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Sansa

Sansa was pacing the Great Hall restlessly, back and forth, back and forth. The last participant of the big gathering was expected any moment – the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Since the raven from Castle Black had arrived, Sansa had been counting the days until his arrival. Bastard or not, Jon was her brother. Remembering how she had previously considered him somehow less than her full siblings, she felt deeply ashamed.

She had heard about the attempt against his life, his eventual recovery and how he had seized power a second time with his supporters. Yet all that was wiped away from her mind as she was fidgeting, waiting for him. The anticipation of a reunion with someone who shared the same childhood memories offered her peculiar contentment and acted as a reminder of who she truly was.

Not only was she keen to see her brother again, she also had news for him. The tidings from a few days ago had filled her heart with cautious optimism, and despite knowing it could lead to even deeper misery if they turned out to lead nowhere, she wanted to allow herself at least a little bit of hope.

Before Brienne of Tarth had left, she and Jaime had planned how she could send them occasional updates on her search. The plan had been for her to send ravens or messengers to White Haven, to House Manderly, who in turn would send her messages to Winterfell by a raven. The first long letter from her had finally reached them just days ago. Brienne’s large, bold writing had outlined how she had heard a story of a girl, dressed as a boy, selling a horse much too fine for smallfolk to a stable in Saltpans. The owner remembered the pair as even though she had been sure the horse was stolen, she had also had an uneasy feeling that the girl had spoken a bit too finely for a scruffy vagabond. Further inquiries in the town had revealed the girl had not been seen since, but also that there had been three ships in port that day. Two of them had been local river galleys, but the third had been a proper ship called Titan’s Daughter. It originated from Braavos and did regular business in port towns on the eastern coast, and had been back several times since.

As luck would have it, on its last visit one of its crew had fallen in love with a local lass and jumped ship, settling in a village not far from Saltpans. As unlikely as any further information from a single sailor had been, Brienne had taken a day’s journey to seek him out. To her astonishment he had recalled a passenger the ship had taken around the time Arya had left the Hound. He had described to Brienne a young girl in boy’s clothes, who had travelled on her own and for some inexplicable reason had been granted passage on the ship. He laughed, remembering how he and his fellow mates had tried to teach the girl the language of Braavos. ‘Salty’, they had called her, a skinny brown-haired girl from Saltpans with grey eyes and a long face.

Brienne was convinced the girl had been Arya, and after hearing that the ship had left her at Braavos, decided to sail there. She had sent the message just as she was departing Westeros on a trading ship.

Although Sansa told herself not to get too excited, her heart rejoiced nonetheless. Arya had been alive, she had escaped the war in Westeros! Sansa couldn’t remember much of Braavos, except that Arya’s dancing master in King’s Landing had hailed from there. Maybe he had told Arya something useful of the city, something that would help her to find a place to hide there. Sansa knew Jon had always liked Arya the best, and news of her would be her welcoming gift to him.

Finally she heard sounds from the yard; horses whinnying, servants shouting, the clanking of swords as men dismounted. She braced herself, trying to remain standing on the dais as the lady of the house should. Yet when she heard footsteps approaching the entrance, she couldn’t hold out anymore. She ran down the hall and as she reached the door, it was pulled open and she stared her brother in the eye.

“Jon!”

He looked older, a man fully grown, but still the same old Jon with a countenance so much like her father’s. For a moment they stared at each other, then he extended his hands and they fell into an embrace. Sansa sobbed uncontrollably, not caring how unladylike it was. Jon’s hold was solid and he smelled of horse and sweat and snow and home.

For a long time they stood there, finally disentangling when Jon gently pushed Sansa back. She saw his white direwolf next to him, staring unblinkingly at her. Ghost!

“Sansa – Lady Stark - let me look at you! You have grown into a strong, beautiful woman. As I always knew you would.” Jon’s eyes were sparkling and he was laughing. The joy of the moment washed away the years apart, as well as any apprehensions Sansa had harboured in her heart about how he would receive her.

“Jon, I am so happy to see you again! You look well, especially after…what I heard happened to you,” Sansa exclaimed. Jon smiled, took a hold of her shoulder and pulled her closer as they walked together towards the dais.

“I am not so easily killed, and am in quite good health now. Nothing but a few scars to show off. But enough about me, what about you? I can’t tell you how glad I was to hear that you had returned. All I could make of the raven’s messages was that you had been hidden in the Vale before finally making your way back home. You must tell me all about your travels!”

And she did. After Jon and his companions had settled, he and Sansa spent the rest of the day just talking and sharing experiences. Sansa heard about Jon’s adventures beyond the Wall and how he became the Lord Commander, his attempts to reconcile with the wildlings and his latest troubles with rebellious black brothers, wights and white walkers. Jon heard about Sansa’s suffering in Joffrey’s court, her forced marriage to Tyrion, her time in Littlefinger’s hands and finally how Brienne, Jaime and Sandor had brought her back. Jon’s fists clenched when Sansa told him her story, but she assured him that it was all in the past and she had grown stronger because of what she had endured.

Sansa re-introduced him to Jaime and Sandor, remembering they had met before. Jon was initially cold and guarded with Jaime, but seeing Sansa’s trust in him he eventually started to thaw. For Sandor Jon showed cautious respect, one warrior to another.

There was nothing Sansa would have wanted more than to spend time with Jon remembering happier times, but the big gathering of the northern lords beckoned. Sansa and her retinue, including Stannis and Jon were seated on the dais, the lords and their retainers sitting around long trestle tables. Food and drink was brought out, but on Sansa’s instructions only watered wine was to be served until important matters had been discussed.

The great doors were closed. It was time to decide the future of the North.

----------

It was almost dawn the next morning when Sansa finally went to bed, exhausted by the events of the night.

The meeting had been long, full of arguments and counter-arguments, suggestions and objections, laughing and cursing, cheering and jeering. She had known it to be important to allow everyone to have their say. Northern lords did not cower before authority and were famous for being opinionated and strong-minded.

She had talked with many of them in the days preceding the meeting to secure support for the course she desired, and that had certainly helped. She knew some of the lords were likely to favour her because of their designs on her, either for themselves or their sons – but she refused to allow that to affect her.

The strongest arguments for abandoning the idea of the Kingdom in the North were presented by Stannis and especially Jon. Their descriptions of the threat beyond the Wall convinced everyone that Westeros had to unite, as only a unified realm could fight against such a formidable common enemy. In the end that motion prevailed and it was decided that representatives of the North would be sent to King’s Landing to negotiate with the Targaryens. Jaime agreed to join the party and the others were to be selected over the next few days.

There had been one tense moment when Sansa had officially welcomed all and assured them she planned to stay and rule in Winterfell. Her unclear position as Lady Lannister still puzzled many, and she chose that moment to declare her decision to annul her marriage. She presented the document proving her maidenhood and announced that it secured the annulment beyond all doubts, making it impossible for anyone to prevent it. Then she braced herself and took a calculated risk.

“If anyone has reservations about the authenticity of this document, I am willing to submit myself to a re-examination as soon as we can locate a septa to do it.” Sansa stared at the lords defiantly. She hated to bring such deeply personal matters up for discussion – but personal is political, she had learned from Petyr. In her case, however, it was a risky tactic, as it carried the possibility of destroying everything if she truly had to go through with it.

Nobody raised their voice to demand re-examination. Sansa noticed Howland Reed throwing a quick look at her, then at Sandor, who was standing right behind her. She blushed remembering how he had witnessed their reunion in Greywater Watch. The next thing he heard was Howland Reed’s strong voice.

“Lady Stark has suffered enough.  For me, her word as a Stark will suffice, but the document from the servants of the Seven may be needed for southrons. No need for her to humble herself any further.” Several voices in the crowd agreed with him and the matter was closed.

Sansa sighed in relief. She had chosen to take the risk for two reasons: her willingness to submit to re-examination would alleviate any fears about the document being a forgery or written under pressure from Petyr. In addition, it would do away with any whispers about her relationship with her sworn men during their travels together. As unfair as it was, people in the North were as likely to gossip as those in the South, and her reputation was important for her success.

She had said as much to Jaime and Sandor the previous evening, and although Jaime had warned her about the dangers of her plan, he had agreed that it might be worth therisk. Sandor had only looked at her with his jaw clenched, and Sansa knew he was still blaming himself for failing to protect her.

The meeting concluded around midnight, followed by more food, strong wine and inevitable stories and laughter shared by the lords, together for the first time after Robb’s death. Sansa planned to retire at that stage - but for her the night of surprises was only beginning.

----------

Howland Reed approached her as she descended the dais. “I know that it is late but there is a matter I need to discuss with you, the sooner the better. Would you kindly agree to this?” He turned then to Jon, who was likewise on his way to his room. “Lord Commander, could you join us? This matter concerns you too, and House Stark.”

Jon and Sansa shared a surprised glance. They were tired, but Howland Reed was an old and trusted friend. If he wanted to discuss family matters, they owed it to him to listen. So they gathered in Sansa’s solar, where she poured them some wine and gestured for them to sit. She wondered what the late meeting was about. Maybe Howland had heard something more about Arya?

Howland twirled the flagon in his hands, appearing to gather his thoughts. He sipped, sighed and looked at them. “What I am about to tell you is something only two people in the whole realm knew, but with your father gone I am the only one left. I swore to protect this secret and have kept that promise – until now. The situation when I made the promise was very different from now, and I judge it is time for those whom the secret concerns to finally learn the truth.”

Sansa listened intently, concluding that the meeting was not about Arya after all. Jon looked at Howland with growing expectation in his eyes and Sansa realised he was hoping to finally hear about his mother. Who she was, why she abandoned him, if she a good woman – anything.

“You both know the story of how Rhaegar Targaryen abducted Lyanna Stark. It is generally thought that he kidnapped her against her will, but in truth she went with him because she wanted to.” Sansa gasped and Howland smiled at her.

“Your aunt Lyanna was a very strong woman, and I see a lot of her in you. Your sister Arya may resemble her more in appearance and passion, but Lyanna had iron underneath her beauty, just like you, Sansa. When she fell in love with Rhaegar, nobody could have persuaded her not to go with him.”

Sansa was digesting the news. She was surprised, but then again, she had heard much about Lyanna’s stubbornness. Abandoning everything for love sounded like something she might have done.

“You have also heard how after the battle of the Trident, Lord Eddard and five of his companions - I among them - fought Ser Arthur Dayne, Ser Oswell Whent and Lord Commander Gerold Hightower to get to Lyanna in the Tower of Joy. Despite our victory it was too late, and she died there in Ned’s arms.”

Sansa nodded, as did Jon. They had heard the story several times and when Sansa was younger she used to cry thinking about the sad fate of her aunt.

“That was not all, you see, because Lyanna was not alone. When we entered her chamber, she had a newborn babe in her arms. With powerful lungs and a will to live, although his mother’s lifeblood was slowly draining away.” Sansa raised her hand to her mouth. A babe! Lyanna had borne a son to Rhaegar!

After a moment of silence Sansa asked with a hushed voice. “What happened to the babe? Did he live?”

As if not hearing the question Howland continued. “Your father gave Lyanna a promise. She knew that if Robert heard about the babe, he would kill him. Robert might have loved Lyanna, but he hated Rhaegar more. So she asked Ned to promise to take her son and never reveal his origins to anyone. Ned promised – and then Lyanna died, still holding her son in her arms.” Howland was quiet for a long time, his eyes unseeing, looking into the past.

Sansa shifted and repeated her question. “What of the babe? What happened to him?”

Howland lifted his head and looked straight at Jon. “Ned took him to the North and raised him as his own son.”

Sansa heard a loud intake of breath and then a sob from Jon’s direction. Her mind processed slowly what she had just heard. The babe, his father raising him as his own son… Jon!

She turned to see Jon’s face contorted, his shoulders slumped. Slowly, very slowly, tears started to flow from his eyes. “Lyanna?” he whispered hoarsely. “Rhaegar?”

“Yes, Jon. Rhaegar Targaryen is your father and Lyanna Stark is your mother. You are the blood of the Dragons, the blood of ice and fire.” Howland suddenly looked older than before, as if revealing the secret he had kept for so many years had drained something from within.

Sansa was still trying to understand. Everyone always said how much Jon resembled Ned – but Lyanna was Ned’s sister and had had the same appearance. Had her mother known?  Probably not, for why else she would have resented Jon, thinking him to be the proof of Ned’s indiscretion? How her father must have suffered, but he had kept his promise. Just as Lyanna must have known he would. But Jon…what did the revelation mean to Jon?

She reached towards Jon and they embraced. She could feel his hot tears against her shoulder while she murmured soft words into his ear and just held him.
Howland Reed took his leave, seeing that neither of them could continue further. He bade them good night and left, promising to meet them again the next day and answer any questions they had.

For the rest of the night she held Jon in her arms, trying to support him at a time when the world as he knew it crashed down around him. They didn’t talk much and eventually fell into an exhausted sleep on the couch. Only when the early signs of the dawn entered the solar, they stirred. Jon’s face was puffy and his eyes red, but otherwise he had regained his composure. After kissing Sansa on the forehead and accepting her assurances that they would meet again later, he left.

Sansa went to her bed and wished…she wasn’t sure what she wished. For the hurt in Jon’s eyes to go away, for his heart to recover from the lifetime of betrayal. And then she slept.
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Sansa

All of a sudden Sansa heard steps from outside approaching the kitchen door. She jerked, knowing the picture they presented would look compromising at the least, alarming at the worst. Either her reputation or Sandor’s would be besmirched; hers for allowing him to hold her, his for forcing her, whichever way the scene was interpreted.

She jumped to her feet, taking Sandor’s arm and dragging him to follow her as she dove into a corridor leading to a door opening to the kennels. Sandor followed, slowly and unsteadily.

The passageway was narrow but deep enough for them to hide completely. Sansa pushed Sandor against the wall and leaned her back against him, shushing him to be quiet. Despite his condition he seemed to understand her intention and stayed still, swaying slightly on his feet.

She heard the door opening and light footsteps entering the room. “Anyone here? If it’s you, Rondar, sneaking in again to steal beer, I swear this will be the last time as I shall spank your bottom so black and blue you won’t sit for a whole moon!”

Sansa recognised the voice as belonging to one of the older maids, a nice but gossipy woman who had arrived at Winterfell with the Boltons. She cringed thinking about the consequences of her catching them – there would be no possibility of it staying a secret.

Suddenly she became aware of big hands curling around her waist, having slithered under her cloak from the wide splits meant for her arms. They started to move cautiously, sliding against her sides, her belly, one hand hitching higher just below her breast, almost touching it. They moved slowly and tenderly, sometimes just the fingertips touching her, sometimes the whole palm and fingers splaying against her body.

Although her nightshift was made of sturdy linen, she could feel the warmth of those touches radiating to her skin through the fabric. Sansa’s breathing hitched and she closed her eyes. She couldn’t move nor tell him to stop, so she stayed still, absorbing the sensations the caresses sparked in her. She felt hot and stirred, and as Sandor stroked her hips and languidly moved his hands lower, on top of her thighs, she sensed jolts of heat radiating into her core. She could hear his breathing becoming faster against the top of her head. Instinctively she pressed herself even closer to him so that her whole back was flush against his body.

She felt his hardened manhood against the small of her back, bringing to her mind memories of the nights spent under the stars. He had tried to hide his arousal from Sansa but she had noticed it, and later learned to recognise the signs from the way he tensed, breathed deeply and shifted away from her. She had lain awake, unsure if she should be offended or insulted, in the end being neither. The notion of her sheer presence being enough to cause such a reaction in him had been bewildering – but also oddly exciting.

Sansa hardly heard the woman moving around in the kitchen, mumbling to herself about careless idiots who left flames unattended. Apparently seeing the flasks on the floor, she tut-tutted and scooped them up, dropping them to the other side of the room. She extinguished the fire, straightened the chairs and finally left, still muttering about how she would find out who had been drinking in the kitchen and make sure they suffered for it. The door closed behind her with a loud bang.

The corridor was now almost dark bar the silvery light of the full moon peering through the window. Sansa was relieved as the shadows hid the colour of her cheeks, which she knew to be bright red. She removed herself from Sandor’s grip and turned around to face him. She could hardly see his form, but when he started to slide down against the wall, she was alarmed. What is he doing?! He fell first into a seated position, then onto his side, finally lying on the floor. She knelt down next to him, shaking him earnestly.

“Sandor, what is it? Can’t you get up?” She shook him for a few moments longer, and as his head only lolled in her grip, she realised he had simply passed out. Frustrated, she tried to rouse him and get him to his room, but to no avail. After a while she had to give up.

As she was sitting there she realised that it was the first time she’d been in Sandor’s presence without him being alert and observing her. Even on their nights on the road he had always been a light sleeper, woken by her lightest movement.

Sansa looked at him as he laid there, eyes closed, breathing steadily. She brushed a dark strand of hair away from his brow and contemplated his face, for once being able to stare at it as long as she wanted without him looking back. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she examined his gaunt features and sharp cheekbones. He looked surprisingly peaceful in his wine-fuelled sleep, his forehead smooth and expression relaxed. She traced her finger along his cheek to his hooked nose and down to his jaw. She traced the scars on his side, her fingers sliding over the rough scar tissue. His ear was just a hole where his earlobe had burned off, but that didn’t repel her in the least. She had a good look at him and all she saw was a man who had suffered.

There wasn’t much she could do to ease his situation, him being too heavy for her to move. She couldn’t call for help, obviously, so in the end she only shifted him to a slightly better position, covered him with his cloak, which she found in the kitchen, and left him sleeping on the floor. Her visit to the Maester’s Turret forgotten, she retraced her steps back to her rooms.

Sleep didn’t come to her for a long time, but it was not the ghosts of the past which kept her awake. It was the ghost of his touch on her body, and the unsettling thoughts it provoked in her.

----------

The next day Sansa was feeling nervous about seeing Sandor again. For no particular reason her steps led to the tiltyard where she knew him to be training. On her way she practiced her expressions and what she would say. She would be gracious, but stern. Sandor had behaved inappropriately and she would tell him so. She wondered if he would be sorry, or still angry. Would he meet her boldly or would he be embarrassed? Would the previous night’s encounter change things between them?

As soon as Sandor saw her approaching, he interrupted his bout with a trainee guard and walked towards her with steady strides. His heavy drinking hadn’t left any visible signs on his appearance and he looked as calm as always. Sansa blushed as he greeted her with a gesture halfway between a nod and a bow.

“Lady Sansa.” He stopped then, seemingly not knowing how to continue. Sweat was trickling down his brow, leaving a clear trail amongst the dust and dirt in its wake. Sansa could hardly imagine she had been caressing that face last night while it had been peaceful and tranquil, so hard and unyielding as it appeared now.

Sansa rushed to fill the awkward silence. “I trust you are well recovered this morning.”

“I have not drunk that much for a bloody long time. It is a disgrace how badly I took the wine,” Sandor muttered. He appeared uncomfortable and continued, “I do recall I might have met you last night. If I said anything untoward, I apologise. Just ignore it as drunkard’s ramblings.”

“Already forgotten. You didn’t say anything untoward, only told some truths as is your habit. Yet I hope you also heard what I said to you, about the only family I have left.” As she looked into his eyes, she saw only incomprehension.

“Family? You have no kin left here,” Sandor growled, not unkindly.

Sansa stared at him blankly. Surely he realised she was referring to him and Jaime - her pack. As Sandor met her gaze unwavering, realisation hit her. He doesn’t remember! Sandor had no recollection of the previous night; of what she had said to him, of how he had held her and how his hands had explored her body… She was strangely upset, although her common sense told that was for the best. There would be no need for uneasiness between them and they could behave as if last night never happened.

She exchanged a few more words with him and turned to return to her duties. As she walked away from him, her shoulders sagged under the weight of odd disappointment. Sandor may have erased last night from his mind, but she knew she could not.

Jaime

One by one the Northern lords started to arrive; the Umbers, the Reeds, the Hornwoods, the Lockes, the Mormonts, the Ryswells, the Manderlys – even the Karstarks. Jaime and Sandor greeted them at Sansa’s side as she wanted all her bannermen to see how much she valued her new companions. The lords and their attendants observed them warily, confused about how to reconcile the hated Lannister men with their Lady Stark. Jaime didn’t enjoy the ordeal, but knew it to be necessary and hence was on his best behaviour.

Sansa welcomed the lords graciously, receiving their expressions of joy and declarations of loyalty. Greatjon Umber almost cried as he engulfed Sansa in his powerful embrace, swearing he would not fail the last Stark. Losing herself in his mighty grip, Sansa tried to assure the old man that he could not be held responsible for the fate of the Young Wolf, and he finally let her go. Jaime observed the scene, wondering if the Lannister bannermen had ever shown such devotion to his lord father or his family. Even as he considered it, he knew the answer – never. The Lannisters were feared and respected, but not loved.

The evening before the big gathering Sansa invited Jaime and Sandor to her solar. Jaime observed her as they entered, noticing she had lost the gaunt appearance from weeks on the road and blossomed into a full-bodied, beautiful woman. Thanks to the gods that there was enough food in Winterfell. The delay in the onset of winter had allowed new harvests, and newly established animal pens and well-organised hunting parties ensured that nobody went hungry.

Jaime and Sansa had not discussed the night in Greywater Watch. Sometimes Jaime wondered if it had happened at all. Yet it had left him with memories he would have rather forgotten, shadows of sensations he had not felt for a long time, not since Cersei… He forced his mind away from such dangerous paths. Besides, since Sandor’s return, he had occupied Jaime’s thoughts once again.

“Sandor, what do you think about the meeting on the morrow?” Sansa asked, moving across the room to sit next to him.
Sandor turned to her, his face thoughtful. “The lords certainly have welcomed you back with open arms. The lot of them are like hungry puppies running back to their mother’s teats.”

Jaime saw Sansa smiling mischievously. “By that you mean to refer to me as a bitch, do you?” Jaime chuckled and the burned corner of Sandor’s mouth twisted.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Only stating that no matter what you plan to propose to them, they’ll be likely to accept. So you’d better think carefully about what it’ll be,” Sandor grunted.

“Latest news from the South bears well for the North. Small pockets of resistance to the Targaryens still exist. Nothing they couldn’t manage with their dragons, but enough to keep them unsettled,” Jaime volunteered. He had visited the rookery most days for ravens’ messages and tirelessly interviewed all the newcomers.  “Most of the resistance is based in the Riverlands and the Stormlands, the Vale not declaring either way yet. That is not a surprise. Littlefinger is likely biding his time to ensure the best possible outcome for himself.”

“This means the North is still an unknown entity – and it makes our position stronger for the deal we have been planning,” Sansa concluded. “We just have to open discussions with the Targaryens first, although the North is much more important than the Vale in any case.”

“Who do you suggest to negotiate the deal?” Sandor queried. Jaime looked at him sharply, wondering if he had something in mind. Although Sandor was often silent in their meetings, when he talked, Jaime had learned to respect his opinions.

“Who would you suggest?” he returned Sandor’s question. He scratched his beard and considered for a moment.

“Daenerys Targaryen’s closest advisor is someone we know – some of us better than others.” He turned to Jaime. “The Imp is still your brother. He might listen to you and explain our position to the Dragon Queen.”

Jaime startled, straightening himself. “Me? Tyrion hates me with a passion for what I did to him and his little wife. He would never listen to me.”

“He would and you know it. No matter how you parted, you are still brothers and you always shared a strong bond,” Sansa told him firmly. “I know it is a long way to King’s Landing and I couldn’t ask it of you after all you have already done. But if you are intent on staying in Westeros, you have to secure a pardon for yourself sooner or later for killing King Aerys. Tyrion might be your best chance.”

Sansa stood up and walked to Jaime, taking his one hand in hers. He squeezed her fingers absent-mindedly, his thoughts well occupied. He had considered his future lately, wondering what the new regime meant for him personally. Would the Dragon Queen demand his head as revenge for killing her father? Would he be thrown into the black cells if he dared to return? After his departure from the Kingsguard he might even be considered as the lord of Casterly Rock, should he claim his inheritance.  Did he want to go back there even if he could?

Jaime had pondered these questions over and over again, voicing some of them to Sandor. He had mumbled that if Jaime wanted to go south he could go by himself as he sure as hells would not leave Winterfell. Now Jaime was facing a situation where he had to decide. Stay in the North and hope his existence would be forgotten? Unlikely, he concluded. Join the Night’s Watch and gain exoneration that way? He had had enough of lifetime commitments. Face the danger head-on, maybe helping Sansa’s cause in the process?

They stayed up late that evening, going through different options and possibilities, discussing their strategy for the next day. Jaime retired late at night still trying to sort out what he should do, all the while knowing he would do whatever Sansa asked of him.
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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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Sansa

By the time they were close to Winterfell, Sansa had prepared and shared her plans with Jaime and Sandor. She knew she had to look the part of a great lady if she wanted to be taken seriously by her own folk and Stannis alike. Therefore on the morning after their last night of camping she dressed in her new courtly dress of sky-blue with black ribbons embroidered into its bodice and sleeves. She donned her mother’s gold and silver circlet over her freely flowing curls, knowing how well the colours matched her eyes and hair and would make her stand out.

Exactly as she wanted it to.

Everybody knew about the Tully colouring of Sansa Stark, and it was important that she be easily recognised. She secured her by now almost grey Kingsguard cloak with her direwolf brooch, remembering her preparations earlier and hoping that the outcome with Stannis would be a resounding success as it had been with Sandor.

Jaime and Sandor were dressed in matching pairs of sensible black and grey tunics, breeches and cloaks. Sandor had shaped a tree sapling into a pole, to which he had attached the Stark banner. They mounted and Sansa examined her honour guard: Jaime, looking handsome and every inch a nobleman, and Sandor, appearing imposing and fearsome while carrying the direwolf sigil. A small flame, which she had been guarding inside her since she had started the journey from the Vale, flared and started to burn bright. We are ready. I am going home.

The first person to see them was a young woman on the roadside, staring at them with her mouth agape. Sansa beckoned her closer.

“Good woman, don’t be afraid. I am Lady Sansa Stark and I am returning home.” The woman gasped but recovered enough to drop into a cumbersome curtsey, murmuring “My lady.”

“Please go to Winter Town and tell everyone you see that a Stark is returning to Winterfell. Those who want to welcome me are invited to join me on my way to my ancestral home.” The woman rose and stammered something incoherent about everyone assuming all Starks to be dead, and promising to run as fast as she could to spread the message.

Sansa leaned forward in her saddle and gazed deep into the woman’s eyes. “Tell me your name and go with my blessing. Remember this moment and recount it to your children and your grandchildren; how you were the first person to welcome Sansa Stark back to Winterfell. Tell this tale to everyone you see.”

Again the woman dropped into a curtsey that was, if possible, even deeper than the one before. “My name is Sarita, and I will recall this day until I die. Gods be thanked, Lady Stark, for your return!” She gathered her skirts and ran, peeking over her shoulder once as she sped towards the town.

Sansa rode slightly ahead with Jaime and Sandor behind her, the direwolf banner fluttering proudly in the wind. The day was bright and sunny and Sansa silently thanked the gods for it – rain or hail would not have permitted the grand return she had in mind. Soon people ran to meet them; at first they were quiet and respectful, but as Sansa waved her hand and called out her greetings in a loud voice, the crowd got noisier. The murmurs changed into shouts of “Stark!”, “Lady Sansa!” and “Winterfell!” The sound of their voices carried Sansa when she squeezed her eyes shut and for a moment she almost felt her father’s arms around her. Home.

Then she opened them again and regarded the thin faces in the crowd, reminiscing about her father’s teachings on how the foremost duty of any lord was to take care of his people, and how the bond between a lord and his people was a sacred one. Sansa nodded and smiled and waved her hand and smiled again until her face hurt. The closer they got to Winterfell the bigger the crowd grew, consisting of hundreds of people by the time they reached the East Gate. Two soldiers in Baratheon colours approached them.

“Who are you and what is the meaning of this?!” shouted the first man. Sansa drew her horse in and raised her hand to halt Jaime and Sandor.

“I am Lady Sansa Stark, returning to Winterfell. Let us pass and tell your master I am coming.” The men stared at her incredulously but obeyed, stepping aside, one of them hurrying towards the keep. Sansa continued to the large courtyard and stopped in front of the Great Hall. She slid down from her horse, while Jaime and Sandor dismounted theirs.

Sansa avoided examining the damage clearly visible in the once powerful keep, afraid that if she did so she would start crying - and that simply wouldn’t do. Taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders defiantly, she climbed the stairs and entered the Great Hall.

----------

The hall was almost empty at that hour of the day. Only Stannis Baratheon and a few of his commanders were seated at a long table, studying scrolls and maps. The soldier Sansa had sent ahead had just finished his report and she could see Stannis furrowing his brow questioningly before turning his head towards the commotion at the door.

Sansa moved towards him, dropping into a deep curtsey at a respectable distance. “Your Grace.” She stayed down, not too briefly to appear disrespectful, but not too long to appear submissive. Then she rose and moved to the dais, turning towards the group.

“I greet you warmly and apologise that I haven’t been here to offer you the hospitality of House Stark as you deserve, having relieved us of traitors. Please accept my sincerest gratitude.” At that she curtseyed again, but only briefly. Stannis had not said a word but followed her with his gaze. For a while both of them were silent but then Stannis moved.

“Dear Lady Sansa, it gladdens me to see that you are alive and well, and have returned to the North.” He stepped towards her. “Pray tell me, how is it that you have arrived? I had no word of your coming.”

Sansa gestured towards Jaime and Sandor, who approached and bowed their heads slightly. She knew how uncomfortable they were, but she had insisted they had to show their respect to Stannis if they wanted to turn him into their ally.

“I have travelled a long and dangerous road to come here, and have not been in a position to send ravens. Fortunately I have been ably assisted by my companions, Ser Jaime Lannister and Sandor Clegane. Without them I would not be here today.” Stannis stared at the men sceptically before turning back to Sansa.

“My apologies, I forgot. I should be addressing you as Lady Lannister, of course.” Sansa recoiled at the implication.

“Not Lady Lannister. Although it is true there was a ceremony between Tyrion Lannister and myself, the marriage was never consummated and as such never became valid. In the eyes of the Seven I am still a Stark. This will be soon rectified in the eyes of men as well.” Stannis considered her, then Jaime and Sandor. Sansa answered the question he did not voice.

“Sandor Clegane left the service of the Lannisters and is now my sworn shield. Ser Jaime joined my company of his own free will and is my trusted adviser and protector. Although he can’t change his family affiliation, his loyalty is now with House Stark.” Jaime flinched. Sansa knew he had agreed, but hearing it said out loud must still have affected him.

“Am I right to assume that you welcome me as the heir of House Stark and as the Lady of Winterfell, Your Grace?” Sansa turned her eyes to Stannis. Although she knew him to be impervious to womanly charms, she hoped even he would be touched by her position as an innocent young maiden whose family had been cruelly murdered, and who had finally arrived back at her home after being long lost. She didn’t fool herself though; she could see Stannis thinking furiously. Undoubtedly his strategic mind was already assessing the new possibilities the situation presented. Stannis Baratheon wasn’t stupid. It wouldn’t take him long to realise the advantages the situation offered.

Soon enough Stannis bowed to Sansa and lifted her hand to his lips. “My dear Lady Stark, welcome back. Please allow me to be the first to recognise you as the Lady of Winterfell. My lady wife will be delighted to see you and will make sure you are received in a manner suitable to your station.” He turned to one of his men and ordered him to take a message to Lady Selyse.

At that Sansa felt the strain she had suffered since the morning ease. She smiled brightly to all those gathered and made her way back to the outer steps, where she addressed the gathered crowd.  In a clear voice she thanked them for their support, assured them that she had truly returned to stay and expressed her gratitude and friendship to Stannis Baratheon and his brave troops for their help in recapturing Winterfell for her. She promised to meet her people and hear their grievances soon, but first she had to make herself at home and learn all that had happened in her absence.

The crowd listened to her intently before erupting into cheers and shouts which lasted a long time. Sansa glanced at Jaime and Sandor standing behind her, side by side, giving her their support in the form of a unified stance representing strength and loyalty. She noticed Sandor studying the crowd under his brow. He had done as they had agreed; carried Sansa’s banner, examined the smallfolk and Baratheon soldiers alike for any disturbances and stood in attendance ready for any eventuality in case Sansa’s meeting with Stannis had turned sour.

Only now Sansa realised he had been even more reserved than normal. Isn’t he happy about us finally reaching Winterfell? Could Sandor be feeling as she did; glad to finally arrive at their destination, but also disturbed about what that would mean for them? Sansa wanted to ask him, but something in his demeanour shut her out. The wall around him had truly returned.
Sighing, Sansa turned to go back inside.

----------

As she approached the dais, Stannis rose to meet her. He beckoned her to sit next to him and waved his men away.

“Lady Sansa, you addressed me as ‘Your Grace’. Does this mean you recognise my claim to the Iron Throne?” His dark blue eyes were scanning Sansa’s face for her reaction.

“It means that I am happy to reconcile with the rightful King of the Seven Kingdoms. Although I could maintain my brother’s claim and continue the rule of Kings in the North, I choose not to. Starks have been faithful to the central rule since King Aegon I, and only the most grievous aggravation from the Iron Throne has swayed that. When Lord Rickard and Brandon Stark were murdered by the Mad King, the North rebelled and the King was dethroned. When my Lord Father was cruelly executed by King Joffrey. the North declared itself again.” Sansa looked at him seriously, holding his gaze. It was important that Stannis saw her point.

“Joffrey was not a rightful king,” Stannis muttered.

“True. He was an impostor, claiming to be of the blood of rulers when he was not. Yet as the head of my House, I attest that I am ready to bend the knee to the true King.” Sansa let that sink in for a while.

“I am glad to hear your position on this matter. It is as sensible as I would expect from the daughter of Lord Eddard.” Stannis leaned back and looked into the distance.

“My own situation here is uncertain. I have fought for the good of the realm at the Wall, yet I am likely considered a traitor by the Targaryens. I am far away from my own lands, amongst people who, although they consider me as their saviour, are not ready to be led by me.” He looked at Sansa and gave a faint smile.

“These matters are surely not of interest to a young maiden. You must be happy to just have returned to your home.”

“On the contrary, these matters are of enormous interest to me. I see your dilemma, and I think I may have a solution for you.” Stannis’s eyes narrowed but Sansa continued before he could stop her and suggest she join the ladies to do her needlework.

“I see that our aims are aligned. We both want what is best for the realm and to end this futile war. Yet we also want to secure our own lands and the security of our people. The Targaryens have landed and taken the Crownlands, but Westeros is more than that. Resistance from the rest of the kingdoms can still severely damage any reconquest and unification attempts.” Sansa could see that Stannis’s interest had been piqued from the way he leaned closer to hear her better.

“Hence I suggest that we unite the North and Stormlands, not for war but for peace, for an honourable peace for both of us. The Targaryens would have to seriously consider our joined forces. What more, we know about the true enemy beyond the Wall, and can educate them about that. Most people in the south still believe them to belong only in scary children’s stories. Together we can attest to their existence and how fighting against each other while a more dangerous enemy is gathering strength is pointless.” Knowing how naïve she might have sounded, Sansa continued.

“Morality aside, the Targaryens have only limited forces and they have to act quickly to secure Westeros. External forces are good for short-term campaigns, but years of protracted warfare against troops fighting for their own lands are likely to lessen the ardour of most committed sellswords and foreign fighters. It is also well known that there is nothing better to unite old foes than a new, common enemy. As for the dragons, they are lethal, but even they can be killed, and they can’t be everywhere at once.”

Stannis regarded her for a long time without saying a word. Sansa held her breath - much depended on whether Stannis had truly accepted his claim to be redundant now that the old royal line had returned. Eventually Stannis sighed.

“Lady Sansa, that is a sound strategy. Do you mind if I ask if it is of your own making?”

Sansa smiled. Of course it made sense that a leader more used to dealings with other men would find it difficult to accept that a woman could think strategically.

“I assure you it is. I have discussed it with my companions, and irrespective of what you think about Ser Jaime or Sandor Clegane as individuals, they are both experienced battle commanders and strategists, and they see merit in my plans. I have also observed the game of thrones up close over the last few years, and I take my responsibilities as the head of my house seriously. I have to give these things all due consideration, Your Grace – or would you prefer Lord Stannis?”

Stannis stood up, raised Sansa’s hand to his lips and gave it a dry peck.

“You have given me much to think about, and we shall discuss it again. Now if you will allow, I believe Lady Selyse is eagerly awaiting you in her rooms.” He led Sansa towards a soldier waiting at the door.

Later, after Sansa had been warmly greeted by Lady Selyse and young Lady Shireen, rooms prepared for her and she had finally retired to them, she let out a big sigh of relief. The first stage of her plan had been initiated. No, she corrected herself, not the first, the second. The first part had already been completed; to get back to her home. Home.
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Jaime

Jaime was not surprised to see Sansa. He had almost expected her to come, not into his own bed – not when Sandor is here – but come nonetheless.

After she had left, Sandor sat up and crossed his arms against his chest. Without intending to, Jaime heard himself saying, “She came to me last night. She said she was lonely.” Sandor turned to look at him and he felt an urgent need to explain more.

“We missed you, both of us. That was mainly what we talked about. I pushed her out, just as you did. It was not appropriate, and would hurt her position if she was discovered.”

Sandor kept staring at him. Their pallets were so close there were hardly two full hand-spans between them. Jaime moved to sit on the edge of his pallet, lowering his feet to the floor.

“We thought you were dead. I am sure you thought you were going to die. We mourned for you, thinking of the times we shared our bedrolls on the road.”

Sandor shifted. “Aye, I thought I was going to die for sure. Didn’t want to, particularly, but it would have been worth it to keep her safe. Better that than to die on the banks of the Trident for no reason whatsoever.”

“Did you miss…us?” Jaime moved slightly closer, just to see him better in the dancing candlelight. Without realising it at first, he was holding his breath. Had Sandor’s wall of indifference started to crumble after all? Had he started to care?

“Did I wish I was with you two again, riding towards the North? Did I miss the only time in my life when I was trusted; when someone actually believed I was good for something? Aye. Tywin, Cersei and Joffrey trusted me to swing my sword, to kill for them when needed – but did they ever place their life into my hands or ask my advice on anything, as the little bird has done? Fucking unlikely!” His voice betrayed a depth of emotion Jaime hadn’t heard in it before.

After a while Sandor lifted his eyes to meet Jaime’s. “And you – you treated me as an equal, not as a dog. Both of you even looked me in the eye. You know, a man can get used to something like that. Of course I bloody missed you!”

Jaime was unsure how to respond to such an outpouring of emotion. Had their trip truly been the first time Sandor had been appreciated as a person rather than a weapon to wield against an opponent, a dog to be commanded?

Sandor was quiet for a long time before continuing, “Never been so close to another human being either, as when we huddled against each other when the night came. Whores only rent their cunts, nothing more. Took some time to get used to it.”

In the dim light of the room Sandor’s face looked unfamiliar. The shadows fell on him so it appeared he had no disfigurement at all – as if he were whole, unspoiled. Jaime couldn’t decide whether he liked the new face better than the old one. Mayhap it was a touch comelier, but then again, it was not him.

“You are not a dog, you are a human being. You should know that by now,” was all Jaime could say. The realisation of how broken this man had been and how poorly he had been treated pierced through him like a dagger.

“The Elder Brother tried to tell me so, but that’s what one would expect from a brother of the Seven. Not many things they say turn out to be true in the real world, though.”

Silence descended between them again. After a while Sandor lowered himself onto his mattress, pulling the covers on top of him. Just as Jaime was resigned to lie down as well, Sandor lifted the corner of his blanket. Jaime looked at him, unsure of what he meant, and Sandor nodded. His heavy-lidded eyes flashed but he said nothing.

Emboldened, Jaime sank down next to him. They hardly touched each other, only their arms coming into contact. They both felt the tension; they were not in a forest camp, their closeness was not driven by necessity, and neither of them was fully clothed.

Jaime breathed in Sansa’s lingering scent and the thought of her having lain in the same spot just moments before made his heart beat faster. That, and Sandor’s closeness, had its inevitable consequences and with alarm he noticed his body betraying him once again. As he tried to adjust his hardness as surreptitiously as possible, he wondered if Sandor shared his condition as a result of Sansa’s visit. The thought titillated Jaime and he had to resist the urge to casually brush against him.

“So you missed me?” Sandor’s voice was low and harsh. “Can’t say I have heard that said before.”

“I am sure both of us have experienced things on this journey we have not come across before,” Jaime murmured. “Yes, we missed you. Our lady cried most of the way here.” Jaime felt slightly embarrassed about the previous night and how he had responded to Sansa – almost as if he had betrayed Sandor, as ridiculous as the notion was.

He lifted himself up, leaning on his elbow. In his current position he had the unusual opportunity to look down at Sandor.

“She has a gentle heart and knows as well as you and me how this trip has formed bonds between us. She is also young and inexperienced, and she is the lady of Winterfell. She can’t be seen to be disgraced by the likes of us.”

Sandor turned his head and stared at Jaime. “I understand that. Haven’t forgotten for a moment. I have no plans to disgrace her, you should bloody know it.”

Jaime sighed. “I know. I am just not sure if she truly knows what she wants. Or that we won’t be able to give it to her, whether we would like to or not.” He slid lower again, taking a more comfortable position. He started to relax, savouring the moment.

After a long silence he heard Sandor’s voice. “Just as you may not know what you want. Or that I won’t be able to give it to you, whether I would like to or not.”

Jaime stiffened. Sandor didn’t continue, but didn’t push him away either. He only leaned over to blow the candle out, brushing himself against Jaime as he did so. Then Sandor stretched himself and his breathing deepened, slowed and became more regular. He was asleep.

Jaime’s thoughts chased each other wildly inside his head. What do I want? What does he think I want? What did he mean? He lay there for a long time trying to decipher the meaning of Sandor’s words, but eventually the events of the day overwhelmed him. He fell asleep, his golden locks mixing with Sandor’s black hair on the pillow.

Sansa

It took them two days to reach the Kingsroad, guided by a party of crannogmen, Jonne Peat and his father amongst them. Sansa had grown fond of the lad, who was clearly awed by the opportunity to escort the liege lady of his house - the Queen in the North by some people’s reckoning. After saying her goodbyes to their escorts, Sansa turned to Jonne and pressed a chaste kiss on his forehead.

“Should you ever come to Winterfell, rest assured you and your kin will always be warmly welcomed.” The boy blushed, but for someone of such young age he held his composure admirably, swearing always to be true to the Lady of Winterfell and serve her faithfully.

After they were alone, Sansa studied the Kingsroad spread in front of them, empty and quiet. She recalled her journey in the opposite direction all those years ago. The circle she had completed had been wound with pain, sorrow and loss, and had left her a changed woman. Perhaps wiser than the naïve young girl she had been, but the price she had paid had been high

“This is it, then. If we stay on the road and ride steadily, we should reach Winterfell in half the time it took us to get to the Neck.” Jaime approached and woke her from her thoughts. He spoke surely, the experienced battle commander and expedition leader taking over. Sandor nodded and Sansa could see they had already discussed it and agreed on the best strategy.

They settled into the rhythm of the road again: long days of riding with Sandor in the front, Sansa a small distance after him and Jaime leading the packhorse at the back. The arrangement allowed them the best chance to detect other travellers, but also ensconced each of them in their own little world. They stopped only for necessary breaks, and even their nights’ rests were short as for once they could journey late into the night on a well-kept road.  Despite their direction being north, the weather was milder than it had been in the mountains of the Vale. The ground was rarely covered with snow and Sansa fervently hoped that the threat of winter had passed.

The first two nights on their journey from Greywater Watch had been lonely for her, the company and propriety forcing her to sleep alone. She knew that to be only a taste of what was to come; in Winterfell the intimacy of the road would have to be put aside for sure. For that reason when they finally shared their bedrolls again, Sansa tried to snuggle next to Sandor to relish the closeness of his body. Sandor allowed her that, but she could sense his reserve in the way he made sure there were always furs or blankets between them. She saw Jaime reclining on Sandor’s other side and bestowed him a smile. Jaime reciprocated it and lifted his brow as if to indicate he knew what she was thinking, and agreed.

Most nights, however, they were too tired for anything but a deep slumber.

As they journeyed, it was as if a veil that had hung before Sansa’s eyes had been lifted. The intimate moments she had shared with Jaime had awakened her senses, and she became attuned to his presence as she hadn’t before. She noted the feline way he moved, smoothly and gracefully as befitting a lion. She observed the straw-coloured stubble on his chin as it started to grow again after being cleanly shaven, and the way the corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled. And he smiled often - an open smile that was vastly different from his previous sardonic smirk. Sansa liked the new smile better, especially as she saw it directed equally at her and Sandor.

Sansa scrutinised the two of them together, trying to figure out what stood between them.  All she could see was camaraderie and trust, and the familiarity in the way they worked together almost without words. What Jaime started, Sandor finished, or the other way around - whether it was packing their camp, attending to horses or hunting game whenever they had a chance.

Every time she saw Sandor, she experienced a renewed jolt of joy about the way he had returned to them. After experiencing the loss of him, the thought of being deprived of either of her companions filled her heart with dread. She wished she could keep her pack together, always.

Yet there was something even bigger demanding her attention, something which made her push all other thoughts aside as her mind focussed on what lay ahead. She would soon be back at Winterfell, and the closer she got, the more anguished she grew. Would it be the home she had missed so much, or would it be only an empty shell, a pile of crumbling stones

Sansa also contemplated what she should do when they finally reached it. She had said she wouldn’t yield to Stannis, but how to make sure Stannis would listen to her? She simply couldn’t be pushed aside to join the other ladies and be forgotten, if she wanted to see her vision of the North prevail. So she spent many hours in deep thought, deliberating what she would do, trying to recall Petyr’s lessons in the game of thrones.

Jaime

“What do you reckon will happen once we get to Winterfell?” Jaime asked Sandor one evening as they were tending the horses. Sandor was checking their hooves for pebbles and loose shoes and Jaime was measuring grain for their feed.

In the morning when Jaime had woken after sharing the bed with Sandor, he had already left. They had not discussed that night since, and Jaime didn’t want to disturb the fragile state of affairs, being content to let things be

Sandor dropped Honor’s leg to the ground and straightened up, wiping his dirty hands on his breeches.

“Well, Stannis is a man of honour and likely to acknowledge Sansa’s claim. She is the last Stark, after all. Whether he will do anything else to her is anybody’s guess. Depends how stubborn the old man is, I suppose. Can’t see him bending the knee in a hurry though, especially after claiming to be the King.”

“He was always irritatingly obstinate and Robert had continuous trouble from him. A good man, yes, and an honourable one – but sometimes they are the worst kind,” Jaime grinned. “Nonetheless, I agree with you. Sansa will be well received but I am not so sure about us. What do you think you will do there?”

“That’s up to Lady Stark,” Sandor scoffed. “I am not stupid enough to believe I will be welcomed there, but if she has some use for me, I’ll do as she bids.” He moved to Stranger, leaning on him to make him shift his weight and lift his front leg.

“I had enough of a reputation before, but after the bloody Blackwater and that son of a bitch who stole my helmet and used it at Saltpans, I will have a hard slog to fit in anywhere.”

Jaime was caught by surprise by the barely hidden irritation in Sandor’s voice. He wouldn’t have guessed he could be so irked to be known as a craven or a mindless butcher. The old Sandor wouldn’t have cared, he knew. What had changed?

“Lord Eddard ran a just household. Even I could see that during my visit to Winterfell. Of course most of his retainers are now dead or scattered to the four winds, but it tells us something about the place. If Sansa can revive those beliefs, you will be treated fairly. Maybe we could help her.” Jaime hoped it would be true for his own sake as well; he knew he wouldn’t be met with open arms either.

Sandor snorted, “Help her! What would we know about just households? Contempt, bullying and terror were the ways of Casterly Rock. How else would a monster like Gregor have thrived there? Lord Tywin knew how to forge a fighting force, men who were ready to descend on the weak without scruples. After being raised there, who are we to advise anyone on fairness?”

Jaime winced, knowing Sandor’s statement to be accurate. He knew some lords kept their hounds hungry and beat them, thinking that would make them better hunting dogs. Other lords treated their animals fairly and rewarded them, believing their actions to lead to the same outcome. Lord Tywin had certainly believed in the former, as much as Jaime hated to admit it.

The next day as he was making his way along the quiet Kingsroad, Jaime wondered how he would fit in. Would the people of the North accept him, or would they ever only see the Kingslayer? Would he even have a chance to try, or would he be expected to leave as soon as he had secured Sansa safely in her home?

Just the thought of it made his heart heavy and killed the joy of being so close to their goal

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Jaime

Jaime was returning from the smithy when he heard the familiar sound of horses and men and turned to see a group on horseback approaching in the distance. He recognised the formation of the crannogmen on their small mounts. Then he saw a figure he had thought he would never lay eyes on again; a large rider on a huge black horse. For a moment he stilled, blinked his eyes and forced himself to look again, carefully in case he was only getting his hopes up just to be unbearably crushed again.

The riders approached and the closer they got, the more his eyes drank in the sight of him. Jaime’s heart started to thump loudly and his hand, holding a piece of chain mail, started to shake. He was frozen on the spot and couldn’t move, all the while the riders got closer and closer and he finally recognised the rider beyond all doubt.

Sandor had noticed him and as the group entered the yard, stopped Stranger in front of Jaime. He threw his head back in a laugh that revealed his strong white teeth and highlighted the asymmetry of his features.

“Kingslayer! You thought you got rid of me, didn’t you!” He didn’t seem to notice Jaime’s stunned appearance as he slid off the horse and reached him in few long strides. Still dazed, Jaime didn’t have time to react before he was engulfed in Sandor’s arms. He closed his eyes and felt his embrace, his arms, his smell, his presence. Then he responded, whacking Sandor on the back, cursing and spluttering.

“Bloody Hound! So you did have to come back, you couldn’t leave us alone, could you?!” Both of them were now laughing, Sandor openly, Jaime slightly madly. They kept thumping each other’s shoulders and back, throwing fists and cursing, using a language which to the uninitiated could have sounded like the two of them were the greatest of enemies.

The crannogmen dismounted and their leader approached Howland Reed, who had appeared out of nowhere. “Lord Reed, we found the companion of Lady Stark on his way here. He assured us that there were no survivors among the soldiers who had followed them, so we turned back to escort him here. Just in case,” he glanced towards Sandor, looking nervous, “we sent two scouts to explore the scene and ensure that no further parties cross the bridge without our knowledge.”

Howland nodded and sent them to unpack. Then he turned towards Jaime and Sandor, who were still holding each other, grinning stupidly.

“Welcome to Greywater Watch, Sandor Clegane. It appears you have survived your ordeal well, but should you have a need for a maester just let me know and I will arrange one.”

Sandor turned to him and transformed into his stern self, saying gruffly: “Thank you but I am fine. Could use a meal and a bath though.”

Glancing at Jaime he continued, “The men told me Lady Stark arrived safely as well.” Jaime tried not to flinch. Of course he had known that Sandor’s first thoughts would be about Sansa. It didn’t matter though, he was happy to assure him of her safety. His head was still spinning and he felt as if he was floating through the air. Seldom had he experienced such a moment of pure unadulterated joy and he let it wash over him, enjoying the feeling.

“Yes, Lady Stark is here and will be happy to see you again, that’s for sure.” Before Jaime could continue, he heard a high-pitched yelp and saw a flash of red flying past him. Sansa ran towards Sandor and without caring about the people still lingering in the courtyard jumped into his arms, hugging him intensely, tears streaming down her face.

Sandor was taken aback and hardly kept his balance, so unexpected and forceful had been her approach. He held her in his arms so her feet didn’t touch the ground, patting her back gently and grinning awkwardly over her shoulder. Jaime stepped closer and reached for Sansa while murmuring, “Sansa, you can step down now, he will not go anywhere, he is safe now. Please Sansa, step down.” To Sandor he whispered, “Let her down, this is neither the time nor the place.”

Sandor placed Sansa on the ground and released her gently. He then knelt in front of her in a belated attempt to maintain some kind of dignity and growled, “Lady Sansa, the soldiers of the Vale who were after you are no more. I wish I could say I did it all by myself but I did have some help. I will gladly explain everything but for now I would be grateful for a meal and a bath.”

Sansa, who was still sniffling but also smiling through her tears likewise attempted a dignified stand and responded, “Rise, Sandor Clegane. I thank you kindly for the service you have done for me. I implore my gracious host to grant you the same courtesy he has extended to me and Ser Jaime and provide you with what you requested.”

At Howland’s nod Sandor was soon escorted away by the servants, but only after he had seen Stranger safely into the stables.

Jaime went to his chamber, sank down on the pallet and buried his face in his hand. There was a storm dwelling inside him and he didn’t know how to weather it.

Sansa

They met in the solar again, the three of them and Howland Reed. Sansa had insisted that the maester examine Sandor. She couldn’t bear the thought of him being hurt but in his gruff way refusing to acknowledge it. She could still hardly believe that he was here, that he was alive.

To Sansa’s relief the maester found nothing more serious than a few shallow cuts and bruises. Sandor was given clean clothes, although no tunics or breeches that would have fitted him had been found. The women of the household had hastily put together several different pieces of clothing to cover his modesty while his own clothes were being washed and mended.

While relishing the taste of sour ale, Sandor gave a detailed account of the events that had transpired since they had separated. His story was quickly told; while waiting by the bridge he had been accosted by a small band of desperate men of the woods. If they had thought him to be an easy target – one man against seven – he had soon convinced them otherwise. The men had all been damaged one way or another; wounded, old or just broken from the inside by the war, and had neither proper weapons nor a horse between them. Sandor had informed them about a group of ten well-equipped soldiers approaching and promised they could keep all the horses, weapons, clothes and coin they could find in exchange for assisting him to overcome them. After a quick conversation the outlaws agreed and even suggested a ruse to entrap them in the boggy terrain nearby.

Once the troops had crossed the bridge, Sandor had lured them to the place and he and the outlaws had descended on them ruthlessly. The fight had been quick and brutal. Sandor didn’t go into details, glancing at Sansa, but told them he had kept one soldier alive long enough to squeeze information out of him.

It turned out Littlefinger had not been aware of Sandor’s involvement when the group had left, and had sent six other search teams in all directions from the Vale in an attempt to find Sansa. He had not revealed her true identity but had played the part of a worried father, who was much too attached to his natural daughter to allow her abductors to get away with her.

While Sandor was talking Sansa couldn’t keep her eyes away from him. She studied his face, his eyes, his shoulders and the arms that were barely covered by the haphazardly sewn clothing, and the whole of him. The face which used to scare and repulse her had mysteriously transformed into a face that radiated trustworthiness, reliability and…something else. Every now and then Sandor returned her gaze and something flashed in his grey eyes.

Sansa realised her earlier behaviour had been unwise. She knew she had nothing to hide or be ashamed of, but she also knew the world would not understand the ties that bound them together. Just as they wouldn’t understand why she had stolen into Jaime’s bed the previous night.

She sighed. The well-behaved young lady following her lady mother and septa’s advice had metamorphosed into a woman who followed only her own counsel. The change had happened somewhere along the way, starting in King’s Landing and leading to the here and now. She may still have to follow the rules of propriety when it was necessary, but she would never again be made to believe in them.

After the news had been exchanged, food and drink consumed and the decision made about postponing their travel by one more day in order to supply Sandor adequately, it was time to retire. They exchanged cordial goodnight wishes in the solar and Sansa returned to her chamber. The servants had carried another pallet to Jaime’s room to accommodate Sandor, she noticed on her way.

Sansa undressed and climbed into her bed. Sleep didn’t come; the day had been too eventful and draining, lifting her from the deepest misery to the highest exhilaration. Her thoughts drifted again to the previous night and the comfort she had found with Jaime. Sandor’s return was now casting it in a different light and changing it. She had a sensation of having been on the brink of something and then being pulled back, feeling confused.

Thinking back to her earlier uncertainty about Jaime’s intentions, he perhaps only guarding his expressions better than Sandor, she realised something she had missed before. With a sudden clarity Sansa recognised that although Jaime had never directed The Look at her, he had fixed it at Sandor.

She gasped, comprehension hitting her. That very evening as she had rested her eyes on Sandor and secretly taken him in, she had caught Jaime doing exactly the same. She had not made the connection then, only thinking him to be glad of his return, but now she understood it had been more than that. Jaime’s gaze had been appreciative, keen and hungry. The Look, which she knew so well.

Sansa had to sit up and think it through carefully. It was not possible - surely she was just imagining things, being ignorant in the ways of the world? Yet the more she contemplated it, the more she remembered little incidents, sideways glances, the way they had both stared at Sandor when he had removed his tunic. Sansa knew Jaime had never loved another woman but Cersei. The only woman he had cared about had been a warrior; strong, muscular, broad-shouldered Brienne of Tarth.

Sansa frowned. What did it mean? And what did it matter? She herself had slowly learned how strong bonds could form between the unlikeliest people. But Jaime and Sandor… She tried to remember if she had ever seen Sandor returning Jaime’s gaze, but couldn’t.

She tossed and turned, admitting to herself how little she knew about the human condition and relationships. She had been too highborn and protected to learn about the realities of life, her only education on the topic having been the nights in Randa’s company. She had heard things that had made her blush and squirm in a delightful half-scandalized, half-thrilled sort of way. She knew there were men who cared about other men that way but Randa had passed them over with a shrug of her round shoulders as they had held no interest for her.

Sansa forced those thoughts out of her head and tried to sleep, forcing her eyes to close. Eventually she had enough and stood up. Jaime had told her not to come into his bed again, but Sandor hadn’t said anything to that effect.

Just as before, it was easy for Sansa to slip into the other room, the light of a candle showing the way. She saw the new pallet and the sleeping form in it. She threw an anxious glance towards Jaime’s bed, but the knowledge of his presence was not enough to stop her. She lifted the blankets and slid under them, positioning herself carefully next to Sandor. He was resting on his back with his arms raised above his head, one hand tucked under his neck, the other resting on the pillow. Sansa pressed cautiously against his side and placed her head in the crook of his arm.

For a moment nothing happened. Then Sandor’s breathing, which had been deep and steady, became irregular and he started to lift his head.

“Shhhh…” Sansa put her finger on his lips to press his head gently down. Sandor resisted, his eyes flickering open. For a moment he didn’t seem to realise where he was, then he turned and Sansa saw his eyes widening at the sight of her.

“What…” he started to say, but again Sansa shushed him with her finger, pointing at Jaime. Sandor glanced at him, seemed to realise her meaning and stopped talking. He blinked his eyes a few times as if to clear his head and shifted, lifting himself into a half-seated position.

“Sandor, please let me stay here. I thought… we thought you were dead. It was horrible.” Sansa’s voice was low but urgent. She was beyond caring whether she sounded pleading

Sandor studied her. He was now fully awake and the intensity of his eyes was almost scary. It was The Look, Sansa realised, but instead of being repulsed or offended, she felt it transforming her. Rather than turning away from it she turned towards it, she welcomed The Look. The thought made her dizzy.

“What are you doing, little bird? You can’t be here. They will arrest me for sure, and you will be shamed. Nobody will take up your cause if you are seen in my bed!” Sandor grunted under his breath. His gaze had changed and he appeared angry.

“They will not see me here! I will not stay long. I only needed to come to make sure that you are still here, that you are still alive.” Sansa had crawled up to sit next to him, leaning against his side. Sandor had also taken advantage of sleeping in a warm room and wore only ill-fitting smallclothes. His chest was bare and covered with dense dark hair just as she remembered.

“I am alive, rest assured of that. I am also back in your service, my lady.” Sandor uttered the last words with clearly intended emphasis.

“Is that all I am to you… your lady?” Sansa was not stupid; she knew Sandor could be nothing more than her sworn shield. So why was she asking him questions she knew had no answers. She realised then that staying any longer would only be cruel to them both

Sandor was still looking at her, his body stiff and unyielding. Then they heard light rustling in Jaime’s direction as he turned in his pallet, having just woken up.

“Sansa?” Jaime’s voice broke the darkness. Before he continued Sansa whispered, “I am leaving, Jaime. I only came to ensure he is well.” She brushed her hand lightly across Sandor’s cheek before slipping away, out of his bed, back to her own chamber, leaving her candle behind.

Sansa threw herself into her bed and burrowed deep inside the blankets. Her heart was racing as she thought about her two companions, so different yet so similar, lying so very close. The Lion and the Hound, both strong and dangerous, yet so loyal.  The thought of their continuing journey made her stomach knot, but with excitement or nervousness, she couldn’t decide.

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Jaime

Eventually Jaime stirred in his bath, washed and returned to his allotted chamber. The room was small but the pallet was dry, soft and extremely tempting. After changing into clean smallclothes the servants had left in his room – the first time for a long while he wouldn’t sleep fully clothed – he sank onto his bed and fell into a deep sleep.

He woke up in the middle of the night when a lithe body sneaked in next to him. Jaime didn’t need to guess who it was, but he narrowed his eyes and the candlelight revealed a tumble of red hair on his pillow. “Sansa, what are you doing here?” he hissed. It wouldn’t be good for either of them to be found together.

“Please let me stay here. I feel so lonely by myself,” Sansa murmured. She had squeezed under the blankets and her body was pressing slightly against Jaime. He noticed she had also bathed and smelled nice. He breathed in her scent and allowed her company to console him - he had been selfishly worried about how she would regard him now that Sandor was gone. Jaime was not blind and had observed them on their journey, and had become well aware of the undercurrents of their complex history and relationship.

Jaime gingerly placed his arm around Sansa’s shoulders, ready to withdraw if she flinched, if the closeness was too much. She didn’t, and Jaime could feel the side of her breast brushing against his bare chest and noticed she was wearing only a light nightshift. The memory of the last time he had shared a bed with a woman so dressed came to him unbidden, and he found his current situation both discomforting and thrilling.

He pushed any thoughts on Sansa’s state of undress aside and patted her shoulder gently. He knew Sandor’s absence weighed heavily on both their minds and most of all they needed to comfort each other. With his touch he wanted to convey the strength he knew he didn’t possess, but hoped it would be enough to soothe her, even if just for a while.

“I miss him,” whispered Sansa after a while.

“I know. And so do I.”

“He was the bravest man I have known, and better than any knight,” Sansa continued. Jaime could hear from her voice that she was crying. He wished he could do the same, crystallise his pain into clear droplets and allow them to flow freely, taking some of his hurt away. He had tried, but crying was something he had never had reason to do before and it came to him with difficulty. It was in his nature to scoff at pain, to deny it and to laugh at it rather than to admit it.

“Don’t say ‘was’. We don’t know for sure yet, and he may have survived,” Jaime tried to assure her even though his own heart was heavy.

“If he has, and he comes back to us… what then?” Sansa breathed through her tears. “Can we continue as before, all three of us?

Jaime sighed. Her trust touched him. He could sense her despair and her need to cling to something, to someone. If he could be the one, he would do all in his power to ease her sorrow. “What are you talking about, little bird? Do you mind if I call you ‘little bird’?”

Sansa leaned closer to him and raised her hand to touch him softly on the chest, tracing an old scar which travelled from his shoulder to his navel. “I don’t mind. It is a name he gave me in King’s Landing. I know initially he meant it as a slight, telling me I was like those pretty little talking birds from the Summer Isles, repeating all the pretty little words my septas taught me.”

“You are much more than that. You are a wise young woman, a true princess,” Jaime whispered into Sansa’s ear. “I knew a girl like you once; she was brave, clever and strong, but then the men of this world caged her and killed her dreams.”

“You are talking about Cersei again, aren’t you? I met her after she had already become a bitter woman.” Sansa sounded genuinely sorry.

“Yes, Cersei. She was not always the woman she is now. I hope you never have to travel the same path, and if I can help you, I will. I couldn’t do anything for her, but I promise I will not fail you.” Jaime swore to himself that this would be one oath he would keep. He gave no more assurances, knowing how words were wind, but the vow he had made sank deep into his soul.

“I will not. No man will cage me or force me to do things I don’t want to do. I may need some aid though, and with Sandor gone, I only have you.” Sansa was still fingering the hair on Jaime’s chest and he felt a jolt of arousal despite his best intentions of staying in control. He tried to hide his hardening manhood by arranging the blankets on his lap.

It was clear Sansa hadn’t noticed anything as she murmured into his ear. “I know that you are not interested in me as a woman. I may not be very experienced but I have seen men looking at me, and how I affect them. Tyrion, and of course Petyr… and Sandor.” She buried her face in Jaime’s neck, betraying the heat in her cheeks. “I know he often reacted to me when we were sleeping next to each other. He tried to hide it but not always successfully. I also noticed it sometimes when we rode together, although he always pushed me away.”

“I hope you didn’t hold it against him. You are a beautiful woman and that reaction is only natural. Why are you bringing this up now?” Jaime moved slightly away from her, trying to create some distance between their bodies.  He appreciated the irony of the contradiction between her words and his reaction.

“I don’t know. I just know that many men respond to me like that. I saw that in some of the Kingsguard members when they beat me, and in soldiers in the Vale – but in you, never. I guess I only wonder why that is so.”

Jaime felt speechless. Seldom ladies questioned men for their lack of desire, and the absurdity of it would have made him laugh had circumstances been different. It was true he had not lusted after her as other men in his position might have, but now as she was resting in his arms he felt arousal, strong and hard. Instead of longing for a hard muscular body as he had so many nights before, he now felt her roundness and softness equally inviting.

“You are a very alluring young lady and the last thing you need is yet another man leering at you. You must know I would never dishonour you.” Jaime removed her hand from his chest in order to restore some decorum between them.

“Sandor would never have dishonoured me either, I know.” Sansa was weeping again. Jaime held her, just stroking her arm gently and allowing her to cry at will. With every sob he could feel some of his own grief diminish. Somehow a shared sorrow lessened the ache. Eventually Sansa stopped and gathered herself, sniffling softly

“You had better go to your room, Sansa. We are back in the real world and it is not proper for you to be in my bed. People talk and any hint of impropriety will damage your reputation.” Jaime lifted his blankets and pushed her away, patting her on the back and feeling the curve of her hips as he did so.

Part of him wanted to call her back and spend the night with her in his arms. What would be the harm in it? They had shared so many nights together already. Yet another part - the side he had not recognised in himself before, the part that considered the good of others and strived towards honour – knew that wouldn’t have been right. Yet another part – the basest animal in the deepest recesses of his mind –wanted to keep her and take his comfort from her supple body, no matter the consequences

The candle Sansa had brought flickered behind her on a small table, and as she leaned over, Jaime could see the silhouette of her body within the loose nightshift. He swore silently as she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, but kept his composure.

“I know, but I will miss our shared nights just the same. Sleep well, my lion, and we will see in the morning.” Just like that, as quickly as she came, she was gone.

Jaime wasn’t sure whether to curse or welcome her visit. He had not really stopped to consider it before, but his feelings towards Sansa so far had been nothing compared to what he felt at that moment. For want of a better word, he thought his previous feelings could have been described as…almost brotherly.

It didn’t take long before he realised his blunder and he groaned inwardly. Bloody hells!

Once again he found himself tossing and turning in his bed for a long time before eventually falling asleep.

Sansa

Sansa woke up the next morning wondering for a while where she was. She instinctively turned on her side but not sensing the familiar strong figure, she suddenly remembered. And wished she hadn’t.

She curled deeper into the mattress and hoped she could sleep forever, never getting up. Maybe she could remain here, maybe Howland Reed would agree to that? She was so weary and sad and tired of running. Staying here she wouldn’t have to be a pawn in Petyr’s plans anymore, nor the player in the game of her own choosing. She could just be just Sansa.

The thought appealed to her, but after a while she had to acknowledge that as tempting it sounded, it was not her path. She was a wolf and she couldn’t give up so easily. The winter is coming. Family, duty, honour. She had a duty to both of her parents, and that duty could not be fulfilled by hiding in Greywater Watch. The Dragons had arrived and somebody had to look after the North. If it had to be her, then so be it.

Sansa laid there for a while longer and thought of Jaime. Handsome, witty, charming Jaime. The wiser, more mature, loyal Jaime. She had been drawn to his bed the previous night to find solace and understanding of her grief, but to her surprise had found something more.

Sansa had always thought him handsome, but his was a cool, arrogant charm that had not appealed to her. Only recently she had seen the person beneath the exterior and had learned to care about him as a human. Yet last night she had for the first time become aware of the man. Jaime was not as strongly built as Sandor, but he had a fine physique and his well-built chest was covered with golden hair that had felt so soft when she had combed her fingers through it. She had felt the heat of his skin and the way his pulse had quickened against her hand. Yes, he was made of flesh and blood just like any other man.

Sansa had sometimes wondered why Jaime had never looked at her with the expression Sandor had in his unguarded moments, a shadow of the look she had learned to recognise so well in her years in the court and in the Vale.  The look was directed at her by men who saw her only as a desirable woman. It usually travelled from her face to her chest, then to her hips, then back to her eyes to challenge her wordlessly, daring her to respond to their needs, accompanied by a lick on their lips. She had learned to hate it; the needy look of Tyrion, the demanding stare of Petyr and the hungry expressions of so many other men. Jaime had made her feel safe, allowing her to slide under his blankets without the hesitation she might have felt with Sandor in a real bed, dressed only in her nightshift - but he also puzzled her.

Jaime’s response to her question had been honourable, but the way he had moved away from her and removed her hand from his chest had spoken otherwise. He had tensed just as Sandor had when she had pressed too close, and that spoke volumes to her. Maybe I was wrong about him after all; maybe he can just guard his expressions better than Sandor? Maybe going to him wasn’t so safe after all?

Yet she had felt at ease, and the physical closeness to a man had felt…almost natural. Petyr’s actions would always linger at the back of her mind, she knew, but hopefully in time she could dim those dark encounters with brighter ones. With memories filled with trust and respect and even love. She wasn’t ready to give up the last remains of her girlish dreams, no matter how many of them had been already crushed.

Sansa wondered if she would be able to love Jaime or maybe even marry him. It might be better than marrying a stranger, some powerful old lord or rash young lordling. She was realistic enough to know that eventually she had to marry, no matter how much she wished to rule on her own. Winterfell needed an heir and she could not allow 8,000 years of lineage to be broken only because she didn’t like the idea of matrimony

Then she thought of Sandor again. The door she had sensed narrowly opening into the soul of the man was now forever closed – or was it? She was still holding on to a slight glimmer of hope, refusing to let it go until faced with indisputable evidence. Tears came back to her but instead of heavy sobs like yesterday, this time they fell silently, forming rivulets down her cheeks, pooling to the folds of her ears and hair on their way to the pillow. Despite her earlier acceptance of her duty, she now felt it as a heavy weight pressing her down, deeper and deeper.

----------

Later that day she had collected her thoughts and fallen back into her role as the efficient Lady Stark. She started to organise their ongoing journey with Jaime, aided by Lord Reed and his servants. They agreed to continue their trip the next day, by which time they expected the party sent to the bridge to be back with their news and hopefully their companion’s body.

They were given two horses, one for Sansa to ride and another to carry supplies to see them through the rest of the journey; bedrolls, blankets, cooking utensils and hunting gear. Kitchen maids collected food supplies to see them through as far as possible. They were also given new clothes, including a courtly dress for Sansa for the time when they reached Winterfell and she had to impress Stannis Baratheon. Luckily she still had her jewellery to complete the picture. As a stroke of quick thinking Sansa asked for, and to her relief was given, after some searching, a Stark banner bearing a direwolf. She rolled it up and packed it in her saddlebag to be used later. Jaime went to visit the smithy to make sure his weapons and their horses’ shoes were properly checked and looked after.

By early evening Sansa felt tired again and decided to go back to her chamber for a rest when she heard the commotion from the yard; shouts, horses, men. She got to her feet to see what was happening.

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Sansa

Sansa felt as if everything moved in slow motion. After she had realised what Sandor intended to do, she sensed part of her going numb. That last night she had pressed her face against Sandor’s neck as they laid down, whispering into his ear. She had asked him one more time if there was any other solution, thanked him one more time for coming to her aid, apologised one more time for not going with him when he had asked on the night of the Blackwater. All that Sandor had accepted but then hushed her, telling her everything was as it should be, and he was happy he had seen her again and could correct the wrongs he had done to her.

Sansa knew there were still unresolved issues between them, but now saw them slipping away, never to be addressed. She couldn’t describe what she truly felt for him. Trust and respect, just as for Jaime – but with Sandor it was more complicated. He was a crude, hard man, not easy to understand. The rational part of Sansa’s mind had been grateful for his promise to stay at her side and support her claim, but had also known that later he might have been a liability. The Northerners didn’t take kindly to Southrons and once her position was secure, she would do well to surround herself with the traditional House Stark bannermen.

But the other part of her mind wondered why she felt so safe and secure only when he was holding her, however unintentional it was? Why did she feel his closeness much more keenly than Jaime’s? Why was it that wherever he was, she was always aware of it without even looking, and when he was away from her sight life seemed just a little bit duller until the moment he was back? Why was it that after seeing him without his tunic, he had been in her head these many nights in strange, veiled dreams, which had gradually taken over from the night terrors she had had since Petyr had claimed her innocence? She remembered thinking of Sandor often in the Vale, but then she had been looking back on the part of her life she thought she had left behind, colouring the past events with a sense of understanding only obtained with hindsight. Soon he would be in her past again, never to return. The thought hurt.

Sansa tried to rationalise her thoughts as being just a result of a natural bond forming between those who experienced hard times together. War often forged such links between the unlikeliest of people, high lords and lowly retainers alike. She knew the connections between her father and his closest companions from Robert’s Rebellion had endured through the times of peace. She tried to rationalise that Sandor was her sworn shield and had been her saviour more than once, and she was grateful for him and hence sad to lose him. Yes, that was all it was.

Sansa decided not to make matters worse for Sandor by crying at their parting. After giving him her favour – the only thing she could think of – she kissed him quickly and moved away, already feeling that he was not fully present. After their last quick embrace by the bridge, she climbed in front of Jaime and when they rode on she didn’t look back, her eyes brimming with tears. She sensed Jaime turning in the saddle but she couldn’t do so, afraid if she did, she would break down without even knowing why.

Jaime

They reached the first swamplands just after sunset. Jaime had to slow Honor down in order to avoid being swallowed by the infamous quicksands, and at times, dismount to lead him on foot. Everything around them was bleak and gloomy, the trees with their gnarled limbs covered by dark threads of fungus swaying in the wind. Jaime made sure they made enough noise for anyone in the vicinity to know of their presence.

Sansa had been crying silently most of the way. She had not complained nor slowed their progress, but her silent tears pressed heavily on Jaime’s already dark mood. He prayed silently for the Warrior to ensure that the fight at the bridge would go well for Sandor. He was a formidable warrior but even he could not defeat a group of ten. Jaime prayed for a clean, honourable kill and smiled sadly to himself. The Kingslayer praying for the Hound.

They camped for the night in a small clearing, where Jaime lit a fire to keep them warm and to draw attention. He hoped those seeing it would indeed be the crannogmen and not any of the homeless, masterless men hiding in the woods. They ate the last remains of their supplies in silence, both staring at the flames, clearly trying not to think about their missing companion. Is he still alive? Is he still holding the bridge?

Jaime slept restlessly against Sansa, who tossed and turned and settled down only as the early signs of dawn filtered through the leaves.

They woke to the morning sun, packed up their small camp and continued their journey. They were following a clearly marked, stable path and made good progress, going deeper and deeper into the woods. As the path narrowed and their footing became more unsteady, they decided to stop and establish their night camp despite it still being only late afternoon

When Jaime and Sansa were collecting firewood from the forest floor, Jaime suddenly had a feeling someone was watching them. He lifted his head, looked around and saw a young boy sitting on his haunches staring at them. He had dark brown eyes and short shaggy brown hair. He was dressed simply in mostly green and brown garb and carried a net on his waist and a spear in his hand.

“Who are you?” Jaime muttered, dropping the dry branches in his lap and raising his arms to indicate he carried no weapon.

“I am Jonne Peat. Who are you, and the woman?” He pointed at Sansa who had turned and stared at the boy.

“We are innocent travellers, on our way to the North. Are you alone or do you have company with you?” Jaime wanted to talk to someone with a bit more understanding of the current political situation before revealing their true identities. The intensity of the boy’s stare made the hair on his neck rise.

“My father is coming right after me with some of our kin. He is the head of House Peat, who are bannermen of House Reed.” Just as the boy stopped talking they heard more voices as the group of men reached them. Their leader – clearly the boy’s father from his looks – was a short wiry man who quickly took stock of the situation. Concluding that one man and a woman didn’t present a threat, he addressed them as his men settled down.

“Who are you? We don’t see travellers from the South often in these woods. And what is your business?” His tone was not unfriendly, just cautious.

“You may have heard of me. I am Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer.” Jaime raised his stump for all to see. He had learned a long time ago it was better to address people head-on, put them off their balance.

“Who I am doesn’t matter, but who is with me, does. This lady here,” he pointed to Sansa, who had dropped the kindling she had gathered and straightened to her full height, attempting to appear as dignified as possible in her current situation, “is Lady Sansa Stark, of House Stark, the Kings of the North and the liege lords of the House Reed.”

The men looked at them with astonishment. The leader was as surprised as the others but hid it better.

“If what you say is true, we welcome Lady Stark to our lands.” He bowed to Sansa and after a moment his men followed. Even the boy Jonne bent himself in a poor imitation of a courtly bow.

Sansa nodded her head in recognition of their gesture. “I thank you, my lord…?”

“Jowley Peat, my lady,” the man hastened to add.

“I thank you and your men, Jowley Peat. I have come a long way in my attempt to reach Winterfell, assisted by my trusted companion, Ser Jaime Lannister. However, before that I need to reach Greywater Watch and speak with one of my late father Lord Eddark Stark’s dearest friend, Lord Howland Reed. Can I rely on your assistance in this?”

Jaime was impressed by her composure, after having just gathered herself together. This young woman kept on surprising him. Naturally her request was granted immediately and soon they were on the move again towards Greywater Watch.

----------

Lord Howland Reed greeted them warmly in his stronghold, a strange contraption consisting of several houses built on floating islands. Jaime had never seen anything like that and was glad they didn’t have to come here on their own. How to find a place that was constantly moving?

They were soon seated comfortably in his solar, accompanied by some of Lord Reed’s closest men. Jaime saw them looking at him at askance and although he was used to people’s distrust, it still irritated him. I have just returned your liege lord’s heir to you and still you won’t look me in the eye. He nursed a flagon of ale while Sansa described to Howland their journey from the Vale, not forgetting to mention the roles Brienne and Sandor had played. When talking about Sandor, her voice wavered. Jaime felt the pain of their loss anew as a physical agony, and his glance at Sansa told him she felt the same.

Sansa asked in a quiet voice if Howland could send men to the bridge to detain possible survivors and collect Sandor’s body, if it was found. Jaime knew Sandor was not religious and would not care if his body was tossed to the dogs. He probably would have thought it quite appropriate. Nevertheless, both he and Sansa wanted to see Sandor be honoured properly, his bones laid to rest as was fitting.

While they talked, a substantial meal was placed in front of them containing meat, bread and greens which looked as if they had been raised straight from the depths of the swamp, but tasted surprisingly good. After the meal Lord Reed sent his men away. The next discussion was clearly going to take place just between the three of them.

Sansa and Jaime told their host more details of what was happening in the Vale, Sansa sharing what she knew about Littlefinger’s plans. Howland told them the news from the North and how the Bolton-held Winterfell had finally surrendered to Stannis Baratheon’s army. Both Roose Bolton and his bastard had been caught, the latter being executed on the spot by Asha Greyjoy. Despite this feat most northern lords were still wary of Stannis, staying in their keeps instead of rallying to his cause. It was as if they were waiting for something.

The second conquest of Westeros had been completed. Rhaegar Targaryen’s son Aegon and sister Daenerys had marched to King’s Landing with their troops and dragons to put an end to the War of Five Kings. The Lannisters and Tyrells had quarrelled with each other, not offering any real resistance – just as Sansa had predicted. Tommen, Margaery and Cersei were kept under strict guard in the Red Keep while Myrcella stayed in Dorne under Prince Doran’s care. Most southron lords had bent the knee to the Targaryens once again, one after the other.

The biggest surprise to them was the identity of the man who rode with Daenarys as her trusted advisor: Tyrion Lannister of Casterly Rock, also called the Imp. Jaime laughed out loud when he heard that. Always a survivor, little brother! Sansa turned pale but otherwise didn’t show any emotion.

After the exchange of the most urgent news, further discussions were left for the following day. Jaime and Sansa were escorted to their separate lodgings in a guesthouse on another floating island. The nights of sharing their bed were over. It would simply not be proper.

Jaime found a bathhouse and had a luxurious wash – his first for as long as he cared to remember. The hasty plunges into cold streams had been nothing like this long soaking in a big tub filled with hot water that had been infused with fragrant dried herbs. Jaime laid back, closed his eyes and tried to empty his mind. He didn’t want to think of anything; not of Sandor, not of Sansa, not of what they still had to do. All he wanted was to slide into oblivion.

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Sansa

The morning was like any other, except all of them feeling worse for wear from the wine they had consumed. Sansa was quiet and pale, feeling the constant throbbing in her head, but pressed on determinedly. Jaime appeared thoughtful and subdued, Sandor his usual self: brooding, focussed, serious.

They made good progress and finally entered the lands between the Vale and the Neck. The mountainous ranges had given way to flatter plains a while back, but undulating hills still forced them to ride up and down, up and down. The forests opened up occasionally to spacious clearings covered with craggy moisture-loving plants, heralding the change in landscape from fertile forests to swamps and bogs.

Just past midday on the ridge of yet another hill, Sandor raised his hand and turned Stranger around. Jaime and Sansa stopped and looked in the direction he was pointing. Far below them, in one of the clearings, they could see men on horseback.

It was hard to see the details, but the group consisted of least ten men carrying white and blue banner; the colours of House Arryn.

“It is him, it is Petyr!” Sansa exhaled.

“Not him, of that I am ready to wager my sword, but men from the Vale nonetheless,” Jaime retorted. “I know the kind of man Littlefinger is. He never does his dirty work himself.”

“They must not have noticed us yet, or they would be riding harder. Buggering hells, how did they find us?” Sandor huffed.

“They may have followed the most logical route to the North. Most likely Littlefinger has sent several parties to different directions. It’s possible the visit to the inn led them to our trail. Not many travellers passing by the place these days with the war and everything.” Jaime looked contrite and Sansa regretted the need that had led them there.

“It matters not now. What does matter is how to get rid of them.” Sandor turned to face Jaime and Sansa. “We have to decide what route to take, which is the quickest way to the Neck.”

Sansa thought hard. They were not too far from Greywater Watch, which was famous for its bogs and quicksands that would swallow any traveller not familiar with the way. They only needed to reach it and find the crannogmen, but they were still at least one or two days ride away, and along the way was at least one small tributary to the Green Fork they had to cross.

Jaime and Sandor discussed the situation in muted voices while Sansa stared back at their pursuers, who had by now disappeared into the cover of the forest. Sandor had studied the maps of the region before leaving the Quiet Isle and knew of a crossing and how to get there. He knew the bridge to be narrow, just enough for one horse at a time, but that was good enough for them. If they could get there and across, then make a dash towards Greywater Watch and reach the swamps, they should be able to shake the men following them. All they had to do then was stop, make enough noise for the crannogmen to learn of their presence and wait for them to arrive. Sansa had met Lord Howland Reed at Winterfell several times and was sure she could secure his co-operation and that of his men if she could only meet them.

Time was of the essence now, as they still had to reach the swamplands without getting caught. With grim determination they rode on, urging their horses to the limit of their endurance. Stranger carried Sandor and Sansa effortlessly, but Jaime’s Honor started to tire soon despite its lighter load, stumbling occasionally on the forest paths. Hour after hour they rode, stopping only briefly to allow their horses some respite. Every now and then at a good vantage point they glanced behind to see the other riders, and more often than not saw them riding on resolutely. The pale sun descended eventually and they had to slow down, their only consolation being that the group trailing them had to do the same if they didn’t want to risk their horses losing their footing in the dark.

Shortly after sundown they had to finally stop for the night. The horses’ muzzles had been frothing for a while and even Stranger had slipped a few times. The riders were likewise exhausted, not having had time to eat or rest since noticing the forces following them.

They lit no fires and ate the cold remains of the previous night’s feast. They were quiet, contemplating the consequences of being captured. For Sansa it would mean a quick return to the Gates of the Moon under strict guard. Petyr would likely expedite his plans for her to wed Harry the Heir. She knew Littlefinger would not give away something he wanted for himself easily; the planned marriage would only be a means to an end, to be put aside once that end had been reached. She predicted as much to her companions while staring miserably ahead and chewing her meal. She swore once again she would not go back meekly and accept Petyr’s decisions about her life. Neither Jaime nor Sandor were comfortable about what that might mean, and exchanged worried looks.

For Sandor the outcome would be quick and simple. If he was not killed on the spot during the inevitable fight, he would be killed immediately after. His body would be left to rot where he fell, the Vale men taking with them only the story of how they had slain the Butcher of Saltpans, the famous Hound. Jaime could expect either to be killed defending Sansa, or if for some inexplicable reason he survived, he would be dragged back to the Vale in chains to be used as a pawn to advance Littlefinger’s schemes.

“I have had enough of being chained like an animal. Never again,” he swore to his companions. Sansa suspected she and Jaime shared the same determination to fight to the end rather than yield.

None of them were ready to talk about what awaited them until, just as they were settling down on the hard ground, Sandor spoke.

“Once we reach the bridge, you two go ahead and I’ll stay and wait for the group. I should be able to detain them long enough for you to reach the swamplands. As long as I hold the bridge, they can’t cross.”

“You can’t do that, you couldn’t beat all of them!” Sansa exclaimed, rising from where she had already laid down. She instinctively knew why Sandor had made the suggestion and what it really meant, but she refused to accept it. Not now, when we are so close.

“She is right, there are at least ten men following us. No, we’d better just ride ahead as we planned. We might reach the swamplands in time.” She could see the reflect ion of her desperation in Jaime’s face despite the shadows engulfing them.

“Let’s not fool ourselves. They know where we are heading. Our ride today left enough traces for a blind septon to follow. They ride powerful coursers, that much I could see. It is only a matter of time before they catch us, when we have only two horses between the three of us. They may reach us before or after the bridge, but if I stop there, I can make sure they will not cross – at least not all of them.” Sandor’s voice was low and intense.

“Sansa is right, you can’t beat all of them, no matter how good a fighter you are. I will stay with you. Together we can stop them.” Jaime rose as well, seemingly determined to not allow Sandor’s risky plan to come to fruition.

“And leave Sansa to ride all by herself in the forest, where she can meet stragglers from the war, desperate men who have nothing to lose? Do you think they would stop to consider that she is the last remaining heir of Winterfell, or see only a young helpless girl alone in the woods? What do you think they would do to her then?” Sandor’s voice grated harshly, suppressed emotion thickening it. “No, better you go with her, if one of us stays behind it had better be the one who actually does have a chance.”

“No Sandor, I forbid it. I will not allow you to throw your life away for me!” Sansa leaned towards Sandor and grasped both of his hands with hers. A rush of emotions overwhelmed her, but since she had no words to describe what she was feeling, she just tugged at his hands. She was not stupid, she knew what Sandor was suggesting was a suicide mission.

“All is well, little bird, do not fret. This is why I promised to serve and protect you. This is what I am supposed to do for you. If giving up my life can save you, it will be a life well spent.” Sandor lifted her hands to his face, pressing a chaste kiss on her wrist. Jaime looked away as he saw it. For a moment Sansa and Sandor were engulfed in the world of their own, but then Sandor turned to Jaime.

“You too. I never would have imagined that one day the buggering Kingslayer would get under my skin, but you have proven yourself well. I would rather not leave you either, but I know you will look after her.”

“They may be green boys, unaccustomed to fighting. You and that monster of yours would have a chance then. After defeating them you could just charge after us to Greywater Watch. Once you reach the swamplands, just do as we plan to do and wait for the crannogmen to find you.” Even as Sansa heard Jaime, she knew how hollow it sounded. Littlefinger was not likely to send green boys after the Kingslayer and the Maid of Tarth, and who knew if he was already aware of the Hound’s presence? No, what Jaime said was meant as consolation for her.

“Aye, I do have a chance and if I do get rid of them, I will follow you.” Sansa knew Sandor was as aware as she and Jaime about the likelihood of that happening.

“It is settled then. Now let us all try to get some rest, we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow.” Sandor lowered himself and tugged the cloak over himself for cover.

That night Sansa hardly slept. She felt the closeness of Sandor more keenly than ever and the thought of losing it filled her with emptiness. She heard rustling as Jaime tossed and turned, equally unable to sleep. Eventually she reached for Sandor’s arm and lifted it to embrace her. Encouraged by Sandor’s earlier admission, she reached an arm across his waist to meet Jaime’s hand, and Sandor turned on his back so that both Jaime and Sansa were leaning against him. Sansa’s fingers clutched at Jaime’s, and eventually they all fell into an exhausted sleep.

Jaime

The dawn had emerged cool and grey as they stirred, still clutching at each other. They had no words to distract them from the inevitability of what lay ahead, although Jaime’s mind still raced. He was desperately trying to find alternative strategies that would prevent the certain death of the man he valued – perhaps too much

Jaime had become increasingly disturbed by thoughts and visions he could never have imagined having of another man. When he closed his eyes he saw the image of Sandor’s naked chest and strong arms when they had examined his injuries. He woke up hard, giving up all pretence of it being because of Sansa, only trying to make sure Sandor wouldn’t notice. Sandor surely had no such thoughts; no, his eyes were following his little bird, although he was careful to keep his distance. A dog can dream, and so can a lion.

Their discussion in the barn played out in his head. Sandor had denied ever having a shieldmate but had he actually said he had never considered? Or had he only assumed he wouldn’t have found one due to his appearance? Jaime’s inexperience was because of Cersei; she had always been enough for him so he had had no time for other women, or men. Now Cersei was gone and he had to look into himself to see what he wanted – but he simply didn’t know what it was. Frustrated, he shook his head as if trying to clear his mind. Doesn’t matter - too little, too late. Let go, just let go.

As they were mounting, Sansa approached Sandor. Her eyes were red but she was calm.

“I don’t have much of a favour to give you, but I have this.” She reached for the small dagger hidden in the folds of her dress and lifted it to her head. Before either man had time to react, she cut through a thick lock of her hair, almost nicking her scalp. She took the strand, long and shiny, and tied it around Sandor’s arm. She struggled to secure it as it slipped away from her grasp, glossy and smooth, but after several knots it finally settled in its place. The auburn and brown band shone bright against Sandor’s dark hauberk and he looked at it with an astonished expression. Sansa rose up on her toes and pressed a quick kiss on the good side of Sandor’s face, moving away before he had time to react.

Jaime went to Sandor next, handing him a beautifully decorated long dagger, his favourite that he had been carrying since leaving Casterly Rock for King’s Landing.

“Take this. It is longer than your dagger and you may need something special today.” For a moment they stood in awkward silence. Jaime coughed and started, “Sandor, I don’t know if I should say any of this to you, but…” Sandor leaned towards him and grabbed his arm just above the stump - not hard, but enough to stop him.

“I know. No need to say anything.” They looked at each other and Jaime felt his nervousness leaving him as he looked into those grey eyes: understanding, accepting, not flinching. After a brief squeeze Sandor removed his hand from Jaime’s arm, moved to his horse and rode away without another glance.

-----------

They reached the bridge, a nondescript and crude wooden structure, in early afternoon. They crossed it and stopped on the other side. The riverbanks were peaceful and quiet, lush grass reaching to the edge of the stream where small waterbirds were scurrying, disturbed by the presence of humans.

“What if we just hacked the bridge to pieces to prevent them from crossing?” Jaime said in a last ditch attempt to find a way out of the situation.

“It would take too long and they would only swim their horses across. They would be slowed down a bit, but they would still reach us. No, the only way is to stop them.” Sandor was calm, as if he had already left their company. Jaime hated it, but at the same time understood the necessity. Sandor couldn’t afford to lose focus now, could have no regrets. He had made his decision and now he had to follow it through.

For the last time their eyes met and they embraced. If Jaime held on just a little bit too long, Sandor didn’t push him away.

“Good luck, lion. Take good care of her.”

“I will. Good luck, Sandor.”

Sansa said her goodbyes next and Jaime went to check on Honor to give them some privacy. He could see them embracing, and Sansa held her head up high, not giving into tears that would have only made matters worse. Jaime couldn’t help admiring her. She would have been a better queen than Cersei. It hurt to admit, but he knew that to be true.

Sansa came back and Jaime helped her onto his horse. As they rode away Jaime glanced back, seeing the lonely figure of the tall warrior next to his big mount, looking in their direction. Jaime raised his hand in salute and the warrior returned it.

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Jaime

On the second day after their escape they came across a modest settlement situated at the crossroads of several tracks meandering between the villages of the Vale and the Neck. Due to its critical location it boasted a welcome sight to all of them - an inn. The building leaned every which way and was covered with the green patina of countless years, but it was a place for food and drink, and they had coin.

Although the thought of soft mattresses and a warm fire was tempting, staying the night would have been too risky. Fresh provisions for them and their horses were what they needed so they debated who should get them. All three were easily recognisable; a one-handed blond nobleman, a huge scarred warrior and a beautiful highborn maiden. In the end Sansa won the argument about who would be best suited to play the part of a commoner. After all, there could be other pretty servant girls on the road, but men like Jaime and Sandor were sure to stand out.

Jaime felt his worthlessness once again, not being able to perform even this most mundane of tasks, but shook it off, focussing instead on helping Sansa. Her clothes were modest enough, but a few extra rags from Jaime’s saddle bag completed her appearance. She smeared her face with dirt dug up from the ground and Jaime taught her a few sentences of crude common speech.

“Say ‘m’lord wants food and drink’. Call the serving boy ‘lad’, or if it’s a serving girl, ‘wench’. No harm to be a bit haughty – you serve a lord who is better than these people, and you feel superior by association. Be sure to count the coins you give them – servants are always extra cautious when handling money.”

“And don’t forget the wine,” grumbled Sandor. “Gods, what I wouldn’t give for a sour Dornish red, but any cat’s piss they have will do for now.”

“Wouldn’t we be better off buying more food with our coin?” Sansa eyed Sandor doubtfully.

“Food will not last, wine will.”

“Not with you, I suspect,” Jaime added, amused by the look on Sansa’s face as she tried to decide whether she should assert herself on the issue.

“You will get us wine and that’s all there is to it. You will notice yourself there’s nothing like a drink to loosen up after a hard ride, little bird.”

“I would never!”

“Aye you will, and see for yourself. Now, hurry up or does your master have to go and get his own supplies?” Sandor pushed Sansa towards the inn, not ungently

Jaime played the part of the lord, waiting outside on Honor with his hair and maimed hand hidden in the folds of his cloak. At a respectable distance from him waited Sandor on Stranger’s back, hood covering his features, his hand on his sword hilt. Although they had seen no signs of soldiers, he had insisted on being on his guard. When Sansa entered the inn, Jaime shouted impatiently with his most commanding voice: “Fetch the food and drink quickly, girl, I don’t have the whole day to wait!”

Soon enough Sansa returned with two hessian bags on her shoulders and two sacks of horse fodder being carried behind her by a scrawny-looking young boy.  After securing the bags to their saddles they rode away, Sansa in front of Jaime, and laughed like children after a good jest, mouths salivating in anticipation of a feast after monotonous meals of rabbits and forest birds. They scouted for a spot to enjoy the spoils of their mission until Sandor sighted a partially-collapsed barn a good distance away from the settlement. It was worn by many winters, but its slanted roof offered them the luxurious feeling of being inside four walls for the first time in weeks.

The feast they enjoyed that evening was superior to the best banquets in King’s Landing, Jaime thought: fresh bread, spicy sausages, pastries filled with bacon and peas, soft cheeses… and wine. Several skins of cheap strongwine, which tasted better in Jaime’s mouth than the finest Arbor red.

Jaime and Sandor shared a few skins between them and even Sansa drank some, urged on by Sandor. Unaccustomed to wine after being without for so long, they soon found themselves pleasantly drunk. That, combined with the abundance of fresh food and the roaring fire in the corner of the barn, rendered them in high spirits. Jaime gave a rendition of ribald tavern tunes which made Sansa blush, and in turn Sansa sang the song of Florian and Jonquil. Sandor cringed when Sansa started the story of famous lovers, but listened intently to all the verses all the way to the tragic end. After, he requested the Mother’s Hymn and Sansa sung it softly, her eyes on Sandor all through the song

Gentle Mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war, we pray.

Stay the swords and stay the arrows, let them know a better day.

Gentle Mother, strength of women, help our daughters through this fray.

Soothe the wrath and tame the fury, teach us all a kinder way.

Gentle Mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war, we pray.

Stay the swords and stay the arrows, let them know a better day.

Jaime felt a sting in his eyes; the familiar song seemed to have taken on a new meaning somewhere along the way from Casterly Rock to this ramshackle barn. War was familiar to him, but he had always been protected from its true consequences and the suffering it caused. Now he had seen the broken sons and daughters left behind when the glittering, heroic army had passed through. Glancing at the others to see if they had noticed his sentimentality, he saw to his surprise that Sandor’s eyes were gleaming. You too! Hells, are we becoming soft?

Sitting on the floor, wine coursing pleasantly through his veins, Jaime felt companionship as he had never felt before. He saw Sansa nibbling her pastry, fingers greasy from the filling oozing out. She laughed at something Sandor had said and threw her head back, hair glimmering in the firelight. She looked young and carefree and so much like the wide-eyed maiden Jaime had met at Winterfell all those years ago, it would have been easy to forget the dark path she had travelled

Sandor sat on the floor leaning against the wall, long legs bent at the knees and arms crossed over them, looking relaxed. Unlike in King’s Landing, wine had not made him sullen. He didn’t even seem to tense when Sansa placed her hand on his arm in an attempt to catch his attention. She explained something to Sandor - what, Jaime could not hear - but he saw her drawing figures in the air with her hand and Sandor leaning closer to hear her better.

Jaime had had good companions before; childhood friends, fellow adventurers in his youth and honest soldiers during his many campaigns. Yet never had he shared so much brutal honesty around the fire in the evenings as he had now – as they all had. Jaime had disclosed the shame he felt about his role in Tyrion’s brief first marriage. Sansa had squeezed his hand and cried, confessing how she wished she had known that before and how she regretted not being kinder to Tyrion.

Sansa had revealed being the one who had passed her father’s plans to Cersei, and that she blamed herself for his death and for the whole War of Five Kings. She had cried pitifully and both Jaime and Sandor had moved to comfort her, Sandor awkwardly patting her back and Jaime taking her hands in his. They had exchanged glances over her head and something unsaid had passed between them; recognition that their fate was now linked with this young girl, the bond also tying two of them together

Sandor had told them about his sister and her early death, and how he was convinced it had been Gregor’s doing just like the death of their father. Jaime hadn’t even known he had had a sister and felt sorry all over again for the lonely young boy arriving at Casterly Rock. Both he and Sansa had reached for him and although no words were said, he accepted their silent gestures. Moments like that had been fragile but perfect; three people from different backgrounds meeting across boundaries of class divide and enmity

Late in the evening Sansa retired, tipsy but happy, snuggling under her furs in the corner of the barn. Sandor had teased her about her inebriated state, but she had only laughed and stuck her tongue out at him. Jaime smiled, thinking about how she might regret accepting Sandor’s challenge come the morning, but was glad she had been carefree for at least one evening.

Jaime and Sandor stayed back, swapping a wineskin back and forth for one more drink, and another, and another. Jaime felt comfortable, his head spinning just enough to make him view the world and his position in it positively.

“So dog, looks like you and I have ended up shields for the little bird, the new head of the enemy of our houses. Not something we might have imagined back in King’s Landing, I’ll bet. How does that make you feel? Do you mind sharing?”

Sandor looked at him through heavy-lidded eyes. “Depends what you mean by sharing, lion.”

“I actually meant sharing the burden. But now that you brought it up, I have seen the way you look at her when you think she will not notice. Should I now be threatening you and questioning your intentions regarding her?”

“I might look at her but that means nothing. She is high above me and I know my place.” Sandor shifted, extending his long legs in front of him and crossing them. “Aye, she is a noble lady but she has grown to be a woman and this is not the way it should be, lying next to me at night and sitting in front of me during the day. Seven hells, what does she think? Just because I lived on the Quiet Isle doesn’t mean I became a brother of the Seven!”

Jaime realised then the reason for Sandor’s apparent withdrawal. Luckily he seemed to understand the impossibility of the situation.

Sandor played with the cord of the wine skin and lifted his head. “Why don’t you look at her? Hells, isn’t she the prettiest girl you have seen? Not only pretty, but… good. Or did Cersei and Robert have more in common than they thought, a brother leaning towards Dornish ways?”

Jaime winced, knowing he referred to Renly and his tastes. He thought long and hard as he wanted to give a truthful answer. He owed nothing less. Finally he muttered, “What if they did? All I know is that I have never wanted any woman other than Cersei.”

Sandor took a long swig from the wineskin, swilling the wine in his mouth for a while before swallowing it.

“Aye, what of it indeed. Nothing. Some of the best men I have known were like that.” Jaime looked up with surprise while Sandor continued.

“In war some of them were the best fighters I have ever seen. Mayhap because when other men fought for duty, for money or for their wives and babes at home, these men were fighting for their loved ones then and there. Nothing as fierce as a warrior protecting his lover.”

Sandor took another swig. “Perhaps that is the only chance for love for some men. At least for anything longer lasting than a quick tumble with a whore.”

“Have you…ever felt so?” Jaime held his breath, wondering if he had gone too far. The wine had lowered his guard and although he felt he was on a thin ice he could not help himself.

Sandor turned, his half-closed grey eyes locking into his, searchingly. “Have I taken a lover or a shieldmate myself? That’s what you are asking, isn’t it?” Jaime nodded.

“No, I haven’t. Do you think men would be any keener for this than women?” He pointed mockingly to the scarred side of his face.

Jaime had an irresistible desire to reach out and touch it.  He had sometimes wondered how it would feel. Would it be hard as wood, or tough as leather? Would Sandor feel it? Jaime had grown so used to Sandor’s appearance that he hardly noticed his scars anymore. Forcing himself to sit still, Jaime resisted the urge.

“What about you then? Is the warrior maid of Tarth a woman after all?”

“Oh yes, she is a woman – or at least I think so. Never examined her quite well enough. She has breasts, small as they might be, and her eyes and hands – no matter they are big and calloused – are a woman’s. I laid next to her many nights but was never stirred to examine her further.” Jaime realised he was blabbing. Did he want to avoid answering the question? He sighed.

“No, I have never had a shieldmate. There was a man once, in my youth…he held me and I didn’t mind. He did nothing more. He was just trying to save my life after we had fallen into the sea and needed to keep warm. Yet sometimes I have wondered…” Jaime reached for the wineskin Sandor held in his lap. His hand curled around it touching Sandor’s fingers, his arm leaning on Sandor’s thigh. It went rigid for a moment, the powerful muscles twitching, but then relaxed again.

For the longest moment they stayed so, hands touching, Jaime’s arm on Sandor’s thigh. Then Sandor stirred, breaking the spell.

“Time to go to sleep or we won’t get far tomorrow. I have to take a piss, you feed the fire.” Sandor stood up, swaying slightly on his feet before crouching through the narrow door to go outside.

Jaime was already under furs by the time Sandor returned and lowered himself between him and Sansa. He yawned loudly, turned towards the little bird and fell asleep, snoring lightly. Jaime stayed awake for a long time, staring unseeing at the roof of the barn. His head was full of emotions; apprehension, yearning, hope and despair all in a tangled mess. When he eventually fell asleep, his dreams were full of restless, rousing visions and sensations he was reluctant to recall when he woke up.

ladytp: (Anne of Cleves)

Sansa

Sansa noticed the strangers first.

They had just stopped for a midday break when six men silently emerged from the forest. Sandor noticed Sansa tensing and followed her gaze, stiffening in turn and drawing himself up to his full height

The men were dressed in a motley collection of clothing and armed with a haphazard assortment of swords, war hammers, spears and axes. They were mountain men for sure; big, strong and silent, and their faces bore a wide streak of ochre across the forehead. For a moment Sansa was puzzled: why were these men so far away from the Vale? By now they should already be close to the Neck, well away from the areas where the mountain clans resided.

The arrivals approached them from all sides, wary but not aggressive - yet. One of them, a short man carrying a highly-decorated, old-fashioned sword, spoke.

“Coming from the South, eh? Not often we see southrons in these woods.”

Jaime stepped forward to meet him, raising his arms slowly in a non-threatening gesture.

“We are from the Westerlands, on our way to the North and mean no harm to anyone. We’ll be out of your lands soon enough.”

Sansa admired the way he could spoke so casually and confidently, as if he still were the noble lord among his smallfolk.

The short man gaped at him, his grin revealing an uneven row of teeth. “That you will, no doubt. But you see, the thing is that Hagga here has taken a liking to that woman of yours. Reckons he has never seen anything so small and pretty.” He pointed to a massive man who was indeed staring at Sansa with his mouth agape. He was not as tall as Sandor, but much broader, and his body appeared ridiculously disproportioned. His bulging neck muscles made his head look as if it was planted directly onto his torso, and his chest and arms were much wider than his lower body. Sansa stared at his unkempt blond hair, his painted face and the thick, straw-coloured beard covering it and felt panic washing over her. No, never!

Sansa had only recently started to truly relax in her sleep, despite trusting her companions implicitly. At first, when they had laid down on their bedrolls for the night and she had felt Sandor’s arm brushing hers, or had woken up finding herself pressed close to him, she hadn’t been able to suppress an involuntary urge to pull away. She had tried to summon up what the comfort of being close had meant to her earlier; the nights huddled next to Arya, the rare occasions when Lord Eddard had been away and Sansa had been allowed to sleep next to her mother – even the nights she had shared with good-natured Miranda Royce in her big soft bed. That those few nights with Petyr had poisoned the pleasure exasperated her beyond measure.

Yet gradually her aversion had subsided as she had noticed that Sandor’s touches were not deliberate. If he had woken up and noticed his arm against her or her head leaning against his shoulder, he had withdrawn without saying a word. Over time Sansa’s tension had eased and she had started to feel safe within her own boundaries.

At that point, the prospect of the monstrous man taking her for his own was so terrifying that she felt her innards coiling to a tight knot. The fact that she now knew what it would entail made it even worse. Just the thought of him touching her, pressing his massive body against hers… Sansa swallowed nervously, feeling bile rising in her throat. She knew Jaime and Sandor would not give her up without a fight – but there were six of them! She felt sick, not only for herself but for her companions.

“We are Painted Dogs and have been following you for a while now. We know it is only three of you, and as you can see, we are more. So if you just give us the woman, you two can continue on your way. ‘Tis a fair deal, better than being killed, eh?” The other men moved closer and soon Sansa, Jaime and Sandor were completely enclosed within the circle they formed.

Jaime responded, still in a casual tone, “You see, my good man, we can’t do that. This woman doesn’t want to go with your friend Hagga.” He too glanced at the gigantic warrior and grimaced. “We saw some mountain sheep grazing a while back. I am sure he would find a willing bride among them.”

Some of the men laughed but Hagga growled and reached for his battle axe. The leader – at least Sansa assumed so - furrowed his brow and held his hand up, stopping the angry man.

“Don’t care for your tone, southron. Mayhap we should just kill you here and now and get it over with. But I see that you carry mighty weapons, so it could get messy. This friend of yours looks like he could do some damage. Is he a Burned Man? Looks feisty.” He looked at Sandor, who stared back at him threateningly. Sandor’s arms hung loosely at his sides, ready to draw the sword on his hip at the slightest provocation.

For a moment nobody spoke. Sansa felt her chest tightening as the increasing feeling of terror constricted her breathing.

“I’ll tell you what – no need to be rash about this. We don’t particularly want to fight you when it offers no benefit to us. If the owner of the woman fights Hagga and wins, you all can go. If he loses, the woman belongs to Hagga and you two can go – if there is anything left of the one who fights. Sounds fair, eh?”

Jaime and Sandor exchanged a quick glance, excluding Sansa from their silent communication.

“Which one of you claims this woman?” The leader looked from Jaime to Sandor.

“The woman is mine,” Sandor snarled and stepped forward.

Sansa’s heart skipped. She knew it made sense for Sandor to claim her, as he was stronger and able-bodied and thus had a better chance against the mountain man. Still, to hear him say it… The cold dread engulfing her subsided slightly.

The clearing was soon prepared for a fight. The mountain men stood in a wide circle, Jaime and Sansa held among them at sword-point to make sure they would not interfere. The combatants had chosen their weapons – a battle axe for Hagga, a two-handed broadsword for Sandor – and circled each other slowly in the middle.

Sansa felt a new wave of panic rising. She didn’t doubt Sandor’s fighting skills, but he had resided on the Quiet Isle for years. Had he had a chance to practice? Was he as fit as before, as quick and ruthless? The rage in him had subsided - could that be his undoing? The mountain man was also unusually big and strong. Sansa chanted a quiet prayer to the Warrior in her mind

She saw Jaime staring at Sandor. He looked worried and Sansa was afraid to think that he might share her doubts. She would have touched his hand to assure him, and herself, but didn’t want to rouse the men surrounding them.

The fighters took their time before the first blows were exchanged. Hagga swung his battle axe to Sandor’s left, but he barred it easily enough. The clank of metal echoed through Sansa’s heart and she closed her eyes.  It suddenly came to her that all her hopes and dreams might die here, in this field, destroyed by cold steel from the mountains. If Sandor should lose… Jaime would try to protect her, but six men against one maimed warrior could only lead to one outcome. Sansa resolved to fight, no matter how futile it would be. She would not yield, she would refuse to go meekly. She touched the dagger she kept on her waist through the folds of her dress. Her decision would mean certain death for her too, and the thought of dying in this quiet forest in the Vale bothered her. Her legend would live on as the girl who killed the king and turned into a wolf. Sandor would forever be known as the Butcher of Saltpans, and Jaime – what would be his legacy? A Lion lost, the Kingslayer who vanished?

When she opened her eyes she saw Sandor lunging towards Hagga, driving his sword at him surprisingly fast for such a large man. Hagga turned, avoiding the thrust, swung his hand back and let another huge blow fall upon Sandor. Had he stayed where he was, the blow would have cleaved his skull, but he had already moved to the other side of the clearing and now struck his sword at Hagga’s side. He redirected the sword with his axe but Sandor kept the movement going and swirled around, aiming another blow as a continuation of the first. Hagga avoided that, but all the defensive work he had to do meant he didn’t have a chance to mount his own attack. The hairy warrior was breathing like a bull and growing increasingly frustrated.

They continued in the same vein for a while; Sandor attacking, Hagga blocking . Every now and then Hagga swung his axe for what was intended to be a killing strike, but Sandor skipped away, mounting his counterattacks in a series of fluid thrusts, ducks and turns. Watching him, Sansa felt silly about her earlier doubts – this man was still as skilful as ever. The rage had also returned, showing in the way his eyes burned and his bared teeth gritted against each other as he eyed his opponent. Was it due to a threat to his own life or hers, she wondered. She had caught Sandor’s gaze when he was preparing for the fight and although they couldn’t talk, she had tried to express her anxiety, trust and gratitude to him through her eyes. Sandor had narrowed his and looked at her long and hard, before nodding slightly as if understanding what she wanted to communicate.

Suddenly one of Hagga’s blows went through Sandor’s defences – it didn’t hit him blade first, but the flat side of the axe met his right arm and hip hard enough to make him stumble. Sandor fell on his knees and the mountain men started to snicker and shout encouragement at Hagga to finish the southron. Sansa gasped and clutched her throat, horror at what she was seeing jolting through her like lightning.

Hagga approached Sandor with his battle axe poised to strike. Sandor’s arm and hip must have been hurt by the force of the blow as he was still struggling to get on his feet, his sword hand resting on the ground, still clutching the hilt. Suddenly it looked as if he made a decision and stopped trying. A two-handed sword was exactly what the name implied – intended to be held with both hands, but with Sandor’s arm temporarily useless it appeared he wouldn’t be able to retaliate or even protect himself.  Hagga drew near him cautiously.

As the spectators cheered at the scene in front of them, Sandor suddenly grasped his sword with his left hand, lifted it and swung it in a wide horizontal arc, cutting Hagga’s belly open. The giant stopped in his tracks and his innards, a tightly-coiled bloody tangle, burst out, dangling from the gaping hole Sandor’s sword had made. The only sounds that could be heard were Sandor’s heavy breathing, Hagga’s surprised grunt and after a moment, a loud thump as Hagga’s lifeless body fell to the ground.

Sansa squeezed her eyes shut and her mouth formed a silent word of thanks to the Warrior. Jaime grabbed her arm and murmured urgently, “Be ready to leave now, the sooner we get out of here the better.” He dragged Sansa towards their horses outside the clearing and helped her into the saddle, mounting Honor himself.

The mountain men were milling about in confusion – the outcome of the fight was clearly not what they had expected.  Sandor had gotten on his feet and shouted to the leader. “We will leave now with the woman - Hagga lost fair and square!” He whistled to Stranger who came to him. Sandor mounted him with difficulty and started towards Jaime and Sansa.

The leader was clearly displeased and pointed to two of his men. “Hagga may be gone but I suddenly have a liking for that woman of yours. Small and pretty and has already caused the death of one of my best men. Somebody has to pay for this, and it might as well be she. Men, take her!”

Two men reached for Sansa’s horse, grabbing its reins and pushing Jaime away. Sansa saw that and tried to force her horse to ride over the men, but they were too strong and held the horse too tightly for her to be able to move. She threw a panicked look at her companions. Jaime was trying to get to her but as the mountain men pulled her horse towards the centre of the clearing, they also prevented Jaime’s horse approaching. Sandor on Stranger was still too far away to reach them. She was trapped.

Suddenly she saw Sandor urging Stranger into a canter, careering directly towards her. As they gained speed he bellowed to her, “Trust me, little bird!” She didn’t know what he meant but followed his approach, ready for anything. Jaime had also seen him and, apparently realising what to expect, had directed Honor towards the remaining group of the men, thus effectively blocking their way to Sansa and their companions.

Sandor and Stranger, acting as one, were a terrifying sight. Sandor’s battle rage had not yet left him and there was ferocity in his face that made even the hard mountain warriors hesitate. As they hit the small group Stranger reared up, thrashing his hoofs at the terrified men and Sandor leaned from the saddle and extended his arm towards Sansa. She knew instinctively what he intended and leaned towards him, clasping her arms around his neck and shoulders, and used her legs to push herself from her own saddle. It was all over in a second, Sansa clinging to Sandor with all her strength as they galloped ahead. Jaime and Honor, who had kept the other men at bay, turned and followed them.

Sansa heard angry shouts behind them and as she glanced towards the noise, she saw spears thrown at them. They were nonetheless already so far away that the projectiles rattled harmlessly to the ground behind them. The Painted Dogs had travelled on foot, so she knew they were safe if they just kept going. Sansa was still sitting astride Stranger facing Sandor, who clutched her waist tightly with one hand, the other on the reins. She felt herself pressed so tightly against him she could hardly breathe. I am safe. Once again he has saved me. Relief flooded her veins and she felt weak, as the terror that had held her in its grip gradually subsided. Safe.

They continued beyond the last mountain pass, riding until exhaustion and the need to feed and water the horses forced them to stop late in the afternoon. By then both Jaime and Sandor were confident they were out of immediate danger, but they still wanted to clear the Vale as soon as possible and hence kept the breaks to a minimum and continued at steady pace until the nightfall. If Painted Dogs were far away from their mountains, who knew what else lurked around?

The area they chose for the night was next to a small stream surrounded by a dense forest of pines, a few steps away from the small path they had followed for the last few hours. Having lost everything Sansa’s horse had carried, they didn’t have enough bedrolls or furs for all of them, but Jaime laid what they had on the ground. Luckily Sansa’s most precious belongings had been saved in the deep pockets of her dress. Too tired to worry about eating, they wrapped themselves in furs and cloaks, huddling close to each other. There was no need for words or dwelling on what had happened. They had survived, and that was all that mattered for now. 

As Sansa lay next to Sandor, she reached to move his arm around her shoulders, pressing herself into the crook of his arm. Once again this man, a killer and a brute, had come between her and disaster. What was she to think of it? Sansa then stretched across his broad chest to clasp Jaime’s hand, squeezing it tightly. Jaime looked at her, surprised, but seeing her tired smile he reciprocated it and raised her fingers to his lips for a chaste kiss. The feeling of security Sansa had experienced in Sandor’s arms ever since he had plucked her to safety had overwhelmed her and made her forget all her previous reservations.

All she wanted was to be enveloped even further in that protection and forget herself; forget she had ever been afraid or threatened or unsafe. Sansa allowed tears of relief and gratitude to fall upon her cheeks. Her last conscious thought before succumbing to an exhausted sleep was about a wolf pack and how a lone wolf dies, but a pack survives. Her father had said that once to Arya, who had told it to her. She had not truly understood it then, and not for a long time afterwards, but now she realised exactly what her father had meant. My pack.

----------

When they woke up, groggy and still tired, Sansa embraced her companions, once more trying to express her gratitude. Although she knew words alone were not enough, she thanked them in heartfelt sentences, but neither Sandor nor Jaime wanted to hear any of it. Jaime made a jape about usually rescuing only maidens, which made them all laugh. Even Sandor let go of his usual seriousness and grinned.

Sansa insisted on seeing to Sandor’s hurts and he removed his tunic grumpily to show dark red welts, gradually turning to a deep purple hue, on his right arm and hip. As Sansa slid her hand along his arm to check for wounds, and squeezed her hands hard around it to look for broken bones, he winced – but didn’t remove his arm from her grasp. The bruises on his hip continued below the waistband of his breeches but when Sansa insisted he lower them, Sandor resolutely refused. It was a low-voiced discussion between him and Jaime that convinced them that Sandor had not suffered anything more serious than bruising

As Sandor was pulling the tunic back over his head, Sansa could not help letting her eyes wander along his body. She had never seen a man without a shirt in clear daylight, notwithstanding a few field workers - and her brothers, who had hardly been men when she had seen them last. She knew Sandor was big, but had assumed he would appear smaller without his armour, hauberk or tunic. Yet against her expectations the sight of his upper body, with its clearly outlined muscles and the dark hair covering his chest, made him appear even bigger - and even more intimidating.

She noticed that he bore more burn scars on his left arm. They were not quite as bad as those on his face, but bad enough. Sandor had not mentioned those in his story about Gregor, so Sansa supposed they must have been more recent. She tried to recall if she had seen him hurt on the night of the Blackwater Bay, feeling an acute pang of pity that he, who hated fire so much, had clearly been hurt by it more than once. While Sansa averted her eyes, slightly embarrassed at the thought of being caught staring at him so unashamedly, she saw to her surprise that Jaime was looking at Sandor. His eyes had narrowed and there was a hungry look on his face. She thought it odd, but decided he too must have been worried about his companion’s injuries.

----------

They made good progress towards the Neck after clearing the mountains. Jaime and Sandor anticipated that they would make it to the Neck in a week or so, hoping to meet the crannogmen who were traditional allies and bannermen of the North. With their help they should be able to gather more provisions to allow them to continue their journey to Winterfell

Sansa rode alternately with Jaime and Sandor, sitting astride in front of them. When she rode with Jaime, he told her stories and made her laugh, pretending to be a gallant knight rescuing a fair maiden. Sansa enjoyed these moments and felt safe in the circle of his arms, listening to his low voice as he recited tales of long-gone heroes and beautiful ladies. Jaime’s stories always included sarcastic comments and observations of the frailties of even the most stalwart and honourable characters, and by now Sansa was so disillusioned by the ideal of heroic knights that these additional insights only titillated her and made her laugh harder.

Her rides with Sandor were quieter. Initially Sansa pressed her back against his chest and closed her eyes, adjusting to Stranger’s gait and his steady breathing against the top of her head. She felt secure, as she had been feeling since their escape. Fleetingly she remembered feeling the same way after the riots in King’s Landing but then she had attributed it to her relief at being saved from the crowd. Now she thought it was something more, something that only this man was able to offer her. Protection, care, hope. Every now and then she felt his powerful thighs tensing as he guided the horse with his legs, the feeling against the back of her thighs provoking strange sensations in her. Not unpleasant – on the contrary. She wondered idly why she didn’t feel the need to withdraw from the touch as she would have expected. Maybe it was because it was not intentional, and she trusted him.

Sansa also wanted to know more about him, so during the many hours they picked their way through the forest, across the fields and bushland, she asked Sandor questions; small, inconsequential questions about where had he acquired Stranger, did he like horses or dogs better, did he miss the Quiet Isle. She also asked him more important questions; why had he truly stolen Arya, why hadn’t he forsaken her by the time it had become clear that there were no Starks left to ransom her to, how had he found Arya in their travels together? Sansa also ventured to ask the question to which she had not received the answer earlier; why had he protected and advised her in the King’s Landing even though he didn’t have to?

Some of the questions Sandor answered; he had purchased Stranger with his winnings from the Tourney of the Hand; he had stolen Arya in retaliation for the Brotherhood Without Banners taking his gold; he just had not had time to figure what to do next by the time his brother’s men had caught up with them in the Crossroads Inn. And Arya had been a pain in the arse – but even as he said so, Sansa could see a slight smirk on his face telling otherwise. As for the question of why he had protected her earlier, he only snorted and told her that he hadn’t; he had only been annoyed by her chirping and had wanted to teach her lessons about real life.

Most of all, Sansa wanted to ask him about the night when he had come to her covered in blood and despair, and had left in silence, leaving only his cloak and the traces of his tears on her hand. She had the words ready, but could not say them. The small concessions he granted her, the things he told her of his own volition, were too fragile to be disturbed, so she swallowed her curiosity and settled for the little insights she gleaned about this strange man during their rides together.

When they travelled together, every now and then Sansa glanced over her shoulder at Sandor’s face. As always, he looked impassive, grey eyes inscrutable, jaw slightly tensed. She had learned to read his expressions over time and understood that the corner of his mouth twitched because he was annoyed or because he was amused, that his eyes were soft if something pleased him, or that they were slanted and hard in the face of danger. However, over the last several days she started to notice the wall he had carried around him earlier returning. She had first seen the wall in King’s Landing, the barricade that shut everyone out. It had seemed to crumble, bit by bit, as they had travelled across the Vale – but now it seemed to have come back. Why that should be, she could not understand. Had she said or done something that made him retreat back inside his own world?

Gradually the tension between them took hold of them both. When Sansa was riding with Sandor he deliberately moved her further in front so she could not lean against him. She was still safe and comfortable, but she missed the feel of him. Dark thoughts seemed to have taken hold of him and she could not reach through them. If Jaime noticed any of that, he didn’t comment - and Sansa was too uncomfortable about raising the issue. And so they rode on - so close, yet so far.

ladytp: (Anne of Cleves)

Sansa

After they had established their camp the following evening, Sansa made her preparations. She retreated into the woods to hide them from her companions. If I am going to do this, I will do it as well as I can. Although she had few belongings, she had taken at least one good dress and some jewellery from the Vale. Among the trinkets were a simple gold and silver circlet her mother had worn and her own silver direwolf brooch. Sansa changed into the good dress; a heavy, warm dark grey with lighter grey-and-white embroidery depicting leaves and trees around the hem and neckline. After brushing her hair until it shone and tying it back from her face in the northern fashion, she cautiously placed the circlet on her head. She then used the brooch to clasp the Kingsguard cloak over her shoulders. His cloak. Sansa recalled the expression on Sandor’s face when he had seen it; surprise, incredulity, then something akin to shame. Despite his reaction he had nonetheless never mentioned the cloak to her.

Sansa entered the clearing where Jaime and Sandor were preparing their meal. Another hare caught that day was now roasting and wafting a delicious aroma all around them. First Jaime, then Sandor lifted their heads, both stopping what they were doing to stare at her.

She felt nervous but approached Sandor, who was kneeling on the ground next to the fire, stopping only a few paces in front of him.

“Sandor, of House Clegane of Clegane Keep, with Jaime of House Lannister of Casterly Rock bearing witness, I ask you: Do you want to transfer your allegiance to me – as Lady Lannister or Lady Stark?” If he accepts me as Lady Lannister, I have to ask him again once my marriage is annulled. “Do you want to be my sworn man, always have a place at my side as I will have at yours, always have room in my hearth and house, meat and mead at my table, and do service to me, but only such service that will not bring you into dishonour?”

Sandor stared at her open-mouthed. Then he studied her appearance from the top of her head all the way to her feet. Sansa swallowed nervously, feeling his eyes burning on her body. Will he refuse? What if Jaime was wrong? Jaime had stood up and was now watching them, a half-smile on his face.

After a silence during which the only sound Sansa could hear was her own heart thumping loudly, Sandor nodded solemnly.

“Aye, I will. I will swear you no oaths or vows, as you should know, little bird. What I can tell you here and now is that I will shield you, protect you from harm, keep your counsel and offer you mine, and give my life for yours if need be. I will promise that to neither Lady Lannister nor Lady Stark, but to you, Sansa.” He remained on his knees. Sansa knew Sandor to be uncomfortable about traditional oath-giving, but as he was already bent down, he seemed content to stay as he was.

She was unsure what she should do next. She had seen men swearing fealty to her father, but hadn’t paid attention to the details – and clearly Sandor was not going to do it traditionally anyway. Nervously Sansa pointed at his broadsword, still in its scabbard on his back. “Do you want to give me your sword?”

He smiled crookedly, but reached to remove the weapon and placed it on the ground in front of him, the hilt pointing towards Sansa. She bent to take it and was surprised at its weight. The death of so many. Is that what makes it so heavy? She lifted it, struggling. “Please accept this, and arise.” She had to bite her tongue as she caught herself almost saying Ser, the title he hated.

He took the sword back from her, slid it back into its scabbard and rose. Sansa suddenly felt very small, dwarfed by Sandor as he looked down at her. He still wore that crooked smile and nodded solemnly to her. “Let’s eat.”

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Jaime came to her later to offer congratulations. “That was well done. You truly look like Lady Stark, and behaved accordingly. Lord Eddard would have been proud of you.” Sansa smiled, still slightly nervous about her first act as the new Lady Stark, but light-hearted about her success

“Do you know why he didn’t accept you as Lady Lannister or Lady Stark?” Jaime continued. Sansa shook her head; she had wondered about it.

“It means he intends to stay with you. If you get married – or gods forbid, get back together with my brother – he could be taken away from your service to serve the house of your husband. Maidens with a sworn shield usually lose them once they wed, as it is considered the duty of a husband to protect his wife.” Sansa nodded, curious about what that revelation meant.

“By choosing to give his promise to you alone, without the allegiance to your house, he intends to remain with you and you alone even after you get married. Which is interesting.” They both turned to look at Sandor, who was now removing the roasted hare from the fire. Jaime started to whistle under his breath and wandered over to join him. Sansa stayed standing and stared after him, considering the implications of what she had just heard.

Jaime

“Where do you think the little bird got the notion of staging the whole bloody knighting and oaths ceremony?” Sandor asked Jaime the next day as they were riding next to each other. They were crossing a wide clearing in the middle of the forest, a natural opening formed by a forest fire many years ago from the looks of it. Sansa was a few paces behind them, just out of earshot.

Jaime looked at him sharply. His tone had been neutral, his behaviour controlled. Jaime found the fact that he had asked the question interesting.

“You didn’t like it? You could have declined, you know.” He tried to avoid answering directly and revealing his own role.

“I would have thought her to have outgrown all that buggery by now, that’s all. Grown up to see the real world.” Sandor didn’t sound angry, but rather matter-of-fact.

“She didn’t actually ask you to cite any vows and didn’t refer to you as a knight. I suspect that had you not already been kneeling, she wouldn’t have asked you to do that either. All I heard was her asking for your allegiance and service.” Jaime felt bolder and continued, wondering if Sandor had noticed the same subtleties he had.

“If you didn’t happen to notice, she not only asked you to stay at her side, but also pledged to stay at yours. If you made a promise to her, she also made a promise to you.” They rode in silence for a while. Jaime had learned that this man was not quick to respond to such revelations - he took his time. Whether it was traces of the Quiet Isle and the silence expected from the brothers, or he simply did not care to converse in the swift courtly manner, Jaime didn’t know nor care. He had learned to adapt to Sandor’s pace, enjoying company where silence was comfortable and not something to be avoided and filled with pointless chatter.

“Has she asked for your oath? Or why do you still follow her?” Sandor grunted. Jaime realised that he had never discussed his role with Sansa or how long he would stay with her. Once they returned to Winterfell his oath to Catelyn Stark regarding Sansa would be fulfilled. Would he turn around and go after Brienne to help her find Arya Stark – or would he stay? Would she ask him to stay? And if she asked, would he?

“No, she hasn’t,” Jaime admitted. “She only asked you.”

“Would you give it to her if she did?” Sandor glanced at him questioningly. Jaime considered for a long time.

“I believe I would. My lord father would roll in his grave if he heard a Lannister promising allegiance to a Stark!” he laughed.  “If she doesn’t ask me, mayhap I’ll ask her someday. My word wouldn’t probably mean much to her, as I am a known oathbreaker, but I would give her a promise just as you did. What would you say to that?” Jaime wondered if the continuing presence of a Lannister would bother Sandor. He had, after all, left his house on bad terms.

“It would be up to her. If she accepts you, I suppose I would too.” Sandor’s grey eyes were taking his measure now. Jaime was acutely aware of his stump and the fact that his best fighting days were over.  “I have served with worse. Much worse. The bloody Kingsguard, most of them fools and cowards and spineless bastards. You would be a step up from them for sure.”

Jaime couldn’t help the relief flooding over him. He had started to feel close to this brooding man over the last few weeks, as strange as it was. They were both outcasts now, serving the same cause: Sansa Stark. The nights they had slept next to each other had heightened the feeling of closeness.

“Why did you choose to help her anyway? The Maid of Tarth muttered something about an oath made to her mother, but as you say yourself, they don’t mean much.” Sandor’s question was pointed and Jaime had a feeling that much depended on his answer. He sighed.

"I am not sure if I can explain this to you. I haven’t been very good at explaining it to anyone else; not to her, not to myself. I think Brienne understood, but she is such an honourable knight even she might have mistaken my meaning.” For some reason it was important for Jaime that Sandor was aware of his reasons, and didn’t judge him.

“This is not about my honour as the knightly code defines it. I have broken many vows, and this one was extracted under duress anyway. So it is not about fulfilling my oath. I piss on that!” Jaime smiled but soon became serious again, trying to find the words before continuing.

“All my life I have held on to one solid truth, to something that anchored me in my reality. It helped me through my time with the Mad King Aerys, all through Robert’s rule and the chaos of the War of Five Kings. This truth was not my own choosing. It just was.” Jaime realised his tone was almost pleading. He had rarely spoken with anyone about his relationship with Cersei, first out of necessity to keep it secret, later because most people were disgusted and didn’t want to know. And he hadn’t wanted to talk about it. Until now.

“You mean Cersei.” It was not a question but a statement. This time there was no pity in Sandor’s eyes, just silent understanding.

“Yes, Cersei. She was my anchor, now lost to me. Oh, save your breath - I always knew it was wrong in the eyes of the world. I also know that she has made many mistakes and done outright horrible things. Yet she was not always like that. She was fearless, strong, smart and beautiful – much like Sansa is now. When she was still young, she was sold to a man who didn’t care about her, and she was put into a mould she couldn’t break, for all her courage. So she changed. Over the years she transformed from the brave young girl I knew to a bitter woman whose only concern was for her children. Who were never mine,” Jaime sighed.

They rode on, crossing the clearing and entering the forest again. Sandor glanced back to see that Sansa was still following close to them, and Jaime was silently thankful that he stayed with him instead of going to her.

“So I have no truth in my life now and I feel lost. I suppose I am looking for something in which to anchor myself again, be it a cause, a place, a person or an ideal. Maybe I will find it in my honour as some men seem to do - as Barristan the Bold always did. Somehow he seemed to get away unscathed for abandoning his oaths to one king and swearing allegiance to another. Must be all that righteousness in him.” Jaime knew his voice betrayed a slight bitterness, not targeted specifically at the old man but at anyone whose life truths were simple and uncomplicated.

“You say ‘person’. Do you think Sansa will be your new Cersei?” There was a dangerous undertone in Sandor’s voice.

“No, she will not be my new Cersei. It is true that Sansa is all that Cersei used to be, and something more. I don’t want to see her forced into a life not her own choosing, losing all the good she has in her. She is not for me, that much I am sure of.”

Jaime wondered if Sandor entertained some wishful thoughts of her in his mind. It was clear he cared for Sansa, probably more than was appropriate for a sworn shield. Surely he knew that could never be? They were all close to each other here in the midst of the forests and mountains, but as soon as they returned to the world of men, he would go back being a sworn shield and she back to being a noble lady. Sansa would be expected to marry a high lord of standing equal to hers. Even if all that would not be deterrent enough, he was still a hideous-looking scarred warrior and a brute, and she was a woman of exquisite beauty and manners. What could they ever have in common?

Sandor did not respond nor change his expression, but Jaime thought he saw the tension in him relaxing ever so slightly.

“Aye, I think I understand what you are saying. For what it matters, you may not be alone in trying to find an anchor in this life,” Sandor said after a while. If that was an admission he found hard to make, it did not show in his countenance, as inscrutable as always

Jaime, encouraged by the intimacy of their discussion, changed the subject.

“You know, I never realised it was Gregor who burned your face. I always thought it was an accident of some sort.”

Sandor turned to him, slightly amused. “What difference would it have made? Gregor was always Lord Tywin’s chosen champion, the monster who did all the dirty work everyone else refused to do or couldn’t.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything, except for me. I wanted to be your friend when you first arrived at Casterly Rock, but I had to leave for King’s Landing.”

“I know.” That was all Sandor said before continuing as the words would have required an immense effort to come out. “At the time, I could have used one.”

Jaime thought about the angry young boy, shunned by his peers because of the way he looked. Would they have become friends had he stayed? Would Sandor’s life of hate and anger taken a different turn if he’d had even one person looking at him as a human rather than a beast?

“Is it too late now?” Jaime felt strange – this was not how men conversed. Men were competitive, they contested each other, or even if acting together, stood side-by-side and not facing each other like they were now doing.

After his customary long silence Sandor simply said, “No,” before turning around and moving to ride behind Sansa, as was their habit when riding single file to make sure she was protected from both sides.

Jaime was quiet for the rest of that day, still immersed in their discussion and the way Sandor had allowed him to make a small chink in the wall surrounding him.

-----------

As they rode, Jaime made a habit of observing his companions. Sandor was always alert, his eyes scanning the forest, the sky, the path in front of them. He sat erect on his black beast, controlling it with light hands on its reins. Man and beast were merged as one, a highly-strung creature designed for fighting and killing. His expression was passive - not angry, but focused, eyes slanted under dense brows and mouth set in a slight scowl. Every now and then Jaime saw him turning to glance at Sansa and his expression changed, his features softening imperceptibly as his eyes lingered on her before turning back to his endless scouting of the surroundings. Sometimes – but only rarely - Jaime felt he received an approving look from Sandor as well, if he had done something especially clever such as catching their evening meal or finding a shortcut through a difficult patch. The look was different but somehow similar, and he felt ridiculously pleased when it happened.

Sansa was getting better on a horse, starting to adapt to its rhythm and pace. Her hold on the reins was light and she had a habit of patting her horse slightly on the neck whenever they passed a particularly difficult stretch; a deep ridge, a fast stream, a narrow path with tree branches scratching them on both sides. Sometimes she hummed a quiet tune to herself that Jaime never quite made out. Her expression looked more contented, even happy sometimes. When Sandor turned to look at her, she smiled at him, a small but bright smile. Now and then she turned to look at Jaime and gave him the same smile, which lightened his mood. Jaime always smiled back at her, sometimes bowing at her, sometimes offering an encouraging comment about the distance they had travelled, how the weather looked favourable or some other comment intended to make her smile. Then Sansa’s grin increased and sometimes she laughed out loud at some jape Jaime made. When she did that, it only made him try harder to make her laugh the next time.

Sandor looked at them both then, initially frowning and sullen, but over time he started to participate in their cheerfulness. He didn’t laugh quite as loud as them but the twitch on his lips was a smile, and sometimes even a snort he couldn’t contain escaped him.

Their sleeping arrangements had not changed. They always tried to find the most sheltered spot for Sansa, Sandor lying next to her, then Jaime. Their initial reservations about the enforced closeness had melted away as had so many other remnants of their old lives and positions. The nights were mild and snuggly and the feel of warm human bodies was comforting.

Jaime woke up on several mornings with an arousal he couldn’t explain. He didn’t remember his dreams – had he imagined being with Cersei again? Or was it Sansa’s presence that affected him this way? He noticed Sandor having similar difficulties. One morning Sandor had turned on his side facing Jaime’s back, and he woke up feeling his hardness against his buttocks. Instead of moving away, Jaime stayed still. His mind raced; this was normal for any red-blooded man. He was sleeping and had probably dreamt he was pressing against his little bird. Jaime knew he should be repulsed. Yet Sandor was warm, his body felt strong and soothing at the same time, his hardness thrilling. Jaime closed his eyes and imagined how it would feel without clothes on. His mind wandered back to those cold nights on a rocky island in Ironman’s Bay many years ago. Then Sandor moved in his sleep, turning onto his back and the moment was gone.

ladytp: (Anne of Cleves)

Jaime

“You haven’t told me why you left King's Landing, Sandor. Most people think you turned craven. Was that so?” Jaime had wanted to ask that for a while, but had shied away in fear of irritating their short-tempered companion.

They were resting in another nameless, featureless camp. Earlier that day a fox had been startled from a bush by their horses and Sandor had grabbed his dagger, quick as a snake, and thrown it after the escaping animal. It had not been killed, but it had been wounded enough for Jaime to catch up and finish it with a sure thrust of his sword. Sansa had seen the kill and gasped but after the fox was dead she had dismounted her horse and with Jaime’s help gutted and skinned it on the spot.

The carcass had been cut into pieces on their campsite and now the meat was roasting on a crude spit. The scent of it roasting was delicious and their stomachs were grumbling in anticipation.

Sandor was turning the spit and seemed to ignore Jaime’s question. Nonetheless, his jaw clenched revealing that he had heard it. His long fingers were covered in grease and he licked them clean before leaning on his haunches.

“If I had, would I tell you?” He looked at Jaime challengingly. Jaime returned the look, green eyes meeting grey, neither giving ground.

“You know what, Sandor – I believe you would. And what does it matter anyway? I am not really from your liege lord’s house anymore. You don’t even have a liege lord now. We are all free.”

Sandor sighed and turned his gaze back to the meat. “Did I turn craven? Mayhap I did. All I know is that after seeing that fire straight from the seven hells covering the Blackwater Bay and the city gate I was defending, and seeing it roasting almost all of my men, I simply could take it no more. Throw a score of soldiers at me and aye, I’ll fight them. Throw buggering knights on their buggering horses at me and I’ll mow them down. But that fire… it was not of this world.” He looked at the campfire and shuddered at the memory.

Sansa was following their discussion from the other side of the fire. She shifted as she wanted to say something, but a look from Sandor settled her.

“I assume you and fire are not friends. It got you once…where was it?” Jaime didn’t know how Sandor had gained his scars – nobody knew as far he was aware. All he knew was that Sandor had already been disfigured upon his arrival at Casterly Rock as a young boy, so battle wounds were an unlikely explanation. Those scars had repulsed and fascinated Jaime in equal measure. He, who had always been judged so fair of face, could not have imagined the feeling of being so…ugly. Yet he had learned now how deceitful beauty could be. Perhaps ugliness was at least real.

Again Sansa shifted. Sandor raised his gaze back to Jaime as if appraising him. “Might as well tell you. The little bird knows already. Gregor did it, shoved my face into the burning coals. Didn’t have quite as friendly a relationship with my sibling as you had with yours.” His laugh was dry and short-lived.

Many things that had not made sense before suddenly became clear to Jaime. The absolute hatred between the Clegane brothers. Sandor fleeing the wildfire in Kings Landing… but how did Sansa know about it when nobody else did? What happened between them? The question had been bothering him for a while, and Jaime decided he would get to the bottom of it sooner or later.

Sandor scratched unconsciously at his scarred temple. The sound of his fingernails on the hard plate of red, abraded tissue reverberated in the silence.

“You didn’t necessarily have to leave the city for that. As I have heard it told, there was so much confusion on the night that you could have just returned to your duties the next morning. I am sure my father would have welcomed you back with open arms, especially with Gregor gone.”

“I had a mind to go anyway. Didn’t like the way that bitch king was running things. Robert might have been a lecher and a drunk but at least he directed his wrath towards his true enemies and not innocents. Had a moment of madness too that night; meant to do a fucking knightly thing, but that didn’t turn out exactly as I had thought.” Sandor changed his position, sitting cross-legged. There was something hard and unyielding in the way he spoke, but at the same time his tone betrayed a vulnerability Jaime had not heard before. The shadows reflected from the glow of the fire played on his face, making it appear as if several expressions were shifting across it in rapid succession.

Sansa stood up and came to them, lowering herself in front of Sandor and reaching for his arm. “I was silly and childish then. I should have come with you that night. Can you forgive me?” She looked at Sandor pleadingly. The tension simmering between them was so thick Jaime could almost see it. So that was it. He offered to take her away and she refused. Well, who could blame her? No sensible young maiden would follow the Hound.

“I…thought of that night often afterwards. Had I left with you, I wouldn’t have been wed to Tyrion and taken away by Littlefinger,” Sansa continued. The sight of her kneeling in front of Sandor tugged at Jaime’s heart, but he didn’t know why.

Sandor’s eyes had softened as they studied Sansa’s face. He didn’t touch her but let her small hand rest on his arm. “No little bird, it was wise of you not to come. You might not have survived so well, with me the rabid dog I was then. I offered to take you with me but to what end? I can’t even imagine what could have happened to your innocence with me.”

“That wouldn’t have mattered, honestly. Better you than Littlefinger.” Sansa blushed as she seemingly realised what she had just said, and busied herself by fingering Sandor’s sleeve. What arrested Jaime was Sandor’s reaction. He looked at Sansa with astonishment, swallowed hard and looked away.

Having gathered herself Sansa continued, “I should have followed you, but that is all in the past and we are here now. And you are taking me to the North, aren’t you?”

Jaime wanted to object and point out how actually he and Brienne had saved her, but seeing how Sandor and Sansa were still facing each other, he swallowed his pride and protestations.

“Aye, I’ll take you to the North. Or wherever you want to go.”

This was getting to be too much, Jaime decided. He knew he was in danger of becoming obsolete.  Sandor could protect Sansa as well and probably even better than he, useless one-handed warrior that he was. But he needed the girl; she was his way to redemption. And he wanted to save her. Ever since starting his travels with Brienne, Jaime had enjoyed the unusual feeling of actually doing something good for a change.  He also knew that sooner or later they might face opponents who required a different approach to what Sandor could offer. If Jaime had nothing else left, he still had his name and family connections, his highborn upbringing and his knowledge of the world of nobility and politics. He could still be useful.

“And when we get to Winterfell, what then? Are we going to march to Stannis and offer him two hostages at once? Not that anyone would bother to ransom me anymore, but maybe Stannis doesn’t know that yet,” Jaime smirked. Sansa stood up, returned to her place and sat down furrowing her brow.

“First of all, we will not yield to Stannis. We seek to meet him to converse about the future of the North, and what would be the best way to reach our mutual aims through cooperation.”

“What would those aims be – for you and him?” Jaime was suddenly interested to hear what Sansa had to say. He had assumed all she wanted to do was to get back home to Winterfell but to what end, he had not stopped to consider.

“For me, obviously I want to establish my home in Winterfell again. I should have never left, it is where I belong. As for Stannis, if he still harbours dreams of ascending to the Iron Throne, he needs to secure the North.”

“Why would he need you for that?” Sandor shot back, also following the discussion intently. Sansa turned to look at him and her expression was not that of a young girl but that of a fully grown woman.

“The North can be pacified only if there is a Stark in Winterfell. They can place other lords there, southern or even northern, but Starks have been the Lords of Winterfell and Kings in the North for so long that anyone else is just an impostor. Does Stannis have 8,000 years to establish the new lords, should he choose to appoint them? Does he have even 80 years? I don’t think so. He needs me - and only me, not my husband. Hence the first thing I will have to do is to secure the annulment of my marriage to Tyrion.” Sansa threw an almost apologetic glance towards Jaime. She was getting more animated as she spoke, her eyes shining.

“If Stannis secures my support and I ask them, the bannermen of the North will follow him. Oh yes, they are scattered and beaten after they lost their king, but they will regroup and come back. And they will follow a new war leader if he can offer them something worth following.”

“And what would that be? Another war far away from their lands to support a southern king?” Sandor looked amused.

“No. Think about it; Stannis is probably the most honourable man in Westeros – if possible even more honourable than my father. He has often said that the only reason he took up his cause was because he was the rightful heir and it was his duty. Stannis is not an ambitious man nor vengeful, only just. Once the dragons conquer Westeros, Stannis does not have to be the true heir anymore. And conquer they will, with live dragons and soldiers from across the sea and many of the seven kingdoms, tired of war, joining them.”

Jaime started to understand what Sansa meant. It was well known that Stannis would have never supported Robert’s Rebellion except for his sense of brotherly duty. He had scoffed at the reasons for starting it; Stannis had thought it to be beneath the head of House Baratheon to be drawn into a war because of a woman. He had served the Targaryens well in the past, and if House Targaryen was to return to the throne, he would more likely side with them than keep on fighting for his own rule. Yet Stannis was also a proud man and would not readily submit to conquerors. He needed leverage and Sansa planned to offer him exactly that.

Jaime was impressed. Could this be the same young girl who had dreamt of knights and tourneys and giggled with her friends when he first saw her?

“So you will promise Stannis the support of the North, but only so he can have the leverage in his negotiations with the Dragons to allow him an honourable retreat?” Jaime said slowly. Comprehension had lit Sandor’s face just a moment earlier – he had clearly also grasped what Sansa intended.

“Yes, but as Stannis would be only the war leader of the northern forces and not their true lord, these negotiations would also require my involvement. Being just a weak woman, I would of course listen to the advice of my war leader – or so they would think.  I intend to bend the knee as long as the Targaryens offer the North the same liberties we have had since the time of Aegon the Conqueror.”

“What if the dragons don’t win this war? What if King Tommen with the Lannister and Tyrell forces hold King’s Landing?” Sandor leaned closer to hear how she would respond to this scenario. He was a soldier but an experienced one, and knew enough of battle strategies to see this only as an extension of those, only fought with words and alliances rather than weapons.

“That is not a possibility. They may hold on for a little while longer but eventually they will lose. Do you want to know why? Because the Lannisters and the Tyrells don’t trust each other. Such an alliance may work when times are good and there is no real opposition, but when times get hard and their backs are against the wall, we all know that they will turn against each other. Queen Cersei will bear the biggest responsibility for this, of course.”

Jaime cursed impotently, knowing Sansa to be right. Cersei, what were you thinking?

“Even in the unlikely event that they push the dragons back across the sea, the people of Westeros who have unified against King Tommen can’t go back to the way things were. They need a new challenger for the throne and with Stannis they have one. All the other leaders of the War of Five Kings have died; Joffrey, Renly, Balon Greyjoy…and Robb.” At that Sansa’s voice softened and suddenly she sounded like a young girl again, not a grown woman planning political strategies. For a moment she was quiet but then lifted her head.

“If that should happen, I would bend the knee to Stannis and rule as the Warden of the North.”

Both Jaime and Sandor looked at her with astonishment. The plan…sounded like it might just work, but Jaime noticed a weakness in it.

“If you do not marry and your sister Arya is truly lost, what will happen? House Stark is not going to last long without heirs.”

Sansa looked uncomfortable and sighed. “I know. I still hope Brienne finds Arya but if she doesn’t, I will do my duty and marry. Even in that case my husband would only be my consort, not my lord. He would also be of my own choosing, not somebody else’s.”

Jaime looked at her and wondered what kind of man she would pick. Somehow he didn’t think it would be a young, gallant knight. Perhaps an older, wiser man? He would have to be a lord and from an old family, an established house– the North needed strong alliances. He coughed. “It seems we have established that you do have a plan. Rest assured, we will support you.”

Sandor looked at Jaime with an expression he couldn’t read and nodded briefly. Jaime got up and retrieved the first pieces of roasted meat. Fox meat was not considered a delicacy, but beggars were not choosers and in these woods they were grateful for any scraps of fresh food. Soon they were digging into their meals, the only sounds those of bones crushing and lips smacking.

Sansa

“Why did you come after us?” Sansa and Sandor were riding side-by-side on a rocky path requiring a slow pace to prevent their horses from stumbling. Jaime was riding ahead, scouting the route.

Sandor didn’t respond to her query but stared resolutely ahead. Sansa wasn’t sure if he would answer the question that had been niggling in her mind ever since he joined them, but she had to ask.

“Sandor, you didn’t have to leave the Quiet Isle and you didn’t have to follow us. You owe nothing to either me or Jaime. So why did you come?” Sansa directed her horse closer to his so that their legs were almost touching and turned her face towards him. Sandor’s silence descended over him like a shield and she felt it thwarting her attempts

Eventually Sandor swallowed, his expression taut. His big hands gripped the reins tightly. “What does it matter? I am here now, isn’t that enough?”

“It does matter to me. I…would like to understand. You are not the same man you were at King’s Landing. Your rage has abated. Is it because of the Quiet Isle? Brienne told us you wore the robes. Were you truly a brother of the Seven?”

Sandor snorted. “Hells, the Elder Brother tried to make me one but I didn’t give my vows. I haven’t given them to men and can’t see why I would give them to the gods.”

“Did you find peace there? And will you be risking that peace if you return to the world of men?” Sansa had prayed for the Mother to gentle the rage inside him – had the Mother answered? What would happen if Sandor returned to the world which had shunned him and believed him to be a dog, useful only for killing? She hated to think that his rage would come back because he had chosen to follow her and Jaime.

After another long silence, only punctuated by the sound of horses’ hooves on the soft ground, Sandor continued. “I should have protected you better at King’s Landing. When you were beaten by those bloody knights, I just stood there and did nothing. Even that last night…I put a dagger to your throat. Later I thought you had disappeared and mayhap even died. All that time you were so close. I could have protected you from that fucking Littlefinger had I known.” His voice was tense, restrained, his words coming haltingly.

“When I heard you were alive, I had to come. I did owe you that.” Sandor turned to Sansa and studied her intently under his brow. His grey eyes looked lighter in the bright daylight, moving from her face to her neck, then to her hands holding the reins. She felt self-conscious under that gaze, but not perturbed.

“You did protect me. Many times. You told me about the real world and warned me about the dangers that surrounded me. It helped me then - and later. You couldn’t have done anything more without losing your head. And that night…you didn’t hurt me although you could have. You offered to take me home.” There was something else that tugged at the back of Sansa’s mind.

“Why did you think you had a duty to protect me? I was your king’s betrothed, but if he didn’t care, why should you?” Sansa couldn’t understand why she had this burning need to know what drove Sandor. Could he have thought of her as she had thought of him during their years of separation?

So many times she had looked back at her time in King’s Landing. In addition to the anxiety and unhappiness which still overwhelmed her, she had recognised that in the background there had also been a feeling of someone watching over her. It had been him, she knew. She had seen and felt his proximity wherever she went in the Red Keep and during the events and functions of the court. Always surreptitious, in the shadows. Whenever she had turned to look, he had been there, silently observing. Initially it had alarmed her, his gaze pressing on her heavily, but later she had learned to accept it and to look forward to it. His presence had conferred a peace and calm which was otherwise in short supply. Neither of them had acknowledged it in words, just as they had not acknowledged parts of their past to each other since their reunion. Maybe Sandor was right. Maybe it was enough to just have him there, to have his skills as a warrior in her service. Why do I care?

Yet again there was a long silence. Too long. Sandor looked ahead, refusing to face her.  Before Sansa had gathered courage to ask again, Jaime returned to warn them about a particularly rocky patch ahead, and they had to dismount and continue by foot. Amidst all that she never got her answer.

----------

Later that evening, Jaime came to Sansa while she was unpacking their bags for the night. He helped her to unload them and asked in a casual tone: “What did you say to our travelling companion today? He seems particularly irked tonight.” They glanced at Sandor who was attending the horses, checking their hooves for stones. He was usually calm and serene with them, having a natural instinct with animals, but tonight he was snapping at their slightest movement.

Sansa blushed. ”Oh, I only asked why he came after us. I wanted to know why he left the Quiet Isle when he owed no service to either of us.”

Jaime raised an eyebrow.  “And what did he say?”

“He…said he owed me for the time he didn’t help me at King’s Landing, or didn’t protect me from Littlefinger. I wish he could understand that is not true – he did help me, more than anyone else. How could he have known about me being in the Vale?” She felt a sudden need to justify Sandor’s actions to Jaime.

“Why did he feel he needed to help you at all? He never served House Stark and you were not even a Lannister at that time.” Jaime showed the same curiosity about the matter that Sansa had.

“I asked him that but he didn’t answer.” They glanced at the focus of their discussion again. Sandor was still pushing the horses around with a scowl in his face.

Jaime leaned closer to Sansa, his voice conspiratorial. “He is, if nothing else, loyal. He has always had a master; first my father, then Cersei and finally Joffrey. He may yearn for a master again. It seems that for whatever reason he has chosen you. So if you want a man like him in your service, you might do well to accept it and bind him to you.”

Sansa looked at him uncomprehendingly. “But I have nothing to offer him! I have no lands, no coin, not even a secure house. Maybe my quest is a folly. If Stannis refuses to hear me, I am nothing but one more displaced soul wandering the realm amidst this war. Why would he want to bind himself to me?”

Jaime considered that for a moment and shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe those things don’t matter to him. Maybe what you have is better than what you said you don’t have. I am following you for my own reasons. Maybe he has his own reasons too.”

Sansa thought about her discussion with Jaime for a long time that night. The steady breathing next to her indicated that Sandor had already fallen asleep. She turned to look at him in the pale moonlight; the strong jawline, the stubble covering his good cheek and the mouth that twitched slightly as he slept. His hands were resting under his head, the long fingers slightly curled. They were killer’s hands, strong and skilled. Yet these same hands had also dabbed her bleeding lip gently, and had tugged her tenderly under the furs. She made her decision

ladytp: (Anne of Cleves)

Warnings: Non-con, allusions to rape.
----------------------------------------------------

Jaime

Jaime couldn’t help noticing the tension between his companions in the days that followed. It was not anger nor fear or resentment. Sansa was clearly not afraid of Sandor as she had been on the Kingsroad. The tension manifested itself in the way he stopped whatever he was doing when Sansa walked past, and the way she observed Sandor under her brow when she thought neither Jaime nor Sandor were looking. Her look was hungry and appraising – like a wild animal judging the captor in whose hands its life now hung.

Sansa was mostly quiet, following her companions without complaint and doing the tasks assigned to her obediently. The dull brown colour of her hair had started to fade in light of the lack of continuous treatment with the staining solution, and the effect was enhanced by the bright auburn colour clearly visible in the growing roots. In the evenings the red flashed in the firelight as she released her braids and stroked her hair with a brush, one of the few personal possessions Sansa had taken from the Vale. Both Jaime’s and Sandor’s eyes were inescapably drawn to her in those moments, both pretending to look elsewhere when caught out.

Jaime tried to remember what he knew of his companions’ previous association that might explain the tension. All he came up with was that Sandor had been in Joffrey’s Kingsguard when Joffrey had still been betrothed to Sansa. According to what Jaime had heard, Joffrey had enjoyed punishing her for her brother’s victories. If that was all, Jaime would have expected her to be afraid of Sandor or at least bitter. Had Joffrey commanded Sandor to hit her? If he had, how could she bear his company now? And why was she wearing the Kingsguard cloak – the cloak that had made Sandor stare at it on his first day as if he had never seen it before. He had swallowed so hard that Jaime had noticed and wondered not only about the cloak, recognising it for what it was, but how Sansa had come to have it in her possession.

Jaime noticed Sandor watching Sansa intently at every opportunity. It was no wonder – she was a beautiful woman and no red-blooded man could be in her presence without noticing it. Even Jaime was aware of her charms, however unconscious she herself was of them. But he could not understand why she accepted Sandor’s gaze so readily. She was not cowed, not enduring it as a necessary evil for being forced to travel in rough company. No - if anything, she was watching Sandor intently in return. Why would she do that? Jaime realised there was very little he knew about women after all. Only of Cersei’s ways – and she was no ordinary woman. He sighed and retired once again to his bedroll, curling against Sandor’s broad back and succumbing to the warmth it radiated.

Sansa

Sansa usually rode her small and sturdy mare between Sandor’s fiendish horse in the lead and Jaime’s palfrey Honor in the back – Jaime had laughed so hard when telling her his horse’s name. Sansa didn’t feel especially talkative and neither did her companions. Despite this, over many days they had started to establish an understanding, all of them having lived too much to bother with superficiality. In the forest they felt like they were the only people left in the world and the need for masks or pretences left them. What they all shared was their will to live and to survive against all odds: the princess of the fallen realm, the maimed golden heir who had turned his back on his family, and the scarred old dog who had deserted his masters. The raw honesty between them soothed them, and Sansa felt this journey to be one of the few really honest experiences she had had in her whole life.

The weather had turned favourable. Although the approach of winter was still discernible, its progress seemed to have been halted. The days were mostly clear and although the nights were freezing, the sun quickly warmed them as they got on their way. Rarely did it snow and the ground over which they journeyed was only partially covered in white.

They started to share their stories in the evenings; first haltingly, only a few muttered sentences here and there, with no apparent purpose. Sansa remarked on the lessons she had learned at Littlefinger’s side about the game of thrones. Sandor cursed about the silence and the prayers on the Quiet Isle and Jaime regaled them with stories about life in the Kingsguard. Nothing that was said was met with criticism or challenge from the others. If anything, quiet encouragement emboldened them to share more.

“Did you truly poison Joffrey, Sansa?” Jaime asked one evening out of the blue. They were sitting by the fire once again, gnawing on the charred remains of a winter bird Jaime had caught earlier that evening with a wire trap. For a change they had found a protected space in a natural cave on the side of a grassy hill. It was not very deep, but it offered some protection from the cold and wind.

Sansa startled, dropping the wing she had been nibbling on. For a moment she felt a mask descending over her face; the facade she had worn at court as a barricade that hid her true feelings. But she soon banished it – she could be honest here and now. “No, I did not. I don’t deny that I wished him dead.” She blushed slightly saying that, lowering her head – she couldn’t completely forget her good manners. “Had I killed Joffrey, it would have been an impulse, not by poisoning him at his wedding feast.”

Sandor contemplated her over the fire, nodding slightly as if in recognition of something. His face was unreadable but Sansa realised what he was remembering. He knows that I wanted to kill Joffrey on the battlement that day. That’s why he came to wipe the blood from my lip... but he didn’t reveal me.

Sansa struggled between two instincts; a desire to tell the truth and a wish to not inflict hurt. Yet truth had to be told, Jaime deserved to know. Maybe the people at court – especially Cersei – had never revealed Joffrey’s true nature to him. If there was something Sansa had learned over the years, it was that people were bound to explain things in different ways if they wanted to. Black could be white and white could be black, if it was presented in a suitable manner.

“Joffrey was not a good king. I…am sorry to say this to you, but he did not treat people kindly. He was cruel and unwise. He wasn’t worthy.”

Jaime looked nauseated. “I know that. And there’s no need to be sorry. He…was not my true son.”

Both Sansa and Sandor raised their eyebrows in silent synchrony. Jaime saw that and seemed to struggle to find the words to respond to their incredulous glances. “He was my seed, that much is true. Hells, the whole realm knows that!” Jaime tried to laugh but the sound died in his throat.

“Despite that, I never held him in my arms as my son. I was never allowed to be near him more than what was necessary. Cersei would not allow it, not wanting to raise Robert’s ire. It was the same situation with Myrcella and Tommen.” Jaime looked down at his lap, his loose hair - once so golden and bright - now matted and dirty, covering his face.

“Oh, we had fierce fights over that when I was still young and proud and wanted to embrace my daughter and my sons, to hells with the rest of the world! But Cersei was cold and sensible. She put me in my place by telling me how unthinkable it would be for me to play any role in their lives. After all these years... I still feel bitter, I can’t deny that.” Jaime clenched his fist and appeared ready to hit his stump against something.

“Littlefinger and the Tyrells killed Joffrey. The Queen of Thorns didn’t think him a worthy husband for her precious Margaery,” Sansa said, more gently now. “Petyr told me all about it. He was playing the game of thrones and supported House Tyrell.” Jaime looked up at her, blinking.

“You didn’t learn anything from the Targaryens, did you?” Sandor said sarcastically, but even his tone was softer than usual. “Mad kings don’t come out of thin air, they come from the whole brother-fucking-sister thing. The seed doesn’t mix properly.”

“Myrcella is kind, and so is Tommen. They may still be grow up to be good – if they outlast the game,” Sansa added. She was touched by the vulnerability visible in Jaime’s face.

Jaime sighed. “It was…never meant to be that way. There were never supposed to be children. Perhaps if Cersei had married a good man whose children she would have borne proudly… but Robert was not that man. He killed any chance they had for a good marriage with his infatuation with Lyanna Stark, forgetting who was actually in his bed.” He turned towards Sansa in an unconsciously accusatory gesture. She was listening intently, twirling a lock of her hair between her thumb and forefinger, and shuddered slightly under Jaime’s gaze.

“Not her fault, Kingslayer,” Sandor grunted and turned his body protectively between them.

Jaime, not Kingslayer. Or are you still the Hound?” Jaime replied harshly, but his head was sagging wearily.

The big man did not take the bait and only shrugged his shoulders. “None of us are what we used to be. So what next? Are you going to tell us you never meant to kill the Mad King either?”

“Oh yes, I killed Aerys. I can’t deny that and have no regrets either. Had a good reason too – I suppose the two of you would not know what he was going to do?” Jaime lightened up slightly. He spat the delicate bones he had been sucking to the ground before carrying on.

“He meant to burn King’s Landing, engulf the whole city in green fire and leave Robert nothing but the charred ruins and bones of all its inhabitants. I may have sworn to protect my king but I do recall another matter mentioned in my vows. Something about protecting innocents and whatnot.”

Sansa exhaled in surprise and Sandor’s face darkened. “So I put my sword through his back, killed one madman and saved the life of thousands and how did the realm thank me? Called me the Kingslayer ever since.”  Jaime tried to smirk and failed miserably.

“Only my family knows the truth. My lord father didn’t care, Cersei accepted everything I did in those days and Tyrion understood. And Brienne, I told Brienne. Others didn’t believe me. They thought I only wanted to excuse my actions. So I soon grew tired of their reactions and gave up explaining. I didn’t need to justify myself, it doesn’t matter what people think of me. “

“I suspect that if you are truly honest, you prefer the notoriety,” Sandor sneered. “Somehow I don’t think you would enjoy being called a bloody hero.”

Sansa was shocked. The Kingslayer, always accused of being traitorous for his own benefit and that of his family, had done it for the good of the smallfolk. Had her father known? “If it is as you say, that changes everything. You should be heralded as a hero, not slighted as an oathbreaker!”

“Well, technically I did break an oath or two. Not that I cared – I must be more like you than I thought, Sandor. I pissed on their oaths!” Jaime laughed again, this time for real.

“Good for you then, most oaths and vows are not even worth the piss,” Sandor grumbled but looked at him with something strange in his eyes. Something akin to respect.

They left the topic at that, but while waiting for sleep to arrive that night, Sansa felt a strange warmth in her heart when thinking about the once-proud lion snoring lightly close to her.

----------

“Did you ever find your true knight in the Vale, little bird?” Sandor addressed Sansa another night. The trapping had been poor that evening and they were reduced to eating their fast-dwindling stores of dry cheese and bread.  They had retired to their bedrolls, each nibbling the hard pieces that had been reduced almost to crumbs at the bottom of their saddlebags.

Why should he ask that? Sansa wondered. Did he really believe her to be the same stupid girl as before, excited about the tourney and blushing over a red rose given to her by the Knight of the Flowers? She had learned to relax in Sandor’s company but sometimes still felt the odd strangeness between them. She felt as if there were much more to say, but neither of them had the courage to say it, whatever it might have been.

"There are no true knights,” Sansa replied, concentrating hard on catching the small crumbs falling between her fingers, licking at them with her pink tongue and drawing to them into her mouth. “You know that. You told me that. And I have seen that it is true.”

“Glad to hear I was able to do something useful. So, if there are no true knights…?” Sandor didn’t finish his sentence but it was clear it contained a question. He too was catching the crumbs from his hands, small pieces paling into insignificance in his huge palms.

Sansa had finished her meal and leaned against a rock next to her bedroll. She tugged the corner of the deerskin, trying to pull it to cover herself. Noticing that, Sandor moved to release the fur from under him and patted it awkwardly onto her lap. He leaned close to her and Sansa caught a whiff of his scent; sweat, horse and grime. None of them were clean after so many days in the saddle in same clothes. She could smell her own filthiness as well and was embarrassed by it. At the same time, it comforted her – they were all the same.

“I think he means to ask if Littlefinger took any liberties with you. You being a woman wedded and bedded, after all,” Jaime suggested, earning an angry glance from Sandor. The topic had not been discussed since Jaime and Brienne had taken her away, but Sansa knew they had been wondering just the same.

“Wedded, yes, but not bedded - then.” Sansa blushed – this was not a topic a highborn lady usually discussed – but the barriers between them had been eroding over time, whittled away bit by bit like a river through sand and stone. They all felt barer in each other’s company by now.

Jaime looked surprised. Wouldn’t he have thought his brother capable of that sort of kindness? For a moment Sansa pondered where Tyrion was. Was he still alive? Would they ever see each other again?

“Petyr whisked me away from King’s Landing and thought it gave him rights over me.” Sansa shuddered, remembering the feeling of Littlefinger’s hands touching her, his lips pressing on hers. First she had pushed him away in shock, but Petyr had told her how ungrateful she was and how she would be returned to King’s Landing if she didn’t behave. So Sansa had capitulated, too terrified at the thought of being in the hands of the Lannisters again. The nightmares of the black cells and the sight of her pale and tormented father emerging from them plagued her at night.

“Aye, it is a shame that nobody offered to do that before.” Sandor’s fists clenched tight. Sansa blushed and lowered her gaze, remembering his blood-covered face and terror-stricken eyes on the night he came to her.

“Somebody did – and I should have accepted his offer. I was foolish then and didn’t know what was best.” Her voice was hardly audible. Sansa had thought of that night often, wondering how things would have turned out had she accepted Sandor’s offer

The first time Petyr came to her at night he had been drinking and was slightly unsteady on his feet, which was very unusual for him. Sansa tried to passively resist at first, despite knowing it to be futile, lying in her bed, stiff and unyielding. To her surprise Petyr had been unexpectedly gentle and when he came, he had cried out “Cat!” before collapsing on top of her. Afterwards he sat on the edge of her bed and from the shaking of his hunched shoulders, Sansa knew he was sobbing. She was confused at this. It was unthinkable that Lord Baelish would actually cry; he, who was always in control of himself.  For a moment she had almost felt sorry for him – but only almost. The hurt in her private parts and the feeling of being degraded in a way even the beatings from the Kingsguard had not managed was still too raw.

Sansa knew it would have been the same or even worse had she married Joffrey. Tyrion could have taken her as well and nobody would have batted an eyelid, he being her lord husband. Yet Petyr was not her husband, he was supposed to be her rescuer and it was probably the feeling of being betrayed that hurt the most.

Afterwards Petyr had been remorseful and kind, offering her moon tea and acceding to her wishes more than ever before. For the first time Sansa had started to understand Cersei’s words about the woman’s weapons. She knew she should have used the opportunity and asked for more concessions of him but she simply couldn’t. She didn’t want to lower herself to the same level as Cersei, using her womanhood as a bargaining tool.

The second time Petyr came to her it didn’t hurt, but as she was lying there Sansa remembered how Lysa Arryn had screamed in ecstasy on her wedding night, and the enthusiastic tales Randa had told her about how sweet love could be. Is this it? she had found herself thinking, relieved when Petyr had quickly finished and rolled away from her.

Sansa had reconciled herself to that fate from that moment, at least until she was able to come up with a plan to escape; something she had started to think about more and more. To her relief, there had been no third time before Brienne had ridden into the castle. She wished Brienne had arrived earlier but what had happened had happened. The loss of her maidenhead was the least of her worries compared to the sense of betrayal and violation of trust she felt.

Petyr had long ago taken the step of obtaining a document signed by septons from the Maidenpool that stated that Sansa was still as untouched as the day she was born. It had taken two septas poking and examining her to confirm what she already knew but an official document was what Petyr needed to eventually annul her marriage when the time was right. Knowing its value, Sansa had stolen into his solar and taken it with her when she left.

As Sandor’s hands brushed against her lap while tugging at the fur, Sansa instinctively winced at the memory of Petyr’s touches. Sandor pulled away immediately and for some reason Sansa felt sorry, wanting to tell him that it was not his touch that intimidated her but the memory of Petyr’s unwanted attentions. But Sandor had already withdrawn and was now sitting as far away from her as possible, his face grim.

“So he had his way with you.  It does you no good to dwell on that; you were not in a position to stand up to him any more than when you married my brother,” Jaime said in his clumsy attempt to console her.

“Sick bastard,” Sandor growled and clenched his fists even harder.

I did not marry your brother, I was married to him! The Lannisters didn’t give me much choice.”  Sansa’s voice was bitter. “Women never have a choice, that much has been taught to me since childhood. Learn your courtesies, obey your elders, accept whomever they choose as your husband in their great wisdom. My parents chose Joffrey for me. The Lannisters chose Tyrion for me. Petyr chose himself for me and I had no say in any of it. All I could ever do was bear the consequences!”  She was getting angry now, her face flushed.

“I was given to understand that you wanted to marry Joffrey – at least initially?” Jaime looked at her questioningly and she realised he had been told only one side of the story. He had been away from King’s Landing when things started to unravel for her.

“I did, at first, before seeing him for what he was. As I said, I have been foolish and made many wrong choices. But I am done with all of that. From now on I will make my own decisions! I will not be forced to marry against my wishes and I will be more careful about in whom I put my trust.” Sansa’s voice had steel in it that had not been there before. The young trusting girl, who had been taught to submit to her elders, respect authority and put her faith in the hands of others, had died. That girl had succumbed to the relentless pressure of knowing that she was all alone in the world and that the only person she could rely on was herself. Sansa stretched herself out on the bedroll and after a moment of hesitation, Sandor pulled the fur up to her neck, careful to avoid touching her, before lowering himself next to her.

“I hope that your present company has earned your trust,” Jaime whispered after a while from the darkness.

“If you hadn’t, I would be with Brienne now,” Sansa replied with a sleepy voice. She felt Sandor stirring slightly next to him, as if he had let go of a withheld breath. Despite the earlier irritation, for some reason she felt good - about this moonless night, about the hulking body of her companion, and about the whispered voice that had pushed her one small step closer towards the concept of trust being redeemed in her eyes

ladytp: (Anne of Cleves)

Jaime

In the morning Jaime woke up his face against the back of the Hound, so much bigger and so much different to waking up to Brienne or Sansa. As he started to stir, he noticed the other man was leaning against Sansa, who was almost fully engulfed by the body of this big man, her back against his chest. He wasn’t sure what to think of that – the scarred dog claiming the innocent maiden, although only in his sleep. Though perhaps things were not as they appeared. Maybe she was not the innocent maiden anymore and maybe he was not the dog.

Sansa Stark had certainly been married, to his own whore-mongering little brother. Where are you Tyrion? Have you fulfilled your own quest? Would he have left her innocent? Maybe, maybe not. But Petyr Baelish surely would not – he would have tried to relive his lost love for Catelyn Stark through her daughter’s soft body. More innocence lost , not only of body but of mind. Jaime remembered her from Winterfell and the Kingsroad, how her eyes had gleamed with sunshine and starlight, her head filled with dreams of her golden prince and a future filled with happiness. Grand tourneys, beautiful gowns, dazzling jewellery and knightly valour all around her. She had learned quickly enough that it was not real life.

In the days they had spent alone since Brienne had left, Jaime had noticed how much she had changed, and not only in appearance. Yes, she was a blossoming young woman now with curves of the hip and breasts and a face that had lost all its girlish roundness.  Her lips were plump and red and full of promise to an unsuspecting man paying too much attention to them. More than that, there was something in her eyes, in how she watched him. Assessing, probing, and taking in everything he did or said with unnerving intensity. She accepted the news about her mother with horror, which soon turned to sorrow. Yet she absorbed even that pain with gravity and wisdom beyond her years. She was still courteous, but any naivety he had seen in her before was gone and replaced with something…steely. Sometimes he thought he saw a flash of a wolf’s gaze in her eyes. No, not an innocent maiden anymore but an old soul who had seen too much.

The Hound he could not figure out either. After his initial rage he had settled down, and although they had not talked much beyond the necessities, Jaime had already been astonished by the changes he saw in him. The rage in his eyes was mostly gone; that simmering, burning quiet anger that had surrounded him almost as long as he could remember. What had replaced it he could not say. Was it emptiness, had he given up? Or was there calm and acceptance, had his soul finally found a way to address the wrongs in his life?

When the younger Clegane had first arrived at Casterly Rock, Jaime had felt sorry for the scarred young lad and tried to befriend him. They hadn’t had much time together as soon afterwards Jaime had been raised to the knighthood and to the Kingsguard. Only years later, when Sandor had also arrived at the court had their paths crossed again. By this time the young boy craving acceptance away from his childhood of horrors had turned to an angry young man, rejected by his peers and shunned by everyone else. His walls had been raised so high and so thick that Jaime had not been able surmount them – and he suspected that nobody had. So he had accepted the general wisdom which stated that the Hound was beyond redemption; a cruel, indifferent warrior who cared for nothing and nobody. His desertion at the Battle of Blackwater did nothing to enhance his reputation, nor the disturbing news of the sack of Saltpans. Jaime had not been able to believe it had truly been the Hound…but then many people had done many things in the War of Five Kings that he would not have believed them to be capable of.

----------

Soon all of them were stirring, getting up, brushing the newly fallen snow away from their clothes and furs. They disassembled their small camp, a sorry shadow of the encampments he was used to in the Kingsguard. No silken tents, no squires packing his armour, no cooks with their big cauldrons doling out hot broth to start the day. Only some sad-looking bedrolls and furs on hard ground, a waterskin buried under them to prevent it from freezing. They saddled and packed their horses and got on their way without breaking their fast. They were still too close to the Vale to afford wasting time.

They rode the whole day, winding through the woods and crossing hunters’ trails and paths between small villages and homesteads. The desolation of the area was haunting – like all the people living in it had disappeared, leaving behind only the shells of their existence. They rode on through the quiet landscape, not exchanging a word before finally stopping to break their fast at midday. The place they chose was near a small stream, and Jaime went to water his and Sansa’s horses before attending to their own needs.

As Jaime turned to take them back to where Sansa was pulling out their scanty provisions, the Hound stopped him. His big hand clutched Jaime around his throat and almost lifted him off the ground. His face was flushed from the cold, but could not match the frost in his eyes which were pale grey in the daylight, piercing through him. His voice was coarse and he uttered every word with a ferocity that was almost visceral.

“You. Did. Not. Touch. Her.” It was not exactly a question, more like a plea, no matter the intensity with which it was uttered.

Jaime felt almost insulted – only almost, as by now he had learned to accept so much more than he would ever have dreamed himself capable of. He had also learned to read more of what drove people to do what they did, and in his anger Sandor had revealed a vulnerability he could sympathise with.

“Let me go, Clegane, your anger is wasted on me. I have not touched her, and I will not. She is not Cersei.” Their eyes met and for a moment Jaime thought he saw the same pity he had detected earlier in Sansa’s eyes. He understands. For the shortest of moments, they looked into each other’s souls and he saw the same yearning in Sandor that he had. For something to hold his life together, for something to believe in, for something to…love. The connection of souls, ever so short. The Hound lowered his gaze first, dropping him down. Jaime moved away with the horses, not waiting to see if the other man would follow.

As the evening arrived, they found as secure spot as they could manage against a protective boulder, made their camp, ate some more and slid under the furs. Sansa slept closest to the boulder to protect her from the wind, the Hound next to her and Jaime next to him. Jaime marvelled at how easily the earlier arrangement they’d had could be unravelled. He wondered idly if he should be offended,  but as the new arrangement suited him well and raising the issue would only disturb their peaceful progression, he let it go.

Sansa

The snow kept on falling lightly but steadily, blanketing the ground with a display of glittering flakes reflecting the cool light of the sun. In other circumstances Sansa would have thought it beautiful – now the sight represented discomfort and a threat to their lives. They travelled through the day, stopping only for necessities. She felt acutely the embarrassment of having to wander into the woods for her natural needs. Initially Jaime had wanted to follow her to make sure she would be guarded at all times, but Sansa had succeeded in convincing him that she would always stay within shouting distance. The indignity of it grated on her, but Sansa had learned to accept worse in the Vale and determinedly pushed it out of her mind. Nevertheless, when she did go to the woods on their first day together, she felt the Hound’s gaze on her and felt discomfited all over again.

By now, Sansa had noticed that her initial impression of Sandor being the same as before was incorrect. His eyes did not hold the same rage, and he did not scowl constantly. He had also established quickly and bluntly that he was not the Hound anymore and did not wish to be called by that name. In addition, there was something serene about him; the quiet dignity and purpose of movement when he rode, when he attended to chores in the camp and when he scouted their surroundings. Sansa felt Sandor’s gaze on her more often than not as they rode, but did not find it uncomfortable.

That evening they judged themselves to be far enough from the Vale and deep enough in the forest to risk lighting a fire.  Sandor disappeared for a while and came back with a hare, blood still dripping from its nostrils, red falling against the white snow in the clearing where Jaime had built a fire.

Sansa sat next to the fire, feeding it with small pieces of kindling in an attempt to keep it going. Jaime was reclining next to her, the two of them watching as Sandor’s strong fingers removed the skin of the animal. He worked effortlessly, first cutting a triangle at the base of the tail, then opening the sides of the hind and front legs, peeling the skin until he had a good handhold before tugging it all the way down the body in one smooth motion over the head. It remained attached only from the nose and ears, which he cut off with his dagger, throwing the tube-shaped skin away.

"So you saw Brienne of Tarth again. How else would you have known to come after us?” Jaime asked as Sandor started to dismember the animal.

Sandor cut through the bones and cartilage of the legs. His hair was so long it covered his eyes and he kept brushing it away with the back of his hand. “Aye, she came around. Wanted to know where the young wolf-bitch might have gone. Not that I understand why anyone would want to save her.

Sansa looked at him disapprovingly. “It is my sister you are talking about. Brienne gave an oath to my mother to find us both. And even without that, if she is alive I would want to find her.” She wasn’t far from tears but controlled herself, not wanting to appear weak. How can he be so dismissive of the only family I have left?

“I thought there was not much sisterly love between you, with her getting your wolf killed and all,” Sandor muttered. He looked uncomfortable now, stopping his task and shifting in his seat.

“But she is my sister, she is still my family! The only one I have left!”

“What did you tell Brienne? You must have told her something to make her continue her search, otherwise she would have come with you, I am sure,” Jaime intervened. He looked interested in that indifferent way of his.

“Told her the wolf-bitch may have left Westeros. Gone to Saltpans or Maidenpool to find a ship to the Free Cities. That’s what we might have done had I not been left to die on the roadside.” The way Sandor said it was matter-of-fact, not bitter. He had finished cutting the hare and was now skewering the pieces into thin spikes made of tree branches. His brow wrinkled in concentration. “So the warrior maid just took off, swearing to go to all ports in the Vale and if necessary, to all the Free Cities.”

“Arya is just a young girl. How could she go to Free Cities on her own?” Sansa knew Arya was the bravest of them all – but she was still just a child. Her heart chilled thinking about Arya on her own, on a ship, in a foreign land.

“Hells, I feel sorry for anyone who might try to prevent her! She killed a squire at the Crossroads Inn with her own blade, and I believe a few other men before that. And escaped from King’s Landing and survived on her own all through the War of Five Kings. If anyone can survive, she will.” Sandor directed his words to both of them but his eyes did not leave Sansa. “She survived being captured with the Wall recruits by my fucking brother, no less, escaped from Harrenhal, survived the Brotherhood Without Banners. Hells, she even survived me!”

“You didn’t hurt her, did you?” Sansa looked into Sandor’s eyes, pleading. He met her gaze, unwavering.

“No, I didn’t hurt her. I hit her with the flat blade of my axe, but that was for her own good. Otherwise she would have run directly into the Red Wedding and you surely would have no kin left anymore.”

“You were...at the Twins when my mother and...” Sansa’s voice trailed off and she couldn’t hold back her tears any longer. Although she squeezed her eyes shut, they broke free and flowed down her cheeks unhindered.

“I was there – didn’t get far though. We were just approaching the castle, the wolf-bitch and I, when I saw that something was not right. Men turning against each other more so than usual in the wedding feast. Had to decide whether to barge in and fight or to leave. Chose the latter.” Sandor stared defiantly at Sansa, challenging her to call him craven.

She didn’t, but whispered through her tears: “Thank you for saving her life. I wish...I wish that Brienne will find her.”

My mother – and Robb – and Arya – so close, but still so far.  After sobbing quietly for a while, Sansa caught on to something he had said, something she felt was passing strange. “Why did Arya leave you? Why did she not stay with you when you were hurt? You saved her life, after all.”

“She never fancied my company too much. Didn’t like that I killed her friend, the butcher’s boy. Didn’t care that I was only following orders and the boy did stand against Prince Joffrey.” Sandor lifted his chin. “You yourself attested to that, if I recall.”

Shame crept over Sansa, reminding her of all the wrong decisions she had made. “I did! Oh, I was so stupid!” I never meant any harm. I was just a stupid little child who told what she thought people wanted to hear.

“I don’t blame her for that – I am not the best company for a highborn lass. No lady would want to travel with me.” There was something poignant in the way Sandor said that…and Sansa knew why. Jaime looked at Sandor questioningly, but she had to turn her head away.

After a while she whispered, thinking how Sandor had been able to save at least one Stark, if not the one he had asked. “You kept her safe just the same.”

“So I did, but she didn’t want to grant me mercy when I needed it.” Sandor revealed his teeth in a grimace, unconsciously rubbing his left thigh. “I told her where the heart is and she didn’t have the decency to cut through mine. Even though I urged her on by telling her rubbish.”

“What did you tell her?” Jaime asked. The idea of the Hound lying helpless and dying, urging a young girl to stab him in the chest must have been bizarre to him.

Sandor looked down. “That doesn’t matter. Just some rubbish about wanting to hurt her kin. Only said it to make her do it.”

“Was that the truth? Did you ever want to hurt her family?” Sansa asked, having regained control of her weeping. She wondered if Sandor had told Arya about the beatings she had received at Joffrey’s instigation. Had Sandor told Arya that he had hit Sansa as well? As untrue as it was.

Sandor looked at her with an expression of naked angst on his face. “No… not really. Never wanted to, but probably did it anyway.” Sansa was quiet after that and did not ask anything more.

“Brienne is so obstinate that she will surely find Arya, rest assured. She found you, didn’t she?” Jaime reached out to touch Sansa’s hand but Sandor shifted between them so that he had to drop his hand. Embarrassed, Jaime turned to him instead.

“And did Brienne specifically ask you to come after us? Did she doubt my ability to protect Lady Stark, useless one-paw that I am?” Sansa heard irritation in his voice – it must have vexed him to be a lesser knight than before.

“She didn’t have to. Left the same day,” Sandor growled in response. He pushed the skewers with rabbit meat onto the ground next to the flames and stood up abruptly, indicating that the conversation was over.

ladytp: (Anne of Cleves)

Jaime

The Lion was tired.

More tired than he had ever been in his life – he felt like a piece of tightly-wound cord that had finally snapped, or like a collapsed puppet whose strings had been cut. The weight on his cord, his puppet master, was now lying on the ground in front of him wrapped in heavy furs, long eyelashes fluttering as she was drifting towards sleep.

Beside her lay the dagger that had cut the cord and strings. He too was wrapped in furs as the night was freezing and they had no true cover.

His sole responsibility for her well-being having been lifted, he needed sleep more than ever.  He contemplated where he should lay himself down. Next to the highborn maiden, enveloping her between two rough men, or against the broad back and shoulders of the dog

----------

The Hound had caught up with them that day, riding like the Stranger himself on his huge black courser. He had murder in his eyes as he saw the Lion of Lannister, and probably would have cut him down then and there if not for the soft words of his companion.

Jaime saw her talking to him earnestly, urgently – they were gesturing in his direction and he saw the Hound’s fist clenching and unclenching around the hilt of his broadsword. Finally he seemed to settle down and let go of the weapon.

The rest of the evening had passed in thick silence, heavy glances passing between the three of them. They ate their meagre supplies of hard bread and cheese and briefly established why each of them now found themselves in a small clearing between the Eyrie and the Neck

Jaime and Brienne - the stubborn, honourable Warrior Maid of Tarth - had finally located Sansa Stark, the last remaining heir of the line of Kings in the North. A chance remark at the inn in Gulltown about the beautiful and impeccably-mannered bastard daughter of Petyr Baelish had alerted them. The remark had led them on an arduous journey to the base of the mountain, the Gates of the Moon. Winter’s cold fingers were grabbing at them and chilled them to the core, but they had pressed on through the bleak landscape driven by a mutual quest – for what? Not only for the Princess in the North. For Jaime, his lost honour. For Brienne, the oath she had sworn to a woman who was now dead and undead at the same time. Luckily for them, the cold had also assured that the target of their mission had descended to a place more easily accessible than the impenetrable Eyrie.

Brienne had entered the castle first, announcing herself openly while Jaime had waited outside the walls. Petyr Littlefinger had done his usual devious best, side-stepping Brienne’s questions while keeping his own options open. Yet even he had been taken by surprise by how quickly Brienne had whisked his bastard daughter away. The master of subterfuge had been defeated in his own game, the girl having learned from the master how to lull him into a false sense of security. Why would she want to leave her good father, who had just promised her a marriage with Harry the Heir, the future Lord of the Vale?  Nevertheless she had done so, smiling sweetly at Petyr in front of Brienne but later coming to her in the middle of the night packed up and ready to leave. She had been covered in an old white cloak of the Kingsguard, charred and covered in faint brown bloodstains, clutching the bag filled with her few belongings. They had ridden out that same night and Sansa had not looked back.

----------

It had not been easy to pass the land patrolled by the Vale soldiers, but they had made it without being caught – yet. After only a few days of riding, Brienne had stopped. Her scarred face had borne an expression Jaime had learned to recognise well: she had decided to do something honourable, righteous and stupid. He envied her for that: the self-assurance that deluded her into believing that she always knew what the right thing to do was.

Brienne had been the first to bring forth the news of the Hound’s death after hearing of it from the Elder Brother. Once she had escaped the clutches of Lady Stoneheart, she had remembered the tall, limping grave-digger and returned to the Quiet Isle, challenging the Elder Brother about the truth of Sandor Clegane’s death. The old man would not have revealed anything but the grave-digger himself had stepped forward, wanting to know who was after him and why. Brienne had not succeeded in getting much out of him but had been able to convince him that she was not after him – only the Stark daughter who had last been seen in his company. This was also why she had now stubbornly decided to go back after her – her oath encompassed the safe return of both daughters of Catelyn Stark. So despite a heated argument between the two of them, she had left.

Brienne. Jaime missed her, but wasn’t sure himself as to why. Was it because she was a reflection of the worthy knight he now desperately wanted to be – or because she was the hand that guided him on the narrow path of honour? Or did he miss her broad shoulders and comforting presence? She was like no woman he had ever met – and best of all, she was nothing like Cersei. Nobody is like Cersei.

----------

Over the next few days Jaime and Sansa travelled alone. She was initially clearly suspicious of him and his motives, glancing at him as if unsure of whether she should try to outrun him or not. In the evenings they conversed, at first only about necessities, but gradually they started to share more.  Jaime started to reveal to her some parts of the long journey he had undertaken from being the arrogant, golden heir of the arrogant, golden house to the deserter of his own family and his king – his own son.

Not that he admitted that much to her. There were still things that were better to be left unsaid. Did she understand why he was chasing this most elusive thing of all, the honour he had lost so many years ago that getting it back was probably as impossible as capturing the mist hanging over the fields in the still mornings? He couldn’t be sure but eventually Sansa seemed to make her peace with his company and little by little, Jaime thought he started to see quiet acceptance in her features as she was scrutinising him silently.

From there on, their travel had been quiet and contented, both deep in their own thoughts. Once she had asked about Cersei and he had spoken of her last letter pleading for his help. After telling her how he had thrown it into the fire, he could have sworn there had been pity in Sansa’s eyes. It had made him uncomfortable and he had cut the discussion short. He didn’t feel like her saviour at that moment and the thought of this young woman feeling sorry for him was too much. It was too raw and too close to the truth.

Jaime had thought he would need to go through the same arguments and prolonged battle of wills as he had with Brienne about sharing the furs. Sansa had not even questioned him when on the first evening he had listed his reasons about why it would be the most sensible thing to do if they didn’t want to freeze to death. She had simply looked at him, long and hard, seemingly coming to a conclusion in her mind before nodding and sliding in next to him like it was the most natural thing in the world. She was small and slim, not at all like Brienne, and he noticed he missed the warrior maid’s strength beside him. He missed her muscular arms and the chest which hardly felt womanly at all with her barely-noticeable breasts, and the feeling of companionship they shared. On some nights she had rested her head against his shoulder, on some nights he against hers. With Sansa he was afraid of leaning towards her and felt it too intrusive to pull her closer to him, so they settled into a warm but chaste side-by-side arrangement. When he was looking at the stars far above them on a cloudless night, he was wondering why he didn’t feel more excited. She was the most beautiful woman he had seen for a long time and her body was soft next to his. But she is not Cersei.

One evening, Sansa asked him: “Why do you do this when you don’t have to? You could be in King’s Landing right now, in a high position in King Tommen’s court.”

Jaime looked at her, wondering how ill-prepared he was for this question.  After all, he should have known it was coming sooner or later.

“Why do I want to retrieve the shreds of my honour, however feeble that attempt may be and doomed to failure? Or why did I choose you, of my many failures, as my redeeming cause? Which one you mean, my dear lady?” He tried to keep his tone light, behaving as if he was still the untouchable knight, the youngest member of Kingsguard and as if nothing mattered.

“Both, I suppose. Why me? What do you want to achieve?” Her eyes did not leave his face to allow him time to consider.

Jaime pressed his eyes closed, trying to decide whether the question required a flippant answer or a truthful one. What was the truth anyway, what had made him do this? Search for his honour? He had nothing else left in this world to anchor him; no parents, his brother disappeared and hating him with the passion, his children not his children – and Cersei…not Cersei anymore. He couldn’t care less about the power and wealth, the position of Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Lately he had found that his peace of mind was something worth pursuing. He dreamt of a future when he could get up and go through the day feeling an inner calm and a sense of satisfaction. Funny how the lack of it never used to bother him.

Finally he replied: “I would like to find the feeling I had when I was fifteen and newly knighted again. I would like to find the feeling of knowing what is right and wrong and know that I am doing the right thing. Whether I will find it in this foolish quest, I don’t know, but I have to start somewhere.” They sat in silence for a long time, but eventually he felt a small touch on his arm. Sansa’s hand was resting lightly close to his stump for a moment and when he raised his eyes to hers, she smiled gently.

“You will find it, I’m sure of it.”

----------

The big man startled but settled down quickly as Jaime pressed his back against his. They had both been in enough campaigns in freezing cold conditions, where the only thing protecting you from the chill in the night is the warm body of your fellow soldier. And he was warm – a big, solid wall of warmth, like Brienne had been when they had travelled together. Unlike Sansa, she had initially resisted sharing the furs, but after a night in the open when both of them had lain awake with their teeth chattering, she had finally relented. So they had huddled together from thereon but it had always been chaste. Jaime wanted her close, wanted to hold her or to be held by her, but no more than that.

He thought about the campaign from his youth when he was still an untried boy. His father had sent him to learn about warfare in one of the frequent skirmishes with the Ironborn. He and an older soldier, who had been assigned to protect him as his shield, had fallen into the sea in heavy storms and been separated from the rest of troops. Soaking wet and ice cold, they had reached one the small, rocky outcrops. With cold winds blowing across the bare rock and no fire to warm them, they had done the only thing they could in order to stay alive; they had stripped their wet clothes and huddled against each other behind the low lip of a rock. For two days and nights they had stayed there. Eventually their clothes had dried, but it was still the warmth contained in the cradle of two naked bodies pressed against each other, covered with the layers of their clothes, that had kept them alive.

Jaime remembered how his companion had told him stories to while the time away. Stories of his other campaigns, of his childhood home in a little village near Lannisport and many others, too numerous to remember. While murmuring them in his low voice, he had rubbed Jaime’s back with long, sure strokes. He had laid his golden head against his broad chest, listening to his slow and steady heartbeat, and had felt warm and secure.

At the end of the second day their ship had returned on a search mission and they had been rescued. Afterwards they never talked about the time in the rocky island and never shared the blankets again. Only later, when he had seen more of the soldier’s life, had he started to think about the experience in a new light. He had learned that some men found themselves a shieldmate to comfort them in their long stretches away from home. For some men it was only a temporary arrangement, ending as soon as they were back with their wives or camp followers, but for others it was the only way they knew how to love. Those men often stayed with their shieldmates, even after retiring from army life.

He couldn’t ask his old protector about any of this, even if had he wanted to, as he had been killed only few weeks after the incident. Jaime remembered he himself had no wife and no camp followers accompanying him. There had been times when he had been enraged about this possible insult to his lordly dignity – he was the heir of Casterly Rock, after all. Yet there had also been times when he dreamt of strong arms and a flat stomach pressing against him, the murmuring of a low voice in his ear. These dreams had made him even more confused and in the end he had simply given up trying to understand how the experience had made him feel. He never told Cersei, which was unusual as otherwise they shared absolutely everything. For a while only – you didn’t tell me about Lancel or the Kettleblacks.

Sansa

When Sansa saw the Hound riding towards them, she had been surprised – at first. Ever since she had heard from Brienne that he was not dead, not wandering Westeros as a broken man, not journeyed across the sea to join a sellsword company and most definitely not the butcher of Saltpans – all fates people assumed had befallen him – she had had a strange feeling that their paths would cross again. Why that would be, she could not explain. She only knew that something had been left unsaid between them, something that needed to be resolved.

It soon became clear that Brienne’s visit to the Quiet Isle in her mission to find Arya had sent Sandor on his way. Precious Brienne – she might not have intended it that way but Sansa was grateful to her just the same.

The intensity in Sandor’s voice when he demanded to know what the Kingslayer was doing escorting her both scared and thrilled her. His expression then had been the same as in King’s Landing – fury in his grey eyes, his scarred face contorted in a scowl. After she had succeeded in convincing him that Jaime was not doing this for the Lannisters but for his own reasons, they suddenly found themselves wordless. The memory of their parting on the night of the Battle of Blackwater Bay was still too raw.

Once she had started to gain maturity and perspective away from King’s Landing, Sansa had spent a lot of time thinking about him, trying to understand what had driven him to be the man he was. Now she wasn’t sure whether she had only succeeded in creating a distorted image of the real Hound in her mind or whether she really had become closer to unravelling the mystery. All she knew that the man so often in her thoughts now felt like a complete stranger.

Once she retired to her bedroll and the Hound had lain down next to her, she felt vulnerable. Not afraid – she had been childish to be afraid of his looks and the anger in his eyes when there were so many much more terrifying things in the world. Yet if she withdrew from him now, it would serve only to remind them both of the times she had shied away from his face. No, she would lie just so and if Jaime came to resume his position between them, it would be his doing, not hers. Thinking about it, she closed her eyes and fell asleep

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