Yoren told her to make sure no one figured out she's a girl because they'll turn her into the queen or, if they're particularly heinous, will rape her and then hand her over to Cersei. Arya wasn't stupid enough to think Needle would protect her for a group of grown men, so she followed Yoren's instructions, right down to hiding when she had to make water.
But that first night, Arya wasn't sure what to do. They were camping out, the kind of camping she used to beg her parents to let her do back at Winterfell, the sort of camping Robb, Jon, Theon, and even Bran got to do but her mother always said was improper for Arya to take part in; but these men were not her brothers, and Arya was not sure where to sleep, who it was safe to sleep beside. She wanted to stick close to Yoren, but he stayed near the older men, and none of the other recent recruits for the Wall were camping near him, which meant they'd notice if “Arry” decided to sleep near the older man.
Lommy and Hot Pie were stretching out near a few of the other boys who made japes towards her, the ones who always grabbed at Needle and her wooden practice sword, the last remaining ties she had to Jon Snow and Syrio, the ones who liked to call her Lumpyhead amongst other slurs. There was no way in seven hells she was going to fall asleep near them; they'd take her swords and do Gods only knew what else.
As Arya scanned the area for the safest place to sleep, she caught sight of the one they were calling The Bull, the blacksmith's apprentice who carried the helm in the shape of a bull's head. He was broad, heavily muscled, and her tormentors were afraid of him, which told Arya that he was the one to sleep beside this night. Thus far he hadn't said anything unless someone addressed him, and even then he kept his responses brief. There was something familiar about him, but Arya could not put her finger on it.
She sat down on the grass a reasonable distance from The Bull, trying to suppress the shiver which went up her spine; there were a limited amount of blankets, and the others had pushed her when it was time to claim them, meaning she was one of the few who did not receive anything. Not for the first time she wished for Nymeria, whose body was always warm, whose fur had been soft beneath Arya's cheek. Arya felt a lump rising in her throat, the events of the past few months threatening to overwhelm her, but she choked the emotion back.
Not today, she ordered herself as she tried to settle her head against the grass.
“Here,” a deep voice said, drawing Arya's attention as she twisted her head.
The Bull was holding out a blanket, nodding at her to take it. She cautiously accepted it, waiting for the other shoe to drop; when The Bull said nothing, Arya mumbled a thank you, wrapping it around her slender shoulders.
“Can I see your sword?” When Arya said nothing, simply glared at him with distrust, he picked up the bull's helm and held it out. “You can hold that while I look. I'll give it back, I promise.”
Arya withdrew Needle from her waistband, grabbing one of the horns of the helm and jerking it towards her before completing the exchange. In the muted firelight, The Bull held it up, studying it with careful eyes, and Arya wondered if he used to make swords at the blacksmith's shop. She ran her hands over the helm, unsure what she was supposed to do it beyond hold it hostage. When The Bull handed Needle back, she set the helm next to him.
“How does a beggar boy get a castle-forged sword?”
“Wasn't always a beggar boy,” Arya grunted, hooking Needle back into her belt loop.
The Bull smirked; the expression changed his face for the better. “I'm Gendry, Gendry Waters.”
Gendry's smirk became a smile as he laid down on the grass, staring up at the night sky. “Suppose us bastard boys should stick together.”
She thought of Jon, her favorite brother, her best brother; she thought of how many times she heard someone at Winterfell call him a bastard, remembered how he always clenched his fists and seemed to hate the word the same way she despised the sound of “lady.” All Jon Snow had ever wanted was to be able to call himself a Stark, and here she was, stealing his name to hide her parents.
It was funny, Arya thought as she drifted off to sleep beside Gendry Waters, how all the best boys were bastards.
She may have been the Ghost of Harrenhal but even ghosts got lonely, which was why Arya sneaked down to the kitchen to see Hot Pie before supper one evening. Hot Pie usually panicked upon her arrivals – he had never quite learned how to take a hit, not like she had – but she had easier access to Hot Pie in the kitchens than Gendry in the forge.
As Hot Pie tried to clean up his space, Arya stretched to swipe a lemon tart, quickly suppressing the thought of Sansa, when Hot Pie announced, “The Bull's sick.”
“What do you mean, sick?”
Hot Pie shrugged. “I mean, he's sick. Heard one of the maesters talking. Some fever is going around the castle, and he got it.”
The tart in her hand forgotten, Arya asked, “Is it serious?”
“A couple people died of it.” He shrugged again before struggling with a bag of flour. “Maester told all o' us to be careful because if we catch the fever, we might get it in the food.”
“He still at the forge?”
Arya knew the knights and more important people in the castle were treated in their chambers, but Gendry didn't have a chamber; he had a single, stinking cot in the back of the forge in a room which was always unbearably hot from the fires. She felt a stab of fear the blacksmith would send him away and he'd have to stay in the sick ward in one of the basements, the place where people were taken and never returned.
“How would I know?”
Arya rolled her eyes, grunting, “Useless,” before hurrying on silent feet towards the forge.
If they caught her out after dark, she'd be punished; things may have been better since Bolton took over the castle, but she was still just a cup bearer, little Nan. Hot Pie still called her Arry, most of Harrenhal's residents still called her “the weasel”; Gendry rarely addressed her by name but, when he thought she was being irritating, he called her m'lady, and it never failed to anger her every time.
The forge was still hot when she entered, but Arya knew the blacksmith was undoubtedly in his own chambers, giving his coin to the women who were so eager to climb into his bed; everyone in Harrenhal knew Gendry's master loved the drink and whores more than anything else. As Arya sidestepped an anvil, she heard a wet, rattling cough from the back room, and her heart clenched in fear.
Fear cuts deeper than swords, she recited as she pushed aside the curtain which hid Gendry's room from the forge.
Her friend was lying in his cot, naked save for his smallclothes, his entire body coated in a heavy layer of sweat; his black hair was plastered to his forehead, and there was an unnatural paleness to his skin. Once at Winterfell Arya saw Maester Luwin treating someone who looked like this; when the man had died, Robb said the fever cooked his brain.
Arya pressed her hands against Gendry's forehead and drew them back at the sheer amount of heat coming from his body.
At her touch, Gendry's eyes fluttered open; they were unfocused and swollen, the bright blue now a stormy gray. When he opened his mouth, it took several tries before he rasped, “Arya?”
“Why'd you go and get the fever?” she snapped, surprising herself at the sharpness of her voice. Instantly she wondered if she should apologize, try to explain she wasn't really angry, just scared, but Gendry just chuckled through a cough.
“Sorry, m'lady. I didn't mean to.”
Arya picked up a rag on a nearby table; confirming it was reasonably clean, she dunked it into a bucket of water used for cooling metal before applying it to Gendry's forehead the way her mother used to do when Arya was sick. Gendry hummed in pleasure at the cool water, so Arya repeated the motion, pressing the rag to his face, his neck, his chest; every inch of him was burning like fire, and Arya tried to remember what Maester Luwin used to do to make people better.
“Going to get in trouble,” he slurred as Arya began to scrub his skin with the cool water. She wished she could get him to the baths, but they were on the opposite side of the castle, and only the knights were allowed to use them.
“Don't care,” she countered, surprised at how much she meant it. All plans of escape were gone now; all that mattered was making sure one of the last few people she had in the world did not die in this dirty cot.
“You're so stupid,” Gendry announced as she wedged her small body alongside his in the cot, continuing to press the rag against his skin. She wanted to get angry at the insult, but he said it the way Robb used to, like she was something funny but he loved her anyway.
He doesn't love you, Arya reminded herself as she brushed his hair off of his forehead, and you don't love him. You just don't want him to die because you need a strong boy in your pack.
He kept drifting in and out of sleep, his chest crackling with every cough, and Arya pressed her ear against it, listening to the sounds of liquid in his lungs. But despite the sickly snap of his breathing, the steady rhythm of his heart never faltered, thundering against her cheek like a drum; Arya didn't know anything about healing, but she knew your heart kept you alive, and Gendry's heart seemed to be as strong as his arms.
“Please don't die,” she whispered against his heated skin, and Arya did not know if she was asking Gendry or if the plea was for Jon, Robb, Bran, Rickon, Sansa, or Catelyn, if it was for Nymeria or even herself.
She was not sure when she fell asleep, but, when Arya awoke, it was still pitch black outside; judging by the moon, she knew the sun would rise in an hour or so, meaning she needed to get back to her chamber. As she tried to wriggle out from Gendry, who had rolled half-atop her at some point, the older boy opened his eyes, staring at her in confusion for a moment before breathing her name.
“I have to go,” she offered, “but I'll try to bring you some broth later.”
Arya froze when Gendry's hand rose, clumsily stroking her cheek. “I had a dream...Why can't you get older faster?” Gendry's eyes drooped closed again as he sighed, “I cannot wait until you're old enough.”
Old enough for what? she wondered as she silently slipped back into her chambers, staring aimlessly up at the ceiling.
When he was better, Arya asked him, swinging her feet as she perched upon an unused anvil, munching on rolls she swiped from Hot Pie for the both of him. The moment the words left her mouth, Gendry blushed so ferociously, it was as if he was stuck with fever again.
“How in seven hells should I know?” he growled, sounding so very little like Gendry and so much like a stranger. “I don't even remember you being here.”
Arya thought he was lying, but, since he never called her on the lies she told him, Arya let it go.
Arya never really gave much thought to whores before; in Winterfell, she had heard whispers about the pleasure house and Theon's comments about a woman named Ros, but everyone always got quiet whenever she entered the room, usually because Jon ordered them to stop talking about it. In King's Landing, there were whores everywhere, and, though Arya had seen animals mate, she couldn't imagine why any woman would want to be paid to do something which looked so disgusting.
Septa Mordane used to tell her, Sansa, and Jeyne Poole that a woman's maidenhood was her greatest gift, and, to give it to a man before marriage, was tantamount to ruining yourself. Arya thought that, if the greatest thing about a person was between their legs, they probably weren't very interesting to begin with; she had said as much at the dinner table once when Sansa mentioned a girl in the village being “ruined,” and her mother chastised her while her father, Jon, Robb, and Theon tried to choke back laughter.
Arya sat alone at one of the tables in the whorehouse, watching as the men drank and pulled women into their laps, and her eyes instinctively sought out Gendry. He had gotten so angry at her last night when she asked him why he pretended to be her brother, and Arya didn't fully understand why; she had hoped to ask him when they left today but then Lem and the others decided another day was needed to “replenish their strength,” so Arya was stuck watching them all behave like morons. Gendry was seated at the end of a table talking to one of the men whose name Arya couldn't recall, but there was a whore who kept finding reasons to sit with them; Arya estimated the girl to be about fifteen, heavily curved with a spill of golden curls. Arya self-consciously touched her dirty, snarled hair before she could stop herself, blushing with secret embarrassment.
Why do I care if stupid old Gendry wants some whore? I'm Arya Stark of Winterfell, the daughter of the Hand of the King, and he's just some stupid old bastard boy.
But he wasn't. Gendry Waters was her best friend, the only friend she had left, and it hurt, being ignored, being reminded that he only wanted to be her friend because he didn't have any other options either. This blonde girl in her low-cut dress and large bosom seemed to interest him much more than an eleven-year-old hostage.
When the whore began to press kisses to the side of Gendry's face, Arya got to her feet, stomping past her reveling captors to go outside. She debated running again, but there was no point; they were going to take her to Robb, and, no matter how the worries plagued her, she didn't really think her brother would refuse to pay. After all, she was useful; it wasn't as if she was Sansa, for Gods sake.
She found a stick on the ground; it was too thin to mimic the heft of her old practice sword, but Arya always felt better with a sword in hand. As the moon rose high in the sky, Arya went through the motions of her old lessons with Syrio, imagining she was back in the Red Keep with him, the sound of their wooden swords meeting in a rhythm which was music to her ears. Sometimes she missed Syrio most of all because he was the one who taught her how to survive, never even bothering with trying to teach her to be a lady.
I am no lady. I am Arya Stark, the daughter of Eddard Stark, and I am going to kill King Joffrey. To seven hells with Robb being the King of the North. I am going to make it so he is the King of all Seven Kingdoms, and, when he is, he will make me Head of his Kingsguard, and then I will never have to be a lady ever again.
“You shouldn't wander off,” Gendry chastised as he approached, a slight stumble in his step from the wine Arya saw him drinking.
“I don't have to listen to you,” she spat, lunging with her stick to pierce an invisible opponent.
“Unless you want some raper getting you, you better.”
Arya scoffed. “You didn't seem all that concerned about me getting attacked by rapers when you were putting your face in that whore's teats.”
Gendry recoiled as if she struck him, anger and embarrassment warring on his face. “You don't know what you're talking about, m'lady.”
Tossing down her stick, Arya declared, “I know you're just like them: some stupid boy who wants to get drunk and stick it in whores!”
“Fine then! Guess I should go find a whore to stick it in since you don't need me.” Throwing up his hands, he growled, “Rapers wouldn't be desperate enough to want you anyway.”
It shouldn't hurt to hear him say that; Arya didn't care what anyone thought of her, especially not a boy. That was Sansa's way, to primp and preen, to obsess over what boys thought of her, and Arya was not Sansa.
She kept her head tall as she walked through the inn, refusing to let her eyes flick left or right; she ascended the stairs to her room, slamming the door shut as she removed her boots, stripping the dirty top layer of her clothing off as she settled down onto the bed, pulling the blankets up to her chin. Sleep would not come no matter how many times she repeated her prayers, so Arya just stared at the wall, trying to imagine what her brothers and sister were doing. When the tears swell in her eyes, Arya tried to push them back, but suddenly it was like a tidal wave, drowning her in grief and frustration, and everything let loose.
The last time she cried was the day her father lost his head, and even that had been short-lived as Yoren chopped off her hair and forced her out of King's Landing. As she laid in the strange bed in a strange land held hostage by strange people, Arya allowed the tears to start to fall: tears for Syrio, for Lommy, for Ned who died being a called traitor, for Sansa who was going to be Joffrey's queen, for Jon at the Wall, for Bran with his broken legs, for Robb who said goodbye to their father at Winterfell to never see him again. There were more tears in her body than Arya thought possible, and she was not sure she would ever be able to stop.
When the door opened, Arya stuffed her fist into her mouth, trying to keep any sounds inside her body; she let the tears slide silently down her face as boots crashed to the floor, as clothing was shed. Arya was not sure if it was Gendry or one of the other Brothers climbing into bed until a heavy arm dropped over her and a familiar voice sighed, “I'm sorry for what I said. You just make me so damn angry sometimes.”
The sob escaped her mouth so suddenly, Arya felt panic zip through her body as she tried to pull it back, but now she was crying in earnest, entire body shaking. She could feel Gendry tense in confusion before the weight of his arm turned into a firm embrace, tucking her tightly against his chest.
“'S alright,” Gendry whispered against her ear. “I won't tell anyone.”
Arya nodded through her tears, so grateful he understood how important it was no one else knew she was crying. She cried herself to sleep that night, her prayers forgotten, Gendry's arms enfolding her.
When she woke up, Arya was facing Gendry, still wrapped in his arms. She had never been this close to a boy who was not her family before, and Arya was confused by the flip of her stomach as she studied Gendry's face. A voice in her head which sounded remarkably like Sansa said he was handsome, but Arya ignored it because if she acknowledged Gendry Waters was handsome, it was acknowledging she was not a warrior but a silly girl.
Arya made sure she was dressed and waiting downstairs by the time Gendry stumbled downstairs, his black hair sticking up in every direction. When he smiled at her across the table as they broke fast, Arya pretended like she didn't notice how blue his eyes were or how he fought one of the men for berries she knew he didn't even like because she did.
When they reached Riverrun, she was going to tell Robb what wonderful swords Gendry could make for him if only he would let Gendry stay.
So much had changed in the five years since Arya left Westeros, but some things stayed the same. The war was still raging, everyone grasping for crowns, and all Arya wanted was to go home.
They could never make her Faceless, not really. Her prayers were always those who were going to die by Needle's point, and, no matter how skilled she became, she could not forget the faces of those she lost. Before leaving Westeros, she had already known her father, her mother, and Robb were dead; in Braavos she learned of Bran and Rickon, of Theon's betrayal and Sansa having disappeared from King's Landing after Joffrey's murder. She had no way of knowing if Jon was still alive, though whispers of the Others reached across the sea. For all Arya knew, she was the last remaining Stark in the world, and that was enough reason for her to come across the sea and take back her face.
It came in handy being Faceless when she needed to be; as she wandered about King's Landing, catching brief glimpses of King Tommen, Arya began to take stock of those who were still contending for the crown: Stannis Baratheon, Roose Bolton, Daenerys Targaryen. Arya had seen Daenerys and her dragons before in the free cities; Ser Barristan the Bold had been at her side, and she swore Ser Barristan looked at her, seeing right through her Facelessness, before turning away. She was in King's Landing for only two days before she heard someone spit, “I hope the King of the North and his damned army cuts ol' Cersei and turns her into pie.”
She asked a child in an alley way who the King of the North was; when the urchin replied, “Jon Stark of Winterfell, everyone knows that,” Arya immediately stole the finest horse she could find and began to ride for Winterfell as fast as four legs could carry her.
Arya was two days ride from home when the bear attacked. She heard the heavy snapping of branches and then the creature was rushing; Arya managed to get the point of her sword up quickly enough to poke and scramble backwards.
Stick 'em with the pointy end, Arya thought wildly as she got to her feet, trying to calm her panicking horse. She had been taught to fight people in Braavos; there had been no lessons on bear attacks.
The blur of fur came flying from the trees with startling speed. Arya heard the snarling and snapping of jaws before her eyes could make out the shapes of the wolves; but it was the direwolf tearing open the throat of the bear which drew Arya's attention, which made her heart clench in gratitude and longing. When the bear was still, as the wolves began to feast on its flesh, Arya stared at the massive she-wolf which clearly was leading the pack, the wolf who saved her life.
“Nymeria, come,” she ventured, her voice wobbling, hoping she wasn't wrong, unsure how her battered heart would react if she was wrong.
But then the direwolf - Nymeria - padded over to her, pushing her bloodstained snout against Arya's cheek, and, though Arya had stopped believing in the Gods the night Robb and Catelyn were killed, she knew this was a sign she made the right decision in returning to Westeros.
The wolf pack trailed behind her as she rode on for Winterfell, Nymeria matching stride at her side, and Arya had never felt more powerful than when she glimpsed the rising stone walls of Winterfell. She knew Winterfell had been burned years earlier; Arya could still make out scorch marks and remains of buildings which one stood. And it was obvious the rebuilding was not fully complete, some buildings little more than shacks, but it was Winterfell.
The shouts of the smallfolk at the sight of her wolves were loud, but Arya did not hear them, not when another direwolf came into view. Its fur was dark and it was even larger than Nymeria, but Arya would have known that wolf anywhere. As she slid from her saddle, she sighed, “Shaggydog,” her heart breaking as she tried to remember what Rickon looked like.
She was certain she had forgotten her baby brother's face until a boy of about ten came running after Shaggydog. He froze, staring at Arya with the same shock Arya was certain on her own face, and then the boy - Rickon - began to scream as he charged her, “Arya! Arya! It's Arya! Bran! Jon! Sansa! It's Arya!”
Even at ten, Rickon was nearly her height, and the weight and momentum of his body drove them both to the ground. Arya laughed as they wrestled in the dirt, Rickon squeezing her so hard it made Arya's ribs ache, but she squeezed him back just as tightly, her dead-brother-who-wasn't-dead-at-all. She caught Nymeria out of the corner of her eye engaging in the same type of wrestling match with Shaggydog and then another direwolf joined, Bran's wolf, the one whose name Arya had never known because Bran had not named him before he fell.
And then there was Sansa, even more beautiful than Arya remembered her, rushing towards her with her skirts gathered in one hand, Bran being carried to her by a grinning Hodor, and then there was Jon, Ghost at his side, and Arya could only see her big brother. She pushed past Sansa and Hodor, running at Jon as fast as her feet could carry her, and the tears finally came as she pressed her face into Jon's neck the way she had back when they were children, back when the world still made sense.
“We thought you were dead,” Jon cried into her tangled hair, holding her off the ground, her legs dangling as useless as Bran's. “We searched everywhere.”
“I thought you were dead,” she countered, sniffling against his heavy fur cloak. “I thought there was no one left.”
Jon all but carried her into the hall, ordering the cooks to make as large of a feast as they could. As Rickon ran circles around her, Bran and Sansa pounding her with questions, Arya tried to reconcile the people she was seeing with the siblings she remembered; she was six-and-ten now, a woman grown, and it startled her to see Sansa and Bran as adults, to see Rickon as something other than a baby. Bran and Rickon both looked so much like their mother; she wondered what Robb would look like now. She knew he had married a Westerling before he died; Arya wondered if things had been different, if she would be holding nieces and nephews on her lap now.
“You have to send word to the Lady,” Sansa told Jon as he joined them at the table.
“Who's the Lady?”
All of her siblings looked down simultaneously, something which would have been funny under other circumstances. And then Bran said, “The Lady Stoneheart. Our mother...After the Red Wedding, the Brotherhood Without Banners found her, and Thoros of Myr...”
Arya did not need her brother to finish; she remembered what Ser Beric looked like during her stint with the Brotherhood. “Does she look like she did or is she scary to behold?”
Only Rickon had the courage to offer, “It ain't too bad when you're used to her.”
“The Brotherhood rode for supplies. They should return later tonight. If they do not, I'll send a raven.” Jon smiled kindly, looking so much like Ned it made Arya's heart ache for her father. “Tell us where you've been all this time. How did you hide from the Lannisters?”
I became no one. “It is a very long story.” Taking a heavy swallow of wine, seeing the expectant looks on their faces, Arya offered, “I went to Braavos, became a Faceless Man.”
They all continued to stare before Sansa pronounced, distaste in her voice, “You learned to kill people?”
Arya felt the familiar flair of irritation towards her sister but she managed to choke back the unkind words which treated to burst from her lips. “I learned to survive no matter what.”
“The past is not important,” Jon declared, clearly trying to make peace the way he always had. “What is important is you are back and, when we take King's Landing, you will be there to avenge our father.”
“You aren't going to make me stay here?”
Jon laughed. “As if I could.”
Arya could not remember the last time she ate so well; from the way Sansa kept staring at her, Arya was certain she looked like a wilding as she tore into her food, but years of a stomach which was never-quite-full screamed in celebration. By the time she finished, Arya was certain she had gained a full stone, but no one commented; she learned of Bran's adventures beyond the Wall, Jon's fighting the Others, Rickon's hiding with the wilding woman Osha, and Sansa's years in the Vale. As she listened, Arya wondered if maybe she had been given the easiest hand to play...if there had ever been an easy hand.
When the squire announced the Brotherhood returned, Arya was slow to rise, unsure if she wanted to see Lady Stoneheart. But Rickon was running and even Sansa seemed eager for even the palest echo of their mother, so Arya followed to the square, lit up by fires. When Arya saw the woman who had once been Catelyn Stark, she was not sure what to do; the scratches, the gaping throat, her face and hair...Suddenly she hated Thoros of Myr ferociously for turning her beautiful mother into this.
But when Lady Stoneheart pressed a hand to her throat and hissed, “Arya,” like a prayer, Arya still found herself reaching for the imitation of her mother.
As the Brotherhood trotted their horses into the square, Arya recognized Lem, Arguy, and a handful of others from her time with them. Most of them were strangers or children, hardly older than Rickon, but Arya saw no sign of Ser Beric or Thoros.
When she saw the horns of a helm, Arya felt her heart stop. She strained up on her toes and, when she saw the person wearing the bull's helm she had not seen in six years, saw it was some scrawny boy with dark eyes and pale skin, Arya felt every injustice of the past seven years rearing up inside of her. Before anyone knew what she was doing, she marched over to the boy and jerked the helm from his head, startling him.
“Where did you get this?” she demanded. When the boy only stared at her, she pushed him hard in the chest, nearly setting him off-balance. “Where did you get this helm?!”
“It's mine!” the boy cried, stepping backwards to try to keep himself upright.
She felt Jon at her back, setting a hand upon her shoulder, but Arya shook him off. “Where did you get it?!”
“He won it from me.”
Arya's head snapped at the sound of the familiar voice. There, pushing his way through the throng of men, was Gendry. His dark hair was shorter now, his shoulders seeming impossibly broader, but there was no doubt in Arya's mind this was her old friend; any doubt she had immediately disappeared as she met his blue eyes.
In Braavos, when she was still trying to forget being Arya Stark, his face had been mixed in with her family's, the stupid bastard boy who broke her heart when he had Ser Beric make him a knight, the only friend she had in the world whom she had left behind when she ran away from the Brotherhood's camp. Since then, every broad-shouldered boy with dark hair she had seen, Arya had searched their face to see if it was him; every knight she passed, she made sure they did not wear his stolen helm.
And here he was, Ser Gendry Waters of the Brotherhood Without Banners, telling her he wagered his helm to some boy with rheumy eyes and long neck as if it meant nothing at all.
She threw the helm with all her strength, the metal smacking Gendry in the forehead. Gendry instantly grabbed at his head and spat, “Seven hells, Arya! What kind of lady throws a helm at someone?”
“The bad kind!”
She pushed past Jon, running like she was nine again, needing to put as much distance as possible between her and everyone in the courtyard. Someone must have been following her, for she heard Nymeria growl, but Arya did not look back. Instead she hurried up the stairs to what used to be her cell; it hadn't been used recently, smelling of stale air, and Arya threw herself upon the mattress, sending dust in a hundred directions.
Arya was not sure how long she was on her bed before someone knocked on the door. She did not bother answering; she knew it would not matter, not if it was any of her siblings. When the door opened, Arya turned to see Gendry standing in the doorway, the bull's helm in his hand.
“I don't want to talk to you.” When Gendry did not move, she sat up and snapped, “I'm a princess of Winterfell, and you cannot be here!”
He smirked. “Well, the King of the North says I can. In fact, King Jon gave me very specific orders to not return to him until I make peace with you.”
“I don't want your stupid peace. Leave me alone!”
Gendry sighed, crossing the floor, setting the helm on the foot of her bed. “I stayed at an inn for awhile for the Brotherhood taking care of orphans. Man came in one day, traded me my helm for a night's rest and food. But I had already made a new helm, so when we were wagering on a tourney, I put up the bull. Joe is more than happy to give it to the newest lady of Winterfell, seeing as how important it is to you.”
“I don't care! I don't care at all! I only wanted to get the helm back because it was yours and it never should have gotten taken. You can give it back to the ugly boy because I don't want it.”
She felt her anger flare brighter as Gendry took a seat on the end of her bed, sighing as he picked up the bull, studying it. “You know, I was so proud the day I made this. Before he died, your lord father came to my shop to ask some questions, and he said it was a fine piece of work. It meant a lot to a bastard boy.”
“Why would my father ask you questions?”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because the night you ran, I spent hours looking for you. I never stopped. And when it came down someone saw you with the Hound, saw you headed to the Twins the night of the Red Wedding...I spent five years thinking you were dead, m'lady, and five years thinking if I had caught you, you wouldn't be.”
Arya shifted uncomfortably, the guilt starting to lick at her.
“I didn't care about the helm because I made a new one, a direwolf. It's why your brother invited me to smith here, why I'll fight beside him in King's Landing. Told him I knew Arya Stark, how she was my best friend, how she used to tell stories 'bout a direwolf she kept as a pet, and I decided I'd rather be a wolf than a bull.”
“You're so stupid,” she murmured after a beat, brushing at a stray tear on her cheek.
Gendry smiled, and Arya was startled to see his eyes shining too. “So you keep telling me.”
Arya reached out, plucking the helm from his grip; she wrapped her hands around the horns, studying it the way she had that first night they were with Yoren. She wondered when some stupid piece of metal came to symbolize so much of what she lost.
“I thought it would feel better...being home.”
He didn't acknowledge her confession at first. And then he ventured, “Maybe it isn't home anymore.”
Arya laughed mirthlessly, feeling emptier than she ever had. “Then what's the point in fighting anymore?”
“To make a new home.”
She finally lifted her gaze from the helm, looking Gendry straight in the eye as she challenged, “Is that what you're doing here, making a new home?”
Gendry shook his head, scooting his body closer to hers. “No. I came here because...Because I wanted to remember my old one.”
Arya swallowed back the rest of her emotion, banishing into the box in her chest where it usually resided; she hated tears, and she refused to start acting like Sansa now. Swinging her legs beneath her, rising on her knees, Arya stretched, setting the helm atop Gendry's head.
“You're a bull. Don't you remember?”
“I guess I forgot. Lucky you're here to remind me.”
Arya was not sure how long they sat in silence on her bed. All she knew for certain was, when she woke up the next morning, a shining helm in the shape of a direwolf hung on her bedpost.
“People are saying things about you.”
Arya looked up from polishing her sword to see Sansa standing over her, her face pinched into the same judgmental expression Arya remembered her always wearing when she was about to chastise. She had harbored a hope Sansa would have become less stringent in her courtesies over the past five years, less willing to fling accusations of unladylike behavior, but it seemed to Arya as if Sansa was clinging to propriety even harder as war approached.
“What do I care what people say?”
Sansa huffed in irritation before taking a seat beside her. “You should care because you are a princess now, and what you do reflects upon Jon as the king. Have you learned nothing?”
“I learned how to kill a man without leaving a trace. Bit handier in a war than curtsying.”
Ignoring her words, Sansa stated, “People are saying you and the blacksmith are being inappropriate.”
Arya wagered everything she did was considered inappropriate by someone. “Gendry is my best friend.”
“He does not look at you like a friend.”
There was an innuendo in Sansa's voice which made Arya stop polishing and finally look at her sister. “What do you mean? How does he look at me?”
Sansa laughed, shaking her head. “Sometimes you are so blind. Every time you're out practicing swordplay with the men, your blacksmith can barely tear his gaze away from your chest. Even Rickon knows he's in love with you, and that boy can barely put his boots on without assistance.”
Arya thought of the whore at the Peach all those years ago, of her curves and perfectly curled hair; Gendry's eyes had followed that girl back then, and there were plenty of pretty girls around Winterfell, girls who batted their eyes at the handsome blacksmith who rode against their enemies with a hammer in his hand.
“You're wrong,” she finally stated.
“I'm not,” Sansa argued calmly, “but that is beside the point. He is good at his trade and a loyal knight to Jon, but he is still baseborn and bears a bastard's name.”
Arya looked at her in confusion. “And Jon used to be a Snow but because of something Robb wrote, now he's a Stark. If birth was really that important, why would some words on a paper be able to undo it?”
The pinched expression on Sansa's face told Arya she clearly had not said the right thing in her sister's mind. “Since our father died, you have been on your own, and I am sorry for that. I cannot imagine having had to do the things you have done in the same way you could not imagine doing what I have done. But you are not in Braavos anymore, Arya, and our brother in the King of the North. Whether or not you are being dishonored by one of his knights matters.”
“Gendry would never dishonor me. That's not the type of man he is.”
“You do not understand men.”
Bristling, Arya snapped, “I understand them better than you!”
“You understand knights, murderers, and thieves. You do not understand the games men play and the tricks they use to talk a lady out of her gown.”
Getting to her feet, tucking her sword into her belt loop, Arya retorted, “I do not wear gowns,” before leaving Sansa and her unwanted advice.
But, even as she went through the motions of the day, Arya could not forget Sansa's words. She knew she was not a child any longer; she was a woman grown, flowered since she was twelve. If she had stayed in Westeros, if her parents had survived, there would have been talk of marriage; while her father and King Robert wanted Sansa to be a queen, they would have made a good match for Arya as well. Arya understood the way the world worked when it came to girls, especially the daughters of highborn lords; they were traded and promised like gifts, interchangeable amongst men. After all, if the Mad King had not killed him, Arya could have been the daughter of Catelyn Tully and Brandon Stark.
After Ilyn Payne took her father's head, Arya stopped thinking and dreading the day when she would be forced to marry someone she did not know. Survival became her sole focus, and there was never a chance to indulge in any of the girlish pursuits Sansa preferred when they were young. For years, all Arya knew of men was they were quick to betray anyone for a few dragons and most felt no shame in raping girls they came upon on the kingsroad.
She had not truly understood what rape was when Yoren warned her to protect her true gender. Arya heard whispers of it in King's Landing, and she grasped it was something men did to women, something which was violent and painful. At nine, her grasp of what men and women did together was only what she had seen the animals do, which also looked violent and painful; in her mind, they were the same thing, and Arya never wanted any man to touch her.
She had said that once to Hot Pie and Gendry when they were on the road from Harrenhal after Gendry told her to dirty herself up some more to hide she was a girl, to make her a less likely target for rapers. Arya didn't remember what she said, but Hot Pie looked at her as if she was crazy and said, “Rapers and laying together ain't the same thing. Didn't your mother teach you anything?”
Gendry cuffed him in the back of the head before Arya could. Later, when Hot Pie was asleep, Gendry explained the difference to her, bright red and mumbling, but emphasizing that laying together was something ladies wanted.
“Why do they want it?”
He nearly turned purple as he snapped, “Because they do! Now go to sleep and stop being stupid.”
In Braavos, she became so many different people, none of whom were real because she wasn't real, not when she was with the Faceless Men. When she looked at men, she was trained to evaluate strengths and weaknesses, to find the quickest and cleanest way to kill them; she had never looked at a man as anything other than a target.
She knew Gendry was attractive; all the girls in Winterfell swooned after him. The other men were always teasing Gendry about one girl in particular, the daughter of the innkeeper who brought him dinner every few days. Arya saw her a few days ago; the girl was plain faced but her curves were plentiful, and Arya knew Gendry liked her because, when Arya asked after her, he quickly told her it was none of her business.
So Sansa is wrong. Gendry wants the innkeeper's daughter, and I do not want to marry anyway. I am going to be a knight of Jon's kingsguard, and everyone knows they cannot wed.
And yet, a few days later, when Arya saw the innkeeper's daughter leaving the forge, an unfamiliar feeling roared so sharply inside her chest, it made her want to scream.
She didn't know why she did it, but suddenly Arya was walking towards the forge. Arya did not know what she was expecting to find; Gendry was near the fires as always, a sheen of sweat covering his skin, the muscles in his arms prominent as he brought his hammer down to shape the metal. The heat inside was stifling, the distinctive hiss of red-hot steel being slid into water echoing from the walls; when Gendry saw her, he continued to pound out what looked to be a breastplate, and Arya knew he would not stop until he was done. Multiple times he told her how much he hated interruptions, that it took a certain rhythm to make good steel; and, while Arya was never a patient person, she liked to watch him work. Gendry's devotion to his metal was almost as complete as her devotion to her sword.
As he finished, Arya remarked, “That plate is big enough for a giant.”
Gendry grinned. “It's for Brienne, so close enough.”
“Jon showed me the new armor you made for him. It's wonderful.”
“For as long as it took me, it should be. I still have mail to mend, more armor to make, new helms...As long as this war continues, I'll always have work. I'm so busy - “
“Are you going to marry the innkeeper's daughter?” Arya blurted out, startling Gendry into silence.
After a moment, Gendry managed, “What?”
“Are you going to marry the innkeeper's daughter?” she repeated. When he said nothing, she rushed on, “Everyone sees her come every other day with food for you, and you never send her away. And Lem says you're well past the age to wed so I was wondering if you are.”
“I do not send her away because she is a good cook and not all of us eat as finely as you do, m'lady.” Scowling, he snapped, “And I thought I told you whatever is between she and I is not your business.”
“I am the princess of Winterfell,” Arya countered, “so everything that happens here is my business.”
“Oh really? So I suppose next you'll be asking Anguy whose bells he's ringing because it's important to the North?”
Folding her arms over her chest, Arya tried to take a deep breath and calm herself, but her emotions were churning too passionately in her body. Pushing off the table she was leaning against, she spat, “Ring all the bells you bloody well please. I don't care.”
She saw Gendry's eyes widen before turning to leave, prepared to march back into the castle and forget her stupid bastard boy, when Arya was suddenly being held back by a strong hand around her wrist. Her immediate instinct was to fight, to pull away, to shout at him he was too close, but all Gendry was doing was keeping her there, refusing to let her flee.
Finally, after a moment's pause, Gendry released her wrist and said, “I don't want her.”
Arya swallowed hard, waiting for him to finish; but when he said nothing else, all she could think of was Sansa's words earlier: ”He is good at his trade and a loyal knight to Jon, but he is still baseborn and bears a bastard's name.”
It was instinct more than anything which made Arya lift her hands to cup Gendry's face; she was not sure what she was supposed to do next, but, when she was a child, whenever her parents were having a tender moment, Catelyn would touch Ned's face. Now, though, with her skin against his, the rough bristle of stubble against her palms, Arya wondered what came afterward.
The Faceless Men never trained her for this.
Arya rose on her toes, trying to draw Gendry down to her; she could read the hesitance in his eyes, twisted up with something she did not recognize, but he moved, inclining his head, whispering her name before their mouths met. Arya never considered what it would be like to kiss a man before, and, with the pressure of Gendry's lips against hers, she realized she was not sure how to kiss someone. And then, as if suddenly coming awake, Gendry's arms were sliding around her body, lips slanting over hers; she gasped as his mouth opened, his tongue pressing against hers, but Arya followed, caught the rhythm easily. When she felt Gendry's hand slip beneath the bottom of her tunic, his fingertips stroking the sensitive skin at the small of her back, Arya moaned, instantly understanding why it was people liked this so much.
The sound of the forge's door opening didn't reach Arya's ears until it was too late, too distracted by the press of Gendry's body against her own; but then there was the sound of heavy footfalls abruptly stopping and the sharp intakes of breath.
Arya whirled around to find Jon standing there, flanked by her uncle Edmure and Greatjon, and she felt Gendry bend the knee behind her automatically. She could read the surprise and anger on the men's faces, but it was Jon's neutral expression which worried Arya the most; there had never been a time she could not tell exactly what Jon Snow - Stark - was thinking. And Arya was not so naïve as to not know what happened to men who interfered with the sister of his king.
“Edmure,” Jon said after a beat, “please escort Arya back to the castle. I am sure Roslin requires assistance with the children.”
Arya's eyes bulged at the statement; in the months since her return to Winterfell, Jon never made her do anything which was traditional women's work; he respected that she was not Sansa, not Roslin or any of the other wives who stayed in the castle, and Arya knew he considered her to be one of his best soldiers. After all, it was her he sent to get Uncle Edmure back, to use her Facelessness to rescue their men.
“I do not need to go back to the castle,” Arya objected, refusing to be cowed by her brother.
“Yes, you do.”
When Edmure took a step forward, Arya instinctively dropped into a defensive stance, her hand falling to the pommel of her sword, and she saw everyone freeze, even Greatjon. Under different circumstances, she would have flushed with pride, knowing Jon's best men were afraid of what she was capable of; over the past five years, she had worked hard to become the type of person others did not want to cross. But all she could think of now was protecting Gendry, making sure he was not punished for her actions.
It was Jon who blinked first, the anger dissipating from his face, allowing Arya to glimpse the brother she loved so dearly. “I swear on our father, I will not hurt him nor will any man in Winterfell. But you need to leave now, Arya.”
She released her sword, nodding briefly. Her eyes dropped to Gendry, who was still on his knee, head bowed, and Arya wondered if this was truly the last time she was going to see him; Jon gave his word he would not be harmed, but it did not mean Jon would not send him away. And no matter how much she cared for Gendry, Arya could not leave her family again, could not leave the North before they avenged what had been done to their family.
This is all Sansa's fault, Arya thought as she allowed Edmure to march her back to the castle, depositing her in the nursery as if she was a wayward child.
It was hours before Jon came to find her; Arya was seated on her bed, Nymeria lying at her feet, and instantly Nymeria rose when Jon entered, briefly baring her teeth before Arya chastised her. When Jon opened the door wider, Arya dismissed her wolf, knowing her emotions were too heightened to risk a conversation with Jon in her presence, especially if Ghost was not nearby.
Jon sat beside her, the soft fur of his cloak rubbing against her arm, and Arya hated how much affection she still felt beneath her anger when he gently rested his hand atop hers.
“We weren't doing anything wrong.” When Jon said nothing, she rushed on, “It was just a kiss, and there isn't any harm in kissing. If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at me, because Gendry didn't kiss me first; I kissed him, and I know what everyone has been saying but Gendry would never dishonor me. But even if I wasn't a maid, that is not your business because I am not some silly princess; after all I have done for this family and the realm, if I was your brother rather than your sister, you would have cheered me on, baseborn or not, so - “
“Arya!” Jon interrupted, laughter in his voice. “Take a breath before you turn purple.” As she followed his instruction, he asked, “Are you finished yelling at your king or should I wait for more?”
“I am not yelling at my king; I am yelling at my brother.” Folding her arms across her chest, she declared, “I'm bloody sick of kings.”
This time Jon laughed freely as he confessed, “As am I.” Taking a breath, he confessed, “I never wanted to be a king any more than you wanted to be a princess. I was supposed to be the bastard on the Wall and you...Well, I don't think Father ever quite figured out what he was going to do with you. But whether we want to be or not, this is who we are now, and there are things which are expected, traditions which cannot be changed. And if our father had lived, if Lady Stoneheart had remained Catelyn, neither would have wanted to see you with a bastard blacksmith, even if that bastard is the son of Robert Baratheon.”
Arya looked up from the floor. “So it's true then? King Robert was really his father?”
Jon nodded knowledgeably. “There is still a heavy ransom on his head, for any of Robert's bastards. Cersei is afraid of any legitimate claim, almost as afraid as Stannis is; if one of Robert's bastard marches into King's Landing, the spitting image of Robert, it'll prove Tommen is not Robert's son. And it would push back Stannis in succession as well, which Melisandre will never allow.”
“But only if he is legitimized, the way Robb legitimized you,” Arya pointed out.
“Precisely.” Jon shook his head sadly. “I like Gendry, I do; when he first came here, I used to bother him endlessly to hear tales of your time together because I missed you so much. And he is useful here, both as a blacksmith and a soldier.”
“What are you not saying?”
“If you want to be his wife, I will legitimize him. I will declare him to be Gendry Baratheon, the legitimate son of Robert, which gives him ample claim to the Iron Throne, more right than anyone else in fact. But when I do that, when I do for him what Robb did for me, it will place a target upon his head we will not be able to erase.”
“Gendry does not want to be king though,” Arya objected. “All he wants is to work in the forge.”
“It will not matter to Cersei or Stannis or even the Dragon Queen. Baratheon is a powerful name and Westeros has a very long memory.”
Nervousness churning in her stomach, she asked, “Have you...Have you asked him what he'd like to have happen?”
Jon smiled sadly. “It is like you said: Gendry has no desire to ever wear a crown. I have made the offer to legitimize him before, and he has always said no, that he would rather live in relative peace as Gendry Waters. But that was before you came back, before he realized he would need a real name if he ever hoped to wed you.”
“Did everyone know he wanted to wed me but me?!” Arya exploded in frustration, sending Jon into peals of laughter.
“The question is not whether or not he wants to wed you. The question is: do you wish to wed him?”
Arya got to her feet, beginning to pace the floor of her room. “I never thought...I never wanted to get married! I wanted to be in Robb's Kingsguard or be a Faceless Man, anything but a stupid lady! And I did not think - “
“You did not think what?”
Shrugging, she finished, “I did not think anyone would ever want to marry me.”
Coming to stand before her, Jon softly laid his hands upon her shoulders. “Sometimes you are the oldest and youngest person I have ever known all at the same time.” Kissing her on the forehead, he said, “Gendry told me he will accept whatever you decide. If you want me to declare him a Baratheon, he is prepared to accept the consequences which come from it. But if you want to keep him safe with a bastard's name, he said he will accept that as well.” Smiling sadly, pain and nostalgia filling his eyes, Jon declared, “It is very rare you get to find someone who loves you no matter the circumstances, and rarer still to find someone who is willing to put aside their safety for that love. We all deserve a little happiness, Arya.”
She could not sleep after Jon left. Arya tossed and turned in her bed, trying to decide what she wanted, hating how both Gendry and Jon put this upon her while simultaneously yelling at herself for finally being given control of her life only to have it be control she didn't want. Irritated and feeling trapped, she sprung from her bed, putting on her boots and wrapping her heavy cloak around her shoulders.
It was surprisingly easy to sneak out of the castle, even in her nightclothes; the snow was falling rapidly now, several inches having accumulated in the past hours, but even in a blizzard, Arya would have been able to find the forge. As she slipped inside, shaking the snow from her long, loose hair, Arya exhaled gratefully at the ever present warmth of the room. Toeing off her boots, Arya moved towards the back of the forge, to the room she knew Gendry lived in, when suddenly Gendry was blocking her way, his heavy hammer in hand.
“Seven hells, Arya!” he gasped, setting the hammer down. “I thought you were a thief!”
“What kind of thief comes in the front door and takes off their boots?”
Shaking his head, Gendry said, “You shouldn't be here. You know what Greatjon is going to do to me if anyone finds you here in the middle of the night? I'd much prefer to not have to live the rest of my life as a eunuch.”
Unfastening her cloak, making it clear she was not going anywhere, Arya took a step towards him. “Why didn't you tell me you wanted me?”
Gendry was quiet for a moment before sighing, “Because I didn't think you wanted me, not the way a woman wants a man. At least...not until this afternoon.”
Arya blushed, dropping her gaze for a moment before resolutely looking him in the eye. Forcing steel into her voice, she declared, “I will never be a proper lady. I will not wear gowns or call you 'my lord' or put down my sword. And I do not know if I want to have children or if I even want to remain in Westeros when the war is done, so if these aren't terms you can agree to - “
“If those were the traits I was looking for in a wife, I would want to marry Sansa.” Gendry smiled tenderly as he softly brushed a lock of hair from her face. “I know who you are, Arya.”
The tears filled her eyes so quickly, it made the world blur. Arry, Weasel, the Ghost of Harrenhal, Nan, She-wolf, Salty, Cat of the Canals, No one, Beth...She had been so many people in the past six years, shedding her skin like a snake, making sure no one ever knew who she was. To hear Gendry state so matter-of-factly he knew who she was, woke the piece of her heart she swore had hardened the day her father's head rolled down the steps of the Great Sept before a cheering crowd.
She shivered when Gendry kissed her this time, her hands resting against his broad chest before slipping into his dark hair; their mouths met hungrily, the heat of Gendry's hands scorching even through the thin material of her nightdress, and Arya idly wondered as she allowed him to walk her backwards towards his chamber if this was how girls became ruined: with sweet touches and heated kisses.
Nothing which feels this good can ruin you, Arya decided as she pulled at Gendry's shirt, suddenly desperate to feel his skin, her body alight with a sensation she could not identify but certainly did not want to end. Gendry moaned into her moan as she pushed his shirt up before pulling away, gasping.
“You have to go,” Gendry panted, holding up his hand when Arya attempted to move closer.
A pained expression crossing his face, he explained, “Because if you don't, Greatjon is going to geld me in the morning.”
Arya smiled as she pushed his hand out of the way, slipping her arms around his neck once again. “I'll protect you.”
It was strange, Arya mused as Gendry sat upon his bed, Arya straddling him upon his lap, how her body seemed to know what to do even when her brain did not. Somehow she knew to twist her hips against the hardness between her thighs, to push her breasts in Gendry's hands without consciously deciding to do so; it felt as if wildfire was alight in her blood, like her body was building towards something better and Arya was desperate to find out how to make that happen.
Gendry groaned as her hand began to fumble with his laces before begging, “Be sure, Arya. If you do not - “
She swallowed the rest of his words before murmuring against his lips, “Do you know how?”
Pushing up into her hand, still tugging at the laces, he managed, “Yes but...”
A brilliant blush filled his cheeks. “I've only ever...On my 18th name day, Tom and Lem...It was just the one time, and I'll never - “
“I know you won't.” Smirking as she slipped her hand into his breeches, under the edge of his smallclothes, she added, “Else it won't be Greatjon who gelds you.”
Arya trembled as Gendry pulled her nightdress over her head, leaving her only in her smallclothes, her long, dark hair tumbling over her shoulders. As he laid her back against his pillow, Arya watched with wide eyes as he stripped down to his skin; she had seen men undressed before but never like this. When he hooked his fingers into the band of her smallclothes, Arya felt nervousness and fear flicker through her, and Gendry froze.
“Do you want to stop?”
Voice failing her, Arya shook her head, lifting her hips to help him along; when she was bare, Gendry paused, kneeling at the foot of his bed, his eyes drinking her in. Instantly she felt the urge to cover herself, more from self-consciousness than modesty; though Arya knew she was no longer Arya Horseface, that she was a pretty girl, she was nowhere near as beautiful as Sansa or as curvacious as the innkeeper's daughter. In the past, Arya's only concern for her body was practicality; she needed to be strong, lithe, and always ready in case of attack. When men saw her, they saw No One, just as she had been trained to let them see, and now, as Gendry's bright blue eyes trailed over her body with its lean muscle and handful of scars, Arya wondered if mayhaps she should have cared as much as Sansa did about appearances.
“I used to dream about this,” Gendry revealed as he slid his hands up her legs, over her knees, caressing the soft skin of her inner thighs. “Even when we were at Harrenhal, I used to have dreams of what this would be like. You were older and would come to the forge...”
“What happened next?” she asked, sharply inhaling through her nose as Gendry brushed his lips against the curve of her stomach, wetly pressing kisses up her torso, stopping to linger at her breasts.
His breath was hot against her face as he settled atop her, bracing his weight on his elbows, his lips curling into a secret smile. “I would wake up, and you'd be gone.”
Shifting her hips, moaning as he pressed against where she was neediest, Arya confessed, “I dreamed of you too.”
There was only a pinch of pain as Gendry slid inside of her, less than a sting of a practice sword, but it still drew a gasp from Arya's lips, more from the newness of the feeling; Gendry exhaled shakily against her shoulder between whispers of her name and words she could not make out. When he slowly withdrew to push forward again, there was no pain at all, only a warm rush of pleasure; she moved her hips to meet his as he repeated the motion, and, judging from the moan it wrenched from his chest, Arya assumed this was what she was supposed to do.
It's like sparring, she realized as she drew up her legs to frame Gendry's hips, trying to brace her feet to allow her to move more, needing to exert herself. Give and take. Push and pull. It's like water dancing.
That feeling for earlier was returning sharper, a pressure building in her stomach, and Arya began to move her hips in a quicker tempo, clutching Gendry's shoulders as she strove for the mystery just out of reach. As Gendry rushed to match her rhythm, Arya felt tears of frustration welling in her eyes, teetering on a precipice but unable to grasp what was just out of reach.
She gasped his name, lifting one leg to wrap around his body, and, at the plaintive sound to her voice, Gendry stilled his hips, shifting their bodies apart enough for him to fit his hand between them. Before she could ask why he was stopping, he pressed against the place where they were joined, his fingers rubbing a quick, circular pattern which made every muscle in Arya's body tighten before the sharpest pleasure she had ever known exploded throughout her body.
Gendry cried out as she pulsed around him, thrusting a few more times before groaning into her tangled hair, filling her with his seed. As they both struggled to catch their breath, sweat cooling on their bodies, Arya absently stroked Gendry's back, her body sporadically trembling with aftershocks of pleasure. Gendry kissed her neck, the hinge of her jaw, before finding her mouth, his lips soft and sweet against hers.
“I love you,” he swore.
“I love you,” she returned, feeling the strangest sense of loss as he slipped from her body, shifting his body to spare her his bulk.
They laid together twice more before Arya knew she had to return to the castle. She quickly gathered her clothing, trying to fix her hair so as not to hint to anyone what she had been doing if caught; Gendry watched her with hungry eyes, and she ordered him to stop if he didn't want Greatjon to carry through with his promise.
“I will tell the King that I want legitimacy when he wakes,” Gendry announced as Arya forced her feet into her boots. “We'll marry before we march on King's Landing.”
Arya nodded, not wanting to think of the upcoming battle when they were like this, when she was happy. “Then I shall see you after.”
The halls of the castle were quiet as Arya sneaked back to her chamber, silent as a ghost. As she shed her boots and cloak, she noticed there was someone asleep beneath her blankets; she was reaching for her dagger when the person shifted, the moonlight illuminating Sansa's auburn locks, and Arya temporarily breathed a sigh of relief before slipping into her bed.
Sansa's sleepy eyes met hers on the pillow. “Did you lay with him?” her sister whispered.
Arya considered lying, sparing herself a lecture, but she did not want to lie when her body was still flush with pleasure. “Yes.”
She expected Sansa to chastise her, to threaten to tell Jon or Bran, but instead Arya watched as her sister's face became unbearably curious, her voice dropping even lower as she asked, “What was it like?”
Arya never considered herself a lady, and she never had a need for her prim and proper sister, but her heart was so full in that moment, Arya found herself confessing everything: Jon's offer, their plans to wed, what it felt like to take Gendry into her body. Sansa listened eagerly, her eyes widening as Arya described the things she and Gendry had done, color rising on Sansa's fair cheeks even as she asked Arya questions, and, when they were both out of words, Arya felt exhaustion start to creep into her body.
As her eyes started to droop closed, Sansa murmured, “You are going to be Arya Baratheon.”
Forcing her eyes open, Arya shook her head. “No. No matter whose wife I am, I will always be Arya Stark.”
It had taken her six years to reclaim that name, and Arya was not going to give it away for anyone, not even Gendry.