Author's Notes: Thanks everyone for your comments so far. I'm not sure how to respond to you individually, but it's very much appreciated. Just a reminder too that constructive criticism is welcome.

Warnings: Implied abuse.

Sorry folks, I've just realised that all of my section breaks have disappeared. Hopefully now remedied!


~5~

Things move apace after that. The Elder Brother, upon hearing Sandor's intention to leave, grants them a portion of the Isle's supplies. He has been generous, and Sansa wonders if it is a reflection of his political affiliations, or his affection for Sandor that has prompted it. Perhaps a little of both.

(He says that it is merely the dictates of his faith, but Sansa is not so naïve to believe such pleasant falsehoods any longer).

She stands on the dock for a little while, watching as the two small rowboats shuttle back and forth with the barrels of flour and wine, the cages of poultry. Sandor joins her before too long, her heart swooping precipitously at the sound of his approach.

He is clad in his old armour, plain soot grey and yet impressive for the sheer size of the man within. His mail shirt clinks softly as he comes to stand beside her, expression hard to read.

"Are you sorry to be leaving?" Sansa asks quietly, made unsure by his silence. She had told Brienne she felt certain he would join her cause out of obligation, and yet, now faced with him, she is not sure if that is sufficient any longer.

"No," he says without hesitation. "Elder Brother has done well by me – better than I deserved – but even he knows I'm not cut out for prayer." He looks down at her, the same grey intensity that made her body warm this morning. "My fate is bound to yours, little bird. Always has been. He knows that, too."

Sansa does not know what to say. Brienne has shown her great loyalty, but this is something other. Something beyond. She would like to take his hand, kiss his knuckles in gratitude – it has been so long since she knew what it felt like to trust. But she cannot make such a display out here on the dock for anyone to see, and so she must settle for the brush of her hand against his, returning his gaze in a solemn nod.

"Thank you," she says, utterly heartfelt.

He stares at her a moment longer before looking away, the corner of his mouth twitching into a fleeting grin.

"Don't thank me yet," he says in a low voice, eyes on the horizon, and Sansa feels shot through with warmth again, hearing the promise in his words. Promise, or threat. She cannot say she minds, either way.


It is afternoon by the time supplies and people are loaded aboard, and later still before the tide is right for them to sail out to open water. Space is tight on their small boat, Sansa and Brienne having to share since Sandor has been given Brienne's cabin. At dinner, Sansa sits beside her lady knight but spends most of the meal merely gazing at Sandor. She desperately wants to speak to him, but not of anything she would care for the sailors to overhear.

Instead, she leans close to Brienne and whispers, "I hope you will not think the worse of me if I do not sleep in our cabin tonight."

Brienne pulls back to look her in the eye, a searching gaze, before she nods minutely. "I understand," she replies softly, and by the sadness in her big, blue eyes, Sansa knows that she does.


Sandor merely huffs in amusement when she follows him, and not Brienne, to his door.

"Don't let the sailors see you, little bird," he rasps as he pushes the door closed behind her. "You'll be the talk of every port these water rats set anchor in."

Sansa warms once more at the implication behind his words, but it is quite a pleasant sensation, and she meets his eyes levelly as he uncorks a wineskin with his teeth.

His cabin is relatively spacious, given the sleeping quarters of the sailors, but there is no furniture beyond his chest and the too-small birth, and the ceiling is too low for him to stand up straight. There is nothing to be done about that except to sit with their backs against the bulkhead partitions, passing the wineskin back and forth between them.

This is how friendships are made, Sansa thinks. She has seen Petyr do it often enough, albeit in more sophisticated ways: drink and talk and find common ground. She would never have thought, upon first meeting the Hound, that she could ever have any common ground with such a man. Now, it is barely a surprise how much of it there is.

The wine is sharp and heavy on her tongue, the boat rocking them gently into each other and away again. She looks at him, and sees a stranger and a friend all at once, startled for a moment at the duality.

"How many different people do you think one person can be?" she wonders aloud.

He takes the wineskin from her hands with a low chuckle at her expense before answering, "Fanciful little bird."

Sansa smiles a bit. "I imagine you are thinking how little has changed," she replies, "and perhaps it is true that some aspects of oneself remain constant. Yet, neither of us is the same as the last time we met."

He goes silent for a long time at that, and Sansa takes the wineskin back again, sipping at it as she waits him out.

"You're not the same girl who left Winterfell," he says eventually. "I didn't know how anyone could be so innocent. I wanted to tear the scales from your eyes. But even on the night I left you, after everything they did to you... you never lost your sweetness. I thought it was weakness. I thought it would make me weak. I didn't understand."

He looks ashamed and angry, and Sansa reaches out to place her hand on his forearm. "I wish you had succeeded," she says honestly. "The things I have seen since then..." she trails off, unwilling to follow that path to its conclusion just now. He looks down at her hand, then up at her face, frowning. Sansa is reminded that he, too, has carried his clay memory of her all these years. Has he found me a disappointment? She shakes the thought off. "But that is not quite what I meant," she continues. "People change as time passes, that is a given, but now that I am free to be Sansa Stark once more, I find that there is somehow more than one of me."

They look at each other for the length of several heartbeats. Sansa had trained herself long ago to look into men's eyes, a directness more becoming of a bastard girl than the lady her septa had brought her up to be. She has found it informative, intrusive, revealing... but never so intimate.

"You've grown a thick hide, that's true enough," he finally says. "In truth I never wanted that for you, but if it's helped you survive then I've no complaint. But..." he reaches up to touch her jaw lightly with callused fingers, "don't do that with me."

Sansa turns her face into his palm and remembers how exposed she had felt after last night; how little she had minded. She has been holding her cracked and battered shell together by herself all these years, and though Sandor has seen what lies beneath, if anything she feels that he can be the force that binds the cracks together. He can strengthen her. If she lets him. She thinks she wants to let him.

"I will try not to," she whispers, "but my skin is the only armour I have, and it has turned to steel. You must help me remove my armour when we are alone, just as you and Brienne helped each other earlier."

Sandor strokes his thumb along the line of her cheekbone. "Aye, little bird, I'll be your squire if that's what you want of me."

"It is," she says, and leans forward, and kisses him gently on his scarred cheek. "Thank you."

She hovers for a moment by his cheek, wondering how it would feel to kiss him for true, but that is not what she wants right now. Instead, she wraps her arms around his chest, so broad that her hands don't meet, and rests her head on his shoulder. After half a heartbeat, she feels his arm come around her shoulders. And she sleeps.