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“I want fries.”

He drops his head back against the seat rest and closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to think of something calming. The ocean, maybe. The hiss and crack of flames when he tosses an extra log on the fire. The leftover chicken alfredo Hot Pie made last night that he plans on reheating tonight.

“That’s lovely, Arya.”

He hears her knees scramble against the leather of the back seats, feels the jolt in his seat as she curls her fingers around his head rest and pulls back once.

“I would like for you to take me to the diner.”

“No.”

“Gendry.”

“No, Arya.”

There’s more creaking of leather, a bony elbow in his side, and then Arya is sitting in the seat next to him, having crawled through the narrow space that separates the front of the town car from the back. The back - where she is supposed to remain and sit quietly as he escorts her from the estate, to her dance classes, and back again.

No diner stops.

No fries.

“I have a compromise.”

He squints one eye open and tilts his head to peer at her wearily, knowing already he will more than likely fold. He’s quite a terrible bodyguard, all things considered. He has absolutely no idea why Ned Stark keeps him on the payroll.

“Let’s hear it,” he sighs.

She beams at him, her short hair sticking up wildly from her dance class. She’s wearing her usual black leggings and black tank top, the fabric distractingly tight over the swell of her breasts. He doesn’t know when over the last six years he started noticing the swell of her breasts and the gentle slope of her hips or the curve of her ass, but he’d really like to not. She’s Arya Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North - and thoroughly off limits to the likes of him.

Not to mention he’s her bodyguard, sworn to protect her and her family.

Not to mention she’s his friend - his best friend - and she’d more than likely thoroughly eviscerate him for noticing the - the smattering of freckles that linger just under her collarbone. How they tend to hide when her skin is pink and flushed and -

“ - a happy meal. Gendry, are you listening to me?”

No, I am daydreaming about how your skin flushes pink and wondering just how far down that blush of yours spreads.

He blinks, shakes his head once, and starts the engine of the car. At least she didn’t feel the need to demand his attention with a punch this time. He has enough tiny bruises marring his arms to last him a lifetime.

“Aren’t you a little too old for happy meals, m’lady?”

Her gaze narrows in a glare and her hand shoots out, quick as a whip, to land a punch on his thigh. He winces. She is terribly adept at finding old bruises with her strikes.

“I am 21 years old - ” he winces again, not needing the reminder that she’s a woman grown now, all soft curves instead of the awkward angles she was at 15. “ - which is scientifically proven as not too old for happy meals.”

He can’t help it, he grins. “I think the rules and regulations of the children’s menu might disagree with you.” He watches her from the corner of his eye as he pulls out into traffic, biting the inside of his cheek against his smile. “Though given how short you are - “

She punches him hard on the arm as he snickers under his breath. “You better watch it or I’m going to ask to have you reassigned to Rickon.”

He flicks on the blinker and smoothly makes the left hand turn into the drive-thru. “Who the hell would drive you to get fries, then?”

She smiles happily, relaxing in the seat, thoroughly pleased now that she’s gotten her way. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”

-/-

She leans over him when it’s their turn to place their order, her shoulder digging into his chest and her breasts pressed (terribly, distractingly) against the length of his forearm.

“We’ll have a chicken nugget happy meal, two large fries, a cherry coke and a Dr. Pepper, please.”

He blinks at her as she settles back in the passenger seat. “Quite hungry, are you?”

“You always eat my fries, so I got you your own.” She glances up at him with a cheeky grin from where she’s fumbling through her bag for her wallet. He rolls his eyes at her and tosses her backpack into the back seat before she gets a chance to find it, extending his card to the lady in the window.

He can pay for fries, for god’s sake.

She leans across him again when they’re being handed their bag of food, and asks the preteen in the window gawking at her for some extra hot mustard.

“You don’t like mustard,” he mutters, trying his best not to punch the kid in the window for staring at Arya’s chest and settles for a glare instead. She’s reprimanded him enough over the years for his tendency to punch anything that so much as looks at her twice.

(“Gendry, you can’t just - you can’t hit everyone that tries to talk to me.”

“I thought he was reaching for a weapon.”

“It was a piece of gum, stupid.”

“My mistake.”)

“You like mustard,” she supplies simply, and it’s enough of a distraction to make him forget the kid in the window. He arches an eyebrow at her and she shrugs, popping open her happy meal and setting her feet on the dash.

“What?”

He shakes his head, the car behind him honking for lingering too long. Arya sticks her hand out the window with a rude gesture without missing a beat, and he rolls his eyes.

“You’re gonna be on TMZ again if you keep acting like that.”

She grins around a mouthful of nuggets. “Mother will be thrilled.”

-/-

They’re barely through the front gates of the Winterfell estate before she’s bouncing in her seat, hands wrapped around his arm.

“Want to spar when we get inside?”

“No, I don’t want to spar.” He nods a greeting at Anguy in the security booth as they pass. “I want to get out of this suit and take a nap.”

“You can’t take a nap. The Karstark’s are arriving in a couple hours and I’m sure Beric has you on detail.” He groans. Fuck, he had forgotten about that. “And we both know how grumpy you get when you take short naps.”

“I don’t get grumpy,” he snaps, annoyed that she’s right. He feels off  balance by her today. The thing with the fries and the mustard and the smell of her shampoo lingering in his car - honey or vanilla or something equally detrimental to his being. Maybe sparring isn’t such a bad idea. An outlet for his frustration, at the very least.

He shifts the car into park in the garage, noticing that the rest of the Starks seem to be home for the Karstark's arrival. He spots Jon’s jeep in the corner and Robb’s SUV. Maybe Theon will join them for sparring and he can land a couple hits on the prat. That would certainly make him feel better. “Alright, we can spar. Let me go change and I’ll meet you in the gym.”

She grins at him, wide and toothy, before slipping out of the car and darting into the house, promptly forgetting her bag in the back seat. He grabs it before following after her, turning left where she turned right, heading towards the South Wing where the on-site staff is housed. He had been given a room when Lord Stark first recruited him six years ago - far finer and more spacious than any of the group homes he had been raised in.

(“This is - “ he remembers stammering, young and overwhelmed, his hands clutched tight around his beat up duffle. Everything he owned shoved into one bag. “I can’t - this is too much.”

“Nonsense, lad.” Lord Stark had merely patted him on the shoulder. “You’re a part of our family. You get a room in the house.”)

He has his own apartment now, but still uses this room from time to time, sometimes too tired to make the drive back to his place. Most times just wanting the comfort of voices drifting through the halls - Rickon’s loud laughter, Lord Stark’s somber tone, the sounds of pots and pans in the kitchen - instead of the stillness of his empty apartment. There are spare clothes in the dresser, old band posters from concerts he and Jon went to tacked carefully to the wall.

He makes sure to hang his suit carefully on the back of the door instead of tossing it in the corner like he wants, glancing once back at the bed in longing before slipping into shorts and a t-shirt. He shoulders Arya’s bag and makes his way towards the gym, hearing the bass pounding down the hall well before he wanders through the door. The Lady Stark will likely be right pissed about the music - again - and he knows that’s a significant reason why Arya does it.

She’s nowhere to be seen when he closes the door behind him, but he braces himself, not surprised in the least when someone suddenly jumps on his back. He flips her easily, her slight frame impossibly light as she lands on her back and rolls smoothly to her feet.

She grins at him. “Got ya.”

“I flicked you off like a tiny little flea.” He smiles when she huffs. She hates being reminded how much smaller she is than him. Her head barely reaches his shoulders, and for all her speed and agility, he’s pure strength. He steps left as she moves right, easily blocking her punch when she lunges forward. He traps her arm at her side, doing the same with the other when she immediately reaches up in response.

She kicks his shin and he laughs, releasing her, back to circling one another.

He likes this, likes them like this. The easy flow of it, the give and take. They’ve always worked well together. It’s half the reason why he was the one assigned to her in the first place. That, and he seemed to be the only bodyguard in all of Westeros capable of lasting longer than two weeks putting up with her bullshit.

“Maybe you should be taking boxing lessons instead of your dancing ones.”

She glares at him, spinning into some stupidly graceful deflection when he attempts to land a blow on her torso. He tries to follow, but his feet get tangled beneath him and he stumbles.

“Maybe you should try dance lessons,” she spins forward again and lands a quick one-two series against his shoulder and gut. “You’d look lovely in a tutu.”

They fall into an easy rhythm and sweat begins to gather along his neck the longer they go at it, the base of his spine sore from where she roundhouse kicked him. He doesn't know when she learned that - but he can’t say he hates the way she looks when she’s kicking his ass.

(All flushed cheeks and bright eyes. Her laughter loud when he swings her over his shoulder.)

Soon, though, he’s tired and he tries to call her off. But she’s bloody insistent on her worst day, and his temper is short on his best.

“Come on, ten more minutes.”

She elbows him in the chest before flicking his ear, grinning all the while. He flicks her back and she laughs as she dances around him.  

“I have to shower, Arya. And I’m sure your mother has a pretty dress to stuff you into.”

She groans, lashing out in sudden frustration and kicking him harder than she has all session. He sees red for a moment, and before he’s realized what he’s done, he’s tackled her bodily to the ground, all the air leaving her lungs with the impact of his body against hers on the floor.

She wheezes beneath him, and he leverages himself up onto his palms, trying to keep his weight off her despite their legs being hopelessly tangled. He only manages to press her down further into the floor, and he feels heat in his cheeks when his hips line up with hers.

“Shit, Arry. I’m so - “

Her foot curls over the back of his knee, and in a move that leaves his head spinning, she flips him and pins him to the floor in her place, her thighs settled neatly on either side of his waist. Her fingers curl around his wrists and she presses down against him, hips shifting forward and her - fucking hell - her breasts cushioned against his chest.

“Got ya,” she whispers with a smug smile and she - she’s right. She does. Totally and completely. Because all he feels around him is Arya. All he sees is the gray of her eyes, the sweat that lingers in the dip between her collarbones. All he wants is to crane his neck up the scant inches between them and press his mouth there, taste her on his tongue, feel the way her body moves when she gasps. He wonders if her skin is easy to mark, if she likes the bite of teeth.

The smile slips from her lips, one of her hands sliding slowly from his wrist to his palm until her fingertips graze his. His fingers curl around hers and it’s almost - it’s almost like they’re holding hands. Her hand so small and soft in his, her eyelashes fluttering against her cheeks as she breathes out. It would be so easy for him to tilt his chin up. To catch her lips with his.

“Gendry, I - “

“Waters, I need you on the back lawn tonight.” The door to the gym bangs open and Beric strolls through, looking down at his cellphone and not at the two of them sprawled together on the floor. Arya scrambles off of him, and his cheeks flush darker when her thigh brushes against his cock through the thin material of his gym shorts. “Thoros is nursing a hangover, and - oh, Lady Arya. My apologies, I didn’t see you.”

Beric’s sharp eyes dart to Gendry with a slightly accusatory look that he doesn’t even want to begin to decipher while Arya waves her hand in dismissal, already halfway across the room to where he dropped her backpack earlier. Part of him wants her to look at him, to see if - to see if she - 

To see what, he isn’t quite sure.

She keeps her head down as she ducks out of the gym, a tight smile on her lips and a promise to see them both later tonight thrown over her shoulder. He waves lamely at her retreating back, not bothering to get up from the floor.

“So, back lawn?”

Beric doesn't answer, and Gendry peers open one eye to take in the disapproving stare being shot down at him.

“I think you and I should have a conversation in my office first.”

He groans, drumming his head against the floor.

All he wanted was a nap.

-/-

“You’ve been spending a lot of time with Lady Arya as of late.”

He clenches his fist and then releases it, counts to ten in his head once and then again.

“I’m her assigned protection.”

Beric gives him the same look he did in the gym, all raised eyebrows and thinned lips. “I think you and I both know, lad, that it goes a bit beyond protection.”

He averts his gaze to his knees.

“I know you may have - that you have feelings for the girl, but - “

“I don’t have feelings for her,” he mumbles, content to deny it out loud, if he must. After all, he certainly does enough denying to himself. Most days he’s even so convincing as to tell himself she’s just a phase. Some fixation that he needs to let run its course.

Never mind that it’s been a phase four years running now.

(Never mind that there’s nothing transient about the way he feels when she smiles at him over her cup of coffee in the morning, when she hands him a mug with just enough cream without him having to ask. It’s not temporary, the way he feels, when she curls herself around him in the car, worming her way to the front seat like she always does, her toes tapping on the dash. It’s not a fever for him to sweat out, the way his heart lurches when she laughs at his stupid jokes. When her gaze seeks him out in a crowded room and her gray eyes dance warm and happy and bright.)

“But it’s important to remember your place,” Beric continues, and Gendry feels his stomach drop to his toes. What place does a penniless orphan have with the great Stark family beyond that of the help? He has no father, no mother, no strong family name. He bounced around from group home to group home after the death of his mother, too sullen to be picked for adoption. Later, too angry and violent. Aye, he remember his place well enough. Bastard son of a father who never gave a shit. The kid shoved aside again and again for someone better.

“You do good work here Gendry, one of the best we have. But your job, your duty, is to keep the Stark family safe. Not take the Warden of the North’s daughter on field trips through the drive-thru.”

He bites his tongue so hard it bleeds.

“She’s not meant for you, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it will be.” Beric claps a hand on his shoulder, in what he probably thinks is a comforting gesture. But Gendry just feels fury - cold and hard and fast, burning under his skin.

Not meant for him.

“You should shower. Get ready for tonight.”

He nods, a jerk of his head, his gaze still fixed on his feet.

-/-

Lem is in the small room that doubles as a conference and debrief space when he leaves Beric’s office, his feet propped up on the table, an easy smile on his lips.

“Hey, The Bodyguard is on at 8, if you want to watch it while you jerk off again.”

He feels his cheeks flush, furiously and thoroughly embarrassed. He had thought - well, he had thought he was being subtle. That with enough internal denial about his feelings for Arya, there would be no outward signs of it. But between Beric, and now Lem - god , what if her brothers noticed? What if Lord Stark noticed?

He runs his hand through his hair and kicks open the door, idly considering throwing himself from the roof of the estate.

“Shut the fuck up.”

Chapter Text

He’s considered quitting before.

Plenty of times, actually. During Arya’s undergrad when she had dated some light-haired, purple-eyed prat, he almost turned in his resignation on a daily basis. When he had to sit outside the restaurant during their dates and try not to notice the way she smiled wide and laughed loud. When he had to watch her disappear into some other guy’s apartment, only to emerge hours later with flushed cheeks and mussed hair.

But there were nights when she would cuddle up to him instead. Tuck her body against his on the couch in what he was certain was not by-the-book bodyguard behavior. When she would curl her small hands around his arm and tug him through the farmer’s market, too goddamned early on a Saturday morning, just because she liked the fresh flowers. The opportunity to be close to her, protect her - it’s always been enough to stay.

Now, though.

He’s considering it again.

“But why?”

“Because, Arya. I’m not taking you out to a bar.”

“Because isn’t a reason, and you’re right. You won’t be taking me out to a bar.” She smiles at him from across the kitchen, half buried in the refrigerator looking for the orange juice. It’s incredibly distracting when she bends over like that, the smooth line of her back and the curve of her ass. The oversized material of her sleep shirt doing little to mask the fact she is certainly not wearing a bra. It’s no wonder they’ve found themselves having the same argument they always do. He’s mildly surprised he can even pull together a sentence when she’s like this - sleep rumpled and perfect. “I’ll be taking you out to a bar, considering it’s your birthday.”

He blinks and darts his gaze over to the calendar in the corner, then back to where Arya is staring patiently at him, orange juice secured. She pulls out two glasses from the cabinet, and hands one over her fingers brushing against his knuckles.

“Did you forget your own birthday?”

“...no.”

“You did. But that’s alright, because I didn’t and we’re going to celebrate.”

“What are we celebrating?”

He almost drops his glass of orange juice when Ned Stark strolls into the kitchen, fearfully wondering if his indecent thoughts about Arya and her ass are written across his face. He tries to school his features into a neutral expression, but the Lord Stark doesn’t bother to look up from his newspaper, heading for the coffee machine on the counter.

Gendry shoots Arya a murderous glance, hoping to convey without words for her to keep her damned mouth shut . She merely grins at him in glee, bouncing on her toes.

“Good morning, father.”

Ned places his paper on the counter at his daughter’s polite, graceful greeting, giving Arya a suspicious look over the top of his glasses. “Good morning, little wolf. Morning, Gendry.”

“Morning, sir,” he mumbles through gritted teeth, thinking on how he can grab Arya and clap his hand over her mouth in a way that is not wildly suspect. She leans back against the countertop and crosses her arms almost like she can hear his thoughts, sly smile curling her lips.

“We’re celebrating Gendry’s birthday,” she supplies without hesitation and he just - he should have quit years ago, honestly.

“Is it really the end of September already?” Ned’s head tilts towards the calendar in surprise. “So it is.” He grins at Gendry and raises his mug in toast. “Happy birthday, lad. We’ll have a dinner this evening in your honor, should you like.”

“That’s not necessary, sir, I -”

“We had something else in mind, actually,” Arya offers. We did not decide anything, he wants to interrupt. But that would be rude, and not his place, and he really wishes the floor would just swallow him up and remove him from this conversation. “I was hoping to take him to that little bar in town he likes so much. The one with the dart boards in the back?”

He blanches. The Inn at the Crossroads is literally the last place the daughter of a high lord should be.

He rushes to explain himself, lest Lord Stak have him thrown into the cells he’s sure still exist somewhere on this compound. “Sir, I was just planning on - “

“A lovely idea, darling,” Ned reaches forward and musses Arya’s hair. “I’m told they have delightful bowls of brown.”

He sincerely doubts Lord Stark has ever had a bowl of brown, and there is certainly nothing delightful about the ramshackle bar he prefers to go to. Which is exactly why he likes it so much. It’s half falling apart on it’s best day, but the drinks are cheap and the food is decent.

He is not taking Arya there.

“We’re not going anywhere, sir. I won’t let Arya put herself at risk like that. And dinner won’t be necessary. I’ll just - “ he gestures lamely in the air, feeling the tips of his ears burning. “I’m not one for birthday celebrations,” he concludes in a mumble, his hands shoved deep into his pockets.

Arya and Ned stare at him with matching looks of amusement.

“There is no one I trust more to keep Arya safe,” Ned begins, his solemn, serious voice quiet in the stillness of the kitchen. “Cat and I decided years ago that my position would not stop this family from leading their lives. You can take him to the bar, little wolf.”

“But Ramsay Bolton, sir. He - “

“Has not been spotted in months. Go to the bar.”

Arya raises her arms in victory, her smile wide.

“And you,” Lord Stark gestures at him with his newspaper. “You’re ordered to enjoy yourself. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Beric is going to kill him.

-/-

“Gendry.”

“What?”

“Could you please try to relax and enjoy your beer?”

He continues to scan the bar for the eightieth time that evening, looking for anyone that’s paying them a little too much attention tucked away in the corner booth. He chose this seat specifically so he could keep his back to the wall and Arya facing him - less a chance of her being recognized that way. He runs his hand along the gun tucked in the back of his jeans and huffs out a sigh through his nose.

“I am relaxed.”

Arya gives him a dry look over a stein that seems to be the size of her head. She had practically demanded it from the bartender when she walked in and saw the group of bikers in the corner drinking from similar glasses, never one to back down from a challenge. Even if no challenge was issued. “Yes, you seem positively serene.” He feels her hand beneath the table on his thigh, and startles so bad the entire table jolts with the movement.

The woman at the table next to them with electric pink hair gives him a look.

Wonderful.

Arya cackles and takes her hand off his leg, nudging his beer closer towards him. “Drink your beer and stop casing the place. We’re fine.”

“We shouldn’t have come here.”

“It’s your birthday, Gendry. Why are you so worked up? Did Beric say something?”

Beric didn’t really say much of anything, actually. He had merely stared at him over his desk with his arms folded across his chest, the silence unbearable until he simply arched an eyebrow and muttered “Alright.” Lem, meanwhile, had snorted into his coffee and Thoros had just gazed at him without blinking for a full 45-seconds, gentle smile on his face and his fingers laced together in his lap.

He takes a gulp of beer. “Why would Beric say anything?”

They still haven’t talked about the other night - when Beric walked in on them tangled together on the floor - and he isn’t sure what he would say if they did. He had been seconds away from kissing her, seconds away from catching her lips in his and ruining everything. He usually isn’t so - he’s usually more careful, with his thoughts and his words and his hands only in appropriate places. But she had felt so good pressed against him. And he had thought - for a second, he thought - maybe she might -

Maybe she felt something, too.

But Beric’s words have been slow to leave his mind, and the more time he spends around Arya, the more he just - the more terrible he feels.

It hurts. To know she can never be his.

Not meant for you .

Her hand curls around his and he glances up, feeling his heart somewhere in his throat. It isn’t fair, when she looks at him like that.

“Please try to enjoy yourself,” her hand slips from his when he doesn't say anything in response, her smile dipping into something half-hearted and brittle. She rubs her hands up and down her arms, her gaze darting somewhere behind his head. “You’re kind of giving me a complex, you know. Making me feel like I’m dragging you out against your will.”

He can see the doubt there, and hates the way it darkens her pretty grey eyes. She had told him once - thoroughly plastered at a State Dinner and hiding in the coat closet to avoid her mother’s wrath - she had told him there wasn’t anything remarkable about her. He hadn’t known what to do, having been looking for her for the better part of a half an hour and discovering her curled in a ball amongst the winter coats, tears on her cheeks and a bottle of champagne in between her knees. So he had climbed in next to her and shut the door. Sitting together in the dark, she told him she wasn’t pretty like Sansa, or wise like Bran. That no one would ever truly want her for who she was.

He had quietly disagreed, his arm hesitant around her shoulders, growing bolder and brushing his lips to her temple when she curled into his side. She was stupid then, and she’s stupid now - thinking there’s anywhere he’d be but by her side.

He reaches forward and catches her hand with his and lets his thumb rub back and forth over her knuckles. It really is so small in his.

“I’m not here against my will, Arya.” He squeezes her hand. “I’ll - I’ll enjoy myself. I’m sorry.”

Her face brightens, a beautiful smile making her eyes dance.

“Good.”

-/-

“Oh! I got you something.”

She ducks under the table for her bag and pulls out a haphazardly wrapped package, placing it carefully on the table in front of him. His beer is gone and hers is halfway there, a flush on her cheeks as she bounces in her seat across from him.

It’s easy to forget himself when he’s with her like this. Just two people in a bar, tucked away in the corner, trying to flick quarters into an empty glass and laughing when the bikers at the corner table choose Whitney Houston as their song selection for karaoke. It all feels a bit ironic as a rotund man warbles I Will Always Love You , but it doesn’t fill him with the same sort of morose longing it normally does. It’s hard to, when she brought him to a bar on his birthday and got him a present.

He stares down at the package.

“You got me something?”

She nods. “Yes.”

“For my birthday?”

“Yes, stupid,” she rolls her eyes, but there’s no bite to it when she’s smiling like that. “Open it.”

His hands shake as he opens the paper that looks as if it’s been rolled again and again in tape, biting his bottom lip against a grin. Arya lacks the patience for something as meticulous as wrapping a gift, and it stupidly pleases him that she did it for his birthday. He can feel the table moving from the way Arya is rocking back and forth in her seat, her foot kicking his knee every now and then until he reaches forward with his leg and traps her. She gives him a sheepish smile when he raises both eyebrows in silent admonishment, nodding towards the box in his hands.

“Come on, you’re taking forever.”

He opens it, smile freezing on his face.

It’s a knife, the kind you can fold up and slip in your back pocket. The metal shines in the dim light from the bar as he pulls it out and flicks it open, the blade honed to perfection. It’s a familiar design, he notices, one he’s seen before.

“Matches mine,” she offers quietly, completely still as she watches him. He had given her the same exact knife for her eighteenth birthday, the one she still keeps on her at all times and is a perfect compliment for the thin rapier Jon gave her when she was eight. Eight and telling everyone that would listen, apparently, that she was going to be a hedge knight. “Though I changed the wolf part.”

He swallows heavily as he takes in the detail on the handle, the carved bull and the words next to it. He had commissioned a wolf for her as a nod to their family crest and her nickname. His, though. On his knife is a bull with a stormy expression, the horns curved and proud.

“Stubborn bull,” she whispers and he chokes out a laugh. His gaze lingers on the message next to it -

“Guard you with my sword,” he mutters, feeling the indentation of the words with his thumb. He looks up to see the blush on her cheeks.

“It’s the song,” she explains. “You remember, it was - “

“That concert you dragged me to, the first week I was assigned as your protection.”

“You say dragged, but I know that song is still on your phone,” she teases, but her gaze is soft. “Since you’re always looking after me and keeping me safe - “

“- you keep yourself safe, Arya -”

“Since you keep me safe,” she wrestles her foot from beneath his under the table and kicks his shin. “I figured it was a good quote.”

He nods, his throat tight. No one - no one has ever made him anything before. And it’s a perfect match for hers, probably sitting in her pocket right now.

“Plus, it’s a knife, so it’s sort of like a - “

“ - sword, yeah.” He finishes for her, laughing. “Yeah, I got it. Arya, this is -” he swallows, looking down at the knife in his hand. He looks back up to her. “This is perfect.”

She bites her bottom lip around her smile and he wants so badly to reach forward and pull her lip free with his thumb. Kiss her slow and soft and sweet.

“I’m glad you like it.”

“I love it,” he corrects. Her smile shifts into something tender and his heart begins to beat a bit harder in his chest, his knee brushing hers beneath the table as he shifts in his seat. “Listen, Arya, I - “

One of the bikers stumbles into their table, Arya’s half-full mug of beer crashing to the floor. They jump apart and he scowls at the man, snapping at him to watch where he’s going as Arya asses the damage.

“It didn’t get on me, which is lucky,” she smiles at him, and maybe he’s imagining it, but there’s a tightness by her eyes. She grabs her wallet out of her bag and motions towards the bar with her head. “I’m going to get another. You want anything?”

“That prick should buy you another,” he glowers, trying to collect the glass so it doesn’t get wedged in her shoe when she comes back.

She just rolls her eyes in response and heads towards the bar, her small form disappearing almost immediately. It’s gotten more crowded since they’ve arrived, and it takes him all of thirty seconds to realize that Arya heading off on her own in a crowded, seedy bar is not the best idea.

“Shit,” he mutters, standing up quickly, his chair screeching against the sticky floor. He tries to find her in the mass of bodies jostling for attention at the bar top, but he can’t spot her. He doesn't know what he was thinking, letting her off on her own. Stupid , he thinks in a voice that sounds suspiciously like hers. Stupid, stupid, stupid. With his size, it’s easy for him to push his way through the crowd, and it’s only another minute of searching before a commotion at the far end grabs his attention.

By the time he manages his way through, Arya’s got her knife to one guy’s neck while the other holds his nose, blood pouring between his fingers. Arya has a cut on her bottom lip, and the fury that slams through him at the sight of blood on her face leaves him dizzy.

“You little bitch,” the man with blood on his hands and shirt glares at Arya, reaching for his beer bottle on the bar top. His friend just swallows nervously and eyes Arya, hands held up in supplication. “You broke my nose!”

“You’re lucky it’s all I did, asshole. Didn’t your mother teach you no means no?”

He lets out a grunt in frustration, but before he can take a step forward with his bottle, Gendry has him pinned to the bar, his arm twisted behind his back. It would take just one push up for the man’s wrist to snap, and he is sorely tempted.

“What the fuck?” The man shrieks. “I’m going to call the cops! I’ll press charges!”

“And whose side do you think they will be on,” Gendry growls into his ear, taking care to keep his voice low. The last thing they need is for the bar to realize who Arya is and start taking video. It’s lucky they chose a less than reputable spot. Scrums like this are par for the course. “Two assholes who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves, or Lady Arya Stark of Winterfell.” The man’s eyes go wide with fear, his face pressed against the bar. “Who you have bloodied.”

“Fucking hell, I’m so sorry. I - I won’t press charges. I swear.”

“Damn right you won’t.” Gendry breathes hard through his nose, twisting the man’s wrist up the slightest bit and delighting in his yelp of pain. His anger feels like a living thing inside of him, roaring just under his skin. It would be so easy for him to kick the shit out of this man. Leave him and his friend in pieces at the bar.

But he needs to get Arya out of here, before anyone looks too close.

He takes a step back, but doesn’t take his eyes off the man, extending his hand out to his left.

“Let’s go,” he grunts, and a second later Arya’s small fingers are twined between his. He tugs them through the crowd, not letting go until they’re out in the cool night air.

He immediately takes her face into his hands, inspecting the cut on her lip. “What the fuck happened?”

His pulse is thundering through his ears and his hands are shaking - the fear and the adrenaline and the anger a toxic combination. He feels out of control and not in a good way. God, how could he be so stupid.

“Gendry, it’s alright,” Arya circles her fingers around his wrists, her face concerned. Concerned for him - and god, he's so stupid. “I’m okay.”

“You’re bleeding,” he points out needlessly, hating how thin his voice sounds. He never should have let her out of his sight. Bloody hell, he never should have brought her here. “Did they touch you?”

Her hands trail down his forearms and up to his shoulders. “I’m alright. The one came onto me and I broke his nose when he didn’t take no for an answer. Everything is fine.”

“Everything is not - “ He shakes his head and pulls out of her grasp. “Everything is not fine, Arya.”

He looks away from her face for a cab, thoroughly unable to handle the blood on her lower lip. Self loathing curls in his stomach and he clenches his jaw against it.

Stupid, his mind whispers. Your fucking fault.

He ushers her into a cab and ignores her attempt to catch his eye on the drive back, curling his hands into fists and drumming his knuckles against his knee. He has no idea how he’s going to explain this to Beric. No fucking clue how he’s going to tell Ned Stark he let his youngest daughter get hurt.

He scrambles out of the cab as soon as it stops, throwing some bills at the driver and slamming the door shut so hard the whole damn vehicle shakes. Arya is right behind him as he stalks towards the house, her hands curling around his arm and tugging backwards, trying to get him to stop.

“Gendry, wait. Listen - “

“I’m done listening to you, Arya.”

He’s furious, so bloody angry with himself. He never should have let her convince him to go out. Never should have thought for a moment that his birthday was a reason to put her in danger.

He’s just - he’s so damned stupid around her.

He watches his own fury catch and spark in her gaze, her fists settling on her hips. “Oh, so you’re mad at me, now?”

“We never should have gone out,” he grits out between clenched teeth.

She rolls her eyes, stomping her foot once.

“It’s your birthday, Gendry. I wanted to celebrate with you.”

“Why?”

She blinks at him in confusion. The question takes him by surprise as well, not realizing it’s been simmering in the back of his mind all day. But he’s in the mood to lash out, and she’s standing in front of him with - fucking hell - with blood on her face and anger in her eyes.

Good .

She should hate him right now. He hates himself.

“Why’d you want to go out so bad? Did you want to see how the other half lives?” He takes a step closer to her and she tilts her chin up to meet his gaze. “See how the help lives?”

“What the hell is the matter with you?” she spits. “I’ve never thought of you like that. Not once.”

“It doesn’t matter how you’ve thought of it, it’s what it is. I still get a paycheck every two weeks, signed by The Stark Family Estate. I work for your family, Arya. I’m not supposed to - ” He runs a hand through his hair in frustration and fights not to put his fist through the back patio door. He’s not sixteen anymore, he reminds himself. He has a home. A good job.

Plenty of things to lose.

Not meant for you.

He takes a deep breath and shakes his head back and forth. “We can’t do this anymore. Whatever it is that we’re doing.”

Her face falls and he ignores the tightness in his chest that blooms in response. He’s right. He knows he is. The only reason she got hurt tonight was because he was stupid enough to let his guard down. And the only reason it hadn’t been worse was because she defended herself . He didn’t do a damn thing to help.

Some fucking bodyguard.

“Gendry - “

“I’m your bodyguard, Arya. Your bodyguard.” He makes sure to keep his voice firm, his gaze steady. He needs her to understand. “I am not your friend.”

She sucks in a breath and rocks back from him, blinking in the dim light of the patio. He hates himself for hurting her, even if it does mean her safety in the end. He sees it all in her expression. The way her bottom lip trembles. The fury that starts in her clenched fists before being swallowed by the tears in her eyes she refuses to let fall.

“You’re right,” she whispers, voice shaking. She blinks, and she dashes at her cheek with her clenched fist. He can’t remember the last time he’s seen her cry. She angles her chin up and meets his gaze. “You’re not.”

She turns on her heel and storms into the house, the glass rattling in the door when she slams it shut behind her.

-/-

As much as he wants to go to his apartment and bury himself in his bed and never come out, he knows there’s something he needs to do first.

He knocks on the door, a quiet come in echoed from the other side.

“Gendry. Did you have a good time at the bar?”

He fights to meet Lord Stark’s gaze, the gentle smile on the man’s face enough for his stomach to roll. He doesn’t deserve his kindness. He doesn’t deserve anything. “There’s something you should know about, sir.”

He manages to keep his voice steady throughout the story, only breaking once when he mentions the cut on Arya’s lip. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees the blood. Sees every scenario where things got exponentially worse.

“ - and I’d understand, sir, if you’d like to relieve me of my position.” He concludes, waiting, watching as Ned removes his glasses and peers at Gendry carefully.

“No, I don’t think so,” he mutters, glasses placed carefully on his desk. He pauses, considers his words. “It wasn’t your fault, lad.”

He looks down at the toes of his boots, swallowing heavily. It is certainly his fault. He doesn’t see how it couldn’t be.

“Then I’d like to request reassignment, sir. I can’t - “ He swallows. “I can’t keep her safe.”

It’s quiet for a long time, and he keeps his gaze on the carpet.

“Alright,” Ned sighs. “But you’ll be the one to tell her.”

-/-

He had planned to tell her at breakfast, but she doesn’t appear until they’re scheduled to leave for her dance class, brushing past him in the kitchen without a word and slipping into the back of the town car. She doesn't say anything to him as he backs out of the driveway, pointedly ignoring him and staring out the window instead. The cut on her bottom lip is an ugly purple color, and he feels his resolve solidify.

After her class. I’ll tell her after.

She says nothing during the drive, and makes no attempt to crawl through the seats towards the front like she usually does. He keeps the radio off and strains his ears for any movement, his gaze darting between the rearview and the road.

It’s what you wanted , he reminds himself, trying not to feel the anxiety clawing at his chest. It’s better this way.

She gets out of the car and slams the door, her bag over her shoulder. He waits in the parking lot, not bothering to go in like he normally does. He likes to watch her dance - the graceful way her body moves and the smile she gets on her face as she twirls through the air. She always looks so free - so powerful and graceful - so mind numbingly beautiful he loses himself in it.

He doesn’t think he would be welcome today.

She’s still silent when she gets back in the car an hour later, and he feels his heart pound in his chest. He needs to tell her, he knows, but he just -

It’s better this way.

He can’t protect her if he’s distracted by her. And he can’t keep being this close to her while pretending like it’s not eating him alive. She’ll meet some fancy high born at one of these events, fall in love, and he can’t - he can’t be the one that stands by her side while she loves someone else. He can’t. He won’t.

He stops her before she disappears in the house once they’re back on the estate, knowing he needs to tell her before the briefing this afternoon. She doesn't deserve for him to just ghost on her. Doesn’t deserve to think it’s anyone’s fault but his.  

“Arya, wait a sec.”

She turns and looks at him, crossing her arms over her chest, grey eyes cold. “What do you want, Gendry?”

“I need to, uh, I need to tell you something.”

She raises both eyebrows as he stammers at her. “You didn’t say enough last night?”

Color floods his cheeks and his lips settle into a frown. The last thing he ever wanted to do is hurt her, but it seems he’s been doing a bang up job of fucking things up lately. He takes a deep breath.

“I’m being reassigned.”

Her brow furrows and she drops her arms from her chest, indignation in the curve of her spine. “Did my dad -”

“No,” he rushes to explain. “No, I requested it.”

She stares at him. “You requested it.”

“Yes.”

She’s quiet for a long time, and he has to fight to keep his gaze on hers. The cut on her bottom lip is mocking him. He sort of wishes she would hit him - give him a mark to match. Anything besides the grim sort of sadness that’s settling near her eyes.

“You’re really fucking stupid,” her voice breaks, and he breaks a bit with it. “You know that?”

For the second time in as many hours, she turns and disappears into the house, door slamming behind her. He rocks back on his heels and stares at the place she was.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “Yeah, I know.”