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The First Day of Spring

Chapter Text

In her dream she was walking beside a black stream. The snow beneath her boots was heavy with melt water, and her footprints left a trail of grey pools behind her. All about her were birches, naked in hibernation but alive with a constant drip, drip, drip, singing a promise of spring, glittering in the morning light. Now the water veered sharply to the left, and as she raised her eyes she could see that it soon bent back, encircling her, leaving her on one bank of the stream, unable to go on. It was narrow, no more than a few feet across, but dark, dark, dark, and so deep it seemed bottomless. She wanted to go on, but could not, so instead she stood there, catching the rising sun on her face, letting it kiss her warm for the first time in years.

When she woke, it was to the sound of hounds baying in the yard, horses whickering and men laughing. The room was bright, and she turned towards the window with a smile, still snug and warm under her covers, unwilling to rise. After a while, the noise died down as the hunting party rode off, and in the sudden silence she could hear snow melting, collapsing and tumbling off the roof and onto the ledge outside her window. For a long time, she simply lay there, listening to the soft splashes, relishing the golden rays of the first day of spring. This time it was not a false one, she told herself. No, sunshine like this she had not seen for many moons. 

Her handmaid came, stoked the fire and helped her dress. 

"Have they left yet?" She did not want to admit to lingering awake in bed.

"Yes, m'lady, they left earlier this morning. Did you not hear? There was an awful racket."

"I slept, dreaming of spring."

"And here it is, m'lady. A good omen for the hunt."

Perhaps it was. In any case, it was good to have the men out of the castle. After breaking her fast on fresh bread and honey and a small cup of kafa, she ordered for the Great Hall to be cleaned out, for the floors to be swept and scrubbed, and for new rushes to be brought in. The hangings were brought down, taken out and beaten, and the tables were scraped clean of candle wax and grease, then rubbed with oil. By afternoon the hall was sweet-smelling and spotless, so she allowed herself a walk in the Godswood. Her feet were soon soaked, and the hem of her dress heavy with damp.

She was sitting by the pools when she heard the sounds of the hunting party returning. Immediately, a cold sensation spread through her belly and coiled frosty fingers about her heart. Something was amiss. Such a fine day, and they had expected to be away for at least seven nights… She gathered her skirts up and hastily made her way back to the keep.

Rickon was the first she spotted, his wild, red-and-brown hair catching the slanting rays of the early evening sun. Shaggydog at his side was strangely subdued, tail hanging limp and eyes fixed on his pack leader, the young Lord of Winterfell. Her brother approached with no sign of his usual mischievous smile. She looked past him, trying to see something that would hint at why they had cut the hunt short.

"Sansa," said Rickon. "Grave news. Ask the Maestress to prepare a bed. There has been an accident and one of our winter guests has been grievously injured."

"What happened?"

"A landslide," he said, waving his hand to indicate that he would explain more later. "Ser Addam Marbrand's horse was swept along. He broke his leg in the fall."

She nodded. "Was anyone else hurt?"

"Sandor Clegane was caught as well. I'm afraid he was not as lucky as Ser Addam. A strange fate for one so strong."

The cold hand that had been caressing her fluttering heart suddenly squeezed hard. A small gasp escaped her lips. "Is he…?"

Rickon glanced back over his shoulder. She followed his gaze, and there it was; the covered stretcher concealing a figure so large it could only be him. 

A hailstorm of memories assaulted her. Ever since his arrival with Ser Jaime and his entourage in late autumn she had done her best to avoid him, but now she realised that she had been watching him more often than she had cared to admit. There was his scarred face as their eyes met across the table in the Great Hall. There was his strong, broad back as she watched him spar with Rickon, lazily brushing aside the onslaught of frenzied slashes. There was the wry, twisting smirk that might have passed for a smile if it had ever reached his eyes as he watched young Ser Rollam Westerling ask for her hand, furiously blushing and stammering. There was the relief on his face as she politely turned the offer down. Until now, she had been unaware that she had looked for him, to see his reaction. 

"Will you see about the bed?"

The sound of Rickon's voice brought her back to the here and now. "Of course."

While she waited for the Maestress, she threw back the covers of the bed and asked a servant to bring hot water and clean linen. When Ser Addam was brought she had to turn away when she saw the leg, bloody and unnaturally twisted, but not before she had glimpsed the white of the shinbone where it jutted out through the torn riding breeches. Among those carrying the litter was Ser Jaime himself, and he threw her a glance as she bit back the bile rising in her throat.

"Best be on your way, Lady Sansa," he said with a dark leer. "I have promised him a golden leg if they have to take it off, and Addam was always too greedy for his own good. Watching a man saw his own limbs off is not something that a woman should have to endure."

Ser Addam barked a hoarse laugh and then swore loudly as two strong men lifted him swiftly off the litter and onto the bed. Sansa fled.

There was supper to see about, prepared in all haste as the kitchens had been expecting half as many at the tables. More wine and ale had to be brought up, and she ordered the baths to be refilled for those treating Ser Addam. Later, she sat beside Rickon at the lord's table, chewing a piece of dark bread, but it seemed to grow in her mouth, and she was barely able to swallow it down. The Lord of Winterfell spoke a few words about the warrior who had thrice refused a knighthood, his voice breaking a little more frequently than usual. The pork chops on her plate made her stomach churn, and she fed two pieces to Shaggydog under the table, then excused herself and went outside to breathe the biting night air.

The body of Sandor Clegane had been left in the yard, underneath the covered walkway between the keep and the armoury. It was the reasonable thing to do, since the cold preserved the corpse and kept it from rotting. Still, it seemed so cruel that he should lie there, frozen and alone, while the castle was drinking to his memory. She approached the stretcher, held up off the ground on two large bales of hay. She would have looked upon his face once more, but couldn't bring herself to turn aside the blanket. Instead, she sang a quiet hymn before retreating to her chambers. Her handmaid undressed her and brushed her hair. Maestress Olyve called, her apron stained dark with blood, and told her that Ser Addam's leg had been beyond redemption. Rickon came by just as she was preparing to go to bed, and she sat with him for some time while he spoke of the day, and how the hunt had been cut short, and how he knew he must go ahead with it again, preferably on the morrow, even though he would rather just run away again. So she held him close, and thanked him for being honest, and told him to go if he had to, but begged him to return soon.

Finally, her rooms were quiet and empty, so she sat on her bed, blew out the candle, and let the tears come.

 

Chapter Text

In her dream she was walking beside a black stream. The snow beneath her boots was heavy with melt water, and as she watched the slush turn the leather stained and dark with damp, she realised she had been here before. She stopped dead in her tracks and looked around, then up. From the slender birch looming above her, a drop fell and landed on her cheek, making her flinch and blink. She wiped the wetness away, then went on walking until the stream turned back on itself, just as she had known it would. She wanted to go on, but could not, so instead she stood there, catching the rising sun on her face, letting it kiss her warm for the first time in years.

When she woke, it was to the sound of hounds baying in the yard, horses whickering and men laughing. So Rickon hadn't gone through with his plan after all. He was beginning to grow up, she thought, not without a certain sadness. The sun was glaringly bright in her raw eyes, so she rose and drew the curtains, then went back to bed and stayed there until her handmaid came. The girl stoked the fire, then came to help her dress. Sansa went through the motions, stepping out of her smallclothes, washing herself and slipping a new pair on, but it felt meaningless somehow. Had she dreamt of him? His face kept swimming before her eyes as soon as she shut them. She wished that she had looked upon it one last time.

"Wait," said Sansa, frowning at the practical woollen dress that her handmaid held out. "I wore that yesterday, its hem is ruined, I…" she glanced down to inspect the damage done, and found the skirts spotless and clean.

"M'lady?"

"Did you wash this, Samya?"

"No, m'lady. You wore the blue-and-silver gown yesterday. For the feast, m'lady."

If she hadn't been so wrapped up in thoughts of Sandor Clegane, she might have found it in herself to be angry with the girl for acting so silly. "The feast was the day before yesterday," she reminded her. "Ahead of the hunt."

"But the hunt is today, m'lady."

She sighed. "Of course it is. One dead retainer and Ser Addam's leg is not enough to call it off completely. How is he this morning?"

Samya looked at her in the mirror, and her confusion was plainly written on her face. "Who?" she asked stupidly.

"Ser Addam Marbrand," said Sansa patiently.

"I saw him earlier, m'lady, and he looked well. He has gone with Lord Stark and Ser Jaime for the hunt."

Sansa was on the verge of saying something, then snapped her mouth firmly shut and scrambled into the dress, telling Samya to hurry up with the ties in the back. As soon as she was dressed, she dashed out of the room, ignoring her handmaid's pleas to at least let her brush her hair. She flung the door open to Ser Addam's chambers and found them empty and clean. His window overlooked the yard, and when she peered out, there was no sign of the stretcher that had supported the body of Sandor Clegane. They might have moved it, she reasoned, but in her chest, her heart was beating wildly, and not only from running. 

It was when she entered the Great Hall that she realised it had all been a dream. It was just as grubby, dusty and smelly as it had been for the past few months, after far too long without a proper scrubbing down. She sank down on a bench by a table, picking at a stale smear of wax while the thoughts ran rampant through her head. It had been such a vivid dream, more real than life itself. Eventually, she rose again, and ordered for the Hall to be cleaned out.

Everything she did felt like repetition. As she went to help steady a ladder for a servant who was unhooking the hangings with the direwolf sigil, she could remember the way the rungs felt beneath her fingers even before holding it. She ran her hand over the wood lightly, and just as it happened, she remembered the little splinter. Even the hiss as she drew a sharp breath sounded familiar. She eyed the tiny chip of wood suspiciously while she carefully pried it out using the pin of her brooch. A sense of unease began growing in her, and instead of walking in the Godswood as she might have done otherwise, she went to Rickon's solar to go over the records.

The stores were in order, and everything indicated that spring was truly here, as punctual as it had been for the last five years, going by her notes. After a while, she began humming lightly to herself as she worked. By the time the sun had begun setting, the strange dream had faded almost completely.

Then she heard the sounds of the hunting party returning. 

The dread filling her was unlike anything she had felt in a long, long time. She made herself walk at a quick, steady pace down to the yard. Her heart was hammering against her throat, willing her to run, run, run, but her legs were leaden and it was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other. As soon as she stepped through the doors and into the sunlight, she caught sight of the covered stretcher. She sank to the ground.

"No," she heard herself say, before darkness took her in its embrace, slowly muffling all sound and bringing her down into a timeless void.

When she woke, Rickon was at her side, his face concerned. It was already dark outside. The memories of the day came flooding back.

"Sandor Clegane?" she asked.

"Dead," he said, grimacing with barely concealed anger and sadness. Then, his brow furrowed in confusion. "How…"

"And Ser Addam. His leg?"

"How long have you been awake?"

A thought struck her. "Perhaps I am still dreaming," she said, sitting up quickly. She pinched herself, hard, with no other effect than an angry, red mark forming on her arm.

Rickon shook his head. "I wish you were."

She sank back onto the pillows. "I saw it in a dream, Rickon. I saw everything. The dress, Ser Addam's leg, Sandor Clegane…" She told him, and he listened.

"Bran was a greenseer," said her brother. "Might be that you are as well."

She was glad it was him at her side. He had seen things much more terrifying and wondrous than this. "I could have stopped it," she said unhappily. "One man lost his life, and another his leg, and I could have stopped it."

"Ser Addam's leg might still be saved. Besides, green dreams aren't for changing the future, only for knowing."

"Then what use are they?"

At that moment, Maestress Olyve came calling, her apron stained dark with blood, and told them that Ser Addam's leg had been beyond redemption. Sansa met Rickon's eyes and the tears came.

Later, she lay alone and awake, unable to go back to sleep. After tossing and turning for the longest time, she understood what she must do. She wrapped herself in her warmest furs and stepped into a pair of Rickon's boots, left behind earlier, then stole quietly through the keep, down to the yard. 

The body was where she knew it would be, and this time she stepped up to it and turned aside the blanket covering his face. In death, he seemed strangely untroubled. The grim frown was smoothed out, and the jaw, so often clenched tight in anger, was relaxed, leaving his lips slightly parted as if he was still whispering his final breath. Gingerly, she reached out to feel his scarred cheek. It was the first time she had touched him since the night of the battle, when wildfire had painted them both in green and black, so many years ago. Now she wished she had done it once more in life. She brushed aside the dark hair. How old had he been? Five-and-thirty, if not more, she guessed. His body had been formidable, lean and strong, but it was at his face her eyes lingered. Without the scars, he might have been almost handsome, in a rough-hewn, brutish sort of way. Taking one limp hand in hers, she sang a hymn for him before covering his face again and returning to her chambers.

Chapter Text

In her dream she was walking beside a black stream, and this time she knew it was a dream. She knew she had to wake up, but didn't know how. Running, running, running towards the rising sun, droplets of melt water with their insistent splash, splash, splash, urging her on until she came to the spot where the stream turned, trapping her on the snow-clad peninsula. Where should she go from here? She swallowed, tasting the sour exhaustion from her sprint. Her breathing was finally slowing, and with it her heart. She turned her face to the wind and let it cool her cheeks.

When she woke, it was to the sound of hounds baying in the yard, horses whickering and men laughing. The sun shone brightly, reminding her that the hour was already late. She lay in bed thinking of last night, of his cold corpse beneath the rough linen. Then she remembered the dream, and suddenly her feet were moving of their own accord, swinging over the edge of the bed onto the floor. From her window she could see the hunting party preparing to leave, and yes, there was Ser Addam Marbrand, still graceful despite his years, swinging himself into the saddle. 

She scrambled into her furs quickly, but wasted precious moments looking for Rickon's boots before she remembered that that had been in the dream. Her panic was mounting, so she yanked on a pair of slippers and ran.

Even in the bustling throng that was the yard, his horse was easy enough to spot where it stood, off to one side so as not to trouble the others too much. His black courser was an ill-tempered beast, old and viciously protective of his master. Sansa eyed the animal with suspicion and approached warily. Then she spotted Sandor Clegane, and her heart leapt. He was running a large hand gently down the leg of his horse, who obediently lifted it to let him inspect the hoof. She edged around the two, keeping a distance of several yards and all the while watching the hind legs of the beast. The warrior must have sensed her presence, for when he spoke up, it was without looking at her.

"So the little bird has finally plucked up the courage to face the dog," he said.

How to begin, how to explain? She wrung her hands as she fumbled for words. He let the hoof down and rose to his full height. Even from this far away, she felt as though he towered over her. Now he did look, and she resisted the urge of letting her own gaze waver. She would not give him the satisfaction of mocking her for that again. Yet mock her he did.

"Now she looks. Yes, I have seen you look, just like the rest of them. Every menagerie needs a freak, even one led by a tame lion." He glanced down at her slippers, where water was pooling around her footprints in the half-melted slush. "Have you something to say, little bird? Come to wish me luck for the hunt, perhaps? Tell it to the other dogs, they might care to hear it."

"I came to warn you. I have…" She hesitated. She couldn't tell him about the dream. He would think her crazy. "Be careful," she said, taking an involuntary step forward. "The roads are dangerous when the snows are melting. There might be a… a landslide."

Sandor Clegane swung himself into the saddle and turned his horse around to face her. The black beast danced towards her, rolling its eyes and tossing its head, baring large yellow teeth. She was forced to back away, and the soft soles of her slippers made her slide a little on the slick cobbles beneath the mush. He leered at her. "Take your own advice, Lady Sansa. Now fly back to your tower nest before you take a chill."

Before she had a chance to say anything else, he wheeled his courser around and trotted off after the others, past the kennels and through the Hunter's Gate.

"Be careful!" she called again after him, turning the heads of many still lingering in the yard, but Sandor Clegane did not look back.

The rest of the day dragged on, slowly, slowly, slowly. She did not order the Great Hall to be cleaned out. She did not walk in the Godswood. She did not go over the records. Instead, she paced her chambers, looking time and time again at the shadows on the floor, watching them grow longer, thinking that now, surely now, they would have been back if… She did not want to finish the thought. Tap, tap, tap went the heels of her boots. Swish, swish, swish whispered the hem of her skirt.

Then she heard the sounds of the hunting party returning. 

She stood looking down at the body of Sandor Clegane, but she hardly saw his features for the tears blurring her vision. The chance had been there to save him, and she had failed. From somewhere above her came a cry that was abruptly cut off. Ser Addam Marbrand had fainted when they took his leg, she knew, and there was no shame in that. Her cheeks and nose were beginning to grow stiff in the cold night air, clear and biting, turning the yard hard and treacherous with frozen hoof prints and puddles of smooth, black ice. Still she lingered, running her fingers through his black hair, already strangely matted and lifeless in death. Had anyone done this to him while he lived, she wondered? Had he ever loved a woman? What did it matter if he had not? If she were to die tomorrow, the same would be said of her. Let them talk, she thought. When she was young and still half a child, love had been all she had thought of. She had given her heart to half a hundred knights by the time she was twelve. A year on, and she had sworn never to give it away again. She knew better now, knew that a heart was not only for loving a husband, and she gladly gave it away again and again, to Rickon, to the weirwood by the pools, to the wind-swept hills that she glimpsed from the solar, to the strong, unyielding walls of the keep. Burnt though they may be, she would love them until they healed. She wiped her tears away, and sang a hymn for him before returning to her chambers.

Chapter Text

In her dream she was walking beside a black stream. She stopped. This again? 

"Wake up," she told herself sternly, and no one answered. 

This time she would not keep walking. Instead, she carefully lay down on the snow, soon feeling the water soaking through her cloak and dress. "Wake up. Wake up. Wake up."

Time was short, she knew. By now, they would be leading the horses into the yard. Her limbs were growing stiff with the cold, but she refused to move. "Wake up!" she shouted, and closed her eyes.

When she woke, it was to the sound of hounds baying in the yard, horses whickering and men laughing. This time she did not linger, but flung her covers aside and sprang from the bed. Barefoot in nothing but her night shift, she ran down, down, down the steps and into the yard.

"Rickon!" she shouted, and there he was, hair afire in the morning sun. He was already on horseback and she made her way to his side, ignoring the cold, icy slush that stung her naked feet. 

"Seven hells, Sansa, what are you wearing?" he said, his wild laughter almost but not quite bubbling from his lips.

"Don't swear," she said, unable to stop herself. "It does not befit a lord."

"They say Robert Baratheon swore twice as much as he farted."

"For shame, Rickon! King Robert was hardly the kind of man you want to model yourself on.” She resisted the urge to give him a proper scolding. There were other, much more important matters at hand. “Never mind that now. You must call off the hunt."

"Are you sure you're quite awake?" He glanced down at her naked feet.

Was she sure? She hoped she was. "You told me about Bran's green dreams, and I have had one. There will be a landslide, and Ser Addam's leg..."

"You had a dream?" said Rickon, grinning insolently. "Judging from your dress you are still half asleep." This drew laughter from the men around them.

At once, she turned angry. "You will listen to me," she said. "Lives are in danger, and you will call off this hunt. Don't make me tell you again."

It had been a mistake saying that in front of his men, she realised. His eyes turned steely and his jaw clenched in that stubborn way she knew so well. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and just a little too controlled.

"I don't know what has come over you, sister, but you are making us both look ridiculous. What possessed you to come out here, half naked and without shoes?"

"Call off the hunt," she pleaded.

"No," he hissed, then sat up straight. "We're leaving!" he called to Ser Jaime Lannister, who was watching them curiously from atop his horse a few yards away.

A horn blasted and Lord Rickon Stark put his heels to the sides of his steed, urging him on. In sheer desperation, she ran after him, and clung to his leg. "Please, please, please listen to me. You listened to me before. You must believe me. I know it sounds like madness but-"

"It is madness," he said, glaring daggers at her. "Steffon!" he called for his friend, who approached. Rickon leaned close and whispered something in his ear. Young Steffon Seaworth glanced at Sansa, swung off his horse and went to stand beside her, his hand lightly on her arm. Rickon spoke up. "Halys, please be so kind as to help Steffon escort my sister to the Maestress for something to calm her nerves. It appears she is having a fit of hysterics." With that, he rode off, and she was held back from running after him by the two men-at-arms .

"Come, Lady Sansa," said Steffon, tugging at her gently, unwilling to force her.

"Let me go," she said, shrugging him off. She watched the hunting party ride forth, filing past her, most of them glancing down at her with curiosity and amusement. She was seething with anger, but she was also becoming acutely aware that her feet were aching from the cold, and that her thin shift was clinging to her back and legs as the brisk wind tugged at it. Shivering, she hugged herself.

From behind her, she heard someone whistling, and she turned around to see who it was, thinking to remember to reprimand him later. It was a young boy, a squire to one of the Lannister men, and he was eyeing her with a grin from the back of a chestnut rounsey. She was about to say something when out of nowhere came Sandor Clegane on his monster of a steed, smacking one iron-clad hand across the squire's ear.

"Enough of your gawking, boy," he said. The squire winced and grasped at the side of his face where blood was beginning to trickle slowly from a shallow cut. "You are a guest in the lady's house. Are you so eager to spoil Ser Martyn's reputation that you would earn yourself a flogging? If you expect Lord Stark to pass over a slight like that you are sorely mistaken."

The boy spurred his horse, swaying dangerously in the saddle while clutching at his ear, gaze firmly fixed on the backs of the disappearing riders, avoiding hers at all cost. She looked to Sandor Clegane, and her eyes found his. In them she could see anger, always the anger, but pain and something else besides. Then they flickered ever so briefly to her chest, where through the flimsy cloth her shapes were visible, then away again, and he smiled wryly before following the rest of the men as they rode off.

"Lady Sansa," said Steffon Seaworth again.

"Yes, I am coming."

When Maestress Olyve received her, she had worked up a temper again. "I do not need anything to calm my nerves," she said. "I need to dress while someone saddles a horse for me."

"You have taken a chill, my lady," said the Maestress. "I will prepare a hot drink for you, and after, you had best return to your chambers and spend the day abed."

"I will do no such thing! Steffon, have a horse made ready. I will leave as soon as I am dressed."

Steffon stepped over to the Maestress and spoke a word in her ear, and then returned to his place by the door. Sansa stared at him. "Do I need to command you?" she asked. Steffon looked miserably at her, then glanced at Halys and stepped outside. Maestress Olyve was busying herself with the beverage, chinking pewter against glass and crushing fragrant leaves in a bowl. When it was ready, Sansa received it gratefully, hissing as her frozen fingers touched the hot sides of the cup.

"My lady, please sit, and drink," said Maestress Olyve.

"I am leaving as soon as I can," said Sansa, then sipped at the herbal infusion, tasting mint and lavender.

"Please, sit," said Halys and came to her side, taking her arm gently and leading her towards a chair.

It did feel a little better to sit for a while. She drank deeply. 

"Not so quickly, my lady," said the Maestress, rushing forward to take the cup from her hands.

"Why?" Sansa eyed her suspiciously. "What is in that?" She could see the lips of the Maestress moving, but she could hear no words. Why was it that she suddenly couldn't feel her fingers? She felt very tired. Perhaps if she closed her eyes for just a little while, she might…

When she woke, Rickon was at her side, face red and blotched from crying. It was already dark outside. The memories of the day came flooding back.

"Rickon," she said. Her tongue was strangely swollen, her lips parched.

"I’m sorry," he said, throwing his face down on her chest. "I'm so, so sorry. I was so stupid not to listen to you. I should have listened. I should never have doubted you."

"Did you have me drugged?"

"I'm sorry," he wailed, and she hugged him tightly, and listened to him pour his heart out about what she already knew had come to pass. Somehow, Sansa was quite calm. It might be the lingering effect of the poppy, or whatever other substance the Maestress had given her, but she found herself strangely rational as she mused over dreams and reality, and over what she should do next. She told Rickon what he needed to hear, and let him cry, and when he finally fell into a heavy sleep on her bed, she slipped on her furs and his boots and walked down to the yard.

"What can I tell you, what can I say, that you might listen, and live?" She sat beside the body of Sandor Clegane, cupping his cheek with her hand, searching his features for some sign. His eyes were closed, and she did not care to look upon them either, knowing they were unseeing and dead. "Tomorrow, you will live," she whispered, took his hand and squeezed it before returning to her chambers.

Chapter Text

In her dream she was standing beside Rickon atop the battlements of Winterfell, looking west, cool wind blowing in their faces. Shoulder to shoulder, they were of a height now. Her brother would grow taller still, she knew, and stronger, until he was every bit the warrior their father had been. The sky was dark and grey ahead, and behind them slowly turning pink.

"I can set it right," she said. "I will make him listen."

"There was a landslide," said Rickon. "Ser Addam and Sandor were riding ahead with the dogs. He was always good with the dogs, you know."

"Yes."

"It was their barking that set it off, I'm sure of it. Or perhaps the horses. The hillside was bare, facing south, and the melt water was all over the road."

She smiled. "Why didn't I think to ask you before?" she said and turned to him, but he was gone. Turning again, to the east, she was once more standing beside the black stream among the dripping birches, and the sun was rising. Without hesitation, she plunged into the cold, dark waters.

When she woke, the light was still dim, and the keep was quiet. "Yes, yes, yes," she whispered into her pillow. There was still plenty of time. From her wardrobe, she picked a dress that laced up the front and pulled it on. She brushed her own hair, quickly, purposefully, and wound it into a knot that she pinned to the nape of her neck. Now the sun was rising, and she must be on her way.

The stables were warm, steaming with the smell of horses and manure, saddles and soap, hay and sweaty blankets. She had never felt at ease here, and as she walked past the stalls, keeping a safe distance to either side, she glanced warily at the rumps of the beasts, noticing every swish of tail, every shift of weight from one hind leg to the other. Stable boys and squires were in some of the boxes, brushing coats, checking hooves. They nodded at her, politely, and followed her with curious eyes. Sandor Clegane's horse was housed in a box at the far end, and the large courser watched her through the iron bars on the door as she approached. He snorted, steam and snot spraying from his nostrils, stamped a heavy hoof, and tossed his head. She kept her distance. After a while, he calmed down and they regarded each other, arriving, she felt, at a truce. Suddenly his ears pricked, and she turned around. There he was, and she wondered how such a large man had been able to walk so quietly.

"Is he causing trouble?" he asked. "I told them to leave him to me, but some boys never tire of being kicked it seems."

"No, it was you I came to see," she said, stepping into his way as started towards the box.

He stopped, eyes narrowed. "So the little bird has finally plucked up the courage to face the dog."

They stood close now, as close as two people might without touching, and she could smell him, light mail and leather and wool, and underneath all that the clean, comforting scent of what could only be his skin, his hair. Yes, his hair was still damp, and looking so different now from when she had run her fingers through it when he had lain on the stretcher, cold and pale. It was all she could do to keep herself from raising her hand.

"Finally?" she asked. "I wasn't aware you had been waiting."

He scowled at that. "What is it you want of me, Lady Sansa?"

"Do you trust me?"

"Do I trust you? I trust you to speak your mind whether or not I want you to."

So angry. Always so angry. He made to move again, and she reached for his arm, staying him gently. Staring down at her hand, he stopped, as if she was the strong warrior, clasping her plated fist about his slender arm in a steady, unyielding grasp. "Don't be angry," she said, her voice quiet, as it had been with Rickon that first, painful year. "Just listen."

He did listen, even without mocking her, she noticed with relief. She made him promise, although his eyes betrayed that he only did it for her peace of mind. She didn't mind. It was enough for her. When they rode out, she watched from the steps to the keep. Rickon waved at her before calling Shaggydog to his side, and the sun caught his hair, turning it flaming red. Her eyes sought out Sandor Clegane, but he did not stop to look back. In her chest, her heart skipped over a beat, leaving a void there for just one second, a swift but mournful longing, before being filled once again with a steady clap, clap, clap as she went about her labours of love. First, she ordered for the Great Hall to be cleaned out.

Supper that evening was a quiet affair with most of their guests and half the household missing. For each passing minute, Sansa's smile grew wider and more sincere, and when Eleyna Westerling asked, she said she was glad that spring was finally here. 

As she lay in bed, waiting for sleep, she found herself imagining the day he would return. A week? She was lucky that she was never left wanting for things to occupy her days. Fleetingly, she saw them filled with letters being written and coin being counted. Would they have enough to start rebuilding the Maester’s Turret this year? It would have to be the Maestress's Turret now. But those thoughts were quickly dealt with, and instead she lingered on the thought of seeing him ride through the gate. She remembered how his eyes had wandered to her chest when she had been in her night shift and her heart stopped once more, ever so briefly, before starting again, all of a sudden a rapid fluttering.

Chapter Text

In her dream she was standing in a snow-clad birch wood by a black stream. It wound about her, trapping her on both sides. She could not go forward, so instead she began going back, back, back from where she had come. Her footsteps were shallow, grey pools of icy water, and she walked around them, yet her feet were soon soaked with melt water all the same. After some time, the forest thinned and gave way to heavy slates of stone. She walked up to the edge of the battlements of Winterfell and looked west, her face in shadow, the sun at her back. She went down, down, down, then up, up, up until she reached her chambers. There, in her bed, she was already sleeping.

When she woke, it was to the sound of hounds baying in the yard, horses whickering and men laughing. She turned towards the window, where the sun was flooding through the uneven glass panes, drenching the room in its bright light. No, she did not want to believe it. Unable to move, she stared, and listened until the noise died down. When Samya came, she told her that she was feeling unwell, that she did not want anything to eat, that she would not be disturbed today. She spent her time pacing, thinking, deliberating, cursing, weeping, reasoning, but never hoping. 

In the late afternoon, she heard the sounds of the hunting party returning.

Rickon apologised for disturbing her when ill, and she assured him she was feeling much better, and felt a pang of guilt as she nodded and pretended to listen when he told her of the day and how everything had gone horribly wrong, knowing full well that she had heard it all before.

"Why couldn't we have just gone on from there?" she asked the corpse of Sandor Clegane. She was holding his limp hand, tracing a scar that ran across the back of it with her fingers. He had many more underneath his armour, she knew. His dead features gave nothing away, and she realised she wanted to know him, to unravel that anger and for once see him at peace in life. Tomorrow morning, she might have an hour, two at best. It was wildly inappropriate, of course, but she found herself somehow looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

In her dream she was diving into a black stream, headfirst into the icy waters, letting herself sink deeper, deeper, deeper until she reached the bed.

When she woke, it was still dark, but as she stole out of her rooms she could feel the castle waking, preparing for the day ahead. Was she cursed to relive these hours forever? She could change his fate today, at least. At least she could do that.

His hair had been damp. He must have been to the baths before going to the stables, she reasoned. Not until she arrived at the wing where they were located, deep in the bowels of the keep, fed by the natural hot springs, did she realise that he was not the only man wishing to wash one last time before leaving on a week-long excursion. They were everywhere, mingling in varying degrees of undress as they walked through the door to the pools. She made herself walk past, head held high, refusing to as much as glance at the door as it swung to and fro, soon finding herself at the other end of the corridor, her cheeks blossoming. It was not from the sight of the men - she was a woman grown after all, and they were still in breeches - but the unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling of being somewhere she had no reason to be. Telling herself that it was her own home made little difference. Now what? The hallway was a dead end, as she had known full well when she had begun her walk of shame. She glanced back, and sure enough, they were looking. A dusty, half-ruined tapestry came to her rescue, and she spent a minute or two pretending to inspect it, tugging at one end, frowning with concern, running her fingers along the back of it, as if this was the most natural thing to be doing in the early morning, sun not yet up. At long last, she could see the milling returning to normal out of the corner of her eye. Then, she walked back the way she had come, quickly, looking straight ahead. 

Where was his room? How was it possible that she did not know exactly? She steered her steps towards the floor where most of Ser Jaime's men were billeted. Arriving at the landing, she wavered for a minute. Then a door opened and a boy came towards her, the same squire who had whistled at her in the yard. The anger must have shown on her face, for he passed her in a hurry, only stopping briefly to bow and mumble a "My lady" before rushing down the stairs.

"Wait!" she called after him, and he froze. "I am looking for Sandor Clegane," she said.

"Last door to the right, my lady," said the squire, not quite meeting her gaze.

She thanked him and he went on his way. Outside his door, she stopped, braced herself and then knocked. There was no answer, no sound from inside. She must wait now, and it drove her mad. She tried not to pace. Another one of Ser Jaime's men came through a door, greeting her curtly, the questions written plainly on his face but never spoken. Before she had the time to form a plausible excuse for her being here, he had turned and walked away. After that, she thought of three or four different ones, but in the end she didn't need any of them, for the next person she saw was Sandor Clegane. As he came up the stairs and spotted her, he hesitated, but only for half a heartbeat. He was without his armour, in a pair of breeches, a tunic and soft boots. A sword was at his side, she noticed. Who in this castle did he not trust?

His eyes were on her all the way from the spiral staircase until he stopped in front of his door. "So the little bird has finally plucked up the courage to face the dog."

She raised an eyebrow. Three times now. "Yes," she said. "Yes, she has."

"Well then?"

"Will you not ask me inside?"

He looked uncertain for a moment, and she had to remind herself that for him, these were the first words they had spoken in private for years. "It would seem you just did so yourself," he said, but opened the door and stood aside to let her pass. "Besides, it's still your castle. I have yet to meet a lord or lady who didn't do as they pleased in their own home."

Inside, all was dark, but Sandor walked over to the window and opened the curtains to let the grey pre-dawn light spill into the room. His light armour was laid out neatly on a chest nearby, but the rest was a mess. The bed was unmade and there were several cups and a couple of dirty plates piled on the floor next to the door, as if waiting to be carried out. Did the servants not come here? Working swiftly, Sandor snatched a crumpled tunic off the floor and kicked a pair of boots under the bed, and Sansa looked away politely while he tidied up, pretending to take an interest in the embroidered picture by the door that was the room's sole concession to decoration. Once he was still again, she turned away from it. There was no chair, so she sat on the bed, hands folded in her lap. 

"Please, sit," she said, nodding to him to join her.

"As the lady commands," he said and sat, the bed sagging slightly under his weight.

She glanced to the window and the yellowing light outside. How long did she have before he would need to go see to his horse? Not as long as she would have liked. Her heart doing its best to pound its way out of her chest, she took a deep breath and plunged right in. "What would you have done, if I had gone with you that night?"

The look in his eyes as he glanced at her was pained. "You're asking questions you don't want answering, little bird. The war is over and you're home safe. What good ever came of looking back?"

"In the Vale there was not a day when I didn't wish I had gone with you." It was only as she said the words that she realised how true they were. She had to close her eyes for a second not to be overwhelmed.

"Is that what you came to tell me? You were a frightened little girl and I was too bloody drunk to think straight, on wine and blood both. I had a knife to your throat, and you wish you had gone with me? Or had you forgotten that part?"

"I remember everything," she said. "You said you would keep me safe. You told me that no one would hurt me again. No one includes you."

He snorted. "You didn't know the wild, or what it would be like to sleep on the cold, hard ground. You still don't. You only know the parts they tell you in the tales. Running away on the night of the battle, oh yes, just like in one of your pretty little songs. I thought you had more sense than that now."

She stared at him. "Do you think I would have cared where we slept? You would have taken me to my mother, and Robb, and knowing that I could have seen them again, just once, whatever their fates might have been in the end, that is something I live with every single day."

He did not reply at once, but sat grinding his teeth, eyes flickering back and forth as he looked into hers. This was not how she had imagined their meeting would go.

"I never made it as far as I would have liked," he said finally. "We might both have been killed, butchered by outlaws and left for the wolves. You're home safe, little bird, waiting for some lord to snatch you off and build you a cage worthy of your fine feathers, where you can sing all day to your heart's content."

"No. No one will ever do that to me again. I will never go south." She had received plenty of invitations to court over the past years, urging her to travel down to visit the new palace at Ashenfield, to see the wonders of the burnt gardens, the brightwater pools... Each year there were tourneys, and feasts, and matches were made, uniting families, ensuring that lines lived on in these times of tentative peace held together by fire and blood.

"Your brother will marry. How will you like it when someone else calls herself Lady Stark?"

How did he keep turning it all around to be about her? "Where did you go?" she asked. He didn't answer, just looked at her with those angry grey eyes. There were other things she wanted to know as well, and why not ask? Come the morning, all of this would exist nowhere but in her head. "Why did you go? You were the one person in that hellish keep who showed me any kindness, who was honest and truthful, who-"

"Listen to yourself," he snarled. "Still singing your stupid songs with your head in the clouds. Is that what staying in the Eyrie did to you? Florian and Jonquil, wasn't it? Well I'm no Florian, no more than I ever was the Knight of Flowers or Ser Jaime the Kingslayer. I left to save my own skin, and for what? The gods are cruel, little bird, as cruel as your sister was when she refused me mercy."

"Would you rather have died, then?" she asked.

He looked away. She knew she would regret it later if she didn't dare, so she took his hand. His whole being seemed to freeze up, to tense with shock, but he didn't pull away, simply stared at her hand, her long fingers suddenly looking so small compared to his.

"No," he said, his voice barely a whisper.

They sat like that for a long while, her eyes on his face the whole time, and his on her hand. Gradually, he relaxed, but he still did not move an inch. Sansa glanced over to the window where the sunlight was now draping the room in honey and gold. "Do you trust me?" she asked.

Supper that evening was a quiet affair with all their guests and half the household missing. This day, he had lived.

Chapter Text

In her dream, her hand was so hot that it felt like it was on fire. Plunging it down into the snow, she drew breath after breath after breath before remembering what she had to do. She stood and dove headfirst into the black stream.

When she woke it was still dark. She flexed the fingers of the hand that had been burning, once, twice, three times. A tingling sensation was all that was left, and when she looked at it, it was the same as always. She rose, and knowing that she had some time before he would return to his room, took care when she dressed herself, watched her own reflection in the mirror as she fussed with her hair, dabbed the tiniest drop of perfume behind her ear.

When Ser Jaime's man left his room, giving her the same curious glance as the morning before, she knew he would soon come. At the thought of it, her heart began beating wildly, and the memory of his hand in hers shot hot shivers up her arm. She flicked her fingers. There he was now, stopping again, just for half a second. Here he came again, his eyes burning into hers. 

"So the little bird has finally plucked up the courage to face the dog."

"How long have you waited to say those words?" she asked. He frowned, his eyes at once darkening. Sansa's heart sank. Why could she not have let him be? "I did not mean-" she started.

"Why have you come here?"

"Can I come inside?"

He looked away and she wondered if he was thinking about the mess. "This is your home, and I imagine you can go anywhere you like."

"We can go back to my chambers," she offered.

"And what would the Kingslayer's hound be doing in your chambers?" he asked and opened the door, stepping aside to let her in. "People would talk, don't think they wouldn't."

She entered the room and sat on the bed. "Let them talk," she said softly while he snatched the tunic off the floor, kicked the boots under the bed, then went to lean against the door, arms crossed, teeth grinding silently. He has me trapped, she thought. "They must be tired of spreading word of the opposite." Oh yes, she had heard the stories, maybe not the worst or the cruellest, but bad enough to make her wonder at the joy others took in rumour mongering. She was frigid, cold, barren. There was nothing between her legs save for a chunk of the Wall itself, refusing to melt for any man. Small wonder she declined the Queen's invitation again and again. From the look Sandor gave her, she knew he had heard it all.

"Why not marry?" he said, in a strange and bitter voice. "That would put an end to it."

"Words are wind, is that not so? In any case, they are right. I will not marry again. I will not go south."

"I don't blame you, little bird."

Their eyes met, and for once, his were not angry. Was he thinking of Joffrey, of Tyrion, of Harry the Heir? No, with those betrothals, that marriage, who could blame her? Rickon had told her time and time again to do with her life as she pleased, and she had. 

"Won't you sit?" she said and shifted on the bed, making enough space for him to join her without being too close. When he sat, it was still close enough to make her stomach clench tight in anticipation. Anticipation of what? She flexed the fingers of her hand, once, twice… He looked at it, and she stopped.

"What is it they say of me then, down in Ashenfield?"

"I'm not in the habit of listening to gossip," he said, avoiding her gaze.

The need to touch him suddenly became too much, so she took his hand. Again, he froze, taut as a bowstring, but he did not pull away this time either. "Tell me," she said.

He stared straight ahead for the longest of time, but she didn't say anything, just waited. Gradually he relaxed, seemingly forgetting her hand in his. "There was one man last summer," he started. "A spurned suitor of yours, coming south again to lick his wounds and to prove himself in the tourney, thinking to name some highborn girl or other the queen of love and beauty, to win her hand. During the feast, he was heard loudly saying that you were cold towards mortal men, and that you had lost your maidenhood to Jon Snow's direwolf, or perhaps the Targaryen bastard himself, and that you had birthed a litter of freaks who suckled at you in the den you had made for yourself under a weirwood tree north of the Wall."

"And did people believe him?" There had been so many suitors over the past years that she did not care to guess which one this had been. 

"There are dragons nesting in the ruins of Oldtown. People will believe anything these days, and if they don't believe, they still talk."

"How did he fare in the tourney?"

Sandor's mouth twitched. "Not well."

"And who was crowned the queen of love and beauty?"

This time the smile was real, if ever so fleeting. "No one."

The sun was already spilling into the room, and she knew time was short. She moved her hand to let her fingers intertwine with his, and as they rubbed together she could feel the nervous perspiration, making the movement less smooth. He looked at her helplessly, knowing that she knew, and even though she had suddenly made up her mind it took forever, a hundred pounding heartbeats or more, to lean in and touch her lips to his. He didn't move, but his hand was suddenly crushing hers, and as she reached up with her other hand to his neck she could feel his frenzied pulse under her fingers. When she parted her lips he followed suit, and suddenly they were fumbling, trembling, teeth clashing, tongues touching fleetingly, the air between them growing hot with their breaths. Still he did not move, so she placed his hand on her thigh, and he squeezed it awkwardly and there was a low moan, a wince, a knock on the door.

"Get up you drunken dog," came Ser Jaime's voice from outside.

In a heartbeat, Sansa had flown from the bed and to the wall, pressing herself flat against it, trying to slow her breathing. The door was flung open, stubbing her foot, and she screamed a silent scream, feeling her eyes tear up as the pain shot through her leg, her toes growing cold, then hot, then cold again. Sandor moved towards her without ever letting his face betray him, and stood holding the door open with his hand, looming over Ser Jaime, still unseen but inches away.

"You're late," said Ser Jaime. "I thought you said you were going to have an early night…" His voice trailed off, and she heard him sniff at the air. "Is that perfume, Clegane? Have you entertained a wench here?" Sansa cursed silently.

"That's none of your bloody business. The baths were busy. I need a minute to dress."

"Was it one of those straw-haired kitchen girls? I overheard them speculating who-"

"Not in such a hurry after all, ser?"

Ser Jaime huffed. "Fair enough, Clegane, keep your secrets to yourself. Whatever you need to stop fawning over Sansa Stark, I don't care-" A moment's silence. "All right, all right. I'm leaving."

As the door closed, Sansa couldn't help but smile, but when Sandor refused to look her way, she composed herself and went to him. There was still one thing left to do. She took his hand in hers again. "Do you trust me?" she asked.

Supper that evening was a quiet affair with all their guests and half the household missing, and afterwards, as she lay in bed, she relived the kiss in her head, over and over again, until at last she reached down between her thighs, and no, she was not cold, but so hot she nearly burned her fingers again as she dug her heels into the mattress and stifled a cry. This day, he had lived, and she fell asleep as one half dead.

Chapter Text

In her dream she was burning up, and the fire inside her was so, so sweet. Without even thinking, she threw herself into the black water and sank, her eyes shut and a smile on her lips.

When she woke, it was to the sound of her own heart beating, brimming, bursting. She felt as light as a feather as she flitted around her room, dressing, humming, dancing, before glimpsing herself in the mirror, then stopping and letting out a little laugh of embarrassment. She seemed half her age once more, preparing for the journey to the old capital, but no, she did not want to think of that now. The sudden thought sobered her, and she finished her preparations in silence. Still, as she made her way towards his room, the bubbling sensation in her limbs returned and she had to pace herself, trying to keep the smile that threatened to tug at her lips in check. This time she met Ser Jaime's man in the staircase. Knowing then that all was safe for another minute or two, she allowed herself to run down the corridor to his door, hoping to leave some of her giddiness in the wake of her steps. She leant against his door, closing her eyes and telling herself again and again to go slowly, to remember that he knew nothing of what she knew.

When she turned her head he was there, striding towards her. If he had hesitated this time as well, she had not seen it.

"So the little bird has finally plucked up the courage to face the dog," he said.

She smiled, unable to help herself, and was met by a confused frown. "I came to speak to you, if you have a minute to spare."

"We will be riding out soon," he said, looking away. She was sure it was because of the mess. "I need to ready myself, and my horse."

"I can wait here while you don your armour," she said. He relaxed his shoulders, nodded and went inside. She let out a long, shuddering breath and leaned against the cool wall, pressing her cheek against it.

It was a good while before he opened the door again to let her in. The room was tidy, if a bit stuffy. No clothes on the floor, no boots. She wondered where he had put the cups and plates. The light outside was still grey and soft. In his light armour he seemed more at ease. She sat on the bed, and he stood, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

"Well then," he said, and she noticed that some of his surliness had been replaced by a puzzled curiosity. 

"I should have spoken to you long ago. I don't know why I didn't before. Ten years, did you know that's how long it has been since Blackwater?" He didn't answer that. "What have you done all this time?" He didn't answer that either. No, she would have to start somewhere else. "Tell me of Arya," she begged.

"I've told you all there is to tell, little bird, everything I know." And he had, in great detail, when Rickon had asked him a few months ago when the first snows were wrapping the keep in a flurry of flakes and the days had been good for little else than sharing long tales over spiced wine.

"You told us what happened, yes, but tell me of her."

He understood. "She's a fierce one, your sister, and she survived my brother, Roose Bolton and the Lightning Lord alike. She survived me, and gods know I wanted to beat her bloody at times. Scrawny little thing with more fleas than most dogs, and she smelled worse than me, if you can believe that."

"I can believe that," she said with a smile. "You speak of her as if she were still alive."

"No reason to think she's not. I saw her kill a grown man and a squire and she wasn't yet ten. She wanted to live, to take revenge, to kill again. She was angry, the little wolf, angrier than perhaps anyone I've met before."

"Angrier than you?" That did not sit well with him, she could see. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

"Didn't you? Then why come here and ask? Why, after months of winter, do you ask these questions? Why now, today?"

He had taken a step towards her, and instead of shrinking back like she once would have, she stood and met him. "I know I should have before." And she wished she had, from the start. She wanted more than anything else to kiss him again, but she was afraid it would shock him. What can a woman do but try, she asked herself, stepped closer and reached up to cup his cheek in her hand, like she had done once before, all those years ago. His eyes were frightened now, dark and wary, and he slowly reached for her hand. At first she thought he meant to pull it away, but instead he grasped her wrist, feeling her hand gently, running his fingers over it, as if making sure that it was truly there.

"Why?" he asked.

What could she tell him? A thousand stupid words from a hundred stupid songs were etched in her memory, and not one of them made sense now, so she pulled him gently towards her and touched her lips to his. He froze, hesitating, then answered her with a hard, angry, forceful kiss that almost made her stumble. When he broke off, his eyes were seething, lust, fury and contempt mingled in them. A challenge hung in the air, daring her to back off, daring her to run, so she pulled him down again and kissed him back the way she wanted to be kissed, and with her hand behind his neck he succumbed when she parted her lips. A strange sound escaped his throat, part wince, part moan, part growl, humming against her mouth, fanning the flames that had been flickering low in her belly since she woke. Some instinct made her press herself against him and she felt his hand resting on her back, so lightly it was barely a touch, and she grabbed his arm, guiding it lower until he was caressing her cheeks.

"What madness is this, little bird?" he said, a quiet whisper.

"Are you so surprised?" she breathed, then kissed him again. "Have you been listening to the rumours down in Ashenfield?" She kissed him again. "Do you find me cold?" She kissed him again.

"Madness," he said, a mumble against her lips.

She winced, he moaned low, there was a knock on the door.

"Ser Jaime," gasped Sansa, breaking away and looking wildly around her for somewhere to hide.

"Get up you drunken dog," came his voice from outside.

Sandor stared at her as she threw herself on the floor and scrambled under the bed, dragging her skirts out of view just as Ser Jaime burst in, door slamming on its hinges. A memory of pain shot up her leg, and she involuntarily reached down for it and in the process knocked over the pile of plates and cups. So that's where he put them. Ser Jaime stopped, then took a step forward, as if he was looking around.

"What?" barked Sandor, a little too gruffly.

"What was that noise?"

"What noise?"

"That rattling, clinking… Didn't you hear it, just now?" Ser Jaime took another few steps.

"Was it the sound of an original thought, rolling around inside your head?" asked Sandor. Sansa bit her lip, shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

"This is the last time I bring you anywhere, Clegane. You're starting to sound like me, and I don't like it one bit. Well, are you ready? Our Young Wolf is yanking at his chain down in the yard."

"I need a minute. Ride if you must, I will catch you up."

When the door had closed behind Ser Jaime, she crawled out, snorting with laughter. As she rose, she saw the strange look in his eyes.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"How did you know it was him?" 

Ah. She turned serious, and took his hand in hers. "Do you trust me?"

Supper that evening was a quiet affair with all their guests and half the household missing, and afterwards, as she lay in bed, she constructed one conversation after the other, trying to cut corners, to save time. She wondered if she could simply start by kissing him, there in the corridor. She wondered how far they might get before Jaime interrupted them again. Tomorrow, she decided, she would send for him.

 

Chapter Text

In her dream she was walking beside a black stream. She allowed herself to linger there a little while, to catch the first rays of the sun and to listen to the cheerful drops of melt water, leaving the bare twigs of the birches quivering as they fell towards the snow, making tiny holes in the blue and white surface, working away at the last of the winter on this first morning of spring. Now it was time, and she sat on the bank of the stream, slowly easing herself down into the water, feeling the icy cold envelop her feet, her calves, her thighs, until at last she had to let go and slide in completely, sinking deeper, deeper, deeper until she reached the bed.

When she woke, the light was still grey. She rang for Samya and rose, humming.

"Send for Sandor Clegane," she said when her handmaid had drawn her a bath, still bleary-eyed and yawning from being woken early.

Samya glanced at her sideways. "I… Ser Jaime Lannister's man?" she asked.

"Yes, I'm sure you know who he is."

"I do, m'lady. Are you certain… I am sure Ser Jaime will come himself if you ask."

She smiled. "But I don't want Ser Jaime. Run along now."

Samya curtsied and made to leave, and through the mirror Sansa glimpsed a look of dread on her handmaid's face that made her irrationally angry. Cheeks aflush, she stepped into the bath and scrubbed at herself furiously until her skin turned pink. Then she laid back, closed her eyes and willed herself to think of his hands until she smiled again. She would have soaked longer, but time was short. She glanced at the window where the sun was already threatening to spill into the room. Where was he? For a fleeting moment she considered wearing nothing but a shift, then flushed again, this time from improper thoughts that she had imagined herself incapable of this early in the morning. When the knock on the door came, she was already breathless, having allowed those thoughts to lead on, and on, and on, until she felt like she was burning up inside once more. And when she opened the door, she froze.

"Ser Jaime?" The Lion of Lannister was still handsome, greying though his golden locks were, but he was the last person she wanted to see just now.

He nodded politely. "Lady Sansa. Your handmaid came, said you were looking for Clegane. Can I be of service?"

"Why did he not come himself?"

"He's not in his room, my lady." The look he gave her was curious, almost amused. "We are riding out soon. Was it something…?"

"It's private, ser," she blurted out, and he raised an eyebrow. "He will be in the stables," she muttered, almost as an afterthought.

"Probably. Let me walk you there."

She wanted to scream at him. He knew! Why couldn't he leave them be? This was not going well, not well at all. Like the knight he was, he offered his arm, and she took it, knowing him to be a different man now than he had been in King's Landing, all those years ago. He had paid his dues, she knew he had. Like the lady she was, she let him set the pace, and it was agonisingly slow. Years and years of practicing restraint was the only thing keeping her from shrugging him off and running. 

"It looks to be a fine day for the hunt," said Ser Jaime, making polite conversation.

"Indeed," she said. It was all she could do to keep herself from bursting. 

"You and Sandor Clegane…" he began. She was not going to give him the satisfaction of taking the bait so easily, and she kept walking in silence. "Were you close? Back when…" he waved his hand in front of him. 

"When Joffrey and I were betrothed," she finished his sentence, leaving him to think on that for a moment. Perhaps she was being cruel. Joffrey had been his son, but no, she could not find it in her heart to feel sorry for him. Jaime had made him, after all. "I was not close to anyone," she said after a while.

"Neither has he been," said Ser Jaime, and she could almost smell his curiosity. "Of course, a man like him would not-"

"A man like him?" she said, stopping and turning towards him. "Tell me, ser, what kind of man is he?" As she saw his fleeting grin, she realised this was exactly the sort of reaction he had hoped to get from her. Seething, she decided that she didn't care for propriety anymore. "I think I can find my own way to the stables. After all, this is Winterfell and not Casterly Rock."

"Lady Sansa!" he called after her, and she could hear the insolent smile. She ignored him, and ran.

Sandor was already leading his horse from the stables, and she cursed her own foolishness for trying to change something that had been going so well. Slowing her steps, she approached them as warily as always. The courser - his name was Stranger, she remembered suddenly - turned his head towards her before Sandor did. For one fleeting moment she was looking into the black eye of the horse, a calm, dark well that flashed images of her dream before her. This time he didn't throw his head. He remembers me, she realised. Still, she stopped some way away. Now Sandor looked, briefly, before going about tightening the saddle girth.

"You’ll do well to stay away, little bird. He's ill-tempered to those he doesn't know, and there's not a great many that care to know him after their first bite."

"I came to ask you…" she started, but she had not planned for this, did not know how to go on.

He looked at her again, those angry eyes boring into hers. She considered ordering him to stay, to make up some excuse, or even telling Ser Jaime to order him - oh, that would have made his day, she knew. Yet something held her back. Ser Addam, she thought. And if he's not there to warn them, maybe Rickon will be the one to... No, she could not bear to think about it. This day had already gone to waste, she must accept it. Her palms were itching, her belly aching from wanting to touch him, but she dared not move closer. All she could do was try.

"Do you trust me?"

He didn't answer that, simply glanced at her darkly and bent down for a hoof. "What is it you want, Lady Stark?" he asked while he inspected the shoe. Not good. Not good at all.

"Do you remember my brother, Bran? "

"The cripple," he said, gently lowering Stranger's leg again. Her insides clenched. He had not called him that before.

"Yes. Yes, him. He was what the crannogmen call a greenseer. Someone who dreams about the future. Rickon has some of it, too. Perhaps we all do." She was rambling now, she knew, and it was all going to pieces. "I have had a green dream, that the melt water washed away the road where you were riding, and you fell to your death." 

He swung himself into the saddle, so gracefully for one so large. "I hold no gods, little bird," he said. "Neither the Seven nor your trees and their children are anything to do with me, and least of all the Lord of bloody Light and his night fires."

"This isn't about the gods," she said. "This is a matter of life and death."

He looked down on her, and for a second she saw something soft in his eyes. Her hand was burning up, and she flexed her fingers once, twice, three times. Then the moment passed. "Far be it from me to shy away from death," he said, voice hard and cold. "In Braavos there are some who only answer to the god of death, and by him I could abide. I have made him more offerings than most, be sure of that little bird. Might be the reason he hasn't claimed me yet." He looked towards the rising sun, and all she could see was the scarred side of his face, twisted and black and red, pulled up into a cruel grin as he spoke again. "Fly back to your nest now, and dream up a sweeter song to sing me on my return."

And with that, he put his heels to his horse and trotted off towards the Hunter's Gate.

"How did you fare, Lady Sansa?"

She spun around to face Ser Jaime, that loathsome smile still on his lips. "He is going to die today," she hissed, "and it'll be your fault."

The rest of the day she spent forcing herself to run the household, more to stop herself from brooding than anything else. Yet brood she did, and whenever a servant spoke to her, she would snap at them until she was finally left alone and to her own devices, sitting in the solar, furiously scribbling letters that she knew would never be sent.

As the sun began to sink in the sky she heard the sounds of a rider returning. Resolutely she stomped down the stairs and walked out into the yard. She was met by Ser Jaime Lannister.

"Explain to me," he said, still breathing hard from the ride, sweat running down his temples. "Explain to me how you knew."

"It will make no difference either way," she said, arms crossed defiantly. Then, not knowing exactly why, she asked that which she had not wanted to ask, even though she had had her chances. "Tell me what happened."

"There was a landslide," began Ser Jaime.

"I know that. Tell me from the start."

He frowned at her, but did as she bid. "We were perhaps four hours out from Winterfell, and Clegane was riding ahead with the hounds. We were nearing some good hunting grounds, and Lord Stark had a path in mind, but then Clegane came back and said he'd spotted a white hart. They were upwind from it, so they hounds never noticed a thing, but he saw it, saw it from a mile away, even against the snow. I swear, that man sees everything. Saw. If it hadn't been for those eyes of his…"

Sansa looked at him sharply. "Only Sandor? What of Ser Addam Marbrand?"

He flinched, looking at her as if he had seen a ghost. "I never told you."

"So tell me now," she said.

Ser Jaime hesitated, and she glared at him, daring him to ask her again how she knew. "Addam went with him when he rode off again, ahead of the rest of us…"

"…And there was a landslide, and Ser Addam broke his leg, and Sandor died."

"Yes."

If it hadn't been for Sandor's eyes. Suddenly, she felt the warmth of the sun again, and a tentative flicker of hope. She reached out for Ser Jaime's arm, touching it lightly.

"Thank you," she said, unable to keep herself from smiling. "I will go ready a room for Ser Addam, and fetch the Maestress." She left him there in stunned silence, and as she ran up the steps to the keep, her heart was pounding a steady, strong, certain beat. 

That evening, while the others were drinking to his memory, she sat beside the body of Sandor. She thought back and tried to remember when he had become Sandor to her. Ser Jaime had shot her a strange, sad look when she had left the Great Hall. He had known where she was going, she was sure of it.

"If he thinks to follow me out here with his questions I'll teach him not to bother a wolf with his mewling," she said to him with a smile. 

She stood, and for the first time pulled aside the blanket to reveal his body. His sword had been strapped back on after the Silent Sisters had cleaned and dressed him. He would have liked that, she thought. Inexpertly, she loosed the blade in its sheath and drew it. It was only his shortsword, but it was still far too heavy for her to comfortably hold in one hand. It was clean and sharp, and the steel glinted in the flickering torchlight in the yard. Stepping back, she tried to swing it once, and nearly stumbled in the process. With an embarrassed smile she steadied herself, then lowered the point and looked on his face once more. Then, she raised the sword and carefully touched his shoulder with it before sheathing it again and walking back to her chambers. 

There, she found Rickon, and she sat with him for some time while he spoke of the day, and how the hunt had been cut short, and how he knew he must go ahead with the hunt again, preferably on the morrow, even though he would rather just run away again. So she held him close, and thanked him for being honest. When he fell asleep on her bed, she let him be and crawled in beside him, and curled up together they slept as they had done when she had first returned, when the war had still raged outside the walls, dragons vaulting in the skies, their flames roaring and lighting up the room in red and yellow.

Chapter Text

In her dream she was standing with Rickon atop the battlements of Winterfell, looking south. The wind was at her back, whispering, coaxing, tugging. Her brother took her hand, and his was bigger than hers now, she could see.

"What would you ever do without me?" she said.

"I am almost a man grown, sister," he said.

"You don't know the first thing about governing the north."

"I do," he said, bumping his shoulder into hers. "And I have Edd, and Maestress Olyve, and Steffon, and Wex..."

Sansa shifted. She did not care over much for Rickon's mute friend. "Remember Theon's betrayal," she said, and he sighed.

"How could I forget? I was here, you know that. Now tell me, what's the worst that could happen?"

You could be pushed from a window, or called a traitor and executed, or lost beyond the Narrow Sea, or have your throat cut just when you thought you were finally happy and safe, or stabbed in the back by those who would call you their brother, she thought. But she didn't say any of these things.

"Anyway," said Rickon, "I have Shaggydog."

And she turned to him with a smile, but he was gone. She turned again, and was once more in the birch wood. Her feet were bare, but she couldn't feel the cold. Instead, she seemed to be radiating heat, and around her the snow was melting, baring the dark, wet soil, steaming and giving off the earthy scent of life. As the brown patch on the ground grew, she felt something tickling underneath her feet, and soon pale, soft blades of grass sprung forth between her toes, from under her soles, growing before her eyes, turning darker, stronger. Here and there, tiny blue flowers unfolded, and soon she was standing in a sea of green, dotted with azure. She curled her toes and closed her eyes, letting the sun warm her face.

When she woke, the light was grey, so she rose and dressed. 

Ser Jaime's chambers were located not far from her own, and when she knocked a squire answered and showed her inside. Jaime Lannister was fumbling with his scabbard, and looked up when she entered.

"Lady Sansa," he said. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"I have come to ask a favour."

"You would ask favours of me, a cripple who cannot manage the simplest of tasks?" he said, and his smile never reached his eyes.

Ser Jaime needed help even with his light armour, and as his squire went about tightening straps and tugging at the hauberk, she sat in a chair by the hearth.

"I have need of Sandor Clegane," she said. "I would have him stay at Winterfell while you hunt, ser."

He brushed aside the squire and yanked at his sword belt with his hand, looking at her with unabashed curiosity. "Why?" he asked. "Leave us," he added to the boy.

With her eyes, she followed the squire as he slunk out of the room. "Can I trust your discretion, Ser Jaime?" she asked when the door had closed.

He laughed, a short, soft laugh. "You can trust it. Though some may find that hard to believe ."

Kingslayer, she thought. Oathbreaker. She trusted him. "It has been ten years since I last spoke to him. I would very much like to do so before you head south again."

"You would deprive me of my best man for the sake of small talk, my lady? Clegane is superbly skilled with the dogs, and not half bad with a bow if you would believe it."

"We have a kennel master here at Winterfell, I am sure he will suffice."

Jaime looked at her, his green eyes glittering with mirth, making him look half a boy. "Very well. I will ask him if he will stay. Ask, mind you, that man does as he pleases." His gaze flickered to her chest, her hips, yet it was a chaste, measuring glance, nothing more. "Most of the time, anyway."

She went to her chambers to wait, even though it pained her greatly to again leave it to someone else to make sure he came. At the knock on the door, her heart leapt, and in the three steps she ran to open it, she was already out of breath. He was in his armour, looking ready to ride out. 

"So the hound has finally plucked up the courage to face the wolf," she said, trying hard not to grin at him. She stood aside to let him in, but he remained where he was, looking perplexed and angry in equal amounts. "Please come in," she said, not politely, but begging, and he did. Samya had brought up food before being sent away, so Sansa bid him to sit and break his fast with her, but while she commented on the fine weather, nervously chewing at fresh bread stuffed full of nuts and sultanas, he simply sat in stony silence.

"Please say something," she said finally.

"Is there any wine?" he asked.

She rose and walked over to the cabinet where she kept a few bottles. This was the first time she had opened one before noon, she thought, and poured two cups of fine red. As she passed his cup to him, their fingers touched, and the thrill it sent up her arm made her gasp silently. Her thighs suddenly felt on fire, and when she sat down again she briefly laid her hands in her lap, out sight from him, swiftly pressing her fingers down on herself through her skirts to ease the pounding need to be touched. Scandalous, she thought, reluctantly reaching up again to pour some water into her wine. He drank his full and dark, and when he had emptied his cup, he glared at her defiantly before rising and refilling it himself.

"Isn't it a little early to be getting drunk?" she asked .

He snorted. "It would take a lot more than this to get me drunk, little bird." However, he did not gulp the second cup down like he had the first.

How to begin? Now that she had all the time in the world, compared to what she had had before, she found it more difficult than ever. "Tell me of Arya," she said finally, and he did, and then, when she asked him about what had come after, he told her that as well. At first the words came slowly, in pairs, and he would not look at her, but fixed his eyes on something off to the side. Then, as he delved into the memories, the words flowed more freely, until they were tumbling out, angry and hot, snapping and biting at the air, and she listened until he fell silent, jaw clenched, his grey eyes locked on hers.

"The gods are cruel," he said. "As cruel as your sister was when she refused me mercy."

She reached over the table and took his hand in hers, and he froze, still staring at her. "They take and they give," she said.

"They are not real, little bird," he said.

"But life is." She was aching to kiss him, but the table between them might as well have been an ocean. Instead, she stood. "Will you walk with me?" she asked.

The glance he gave her was wary. "People would talk, don't think they wouldn't."

"Let them."

His presence at her side felt reassuring, and she didn't let the curious eyes of the servants distract her as she ordered the Great Hall to be cleaned out, and for some time they stayed there, overseeing them as they gathered the musty rushes into heaps, brought down the hangings and scraped the tables clean of candle wax. When she judged that she had filled the requirement for showing an interest, she bid him to walk with her in the Godswood. Out of sight and amongst the trees, she took his arm.

"It's a dangerous game you play, Lady Stark," he said, but he didn't move away from her.

"I have a mind to go south for the summer," she said lightly. "The Queen says it would please her if I were to visit."

"It would please the court even more, little bird, see if it won't."

"They can gossip all they like. I have heard it all before, Sandor."

He stopped, and she was forced to stop as well, or else let go of his arm. "Ashenfield is full of snakes and weasels, and there's nothing they'd like better than to sink their sharp little teeth into your feet. They crawl and slither on the floor, grovelling when it suits them, but their bites are poison, and with enough of them you will fall, and they will be all over you like the vermin they are."

"I am a Stark of Winterfell," she said. "The wolf does not fear the weasel. Why should I care? Perhaps an appearance will put an end to the rumours."

"If you go south they will expect you to take a husband," he said.

"I will never find a husband at court," she said.

"Then why not stay here, little bird, in your nest where you're safe and sound."

She took his hands in hers, and he stayed as still as if he was made of stone. "Ser Jaime is riding south again soon, is he not?"

His eyes were helplessly fixed on her face. "When the roads clear," he said.

She reached up and pulled him towards her, touching her lips to his. He remained frozen, and she gave him another kiss, and another, until at last he returned them, at first hesitantly but soon growing more eager, their tongues meeting clumsily. Between her thighs the pounding had become a steady, hot ache and she pressed herself towards him. "Why won't you touch me," she said, and finally he did, almost crushing her against him. She winced, and he moaned low, and not another sound was heard, and her heart soared.

"What is the meaning of this?" he asked then and stood back, but his voice was soft, almost scared.

"Do you object?" she said with a smile, knowing full well that he did not.

He frowned. "There are plenty who would, you know that better than I do."

She knew. She glanced aside and found that they were standing in front of the Heart Tree, its red sap trickling from the deep gashes in the wood, rising fast and gushing forth with the coming of spring. The old gods already knew, and they remained indifferent, it seemed. She did not say that. The sun was high in the sky now, hidden behind the thick canopy of blood leaves, and distanced from him she was suddenly cold. He must have noticed, because he unclasped his cloak and hung it about her shoulders instead, and they kissed, and kissed again until her lips were swollen and her chin raw from rubbing against his.

"They will wonder where you’ve gone," he said eventually, and she knew he was right.

"Come to my chambers tonight," she said, before returning the cloak and walking back to the keep.

Her day passed as if in a fever dream. She signed for something that Maestress Olyve pushed in front of her in the solar. Later she couldn't recall what it had been. She wrote an incoherent, rambling letter to Lord Wylis Manderly, which she had to crumple up and toss in the fire once she had read it again. At dinner, she barely registered the sweet, clean smell of the Great Hall until Eddison Tollet mentioned it pointedly. She ate mechanically, and kept glancing at Sandor where he sat further down the table, and whenever she did she would find him looking at her. Did he ever take his eyes off her, she wondered, and her heart beat wildly in answer.

She had Samya draw a bath, then sent her away for the evening, telling her to go enjoy herself in the winter town, that she did not need to be attended the next morning. Her maid curtsied and left smiling. She had a lover, Sansa knew. Perhaps by tomorrow, I will as well, she thought, and her belly turned in anticipation. By the time the knock on the door came, she had looked at herself in the mirror half a hundred times, and two cups of wine were poured, and the lamps were lit. He was without his armour, looking strangely soft in a dark grey tunic, light breeches and worn boots. They drank the wine in silence, and without being watered down it went to her head quickly, mingling with the lingering desire that she had battled with all day. Her skin was screaming to be touched, yet they both hesitated. What was he expecting of their meeting, she wondered. 

"You have lands near Casterly Rock?" she asked, to make some conversation.

"Lands, and an empty keep," he said.

"Is it the same…"

"It's not Gregor's."

"A landed knight with no knighthood," she said.

"I told Jaime that it was wasted on me, but did he listen? He said he needed to give it to someone, but perhaps he meant to jape with the smallfolk. They’re all scared witless of me down there. The mad dog of the Saltpans."

Lies, she thought. Yes, she knew it to be lies, the same as all the filth spread of her, but the stains are hard to wash out when you keep being dragged through the mud. "I should like to see it someday," she said, and all of a sudden he was holding her head in his hands, trailing kisses from her mouth down her neck and to her shoulder.

"You must be mad, Sansa, to ask me here," he said. "Don't you know what I want to do to you, what every man with blood in his veins and a cock between his legs wants to do to you?"

And now her heart was beating not only with desire, but with fear, for his words had made it all too clear that she could choose to give her maidenhead away, and he would gladly take it. Ten years flowered, and still a maiden. She had expected to stay that way until the end of her days, and now a different path was before her that she had thought impossible not even a fortnight ago. Not even a day, in truth. He was running his hands over her hips now, tracing the edges of her smallclothes through the skirts of the dress. She drew a shuddering breath. "I have never known a man," she said.

"Seven hells," he groaned, digging his fingers into her flesh.

Before she could change her mind, she began to back away towards the bed. The dress laced up the front, and they both fumbled with the silk ribbons that held it together until it fell apart. Shrugging out of it, she left it in a heap on the floor, then sat on the bed while he pulled off his tunic and kicked off his boots. He stepped towards her and knelt between her legs, hands brushing over her breasts, her sides, her thighs. There were scars all over his torso, and on his left forearm were more burns, and she touched them, letting her fingers wander over his arm, feeling its strength. Pushing her gently back onto the covers, he kissed her again, and there was something in that kiss which spoke to her. There was intent. Lifting her hips, she allowed him to push her smallclothes down. Naked as her name day she lay there, yet not ashamed in the slightest as he stood back to admire her. So now it would happen, she thought, and felt somehow numb, and at the same time hot and tingling all over. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when the touch came, it was not what she had expected, but light and probing, making her flinch a little from the softness. Easing herself up on her elbows, she looked down on him where he was once again kneeling on the floor, slowly running his fingers through the hair that covered her sex.

"I will not take your maidenhead, do you understand?" he said.

A chill passed over her, and she covered her breasts with her arm. "No, I don't know if I do," she said.

A wry, almost angry smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he glanced away. “It’s not for the likes of me, little bird. There’ll be pain and blood, and come the morning you’ll only regret it.”

She wanted to tell him how wrong he was, but when she drew a breath he met her eyes again and she could see that, yes, they were burning with lust, making her shift involuntarily, raising herself up towards his hand.

"Do you trust me?" he said.

The words slammed into her so hard that it was all she could do to nod mutely and watch as he grabbed her hips and buried his face between her legs. She almost sat up straight as her stomach clenched from the sensation. His tongue had found its way between those dark red curls, and she could feel it, cool against her hot slit, its touch almost unbearably soft and smooth. Gradually, she adjusted to this new feeling, and slowly eased herself down on the bed again.

She was shivering with pent-up desire, having kept herself in check ever since their fleeting touch of fingertips that morning, but something held her back from letting go, from taking pleasure in his delicate teasing. How different it was from how she touched herself. If only he knew how furiously she had rubbed herself the night after their first kiss, so unlike the gentle tickle of his tongue. She felt herself redden, and she threw an arm across her face to hide her shame, then carefully pushed herself up against him, hoping he wouldn't notice. The increased pressure made a noise escape her lips, and he answered with a wordless sound that hummed against her flesh, sending cold sparks through her thighs. She tilted her hips once more and this time he knew for certain, and she thought she could feel him smile. Not for one second taking his mouth off her he gently lifted her right leg, placing it on his shoulder, and she quickly followed suit with the left. Now he sucked, and nipped carefully at her lips with his teeth while she rubbed her heels across his back, tensing and relaxing, tensing and relaxing.

His hands were doing other things, reaching up to trail light fingers from the damp hair at her armpits to the curve of her hips, edging beneath her back, grasping her buttocks, stroking her thighs. Time and time again she touched at the edges of her climax, and time and time again she shrunk back from it, wavering between want and guilt. She felt her juices trickle down between her cheeks, knowing that the sheets were soaked underneath her, a primal manifestation of her shameful need. She wished she could put an end to it, to release without releasing, without losing control, without letting him see that side of her. Could she pretend? She moaned quietly, once, twice, and he suddenly stopped. It was only when he pulled away from her that she realised how right it had felt, and how wrong this felt.

"Don't do that," he said.

"What?" she asked, sitting up.

"Do you take me for a fool? I know pretence when I see it. You're no whore, so don't act like one." She gasped, shocked. "Do you want to stop?" he asked.

"No!" she said, a little more forcefully than she had meant, and he leered at her. "No," she said again. "It's just… It's… I can't-"

"Do you trust me?" he asked again.

"I do."

"Then trust me."

The tension that had seeped away seemed to build even more quickly now, as he once more ran his tongue over her. She felt him shift, and suddenly there was something else there, at her entrance, and she jerked and groaned as she felt him ease a finger inside her, slowly, slowly. The noises coming from her now were real, and he could tell, and he let another finger join the first, stopping at her resistance and staying there. It was as if the missing piece of the puzzle had finally slid into place, and she felt whole, and when the next wave of pleasure began building, it didn't retreat again, but kept mounting and mounting until she felt herself pass that point of inevitability she knew so well.

"Gods!" she whispered as she felt her nipples grow stiff, and the release was so powerful that the world went black for a second. As her muscles clenched desperately around his fingers, she could hear him moan again and again into her with each spasm, until the waves finally abated, leaving her to sink into warm afterglow.

How long she laid there just breathing, she didn't know, but when she finally looked up again, he was standing over her, watching her with a wicked smile. How did this happen? she thought. Not half an hour ago she had been sure she would lose her innocence to him, and there he was, his breeches still laced while she lazed in the mess she had made, completely and utterly satisfied. She sat up and reached out for him, wanting to do something in return for his gift, and when she touched him through the cloth, feeling his hard manhood, he hissed and stepped closer. Gently she tugged at the leather laces, carefully she eased him out, softly she ran her palms along his length, both embarrassed and aroused by the sight of it. His breathing was coming heavy, and he put his hands on her shoulders, gripping her tightly. She wondered how he touched himself, and realised it was not this way, so she gripped him more firmly and stroked him the way she knew men did when they took their pleasure alone. He said something she couldn't quite hear, and suddenly, unexpectedly, his seed was shooting in hot spurts over her hands, her chest, her shoulders. He must have been so close, she thought, and when she understood that it had been because of her, she grinned.

Afterwards, she went to wash up, light-headed and exhausted, full of a hundred different thoughts and emotions, and she could feel herself pushing them away, wrapping herself in the here and now, thinking only about how the water felt against her thighs, how her hands smelled of him. When she returned to the bedchamber, she found him dressed again, and felt her heart sink.

"Won’t you stay?"

He didn't look at her, but sat on the bed to pull on his boots. "Are you so eager to ruin your whole life, little bird? There are others who can give you pleasure, others who have a house and a title that befit you, who have fairer faces to look upon. Let them catch you with me, and all that will be lost."

"No one will catch us. I gave Samya the morning off tomorrow. Please stay." She approached him, came to stand in front of him, and no, he couldn't resist the temptation, but reached up to touch her skin, pulled her close and kissed her stomach.

She wore a nightshift to bed, and he wore his breeches, but aside from that there was nothing between them as she pressed her back against his chest. His arm was wrapped around her and she held his hand, wondering if she dared fall asleep like this, wondering whether today would simply start over again. The thought of his tongue on her almost made her wish for it, but no, she wanted to know what came next. As his breathing grew heavy, she found it harder and harder to keep her eyes open. For a long time, she lay, staring at the window, wondering how late it was, if midnight had passed, if dawn was near, telling herself don't close your eyes, don't close them, don't.

When she woke, the golden dawn was spilling into the room, and she was out of breath, panting. 

"Did you dream of me?" asked Sandor.

"Yes," she said, her arousal suddenly muddled with happiness and relief. She felt his stiff desire against her and ground herself into it, moaning.

"Be careful now," he said, but he was roaming her body, finding a breast to fondle, a shoulder to kiss.

She reached behind her and squeezed him, then her hand found its way inside his breeches and pulled him loose. He hummed, and reached down for the hem of her shift, pulling it up to bare her legs under the covers, and she guided his manhood between them. His body froze, and he grabbed her hand, placing it firmly in front of her.

"I want to feel you there," she said, once again pressing herself against him, letting the stiff length slide between her thighs. 

He cursed, but the next jerking movement came from him, and the next, and she gasped, clenching her legs together, making the sensation tighter. Soon, her skin was slick with her wetness, and somehow it wasn't enough, so she reached for him and pressed down, making his manhood slide over her slit instead, and with each thrust he touched the little bud where her lips met, until she was heaving with lust. Now, she thought, and just as she came, she tilted her body, and swiftly guided him inside her, and the pain was so sweet that it made her howl. He didn't say a thing, didn't move an inch, but as she pulsed around him, his whole body tensed and suddenly she felt his release, heard him groan, and his body shook and shuddered against her.

"What have you gone and done, little bird?" he whispered against her hair once they were still again.

And she carefully let him slide out, turned towards him and told him.