Arya was only a slip of a girl the last time he saw her, when Ned had called him down from the Wall for the King’s visit to Winterfell. She’d been skinny and more boyish than Sansa, but just the sight of his niece had twisted something in Benjen’s gut that had the lingering feel of Lyanna, of his own wild, grey-eyed sister.
Ned had been happy to see him and Benjen’s journey earned more attention and supplies for the Watch, but being at Winterfell had been painful in the way that old injuries are painful. He’d ridden out from the visit with a slow ache in his chest that was his sister and Brandon and most of the things Benjen had ever loved. It has been many years since then. His brother had become Hand to the King, Jon had joined the Watch during the interim, Sansa had gone south for a marriage, and Bran had become a page for his uncle Brynden Tully in the Vale.
When Benjen arrives at Winterfell this time, only Catelyn, Robb, Arya and Rickon are present to greet him. Robb sports a beard and Rickon has started to shoot up like a weed, but it is Arya that has grown the most. She’s happy to see him, he can tell, but it’s plain that the absence of her brother Jon Snow is a disappointment to her.
“He’s ranging,” Benjen explains to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. Up close, Arya looks so like Lyanna at the same age. He greets the boys and makes courtesies to Catelyn, but it’s his niece that dominates Benjen’s thoughts. All through dinner Arya asks him questions about Jon while Rickon demands stories about the wildlings, but it’s Benjen who is the most curious of all.
Is there some part of Lyanna locked up inside you? He wonders, drinking from his cup of wine, his eyes on this girl who is both his niece and his sister at the same time.
Benjen meets with Robb the next day, detailing the plans his Lord Commander has developed over the course of winter. The snows are just as deep at Winterfell as they are at the Wall, the winds just as harsh, and he thinks that everyone will be happy when spring comes again.
They meet in what is usually Ned’s solar and the absence of his older brother is a subdued reminder of just how much things have changed. Robb will always remain something of a boy in Benjen’s eyes, but he’s certain that his nephew will make a good lord someday, as good as his father. While they are still talking, maps and lists of accounts spread out on the table, Arya enters the solar with a wooden practice sword fastened to her hip, her lower lip between her teeth.
“Do you have time for dancing?” she asks, glancing at Robb like she expects to be rejected. The wooden sword conjures old memories of play fighting in the godswood, teaching his sister how to stand and block and challenge her opponent. Before his nephew can make some kind of excuse to deny her, Benjen smiles at the pair of them and rolls up the papers.
“You should go,” he says, trying to encourage Robb despite the uncertain look the boy wears. “The Watch isn’t going to disappear while you’re gone.”
Chuckling, that gets Robb to rise from his chair and follow his sister. Arya’s uninhibited smile licks over him like a warm fire, easing a tightly furled part of his chest that has been frozen for years. Dizzily, Benjen notes that Arya is dressed in men’s breaches that show the lean form of her legs, her dark hair braided in a plat down her back. Her quick gray eyes shatter the restraint he’s clung to since Lyanna’s death, sparking all kinds of thoughts in him that an uncle should not have about his niece.
Once the door is closed behind Robb and Arya, Benjen leans his elbows on his knees, his brow furrowed while snow piles up around Winterfell. He can see it on the ledge outside the small, diamond-paned window, on the crevices in the stones and in the beards of men huddled in their furs and boots outside, encasing their entire world in white. Arya’s sharp gray eyes seem to follow his every move.
The chambers that Lady Catelyn awards him are not the ones from his boyhood, but they are warm and well furnished, much nicer than any of the living quarters at the Wall.
Benjen stokes the fire and nearly misses the sound of a knock at the door, as close as he is to the crackling flames. Who he expects to be waiting for him, he isn’t sure, but Arya is not part of the possibilities he thinks of in the moment before his hand closes around the latch. Yet there she stands, her swift, smoky colored wolf at her side.
“I thought we could talk,” Arya offers, though she’s dressed more for bed than visiting with men. They may be kin, but Benjen knows her mother would be wroth with her for being so improper, for seeking out a man at night while she is just at marrying age. But Arya has never cared for what is proper or allowed; he realizes that he shouldn’t truly be surprised that she’s come to see him.
He smiles despite himself, shows her inside and offers her the warm place by the fire. The whole time he watches Arya a faint uneasiness creeps through him, but it’s milder than everything else Benjen feels, drowned out by his innumerable competing emotions. My niece, he thinks, but the words flutter and die in his chest, stomped to ashes by the look in her eyes.
“Tell me about the Wall,” she says, and he knows she is not looking for the type of stories he’d shared with Rickon a dinner, tales of adventure where all the good men live. Arya is looking for something else, but if she hopes to hear of Jon Snow she doesn’t mention it, watching absently pet her direwolf behind the ears while he thinks on how to form a reply.
Because she asked, and because so few people truly ask, Benjen opens up to her. He tells Arya of the ranging he’d gone on that had lasted over two years, how he’d gotten lost and suffered major injuries and nearly died of starvation, of the cold, of so many things. Sometimes it seems absurd that he’s still alive. He tells her that too, and Arya shares a smile that says she understands, seriousness in her expression.
As she is digesting what he’s told her Benjen realizes what is so different about his niece, what he has somehow missed during his entire visit. Arya is not only older, with the form of a woman and the stance of someone young and strong, but sadder, like something has been taken away from her too soon.
“Have there ever been women in the Watch?” she finally asks, not looking at him, her bottom lip between her teeth.
Benjen is seized by the mad urge to lean forward and take her face in his hands, to kiss her pretty mouth and ask what the world did to her to make her so miserable, but he stays rooted to his chair, awareness tingling through his fingers.
“Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” she replies, a lie if he has ever heard one. Her question reminds him of how Lyanna used to always threaten that one day she was going to run away and become a wildling. In a way his sister finally did, and it’s then that he understands his niece, sees himself written all over her cold eyes and her closed-off expression.
“Arya, I know what it’s like to be left behind,” Benjen says, leaning toward her. The air feels hot and thick but the fire has burned low, casting long shadows on Arya’s features, making her look older than she is. He’s not sure who closes the distance first, but eventually he is kissing her, soft and hesitant in the beginning until he realizes that Arya has done this before. She runs her hands over his features, feeling his nose and his eyes and his lips, staring at him intently despite the gaping neckline of her shift and the chill in the room.
If she’s looking for something, she doesn’t share what it is with him, but Arya lets him lead her over to the bed, twisting her hands in his tunic and quickly shrugging off her clothes.
In the dimming light of the fire they could be any two people, someone other than uncle and niece, someone younger, or older. When she pulls him on top of her and moves her hands below his waist Benjen takes solace in the fact that she has obviously done this before, has given everything to someone who deserves it more than him. He closes his eyes and covers Arya’s mouth with his own, determined not to think on what they’re doing, on what Ned would say, on his nephew Jon Snow, on anything at all.
Benjen leaves Winterfell on a blustery morning, squinting against the glare of the sun on the harsh white snow. Rickon is still asleep and Robb looks like he would rather be in bed himself, but Catelyn and Arya give him a proper goodbye, with kind words and promises of future visits.
As his horse is being saddled, the same mount he rode on during his trip here from the Wall, Benjen takes Arya aside, squeezing her arm in silent acknowledgement.
“It is not unheard of for families to turn up at the Wall. You wouldn’t be the first girl to miss her older brother,” he assures her.
Catelyn has already ducked inside the castle, having little tolerance for northern weather, and Robb has tactfully given them space. The yard is near deserted so early in the morning, letting them speak as freely as they choose.
“Perhaps I’ll run away and become a wildling,” Arya says, not knowing that the words break his heart just to hear them.
Benjen smiles at her and kisses her hand like they are a lord and a lady instead of a sad girl and a man of the Night’s Watch.
“Then we’d see each other just as often,” he jokes.
He hopes that he has made it easier for her, even just a little. The sun climbs higher in the morning sky as the stable boy hands him the reins, Arya’s face impassive as he rides off. Benjen is less composed, squaring his jaw against the elements, riding toward a place that is even colder while his thoughts tangle in the silence. It occurs to him that Arya is stronger than them all, that she will not let this permeate her in the way that he has allowed.
With the cold stiffening his limbs and the wind cutting his skin, Benjen can only hope he’s guessed it correctly. The landscape offers no answers except those he’s grown accustomed to—ice, sky, cold—the fruits of winter. The memory of Arya’s warmth slips away from him like a dream, lost beneath the snow until spring.