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That's Not Me

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If looks could kill Arya would have been dead multiple times before their carriage even arrived in the courtyard, her Lady Mother had been glaring at her ever since King’s Landing had come into view on the Kingsroad. If anyone had the right to glare in that stupid carriage it was her, not Catelyn Tully. Arya was the one that had been dragged from her home to live now in the one place she never wanted to see from the inside. The bloody Red Keep. Literally bloody, by what the history books tell. Sansa was lucky ghosts only existed in her head, or else the Red Keep, where her sister had been living these past six moon’s turns, would be one the most haunted places in Westeros.

Arya hated all of it. Its walls of stone in the ugliest red. The way it stood tall and arrogant against the sky, while right underneath people lived and died in their own faeces in a shithole called Flea Bottom. But the kings and queens of old days were smart enough to fill their castle with gardens and orchards, so the royal family and all their highborn lickspittles didn’t have to wrinkle their noses over the stench creeping up their walls. Well, they still should. The moment Arya stepped from the carriage, which had smelled of home and her mother’s lovely perfume, she immediately noticed the slight scent of faeces and rotting flesh in the air. Apparently cultivating lemon trees and lavender wasn’t enough to banish the Flea Bottom odour from the royal palace. But living in the Red Keep for so long probably made their noses conk out long ago, since they all seemed surrounded by their personal cloud of obtrusive perfume.

And apparently, her very own sister was intent to become one of those perfumed idiots herself. When Sansa embraced her in a tight hug Arya felt sick immediately, though it was hard to tell if it was only her sister’s southern perfumes or her unexpected compliments, “Look at you! What have you done to my scrawny tomboy sister? You look absolutely stunning!” Sansa chirped. But then it dawned on Arya, her sister was probably just complimenting herself upon seeing Arya wearing one of the silken dresses she had sent to Winterfell. Of course. “Stunning indeed.” her father assured smilingly and pulled her close and kissed her forehead, as he used to do back home, before he and Sansa had left to live in the south. How she had missed him. Feeling his strong arms around her, shielding her from any kind of harm; and most of all her mother’s wrath. How wonderful to find herself surrounded by his scent again, after so many moon’s turns her father still smelled of the North, all woods and stone and soil, iron, leather and smoke. Maybe there was hope for her as well. “The way you look, I wonder what is there to be turned into a proper lady-” “A lot, Ned.” her mother reprimanded him immediately, “She hasn’t changed a bit, rest assured, my love.” Lady Catelyn clearly feared her husband’s soft spot for their younger daughter might ruin all her efforts to turn her into a copy of Sansa. Arya could barely suppress her annoyed huff. She had just gotten her father back, who she had missed so dearly. Why did her mother have to ruin even such moment? Unbelievable.

Thankfully her sister intervened before things escalated again, offering Arya to show her to her chamber. Beggars can’t be choosers. It was the first opportunity to finally get away from her mother and Arya took it. Even though that meant to listen to Sansa’s over-exited chatting about how marvellous life at court would be. Anything was better than listening to their mother reprimanding her all day long, so Arya urged Sansa to lead the way. Before that hawk of a mother realises Im gone. Her sister didn’t seem to mind, she babbled on, how she admired the queen, the princess and some Tyrell girl for their exquisite taste in fashion. How she and said Tyrell became best friends and how that made Jeyne go green with envy. How she would spend every spare moment with that Margaery girl now and rumours since would say the crown prince would marry one of them. “Of course, you must not spread such gossip, Arya. That would be entirely improper. But can you imagine, me becoming queen!” Hadn’t that been the plan all along? “Arya, he is so handsome! I bet, even you’ll swoon over him when you see him.” “Certainly not!” “Oh, sweet Arya, how innocent you still are!” Sansa teased her cheerfully, “There’s a huge ‘I told you so’ coming for you, little sister!” Yap, definitively, only that Ill be the one saying it, Arya thought.

By the time Sansa left the chamber to let her sister ‘recover’ from the journey, Arya actually felt exhausted, mentally. How could her sister remember all those names, rules and shit? Arya leaned against her closed chamber door, taking a deep long breath, before she rushed to her trunks to finally put on some real clothes. Luckily she had managed to outsmart her Lady Mother. Before her departure Arya had put some of her old boy clothes and Needle under a false bottom in one of the trunks, which of course had been discovered during her mother’s inspection of her luggage. Lady Catelyn had fumed and Arya had ranted and pleaded and ultimately lost their argument. But what Lady Stark hadn’t known was that Arya had had an accomplice. Hidden in Jon’s old room had stood an identical trunk. Packed with some layers of nice dresses, but underneath lay Arya’s real treasures; breeches, jerkins, shirts and two pair of boots, Jon’s old chainmail, a padded jerkin and some pieces of armour, her practice sword and a dagger and when their Lady Mother was done with her inspection and chiding Arya, Robb returned Needle to its owner and he and Arya switched the trunks. So, all Arya had to do now was to quickly hide her treasures atop the canopy over her bed and rearrange the other contents of her trunks a bit, so her mother wouldn’t notice one of them was suddenly half empty.

Afterwards Arya got out of her dress and underskirt and hid them under some other dresses. No need to give her mother a head start, by letting her find those items laying on the floor. The nasty pair of uncomfortable shoes she had worn these past hours she intended to get rid of for good. But first she slipped into a pair of breeches, a linen shirt, Jon’s old jerkin and her sparring boots. Time to explore. She needed to know her ways around in this damn castle, and find safer hiding spots for her treasures, before some maid gets the idea to brush off the dust of the canopy.

As soon as she was out of her chamber she ran down the stairs in the Tower of the Hand and took the first corridor leading away from where Sansa and she had come earlier and only stopped once; to throw those damn lady shoes from a window, she grinned satisfied to see them disappear in some evergreen bushes. She found the stables, the armoury and the forge within no time. Pity, they’ll look here first. So, she climbed onto walls and snuck through windows, exploring the interesting parts of the keep. The real keep. And found the kitchen by literally following her nose. There would be cats to chase. It was about time to practice. Her bones and muscles probably were all rusty from that boring carriage traveling. A few moments later she followed a slender striped cat through a window to the storage room, where they disturbed an old black tomcat, a fierce one, lashing out at both of them. A worthier opponent, Arya decided and followed the nasty tomcat to the wine cellars. Soon after the black cat disappeared through a hole in an old wooden door, apparently sure he would be rid of Arya now. “Run, little kitty cat! I’m coming to catch you!” she teased while she picked the lock.

And the old tomcat indeed proved to be a worthy and brave opponent. When she opened the door, it sat right behind it, on top of another staircase leading downwards; swinging his tail and hissing, he challenged her. And she accepted, attempting to catch him once more. But again, he escaped and led her further down into the vaults of the keep. She was so focussed on outwitting and catching him that she hadn’t realised she had stumbled across the Red Keep’s secret jewels. The skulls. The first ones she passed were so small, she had thought them skulls of dogs or wolves. But then she stepped around the corner and found herself in a long vault, scarcely lit by the few torches hanging from the wall, their light barely reaching the high ceilings, and at the other end of the room a pair of giant empty eye sockets stared at her, watched her stepping closer in awe. Balerion. “The Black Dread.” Arya whispered intrigued, when she finally stood in front of the giant skull, admiring its onyx-like surface, she couldn’t help but touch its lower jaw. Father was right. It wasn’t like any other skull she had seen, more armour than bone. Because of the iron. But what amazed her most was, it didn’t feel cold to her touch, as if it still harboured some of the fire that it once was. Dragons were fire come alive. The whole room felt warmer than the ones before. Strange. She was so fascinated by the dragon’s skull, she had completely forgotten her surroundings.

The tomcat seemed to find her sudden state of distraction insulting and decided to remind her that the two of them still had a battle to fight. He stroked past her leg and leapt onto the dragon jaw, wielding his claws at her. But that was his mistake, he thought she wouldn’t pay attention. “Huh! Got you!” she had quickly grabbed him and placed a kiss on his head before she let go of him again, “No need to be nasty, feisty old tom! You’re not the first and certainly not the last to face defeat against me! But rest assured, you were one of my worthiest opponents and it was a real pleasure to meet you. In fact, you’re already my favourite person in this whole damn castle.” Arya tried to appease the sulking cat, that had fled into the insides of the skull and was glaring at her now. “Well, since the two of us are about to become the best of friends here, I think I should give you a name and happens I know just the perfect one for you, you little black dread.” she announced grinning. “Funny, I had thought exactly the same thing!” a man's voice answered.

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Seven hells! Arya startled over the sudden voice coming from behind the skull, where a tall man now emerged from the shadows. “What the fuck!?" Arya blurted, reaching for Needle, which wasn’t there. Damn. She stupidly had left it in her chamber. And why hadn’t she noticed him? Had her senses become so dull? No! She had felt eyes on her. Bloody dragon skull. “You think it funny, hiding here and scaring people passing by?” she scolded, as the man stepped closer; hoping he wouldn’t see she prepared herself to grab the dirk at his belt. But he only chuckled, “That would sound fun, if there were any passers-by down here.” he cleared his throat, “No, I meant it’s funny we chose the same name for him, my lady.” he nodded at the tomcat who was now purring around his feet. “My lady?” Arya narrowed her eyes in suspicion, she looked all but ladylike, thanks to Balerion, “You know who I am?” “Yes, Lady Arya, and I’m here to escort you out of these vaults.” “Yeah? And how exactly did you know where to find me?” she stepped to the side, so she could reach his dirk faster. “Well, about an hour ago your Lady Mother had noticed you’ve gone missing. And when nobody could find you, your father had suggested you might have gone to find the dragon skulls. So here I am.” he had a slight mocking tone in his voice and bowed to her.

Something about him put her on edge. He was lying, she was sure of it, as she studied him. If her father really had tasked him to find her, he would have come forward the moment she stepped around the corner. But he didnt. He had silently watched her from the shadows. “Thank you, but there is no need for that.” she snapped at him, “I know the way.” Yet, he only raised his eyebrows and tried to hide a smug grin while folding his arms, “No offence, my lady, but you look, um-” “I look what?!” she demanded angrily. “Well, lost.” “Well,” she parroted him, “Im not!” and folded her own arms, too. “Perfect, then maybe my lady could lead the way!” he now openly mocked her.

“My lady could!” she huffed and stomped to a door she had passed when she had walked towards Balerion’s skull. “My lady, that’s not the way out!” he called after her. “Who said anything about a way out?” she turned around and grinned. “I’m in no hurry to hear my mother’s chiding, and far from done exploring!” “But Lady Arya, what if they send someone else down here and find us both gone? What will they think?” he came running after her. “I agree, you should definitively stay here, because if anything happens to me and they find you gone from your post, it wouldn’t look good. For you!” she confidently grabbed one of the torches and opened the door. But he slammed it shut. What the hells?How dare you!?” she hissed, glaring at him.

 “Forgive me, my lady, but I have orders to escort you out of here, so you won’t miss the festivities tonight. I can’t let you descend any further. Your family is worried sick.” he claimed, blocking the door with his arm. Liar. “No, they’re not! My father knows I can handle myself.” “But I don’t serve your father, my lady!” he retorted with an increasing seriousness in his voice. Was he losing his patience with her? Careful now. “Then who do you serve?” she hissed. “The crown prince.” he growled, glaring now back at her; at least until she snorted, “Then you have nothing to worry! Your master is busy choosing a bride tonight. He wouldn’t even know I was there, if I’d actually attend.” At that he blinked and frowned, “Of that matter you seem to know more than I do, my lady.” he sounded almost as if she had insulted him, “But if I were you, I wouldn’t be so fast with calling the crown prince an idiot.”

“Well, forgive me, but he must be one! He tasked you with escorting me out of here. And you completely suck at it, and I don’t mean because I refuse to follow you out!” she huffed, “If I were anything like my sister, you would have scared me to death with all your lurking in the shadows like a thief.” she stated angrily, which he again found amusing. “My lady, I didn’t mean to scare you-” he chuckled. “You didn’t!” she lied, “I said you would have, if I were my sister.” “Of course, Lady Arya, forgive me, for almost scaring you.” he teased laughingly, making her clench her fists, tempted to hit him for being such an idiot.

“I didn’t mean to lurk in the shadows, my lady, believe me! I just wasn’t sure you were who I was looking for.” “Oh, come on! Even you must have heard of the unladylike Arya Stark coming to court, to be tamed and chained.” she snorted dismissive. “Well, hearing something and seeing for myself, that’s two entirely different things, my lady.” he retorted. “Apologies, for my shocking appearance!” she mocked, and yet, felt somewhat embarrassed and fiddled with her messy braid.” “No need to apologise.” he chuckled. “I just wonder, how am I to explain the state you’re in … without losing my head, when I return you to your Lord Father and Lady Mother.” “No need to fear for your head! I’m known for a tendency for chasing cats.” Arya grinned, proudly this time.

“So, it wasn’t that Balerion who led you here?” he nodded at the dragon skull behind them. “Nope.” “Well, in that case your Lady Mother should count herself lucky! If you’d chased some other cat, we’d be searching Flea Bottom all night.” he snorted amused. “There is a way to Flea Bottom down there!?” her eyes went wide in excitement. “No! No, my lady!” “Bloody amazing!” Maybe coming here wasn’t so bad after all! “No, not bloody amazing! Your Lady Mother’s waiting.” he pleaded, “Lady Arya, please let me escort you out of here now!”

“Certainly not.” “Why!?” he was getting desperate, and she fully enjoyed it. “I don’t follow weird strangers through dark vaults!” she announced, grinning. “But how else can we resolve this dilemma then? As I understood, there is no way for you to avoid attending tonight!” “Sure, there is, all I’ve to do is walk through this door.” “And all I’ve to do is lock you up in here and get your father.” he nodded at the set of keys hanging next to the door. As if that would stop her!

But she had a better idea, something more fun, “A race, then.” “What!?” he looked puzzled. “Let’s see, whose way out is faster.” she retorted exited. “Mine!” he stated, still slightly puzzled, “I’ve lived here my entire life, my lady. I think I’d know.” “I’ll prove you wrong!” her mind was already set, “Come on! You wouldn’t have to explain anything about my state then.” “Fine.” he gave in, “But first, I want your word that you directly return to the Tower of the Hand from here. No detours. And no more exploring today.” “I swear.” she snapped impatiently. “And don’t get lost!” he obviously still feared she planned to outwit him somehow. “I won’t!” He studied her in silence for a moment, before he seemed to get an idea himself, “Alright, but If I win, you’ll attend the feast, you’ll show up in time, looking all ladylike and you’ll stay as long as the crown prince does!” “Boring!” she rolled her eyes at him. “Do you accept?” he challenged, unimpressed. “But if I win, you’ll personally show me the secret passage way to Flea Bottom. Deal?” “Deal.” he grinned confidently and offered his hand and she shook it. “Alright then, I’ll give you a head start, off you go!” he teased. “Do I look as if I need one?” she pretended to be outraged. “You’ll regret it!” he gave her a wink and ran. Bloody bastard.

Arya turned on her heels and ran back around the corner where she had entered the vault, and all the way up, back to the door where she had picked the lock and out through the storage room window, where she had found Balerion in the first place. She darted over the kitchen yard and then the yard with the stables and back to the Tower of the Hand, right into Harwin’s arms. “Are you alright?” her father’s household guard asked concerned. “I’m fine.” she panted. Huh! That idiot wasnt here, yet. She freed herself from Harwin’s grip and turned around, certain she had beaten that damn fool. But she hadn’t. Seven hells! He was leaning smugly against some door frame across the small yard and laughed. “Enjoy the feast, my lady!” he shouted and bowed to her, before he disappeared inside, leaving her no chance to counter. Damn. Harwin stared dumbfounded at the now empty door frame, obviously thinking the man had insulted her.

Chapter Text

Sansa had gasped upon seeing Arya all dirty and messy, and even their father had seemed to be taken aback by the sorry state Arya had been in; but Lady Catelyn’s first reaction had been a scoff addressed at her husband, “This is what I had to deal with for the past six moon’s turns, Ned!” And only then the yelling at Arya had started, and the threatening to throw the boy clothes into the hearth as soon as she had stepped out of them, which thankfully her father wouldn’t have. Even Sansa had seen reason, suggesting without these clothes, Arya would only ruin her dresses instead, and that would be a far bigger risk for public embarrassments. “Exactly!” Arya hadn’t been able to stop herself from agreeing, which only had started a new round of chiding. Though, in the end, her mother had run out of time, or else Arya wouldn’t have made it in time to Lord Renly’s nameday feast and that would have indeed been an embarrassment for Lady Catelyn. “Don’t think, we’re done here, yet, young lady!” her mother had threatened before she had left the room, so Arya could bathe, and Sansa had pleaded with her to behave at the festivities, suggesting this would be the easiest way to appease their Lady Mother’s wrath. As if she wouldn’t know that herself. She probably would have been banished to join the Silent Sisters years ago, if their Lady Mother wouldn’t know Arya could behave like a lady, at least somewhat, if she felt like it. Which she mostly didn’t. Acting like a lady was just … too stupid, pointless, useless, boring, nonsense.

And Arya had expected just that from the festivities tonight, absolute boredom to death. Though, she soon had to realise, boredom would have been the lesser evil. In the beginning, everything had been fine - well, as far as fine goes, if one is dragged along behind by one’s ambitious mother who is mad like hells, but showers one with never-fading smiles. That was when Lady Catelyn was the most dangerous, Arya could never tell if her Lady Mother would still be mad by the end of the day, or in this case night, or if she had managed to appease her with acting ladylike enough.

When Sansa had suggested to introduce Arya to the other ladies in waiting, Lady Catelyn had smiled and called it an excellent idea. Did she mean it? Arya could only guess, and decided to follow Sansa around like a pup, hoping this would indeed appease their Lady Mother, Sansa for sure would tell her immediately if she did something stupid; and if so, there was at least a chance their mother wouldn’t notice.

So, Arya finally got to meet the famous Margaery Tyrell, and regretted it immediately, realising, there actually were people that could parade a false smile better than her Lady Mother and sister. This woman seemed intent to be at the centre of everyone’s attention, under all circumstances and at all times; and the other court ladies seemed to be drawn to her like moths to the flame. Maybe those fools like to get burned? Within less than half an hour Arya’s face hurt from constantly smiling at everything Margaery and Sansa said, and she soon wanted to smash her own head in at some wall.

Was this what her life would be now? Everything these women talked and cared about was somehow related to marriage. Ladies in waiting, indeed. Arya now actually understood the term. All they did was waiting, waiting for a man to marry. To dig their claws in. Like vultures. How could Sansa stand all this? She was supposed to be a wolf, too! And vultures only get what the wolves leave behind. Didnt her sister know that? Didnt Sansa know she was so much more than these idiots? Arya had never felt more out place than in this round of women and that only made her miss Nymeria and her brothers at Winterfell even more. “Sansa, is this really your supposedly wild baby sister? Isn’t she the shiest thing in the realm? Even quieter than our dear princess!” Margaery soon teased. Mocked. Arya couldn’t speak for the princess, but she had absolutely nothing in common with these women. So, even if she had wanted to, she didn’t know what to talk about with them. All she could do was to thank them for compliments she received and compliment them back; repeating herself about their wonderful hair or dress or skin. Or she agreed on things they would say, but only if Sansa did; she couldn’t risk to embarrass her sister in front of her friends, if she ever hoped to survive the morrow. Even though, its stupid friends.

It felt, as if she was dying from the inside, Arya could swear she felt her brain falling apart. So, she actually was grateful, when they finally returned to their father and mother, to take their seats at a table close to the dais of the royal family. At least they knew how to use their brains. Even though, she didn’t always like the outcome. “Oh, Mother, Arya did great with the court ladies! She was wonderful, they love her!” Sansa announced overjoyed and obviously proud of herself for keeping Arya in check. “Thank you, sister, your friends are all so lovely, I adore them already.” Arya flattered, hoping their Lady Mother wouldn’t expect her to actually mean it; but she never got the chance to try to decipher Lady Catelyn’s thoughts.

Margaery Tyrell approached, declaring how overjoyed she was that she and her brother were seated right next to them, “Lady Arya, this is my brother Loras.” The famous Knight of Flowers. “Pleasure to meet you, my lady. I’d be honoured to keep you company tonight.” he bowed to her. She had heard of Ser Loras, mostly of his talents on the tourney grounds, but also of his close friendship with Renly Baratheon. Thanks to Theon’s big mouth. But Arya didn’t mind, at least he wouldn’t talk of marriage all night, even though his sister clearly thought Arya and him a perfect match. Or what else could she have in mind?

Arya soon managed to relax somewhat, having more in common with the Knight of Flowers than with his sister, Arya easily engaged in conversation with him, almost forgetting the feast going on around them. They chatted about his tourney adventures and eventually her water dancing and sparring sessions with her brothers and even about how best to deal with the bruises afterwards. So, neither of them minded to see their sisters exchange knowing looks. Fools. As if there was anything to giggle about. But Arya didn’t care, at least she no longer had to pretend she had no brain, and by the looks of her sister she hadn’t embarrassed the family so far, meaning there was hope her Lady Mother would forgive her sooner than she had expected.

By the time, the royal family arrived in the Great Hall, Loras was telling her about an armourer named Master Mott, the best in all of Westeros, he claimed and offered to take her there someday, to see for herself. So, Arya wouldn’t even have noticed the king and his family, hadn’t the Knight of Flowers suddenly lifted his gaze as they walked up to the dais. But apparently, Ser Loras didn’t find what he was looking for, he frowned and exchanged a look with his equally irritated sister. “What’s going on?” Arya whispered, seeing the same frown appear on Sansa’s face, “Prince Gendry is missing.” “And so is his uncle.” added Ser Loras. Huh, a fine host, Arya almost snorted. “Apologies, my lords and ladies!” the king bellowed, “As it seems, my brother won’t make it to his own nameday banquet. Apparently, he and the crown prince are currently at the harbour, doing whatsoever. It’s got something to do with a nameday gift, is all I know. To my brother, that bloody fool!” King Robert lifted his goblet and the guests reluctantly joined him in his toast to his absent brother. “Don’t worry, my ladies, they’ll both join us later!” the king appeased the murmuring in the hall, before he sat down and dug his teeth in some pheasant.

“That gift must be something marvellous, if it couldn’t wait!” Sansa sounded dreamily, “Prince Gendry is always so thoughtful.” Yeah, thoughtfully avoiding the banquet. “I bet, it’s just a delayed ship.” Loras whispered, so only Arya’s could hear it. “Or maybe that marvellous gift went overboard, alongside the prince and Lord Renly.” Arya suggested. More than likely, if a certain royal manservant was involved. The Knight of Flowers snorted with laughter, “Well, I hope not, for both our sisters’ sake!” Surrounded by love-stricken fools. Arya quickly changed the subject, and they spent the banquet discussing horse-riding and jousting.

When King Robert called for the dance to start, his speech was already slurred and the queen’s expression so sour, Arya halfway expected to see her stab the king any moment. However, Prince Joffrey seemed quite cheerful and announced complacently, with his brother and uncle still absent the duty to lead the dance would fall to him and he would be more than honoured to do so and stepped down from the dais and walked over to Sansa. Arya couldn’t help but side-glance at Margaery, expecting to see her fuming. But the Tyrell girl kept not only a straight face, but leant over to Loras and Arya, as the prince led Sansa to dance, “They’re a perfect match, don’t you think?” Um, nope! “I could hardly know, having just arrived today. But I’m sure, you’re right, my lady.” Arya replied as politely as possible, before she glanced back at Sansa and the prince. Her sister was a sight to behold, gracefully moving around, as if she were light as a feather. She would have made a great water dancer. Pity, she never tried. The prince was an imposing dancer himself, but his arrogance sept off him like an obtrusive perfume. Arya didn’t like him, at all. Her sister deserved better.

Soon Prince Tommen, only fourteen, followed his brother’s example and asked Margaery to dance, who joyfully accepted. Well, that brings things home to the other court ladies. Tommen seemingly tried his best, but couldn’t quite match his brother’s skills, but that didn’t keep Margaery from competing with Sansa. When more and more people joined the dancing, including the princess, Ser Loras asked, if Arya would like to dance as well, but seemed to get the hint, when she hesitated. “Please, don’t feel forced to accept. I’m perfectly happy to continue conversing with you here at the table.” he offered. “Unfortunately, I lack my sister’s talent in most of the womanly arts, so as in dancing. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you by constantly stepping on your toes, kind Ser.” Arya gratefully declined. By the look on his face, the Knight of Flowers seemed not too much disappointed, so Arya suspected, his cunning sister made him sit and dance with all kind of ladies in waiting. For appearance’s sake, obviously. After having politely shooed away the third knight, who had asked Arya to dance, Ser Loras offered to take her for a walk in the gardens. However, Arya only accepted after he asked her parents for permission. Surprisingly, her lady mother had thought it a wonderful idea and only her father had a slightly disapproving look on his face. But for once, she agreed with her mother. Anything was better than dancing.

Still, Arya was relieved to see they weren’t the only ones skipping the dance and hiding in the gardens. So, it wasn’t before long that Arya found herself in the prestigious company of Ser Loras’ friends. Way better than dancing. They showed her around in the gardens, which were beautifully illuminated by torches and hanging candles in the trees; and jugglers, fire-breathers and other travelling artists showcased their talents, while servants provided the guests with all kind of sweets and fruits and beverage. In Arya’s opinion, this could have gone on all night, watching the artists and discussing tourneys with the young knights. Though, she wasn’t the only lady in their small circle, Arya surely was the one who enjoyed herself the most. “I’m glad to see you smile again, Child!” her father whispered, when he and her Lady Mother had found them, while taking a stroll in the gardens themselves. Even Lady Catelyn seemed more relaxed and told her, she would find it delighting to see her and Ser Loras get along so well.

Unfortunately, Arya’s mood dropped rapidly about half an hour later. She hadn’t noticed them until Sansa tucked her arm into hers, “Arya, may I introduce you to Prince Gendry?” So, the bloody fools finally made it! Arya thought, as her sister turned her around to meet the crown prince. Seven hells! Her jaw dropped. He!? She blinked astonished. Fuck. “Lady Arya,” he bowed to her, “it’s a pleasure to meet you!” It took her a moment to regain her wits to respond, “Your grace.” she curtsied, just an instant too long; unsure of what to do next. “I hope, you find life at court to be to your liking.” he offered politely, while she struggled not to stare at him in her attempt to read his mind. Why hadn’t he said anything? “Thank you, your grace!” she replied, and was truly relieved, when Sansa went on to introduce her to Lord Renly afterwards, who looked actually more alike the crown prince than that smug rogue Joffrey.

As soon as the introductions had been made, and Lord Renly and the prince went on to greet Ser Loras and the others, Sansa and Margaery took Arya into their midst. Great. She still was recovering from this unexpected revelation, still tried to figure out what had just happened and mostly, the why behind it. Vultures, truly. “So, what do you think of my brother?” Margaery asked from one side and Sansa whispered self-satisfied, “Told you so, little sister!” from the other. All Arya wanted to in that moment was yell and hit them, all of them; but mostly that stupid prince and the two idiots to her right and left. What did she do to deserve this!? Arya could barely restrain herself from huffing loudly and had to clench her fists to calm down enough, so she could master to smile at Margaery and tell her, Ser Loras were indeed wonderful company.

Thankfully, after hearing that, Margaery rushed off, chasing after her stupid prince and shooing the other vultures away. And Arya turned to her sister, glaring as if she wanted to murder her and let out the huff she had been holding back. “What!?” Sansa purred innocently, “It’s not my fault, you swooned.” “I didn’t!” Arya growled. “No need to feel ashamed, I know exactly what it feels like. I almost fainted when I saw him for the first time. He’s just too handsome, isn’t he?” Sansa tried to appease happily. “Certainly not!” Arya dug her nails into her palms, glad, Needle was safely stored away in her chamber, as she felt the anger boiling up inside of her, and her sister went on, “You know, it’s totally fine to like a man!” “But I don’t!” Arya hissed. “Your blush says otherwise, little sister!” Sansa teased unimpressed. “I’m not blushing! I’m fuming!” But Sansa just wouldn’t stop, “And I know exactly why!” “No, you don’t!” “Come on, Arya, you’re sixteen, it’s was about time for this to happen!” “Nothing. Happened. And nothing the like will happen!” Arya snarled. “I beg to differ, sweet sister!” Sansa grinned and even pinched Arya’s cheek, as if she were still a toddler. “Fuck off, Sansa!” “Arya!” her sister reprimanded outraged, “You did so well tonight. And now this! You really are hopeless!” “Well, what did you expect?!” Arya spat, and the two sisters glared at each other, trying to stare their respective other down.

“My Ladies Stark, aren’t you coming with us?” Both sisters turned their heads to see the crown prince looking at them amused. Bloody stupid prince. And him calling, of course, had drawn everyone else’s attention to the sisters. So, Sansa instantly was back in her lady-mode, all proper and smiling, “Of course, we are, my prince.” though, a slight embarrassed blush bloomed on the older Stark girl’s face. However, Arya didn’t manage to calm down as quick as her sister. After all, he had caused the whole thing, so why shouldn’t she glare at him? Just because he was a bloody prince? Nevertheless, she let her sister drag her back to the group of young nobles, whose company she had thought to enjoy just a moment ago. But that was over now, realising how close they were with that stupid princeling. She hated him.

And of course, that horrible Tyrell girl had to poke her nose in it just a moment later, “Lady Arya, are you alright? You’re suddenly so quiet again.” “I’m fine, Lady Margaery,” Arya replied, barely able to hide her fretted undertone, “it’s just-” she tried to come up with an excuse, and was saved by her sister, “It had just been a long day for her. After all, she only arrived today.” “Of course, how silly of me!” Margaery sweet-talked, “Loras, why don’t you accompany the Lady Arya to that bench over there, so she can recover a bit.” Damn, was that woman good! And before Arya could object, she found herself sitting on said bench. “I’m not actually tired, Ser Loras. I just had a fight with my sister, is all.” she admitted, still sullen. “That much was obvious.” The Knight of Flowers chuckled. “Ser Loras, I can sit here alone. You don’t have to miss out the amusements because of me.” “You obviously don’t know my sister very well, my lady!” he chucked again. “So, you’re stuck with me?” Arya shook her head in disbelief. “And you with me. For now, at least, my lady.” he smiled at her encouragingly, “I can imagine worse company.” “Same here.” How can Sansa stand this all day long? Arya wondered, glancing over to her sister, who now nicely chatted with Margaery and the crown prince. Maybe Sansa was a wolf, after all. Arya thought, at least, her sister was the only court lady still standing, battling that viper of a woman.

When Margaery and Sansa finally managed to separate the crown prince from the rest of the herd, Arya and the Knight of Flowers decided it was safe to re-join with the rest of the group; who thankfully soon decided to wander off to go see the contortionist. However, Arya found it harder now to enjoy the festivities, and not because she had to share Ser Loras now with Lord Renly. Actually, the handsome lord of the Stormlands was kind and thoughtful, and had a great sense of humour; and was just as eager as the Knight of Flowers to keep her company. Arya didn’t mind they obviously only pretended to compete against each other in courting her. In fact, this was perfect, Lady Catelyn would be delighted to see her besieged by two suitors and Arya didn’t have to fear any sort of proposal coming from neither of them, at least not any time soon. This could buy her time.

Still, Arya felt somewhat tired of the whole charade, and mostly of her own. Even though, Ser Loras and Lord Renly seemed to be the only people at this feast – apart from her Lord Father, of course – who might like the real Arya, and who she believed she might like spending some more time with. Just not here, in this place, where she constantly felt eyes on her, watching her, waiting for her to finally embarrass herself. And discrediting Sansa by doing so, that was surely what that vicious Lady Margaery hoped for.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, as the three of them watched a man walk on glowing embers and broken glass, the crown prince stood beside her, smirking down at her, “I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Lady Arya, since I intend to stay all night!” “Technically, I could have left right after the banquet. Since you weren’t even there!” she huffed. “But you didn’t!” he teased, “And now you’re stuck with me. All night. I promise.” he winked at her. “And there you’re wrong!” she snapped, “I had a deal with your manservant, not you your grace. But since he obviously doesn’t exist, our deal doesn’t either! So, I can walk off this feast whenever I like!” causing him to laugh. “Then why haven’t you, yet?” he teased again, “Might it be you actually like being here?” Before she could retort anything, Lady Margaery called, “Your grace, there you are!” approaching them. Oh, great, the viper was back! Wait, did he just roll his eyes?

“Lady Margaery.” the crown prince turned around to face the woman. “Oh! The Lady Arya is here, too, I didn’t expect that. I thought you would be with my dear brother!?” Seriously? “Yes. I was.” Arya realised somewhat embarrassed that Ser Loras and Lord Renly had gone to see the next attraction. Fine suitors! Regaining her wits, Arya replied, “But right now I’m actually looking for my sister, you don’t happen to know where she is, Lady Margaery?” she tried to sound as innocent as the Tyrell woman, but obviously failed, going by the surprised look Margaery gave her, “Unfortunately not, dear Arya. When I’d seen her last, she’d seemed quite absorbed in a conversation with Ser Lancel.” As if! “Well, in that case I better go on looking. My lady, your grace.” Arya walked off, intent on finding Sansa. To cook this viper’s goose.

But Arya never managed to find her sister, as Prince Joffrey suddenly stepped into her way, “So, you’re the famous wolf-bitch of Winterfell?!” Really!? “Indeed, I am, your grace!” she spat, and glared up at him, challenging. “Quite a toothless wolf, it seems to me!” he snorted unimpressed. “Says the stag!” she stood her ground. “Lion! I’m no damn stag.” he corrected overbearingly. “An extinct species in Westeros, I hear.” she snorted mockingly. “Was that a threat!?” he growled enraged. “No, course not, my prince. I would never, would I?” she retorted with an obvious false smile. “Wanna know what you never will, wolf-bitch? Never be properly fucked! At least not by those sword-swallowers over there! You didn’t know, did you!?” he announced presumptuously. “How about, I don’t give a shit?!” she spat unimpressed.

“Of course not, you’ve set your eyes on a far bigger fish, haven’t you!?” he grinned snidely, baffling Arya. What the fuck was he talking about? “Uh! There he comes! The dashing hero…” Prince Joffrey spat, looking at someone behind her. “LEAVE HER!” an angry voice growled, just when she was about to turn to see what this piece of shit referred to. Great, him! Arya rolled her eyes, as the crown prince passed by her, to glare down at his younger brother, “You’re drunk, BROTHER!” Prince Gendry spat. “So what!?” Joffrey snorted, “I was just welcoming our court’s latest northern addition.” “LEAVE!” the crown prince growled threateningly, and his younger brother trolled off, snorting dismissively, “As you wish, BROTHER.” After an angry huff, the crown prince turned around and offered, “Apologies, my lady, for my bro-” “I don’t need to be rescued!” she snapped at him and almost shoved him, “I was handling myself just fine!” and stomped off. “Arya!” she heard Sansa call after her, horrified.

Damn fucking fantastic! She would be confined to her chamber for the rest of her life, Arya thought, as she fled down some staircase to a small terrace with a clear view over the Blackwater Bay. Finding nobody else there, she decided to stay there, to calm down and clear her head in the cool breeze of the sea. She would never fit in here. She just couldn’t. She belonged in the North. She had only arrived half a day ago and was already done with these lying, deceiving and scheming people here in the south. She wanted to go home. Frustrated and furious, she hit the stone balustrade in front of her, as she heard someone descend the stairs behind her. Could she ever be left alone in this damn keep?

“My lady,” she heard a foreign voice asking, “are you alright?” “Yes, of course-” she snapped, until she saw it was a young man with striking blond hair, she had earlier seen in Princess Myrcella’s company. “Forgive me, ser. It’s just … too much wine, I guess.” she lied, as she turned back to look at the sea. “Are you sure it’s the wine and not Prince Joffrey’s unforgiveable behaviour towards you?” the man asked concerned, as he stepped closer. Great! Not just an idiot prince, but a chatter-box, too. “It needs a bit more than that to unsettle me, ser.” Arya stated and looked back at him, to show him, she wasn’t crying or the like, “I just needed some time for myself.” “Oh, of course, I didn’t want to intrude, my lady.” the man apologised and was about to leave. “Does everyone know already?” she asked and sighed, shaking her head in disbelief over this place. “Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s just those of us who were with the crown prince at that time.” She doubted it would stay that way. “Gendry was worried about you, my lady, but he didn’t want to upset you any further-” the man explained. “So, he sent you!?” she rolled her eyes. “Well, yes … and no.” the man almost shyly admitted, “I had wanted to introduce myself to you, but hadn’t had the chance, yet.” Another suitor? Already! Wow, this place was just one big circus of madness.

“My name is Edric Dayne. But feel free to call me Ned, my lady.” he went on. “Like Dayne of Starfall?” she asked surprised. “Yes, my lady, I’m the Lord of Starfall.” he confirmed and stepped next to her at the balustrade. Arya didn’t know what to say, knowing her father had killed his uncle during the war; so, she stared back at the sea. “I just wanted to introduce myself, since your brother, well, your half-brother-” “Jon!?” now he had Arya’s full attention. “Yes, Jon Snow, he and I, we were milk brothers, my lady.” he stated, dumbfounding her. “His mother was my wet-nurse.” What!? “You know Jon’s mother!?” Arya asked puzzled. Their father had never spoken of her, never even given her name away. “Knew. Unfortunately, she’s dead. I’m sorry, my lady.” Poor Jon. “What was her name?” “Wylla. And sadly, I don’t remember much.” he admitted. “But what I do recall, I could tell you, if you like.” he offered, when she stayed silent. “Yes, please, I would like that very much.”

Maybe she could send Jon a raven about it. She hadn’t seen him in over six moon’s turns, and in this moment, in this insane place, she missed her favourite sibling dearly. But since he couldn’t be here with her now, hearing something about him was the next best thing, Arya thought, and so she listened intrigued to the few things Ned Dayne recalled about his wet-nurse and the place were Jon was born. So, it wasn’t before long that Arya decided she found the young lord’s company quite nice. Especially since he was no suitor, and he seemed eager to hear about Jon and Winterfell. In the end, Arya couldn’t say how long she had been on the terrace with the young lord, only that she had enjoyed her time with him. So, when a servant approached to inform them the other guests would assemble in the main garden for the firework in honour of Lord Renly, Arya found herself somewhat disappointed that the festivities would be over soon, even though, she dreaded to return to the other guests. Liars and schemers.

Yet, it hadn’t been as bad as she had feared, the young Lord Dayne hadn’t escorted her back to Sansa and the crown prince and all those horrible people, but instead he had led her to a smaller group of young nobles, which included the princess and young Prince Tommen, who both seemed deeply ashamed of their elder brother’s behaviour and apologised to her right away. So the gossip was spreading. As predicted. Damn. However, the company of these young nobles wasn’t so bad, probably thanks to Princess Myrcella. She was quiet, that much was true and seemed a bit shy, but Arya wasn’t so sure of it. Maybe she just liked things a bit calmer?

Chapter Text

Arya had gotten up the morning after Lord Renly’s nameday, certain her mother would immediately chide her again, as soon as she entered their dining room in the Tower of the Hand. But nothing the like had happened, her Lady Mother had called, “Arya, child, come, try this juice, it’s delicious!” Huh? And her sister had walked towards her cheerfully. Had she only dreamed last night? “Aren’t you mad at me?” “Oh, that? No. Prince Gendry assured me his brother was drunk and said unforgivable things to you. Things a lady should never hear. So, he fully understands you were in shock.” Sansa had assured compassionately. What shock? She didn’t need to be rescued! What hadn’t he understood about that? “So, actually it’s me who owes you an apology. And a huge thank you, apparently.” Sansa had continued happily. Uh, now she got it! This was the dream! But it wasn’t. “To make up for his brother’s awful behaviour, the crown prince has invited the both of us to join him and princess Mrycella and Prince Tommen for a ride in the afternoon.” Seven hells, no! “But first, Prince Joffrey will apologise to your sister!” their father had interrupted Sansa, “I won’t have anyone of this family disrespected and insulted. Not even by a prince!” and the fury in his look had seemed to say, ‘least by that one!’

As they had broken their fast together, Sansa had kept on burbling, how she looked forward to the ride and how poor Margaery must envy her now, “And all thanks to Arya, who would’ve thought that?” Maybe she should snap at princes more often then. And her mother had announced how delighted she was to see already three suitors showed interest in Arya. Of course, that was the most important! And Sansa had agreed, assuring all three of them would be suitable and nice men. Thankfully, her father had intervened again, “She has just arrived. And let’s not jump to conclusions. All those men had kept other ladies company before, especially Lord Renly and Ser Loras, who I find both ... well, a bit old.” Arya had looked up from her plate at that, he knew! “Oh, Ned! Sometimes I wonder … It wasn’t a formal feast! They were all strolling in the gardens, neither of them had to keep her company. But if you insist on someone younger, alright. So, for now that leaves young Ned Dayne-”, her mother had replied. “Actually, no!” Arya had had enough of them talking, as if she weren’t there, “He only kept me company because the crown prince asked him to.” When I apparently was in shock. “Oh, Arya, don’t be silly-” Sansa had chuckled. “I’m not! He just wanted to tell me about Jon!” she had snapped and all three of them had stared at her.

Fortunately, that had been the moment when the royal brat had come to apologise to Arya, her Lord Father and Lady Mother. It clearly hadn’t been his own words, but Arya had enjoyed to see him squirm while uttering them, until he had offered to make amends. No! Arya had quickly replied, “Thank you, your grace. I accept your apology! No amends necessary.” Her father had gasped, clearly begging to differ and Prince Joffrey had looked dumbfounded. “You were clearly drunk, so I’m sure you didn’t mean any of it. Just like I didn’t mean to be rude to you, your grace. I’m deeply sorry for that.” No, she wasn’t, and he had understood, “I thank you for your understanding, my lady, and assure you, there is nothing you had to apologise for. And since you won’t allow me to make amends, please let me offer this, if you ever should need anything, I’d be honoured to be at your service, Lady Arya.” Never gonna happen. They both had known that. Just like they both had been relieved, they wouldn’t have to spend any moment longer in each other’s presence.

The time afterwards, Arya had spent with her father. He had shown her around in the keep, so she wouldn’t get lost again, why couldn’t her mother reprimand her like that? He had asked about home and her brothers, and even how the wolves were and had assured her, it was fine to miss home, that he would still miss it every day. “Then why aren’t we going home?” she had asked, though, she had known the answer already. “We have responsibilities, child.” he always said that, “We’re Starks, and the responsibility to protect the North and its people is ours.” But Arya still didn’t get it. She would gladly protect the North and its people, fight and die for them, just like her brothers. She would even have joined the Night’s Watch alongside Jon, if that were possible for women. Why could her brothers literally protect the North and she could not. She was a better rider than all four of them, she was a skilled archer and most of all a great water dancer, Syrio said so. She could protect the North, just like them. So, why wasn’t she allowed? The Wildlings allowed their women to fight, spearwives, they called them. A spear takes away the advantages of a bigger and stronger opponent. Arya was quick, she could learn to fight with a spear, if her small build was the issue.

She and her father had had this conversation now several times, and each time he had told her, no. Told her, she would marry some knight or lord and rule his castle and bear him sons and in doing so, she would protect the North’s future. But she just didn’t get it. What if she died in childbirth and the child with her? How would she have protected the Norths future then? Then all her existence would have been for nothing. It just didn’t make sense. In the end, her father had tried to appease her by telling her, she still was young and she still would have time, naming Lady Margaery, who was of age with Robb, to prove his point. And he had promised her, he would give her the time to choose a good man herself. But Arya had known, she was already living on borrowed time. Before long she would have to choose. A man. Duty. Honour. Her family. Or herself.

So, by the time she had to dress for the ride, Arya was almost looking forward to it. At least, she would get out of this stinking city, this damn keep, away from her mother and the likes of Lady Margaery and Prince Joffrey; and most of all, there would be no suitors pursuing her. Tommen surely wasn’t looking for a bride, yet. And to riding her hunting stallion again she actually did look forward to, her Lady Mother had barely allowed her to ride him on their way south.

They met the three royal siblings at the stables and Prince Gendry greeted them both, thanking them for accepting the invitation and again apologised for his brother’s behaviour. And what about his own behaviour? Arya let Sansa do most of the talking to the crown prince and quickly greeted his siblings and then turned to her stallion; who obviously got exited for the ride upon seeing her. “That is quite an impressive steed, Lady Arya.” the crown prince complimented, after he had led Sansa to her mare to mount up. “Yes, he is.” Arya smiled, at the mount, not the prince. Her only friend left from home. “How come a woman rides a mount with such a temper, my lady?” Prince Tommen asked. Arya could barely restrain from rolling her eyes, “Because I can!” she stated, leading her stallion away from the step ladder, lifting her skirts and mounted up, “He was a gift for my fourteenth nameday, your grace. From my father.” “See, no need to worry, Brother!” the crown prince laughed and Sansa added, “My sister is known throughout the North for her horsemanship, your graces.” as she steered her horse to ride next to the crown prince. Wow, she really was grateful! “Don’t hide your light under the bushel, you’re an excellent rider yourself, Lady Sansa.” Prince Gendry complimented. For being Sansa, yes! And only since she has Lady, Arya almost snorted, as she and his younger siblings and two Kingsguard knights followed the crown prince and Sansa through the keep’s main gate.

As they rode through the streets of King’s Landing, Arya was thankful the horseshoes were so loud on the cobblestones that she couldn’t hear what Sansa and the crown prince chatted about. She had already decided, she liked Princess Myrcella and Prince Tommen way better. They were no bloody liars. Tommen told her, how he had hoped at least Arya would bring her direwolf to court. Nymeria deserved better. One caged she-wolf at court was enough. Even Sansa had seen Lady was better off at home with her siblings than here at court. 

Again, Arya found herself missing the North and was grateful Myrcella told her brother, in a few years he could surely go to Winterfell to see the wolves himself, before she quickly changed the subject by asking Arya, if she ever had been at sea and if she would like to join them sailing someday, or even come with them when they would visit their cousin at Dragonstone for her nameday in a few moon’s turns. “Shireen is lovely and smart beyond her age, you’d like her, I’m sure. It’s a pity both our mothers think her unfit to come to court. Which is absolute nonsense, if you ask me!” Myrcella said, when they passed the city gate. “Us! If you ask us!” her younger brother added, “The only women from that island unfit to come to court are Lady Selyse and her red witch!” “Tommen!” Myrcella reprimanded. “What!? Gendry said that!” he defended himself, “And it’s not like it’s a secret.” Arya couldn’t help but laugh, seeing not everything and everyone at court was as formal as her Lady Mother and sister wanted her to believe. “Apologies, my lady, I fear none of my brothers know their manners.” Myrcella chuckled. “What are the three of you laughing at back there?” the crown prince turned in his saddle, “Are you already revealing my most embarrassing secrets to the Lady Arya?” “Not everything is about you, dear Brother!” Myrcella teased. “I heard my name! Didn’t I, Lady Sansa?” “Yes, my prince. But I’m sure, they only said the nicest things.”

Soon, Sansa and the crown prince even surprised Arya by breaking into a quick canter. Either her sister was even more grateful than she had thought or the crown prince assumed Sansa wanted to prove her horsemanship. When about an hour later a small inn came into view, the crown prince suggested, “We could get some rest and refreshments there, before we return to the Red Keep. What do you think, my ladies?” as he and Sansa slowed down into a walk. So, this was it? Both Arya and her stallion weren’t keen to rest already. “Though, it’s kind of a shame that marvellous stallion of your Lady Sister won’t be exercised properly today.” the crown prince chatted with Sansa. What was he up to now?

“I’d gladly offer to change that, in order to make amends for my brother’s awful behaviour. Would you mind, Lady Sansa?” the crown prince asked. Over my dead body! “No, my prince, I think it an excellent idea. We surely can spare you for a little while.” Sansa assured. What!? How dare she?  “Your grace, I thank you, but my steed doesn’t like to be ridden by strangers. He’s kind of stubborn.” Arya announced sullen. “Oh, no, my lady, I had thought you would join me for a ride to that old oak tree atop the hill over there.” Bloody bastard! “Unless, of course, you feel too tired, Lady Arya?” the crown prince looked at her challengingly. “I’m not tired!” she announced, feeling offended. “Then it’s settled!” he smirked at her, “A race.” “No, it’s not! I can’t leave my sister here alone.” “Don’t be silly, Arya! I’m not alone.” Sansa rolled her eyes and Myrcella added, “Rest assured, Tommen and I will keep your sister company and the Kingsguard will keep her just as safe as us, Lady Arya.” “Well, it’s not only my sister’s reputation that’s at stake here!” she countered furiously. “Arya! You can hardly mean to imply the crown prince would have anything else in mind than to give both your stallions the exercise they crave!” Sansa chided outraged. You bet! “It’s just a few leagues, we’ll be back within less than half an hour, Lady Arya. And I assure your honour won’t be questioned on your return.” the crown prince appeased. “Fine, I’ll race you, your grace!” Arya huffed and then challenged, “Want a head start?” “Arya!” Sansa reprimanded again, but the crown prince grinned satisfied, “Do I look like I need one, my lady?” “Yes!” and she darted over the meadows, barely hearing Sansa’s anew chiding.

When she turned in her saddle, she saw him gaining ground. Fool, she wanted him to catch up and only then go full speed. She was no cheat. Like him! And this time she would get to see his dumb face! Her horse was younger and leaner and the prouder stallion, he would rather die than lose a race, and she was not only the lighter rider but clearly the better horseman; and the two of them had raced smug fools like that stupid prince before. So, by the time the crown prince arrived atop the hill, her mount was demonstratively grazing and Arya leaned against the oak’s trunk, mirroring his smug grin from the day before, announcing, “You’re late, your grace!” and bowed to him. “I can see that!” he laughed out loud.

But what he hadn’t seen, was how quickly her grin had disappeared, making way for the rage that had been boiling inside of her since the day before, “So, here I am!” she snapped, “What do you want? My help to woo my sister? Fine! Anything to teach that Tyrell viper a lesson!” “Um, that teaching a lesson sounds tempting, …” he almost stammered over her sudden outburst, “but I honestly just thought you might like to go riding. A real ride! I thought it might be a good way to make up for my brother’s behaviour, and your sister thought so, too.” “And what about your own behaviour, your grace!?” she spat. “What do you mean?” he knew exactly what she meant. “Not telling me who you were, stupid!” she hissed, “I hope you enjoyed my dumb face last night! Because, thanks to you, now everyone thinks I’m swooning over you!” “Which you are not?” he teased, showing that annoying smug grin of his again. “No, of course not!” she snarled fuming. “And I like that!” he stated smiling. Huh? “Then why pretend we hadn’t met before last night?” she frowned annoyed. “Maybe I like the two of us sharing a little secret?” he teased again, chuckling. “Rubbish!” she had enough of this and got back onto her horse to return to the inn.

“I did it to protect you!” he claimed, now trotting next to her. “Liar!” “I’m not lying!” he appeased. “Doesn’t matter! Since I told you, I can handle myself! I don’t need you to protect me!” she huffed, “In fact, you’re lucky, you’re alive! I almost stabbed you in the vaults!” “You’d kill a man with his own dirk?” he teased. “Without blinking.” she spat, glaring at him, “I’m serious!” “So am I, my lady!” he stated, suddenly all waggishness gone, “There are people here at court who’d do anything to gain power.” “You mean Lady Margaery?” “Yeah, but not exclusively.” he sighed. “Then why don’t send her away?” Arya frowned. “Don’t you think I’d done so if I could? If it wouldn’t insult whole House Tyrell?” he huffed and was silent for a moment, “There is only one way to make her back off.” Which is? she looked at him quizzically. “Marry someone else.” he sighed again. “Then why not do that? Marry someone else?” Arya retorted and suggested, “Marry my sister! She’s not as stupid as you think. You need a brain to play that dumb, you know!” At that he chuckled slightly, though no longer cheerful, almost sad. “I know your sister isn’t stupid, Lady Arya. In fact, I think her one of the smartest women at court.” he paused again, “There were other girls, not quite so smart, you know, and they disappeared rather quickly from court, married off or removed dishonoured. So, believe me, Lady Arya, you don’t want Lady Margaery or anyone else to know, you and I had met in the vaults. And so far, your sister had been the only one to outwit ‘the viper’ as you call her aptly, for so long.”

“That’s because Sansa’s a wolf! She’s like Lady, sweet and kind, but that doesn’t mean she won’t bite your head off, if you provoke her enough.” Arya explained, somehow proud of her sister. “I know.” “So, what’re you waiting for? You hardly find a more beautiful bride!” she snorted over his foolishness. “You surprise me, Lady Arya!” he chuckled, now more cheerful again, “As I had understood the Stark sisters fight like cats and dogs, and, yet, here you are, championing your sister.” he even smiled at her, without teasing. “Just because I don’t like her, doesn’t mean I don’t love her!” Arya snorted, “And I won’t have her disrespected or disgraced! By neither you nor that Tyrell snake.” “I have no intention to do that, Lady Arya.” he assured, becoming more serious again, “I just doubt, um, that you sister’s feelings towards me are true. I’m not suggesting she is doing it deliberately, to mislead me. But I think she is in love with the idea of marrying the crown prince, not with me.” “And you want her to love you?” Arya asked after a while, studying him, as he thought of the right way to answer, “I like your sister, really, I do, Lady Arya.” he paused again. But? She frowned and narrowed her eyes. “But, I’m glad, she isn’t in love with me for real, because I don’t think I could … return the affection.” “Then you’re an idiot!” Arya huffed angrily and made her steed race back to the inn, feeling as if the crown prince had offended her sister, even though she somehow knew he was right about Sansa’s feelings towards him.

So, in the end, the ride back to the Red Keep had been quite the same as before, the crown prince and Sansa had led the way and they, the younger siblings, followed behind; Arya sullen as before the ride, only now brooding over what the crown prince had said, about Margaery and Sansa. Stupid bull-headed prince. Upon arrival at the stables, he had offered her to find a stable boy who could exercise her stallion adequately, obviously meant to appease her, but she had declined, saying their household guard Harwin deserved that honour, after all he had raised and trained the steed alongside his father Hullen. So, Arya had only thanked him and his siblings for the invitation to the ride and had let Sansa do the rest of the sweet-talk and waited for her sister to follow her back to the Tower of the Hand. “Sansa, why are you friends with Margaery?” she had asked, before her sister could disappear into her chamber to have a bath.

Chapter Text

After her conversation with her sister, Arya was even more intent to avoid the company of Lady Margaery and was grateful Princess Myrcella invited her to join her circle, whenever her Lady Mother made her attend any women only activities. Unfortunately, her mother soon made her attend even more of them, claiming, now that Arya had gained the princess’s favour, she had to make sure, she kept it.

Princess Myrcella had proven to be kind and thoughtful from the start, and she didn’t seem to mind that Arya was struggling with court rules and court politics. Over the following fortnights the princess subtly provided her insight into the political dynamics at court, so Arya could learn to avoid some of the accidental embarrassments Lady Margaery was clearly hoping for. Like, when she had accepted invitations for a stroll in the gardens from three ladies, and had attempted to kill two birds with one stone by arranging a stroll of four; ignorant of the hostility between two of the ladies. Though, Arya slowly began to understand life at court, it didn’t change the fact, that she hated it, especially the females only activities, where she felt the most out of place. What did her mother expect? She hated all those things at Winterfell, why should a change of scenery change that? All those strolls and silly conversations, boring reading sessions, and most of all those awful embroidery sessions, couldn’t fulfil her and never would. That just wasn’t her!

So, of course, Arya couldn’t overcome temptation to sneak away as soon as she saw a chance; to slip into her boy clothes and wander the keep almost incognito, to feel like herself again. As in Winterfell, she befriended stable boys and kitchen staff, who in fact provided way better intel on the dynamics at court, especially the latest gossip. But Arya didn’t care about rumours, what she cared about was getting to know the place; finding different, faster ways to get to the dragon skull vault to spend some time with Balerion; but only went there when she was halfway sure she wouldn’t stumble upon that bull-headed prince again. And she now always checked the dark corners, before she battled Balerion again, who soon seemed to like playing around with her like that, probably due to the delicacies she offered him, when they negotiated for peace afterwards. And soon he showed her willingly around in the other vaults. One of them, full with old dragon-ornamented furniture and tapestries, she chose as her secret practice ground and hideout for her treasures.

But all that didn’t solve her ultimate problem. That she was in this place that she hated for a reason she hated even more. And the more time passed, the more suitors had popped up, real ones this time. Arya loathed each and every one of them. Especially some old childless riverlord, who obviously had believed, having fought side by side with her Tully grandfather, would grant him her hand in marriage; since she only would be a second daughter, and last in line to inherit, he had claimed. Arya had raged, stating she could just as well marry her uncle Blackfish, then, and had threatened to gouge the man’s eyes out, if he ever so much as looked in her or her sister’s direction again. When the man had demanded an apology, her Lady Mother surprisingly had raged no less, telling him to stay away from her and Sansa if he cared for his life. Sadly, Lady Catelyn hadn’t agreed with her on the other suitors; mostly younger sons of lesser houses. But at least her three original suitors had seemed unwilling to step aside already.

Two days after Lord Renly’s nameday, Ned Dayne had invited Arya for a stroll in the gardens and it soon became somehow a routine for them, a pleasant one, and not only because Ned’s regular company kept the other suitors at bay and even seemed to make some of them back off again. Arya truly enjoyed his company. He was clever and kind, and seemed one of only a few people at court without secret agendas. And despite he was friends with the crown prince, Lord Renly, Ser Loras and the others, he was somehow quieter, even shy at times, and seemed slightly more settled than them; even though, he was the youngest in their round.  But what Arya was most grateful for was, that Ned kept inviting her to go riding regularly. At first, his squire and Jeyne Poole had been tasked to chaperone them, but Arya convinced her Lady Mother, Harwin would be more up to the task; and so, she and her stallion could go riding for real again. Also, it was splendid to not be chided upon returning rosy-cheeked and with a loosened braid afterwards. The prospect of young Lord Dayne asking for Arya’s hand any moment now, made Lady Catelyn more indulgent to her escapades than ever before. But Ned never did, and proved he was indeed a true friend, who accepted Arya the way she was.

Lord Renly and Ser Loras had joined the king on his hunt in the Kingswood after the nameday feast, but clearly it was the king who had enjoyed the hunting the most. So, when some urgent business called Lord Renly to Storm’s End Ser Loras had accompanied him there. About a moon’s turn later they both returned to the Red Keep and immediately courted Arya again. They invited her for a stroll in the garden, the day after their return, and some days later even a picnic at the shores of the Blackwater Rush, where Jeyne Pool happily chaperoned, since both Ser Loras and Lord Renly were known for their taste for luxury, and lived up to their reputation that day. The only problem was, any activity with them, especially at court, was always over-shadowed by Margaery; Arya knew, if the competition between Sansa and Margaery would escalate, Ser Loras and with him Lord Renly, wouldn’t side with them, but with that Tyrell viper.

But until then Arya decided to enjoy their casual company, and though his wooing wasn’t real Ser Loras kept his promise and soon took her to the Street of Steel to see the work of that armourer he had spoken of at the feast. Unsurprisingly, they met Lord Renly and Prince Tommen there, commissioning new armour for the young prince. And of course, Lord Renly immediately offered he and Tommen could join them for their boat trip afterwards. “Actually, my lord, I suddenly feel a bit dizzy, so I don’t think sailing would agree with me today.” Arya replied, seeing disappointed looks appear on both, the Knight of Flowers’ and the stormlord’s face. They obviously had misunderstood her, so she quickly suggested Lord Renly should take her place instead, claiming then Ser Loras wouldn’t have wasted all his efforts and assured she could keep Tommen company, while he commissioned his armour and would return to the keep with him. “I believe, I just now came to fully understand the rare beauty of the winter rose, my lady!” Ser Loras kissed her hand delighted, making her blush in embarrassment. “You are one of a kind indeed, Lady Arya.” the stormlord added, before they both entered Ser Loras’ litter.

“That was generous of you, Lady Arya. Usually ladies insist on keeping up appearances until they found themselves other suitors.” the young prince stated and after a while he asked, “My lady, would you mind, if we’d stay here a little longer? Then Gendry could return with us to the keep?” “Um, sure, your grace.” Arya wasn’t exactly excited about spending time with that stupid crown prince again, but she could hardly refuse and the young prince was nice enough company, maybe shier than Bran, but still he reminded her of her own younger brother. When Master Mott and his servant girl were about to take the prince’s measurements, Tommen asked, “My lady, would you like to visit him in the back?” “Who?” “Gendry.” “He’s here!?” she asked puzzled. “Yes, at the forge.” Tommen assured. “Girl, show my lady the way!” the armourer instructed, suspecting the young prince felt uncomfortable having women there.

Wondering what the crown prince could be doing at the forge, Arya followed the slim girl to the small yard behind the house, “M’lady can wait here, I’ll get Gendry.” the girl said and entered the big stone barn. Did she just refer to him without his title? She probably misheard. Arya followed the maid absently into the dimly lit building, drawn in by the so familiar scents and sounds of steel being hammered. Smoke. Steam. Iron. Carbon. Mikken’s forge. Though, the hot, steamy air almost took her breath away and small pearls of sweat instantly appeared on her forehead, Arya didn’t mind, finally, something felt just like home. Journeymen and apprentices were busy working at several forges; clearly, already preparing for the upcoming tourney. Yet, she soon felt their eyes on her, probably thinking her completely out of place in her dark green satin dress. If only they knew. She could stay here for ages.

Her eyes drank in the familiarity of this place, until they landed on the bare back of the man the girl was now talking to. Wait!? Arya frowned, when it slowly dawned on her, was this ? In the same instant the girl noticed her and nudged the man’s arm, making him turn around abruptly. Seven hells! It was him! “Arya!?” he blurted out shocked, before he remembered his manners and stammered, “My lady! What are you doing here!?” “Um,” she was equally dumbfounded, “Tommen, um, your brother, the armourer …” now she was indeed grateful for the heat, feeling a blush creeping up her neck, “he’s taking his measurements, um, your grace.”  “Oh. Um, okay.” he replied, just as flustered as her. “I told her to wait outside!” the girl explained, close to panic, causing Arya to realise she was somehow intruding. “I’m sorry.” she offered embarrassed, biting on her lip, and was almost grateful when the crown prince regained his composure and his wits, “Don’t worry, Elinor! The Lady Arya isn’t exactly known for doing as she is told, isn’t that right, my lady?” Almost grateful.

He walked up to her, the surprised fluster on his face slowly making way to a smile, that was about to turn into his annoying grin, “So, my lady went exploring again, huh?” he teased. “No.” she felt like caught with her hand in the cookie jar and could barely look at him without blinking nervously, still feeling completely flustered, “It’s just, the forge smelt, sounded just like home, you know.” she admitted, reprimanding herself to regain her wits, “I just was told you were at the forge, I didn’t know, um, you’d be …” “Working?” he tried to guess the ending of her unfinished sentence; and she could only nod, grimy, sweaty, half-n… like that! Catching her eyes trail down from his striking blue eyes, she was glad he at least wore an apron, and swallowed nervously. Damn, get your shit together, she was getting angry at herself and found the ground underneath her feet to be a way less unsettling sight.

“So, you work here?” she tried to overcome the awkwardness, when he stayed silent. “Sometimes.” he replied calm, studying her. “Why?” she felt now completely confused and frowned at him. “It was my hideout when I was younger.” he explained, shrugging. Hiding from what? But before she could ask, he went on, “I was here so often, Master Mott one day jested, I could just as well apprentice for him.” “And so you did?” she asked still dumbfounded, and chided herself, stop stating the obvious! “So, I did.” he smiled at her again. And you stop smiling! “And the king and queen just let you do this?” she asked unbelieving. “When they found out, I was halfway done with my apprenticeship.” he chuckled, “And Arryn convinced them it would be a good thing. So here I am.” he grinned, but not in a smug way, somehow happy. If she had tried something like that, she would be a Silent Sister by now, she was sure of it, envying him, yet, she found herself smiling.

“So, how come my lady stumbled into Mott’s shop with Tommen? Did something escape my notice?” he asked teasingly, “Has now even my baby brother joined the Wolf Hunt?” “What!?” she asked puzzled. “I was jesting. I think, I’d know if that were the case!” he appeased. “No, I meant, there is a name for it!? As if it were some game?” “I fear so.” he bit his lip to not to laugh. “Seven hells!” “Seven hells, indeed. First, everyone was afraid of rabies, upon hearing the She-wolf of Winterfell is coming and now half the court is after you!” “I’m no bloody trophy!” she huffed furiously. “Join the club!” he snorted amused. “So, with you it’s the Stag Hunt, or what?” she scoffed. “Probably.” he laughed, “All I ever heard was a joke when your sister arrived, about a rose growing strong for years, only to watch a wolf snatch her prey from under her nose.” “So, you plan hiding here until either lose interest, or what?” she mocked. “Well, obviously, one wolf managed to sniff me out here now!” he grinned.

“Yeah, one in need of a hideout herself, so, obviously, you have nothing to fear from me!” she huffed frustrated and then got an idea, “Can I hide here?” Which clearly stunned him, and made him scratch the back of his head at a loss of words, “Well, um-” “Maybe just today?” she almost pleaded. “Um, you see, when I’m here, I’m just a journeyman, and I’ve got work to do.” “I don’t mind! I can, um,” she looked around and her gaze fell onto an old wooden stool close to his workplace. “sit over there, and watch.” “You want to sit there? On that dirty stool? And watch me work!?” he asked taken aback. “I won’t disturb you, I promise. Mikken and I usually talked, but if you rather prefer silence, then I just sit there like a mute, until you’re done. You won’t even know I’m here.” she pleaded, her mind made up and he reluctantly gave in, “Fine.” and told the dumbfounded servant girl to bring Arya some clean cloth to cover the grimy stool, “I won’t return you to your father and mother all dirty again.” he insisted, when she objected.

At first, he seemed quite tense, having her there, watching him, and decided, “I think, I don’t mind some talking either.” “What would you like to talk about?” she felt slightly tense herself, yet, she somehow liked seeing the usually so smug prince so bashful now. “Um, I don’t know. Wanna tell me about that Mikken of yours?” he suggested, studying her. “He’s not my Mikken, stupid!” she snorted with laughter, “He’s old and fat and happily married. He’s the master blacksmith at Winterfell, and he is my friend. He made my Needle.” “Your needle?” he asked puzzled. “My sword.” “So, it’s true, my lady is a swordswoman?” “Yes.” “Interesting.” and soon the spell on him seemed broken, he began to relax and even seemed to enjoy having her there.

However, seeing him now entirely focussed on the piece of armour, increased the tension she felt. He was good. Better than good, she realised amazed, as she turned to watch the other journeymen. Mott didnt just try to keep on the right side of the future king. He saw something in him. He had talent. Now, that he was working, and she had time to sort her thoughts, it dawned on her, this was the real Prince Gendry. No, this was Gendry. No titles. No pretence. Just the man. Just Gendry. The man who somehow flustered her, unsettled her. She tried to figure out what it was, that was so confusing about him, but looking at him only seemed to make things worse.

Her own eyes seemed to rebel against her will. She wanted to watch him work the metal, but somehow her eyes found him the more interesting sight, and she hated it; especially that she was barely able to keep her gaze away from his bare chest and back. Nothing there for you to look at, she chided herself. But it didn’t help. She hated, she was now noticing all kind of different things about him she had never seen before; His striking blue eyes, in stark contrast to his dark hair. The way he looked, completely focussed on the metal in front of him. How he sometimes bit his lower lip in concentration. His lips were just the right amount of full, not too full, like the wormy lips of his nasty brother. He was handsome. Her own mind seemed to scream at her now, of course, he is, stupid! He’s Renly’s lookalike! You noticed the stormlord was handsome as soon as you saw him, you bloody fool!

“My lady, are you alright?” she suddenly heard him asking, and found herself frowning and staring at some set of tongs, “Um, yes, I was just thinking of something.” “More like brooding over something.” he chuckled, and only then she realised he had finished the piece of armour, “Are you done?” Her mind chided again, stop stating the obvious! “For today, yes.” he smiled, “How about you check on Tommen now? I’ll join you in a moment. I can’t return to the keep looking like that, can I?” he suggested, when he led her out of the stone barn, she only nodded. “Make sure he buys some decent armour!” he called after her, while she crossed the small yard, “If I see him running around in fancy ornamented mirrors, I’ll blame you, my lady.” he winked at her, and walked to the well next to the stone barn.

When she had entered the house again, Tommen had already approved the design Master Mott had drawn for him. “What do you think of it, Lady Arya?” No mirrors, but fancy enough. “An armour worthy of a king, your grace.” and she had meant it. Tommen’s chest had clearly swelled with pride upon hearing it. As they had waited for the crown prince to join them, Master Mott had showed her examples of his exquisite work, amazed to find a woman and a noble one at that, understand armoury. However, Arya had been somewhat absent during the whole time and had seemed to quieten even more on the ride back to the keep, glad the young prince next to her had talked all the way, completely excited about the upcoming tourney now; and grateful his older brother had chosen to ride behind them with Harwin and the Kingsguard knight.

During the following days, Arya had barely seen him again, just like before her visit at the forge, they had at times crossed each other’s path in the palace, where he as usual was in the company of her sister and Lady Margaery, but they only exchanged pleasantries, as if nothing ever had happened and Arya didn’t mind. In fact, she always felt herself relaxing as soon as he was out of sight again. She rather spent her time with her false suitors and Princess Myrcella; who seemed to get even more intent on showing Lady Margaery to go after Arya would mean to cross her.

The Princess and Trystane Martell joined her and Ned Dayne now regularly on their strolls in the gardens, and soon even on their rides. But Arya knew, the princess didn’t only do that to shield her from Margaery. In this case, the princess had her very own agenda. The young Dornish prince was now openly courting her, to the clear displeasure of the queen and Prince Joffrey. So, Arya’s company offered the princess somehow protection as well. Prince Joffrey couldn’t risk to clash with her again, without proving to her Lord Father that his insult at Renly’s nameday feast hadn’t just happened due to his drunken state.

The only thing that soon puzzled Arya, was, when the four of them went riding now, they more and more often met Prince Gendry somewhere on the road or in the woods. He was returning empty-handed from hunting, or from visits at some Crownlands keep, and apparently, he even went fishing at the Blackwater; just as lucky as in hunting. Aside from a Kingsguard knight he always was on his own then, and each time decided spontaneously to join them. What was the matter with him? If he didn’t trust Prince Trystane with his sister, then why not chaperone them officially? Why this charade to somehow stumble across them all the time? Why not forbid their rides and strolls and be done with it? And why was Myrcella never getting mad at him? She clearly liked Trystane, and obviously wanted to spend time with him away from the prying eyes at court. However, what flustered Arya even more, was, when she had asked Ned, he had told her, he wouldn’t know why Gendry acted so strange lately. And it was a lie! Arya was sure of it. Ned had never lied to her before. So why now? What was going on?

Chapter Text

In the following moon’s turns, the court finally lost somewhat interest in Arya. It seemed, she being far more civilized, than the wild rumours prior her arrival had claimed, was quite disappointing to some of those pompous pricks. What had they expected? A fur-clad freak of nature, unable to speak the human tongue, lusting after human flesh? As they obviously lusted after scandals to overcome their constant boredom. But Arya didn’t mind to no longer cause the big ripples at the Red Keep. That was soon a lord who had brought a common whore posing as his wife to court, only to be discovered when said woman had demanded payment for her services from other lords. And after that it was a lady who had been a widow for over three years but was now highly pregnant, and obviously had never heard of moon tea. The people at court had quite fun with that, speculating and betting on who the father might be, but were quite disappointed it never was revealed. The gossip and hoping for other people’s bad luck just went on and on, like a never-ending spiral.

So, Arya was just glad, she was no longer the centre of attention. With no longer all eyes on her, it made many things easier, like skipping sewing sessions or at least sneaking away in the middle of it. But probably also since she had managed to keep her attendance at court activities now at a minimum. With Loras and Renly back at court, she had a quite busy schedule with her false suitors and could pretend she needed to rest in advance or afterwards, because of all the exhausting riding and sailing and things her suitors invited her to.

Loras and Renly now came up with all kind of ideas, how the three of them could enjoy themselves. Like, when they took her and Jeyne to a small Blackwater Bay island, where they picnicked together on top of some hill overseeing the whole bay and then the two men spent the afternoon at one beach and Arya and Jeyne at another, bathing and swimming; squealing and romping as if they were little again. Another time, they took her and Jeyne to see a play. It was hilarious. Not the play, she couldn’t even tell what it had been about afterwards. But Renly and Loras had provided a ton of food again, so, the four of them soon had started a cherry-stone spitting contest, trying to the hit the high-teased hair of the snobby ladies in the audience around them; and when there were no more cherries left they just threw whatever small thing they could get hold of. Still, those numb nuts were too stupid to find out where the things came flying from, even though, Renly was roaring with laughter all the time and even Jeyne couldn’t help but laughing herself to tears.

Arya’s time with Ned was different, less exciting and less fancy, mostly just strolling or riding, but that was fine, she and Ned were anyway busy chatting all the time, so they couldn’t have focussed much on other things. They just got along perfectly and felt sympathetic to each other. If it hadn’t been for that tiny little cloud that had been hanging over their heads for a while, when he had lied to her about Prince Gendry chaperoning his sister, or whatever that was. At first, Arya had even feared, Ned lying to her would mean he might get tired of her and their friendship. But thankfully, it was just this one time, one lie. So, obviously it must have been something that didn’t concern her. Maybe, the prince had sworn him to secrecy? Probably, yeah, that must be it! she told herself and tried not to think it over too much.

At court Ned was the only one she could really talk to, about pretty much anything. Well, almost anything. He didn’t know about the dragon skull thing. She didn’t know why she never told him, since it was no big deal, but telling him felt somehow wrong. Or about the forge. That felt even more wrong to tell, him or anyone. Absolutely wrong. She still felt warmth creeping up her neck, just thinking about … him. At first, she had feared the prince might mention something about her visit in the forge, when he joined the four of them riding. But he never did, and that somehow helped Arya to calm down when he was around, almost as if it never happened. Before long, it was actually fun, listening to him and Ned, teasing each other and blurting out embarrassing stories about each other, or from when they squired and pranked each other and most of all poor Lancel Lannister, the Forever Squire; as they still called him, since he was squiring until he was almost twenty. Arya was snorting with laughter at that, having met Ser Lancel by now herself, she could totally visualize the clumsy blond sticking out between the younger and smaller squires.

Arya soon found herself waiting to see Prince Gendry coming forth between the trees or behind the next hilltop. Their stories reminded her so much of Robb and Jon and Theon, how they were pranking each other, and how she and Bran often had been involved somehow, too. Once even Sansa, so Theon couldn’t smell the rat, when they had downsized his favourite breeches, to make him think he got fat. Arya could still recall his dumb face and swearing when the seams over his bum ripped, that was one of their best pranks, definitively. Theon would have never found out, if they hadn’t all five stood there, bursting into laughter. And so had Gendry, Ned and Trystane and Myrcella, when she had told them, trying to impose Theon’s expression. The princess had almost laughed herself to tears and had teased her brother, it would seem as if he were eager to find out how poor Theon had felt. So, maybe Myrcella was annoyed by his chaperoning, after all? But he had only laughed and thanked her for the warning, claiming now he could get fat and blame it all on her.

“You seem happy, child.” her lady mother told her after that ride, and Arya’s mood soured within an instant. She knew exactly why her mother said that. Lady Catelyn was waiting for her to say certain things. So, she told her mother just the opposite, the truth, “I’m not in love with Ned! And I don’t want to marry him!” “Is that so?” Lady Catelyn cocked her brow, clearly doubting her words, and Sansa teased, “Come on, Arya, you’re literally beaming right now!” “Because I was riding, stupid! But not what you call riding,” Arya snorted annoyed, “the feeling-absolutely-exhausted-afterwards-kind of riding! So, of course, my skin is flushed now!” “Doesn’t explain why you were happily grinning like an idiot!” Sansa wouldn’t give up.

“Girls, enough!” their mother reprimanded and then turned to Arya, “You’re still so young, child. How could you possibly know what love is?” And just when Arya had hoped her mother might finally see reason, Lady Catelyn had to ruin it, “Or what isn’t! I actually believe, you’re quite smitten with young Lord Dayne. You just don’t know it, yet. But the signs are all there.” Theres way too much idiocy in this room here, Arya covered her face in her palms, before she again attempted to make them see reason, “I don’t love Ned! The signs you see, are that I like him. As my friend, as I like Mycah. Do you think I want to marry Mycah?” she asked and looked at both of them, who exchanged a worried look. Bloody fools! “Seven hells! No! I don’t want to marry Mycah! And with Ned it’s just the same. It feels just the same! That’s not love! Just friendship.” and retired to her chamber fuming. Bloody idiots.

After her mother’s anew attempt to talk her into entrapping Ned Dayne into marriage, Arya had arranged with him to skip their riding for a moon’s turn, to prove her point to those two fools. And instead, she had gone riding with Renly and Loras; who at some point always had rested somewhere, while Arya and Harwin had raced each other, exercising both hers and her father’s steed. And afterwards, Arya had each time returned deliberately grinning like a dreamily idiot, waiting for her lady mother and sister to take the bait. Of course they had, foolish as they were. Before the moon’s turn was over, they had been keen to tell her, that she indeed would be in love with Ned. Idiots. But Arya had mischievously announced, she hadn’t been riding with Ned for a while now, “So, obviously I just love riding very much!” and completely enjoyed their dumb faces upon hearing that.

However, what she hadn’t thought of was Myrcella. Just some days later, the princess had invited Arya to join her for some lemon cake and had asked her, if she, the crown prince or Trystane would have wronged her somehow. “What? No! Never!” Arya was puzzled, “What makes you think that, your grace?” Myrcella then had explained, how strange she had found it that Arya wouldn’t want to go riding with them anymore. Arya had apologised for not letting Myrcella in on her plan and explained she had to do it, so her mother and sister would refrain from pushing her to talk Ned into marriage. The princess had laughed out loud at that, suggesting they could switch their mothers, since hers couldn’t stand the idea of her with Trystane or any man; and they had amusedly exchanged their experiences with their dominant mothers.

“Well, since this obviously was just a misunderstanding, I think, I should give you this now.” Myrcella whispered after a while, and handed her subtly a small scroll of parchment, causing Arya to frown over the unexpected secrecy all of a sudden, “What is it?” “Why don’t you see for yourself, my lady.” Myrcella chuckled, though, watching closely as Arya unrolled the scroll in her lap. A note, she realised surprised, ‘Still interested in the passageway?  Nightfall. You know where. Breeches are mandatory.’ Arya could feel the blood rushing to her face and making her ears buzz. She blinked confused and read it again. It made no sense. When she looked up, the princess smiled clearly pleased and Arya asked in disbelief, “You know who this is from, your grace!?” “Don’t you!?” Myrcella’s smile was now replaced by confusion, “I was said, you would understand, my lady.” the princess whispered somewhat disappointed. “Um, I do know. But I don’t understand, well, I do understand, the note. But why?” Arya stated dumbfounded. “That you should rather ask someone else, don’t you think, my lady?” the princess smiled again.

When she entered the vault shortly before nightfall, he was already waiting, leaning against the skull of the Black Dread, ruffling Balerion’s fur. “Why so late?” she asked forthright, unable to not sound somewhat annoyed. “Good day to you, too, my lady.” he laughed, “Should I’ve done this sooner?” “No. Maybe.” she retorted, “No, I meant, why nightfall?” she immediately felt tense again. This was a bad idea. She shouldnt have come. He looked clearly amused and teased, “Maybe it’s more fun after nightfall?” before his expression softened, “I’ve got something for you.” he pulled out a cloak from behind him. “I’m not cold.” she stated confused. “That’s good to know. But it’s also meant to shield you from prying eyes, and most of all to not get all dirty again.” he chuckled. “And what about you?” she asked, fearing he was just coddling her. “I’ve got one, too.” he stepped aside, to let her see, there was another one. “You know, if your note had said ‘breeches AND cloak are mandatory’ I’d brought one myself.” “Well, I had a spare one …” he shrugged and japed, “I only mentioned breeches, so you’d know, this wouldn’t be any posh stroll!” “I’m not stupid!” “No, that you’re definitively not.” he chuckled, “But I feared you might come running down here right from supper.”  

“So, may I?” he stepped behind her and when she pulled her braid forth, so he could place the cloak around her shoulders, his hand accidently brushed hers, causing Arya to look up at him in surprise; over the sudden tingling his touch had caused on her skin. “Fits perfectly.” he said quietly, locking his gaze with hers. “Thanks to Myrcella, I suspect.” she murmured almost absently. “Damn, you caught me!” he laughed, pulling her hood up before he put on his own cloak and walked towards the door, that led deeper down into the vaults. “Ready?” he asked, smiling, when he took the torch from the wall and opened the door, “Some of the way can be quite slippery, so normally I’d suggest you take my hand, but I suspect, you’d decline.” “Damn right!” she snorted amused. “Fine, but I get to say ‘told you so’ when I’m picking you off the ground!” “Only if I get to hit you when you do!?” “Sounds like he have another deal.” he laughed and led her down into the vaults below, until they came to an iron gate, that barred the entrance to a damp narrow tunnel.

And soon they descended down on some indeed slippery steps, which led them into some even damper maze of tunnels. They went left and right and left and left and down some spiral staircase and again through several more tunnels. “Where are all these leading to?” she asked, causing him to chuckle again, “Aren’t you a nosy one?” “I’m not nosy!” “But a curious one.” he turned around and grinned at her. “So!?” she snorted. “Nothing, I like it.” he laughed, “Maybe, we should make nightly exploring something regular, huh?” He then explained, the tunnels originally were built to provide the people in the keep with supplies in case of a siege, or as escape routes, if necessary. But in peace times the tunnels would have a different purpose, providing the castle with other kind of goods.

“You mean whores.” she snorted dismissive, “Is that why you know your ways around here?” He let out a guffaw, “I thought you weren’t the nosy kind.” “I’m not!” she snapped offended, “It just seemed the natural conclusion. You’re a man. Men like whores.” He stopped in his track and turned to face her, looking somewhat serious, “I don’t.” “Why?” she blurted out, and regretted it immediately, “Um, I mean, they’re nice women, are they not?” Better to sound stupid than nosy. “I’m sure they are …” he snorted with laughter, “I just don’t require their services.” “Why that?” she heard herself asking before she knew. Damn! He smirked mischievously at her. Feeling her cheeks and ears reddening, she snorted “I’m not nosy!” before he could say otherwise again. “Just curious, I know.” he chuckled. “Exactly!” she stated stubbornly, “So, why not?” Shut up! her brain seemed to yell at her.

He bit his lip amused, “I recall my mother saying, not to discuss such things with young ladies.” “And I recall my mother saying, not to meet alone with a man, especially not after nightfall.” she countered. “But here you are!?” “Because it’s rubbish!” she huffed, “Unlike Sansa, I can actually protect myself.” He snorted with laughter. “I can!” she snapped. “I believe you.” he nodded at her belt, “Your famous Needle, I assume.” “Exactly.” somehow it made her smile that he remembered. “Though, I hope we don’t need it tonight.” he appeased, “Come on, we’re almost there.” Arya couldn’t say for sure how long they had been in the tunnels, but it must have been close to half an hour until they finally passed through another iron gate and stepped out of some narrow cave, into the fresh air. Well, as fresh as air in a literal shithole can be. “It’s not as bad as it smells.” he claimed, seeing her wrinkle her nose, “Actually it is. But still, there are some nice people living here.”

Following Gendry through the downtrodden area, she mirrored him in keeping a hand on Needle’s hilt. She wasn’t afraid but he had warned her, pickpockets in this part of the city would steel anything they could get hold of. If he talked of experience? Flea Bottom was a maze of twisty narrow alleys and over-leaning buildings; when she looked up, Arya could barely see the sky, and found herself wondering what it must feel like to live here in this dirt and stench. Where even the sun couldnt break through. Some of the alleys were almost empty of people, especially those with pigsties and tanner’s sheds, while those with the whorehouses and winesinks were more than well-frequented.

“In these alleys we’ve to be careful. Lots of folk from the keep here!” Gendry whispered and pulled her closer and Arya quickly pulled her hood further into her face. It was one thing to defy Catelyn Tully, but something else entirely, if someone saw Arya Stark after nightfall alone with a man, crown prince or not. She wasnt suicidal. Gendry then offered her his hand to hold, “This time it’s not up for discussion, my lady!” he whispered, “I won’t lose you here in the crowd and we’re both safer, if people see we’re not alone.” So, she reluctantly placed her hand in his, feeling her heart skip a beat when they touched. “See, you didn’t drop dead from that.” he teased smilingly. Unaware of her body’s strange reaction, he led her through the crowd, while she tried to figure out what was happening to her; feeling the anew tingling spreading through her body in alternating waves of warmth and cold. It felt strange, yet, somehow nice. She couldn’t quite place it. And most of all the Why behind it. This wasn’t the first hand she held, but something like that had never happened. Renly, Loras and Ned had even kissed her hand at times, and nothing happened.

The touch of Gendry’s hand, though, had kept her distracted for quite a while, as they passed through some barely crowded alleys with stables and tanner’s sheds. Only, when they again found themselves facing bigger crowds – stinking of ale and sweat and even vomit and piss and worse – her instincts had taken over and sharpened her senses at once. Some of the drunken men obviously were out for a fight, deliberately bumping into people passing by. But facing Gendry’s tall hooded figure seemed to somewhat clear their minds enough to rethink. “Admit it, now you’re glad you’re not wearing your own cloak!” Gendry japed, when they passed another less crowded alley. “Now that you say that, I suddenly feel tempted to sweep along those nice pigsties walls.” she teased grinningly and moved towards them, but he pulled her back by her hand, “You wouldn’t dare!” he growled, playfully outraged. “Watch me!” and she tried again to reach the dirty walls, but he pulled her back once more, more forceful this time, causing her to bump into him. “Wanna try again!?” he challenged, laughing. “Sure, knocking you over was the plan all along.” He snorted with laughter, “If only you could, my lady, if only you could.” and dragged her along behind him.

They soon were going uphill, towards Rhaenys’s Hill. “I thought we would be staying in Flea Bottom?” Arya frowned. “We are!” he assured and some few alleys later he suddenly stopped outside a tavern, “Here, we are, my lady! Though, I admit, it’s the fancy part of Flea Bottom and I hope my lady doesn’t mind.” he grinned. “We’re going to a tavern!?” she asked incredulously, having assumed he would just give her a quick tour through Flea Bottom and then they would return to the keep. “Only, if you want, of course.” he looked at her somewhat insecure, as if he feared she would hate the idea. “I’m in!” she grinned and pulled him towards the door, but then stopped abruptly, “That is, if you brought any coin!? Since I didn’t.” she felt embarrassed to not have thought of that, “You should’ve mentioned I’d need some silver!” she huffed, causing him to guffaw and show her a purse jangling with coin. “Would that do the trick for my lady?” he teased and led her towards the entrance, “They serve great pies here. The best in the city, if you ask me. So, I hope, you’re hungry.”

As soon as the door was open, the muffled noises they had heard from outside, increased to a loud and obviously boozy babel of voices – roaring laughter and yelling, giggling and chuckling, arguing and teasing, chatting and murmuring – accompanied by stamping and dancing, running and scuffing, clanking crockery and metal and the creaking of wood and fire. However, the taproom smelled surprisingly nice, sure, there were slight scents of sweat and vomit lingering in the air, after all they were still in Flea Bottom, but the dominant scent in the room was that of fresh baked bread and pies, roasted meat and honey, ale and wine and herbs and spices. It made Arya’s mouth water and her stomach growl in anticipation. “You like it?” Gendry smiled, when she removed her hood, seeing, she hadn’t expected to find this after all the shady places they had passed by on their way.

They had barely reached the counter when a slender man with matted blond curls approached them, “Well, I’ll be damned!” He seemed delighted to see Gendry and then yelled, “Hot Pie! Move your arse out here! Guess, who’s visiting tonight!” and a plump man with dark curls and flour all over him hurried from the kitchen and hugged Gendry overjoyed, “What’re you doing here at so late an hour!?” both of them ignored, that Gendry’s clothes were spotted with flour now, too. “Lommy, Hot Pie, this is Arya, a friend of mine.” he stepped aside, so they could see her. “That’s no friend, you damn fool!” Hot Pie objected, rolling his eyes and for a moment, Arya thought he mistook her for a whore, but then Hot Pie went on, “That’s a girlfriend!” and Lommy added, “And a real girl this time! You’re improving, lad!” “What!?

“Don’t listen to them!” Gendry chuckled, yet, looked somewhat embarrassed, “They just love teasing people.” “’People!?” Lommy snorted, “You’re not ‘people’, my simple-minded friend!” giving Gendry a playful smack. “Alright, fine. They love teasing me!” “But, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Arya!” the blond said. “Yeah, pleasure to meet you! Though, you have our sympathies with that one!” Hot Pie chuckled. “Can you imagine, this half-wit here and his pretty Dornish girlfriend were telling us for years they would be some pickpocketing orphan ploughboys.” the plump man roared with laughter, “Thinking us as soft in the head as them, that we wouldn’t know what a real fancy prince would look like!” Arya didn’t get it. “They mean Ned and me!” Gendry laughed. “Yeah, that damn Dayne! Prettier than most girls!” Lommy chuckled. “Present company excepted, of course!” Hot Pie winked. “When we were squires, Ned was barely eleven I think, we stole away from the keep one day and stumbled upon these two fools.” Gendry explained, “And smart-alecky as we were then, we told them we were pickpockets, so we could hang out with them at times, thinking they wouldn’t know who I was.”

“You should’ve seen his dumb face, when he realised, we knew all the time. It was hilarious!” Lommy grinned, “I mean, come on, man, who'd buy such crap?” “She did!” Gendry laughed, and pointed his thumb at Arya. “Hey! That doesn’t count!” she huffed and shoved him, causing him to laugh even more and Hot Pie teased, “Seriously, Arya? Girl, you’re letting us down here, big time!” “How should I've known what your southerners’ princelings look like on my first day in town!?” she snapped indignantly. “Princeling!? Really?” Gendry cocked his eyebrow. “Yeah, princeling,” Lommy snorted amused, “she’s right, it doesn’t count then!” and smacked him again. “So, what’re you doing here?” Hot Pie inquired, “Except for showing off, you found someone even prettier than Ned.” “Careful, lads, she has a thing for young Lord Dayne!” Gendry teased. “No, I don’t!” Arya shoved him again. “So, you brought your girlfriend’s girlfriend! Damn, you’re a real charmer!” Lommy roared with laughter, ignoring Arya’s protest, until she kicked him in the shin, “I’m nobody’s girlfriend!” “Oh, sorry, Lom! I should've mentioned she has a temper, should I!?” Gendry teased innocently and then turned to Hot Pie, “We’re here for pies and your superb company, of course.”

“Well, in that case, follow me!” Hot Pie waddled to a booth in a corner, where a man and a woman were entwined in more than a tight embrace, “Hey, you two! Get yourselves a room! And do it elsewhere! This is a respectable establishment.” he shooed them away, so they could sit there. Over ale and indeed delicious pies Arya got to hear how Gendry, Ned and some other squires from the Red Keep befriended the dyer’s apprentice and baker’s boy from Flea Bottom, resulting in Gendry and Ned eventually lending them the money to buy this tavern right below the Street of Flour; which thanks to Hot Pie’s obvious talents in the kitchen and Lommy’s entertaining big mouth soon became Flea Bottom’s secret gem.

It had been hilarious with Hot Pie and Lommy, how they seemingly lacked any respect of the crown prince and had made fun of him, calling him an idiot as if it were nothing. And how Gendry had tried to convince her, that in the beginning of their friendship the two innkeeps in fact would have had no idea who he was and now only called him all those names to cover that up. But Hot Pie had insisted their story would be the truth. “Okay, Hot Pie, if that is the case, why don’t you tell her about that huge battle you once witnessed?” and both Gendry and Lommy had roared with laughter, “You know, that one outside an alehouse, here in Flea Bottom!” “Yeah, Arya, you really need to hear that! It’s hilarious!” Lommy had claimed, “Or ask him what he thinks a knight is!” and again he and Gendry had snorted with laughter. “Oh, yeah? And how about you tell her that you blind fool actually thought Ned was a girl? Until the very day when you saw him taking a piss!” Hot Pie had countered, resulting in him and Lommy bickering and ranting like an old married couple and Gendry had told her, his two lowborn friends would soon marry the feistiest twin sisters in the city, “Can you imagine the bickering and ranting then!?” and they had both snorted with laughter.

It had been less than three hours till dawn, when they had eventually decided to return to the Red Keep. Outside the tavern, Gendry had offered her his hand again, to prevent her from falling in her slightly tipsy state, he had said, and this time she had taken it without hesitating. However, it hadn’t prevented her from stubbornly blaming the late hour and the scent of Flea Bottom for her slight dizziness, and she had even suggested another race, all the way through Flea Bottom and up through the tunnels and vaults back to the Tower of the Hand to prove him wrong. “So, my lady wants me to run myself into the ground just days before the tourney?” he had teased. “It’s a stupid tourney, anyway!” she had snorted. “Why that?” he had furrowed his brow. “It’s a men only thing. So, it’s stupid! And boring.” she had huffed, “Just like the women only things at court. Nothing I need to attend!”

“And there I thought, you would be eager to beat the likes of my uncle Tyrion and Littlefinger.” he had stated, making her to look up at him, frowning, “What do you mean?” “Well, women aren’t exactly excluded from the bets, my lady. Most ladies just don’t do it, because they think it’s unladylike, unless betting on the knights they fancy.” he explained. “I’m not ‘most ladies’!” she stated stubbornly. “Exactly! Those pretty fools are all wondering why they keep losing. They don’t understand what they’re betting on! But you do, Arya!” he went on, encouraging her, “With your quick wit and expertise in swordsmanship and riding, you could make quite some coin in this tourney.” “I’m good at archery, too! Theon taught me, he’s one of the best bowmen in the North.” she declared proudly. “See! You’ve all the skills you need to empty everyone else’s pockets!” he softly nudged her shoulder. “If I beat you, we’re doing this race here! All the way from the tavern to the Tower of the Hand. Right after the tourney!” she announced, grinningly. “Wouldn’t that be a little unfair?” he teased, “Think of all the bruises I’ll have then!” “Do you ever run out of excuses!?” she huffed. “No, do you?” he smirked mischievously. “Never!”

They had walked the rest of the way in silence, not the awkward kind, a nice kind of silence, She liked it. Just as holding his hand, she liked that, too. She had thought of pulling hers away as soon as they had entered the cave, but she hadn’t; thinking, he could let go just as well, if he wanted to. But he hadn’t either, not when he had closed the iron gate, not in the tunnels, not on the spiral staircase, though, that had been a bit tricky, and not afterwards, when they had come to the vaults. However, when they hadn’t returned to the dragon skulls, Arya’s instincts had raised the alarm, “Where are we going!?” “You to your bed, my lady, and me to mine, don’t worry!” he appeased, “But I can hardly let you return through the front door at this late hour, can I?” Seven hells! She hadn’t thought of that, went she had left, back then, she had believed, he would only show her the secret passageway and she would be back in no time. Stupid! Hopefully had nobody noticed her absence!

Outside a wooden door, the entrance to a narrow hallway, they had removed their dirty cloaks and had left them there, “I’ll take care of it afterwards.” Gendry had assured, and she had followed him through narrow hallways, so narrow he could no longer hold her hand, and they even had to climb up some ladder. “We’ve to be quiet now, my lady. We’re right under the Tower of the Hand.” he had whispered soon after, “I assume, your chamber is in the second storey from top?” “Is there a secret passageway to my room, too?” “I bet, you’d like that!” he had chuckled quietly, “Sorry, my lady, there is no such thing. The closest I can get you to your chamber is two storey’s below. Or the top storey, where you parents reside, but I guess that’s no option. So, two storeys below it is!”

They had climbed up four more ladders, until they had stood onto a small platform next to a wooden door. “We’re behind the wall-hanging opposite to your father’s solar.” he had whispered. “How do you know all this!?” “Remember, I was born here! More than enough time to discover this keep’s secrets. And now I bid you good night, my lady.” “Gendry?” “Mm?” “It was fun tonight.” “It was, Arya.” he had smiled, and then had listened at the door, before he had carefully opened it, and only when they had both been sure there was no household guard passing by, she had lifted the wall-hanging somewhat and had gone through the door, quickly heading for the stairs up to her chamber.

Chapter Text

A fortnight before the tourney in celebration of the king's nameday, Ned and Loras were busy training and preparing, and no longer had time to invite Arya for any activities outside the keep. In fact, she could count herself lucky, if they found a spare moment for a stroll in the garden and her only hope not to go insane before that stupid tourney were Myrcella and Renly. But latter had nothing to gain from inviting her to activities outside the keep without Loras, and with Trystane, Gendry and even Tommen competing in the tourney, Myrcella was just as stuck in the keep as herself, but unlike her, the princess didn’t feel like a caged animal at court. Stuck with female only activities, all day long for a whole fortnight, great!

Spending time with the court ladies was now even worse than usual, they prepared for the tourney just as eager as the men, though in their very own way. They tried to get themselves into shape, though, in their case it meant losing or gaining weight and commissioning and working on fancy new dresses to present themselves as pretty as possible. Especially ladies like Margaery, Sansa and Myrcella had planned well in advance, intending to amaze each tourney day in a more exquisite gown than the day before. They had all gone mad. Madder than mad. Arya had never seen so many ladies attending the embroidery sessions before, it seemed, every lady in waiting was now spending half her day stitching and sewing dresses. Except for Arya, of course, who only did some crooked stitches on some satin cloth for appearance’s sake, when her lady mother was present. Damn, hawk of a mother. But mostly she just sullenly listened to the ladies chatting excitedly about the tourney.

All they talked about was, which knight they fancied, how handsome they thought him, and wondering, if their feelings were reciprocated; and of course how they dreamt about their knight crowning them Queen of Love and Beauty. Arya could barely restrain herself from constantly rolling her eyes and huffing annoyed. Especially when they asked her, which betrothals she thought to be sparked in this tourney. As if she cared! And it wasn’t before long until stupid comments about her and Ned followed. Seriously!? Half the room claimed to know, Ned would ask for her hand in marriage after the tourney and when Arya called it nonsense, telling them they were just friends, they all laughed at her and asserted, if Ned would win the tourney, he wouldn’t choose anyone else as his Queen of Love and Beauty and that would be as good as proposing. Bloody numb nuts! Arya was about to storm out of the room, but her mother’s silent glare nailed her to the chair. “Don’t listen to them! They’re just over-excited.” Myrcella whispered, “Before the tourneys they all get their hopes up, only to be disappointed afterwards.”

And Arya just couldn’t escape those silly women. Usually, the men practiced without an audience, the ones who were actually any good did so early in the morning, while the women were busy making themselves presentable for the day, and the rest, mostly squires, chose to spar later in the day, when the women commonly were occupied with embroidery and reading sessions. So, normally the ladies at court didn’t get to see the men sparring, it wasn’t appropriate. Usually. But now so close before the tourney it suddenly wasn’t improper at all. It made no sense. Arya understood, it helped the men to get used to have an audience, but she didn’t get what was in it for the women. Why did they make such a fuss about it?

At first, she had been somewhat excited to finally get to see some sparring and practicing at the Red Keep and had thought it a good opportunity to prepare for the betting, to assess at least the contestants from court before the tourney started. But Arya had to realise, focussing on the men exercising wasn’t exactly easy, when surrounded by shallow-brained idiots who constantly tried to engage her into conversation. And to make things even worse, she had to face these numb nuts alone. The queen had forbidden Myrcella to join them. Beguiling sweaty, grunting men would be beneath a princess, Myrcella had unhappily explained after embroidery.

So, Arya soon found herself sitting sullenly on the balustrade of the terrace above the training yard, annoyed by the ignorance of the other women. They were unable to see what she saw in the training yard – who was skilled, who had talent and potential, who fought smart and with strategy, who was quickest, who strongest, who moved smooth, who fought only with brute force, who lured his opponent into making mistakes … And most of all Arya was frustrated, she couldn’t be down there, she longed to practice with the men. To compete with a real opponent again. But instead she was stuck with all the other ladies in waiting and felt miserable.

They only saw handsome faces they wanted to kiss, strong arms they wanted to feel around them and a brave protector who would slay a giant for them if necessary. She needed no protector, and if a giant should ever dare to steal her, she would slay him herself, Arya thought huffing. But the women had already a new topic they could chat nonsense about. Armour, out of all. Great! And of course, for them it was all about the fanciness and shininess, the fancier and shinier, the better they thought it, stupid as they were. Fancy ornamented mirrors, Gendry’s voice whispered in her mind, conjuring at least a small smile on her face for a while. His practice armour was indeed one of the plainest, and of course, the numb nuts called it a great pity, he would refuse to wear armour according his status. Blind fools! He did! His armour was the finest in the training yard, the blows landing on him had almost no impact and it fitted so perfectly, it was as if it was part of his body. She had never seen something like that. His armour almost distracted her from focussing on his and Ned’s fighting skills as they sparred with each other.

Yet, her smile and concentration hadn’t lasted long, thanks to the idiocy surrounding her. How was she supposed to decipher the strategies and predict the outcomes of the duels like this? The silly geese behind her kept annoying her with stupid remarks and questions, until she finally had enough and snapped at them, “Shut up! Or go for a stroll! I’m trying to learn something here!” “Arya!” Sansa reprimanded outraged. “What!? You all stand here blaring stupid things and don’t understand the first thing about fighting!” “But the She-wolf of course does!?” one of them spat dismissively. “Indeed!” Arya hopped off the balustrade and charged at the woman, who was a head taller, “Wanna find out!? Fight me yourself or choose a champion down there! Go on!” Sansa pulled her away, “Stop this! You’re embarrassing us!” “You mean, I’m embarrassing you!” Arya yelled, “Since I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I’m better than at least half the men down there!” and stormed to some stairs that led down to the training yard. Apparently had her yelling been heard in the yard as well, she realised, when she slumped down on the steps pulling her knees to the chest, finding all eyes on her. Great! Back at the centre of attention! Gendry and Ned exchanged a glance and a few words, before the prince called for the sparring to continue and Ned walked up the stairs.

“Wanna tell me what that was about?” Ned asked, sitting down next to her. “I couldn’t concentrate on the sparring with these numb nuts constantly blathering absolute rubbish things, right next to me!” Arya huffed, “Like that you’d stand no chance against Gendry, just because he’s bigger.” “So, you felt the need to defend my honour, my lady?” Ned chuckled. “No! I know you can beat him. You’re quicker.” she stated, feeling herself calm down somewhat. “My lady, are you saying, you’ll keep your finger’s crossed for me in the tourney?” he cocked his head studying her. “Ned, don’t be silly!” she laughed, “You know, I’m not superstitious. But keep on beating him and I’m betting on you.” “Maybe even as tourney champion!?” he looked at her curiously. “Why not?” Arya shrugged, “Even father says you could be the next ‘Sword of the Morning’ and you’re a decent rider-” “Decent!? I’d say I’m more than decent, my lady!” he objected grinningly. “Hello!? Compared to me!” she snorted with laughter, and he carefully nudged her shoulder with his iron-clad one, teasing her, “Hello!? We’re talking normal people here! No northern she-wolf-half-horse-woman.” making her laugh even more.

“Dayne! We can see she’s laughing. Job’s done. Get your pretty face down here again!” Gendry suddenly teased and Ned rolled his eyes somewhat annoyed, before he asked concerned, “You’ll be alright, my lady?” “Yeah, mother’s tirade can’t be worse than the last one.” she snorted. “We could go for a stroll, if you like.” Ned offered. “Now!?” “she asked surprised and he nodded smiling, “I just need to get rid of all this clanking metal and we’re off here.” “Ned! Some time before nightfall would be nice!” Gendry called, still watching them and locking eyes with her for a moment. “Um, thank you, Ned. But I think I’m fine now. And you certainly need some more exercise, if you want me betting on you!” Arya teased. “Well, in that case, I’ll do my very best to knock that idiot out now, my lady.” he nodded towards Gendry and got up, bowing to her.

At supper Arya found herself indeed chided once more, apparently her disrespectful behaviour had reached her mother’s ear even before Sansa and Arya had returned to the Tower of the Hand. And the reprimanding would have continued for at least another half hour, if they hadn’t suddenly been disturbed by Jory, “Forgive me, my lord, my ladies, a message from the prince.” The commander of their household guard handed a scroll to her father, who looked surprised at the seal and at his wife, before he read it, knitting his brows. “What is it?” Catelyn asked curiously, but her husband handed her the message instead.

“Oh, Arya!” her lady mother chirped delighted. “What!?” she frowned confused. “I believe you have another suitor.” Catelyn Tully announced, her chest now swollen with pride. No! Please, no! Arya felt all colour leaving her face and saw the same shock on her sister’s face, who wide-eyed whispered, “That can’t be!?” Indeed, that cant be! “Don’t be silly, Sansa! It’s from Tommen! He’s inviting your sister for a short ride in the morning. Apparently Arya advised him in commissioning his armour and he wants her to be the first one to see it.” Lady Catelyn explained. Waitwhat!? Oh, thank the gods! and again Arya saw her own feelings displayed on her sister’s face. “Oh, Ned, isn’t this wonderful? Both our girls caught the eye of a prince!” Thankfully not. “Tommen is fourteen, Cat! This means nothing. Just think of all the girls Robb fancied at that age!” Or the idiots Sansa fancied at that age. Once again Arya was grateful their father opposed their lady mother’s annoying enthusiasm when it came to men in Arya’s life, however she couldn’t help but smile and slightly blush at the prospect of seeing him at the forge again.

So, the next morning Arya had found herself once again in Tobho Mott’s shop, officially just for the last fitting of Tommen’s armour, but soon had followed the servant girl to the hot steaming stone barn once more, only this time it hadn’t been so much the familiarity of the place that had drawn her in, but apparently him. She had felt her heart beat quicken with every step she had made towards the building and as soon as her eyes had landed on him again, her heart had skipped a beat again. Seems to become a habit of that stupid thing inside her chest. However, she felt quite relieved, seeing a shirt under his apron this time. Preventing her stupid eyes from wandering all over him again, Arya hoped. When the girl called him, he turned immediately this time and smiled. He had a nice smile.

“My lady.” he bowed, “I’m glad you could make it.” “Hadn’t much of a choice! Or do you think my mother would allow me to refuse a prince’s invitation?” Arya snorted, causing him to laugh, “I was counting on that, actually!” and nodded at the stool, which was covered with some clean cloth already. “Was that here all the time?” she laughed. “Of course, waiting longingly for you to return. But you never did, so Cloth, Stool and I came up with a plan to lure you back in here.” he grinned. “So, why am I here? To keep those two warm, since it’s so cold in here?” she nodded to the stool and cloth, “Or to chew your ears off while you work?” “Well, who better to chew them off than a wolf?” he laughed. “Um, I think we both know some silly geese, vultures and a certain snake who would do the job much quicker and better than I ever could.” she smirked. “Only if I wanted to get my ears picked off, or being swallowed whole!” he laughed, “No, no, my lady, only a wolf can do this chewing job properly!” “And about what would you like your ears being chewed off?” she snorted with laughter.

“Mm, first of all, I’d like to know to which half my lady’s counting me?” he grinned mischievously. “What do you mean?” she frowned confused. “Well, you said, or rather yelled something about being better than half the men in the training yard yesterday.” he grinned. “Oh, um that…” she murmured embarrassed. “So, to which half should I count myself?” he smirked amused. “Um, to both, I think.” “I don’t think that's how the thing with the numbers works.” he teased. “Yes, it does!” she huffed almost offended, “I could beat you! Maybe not all the time, but I could!” causing him to laugh even more. “Hey! It’s true! I could!” she snapped, “Probably even the first time! Since I know exactly how you fight now, so the element of surprise is with me!” but he only laughed out louder, enraging her and before he knew, he had an iron bar at his throat, “I’m small, but I’m quick, far quicker than you, you stupid bull-headed prince!” she snapped, but again he snorted with laughter, unnerving her, “Why are you laughing at me!? You’re dead! And you didn’t even see it coming!”

“My lady, rest assured, I’m neither laughing at you, nor doubting your fighting skills. Especially not now, since I’m dead.” he chuckled. “Then why are you laughing!?” she demanded. “Because your undeniable logic keeps astonishing me, my lady.” “You’re lying?” she watched him closely, unsure if he meant it. “No, I’d never laugh at you, Arya. Never!” he suddenly was serious, “I swear.” and they both studied each other in silence for a moment, until he took the iron bar from her hand, brushing hers once more. “So, you just wanted to ask if I could beat you? Is that why I’m here?” she murmured, trying to get her fluttering lashes under control. “No, actually I’ve a bone to pick with my lady!” he claimed tongue-in-cheek. “About what!?” “About that bee you put in Ned’s bonnet!” he tried to sound serious, but failed. “What bee!?” she asked puzzled.

“The one that makes him think he could beat me!” he cocked his brow. “He could!” she objected fiercely. “Only if I let him, my lady.” Gendry laughed. “Rubbish! He’s quicker than you! Not as quick as me, but quick enough to beat you!” she snorted stubbornly. “So, you want Ned Dayne to beat me in the tourney?” he studied her closely, “Even win the whole thing?” “Um…” she suddenly felt somehow trapped, “I never said that! I just told him, he could beat you and the others, if he wanted to. But I never said he would. Just that, if he keeps beating you, I’d bet on him, that’s all.” “So, you’re not rooting for him in the tourney?” Gendry asked, eyeing her curiously. “I’m not rooting for anyone!” she frowned and then realised that may have sounded rude and added, “Um, I mean I’d be happy for Ned if he wins, since we’re friends and all that. But I don’t mind if someone else wins. You or Loras or maybe Ser Barristan! Selmy actually would be amazing …” causing him to snort with laughter again, “So, my lady fancies the oldest guy in the tourney?” “That man’s a legend! And unlike you little whippersnappers, that man actually has seen battle.” she huffed. “True. And somehow we envy him for that, but I can hardly start a war to change that, can I?” he chuckled. “Don’t worry, the next Greyjoy Rebellion is coming.” she teased. “Probably sooner than we like.” he agreed. “You bet!” she grinned.

“Bet on what?” Tommen suddenly stood behind them, in his shining new armour of mainly black tinted steel with some golden stag ornaments. “I thought we agreed on the no fancy armour thing!?” Gendry ruffled his little brother’s hair amused. “You think it’s too much?” Tommen asked insecure. “No! I was just teasing. You look great!” “Like a king?” the young prince looked at Arya, who assured smiling, “Absolutely, your grace!” “I see, my lady hasn’t just put a bee in Ned’s bonnet!?” Gendry cocked his eyebrow. “Well, you need an heir!” Tommen stated tongue-in-cheek. “How about you take my lady back to the keep now and we discuss this heir thing on the sparring ground!?” Gendry teased. “I accept!” Tommen chuckled, “My lady, just give me a moment to get out of the armour. I’ll be right back.”

“So, you see a king in my baby brother now?” Gendry asked teasingly. “Of course, look at him! If that’s not a king then I don’t know what is.” she grinned. “And what do you see in me?” he asked, suddenly somewhat more serious. “Um, isn’t that obvious?” she nodded at his attire, “Looks like a blacksmith to me.” “Just wait until the tourney, my lady, you’ll be gaping in awe!” he challenged grinningly. “And swooning all over you, I presume?” she snorted with laughter. “Oh, yeah, definitively that!” he laughed as well. “Keep on dreaming, blacksmith!” she teased, seeing Tommen return to the stone barn. “I will, Arya!” he grinned tongue-in-cheek. “My lady, are you ready to return to the palace?” Tommen asked. No. Never. Arya thought sullenly and yet, got up to meet the young prince halfway. But Gendry quickly caught her hand, whispering, “You might want to take a look behind a certain wall-hanging at times. Preferably after nightfall.” “What do you mean!?” she looked up at him, stunned. “There’s a message waiting for you since last night.” he locked eyes with her, causing her heart to race, his face was so close. And for a moment she thought he wanted to say something else, but then he swallowed and squeezed her hand before he let go, “Goodbye, my lady.”

For the rest of the day, Arya had felt somewhat distracted. During embroidery session she hadn’t minded, actually had been glad to easily block out the other ladies for once. Hadn’t minded to think of him, and his astonishing blue eyes, instead of listening to their nonsense. But when she had watched the men exercise, again from the stairs, away from the other ladies, she had soon gotten annoyed by herself. Or rather him, for constantly seeing his striking blue eyes in front of her mind’s eye, when she was supposed to focus on the sparring. And when she hadn’t been thinking of his eyes, it had been his smile, or the feel of his touch against her skin and if not that, she had found herself wondering, what message she would find behind the wall-hanging. It had been so unnerving she had found herself glaring at him after a while, but it hadn’t helped. His eyes, his smile and his touch had kept haunting her.

And suddenly Arya had known what to do, if that stupid prince kept tormenting her mind, she obviously had to kill him, there inside mind. She had snuck away as soon as she had seen a chance, which interestingly he had provided, by addressing the ladies on the terrace. She had quickly returned to her chamber and from there she had snuck to her hideout, the vault with the old Targaryen-furniture, where she had spent the rest of the afternoon practicing, killing him with Needle. It had been surprisingly easy to imagine him as her heavy armed and well-armoured opponent. She hadn’t stopped until he had been dead a hundred times and she completely exhausted had fallen asleep on the dirty floor.

Only to awake to him shaking her, “Arya! You’re shivering.” “No, I’m not!” she snapped. “And what’s that!?” he caught her arm, showing her her own goose bumps. “Even Balerion seems to agree!” and only then Arya noticed the purring tomcat in her other arm, “Maybe, he just likes me better than you!” she huffed. “I’m sure he does.” he chuckled. “What’re you doing here anyway?” she asked drowsily. “Same thing as the first time. Tracking down a wild northern lady gone missing.” “I didn’t go missing.” she huffed, “Neither then, nor now.” “I know. But it’s late and again your parents are worried. So, come on, let’s get you to bed.” he smiled and pulled her to her feet.

“Wait! Needle.” she wrenched her hand free and put her sword in its stash, before she followed him out of the vaults. To face another chiding. And all because of him! Unbelievable. “I guess, this time I can’t expect any messages from your siblings to spare me my mother’s tirade?” she huffed. “Um, none that I know of. But I’ve this for you.” he looked apologetic and handed her a small scroll of parchment. “What is it!?” “Well, um, I heard of your anew disappearing while I went to deliver this.” he handed her a second one, “I didn’t want to leave them there, with everyone looking for you.” “So, you decided to rather help with the search, before anyone takes a look behind wall-hangings?” she snorted with laughter. “Exactly!” he grinned and bid her goodnight, when they came to the yard in front of the Tower of the Hand.

Unsurprisingly of course, Arya had been welcomed by another round of chiding, accompanied by comments like, that they hardly could expect any further invitations from young Prince Tommen now, and could only count themselves lucky if young Lord Dayne were too smitten with her to care by now. And that it would be only a matter of time, until people at court no longer would excuse her behaviour as childish wilfulness but would spread rumours of a far worse nature. Even her father had agreed with her mother on that, pleading with her to be careful, reminding her, her reputation were at stake. “I was just chasing cats and practicing sword fighting with a stick! All alone. No men, no boys were anywhere near me!” Most of the time at least. But it hadn’t mattered. Catelyn Tully had announced, after the tourney, she would personally chaperone Arya and her remaining suitors, should there be any left. Seven hells, no! Now she really was a wolf in a gilded cage. And all thanks to that stupid pretty princeling!

Arya had fumed when she finally had been allowed to retire to her chamber to have a bath, throwing her boots against the wall, imagining his face as her target, stupid bloody prince! But when she had attempted to throw them once more, the two scrolls lying at her feet now, which had been hidden in her boots, had caught her eye. Stupid prince! She had barely been able to snatch them, before the maids had entered to fill her bathtub. Arya had instinctively turned to the hearth, she should just throw them into the fire. But something had kept her from doing so, telling her to at least read them first. Stupid, stupid prince! So, she had dismissed the maids, as soon as her tub had been filled. Still, she hadn’t dared to unroll them, and had hid them under her pillow, spending her whole time in the bathtub staring at her pillow, one moment fuming and angry at him and then again curiously biting her lip, wondering what he might have written. 

When she had lain in her bed, sure, apart from the guards, everyone else was in bed as well, she finally had found the courage, or rather curiosity had won the upper hand, making her unroll the first scroll, “Where did you steal away to? I was trying to prove I can be quick, too.” it had said, and she had to put her palm over her mouth to not get the giggles. It had taken her a while to calm down and stop quietly giggling with herself, before she had unrolled the second one, “Do not ever let them change you! You are special. They are not.” She had been absolutely stunned by that, feeling herself blushing and smiling, unable to stop. What was happening to her? It was just stupid words. Clearly just meant to comfort her after what happened the day before. Yet, she couldn’t stop reading them, over and over again, smiling.

Chapter Text

After reading his messages, it had been impossible to fall asleep. Though, her bones and muscles had craved for a good night’s sleep, her mind had been wide awake, revolving around him for hours. Slowly, her smile had faded and turned into a frown, the longer she had lain awake, trying to figure out what was happening. What was he doing to her? Of a sudden her sister’s words had come to her mind, You were happily grinning like an idiot. She had gulped in shock and her head had started spinning. NO! With lightning speed Arya had been out of bed and had thrown both scrolls into the dying embers in the hearth. Do not ever let them change you. You are special. They are not, his voice had whispered in her mind. And she had felt a sting in her heart when the scrolls almost simultaneous had caught fire, burning bright as day for an instant, only to turn to scrunched ashes a moment later. She had shivered upon the sight, although, it hadn’t been cold in the room. Still, she had put another log onto the embers and had quickly slipped under her covers again. Why? his voice had asked and she had squinted her eyes shut, snapping, “Leave me alone!”

It still had taken her at least another hour until she finally had fallen asleep, and it hadn’t lasted long, before dawn she had woken from a dream. Of him waking her, whispering her name and finding his face close to hers, gazing at her, as he had done in the forge. She had sat panting in her bed, trying to calm her heartbeat afterwards. In vain. So, she had done what helped the day before, she had put on her breeches and boots again; but also had taken her hourglass this time. No need to make her mother share a chamber with her. She had snuck to the secret door and from there to the vaults, and had once more killed him several times, until the sand had run through the hourglass. She had felt better afterwards, yet, hadn’t completely dispelled him from her mind.

In the end, it had all been for nothing, since when she had returned to the secret door there had been another scroll already waiting for her. Seriously!? And most of all, had it been there before? Had she just missed it? She had stared at it, unable to decide what to do. Maybe she should just leave it? Yes, probably. If she just didnt touch it, didnt collect it, he would surely stop sending new ones. Would he? He had to! Eventually. However, at change of guards the scroll had subconsciously disappeared into her boot. Or at least that was what she had told herself, when she had paced up and down in her chamber afterwards. Damn it! She had furiously unrolled it, reading, “Are you in trouble? And if so, I would like to help. I know you do not need it. Still, the offer stands.”

Bloody prince! she had cursed and had spent the rest of the day sulking, hating him and her mother, and even being slightly mad at her father, for expecting her to have a reputation as clean and pure as a flake of fresh snow, while turning two blind eyes to Robb’s little flings. Even Jon had once been caught kissing a girl, and nobody had cared. Not even about Theon’s obsession with Ros. But she and Sansa couldn’t be alone in a room with a boy or a man, not even for an instant, without risking their reputation to be ruined. It made no sense. And nonsense like that had led to her wishing, she would have been born a boy. She hated being a girl. Being a girl had caused the whole mess she was in now.

The following night hadn’t brought much relief and rest either, again she had been tossing and turning for hours before she had finally fallen asleep. But once more she had gotten up before dawn, sneaking to the secret passageway, keen to spend the next hour killing him. However, another scroll had already been waiting. Hes got to be jesting!? But this time she had taken it right away, hurrying to the vaults, where she had unrolled it, huffing, “In case you have not noticed: I beat him today. Are you betting on me now?” Stupid bull-headed prince! She had angrily crumpled the parchment up, lighting it up at the torch on the wall, before she had started a new round of lashing and cutting at him in every way she could come up with; to the apparent great amusement of Balerion who had watched her as she had whirled around in the vault, trying to banish him from her mind. In vain.

She would have spent another day sulking amongst the other ladies in waiting, but to her surprise an invitation of Renly had awaited her when she had joined Sansa and their parents to break her fast. And to her even greater surprise Lady Catelyn hadn’t minded to let Jeyne do the chaperoning again; probably because Sansa’s dresses needed to be finished in time before the tourney. So, the prospect of skipping embroidery had lifted Arya’s spirit instantly.

About two leagues south of King’s Landing they came across a small lair of tents, and Renly announced mischievously, “We’re here, my lady.” Seeing a tall man emerge from one of the tents, caused her heart to skip a beat over his astonishing resemblance to the crown prince. The man seemed younger, less muscular, but not much, and apart from his bigger ears, he was the spitting image of him. Great. Surrounded by two lookalikes of the one man she hoped to banish from her mind for at least a few hours. “Uncle!” the young man greeted Renly, hugging him cheerfully, before an even taller man, no, a woman, Arya realised stunned, emerged from another tent, bowing to the Lord of Storm’s End, who greeted her with a hug as well. Was that a blush on her face? Arya wondered, before Renly turned around to introduce them, “Lady Arya, this is Ser Edric Storm and this the Lady Brienne of Tarth.”

It turned out his bastard born nephew and the Maid of Tarth were here to compete in the tourney, “As mystery knights, of course.” Renly let her in on their plan. “So, I must swear you and Jeyne to secrecy.” he grinned and Jeyne eagerly vowed to never lose a word about this, surprising Arya. Apparently, her sister’s best friend seemed to take a liking to their luxurious adventures with Renly and Loras. “Does anyone else know about this?” Arya asked, going with her gut. “Um, you know, just the usual suspects.” the stormlord jested tongue-in-cheek, “Another nephew or two, a certain friend of mine and a close friend of yours…” Of course.

They spent the morning at the small camp, and as usual Renly provided them with the most delicious things, as they watched Brienne and Edric spar and joust with the squires. But the longer she watched, especially Brienne of Tarth, the more her muscles urged her to get up and spar with them. Lady Brienne was living proof that Arya wasn’t alone, not the only woman in the Seven Kingdoms that refused to be reduced to wifely and motherly duties. Still, the Maid of Tarth was almost ten years older, and her build answered that of a warrior way more than Arya’s. But she had learned to use her build to her advantage. She was a smaller target and a damn quick one at that. She knew she couldn’t match the brute force and strength of a grown man, and had learned to outsmart them, either surprising them by quickly striking at their most vulnerable spots, or by avoiding their blows long enough until they outspent themselves, opening their defences. And now she longed to prove herself against the Maid of Tarth and maybe Edric as well, who was a talented fighter himself, with a similar fighting style to his older brother.

“Could we come here tomorrow again?” Arya had asked all of a sudden, explaining she would like to join the sparring for a while, then, if possible. “Don’t tell me my lady is thinking of becoming a mystery knight herself now?” the stormlord had teased, yet, he had called the Maid of Tarth and his nephew, asking, if they could spare a moment or two the following day, claiming he would spar with Arya himself, if he wouldn’t fear to embarrass the Baratheon name. Though, the young knight and the warrior lady had exchanged a confused glance, before Brienne of Tarth had explained apologetically, with the tourney so nigh, she wouldn’t have time to teach Arya sword fighting. So, Renly quickly had assured she wouldn’t need any lessons and Arya herself had stated, she just hadn’t had a sparring partner since Winterfell, but would have practiced only this morning. At that, Edric Storm had reluctantly given in, suggesting to Brienne they could well spare a moment to give her a try. But the Maid of Tarth had still felt the need to tell Arya, she couldn’t be coming in a dress, then. “I won’t!” Arya had beamed with joy and excitement for a moment, until she had remembered her lady mother. But Renly had assured, they would manage to smuggle her breeches and treasures out of the keep.

So, looking forward to her very first sparring session in several moon’s turns, Arya had spent the afternoon somewhat content and smiling. She even had done as her mother had asked, and had re-joined the other ladies on the terrace, though, she again had had some trouble to concentrate on what happened in the training yard. Yet, at least it hadn’t been solely because of him, but also because of the prospect to spar with Brienne and his lookalike brother. If she could beat his brother, she could beat him, she had told herself, and had fully enjoyed seeing Ser Barristan teach him a lesson in close combat. She had laughed out loud at the sight, ignoring the other ladies’ outraged glares and Sansa’s reprimanding, how it were improper to laugh at a prince. Why? Ned, Loras and Trystane hadn’t snorted less with laughter.

The following morning, she had left her bed thrilled with excitement, and not even his next scroll had ruined her splendid mood. “Have you had a good laugh today? At my expense.” this one had said, and only had made her laugh once more, remembering his dumb face, when he had lain on the ground. This day nothing would sour her mood, she had vowed to herself on the way to Edric’s an Brienne’s camp, where she had found a new tent erected. Her tent, as it had turned out, when Renly’s squires had carried the trunk with her treasures inside, so she could change out of her dress into her sparring attire. She could hardly believe her luck.

Anyhow, Edric and Brienne furrowed their brows when they saw her afterwards. “My lady, I’d thought you’d wear some more padding or armour.” Edric stated confused and Brienne added, “You can hardly mean to spar with us like that, Lady Arya!” “But I mean just that!” she stepped closer, trying not to grin mischievously. They were afraid of hurting her. They underestimated her. Good. “No, my lady, I won’t fight you dressed like that.” Brienne announced almost outraged. “Ser Edric it is, then.” Arya retorted and the young knight stared at her in disbelief, his glance wandering from her to Renly to Brienne and back to her. “Don’t worry, ser, I won’t hurt you.” Arya teased, “Not much, at least.” causing him to gasp in surprise and Renly snort with laughter, “Beware of the She-wolf of Winterfell, I’d say, nephew!” While she eyed Edric closely, watching his every reaction as she stepped closer, light-footed like a cat, encircling him; like wolves did with their prey. She could beat him, in his state of confusion and insecurity she could do so quick and easy. It would prove her point to him and Brienne. But where would be the fun in that?

“I’d prefer you to strike first, ser!” Arya announced when he didn’t move, “Since men tend to claim they weren’t ready yet when they find my sword at their throat rather quickly.” Renly roared with laughter once more and even Brienne chuckled slightly. “Go on! I’m not made of glass and I know how to dodge a blow.” Arya challenged, “But you only find out, if you try!” “My lady, you haven’t even drawn your sword!?” Edric stated puzzled. “I don’t think I need it for the first round.” she teased, seeing he wouldn’t dare to strike at her for real, “But you’ll need yours, I advise you to draw it now.” Sadly, he still didn’t move and she lost her patience, she hadn’t come here to stroll around him. She locked eyes with Edric, striking blue just like his, but her fighting instinct didn’t allow that stupid bull-headed prince to mess with her head now. As soon as she was sure he didn’t expect her attack, she spun around, hearing Brienne’s alarmed voice, “EDRIC!” but it was too late, he never managed to draw his sword from its scabbard, her dagger was at this throat before his hand had reached the hilt. “You’re dead, ser.” she smirked, as he blinked at her in surprise, before they heard Renly applaud and laughing out loud.

Arya stepped away from the dumbfounded knight, addressing him and Brienne, “Yes, I’m small and slim, and a girl at that. But I can fight and I’d very much like to prove that to the both of you. But to do so, I need you to stop underestimating me because of my appearance.” “Alright, I’ll fight you, my lady!” the older woman looked at her somewhat intrigued now. “Call me Arya!” she smiled, “Both of you!” “Very well, Arya. I’m Brienne.” the warrior lady grinned, as they began encircling each other and curiosity won the upper hand over the Maid of Tarth, who drew her sword and attacked, making Arya rather quickly draw her own as they danced around each other. Brienne’s blows were deadlier, but Arya landed more, smaller ones, yet, deadly in summary, and the men, uncle and nephew, and their squires watched their dance of swords in awe.

Edric murmured absently, “I didn’t expect her…”  “to actually be able to fight!?” Renly smirked and ruffled his stunned nephew’s hair. “To be that good!” Edric corrected and Jeyne added, “Her dancing master and her brothers trained her since she was nine, ser.” “I can see that!” Edric grinned and soon wanted to spar with her himself. Though, Arya noticed, unlike Brienne he still held some of his strength back when he fought her. But it didn’t surprise her, after all, he was a man. Grown up to hearing women were weak and fragile and needed protection. She couldn’t do anything else but beat him as many times as possible to slowly convince him he didn’t need to hold back. And close to noon, Arya had been so excited and happy, Renly had seen himself forced to invite her for the following day as well; stating he wouldn’t have anything better to do anyway, with all his friends at the keep occupied elsewhere. Just like hers.

So, on her return to the keep Arya had felt genuinely balanced and relaxed. For the first time since she had left Winterfell. She had craved for this. Had needed it. To feel alive again. Truly alive. Even her father had noticed, telling her he had missed seeing her beaming like that; only he had misjudged it for a sign that she was settling in now. Never. She knew after the tourney, if her mother would follow through with chaperoning her, joy and excitement were nothing she could expect from her life from then on. Not here in King’s Landing. But until then, Arya intended to live her life to the fullest.

It was a pity her mother didn’t realise she was way more affable after sparring. Once more Arya hadn’t minded spending the afternoon with the other ladies on the terrace and had even engaged somewhat in conversation with them, explaining to them what she was seeing in the training yard. What hinted to her who would win a duel. Which opponent acted smarter. Who was easily provoked into making mistakes. Who did she suspect was holding back his strength or skills. And to her surprise, Lady Margaery had been the one most keen to listen to her explanations. Though, of course not without first uttering subtle side blows, “All these other women are just here to beguile the knights and princes. It’s truly refreshing you’re the exception to that.” she had chirped, “Say, sweet Arya, may I ask for your expertise how our crown prince is faring down there?” “You may, my lady.” “Please call me Margaery, my dear Arya.” The viper obviously thought her stupid, yet, Arya hadn’t minded, she underestimated her.

In the following days Arya had quickly developed a certain routine, a schedule even. She would get up before dawn and sneak to the secret door. Just to see if he finally had given up, she had told herself the first few times, and if not, she could hardly leave a secret message, maybe even addressed to her namely, for someone else to find. Better to collect it and destroy it. And so she would pick them up and sneak back to her chamber, where she would come up with reasons, why she better should read them, before she would light them up and pretend they never existed.

Afterwards, she would get ready for her ride with Renly, the official name for their arrangement. Then she would break her fast with her father and would spend the rest of the morning sparring with the squires, Brienne or Edric. Though, from the third day on, she would also practice archery and riding at rings and at quintain, which she hadn’t done since Winterfell, as well. And on the sixth day, Edric had even suggested to joust with her, which had resulted in Arya secretly deciding she should indeed compete as mystery knight herself, at least in horse racing, archery and jousting.

At the Red Keep Arya’s daily schedule had mostly stayed the same. She would spend the afternoons with the ladies on the terrace until supper. Though, Arya no longer minded. Due to her exercising in the mornings, it had been easier to ignore the silliness of the other ladies. Also, she had been even more eager now to study the men in the training yard. She needed to know her opponents. And this had been her only chance to see Ned now. And him. Since her sleeping trouble had faded, again due to her busy exercising schedule, she hadn’t minded watching him there in the yard, anymore. Even though, she still kept thinking about him, especially when alone in her chamber, but she no longer felt tormented and haunted by him, which was why she allowed herself to smile again when she read his messages.

The day after her first sparring with Brienne and Edric, his message had said, “You looked happy today.” And she was. So, no harm had been done by him stating facts. The following day, Arya hadn’t only found a scroll, saying, “Am I ever getting a response?” but also ink, quill and parchment, and for asking such a stupid question, she had decided to answer in an equally stupid way, “No.” To which he then had replied, “Really!?” And she had retorted, “Yes, really. You are really stupid.” “I like that you are not. P.S. You realise I keep beating him?” had stood in his following message and to that she had replied, “Does not mean you are quick.” “Does not mean he is better.” he had claimed. “Does not mean you are better.” she had declared. “Yes, it does.” his next message had stated. “Keep on dreaming.” she had mocked and he had teased, “I will. And you, are you already swooning?” To which she had responded, “Again, keep on dreaming.” and he had replied, “Again, I will! P.S. A certain tomcat seems to miss you. Care to do something about it? Nightfall.” and she had teased, “Breeches are mandatory, I presume!?” even though, she hadn’t been sure he would get the message before they would meet.

Arya couldn’t tell, when exactly she had started looking forward to get his messages, she just realised that she somehow did. And the longer their little parchment war had gone, the more fun she had at it, finding herself silently grinning behind the secret door every day before dawn now. Or in case of his latest message, leaning against the cool stone wall, trying to calm her racing heart.

Her life could have gone on like that forever. Well, almost. She still missed the North. Her brothers. The wolves. Winterfell. The godswood. Mycah. Syrio. Mikken. Osha. Maester Luwin. Old Nan. Hodor. Ser Rodrik. The Wolfswood. The snow. The cold. The vastness of the land. Still, she had something she liked in the south now. Well, more like someone, someones. Ned. Myrcella. Renly. Brienne. Edric. Balerion. Tommen. Loras. Hot Pie. Lommy. And of course him. Him in particular. His latest message had made her wondering all morning, what he might have in mind for the night. Another trip to Flea Bottom? To the tavern? Or maybe exploring the other tunnels? All she knew was, it would be something she would like. Something special. She hadn’t even noticed how distracted she had been by this, until Brienne had landed a heavy blow on her left forearm. And little had she known, this would lead to her downfall mere hours later.

Chapter Text

Unbeknownst to Arya her lady mother and Sansa hadn’t only commissioned and worked on new gowns for themselves but for her as well, and Lady Catelyn had arranged her fitting with the dressmaker after Arya’s alleged ride with Renly. It shouldnt have been a big deal. Her mother had been busy finishing some embroidery details on one of the gowns and hadn’t paid attention to her undressing and slipping into the skirts of a new dress. It wouldn’t have been a big deal. If Arya hadn’t had a nice fresh bruise blooming on her arm, and if the dressmaker hadn’t gasped in shock at seeing it. Bloody seamstress. “What in the gods’ names is that!?” Catelyn Tully had glared at her daughter’s arm, “What have you done!?” “Fell off the horse…” Arya had claimed sullenly. Though, of course, her mother had known it was a lie and Arya had known her mother knew.

But two days before the tourney, Lady Stark couldn’t delay the fitting and had kept a straight face, while the dressmaker had pinned Arya’s new gowns. The woman hadn’t had much pinning to do, since she clearly had had her measurements, but the sum of new dresses had made the fitting last all afternoon. Fourteen in total, one damn gown for every damn tourney day. They were awful pieces of cloth. Especially one green one. With bloody acorns on it! Whose idea was that!? Why couldn’t she just wear Stark colours? Grey and white; and blue for Stark women, because of the winter roses. These colours she actually liked. Especially blue. The colour of the infinite sky. The colour of freedom and his eyes.

However, after supper, which had been a rather quiet and awkward episode, her lord father and lady mother had demanded to hear how she really had come by the bruise on her arm. Because of him. Who else made her stumble from one chiding into the next, lately? But she could hardly tell them, in fact she couldn’t tell them anything. Not without ruining everything. So, Arya had just folded her arms in front of her chest and glared defiantly at her lady mother, who outraged announced, she were able to identify a sparring bruise by now, “And don’t think I hadn’t seen the fading ones on your back and legs, so stop denying it!” “Child, you need to tell us the truth now!” her father tried in a more understanding tone, “Who were you sparring with?” But Arya couldn’t give in without stitching someone else up. “No one.” she claimed sullenly. “This is not how we raised you! You’ve always had a mind of your own, but you never lied to us-” her father replied, evidently disappointed. “To you, you mean! She’s lied to me on countless times!” Lady Catelyn interrupted, “And I had warned you this would happen, Ned!” Ignoring his wife’s side blow, her father asked, “Child, are you protecting someone?” Try plural, she thought, yet growled, “No.”

“I’ve had enough of this!” Lady Stark fumed and made for the door, yelling, “Guard!” as her husband sat down on the chair next to Arya, “Child, don’t you understand, we’re worried about you! This is not Winterfell, these people here didn’t see you grow up, they don’t understand. If you’re seen here sneaking around alone with a boy or a man, the truth won’t matter. It won’t matter we believe you. You’d be ruined.” “Is that all you care about now!? My stupid reputation? What about me!?” Arya spat in utter frustration, hating to see her father looking hurt now. But it had to be said. They were hurting her, too. “Child-” he attempted to appease her, but was interrupted by Lady Catelyn returning to the room, snarling at her, “Did you really think I wouldn’t get suspicious, seeing you suddenly behaving all nice and proper, for almost a fortnight now!?” before she turned to face the door, calling, “Send them in!” Them who!? Arya didn’t understand, and right when it dawned on her, her father’s steward and behind him Jeyne entered the room. Seven hells.

“Now we’ll get the truth, one way or another.” Lady Catelyn announced, before she thanked Vayon Poole and Jeyne for joining them so quickly. They both clearly felt uneasy about being summoned so suddenly; and when Jeyne’s eyes fell on Arya they widened in fear, realising what this was about. Damn. “Jeyne, could you please explain to us, how our daughter came to return from the ride this morning with a bruised arm?” Lord Eddard asked, smiling kindly at the young woman. However, Jeyne glanced insecurely back at Arya. Fool! Who signalled her to keep her mouth shut. “Don’t look at her, Jeyne! Look at me!” Lady Stark demanded, yet, Jeyne barely managed to hold eye contact and sought out her father’s eyes for reassuring, “Tell them, you silly girl!” the steward unsurprisingly sided with Lord and Lady Stark. “Um, my lord, my lady-” Jeyne stammered, staring at her skirts’ hem. “FINE! I was sparring with Renly’s squires. But nothing more!” Arya burst out, still hoping not to have to spill all the beans, “Right, Jeyne!?” she looked at the other girl, narrowing her eyes, warning her.

But her mother was out for blood now, hers or Jeyne’s, “Then how come you didn’t tell me of this, Jeyne!?” “Leave her alone!” Arya hissed, “I threatened her. That’s why!” “Is that so, Jeyne!?” “Mm, yes, my lady.” Jeyne nodded, scarcely whispering, back to staring at her skirts again. “Well, since our daughter evidently is no longer in a position to make any threats here, I wonder is there anything else we might want to know, dear Jeyne?” Lady Catelyn studied the young woman closely and once more Jeyne’s glance flew to Arya, who again silently warned her to shut up now. In vain. Catelyn Tully watched their exchange clearly pleased, “Say, Jeyne, is it possible you could tell us what Arya’s been up to lately?” and the young woman nodded eventually.  “Don’t you dare!” Arya jumped from her chair, “You vowed-” but was held back by her father, “Arya, enough!” he reprimanded her in his lord voice, before he addressed the steward’s daughter, “Jeyne, go on, tell us, what we need to know!” his voice soft again, encouraging and kind.

In the end, her lady mother naturally had managed to tickle all of Arya’s secrets out of poor Jeyne Poole. Well, those Jeyne knew of. The one she had figured out on her own – that Lord Renly and Ser Loras weren’t actually courting Arya. The one she had overheard – that Arya intended to place bets in the tourney. And eventually even the one Arya had let her in on, only two days ago – that she wanted to compete in the tourney. Stupid, Arya scolded herself.

A few days before, she had seen herself forced to confide in Renly, realising she couldn’t pull it off all alone. First most, she had needed some more armour, like helmet and shield, and also caparison and chamfron for her stallion. So, she and Renly had come up with a plan that included, storing her equipment in Brienne’s tent, where she also should dress, so they wouldn’t need to guard another mystery knight’s tent from prying eyes. But most of all, they had agreed, attention would need to be distracted away from Arya, especially that of her own mother. Which was why they eventually had let Jeyne in – to pose as Arya, being seen going for a stroll or a ride with Renly, while she competed in the contests.

Though, all that had been for nothing now. Everything ruined. She should have known better, should have covered her bruises, and most importantly should have found someone else to pass off as her. Someone who wouldn’t tremble in fear of Catelyn Tully. The only reason why Arya hadn’t felt like killing Jeyne right on the spot, was, that the girl hadn’t proven entirely spineless. She had indeed revealed everything she knew about Arya, but never once mentioned there were two more mystery knights involved. Thankfully.

However, what actually had stunned Arya that evening, had been her father’s reaction to hearing all this. She had expected him to be shocked and disappointed, like her mother, but not to see him sink down in a chair, his face all pale and empty of emotions, except for his eyes, looking at her absently, full of pain and sadness. At first, he hadn’t even responded to his wife’s scolding, after Jeyne and Vayon had been dismissed. “Why am I even surprised!? Of course, she wants to compete in a tourney! After all that nonsense you allowed her!” Lady Catelyn had ranted and Arya had defiantly hissed, “It’s not nonsense! It’s what I want! What I actually can. Unlike stupid sewing and stitching …” “Ned, please tell me you see reason now! This has to stop. At once!” her lady mother had demanded, ignoring her daughter’s objection.

So, the upshot of it all had been, Arya being sent to her chamber, while her father and mother had retired to the lord’s chamber – to discuss her future. In private. As if it werent something that concerned her! Arya had thought fuming. All because of a little bruise and Jeynes big mouth! Everything ruined she had worked for so hard. She should’ve known! Shouldn’t have let her guard down. Shouldn’t have underestimated her mother Slumping down at her small desk, she had furiously grabbed quill and parchment. No need to take others down with her. Deciding to rather risk everything now, instead of letting Renly walk right into a trap the next morning.

“Why the hurry!? I’m not going anywhere without you.” Gendry had teased, seeing her storming into the vault, “Though, I thought we’d agreed on breeches-” yet, his mischievous grin had quickly turned into a frown, “What’s wrong!?” “You have to warn him! Renly!” she had handed him her message, gasping for air, “Give him this! Tonight!” “What!?” he had stared at her, startled. “Read it, if you like! It’s not sealed. But take it to him!” she had panted, “I’ve to go.” “Wait, Arya!” he had caught her arm, “Whatever it is, I want to help-” “Then warn your uncle, and protect the squires! I don’t want anyone else punished for my stupidity, least those boys.” “I will!” he had promised and had asked clearly worried, “Should I halt … with the messages!?” He should. Definitively. Still, she had heard herself saying, “No.” assuring, “I’ll collect them at dawn, during change of guard.” before running back to her chamber as fast as she could – wondering why hadn’t she told him to stop. It was reckless, especially now. 

Yet, in the morning she had known why, reading, “Stags stand their ground against wolves. P.S. The Hand may have the king’s ear. But you have mine.” She had thought of replying with a tease, claiming of course she would have his ear, both of them actually, since she would have chewed them off. But then had decided not to make fun of him, for once, and so, “Thank you.” had been her only reply, before she had snuck back to her bed, somewhat relieved and smiling.

Nevertheless, it had been a short relief. Before noon, her father had summoned her, announcing, Lord Renly would no longer court her – and neither would Ser Loras. “To allow appropriate suitors to woo you.” her lady mother had spelled it out, as if she wouldn’t know why. Furthermore, they had informed her, Renly had returned her possessions, though, they would have taken them into custody. What!? Arya had ranted, those were her belongings, and had demanded them back. But Catelyn Tully had retorted frigidly, she should count herself lucky they weren’t melted down, yet. Seven hells! Her Needle, melted down!? she had glared at her mother in absolute fury; knowing her father would never even think of threatening her like that. Damn hawk of a mother.

Though entirely unimpressed, Lady Catelyn had stated, if Arya would want to see her possessions returned to her, she would need to earn it – earn back their trust. Her trust, obviously. And cunning as her lady mother was, she of course had offered ‘the perfect solution to her dilemma’. The tourney should serve as her punishment and path to redemption. For its time, Arya would ‘only’ need to act as her status demanded – meaning, doing her mother’s every bidding – becoming the obedient little lady Catelyn Tully had always tried to mould her into; and had failed. Until now! With Arya herself providing the perfect leverage. Stupid! You bloody, stupid fool! she had chided herself, clenching her fists enraged, yet, had remained silent. To save the one item that meant the world to her. She would get it back! One way or another. Even if she had to steal it and then run for her life from her own mother!

The tourney in celebration of Robert’s nameday started with an opening ceremony in the Red Keep, where Arya found herself in quite the same situation as on her first day at court, almost half a year ago – trying to appease her mother, playing along and pretending to be a proper lady once more. Like last time, the feast began with the nobles gathering in the Great Hall, waiting for the royal family to join them. Only this time, Arya didn't need to follow Sansa around like a pup. Ned was already there, asking her lord father and lady mother right away, if he were allowed to keep her company for the evening. And as soon as they were out of earshot, Arya rolled her eyes, scoffing, “Please, don’t leave my side tonight! Otherwise she will make me dance and sweet-talk with every eligible bachelor in this hall!” “Not gonna happen, my lady!” Ned laughed, assuring, “I’ve barely seen you this past fortnight. So, tonight you’re all mine, if you like it or not!” and she didn't mind. If she had to suffer through this anew madness, she was more than happy to do so with him.

Her lady mother even offered him the seat between her and Arya for the banquet. So, Ned not only shielded her from other suitors but her very own mother as well. Though, to Arya’s dismay it soon became clear, Lady Catelyn had only done so to give Ned a broad hint. While he politely chatted with her – obviously playing dumb – Lady Stark wasn't precisely subtle in her attempt to push him into courting Arya officially. To finally request her hand in marriage It was embarrassing. A less kind and patient man would have stood up outraged! So, Arya was glad, when the royal family finally arrived to open the banquet, shutting her mother up for a while.

The king entered the hall, greeted by cheers and toasts to his wellbeing, and took his seat after a toast from the crown prince. Who announced, unlike before, this tourney wouldn’t start with a reigning Queen of Love and Beauty and her five champions. “Apologies to you, Sister!” he addressed Myrcella, “Though, I hope it may be a comfort to you to know, next time you’ll not only have two but three brothers defending your honour.” and Tommen vowed to proof himself worthy of the task during the following days. “And please, don’t give up hope just yet, dear sister!” the crown prince continued, “I’m sure there are knights or even a prince in this hall, intent to crown you with the garland anyway.” he hinted a slight bow towards Prince Trystane at the end; causing Myrcella to beam with joy. However, the queen’s and Joffrey’s expressions soured into glares and the king wasn't exactly whispering in his reprimanding, “You bloody oaf had to act on your own authority, huh!? You might keep in mind, I’m not yet dead, BOY!” but the crown prince only shrugged, trying to hide his growing smirk.

“What’s going on?” Arya asked, seeing everyone murmuring and whispering now, and Sansa explained, “He just publicly endorsed Prince Trystane’s courtship. Against the will of the king and queen.” Oh. “Maybe he’ll defy the queen in a different matter, as well?” Margaery grinned at Sansa, “This tourney just got a lot more interesting, don’t you think?” “What do you mean!?” Arya frowned, realising the viper was up to something. Likely, nothing good. “Oh, you know, just gut instinct.” the snake grinned smugly and unlike Arya, her sister seemed to understand, smiling almost happily afterwards.

However, Ned on the other hand was suddenly somehow quiet throughout the banquet. So Arya feared, he might have lost his patience with her lady mother after all. But she soon came to find out, that wasn't the case. She asked, if he were alright, “You know you could tell me, if you weren’t. And if she annoys you, I’ll tell her to stop.” “No, it’s not that. Your mother is rather kind, actually.” he assured, yet continued brooding for a little while longer, as they watched Loras and Sansa, the champion and Queen of Love and Beauty of the last tourney, lead the dance.

Though, when the crown prince walked towards their table, Ned of a sudden spoke, “Arya,” he even took her hand in his, “would you do me the honour…” he paused, and they both side-glanced at the prince who asked Margaery to dance, before Ned continued, “Would you allow me to wear your favour in the tourney?” What!? Arya blinked in disbelief, “Did Mother suggest this!?” “Well, she did somehow mention the ribbon in your hair. That it could be worn as such.” Ned admitted sheepishly. She had planned it all along! Arya’s eyes narrowed and she felt anger boil up inside of her. “But, um, I wanted to ask you, anyway.” Ned assured, almost stammering now. “Don’t make a scene! Give him your ribbon!” her lady mother hissed into her ear, before she followed her husband smilingly to dance, leaving Arya glaring at her back. Why not marry her off right away, and be done with it!? Best to that nasty old riverlord

Huffing, Arya gave in, “Fine! You shall have the ribbon.” yet made clear, “But not because she wants me to do it! And this is the last time you do my mother’s bidding, understood?” “Understood, my lady.” Ned chuckled, “Though, technically your mother had nothing to do with it.” he claimed, watching her somehow delighted as she removed the ribbon – matching her blue gown in colour perfectly – to tie it around his arm. For everyone to unmistakably recognise as her favour; when he asked her to dance only moments later. Which of course, she couldn’t refused, either. Her cunning mother had made sure of that in advance, reminding Arya of the leverage she now held against her. As if she would forget!  

Nevertheless, Ned proved his insightfulness once more, leading her back to her seat at the table after their third dance. Or maybe he just was embarrassed of her constantly tripping over her own feet. Yet, he kept his promise and didn't leave her side that night. But Arya soon came to realise, it wasn't solely his company, but rather the stupid ribbon that shooed most of the other bachelors away. She probably would have thought it funny, if the four knights who nonetheless asked her to dance, had actually asked her and not him – if he minded if they would. As if she had no say in it anymore!

Ned politely denied all four of them, but in doing so, he only added to Arya’s increasing discomfort. Although, she had asked him to keep other suitors at bay that night, it soon felt as if he would deny her a will of her own now, too. Because of a damn piece of cloth around his arm! And the worst was, apart from her, no one else seemed to mind. Neither her father, nor Ned himself. What was wrong with them!? Arya was sure, if it wasn't for Needle, she would have reclaimed her ribbon the same night – to free herself from the invisible chain that now apparently bound her to Ned. Thanks to her mother.

And only the next morning she had discovered, at least someone else questioned the whole ribbon thing as well. Though, probably had a good laugh at her expense, first. “Once more, I seem to fail to understand your logic. I had thought you would not root for him. Yet, he wears your favour now …” had Gendry’s message been, then.

Chapter Text

While Gendry most likely had had a good laugh at her expense, him just noticing the ribbon, realising how odd such a gesture was for someone like her and asking what reason she could have had for doing such a stupid thing, had been a scrap of comfort to her. Especially since no one else cared, apparently. Yet, the reason why should have been obvious, even for him, “Did you not see who chewed his right ear off all night?” she had replied, frustrated and mad at her mother for blackmailing her and manipulating her friend like that.

Even though, Lady Catelyn had evidently been more than pleased with the outcome of the previous night, unlike usual, Arya hadn’t managed to regain her mother’s trust after the feast. Apparently her lady mother had finally come to realise, Arya would never outgrow her wild nature; if not even life at court and a decent man like Ned Dayne were able to tame her. It had seemed, her mother were intent to break her spirit now, if necessary – to make her finally bend to her will – and soon. Since both, Lady Catelyn and Arya, had known, if she would actually accomplish the unthinkable, behaving all proper during the tourney, her mother would lose her leverage immediately; Eddard Stark would never allow his wife to break their agreement and Arya would make sure her mother would never get hold of Needle again. Ever.

So, Lady Stark had woken her in the morning personally, giving Arya precise instructions for the day. What gown to wear. At who to smile. With whom to talk. Who to avoid. What to do and what not. Where to sit. Where to stay away. Like the contestants tents. And most of all, how to encourage Lord Dayne to finally ask for her hand in marriage, “Though, only within the scope of propriety, of course.” her mother had remarked. Pity, since she felt so much like kissing Ned, Arya had thought cynically, fearing her lady mother was hoping for her to fail the task, to get rid of Needle for good. Obviously, Catelyn Tully didn’t mean to stop badgering her any time soon and aimed for an imminent betrothal now – preferably to the Lord of Starfall – yet, Arya suspected, that was mainly in consequence of Lady Catelyn’s belief Ned were the most likely candidate to actually propose marriage before long. You’ll be waiting until the cows come home! Arya thought on the carriage ride to the arena.

The tourney arena half a league west of King’s Landing was impressive, and indisputably one of Robert’s attempts to outshine his predecessors; who had left the old Targaryen arena to decay. A fate this one wouldn’t face as long as Robert lived. The Baratheon king only loved two things more than a good fight – women and wine – and hosted at least two tourneys a year. “Probably even more, if the Small Council would allow it.” her father once had fumed. The royal loge in the arena provided seats for at least thirty people and was flanked by large terraces for the nobles and their household members, facing the stands for common people on the opposite site, with a huge sandy tourney ground in between. The perfect stage to prove one’s skills. Though, that hadn’t exactly helped to cheer Arya up. She was supposed to be down there!

Not in the front row on the terrace right to the royal loge – playing sitting duck for the contestants – alongside her sister, Margaery Tyrell and other ladies in waiting. However, at this point, that had been as far away as possible from her lady mother, without endangering Needle. So, Arya had almost felt grateful to for once be out of earshot and partly out of sight of her mother. At least her face was, since Lady Catelyn was seated next to her husband in the royal loge. Robert sat on a throne in the midst of it, two Kingsguard knights standing behind him, the queen and Myrcella seated to his left, his Hand and Lady Catelyn to his right, and the members of the Small Council and his favourite nobles in the rows behind them.

But it hadn’t changed the fact, that Arya felt trapped and literally nailed to the spot, unable to escape without losing her treasured sword; and her sister immediately reprimanding her sullen expression hadn’t helped either. “Why even care, Sansa!? It’ll make you look all the prettier next to your ugly little sister.” Arya had snorted, without even looking at her. “Oh, please… Get over yourself! The horseface teases were just that, childish teasing.” Sansa had retorted, unimpressed, “But if you wish to frown and glare all day long, fine, I don’t care. I’ve bigger fish to fry than keeping you in check-” “Meaning, you’ve a prince to catch!?” Arya had mocked, causing Sansa to glare at her, “Says the one as good as betrothed to dashing Lord Day-” “Rubbish! That stupid ribbon means nothing. Mother tricked us!” Arya had protested. “Mother didn’t trick anyone.” Sansa had retorted, “Least him! You’ll find out soon enough.” “Nonsense!” Arya had snapped, “You don’t know him, you’ve barely spoken a word with him-” “First of all, that’s not true! And second, I don’t have to speak with a man to see how he looks at my baby sister!” Sansa had stated smugly, “Who’s just too blind or too stupid to see it herself.” “I’m not blind … or stupid! You’re just wrong!” Arya had snarled. “If you say so…” Sansa had mocked, demonstratively engaging in conversation with Margaery then, ignoring Arya’s further objections.

The first few contest days, mostly squires’ competitions, had only added to Arya’s frustration, all she got to see was, that she could have stood her ground against these saplings. Easily, and with her small build she wouldn’t even have stuck out amongst them. She could have effortlessly come off amongst the last ten in the squires-only melee. Apart from Tommen – who had emerged the winner – there had been only seven other squires she had thought any good at fighting; meaning, good enough to beat her, if they were lucky. Yet, watching them riding at rings and at quintain had even been worse. She would have beaten them all, undoubtedly. Possibly even if they had blindfolded her! she had huffed, angrily, fearing she would lose her mind before the end of the sennight.

She probably would have, if it hadn’t been for her stolen moments beyond the reach of Catelyn Tully’s claws. Or anybody else’s. Her small moments of freedom and somewhat happiness, especially since Gendry had sided with her on the whole ribbon nonsense. It felt good to have someone in her corner. Someone who didn’t push her into choices and directions, she didn’t want. Someone to actually accept her for who she was, even encouraging her to rebel against her mother. After telling him the ribbon hadn’t been her idea, his next message had stunned her, “You are not exactly known for playing by the rules. So, why not stultify her, and him, and allow someone else to wear your favour as well?” “And you are proposing who? Yourself!?” Arya had asked, unsure if that was what he had aimed for. “Not necessarily. I could not wear it openly, not without disgruntling certain someones. But maybe in secret. If you wanted me to.” he had replied then, astonishing her even more and it had taken her a while to come up with a smart reply, “How about I just give ribbons to all contestants? Then even you could wear it publicly.” she had teased, and it would have been a brilliant idea to sneer at the whole ribbon charade – if it hadn’t been for Needle. And Ned, who would have been ridiculed the most by such a jest. No, he deserved better, even though he had caused the whole mess.

Though, Gendry apparently had disagreed, “Sounds like a plan. I am in. P.S. Nice gown.” his following message had said; after her mother had made her wear that awful green dress. So, of course he had to mock her for that. Who could blame him? If someone else had worn it, she would have snorted with laughter at the sight, but now she couldn’t stop from feeling slightly embarrassed, “I looked like an oak tree, with all these stupid acorns!” “Nice, though. A nice oak tree.” he had replied. Was he still mocking her!? And what if he wasn’t? her heart had flipped at the thought. No, stupid! He was jesting. So, she had responded, “Well, if you like it so much, you can have it! For I intend to rip it to pieces.” and put that plan into action the following night, as watching the archery competition later that day had only added to her frustration.

She obviously wouldn’t have won. The victory was rightfully that of a young redhead from the Dornish Marches. But she could have made it to the last thirty, maybe even last twenty. She could have even competed in that stupid acorn gown, looking all proper and ladylike at doing so. So, why the hells wasnt she allowed? It made no sense! Therefore, the stupid dress had fallen prey to a wolf that night. Ripping, tearing and shredding it to pieces, to finally blow off some steam. However, when Arya was done, sitting exhaustedly amidst the messy remains of what once had been a stupid acorn dress, her glance had landed upon an appliqué she had ripped off the neckline, looks like, she had thought and grinned, getting an idea. Apparently the same idea as him, “Nice ribbon size pieces I hope.” his following message had said and she had replied, “Happy now!?” tying the makeshift ribbon around her scroll.

In response to that, she had expected to receive some more teasing. But he hadn’t and she had been grateful, since the following two competitions had been the hardest to watch for her, horse racing. Short distance races one day and a long distance race the day after. It was awful. Arya had felt absolutely miserable, digging her nails into her palms to cope with the boiling anger inside of her. She could have won. No, she would have won! Both, short distance and long distance. None of the men matched her horsemanship! But instead she and her stallion had been chained and caged, he in the stables and she on a goddamn terrace, forced to watch others steal their victories. Worse even, her friends stealing them, Ned winning at short distance and Trystane at long distance. Arya had gone green with envy seeing them receive the trophies she felt were rightfully hers. She had raced and beaten both Dornishmen! Thankfully, later at the banquet, Ned had at least acknowledged that, assuring she could have beaten him. Would have! But it had been only a small consolation, and if her mother hadn’t noticed her ill humour, reminding her of what was at stake, urging her to keep her side of the bargain, she undoubtedly would have tried to steal Needle back that night.

But mother probably expected that now, so, Arya had decided against it, trying to calm down by reminding herself, she was already halfway through with the damn tourney. Just a sennight and Ill have it back, she assured herself. Though Gendry had found a better way to reassure her, his next messages had been, “Losing to him was a shame. Losing to you would have been an honour.” she had read at dawn, but it had been the message the day after that had astonished her, “Would have loved to see you outrun us all.” or rather the additional message she had found then. A small box. A jewellery box, precisely. With another note inside, “A tribute to the supposed-to-be champion. P.S. Would have made you a sword, if you not already had one.” and underneath was a slim dark grey ribbon with a small slightly tarnished silver pendant on it. In shape of a wolf’s head. Arya had been so stunned, she almost had missed change of guard once again. So, she had quickly written down the first thing that had come to her baffled mind, “I have no armour.” before picking up the box and scrolls and sneaking back to her chamber. Where she had leaned against the closed door – her heart aflutter – staring at the wolf in her hand. Huffing and tempted to hit her head against the wall, she had rolled her eyes. At herself, for such a stupid response. At him, for giving her a stupid necklace. At her body, for such a stupid reaction to a tiny piece of metal. Her. Him. The pendant. Everything. It was just stupid! Yet, somehow she liked it.

Just as she liked watching the competition that day. The melee. The real one now. It was funny at times. Hilarious even. Only because she hadn’t planned to compete in it, she had told herself.  But her eyes were drawn to him from the start. As expected, his armour was marvellous. Black tinted steel, though not painted, with fine golden lines in shape of a crowned Baratheon stag ornamenting breastplate and shield, and subtle antler ornaments on shoulder plates and helmet; lacking in adornments otherwise. But most of all, it fitted perfectly, like his practice armour already had, allowing him to move smoother than anyone else. It was magnificent. Well, it was for her, since the other ladies once again failed to see it as the masterpiece it was. Too plain. No antlers on the helmet. No crown on it. Below his status. Unworthy of a prince, some even claimed.

“On the contrary!” slipped out of her mouth before she knew, “That is the finest armour I’ve ever seen. Fancy decorations are redundant at best, and a death sentence at worst. It’s actually baffling to see less than two dozen men down there seem to know that.” Arya stated annoyed, “If this were real, half the competitors were dead because of lousy armour.” At that Margaery chuckled, “Hear! hear! A moment ago, I thought I’d caught you furtively doting on our prince. Yet, apparently it’s not the man but the armour you’re smitten with, Arya.” and Sansa laughed, “Better not tell Ned that!” “Shut up!” Arya snapped, feeling blood rush into her ears, “I’m just saying it’s fine armour…” “On the contrary,” her sister mocked, “You were championing it, as if its honour were at stake.” “Yet, I absolutely agree with your sister.” Margaery intervened, studying Arya, “A man like that evidently needs no adornment to look dashing, am I right?” “I never said that!” Arya snapped, feeling her cheeks flushing as well and quickly turned back to watch the men, glad the melee was finally about to start. Watch out! A voice sounding like his warned in her mind.

Still, shortly afterwards her eyes had been focussed on him again, biting her lip, as she had watched him duel and beat each of his opponents. One by one they had dropped into the dust, and eventually even Ned. Though, seeing Gendry offer his hand to help him up and Ned shoving it furiously away, had puzzled her. What was that!? Ned was never mad! At anyone. Arya had even looked questioningly at Sansa, then. “Told you, he wants to prove himself to you.” her sister had remarked and Lady Margaery had stated, “That’s just men, dear Arya. Tourneys make their blood run hot. Nothing to worry.”

In the end the crown prince had come off the victor of the melee. Although that had been no surprise to Arya. Not so much because he had won all the melees the past two years, it was more because of what she had witnessed herself that day. He had been like a storm broke loose, mowing down everyone in his way, quick and skilful. And it hadn’t stopped until eventually the black mystery knight had stepped into his way. Storm meeting storm. She had grinned at that, watching the two brothers dance around each other. Same height, same broad back, same fighting style. It was intriguing. And hilarious. Of course, Arya couldn’t refrain to glance into the royal loge, where the evidently clueless king roared in excitement, whooping, “Beat him, son! Do me proud!” causing her to chuckle. It had almost been a pity when the blue mystery knight finally had beaten Jaime Lannister and had joined their duel, defeating the black mystery knight soon after, duelling the crown prince then alone.

However, while they did, a squire had handed the black mystery knight his horse, and he had ridden to the royal loge, bowing to the king, who had asked him to remove his helmet, but the knight had boldly refused, bowing a second time, before riding away. Or so Arya had thought. Instead he had stopped in front of their terrace, bowing to her, “Lady Arya, it’s been a pleasure.” before he rode off the arena, causing her to grin and Sansa to gasp and stare at her, “You know him!?” “Well, he’s a mystery knight, who could know for sure…” Arya teased, chuckling.

“Oh my gods, Arya!” Sansa’s eyes went wide, as a light dawned on her, “The necklace! Please, tell me it’s not his!?” At least it was the wrong light. Still, Arya startled, blurting, “What!? No!” and instinctively grasped the pendant. Stupid! “Your behaviour proves otherwise!” her sister hissed, narrowing her eyes, “Till yesterday you were all glaring anger, and now look at you! Furtively smiling and absently playing with the pendant all day… ever since the black knight showed up. Even blushing now!” “It’s not his!” Arya snapped, “I swear!” glaring at her sister and trying to get her flushing face under control. “Whose is it, then!?” Margery watched her closely as well. Fuck. “Mine!” Arya stated. “Yes, obviously, but whose gift was it?” the Tyrell woman chuckled, though, her eyes didn’t smile. “WHO gave it to you!?” Sansa demanded furiously. “That’s none of your damn business!” Arya spat, fuming herself. “What about Ned!?” Sansa spat back. “What’s Ned got to do with it!?” Arya snarled. “You gave him your favour?! You can’t just accept gifts from random men, you’re insulting him!” Sansa hissed.

“Rubbish!” Arya snapped, getting an idea, “It’s Jon’s!” she lied, trying to sound nonchalant. “No, that’s rubbish!” Sansa glared at her accusingly, “How could he send you gifts from the Wall!?” “Before he left, silly!” Arya snorted, slowly calming down, knowing they could never prove otherwise. And their father would never dare to take another of Jon’s gifts. “Then how come you never wore it before!?” Sansa wouldn’t give up, so Arya hissed, “Well, because I just opened the box today!” remembering a lesson of her dancing master, add some truth to a lie and it’ll be all the more convincing. “What box!?” Sansa blinked confused. “The box it was in, stupid! Wasn’t supposed to open it before my nameday. Unless I needed him. And I did. After yesterday.” That she would buy. Had to! “And why’d you need your brother after yesterday?” Lady Margaery still studied her closely. “Because I was supposed to compete in the races! I was supposed to win!” Arya huffed, glaring at the viper.

“Oh, not this again! You’re a woman. Women can’t compete in tourneys!” Sansa rolled her eyes. If only you knew! Still, her sister regained her wits, “Doesn’t explain your blush over the mystery knight.” demanding, “WHO is he!?” “I guess you’ll never know…” Arya smirked smugly, now that the attention was drawn away from the necklace. “Want me to tell mother!?” Sansa threatened and Arya declared, “Won’t tell her either!” challenging her sister, “Though, I’ve no problem telling father.” After the tourney. And only if he insists, she added in her mind, “And I bet father’s perfectly fine with that man being polite to me. Since that’s all it was!” “And what about Ned-” Sansa hissed. “How do you think I know about the knight!?” Arya claimed, “Maybe your precious prince can help you out on that one! Yet, I doubt it, since he seems a bit thick in the head.” “Arya!” Sansa reprimanded again, “You can’t say that?!” “Sure, I can. I just did.”

And right when Arya finally had focussed back on the fight, it had been over. Damn. The king’s booming voice had announced, “That’s my son! My son!” and everyone around them had cheered; causing Arya to huff angrily, “Great, now I’ve missed the fight! Because of you sillies!” Over all their bickering they hadn’t noticed the crown prince had somehow managed to defeat the blue mystery knight. Though, of course, Sansa didn’t respond anymore, pretending she had seen it all, applauding and praising the crown prince’s fighting talent, as they watched him remove his helmet and walk to the royal loge, still panting from the fight, bowing to king and queen. The king naturally burst with pride over his son following in his footsteps, winning melee after melee, and even the queen looked pleased and displayed a small, yet genuine smile for her firstborn. And when he turned to their terrace, smiling himself and hinting a bow into their direction, for a flash their eyes locked, causing Arya’s heart to skip a beat and making her bite her lip again; to keep the corners of her mouth from twitching upwards. But the viper probably hadn’t noticed, since Sansa in between them went crazy over his small gesture, “Oh my gods, Margaery! He meant us!” “Told you, something is different about him!” Margery smirked knowingly, causing Arya to frown, what was she up to!?

For some reason, her instinct had told her to keep an eye on the Tyrell woman afterwards. After all, he was her friend. Yet, her instinct had seemed to be only one to raise alarm. At first, Sansa had shrugged her misgiving off as nonsense, claiming Margaery were up to nothing with the prince, stating she shouldn’t bother herself with thinking about them, and later at the feast, Ned had reacted quite the same, assuring, “He’s a grown man, my lady. He can handle Margaery.” But it hadn’t soothed her nerves. At all. Rather the opposite. When she had watched him and that snake dance, them smiling at each other and laughing together, she had found herself digging her nails into her palms at the scene, fuming. Why was he smiling like a fool? He was walking into a trap! Was no one else seeing it!? Fortunately, Sansa’s jealousy had gotten the better of her, and had smartly lured the crown prince to go for a stroll in the gardens after her dance with him and Arya followed her sister’s example, feigning she needed fresh air, upon seeing Ser Lancel accompanying Margaery from the Great Hall soon after.

Though, they hadn’t been long in the gardens when Ned caught Arya biting her lip, brooding and playing with the wolf pendant, “My lady, that is a rather exquisite necklace you’re wearing today.” he stated. “It is…” she absently replied, watching her sister and Margaery duel each other for the crown prince’s attention. “Though, I’m kind of surprised, Arya. I never thought you someone to care about jewellery.” Ned went on, causing her to face him, frowning, “I don’t!” “Yet, you seem to care about this one…” he said, nodding at the pendant, studying her.  “And!?” her frown deepened. What was everyone’s problem with it? “Um, it makes me wonder …” he seemed sheepish, yet watched her closely, “may I ask who gave it to you?” “My brother.” she quickly blurted, persuading herself, it were the best to tell him the same story as Sansa and her lady mother; who had inquired about the necklace just before the feast as well. “Jon.” she added, upon seeing doubt in his eyes, “It was supposed to be for my nameday, but, you know, I couldn’t wait any longer…” she tried not to blush in shame. What was wrong with her!? Why was she lying to Ned?

At that, Ned chuckled, “Don’t worry! Your secret is safe with me, my lady. Well, at least as long as you don’t expect getting all your presents early now.” Before he got serious again, dumbfounding her, “Since, I had hoped to invite you and your family to visit Starfall after your nameday. Where my gift is waiting for you.” Huh!? When she only blinked in surprise, he quickly assured, “But I could’ve sent it here, if you don’t like the idea.” “You’re inviting me to Dorne?” she asked astounded.  “Yes, I am.” he affirmed, “What do you think, would you like to see Starfall, Arya?” “Um, I don’t know … I suppose.” she stammered, still staring at him. “Can we go riding sand steeds?” she asked after a while. “We can do whatever you like, my lady.” he chuckled, “We can go riding, climbing, sailing or spar all day long. I’m the lord and I say it’s all your decision.” “I’m in!” she grinned happily, adding, “And I can’t wait to see my mother’s dumb face when we do all that!” and he laughed, “So, we have a deal?” “We have!” she stated excited now, “Will we take a ship or the road?” “Um, I’d say we go there by ship and back on horseback. We could invite your brothers as well-” “Oh, yes! Please, do that! Of course there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, but Bran could come for sure! And maybe Rickon? Who’d keep mother distracted…” she stated, beaming with joy and so was he, “Then I’ll arrange everything with your lord father-”

“Are congratulations in order, already?” Margaery inquired complacently, suddenly standing right next to them, startling both of them. “Huh?” Arya blurted confused, before seeing Sansa’s overjoyed expression, realising what they assumed. “No! No.” Arya huffed, “Ned just invited me, um, the whole Stark family to visit Starfall. After my nameday.” While Margaery’s smug smirk turned into an entirely false smile, Gendry’s face did just the opposite, his artificial smile relaxed unmistakably. Only Sansa’s expression hadn’t changed much, she still seemed absolutely delighted. “I’d be honoured to host you in my home, Sansa.” Ned proclaimed. But of course, Margaery had to ruin it, “What a wonderful idea! Though, we’ll miss you dearly at court, Sansa. Won’t we, my prince?” wiping Sansa’s smile from her face.

“Nonsense.” the crown prince retorted, shocking the older Stark girl for an instant, before he turned to Ned, smirking mischievously, “I’ve a better idea! Lord Dayne has invited me and my siblings more than once, and our visit at Starfall is still pending. So, old friend, what do you say, could we, Lady Margaery and our favourite Dornish prince join you and the Starks?” Sansa’s face brightened with every of his words, while Margaery’s smug expression faded into another false smile and Ned looked all but happy with the arrangement, clenching his fist, almost glaring at his friend, before he exchanged a look with Arya, and then turned back to Gendry, “How could I forget, your grace!?” and then smiled at Margaery, “Of course, I’ll extend the invitation to you as well, Lady Margaery.” “Oh, delightful! What an adventure this’s gonna be… for all of us!” The Tyrell woman replied. Nonetheless, Sansa and Gendry were clearly the only ones actually happy with the arrangement. Fools. Both of them.

“I’m sorry. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.” Arya had offered abashed, as soon as the other three had walked away, planning their Dornish adventure. “Wasn’t your fault, my lady.” Ned had sighed, sullen. “We could always outrun them, with the sand steeds. And have our own adventures!” Arya had tried to cheer him up. “That we will, my lady.” he had assured, smiling, yet, unable to hide the bitterness in his tone. That bloody viper had to ruin everything … for a stupid prince!

Therefore, Arya had decided to ruin what she could for the vicious Tyrell in return. At dawn, she had picked up Gendry’s next message, “Are you commissioning armour from me? P.S. You were wearing it. Had not expected that.” and she had answered, “I am. But no fancy mirrors. Why would I not, it is my sigil?” and had added a post scriptum of her own, “Viper says you are different somehow. Snake is up to something, and you stupidly invited her to come.” hoping he would be more careful around Margaery now.

Mere hours later, the jousting competition had started and as expected, Arya had found it hard to watch; seeing once more she could have stood a chance. With a bit of luck, if she hadn’t drawn an opponent like Ser Jaime or Ser Barristan, both well-known jousting veterans, or someone as huge as that monstrosity Gregor Clegane, or his slightly less impressive brother, the Hound, she surely would have made it through the first contest day. Just like Tommen had, who had provided her only delight, unhorsing his cousin Lancel within one single tilt. So, the youngest prince had been the only contestant Arya hadn’t envied for his victory that day. Even though, it had been his first tourney joust, just like it could have been hers.

The second jousting day had been easier to watch. Due to Gendry, mostly. First, reading his next message, “In that case, come see me after the tourney. P.S. Are you worried about me? I feel flattered.” Of course, his post scriptum had made her roll her eyes and reply, “No, just a friendly warning, stupid.” But the first part had made her wonder, did he mean it? Would he really make her armour? Or was he jesting? But he said he would’ve made a sword. Unless that was a jest as well! But he knew, she wanted to compete. And sounded sorry, she couldn’t! Or was he jesting then, too? But Renly and Edric could’ve told him she was good … and he was bold enough to ignore her mother's wishes. They could hide her armour in the vaults! And if it were plain, like his practice armour, she could even spar in the mornings with the men. No one would ever know … By the time they had arrived at the arena, Arya had been sure, he meant it! And had gotten her hopes up. Just a few more days and she would’ve Needle back. And soon even armour of her own! Real armour. No longer a strange collection of pieces her brothers had outgrown. Better armour than all her brothers. Better even than her father! Arya had told herself, watching the second contest day’s first duels.

Once more, young Tommen had amazed the audience, this time by outscoring that disgusting Ser Meryn Trant within three tilts; proving his victory over Ser Lancel hadn’t been sheer luck. Apparently, didn’t the youngest prince take after his uncle Jaime in looks only. Unlike his nasty brother. Who had been unhorsed by the black mystery knight during their second tilt. Arya had snorted with laughter, when the little shit had spit with rage, clearly oblivious who had bested him. Leaving her to pray to the old gods and the new, to allow her to be present, if he ever were to find out. Though, of course that had made Sansa watch her closely again, still suspecting something was going on between her little sister and the mystery knight. Fool.

However, seeing the crown prince face off the Mountain, the largest man she had ever seen, Arya had somehow been glad, when her sister had reached for her hand to hold, whispering, “Please, tell me, he can do it! I don’t want him to get hurt.” “He’s a good rider, jousting is mostly horsemanship. And his armour will keep him safe. You needn’t worry.” she had assured her older sister, and her own suddenly racing heart. But the Stark sisters hadn’t been the only ones who had seemed worried. The king had for once put his wine aside and had stood at the railing of his loge, trying to hide his tenseness, unlike his wife. Who had looked, as if she was about to pull her son from his horse any moment, and even the ever overconfident Lady Margaery had held her breath, when both men had started charging at each other. Sansa had squinted her eyes shut, each time the lances had collided upon the respective other, until the crowds’ cheering had signalled the prince was fine.

Eventually, after five tilts he had managed to outscore Ser Gregor. Causing a wave of relieved sighs go through the crowd, upon seeing the Mountain furiously ride off the arena; ignoring all proprieties. Arya had heard of his meltdown after the last tourney, when Ser Loras had defeated him. Riding a mare in heat, some had claimed. Though, she had thought it a lame excuse. Her stallion could scent mares in heat all he wanted, she would still make him do her bidding first. Nonetheless, she had understood now, why the queen forbid that abomination to compete in melees, when her sons participated. So, Arya had been all the more impressed that the crown prince hadn’t even flinched facing that monster.

Though, of course, he got it all wrong, flattering himself in his next message, “You were worried about me. Well, at first. Since afterwards, you were totally swooning. I saw it.” “Know, what I saw? A blacksmith gone cuckoo.” she had replied, shaking her head over his incurable teasing attitude. Yet, had blushed in shock over his following response, “Still, you like him, And maybe even more than that ...?” No, absolutely not! Never. “You wish!” she had retorted indignantly. Stupid bull-headed prince. Nonetheless, her heart had flipped as soon as he had come into view and even more so, when she had seen him defeating his last opponent that day, entering the last eight round. Still, she had blamed her inner flurry on the fact that he had managed to amaze her with his skills in fighting and riding. He wasn’t the fastest rider, true. Well, not as fast as her, but he was good. Really good. Good enough to win, she had realised.

Ned on the other hand, had managed to unhorse the blue mystery knight, and in doing so, taking not only out Arya’s favourite contestant and entering the quarter final himself, but also causing more trouble for her. Sansa and Margaery had used his latest victory as opportunity to praise Lord Dayne’s numerous advantages. Young. Handsome. Dashing. Honourable. Kind. Talented. Brave. Smart. Heroic. And many things more, stating there were no better match for Arya than him. How about no match, at all!? Although, she could agree with all those descriptions, she couldn’t on their last suggestion. They were friends! Good friends. The best even. If she were a man, too, no one would even think all that nonsense about marriage. They would just be left in peace.

But Sansa and Margaery just wouldn’t listen. Claiming to know, Ned were madly in love with her and would request her hand in marriage after the tourney. “If he wins, he’s going to talk to father!” Sansa had predicted, smirking. “Actually, I bet, he’s going to do that, no matter what. And if you ask me, he’s proven himself more than worthy by now. Father just has to consent! No other man would’ve the patience he’d with you-” “Well, that’s just the point. No one’s asking you, stupid!” Arya had fumed, and had anew proclaimed they only were friends; but they had just laughed at her. “You gave him your favour, silly! What did you expect!?” Sansa had teased. “Not that! He knows, mother forced me to do it! He would never do that!” Arya had stated stubbornly, causing Sansa to cover her face with her palms at her sister’s supposed ignorance.

Although, that hadn’t been the worst. Lady Stark had been even more thrilled to see Ned compete as one of the last eight, “Your ribbon is a true lucky charm!” she had chirped, ignoring Arya’s sullen face, silently screaming, “I wish I could take it back!” All it caused, was trouble. “I mean, I still hope the prince would crown your sister with the garland … but this, Lord Dayne doing so well, maybe coming off the victor himself, I hadn’t expected that. What a perfect match the two of you are!” Lady Catelyn had proclaimed delighted, while weaving lilac pearls into Arya’s hair for the feast that night; as if it were her betrothal celebration already. “Tonight you have to assure him, don’t let him doubt himself!” her lady mother had instructed.

And even Arya had understood by now, if he should win, Ned would crown her. Had to! Thanks to that bloody ribbon … There was no other option, not without insulting her and whole House Stark. And Ned would never do that. No matter, if Arya wanted to be his Queen of Love and Beauty or not. Perhaps she could endure it? It’s just stupid flowers! But not for her mother. Lady Catelyn would only apply more pressure on her and Ned afterwards, forcing them into their betrothal. Clever scheme indeed, Catelyn Tully! she had silently raged, but her mother had ignored her glares – probably even hoping for Arya to lose it, so she could take Needle away for good. No! She’ll be waiting till the cows come home. Arya had thought, calming herself, just one more day! You can manage. You have to! For Needle.

However, Arya wasn’t willing to go down without a fight and had come up with a little escape plan for her and Ned. And fortunately, Ned had provided the perfect opportunity to let him in on it, by announcing to retire to his chambers after the banquet – to Catelyn Tully’s great dismay, who had glared at Arya, clearly suspecting she was trying to drive Ned away. I’m smarter than that, Mother! Arya had smiled, suggesting, she should retire early then as well. Explaining, with Ned wearing her favour, she wouldn’t want to give any wrong impressions to the other eligible bachelors at the feast; playing the obedient little wife, Lady Catelyn tried to mould her in to. And gallant as Ned was, he had quickly offered to escort her to the Tower of the Hand. Though surprisingly, her lady mother’s face had turned into a delighted smile, “And excellent idea!” It was! Just not in the way Catelyn Tully thought. On their way through the keep, Arya had let Ned in on her plan, urging him to play along – otherwise he would find himself betrothed to her quicker than he could blink, she had warned – and he had silently listened, before he had bid her goodnight, with a kiss on her hand.

Sure, to finally have put a spoke in Catelyn Tully’s wheel, Arya bid their two household guards, Alyn and Wyl, happily goodnight. But then she passed her father’s solar and her intuition made her stop, it was past nightfall. And she was all alone in the upper storeys. Maybe… She lifted the wall hanging before she knew, carefully opening the door and stepped through. Only to find two strong arms flinging around her, one hand covering her mouth and the other holding her in place at her waist. Instinctively, she pushed herself off the wall with her feet, making her attacker stumble backwards. “Shush! It’s just me.” he whispered and let go off her. “What the fuck, Gendry!?” she turned to face him, “What the hells are you doing here!?” “Lurking in the shadows, scaring passers-by?” he offered teasingly, yet, when she shoved him, he chuckled, “Too soon!?” “You were still at the feast, just moments ago!” she hissed, while he re-lit the candle. “Thought it best to follow Ned’s good example. Needing rest and all…” he stated smugly. “You call this resting!?” she snarled, making him raise his brow, “Hey! I was just delivering this.” he pulled out a scroll from his sleeve, “How should I've known you’d come here, too? It’s my time. Not yours. So, the question should rather be, what’re you doing here!?”

“Um,” she stammered, “well, I thought,…” “You couldn’t wait to read this, huh?” he handed her the small parchment, biting his lower lip to hide his growing smile. “Nooo… I just thought with everyone else at the feast, I maybe wouldn’t need to come in the morning.” she growled. “Of course. And since we’re now both here,” he grinned mischievously, “why don’t we speed up our conversation a bit. Go on, read it!” Now it was Arya’s turn to bite her lip. To hide her growing insecurity. She knew how she reacted to some of his messages, and her gut instinct told her this was one of those notes. So, she quickly turned around, yet, forgot he held the candle. Causing him to chuckle and step behind her, holding the light over her shoulder. Even though, he wasn’t touching her, his breath against her neck caused waves of heat spreading all over her body. And he most certainly saw the bright red blush creeping up her neck, when she unrolled the parchment, only to read, “You wish!” in her own handwriting. Rolling her eyes, she turned around, “That’s my message, you idiot!” handing the scroll back to him. “Oh, um, sorry.” he murmured, somewhat embarrassed and pulled out another scroll, which she quickly snatched from his hand, turning around again, causing him to repeat his previous action, chuckling and holding the light for her to read.

And she was right, it was one of those messages, “I actually do.” she read, feeling her heart and mind racing with dizzying speed. Was he japing? He had to be! Why would he want her to like him? Like him like Sansa did? Like all those other silly geese did … wait!? “What do you think?” he whispered into her ear after a while, startling her, and setting her entire skin on fire, her neck and ear, where his breath had touched her, felt literally as if she had been burned there. What was she supposed to say!? Gods, she knew it was one of those notes! Why hadn’t she just grabbed it and ran? “Um,” she had to swallow, “That you’re lying…” she suggested quietly. “What!?” he sounded surprised, “Why would you think that?” yet, his reaction angered her, “Because you are! For the whole past month you talked about nothing else but wanting me to swoon all over you! Just like the rest of them fools at court! As if it were some sort of game to you …” she turned around, glaring at him.

“It’s not…” he stammered, dumbfounded. Was he blushing himself? “I’m not lying, Arya. I lied to you once, down in the vaults, when we met. But never since. I swear. And this, you and me, it’s no game. Not to me, at least. Far from it.” he stated, seemingly insecure. “Then why all that nonsense with beating Ned, and making sure, I wouldn’t root for him?” she demanded, enraged. But he couldn’t face her, she saw, he attempted to say something. Several times. But ultimately decided against it. Again and again. Until he finally blurted, “I want you to have a choice!” glaring back at her, “If he wins, he’s going to ask for your hand and your father will accept-” “No, stupid! That’s just what Mother thinks! If he makes it to the final round, Ned’s dropping out. First tilt!”

“And you think me a liar!? Calling me stupid …” Gendry snorted dismissively. “What’s that supposed to mean!?” she hissed. “That’re you the one who’s stupid, if you believe that crap about dropping out!” “It’s not crap! It was my idea. And Ned agreed. Just a moment ago!” “Did you make him swear!?” Gendry growled furiously, causing her to drop her gaze and bite her lip. She hadn’t thought of that. “You didn’t.” he hissed and shook his head over her supposed foolishness, “He’s not dropping out, Arya! He wants this betrothal just as bad as your mother. “You’re lying!” she snapped. “No, I’m not. Not about Ned. And not about … my message.” he locked eyes with her then, studying her. “I’ll prove it. Tomorrow.” he said quietly, cupping her left cheek, and for an instant he had traced the outline of her lower lip with his thumb, before he gulped, “Goodnight, Arya.” and climbed down the ladder, leaving her entirely dumbstruck and absently reaching for the tingling skin he had just touched. What was that!?

When she had regained her composure, she had snuck to her chamber, quickly undressing and slipping under her blanket. In case her father and mother would return from the feast and would feel the need to check on her. But they hadn’t come, not for another two hours, which Arya had spent wide awake, her mind racing, revolving around him, once more. What happened in the secret passage? What was he up to? Why would he want her to like him? Why would he want her to become just like those other silly geese? Why would he sabotage her friendship with Ned? Why was he so angry at him? Why would he want her to doubt her friend … their friend? And most of all, what was that with the thumb stroking around her face? Though, her parents and Sansa had eventually returned from the feast, slipping under their own bed covers and falling exhaustedly, yet happily asleep, she had not. She had spent the rest of the night, tossing and turning, brooding over a stupid bull-headed prince once more. And had even snuck from her bed at dawn, like the silly goose she was indeed, actually hoping to find another scroll of him. Which of course she had not. Stupid!

When her mother finally had come to wake her, or rather to give her exact instructions for the day, Arya had almost been glad. Yet, the ever so watchful hawk of a mother hadn’t seen the dark circles under her daughter’s eyes. Or maybe Catelyn Tully had just ignored them, thinking herself almost at the finish now. You’re so gonna miss the mark, mother! Arya had announced in her mind. Especially since not only her, but also that stupid crown prince seemed intent to spoil things for Lady Stark now. Although Arya still had failed to understand his motivation, she had decided to no longer brood on that. Needle was the only thing that counted now. Waiting for her, so she had been determined to focus onto getting her sword back, solely. Just a few more hours.

Though, of course, these fools surrounding her in the south, had no intentions to make it easy for her. First, had her mother tried her very best to annoy her until a row starts, threatening to make her watch Needle being melted-down, if she would dare to refuse Ned’s garland, his marriage proposal or whatever else he might propose during this day. Whatever else!? What happened to ‘within the scope of propriety’? Arya had been tempted to mock, but had kept her mouth shut. Needle! She had focussed her mind back on what truly mattered and had endured her mother hovering over her. She’d get back at Catelyn Tully. First thing in the morrow.

Though, at the tourney arena, it had been Sansa and Lady Margaery who had tried their best to drive Arya nuts. First, by suspecting Ned would have tried to steal a kiss last night, suggesting “those lonely hallways are perfect for stealing kisses.” both sniggering like twelve year olds. “So, the two of you speak from experience?” Arya had teased angrily, running low on patience. Thanks to that sleep-stealing bull-headed prince! “Arya!” her sister had quickly reprimanded, blushing prettily like the innocent maiden that she was, “Prince Gendry would never do that!” she had claimed. “Kitchen staff says otherwise.” Arya had smirked and turned to face the viper, “What was her name again? Aly? Alyce?” Watch out, Arya! his voice had reprimanded in her mind. “That’s not true! Just nasty gossip.” Sansa had objected. “If you say so…” Arya had snorted, trying to ignore them for the rest of the day, watching the jousting to start and calming herself, Needle. Just think about Needle.

And it had worked for a while, especially since most of her memories about Needle were connected to Jon. Him ruffling her hair. Him laughing at Robb when she had bested him for the first time. Him carrying her to bed after a feast, when she had been too tired to walk herself. Him quickly covering her ears and blocking her sight, when they had walked in on Theon and one of the servant girls. And of course his dumb face when she had bested him for the first time. She missed himif she’d ever get to see him again? No, she hadn’t wanted to think about that now.

So, Sansa and Margaery it was again. Who had been getting their hopes up, seeing the crown prince besting Ser Barristan, “Oh, my gods, Margaery! He’s in the semi-final! Just two more rounds to win for him, and …” Arya had rolled her eyes and had instantly gone back to think about Needle. Though, carefully avoiding to think of Jon. Instead, she had closed her eyes, trying to imagine a sparring session with Brienne. But of course, Sansa had eventually noticed her moving wrists in her lap, “What’re you doing now!?” her sister had inquired in a slightly chiding tone, sounding like their mother. “Sparring.” Arya had retorted, absently. “Stop it! People are staring at you!” Huffing and rolling her eyes, she had turned to face her sister, “What people?” “Littlefinger.” “Creep.” Arya had snorted and turned to face the man, sitting in the royal loge behind her lady mother, glaring at him. But he had only smiled. Falsely.

And then Ned had bested Trystane, causing Sansa and Margaery to start a new round of teasing, “You should keep your eyes open now, little wolf!” The Tyrell woman had smirked, “You might find yourself with a garland in your lap before you know! “No need to worry, my lady! Ned won’t win!” Arya had returned the smug smirk. Yet, had been getting an uneasy feeling. And justifiably so, she had realised, when Ned had managed to defeat Jaime Lannister, outscoring him after four tilts. Seven hells! What was wrong with the old knight? Why was he bored to death with competing in tourneys? Why didn’t he put up more of a fight? Why still compete, if didn’t mean to win? Bloody Lannister.

Of course, Sansa had gone entirely mental, then, “Oh, my gods, Arya! Ned’s in the final round. Oh, my gods! He’s so going to crown you!” “No, he won’t.” Arya had snarled. Not if he cared for his life! All of a sudden she had found herself rooting for Gendry. Who would’ve seen that coming? she had snorted at herself, furtively crossing her fingers when the crown prince had duelled Loras. And a surprising wave of relief had flooded her, when the prince actually had managed to outscore The Knight of Flowers, after seven tilts.

However, the pause in fighting, a whole damn hour, had brought Arya on edge, for good. She’d get back at them! All of them. Mother. Sansa. Margaery. Ned. And of course that stupid prince. They wouldn’t know what hit them, when she was done with them! Arya had vowed to herself, pacing up and down in the meadows behind their stands. Like the caged animal she was. And that bloody Littlefinger had of course thought this the perfect opportunity to poke his nose in, “Lady Arya, if I wouldn’t know any better, I’d think you're afraid of losing a garland of winter roses to your sister.” “What!? No…” “So, who are you rooting for? Your handsome Dornish suitor, who’s wearing your favour? Or is it our dashing prince, who’s more to your liking?” he had continued poking. Wrong question, absolutely wrong question. And absolutely wrong timing to poke a raging wolf, arsehole! “Myself!” she had snarled, glaring at the despicable creep, ready to strike him down with his own dagger, “I could best them, both! If men like you wouldn’t feel so threatened by little girls like me!”

Though, when he had attempted to counter, just opening his mouth, applause had come from behind him, “Wise and well-spoken. As usual, Lady Arya.” Renly had placed a hand on Littlefinger’s shoulder, squeezing. Threatening. And the little weasel had understood, quickly backing off. “I hope, I wasn’t interrupting anything. From over there it just looked as if you were about to murder my brother’s Master of Coin.” the stormlord had grinned at her. “Oh, I totally was.” she had chuckled, feeling clearly relieved Baelish was gone. That man was like a festering wound. Disgusting, yet, absolute deadly. “So, you’re still mad our little scheme had been exposed?” Renly had teased, and she had only nodded, sighing. “Don’t worry, She-wolf, next time we’ll be smarter!” he had winked at her, “But for now, we’ll have to watch two clumsy fools fight over two silly garlands.”

Fortunately, neither her lord father nor her lady mother had left the royal loge during that break. So, Arya had spent the rest of it with Renly, whose excellent sense of humour had quickly raised a few laughs from her, distracting her for a while from the invisible chain she felt around her neck, tightening like a hangman’s noose.

So, by the time she had returned to their seats with Sansa and Lady Margaery, Arya had actually dared to hope again. Ned hadn’t vowed to drop out, true. But he hadn’t said he wouldn’t do it, either. She had tried to calm herself. In vain. The crown prince and Ned had charged at each other, their lances colliding on their shields, but handsome Lord Dayne had remained in his saddle. Bloody Dornishman! Arya had huffed, clenching her fists, as she had watched both men return to their position; Gendry slightly shaking his head.

During their second tilt, the crown prince had even missed to hit. So, of course Ned hadn’t dropped out then, either. Couldn’t. Even if he’d wanted to. But Arya had started doubting it, digging her nails into her palms and clenching her jaw. Throughout their third and fourth tilt, they both had scored, hitting their respective shields again. Still, Ned Dayne had remained on horseback. Seven hells! Arya had been fuming. In their fifth tilt the crown prince had managed to draw level. Seriously!? Did they think this somehow funny?

After their sixth tilt, both missing, Arya had been about to get up and leave, but Sansa had caught her arm, squeezing and snarling, “Sit down! And stay put, until I say otherwise.” Huffing and rolling her eyes, she had obeyed. For Needle. And had sullenly watched how Gendry finally had managed to break the tie, only to lose it again, during their eighth tilt, when Ned had managed to draw level again. What the fuck!? Were they even competing? Or just jousting for fun, to fool her? After their ninth tilt, both missing again, Arya had been sure, They were, they definitively were fooling her! Knowing, now only the king could save her, by declaring a victor. Which hopefully would be his son. Though, that would look nepotistic. Oh gods, he would name Ned victor! She was doomed ... she could just as well put herself in a coffin tonight.

Though, she obviously had been alone in feeling this way. The crowds around her had gone mental in their cheering, nobody had expected these two finalists, and least for young Ned Dayne to stand his ground against the taller and broader crown prince for so long, even equal in scores.

However, then it suddenly happened, during their tenth tilt. To Arya now entirely out of the blue; she hadn’t even paid attention anymore, and had just absently stared at the tourney ground. “Arya!” Sansa cried out, ripping her from her thoughts, “What!?” To see Ned getting back onto his feet, furiously throwing his helmet against the stands, and then turning around, locking eyes with her. Damn. Just an instant ago, she had been absolutely mad at him, ready to kill him, as soon as she would get hold of him. But his look then swept away her anger at once. Utter despair.

“Oh my gods, Arya! It’s blue winter roses!” Sansa shook her excitedly, drawing her attention back to the crown prince, who just picked up his garland. “Congratulations, Sansa.” Margaery offered, though, clearly shocked, barely able to keep a straight face. “Yes, congratulations, Sansa.” Arya quietly said, “Am I now allowed to leave?” “What!? Why?” Sansa looked at her, frowning. “I want to talk to him.” “Oh,” Sansa glanced at Ned, who watched Gendry with clenched fists, “Um, yes. Of course. Go. Talk to him.”

But she hadn’t gotten far. Just a few steps up the terrace. “Lady Arya,” she heard him calling, causing her to freeze in her step, “don’t you want to be my Queen of Love and Beauty?”

Chapter Text

“Lady Arya,” she heard him calling, causing her to freeze in her step, “don’t you want to be my Queen of Love and Beauty?” Seven hells! She hadn’t seen that coming! And from the ear-splitting silence that suddenly surrounded her, no one else had. All eyes were on her, she could feel it. Her heart was pounding so fast that her ears buzzed, and for the first time in her life she feared she might faint. No! She was no damn fainting weakling lady. She was Arya Stark. The she-wolf of Winterfell. She didnt faint. Least of all now, or else they’d get it all wrong! “Lady Arya?” a much closer voice ripped her from her thoughts, Renly. Reminding her, she was expected to react to the question. Damn! There was no way out of this, she realised, at least no good one.

She had even started trembling. Seven hells, Arya! she reprimanded herself, You dont tremble. Desperate to regain her composure she clenched her fists, digging her nails into the palms. It helped, steadying her enough to slowly turn around, towards him. And the gaping crowd. Still, it felt like an eternity until she finally managed to look up. Her eyes found Sansa’s, who looked so incredibly hurt, and yet, was silently pleading with her to not do something stupid. To not make things worse. Forgive me, sister. Arya swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat, before she finally dared to face him. The crown prince had his head slightly cocked, looking tense, anxious even – with traces of an almost faded smile on his face – he studied her, his eyes clearly trying to read her mind; while the steed underneath him was getting restive.

Stupid bull-headed prince! He wanted her to have a choice … What choice did this leave her!? She wanted to yell at him, hit him, again and again, for forcing this on her. Yet, her voice was barely a whisper and “No.” the only word she managed to utter. But he had heard it, she could tell. His jaw dropped somewhat and he blinked clearly baffled; probably unsure if he had really heard her say it. “Arya!” Sansa’s thunderstruck outcry followed immediately, causing her to add an apologetic, “your grace.” accompanied by a quick curtsy. She desperately wanted to flee the scene, but the murmur now going through the flabbergasted crowd seemed to pin her to the spot. Never in her life had she felt so exposed and vulnerable.

She literally was a caged animal now - ready to lash out. Any moment. At anyone. Risking anything, just to get away. How? Doesn’t matter. Just run, now! But then a somehow hurt, “Why?” reached through to her. Why what!? Arya looked up confused, and found the crown prince staring at her, flustered. Fuck. She was trapped. For good now. Feeling her face turn into a glaring red, she couldn’t bear to look at him anymore. Or anyone else there. Her eyes searched frantically for something they could focus on, but only found the floor boards underneath her feet, while she tried to sort out the least insulting way to answer his stupid why. What was there not to understand? He had asked her a question, and she had answered. As clear as possible.

“Um, because …” she reluctantly started, staring at the floor boards, “well … thing is … um, I don’t want to be … Queen of Love and Beauty.” What fool came up with that ridiculous title, anyway? Just speaking it out loud made her want to hit something. Preferably anyone around her now. Starting with that stupid bull-headed prince. She huffed angrily and decided – since she already was at it, and for once had literally everyone’s ear – she would make things clear for good now; knowing, her mother and sister would be mad at her anyway. So why not? She looked up at the prince, trying to stand tall and proud, locking eyes with him, and announced calmly, yet as loud and clear as possible, “In fact, your grace, I don’t want to be any sort of queen … or lady!” causing him to silently nod in defeat. “The wolf hunt is over now, for everyone!” Arya added, and her glance instinctively searched the tourney ground behind him, where Ned had stood, but he was gone now.

However, she had no time to think on that. She had barely finished, when the waves of scandalised gasps spread around her, and her mother’s voice reached her ear, “Arya Stark!” Catelyn Tully snarled, “You will apologise to the crown prince and the royal family immediately!” As expected her lady mother was furious. Good. Something familiar, something she could actually deal with. Arya felt her own anger boil up inside of her, “For what!?” she spat, glaring at the prince, her voice finally returning to its full strength. He brought this on himself! He had decided to corner her – in front of everyone – knowing damn well who she was. You can’t corner a wolf and expect it not to bite! “Arya St-” Lady Catelyn started to chide her defiant daughter again.

But she was fuming now. She couldn’t stand it any longer. Speedily shifting her glare from the dumbfounded prince to Lady Stark, who stood outraged at the railing of the royal loge. Losing it, Arya yelled, “What, mother!? You made sure I couldn’t compete! You made me watch! Front row, noon to supper. Every single day, for the whole fortnight. And I did it. No back-talking. Behaving all proper. Wearing all the stupid dresses you put me in. Smiling at everyone you wanted me to. Even putting a damn ribbon on Ned’s arm! You promised, if I’d do all that, I’d get my blades and armour back. And I did. I kept my end of the bargain! Accepting his bloody flowers” she pointed at the crown prince, without averting her glare from her mother, “was never any part of it! So, no, mother, I won’t apologize! He asked and I declined. Politely, if you hadn’t noticed. I don’t see any fault in that…” feeling angry tears well up, as soon as she was done with her tantrum. Knowing, she had lost Needle now for real. And her stallion, too. All because of him! That deceiving, fucking liar! She didn’t belong here. And she could no longer pretend.

Only, Catelyn Tully didn’t see that, having turned lividly and panicking to her entirely thunderstruck husband, “Ned, talk some sense into her!” But Lord Stark hadn’t seemed to hear his wife. Supporting himself on the wooden backrest of his seat, petrified with horror, he had stared at their defiant daughter – as if seeing a ghost – all colour drained from his face, looking as if he would collapse any moment. “Ned!” Lady Catelyn had shook him, trying to get his attention, “Do something!”

But Eddard Stark never got the chance to chide her, of a sudden the king’s roaring laughter resounded, startling father and daughter alike. “Damn, girl! You’ve guts!” Robert snorted, “Not just the pretty thing my son mistook you for!” “You think this funny, father!?” Joffrey spat, “She insulted him! Us!” “She did no such thing!” the crown prince objected, causing Arya to glare at him again, she didn’t need to be rescued. Least by him! Though, before she could tell him, the king spoke again, “You shut your damn mouth! The girl just didn’t want those flowers. And unlike others, your brother can take a blow!” and then turned to Lady Stark, “No harm was done here, rest assured, Cat!” Before he addressed Arya again, more serious than she had ever seen the king, “You look like her. She loved flowers. But you’re different, you’re a fierce one. I see that now … Pity, she never had a chance to refuse the garland that goddamn day!” Arya didn’t know what to say and turned to look at her father, who had sunken back into his seat, gazing into space.

“Don’t worry, girl! You’re not in trouble.” the king assured, though, the queen’s and Joffrey’s faces told a different story, both of them glared at Arya, no efforts to conceal their distaste, and Arya knew her mother was disagreeing as well. But it was the king’s word that counted, and for the first time Arya felt the need to show the man some respect, and quickly curtsied, uttering, “Thank you, your grace.” though, didn’t know what to do next. She still felt uncountable eyes on her and heard the people’s scandalised whispers.

“Go on, son, put that damn garland onto someone else’s head, and let’s be done with it!” the king instructed. Yes, please! Let’s be done with it… Arya was dying to finally get to leave this goddamn arena. Anxiously stroking the red crescents in her palms, she waited for the crown prince to find himself another Queen of Love and Beauty. But nothing happened, for what felt like another eternity. What took him so long? The arena was full of pretty girls. Especially the front rows. But he didn’t move, and suddenly Arya understood his dilemma, anyone he would choose now would always be known as second choice. Next best was no compliment. Maybe even an insult to certain women. Like Margaery Tyrell, who indeed seemed to duck away, busy comforting the still shocked Sansa. Next best was not the true Queen of Love and Beauty. Seven bloody hells. That was still her! Even though, she had refused the garland. That stupid bull-headed prince!

Before she knew, she was again digging her nails into her palms, again glaring at him, while he stared at the crown of winter roses in his hand, his brows furrowed and his thumb trailing along one flower’s outline. Sansa would never forgive her! Fuck. How could he drive this damn flowery wedge between two sisters!? Wasn’t Sansa hating her already enough? How could he deny her sister the garland? It was just stupid flowers! No actual crown – what was his damn problem!? Why did he have to insult Sansa like that? Hadn’t he once claimed, he wouldn’t want to disrespect her? What else was that, you arsehole!?

Arya had been so consumed by her raging thoughts, she hadn’t even noticed the prince had found himself another Queen of Love and Beauty and was standing in the royal loge now – having avoided further scandal by placing the garland onto his sister’s lap. The king beamed with pride, roaring, “That’s my son! Strong and brave. Yet, smart enough to outwit us all. Well done!” he hugged his son overjoyed and even the queen seemed somewhat appeased with this outcome now. No one would dare to call Myrcella second best. “And now it’s time for the feast!” the king announced, “To celebrate the champion of this tourney! My son, your crown prince!”

Seeing the people cheer him once more, Arya’s feet finally obeyed her will again. She turned and made for the stairs, hoping no one would notice. While the king shouted, “Eat, drink and dance as much as you like! And make this city’s whores walk bow-legged in the morrow…” she quickly descended from the terrace, and froze again. Where should she go? The arena was surrounded by wide new-mown meadows, with squires and servants bustling about to get their masters hastily back to the keep. Not to mention the two Kingsguard knights at the stairs right to her. Damn! She couldn’t sneak away, not without them noticing whereto. Not in that stupid dress her mother had made her wear that day, “A Stark and Dayne colour.” Lady Catelyn had pointed out in the morning. The Stark colour that suited her the least! Arya had then sullenly thought, and knowing now why. “Arya!” the crown prince appeared atop the stairs of the royal loge. Seven hells! She instinctively glanced around and disappeared under the terraces, hearing him call, “Arya, wait!” and from the clanking steel she heard, he was quickly following her. Bloody bull-headed prince!

Eventually catching up, he found her hiding in some dark corner, “Wearing white isn’t exactly doing the trick for lurking in the shadows, my lady.” he stated and then sighed. Probably realising, smart-alecky teasing wouldn’t appease her. She just glared at him, murder in her eyes. He was lucky he was still wearing his armour! Or else she would have started hitting him the moment he had stepped around the corner. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Or putting pressure on you.” he claimed quietly, “It’s just … with your mother and Ned speeding things up, and my mother, Margaery and … well, being themselves … Arya, we … we were running out of time!” “What the fuck are you talking about!?” she hissed, frowning angrily. “Us! You and me-” he sounded almost desperate. “There is no ‘us’!” she spat with ice in her voice. “Deny it all you want … deep down you know there is!” he countered hurt, yet certain. And continued defensively, “Arya, I had to do something! I couldn’t just stand by and watch, … watch you become his! Arya, I-” “YOUR GRACE!” her father growled, stepping around the corner, “This is hardly appropriate! And I believe my daughter has made herself perfectly clear!” dumbfounding her and the prince alike.

“Lord Stark, I meant no disrespect!” he stammered baffled, “I didn’t mean to-” “Arya, we’re leaving!” Eddard Stark snarled, staring down the younger yet taller man, making him step aside, abashed. So her father could drag her from her lousy hideout, “Come, child!” But they didn’t get far, “Lord Stark! May I have a word with you before the feast?” the crown prince asked, making her father turn abruptly, “Of course, you may, your grace. Though, the outcome will likely be the same!” When Arya and her father continued their way, they heard metal clanking and wood splinter behind them. Hopefully smashing his own head in. Stupid bull-headed prince.

However, before they stepped out from under the terraces her father stopped, demanding dead serious, “Why were you down there with him!?” “Because that stupid idiot followed me, obviously!” Arya snapped defensively, “I was just hiding!” “Did he try something!?Of course, her stupid reputation was most important! “He didn’t touch me …” today. she retorted, slightly offended, “If that’s what you mean?! He was just talking-” “Are you sure about that? I think I heard quite a bit of his talk…” her father inquired. “Yes, father!” she huffed, “He was just talking … apologising, I suppose.” Though, clearly sucked at it.

Behind the terraces her lady mother and Sansa awaited them, both evidently trying to keep a straight face, but failed. Sansa’s expression was a mixture of hurt and shocked disbelief, while their mother’s face was hard as steel, looking daggers at Arya. Who felt anger boil up inside of her again, clenching her fists once more. In frustration over her own stupidity this time. She could have easily avoided all of this! She had behaved all proper throughout the tourney – well, at least while her mother had been watching – she would have had Needle and her other belongings returned to her after the feast tonight. Had she just gotten up earlier! Just an instant. Had she paid attention throughout the last tilt! She could have been off the terrace before the prince even got to his stupid garland … And now she would lose Needle for good. And her steed, as well. And Sansa … she would undoubtedly hate her for the rest for their lives! All because of him. That bloody deceiving liar!

But at least, her sister and lady mother had spared her another public chiding – or rather themselves the further public embarrassment. At first, none had said a word on their carriage ride back to the Red Keep, all four of them staring into space, trying to understand what had happened mere moments ago. Yet, Sansa had eventually started glaring at her with growing hatred, until Arya blurted, “I don’t know why he did it!” pleading, “I didn’t mean for this to happen, Sansa!” halfway expecting her sister lashing out at her. But instead, Sansa shifted her glare at their father, next to Arya, hissing, “Why did you bring her here!?” and then whipped her head around to snarl at their mother, “Why did you make her attend the tourney? All dolled up like that!?” she nodded dismissively at Arya, “I was supposed to be the pretty one!” shocking both their parents, “Sansa!” they gasped in unison. But she ignored them, spitting, “You should’ve left her in the North! She doesn’t belong here! She ruined everything, she ruined my life!

Although, Arya agreed with almost every of her words, the venom dripping from her sister’s lips uttering them, hurt. Like a knife through the heart. As Sansa started sobbing uncontrollably, clinging into their mother’s embrace, Arya turned to glare at Lady Catelyn accusingly. This was your doing! Just as much as his! But then their father spoke, “She’s right, Cat.” causing his wife to look at him, aghast. “Not with everything!” he quickly assured, “But we shouldn’t have brought Arya here. Cat, I want her to go home.” dumbfounding all three women. Did he mean it? Arya stared at her father. “Ned, we agreed on this! She can’t go on like that! She needs to marry eventually-” Catelyn Tully objected immediately. “But not him!” her husband blurted. “Oh, don’t be silly! After that outburst, embarrassing him-” “Cat, he asked to see me! Tonight, before the feast.” Lord Stark stated alarmed and Sansa and his wife gasped, “What!? When!?” “He was there, under the terrace …” Ned Stark sighed, causing Sansa to glare at Arya, as if she wanted to murder her.

“I didn’t do anything! He followed me there!” she blurted reflexively, proposing, “I’ll go home! First light in the morning, I’m gone. I promise!” “No, you’re not, stupid! He wants you!” Sansa spat dismissively, shocking her, “What!?” “He’s going to ask for your hand, you idiot!” her sister snorted hateful. “What!?” Arya felt her ears buzz again. This was a nightmare! This wasn’t real. Couldn’t be! “We don’t know that, yet.” Lady Catelyn tried to appease, “Maybe he just wants to assure your father that he harbours no grudge against your sister or House Stark. But until we know, there can’t be any talk of Arya going home!” “Why!?” Arya demanded, getting angry again. That fucking prince was ruining her life! “You can’t make me stay! Father said-” “He’s the crown prince, Arya! The future king! If he should propose marriage-” her mother went on. “I don’t care! I won’t marry him!” Arya snapped, “You can’t make me-” “Mother! You can’t mean … She’d make the worst queen ever!” Sansa drowned her out, close to despair. “We’ve to handle this now very careful, girls!” their mother shot their father a warning glance, “We can’t risk to insult the crown! If he should request her hand, we can’t refuse him-” “No, mother!” Arya fumed, spilling angry tears now herself, “You can melt Needle down a thousand times … I won’t do it!

However, right then their carriage had rolled through the gate of the Red Keep. Her gilded cage! And her mother would make her serve a life sentence … if that fucking prince … he had claimed he wanted her to have a choice … and she walked unsuspectingly right into his trap. Like the stupid fool she was! As soon as their carriage had come to stop in the courtyard, Sansa had been out of it, running to lock herself in into her chamber. But Arya had only realised they had stopped, upon feeling her father’s thumb wipe away her tears. At that, she had darted from the carriage as well, for once voluntarily following her sister’s example. Passing the already dumbfounded Heward and Tom, who were guarding the entrance to the Tower of the Hand, and almost toppling Desmond on the stairs, before she finally could close her chamber’s door behind her. Only to realise her key was gone! Bloody hawk of a mother!

Raging, she had dragged her trunks to the door, barring it. At least now her stupid dresses finally proved useful for once. Slumping down onto the floor behind the last one, she had intended to defend her door with her own body weight. As long as she could. Yet, soon her fury had given way to something else. Something she couldn’t really name. It was all a lie! A deceit. She had thought him a stag, no threat to a wolf – at least not to the kind of wolf she was – when in truth he was a lion, digging his teeth into her throat now. How could she have been be so blind? So stupid? But more so, how could he do this to her!? She had thought him her friend! Had trusted him. Worse even! Had liked him. A lot. Like no one else before! She had thought his smile the most beautiful sight in the world. His touch the most exciting thing she had ever felt. And his eyes … never had she seen anything more intriguing. She could’ve lost herself in their endless blue. And wouldn’t have minded! She could have spent the rest of her life with him at the forge. Watching him work. His muscles move under his skin. His brows furrowed in concentration. Bending steel to his will. Shaping it into the finest art pieces … while listening to her tales of Winterfell, as if they weren’t childish nonsense at all … But it had all been a lie! Just a vicious trick.

By the time her father and mother had come to talk to her, she had been so lost in her thoughts, she hadn’t even heard them knocking. Only Lady Catelyn’s yelling, “Arya, you will open this door at once!” had ripped her from her thoughts. Not gonna happen. Though, when she had remained silent, her father had called, “Child, I’ve Needle here with me!” “Good for you! But threatening to melt it down won’t-” “No one’s going to melt it down! But, you’ve to open the door, if you want it back!” he had offered. “Do you think me that stupid!?” she had snorted dismissively. “It’s no trick, child! I swear it to the old gods.”

And indeed, her father stood there with Needle in his hand, when she had removed the trunks and cautiously opened the door. “Why?” she asked warily, studying both her parents. “We agreed on what happened today wasn’t your fault. At least not the part before your yelling. And I believe the yelling part happened mainly due to your state of shock …” Eddard Stark proclaimed. While his daughter stared at her mother’s steely face, waiting for the furious chiding to erupt, but it failed to materialise, causing Arya’s frown to deepen. “May we come in?” her father asked, making her silently step aside and slump down onto one of her trunks, crossing her arms in front of her chest, hoping this wouldn’t be about what she feared it were.

Ned Stark placed Needle carefully onto her bed, and sat down next to his daughter, “The crown prince was here to see me.” But it was! Of course. Arya narrowed her eyes, absently growling, “What did he want?” “He asked for your hand in marriage.” her mother announced frigidly. And Arya huffed, nodding bitterly and concluded, “And you gave in.” glaring at her mother. That’s why they returned Needle! To lull her! Hoping she would consent then … like the stupid little girl they thought her!

“No.” her father said quietly, making Arya shift her incredulous stare to her mother, “But you said …” “His suggestion! Not mine.” Lady Catelyn replied displeased, causing Arya to look back at her father. “The prince’s.” he clarified. Huh? “He asked for your hand, it’s true. But also for me to postpone any decisions I were about to make concerning you. Apparently, he wants to woo you properly.” “Apparently!” Lady Stark snorted ill-humoured. “And you said ‘No’ to that?” Arya asked confused. “No, to that I agreed.” Huh? “Giving you another half year to shoo him and every other suitor away!” Catelyn Tully hissed disapprovingly. “What game’s he playing!?” Arya thought aloud, frowning. “That’s the question indeed!” her mother scowled at her husband.

Chapter Text

Arya had hoped, her mother would see reason, had hoped, she were allowed to skip the feast. To clear her mind. To find a way out! But of course, Lady Catelyn knew no mercy, not when it came to her daughters’ future. Or rather the ambitions she had for them. Of course, her mother expected her to attend the feast, why was she even surprised? Catelyn Tully wanted a prince for a good son, and a queen for a daughter. Of course, her mother wouldn’t stop now … with her dream finally within reach. Why care it was with the wrong daughter!?

And so, before Arya had even been able to utter her protest, her lady mother had explained, the best strategy now were to put on a straight face and show the people there was nothing to gossip about – just an inexperienced girl who hadn’t been long enough at court to understand protocol. But Arya had no longer cared for what her mother thought best. That caused the whole mess! Consequently, she and her mother had found themselves bickering as usual. Arya dreading the hundreds of eyes watching her every step, and Lady Catelyn dreading the even bigger embarrassment of Arya missing out. Which would be just as good as admitting to the courtiers there were a hidden scandal to speculate about, Lady Stark had argued. “I don’t care! They can speculate all they want! But they won’t ever see me again!” Arya had yelled, causing Eddard Stark to intervene, “And what about your sister? Do you want her to face those people alone?” Damn.

“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” her father had reminded her, “We need to be there tonight. All four of us! To show the people who want us weakened, that we’re not!” Swallowing, Arya had nodded and sullenly sat down in front of the looking glass, to let her mother dress her hair; while she had stared through her own reflection, searching her mind for a way out of this. Yet, all she had found was him. And her once treasured memories. They were all corrupted now. Overshadowed by his betrayal, and her sister’s hurt reproaches.

Subsequently, when they had arrived at the Great Hall an hour later – immediate murmuring and staring greeting them – Arya had forced herself to look up, following her parents’ example, staring each and every one down, who dared to look at them the wrong way. And seeing Sansa’s glance searching vainly for a friendly pair of orbs to lock eyes with, had only fuelled her protectiveness. She could not undo what the crown prince had done, but she could shield her sister from the bold gawking, showing the gossipmongers they were a quite literal pack of wolves. Standing together against all odds.

Well, at least they had done so, until Margaery had walked into the hall by her brother’s arm, looking delighted, truly if nothing had happened. Even though, she had gotten the same pitiful glances as Sansa, and even gloating ones. Still, Margaery had greeted all four of them with a supposedly warm smile, but her gaze had lingered a little too long on Arya, allowing her to see through the charade. She was out for blood.

Thus, unsurprisingly Margaery had led Sansa away from them, evidently hoping to win the older Stark sister over to her side. And chances to succeed in that had stood better than Arya would have liked. She had soon found herself digging her nails into her palms again, glaring at Margaery and her vultures. Who unmistakeably had been deriding her every move, assessing her unfit to marry a prince, least of all the crown prince. You can have him! You deserve each other, you deceiving schemers! Arya had wanted to yell at the viper.

Though, right then Ned had entered the Great Hall, accompanied by Trystane and some other young knights. And the curious looks had wandered instantly from him to her and back, expectantly – waiting for something to happen between the supposed lovers. Although, Arya had stolen glances at him herself, Ned had refused to meet her eyes. Only when he had sat down at a table across from theirs, he had locked eyes with her, for a mere flash. Too short for her to guess what it could have meant. He had instantly looked down, grabbing the wine cup Trystane had filled him, emptying it and engaging in conversation with his friends, ignoring her again – robbing the scandalmongers of the drama they had craved. Monsters … all of them! A friendship shattered into a million pieces and all they cared for was to watch it front row. Hadn’t they had enough scandal, today? Arya had thought bitterly.

Obviously not, since all voices had died down, as the royal family had arrived. Fortunately, the king wouldn’t have it, calling immediately for another round of cheering to the tourney’s champion. And thankfully the crowd had obeyed. Unlike Arya, who had mirrored Ned’s earlier action, tensely grabbing the wine jug, filling her cup and gulping it down – hiding behind the far too small vessel – as the royal family had passed their table. In vain, she had instantly felt eyes on her, piercing her. And when she finally had dared to meet them, her eyes had caught Ned’s. Studying each other for a moment, before he had averted his gaze again. But his eyes hadn’t been the ones flustering her. A quick side-glance to the dais had proven, the crown prince had been watching her as well, though his gaze she hadn't been able to hold. Damn.

Throughout the banquet, she had fought the blush creeping up from under her gown’s neckline. Intent to sit it out as her mother had advised, Arya had tried to focus on her plate. Poking listless at her food – trying to overcome the urge to instinctively look up, whenever she felt their eyes on her. Ned’s. And his. Without success. Worse even, the longer it had gone, the more often she had caught them scowling at each other in between watching her; arousing attention. First, it had only been some gossipmongers, but soon Margaery and Sansa had seen it, too. “Haven’t you embarrassed me enough, yet?” her sister had hissed. “I’m not doing anything!” Arya had replied, unable to hide the angry tone. “You’re looking at them, you’re making it worse. Stop it!” I can’t. Arya’s instincts had been on alert, as if expecting an attack any moment.

Especially, when the king had called for the music and dancing to start. That had only added to her anxiety. After what had happened at the arena, she had no intention to let her guard down again. Expect the worst! Therefore, no matter how awkward and upsetting it had been, she had forced herself to keep an eye on him, as he and Myrcella led the dance; but also on anyone else nearing their table. Like Tommen – who had ignored court protocol and disgruntled Joffrey, rising before his older brother – to ask her sister to dance. Surprising Sansa, who had feared the men at court would shun her now. So, at least one prince knew to behave. And had turned Sansa’s affected smile into a small, yet genuine one.

The crown prince on the other hand, had allowed Trystane to take over with Myrcella and had returned to the dais, refusing to dance with anyone else afterwards – causing a heated yet hushed debate with the queen, but he had remained unwavering. So, while Joffrey had stepped in for him, dancing complacently with the daughters of the most prominent houses, he had followed Ned’s example – focussing on his cup of wine, conversing with his uncles and stealing glances at Arya. Unnerving her into expecting another idiot move any moment.

Making it even harder for her to keep a watchful eye on the other idiots in the hall. After seeing Sansa dance three times with Tommen and twice with Joffrey, admirers had flocked to the older Stark girl like bees round a honeypot. And from then on, every once and a while a moron – who evidently hadn’t understood her message at the arena – had asked Arya to dance as well. Interestingly, this time her own mother had urged her to refuse them. Probably due to seeing Ned and the crown prince scowl at the men.

Only, the drunken king had gotten it all wrong, of a sudden roaring, “Has none of you fools the balls to ask the prettiest girl in this hall to dance?” puzzling his courtiers, “Well, then I will!” Robert had tried to rise from his seat, but had been stopped by the crown prince placing a hand on his arm, “Father, no!” Who had furiously tried to yank his arm free, “What, BOY!? Just because you’re not man enough to ask the little she-wolf yourself?” Huh!? “She doesn’t want to dance, you fool!” his firstborn had growled, evidently tightening his grip. “With you maybe! But I’M KING! She’ll dance with me!” The hells! Arya had pushed her chair angrily from the table. Fucking Baratheons. “You leave her be, you damn drunkard!” the prince had shouted, looking daggers at his father. Time to get out of here. “My dear nephew’s right, Robert! The little wolf isn’t much into dancing.” Renly had intervened.

It had been the last thing Arya had heard of the dispute at the dais, since her own father had gotten up, swiftly leading her from the Great Hall, “Let’s get some fresh air, till that old fool’s retired to his chambers!” he whispered. “What about Sansa and Mother?” “They’ll know where to find us. You and I need to talk.” Ned Stark said, leading her out into the gardens, clearly trying to be out of earshot of others, when he stopped at some balustrade with view over Blackwater Bay, “Child, I didn’t want to ask this in front of your mother, but to ask I have.” Oh gods, what was it now?

“You see, your mother and I already wondered, why the crown prince wouldn’t ask you to dance tonight.” her father said, studying her, “How come he knows you don’t like dancing?” “But I do!” Arya blurted reflexively. “Yes, your Water Dancing.” her father chuckled, before getting serious again, “But courtly dancing? No, you never liked that. Except maybe, to tease your mother by dancing with Jon all night. So, how come the prince knows something about you the other men at court evidently don’t?” “That’s not true! Ned knows and Renly and Loras, Trystane … They could’ve told him! Or Sansa or Myrcella.” Arya argued defensively, “In fact, anyone with a brain could’ve figured out during this past fortnight.”

“True.” her father sighed, “But what about your sword’s name? How does he know that?” Seven hells! “He asked me to return ‘Needle’ to you. Despite your outburst at the arena!” her father explained, watching her shocked reaction closely. Seven bloody hells! “Um…,” Better tell some truth! “he once walked into me, after practice.” she felt her cheeks reddening. “Once?” Ned Stark asked doubtingly. Would he ever cease to get her in trouble!? “Yes, once!” “So, you weren’t secretly sparring with him?” her father inquired. “What!? No…” Arya stuttered astounded. “Are you sure!?” “I swear!” she tried to calm her voice, “He just found me once. After practice. That’s the only time, he got to see Needle.” Technically, no lie. It had remained in its scabbard that night in Flea Bottom.

“Arya, you’d tell me, if there was something going on with you and Prince Gendry, would you?” Eddard Stark asked, clearly worried. “There isn’t!” she snapped alarmed. No lie, either. Whatever had been going on … it was over now. “I’m still a maiden, if that’s what you worry about!” she added, watching from the corner of her eye how her father slightly relaxed, “I’m worried about you, child! You used to tell me when something bothered you. But lately, you’re so … secretive. It frightens me.” “You don’t tell me what’s bothering you, either!” Arya retorted stubbornly. “I’m telling you now, am I not?” Lord Stark tried to appease his daughter, giving her time to respond, “Telling you won’t change anything!” she stated gloomily after a while. “It might.” her father offered comfortingly.

No, it won’t!” she hissed bitterly, “Eventually, you’ll make me marry! Him or Ned, or who else you seem fit … What I feel or want hasn’t mattered in a long time!” “That’s not true-” “Yes, it is!” she insisted, stating, “I told you at least a hundred times, marrying some high lord and bearing his children … that’s not me! I want to be a knight, a fighter. Because that’s what I’m good at, what I love. Yet, we’re here! You and Mother looking for just that, a high lord to marry me off to. Only it’s not just a lord anymore, but a damn prince! Who listens to me as much as you do, namely not. So, I’m done talking!” To either of you. “Child-” Ned Stark tried to allay. “I’m not a child anymore! And I want to be left in peace now!” Arya snapped at her father, yet, felt guilty right away, “Please! I know it’s after nightfall and not appropriate, but I need to be alone now. Just for a while.” Her father sighed, before assuring, “It’s fine. I trust you, ch- … Daughter. And I can’t speak for the prince, but I’m still listening, and I’m gonna think on what you said. Promised.” and pulled her into a hug, kissing her forehead, before he headed back to the Great Hall.

However, with the gardens well illuminated as usual at festivities, Arya soon felt eyes on her again. So much for peace. At first, she tried to ignore them, staring at Blackwater Bay, brooding. But soon she could hear taunting whispering again. Getting closer. Unmistakeably the vultures, trying to prey on her. Why her!? I just don’t get it! Yeah. Sansa I’d understand. Yeah, she’s a born queen. But her!? How can she even be related to Sansa and Lady Catelyn? So true. Just look at her! A Flea Bottom whore is more well-bred. Totally! Maybe he’s gone mad? Oh, that’d be a real shame. He’s so handsome! Yeah. But there’s a drop of Targaryen blood in him. Right. Don’t be silly, she bewitched him! Absolutely. With some Wildling spells, I bet. Yeah. She’s a savage! Yeah. Worse, a beast like the one she was raised with! At that Arya had enough and turned around, “If you think me a savage wolf, then what are you!? Sheep? Stupid, suicidal sheep, it appears! If I were you, I’d run …” she teased, shouting, “NOW!” startling them. Before snarling like Nymeria, as loud as she could, shocking them. Making them scurry away squealing; and herself laugh out loud. Fools.

And some courtiers even joined in with her, mostly young knights, though. But it was Renly’s bellowing laughter and applause, “Bravo, little wolf!” that caught her attention. Yet, the smile right to him made her own one die instantly. She quickly turned towards the bay again, placing her clenched fists on the balustrade. Hoping he would get it. Which of course he didn’t, as she heard him approaching. “Can we talk?” he asked, stepping to the balustrade, a few feet away from her. “No.” she growled, but he tried nonetheless, “I get it. You’re mad-” “Aren’t you a real genius!?” she hissed and stormed off. “And for how long does my lady intend to stay mad at me?” he called after her. “How about forever!?” she shouted back over her shoulder, speeding up her pace. Stupid bull-headed princeling. She had no intentions to hear his excuses.

She fled down the next best stairs, leading to a lower levelled garden. However, seeing Littlefinger and Margaery coming her way, made her turn on her heel. Hells, was no one dancing anymore? Ascending the stairs, Arya took the one way leading away from them and the prince. Right into Ned’s arms. Damn. He and some young knights and ladies stood less than fifty feet away, making her stop abruptly, biting her lip insecurely. Yet, when her eyes found his, he held her gaze this time. And when he eventually looked away, it was only for an instant, to say something to his friends, before he walked over to her, sheepishly asking, “Care to go for a stroll, my lady?” and she could only nod, unsure if she should give in to the relief she felt, because he no longer avoided her. Or if she should fear what he was about to say to her now.

They had walked a moment in awkward silence, before they both blurted together, “I’m sorry!” puzzling each other. Though, Ned was quicker to regain his wits, “Arya, there’s no need for you to apologise!” leading her through a rose arch into a small grove surrounded by walls of shrubs; providing cover from prying eyes. “Yes, there is! Everyone said, you’d crown me with the garland, and I panicked and rooted for him. But I didn’t know he’d do that! I swear!” she blundered out anxiously. “I did!” Ned drooped his head, “Which is why I asked for the ribbon. I mean, I really wanted to ask you for your favour, but I knew you think it nonsense. So, normally I wouldn’t have done it. But I wanted him to back off! So, I just had to ask … and couldn’t drop out. Not against him! I’m sorry, Arya!” “I know! I’m not mad at you.” she assured, surprising him.

“I mean, I was. I wanted to rip your head off, to be honest. But that was before he … I just didn’t understand it before.” she explained, “Ned, I wish you’d told me!” “Well, how could I? I mean, he’s an absolute arse, lately at least. But he’s my friend, my best friend. Ever since I came here with Lord Beric. And I knew he liked you from the start …” Ned stated, “But you didn’t like him and he kept his distance … so, I didn’t think much of it. Until he started showing up on our rides. And I saw how well you two suddenly got along and I guess … jealousy got the better of me. Making me do stupid things, like applying pressure to you.”

“I know! But why didn’t you tell me about you?” Arya asked reluctantly, afraid of what she would have to say now. And he took a deep breath and swallowed, “Arya, I … I like you. A lot. More than liking … way more.” he admitted red-faced, “And it’s true, I want you to be my wife. Not right away … in a few years, maybe. I know that’s just me. But I hoped, that maybe, one day you … you’ll like me that way, too. And I guess, until then, I didn’t want to lose you … your friendship.” “You’ll never lose my friendship, Ned!” she took his hand in both of hers, to make him face her, “Never. I swear!” “But you don’t feel … what I feel?” “No.” she stated quietly, “I’m sorry … I wish I would.” He nodded, clearly disappointed, “Me, too.”  

Sighing, he asked, “And what about him?” studying her. “He can jump in a lake, for all I care!” Arya snapped, feeling her anger boil up again. “I guess, your mother wouldn’t like losing her new favourite good son candidate like that.” he chuckled sadly. “I’m not sure. That little trick he played on Father pissed her off. Badly.” she snorted. “What do you mean?” Ned frowned. “You know, first requesting my hand, and when Father was about to refuse, asking to postpone betrothing me to anyone else for half a year … to give him time to prove himself to Father.” “And you! That damn smart-alecky Lannister spawn!” Ned blurted, sounding almost impressed, “He planned it all along! Now I feel even more like an idiot. I stupidly speed things up, pressuring you … and he’s doing just the opposite! Giving you more time …”

“Half a year isn’t much time, Ned!” she scoffed, “And it won’t change anything! Not for me.” “I bet, he’d given you even more time, if it weren’t for your mother. Or Margaery.” Ned countered. “Doesn’t matter! Just like pleading with Father to give me Needle back. As if that would sway me into marrying him …” “He did what!?” Ned stated, shaking his head in disbelief, “Damn, he’s good! It’s kind of amazing, how much thought he put in-” “Stop admiring him!” she huffed annoyed, “A trick is a trick! No matter how well played. And I don’t like being played!” “No. That you don’t!” he chuckled and squeezed her left hand, making her realise he never let go of it. No tinglingat all.

“Isn’t that a lovely couple!?” they suddenly heard from the rose arch, seeing Joffrey and Margaery standing there. Together. Great. “It is, my prince.” the Tyrell stated, smiling frigidly, “Though, I wonder what your brother might think of it.” “You’re right, my lady! I think I’m obliged to intervene here in his stead.” Joffrey smirked, and they entered the grove, causing Ned to step forth, “Your grace, if your brother has a problem with me courting Lady Arya, he can tell me to my face!” “So eager to be thrown into the dust again, Dayne?” Joffrey teased dismissively, causing Arya to mock, “I recall you dropping into the dust way sooner! Even before your baby brother, your grace.” tempted to reveal, who actually unhorsed him.

“How dare you, wolf-bitch!?” Joffrey spat, rushing towards her, but Ned stepped into his way, growling, “Is that your idea of driving a wedge between me and Gendry? Ain’t working, Joff. On the contrary!” “I see, the she-wolf still has her fangs in both men!” Margaery taunted, pulling Joffrey away. And he let her. Probably knowing, he would stand no chance against Ned. “And you wasted no time, twining your thorny tendrils around the next best thing!” Arya challenged the viper.

“A real cunning move, Lady Arya!” Margaery falsely flattered, “Catching his eye, by playing the childish tomboy, to stick out amongst the rest of us. And then going after his best friend, to arouse his jealousy. Well played, I’m impressed!” “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Arya hissed, storming out of the grove. “You can stop with your little innocence charade now!” Margaery called after her and Joffrey added, “Yeah, nobody’s buying it! Except you, Dayne!” as Ned followed her through the rose arch.

“Don’t underestimate her, Arya!” he warned, when he caught up with her. “I’m not afraid of her!” “That’s what I fear. You need to watch out! She has the means to destroy you …” Ned insisted. “What’s her damn problem!? I refused him! She saw it!” Arya fumed. “It’s not about you … it’s about what he wants! And that’s evidently not her.” “Then why does everyone take it out on me!? I’m no fucking scapegoat!” she huffed. “Well, he’s the fucking crown prince!” Ned retorted, “And not everyone has the guts to tell the future king to fuck off. Like you did.” “You’re telling me, that viper is just as much of a coward as the rest of them?” she snorted, cocking her eyebrow. “That’s probably why she hates you so much!” Ned chuckled, as they passed the central fountain in the garden.

“So, basically, you and I are the only ones telling that princeling he’s an idiot!?” she concluded. “Pretty much.” “How did you endure being friends with such a fool for so long?” she wondered. “You have seen the other morons here at court, right!?” Ned teased. “Myrcella’s no moron!” “Well, I could hardly attend embroidery sessions with her, could I?” he snorted, causing her to laugh out loud, suggesting, “At least then my stitches wouldn’t be the only crooked ones!” “That’s what you think!” he teased, nudging her shoulder, “I bet, even my embroidery would be nicer than yours!” causing her to playfully shove him, “Shut up, stupid!”

“You two got to be jesting!?” the crown prince suddenly snorted from behind them, stepping closer, his speech slightly slurred, “Him you forgive … but not me!?” “He’s no deceiving liar!” Arya spat. “He did the exact same thing!” the crown prince shouted. “You can hardly compare that!” Ned objected. “What!?” the crown prince raised his brow in disbelief, “The only difference is, you didn’t win!” “No, he only did it to stop you!” Arya interposed. “Bullshit! He did it because he wants you! And realised you like me better!” the prince snorted dismissively. “Well, guess what, you idiot! I don’t! I hate you!” Arya spat, glaring at the prince. “Liar!” he glared back at her, stating, “Just because you don’t like someone, doesn’t mean you don’t love them!” perplexing her. “What the fuck, Gendry!?” Ned blurted bewildered, “When did you turn into a narcissistic prick!?” “Her words, not mine!” “Meaning my me and my sister! Not you, you fucking arsehole!” Arya shouted. “Doesn’t mean, they don’t apply to you and me as well!” he retorted, huffing.

“Do you even realise how delusional you sound!?” Ned asked and the prince spat, “I’m not the one who forced her into giving me her ribbon!” “Yeah, me wearing her favour really pissed you off, didn’t it!?” Ned snarled. “Not really.” the prince claimed smugly. “Yes, it did!” Arya interposed. “No, not after hearing he and your mother blackmailed you into doing it!” “I did no such thing!” Ned shouted. “Keep telling yourself that! You know, she wouldn’t have done it voluntarily!” the prince countered. “And with you she would’ve done so freely, huh!? Ned huffed, not realising how Arya’s eyes widened in shock. He wouldn’t! But of course he did. Turning his furious glare from Ned to her, “So, who’s the deceiving liar now, my lady? Do you want to tell him, or should I?” draining all colour from her face.

“Tell me what!?” Ned asked baffled, turning alarmed to her, “Arya?” “Don’t you dare!” she glared panicking at the prince. “You leave me no choice!” he panted with rage. Undoing some of the upper hooks and eyes on his doublet, pulling out the acorn ribbon from underneath, he quietly addressed Ned, “I guess, you recognise the fabric.” For a moment Ned stared at it in disbelief, before turning to Arya, “Why?” “It was a joke!” she pleaded flush-faced with her friend, “Just a way to rebel against Mother! I didn’t know, you actually wanted to wear my favour, then … It didn’t mean anyth-” “It didn’t mean anything!?” the prince asked affected, “And what about that?” he nodded at her neck, “Is that also just a joke to you?” Fuck! The necklace. She had entirely forgotten, she was still wearing it. Now both men stared at her, aghast.

“You said it was Jon’s …” Ned stated blankly. “What!?” the prince blurted, “Your brother!?” “What was I supposed to tell people!?” she snapped defensively, feeling angry tears well up. “People!?” Ned asked in bewilderment, “I’m not people! And why are you even wearing it?” “That’s the question!” the prince glared at her and Ned added, “I asked you … just tonight! And you said-” “He can jump in a lake. I mean it!” she claimed desperately. “You’re fucking jesting!?” the crown prince spat. “Arya, that’s no answer!” Ned countered hurt, “He’s wearing your favour, and you his necklace!” She swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat. Without success. “He’s right …” Ned stared at her, absolutely hurt and disappointed, “you do lov-” “NO!” she felt tears running down her cheeks, “I hate him! He ruined my life!” “No, you’re just mad at him …” Ned realised, clenching his jaw and fists, before storming off. No…

She was about to run after him, but the prince grabbed her arm, “Don’t! You and I are the last ones, he wants around now!” dragging her with him in the opposite direction. “Let go off me!” she yelled and he stopped in his track, facing her, “So keen to let them hear the rest of our conversation!?” he nodded towards the onlookers nearby, who evidently had flocked together during their quarrel. “I don’t care!” she hissed and wrenched her arm free, “I’m done with you!” undoing the necklace and throwing it at him, “I hate you! You ruined everything!” Making him ball the acorn ribbon up and throw it at her in return, “You ruined a great deal yourself!” Fuming, she stormed off, marching right through the dumbstruck gawkers, and he shouted furiously at them, “What’re you looking at!?” Fucking prince.

Chapter Text

Predictably, her quarrel with Ned and the crown prince had instantly become public knowledge. Those damn onlookers just couldn’t wait to spread the news. So, while she had fled back to the Tower of the Hand – slumping down onto the edge of her bed, staring numbly into space – the rumour mill at court had been working with lightning speed. And of course, Margaery and Joffrey had wasted no time spinning their own tale about the incident, claiming they would have caught her and Ned just in time to warn the crown prince of their alleged attempt to elope together. Bloody hells!

Thus, when her parents and Sansa had barged into her chamber less than an hour later, they had found Arya’s version of events bewilderingly less convincing. “Have you lost your minds!?” Arya snapped, her nerves raw, “This is just Margaery messing with your heads, can’t you see that!?” But the viper and Joffrey weren’t the only ones spreading lies. Others, obviously older gossipmongers quickly added their own yarn to the tale, pointing out parallels to the events during and following the Tourney at Harrenhal – prophesising doom for everyone now. Huh!? She just refused a damn garland! Was everyone giving in to madness now?

Apparently. Since according to Sansa, some courtiers would even spread rumours of a curse already, her sister said, lamenting she would never find a husband now, with everyone thinking Stark women would spell doom for men. “Rubbish! There’s no curse … just one stupid prince!” Arya objected. “No, you’re the curse! People had just stopped whispering behind my back, thanks to Tommen. And you just had to ruin it again, had you!? You’re a plague!” Sansa spat, glaring at Arya. “ENOUGH!” their father shouted, before addressing his older daughter more calmly, “Your sister undoubtedly contributed to the escalation tonight, and losing her temper twice a day in public, was all but smart.” shooting Arya a warning glance, “But she didn’t start it, you know that, Sansa! Prince Gendry hurt you today, not Arya. And we all wish he hadn’t. But you hurting your sister to cope with it, isn’t right! It’s about time you two act like sisters!” “But why did he do it?” Sansa asked desperate, tears running down her cheeks, “I spent a whole year trying to please him … I really thought he liked me … Why her? What’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing.” Arya assured quietly, and Lady Catelyn pulled her older daughter into an embrace. “Am I not pretty enough?” Sansa sobbed, searching for an explanation. “Of course, you are!” Lady Stark placated and Arya added, “You’re the most beautiful woman in all of Westeros.” “Then why did he choose you!? All you ever did was scoff at him!” Sansa questioned, locking eyes with her sister. “Because he’s a bull-headed idiot!” Why else? “I don’t think it’s that simple, Daughters!” Ned Stark sat down next to Arya, “We don’t get to choose who we like. Or who likes us. Sometimes our feelings are reciprocated, sometimes not.” “But he does like her, he told me so!” Arya stated stubbornly. “But not enough! Not the way he likes you!” Sansa countered, sniffling, “And with all these horrible rumours now, who’d marry me!?

“Not all young men are foolish enough to believe such nonsense!” Eddard Stark assured. Hopefully. Or else Sansa would never forgive her. “In fact, the men who dare to court you now, they’re the smart ones, the brave ones.” their mother proclaimed, “They will stand up for you and protect you, even against a mighty opponent as House Tyrell. You should see this as a chance, Sansa! You might find yourself a real treasure. And you couldn’t winnow the fools and cowards any quicker, that’s for sure!” Lady Catelyn concluded, stunning both her daughters and her husband.

“I obviously found myself such a treasure!” Ned Stark smiled at his wife, before facing Sansa, “And maybe it’s not as bad as we fear now, sweet Daughter! We’re all tired, it’s been a long day. We should wait until the morrow, when the consequences are more evident, before we decide how to deal with this.” at that, he turned to Arya, “Meaning, no one is making any hasty decisions … like running away?!” As if she could! she huffed. He was most likely already waiting behind that bloody wall-hanging. No, the secret passageway clearly was no longer an option. Not without risking running into him … But of course, her silent huff hadn’t gone unnoticed by her father, who raised his brows, “Promised?” “I swear, to the old gods and the new.” Arya mumbled sullenly. “Good.”

So, when lastly alone in her chamber, alone with her thoughts – what she had wanted ever since the goddamn arena – Arya had to realise, she had no idea what to do. Absolutely no clue how to handle this. How to end this mess? Except, running them all through with Needle – him and all those bloody schemers and scandalmongers. Pity, that wasn’t an option, she had thought. Unless you’d plan to kill them all. Baratheons, Lannisters and Tyrells all together, her mind had suggested cynically. Yeah, that definitively would do the trick! At least, if she were one of those Faceless Men, Syrio had told her about. But she wasn’t. And even if she were, it wouldn’t help her with Ned and Sansa. So, what was she supposed to do? That damn prince had cornered her so skilfully, even flight was out of question. At least for now…

Getting mad at him again, and determined, he wouldn’t get to steal another night’s sleep, she had hurried out of her dress; not caring some of the seams had ripped in the process. The damn thing deserved it! And dressed like that, just in her bodice and undergarment, she had slipped under her covers, pulling them over her head, in hope it would keep him from her thoughts. In vain, though. Her mind had immediately started tormenting her with hurtful expressions and reproaches, alternating in her sister’s voice, Ned’s or his. Making her soon feel utterly exposed and vulnerable.

Until she no longer could bear it, casting her covers off, panting, trying to steady her racing heartbeat ... and only then she had noticed the trunk next to her door. Her treasures! Had they really returned them all? She had been out of bed instantly. They had. Damn! They really tried to convince her to accept his courtship, she had realised. But she wouldn’t. Couldn’t.

So, after sloppily unlacing the bodice, she had slipped into a pair of breeches she had gotten from Bran, a way too big shirt of Robb and Jon’s old jerkin. Finally feeling her heartbeat calming, she had grabbed Needle and her dagger, before crawling back into her bed. Better. Way better. Although, it still had taken about another hour until exhaustion had won the upper hand, at least she hadn’t felt exposed and vulnerable, anymore. And she never would again, she had vowed to herself.

Though, of course, that sleeping attire had aggravated Lady Catelyn, when she had come to wake her the morning after. “You missed breakfast!” her mother announced, entering her chamber. “So?” Arya growled from under her covers, causing her mother to forcefully remove them and gasp at the sight, “Where have you been!?” “In bed, evidently.” Arya snorted sulky. “You want to tell me you slept like that for no reason?” Lady Catelyn countered, alarmed. “No! I slept like that, because I’m done with stupid dresses. They caused the whole mess. Even Sansa says so!” Arya retorted, “This is me! And it’s time for you and everyone else to accept that!” Getting out of bed, Needle and her dagger in one hand, grabbing her sword belt with the other, Arya had walked past her outraged mother, before Catelyn Tully could riposte anything.

Yet, her defences had started crumbling somewhat, when she walked into their dining room. Where her father’s face completely failed in concealing he had news for her. Already!? “The prince was here this morning,” Of course, that bull-headed oaf was! Arya rolled her eyes in frustration. “with Ned Dayne.” her father continued, dumbfounding her. Huh? “To apologise for last night.” Lady Stark said, entering the room behind her. “And to assure none of the rumours were true, except that the three of you had a disagreement, fuelled by too much wine.”  “As I said!” Arya growled, biting her lip, sitting down at the table across from Sansa – who pretended to pay no attention, busying herself with needlework.

“Yes.” their Lord Father sighed, “But that wasn’t all.” For an instant Arya had hoped, the prince would have come to his senses, withdrawing his proposal. But instead her father reluctantly started,  “Lord Dayne, he told me …” “What!?” Arya blurted, alarmed. “He told me, under the current circumstances, he’d be unable to ask for your hand in marriage.” her father said, watching her reaction. Although, she should have felt relieved and actually was, she still felt tears well up, knowing, “He doesn’t want to see me again, that’s what he meant … Right?” “Oh, please!” Sansa snorted without even looking at her, “Wasn’t that what you wanted-” “It wasn’t! He was my friend. I just didn’t want to marry him!” Arya snapped at her sister, “You know that!” “Not again!” their father reprimanded and Lady Catelyn scolded, “Just because the crown prince and Lord Dayne managed to take the wind out of the gossipmongers’ sails, doesn’t mean they won’t come up with new slanders! We can’t fight them and amongst ourselves, it weakens us! Don’t you get that!?” “Of course, we do!” Sansa snapped bitterly, “But you can hardly expect of me to accept within less than a day, that the man I wanted to marry, out of all women chose my baby sister!” “And you can hardly expect of me to actually marry that fool!” Arya snarled, with the same bitterness in her voice.

“About that…” their father sighed, clearly not happy to have to say it, “He invited you to go riding with him in the afternoon.” “Not gonna happen!” Arya announced, folding her arms demonstratively. “And I’m to give you this…” Lord Stark placed a scroll of parchment in front of Arya. “I don’t want it!” she rose from her seat, fuming, “Send it back!” “At least take a look at it!” her mother suggested. “No! I don’t want any stupid messages from him!” Not anymore. “It’s not a message.” her father tried to placate, “I actually think you’d like it.” “Doubt it!” she grabbed some fruit and bread from the table and made for the door. “So, this is your plan!?” Catelyn Tully snarled disapprovingly, “Ignoring and avoiding him, until he withdraws his proposal?” “Exactly! Even a stupid idiot like him should understand that message!

Only, he turned out even more slow-witted than she had thought. Each morning he sent new invitations. To go hunting. Sailing. Riding again. Exploring the city. Even to spar with him. And each of them came with another parchment. So, time and again she refused his invitations and instructed her father to return the unread scrolls. Still, that stupid bull-headed prince didn’t get it. Causing Arya to confine herself to the Tower of the Hand for most of the time. No need to give him a chance to catch her …

Her sister on the other hand, got all kind of invitations; even quite unexpected ones. Already on the second day after the tourney, Myrcella invited Sansa to join her and Tommen for some lemon cakes. Though, the princess had sent Arya a message, stating she were welcome to join as well, the note had made clear, the invitation’s main purpose were to assure Sansa, her reputation wasn’t in question – and that she had other options than Margaery Tyrell to spend her time with. Meaning, Arya should stay away. Not that she was very eager to have lemon cakes in the gardens, where all the gossipmongers could see her. But it hurt. Especially when Myrcella and Tommen invited Sansa two days later again. This time to go riding with them, Trystane and Ned; logically excluding Arya once more.

Although, she was glad to see her sister smile again and to hear after the ride, Ned wouldn’t hold a grudge against her –  that he just wanted to keep his distance for a while – Arya couldn’t help but feel as if Ned and Myrcella were replacing her with Sansa. It hurt. Badly. And she knew exactly who to blame! Thus, green with envy, she was even more glad to see Sansa getting invitations from plenty of suitors; and that she actually seemed to like some of those. Like Ser Lucas, a handsome Riverlands-knight in his twenties. Though, only a younger son of Lord Blackwood, he was the only one whose second invitation Sansa accepted. Resulting in him joining her on her next ride with the royal siblings, Trystane and Ned. Damn. Arya had to realise, Myrcella wasn’t just making amends for her brother. The princess actually liked Sansa. And they were about to become friends.

So, at last Arya had something in common with Lady Margaery – they both watched it jealously happen from afar. Although, the viper had quickly reacted, inviting Sansa to join her and Joffrey on their rides and strolls – presenting her with several eligible bachelors and even suggesting her own brother Willas, the heir to Highgarden – Sansa never returned smiling from those occasions. Proving, the end of her friendship with Margaery was foreseeable now. At least some good news.

Nonetheless, that hadn’t helped Arya. Unwilling to see him – or any of those gossipmongers and schemers – she hadn’t left the Tower of the Hand for three days; spending most of her time practicing sword-fighting in her chamber, and on the staircases; much to her mother’s chagrin. Until she got an idea, instructing Harwin to tell their stable boys, they should inform her as soon as the crown prince would return from his rides. So, from the fourth day on, she had gone riding with Harwin as soon as she had been sure, he wouldn’t be out there somewhere. Still, she had spent too much time trapped in the Hand’s Tower, and like any caged wolf, she was getting restless. And aggressive.

Especially upon realising, he just wasn’t giving up! On the contrary. Alongside invitations and scrolls, he had soon started sending gifts. First, a small and sealed jewellery box. Undoubtedly, his damn necklace! Fuming, Arya had grabbed the box, instructing Desmond, who had stood guard, to take it straight back to him. Yet, that damn prince kept sending more. A sword belt, perfectly fitted for her size. Just as the breeches and jerkin the following day. After that, it was a Dothraki bow and quiver full of arrows and lastly even a Valyrian steel dagger.  

Which made Sansa seek her out in her chamber, glaring at her, “You don’t deserve him!” “I couldn’t care any less!” Arya retorted. “Then you’re stupid!” Sansa spat, “He finds the perfect gifts for you! Which seems a nigh impossible task, if you ask me, but still he manages. And all you do is insult him!” “Well, obviously, I’m not venal!” Arya countered unimpressed. “He’s not bribing you, you idiot!” Sansa hissed, “He’s wooing you! Since, for whatever reason he actually seems to like you!” “Doesn’t matter!” “You’re the luckiest woman in the Seven Kingdoms, and you completely fail to see it! It’ll be your loss, when he withdraws his proposal!” Sansa shot back, retiring to her chamber. “I can’t wait for that to happen!” Arya called angrily after her sister, “At least, then I can finally go home!” slamming her door shut.

Nonetheless, seeing the next day’s gift – ink, quill and parchment – she had raged and thrown it straight out of the window. Did he think her that stupid? To fall for the same trick twice? She had stomped wordlessly from the room, locking herself up in her chamber for the rest of the day. To practice. To find another dozen ways to kill him.

Yet, she had only been halfway through that task, when she suddenly heard her name. “Arya Stark!” coming from outside, down in the yard, “I deemed you for many things, but never a coward! I guess, I was wrong!” he shouted, catching her off-guard. What the fuck!? “I know you can hear me! And you heard right, you’re a coward, Arya Stark!” Seven hells! Fuming, she unlocked her door, storming down the stairs and out into the yard. And before Alyn and Tom could stop her, Needle was pointing at his throat, “Call me a coward again, and I’ll gut you!” she threatened. “As I thought! You’d rather kill me than admit you like me…” he scoffed, glaring at her, “If that’s not craven, then I don’t know what is!” and stepped even closer towards her. Seven hells! “Draw your damn sword, princeling!” she snarled, glaring back at him; yet, carefully avoiding to cut his skin.

“Arya Stark!” this time it was her mother, shrieking, “Have you lost your mind now!?” commanding the dumbstruck Alyn, “Get the Hand! NOW!” While Baratheon guards came running, unsheathing their swords, demanding, “Lower your blade and step away from the prince, girl!” Though, he ordered, “Stay out if this! She won’t hurt me!” as Stark household guards entered the yard as well; hands on their swords’ hilts. “Your grace, please step away from her!” one of the Baratheon guards pleaded, but the prince only snapped, “I told you to stay out of this!” before challenging her, “I accept, Arya! But if I win, you’ll admit you return my feelings!”

Over my dead body! Or yours in that case-” she yelled, but right then her father wrenched Needle from her grip, snarling, “No one’s admitting anything over no one’s dead body!” He grabbed his daughter’s arm – firmer than ever before – and pulled her back, addressing the prince, “Your grace, I understand you’re upset, but this is not the way!” and hadn’t even waited for a reply, dragging the still fuming Arya ungently away, hissing, “You’re gonna be the death of me, girl!” and her Lady Mother came running, “What in the gods’ names were you thinking!? Those guards could’ve killed you!” “Rubbish! They’re too slow!” Arya snorted. “There’s nothing to boast about, Child!” her father snapped, but Arya claimed angrily, “It ain’t boasting when it’s true!”

They had dragged her to her father’s solar, where Lady Catelyn had quickly let her husband in on the details. Shaking his head in disbelief, Ned Stark turned to his daughter, “This rage of yours … you always had a quick temper … but this, this unreasonable, reckless fury, it has to stop!” “But he started it!” Arya snapped, “He called me a coward!” “Yes, to lure you out!” her father countered, “And you fell for the trap!” he explained. Seven hells! “Arya, what is this with you and him?” Ned Stark tried again, “Even I can see there is more to it than you’re telling us! What are you hiding?” Though, turning beet-red under her parents’ stares, she remained silent. “You’re slighting him again and again, and yet, he hasn’t withdrawn his proposal. No sane man would do that!” Eddard Stark continued. “Well, that’s because-”  “Arya, he’s not stupid! Gendry is one of the smartest men I know. So, why does he tolerate your insults?” her father said, clearly hoping to get her to talk. Without success. “Ned, this is pointless!” Lady Catelyn stated, before addressing Arya, “You don’t want to be treated like a child, then I suggest you start acting like the grown woman you claim to be!” And of course, Eddard Stark sided with her Lady Mother. As always. Confining Arya to the Tower of the Hand, until she would tell them what was going on. But she couldn’t. They wouldn’t understand.

So, unwilling to give them what they demanded, Arya had returned to her room, to continue her practice. However, she had only killed him three more times, when her sister barged into her chamber, glaring at her, “What the hells is wrong with you!? Are you so eager to lose your head?” Sansa hissed. She had been riding with Myrcella and Ned again, and the first thing they would have heard upon their return had been ambiguous rumours, that either her insane baby sister would have attacked the crown prince, just for passing by the Tower of the Hand, or that he would have tried to win her hand by duelling her, nearly dying in that attempt. “If you’re so intent to ruin yourself, fine!” Sansa snarled, “But why do you have to ruin him, too!? Because of you, people start saying he would be unfit to rule!” “People!? More like Margaery and Joffrey!” Arya retorted unimpressed, “After all, that would be her new chance to become queen!” “Right, why’d you care!?” Sansa scoffed, “You won’t have a head to see what King Joffrey’s rule will look like!” and stormed from Arya’s chamber, slamming the door behind her.

But her sister hadn’t been her only visitor that day. About an hour later, Cayn had knocked on her door, informing her, the Princess Myrcella would want to see her. “I want to apologise for having neglected our friendship this past fortnight.” the princess said, entering her chamber, “I meant no disrespect by that. Tommen and I just wanted to assure Ned, that our respect and love for him hasn’t changed. And we thought it a good opportunity to show your sister we hold great respect of her as well.” “I know, your grace.” Arya said abashed, sighing, “But that’s not why you’re here…” “Straight forward as always!” Myrcella smiled, “And you’re right! I came to vouch for my brother … I know, what he did this afternoon was outright idiotic! And what can I say, it’s the Baratheon temper. Nonetheless, I think, he has reason to be angry with you. You were overwhelmed at the tourney, he knows that … but how you treat him since, refusing each of his attempts to regain your trust, it’s not fair, Arya!”

Although, Myrcella was a year younger, Arya felt like a naughty child next to the calm and reasonable princess; biting sheepishly her lower lip, “He shouldn’t have lied to me…” “Yes, he should’ve handled things differently. But the same goes for Ned!” the princess stated, “Arya, my brother’s a good man. And he loves you!” stunning her with that last statement. “He told you that!?” Arya asked awkwardly, not knowing what else to say. “Didn’t have to! He’s my brother.” Myrcella chuckled quietly, before getting serious again, “I’m not telling you to marry him, all I’m asking is that you talk to him! He deserves that much …” the younger woman reasoned, pulling some scrolls, rolled up around another, from her long sleeves, “And look at these!” the princess pleaded, walking to Arya’s desk, unrolling the first one, “Hear him out, that’s all I ask!”

Arya had watched the princess leave her chamber, before her glance had wandered to the scrolls. Sighing sullenly, she stepped to her desk. Let’s get this over with … Yet, her eyes went wide instantly. An armour design. For a woman. Stark armour. For her! Stunned and feeling her ears redden and buzz, her fingers trailed over the detailed wolf-shaped ornaments, reading, “I am sorry for last night!” at the bottom of the parchment.

And it had taken her a moment to overcome that state of astonishment, before curiosity made her unroll the next parchment. Another armour design. The wolf’s head on the breastplate identical with the necklace, and the note at the bottom said, “No matter which design, I need my lady’s measurements.” “When are you coming by at the shop?” said the third design parchment. And the fourth, “Do I have to bribe your seamstress? I will!” Unbelievable. she shook her head over his … bull-headed-ness. And although, she felt a smile growing on her face, she was glad, she hadn’t seen these drawings before, or else she would have hurt him in the yard. Just for his goddamn ability to make her smile … Even when she didn’t want to. When she was mad at him. Bloody hells.

The rest of the parchments had been drawings of details like gorgets, shoulder plates, arm plates and gauntlets. Each with small teasing notes at the end, like “I am still waiting.” or, “Does my lady not recall the way? I could show you.” and lastly, “I do not want to repeat myself. You know what do to with the ink and quill. Use it!” Stupid bull-headed prince! Why couldn’t he just give up? Like any normal person would … Arya had huffed, entirely confused.

Chapter Text

After seeing the gorgeous designs and his annoying little notes, Arya had unsurprisingly spent another night tossing and turning, brooding over him. But the worst had been, that she had felt her anger fade away. Well, most of it. She still felt cornered by him. And hated it. Him on the other hand, she wasn’t sure if she still hated him … she couldn’t tell.

And it got worse. When she entered the dining hall the next morning, to see there wasn’t another scroll waiting for her – thanks to her father, who apparently had asked the crown prince to refrain from sending any further gifts and invitations for a while – no one was more stunned than herself, when instead of the expected triumph a slight disappointment flashed over her face. Causing her father to raise his brow and Sansa to scoff, “Don’t tell me, you changed your mind!?” “Of course not!” Arya growled, claiming, “I’m just surprised, he actually does what he’s told!” But clearly they didn’t buy it, all three of them. So, Arya returned quickly to her chamber. To finally finish the dozen, and add another …

However, practicing didn’t help to settle her ambiguous thoughts. And without even having an explanation for herself, she pulled out the old hooded cloak, she had once stolen from Theon and relocated her sword-fighting to the staircases, using the cloak to deflect the blows of her imaginary opponents. But as soon as Lord Stark left his solar, probably to meet with the king – and Heward, who had stood guard, accompanying him – Arya slipped behind the wall-hanging; descending down the ladders as swift and quiet as she could, sneaking to the dragon skull vault. Where she grabbed a torch from the wall without a second thought, telling herself, with all the gossipmongers in the keep and her father confining her to the Tower, Flea Bottom were just the safer place to roam about – ignoring the little voice in her head, that called her a Liar! for it.

At first, she had been somewhat unsure if she would remember the way, but soon came to realise, her memory of that night was still so vivid, she could almost see him walking in front of her. She remembered his every word. Where she had made him laugh. Where he had called her ‘a nosy one’ and the whole embarrassing conversation about whores had started; making her realise, he actually never answered the question. And that she still wanted to know. Stupid! she scolded herself, What’s it to you, if he likes whores or not?

Yet, she spent the rest of the way in the tunnels wondering about it. Theon went constantly to see Ros … even Robb and Jon visited the pretty redhead at least once. And why not? They weren’t married or promised … Just like him! So, why wouldn’t he? … maybe it was just another lie!? Probably. But Ned didn’t like whores, either. Yeah, but Ned was Ned, almost as quick to flushing as Sansa … him on the other hand, he didn’t blush easily. He hadn’t even blinked when she had asked him. So, it probably was a lie ... she concluded, stepping out of the cave, her hood pulled deep into her face, her left hand on Needle’s hilt.

As before in the tunnels, her memories of him led her the way through the downtrodden area. Only now also the alleys with the pigsties and stables were over-crowded. So many children. Mostly orphans! Arya guessed, at least going by their dirty, ragged clothes and hungry eyes, that followed her, undoubtedly evaluating, if she were hiding anything of value underneath her cloak. And she was. After fleeing breakfast rather quickly, she had actually thought of taking some silver this time. After all, she was heading straight to the tavern

However, when she stood outside of it, she hesitated, Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea!? What if they recognised her? What if they were angry with her? For refusing his garland? Or for driving a wedge between their friends? Even though, the two fools did that themselves ... without giving her a warning. But Hot Pie and Lommy didn’t know that. Damn. So, ultimately she decided to rather buy her pie on the Street of Flour, which she knew was just a little further up the hill.

Where – after purchasing some pie, which hadn’t even come close to Hot Pie’s – she wandered southwest. Pretending she wouldn’t know where her feet led her. Don’t! her mind warned, He’ll just get it wrong! But her feet didn’t listen, leading her from the Street of Flour to the Street of the Sisters, walking downhill, passing the Guildhall of the Alchemists, and right up the Street of Steel. What do you want there!? her mind questioned. I don’t know!  

Somehow she had hoped she would know when she got there. Which she eventually had, but still, she hadn’t known what she was doing there. Damn. She had stood outside the shop – chewing her lower lip, her knuckles white from tightly gripping Needle’s hilt – cursing herself, What are you waiting for? For him to discover you!?  She had watched customers and deliveries come and go, yet, she had been unable to decide to either leave or enter. Bloody hells.

But of course, her presence hadn’t gone unnoticed forever. Eventually, an apprentice doing a delivery got suspicious seeing her still there upon his return – staring at the shop’s entrance, unmoving, in her ill-fitting clothes, with Needle’s scabbard showing through the cloth of her dirty cloak. “You, gutter rat, get lost! You’re shooing away our customers!” he barked at her, “There’s nothing here to steal for you!” the boy warned; ripping her from her thoughts. She quickly turned on her heel. It was for the best. Yet, stopped only three steps later, turning back towards the boy. What are you doing? Leave! her mind protested. But instead, she blurted, “Can I see him?” puzzling herself even more than the boy, “Who!?” he asked confused. “Gendry.” “There’s no one here by that name.” he lied, snarling, “And now fuck off! Before I call the City Watch …” Although a few years younger he was already taller than her, and stepped towards her, unafraid. So, she removed her hood – startling him, who clearly had mistaken her for a boy. Yet, it wasn’t him who recognised her, but Tobho Mott, who had come to see with whom his apprentice was arguing. “My lady?!” the master armourer uttered flabbergasted over her attire, quickly inviting her in, apologising for his apprentice’s rude behaviour.

And Arya had followed them reluctantly inside, absently assuring, the boy wouldn’t have done anything wrong, before repeating her question; silently hoping they would tell her ‘no’ or that he weren’t here. But of course he was. So, eventually she had crossed the small yard to the stone barn. Alone. This was embarrassing enough, she didn’t need the maid or the apprentice watch it from up close …

Still, she felt their eyes on her; Master Mott’s, the apprentice’s and the girl’s. But their eyes weren’t the ones she dreaded. Dreaded so much, her feet refused to go any further when she reached the entrance to the stone barn. Where her eyes found him instantly, nailing themselves to his bare back. And what now, you damn genius!? she scoffed at herself, clenching her fists over her own stupidity and biting her lower lip. Feeling her anger boil up again. Though, not at him, but herself. Damn. Huffing and kicking some dirt with her feet, she rolled her eyes, and for a moment she stared at the well next to the stone barn – trying to avoid the benumbing sight of his muscles moving under his skin – taking a deep breath, she hoped for a flash of wit. But her brain refused to provide one. This was a bad idea. She should leave!  

But it was too late, when she glanced back into the forge, he was staring at her. Fuck. Her instincts took over, telling her to run! And her feet obeyed. “No, Arya, wait!” he called after her, but she couldn’t and so he shouted, “Mervyn, stop her!” and the apprentice reacted swiftly, slamming the door almost into her face; trapping her in the yard. With him. Bloody hells! She hit her fist outraged against the wooden door. However, before she could curse the boy behind, he was there and grabbed her arm spinning her around. Damn. Trapping her between the locked door and himself, he pleaded, “Stay!”

But she couldn’t ... she couldn’t even hold his gaze. Though, he left her not much of a choice. His lips and bare chest under the apron were even worse to look at, making her blush instantly. But the worst was his dizzying scent. Smoke, iron, carbon and sweat. It made her jaw drop somewhat and her lips of sudden feel dry. What the fuck!? She swallowed visibly, trying to get her flustered mind under control. “What are you doing here?” he asked quietly, studying her. “Um, …” she searched for an answer, “Um, …. you said I should come… see you after the tourney…” was all the explanation she could give. It made no sense. Not even to herself – just a day ago, she had threatened to kill him. Yet, he smiled, “I did.” and his body evidently relaxed, “So, you decided on a design?”

“That’s not why I’m here!” she blurted sheepishly, feeling her cheeks and ears turn an even darker shade of red. “I don’t mind, if you are!” he assured, making her look up at him. “You came! That’s what matters.” And here we go, you fool! “I shouldn’t … I should go.” she murmured apologetic, trying to wriggle herself free. “No, please, stay!” he implored again, arguing, “I promised you armour, I want to keep that promise!” “No, it’s a bad idea…” she objected, “I couldn’t … you shouldn’t-”  “Maybe. Probably!” he countered, insisting, “But I’m stupid and bull-headed, remember?” he grinned, causing her to stare at him incredulously.

“But-” she tried to object again, yet, he blurted, “Don’t! Not here.” Blinking nervously, he suggested, “Can we just pretend the damn tourney never happened? Just here … You could sit with me again … in silence or we talk, just normal stuff, though … But stay! Just a little while!” dumbfounding her even more, so she could only nod. But it was enough to make him exhale in relief, “Then let me show you something!” his hand slid swiftly down her arm, taking her hand – as if it were nothing – he led her into the stone barn, ignoring the curious looks they got from the others.

“You already started!?” Arya realised astonished at his workplace, seeing the small sized shoulder plates and arm plates laying there. “Well, I warned you about the seamstress!” he teased, clearly abashed, “But you should still let Elinor take your measurements. At least if you want a full and proper fitting set of armour. You know, dress measurements aren’t exactly identical with what’s needed for armour …” he explained, educing a smile from her. And Sansa thought her the incorrigible one. “You like it?” he studied her, and she could only nod again. “Good. Then, when shall we do the measurements, my lady? Now or rather some other day.” he asked, biting his lip. “Um, I guess now is as good as any time?” Arya stated, more questioningly than matter-of-factly.

And Master Mott had generously offered her his private dining room. Where she stood in undergarments only, when the slim servant girl of a sudden said, “I’m glad you came, m’lady! He’s been miserable. I’ve never seen him like that, all sullen ’n’ moody!” leaving Arya speechless. Taking that as approval, the girl babbled on, how beautiful Arya would have been during the tourney – quickly assuring she would always be beautiful, even in armour – but in that white gown especially, the young woman claimed. And not knowing what else to say, Arya confessed sheepishly, that she had ripped it the same night.

“I could fix it for you!” the girl offered, “I’m a good seamstress, m’lady. I make jerkins, pants and padded jacks for armours. They’re all quite fancy!” she assured, discomfiting Arya even more. Until she got an idea, suggesting, “How about you fix it for yourself?” baffling the maid, “Beg pardon, m’lady!?” “The dress. It’s yours, if you want it, Elinor!” Arya explained, meaning it. “M’lady ’s jesting?” the girl blurted, shocked. “No, I hate it! I was already thinking of burning it.” Arya stated, “Actually, you can have all the damn dresses from the tourney. Well, almost all, the green one I shredded beyond repair. But it was ridiculous, anyway.” perplexing the girl for good, “M’lady, I could never-” she stammered. “Of course, you can! Wear them, sell them, do with them whatever you like, I just want them gone!” “Why, m’lady?” “I’m done with dresses. And with those in particular!” Arya proclaimed determined, putting her breeches back on.

“What did you do to poor Elinor?” Gendry asked frowning, seeing the maid flee the room thunderstruck. “Nothing!” Arya snorted defensively, “I’m just giving her some of my dresses.” causing him to let out a guffaw, “You’re insane!” “Why!?” she snapped, “I hate them, she loves them. So, instead of laughing at me, you could help me get them here tomorrow!” “I would!” he placated quickly. But? “But I’m leaving for Storm’s End in the morning.” he explained after a sigh, “For Edric’s nameday.” cornering them both in awkward silence. Oh. And making it even worse by blurting, “I wanted to ask you to come with me!” dumbfounding her. “I thought you might like to get out of here for a while! And seeing Edric again, and Brienne … Renly and Loras are coming, too … only Ned declined, for the obvious reasons.” he babbled on sheepishly. Before the tourney, she would have loved the idea. Now, she was just speechless. “But I’ll have someone pick up your dresses …” he offered, trying to end the increasing awkwardness, and again she just nodded, biting her lip.

“Well, I guess then you can roam the keep in peace for the next fortnight, hmm?” he teased abashed, trying to get her to talk again. “Doubt it!” she growled, “The gossipmongers are still here and I’m confined to the Hand’s Tower, anyway.” causing him to chuckle, “Doesn’t seem to stop you!” “Of course not!” she scoffed, regaining her wits. “Good, since I’d hoped you’d keep an eye on Balerion for me.” he claimed, “Tommen’s looking after him, and there’s this new scullion, greasing his paws with all kind of good stuff … but I think he misses fooling around with you …” “I will!” she assured quickly, “I wanted to find him anyway after … coming here.” “Check the kitchens! That bloody scullion’s fattening him like a pig!” Gendry snorted, stepping closer to her, “Let’s go back down…” he suggested quietly, “before my forge cools down for good!” he said, taking her hand again; as if he were afraid she would run off if he wouldn’t.

But she was fine with that. No matter what happened at the tourney and since, it apparently hadn’t changed the fact, that she still liked holding his hand. A lot. And thanks to that new scullion, they even had a neutral talking point. Plotting together how they could get back at the lad, who tried to steal their favourite tomcat’s affection. Also, since she no longer wore any stupid dresses, she now could do what she had done in Winterfell with Mikken. Helping him out a little. At first only handing him tongs and tools and putting them back. But when he asked her to blow the bellows, she took her sword-belt off without hesitation and Gendry had to admit, “You weren’t lying! You do know your ways around in a forge.” he smiled impressed. “Of course I do!” she snorted confidently, “You’re not the only one who chose a forge for a hideout.” He just never was dragged away from his.

“I could talk to Mott, if you like, so you could come here while I’m gone.” he offered, surprising her once more. “But who’d keep that cat-stealing scullion at bay, then? Don’t you think I should use my horrifying reputation to shoo him away while it lasts!” she quickly teased, so she wouldn’t have to think on, if she liked him going away or not. “By threatening to gut him like the crown prince, huh!?” Gendry chuckled. “Yeah, and then roast him! To fatten Balerion with his own meat …” she japed, grinning mischievously. “I knew you were the right woman for the task!” Gendry snorted with laughter.

But of a sudden, he stopped laughing and studied her for a moment, putting the arm plate he was working on aside. Scaring her a little. What was he up to now? “Do you know how a bodkin-point is made?” he asked roguishly. “Yeah?” it was more of a question than an answer, since she wasn’t sure where this was going. “Ever made one?” he asked, his eyes glinting with mischief. “No.” Was he suggesting- “Wanna make one?” he grinned, stunning her once more. Was he serious? “Come on, give it a try!” he encouraged, “I show you once, and then you go!” “Why?” was all that slipped from her lips. “You watched me work long enough. Time to turn the tables!” he challenged, grabbing an iron bar and shoving it into the embers. As soon as the end glowed in a bright yellow, he went to work on it. Flattening it, like a fish tale. Putting the bar back into the embers. Pulling it out again, rolling the end to form the socket. Back into the embers. Putting the socket off. Placing the rest of the bar back into the embers. While he formed the point on the other end of the socket. Cooling it in a bucket of water and presenting it to her, “Your turn!”

It all had gone so quick, she hadn’t even had time to make up her mind. And he didn’t leave her any. He pulled her towards him and positioned her in front of him, handing her one of the lighter hammers, “Go ahead!” But she couldn’t. Not with him watching. Feeling a bright-red blush creep up her neck, she glared at him, “Turn around!” “I can’t do that! Mott would kill me …” he laughed. “Then I’m not doing it!” she huffed, about to put the hammer down, but his hand enclosed around hers, “Come on, give it a try! I know you can do it!” he encouraged calmly, “Just think of your mother’s face, if she could see you now!” “Fine.” she huffed annoyed, “But you need to step away! I need space … to get to the anvil and all.”

Although, he did as she asked, stepping away a few feet, she still hesitated, “Mother isn’t working.” she growled, “I’m going with my septa.” as she pulled the iron bar from the embers, flattening it. “Why your septa?” he asked, focussed on her hands. “Because that old spinster always scolded me for my crooked stitches, saying I’d have the hands of a blacksmith!” causing him to laugh out loud, “Those little things!?” making her glare at him. “Eyes on your work, my lady!” he scolded, yet grinned; fuelling her anger. But when she had to roll the socket, she quickly realised, she needed to focus and bit her lower lip, while he stepped a bit closer to lead her through the rest of the process.

In the end, she had to heat the metal three times more than him, and the result naturally hadn’t been as straight and even as his, but he assured, it were fine enough, “Better than my first one!” he claimed. Though, she doubted that. Still, she grinned satisfied at the arrowhead in her hand, “Straighter than any of my stitches, that’s for sure.” she laughed and he joined in, “Well, it seems your septa was right after all, huh?” causing her to shove him, just because she felt like it, “You’re stupid!” He caught her wrist and pulled her closer, “So are you! Sometimes.” he teased, smiling at her, “I’m proud of you!” “That makes two of us!” she smirked, eyeing her work again, “I’m gonna keep this!” “To rub your septa’s nose in it?” he chuckled. “Damn, right!” At least she would if she’d ever get back home. Damn, why was she thinking of home now!?

Seeing something was casting a cloud over her mood, he got serious again, “I guess, I should be heading back to the keep soon.” “Why?” she furrowed he brow, unwilling to go back there. “There’s a Small Council meeting before supper …” he explained, before sighing, “and apparently my mother wants to have a word with me before I leave.” making her nod sullenly. “Are you coming back with me?” he asked abashed. “Not through the main gates!” she growled. “The tunnels it is then.” he chuckled, “Just give me a moment, I’m right back!” leaving her to admire the first parts of her very own armour in peace. He was insane. Undoubtedly. But still, she loved it. This was the best gift since Needle and her stallion. And she couldn’t wait to see it completed. Bran and Rickon would go green with envy … Robb, too. His all grown-up serious lord-façade would stagger for at least a flash. And Theon would mock her, not knowing how else to cope with the envy! Only Jon wouldn’t begrudge her. But chances to show him were even fainter than showing the others … it wasn’t fair! First, Jon at the Wall, where she couldn’t follow. And now this! Why would she have to decide between Winterfell, her brothers and-

“Are you ready?” Gendry questioned quietly, stepping behind her. No. Yet, she nodded, trying to bury the gloomy thoughts somewhere in the depths of her mind, as he pulled up her hood and offered her his hand, “Then let’s go!” leading her out of the stone barn, through the shop onto the streets, and down the hill. Though, not the way she had come. “Where are we going!?” she asked frowning. “Well, since you obviously recall the Flea Bottom route better than I’d like,” he chuckled and squeezed her hand gently, “I thought, you’d want to explore some other tunnels now! Also, this way’s shorter!” he winked and pulled her along, down towards the harbour.

“Will you be going by ship?” she asked, seeing the many vessels at the harbour right outside the city walls. “No, we prefer riding.” Gendry explained, “The walls on a ship have ears, just like in the keep.” “You mean, because of Renly and Loras?” she questioned, causing him to chuckle, “No, not because of that. It’s my mother. She hates me visiting Storm’s End. Because of Edric.” “What’s her problem?” Arya snorted dismissively,  “He isn’t at court, doesn’t threaten your claim-”  “And there you’re wrong!” he pulled her closer, whispering, “You understand, Renly won’t sire any heirs, right? So, normally my father would be his heir.” “Meaning you!” “Exactly. But I’m heir to the throne, so like my father I’d make someone else Lord over the Stormlands.” Gendry went on. “And she wants you to choose Joffrey?” Arya asked. “No, Tommen.” he replied, puzzling her, “But Joffrey-” “Our uncle Jaime has no intentions to become Lord of the Rock and my grandfather hates Tyrion.” he clarified, “So, Mother wants him to name Joffrey his heir.”

“I thought Tywin Lannister was the smartest man in Westeros?” she countered, frowning. “He is!” Gendry chuckled, “That’s why he named Tommen. But Mother and Joffrey don’t know, yet. So, I must swear you to secrecy about that!” “I won’t tell!” she promised, concluding, “And Renly will name Edric?” “Try past tense!” he grinned, “Happened right after Renly came of age.” “Then what’re you gonna do with Joffrey?” “That’s the question!” Gendry sighed, before teasing, “I heard the Wall’s a nice cosy place!” “NO!” Arya objected shocked, “Jon and Uncle Benjen are there!” “I was just kidding…” he nudged her shoulder gently. “You better, or I’ll have to go and kill your brother… to save mine!” she growled. “Don’t worry!” Gendry appeased, “Happens I have another uncle with a keep and no heir to it.” “Stannis?” she questioned and he nodded, “At least Dragonstone’s close enough to keep an eye on him.” “But your cousin-” Arya frowned. “Will be Lady of Storm’s End.” Gendry winked. “She and Edric?” Arya asked incredulous. “Yap, betrothed since almost a year.” he smiled.

“You worked it out quite neatly, haven’t you!?” she stared at him somewhat impressed. “Had a little help on that from Uncle Tyrion!”  he grinned and nudged her shoulder again. “He helped you replace himself as heir to the Rock?” Arya asked, confused. “I’m gonna need a Hand one day!” Gendry explained, before realising what he just implied, “I meant no offense against your father!” he added abashed. “He hates it!” she assured, “He only agreed because your father is his friend.” “That much was obvious from the start …” he confirmed, “I mean, he’s a smart and considerate man and when the day comes I’d like to offer him a position on my-” “Don’t!” Arya blurted alarmed, before quietly adding, “Let him go home!” Us. And the way he studied her afterwards, sighing and silently nodding, he seemed to understand what she had meant to say.

“It’s this way!” he said, after they had walked the rest of the way to the Fishmonger’s Square in silence, where he pulled her into a small alley, going left and then right, before he led her down some steps opening a narrow cellar door. There, Gendry took a torch from a wall, before leading her down another two staircases and passing through four storage rooms until at the end of the last one a narrow black tunnel started. A few feet further into the tunnel an iron gate barred their way and Gendry reached through, pulling out a key from behind a slightly protruding brick in the wall. “So, this is your usual way to the forge?” Arya asked, just to finally break the silence, when he opened the gate. “Yeah.” he smiled, pulling her through, “That means now you’re a full member of the inner circle.” he teased and hung the key back onto the wall.

“Inner circle of what?” she mocked, as he led her further into the tunnel, “Your Secret Order of Tunnel Sneakers?” “Damn, right!” he laughed. “And how many members do we have?” she snorted. “In total?” he asked. “Yes.” “At the moment?” “Yeah.” “Active members?” “Yes!” “Um, let me count … might take a while … there are so many… well, that’d be you and me!” he stated tongue-in-cheek, causing her to shove him, “You’re so stupid!” “Hey! Not my fault … well, okay it’s my fault, our favourite Dornishman jumped ship.” he teased, “But I’m working on that … We’re gonna have him back on board in no time! And… we’ve a novice!” “Let me guess, Tommen?” she snorted, trying not to think of Ned jumping ship on her. “Damn, what gave it away!?” he laughed.

“And why only Tommen and not Myrcella!?” Arya blurted, sounding more snappish than she intended, making him stop in his track, “Are you suggesting I’m leaving her out because she’s a girl?” he demanded. “Are you not?” she growled, unwilling to row back. “If I were, then what’re you doing here?!” he raised his brow. “I’m not-” she snapped, before realising she stepped right into his trap. Stupid! “Not what!? Not as girlish as my sister? Or yours?” he scoffed, “So, who’s leaving them out!?” perplexing her. “Rest assured, Arya, if my sister wanted to roam about in these tunnels, she would! And wouldn’t even ask for my permission …” he hissed, “And I’d say the same goes for yours! They’re not here, because they choose not to be!” Damn. She was speechless, feeling her ears redden in embarrassment.

Sighing, he stepped closer to her and said calmly, “But you choosing to be here, is one of the reasons why I like you, Arya.” dumbfounding her even more, “And I think, me not going easy on you because you’re a woman … is one of the reasons why you like me.” he whispered and cupped her face with his one hand, making her flush bright red and slightly lean in to the touch. Even closing her eyes for a moment. Before her instinct made her fling them wide open. “No!” she blurted, pulling away from his touch and pushing him away, snapping, “You are going easy on me because I’m a woman!” puzzling him, “When!?” “You’re watching your language when I’m around, you almost never swear!” she growled. “Pardon, my lady, but learning to swear like an old sailor wasn’t exactly part of my upbringing!” he mock-bowed to her. Yet, unwilling to lose this argument, too, she blurted, “And what about the shop!? You made sure I wouldn’t see you wash and dress! You even wore a shirt the one time you knew I was coming!” regretting it instantly. “Well, that was because you’re a highborn … But if m’lady insists, of course you may watch next time!” his eyes glinted with mischief.

“That’s not what I meant!” she snarled, abashed, “You’re just trying to distract me … to not have to admit that I’m right!” “Name an example where it’s true and I will admit it!” he challenged, still grinning like a fool. “The whores!” she blurted. “Beg your pardon!?” he asked puzzled. “You never answered my question! About the whores. That was because I’m a girl!” “Oh, you’re still nosy about that?” he teased, chuckling. “I’m not nosy!” she yelled, and shoved him angrily, but he only snorted with laughter, “Yeah, just curious, I know.” “Stop deflecting! That was because I’m a girl! I know it!” she fumed. “Sorry, what was the question again!?” he grinned. “Why you don’t like whores!” “I thought we’d agreed it was not about liking but more about not requiring their services.” he laughed, making her shove him again, hard enough for him to stumble backwards against the wall, “Deflecting!” she hissed. “Alright, I may have avoided answering that because you’re a girl!” he appeased. “Huh, knew it!” she snarled triumphantly.

“But you do know it’s true, right?” he asked, serious of a sudden. “What?” she frowned, confused. “That I’m not consorting with whores. Never have, never will.” he assured, studying her, “And if you want to know why, I’ll tell you!” and she actually nodded, without knowing why. “Well,” he stepped towards her, reaching for her hand again, “one reason of course is because I like you.” guiding it up to his lips, he placed a gentle kiss on the back of her hand; causing small waves of hot and cold shivers move up her spine.

Before he led her further into the tunnels. “But even if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t do it!” he proclaimed. “You wouldn’t believe … or rather, you don’t want to know what things I had to see with a father like mine! At an age, when I surely wasn’t ready to see those things …” he began, “Hells, for most of it I’ll never be ready to see it!” he snorted dismissively. “You’ve probably heard my parents’ marriage is a mess! And my mother being a bitch and schemer and all, but she doesn’t deserve to be humiliated like that. No woman deserves that! And that damn fool doesn’t even see he’s embarrassing himself just as much!” telling from his tone, Gendry was getting angry. Really angry.

“He’s groping and screwing anything with a heartbeat! Well, women … since he never fails to sneer at Renly, questioning his manhood and all… but that’s a different story for another time … And I actually wish it were women he’s consorting with! He grows old, but his women don’t! If you understand what I mean. And it’s not just that he’s whoring around as if it were his goal to screw any woman in his kingdom before he bites the dust … it probably even is! He’s the damn king! So, why the fuck can’t he provide those girls with moon tea!?” Gendry was furious now, “He even thinks he’s doing them a favour, ‘putting strong sons and pretty girls in their bellies’! Bastards he gives even less a shit about than their mothers! What’s it to him, if these girls and women can’t go home to their fathers and husbands with his offspring in their wombs and arms!? But just nobody cares … Not my father! Not his Council! Not Uncle Stannis, who’s too much of a prude and a snob to care! And Jon … he just let Father do whatever he liked, be it whoring or wasting money … I mean, your father at least tries! But apparently fails to see reasoning doesn’t work with that oaf! You don’t wanna know how much money Renly, Tyrion and I spent on my father’s bastards and their mothers! To get them out of the city, to go somewhere else where they can pose as widows and orphans to build themselves a life. Well, the ones we know of …” Gendry talked himself into a rage.

“You know, my father’s probably whoring since he was thirteen … so who knows how many there are!? And how many of the girls ended up whores themselves … I even confronted him about that! Asked him, if he weren’t afraid the pretty girl in front of him were his own daughter … you know what he did? He laughed at me! Asking me, if that’s why I were afraid of whores! And proudly told me ‘his secret trick’… ‘Just stay away from the ones with jet-black hair!’ he said … Can you believe that!?” Gendry’s lips dripped with venom now, “And when I reminded him of my siblings, he just mocked, ‘If it makes you feel better, then stay away from the blondes as well! I recommend brunettes and redheads anyway!’ he said. That damn fucker just gives a shit …” and only then Gendry realised, Arya had been quiet all the time and stopped in his track, “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to scare you …” he murmured, abashed.

“You didn’t!” she assured, squeezing his hand, “I wanted to know. And I understand now! I didn’t think of your father … I just thought of my brothers, well, Theon mostly … I think he loves Ros, a whore in Winter Town.” making Gendry absently caress her hand with his thumb, “Well, as I know your father, the brothels in Winter Town-” “There’s just one!” she interrupted, making him chuckle, “Well, no doubt the women there are better cared for and protected than the ones here!” and Arya nodded, “Yeah, Father doesn’t like brothels … but he says it keeps the men in line, keeps them from doing stupid things.” “That’s the crux of the matter!” Gendry sighed and pulled her along again, “Pity, we men aren’t as reasonable as you women, huh?” “Did you just admit, men are stupid!?” she teased. “Did I ever say otherwise?” he teased back, but still they had walked the rest of the way through the tunnels in silence. A nice silence, though.

Eventually, they had come out a different tunnel at the base of the spiral staircase and from there on Gendry had let Arya lead the way, though, not letting go of her hand. But she hadn’t minded. In fact, when they entered the vault with the dragon skulls, she actually thought it a pity they already were back in the keep. And that the damn awkwardness was there again, instantly.

At first, they just stood there in front of each other, holding hands, and both biting their lips, stealing glances at each other, “So, here we are …” Arya blurted eventually to end the awkward silence, causing him to chuckle, “Apparently.” “So… you’re going to the council meeting now?” she went on, feeling absolutely stupid and her reddening ears seemed to agree. “No, there’s still time until that …” he said quietly, and the most stupid part of her hoped, he would say he wanted to stay a little longer, but he then added, “I think, I’m going to hear what my mother has to say… undoubtedly nothing fun! Probably lots of chiding. Because of you…Oh. “Or Edric, or both of you… who knows, it’s Cersei Lannister!?” he babbled on, caressing her hand with his thumb again.

“Well, then I’m better off looking for the Black Dread …” she murmured, reluctantly turning away from him, withdrawing her hand from his, but his fingers enclosed around hers quickly, “Arya?” he blurted, making her face him again, “Can I write you?” puzzling her. “I mean, can I send you a raven when I get there?” he clarified and she quickly nodded, trying to hide her growing smile. “And … will you answer?” he inquired, smiling himself. “Depends on the message!” she teased grinningly. “Gods, sometimes I hate you!” he chuckled. “That feeling is mutual!” she snorted, and saw he attempted to reply something to that, flushing slightly, but then his glance wandered to the side, “Looks like he found you first!” Gendry nodded towards the stairs around the corner, where Balerion unhurriedly descended the last few steps, strolling towards them.

“Well, in that case … give my regards to Edric and Brienne!” Arya retorted, now for real withdrawing her hand, quietly adding, “And safe travels, Gendry.” before she went to meet Balerion halfway. “Ready for a new battle?” she challenged the old tom, who playfully hissed and threatened by lashing out at her, only to jump sideways before she could grab him and disappear into a smaller skull. “The heck with it!” Gendry suddenly growled from behind them, startling Arya. “You can’t send me to Storm’s End without my own story to tell about how a small pain-in-the-arse-lady beat me in close combat!” he huffed. “I’m not sending you anywhere!” she raised her brow amused, though without looking at him. “That’s not an answer!” he challenged determined, “Will you spar with me now or not!?” “Is this about yesterday!?” she inquired warily, getting up to face him. “No, just me being curious!” he stated. “And what about your mother?” “Ain’t running away!” he scoffed. “Sparring with sharp blades? Sorry, no, I’d like to keep my head, your grace!” she snorted.

“Happens I know where to find broomsticks!” he laughed, “Come on!” and grabbed her arm, pulling her along excitedly, up the stairs, passing the wine cellars and into one of the storage rooms. Where he took a broom from behind a barrel, “That size alright?” he asked and when she nodded, he pulled the brushwood off and handed the stick to her, before choosing one for himself. “Alright, let’s go!” he ushered her out of the room and towards the stairs again, before changing his mind, “No, stop, forgot something! I’m right back.” He ran larking towards the kitchens; reminding her somehow of little Rickon, when he thought up his tricks. An instant later, Gendry returned with a plate and a small cake on it. “I’m not hungry!” she frowned. “Well, that’s good, since this ain’t for you, my lady! It’s for me. Motivation!” he grinned mischievously, “My price when I best you!”

“You mean, your consolation price, when I best you!” she teased, making him try to lash at her thigh, but she easily deflected the blow, “Edric warned you, huh?” “Yup, told me to attack before you’re done talking!” he chuckled, and she used his distraction to try knock the plate out of his hand. But he saw it coming, “Hey! Not my price!” he protested, moving it behind his back, “I came by it honestly!” making her snort with laughter, “You mean, you stole it honestly! At least going by the speed you came running back!” However, he obviously had paid attention to his brother’s tales and attacked right again, trying to back her up against the wall, but she dodged to the side and whirled around, pressing the tip of her makeshift-sword against his back, “Dead.” she announced smugly, quickly dipping her finger into his cake and licking the icing off of it, “Fine enough booby price!” “Hey! Hands off my cake!” he turned around, playfully outraged, “You’re worse than the mice in this keep!”

By the time they returned to the dragon skulls, his cake had two more holes, even though he had fought valiantly; as if she were a monster trying to steal his maiden bride. Thus, as soon as they had entered the vault, he had put the plate on some sill and spent the whole sparring session defending it against her raids. However, now that he had both his hands free that turned out slightly more tricky for her. But still she quickly found his weakness, “You’re not used to fight without padding, princeling!” she teased, when he kept hissing in pain at each of her hits. “And you fully enjoy it, my lady!” he teased back. “Course!” Yet, he clearly was ambitious to win the match and soon stopped holding back, landing quite some blows himself. And he was a quick study, changing his tactics, trying to double-cross and surprise her.

In the end it was sheer force what made him win the match. Eventually, he caught her arm and wrenched the stick from her grip, so she stuck a foot between his legs and tripped him, but he yanked her down with him and they rolled across the floor, he trying to pin her down and she wriggling free and punching him. But he only laughed at the blows, which made her mad. Especially, when he finally caught both her wrists in one hand and started tickling her with the other, “I guess the cake’s mine!” “What’s left of it!” she snorted angrily, since she had added eight more holes, making it look like a chunk of stinky cheese now. “Yeah, for not being hungry, you gobbled quite a bit of it!” he laughed, “But that’s over now! The rest is mine!” Only just then, they heard the plate clatter to the ground. “Or not!” she snorted with laughter, as they both watched Balerion hopping white-faced from the sill to steal the rest of the icing. “Damn old traitor tom, that was my prey!” Gendry scolded playfully, joining her laugh. “Whose cake was it?” Arya asked. “Well, I didn’t ask … but, um, going by the rose petals the baker was about to put onto it … ” he chuckled roguishly, causing her to laugh herself almost to tears before he even said, “I’d say my brother’s gift for Margaery.”

Though, of a sudden Gendry’s laugh stopped, and he gazed down at her. Wordlessly. Studying her. Pinning her down with nothing else but his stormy blue eyes. Though, her lashes fluttered nervously and her cheeks undoubtedly turned bright red, she was unable to move. Studying him in return. He truly was the most handsome man, she had ever seen. His eyes bluer than even the sky. His black hair thick, yet, not coarse but shiny and just the right amount of waved; just a bit. His dark brows and lashes well-defined, not too full. His jawbone strong, but not excessive. His nose and cheekbones perfectly shaped. Spotted with tiny freckles, making him look roguish even now. And young. While the short beard stubble in all the right places made sure he didn’t look boyish. And his lips, they were just … flawless. “Gods, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you, Arya!” he whispered, ripping her from her straying thoughts, perplexing her. Even more so, when his eyes wandered to her lips, lingering there for a moment, before he bent down. Was he-

His lips were on hers before she had thought that to the end. At first, her eyes went wide as if in shock and her heart seemed to stop. Only to pound as fierce as never before a flash later. As tingling waves of heat and ice rippled through her body and her tummy felt as if a swarm of butterflies were caught in there. It was all too much, forcing her to close her eyes, as his stubble tickled her skin and his lips caressed hers, making her realise, his weren’t the only ones moving. Fuck.

Her eyes flew open. Panicking, she discerned he was still holding her wrists. But thankfully his eyes flew open just then as well and he pulled away instantly. For a blink of an eye they studied each other, wide-eyed. Before she slammed her knee between his legs, out of instinct, to get away. And as he rolled to the side, groaning with pain, she crawled away from him, grabbing her sword belt with Needle and her dagger on it, and ran, hearing him curse, “The fuck, Arya! What was that for?!” But she didn’t wait for him to recover, she was out of the vault, racing back to the Tower of the Hand, as if running for her life. Her mind blank.

And in her panic she took the long route, the one she had taken the very first day. Thus, soon Gendry grabbed her arm, making her slam against his chest, “Arya, stop!” he panted, “What was that!?” “You tell me!” she hissed outraged, “How dare you to kiss me!” dumbfounding him, she wrenched free and continued her way. Yet, she had barely walked ten more feet, when he stopped her again, “But I thought-” “Thought what!?” she hissed, “That I wanted it!?” “Yeah!?” he stared at her bewildered, “You could’ve stopped me… but you didn’t!” “Um, yeah! Remember, my knee …” she snarled. “All too well, rest assured, my lady!” he hissed back, yet still perplexed. “Then what’s not to understand!?” she scoffed, wrenching free once more. Though, he stormed after her, calling, “That’s just it! First you kiss me and then that!” “Have you lost your mind!?” she spat angrily, “You kissed me! Without asking…” “Yeah, and you liked it!” he countered, getting mad, “So much, you kissed me back!” At that, she stopped in her track and turned around, flinging her fist at him, but he dodged the blow. “Still think I liked it!?” she yelled. “Yeah!” he shouted, “And you can hit me all you want, it’s still true! And you know it!” “You’re nuts!” she spat and he retorted equally mad, “Only because you’re driving me so!”

Over all their fury they didn’t even realise they had reached the gravelled yard outside the Tower of the Hand, until Harwin’s calling, “Arya! There you are!” made them aware of their surroundings again. Damn. They both stopped in their tracks, baffled, seeing Harwin and Desmond quickly stride towards them, but also several servants and three Baratheon guards curiously watching them. Fuck. “Your grace.” the two Stark guards greeted him politely yet wary, before turning to Arya. “Are you alright?” Desmond inquired worried and placed a hand on her shoulder to lead her away, and she let him. “You’re just leaving like this!?” Gendry called after her dumbstruck, “Have you nothing else to say to me?” Embarrassed in front of her father’s men and not knowing what else to say, she only hissed back over her shoulder, “Safe travels, your grace!” “You’ve got to be jesting, Arya!?” Gendry scoffed. “Apologies, you grace! But we’ve orders to escort the Lady Arya immediately to Lord and Lady Stark.” Harwin countered, in a slightly warning tone, urging her and Desmond to a quicker pace.

Arya had known she was in trouble again. As she always was when he was involved. Of course, she hadn’t expected her parents wouldn’t notice her absence. After all, she had been gone for most of the day. Yet, the extent of her misfortune she only understood when she reached the storey with her father’s solar. Seven hells. The wall-hanging was gone. And the secret door stood wide open, making her freeze in her step. Seven hells. “Come, Arya. You father’s waiting.” Desmond said sympathetically, leading her into the solar and closing the door behind her. Fuck. Ned Stark sat at his desk and Lady Stark stood next to him, her hand on his shoulder. While Sansa sat in a chair behind them, staring out of the window, refusing to look at her. All three remained silent. Fuck. Arya bit her lip and tightened her grip on Needle’s hilt, feeling her face turn a darker tone of red than ever before.

Eventually, Ned Stark broke the deafening silence, “HOW LONG!?” “How long what!?” Arya retorted abashed; not sure she knew what he meant. “How long have you been meeting the crown prince in secret?” her father clarified, making her swallow loudly. “You were seen with him in the city!” Lady Stark stated frigidly. “That’s impossible!” Arya blurted shocked, she had her hood up! “Is it!?” her father questioned sternly, perplexing her even more, “Were you today at Tobho Mott’s shop or not!?” “Are you having me followed now!?” Arya exclaimed. “No, but apparently I should have!” Lord Stark growled. “Then how do you know!?” Arya asked stunned. “After the tourney, the queen asked Petyr to have her son tailed.” Lady Catelyn explained. “Rubbish! That rat’s not working for the queen!” Arya spat defensively, “She has her own spies … Your fine friend joined forces with Margaery and Joffrey!” “That is not the point at the moment, Arya!” her father stated, demanding, “I asked you a question. And I’ll have an answer! So, how long have you been meeting him in secret?” sounding more furious than he had ever been with her.

“Um…” Arya still didn’t know what to say, “technically … um, since the day we arrived.” At that, Sansa’s head yanked around, staring at her in disbelief, “You said you didn’t know why he did it!” and Catelyn Tully gasped hysterically, “Oh, my gods!” And her husband’s jaw dropped, equally in shock, blurting, “Technically? What does that even mean!?” “Um, well … the first time was kind of an accident…since I didn’t know who he was …” she murmured abashed, causing her mother to stumble backwards in distress, that her father had to stabilise his wife. “Oh, gods, Ned! She’s ruined!” Lady Catelyn moaned in despair. “No!” Arya blurted in shock, “Gendry wouldn’t do that! He’s not like his father!”

Gendry!?” Sansa scoffed, “What happened to ‘idiot’ and ‘stupid princeling’?” But it was her father’s question that perplexed Arya entirely, “So, you’re telling us … he hasn’t secretly visited your chamber!?” Ned Stark inquired, clearly on edge. “What!? No! Never!” Arya blurted. “And have you ever been in his?” her father continued, still not convinced. “Hells, no!” Arya snorted, “We were just friends, until he … did that thing at the tourney! Without giving me a warning … I swear!” “And he hasn’t touched you!?” her mother inquired incredulously and Arya quickly shook her head, “No, not in any improper way!” “But why did he show you the secret passageway then?” Lady Catelyn asked, frowning.

So, Arya had reluctantly told them everything. Well, the basics. How he had found her chasing his tomcat in the vault with the dragon skulls. How she had forgotten to ask his name and had mistaken him for a manservant, back then. And how she had been mad at him for not telling her. How he had insisted to keep their meeting a secret, because of Margaery and all the other schemers. How she had accidently stumbled across him in Tobho Mott’s shop, where she out of homesickness had asked him if she were allowed to stay for a while. And how then, somehow she had no longer been mad at him. How he had secretly joined them on their rides after that. And even how he had taken her to Flea Bottom – shocking all three of them – so, she had quickly stated, she would have found the way eventually on her own as well. And how due to the late hour he then wouldn’t have wanted her to get into trouble, showing her the passageway – though, would have never stepped past the wall-hanging, not once.

However, she had left out how he had made her feel at the forge, already that first time she had seen him there. And also the secret messages they had exchanged during the tourney. And of course, the kiss. That, she had been just unable to tell them. That, she just wanted to forget. Bury it deep down in her mind or heart or wherever … she just didn’t want to think of it again. Ever again.

But she had told them, how Myrcella had convinced her to take a look at his armour designs. Which would have made her sneak out of the keep, to go see him at Mott’s shop and that at first she would have thought they could be friends again, but then on their return to the keep she would have come to realise, they were on two completely different pages. If not in two completely different volumes now. Or shelfs. Or realms. Or worlds.

Chapter Text

After she had let her parents and sister in on her friendship with Gendry, they had begun discussing how to deal with it. Although they knew, with her being her, there wasn’t much persuading needed, her parents agreed, the crown prince had overstepped boundaries and endangered Arya’s reputation. Thus, her father was about to seek him out and decline his request for her hand. But her Lady Mother beseeched her husband, claiming, if anyone else but Petyr’s spy had seen them together, all that stood between Arya and her ruin were Gendry. And though, Sansa concurred, it were important to not scare him away now and make him stand by his word, she agreed with Arya on Littlefinger. Telling their mother, it were as good as public knowledge, her once childhood friend feared for his position at court when Gendry would accede to the throne.

Realising her worst fears were about to come true, Lady Catelyn had to sit down and her husband offered her his chair. “Oh, child, what have you done!?” her mother whispered more to herself than to Arya, before she actually looked up, facing her again, “Didn’t you see how reckless this was … Did you really think, there was no good reason for all those rules and lectures!?” “We didn’t do anything wrong, we were just friends!” Arya countered defensively. “You can’t be friends with him, not like that! Not in the world we live in. And you know that, Arya!” Her mother retorted, despair slowly mixing with disappointment, “You’re flowered, he’s a grown man … and not your husband, yet!” “Yet!?” Arya exclaimed aghast, “I’m not marrying him!” “You should’ve thought about that before you snuck around alone with him in the middle of the night!” Catelyn Tully scolded and Sansa added, “It’s the safest way to prevent your ruin, Arya!” “I don’t care!” “But we do!” Ned Stark growled, “You’re my daughter and I won’t have you defamed! Least of all, for the rest of your life!”

Unfortunately, her father soon after had to go to attend the Small Council meeting, leaving Arya alone with her mother and sister. And Catelyn Tully of course hit her with questions again, why she would meet Gendry in secret, despite knowing how wrong it was and asking once more, if he really hadn’t touched her. Clearly not understanding, people could meet in secret without doing that. So, for a moment Arya had been glad when Desmond suddenly knocked and announced, a messenger were here, interrupting her mother’s interrogation. Sadly, that relief hadn’t lasted long, since the man entering the solar wore a Baratheon attire and declared, the message were for her. Damn. Of course, that idiot had to find a way to cause her even more trouble.

Rolling her eyes, she accepted the scroll of parchment and watched the man leave the room, before she slowly turned back to her mother and sister, who unsurprisingly studied her with raised eyebrows. “What!?” Arya huffed. “What’s that?” Lady Catelyn questioned, nodding at the message. “How’d I know?!” Arya growled. “Show me!” her mother ordered. “What? No!” What if he mentioned the kiss!? “Show me!” her mother repeated, getting louder. “It’s sealed!” Arya proclaimed defensively. Stupidly. “I can see that!” her mother hissed, “Give it to me!” “It’s probably nothing, just something stupid … I’ll burn it, I didn’t want to read it, anyway!” Arya argued, stepping to the hearth. “Don’t you dare, Arya! You’ll hand it to me, now!” Catelyn Tully snarled and Arya threw it foamingly onto the desk.

She watched her mother closely, as she broke the seal and unrolled the message, her brows knitting almost instantly. Please, nothing about the kiss! Looking up, Lady Catelyn demanded, “Who’s Elinor!?” Huh? Oh! “Um, Master Mott’s servant girl.” “And what promise did you make that girl?” Lady Stark questioned and Arya stammered, “Nothing, just … a gift. Some of my old clothes-” “You’re not giving away your dresses, young lady!” her mother hissed. “Why!?” Arya snapped, “I never wanted them! Least of all those from the tourney … I’ll give them to Elinor or I’ll burn them-” “You will do no such thing!” her mother snarled. “Watch me!” Arya shot back, “And didn’t you just say earlier, we shouldn’t anger Gendry? He’s with me on this! Isn’t he!?” causing her mother’s jaw to drop.

Right when her father returned to his solar, sooner than he had said. “Ned, what happened!?” Lady Stark asked concerned. “It was a shorter meeting than expected! The crown prince excused himself … apparently, he just left for Storm’s End.” her husband stated and Lady Catelyn’s glance shot back to the parchment in her hands, reading on, her eyes went wide. Damnit. “What’s that?” Ned Stark frowned, and his wife handed him the message, wordlessly. “Why would he leave of a sudden!?” Catelyn Tully demanded, her eyes piercing Arya. Who snorted defensively, “He would’ve left anyway!” “Why? What did you do!?” her Lady Mother hissed and her father appeased, “He just left a day early, Cat!” before adding, “And maybe him gone for a fortnight or two is for the best-”

How can that be for the best, Ned!? With Petyr telling everyone she was alone with him in the city … entering some shady houses?” Catelyn Tully questioned aghast. But now it was her husband, who was absorbed in the message. Reading it twice, it seemed. Before he asked as well, “Who’s Elinor? And what delivery will his men collect?” “That armourer’s servant wench, she says!” her mother scoffed, “Apparently, she promised that girl her whole wardrobe and threatens to burn everything, if we shouldn’t allow it?!” “What!?” Ned Stark blurted, “Arya-” “Not all, just the dresses from the tourney!” “Arya can’t wear them anymore, anyway!” Sansa stated, reasoning, “It’d only fuel the gossipmongers. So, let the girl have them! We’ve a bigger problem, with Gendry gone and Littlefinger knowing about them! He, Margaery and Joffrey will fully exploit that …”

“Yes, but why did he leave early!?” Lady Stark asked, her eyes piercing Arya once more. “I told you, we had a fight! It’s not my fault he wants something else than I!” she huffed, now certain there was no kiss mentioned, or else they’d discuss that now. “Are you sure!?” her mother raised her brows in disbelief, nodding at the message in her husband’ hands, “He seems quite certain you return his affection-” That stupid bull-headed … argh! “Just because he wants it to be true, doesn’t mean it is!” Arya yelled, knowing, if she would admit it to her mother, her betrothal to Gendry were inevitable.

Catelyn Tully took a deep breath, evidently changing her strategy, “Arya, I admit I was wrong about you and Ned! And I might have pushed you too hard there …” she stated as calm as she could, “But I wasn’t wrong about you beaming with joy after those rides! Had I known he was there, too, courting you as well-” “Had I known that was courting, I wouldn’t have gone on another ride, with neither Ned nor him!” Arya snapped furiously, “And I’m not marrying him or anyone else, just because you’re afraid of a little gossip! I can take that!”

Therefore, Lord and Lady Stark had decided to continue their discussion once more without her; and Sansa. They were both grown women. Yet their parents still made decisions for them, as if they were stupid little children, who couldn’t distinguish right from wrong and good from bad. Only now their parents’ decisions were no longer about if a septa should teach them, or in which belief they should be raised, but with whom they should share their beds and lives with. How could Sansa be okay with that!? It wasn’t okay, all but that! It was their lives, they should be in charge of them!

Arya knew, a life with Gendry wouldn’t be watching him in the forge and sparring and exploring … It would be feasts and dancing, and that’d be the supposed fun part. But mostly it would be council meetings and audiences and all that nonsense for him, while her main task would be bearing heirs for his stupid throne. No matter, if she wanted children or not. And she was old enough to remember how her mother had been with Rickon in her belly. Lady Catelyn hadn’t been allowed to go riding, then. And in the end, Maester Luwin had even forbid her to walk stairs alone. Stupid stairs! So, Arya knew, as soon as she were with Gendry’s child, it would mean the end of the few little freedoms she could maintain until then. Especially if Gendry wasn’t king yet, then. No more riding, sparring, climbing and running. The unborn life inside of her would be more important than hers. And if she would do it anyway and would lose the child, it would be her fault. Especially, if it would happen twice. People would blame her instead of Gendry, no matter what. It was always the woman’s fault! And if anyone would tell Gendry she had been riding or sparring against his wish, how long until he’d start hating her as well? She couldn’t change who she was. Not even for him. She would be miserable as his wife. And eventually he’d be miserable with her, too. As miserable as his father was with his mother. He was nearly five years older, yet, he refused to see that. And yet, no one called him childish.

With her thoughts ranting, she had stormed from her father’s solar without Gendry’s message. So, she had barely closed her chamber door, when a small knock ripped her from her thoughts and her sister entered, “You forgot this!” Sansa offered her the scroll of parchment. “I left it on purpose,” Arya growled, “I don’t want it!” Nonetheless, her eyes stayed fixed on the note in her sister’s hand. “Mother said you should read it!” Sansa stated quietly. “Does she really think a stupid piece of parchment would change my mind!?” Arya scoffed, slumping down onto the edge of her bed. “I don’t know, it might!” Sansa said, and before Arya could protest again, she asked, “Aren’t you even a little curious?” “Curiosity killed the cat!” Arya hissed, “And made me walk right into Littlefinger’s trap … so, just throw it in the hearth, and let’s forget about it!” “Come on, Arya, even I’m bursting with curiosity!” Sansa teased. “You haven’t read it!?” Arya asked incredulous and her sister shook her head, “I’m curious, not nosy!” unknowingly prompting Arya’s memory, Aren’t you a nosy one? Gendry whispered in her mind. “They read it, so why shouldn’t you!?” Arya stated quickly, not wanting to trigger any more memories.

“Really?” Sansa studied her carefully, before she actually unrolled the parchment. And it was Arya’s turn to study her sister’s face, which almost told a story of its own. First, there was no reaction. Then Sansa’s brow furrowed, somewhat worried. Then a small chuckle followed and then her eyes went wide and she chuckled again, before she looked up at her, amused, “You so wanna read this, Arya!” “Why are you suddenly …supporting this … him!?” Arya narrowed her eyes, accusing, “You’re afraid my ruin would mean yours, aren’t you!?” wiping Sansa’s smile from her face.

“You’re my sister! Of course, I don’t wanna see you defamed and ruined! And yes, I think politically the best strategy would be to accept his proposal, it’d keep those vicious creatures at bay! But unlike Mother I knew from the start, you belong as much at court as the wolves belong into a kennel! That’s why I know, you’ll never accept him. You just can’t! And long-term that’s probably even for the best! For both of you. And the Seven Kingdoms.” Sansa hissed, “And naturally, I’m not looking forward to have them try to slander me as well again. And yes, I thought I’d die of shame after the tourney, I’ve never felt so embarrassed in my whole life! And it hurt to believe, he could think you a better choice for a queen, it made me feel like a complete failure! It just didn’t make sense to me … you being you, all wild and tomboyish and reckless. But now I get it, he just fell in love with you! And somehow that doesn’t hurt as much as I’d thought. Actually, the pity and sneering behind my back hurts way more than the looks he gives you! And like Mother said, we were wrong about the cause … but not about the effect, Arya! He makes you grin like a fool! I never felt that, not with him, or anyone. And I so envy you for that!”

“Believe me, you don’t want that!” Arya retorted abashed. “But I do! It’s all I ever wanted … that’s why I think you should read this!” Sansa sat down next to her, offering her the parchment again, “Or I could read it for you!? But I think that would ruin it … Seriously, Arya, I think this is something you should hold on to, no matter what you decide about him! So, you can read it when you’re old and grey and smile to yourself, like Old Nan! Or boast with it in front of your grandchildren, or mine, if you don’t want any! You could tell them the story of the she-wolf that stole a prince’s heart! I bet my girls will love that tale!” “Alright, give it to me!” Arya rolled her eyes, “I bet, it’s not even half as good as you want me to believe!” But it was. Stupid. Stunning. Awful. Beautiful. Terrible. Amazing. All at once.

“Lady Arya, I assumed you would want to keep your promise to Elinor, despite our latest disagreement. Therefore, I instructed some of my men to collect your delivery in the morning. Should you have changed your mind, just tell them. And do not worry about Elinor, I doubt she thought you were serious. Though, I hope you are. P.S. I want you to hear it from me: I am leaving for Storm’s End tonight. Now, actually. Since this time it is not just you being mad at me. This time, I am mad at you as well. I am done with you pushing me away, pretending I am the only one feeling this way – you know what I mean. But in case you do not, and I really want to make sure you do, I am writing it down now. I love you. Yes, you read that right. I, that is stupid bull-headed Gendry of House Baratheon, love you, the ever so stubborn and fierce Lady Arya of House Stark, also known as the She-wolf of Winterfell. And I hope you had a good laugh at my expense reading this. But now I want you to start thinking about what this means to you. And to give you time to think, I promise I will not pester you with any ravens. If you want one, you have to send me one, first. But I doubt you will. So, goodbye for now. GB” it said, leaving Arya speechless for a moment.

She stared at the parchment, feeling her cheeks and ears burn bright red. It’s just words, just a stupid row of stupid letters! she tried to tell herself, yet, her eyes were glued to the three words and her fingers traced them involuntarily. “See, that’s what I mean!” her sister teased, pointing at Arya’s flushed face, “For that, even I’d sneak through dirty tunnels full of bugs and rats and-” “He kissed me!” slipped from Arya’s lips before she knew. “What!?” Sansa gasped stunned. “Please, don’t tell Mother and Father, at least not Mother … she’ll make me marry him, if she knows!” Arya pleaded wide-eyed, shocked over herself, “It was nothing, just a small and quick one, today, after sparring. I accidentally kissed him back, but when I noticed, I stopped it … slammed my knees between his legs, that’s why he’s pissed!” For a moment, Sansa just stared at her, but then she grinned, “Did you just tell me your darkest secret!?” “You can’t tell anyone!” “I won’t, I swear!” Sansa placated, before she teased, “So, my wild baby sister allowed a man to steal a kiss … who would’ve seen that coming, half a year ago!?” Certainly not me! Arya thought, sighing and staring at the three little words right at the centre of the parchment again. What a mess she had manoeuvred herself into!? Out of all the men in the world, it had to be him … why!?

“There is someone!” Sansa blurted of a sudden, ripping Arya from her straying thoughts, “Huh!? Where?” she asked confused. “He’s leaving me gifts in the godswood, on a tree stump close to the entrance.” “Who!?” “I don’t know who he is! It started the day after the tourney. A white rose the first day. I didn’t take it, I thought it were for someone else. The next day it was a winter rose. Which I left as well, assuming it were from Ned for you … you know, because of the white and blue. But then on the third day, I found a silver ribbon, pinned under a stone, with my name carved in. So, I took it.” Sansa explained, “And since then I keep finding things there, whenever I leave the godswood, well, at least when I go there at my usual time … I expected him to reveal himself by now, but he didn’t. So, I thought about asking Jeyne to come pray with me, but she evidently can’t keep her mouth shut when it comes to it-”

“I’ll go with you!” Arya offered, assuring, “I’ll catch him while you pray, don’t worry!” “No! I don’t want to scare him off! No offence, Arya!” Sansa declined, perplexing her, “But what if he’s some creep!?” Arya countered worried. “I asked Ned to help me!” Sansa admitted sheepishly, “He’s the only one I could rule out, and I trust him. He went with me a couple days ago, to keep watch, while I prayed.” “And he didn’t catch him!?” Arya asked incredulous. “He did! But he turned out someone he knows, who made Ned swear not to tell me. Apparently, he wants me to guess who he is. But Ned assured, it’s someone kind and honourable and a suitable match!” “And you think it’s that Ser Lucas?” Arya asked, not knowing what to think of this mystery suitor. “Well, Ned knows him, but I’m not so sure … I asked him, if he’d ever been at the godswood here and he sounded as if I wouldn’t know the Blackwoods believe in the old gods, too. He told me about their dead weirwood tree and all. So, either it’s not him, or he’s a really good actor!”

“Well, then let me help! Whoever it is, he can’t make me swear not to tell you!” Arya offered again. “No, I don’t want to scare him away-” Sansa protested and Arya rolled her eyes, “He won’t even know I’m there. He leaves your gift, I follow him and tell you as soon as I know!” “No, please, not yet! If I’m too stupid to guess who he is, you can follow him … but until then, I don’t want to ruin this little game!” Sansa replied and explained, “I only told you, because you told me about the kiss! Now, we’re even. Since you can’t tell Father and Mother about this either! They’d immediately task Jory and the others to apprehend him. And I don’t want him to stop … I know it’s silly, but it’s … nice. And so romantic, don’t you think!?” making Arya roll her eyes again, “Let’s settle for nice!”

But then Arya decided to open up to Sansa for good, “Throughout the tourney, Gendry left me messages behind the secret door …” telling her sister all the little details, she had left out earlier with their parents in the solar. She couldn’t say why of a sudden and out of all people she would tell Sansa; who she never really got along with before. But it somehow felt right now. And Arya couldn’t deny the relief she felt afterwards – being finally rid of some of the weight on her mind. Though, of course Sansa teased her about how romantic she thought the secret messages and claimed, now Arya would have all the more reason to keep Gendry’s latest message, since she had to burn all his previous ones.

“Should I leave him a message!?” Sansa asked eventually. Fuck. Now their mother would kill her! “I don’t know, Sansa ...” Arya objected, “What if you get caught?” “I could leave it on the stub! When I enter the godswood, and he picks it up while I pray …” Sansa argued, her mind already set, “And if I write as vague as possible, who could prove it’s my note?” “That’s how the trouble started for me, Sansa! Thinking I wouldn’t get caught …” Arya warned, “And it’s hardly anonymous, if there’s a stone with your name carved in!” “Don’t be silly, that wandered straight into my desk’s drawer!” Sansa countered, getting all the wrong ideas, “And if Mother find’s it, I could say … um, Rickon made it! Like you did with Gendry’s necklace!” Seven hells!

“You do realise, you sound exactly like me!?” Arya stared incredulously at Sansa. “And you sound like Mother!” she teased, giggling. “Well, I’m not the one swooning over some stranger, who doesn’t even show his face!” Arya snapped, feeling somewhat offended. “You think me stupid, do you!?” Sansa asked hurt. “No, of course not! I’m just saying, be careful!” Arya appeased, “Especially now, with Joffrey, Littlefinger and the Tyrells trying to get back at me!” making her sister knit her brow, absorbed in thoughts. “Maybe I could ask Ned to give him the note!? Just the first one, in which I explain where and when I leave the messages … like for example behind the stump!” Sansa suggested and tried to win her over, “Don’t you see, I could ask him questions, then, to find out quicker who he is!?”

At that, Arya had taken a deep breath, to stop herself from telling her sister again, she was the quickest way to find out. Hmm, she could still check him out!? Secretly. No! Her sneaking around the godswood would only draw Littlefinger’s attention to Sansa and her mysterious suitor. She couldn’t ruin this for her sister! Especially, after she finally started forgiving her for Gendry. And most of all, Arya hadn’t wanted to ruin whatever it was, that of a sudden had allowed her to bond with her sister, like never before … really trusting each other and even sharing secrets.

Sansa had stayed until nightfall, and they had been discussing her mysterious suitor and some of the other men who tried to woo her. For a while, they had even talked about Ned, and Arya’s potential strategies to win his friendship back. Before Sansa had told her about Margaery’s lousy attempts to drive a wedge between them, and they had both wondered about the viper’s lust for power. How she could even consider to marry someone like Joffrey, just for the tiny chance that they maybe could overthrow Gendry, once he came to the throne. And they both had agreed, the viper couldn’t be half as smart as they had thought her, or else she would have gone after Tommen; finding ways to get rid of both, Gendry and Joffrey. There were so many possibilities! Riding accidents. A splintering lance at a tourney. A sunken ship. A fire in a chamber. A fall from a tower. A stray arrow. Greyscale, and other nasty diseases. Poison. Assassins. Or the Tyrells could just seize Gendry and Joffrey and lock them both away in some secret dungeon in the Reach. Put them in the same cell and they murder each other! But no, the viper chose to marry Joffrey instead. What an idiot!

It had been fun talking with her sister like that, especially the fantasizing about the multiple possibilities Margaery had failed to see to get rid of Joffrey and Gendry. But most of all it had helped Arya to get her mind off her own trouble with the latter one. At least for a while.

Though, eventually Sansa had called the maids to prepare them each a bath. And the girls had barely left Arya’s chamber, when a storm had broken loose in her mind again. She had sat broodingly in her steaming tub, one moment tracing her fingers over her lips and staring at the parchment on her bed in blank astonishment. Only to groan in frustration an instant later. Clenching her fists and hurtling them down with full force, splashing water over half the floor. Why did he kiss her!? When they finally talked again. And why the heck had she kissed him back? “You don’t want to be his stupid queen, you bloody fool?!” Arya had scoffed at herself.

She had stayed in the tub until her fingers had been more wrinkly than Old Nan’s face and a shiver had made her realise the water had cooled down. She hadn’t known how late it had been by then, but unmistakably too late to call the maids to empty the tub. So, she had rubbed herself dry, had brushed and braided her hair and had slipped under her covers. Where his stupid message had found its way back into her hands right away. As if it had a will of its own. She had read it over and over again. Gods, he really turned her into a silly goose! she had scolded herself, but had read it again, before throwing it furiously onto her desk. To spend yet another night tossing and turning because of him. Which had been worse than before. Since as soon as she had closed her eyes then, she had felt his lips on hers again. Almost as if it would happen for real … while somewhere in the back of her mind, his voice had kept whispering the three most stupid words in the world. Damnit.

Chapter Text

Come morning, Cayn and Desmond informed her, Gendry’s men had arrived to pick up her ‘delivery’. Damn. She had completely forgotten about it and had to improvise. Opening her smallest trunk, she pulled out its contents – mostly clothes – threw them over her shoulders and stuffed the gowns from the tourney sloppily inside; so the two household guards could carry it downstairs, with her following behind. To make sure her Lady Mother wouldn’t keep them. Though, seeing the wall-hanging across her father’s solar back in place, made her stop in her track abruptly. What the …!? For a flash she just stared at the damn thing, before she pulled the fabric forcefully aside. Only to find the secret door behind all boarded-up. Of course, she huffed and continued her way down to see the two Baratheon men carrying her trunk away over the yard.

After wishing her dresses, good riddance! she took a deep breath and went to the dining hall. To hear her parents’ great plans for her, she thought cynically. Yet, seeing her mother’s face rather sullen, while her father’s looked actually content, caused a wary frown grow onto her own. This was strange. She sat down at the table, and put a piece of bread and some fruits onto her plate; more to keep her hands busy but of actual appetite. “I’ve come to a decision.” her father eventually spoke, “To put an end to the rumours and improper meetings,” This was it. He’d want her to marry Gendry. Or Ned. Or worse … someone else! Arya clenched her fists under the table, preparing herself to object and rant, so she didn’t really hear him say, “I’m sending you home!” Well, she did hear it, but it was so unexpected, it took her a moment to process. To understand. And when she finally did, she blurted confused, “And how exactly would that stop the rumours!?”

It won’t!” her mother growled, “It would even fuel the gossip. Especially if you leave before Prince Gendry returns-” but her husband disagreed, “Cat, I’m not waiting until actually something happens between them!” “I can go home!?” Arya interrupted incredulously, “For real, now?” “Yes,” Ned Stark confirmed, “you’re going home. For real, I promise! And if the crown prince means to court you still, he’s welcome to visit you in Winterfell. Chaperoned by Robb and Bran, though!” Seven hells, no! That fool would probably even do that …

“And what if he takes it as an insult!?” Lady Stark objected. “How could he possibly feel insulted by that!? It’s basic courtship rules-” Eddard Stark countered, making Lady Catelyn roll her eyes, “He’s a prince, used to get what he wants, Ned!” Yet, her husband retorted angrily, “Then it’s past time he learns not getting everything he wants!” before adding somewhat calmer, “And it’s high time he sees some more of the Seven Kingdoms anyway!” “Ned, this isn’t about reason and politics-” Lady Stark tried once more, but her husband remained unwavering, “My decision is final, Cat!” he proclaimed, “Arya’s going home and Jory is already looking for a passage to White Harbour-” “Wait, I’m going by ship!? No, I’m not leaving without my stallion!” Arya objected outraged.

Although, her father instantly appeased, explaining, she and five Stark guards would travel by vessel, while Harwin and four more men would take her steed home on the Kingsroad, Arya wasn’t swayed at first. Until she realised, this was the perfect opportunity to see if life at sea was as adventurous as the stories claimed – and most of all, to find out if she was fit for it. She had heard of people stricken with seasickness for their whole trip. And though, Arya had always been convinced she could handle a bit of rough sea, she never had the chance to prove it. But now she would. Yes, she would keep a straight face no matter the state of the sea! Hugging her father fiercely, she beamed with joy. As she hadn’t in over a moon’s turn. “Thank you, for letting me finally go home!” she whispered. She would be home in no time. And would return with her very own sailor’s story. It put her in such a good mood, she even let Sansa persuade her into joining her and Myrcella on their stroll with Ser Lucas and Trystane in the gardens.

And two hours later, Arya strode contently towards the ivy-covered pavilions in the mid-level gardens, where her sister and the other ladies at waiting met to do their needlework. Of course, she noticed the looks she got as soon as she had left the Tower of the Hand; at first it was only servants eying her curiously and huddling together. But she didn’t care. She would be home soon. And that was all that mattered. But naturally, servants weren’t the only ones whispering and adding their own yarn to Littlefinger’s tale. In a hallway close to the gardens, Margaery’s vultures spotted her and felt the urgent need to tail her. Probably hoping, Gendry leaving for Storm’s End were just ruse, and they could catch them in the act. Literally. Unfortunately though, these women couldn’t just follow her in silence. They got louder and bolder with their teasing and speculating, about why Arya ‘of a sudden’ wore men’s clothes. Clothes, that clearly didn’t fit her. And how she had come into possession of them. If they were Gendry’s. If he had given them to her, so she could hide something, “… ‘like a swelling belly maybe!?” Seven hells!?

Running out of patience, Arya stopped and turned to face the damn fools, “I’ve four brothers, you idiots! So, guess again, where I got the clothes from!” she snarled, “And not that it’s your damn business, but since your lives apparently depend on knowing it, here’s the answer, I JUST LIKE WEARING BREECHES… and I’m not hiding anything. See!” Arya lifted her shirt, to reveal her perfectly flat stomach; making the vultures gasp at so much naked skin. Bloody fools. She smirked and was about to continue her way. But hearing one of them mention moon tea, made her turn around again, “Seriously!?” she hissed, “I never had moon tea in my whole life!” 

“Some girls are just lucky, huh!?” another woman scoffed, and a third mocked, “Or barren! Seems to run in the family-” At that, Arya lost her temper for good, “Say that again and I’ll gut you, you lying bitch!” she threatened, putting her hand on Needle’s hilt, “My sister’s not barren, and neither am I! Unlike the whole lot of you, we actually can keep our legs closed!” “Unless there’s dragon skulls around, it seems!” the women mentioning the tansy tea jeered and a fourth smirked knowingly, “You were seen, She-wolf!” and another sneered, “Yeah, that poor scullion was quite perturbed seeing him on top of you!” “What!?” Arya blurted bewildered, feeling a blush creeping up her neck. That can’t be?!

However, just then someone growled from behind them, “MY LADIES!” making them turn around at once. To find Tommen glaring at them, “Questioning Lady Arya’s honour means questioning my brother’s! And that’s about the stupidest thing one could do at this court … not just in my presence … I think, you all recall my mother!” “Your grace, we didn’t mean-” some of the girls tried to appease, but the young prince ignored them and went on, “Both Stark sisters are close friends to me and my siblings, and I won’t have them slandered!” “Yes, your grace! Apologies, Lady Arya!” the vultures mumbled as they made way for him. “My lady, would you allow me to escort you the rest of your way?” Tommen offered Arya. “Of course, your grace, just give me a moment!” she retorted, and addressed the vultures, threatening, “I don’t care what you think or say about me! But defame my sister again, and you won’t hear me coming to cut your throats in your sleep!” “They’re all gonna die of sleep deprivation now, my lady!” the young prince jested, as they walked away from Margaery’s mindless puppets. Hopefully.

When they reached the pavilions, Tommen decided to join them for their stroll. To keep Arya company, so she wouldn’t disturb the two pairs of lovebirds, he claimed. But she suspected, he felt obliged to shield her from the gawking eyes, that seemed to follow her around everywhere. Though, Arya worried less about the looks she got, and more about what the vultures had said about a scullion seeing her and Gendry in the vault. Because that was true, at least partially.

Yet, eventually she forced herself to stop brooding about that, telling herself, it wouldn’t matter. In a sennight or two she would be gone. And instead she focussed on assessing Ser Lucas, if he could be her sister’s secret suitor or not. At first, Arya hadn’t thought him much of a romantic. Handsome, but somewhat dull. However, towards the end of their stroll, he suddenly disappeared between two large hedges and returned with a single red rose for Sansa. Hmm, maybe it was him after all? And the look Sansa gave her then, made clear, the same thought had crossed her sister’s mind. Seven hells, how could Sansa be so patient with her stupid mystery man? Arya rolled her eyes, knowing she would have set him a trap the day after the ribbon.

But her sister was a romantic thoroughly and consequently invited Ser Lucas to join them on their ride in the afternoon, even though, it originally would have been only her, Arya, Myrcella and Tommen. Who was looking forward to finally get to test his fiery new stallion against Arya’s. Telling her proudly, what a marvellous steed the king had gifted him in recognition of his bravery and accomplishments in the tourney.

So, the five of them, escorted by two Kingsguard knights, Harwin and Alyn, left the keep early in the afternoon; riding most of the way at a canter or quick trot. Until they came to an inn, where Arya and Tommen challenged Ser Jaime, Harwin and Ser Lucas to join them in their race. And for a moment, Arya had thought to let the young prince win, but then decided against coddling the future Lord of the Rock and won the race by far. But Tommen wasn’t too disappointed about that outcome, and evidently took pride in outrunning at least his uncle and Ser Lucas. It seemed, since the tourney the young prince was getting quite competitive. After they all had some refreshments, he even challenged Arya to a sparring duel, causing Myrcella to roll her eyes, “You fool will best your brothers soon enough!”

“Why wait that long!?” Tommen laughed, “Arya’s done it with Edric, and I want to know how!” and the two of them were sparring with two hazel branches before their sisters could object any further. And it was a real pleasure. Since, unlike his brothers, Tommen never held back his strength, reminding Arya once more of Bran. But the prince also turned out an eager student. So, their sparring match quickly turned into a lesson. A fun one, causing even Sansa to chuckle every once and a while, seeing Arya best Tommen with yet another trick. Though, of course her sister quickly assured, “You’re doing great, your grace! Our brothers know her moves thoroughly and she still finds ways to best them!” Wow, a compliment from Sansa!? Arya really wasn’t used to that. But it was nice. Actually, the whole afternoon was a delight, and a welcome distraction from what had occurred with the vultures; and with Gendry the day before. But it also made Arya realise, This, spending time with her southern friends, she’d soon miss dearly.

But only later that day, at night abed, she fully began to realise what going home would actually mean. At supper, Eddard Stark had informed his wife and daughters, the vessel taking Arya to White Harbour would leave in nine days’ time. And that had made her departure suddenly shockingly real. Arya had wanted to go home, ever since she had stepped out of that carriage half a year ago. But now that she finally could, she realised rather painfully what she would leave behind. Her father and mother. She wouldn’t see them again, for who knows how long!? Years, if the king didn’t drop dead of a sudden. And Sansa. Would she ever see her sister again? What if she married a man living far off the coast and Kingsroad? Like some knight from the mountains surrounding the Eyrie. No matter how annoying Sansa could be … she’d miss her! Especially now, after they finally started to get along. She didn’t want to say goodbye to her sister for good.

 And Ned … seven hells! She was running out of time to make amends. If he couldn’t forgive her within the next eight days, she’d loose his friendship forever. He was a lord, he couldn’t stay in the capital forever. He would eventually find a bride and return to Starfall, to start a family and to rule his people. And then all damn Seven Kingdoms would lie between him and her, and she would never see him again.

And what about Myrcella, Trystane and Tommen? Would she ever see them again!? Or Jeyne? Vayon Poole evidently hoped for his daughter to find a good husband here at court. Or maybe Jeyne would go and live with Sansa and her husband … And Balerion, with him it would be goodbye forever … the feisty tom was just too old. And Renly and Loras, she wouldn’t even get to say goodbye to them! They had left for Storm’s End early in the morning. And Arya doubted she would ever see Brienne and Edric again, or Hot Pie and Lommy … or Elinor, looking absolutely stunning in those dresses.

And Gendry. To him she wouldn’t get to say goodbye, either. But that was for the best! She hadn’t known what to say to him for most parts of the previous day … So, how could she possibly say goodbye to him!? No, this was perfect. She would be gone before he returned, and they both could move on with their lives. She in Winterfell, with her brothers … and he … He would find someone else to marry, to hold hands with, to kiss … No, she didn’t want to think about that. Yet, as usual, her mind refused to obey. Leaving her tossing and turning in frustration, and something else. It hurt. Badly. In her chest. And when she closed her eyes, she could feel his breath against her skin and his lips colliding with hers again. Gently, yet determined. But instead of just staring at each other afterwards and she then panicking, his face would turn into the hurt expression from the tourney, demanding to know, “Why!?” And she had no answer to that, except, I’ve to go home, where I belong!

Opening her eyes again, Arya huffed and stared at the canopy above her. How was this possible!? She finally got what she wanted! Her parents accepted, she didn’t belong in the south. She should be happy. Celebrating. She had won! Yet, she didn’t feel like it. She felt miserable. Knowing, she would leave her parents and sister behind … and would lose her two best friends. Both at once. And one of them … would she ever feel this way again? Hardly! No one in the North had those eyes … or that smile! But she would see her brothers and Nymeria again, she tried to cheer herself up, and maybe Jon and Benjen could come visit!? Or perhaps Robb would allow her and Bran to visit them? Yes, she’d talk Robb into that! Seeing Jon would help … help her forgetting Gendry. Because she had to … if she ever wanted to feel whole again, Arya realised at some point after midnight.

She had felt slightly better the next day and had decided, there was nothing she could do about Gendry, but she could make the most of her remaining time in the capital. So, while her sister had spent the morning strolling in the gardens with a new suitor – a Ser Podrick from the Westerlands – and doing needlework with the other ladies afterwards, Arya had drafted a message for Ned. She had thought of telling him she would be leaving in eight days’ time, but then had decided against it. Applying pressure was the last thing she wanted. But that had made the task all the more difficult, and had inevitably led to heaps of scrunched up parchment on the floor of her chamber. She even had to steal some more parchment from her father’s solar, until she finally had given up. Realising, no matter how well-spoken she phrased her apologies, it depended all on Ned. How willing he was to read and accept them. Thus, she had taken her last draft and had copied it in her finest handwriting, before tasking Desmond to deliver it. Leaving Arya less than an hour to practice her sword fighting, before her sister had returned to change clothes for their afternoon picnic with Myrcella, Trystane, Tommen and yet another suitor of Sansa’s.

Closing the door behind herself, Sansa announced, “You’re in trouble!” “Why?” Arya furrowed her brow, yet, didn’t halt in her water dancing, “I didn’t do anything!” “Are you sure about that!?” her sister inquired, raising her brows, “The Tyrell cousins tell everyone you would’ve showed them your naked belly yesterday.” “Yeah, because those idiots thought I were with child!” Arya scoffed, making Sansa roll her eyes, “Oh, Arya! You furnished them a fit occasion!” she scolded, “Those idiots swear now black and blue, they would’ve seen your swelling belly and you would’ve threatened to murder them, if they’d tell anyone.” What the fuck!? “They’re twisting everything!” Arya snapped outraged, “I’m not with child! I … we didn’t do that!

“I know, Arya! You’re reckless, but not that stupid.” Sansa placated, before reprimanding, “But you should’ve known how things are here at court! Everyone’s going crazy now about who’s got you with child. Naturally, most suspect Gendry, they think he means to marry you to fix his mistake. And Ned’s the next likely candidate. But they’re not the only ones. Myrcella’s ladies heard all kind of names, even Trystane’s!” “What!?” Arya’s jaw dropped, “I never saw him without Myrcella!” “Well, someone obviously wants to get back at her, too.” Sansa proclaimed. “Will you tell Mother!?” Arya asked, fearing Catelyn Tully would now make her stay until those rumours abated. “No.” Sansa sighed, “But she will hear it eventually, and so will Gendry, when he arrives in Storm’s End!” “No! What if he comes back!?” Arya blurted wide-eyed, “Before I’m gone!?

“That’s probably for the best.” Sansa retorted, “Joffrey doesn’t fear Myrcella and Tommen as he fears him! And the queen’s probably laughing up her sleeve right now, this’s more than she could’ve hoped for to get rid of you! So, Gendry’s the only one who can put an end to the slander … well, some of it!” “How!?” Arya demanded warily. “Well, a betroth-” “NO! I’m going home!” Arya snapped defiantly and Sansa snorted, “Oh, you’re so going home, even if you wouldn’t want to! When Father hears this, he’ll want you back in the North as soon as possible!” before she added worriedly, “I just hope, he won’t make me leave as well!” “No, I’ll talk to him!” Arya promised, knowing, or else Sansa would hate her forever! But first they had to get ready for the picnic, or else their parents would have known right away something was amiss.

Half an hour later, they had met with the others at the stables, where Myrcella and Tommen had invited Arya to join them and Trystane in their carriage; leaving Jeyne to chaperone Sansa and Ser Harrold Hardyng in the second one. Though, it had turned out, they hadn’t just done so to give her sister some time alone with her suitor. Their carriage had barely left the keep when Myrcella had addressed the new rumours and unfounded defamations. She and Tommen had assured, they would have asked the king and queen to intervene, promising, the smear campaign would soon find its end. Though, hearing that, Arya had seen herself forced to tell them about her departure – and thus there were no need for their parents to bother themselves with silly rumours.

But naturally, that had come as a surprise to her friends, and for a moment things had been rather awkward. So, Arya had quickly added, all of them were welcome to visit Winterfell at any time, allowing Myrcella to regain her wits, “Of course, understandable, and after all, you always said you wanted to return north …” the princess had tried to placate, but Arya had seen the disappointment on her friend’s face. Myrcella had unmistakably hoped she would eventually give in … and marry Gendry.

Tommen on the other hand, had seemed to forgive Arya quickly. By the time they had reached their picnic site by a small pond, the young prince had been absolutely excited at the prospect to get to see the North. And had hit the Stark sisters and Jeyne with questions, about the direwolves and Winterfell. The Wall, the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings. The Neck, the Crannogmen and lizard lions. And of course, the Boltons and the Dreadfort. Much to the chagrin of Ser Harrold. But Arya hadn’t minded, since she hadn’t liked the Vale knight at all. He was no romantic secret suitor. Just another arrogant, pompous prick. An absolute arse. Ser Harry the Arse. All but worthy of her sister. So, she had made sure, Sansa had stayed engaged in their conversation about the North throughout the picnic; rather than listening to the Arse’s boasting.

However, upon their return to the Tower of the Hand, the rumours about Arya had already reached their parents’ ears. Resulting in Catelyn Tully once more firing questions at her, until Sansa had eventually intervened, assuring as well, Gendry wouldn’t dishonour a lady. And as predicted, their father had been about to send Arya home on the Kingsroad right away, along with Sansa. But together with their mother they had managed to persuade him to stick to their original plan; with only Arya going home, aboard the ship to White Harbour.

Nevertheless, Eddard Stark had enough of hearing slander about his daughters and had gone to the king with the matter. But since Myrcella and Tommen had already asked him to intervene, Arya hadn’t expected her father’s request to make much of a difference. She had known anyway, unless the old drunk would declare spreading lies about Stark girls to be punishable by death, not even the king could stop the rumour mill completely. The scandalmongers would only stop on their own. Eventually, when a new rumour went around. Like after her arrival. Although, she had assumed, it were tricky to come up with something better than the crown prince dishonouring and getting the Hand’s daughter with child, she had no doubt the gossipmongers would manage, sooner than later. Especially, when she was back at home, out of their sight and not married off to some minor lord, to conceal her alleged ruin. So, she had decided to ignore the rubbish from now on, and to just focus on making the most of her last days in the capital.

The next day, they had gone sailing with the royal siblings and Trystane, and to Arya’s relief, her sister hadn’t invited the Arse to join them but Ser Podrick. The Westerlands knight of a lesser branch of House Payne was of age with Sansa, but a rather quiet and shy man. Still, Arya had liked him from the start, and hadn’t once felt the need to sabotage his wooing. He had surprised both sisters with his knowledge of the North, its great houses and history, and unlike Ser Harry he had gotten along well with the rest of their sailing party. When they had dropped anchor at the small island, Arya had visited with Renly and Loras before, Myrcella had suggested to go swimming. And Ser Podrick hadn’t minded to join Trystane and Tommen on the other beach. No doubt, the Arse would’ve ranted at the prospect of leaving Sansa out of sight for half the day. But Ser Podrick had only warned her of the Bay’s treacherous currents.

So, unsurprisingly, Sansa had declared the quiet knight a likely candidate for her mysterious suitor, “Maybe this way it’s easier for him to express his feelings!?” and Arya couldn’t disagree. In fact, she had thought Ser Podrick the most likely candidate so far. And Myrcella had concurred, “It’s definitively someone shy, or else he would’ve revealed himself by now!” Causing Sansa to suggest again to leave him messages at the stump, “Just one question at a time! Simple ones, answerable with ‘yes’ and ‘no’… like, if he’s from the Westerlands. Do you think he’d like that …or would he feel pressured?”

“I’d worry more about someone seeing you plant the notes!” Arya had warned, but Myrcella had suggested grinning mischievously, “If Ned knows him, so does Trystane! We could be your messengers, Sansa, and no one will ever know!” “You’d do that for me!? Oh, Myrcella, that’d be wonderful!” Sansa had exclaimed, heads in the clouds. Making Arya roll her eyes, “Hopefully, Ser Mystery won’t turn out someone old and ugly!” But of course, her sister had dismissed that thought right away, “Nonsense! Remember, Ned thinks him a suitable match!?” and Myrcella had agreed.

Causing Arya to realise how much she missed Ned. Myrcella was wonderful and apart from Nymeria, her first and only female friend. But this afternoon had proven once again, personality-wise the princess had more in common with Sansa than with her. They were typical girls. And she was not. Unmistakably, Arya couldn’t understand her sister’s need to over-analyse her mysterious suitor. But Myrcella could; and had even seemed to enjoy it. Unlike her. She just didn’t get it. On one hand, Sansa had desperately wanted to know who her secret suitor was, but instead of choosing the easy way – just having someone follow him – her sister played along with his weird charade. It made no sense. Not to her. It was silly, so … girlish. She couldn’t relate to that. And Ned would understand.

So, she had decided to change her tactics and take a leaf out of Gendry’s book. For the remainder of her days in King’s Landing, she would invite Ned to join her on her activities with Sansa and Myrcella … and to suggest to go riding alone, just in case he didn’t want their friends to witness her clumsy attempts to get him to talk again. But he needed to know they were running out of time … lest he actually was interested in saving their friendship.

However, her plans to invite Ned to go riding in the morning, had gone up in smoke upon their return to the keep. Where her father had handed her a scroll of parchment. For a flash she had hoped, it were from Ned. But her father’s stern expression and her mother’s alarmed look had made clear, it wasn’t. Though, seeing the seal had even made Arya swallow. Fuck. Her gut instinct had instantly raised alarm, and she couldn’t help but shoot her father a worried glance, before she unrolled the message. Only to swallow loudly again. Seven hells!

Come morning, her mother had woken her way too early – so she could have a bath. They had argued for almost an hour if or if not Arya should reconsider wearing dresses; and both Sansa and their father had sided with Lady Catelyn on this. But Arya had known, she needed to prepare for battle. So, she had chosen her finest shirt and breeches, which had no holes and thus could be considered as good as new. But naturally, they still were somewhat ill-fitting, since Bran had been almost a head taller when she had stolen them before her departure from Winterfell. And of course, her family couldn’t talk her out of leaving Needle and her dagger behind, bringing Catelyn Tully even closer to hysteria. But anything else would send the wrong message.

So, Arya left the Hand’s Tower, her hand on Needle’s hilt, reciting her dancing master’s words in her mind. Calm as still water. Fierce as a wolverine. While courtiers and servants alike whispered behind her back as soon she came into view, their eyes following her through the keep, all the way to the small terrace near the royal quarters. Where two Kingsguard knights stopped her, “My lady, we can’t let you pass wearing those!” Of course. Arya shot the woman standing at the balustrade and facing Blackwater Bay a glance and smirked. She wasn’t afraid of Cersei Lannister, and she wanted her to know that. Thus, she announced loud enough, “Rest assured, the queen has nothing to fear from me. But if it makes her grace and you sers feel better, I’ll of course leave my blades in your good care!” She removed her sword-belt confidently, as if an audience with the queen was just something from her daily schedule and walked past the guards, clasping her hands behind her back. She was the She-wolf of Winterfell. She could take on a lioness. And surely needed no blade to kill one … if she wanted to.

“Your grace.” she greeted and curtsied, when Cersei Lannister turned around, displaying her usual self-satisfied aloof smile, “Lady Arya, I’m glad you could arrange to meet me at such short notice.” “Of course, your grace, it’s an honour!” Arya retorted smilingly, intent not to let her guard down. This was a test, if not a trap. And she wasn’t willing to fall for it. “I imagine, my invitation came to no surprise for you … you probably expected it!” the queen smiled, though, her tone gave away the real meaning. The lioness was about to bare her teeth. Careful now! “My queen, I already told their graces, Princess Myrcella and Prince Tommen, there is no need for you to bother yourself with those rumours. They’re untrue and I’m sure they’ll abate as soon as I am gone.” Arya assured; and apparently caught the queen by surprise.

You’re leaving!?” Cersei Lannister cocked her brow, before she narrowed her eyes. Showing her true colours, she demanded, “Does my son know of that!?” Realising, mentioning her departure hadn’t the desired effect to appease the queen, Arya retorted, “Um, that depends on which one you’re referring to, your grace. Prince Tomm-” “I’m talking about the crown prince, Lady Arya!” the older woman hissed, “The one you’re playing like a fiddle ever since you stepped foot into this keep!” “I didn’t-” Arya attempted to object, but the queen cut her off, snarling, “Don’t take me for an idiot!” “No, your grace, of course not!” Arya countered, trying to stay calm, “I didn’t mean for this to happen! I didn’t know, he’d-” But the queen interrupted her again, scoffing, “You really think, you’re the first one, little dove!?” “The first one of what!?” Arya snapped, and added outraged, “And I beg your pardon, your grace, but I’m no little dove!” “The first one to catch his eye, She-wolf!” the queen sneered. There we go!

No.” Arya countered, regaining control over her temper, “And I won’t be the last!” About time to get used to it, lioness! she added in her mind, before she continued, “Is that what you’re implying, your grace!? That he’ll forget me as soon as I’m gone?” “It’s just the truth, little wolf!” the queen put on her false smile again, faking compassion, “He’s my son and I love him with all my heart! But like all men, he’s weak … eventually, he’ll give in to temptation, it’s in his blood … it’s not his fault! I know, you don’t want to believe that now, I understand! I was little older than you, when I married Robert, all dashing and handsome, like Gendry now! I was so smitten, but it faded away quickly … and It’ll be same for you!” “Your grace, I fear there’s been a misunderstanding!” Arya retorted, assuring, “The sooner he forgets me, the better! That’s all I want.”  

For a moment, Cersei Lannister studied her in silence, before she suddenly hissed, “Who’re you trying to fool, Lady Arya? Me, or yourself!?” Huh? “Your grace, I swear, I’ve no interest in marrying your son!” Arya assured again, but the queen didn’t buy it, “I’ll leave you that, you’re good!” she scoffed, “I’ve been watching those little whores, besieging him for nearly eight years … but I made sure he saw right through their charades. Especially that Tyrell’s! And when your sister came to court, I was so damn proud of him! Not even the great northern beauty, lovely Sansa Stark, could make him fall under her spell … I guess that was when I let my guard down. I watched you, when you came to court … but you never engaged with him, and so I assumed, you didn’t want to get in your sister’s way. I should’ve seen it coming. I should’ve known, you’re smarter than Margaery and your perfect sister! I should’ve known, it’d be Lyanna reborn to steal my son!

I’m not Lyanna!” Arya countered, anger boiling up inside of her, “And I’m not stealing anything from you! Let alone your son, your grace!” “Will you just stop it!” the queen hissed, “You fooled me long enough, I admit it! But not anymore. I know about your secret meetings!” “Nothing happened! I meant what I said at the tourney, I don’t wanna be his queen! It’s just rumours and gossip, fuelled by Littlefinger’s lies …” Arya objected, starting to have trouble to recall her manners, “your grace!” “Is it!?” The queen snarled, “Are you telling me, you didn’t kiss him down in the vault!? That damn bloody kiss seemed to haunt her for the rest of her life. “EXACTLY!” Arya blurted, fuming. “Then, my lady,” The queen smirked, pausing to enjoy whatever knowledge she had that Arya didn’t, before she went on, “you just called the future king a liar!” What!? Arya froze, before she stammered in disbelief, “He … told you!?

“No, you just did!” Cersei Lannister announced triumphantly. Seven hells! “You didn’t really think, the king and I’d sit back and watch our son and heir slandered … because of you!” the queen no longer hid her hatred, “Did you really think, I wouldn’t look into it!? That I wouldn’t do anything to protect my son … my firstborn son!?” For a moment, Arya was speechless and her mind blank. Until she regained her wits and snorted furiously, “Fine, there was a kiss.” Happy now!? “But it doesn’t matter, it won’t change anything. I’m leaving, and he can marry … whoever else, someone of your choosing for all I care, your grace!” The queen studied her closely, yet, remained silent. Probably to make Arya feel uncomfortable and blurt out more secrets. But it didn’t work. There were no more left. At least none concerning anyone of the royal family. So, she just returned the queen’s frigid stare. Well, Arya’s was more a defiant glare, until she eventually asked annoyed, “Can I go now, your grace!?” “Yes, of course, Lady Arya!” Cersei Lannister smirked, both satisfied and dismissively, “I’ve got what I wanted …” and turned away from her, before she was even done with her curtsy.

Fuming, Arya snarled at Ser Meryn, “See, didn’t harm a hair on your mistress’ head!” ripping her sword belt from his grip and stormed off. Fucking Lannister bitch. High time to leave this damn shithole … or else she’d reconsider harming hairs on certain heads.

But of course, first she had to face her parents and Sansa; who surprisingly had declined to go riding with the others. And had seemed worried, when Arya had stormed into the dining hall, “What a bitch!” Causing their mother to scold her foul mouth, before demanding to know what the audience had been about. Thus, Arya had given her family a quick outline, but again had left out the part about the kiss. She had known, she had to tell them eventually Just not now. She hadn’t had the nerves for that, yet … she desperately needed to hit something. Someone! So, even though, their Lady Mother hadn’t been satisfied with what she had given away about the audience, their father had allowed her and Sansa to go riding with Harwin and Cayn; and let Arya spar with the two household guards on a riverbank at the Blackwater Rush. Calming her down enough, so she could give her sister a more detailed report.

Though unsurprisingly, Sansa had scolded her for lying to the queen and rolled her eyes over Arya losing her temper, but at least had admitted, Cersei was a master at provoking people. But unfortunately, her sister had confirmed her gut instinct. The queen was up to something. She wanted to get back at her. And unmistakably blamed her for everything – both, for the stain on Gendry’s otherwise snow-white reputation and for him looking like a fool at court now. But the two sisters hadn’t been able to figure out what exactly Cersei Lannister had in mind for Arya.

So, she had challenged Harwin and Cayn to spar with her a second time. This time both at once, to get the rest of her tension and rage out of her system and to exhaust Arya enough to allow her fall asleep easier that night.

The next morning a new scroll had arrived. Only this one had summoned her Lord Father to an audience with the king. Great, the Lannister bitch undoubtedly spilled the beans to her husband. About the stupid kiss, and her unladylike behaviour during her audience. Knowing what was coming for her, Arya had spent the morning practicing in her room. Practicing to kill a bloody lioness. Her craven cub. A lying mockingbird. And a rose in viper’s clothing.

However, her father’s audience had taken much longer than hers. Eddard Stark had been with the king for nearly two hours and when he finally returned, he was fuming – even more than Arya had the previous day. In fact, he was more furious than she had ever seen him before. But instead of yelling at her, for having lied to him again, he ordered Sansa and Arya to spend the afternoon away from the keep and retreated to his solar. Alone. Leaving his wife and his daughters speechless. What happened!?

So, Arya and Sansa spent their afternoon riding with Ser Podrick and Harwin. But since both sisters worried about their father’s unusual behaviour, it was a rather silent and awkward ride. They told the poor Westerlands knight, it had nothing to do with him. But Arya could still see the doubt in the shy man’s face. He was afraid of Sansa losing interest. Nevertheless, both sisters were eventually so deep in thought, mirroring unwittingly each other in chewing their lower lips, that Harwin felt the need to intervene, “Girls, I’ve known your father all my life. I’ve seen him angry before, even that angry. He probably just had a disagreement with the king about something important. We all know, Robert’s infamous for his stubbornness. But eventually, they calm down and sort it out. You don’t need to worry!” “But then why send us away from the keep!?” Sansa asked. Yeah, that worried her the most, too. And Harwin had no answer to that.

But surprisingly Ser Podrick had. “Lord Stark obviously means to protect you!” he suggested, “Maybe something’s happening in the afternoon, that he doesn’t want you to see. Like an execution?!” “Could be!” Harwin agreed, evidently grateful for the young knight helping him out. But Arya’s instinct told her, No, that wasn’t it! Nonetheless, she clung to the idea. Well, for a moment. Until she realised, if it really were an execution, then her father’s anger could only mean, he disagreed with the king’s verdict. Meaning, the condemned most likely were innocent. And she didn’t want someone innocent to die.

So, a part of Arya was glad, when they returned to the keep in the evening and didn’t hear anything about an execution. But the bigger part knew, her gut instinct had been right. Whatever happened, it had to do with her or Sansa! And her sister knew as well, the moment they heard their parents had already retreated to the Hand’s chamber. As they always did, when they discussed something concerning one of their children in private. Great. The queen had probably demanded her execution! Or banishment. Seven hells! What if that bitch wanted her to join the Silent Sisters, for making her precious son go rogue!? THAT would explain her father’s rage … damn Lannister bitch!

Arya had been outraged and once again had trouble finding sleep. But for a change Gendry hadn’t been the cause. Well, technically he was … as always, though, this time it had been mainly his vicious mother. But eventually Arya had fallen asleep, after repeatedly vowing she would never become a Silent Sister!

Nonetheless, the real reason for Eddard Stark’s unfamiliar mood hadn’t been revealed until the day after. His unusual behaviour had continued, since he had missed out breakfast with his wife and daughters. Due to a Small Council meeting, Lady Catelyn had said, claiming, an urgent political matter would needed to be sorted right away. But once more Arya’s instinct had warned her, her Lady Mother was lying! Thus, she had decided to confront her parents, as soon as her father would return from his ominous meeting. She was so done with being treated like a child! Constantly being left in the dark about everything that mattered

But Lord Stark hadn’t returned. Not before she had left to go riding with Myrcella and Trystane; while Sansa had met with yet another suitor of hers, some Ser Raynald Westerling. However, by the time they returned to the keep, they noticed instantly something was amiss. Arya had gotten used the looks the gossipmongers gave her since Gendry had left, but now literally everyone was staring at them. She exchanged a confused look with Myrcella and Trystane, who apparently had no idea what was going on, either. And then at the stables, Jory, Desmond, and Cayn awaited them with stern faces, so Harwin demanded alarmed, “What is it!?” But Jory only retorted, “ I don’t think, we should be the one telling. I’m sorry, my lady!” Seven hells.

Arya’s ears began buzzing. Something was wrong. Although, all her instincts told her to run, she couldn’t move. Badly wrong. But Harwin reacted swiftly and pulled her off her steed, instructing their stable boys, “Lads, take care of the horses!” before he turned to Arya, “Let’s find your father and mother!” and led her quickly to the Tower of the Hand, accompanied by the other three Stark guards.

Both her parents and Sansa awaited her in her chamber; worry, compassion and even something like fear in their eyes. “I’m sorry, Arya!” her father stated, and for a flash her heart stopped, fearing someone had died. Jon? Robb? Bran? Rickon? Nymeria? Uncle Benjen? “I think it’s best you sit down!” her father suggested and approached her. “No!” all her senses told her, she didn’t want to sit down for this. “I need you to stay calm now! What we’re about to tell you, you won’t like …” Though, relieved apparently no one had died, she narrowed her eyes and moved her hand instinctively to Needle’s hilt, but her father grabbed her by the shoulders, “I’m telling you this first, for I fear, you won’t hear it, if I tell you afterwards. Arya, I promise, we’ll figure something out! This is not the end. Not the final decision. I won’t allow it! That I swear, by the old gods and the new! Do you hear me, Arya!?” “WHAT. IS. IT!?” she demanded, her body starting to tremble with fury, “WHAT did the Lannister bitch do!?” she demanded, as her grip on Needle’s hilt tightened.

Sighing, her father nodded, giving in, “This morning, the king announced your betrothal to Gendry.” “WHAT!?” she yelled, “Over my dead body!” “Arya, please, listen, this isn’t final! Betrothals can be broken, and we will break it. If that’s what you want?” “Yeah, sure!?” Arya snorted bitterly, and glared at her father, “Since breaking a betrothal to a Baratheon worked so well before! I know the story about Jenny and Duncan … and when I look at that ignorant fat drunk, I’m beginning to think, Lyanna maybe was better off with Rhaegar!” “ARYA!” her mother shouted outraged. “What, mother!?” she yelled back, “Aren’t you happy you finally got what you wanted!? Your daughter will marry the future king … who cares what I want!” “ARYA!” her father shook her, but she only spat, “It’s true! Her ambitions and your inability to say ‘no’ to her and your fucking friend are the reason for this whole mess! You could’ve stayed in the North! Where you belong! You could’ve forbidden Mother to drag me and Sansa down here into this shithole-”

“Arya, can you for once listen before you go off!” Sansa shouted, “The betrothal is your lesser problem!” baffling her, “What do you mean?” Arya’s glance wandered from her sister to her father and to her mother, who both clearly struggled to spit the real problem out, so Sansa did it for them, “Cersei demands a wedding!”

Arya felt as if someone pulled out the rug from under her feet … only underneath there was nothing, but a bottomless abyss swallowing her whole. No. No. No. Hells, no. “NOT EVEN OVER MY DEAD BODY!” Arya now fully lost it, and wrenched free from her father’s grip, stepping back, “You said, I could go home, twice!” “You will go home. We’ll figure something out, you just need to trust us!” her father approached her again and Catelyn Tully appeased, “The wedding’s in two moon’s turns … we still have time!” but she only stared at her mother. Did she mean that as a comfort!? “TWO MOONS TURNS!? … That’s nothing!” Arya hissed, stepping back further towards her door.

“It’s enough time to talk Robert round!” Eddard Stark placated, “He’s not easy to reason with, that’s why I sent word to Gendry-” “You did what!?” Arya felt panic taking over, as her father tried to grasp her by the shoulders again, “Gendry’s a reasonable man. I’m sure, he’ll postpone the wedding!” “POSTPONE!?” Arya yelled, and armed her father’s hands away, “That’s not enough! I want it cancelled, and the betrothal broken! Now and for good.” “Arya, one step at a time!” Sansa reasoned. But she was beyond reason now.

Again and again, she had listened to them and given in. And where had that gotten her!? Each time things had gotten worse and worse. Literally. No, she was done now. With the South, the capital and all those damn liars here! For good and forever. “I’m leaving! Tonight. No, I’m leaving NOW!” Arya yelled, “I’ll go to Jon! Beyond the Wall … Beyond your reach and Gendry’s and the king’s and the queen’s and everyone else’s!” and tore her door open.

But of course, her parents had expected that. As Arya came to realise, seeing Jory, Desmond and Cayn blocking her way out. NO! She was about to draw Needle and fight her way through, when her father pulled her into his arms, “Arya, please, trust me! I’ll figure something out … and then you can go home, as promised! We just have to be diplomatic about it. Robert doesn’t react well to pressure and demands, and neither does the queen … that’s why we need Gendry here!” No, what she needed was to get away!

So, she no longer listened to her father’s attempts to reason with her. And for the first time in her life, his embrace failed to comfort her and calm her down. This was the end! Her end, if she didn’t find a way out … soon!

Chapter Text

Finally being left alone, she stood at her window, still trembling with fury, and glared into the night. If it weren’t for the stars and full moon in the sky, some dim lit windows and the torches down in the yard, she would have stared into pitch blackness. Caught like a mouse in a trap. A damn five storey high trap of evenly built sandstone walls. As the wind freshened, coming from the north, angry tears ran down her cheeks. She could’ve fled moon’s turns ago! She could’ve just rode off on one of the rides. Or snuck out through the passageway. She could’ve posed as a messenger and her stallion would’ve carried her halfway through the Crownlands before anyone would’ve noticed. So, why in the gods name had she stayed … allowing him to trap her like that!?

She slammed her fists down onto the sill, and only then she noticed the creaking coming from the left. No, from above her. The pulley! The hoist, the maids used for the water buckets; the increasing wind made its rope sway. That was it! She darted to her desk. A messenger needed a message. And grasped a parchment and scribbled down some nonsense about that the carrier of the message should be granted safe passage all the way from the capital to Winterfell, signing it with her father’s name and sealing it with her own sigil. The men at the gates hopefully wouldn’t know the difference, she told herself, before she paused. She should at least leave a note. With unsteady hands, she grabbed another parchment and bit her lower lip. What should she tell them? she wondered, before she realised, They wouldn’t understand, no matter what it said. Thus, she took a deep breath and wrote, “I cannot stay. I am sorry. For everything. But I love you, and I hope one day you can forgive me. I am sorry.”

Leaving the short note on her desk for her family to find, she tiptoed to her trunks to not let Tom and Alyn outside her door know what she was up to, and packed a bundle. Spare clothes, a warm cloak, a little box with her small treasures and some coin. Just in case. Before she quietly put on her padded jack, the chainmail and her sword belt with Needle and the dagger. Afterwards, she slipped through the loop of her bundle and put on Theon’s old cloak. Fully dressed, she hurried back to the window, to the hoist and pulled the rope towards her, as quiet as she could. Then, she leant out of the window, to check if someone in the storeys above or below, or in the yard had noticed. Nothing happened. Thank the gods. She exhaled, pulled up her hood and stretched her fingers, before she grabbed the rope again and got onto the sill. Wrapping her legs around the rope, she started climbing down. Five storeys. Four storeys. Three storeys. Her fingers were raw and slippery from sweat. But she forced herself to tighten the grip and to go on. Two storeys. One storey. She could jump. No. She climbed all the way down and didn’t let go until her toes reached the gravelled ground. For a moment she kept still, observing her surroundings. Listening, if there was anyone else in the yard, except the two Stark guards around the corner. But there wasn’t.

So, Arya quickly snuck along the wall to the other side of the yard, to the doorframe, Gendry had leant against after their first race, and slipped in. From there she went straight to the stables. Only to find all three of their stable boys in her steed’s bay; two keeping watch and one fast asleep. Fuck. Her mother’s doing, undoubtedly. She needed her mount! He was her only chance to quickly get enough distance between her and anyone chasing her. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. For a moment she was about to panic, close to run without her stallion. No! She just needed help … and a bit of luck.

She swiftly tiptoed away from the stables, passing the forge and the kitchens, climbing in and out of windows, and into the mid-level gardens, where she pulled her hood deep into her face and walked the rest of the way calmly. Like a real messenger would. Calm as still water. Fierce as a wolverine. Fear cuts deeper than swords, she prepared herself and approached the two guards. Making her voice sound as deep and confident as she could, she announced she would have a message for their lord and allowed them a quick glance at the scroll of parchment. Though, not long enough to identify her sigil. “It’s urgent and I’m instructed to hand it to the lord himself and no one else!” she claimed. And it worked. One of the men entered the door and returned with a manservant a few instants later. He led her inside and made her wait in the solar, while he disappeared through another door, only to return a moment later, lighting some candles on the desk and putting some logs onto the dying embers in the hearth.

Although, it only could have been a moment, it had felt like an eternity, until the door, the servant had disappeared through, opened again and Ned stepped out; bare-footed and his hair messy, in breeches, but his shirt only sloppily laced. “What is it?” he asked sleepily, studying her hooded figure, and furrowed his brow. So, she pulled her cloak back, just enough for him to see Needle and showed him her message. Bewildered, he ordered his servant rather gruffly to leave them, before he turned to her, demanding, “What are you doing here!?” “I’m sorry for dragging you into this … but there’s no one else-” she tried to explain herself and it dawned on him, “You’re leaving!?” “They’re watching my steed,” she pleaded, “I need him!”

For a moment, he just stared at her, his brows knit, but Arya knew his mind was racing. “Your father’s men?” he asked eventually. “No, stable boys. Three.” Yet, his expression hadn’t lightened until he suddenly blurted, “I’ve an idea!” he offered her a seat and a cup of wine, to ease her nerves. “I’ve to prepare a few things, I’m right back!” he said and was about to leave, but she grasped his arm, worried. “I’ll explain later!” he promised, squeezing her hand and left through the door she had entered.

He returned mere moments later, nonetheless Arya had gulped down the wine by then, and would have refilled her cup, if she hadn’t feared becoming tipsy. Ned sat down at his desk, grabbing parchment and quill and started writing. “What are you doing!?” Arya questioned disquietly. “Trust me!” he murmured absently. “I do, like no one else here.” she proclaimed and meant it. “We’ll get you out, before midnight. I promise!” he smiled at her and went back to his task. Drafting and sealing three messages, before he retreated to his chamber to get dressed, leaving Arya alone with her thoughts. And fears. What if a maid was to check on her right now? What if Littlefinger’s or the queen’s spies had seen her climb the rope? What if Gendry returned by ship, thinking he could talk her round? They could run right into him. She had to leave. Now! Pacing up and down the room, she was close to panic again, when Ned finally returned to the solar – dressed in chainmail and a black cloak, armed with sword and dirk and his bow, “Let’s go!” he announced, grabbing the messages from his desk.

Their hoods pulled deep into their faces, they had hurried to the stables. Where two packed horses, Ned’s squire and three Dayne men had awaited them. Together they had overpowered the poor stable boys quickly, gagging and tying them up in her steed’s bay. And while the squire had stood watch at the stable door, Arya and Ned had readied her mount for the journey. But of course she couldn’t be lucky, just for once. They had barely begun strapping her supplies to the saddle, when the squire came running, saying a man would approach the stables. Damn.

Hoping, it were just some random manservant or knight, Arya, Ned and his squire hid in her stallion’s bay; their swords pointing at the stable boys’ throats. Whereas Ned’s men pretended to pack their horses. But of course, it wasn’t just some random man. It was Harwin, instantly realising something was amiss. Even before he saw Arya’s steed all saddled up. He stopped in his track, right out of reach for Ned to surprise him. And the three Dayne men blocking his way out, gave it away to Harwin for good. However, instead of raising alarm or fighting them, the Stark guard called, “Arya, it’s just me!” “I’m leaving, and you can’t stop me!” she hissed from her hideout in the bay. “I won’t stop you!” her father’s guard replied calmly, making Ned step out into the aisle and threaten, “That’s right, you’ll be tied up with the lads over here!” as his men closed in from behind. “There’s no need for that, my lord, I’m coming with you!” “And why’d you do that!?” Arya stepped next to Ned, studying Harwin warily. “As I see it, I’ve not much of choice here. Your father would have my head, if I let you leave alone!” causing Arya to narrow her eyes, “Is this a trick!? Are more guards coming?” “No, just me, to take over for the boys. So, no one will notice we’re gone, not before dawn!”

And just like that their plan had changed. Instead of two Dornish knights leaving alongside Ned’s squire, now two remained at the Red Keep. Ned had left two of his messages with them and handed the other to the third knight, while Harwin put on a Dayne cloak and mounted Arya’s steed; who undoubtedly was glad to not have a stranger ride him. Even though it was only for the short distance to Hot Pie’s and Lommy’s tavern, where Arya and the squire were meant to switch places. “Take your time! We need at least half an hour to get there, if not more!” Ned instructed the riders, “And remember, no hoods up until you’re past the gates, you’ve nothing to hide and we don’t wanna raise anyone’s suspicion!” And so three Dayne riders headed for the gates, in no hurry at all, while two hooded figures hurried to the kitchen yard as fast as they could, and disappeared through the door leading to the vaults.

“I’ve to admit, I haven’t used the tunnels for quite some time.” Ned whispered, as they rushed through the vaults, “But we’ll get you out, one way or another!” “I know the way!” Arya admitted sheepishly. Though, she wasn’t sure he had heard her, so she grabbed his arm to halt him, “Ned?” Yet, the hurt look on his face made her let go instantly. “I’m sorry-” she tried to apologise, but he interrupted her. “I know you are!” he snapped, “I read your message … no need to tell me again how you kissed him!” causing her jaw to drop. He had never spoken to her like that before. Or anyone else in her presence.

“I’m sorry,” he stammered abashed, “I shouldn’t have said that … I don’t know what came over me … no, that’s not true. I know … Arya, I’m so sorry!” “It’s alright, I’m the one who needs to be sorry … I never meant to hurt you!” she appeased. “I know.” he sighed, “But I’m just a friend and he’s … more. And you can’t help me dealing with that, just like I can’t help you dealing with leaving him. But I’m glad you sent me that note, and that the truth isn’t… well, as bad as my imagination. Or those nasty rumours. So, let’s just put an end to all that … and just try being friends again, okay?” “Yes, gladly, thank you!” she agreed, slowly feeling as if a weight were lifted from her mind. “Alright, we better get going!” Ned stated and they hurried to the vault with the dragon skulls and the door leading down to the tunnels.

They had run wherever they could dare in the vaults and tunnels, and together they had navigated their way easily to the cave in Flea Bottom. There, Arya had placed her hand on her sword’s hilt. Just like Ned, who had unwittingly mirrored Gendry’s action from that night, that now felt ages ago. He had taken her hand, telling her as well, it were safer this way, and they had hurried through Flea Bottom. He leading the way, or more like carving their way through the crowds outside the brothels and winesinks. However, they hadn’t dared to run in the less crowded alleys, they had been too afraid it might draw attention to them. Still, they had made it in good time to the tavern; in less than an hour.

Entering the taproom with their hoods up, Ned led her straight to the counter, where Lommy and Hot Pie already awaited them. Though, unlike last time, the innkeeps approached them quietly, leading them up the stairs all serious, and into the room where the three riders already waited. Only there inside, Lommy pulled Ned into a hug, removing his hood and ruffling his hair amused, “There’s my pretty one!” and teased, “So, we’re in the shady business now, huh!?” “Just this once!” Ned retorted abashed, before Hot Pie hugged him as well, asking, “What’s all the secrecy about?” “We’ve to get her out of the city, quick and quiet!” Ned said, nodding towards Arya, who removed her hood now, too. “Ah, the even prettier one!” Lommy turned to her, teasing, “So, you chose the Dornishman, after all?” “No,” she blurted defensively, “I’m going home!” “Ah, don’t worry, little lady! Our handsome Dornish bastard here will take you there. Safe and sound, in no time!” Hot Pie proclaimed. Wait! Oh my gods… she stared at Ned wide-eyed, “You don’t mean … No, Ned, you’re not coming!”

“I’m not letting you travel the Kingsroad all alone!” Ned insisted determined, but Arya objected, “No, they already compared you to Rhaegar, you can’t come!” “I don’t care!” Ned retorted furiously, “I’m not here to just wave you goodbye and let you travel half the Seven Kingdoms on your own!” “I’m not alone, Harwin’s with me!” Arya countered and the Stark man stepped forth, “My lord, I know the Kingsroad better than anyone in this room, and I’ve protected Arya all her life! I’ll take her home safely. I swear, my lord!” “Oh, well, then she’s not alone!” Hot Pie tried to appease the heated situation, but Ned objected, “One man can’t keep her safe against a bunch of bandits! I’m coming, too.”

“You’re just one more man?!” Arya rolled her eyes, “And I’m not allowing you to ruin yourself for me!” And Harwin agreed with her, “My lord, right now you only helped an unwilling bride to escape, that’s what honour commands of you as a knight. But if you come with us, you stole her! And the last time a highborn stole another one’s bride-” “Gendry’s won’t start a war because of that, he’s no damn fool!” Ned scoffed. “It doesn’t matter!” Arya countered angrily, “If you come, your reputation’s ruined! People will call you Rhaegar for the rest of your life. And I won’t have that! So, you’re not coming, end of story.” “My lord, I’ll go in your stead!” the Dornish knight offered, before Ned could object again, and Arya agreed quickly, “Settled. Three swords against the bandits. And three Dayne riders leave the city, as many as left the keep! So, only the stable boys can tell you were involved!” Finally, Ned drooped his shoulders in defeat and sighed, “Alright, Vorian, you’ll go with them!”

Hot Pie and Lommy had left the room after that, promising Arya to quickly pack her some pies and bread as extra supplies, while Ned had made both Harwin and Ser Vorian vow to protect her under all circumstances. It was ridiculous. Harwin had sworn just that, when he became a Stark guard, and Vorian was a knight, honour commanded him to protect a woman from brigands and murderers. But it was nice to see how deeply Ned cared about her. Then, his squire had handed him his cloak and she had barely removed her own, when Ned had placed it around her shoulders. Making her realise, she was running from Gendry cloaking her in Baratheon colours, being cloaked in Dayne colours. The gods truly had an odd sense of humour.

And eventually, everyone but the squire had gone to the stables, were Hot Pie and Lommy had already waited with their extra supplies. Harwin had taken them and strapped them to Arya’s saddle. While she had hugged Lommy, thanking him for his help and telling him, she would miss his jokes in the North, before she had hugged Hot Pie, thanking him as well, and mostly for his delicious pies, stating his talent in the kitchen would have no equal, neither here in the south nor in the North.

And last she flung her arms around Ned, hugging him fiercely, “Thank you! For being my friend, even now, when you hate me!” He pulled her into a tight embrace, lifting her feet off the ground, “I could never hate you, and you know that!” he whispered, “I just hope I won’t miss you for the rest of my life, that’s all!” “I hope so, too.” she whispered, her voice breaking, “Since I know I will … until my last breath!” “Gods… Arya, I love you!” he breathed into her ear, petrifying her for a moment, before she attempted to apologise, “I’m sor-” But he stopped her, “Don’t! I just wanted to say it out loud, just once. Just once saying it to you … to get it off my chest, if that makes any sense to you!?” “It does, it think! And I want you to know, as a friend, my best friend, I love you, too. And I always will!” she assured, pulling slightly away to face him, and for a moment she just studied him; confusing him, going by the deepening frown on face.

So, she swiftly bent forward and placed a quick kiss on his lips, stunning him, “What was that for!?” and making him blush. “For being a true friend, of course! And my hero, since tonight!” she proclaimed, making him chuckle, “Damn, you’re right! I am …” he teased, “saving a maiden from the most gruesome monsters! Well, I’m not sure about that bull-headed stag, but I guess all those vicious lions, vipers and vultures count!” “They all count, the groping drunkard and the stupid bull, too!” she snorted and hugged him again.

When they finally let go of each other, Arya was about to mount her steed, but then turned around again, “Who’s Sansa’s secret suitor?” “I’m afraid, I’m sworn to secrecy!” he chuckled. “I won’t tell her! I just need to know it’s someone good and worthy. She’s already swooning over him…” Arya pleaded. “He’s a good man, brave and honourable, kind and smart. And his sense of humour isn’t too bad, either.” Ned assured, “Of course, compared to Gendry it’s a bit of a step down for Sansa, social-wise. But in my opinion, he’s a worthy suitor!” “But is he handsome!? Sansa always wanted someone handsome, I’m afraid if he isn’t-” Arya worried and Ned appeased once more, “I’d say he is! But, as a man I’m maybe not the best of judge … but I heard Myrcella call him handsome a while ago, I think one of her ladies is smitten with him.” “But why the secret courting?” Arya frowned. “Why not? It’s romantic, Sansa loves it!” Ned proclaimed, “You don’t have to worry about her, she’s smart. And I’ll keep an eye on her, I promise! And so will Gendry, Myrcella, Trystane and Renly … even Tommen!” “Thank you, Ned!” she hugged him once more, but briefer now.

“So, will this fair maiden allow a very heroic knight to help her onto her steed now?” Ned teased and she jested, “Only her favourite heroic knight, and just this once!” When he lifted her up onto her saddle, Ned went on, “You didn’t drop dead from it, wow!” and she rolled her eyes, “Shut up, stupid!” but let him lead her stallion out of the stable into the backyard, following Ser Vorian and Harwin on their steeds. Though, before he handed Arya her reins, Ned squeezed her hand once more, “Goodbye, Arya! Send me a raven to let me know you’re safe and sound!” he whispered, his voice throaty and hers wasn’t any better when she replied, “I will! Promised. Goodbye, Ned!” “Now, off you go! Before I change my mind and keep you here.” Ned teased and smacked her stallion lightly behind the saddle, to make him trot off the yard, following Harwin and Vorian.

Then, Arya could no longer hold back her tears. And Harwin noticed her snivelling, as soon as her steed closed up to his and Vorian’s. “We’ll be home in no time.” the Stark guard tried to comfort. “I know that!” she almost snapped, “I just wish I could’ve said goodbye someone else but only Ned and those innkeeps!” Wiping her tears off her face, she stated, “The moon shines bright enough tonight! We can get quite some distance between us and this shithole here, don’t you think?” “Depends on our new friend’s riding skills!” Harwin retorted, studying the Dayne man. “I may be twice your age, my lady, but I’m Dornish. That means, I’m not too old for a hard ride, unless I’m dead!” Ser Vorian claimed, making Harwin tease, “We’ll see about that, when the little lady darts off with lightning speed, Ser!”

As they neared the Old Gate, Ser Vorian told them to fall behind and let him do the talking at the gate. For a moment, Arya felt nauseous, fearing the City Watchmen would already await them, to snatch her off her steed and drag her back to the keep. But nothing happened. The Dornish knight just told the guards they were on a urgent mission for their lord – not even giving them the name Dayne – and they just nodded and opened the gate, letting them pass.

“That was easier than I thought!” Arya remarked, when she rode up to her elder companions again. “They’re there to keep the wrong folks out, my lady.” Ser Vorian explained, “So, unless they’ve a warrant for someone, they couldn’t care less who leaves the city! Especially this late. And apparently, tonight no one went missing.” Just a runaway bride. But thankfully her absence hadn’t been noticed, yet.

They headed northwest at a smart trot, until they were almost out of sight for the men on the city walls. Then Arya rode up a nearby hill and removed her hood, to take one last look at the capital. It looked so beautiful and peaceful now, with all the warmly lit windows in stark contrast against the dark blueish landscape surrounding it. Almost innocent.

She took a deep breath, and thought of those she left behind, some of them forever. Father. Mother. Sansa. Ned. Gendry. Balerion. Myrcella. Tommen. Trystane. Renly. Loras. Edric. Brienne. Hot Pie. Lommy. Jeyne. Vayon. Jory. Alyn. Desmond. Fat Tom. Wyl. Heward. Cayn and all the others. Goodbye! And then she thought of those, who had forced her to flee in the dead of night. The ones she was glad to finally leave behind. Good riddance and goodbye forever, my fucking king and queen! And Littlefinger. Joffrey. Margaery, and all the other vipers, vultures and gossipmongers!

“Shall we?” Harwin asked next to her, when she finally turned her stallion to face north. But instead of answering, she pressed her heels into her mount’s sides, making him dart off and her two companions followed behind; both roaring with laughter. A race. Gendry’s voice whispered in her mind. And the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Her life. Her freedom. And her heart.

After riding all night, only stopping twice to water their mounts, they had set up camp on a grassy clearing at dawn. At noon they had saddled up again and had travelled the rest of the day at a smart trot, before they had made camp at nightfall on some woodland edge with a nearby stream. However, the sky had been overcast then, so Arya had begrudgingly agreed to spend the whole night there. Before they had continued their journey at dawn, spending another day all on horseback, apart from occasional short pauses.

The following three days had been pretty much the same, only at the end of the fifth day they had reached the inn at the crossroads. And had decided to restock their dwindling supplies and stay the night. And why not? Even a fool could guess she was heading north, and knew the fastest way to get there on horseback was the Kingsroad. So, why prolong the journey by going off-road? she had argued with herself. But the main reason, Arya had agreed to stay at the inn, had been its bathhouse. She had longed for a hot bath. Of course, she had had opportunities to wash, they always had camped near streams, springs and wells; and unlike her, Ned’s men had actually thought of packing a piece of soap. But the streams’ beds hadn’t been deep enough or their currents not fast enough for her to properly wash her long hair in the cold water. So, that evening at the inn, she had actually enjoyed the hot tub; like never a bath before.

However, when she had left the bathhouse, she had found Ser Vorian instead of Harwin standing guard, and the knight’s face had immediately given away something had been amiss. “What is it!?” she had asked alarmed, yet he had only said, “You better see for yourself, my lady! In the taproom.” No, that was impossible! He couldn’t catch up with her so quick, could he!? Clenching her fists, she had stormed around the corner and barged into the taproom, ready to knock him out.

Only to find Harwin amidst about twenty heavily armed men, who instantly had bowed when she and Ser Vorian had entered the taproom. Huh!? She had stared perplexed at the scene, before her questioning eyes had turned to Harwin. “My lady, this’s Ser Raymun Darry.” he had introduced the man next to him, who had stepped forth, “Lady Arya, Lord Tully tasked us to escort you-” “I’m not going back there!” she had snapped outraged, baffling the Ser and his men. But she had ignored them, snarling at Harwin, “You said you’d take me home!” “Arya, they’re here to escort you north!” her father’s man had appeased. Huh? She had blinked confused. “It seems, your Lady Mother sent word to your uncle in Riverrun, to find us!” Harwin had explained further, but she had only narrowed her eyes. Why'd her mother do that!? It made no sense. This had to be some trick. “I don’t believe you!” Arya had growled warily.  

But Ser Raymun had vowed it were the truth, and had offered them to stay the night at Castle Darry, which were only an hour’s ride away. But Arya had refused, suspecting a trap. Just another castle with a tower to lock her up, until whoever would come and drag her south again. No, the only castle gates she’d see closing behind her, were those of Winterfell or Castle Black! And though, Harwin had pleaded with her to accept the men’s help, she had insisted to sleep in the stables; with the horses saddled up. Just in case. Knowing, she wouldn’t close an eye that night. She had been too afraid, Ser Raymun and his men would grab her and take her south again.

Come dawn, Arya had gulped down half a jug of water, had grabbed the supplies, the innkeeper had prepared for them, and had mounted her steed wordlessly, darting off the yard. Harwin and Ser Vorian had rushed to follow her, but Ser Raymun and his men hadn’t been as quick. Only three of them had managed to halfway keep up with them. While the rest of their group hadn’t caught up until they had stopped to rest at noon. For a moment, Arya had thought to go off the road after all, to get rid of Ser Raymun and his men. And Harwin, too. He was her father’s man, not hers. Only to realise, if House Darry was tasked to find her, other houses probably got ravens as well! Damn.

So, Arya had spent another night ignoring her body’s exhaustion, causing both Harwin and Ser Vorian to shake their heads over her stubbornness. She wouldn’t give anyone a chance to overwhelm her! But of course, two nights of sleep deprivation had taken its toll, and she had fallen asleep on horseback the next day. When Harwin had pulled her off the saddle, she had only briefly woken up; too tired to actually stop him. And had fallen back asleep, as soon as he had lain her down onto her furs, covering her with a woollen blanket.

The next time she had opened her eyes, the sun had been rising. Seven hells! She had slept half a day and all the night. But even though she had wasted precious time, she had realised, she was still in the Riverlands, heading north. Of course, that hadn’t meant she trusted Ser Raymun, but at least she had accepted having him and his men around. And although she had tried to not sleep so deep anymore, in case it all was just a trick, to lull her into a false sense of security, she couldn’t deny, she and her original companions had benefited from getting more sleep at night.

Five days later, they were meant to reach the Twins, from where a Frey party were supposed to take over for the Darry men; to escort Arya to the Neck. But someone had other plans. The twin castles had barely come into their view, when a grey figure racing over the hills with lightning speed had scared the Darry men nigh to death. But not Arya and her steed, they had darted off. To meet her halfway. Flinging her arms around the thick grey neck of her giant wolf only instants later, Arya sobbed and laughed all at once. But Nymeria was no better, one moment whimpering like a pup, licking Arya’s face overjoyed, only to snarl and challenge her playfully a flash later.

And there on the grassy hills along the Green Fork’s shores, they fooled around as if they both were little again. Undoubtedly baffling the men of her escort once more. But she couldn’t care less. Though, when Nymeria had pinned her down, almost burying her completely with her massive stature, of a sudden another wolf – bigger and darker in appearance – jumped at Nymeria from the side, rolling her off of her, to play-wrestle with him instead. Only then, Arya noticed the approaching riding party. Stark guards. About thirty men. Led by Robb! Arya was lifted up in her brother’s arms as soon as she had gotten up onto her feet. “There you are!” he laughed, “You had us all worried sick, you little monster!”

Finally reunited with him, after almost losing hope to ever see him again, tears welled up inevitably; and Arya clung to her big brother like a drowning man would to a lifeline. But it was tears of utter relief and joy. Still, Robb teased, “Whoa?! Since when are you such a cry baby?” causing her to growl, “Shut up!” and punch his shoulder, instantly wiping at her cheeks. “There, that’s my baby sister!” he pulled away somewhat to face her, “Damn, girl, you’re insane, you know that!?” “I’m not the crazy one … it’s all them southerners gone mad!” she snapped angrily. “Unmistakably! You a queen!? Your wolf were better at that job!” Robb snorted laughing, “What was that guy thinking!?” “Not much, obviously!” Arya growled, nestling against her brother’s neck once more. She didn’t want to think about Gendry now. Or ever again. Just forget him! that was what she wanted.

“Robb, can I stay with you at Winterfell?” she whispered. “Course!” he chuckled. “No, I mean, forever?” she stated dead serious, “I don’t want to leave again. You know, to marry someone … I’d rather live alone beyond the Wall!” “There’s no need for that! I’m gonna keep my wildling sister now.” Robb reassured, tightening his embrace, “Remember, I called their plan nuts in the first place! Could’ve told them this’d happen. Well, not the part with that princeling mistaking you for Sansa … but this here, Father and Mother had it coming!” Setting her feet back onto the ground, so Grey Wind could finally greet her as well, he told her, “You and I, we’re going home now, where we belong!”