When the walls of Winterfell close around her for the first time in ten years, Arya wonders why she doesn't feel relief.
When she discovers that a king and three queens still war within these walls, she begins to understand.
Guards close around them after she says her name, having bitten back no one and Cat and with more than a little effort. Closed faces and guarded eyes stare at her with barely-concealed hostility; they have been fooled before. But their hands are not as rough as some she has known, and Gendry is a bastion beside her, tall and steely and steady with cool confidence where she feels only rage and loss. She is reminded, not for the first time, of her father. Gendry wears the North well.
There is a woman standing in the Great Hall when they are escorted roughly through the towering wooden doors: a woman tall and beautiful and the very embodiment of the word grace. A narrow band of iron encircles her brow, but Arya sees only the lines of her mother's face in this woman, this stranger who had been her sister, and when they collapse to their knees tight in each others' arms and the tears come at last, she feels her mother's strength as well.
Their tears give way to smiles soon enough, and then Arya looks up, with a prickle at the back of her neck and the hair raising on her arms. And there they stand, the wild wild wolf and his wild wild boy, all shuffling feet and long limbs and wary looks and shaggy hair draped over their eyes. She hugs them both, and is startled to find that her head falls at Rickon's shoulder now. He smells of trees and ice and North, a true North that makes her feel strangely clipped and tamed by comparison.
She is not the only one the winter has changed.
Still, the stones and the very earth ache with uneasiness and upheaval, as the Dragon Queen and the Stag Queen circle each other warily on this, their parley ground, and the Queen Wolf of Winter looks on, silent and watchful, with the dark dual faces of her littlest brother in the shadows adding weight to her gaze. The fresh-fallen spring snows leave little enough evidence of their battles with the dead (hard-fought and hard won with devastating cost) but now that the common enemy is vanquished, the question of the throne and the future of a continent is visible again in sharp relief against the snow.
The king is conspicuously absent at the tense dinner welcoming the other daughter of Winterfell home, and after, when they are curled under blankets and furs in their parents' chambers, Sansa tells her why. There is a fourth queen, she whispers, a priestess of shadow and flame, and it is she who sits at his bedside as he wastes away, too weak to stand, too fevered to speak coherently. They burn together, Sansa tells her, and Arya wonders if they will gutter out together, too, one with too little life to sustain his body, and the other with too much life for her skin to hold.
When Arya has almost drifted to sleep, her sister's hand on her arm pulls her back. "Who is he?" Sansa asks softly. "The man who came here with you. I feel I recognize his face, but I'm certain we've never met."
The ebbing flames in the fireplace cast a soft amber glow over the room. Arya closes her eyes. "No one," she whispers back, though they both know it for a lie. "He's just a bastard boy I knew a thousand years ago. We - we kept each other safe."
Sansa smiles, her eyes soft and knowing, and Arya wonders what secrets of her own she has hidden behind them.
Arya finds him hovering at the door to the forge the next morning, his fingers and jaw twitching every time the man standing over the flames swings awry. And when the page finds them there and recites his orders to fetch Gendry to Stannis Baratheon's chambers, Arya sticks herself to Gendry's side like a burr and refuses to let the guards at the door dislodge her. Time to learn once and for all what a king and two king's Hands wanted with a bastard.
They find the man who would be king sitting upright in his bed, his skin stretched tight over hollow cheeks and sharp bone, eyes alight with fever and flame and something else, something Arya mislikes. She, who can only be the priestess, is draped over a chair beside him, red and red and red, her scent alive with hints of a distant land Arya has almost forgotten. Her eyes lock on them when they enter, and Arya holds them as they approach: a measure, a challenge. When she smiles, Arya isn't sure who has won.
"I know you, little wolf," she says. "I saw your coming before you knew it yourself. And I know what you have brought home to your father's roof." Her eyes flicker to Gendry and Arya's hand shoots to his wrist, unrepentant possessiveness clawing its way up her chest and into her throat. "It is by the God's hand that you have arrived here now, at the end of all things."
Gendry tugs away from her grip only to wrap his fingers around hers, and suddenly her feet are planted firmly on the ground again. Her roots run deep here, she remembers, and fire can only scorch the surface of the earth. But before she can refute the words, Stannis is speaking.
"I believed my regrets and my brothers long buried. And yet here you stand, a ghost. A testament to my failings." His voice is the voice of a dead man, as hollow and thin as his cheeks. "And the girl. How apt, is it not? How little the seed strays from the tree in the end, no matter how ill-sown."
"Your Grace." Gendry spits the honorific out like poison. "I'm a simple man with no mind for riddles. What is it you would have of me?"
His words are met with silence. The king stares at their faces like a man lost, and after a moment the priestess bends her head over his hand and whispers prayers in a tongue Arya recognizes but does not know. She is holding him here, Arya realizes, and her stomach twists at the thought.
"What my father is too proud to say, my lord, is that he needs you." The voice comes from the far corner of the darkened room, where a girl sits half shrouded in shadow, unnoticed and silent until this instant.
"Who are you?" Arya demands of her, unsure if her senses are dulled or if the girl, too, has some weirding power.
"I am the last trueborn child of House Baratheon," the girl replies, unfolding her legs and standing with a soft rustle of skirts. "But I cannot give my name to my husband, and I would not have it die with my father."
The faintest hint of a smile threatens to cross Stannis Baratheon's face, and the priestess raises her head and draws a ragged breath, her eyes fever-filmed and the gem at her throat alight.
"My daughter cannot carry on my name," Stannis affirms, his eyes flickering to her for the briefest of moments. His voice might be weak but it does not waver. "My line dies with me. Three hundred years of House Baratheon, only to wither and die now. I once thought the boy – but he is beyond my reach. You must do."
"I must do what, your Grace?"
"Carry on. Carry on the name of my House."
Gendry's grip on her hand is so tight her fingers are going numb. "You came with Lord Arryn to question me when I was in King's Landing," he says. "Why?"
"Because you are his son. I desired to see it with mine own eyes, and there was no denying it. Less now that you are a man grown and his very image."
"Whose?" Gendry's voice is low and tight, full of measured wrath, and Arya fears that the two of them will curl into a spiral and break.
"Robert's. God help me, you are Robert's son: his eldest and his last but one."
Arya doesn't realize that Gendry has bolted for the door until she feels the jerk on her arm. She follows close at his heels with her fingers threaded tight through his until she realizes her hasn't the faintest idea where he's going. He's just running, running, running and this she understands, this she knows something about. She digs in her heels until he stops, and though his breath is coming ragged she knows it isn't from exertion. She tugs and coaxes and leads him down a corridor and up stone steps, finally pushing into the room that had once belonged to a little girl with a wolf and a sword and the world at her feet.
She sits on the edge of the bed, the scent of fresh-laundered linens and thick furs roughening her throat. She remains motionless as he paces her floors, doesn't speak as he knocks his head against the cool frosted window, doesn't look away when he bloodies his knuckles, just once, on the hard grey stone of her walls.
When his fury is spent, he wanders back to her, uncertain, lost. And this, too, she knows. So, when he sinks to his knees and drops his head in her lap, she doesn't let the startled jerk in her stomach pull her away. Her hand finds its way into his thick black hair, and she rubs the strands between her fingers, marveling at the softness and unfamiliar intimacy of the moment.
"I don't want this," he whispers to her. "I never wanted this."
She pulls him up beside her and turns his hand over in hers. "It doesn't have to change anything," she tells him, her second lie in as many days, but he seems grateful to hear it.
The next morning, Sansa finds them curled around each other on top of the furs, still in boots, cloaks, and all. Her lips tighten for a moment, but she makes no comment as Arya coughs and Gendry stumbles red-cheeked from the bed with apologies and pardons falling from his lips. But she holds a piece of paper tight in her hand with Stannis Baratheon's spindly scrawl visible upon it, and her voice is that of a queen when she bids them to follow her to her solar. It is done, Arya realizes, and wonders if she should feel more guilt for bringing this upon him or for the hope that it has planted in her breast.
When they arrive, Shireen Baratheon stands ramrod straight before the roaring fire, and Arya is more than a little startled to see that her hand is buried deep in the fur at Shaggydog's shoulder. She turns when they enter, dwarfed by the dire wolf at her side, and the fire catches dully on the dark skin of her cheek and neck. Rickon is perched on the edge of the map desk, turning a blade over and over in his hands. His eyes never still, but flick from face to face, corner to corner, watching. Arya thinks she catches a smile when his gaze meets hers ever so briefly, but it is gone before she can be sure. And then Sansa is speaking and her attention is diverted.
Arya does not need to be told that they are both dead, the king and his priestess queen. They had been all she could see in her dreams: lying together on the bed, a wild blaze licking at tinder and sucking the air until nothing remained but ashes.
Arya cannot say if Shireen Baratheon feels grief for her father, but they all know that this is not the time for mourning.
"My mother wants me on the throne," the girl says without preamble. "She would have me challenge Daenerys Targaryen for right to rule. She would have another war." Her dark blue eyes flicker briefly between Rickon and Sansa, and then settle on Gendry. "I do not want the throne," she says to him fiercely, this girl who is his cousin. "It is poison. You are Robert's son, trueborn now by writ of my father's hand. If you want the throne -- take it. Take it or let the Dragon queen have it uncontested; it is nothing to me. Either way, I will not let the hunger for power burn any away any more of my family, my life, no matter how justified the claim may be."
"Take it?" Gendry sputters scornfully. "What would I do with a throne besides make it a mockery and decorate it with my blood? No. I put King's Landing to my back years ago, and I'll be happy if I never lay eyes on it again. Leave it to the dragons." He glances down at Arya briefly, before concluding, "My place is in the North." The finality in his voice seems to resonate in the very walls of Sansa's solar, Arya thinks, vibrating in the stone and wood and her heart.
Something like approval softens Shireen's gaze for a moment. "As is mine, I find. Very well. Your Grace?"
A tiny smile plays at the edges of Sansa's lips. "I believe Daenerys Targaryen will find the idea acceptable. She is already much more pleasant to negotiate with now that the pressure of the situation has been somewhat... alleviated. There will, of course, be the matter of the Stormlands. If the two of you plan to remain here..."
"That shall be settled when our messages reach Edric in Lys," Shireen assures her. "I am sure he will be more than pleased to return to his home."
"And so the Queen in the South shall find herself with valuable allies in the North and the Stormlands," Sansa affirms.
And just like that, the war is won.
Another spring snow is falling in the godswood when Gendry finds her there in the waning light of evening. The stark white of it in his black hair is absurdly distracting, but when she reaches up to brush it away she only succeeds in pulling him closer.
He doesn't seem to mind.
The leaves of the weirwood whisper above them, and when Gendry kisses her at last, Arya fancies she can feel their roots sinking deeper and tangling into the ancient wholeness of the North.