Sansa watched the small party coming towards the gate. She recognized Brienne and Podrick well enough astride their horses, but the others…
"Is that the Hound?" Arya asked in disbelief. "I—I left him to die in the Vale."
Sansa saw him now; she had not realized it was truly him at first glance. The slope of his shoulders, the plainclothes, the hang of his head—none of them reminded her of the man. Whatever else had happened to the Hound had changed him. Good, she thought. Perhaps he will not frighten me so. And yet she clutched the edge of her emerald cloak, the one she wore when she needed to feel safe, the one that once had been white, stained red. Would he recognize it so changed as it was? As she was? She could remember the pressure of his cruel lips against hers, his promise to protect her and kill anyone who might harm her and she wondered. What if she had not turned away, what if she had sung her song willingly and let him take her home?
"It is," she said in answer to her sister. "You've not mentioned that story yet."
"I did not want to remember it," Arya said after a pause. "He tried to bring me to Robb, and then to Aunt Lysa. They were both dead before we could reach them. Mother, too. I expect he would have tried to take me home if I hadn't…"
Sansa felt a pang of something like jealousy. He'd saved her little sister, but not her. He should've taken her. Don't be stupid, she thought vehemently, he could not when you begged him to leave. She tore her eyes from his slouched posture and studied the foot soldiers, the rough man riding beside the Hound. Jon had not come yet, but perhaps he'd sent word ahead. The soldiers were Daenerys' Unsullied, she assumed, and the thought of letting two dozen unknown soldiers within their gates did not sit well.
"Lord Royce, I have need of a guard at the ready," Sansa said to the grizzled man at her shoulder.
"Yes, my lady," he said and left them alone atop the walls.
"Would you come with me?" she asked her sister.
"You want me to?"
"Of course." Sansa would not let her siblings leave her sight for long if she could help it. Despite the childhood spats, she'd missed Arya with desperation. They were a family. The pack survives, her father's voice whispered. She was a wolf, she needed her pack, and for better or worse, she had only Arya and Jon now. Bran was as lost to them as Rickon and Robb unless you knew to ask the right questions. Even Theon, the fool, still thought he was a kraken. Perhaps, deep down, he was, but Sansa knew he had wolf's blood too, and he'd been the family she needed when all else was lost.
They mounted up together and met Brienne a small distance away from the gates. The snows were getting deeper, making progress slow for the carts the Unsullied guarded. The dragonglass—Jon had come through. Of course, he did, Sansa assured herself. He had been doing his best, playing the game Littlefinger had loved so much. Jon had some talent with it, though he fumbled sometimes still.
"My lady Sansa, Arya," Brienne called. "I'm glad to see you both well."
Sansa looked at her sister. She'd almost lost her to Baelish's machinations. Not again. Arya's eyes were glued to the unknown man, and Sansa's brow wrinkled as she scrutinized the stranger. He looked vaguely familiar, though she could not place him beneath the growing beard and thick cloak.
"And us you, Brienne, Podrick. Welcome back." Sansa hesitated, then turned her gaze to the Hound. "My lord Clegane, you made it North, after all, I see." The corner of his mouth twitched but his eyes had some other thoughts, other emotions swimming in them. His scar still marred his features, but it was not all she saw now. No, he looked changed, softer somehow. Sansa felt she might lose her composure if she did not speak again and so she asked, "Who is your companion?"
"Gendry?" Arya whispered, and Sansa watched the man nod hesitantly.
"Gendry Waters, my lady," Brienne was saying, "son of Robert Baratheon. He's pledged himself to your brother." Sansa could see the resemblance now and thought that Gendry looked more like a king than his father or even his false half-brother ever had. How Arya knew him would be a question for another time.
"Welcome to Winterfell," Sansa said. "Has Jon sent word with you?"
"We left him well in White Harbor. He and Daenerys are meeting the Dothraki and Lannisters at Moat Cailin and then coming North. He sent the dragonglass and Gendry ahead to begin forging weapons. The queen sent the Unsullied so they might begin preparing lodgings and defenses if you'll allow them, my lady."
Sansa nodded slowly. It was sound, and since Jon had bent the knee, perfectly reasonable. Baelish's voice whispered that she should take back the North, Vale, and Riverlands for herself, but Sansa knew better. The lone wolf dies, her father whispered. "Of course. We must do what we can. Come, let us share bread and mead, and then we can proceed with preparations."
She wheeled her horse about and led the way back inside. Winterfell was near full to bursting, but they would manage. They had to. Brienne dismounted in the yard and Sansa wondered at the tall woman's ease here. Her home was in the Sapphire Isles and yet Brienne looked like she belonged in the North. Podrick less so, but he was a devoted man. The Hound, she was surprised to see, did not seem out of place either. It was Gendry's reaction, however, that surprised her. He swept Arya up into a bear hug and swung her around as Jon used to, holding her as if she'd been lost to him, and Arya let him.
"I thought the Red Woman killed you," she said breathlessly when her feet were back on the ground.
"She tried. You made it home!"
"In a roundabout sort of way, yes. I saw Hot Pie. He's still at the inn."
"And you still have Needle."
Sansa felt Sandor at her back. "They met on your sister's way North, little bird, before I stole her from the Brotherhood," he said as Sansa watched the reunion. "I was going to trade her for a place with your brother's army. I've got one now too, just the wrong brother."
"I would not say the wrong one, ser. Had you joined Robb, you'd have joined him in death," Sansa said, trying to stay outwardly calm. Her insides were in turmoil at the sound of his rough voice. Little bird.
"I'm no knight," he growled, still himself on that point.
"And I'm no summer child anymore," she said, hoping she was right.
"And yet you're still looking for your Florian?"
"No." That was true, she knew. Florian had been a fool, and Jonquil more so. She would not be the little bird this time, she was not a foolish girl.
"Forgive me if I don't believe you," he said, just loud enough for her. They watched Gendry show Arya his war hammer and the dragonglass. Brienne had started organizing the offloading of the carts, coordinating with the new castellan to organize temporary quarters for the soldiers. And Sansa had never felt more alone. No, not alone, she thought. Only lonely. She pulled the emerald cloak tighter about her shoulders. She knew how to be lonely, she could handle it.
"Come little bird, you promised bread and mead," Sandor said after Brienne had the castellan to work.
"I did, my lord," she said, not willing to provoke him by addressing him as a knight again. The Mother had not heard her pleas, to cool the rage he carried with him, it seemed. That was fine, he could rage all he liked. Little bird. "And then we will have rooms made up for you and your companions."
Where she did not yet know. The lords and ladies from across the Kingdoms had filled every decent room. Unless she wanted him to appear in her chambers again one night, she'd have to manage. The thought made her stomach tighten and heat spread across her cheeks. No, that would not do, she knew. She would find him space.
That night, the usual nightmares left her, and instead, she found herself in the Wolfswood, alone among the snow drifts and barren trees. The hoofbeats of Ramsey's search party circled and she felt her tears freezing on her face. The gown Meryn Trant had ruined fell from her shoulders, pooled around her frozen legs. She could run no more, her breathing ragged as it tore from her chest. A sound, a cracking tree branch, came from behind her and she whirled, spilling onto her back. A wolf watched her from the edge of the clearing.
But no, the wolf came closer and he was not a wolf at all but one of her father's wolfhounds, his fur patchy, his face and body disfigured by scars. She tried to back away, pulling herself through the white snow stained red. The dog advanced, a growl forever stuck on his face, but he did not attack, only came closer, circled her and sniffed her face, while her fingers turned blue with cold. He settled by her side with a sigh, curling his body against hers and tucking his nose under his crooked tail. Sansa hesitated, but then she wove her fingers into the limp grey fur. The snow began to melt away, and the moss beneath came to life while the dog slept on. The hoofbeats faded to nothing, and somewhere a songbird started to sing.
"They're all afraid of me," the dog said, then rested his jaws in her lap and let his grey eye come to rest on her face.
She woke with a start, clutching at her pounding heart. She half-expected to find Lady beside her, her breaths a quiet lullaby, but no, Lady was dead, as were most of her father's dogs, as they'd acquired a taste for men. No, she was alone. She knew she wouldn't fall asleep again, so she rose, dressed in something simple and pulled on her green cloak. It settled well about her shoulders from hundred of days under its warmth. She felt powerful in green, though she wasn't sure which had come first—the cloak or the feeling. It didn't truly matter, the cloak had not saved her from Ramsey or Littlefinger. She tried not to think of the short little man who'd made her feel so small as she walked to the walls where she stood to watch for Jon's return. Five more nights, she knew, until the dragons descended. She only hoped Jon knew what he was doing.
She watched the white winds blow across the hills, imagining figures in the swirls and flurries. She shuddered, not from cold, but from the thought that soon the figures might not be imagined.
"Running from your nightmares?" a rough voice asked, and Sansa whirled. She'd been certain she'd been alone. But there was the Hound, huddled in the shadows, his face cast in darkness. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of her fear so she took a deep breath to steady herself.
"Are you?" she asked, not expecting an answer.
"Your damned servants lit a fire in my grate," he snarled. Sansa clenched her jaw; she should have remembered. She would tell them in the morning.
"It's too cold to not have a fire," she said to steady herself.
"I would have survived," he growled. "Once you would have apologized and run to fix it for me with all your damned courtesies."
She didn't doubt he would have survived, nor that she would have tried to be the thoughtful mistress of Winterfell. Too much had changed for her to worry about the small things. Though she knew fire bothered him more than as a small thing. She should have remembered. She could not think of anything to say that would not be an empty courtesy, so she turned away from him to face the night, the light of the torches ghosting in her vision.
"Waiting for your sweet summer prince to come save you from your demons?" He spat the words with venom.
"What then, did you have a dream of Joffrey coming back to haunt you?" He wasn't letting up, always cruel, harsh, honest.
"There are worse things than Joffrey," she said, he voice catching on the name, coming out like one of the Hound's classic snarls. "You once told me life was not like one of my pretty songs. Consider my education complete in that area and leave me to forget the past in peace. Please."
Angry tears bit her cheeks and she shut her eyes, wishing the nightmare would end, that she would wake up again, rested and as happy as she could manage. She didn't hear him leave, but she could outlast him in the cold, couldn't she? Surely she had some Stark blood in her, some of her father's strength, stoicism. She counted gusts of wind, wishing he would disappear on one. Please, she begged, I cannot take more cruel words tonight.
"Do you regret not letting me take you away?" he asked, his voice coming from just next to her. Yes, she thought, but she could not admit it aloud. Not now, not to him.
"You scared me that night," she said instead. He took her roughly by the elbow, turned her toward him, reminding her of the night cast in the unnatural green glow of wildfire. His jaw was set in a near grimace as he stared down at her face, the torchlight highlighting and casting his scars in shadow by turns.
"No," she whispered and wondered if he would sniff out the lie as he once said dogs could or if she had improved in that at least.
"What did the world do to you, my little bird?" His voice was rough and raw as he lifted a gloved hand to wipe away her tears, gentle there whereas his hold on her arm felt like it might bruise.
"Just what you said it would." Would he steal a kiss again? Pull her against his hard, unrelenting chest? She lifted her own frozen fingers to cup his cheek as she once had; this time it was free of blood or tears.
"I did not think the world would give you worse than the blond bastard," he said.
"It did," she said, her voice swimming in bitterness. "I should have let you take me." It came out in an unexpected whisper, and she hoped the wind had taken the words away from his ears.
"You would not have been safe with me."
"I was not safe without you."
She felt his thumb brush the corner of her lips. "You survived."
Had she? She didn't feel like she had. In fact, she felt as though she'd died the moment he left her his white cloak and only a kiss to remember him by.
"So did Arya." And she has more memories of you.
"Not because of me."
"Are you so sure?"
"I couldn't even return her to her bloody family properly."
"She'd be dead or worse if you had."
"Worse? What is worse than death?"
"The world took your song then?" he asked.
"Why? Did you want another?" she challenged him.
"No, my little bird, I'd not make you give another one."
My little bird. It was the second time he'd said that. Did he think she was his now? "You could. The world has stolen everything else."
"Who hurt you? I'll kill them just like I promised," he growled.
"You're too late," she accused him, realizing for the first time that she was angry he'd not come to save her. He had saved her before, why hadn't he come? "Jon killed one, Arya the other. I don't need a shining prince, after all, my lord, when my family can do just as well. You were right."
Call me yours, she thought defiantly. It'd be true.
"And if your brother gets himself killed for rushing the damned Night King again? Or your sister takes on too many Walkers? What then? Who will save you then?"
"I can save myself now, my lord. I'm not a little child, hoping for her knight to save her."
"You? You can save yourself from the true monsters?" His face screwed up in scorn, then softened with some emotion she could not place.
"I'll do more than that. My people need me. I cannot wait to be saved when I need to save them. I will save them." Perhaps if she said it enough, it would become true. She must be getting better at the lying, she thought because he did not sniff out the falsehood.
"I did not want the world to break you little bird, only warn you it might," he said after a long time of searching her face. What did he find? The pain and fear and worry? Or the determination to be well, to be strong, to be more like Jon and Arya?
"Thank you for the warning, though it did not help me."
"Then let me help now. I told you once, they're all afraid of me. I'll keep you safe. This time."
"I do not need it," she insisted, though the warmth in her stomach at the words clenched and grew. He's no true knight but he saved me all the same.
"I know you do not need it, little bird, I'm only offering it." He spat the words, that rage making his face contort under her icy palm. He'd not made her move it yet, and his own fingers still cupped her chin, holding her gaze. She did not look away; the scar did not scare her as it once did. Pretty little boys caused more harm than he ever had to her.
"Do as you like," she challenged him.
"You'd not want that."
"And why not?"
"What I'd like," he said quietly, close to her face, his eyes never leaving hers, "is to fuck you bloody."
"You won't hurt me," she said, knowing he wouldn't, just as she had the first time he scared her with his violence. He was only trying to push her away.
"No, you're right. I'd not hurt you." He sighed and almost pulled out of her reach, but Sansa wasn't ready for him to disappear into the night again and leave her alone. She gripped his grey, rough-spun tunic, her fingers finding purchase in the wool beneath his own cloak. Did he recognize hers? She'd kept it much the same, aside from the color and the hood. He wouldn't think she'd kept it; he wouldn't know.
"I should have let you take me," she repeated, closing her eyes and ducking her head so he'd not see the new tears. If she didn't want him to think her a child, she'd have to stop weeping like one, she knew.
"Maybe," he rumbled, moving his hand from her chin into her hair, pulling her forehead to rest on his chest. His grip on her elbow loosened, and then he held her shoulders, as gentle as he'd ever been in the face of Joffrey's cruelty. They stood in silence for several minutes, just the sound of the torches crackling and the steady steps of the guards on the walls, avoiding them but sure to spread the word in the morning.
"Come, little bird. Let me take you back to your chambers," Sandor said gently. "You'll save no one if you don't sleep."
She went willingly enough, though she wouldn't sleep if she tried. Regardless, rest would help her in the morning when she was needed to help plan barracks and training yards for more men than she'd ever seen. They had to be within the walls, too, and Sansa didn't know how they'd manage that, not with needing to bring the Winter Town smallfolk in as well, should the Others descend without warning. Sandor took her hand on his arm and walked slow and even through the yard. Ghost paced by the gates, but he halted to watch them pass by, his ruby eyes following their movements. She missed Lady more and more when Ghost was around. He was the only direwolf left, though Arya had seen Nymeria on her way North, or so she said. She thought it was funny that the gods had left only Jon his Stark wolf when he was no Stark at all. Sandor stopped outside her door and looked down at her. "Your nest, little bird."
Sansa thought that she liked the way he said those words now, softly like they mattered, rather than as an insult. "Thank you."
He only nodded once and turned to leave her. Her heart fell as she watched him walk away down the long hallway and something angry grew inside her and rose in her throat. "You left me with a kiss last time, at least."
He froze, stock still in the flickering torchlight, and he didn't turn for a long time, long enough that Sansa regretted the words. He looked back at her over his shoulder, only his scar visible. "Are you sure about that?"
"I—" She stopped. Of course, she was sure. She could remember the feel of his lips, the way he'd held her close. A kiss and a cloak. That had been enough for marriage once. He'd promised to protect her, pulled her close, she'd closed her eyes… Sandor watched her, his back still to her but one grey eye locked on her face, watching her reel. Of course, he'd kissed her. She could remember.
"I only stole a song, little bird, though I would've stolen more," he said. Sansa's heart was pounding. No, he'd kissed her. She remembered. Didn't she?
"Then steal one now," she heard herself say over the rushing in her ears, though her mind scrambled. The kiss was real, surely. Wasn't it? Sandor was turning to watch her, to study her face. What did he see? She was lost, falling, falling. He'd kissed her. He'd been drunk, he wouldn't remember, but she hadn't been in her cups, she remembered every second.
"You'd not want that," he said, but it was a question, she could hear it in his voice.
"And if I do?"
He faced her then, took cautious steps back to her doorway, his face unreadable beneath the scar, the flickering light masking the rest. He'd been stained green by wildfire last time, she remembered that. When he was towering over her, she ached to reach out and touch him again, to make sure this was real. It had to be real. "I'm not one of your pretty little knights with sweet words and tender touches," he growled.
"I know." She knew too well. "Knights and princes and the rest have only hurt me. You'd never hurt me."
"Would I not?" He glowered in her face, so close she could feel the heat of his skin.
"No. You only wanted to protect me from them."
"Aye, and look how well I did."
"I survived," she said in a whisper, throwing his words back at him.
"That you did, little bird," he murmured, reading her gaze, but unwilling to close the small gap between their lips. She could feel his hesitancy, his concern that she was not thinking straight. He had that look about him, the one she recognized from when he'd call her a fool. She was certainly being a fool, but she knew what she wanted. She moved slowly toward him, lifting up onto her toes, to place a light kiss on his lips. He didn't react, not really, held still even as she pulled away. If the kiss the night of the Blackwater had been real, it was the opposite of this one. This one felt like heartbreak like she'd lost something precious and would never get it back.
"Seems to me you stole that one," he said, his voice rough, almost hoarse.
"What do you want with me?" He asked it without expecting an answer but one sprang to Sansa's mind that she could not voice. Everything. She did not answer him, only rested her palm in the center of his chest, counted his heartbeat. She closed her eyes, let the feel of it wash up her arm, through her own bloodstream towards her heart. The last time he'd been this close he had threatened to kill her. But he might have kissed her.
Sandor took a step towards her, and then another until Sansa had to back up or fall over. She opened her eyes to find his face and felt her back hit the wooden door. He'd smelled like wine and blood when he'd slept in her bed, waiting for her. This time he smelled like horse, sweat, and woodsmoke. He looked on the edge of rage again, and Sansa wondered what she'd said to make him so angry. He placed his hands on either side of her head, leaned into her hand until his face hovered just above hers. "Look at me."
She looked, her eyes flickering between meeting his gaze and his lips, wondering if they'd feel cruel and hard against hers or if she really had imagined them. His scar, pocked and raw, was by turns highlighted and shadowed by the wavering light. It had once made her think him hideous, but now she was hardly bothered by the sight. She lifted her other hand and gently ran her fingertips over the flesh. Sandor's eyes grew wide, but he did not stop her. When she ran her fingers over the burned corner of his mouth, she lifted her gaze back to his eyes, wondering if she'd gone too far.
"Little bird, you're not scared?" he asked, but when Sansa went to shake her head, she found she could not move because his lips had touched hers, gently, not rough and hateful as she'd imagined they might be. For surely she'd imagined the previous kiss, since she could not attribute the same to this man, with all his hesitation. She rested her palms on his broad shoulders, felt her fingers flutter with indecision over whether to grab him and pull him close or stay loose, should he change his mind. She didn't have time to make up her mind because he pulled away like he'd been burned. He would know.
Sandor cleared his throat and stepped back as if realizing they were still outside her door. "Goodnight, my lady."
And then he left her with one hand pressed to her lips and the other tangled in the green cloak that had once been white, stained red.