Arya sits at the foot of her cot, stripped down to a flimsy shift. Her breeches and tunic are covered blood. Her last test hadn’t gone well. In fact, she’d failed spectacularly. She is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and today, she learns that becoming No One was never in the cards. She hangs her head and thumbs at the dirty, sodden tunic. The blood’s dried by now.
Suddenly Jaqen is in her room, nimbly closing the door behind him. A resigned, placid look on his face. And, she’s angry.
Why have me come here at all, if I was never meant to become a faceless man? she asks hotly.
He dips his head.
A man hoped.
Hoped that I’d fail? Her voice is borderline shrill now.
Hoped that a girl would return to a man, he says. His eyes skitter to the window, awkward at his own admission.
Arya deflates at that.
A man is foolish, she says quietly.
She sets the bloodied clothes to the floor and steps towards him. Unknowingly, she reaches for the hilt of needle, wishing she could rest her hands somewhere. They tremble too much now. Forcing him towards the edge of the dresser and stepping into his space, Arya peers up at the man.
What do you know of me? A grimy girl of one and ten … I was nothing. And now… Her words hang in the air. She grabs at his front, angry little hands hot on his armored vest. What had he meant to do with her? Save her? Teach her? What did he expect to happen?
Jaqen wraps his large, battle weary hands over hers, settling on his stomach. He eyes her face, her neck, her arms, cataloging every little injury, every little slice, every crack of blood. When he leans closer and presses his forehead against hers, he lets out a shaky breath.
A girl is much more than she realizes.
Arya grunts at that.
Would you stop talking in riddles? She nudges his face to the side and slumps her head on his shoulder. A pit forms in her stomach, something warm and yearning. It would take no effort at all, she thinks, to pick him apart with her lips and her hands. He’d like it, he wouldn’t refuse her. And suddenly, she’s so sure of it, the force knocks her back a step. She doesn’t want this. Maybe before she would’ve found some comfort in … this, whatever this was. But now, the feeling is fleeting, and the warmth belies a hollowness for home and family. Arya takes another step back and shakes her head.
Jaqen takes a shaky breath and wills his voice smooth and calm.
A man apologizes.
Sitting back on her cot, Arya eyes him sadly.
My family is alive, she whispers.
Yes, Jaqen murmurs.
I can’t stay here. I have to go to them. I have to go home. Her voice grows steady with each statement.
Arya hangs her head again. She’s been doing that a lot lately.
Jaqen strides forward and tips her face up.
A girl has nothing to apologize for. The order asks too much of girl, to have her forget her past … it is no easy thing. A girl has her own journey, he says. Reaching his hand forward, he cups her cheek and for one tragic moment, mourns the fact that it will never go past this. Arya will never be his to have—maybe not anyone’s, truthfully. She is a wolf all her own, and she must find her pack. A man knows this.
Reaching for his hand, she brings it down to her lap and laces their fingers together. There’s nothing heated in the action, only the sort of quiet gesture of a farewell.
My own journey, she mutters.
But what if I can’t make it back? Or worse, what if I do but they don’t recognize me? The things I’ve done … what if it’s too much? What if I lose my family?
Jaqen kneels before her.
Is that what a girl fears? How can a girl so willful, so terribly brave, be blind to the matters of self, he wonders.
Arya gives a slight jerk of her shoulders.
It was easier thinking I had no one left. But in the end, not even this worked out. If I’m not meant to become a faceless man, and if, after this training has hardened me and ruined me so, I’m not able to be a lady of Winterfell again, then what? Her voice shakes.
What if I was meant to die at the Twins, with my mother and brother? What if I’ve been cheating the Many-Faced God all these years? She looks up at him with sorrowful eyes.
Jaqen shakes his head.
To meet the Many-Faced God is a gift.
A baleful look.
Is it? Arya asks.
A gift, a generous end, a quiet peace. But a girl will not meet him until she is meant to, just as anyone else. A girl cannot cheat death; all she can do is survive until she no longer can. At this, Jaqen pulls Arya standing, hands landing on her shoulders, conviction in his voice.
A girl says these years in Braavos have hardened her, but what if it was also meant to ready a girl for her next journey? What if this is a girl’s destiny?
I don’t believe in all that. Would the gods—old and new—be so cruel as to pick and choose … to play with us like that? We’re created in their image and then set loose. We pray that the gods will offer us guidance. Maybe forgiveness. But we make our own journeys; we choose our own ends. Arya balls her fist tightly at her sides. Fat lot of good any guidance has done her since King’s Landing, since that putrid dick Ilyn Payne lopped off her father’s head. Or maybe she was too stubborn to listen.
It’s possible I chose wrong, she admits to Jaqen.
Too young, too … bullheaded to see where I was needed. I should have been with my family. I shouldn’t have run off—
Jaqen gives a near violent shake of the head.
A girl was taken.
It doesn’t matter! I left! I escaped! From my father, from Sansa, Syrio and Yoren… even Gendry. Gendry. It had been so long since she allowed herself to think of him. An angry, hulking boy on the cusp of manhood so eager to prove himself. They had traveled together, fought together, and saved each other enough to last a lifetime. She misses him. Arya moves to step back, too overcome with the sad truth that anyone who has ever meant anything to her was ripped away.
Still, Jaqen keeps her standing, moving his hands to her arms and giving her a gentle squeeze.
Listen here, girl.
But Arya doesn’t want to hear it. She looks up at him, eyes filmy with unshed tears.
And you, she whispers.
I’m to leave you next.
A girl is mistaken, Jaqen says.
We will meet again. If nothing else, before the Many-Faced God, a girl will surely meet a man. He almost smiles at the idea. He will see a girl again.
What if I don’t believe in the Many-Faced God?
The Old Gods, he amends.
The Seven, the Lord of Light, whatever name a girl is comfortable with, then.
Arya turns the names over in her head.
What if not even those? she asks.
Jaqen drops his hands and gives her a knowing look.
A man has seen a girl pray.
Arya lets out a frustrated sigh. After everything, still, still, they are back to the issue of gods.
I pray to whomever listens, she says flippantly.
But I don’t know if that means I keep the faith.
She thinks of her parents who raised her, and the spirits meant to protect her. Catelyn often clucked at Arya to properly say her prayers at the sept as she did, a whisper of the Seven at her lips. Arya knows her mother—no matter how long she’d lived in Winterfell—could never abandon the Seven; Tully blood and tradition ran too deep. Meanwhile, Ned preferred to sit before the bleeding weirwood tree and spend a quiet moment with the Old Gods. He and the Starks who came before him, as early as the First Men, followed the ancient gods of the North. The truth of the matter is that Arya isn’t sure where she stands. When she thinks of the gods, whichever gods, she can’t picture them. They aren’t her ancestors or some staunch seven figures, certainly not that prick the Lord of Light the red bitch favors.
No, Arya thinks of the dense forest, the frozen leaves that litter the rich earth, and the windchill that comes in from beyond the wall. She thinks of steam rolling off the hot springs. She thinks of the godswood. She thinks of direwolves. Arya brings to mind every living thing that keeps Winterfell going and endows them with the eerie spirituality of the North. That is who she prays to at night, though she’ll never say it out loud. But Arya doesn’t know if that’s right, doesn’t know if her family would forsake her for it. Would they think she bastardized their beliefs? But then, she’s angry. Look at where they ended up, she thinks bitterly. Did the gods heed their prayers? What does it matter who we pray to? Perhaps, we are alone in this world. Tears pool at the corner of her eyes as Arya burns a hole through the floor.
Jaqen can see the storm raging inside Arya and gives a wry chuckle. So much at such a young age. It shouldn’t surprise him though; he remembers meeting a little, dirty girl with thousand-year-old eyes. He gazes at her affectionately.
A girl is so fickle.
Maybe a man is too trusting, she murmurs.
Jaqen takes Arya’s hand and they both sit on her cot.
What would a girl like to hear?
That this isn’t goodbye forever, she says simply.
If a girl wills it, it will come to pass, he replies.
She turns to him, a small smile playing on her lips.
Jaqen dips his head.
For anyone else, a man would say no. But for Lady Arya Stark of Winterfell, born in the long summer, of salt and smoke, protector of her pack…
Didn’t know you were so fond of titles, Jaqen.
He shakes his head, a bit of mirth in the action, and then he’s reaching into his armored robes for something.
Insolent, lovely girl, he whispers.
Here, he says, offering his hand to her, a dirty coin in his palm.
Arya goes pale. She plucks the coin from him and eyes it.
Is this the same—how’d you get this? I gave it to the captain… She trails off, memories of boarding a beaten boat to Braavos swarming her mind.
A man knows, he says.
A grimy girl of four and ten with a heavy heart uttered the words.
Valar Morghulis, she whispers.
She nimbly flips the coin between her fingers, moonlight catching on its etchings and casting a muted wave of shimmers across the room.
Is this a keepsake then? Has a man become sentimental? she asks sagely.
Perhaps, lovely girl.
Arya keeps the coin warm in her palm and turns to Jaqen.
When I came here, I thought this would solve my problems, she admits.
I’d become no one and my thirst for vengeance and bloodshed would have a focus, a meaning.
Jaqen’s languid smile drops.
A man is sorry, he intones.
Nudging his shoulder in a familiar and long-forgotten fashion, Arya smiles.
What does a man have to apologize for?
Jaqen keeps quiet. There’s so much he ought to apologize for, he thinks. But words fail him.
If I keep this, I won’t be using it to come back, Arya says, a touch of regret in her voice.
A man knows.
Arya smooths the wrinkles of her shift and clasps her palms.
If I make it back to Winterfell, if I can save my family and my friends, she says,
I’ll live out the rest of my days there. I might have a betrothed, a pack of children, even. I’ll grow old and gray and when my time comes, I’ll be buried in the crypt along my father and my mother and my brother. The thought fills her with such longing that tears now freely fall down her cheeks. She knows in that instant that that is the life meant for her, that if she could not make it back to Winterfell and reunite with her siblings, she would rather die. She’d stick Needle through her own heart if she had to.
Jaqen leans forward and swipes at her wet cheeks.
A man prays for that. For a girl’s happiness and future, and final peace, he whispers.
Arya shakes her head.
I might think of you. I’ll miss you, she admits. And it’s the truth. The people she’s met on her journey, some of them were awful. Some of them deserved to die. But the others, those who had traveled with her and saved her and taught her… Arya doesn’t know what to do with these memories. She keeps them tucked tightly in her chest, and on days when she allows herself to breathe and feel deeply, she’ll call upon those moments and cherish them. They won’t leave her, she thinks sullenly.
Jaqen watches her. Even now, with a sorrowful and angry storm marching through her eyes, he cannot parse out exactly what she’s feeling. But she’ll miss him, she says. And he believes her.
A man … He goes silent. Why do words fail him in front of her?
A wet, teary snort, and Arya is bowing her head and lowly chuckling.
It’s okay, she says.
You can say you’ll miss me too. I won’t tell the Kindly Man.
He nudges her at that, and something beautiful blooms in his chest.
A girl still knows how to ruin a sweet moment, he says sweetly.
It’s my specialty, I think.
Jaqen nods. He will miss this.
A man will miss a girl, he offers simply.
I know. Who else would keep your spirits up around here? The waif is certainly no ray of sunshine, she jokes. Waif bitch, she thinks darkly.
A girl knows what a man means.
Jaqen searches his mind for the right words. He knows Arya must understand his meaning. She’s a woman grown now, with a knowledge and darkness the House of Black and White could never have imagined.
A man has grown … accustomed to a girl’s ways, he begins.
Her hushed footsteps, her steady breaths.
A wry chuckle.
Is that what you’ll miss?
He dips his head and adds quietly,
Her angry gray eyes, her quiet kindness.
Arya’s head snaps up at him.
What kindness? she asks harshly.
All I have is hate in my heart and blood on my hands.
With a shake of his head, Jaqen places a warm hand on her forearm to calm her.
A girl knows better than that. A man remembers a young girl, hellbent on saving her friends and finding her family. A penchant for outsmarting high borns and cruel soldiers, even trying to best a faceless man.
You made it too easy.
He lets out a hearty laugh.
A girl remembers. A girl says she doesn’t believe in destiny or fate but a wolf’s blood runs through her veins and calls her back home. A girl will succeed, a girl knows this.
A girl just wants a long-winded goodbye with a man. Jaqen grins wolfishly at her.
Arya sputters and a pout works its way on her lips, an action making her look so young and indignant, it sends Jaqen into another fit of chuckles. She elbows him roughly and he holds her close.
That’s not it! she exclaims.
Jaqen hums, a forgiving rumble Arya can feel from his chest.
A man knows, he starts sagely.
It is a kindness, that a girl would miss a man. What has a man done to deserve it? He wonders.
You saved me, she says quietly.
Jaqen goes still and winces.
You did, Arya insists.
Long before you gave me that coin, you saved me. You helped me, taught me, looked out for me. I won’t forget that. I … She swallows hard. Now or never, spit it out, she tells herself.
There was a time when I thought I could love you. The way a woman loves a man, I mean. She can feel her cheeks aflame and a cold sweat misting her neck. Is this always how it feels, she wonders, to confess? Even to Jaqen, who she knows she doesn’t love like that, at least… not now, not anymore. But she wills herself to tell him. She may never see him again and if their last moment wasn’t a painfully honest one, Arya knows she’ll kick herself for it later. But saying the words out loud feels awful, like her heart might plummet into her stomach at any moment. Why do people do this, she thinks darkly. She places her hand to his chest and pushes herself away. Taking a breath, she finally looks at Jaqen. He looks scared, she thinks.
Jaqen gulps. He knows what this is, a last stitch effort at connection, at something human before she leaves. Even this, this confession after the fact, is a kindness on her part. He knows. There was a time when she loved him, and Jaqen wishes to tell her he could always feel it, that he returns her love tenfold—before, now, and well after she’s gone. But he clamps that feeling down and gives her a slow shake of the head and a sad smile.
A girl deserves better than some stubborn faceless man, he says instead. And it’s true.
Well, at least you know you’re stubborn.
Jaqen rolls his eyes, so perfectly Arya-like it pulls a giggle out of her.
Arya powers forward.
Let’s … leave it at that. I have more dignity than to split hairs on talk of love. I just wanted to tell you is all. I know you see me as a child but—
Jaqen’s face is hard. He raises his hand to cut her off and eyes her carefully and wills her to believe his next words.
A man knows a girl is a woman grown. A man suspects a girl has had to grow up the moment the sentence was passed to her father. A man would, if he could say the right words … a man would have a girl understand that she is—that she means very much … He curses his inability to get all this out. Where’s the smooth faceless man now, he wonders. Everything with Arya is starts and stops, but there’s no time for that now. Jaqen grunts in frustration.
You’re awful at this, Arya says kindly. Affectionately.
She steps into his space and pats him on the shoulder.
Did a man skip out on the art of pretty words at faceless man school?
Jaqen brings his hand up to her wrist and holds her still.
A girl is impossible, he groans.
He squeezes her wrist and gulps.
A girl is lovely.
Stepping impossibly closer, Arya shakes her hand out of Jaqen’s grasp and delicately wraps herself around him. She breathes in his scent and tucks this memory away, too.
A man does not cry, but he feels a terrible wrenching in his chest.
Goodbye, lovely girl.