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His head was spinning. Too much wine again.


Shit thing about being his size was the long, hard fall to the ground. Last thing he needed was to keel over in front of the Stark girl and shame the LannistersWho knows what she’d do if he passed out. Sandor imagined her darting around his prone body, panicked and aflutter. The image changed to him falling and crushing her delicate arms and legs. His stomach roiled.


“Hold on, girl. I need to sit a moment.”


No protest came from her as he sat heavily in the dirt and rested his head against his knees. They’d be off after he recaptured a semblance of balance. Her skirts rustled as she settled on a log behind him and he heard nothing after. In truth, he half expected her to try to fill the quiet, but the only chirping that assaulted him was from the crickets. Disappointment crawled up his arms and over the back of his neck. He shook the familiar feeling away and let himself unwind, grateful for the peace. His thoughts settled on the small girl at his back. Her presence was crippling and comforting all at once. Beauty always put him on edge and dumped the weight of inadequacy in his lap.


He did not know why it ate at him so. It’s all just dung dipped in glittering gold. Still, Sandor felt a jarring sense of failure at being surrounded by so much of it and not contributing to it. If anything, his face diminished it. Or maybe it enhanced it. Any fool looks good standing next to a scarred dog. His stomach had been a pit of ice when he first locked eyes with the little lady Stark. Such a lovely child shouldn’t suffer to look at a face like his. I shouldn’t have touched her. What possessed me to lay hands on the girl? He was angry at himself for reaching out. It had been impulsive and bloody stupid. It was Payne she feared, not you. You heard it yourself. The thought did little to soothe him. She feared him well enough. As if the scars could leap from my face and mar her somehow.


And the golden cub eased her fear where you only added to it. The thought dug its fingernails into his temples making his head throb. The sound of her shifting on the log pulled him out of his thoughts. Thankfully, the ground didn’t seem to roll about when he opened his eyes. He thought she’d speak then; ask to be taken back immediately. When no such plea came forth, bitterness began to bead on his brow.


“What’s that I hear?” He muttered into his knees. “Not a chirp, nor a peep. Has the little bird forgotten her songs? It’s rude to let conversation lapse or weren't you taught?” A laugh snapped out of him and he glanced over his shoulder. Her eyes were wide with disbelief and her small pink mouth was slack. The sight was too much for his wine-wrecked head and laughter galloped from deep in his belly, unchecked. He came down from his outburst slowly, almost reluctantly. “Damn me, but that was funny.” His smile was gruesome to be sure, but he found it difficult to contain just then.


He looked at her and a fae-like creature smiled back, eyes alight with something. She was watching him, transfixed. The moonlight dusted her loveliness with a hint of wonder. Neither disgust nor uneasiness had found a home in her features. He remained as still as possible. He was torn between basking in the unexpected reciprocation and shaking her free of whatever madness had gripped her.


The bastard child of suspicion and embarrassment clung to his legs. She wasn’t returning your smile, you bloody fool. You laughed in her face! Her smiles belong to the little lion. He stood then, swaying only for a moment.


“We’ve tarried enough.”


He watched her smile die a slow death. Emotions he couldn't begin to name became a writhing mess and it angered him. The little bird peered up at him. A small frown haunted the corners of her mouth and furrowed her pale brow. Shame clambered onto his shoulders whispering hateful things into his good ear. Its voice was an unsettling combination of Gregor and the Lioness.


The Hound was poised to snap and snarl at the young girl, wanted to. Needed to. But for the span of a heartbeat, Sandor did not want to be feared. In that moment, he was only Sandor.


“Come, little one.” He caught her slender wrist and pulled her to her feet as gently as he could. They made their way in silence; her odd behavior and his own conflicting thoughts stilled his tongue. 


Gregor enjoyed terrorizing innocents. He was not Gregor.


Never Gregor.  


There was nothing to be gained from being feared by the little bird, but much to lose. Still, he would not shit on his dignity and go out of his way to gain her favor or her smiles. He was a dog, not a bloody knight. Empty courtesies grated on his patience, but when she chirped, even his disenchanted ears wanted to listen.


Buggering fool is what I am. He admitted sullenly. Without thought, his grip tightened around her fragile wrist. His fingertips skimmed along the silken skin of its innermost side. Startled by his own forwardness, he released her as discreetly as possible. Whether he was seeking comfort, or some vague reassurance, he couldn’t be sure. The only thing he was sure of was the relief he felt when her door came into view.


“In with you, bird. Your nest awaits.” He was tired, and did not wait for her to enter her chambers before heading off in search of his own bed. What he needed was to lose himself in a wine-induced sleep and hope all would be forgotten by morning.  


“Sleep well…” Her little voice was strained. She was holding back some perfunctory title and her effort amused him. Lacking the energy to tease her, he slowed and acknowledged her with a nod. He was a short distance down the hall when her soft voice touched his ear again. “…My lord.” He couldn’t be sure if she’d truly said it. Maybe his mind was far gone enough to imagine the proper little lady making a jape. A short laugh escaped him, but he did not look back.


The wine and his exhaustion combined were enough to drag him under as soon as he was draped across a straw pallet. They were not enough to keep his dreams at bay.


He was near a red-leafed northern tree - Weirwood. Amongst its roots, a small bird peeped and fluttered frantically. He could see the nest it had fallen from and moved forward to return it. A sleek lion cub emerged from the other side of the tree, green eyes fixated on the fledgling. Sensing the predator, it became as still as the roots around it. The cub circled the bird, swiping at it lazily. No matter how hard it was swatted, the tiny bird remained stationary and did not attempt to flee. Sandor could do nothing but look on helplessly.


The dream returned again and again. He awoke those nights in a cold sweat, unable to recall the details of his nightmare.