Gods and Monsters

Chapter 15

"I just can't wait for love to destroy us…"

-The Neighbourhood

For the past two nights, Sandor had been plagued by nightmares. His legs would descend into a fit of spasms, his breathing became erratic, and he would murmur spiteful words in his sleep. They were the same words he was undoubtedly shouting in his dreams, bellowing from the recesses of his own mind and heart. Sansa would wake, gently raking her fingers through his hair, and whisper lovely sentiments to him until he was eventually roused from sleep. Panting as he stared at the ceiling, chest heaving and sweat beading on his brow, he would say nothing of what sordid thoughts followed him through the darkness behind his eyes. Instead, he would roll over, gather her in his arms, and sigh deeply before falling asleep once more.

When she awoke before dawn, Sansa had not found him in bed. Blinking away the bleariness of fatigue, she instead saw Sandor staring out the window of the bedroom they now shared with the curtains draped against his silhouette. She had watched him for many quiet moments, wondering what thoughts comprised his waking hours. He had stood bare-chested with arms at his sides and his hands curled into fists, staring out in the world that raged with turmoil beneath the surface of stillness.

Tip-toeing from bed to his side, Sansa had slowly coiled her arms around his chest, pressing her cheek against his back as she whispered to him.

"Come back to bed."

She had been uncertain if he heard her, for he did not speak. She counted his breaths by the rise and fall of his back against her chest, and she waited for his reply. When it came, it had been a deep rasp, troubled and exhausted.

"I can't sleep. My mind won't stop. There's too much to think about, too much to be done."

Sansa had pressed a kiss to his back then and ran her fingers lightly across his chest, something that seemed to comfort and soothe him.

"Sandor, nothing can be done this early in the morning."

Despite her words being spoken through the veil of sleepiness, he had relented and let her lead him by the hand back to bed, curling his body around hers as they burrowed beneath the blankets together. It was the tempo of Sandor's breathing by which Sansa knew he stayed awake. She had learned, or perhaps rediscovered, the rhythm of his breath, the cadence of his walk, the thrum of his heartbeat. There was an unanticipated thrill at knowing these things - these small things - about him and she imagined that perhaps it was the same for him.

But long before she knew these things of him, Sansa had learned that Sandor was not a man of patience. The first words he had ever spoken to her where a seething admission of this fact. He hated to wait on anyone or anything. It burned him up, she knew, that he must wait for the impending battle between himself and his brother - the opportunity to right all the wrong that had been done to him by Gregor's hands.

Sandor hadn't spoken of Mirabelle since he laid her to rest. However, Sansa knew when he was thinking of his sister. He would grow silent and still, his eyes focusing off towards the far distance as a pained expression would flood the features of his face. Sansa would take his hand then or rest her head against his shoulder, but she never asked for him to share his sorrow with her. They would sit in silence until it passed and he returned to her once more.

He was sitting up now against the headboard of the bed, pillows behind his back and his limbs encasing her as she rested against his chest. It had been many hours since the sun had finally come up. With its light there was comfort, the darkness being chased away, and along with it, Sandor's unspoken troubles. When either of them began to lazily stretch and sigh and exhibit other signs of finally rising for the day, the other would lure them back with warm arms and soft kisses.

In the last round, it was Sansa who had sat up, legs dangling off the side of the bed as she rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. In one swift movement, two willful arms wrapped around her middle and pulled her back under the covers. She had giggled and squealed and ultimately surrendered, when in the warm darkness beneath the blankets, she felt his lips eager against her neck. His hand had trailed beneath her shirt - or rather his shirt that she had been wearing as a nightgown of sorts - and he seemed to delight at the smoothness of her skin, the soft buds of her nipples, the tiny gasps she gave as he nipped at her neck and gently cupped her breasts. She beamed with joy, though he could not see, and exalted at his touch.

I shouldn't be this happy.

The intrusive thought had found her once more. It seemed content to chase her down in moments such as these. Tragedy would have its due, she feared; it would collect when she least expected it. If Sandor shared these fears, she did not know, but it seemed part and parcel to what kept him awake during the dark hours of the night.

By day, they had shut the world out, or perhaps they had created a world of their own. All she saw was him, and he in turn looked at her as if she hung the moon in the sky and the stars themselves did her bidding. It was a silent sort of veneration, and it passed wordless as ever, but they were forging something unbreakable, unstoppable. 'It's you and me,' he had been saying to her. Yesterday, the day after Mirabelle's funeral, they had awoken, limbs entangled and bodies still pressed together. She had asked what needed to be done for the day, what business he needed to take care of. 'Nothing. It's you and me,' he had replied. She understood the contextual meaning, but it was the subtext that lay comfortably between them. She understood and so did he.

The words were repeated, unknowingly it would seem, when they shared meals together and found ways to pass the time. 'It's you and me.' She meant to ask about his new found mantra over their supper spent picnicking outside as the sun bled out in brilliant colors against the horizon. He said the words as if he didn't believe it himself, or perhaps it was the only truth he now knew. It was him and her. Maybe that's all that was meant by it. Him and her, left alone by the others who would stare curiously as they walked hand-in-hand through the corridors and down the stairs, outside and back up the stairs when they retreated to bed. He was her constant companion, and she was his. She decided then that that was what he meant. It was him, and it was her - inseparable.

Even now, Sansa had Sandor's hand in her own, her palm resting against the back of his hand as she traced her fingers over the deeply etched lines she found on his palm. With his other arm wrapped securely around her middle, she felt him pressing kisses to her temple and down her cheek.

"What do you see?" he asked her, his voice gruff from lack of sleep.

"You want me to read your palm?" Sansa inquired on something of a coo, relishing in his kisses as she settled back against him and burrowed into his warmth.

"Do you know how?" he chuckled.

"Hmm," Sansa hummed as she continued tracing the lines along the palm of his right hand. "My grandma knew how. She taught me the basics, although I've forgotten a lot of it."

Sandor was silent as he rested his chin on the top of her head and waited, intrigued, for Sansa to continue.

"This is your fate line," Sansa informed quietly as she followed the line running up the middle of his palm. "Breaks in the line mean misfortune."

"And do you see any?" Sandor pressed with faint amusement in his voice.

"Yes," Sansa answered truthfully. His fate line intersected his head line and ended at the heart line.

Emotional ruin. It was silly, really, and Sansa had paid her grandmother, dear as she was, little mind during her lessons of occult practices. Similarly, it would seem Sandor would treat this activity as a parlor trick - amusing, yes, but ultimately something to be dismissed and forgotten. Regardless, Sansa swallowed down the information gleaned from tracing that particular line and held her tongue as she studied his other lines.

"What else?" Sandor ventured with curiosity.

"The affection lines," Sansa smiled as she turned his hand to the side, studying the space below his pinky. She felt Sandor shift behind her so that his cheek now rested against the side of her head.

"What are those?"

"They tell you how many loves you'll have in your life, the duration, if it will be a happy union. That sort of thing."

Sansa could feel Sandor nodding his head before stilling.

"I want to see yours too. We might as well compare."

His words were matter-of-factly stated, and they elicited an exhale of laughter from Sansa as she held her right hand next to his. She already knew her affection lines, or rather, line. She had but one. On the heels of learning the misfortune of the moon in her seventh house, Sansa had memorized that single line, doting on it for some time before ultimately forgetting such nonsense. Now, there was resuscitated curiosity, and it was the same curiosity she felt easing its way from Sandor as he waited for further instruction.

"This is your heart line," she spoke, running her finger along the top line of his palm as it wrapped slightly around to the side of his hand. "Moving up, you should have lines between here and the bottom of your pinky."

Sandor held her hand steady as he studied it quietly for a few moments.

"One," he finally spoke. "You have one."

Sansa nodded her head, the corners of her mouth upturned in a smile. "You have one as well," she concurred softly.

"The closer the line is to your pinky, the older you are when you have this relationship," she continued on.

Her line was symmetrically in the middle between her heart line and the bottom of her pinky, and Sandor puzzled that out soon enough. By comparison, his was closer to the bottom of his pinky. Neither stated the obvious: that their affection lines seemed to correlate with their current age. It seemed it did not need to be spoken, but by the way he held her tighter against him, the understanding was mutual.

"Neither of ours are broken, and they're long," Sansa commented as she shifted her eyes between both of their hands. "A happy relationship. A long union."

Sandor nodded his approval, resting his chin on her shoulder now as he kissed her cheek and sighed.

"The end of yours points down though," Sandor noted with curiosity as he lightly traced his finger along the small line of her hand. "Mine goes straight across. What does that mean?"

'Love will come with much difficulty for you, Sansa; much tragedy too…'

Much as her astrological reading had ended in tears, so too had the palm reading her grandmother had once given her. It seemed the cosmos were intent to teach her lessons of love through bitter struggle and pained strife. 'We correct the missteps of our previous life in this one.' That had been the consolation given, although the balm of her grandmother's words was a temporary comfort. Many nights Sansa had lain awake studying her affection line while damning her moon for residing in the house of seven before ultimately deciding that it was all just silly superstitions.

"My partner will die before me," Sansa replied truthfully, trying to stave off the somberness now etching her words.

"And the cross at the end of it?" Sandor continued inquisitively. Sansa stilled in his arms. She knew he would notice. It was deeper than the affection line itself and seemed to bluntly intersect it, as if cutting the affection line in two.

"My partner dies in an accident. An untimely death." She could not hide the fear in her voice. It seemed to tickle the back of her throat and beckon her words to come quivering from her lips.

"Do you believe in this shit?" Sandor scoffed with a snort, unfazed by the information.

Drawing in a breath, Sansa paused before answering, something that did not go unnoticed by Sandor as he leaned forward and around her so that he could study her face.

"No," she finally answered with a small shake of her head and a wan smile. "Our fate can be changed by the choices we make. We have a destiny, yes, but we choose how our life plays out."

Silly superstitions, she reminded herself. Staring down at Sandor's hand now resting in her lap, Sansa wondered why she was having difficulties convincing herself that palms and moons made no matter in the course of her own fate. If her destiny could play out any which way she chose, then lines on her hand and an orb in the sky should have no bearing whatsoever.

"Do you believe in it?" she asked Sandor, although she imagined she already knew his answer. He was not the type of man to put stock into religion or even spirituality. Only now, Sansa struggled to place what exactly it was that he believed in.

"Our fate doesn't belong to gods or some entity in the sky," he began after a moment as he interlaced their fingers. "It belongs to us," he whispered in her ear, softly squeezing her hand and kissing her cheek.

It's you and me. Perhaps that was what he believed in, and in saying those words, it was a prayer. Not to gods or angels, but to her and to him because prayers were only manifestations of our hopes. His hope was them, her and him, bound together and fashioned for one another.

"I have my meeting to go to soon," he offered with a sigh as he stretched his arms high above his head, popping his back as he did so.

"We have to get up, don't we?" Sansa groaned as she swiveled towards him, burying her face in his chest and breathing him in while her hands fisted the fabric of his shirt. If only we could stay like this…

"I have to," Sandor replied regretfully. "But you, little bird, can stay in bed for however long you want."

"I'm on kitchen duty for today," Sansa informed, sitting up and pressing a kiss to Sandor's lips. She had told the Italian mothers she would help with the preparation of tonight's meal as more mouths needing to be fed lingered at the Moriarti mansion in the days after Mirabelle's funeral.

"That's right. The ladies need their cannoli queen back in action," Sandor teased as his mouth twitched into a grin.

Exhaling a small giggle, Sansa swatted his arm and watched as he extracted himself from the bed, stretching as he went. She settled back onto the pillows with a small sigh, tucking the blanket up under her arms and crossing them tightly over her chest. With his back turned towards her, Sandor pulled off his shirt, tossing it aside to the club chair in the corner of the room which had a growing collection of various articles of their clothing.

As he settled in front of his dresser drawer, pulling out the clothes he would wear for the day, Sansa let her eyes fall over the bare expanse of his back. She marveled at the broadness of his shoulders, how the heavy, sculpted muscles of his arms rippled beneath his skin with each movement he made, and the way his boxers hung low on his hips, accentuating the tapered cut of his abs.

Shifting his gaze towards the mirror to the left of him, Sandor must have caught the reflection of her openly leering at him. Sansa felt the heat hit her cheeks as she lowered her eyes, but not before she saw him staring back at her through the mirror, a devilish smile playing on his lips.

Without a word, he stepped into the bathroom, leaving the door cracked behind him. Sansa heard the shower turn on, and a few moments later, one arm appeared through the crack in the door as Sandor tossed his boxers towards the bed. Rolling her eyes with a giggle, Sansa felt her own mischievous smile bloom across her mouth. She waited a few moments before slipping from the bed and tiptoeing towards the bathroom, removing her shirt and underwear along the way. Inside, Sansa could feel the humid warmth of steam gathering against her bare skin. She grabbed a towel hanging behind the door and wrapped it around her as she slowly crept towards the shower.

With his eyes shut as water streamed down his face and he ran a bar of soap across his shoulders, Sandor did not see her standing outside the glass door. Sansa felt her heart beating fast within her chest as she took full sight of him. She had seen him in various states of undress, but never fully in the nude. A dull, sweet ache emerged between her legs as she followed the trail of soap suds running down his chest, over his abs, and down even further still to his half-erect manhood.

Sansa gave a small rap of her knuckles against the glass of the shower door. At the sound, Sandor pulled his head out from under the shower head and rubbed the water away from his eyes. Cracking the glass door open, he furrowed his brow at her as he brushed strands of his saturated hair away from the sides of his face.

"Want some company?" she inquired shyly, biting her bottom lip as she stared down at her toes wiggling against the bath rug beneath her feet. When she met his eyes again, he was smirking at her and was now turned fully towards her, unashamed at his nakedness and offering her a full view should she take it. And she did take it - swallowing hard as she let her eyes run up his heavily muscled form standing before her.

"There's a strict dress code in this shower," he offered with feigned regret spoken through a grin. "No towels allowed."

Disguising her smile with a pout, Sansa took a step backwards as if in retreat. Locking eyes with Sandor, she lifted her arms, letting the towel fall to the floor. With the sound of the water splashing against the tile of the shower and rushing down the drain, she couldn't quite tell, but could have sworn she heard a low, rumbling groan come from him. His smile had faded, and he feasted on the sight of her, his eyes filling with an insatiable lust as they lingered at the fullness of her breasts and the neatly trimmed patch of hair running the length of her slit.

"Get in here," he finally spoke on something like a moan as he leaned out of the shower and snatched her up.

No sooner had she obliged then she was being pressed against the wall of the shower, her mouth claimed by his as his tongue ran circles against hers and his hands trailed up and down her sides. She followed his lead, tentatively letting her palms rest against his hips before her fingers cupped his backside.

"I hope you didn't come in here to wash your hair," he rasped against her lips before tipping his head and taking one of her nipples into his mouth. The sensation of warm water running down her side and his tongue brushing across her nipple beckoned Sansa's eyes to flutter closed and a moan to escape her lips. Instinctively, she arched into him, pressing her body against his and feeling his manhood flush against her belly.

Reaching down between them, Sansa wrapped her hand around Sandor's hardened cock, smoothing her palm over its length and delighting in the way his body tensed in response and his ministrations to her breasts increased in their urgency. When she was certain the sensations running through her body could not get any more heavenly, Sansa felt Sandor's hand run up the inside of her thigh before his fingers gently traced her slit. He had pulled away from her breast now and was studying her face with desire flashing wild in his eyes, his mouth agape with deep groans as she continued stroking him in steady rhythm.

In return, he teased her clit with a soft touch, smiling as she began to pant with each pass of his fingers and unraveled into incoherent whimpers. She wanted more, and he knew it. She wanted to feel him inside of her, wanted him to reach all those divine places she knew he could. More than that, she wanted to do the same for him. She wanted to learn all the ways to make him come undone at the seams.

Sandor dipped a finger into her as his thumb continued stroking her clit. Shaking his head, he exhaled a laugh through his own panting breaths before pressing his lips against her ear.

"I love how you're always so fucking wet for me," he whispered on a groan before administering slow kisses up her neck and ultimately claiming her mouth once more.

Sansa sighed into the kiss, deepening it and pressing her body against him as best she could given the awkward angle of the shower and the fact that water was finding its way up her nose. She giggled at the sensation between her moans of pleasure. At this, Sandor broke the kiss and cocked an eyebrow at her.

"What is it?" he asked with curiosity.

"The water is getting up my nose," Sansa replied with a shake of her head and a lingering laugh.

Upon hearing this, and without warning, Sandor shut the water off and pushed the shower door open, releasing the steam and allowing the cool air to meander its way in.

"We'll take this in the next room then." With that, he led her from the shower, taking her hand and not stopping to towel off. Instead, he headed for the bed, lifting her up by the waist and unceremoniously dropping her down on the mattress.

He paused before settling on top of her, his eyes running up the length of her legs, the curve of her hips and waist, the way her breasts rose and fell in time with her breathing, her nipples hardened with arousal. In the past, Sansa would blush beneath his stare, demurely averting her gaze, although she thoroughly enjoyed the way he seemed to devour her with his eyes.

Although her skin was flushed with a burning heat, Sansa did not look away. Instead, she matched his eyes now as she bit her bottom lip and slowly let her knees fall open, spreading her legs so as to offer him a view.

He murmured a slew of expletives, seemingly to himself, as he shook his head and ran a hand over his face before slowly easing himself on top of her.

Draping her legs around his hips and her arms around his neck, Sansa pulled him down against her, running her tongue across his bottom lip and giving a tiny nibble. He responded with a satisfied moan as he slowly rocked his hips into her, letting the length of his cock slide against her clit.

In slow movements, his lips moved down her neck, across her collar bone, lingered at each of her breasts as he sucked at each nipple in turn. He did not linger long and instead continued further down her body until he hovered between her legs. She could feel the warmth of his breath against the wetness pooled there.

He lingered momentarily, and when Sansa lifted her head to see the cause of his hesitation, she found him staring back at her, a devilish smile across his lips and his eyes heavy with desire. Without breaking his stare, Sandor moved his mouth to the top of her knee, slowly running his tongue down the inside of her thigh before reaching her slit and tracing over it ever so slightly. He pulled away and repeated the process on the other side, his tongue trailing down her other thigh.

When Sansa was certain she was going to come undone at the anticipation alone and gave a whimpering protest, Sandor's tongue delved between her folds as he began running delicate circles across her clit and slipped one long finger into her. With her head falling back against the pillow and her eyes fluttering closed, Sansa gave a shuddering sigh. The last time he had done this, it felt incomplete; her body responded as it should, but her heart had still been aching. Now, the two were synchronously responding. Her body was ablaze with heat, and her heart was soaring at his touch.

Letting herself go, Sansa buried her fingers in the dripping locks of Sandor's hair and gently rolled her hips up to meet his lips. He responded with a fervor, reaching up and cupping one of her breasts while his tongue now eagerly lapped at her opening and his thumb brushed firm, rhythmic circles at her clit. He followed the sounds pouring from her lips, zeroing in on what she liked and continuing with it until she began to tremble beneath him. She didn't care anymore how loud her cries of pleasure were becoming. Instead, she surrendered to the sensation, panting and writhing as she felt herself unravel and as a final release of euphoria was unleashed within her. Her body released its tension, her limbs went limp, and a final sigh escaped her lips.

Sandor's movements slowed to a gradual stop, but not before he gave one more gentle lick and a delicate kiss between her legs, sending a shockwave of tingles through her body. He eased himself on top of her, licking his lips, which were covered in a sheen of her wetness. Sansa smiled up at him, sated and abuzz with the sensations that had rocked through her. As Sandor pressed soft kisses to her lips, Sansa could feel his erection pressed between them. She traced her fingers down the smooth expanse of his chest and over the tautness of his stomach until finally reaching the tip of his manhood, which was pearled with wetness.

"I want…" she whispered against his lips, stopping as she traced her fingers down the length of his cock. He shuddered on top of her, breathing harder against her touch.

"Say it. Tell me what you what," he murmured before deepening the kiss, his tongue easily gaining entrance in her mouth as she stroked him tentatively.

"I want to…" Sansa began, although quickly becoming scandalized. "I want to do the same for you," she finally managed between kisses.

"I want to hear you say it," Sandor urged, his hands running over the silhouette of her curves, starting at her hip and ending at the swell of her breast.

Pulling away from her slightly as he broke the kiss, Sandor stared down at her, his eyes raking over her bare body.

Sansa's cheeks were aflame, and her chest was heaving now with a different sort of anticipation. She wanted to give him pleasure, to make him moan and shudder and gasp for breaths just as he had done for her. She bit her lip before releasing it into a curious smile as her eyes flickered towards her fingers still working up and down his shaft.

Slowly, she sat up, her hand pressing against his chest as she gently pushed him up. His mouth curled into a grin as she urged him to lay down once more, this time on his back. His smile dissolved away into a countenance of pure lust as she lifted herself to straddle him, guiding his hands to her breasts as he stared up at her in wonderment.

Leaning forward, she softly licked his lips, eliciting a guttural groan to originate from the back of his throat and his hands to grip the sides of her hips.

"I want…" she began again, tracing her lips down his neck and giving little nips and nibbles as she went.

"To…" Shifting further down him, Sansa placed lingering kisses down his chest, which was rising to meet her lips and falling away as he audibly exhaled his breaths.

"Suck…" She settled between his legs, her lips ghosting across the head of his cock as she spoke. Emboldened by the response she was getting from him, Sansa matched his eyes. Biting his lip, Sandor was gathering up the damp tresses of her hair. With his other hand, he traced the pad of his thumb over her bottom lip, letting out a moan at the sight of her as he bucked his hips slightly to urge her on. When he moved his hand from her lip and settled it behind his head, Sansa slowly took him in her mouth, her tongue running smooth circles around the head of his cock. Her actions were met with a quietly exhaled expletive.

Wrapping one hand around the base of his manhood, Sansa eased her lips further down, taking more of him into her mouth as she gave a tentative suck. In the periphery of her vision, she could see Sandor's legs tensing, bending at the knee as he panted short breaths. Despite the newness of it all, Sansa found herself exhilarated, listening raptly to the sounds coming from Sandor and the way his body was responding to her.

Finding her rhythm, she took as much of him into her mouth as she could and steadily stroked the length of him that she couldn't. With each pass of her tongue, she could feel him shuddering beneath her. More expletives poured from his lips, interspersed with ragged gasps for breaths and deep, resounding moans.

Sansa felt Sandor's hand wrap around hers, pressing her fingers more firmly against his manhood and increasing the speed of her rhythm. Diligently, she followed his lead, realizing now there was something deeply erotic about having him instruct her in this way.

"Look at me," he murmured on a thin exhale, the rhythm of his breathing erratic as his body writhed, seemingly uncontrolled, beneath her.

As she worked her mouth up and down his shaft, Sansa lifted her gaze up to him through her eyelashes. She was met with a lustful stare, his eyes eagerly drinking in the sight of her as his chest heaved.

"Fuck, Sansa. Just like that," he growled, watching her intently as she continued her movements. She could see his face becoming flushed, his eyes rolling closed, his mouth dangling open, although no sounds came except those of his panting breaths. Moments later, she saw him throw his head back against the pillow as the muscles in his body tensed in unison. He seemed to roar his release and moved to push her away as he came. Resisting, Sansa stilled his movements and continued her ministrations as he climaxed with a jolting shudder.

Much like her, he had become limp, his legs trembling slightly as she sat up and swallowed down his release. Sandor ran his hands over his face, sighing into his palms as he tried to regain a normal rhythm of breathing. Climbing out from between his legs, Sansa settled by his side, mindlessly twirling a strand of damp hair around her finger as she lay down beside him. Sandor pulled his hands away from his face as he felt the mattress depress next to him. He shifted his eyes to her, which were now heavy with contentment and sleepiness.

"Where the fuck did you learn to give head like that?" he queried with a low chuckle as he pulled her closer against him.

Sansa felt a smile form on her lips as she shrugged her shoulders. It was a rhetorical question, she knew. He was well aware of her inexperience in these sorts of things, so she took his words, crude as they were, as a compliment of sorts.

Turning to his side, Sandor gathered Sansa in his arms, pressing soft kisses to her shoulder, neck, and finally her lips.

"You're so fucking sexy," she heard him say on a sigh before closing his eyes.

He would fall asleep, she knew. Afterall, she understood the tempo of his breaths, the thrum of his heart. Both were quieting now, receding to a pace which told her all she needed to know. For a time, he was comforted, and so was she. She rested her head on his chest, and he in turn draped his arm over the small of her waist before smoothing his palm up and down her back. They stayed like this for many quiet moments, neither falling into slumber but rather enjoying the warmth of their bodies pressed against one another.

Eventually, Sansa felt as Sandor pressed a kiss to her cheek and sat up before crawling from the bed with a heavy sigh.

"How long will your meeting take?" she inquired, propping herself up on one elbow as Sandor pulled on a pair of boxers.

He shrugged his shoulders, pursing his lips slightly in thought.

"Not long, I don't think," he informed before pulling a plain white T-shirt over his head. "It's just me and Zulu."

Sansa's body was warm, still flushed, but her blood ran like ice through her veins. Her mind cried out for a mad dash to be made, a way of stalling this meeting so that she might reconcile the truths she still held on to. It was futile, she knew. She had only sparingly seen Zulu over the past few days, and by the silver hands of the clock on the wall, she knew Sandor was pushing his limit on time before this meeting.

"Zulu?" she replied with as much disinterest as she could muster. The boy's name still came on a sharp, dry breath.

"Yeah. I told you, right?"

Sansa stared down at her hands gathering in her lap as she bit her lip. In the periphery of her vision, Sandor continued dressing, seemingly unaware of the turmoil playing out over her countenance. He had mentioned a meeting, and Sansa envisioned a table of men, serious and brooding, gathered to discuss business. What she had not envisioned was a private rendezvous between Sandor and Zulu.

"I must have forgotten," she finally spoke, pulling the blankets up over her chest as she suddenly grew cold.

"I meet with him over lunch," Sandor relayed as he tied his shoe, focusing on his fingers' work and not noticing the way Sansa had now paled. "Depending on what he has for me, I may need to speak with some of my other men."

Lifting himself to his feet, he approached the side of the bed, leaning forward with his hands pressed to the mattress on either side of where Sansa was sitting, knees pulled to her chest.

"I'm all yours by dinner time." With that, he pressed a kiss to her lips and then to her forehead before retreating from the room.

She listened to his heavy footfalls down the hall, stilling her breaths as he receded away, and when he was gone, the room grew darker and colder too. It was not his absence which suddenly muted the colors of her existence, shattering the vibrant visage of the world she and him had existed in. Rather, it was the presence of something else; something distant and unknowable gathering beyond the veil of that which was tangible. Sandor did not believe in forces which irrevocably pushed and pulled on the course of one's fate, and she had led him to believe she did not believe in it either. To know herself was to know that while she disregarded lines of affection and moons in seven, she believed in what she could feel. She understood that whispers of the cosmos came as ripples in the water, prospects and omens of events already set in motion.

With a sickening awareness, one that could not be ignored and dismissed as an occult parlor trick, Sansa felt that universal ebb and flow. It warned of tragedy and encompassed a larger purpose than that of correcting karmic missteps of a past life. She did not know how it would play out or the particulars of its features. All she knew for certain was that it was heavy, it was strong, and it was coming.

In the small corner of the Moriarti mansion that he claimed as his own, Zulu shuffled through the papers he had gathered for his meeting. They were clipped together in orderly stacks before being tucked away into a folder for safe keeping. He could recall the information easily enough but understood that an organized stack of documents bespoke the time spent doing his duty. It hadn't taken him long, really. The information was out there. It was just a matter of hacking into databases and sifting through it all to find what he was looking for.

Bronn had briefed him on the particulars: he needed to gather whatever he could on the hotspots and distribution network of the Caballero cartel and prepare for a private meeting with Sandor Clegane. If Bronn had been privy to all the reasons Clegane wanted to meet with him personally, the man hadn't let on. Instead, he seemed distracted and listless, hardly present in his own body as he relayed the Hound's request the day after Mirabelle's funeral. Zulu had swallowed his uneasiness then, drinking it down despite his discomfort and remaining poised as best he could. His interactions with Clegane had been few and far between for the majority of his time spent in the Moriarti underworld, save for the last few weeks in which he seemed to have drawn attention to himself. Is this not what you wanted?

There was a time where he had, indeed, wanted to be recognized for his efforts. He had usually pushed it aside as a selfish want and chided himself for chasing down a pipe dream. It seemed he had been singled out, though, plucked from the pack of other made men who were constantly chomping at the bit to prove their merit. It had started with Alberto requesting his assistance in monitoring the Stark girl, and it ended here - a private meeting with the boss of the organization. Zulu couldn't help but wonder if the events had come full circle with Sansa Stark being the common denominator in all of this.

With a sense of duty having been, quite literally, pounded into him from a young age, Zulu took his tasks seriously, regardless of their nature. Whether it was stocking the dusty shelves at his family's neighborhood grocery store at the age of twelve or keeping a watchful eye on the district attorney's daughter despite his initial misgivings, Zulu did his duty - quietly and without complaint. And now, his hard work and diligence had seemed to pay off; he knew if he stuck his nose to the grindstone long enough, someone was sure to notice him eventually. At least, that's what he had told himself, and it seemed to be a default by which he operated, regardless. He did not make waves; he did not cause problems; he did not break rules. There had been just one momentary faltering from this personal code of ethics.

It had been a culmination of turbulent desires, a complexity of motivations that Zulu himself couldn't quite piece together. His mother had told him he had a bleeding heart, an ability to absorb the pain that others felt and to share the burden of their sorrow. That was many years ago, and it had taken him some time to understand what she truly meant by her words. His empathy was a double-edged sword, to be sure, and at times difficult to manage given the callousness that was so often required in order to do his duty as a made man. It had been empathy that initially drew him to the Stark girl, a fragility he sought to protect. He dare not call her weak, per se, but the strength she seemed to don in recent days seemed feigned to him and put on like a masquerade.

A companionship had sprouted from the seed of empathy. Sansa was an escape and a distraction. He imagined he functioned much the same for her. When an attraction began to flourish, he had tried to stymie it, to poison it at its root. When she had come bounding down the stairs one night, her underwear and a bottle of the Hound's whiskey in hand, he had been angry: at her for being so pathetically naive, at Clegane for shirking his own duties to drown himself in booze and let the world crumble around him, at himself for being so foolish as to think he could compete with the man.

To look back on it now, Zulu realized, in that singular moment of time, he stopped fearing Sandor Clegane. The Hound had been a false idol to him, an entity to revere. Sansa had humanized the man, lured him from some unreachable place to exist amongst mere mortals. And now Zulu saw him as such, and fear had dissolved away to be replaced by what he could only describe as pity. He pitied Clegane, but mostly he pitied all the unenlightened souls who blindly followed the man towards an uncertain future.

His volunteering to take Sansa back to Moriarti's in the wake of what transpired at the funeral home had been contrived. Zulu knew what he would do, and he knew what he would offer Sansa that night. It wasn't empathy, companionship, or desire which motivated him. Even now, he couldn't quite place what drove him to take what wasn't his, to taste it and to want it as his own. It was reckless, but he hadn't cared.

He was no longer afraid: not of Clegane and not of her. He sought to rebel against his duty, to reveal it for the farce that it was. After all, he was beginning to see things more clearly, and what he saw was a charade. It was a charade of men who had all bought into a culture of fear – fear they hoped to inspire in others and fear of a man who was, himself, the biggest fraud of them all. And the magnum opus of this fool's farce was the revived relationship between Clegane and Sansa. Zulu had seen Sansa and Clegane a handful of times the past few days, hand-in-hand and looking quite content to resume their tryst despite all the sickening bullshit that had transpired between them.

They deserve each other and what they get.

The bitterness of his thoughts surprised Zulu. He found that the envy he had anticipated towards Clegane was replaced with disgust, for both him and for the girl as well.

The time Sansa had spent with a mob boss seemed to have imparted little clarity or soundness of judgment on her. Instead, she had naively fallen for whatever Clegane had fed to her. He knew the man better than anyone probably realized. While the other young made men spent their time impressing capos or chasing tail, Zulu had quietly observed those around him, Clegane in particular. Zulu had once respected him as a leader, admired him as a warrior, and envied him as a man. However, he knew the dark side that existed in Clegane: his penchant for extreme violence, the fickleness of his rage, the volatility of his temper. He knew that Clegane had hurt Sansa before and would do it again. Whatever promises of change that may have been made were as good as worthless.

Zulu couldn't help but exhale a bitter laugh, one which originated from the souring pit of his stomach as he gathered up his folder full of papers and headed towards the back patio.

Their meeting was to take place outside. The days of cloud cover, storms, and unseasonable cold snaps were gone, and the sun had returned to bake the earth. As he stepped out onto the back patio, Zulu felt the warmth against his bare arms. Nausea took hold, and he swayed slightly as if the gentle breeze working across the patio might whisk him away. If only I were so lucky, he thought with an uneasy shake of the head.

He found Clegane seated at a small, wrought iron table tucked against the stucco side of the mansion, which overlooked the valley below. The man dwarfed the chair he was sitting in, his elbows perched against the armrests, his fingers steepled in front of him as he stared down at a notepad scribbled with writing.

The table had been set with an assortment of lunchtime fare: sandwiches, a large bowl of fruit salad, deviled eggs. Confused, Zulu slowed his pace as he approached the table, unaware that this meeting would be taking place over a meal. He felt his appetite flee him and his stomach twist into knots.

Clegane did not seem to notice his presence at first as he shoved a deviled egg into his mouth and stared off towards the desert valley. When his eyes shifted to Zulu, he gave a half smile and wordlessly motioned his head towards the chair opposite him. Zulu lowered himself in to sit, a fine sheen of sweat emerging against his palms as Clegane studied him with watchful eyes. Zulu scooted the chair closer to the table and gently placed his folder of papers in front of him.

Clegane sipped from a bottle of water before clearing his throat and eying the folder.

"You spoke with Bronn," he began as he eased into his seat, letting his back rest against the chair and his arms fall against the armrests.

"I did," Zulu confirmed with a slight nod. "He said you requested all known locations in Nevada and Southern California where the Caballero are active, as well as their distribution network."

"What do you have on them?" Clegane pressed as he spooned fruit salad onto a plate. "Help yourself. There's plenty here," he added casually with a motioning of his head towards the spread of food.

Zulu felt his stomach burn as he tried to place the uneasiness he felt. Clegane's temperament ranged from violently flying off the handle to brooding in an agitated and heavy silence. Never before had he seen the man in this state of conviviality and calm. If the Hound meant to set Zulu at ease, he was missing the mark. If anything, the sudden change in his usual disposition was disconcerting.

Ignoring Clegane's cajoling for him to eat, Zulu flipped open his folder and pulled out a map of the southwestern portion of the United States where various cities had been circled. Turning the map so it faced Clegane, Zulu pulled a pen from his pocket to illustrate various features of his findings.

"They're most active in the southern portion of the border states, so San Diego, Tuscon, Phoenix, Las Cruces. These are the main points of their distribution network. Their stuff comes up from Columbia to Mexico City, where it's divvied between the major crews who push it through the border at various points. They've managed to break into Reno, Los Angeles, and Miami, but that's iffy because they're stepping on Ybarra territory in those places."

When he finished, Zulu drew in a breath, lifting his eyes to Clegane, who was scrutinizing the map. Silence wore on as Clegane did this, narrowing his gaze and furrowing his brow in thought.

After a few excruciatingly long minutes, Clegane eased back in his seat and crossed his arms about his chest as he leveled a stare onto Zulu.

"What are your thoughts on it?" he finally broke in, his face impassible and his eyes hardly wavering from their place.

Zulu wasn't quite sure he heard him correctly at first. Never before had Clegane asked for his opinion. Never before had Clegane shown this much interest in him, period. The man was stubborn and bullheaded. If he valued anyone's opinion above his own, Zulu imagined it would be Alberto's, but even that was questionable. Many times, it seemed Sandor went against the advice of his consigliere.

"I'm not sure what you mean." Zulu did not know what else to say or what Clegane wanted from him.

"There's not a lot to read into, Zulu," Clegane spoke through a smirk. He nodded his head towards the map still situated between them before continuing. "I'm asking for your opinion, your thoughts on it. You're a smart kid, and I think you've flown under the radar for a bit too long. If you had to look at this map and tell me which location you think the Caballero would be predominantly operating out of, I want to know where you would pick."

Zulu felt his mouth dangle open momentarily before he pressed his lips together. He half expected for this to be some sort of a set-up. It was a paranoid thought, he knew, but he couldn't wrap his head around any other reason the Hound might be sharing a meal with him, seeking out his opinion, and acknowledging the fact that he had gone unnoticed. I don't trust him. It was a startling realization and one whose origins could be found well before this particular conversation, although he was only now consciously acknowledging it.

"The Caballero aren't shy about wanting to encroach on Ybarra territory," Zulu began as he gathered the stray pieces of his thoughts. "Since Vegas is essentially where the Ybarra cartel operates out of stateside, the Caballero have been hesitant to go full force in there, but they're definitely zeroing in on it. Ybarra have Vegas and Los Angeles under their thumb, which is huge. The Caballero want a piece of that. With backing from the Severelli, I think the Caballero are going to push Vegas hard. And the Ybarra will push back."

When Clegane descended into silence once more and lifted his eyes to the sky in thought, Zulu could feel the sweat accumulating on his brow and his lungs beginning to burn with each breath. This meeting – the fact that it had even been called in the first place – was as perplexing as it was troubling. All this information could have easily passed up the pipeline to Clegane. There was no reason it needed to be relayed by Zulu to Sandor directly.

"The Caballero are going to be in over their heads," Clegane commented on a sardonic chuckle. Something about the man's laugh irritated him. "A street war with a rival cartel and the war we've got cooking up with the Severelli that they're now a part of. There's no way in hell they can handle the blow back with all of this."

Zulu didn't know if he was expected to respond or merely indulge Clegane in his musings. Instead, he remained silent, watching as Clegane picked strawberries out from the bowl of fruit salad.

"Miguel Martinez is getting old," Clegane noted before popping a strawberry into his mouth. "I'm not so sure he has a successor just yet either. His only son was gunned down a few years ago, and from what I've heard, he doesn't fully trust any of the men favored to take over for him."

Zulu already knew this information. Despite the discretion and caution Martinez, the Caballero patriarch, imposed upon the cartel these days, the man had been reckless in his younger years of running the show. The consequences of his recklessness had left him paranoid, for all the good it did.

"You don't think he has the stomach for two street wars," Zulu spoke, his words inflecting such that his statement came questioning from his lips.

"No, I think he can and will stomach it," Clegane corrected. "This situation makes him susceptible to persuasion though," he added after a lengthy silence.

His last statement was not spoken as an afterthought, Zulu knew. Instead, it seemed to weigh heavily in Clegane's mind as he stewed over it between bites of strawberries and chicken salad sandwiches.

"I want information on Martinez by the end of the day," Clegane finally commanded authoritatively and with conviction. "I want to know where he's at now. Not where you think he might be. I'll need a way to contact him too."

The man leveled his gaze across the table, his eyes narrowing at Zulu as if somehow examining him.

"I'll get on that," Zulu avowed quietly as he lowered his head to stare at his lap.

"Good." Clapping his hands together as if to disperse the tension between them, Clegane's mouth twitched into a half-smile, his mood seeming to lighten, although it did little to ease Zulu's nervousness. "I wanted to tell you that I appreciate you looking after Sansa for the past week while I was indisposed."

Despite the heat now seeping into his skin from the sun above, Zulu felt his blood run cold and his mouth go dry. There was no way in hell Sandor meant what he was saying. Zulu was well aware of how possessive the man was over Sansa. He had seen it with his own two eyes the day E.Z. had unwittingly crossed the line by making moves on Sansa within eyesight and earshot of Clegane. Zulu didn't know what transpired after that exchange, but he knew whatever had taken place, it had left E.Z. reeling, although the kid never spoke about it - not even after Vinny urged him to come clean about what happened. The kid had refused, too petrified of the ramifications, although Vinny had taken the kid aside and offered him assurances. Zulu was never entirely certain what Vinny had told E.Z., but whatever it was, it had restored a bit of the kid's confidence and seemed to set his mind at ease.

"It was no problem." The words were a whisper, and now Zulu could feel an insistent tremble work its way through his limbs. He gripped the armrest of the chair to quell the shaking of his hands and steady them so that Clegane could not see.

"You're a good kid, Zulu," Clegane spoke with a smile which tugged across the man's lips and wrinkled the corners of his eyes – a genuine smile if there ever was one.

"Thank you, sir," Zulu managed. As Clegane's eyes scrutinized him with growing concern, Zulu was certain that the man was beginning to notice something was off. If not by sight alone, the uneasiness Zulu was emitting should have been a tell-tale indicator.

Leaning forward in his seat, Clegane began once more as he regarded Zulu with a renewed flush of sincerity and import.

"Part of the reason I wanted to speak with you one-on-one was to talk about your future in this organization." Clegane gave pause before beginning once more, his head cocked to the side as he rested one balled fist under his chin. "Where do you see yourself going? Ten years from now, where do you hope to be?"

Suddenly put on the spot, Zulu knew not what to say. The words dissolved on his tongue, and his thoughts evaporated before fully taking shape.

"I…um…I don't-" he stammered, bewildered and floored at the sudden turn in conversation. "I guess I hadn't thought about it."

That much was true. Through the unfortunate twists and turns of his life, Zulu had somehow wound up involved in the Moriarti organization. It wasn't something he had strived for. And he never strived or expected to be pushed through the ranks; after all, made men with a blood legacy were usually favored for that. However, this was Clegane's organization, and he ran it by his own set of rules. Traditions were being put aside for practicality, and the make-up of the organization was changing under his leadership, for better or for worse.

"Some made men are only meant to be street soldiers," Clegane continued now as he sensed Zulu's sudden bafflement. "That's what they're good at, and it's what they do. And most of them are happy doing it. There are other men, like you and like me, who are cut from a different cloth. They don't come along often, but when they do, they need to be singled out and groomed for a higher ranking position."

Zulu stared down at the table to the folder open in front of him. Before being officially made, he had heard stories of Clegane from some of the other made men: his imposing size, his brooding, unreadable demeanor, the infamy of his temper. He knew well enough to be intimidated when he finally came face to face with Clegane at his initiation ceremony, and he had been. Like all else in his world, Clegane dwarfed the stories told about him. He was a man carved from myth. Zulu's fear of Sandor had been genuine, but so too was his intrigue. He did not want to blindly fear Sandor Clegane. He wanted to understand him, to know him, to one day be him.

There was admiration to be found in Clegane's unconventionality. He was not groomed from generations past to be a made man. He did not share heritage or even blood with his predecessor. He had been plucked off the streets by Alberto and tossed into the bull pit. He had proven himself time and again, not because he had to or even wanted to, but because it was all he knew how to do - to fight, to survive, to kill. Zulu had seen something of himself in Sandor, an idol to look up to, and finally, someone worth emulating. Some would call it presumptuous, and Zulu would agree, but he had struggled to find his place in the world, to figure out where exactly he fit. Now, he had finally found purpose and place, and Sandor was seeing something of himself in Zulu too, or so it seemed.

He knew Clegane was staring at him, waiting for a response. If Zulu looked at the man now, surely he would know. He would begin to understand Zulu's sudden turmoil, the upheaval that was occurring in real time. Zulu kept his eyes lowered and his mouth shut. From across the table, he could feel a growing sense of agitation coming off of Sandor, who was, undoubtedly, expecting a different response than what he was getting.

"Alright, let's cut the shit, kid," he said finally on an exasperated sigh. "I think you'd make an excellent capo. I think you're smart. I think you're capable. You're honest, you're loyal, you're hardworking. Fuck, there's a reason you got the nickname Zulu."

Zulu closed his eyes and pulled in measured breaths. No longer was he trembling, but instead the weight of what Sandor was offering and asking of him settled at his core, stilling his movements. Other men would have eagerly accepted what had been put on the table, realizing that to deny the boss something of this magnitude would surely be a slap in the man's face.

Zulu understood now. He admired the Hound, but loathed Sandor Clegane and had not yet reconciled the two; for now, those two entities existing in the same man were separating, the former being relinquished so the latter could exist in peace. It was not that Sandor had been revealed to him as a fake, but that Zulu had lost his faith in the myth that was the Hound - the vision of Clegane as an individual who was an unmovable force with convictions that, although askew and convoluted by the standards of morality, were unwavering nonetheless.

Only now did he come to understand that he had hung his hopes and stocked his heart with faith in that myth. Just like Sansa, he had eagerly consumed an ideology that was baseless.

"Obviously, this would be something you work towards for quite some time before you take the position," Sandor continued after Zulu's reticence wore on. The man shifted in his chair from side to side with what appeared to be discomfort. "However, I want to start putting you in charge more and see how you do. It'd be a trial by fire sort of deal. I want to see more of the stuff you're made of."

Freeing his hands from the armrests of his chair, Zulu rubbed his face, sighing deeply into his palms. Why me? Why, of all people, are you offering this to me? Why couldn't I have just disappeared into the background like always?

When Zulu pulled his hands away from his face, his eyes squarely met Sandor's gaze, which was clouded with concern and confusion.

"What's the matter?" the man chuckled, almost nervously and obviously perplexed. "You look like you're about to cry."

Although Zulu did not feel the stinging of tears, he knew the horrified look that had settled on his face. He could feel his brow knitting together, his mouth contorting into a pained expression, conflict pouring forth from him eyes.

"Zulu, what's going on?" Sandor pressed with urgency, leaning forward now in his seat and imploring Zulu with an unfaltering intensity.

He could not say for certain why he felt the need to confess unspoken truths to Sandor Clegane. Perhaps he was just as naïve and hopelessly misguided as the Stark girl. Or perhaps his affliction was worse; for this wasn't naïveté which solidified his resolve to unmask his truths to the man he had in turn feared, admired, and envied.

I should know better.

Zulu did know better, and perhaps that was just it.

He knew Sansa would tell Sandor the truth eventually. It was only a matter of time. He knew that the truth would come like honey from Sansa's lips, and Sandor would devour it as such, but he was a smart man. He would understand that it wasn't a mere kiss that Zulu had sought to steal that night. Zulu had wanted to steal Sansa away too, to take something that wasn't his, to gain an identity beyond his duty. And that had been his own madness; he knew that now. Sansa did not seem to understand that and would sweetly offer up her confession, not comprehending the severity of what had transpired. Sandor would understand. He would read between the lines and see all that Sansa couldn't. The truth would bleed through her sweet words.

It was better this way; better for it to come from Zulu himself than from the girl who could do no wrong in Sandor's eyes, the girl who was unfurling the boss of the Moriarti inside out, the girl who had weakened him. It was madness, but madness seemed to be the order of the day.

"There's something I need to tell you."

When he finally loosed the words from his tongue, they came out slow and deliberate. With his heart beating loudly in his own ears, the sound of his own voice seemed muffled and distant, as if he had slipped outside of himself to watch from somewhere up above.

"I'm listening," Sandor responded on a deep rumble.

Zulu did not know where to begin, how to trace his steps backwards to the origins of this situation. After giving pause, he realized it wouldn't quite matter where this story began because the ending was the same, regardless.

"I know you don't know a lot about my back story," he started, eyes down turned as he mindlessly picked at his fingernails. "I think Bronn knows more than anyone. I don't have family - not any family I talk to or have ties with. I don't have the lineage a lot of the other younger made men have. I've sort of felt like a black sheep for a long time-"

Zulu was interrupted with an exhaled laugh, something between a chuckle and a sigh.

"I don't have the lineage either, but here I am," Sandor broke in on an almost gentle tone as he offered reassurances. His index finger prodded the table to emphasize each of his words. "I got here by proving what I was worth, just like I know you'll do. So, if that's what's got you upset-"

"That's not what it is," Zulu interrupted, his words adamant although strained. He ran his hand over his face once more and now felt the stinging of tears in his eyes.

"Alright, calm down," he heard Sandor speak calmly from across the table. "Whatever has you so worked up right now, we can talk about it. You can tell me what it is, Zulu."

Zulu's hands had begun to tremble and so too did his voice when he finally spoke on a quivering breath.

"After what happened with Mirabelle and Thomas, Alberto asked me to keep an eye on Sansa, to make sure she didn't get lost in the shuffle. I didn't want to at first because I knew you and her were close. I didn't think I could say no to Alberto, though, so I agreed."

Giving pause, Zulu lifted his gaze to Sandor, who had grown eerily still and was staring at Zulu now with eyes that bore straight through him. "I got to know her, and I started to feel for her situation. It started to seem similar to mine. I guess I could empathize with a lot of it. As I spent time with her, I got to know her better…"

Zulu had let his words trail off. It was cowardice, he knew. Sandor, too, had begun to tremble now, the muscles of his bare arms taut with tension.

"Where the fuck are you going with this?" Sandor seethed as his jaw set firmly. His eyebrows were downturned in a scowl as he glared across the table.

"I…I don't know," Zulu stammered, his fear of the man having been unearthed once more. "I started to get feelings for her. It wasn't anything major, and I didn't expect it to go anywhere. I just-"

He could down play it all he wanted to. It wouldn't matter to Sandor. Zulu could see the man's chest heaving in the periphery of his downturned vision. He had expected the Hound to come careening over the table by now, to throttle him in blind wrath. Instead, the man continued with the rhythmic pattern of measured breathing. When he finally spoke, he did so with his eyes softly shut as he shook his head, his voice unexpectedly calm.

"It's not going anywhere, Emory. Whatever you think you had with her is done and over with. You don't need to be around her anymore."

"I know that. And I haven't been around her," Zulu assured on a murmur, startled by the sound of his given name coming from Sandor. When Sandor opened his eyes once more, Zulu averted his gaze, gnawing on his bottom lip as he wrung his hands together.

"There's something you're not telling me," he heard Sandor rasp. When he lifted his eyes to the man, Zulu could see that while outwardly calm for now, Sandor appeared to be staring through him once more. He could not say for certain how Sandor knew. Perhaps Zulu's body had betrayed him, subtle cues had been given from across the table, or perhaps this was a demonstration of the keen perceptiveness Sandor possessed. Either way, the understanding was implicit and unspoken.

"Tell me what else went on between you and her." Leaning forward, Sandor's chest pressed against the edge of the table as he lowered his voice to something of a growl, and the glower with which he was considering Zulu burned with intensity.

"The other night when I brought her back here, after Mirabelle's visitation, I escorted her to her room. We kissed."

I kissed her. She did not kiss me. He had meant to say that as well, but stopped himself short, although he could not say why. It was deviant and dangerous. He had now given Sansa equal ownership of what had transpired, as if that might lift some of the burden off of himself.

Zulu watched as Sandor pulled in deep breaths, his eyes darting like mad across the table in tumultuous thought as he ran a hand over his face and through the long strands of his hair. When Sandor's eyes settled onto Zulu once more, the pained look of betrayal was clear to see. It seemed to have crippled the anger brewing within him and was bringing the man to his proverbial knees with evident hurt.

"I asked you to take care of her, to bring her back here safely while I dealt with a shit storm. You repay me by making a move on her. What else happened?"

Sandor's nostrils flared with each audible intake of breath, his hands curled around the armrest of his chair so tightly that his knuckles had paled to a shade of white.

"Nothing. That was it," Zulu lied. There was more to this, and just as he had predicted, Sandor knew. He read between the lines as astutely as ever.

"That's bullshit," the man roared as he slammed his fist against the table, sending the bowl of fruit salad to go crashing against the ground and shattering upon impact. "You're lying to me! You didn't just leave it at that. Tell me what else happened."

Zulu was uncertain which would wound Sandor more: a kiss shared between himself and Sansa or what he had offered Sansa afterwards. Steeling himself, Zulu pulled in a deep breath and met Sandor's irate stare, lifting his chin slightly as he spoke.

"I told her I could give her a chance at a normal life, that I could make her happy, keep her safe."

Sandor seemed to visibly wince at the words, and his face flushed an almost unnatural shade of crimson. Sansa is his Achilles heel, his weakness, his undoing. Zulu had heard those words tossed around between made men in the days and weeks past. It was one thing to hear them and quite another to see it with his own eyes. He pitied Sandor and found himself marveling at the way in which the man was wounded. It was an odd thing, really; a brute of a man brought down by a wisp of a girl.

"You were going to bail with her, weren't you?" Sandor whispered as he slowly shook his head in disbelief.

Zulu gave a curt nod by way of reply and watched as Sandor slowly rose from his seat, bellowing out his words as he pressed his hands firmly against the table. Fury rolled off his body, permeating the small amount of space between them now as the man leaned across the table.

"Are you out of your goddamn mind? Tell me: how were you going to keep her safe all by yourself? You can't offer her that. It was a lie, and you knew it." Once more, Sandor unleashed his rage on the table. With each slam of his fist, sandwiches and silverware tumbled to the ground below. "You lied to her, and you lied to me! You honestly fucking thought you could do a better job at keeping her safe and making her happy?"

As the man became unhinged, a calm had come over Zulu. Or perhaps it was madness. In the end, he didn't quite know and imagined it had to be a bit of both. Whatever it was, it beckoned him to level his eyes to the Hound and stare straight into the face of wrath.


No sooner had the word hissed off of Zulu's lips than the table was being flipped over and careening towards the ground with a thunderous crash. The papers went scattering across the patio, dancing in the breeze. Time, effort, and duty. All for nothing.

It was his last coherent thought before he was being dragged from his chair by the front of his shirt. He had anticipated this, yes. What he hadn't anticipated was the way in which his body moved of its own accord, snatching up the bluntest object his fingers could reach, and how his arm was swinging that object – a heavy ceramic bowl – towards the Hound. The bowl cracked hard across the man's face, busting open the skin of his cheek and lip, both of which began oozing blood.

Eyes squeezed shut, Zulu felt as he was slammed into the ground with a force that knocked the air from his lungs. When his eyes flew open from the force of that alone, a solid blow of the Hound's fist cracked hard across his cheek and nose. Bones broke, and the taste of blood was filling his mouth. One, two, three more hits across his face. Zulu didn't know how many there were. He heard Sansa's frantic shrieks somewhere behind them. A male voice had joined the chorus, shouting for Sandor to stop. It was then Zulu felt Sandor's weight being pulled from off of him and his vision fading to black.

Upon stepping foot in the kitchen, Sansa had been immediately set to task at peeling and chopping vegetables. Mistakenly, she had thought it would just be her and the Italian mothers today - that she would listen to them recount more tales of their days in Italy, that she would sing along with them as they carried on tunes in their native tongue, that they would press her for details about her rekindled romance with Sandor.

Instead, she found that the kitchen was full of women, all working around one another as they settled into various spots around the large island and were tasked with duties by Carmelita: pulling meat off bones so that it could be pounded out, mixing dough so that it could be rolled into noodles, or in Sansa's case, peeling and chopping vegetables so that they might find their way into soups, salads, sauces, and whatever else the Italian mothers had conjured up for the menu.

It was a collective effort of all the women, and rightfully so; by Sandor's estimate, there were over a hundred people who had gathered at Moriarti's, a dozen or so families of capos and made men. When Sansa had asked if it was the entire organization, Sandor had looked at her as if she were mad, laughing until creases formed at the corners of his eyes as he shook his head. It was then that he clued her in to the magnitude of the organization: ten capos, each operating a crew of about forty to fifty soldiers. And it was then Sansa realized that the elite of the Moriarti had gathered at the mansion – capos and their families, a few honored made men, and the administration, as Sandor called it. The others had gone to the mattresses elsewhere, although Sandor did not say where. She presumed them to be close by and on guard as much as everyone at the mansion had readied themselves for what was coming.

When Sansa emerged in the kitchen, she was met with curious stares, some more welcoming than others. None greeted her though; rouged lips were pressed shut, and she was met with silence. It was Carmelita who gathered her up by the hand with a warm, albeit tense, smile and led her to where an assortment of vegetables had been dumped out on the counter, a cutting board and knife ready and waiting for her. On the other end of the island, Sansa could hear a few women whispering to one another, and when she lifted her eyes to them, they ceased their murmurs, busying their hands instead of their mouths. No one spoke to her, but it was made abundantly clear that she was the topic of conversation of at least a few of the women. The rest continued with their tasks, paying her no mind, although her presence was known.

The faces of these women were familiar to her, though she did not know their names, nor did she know how they fit into the picture. Were they wives, sisters, girlfriends, goomahs? She could not say for certain. Sansa was placed next to a woman she did not recognize and one who appeared just as isolated and ostracized as she was. With skin the color of mocha and the frizzy waves of her hair tied up in a bun, the woman hummed to herself as she peeled potatoes, her full hips swaying to the silent beat in her own head.

"I'm Nina," the woman finally spoke, a smile blossoming on her lips to reveal a small gap between her front teeth as she extended her hand to Sansa.

Sansa mimicked Nina's gesture, extending her hand to the woman with a grateful smile.

"I'm Sansa," she replied, tying the strings of her apron tightly around her waist. The woman gave a small, distracted nod as she resumed her task.

They stood in silence next to each other as they chunked up potatoes and placed them in a large bowl settled between them. As with all the others, Sansa became acutely aware of Nina's gaze shifting towards her, heavy with questions and unspoken thoughts. Unlike the others, though, Nina finally spoke to her.

"You're the boss' girl, right?"

By the way the question was phrased and with the cadence of a quiet breath, Sansa imagined this woman already knew the answer. Nina possessed a different sort of curiosity than the other women, though. Where she sensed some deviousness in the way the other women seemed to pry with their eyes, Sansa could tell Nina already knew about her and possibly bits and pieces of her background, too.

"Yeah, how did-" Sansa began before Nina interrupted with a snort and a shake of the head.

"Gossip spreads, especially when you get these ladies in a room together," Nina mumbled beneath her breath as she cast a furtive glance towards the women at the opposite end of the island.

When Sansa followed Nina's gaze, she was met with three sets of eyes already staring back at her. Tipping her chin up, Sansa matched her eyes to them, one right after the other until she was certain she had made it clear she wasn't intimidated by them.

"You know them?" Sansa asked, watching as the women now fawned over two more ladies who had joined their ranks in the kitchen. They squealed and squawked like hens, exchanging kisses on the cheeks and lengthy embraces.

"Yeah, I know them." Nina's words were loaded, heavy with past experiences and untold tales. "They gave me the cold shoulder too," she added with a mirthless chuckle.

"Are you…who is your…" Sansa did not quite know how to form her question, no more than she knew if it was somehow rude of her to ask.

It seemed these women asked little questions and instead were content to gather information through meddling exchanges and silent scrutiny. Sansa had not taken part in that. In her first days here, she was bereft and despondent, garnering more pity than interest. Mirabelle had bombarded her with a deluge of names and back stories of these women. She had struggled to keep it all straight, and most of what Mirabelle had imparted her with was gone, stored away in some recess of her mind where information she deemed useless went to be ultimately forgotten. Sansa knew now that these women no longer pitied her, nor did they view her as some harmless, broken thing to be set in the corner and forgotten. She was, indeed, Sandor's girl, and only now did she understand that that placed her somewhere in this hierarchy. Perhaps it was respect that she was owed but hadn't yet earned in the eyes of these women.

"I'm Disco's wife. Or Stephen as I know him," Nina replied, seeming to take no offence over the fact that, while she knew who Sansa was, Sansa had no idea who she was. "He's a capo."

Sansa did know that bit of information. Not only did these women know each other, they knew who the men were too. That had been Sandor's part, to explain to her who his men were, though he hadn't necessarily needed to give her that lesson. It was something Zulu had shared with her in their time spent together, and Sansa had made it a point to know the names of Sandor's men. It was her way of trying to fit in, trying to find her place in all of this. Only now did she realize that it wasn't the men of the Moriarti who were the gatekeepers of the organization. It was the women. The men ruled with strong arms and outward strength. The women ruled with soft touch and inward resilience, a silent sort of strength. And it was the women who decided who belonged and who didn't.

"Why are they like that?" Sansa asked as she discreetly motioned her head towards the women at the end of the counter now laughing loudly and seemingly occupied with one another. From what Sansa remembered in the days before Alonzo's funeral, the women had seemed friendly enough with Mirabelle, laughing at all of her jokes between sips of wine and complimenting Mirabelle up and down about everything from her sense of fashion to her sense of humor. In her naivete, Sansa had viewed those exchanges as a mark of true friendship, not realizing that perhaps it was put on. They may have tolerated Mirabelle, but the closeness they regarded her with was feigned. The women made no such effort to uphold appearances with Sansa. Instead, they ignored her. Sansa left whispers in her wake, and judgmental eyes seemed to follow her through the halls. That was the realm in which she existed here ~ seen but not spoken to.

"They have a chip on their shoulder with girls like you and me." Nina's words weren't quite bitter, but Sansa read the subtle acridity clear enough. "Just like some of the men have chips on their shoulders with guys who aren't Italian and don't have marinara sauce running through their veins."

Sansa let out a giggle at Nina's words, and her laughter roused the attention of the women, who exchanged glances with one another before each cocking their eyebrow at Nina and Sansa.

"Girls that grow up in the life, whose fathers were mafia men, tend to stick together," Nina continued with some measure of seriousness now. "They think girls like you and me, who didn't grow up in the life, are somehow less than, like we don't belong in this little underworld. Those women have fathers, brothers, uncles who are all somehow involved in the mafia. Some of the men view them as being the crème de la crème. They call them 'forbidden fruit'. Essentially, they're nice Italian girls that the men want settle down with."

Stand up girls. Sansa remembered Vinny using that phrase and implicitly knowing what it meant even before he seethed it into her ear. These women were ready and willing to take the fall ~ martyrs to the blade.

"Oh," was all Sansa managed by way of reply. "I thought they might be goomahs," she added as an afterthought, speaking out loud when she didn't quite mean to.

Laughing heartily, Nina shook her head, staring at Sansa with the same look Sandor had given her when she assumed the whole of the organization was now housed in the Moriarti mansion. It seemed there was a lot she did not know and even more she needed to learn.

"Hell no! The goomahs won't be here, girl. The men have a war on their hands. The last thing they want or need is the war that would go down between the wives and goomahs."

"I see. I guess I didn't realize…I just assumed that…" Sansa let her words fall short, distracted now.

War. The men are going to war.

Sansa implicitly understood the markings of battle taking shape around her. It was in the hushed murmurs and worried eyes, the lengthy meetings and gathering of resources. Only now did she see it as a collective whole, the picture of something she did not quite understand, still. As it stood, she existed somewhere in limbo, caught between two realities. Regardless, in both worlds, war meant death, and death was upon them, thick as ever and haunting the walls of this place. Some of the men were marked for it already, the reaper coming like a thief in the night to forewarn of their demise. She saw it in their faces, and they seemed to struggle with their fate. And now Sansa understood the weight of the world that seemed to follow Sandor into the early hours of the morning. There was no rest for the weary. If his dreams foretold his own fate, he did not share it with her, and she feared for him now in a way she hadn't even thought to before. He was a man, after all, not immortal, not a god, not a monster. He was susceptible to death, just like all the rest.

A hush fell over the kitchen, each set of conversations seeming to simultaneously draw to a close. Somewhere in the distance, Sansa heard shouting. The noise carried in from outside and disappeared amongst the reemergence of white noise in the kitchen, lost in the din of resuscitated laughter and conversations. She had stilled her movements to listen, straining against all the other sounds to hear as a knot formed at the pit of her stomach. When the shouting had quieted, Sansa dismissed it and continued chopping carrots. After a few moments, she caught the sound of shouting once more. It was louder this time and possessed the familiar timbre of Sandor's voice. Her gaze flew to the clock, quickly measuring the time and suddenly realizing it was entirely likely that Sandor was still meeting with Zulu.

When a thunderous crash sounded from outside, the other women heard it, all falling silent immediately as they exchanged wide-eyed looks of confusion and fear. Sansa's knife dropped to the cutting board, and she ignored Nina's confounded questioning as she dashed from the kitchen through the great room and outside.

She ran down the outside steps to the patio below as fast as her wobbly legs would carry her. Her vision blurred, and a sudden dizziness moved through her body as fear rooted itself firmly within her. Sansa heard exerted grunts and pained groans, the sounds of two men struggling against one another.

The table had been flipped over, food and broken dishes scattered across the patio, stray papers being lifted in the breeze. When a shriek pierced her ears, it had taken Sansa a moment to realize it came from her own lips. Her hands trembled, and more screaming came at the sight of Sandor on top of Zulu, repeatedly slamming his fist into the boy's face, which was a bloodied mess. She couldn't move, even if she wanted to; her feet felt cemented in place and all she could do was scream for Sandor to stop. Over and over again, the words left her lips, but the sound of her voice seemed to incite his rage even further.

After what felt like an eternity, Bronn was pushing past her and throwing his weight on top of Sandor, pulling with all his might in insistent yanks as he, too, joined Sansa's frantic protests.

"Sandor! Stop!" the man shouted with each hard tug. Finally successful, Sandor and Bronn went tumbling backwards away from Zulu, who rolled slightly to his side with a moan. His eyes were swollen shut, his lips bleeding and each breath a gurgle as he spit up blood.

Sandor had not been spared. His face was bloodied too, she saw. His lip had been busted open, and blood was dribbling down his chin while a gash emerged across his cheek, also seeping blood. By sight alone, Sansa could tell it had not been a fair fight, Zulu having faired much worse.

Sandor scrambled to his feet, shoving Bronn off him and barely noticing her as his eyes fixated on Zulu with a maniacal rage she had hoped never to see in him again. Holding out his hand and staring at Sandor with silent warning, Bronn had stepped between Sandor and Zulu's form still crumpled and whimpering on the ground.

Still trembling and with her mouth perpetually agape in horror and shock, Sansa felt the tears, unbidden, rolling down her cheeks. When her own whimper escaped her lips, Sandor's head snapped towards her, his eyes locking onto hers. She could not name what she saw stirring behind his eyes. With anger momentarily subsiding, it was pain she saw – the dull ache of heartbreak, the sting of loss. He looked away as he wiped the blood from his chin and did not speak as he retreated up the outside steps with heavy stomps. He did not spare her any glances or words. Instead, Sandor moved past her as if she did not exist.

When Sansa heard the shouting, she had known somewhere in the pit of her stomach what was transpiring. She had waited too long to tell Sandor the truth of Zulu's advances. She had been afraid. One way or another, though, it seemed her fears always manifested, regardless.

"Sandor," she called after him as she scurried up the steps. He responded by slamming the patio door behind him so violently she feared the glass might shatter. Inside, he was heading towards the front door, past the kitchen where the women were now clustered together, watching in disbelief and shocked silence. Running to keep up with him, Sansa reached him in the foyer.

"Sandor! Wait," she insisted on a quivering breath. Her fingers coiled around his wrist as she pulled him towards her. When he yanked his arm away from her, she went stumbling forward, careening into him.

Spinning on his heel, he stared down at her as she steadied herself on her feet. It was all for naught; her legs felt weak, and as she stared up at him despite her fear, she felt small, so much smaller than him.

"Were you going to tell me?" he demanded, his voice echoing loudly through the foyer. She stepped backwards away from him, but her movements were matched as he moved towards her. Sansa felt as if she might crumble beneath the heaviness he regarded her with, the intensity as he waited, chest frantically heaving, for her answer.

"Yes," she whispered, her voice thin, although she put power behind it. Her back met the wall now, though she garnered no strength from it. It held her up on her feet, but it did not still her shaking, and it did not stop the tears that blurred her vision.

"When? When it was convenient for you?" Sandor raged, the booming of his voice causing her to flinch. He turned away from her, bounding towards the staircase.

"Stop," Sansa pleaded as she dashed towards him. They were playing at a dangerous game of cat and mouse, each chasing after the other in turn. It started here, and it ended with both of them licking their respective wounds, separated from one another before ultimately coming back for more. It had to stop.

"Please!" she cried out, tears staining her cheeks which burned hot.

Sandor had only made it up the first few steps. Gripping the banister, he cast his gaze down towards her below. She stared up at him, evaluating his statuesque form as it loomed above her. Seeing the tears streaming down her face, Sandor's eyes stirred with conflicting desires. It seemed as if he might relent ~ that he might come to her now, and they would chase each other's hurts away as they had done before.

Instead, he closed his eyes, blinding himself – to what, she did not know: to her perhaps, to everything that vexed him. His resolve seemed to strengthen, drawing on reserves of composure she did not know existed in him. He was fire, Sandor Clegane. He burned wild and untamed. This was something different; the markings of a new man, perhaps. He was buttoning up all that rage, hiding it away so that she might not see. He looked defeated, and he looked broken ~ if not by whatever transpired with Zulu, then by the fact that the fires of wrath had been stoked once more.

When he opened his eyes, Sandor turned his gaze away from her, looking down at his feet as his hair fell in a curtain around his face.

"No, I want to be alone right now," he murmured. Sansa could hear him pulling in labored breaths, and when she climbed up one step of the staircase towards him, she saw that he, too, was shaking.

"For how long?"

It was foolish to ask, she knew that very well, but desperate desires made her say the words. It was her own mania, a frenzy that she couldn't stop and one that was beckoned by the thoughts of being at odds with this man once more.

Sandor's head lifted, an irate stare settling onto her as his jaw tensed and cheeks flushed red.

"For how long?" he breathed incredulously as he took one step down the stairs towards her. "For as long as it takes for me to wrap my head around why the fuck Zulu thought it was a good idea to leave with you," he shouted now, his voice crescendoing with every word. "And why the fuck my men are turning on me left and right since…"

He stopped himself short, shifting his eyes away from her as he glowered at the wall next to them instead.

"Say it," Sansa demanded as she stomped up the only remaining step between them. "Go on. Say it!" Now it was her own voice echoing loudly through the foyer, the sound of which brought Sandor's eyes back towards her.

With his lips sealed shut and the intensity of his gaze burning through her, she knew he wouldn't speak the words. She did not belong here. She was a novelty of the underworld, but she did not belong. She could learn the names of his men, she could earn her stripes with the women, she could assure him and the others, over and over again, that she would be a stand-up girl. It would make no difference because she did not belong. She would never belong.

"Since I've been here," she spoke for him, her words shaky with uncertainty and suppressed sobs, though tears spilled freely down her cheeks. "It's me, Sandor. Even I can tell you that. I don't belong here, and they all know it. You know it too."

Tell me I'm wrong, she pleaded in the shelter of her own mind. She hoped the plea would find him, that it would pass between them as it always did. Tell me it's not true. It's you and it's me. Tell me.

If she thought she was alone in the pain and doubt which lashed at her heart, she was certainly mistaken. She saw it in him, too, as he looked down towards her.

"Yeah, I do know it. I know it now," he spoke, but there was no vitriol in his words. They were not meant to wound, although they ripped through her all the same, loosing the sob she had been fighting against. When the gasp escaped her, followed by fresh tears, Sandor bit down hard on his bottom lip.

"Please," she whispered, reaching out and placing her hand on top of his hand which still gripped the banister. His eyes followed her movements, squeezing shut at her touch.

"No, I'm done," he whispered back to her, pulling his hand out from underneath hers before turning away and continuing up the stairs.

She watched him walk away from her, waiting to see if he might spare her a glance or come back to her. In the end, he never did. She heard his foot falls continue all the way up the stairs and listened until she could not hear them anymore. With her legs finally giving out, she collapsed to the steps below her. Silently, she cried, sucking in quiet breaths so that the others would not hear. Certainly, they had already heard enough. Gathering what little dignity she had left, Sansa worked to calm herself as she dabbed at the tears with the skirt of her apron.

From below, she heard worried voices in the kitchen along with a flurry of activity. When Bronn's voice carried through the foyer, Sansa hurried down the steps and towards the kitchen. Zulu was settled in a seat at the breakfast table, Bronn looking on as the women wiped the last traces of blood from his face and offered him packages of frozen vegetables to help with the swelling.

As Sansa entered the kitchen, all eyes seemed to fall on her simultaneously as the voices all quieted now. Through swollen eyes, Zulu looked at her but quickly looked away. Stepping towards the table, Sansa paid no mind to the women gathered around. They cleared away from her, backing away as she stood in front of Zulu.

"What happened?" she demanded from the boy. He would not meet her eyes, instead he dabbed at the fresh blood on his lips. "What did you tell him?" Sansa continued on, undeterred as Bronn settled a hand on her shoulder.

"Not now, doll," he spoke gravely. "Shows over, ladies," Bronn announced to the rest of the kitchen as the women snickered and stared, clearly having heard all that transpired and relishing in the drama of it all.

Before leaving, Bronn offered Sansa a wan smile. He looked sickly to her: eyes red, face gaunt, skin ashen and thin. As Sandor's friend and underboss, it was his duty to go after him, to speak with him, to perhaps be a voice of reason. When he left the kitchen, Sansa knew he would not be doing any of that. Where he went, she did not know, but he was hurting too.

"I'll take care of the rest of this." Nina had materialized next to her, motioning her head towards the uncut pile of vegetables still on the counter. "Why don't you go take a breather?" she suggested gently.

"No," Sansa murmured with a shake of the head. "No. I'll stay."She resumed her place at the counter, amongst the women who continued to whisper and stare. She stayed, continuing her work, though it was clear now she did not belong.

I have nowhere else to go. I do not belong here. I do not belong anywhere.

Anger is easy. Like lust, it is primal and not swiftly sated. Anger is indulgent. It consumes like a glutton. It's never enough until everything is destroyed. Anger propels outwards, its vector fixed and escaping through every last exit ~ swinging fists and screaming words. Anger is released and ultimately a beast of burden put on others. Worst of all, anger is gratifying in the most selfish kind of way.

Anger had been immediate, and it mocked the vows of change that Sandor had openly declared to her. He had been foolish to assume that, by words alone, the demon of wrath could be vanquished. Vengeance and violence were the scaffolds on which Sandor had meticulously built his existence; to suddenly expel those things and not expect his life to crumble and fall like ash from the sky had been a naïve oversight on his part.

Pain is hard. Unlike rage, it works from the outside in - finding all the normally imperceptible weaknesses and exploiting them to burrow deep beneath the skin. Pain compounds on itself until the simplest things – the things which necessitate survival – become difficult.

It was the way in which the pain superseded anger that left Sandor reeling. There was fear to be found in pain; the worry that it might never leave, that it would weave its way into his existence, now, and haunt him through his years. It would consume him; it would take all that he cherished and destroy until there was nothing left. Pain operated much like anger, but he was the target, and the burden now weighed heavily upon him. It manifested physically in labored breaths and a pounding heart. Pain was hard, somuch harder than anger, and now he understood, perhaps for the first time in his life, the reasons in which he had never let the sadness consume him like it did his sister and his mother too. Anger was easy, and he was a coward in that way – choosing it over sadness for so many years.

Sandor had sought refuge in his office, the only place he knew to go where he would not be seen or bothered. His mother's necklace was on his desk, the amethyst intermittently catching the light of the sun as he gently rocked back and forth in his chair. He knew what she might say if she were still alive.

'There will come another. And you'll love her more.'

He closed his eyes at the thought, shutting out the disembodied words and rejecting the notion altogether. When Sandor opened his eyes, he had brought his right hand to hover in front of his face. He stared at the line of affection, the only line that was there, before ultimately balling his fist.

My fate belongs to me, he affirmed grimly to himself, although it was becoming harder to believe his own affirmations.

With that, Sandor snatched up the necklace and shoved it into his desk drawer, pushing it towards the back to reside amongst stacks of dusty papers and inkless pens. Tuck it away, he told himself. Push it away, and worry about it some other time.

And that was how pain and sadness compounded, he knew, but he did not care. Anger or sadness – it made no matter to him, but sadness could be put away for now. It wouldn't seek an immediate release like anger, and so he relented to it.

Sandor thought about the days ahead, focused on all that required his immediate attention. It was a temporary distraction, but it worked all the same. Pulling out a notepad, he gathered his thoughts on a blank page, not minding the way his hand trembled across the paper as he wrote. He neatly transcribed his thoughts as a series of events which needed to occur. He gathered and organized them in a list, one right after the other, until realizing that he did not understand why it mattered anymore. He could check all of these things off his list, but to what end?

'I could give her a chance at a normal life, I could make her happy, keep her safe.'

Sandor dropped his pen to the notepad where it landed with a dull thud. Those things – all the things someone else had offered her before he had – that was the end. It was the one he wanted for her. She did not belong here, that much was true. And it was true that he knew it long before she had even said it herself. Sansa deserved more. It was a plain and simple truth. Not some secret that only he was privy to. Of course, others knew it as well. Sansa Stark did not deserve the pain and suffering she had known since the night of the Royce party. Sandor had thought to be the one to give her more than what his world had to offer, but ultimately he knew to yield to a better man. Zulu was not a better man than him. He was the same, only younger and greener.

An abrupt knock came at Sandor's office door, hard and sharp and damn near scaring the shit out of him. When Sandor called for whomever it was to come in, the door opened smoothly and slowly. It was AWOL who appeared. The man did not enter but did not cower behind the door, either. If Sandor told him to fuck off, the man would leave without insult or question.

Sandor did not tell him to fuck off, but instead motioned his head for AWOL to come in and watched as the man settled in the seat across from Sandor's desk, elbows resting on the arms of the chair as he eased back in the seat. Lean and muscled, AWOL wasn't a large man, but he could be intimidating, regardless. He was ruthless and hotheaded but cautious too. Despite having abandoned his military service long ago, the man still wore a buzz cut and kept himself clean shaven. His face was weathered from sand, sun, and stress – the souvenirs from his time spent schlepping it in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait.

"You and your girl having problems?" AWOL ventured carefully when Sandor did not speak. While the man regarded him with a healthy amount of respect, AWOL did not mince words. He did not pepper them with "sir" and "boss". He spoke freely, and he spoke honestly. Sandor had come to value that now more than ever. He was tired of being buttered up by those who would ultimately betray him.

"You heard," Sandor exhaled on a mirthless laugh as he twirled a pen between his fingers.

"I think everyone heard," AWOL chuckled, dispersing a bit of the heaviness between them. "Whether you two are fighting or…uh…making up, you're not exactly quiet about it. Not you, at least."

Sandor joined in with AWOL's laughter, although there was little joy to be found. Rather, this was a reminder of the supreme insult to injury this entire situation had developed into. He and Sansa had only just rediscovered both the happiness and the pleasure to be found with one another. To have it taken away now was surely a cruel jest of whatever fucking gods worked to taunt him endlessly.

"You heard that too," Sandor spoke through a waning smile. AWOL seemed to understand and gave a sympathetic nod by way of reply.

Tension fell between them once more as AWOL steadied his eyes on Sandor.

"What are we going to do about the kid?" he asked with a familiar danger sharpening his words.

AWOL did not take lightly to broken vows of any kind. It was strange coming from a man who hightailed it out of service to his country. The honor and pride to be found as a soldier had been transferred to his duties as a capo. No one questioned it but instead understood that AWOL had displaced some of the shame he felt at shirking his military duties by dedicating his life to the vows he made as a member of the Moriarti. He had no wife, although his rotation of goomahs was ever growing.

"We?" Sandor scoffed bitterly. "He's my problem. I'll figure it out."

He watched as AWOL bit his bottom lip at that, visibly irked as he gripped the armrests of his chair.

"The rest of us are getting tired of this shit too, you know," AWOL seethed through gritted teeth.

"What shit?" Sandor questioned, narrowing his eyes at the man.

"This turning face shit." AWOL lowered his voice as he scooted to the edge of his chair. "Vinny, Marco, these young fuckin' turks." The man drew in a deep breath before leveling his eyes on Sandor once more. "More of us are behind you than you probably realize."

Sure enough, it seemed the exchange of words between him and Sansa, the words which echoed through the foyer of the mansion, had met the ears of many. This was a gesture of reassurance, and it wasn't one that Sandor had asked for, but AWOL sought him out all the same. Sandor could see that plainly enough and appreciated not only the sentiment, but the execution. This wasn't a grandiose gesture of contrived words and empty condolences. It was simple, but sincere.

With the blur of his thoughts clearing a bit, Sandor closed his eyes, visualizing the first two items on his list. When he opened his eyes again, AWOL was watching him, waiting for Sandor's response.

"You were concerned about us getting into some beef with the Caballero," Sandor spoke on a voice deep and grave. "I think you're right. We need them on our side. And they need us too, though they don't realize it yet."

Sandor watched as AWOL's brow creased with something between confusion and concern. Not stopping to puzzle out which had afflicted the man's countenance, Sandor continued.

"This is risky, and it could blow up in our faces. If it does, Gregor is the least of our problems. The Caballero wanted to strong arm Marco into turning face. Vinny made it sound like it was because they wanted Moriarti business. I think that's only part of it. The Severelli were distributing for the cartel, running their shit through L.A. and Reno but not through Vegas. We own Vegas. That's our town. It also happens to be the one place the Caballero haven't broken into yet."

AWOL seemed to stew over Sandor's words, chewing his bottom lip and nodding his head silently as he sifted through the pieces of it all.

"You think it wasn't so much about having the Moriarti distribute for the cartel, but they wanted backing in Vegas, a piece of that territory." It wasn't a question but an assertion, a demonstration that AWOL, indeed, had his thumb to the pulse of this organization and all that occurred around it. It was intelligence founded in intuition, something many of the other men scoffed at but severely lacked.

"The cartel doesn't need distributors," Sandor confirmed with a nod. "Why would they put themselves through a bloodbath to have some wise guys pushing drugs for them? They've got the manpower for that. They needed the territory. They're losing Miami to the Ybarra and will continue to do so. They've set their sights on Vegas.

"Miguel Martinez is an old fuck. He wants to hand off his legacy and be done with this shit. Marco was his ticket to doing that. Gregor has fucked up repeatedly: the botched hit, murdering Marco to get to us, sparking all-out war now. If I'm viewing this correctly, Martinez is probably regretting his decision to align himself with Gregor and the Severelli just to get his hands on our territory."

"So what are you thinking?" AWOL asked, crossing his arms over his chest. "We offer Martinez free range over Vegas in exchange for what?"

"In exchange for his backing when we wipe Gregor and the Severelli off the map." It was a long shot, and Sandor knew it. They would likely have to offer something else to sweeten the pot. What exactly that was, Sandor did not know, and that uncertainty seemed to register with AWOL as well. The man shook his head slightly with a sigh, seemingly unconvinced.

"Going to war with the Severelli and the cartel is a suicide mission," Sandor warned ominously. "We'd be lambs to the fucking slaughter. There's no question about it."

He had surmised this for some time, knowing full well that the Severelli-cartel alliance would be the end of the Moriarti. The writing had been on the wall for years and was only now threatening to come to a head if they did not act.

"So how does this play out?" AWOL pressed. He was a smart man, and when he had voiced his concerns about getting into heat with the cartel, Sandor knew that AWOL understood what this was shaping up to be. This wasn't war they were going into. To call it war was to suggest that the fight presented an equal chance of victory for either side. Truly, it was a deliberate and inevitable slaughter of the Moriarti.

"I want to arrange a meeting with Martinez. We'll put the deal on the table – full backing and run of Vegas; he can operate out of Emilio's old card room in exchange for him leading us to Gregor and his men."

"This could very well be an opportunity for Martinez to take you out," AWOL cautioned, although Sandor was already aware of the risks. "You, Bronn, whoever else goes. This is a serious gamble, Sandor. This meeting could be the suicide mission."

"The alternative is we go into this by ourselves and get obliterated by the Severelli and the cartel," Sandor reasoned definitively. "I'll take the gamble." He had been over every possible scenario countless times. This was the only one that held any sort of promise of his men coming out alive and intact.

AWOL remained quiet for many moments, staring down at Sandor's desk as silent thoughts roamed through the man's head. When he finally lifted his eyes, Sandor knew he was on board. A cocksure smile tugged at the corners of AWOL's mouth, and his eyes gleamed with tenacity.

"I'm behind you. We'll get this shit done. And if the cartel wants to fuck with us at this little summit, we'll light them up like the Fourth of July."

Sandor exhaled a laugh as he nodded his head. For better or for worse, this was it - their way out of the mess they had landed in. After a few moments, Sandor's smile had faded, and AWOL's excitement had ceased.

"Where is the kid?" Sandor asked, lowering his eyes towards his notepad.

"With Bronn and Murdoch," he heard AWOL say. "They took him to the hospital. His nose is busted up pretty good, and he's going to need stitches, more than likely."

Sandor did not respond but nodded his head in silence as small tendrils of remorse seemed to emerge. The motherfucker brought it on himself, Sandor reasoned within himself, fist clenching with resuscitated anger.

"I don't know all of what happened, but I do know this shit with Zulu has something to do with your girl," AWOL speculated in earnest as he broke the silence.

Once more, Sandor did not speak. He did not want to rehash it, to reignite it all by repeating the words that had been spoken and all that had been revealed to him. Instead, he sealed his lips together in what was a scowl, most like. It all seemed to suddenly register with AWOL, regardless, as the man leaned forward in his seat once more, his body tensing and gaze hardening.

"Listen to me, because this is part of the shit I'm sick of too," AWOL began. "It shouldn't matter who the fuck Sansa is, DA's daughter or not. She's your girl. You chose her, she chose you. You fell in love, shit happens. End of the fucking story. When the men disrespect her, they disrespect you too. I'm not the kind to settle down with just one woman, you know that, but if I was you, I'd make an example out of Zulu. Show these fucks what happens when they mess with you." With that, AWOL motioned his head towards Sandor's face, towards the gash at his cheek and his busted lip.

Sandor knew what he would have to do, what he was expected to do. It was her face, though, that he saw: the sadness in her eyes, the disappointment, the horror at knowing what he had done. Sansa would notice the kid's absence, and she would understand what it meant. It doesn't matter anymore, some part of him chided. It shouldn't matter, but it did. It mattered to her, he knew, and despite his frustration, that meant it mattered to him too.

"I can't out-and-out ice him right now," Sandor finally responded, his fingers still unwittingly clenched in a tight fist. This did not escape AWOL, who stared at Sandor's fist before lifting his eyes.

"If you want me to take care of him, just give the word," AWOL offered gravely. "The kid will disappear."

It was no idle threat being placed on the table. AWOL would do what needed to be done without questioning why Sandor couldn't do it himself. But it wouldn't matter. The end result would be the same – her sadness, her disappointment, her horror.

"No," Sandor declined with a bitter growl and a shake of his head. "When this shit goes down with the Severelli, I'm going to send Zulu into the fray first. He'll go alone. The others will get the message loud and clear. If he and I make it out, I'll take care of him then and there, before we leave."

"He won't be coming back from war," AWOL chuckled darkly with a shake of his head, the man's bloodlust apparent.

"No. He won't," Sandor affirmed, although he did not share in AWOL's deviant joy.

Sandor would do what was expected of him by his men. As their boss and their leader, the job would get done, and yet the depravity of it left a sour taste in his mouth. It was contrived to satisfy all sides – the organization he would ultimately walk away from and the girl who he could not stop trying to please. It was pathetic, he knew. Like much else, he could think of no better way, no easier solution.

"Our associate found Ned Stark," AWOL informed with trepidation, the words a slow amble from his tongue. "He's taking your advice and lying low; got himself holed up in a town outside of Redding."

Sandor watched as AWOL licked his lips and dropped his eyes with a nervous laugh.

"I wasn't sure if you were still wanting to keep an eye on him or what the deal was going to be now."

The man's words were laced with uncertainty, questioning as he lifted his gaze to Sandor for some direction on the matter. Sandor told his capos of his plan for Ned – the plan to hire an outside associate to find him and keep an eye on him for the time being. While Sandor had always had a vested interest in what Ned Stark was up to, the men seemed to sense the change in his motivations. Ned's case was a moot point, obliterated much like the rest of the man's existence. Nonetheless, Sandor's capos had nodded their heads with knowing eyes when he made the announcement to them and quietly confessed his desire to keep tabs on the man, still, but not delving into the details of why. None had asked for an explanation, and for that Sandor had been grateful.

"Yes," Sandor affirmed curtly. "I still want him being watched."

"You got it," AWOL responded before pushing himself up from the chair. Grinning, he nodded his head towards Sandor, who returned an uneasy smile and watched as the man left his office.

Sitting in silence for long moments after AWOL's departure, Sandor felt sorrow press upon him once more. He effectually writhed beneath it. He paced his office, willing it away with each stride. It held fast to him and did not pass or cease, so he did all he knew to do – to go to her, although he didn't quite know what to say, to seek her out, although he no longer knew where they stood. He had failed her once more, done all the things he had promised never to do again. He had seen the fear in her eyes and the hurt too. Go crawl back to her, some voice spoke inside him, hateful and loathing. Tell her you're sorry and that it will never happen again, just like you did before.

Sandor retreated from his office with some unearthly inertia which propelled him forward, though the path was unclear, obscured by an played God in his own world, the master of this microcosm of the Universe. He had declared just this morning that he did not believe in fate, implicitly suggesting that he wove the threads of his own destiny. It seemed Sandor was being forced to eat those words, to give up the ghost. If he truly had a heavy hand in his own fate, Mirabelle would be alive, and the pieces of his existence would be put together once more. As it stood, darkness was creeping in at every turn, and he knew not where he was headed.

In the kitchen, a handful of women were still working while the others had dispersed. The only eyes which welcomed him as he entered the room were Nina's. The others knew he was there but lowered their gazes away from him as they continued to busy themselves with the tasks at hand.

"Nina," Sandor greeted somberly as he nodded his head towards the woman.

"Boss man," she responded with a wan smile and knowing stare as she continued to knead dough. "She's outside," the woman added before averting her gaze like all the others.

With a murmured "thank you", Sandor made his way across the kitchen, through the great room, and out the back door. Even before he found Sansa sitting on the patio steps, dabbing at tears with the skirt of her apron, Sandor had heard her sniffles and soft whimpers. Each sound escaping her lips tore through him, assaulting him as he approached her silently, hands stuffed in his pockets.

When Sandor lowered himself to sit next to her, he noticed the flour in her hair and on the front of her apron, a symbol of what she had done, though she may not recognize it herself. Sandor knew, and he understood. Sansa had endured once more, prevailing over her own pain and absorbing its cruel blow. She didn't retreat from it like he did. She held her head up through tears and did what she felt was needed of her. If she only knew she was stronger than him in this way. If only she could see herself the way he saw her now.

"I was going to tell you," Sansa wept on a quivering breath, refusing to look at him when she spoke. "I knew you'd get upset. Everything between us had been going so well. I was scared."

Her voice had trailed off to a whisper as she licked at the salty tears rolling down her cheeks and over her lips.

"Scared of me or scared of what would happen to us?" Sandor asked solemnly. There was now irony to be found in this talk of fear – her fears and his. He was scared too, afraid of her answer.

"Both," she sighed, her face flushed red from crying.

His immediate response was to close his eyes - a futile attempt to blind himself to the truth, though it was what he deserved. Two steps forward; a tumble, step, and fall back. Every instance of fear she had with him propelled them backwards. No amount of pleading apologies or gentle caresses could make up for it. The sharp shock of pain he felt cut deep, but the blade was his own, not hers. He had done it to himself as much as he had done it to her.

"Zulu wanted to leave with you that night. You know that, don't you? That is what he asked of you, wasn't it?" Sandor gathered stray traces of composure and stared at the ground as he clasped his hands in front of him.

"I do know that," Sansa responded softly. "I didn't want to go with him. I refused. A hundred times over, I would refuse him and anyone else."

She turned to look at him despite the tears. They came freely, he saw, when he matched her sorrowful eyes. These tears would not be bottled up, and they would not come behind closed doors, well away from him so that he would not know how she hurt. Instead, she let him see, staring at him in earnest as if she thought he wouldn't believe her. He did believe her, though, and saw the same truth he had blinded himself to moments earlier. She meant every word she spoke and with every breath she spoke it on.

"He told me that he wanted to give you a normal life. I can't get angry about him wanting that for you because it's what I want for you too. You deserve that, Sansa." Reaching towards her, Sandor brushed a bit of flour out of her hair. The contact – small as it was – elicited fresh tears from her. "You deserve a normal life. Free from all of this shit." Sandor motioned his head towards the Moriarti mansion - the looming symbol of the life he bought into, sealing his fate in blood and oaths. In this way, he had turned the tides of his own fate so many years ago. He directed himself towards a certain destruction. It was what he needed to protect her from, now, and was everything he wanted to take her away from.

"I don't know if my life will be normal again," Sansa pleaded with a shake of her head, pulling his hand into her own and wrapping her trembling fingers around his palm. "Even if it was, I don't want it with him. It's you. I want you."

She lowered her eyes with what he could only call shame, as if she had committed an egregious act, something truly unforgivable. He could have laughed – and would have if it weren't for how genuinely remorseful she was, seemingly certain he would reject her now and expel her from his world. Moments such as these came unexpectedly and every so often between the two of them; moments where he could not for the life of him understand how, despite all the horror, loss, and pain she had been put through, Sansa prevailed over guile and preserved purity of heart.

With her head hung, tears fell and patted her hand still clinging to his. Sandor relented and pulled his hand free to cup her cheek, the pad of his thumb catching the tears as he lifted her head gently to look at him.

"I've kept things from you too." Though just a vague admission, Sandor struggled to keep his eyes from falling away from her.

Sniffling, Sansa's brows knitted together in confusion as she waited for him to continue. It was the last secret between them, and now it was his hands that quivered as he conjured up the will to confess his own truths to her. Once more, she gathered his hands into her own and placed them on her lap, giving a small squeeze.

"You remember E.Z.? The kid who came with Vinny the day I left for Crescent City?" Sandor asked with apprehension. When Sansa gave a small nod, Sandor licked his lips and felt a tremble run through him.

"He's part of Vinny's crew from Redding. When he came that day, I heard the things he said to you, and I saw the way he was looking at you. I hated him; I barely knew the kid, but I hated him. I wanted to strangle him right then and there. I didn't. Instead, I held it together and told him to ride with me that day. On the way up to Crescent City, I talked with him. I baited him into saying things he probably wouldn't have ever dreamed of saying if he knew that you and I were together. You see, I led him down that path, I laid the bait, and he took it. I knew it was only going to make me angry, even more livid than I already was, but I did it anyway. All I cared about was how I wanted to hurt him. I drove down a secluded side road in the Redwood Forest. I was irate by then with the things he said about you."

Sansa's eyes had widened by now, filled with tears and the fear he had hoped to never see again, lips trembling as she sucked in shaky breaths.

"I guess that doesn't really matter. It was fucked up. Even for me, even by my standards, what I had contemplated doing to him, what I had almost done to him was fucked up. I don't know how I even took it that far. I wanted to hurt him. I really did. I wanted to murder him, Sansa. I almost did it too. I've killed people before but never like that. On his knees, gun shoved down his throat, scared out of his mind, crying as he waited for me to pull the trigger. I don't know how it got that far."

The memories of that day had been tucked away, covered up with distractions and excuses. Now, it all came tumbling down, a monstrous burden to bear, and Sandor felt himself cripple beneath it. The magnitude of evil, remembrance of mania, and the abysmal depths of cruelty Sandor had never hoped himself capable of reaching, he was forced to face it all with no filter to the ugliness.

"What stopped you?" Sansa cried with gasping breaths, horrified but still holding his hand as she shook like a leaf next to him.

"You did," Sandor answered weakly. He felt shame anew as a warm wetness emerged on his cheeks, his own tears. They fell silent but not unnoticed, although he could no longer look her in the eyes.

"Me?" Sansa repeated, incredulous and disbelieving.

"You called me a monster once. I've been called that before, by many people. Coming from you, though, it was different. I didn't even know you then, but I knew it felt different. It wasn't something I could wear with pride, but instead, became something I was ashamed of."

He hadn't forgotten their first conversation when she had come to him battered, bruised, crying, and scared. Her fear was his upper hand, or so he thought, but she had unmanned him by seeing him for what he truly was. He hadn't forgotten how it stung, the unusual way in which it wounded him, although he hardly knew anything about her then. He could have easily written her off as some stupid girl who knew nothing of the life he had led, the hardships he had endured. He could have laughed in her face and told her she didn't know a monster when she saw one. He could have clued her in to how close she had come to meeting the real monster. Instead, he took the blow and swallowed it down, telling himself that he was different than his brother, although, at the end of the day, monsters all look the same to the innocent.

"When we fight, when I scare you, when I make you cry, I feel like a monster," Sandor continued quietly as he willed his voice to come evenly. It was for naught, and each word was a quiver. To try to hold the pieces of his composure together was useless, now, as he felt himself coming undone at the seams.

Something in the way Sansa regarded him had softened. Her tears had ceased, and her thumb was running circles over the top of his hand, a gesture of comfort. She was going to excuse it all, he knew. Sansa would speak loving words and gently reassure him that her hurts and her fears were only a small matter. She would tidy up all the unsavory details with sweet smiles and soft touches. Before she could do any of this, Sandor began again, cutting off her words before they formed on her lips.

"I worry that you love the idea of what I can be, what I might be in the future. Not who I am now. Right now, I'm something between what I was before I met you and what I think you deserve. You may love me in the moments I'm at my best, but you've seen me at my worst too. And you're afraid of me then, Sansa. I'm afraid of me then too. I'm afraid of what I'm capable of. I want to be a better man, just like I told you, but it doesn't take away from all the fucked up shit I've done.

I wonder sometimes if things had been different, would everything be playing out between us like it is now. We've come together under unusual circumstances, and I can't help but wonder if we will come apart when we have to exist together in the real world, not some fucked up version of reality we're in now. I wonder if you feel this way about me because I've kept you safe, and you're confusing gratitude for love."

Sandor drew in a deep breath when he finished. They were hard words: hard for her to hear and harder for him to speak, but there were things he feared too, things which kept him awake at night, things which taunted him into the early hours of the morning.

"I want to change," he whispered, lowering his head in defeat. "I feel like I fucked it all up, that I'll keep fucking it up."

With his eyes lowered, he could not see Sansa but felt the way she shifted next to him as she remained quiet for many moments. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft yet stern, her words heavy and serious as she drew on some reserve of strength.

"Did you expect it to be easy or to come without a challenge? I didn't. I knew you would be tested. That's how the Universe works, Sandor. Anyone can say words – words of love, words of hate, words of change – and for whatever reason they want, whether they mean it or not. That was your test: to see if you meant it. And it's clear you do. You can't erase your past. What's done is done. It's what you do now that matters. I've stopped questioning my fate because it stopped making sense. For someone who doesn't believe in fate, you ask a lot of questions, a lot of "what ifs". You told me you loved me too. Perhaps your words were spoken in grief or in guilt."

Sandor's gaze snapped up to meet her eyes as he felt his mouth dangle open. He meant to protest, but she cut off the words before they fully formed on his lips.

"It hurts to have one of the only things you know for certain anymore questioned and scrutinized," Sansa continued, undaunted and calm. "You can deny how you feel about me or ignore what I feel for you, but don't you ever tell me what I do and do not feel."

Momentarily stunned into silence, Sandor could only nod his head as he scrambled to find the words which had suddenly fled him.

"Everything I said, I meant," he intoned with an intensity he hoped might do some measure of justice to what stirred within him. "Everything," Sandor emphasized on a deep, grumbling breath.

"Then say it again," Sansa demanded quietly, as she searched his face for truth, it would seem.

"I love you," he spoke without hesitance or pause. "And that's all I know for sure anymore."

Twin tears, which had been dangling precariously in the corners of her eyes, now streamed down Sansa's cheeks.

"I love you too."

She had barely whispered the words before he caught them off her lips, pressing his mouth to hers in a soft kiss, which Sansa deepened as she wrapped her arms around his neck. Sandor responded much the same – pulling her closer to him and holding her there until the kiss slowed to a gradual stop.

With one arm still holding her against him, Sandor pulled away slightly as he brushed strands of hair away from her face and pressed his palm against her cheek.

"You said you don't belong here, that my men are turning on me because of you. That's not true, Sansa. It's not."

No sooner had he spoken the words than Sandor saw the desperation flood her countenance.

"I want to belong. I do," Sansa urged pleadingly.

Flour in her hair and on the apron wrapped tightly around her, Sandor knew she was trying to find a place where she belonged. Sandor felt himself go rigid, his muscles tensing and jaw setting firmly. Despite this, he pulled her closer to him, cradling her in his arms as he spoke low and deep, the words powerful and meant to be shared between her and him alone.

"You belong with me." He marked each word forcefully, his breathing now ragged and his eyes ablaze, no doubt, with intensity. "We belong together. That's where you belong. You don't belong here. I don't think I belong here, either. We don't belong here. We don't. So don't go making yourself a part of this. You're too good for this shit. Do you understand me? I'll get us out of here. We just have to hold on a little longer. You and me..." Sandor paused to draw in a deep breath, his body shook now, and his heartbeat drummed loudly in his own ears. "We're it, little bird. It's you and me. We're it."

Sandor had mocked Sansa once for being prone to fantasy, for coloring the world in shades of impossible grace and beauty, for pinning her dreams on things that could not possibly exist to her standards. Sandor had wanted to make her see that the world was ugly and it was hard, that only the strong survive, and that that was especially true in his world – the underworld. Grace and beauty, Sansa was the embodiment of everything she wanted for herself. All she expected, then, was her equal – a man worthy of the fantasy. Somewhere along the line, she had slid down from the pedestal he had placed her on, coming to exist as his equal. In the end, that's all she ever wanted; not to be forced to settle for something less than what she deserved, but also not to be held high in some unreachable place, to exist alone while others claimed how unworthy they were of her. It was not right, though. He meant to reach her at the top, to be all that she deserved, to be her equal - not to have her sink to his level in order to reach him.

Sansa nodded and pressed a warm, sweet kiss to his lips. What she had initiated with delicacy, Sandor returned with a steady fervor – tongue brushing against hers, hands smoothing down her back as he pulled her onto his lap, where she came willingly. Gently, she rocked against him, timid all over again despite their morning activities. When she pulled away, Sansa averted her eyes downwards, her fingers tracing over his chest.

"Make me yours," she whispered.

With his brow furrowed, Sandor found himself befuddled over her words until understanding set in and illuminated it all – her apparent shyness, her inability to look him in the eye, the way she had begun to tremble slightly.

Wordlessly, he kissed her cheek before carefully removing her from his lap and standing up from the steps. Sansa followed suit, slowly pushing herself up to stand and nervously smoothing down the skirt of her apron. Sandor took her by the hand and led her inside, avoiding the kitchen and prying eyes where he could as they headed for the stairs.

The upstairs hall was blessedly empty as Sandor quietly led Sansa into the bedroom they shared and softly shut the door behind them. When he turned around, she was standing at the end of the bed, loosening the ties on her apron. Sandor took her hand once more, leading her to stand in front of the large, oversized mirror hung against the far wall. He settled behind her, his chest against her back and his eyes watching her through the mirror as he finished untying her apron, which dropped to the floor. Slipping the straps of her dress from off of her shoulders, Sandor traced his lips down the length of her neck before pressing kisses to her shoulder. Sandor watched her in the mirror once more as his fingers unzipped her dress, which joined her apron on the floor. Her lips had parted as she timidly met his eyes through the mirror, her chest rising and falling more rapidly than before and drawing his attention to the fullness of her breasts.

Unhooking her bra and pulling it free, Sandor dropped it to the floor, giving a satisfied smile when he found her nipples hard with arousal. With one hand, he gently kneaded her breast while the other hand slowly ran down her stomach and beneath the blue lace of her panties. He couldn't help the groan that escaped his lips as his finger slipped between her folds and found her soaked with wetness. Sinking further into him, Sansa's head rested against his back as soft moans sounded from her lips. With her eyes closed now, she could not see how intently he was watching her, taking in the sight of her writhing slightly against his touch, the way her face contorted in pleasure as he ran his thumb against her clit.

Gathering the willpower to pull away, Sandor led Sansa to the bed, where she carefully scooted to the center in slow movements and propped herself up on her elbows as she watched him remove his own clothing. As eagerly as he drank in the sight of her, Sansa did the same, licking her bottom lip as he pulled off his boxers to release the hard length of his cock. Following his lead, Sansa removed her own underwear and slowly spread her legs as he crawled onto the bed and settled on top of her. His lips sought out hers, his tongue slipping into her mouth and initiating a sensuous kiss, unhurried as his hands leisurely traced the shape of her curves.

Sansa was tense beneath him and shaking, although her mouth and hands were just as eagerly seeking him out. Moving down slightly and leaving a trail of kisses as he went, Sandor's tongue ran in slow, dawdling circles around her nipple, and his lips gave a gentle suck with each pass. His fingers worked between her legs in soft, teasing strokes, each touch rewarded with a shuddering sigh or a breathy moan. Sandor cherished those sounds, each one making him that much harder with want. When the tension in Sansa's body had been eased away, Sandor lowered himself further to replace the hand between her legs with his lips. His fingers smoothed over her thighs as he licked at the wetness gathered between her legs and savored her sweetness.

Gladly, he would do this all night - listening to her come undone over and over again, breathlessly moaning his name, legs trembling against his shoulders as he feasted on her. When the aching in his cock became too much to bear, Sandor lifted himself up, slightly panting as he settled between Sansa's legs.

"I want you," she murmured against his lips, pulling him against her as she wrapped her arms tightly around his shoulders. "Please," she added, as if he might deny her.

Sandor responded with an exhaled chuckle and a soft kiss before reaching towards the nightstand, pulling a condom from the drawer, and rolling it down his cock. Sitting up against the head board of the bed, Sandor gathered Sansa in his arms and guided her to straddle him.

"You set the pace," he instructed after pressing a kiss to her lips. "Go as fast or as slow as you want. We've got all night," he added with a smile, the thought exhilarating - to have this beautiful creature in his bed, to make her his, to take their time with one another.

Sansa nodded slowly and with some trepidation, eying the length of his cock with want and with fear. She gripped his shoulders, and he in turn settled his hands on her waist, his eyes matching hers as she bit her bottom lip. As she eased herself onto him and he slid ever so slightly into her, Sansa gave a wince and sucked in a sharp breath. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she stilled before slowly moving further down. He knew she would be tight, warm, and wet, but he hadn't quite anticipated just how good it felt and how badly he wanted to fuck her, to show her all the ways he could make her feel good. For now, though, they would take their time.

"Try to relax," Sandor murmured in her ear, his hands running down her back to help ease the tension she held in her body.

Once more, she responded with a nod and took a deep breath as she took him in ever so slightly deeper than before. When a low, reverberating moan escaped his lips, Sansa's eyes opened and she gave a smile, pained as it was. She continued easing down his length, stopping momentarily when the pain was too much, before rocking back up and back down to take him in deeper.

Gently, Sandor bucked his hips to meet her movements, panting moans pouring from his lips as he buried his face against her neck where he nipped and licked. The sensations rolled through his body, and it was the way in which he savored them that surprised him the most; he did not seek to go hard and fast until he reached his release. Instead, he rode each jolting wave of pleasure with anticipation and wonderment; that this act could feel this good and fulfilling, he hadn't expected. He shouldn't have expected any less with her.

With her movements increasing in frequency and assuredness, Sansa continued to rock her hips, easing herself up his length before gliding back down. With her head lolled back and her eyes softly closed, Sandor watched her intently, relishing the sight of her riding him. The pads of his thumbs brushed against her nipples as his hands settled against the dip of her waist to guide her movements. And when he realized he wanted her closer, Sandor pulled her against him, her chest pressed against his as his lips claimed hers in a slow and tender kiss.

Mouth occupied, Sansa hummed her pleasure softly, her legs trembling against his hips. With her wrapped securely in his arms, Sandor sat up and slowly eased Sansa down against the bed. With her hair fanned out beneath her, lips swollen from kissing, cheeks flushed and skin glistening with a sheen of sweat, Sandor marveled at her, shaking his head slightly as he murmured nonsensical words about how fucking beautiful she was.

He carefully slid in and out of her, and with each measured thrust, she seemed to release the tension in her limbs and freely offered her lips to him. Her fingers entwined with the strands of his hair, and the smooth expanse of her legs wrapped around his hips. Eventually, their rhythms had become syncopated, a give and take as he eased himself deeper into her and watched the pleasure on her face chase away any residual traces of pain.

I cannot get close enough.

The thought came as he thrust into her with a roll of his hips. It was deep and slow, their hands clasped tightly together as they both trembled – she because never again could she give someone what was being gifted to him now, and he because she was the first and only to show him this depth of intimacy. The realization seemed to pass between them as he caught her eyes and gazed down at her, easing in and out of her in gentle movements. Later, he might say that it was the sensations of pure bliss coursing through him that separated this from all other instances of intimacy he had encountered in his life - the sheer delight at being joined to her in this way, their hearts beating like mad in their chests, which heaved for breaths between ragged pants and a duet of moans. It was something else though, something he knew that he would never know again, not with any others, only with her. She seemed to sense it, as well, as she cupped his cheek with tears pearling her eyes, but not for pain.

As much as he wanted her lips – sweet, soft, trembling as they were – he couldn't take his eyes away from her now. He watched her in wonder, and she stared back at him; they venerated each other in this way.

I cannot get close enough.

He pulled her closer to him, and she responded by wrapping her arms around him tightly, as if the thought had occurred to her, too, and at the same instant. Their fingers, still interlaced, gripped tighter, and his lips sought hers out with a hunger that was returned instantaneously. Their bodies pressed together at every possible point – her legs wrapping tighter around his hips, his arm pulling her as close to him as he could. They quivered and quaked against one another. Confessions of love came in whispers to one another, gentle smiles and eager lips.

Losing himself in the pure pleasure coursing through him, Sandor's movements became faster, his body tensed, and each breath was a panting groan interspersed with expletives as Sandor's release came with near blinding intensity. He buried his face against Sansa's neck to dampen the reverberating sound of his moans, for all the good it did.

Eyes closed and his limbs feeling limp, Sandor slowly rolled off of Sansa, collapsing next to her on the bed as he caught his breath. When he felt her tuck herself against his side, her cheek pressed against his chest, Sandor curled his arm around her shoulders, his other hand resting heavily on her hip. After many quiet moments, he felt his breaths come even and his heart slow to a normal pace, no longer pounding in his own ears.

"Are you alright?" he asked on a husky voice, his hand brushing against Sansa's cheek.

"Yes," she responded softly with a nod of the head. "Sore, but yes." Sandor knew she was lost in thought as her fingers traced circles over his chest. "Are you?" she finally asked, lifting her eyes to him.

"Sore? No, not sore," he responded smugly, chuckling as Sansa swatted his arm playfully before propping herself up on one elbow to look at him. Her hair was a mess, and she was flushed red, but she was gorgeous, a goddess in his own bed.

"No, silly. I meant, are you alright? How do you feel?"

When she spoke, Sandor saw the uncertainty in her eyes, the way she wondered, now, if this changed anything between them, if she should fear that he might love her any less.

He stared at her, and his answer came in the quiet confines of his own mind, the silent words freely forming and coming in a deluge.

How do I feel? I feel that when I look at you, I see myself reflected back. Not how I was, but how I am meant to be, the shape I must take, the path I must choose. How do I feel? I feel that with you next to me, there is no fear of the unknown, no hesitance at what I am meant to do. Of all the faces and names of others I have known before - the people who come in and out of my life - you are the only one I see. And when I look at you, you see me too – not who I was before, but how I am meant to be, the shape I must take, the path I must choose. You show me, and I see. You reflect it back to me, and I see now in a way I couldn't before.

'There will come another. And you will love her mor.,'

Pain and anger had taunted him only hours was a call for retreat and to seek his equal in the loathsome depths he existed in before.

He would deny this call, though, because love was easy too, he now realized. It seemed to exist without prompt. It moved outward, dislodging pain and anger as it went. He loved her without boundaries or reason, and that was not something that could be buried in some dusty corner of his life to be easily ignored and to have its existence denied. Where anger raged and pain dwelled heavily, love was quiet, and it was still. It was constant, yet it yielded. It superseded all else, yet it did not consume selfishly. It wanted for others before it wanted for itself, and Sandor had never known that sort of purity before.

"How do I feel?" Sandor repeated back to Sansa. "That there will never be another for me. That I couldn't love anyone more if I tried."

With that, he cast out his doubts and hers.

"Don't try, then," Sansa replied, resting her head against the pillow and matching Sandor's eyes as he turned to face her.

"I won't," he vowed sincerely, taking her hand in his and kissing her fingers, each one in turn. "It's you and me."

Sansa smiled at that, exhaling a laugh as if she found some secret humor in his words. With her hand resting against his cheek, she pressed her forehead against his.

"Me and you," he heard her say.

Mafia dictionary

Forbidden Fruit: As Nina described, these are girls who are typically of Italian descent and either have male family members in the mafia or grow up in a mafia "neighborhood". They're good Italian girls that the men typically pursue as wives or serious girlfriends. These women are usually not goomah material.

Young Turks: Young, inexperienced made men.

Ice: To murder someone.

Song List

Ch. 15

"How" The Neighbourhood

"Bad Blood" Bastille

"Flawless" The Neighbourhood

"Wicked Games" The Weekend


Well, I have to say I was so touched by all the wonderful feedback I received on the last chapter (Sandor's path forward, the dreaded funeral and, of course, the SanSan reunion).

Thank you all so much for your continued support of this fic. I am always floored and flabbergasted by all the love I receive. It truly means the world to me so thank you times a million from the bottom of my heart!