Feb. 23rd, 2013

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Jaime

The weeks that followed were busy for everyone. Jaime was housed in one of the guest chambers in the Great Keep, undoubtedly due to his nobility. Initially Sandor had been offered lodgings with common soldiers in the Guards Hall, but Sansa had demanded he be given better rooms. As much of the keep was still inhabitable, in the end Sandor wound up sharing the room with Jaime. Although Jaime had been uncertain of how he would react, he had just shrugged his shoulders and moved in with his few belongings.

At first Jaime and Sandor could feel the disbelieving stares of the smallfolk and Stannis’s soldiers as they went about in the keep. The Kingslayer and the Lannister dog. Yet Sansa was the Lady of Winterfell and her word bore weight, and she had declared them to be her trusted men. Sansa’s new authority exuded from every part of her body; when she spoke, no matter how softly or courteously, people listened – and obeyed.

Their life in Winterfell was far removed from their life on the road. There was much to be done, but both Jaime and Sandor were glad of the duties that gave them something meaningful to do. One of their first tasks was to establish a new Northern guard to protect the fortification, training young boys and men who had never seen professional warfare.

As they attended to their new responsibilities efficiently and quietly, eventually the disbelief in people’s eyes started to disappear. Jaime wasn’t a fool and knew that it would take a long time to be truly accepted, but what they had was a start. More surprisingly, for the first time in his life he realised he wanted to be accepted, he cared what people thought about him. The discovery was new and he took it as an indication of how much he had changed. A new place, a new life, and new loyalties; he’d shed his old self like well-worn, dented armour and embraced his new life of rough northern home-spun.

Before, Jaime had been blind to so many things because of Cersei and their complicated, all-consuming relationship. They had been so proud and confident, taking entitlements and privileges as their birthright and feeding each other’s arrogance and superiority. How foolish they had been.  He could see now how the fabric of a strong house was woven from the acts and contributions of smallfolk, men-at-arms and nobles alike, and none could survive without the others.

Sansa had several more meetings with Stannis. She had seemingly made an impression on Stannis with the show of force upon her arrival and in their first discussions. The loyalty and devotion of the Northerners was a factor Stannis could not ignore, nor the sound suggestions from her. Jaime admired Sansa for that, her plans indicating shrewdness that belied her years. Lessons from Littlefinger, perhaps, but lessons thoroughly learned.

Sansa had insisted Jaime and Sandor be present at their talks, and over many evenings they had gone through the political situation in Westeros and their options in the new world. Stannis seemed to have lost his zealousness regarding the Lord of Light and was ready to face political realities as they stood. Some whispered it was due to the red priestess of R'hllor abandoning him and leaving Westeros. Whatever it was, Jaime was pleasantly surprised to see Stannis responding to Sansa’s return exactly as she had envisioned.

The most urgent action they all agreed upon was to send ravens to the northern lords asking the heads of all houses to come to Winterfell for a big gathering.  Many of the younger sons had already arrived, sent by their fathers to find out what was happening. Word of Sansa’s arrival had spread quickly and widely.

Jaime found it amusing to see how all of them in short succession saw, fell in love with and from that moment onwards, followed Sansa around the keep like dogs in heat. Sansa took that in her stride, not wanting to alienate anyone, yet the sons were not enough. She needed the support of the lords before she could proceed further.

----------

Sandor had settled into life in Winterfell as well as could be expected. If he missed the Quiet Isle he didn’t voice it. Despite sleeping in the same room, they didn’t share a bed again and Jaime was unsure if he had even expected that. Just another sign of life returning to normal after the extraordinary experiences they had lived through. Nonetheless, Jaime felt the loss of closeness acutely.

What they did share were the evenings in the Great Hall, where they discussed the events of the day, their plans for the weeks ahead and many other topics over a flagon of sour red or strong home-brewed northern beer. Now that their immediate survival was not the foremost concern in their minds, they could relax and catch up on the intervening years when their lives had touched each other only superficially. In the course of these nights Jaime learned to truly appreciate Sandor’s wealth of knowledge, sharp mind and the measured way he expressed his opinions.

Jaime concluded that he and the rest of his family had seriously underestimated this man, taking him to be only a ruthless, mindless killer, rather than a man of substance. Maybe Sandor had contributed to that himself with his drinking and disinterest in courtly matters – perhaps only now he wanted to prove himself.

Overall, their life gradually fell into a comfortable routine. If Jaime sometimes stared at the sleeping Sandor with a sense of longing he still could not voice or express even to himself, his life was generally better than it had been for a long time.

Sansa                                                                                                                 

Sansa often found herself unable to sleep, ghosts of the past haunting her. Sometimes they were benevolent visions of her family in happier times; her father’s quiet smile, her mother’s loving eyes, her brothers’ and Arya’s childish grins.  Yet sometimes she was woken in the middle of the night by visions of her father’s head rolling, or horrid images conjured by her imagination from the stories she had heard of the Red Wedding. On some nights she was tormented by Ramsay Bolton’s evil presence in Winterfell’s majestic halls and it terrified her.

After such dreams she couldn’t get back to sleep and the only way to relieve her anxiety was to wander the keep and take comfort from the ageless strength of its stone walls. Winterfell had stood for thousands of years and witnessed both good and evil. The thought of recent tragedies being just a small part of the rich tapestry of House Stark gave Sansa some consolation.

One night she was walking through the courtyard to visit the ruins of the Maester’s Turret where the benign spirit of old Maester Luwin still resided. How she missed his wisdom and knowledge and hoped the old man was still alive and could stand by her side! She was dressed simply in a warm linen nightdress, covered by a heavy cloak that was tied closed at the front. Suddenly she noticed the glow of a fire in the kitchens.

Sansa frowned, wondering who could be there at that time of night, and decided to explore. She felt completely safe in the keep, knowing the gates were barred from outsiders and only the residents were allowed to stay overnight.

She tiptoed towards the kitchen door and opened it cautiously. A fire flickered in the hearth and threw shadows across the wall. In the first instance it looked as if the room was empty, but then she noticed a large, silent figure in one of the high-backed chairs. She recognised him immediately - there were no other men of his size in the keep.

For a moment Sansa hesitated; should she leave him alone as he seemed to prefer? Then she saw the flasks on the floor; flagons of wine and small clay jars she knew to contain distilled strongwine, drunk by smallfolk who couldn’t afford real wine. From the looks of them they were empty, lying discarded on their sides.

Sansa hadn’t seen Sandor drinking heavily since King’s Landing, and even their feast night in the barn had probably been quite subdued by his previous standards. She had been happy to see he had not fallen into his old habits in Winterfell, so to see him now slumped next to empty flasks was disquieting. She made her decision and stepped in.

“Little bird has become a night owl, flying in the night, is it so?” Sandor’s voice was harsh, slurring noticeably.

“I…couldn’t sleep. Walking around the keep soothes me,” Sansa replied, moving towards him.

“You are finally at home, back in your coop. What could keep you from sleeping?”

“I don’t know. Although this is my home, it isn’t what I left behind. My people are not here.” Sansa was now close to him, trying to decide whether she should sit down or leave. Before she had made up her mind Sandor lunged forward, grasping her wrist and pulling her next to him. She yelped at the harshness of his grip and tried not to lose her balance.

“All these people are your people, my lady. Every one of them is at your beck and call, you being the high lady of the keep. Lady Sansa Stark, Queen of the fucking North, heir to House Stark and its bloody kings and lords of thousands of years!” His hold tightened on her wrist and Sansa squirmed, trying to loosen it.

“Aye, we are all at your service, hells, me more than others! Am I not your sworn shield, promised to defend you with my life, even if I only see you floating by with that retinue of drooling idiots following your every step?”

“Please let me go, Sandor, you are hurting me!” Sandor seemed not to hear her plea.

“The dog has returned to its kennel as it should, and the little bird to its high perch.” Sandor was still pulling Sansa’s hand and she lost the fight to stay on her feet, lurching against him. He caught her as she fell, dragging her on top of him so she ended up sitting on his lap. He let go of her wrist but his other hand was now pressing her tightly against him.

Sansa found herself trapped by the same arms that had held her so many times before. She was startled by the turn of events but not frightened. Sandor was clearly heavily drunk, his eyes looking hard at her, yet having difficulties in focussing. His breath smelt of strongwine and he was still wearing the clothes from the training yards, his tunic splattered with mud. Sansa changed her position slightly and he allowed it, yet he held her firmly in his grasp.

“These may be my people as you say, but they are not my family,” Sansa challenged him. “I hardly know most of them, less than a handful of those who were here when I left remain. “ Then Sansa realised something unexpected.

“Of all the people in the keep, you are one of the few I have known for long. You and Jaime, since the day you rode to Winterfell with King Robert. And you have been at my side longer than anyone else. You are my pack, the only family I have left. ” The thought was strangely comforting.

“Then you are really fucked up. With the pack of the wolf, the hound and the lion,” Sandor slurred and tightened his grip. Sansa flinched but didn’t resist. She couldn’t believe he would truly hurt her.

“Little bird has nothing to say to her dog for handling her roughly? No command to go back to his kennel?” Sandor mumbled. He didn’t appear mad despite his words, his expression being more sad than angry. Sansa looked at him and realised she didn’t have a single coherent thought in her head to respond with. His face was so close to her own that she felt his breath on her cheek.  Sansa opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out, so she shut it again.

For a long time they sat like that, not moving. Sansa knew the situation was outrageous; she should say something, she should do something, but all she was able to do was to watch with fascination as Sandor’s face leaned closer to hers. Is he going to kiss me? She closed her eyes and remembered the night of the Blackwater. In her memories he had kissed her then, but over time she had realised it had been only in her head. A few passing kisses had been stolen from the bastard daughter of Lord Baelish by the adventurous young knights of the Vale before they had met the wrath of her ‘father’. Those fumbling kisses had made Sansa realise that had Sandor kissed her, she would surely remember it more vividly than the vague recollection she had carried with her.

Sansa opened her eyes and looked at his mouth; the smooth pink skin on the other side gradually turning to a gnarled dead tissue on the other. The bristles of his beard were black and coarse, and quite irrationally she found herself wondering if they would prickle. Without realising, Sansa leaned towards him.

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