It was dark, and it was late. The summer sun had set, but the light was still on in her room. Four months ago, someone would have come upstairs and hurried the girl into bed, tucking her in, turning off the light, and wishing her pleasant dreams. Four months ago, the girl's 'beauty sleep' would have been important. Making sure she went to bed at a reasonable hour would have been important. But that was four months ago. Now, it was all anyone could do to get up in the morning – no one slept well anyway.
The girl had her laptop on and open, and was sitting at her desk looking intently at a web page, as if it were a maths problem needing to be solved. A soft knock sounded at the door.
'Come in, Robb,' the girl said. Her second-favourite brother's face appeared in the doorway. He slipped into the room, closing the door after him.
'What are you doing?' he asked her, but gently. Not like her mother would. Her mother seemed to have no gentleness left in her these days.
'Ahh,' she replied. 'I am trying to figure out how to get into this internship programme.'
'What's the issue? Why not just submit an application?' He asked.
Footsteps sounded on the stairway, and the door opened without any pause for knocking.
'Arya! Do you have my silver bracelet?' Sansa cried, looking around. 'God, your room is disgusting.' With patience at odds with her sixteen years, Arya replied, 'No, I do not have your bracelet, and I believe you know I wouldn't wear your stupid bracelet anyway. Try Rickon's room.' Their youngest brother seemed to have a penchant for playing pirate these days, and would plunder his siblings' rooms to create treasure chests composed of costume jewelry, cutlery, and various electronics.
Sansa whirled around and left abruptly, not wishing to provoke a confrontation while Robb was there. Alone, she might have happily bullied Arya, but Robb was older and didn't suffer that sort of nonsense.
Robb smiled. 'Your room really is...'
'Schizophrenic?' she supplied.
'Yeah, that covers it.' They smiled. For Arya's room, in the garrett of the house, benefited much from its sloping walls and interesting nooks and crannies. A fireplace roared to life when she needed it: the central oil-fired heating didn't quite extend up this far, and in winter, the stone walls of the house sucked away the warm, replacing it with the damp. Mother and daughter, in an epic battle of wills, had each attempted to assert their own aesthetic style within the room, resulting in a standoff. White, shabby chic furniture and sweet florals competed with martial arts heroes and heavy metal antiheroes. Every day, Arya made it a point of honour to pick off a small piece of wallpaper. When the hole left by her ministrations became apparent, another poster would go up to cover it. Legend had it that a medieval king had been imprisoned in that very room: it wasn't supposed to be pretty.
On one of Arya's nice white dressers, which had been fashioned rather recently, but had been endowed with the requisite dents and scrapes to make it old-looking, there lay a heavy-looking, black canvas bag with leather trim. It looked as though it had seen some wear, and under Arya's care it had gone grey with dust.
'You haven't touched Da's camera,' Robb said softly, reproachfully.
'Right, well...' Arya's voice died as she thought of her father. Neither of them could speak for a second, but Arya returned to the web page. 'See, I thought this would get me into it.'
'What's the problem, then?' Robb asked.
'Well, it's just that he has so many criteria, and I don't fit any of them,' Arya said, dejectedly. 'I have to be eighteen, I have to be located in London, I have to have a brilliant portfolio of work, and then there's the weird one: I have to be a boy.'
'A boy?' Robb said, surprised. 'How can he do that? In this day and age?'
'I know, but he is who he is, and he can make his own rules, I guess.' Arya responded. 'The worst of it is that I want to go and work for and learn loads about photography from a full-on sexist.'
'I'm rather curious now: does he want his interns to go into war zones with him or summat? Does he like young boys' said Robb. 'But you know, Arya, you could get in. As a boy. You look like –OOOF,' Robb stopped, as Arya punched him in the stomach.
'Look,' she cried. 'I know I'm not like Sansa, fantasising night and day about boys, nail varnish, and whether my hair is glossy enough, but I'm still a girl! I'm just not an airhead.'
Robb reached down and hugged his little sister. 'I know all of this, and yes, Sansa reminds me of a 1950s housewife. A total Stepford wife in training. Google it,' he sighed, as she shot a blank look up at him.
'But the fact remains that you're the sporty one, you're the one who always wears jeans and climbs trees, and you have four brothers: well, five including Theon. If you can't act like a guy, no one can.' Wisely, Robb left off what was on the tip of his tongue to say, which was that Arya was not yet 'woman-shaped.'
Arya, who had been preparing to take great umbrage at Robb's words, began to find them sensible. 'Maybe I should, you know? I mean, if he had offered anything else – a normal workshop or class. Something I could take as ME, then I would go and do that. But there's nothing. He never teaches, and the internship programme doesn't come up very often.'
Robb gathered Arya's hair into a ponytail and waggled it in front of her face until she laughed. 'You'd have to cut your hair, you know.'
'Yeah, first thing I thought of. OK, I'm gonna ask Jon.'
'You do that, little sister. I bet he'll agree. Say hi for me, and don't stay up too late.' With that, Robb gave her a quick hug and left to find his own bed.
Jon, her eldest brother, was the furthest from her in both age and blood, for he was 24 and only her half-brother. But they were closest. Each saw in the other the slight outcast, the misfit, the one who didn't quite fall into perfect step as the other Starks did, seemingly effortlessly. Physically, they resembled each other more than they resembled the other Starks: both having dark hair in a sea of blonde-red.
Jon was her trusted confidant: he defended her against her mother, and she, in turn, would defend him against her mother's retaliation. Everyone saw that Catelyn Stark did not quite love Jon as much as the children she herself bore. Everyone saw that her anger, when turned on Jon, was slightly more vicious. He received slightly less of every good thing from her, and slightly less credit, or benefit of the doubt, and so forth. But his siblings took that and gave him slightly more of everything to compensate. He was the leader, and all his half-brothers and half-sisters gave to him the best they had.
He always had time for Arya. Sometimes she'd send text messages to him in the middle of the night, and he would shake himself out of the blear of sleep in order to respond to her.
'How's work,' she texted, lying in her bed.
'Same old same old,' he responded.
'That old guy retire and give you his job yet?'
'Patience... what's up, anyway?'
Arya sent him the url to the internship programme, and Jon fired back almost immediately, with 'this is amazing! He never takes interns or apprentices!'
'Look at the fine print.'
'Hmm. I assume u have a plan?'
'Honestly, I was talking to Robb, and he came up w/ the idea of disguising myself as a boy. Seems half-cocked, doesn't it? I wanted to talk to u. Robb says hi btw.'
'Hallo to Robb. Yeah, it sounds nutty but u could pull it off. ur not Sansa, who would be shocked and appalled, not to mention incapable.'
'Yeah, she'd be rubbish, wouldn't she?' Arya giggled as she imagined it.
'Complete rubbish. So, use my address. Portfolio?'
'I only have pics I've taken of you all.'
'And Da, no?'
'Yeah, I have those. But I don't think I can use them.' Arya was thankful, not for the first time, for the emotionless quality of texting.
'You have to use them.'
Arya bid Jon good night, and lay in her bed. The single tear that had fallen when Jon mentioned the photographs she had taken of their father had fast become a trickle, and soon she was sobbing earnestly into her pillow. She viciously blew her nose on a corner of the bedspread: its green leafy background with embroidered bold red roses in stark bas-relief. She hated it.
Sleep overtook Arya, and with sleep came dreams. She dreamed of the photographer, his face blurred and unfathomable, for no matter where she looked on his site and the internet as a whole, she could not find his face. The photos she'd taken of her father were strewn about her in this dream, as the photographer looked on, analysing them. Keeping some on his light table, throwing many more on the floor. She became frantic, seeing images of her father tossed away like that, casually criticised and thrown down. She picked them up as fast as she could, but they kept falling to the floor, and soon the floor contained far more images than she could possibly gather to her, and no matter how she tried to clutch her father's picture to her heart, it would fall away from her to rest on the floor.