in drugs. It's fucking filthy business. I told you that from the get-go and you swore up and down you felt the same way. Ernesto Mendoza tried to pull the same shit on me. He didn't live to tell about it. So unless you want to join your amigo at the bottom of a river, you had better deal straight with me."

Emilio sucked in a deep breath and put his cigar out in an ashtray before unwrapping his arms from around the hookers. Exhaling his breath, the man let his eyes fall away from Sandor as his voice lowered to a defeated tone.

"Ladies, would you excuse us?"

With that, the hookers obliged and lifted themselves from their seats and made for the door. Sandor had told Bronn he wanted Sansa with him the entire time, but she didn't need to be witness to this and he was already beginning to feel the pangs of guilt that he exposed her to Emilio in the first place. Swiveling slightly in his seat, Sandor turned towards Bronn who was in the back of the room. With a knowing look and a nod of the head, Bronn understood immediately and paced towards Sansa.

"Come on, love," Bronn gently implored as he extended a hand to her.

Sansa shifted her stare from Bronn's hand to Sandor, her brow furrowed in confusion and worry. Once more, her eyes seemed to plead with him. She was scared. He could see it in the way her lips trembled and how the pallor of her skin seemed to lighten white as a sheet. He wanted nothing more than to get her out of here, to take her away himself, but he needed to deal with Emilio first. She was just as safe with Bronn as she was with him. He trusted Bronn with his life and therefore he trusted Bronn with her. Yet he couldn't very well tell her that right now. Instead, he reached out and took one of her tiny hands in both of his.

"It's okay, Little Bird."

With a soft nod of her head and a lingering stare, Sansa lifted herself from her seat and followed Bronn out of the room.


Sighing as she followed Bronn from the room, Sansa felt her stomach knotting with anxiety and an annoying pressure on her bladder. Despite her misgivings when it came to Emilio, Sansa had been reluctant to leave Sandor, a feeling which caught her off guard and seemed to have manifested without her consent. It was the Hound, the same man who a few days before committed mass murder at Nestor Royce's party. So why exactly had she been hesitant to leave his side? The question confused Sansa and left her head was spinning. She didn't feel well; her stomach was cramping and she felt as though she might be sick.

"I need to go to the bathroom," Sansa confessed timidly as she turned towards Bronn. Unfazed, the man motioned his head towards the back of the room and flashed a distracted smile.

"It's in the back," Bronn offered while his eyes surveyed the room and his ears seemed to be yearning to hear Sandor's conversation with Emilio.

Sansa worked her way across the open area and towards the bathroom situated on the other side of the card room. She had had to pee the entire time. Remembering how she had sucked down almost half a container of orange juice this morning, Sansa cursed her stupidity at not going to the bathroom before she left. She hadn't spoken up as Mirabelle led her past a powder room on the way towards the parlor and now Sansa was internally reprimanding herself for it. She had made Sandor wait for eight minutes and he had been angry about it. Two more minutes of waiting on his part couldn't have made him any angrier.

During their senior year, Sansa had taken an English class with Podrick and Myranda. The final project was to write a research paper on a topic of their choosing and do a presentation to the class on that topic. Podrick had done his paper on Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer who died after complications with his bladder. During his presentation in class, Podrick had triumphantly described a dinner party that Brahe had attended and how the man had refused to excuse himself to go to the bathroom because it would have been considered poor etiquette. Instead, he held his pee like a fool and later died because of it.

The memory of Podrick's presentation had played in her mind while she sat next to Sandor, listening as he negotiated with Emilio Ventimiglia, a greased up sleaze ball who looked suspiciously like the guy who sang that song "Rico Suave." Their conversation had made her nervous; threats veiled with egotistical tit-for-tat but underneath it all she had sensed the danger. When Sandor had told her she was going to attend him on some business, Sansa's mind had immediately jumped to the worst case scenario. She hadn't known exactly what to expect, but she did expect it to not go well for her. Perhaps he meant to have her killed or raped or both. Instead, Sansa perched next to Sandor, half listening as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat with a bladder full of urine and a head full of thoughts about Tycho Brahe's unfortunate fate. If anything it had offered her mind a distraction. For that she was grateful.

As she stepped into the bathroom and hurried into a stall, Sansa clutched her stomach as a sharp pain reverberated through her middle. Lifting her eyes to the ceiling, Sansa prayed to the God of Glitter that made up the sequenced tiles above her head. Not my period. Please. Of all times, not now.

After releasing her bladder for what she swore was something close to 45 seconds straight, Sansa sighed out her relief and not just because her bladder was now blessedly empty. Her monthly reminder of womanhood was staved off for another day at least and now she was spared the awkward inquiries with Bronn or Sandor or some other unsuspecting male as to where she could find a tampon.

Stepping from the stall and towards the sink, Sansa laughed internally at the thought of trying to ask some mobster for a feminine hygiene product. They may fancy themselves bad asses, but if anything scared a man senseless, it was the mysteries of womanhood.

Lifting her gaze to the mirror, Sansa admired Mirabelle's application of her make up as she washed her hands. The woman had a true talent and could probably pursue a career as a cosmetologist. That is, if she wanted a career. Somehow Sansa sensed Mirabelle was content in her brother's world. From the reflection in the mirror, Sansa could see a stall door open behind her. Startled, she hadn't known anyone else was in the bathroom. Her startle turned to horror as the face that hung in the mirror was not that of a woman, but a man. And it was a face she recognized immediately. It was the security guard who had been posted at the gate of the Royce's party; the one that had scrutinized Sansa and her mother before letting them through, the one that had come after Sansa and Podrick with an assault rifle, the one that Podrick had backed over with his car.

Spinning around, Sansa frantically began inching her way towards the bathroom door. The man's face was bruised and she noticed he walked with a slight limp. Apparently, Podrick had succeeded in injuring the man, but he was still very much alive and filling the tiny bathroom with his seething fury. Backing away from him, Sansa spouted out the only thing that came to mind, the only thing she could think of to potentially stave him off as he paced towards her.

"Stay away from me. I'll tell the Hound you were here and then you'll have to deal with him."

With his face contorting in disgust, the man spat to the ground at Sansa's feet as his lips curled into a devilish smile.

"You think I work for the fucking Hound? I don't answer to him. Never have and never will."

It wasn't possible. She knew who he was. The security guard's face had haunted her nightmares for the past two nights. It was him. She had seen him and he had seen her. If he didn't work for Sandor, then she had no idea why he was here and why he was pulling a gun from underneath his jacket.

Sansa made a frantic dash for the door and had almost pushed her way through when the man swung one arm tight around her neck and brought the other hand up to her mouth.

"If you scream, I'll blow your brains right out of that pretty head of yours. If you fight me, you'll suffer the same fate."

The man tightened his grip on her as she squirmed desperately in his grasp, trying feebly to wiggle her way out of his arms. It was no use as he dragged her from the bathroom with the barrel of his gun pressed against the side of her temple. Sansa squeezed her eyes shut as tears began to form at a furious rate. She wanted to scream, but all that came out were muffled moans as the man pushed his hand harder against her mouth.

And then as if she were reliving her nightmares, Sansa heard the now familiar popping sound, the sound she had mistakenly taken for fireworks the night of the Royce's party. It was coming from the main area of the card room and was accompanied by the splintering sound of furniture being tossed around and glass shattering against the floor.

Sansa's heart pounded hard in her chest as the security guard began pulling her down a hallway towards a door to the outside that had been propped open. From the glaring sunlight that was bleeding into the darkened hallway, Sansa could see a black SUV parked outside with another familiar face waiting next to it. He was yet another security guard from the Royce party, the man who had opened fire in the foyer just moments before Sansa had tried to call out to him for help.

Suddenly infused with a veracious resolve, Sansa jerked hard against the man's arms and felt as his grip loosened at the force. Once more, Sansa flung the weight of her body against the man's hold on her and finally broke through. Running with everything she had, Sansa began working her way back down the hallway, but the security guard was faster than her and beyond that he was stronger. Lunging towards her, the man flew through the air and knocked Sansa over as the force of his body met hers. She hadn't felt herself fall to the floor, but she did feel as the man threw his body on top of her, pressing her against the ground with his weight which was squeezing the breath from her lungs. Desperately Sansa gasped for air as the man pulled his weight off of her and pulled his arm back before striking her across the face. When the force of his hand met her right cheek, Sansa's vision began to blur to black. Not again. No, no, no. Not again. She wasn't going to relive the nightmare of passing out and waking up in the backseat of a car. Furiously, Sansa fought for her consciousness and this time she won. Flipping over from her back to her stomach, Sansa tried to crawl away but felt the man's grimy fingers wrap around her bare calves. A scream escaped her lungs as he began pulling her towards him.

The dim light from the card room was blotted out as Sansa looked up to find the imposing silhouette of a man coming towards her. With a pistol from his gun holster already in his right hand, Sandor aimed at the security guard and fired two rounds. Sansa squeezed her eyes shut at the noise and felt the warmth of blood beginning to saturate her back. She had started to think she had been shot, but as she opened her eyes and saw the lifeless form of the security guard next to her, Sansa knew the blood soaking through her dress wasn't her own.

Sansa heard two more shots ring out above her as Sandor pointed his gun down the corridor behind her. Petrified, Sansa shifted her tear-filled eyes over her shoulder towards the end of the corridor. The man that had been waiting by the SUV was coming towards them, wielding a gun of his own and firing shots back at Sandor. Instinctively, Sansa covered her head and tried curling herself into a tight ball. From all around, she heard shots whizzing by; some of them splintering into the wall and others ending up god-knows-where. After what felt like an eternity, Sansa heard one final shot followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground. A moment later Sansa felt two hands wrap around her wrists followed by a tug as her hands were being pulled away from her head. She didn't want to open her eyes. She didn't want to know who it was. If it wasn't Sandor, then that meant it was the other man, the one that was waiting to take her away to some horrible place.

"You're alright now, Little Bird."

If someone would have told her yesterday that her heart would skip a beat at the Hound's- no, Sandor's- voice, Sansa would have told them that they were crazy. But with a low rasp and a 'Little Bird' Sansa felt tears of relief spilling over her cheeks as she opened her eyes.

Staring down at her was Sandor with blood dripping down his burned cheek. He had been injured yet seemed to be unfazed by it as he scooped her up and pulled her into his arms. With one arm under her legs and the other wrapped tightly behind her back, Sandor carried Sansa down the corridor and out the back door.

As they emerged into the sunlight, Sansa saw as Sandor's men piled hurriedly into cars, their faces glazed over with utter bewilderment. The men's attention was roused as Bronn hurried towards them, carrying a body in his arms as tears hung in his eyes. Setting Sansa down, Sandor strode towards Bronn in quickened paces.

Sansa knew it was him. Something in her gut told her and she didn't want to look, but she did. As she lifted her eyes, Sansa saw his limp form cradled in Bronn's arms, the front of his white apron saturated and sticky with blood. Alonzo's eyes fluttered open and closed as he stared towards the sun and muttered something in Italian on labored breaths.

"He tried to fight. The stubborn bastard tried to fight." Bronn choked back the tears as he ran towards a waiting car and placed Alonzo gently in the backseat.

Suddenly it was as though the world fell silent and all eyes lifted to Sandor, their leader, waiting for him to give a command, to offer some sort of guidance. Without hesitation, Sandor settled into his role as he authoritatively administered his commands.

"Drive him to the nearest hospital," Sandor called out to Bronn before turning to another one of his men. "Go-Go, take six men and go with Bronn. The rest of you follow me back. Marco, call Thomas, the Old Man, Mirabelle, whoever you can get a hold of. Tell them they need to lock it down."

Like a well-oiled machine, each man did as he was bid without argument and with a solemn sort of resolve. In a few hurried paces, Sandor made his way towards Sansa and helped her into the back seat of one of the sedans before sliding in behind her.

As the driver of the sedan peeled out of the parking lot and onto the road, Sandor frantically took Sansa by the arm and swiveled her so that her back was facing him. With a tentative touch, Sandor ran his fingers over the blood stains on the back of her dress.

"Where are you bleeding from?" His voice was heavy with concern, a dark growl from his lips as he scrutinized her form with eyes eager to find some source of the blood.

Shifting in the seat so that she was now facing him, Sansa turned her head over her shoulder and let out a tiny gasp as she saw just how much blood had been soaked up by back of her dress. Running her fingers over her lower back and pressing slightly, Sansa felt for an injury, any howling of pain as her fingertips roved over the areas that were wet with blood. Lifting her eyes to Sandor's anxious stare, Sansa shook her head.

"I'm fine. I think I'm fine. It's not my blood."

"Are you sure?," Sandor pressed incredulously as he grasped her forearms in his large hands and settled his stormy eyes onto her.

"I'm sure. It's fine. I'm fine," Sansa reassured him as she felt the car shift as the driver turned onto the highway at a speeding pace. From the rear window, Sansa could see two other sedans following behind them, both matching their speeds as they fled from the city and back towards the desert highway.

Sansa's attention was stirred as she felt Sandor bring one hand up to cup her chin. Gently, he pulled her gaze back towards him and scrutinized what must have been an emerging bruise or lesion on her face where the man had struck her. Sansa watched as something between rage and remorse pooled in his eyes while the corner of his mouth began to twitch. Unexpectedly, Sandor adjusted both hands until he was cupping her cheeks. As he rested his forehead against hers, Sansa shifted her eyes downwards as he held her there and saw as his chest heaved with each of his breaths. On each exhale, Sansa could hear him mumbling something yet could scarcely make out the words. Steadying herself to listen, Sansa could barely, just barely, hear as Sandor breathed out a mantra of regret. "I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry."

She imagined he hadn't meant for her to hear them yet she had seemed to puzzle them out anyway. Letting go of her, Sandor settled back in his seat with his arms crossed tightly about his chest. The rest of the drive seemed to fly by as Sansa sat in a daze, thinking of everything and nothing at all. Funny how time works, she thought to herself. It can crawl by, seconds feeling like eternity, or it can pass you by before you even realize it, the minutes burning away like wildfire. Racing north on Highway 95, Sansa felt as though they were speeding against time, flying towards an uncertainty that awaited them. She sensed that Sandor's world had been rocked off kilter and that he knew more was coming, a steady push that would turn his existence upside down. This is only the beginning. Shifting her stare towards him, he was adrift in his own thoughts, his mind a million or more miles away.

Before she knew it, they were driving up the front circle of the Mediterranean villa and squealing to a halt. Sansa's heart beat began to quicken and she felt her breath catch in her throat as Sandor helped her from the car. He had instructed Marco to get a hold of someone, anyone, who had stayed behind. Now as they hurried towards the front door, Sansa's stomach flipped at the thought that something could have happened here too, that perhaps Mirabelle or the old man who had treated Sansa kindly the night before might be hurt.

Stepping through the front door, Sansa's mind was immediately set at ease as Mirabelle rushed towards them, tears streaming from her eyes and her lips quivering from crying. Mirabelle stopped dead in her tracks as she approached Sansa and saw the dried blood that was caking on her arms and across the back of the dress.

"Oh my god. Oh, Sansa. What happened?," Mirabelle cried out as she gently placed her trembling hands on either side of Sansa's head. Wordlessly, Sansa let her mouth hang open before closing it again. She didn't know what to tell Mirabelle. She herself had no idea what happened. She was just as clueless as Mirabelle. Before Sansa could respond, the woman let her hands fall to her side as she turned towards Sandor.

"Sandor! What happened?" Her voice cracked with grief and Sansa could see from her blood shot eyes to the streaming of mascara down her cheeks that Mirabelle had been crying for quite some time before they arrived. Someone had told her what happened, but left her with an incomplete picture. Desperately, Mirabelle turned towards her brother for the answers she so badly needed in this moment.

"I don't know. It wasn't Emilio or his men. Alonzo. Alonzo tried to fight. Bronn took him to the hospital." Still caught in a daze, Sandor let his eyes fall to the floor and his brow furrowed as he seemingly tried to make sense of it all in his head.

"It's bad, isn't it?," Mirabelle urged as she frantically grasped Sandor by both of his forearms and settled an insistent stare on him. Wordlessly, Sandor nodded his head as his lifted his eyes to his sister.

"It was him wasn't it? It was that son of a bitch?" Mirabelle's voice was scarcely above a whisper as her eyes widened with fear and disbelief, as if she already knew the answer to her question, but wanted Sandor to tell her otherwise and to let her stand corrected. Once more Sandor wordlessly nodded his head. At that, Mirabelle brought a trembling hand up to her mouth to stifle a gasp before she erupted into soft sobs.

Without hesitation, Sandor pulled his sister into his arms and planted a soft kiss on top of her head.

"It's fine. Mirabelle, it's going to be okay. I didn't see him there," Sandor reassured her as he held her in a tight embrace until her crying had quieted. Suddenly, Mirabelle pulled away from him and turned towards Sansa.

With a look of concern heavy across her face, Mirabelle took Sansa's hands into her own and offered a gentle squeeze.

"Sansa. Baby girl, are you okay?," she asked through sniffles as she brushed the hair away from Sansa's face and scrutinized the bruise that was forming on her cheek.

"I'll be okay," Sansa offered with a tremulous exhaling of breath and a soft smile. For many moments, Mirabelle stood quietly contemplating Sansa, letting her eyes work over the blood stains and the fresh scrapes settled amongst healing cuts across Sansa's skin.

Rousing her from her reverie, Sandor placed a hand on Mirabelle's shoulder and settled his stare on her until she looked up at him.

"I'm going to find out how Alonzo is doing. See to the Little Bird."

With that, Sandor turned towards Sansa and gently placed a hand on her forearm.

"You're alright now," he assured softly before letting his hand once more fall to his side. "I'll be back in a little while."

For the third time in less than 24 hours, Sansa found herself standing beneath the shower head in Mirabelle's claw foot bathtub. Quietly and with a calm that both surprised and disturbed her, Sansa watched as the blood washed from her body and swirled down the drain. It reminded her of her own fate, which seemed to be spiraling in on itself. She thought she understood everything clearly, had it all sorted out into black and white. Now nothing made sense and all she saw were shades of grey, black bleeding into white and white succumbing to black.

After toweling herself off and changing into a pair of shorts and one of Mirabelle's tank tops, Sansa emerged in the upstairs hallway. The house was quiet and astir with a sort of peacefulness that Sansa eagerly soaked up. The setting sun was spilling through the windows that made up the front of the house. Making her way down the stairs in slow steps, Sansa didn't know where her feet where taking her and she found she didn't much care. Her mind played back the events of the past two days, trying desperately to piece everything together. She had been certain that the security guard was one of Sandor's men just as she had been certain that Sandor had meant to have Leon murder Podrick. She had been wrong on both accounts it seemed and couldn't help but feel that perhaps she was wrong about so much more. It was as if she had all the pieces of a puzzle in front of her and had forced them together the wrong way resulting in an inaccurate picture of her situation. Now she was at a loss. Nothing made sense. Nothing at all.

Lost in her thoughts, Sansa found that she had roamed into the hall way that led to the downstairs lounge. Once more, her eyes were drawn to the pictures that hung on the wall and the faces that smiled down at her, warm and proud.

"Do you like old photos?"

Startled out of her daydreaming, Sansa twirled around to find the old man standing behind her, the man who had shown her kindness and pulled her into the alcove to spare her the horror of witnessing Leon's demise. As if he had floated down the hallway, she hadn't heard him come up behind her. His eyes considered her with both genuine sympathy and gentle compassion.

"Oh…I…I don't really know. I was just looking." Sansa let her eyes flitter to the floor as she tucked a damp tress of hair behind her ear.

Chuckling softly, the old man pulled his cigar from his mouth and settled it between his index and middle finger before setting a dreamy gaze on one of the photos.

"It's like walking back through time. At least that's how I feel when I look at them."

The old man allowed his eyes to turn away from the photo as he smiled warmly at Sansa before pointing towards a picture hung to the right of her.

"That woman there is my mother. Believe it or not, I was once a small child. The baby she's holding in her arms is me."

The woman in the photograph was perched on the front steps of a small, but quaint house and cradled a baby in her arms. With brunette pin curls softly framing the delicate features of her smiling face, the woman was a vision of 1940's glamour and beauty; thinned and elongated eyebrows, a slender, slightly upturned nose, and delicately rouged lips.

"She's beautiful," Sansa said, mesmerized as she pondered the woman in the picture.

"Yes. She really was, wasn't she? Everyone said she looked like Gene Tierney. Oh, how she loved that!"

Exhaling a soft laugh, Sansa turned her attention to the photo hung next to the one of the old man's mother. A man stood proudly in uniform, a cigarette resting between his lips as he set an intense gaze towards the camera.

"And that's your father?," Sansa guessed although she really wasn't sure. It could have been anyone really, but the man in the photograph seemed to bear a faint resemblance to the old man.

With a wide grin and a nostalgic reverie filling his eyes, the old man nodded his head as he took a pull on his cigar.

"Yes, the man mean-mugging the camera would be my father," the old man responded as he smiled softly to himself as if silently traipsing through forgotten memories. "He was something else. A good man, but a real son of a bitch sometimes. I don't know why my mother put up with him, but she did and he loved her because of it."

Turning towards his left and working back down the hallway, the old man waved Sansa over to a picture that hung towards the end of the hall.

"The James Dean wanna-be there was me when I was 10. I thought I was a real tough guy." The old man shook his head as he chuckled, his eyes glistening as he looked at the reflection of himself some 55 years in the past.

"That there is a 1965 Mustang Fastback Shelby. My first car and the love of my life back then," the old man mused as he pointed to yet another picture. Sansa let out a tiny giggle as she spied the old man, probably 20 years old, leaning up against the car with his arms crossed about his chest and a boyish smile plastered across his youthful face.

"That's when I went into the service. I was an infantry man during Vietnam. The man to my left died while we were over there. The man to my right. He saved my life. A bomb went off and the force of it knocked me out cold. When I came to, he was carrying me through the brush towards safety."

Sansa scrutinized the picture and felt a pang of sorrow as she studied the face of the man who had lost his life in the war. Furrowing her brow, Sansa settled her attention on the man in the photo who had saved the old man's life. He somehow looked familiar, but she couldn't quite place the resemblance. Before she could inquire, the old man led her to two pictures hung at the end of the hall, one on each side.

"And here at the end is where it all began. These are my grandparents. My father's parents were both Sicilian. They shuffled through Ellis Island just like all the rest. My mother's father was from Florence and my mother's mother was from Berlin. They met at the University."

The photos had been faded with time, but Sansa could still make out the hopefulness gleaming in the eyes of the old man's grandparents, all four of them. The love, the joy, the honesty all stared back at Sansa.

Looping his arm in hers, the old man led Sansa from the hallway with slow, ambling steps until they reached the great room. Through the floor to ceiling windows that made up the far side of the room, Sansa could see the sun retreating to the far horizon as it bled out in brilliant hues of pink and orange.

"After Pearl Harbor, my father joined up with the Army, the 82nd airborne. He knew sooner or later the Americans would get pulled into war. He didn't want to sit around waiting for his draft letter to come in the mail. If he was going to war, he was going on his own terms. That was just the kind of man he was.

He was dropped at Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion. Clearly, he lived to tell about it. He later told me he damn near pissed his pants as he parachuted out of a C-47 and floated to the beach below knowing damn well the Germans were waiting for him. When Victory Day came, my father was still overseas. You see, not everyone got to come home that day and kiss their wives and hug their children. Some men were still at war. My father was one of them."

Entranced, Sansa followed the old man to a balcony that extended off of the great room. The air outside was warm and fragrant with the sweet smells of lavender. Leaning his elbows on the balcony railing, the old man began again as his eyes settled on the sunset displayed beautifully before them.

"When he did come back home, we moved to a pre-dominantly Italian neighborhood outside of San Francisco. War is a funny thing though. It breeds ignorance and hatred. The anti-Italian, anti-German, and anti-Japanese dissent back at home was worse than what he had endured overseas, he once told me. He was just as American as everyone else. He fought just as hard, watched his brothers of war get shot down next to him and lose their lives, no different than the rest of them.

So when he came back home to all that hatred, it really fucked with him for a long time. Our neighborhood was close knit, almost all of the residents tracing their descent back to Italy. Things started to get really seedy; shops and restaurants in the neighborhood were being targeted and attacked. It started small. Windows being smashed in, restaurants being torn up, stores being looted, that sort of thing. Then people started getting hurt. Men, women, kids. It didn't matter. They were being singled out and attacked. The police didn't do a damn thing about it and instead just turned a blind eye to what was going on.

My father had had enough. He rallied the men of the neighborhood to stand up and do something about it. Most of the men answered his call and so he started racketeering, offering protection to businesses in exchange for a cut of their profits. For families that were especially hard hit by the violence, my father offered personal protection and retaliation for money. When things in the neighborhood calmed down, he started opening illegal gambling rackets. That led to loan sharking, which led to extortion. Before he knew it, he had an organized crime syndicate on his hands."

"And your mother, she was okay with all of this?," Sansa interjected, remembering the delicacy that seemed to encase the woman she had seen in the picture. She wondered where a woman like that, seemingly so gentle, soft, and kind, fit into the world of organized crime.

"We were a family, all of us. The men who were involved with him might as well have been blood to my father, to all of our family. They were like brothers, their wives like sisters, their children like his own children. There was a community there, an understanding that no matter what shit life threw at them, they had each other. We all had each other.

I was brought up in the life and I knew no better. It was family to me. I thought everyone had a family like mine. As I got older, I knew I'd continue it on and try to make my father proud. His rules were simple. We didn't get involved with drugs because that was filthy, dirty business. We treated our women with the utmost respect. We were to be stand-up family men; respectable and brave, leaders in our community.

I took over as the boss in 1971. I was 25 at the time and my father's health was failing him. My mother had died a few years earlier and I think he never fully recovered from that. He eventually passed from a heart attack in 1976. From that point on, I took over where he left off."

With a piece of the puzzle falling into place, Sansa gasped and turned a wide eyed stare towards the old man.

"So wait. You…you're…Moriarti?," she inquired as she set a bewildered gaze on the old man's face.

With a knowing smile and a nod of his head, the old man dipped slightly in a playful bow to Sansa.

"Alberto Moriarti."

Shaking her head, Sansa struggled to piece together the rest of it. She had hoped everything would fall into place like a domino effect, but somehow things still weren't adding up.

"But if you're Moriarti and your father started this whole organization, why is the Hou-" stopping herself, Sansa took a deep breath before starting again. "Why is Sandor the head of the Moriarti mafia?"

"Sandor's father was a battle buddy of mine. The man who saved my life, that was Sandor's father. We met during our time in Vietnam and kept in touch here and there once we got back state side. We lost touch for awhile, about 10 or 12 years; he had his life and I had mine.

When I found out his wife had passed away, I reached out to him and we reconnected. Every now and then we'd grab a couple of beers at a local pub and catch up. He talked a lot about Sandor and Mirabelle; what they were doing at school, what their interests were, what sort of trouble they had been getting into. It was never anything major, but I could always tell something bothered him. I knew he had an older son, Gregor. And I knew he and his wife had had a lot of problems with Gregor. Not the typical rebellious teenager sorts of problems that eventually work themselves out. No, these were some major problems. He me told about Sandor's scars, how Gregor had beaten up on Mirabelle and then shoved Sandor's face into a pile of burning leaves. Sandor's father was convinced that Gregor would do him in one day. He always said it jokingly, but I knew he meant it and was afraid."

Alberto let his voice fall off and shook his head in disgust before starting again, turning his gaze towards Sansa.

"Can you imagine that? Being afraid of your own son? A couple years passed and we stayed in touch. Then one day I heard that he had been found beaten to death in his living room and I knew immediately that it was Gregor who had done it. My wife was the one who had told me and she was worried sick for Sandor and Mirabelle. Our hearts went out to those poor kids. They were essentially orphans; no mother, no father, and a psychopath for a brother.

I drove to their house and tried looking for them, but they were gone. My wife insisted we keep looking. We drove damn near all over town trying to find those kids. Then they turned up at a police station. My wife and I fought to take them in, told the police we would happily raise them up. But I was a mob boss and the police knew that. They weren't about to hand two orphaned kids over to me.

I kept up with them anyway and it didn't take long for Sandor to leave his foster home to come and stay with me. Mirabelle was a different story. She stayed behind, her foster 'father' was some fucking politician, a god damn pedophile. We eventually got her out of there though. And the prick is buried somewhere in the desert.

With Sandor and Mirabelle, my wife and I treated them as if they were our own. She had a miscarriage early in our marriage and we were never able to have children. Sandor and Mirabelle became our children, although they were almost grown by the time they came to us. We loved them all the same.

By the time Sandor was twenty, I knew I was getting older and needed to hang it up. I urged him to go to college, make a straight living. But I told him that if he wanted my legacy, he could have it; told him that it wouldn't be easy for him, but I would hang back, grow old, and counsel him the best I could. He chose this life, chose what my father had built for me and what I suppose I built for him. Sometimes I think he regrets it. I think he wishes he could just leave it behind him."

"So why does he stay then?," Sansa quietly inquired as she felt some sense of internal relief as if the cloud of confusion was slowly dissipating.

Alberto turned to Sansa and searched her face with hesitant eyes. Sansa had seen this expression before, first with Mirabelle, then Sandor, and now Alberto. It was as if he wanted to tell her something, to reveal some truth, but stopped the honesty just before it rolled off of his tongue.

"Your father is the district attorney. I imagine he has mentioned the Severelli-Moriarti alliance that is now the Severelli-Moriarti feud."

Intrigued, Sansa wordlessly nodded her head in response.

"Severelli was a temperamental man, a war veteran like my father. He was never the same after the war though, something went wrong in his head. He was violent, ruthless, and vicious. My father reached a shaky alliance with him that I continued on. If you want monsters, Sansa, the men of the Severelli organization are about as close as you're going to get.

And that is why Gregor Clegane, Sandor Clegane's brother, aligned himself with the Severelli mafia. Because Gregor is truly a monster. Right now, the Severelli-Moriarti war is nothing more than the blood feud of the Clegane brothers. It ends when one of them is dead.

Sandor stays because he wants to make his brother pay and answer for all he has done; for his scars, for the abuse of his sister and his mother, and for his father's death."

Sansa was stunned and felt as her hands began to tremble. She didn't know what to say and beyond that she imagined even if she wanted to say something, she probably couldn't even find the words to form a coherent sentence. Shocked into silence, Sansa lifted her eyes to Alberto as he turned towards her and took her hands into his.

"I know you are scared, Sansa. You don't know why you're here or when you get to go home. I can't give you those answers. What I can tell you is this. Sometimes things aren't always what they seem. We think we understand something only to find we were wrong. Very, very wrong. You'll know everything soon. All I ask is that you just try to keep an open mind."

Alberto gave a gentle squeeze on Sansa's hands before releasing them and retreating away from the balcony. His words had hit her like a tidal wave and Sansa was left reeling as she sorted through all of her thoughts. It was as if the flood gates in her mind had finally opened and all the 'what if's' were suddenly washed away. She had awoken this morning hating the Hound. Sansa was beginning to think she had been wrong. Very, very wrong.


Sandor stared at the pieces of his pistol laid out on his desk. He had field stripped it, something the Old Man had taught him how to do. 'It's important you learn how to take care of your own weapons. In our business, that can mean the difference between life and death.' They were simple principles to live by. All of Alberto's philosophies seemed so commonsensical yet the man had a way of making them sound profound, as if he was unveiling some well kept secret of the universe.

Applying his cleaning solvent to the bore brush, Sandor worked the cleaning rod down the barrel of his pistol. In slow, methodical motions he cleaned away the layer of grime that clung to the metal. With deft hands, Sandor worked away at his gun, letting the thoughts flee from his mind as soon as they entered. He needed this; a mindless task to occupy his hands and distract him from his contemplations.

He would have plenty of time to mull over what had happened today. Sandor knew damn well that he would toss and turn the night away replaying the events, trying to puzzle out how things had gotten so fucking out of hand. He imagined it was a bunch of little things, a bunch of small details he had somehow managed to overlook. That's always how these things worked. One mistake leads to another and another still until before you know it your world is crumbling around you.

From the corner of his eye, Sandor saw the door of his office open and the light from the hall filter into the room. Lifting his gaze to the door as he reapplied solvent to the bore brush, Sandor saw Mirabelle slowly enter the room and shut the door quietly behind her. With worry straining her face, Sandor's sister crossed her arms about her chest and tentatively lowered herself into the seat on the other side of his desk.

"What the hell happened today?" As Mirabelle's voice met his ears in a tremulous whisper, Sandor knew she was scared. He felt helpless. He had seen his sister's fear of Gregor resurface and the strong, vibrant woman Mirabelle had grown into suddenly retreated and gave way to the petrified little girl seeking Sandor's protection.

"I don't know," Sandor offered. It was honest. He had been banging his head against a proverbial wall trying to figure it out himself, but had only been able to come up with one thing and he doubted Mirabelle would want to hear what that was. But he was always honest with his sister; he had made a point of it. He did her no favors by sugar coating the truth. "It was his men. Gregor sent a handful of them, probably to get our attention."

Pursing her lips and silently nodding her head, Mirabelle let her eyes fall to her hands which where folded in her lap.

"Alonzo didn't make it, did he?," she asked although something in her voice suggested she already knew the answer.

"No. No, he didn't," Sandor replied as he plunged the bore brush once more into the barrel of his gun.

In the back seat of a car and cradled in Bronn's arms, the man had died on the way to the hospital. Bronn had been close to Alonzo and often referred to the man as the only father he ever really had. The loss would affect all of them, but Sandor knew without a doubt Bronn would take it the hardest.

With her head down turned and her hands wringing nervously in her lap, Mirabelle had fallen silent. Sandor was at a loss for what to tell her, for what to do for her. He didn't know what she needed in this moment. After sitting in silence for what felt like an eternity, Mirabelle abruptly pushed herself from the chair and paced in front of his desk, chewing her fingernail before turning towards him.

"What are you doing, Sandor?" Her voice was pleading as she came to a stop and placed her hands on his desk, leaning her weight against it and steadying her frantic stare on him.

"What does it look like I'm doing, Mirabelle?," Sandor groaned in response as his hands continued to work with the barrel of his gun.

"I don't care about your fucking guns. You know damn well that's not what I'm talking about," Mirabelle wailed out in response as she continued her nervous pacing.

"Then please do me a favor and tell me what the hell you are talking about," Sandor shot back. "I'm not in the mood for this shit right now." In truth he wasn't. He knew what she wanted to talk about and he wasn't sure he was ready to talk about it. He had made a mistake-a fucking terrible mistake- by bringing Sansa with him to Las Vegas. She could have been killed. Or worse, she could have been carted off by Gregor's men. He didn't want to think about it which meant he certainly didn't want to talk about it.

"Sansa. What are you doing with the poor girl?," Mirabelle affirmed as she pulled the barrel and bore brush from Sandor's hands and pushed them gently to the side of the desk.

Sandor obliged and settled back in his seat, resting one elbow on the arm rest of his chair and rubbing his forehead with the other hand.

"Sandor she thinks you murdered her mother, her friends, all those poor people at that party. She thinks it was you who did that. And now you bring her here, take her on a little adventure to Las Vegas that damn near got her killed."

And there it was. The truth he had been avoiding. But now that it was placed in front of him, Sandor couldn't understand why he hadn't told Sansa yet, why he had been holding onto the truth. He had told himself it was too complicated, it would involve Sansa knowing too much.

"I thought that the less she knows, the better. That's why I haven't told her." Sandor spoke truly. 'The truth will set you free,' the Old Man had told him last night as they argued over it. Sandor knew Alberto was right. Alberto was always right, a fountain that spouted the fucking truth.

"The less she knows the better? Better for you that is. Not for her."

Sandor snapped his stare up at Mirabelle's words. He wanted to be angry with her. He wanted to tell her to get the hell out and leave him be. But he couldn't because she was right and she knew she was right. Mirabelle was the only person who saw right through to his core; through all the anger and violence and rage and bullshit, Mirabelle knew him and knew what motivated him. A sister's intuition she had called it.

There was no use trying to pretend with Mirabelle. Relenting, Sandor sighed deeply and rubbed his hands over his face as he let his head lean into the back of his chair.

"I thought that she'd be safe with me today. I didn't want to leave her behind here. I was afraid something would happen and I wouldn't be here. So I brought her with me to meet with Emilio. If I had known Gregor was going to send his men, I obviously wouldn't have fucking gone."

Sandor broke off in a sudden silence after facing what he had been avoiding all afternoon and evening since coming back from Vegas. Suddenly, he felt the frustration build within him and released it as he pounded a fist hard against his desk, sending smaller pieces of his gun to go rattling over the edge and to the floor.

"Goddamnit Mirabelle, I thought I was doing the right thing," his voice bellowed out.

Mirabelle didn't flinch and she didn't cower in fear. Instead, she calmly picked herself up to her feet and deliberately paced towards Sandor. Crouched in front of him, Mirabelle placed her hands gently on his knees and lifted her stare intently to him.

"You want to do the right thing, Sandor? Then tell her the truth. Tell her everything, from beginning to end. You owe her that at the very least. The girl is scared to death. She doesn't know what the hell is going on or who those men were that tried to take her today. Tell her."

He did owe it to Sansa, that much was true. Somewhere deep within him, in a place he had tucked away and buried with rage, Sandor had begun to reel at the thought that Sansa saw him as a monster. He had sworn up and down that he could care fucking less and that it made no difference to him, but it did, truly it did. Ready or not, he needed to tell her; for her sake and for his.

Placing his hands on top of Mirabelle's, Sandor nodded his head and turned his gaze down towards his baby sister who was staring up at him with all the adoration and trust she always seemed to regard him with.

"You're right. She needs to know why she's here and why she can't go home right now. I'll lay it all out for her, but not tonight. Tonight we all need some time."

Sandor watched as Mirabelle's face lit up into a smile and the worry seemed to retreat from her eyes. Lifting herself to her feet, Mirabelle wrapped her arms around Sandor's neck as she pulled him into an embrace.

"I love you, Sandy," she whispered before releasing her arms from his neck and slowly retreated towards the door of his office.

Turning away from her and picking up the barrel of his gun, Sandor sighed out an exhale of breath with a half-smile tugging on his lips.

"Yeah. I guess I fucking love you too."

Chapter Text

 Gods and Monsters

Chapter 5

 5


"Judged for their sins and raised from their cold crypts, the dead shall rise up and take the earth as their kingdom once more. With those that pass before us, we are reminded that the only certainty of life is death as it comes for us all. No man, no woman, no child, not the rich, not the poor, not the wise, not the foolish are exempt from its calling."

Sansa shifted in front of the grave of a man she barely knew, but a man who had nonetheless shone a tiny sliver of light into what had become the nightmare of her life. Despite the meager respite from an oak tree overhead, the morning sun was beating hot against her skin. Mirabelle glanced sideways at her, considering Sansa with a knowing a look; a look that seemed to say 'I know this must be hard for you. And it's hot out here. And the smell…'

The graveyard in which Alonzo was being put to rest had a distinct, acrid smell. Something between nature and death. The intersection of something natural and unnatural. It was suffocating and through the gasps and sobs of the funeral goers, Sansa knew they smelled it too. It wasn't the trees, nor was it was the tufts of grass that struggled to survive in the desert climate. No, it was something else entirely.

"We are masons of our fate. Stone by stone, we build until our cities of retribution are dashed and we enter into life eternal. All that is gold turns to dust and all that is flesh and bone shall be cast in the light of the Kingdoms of Heaven. Cursed is the man who values the mortal riches over the riches of the immortal soul."

Standing between Sandor and Mirabelle, Sansa allowed her eyes to wander over the crowd of people gathered around Alonzo's funeral plot. Men in black suits with hardened faces that betrayed nothing of their emotions, women gratefully accepting handkerchiefs from said men and delicately dabbing away at tears. And the flowers. Bouquets of flowers- red flowers, yellow flowers, blue flowers, and pink ones, big, small, simple, elaborate- Alonzo's resting place was going to look like a garden. And rightfully so, Sansa thought to herself. He deserved a garden in the desert.

Sansa felt her mind wandering as the priest continued his final words on a voice that bellowed amongst the graves. Situated in the back, Sansa turned her head and let her gaze hover over her right shoulder as she studied the expanse of headstones behind her. The cemetery was old and supposedly haunted by the souls of the bodies laid to rest here. Mirabelle had told her as much. The story had elicited goosebumps to prickle Sansa's skin and her mind to wander with a morbid curiosity.

Statues of angels were dotted throughout the cemetery, many missing heads and chipped away with the relentlessness of time. They looked to Sansa like faceless horsemen of death, there to bring you to the other side on decaying marble wings. Directly behind her, Sansa noticed a small head stone nestled amongst a patch of moss. Squinting to decipher the name, she realized it was the grave of a man, a man who had died at the age of 20 about 75 years ago. A small, mournful poem had been engraved on his headstone and the inscribed letters were filled with lace-like lichen. Even our attempt at memorial eventually decays away. A small bouquet of dried flowers rested at the base of the man's headstone, probably put there many years ago by god-knows-who. Dried flowers on an early grave. Something about it sent a shock of sorrow through Sansa's body until it settled heavily in her heart.

Silently, Sansa said a prayer for the man; the dead man in front of her and the dead man who was…well…underneath her. Startled, Sansa realized she was standing on his grave. With her eyes widening, she stepped forward a few steps, retreating away from Mirabelle and Sandor. Feeling Sandor's watchful eyes on her, Sansa had expected him to reach out and pull her back towards him. He had been rather vigilant over her the past couple of days, discreetly ensuring she was never too far out of his sight. From the corner of her eye, Sansa saw as Sandor's crossed arms unfolded and fell to his side. Settling his gaze on her, he willed her to look at him and Sansa felt herself oblige as she fleetingly let her eyes meet his. He pondered her quizzically and perhaps even apprehensively, as if he were afraid she might flee and he might lose her as she darted between mausoleums. The thought brought a soft smile to creep across her lips, a smile which oddly enough seemed to reassure Sandor. He nodded his head gently and allowed a half smile in return before he steadied his stare straight ahead once more.

It wasn't like she was going to run off anywhere. It's not like she would get very far with the entirety of his mafia family in attendance at Alonzo's funeral. Besides it was disrespectful to trample on the resting place of the dead. 'You wake the dead as you walk amongst them.' Her grandmother had told her that once. Now that she thought about it, her grandmother Tully had told her a great many things about death.

'Death comes in threes, child. Always in threes.' Sansa had been thirteen when her grandfather passed away and she still remembered her grandmother's solemn words spoken on a hiss of a whisper. She remembered the sickening smell of carnations filling the tiny church vestibule, the hushed voices strained with grief and the orbs of flickering candle light that kissed the stone walls of the church. She didn't cry as she stood over her grandfather's body tucked thoughtfully in a satin lined casket clutching a black beaded rosary in his hands. And his hands. Overwhelmed with curiosity, Sansa had touched one of them, gently wrapping her delicate fingers around his stiff, lifeless appendages. Horrified, she found that his skin felt waxy and the familiar age spots that dotted his hands were curiously missing, covered over with what looked to be some sort of makeup. He hadn't looked himself, not in the least. It was as though a waxen body double had crawled into the casket and was passing itself off as her grandfather Tully. Pondering whether or not it was truly her grandfather's body laid out before her, Sansa hadn't seen her grandmother fall in by her side until the woman offered her ominous words which harkened the trining of death.

And death. Over the smell of carnations, Sansa had deciphered its scent; that same unnatural scent that was filling the cemetery. Her grandmother had reeked of it. Not two months after her grandfather's funeral, Sansa was yet again clothed in the only black dress she owned at the time and forced to wear a pair of black mary jane shoes that pinched her toes and rubbed on the back of her heels. This time it was her grandmother's body that she stood over, looking on at the skin seemingly taut against the old woman's skeletal frame and stifling a gag at the smell of carnations, a smell she was swiftly beginning to dread. Carnations and death.

Six months later, death had come calling for her uncle Brandon. A month prior, Sansa had shuffled through the stacks of magazines and newspapers that littered the coffee table in the Stark household family room. Shoving a stack to the side, a cascade of glossy covered magazines had careened off of the table and to the floor. With a groan, Sansa had bent down to clean up her mess, but had abruptly stopped when she spotted a folded up newspaper peeking out from underneath the latest edition of Time magazine. The headline read 'Moriarti Underboss Indicted on Racketeering and Extortion, District Attorney Brandon Stark Courts Death.'

'Death comes in threes…' Clutching the newspaper with tears accumulating at the corners of her eyes, Sansa had brought it to her father and through gasping sobs told him what her grandmother had whispered to her on a stale breath that reeked of death. Her father had remained silent for many moments, recoiling slightly from the newspaper that had been laid on his desk in front of him. He believed her. She could see it in his eyes which flickered with a strange sort of understanding. Despite this, he had offered what reassurance he could. 'Sansa, your grandmother Tully was a very superstitious woman. This is the same woman that didn't make a decision without consulting her astrological charts.' It had been true. Her grandmother was very much a devout follower of many occult practices, astrology chief among them. Contracts should never be signed during the mercury retrograde and matters of the heart were not to be discussed when the moon traveled through Capricorn, according to her grandmother.

Sansa had been twelve when her grandmother delved headlong into her birth chart and unsympathetically shared what she saw, detail after brutal detail. 'Your moon resides in the seventh house of marriage, which is ruled by Venus. And do you know what sign has its fall in Venus, child? It's Virgo, your moon sign! Love will come with much difficulty for you, Sansa; much tragedy too. You had best know that now before the boys start coming around and your heart starts breaking and you mope around wondering why on earth love has to be so hard for you. It's that damned seventh house of yours!' With identical faces agape with shock, Sansa and her mother had exchanged a wide eyed stare; Sansa's eyes pooling with tears and her mother's with anger. 'Mother! Sansa will have boys lined up around the corner. So many that Ned won't know what to do with himself. She will have no problems finding love,' Catelyn had chided as she protectively squeezed Sansa into an embrace. The boys hadn't even started coming around yet, not then at least, but Sansa always remembered what her grandmother said; when her prom date left her alone and dancing with her father, her junior year of high school when the boy she had been hopelessly in love with turned out to be an insufferable prick, when she didn't seem to operate on the same wavelength as any of the guys her age. 'That damned seventh house of yours!' Damned, indeed.

'Oh Catelyn! Easy for you to say!' her grandmother had retorted, undeterred and resolved to counsel Sansa on her astrological maladies. 'Your marriage to Ned was blessed by the cosmos from the start. As was my marriage to Hoster. I will follow that man to the grave should he go before me!' And he had gone before her and true to her word, Sansa's grandmother followed her grandfather, the absolute love of her grandmother's life, through the great divide to see him on the other side of the veil. And not long after, Sansa yet again garbed herself in black, stuffed her feet into mary janes a half size too small and mourned the passing of her uncle Brandon, the man who courted death and didn't live to tell the tale.

Lost in a daze of her memento mori musings, Sansa had only half noticed that the priest had completed his funeral sermon and was now beckoning the mourners to say their final farewells. One by one, the funerals goers filed by Alonzo's grave; many cried, some lightly touched their fingertips to their lips and then to the casket, a few murmured bittersweet words of 'see you on the other side' followed by a solemn salute. Sansa remained where she was and made no move to step forward, not until she was prompted. After the others had had their final moment, Sandor stepped forward, passing Sansa until he stood in front of Alonzo's casket. Mirabelle fell in next to his side and gently rested her head against his shoulder while gazing blankly at the flower-covered casket.

Folding her hands in front of her, Sansa didn't know what to do. She felt like an intruder, an outsider gawking at someone else's sorrow and loss. She too had experienced her own sorrow, her own loss and yet the others had hardly seemed to notice. Too preoccupied with the aching in their own hearts, they didn't notice her aching heart. Or perhaps they did, but they had mistakenly assumed that she was mourning Alonzo's passing too. After pulling herself away from her brother's side, Mirabelle tentatively paced towards Sansa with fresh tears forming in her eyes.

"Let's give him a moment," Mirabelle whispered while glancing back at her brother and looping her arm in Sansa's.

Sansa gave a mindless nod in reply as Mirabelle led her through the graveyard and back towards the waiting sedan. Turning back, Sansa saw Sandor still standing in front of Alonzo's grave. He looked as though the weight of the world was resting upon his shoulders and he was struggling to keep it all in place. She had seen that look before from her father as he would gaze out the window of his office with a thousand-mile stare. It seemed odd to her that these two men, Sandor Clegane and Ned Stark, were on the opposite sides of the law, constantly working against one another from the shadows, yet shared certain similarities.

As she climbed into the sedan, Sansa welcomed the coolness of the leather seat against her skin and wiped away the beads of sweat that had formed on her brow. She gazed out the window, contemplating the graveyard and daydreaming about its purported ghosts and ghouls that stirred from their eternal slumber by night. Mirabelle was studying her, peering towards her with watchful eyes. Sansa knew because she could feel it. It was something Mirabelle seemed to share with her brother; the ability to bore through people with just a look from their steely grey eyes.

"I told him it would have been better, kinder for you to forgo the funeral," Mirabelle suddenly confessed, breaking the awkward silence that had begun to fill the back seat of the car. "God knows he doesn't fucking listen to me half the time."

Sansa shifted her gaze towards Mirabelle and cocked her head to the side. Better and kinder. And dangerous too. If she knew Sandor, and she surmised she was beginning to, he would have refused for fear that something might happen to her while she was out of his sight.

Mirabelle confirmed as much as she relayed her conversation with her brother; how she had pleaded with him to let Sansa stay behind, how Sansa didn't need to be dragged to a funeral. In the end, Sandor had agreed with Mirabelle, but adamantly refused to leave Sansa behind.

Nodding her head silently, Sansa turned once more to look out the window and saw as Sandor retreated from Alonzo's grave and weaved his way through the graveyard, his hands shoved in his pockets and concern lining his face. As he approached the sedan parked in front of them, Sansa sat up and, unbidden, allowed her eyes to widen in confusion. Mirabelle exhaled a soft giggle as she shifted her stare towards the car in front of them.

"He'll ride with Bronn. Bronn needs him right now," Mirabelle assured with a forlorn smile creasing her rouged lips. Sansa nodded her head in understanding. She had seen Bronn sparingly over the past three days, but each time he had looked worse for the wear, a picture of grief taking its toll.

"For now, it's you, me, and Thomas. Ain't that right Tommy boy?," Mirabelle shouted towards the driver of the car. Thomas was a younger man, quiet and contemplative, but not someone to underestimate and certainly no one to trifle with. Sansa hadn't been told that by Mirabelle, but had guessed as much. More often than not, Thomas was ordered to watch over Mirabelle and why else would Sandor entrust Mirabelle's safety to the man if he wasn't up to par with the task?

For the rest of the drive back to the Moriarti mansion, Sansa remained silent and politely listened as Mirabelle filled the car with chatter. She was clearly a woman who could not abide by silence, uncomfortable or not. As the funeral procession pulled into the half circle drive of the mansion, Sansa gratefully undid her seat belt and stepped from the car. Mirabelle led her to the expansive back patio of the mansion where other funeral goers were now gathering, mingling amongst one another to drown their sorrows in food, drink, and conversation.

Seeking shelter from the pounding sun beneath an overhang, Sansa perched herself on the stone ledge that formed a perimeter around the outdoor patio of the Moriarti mansion and tried to remain inconspicuous. No one seemed to notice her except Sandor, of course, but then again he always seemed to notice her. Swinging her feet back and forth while she contemplated nothing in particular, Sansa could feel him looking at her. Lifting her eyes slightly and peering through her eyelashes, he was indeed looking her way from the other side of the patio. His eyes considered her with concern as he stood amongst a group of men, clearly only half engaged in the conversation. He had been making his rounds through the crowds of people; shaking hands, offering his commiseration, obliging as his men pulled him into conversations.

Three days had passed since the incident in Las Vegas and the house had been astir with Alonzo's funeral preparations. Every day there was a new face loitering about; men in suits with stern looks straining their eyes and pulling their lips into scowls, elegant women corralling unruly small children, old ladies with thick Italian accents meandering about the kitchen, preparing unimaginable amounts of food and offering one another tearful condolences over steaming pots of marinara sauce. Sansa had quickly gotten lost in the shuffle, hardly noticed as the men sequestered themselves in the basement lounge to smoke cigars, drink whiskey, and gamble away their sorrows while the women filled the kitchen to drown their sorrows in tiramisu, Chianti, and chit-chat.

The first night Sansa had obliged the invitation to socialize despite her internal misgivings, letting the Italian "mothers"- as Mirabelle called them- fawn over her, offer her plate after plate of food, and regale her with stories of their days as young girls growing up in post war Italy. Sansa had smiled graciously, nibbled on risotto and bruschetta, sipped on a cocktail of limoncello and soda water, and exhibited the social etiquette her mother had brought her up in. But on the inside she was screaming. It felt wrong, all of it. Why the hell was she forced to be a part of this? What did she have to do with any of it? She was a bird in a cage put on display for all the women to 'ooh' and 'aah' over as they stroked her auburn hair, so unlike their own, and giggle at how pale her skin was and blue her eyes were.

The second night she had bowed out, hid herself away in what was now considered her bedroom and feigned an upset stomach when Mirabelle had come to retrieve her. Smiling sweetly and nodding her head in understanding, Mirabelle's eyes had flashed with a sort of disappointment at Sansa's refusal, yet the woman had left her alone all the same and for that Sansa had been grateful. Collapsing to the floor and pulling her knees tight to her chest, she had let the tears come, the tears she had been hiding behind fake smiles and acquiescent courtesies. With the women downstairs laughing and eagerly talking over one another, she doubted they heard her as she sobbed her own sorrow. She too was mourning her dead, but unlike them, she hadn't done so over plates of Italian cuisine with dozens of close friends offering warm hugs and reassuring condolences spoken with loving words. She was alone in her sorrow, alone in the darkness and stillness of the bedroom with only the full moon offering its cold, lunar embrace on silver streams of light pouring through the window.

Lowering herself to the ground, Sansa had cried until the tears saturated the carpet below her, until the ache in her heart had numbed to the extent that the pain was now tolerable, until the assault of sadness had subsided and she drifted into sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Sansa had awoken to Mirabelle crouched down next to her, stroking her hair with a look of shock plastered across her face. 'Holy shit, girl! Why are you sleeping on the ground?' Sansa hadn't answered, but as Mirabelle flicked on the lights and saw Sansa's swollen eyes and nose red from crying, she had understood and looked as though she might burst into tears herself. If anything, Mirabelle was empathetic, seemingly sharing the burden of other people's grief and if anyone understood a little of Sansa's grief, it would be Mirabelle.

Last night, the third night, Sansa had once more declined the invitation to join the other ladies in the festivities of their mourning. She hadn't needed to feign a physical ailment. She had been rolling around in bed half of the day with cramps like nothing she had ever felt before. If she hadn't known any better, Sansa would have sworn her uterus was turning itself inside out. A hot shower, two cups of jasmine tea with honey, and three Midol later she had finally started to feel somewhat back to normal again; normal enough to throw on a black cotton maxi dress before emerging from the bedroom and out into the darkened hallway.

As Sansa approached the staircase, she could hear laughter pouring from the kitchen and up the stairs to meet her ears. Biting her lip, she contemplated joining them, but almost immediately vetoed her own contemplation. She wasn't up for spending time with the other women and feeling out of place. She already felt out of place, she didn't need them to remind her of that. Lifting her eyes slightly, Sansa gazed up the staircase that led to the level above her.

The third floor of the mansion was unknown to her, something she had only fleetingly noticed. It hadn't occurred to her what might be housed on the third floor although she supposed it didn't rightly matter. The bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and parlor were the only rooms of the house she had needed to make use of. Reflecting back, it had seemed to her that even then she was escorted from one room to another, shuffled about where she was wanted or needed as she went through the motions. A strange sort of curiosity had begun to tug at her as her mind ran wild with ideas as to just what might be on the upper-most level of the house. 'A weapons cache,' she had mused to herself. 'No, a library. Or perhaps a music room filled with instruments.' Her heart at skipped a beat at the last possibility. Refusing to spend the evening rolling around and sobbing in the fetal position on the floor, Sansa had resigned herself to delve into her curiosity and occupy her mind with a little adventure to the third floor.

With the women stuffing their faces with pastries and drinking espresso out of itty bitty doll cups, Sansa had convinced herself no one would notice if she slipped away, melting into the shadows. She had all but stopped breathing when the thought occurred to her. 'I could leave. I could forget about the third floor and slip away into the night instead.' She was an hour and a half north of Las Vegas; she had been sure to commit that to memory. The men were drinking themselves into oblivion in the basement lounge. Chances were they could barely see straight, let alone have enough senses about them to see to it that the little bird didn't fly away. 'Little bird. He calls me little bird.' If the thought of running away had stopped her breathing, that thought- the recollection of Sandor's term of endearment for her- had nearly stopped the beating of her heart. Her head was screaming at her, irate with a fury that demanded she take the opportunity that had been given to her; to leave, to run, to get out of there. But something else, something strange and dark and powerful, had settled in her body and cemented her feet to the floor, making them feel like cinder blocks attached to her legs.

She could not move and somehow the thought of running away scared her more than the thought of staying. She had come to believe that Sandor and Mirabelle would not hurt her. In fact, she had come to know that with a certainty. What she didn't know and was still left to wonder about was why other people had been sent to come after her and had tried to hurt her. In the darkness of night, those people could still be out there, waiting for her to slip away so that they might snatch her up. That thought alone had been enough to send her scurrying up the stairs and towards the third floor of the mansion, content in that moment just to explore the upstairs of which she knew nothing about.

Without the residual light from the first floor, the third floor was much darker than the second. Squinting her eyes to adjust against the darkness, Sansa had tentatively stepped forward in slow steps, shuffling her bare feet along the carpet to avoid stubbing her toes on any lurking pieces of furniture. Half of the top floor was an open area, a loft of sorts with cozy couches and arm chairs adorned with decorative pillows. Surprised by how unassuming it looked compared to the rest of the house, Sansa allowed a wistful half smile to crease her lips. It reminded her of home and with that thought she felt her smile erode away. Turning around, Sansa spotted a hallway situated adjacent to the loft area and at the end of the hall there was light spilling out from underneath a closed door.

She had known it would have been best to turn back, to convince herself that nothing of importance resided on the third floor and resign herself to retreat back downstairs. With a panging of curiosity, Sansa disobeyed the internal urging and slowly traversed the room with soft steps. The voices from the kitchen had ebbed to a faint murmuring as she made her way down the hallway and towards the door at the end. If someone was in the room, they were quietly going about their business, whatever it may be. Sansa had heard nothing; not the faintest whisper of voices, nor the softest of footsteps. All was quiet, or so it had seemed.

Reflecting back, Sansa still had no idea what had possessed her to lift her hand to the knob and try to open the door. She imagined her curiosity had begun to outweigh any sort of fear that was left lingering in the back of her mind. Jiggling the doorknob, Sansa had been quick to realize the door had been locked and the secrets of the room at the end of the hall were meant to remain intact. Sighing half in disappointment and half in frustration, Sansa had decided that nothing interesting resided on the third floor. No weapon caches, no library, and certainly no musical instruments that she could occupy herself with. When she had spun around to return back downstairs, Sansa had careened into a looming figure standing behind her. She had nearly fallen on her ass as she stumbled backwards from the force at which she had bounced off of the obscured form. Suddenly, two hands had emerged from the darkness and encircled her forearms, steadying her to her feet and not letting go once she had found her footing.

"I'm sorry," Sansa had automatically squeaked out on a breathless whisper.

"Are you lost?," the figure had retorted with an irritated rasp and Sansa had known immediately who the voice belonged to. Come to think of it, Sandor hadn't needed to say anything. Sansa had sensed it was him; his size, the strength of his grip on her forearms, the smell of whiskey and musk had all clued her into the fact that Sandor had come up behind her although she hadn't heard him approach.

"No…I…I just…" Suddenly feeling her heart beat frantically in her chest, Sansa struggled over her own words, trying to come up with something to tell him.

"Well?" Sandor had pulled her closer to him when Sansa tried to squirm away. His grip was iron tight on her forearms and by the way he tugged on her until their bodies were flush in the darkness, Sansa had known he wasn't letting her off the hook that easy.

"I wanted to see the rest of the house." Swallowing hard, Sansa had settled on telling him the truth. Well, a partial truth. She hadn't really cared about the rest of the house. She was bored, anxious, and uncomfortable, both by her cramps and by the thought of spending time with the women downstairs. She had doubted he wanted to hear all of that so she decided only to tell him the first bit of it.

Despite the darkness, Sansa could tell that Sandor had been contemplating her. She imagined if the lights had been on he would have been staring at her through narrowed eyes, studying her with an icy scrutiny until he spoke once more. When he did finally speak, his voice had darkened with something between agitated anger and bitter amusement.

"Don't lie to me, girl. Remember what I said about lying."

"I'm not lying!," she had abruptly responded, her defiance dangerously testing his mood.

Sansa's instinct to pull away and free herself from his grasp was met with his hands tightening once more around her forearms as he tugged her back towards him. Despite what she imagined was an effort to be somewhat gentle, the tug manifested as more of a yank which elicited a tiny yelp as Sansa stumbled forward into him. Still grasping her by the forearms, Sandor pulled her into him until her tiny balled fists and forearms rested against his chest.

"Sandor! Please, you're hurting me." That had been a lie, a lie he must have believed because he had broken his grip on her forearms and let his arms fall to his side. She couldn't read his face through the darkness, but she could feel the sense of pride and disbelief as he heard his own name pass her lips even if she was asking him to let her go.

"Sansa..." He had said her name almost apologetically and as if he had meant to say something else, something that was weighing on his mind. A heaviness had settled between them and it was only then that Sansa realized that despite him letting her go, her hands and forearms were still pressed against his chest. She could feel his heart pounding, the steady beat pulsing hard against her skin. Suddenly, she had felt one of his arms snake around the small of her back, his fingers eagerly gripping the side of her waist as he pressed her even closer into him. With his other hand cradling the back of her head, his fingers nestled and intertwined amongst the wavy locks of her hair.

"I'm sorry. Just let me go please," Sansa had whined on a tremulous whisper, not understanding what was happening and entirely confused by her body's reaction to him. He was strong, so much stronger than her, and seemed to see right through to her core. He was harsh and unpredictable with his moods, but protective and somehow gentle with her despite his gruff demeanor and fearsome reputation. It was unsettling. It was troubling. It was exhilarating.

"And if I don't want to?" Feeling his breath hot against her cheek, Sansa knew he had brought his face closer to hers. It should have scared her and she knew that, but even if she wanted to, Sansa couldn't help the shockwaves she felt surging through her body. She had remained completely motionless; afraid to move, afraid not to move, not knowing what to say or what to do. Instead, she hadn't said anything, but rather dropped her head so that her gaze resided somewhere towards the floor.

In the end, Sandor had been the one to pull away, uncoiling his arm from around her back and disentwining his fingers from her hair before shoving a hand in his pocket and pulling out a key. Standing in the darkened hallway, Sansa had heard the sound of metal scrape against metal as Sandor unlocked the door at the end of the hallway. With her eyes still glued to the floor, Sansa had seen the light in the periphery of her vision as it poured into the darkness from the opened door. Lifting her gaze ever so slightly, Sansa saw his silhouette hovering in the door frame, his hulking figure barely contained within the opening.

"Goodnight, Sansa." That was all he had said before turning away from her and shutting the door behind him.

Shaking her head and uncrossing her legs, Sansa broke herself from the reverie. She felt a blush slowly creeping across her cheeks and down her neck. She had been replaying the scenario in her head all morning, unable to stop the memory from meandering its way back into the forefront of her mind and embarrassed that she had been fixated on it. It's not like he had kissed her. He hadn't even really embraced her. But something about the way he had touched her, the way his fingers seemed to eagerly find their place on her body… And there she went again thinking about it. She had to stop. She had to occupy her mind with something else, anything else.

Lifting her gaze, Sansa saw Mirabelle seated next to Bronn, one arm gently draped around his shoulders while the other rested lightly on his arm. Resting his elbows on the tops of his thighs, the man was cradling his face in his hands and by the way his chest seemed to subtly heave, Sansa could tell he was crying. Others looked on sympathetically, nodding their approval at Mirabelle who flashed a half smile in return as she rubbed Bronn's back in a comforting gesture.

'Death comes in threes, child. Always in threes.'

Scanning the clusters of bodies piled onto the patio, Sansa considered her grandmother Tully's ominous words. If death came in threes, who would be next? Which soul sauntering about, eating meatballs and drinking wine, would add to Alonzo's trine? Or perhaps Alonzo was preceded in death. Podrick Payne, Myranda Royce, Catelyn Stark, Charlotte Royce, Nestor Royce. Sansa only needed to remember the massacre at the Royce's party to realize that death had exceeded its multiplicity.

Suddenly the thought occurred to her: how many funerals had she missed? How many people that she once knew were now buried beneath the cold ground to rot away for eternity? And how many people were beginning to think they might need to add Sansa Stark to the list of dead?

The thought elicited angry tears to form from her eyes and spill hot against her cheeks. Sansa flicked the sunglasses from off of her head and pushed them down over her eyes. She didn't want people to see her crying, to ask questions, or worse, to pretend to know what she was upset over and attempt to console her.

The crowd on the patio was starting to thin out, many retreating inside for respite from the glaring noonday sun. Sandor remained engaged in a conversation with three other men, each animatedly gesturing with their hands as they talked. In contrast, Sandor remained stoic with his arms crossed about his chest, nodding every now and then and speaking here and there when a question was posed to him. However, his stare remained more or less on Sansa, every once and awhile breaking away as he addressed one of the men. Eventually, Sansa watched as Sandor shook each of the man's hands and clapped one of them on the back before breaking away. She had expected him to get pulled into another conversation, for yet another person to come up to him and unload whatever was on their mind. Instead, Sandor made his way towards her, his hands tucked into his pockets as he approached in casual strides.

With her heart steadily beginning to beat faster, Sansa sat up straight and mindlessly twirled a strand of hair around her index finger as she desperately tried to occupy her hands which were now trembling. Sandor remained silent as he lowered himself to sit down next to her, resting his forearms on knees while his fingers interlaced with one another. For many moments he said nothing and Sansa began to feel an urge to fill the silence. Apparently, like Mirabelle, Sansa was not one who handled sudden silences well. At least not when it came to Sandor. She suddenly felt a nervous need to talk.

"I'm sorry for your loss. Alonzo was a good man." It was all Sansa could think to say. It was true. She was sorry for his loss and Alonzo was a good man, but Sansa couldn't help the bitterness that tinged her voice.

Turning his gaze towards Sansa, Sandor pondered her with amused disbelief before shifting his eyes back in front of him.

"My loss…" His voice trailed off as he squinted against the sun and contemplated the mourners still lingering about the patio. Sitting up while he huffed a small laugh, Sandor swiveled his stare towards Sansa once more and reached out one of his large hands towards her face.

Although she hadn't flinched, Sansa felt her breath catch in her throat as Sandor's fingertips brushed her cheek. Carefully, he pulled the sunglasses from off of her face and sealed his lips in a scowl as he contemplated her eyes still wet with tears. Something seemed to change in him in that moment. Sansa watched as his eyes seemed to widen ever so slightly as he shook his head slowly.

"You've lost more than I have, little bird."

Turning towards her, Sandor took one of her hands in his, resting them on top of his leg. Sandor's eyes softened as they ran a circuit between her own eyes down to her lips, across her flushed cheeks, and back to her eyes. Transfixed, Sansa watched as he did this, noticing by the way his chest steadily rose and fell that his breaths were coming ragged from his mouth. His eyes burned with the same sort of desire she had seen in him at the Royce's party yet this ran deeper. It was lust encased in passion, the pure fervor pulsing wild within his body and manifesting on labored breaths.

As his stare bore into her, seemingly ripping right through her, Sansa let her eyes flicker up to his and was shocked to find she couldn't look away, not for the life of her. A wave of heat seemed to flush over her body and she felt as though she had to struggle to breathe, pulling in ragged breaths and exhaling through parted lips. Feeling as though she might burn alive, Sansa begrudgingly let her eyes fall away and towards her hand still tucked between Sandor's. As she slowly closed her eyes, the last tears broke free and rolled down her cheeks. Pulling one of his hands away from hers, Sandor brushed the pad of his thumb against each of her cheeks in turn, catching the tears before pulling both of his hands away from her.

"We need to talk. There are things I haven't told you that I need to. I wanted to sooner, but I've been pulled in a thousand fucking directions since all of this happened." Gesturing towards the patio with a sweeping motion of his hand, Sandor set his stare in front of him once more.

"They'll all be gone by this evening. So tonight. When we won't be interrupted. Will you have dinner with me?" Resting his forearms on his knees once more, Sandor turned his eyes to Sansa. If he was nervous asking her to have dinner with him, he wasn't showing it. Instead, he asked as casually as someone might ask what time it is or what the weather will be like today.

Feeling butterflies fluttering about her stomach, Sansa couldn't help the small, shy smile that formed on her lips.

"Yes. Yes I will," she replied softly as she timidly forced her eyes to meet his. With a curt nod and a twitch of his mouth, Sandor stood and smoothed down the front of his pants before stepping in front of her. Feeling her nervous shyness grip her, Sansa coyly tucked her hands underneath her legs as she let her eyes hover towards the ground. Reaching out towards her, Sandor placed his fingertips under her chin and gently lifted her head until she was looking at him.

"Seven," he said confidently with an assured half smile.

'Your moon resides in the seventh house of marriage.' Unbidden, the sound of her grandmother's voice filled Sansa's head. With her eyes widening, she stifled a gasp.

"Seven?," Sansa inquired with a trembling voice.

Chuckling softly, Sandor nodded his head before removing his hand from underneath her chin.

"Seven o'clock tonight. I'll see you for dinner." With that, Sandor strode away and retreated into the Moriarti mansion.

'Love will come with much difficulty for you, Sansa; much tragedy too…'


Slipping his fingers between the collar of his shirt and the black tie around his neck, Sandor gave a hard yank and breathed a sigh of relief as the oppressive tightness of the fabric loosened immediately. He hardly ever wore ties, didn't really see much need for them, but Mirabelle had insisted. Snorting a laugh at Mirabelle's seeming influence over him as of late, Sandor shook his head as he paced towards the small bar situated in the corner of his office.

Perusing the assorted bottles of scotch, Sandor settled on a single malt whiskey. It was smoky, strong, and exactly what he needed in this moment. The past few days had been stressful and he wasn't exaggerating when he told Sansa he had been pulled in a thousand fucking directions since what went down in Las Vegas. While the women took care of the funeral arrangements, Sandor's men had descended upon him, all feeling the need to throw in their two cents with bloody thirsty rants. Sandor had obliged them, listening to their concerns, their calls for retaliation, their diatribes about the integrity of the family being at stake.

After the first night of listening to liquor induced tirades, Sandor had had enough and decided he needed to address his men as a whole. It had been clear to him that many did not understand what went down in Vegas, many had heard what had happened and jumped to conclusions; conclusions that were either grievously wrong or splintered with half truths and gossip. If there was one thing Sandor fucking hated, it was lies and gossip, regardless of the intentions.

Standing amongst his men in the smoke filled lounge, Sandor had put the rumors to bed; starting with the idea that Emilio had instigated it all and ending with the whispers he had heard about Sansa being a liability to the family. Commandingly, Sandor had laid it all out on the table. There was no sense in hiding anything from his men. As far as he was concerned, deception and deceit were venom to an organization and should be sucked out immediately. Judging by the sea of heads bobbing up and down in agreement, the men had accepted all that Sandor had thrown down at their feet. All, but one thing.

"The Stark girl," one man situated in the back of the room had shouted out. "What are we doing with her? Is she coming or going? Much respect to you, boss, but the girl has got to be either in or out. In my experience, this on the fence shit spells tragedy for all involved. For her. For you. For us."

As the man emerged from the crowd, seemingly manifesting from puffs of cigar smoke, Sandor had recognized him. He was older, an artifact from the era in which Alberto ran the show, and had been a former street boss. Although he had stepped down many years ago, the man remained involved in the family, offering his advice and support where needed, but mostly sticking around for the camaraderie the family offered.

Once the man had said his peace, he disappeared back into the crowd of men which had fallen silent in anticipation of Sandor's response. Suddenly, Sandor felt as though the spot light had been shone on him. Swallowing hard, he hadn't quite known what to tell them. The man had spoken truly. Sansa needed to either be in or out, not that Sandor was about to put her out, but it meant she needed to know everything. In fact, if anyone needed to know everything it was her. And he planned on telling her it all, laying it out for her just as he had done for his men.

Sighing deeply as he poured himself drink, Sandor began going through it all in his head, mentally working backwards and listing out all the things he needed to tell her. This was going to be a long conversation and an emotional one for her. Undoubtedly, there were things that would be difficult for Sansa to hear, to wrap her head around. The truth wasn't always pretty, but she had been through hell and back and it was the least he felt he could do, to let her know why this was happening to her.

Settling himself in his office chair, Sandor snatched up a pen and let it fall from one hand to the other as he contemplated whether or not to write out a list of everything he needed to tell her. Laughing at himself, Sandor shook his head as he dropped the pen and ran his hands over his face. Fuck that. No lists.

He knew everything anyway. It's not like any of it was easy to forget. And if she saw him pull a goddamn list from his pocket, she was likely to think he'd gone soft for her. Fuck that. I'm not going soft. Taking a sip from his glass and letting the whiskey swirl about his tongue, Sandor felt it was somehow becoming harder to convince himself of that.

Suddenly, a soft knock came from outside his office. Freezing in place, Sandor narrowed his eyes at the door and glanced at the clock on his desk. He wasn't expecting anyone for at least another hour and he had been looking forward to some alone time. Frustrated, Sandor growled out for whomever it was to come in.

Slowly the door creaked open and Mirabelle peeked through the opening, flashing a goofy smile as she skipped into his office and plopped down in the chair across from him. Fucking hell, she wants something. Mirabelle had figured out long ago how to get what she wanted from Sandor. There wasn't much he wouldn't do for his little sister and unfortunately Mirabelle had figured that out too.

Smiling sweetly, Mirabelle rested her elbows on the edge of Sandor's desk and cradled her chin in the palms of her hands. Tilting her head to the side, Mirabelle blinked slowly and pouted her lips slightly. Before Sandor could ask what exactly she wanted, Mirabelle brought her arms down to rest on his desk and leaned forward, lowering her voice.

"Let me take Sansa out." It was something between a question and a demand, but the hopefulness was what caught Sandor's attention. Mirabelle stared up at him with eyes wide and wistful.

"Out where?," Sandor inquired as he narrowed his eyes at Mirabelle. Not that he was even going to entertain her request, but he at least wanted to know where Mirabelle wanted to take the little bird.

"I don't know. Out. Not very far, somewhere close. And just for a little bit, a couple hours. We can take one of your men with us." The hopefulness in Mirabelle's voice had turned to pleading as she pressed her palms together almost as if she were praying to him.

"No. Absolutely not," Sandor shot back, not giving a flying fuck how badly he was crushing her hopes right now and how he was answering her "prayers" with a resounding no. What the hell was Mirabelle thinking? She wasn't thinking, that was for damn sure. Mirabelle was reckless at times, hard to control because she did what she wanted, acting first and thinking later.

"Pleaaaassee."

Sandor shook his head at her childish pleas and crossed his arms about his chest. True enough, he'd do anything to make sure Mirabelle was happy and taken care of, but this was asking too much. Three days after the Vegas incident wasn't nearly enough time to let the dust settle. Sansa was in danger and Sandor was beginning to think that maybe Mirabelle needed her memory refreshed on the predicament they were in with Sansa.

"Mirabelle, it's out of the question. I said no." Sandor took a long pull from his drink and welcomed the dull warmth that expanded down his chest as he drank down his scotch.

Settling back in her seat, Mirabelle's entire demeanor changed. Her brow furrowed with worry and her lips were pressed together tightly in a frown. Shaking her head, Mirabelle stared mindlessly towards the floor as if lost in her thoughts.

"If you had seen her the other night, Sandor… even your heart would have broken for her."

Sandor allowed his mouth to curl into a half smile. He had seen Sansa the other night. Well…sort of. The hallway had been dark, all but forcing Sandor to rely on his other senses to decipher her form, namely touch. While his heart hadn't broken for her, his body had responded in other ways. He hadn't told Mirabelle about it though and imagined it was probably for the best.

"I'm having dinner with her tonight and I'm telling her then. Everything, I'm telling her everything," Sandor relented as he saw just how concerned Mirabelle was. That didn't seem to attenuate his sister as she shook her head abruptly and folded her arms tightly across her chest.

"And you think that will just fix it all? All of the sudden she'll just magically be put back together?," Mirabelle inquired bluntly as she leaned forward in her seat, arms still defensively folded around her.

Feeling his irritation rising, Sandor settled back in his seat, drumming his fingers on the desk as he watched Mirabelle. Biting her lip, she seemed to be fuming, her cheeks beginning to flush red. She wasn't immune to the Clegane temper, no more than he was and Sandor knew when his sister's fury was fresh upon her.

"I think…maybe…," she started as she uncrossed her arms and scooted to the edge of her seat. "It's just…you know what, never mind." With that, Mirabelle pushed herself from the seat and made for the door, stomping her feet as she went.

"Say it. Now," Sandor demanded as Mirabelle reached for the door knob, stopping his sister dead in her tracks. Spinning on her heel, his sister turned to face him and traversed the distance back across the room.

"I've tried to cheer her up. Believe me, I've tried, Sandor," Mirabelle exhaled on an exasperated breath as she paced in front of his desk. "What if…I mean, what if she…you know…doesn't want me to cheer her up."

Stopping in front of him, Mirabelle pressed her palms against his desk and leaned forward, cocking her head to the side. "What if she wants…no, what if she needs something else, someone else."

A tiny, hopeful smile once more appeared on Mirabelle's lips. Sandor had to stifle a laugh as he shook his head at her.

"And you think that someone is me?," he asked incredulously, lifting one eyebrow.

"I've seen the way you look at her," Mirabelle replied as she narrowed her eyes at him. "I've never seen you look at someone like that before. I mean, what was that moment you were having on the patio just a few minutes ago?"

Sandor snorted his contempt as he glared at Mirabelle. He hadn't thought anyone had seen that interaction between him and Sansa, not that he cared if anyone had. He could care fucking less what anyone thought about his interactions with Sansa. Nothing was happening between them and even if anything was, it wasn't everyone else's goddamn business.

"It wasn't a moment," he shot back, realizing there was no use in denying the way he looked at Sansa. He settled on denying the only thing he could.

"Oh bullshit! It was a moment. And you don't have moments with people, Sandor. And besides, you call her 'little bird.' Since when are you handing out pet names?" With one hand on her hip and the other pointing an index finger at him accusingly, Sandor sensed that Mirabelle knew she was slowly but surely backing him into a corner. The thought was enough to make him want to rage. He fucking hated when she did this. Feeling his hands curling into fists, Sandor said nothing as he stared at the drink on his desk.

"You have a thing for her, just admit it. Everyone already knows." Suddenly relenting a bit, Mirabelle smiled with a smug sense of satisfaction. Sandor had nearly spit out the mouthful of whiskey that had just passed his lips. Gulping down whiskey, Sandor wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before setting an icy stare on Mirabelle.

"Who the fuck is everyone?"

"All the wives of your men. They were asking me about it the other night. They think she's your girl." Mirabelle smiled at the last bit, clearly either excited at the prospect or trying desperately to get a rise out of him. Sandor imagined it was the latter.

Fucking flock of hens. Shaking his head, Sandor wondered what else the women had gossiped about while the men dealt with their own business. Hopefully they hadn't filled Sansa's head with a bunch of bullshit and nonsense.

"They're bored housewives with nothing better to do than gossip. I'll be sure to tell my men to go home and give their wives a good fucking. That way they can occupy themselves with their husband's cocks and quit worrying about what I may or may not be doing with mine."

With that, Sandor shuffled a stack of papers around his desk and snatched up his pen, attempting to put up the front that he was busy. He wanted this conversation to be over, but knowing Mirabelle, she wasn't about to let him have the last word.

"Oh, I'm so scared!," Mirabelle began as she threw her hands in the air, waving them around before grasping her chest as if feigning fear. "You're such a big bad Hound with your dirty mouth and weapons and drinking problem. Such a freakin' bad ass until sweet, soft spoken, doe-eyed Sansa Stark comes into the picture and now you're hanging out on patios caressing tears away from your little bird's face. But yes, you're right. No one really notices any of that coming from you. Totally inconspicuous, pal!"

If Mirabelle hadn't been his sister, Sandor would have thrown her out on her ass for that. Biting back a cutting response, Sandor knew she had the right of it, mostly. Once more, he settled on responding to the only thing he disagreed with.

"I don't have a drinking problem," he shot back defensively. True, he loved his scotch, but alcohol didn't control his life like it did some of his men. Despite this, Sandor cast a sideways glance at his half empty glass of whiskey. Laughing, Mirabelle rolled her eyes at him before throwing her hands up in acquiescence.

"You're such a fucking weirdo. Alright, I'll leave you be so you can plan your date with her."

"It's not a date. And I mean it, Mirabelle. Sansa stays here," Sandor threatened as he pointed a finger at Mirabelle. Most of the time Mirabelle obeyed when he needed her to and Sandor hoped that this would be one of those instances. If there were any time he needed Mirabelle to listen, it needed to be with this one.

"Aye, aye Captain." With a wink and a smile, Mirabelle exited the room as she had entered, skipping through the doorway with a goofy smile.

Sighing deeply, Sandor grabbed his cocktail glass and paced over towards the other side of the room before dumping the drink down the small bar sink. He didn't have a drinking problem, but tonight was going to be a long night and Sandor thought it best that he remain sober.


He still thinks I’m a child.  Still.  After 27 years he still sees me as his baby ‘Belle. 

Mirabelle once more rolled her eyes as she sauntered down the hallway from her brother’s office.  Sighing as she descended the staircase, Mirabelle realized that she would always be his baby sister.  Therefore, in his eyes she would probably always be a child; helpless and constantly needing his protection.  True enough, she rebelled against him whenever his protective shtick got a little too heavy, but she was a grown ass woman and every now and then appreciated being treated like it.  

Smiling to herself, Mirabelle remembered the look on Sandor’s face when she threw in there that he had a drinking problem.  It had been meant as a joke, but apparently it struck home with him.  Fuck, if he had a drinking problem, then she had better sign them both up for AA meetings.  Being a Clegane, Mirabelle could put down a bottle of wine in one night if need be.  And lately, it had needed to be. Between the Las Vegas incident, the Royce party and that aftermath, then Alonzo’s funeral preparations, Mirabelle had needed the distraction. 

And then there was Sansa, the sweet girl whose life was beginning to mirror Mirabelle’s just a little too much for comfort.  Almost immediately, Mirabelle had felt the urge to protect Sansa, to shelter her from the darkness and violence that was desperately seeking to swallow the poor girl whole.  There was so much, so very much, Sansa did not know and Mirabelle had wanted to tell her.  However, she knew it wasn’t her place to tell the girl and beyond that there were things even Mirabelle didn’t know; things that she had a distorted view of, as if looking through a kaleidoscope and seeing the world painted in beauty.  Beneath it all, Mirabelle knew what the world was though and she knew the heartache and horror it contained. 

What Mirabelle could not let slide, what she had decided she needed to tell Sansa, was that Sandor, despite everything that had happened, was not the monster in this whole ordeal.  Sure, her brother could be a raging asshole sometimes, but despite his brooding and moodiness, he had more character and conviction than anyone Mirabelle had ever known.  She loved Sandor with all her heart and without him Mirabelle doubted she would be alive.  With that thought in mind, Mirabelle smiled as she retreated into her bedroom and began pulling off her black dress.  She had only needed to remember how much her brother cared about her to understand why he still treated her as if she were this fragile thing, always needing him to shelter her. 

Flipping through the clothes in her closet, Mirabelle settled on a blue sundress with large green flowers printed on it.  It was a dress that Mrs. Moriarti had gotten for Mirabelle during her travels to Spain.  Despite being a teenager when coming into Mirabelle’s life, Francisca Moriarti had been like a mother to her. 

As Mirabelle pulled her long black hair into a ponytail, her thoughts once more returned to Sansa.  In truth, Sandor hadn’t known and still didn’t know what had happened to Sansa’s mother.  Perhaps through a coping mechanism, Sansa had assumed the worse, not wanting to have her hopes crushed if she went on thinking her mother was still alive somewhere.  The thought of what Sansa was going through sent pangs of heartache through Mirabelle’s chest as she remembered what it was like to lose her own mother at a young age, to be thrown into a life you didn’t want or ask for. 

Still, Mirabelle could hardly imagine what Sansa must be going through; to be away from home, to have no idea what is going on and why, to have to sleep under someone else’s roof, wear another woman’s clothes.  Shaking her head as she slipped into a pair of bright blue ballet flats, Mirabelle was determined to be there for Sansa, to do whatever she could to make the girl’s life here just a little more bearable. 

Luckily, Sandor had told her he was finally planning on telling the girl everything.  If he hadn’t told her that, Mirabelle would have been half tempted to bust into his office and lay into him about being a supreme jackass about the whole thing. However, a part of her understood.  Their lives had been turned upside down the past couple of days.  Mirabelle hadn’t planned on hosting damn near the entire mafia family, their wives and kids.  Poor Sansa had gotten lost in the shuffle and Mirabelle was resolved to pour her attention and energy back into the girl once more. 

Fuck it. I’m taking her out.  Thomas can come with us. 

Thomas had a thing for Mirabelle and she knew it.  Not that she exploited it, but if it happened to work in her favor then there was no harm in maybe playing it up a little.  Besides, the mafia men were too afraid to make a pass at Mirabelle.  Many of them were convinced any man that went for the Hound’s sister was a dead man walking.  Chuckling to herself as she worked her way down to the first floor, Mirabelle remembered the first boyfriend she had introduced to Sandor.  The guy ended up being a prick and Sandor had made the dude’s life a living hell.  When the guy spread rumors about Mirabelle going down on him, Sandor had followed him home from work, shoved him into a wall, and broke his nose, jaw, and a handful of ribs.  Needless to say, the rumors stopped after that. 

Through the great room windows, Mirabelle spotted a flash of auburn hair out on the patio and smiled warmly.  There she is.

As Mirabelle made her way out on the patio, she realized much of the funeral goers had cleared out, either busying themselves in the kitchen, retreating to the basement lounge, or taking off to head back to their respective homes.  Mirabelle felt a tug of guilt at seeing Sansa essentially alone on the patio, staring off towards the expanse of desert behind the Moriarti mansion. 

Leaning back on her elbows, Sansa had extended her legs along the wide stone ledge of the patio and appeared to be soaking up the sun.  Tilting her head to the right as Mirabelle approached, a cascade of auburn hair fell from Sansa’s shoulder and down the side of her arm.  For being just shy of eighteen, the girl was so damn pretty and carried herself with the grace of a woman. 

As Mirabelle approached, Sansa sat up and swung her legs from off the ledge, making room for Mirabelle to sit. 

“How you holding up, baby girl?,” Mirabelle inquired softly as she draped an arm around Sansa affectionately.  

Sansa furrowed her eyebrows as she contemplated her hands folded neatly in her lap.  Saying nothing, the girl shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.  Sansa hadn’t needed to say anything.  Mirabelle could see that today had been rough on her.  With that knowledge in mind, Mirabelle felt a fire rising up within her, an instantaneous need to make Sansa smile and laugh and maybe forget some of her worries, even if just for a hot second. 

Shifting herself so that she was facing Sansa, Mirabelle lightly brushed the girl’s hair from the side of her face. She loved Sansa’s hair and if the girl would let her, Mirabelle would love nothing more than to spend hours doing her hair up in all sorts of ways. 

“You wanna go somewhere? Get out for a little bit?,” Mirabelle asked gleefully.  She wanted desperately to get out of the house and beyond that wanted to do something nice for Sansa.  The Moriarti mansion was filled to the brim with testosterone.  Sure, there had been women wondering about the past few days, but they weren’t necessarily the type of women Mirabelle liked to surround herself with.  They were either old as hell and spoke broken English or they were some hoity-toity mob wives.  It wasn’t really Mirabelle’s scene.

By the way Sansa seemed to tense up and how her brow folded even more with worry, Mirabelle could tell that the girl wasn’t sold on the idea and if this little adventure was going to happen, it was going to take some convincing on Mirabelle’s part. 

“I…I don’t know.  Is that really a good idea?” Sansa shifted her stare towards Mirabelle.  Her bright blue eyes were considering Mirabelle with apprehension, searching her face for some sort of reassurance.  Nodding her head and sighing, Mirabelle set her eyes to match Sansa’s.

“Listen, we won’t go far, just a few minutes’ drive from here. And we’ll take Thomas with us,” Mirabelle assured as she took Sansa’s hands into her own and gave a little squeeze.  “He won’t let anything bad happen.  We won’t be gone for long. A couple hours tops. No one will even notice.”

Mirabelle watched as Sansa’s brow seemed to relax a bit while her head cocked to the side with a tiny smile pulling at the corners of her lips. 

“What about Sandor, can’t he come with us?,” Sansa inquired shyly, letting her eyes fall away from Mirabelle and settle once more to her lap.   

The girl’s hopefulness was just too damn cute, some weird hybrid of puppy love and Stockholm syndrome.  Mirabelle bit back a smile at that.  It wasn’t funny, but it really, really was.  A girl like Sansa Stark and a guy like her brother coming together and getting all starry eyed over each other was…well…unexpected and strange and probably a psychiatrist’s wet dream come true.    

“No, he’s got some things to take care of here,” Mirabelle replied with a giggle.  She doubted Sansa even knew how disappointed she looked right now.  “My girl, Arianne, owns this boutique.  It’s really unique, got this vintage gypsy vibe to it.  I think you’d love some of things she has.  We can go shopping, get you out of your cage for a bit. What do you think?”

Arianne Martell was a self-proclaimed hussy.  She loved men and wasn’t afraid of her own sexuality.  While Mirabelle didn’t partake in the same promiscuity that Arianne did, she found the girl’s openness to be refreshing and her vulgarity to be hilarious.  If anyone could pull Sansa out of her shell, it would be Arianne. 

Mirabelle nudged Sansa with her elbow and set her eyes on the girl in a mischievous and playful stare.  It seemed to work because for the first time in as long as Mirabelle could remember, Sansa’s lips curled into a smile and she eagerly nodded her head. 

Now all she needed to do was convince Thomas that her brother had approved this little outing.  Mirabelle smiled to herself.  That shouldn’t be too hard.

 

 

 


 

God I hope I don’t regret this later.  Sansa nervously shifted in the passenger seat next to Mirabelle.  With the windows rolled down and the radio up, Mirabelle was bobbing her head to the sound of Mick Jager’s voice.  Sansa didn’t share Mirabelle’s apparent love of this particular song. Something about it was ominous and dark and did little to settle the way Sansa’s stomach was seemingly doing flips. 

‘Oh, a storm is threatening, my very life today…’

Smiling a bit to dissipate her nerves, Sansa gazed towards the rear view mirror and sighed a tiny breath of relief. 

‘If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah I’m gonna fade away…’

Thomas’ black sedan was behind them, following them the short distance to town where Mirabelle’s friend owned a boutique.  

‘War, children, it’s just a shot away…it’s just a shot away…’

Sansa had been apprehensive to take Mirabelle up on her offer, immediately feeling her stomach sour at the idea.  If Sandor had gone with them, it would have been different.  She would have jumped at the opportunity to do something normal.  Not that her life was normal by any means, but something that wasn’t a glaring reminder she was still down the rabbit hole with her hosts, the Moriarti family, would be nice. 

‘Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away…it’s just a shot away…’

As they pulled off the highway and towards the main street of town, Sansa settled in her seat a bit.  Mirabelle hadn’t been lying; they had only been in the car for maybe 8 minutes tops.  Something about that made Sansa feel leaps and bounds better.  If anything were to happen, Sandor could get here in no time.  With that thought, Sansa allowed her lips to pull into a smile.    

‘I tell you love, sister, is just a kiss away…it’s just a kiss away’

Mirabelle must have been staring at Sansa because she leaned forward and flicked the radio off.  Turning slightly in her seat, Mirabelle pushed her sunglasses down towards the tip of her nose and cocked an eyebrow at Sansa.

“And just what are you smiling about, Ms. Thang?”

Sansa let out a giggle and brought a hand up to cover her mouth, her smile.  It was a good question and a question Sansa wasn’t sure she knew the answer to.  Regardless, she wasn’t about to tell Mirabelle that the thought of Sandor had somehow made her smile.  Instead she shrugged her shoulders and came up with the only other thing she could think of.

“I don’t know.  It’s just nice to be out.” Sansa crossed her legs and smiled once more while she gazed out the window as they passed by buildings in town.  The main street was filled with an eclectic assortment of tiny shops and restaurants, each with its own distinctive vibe and décor. 

Pushing her sunglasses back up onto her face, Mirabelle flashed her own smile, a smile that was both gleaming with satisfaction as well as a sort of relief.  Clearly, Mirabelle wanted Sansa to enjoy herself, to have some happiness in her life even if it was for a fleeting moment.  

Mirabelle parked the car in front of a small store front and turned the car off.  Swiveling around, Mirabelle reached for her purse in the back seat and pulled it onto her lap before retrieving her cell phone.

“Alright.  Let me call this bitch and have her let us in.”

Bringing the phone up to her ear, Mirabelle rolled her eyes as she waited for her friend to pick up.  Through the silence of the car, Sansa could hear a woman’s voice answer on the other end.

“Hey girl. We’re here.  You wanna let us in or what?,” Mirabelle giggled into the phone.  Clearly, they had the same sort of friendship Sansa had had with Myranda. 

After flipping her phone closed, Mirabelle turned towards Sansa and let out a girlish squeal. 

“I’m so excited for her to meet you! Just to warn you, Arianne’s got the face of an angel, but talks like a sailor.”

Sansa let out a laugh as she undid her seatbelt.  Myranda Royce could put anyone to shame with the way she talked.  Sansa had gotten used to it and doubted Mirabelle’s friend could be much worse.   

As they met Arianne at the door of her boutique, Sansa realized Mirabelle hadn’t been kidding.  The woman did indeed have the face of an angel.  Arianne was petite, probably a good seven inches shorter than Sansa.  Her skin was a flawless olive tone and her hair fell to the middle of her back in thick, mocha colored waves.  Despite her petite frame, her body curved into a voluptuous hourglass shape. 

Sansa’s attention was immediately turned to the contents of Arianne’s boutique.  The back wall had been painted jet black, the other walls covered in Victorian-looking wall paper.  Antique tables, vanities, and chairs displayed the merchandise, which had a distinctly vintage flair to it.  The combination of a lace dress, snake-skin cowboy boots, turquoise and tiger’s eye jewelry was on display in the window and Sansa immediately fell in love.  It wasn’t something she would ever think to put together, but it worked and looked amazing besides. 

Suddenly, Sansa felt someone come up beside her and loop their arm in hers. 

“That would be gorgeous on you.  Take your clothes off and you can try it on.  I’m Arianne by the way.”

Sansa felt a slight blush emerging across her cheeks and she turned towards the petite woman whose sultry voice complimented her dark mystique.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Sansa,” she replied shyly with a polite smile before gesturing her hand around the shop in a sweeping motion. “I love your store.  Everything is so beautiful.”

With that, Arianne tossed her head back and laughed merrily, flashing pearly white teeth against deep mauve colored lips.  The woman turned slightly towards Mirabelle, who was beaming with something between amusement and pride. 

“Alright, she’s hot, she’s sweet, and she’s got a good eye for fashion.  Is your brother all over it or what?,” Arianne inquired with a devious smile as she cocked her head to the side and contemplated Sansa with her dark brown eyes.  

With her eyes widening, Sansa’s mouth fell open as she shot a bewildered stare at Mirabelle.  Shaking her head and rolling her eyes, Mirabelle plopped down on a red velvet upholstered love seat before beckoning Sansa to come sit next to her.

“Ignore her.  That’s what I do,” Mirabelle assured as she perused a variety of necklaces displayed on a candelabra which was placed on a tea table in front of her. 

Settling in a tufted leather arm chair across the tea table from them, Arianne motioned her head towards the front of the store where Thomas was standing outside the shop door with his hands resting on his hips. 

“What’s the deal with Rambo over there?,” Arianne jested with mischievousness sparkling in her dark eyes.  From the periphery of her vision, Sansa saw Mirabelle tense slightly at the question.  She didn’t know whether or not Mirabelle would give details, if she was even allowed to talk about the goings-on of the mafia family. 

“Shit’s been a little hot and heavy lately.  We needed an escort,” Mirabelle offered as she winked at Arianne. 

“Hmm.  Have you fucked him yet?,” Arianne inquired casually as she mindlessly studied her manicured fingernails.  Sansa stifled a shocked gasp.  Perhaps she had met someone who could put Myranda Royce to shame. 

“Wouldn’t he love that…,” Mirabelle giggled as she shook her head slowly, unfazed by her friend’s crudeness. “No I haven’t and I don’t think I will.” 

Amused, Sansa sat quietly as she listened to Mirabelle and Arianne’s conversation continue on, rambling from fashion to gossip to sex and everything in between.  Smiling contentedly, Sansa had needed this; she needed to be around women, even if she couldn’t necessarily relate to everything they were talking about. 

The next few hours were spent trying on clothes from the shop; Mirabelle and Arianne had had a field day of dressing Sansa up in anything and everything they could find.  Apparently, Sansa was like a baby doll to them as they fawned over all the combinations of clothing they could put on her while they giggled like little girls.  After awhile, Arianne ordered in lunch from a Thai restaurant in town and the conversation continued as they gathered around the tea table, enjoying their lunch and each other’s company. 

Sansa sensed an acuteness in Arianne’s perception.  The woman had asked few questions of Sansa, seemingly intuiting that those questions were either off limits or best avoided altogether.  Sansa hadn’t minded and rather enjoyed just listening as Arianne and Mirabelle told her stories about the shenanigans they had gone through together.  When the conversation came to lull, Sansa felt Arianne’s eyes settle on her in a steady gaze.  Lifting her eyes over her pad thai, Sansa clanked her chopsticks together nervously as she suddenly became aware that Arianne’s eyes flashed with curiosity. 

“So, Sansa.  Riddle me this.  How did you meet Mirabelle?”

Pulling in a deep breath to compose herself, Sansa gently placed her chopsticks down and flashed a glance towards Mirabelle who was biting her lower lip and staring down at her curried noodles. 

“Through her brother, Sandor,” Sansa offered slowly. Technically, it was true, but taking a cue from Mirabelle, Sansa forwent some details and settled for vague ambiguity as her M.O.

Settling back and crossing her arms over her chest, Arianne nodded and gave an intrigued smile.

“Interesting.  So are you and him…” Arianne let her voice trail off, enticing Sansa to finish the sentence for her and fill in the blanks. 

“Are we what?,” Sansa finished, feigning ignorance.  She knew what Arianne was getting at, but she wasn’t willing to spare details if she didn’t have to.  Not that there were any details to spare.  It wasn’t like anything was happening between her and Sandor. 

“Is he fucking you? Are you dating? Are you friends?,” Arianne ambled through the possibilities waiting for a response from Sansa, some gesture that indicated where her dynamic with Sandor lay.  Sansa swallowed hard.  She didn’t fall into any of those categories with Sandor.  Now that she thought about it, she didn’t quite know what they were.  They weren’t really anything.  Maybe capturer and hostage? No, that didn’t sound right and she sure as hell wasn’t going to offer that to Arianne.  Sensing Sansa’s hesitance and confusion, Mirabelle broke in, flashing a protective glance towards Sansa before narrowing her eyes at Arianne.  

“Hey now, come on.  She’s just a kid,” Mirabelle chided before delving into her noodles once more. 

Dropping her chopsticks down, Arianne lifted her hands up in the air before shifting slightly and leaning forward towards Sansa.

“You’re what? 18?,” the woman asked blankly. 

“Almost. I’ll be 18 in a week or so.” Sansa had almost forgotten her birthday was quick approaching.  A few weeks ago, the prospect of turning 18 and officially being an adult had excited Sansa.  Now the luster was gone.  She already felt like an adult, having endured more in the past week than most people endure in a lifetime.  For all intents and purposes, Sansa was an adult in experience if not age.

“Hmm, so you’re no child.  Have you ever been with a man?,” Arianne pushed, cocking her head to the side and studying Sansa with a devious smile on her full lips.    

“I haven’t….no,” Sansa replied abruptly.  Even if she had been with a man, she wasn’t sure she really wanted to talk about. She could hardly think about sex without blushing like a maniac.   

“Never? Like ever?,” Arianne squealed out with wide eyes and a gaping smile. Apparently, the thought was foreign to her; to be almost 18 and still a virgin. 

“No. Never.” Sansa shook her head with a nervous smile.  She hoped Thomas hadn’t heard their exchange.  It was one thing to talk about this sort of thing with girls, but to have men around, especially one of Sandor’s men, made her feel as though she might die of embarrassment. 

“Not anything? Not a hand job or a boob feel up?,” Arianne cooed, leaning forward from her seated position with excitement. 

Giving a shy smile and a laugh, Sansa shook her head before letting her eyes flicker up towards Mirabelle and Arianne, who were both smiling at her.   

“Damn girl.  You’re cute as fuck,” Arianne laughed as she shook her head, lifting her bottle of ice tea to her lips before taking a swig. 

“I’m sayin’!,” Mirabelle interjected with a laugh as she wrapped an arm around Sansa’s shoulders. “She’s a sweetheart.  Not a bunch of floozies like us.” At that Arianne lifted her bottle of tea up in the air to raise a toast, giggling all the while. 

Once the laughing had subsided, Mirabelle sat up straight and placed her palms on the tea table, her face setting in a mask of seriousness and her voice lowering to a smoky tone.   

 “Alright, alright.  Girls, I suggest we bring out the cards.”

“The cards?,” Sansa pondered out loud as she cast a sideways glance at Mirabelle. 

“Have you ever had your tarot cards read, Sansa?,” Arianne cut in, her eyes lighting up. 

While her grandmother was a mistress of the occult, the woman never dabbled with tarot cards.  Apparently, she had had a bad reading once, a reading that scared the hell out of her and she never messed with the tarot cards again.   

“No. No I haven’t,” Sansa replied hesitantly, swallowing down a flush of fear she felt bubbling up from within her gut.  Sensing her trepidation, Mirabelle leaned in towards Sansa and offered a reassuring smile.

“Arianne, despite her whorishness, is actually a very talented tarot card reader. It’s nothing to be afraid of.  The cards just mirror the energies and influences we currently have in our life.  They can offer tons of insight and it’s actually a lot of fun.” 

Shifting her gaze from Mirabelle to Arianne, Sansa bit her lip.  If this was going to be anything like having her astrological chart interpreted, she wasn’t sure she was up for it.  Folding her hands on the table, Arianne gave a soft smile to Sansa before tilting her head to the side and lowering her voice.

“Here’s what we can do.  I’ll do a reading for Mirabelle.  You’ll see how it goes and get a feel for what it’s like.  Mirabelle is right; the tarot mirrors us and simply reflects things that are already present in our life.  It forces us to look at these influences, understand how they affect us, and offers us a chance to see what the outcome of a situation might be like if we continue on the path we’re currently on. 

Keep in mind our lives are a balance between fate and free will.  At any point, we can change the outcome of a situation simply by adjusting our behaviors and attitudes.  Just because the cards show us something, doesn’t mean that it has to be.  We are still creatures of free will.  If you’re not into it or if it doesn’t feel right for you, then by all means you do not have to have a reading done.  As a card reader, I have a responsibility to make sure you understand that you may not like what the cards are telling you and I won’t lie to you about what the cards are saying.  Again, no matter the outcome, free will is always a factor in our lives and the cards simply display what is likely to happen if we remain on our current path.”

With that, Arianne nodded her head and Mirabelle began a slow clap, smiling devilishly at her friend.

“Damn girl.  Gettin’ all philosophical and shit,” Mirabelle taunted as she exhaled a laugh. 

Sansa smiled and nodded her head, feeling more assured now that Arianne talked her through the process.  Beyond that, the woman seemed to know what she was talking about and was clearly experienced with this form of divination.  Taking Sansa’s smile as approval to continue on, Arianne pushed herself to her feet and tiptoed over the take out boxes before disappearing behind the cashier’s counter.  After fumbling around in her purse, Arianne reemerged with a black bundle and paced back towards the tea table. 

Setting the bundle on the table, Sansa realized it was a black scarf that had been wrapped around a deck of tarot cards.  Slowly and with deft fingers, Arianne unwrapped the deck and gently smoothed out the black scarf and laid the deck of cards down on top of it. 

“This is the Rider-Waite deck,” Arianne started, her entire demeanor seemingly hardening and becoming less jovial and more serious. “It is the original deck that become popular in the western world.  It is my personal favorite because the imagery and symbolism is retained.  Novelty decks have the tendency to lose a lot of the symbolism for sake of artistic flair.”

Sansa nodded her head as she watched Arianne hand the cards to Mirabelle to shuffle.  Mirabelle’s eyes softly closed as she swayed ever so slightly back and forth in her seated position.  When she opened her eyes once more, a peaceful serenity had enveloped her form.  Her eyes were soft and a small smile pulled on the corners of her lips.  For many moments, Mirabelle and Arianne remained quiet as if both silently meditating on some thought or personal mantra. 

Sansa watched in silence and curious fascination as Mirabelle laid out four cards face down in a diamond shape.  One by one, she flipped over the cards, stopping at each and studying the imagery.  With each card, Mirabelle and Arianne would exchange a look; sometimes smiling at each other, sometimes shaking their heads, but always seeming to communicate without really saying a word.  Clearly, they were both very experienced with reading the cards.  Mirabelle’s spread did not require much explaining because she already knew the meanings for most of the cards. 

Steadying her gaze on Sansa, Arianne smiled softly and once more lowered her voice.

“If you do this long enough, you’ll start to notice certain cards constantly come up for certain people.  Mirabelle consistently gets cards within the suit of pentacles, in particular the page of pentacles and the two of pentacles.”

Sighing, Mirabelle nodded her head and shrugged her shoulders before turning towards Sansa.

“I suppose I could get worse cards.  I just fucking hate that two of pentacles guy, he’s so tricky!”

At that, Arianne giggled and nodded her head. Sansa let out a nervous laugh, not understanding what the two of pentacles were or why they were so tricky.  As the laughter died down, Arianne regarded Sansa once more with a reassuring glance.

“So what do you think? Do you want your cards read?”

Sansa furrowed her brow at the question.  Mirabelle’s reading had been short and required only a small amount of insight from Arianne as Mirabelle seemed to know the cards rather well herself.  Sansa still wasn’t sure what to expect or even if she wanted to know what the Universe had in store for her.  Suddenly, Arianne reached out to Sansa and gently wrapped her small fingers around Sansa’s hand. 

“Remember, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.  If you don’t have a particular question in mind, you could do a smaller spread, three or four cards.  Since you’re new to this, I could do a three card spread. We could do a past, present, future reading.  One card will represent what you’ve gone through to get here, one card for what you’re currently going through, and one for what the future holds should you remain on the path you’re on. Does that sound okay to you?”

Sansa bit her lip as she lifted her eyes towards Mirabelle who smiled gently in return and gave a nod of her head.  Sucking in a deep breath, Sansa lifted her eyes to Arianne and slowly nodded her head.  Clapping her hands together, Arianne gave a little bounce in her seat before excitedly handing Sansa the deck of cards. 

Just as Mirabelle had done, Sansa shuffled the deck between her hands.  She had been instructed to take her time, to not rush the process but to let all thoughts escape her mind and focus only on ensuring her energy poured into the cards.  Whenever if felt right, Sansa could then put the cards down.  Doing as she was told, Sansa mindlessly let the cards fall from one hand to the other, each time a thought popped into her head she ushered it away on deep breaths.  Finally, and without her permission, the cards dropped from her hands.  With shock and confusion, Sansa looked down at them splayed across the tea table. 

Arianne gave a little laugh before instructing Sansa to cut the deck three ways and pull one card from each of the three portions.  Once more, Sansa was advised to take her time with her selections.  With each portion of the deck, Sansa splayed the cards out in front of her and let her eyes slowly roam over them.  Without fail, there was one card that seemed to hold her attention more than the others and her eyes seemed to settle on the card with each pass.  Finally when she had selected her cards and laid them face down in front of her on the black scarf, Sansa gave a satisfied nod of the head. 

Holding her hands out palm up, Arianne motioned towards the cards. 

“Alright.  Turn over the first card and I want you to take a moment and study it.  Look at the setting, look at the people on the card, if there are people.  What do they look like? What are they doing? Do they look happy, sad, scared? What feeling do you get from the card? What images do you see and what do those images mean to you personally?”

With that Arianne sat back and watched as Sansa flipped over the first card slowly. 

XVI. The Tower  

Sansa lifted her eyes to Arianne.  If the woman had a reaction to the card, Sansa could not decipher it through the stoic façade that was her face. 

“Talk me through it,” Arianne offered as she stared blankly at the card. Sansa followed suit and let her eyes roam over the card.

“The sky is black.  There are clouds.  There’s a white tower that seems to extend high into the sky. A lightning bolt is striking the tower and now the tower is on fire.  Two people are falling from the tower. They look scared.”  Sansa shook her head and turned towards Arianne as she shrugged her shoulders.  She didn’t know what it meant, people falling from a tower during a storm.

“This is a card of great upheaval.  It is a card of sudden and devastating change.  Some interpret the tower as the Tower of Babel.  The card that precedes this one is the Devil, which represents excess and indulgence in vice.  Therefore, this card is one which invokes the idea of ‘the mighty have fallen.’ Notice the lightning bolt comes from the heavens above.  This means that the changes occurring are initiated by the Universe.  If we don’t change our lives, the Universe will.  The people on the card are obviously wealthy, as we can tell by their manner of dress. One of them wears a crown and there is also a crown at the top of the tower.  This again symbolizes material wealth.”

Sansa stared at the card once more and felt her heart beating faster before lifting her eyes to Arianne.

“This card represents my past.  Recent past?,” Sansa inquired nervously. 

“Yes, more than likely it is the recent past,” Arianne replied softly. 

“So there are these people.  They are rich, obviously the upper class,” Sansa started as if seeing the card clearly for the first time. “Perhaps they’re at a party.  The tower, or maybe their mansion, is on fire.  They’re afraid.  If they’re falling from their tower, then they obviously know they might not live to see tomorrow.  Either way, all they know for sure is that their lives will change and it will be a devastating and abrupt change.” 

Sansa shifted her stare towards Mirabelle whose eyes had widened to the size of saucers and mouth was hanging open.  Clearly, the first card represented what had transpired at the Royce party.  In fact, the card was sickening to look at, as if someone had snapped a picture of the horror that ensued that night and painted it on a 3”x2” card. 

With an uncomfortable silence filling the room, Arianne cleared her throat and gently urged Sansa to move on to the next card. 

Nine of Swords.

Sansa shook her head and once more felt her breath beginning to quicken.  The image on the card was disturbing and again was a perfect image of how Sansa felt. 

“A person is sitting up in bed.  Their face is cradled in their hands, almost as if they are crying.  Behind them the wall is black and above them hangs nine swords. They are obviously very upset.  They look like they were maybe trying to sleep, but woke up crying.”

Reaching out underneath the tea table, Mirabelle took Sansa’s hand in her own and gave a gentle squeeze. Arianne nodded her head.

“Yes, this is a card of sorrow and loss.  This is someone who is in a great deal of pain.  The nines relate back to the ninth card of the major arcana, which is the Hermit.  The Hermit is a card of isolation, whether self-induced or forced upon us by our circumstances.  The Nine of Swords reflects this sort of isolation.  This card represents someone who is wracked with fear, worries, and doubt.  The swords that loom over the head of the person on this card represent those fears.  Swords correspond to the element of air, which are thoughts and ideas.  In the case of this card, swords are fears that manifest in our minds.  Have you ever lain awake at night, tossing and turning over things in your head because you cannot shut your mind off? Well, this is that card. Our fears cut through us like knives, or in this case, like swords.”

Sansa swallowed hard and nodded her head.  Despite Arianne’s eloquent explanation, Sansa hadn’t needed it.  Indeed, the woman on the card was her; lying in bed at night, crying to herself in the darkness at all she had lost.  Biting back the tears, Sansa took a deep breath and looked away. 

“Sansa, baby girl, we can stop if you want to,” Mirabelle assured as she stroked her fingers through Sansa’s hair and considered her with worried eyes. 

Exhaling in a slow breath, Sansa lifted her tear filled eyes to Arianne.

“The next card is my future, is it not?,” Sansa asked.  She knew what her past was and she knew what her present situation was.  Her cards in those places seemed to mirror those situations a little too well.  What she didn’t know was where she was going from here. 

Arianne gave a silent nod and a slow blink of her dark eyes.  With shaking hands, Sansa turned over the final card, the card which apparently foretold her future. 

Six of Swords.

Another swords card, Sansa was beginning to hate them as much as Mirabelle hated her two of Pentacles.   

This card was different and Sansa felt herself breathe a slight sigh of relief before beginning with her interpretation of the imagery.

“There is a woman on a boat. Her face is obscured.  Six swords are in the boat with her. There is a child with red hair sitting next to her.  A tall man with black hair is ferrying her across water towards land in the distance.”

Sansa watched as Arianne and Mirabelle exchanged knowing smiles before Arianne leaned forward, her eyes glowing with delight.

“This is a card of change, but not the devastating change of the Tower.  The child in the boat can represent innocence or purity.  The woman is cloaked because she is in mourning.  She has lost something dear to her and is moving away from a dangerous or harmful situation towards a promising future.  The water to the right of the boat is unsettled and the water to the left is calm, representing that fact that she’s leaving behind a difficult situation.  The man ferrying her across is in control of where she goes. This might be divine intervention sweeping in to initiate these changes. 

The number six represents a resolution to a problem.  Your troubles that you’re currently dealing with will be resolved, but the process will be difficult and certainly you have a rough road ahead of you. But that’s not the end of it.  The six of swords and the Tower showed up in the same spread.  This is significant.  They are both cards of change.  The changes in your life are enormous and permanent, but do not necessarily have to be a bad thing. The grey sky in the six of swords represents uncertainty, this future may not be certain.”

Studying the cards laid out before her, Sansa leaned forward and picked each of them up, contemplating the imagery and trying to piece it all together.  Of course her future card would be uncertain.  Just like her seventh house was damned. In Mirabelle’s cards, the sky had been bright yellow, the flowers and trees were green, the people looked happy and alive. In her own cards, the sky was painted in black and grey hues, the faces of the people were either obscured or were plastered with looks of terror. 

Sansa’s contemplation was broken as she heard Mirabelle gasp beside her.

“Fuck! We have to go.  It’s almost 4:30.  Jesus Christ! I didn’t realize we had been here so long. And goddamnit! I have to get gas too.” Mirabelle hurriedly pushed herself to her feet and pulled Sansa up with her, the tarot cards tumbling to the floor as she let go of them. 

Snatching up her purse, Mirabelle gave Arianne a hug and a kiss on the cheek before taking Sansa by the hand and damn near dragging her out of the store.  Sansa had barely been able to get out a ‘goodbye’ or ‘nice to meet you’ before she hopped into the passenger seat of Mirabelle’s car. 

Sansa watched as Mirabelle tapped on the window of Thomas’ vehicle and rotated her wrist in a motion for him to roll down the window. 

“Sleeping on the job, eh?,” Mirabelle laughed as she leaned forward, hovering in the space of the open window.  “I’ve gotta stop and get gas on the way home.  Then we need to book it back.”

Thomas silently nodded his head before rolling up his window and waited for Mirabelle to pull out of her parking space before he followed along behind her.  Sansa stared out the window, lost in her thoughts and contemplating the tarot cards.  Arianne had been spot on; the cards mirrored everything that had been happening to her in the last week.  However it was the third card, the Six of Swords, that vexed Sansa.  According to Arianne, the card represented loss, but there was a silver lining to it; perhaps she would get to go home even if home wasn’t what it used to be. 

Mirabelle pulled off of the main road and into a gas station before parking the car next to a gas pump.  Turning towards Sansa, Mirabelle pulled down her sunglasses and flashed a sympathetic stare.

“Are you doing okay? The tarot cards didn’t freak you out too much, did they?”  Sansa could hear the concern splintering Mirabelle’s voice.  Sansa bit back a laugh.  While she found Mirabelle’s concern for her sweet and unexpected considering her circumstances, Sansa was also beginning to feel like some sort of delicate flower that everyone felt the need to shelter. 

Shaking her head, Sansa offered Mirabelle a small smile.

“I’m fine.  Really, I am.” Sansa was beginning to believe it was true.  She figured if she told herself enough times that she was okay, maybe, just maybe, she would start to believe it and others would too.

“Alright, I just wanted to make sure,” Mirabelle conceded before pulling the keys from the engine and turning once more to Sansa.  “Would you mind pumping the gas while I run to the bathroom? I have to pee like a mother fucker.” By the way Mirabelle was bouncing up and down in her seat, Sansa understood she really had to go.  Giggling, Sansa nodded her head and stepped from the car.

After situating the gas pump, Sansa leaned against the side of Mirabelle’s car and nervously shifted her stare around the gas station parking lot.  It was much different than the gas station Sansa and Podrick had pulled into a little less than a week ago.  However, Sansa couldn’t shake the feeling she got standing underneath the gas station overhang. It was the worst kind of déjà vu. 

Closing her eyes, Sansa let her head fall back to the side of the car until she heard the shuffling sound of someone coming up next to her.

“Sansa.”  The man’s voice felt like an electric shock to her body. 

Snapping her eyes open as she gasped, Sansa turned in the direction of the voice as she began heaving for breaths. 

Standing before her was Nestor Royce, Myranda’s father, and the man looked like absolute hell.  Donning a pair of faded red shorts and a ratty blue T-Shirt, Mr. Royce looked like he hadn’t shaved since the night of the party and seemed to have aged considerably in such a short amount of time.  Judging by the dark purple bags under his eyes, Nestor hadn’t gotten much sleep over the past week either. 

With her mouth opening and closing, Sansa felt her throat go dry and her hands begin to tremble.  Part of her wanted to throw herself at his feet and tell him to take her away from here. The other part of her wanted to know immediately what happened to her mother, to Myranda, to Mrs. Royce, to her father.  Shocked into disbelief, Sansa could only shake her head and stare blankly at the man, the words refusing to form on her tongue.  Stepping towards her, Nestor broke the silence. 

“Oh Sansa.  Oh God, Sansa.”  Mr. Royce’s voice quivered as he bit back tears and pulled her into an embrace.  He smelled like sweat and dirt, as if he hadn’t bothered to bathe himself since the night of the party. 

Pulling away from her, Nestor shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, his hands trembling almost as bad as Sansa’s.

“Your parents and I have been looking for you.  Sansa, we’ve missed you so much. So, so much.” Nestor handed Sansa the paper as tears streamed down his dirty face. 

She felt as though she were traveling through a thick haze, her vision seemed to blur at the edges and time seemed to slow down to a halt. 

“My parents? Both of them?,” Sansa heard herself say although the words came out low and slow, as if being played back on a recording.

“Yes. Both of them.  Your mother is alive and misses you so much,” Nestor replied as he motioned his head towards the paper in her hand.  Sansa felt her knees buckle as she stumbled forward and threw her arms out to catch herself on the side of Mirabelle’s car. 

Slowly, Sansa unfolded the paper and felt an icy grip of horror stifle her breath as her eyes darted over the missing person’s poster.

 

 

 

Missing

Sansa Stark

Portland, OR

DOB: 07/12/1994

Red Hair Blue Eyes

5'9"           130 lbs.

Last seen: 06/30

If anyone has any information,

please call the Portland Police

department

In the middle was Sansa’s senior picture, the picture her mom had picked out as her favorite even though Sansa thought she looked like a child in it.  With tears streaming down her face, Sansa sucked in a shaky breath as her hands trembled uncontrollably. 

“Do you want to go home, Sansa?  Let’s go home.  Let me take you home,” Nestor broke in as he pulled lightly on her forearm. 

It was such a simple question and Sansa could have sworn she already knew the answer to it.  Of course she wanted to go home.  Of course she did, why wouldn’t she?  But something didn’t feel right.  Something at the pit of her stomach was gnawing on her and Sansa was at a loss for what it was.  Mirabelle was inside the gas station and any minute she would be coming out.  What would she think if Sansa just disappeared without a word? But then again, she would be going home.  She could see her mother once more and her father too. 

“Yes.  I want to go home,” Sansa replied on a tremulous whisper.  “I just…please do you have pen or something I can write with?”

Nodding eagerly, Nestor shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a black ballpoint pen.  Taking the pen from his hand, Sansa pressed the missing person’s poster up against the window of Mirabelle’s car and scribbled a note on the blank side.  Folding up the piece of paper, Sansa stopped for a moment, hesitating as she tucked the note underneath the windshield wiper.  Why was this suddenly so difficult? Once more, her head was screaming at her to go, to take this opportunity, but something else was tugging on her, making this more complicated than it needed to be and that scared Sansa more than she could have ever imagined. 

Puzzling out her trepidation, Nestor wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her away from Mirabelle’s car.  Placing one foot in front of the other, Sansa mindlessly followed Mr. Royce towards a silver SUV that was parked behind Mirabelle’s car.  Feeling a strange sense of guilt, Sansa swiveled her head over her right shoulder and back towards the gas station.  She had half expected to see Mirabelle standing there, watching as Sansa was being ushered away.  However, Mirabelle wasn’t behind her and Sansa couldn’t tell if that made her feel better or worse.

Nestor opened the back door and helped Sansa in before climbing in after her.  With her blood running cold, Sansa snapped her head towards the front seat of the SUV.  Sitting in the driver and passenger seat of the SUV were two men Sansa didn’t recognize.  Before she could scream or get out of the car or ask what was going on, Nestor reached around and covered her mouth and nose with a white cloth, a cloth that was saturated with something that smelled an awful lot like a chemical she had once used in chemistry lab. 

“I’m sorry, Sansa.  I didn’t want to do this,” Nestor whispered in her ear before her vision was filled with black.  

 

 

 


“Well, what kind of food does she like?,” Bronn asked, lifting a balled fist to rest beneath his chin as he stared up towards the ceiling in thought. 

Sandor drummed his fingers against the top of his desk, swiveling side to side in his plush office chair.  It was just dinner.  Granted, he had a lot of talk to her about, it was still just dinner.  He had asked Ryello, Alberto’s personal chef, to stick around and prepare the meal.  The man had agreed, but requested two hours for preparation and asked that Sandor decided what he wanted served no later than 5:00pm if dinner was going to be at 7:00pm.

Having been in meetings with his men for the majority of the afternoon, Sandor hadn’t had much of a chance to think about it.  Besides, he wasn’t good at this sort of thing.  He was a meat and potatoes kind of guy.  He didn’t know a damn thing about what Sansa enjoyed in terms of food.  Well, besides one thing. 

“Lemons. Mirabelle told me,” Sandor confided as he shrugged his shoulders.  It wasn’t much, but it was a starting point.   

“Are you fucking serious?,” Bronn chuckled as he cocked his head to the side with an amused grin. “You’re just going to serve some cut up lemons and be done with it?”

Sandor rubbed his face with the palms of his hands.  Bronn was the last person on earth he should be talking to about this.  He really needed to be asking Mirabelle, but she was off busying herself with something. 

“Are you fucking serious?,” Sandor replied as he rested his elbows on the desk and ran his fingers through his long, raven colored hair. “She likes things with lemons in them.  Lemons in her water, lemons in her cake, that sort of thing. Not just lemons by themselves, you idiot.”

“Well, shit.  Then just tell Ryello to make a bunch of lemon stuff,” Bronn offered as he settled back in his seat, propping his feet up on the edge of Sandor’s desk while resting the back of his head in the palms of his hands. 

“I don’t want it to be overkill. I don’t know how much she likes lemons. Maybe she doesn’t like lemons in everything.” Sandor felt like a tool having this conversation.  He wanted to do something nice for Sansa, but god damn, it had turned into an ordeal trying to figure out how to incorporate lemons into food. 

“You could, I don’t know, just ask her. Or fucking google ‘lemon stuff,’ or go to the Food Network website.  Shit, man! I don’t know why you’re asking me about this,” Bronn replied casually, closing his eyes and sighing deeply in exasperation.  

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Sandor rasped as he glanced towards the clock.  4:42 it read back to him.  He had 18 minutes to figure this shit out and apparently Bronn was going to be no help at all.   Where the hell is Mirabelle when I need her?

“Sandor, how did it come to be that you and I are fucking sitting here talking about some goddamn lemons?” Bronn’s voice quivered with laughter as he spoke, clearly amused that two mobsters were sitting around stressing over a citrus fruit beloved by a certain red-headed girl. 

Suddenly pulling his legs from the desk, Bronn sat up and snapped open his eyes as he pointed an index finger at Sandor. 

“Wait! Wait, wait, wait.  You’re tying yourself up in knots over whether or not she’ll like what you’re having the chef make for dinner. I know what this is. I know what this is.”

Sandor felt his mouth beginning to twitch at the corners as it always did when he was either irritated or exhilarated.  And Bronn certainly didn’t exhilarate Sandor.  Crossing his arms about his chest defensively, Sandor steeled himself against the onset of what he imagined would be almost the same conversation he had had with Mirabelle earlier today.  Bronn was going to bust his chops about Sansa and Sandor was going to have to find a way to deflect it. 

Before Bronn could set in, Sandor’s office door flew open and Mirabelle came running in, mascara streaming down her cheeks as they intermingled with tears.  Thomas, Alberto, and four of Sandor’s street bosses followed Mirabelle into the room.  None of the men spoke a word and instead stared at Sandor, their faces white as sheets and their eyes filled with dread as Mirabelle approached him.   

“She’s gone.” Mirabelle could hardly get the words out as she gasped for breaths between sobs.  Cradling her face in her hands, Mirabelle’s chest heaved as she made tiny squeaking sounds with each labored exhale of breath.   

“Who’s gone?,” Bronn murmured dumbfounded until it finally hit him and his eyes went wide.  Sandor clenched the arms of his chair so hard he thought that they might snap in half.  He knew exactly who Mirabelle was talking about. Pulling her hands away from her face, Mirabelle damn near threw herself in front of his chair, falling to her knees as she pleaded with him. 

“I’m so sorry.  I’m so sorry. I didn’t listen.” Shaking her head furiously, Mirabelle was wracked with another wave of sobs.  Sandor felt his blood boiling hot through his veins.  His skin was instantaneously beginning to coat with the dull sheen of sweat.  With a jolt of rage, Sandor shot from his chair, sending Mirabelle falling back away from him with eyes widened in fear. 

“What happened?,” he seethed through clenched teeth towards his men.  Mirabelle was a fucking mess, blubbering at his feet through erratic sobs.  Despite this, Mirabelle lifted herself to stand and timidly answered his question although her quivering words were interjected with hiccupping gasps for air. 

“Sansa was with me.  I only went in to pay for gas and when I came out she was gone.” Sandor bore through Mirabelle with a stare that intimated he might murder her in this moment.  Shrinking away from him, his sister set in with sniffling sobs once more. 

“Who the fuck went with them?,” Sandor shouted as he pounded a fist hard against his desk. He had only needed to scan the faces of the room to know who it was.  Thomas looked as though he might faint.  The man’s eyes were wide and his skin was ashen.  Sighing deeply, the man stepped forward and tentatively lifted his eyes to meet Sandor’s irate glare.  At least the man had the balls to look him in the eye. 

“I did, boss.  I got caught up at a red light when I followed Mirabelle to the gas station, but I saw the car Sansa got into. I think it was Nestor Royce she was with.”

Unable to compose himself much longer, Sandor’s fury erupted as he swung one arm swiftly and heavily across his desk, sending papers, pens, the desk lamp, and all the other contents soaring in a hundred different directions towards the floor. 

“You think it was Nestor Royce?! You fucking think it was?! God fucking damn it you son-of-a-bitch.  Did you think to follow them?” In a blind rage, Sandor flew towards Thomas as his words bellowed deafeningly throughout the room.  

He hadn’t known how or when, but Alberto and Bronn were on Sandor faster than he could blink an eye, pulling him away from Thomas who was hyperventilating as he fell to the floor.

With one solid tug, Sandor pulled free from Alberto and Bronn, sending the two men to stumble backwards as he flew towards Thomas once more. Sandor lifted the man to his feet and wrapped one of his large hands around Thomas’ skinny neck.

“What the fuck do you mean she got into a car?,” Sandor screamed as he shoved Thomas into a bookshelf, sending a few books to go careening from the shelf and towards the floor.  Gasping for breath, Thomas shook his head, indicating that he couldn’t breathe.

Sandor dropped the man to the floor and felt his breaths coming quick and ragged as he paced furiously about the room. His burning rage was seeping out of every pore and making him feel as though he was losing his god damn mind.  Hesitantly, Mirabelle stepped forward and handed Sandor a folded piece of paper. Shooting Mirabelle a fuming glare as he snatched it from her hand, Sandor hurriedly unfolded the paper, almost ripping it to shreds in the process.

 

 

 

I’m sorry, Mirabelle. 

I have to go home.  

Please tell Sandor that

I’m sorry.

 

                        Sansa

He didn’t want to believe that she had written it.  He wanted to tell himself that someone else had written it, but the bubbly, swooping handwriting had seemed like it belonged to Sansa.  If that were the case, then it meant she had truly left on her own accord, entrusting herself to Nestor Royce.  If Sansa honestly thought Nestor was going to take her home, she was in for a horrible surprise.  If she had only known sooner.  If I had gotten the fucking chance to tell her, she would have known to run from Nestor. 

With his hands shaking in rage, Sandor crumpled the note and threw it to the floor before spanning the distance of the room in a matter of three strides.  Flinging the door of his office open, Sandor stepped out into the hallway, shouting over his shoulder towards anyone and everyone who was listening. 

“No one comes back, not a fucking soul, until we find her. We’re leaving. NOW!”

Immediately his men sprung into action and quickly followed behind him.  Throwing himself into the front seat of his Mercedes, Sandor turned on the car and peeled out of the circle drive with a squealing shriek of the tires.  Glancing at the clock, he noticed it was now five o’clock on the dot. 

In the span of 18 minutes, Sandor’s life had gone from worrying about how to cook with lemons to worrying about a certain red-head who was in more danger in the hands of Nestor Royce than she could possibly imagine.  

Chapter Text

Gods and Monsters

Chapter 6

6


 

“I’m not getting anything, boss.”

Sandor watched as Zulu tapped on the keyboard of his laptop, toggling between a command input screen and some fancy fucking piece of software that was apparently a piece of shit. 

Leaning up against the car, Sandor lifted his eyes to the western sky, watching as the sun hovered like a giant neon orb near the horizon.  They would be losing light soon and that meant many things, all of which irritated the hell out of Sandor.  Losing light meant they were losing time.  Losing time meant that they were getting closer to losing Sansa.  And losing Sansa…

He knew what that meant for her, but Sandor was only just beginning to grasp what that meant for him.

With a sudden flush of agitation, Sandor swiveled his body towards the open driver’s side door where Zulu was sitting in the driver’s seat, frantically trying his damndest to track Nestor Royce’s cell phone.  If the man had a smart phone-and he most likely did-they might be able to track it by infiltrating the GPS system.  It was a long shot, but it was all they had right now. 

Sandor felt his fingers slowly curl into balled fists before uncurling again.  He wanted to hit something or someone.  He wanted to rage.  He wanted to be moving again, to be doing something instead of sitting around on the side of the highway in the fucking desert. Apparently feeding off of his anxiety, Bronn was pacing in front of Sandor with one arm crossed tightly about his chest and the other lifted to his face as he rubbed his forehead. 

They had been at this for hours.  In an enraged panic and unable to think clearly, Sandor had sped from the Moriarti mansion and towards the gas station Mirabelle had been at with Sansa.  Cutting off cars on the highway as he raced there with his men frantically trying to keep up, Sandor tried to keep his cool, to remain focused, but with his heart damn near beating out of his chest and his thoughts a jumbled mess, he felt like everything around him was unraveling. 

When asked if he had any information, anything at all, about a silver SUV that had been at pump 6 around 4:35pm, the gas station attendant frantically shook his head and lifted his hands in the air.  Clearly, the man was terrified by the handful of Sandor’s men that had spilled into his store looking as though they were dogs put out for the hunt, ready for a fight and out for blood. 

After Go-Go had subtly pushed his shirt up, flashing the dull chromic sheen of a loaded handgun tucked in his pants, the gas station attendant had almost pissed his own pants as he flailed his arms and pointed towards the westbound portion of the highway whilst mumbling prayers in Spanish. 

Sandor didn’t trust the attendant’s information.  The man wanted to live and living meant telling Sandor and his men something even if his memory was a little shaky.  The fucker probably didn’t even remember a silver SUV at pump 6 seeing as how he was stuffing his face with Twinkies and watching telenovelas when they burst into the gas station mini mart. 

In a fleeting moment of clarity given the situation, Sandor had instructed half of his men to head eastbound on the highway, the rest were to follow him westbound.  Speeding down the highway at a reckless rate of speed, Sandor had felt as though his heart might stop every time he spotted a silver SUV.  Having Bronn in the passenger seat with the window down and an assault rifle ready on his lap, Sandor would keep pace with each silver SUV they came up to, scrutinizing the passengers of the vehicle.  Apparently every fucking jackass in the bi-state area owned a silver SUV.  All they had come across were soccer moms carting around hordes of children, old men ten-and-two’ing the steering wheel going an even 55 mph down the highway, or sometimes the occasional car full of teenage kids out for a summer joy ride. 

With each passing minute, Sandor had felt his rage simmering towards explosion, like a pot of water ready to boil over any second now.  Sansa only had a thirty minute head start on him and by the way he was driving like a mad man, he had hoped they would have caught up with her.  After flying down the highway for an hour, Sandor had made the last minute decision to head north towards Portland.  It was a shot in the dark.  He had doubted Royce was taking Sansa back that way.  In fact, he was almost certain who Royce was taking her to, but he had no idea where Gregor was operating from these days. 

And with that thought alone, Sandor’s fury had hit its exploding point, his blood boiling through his veins and erupting as he cut across two lanes of traffic before slamming to a stop on the side of the highway.  The other cars carrying Sandor’s men screeched to a halt behind him, kicking up plumes of dirt and dust as they stopped inches short of colliding into one another.  Getting out of the car, Sandor had slammed the door shut and paced around to the other side of the car, leaning up against it as he rubbed the palms of his hand over his face and ran his fingers through his hair. 

His men had filed out of their vehicles and shifted from side to side as they silently awaited a command, an order, an explanation.  Even Bronn remained silent as he dropped his gaze towards the ground, offering nothing, no advice or sly humor in this moment where Sandor so desperately needed something.  But Bronn had nothing to offer Sandor and in turn Sandor had nothing for his men.  He didn’t even know where to begin or where to go from here.  He had nothing to go on besides a color and type of car and the frantic flailing of a gas station attendant that desperately wanted to keep his Twinkie and telenovela-filled life.  Sandor had lifted his eyes to his men, each of them staring back at him anxiously as if saying ‘tell us what to do next, boss.’

With his breaths shortening to ragged huffs, Sandor had felt the anger and frustration coursing through him and knew he wouldn’t be able to stop it.  He hadn’t cared anymore in that moment, didn’t give a flying fuck if his men saw him lose his cool.  Seeing red, Sandor spun around towards the car and sent a rock-hard fist flying towards the car window, which immediately splintered under the brutal force.  It had felt great.  Better than great, fucking amazing, but he wanted more.  He could have gone on a destructive rage-fest if Bronn hadn’t stepped forward and taken him by the shoulders. 

“Zulu,” Bronn had started in with a low voice, a voice that was meant to not rock the boat of burning dynamite that was Sandor Clegane in that moment. “He can find Nestor Royce’s cell phone number and try to get a GPS signal from it.”    

Furrowing his brow, Sandor had nodded his head at that, eagerly latching on to the sliver of hope that was offered to him.  Zulu was young, one of the youngest members of the organization, but was brilliant when it came to technology.  Bronn had spotted the kid’s talent and recruited him as the resident techie, the go-to guy for anything that required explicit knowledge of computers, cell phones, video surveillance, and everything in between. 

Searching the faces of his men, Sandor realized he hadn’t even taken notice of which men had followed him west.  It would be his luck that Zulu had headed east under Marco’s lead.  Without missing a beat, Bronn had flipped open his phone and immediately called Zulu, telling him to book his ass back to where they were. 

While Sandor had furiously sped down the highway like a bat out of hell, Marco had led his group of men at a slower, more deliberate and less erratic pace.  Zulu was only an hour and a half away from them yet the time it took him to get to wherever the hell Sandor was had felt like an eternity.  With each passing minute they spent waiting and not moving, Sandor knew that Sansa was getting further away from him.  His opportunity to reach her in time was slowly slipping through his fingers like grains of sand passing through an hour glass.  There was nothing he could do about it and that frustrated him more than anything. 

Finally Sandor had seen a black car hovering on the horizon, seemingly traveling a great deal faster than the other cars around it.  That’s him.  That better fucking be him. 

Sure enough it had been Zulu and Gringo, another young recruit, flying down the highway towards them and about damn near passing them altogether.  When the driver side door swung open, Sandor watched as Zulu jumped out.  The boy wore his hair in a Mohawk and sported combat boots with camo shorts and a torn up Motörhead shirt.  By the looks of him, no one would know that the kid could infiltrate into damn near any system.  In fact, his parlor trick for skeptical mafia members was to hack into various government organization databases. 

“Nestor Royce.  We need to find where he is.  Can you do that?,” Sandor had demanded as Zulu approached him looking wide-eyed and nervous. 

“Yeah.  Let me get my laptop,” the kid had replied eagerly before pulling a bag from the trunk and plopping down in the driver’s seat. 

Immediately, Zulu had set in, typing away like a madman as his eyes darted around his laptop screen.  Sandor, along with the rest of his men, had fallen silent as they watched Zulu work.

“Nestor Royce.  Home address, 1216 Spring Hill Drive.  Date of birth, February 3rd, 1964.  Occupation, attorney with Royce & Thatcher Law Firm.  Is this the guy?”  At that, Zulu cocked an eyebrow and lifted his eyes to Sandor as his hands hovered over the keyboard. 

Sandor gave a curt nod as he crossed his arms about his chest.  He knew that address.  He had been to the man’s house after all.  And he doubted there was another Nestor Royce, attorney at law, running around Portland. 

Flashing a smug smile at Sandor’s nod, Zulu had set in again on the task at hand, his fingers furiously working his keyboard with a soft ‘tap, tap, tap’ sound. 

“Alright.  I got his cell number.  He should have GPS on his device.  Now it’s a matter of finding this fucker on the grid.”

Apparently, finding fuckers on the grid was a much harder task than it sounded.  Zulu had been at it relentlessly for the past forty five minutes and Sandor was quickly losing his patience. 

Once more, he studied the western horizon before swiveling around towards Zulu, cursing under his breath in frustration at having to wait so fucking long for the kid to get something.  Considering Zulu could hack into the FBI and CIA databases, he couldn’t imagine it was so damn difficult to track a single cell phone.

“Still not getting anything. If his phone is off, completely shut down, then I’m not going to get anything.” Zulu huffed his exasperation.  Apparently he was quickly running out of avenues to pick up a signal from Nestor Royce’s phone. 

Shooting a burning glare towards the kid, Sandor felt his fingers curl towards his palms as he clenched his hands into fists once more.  He could throttle the kid in this moment.  Or Thomas.  Or Mirabelle.  Or anyone for that matter. 

Seeing Sandor’s flaring temper, Bronn stepped forward and leaned down so that his face hovered in front of Zulu’s. 

“Try again.  And if it doesn’t work, you’ll try again.  And if that doesn’t work, you know what you’ll be doing?” Bronn’s voice was deliberate and slow, each word drawn out as if to communicate the direness of the situation and how much was hinged on Zulu’s success at what he had been asked to do. 

Gulping hard and nodding his head solemnly, Zulu set in on his key board again, assaulting it with a flurry of rapidly moving fingers.   

Sandor turned towards the group of six men standing around the two other sedans, mindlessly kicking around dirt and staring off in the distance, probably bored out of their skulls.  A part of him wanted to send them off to Portland to look for Sansa there.  Even then he didn’t know where to tell them to go.  He hadn’t the faintest idea where Royce might take her.  Nestor sure as shit wasn’t going to drop her off at her home, have a nice chat with her father, and then be on his merry way.  And it’s not like he was going to take her back to 1216 Spring Hill Drive.  That place didn’t exist anymore. No, the man was taking her to Gregor.  Sandor could feel it in his bones and it was enough to drive him mad; that and the fact that there was nothing he could do right now.  His hands were tied, he had nothing to do, but wait; wait until Zulu got something, wait until Marco called him, wait until another plan dawned on him.   

By the time the sun had retreated behind the western horizon, the night had grown chilly as the wind whipped up around them.  The dull glow from Zulu’s lap top was illuminating the kid’s face in a soft iridescent orb of light.  With his brow folded as he focused, Zulu continued with his task, but the frequency of his keyboard taps had slowed and by the way he kept shaking his head, Sandor knew they had reached a dead end. 

His men knew it too.  Slowly, each of them slumped against the sides of the car as they quite literally twiddled their thumbs while they waited for an order from Sandor. 

Sandor set his stare off towards the distance, fighting like hell to stave off the feeling of defeat that was slowly creeping up from within him.  Shaking his head as if to knock away the frustration of possible failure, Sandor ran his fingers through his hair while he paced in front of the car. 

After a few moments, Bronn fell in next to his side and placed a hand heavily on his shoulder. 

“Sandor, it’s been five hours,” Bronn said almost gently as if Sandor wasn’t already aware of how much time had passed.  On the contrary, he had been very much aware of how much time had passed since Sansa had disappeared with Nestor Royce. 

Another wave of defeat hit Sandor like a ton of bricks as he stopped dead in his tracks.  Thomas really only speculated that Sansa had gotten into a car with Nestor Royce.  For all he knew, Sansa may not even be with Nestor right now.  Maybe Thomas didn’t know what he saw.  Maybe like the gas station attendant he had convinced himself it was Nestor in his desperation to come up with something to pacify Sandor’s rage. 

With his doubts racking up, Sandor shook his head mindlessly as if that might clear the fog that was currently filling his mind.  Squeezing Sandor’s shoulder, Bronn stepped closer and lowered his voice so that the other men could not hear.

“Listen, we can go back, regroup there and Zulu can keep doing what he’s doing.  Just because we leave and go back to Moriarti’s doesn’t mean you’re giving up.”

Sandor declined his eyes to meet Bronn’s doleful stare and searched the man’s face.  ‘…doesn’t mean you’re giving up.’  You. You’re. As in, you’re the only one that will continue this.  You’re the one that’s keeping us out here in the fucking desert while we wait on something that very well may not come and if it does, it very well may be a dead end. 

Glancing towards Zulu, Sandor found that the kid was already looking at him.  With a forlorn half smile, Zulu shook his head, silently communicating that he still was getting nothing.

With that, Sandor yanked himself away from Bronn with a solid pull and wordlessly paced back towards his car, getting in and closing the door behind him without so much as a backwards glance.  From inside the car he could hear Bronn clap his hands together before addressing the men with defeat lacing his words.

 

 

“Alright.  Let’s pack it up.”   


As her eyes fluttered open slightly to meet the garish fluorescent lights hanging over head, Sansa wheezed a dry cough.  Her throat and nose felt like she had inhaled fire and that her sinuses were now scorched to oblivion.  With her tongue running along the roof of her mouth, she could faintly taste whatever had been saturated in Nestor Royce's handkerchief. 

Diethyl ether.  It was diethyl ether.  

The scent still lingered in her nose as Sansa remembered how she had taken chemistry lab with Podrick her senior year.  They had used ether for one of their labs.  The reaction had been an utter failure and smelled terrible, but her teacher, Mr. Hanson, had assured Sansa that the smell would eventually dissipate.  Four hours later, she could still smell the solvent on her as she sat at the table for supper; her hair, her clothes, her book bag all smelled like ether.  And it was a smell she wasn't likely to forget.  

Her head was pounding and she was certain her skull was going to split open.  The lingering effects of the ether, the piercing brightness of fluorescent lights, the dull thudding sound of her own heart beat loud in her ears were all contributing equally to the worst headache she had in recent memory.  

Taking a deep breath to clear the grogginess she felt, Sansa squeezed her eyes shut before reopening them, blinking quickly a few times to adjust her focus.  The floor beneath her was a dull grey color, like some sort of polished concrete.  By the way thin grey lines intersected the floor it was obvious it had once been covered in linoleum tiles which had been torn away.  Clumps of dust and dirt had accumulated in the corners of the room which was in desperate need of sweeping.  

Averting her eyes from the floor to the walls and ceiling, the entire room was in poor condition, like some sort of industrial office space that had been long forgotten.  Perhaps a once thriving business that had gone under when the economy had been run amok by greedy politicians and corporate fat cats, now the employees had cleared out, the building probably sat vacant for many years and was stripped of anything of value.  

The walls were painted a glossy white which faintly reflected the light of the paneled fluorescent lights above.  Judging by the grid of thin metal strips hanging overhead, a drop ceiling had once been hung, the ceiling tiles long gone with wires and pipes exposed in their absence.  

Sansa had awoken on her side, her body pressed against the cold concrete floor as her arms and legs were bound together at the wrists and ankles.  Slipping an elbow to the floor, Sansa squirmed until she could manage enough leverage and support to push herself up to a seated position.  Only then did she realize she wasn't alone in the room.  

Bound in the opposite corner of the room was Nestor Royce.  With his arms behind his back and encircling a support beam that extended from ceiling to floor, he seemed to be handcuffed by the wrists.  Sansa could hear a faint 'clanck, clanck' sound of metal brushing softly against metal.   Although the man was facing Sansa, his upper body was slumped over and his knees were pulled almost to his chest.  

'I'm sorry, Sansa.  I didn't want to do this.' 

Like a mack truck slamming into the forefront of her mind, Sansa suddenly remembered his words to her; the words he had whispered in her ear as he pressed a diethyl ether saturated handkerchief to her face.  She had tried to scream and in doing so probably inhaled the rapidly vaporizing liquid. And now here he was- the man who only wore designer clothes, drove only the nicest of cars, lived only in a multi-million dollar neighborhood- looking as though he had been dragged through hell and back.  The Tower card from Arianne's reading flashed in Sansa's mind, the look of terror plastered to the faces of the people in the card as they fell from their tower of excess and wealth.

How the mighty have fallen...

It didn't make sense to her.  Why was he here? Why was he handcuffed to a pole in the same room as her?  And where exactly was she? 

The room was windowless and boasted only two doors; a large, industrial looking metal door across the room to the left of her and a smaller, wood framed door adjacent to Nestor Royce. It seemed to her that metal door led to the outside and the other led to some other part of the building.  The air in the room was humid and Sansa noticed that strands of her hair were sticking to the sides of her face which was covered with a thin layer of sweat.  By the way Nestor's skin was a bright shade of pink, he was hot too and probably had been in the room just as long as she had.  

But then she didn't know how long she had been here, how long she had been knocked out cold.  As if the dreadful reality of the situation bloomed before her, Sansa gasped before exhaling a deep breath.  She had no idea where she was, she had no idea who Nestor had given her away to, she had no idea if she had been passed out for an hour, a day.  She had left a note for Mirabelle, telling her that she was going home.  Mirabelle undoubtedly told her brother that Sansa left, but he may have resigned himself to let her go.  If he wished her no harm and wanted to see her happy, he may have thought it was best to let her go home.  Suddenly a thought crept across her mind and slid like an icicle to settle in her heart and beckon her blood to run cold.

What if no one is coming for me? 

The thought elicited a familiar sting of hot tears to form in her eyes and spill over her cheeks.  How could she have been so stupid? Sansa lifted her tear-filled eyes to meet Nestor who was shifting slightly in his spot, swaying his upper body back and forth with labored groans. 

No, it wasn't stupidity.  She had trusted him.  Having grown up alongside his daughter, Nestor had been like a second father to her. And he was her father's friend, a man that her family had trusted with all their hearts.  Sansa felt a flush of anger color her cheeks and quicken her breaths. She had been stupid to trust him, but how was she supposed to know any better? Nestor Royce had taken advantage of her trust and used it as a means to some horrible end; a horrible end for both her and him.  

Probably feeling her tear-filled eyes burning into him, Nestor's head bobbed up slowly as he struggled to lift his gaze to her.  His right eye was a mess of purple and blue bruises which were just beginning to emerge.  The top of his forehead was crusted with dried blood from a deep gash that was there.  Scrutinizing his disheveled form, Sansa was only now noticing the bloody gashes, colored bruises, and raised bumps that were littering his body.  He looked as though he had been mercilessly beaten within an inch of his life, but the assault had been stopped short.  

Sansa felt her body begin to tremble with a deep rooted fear.  If they had done this to Nestor, what were they going to do to her? Another gush of tears spilled from her eyes as Sansa bit her lip to cease its quivering.  Letting her eyes drop to the floor, Sansa gasped for air.  She felt like the walls were closing in on her, the room felt sticky and hot and yet her blood was pumping cold through her veins.  She could scarcely breathe, or so it felt.  Her lungs burned with each sobbing intake of breath and each exhale manifested as a mewling sound.  

"Sansa..." Nestor's voice was hoarse, like sandpaper scratching against metal.  The way her name sounded on his ragged breath made her want to hurl.  She loved her name, the subtle humming sound it elicited as it rolled off the tongue.  But the way it passed his lips was sickening. 

“Sansa, please don’t cry.  Please,” Nestor pleaded with her as he set his gaze steadily on her.  His eyes were glazed over, as if he had been drugged; his pupils were dilated despite the glaring light from above and even from across the room, Sansa could see that the whites of his eyes were blood shot. 

Don’t cry.  Sansa could have laughed in that moment; a bitter laugh at his audacious request.  Or perhaps she could have cried even more, to watch him squirm as his guilt ate away at him.  But then again, she imagined that he probably didn’t suffer from much remorse at what he had done.  Apparently, his friendship with her father and her family meant nothing to him if he could so easily do this to her. 

“Why?”

Manifested on a whisper, the question bubbled up from within her and spilled from her mouth faster than she could stop it.  She had wanted to know why this was all happening to her.  Why her? She was barely 18 years old and she had never done anything wrong in her life.  She was a good girl, tried her damnedest to do the right thing.  For the past week, she had laid awake at night, going through it all in her head as she tried to work backwards from the series of events that had occurred.  She played out every scenario she could think of.  Nothing, not a single thing she could come up with justified all the horror she had been put through.  And now none of that seemed to matter to her.  Now all she was left wondering was why Nestor Royce had done this to her, what purpose did it serve. 

Sansa was broken from her reverie as she heard the soft sound of crying.  Shifting her focus towards Nestor once more, Sansa saw that he was indeed crying.  The same man that had requested she cease her tears not moments earlier was now blubbering like a baby.  She had half a mind to ask him to stop crying, to tell him to be a man and look her in the eye and tell her why he betrayed her trust. 

“Why are you doing this?,” Sansa demanded this time.  She wanted to hear it from him.  She doubted he was man enough to look her in the eye, but she at least wanted to hear it. 

A silence had descended upon the room.  Sansa listened to the humming of the fluorescent lights and the soft clanking sound as Nestor let his legs fall away from his chest and extend across the floor.  His deep breaths were punctuated with sniffles.  When his breathing seemed to steady and the sniffles became less frequent, Nestor cleared his throat, but never once did he lift his eyes to Sansa.  She imagined, or at least hoped, he was too ashamed to look at her.  Good, she thought to herself, you should feel sorry. 

“I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.  I swear I didn’t.” Nestor frantically shook his head, loose tears flying from his eyes and towards the floor below. 

“Tell me why,” Sansa seethed through clenched teeth.  She didn’t care if he didn’t mean for this to happen.  It had happened and that was really all that mattered to her. 

“I wanted it all,” he whispered, a sudden lull seemingly coming over him. “I told Charlotte we would have it all.  I was a cocky young man when I asked her to marry me.  I told her she would wear diamonds everywhere she went if she wanted to.  I told her our children would attend only the best schools.  I promised the world to her and I wanted the world for myself too. 

Your father wanted to set up a law firm with me.  He approached me right before our post-law school internship was set to end.  It wasn’t going to be anything major, a humble little firm that did honest work.  I thought about it, what my life would be like if I took him up on his offer.  I still think about how things might have been different. 

I told your dad no.  I had been offered a job at a high-profile firm in Portland.  One of the senior partners had solidified my position and told me he would make me a rich man.  So I took the job there.  I busted my ass and five years later I still wasn’t a rich man.  I made a decent living, but I wanted more. 

Then in the early 90’s I was put on a case as a plaintiff’s attorney against a man who had murdered his ex-wife.  The defense team approached me, offered me money under the table if I sold out the case.  All I needed to do was botch my examination of the witnesses and counsel against bringing certain witnesses to the stand, witnesses that would have secured the case for the plaintiff.  It seemed easy enough to me, just get up there and do a half ass job.  The payday was worth it in my mind.  It was more money than I made in six months.  I just remember the look on Charlotte’s face when I came home and told her about it.  I spared the details of how I had acquired so much money in such a short amount of time.  She didn’t care either way and didn’t ask any questions about it. 

In law school they teach you about this sort of thing; dirty judges and attorneys, public officials who sabotage cases for a pay off, judges who rule lenient if you pad their wallets, cops who lose evidence or botch crime scenes.  The stories you’d hear of people doing this sort of shit made it sound like these were horrible people who would stick out like a sore thumb.  I was shocked to find out how much of this was going on and I felt like I was missing out on my opportunity.  I wanted a part of it so I kept doing it and the money kept coming in.  Charlotte and I were finally able to spend time traveling the world.  Myranda had everything she could ever want.  I gave Charlotte the house of her dreams, a Victorian mansion that was all her own.  It was dangerous and I knew it, but I had a taste of the good life and I wanted more.  Always, no matter what, I wanted more.”

Sansa felt the acidity of bile hitting the back of her throat.  She hated this man.  She hated him and she sensed he hadn’t even told her the half of it yet.  Sighing deeply, Nestor let his head fall back against the support beam he was bound to. 

“I kept doing it. More cases would come, and I would find a way to make sure I got paid, whether I won or lost the case.  Eventually, I became well connected.  I knew which judges were dirty, I knew which cops were dirty, I knew which attorneys were working under the table like I was.  Before I knew it, many of these people were under my thumb.  All I had to do was make a phone call or drop by someone’s office and I was getting what I wanted from them.  As I took on high profile cases, it became a gamble.  I was now paying to bribe judges to sway the ruling of the case. I was paying law enforcement to lose evidence.  Anything I could do to win my cases and make sure I got paid, I would do. 

It was like a drug to me; the power, the money, the parties, the excess.  I wanted to stop.  So many times, I wanted to stop, but I just couldn’t.  Eventually, Charlotte and I were spending money faster than I could make it.  Credit card debt was piling up, collection agencies were calling non-stop, and I was looking at having to file personal bankruptcy.  Around that time I was approached by a member of the Severelli crime family.  They were building a case, a case that needed to go a very particular way.  Certain people needed to be put away, others needed to be let off the hook.  It was going to require someone well connected; someone who could pull strings and ensure that things panned out the way they were supposed to.”

At that, Nestor let his eyes fall dejectedly towards the floor. 

“You,” Sansa whispered as she nodded her head.  Although she didn’t want to believe it, Nestor’s confessions struck a chord with her, as if she had been subconsciously aware all this time that things didn’t add up with him.  Only now that she was being told as much was Sansa becoming aware of how shady, vain, and arrogant Nestor Royce was. 

“Yes, me,” Nestor replied with a slow nod of his head before continuing.  “The Severelli came to me.  I was the man for the job.  No one else would do, they told me.  I was hesitant.  Dealing with dirty cops and judges was one thing.  Being involved with the mafia was another, but at the end of the day money talks.  They were willing to pay me a considerable amount of money, enough money to dig myself out of the mess I was in and maybe even start over.”

At that, Nestor paused, shaking his head as he gave a small smile.

“I envied your dad at that point.  God, how I envied him! He always did the right thing, you know? It was always duty and honesty, being an honorable man, husband, and father.  He gave your mother a comfortable life, took care of you, and was happy.  He was always happy with what he had and made the most of it.  I envied him for that.  That’s all I wanted at that point and I didn’t see any other way out so I took the Severelli offer and promised myself that I’d be done after that.  I wouldn’t keep doing this shit anymore; I’d learn to live straight and be happy doing it. 

I did what they asked me to do and no more.  I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t ask why they were pursuing the case. I didn’t ask what was in it for them.  I knew what was in it for me and that was enough to keep me satisfied.  I knew they were paying me with cartel money; money that came from other people’s addictions.  Someone in New York City was shooting up on heroin and I was getting paid, as if I couldn’t have been more of a piece of shit than I already was.  But I did it anyway.  I got my money and I was done. 

Charlotte and I got ourselves out of debt, saved our house from going into foreclosure, and for a while I got my life straight.  We had been living the high life for so long that it was hard to dial it back. Every now and then I would sell out cases when money was starting to get tight, but I never let myself get in too deep.”

Nestor fell quite at that, tentatively lifting his eyes towards Sansa as if gauging how she was taking all of this information.  Sansa didn’t know what he expected from her.  He was a crook, a fraud, a complete and utter con artist.  Squirming within her binds, Sansa scooted towards the wall a few feet behind her.  Despite the fact that Nestor Royce was not going anywhere bound to a pole, Sansa felt the need to put as much distance between her and this horrible, despicable man as she could. 

“Did you ever stop to think that you were messing with people’s lives? That murderers, rapists, child molesters were being turned out onto the streets just so you could buy Myranda designer clothes and put diamonds around your wife’s neck?”

The venom in Sansa’s voice shocked Nestor into a stunned silence as he stared at her wide eyed.  Sansa shook her head and snorted a disgusted laugh. 

“No.  You wouldn’t think about that, would you?  Well congratulations, Mr. Royce.  You’re a terrible human being, but that tells me nothing about why I’m here.”

Sansa stared daggers through him as she awaited an answer from him.  Drawing in a deep breath, Nestor nodded his head and finally lifted his eyes to her, something he had scarcely been able to do throughout the entirety of his conversation with her thus far.

“You have every right to think I’m a bad man.  I don’t blame you, Sansa. I’ve done some terrible things and I guess I deserve for you to think I’m a terrible person.”

At this, Nestor dropped his eyes once more, which infuriated Sansa more than she could have thought possible. Erupting in an anger she didn’t know she possessed, Sansa snapped a furious stare towards him. 

“Quit with the self-pity! And answer my question.  Why I am I here? Why did you do this to me?”

Nestor squeezed his eyes shut, as if doing so would make everything go away.  When he finally opened his eyes, he apprehensively matched his eyes to Sansa and began speaking slowly, deliberately.

 “After your uncle Brandon died, your father took over as District Attorney and threw himself headlong into the Moriarti case that your uncle had been working on.  He had been reluctant at first.  I remember having a very long conversation with him over a few beers about how scared he was for you and Catelyn should he take on the case.  He hated the corruption of the city.  He hated that he had built his career on being an honest, good person and yet there were attorneys out there making a joke of the profession by doing it dirty.  He didn’t want his brother’s work to be in vain.  He felt a need to show people that he wasn’t afraid and that he wasn’t going to tolerate the corruption any longer. 

As he was telling me all of this, going on and on about how he and I were a few of the only honest attorneys left, I felt like a complete joke and I was.  I really was and in that moment, I felt like he could see it in me and that he knew what I had been doing and was trying to get me to come clean.  I didn’t though.  I was embarrassed and ashamed so I said nothing and just agreed with everything he said. 

About a year ago, I was approached once more by the Severelli, this time by their underboss.  They wanted me on the Moriarti case.  Again, they wanted me to influence it, make sure it reached a very specific outcome.  I told them no.  I didn’t want to do it and even if I could, the honorable Ned Stark was District Attorney on the case.  Nothing shady was going to get past him. 

They didn’t care though and this time they weren’t offering money.  They had been keeping track of my under-the-table earnings.  They had information on almost every dirty deal I was ever involved in and they were going to take it to the media.  My career would be over and beyond that, I would be looking at significant prison time, probably the rest of my life.  And then there was Charlotte and Myranda.”

Nestor’s voice cracked as the name of his wife and child passed his lips.  He fell silent for many moments, staring mindlessly towards a spot on the floor before speaking again.

“If I didn’t get on board with the Moriarti case, they were going to hurt Charlotte and Myranda. They told me as much in graphic detail.  They had followed Myranda home from school one day.  They sent me pictures.  They didn’t do anything, but they were making a point; they had access to my daughter and were dead set on carrying through with their threats.  I was backed into a corner. I had no other choice so I agreed. 

Your dad was ecstatic when I offered to be a litigator on the case. Ned and Nestor, the dynamic duo, he called us.  He had felt like he was getting nowhere with the Moriarti case, like he was treading water, but as soon as I jumped on board, it’s like he got his second wind.  I’ve never seen your dad throw himself into his work like he did when I came on board.

The case was shaping up to be the biggest undertaking the District Attorney’s office had ever seen.  Your dad was going all the way with this; it was all or nothing.  He wanted every long standing member of the Moriarti family put away for as long as possible.  Any auxiliary members or associates would be prosecuted with whatever we could come up with.  Underboss, street bosses, soldiers, every made man was to be put away.  And then there was the Hound, the boss of the Moriarti family.  Your father just couldn’t sink his claws into him.  The man is illusive and careful to cover his tracks.  It was like the Hound just kept slipping through his fingers.”

Sansa snapped her eyes up to Nestor.  Somehow hearing Sandor called “The Hound” seemed odd to her now.  She hadn’t known when that happened, but it did.

“The Hound is a smart man and dangerous too. No one disputes that, but there was a reason your father could never seem to get a hold on the Hound.  And that reason was me. 

I had been given specific directions for how to maneuver the case.  If I fucked up or let things get sloppy, my wife and daughter’s lives were on the line.  The first thing I had to do is get in contact with the Moriarti defense team.  Luckily, the attorneys with the most sway were men I knew quite well and had influence over.  They were to lose when it came to defense of the underboss and all the street bosses.  Those men were going to prison, no doubt about it. 

In exchange, we’d let the Hound go and they’d get a payout for that.  Somehow, someway the charges against him would never come to fruition.  He’d walk, but his organization would be wiped off the map. 

Next came the judge, he was bought and paid for.  If for some reason the Hound was found guilty, he’d get off easy. The most he would be sentenced with was probation.  Nothing more than that.  The Hound’s underboss and street bosses would be hit with life sentences.  All other members would be sentenced as strictly as possible. 

Finally, witnesses were to be bribed or ‘taken care of’ as the Severelli put it.  Essentially, the entire case was going to be rigged before it even came to trial. 

When I began working on the case with your father, I had to start reaching out to my old connections.  I began sabotaging certain components of the case, especially those related to the Hound.  Witnesses were paid to drop out before their depositions could take place.  Pieces of evidence were going missing, thanks to my connections within the police department.  Given that this was a mafia case, all of these things weren’t outlandish.  For a long time, your father assumed witnesses were dropping out because they were being threatened by the Moriarti family.  He assumed that the Moriarti had the connections within the police department. 

The longer things went on though the more suspicious your father became.  Things weren’t adding up in his mind and I could see by the way he started to look at me that he was putting things together.  And then one day, he dropped it on me like a ton of bricks.  He confronted me, asked me if I was rigging the case.  I denied it at first, told him he was crazy. 

But your dad was thorough.  He kept track of things and I should have fucking known that.  Ned Stark wasn’t someone who could go on without noticing all the things I was doing behind-the-scenes.  With almost every component of the case already masterminded, there were too many components that weren’t adding up or that were looking fishy from the outside.  After I denied it, your father laid it all out in front of me.  After banging his head up against the wall for so long, he had started taking scrupulous notes on the case, trying to figure out where things were going wrong.  Anytime something didn’t pan out the way it should have, I was somehow involved with it.  After awhile that sort of thing no longer becomes a coincidence. 

Your dad had backed me into a corner at that point.  I could deny it all I wanted, but he already knew what I was doing and was furious.  Beyond that, it was like I had broken the man’s heart.  He trusted me and I know that.  So I told him.  I told him everything, starting with the very first case I had dealt with under the table and ending with my involvement with the Severelli.  I was in too deep at that point. I didn’t know how to get myself out. 

I tell you what, the stupidest thing I could have done was tell your father what was going on.  Somehow the Severelli found out about that.  To this day, I have no idea how, but they did and they knew Ned was going to blow the lid on everything.  It would all be exposed and therefore Ned was a liability.  They wanted me to coerce your father, to try and lure him somewhere so that they could take care of him and shut him up for good.  ‘Dead men don’t talk’ they told me.  I was horrified.  I wanted nothing to do with it.  I wanted to go to the police.  I didn’t care at that point if I was brought to trial for all I had done.  I just wanted out.

I told them as much and they went away.  I thought it was over with.  I thought I had dodged a bullet.  And then the party happened.  Charlotte had wanted security for the event.  The agency she went through for security was bought off by the Severelli mafia.  The security guards were actually men from the Severelli family, ordered to make a massacre of the affair.  They had expected your father to be there and were intent on silencing him.  Obviously, your dad bowed out of the party, but you and your mother were there which was the next best thing.  Your father hasn’t been heard from since the day after the party.  He’s alive, but he’s on the run most likely and I do know he’s looking for you.  Charlotte is gone and they have Myranda still alive somewhere. They’re using her as leverage against me.  If I brought them you, they would bring Myranda back to me alive. They’re hoping that you can bring your father out of the woodwork.”

Somewhere along the line, Sansa’s mouth had fallen open, agape in shock and horror.  Memories of the party flashed through her mind; the screaming, the gun shots, the fire, and Sandor.  She had thought, had just assumed, that the Royce party massacre was done by him; that the security guards were his men.  Shaking her head at the thought, Sansa realized she had been dreadfully wrong.  Sandor had treated her well; he had never hurt her, seemed concerned about her well-being, had even seemed protective of her.  As the thoughts kept crashing towards the forefront of her mind, the pieces were beginning to fall in place. Alberto had told her things were not what they seemed, told her to keep an open mind.  The man had known, Mirabelle had known, they all knew. Everyone but her.    

And just when she thought Nestor Royce couldn’t sink any lower, he hit her with these abhorrent confessions.  One right after another, they just kept coming until Sansa’s head was a jumble trying to keep it all straight.  Trembling like a leaf, Sansa pulled her knees to her chest and shot a sideways glare at the man-this terrible, conniving man- who had committed so many egregious acts, many against her father and her family. 

A question lingered on her lips that Sansa wasn’t quite sure she was ready to know the answer to.  She had assumed the worst, but had been given a tiny sliver of hope that she was trying desperately to hold onto.  It was all she had left to keep her going. 

Sucking in a shaky breath, Sansa armored herself the best she could before lifting her heavy-lidded eyes towards Nestor. 

“My mother,” Sansa whispered through quivering lips.  “Is she alive?”

Nestor dropped his head, slumping forward slightly with a strained look pulling his skin tightly across his tired and beaten face.  Sansa saw as he slowly shook his head and felt as though she might stop breathing. 

“I’m sorry, Sansa.  She didn’t make it,” Nestor mumbled from across the room. 

Sansa felt as though she barely heard him, as if she were underwater and hearing his words from somewhere up above.  The words sent a stabbing pain through her chest that elicited a cry to exit her lips.  Bringing her bound arms to her chest, Sansa felt her heart breaking.  Literally, she felt the burning pain in her chest and the tightening around her windpipe which was making the simple task of breathing seem like a herculean feat that she wasn’t so sure she could manage.  When Sansa’s grandmother passed away, her mother had told her she felt like a child again, lost in the grocery store and calling out for her mother, but knowing her mother would never come because she was now alone, without her Mom.   

Sansa never imagined she would come to know the heart wrenching truth of her mother’s words so soon.   She wanted her Mom.  She wanted her mother to hold her and tell her it would be okay.  She wanted to smell her mother’s perfume as it mingling amongst the waves of her hair.  She wanted her mother to stand behind her in the mirror and tell her that she was pretty. 

Frantically shaking her head, Sansa tried to make it all go away, to will it all to just be a nightmare.  She was tired of opening her eyes to find herself in a relentless hell from which she couldn’t be free.  As the tears poured over her cheeks, Sansa fell to the floor once more, lowering herself to the ground as she let the sobs come over her like waves. 

Sansa knew not how long she stayed like that; tucked into a ball on the floor as she wept salty tears that would not stop.  Eventually, Sansa heard a door open and suddenly, like a faucet, her tears ceased.  Through eyes still wet, the figure in the doorway was obscured to a blur, but she felt her heart skip a beat as she noticed the way the figure seemed to fill the entire frame of the door.  It’s him.  He found me!

Pushing herself straight up and blinking away the last of her tears, Sansa squinted towards the door once more before feeling her blood run cold and a gasping breath escape her lips. 

It wasn’t Sandor who was pacing towards her from the doorway, but he was just as large.  Actually, he was larger than Sandor, if that was even possible.  Sansa hadn’t believed it possible until now.  The man was now standing over her and Sansa imagined he stood well over seven feet tall, but was every bit as muscled as Sandor.  The man’s face intimated unspeakable brutality; his heavy brow set his ice grey eyes in narrow slits that were as intimidating as they were cruel.  With a large, hooked nose and thin lips pressed together in a perpetual scowl, Sansa felt like she was looking at the face of evil come alive.  As the man towered over her, Sansa’s heart beat raced into a panic while she scooted her way across the floor and pressed herself up against the wall.  Her movements were pure instinct for there was nowhere to hide from this man.  Her body coiled into a tight ball as Sansa shrunk away from him.

Emboldened by her offering of fear, the man let out a malicious laugh which made every hair on her body feel as though it was standing on end.  Faster than she could ever imagine possible in such a large man, Sansa felt one of his hands wrap painfully around her upper arm as he yanked her from the wall and dragged her across the floor.  Sansa squirmed feebly against the man as she let out a yelp of a scream.  She felt as though her arm might snap in half at the force of his fingers digging into her skin.  Flinging her towards Nestor in one forceful motion, Sansa went sliding across the floor and slammed into the wall.  The force at which she hit the wall knocked the wind out of her and Sansa shakily went on hands and knees as she fought like hell to fill her lungs with air once more. 

From the corner of her eye, Sansa saw Nestor Royce was shaking uncontrollably and had started to cry again.  Apparently, the large man had been his torturer and the man’s mere presence sent Nestor into a nervous breakdown.  Sansa could have cried too, but she was too afraid to move, to speak, to let the tears come for fear that this mountain of a man might strike at any moment. 

And strike he did, even though Sansa had been sure to remain as still as possible. Pulling her up by her arm once more, the man forced her to sit up with her back flush against the wall.  If her head was pounding before, it was surely hammering hard against her skull now.  Three more men had filed into the room and one of them was instantly set to work with unbinding Nestor.  Once free of the handcuffs, Nestor breathed a sigh of relief before the mountain of a man pulled him to his feet and wrapped one of his large hands around Nestor’s neck. 

Reaching into his back pocket with a free hand, Sansa watched as the large man pulled out a blackberry cell phone and held it in front of Nestor’s face.

“You’ll call him,” the large man began, his voice an ominous grumble like the rolling of distant thunder. “You’ll call him from your own cell phone this time. And when you get him on the phone, you’ll pass it off to the little bitch.”

The large man set his cold eyes on Sansa after growling out the last part.  Instantaneously, Sansa felt her fear grip her and her chest burn as her breathing slowed to a halt.  After letting go of Nestor, the large man slowly paced towards Sansa and crouched down in front of her, snatching up her chin in one of his humongous hands and squeezing so tightly she thought he meant to crush her jaw open. 

“Do you want to talk to your daddy, little girl?,” the large man mocked as he pressed her head back against the wall.  Sansa couldn’t move, no more than she could talk.  The large man pushed her head up and down in a nodding motion before exhaling a devious laugh.

One of the other men pulled Nestor over to where Sansa was and shoved him to the ground to sit next to her.  While the large man kept his hand securely around Sansa’s chin, his eyes had shifted towards Nestor who was fumbling with his cell phone.

“Do you have a death wish? What is taking so fucking long?,” the large man barked out, his anger manifesting through his fingers which were clenching even tighter around Sansa’s chin. 

“I had to turn my phone back on.  It takes a minute to power up,” Nestor responded hesitantly, clearly terrified to anger the large man more than he already was. 

If Nestor’s phone truly took a minute to power up, then it was the longest minute of Sansa’s life.  The room was thick with a heavy and dangerous tension as all eyes in the room were on Nestor Royce and his blackberry phone.  Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the screen of Nestor’s phone flashed on with a background picture of his Porsche Boxster, his prized possession in life. 

With shaky fingers, Sansa saw as he pulled up her father’s phone number in his contacts list and slowly pressed his thumb to the screen.  Although his phone was lifted to his ear, Sansa could still hear the ringing.

rinnnnnnggg…

Sansa felt her eyes go wide.  What if her father answered?

rinnnnnnggg…                

What if he didn’t answer? Sansa felt her heart sink to the pit of her stomach.

rinnnnnnggg…

A sudden click sounded on the other end and Sansa felt as though her heart might beat right out of her chest.  Her vision blurred at the edges and Sansa suddenly felt like she was losing focus on her surroundings.

You've reached Eddard Stark. I'm sorry I am unable to take your call right now. Please leave a name, number, and a brief message and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

It was her father’s voice and although it was the sweetest sound Sansa had ever heard, her heart felt like it was breaking all over again. 

Suddenly, the large man pulled his hand away from Sansa’s jaw and yanked the phone from Nestor’s still trembling hands.  The man pressed the phone to his ear and cocked his head to the side as he stared hot daggers through Sansa.

“Your daughter wants to talk to you,” the large man taunted through the phone as he pulled his lips into a malicious smile.

Pulling the phone away from his face, the large man handed it to her.

“Say hello to your daddy, little girl.”

Sansa had barely heard the large man as she pushed the phone hurriedly to her ear and exhaled a shaky breath.

“Daddy. Please,” she whispered into the phone.

 

 

Before Sansa could say more, the large man yanked the phone away from her and held the bottom of the phone in front of his mouth.

“You had best return my calls, Papa Stark. I’ll be calling you from a different number and you had better pick up next time.”   

With one hand, the large man smashed the phone to the ground and sent pieces of the blackberry scurrying across the floor. 


By the sheer number of cars still parked in the half circle drive of the Moriarti mansion, Sandor knew many of his men stayed.  They had lives of their own; families, mortgages, day jobs. Yet they stayed behind long after Alonzo’s post-funeral festivities were over.  It was a show of solidarity, he knew.  Each car still parked in the drive meant that that man had made a choice to stay behind.  Despite nagging wives and fussing children, these men had understood that shit went down and were there to offer what support they could. 

In a frenzy to get out the door before time slipped away and with it Sansa, Sandor had only had a handful of his men in tow when he peeled out of the driveway and headed towards the gas station.  From there, his men had split up.  The vast majority had stayed behind at the mansion, unaware of what was happening and undoubtedly left scratching their heads in the dust as they wondered where Sandor had been fleeing to like a bat out of hell. 

Sandor had only reluctantly retreated back to the mansion; feeling every bit the defeated dog who was running back with his tail between his legs.  However, he knew that Bronn was right; they couldn’t very well sit out in the desert all night hoping against hope that they may get some lead.  Despite Bronn’s assurances, coming back to the mansion was admitting a sort of defeat and that admission had meant that Sansa was gone and he had no idea-not a fucking clue- how to get her back. 

Entering into the mansion through the underground hallway that lead to the basement lounge, Sandor could hear the faint murmuring of conversation.  It wasn’t the raucous laughter or bawdy shouting that normally filled the room.  The voices were low and hushed, serious words swathed in solemn tones.  Somehow this troubled Sandor. Perhaps it was his own qualms about approaching his men and relaying to them what had happened.  He imagined they already knew, but they needed to hear it from him.  He wasn’t in the mood for dealing with half-truths born to life by speculative gossip.  It would all be laid out straight and put on the table.  Anyone who had concerns, questions, or criticisms could shove them up their ass for all he cared. 

The other night he had entertained all their misgivings, their complaints, their self-important needs to have a say in the matter of what went down in Las Vegas.  Tonight he wouldn’t be having any of that.  No, tonight they could mull it over with one another as they sucked down their cocktails and smoked their stogies.  Tonight Sandor would be nothing more than a shadow in the room; a presence that existed in thought, but not physical form.  They could talk about it all they wanted, but he wouldn’t be there to listen.

Sandor pushed through the heavy wooden door to the basement lounge and watched as every head in the room lifted as the door flung open and slammed into the wall.  A hush had fallen over the men, each looking up at him with shrewd eyes.  Sandor could tell that the men were not stunned into silence, but rather the silence had a certain sympathy to it.  The men averted their stares as Sandor traversed through the room, quiet as a ghost.  As soon as he passed a group of men, he could feel their eyes on his back as they lifted their stares to him once more. 

No one said a word as Sandor reached the staircase on the other side of the room and headed upstairs, disappearing from their sight.  Even as he reached the top of the staircase, his ears were met with a deafening silence coming from the lounge below.  Perhaps in his absence they had already discussed all they wished to discuss or perhaps they were waiting until they heard his heavy foot falls above them retreat far enough away that they could be assured he was out of earshot.  Only then would they resume their conversations.  Sandor imagined it was the latter and imagined he didn’t give a fuck if they wanted to piss their time away whispering back and forth to one another about how they had told him from the beginning Sansa was a liability. 

Shaking his head and huffing out his frustration, Sandor wished he could make them see.  Sansa Stark was not a liability to the organization.  Rather the organization was a liability to Sansa Stark.  The girl could come and go out of the picture and they would still be dealing with violence, alliances gone bad, and retaliatory tit-for-tat.  The same shit would go down as it always did and their lives would still be the same.  However, Sansa’s life had gone through devastating and drastic changes in a matter of a week.  She had been at the wrong place and the wrong time, but so had he.  The manner in which their paths originally crossed was bloody, violent, and filled with dangerous and mutual misunderstandings from the get-go.  Sandor had had every intention of clarifying the misconceptions that remained between him and Sansa.  And then this happened.

Sandor sought out his retreat on the balcony of the second floor.  It was tucked away in the back of the house and offered the isolation he so desperately wanted in this moment.  A part of him wanted to distract his turbulent thoughts with alcohol.  He could drown them away on whiskey, but somehow he sensed that would only make things worse.  The other part of him knew that he needed to remain sober in case the miraculous happened and he somehow got a lead on Sansa.  Although that hope was dwindling by the minute, it was all he had to hang onto.  Turning to the bottle meant severing the last shred of hope he had. 

No.  Fuck that.  I won’t take that chance; the chance that one of my men come up with something and I’m too shitfaced to do anything about it.

As Sandor stepped out onto the balcony, he was immediately met with the subtle chill of the air.  He was still getting used to the desert climate.  How it could be ungodly hot during the day and cold as fuck by night, Sandor wasn’t sure.  But he was sure that this place was a special kind of hell he had been put in.  Leaning against the balcony railing, Sandor set his gaze to the expanse of sand, cacti, and flickering city lights off in the distance.  Behind it all, the mountains were a black silhouette set against the evening sky.  Despite the ridiculous climate, the desert had a strange aesthetic to it. 

“Do you remember what I told you about the desert when you first came here?”

Despite Alberto’s voice behind him, Sandor didn’t turn around or shift his stare towards the approaching man.  He knew Alberto would seek him out.  Sandor allowed a soft exhale of breath to suffice as a laugh.

“You told me it was like a woman; beautiful, but deadly.” 

Sandor remembered that conversation like it was yesterday.  It was one of the first heart-to-heart conversations he had had with Alberto.  He had been a teenager then; reckless, full of violent rage, and in desperate need of direction.  Alberto had patiently and relentlessly put up with all of Sandor’s shit and all that manifested from the disaster that was his teenage angst at the time. 

In the periphery of his vision Sandor could see the crimson glow of Alberto’s lit cigar as it hovered to the left of him.  Gently, the man rested his hands on the balcony railing and stared off towards the desert. 

“Beautiful and deadly, indeed.  I remember telling you not to get sucked in.  That’s the problem.  People are so distracted by the beauty, they set off towards it.  Before they know it, they’re lost and dying amongst the beauty that had so desperately wanted to seek.”

Sandor clenched his teeth in agitation as he stood up to his full height and turned towards Alberto who, undaunted by Sandor’s growing irritation, was still placidly considering the sights from the balcony. 

“I respect you, old man,” Sandor set in as he punctuated his words with a pointing of his index finger. “I really do.  But if this is some sort of bullshit analogy for Sansa, then I don’t want to fucking hear it.”

Alberto let out a soft exhaled laugh as he pulled on his cigar.  Puffing plumes of fragrant smoke into the air, Alberto turned towards Sandor, gazing up at him with eyes that seemingly saw everything, no matter how well guised. 

“No.  It was not meant as an analogy.  I was simply reminiscing on one of our first conversations.”

Alberto let his eyes fall to the ground as he folded his arms across his chest and furrowed his brow, gathering his thoughts.  Having had enough of these insightful conversations with this man, Sandor knew when he was thinking, formulating what he wanted to say next and choosing his words with the same delicacy as he chose his cigars.  Sandor had learned long ago that all he could do is patiently wait until Alberto had crafted his monologues of profundity; the longer he had to wait, the more profound the revelations. 

Finally, Alberto let his arms relax to his side and lifted his eyes to Sandor once more. 

“It’s interesting that you so quickly jump to the conclusion that my musings and recollections were somehow an analogy-filled lecture about Sansa.  What sort of criticism were you expecting from me in regards to the Stark girl?”

Fuck.  The man has a point.  And brings up a damn good question.  

“The men think she’s a liability to the family.  Renaldo, your former street boss, called my ass out the other night; said that Sansa either needs to be in or out and that her “on-the-fence” position with the family would end in tragedy for everyone involved.”  At that, Sandor threw his hands in the air, gesturing towards everything around him.  “Low and behold, tragedy.”

“Tragedy for whom? You make the assumption that our men think this is a tragedy, her having gone missing.  To them, she’s the daughter of a District Attorney who somehow got mixed up in your dealings with Gregor.  You brought her here and now she’s gone.  I bet half of them don’t even remember her name, if they even knew it at all.”

Alberto stared at Sandor pointedly, almost as if willing him to puzzle out the subtext to all that he had said.  Sandor understood what he was saying well enough, but Alberto spoke in riddles; never really saying what he meant until you figured out what he was meaning to say.  Only then would he reveal it all with some poignant statement, but by then it was obvious what he was getting at. 

“What does this have to do with anything?,” Sandor demanded, feeling as though his time was being wasted although he had nothing to do, but wait. 

Matching Sandor’s stance, Alberto leaned forward and rested his forearms on the balcony railing as he took another long pull from his cigar. 

“I used to have this really nice fountain pen,” Alberto started. 

Sandor rolled his eyes.  Here we fucking go…

“I had been looking at it for awhile. I guess I liked the idea of sitting at my fancy desk, writing with a fancy pen.  My wife told me to splurge, do something nice for myself so I did.  I bought this fucking thing and I guess it was nice.  It wrote well enough and sure as shit looked real fancy on my desk. 

I used it a few times before losing it somewhere.  I looked for the damn thing and couldn’t find it. I was upset about it for maybe 10 minutes as I was looking for it, but eventually I got busy doing something and forgot all about it. 

My wife, though, she loved pens.  She had this weird OCD thing about them.  They had to ‘feel’ a certain way as she wrote.  They had to have just the right diameter and just the right grip.  We went to our mortgage broker one day, spent two hours there working some bullshit out.  When we left, she got into the car and pulled this damn pen out of her purse giggling like a school girl.  It was our mortgage broker’s pen.  She had signed something and then walked off with his pen.  She said it was perfect in every way.  I looked at the thing and it was a hideous rainbow colored pen that was probably handed out at some promotional event for some company.  It was a cheap thing, but it was the fact that she had serendipitously come across the thing that made her day. 

From that point on, that was her pen.  She used it for everything.  It was her favorite, the pen to end all pens.  I used to joke with her about it all the time, give her a hard time.  It became sort of an inside joke between us.  Whenever the rainbow pen was out, we would laugh and make fun of each other and that damned pen.  When she passed away and I was handling her things, I came across this pen; this ugly, rainbow colored, cheap ass pen.  I couldn’t get rid of it so I put it on my desk and used the thing from time to time.  Every time I used it, I thought of her; her little nuances, the things that made her happy, such as this fucking pen, and I thought about how much I loved her. 

Then I lost the pen.  I had used it one day and then it was gone the next.  I broke down in tears trying to look for it.  It was ridiculous to everyone else.  It was just a pen! I had pens, more pens than I needed so why was I getting so upset? That pen was a memory of her.  It was a reminder of one of the many reasons I loved her.  It meant something to me and I had lost it, just like I lost her.  It didn’t have to make sense to other people.  Whether or not they understood didn’t take away from the way I felt. I never found the damn thing.”

Before Sandor could open his mouth to reply, Alberto clapped him on the shoulder and set his wizened eyes deliberately on Sandor. 

There’s your analogy.  You lost something that means something to you.  It’s a tragedy to you, Sandor.  Just because the men don’t understand or agree with it, doesn’t mean that you can change what it is to you. Nor should you.”

Although the man had taken the most bizarre and round-about path to make his point, he had made a point nonetheless.   Why he had to speak in analogies was beyond Sandor, but the man never failed to offer sound advice and insight.  The rambling and beating-around-the-bush moments were almost worth it when all was said and done. 

And apparently, all was said and done because Alberto slowly stood and retreated from the balcony, hands in his pocket and a contented smile on his face.

Sandor knew the man’s M.O. He swept in, eventually made his point, and then left you with some thought provoking statement that you’d end up thinking about for the rest of the day. 

However, Sandor hadn’t needed Alberto’s thought provoking statements.  His thoughts had already been provoked the night he saw Sansa eagerly trying to melt into the sidelines of the Royce party.  She was pretty, so fucking pretty.  He wanted her.  His body responded to her.  Maybe it was the whiskey or maybe it was her, but he had felt the heat of his body settle in his cock which had slowly begun to harden as he watched her.  He had been a shameless voyeur, eagerly watching as she squirmed beneath his stare.  He had liked it; the way she blushed, the way she lifted her eyes to him and then let them fall away, the way her lips parted slightly as if she gasped each time she caught him drinking in the sight of her.  

She had felt it too.  And she had liked it.  That he knew for a certainty.  Why else would she continue to let him undress her with his eyes, watch from afar and imagine doing all sorts of things with that pretty mouth and perfect body of hers?

The attraction had indeed been instantaneous and it had been mutual.  It filled the room and he had relished the feeling and the sight of her for as long as he could until being pulled from his visual assault on her and back into the task at hand.  He had come with his men to the Royce party for a reason and that reason needed to be fulfilled. 

It had been too late though.  The popping sounds and subsequent screams were something Sandor knew all too well, their sound so familiar that it had almost become a sort of silence to him.  Regardless, he had not anticipated what was happening all around him; the bodies piling up in damn near every room of the house, the fires being set, the gates being shut so that no one could leave.  Sandor had had only a handful of his men with him, but as the chaos erupted around him, he thought of her.  He had known his brother was coming for Ned Stark.  He hadn’t known when, but he knew it was going to happen.  And then it did, except Ned wasn’t in attendance at the party.  The man was nowhere to be seen and who could miss that stern face, lined with worry and early age? However his daughter was there; the same daughter Sandor had slowly and lingeringly undressed with his eyes.  He hadn’t known that the red-head with long legs, perfect tits, and lips that were begging to be kissed, bit, and licked was Ned Stark’s daughter.  He hadn’t known what to do with that information when Marco leaned over and mumbled it in his ear.  A small sting of shame had gone through him.  But mostly, it had intrigued him.  His physical desire of her was then layered with a desire to know her, to hear what her voice sounded like, to see if she was a smart girl or a mindless idiot; was she sweet or a stuck up bitch? Shy or outgoing? Sandor imagined she was the former of them all; smart, sweet, shy. 

Sandor knew his brother and his brother was likely to want to know Sansa Stark as well, but for entirely different reasons.  Gregor had come to the Royce’s party with his own purpose and wouldn’t leave until he achieved the ends he was striving for.  If Gregor couldn’t have Ned Stark, he would find a way to get to the man and that meant having Sansa.  Sandor’s presumptions were all but confirmed as he saw Gregor’s men pressing their guns to the heads of party goers who had been in the same room as Sansa.  Then he heard as Gregor’s men threatened lives if Sansa or Catelyn Stark weren’t turned up.  The problem with Gregor’s men was that they weren’t patient.  They were reckless and violent.  Bullets were put in heads, the same heads that were probably about to divulge the whereabouts of Sansa or her mother. 

Sandor’s physical desire layered with curiosity had now taken on a strange and unexpected life of its own.  Realizing that Sansa Stark, the girl he knew nothing about was now in danger, an instantaneous and involuntary desire to protect her had started to bubble up within him.  He had no control over it, none whatsoever.  In fact, the suddenness at which he felt it forming left him wondering if he wasn’t being driven to find Sansa Stark just to spite his brother, to take something that he now knew his brother wanted.  Sandor had settled on that explanation for the reason he was now actively seeking out Sansa, darting into rooms with his gun drawn as he searched out her long waves of auburn hair. 

At this point, the fires had begun to engulf half the house.  Fears that had been buried deep within him, but never forgotten were beginning to emerge.  Waves of stifling heat were pouring from the Royce family great room and as they licked against Sandor’s face, he felt an all-too-familiar fear begin to sully his judgments and movements.  He was becoming sloppy and desperate; the strange and unexpected urge to find Sansa was now battling the fear-induced need to get the fuck out. 

Retreating away from the rooms now filled with smoke and fire, Sandor had spotted her in the kitchen as she and her friend pleaded with Nestor’s daughter to leave with them.  Like a hound picking up the scent of blood, Sandor had zeroed in on her, his instincts to flee now entirely forgotten as he worked towards her.  She had struggled in his arms and he could smell her fear intermingling with the sweet scent of her perfume.  When her elbow came swinging to meet his stomach, Sandor had been shocked at her wolfishness.  The shy, sweet girl that couldn’t meet his eyes earlier in the night had some fight in her.  Sandor found it both troubling and exhilarating.  As she tried to get away, she fell to the ground; the ground that was awaiting her with a bed of broken glass.  Once more she struggled against him and Sandor had begun to understand this girl was indeed a fighter; sweet as honey, but a fighter nonetheless. 

He had been so close to her; situated on top of her as he straddled her legs, his arms resting on either side of her head.  Knowing the glass was underneath her, he has been cognizant enough to not press his full weight against her.  But fucking hell, he needed to calm her down, get her to stop squirming underneath him. If only she would have known in that moment that he never meant to hurt her.  If she could have understood everything, maybe she wouldn’t have struggled against him.  The words that eventually came out of his mouth were threatening and undoubtedly terrified her.  He never was good with words.   

In the end, he had lost her to a wisp of a boy, some kid who got lucky and momentarily managed to get Sandor off of Sansa.  It was long enough for her to disappear into the night.  From Portland back to the Moriarti mansion, Sandor had thought of her.  He had thought of everything, but his mind would always veer him down a path that led right back to her.  He had convinced himself that he not only wanted, but that he needed to get to Sansa Stark before his brother.  He had tried making it a little game in his mind, a competition of sorts.  Only now did he realize that this alone couldn’t have driven him to pick up the phone and call the last person he wanted to call.  Leon had been contacted out of desperation, as a last resort.  Sandor hadn’t wanted to, but he did.  There had been plenty of opportunities in the past for Sandor to fuck with his brother, to take from him something he wanted.  Sandor had never taken any of those opportunities, didn’t really care to. 

Sansa was different though; his want and need to find her wasn’t driven by spite for his brother and it wasn’t driven by lust for her.  Nor was it was driven by a want to know what she was all about.  He was a human being after all, not a monster as some believed him to be.  Sandor knew what his brother would do to Sansa.  He would get all he needed out of Sansa, fuck her into the ground and leave her a bloody mess, then get rid of her.  Beautiful or not, intriguing or not, Sandor couldn’t suffer the thought of that happening to her or anyone else for that matter.  No one, no matter how awful, deserved to meet their end by his brother’s hands. 

So he had picked up the phone to call Leon against all his better judgment.  If he could get to her before Gregor, he could save her life.  And saving the life of an innocent person that he didn’t even know meant perhaps atoning for some of the wrong he had done in his lifetime.  It was a karma thing, he had convinced him.  He was only doing this because he had the opportunity to do something good for a change and had decided he might as well take it.  He would have done it for anyone else that was on Gregor’s radar, he convinced himself.

As the hours went by since Leon had been unleashed out into the world to find Sansa, Sandor had found himself growing anxious.  He had tried to enjoy his whiskey on the rocks and Cuban cigar.  He had tried to enjoy the company of Bronn, laugh at the man’s vulgar quips, but his mind was distracted.  He thought of her although he tried not to.  Eventually he had drank enough that he was distracted and Bronn’s humor was now hilarious to him.  Whereas before it would only garner a half smile at most, Sandor found himself laughing.  At some point, he passed out cold and was blessed by a night of dreamless sleep.  When he awoke, he had a pounding headache and an all-too clear memory that Leon had not contacted him yet.  The nagging worry once more set in and Sandor felt his nerves beginning to stir. 

The day wore on and still no word.  He had worked out in the morning, like he normally did.  The distraction of dead lifts, back squats, bench presses, and curls was short lived, even as he let Bronn rotate into the routine.  Mirabelle had made him breakfast and he had looked at her sideways.  Every now and then Mirabelle would do something like that and it was usually after he had had a rough night.  As if afraid to talk to him about it, she would bake him muffins instead and leave them out with some sort of cutesy note in lieu of an actual conversation where she might bear the brunt of his foul mood or short temper.  It was her way of testing the waters with him.  That morning, however, she had stuck around and leaned over the counter, watching as he sat there devouring muffins and refused to meet her insistent stare.  Mirabelle was curious, for better or worse, and she hung around asking questions.  She asked about the party, asked about Gregor, and then hesitantly asked about the rumors that she had heard; rumors that he had sent Leon after the District Attorney’s daughter.  Not understanding the situation, she had tried to chide him, to scold him for what she thought he was doing.

Sandor had laughed at that.  She didn’t know what he was doing and as he sat there silently chewing the last of a blueberry muffin, he started to think he didn’t know what he was doing either.  And then the call came from Go-Go.  They had found her and her friend too.  Sandor had given specific orders; he didn’t want Sansa or the boy hurt.  As Go-Go explained that Leon had shot the boy to death, Sandor felt his rage boiling within him.  This was madness.  Complete, utter madness. He could have called it off.  He could have had Go-Go and Marco take Sansa back to Portland, back to her father and been done with it.  Gregor would more than likely be waiting there and Ned Stark was no match for Gregor or his men.  The small arsenal of handguns he imagined Ned stark owned wouldn’t do shit when Gregor was pounding down his door.  Even if Gregor only wanted Ned, now that he knew Ned had a daughter Gregor was likely to have that daughter too. 

Leon was a ticking time bomb of insanity.  Every minute that wore on, Leon was closer to losing it.  Guilt had begun to stir within Sandor; guilt that he had sent Leon after her and guilt that she was probably scared out of her mind.  With the knowledge that she was on her way to him, Sandor thought he might be able to rest a little easier, that his anxiousness might calm some, but it never did.  Sitting in the alcove with Alberto and nursing his whiskey, Sandor was now vexed with a different kind of anxiousness.  Leon could hurt her, really hurt her.  Sandor found himself thinking about it, growing agitated about it.  He didn’t trust Leon, but he trusted Bronn.  He sent Bronn to meet the men halfway, to retrieve Sansa.  Bronn had done his duty and obliged.  When he brought Sansa back, Sandor had been both horrified and enraged at her condition.  She was a bloody fucking mess and it was very obvious she had suffered some abuse on her way there. 

His rage had erupted and left Leon bleeding on the floor.  She had flinched when he tried wiping the blood from her.  She wouldn’t look at him, but when she finally did, it was a look heavy with so much fear that he had taken it to heart.  He hadn’t wanted to, but he couldn’t help the complexities of agitation, feeling of slight, and guilt that coursed through him.  He wanted her to see him and what he was trying to do without having to convince her that he wasn’t a monster, not really.  He had realized she was likely to not believe him and that frustrated him and left him feeling a bit wounded.  The feeling of being wounded pissed him off. 

In the alcove, he had flipped through the file Bronn had found in the Royce house.  Nestor had Ned Stark’s entire history-financial, business, and personal- in one manila folder along with details of the Moriarti case.  He wanted to tell her.  He wanted to throw the file down in front of her and say ‘Look.  Your dad’s friend is a fucking bastard who has been working against him the entire time.’  

The conversation took a different direction, though.  She was defiant and he was cocky, the clashing of their wills was the spark that ignited their misunderstanding.  Defiance and cockiness clashed once more over dinner, or rather an un-dinner.  His temper had gotten the better of him.  His temper and his curiosity.  He wanted to touch her, a chaste touch.  He had run his thumb over her lips, those trembling, pouty lips he wanted pressed against his own.  It was simple, but it scared her and that stung too.  But then he couldn’t imagine what else to expect.  She asked about his brother and he told her.  She had called his brother a monster and that had shocked him.  It was true, but the thought that she could sympathize with him, the man who she believed to have kidnapped her, was unimaginable to him.  He hoped then that she knew he wouldn’t hurt her. 

Fuck, he probably should have just told her as much, but this shit was going to take time.  And then it had struck him.  What exactly was he hoping to establish with her? Mutual understanding? Trust? He usually could give a fuck what people thought of him.  If someone called him a monster, he’d probably just laugh and maybe shrug his shoulders in acquiescence.  But her.  Hearing it from her had stirred something else in him.  Somehow he didn’t want her to think that of him.  Somehow the term wasn’t a badge he could wear with a fucked up sort of pride and honor, but rather he felt guilty, shamed, and angry.  More at himself than anyone else, but that anger had lashed out at her, which made her more fearful and that in turn made him angrier. 

When Sandor saw her the next day standing shyly in the parlor to meet him, he had been stunned into bumbling silence.  He felt like a bull in a china shop with her next to him in the car and then at Alonzo’s.  She was this beautiful thing and he was…well…a bull of a man trying his damndest to be delicate of all things with her.  One move made too sudden and she might flinch.  One pull on her arm too strong and she might cry out.  One agitated look at her and she might look back with fear filling her eyes.  Something had changed in Sansa though.  She looked at him then with a strange sort of curiosity and her eyes were no longer clouded with fear and doubt when she looked at him.  She was still confused, homesick, and reeling from what had happened, but she had taken a proverbially step towards him, a small offering to abandon just a bit of her defiance to meet him in the middle.  And so he took a small step away from cockiness. 

Indeed, something had changed in her and something was changing in him too.  When Alonzo busted his balls about Sansa being his girl, Sandor had froze.  He felt exposed, like everyone was staring at him and seeing something he couldn’t see.  Emilio’s leering had infuriated Sandor yet strangely it had driven Sansa towards him and seeking his protection.  Sandor obliged and only then did he start to doubt his original rationalization for seeking her out in the first place.  It had everything and nothing to do with Gregor.  Gregor wanted to hurt her and that was his place in all of this.  Sandor wanted to protect her and that was the driving force; a force that grew exponentially when he came face-to-face with Emilio and a force that erupted when shit went down.  In the end, it was Sandor who carried her away from danger and back towards a waiting car.  In a rare moment of letting his guard down completely, Sandor had fled headlong from cockiness and straight towards Sansa, not giving a shit if she was going to defy or reject him.  He had pulled her close to him, resting his forehead against hers, and screamed his apologies to her in his own head so loud that they eventually and inadvertently manifested as words on his exhaled breaths.  If she heard, he did not know and didn’t care in that moment. 

The days wore on and Sandor knew he needed to tell her the truth of everything.  It was a dangerous game he was playing, keeping her in the dark.  He had oscillated between believing that she was safer in the shadows and believing that the light of truth would be her savior if the day ever came that he couldn’t protect her.  Looking back, he knew he should have told her from the beginning.  He should have abandoned cockiness and pride from the get-go and just been straight with her.  Despite the eruption of chaos and monotonous formalities that ensued after Alonzo’s death and subsequent funeral, Sandor hadn’t sought Sansa out.  It had been his own fear that kept him away.  He had been busy, that was for damn sure, but deep down he knew why he kept away.  He was afraid; afraid that he could lay it all out to her and that she would still see him as a monster.  That maybe she wouldn’t give a fuck that the Royce party massacre hadn’t been his doing, that maybe she’d still see him as her captor.  For all intents and purposes, he was technically her captor, but the term gnawed at him in the middle of the night when he was left alone with his thoughts and had to face them once more. 

And it was in the middle of the night, when everything was slumberous and silent, that Sandor knew what he wanted and knew what he feared.  It had started as wanting to consume her then darted to wanting to know her, catapulted to wanting to protect her, and that had turned to wanting to make her happy, to see her smile, to make her trust him.  And trust started with truth.  So he had planned on telling her the truth over a lemon-infused dinner, something which had been a small culmination of his wants.  But beyond that, he wanted to know what she wanted.  She wanted to go home, he knew that, and he would take her home, but not if that meant putting her in danger.  He had planned on telling her that too.  Bringing her home meant reaching out to her father.  And that was going to be another matter for another day.  First, the truth needed to come and he had been fully prepared to give it. 

And just like that, she slipped through his fingers and willingly too.  His fears had been brought to life, a destiny manifested by countless nights tossing and turning against their push and pull.  Let her go. She doesn’t want you. 

It wasn’t a matter of want anymore, whether he wanted her or she wanted him.  It was a matter of need.  He didn’t need anyone, but he found himself feeling as though he needed her; a need brought on by her absence and the revived possibility that his brother had now taken something from him, but not something Sandor wanted.  Rather someone he needed. 

Sandor groaned as he brought a hand to his forehead and ran it slowly down his face until it rested under his chin.  His recollections and regrets were interrupted by a soft stirring behind him.  He heard the balcony door close gently and by the cadence of the steps approaching him, he knew it was his sister coming to seek him out. 

He was furious with her, absolutely irate with anger, but he didn’t have it in him to muster up that rage and throw it back at her.  Mirabelle would beat herself up enough for the both of them.  Besides, he wasn’t in the mood for talking, for arguing, for explanations and excuses.  He wanted to be left alone. 

Mirabelle fell in next to his side although she left a good three feet of space between them, obviously afraid to get too close to him.  With her body turned towards him, Sandor could see the abrupt rise and fall of her chest with each inhale and exhale of breath.  The sight of him elicited tears anew as she softly began to cry.  Although he didn’t shift his gaze towards her, Sandor could see her in the periphery of his vision; she stood there silent and sniffling like a child desperately seeking forgiveness. 

“Sandor, I’m so sorry,” Mirabelle whispered before dropping her head and bringing her hands to cradle her face as she wept, her body heaving with the rhythm of her sorrow and remorse. 

Saying nothing, Sandor bitterly shook his head slowly, indicating to her that this wasn’t the time.  If they had this conversation now, he was likely to say things he didn’t mean and she was likely to have her heart broken by him.  He didn’t want either of those things to happen so he kept his mouth shut. 

As the door behind them flew open with an enormous thud, Sandor spun around and instinctively grabbed for Mirabelle, ready to shield her from whatever was coming towards them. 

It was Bronn coming towards them with Zulu quick behind him, the glow of his laptop sending a soft halo of light to illuminate his face.

“We got him!,” Zulu shouted gleefully. “His phone was only on for maybe two minutes tops, but it was long enough to get coordinates from the GPS on his device.”

Stunned into a hazy silence of relief and disbelief, Sandor turned a wide-eyed stare to Bronn who shot him a satisfied smile.

 

 

“Let’s go get her, boss,” Bronn triumphantly urged with a knowing look gleaming in his eyes. 


Sansa had been listening to Nestor Royce’s squeals and screams for the past forty five minutes.  The large man sat in a brown rolling chair that looked like it hailed from the 1970’s.  It squeaked a shrill sound every time the large man shifted.  Sansa silently prayed that it would snap under his weight and one of the rusty pieces of metal holding it together would impale him. 

She doubted, somehow, that she would be so lucky.  The chair held his weight as he sat back and entertained himself with Nestor’s torturous treatment by two of his cronies.  They had been branding Nestor with cigarette burns in exchange for information. 

Nestor would scream preemptively every time the cherry-colored ember of a lit cigarette hovered over his skin.  He had done everything they asked him to do, Nestor would plead.  He had gathered all the information he could about Ned and the Moriarti case, he had rigged as much of it as he could, and finally he had brought them Sansa. 

Apparently, the information Nestor had acquired had gone missing, all the documents disappearing the night of the massacre.  The large man accused that Nestor had never really had all the information to begin with, this now famous manila folder was just an artifact of Nestor’s lies.  Mr. Royce had pleaded otherwise.  Now that Ned Stark had been made privy to Nestor’s under-the-table finagling, the case was shot to shit, the large man had explained.  The only reason Nestor was being kept alive was because they still hadn’t found Ned Stark.

Apparently, that didn’t spare Nestor from being beaten and riddled with burn marks.  By the way the large man chuckled with approval every time Nestor screamed, Sansa could tell that the man was enjoying himself with a sick sort of pleasure at other people’s pain.  She feared what he might do to her, what sort of sick pleasure he would get from her.  The thought made Sansa cross her legs together tightly.  She knew what pleasure he was going to get from her and it made her want to puke. 

With a squeaking sound, the large man shifted in his seat once more and leaned to the side as he picked up a heavy glass ash tray.  The man had been chain smoking cigarettes as he watched Nestor squirm in agony.  The huge glass ash tray was littered with orange cigarette butts set against grey ashes, but somehow the entire thing looked small in the large man’s hands. 

With slow, lingering paces, the large man made his way towards Nestor before crouching down in front of him.  Even in a crouching position, the large man towered over Nestor who now looked pathetically small in comparison.  Nestor Royce used to carry himself with his head held high, nose up in the air, and with the assured cockiness of a man who had convinced himself the entire world was under his thumb.  ‘How the mighty have fallen….’

Nestor looked like a shell of that man as tears gushed from his frightened eyes and he slinked away from the large man as much as possible before pulling his knees to his chest in a fetal position.  Despite Nestor’s begging and pleading, the large man remained undaunted and unfazed as he lit up a cigarette and took a long pull with a devilish grin pulling across his cruel face.  The large man exhaled a puff of vaporous smoke in Nestor’s face before reaching out with one of his enormous hands and wrapping his fingers around Nestor’s throat.  Suddenly, Mr. Royce’s eyes snapped open and without hesitating, the large man shoved the lit cigarette into Nestor’s right eye. 

Instinctively, Sansa turned her head away as Nestor kicked and squealed like a pig.  However her eyes snapped up as she heard the wooden door to the left of her fling open and a man run through the door, his boots slamming against the ground with his eyes wide and a gun cradled in his hand. 

The large man shot an annoyed look at the man as he lifted himself to his feet, rising to the full and imposing height of his body.   

“What the fuck do you want?,” he bellowed out on a voice that scarcely sounded human.

“You need to come quick,” the man replied as he struggled to catch his breath. 

Suddenly the large man turned to Nestor and swung a hard kick violently into Nestor’s side.  Over Nestor’s blood curdling screams, Sansa could have sworn she heard his bones breaking under the force.  Pointing a finger at one of the other men in the room, the large man barked out his commands.

“You stay here and watch them.”

The other man nodded curtly in response as he swung his assault rifle from his shoulder to rest in his hands.  Sansa had been unbound, apparently thought of as harmless.  As she eyed the heavy ash tray still placed next to Nestor, Sansa’s mind began to race with a dangerous scenario.  He was one man, but armed with an assault rifle.  Still her eyes kept drifting towards the ash tray.  She wondered if she could even do it, if she even had enough strength to take down a grown man with nothing more than a heavy piece of glass.  It would require precision of the hit and all of her body weight behind it. 

If she failed, he was likely to be irate and irritated. He may not kill her, but he would hurt her.  That was something she was sure of. 

If she succeeded, though…

The man with the rifle stared at Sansa and followed her gaze to the ashtray.  She let her eyes flutter away from it and settle on some random place in the room, trying her best to cover up the thoughts that had accompanied her lingering consideration of the ashtray.  She didn’t look at him, but she could tell he was staring at her, a silent warning that seemed to say ‘don’t even try it.’

Sansa obeyed and kept still, but in the back of her head she let the ashtray remain and committed to memory its placement next to Nestor Royce.  If the man with the assault rifle had been smart, he would have moved it.  He hadn’t moved it though and instead kept his eyes on the door.  A small, hopeful smile crept across her lips.  Apparently, she was smarter than he was and she had every intention of using that to her advantage.

From a distance, Sansa could hear noises beginning to meander their way into the room she was in.  Straining her ears, she tried to puzzle out any recognition of what they were.  Nothing sprung to the forefront of her mind.  It sounded like an old building settling, the random creaks and groans of a structure that had stood too long.  Before long she began to hear more creaks, more groans, and the occasional pop.  The building was stirring with something, but what it was astir with she didn’t quite know. 

And then she heard the scream.  It was short and filled with a seething pain or perhaps even anger.  It was the sound of someone being hurt.  Sansa held her breath to listen.  No other noises came after that.  Shifting her stare to the armed man in the room, Sansa could tell he was scared and desperately trying to hide it. Over Nestor Royce’s whimpering, Sansa heard more screams now accompanied by the all too familiar popping sounds. 

“Oh god.  Oh no, not again,” Nestor moaned out as he writhed about the floor as best he could given he was still bound to the support beam and now probably blind in his right eye.

Sansa wanted to tell him to shut up and quit crying, wanted to tell him that none of this would be happening if it weren’t for him and his remarkable greediness over the years.  It was his own damn fault and she hated him for it all.  She didn’t know who she wanted to beat over the head with the ashtray more: Nestor or the armed guard. 

The popping sounds were growing louder now and she could hear men screaming out orders, a cacophony of directions which made Sansa’s head spin.  The directions were conflicting and intimated the chaos that was unfolding somewhere inside the building; go here, head down there, tell so-and-so to get their ass over here, don’t fucking come any closer.  Multiple men were desperately shouting out these orders, no doubt adding to the confusion that was steadily surmounting as some unknown foe made its way towards the room. 

The guard in the room was getting antsy, shifting back and forth on his feet as he clung to his gun like a child clutches to a blanket or stuffed animal when scared.  Sansa zeroed in on his fear, a welcome distraction to her own and slowly let her eyes creep towards the ashtray once more.  It was still where it was before and while she wasn’t about to attack an armed man, she was going to wait until he faltered and then she would take the opportunity to fight back.  She had come too far to stop fighting now. 

 

 

Succumbing to his growing uneasiness, the guard sighed out an anxious and impatient breath before pacing towards the door and peering out into the hallway.  Sansa didn’t know when she had grown so bold, but without a second thought, she scurried across the floor and snatched up the ashtray, sending plumes of ash and a confetti of cigarette butts to go flying towards the floor as she armed herself with the only thing she could fight with.  If she had to fight her way out, that’s damn well what she was going to do then.


Sitting in the driver’s seat of the car parked in front of Moriarti’s mansion, Sandor had to punch the GPS coordinates in twice because he didn’t believe what he was seeing the first time he saw it.  The estimated time of arrival was about forty minutes from now.  No wonder he hadn’t been able to catch up with her after driving frantically for hours.  By the time Mirabelle got back to the Moriarti house and told him what happened, Sansa had probably already been where she was hopefully at now. 

Bronn shrugged his shoulders in the seat next to him, lifting his eyes to Sandor and letting his lips curl into a half smile.  Without a word, Sandor put the car in drive and sped from the drive way, hoping to every fucking God known to man that she would be in the same location as Nestor Royce’s cell phone.  The thought that she might not be with Nestor Royce danced in the back of his mind, taunting him with its very real possibility; the possibility that Sandor would bust down the door of whatever building resided at the GPS coordinates and there would be a cell phone, but no Nestor.  Or worse, no Sansa.  He couldn’t anticipate what he might do if he got there and she was gone.  He couldn’t think about that now, not while he was so close. 

Sandor shook his head to release the thoughts and pulled at the neck of his white button down shirt.  He hadn’t had a chance to change out of his funeral clothes. The dress shirt felt tight against his neck and the black pants were chaffing against his skin.  Despite the chill to the air, he was hot, sweating bullets.  Keeping his eyes on the road the best he could, Sandor pulled off his dress shirt and untucked the white cotton T-shirt that was underneath.  The car felt claustrophobic to him, heavy with humidity and rising tension. 

A convoy of his men followed him into the night, none asking questions or raising concerns, but eagerly grabbing weapons and piling into cars.  They may not understand Sandor’s sense of urgency or what was at stake, but they understood that he needed them there to back him up.  And back him up they did as they piled into cars and headed towards some unknowable and uncertain fate. 

As the gap of time closed between the GPS estimated time of arrival and the time on the clock, Sandor’s heart began to beat faster.  They were in the middle of nowhere, but steadily nearing an abandoned industrial warehouse that had sat empty for years in the middle of the desert.  It couldn’t be where Gregor was operating from; Sandor knew that for damn sure.  It was undoubtedly a temporary holding point before he moved on to his next destination. 

Bronn glanced at the GPS and then lifted his eyes out the windshield, leaning forward and furrowing his brow as he scrutinized their desolate whereabouts.   

“It has to be that right over there,” Bronn said as he pointed towards the industrial warehouse hovering ominously in the distance.  Sandor nodded in agreement and flipped open his cell phone which had been sitting on his lap.  Scanning through his contacts until he got to Marco’s number, Sandor pressed his finger to the screen and brought the phone to his ear, waiting for the man to pick up.  After a half ring, Marco attentively answered, having been on standby as he followed along in one of the other cars. 

“It’s that industrial warehouse,” Sandor declared into the phone.  “We’ll need to slow our speed and turn our headlights off.  Send the word to have guns at the ready.”

At that, Sandor flipped his phone closed as he flicked his headlights off and slowed his roll.  The entire area was obscured by darkness, the outside lights having long ago been shut off for good.  For that, Sandor was grateful as he rolled past a dilapidated gate that had been left open.  Gregor was calculated and despite his brutality, had impeccable soldier’s instincts.  His greatest weakness was his men.  They were sloppy and stupid.  Shit like leaving a gate open was going to get them killed, as they were soon going to find out. 

Sandor didn’t possess the same brutish strength and cruel brutality that his brother did, but Sandor was a hell of a lot smarter about how he handled his men.  Despite his almost insatiable eagerness to get on the road after having found Nestor’s location, Sandor had made sure to organize his men; assigning ‘captains’ to each car, delegating tasks and chains of command, and establishing a communication network to quickly relay information while they were on the road.  His men were ready and knew full well what they were getting themselves into, Sandor had made sure of that and that was his advantage against Gregor. 

The convoy of Sandor’s men slowed to a halt alongside a darkened side of the warehouse.  Sandor remained in the car, scrutinizing the darkness through the windshield.  Gregor’s men were just stupid enough to eagerly and blindly come running out if they saw cars pulling up.  For many moments, Sandor sat and waited for any signs of stirring, any indication that a group of trigger-happy men were going to bust out of the building.  Nothing came though and Sandor shifted his stare towards Bronn in the seat next to him.  Flashing a ‘fuck yeah, let’s do this’ kind of smile, Bronn slowly pushed open his door.  Sandor followed suit along with the driver’s of the other cars.  The men fell in next to Sandor’s side as their eyes cascaded over the abandoned building, mentally sizing up the scenarios that could go down in there. 

“We can’t just go running in,” Sandor began in a hushed, low tone.  “We don’t know how many men he has with him.  We don’t know where they’re positioned in the building.  We need to get them to come to us.”

Sandor scanned the faces of his men as they nodded their heads in agreement.  This was the difference between Sandor’s men and Gregor’s men.  Sandor made sure his men had a good dose of common sense and a good head on their shoulders.  They were seasoned in “street battle” as they called it and the level of trust between him and his men was well established before they entered the heat of battle together.

“How are we going to do that?,” Marco inquired as he brought his hands to his hips and stared up at the building, pondering its size with a small glimmer of hesitance in his eyes.

“We need to get their attention,” Sandor replied although he wasn’t exactly sure how he wanted to do that.  Bronn stepped forward with a smug smile lining his lips as he held his hand out for the car keys.

“I’ve got an idea.  Get the men readied.  I’ll pull the car up to that shipping and receiving door there.” Bronn pointed towards the side of the building. Sandor followed Bronn’s finger to a set of two doors big enough to accommodate the back end of a semi-truck. Situated next to the cargo doors were a set of smaller doors.  Their position on the side of the building was as good as any and hadn’t seemed to raise any red flags thus far.  Sandor shoved his hand into his pocket and tossed Bronn his car keys. 

Marco set into the task of readying the men, making sure guns were loaded and cocked and everyone was adequately shielded behind open car doors.  Situating a silencer on his gun, Sandor watched as Bronn slowly rolled the car up next to the shipping and receiving door.  Leaning across the seat, Bronn popped open the passenger side door before swinging open the driver’s side door. 

Suddenly, the sound of music filled air, the speakers blaring “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” into the night. The car seemed to rattle ever so slightly with the bumping of bass as Bronn ran like a bat out of hell back towards Sandor who was crouched behind the open passenger side door of Marco’s car.  Bronn situated himself behind the open driver’s side door of the same car and flashed an amused look towards Sandor with a shrug of his shoulders.  Sandor returned a half smile as he shook his head and mouthed ‘Really?’  Bronn had a certain flair that Sandor had become accustomed to.  It was only funny because it usually worked out in their favor.  The amusement was short lived as three men came running head long out of the shipping and receiving door, jumping down onto the loading dock and looking utterly confused at the abandoned car blaring music.  Steadying his gun towards one of the men circling the car, Sandor pulled the trigger and watched as the man fell to the ground.  With wide-eyed stares, the other men froze in their tracks as they stared at the body of their friend with a hole blown into his head.  Sandor and Bronn took the opportunity to take down the other two men who hadn’t even enough time to reach for their own weapons.  Stupidity will get you killed. 

From his position Sandor could see the drivers, and declared captains, of each car.  Using silent military signals, Sandor communicated their next movement.  Two cars full of men would flank the right side of the building, two cars full would flank the left, the rest would enter through the now unmanned shipping and receiving door.  Gregor’s men would be surrounded and regardless of which exit they were forced through, the outcome would be the same; they would be faced with Sandor’s men, armed and ready for a fight. 

Nodding their understanding, Sandor’s captains set about commanding their groups of men.  Just as directed, Sandor watched as a third of his men pressed their backs against the side of the building to the left, and a third of his men did the same on the right.  Silently and swiftly, the men disappeared around the far corners of the building, guns up and ready.  Sandor allowed a small smile of pride to pull on his lips.  His men looked like some sort of Seal Team 6, ready to bust down some doors and take some of these fuckers out.  They were organized, they were smart, and they were out for blood.       

As “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” wore on, Sandor motioned his head towards the rest of his men to follow him towards the shipping and receiving doors.  Crouched down and running as best they could with guns clutched tightly in their hands, Sandor led his men out into the open until they reached his car, still blaring music.  As his men piled behind the car, obscuring themselves as much as possible, Sandor quickly and deftly reached into the car and turned the radio off.  Sandor scrutinized the shipping and receiving entrance in front of them.  He didn’t know the layout of the building, but he imagined that the shipping and receiving entrance would lead them to a stock room of sorts.  Maybe an open area, but potentially filled with shelves, boxes, or remnants of the warehouse’s past functionality.  The best option was to sweep flanks from the inside too. 

Shifting his stare between Bronn and Marco in turn, Sandor kept his voice down as he gave the command.

“Bronn, take Disco and Half Stroke’s men to the left.  Marco, your men and Awol’s men come with me.  We’ll flank to the right.”

With a curt nod and silent signals, Bronn and Marco got their men on board before turning once more to Sandor, awaiting the signal to move. 

“Alright.  Let’s do the damn thing,” Sandor rasped before sucking in a deep breath and leading the way. 

The first few moments were the most dangerous, Sandor knew.  They had no idea what was awaiting them on the other side of the door.  It could be a hail of bullets from Gregor’s men, although Sandor doubted it.  Unless they wised up between now and Royce’s party, Sandor doubted they’d be awaiting him behind the doors. 

After a few quickened paces, they had silently traversed the distance between Sandor’s car and the side of the building. Sandor’s half of the men had pressed themselves against the wall and to the right of the double doors, Bronn’s half of the men were pressed against the left side.  Sandor exchanged a look with Bronn, each of them staring from either side of the door.  Both were panting from the sudden rush of adrenaline, almost giddy despite the sense of danger that was hanging heavy in the air. 

“Now or never, boss,” Bronn breathed as he motioned his head towards the door. 

At that, Sandor swung the flat of his foot to meet the door which flew open from the brutal force. His eyes frantically darted about the room in every direction.  He had exchanged his silenced glock for an assault rifle and was sweeping it across the room along with the movement of his eyes.

As Sandor led the way towards the right side of the wall, he realized his intuition about the building had been right.  The area was more or less a large open space with tall, empty metal shelves situated in the middle.  Through the opening on the shelves, Sandor could see the open space was unmanned.  The men that came running out of the building like a bunch of fucking idiots were clearly the only ones who had been positioned at this point in the building.  Sandor almost could have laughed.  If Gregor only spared three men to man this large of a space, that hopefully meant he didn’t have the entire force of his men with him. 

A row of offices were situated at the far end of the stock area, the inside visible through large panes of glass.  In another pathetic display of a rookie move, Gregor’s men had turned the lights on in those offices and left the doors wide open.  From across the stockroom, Sandor could see copies of Playboy sitting open on the office desks amongst crumpled cans of Red Bull.  Beyond that, the offices were blessedly empty and that meant it was one less area Sandor needed to concern himself with. 

Heavy metal doors were situated on either side of the stockroom, one on the left side wall and one on the right.  Sandor and Bronn led their men in a single file line on their respective sides of the stockroom as they swept towards the metal doors.  Sandor felt another wave of adrenaline course through his veins as he readied himself to bust through the door.  Whereas he could anticipate what was on the other side of the shipping and receiving door, Sandor had no idea what awaited him on the other side of this door. 

Sucking in a breath, Sandor reached towards the door knob with his left hand as he steadied his rifle in his right hand.  In one swift motion, Sandor flung the door open and pulled himself back, pushing his back against the wall as he waited for gunfire or the sound of shuffling.  From across the room, Sandor could see that Bronn had done the same and through Bronn’s open door, Sandor could see a dimly lit hallway that, much like the rest of the stockroom, was empty.  By the way Bronn nodded his head and gave a relieved half smile, Sandor imagined the same was true on his side. 

With that, Sandor carefully crept his way into the empty hall.  The walls had been painted white, but with age, abandonment, and the assault of the elements, they were now a yellow-beige color and spotted with mold.  The pieces of intact drop ceiling were stained brown from dripping water.  From somewhere off in the distance, Sandor heard the popping of gunfire.  Bronn and his men were apparently met with a warm welcome. 

More pops came from a distance as Sandor made his way to the end of the hallway which took a sharp turn to the left before expanding into another long corridor.  At the end of the corridor was another door, but this one had a small square window situated at head height.  Through the small window, Sandor could see light pouring through from beyond the other side of the door.  The room beyond was a large open area it seemed, and through the window Sandor could see one of Gregor’s men sitting on a fold out table, legs swinging and laughing as if engaged in conversation. 

Sandor and his men eased their way down the hallway with backs flush against the wall, guns drawn up and ready for what was an assured battle on the other side of the door.  Once more, Sandor readied himself as he pressed his back against the wall.  He set a determined glare on the door before swinging the flat of his foot up and kicking it open. 

Immediately, Sandor released a spray of bullets towards the man who had been sitting on the fold up table.  As the man slumped against the wall behind him, Sandor instinctively swept the barrel of his gun towards the direction the man had been talking.  His eyes were met with the end of the man’s gun, but Sandor squeezed his finger deftly on the trigger before the other man could properly aim. 

From all around him, Sandor heard the deafening noise of gun shots bellowing their echoes throughout the large space.  Gregor’s men came from all directions, spilling out of doorways and hallways in a steady stream.  Without command, Sandor’s men had split up to man each of the entrances in the large area, which were four in total. 

Sandor steadied his gaze on a long corridor that was in front of him.  At the end of it, light was streaming from underneath a closed door.  The rest of the hallway was enrobed in darkness.  Through the shadows, Sandor saw him lurking like a demon in the darkness. 

The hair on Sandor’s arms stood on end as the shadow of his brother shifted in the darkened hall.  Gregor was no more surprised to see Sandor than Sandor was to see him.  Suddenly, Sandor felt a stinging pain graze across his right shoulder as a bullet whizzed by him and implanted itself in the wall in front of him.  Agitated more than anything, Sandor shifted gaze over his shoulder and extended his right arm as he released a flurry of bullets to the fucker who was behind him.  The man fell to the floor wide eyed and clutching at his bleeding chest.  Turning his attention back to the hallway, Sandor felt his blood run cold as he heard an all-too-familiar laugh bellow from the hallway to meet his ears.  Instantly, Sandor was taken back to the day he had come upon Gregor beating the shit out of a helpless Mirabelle, the day Gregor shoved his face into fire laughing all the while. 

Feeling as though he had lost control of his body, Sandor felt his legs carrying him towards the hallway, the rage pumping through him and propelling him forward towards the shadowed form of his brother.  Gregor’s steps were slow and methodical whereas Sandor’s were hurried an enraged.  As their forms collided, Sandor went tumbling to the ground with Gregor falling on top of him.  Both struggled against one another, throwing elbows and knees, but gaining nothing as strength met strength in an entanglement of limbs.  Sandor felt Gregor’s weight lift slightly from on top of him as the man grabbed for his weapon and Sandor took the opportunity to scramble from underneath his brother and jump to his feet. 

Each steadied their weapons at one another, both settling furious glares at one another as they panted. 

“Puppy brother wants a fight,” Gregor taunted at Sandor with a grumbling voice as he inched towards him, glowering at Sandor from over the top of his gun.

Sandor spit to the ground at his brother’s feet and tightened the grip on his rifle slightly before growling out his own response.

“You want to fucking kill me, then kill me.  Pull the trigger and be done with it.  How many opportunities have you had to put a bullet in my head and me the same with you? If I murder you, I’m doing it with my hands so I can watch you fucking die, just like you watched our father die, you fucking cunt.”

At that, Gregor lowered his weapon and tossed his head back in a laugh before reaching out and grabbing Sandor by the shirt, yanking him forward so that his face hovered in front of Sandor’s. 

“If that’s how you want your pathetic, shit-filled life to end, then so be it.  I’ll gladly squeeze the life out of you, like I did him.” 

Sandor could feel hot spurts of Gregor’s agitated breath hitting his face as he clenched his fist tighter around the front of Sandor’s shirt.  In the darkness their eyes met, searching each other out and setting enraged stares on one another.  The anger flowing between them was primal.  It was brutal.  And it ended when one of them was laid out lifeless on the floor. 

In a crescendo of fury, the two collided once more, Sandor dropping his gun and swinging the first fist which cracked across Gregor’s face. The man seemed to barely flinch as he swung a fist past Sandor’s face.  While Gregor was stronger than him, Sandor had his brother beat in speed.  He wasn’t quick and agile compared to normal men, but his brother was no normal man.  In comparison, Sandor was faster and he had every intention of using that to his advantage. 

With a symphony of gunshots in the background, Sandor and Gregor weaved around one another, landing punches here, dodging them there, and groaning out in frustration or pain with each pass. Sandor felt himself getting more winded and less coherent as the minutes wore on.  By the way Gregor’s body seemed to move like a bag of potatoes through water, Sandor knew he was losing stamina too. 

Screaming out in something like a war cry, Gregor lunged towards Sandor with what he hoped was Gregor’s last burst of energy.  Sandor lifted his hands to shield himself the best he could against Gregor’s weight slamming into him.  He felt Gregor’s fingers curling around his arms as he swung Sandor around, the two men now having switched their positions within the hallway. 

Swinging his knee up, Sandor landed blows in the middle of Gregor’s stomach and watched as his brother hunched over slightly with each hit.  From behind him, Sandor heard a door open, the door at the end of the hall more than likely.  With his survival instincts sharpening out of desperation, Sandor watched as Gregor’s focus shifted momentarily and his eyes narrowed in annoyance at something behind Sandor.  Using the moment to his advantage, Sandor swung his weight to the right, the pure inertia of the movement loosened Gregor’s grip on him and sent Sandor to the ground behind Gregor. 

As Sandor careened to the floor he could hear the resonating sound of a single bullet.  At first he was sure he was hit, but it wasn’t until Gregor screamed out in rage and stumbled to the floor in a kneeling position that Sandor realized his brother had been sniped in the leg.  Lifting his head up slightly and reaching for his gun, Sandor saw a man at the end of the hall hovering in the door frame with his eyes wide in a look of fear and his mouth hanging open, in shock that the bullet that was meant for Sandor had somehow found itself in Gregor who was screaming out curses. 

In one instinctual movement, Sandor swung his gun up and released a stream of bullets to the man at the end of the hall.  Rising to his feet, Sandor watched as Gregor swung one of his enormous arms towards Sandor who jumped back to avoid the impact.  Lifting his gun, Sandor battered the butt of his rifle against the side of Gregor’s head.  He had every intention of killing his brother, every fiber of his body screamed for him to do it, but Sandor was violently snapped out of focus as he heard a voice screaming from the room at the end of the hallway. 

“Run, Sansa! Go, now!”

 

 

Sandor felt his vision blur momentarily at the sound of her name.  His breath came in ragged pulls as his head struggled to process it all.  With a tidal wave of clarity slamming into him, Sandors eyes went wide as the haze of elated confusion cleared away and his heart began to pound violently within his chest.  Suddenly, the prospect of the killing his brother slipped from his mind as he rushed down the hall way. 


From the corner of her vision, she could see Nestor gaping at her, his blackened and blood-shot eyes staring up at her in dread as his mouth hung open in confusion.  The thought that he might speak, might try to tell her to stop had crossed her mind. 

She didn’t care and ignored the thought and ignored him as she crept towards the guard who was hovering in the doorway.  This was her chance and it may very well be the only chance she would get.  Sansa wasn’t about to screw it up because Nestor Royce was silently pleading with her to stop and to sit back down.  Tip-toeing past the Nestor, Sansa clutched the ashtray in her hands as she eased towards the guard.  The glass was warming under her touch and Sansa gripped it harder against her clammy palms.  One hit.  One hard hit and he would hopefully be down long enough that she could get away. 

From the opened door, Sansa could hear the sound of groaning and shuffling in the hallway.  A slam here, a deep grumble there, scuffling of feet, and the blunt sound of bodies colliding into each other.   A struggle was ensuing somewhere down the hall and that thought alone sent a cold splintering of doubt to fracture through her.  It was small at first, a tiny faltering of hope whose spindling appendages spread through her and cracked her resolve like a rock hitting glass.  Lowering the ashtray and stepping backwards a few tiny steps, Sansa felt her heart sink to the lowest imaginable pit of her stomach.

Before she could bemoan the opportunity that had slipped through her fingers, Sansa suddenly heard a popping sound and snapped her head towards the door.  The guard slowly slumped to the ground, bending slightly at the knees as his head rolled backwards and finally his body collapsed to the ground face down. 

The instinct to flee coursed through her, pumping through her body and sending her thoughts racing through her head.  Nestor swiveled his head towards her and let out a frenzied scream in a voice that hardly sounded his own.

“Run, Sansa! Go, now!”

He didn’t have to tell her, didn’t have to scream for her to flee.  Her body was already sending her legs moving towards the metal door situated at the back of the room.  Whatever danger lurked in the hallway, she didn’t know and wasn’t about to find out.    

Sansa dashed towards the back door, stumbling over her own feet as her knees wobbled in protest at the suddenness of her movements, her mind light years ahead of her body which was desperately trying to keep up with the chaos of her thoughts. 

As she flung the door open, Sansa could hear Nestor screaming for her to come back for him.  His screams dissolved to the back of her mind, drowned by her own mind screaming at her to get out.  A rusty metal staircase led down to the ground below.  Sansa nearly lost her footing as she flew down the stairs, jumping from the second to last step before quite literally hitting the ground running. 

She could barely breathe as she turned the corner of the large building and fled towards a smaller building half a hundred paces away.  Her legs felt like jello beneath her as they pounded against the ground and kicked up plumes of dust.  Sansa couldn’t help the whimpering sounds that escaped her trembling lips as she ran like hell towards the smaller building.  She wanted to hide away, wanted to cry, wanted to lie down and let her heart stop pounding against her chest.  For as composed as she had been earlier, Sansa let herself unravel and felt the flush of terror she had been staving off since coming to this terrible place.  Like a levee breaking, the force of her fear hit Sansa all at once and threatened to drown her in its violent suddenness. 

As she neared the small, abandoned building furthest away from where she had been, Sansa cut to the right and turned the corner to run along the far end of the building.  A chain-link fence expanded to her left a few feet away and the building stood to her right.  Blinking away at tears that had started to form, Sansa squinted her eyes towards the expanse of a fence in front of her. 

Sansa felt her legs finally give in to exhaustion as she slowed her pace to a stop and let herself succumb to the tears that had been welling up in her eyes.  With her chest heaving in sobs, Sansa looked up at the fence and realized it spanned the perimeter of the abandoned lot.  The only way out was back from where she had come.  She couldn’t go back that way. Fear and death were the only things that awaited her if she did. 

Overwhelmed with defeat and desperation, Sansa let out a mewling whimper as she wiped away tears with the back of her hand in a futile effort to comfort herself.  From behind her, Sansa heard dirt and rocks crackle beneath the weight of someone’s feet.  In an instant, she gasped, sucking in a breath to extinguish the whimpering sound that had accompanied her tears.  Uncontrolled and gripped with a blinding fear, Sansa began to tremble and squeezed her eyes shut, willing this all to be a nightmare.  One big, terrible nightmare that started with the Royce party and ended here.  As she opened her eyes once more, Sansa was again staring at the fence, the culmination of all her fears weaved together with metal and staring coldly back at her. 

The movement behind her had slowed to a stop and even from a distance she could hear the panting exhale of breath.  Still shaking like a leaf, Sansa pulled in a ragged breath and let her eyes fall to the ground before slowly beginning to turn around and face whatever was lurking behind her.  

With a slow, hesitant sweep, Sansa lifted her eyes and felt her knees wobble beneath her as she saw him standing there. 

Sandor’s chest heaved with something between exhaustion and exhilarated relief as he stared at her, his eyes softening with desperate need and his mouth twitching slightly at the corner.  He looked a bloody mess; his right arm dripping streams of blood and his white T-shirt splattered with red dots and smears. 

With tears streaming from her eyes and down her cheeks burning hot, Sansa stared at him in her own sort of disbelief.  He had come for her.  He didn’t have to; he could have read her note, thought she was going home and let her go, but somehow he knew and he came for her.  And now it was she who softened with her own desperate need, a need that coursed through her and manifested as a desire to be close to him, to be in his arms before she awoke from this daydream.  She feared this was nothing more than a mirage; as if he were her mind’s cruel manifestation of all the unacknowledged feelings, the fleeting thoughts that would spring up when he was around only to be shoved to the back of her mind to play out in dreams. 

Sansa felt the lump in her throat forming, burning its way up as her lips began to tremble furiously.  She tried to bite back the stream of tears, but a soft mewling sound escaped her lips and then all bets were off.  The tears spilled from her eyes in gushes and her body quaked where she stood; a steady quivering that started in her knees, ran through her middle section leaving butterflies in its wake before setting in on her shoulders and now her lips.

The sound of her cries prompted Sandor to start walking towards her, his steps quick and steady and filled with yearning.  Unable to fight back her composure and not really wanting to, Sansa exhaled out a sob and set her legs in motion towards him, eager to close the distance between them.  Where her steps were wobbly, his were strong and within a few quickened paces, the distance had closed between them. 

In an instant, her arms sought him out, reaching for him only to find she was already in his arms, which had instantaneously wrapped her up in an embrace.  Feeling one of his hands pressed against her back and the other protectively cradling her head, Sansa melted into the warmth of his embrace, pressing her face against his chest and letting the tears fall from her eyes only to be eagerly absorbed by his T-shirt.  Her senses danced with a dizzying relief as she breathed in the scent of his lingering cologne, felt the warmth of his arms around her, heard the steady thrumming of his heart beating loud in her ear, tasted the salty tears pouring down her cheeks and to her lips, and lifted her eyes to see him looking down at her with an astounded gaze that suggested he never wanted to let her go.  

Sansa felt his arms wrap tighter around her as he pulled her deeper into their embrace, gently tucking her head against his chest once more and resting his chin on top of her head.  As she allowed herself to sink into his arms, Sansa felt him stir as he slowly lifted his chin from the top of her head and set his eyes on her once more, as if checking to make sure it was really her. 

Wordlessly, he adjusted his hold on her, shifting one arm around her shoulders and bending down slightly to place the other behind her knees before he scooped her up into his arms.  Instinctively, Sansa’s arms snaked around his shoulders as she pressed the side of her cheek against his neck and interlaced her fingers in the long strands of his hair.  She could feel his pulse beating against her cheek, his skin warm and damp with a sheen of sweat.  Closing her eyes, Sansa breathed him in once more and felt the subtle movements of her body as he carried her away.  She had no idea where he was going and didn’t bother to even open her eyes to see.  Cradled against his body, her form seemed so small in his, but Sansa felt safe in his arms and cared for besides.  Her first encounters with him seemed so far away, a distant and strange memory almost as if from a past life.  The way she feared him, the way she thought him a monster, the way she had told herself that she hated him.  It melted away as she was surrounded by the strength of his arms once more saving her from those who wished her harm.  Suddenly, the movement stopped and Sansa let her eyes flutter open before she lifted her head from his shoulder.  They were standing next to his car, the passenger door was open and as Sansa let her focus sweep beyond the car, she saw clusters of Sandor’s men piling back into their own cars, many with a thousand-mile stares seemingly lost in a flurry of their own thoughts. 

With sure footing and a surprising gentleness, Sandor stepped towards the open door and let his hold on her loosen slightly as if to lower her to the ground.  Sansa clasped her arms tightly around his shoulders, aching at the thought of an eventual release from his embrace.  Eagerly obliging her subtle command for closeness and pressing her against him once more, Sandor exhaled a small laugh which rustled through her hair. 

“You have to let go of me long enough to get in the car, little bird.”

His voice was warm and deep, its sound felt like being submerged in hot water after having been out in the cold for so long and sent a wave of tingles to work their way up her spine. 

Sansa nodded against his neck and dipped her head down as he gently placed her in the passenger seat of his car.  When she finally unwound her arms from his shoulder, Sandor shut the door and circled in front of the car to the driver’s side before climbing in. 

The drive back was done in a daze, for her and for Sandor.  Sansa sunk back and pulled her legs up on the seat, her body facing towards Sandor on the driver’s side.  Entranced and exhausted, Sansa watched the subtle movements he made; the way his left arm draped over the wheel and flicked here and there to put on the blinker, the way he rested his right arm on the center console and leaned his weight into it, the way he’d lean forward slightly to scrutinize the side view mirror before he merged on the highway, the way he’d narrow his eyes at the rearview mirror every now and then. 

As the highway lights spilled into the car, Sansa noticed the peering of ink from underneath the blood on his right arm.  She had never seen him in a short sleeve shirt before and only now did she notice the tattoo peeking out from underneath his sleeve.  She couldn’t make out what it was; all she could tell was that it extended right above his elbow and towards his shoulder before disappearing underneath his shirt. 

Lifting her gaze, Sansa felt the redness flushing across her cheeks as she saw his eyes had drifted to her.  Before her eyes would flutter away, either in embarrassment or fear, whenever he looked at her.  Now Sansa felt her stomach flip as he gazed at her, every now and then letting his eyes focus on the road before eventually turning back towards her.  Sitting up straight, Sandor shifted his elbow from the center console and let his arm fall to his side. 

 

 

Feeling the distance now put between them, Sansa steadied her stare towards her lap and her hands folded nervously there.  Suddenly, Sandor’s hand reached over the center console and found its way to her hand.  Although his eyes remained focused on the road and his face remained stoic as ever, Sansa felt as his fingers interlaced in hers and wrapped her hand up in their warmth.  Feeling a girlish smile form on her lips, Sansa shyly lifted her gaze to him and although he kept his eyes on the road ahead, she saw the corner of his mouth pull into a relieved and satisfied smile. 


Sandor stared at the bloody white T-shirt laid out on the bed.  Whether it was his brother’s blood or his own blood, he couldn’t say for sure.  Probably a combination of both, the good and the evil of the Clegane family painted on a canvas of white cotton.  Droplets of water fell from the damp tendrils of Sandor’s hair and ran down his chest, collecting on the patches of chest hair before trailing down his abdomen to the towel around his waist. 

He had wanted to talk to Sansa right way, to sit her down and divulge everything he had stupidly held on to for far too long.  He was a bloody mess and she was so badly shaken that they both needed a second to wrap their heads around everything that had happened.  It was Alberto’s suggestion and one that was met with hesitance by both him and Sansa.  In the end, Sandor had led Sansa upstairs and stopped in the hallway outside of her bedroom door. 

“I’ll be right across the hall,” he had told her as he lifted a hand to cup her cheek, running his thumb lightly across her cheek bone.  “I just need to clean up and then I’ll come for you.” She had given him a forlorn nod at that, letting her eyes fall to the ground as she whispered okay and retreated into the bedroom across the hall from his. 

It seemed to him that she didn’t want to be out of his sight; no more than he wanted to let her out of his sight.  Then again she couldn’t very well hop into the shower with him so that he could keep an eye on her there. 

Sandor let out an amused laugh at that and shook his head before letting the towel drop from his waist to the floor.  His right arm had stopped bleeding from where the bullet had grazed his skin.  Had he been standing a few inches to the left, he would have taken the bullet straight to the back, probably right into a lung.  The fact that he and his men had not only gotten out of there alive, but had also found Sansa was nothing short of miraculous.  Granted Half-Stroke and Zulu had both taken non-life threatening bullets to their bodies, his men had more or less returned unscathed. 

After pulling on boxers, Sandor scrutinized the wound on his right arm in the mirror.  It would heal, but the skeletal figure of a robed grim reaper on his right arm was going to look worse for the wear. Nothing his tattoo artist couldn’t fix, but that would have to wait.  Sandor pulled on a black T-shirt and jeans before toweling off the residual dampness of his hair.  A small smile crept across his lips as he remembered the way Sansa had let her fingers intertwine with strands of his hair, the way she had clung to him tighter when he tried to let her go, the way she smiled when he took her hand in the car.  In the back of his mind, Sandor knew how things could have gone, how they could have ended in blood and tragedy.  Pushing away those thoughts, he reminded himself that the events of the evening hadn’t veered towards tragedy, but he knew all too well that he would lie awake tonight, haunted by the thoughts of what could have happened.  For now though, he indulged himself in the thoughts of Sansa and all the sweetness he had never expected to get from her, but was more than willing to take. 

When he knocked on her bedroom door, Sandor felt a flush of nervousness; nerves at having been away from her for a grand total of 20 minutes and nerves at all he needed to tell her.  As Sansa opened the door, Sandor saw that she had changed into a loose fitting tank top and yoga pants, her hair pulled up off her shoulders and into a pony tail.  Biting her lip, she stared up at him, waiting for him to say something. 

“Can we talk?,” Sandor asked, shoving his hands in his pockets and feeling suddenly like a teenage kid again.  He was used to being blunt and rough with women; telling them what he wanted and expecting them to oblige.  He wasn’t used to this and didn’t quite know what the fuck he was doing.  He hoped that Sansa didn’t pick up on that; on the fact that he could bust into a building full of armed men that wanted to kill him and barely bat an eye at it, but yet he was nervous standing here in front of her. 

By the way she smiled up at him as she nodded, he imagined she could tell, but was too polite and too sweet to call him out on it.  Instead, she followed after Sandor as he led her down the hallway and began up the stairs to the third level of the house.  Sansa gave him a wide-eyed stare as she swept her gaze over her should to the stairs that led to the first level.  Sandor motioned his head towards the staircase in front of him and extended his hand to her.  Taking tiny steps towards him, Sansa slowly lifted her hand and placed it in his before timidly bringing her eyes up to meet his.  Sandor let his fingers curl around her hand as he returned her gaze and let his lips flinch into a half smile.  Reassured by this and letting the tension in her body go, Sansa followed him up the stairs and down the hall towards his office. 

His office was dimly lit by the desk lamp which feebly tried to fill the room with its light, but succeeded only in casting strange shadows about the walls.  Sansa stood where she was as her eyes roamed about the room, clearly surprised at the normalcy of his office.  There weren’t walls full of weapons displays, his desk wasn’t piled with cocaine on top of it.  Instead the walls were adorned with bookshelves displaying books, file folders, and some decorative crap Mirabelle had insisted on putting in there.  And his desk was piled with stacks of papers and folders next to his computer.

Seeing his suit jacket draped across the back of his chair, Sandor grabbed it before leading Sansa out onto the balcony that attached to his office.  The air was chilly and Sandor saw as Sansa wrapped her arms about her chest and rubbed her arms.  Sandor stepped towards her and draped his coat over her shoulders and smiled a bit at how big it was on her.  The damn thing nearly swallowed her whole.  Whispering a thank you as she wrapped herself up in his jacket, Sansa’s gaze seemed to settle on the view from the balcony.  Granted the Moriarti mansion wasn’t situated in the most populous area, the view was still incredible from up here.  The night sky seemed to glow from the distant city lights, the darkness punctured with the twinkling of red, green, yellow, and gold lights smattered across the desert horizon.  The mountains loomed dark in the distance as they sat against the deep navy blue of the sky. 

Sandor pulled a chair over for Sansa to sit and watched as she slowly lowered herself in the seat, looking up at him shyly yet with grief beginning to pool in her blue eyes.  Sitting down next to her and turning his chair so that he could face her, Sandor began rummaging through all the mental notes he had made in his head.  Earlier in the evening, he had had a plan for all he needed to tell her, a practiced monologue that flowed from one bit of information to the next.  That was all smashed to hell when Mirabelle had burst into his office and frantically declared Sansa missing.  In that moment, all his mental notes had scattered against the storm of his panicked thoughts.

Sandor sucked in a breath to start, to begin wherever he could and just piece things together as he went.  Before he could say anything, Sansa lifted her eyes to him, tears streaming down her cheeks as her lips quivered slightly.  

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, sniffling as she breathed deep to steady her breaths.  Sandor leaned forward in his seat, resting his forearms on his knees as he searched her eyes.  

“For what?” He could scarcely imagine what she had to be sorry for.  She had left with a man she thought she could trust, a man who probably told her he was going to take her home.  Sandor would be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t have done exactly as Sansa did.  

“For leaving. For making you come after me.  For putting your life and the lives of your men in danger.” Sansa let her eyes fall to her lap as she nervously wrung her hands and cried silent tears which streamed down her face. 

“You don’t have to be sorry for any of that,” Sandor replied, bewildered that she felt compelled to apologize for putting his men in danger.  If anyone needed to be asking for forgiveness for putting someone’s life in danger, it was him, not her. “You wanted to go home and you thought Nestor would take you there.  You had no way of knowing, Sansa.  I should have told you from the beginning why this is happening.”

At that, Sansa lifted her stare to him, the tears still glistening in her eyes.  A part of her seemed relieved that he wasn’t angry, relieved that he hadn’t lashed out at her.  The thought was absurd to him; to get angry at her for leaving.  It hadn’t even occurred to him that he might interpret her leaving as a slight against him.  Even if it had occurred to him, it wouldn’t have mattered.  All that mattered was getting her back safely and before something horrible happened.

“He…Nestor…told me some things.  He told me about the security guards at the Royce party…”

Sansa kept her eyes on Sandor, her words punctuated with a strange combination of hesitance and deliberateness.  Sandor matched her stare, realizing by the way she regarded him with a renewed sense of warmth that her time with Nestor Royce had revealed some of what Sandor had meant to tell her. 

“It wasn’t you,” she whispered as she shook her head slowly, fresh tears spilling over her cheeks.  “The entire time, it was never you who did that.”

Sandor dropped his eyes to the ground as he interlaced his fingers, shaking his head as he exhaled a deep breath, a breath he hadn’t noticed he had been holding.  

“No. No it wasn’t.”

“My mother…”

Despite his gaze being lowered, Sandor heard the way her voice faltered as she spoke her words.  He hadn’t known for sure what happened to Catelyn.  The reports were mixed as the authorities dealt with the investigation.  Names were slow to be released until family members could confirm the dead.  Ned Stark had left town and with that knowledge, Sandor has assumed he would only do that if Catelyn were either with him or if she were for sure among the dead. 

Sandor scooted to the edge of his seat until Sansa’s legs were situated between his.  Reaching out to her, Sandor pulled her into his arms and wrapped them tightly around her back.  Sansa sunk her face into his chest and cried anew, giving soft whimpering sounds with each inhale.  He felt helpless.  Nothing he had to offer her sounded like something that would make the tears stop.  Sandor wasn’t good with words in times like these.  He would probably make it worse by saying something.  So instead he did what he could and held Sansa as she cried, wrapping her up in his embrace and resolving himself to hold her for as long as she needed him to.   

“I’m so sorry, Sansa,” Sandor murmured as he rocked her ever so slightly in his arms.  It seemed to calm her some as her breathing became more even and the whimpering sounds quieted to a silence.  Sandor felt the pressure against his arms as she slowly pulled herself from his embrace.  Obliging, Sandor rested his arms on his knees once more, leaning towards her as she began to speak.   

“He told me about the Severelli and about all the cases he had rigged.  He told me about the case my father was working on.”

Sandor was shocked into a silence.  He hadn’t expected Nestor to tell her all of that.  Sansa lifted a wide-eyed stare to him. In the place of tears and grief, fear had begun to accumulate in her eyes.  Almost instinctively Sandor knew what she was about to ask.

“That man, the large one. Is he…?”

Sansa’s voice trailed off as she searched Sandor’s face, as if desperately hoping to be wrong and for him to reassure her that the man that seemed to terrify her wasn’t his brother, but was some other ridiculously large man. 

“My brother? Yeah. That’s him,” Sandor replied truthfully despite the tiny gasp that escaped Sansa’s lips at the sound of that truth.  Clearly, her short time spent with his brother was enough to petrify the poor girl. 

His brother was as good a place as any to begin revealing more truths, truths she desperately needed to know, but was only beginning to understand.  Sandor set in slowly, his voice calm and deep as if that might soften the truth of his words. 

“When Gregor left home, he started working for the Severelli.  Eventually he made his way up the chain of command and now he’s the underboss of the organization.  Long ago, Alberto’s father established a shaky alliance with the Severelli in the early days of both organizations.  It was clear from the beginning that the Severelli operated by a different code of ethics.  There moral compass is set differently than that of the Moriarti.  It’s still true even today. The Severelli and the Moriarti just sort of co-existed in the beginning.  There would be some heat here and there when territories clashed or associates were double dipping in both organizations.  Beyond that, the two families stayed out of each other’s business.

In the 70’s, the Severelli aligned themselves with a drug cartel.  The cartel pushed heroin and cocaine through the borders and the Severelli distributed for a cut of the profit.  The drug trade is lucrative and a lot of the Severelli men got very wealthy from that arrangement.  It continued well into the 80’s, but the cartel connection brought a lot of blowback in the form of violence funneled towards the Severelli members and their families.  The cartel became the strong arm of the Severelli and began calling a lot of shots.  Beyond that, the cartel didn’t like the Moriarti alliance.  To them, it was a liability.  They didn’t like the idea of a rival organization.  Cartels don’t form alliances with one another.  Instead they’re constantly at war with each other.  It made no sense to them that the Severelli didn’t step on our toes and we didn’t try to step on theirs.  A lot of violence started to pop up between the Severelli and the Moriarti because of the cartel’s influence. 

The leadership of the Severelli started to change in the 90’s.  The sons of the men who had established the cartel alliance were getting tired of the violence.  They wanted to sever the cartel partnership and start steering the organization in a different direction.  This fractured the Severelli; a lot of their men had gotten used to the cartel income and didn’t want to stop that cash flow.  Most of the higher-ups had already made up their minds to cut the cartel ties and move on.  The lower-ranking men pushed back and when the cartel found out, they naturally decided to back the members who were fighting to keep the alliance.”

Sansa furrowed her brow at him and shifted slightly in her seat.  Her eyes suggested confusion, that she didn’t understand what this had to do with anything.  Sandor lowered his head as he gathered his thoughts and tried to piece together where he needed to take this conversation next.  Lifting his gaze to her once more, Sandor continued. 

“Your uncle Brandon received death threats constantly for taking on a mafia case.  Nestor Royce did the same thing and he was hailed as untouchable.  Did you ever wonder why that was?”

Sansa’s eyes went wide at that and Sandor saw the rise and fall of her chest quicken with each breath.  Clearly, that thought hadn’t crossed her mind and Sandor was now beginning to see what Nestor had left out, the details he just happened to gloss over. 

“The pro-cartel Severelli members needed to overturn the leadership of the organization; put away the godfather, his underboss, the street bosses.  That’s a tricky thing to do and they were at least smart enough to understand they couldn’t just come in and off the higher ups.  The street bosses and underboss needed to be taken care of ‘legit.’ The godfather, however, was taken out to make a point; a point that things were changing and they didn’t give a fuck who they needed to murder to ensure those changes happened.  It was a bold move, but it worked. 

The Severelli members wanted a case built against the higher-ups of the organization; they wanted them put away.  Originally, your uncle Brandon was approached.  He was involved in the Moriarti case at the time and the Severelli told him if he put away members of not one, but two mafia organizations his career would be set.  But you know your uncle better than I do and even I know that Brandon Stark was never going to agree to something like that.  He refused, of course.  The Severelli tried to rattle his cage with death threats, but that didn’t work.  They then went to Nestor Royce and offered him the same opportunity they had offered Brandon, but Nestor was hesitant at first.  Since your uncle Brandon was knee deep in the Moriarti case, the Severelli saw the opportunity to take him down.  They could have him killed and the heat would blow back on my organization.  It was a win-win-win for the Severelli; they take down Brandon Stark, put some heat on the Moriarti, and send a very clear message to Nestor Royce about what happens when people refuse their offers. 

It all worked.  Nestor agreed to take the case; it launched his career, put him on the map and made him a very wealthy man.  And the Severelli-Cartel alliance continued. By this time, I had taken over the Moriarti family and Gregor had muscled his way into the position of underboss of the Severelli.  At that point, the Severelli-Moriarti alliance was severed and is now essentially a blood feud between me and my brother.  When my organization was framed for Brandon Stark’s death, this amped up the tensions between the Severelli and the Moriarti, which caused some retaliation, which led to violence, which led to more tension.  And so the cycle goes.

To your father, the Moriarti case represented a way to avenge his brother and what he perceives as the reason his brother is dead.  The Severelli, influenced by Gregor, jumped at the opportunity to use Nestor Royce to influence the turn out of the case.”

Suddenly understanding how the pieces were falling together, Sansa’s eyes snapped up to him as her lips parted slightly while she shook her head.

“Nestor said that they wanted you to be acquitted of your charges though.  They didn’t want to you go to prison.”

Sandor let his eyes shift to the sky as he chuckled a dark laugh.  Nestor had told her what the Severelli wanted to happen with the Moriarti case, but failed to mention why.  Once more, his cherry picking of details was very telling of his character. 

“Don’t mistake that for brotherly love,” Sandor began as he met Sansa’s eyes once more. “There’s no love between my brother and I.  Gregor wants my organization wiped off the map.  He wants me to himself; alone, suffering, and without the mafia family to back me up so that he can finish me off himself the way he wants to.  Slow and painful.   

You see, if I went to prison, I’d go with the rest of my men.  Nothing would change. I would just lead the organization from behind bars.  That shit happens all the time.  I’d have a guy on the outside in my place, but I’d call the shots from the inside.  Just like any other gang or organized crime family, the Moriarti are well-established in the prison system.  With the line of work we’re in, we have to know how to function even if we get thrown away for life. 

Gregor knows that and that’s not the outcome he wants.  He wants the lesser men slaughtered, my underboss and street bosses put away, and me out on my own so he can handle me the way he wants.  That meant getting someone on board who can influence your father and therefore influence the case.”

Sandor watched as Sansa seemed to turn white as a sheet.  He could almost see her blood running cold through her veins.  Silence settled between them as the gravity of all he told her seemed to set in.  Gazing off towards some invisible point on the ground as if lost in a daze, Sansa shook her head and Sandor could see her hands beginning to tremble. 

“Nestor…,” she murmured, understanding just how low the man had been willing to go for all his greedy needs and purposes. 

“He was a greedy son-of-a-bitch, Sansa.  He had been at this shit for a long time.  If he told you he had every intention of stopping, he was fucking lying.  He had no intention of ever stopping.  He was going to throw your dad under the bus if it meant saving his own neck. In fact, he did.  When the Severelli asked how your father had found out about the rigging of his case, Nestor confessed that he had told your father.  He could have lied, he could have made something up, but he didn’t.  He deliberately put your father and now you in danger.      

A few of my attorneys were under Nestor’s thumb and when I found out about that, I found out about what Nestor was doing.  I also found out that Ned Stark knew what Nestor was doing.  Your father would blow the lid on the case. It was only a matter of time.  He wouldn’t go through with the case if he knew it was rigged.  No way in hell.  Your father may be a pain in my ass, but he’s honest, I’ll give him that.  If it came out that the case was rigged, it would be dropped.  And those charges would never come against me or my men. 

I came to the Royce party to rattle Nestor’s cage.  Make sure that he understood I knew what he was doing and that I had every intention of exposing it all.  The folder with all your family’s information in it, with the notes on your father’s case, Bronn found that in Nestor’s house.  It was good information to have so I told him to take it.  The woman you saw at the party, the one that was throwing herself at me, she was the wife of one of the attorneys that was dealing with Nestor behind my back.  She thought she could spare her husband’s life by spreading her legs.  At the party, her husband found out about what she had tried to do, took her to one of the bedrooms upstairs, and beat the shit out of her.  I had every intention of roughing the attorney up anyway for what he was doing behind my back, but I don’t abuse women and I don’t tolerate men who do.  So I fucked him up for what his did to his wife too.  I was ready to leave after that.  I had come for part of what I had meant to do and there would be other times to fuck with Nestor.  And that was right about the time when Gregor’s men commenced what they had come to do.”

Sighing deeply, Sandor settled back in his seat, feeling as though the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders.  Tilting his head to the side, Sandor stared at Sansa who had fallen silent.  With her head hung down, Sansa was again wringing her hands in her lap.  He could hear the heaviness of her breathing and waited for her to say something, to ask something.  For many moments she remained quiet, wordlessly absorbing all he had told her.  Finally Sansa lifted her eyes to him and Sandor felt his pulse quicken as her gaze steadied on him, almost boring through him with those bright blue eyes of hers.

“You knew that your brother was going to try and take me.”  It wasn’t a question, he noticed, but rather a statement spoken with a tragic sort of confidence.  She knew the answer to the question, but shifted her eyes about his face awaiting an answer. 

Sandor nodded his head as he matched his eyes to hers, returning the intensity of her stare.  

“I did,” he confirmed, his voice deep and calm.  Sansa bit her lip, as if stopping words from spilling out of her mouth.  She wanted to ask him something, he could tell.  Slowly releasing her lip, Sansa took a deep breath before speaking.

“At the party, how did you know who I was?” Sansa let her eyes fall away from his at her inquiry; either embarrassed for having asked or dreading the answer to the question. 

Sandor exhaled a small laugh.  The answer to the question was simple, almost stupidly simple.  It’s not as if he had been stalking Sansa for months, tracking her movements and gathering information about her.  By the way she averted her eyes from him, he could tell that she was expecting something like that to be the case.  In reality, he had seen her at the Royce party, couldn’t take his eyes off of her, and Marco had caught him staring and decided to share an interesting bit of information with him.  

“I saw you and Marco told me who you were.”  Technically, it was the truth, but Sansa didn’t need to know about all the thoughts that had been going through his head when he had seen her at the Royce party. 

Sansa fell silent once more and furrowed her brow, shaking her head as if something was troubling her, as if there was some bit of information she was struggling to wrap her head around.  As she settled her bewildered gaze on Sandor, her question escaped through trembling lips.

“Why? Why would you go through so much for someone you don’t know?”

Sandor settled back in his seat as he ran his palm slowly over his face.  This question easily trumped the first one.  The answer to this question wasn’t so simple. On the contrary, the answer was layered in complexities that he was only beginning to understand. 

Sandor leaned forward once more and reached for Sansa’s hands that were folded neatly in her lap.  Although slow at first, Sansa obliged and allowed her hands to be swallowed up by his.  Sandor searched her face, looking for whatever he could find there, before settling his eyes on hers. 

“I knew what Gregor would do to you if he got his hands on you, Sansa.  He was going to get what he wanted out of your father, get what he wanted out of you, and then he’d do you both in because that’s what he does.”

Sandor’s words were deliberate and sincere.  He didn’t have the words to explain the rest, didn’t quite understand the rest himself so he settled with what he could and she seemed to accept it as she nodded her head in solemn understanding. 

Sandor watched as a tear formed in each eye before running down each of her cheeks.  Her lips went to quivering again and Sandor knew he needed to tell her the last bit of it, tell her where it was going from here. He felt his heart beginning to pound in his chest as a bead of sweat formed on his brow despite the chill to the air.  A few days ago the thought of telling her this wouldn’t have elicited such a physical reaction from his body.  Sandor swallowed hard despite the dryness of his mouth. 

“Your father left Portland,” Sandor began as he squeezed her hands gently.  “That’s all anyone knows.  He’s alright for now. It’s you who isn’t safe right now.  I want to take you with me away from here. Some place where no one knows where you are, some place that’s safe.”

 

Sansa’s eyes snapped up to his and frantically shifted about his face.  Slowly she opened her mouth before closing it once more as she shook her head.  He didn’t know what he expected.  Clearly the prospect of leaving again was scaring her.  Sandor felt his breaths coming ragged from his lips as he watched the confusion fall about her face.

 

“Where?,” she replied in a voice that sounded more pleading than questioning. 

“Where I live. Where I’m from.”

Sansa swept her eyes back towards the house before returning a wide-eyed stare back towards Sandor, her voice thin and timid.

“I thought this is where you live.”

“No,” Sandor shook his head, only now realizing that he was beginning to sweat bullets.  “I spend my time here, but it’s not home to me.”

Sansa exhaled an exasperated breath as her eyes flew to the ground.  Her chest was rising and falling at a rate that almost matched Sandor’s breathing.  Shifting towards her, Sandor bent down slightly as he leaned forward, trying to catch her eyes before she let them dart away.  

“I’ll take you home, Sansa, when it’s safe.  When this is all over with.  Until then I need to get you out of here.”  His voice faltered slightly as he spoke, fractured with a sort of pleading that he hadn’t intended to be there.

He couldn’t keep her forever, and he knew that.  Eventually she would want to go home.  Fuck, she probably already wanted to go home.  He knew that and yet her hesitance still stung.  The way her brow was folded in worry, the way her eyes couldn’t seem to stay still as the thoughts raced through her head, the way she had remained deadly quiet.  All of it felt like a blow and Sandor hadn’t anticipated the feeling of desperation that was rising up from within him.  He wanted her to look at him, to see him for who he was and what he was offering her. 

Sandor lifted one of his hands and cupped it under her chin, gently lifting her head to look at him. 

“I can keep you safe.  No one would ever hurt you again or I’d kill them.”

Sandor wasn’t a liar, he hated liars, yet those were the truest words he ever spoke.  Everything else in his life felt like a lie in comparison to the truth he was offering to her now. 

Sansa stilled in his grasp, her eyes no longer frantically searching out something else to focus on.  Instead, her gaze focused sharply on his eyes. 

“You won’t hurt me,” she whispered, her gaze steadfast on him as she spoke. It sounded half a question, the inflection of her voice tremulous and meek. 

“No. I won’t hurt you,” he exhaled out on a deep breath as he shook his head.  The thought that he had caused her pain before had been gradually eating away at him, manifesting in his dreams to taunt him there.

Sansa lowered her gaze back to her hands on her lap as tears welled in her eyes.  Letting his hands fall to his own lap, Sandor pulled in a deep breath, the air feeling as though it was burning his lungs.  Dropping his head, he felt as though everything was unraveling around him, as though his world was spinning out of control.  The need to leave- to get up and walk away before he crumbled in front of her- settled in his limbs as he shook his head and shifted in his seat. 

Suddenly, he felt a tiny hand come up to cup his cheek.  Her fingers caressed his skin softly, the sensation warm and sending a shockwave through his body.  With his head hung down, Sandor lifted his hand to cover hers, gently pressing his fingers over hers as he exhaled a deep breath.

 “Little bird-”

Whereas before he had sought out her eyes, had willed her to look at him, to see him for what he was, it was now Sansa who was seeking out his eyes, forcing him to look at her.  And when he did look at her, her eyes had dried and where there had once been a fragile uncertainty, there was now strength and understanding. 

“Yes.” It wasn’t a hesitant whisper. It was firm and backed by the sincerity flashing across her eager eyes which were finally seeing him for what he was and what he had wanted to offer her from the very beginning. 

Leaning forward and with her gaze still matched to his, Sansa brought her other hand up to cup  his other cheek-the scarred cheek- and her lips, no longer quivering, tugged into a gentle smile.

“I’ll go with you.”  

Chapter Text

 

Gods and Monsters

Chapter 7

7


Sansa pressed her fingers to her temples, closing her eyes and tracing small, but firm circles there. This worked, always worked, to lull her into a sleep. Over the years she found it wasn't the motion that beckoned sleep to come. No, it was the meditation; the way she let her thoughts flee from her mind before they could take root and grow into a tangled mess of uncertainties.

Now when Sansa pressed her fingers to her temples, sleep still wouldn't come for her. Instead, she had spent most of the night and the early morning hours awake in her bed. Listless and fearful of the nightmares awaiting her in the land of slumber, Sansa had gone through everything over and over again; the events themselves seeming like stark-raving, trance-induced musings of strange events that happened to someone else in some other lifetime long ago. Only they hadn't happened to someone else.

They had happened to her and she had only needed to open her eyes and look at the bruises and scratches still healing about her body to know that none of this was a trance or a dream. And it had all transpired within an unimaginably short amount of time, but it still somehow felt like a past life memory; the emotionality reverberating through a soul that forgets nothing, but a body willingly severing the ties of remembrance, through death or perhaps rebirth.

The way Sandor had come for her, the truths he had divulged to her, the way he had comforted her. It all tumbled wild about her restless mind; the pieces of information colliding together and spinning off as a whole to collide into yet another piece before everything became a cohesive mass, a supernova of truth collapsing in on the weight of itself before exploding forth its light to extinguish the darkness of misunderstanding.

However, it wasn't Sandor's truth that weighed heaviest against her heart, the heart that somehow already knew his confessions and understood his intentions before they passed his lips.

It was her own truth that startled Sansa and caused her to feel as though the ground had been ripped from right under her feet. The seeds of suggestion were planted each time he treated her gently when she expected brutality, each time he offered her half smiles and knowing looks when she had expected scowls and taunts, each time his fingers grazed her skin delicately when she had expected bumps and bruises to form in the aftermath of his touch. Suddenly, the truths of her own heart had bloomed before her when he offered to keep her safe until the time came that he could take her home and when he told her no one would ever hurt her again or he'd kill them.

He had meant it too; his eyes had searched her out and willed the sincerity of his words to come pouring through in just one earnest look. Sansa had been overwhelmed, shocked into a silence that she surmised had felt like refusal to him. She never expected any of it, least of all from him. She had expected him to be a monster, a beast. He was the Hound; brutal, fearsome, cold, and calculated according to her own father. And yet the way he looked at her, the way her held her, the way he saved her; not once, but twice now. He may be the Hound, but she was his little bird and she understood now the meaning of his lingering looks, gentle smiles, and caressing touches. But more importantly, she understood something of herself by truly seeing him. She understood her own longing for his looks, smiles, and touches and that supernova of truth was shone brightest in the expanse of her mind.

Letting out a deep sigh, Sansa turned to her side and felt her legs tangle amongst the thin cotton sheets of the bed. Reaching out, she snaked her arms around the pillow next to her and pulled it close to her chest, burying her face in its softness. Her breathing steadied as she closed her eyes and felt the pillow absorb the warmth of her skin and radiate it back towards her. She imagined it was him she was clinging to; the cotton pillowcase oddly similar to the cotton weave of his T-shirt that had absorbed her tears, the warmth of the pillow a small similarity to the warmth of his skin. She wished it were him holding her, her body pressed against his, his legs a tangle around hers, her arms snaked around his chest.

They had reluctantly left one another's company last night. The evening air on the balcony had grown chilly and both their eyes had become heavy-lidded as growing fatigue set in. Sandor had walked her to her room and wished her a good night. He had exchanged a look with her- a look heavy with need and worry- which intimated to her that he too would be tossing and turning the night away. She wanted to tell him about the Nine of Swords then, tell him that she could hardly imagine getting any sleep alone in her bed. Sansa had stopped herself short though and let the confession die on her lips; the confession that she might like to curl up in his arms tonight and drift to sleep listening to the rhythm of his breaths. The embarrassment had flushed across her cheeks; the sudden realization that that was exactly what she wanted and the worry that he may only laugh at her if she were to request such a thing.

Instead, they had retreated to their own rooms, to separate beds. Sure enough, Sansa spent the night up in her own head, desperately trying to cut through the vines of her thoughts.

At the first streaming of crimson and gold through the gossamer curtains of the bedroom, Sansa had unwound her arms from the pillow and adjusted it properly beneath her head as she watched the sun rise. She couldn't really remember the last time she had seen the sun come up. It was a simple pleasure which brought a small smile to her lips and offered a blessed distraction from her thoughts. That had been a half an hour ago and now her right foot, which was propped beneath her left knee, was besieged by the prickling of pins and needles. Wincing at the discomfort, Sansa stretched her legs and rotated her ankle in small circles to coerce the blood to flow back through her sleeping foot.

At least part of me can get some sleep.

Exhaling a small laugh, Sansa swung her legs over the side of the bed as she ran her fingers through her hair, trying her hardest to work through the tangles that were there. Perhaps Mirabelle would do my hair and make-up for me today.

The thought brought a small smile to play about Sansa's lips. She hadn't seen Mirabelle since the gas station and felt a tremendous stinging of guilt where that was concerned. Undoubtedly, Sandor had placed much of the blame on Mirabelle, even though Sansa had made a choice to go with her to Arianne's and then made a choice to leave with Nestor Royce. She hoped that Mirabelle wasn't angry with her and that her disappearance hadn't caused too much of a strife between brother and sister.

As Sansa stood, she felt the blood slowly returning to her foot and the tingling sensation beginning to disappear, one pin and needle at a time. In soft steps, she walked towards the door and slowly opened it. Sansa's heart catapulted to her throat at the thought that she might run into Sandor in the hall and dropped instantly to her stomach when she realized he had already gotten up. Across the hall she could see that his door was open, his bed neatly made and his room devoid of his hulking form.

Her disappointment was short lived as a sound sharply caught her attention. The whimpering was soft, almost indistinguishable through the sound of her heart beating loud in her ears, and it was coming from down the hall. Suddenly, Sansa felt her hands moist with a cold clamminess as she made her way down the hallway slowly and willed her breaths to be silent so that she might hear. As she neared Mirabelle's closed bedroom door, the whimpering became ever so slightly louder and was now accompanied by what sounded like pained murmurings. Sansa felt her blood run cold as Mirabelle's words ambled from her room on stifled breaths and met Sansa's ear in the hallway.

"Please. No. Please. No. Don't. Please don't. Stop!"

Freezing in place, Sansa felt an all too familiar trembling beginning to quake about her body. As Mirabelle began her pleadings again, Sansa flew to the door with sweat beading on her brow and fear gripping her chest as she imagined the horror that might be ensuing inside the room.

Flinging the door open and running head long into Mirabelle's room, Sansa's eyes widened to the size of saucers and she let out a yelping gasp at the sight before her.

Completely naked, Mirabelle was on all fours, her face contorted in pleasure with Bronn behind her, one hand clutching her hip as the other was wrapped in a fistful of Mirabelle's glossy, raven-colored hair, his hips slamming against her bottom with each driving thrust.

Lifting her head with shock filling her eyes, Mirabelle squealed out as she reached around and frantically tapped Bronn on the arm to stop. Pulling away from him, Mirabelle scrambled to cover her nakedness.

"Fuck. Oh my god, Sansa!"

Squeezing her eyes shut, Sansa swiveled on her heel as she spouted out apologies as fast as they would come, her skin burning hot as a wave of mortification hit her.

"Oh my god! Oh my god! I'm so sorry!"

In a rush to leave the room, Sansa hadn't even opened her eyes as she dashed towards the door. When she did open her eyes, it was too late. She was already slamming into the door frame, clearly misjudging where the opening was as her forehead cracked against the wooden door frame with a resounding thud.

"OWW! Dammit. I'm sorry. Oh my god. I'm sorry!"

Bringing her hand to her throbbing forehead, Sansa hurried through the door and pulled it shut behind her. From the other side of the door, she could hear Bronn roaring in laughter as Mirabelle chided him, insisting that it wasn't funny.

Absolutely mortified, Sansa ran back to her room and threw the door shut behind her. Leaning back against the shut door, Sansa sucked in deep breaths to calm herself. With adrenaline and relief pumping through her veins, she felt as though her heart might beat right out of her chest. She had expected the worst, for someone to be hurting Mirabelle. The last thing she had expected to see was Mirabelle having sex with Sandor's underboss.

Oh God! Bronn is going to tell Sandor what I saw. Somehow that thought was more embarrassing to her than actually walking in on the act. Sansa felt another wave of humiliation sweep over her as she buried her hands in her face and groaned. She winced as her fingers lightly brushed against the spot where she had run into the door frame. There was going to be a bruise, that was for damn sure.

In an effort to burn away what she had seen, Sansa took a hot shower and scrubbed her skin until it radiated pink, as if it wasn't already pink enough from embarrassment. After dressing and drying her hair, Sansa had every intention of hiding away in the room until Sandor came for her. It was safer that way. If she traveled out into the hallway, she might run into Mirabelle or Bronn for that matter. Or maybe she'd walk right into some other scandalous situation. Sansa's plans of hiding under a proverbial rock until it was time to leave were foiled as a knock came at her door and Mirabelle's sing-songy voice sounded from the other side.

"Saaaaaannnnnsa," Mirabelle cooed through the door. "I know you're in there. Open up! I want to talk to you, girl. And I want to see you!"

With a whimpering moan, Sansa paced towards the door and slowly opened it, letting her eyes instinctively fall to the ground as a flush of pink washed across her skin. Without missing a beat, Mirabelle's arms encircled Sansa and pulled her into a tight embrace. Startled, Sansa lifted her eyes as she felt Mirabelle's breaths rustling through her hair.

"I was so worried about you. God, if something would have happened to you. I'm sorry, Sansa. I'm so sorry."

Sansa's mouth hung open as she thought of something to say. Clutching Sansa by the arms, Mirabelle pulled away and settled her eyes on Sansa as if memorizing her face.

"I'm okay," Sansa whispered with a soft smile pulling on her lips as the warm flush of embarrassment seemed to fade away.

Furrowing her brow, Mirabelle brought her finger tips softly up to Sansa's forehead and gently placed them where a bump was undoubtedly beginning to form. Sansa sucked in a wincing breath at the touch and lifted her eyes up to Mirabelle's fingers still at her forehead.

"You poor thing. Let's go to the kitchen and get you an ice pack."

Agreeing with a nod, Sansa followed Mirabelle to the kitchen and plopped down in a stool situated in front of the breakfast bar. Sansa watched as Mirabelle rummaged through the freezer, pushing aside packages of frozen vegetables and care packages from the Italian 'mothers' until she found an ice pack. Wrapping the ice pack up in a hand towel, Mirabelle held it out towards Sansa and settled a timid gaze on her as Sansa gratefully held the ice pack up to the knot forming on her forehead.

"Do you want to talk about it?," Mirabelle asked gently as she leaned up against the counter opposite of Sansa, resting her arms delicately against the granite countertop and gazing hesitantly as her fingers softly interlaced.

Sansa didn't quite know what Mirabelle was referring to; the events that transpired last night or what Sansa had inadvertently walked in on this morning. Now that she thought about it, she didn't think she really wanted to talk about either. A day would come when she would be ready to talk about all that had happened last night, but that day was not today. Instead, Sansa settled for a question that was now burgeoning from somewhere in the back of her mind and forming on her lips.

"How long have you and Bronn been…been together?"

Mirabelle lifted a timid stare towards Sansa as she bit her lip which was curling into a girlish smile.

"About three months," Mirabelle replied as she looked at Sansa through her darkened lashes and wrapped her arms about her chest protectively. "Sandor doesn't know. We've been waiting for a good time to tell him. As you can imagine, now probably isn't the best time with everything that's been going on."

Dropping her head, Mirabelle rolled her eyes before letting out a small laugh. Sansa saw as a soft blush seemed to creep across Mirabelle's cheeks. The woman who was normally such an image of confidence, so put together as she carried herself with a sexy assuredness, was now the one succumbing to embarrassment.

Lowering the ice pack from her head, Sansa leaned forward towards Mirabelle, her curiosity thoroughly peaked.

"You think he'll get mad?," Sansa asked as she remembered the story of what Sandor did to Mirabelle's first boyfriend. Though from what Sansa could tell of Bronn, he didn't seem to be like Mirabelle's first boyfriend. Besides, he was Sandor's friend and if anyone was going to date Mirabelle, wouldn't he want it to be his friend? Sansa chewed her bottom lip as she furrowed her brow, now confused by her own question.

Laughing, Mirabelle gave a shrug of the shoulders as she raised her eyes towards Sansa once more.

"I don't know. He might. He always said he never wanted me to get involved with a Mafioso."

Sansa nodded her head, understanding the subtext of Sandor's wants for Mirabelle. The Mafia life was dangerous it seemed. Both Alberto and Sandor had all but confirmed that backlash was often directed towards the families of mafia members. Wives, children, and siblings were used as bargaining chips when someone needed to get what they wanted. The thought made Sansa's stomach knot nervously with a renewed sense of dread.

It's not like this truth hadn't been staring her in the face for the past few days. It had, it just didn't seem to hold the same meaning as it did now. The prospect of being involved with a mafia member hadn't been a prospect she considered. It's not as if she had spent her childhood dreaming of her father giving her away to a mob boss. Suddenly realizing the strange and abrupt leaps her mind had just made, Sansa felt the slow creeping of a blush ease across her cheeks and her heartbeat had somehow quickened in her chest.

When Sansa lifted her eyes, she found that Mirabelle was staring back at her, a mischievous smile pulling on her lips. Sansa's eyes went wide, fearful that Mirabelle had somehow read her thoughts and knew that she had been musing over what it might be like to be involved with a mafia man.

"When you came into my room this morning, what did you think was going on?," Mirabelle softly inquired.

Sansa exhaled out a tiny relieved breath. Apparently, Mirabelle was mistaking her blush as a renewed wave of embarrassment brought on by the mortifying memories of the morning.

"I thought…I don't know…I thought you were being…hurt or something." Now that Sansa thought about it, even if Mirabelle was being hurt, it's not like there was much she could do about it. The most she could have done was run to find Sandor. Sandor would have known what to do. He is strong, so strong. And brave too. Sansa felt the bubbling sensation of butterflies in her stomach beginning once more.

"Hurt?," Mirabelle pondered quizzically, almost flattered at the prospect that Sansa was dashing into her room to save her.

"You were saying 'No,' 'don't,' 'stop.' What was I supposed to think?," Sansa pleaded, eagerly trying to make her case and perhaps alleviate the sting of embarrassment. She had thought what anyone would have thought if they heard those same words.

At that, Mirabelle threw her head back and laughed heartedly, her chest bouncing as she heaved for breaths. When she finally caught her breath, Mirabelle placed her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side.

"Sansa," Mirabelle said flatly as she gave Sansa a pointed look.

"What?," Sansa replied, confused and feeling as though she was missing something.

Giggling as she shook her head, Mirabelle removed her hands from her hips as she marked each of her words with a gesturing of her hands.

"No, don't stop," Mirabelle began, her words flowing together. Cocking an eyebrow, Mirabelle punctuated each of her words with an abrupt pause. "Not No… Don't... Stop… No, don't stop. As in, no, don't stop fucking me. No, don't stop doing what you're doing with your hands right now. No, don't stop so you can come because I'm about to come too."

Feeling her blood pulsing hot through her veins, Sansa's mouth hung open and curled into a perfect "O" at that. She hadn't considered that and now was not only embarrassed, but also felt like a complete moron. If Myranda were here, she'd be pissing her pants laughing at how naïve Sansa was. With a pout of her lips, Sansa lifted the ice pack once more to her head with one hand while the other crossed her chest dejectedly.

"You're very sweet though to try to come to my rescue," Mirabelle reassured as she reached across the counter and placed her hand on Sansa's forearm. "The only thing you 'rescued' me from was an orgasm."

"I'm sorry!," Sansa cried out, her voice cracking and giving way to a laugh, a laugh which Mirabelle eagerly joined in on.

As their laughter lulled, Sansa shifted her eyes towards Sandor's approaching form lingering in the entrance to the kitchen, his steps slowing as his eyes instantaneously narrowed at the ice pack pressed against Sansa's forehead. The tension in the room seemed to rise as Mirabelle pushed herself up from the counter and shot Sansa a pleading look, a look that seemed to say 'if he asks, lie.'

Sure enough, Sandor did ask as he approached Sansa, one hand resting on the back of the bar stool she was seated in while the other reached towards the ice pack, his eyes a storm of concern as he considered Sansa.

"What happened?" His voice was thick with worry, the seriousness filling the room and stifling the giggles that normally would have been passing between Mirabelle and Sansa in this moment. Now that she thought about it, it was a rather funny situation. However, the concern in Sandor's eyes stymied any amusement Sansa garnered from the situation.

"Nothing, I just…," Sansa whispered in return as her mind frantically tried to come up with something to tell him. She hated the idea of lying to him, but Mirabelle was staring daggers at her, clearly petrified that Sandor might find out about her morning tryst with Bronn.

"It doesn't look like nothing," Sandor grumbled as he placed his hand over Sansa's and removed the ice pack from her head, scrutinized the matching bump and bruise forming there. Suddenly, Sandor settled his narrowed gaze on his sister, his eyes seeming to turn to ice as he spoke. "Mirabelle, what happened?"

Composed as she spoke, Mirabelle lifted her eyes unflinchingly towards her brother as she held her chin up and steadied her voice.

"Sansa was upstairs and I was coming out of my ro-"

Seeing the way Sandor was boring into his sister with a penetrating glare, Sansa sat up in her seat and blurted out a disjointed slew of words, eager to dissipate the agitation she sensed was growing in Sandor.

"I…I ran into the wall…no door…ran into the door. Ran right into it."

Sansa watched as both Mirabelle and Sandor stared wide eyed at her; Sandor looking slightly amused and dumbfounded and Mirabelle looking as though she might face palm.

"You ran into the door," Sandor replied flatly, his voice bemused as he cocked an eyebrow at her. Clearly, he didn't believe her although she wasn't lying to him. She was just leaving out the detail of why she had run into a door.

Sansa eagerly nodded her head and shrugged her shoulders as her eyes fell to the floor. She knew Sandor well enough to know that he was good at reading people. One look in her eyes and he would know immediately she wasn't telling him the whole story.

Shaking his head, Sandor stared once more at Sansa's forehead as he snorted out a laugh.

"That's going to be a big bruise for running into a door."

Lifting her eyes to him, Sansa saw that his lips were pulled up into a smug half smile, a smile that suggested he knew damn well she wasn't telling him something, but he was enjoying how her tongue was tying itself in knots.

"It was…a big door…," Sansa let her voice drop off before squeezing her eyes shut at the realization of how profoundly stupid that statement was. Opening her eyes again, Sansa could see Mirabelle covering her mouth with the palm of her hand as she struggled to hide a smile and stifle a laugh.

Shifting his eyes between Mirabelle and Sansa, Sandor finally settled a perplexed stare on Sansa before finally crossing his arms about his chest, his voice lowered and his face hardening once more into a mask of seriousness.

"I've got a few things to take care of. I was thinking of leaving in an hour. Will you be ready by then?"

Sansa nodded her head as Sandor turned to Mirabelle, steadying his stoic stare at her.

"Mirabelle, I need to talk to you. I'll be in my office when you're done here."

Without another word and hardly waiting for Mirabelle's response, Sandor started towards the door, stopping as he reached the entrance of the kitchen before turning around and pointing a finger at Sansa.

"You. Watch out for doors. Or walls. Or whatever it is you're running into." Sansa watched as his hardened face, so serious and impassible not moments earlier, softened with a half smile and a wink of the eye.

With butterflies ravaging her stomach, Sansa found herself blushing yet again as a shy grin swept across her face.


As Sandor retreated back to his office with his hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans, he allowed a small smile to creep across his lips at the thought of Sansa and Mirabelle giggling like a bunch of fucking school girls in the kitchen. It seemed to him there were no hard feelings between Sansa and Mirabelle, although he could have gathered as much. Mirabelle loved Sansa something fierce despite the short amount of time Sansa had been with them. Still, his sister had stayed away last night, seemingly understanding that after finding Sansa, Sandor would want her all to himself. And surely, Sansa didn't want to be inundated with questions either.

After tossing and turning all night just like he knew he would, Sandor had awoken long before sunrise and abandoned his bed for the silence of the parlor. Fueled by two cups of coffee and a resolute need to get Sansa away to safety, Sandor had worked out the details of today's trip which had fallen into place nicely. Still there was one detail that irked him, the same detail that taunted him throughout the night and rendered sleep nearly impossible.

Gregor was alive, more than likely, and undoubtedly raging at the fact that Sandor had swooped in, slaughtered the men Gregor had with him, and retrieved what had been taken from him, the little bird. I should have put a fucking bullet in his brain when I had the chance. For the greater part of Sandor's life, the vengeful desire to murder his brother had been his driving force. It was the force that fueled the unbridled rage that afflicted him throughout most of his teenage years, it was the accelerant that sparked the decision to take over Alberto's place as head of the Moriarti family, and it had now manifested itself as an incessant nagging in the back of his mind which mocked him as it begged the question 'Why didn't you just do it?'

Sandor knew why he had hesitated although that knowledge did little to stave off the traces of regret beginning to form. A greater need, a more eminent desire, had trumped his life-long ambition to kill his brother and avenge the Clegane body count. He had come there to find Sansa and that was what he damn well meant to do. Gregor could wait, Sansa couldn't.

Sandor regretted nothing of that choice, but it had complicated his plans for today. A convoy of his men would need to set out with him. Sandor would have to leave behind his usual car in exchange for something he had never been seen driving before. Seven cars in total would leave the Moriarti mansion, each splitting up and traveling in different directions. If Gregor or his men meant to follow, they would have a one-in-seven chance of finding Sandor and ultimately Sansa. While Sandor wasn't a man who made a habit of gambling, even he knew that those odds were still a bit too high for his comfort and liking.

Settling himself in his office chair, Sandor flipped through the yellow legal pad of his notes. Bronn, Marco, and Alberto had already been briefed on the whole thing and understood their role in almost every scenario Sandor had thought out. If his years in the mafia had taught him one thing, it was to be prepared, to understand that shit could go down at anytime and to have already planned for each and every imaginable scenario. Some might call it overkill. Sandor called it smart.

When a light rapping came at his door, Sandor deduced it was Mirabelle and called her in. His sister peeped her head around the door as she opened it. It was a habit she had gotten into and still did it even when she knew Sandor was waiting on her to come. Shaking his head, he waved her in and motioned his head towards the chair across the desk from him as he silently beckoned her to sit. He leaned back in his chair and with his elbows resting on the arm rests Sandor contemplated Mirabelle over steepled fingers.

She sat silently, refusing to meet his stare and shifting uncomfortably as she crossed and then uncrossed her legs. Sandor didn't know what to say to her. He hadn't the time to really think about what to say. He was angry with her still, yet much of that anger had dissipated once Sansa was safely returned. Regardless, Mirabelle had defied him and it had almost lost him Sansa. His sister was stubborn and strong-willed, that he already knew, but this was pushing it too far. Mirabelle had been around long enough to know that what she had done was stupid.

Crossing her arms about her chest as she pouted her lips, Mirabelle finally lifted her gaze to meet Sandor's before sighing deeply.

"Are you going to hate me forever?"

Sandor stifled a laugh. Mirabelle was a strange creature; oscillating between a ball-busting hard ass and a pouty-lipped child who looked beside herself at the thought that she may have disappointed him. The question was preposterous, but that didn't mean Sandor wasn't going to take the opportunity to fuck with her.

"Don't know," he replied coldly as he snatched up the stress ball from his desk and set about giving it gentle squeezes. "Haven't really decided yet." At that, Sandor threw the ball up in the air before catching it, repeating the process as he saw Mirabelle looking at him wide-eyed with her mouth hanging open.

Throwing the ball up in the air, Sandor let it fall to his desk as he leaned forward and let out a chuckle.

"I'm kidding, Mirabelle."

Relieved and undoubtedly pissed at the same time, Mirabelle pulled her arms tighter across her chest as she shook her head with a small laugh. A silence fell between them and Sandor understood what it meant; she wanted to know what happened last night, but was afraid to ask. Whether she was afraid that he wouldn't tell her or afraid of what he might say if he did, Sandor wasn't sure, but regardless Mirabelle needed to know what happened. Gregor had been stirred and Sandor knew damn well there was going to be backlash. He had set something in motion that wasn't about to end any time soon. With a sense of foreboding suddenly dissolving the small smile that had been on his lips, Sandor knew with a shock of certainty that it was only just beginning. The thought made him want to leave that instant, to pack up his shit, get Sansa in the car, and get the fuck out of dodge. First, though, Mirabelle needed to know.

"I saw him last night," Sandor confessed as he studied Mirabelle's face. Her eyes seemed to widen a bit and the pallor of her skin became ashen, as if she had seen a ghost.

"Did he do that to you?," Mirabelle asked on a whisper of a breath as she motioned her head towards the purple bruise forming about his cheekbone. Sandor had almost forgotten it was there, purposely avoiding mirrors which were a solemn reminder of the scars he wore.

"Yeah," Sandor grumbled as the memories of his spat with Gregor flashed across his mind. Sandor had more or less dodged most of Gregor's swings, but exhaustion had eventually set in and a solid fist had cracked him across the cheek.

Biting her lip with a glimmer to her eyes which suggested she were on the verge of tears, Mirabelle tentatively set a worried stare on Sandor.

"Did he hurt Sansa?," she inquired softly, each of her words delicately formed on a nervous exhale of breath. Sandor hadn't asked Sansa about her interactions with Gregor. He doubted she wanted to talk about it and if she did, he imagined she would have talked about it last night. With a growing sense of uneasiness stirring within his center, Sandor knew that if Gregor had hurt Sansa, he would know about it. There wouldn't be scratches or bruises. There would be broken bones and a lifetime full of trauma.

"No. I don't think so," Sandor offered as he shook his head. At that, Mirabelle exhaled a deep breath, one she had clearly been holding onto thus far in the conversation. Sansa had been lucky. Had Gregor gotten around to doing what he wanted to do with her, Sandor doubted Sansa would be here to talk about it. The thought sent a wave of agitation to course through him as he clenched his hands around the arm rests of his chair.

"Is he…did you…?"

Mirabelle stopped her inquiry short as she let her voice drop off. Reading between the lines, Sandor understood what she was asking. It was the same question Alberto had asked him this morning. He was tired of explaining why he didn't take the opportunity when he had the chance. As with his frantic need to find Sansa, Sandor doubted this was something other people would understand.

"No. He's not dead," Sandor shook his head as he let his eyes fall away, somehow afraid to dash Mirabelle's hopes which were soaring at the moment. "I should have killed him when I had the chance." Pounding his fist against the desk, Sandor let himself succumb to the flush of anger that had been bubbling up within him. "Fuck! I should have. But I needed to get to her. It was kill Gregor or get to Sansa. I had to make a choice."

"And Nestor?"

"I don't know. I left the fucker chained to a pole. Gregor really did a number on him. If Nestor's still alive, then it's just barely."

Mirabelle bit her lip as she nervously twirled a lock of hair around her finger.

"How long will you be away?"

Shrugging his shoulders slowly, Sandor sighed deeply at the question.

"As long as I need to be. As long as it takes to finish this," he offered truthfully. Mirabelle nodded her head with a far-off look glazing her eyes. She understood what 'this' meant.

"And then what?," Mirabelle spoke softly, her eyes lifting anxiously to meet his.

"Then I'll take her home." It was the first time Sandor admitted it out loud, the words somehow holding new meaning as they echoed through his ears. Apparently, the admission troubled Mirabelle as much as it troubled him. His sister exhaled a breath and shot a desperate look towards him.

"She can't stay with us forever," Sandor continued matter-of-factly, the words meant to reassure himself just as much as they were meant to reassure her. "Her father's still alive. I'm sure she'll be wanting to get back to a normal life and put this all behind her."

"What about you?," Mirabelle retorted, her voice thin yet pleading.

"What about me?"

Mirabelle scooted to the edge of her seat and rested her hands on his desk. Her eyes seemed to beseech Sandor to listen, to understand.

"There's something there between the two of you. I saw it in you and now I see it in her. Are you really going to be able to let her go? Let her walk out of your life?"

Sandor let his eyes fall away from Mirabelle as he swiveled slightly back in forth in his rolling chair. Would he be able to let her go? Even when her safety was assured, would he be able to let her walk away from him, just like that? Shaking his head ever so slightly as he stared off towards some invisible spot on the floor, Sandor answered his sister truthfully.

"If it makes her happy and if it's what she wants, then I will have to be okay with it."

Sandor found that he meant it. At some point, Sansa's wants and needs had trumped his own. If it made her happy, he wanted it for her, even if that meant he needed to disappear from her life.

With a heaviness filling the room, Mirabelle reached a hand across the desk towards Sandor, even though she could not reach him. The admission had struck something in Mirabelle, but it had struck something in Sandor too.

"You deserve to be happy too, you know."

Wordlessly, Sandor nodded his head. He wondered if he deserved to be happy. Surely, he was due some semblance of happiness in his life, but he imagined being happy with Sansa and doubted the Universe would allow him that. Not with all the shit he had done in his lifetime. Undoubtedly, he had racked up more bad karma than good and if he was due for any sort of compensation, it probably wasn't going to come in the form of Sansa Stark.

Lifting from her seat, Mirabelle circled around his desk and came to stand in front of Sandor. For many moments she stood there, her eyes searching him earnestly before she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck in an embrace.

"I'm sorry, Sandy. I should have listened to you. It was wrong. It was stupid of me. I'm so sorry."

Lifting his arms around her, Sandor returned the embrace and only then realized how much he hated being at odds with his sister.

"You're my sister, Mirabelle. I'd do anything for you, anything at all. But you can't just go off and do shit like that. Not…" Sandor's voice cracked before dropping off. Sucking in a deep breath and exhaling, he steadied his voice before continuing. "Not with her. Not with anything, really, but definitely not with Sansa."

Pulling away, Mirabelle smiled at him, clearly relieved to bury the hatchet and move on from this.

"You really care about her, Sandor. She's really getting to you."

Unable to look Mirabelle in the eye, Sandor let his eyes fall to his lap and remained motionless. Feeling Mirabelle's curious eyes boring into him, Sandor gave a gentle nod. Even without looking at her, Sandor could feel his sister beaming at his admission.

"She's a sweet girl," Mirabelle cooed through a smile as she gently placed a hand on Sandor's shoulder. "You take care of her. Be gentle. You're all rough and tumble on the outside, but I know that you've got a soft spot for her. Show her that."

Letting his eyes lift to Mirabelle, Sandor wordlessly nodded his head once more, a smile beginning to creep across his lips. Somehow he felt relieved, like a weight had lifted from his shoulders.

Pacing towards the door, Mirabelle stopped short and turned her head over her shoulder back towards him.

"You know, her birthday is coming up," she asserted with a million-watt grin flashing across her face.

"I do know that." Sansa had scribbled her note to Mirabelle on the back of her missing person's flyer, which had undoubtedly been forged by Nestor. Sandor had looked it and spotted her birthday, feeling entirely like a creeper for having learned when her birthday was from a fucking missing person's poster of all things.

Furrowing his brow and crossing his arms about his chest, Sandor stared mindlessly towards the junction of the wall and ceiling. Her birthday was indeed coming up soon, much sooner than he realized.

"You need help figuring out what to do for her, don't you?" Mirabelle's hands went to her hips as she tilted her head to the side and shot him a look. It was a Mirabelle look; mischievous, playful, cocky, and chiding.

Shrugging his shoulders and allowing a full smile to pull at his lips, Sandor cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Might be."

Feigning annoyance with an exhaled breath, Mirabelle giggled as she shook her head at him.

"I guess it's the least I can do. What would you do without me?," she questioned playfully.

"Not quite sure," Sandor replied, swiveling in his chair once more as he snatched up the stress ball on his desk and tossed it from one hand to the other. "Probably suffer from fewer headaches, that I know for sure."

Rolling her eyes, Mirabelle turned and made for the door once more. Narrowing his eyes, Sandor shouted out as she reached for the door knob.

"Oh! One more thing, Mirabelle."

Spinning on her heel, she turned around, her smile still fresh on her lips.

"No more fucking around with Bronn behind my back. If you're going to be with him, at least come clean with me and bring that shit out in the open."

Sandor watched as the smile fell from her lips and she swallowed hard.

"How…how did you…?" Her voice had lowered to a tone just above a whisper.

It was now Sandor's turn to smile and smile he did as he launched the stress ball at her, a devilish grin played about his lips.

"You think you're the only one that gets to know things around here and call people out on it?"

Catching the stress ball, Mirabelle let her eyes fall to the floor as a soft blush crept across her cheeks.


They were on the road by 8:00am.  It was the earliest Sansa had been up and moving about doing important things in as long as she could remember.     

The first two hours were spent in relative silence; on Sansa's part because she felt as though she were still half asleep and on Sandor's part because he was clearly on edge as they left the Moriarti mansion.  

Unbeknownst to her, he had meticulously planned their departure down to a T.  Although she was beginning to suspect that she probably shouldn't have expected any less.  If she knew anything about him at this point, it was that he was thorough and smart about each move he made.  Nothing was done recklessly and without a second thought.  

After packing her a bag full of clothes, toiletries, make-up, hair products, and shoes, Mirabelle had dressed Sansa in a sky blue sun dress, curled her hair into soft waves, and applied a tasteful smattering of makeup to her face.  She then kissed Sansa on the cheek and gave her brother a lengthy embrace before Sandor led Sansa from the parlor, down the hall of Alberto's memories preserved in pictures, and towards the basement lounge.  All at once, Sansa realized that she had not been down in the basement lounge since arriving at the mansion bloody, terrified, and wholly convinced that Sandor- or the Hound, as she knew him then-had some terrible fate decided for her. How things have changed. 

When they reached the basement lounge, the smell of stale cigar smoke and day-old alcohol filled her nose and faintly invoked vague memories of the fear she felt when first arriving at the mansion.  The men had gathered about the lounge, many looking either tired or hung over with dark bags hanging beneath their eyes and grim smirks tightly creasing their lips.  Silently, they stepped aside as Sandor led Sansa through, a few clapping him on the back and offering solemn words of support. Many eyed Sansa warily with stern looks of suspicion, as if she was somehow the cause of chaos that had ensued within the past week or so.  

Swallowing hard, Sansa began to feel a flush of fear bubbling up within her.  It wasn't the same sort of fear she had felt the last time she traversed the span of the lounge.  It was fear that these men-Sandor's men- didn't approve of her presence and were silently questioning her with scrutinizing stares.  Sensing her discomfort, Sandor had stopped half way through the room and took Sansa's hand in his own.  Now instead of leading her through the room, he was walking by her side.  

It was a show of solidarity, she surmised.  The questioning looks of his men were met by Sandor leading her through the basement lounge, head held high and his hand wrapped tightly around hers. If his men were hesitant to accept her into the fray, Sandor was meeting their hesitance head on, as if to say 'I accept her and so will you.'  It was a simple gesture, but it meant the world to her.  

Through the catacomb of underground tunnels, Sandor led her to the garage containing cars at the ready.  She had expected to climb into one of the many black Mercedes sedans that seemed to be synonymous with the Moriarti family.  Only when Sandor led her to a newer model grey Ford Mustang did Sansa realize how switching out the Moriarti trademark vehicle was a smart idea.  Beyond that, it was the safest thing to do.  In addition, the license plates were registered in Arkansas, probably the most inconspicuous state in the country. The only thing that bore any semblance to his usual vehicle were the deeply tinted windows.  

As they started from the Moriarti mansion, Sansa realized they were accompanied by a convoy of vehicles in all different makes, models, and years, each with tinted windows.  Smiling softly to herself, Sansa puzzled out what was happening.  She had once heard that the President of the United States has three identical vehicles that set out with him as decoys.  Any would-be assassins had a one-in-three chance of actually fulfilling their mission.  

Despite the convoy of decoys accompanying them, Sansa could tell Sandor was on edge.  His jaw was clenched tightly, his eyes consistently flickering to the rear view mirror and the road around them as he investigated any suspicious cars that hovered around them.  At each junction of major highways, a few of the cars would split off and head in a different direction.  When this would happen, Sandor would carefully evaluate the road around them, undoubtedly creating a mental catalog of cars that followed them, cars that were not a part of the decoy.  

As they passed these cars only to find unassuming people casually going about their business, Sansa could almost see him crossing that particular car off the checklist he had enumerated in his head.  

By the third hour, half of the convoy had split off and Sandor had settled in his seat, the tension seeming to dissolve away, and Sansa was awake and now bored by the sights along the side of the highway.  Blessedly conscious during this trip, she was now able to discern where they were.  The Moriarti mansion was in Nevada and they were now heading north and toward California.  

Turning towards Sandor, Sansa tilted her head to the side and gave a small smile. 

"Do you want to play a game?," she asked timidly although her excitement was slowly creeping through her. 

Sandor shot her a stare, one that suggested he didn't quite know what sort of game she wanted to play.  By the half-mocking, half-playful smile on his face, Sansa imagined he thought she wanted to play some dumb road trip game like I Spy or the license plate game.  The game she had in mind wasn't necessarily a road trip game. Rather it functioned to not only pass the time, but also to satisfy the growing curiosity she felt blooming within her.  She knew some things about Sandor, but wanted to know more of him. 

"What sort of game?" he inquired cautiously, not quite agreeing, but not flat-out refusing her either.  

"I ask you something.  I answer first and then you answer after.  Then after you answer, it's your turn to ask me something." 

Shifting his gaze towards her, Sandor cocked an eyebrow at her before sighing and shaking his head.  Laughing, Sansa realized it was as good a sign of his compliance as she was going to get. 

Turning in her seat so that she was facing him, Sansa bit her lip and stared out towards the road in front of them, thinking about which question she wanted to ask first. 

"Alright.  Favorite movie.  Mine is 'The Princess Bride.' What's yours?" 

Sandor nodded his head approvingly before offering his reply. 

"Mine would have to be 'The Godfather.’" 

Bursting into laughter, Sansa propped herself up, pushing her elbow against the seat so that she could shoot him an incredulous stare. 

"Really? 'The Godfather'? No, that doesn't count.  Pick something else." 

Returning her stare with one that feigned offense, Sandor shook his head and let out a chuckle.  

"What's wrong with 'The Godfather'? No, it's my favorite.  'The Princess Bride' isn't even from your time.  If anyone should pick something else, it's you."

Biting her lip and crossing her arms about her chest, Sansa settled back in her seat and felt a grin crease across her lips.  

"Alright.  Fair enough.  It's your turn." 

Narrowing his eyes, Sandor looked at Sansa with a mischievous smile.  She had expected him to ask her something scandalous. 

"Favorite color.  Black."

"Purple," Sansa replied immediately before chewing on her lip trying to think of what else she wanted to know about him.  "Favorite....hmmm...favorite food!  Lemon pound cake." 

"Meat," Sandor declared almost proudly, his voice gruff as if trying to accentuate his masculinity. 

Sansa wrinkled her nose at him and burst into another fit of giggles. 

"Meat? Just any meat? Not one in particular?" 

Exhaling a laugh, Sandor lifted a hand from the steering wheel and pointed an index finger at her.

"Are you going to make fun of every answer I give you? Yes, meat.  Any and all.  I'm a man. Men like meat." 

Sansa acquiesced with a shrug of the shoulders and the game continued on for the next thirty minutes.  She learned a great deal of things about him; he liked the White Stripes, but not as much as the Black Keys, hated the summer time, preferred crunchy peanut butter over smooth, which she adamantly disagreed with and that led to a lengthy debate of the pros and cons of both.  He liked his coffee black, but didn't like tea, if he could travel anywhere it would be to Russia, and was a dog lover, which was something they both agreed on.  

Somehow the game had transformed into him asking her questions about her life in Portland, her childhood, her hopes and dreams for the future.  She had heard of his past, knew the dark secrets and painful memories.  He wanted to know about her life and she wanted to tell him.  Sansa was pleasantly surprised that he listened, really listened, as she spoke, as if he was eagerly and genuinely interested in all she had to tell.  Every now and then he would interject to ask questions, but mostly he let her do the talking.  She told him of her ballet training and how she had begun at an early age.  He asked about her plans for college. She told him of her dream of being a music teacher.  

There were no awkward silences or strange pauses, and she never felt pressured to tell him more than she wanted to.  When the conversation came to a natural lull, she saw that he had a small smile on his lips and she found that unbidden one had formed on hers too.  They were now six hours into the drive and Sansa knew they had a ways to go.  They stopped to eat in some little town at the Nevada-California border.  She chided him about his love of meat.  He jested back about her love of lemons, which he confessed he thought was entirely strange.  She had to work to finish her food as she delightfully realized he had a strange sort of humor to him.  Somehow she found the things he said to be hilarious even though he had never intended them to be.  He jokingly made fun of her for that too, calling her a loony bird instead of a little bird.  

Back on the road and an hour into California, Sansa was content to find that they had abandoned the desert landscape for the lushness of forested hills that were gradually giving way to the mountains; not the barren mountains that flanked the lonely desert, but the rare and striking beauty she knew to associate with the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Entranced by the beauty, Sansa set her gaze out the window and absorbed the sense of serenity that descended upon her.  Somewhere between Nevada and now, her mind had calmed and her worries were washed away.  Perhaps it was the picturesque landscape they were engulfed in or maybe it was the accumulating distance between where they had come from and where they were heading.  Although those surely contributed, Sansa sensed it was more.  She felt safe.  Perhaps it was a facade for now, an illusory vision that could be shattered at any moment, but she relished the feeling and found herself unwilling to question it.  Just let it be.  

Through the subtle motions of the car and the sunlight streaming through the window and warming her skin, Sansa found her eyelids growing heavy beneath her sunglasses.  Pulling her legs up on the seat and turning towards Sandor, she fell asleep.  Awaking three and a half hours later, she noticed the sun hovering in the windshield and realized they were now heading west, towards the sun that was retreating slowly towards the horizon. 

Stretching her legs and letting them fall off the seat, Sansa reached around and pressed her fingers to her lower back, rubbing out the soreness she found there.  He had told her it was going to be a long car ride.  Surely, they had to be getting closer.  Sandor confirmed as much as Sansa sat up and pulled the sunglasses off her face to set a sleepy gaze at him.  Pushing his aviator sunglasses up onto his head, he gave her a soft half smile. 

"We're a half hour away," he informed her before pushing his sunglasses back down over his eyes. Silently, Sansa nodded her head as her eyes glanced over to the speedometer.  He had been doing an even 75 mph most of the way, sometimes accelerating to 85 in areas where the traffic cleared and the road extended in a straight shot.  No wonder we’re making good time.

Leaning forward, Sandor flicked off the radio, which had softly been playing in the background. Turning his stare towards her, Sansa saw that a strange sort of smile was playing about his lips, something between curiosity and mischief.  

"I have a game for you.  It's called 'I ask you a question and you answer truthfully.' Just one question.  And you have to tell me the truth." 

Sansa pushed herself up as she cocked an eyebrow at him, trying to read his face and puzzle out whether or not she should agree to his game.  After considering him for a moment, Sansa sighed as she bit her lip.

"Alright.  What's your question?," she relented and immediately felt as though she might regret this decision here in a second. 

Nodding towards her forehead, Sandor settled back in his seat as he casually draped his arm over the steering wheel. 

"That bruise on your forehead, you said you ran into a door.  What I want to know is why you ran into the door.  You have to tell me the truth.  I'll know if you're lying." At that, Sandor turned towards her, grinning like a mad man.  

Feeling a sudden flush of renewed embarrassment, Sansa could feel the heat beginning to accumulate on her cheeks.  Unbidden, her hands were wringing nervously in her lap.

"I can't tell you," she responded, not lying, but not exactly complying to give him the truth. "I told Mirabelle that I wouldn't tell." 

By the way Sandor leaned forward in his seat and gave a dark chuckle, Sansa knew she had said too much.  

"Nope.  You have to tell me. And you're blushing so I know it's something good.  Go on.  Spit it out," he implored as he shifted in his seat with anticipation.  

"I can't," Sansa pleaded through a shy smile.  "I told her I wouldn't tell you." 

With his face dropping slightly in sudden realization, Sandor pulled off his sunglasses and tossed them down in the center console before looking at Sansa through narrowed eyes. 

"If this is about her and Bronn, I already know." 

A sense of relief washed over her as she saw he was giving her a knowing smile, clearly unfazed that Mirabelle and Bronn were seeing each other.  Resting her face in her hands in complete and utter embarrassment, Sansa shook her head as she let out a pained laugh. She had promised to tell him the truth and she supposed she owed it to him to play along with his game since he played along with hers. 

"I walked...," Sansa suppressed a nervous giggle before beginning again. "I walked in on them..." She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence, but didn't have to because Sandor had slapped the steering wheel and shifted his stare towards her. 

"Don't tell me you walked in on them fucking?," he exclaimed, his amusement at her embarrassment clearly trumping any sort of residual anger he had about his sister's new relationship.  

Pulling her hands away from her face which was now probably beet red, Sansa bit her lip and slowly nodded her head at him.  

"I got flustered...and ran into the door frame." 

Throwing his head back against the head rest, Sandor let out a deep, low chuckle, a hearty laugh which erupted through his chest and filled the car.  When his laughter ebbed, Sandor shifted a stare towards Sansa again and erupted into laughter once more when he saw how red she was. 

"That's the funniest shit I've heard in a long time," he confessed through laughter.  

"It's not funny," Sansa cried out, suppressing her own giggles.  Now that she thought about it, it was sort of funny, but she wasn't about to encourage him.  Lifting her fingers to her forehead, Sansa gave a small pout of the lips.  "I hurt my head." 

Turning his eyes towards her once more, Sandor huffed a small laugh and lifted his hand to the back of her head, gently rustling his fingers through her hair. 

"I'm sorry.  No it's not funny that you got hurt.  It's funny that you walked in on them.  And fucking adorable how embarrassed you are about it." 

Suddenly forgetting her feigned poutiness, Sansa found herself blushing once more.  He thinks I'm adorable.  The thought made her stomach flutter with butterflies and forced a shy smile to creep across her lips.  

Shaking his head with a smile still on his lips, Sandor removed his hand from the back of her head and draped it over the steering wheel once more.  Cocking his head to the side, Sandor shifted his gaze to her once more. 

"I may have to wrap you up in bubble wrap, keep you from getting hurt.  What do you think about that?" he inquired jokingly.  

Feeling her small smile bloom into a sweeping grin, Sansa shook her head and dropped her stare to her hands folded softly in her lap.  

"I'd like to see you try," she responded gently, gazing at him through her lashes with a devious smile. 

Nodding his head slowly, Sandor shot her a devilish grin in return, apparently spurred on by her playful defiance.   

"That can be arranged." 

As they turned north on to the 101, Sansa felt a swift tug on her heart strings.  The craggy coastline to the west rose from the turquoise waters in jagged edges and rocky cliffs. The beach below was dotted with large boulders standing proudly against the onslaught of foamy waves slamming against them which dispersed into radiant sprays of water that beautifully caught the light of the sun.  The landscape to the east of the road slopped in black hills darkened by thick forests, the folds of the land swathed in an ethereal mist that rolled down from the hills.  Sansa shuddered as she released a deep breath.  She knew where they were.  Only one place on earth did forest collide into ocean, abandoning the belief that these forces of beauty cannot coexist and that one must relent for the other to flourish.  

The Pacific highway ran along the coast of California and extended well up into Oregon.  Having been asleep, her bearings were off and she knew not if they had somehow cut up into Oregon.  While she doubted they were heading anywhere near Portland, the thought of at least being this close to home sent a sobering shock straight to her core, stirring something inside of her that had been suppressed since fleeing from home the night of the Royce party. 

“Are we in Oregon?,” Sansa inquired breathlessly as her eyes fluttered up to Sandor. 

Shaking his head, Sandor leaned forward and shifted his gaze through the windshield and towards the paradise of forest and sea gloriously displayed in front of them.  

“No.  We’re about an hour and a half south of the California-Oregon border,” he responded on a rasping breath, seemingly absorbing the miraculous view.

Feeling her heart drop slightly, Sansa let her eyes fall to her lap. 

“How far is Portland?,” she questioned tentatively.  She was more than grateful that he had offered to protect her, to keep her safe, and she didn’t want him to get the wrong idea.  However, the question formed on her lips faster than she could stop it.

“Six hours north,” he responded flatly.  If he was in any way offended by her question, Sansa could not tell. 

Turning left down a small road that jutted off the Pacific highway, Sandor drove the rest of the way in silence, shifting here and there in his seat as they presumably neared their destination.  The two-lane road hugged the features of the landscape, rolling over hills and curving around the edges of a craggy cliff.  The car slowed towards yet another road to the left, a desolate, tree-lined road that ran parallel to the coast before forking off into two directions.  Sandor eased the car towards the left fork and slowly meandered down a gravel road which terminated in a circle drive. 

The car slowed to a halt in front of a small house that was fashioned in the style of something between a log cabin and a stone cottage; the elements of both married in planked siding and wooden beams intersected by large portions of grey stone.  The area around was wooded, but beyond the thick columns of trees, Sansa could see the ocean rippling somewhere below the cliff’s edge the house was situated on.  Turning in her seat at once, Sansa saw Sandor staring off towards the home with a beaming of pride.

“This is where you live?,” she inquired, bewildered and breaking the stunned silence that had befallen her.

“Yes, this is my home,” Sandor replied with a nod of his head.    

Sansa didn’t know what she had expected.  Perhaps something akin to the Moriarti mansion or maybe a bachelor pad penthouse suit in a large city.  This was isolated, it was modest, it was rustic, it was simple.  As Sansa stared wide-eyed at the house they were parked in front of, she hadn’t noticed that Sandor was watching her, absorbing the sight of her admiring something he clearly took a lot of pride in and was anxious to show her. 

Motioning his head towards the house with a half smile, Sandor undid his seat belt and slowly peeled himself out of the car with a groan.  Sansa mirrored his movements, stretching her legs which were stiff and sore, and arched her back to alleviate the soreness that was there.  After pulling the bags from the car, Sandor led her towards the house.  A large stone patio expanded in the front, its perimeter made up of a short stone wall that curved towards the stone steps that led to the heavy oaken front door.  

With his bag clutched in one hand, Sandor fumbled with his keys before finding the correct one and unlocking the door.  Pushing through the front door, Sansa stepped inside and was met with the view of a large open space; a modernized kitchen to the right which flowed into the open living room area.  Immediately dropping her bag, Sansa slowly paced towards the living area and let her eyes roam the room, absorbing the sight of exposed wood that was left distressed and unstained to display its age and natural beauty.  A floor-to-ceiling hearth was situated on the far wall between two sliding doors that opened up to an expansive deck. 

Sucking in a gasping breath, she drank in the view from beyond the deck.  Lined on either side with trees, a small backyard cleared and gave way to the sight of the ocean beyond the cliff.  The setting sun peered through trees and spilled its light through the room in heavy streams. The room was open to the above save a loft area situated above the kitchen.  On the left side of the room an arched opening in the wall expanded into a hallway which undoubtedly contained bedrooms. 

“This place was damn near in ruins when I bought it.  I got it for a hell of a deal, but it took a lot of work to get it in the condition it’s in now.  It was well worth it though.”

Standing silent in the middle of the room, Sansa’s daydream-like reverie was broken as she turned slowly towards Sandor who was leaned up against the back of a large, L-shaped couch. Sansa felt her breath catch in her throat as her voice quivered. Letting her eyes sweep across the room with a newfound appreciation, Sansa settled her gaze on Sandor, a small smile pulling at her lips as she considered him.

“You did this? I mean, you fixed this place up?”

Nodding his head, Sandor ran his fingers through his hair before motioning towards various features of the open space.

“The floors were stripped and re-stained.  Kitchen was gutted and re-done.  The fireplace was originally small, nothing like it is now.  I did the stonework for it with help from one of the street bosses.  He’s a stone mason in his day job.”

Pacing towards the fireplace and running her fingers along the stonework, Sansa imagined the time it must have taken for Sandor to do this himself; the hours spent at the task of puzzling together rough slabs of the stone before securing them in place.  The floors below her feet were large planks of wood, stained a dark cherry color which warmly echoed the earthen tones and rustic aesthetic of the house. 

Seeing his home, the home he had poured so much effort and pride into, Sansa understood something of the man he was in a way that 20 questions on a road trip would never reveal.  Through sweat, blood, and hard work, he had carved out his own piece of paradise, shaping and reshaping until it had reached his standard of perfection.  His home was so much like him; rough-around-the-edges, but an exposition of the natural, unsullied beauty which surrounded the place.  There were no frills, no façades of wealth and glamour, no superfluous displays of opulence.  It was exposed yet warm, pure in its honesty, strong where it lacked beauty, and beautiful where it lacked excess.  It was so him.  

No wonder he had made it a point to tell her the Moriarti mansion was not his home.  Moriarti’s home was a good idea on paper; a mansion in the desert replete with all the luxuries anyone could ever hope for.  The entire ideology contrasted everything Sandor seemed to stand for.  Of course it wasn’t his home.  It made so much sense to her now she was surprised and admittedly a little ashamed that she had never seen it before.  Sandor was not a man of superficiality and status symbols.  By the way he seemed to beam with pride, she could tell this was where he felt at ease, where he felt himself.  His home was simple, but it was his. 

Pushing himself from the side of the couch, Sandor strode over to where she was in front of the fireplace and pressed his weight against the side of it, facing Sansa with a steady gaze. 

“This is beautiful, Sandor.  All of it.  It’s amazing.”  Smiling up at him, Sansa felt a flush of warmth surge through her.  The man she had thought him to be and the man he was were at odds with one another.  The gentleness he regarded her with contrasted the brutality she had seen in how he handled Leon.  His involvement in the mafia was rooted in violence and a rage that stirred within him and yet he seemed to come alive as soon as he found his way back home; a home that was quiet, contemplative, isolated, and rustic.  The Hound and Sandor Clegane existed within the same man, both seeming to battle the other for control.  In the past few days, Sansa had seen little of the Hound and much of Sandor Clegane, a man who was slowly, but surely beginning to affect her in ways she hadn’t thought possible.

“There’s one more thing to show you.  Come on,” Sandor gently urged as he took her hand and led her out on the deck behind the house. 

Traversing the distance of the backyard, Sansa could hear the waves crashing somewhere down below, the steadiness of the sound rhythmic and peaceful.  At the end of the yard and through a small cluster of trees, an old, thick set of wooden stairs jutted from the soft slope of the cliff’s edge which eased towards the beach below. 

With a gasping breath, Sansa turned a wide-eyed stare towards Sandor only to find him already flashing a knowing smile at her.

“This is yours too?,” she asked on a breathless giggle. 

Nodding his head, Sandor took her by the hand once more and began leading her down the stairs towards the sandy expanse below.  Carefully, he ensured her footing with each step until they reached the empty beach below. 

“You think I would live this close to the coast and not have access to this?”

With a sweeping gesture of his extended arm, Sandor admired the isolated beach that was glowing warmly with the hues of the setting sun.  The skies above were painted in hues of lavender, mauve, and beige, the clouds looking like wisps of cotton candy.  Reflecting the luminescence of the setting sun, the water shone like metallic ripples of copper against foamy crests of the waves. 

 

 

 

Enchanted and at a loss for what to make of it all, Sansa shook her head slowly and smiled wistfully up at Sandor before letting him lead her by the hand towards the crashing waves. 


Sandor smiled to himself as he let go of Sansa's hand and took a seat in the sand. He had been gone from this place too long. Too fucking long.

Moriarti had a good thing going with his sprawling mansion in the desert, but that wasn't really Sandor's style nor did he enjoy living in the desert. This was where he felt the most at home. He hadn't been back to his childhood home since fleeing with Mirabelle so many years ago. There was no need to stir up the memories of all that had ensued there. Instead, he had snatched up this place and made it his new home.

If the perpetual smile or glistening of her eyes were anything to go by, Sansa preferred this place over the Moriarti mansion as well. He had guessed as much, but still couldn't help the feelings of nervousness at bringing her here. It wasn't just the nagging worry in the back of his mind as to whether or not he could keep her safe here, but he also wanted her to feel comfortable. The thought that he had brought her all this way and she may feel ill-at-ease had played out in the back of his mind and danced its way to the forefront of his thoughts as they neared their destination.

Leaning back on his elbows and propping himself up in the sand, Sandor watched Sansa slip out of her shoes and tentatively dip her feet in the water. A tiny gasp escaped her lips as the thinning waves rushed over her feet. Swiveling around towards him, she flashed a gleeful smile at him.

"It's a little cold," she announced softly. Despite her declaration, Sansa slowly eased her way out towards the waves, lifting her dress midway up her thighs as she giggled each time the water battered against her bare legs.

Turning around towards him once more, Sandor heard her shout out over the crashing of the waves.

"It's not bad once you get used to it. Come on." Sansa beckoned him to join her with a wave of her hand as she smiled brightly.

"I don't have swim suit," Sandor called out to her. While he enjoyed the view the ocean provided, he wasn't exactly one to jump headlong into the water. Sansa, on the other hand, let go of her dress, which instantaneously was soaked up to her waist as one large wave crashed into her. Laughing on an exhale of breath, she pouted her lip and placed her hands on her hips.

"Please! I don't have a swim suit either. Look! I'm already soaked." With pleading eyes, she cocked her head ever so slightly to the side and gave a sweet smile. Shaking his head slightly, Sandor let his eyes fall to the ground in front of him. Fuck! This girl is already figuring out how to get to me.

Snorting out a laugh, Sandor pushed himself up and emptied his pockets, dropping the contents to the sand below where they plopped softly. Bending over, he rolled his pant legs up to mid-calf, not that he imagined it would make much difference. Reaching with one hand for the collar of his T-shirt at the back of his neck, Sandor pulled it over his head and let it drop next to the contents of his pockets.

Stilling in the water, Sansa seemed to sober at the sight of him, her eyes roaming over him until demurely falling away as if embarrassed he caught her staring at him. He supposed it was all good and well; how many times had he shamelessly leered at her? Besides, he imagined she was probably taken aback by the tattoo work on his upper arms and back which more or less remained covered the majority of the time. In fact, this was probably the first time she had seen any of his tattoos in their entirety.

Sandor sucked in a breath as his feet met the water, shocked at the initial coolness of he found there. As he slowly made his way towards Sansa, effortlessly wading through the waves that seemed to so easily knock her around, Sandor noticed she was standing still in the water, but her chest was heavily rising and falling with each breath. Chewing her bottom lip, she stared at him wide-eyed, her gaze falling over his naked torso. Undoubtedly, she had no idea she was staring. Sansa was too polite to knowingly leer at someone.

"You want me to take my pants off too while I'm at it?," Sandor cut in jokingly as he chuckled a rasping laugh.

With her eyes fluttering up to meet the smug smile creasing his lips, Sansa shook her head abruptly before squeezing her eyes shut. A flush of red emerged on her cheeks, a blush which indicated he had indeed caught her checking him out.

"What? Yes…no! I mean, no…God, sorry." Sansa's slew of disjointed words beckoned a hearty laugh from Sandor. She could stare at him like that all damn day for all he cared. In fact, a part of him was relieved that he wasn't the only one having to do all the staring.

The tension was broken as a wave crashed into them and sent Sansa stumbling forward in the water. In two large strides, Sandor made it to her side and pulled her up, noticing that she was now completely soaked. Her hair from the shoulder down was saturated and clinging to the exposed skin of her arms and back. Erupting in a fit of giggles, she eagerly took his hand until she steadied herself on her feet once more.

"Can you swim?," Sansa asked him as she caught her breath and let go of his hand.

"Well enough," Sandor replied with a shrug of the shoulders before setting narrowed eyes and a half smile on her. "Well enough to save you if need be." At that, Sandor reached down and swept his arm through the water, sending a splash to land across her chest and abdomen.

Squealing as she shielded herself, Sansa let her eyes fall to her side as she mimicked his motions, sweeping up the water and sending a smaller splash of water careening towards him.

"Or maybe I'll save you," she shot back with an uncharacteristically mischievous grin pulling on her lips.

He had considered making it all out warfare, had thought about bounding towards her and dumping her in the water to settle the score. Instead, all he could manage was the murmur of his words, his tone somehow becoming serious and his eyes imploring her earnestly.

"Maybe you will," he replied in a deep rasp with his gaze still heavily upon her.

Something about the sight of her entranced him; the way she smiled at him less like a girl and more like a woman, the way she was looking at him through heavy lashes, the way she would shyly bite her bottom lip and inadvertently drew attention to its fullness. Sandor found now it was him that wanted to drink in the sight of her.

Sansa was sexy without even knowing it. In fact, he bet she had no clue- none- that his blood was now running hot through his veins, causing his cock to grow increasingly hard at the sight of her; the way she laughed breathlessly and gave a little gasp as the waves collided into her, the way her saturated dress clung to her body and offered him a clear sight of every delicious curve of her body, the way her bra and underwear were completely visible through the thin fabric.

Lifting his eyes to hers, Sandor suddenly became aware of the heat rising between them, both of them contributing equally to its radiant flow. Where he was staring at her, she was just as eagerly staring at him. Seemingly well aware of the surmounting tension between them, Sansa let her eyes fall away shyly as she abruptly set about twirling a lock of damp hair around her index finger.

"We should dry off," Sandor finally broke in as he motioned his head back towards the beach. Agreeing with a soft nod of her head, Sansa followed him out of the water and back towards the beach.

Sandor settled himself on the sand which still retained the heat of the setting sun and welcomed him with its warm embrace. Sansa carefully lowered herself to his right and began running her fingers through the ends of her hair. Sitting with his knees pulled towards his chest and his forearms resting on his knees, Sandor set his gaze off towards the sun setting over the water. He couldn't remember the last time he watched the sun set. It always seemed he was too busy to notice, too caught up in other bullshit to take the time.

In the periphery of his vision, he could see that Sansa was stirring next to him, shifting ever so slightly towards him. Turning his gaze over his right shoulder, Sandor saw that she was contemplating the tattoo on his right arm. Lifting her eyes to him, Sansa's lips parted slightly before pulling into a shy smile.

"You have tattoos," she said softly, her voice inflecting delicately as if her words were meant to be half a statement and half a question.

Exhaling a gentle laugh, Sandor nodded his head before rotating his right arm slightly to gaze down at the grim reaper tattooed from the top of his shoulder to right above his elbow. The figure spanned the width of his sculpted bicep and curved with the bulge of muscle.

The skeletal figure of the reaper was swathed in a heavy black robe and clutched a scythe which curved along with the natural curve of his shoulder. Despite being a skull, the face of the reaper appeared almost devilish, its skeletal mouth curled up in a menacing grin.

Sansa's eyes roamed over the ink quizzically, her gaze curious yet seemingly hesitant to inquire about the story of the tattoo.

"I got the reaper tattoo when I was 19," Sandor began as he motioned his head towards his right arm. "I thought I was a fucking bad ass then. Really, I was just out of control. Filled with so much anger and hatred. I didn't know how to channel that. I thought the world owed me something for all I had been put through up until then. I was reckless, put myself in a lot of situations where I could've been killed. For a long time, I was chasing after death. I didn't give a fuck if I lived or died. I wanted to fight, I wanted to destroy shit. I chased the reaper and that's how this particular tattoo came about."

As Sandor finished he shifted his stare towards Sansa, feeling a strange sense of trepidation. He wasn't sure how much he could reveal to her before she'd realize she was sitting on a beach with a mobster and began to fear him again. But instead of fear or hesitation, her eyes were filled with wonder as if she were wholly engrossed by what he was confessing to her. Sandor spun himself around so that he was sitting with his left arm towards her, the arm that contained the tattoo of the Archangel Michael.

With a tiny gasp, Sansa's eyes flickered about the tattoo on his left arm, seemingly admiring the detail. The tattoo spanned the same length of his arm as the reaper, extending from shoulder to right above his elbow. With his sword drawn over his head, the figure of Michael appeared to be engaged in battle. His eyes were pure white, appearing almost foreboding, and tears of blood spilled over his cheeks. The true detail was in his armor and wings which were inked to have a certain grotesque flair to them. In many ways, the figure of Michael appeared more menacing than the reaper.

"The tattoo of Michael I got when I was 22. With Alberto's direction and guidance, I calmed the fuck down by then. I wasn't such a loose cannon anymore. Don't get me wrong, I still have a temper, but I learned to control it a lot better and found ways to channel my aggression. I'm not a religious guy. I think most religions are bullshit, but I liked the idea of Michael the Archangel. He's a warrior. I guess it was my way of counteracting and balancing all the time I spent chasing the reaper. After I got it, Alberto joked that they were like the two sides of my conscience; I had the forces of good on my left shoulder, forces of evil on my right."

Nodding her head and tilting her gaze towards his back, Sansa's eyes flicked down at the tattoo before meeting his stare with a questioning expression playing about her face.

"And the one on your back?," she inquired softly.

"Have you heard of Dante's Divine Comedy?," Sandor asked as Sansa's eyes flicked back towards the tattoo. Slowly she nodded her head and scooted behind him.

"I had to read it for school," she responded as she began tracing the outline of the tattoo on his back with tentative fingers.

"Alberto has a book of illustrations by an artist named of Gustave Doré. The guy did these amazing illustrations depicting scenes from Dante's comedy. There was one picture in particular that drew my attention. It's a scene in Dante's Inferno where Phlegyas is taking Dante and Virgil across the River Styx. I saw it and was drawn to the picture before I knew what it meant. The scene plays out in the fifth circle of Hell where the wrathful are punished by being drowned in the river. I figured if I'm going to hell, I imagine I'll probably end up in the River Styx. It's really the only circle that matches my sins."

Although Sandor was joking, Sansa's eyes went wide as she considered the tattoo with renewed wonderment, her fingers still delicately working across his skin and sending chills up and down his spine. His back piece started at his shoulder blades and extended halfway down his back. It had been fashioned to look as though his skin had been torn away and underneath was the image from Dante's Inferno. Sandor had had to search high and low to find a tattoo artist willing to tackle a replication of Doré's work as well as masterfully create the illusion of the image appearing underneath torn away flesh.

"The back piece was a work in progress from when I was 25 to 26," Sandor began as Sansa adjusted herself next to his side once more and pulled her knees to her chest as she listened eagerly.

"Alberto's whole comment about good and evil stuck with me for awhile. I kept thinking about it and how it related to my life. The thing is, I've known lawyers, politicians, and judges who have done things so fucked up you wouldn't believe me if I told. Hell, just look at Nestor Royce! I've known cops-the people who are supposed to 'protect' and 'serve'-who are leaps and bounds worse than the criminals they put away.

And then there's the flip side to that coin. I've known mobsters who are some of the best guys you'll ever meet. They're family men; love their wives something fierce, make it a point to be great fathers, just all-around upstanding men.

At some point, the lines between good and evil blur and you don't know which side you're fighting for anymore. You don't know if it really even matters; if all the violence, fighting, and death is worth it or was ever worth it."

Sandor shifted his gaze to Sansa who was staring up at him, a look of confusion settling across her brow which was now furrowing under the heaviness of all his words. He wondered if she even understood, if she could even understand. She was a being of light, surrounded by purity and goodness. And how could light understand dark, the other half of itself, its anti-thesis? Sandor imagined it couldn't. Shaking his head as he stared off towards the expanse of beach surrounding them, he began again, his words somehow laced with a sort of jaded cynicism he doubted she would understand.

"Maybe the idea of good and evil are like fairytales we tell ourselves to make our lives more bearable. Someone wrongs you and you get to go to sleep at night convinced that they'll get theirs in the end. That some Universal force is going to sweep in and wreck havoc on their lives. Just like people tell themselves if they do enough good in the world, they'll be rewarded when they die, not even considering that when we die it may just feel like nothing, just darkness.

Maybe the concept of good and evil is something we use to cope with all the fucking horror of the world. We tell ourselves that our lives are just a microcosm of some bigger battle being fought somewhere in the Universe. That way when we hear about a child molester getting off light and roaming the streets because of some shit-stain like Nestor Royce, we feel like maybe it makes sense in some greater scheme of things because it sure as fuck doesn't make sense right here and right now."

Sansa remained quiet for many moments, her thoughts seemingly tumbling through her head as her eyes shifted about the ground in front of her. Slowly, she lifted her eyes towards him and searched his face, her eyes flicking from his lips back up to his eyes which were gazing intently back at her.

"And which side do you find yourself on? Good or evil." The question was posed innocently enough, yet the implications ran deep and right into a mess of unresolved bullshit he hadn't allowed himself to think about for who-knows how long.

Shaking his head as his eyes fell to the ground, Sandor shrugged his shoulders. He offered her as good an answer as he had. It was honest. Perhaps not what she wanted to hear, but it wasn't a lie.

"I don't know. I'm still deciding. Some days I feel like a good guy who does bad things. Other days I feel like a bad guy who does good things. I stopped trying to make sense of it a long time ago. I do whatever I think is right in the moment."

Sighing deeply, Sansa seemed perplexed by his answer and Sandor knew for a certainty it was indeed not the answer she wanted to hear from him. He was at a loss for what she expected him to say. She knew what he was, what he did for a living. It's not like he had ever tried to hide it from her.

"You've never done anything bad to me, though." As Sansa stared up at him with a doe-eyed look of wistful hopefulness, Sandor found himself irritated. He wanted her to see him for what he was, the truth of what he was, not some deluded version that she was projecting onto him.

Turning a deliberate stare towards her, Sandor lowered his voice, punctuating each word forcefully in his own wistful hope that maybe she'd understand.

"I kidnapped you. Held you against your will, let some a goddamn psychopath loose to find you. Took you to Las Vegas when I shouldn't have. Didn't tell you the truth when I should have. I've done more wrong against you than right."

At that, Sansa pursed her lips and adamantly shook her head, clearly not having heard a goddamn word he said or if she did, happily glazing over it.

"But you saved me." Sansa's voice came pleading from her lips as she placed her hand softly on his forearm and squeezed lightly with the tips of her fingers.

Lifting his hands, Sandor ran them slowly over his face in frustration. Lowering his arms once more, Sandor emphasized each of his words with a gesturing of his hands.

"I kidnapped you. Don't fucking romanticize this, Sansa. I'm a mob boss, not prince charming."

Undaunted, Sansa scooted towards him and lowered her head in front of his until she caught his eyes in a sincere stare. He was simultaneously touched and agitated with the way she was looking at him as if he were her savior. Granted he had saved her, she was turning this into something else entirely.

"You're a good person, Sandor," she started in, fixing eager eyes on him as if willing him to accept her words blindly. "You didn't have to come for me during the Royce party, but you did and you didn't even know me. You didn't have to come after me when I left with Nestor. You could have let me go, but you came for me anyway."

Feeling his anger steadily beginning to rise, Sandor turned his stare towards her and grabbed her by both arms, lowering his voice to a deep growl.

"Your head is filled with fairytales, girl. I make a living killing, hurting, threatening, and blackmailing people. I'm a murderer, a criminal. I saw one opportunity to do something good and I took it. That doesn't make me a fucking saint, that doesn't erase all the fucked up shit I've done."

With her brow knitting together in concern, Sansa shook her head stubbornly as she petitioned him to listen to her.

"You've kept me safe this entire time. That's not a fairytale, that's the truth." Her voice was soft, her words sweet, but it did little to quell the growing heat of frustration that was bubbling up from Sandor's core.

Snatching up her wrist, Sandor lifted it up in the air to make visible the healing marks left by the cord Leon had used to bind her up.

"What's this?," he demanded, dark and mocking. "And this?" Cupping her chin in his fingers, Sandor turned her head as he pointed to the bruise that had been left when one of Gregor's men hit her across the face during the botched kidnapping in Vegas. "What are these here?" Letting go of her chin, Sandor motioned towards the fading gashes about her legs where embedded glass had been from the Royce party.

Refusing to meet his stare, Sansa bit her bottom lip to stop it from trembling as tears began to well up in her eyes.

"You call that safe?," Sandor demanded as he tried his damndest to calm himself. "How many times have people tried to take you against your will in the last week? I'm just the lesser of the evils trying to get to you. That's all it is."

Taking deep breaths, Sandor ran his fingers through his hair before resting his forehead against the heels of his hands as his elbows rested on his knees. The last thing he wanted was to lose his cool with her, to scare her back to square one.

"That's all it is then?," she demanded right back at him with tears staining her cheeks, her eyes flooded with hurt. "You still haven't told me why you're willing to do all of this for me. If you say you're such a horrible person, then why are you willing to keep me safe? Why not my mother or Myranda or someone else at the party? Why me?"

Letting his eyes fall to the ground beneath him, Sandor silently shook his head, not knowing what to offer her in the moment. He told her no one would ever hurt her again and yet he had been the one to hurt her. He knew it by the way her lip trembled uncontrolled and tears were now pouring down her cheeks with soft sobs. Pushing herself up off the ground, Sansa abruptly rose to her feet as she swiped at angry tears with trembling hands and began to walk away from him. Instinctively, Sandor reached for her, snatching her up as his fingers easily encircled her tiny wrist with a firm grasp. Sansa yelped in surprise as he pulled her towards him. Tripping over her own feet, she careened towards him.

Cradling her fall with his open arms, Sandor let her collapse into him as her knees fell to the sand between his legs and her weight pressed hard against his chest. With one leg on either side of her, Sandor grabbed her other wrist as she feebly tried to pull away.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?," he rasped as he released his fingers from around her wrists and snaked one of his arms around the small of her back, pressing Sansa against his bare chest. Sandor's other hand reached for the back of her head, bunching up her damp hair that was drying into copper colored waves as it cascaded over her shoulders.

Entranced by the way her lips trembled whenever she cried, Sandor battled against the urge to press his lips against hers, to stifle her soft whimpering sounds with his mouth against hers, his tongue flickering against her lips to bid them to part for him. He wanted to taste her, wanted the warmth of her skin flush against his, wanted to make the crying stop with slow kisses against hot tears, his tongue all too eager to lap up the sorrow.

Pulling her closer against him until their upper bodies were flush, both their hearts pounding in their chests and each beating in time with the other, Sandor unbound his hand from her hair and steadied his stare on her face. Brought on by tears, her eyes shone a brighter blue than he had ever seen them. Her lips were swollen and full from the blood rushing through her body. She was beautiful. So fucking beautiful, even when she cried or maybe especially when she cried. With her face hovering a few inches in front of his, Sandor pressed his nose against her cheek bone and squeezed his eyes shut before letting his lips run lightly over her cheek until they reached her ear, nuzzling softly there. Lowering his voice to a gentle rasp, Sandor rested his forehead against the side of her head, his lips hovering over her ear.

"I came after you because I wanted to. And I kept coming after you because I wanted to. And if you walk away from me right now, even if it's on a fucking beach, I'm coming after you because I want to. Do you understand that? Do you understand what I mean when I say that, Sansa?"

With his eyes still closed, Sandor felt as she nodded her head slowly, stilling in his arms as her breath seemed to steady. He doubted that she truly understood what he meant. His words seem to pacify her for now, yet it was him who was coming undone. Sansa Stark could cry her tears until her lips trembled and her body quaked and he would be here to hold her until a stillness washed over her. But it was him who needed that stillness now as his mind raced and his heart began to damn near beat out of his chest. As if she had read his thoughts, Sandor felt one of her tiny hands press against his chest as she gently pushed herself just far enough away from him that she could look upon his face. Nodding her head, she set her eyes on his, her stare more intense and piercing than any he had ever seen from her. The corners of her lips pulled into a soft smile, a smile which steadied his breaths and sent his body buzzing with a warm flush of calm. How she sensed what he needed, the very moment he needed it, Sandor didn't know, but was content not to question it for now.

Sandor reached for her hand that was pressed against his chest and placed the palm of his hand against hers before softly circling his fingers around her delicate little fingers. Lifting her hand up while setting his eyes to her, Sandor gently pressed his lips to the top of her hand and watched as a tiny gasp escaped Sansa's lips.

"It's getting dark. We should head back," he murmured on a deep breath as he lifted his lips from Sansa's hand.

Silently, she nodded her head and Sandor rose to his feet, pulling her up with him while gathering his shirt and the contents of his pocket in his other hand. He did not let go of her hand, but rather adjusted his hold until their fingers were interlaced and slowly led her back towards the house. He may have told her he was no prince charming, but he sure as fuck felt like one in this moment and was surprised to find he didn't really care one bit as long as it stopped her tears and brought on her smiles.


Sansa washed the sand from her body, not understanding how so much of it had become plastered to every area of exposed skin. She didn't wash her hair though and instead pulled it up in a loose bun while she soaped off the remnants of the beach. Her heart was just now settling to a normal beating pulse and the butterflies had seemed to settle as well.

Lost in her thoughts and relishing the warmth of water rushing over her body, Sansa closed her eyes and gave a soft smile at the remembrance of Sandor's lips brushing across her cheek, his words deep and low in her ear. She had thought he might kiss her then. And she imagined she would have liked that very much.

After stepping from the shower and toweling off the beads of water from her body, Sansa changed into the tank top and pair of shorts Mirabelle had packed for her. Wiping the fog from the mirror, Sansa pulled her hair out of the messy bun and watched as it flowed in waves over her shoulders. She had forgotten how the ocean salt water seemed to elicit irreproducible waves to form in her hair. After brushing her teeth and removing her makeup, Sansa slowly stepped from the bathroom situated at the end of the hall and walked through the dimness of light towards the open living room area.

Seeing her hovering at the end of the hall, Sandor rose from the couch and settled his eyes on her. He too had rinsed off and changed into more comfortable clothes. As he approached her, Sansa felt her eyes timidly flutter away from his gaze as a soft blush crept across her cheeks. Luckily, the light from two side table lamps was far enough removed that he probably wouldn't notice how she was blushing at his approach.

Moving past her, Sandor led her back towards the end of the hall to the guest bedroom, opening the door and turning on the light for her.

"Will this be okay for you?," he asked her as she stepped into the room and swept her gaze over the small bedroom. It boasted a bed which looked comfortable enough, a small dresser which looked spacious enough for the contents of her bag, and the mimicked same rustic décor of the rest of the house which looked inviting enough.

Shifting her eyes towards her hands gently folded in front of her, Sansa bit her lip and Sandor must have immediately noticed her hesitation.

"Are you tired at all?," he questioned her, seemingly trying to puzzle out her trepidation.

Looking up at him, Sansa shrugged her shoulders. She was very tired and she knew he was undoubtedly tired too, having driven nearly 12 hours straight with only a few stops in between. The problem wasn't whether or not she was tired. The problem was that she wasn't sure she could fall asleep, regardless of how tired she was. She imagined she would toss and turn, find herself haunted by nightmares, and wake up at each and every little noise.

Stepping towards her, Sandor interrupted her thoughts as he took her by the hand.

"Alright, I have an idea."

Hand-in-hand, Sansa followed Sandor as he led her back down the hallway towards the living room and plopped down on the couch, pulling her down next to him.

With a puzzled stare, Sansa watched as Sandor rested his head against the back of the couch and turned to look at her.

"I'm going to do something I've never done before, Sansa," he began with his tone low and serious. "Close your eyes. No peeking."

Giggling, Sansa cocked an eyebrow at him before complying, squeezing her eyes shut. With her eyes still closed, Sansa heard the soft sound of shuffling as he shifted in his seat. Suddenly, she felt something on her lap. Instinctively, she opened her eyes and found a T.V. remote resting on top of her crossed legs. Picking it up, Sansa turned towards him with a smile pulling on her lips.

"I don't get it," she declared truthfully as she gently shook her head at him and flashed a confused stare.

"I don't share the remote. Not with anyone," Sandor replied in a low voice as he set a serious stare on her once more. "We'll watch whatever you want until you get tired enough to sleep."

Sighing a contented laugh, Sansa nodded her head in compliance before pointing the remote towards the T.V. and turning it on. A subtle blue glow emanated from the screen as Sansa flipped through channels. It was the typical assortment of late night T.V.; news programs, cheesy reality shows, re-runs of sitcoms from the 90's. Flicking the channel up button, Sansa stopped at what she saw and felt a small, devious smile creep across her lips. Subtly shifting her eyes towards Sandor, she watched as he seemed unfazed by what was on the screen. Slowly, the recognition bloomed across his face which contorted in disdain. Turning towards her at once, he adamantly shook his head.

"Oh no. Not this. Anything but this," he declared definitively, crossing his arms about his chest and snorting out a laugh.

Unable to hold back her giggle, Sansa pointed towards the T.V. as she shifted her body towards him.

"You don't even know what this is."

Sandor shook his head and animatedly mimicked her as he pointed a finger at the T.V.

"I have a sister. I know exactly what this is."

Sansa watched him, thoroughly amused at what she saw. The thought of making him watch this show was hilarious to her. Feeling comfortable around him now, she wanted to see how far she could push this. Crossing her arms about her chest and pouting her lip slightly, Sansa cocked her head to the side as she gave him a doe-eyed stare.

"You said anything," her voice implored gently.

Sighing deeply, Sandor ran his hands through his hair before letting his head fall against the back of the couch with the palms of his hand covering his face.

"Yes, but not this. Sansa, no. Something different. Please."

Sansa bit her lip to stifle the fit of laughter that was slowly threating to burst out of her. If he only knew how he looked right now. It was as if she were asking him to walk across hot coals or lay down on a bed of nails.

Taking a deep breath to steady her voice, Sansa turned towards him and settled an even stare on his eyes which glimmered with a strange sort of pleading.

"Alright. I'll change it if you can tell me the red-headed lady's name."

Pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, Sandor groaned out loud and shook his head before narrowing his eyes at the figures on the T.V.

"Shit. I don't know. Carrie?," Sandor grumbled out as he swiveled his head towards Sansa. While she didn't particularly care one way or another about this show, Sansa found herself loving his response to the prospect of watching itEventually, she would relent and change the channel, but for now she had resigned herself to see this through.

"Nope," she announced proudly as she slowly shook her head at him with a smug smile creasing across her lips and her chin held high in the air. "That's Miranda. Carrie is that one, with the curly hair."

Furrowing his brow at the T.V., Sandor threw his arm up towards the screen in a gesturing motion before letting his arm fall heavily in his lap again.

"Who's this fucking loser she's with?," he inquired bluntly as he set a glare towards the screen.

"Mr. Big," Sansa choked out through a burst of laughter as she turned an amused gaze towards Sandor who met her eyes with an incredulous stare.

"Mr. Big," he responded slowly, as if it was the most ludicrous thing he had ever heard. "What the fuck kind of name is that? Is he in the mob or something?"

Erupting with laughter, Sansa gasped for breaths as she doubled over. Of course, he would think that a guy in a suit must be in the mob.

"What?! No! He's the guy she's in love with. And that's not his real name," Sansa informed through fits of laughter.

Shaking his head, Sandor fell silent as he cocked his head at the screen, scrutinizing the events playing out before snorting a mocking laugh.

"Look at this dude! With his fancy suit and his car with a driver. A real man drives himself around. He doesn't know what the hell he's doing." Sitting up slightly in his seat, he pointed an index finger at the screen. "Oh and look now she's walking away! It's like amateur hour with this guy."

Sansa brought her palm up to her face and shook her head. The thought that Sandor Clegane, mob boss of one of the most prolific organized crime syndicates on the west coast, was getting critical of Mr. Big, a fictional T.V. character, was too funny for words.

"It takes him awhile to come to terms with his feelings for her," Sansa informed as the tone of her voice evened out while she worked to catch her breath from laughing. "He goes after her eventually. He follows her to Paris and brings her back home."

"What a fucking sap," Sandor huffed out as he crossed his arms tightly about his chest before turning towards Sansa, pulling one of his arms away from his chest and holding it out towards her, palm facing up. "Okay. That's enough. Give me the remote."

Although his voice intimated finality in the manner, Sansa found herself spurred on by the ridiculousness of the situation.

"No," she replied flatly as she shook her head and wrapped the remote tightly in her arms. Shooting Sandor a taunting smile, she watched as his eyes narrowed threateningly at her.

"Hand it over," he demanded with a voice that feigned danger as he leaned towards her.

"Nope," Sansa exclaimed defiantly as she held her head high in the air, shaking it slowly from side to side.

Swiveling so that he was now fully facing her, Sandor leaned forward and lowered his voice until it sounded akin to a growl rumbling from his throat.

"I'll have that remote. Whether you will it or not."

Feeling a smile pulling on her lips once more, Sansa tentatively lifted her eyes to him and found he was glowering at her. Shyly, she shook her head at him as she scooted away and clutched the remote tighter to her chest.

Trying his hardest to maintain a fearsome demeanor, Sandor pulled his legs up on the couch and began slowly crawling towards her, reaching her in a few short strides of his arms and legs.

Squeezing her eyes shut and shaking her head, Sansa could feel him hovering in front of her as he exhaled a laugh. Giggling madly with anticipation of him reaching her, Sansa curled up into a tight ball on the couch as she felt him gently settling on top of her.

"Give it to me. Now, girl," he demanded with a menacing growl.

Slowly peeling her eyes open, Sansa found Sandor above her, one hand on either side of her head and his legs straddling her on either side.

"I'm not afraid of you," she whispered as she met his eyes, a small smile pulling across her lips.

Smiling devilishly, Sandor narrowed his eyes at her as he cocked his head to the side.

"Is that right?," he inquired through a deep, groaning laugh as he began pulling on her arms to try and loosen her grip.

Squealing, Sansa pulled her knees tighter to her chest and writhed underneath him as he tried again to pry her arms open. Gasping for breath through fits of laughter, Sansa fought like mad against him, squirming and wiggling each time he tried to pull her arms away. Back and forth they went until both of them laughed in turn, demanded the other to relent, pushed, pulled, squirmed, pressed, and struggled against one another until they were both gasping, breathless and winded more from laughing than anything else. Eventually the laughter and movements slowed to a halt.

Sansa stilled underneath him, her heart pounding and her blood running hot through her veins as she met his eyes. His smile had faded away and all that was left was the burning intensity of his gaze as his eyes roamed over her, desperate with a yearning desire. It should have scared her; being underneath this hulk of man, entirely helpless as his eyes eagerly absorbed the sight of her body and lingered over the curve of her waist, the fullness of her breasts, the moisture on her parted lips. True to her word, Sansa wasn't afraid of him and instead she felt her body humming under the pressure of him on top of her and buzzing with an electric shock of her own desire as he stared hungrily at her. Only now did Sansa realize that through their wrestling, she somehow came to straddle him, one leg on either side of his torso and hung wantonly over each of his hips.

Sandor rocked gently into her, subtly pressing his hips into the back side of her legs. Seeing that Sansa was cradling the remote in her hands and pressing it against her chest, Sandor effortlessly encircled both of her wrists with one of his large hands and slowly lifted her arms so that they were situated above her head. With a renewed wave of heat coursing through her, Sansa's breaths were coming wild and frantic, her chest heavily rising and falling with each inhale and exhale. The movement caught his attention as Sandor gazed at the sight of her body on display beneath him. In slow, deliberate movements, Sandor placed his other hand on the side of her waist and gently squeezed his fingers there. A sudden jolt went through her and Sansa burst into giggles at the sensation. Grinning wildly, Sandor squeezed again and watched amused as another fit of laughter erupted through her lips as she squirmed desperately underneath him.

A few more times he did this, chuckling along with her as she laughed until she was breathless and pleading with him to stop the assault of tickles. Although he stopped squeezing her waist, Sandor let his hand remain there and instead set about slowly running his fingers from her waist up the side of her rib cage and back down. With her arms still pressed above her, Sansa watched as Sandor gently lowered himself on top of her, his chest pressing lightly against hers as his lips brushed against the side of her neck.

"Not afraid, huh? You're singing a different tune now, little bird," he groaned on a deep rasp, his breath warm against the wild pulsing of her neck.

For a few moments, Sandor stayed as he was, his fingers still carefully running up and down her side as he pressed his weight against her. Pulling away from her, Sandor sat up and removed his hand from her waist and pressed it against her forearm. Gently, he ran the palm of his hand against her forearm still situated above her head until it reached his other hand encircled around her wrist. Sansa's fingers loosened on the remote which fell from her hands and bounced from the couch. Neither of them cared about the remote anymore and Sansa let her fingers open so that Sandor's fingers could easily interlace with hers.

With the soft glow of the T.V. illuminating his form, Sansa could see he was panting slightly, his breath coming ragged from his lips. The palms of his hands pressed against hers were burning hot, his skin radiating the heat almost as intensely as Sansa's skin was radiating her own heat. Through the dimness of light, Sansa matched her eyes to his and found that the unbridled yearning she had seen there not moments earlier had softened. In its place, something else had begun to flood his eyes, something purer. The lust he had considered her with was now replaced with something deeper, something akin to admiration. He was no longer undressing her with his eyes, but instead looked at her as if she were the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, like he was taking in some masterpiece of artwork.

With their fingers still intertwined, Sandor pulled her up until they were both sitting, facing one another. Sansa unwound her legs from his hips and sat Indian-style in front of him. Unbidden, a small frown fell over her lips at the loss of contact between her and Sandor. Her body already missed the warmth and weight of him on top of her. However, Sandor still hadn't unlaced his fingers from hers and instead their interwoven hands were resting softly on the small space between them. Beyond that, he was still gazing at her with that same stare; a stare that spoke more of respect, trust, and admiration than of lustful and aching desire. He still wanted her, she knew, and she also knew now that she wanted him too, but this ran deeper than that.

Sansa stared at their hands folded together for a moment before slowly letting her eyes wonder up until she met his stare. As her eyes met his, Sansa felt him undo his right hand from hers and watched at he brought it up to the side of her face. His fingers pressed gently against the side of her neck as his thumb ran along her jaw line until coming up to caress her cheek.

Unable and unwilling to break their stare, Sansa gazed back at him and allowed her lips to part with a slow intake of breath. Taking that as his cue, Sandor discreetly and unknowingly, most like, licked his lips as he leaned towards her, his head tilting ever so slightly to the right.

Pressing a soft kiss against her mouth, Sansa was surprised at how smooth and warm his lips were as they brushed against hers. Delicately, he massaged his lips over hers until his top lip matched hers and his bottom lip effortlessly found its place. It was a gentle kiss, surprisingly sweet in a man such as him and tentative as if he were testing the waters with her.

When he pulled away, Sandor allowed his forehead to remain resting against hers. Looking up at him, Sansa saw that his eyes were still closed as he took long, lingering breaths. Before he could open his eyes again, Sansa returned his kiss, leaning into him, but now it was her lips searching out his, her lips sweeping across his mouth which parted slightly in surprise.

And just like that, the delicacy and tenderness gave way to the release of passion. Wrapping his arms around her lower back, Sandor pulled her onto his lap with one firm tug, groaning against her lips as she timidly wrapped her legs around his hips. Instinctively, Sansa allowed her arms to drape across his shoulders and encircle his neck. She felt as his tongue ran slow and warm against her lips, begging them to part so he could deepen the kiss. When she did let them part, the burning intensity she had seen in him moments before seemed to manifest on his tongue which slowly swirled about hers, eagerly tasting and taunting her with each pass. As Sansa moaned softly into the kiss and shifted her weight on his lap to gain leverage, Sandor groaned deeply in return and pressed himself further into their kiss while one of his hands made its way to the back of her head, fingers lost in locks of her hair. Sansa felt as Sandor slowly moved his over hand down from her lower back and slid it underneath her bottom. With a push on her bottom that matched a rock of his hips, Sandor pressed her closer against him until their bodies were flush with one another.

When the kiss slowed and the weight of their bodies pressed together released slightly, Sandor let his hand fall from the back of her head and allowed it to meet his other hand which returned to the small of her back. With their foreheads and noses pressed gently together, Sansa's lips curled into a pleasured smile and she felt her heart skip a beat as Sandor returned that smile with just as much pleasure.

After a few moments like this, Sandor pulled away from her just enough so that he could look at her. His eyes flickered with a flurry of silent thoughts while his mouth still held a dazed smile. The darkness and brooding that typically accompanied him had cleared away and what was left behind was a surprising tenderness that even Sansa hadn't expected. Matching his eyes to her, Sandor lifted his hand to brush the hair away from her cheek. Closing her eyes contentedly, Sansa responded by tilting her head towards his hand and pressed her cheek further into his palm before slowly letting her eyes flutter open. When she met his gaze again, a look of pride had seemed to flood his eyes and once more she felt as though he were admiring her.

Wordlessly, Sandor wrapped her up in his arms so that she was cradled against his chest, her head nestled in the crook of his neck. Slowly, he lowered himself, and her with him, to lay down on the couch. With her legs tangled in his and her arms folded against his chest, Sansa looked up and watched as Sandor pulled a blanket from off the back of the couch with one arm and draped it over them.

Situating a pillow underneath their heads, Sandor draped his arm over her waist and gazed down at Sansa as she mindlessly allowed her fingers to graze across his chest and over the fabric of his shirt.

Removing his arm from her waist, Sandor brushed his fingers underneath her chin and lifted her head so that she was looking at him. Pulling her closer, he once more pressed his lips to hers in a kiss. This time it was neither delicate nor passionate, but rather slow and lingering, both of them content to savor and explore each other's lips. The movement of their lips and tongues against each other was sensual and warm; a gentle lick there, a throaty moan here, and the subtle motion of their bodies rocking against one another as they found their rhythm.

As the rhythm of their kiss slowed to a stop, they both pulled away ever so slightly, each with a contented and sleepy smile. Sandor once more brushed the hair from the side of Sansa's face with the back of his hand and leaned forward to plant a gentle kiss on her cheek before settling his head back on the pillow and closing his eyes with a deep sigh. Tucked in his embrace, Sansa fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. She didn't toss, she didn't turn, and she wasn't haunted by nightmares. She was safe.

Chapter Text

 

Gods and Monsters

Chapter 8

8


It had taken him a week and a day to finally kiss her. He first saw her on a Friday and knew immediately he wanted her lips- pouty and perfect as they were- for himself and no one else. He had seen the way the other men looked at her; the hot-shot lawyers in their Armani suits, the perverted politicians with metal wrapped around their ring fingers as their menopausal wives meandered out of eye sight. Those men had wanted her too, but she had returned his gaze and not theirs.

A week and a day had felt more like forever and a day, but in some glorious and damn near miraculous series of fortunate events she was here with him and willingly offered him access to her gorgeous mouth; her soft lips growing bolder by the day yet in an entirely innocent sort of exploration of her sexuality, which he gathered was only now flourishing. That thought had made his blood pump hot through his veins and his heart beat hard in his chest; the thought that she was experiencing these things with him first.

And as they gently and slowly explored one another, Sandor knew with a relieved sense of satisfaction that she was indeed his and his alone; every tentative and playful nip on his bottom lip that she would give here and there, every caress of her fingertips that were ever so gradually moving lower down his chest and abdomen with each passing day, every time he'd slowly rock his hips into her, and every time she'd respond with a soft moan or mimic the movement all together, ever the diligent little learner who followed his lead.

But truly, it was him following her lead. Instinctively and from the start, he knew Sansa needed to take things slow and Sandor found he was entirely happy to oblige her in this. And he was never a man to take things slow. While calculated and meticulous in business, Sandor was impulsive and demanding where women were concerned. He had never really taken things slow with a woman before. There was never any need to. The women he had been with had already spread their legs for men before and he was just one amongst the ranks. He'd go hard and he'd go rough and usually he didn't care one way or the other about their pleasure. When he was done, he'd leave them sore and panting while he retreated wordlessly to the shower. The message was always sent and always received: they were expected to be gone by the time he got out of the shower.

All things considered, Sandor was exploring alongside Sansa, taking part of something he had never tried before and he found himself a bit unsure of what to do and what not to do. He wanted to make her feel good, to see her smile in the aftermath of her own pleasure, but more importantly, he wanted her to trust him and wanted her to know that she meant more to him than an opportunity to take care of his own needs. For the first time ever, a woman's needs had seemed to trump his own and Sandor found a growing sense of satisfaction in putting her first.

Sandor first kissed Sansa Stark on Saturday and had hardly been able to stop since then. Sunday was spent how Sunday's should always be spent; lazing about and doing nothing of consequence. And that's precisely what him and Sansa did; woke up late still intertwined on the couch and immediately set in with the kissing, ate, more kissing, pretended to watch some T.V. show until neither could fake it anymore and both had agreed that kissing seemed like a more entertaining prospect.

From the couch to the floor to the kitchen to the deck, he had kissed Sansa in every imaginable spot of the house, all but the bedroom, and on every part of her body that he could, from her slender neck to her graceful collar bone, from her shoulders to inside of her thighs near her knees which elicited a soft squirm and a gentle indication that that was a little too much. He had relented and thought that perhaps it was time to come up for air. She had suggested they play a game. Agreeing, he taught her how to play poker and let her win the first two games. After that, he hadn't needed to let her win because she was, much to his competitive chagrin, a quick learner and really fucking good besides. Eventually, Sansa's eyes betrayed her fatigue so Sandor carried her off to his bedroom and pulled her into his arms where she curled up eagerly and let out a purring sigh of contentment before falling into a silent sleep.

On Monday, a storm came through in the early evening and she had insisted on watching it roll in from the ocean. Sansa watched in wonderment as the waves churned against themselves, a perfect reflection of the sky above in all its ashen volatility. And Sandor had watched her; the wind whipping through cascading strands of auburn hair, the small smile of enchantment on her lips, the excitement glimmering in her eyes. It was as if she were glowing from the inside out, radiating her own sort of light and electricity that captivated him as much as the storm of the sky captivated her. A fear had struck him then as he watched her. It was sudden, it was inexplicable, and it hit him like a tidal wave of a storm, pulling him down with a furious and consuming finality. It was the same fear he had had all along, nothing had changed where that was concerned.

It was the enemy lurking in the shadows of his thoughts. It was the assailant of hard truths and harsh reality. It was the fear of loss. A man who has nothing to lose has no such fears, he knew. For as long as he could remember, Sandor had orchestrated his life such that he never held onto anyone or anything too long. He voided his life of precious possessions, all but Mirabelle. She had always been the one exception, but in the stark clarity of his mind, Sandor had finally admitted to himself what Sansa meant to him and more importantly what she was becoming to him. And only then was the fear of loss unleashed from the confines of his subconscious to assault him into an eerie silence.

It was a silence she felt because she had turned to him and her spell of enchantment was broken as her concern for him manifested in a frenzy of questions about what was wrong. He told her nothing of his fears, but instead spent the rest of the evening with Sansa wrapped up in his arms. She had eagerly complied and there she stayed; never asking why he wouldn't let her go or protesting in boredom. Instead, she effortlessly found her place next to him. Her calm breaths, gentle caresses, and sweet smiles had grappled his fear and caged the beast of his worries. By morning, he had awoken with her still willingly tucked in his embrace and Sandor found he felt much better.

Tuesday they had settled into a sort of routine, a quasi-glimpse of their future should the Universe throw him a bone and offer him happiness in the form of Sansa. He had done some work- made phone calls back to Bronn and few of his men, dealt with some contacts, drafted emails- and she had spent her time exploring his kitchen and mimicking all she had seen on the Food Network, anxiously diving into something she apparently enjoyed. By the time his work was done, Sansa was beside herself with excitement at having successfully prepared dinner for them with what little his pantry and refrigerator offered. Sandor was surprised to find she could cook and cook well at that.

Sitting across his small kitchen table from her, Sandor admired how perfectly feminine she was; delicate, soft spoken, nurturing, gentle. It seemed a match to how roughly masculine he was; her delicacy meeting his ruggedness, soft spoken words taming his vulgar ones, she provided gentle nurturing and he offered fierce protection in return. Something about that turned him on and he was unable to take his eyes off of her then. With his stomach full, a new hunger sent pangs of want through his body. Abruptly pushing himself from the table, Sandor had carried Sansa off, as she giggled and squealed, over his shoulder and towards his bedroom where he unceremoniously plopped her down on his bed. Breathless and blushing, she had looked at him wide-eyed, petrified that he might take her, right then and there. Although he was hard as a rock and aching with a need for release, it was then that he reassured her they wouldn't do anything until she was ready and that they should go slow.

And slow she had gone; slow as she made room for him on the bed and timidly looked up at him, seemingly so meek and vulnerable, slow as she scooted towards him after he had laid down next to her, slow as she draped her long, silky legs on either side of him with a slight blush, slow as she pressed her weight down on top of him and offered him a kiss that was lingering in its own right, slow as she lifted herself back up and gazed at him before running the tips of her fingers over his chest and abdomen, slow as she shyly swiveled her hips in a gradual and unhurried circular motion with only just the slightest of pressure. With his hands behind his head, Sandor had watched, eagerly soaking up the sight of her on top of him, rocking her hips as she blushed sweetly and bit her lip nervously.

Tentatively, she had lowered just a bit more of her weight on top of him, inadvertently easing herself down onto the hardness of his cock. When his eyes closed and his head fell to the pillow with a grunt resonating from the back of his throat, Sansa had let out the tiniest of gasps and let up a bit, as if she were silently apologizing for whatever she had elicited from him.

Opening his eyes and looking at her once more, Sandor had removed his hands from the back of his head and grabbed her by the hips, producing yet another little gasp from her sweet little lips. Leading her movements, Sandor worked her hips until the circular movements had reached just the right speed and her body had lowered onto him to produce just the right amount of pressure. As he let go of her hips and put his hands back behind his head, Sansa let her eyes fall away from him as she mimicked what he had shown her; each circular motion becoming more confident than the last until eventually her eyes met his once more.

As she looked at him, he had smiled admiringly at her through pleasured moans. By the way she blushed and the way her lips parted with ragged breaths, Sandor knew with a certainty she had never done this before. By the way she had swiveled her hips and arched her back into her movements, Sandor knew with a certainty that although she had never done this before, she was enjoying herself. He had readily soaked up the sight of her on top of him and welcomed the rush of heat that flowed between them. Releasing one hand from the back of his head, Sandor had reached for her; his fingers searching out her neck as his thumb ran over her lips which parted even further against his touch.

Her skin was soft and warm against his, her lips perfectly hot and eager as she leaned down to kiss him, and her touches seemed to intuitively seek out sensitive spots on his body. Her mouth grazed the spot under his left ear while her fingers worked through his hair or down the broad part of his chest.

At that, Sandor had sat up abruptly, his tongue gaining easy entrance in her mouth as she gasped in surprise. In one swift motion, he had shifted his weight until he was on top of her and his need was pressing shamelessly against her. In his own slow movements, Sandor had abandoned her lips in favor of her neck, running his tongue along the side where he felt her pulse throbbing like mad. He easily traversed her collarbone and had taken a moment to look up at her. With Sansa's eyes glistening in something between desire and wonderment, she looked down at him and softly ran her fingers through his hair. He returned her stare as he worked his lips from one side of her collar bone to the other before working his way to the tops of her breasts. The fullness of them was emerging from underneath the tank top she wore, offering just enough area for him to explore with his lips before giving gentle licks which terminated in soft kisses. Seemingly having found a sensitive spot on her body, Sandor felt her arch into him as her hands worked over his biceps and shoulders, her fingers clutching him firmly with each murmured exhale of breath.

He knew full well he was reaching the point where it would be harder to stop himself so reluctantly Sandor had slowed his ministrations at her breasts to a stop. Hovering on all fours over her, he had lavished his attention once more on her mouth which had apparently missed him. She licked at his lips, gave the tiniest of nips, and sexiest of moans before he deepened the kiss with as much eagerness as he had the first time he kissed her.

With his cock twitching in reminder of how badly he wanted her, Sandor had abruptly pulled himself away completely and retreated to the bathroom where he offered himself relief to the visions of her in his head; her rocking against him, the shy little moans, wolfish nibbles at his lips, the softness of her breasts against his mouth. He had imagined it all until the release came and he had nearly doubled over from its blinding intensity.

If Sansa was privy to what exactly he did in the bathroom, she never let on as she welcomed him back into her arms with a sweeping smile and a soft kiss on the lips.

From there, the passion had ebbed into gentleness, the heat of desire flowing to the perpetual warmth of tenderness; the kissing terminating into embraces as he ran his fingers through her hair and listened to the sound of her breathing. Once more, he fell asleep with her in his arms. By now it was implicitly and wordlessly understood that that was where she belonged each night.

Routine had reestablished itself today until Sandor put aside work and found Sansa perched outside on the last step of the deck, picking at clover flowers and working them into crowns and necklaces. When he came upon her, she looked like a relic of 1969's Woodstock, flowers placed around her head of long hair and around her wrists as she sat barefoot in a white sundress. Had he not been so exhausted, he would have laid her down in the bed of clovers and devoured her with his lips. Instead, he laid her down in his bed with the flowers still in her hair and she happily fell asleep in his arms as he took an afternoon nap.

Now as Sandor shifted against her, he could tell by the rhythm of her breaths that she was still asleep. Propping himself up on one elbow, he leaned over her and saw that sure enough her eyes were still shut and her lips slightly parted as she slept. Sandor lowered himself closer to her until his lips pressed gently against the spot under her ear. Slowly, he planted kisses down her neck until she stirred against him and pulled in a deep breath. Reaching up, Sansa's hand found its way to the side of his face as her fingertips softly grazed his skin. As Sandor lifted himself off of her, Sansa turned to lay on her back as she smiled up at him. Her crown of clover flowers was crooked on her head, some of the flowers disintegrated to pieces on the pillow.

"Is it the morning?," Sansa inquired in a voice a tone deeper than normal, the effects of sleep beginning to wear off.

As he pressed a lingering kiss to her lips, Sansa let out a contented little sigh as she brought her arms up around his neck.

"Nope. Still today," Sandor finally replied as he pulled himself away from the kiss before setting about running his fingers through her hair and picking out little pieces of crushed flowers. "Your birthday is tomorrow."

Sandor felt Sansa go tense underneath him, her arms rigid around his neck and the sweet, sleepy smile contorting into an uneasy frown. His words seemed the verbal equivalent of ice water, abruptly shocking her from any residual sleepiness. Saying nothing, she stared up at him with troubled eyes; pools of blue that ran deep and murky with more sorrow than he had ever seen in them before.

"What's wrong?," he rasped urgently. He had thought her birthday would be something for her to look forward to, but seeing her now with her heart crushed as thoroughly as those little clover flowers about her head, Sandor understood. While he had plans for her birthday, undoubtedly her parents had had plans for her too. This would be the first of many milestones celebrated without her mother and if Sandor knew anything, he knew the firsts were always the hardest. He remembered his first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas without his own mother. And then without his father too.

Understanding something of her pain, Sandor lowered himself next to her side and placed his hand on her stomach while he observed her. Still on her back, Sansa had turned to stone as she stared up at the ceiling, one arm next to her side and the other with her hand on top of his.

Slowly reanimating back to life, Sansa turned her head towards him, her face calm and placid, but her eyes still turbulent waves of renewed sorrow.

"I had forgotten," she whispered to him on something that sounded akin to a guilty confession. It was as if she had lost herself in his world and was only now remembering something of her former self. The remembrance seemed to hold a sting of pain. "I knew it was coming up, but the days have just seemed to run together."

Without breaking his stare, Sansa gently eased on her side so that she was now facing him. Delicately, she ran her fingers across his collar bone, to his shoulder, and then down his arm before retracing her path back up to his collar bone.

"How did you know?," she finally asked him while her fingertips mindlessly ran smooth circles down his arm.

Sandor took a moment before responding, well aware that confiding in her he had seen her birthday on the forged missing person's poster was definitely creepy in its own right and probably not something she wanted to hear right now. Instead, he settled for something that might break the heavy veil of tension and disquiet that seemed to have blanketed them.

"I have my ways."

With that, Sandor gave her a mischievous smile before draping his arm over the curve of her waist and pulling her closer to him until their chests were flush with one another. Her delicate little fingers abandoned his arm and began working across his chest as she lifted her eyes to him, eyes that seemed to settle into a compliant sort of calm.

"When's your birthday?"

A soft smile graced her lips as she waited for his answer while nuzzling her head against his chest. If something had been bothering her, she was content to hold it inside for now. Sandor wouldn't press the issue; when she was ready to talk about it, she would. Until then, he would let the conversation turn to his birthday, which was something he usually and willingly forgot each year.

"November 18th."

Sansa seemed to grow curious at that, swiftly reading into the omission of the year of his birth.

"How old are you?," she asked hesitantly, pulling away slightly and allowing her eyes to follow the direction of her fingers that continued their work back and forth across his chest. He could tell that she was worried she might offend him by asking, as if he were one of those people that guarded their age like it were some sort of precious secret.

"How old do you think I am?," Sandor mocked playfully in reply. He typically hated banter like this, the "beating around the bush" bullshit that some people favored over straight-forward offerings of truth. However, his own curiosity was rising along with his new found fondness of putting Sansa on the spot and watching her squirm. All in good fun though, of course.

"Hmm."

Sandor watched as Sansa lifted a thoughtful gaze to the ceiling and felt her humming reverberate against his chest.

"28," she declared definitively and with a confident nod of the head.

Slowly, Sandor shook his head as he smiled at her and began running slow kisses down the length of her neck.

"I'll be 30 this year," he murmured into the softness of her skin as he felt her melt into him. Through their days together, he had found this to be the sure-fire way to render Sansa putty in his hands. It seemed her neck was the place she enjoyed being kissed the most, as of now at least.

"That's an important birthday," Sansa countered breathlessly as her body subtly writhed with the fluttering of pleasure. Sandor stopped his service to her neck and pulled away, nodding his head before resting it back on the pillow.

"So is 18. It's an important year for both of us," he agreed before settling his arm once more in the curve of her waist. Sansa's brow furrowed as she bit her lip and Sandor could almost see the thoughts churning in her head, each pass unsettling her more than the last.

"Do you think I'm too young?"

If the worried expression painted across Sansa's face was anything to go by, she had already answered the question for him, already believing that he viewed her as some young thing and all that that implied to her. He could see her falter at some sort of self-perceived inadequacy, some unfounded worry that he wanted someone older and consequently more experienced than her.

Without hesitation, Sandor answered her and offered her the truth, or at least most of it.

"No because you don't act young. You carry yourself like a woman. That's what I care about. Not your age."

Indeed, it was all he cared about. He knew women twice her age who still acted like typical 18 year old girls. But Sansa was not a typical 18 year old girl. She was poised, graceful, and carried herself with the self-respect of woman yet with the same untarnished innocence of a girl. The full truth was that regardless of their age difference, he had come to find that she was what he wanted. He could have his pick of women who flocked around the Moriarti mansion in search of a made man, but none appealed to him the way Sansa did.

Giving a relieved smile, Sansa looked up at him as she pulled the broken crown of clover flowers from her head and smoothed her fingers over the tumbling waves of her hair.

"Are you hungry?," Sandor murmured, stroking the tips of his fingers across the side of her face as she nodded her head in reply.

"What do you want to eat?," he inquired.

Biting her lip and staring up towards the ceiling again in thought, Sansa hummed quietly as her mind worked.

"Pancakes."

Sandor felt a smile creep across his lips in his own sense of relief; relief that he didn't have to coerce her to make a decision and relief that she picked something that could be made with relative ease.

"Pancakes, she says. I know how to make those," Sandor proclaimed with a self-assured grin. "Want me to show you?"

Sansa eagerly nodded her head as she sat up and gleefully hopped from the bed, pieces of disintegrated clover flowers dancing from her hair.


She had almost forgotten her birthday. Her 18th birthday. How could I forget about something like that? Following Sandor down the hallway and towards the kitchen, the thought troubled her as it swelled in her mind, taking on a life of its own.

Age is just a number, or so they say. If that were true, then why did people care so much about age and aging? It was as if an age carried a certain predetermined set of experiences. An 18 year old couldn't possibly have the same set of worldly knowledge as a 30 year old. In turn, a 30 year old surely isn't as wise as someone twice their age. Or so they say.

But age is just time and time, like so many other things, is a man-made convention used to understand and rationalize the world around us, a world full of so many uncertainties. When the world around us no longer makes any sense, time seems to fall away, no longer important and age really truly just becomes a number. For Sansa, her world stopped making sense the night of the Royce party and time had slipped away from her, the days quite literally bleeding into one another until nothing remained, but a chaotic mess of confusion.

In the back of her mind, she had known her 18th birthday was fast approaching, the omnipresent cusp of adulthood cresting on the horizon of time. However, that remembrance and intrinsic knowledge was always quickly washed away by the near constant deluge of other thoughts. After all, 18 was just a number and if life-altering experiences were the measuring stick of age then Sansa was already well into adulthood, that rite of passage taken almost two weeks ago. Her birthday was now a moot point; frivolity more than a necessary festivity.

Two weeks ago, adulthood meant freedom, possibilities, independence, and the promise of exciting new changes. The number "18" represented setting off on her own, forging ahead with her own life, moving away from home for the first time ever and finally being able to see something of the world; new experiences, new friends, a new life of sorts. Of course, her parents would always be there for her. They would see her off, but should she ever need their support, guidance, and love, they would always be there with open arms, to embrace her when the road got tough or to catch her if she fell.

Two weeks ago seemed like a lifetime and everything she had ever wanted with adulthood had been given to her in spades. Sansa wanted changes and those had been devastatingly delivered. Possibilities and independence, her entire life was now a looming question mark. The possibilities for her future were endless and ranged from death to love to pain to joy. She had always wanted to leave home and now it seemed as if she would never get to go back. Her safety net of protection had been ripped away from her and now Sansa felt as though she were dangling off a cliff of uncertainty; should she fall, it was entirely possible that no one would be there to catch her.

New friends were more like unexpected friends; those friendships and connections forged when she had least anticipated it. And the most unforeseen aspect of it all was the bond she shared with Sandor; a connection which had surpassed friendship and was quickly evolving into something much more, something far beyond either of their control.

Each night Sansa would drift asleep wrapped in his arms and each night she would wake up just once, always just once. She wouldn't stir and she doubted Sandor knew, but in the haze of sleepiness she would struggle to remember where she was. The haze would then lift and like waking up from a dream, the remembrance would flood her mind and Sansa would suddenly realize once more where she was; in the arms of a man she was still trying to understand, in a situation she was still trying to wrap her head around, and with her prospects still entirely unclear. 'Whose life is this?,' she would think to herself then because it hardly seemed her own. And perhaps that was the hallmark of adapting, survival and growth; the ability to look in on her situation with eyes from above and question everything she saw with an objective scrutiny. What she saw was herself with a man who was something of a stranger to her still. A man who could all too easily turn out to be a monster after all.

But as Sandor's arm would squeeze around her tighter and he would pull her closer, Sansa would remember with a visceral cognizance that this was her life now. And with that, her heart would both sing to the heavens and break to oblivion; in raptures over the affection she had found and in misery over all she had lost.

She was struggling to understand who she was becoming and what exactly she was leaving behind. As if caught in the gusts of a storm, Sansa reached out desperately to the pieces of herself she wished to keep before they were blown away; each time she reached out to grab that piece another would flitter away from her. Sansa feared if she kept fighting to remain the girl she was before, she would lose sight of the woman she was becoming now.

But even she had to admit that every moment spent wrapped up in Sandor's arms with her lips pressed against his felt like a strange sort of heaven; a corner of light and happiness in a room that was otherwise dark. The happiness she felt with him seemed traitorous, like she was short-handing sorrow and that debt was meant to be paid with interest. Each smile, each giggle, and every fluttering of butterflies in her stomach was done in the face of pain, taunting the suffering she imagined she should be feeling.

If Sandor had taught her anything, it was that despite all she had lost she still deserved happiness. He was a savior to the pain she felt; the ice to the slow burn of loss, the tourniquet controlling her bleeding heart, the shot of morphine to dull the ache. They were remedies to the pain, but healing was the ultimate cure and healing would take time, she knew. Sansa allowed Sandor to ease her aches, to bandage her heart with warm embraces and soft kisses. The wounds remained, but the pain was stymied for now.

Sansa perched herself up on the bar stool at the kitchen counter and rested her elbows against the cool granite of the countertop. She watched in amusement as Sandor opened cabinet doors, perused the contents, and then pushed the doors shut before moving onto the next. He did this in no particular order; his eyes roaming the kitchen as if trying to remember where things were. The remembrance would seem to emerge in his mind, but his face would flicker in frustration as he realized the contents staring back at him were not what he was looking for.

Luckily for him, Sansa had already found her way around his kitchen, the kitchen he so obviously rarely used. Shaking her head and exhaling a small laugh, Sansa leaned forward with her forearms flush against the countertop.

"What are you looking for?," she finally asked, realizing his agitation was steadily gaining on any sort of patience he had maintained up until now.

Placing his hands on his hips and furrowing his brow, Sandor let his eyes continue to roam around the kitchen as he spoke.

"A bowl. You know, the big kind." Removing his hands from his hips, Sandor gestured to approximate the diameter of bowl he was looking for.

"You mean a mixing bowl? Those are in the bottom cabinet to the left of the sink," Sansa replied matter-of-factly with faint amusement that bordered on smugness.

Sandor Clegane may be collected and in charge of every other arena of his life, but Sansa doubted he was Don of the kitchen. That title was one Sansa had effortlessly usurped from him. Seemingly understanding her new role as much as she did, Sandor pointed an index finger at her and shook his head before pacing towards the cabinet next to the sink.

"You. You know your way around my kitchen better than I do. You know what that means?"

Satisfied with herself, Sansa settled back in her seat and allowed her lips to pull into a contented smile.

"You want me to do the cooking?"

Although her response came out more questioning than intended, Sansa imagined she knew what the answer might be.

"That's exactly what that means," Sandor nodded as he placed a large mixing bowl on the counter. "For now, though, I'll do the cooking. You just sit there and watch how it's done," he added confidently, his tone entirely authoritative. If Sandor doubted his abilities in the kitchen, he wasn't letting on as he puffed out his chest and reached for a large spoon.

"First," he began as he settled a demonstrative stare onto Sansa, "you need the tools. A bowl and a spoon."

"What about a measuring cup?," Sansa cut in as she suppressed a small laugh. Shaking his head, Sandor pointed an index finger at her again as his other hand came to his hip.

"You just listen. I was getting to that part."

As Sansa lifted her hands up in the air in concession, Sandor coyly slid open the drawer to his left and pulled out a measuring cup before setting it on the counter.

"Now, you need the ingredients," Sandor set in once more as he walked towards the pantry and rummaged through the first couple of shelves before reaching towards the back.

Pulling out a box and turning around, he methodically walked towards the counter, his head held up high with a self-assured smile as he placed a box of Bisquick on the countertop.

"Bisquick and..." Drawing out his last word, Sandor lifted the box and scrutinized the side where the directions were, scanning the words until he found what he was looking for.

"Water. Bisquick and water. Those are the ingredients," he declared with a confident nod of the head.

"Wait!," Sansa cut in once more, laughing and holding her arm out for him to stop. "It's all too easy if you just make it from the box."

"Yeah. That's the whole point," Sandor shot back defensively, as if the thought of making something from scratch was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. "This is how men make pancakes, girl. Now are you going to keep interrupting or are you going to watch me make pancakes the right way?"

Shaking her head, Sansa motioned towards her lips, imitating the pull of a zipper. Sandor's smug cockiness was endearing, especially as she noticed he didn't actually measure out the water, but instead pushed the measuring cup out of the way and eyeballed the water by holding the mixing bowl under the sink.

"Alright, I've got my water in there. Now I need to mix. Watch closely now because this is the most important part."

Sansa bit her lip to stop the eruption of giggles eagerly working to burst from her lips. She had made pancakes many of times. Bisquick or no Bisquick, the mixing part was hardly the most important step. However, Sansa decided it best to humor Sandor's seriousness as he spoke and so she swallowed down laughter and protests alike.

Lifting the spoon, Sandor began mixing slowly, turning the spoon around the side of the bowl before pulling it through the center of the mixture, which was entirely too watery. Pushing the bowl aside with a satisfied smile, Sandor leaned over the counter and settled a deliberate stare on her.

"Now I need my pan to cook this in."

Once more his tone was serious, his face stoic, as if this were as important an undertaking as some mafia-related task. It was more than Sansa could take and she immediately lifted a hand to cover her mouth as she erupted in laughter. Standing up to his full height, Sandor rested his hands on his hips and narrowed his eyes at her in a reprimanding stare.

"Sansa, I don't think you're taking this seriously."

Meeting his deadpanned stare, Sansa burst into another fit of laughter as she squeezed her eyes shut and felt tears running down her cheeks, her body squirming in her chair as she was overcome with giggles. Opening her eyes once more, she found that Sandor had cracked a half-smile before winking at her, his guise of seriousness melting away. That seemed enough to stifle Sansa's laughter as she watched him gather up a pan before setting it on the stove and turning on the burner.

She regarded him with wonderment as he continued his monologue; authoritatively narrating each of his movements with confidence and self-assuredness, completely oblivious to the fact that the watery mixture he had made would probably end up less like pancakes and more like crepes.

Swiping away tears of laughter from her cheeks, Sansa felt the now all-too-familiar stirring in her stomach, the subtle assault of butterflies, as her head seemed to spin with a gentle dizziness. The same sort of out-of-body consciousness returned to Sansa as she watched Sandor. 'Who is this man?,' she wondered to herself as she watched him, feeling as though she was seeing him for the first time. She knew well enough the sordid details of his childhood and history and she even knew much of his likes and dislikes. However, the question resonated in her mind disbelievingly with a strange sort of enchantment. He was a mob boss yet he was making her pancakes. He possessed a violent temper yet treated her gently. Once more, she was at a loss and left to wonder where the Hound ended and Sandor Clegane began. Then again the same might be said for her; where did Sansa Stark the girl end and Sansa Stark the woman begin?

Sansa remembered a conversation with Myranda they had had not too long ago. It was the first lazy day of summer and they had spent it by the pool in the Royce backyard. College boys had been the topic; what they were like, how they would meet them, and all the ways they would be better than high school boys. Both Sansa and Myranda had crafted their dream man in turn; each coming up with a veritable wish-list of all the qualities their future boyfriend would have to possess. Naturally, Sansa's list was quite different than Myranda's, but that night Sansa had imagined her dream man made real. When she closed her eyes, she could see him. He had looked an awful lot like a young Laurence Olivier; classically handsome, eyes she could lose herself in, a smile that would make her heart skip a beat. He would be intelligent, extraordinarily kind, and, of course, handsome. He would be a man who could make her laugh, who would treat her like his Queen, and was ambitious, driven by his passions.

She had hoped she could dream this man to life; that she'd walk into her English class or maybe Biology lab on the first day of college classes, and there he'd be. He'd look at her and smile. She would of course smile back and probably blush, but this dream man of hers would find that entirely endearing. Through class there would be subtle glances back and forth until the professor dismissed them. He would ask for her name, which she would politely give. Study dates, coffee breaks, and trips to the library together would lead to stolen kisses between the stacks, hand holding across the Quad, and declarations from all that they were the cutest couple on campus.

Hardly noticing as Sandor cursed a slew of profanities at the pancakes not cooperating in the pan, Sansa remembered back to her list, the list of qualities she wanted in this dream man of hers. A strange sort of thing had happened to where now when Sansa closed her eyes, she saw Sandor. Granted, he looked nothing like Laurence Olivier who was far too "pretty" to resemble the rugged masculinity that Sandor so effortlessly possessed. In fact, the prospect of some "pretty" boy seemed unappealing to her. She longed for strength now; strong arms to hold her and a stronger heart to love her.

Beyond that, Sandor made her laugh, all the time she laughed at the things he said even though she knew he wasn't even trying to be funny. And he was smart. He never went to college and probably never would, but his intelligence was a savvy sort of cleverness, an intuitive and practical understanding of how the world worked and, more importantly, how to maneuver through it.

He was rough-around-the-edges and vulgar even now as he continued his verbal berating of the pancakes in the pan, but he had never mistreated her. In fact, he had regarded her with his own sort of kindness from the start, whether she realized it or not. She told him she wanted pancakes and here he was, fumbling about a kitchen he had probably only used a handful of times, but doing it because he knew it would make her happy. Since coming here, not a night had gone by where he didn't hold her until morning, undoubtedly staving off the nightmares that would have haunted her otherwise. He had turned his life upside down and inside out to keep her safe, without question and without a second thought.

And handsome, he was like no man she had ever met before. His facial features, much like the rest of him, seemed sculpted out of stone; his jaw line sharp, his nose prominent and hooked, his brow masculine. When she had first seen him, his scars had stood out to her, the faint glossiness of healed tissue catching the light. Having become accustomed to them, the scars were really not that noticeable. Most of the time, he kept is long, black hair swept over the burned side of his face. She was surprised to find she rather enjoyed his hair; running her fingers through the soft strands and admiring the way it so thoroughly suited him.

It hadn't occurred to her that she could find a man like him so attractive. He was tall, so tall, and more muscular than any man had a right to be. Sansa had known that before she saw him shirtless. The breadth of his chest and shoulders alone suggested that his muscles were toned, but nothing like she had seen at the beach their first night here. She had felt embarrassed when she caught herself gaping at the sight of him and felt as though she might die of mortification when she realized he too had caught her staring. However, he had seemed to like it and it seemed to spur him on. She imagined she could understand and she did. Sansa found that she enjoyed the way he looked at her too; as if he could devour her whole, with his eyes at least or perhaps more.

As he had explained his tattoos to her, Sansa had fought against herself when a sudden urge to touch him had coursed through her. Succumbing to it, she had traced the outline of the tattoo on his back with her fingers as she listened to him, spellbound by all he had told her. She had never imagined she would be into a man with tattoos, after all the "Laurence Olivier" behind her eyes undoubtedly did not have tattoos. Whether it was the tattoos themselves or the story behind them, Sansa found the ink only fueled the attraction she felt towards Sandor; an attraction that was unconventional to say the least, but undeniably captivating nonetheless.

That attraction was slowly settling in her cheeks which were flushed with red as Sandor triumphantly declared that he had successfully made her pancakes. Turning towards her and setting a plate of burnt pancakes in front of her, Sandor smiled proudly at his work.

"The first ones are a little burned on the outside, but I think it will be alright. Let me know what you think." Handing her a fork and a bottle of syrup, Sandor went back to the stove and busied himself with another batch of pancakes still cooking on the pan.

The pancakes were more than a little burned on the outside, they were thoroughly charred. As Sansa bit into the pancake, she found that the inside was still gooey with uncooked batter. With Sandor turned away from her as he worked at the stove, Sansa fought to chew and swallow, stifling the gags as she quickly and discreetly spit out the half-chewed bite of pancake into a napkin.

Sandor turned away from the stove and paced towards her, the same cocksure smile formed across his lips as leaned on the counter in front of her with spatula still in hand.

"So, what do you think?," he asked slyly, his eyes gleaming with pride and his own brand of assured swagger.

"Here," Sansa replied as she pushed a piece of pancake onto her fork and held it up towards his mouth. "You tell me what you think."

Considering her carefully and through narrowed eyes, Sandor took a bite from the fork. As he chewed on the bite of pancake, his face dropped and Sansa saw him gag as he swallowed.

"They're terrible," he groaned as he shook his head in defeat. Laughing, Sansa propped her knees up on the stool and leaned over the counter, pressing a soft kiss to his lips.

"It was a good try," she reassured through a sweet smile, her lips sweeping across his as she spoke. "You get an A for effort."

"Don't butter me up, girl," he muttered gruffly in reply. Sansa felt his mouth pull into a smile before he stood up once more, dropping the spatula dejectedly against the counter.

If his pancake pride was wounded, and Sansa imagined it was, Sandor never let on as she gently offered to try her hand at making pancakes. As she retrieved what was left of the soupy pancake batter, Sansa set about fixing all the little mistakes that had ultimately led to a pancake catastrophe. She offered "suggestions" rather than declarations of all he had done wrong, mindful that the wounds of a man's ego often ran deep even if it was over the most ridiculous of things.

After thickening the batter and turning down the temperature of the stove burner, Sansa gently offered a plate of fluffy golden pancakes to Sandor which he eyed approvingly before devouring. Silence and a half-smile was his acknowledgement that she had done well and with that Sansa was satisfied, happily nibbling at her creation in the seat next to him.

With their meal coming to an end, Sansa swiveled in her seat and broke the satiated calm that had pleasantly descended upon them.

"When I was outside, I noticed you have a detached garage. What's in there?"

Sansa's eyes mindlessly followed her fork smearing a bit of pancake through a river of syrup and melted butter. Even she could not say why she still felt shy asking Sandor questions, as if he might reject her curiosity-driven inquiries. He had never done so before so she imagined he would not start now. Still, her question was spoken softly and apprehensively.

"I do," Sandor nodded, pushing his plate away from him and settling back in his seat with a gratified smile before turning his gaze towards her. "Want me to show you?"

Delicately settling her fork against the plate, Sansa eagerly nodded her head as she flashed a smile, any doubts that he may cut her curiosity off at a certain point having been eased away.

Without another word, Sandor led Sansa outside and across the yard to what she could only imagine was a garage of sorts. The metal structure was certainly large enough to accommodate three cars and possessed three garage doors arranged on the long side of the rectangular building. Sandor led the way to a smaller door on the shorter side of the garage and shoved a hand into his pocket to retrieve a key.

As he unlocked the door and pushed it open, Sansa could see nothing as darkness consumed the space until Sandor flicked on a series of over-hanging fluorescent lights. Confused at first, Sansa roved her eyes across the large, open area as she soaked in the bits and pieces she saw. The sum of all parts suddenly offered realization in her mind.

Turning towards Sandor, she breathlessly posed something between a stunned statement and a disbelieving question.

"You're a boxer?"

Nodding his head, Sandor let out a deep laugh as he crossed his arms about his chest and settled himself against the wall.

"What did you think was in here? My train sets?," he joked through a sarcastic smile.

Feeling a blush creep across her cheeks, Sansa laughed softly and abandoned his side to quietly tip-toe through the open space, her eyes silently scaling the walls before dropping to sparring mats on the floor. What was formerly a garage was been big enough to accommodate the dimensions of a boxing ring. Although the ropes where hung on the wall now, they could be easily pulled down and span the perimeter of the sparring mats to approximate a boxing ring.

Situated in the corner adjacent to the sparring mat was a squat rack, all the appropriate weights neatly organized on either side. Medicine balls were stacked in the opposite corner beneath jump ropes hung on the wall, dangling down in various lengths and thicknesses.

As Sandor remained perched against the wall with his arms across his chest, Sansa could feel him watching her; vigilantly observing her as she took in the features of the room and waiting patiently for her to say something. With her curiosity catching on her tongue, she finally spoke. Her eyes drifted from tape on the floor to meet Sandor's steadfast gaze.

"What's the tape for?," she asked gently. Her mind raced with questions, more than she could keep up with. Instead of blurting out a myriad of inquiries, Sansa settled on just one for now; a simple question in favor of more difficult ones.

"It's for foot work," Sandor replied as he pushed himself from the wall and paced over to Sansa's side, aligning his feet against the tape casually. "Being good on your feet is important in boxing and it's something I've never been fantastic at. So the tape helps gauge where my feet should be in different stances."

Giving a little smile and a tiny nod, Sansa lifted her eyes once more, contemplating a row of hanging punching bags all lined up near the opposite wall of the room. Following her eyes, Sandor pointed at each in turn.

"Speed bag. Heavy bag. Double end bag. They all have a purpose. I won't bore you with the details."

Sansa's eyes fluttered to him as his gaze roamed the room. While he had regarded the rest of his home with pride, Sansa could tell this space was the focal point of that pride; the zenith of his fondness. His house could get swept away in a landslide, but as long as this space remained, Sansa sensed he would count his blessings.

Settling her gaze ahead of her once more, Sansa eyed shelves of equipment- shoes, head guards, hand wraps, mouth guards, boxing gloves- until her eyes were pulled to the adjacent long wall of the room. In determined steps, she paced towards a small shelf of medals, trophies, and ribbons centered between two windows of the wall.

With careful strokes, Sansa ran her fingertips along the marble bases of trophies and satin smoothness of ribbons; the words similar, but no two achievements the same. Heavyweight. Champion. Golden Gloves. First place. The words appeared everywhere; carved, printed, and cast before displayed amongst more of the same.

"You must be really good at it." Sansa smiled up towards Sandor who had fallen in next to her side and was eying the tokens of his accomplishments modestly, as if to play down their significance. It wasn't as if he wasn't proud, she knew, but the trophies and medals were just accessories, icing on the proverbially cake to the motivation and drive she sensed in him.

"It started out as street fighting really," Sandor began as he pushed his hands into his pockets. "When you're a hotheaded teenage kid with too much time on your hands, you'll find things to occupy yourself with. Fighting and drinking. That's what I did."

Silently, Sansa nodded her head as she shifted her stare towards Sandor, seeing him anew yet again. With each passing day, he had revealed another piece of himself and in doing so had come to replace her preconceived image of him. Slowly, the man he truly was and the man she thought him to be were becoming congruent in their likeliness. Pieces of the Hound were replaced with pieces of Sandor Clegane, the latter becoming more visible by the day.

"Alberto had suggested I get into boxing," Sandor continued. "It suited me, he said. At first, I didn't understand the point. There were too many rules; no hitting below the belt, no holding, tripping, kicking, head butting. I kept thinking to myself 'what the fuck is the point then if I can't fight the way I want to?' After awhile, I got disciplined with it. I started training with this guy named Kieran. He was a former Irish brawler, grew up piss-poor in Belfast and eventually made it here to the States.

The first day I came in to train with him, Kieran looked at me and said 'I want you to hit me as hard as you can.'"

Finding herself still staring at Sandor, Sansa could see the intensity behind his eyes as he spoke. She imagined it was the same sort of intensity one might find in her whenever she danced or played music. She and Sandor had talked for hours about their likes and dislikes, exchanging stories from their pasts, some funny and some tragic. However, they had never discussed their respective passions, what they were driven to do at the end of the day.

"What'd you do?," Sansa questioned, finding herself thoroughly intrigued by this side of Sandor she had yet to see or perhaps had yet to take the time to notice.

"I fucking hit him as hard as I could and he took it," Sandor chuckled as he shook his head and let his lips remain creased in a smile. "It was like it was nothing to him. He told me to hit him again, so I did and this time I hit him harder. Still nothing. You see, he had trained to take hits. If an opponent is throwing everything they have behind their hits and you're not batting an eye at it, eventually you're either going to wear them down or intimidate them.

So that's how I trained. I'd come in, hit some shit, get hit, blow off steam, and leave bloodied, but feeling better so I'd come in the next day and do the same thing. Every day I did this. Eventually, I started to understand the techniques better, understood my strengths and style as a fighter and learned how to use that to my advantage."

As Sandor finished, he shifted his gaze towards Sansa, giving a bit of a double-take when he came to realize she had already been looking at him. There was once a time when he couldn't take his eyes off of her and Sansa felt a wave of heat hit her as she realized it was now her that was having a hard time not staring at him.

"And what style of fighter are you?," she queried, lowering her eyes politely as she ran her fingers once more over a trophy.

"A brawler, like Kieran. What I lack in speed, I make up for in strength," Sandor continued as he leaned his weight against the wall next to the shelf of medals and trophies as he studied Sansa's movements. "Brawlers have to be strong, have to be able to take repetitive hits until they can find an opening and strike. I may not land a lot of hits, but the hits I do land are packing some power."

With her fingertips tracing up and back down a trophy, Sansa subtly shifted her eyes towards Sandor though she did not meet his stare. Of course he would be a boxer, a fighter. Now that she was getting to know him, it made so much sense. He was strong, that was for sure, and she imagined he enjoyed the physicality it demanded, the intensity, the dedication.

"That one was for a style-match up," Sandor broke in as he motioned his head towards the trophy she had been touching. "I won by TKO."

Sansa felt a smile beam across her face, one she could not control even if she wanted to. A part of her was relieved that his life involved more than just the mafia, that there was more to him than racketeering, violence, extortion, and murder. Sansa settled her fingers on another trophy before lifting a wide-eyed gaze to Sandor.

"That was for the Las Vegas Golden Gloves Heavyweight championship. It's an amateur boxing tournament held all over the country. There are regional tournaments and then the national tournament," Sandor responded as he pushed himself from the wall and took a few paces before he settled once more next to her side.

Sansa's eyes roved over the collection of his achievements, searching out the most recent and finding it had come many years ago.

"The last one you won was in 2009," Sansa murmured quietly as she pointed to a medal hanging heavily from a thick red ribbon. Sandor seemed to tense up at her words and Sansa felt the heaviness of guilt beginning to set in at the thought that maybe she had hit a sore spot with him.

If she had, he did not let on, but instead silently scrutinized the medal through narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow. Watching him, Sansa sensed a turbulence beginning to boil up from within him, something that seemed to be accelerating as he stood quietly next to her.

"I've laid off it a bit," he began, his voice coming low, almost regretfully, and on a sighed exhale of breath. "There's too much other shit going on, but I still train. I try to every day, at least."

What he left unspoken, Sansa could not say, but she knew well enough to know when things went unsaid. Her father would often sit quietly at the dinner table after a long day at work, his eyes heavy and dark as his thoughts seemed to churn about his mind. Sansa and her mother knew when to let it be and leave well enough alone.

"You haven't trained since we've been here," Sansa mused softly. Although her eyes were lowered, she felt Sandor's arm snake around the small of her back, his fingertips lightly gripping her waist. Turning towards Sandor, Sansa yielded to his touch as he pulled her into him.

"I've been a bit distracted," he grumbled as his other hand came up to the side of her face and set about stroking her hair. Sansa felt her pulse beginning to quicken as her heart began beating faster in her chest, the tell-tale physiological response to his touch.

"I'm sorry," Sansa replied timidly as Sandor set in running the back of his fingers across her cheek. She felt her knees wobble ever so slightly and allowed her weight to push into him lest she go tumbling to the floor.

"No, you don't get to be sorry about that," Sandor groaned on a deep whisper before settling his lips against her mouth in a kiss, his tongue softly cajoling her lips to part for him. Wrapping her arms around his neck and lifting herself up on her tip-toes, Sansa complied to his demands, eager to surrender herself to his tantalizing nips and licks at her bottom lip. As the cadence of their kiss eventually slowed to a halt, Sansa's eyes fluttered open and a flush of warmth passed through her body, beckoning a blissful, contented smile.

"What?," Sandor prodded as he pulled back a bit to search her smiling face.

It was a simple question with an even simpler answer. He makes me happy. Yet that was not the complete picture of this strange reality. In fact, somewhere along the way, realism had become convoluted into surrealism; the life-like depictions of her surroundings and situations had distorted to a fantastical and illogical representation of what they once were. It was as if Salvador Dali himself had painted her life with strokes of genius and a touch of madness. Muted colors and drab shades of reality had given way to the vividness of dreams and peculiarity of things that did not belong together. 'Can this be real?,' she had wondered to herself countless times. A man that made so much sense in the reality of her heart yet her mind could not comprehend the world in which he made his existence; an existence built off of chaos, destruction, and so many strange and terrible things. She knew not how to reconcile the two, but found shelter in the knowledge that Sandor had carved out a niche of normalcy in the world that she sensed even he struggled to survive in.

Realizing he was awaiting an answer, Sansa let her eyes circumnavigate the room, exploring the details and discovering new ones with each pass.

"I don't know," she finally offered as response before motioning her head towards everything and nothing in particular. "This. You're always surprising me with things I don't expect."

It was as good of an answer as she could give in this moment because she herself was only just beginning to understand the stirring she felt when he was near. Sansa felt Sandor's chest expand against hers as he gave an amused laugh.

"You think I just spend all my time in fancy suits telling my men what to do, getting into shoot outs with bad guys, saving pretty girls like you?"

Clearly, that may have been the romanticized filter to the life that Sandor led, but even Sansa knew now that it was hardly the reality. Sandor certainly was no Lucky Luciano, no more than he was Laurence Olivier. Somewhere along the line Sansa had quit trying to apply a mold for Sandor to fit into; something from which she could draw comparison to make sense of him. Instead, she took him for who he was and more importantly saw him for who he was. She remained quiet as he took her hand and led her back towards the door.

"No, little bird. I like fighting and it just so happens that I'm good at it," Sandor added as he flicked off the lights and pulled the door closed behind them. "I imagine if the day comes I want out of Moriarti's whole deal, then I'd probably open my own boxing gym. Follow in the footsteps of guys like Kieran and teach other men how to fight."

A radiant smile swept across Sansa's face. With her eyes downturned, Sandor could not have seen and Sansa imagined she was grateful for that. She was off the hook, as it were, for having to explain her smile yet again. But what exactly might she say to him now? That the prospect of him leaving the mafia life overwhelmed her with joy? That she had built castles in her mind, a beautiful ending to a story with a tragic start and she couldn't envision it without him? No, he might think her naïve or he may even chide her for romanticizing things again. For now, that could be her secret; the place in her mind where she could retreat, if only for a little while.

"What about you? You're the song bird. A dancing songbird, if I remember correctly," Sandor broke in as they meandered casually across the expanse of the back yard with the sun cantering towards the western horizon.

"My mother played the piano, for as long as I can remember, and so I was constantly surrounded by music. I picked up on it at a young age. As far as dance goes, I started ballet when I was three. Since I was sixteen, my summer job was always as a dance instructor for a beginning ballet class at the dance studio down the street from my house. I never wanted to be a professional dancer, but I really liked the teaching aspect of it. No matter what I do, I think I'd like to work with children, teaching music or teaching dance. Maybe both."

As she finished, she found Sandor smiling at her as his eyes seemed to search her face as they so often did. He seemed to mirror her in this moment; both seeing one another in fresh light as they shared a bit more of themselves in turn. Now Sansa found it was she who was curious why he was smiling, what thoughts were going through his mind. Before she could work up the words to ask, they had reached the back door to the house and Sandor stopped with his hand resting on the doorknob.

"One day, I'll have a song from you," he said flatly, the smile retreating and a fervor of seriousness stirring in his steely eyes.

A song. It was a simple request, but it meant the world to her to hear him ask for it and it would mean the world to him for her to fulfill it. She could sing, that was true, but she often was too shy to sing for others. For him, though, she wished to share that part of herself along with all the other parts she kept locked away, lonely in the towers of her mind. Turning to him, Sansa placed a hand against his chest and sought out his eyes with a sincere stare.

"One day, yes," she intoned softly and truly. "I'd be happy to give you a song."


Pancakes had been a failure.

A complete fucking failure, but who was he kidding? Sandor could maneuver his way through shylocks and shakedowns. He could ice an empty suit and make a marriage in one fell swoop. But put Sandor in the kitchen and ask him to make pancakes, he would fall flat on his face. It hardly mattered though as Sansa swooped in to his rescue, their roles so oddly reversed or perhaps perfectly assumed.

Sweet as ever, she had reassured him, clearly appreciative of the effort he had put into it despite the outcome, before correcting all he had done wrong without once calling him out on it. No one could ever say that Sansa Stark wasn't polite. Where pancakes had been a disaster, their diversion to his boxing gym and subsequent conversation had been a quiet success. Slowly and over the past four days Sandor had unarmored himself in front of her; piece-by-piece, he gave up the ghost to step from the shadows and into the light. In doing so, he had revealed more of who he really was to himself than to her. He had learned he could be compassionate, he could be honest, he could momentarily be free from the shackles of a life that chose him more than he chose it.

Back inside, the darkness had crept through the living room, and with it a pleasant sense of calm, as Sansa fell to the couch with a contented sigh. Sandor followed suit and eased himself down next to her. With her head resting against the back of the couch and her eyes lifted to the ceiling, Sansa remained quiet as her countenance spoke to some sense of relief; relief at what he did not know. Sandor sat in stillness next to her, his arm pressed against hers in a tentative closeness.

"Mirabelle and Bronn are coming tomorrow," Sandor finally broke in. He had wanted it to be a surprise, but realized now that Sansa may appreciate forthrightness in lieu of any more surprises in her life. He seemed to have the right of it as her head turned and her eyes snapped towards him, her mouth curling upwards into a sweeping smile.

"They are?," she exclaimed nearly breathless as her eyes glistened wistfully.

Laughing as he nodded his head, Sandor reached his arm around her and settled it behind her shoulders. Sansa responded by pulling her legs up and tucking them next to her as she scooted towards him, bouncing ever so slightly with giddiness as she pressed herself against his side.

Sansa's face suddenly dropped as she stared wide-eyed at Sandor. Even in the faint darkness of the room, he could see the steady blush creeping across her cheeks.

"Bronn," she whispered on a tremulous breath. "Oh god. I haven't seen him since…well…you know." At that, Sansa let her eyes fall to her hands picking mindlessly of the hem of her dress.

Sandor had forgotten about that little incident, the scarlet letter of a bruise on Sansa's forehead having faded by now. Even if it hadn't faded, Sandor still didn't see much sense perseverating on Mirabelle's trysts with his underboss. That was a hop, skip, and a jump into the territory of "too much information" and still irritated him to no end besides.

With one arm still wrapped around Sansa's shoulder, Sandor brought his other hand to his face and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

"How do you think I feel? He's fucking my sister," he grumbled out on a deep sigh. At that, Sansa shifted away from him slightly and swiveled so that she was looking at him incredulously, the feigned offense written plain as day across her face.

"At least you didn't have to see it," she exclaimed as she pushed him lightly against the chest. Sandor snatched up her wrist as he pulled her back to him once more until she settled against him.

"Touché, little bird. Touché."

Grateful that the matter had finally been dropped, Sandor reached for the side table lamp and switched it on. The room suddenly felt warm with the dull glow of light and Sandor let out a deep sigh as he relaxed into the couch. He could feel Sansa tracing circles about his chest with her fingers. He knew well enough by now what that meant; it meant the girl was thinking about something and working up the nerve to ask him a question. When Sansa finally spoke, Sandor couldn't help the self-assured smile that broke across his lips.

"Are you upset that Bronn is with Mirabelle?," she asked. Sandor's cocksure confidence was dashed in no time as the conversation somehow circled back to his sister and Bronn's relationship or whatever the fuck it was between them. The question seemed inevitable; eventually he was going to be asked by the interested parties how he felt about their relationship. He supposed it was better to be asked by Sansa first.

Just because he had never gotten into long term relationships, that didn't mean Sandor had been blind to the attraction between Bronn and Mirabelle; the lingering looks, the excuses to be alone in one another's company, the sly comments made here and there from both parties. Sandor knew well enough what it all meant and he had warned Bronn to keep away from Mirabelle. The man could have any pick of women that came around, but not his baby sister. He had thought he made that clear, but Bronn was a grown man and Mirabelle, although he was loath to admit it, wasn't a baby anymore.

Sandor felt his jaw tighten the longer he thought about it and this ranked pretty damn high on the list of things he didn't really want to think about.

"Upset that they're together? Not really, no," he offered truthfully, the tension slightly releasing from his body as Sansa continued running circles up and down his chest. "Upset that they thought I was so fucking stupid I didn't know what was going on? Yeah. Bronn's a good guy though. Besides Alberto, I trust him more than anyone else. He would never intentionally hurt Mirabelle. I do know that."

Indeed, he did know that, but it made no difference in his mind. It was the unintentional hurts, the emotional shrapnel of being with a mafia man that bothered him; the potential that Mirabelle could end up collateral damage in Bronn's dealings as an underboss for the Moriarti family.

"But you still don't want him being with her," Sansa declared softly, reading between the lines as she so often did.

He supposed if he got down to brass tacks, then that was the natural conclusion to draw from it. In the back of his mind though, Sandor knew he'd be a hypocrite if he told either Bronn or Mirabelle that. He knew all too well the reservations some of his men had about Sansa being around and yet Bronn and Mirabelle never seemed to judge him. In fact, Mirabelle had taken it upon herself almost from day one to play matchmaker between him and Sansa.

"If they're both happy, then I guess I have to be okay with it," Sandor finally groaned out. "It just gets complicated. I never wanted Mirabelle to end up with a made man. I see what the wives of my men go through; having to constantly stand behind their man regardless of the shit that gets thrown at them. That includes infidelity, lying when the Feds come sniffing around, raising a family with the knowledge that they could be widowed at any given moment. Beyond that, families aren't immune to blow back. Wives and children are used as bargaining chips by rival families. I just don't want that for my sister. Bronn may be good to her, but life in the underworld makes no such guarantees. If anything, it promises to be hard in the best of times and tragic in the worst."

Slowly, Sansa sat up at that, her body rising away from him before resting against the back of the couch as she turned to face him. Her hands rested in her lap while her fingers worked against one another nervously.

"Is that why you don't get serious with women?," she murmured before snapping her stare up to him as a hand came to her mouth agape. "Oh god! I'm sorry. That came out wrong. It's just…Mirabelle told-"

Although Sandor understood she didn't mean it to be insulting, he still couldn't hide the agitation in his voice as he cut her off.

"I get it. Mirabelle and her big fucking mouth again."

Shaking his head and snorting out a bitter laugh, Sandor crossed his arms about his chest, wholly unsatisfied with the turn this conversation had taken. Sansa seemed to shrink away from him as her head dropped to her hands in her lap. He knew she regretted asking him and probably would have given anything for him to change the subject and forget about it.

But there was no going back on it now. The Pandora's box of mafia relationship logistics had been blown wide open.

"I never really came across any girls worth giving two fucks about," Sandor confessed as his tone of voice softened a bit. "The women I've been with I've usually mistreated in one way or another. It's not like I've meant to be an asshole. It just gets hard. I couldn't tell them the truth about everything. A lot of what I do I don't want to talk about. That amount of secrecy in a relationship is toxic. That's with the women I even bothered to try being with. Most of the time I didn't try. I'm not going to lie to you, Sansa. I'm not some fucking knight in shining armor. I hope you know that by now. You know what I am and what I do."

His admission seemed to sting her, he saw, as Sansa bit her lip and furrowed her brow. Her breaths were coming quicker too, the rise and fall of her chest exaggerated and rapid. Suddenly, her eyes, heavy with determination, flickered up towards his.

"But what you do isn't who you are," she protested adamantly as she set her eyes hard against his.

Once more, Sandor found himself simultaneously moved and irritated by the amount of faith she seemed to have in him. He wanted to earn her respect and admiration; not have it handed to him for some perceived qualities she thought he possessed.

"Don't start with that bullshit again. Making me out to be something I'm not." His words came harsher than intended, biting and cruel almost. Sandor could see the hurt in her eyes, the way any residual tenacity had given way to wounded defeat. Despite this, Sansa shook her head and although her eyes fell away from his, he could hear the resolve in her voice despite the quivering.

"No. You're the one that does that, not me. I see you." Lifting her eyes to him, Sandor saw a renewed sense of certainty rising within her once again as she emphasized her words. "I see you. Even if you can't see yourself."

Sandor was stunned into a sobering silence. His mouth hung open for he knew not how long until finally he realized and sealed his mouth into a tight-lipped scowl. Sansa had broken through the last bits of armor he had managed to maintain around her. Her perceptiveness sought to bring down every front and every wall he had put up. Panicked, Sandor held onto his pride and felt his eyes narrow at her.

"I see myself just fine. You want me?," he growled out before motioning towards the open area of the room with a sweeping gesture of his arm. "You want all this? I don't even think you know what that means for you. Fuck, I don't even know what that would look like."

Leaning forward, Sandor propped his elbows up on his knees and rested his forehead in the palms of his hands. Swiveling his head to the side, Sandor looked at her, watching her turn to stone beside him. It seemed he had broken through to her too, battering her resolve until he saw a single tear form in each eye and fall down her cheeks.

He felt guilty. He felt like a jackass. Here she was trying to convince him that he was a worthwhile human being and he was telling her about how he hadn't given shit about any other woman from his past.

Sitting up, Sandor shifted towards her until his knees were flush against the side of leg and his hand was resting on the back of the couch behind her head. Dipping his own head, Sandor leaned forward to catch her eyes in a steadfast stare.

"Jesus fucking Christ, Sansa! You have to know I give more than two fucks about you. A lot more. Tell me you know that by now."

Nodding her head somberly, Sansa blinked away the tears and finally met Sandor's intent stare as she gave a forlorn half smile. At that, Sandor came undone, abandoning every trace of irritation for favor of the affection he wanted for her.

"Then get over hear, girl, so I can prove it to you," he rasped with his own half smile as he wrapped his hand around her arm and pulled her closer to him. With a small gasp, Sansa obliged more out of being startled than anything. Wide-eyed, she looked up at him in a daze of confusion and lingering hurt.

Softening his approach, Sandor released his hand from around her arm and brought it up to cup her cheek. Matching his eyes to hers, he set about caressing her cheek with his thumb.

"I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you." It was the truth and Sandor hoped she understood his sincerity. As he watched the confusion and pain slowly retreat from her eyes, Sandor realized that he too understood; understood that the pain he wished he could spare Mirabelle was the same pain he was going to try his damnedest to spare Sansa. He regarded her as his now and despite his inexperience at being with a woman for something other than sex, Sandor knew he had to figure out a way to shield her from the shit storm that so often was his life.

Nodding her head in recognition of his words, Sansa moved towards him and brushed her lips against his in a soft kiss. Sandor wrapped his arm around the small of her back and pulled her onto his lap, closing the miniscule distance between their lips before deepening the kiss with a groan; his tongue gliding against the fullness of her bottom lip before slowly easing into her mouth. He relished the warmth of her kiss; the gentle flicker of her tongue he would feel against his bottom lip as he established the pace of yearning and desire. Sansa whimpered in complaint as he pulled away ever so slightly, his lips softly teasing her as they brushed against hers.

He could tell she felt exposed; the skirt of her dress had ridden half way up her thighs as her legs wantonly straddled his hips. Her cheeks seemed to burn red as she let her eyes fall to her hands which were pressed firmly against his chest. Sandor lifted one of his hands to rest at the back of her neck, his fingers interlacing with strands of her hair. His other hand smoothed down her back, stopping where her spine naturally curved into the small divot of space right above her bottom.

Slowly, Sansa's eyes roamed up his form until she met his stare. Undoubtedly, his eyes were dark and lustrous, and he could almost see her squirm internally both from embarrassment at her precarious position as well as her own want and desire.

Sandor leaned his weight into her as he bent forward, his eyes still glued to hers and silently willing her to keep his stare. Unwilling to defy him in this, Sansa kept her eyes to his as he shifted himself towards the length of the couch and laid her down onto the cushions.

With his hands behind her knees, Sandor propped Sansa's legs up until the sides of her thighs were pressed against either side of him, straddling him as he settled in the space between her legs.

By now, the skirt of her dress had fallen against her hips and Sansa let out a tiny whimper in protest. He expected her to reach her hands up and pull her skirt down. Or maybe even to sit back up and demurely place a kiss on his lips, quietly setting the pace he would undoubtedly follow. Instead, Sansa's body become rigid, her hands pressed against the couch cushions and her eyes widening with each quickened breath. Sandor's lips curled in a half smile as his eyes roamed over the sight of her. Her lips were moist from kissing and slightly parted, her skin was flushed and radiating a subtle sort of glow, her hair fanned out into a bed a waves underneath her.

Slowly and with his palms pressed against the front of her knees, Sandor moved his hands slowly down the front of her legs until they reached her hips. Sansa let a tiny gasp escape her lips and Sandor could see that her chest was heaving now, the curve of her cleavage steadily rising and falling with each breath. Try as he might, he couldn't suppressed the guttural groan that resonated from the back of his throat.

Sandor settled back a bit on his knees as he admired her body; her legs slender, shapely, and long, her waist small as it curved into her hips, her breasts firm and spilling out from the top of her dress. His thoughts meandered greedily to places they probably shouldn't have in that moment. He wondered if he turned her on, if he slipped his fingers beneath her panties and stroked between her folds how wet she'd be for him. Or if he pulled her dress off and took right here, what sorts of moans she would make and all the ways her gorgeous face would contort in pleasure as he slowly slid his hard cock in and out of the hot wetness between her legs.

Grumbling out yet another deep groan, Sandor's desire for her had reached a fever pitch and he couldn't stop his hand from moving over her hips, gripping his fingers there as he leaned forward towards her.

As his weight pressed against her chest, Sandor moved his lips up her neck, his tongue lingering against her skin in spots he knew would elicit unbidden moans. With his lips and tongue working against the soft spot of skin right where her jaw line met her neck, Sansa arched her body into him as she let out a delicate, whimpering moan.

Instantaneously, Sandor's grip tightened on her hips and his mouth moved with a fervor up towards her lips. Sansa had hardly enough time to part her lips at his urging before his tongue was already seeking out hers, his hands just as eager as they roamed up her sides. Reaching the sides of her breasts, Sandor's hands eagerly sought out the fullness until his fingers hooked underneath the fabric of her dress and bra, the front of his fingers flush against the bareness of her breasts. With a yearning grunt, Sandor deepened the kiss even more as he eased his hips into her, rocking the stiffness of his cock up against her in slow, rolling motions.

Squealing into the kiss, Sansa squirmed underneath him, wiggling and writhing until he stopped his movements. Almost immediately, Sandor went still on top of her, his head falling against her neck, his fingers unhooking from her dress. With their chests heaving against one another, Sandor let out a deep, almost indiscernible muttering of words with each exhaled rasp of his breath. 'Okay, okay, okay,' he breathed into her neck, his mantra interjected here and there with a frustrated laugh. It was his effort to try and settle the heat that was coursing through them both, but mostly him. Pulling away with almost a pained expression, Sandor sat up and squeezed his eyes shut, running his hands over his face slowly as he exhaled a deep breath.

He felt like a fucking teenager again, hardly able to contain himself with her. Each time she would squirm underneath him, give a tiny little squeal or some other indication that things had gone too far, Sandor was finding it harder to pull away from her, to stop his hands in their tracks, and calm himself down. He wanted her and her shyness and inexperience perpetuated that want, slowly sparking it's evolution into a screaming need. However, he wanted and needed her to trust him. That need and want managed to trump the need growing in his pants and had ultimately been the force which pulled him away from her.

Opening his eyes again, Sandor looked at Sansa who was still laying against the couch cushion, panting her breaths as she stared up at him. Extending a hand to her, Sandor pulled her up until she was sitting on the edge of the couch, her legs now pressed to together as she stared at her hands folded in her lap.

Lifting her eyes ever so slightly, Sansa eyed Sandor's cock pressing hard against the front of his pants before letting her eyes flutter away.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, unable to let her eyes meet his.

Sandor knew she felt guilty. He knew she felt as though she had left him frustrated and wanting more. True, his balls were aching slightly with the subtle reminder he needed release and it was also true that he wanted her something fierce. But Sandor also knew that she was well worth the wait and found he didn't really mind taking his time exploring her body.

Sliding from the couch, Sandor crouched in front of her and pressed his palms against the couch cushions on either side of her hips.

"Hey," Sandor soothed as he looked up at her until she finally met his eyes. "No apologizing. Now what's going on in that pretty head of yours?"

Sansa let go of a breath, one she had apparently been holding. Burying her face in her hands, Sansa shook her head.

"I don't know," she sighed in exasperation before stumbling through her next words. "I just…I don't want you to get frustrated with me because I haven't…"

Sansa let her voice fall off as she stammered, her words reaching Sandor's ears muffled and unsure. Pulling her hands away from her face and interlacing them in his, Sandor sought out her eyes, but found she would not meet his stare.

"Look at me," he urged with a deep rasp until Sansa tentatively lifted her eyes to his. "I want you, Sansa. That's no secret. But I want all of you, not just your body. I want your trust and I want you to get to know me better before we get too physical. And I want to get to know you better too. There's no rush to do anything if you don't want to."

He hoped she understood his sincerity; that if she could really see him, as she said she could, that she would see that he meant every word of what he said. Sansa silently nodded her head in agreement and Sandor could feel her hands shaking in his, her lips trembling as she stared doe-eyed at him.

"I haven't…I've never had sex before," she whispered in her own offering of truth. Sandor smiled reassuringly before exhaling a small laugh.

"I sort of figured that," he responded through a smile. Although Sansa viewed her own innocence as a deficiency, he found her innocence to be both enticing and endearing.

"Is it that obvious?," she replied with an exasperated exhale of breath before chewing on her bottom lip.

Squeezing her hands, Sandor shook his head before lifting himself back up on the couch and next to her side.

"No. Not like that," he assured, his voice deep as he ran his fingers through her hair and down her back. "You act like it's a bad thing. It's not. I told you before that we won't do anything until you want to. You set the pace and I'll follow."

Earnestly he stared at her until she responded with a smile; not a polite smile she gave sometimes when she felt it was expected of her, but a smile of genuine contentment accompanied with a nod of her head. Trust is a fickle thing, Sandor knew; it takes ages to earn and mere seconds to destroy. Although they hadn't had ages together, he finally felt like he was slowly earning her trust and that was something he refused to annihilate just for a moment's pleasure.

As Sandor lay back on the couch, Sansa assumed her place by his side. She tucked her face close to his chest as he settled his arm over the curve of her waist. Reaching for the remote, Sandor flicked on the T.V., more for background noise than anything. His thoughts were enough to preoccupy him for now. Time seemed to pass and the night grew dark. Eventually the rhythm of Sansa's breath slowed to soft cadence of slumber.

He watched her sleep now. Observed the sanctuary of serenity she seemed to find in sleep. He counted the seconds between the rise and fall of her chest and studied the sensuous curve of her parted lips, the delicate slope of her up-turned nose, the darkened length of her thick eyelashes. Lifting his hand, Sandor ran the back of his fingers up and down her arm, tracing the length with a soft touch and watched the ripple of goose bumps rise from her skin illuminated in blues and golds by the faint flicker of the television.

His existence was in a state of flux. The external chaos had receded to a sort of internal pandemonium and Sandor didn't know which was worse. He could fight off men, take them down in a barrage of bullets and blood, but he couldn't stave off the relentlessness of fear.

No matter how he figured, Sandor could see no outcome where he got to keep her. He had been through it over and over in his mind; his thoughts a labyrinth of dead ends and broken dreams. Best case scenario, he might be able to return her to her father once the threats against her had been eliminated. Polite as ever, Sansa would probably thank him for his kindness, kiss him on the cheek, and then get on with her life. In the days spent upstairs in his office, Sandor had mulled it over, considered the option and sought out every last flaw. Her father was still in hiding and could be anywhere, dead even. Sansa couldn't go home yet and even when she could, would she have a home and family to get back to?

Those flaws were pale in comparison to the singular reason Sandor had eventually dismissed the idea of trying to get her back home. His own selfish desires were a jagged pill to swallow and an uncomfortable admission that he'd forsake her wants for his own need to possess her, wholly and completely. That internal confession of truth had been like holding a mirror to the darkest parts of his heart. She was his now and he struggled to understand the weakness he felt in the face of letting her go.

But to keep her meant to keep her safe and Sandor understood the dangerous shortcomings of his ability to even do that. Gregor was alive and well somewhere, licking his wounds and masterminding retaliation. The longer Gregor kept quiet, the more Sandor had to fear. A spat between brothers was coming to a head and the writing on the wall was now a neon sign that spelled out death and destruction. Sansa was merely the fire starter to the war coming. Neither he nor his brother would lie low forever, slinking away from their familial destiny and birthright to destroy one another.

The worst case scenario had already played out almost to completion; the last act having yet to be played and this downtime merely an intermission. But then that was what his nightmares were for; the stage for all the 'what ifs' and 'what could have happened' to play out as Act II behind his eyes and taunt him as he slept.

And taunt him they did until he awoke in a cold sweat and gasped for breaths. Each night Sansa would drift asleep wrapped in his arms and each night Sandor would wake just once, always just once, from these nightmares. Wide awake and reeling, he would cast his petrified stare to the beautiful creature still tucked in his arms. Although he fancied himself an atheist, he would thank every fucking God known to man that she was there with him, that she hadn't left by force or free will. He did not stir next to her and he doubted she knew he was awake, but with fear still running through his veins, Sandor would turn to her. He would watch as she slept; count her breaths to calm the worries that besieged his mind and recant all they had done that day, every normal little thing, just to distract him from his thoughts. Sandor's arm would squeeze around her tighter then as he would pull her closer, deciding to seek his own sanctuary in her; each calm breath, every soft smile, and all those sweet words and even sweeter lips.

Now as Sandor pulled Sansa closer to him, he pressed his lips to her forehead before letting his eyes close. He knew now to hold her, not just because he wanted to. He knew to hold on like hell to her because this very well may be the calm before the storm.

Chapter Text

 

Gods and Monsters

Chapter 9

9


Funny how a place seems to take on a life of its own; it's thrumming heartbeat the collective consciousness of those who have gone before and those who have yet to come, it's pulse the mundane goings-on which soak into the very pores of the earth. To Mirabelle, California had always held a sense of broken-hearted enchantment for her. From its early days when those seeking to manifest their destinies in gold braved the unknown wilds of the west to now where listless dreamers found their way here to fulfill the whimsies of film, dance, and song with hearts that had long been broken before crossing the Sierra Nevada. It is the land of shattered dreams and lost souls. Yet people still came with hope in their hearts and stars in their eyes to find what they were looking for in the Golden state. Mirabelle hoped Sandor had found what he was looking for here, whatever that may be; perhaps the solace he had sought for so long or maybe the protection he wished to offer a girl who had entered his life like the gust of a storm.

All of yesterday, they had zig-zagged through the state of California; up a mountain pass, down through the matching valley, and through all those sleepy little towns nestled in between. Up and down, back and forth, Bronn had led the convoy of cars, soldiers marching on well into the night. Half had split up at the Nevada border for the dual purpose of both anonymity as well as some sort of business which was to take place up in Reno. She knew to not ask questions. That was something she had learned early on. Some women in the family- be they wives, sisters, girlfriends, mistresses- knew everything and some knew nothing. To each their own, but it was Mirabelle's preference not to know. Knowledge may be power in "normal" life, but in the Underworld it seemed to cause more harm than good. As half the convoy soldiered on towards their "business," Mirabelle remained quiet and simply watched until the red orbs of their tail lights disappeared down the adjacent highway of desert twilight. She had said a prayer for the men and then let it go, returning to her crossword puzzle to stare blankly at that pesky 39 across.

Although a mere three hours from their destination, they had stopped outside of Redding to rest for the night. Bronn had wanted to keep going, insisting that he was more than up to the challenge of driving in one straight shot. After all, her brother and Sansa had done it so he could do it too, he had declared. From the passenger's seat, she had seen his head bobbing and knew he was a hop, skip, and a jump away from falling asleep at the wheel. As he defiantly argued with her in the hotel parking lot, Mirabelle had rolled her eyes and sauntered off, leaving him in the car while she checked them in for the evening. Men and their egos.

Mirabelle had made it up to Bronn though. She had soothed his wounded pride with cooing words and gentle touches. He made love to her, unhurried and with the confident receptiveness of a man 15 years her senior. She could watch him as he listened for each gasp and recited all the movements he had committed to memory, movements which left her adrift in waves of pleasure. She could trace the vision of him in her own mind; the image of a man who had bared his tattered soul to her and in turn she had showed him the scars of her own vulnerabilities. They were bound by all they had shared and the intimacy reverberated in the way he touched her, held her, kissed her, and loved her. Mirabelle had awoken a few days before to find she may very well have fallen in love with him too.

Now as they stopped at some rinky-dink gas station to fill up one last time, Mirabelle dreamily lifted her eyes to the sky and squinted against the light filtering through her heart-shaped sunglasses. Crows circled above, their wings appearing glossy in the glaring sunlight as they every now and again gave a shrill squawk to one another. What they could possibly have to say, she did not know.

"Ugly fucking things," Zulu grumbled as he leaned up against the side of the car next to her. With a half-smile and a shake of the head, Mirabelle glanced towards the young man who so eerily resembled a young Iggy Pop in all his wide-eyed, emaciated eccentricity.

"And what exactly do you have against a murder of crows?," Mirabelle shot back as she pulled the cigarette that was resting between his lips and took a long drag. She hadn't smoked a cigarette since her days of bar hopping with Arianne. Even then, it was a social thing, more for appearances than anything else. Still, the smell of cigarette smoke held for her girlish memories of drunken laughter, table dancing, making out with men whose names she almost never remembered the next day, and all that frivolous freedom that seemed to have floated away when she wasn't looking.

Shrugging his shoulders, Zulu shoved his hands into the pockets of his black jeans and stared down at his Doc Martens kicking around dirt in the parking lot.

"Technically, they're ravens. Corvus corax. They're in Mexico too. I remember my Ma going after them with a broom whenever they'd congregate in our yard."

Mirabelle exhaled a laugh on a puff of smoke before handing the red lipstick-stained cigarette back to Zulu, her head already flushed with an emerging buzz.

"For as smart as you are, what are you doing with the likes of the Moriarti? Shouldn't you be in college or something?"

Zulu stiffened at that, sucking in a deep breath and straightening his spine until he stood to his full height. Cocking her head to the side and lowering her sunglasses to the bridge of her nose, Mirabelle looked at him. A sincere look, one to emphasize her inquiries were no jest, but rather were made in all seriousness.

"You need money to go to college," he replied quietly as he settled against the car once more. "I don't have money. No more than I have a family that gives a fuck what happens to me either way. College or no college."

If Zulu was jaded, Mirabelle couldn't rightly tell. Not by his words, at least. His words were matter-of-fact, spoken as if he had said them a hundred thousand times before, as if he had purposely repeated them until they no longer held a sting. Something behind his eyes betrayed him though and Mirabelle knew Zulu, like so many who had wondered into California before him, was truly a lost soul.

Letting her eyes fall away from him, Mirabelle pushed her sunglasses back up her nose and found it was now her mindlessly kicking dirt around with her feet. She knew bits and pieces of Zulu's past; an incomplete story, yes, but enough for her to decipher the heartache and understand it had been less than ideal. A dead mother and a dead-beat father. That was Zulu's past and it was one she knew he wished not to speak of at any great length. Once more, Mirabelle knew well enough to not ask questions.

Moments passed where neither Mirabelle nor Zulu said anything, but rather settled into an uncomfortable silence until the sound of whistling punctuated the quiet of restless and hesitant minds. Shifting her gaze towards the doors of the gas station mini-mart, she could see Bronn cantering across the parking lot towards them, an iced tea in one hand and a box of cigarettes in the other. From behind her, a chorus of squalling all but dampened the sound of Bronn's whistling as the ravens fled from the trees and power lines to seek refuge elsewhere.

"For my lady," Bronn warbled as he handed the can of iced tea to Mirabelle with a sarcastic little bow before standing to his full height and tossing the box of cigarettes at Zulu. "And for you, kid."

Scampering forward, Zulu caught the pack of cigarettes as they tumbled towards the ground, but not before stumbling over his own two feet and falling to his knees in the dust. Bronn tossed his head back and let out a hearty laugh at the spectacle unfolding before him.

"Good thing we keep you in front of a computer, Zulu," Bronn bantered as he opened the driver's side door to the car.

Zulu seemed to bristle at that, clearly embarrassed either by the display of his gracelessness or perhaps the prospect of being the only made man who didn't get sent on assignments in the "field," as they called it. Dejected and with his head hung down, Zulu paced back towards his own vehicle and slipped into the passenger seat, content to let Thomas continue to drive.

Mirabelle slid into the car and shot Bronn a chiding glare as she popped open her iced tea and snatched up the half-finished crossword puzzle perpetually stuck on 39 across.

"You know, you could be a little less of a prick to him sometimes," she grumbled whilst slipping out of her black ballet flats and pulling her legs up onto the seat.

"I'm just toughening the boy up is all," Bronn declared as he reached over and patted her on her bare thigh right below the hem of her shorts. "Better me than Sandor, eh? At least I'm not such a hard ass about shit."

Choosing to ignore him for now, Mirabelle steadied her gaze to the road ahead of them. Sometimes she wondered if the men of the family understood what it was like to be an outsider thrown into the mix, left to sink or swim. She imagined they didn't as many of them grew up in the Mafia life. They were sons and grandsons of original members, their piece of the legacy already established and set by the blood that coursed through their veins. It hadn't taken Sandor long to prove himself to Alberto. Full of rage and a hungry drive for vengeance, Sandor quickly became a valued member, having proved himself time and time again on the streets and with his contracts. He was a made man in no time, much to the chagrin of some of the men who valued Italian blood more than essential skills. Clegane certainly wasn't an Italian name yet Alberto called the shots and made it clear that Sandor and Mirabelle too were as good as gold as far as he was concerned.

Still, Mirabelle dealt with her share of bullshit; petty hierarchal drama that the women seemed to occupy themselves with. If the men were exclusive, the women were worse. Mirabelle had been young then and had taken their iciness to heart. Perhaps that was why she felt a compelling need to shield Sansa, to make her feel safe and welcomed, to perhaps heal her own bruised heart by nurturing the girl. Much like herself, Sansa had suffered tragedy and had come to the family during a tumultuous time in her life. While Mirabelle felt the same sense of protectiveness now with Zulu, it wasn't her place to interfere with the boy's hazing into the ranks. Like all others before him, the kid would have to prove himself and then some. All she could do was urge Bronn to perhaps show the kid just a little compassion although she doubted her urging would make any difference.

An hour went by in dreamy silence; Mirabelle staring out the window as she clutched her crossword puzzle in her lap and Bronn listening to a baseball game, cursing out loud at every walk, strike, and foul.

As the game went into the seventh inning stretch, Bronn abruptly flicked off the radio and swiveled a devious stare towards Mirabelle. She knew that look and it meant he was up to no good.

"Alright. How much do you want to bet that they're fucking?"

Suddenly roused from her highway hypnosis, Mirabelle furrowed her eyebrows at him and blurted out the obvious question in her mind.

"Who's fucking?," she queried although as soon as the words left her lips she knew exactly who he was talking about.

"Your brother and Sansa. Come on, doll. Ante up. What do you think?"

Bronn's lips pulled into a sweeping grin, his eyes glistening with merriment as if he had been waiting for this to come up in conversation. For as hard of a man Bronn fancied himself to be, he sure loved to gossip.

"They're not fucking. End of story." At that, Mirabelle tossed the crossword puzzle into her purse and crossed her arms about her chest.

With her curtness of response and defensiveness of body language spurring him on, Bronn pressed further, clearly unwilling to let the topic go; the topic she could tell he had been dying to talk about for god-only-knows how long.

"Why not?," he exclaimed as his mouth went agape. "Have you seen the way he looks at her and just recently the way she looks at him?"

Mirabelle turned to look at him once more and couldn't help, but let a tiny giggle escape her lips. The dichotomy of some men in the family never ceased to amaze her; Sandor with his raging temper and icy brusqueness agonizing over how to talk to an 18 year old girl. And now Bronn, the foul-mouthed hot shot who fearlessly maneuvered his way in and out of some of the most dangerous situations the men had been in, who was about to bubble over with excitement as he speculated just what exactly Sansa and Sandor had been up to this past week.

Relenting, Mirabelle couldn't imagine denying her man this small bit of joy; the joy of gossiping like a little girl.

"I have seen the way they look at each other," she began matter-of-factly as she calmly stated her case. "And that's precisely why I don't think he's sleeping with her. I think there's something more than just a physical attraction going on there. A lot more, actually."

Mirabelle's last words seemed to trail off as if the truth of them had just struck her, a subconscious awakening of sorts where if her eyes hadn't seen she would not have believed. She had seen it though, first from her brother and then from Sansa.

"And that's why I think he is fucking her," Bronn cried out as he punctuated each word with a pounding of his fist on the steering wheel.

"Just picture this," he continued, a bit calmer now and sweeping his hand through the air with a dreamy gaze. "Alone in a house, desolate beach front property, sunsets, no one there to bother you or walk in on you in the middle of the act. He's had five days to put the moves on her."

Mirabelle felt a laugh erupt from her lips as she almost spit out a sip of her iced tea. Shifting in her seat so that she was now facing Bronn, Mirabelle set an intent stare on him.

"Wait a minute. We are talking about the same guy, right? My brother may have been around the block a few times, but he's by no means some sort of Casanova. I'm not sure he even has 'moves.'"

"Hmm. That's true," Bronn responded as he cupped his chin thoughtfully. "He is a sort of 'hit it and quit it' kind of guy, except a lot angrier about it. I mean it's like he fucks because it's some sort of duty to his dick, but the whole logistics of getting a girl into bed seem to annoy him more than anything."

Shaking her head frantically, Mirabelle squeezed her eyes shut and waved her hands in the air.

"Oh my god. Babe, can we please, please stop talking about this?," she pleaded as she tried to erase the fleeting image of her brother's sex life out of her head. She would indulge Bronn's peculiar affection for gossip only so far.

"All I'm saying is that I doubt the girl is going to dodge your brother's advances, assuming he's made any." Bronn smiled at her, a soft smile with the whimsy of nostalgia rippling across his face. "Not like you. I about damn near had to corral you, girl."

Mirabelle felt the heat hit her cheeks in a girlish blush. It was true. She had dodged Bronn's advances initially, more out of principle than anything else. Bronn was her brother's underboss and she knew all too well how Sandor felt about her ending up with a made man. She had heard the lectures, had obliged him in his tirades as he would pace furiously about the room and go off on some tangent about a perceived tryst between her and one of his men. Even before he assumed the role as boss of the Moriarti family, Mirabelle was branded 'off limits' by Sandor's searing glares and tight-lipped scowls given to any made man that looked her way more than once.

When Bronn had started in with the looks, the sly advances, the insatiably flirtatious quips, Mirabelle had brushed him off, thinking he was either bat-shit crazy for being so brazen or just fucking with her. Neither had been the case as he approached her one night and dropped the act. Instead of some saucy one-liner laden with sexual innuendos, Bronn had laid it all out on the table. He wanted to get to know her, wanted to see what she was all about, and wanted her to give him a chance despite the fact that her brother would flip if he found out. Mirabelle had been touched and so she agreed.

Initially, she hadn't found Bronn to be a particularly attractive man. Mostly, she had been nit-picky and had searched for reasons to brush him off. Being nearly six feet tall herself, she liked men that were tall, much taller than her. In heels, she would tower over Bronn, or so she had argued with herself. His hair curled in thinned chestnut waves to his shoulders and somehow she had convinced herself she didn't like that. His facial hair, although neatly trimmed, had turned her off, or so she decided. Standing before her mirror and curling her hair with a curling iron, Mirabelle had enumerated the many things she found distasteful about the man; his jokes were crude, his nose looked as though someone had flat ironed it, his hair line was receding, his face had begun to wrinkle with age. And there was that too; he was 15 years older than her. What could she possibly have in common with a 42 year old man, she had asked herself. With each release of her curling iron, Mirabelle had seemed to find another fault in Bronn until her head was filled with curls as well as reasons to call off their date. She hadn't the nerve though so she snatched up her purse and told herself she might as well get it over with.

He hadn't told her what they would be doing on their date and she had fully expected him to plan something cheesy; something done to death like dinner at a lousy restaurant followed by an awful action movie. What she hadn't expected though was the thoughtfulness of the evening he had planned. He had taken her to a quaint little art gallery that doubled as a wine shop. Mirabelle hadn't known if it had been mere coincidence or not, but Bronn had managed to create a date which married two of her interests together-art and wine.

They had sipped on glasses of Chablis and perused the colorful rows showcasing the local art scene while shyly engaging one another in conversation. Much to her surprise, Mirabelle had been more enchanted by her banter with Bronn than the abstract paintings hung against the stark white walls. He had asked her questions about herself, not to pry or because he thought it was expected of him, but more out genuine interest. They had left after Bronn bought a bottle of Malbec; her favorite type of wine and one that he had mused would go well with the dinner he had planned on making for them.

Back at his place, he cooked for her, something no man had ever done for her before and consequently something he was apparently rather good at. Mirabelle watched transfixed as he chopped through vegetables and listened as he began working through the details of his own past, starting with his childhood and ending with only select and vaguely described details of his time deployed overseas during the first Gulf War. His life had been replete with adventure, travelling, and wanderlust. Yet he hardly mentioned family, friends, or lovers. Mirabelle had seen a sort of loneliness in him then and was mortified at herself for having only hours before entertained the thought of cancelling on him.

Somewhere along the line his nose had become cute, his jokes funny, the lines on his face tasteful, his hair line handsome, his height not such a big deal, and their age difference hardly noticeable. If anything, he had awoken some Lolita complex she hadn't even known she possessed in the first place. She had the heart-shaped sunglasses. Now all she needed was a lollipop pressed between her lips and she'd be set.

One-by-one, Mirabelle had undone all the criticisms she had been so quick to itemize in her head until she found herself inexplicably and completely head-over-heels for the man she had almost written off entirely.

A smile must have graced her lips because Bronn broke her reverie as he found her hand with his and gave a gentle squeeze.

"We're almost there, love," he softly assured although that was hardly the thing on her mind.

At some point, Thomas and Zulu, along with the rest of the men, had headed in separate directions. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Mirabelle and Bronn were alone together; truly alone because being alone in a room together inside of a house full of people did not count in her book. What little was left of the trip Mirabelle and Bronn spent reveling in how pleasant it was just to have this little sliver of time together, fleeting as it may be. She wondered then if this is what it must be like to carry out a relationship in a "normal" life.

While she had no delusions that her life was by any means special, Mirabelle understood what being a sister of a Mafia boss and girlfriend of an underboss meant for her and nothing about it was normal by any measure of the imagination. Perhaps that was why Sandor had been so adamant about her trying to separate herself as much as possible from the Underworld, but that was so much easier said than done and if anyone should know that, it should be him. The heart wants what it wants, her mother used to say. And her heart wanted what she had now; quiet moments with a man who made her feel as though she were the only woman in the world that mattered.

After what felt like an eternity, the road began to fork in the familiar way which let her know that they were quickly nearing their destination. Mirabelle shifted forward in her seat and began to slip into her ballet flats. Bronn navigated the turns as she flipped open her compact and smoothed out the make-up under her eyes before powdering her nose.

As they finally pulled up to her brother's house, Mirabelle settled back in her seat and felt a contented grin pull at the corners of her lips. She had forgotten just how very Sandor this house was. It seemed to mirror him in so many ways and with that thought she seemed to realize how much she had missed her brother and Sansa too.

Mirabelle unloaded bags of groceries from the car and looped them carefully on her arms. She had had the foresight to assume that her brother hadn't done any serious grocery shopping since coming here. She shuddered at the thought of what he might be feeding Sansa and so she had decided, like all good sisters, to take it upon herself to stock his refrigerator with real food, not the crap that passed for guy food.

With their weekend bags thrown over his shoulder, Bronn met Mirabelle around the front of the car and led the way towards the front door, giving it a few hard knocks when they reached it. Long moments passed before Mirabelle heard stirring from inside.

When the door finally opened, Mirabelle had to do a double take. The red-headed beauty standing in front of her couldn't possibly be the same girl that had left with her brother a week ago. Sansa smiled sweetly as she let them through and unburdened Mirabelle by taking a few of the grocery bags. The baby blue sundress Sansa wore fell to mid-thigh which with her nude colored pumps created the illusion that she had legs for days. She wore her hair down and had let it curl naturally into tumbling waves which fell to the middle of her back. Apparently, the girl had diligently paid attention to how Mirabelle applied her make-up; her high cheekbones were brought out with a peachy tone of blush, her eyeliner subtly cat-eyed to accentuate the almond shape of her eyes which were framed by thick, full lashes, and to her lips she had applied a smear of sheer lip gloss. The more Mirabelle stared at this beautiful creature in front of her, the more she realized it wasn't what was happening on the outside that was drawing her attention to Sansa. Rather, it was the fact that the girl seemed to glow, her beauty radiant and filling the room with light, or so it seemed.

"Happy birthday!," Mirabelle finally managed as she tried to keep herself from staring at Sansa.

Before the girl could utter a response, Bronn pushed forward and animatedly extended his arms towards Sansa who recoiled a bit, the sting of embarrassment having been slow to heal it would seem.

"Sansa! Get over here, girl, and give Uncle Bronn a hug."

At that, Sansa's blue eyes went wide and her mouth fell open a bit before she shot a bewildered stare in Mirabelle's direction. Sansa, like everyone else, would have to be exposed to Bronn's sense of humor one way or another. Not waiting for her response, Bronn wrapped Sansa up in his arms and squeezed her, eliciting the tiniest of squeaks from the girl as she seemed to go rigid within his grip.

Rolling her eyes, Mirabelle poked Bronn hard on the shoulder. Relenting, he released his hold on Sansa who sucked in a relieved breath.

"Seriously?! Uncle Bronn? Could you be any creepier?," Mirabelle exclaimed before smiling warmly at Sansa and giving her a much gentler and consequently less creepy embrace.

"Doesn't everyone have a creepy uncle?," Bronn retorted with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders.

Mirabelle knew she should have seen this coming. Bronn couldn't help, but bust people's chops and yet it was truly a symbol of his endearment.

As Mirabelle's eyes roved over the open space of Sandor's living room and kitchen, she couldn't help the smile that crept across her lips. Tokens of Sansa's presence were everywhere; her wedged heels placed neatly by the back door next to Sandor's shoes, a powder compact on the edge of the counter, her handwriting on a piece of paper hung up on the refrigerator door, and the sweetened scent of her perfume lingering in the air. The sincerity of joy it brought to her was two-fold; the hope that perhaps Sansa was beginning to see something of the man Sandor truly was and had begun to feel comfortable in his company coupled with the prospect that Sandor had finally found some happiness for himself.

A shadow hovering in the corner of her eye drew Mirabelle's attention towards the figure obscuring the streaming of sunlight through the room. Her brother quietly paced towards Sansa's side with his arms tightly crossed about his chest.

"Are you giving her a hard time?," he broke in as the room fell silent, an effect Sandor so often had.

Bronn feigned offense at that before cajoling Sansa into another forced embrace, one which intimated how thoroughly he was enjoying the girl's reaction.

"Me? No! Come on, Sansa! Bring it in, girl." Despite her polite smile, Sansa seemed to cringe a bit, something that did not go unseen by Bronn as he called attention to her hesitation at his unwelcomed affection. "You've seen me naked so you're not allowed to be shy now."

Something pulled Mirabelle's attention towards her brother then, the very air itself grew thick with a certain heaviness she knew to always associate with her brother's often brooding temperament.

"Bronn…," Sandor intoned on a deep, rasping voice, one thick with the undercurrents of a warning.

"Has she seen you naked yet?," Bronn pushed as he relented once more by releasing Sansa.

Mirabelle watched as Sansa shifted towards Sandor, the movement done more out of instinct than deliberate thought and that alone speaking volumes about the evolution of the energy shared between the two of them. For a fleeting moment, Sandor raised his hand to protectively place it on the small of Sansa's back before remembering something of the charade at which they were both failing miserably.

"Probably for the best," Bronn muttered now with his eyes moving towards Mirabelle. Even as he fell in by her side, defeated by the disenchantment his japes were met with, Mirabelle steadied her eyes towards her brother and Sansa.

Suddenly realizing she was watching, Sandor let his hand fall away from Sansa and instead shoved both of his hands into his pockets for safe keeping lest his own movements instinctively gravitate towards the girl at his side. Whatever their agreed upon denial, it was manifesting pitifully in dodgy looks shared between one another, awkwardly stoic body language, and above all the surmounting tension as both fought tooth and nail against what had apparently become an entirely effortless sort of affection.

Mirabelle knew not the extent of that affection; not until her eyes meandered from a silent and flushed Sansa who was mindlessly folding and unfolding her hands together in front of her to Sandor who was already looking back at Mirabelle. When their eyes met, he did not look away, but instead offered some truth of himself by letting his stare steadfastly remain on her. The passing knowledge between brother and sister was subtle and unfolded within mere seconds, but with just a look Mirabelle knew what she had suspected for some time now. Her brother's eyes, usually so impassible, rippled with waves of guilt, joy, vulnerability, frustration, and pride as each besieged his countenance in turn until finally he lowered his eyes to the floor at his feet.

No amount of feigned apathy and disinterest could disguise what she saw in her brother's eyes. He knew that as well as she and perhaps with that knowledge Sandor turned to Sansa then, casting a gaze of simultaneous admiration and yearning towards the girl. Sansa lifted her eyes to Sandor in return and Mirabelle understood then something she had only heard about, but had never seen before. Arianne had told her once of a couple she knew and how when the two of them entered a room, you knew they were together. It was never anything they said and it wasn't as though they were overtly affectionate with one another. In fact, they could be in separate corners of the room, engaged in separate conversations, but still complete strangers could walk into the room and instinctively understand that those two belonged to one another. It wasn't as though Mirabelle ever doubted her friend's anecdotal account of an other-wordly connection between two human beings, but she didn't fully believe until now. She believed now and not because she could see it, but because she could feel it. The feeling alone sent a wave of goosepumps to prickle her skin and sent the hair on her arms to stand on end.

Only now did Mirabelle come to realize that indeed nothing at all had been said, no words uttered and no confessions put forth willingly. Yet the story of their affinity for one another was written in their eyes and truly the energy of the room seemed to change when they were together; an electricity injected into the air itself, a transcendental movement that seemed to defiantly shape itself into the temporal world. It was undeniable and danced on the proclivity of being almost stifling.

She could not say with any bit of certainty whether or not Bronn was privy to the unspoken exchange between Sansa and Sandor. However, by the way he had quieted and continued to shift uncomfortably at her side, she imagined that no one in the room was ignorant to what was unfolding. Least of which her and if Mirabelle knew anything, she knew something had changed in her brother and in Sansa too.

When it was obvious she would have to be the one to break the suffocating tension and silence that had descended upon them, Mirabelle snatched up a gift bag and stepped towards Sansa.

"Here. Open this. It's the first of many."

Mirabelle handed the small pink bag to Sansa and waited in yet another strange silence as the girl gently pulled free the black tissue paper and let it fall softly to the floor. Sansa's face flooded with confusion as she pulled out the bikini top first; the blue fabric was covered over with black lace-like material on the bust and was fitted with removable straps. Lifting her eyes towards Mirabelle, Sansa's eyes went wide.

"Is it…?"

The girl let her words fall off, embarrassed to inquire much further.

"It's a swim suit," Mirabelle assured with a laugh. "I guess it does look a bit like lingerie."

"I helped pick it out," Bronn beamed until Sandor's head whipped towards him with an unamused scowl creasing his lips, which were pressed firmly together. "The color. You know, just the…color…blue," Bronn clarified as he stammered his way through an explanation, only intensifying another wave of awkwardness.

Remaining politely composed despite the deep shade of pink flushing across her cheeks, Sansa stepped forward and gave Mirabelle a gentle hug.

"It's beautiful. Thank you," she whispered into the embrace.

"You and I should hit the beach now and catch up. And it will give the boys time to talk too." Mirabelle shifted her gaze between her brother and Bronn, both of them clearly dreading whatever uncomfortable conversation they were about to have with one another.

Sansa nodded her head and began towards the hallway, Mirabelle right behind her until her brother's voice bellowed through the room.

"Mirabelle, you and I need to talk."

The tone of his voice stopped her midstride. It wasn't commanding, as Sandor's voice sometimes was. All things considered, his words were spoken rather flatly yet came as a concession, a relenting of sorts.

Mirabelle turned towards her brother and saw him standing across the room from her, his eyes searching her face earnestly; brooding having been abandoned and now she saw him truly.

Mirabelle kept her brother's gaze, steely eyes peering out towards its mirror image. She had always thought she and Sandor were meant to be twins; if not by their looks then definitely by the unspoken connection they shared. And it was that connection that was speaking now although an outward silence remained.

Only now did she realize Bronn and Sansa had each left the room, quietly and unnoticed.


Sandor leaned his weight against the counter and felt the granite edge digging into his back. It wasn't exactly the most comfortable place to situate himself, but then again nothing about this situation was comfortable.

Mirabelle felt like a stranger to him and the feeling was very much mutual, he surmised. It was a tit-for-tat of sorts; both of them staring up at each other in turn through their eyelashes, hoping to catch an evaluating glimpse of the other without getting caught and both entirely unsuccessful as their eyes would meet and then dart away. Long gone were the days of the sibling sorties which involved steady rotations of childish insults and whacks across the arms, shoulders, and head. This was, for all intents and purposes, the adult version of how Sandor and his sister approached their misunderstandings and conflicts; neither willing to be the first to bend the knee yet both eager for their spats to be dealt with and forgotten.

Sandor wasn't even sure what conflict had wedged itself between him and his sister now. He wasn't even sure if it was conflict at all. There was no animosity, no words each had held onto for far too long which were now eating away at them, no miscommunication that needed clarifying. Instead, it was as if they had both anticipated disappointment from the other and that perceived disappointment had manifested into the unlikely and entirely unsolicited awkwardness gulfed between them.

Relenting, Sandor lifted his head and steadied his eyes on Mirabelle. She looked like a child to him now. Her long hair was resting against the sides of her flushed cheeks, her fingers nervously working the hem of her shirt, her eyes fallen away. She looked so small and although Sandor was absolutely sure he was creating this illusion in his mind, that instinctual need to protect all that was left of his true family was sparked by his baby sister simply standing in front of him. Sandor took a step towards her, realizing that as her brother and her protector he owed it to her to let down his guard first, stubborn as he may be. Sighing deeply before speaking, Sandor unbound his arms from his chest and let them fall to his side.

"Listen, Mirabelle, I-"

Before he could continue, Mirabelle interrupted as her head snapped up, a look of relief rushing across the features of her face and soothing away the look of worry that had only moments before been heavily pasted there.

"Sandor, its fine. You don't have to explain anything to me." Worry had been replaced by guilt in her countenance, the vestiges of judgment shooed away. Neither had any room to judge the other; that would be the very definition of the pot calling the kettle black.

Mirabelle seemed to know that something had happened between him and Sansa. A part of Sandor was relieved by that. He didn't want to explain anything to his sister, to somehow find the words to describe the series of events which led to where he was now. That would require an explicit understanding on his part and that was something he admittedly did not wholly possess as of yet. Still, a part of Sandor was frustrated. He wanted to explain things to his sister or rather have her explain things to him. He wanted her advice and her guidance in an area of his life that he was so profoundly inexperienced in.

Before Sandor could even open his mouth to release words which would undoubtedly become tied on his tongue, Mirabelle hurried towards her purse and carefully pulled out a black wooden box. Crouched on the floor next to her bag, Mirabelle swiveled slightly towards Sandor, a soft smile pulling on the corners of her lips.

"I brought it with me," she declared on something scarcely above a whisper. "Do you want to see?"

Sandor nodded his head and watched as Mirabelle gently lifted herself to her feet and quietly paced towards him. She set the box on the counter before taking a step back and placing her hands firmly on her hips. For many moments, they both stared at the wooden box. It was as he remembered it. It had been maintained gracefully despite its age, the immaculate care that had been taken with it obvious with every detail that remained as it ever was.

Taking a deep breath, Sandor opened the box and stared at the object inside. Once more, doubts began to seep into his mind, raising questions with their mere presence. Internally, Sandor reminded himself that Sansa deserved something like this. Still the doubts remained. He had never, not in his entire life, offered something like this to someone.

"Do you think she'll like it?," Sandor inquired of his sister on a voice that was hushed in its own right, but manifested in more of a groan than anything else.

Mirabelle stepped towards him now and wrapped an arm around his back at the blades of his shoulders. Staring down at the object tucked neatly in the box, Mirabelle gave a tiny squeeze of his arm with her fingers.

"I think she'll love it." Her voice spoke of merriment and of pride. Although he wasn't quite sure where to place his sister's pride, he had hoped that it was with him; that he had made his sister proud. Never before had Sandor really bothered himself to think whether or not Mirabelle was proud of him. Somehow that had changed and he felt the tension he had been holding onto dissolve away.

"And you sure you're okay with this?," Sandor pressed as he turned towards Mirabelle.

"Yes," she asserted without missing a beat as she met his imploring stare. "We talked about it. If anyone should have it, I want it to be her."

He nodded his head at that, remembering very well the conversation he had had with Mirabelle pertaining to this particular object he was intending as a gift. Sandor had first kissed Sansa Stark on a Saturday and he had called his sister on Monday. Sunday had been reserved for worship. And Sandor had spent the day just that way; worshipping Sansa's lips, heavenly as they were.

For that reason, he waited until Monday and called Mirabelle. Although he told her nothing of what happened, he had told Mirabelle what he intended to give Sansa for her birthday. When he was met with silence on the other end, Sandor had second guessed himself and cursed his stupidity at this sort of shit. 'Oh Sandor,' Mirabelle finally broke in on a shaky voice. 'That is so utterly perfect for her and if anyone should have it, it's Sansa. Absolutely, yes.' He had had the idea in his head even before Sansa offered her lips to him. The day they left Moriarti's place he had spent a portion of the morning sitting in his office chair and staring at the intended gift laid out on his desk, going back and forth with himself as he wondered if it was too much. And then it dawned on him that nothing would ever be too much for her, he knew even then.

Sandor tucked one arm across his chest and brought his other hand up to rest beneath his chin. Despite his sister's reassurance, something was still nagging at him, tugging at his core. Mirabelle watched him. He could feel her staring, her eyes working to puzzle out his vexations.

"I knew when you called and asked me to bring it," she admitted quietly with a certain hesitance in her voice. "I knew something had happened between the two of you."

Sandor knew now the meaning of his sister's silence; her silence over the phone and her silence now as she waited for a response. He may not have to explain himself fully to his sister, but she wasn't letting him off the hook without at least admitting that he was involved with Sansa.

"Is it wrong of me?," Sandor offered as he brought the hand resting beneath his chin to his forehead. Squeezing his eyes shut, Sandor pressed his fingers firmly against his brow bone and began working out an emerging headache.

"Does it feel wrong to you?," he heard Mirabelle reply thoughtfully.

It was such a loaded question and he doubted Mirabelle even realized it. To date, he hadn't found a flaw with Sansa. Everything where she was concerned felt right, felt as it was meant to be.

"I don't know," Sandor finally started as he settled both hands on his hips. "I mean, jesus fucking christ, she's Ned Stark's daughter. And young. Sweet. Doesn't deserve to be caught up in all this bullshit." Sandor removed his hands from his hips and gestured about the room, the empty symbol of what he had made of his life.

"That's not what I asked," Mirabelle calmly remarked in response to all he had said, had confessed. "Does it feel wrong to you? In your heart, your gut?"

Unlike the first time she had posed this question, Sandor understood the simplicity of his answer which flashed across his mind instantaneously, screaming through the darkness until he saw its light.

"No. It feels right," he answered adamantly and truthfully. In his life where hardly anything had ever held any semblance of sense, Sansa made more sense than anything he had known. His life had been chocked full of senselessness; the death of this mother when he and Mirabelle were still so young, the murder of his father by his own flesh and blood, the years spent caught up in an underworld of violence and making a living off of the suffering of others. Hardly a god damn thing had ever felt right. Except Sansa. She felt right in his life, but he couldn't fathom a way to maintain that purity and perfection he found in her while chaos was steadily building its momentum somewhere in the world and was patiently and relentlessly seeking them out.

"Sandy, I know you well enough to know that if you want something, you don't give a flying fuck what you have to do to get it. You don't care who their daddy is or isn't."

Mirabelle had him there. He wanted Sansa and truly at the end of the day, it didn't fucking matter what Ned Stark thought about it. If he never had to deal with the man again, it would be too soon, but he was, after all, Sansa's father. Sandor would sooner or later have to face him and under an entirely different set of circumstances than he could have ever imagined.

"This is about Gregor, isn't it?," Mirabelle added on a tremulous exhale, her fear seeming to rise within her as she breathed life into their brother's name.

Mirabelle feared nothing the way she feared Gregor and Sandor knew he could never truly understand her fear. He at least stood a chance against Gregor, but Gregor was never one to fight fair and Mirabelle was often an easier target, helpless and defenseless as she was against him.

Feeling his hands ball instinctively into fists, Sandor shifted his stare out the sliding glass door and towards the expanse of his back yard. The trees surrounding his property swayed in unison with the breeze, their movement somehow looking grotesque to him as the room seemed to darken simultaneously with his thoughts.

"He's out there, Mirabelle. And I feel like a god damn coward holed up in this place, hiding away, and just waiting for him to strike first. I need to make a move. I need to do something."

Sandor felt his frustration beginning to surge within him, his skin feeling hot as the blood coursed furiously through his veins. He was antsy, anxious, and above all else paranoid. Sansa had been a welcomed distraction to all of that, but distractions are temporary and hardly the solution to problems, he knew.

Sensing the fluctuation in his mood, Mirabelle stepped towards him and offered her arms to him in a comforting embrace.

"Maybe he's waiting for you to make the first move," she reassured although her voice was still strained with fear. Her words seemed more a gesture of self-reassurance than anything. "Maybe he wants you to do that."

Sandor had already mulled over that thought. In fact, he had spent countless hours speculating what Gregor was doing, what he was planning, and what he was counting on Sandor to do, but at the end of the day it was all just speculation. There had been only one thing he could definitively say for certain.

"No. No, he's watching. I can feel it in my bones. I can't stay here forever. I can't just hideaway like this. We're sitting ducks right now."

Sandor felt a shudder work its way through his body. He couldn't say with a certainty that this was his own fear, but he knew damn well it was fear for Sansa and for Mirabelle too. All his life, he had made it his endeavor to protect his sister. Now that endeavor was multiplied with the addition of one more woman he had sworn to himself that he would protect. And if he failed to protect either one of them…

Sandor shuddered once more at the thought and understood now the source of his profound fear, a fear he had never quite felt to this extent before.

"What are you going to do?," Mirabelle pleaded on a thin whisper of a voice. When he looked to her, she once more looked like something of a child to him, fearful and desperate for him to tell her it would all turn out okay. She knew all too well though that he could never promise her that and he was never one to lie to her. Instead, Sandor steadied his gaze onto Mirabelle's face, his words spoken resolutely and with the strength he knew she needed so desperately to cling to in this moment.

"I've got to go back. Regroup the men and get ready," Sandor affirmed as he once more shifted his eyes towards the sliding glass door, knowing all too well Gregor was somewhere beyond. How close, he couldn't say, but it hardly mattered now.

"Get ready for your rumble with our brother?," Mirabelle inquired uneasily with a chuckle as her hands folded in front of her and she shook her head.

If only. He wished he could reciprocate her chuckle, to ease her worried mind the best he could, but the somber reality of the situation had finally struck him, its heaviness boring into him with all its gruesome might.

"This won't be a rumble, Mirabelle," Sandor cautioned on a quiet voice, as if speaking the truth of the matter might amplify the reality. "It's going to be all out war. And a bloody fucking mess before it's all over with."

Mirabelle was a smart girl and she knew how to read between the lines. The writing she would find there was simple and unforgiving. Before long, one of her brothers would be put in the ground, cold as the earth itself, and the other. The other would live to see another day.


The scars had healed. Sansa saw as she peeled off her dress and slipped into the blue bathing suit. The twin striations across her cheek and neck had faded to nothing more than darkened lines against the porcelain of her skin. The bruises in the shape of Leon's fingers had faded to yellowed impressions, hardly discernible as finger marks anymore. Her body had set about easing away past memories of pain; cuts and scrapes healed, bruises faded, and no longer did the mirror hold the reflection of a girl who had been battered relentlessly.

Today was her birthday.

Today she was a woman, an adult, or so society dictated. And the reflection staring back at her was that of a woman who had finally shed the physical tokens of heartache and struggle. Sansa wasn't quite sure when it had happened. After all, she looked at herself in the mirror everyday and everyday she had seen the scars. Slowly and overtime, they had healed until she was whole again, but she hadn't noticed until now. The process had occurred without her knowledge or supervision.

Before, she would look in the mirror and imagined each bruise, each cut, each scrape held an ominous reminder, a story of struggle and of survival. 'Don't ever forget,' they seemed to say. And now they were gone and the thought bellowed forth from some abyss of a broken heart. 'Don't ever forget who you are, where you come from.' Wounds may heal, but a heart never forgets. A heart remembers all the hurts, all the wrongs never made right, all the abrasions time had forgotten to heal. Life would go on, the sun would rise, the sun would set, the days would come, and they would go, and still a heart remembers.

Yet each day Sansa laughed more and cried less. Each night nightmares fled and dreams of sweetness graced her slumber. Just like the wounds of her flesh, the wounds of her heart were healing too. Unbidden and unknowingly, the severity of suffering was soothed by the kindness of a man who had, only two weeks ago, been a stranger in the shadows. And although she could not see the bruises of her heart fading to yellow and she could not see the spindling striations lighten to nothingness which rendered her heart whole again, Sansa knew she was healing. One day, she might hold a mirror to her heart and perhaps she would find no remembrance there, the visages of loss would be faded, indiscernible and, like so much else, would seem like a past life memory.

Sansa had awoken early this morning and found the bedroom caught somewhere at the intersection of light and dark; the sun rising, the moon falling, and the darkness fading away to light. It seemed she had found herself somewhere within the shades of grey. Lying awake, Sansa listened to the steady rhythm of Sandor's breaths beside her and tried to fall back into sleep. Softly closing her eyes, she waited for sleep to take her, but it never did oblige and so instead she curled up next to Sandor, her chest pressed against his back.

She studied the scene from Dante's inferno and marveled at the details; the thin black lines painstakingly sketched and layered until an image formed, the mournful bodies reaching up to the vessel as Phlegyas ferried Dante and Virgil across the river Styx, a watery eternity for the wrathful. Perhaps it had been the moments spent studying that dreadful image or perhaps it was more, but something had felt off to Sansa as soon as she opened her eyes today.

Her Grandmother Tully used to talk at great length about how you could feel the Universe shift, as she called it. The entire world seemed as though it was filtered through different hues, different modes of energy. Like much of whatever her Grandmother raved about, Sansa hadn't paid much attention to it, but rather politely put on the front that she was listening when in all reality she was daydreaming about something else.

As she awoke this morning, Sansa finally understood though what her Grandmother had meant by a "shift." Her eyes recognized everything around her, the features of the bedroom in which she had slept, and yet everything felt strange and foreign to her.

Today was her birthday and today something wasn't quite right.

Sandor had felt it too, she decided. Nothing much was said between them about it and they carried on like they normally did- laughing, kissing, and embracing- and yet they both possessed an astute understanding of one another well enough to recognize the other felt it toowhatever it was.

Across the backyard, down the thick wooden planks jutting out of the steep slope of the cliff side, and to the sandy, desolate expanse below Mirabelle stared at Sansa, peering out from underneath her thick, dark lashes. When Sansa would meet her stare, Mirabelle would simply smile; a delicate smirk that crinkled her nose and seemed to flash radiantly in her eyes.

As they laid out beach towels and settled onto them, Sansa finally turned to Mirabelle.

"You keep looking at me and smiling," Sansa whined as Mirabelle did it once again, her head swiveling towards Sansa while she propped herself up on her elbows and sprawled her legs out across the length of the beach towel.

Laughing as she pushed her sunglasses onto her face, Mirabelle set her now obscured stare towards Sansa.

"I hear you've been a very naughty girl," she teased with her voice low and sultry as she reached for a bottle of sunscreen.

"Wh-what?," Sansa stammered in surprise as her eyes widened. She wondered what exactly Mirabelle meant.

"You and my brother," the woman continued as she sat up and squirted a glob of sunscreen in the palm of her hand before working it across each of her arms.

"What did he tell you?," Sansa pouted as she shifted towards Mirabelle and crossed her legs to sit Indian style.

"Nothing. He's not one to kiss and tell," Mirabelle responded with a throaty laugh as she continued slaving sunscreen across her legs now. "Assuming he's kissed you," Mirabelle added with a devilish grin as she tossed her hair over her shoulders to let it cascade down her back.

Sansa said nothing, but only smiled a bit. It was a secret smile, one she thought Mirabelle might not notice and one beckoned forth by the thought of the first time Sandor had kissed her.

"Hmm. Judging by that smile, he has kissed you," Mirabelle beamed as she lay on her side towards Sansa and rested her head in her hand with her elbow firmly planted against the beach towel.

With a girlish giggle erupting from her lips, Sansa buried her face in her hands as she nodded her head. The fluttering of butterflies tickled her from within and Sansa let her hands fall to her side once more.

"Well, did you like it?," Mirabelle urged with a sweeping grin plastered about her face. As Mirabelle pushed her sunglasses up on her head, Sansa could see the woman eagerly considering her with anticipation flickering in her cool grey eyes.

Slowly nodding her head, Sansa bit her bottom lip before feeling it pull into a coquettish smile. Mirabelle squealed at that and gave Sansa a playful nudge.

"You little harlot! You loved it!," she exclaimed breathlessly as she threw her head back and erupted with laughter.

Averting her eyes, Sansa once more gave a tiny nod of her head. Indeed she did love it.

Her attraction to Sandor had been a whisper from the beginning; something quiet that was felt instantaneously the night his eyes had in fact devoured her whole at the Royce party. Only now the whisper was a voice loud and clear in her head, a declaration that she was only now ready to admit to anyone other than herself.

Her body seemed to hum against his touch, his lips were always warm against her skin, his tongue divine as it roamed her mouth and the spots of her body that she allowed. She felt safe with him, taken care of, but she was both captivated and enthralled by the way his body seemed to consume her, his size so imposing and dominating. She found that she liked it, more than that she had come to crave it. Her body reacted to him in ways it had never reacted to anyone before.

Sansa could feel the heat moving down her neck and chest. She was flushed and probably turning a nice shade of beet red right now. In an effort to hide the visible tinctures of her embarrassment at the subject matter, Sansa turned to lie on her stomach, her weight propped up on her elbows.

"You've been kissed before right?," Mirabelle further pressed as she lowered herself to lay on her back before flicking her sunglasses back over her eyes. "I mean, he wasn't your first kiss."

"Yeah, of course I've been kissed before," Sansa snorted, trying her best not to seem like some Pollyanna who had been sheltered her entire life. Although, she imagined by comparison that's exactly what she looked like to Mirabelle.

Sansa had kissed boys before, but that was just it. They were boys; boys who would clumsily let their tongues dart in and out of her mouth while their hands awkwardly clutched to her sides before tentatively trying to make a b-line directly to her breasts. When she would politely grab their hands and place them back on her waist or hips, they would break the kiss and pout, thinking that they could get their way with sudden aloofness.

But those were just boys and Sandor was a man, more a man than any of those boys could ever hope to be. Sandor's kisses effortlessly oscillated between consuming and passionate to slow and sensual. His lips roamed her body, taunting and teasing her until his tongue would ease against her skin and move gradually towards its next destination. Sandor seemed to savor her, drinking her down like a fine wine and enjoying her taste. His hands flowed over her body, lingering in places where he knew she loved to feel his touch and stopping short of where he knew she wasn't ready to be touched. All she had to do is give a little squirm and he would know it was too much. Without protest and without breaking their kiss, he would ease away and diligently lavish another part of her body with his full attention.

"Did he kiss you first or did you kiss him?," Mirabelle probed, her words sing-songing from her lips which were still crooked in a delighted smile.

"He kissed me first," Sansa quietly revealed as she twirled a lock of hair around her index finger.

At that, Mirabelle commenced a slow clap, clearly impressed that her brother had been the one to kiss Sansa first.

"Good man," she cheered. "The guy should be the one to make the first move when it comes to the kiss. The girls can take it from there."

Lifting her index finger, Mirabelle slid her sunglasses down to rest on the bridge of her nose while she once more gauged Sansa's reaction.

Immediately, Sansa furrowed her brow and let the lock of hair uncoil from around her finger. She hadn't considered taking the lead with their next steps and it wasn't for lack of wanting to. If anything it was more for her profound lack of understanding at what exactly to do.

No one had ever turned her on like Sandor did. When they would come up for air after kissing like mad, lips swollen and each of them panting in both exhaustion and unresolved yearning, Sansa could feel the pulsing and subtle ache between her legs. Beyond that, she could feel the wetness that had gathered there and saturated her panties. The warmth and wetness between her legs was like nothing she had experienced before. Sure, she had been turned on and every now and then would tentatively reach between her legs, timidly exploring with her fingers until she found what felt good and elicited unbidden moans from her lips. Now she found herself wondering what it might be like if he touched her, if he slid his fingers amongst her folds and felt the wetness that had pooled between her legs, a wetness that was for him, and if he could find ways to make her feel good, ways she had never been able to find herself.

He wanted her too. She had both felt and seen the intense hardness that emerged shortly after the kissing would begin. In a flush of boldness, Sansa had on a few occasions pressed herself against his hardness, swiveling her hips slowly over his stiff manhood out of curiosity as much as a want to tease him like he teased her. His reaction only enticed her more; the way he would grab her hips, dominating her with his hands even though she was the one on top of him, the way he showed her what he liked with desire dark in his eyes, the grumbling moans he offered as she followed his lead, the way he would commandingly keep his hands behind his head and couldn't take his eyes off of her as she rocked against him.

She certainly wanted to take things further with him, but she also wanted to go slow. He had been so patient with her so far and she was unsure how long that would last. Ultimately, she was scared; afraid of just how inexperienced she was, afraid if she did take things further she might do something wrong and disappoint him, afraid that once she started down the path of getting physical with him there would be no turning back. The catalog of fears in her mind were at odds with her desire to let him explore her body and teach her all the ways he liked his pleasure. More than anything, Sansa didn't want Sandor to misinterpret her hesitance as disinterest.

Glancing towards Mirabelle, Sansa could see that she was peacefully soaking up the warmth of the sun, her skin glistening a pale white with both sunscreen and her natural creamy pallor. Biting her lip, Sansa shyly spoke, rousing Mirabelle from her solar solace.

"Can I ask you something?"

Sansa's voice sounded timid and childlike in her own ears and yet Mirabelle seemed to not notice as she hardly moved a muscle.

"Yeah. Shoot," she replied on an exhale.

Slowly, Sansa pushed herself up and sat facing Mirabelle.

"I guess I was just...," Sansa began, but abruptly stopped, the words seeming like molasses on her tongue. Sucking in a deep breath, Sansa steadied her voice and tried again. "What I want to know is…"

This time her hesitance did not go unnoticed as Mirabelle turned her head and cocked an eyebrow at Sansa.

Exhaling a nervous laugh, Sansa shook her head, perhaps with the subconscious hope it might loosen the words from her tongue.

"What's it like when you…you know?," Sansa finally managed, although she'd hardly call it a successful inquiry especially as Mirabelle looked profoundly confused, even from behind her sunglasses.

"When I what?," the woman replied before abruptly sitting up on her beach towel, kicking up bits of sand as she did.

"Oh no," Mirabelle exclaimed as she frantically shook her head. "No, no, no. Are you asking me about sex?"

Sighing once more, Sansa bit her lip and nodded her head. She had come this far so there was no use in pretending that that wasn't what she was getting at. It wasn't as if she could ask Sandor these questions. No, this was a conversation meant to be shared between her and Mirabelle.

"Sansa," Mirabelle started as she clasped her hands together and pressed them against her chest. "I would normally love to talk about this with you, but it's my brother we'd be talking about."

"I just want to know-," Sansa continued, now with a resolute desire to get her questions answered once and for all. Her sentence was interjected as Mirabelle began to once more shake her head.

"La la la la," Mirabelle chanted as she pressed her palms hard against her ears. "Say what? I can't hear you!"

"Does it hurt?," Sansa finally shouted so ungodly loud that she immediately cringed at the thought of Bronn and Sandor hearing her from all the way above, across the yard, and to the deck where they were sorting out their own issues.

At that, Mirabelle erupted into a fit of laughter, removing her hands from her ears and clutching her sides as she gasped for breaths. Sansa couldn't stop her own laughter, which seemed to egg Mirabelle on further.

Catching her breath finally, Mirabelle pulled the sunglasses from off her face and tossed them to side before swiping away at tears that had formed in her eyes during her fit of giggles.

"Alright fine," she conceded before taking a long moment to mull over her thoughts.

"It depends," Mirabelle finally answered. "Every woman is different. For me, it wasn't as bad as everyone says it was. I mean, yeah it sort of hurt, but it wasn't this horrible, bloody experience everyone had told me it would be. Now if you ask Arianne, she'll tell you, in great detail, that it hurt like hell."

Sansa winced at that as if she could imagine the pain, although she had no benchmark to measure it by. It's not as if anyone had ever touched her between the legs.

"You have to remember how small Arianne is though. You're tall like me so I think maybe that might make it less painful." Mirabelle shrugged her shoulders as she spoke. Although her words were reassuring, her body language suggested she really couldn't know for sure how Sansa's first time might turn out.

Chewing her bottom lip, Sansa mindlessly ran her fingers through the sand in front of her

"Are you thinking about giving up the goods?," Mirabelle finally broke in gently, her tone non-judgmental, but maternal nonetheless.

"What? No! Of course not!," Sansa shrieked although it was potentially something of a white lie because she had entertained the thought in preparation for events to take place in the far future with Sandor. "I was just…curious. That's all."

The truth was Sansa was far from ready to let Sandor take her virginity, but she could see herself with him and imagined if she wanted anyone to have it, she wanted it to be him.

Mirabelle leaned forward to catch Sansa's eyes in a sincere gaze.

"Listen, lord knows I don't want to talk about you and my brother fucking. But I will tell you this. He cares a lot about you. A lot. And he would never pressure you to do things before you're ready or try to take advantage of you. With that being said, he's still a man."

Sansa stiffened at that, the words beckoning her spine to extend until she was sitting straight up.

"What does that mean?," she quavered in a quiet voice that suggested her fears were perhaps real. Perhaps he was growing impatient with her.

"It means if you give them an inch, they will try to take a mile," Mirabelle assured softly. "They have dicks and they like to do things with them."

Sansa pursed her lips at that as her eyes shifted from Mirabelle's face down towards her lap. Sighing, Mirabelle brushed the tips of her fingers underneath Sansa's chin to lift her head and once more locked her eyes to Sansa's.

"Listen, my point is, you set the pace and he'll listen. Don't do anything until you're ready, but, by all means, enjoy yourself too. Sex can be incredible if it's with a guy who really cares for you. And baby, trust me. You've somehow managed to wrap my brother around your little finger and that's something no one has been able to do."

Feeling reassured by the sincerity of Mirabelle's words, Sansa smiled a bit at that before another question catapulted from the recesses of her mind to spill forth from her lips without a second thought.

"Has he not had girlfriends before?" Sansa had never thought to ask him. It was hardly something she had even thought about, truth be told. Perhaps the part of her that understood jealousy to be a nasty, ugly thing hadn't wanted her to ask.

Squinting her eyes and lifting her head to the sky in thought, Mirabelle shrugged her shoulders and gave a shake of her head.

"He's had girls that would come around; chicks that seemed to get off on the fact that he's a mobster, the head of the organization at that. They never stuck around for long though. He'd either kick them to the curb or they'd decide that the mob life wasn't so appealing after all."

Not quite sure how to take that information, Sansa bit her lip and nodded her head slowly. Mirabelle was honest, sometimes brutally so. Sansa reminded herself that that was a good thing. Jealousy, bad. Honesty, good. No matter how it stings.

"Oh. I see," Sansa finally managed by way of reply. Reaching forward, Mirabelle placed her hand on Sansa's forearm and gave a gentle squeeze.

"None have been like you though," the woman intoned, her voice lowered to convey her genuineness it would seem. "Not even close. I've never seen him like this before. Never. He's actually happy! Oh, Sansa. The way he looks at you, girl. Do you not notice that?"

Lifting her eyes to meet Mirabelle's gaze boring into her, Sansa was immediately moved by the sincerity she found resonating there.

The way he looks at me. Sansa moved through the images in her mind, each something like a still frame from a movie until she stopped on one in particular; she in a white dress, one she had fussed with all night, and he staring at her from across the room, tie draped around his neck and whiskey in his hand. His eyes had followed each movement of her body, from the frantic rise and fall of her chest to her subtle squirming and shifting against the wall that had been blessedly situated behind her, holding up her weight lest her knees give out. In her memory, the rest of the room had fallen away, the details blurry at best. All she saw was him and the way he had refused to take his eyes off of her, even when he'd momentarily press the whiskey glass to his lips. Even then he had devoured her and the way his head had slightly tilted forward made his eyes appear darker than what they actually were.

"Yeah. I guess I do," Sansa murmured as she realized Mirabelle was staring silently at her as if trying her damnedest to read Sansa's thoughts, the vestiges of which were probably written across her face with a blush.

"How do you feel about him?," Mirabelle asked still eagerly searching Sansa's face as she awaited an answer.

"I…well…," Sansa stammered as she felt for the first time throughout the duration of their conversation that Mirabelle would be sizing up her answer for a sisterly seal of approval. Instead of trying to find all the eloquent words that might do her feelings justice, Sansa settled for honest simplicity.

"He makes me laugh," she started, matter-of-factly at first until she couldn't help, but smile at the thought of all the ways Sandor had made her erupt into giggles. "Some of the things he says I know he's not trying to be funny, but he is. God! He tried to make me pancakes and-," Sansa stopped herself, realizing now that she was gushing and that Mirabelle might not find the story as hilarious as she did.

"Well," Sansa continued. "Needless to say it was funny. I feel safe with him, like nothing can hurt me ever again when I'm with him. He's sweet to me too. I didn't think he would be at first, but he is. Even though he's sort of rough on the outside, he still does these little things for me that are thoughtful." Sansa realized now that she had been carrying on like this and yet hadn't really answered Mirabelle's question. Lifting her eyes, now it was Sansa who spoke with sincerity. "I care about him too, Mirabelle. I do. I really do."

By the way Mirabelle's eyes seemed to glisten wistfully and a smile had swept across the woman's lips, Sansa imagined she passed whatever "test" Mirabelle had just put her through.

"I'm happy for you, Sansa," Mirabelle cooed. "And for him too. You're a good girl."

Despite her words, Sansa watched as Mirabelle's smile faded and a look of severity besieged her countenance.

"I have to play devil's advocate for just a second though," Mirabelle finally broke in before letting a long silence punctuate whatever else she had to say. "Does it bother you that he's a mob boss? Or if things do work out between the two of you, what will you tell people when they ask how you met him? And your father, what are you going to tell him when you come home with Sandor Clegane, the infamous Hound, as your boyfriend?"

Although Mirabelle spoke slowly and with all the good intentions in the world, the questions hit Sansa in rapid fire; as she absorbed the hit from one question, another would come, heavier than the last until her head was spinning.

"I don't know, Mirabelle," Sansa replied as she shifted uncomfortably from side-to-side, flustered by all the questions. "I don't know." She whispered as she fought to maintain her composure.

"I'm not trying to upset you," Mirabelle soothed. "But these are things you have to think about."

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Sansa had already acknowledged all of these things, but perhaps that was just it. She had acknowledged them fleetingly before shoving them to the back of her mind to forget them there, as if they might disappear if she didn't really acknowledge them.

"I see him for who he is, not what he does. I see the man he is." Sansa's own words sounded ridiculous, regardless of how true they were. She did see Sandor for the man he was, but that was hardly sufficient for explaining to the rest of the world why she was romantically involved with a mob boss. And it certainly wasn't going to cut it if she ever had to explain her relationship to her Dad.

"Good. I'm happy to hear that," Mirabelle quietly responded, clearly aware of what she had stirred up in Sansa and content for now to let the proverbial dust settle.

"What about you though?," Sansa asked. If this topic was on the table, she would be an idiot not to explore it further. "You're with Bronn and he's an underboss. How do you manage knowing that he's a mobster?"

Mirabelle nodded her head, recognizing the parallels in their situations. Thoughtfully, Mirabelle considered her question, staring off towards the ground as her brow folded while she collected her thoughts.

"Well, I don't ask questions," she finally declared. "I guess that's probably how I've learned to manage things best, but that's my personal choice though. You either know everything or you know nothing. To each their own. As far as I'm concerned, Bronn can do whatever he needs to in the Underworld, but the only thing I've ever asked is that he doesn't keep a goomah."

Sansa cocked an eyebrow at Mirabelle, the term "goomah" completely foreign to her.

"A what?,"

"Goomah," Mirabelle repeated. "It's the American slaughtering of the word comare. A goomah is the girlfriend or mistress of a made man."

Confused, Sansa pursed her lips.

"Well, wouldn't that make you Bronn's goomah?"

By the way Mirabelle wrinkled her nose and abruptly shook her head, Sansa sensed a goomah was not exactly something Mirabelle strived to be.

"No, not really. Most married made men also have mistresses. Those mistresses are referred to as goomahs. The term more applies to extramarital girlfriends. Women that are fucking married men. And as far as I know Bronn isn't married."

Sansa hadn't realized that her mouth was hanging open. 'Most married made men also have mistresses.' While Mirabelle clearly wanted no part of that, her words were nonetheless spoken somewhat casually, as if it were a natural part of a Mafioso's life.

"Oh. I had no idea," Sansa whispered.

Sighing, Mirabelle shook her head, seemingly understanding that for the umpteenth time today she had shocked Sansa with a bit of truth.

"Goomahs are like trophies," she clarified. "A status symbol of the men. Just another way for the men to get involved in dick measuring contests with one another. The more attractive and desirable your goomah usually the higher up you are on the chain of command. The girls aren't stupid either. They seek out men at the top."

Sansa's eyes went wide at that and suddenly she felt disgusted. Not at anyone in particular, but rather at the thought that this was seemingly common practice among made men and furthermore something that was tolerated.

"I'm telling you this not because I think Sandor would ever have a goomah," Mirabelle interjected as she seemed to sense Sansa's growing uneasiness. "I'm telling you so that you understand women are going to throw themselves at him because he's the boss of the Moriarti family. A lot of women that flock around see him as a conquest, something to say they 'accomplished' so they can go brag to their cum-dumpster friends about it. They're tramps, Sansa. Pieces of shit. And why would a man want a piece of shit when he can have a diamond, like you? Sandor sees them for what they are and isn't interested. Never has been. I imagine he's been holding out for his diamond to come along."

At that, Sansa exhaled a deep breath, one she had been holding onto, and reveled in the flush of relief that spread throughout her body, easing away any tensions that had settled into her.

"Well, now that Sandor and I are together and you and Bronn are together, those women will just have to go after some of the other men," Sansa declared defiantly, lifting her head high in the air and with a satisfied smile.

Leaning forward, Mirabelle burst into laughter at that before shooting Sansa an affectionate glance.

"Oh you sweet, sweet baby girl. That's not how women work. As soon as they see you on his arm and see how he looks at you, that's just going to fuel their fire and make them want him more. That's how bitches operate. Tell them the man they already want is off limits, they want him even more."

"Well, that will just have to be too bad," Sansa asserted without missing a beat. "They'll just have to want him from afar."

Undeterred, Sansa held her head up even higher, understanding her worth. She was a lady, after all. Trashy women were a dime a dozen, she knew. She had something they would never have: class. Well, that and Sandor. She had him too.

With a proud smile and a nod of the head, Mirabelle pushed herself to her feet and extended a hand to help Sansa up.

"That's my girl. Come on, let's get you in your party dress. We have your birthday to celebrate."


Sandor had smoked a quarter of his cigar and still nothing had been said. Bronn sat across from him at the large wooden table out on the deck, staring off towards the expanse of the yard as the distant sound of waves filled the air along with the faint laughter of both Mirabelle and Sansa somewhere on the beach below. The man wouldn't look at him, but instead quietly smoked his own stogie and every once in awhile wiped the palms of his hands against the tops of his thighs. He was nervous and Sandor knew.

They had talked sparingly over the last few days; a phone call here and there about business and not much else. One thing was constant though; the awkward silence before hanging up, the words left unsaid filling the phone line, but neither of them willing to set aside pride and be the first one to let down their guard. The difference, though, was that the phone call would inevitably come to a natural close and all Sandor would have to do was hang up to vanquish the awkward silence.

With Bronn sitting in front of him now, there was no hanging up and no walking away. Now was the time to hash it all out and they were both well aware of it.

"I got a call from Go-Go this morning. Everything in Reno went fine," Bronn finally broke in, apparently hesitant to step the conversation out of the arena of business which had been an established safe zone between the two of them. Anything beyond that was fair game to get ugly if words were not spoken correctly or pride was valued a bit too much.

Sandor said nothing, but instead nodded his head slowly and silently as he set a resolute stare towards Bronn who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Leaning forward, Bronn pressed the lit end of his cigar hard into the glass ashtray placed between them. A gentle breeze kicked up flakes of ash to dance about the vacuous space between them, devoid of words yet filled to the brim with that all-too-familiar awkwardness.

Still Sandor kept his stare steadfast on Bronn and watched as the man's mouth was drawn down in a definitive frown. The lines on his face seemed to deepen, something between frustration and guilt beginning to wear against his skin. Finally, Bronn met Sandor's eyes and held his arms out next to him, palms up in a show of concession.

"Look," Bronn started in, his voice strained with discomfort. "I feel like I need to apologize for something, but I'm not exactly sure what I need to be sorry about."

The man's dull green eyes stared back at him now with the knowledge that the ball was now in Sandor's court. Both men, Bronn and Sandor, understood very well what this was all about. Yet Bronn's declaration came as more of an affirmation that he didn't view his involvement with Mirabelle as a travesty, something to apologize profusely for. The man wasn't sorry about it and Sandor was caught somewhere between respecting Bronn more because of that yet still loathing him because, after all, Mirabelle was his sister.

Sandor took a long pull on his cigar and cocked his head to the side, sizing Bronn up as the man leaned forward and pressed his forearms against the edge of the wooden table. Settling back in his seat, Sandor allowed himself a moment to soak up the sadistic pleasure he was gaining from making his underboss squirm. Like some sort of predator, Sandor was beginning to sense Bronn's fear; not only by the look on his face, but now by the way his body language seemed to shift towards defensiveness. Sandor tilted his head back and slowly released steady rings of smoke from his lips before leaning forward to ash his cigar.

"Bronn, I don't care that you're fucking my sister. I don't care if you're seeing her. I don't care."

Sandor punctuated his words with a gesturing of his hands. The darkened tone of his voice negated any ease Bronn sought to collect from the words alone. Sandor deepened his voice further still as he held Bronn's eyes in an icy glare.

"What I don't like is the sneaking around, the lying behind my back like I'm too fucking stupid to know any better. That shit is what pisses me off, more from you than from her."

It did piss him off and the more he thought about it, the more his blood began to boil and the heat of anger began to rise within him. Sandor heard as Bronn let out a shaky sigh and watched as the man ran both of his hands over his face.

"You're right," Bronn agreed, letting his hands fall to his sides as he finally managed to look Sandor straight in the eyes. "I'm sorry. I should have come to you and asked you before I started seeing her. It won't happen again."

Bronn's disposition, typically so jovial and buoyant, had hardened to a somber seriousness Sandor hadn't quite seen in the man before. Sandor let his cigar tumble between his fingers as he bit his bottom lip. Finally, he exhaled his breath with a puff of smoke and put out his cigar, letting it fall next to Bronn's half-finished one. Settling back in his seat, Sandor rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him.

"I tried to keep Mirabelle sheltered from 'the life,' you know? I swore up and down I'd cut any of the men to pieces if they tried anything with my sister. Mirabelle is always going to do what she wants and she should. I can't protect her forever and I definitely can't shelter her forever. I knew eventually a time would come where she'd want to be with someone and I should have known it would be with one of my men."

Bronn shifted his gaze up to Sandor and cocked his head to the side, listening attentively and with a sense of surprise. It wasn't as if he and Bronn shared these little details of their hopes and fears with one another. They shared each other's company, but they dealt with their problems well enough on their own. Sandor swallowed hard and fought with himself before releasing his next slew of words. Despite his tentativeness, they came anyway and all Sandor could do was avert his eyes as he choked out the words.

"And if she's going to end up with one of my men, there's no one I'd rather see her with than you, Bronn. All I ask is that you take care of her, treat her right, and protect her."

With his eyes still downcast, Sandor heard Bronn release a breath, one he had been holding onto for quite some time it would seem.

"I will, brother," he assured as he leaned forward towards Sandor, his movement sealing his words with the assertion of truth. "I promise I will."

Sandor snorted out a laugh then and was suddenly relieved how just that simple act seemed to dissipate the tension that had been stifling the air since the moment Bronn and Mirabelle had walked in. Shaking his head, Bronn laughed too although Sandor imagined the man didn't quite know what they were laughing at. Still, he joined in and his M.O. of merriment was reestablished once more.

"Did you think I was going to cut your dick off or something?," Sandor chuckled as he eased back in his seat and considered Bronn with a darkened smile.

"Shit, I don't know! I thought you'd be irate with me," Bronn cried out with a ripple of laughter coloring his voice and his words. "That's why I avoided you the day you and Sansa left Moriarti's." Mimicking Sandor's actions, Bronn settled back in his seat as well and once more let out a deep and resounding sigh to release his tensions.

"No. We're good," Sandor affirmed with a nod, happy to finally put all this bullshit behind them.

Now it was Bronn that seemed to study him; the man's eyes narrowing slightly as his brow seemed to furrow in concentration. His eyes flickered up and down Sandor's form before a mischievous grin flashed across his lips.

"You're rather compliant these days. That wouldn't have to do with a certain long-legged red head, would it?"

Sandor exhaled a laugh at that and slowly shook his head as his eyes fell away.

"Might be. Who knows," he offered with some discretion and a shrug of his shoulders. Sandor wasn't the type to verbally spew his affection for a woman. In fact, it had been quite some time since he had even felt any sort of genuine affection for anyone. Sansa was something special, he knew that much, and Sandor preferred to remain tight lipped about the whole matter. There was no need for everyone and their fucking brother to know about him and Sansa.

"There's something I need to talk to you about," Bronn announced suddenly, the smile he had had moments earlier having melted off his face. Sandor watched as he shifted towards the edge of his seat and rested his forearms on the tops of his legs while interweaving his fingers together.

"I'm listening," Sandor replied.

"There's been some dissension in the ranks," Bronn confided hesitantly with a subtle shifting of his eyes as though he fought to keep them resolutely on Sandor.

"Over what?," Sandor shot back with tendrils of annoyance twining through his demeanor. He had been gone just about a week and could hardly imagine how problems had arisen so soon after his departure.

"Sansa," Bronn admitted although her name rolled off his tongue somewhat obtusely, sounding strange even to Sandor. "Some of the men don't trust her." Bronn leveled an evaluating stare towards Sandor, silently gauging his reaction with dread seeming to stir in his eyes.

Outwardly, Sandor's jaw clenched tightly, his lips sealing together in what he could only imagine was a hardened scowl. With one arm resting on the table, Sandor's hand unwittingly curled into a fist before uncurling once more. Inwardly, his blood was boiling, his muscles ached as they all seemed to seize up at the same time.

"What the fuck does she have to do with anything?," Sandor bellowed out, not caring one whit that his voice may or may not be carrying across the yard and towards the beach below where the girls could hear. "She's an 18 year old girl. Harmless."

His fist slammed against the wooden table as he seethed out his breaths which came as hot bursts through clenched teeth.

"That's the thing though," Bronn tried to explain although Sandor knew his feeble attempts at damage control were useless. "She's not just any 18 year old girl. She's the District Attorney's daughter. The same District Attorney that has been working his ass off for the past two years to bring this down."

Bronn shifted a finger through the space between him and Sandor who knew well enough what Bronn meant. Ever since the RICO act came into play, bosses and underbosses of organized crime syndicates were fair game to be brought down with the rest of their men. Ned Stark seemed to operate by the "go big or go home" mentality. He wasn't toiling over this case just to put away a few capos and some made men. The man wanted to see the Moriarti family crumble, from the top down.

"Some of the men think she'll turn rat," Bronn continued on hushed tones as if he were convinced the trees themselves were listening. "They think once all this bullshit with your brother is dealt with, you'll hand her right back over to Papa Stark and she'll spill her pretty little guts over everything she's seen, everything she's heard since being in your possession."

Sandor let the words tumble through his head, hoping to perhaps see it from his men's perspective and yet that did little to quell the steady relentlessness of his growing anger. Regardless of whether or not his men had legitimate concerns which Sandor could easily squash, they were going about this dreadfully wrong.

"Don't tell me this is about the RICO case," Sandor seethed as he set a glowering stare onto Bronn, realizing the man was just going to have to suffer the brunt of his agitation. "Our men have hardly batted an eye at it in the past two goddamn years. Why the fuck is it suddenly an issue now? Ned Stark isn't coming out of the woodwork anytime soon and even if he did, his case is shot to shit. Nestor Royce fucked it seven ways to Sunday and now it's been blown wide open. Ned Stark doesn't have a leg to stand on."

Bronn sucked in a deep breath and seemed to steel himself before he continued, all too aware that Sandor's temper should be handled like a ticking time bomb. Any wrong move and he was liable to explode in his rage and not give a fuck who was there to witness it.

"I know that," Bronn started calmly. "But charges have never been formally brought against us so double jeopardy isn't valid here. Ned could easy start from square one. All he has to do is go digging in the past to find a history of offenses. The man can pick and choose the ones he wants. Sansa saw what went down at Emilio's in Vegas. Between what she's seen and what she's heard from you, that's more than enough for Daddy to start all over again. The man is persistent, Sandor. He's not going to back down just because Royce screwed him over."

Sandor said nothing, but rather settled for silence as his eyes icily remained on Bronn. There was something else the man wasn't telling him. There was something more to this than just mistrust of Sansa and qualms with her District Attorney father. Sandor could have guessed these issues might have surfaced sooner or later. Still, something else was setting him off and fueling the fouling of his mood.

"The men think she'll talk and they think you've finally found your weakness in her. They need you, Sandor, and to them you ran off with the DA's daughter to lie in wait until your brother comes knocking. That doesn't sit well with a lot of them. Alberto is doing his best to keep a handle on things while you're away, but he's been out of the game for some time now and at the end of the day they answer to you and not him."

As Sandor searched Bronn's face, he found he was met with the man's damn-near pleading stare. If Sandor didn't know any better, it was as if the family was unraveling, rendered into a state of anarchy just because he had been gone for a matter of a few days.

"That's right. They do answer to me. And when I'm not around they answer to you. And when you're not around, they answer to Alberto. It seems they've forgotten the way the hierarchy works."

Exhaling a sardonic snort, Sandor shook his head before leaning towards Bronn and lowering his voice.

"You think I give a fuck what sits well with them. How many men have had goomahs that are liabilities? You don't see me getting worked up over it. I tell them to handle their shit and don't let it become a problem."

Sandor let his words fall off there. He didn't feel like he needed to tell Bronn that Sansa Stark of all people wasn't going to be causing problems. At least not in the same way the fake-baked, collagen and silicon injected sluts who flocked around made men did.

"Those were no-name women with some of our soldiers," Bronn pointed out flatly with a bit of hesitance thrown in for good measure. "Sansa has a pretty important last name and you're not just a street soldier."

Before Sandor could reply, Bronn continued, finally revealing what Sandor had sensed was lingering on the tip of Bronn's tongue this entire time.

"That's not all. A few of the capos have talked about wanting Ned Stark dead. They want that threat put down once and for all. Lupara bianca. The man's been off the grid for a couple weeks now. Everyone will think he just never came out of hiding."

Lupara bianca. Sandor may not hail from a Sicilian-American family, but he knew well enough what his men were getting at. Ned Stark would be killed and his body never found. There would be no theatrics with his death, no hidden messages for the law to sort through, no point to be made. He would just vanish and the fact that Ned was already in hiding only made things that much easier.

The path was clear for Sandor and without a second thought, he steadied his eyes to match Bronn, unblinking and with all the heavy-hitting seriousness he could muster.

"I want names." His words were slow, drawn out, and sounded ruthless even in his own hears.

Bronn hesitated and shifted nervously in his seat before dropping his eyes to his hands now resting in his lap.

"It could be men talking into their cups," Bronn tried to assure, his attempt at backpedaling painfully obvious and wholly unsuccessful at this point. "They drink, they gamble, they start talking and getting each other worked up. You know some of the men like to talk big. I just thi-"

"I said I want their fucking names," Sandor snarled as he cut Bronn off mid-sentence. His temper finally reached its breaking point as his fist slammed hard against the table. "Every man who's uttered lupara bianca and Ned Stark in the same breath. I want their names."

Bronn softly shut his eyes momentarily and breathed in deep before reopening his eyes to stare directly at Sandor.

"Marco is one of them," he confided regretfully.

"Marco? Are you sure?," Sandor questioned incredulously, hoping that maybe he had misheard or perhaps Bronn had it wrong.

"Yeah," he confirmed. "Half-Stroke said he heard him talking about it."

The information felt like insult to injury. Marco, of all his men, he would have never expected. The man had been loyal to him since the day Sandor slipped into Alberto's place. Even then Sandor knew that this was the shit he might have to contend with one day. The men, no matter how loyal on a Tuesday, could put a bullet in your brain on a Wednesday. It was the nature of this business and it was why being a boss wasn't all it seemed. Still a betrayal from Marco stung. In fact, it fucking hurt.

"The men who want to drink and fuck and gamble and rant and rave about how I handle my business are of no concern to me. They won't do shit. They talk big and can barely back it up when push comes to shove. It's when they take it upon themselves to start making decisions, that's when I have a problem. If they want lupara bianca, then that's what they'll get. Call whoever you need to call. I want those men to disappear and when the others start wondering where the fuck they've been, maybe they'll get the message loud and clear. I want it done soon too. I'm planning on heading back to Moriarti's after this weekend. I want it taken care of by the time Sansa and I get back."

"Done. I'll make the call tonight," Bronn replied at once. If Sandor was making a decision in haste, he trusted Bronn to correct him and to call him out. It was his duty in Alberto's absence and Alberto apparently had enough on his plate trying to quell whatever whispers of mutiny were rising amongst the men.

From across the table, Sandor could hear the garish tintinnabulation of Bronn's phone as it loudly rung from within his pants pocket. Pressing the palm of his hand hard against his side, Bronn scrambled to quiet the shrill noise.

"Are you going to answer that?" Sandor queried as motioned his head towards Bronn's pocket and the origin of that god awful sound.

Bronn curtly nodded his head and shoved his hand into his pocket. Furrowing his brow at the screen, Bronn flipped the phone open and pressed it to his ear.

"Yeah," he answered with traces of annoyance lingering in his voice. Although, whoever it was on the other end must have extinguished his agitation quickly.

"I have," he responded, his voice inflecting slightly now as he settled a wide-eyed stare onto Sandor. "In fact, he's sitting right here next to me."

A long pause filled the air as Bronn listened intently to whoever was speaking on the other end of the line. Suddenly, Bronn's face went ashen.

"Oh shit. Okay, yeah. Here he is." Sandor watched as Bronn pulled the phone from his face and extended it to him.

"You're gonna wanna take this. It's Damian."

Sandor felt a surge of cold run through his veins. He had been waiting for this call and began to feel his palms go clammy at the thought of what the man might say. Damian Johnson may be a man of the badge, but to call him a cop would be an insult to law enforcement officers everywhere. Sandor had worked with dirty cops before and by comparison, Damian was downright filthy. The man was in knee deep with the Blood Kings, a West Coast gang that sprouted up from the ghettos of Los Angeles and fought like hell to reign supreme over the myriad of other gang-banger groups from the same impoverished area. The Kings were violent, hot-headed, and prolific in the poverty-stricken, run-down areas of the major cities along the west coast.

"Damian," Sandor spoke into the phone, the faintness of static crackling on the other end. He could hear Damian exhale into the speaker, probably interrupted in mid-puff from the joint he was undoubtedly smoking. The man had a penchant for smoking weed confiscated during drug busts while on duty though that was the least of his offenses against the badge he wore.

"I have something on your man," he finally spoke on a smooth, self-assured voice. "He's in Crescent City."

A sense of relief was short lived as suddenly Sandor realized that this information was a double-edged sword: if he was in Crescent City, that meant he was close. And if he was that close, Sandor knew with a certainty he needed to make a move and make it soon. He knew it was coming sooner or later, but this was too soon. He wasn't ready. He wasn't ready for this at all.

"What the fuck is he doing there?," Sandor queried, not ready to give Damian a definitive answer just yet on what he wanted to do with this information.

"Same as you. On the lam and lying low," Damian retorted blankly before exhaling a deep breath into the phone once more.

"And you know for sure it's him?," Sandor shot back. Damian was thorough, but he was also a shit-disturber and willing to turn on a dime if it meant his pockets could get a little extra padding. Sandor's trust in the man only went so far and he couldn't afford to take any chances on a half-assed sighting of the man in question.

"Yeah, man," Damian slurred into the phone, drawing out his words as the buzz of marijuana seemed to take hold. "Saw him myself. My man Maurice saw him too."

Sandor laughed into the phone, not knowing who the fuck Maurice was and therefore not giving a shit whether or not Maurice could confirm if the man Damian saw was really him or not.

"What else do you have on him?," Sandor growled into the phone, his frustration growing.

"A few…um…interesting things. Some shit you'll definitely want to hear."

"And?," Sandor pressed with a grumbling rasp. His patience was wearing thin. He had asked Damian for some Intel, whatever he could dig up, and if he had found anything, Sandor sure as hell wasn't pleased that he was having to extract this information from Damian, who was being nicely compensated for this little assignment he had been tasked with. If anything, Damian should be freely giving Sandor all the information he had requested and agreed to pay for.

Sandor was met with silence, something that only stoked the fires of his agitation. A rustling sound came from the other end of the line and Sandor could tell that Damian had probably shifted the phone to his other ear.

"I can't talk now," he spoke in a hushed tone, his voice thickening with seriousness. "Listen, my leave starts tomorrow for my…uh…indiscretion. I've got some shit to take care of in Medford. I'm heading there as we speak. I can meet you in Crescent City tomorrow if you want to do the damn thing."

Now it was Sandor who fell silent and shifted the phone from one ear to the other as he brought a hand up to his forehead, mulling it over.

"The sooner the better, you know? Before he's on the move again. I can bring some of my guys with me if you want," Damian broke in, clearly not high enough just yet for Sandor's hesitance to go unnoticed.

The man, a shady mother fucker as he may be, had a point. Movement was the key to all of this, Sandor was realizing. Remaining stagnant meant making yourself susceptible to attack. Sandor shot a stare at Bronn who, although couldn't hear any of this conversation, nodded his head slowly.

"Yeah," Sandor conceded finally with a firm brusqueness to his voice. "2pm. I can be there by 2. I'll have some of my men with me. You can hold off on bringing your own men."

Sandor couldn't know the full extent of what he was getting himself into, but he knew well enough to know that getting involved with the Kings, regardless of how loosely it may be, was a bad idea. The Italian mafia and thuggish gang bangers mixed like oil and water. They were at two different levels of the organized crime hierarchy. Just like anything else, the individuals who existed near the bottom rungs tended to have a chip on their shoulder in regards to the ones who reigned on top.

"Aight, my man. I'd have your 9's with you," Damian warned into the phone, a ridiculous warning that so obviously went without saying, but nonetheless brought an amused smile to form on Sandor's lips. "I don't think I have to tell you that he's on edge. Meet me at Café Villa Borghese at 2 and we'll work this shit out."

Without another word, Sandor heard a click on the other end of the line as Damian hung up. Slowly, Sandor pulled the phone away from his ear and flipped it closed before handing it back to Bronn who was staring at him with puzzled eyes.

"We're going on a little road trip tomorrow," Sandor intoned matter-of-factly as he sat back in his seat, the gravity of what was going to happen tomorrow settling heavily into his core. Silence fell between him and Bronn as the breeze swayed suddenly through the trees and a group of birds hidden amongst the branches squawked from above. Shifting his stare towards the sound, Sandor could see them perched in the trees, black feathers and beady eyes peering out through the branches.

"What about the girls?," Bronn questioned as he ran his fingers through his hair. He already knew what was going down, had been privy to it all along and had been in continual contact with Damian while Sandor was holed up here with Sansa.

"Vincenzo and his crew aren't far from here," Sandor replied. "Half of his men can come with us and the other half can stay here with Mirabelle and Sansa. I'll make the call to Vinny."

Bronn shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head. Sandor fought to quiet the nagging voice within him; the one that chided him into thinking that maybe even with Vinny's men, it still wouldn't be enough. If Bronn shared in Sandor's doubts, he held onto them for now and for that Sandor was grateful.

"Well," Sandor spoke as he pushed himself from the table and stood slowly. "Sounds like we have some phone calls to make. Best do it before the girls get back."

Following Sandor's lead, Bronn stood up and shifted his stare towards the expanse of the back yard before nodding his head in agreement.

"Nothing like some mob bullshit to ruin a birthday party. Or anything for that matter," he japed and although both men exchanged a laugh, they knew too well the solemn truth of those