Okay, so this update has been a long time coming - almost a year in fact, so I want to dedicate this chapter to everyone who has waited so patiently, and everyone who has continued to encourage me during my extended hiatus. Thank you all!


Episode 19

"Roses & Thorns"

Gossip Spyder

All right peeps!

Unfortunately, there's still no further news about Sansa and Joffrey's break-up. I'm still not sure what she meant by that comment about their respective fathers, but Joffrey's been keeping a low profile these past few days.

Perhaps the embarrassment of being so publicly dumped has been getting to him? Who can say for certain? But, what I do know is our Prince of the Playground is not the type to be kept down for long!

In other news concerning the Baratheon clan, don't forget, there's the party being held at The Red Keep this Saturday night for the Tyrell's. I heard a rumor that all three of the Tyrell brothers will be in town for the event, as a show of family unity. The Starks will all undoubtedly be in attendance as well...maybe Joffrey's on orders to stay on his best behavior!

Let's see what new gossip the weekend will bring!

TTFN

Gossip Spyder


Sandor

She's done it. The little bird has finally freed herself from Joffrey. The thought had continued to enter his mind for most of that day, and indeed, he'd thought of little else in the next few days. Despite his seeming lack of reaction, and less than thrilled response when Gendry had asked the question, Sandor was undeniably relieved that Sansa had finally split from the blonde jerk.

The news of Sansa's public break up with Joffrey had spread ridiculously fast, aided by Gossip Spyder's post, of course. In the coming days, subsequent posts revealed that the Spyder hadn't been able to dig up any further details regarding the break up, or anything that would explain Sansa's mention of her father's involvement, and what had caused Joffrey to back off when Sansa had made mention of Joffrey's father.

Sandor had to admit that he'd been curious, but Arya had not been very forthcoming with information, and when he'd thought to press her for details, she had seemed somewhat distracted. He'd seen her, on more than one occasion, staring intently at Gendry and biting the corner of her lip as she did so.

"Still can't decide, huh?" he'd asked her during lunch that Friday as they watched Gendry and Hot Pie approach their table, carrying loaded trays.

"It's nothing to do with that!" she'd snapped at him, "There's just stuff…I learned…mind your own business."

"You're going to burn a hole through the back of the Bull's head," he continued, "Staring at him like that."

"Drop it before I smack you -" Arya's threat at bodily harm was cut short when her phone buzzed with an incoming call, "Hello...Oh. Hi, Mom..."

Gendry and Hot Pie took a seat at their bench while Arya engaged her mother in what sounded like a terse conversation. Sandor heard the words formal and gown followed by a lot of resistance on Arya's part, and by the time she'd ended her call, all three guys had unconsciously shifted half a foot away from her.

"Argh!" Arya thumped the table top in frustration, "Stupid...I can't believe...ugh!"

"Dare we ask?" Hot Pie ventured.

Arya took a few deep breaths, and slowly her fist unclenched, "My mother has decided that the dress I was going to wear to this stupid party at the Red Keep tomorrow wasn't appropriate, so she returned it and got me something else, and now it's too late for me to do anything about it...She's making me wear lace...lace!"

The boys looked at each other, unsure how to respond. Arya never talked about fashion around them, but Sandor figured it had to happen sometime. It was inevitable, if you hung around a girl long enough, it was bound to happen.

"Um...I'm sure you'll still look nice," Gendry volunteered.

Brave, Sandor thought, giving the guy a look of disbelief. Either that, or he's unbelievably stupid.

Arya was staring at Gendry again, and the retort Sandor had been half-expecting from her never came. Whatever Arya had on her mind, whatever she'd supposedly learned about Gendry was making her act strange, but Sandor had enough problems of his own, and he stood up when he'd finished his meal so he could go and fix one of them.

"Where are you going?" Arya asked him.

"To see Coach Selmy," Sandor replied, fishing in his pocket and showing them the note he'd been handed during his last class, "He wants to talk to me about tonight's game, to make sure there's no repeat of last week."

This brought a smirk to the little bitch's face, "You'd do it again, wouldn't you? If you could do over, you'd still choose to watch that jerk get pounded into the ground?"

Sandor did not reply, but the glint in his eyes and the evil smile-sneer on his lips was answer enough. Certainly, he would do it again, he thought. Even if we lose the fucking Championship, I'd lose every game on purpose just to see Joffrey eat dirt!

Watching Sansa dump the jerk's ass in public had been just as sweet, but he'd had to control his reaction at the time, considering how his name was already connected to the incident at Blount's party.

His visit to Coach Selmy's office went as he'd expected. The football coach had been quiet, but stern, asking him if there was a problem, and whether his performance that night would be affected. Sandor suspected that a lot of the teachers were aware of Gossip Spyder, and that some followed the gossip just as closely as the students. He wondered, as we walked out of Coach Selmy's office, if that was part of the reason for him being called in to see his coach.

At the end of the school day, just as Sandor was stowing his unwanted books back into his locker, he was perplexed to see Joffrey heading his way.

"How are you feeling about the game tonight?" Joffrey asked as he approached, "Are you feeling lucky?"

Sandor looked around him, just in case Joffrey was directing the question to someone else.

"You're talking to me?" he asked with uncertainty.

"Why wouldn't I be talking to you?" Joffrey frowned.

"Thought you'd be mad at me," Sandor shrugged, "For what happened at Blount's party."

"Mad at you?" Joffrey did look surprised at this, and confused, "You saved my neck, why would I be mad at you? I was drunk, man! If you hadn't stopped me and made me let her go…"

Joffrey let his sentence go unfinished, and Sandor found himself getting very angry about that. The jerk had just admitted that things might have gotten a lot worse with Sansa, but he believed Sandor had saved him from himself.

"I should have guessed she'd do something like that," Joffrey suddenly stated, "Breaking up with me in public and humiliating me like that? How dare she!"

Sandor did not comment, he just flexed his fingers at his sides, and forced himself to stay calm.

"She's a frigid bitch, anyway," Joffrey continued, "I was wasting my time with her, just because her name is Stark...I'd be better off with Margaery Tyrell, she's hotter than Sansa, that's for sure!"

Stop talking. Just, stop talking. Sandor willed the blonde to shut his mouth, before he lost his cool and punched him in the face. He was finding it harder and harder not to give in to the urge lately.

"You're coming to the party at my place this weekend, right?" Joffrey asked.

"I didn't know I was invited," he remarked flatly.

"Didn't your girlfriend invite you?" Joffrey smirked, "I still don't get why you're with Arya, but I'm inviting you. Should be a good party, and you should come just for the hell of it."

"I'll think about it."

"Sansa and Margaery are both going to be there," Joffrey grinned.

"So?"

Joffrey's grin took on a quality that Sandor did not like, "So, I'm going to show that little red-headed bitch that she's not irreplaceable."

Joffrey left to collect his football gear, and for the rest of the afternoon as they prepped for that evening's game, Sandor was unable to shake the feeling that Joffrey was planning something to get back at Sansa.

Later, at the actual game that night, Sansa's absence from the stands was noted, which seemed to put Joffrey in a bad mood. By the end of the game, which they won, Sandor had decided he would be going to that party. You're going just to observe, you're not going to interfere.

Despite his better judgment and completely ignoring the voice in his head telling him to forget it, whatever it was that Joffrey had in mind, Sandor wanted to be there in case Sansa Stark needed him.


Arya

Her mobile phone was ringing again. She'd just walked in through the door, having returned from watching the football game with Hot Pie, and she fumbled in her bag to try and answer the call before whoever was calling hung up.

"Hello,"

"Lovely, girl."

Jaqen. Arya paused half-way up the flight of stairs in recognition of his voice.

"Hello," she said again, but this time the recognition was evident in her tone, "I expected you would call."

Jaqen chuckled, and the sound of his laughter sent a shiver down her back. "Did you, really?"

"Well, yeah…" Arya replied, shutting her bedroom door behind her and placing her backpack on the floor next to her bed, "You've been calling me almost every Friday night these past few weeks, Jaqen."

"It seems you are my habit, now," Jaqen stated, "You went to the football game, yes?"

"I did," she replied, and for the next five minutes Arya gave him a play by play account of what had happened during the game, "…we won, so the Knights are definitely going to the play-offs."

"Your friend, the Hound, must be very excited,"

Arya laughed, both at the way Jaqen had said the word friend, and at the image of Sandor's animated face as he'd celebrated with his team earlier that evening. His already mangled features had become even more twisted, which only made him appear more intimidating.

"Yeah, you could say that," she agreed.

There was a moment of silence, and Arya could guess the direction the conversation would take.

"Arya…"

"Jaqen…"

Both had spoken at the same time, and they laughed nervously.

"You first," he conceded.

Arya released a breath and began again, "Jaqen, I know that you're about to ask me to name a day for our third date, and I know that I've been making you wait a long time."

"I do not mean to push you, Arya," Jaqen said, seeming to sense her agitation over the phone, "That was never my intention."

"I know, and I don't think that at all…in fact, you've been so patient with me, and it's really been unfair of me to keep you waiting…"

"Arya…"

"…so I'm going to say, next Saturday."

"Lovely, girl!" Jaqen exclaimed, "You are certain?"

"Yes, Jaqen," Arya laughed at the surprise and uncertainty in his voice, and she didn't try to hide how shaky her own voice had become, "I'm naming next Saturday for our third date, and you can decide what we do."

"Leave everything to me," Jaqen said, "I promise that you will have a good time."

They chatted for some minutes longer, before Jaqen let her go so that she could prepare for bed, promising to call her again during the week. After she'd hung up the phone, Arya collapsed onto her bed, grabbed the nearest pillow and screamed into it.

By no means was she any closer to deciding which guy she liked better, but she knew that Jaqen deserved to have his third date…considering the non-event their second date had turned out to be. Avoiding him wasn't going to help, in the long run. She realized that if she was ever going to find out which boy was right for her, then she actually needed to spend more time with Jaqen and really get to know him.

"Shit," she suddenly said to her ceiling, "I've really got to tell Sandor, now."

She couldn't keep up their stupid pretense, and it wasn't benefitting either of them any longer. She couldn't keep Jaqen or Gendry at bay because they knew the truth about her and Sandor, and really, Sandor needed to use the balls he'd been born with and man up.

He had two choices, as far as she was concerned; either get over his obsession with Sansa, or take his chances and ask her out. Sansa was free of Joffrey, so there was nothing stopping Sandor from finally making a move.

She thought back to the brief conversation she'd had with Sandor earlier at lunch that day, during which he'd observed her staring at Gendry. Sandor had mistaken the reason why she had been staring at Gendry, but she hadn't been able to stop staring at him ever since the day her father had called her into his office, and told her the truth about him.

"I heard you've been asking some questions, Arya," her father had said to her, "I'd like to talk to you about your friend, Gendry Waters."

She'd been sitting in her father's study at the time, the same day that Sansa's bruised arm had been discovered. She thought her father had wanted to question her further about what she knew of Sansa and Joffrey's relationship, so she had not been prepared for her father mentioning Gendry's name.

"Gendry?" she'd asked, stupidly.

"Don't try to deny anything, Arya," her father had warned her, though his tone had been gentle, "I know about your visit to Flea Bottom, and that you've been to the 'Lucky 8'."

Arya had been expecting him to say he knew about her run-in with those two drunks as well, and her brain had already been coming up with all kinds of possible punishments he might dish out, but it never eventuated. She had not been prepared her for what she would find out.

"Why are you asking questions about Gendry, Arya? What are you hoping to find?"

"The truth, dad," she'd replied, "Gendry doesn't say much about his life before he came to King's Landing Prep, and I was curious."

"And, what else?" her father meant to have the entire story out of her, and Arya had realized that he was already aware of everything that she knew.

"And, Gendry looks so much like Renly Baratheon – you must have noticed, too, dad. I just wondered if he might, somehow, possibly…or as impossible as it might be…I wondered if he could be…"

"….Related to the Baratheon's?" her father had completed her question for her when she'd continued to ramble.

She'd met her father's eyes then, and she'd seen something in them that had silenced her, and made her sit up.

"Dad?"

His eyes had pierced her in a way he'd never done before, and Arya knew that whatever he was going to tell her was big.

"What would you do with the truth, Arya?"

She'd frowned, "I don't understand…"

"If you knew the truth about Gendry, would you tell him?"

"I hadn't really thought…"

"What if knowing the truth, would do more harm than good? What if Gendry doesn't want to know? More importantly, what if Gendry would prefer to keep the truth a mystery to everyone?"

"Dad, what do you know?"

"I need you to understand a few things, Arya," her father said soberly, "First of all, you need to realize that with the truth, comes responsibility. Do you understand what that means?"

Arya had grown slightly alarmed at the seriousness in her father's tone, and this alone was enough to convince her that whatever truths she learned, she would be keeping to herself.

"It means I need to know when to keep my mouth shut, because the truth is not always nice, and people could get hurt."

"I'm glad you can see that," her father's tone did not change, "Secondly, you need to understand that knowing the truth can change things irrevocably."

"I promise I won't tell anyone,"

"I mean, change things for you, Arya," he'd clarified, and at her questioning look, he had elaborated, "Knowing the truth about Gendry, could mean that you never look at him the same way again, and this could change your friendship. You will know something that could change his life, but you have to understand that perhaps he is better off not knowing, or that perhaps he has no interest in finding out the truth. Can you handle that?"

"But, why wouldn't he want to know the truth?"

"I cannot speak for him, but it is his life…his personal life that you need to respect, and if it means keeping the truth from him, then you must do it."

Arya had then recalled more than one instance where Gendry had said he didn't want to know, or care to find out who his father was.

"Dad," she'd said again, purposely, "Is Gendry related to the Baratheon's?"

"Yes, he is."

There had been a moment of silence where Arya had done nothing but blink, taking it in.

"Okay," She'd managed to say, "Why are you telling me this?"

"You've come so close to the truth, and in your quest to uncover it, I feared you would find yourself in trouble."

"Trouble?"

"I don't want you venturing into Flea Bottom unaccompanied again, understand?" her father had demanded, and she'd acquiesced readily, "You must also promise not to go around asking anymore questions about Gendry. If you have anything to ask, come to me."

"I promise,"

Arya understood what it would mean if it ever came out that Gendry was really a Baratheon. Granted, the situations were different, but she knew for a fact that people still talked about her father behind his back regarding her brother Jon, and she was aware of the continued suppositions regarding Jon's birth and his mother.

Her father had chosen to admit Jon's paternity, but Gendry's father had not. A secret son – a seventeen year old son of a Baratheon, coming out into the public eye would cause an uproar of epic proportions.

"Do you know who Gendry's father is?" she'd blurted out.

Her father had given her that piercing stare once again, "Do you really want that kind of responsibility, Arya? I want you to really consider your reply, before you say anything."

Arya had bitten her tongue, curbing her curiosity. She wanted to know, for the sake of knowing, but the longer she stayed silent, the reasons for maintaining her ignorance mounted up.

There really were only two men who could have been Gendry's father; one was Steffon Baratheon, although she knew he had passed away some years before, and the other was Robert. Gendry could either be Renly's brother, or Joffrey's. Does it matter whose brother he is? She'd asked herself, and she'd realized that she didn't care. Gendry only shared Renly's looks, and she'd thanked God that he had no physical or behavioral characteristics in common with Joffrey. But, he was a Baratheon by blood, and that was big enough news for her to handle.

Plausible deniability was her second reason. If Gendry ever asked her if she knew who his father was, she could honestly say that she didn't.

Thirdly, she now had enough answers. Enough dots had been joined that she could piece Gendry's story together, and be quite content with what she knew. She could suppose that someone from the Baratheon family had known of, or discovered Gendry's existence and had taken it upon themselves to bequeath him all that money. Someone had chosen to take care of Gendry, in the end.

"I guess, I don't really need to know who his father is," Arya had eventually said, "I know enough…maybe, too much. I don't need to know anything else."

Her father had nodded at her, pleased with her response, "Good."

After she had left her father's office, having again promised to keep her new knowledge a secret, she'd gone straight to her laptop and onto Facebook, where she'd done nothing but stare at pictures of Gendry, shocked that no one else had picked up on Gendry's resemblance to Renly Baratheon, especially since Gendry's profile had become more public after the Battle of the Bands.

When she had next seen him at school, she understood what her father had meant when he'd said she might view Gendry differently. She began to wonder how different his life could have been, how his personality and outlook on life might be different, if he had been born into and grown up amongst the Baratheon family.

It had been so hard for her to keep her mouth shut the first few days after finding out. The truth was there, on the tip of her tongue, ready to blurt out if she wasn't careful, but she'd managed to stay quiet. It got easier as the week had passed, and in the end it was her concern for Gendry, and her father's words reverberating in her ear to respect Gendry's personal life that made certain she kept the truth to herself.

Arya now shoved the pillow she'd been screaming into aside, sighed, then rolled over. Nothing had changed about how she felt about Gendry. She still liked him, and she was still as undecided between the two boys as ever.

It was while she was mulling over her upcoming third date with Jaqen that she spied the black dress bag that had been hooked onto the front door of her wardrobe. The name of an expensive couturier was printed across the bag. Frowning slightly, she got up to investigate.

"Ah, shit..." she swore, seeing the wispy lace encased within the bag, "Mom was serious!"


Sansa

"Are you sure it's wise to allow Sansa to attend the party tonight, Ned?"

Sansa stopped in her tracks as she approached the doorway to the kitchen upon hearing her mother's tightly muttered question. It was mid-afternoon and the party was only a few hours away. Sansa's appetite had returned, and she'd wanted a snack before she began to dress for the party.

"You've asked her this question on numerous occasions, Cat," her father began to reply, "And each time, she has replied that she definitely wants to attend."

"Perhaps she's just too afraid to say otherwise,"

"Perhaps," her father seemed to agree, and Sansa then heard the soft whoosh of the fridge door opening, "But, we also need to consider that she might need to attend?"

"What do you mean?" Her mother asked.

Yes, father. Sansa wondered. What do you mean?

There was the sound of various jars connecting with the marble countertop, and the rustling of wrappers as her father prepared himself something to eat. Sansa pressed herself against the wall to make sure her parents didn't catch her eavesdropping. She knew her parents were concerned for her, and she didn't blame her mother for wanting to protect her, but she also didn't want them worrying unnecessarily about her. If she was behaving in some way that made them worry, then she wanted to know about it so she could reassure them that she was going to be okay.

"You do remember that the breakdown of her relationship with Joffrey happened very publicly, in front of all of their classmates?"

"How could I forget that?" her mother demanded, "I cannot even begin to imagine what that would be like...to have so many people watching, and judging...and teenage girls can often be so cruel,"

"So, you understand what I'm trying to say?"

"I was a teenage girl once myself, Ned," her mother quipped, "And if you value your head, you will not remark on how long ago that was!"

Her father chuckled lightly, and even Sansa had to cover her mouth to stifle a giggle.

"Make your point, Ned," her mother finally urged her father.

"All right," he said, "What I'm trying to say is that Sansa might feel that she needs to go to the party, to prove that she is fine, and that her breakup with Joffrey doesn't affect her anymore."

"But, she doesn't have to prove anything to her classmates," her mother pointed out.

"I didn't say anything about her classmates," her father quickly corrected her mother, "I'm talking about Sansa, proving to herself that she is fine."

Sansa's eyes widened at his words, surprised at her father's perceptiveness. She hadn't said anything to anyone about what she was thinking, or how she was feeling, but her father had somehow peered into her head and seen exactly what was on her mind.

Her mother's initial assumption was not altogether incorrect, Sansa admitted. It was on the back of her mind that part of the reason she wanted to go to the party at The Red Keep was so she could walk into the room, head held high, wearing a killer dress and a smile so bright that no one would have any doubts that she was well and truly fine.

The moment right after she had broken up with Joffrey had been one of the most daunting, and yet most liberating moments of her life. Joffrey had stomped off, leaving her standing by herself in the quad. Everyone had been watching her, and she had not been oblivious to the buzzing whispers around her. Her heart had been pounding so hard, both from nervous adrenaline, and from the sheer joy of being free of Joffrey.

Without really realizing it, she had sought out Sandor, and when she'd caught his gaze all she had wanted to do was run to him. Except, she had turned around and fled in the other direction.

Jeyne, then Randa and Mya, then Arya had followed her into the nearest girls' bathroom.

"I'm fine," she'd said to all four of them as she'd splashed her face and rinsed her hands, "Really, I'm okay."

"That was insane!" Randa had exclaimed as she'd shooed out a couple of freshmen girls from the bathroom.

"I can't believe you just did that," Mya had said, before leaning against the door to make sure no one else walked in.

"We weren't expecting that…not so soon," Jeyne had moved to stand beside her.

"But, it was expected," Sansa had looked at her friends, before looking at Arya who stood unsurely to the side.

"After what happened at Blount's party, we kind of knew that you weren't going to put up with anymore of Joffrey's behavior," Jeyne had continued.

"Sansa, no one would be surprised by this," Randa added.

"It had to happen, Sansa," Arya had said softly.

"Of course it had to," Sansa had agreed, "It should have happened sooner,"

At that point, she'd fished out her lipgloss and reapplied, before finding her brush and dragging it through her hair.

"What are you going to do now?" Jeyne had asked, noticing how Sansa's hands had shook.

Sansa had shrugged, "I don't know…lay low for a while, I guess. I'm sure Gossip Spyder's going to be all over this any minute now,"

All of their phones had chimed at that moment, and Sansa had laughed humorlessly, "Right on time."

"Are you really going to be okay, Sansa?" Arya had asked again, awkwardly, though her concern was genuine.

"Definitely," Sansa had managed a smile then, small and tremulous, but real, "You can tell Mom and Dad that I've done it."

"Okay, I will," Arya then made to leave, satisfied that Sansa was fine, "I'll see you at home,"

After her sister had left, Sansa was not surprised to see that her friends were curious to know what involvement her parents had to do with her breakup with Joffrey, and very briefly, she'd told them what had happened.

"Oh, my God!" Appalled, Mya had covered her mouth when Sansa had pushed her sleeve to her elbow to reveal the bruise on her arm, which had turned yellowish at the edges as it started to heal, "That's awful,"

"Your father really asked Joffrey's father to come to your house?" Jeyne asked as Sansa had pulled her sleeve back into place, once again hiding her bruised forearm from sight.

"He did," Sansa nodded, "His uncle came as well, and Mr. Baratheon promised me that Joffrey would be disciplined,"

"How?"

"I don't care how," Sansa had shrugged, "I'm free of him, and that's all I care about right now."

Her friends had sensed that she wasn't quite ready to discuss things further, so they found a bench in a quieter part of the school until lunch was over, and Sansa spent the rest of the day attending classes, and ignoring the whispers that followed her wherever she went.

Indeed, she had spent the next few days trying to lay low, and trying to avoid fueling further gossip about her, but as the days went by, she'd found herself getting angry.

Why the hell should I be laying low? Why should I be hiding? I don't care what people say about me, I have nothing to be ashamed of. I broke up with Joffrey, and I'm happy about it, so why shouldn't I show it?

Sansa backed away from the kitchen and made her way back to her bedroom, her hunger forgotten. Her mind was made up. There would be no more hiding away for her, not anymore. From now on, people were going to see Sansa Stark as she was before Joffrey Baratheon ever came into her life.

Back in her room, she took out the couturiers bag that held her dress for that evening, and the new Louboutin's her mother had surprised her with, and she began to get ready. No one was going to stop her from going to the party, and she had every intention of enjoying it.

I'll give you something worth talking about, Gossip Spyder.


Sandor

That night, Sandor arrived at The Red Keep dressed in the same black jacket and pants he'd worn for the party thrown in the Starks' honor, but paired them with a dark blue dress shirt, instead of the black he normally preferred. Joffrey had seen that his name had been added to the guest list, and he passed through the gates without question. He was early, but that was normal for him. The Baratheons' security team knew him, and one of them told him where he would be able to find Joffrey. Sandor figured that the sooner he made his presence known, the sooner he could get out of the guy's way.

"So, you made it after all," Joffrey said when he saw him.

Sandor shrugged, "I never said I wasn't coming."

"Trant and Blount will be here soon," Joffrey continued, "You want a drink? The bars are all fully stocked."

Sandor accepted, and followed Joffrey towards a part of the mansion that wasn't overrun with caterers and event organizers. The room he was led into looked like one of the many sitting rooms in the place, but from prior experience, Sandor knew that this room was predominantly used by Joffrey, and the liquor cabinet was always stocked with the brands that the guy preferred.

Sandor poured himself some Scotch, neat, which he quickly downed before going for a second shot.

"Planning on getting drunk, Hound?"

"It's a good plan," Sandor replied.

Joffrey smirked, "Your little girlfriend probably won't be impressed."

"Fuck," Sandor swore, he'd forgotten about Arya.

Sighing, he sipped his second glass of Scotch more slowly, and figured at least the little bitch would be better company than Joffrey, Trant or Blount.

The door to the sitting room opened and, for a second Sandor thought that the door had opened on its own, before he saw Tyrion Lannister appear from behind the high-backed chair near the door. He had to smother the laughter that suddenly threatened to escape his throat.

"Ah, nephew," said the dwarf, who was dressed in a made-to-measure tuxedo, "I was hoping to have a word with you before the guests arrived."

"What is it, uncle?" Joffrey asked, his tone revealing his irritation.

"Is that whisky?" his uncle asked in disapproval, eyeing the glasses in Joffrey and Sandor's hands, "You're both getting head starts. Do not overdo it, especially you, Joffrey."

"I'll drink as much as I like," Joffrey snapped, "No one tells me what to do."

"What a marvelous attitude you have, nephew," Tyrion's voice was heavy with sarcasm, "And such a fine young man you are. What did your mother have to say about your treatment of Sansa Stark?"

Sandor's only reaction to the mention of Sansa's name was a slight twitching of the fingers that held the glass of whiskey. He watched as Joffrey glowered at his uncle.

"Don't you dare bring that up,"

"And why not?" Tyrion raised a brow, "I can't imagine that your mother would have been very impressed. I'm here to remind you to be on your best behavior tonight."

"You think you can to tell me what to do -?"

"I am telling you to be on your best behavior, not merely thinking about it," Tyrion corrected him, his expression growing serious, "Don't forget, you only need to put one foot out of line tonight, and in addition to confiscating your car, your father won't hesitate to freeze your spending account."

Joffrey's expression darkened, "All of this is that bitch's fault -!"

Slap!

Quick as a flash, Tyrion had swung his arm up to land a blow across his nephew's cheek.

"Aargh!" Joffrey glared at the dwarf incredulously, "What did you do that for?"

"You will refrain from referring to Sansa Stark as a female dog, do you understand?" Tyrion's gaze on his much taller nephew was unwavering.

"You hit me!"

"Yes, and I'll do it again if you don't start listening to what I'm saying."

"Where's my mother?"

"Getting ready to meet your guests," Tyrion replied, "Now, when people begin arriving, you will stand at the foyer beside your parents and smile -"

"I don't have to do anything I don't want to!"

Slap!

Tyrion struck Joffrey's face again with the back of his hand, "You will do as I say, boy!"

Sandor watched in partial shock, and bemusement, as the dwarf continued to rain blows across both sides of Joffrey's face. The blonde did not seem to know how to react.

"I'll tell my mother -!"

"Go ahead! One word from me and she will be the one that takes your car away from you."

Slap!

"You can't treat me like this!"

Tyrion kept his arm raised toward Joffrey, but his fingers curled until he had one finger pointed in Joffrey's face.

"Then listen closely, nephew!" the little man shouted at the blonde, "You seem to be forgetting that your actions toward Sansa were carried out in public. You are forgetting just how many of your classmates have parents who are here tonight. You are forgetting just how badly your actions reflect upon your family, and especially on your father. You are forgetting that this party is in honor of the Tyrell's, and without their financial backing your father's business could collapse, also you are forgetting that there is a clause allowing either party to back out of the contract if at any point it can be demonstrated that being associated with your family is in any way detrimental to the other party."

Sandor watched as uncle and nephew stared at each other, and as a vein pulsed at Tyrion Lannister's temple, while Joffrey's nostrils flared angrily.

It was some minutes before Joffrey backed down, seeming to have understood his uncle's words. Tyrion must have sensed the change in Joffrey's demeanor, as Sandor saw his stance relax a fraction in turn.

"Good," Tyrion said, before taking a step towards the door, "Be ready to greet your guests in thirty minutes, and do not be late."

Joffrey began swearing as soon as the door had shut behind his uncle, and it took another shot of whisky before the blonde regained his cool.

"Who the hell does that midget think he is?" Joffrey muttered as he placed his now empty glass on the countertop, "Fuck! Look what he did to my face!"

Sandor turned to find Joffrey gripping the bar in anger. The jerk had caught sight of his reflection in the mirrored wall behind the bar. Not only was his hair disheveled, both his cheeks were glowing bright red from the repeated slaps his uncle had given him.

Sandor wanted to laugh so hard, and he did, which earned him a nasty glare from Joffrey.

"Fuck, you!" the blonde snapped at him.

Sandor only laughed harder, the deep sound of it echoing loudly in the wood-paneled room.

"Your face looks like a monkey's ass," Sandor commented, "You know the kind…the ones with the shiny, red butts!"

Joffrey whirled around, "Shut the hell up, Hound!"

His comment had further aggravated the blonde jerk, and it resulted in Joffrey's face turning even redder.

"Shit!" Joffrey had his palms up to his cheeks, "How the fuck do I get the redness to go down?"

Joffrey grabbed some ice from a nearby ice bucket and held it against his face.

"You're gonna need more," Sandor advised him.

He then watched as Joffrey grabbed the entire bucket, and as he fled the room without another word to him. Sandor assumed that the jerk was fetching more ice so he could shove his face into it. Sandor laughed at the image, before he refilled his glass and walked out of the room so he could wander and observe the goings on from the shadows.


Sansa

The limousine approached the gates of The Red Keep, and Sansa was unable to prevent the unwelcome twinge of anxiety that fluttered in her belly. She reasoned with herself that it was natural to feel nervous, after all, it would be the first event she and Joffrey were both attending outside of school after splitting up, and she knew that everyone would be watching. The kids at her school were like sharks in the water when it came to gossip. It's an appropriate, if somewhat clichéd simile, Sansa thought. They can smell blood. They circle around, waiting for some unsuspecting victim to make a wrong move, and then they attack, making biting comments, ripping your character to shreds, making mince-meat of your reputation, until there is nothing left, not even the truth.

She was prepared for this. Sansa smiled inwardly. She'd worn armor that evening, care of Dolce & Gabbana, and Christian Louboutin. Her dress was 50's style, sleeveless and made of light blue brocade. It had a demure, square neckline, a bodice that was fitted at her waist and a skirt that flared down to her calves in gentle pleats. She'd accessorized by adding a crystal embellished belt around her waist, diamond earrings and a bracelet to match. On her feet, she wore silver, pointed-toe heels with stud detailing, and the bright red soles that Louboutin was known for.

She'd worn her hair in a simple fish-tail braid that draped over one shoulder, and kept her make-up light and fresh. Her bruise had healed quite well during the week, leaving only the faintest shadow that would shortly disappear, and Sansa was glad for it, although the memory would never fade from her mind.

The limousine eased smoothly around the curved driveway, stopping directly at the entrance, where an efficient attendant opened the passenger door. Her father stepped out first, before holding his hand out to her mother. As usual, her mother was nothing short of elegant and refined in a long dress, made of a dark grey silk that draped loosely over her shoulders and hips. She wore diamonds at her neck, ears and around her wrist, and had styled her auburn hair into a simple twist. Looking at her mother in awe, Sansa had to remind herself that this woman had borne five children.

She met her father's questioning gaze when he held his hand out towards her.

"Are you all right, Sansa?" he asked as she stepped out of the limo.

"Of course, father," Sansa smiled at him, and she continued to smile as the rest of her family gathered at the entrance.

"Bran, please make sure you keep an eye on Rickon…Arya, please do not pick at your dress," her mother muttered quietly to her sister.

"But, it itches!" Arya whined.

"Just, do not make it so obvious…"

"…If you hadn't insisted on changing my dress, I wouldn't be itching now!"

"Arya, I will not warn you again…"

The exchange between her sister and mother only widened Sansa's smile, and even the whispered comments of the younger guests waiting at the entrance was not going to remove it.

"She is here…"

"I was half expecting that she wouldn't attend…"

Sansa ignored them, and followed her parents into the brightly lit saw Joffrey before he spotted her, but she didn't flinch when his eyes finally landed on her. There was an unbecoming redness to his cheeks, and the hair about his face appeared damp. He looked stunned for a moment when he saw her, and certainly less than his usual polished self, but Sansa promptly turned her gaze elsewhere. She'd wasted enough of her time on Joffrey, and he didn't deserve anymore of her attention.

She greeted his parents and his uncles with beaming smiles, and the pleasant words she'd been taught to recite at such occasions.

Courtesy is a lady's armor. As perfect as she knew she looked in her designer dress, Sansa understood that a gracious demeanor, perfect poise and composure would serve her better, if she hoped to get through the night unscathed.

Her family was subsequently ushered through the house, and into the ballroom.

"Ah, Stark!"

A fat man with curly brown hair and a greying beard separated himself from a group of guests gathered at one side of the room and made his way towards them. At the sound of her father's name being called out, heads turned towards the doorway where Sansa and her family were standing.

Murmurs broke out, and Sansa observed that most of the murmuring came from the younger guests in the crowd.

"Vultures," she heard Arya mutter.

The fat man stopped directly in front of their father, who reached out to shake the man's outstretched hand.

"Mace, good to see you this evening."

"And you, Ned," said the man, who then turned to their mother, "You look beautiful, Catelyn."

"Thank you, Mace," her mother smiled in return, "Will Alerie be joining us this evening?"

"She's currently making the obligatory rounds, but she will be with us shortly."

"Mace, I'd like you to meet our children,"

Sansa, her sister and brothers were introduced to Mace Tyrell, and Sansa recognized him to be Margaery's father. She could see that he had once been a handsome man, but asides from the color of his hair, Sansa could see little resemblance to his dashing sons.

He occupied her parents in small talk for some minutes, before they were interrupted by the arrival of a tall young man dressed in a tuxedo, and holding a cane.

"Willas, good of you to join us, son," Mace clamped a hand on his son's shoulder, "Willas, I'd like to introduce you to Ned and Catelyn Stark, and their children."

Willas Tyrell stood next to his father and shook hands with Sansa's parents, then greeted her siblings in turn.

"We've met before," Arya said to him.

"At the Battle of The Bands, I remember," Willas nodded with a smile, before turning to Sansa.

Sansa remembered him to be handsome, but until that moment, she'd forgotten just how good looking he was. She'd likened him to Loras the first time she had met him, and seeing him again reinforced her opinion that in addition to being an older version of Loras, Willas also appeared more self-assured. There was a decidedly masculine air about him, whereas Loras seemed somewhat effeminate in comparison, Sansa decided.

"It's nice to see you again, Sansa," Willas took hold of her hand, and held her fingers longer than required.

"Likewise," she smiled at him brightly.

"I hope we get the opportunity to really talk tonight," he said, "The Battle of The Bands wasn't the most conducive of atmospheres, conversation wise."

Sansa's smile froze for just a second as images of herself and Sandor, and what happened between them that night flashed into her mind. Conversation had not been possible with Sandor either, but it hadn't really been necessary at the time.

"I'm looking forward to it," she made herself say instead, before she amped up the wattage of her smile and promptly changing the subject, "Forgive me if I'm being nosy, but why do you need to use a cane?"

Sansa recalled he'd been using his cane the first time they had met, but her mind had been elsewhere, and she never thought to ask him. She hoped he didn't think she was being rude.

"Oh, this?" Willas tapped the black, lacquered cane against his leg, "I was in a riding accident some months ago, and I broke my leg, but recovery has been slower than I'd like,"

"So, it's temporary?"

"I certainly hope so!" Willas laughed, "Horses are a passion of mine, and I can't wait to get back to riding,"

"We have stables at Winterfell Manor," Sansa found herself saying with a note of wistfulness in her voice, "I miss riding. I used to ride almost every day,"

"Well, perhaps your parents will let me take you riding some time. Once I'm fully recovered, of course,"

"You would do that for me?" Sansa's eyes widened at his offer.

"It would be my pleasure,"

Willas then engaged her in a conversation about breeds of horses, and competitions he'd participated in, before they were joined soon after by the rest of his family.

They were led by a little old lady who carried herself like a Queen, Sansa thought. She was small and frail looking, with snowy white hair, but there was something about the way her eyes gleamed that hinted at strength that went beyond size and muscles.

Sansa was reacquainted with Margaery, who looked superb in a daringly low-cut dress, as well as Loras and Garlan, who both greeted her politely before speaking with her parents.

"It's nice to see you again, Sansa," the gorgeous brunette said.

"And you, Margaery," Sansa returned the older girl's greeting, before she was introduced to Margaery's grandmother.

"Who is this darling creature?" demanded the old lady.

"Gran, this is Sansa Stark," Willas replied.

"Olenna Redwyne," the old lady placed her hand in the one Sansa held out.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

"Do call me Gran," Olenna squeezed her hand, "Might I say, that is a lovely dress you're wearing this evening,"

"Oh, thank you –"

"It's most becoming on you, my dear. It reminds me of the dresses I used to wear when I was a girl," Olenna then gave her granddaughter a measuring glance, "I don't understand the fashion these days. The amount of flesh you young things display is obscene."

"Gran!" Margaery's arms fluttered over her chest, "It's not that low cut,"

"Really, Margaery," Olenna continued, "I don't understand why you feel the need to flaunt so much bosom, you're leaving nothing to the imagination. Come along now Sansa, meet my daughter-in-law Alerie,"

Sansa could only smile in empathy at the flustered expression on Margaery's face, and noted briefly that Willas was not bothering to hide his mirth, at the expense of his sister, before she was drawn into conversation with the adults.

"Let's head to the marquee, shall we? I'd you to meet some of my key managers, Ned," Mace Tyrell then led the entire party outside to the garden.

Sansa noted that the decorations were similar to the night of their introduction to King's Landing society. She caught her sister looking around at the guests, as though she was looking for someone.

"Are you expecting someone?" Sansa couldn't help but ask.

"No," Arya replied, "My friends wouldn't be invited to a party like this,"

For a crazy second, Sansa had been tempted to ask if Sandor had been invited, but she squashed the urge.

Looking out over the crowd properly for the first time since they had arrived, Sansa recognized many faces of kids from school. Joffrey's hangers-on, she realized, whose parents worked for Baratheon Corp. Trant and Blount were in a corner chatting up some girls she didn't know. She saw other guys from the football team, as well as some girls from the cheer squad.

I wish the Hound were here, Sansa thought. It occurred to her then, that every party she had ever been to, Sandor Clegane had always been present.

She didn't see him now, in fact she didn't even know if he was still friends with Joffrey, given what had happened at Blount's party. The thought of Sandor no longer attending the same parties seemed strange to her, and unnatural. Wherever Joffrey was, the Hound would not be far behind. That's how it was.

She wasn't sure why she wanted Sandor there. It wasn't like she could just walk up to him and start talking to him. Even if all they could have was friendship, there was too much awkwardness between them, and too much wanting on her part that would get in the way.

It's better this way, she thought. It's best that he's not here.


Sandor

The little bird had arrived. He'd been watching the limousines pull up at the entrance from a darkened balcony overlooking the driveway, and he'd done nothing but follow her with his eyes from the moment she had stepped out of the limo.

He'd lost track of her when she and her family had been led into the house, but it hadn't taken him long to find her again, and he'd stood in a shadowy doorway outside the ballroom where he could watch as Sansa smiled at the oldest Tyrell son. He didn't like the way she was smiling at the cane-toting college boy, but there was nothing he could do to stop her, or the jealousy rising in his gut.

She looked stunning, and Sandor had felt a tightening in his chest when he'd first seen her. She was dressed far more demurely than the other girls from school, but that only seemed to work in her favor. Sansa stood out from the crowd, in the best possible way.

He almost didn't recognize Arya. From the back, he couldn't even tell that it was her. She'd put her hair up in some kind of bun that hid her purple tips, and it wasn't until she had turned around that he'd recognized her. He'd wanted to laugh at the sour expression on her face, but he didn't want to startle the people around him, so he settled on having to heckle her later.

He then observed as the rest of the Tyrell clan approached the Starks. They were led by the matriarch of the family, a tiny old lady with white hair called Olenna Redwyne, who Sandor had learned was the mother of Mace Tyrell. She was closely followed by a tall woman with platinum-silver hair, Margaery and her two other brothers.

There were more handshakes, and air-kisses as the group made more introductions and small talk, but Sandor's focus was drawn mainly towards the Tyrell girl, and how she seemed to be sizing Sansa up. Of course, he wasn't sure that's what Margaery was doing, but there was just something about the way she smiled at Sansa that made him wary.

He continued to watch them for a time, but then he found himself scrambling for cover when the group began to move towards the doorway. He jumped from shadow to shadow, and followed them outside towards the marquees that had been set up in the garden.

It wasn't long after that the group got separated. Sandor watched as Ned Stark was led off by Mace Tyrell and his son Willas in one direction, Catelyn followed the tall, silver-haired lady in another. Arya and her younger brothers followed the two other Tyrell brothers, Loras and Garlan, while Sansa was taken by the arm by Olenna Redwyne, and led away by Margaery.

Sandor frowned and tried to catch up to the trio who were heading back towards the house, but swore when he saw the three ladies disappear behind a door that was promptly closed.

What are they up to? He wondered, but with no other choice, he grabbed a glass of something alcoholic from the closest passing waiter, and went to find himself another dark balcony to haunt.

He found one that overlooked the garden, and he saw that he had found the two other Tyrell brothers who were now in a group that included Renly Baratheon and some other college guys on the football team that Sandor recognized.

Below the balcony, Sandor heard the chatter of children's voices. A section of the garden had been purposely dressed and decorated specifically with the youngest of guests in mind. There were toys aplenty to keep the kids entertained, and even a small refreshment stand with juice and fresh fruit at the ready. There were minders on attendance to keep an eye on the dozen or so kids that Sandor could see.

On closer inspection, he found himself observing Rickon Stark playing with a little girl.

"Can there be dragons?" the little girl asked Rickon.

"Of course," the little boy replied, "How can it be a game about knights and castles if there aren't any dragons?"

"What about witches? Can there be an evil witch, too?"

Rickon looked to be giving it some serious thought, before coming to a decision, "Okay, Shireen. There's an evil witch who owns a big, mean dragon. She's trapped you in the dungeon, and I have to come and rescue you."

"Can I be a princess?" the girl asked excitedly, before her tone quickly saddened, "Oh, no. I can't be a princess,"

"Why not?" Rickon asked her.

The little girl sighed, "Because…princesses are supposed to be beautiful…and I'm not beautiful."

It was then that Sandor realized the identity of Rickon's little playmate. Shireen Baratheon.

Shireen was Robert Baratheon's niece, Joffrey's cousin. He'd only seen the little girl a handful of times before, but he felt a sort of empathy towards the girl, for she had a facial disfigurement, too. Most of the left side of the girl's face and neck was afflicted by a terrible scarring, courtesy of an illness the girl had suffered as a baby.

He'd heard that the girl was often teased at school, and asides from one friend whom she referred to as 'Patches', he deduced that Shireen led a lonely childhood.

"Who said that you're not beautiful?" Rickon Stark demanded, taking a step closer to the little girl, who stood half a head taller than he.

"The other kids at school make...make fun of me," she stammered, "They call me a freak,"

"Well, they're stupid," Rickon stated, "You have very nice blue eyes, and you're fun to play with. Don't listen to mean people, Shireen."

"Really, Rickon?"

"Of course,"

Sandor had to chuckle at the exchange. The little boy was sincere in his praise about Shireen, and it seemed that the seven year old knew more about girls than most of the teenage boys Sandor knew.

He wondered if Rickon's big sister Sansa had the same ability to see the good in the scarred freaks like him.

He went back to scanning the garden, hoping to find Arya among the crowd, but somehow the little bitch had disappeared. He figured she'd gone to find a dark corner of her own, and he decided he'd find her before the night was through so he could go about heckling her as he'd determined to do earlier.

He finished the alcohol in his glass, which had turned out to be white wine, just as his stomach grumbled reminding him he hadn't eaten, and he was wondering how far away dinner was from being served when he saw Joffrey making his way over to Renly Baratheon's crowd, with Margaery hanging onto his arm.

He frowned. Where was Sansa? He'd seen the little bird disappear with Margaery and the old lady – said old lady was now back in the garden marquee – but Sansa had not reappeared.

The curtain that separated the balcony from the room behind him parted without warning – and suddenly, Sansa was there, standing right before him.

She looked flustered, and upset, but her expression quickly turned to shock upon seeing his face.

"Oh!" she took a hasty step backwards, stumbling on the threshold behind her.

Sandor caught her arm and steadied her before she fell, "Careful now, little bird."

He made sure she had her footing back, before releasing her arm. He put some distance between them, and only when he stood about three feet away from her did her expression change from shocked, to flustered again.

"You're here," she said, her voice higher than normal.

"Want me to leave?" he asked gruffly, "I'm sure I can find another balcony,"

"No! No…I meant, you're here…at the party,"

"He invited me," Sandor nodded towards Joffrey in the garden below.

"Oh," she looked uncertain, "I just thought…"

"His brain doesn't work the way you expect it would," Sandor grunted.

That's what makes the bastard crazy, and dangerous.

"You're right," Sansa nodded, shifting from one foot to the other, "I'll get out of your way –"

"What's the matter with you?" Sandor blurted out.

It was the first time he was in her company since the night of Blount's party, and he wasn't ready to let her go just yet. He ignored the voice in his head telling him it was a bad idea.

"I'm sorry?"

"When you came in," he put his empty glass down onto the wrought-iron table near him, "Something's upset you,"

"It's nothing,"

"Liar," he said softly, but the rasp of his voice made the word sound harsher than he intended, so he clarified himself, "Margaery and her grandmother, what did they want with you?"

"You saw?" she only had to see the twitch of his burned lip to know the answer, "Oh…I'd rather not talk about it,"

She turned her head towards the group in the garden below, and Sandor followed her gaze, landing on Margaery, who had tucked her hand into the crook of Joffrey's arm.

"That's tomorrow's gossip, right there," Sansa murmured quietly, "I hope she knows what she's doing,"

Sandor frowned, before something Joffrey had said to him clicked into place.

"I'd be better off with Margaery Tyrell…I'm going to show that little red-headed bitch that she's not irreplaceable."

Sandor's forehead furrowed as he took a closer look at Joffrey and Margaery. Indeed, Joffrey was behaving like a child showing off a new toy. He was flirting with Margaery, caressing the top of her arm, and Sandor was certain the jerk was ogling Margaery's cleavage.

"He doesn't waste time," Sandor muttered.

"It's her I'm worried about," Sansa said tightly, her eyes still fixed on Margaery, "They asked...I had to tell her about him, but I don't think she listened."

"Tell her what?" he prompted, but she was already shaking her head.

"Forget I said anything, okay? He's not my problem anymore," she turned to leave again, but for the second time he stalled her.

"Sansa," she stopped immediately at the sound of her name on his lips, "Are you…you know? Okay?"

She didn't pretend to misunderstand him, but she did lower her eyes for a second. When she raised them again, their blue depths shone with a confidence he couldn't recall seeing before.

"I'm fine," she stated, then she met his stare, "Actually, I wanted to thank you. I probably should have said something sooner, but I never –"

"Thank me, for what?"

"For what you did for me that night,"

He didn't pretend to misunderstand her.

"I couldn't just stand there and watch," he growled, the memory of her frightened expression and tear stained cheeks angering him anew.

"You were the only one who helped me," she continued, her voice filled with gratitude and something else he couldn't put a name to.

It made him want to reach out and hug her. She'd looked so helpless that night, and his anger deepened when he recalled how no one else had gone to help her. Sandor became uncomfortable with her stare, and he lashed out because he didn't know how else to react.

"Yeah…well it took you long enough to dump him. Did you really have to let yourself sink to that level before you finally had enough? Why the fuck did you stay with him all that time?"

She looked surprised at his outburst, but he was in for a bigger surprise when she answered him.

"I made a mistake, okay?" she looked up at him defiantly, "I'm the girl with her head in the clouds, remember? Butterflies and zebras, fairytales and moonbeams, that's all I ever thought about…"

Why the hell is she quoting Jimi Hendrix? Sandor wondered, but he held eye contact with her, understanding that this was a big deal for both of them.

"…I didn't know Joffrey was a total jerk, and by the time I realized he wasn't going to change, I was too embarrassed and too afraid –" she broke off suddenly, "– why do I have to explain myself to you?"

She turned around sharply, and had managed to take three steps into the darkened room behind her, before Sandor caught her elbow and spun her around.

"Sansa, I'm sorry…I didn't mean to…fuck!" he swore above her head, "I'm no good at apologies,"

"You're not much better at accepting gratitude, either," she bit back.

Sandor looked down at her and again met her blue eyes. A second later she was giggling, and she covered her mouth with her hand. Sandor allowed himself to relax a fraction, but her change in mood did not mean he could drop his guard.

"I guess I'm not," he released her arm, then scratched at a spot on his chin, "People don't usually…it doesn't happen often."

She regarded him silently for a moment, and it was his turn to shift uncomfortably, but he was determined not to lash out again just because he was uncomfortable. She wasn't going to forgive him so easily a second time.

"You've helped me out a few times now, Sandor," she said at length, "I know it wasn't always your choice sometimes, but you helped me all the same," she reached out and touched his hand with her fingertips, and he couldn't help but notice that her hand shook, "Thank you."

She was smiling at him. The little bird was smiling, just for him, and Sandor thought his heart would break at the beauty of it.

"You're welcome," he managed to utter.

Sansa finally made her way across the room to leave, but she turned back to face him just before she reached the doorway, "Oh, I forgot…um, I still have your letterman jacket,"

He frowned. His jacket? He'd forgotten about it.

"Right, just give it to me at school,"

"Okay," she gave him a small nod, and another smile, "I'll, uh…talk to you later,"

"Okay."

She turned back at the door, "Sandor,"

"Yeah?"

"I'll tell Arya that you're here, okay?"

Arya? He'd forgotten about her, too. Fuck!

"Okay."

Sansa finally left, and only then could he allow himself to breathe properly. He didn't want to admit that their brief encounter had shaken him, but it had. He wondered if being near her would always have that effect on him.

His skin tingled where she had touched him. Am I always going to burn like this?

He knew all about being burnt, but Sansa's touch and nearness burned deeper, and at times, more painfully than anything he'd ever known.

He needed more wine, so he left the sitting room in search of more. Red, if he could help it.


Arya

Green lace. She was wearing green lace in a pattern that was decidedly too floral for her liking. She scratched at a spot on her shoulder where the material was irritating her skin. Burberry Prorsum, her mother had said, as though that would make all the difference.

"Stop scratching, Arya…"

"It's itchy, mom…"

"It's silk, it's all in your head…"

"Still itchy…"

Her feet ached, too. She was wearing nude heels with ankle straps that scraped her skin every time she took a step. And, she was hungry.

When are they going to serve dinner?

She'd taken her brothers to the children's play area as she'd been instructed to do earlier.

"Oh, I can't do this," Bran had said upon seeing that the play area was populated by kindergarteners and grade-schoolers, "I'll catch you later, Arya,"

"Where are you going?"

"The library, they have an awesome collection here," he'd replied, "I'll turn up for dinner, don't worry."

After seeing that Rickon was settled, she had tailed the waiters carrying trays of canapés around and had managed to sample everything twice, before she started getting curious looks. So she'd grabbed one more handful, and found a quiet place where she could nibble at the smoked salmon in peace.

She also ended up drinking more virgin-cocktails than was wise, which was how she found herself back in the house in search of the ladies' room. The guest bathroom on the ground floor had been occupied, and a caterer had told her where she could find another one on the next floor.

Afterward, she didn't feel like returning to the garden, so she set out to find the library, figuring she could keep Bran company. Her visits to The Red Keep had been scarce, and she didn't really know where the library was, so it was no surprise that she soon found herself lost.

What did surprise her was the sound of voices when she pushed open the door that led into a dimly lit sitting room, and the unmistakable rasp that could only belong to Sandor Clegane.

"…I'm sure I can find another balcony," she heard him say.

She was about to exit the room, thinking she'd find him later when he wasn't occupied, when she heard Sansa's voice.

She stopped. She listened. She stayed too long. She heard too much.

Nope. I cannot…I should not be listening to this! What she was hearing was definitely a conversation of the most private in nature, and she needed to get out of there quickly.

But then she heard the shuffling of footsteps on the balcony, and then came Sansa's muffled cry, "– why do I have to explain myself to you?"

Arya dove behind the settee, thankful that the floor was thickly carpeted, and her fall made no noise. Then it was too late for her to leave, and Sandor and her sister were in the room. She could only hope that neither of them sat down, or walked behind the settee.

She heard everything.

She risked a peak underneath the settee, and she watched as her sister reached out to touch Sandor's hand while she thanked him. Sandor's voice was thick when he finally spoke, and hesitant, as though he couldn't trust himself to speak. But, it was the sound of her sister's voice that really intrigued Arya. There was something in Sansa's tone, an unspoken something that she couldn't place just yet. Sansa sounded sad…No, that's not what it is.

She listened as Sansa ended the conversation with Sandor, "I'll tell Arya that you're here, okay?"

Fuck! Arya thought.

She didn't make a sound, or even dare to breathe while Sandor paced the room for some minutes after Sansa had left.

She stayed where she was even after Sandor did leave, thinking over everything she had heard. Eventually, she figured out what it was that she could hear in her sister's voice; longing.

Sansa used to have a similar tone in her voice when she talked about other crushes she'd had in the past. She'd even had it when she used to speak of Joffrey all those months ago. But hearing her speak to Sandor, Arya recognized that there was a huge difference. There was something raw, and deeper about the longing she now heard in Sansa's voice.

"That has to be it," she whispered to herself, "She likes Sandor. I know it."

She had pieced together all the little clues she'd somehow overlooked, ignored or completely misunderstood in the past, like Sansa making a move on Sandor at the Battle of the Bands, and witnessing her hugging Sandor's letterman jacket. Then there was the odd encounter Gendry had told her about.

"I've just had an odd conversation with your sister…it was strange…she was asking about Sandor." Gendry had said to her.

Gendry had found Sansa in the music room the same afternoon as her public break-up with Joffrey.

"I couldn't just walk away like I'd never noticed her, you know?" Gendry had continued when Arya had prompted him for further details, "She asked how Sandor's been treating you…but, it was the way she asked that felt odd to me."

Gendry hadn't been able to give her a proper explanation about what he meant by that, only that it had been enough to prompt him to call Arya.

"Who knows? Maybe she likes him?" Gendry had asked, flippantly.

Now, Arya considered that Gendry might have been onto something, and if he was proven to be correct, then Arya had to remove all and any obstacles that would stand in Sansa and Sandor's way.

Dinner was served buffet style that evening, and Arya saw Sandor take a plate piled high with food before skulking off to eat in private. She had no choice but to sit with her family until dinner was over.

Arya watched her sister closely during the meal, but aside from the occasional covert glances Sansa kept throwing around the tables, Arya saw nothing peculiar about her sister's behavior. She'd expected her sister to be nervous, especially with Joffrey nearby, but she was the picture of calm and perfection. It made Arya wary, for some reason.

Arya ended up sending Sandor a text message after dinner.

"Tell me where you are. I don't want to run around trying to find you."

He replied shortly after, "Pool house."

She found him drinking red wine from the bottle.

"Are you planning on getting shit-faced drunk?"

"When did you start dressing like a school teacher?" Sandor shot back, eyeing her green dress.

"Jerk," she said as she sat beside him, "This was my mother's idea,"

"What was your original dress?"

"Short and purple, to match my hair,"

"Your mother has better taste,"

"Shut the fuck up,"

"Your sister told you I was here?"

"Yep, and I saw you at the buffet tables earlier,"

"Right,"

"So, you talked to Sansa?" she asked, sort of hoping he'd confide in her.

"In passing," he wasn't going to share.

Arya sighed.

"Well, it's a good thing that you're here, actually," she turned to look at him, "I need to talk to you about something,"

He frowned at her, before taking another drink from the bottle, "I'm not going to like what you're going to tell me, am I?"

"Probably not,"

"Then I don't want to hear it,"

"Well, suck shit," she swore at him, "I told Jaqen I'd go on a date with him next weekend,"

"Really?" he gave her a curious look, "What about Gendry?"

"I haven't totally made up my mind,"

"But you're still going on a date with Jaqen Whatshisname?"

"Yeah…"

"So, what's that got to do with me?"

"I'm telling you that I'm not going to be your fake girlfriend anymore,"

"And, why not? Your Faceless punk knows it's not real between us,"

"I mean it," she told him, her tone adamant, "Jaqen may know it's not real, but the rest of the school don't, and I want everyone to know we're not together anymore before gossip about me and Jaqen get out there."

"So, this is all about you, then? Your reputation,"

"Of course this is about me," she rolled her eyes, "It's pointless, and you're an idiot to keep insisting on this stupid boyfriend-girlfriend charade when there's no reason to keep it up. Sansa's free now, and you can't keep hiding behind me."

"Hiding? Why would I be..? Did you call me an idiot?" Sandor looked at her, his good eyebrow raised incredulously, and Arya figured not many people dared to call him that to his face.

"The biggest," she agreed, "So, I'm ending it."

"Just like that, huh?"

"Just like that,"

"What if I don't agree?"

"It's too late for that," Arya said matter-of-factly, "Come Monday morning everyone at school is going to know about our break-up,"

Sandor turned his upper body so he could look at her directly, "What the fuck did you do?"

Arya brandished her phone in the air, "I've left an anonymous tip on Gossip Spyder's page. It's the fastest way to make sure everyone hears about it."

Sandor stared at her in shock, but he could only shake his head at her in response, "You're a crazy little bitch,"

"I know, you say it all the time," Arya stood up and dusted-off her skirt, "Now, excuse me while I go and get dessert!"