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A Girl Comes Home

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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.

Yes.

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.

Yes.

Arya hangs her head again. She’s been doing that a lot lately. I’m sorry.

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?

Arya huffs. 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. That easy?

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…

Arya grumbles. 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.

Jaqen nods. 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.

Jaqen smiles. 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.

Jaqen nods. 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. And yet…

Yes?

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.

Jaqen snorts. A girl knows what a man means.

Maybe.

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.

She shrugs. 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.

I…

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. No.

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.

She smiles. Well, at least you know you’re stubborn.

Jaqen rolls his eyes, so perfectly Arya-like it pulls a giggle out of her. Arya.

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.

A man!

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.

Yes.

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. Goodbye, Jaqen.

A man does not cry, but he feels a terrible wrenching in his chest. Goodbye, lovely girl.

Chapter Text

Arya? Arya, is that you?

Arya lets out a shaky breath. She’s finally made it. A girl is— she stops herself. I, yes. It’s me, it’s Arya, she whispers, her voice gone hoarse.

A beat, and before Arya can get another word out, he’s there, picking her up as if she were a little leaf of a thing, and holding her close. His hulking back covers her like a blanket, and he dips his head to the crook of her neck and breathes deeply. Arya is stunned at the quick motion, and belatedly, she wraps her arms around his shoulders.

Oh, Arya, he murmurs.

Before she can quell the feeling, tears spring to her eyes. How long had it been since she’d seen him? It feels a lifetime ago. Gendry, she says. She says his name like a prayer.

Gendry squeezes tighter and hums. Offhandedly, he wonders if this is a dream. If it is, he needs to savor the feel of her. He whispers her name again and again.

At this, Arya gives a wet chuckle. Stupid bull, she thinks, I’m here. I’m right here.

Gendry pulls back slowly and looks upon her face. The same stormy gray eyes, strong nose, and grim line of her mouth—always so quick to pull into a grimace or pout. But the fat has melted from her cheeks; the lines of her face slightly harsher and that much more beautiful. Her chestnut hair roams around her wildly, pulled from her braid. It’s really her, he thinks.

I thought you dead, he admits. I feared, he starts before dropping his head to her shoulder. His words are muffled against her hair. Gods, I searched for you after. I went mad and I—the Brotherhood nearly had to lock me up in my chambers! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry Arya.

Softly, Arya clutches at the hairs on his nape and smooths her hands down his neck and shoulders. What does a man have to apologize for? she asks with a quirk of her brow. He’s so big, she thinks absentmindedly. He’s strong. When did he grow so much, how much time has passed? She’s returned to a man grown and she almost feels childlike next to him, her feet dangling as Gendry holds her.

Gendry lifts his head and presses it to the side of her cheek. Arya … how are you here? Where have you been? I mean, what happened after—

His words are cut off by the man behind them. In their hasty and emotional reunion, neither heard the steps of the men that followed. For fuck’s sake boy, give her a moment to breathe, one of them grumbles.

Arya looks up to see a tall man with a bow and arrow lazily slung over his shoulder. He hasn’t changed a bit, she thinks. Anguy, she says with a smile.

He dips his head in greeting. M’lady.

Arya’s smile turns sour. Well I don’t miss being addressed as such, that’s for sure.Gendry huffs into her neck, a chuckle bubbling past his lips.

The man beside Anguy scoffs, a long-suffering and amused sound. It’s her all right.

Anguy grins and steps forward some. Gendry, lad, put the little lady down.

Gendry goes stiff in her arms, and she can feel the blush rolling off him. I’m—shit, he says. He gingerly places her back on the earth, her hands roaming down his arms. Now that they’re both standing, the size difference is almost laughable. Even as a boy-near-manhood, Gendry stood tall. But in the years since, he’s obviously grown outward too. He’s no longer six and ten, fidgeting to harness himself in a still changing body. He stands before her, all sinewy muscle and brute strength. A near decade of swinging a hammer in the smithy, along with years fighting beside the brotherhood have left Gendry absolutely massive. His black hair is shorn, but still falls in his blue eyes. The line of his jaw has grown sharper, a smattering of hairs at his chin and along his mouth. He looks good, healthy. But Arya notices the dark circles under his eyes, and not unkindly, she wonders what happened to him all these years. Did he suffer?

Gendry eyes her and dips his head. Sorry.

Arya shakes her head. What happened in my absence that you’re so quick to apologize now? she asks. Where’s that bullheaded boy I knew?

At this, Gendry offers her a sweet smile, I’m still here, m’lady.

Peering up at him, Arya easily swings a fist into his colossal arm. Did he even feel that, she thinks. None of that, Gendry, she mutters.

Arry, then? he asks with a laugh.

That’s better, stupid.

Gendry’s heart swells.

Lem steps forward and eyes the little lady wearily. Lady Arya, how’d you make it here? Are you alright? In the years since she ran, Lem can see how she’s grown more beautiful. Even in dirty breeches and a leather jerkin, he sees she is a woman grown. There’s a certain unnatural grace in her movements; the way she turns towards him and offers a little smile is queer in its beauty.

I … it’s a long story, Lem. Can we all speak after … maybe after a hot bath. And a meal.

He nods, Of course, m’lady.

Thank you. Arya goes to pick up her sack, but Gendry is there first. He lifts it over his shoulder, and not for the first time tonight, the brothers regard him carefully. A big man with a soft heart, they think. Or rather, a soft heart saved for his first love. They remember how Gendry had followed Arya like a shadow years ago, protective of her and angry at their lot in life. They remember how the boy didn’t cower at her bite, and on the night when he’d told her he would stay on with the brotherhood, they could hear the screeches and yelling from deep in the forest. She’d growled at him in true wolf fashion, and he roared back at her. The next morning, Arya was gone, and Gendry was beside himself. To see them together again, cautious in their actions and furtive in their glances, was something to behold.

The door to the inn blows open and a portly woman waddles past the men and towards Arya. She clucks her tongue and pushes the grimy girl inside. Come in, then! Quickly, before the chill hits you child! I’ll have a maid draw you a bath upstairs, she offers.

Arya dips her head. Thank you, uh?

Gendry is at her side. This is Daliah, she runs the inn.

Thank you, Miss Daliah.

The woman smiles and shoots a curious glance at Gendry. She’d never seen his face so open. Another mystery for another day, she supposes. Of course. Now, up you go, out of these rags, you smell as though you emerged from the saltpan mud itself! She flitters off into the main room, calling for a maid to run a bath.

Arya looks down at herself and Gendry smiles. It’s true, you do, he says.

She turns to him and rolls her eyes. Like you smell any better, Gendry. But then she thinks of their hug earlier and stifles a blush. He smelled good.

What does a wolf girl know of smelling sweet? he asks, while keeping in step with her.

Pushing him lightly, Arya rattles on. I know more than—

Gods be good, Lem groans. I’ll go gray from your bickering!

Tom leans against the doorway and chuckles. Come now Lem, it’s like old times. The little lady and the bullheaded boy. They’re the stuff of songs!

Before a second round of japes continue, Anguy grabs Gendry by the shoulder. Where do you think you’re going, boy? he asks roughly.

Gendry peers at him, confused. I’m taking Arya to her room.

Anguy mentally slaps his forehead and rolls his eyes. Oh, you think m’lady won’t make it up a flight of stairs, do you? Years passed, and these two are still doing some kind of dance. Propriety thrown out the window.

Gendry frees himself of Anguy’s grasp, annoyance coloring his voice. I don’t want to leave her, he says simply. Unescorted, I mean. She’s had a long journey and … he ends with a shrug. Why do they care so much anyway, he thinks. Gendry clamps his mouth shut, his gaze defiant towards Anguy. Arya watches, something warm blooming in her stomach.

Lem watches too and a laugh bubbles up. Well this is going somewhere hilarious.

Gendry jerks his head in Lem’s direction, eyes hard and perhaps beseeching. No! Gods, no I don’t mean any disrespect. I just—

Placing a hand on his forearm, Arya worms her way between Gendry and Anguy. It’s okay, Gendry. Come on.

Anguy carefully peers at her. Lady Arya?

It’s alright, Anguy. Her voice clear and her eyes are playful, daring any of the men to say otherwise.

If you say so, m’lady.

At that, Gendry grumbles. He hitches her sack higher and grabs her hand, leading her to her room. Anguy sighs as he watches the pair disappear, and Lem and Tom can only laugh.

You try to keep them apart, and the boy’ll have a go at you with his hammer, Anguy. That is, if the she wolf doesn’t tear your throat out first.

I’m not trying to—I just, he huffs. They’ve got to be careful. They aren’t children anymore.

Lem snorts. You their father, now?

Anguy goes pale. Imagine fathering a pair as stubborn and reckless as those two. The gods would never hear the end of it from him.

Tom leads Anguy towards the hall. Come now, let’s get you some ale.

-----

Following Arya into the room, Gendry places her sack on the bed and gestures to her. You’re sure you’re not hurt anywhere?

Arya moves towards the fire, sitting on the floor and undoing her boots. I’m fine, Gendry.

He watches her, doubt and concern etched on his handsome face.

Well, I’m not bleeding anywhere if that’s what you mean, she huffs. She places her boots aside to dry and removes her cloak and layer of leathers. Her body aches, but the warmth of the fire helps. It’s true, I’m tired … she trails off. She peers up at him and offers an honest smile. But I’m happy to see you all again. I’ll be alright.

Gendry nods. You will, I’ll make sure of it.

So chivalrous, she intones with a generous roll of her eyes.

If m’lady says so, he says with a snort. He idles by the foot of the bed, toeing his boot at the rug. Everything feels so familiar with Arya, but off somehow.

Arya must share the sentiment. You’re different, she says quietly.

He looks up at her and feels his stomach clench at the knowing look on her face. She could always read him better than anyone else, better than himself even. She had seen him at his lowest, his angriest, his rare moments of happiness too. He wonders what she sees now. Am I?

Arya mulls her next words over in her head. I mean, you’re still you. Still the most stubborn bull, I’m sure. But … Her eyes roam over him, careful and calculating. You’ve grown. Grown strong, and brave.

Suddenly, Gendry feels the distance between them. She knew him as he was just on the cusp of manhood. She didn’t get to see him grow into himself, into his body and mind. Some days he feels so old and tired, a steady fog casting over his eyes. He misses the days when it was just him and Arry, slumped against a tree along the Kingsroad. It’s been a while, m’lady, he murmurs. Too long, he thinks. We’ve been apart too long and now… Now what? Now where do we stand?

Arya chucks her cloak at him in mock frustration. Call me m’lady one more time, and you’ll be eating that cloak next.

Gendry allows himself a moment of lightness. Arya, then. Arya. his mind wrapping affectionately around her name, her face, her voice. She still had that easy way about her, able to pull him from the most morose thoughts. But now, that playfulness belied something dark and uneasy. He could see it in the ways her eyes would flit to and fro, before expertly slipping into a placid smile.

She watches him watching her. You’ve grown cautious too. Scared, even? she asks as she sits on the bed.

Gendry is back to looking at the floor. His next words are too honest. The only thing that scares me is losing sight of you again.

I don’t plan on running off, she offers.

His head snaps towards her, his eyes sharp. Not without me, right?

Arya shakes her head. Not without you.

Feeling bold and a touch vulnerable, Gendry moves to sit next to her. The featherbed dips and he nudges her shoulders to keep their sides close. You’ve changed too, you know.

How so? she asks quietly.

You’re quiet … somber. Maybe sweet, too, he says with a smile. He turns toward her. Where’s that feral wolf girl gone? A playful glint in his eyes. You showing your belly too easily, m’lady.

Arya huffs at him and walks towards the dresser, thumbing at the bar of soap a maid left behind. She chucks it at his stupid head and he laughs, dodging it smartly.

Shaking her head, she smiles and luxuriates in the sound of his laugh. It’s warm and rumbly, and Arya’s missed it so. A beat. Wait, hand me that. I’ll need it.

He tosses the soap back to her, and watches as she steps towards the bathtub, fingers nimbly undoing the rest of her jerkin and tossing it aside. When she reaches for her breeches, Gendry coughs and makes for the door. Go on, take your bath. I’ll be back with a fresh set of clothes.

Arya nods in thanks.

With a hand on the doorknob, Gendry calls out to her, No dresses, I promise.

I don’t look too bad in a dress, you know, he hears her murmur from the other room.

Gendry thinks of acorn hall and a pretty oak tree. I remember, m’lady, he mutters before regretfully leaving.

 -----

Gendry returns with clean clothes. It turns out all Daliah had was in fact, a fitted dress of dark velvet. He figures Arya won’t mind. He might’ve offered her his own tunic and breeches but he went mad at the thought of her swimming in his clothes. He knocks on the door and noisily slips inside. Arya?

Arya bites back a laugh. All these years and he’s still no good at masking his footsteps. Too loud, too bullish. In here, she calls. She’s steeped in the bathtub, suds surrounding her and giving off a floral scent. The warmth has lulled her aching body into near sleep like state; she could stay here forever, she thinks.

Gendry pads his way towards her and averts his eyes. I’ll um … I’ll leave your clothes out here. You’ll meet us downstairs after?

She turns towards him, water running down her neck and shoulders in rivulets. Gendry. The sight of him makes her heart clench something fierce.

He keeps his eyes everywhere but on her. Yes?

Would you stay, please? she asks quietly.

Gendry does a double take at her request. But when he sees her, small and soaked and looking so much like Arry who he met at King’s Landing, his eyes soften. I don’t think that’s a good idea m’lady. I’ll just— he jerks his thumb towards the door.

Arya settles back into the tub, arms hanging on the ledge of the tub. Not with me right in the bath, idiot. I just mean. In the main room, sit on the bed, by the door, whatever.

Is something the matter?

I don’t want to be alone,” she says.

Arya… His voice and expression are far too soft for her liking. She doesn’t want to feel like some scared little thing, but she’s so tired.

I think I’ve had enough of being alone, and I don’t want an extra second of quiet only for my mind to wander off to…

Gendry steps towards the bathtub. To what? he asks.

She looks up at him and grimaces. Something unpleasant.

Not for the first time tonight, Gendry think of the girl gone and the woman returned. He wonders what happened for her to eyes to look so sage and sorrowful. Delicately, as delicately as a hulking man past six feet can, anyway, he kneels at the edge of the tub, his boot lightly clanging against a bit of metal on the floor. He hums appreciatively. You still have it. Needle.

He watches as Arya sinks back into the water. The suds don’t leave much to the imagination, and it takes all his concentration to keep his eyes from wandering. He notices the scars littering her belly and stifles the urge to ask.

Of course, I have Needle. she says. They couldn’t take everything from me, she mutters under her breath. But he hears it.

Arya … what happened after you ran from the brotherhood?

Arya looks down runs her hands through the water; it’s gone lukewarm now. As she grabs for a sponge and soaks it in suds, she whispers, It’s complicated.

Gendry rushes on. I don’t mean to have the whole story right this minute, but. Were you hurt? I mean, did someone hurt you? Because you’ve got this look about you—

What kind of look? she asks him sharply.

Like a spooked mare, he says slowly. Like a child lost.

Arya rubs at her shoulders and arms with the sponge. I’m not a child, she grumbles.

Gendry watches her. A little slip of a thing, sitting in the tub, covered in bubbles, and pouting. He almost smiles. Aye, you’re not. He grabs a pail, dunks it in fresh water and pours it over her head. She sputters at first, but then allows the water to run down, scrubbing anew at her hair and skin. Maybe she should feel self-conscious. Is that what the Arya of before would feel? How would a lady handle this situation? But nakedness no longer bothers her. Not in front of Gendry, maybe not in front of anyone. The flesh, she’s learned, is nothing special. Holds a person together until a sword guts them neck to navel. When she chances a peek at Gendry, his gaze is decidedly chaste. She doesn’t think he could leer even if he wanted.

After a while, when it grows too quiet, Arya tries to explain. I … I don’t know how to say it. Without scaring you, I mean. I’m afraid I’ll tell you and you won’t see me the same way. I won’t be Arry, I’ll be something twisted and ugly in your eyes. In my family’s eyes, she finishes quietly, hanging her head.

Gendry’s voice is a near growl. You could never, m’lady.

When she looks up at him, her eyes are guarded. You don’t know me anymore.

And Gendry can’t argue with that. He doesn’t know this version of Arya, who’s come back all sinister grace and sharp lines. But he knew her as a child, and under the very worst conditions, he watched her survive. You can’t have changed that much, m’lady, he thinks. She clutches the sponge roughly in her hand and Gendry sighs. You’ll scrub yourself raw if you keep at it like that, he murmurs.

Arya looks down at her red, blotched, angry skin and offers him the sponge. You want to come in and help me then, bull? she asks flippantly. Light and sweet, that’s all she can manage right now.

Gendry snorts and places the sponge aside. Wetting a washcloth and drawing a path from her cheeks, down her jaw, her neck, and sweeping past her shoulders, Gendry works quietly. Arya keeps her mouth shut and watches him. When his hands move back up and tips her chin skyward, she sees a small smile playing on his lips. Who’s this brazen woman? Where’s the smelly girl of one and ten who used to blush behind a bush to take a piss, hm?

She leans into his hands, she feels warm and safe. I don’t think you’re supposed to talk of piss in front of ladies, she says haughtily.

You’re the exception, m’lady.

Arya goes quiet at that. Would Gendry be saying that if he knew the real her? What she’d become? She isn’t sure and the uncertainty gnaws at her belly. He is the one friend who knows her best, saw the shell of her after Ned’s execution, saw her grow into herself, all biting words and swift punches. But it’s been so long, and Arya doesn’t know what she’ll do if she loses him again.

As if to quell her thoughts, Gendry gently pulls her up out of the bath and reaches for a dry cloth. He deftly wraps her up and smooths his hands down her head, wringing out the excess water into the tub and carding his fingers through her hair. Arya wonders when he’d gotten so good at comforting a girl. Had he done this before, she wonders. Had he smoothed away some lass’ worries and taken her to bed, made her forget everything that troubled her? Her belly is in knots at this, and she feels a queer sense of something unknown. She realizes there’s so much they don’t know about each other.

Carefully, Gendry places both his hands at her neck and pulls her forward. He’s being too bold but he can’t find it in himself to care. I don’t know what’s happened since we last parted, but I won’t see you different, he starts. I imagine you’ve had to see some terrible things, maybe even done some. But you survived, didn’t you? And you’re back. So whatever happened, whatever you survived so that you could come back home, I’d never begrudge you that. I missed you, Arya.

As Gendry’s voice grows stronger, Arya pulls back into herself. She closes her eyes and wonders if she deserves this kindness. With a wet croak, she shakes her head in Gendry’s hands and whispers, You’ve gone soft, bull.

Gendry chuckles at this. Can’t always be a hardheaded bastard, m’lady. He runs his hands down to her bare shoulders and gives them a squeeze. Arya, do you believe me?

She opens her eyes and gives him a long look. She doesn’t want to lie to him.

Gendry sighs and tips his head forward. Will you at least try to trust my words?

When he feels her nod against him, he lets out a breath. He’s never been so close to Arya, never seen her so exposed either, and the look and feel of her leaves him dizzy. He forces himself to step back and offers a weak smile. Better? he asks.

Yes,” she says carefully.

He playfully sniffs at her. You certainly smell better.

Arya lets out another wet sound, halfway between a chuckle and a sob. She clutches the cloth round her and wonders if she can stand to be handled so soft and kind. I’m sorry, she says quietly.

Gendry shakes his head. What does a girl have to apologize for? he asks, turning her own words on her.

Lifting her head, her eyes beseeching, she tells him, Many things, Gendry.

He takes her hand and leads them into the main room. He’ll get the full story another day. Come on, let’s get you dressed.

Chapter Text

When Arya and Gendry make their way downstairs towards the main hall, they’re a sight for sore eyes. The maids blush at Gendry, as they often do. With the soot rubbed clean from his face, he’s all warm eyes and strong jawline. He’d donned the cleanest breeches, cotton shirt, and leather jerkin he could find, carefully sniffing at himself. Do I smell too much of dirt and smoke, he wondered. At the base of the stairs, Gendry offers Arya his hand and leads her forward. When they enter the hall, many of the brothers eye her with poorly concealed hunger. Many of them joined the brotherhood too late; they do not remember Arya as a child, only seeing her as a woman grown today. Gendry tightens his hold and sends the lot of them a steely gaze. Fuck off, you animals. Yet, much to his chagrin, he cannot blame them too much. She looks beautiful.

There had been minimal grumbling when Gendry presented Miss Daliah’s velvet dress to Arya. Before, she would’ve snarled and growled at the prospect of playing the pretty lady. Tonight, however, she merely thanks him and slips it on. The dress’s fit make the lithe lines of her body too obvious. Gendry notes the slight curves at her chest, how the skirt of the dress flows outward from the littlest part of her waist. His eyes travel upward, up, up, up, past her pretty pale neck and when his gaze lands on her face, he feels a hot flush run through him. Caught you, she thinks. Arya’s expression is amused, if not slightly put out. Is this all it takes? She sits by the vanity and deftly combs through her drying tresses, pulling it into a simple braid and pinning the plait to the back of her head. Her face is clear and open, and Gendry has never seen anyone so lovely. Their eyes meet in the mirror, and Gendry is quick to look away, grunting something unintelligible about supper. Arya nods and reaches for her sword belt, pulling out a dagger. She can sense Gendry watching her curiously, so, twirling the weapon to and fro, she offers it to him. He eyes her carefully before taking the dagger in hand, inspecting the shape of the blade and the ornate pommel.

This is a pretty little thing.

Arya hums. It’s served me well.

Did someone give this to you?

Who would be gifting me weapons?

Don’t rightly know, m’lady, his tone suddenly hard. Hardly know what you’ve been up to, who you’ve encountered. He looks down and fingers the blade. It’s a nice dagger, he thinks begrudgingly.

Stepping into his space and gingerly taking the dagger back, Arya waits until he lifts his head. I stole this, she starts. From the last man I killed. She can still remember his rank breath harsh on her neck, his obvious girth crowding her body and stifling her breathing. After she’d gotten what she came for, she used Needle to slit his throat. She could laugh at the idea of someone gifting her anything in Braavos. She had been beaten and blind; moments of kindness were few and far between. Gendry eyes are a storm. He has too many questions but the image of Arya in danger, bloody sword in hand, leaves him silent and seething. Who—

Arya shakes her head. Doesn’t matter now. He didn’t hurt me, Gendry, I never gave him a chance to. Lifting up the skirt of her dress, she straps the dagger to her thigh and makes for the door. Come on then, her voice light. And Gendry can only follow.

Back in the dining hall, Gendry plops down on the bench and Arya takes a seat beside him, planked by Anguy on the other side. He bows his head garishly. My lady! He’s halfway in his cups, she can tell.

Enjoying yourself, Anguy? she asks with a smirk.

Anguy shoots her a wolfish grin. Who would not enjoy the return of a dear friend? he asks, leaning into her side. And a pail of ale, to boot, he adds with a chuckle.

Arya laughs and thanks the serving girl who presents her and Gendry with warm stew and piping hot bread.

She and the brotherhood dig into their food and Lem watches her. How are you feeling, m’lady?

Arya tips her head to the side, swallowing a mouthful of stew. More human, she decides.

Good … good. His and Anguy’s eyes meet and a cautious moment passes between them.

Arya gives a small cough. What’s wrong? Gendry places a hand on her knee beneath the table.

Anguy shakes his head, reassuring her. Just queer, is all, m’lady. Seeing you here in the flesh. We thought you dead; we mourned you. He gestures to Gendry with a snort, The bull nearly went mad.

Arya relaxes and squeezes Gendry’s hand, her thumb running a line from his palm to his wrist. I heard, she murmurs.

Tom offers her a smile and leans forward. It’s good to have you back, m’lady.

Has everyone in the brotherhood gone soft? She pats his arm. Thank you.

The serving girl rounds their table again and stops by Arya’s side. Would you like more ale, m’lady? ‘Fraid we don’t have any sweet wine to offer, she adds regretfully. She’s never seen a proper lady at the inn. A lady of the north, the men whispered. She regards Arya carefully.

Arya dips her head in thanks. That’s alright, thank you though. I suppose I should keep a clear head before I tell you all what’s happened.

Anguy nudges her gently. You don’t have to worry about that right now, m’lady. Rest, eat.

It’s fine. She takes a breath and watches the men. With a steady voice, she starts. After I ran from the brotherhood, the Hound caught me.

-----

The brothers grumble all around her. Lem’s leaned forward, a distasteful look on his face. That ugly fucker really took you? he spits.

Arya nods.

Tom leans back, eyes wide. You were at the twins then? When they … I mean. Gods. He looks horrified.

Arya nods again.

Anguy has his elbows on the table, hands clasped. Braavos, m’lady? Truly? He watches her carefully.

Another nod. Let them get it all out, she thinks. Her journey hasn’t been an easy one, she wouldn’t begrudge the brotherhood if they didn’t believe her. But at their wide eyes and grim, downturned lips, she knows they trust her words.

Gendry’s gone still at her side, tension rolling off his body. You went to Jaqen, then? he grits out.

Arya can see the near anger build up around him and she almost smiles. What are you so angry about, stupid bull, she thinks. It’s like she’s one and ten again, Gendry scowling at her side and sending Jaqen a dirty look. Yes.

He turns to her and whispers, Did he hurt you?

Arya rolls her eyes. No. No, not Jaqen. Not ever, she insists. She’s never quite understood Gendry’s mistrust of Jaqen. It couldn’t have been jealousy; she was too young back then and Jaqen too unknown. But at the sight of Gendry’s hard expression and the slight tightening of his grip on her thigh, she wonders.

Gendry gives a stiff nod and grunts.

Lem’s been watching their exchange and interjects. Who’s this Jaqen lad you speak of, m’lady? he asks.

Jaqen H’gar, she offers. An old friend, Lem.

Gendry scoffs. Friend.

Arya nudges his side and gives him a stern look. He saved us, Gendry, if you don’t remember. Me, and Hot Pie, and you.

He drops his eyes and shrugs. Still don’t like him. 

Arya throws her hands up. You’re just too stubborn!

Maybe I am! Just a stubborn bastard bull, is that it? His voice grows louder, and his face becomes red. Arya feels a pang of nostalgia and excitement run up her spine. He’s still quick to anger. Idiot, she thinks affectionately.

Anguy leans forward and directs a steely gaze at Gendry. Hush, boy. So that’s where you’ve been, m’lady? In Braavos, with this Jaqen?

Yes. Arya bites her lip. She glossed over her business with the faceless men. Taking part in a guild of secret assassins is hardly news she should be spreading. She knows Gendry will have something to say about it later, but for now, that’s all she can manage.

How did you find your way back to Westeros, then? Tom asks next.

Arya fiddles with her hands in her lap. She wants to be honest with them, but she worries this might be the last straw. I came for my family. I saw them, in a dream. They’re alive; Jon and Sansa and Bran and baby Rickon. I know it sounds mad but—

Anguy shakes his head. Not at all, m’lady. We’ve seen our fair share of magic. What’s so unbelievable about a she wolf of the north meeting with her pack in a dream?

She meets his gaze with wide eyes. Well, when you put it that way.

You’ve come back for your home too, then. Back to Winterfell, I mean.

Yes.

The Boltons have taken it, m’lady, Lem says, regretfully.

Arya bunches the skirt of her dress, and Gendry’s grasp falls away. Her hands are shaking. I heard. Whispers of the Bolton bastard’s atrocities made their way to her when she landed in the Saltpans. She can almost taste blood when she imagines wringing his neck to a pulp.

Lem continues. The boy claims it’s his right, since he wed you. Not the real you, though.

Arya’s not sure how to answer that without screaming. Gendry reaches over again and clasps her hands. He’s still got his eyes forward, a sour look on his face, but when he rubs his thumb over hers, she feels a bit of the tension abate.

When we heard news of the betrothal, we knew it false. Not you, m’lady, Tom reassures. No way in seven hells did Arya Stark find herself in the clutches—let alone betrothed!—to some no-good prick. He sound offended at the notion.

You know me well, she says with a smile.

What’s the plan then, m’lady? Anguy asks.

Arya worries her lip. I’ll head north. I need to get to Jon, she says. She thinks of her older brother and her heart cracks. Last she heard, Jon was at the Wall, somehow surviving mutiny from his crow brothers. And Sansa…Arya’s mind wanders. Sansa wasn’t in King’s Landing anymore; she was sure of it. Not after Joffrey’s death. She’d heard whispers of Littlefinger’s pursuits following her Aunt Lysa’s death. Arya remembers his hungry countenance towards her lady mother; she can only imagine what he’d do if he had his clutches on Sansa. It was likely he would’ve whisked her away to where it benefited him most. She needed to find them both, and then work together to get to Bran and baby Rickon. It was Bran’s voice she heard most often in her dreams, and it was Rickon’s cries she remembers so vividly. Her mind raced. We’ve to gather as many northern houses as we can. I’ll need to gather some supplies before heading off.

Gendry turns to her, his eyes blazing. I’m coming with you.

Arya nods. She’d expected as much. Thank you, Gendry.

Anguy coughs. The brotherhood will stand with you, m’lady.

Before he even finishes the sentiment, Arya’s shaking her head. I appreciate that, Anguy. But you’ve no obligation to me or House Stark. Don’t get yourselves killed because of me. She turns to Lem and Tom and all the other brothers, but their gazes are determined.

We choose to, m’lady. All these years, the games the mad queen and her simpering fools play … perhaps the north was right. Let us help you and your family take back Winterfell. Perhaps it will lead to some semblance of peace, Anguy finishes quietly.

Peace, she thinks. She wonders if she’ll live to see it. Then I thank you. All of you. Arya’s heart swells.

Anguy pats her on the back and stands. Now, if you don’t mind m’lady, there’s some ale left and a sweet cheeked girl I’ve to check on. Sleep well, m’lady. He tips his head gallantly and wanders off into the clutches of a big busted woman with an easy smile.

Arya laughs. Goodnight.

Gendry shakes his head and nudges her. He’s incorrigible.

The others chuckle at that and wander off themselves, mugs of ale jostling in their grips. Another round of Sleep well, m’lady and they’re off.

Gendry watches them leave. They all are, really.

Arya turns to Gendry, the bit of ale she had leaving a creeping red glow on her cheeks. And you? she asks good naturedly.

He jerks his head to the side, and Arya’s dizzy following the quick movement. Me? When Gendry pulls his hands back in surprise, it’s to fumble with the hem of his jerkin. What about me>

Her tongue feels too big for her mouth. No sweet-cheeked lass for yourself?

Gendry nearly coughs up his next swig of ale. He shakes his head. I don’t think you understand my reputation as a grouchy bastard, m’lady, he mutters.

Arya considers that. So there’s been … no one? She’s too curious not to ask.

Not, n-not no one ... just—how did we end up talking about this? Gendry grumbles.

She shrugs. It’s been so many years since I’ve seen you. You’ve grown taller, handsome. She swallows. Hard to believe girls wouldn’t notice.

Gendry’s eyes widen at her words. Handsome? He’s just … big. And burly. And stubborn. That can’t be attractive. I don’t— he starts but Arya cuts him off.

Don’t think I forgot how that girl looked you at the Peach, she mutters darkly.

The peach, he thinks. His memory is hazy, and Gendry turns towards her, curious. And how’d she look at me, m’lady? he asks with a little smile. It’s funny, seeing her so squirrely about this.

Arya shakes her head. Like you were a leg of lamb, all fat and juicy. She had been so angry that day. That big titted girl was hanging off Gendry like her life depended on it, and Arya had run off. Later, he’d found her out back, kicking at a tree stump. He’d made the mistake of calling her his sister and when she screamed that he was no brother of hers, Gendry whirled back in fury.

Too bloody lowborn to be my lady’s kin, is that it? Just a stupid bastard then?

Arya would not be cowed. You’re not stupid because you’re a bastard! You’re stupid because you’re the biggest idiot I’ve ever met in the seven kingdoms! Go ring all the bells you damn well please! she’d shouted.

Then Gendry had shoved her up against the side of the tavern and told her to stop taking her anger out on him. She wonders if he remembers.

Gendry gulps. He does remember, remembers the fury and confusion in his heart. I’m not fat, he offers stupidly.

You know what I mean, she says with a roll of her eyes.

Gendry leans back and changes tactic. What of you then, m’lady?

What about me?

You’re … He fights the urge to look her up and down. You’ve changed some, he says. A woman grown. Did you see the way some of the brothers eyed you tonight?

Arya leans forward. How?

Like they meant to bed you, he says unwillingly.

She barks out a laugh. Like I’d ever let myself be had by any oaf who looks at me.

Despite the topic, Gendry smiles. No, I imagine you don’t do anything unless you choose to. But you’re a woman now, you move with grace. something dark even.

Arya leans back. Yes, she says simply.

Gendry peeks at her. You don’t blush so easily anymore, m’lady. How’d that happen?

I was taught.

Taught not to blush?

Arya snorts. No, stupid. Taught to … to be something else, she finishes lamely.

Gendry waits a beat to see if she’ll continue. When she doesn’t, he asks, Something bad?

Arya lets out a frustrated breath. Gendry, can we not do this right now?

Well what would m’lady like to discuss? he grunts at her. He’s equally frustrated. All this time lost and he finds they can’t talk about certain things. Why had Arya gone all the way to Braavos? Why had she gone to Jaqen? What had she been doing these last few years? He’s itching to unload all his questions on her. When he glances at her, though, she’s got a pretty scowl on her face.

Arya slaps her hands on the table in frustration. Would you shut up with this m’lady farce? she growls. Call me Arya or call me nothing, you idiot!

Gendry laughs. I’ve missed you, Arya.

She wilts a bit at that, warmth seeping into her chest. Me as well.

And then, after a while, So no one then? Really, not the whole while you were in Braavos?

Arya rolls her eyes. No, stupid, no one.

There were a few close encounters, and more than enough willing partners. She was Cat of the Canals before; she had an easy way about her and bedding a comely man would have been no difficult task. But whenever the opportunity arose, Arya felt a niggling sense of something. Indifference at best, guilt at worst. I’ll make you feel good, darling, one of them had crooned in her ear. And Arya felt hollow. She hadn’t lusted after any of them. She’s pulled from her thoughts by Gendry’s huff of annoyance.

Not even Jaqen? Or was that bastard too honorable to— Gendry starts to grumble.

Which is it, Gendry? Arya asks, a tired, resigned tinge to her voice. Do you think him some demon who stole me away from Westeros, or a man of honor who’d quiver at the sight of me in bed, naked as my name day?

Gendry eyes her warily. Why would he be in your chambers while you’re naked?

Arya lets out a giggle. She can’t believe they’re discussing this. You really don’t like him.

I don’t trust him, his voice hard.

Arya stares forward. Well I do. I did, the whole while I was in Braavos. How do you think I survived? He kept me safe.

I could’ve kept you safe, he says quietly.

No, Arya says with a shake of her head. We were on different paths long before—

Gendry slams his fist on the table, and a few patrons shoot the pair a wary glance. Because you ran off!

Arya stares back at him, eyes sharp. No! You chose to stay with the brotherhood remember? I asked you, I asked you to come with me to Riverrun and then Winterfell. To be my family! And you threw it in my face. She inches closer to get a good look at his stupid face. That’s why I ran off, Gendry. Because you did it first, she finishes quietly. She can feel her eyes sting; the memory of that day so vivid in her mind. She’d almost ripped his head off when he told her. She remembers all the anger piling up in her little body, ready to explode. Most of all, it was the rejection that hurt the most. Did he not want to be her family? Was she not good enough?

Arya shoves off from the table and runs from the dining hall, not wanting an audience for whatever argument she and Gendry were about to have. Gendry is hot on her heels but she pays him no mind. She quickly moves past the front entrance and exits the inn. When the cold air hits her, she leans her hands on her knees and breathes deeply, willing herself to calm and for her tears to stay at bay. Stupid, she thinks. Stupid girl. What use is it rehashing all this now? She hadn’t meant to tell him off so harshly. Arya wasn’t even sure they’d ever speak of it again—certainly not on her first night back. But the idea that she would willingly leave him enraged her. It was a constant weight on her chest—that anyone Arya loved was taken from her. She’d run from the brotherhood back then because she could not bear the thought that Gendry would leave her first. Arya takes a few more deep breaths.

All the while, she can feel Gendry watching her from a safe difference. When she finally rises and turns towards him, he is quick to rush forward. Gendry’s large hand lands on her neck, massaging up and tipping her chin towards him. Arya, listen to me. He swallows. We were never meant to be family. You know that. A lowly bastard boy from Flea Bottom and a Lady Stark of Winterfell? he asks sadly. You were young, you thought—you must’ve thought it easy, but it isn’t so. You didn’t understand—

Arya grasps his wrists. I understand just fine! she exclaims, voice harsh. I know what it means to be family, Gendry. I could be just a babe with no name days or a wrinkly haggard thing on the eve of death and I’d know what it means to be part of a pack. She thinks of her mother and father, her brothers and sister, and their pack of direwolves. It’s how I was raised, it’s all I know. And it was ripped from me. Father, Sansa, Syrio, my mother and brother at the Twins … you, even. And Jaqen. Her eyes shine with unshed tears. After all this time, how could he not understand?

Gendry takes a breath and hangs his head. Is that why you’re here? he asks quietly. Did he leave you?

Arya thumps him on the back of the head. I left him, stupid.

He nods. Arya, I’m sorry.

He keeps apologizing and Arya’s run out of snarky ways to get him to stop. I know, she says tiredly.

Gendry’s hand dips to her collarbone, down to her shoulder, and he squeezes. He imagines the ghost of soot he leaves on her skin. If it could be, if we lived in a different world, I’d gladly be your family. Even that, he thinks, seems too bold. He ought to know his place.

Arya’s frustration peaks and she pushes at his chest. Why must we wait for another life, another world? What of here and now? You men are so cryptic with your wants. Be clear and take hold of it, gods!

Gendry pitches forward, propriety be damned. He wraps her in his arms as gently as he can, and breathes her in, flushed cheek against the side of her head. He has never been one for displays of affection, less for intimate moments, but a terrified and perhaps greedy part of him wants Arya within arm’s reach at all moments. It’s as though he’s certain she’ll vanish otherwise. You are most demanding, m’lady, Gendry says with a wry chuckle. She always saw everything so easy, he thinks. Begrudgingly, he wonders if maybe it isn’t naivete on her part, but an honest knowledge that things didn’t always have to be as they were. Maybe she saw the bigger picture. The better picture.

Arya noses along the side of his neck and they just breathe together. He still smells good, she thinks absentmindedly. When her eyes flick towards the dense forest, she nearly snorts. It seems fated that their most arduous exchanges always happen in the damn woods. After another beat, Arya leans back and fixes Gendry with a withering stare, one he knows well from their time on the Kingsroad. She takes a breath and then tells him, I choose you. I have known you since I was just a child. A lifetime ago, fine. And though we parted, we are together now. You march north with me to my ancestral home, you defend me, honor me, and I would do the same for you. Do you understand? she asks gravely.

Gendry’s eyes roam her face, and he feels a lump at the base of his throat. Why was it always so easy for her? How could she be so sure, even at one and ten, that things would follow a certain course? Yes, m’lady.

Arya pinches his side where her arms cling round his torso. This is no jape, Gendry.

Ouch! He chuckles but immediately his expression sobers. I know it, Arya. I know what you mean.

She waits.

You mean that we are a pack, he says quietly. Thankfully.

Yes. And then she’s tucking her face into his chest, feeling his thundering heartbeat through scant layers of fabric.

Even if I’m just some bastard boy from the street of steel? he asks, a nervous tilt in his voice.

She shakes her head. Stupid bull. Don’t you know, Gendry?

What’s that, m’lady?

Arya gives him a squeeze. Some of the best people are bastards. My favorite people, truth be told.

And it’s been some time since Gendry’s face split into such a wide grin.

-----

While the debaucherous activities continue in the dining hall, Gendry escorts Arya upstairs to her room. After a night of intense conversation, they’ve both gone quiet. Too much and too little was said, too much time had passed. And Arya was starting to feel the ache of her journey; she craved a warm fire and a soft featherbed. They stop short and he lingers by the door. You’ll be alright, then? he asks.

She gives a languid nod and kicks him in the shin. She’s not used to gentlemanly Gendry. Don’t be weird, she thinks. Yes, thank you.

He snorts and gives her a light kick in return. I could guard your door tonight, he offers.

Are you my sworn sword, ser?

I—

Arya pats his arm and turns the doorknob. It’s fine, Gendry. You must be tired, get some sleep.

Gendry nods and watches her patter into her room. Sleep well, m’lady.

She gives a goofy little nod and bids him goodnight. At night she dreams of direwolves.

Chapter Text

There had been little peaceful slumber since Arya made the journey back to Westeros, but tonight’s sleep was especially fitful. A cold sweat misted across her neck and her head pounded. Maybe I had too much ale. With great reluctance, she sits upright in bed and massages her temples. Last night’s dream left her feeling hollow and helpless. Arya dreamt she was in the godswood, back in Winterfell. She remembered hearing voices swirling with the harsh northern wind. Flashes of Bran, she thought, but he looked older, tired. He called out to her, but Arya couldn’t make out his words. First, it was silence when he opened his mouth. Next, a congress of ravens seemed to pour out. Before she could make sense of the images, a wounded sound emerged by her side. Nymeria lay bloodied at her feet, jaw gnashing and whimpering, her head turned towards Arya, two baleful yellow eyes staring. But when Arya made to embrace the direwolf, she found she could not move, slumped as she were against the weirwood tree. Girl! Nymeria! Nymeria, to me! she cried. I’m sorry, please I’m sorry. Sobs wracked her chest. Yet, the wolf stay rooted by her feet, panting with little life left in her. Arya frantically looked around and called out for help, but in her eyeline, all she saw were dead wolves surrounding her. A mournful howl wrenched from Nymeria. Blood seeped into the earth, and Arya woke with a start.

This won’t do, she thinks as she swings herself out of bed. I did not return just for ghosts to haunt me. I need to get back home. She does a quick rinse in the bath, collecting her damp hair in a braid, and slips on a lightweight green dress a maid must’ve left her. With needle at her hip and a dagger strapped to her thigh, Arya feels a bit more herself and patters downstairs. She passes Miss Daliah and the serving girls on the way to the dining hall, and after a series of friendly nods and a rather awkward curtsy, Arya settles at one of the empty tables and mulls over a bowl of porridge. There’s no sign of Gendry yet. Good, she thinks. I hope he’s sleeping better than I did.

“You don’t look well rested, m’lady,” an amused voice calls out to her.

Arya hangs her head and grunts. “Please just call me Arya, Anguy.”

The archer looks far too cheerful for this time of day. He takes a seat across her, a small smile playing on his lips. "What are you doing up so early, Arya?"

Looking up, she shrugs. “I couldn’t sleep anymore. I couldn’t keep my dreams at bay,” she says, quieter.

“Your brothers and sister again?”

Arya shakes her head. “Not quite. My pack,” she says, drawing a quizzical look from Anguy. “My other pack…Nymeria, and her pack.”

“Your direwolf, m’lady?”

She nods.

“Are they out there now, then?”

Arya thinks of the direwolf in her dream, matted fur sodden in fresh blood. She pushes at her porridge. “I don’t know,” she starts. “I only get glimpses, a jumbled mess of sorts. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Nymeria. Even before I escaped King’s Landing. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.” Thinking back to that day years ago, Arya holds back a grimace. She’d been so scared, chucking rocks at Nymeria and hoping the direwolf would lope off and avoid the goldcloaks. It’s been too long, she thinks.

Anguy must catch onto her mood. He places a grizzly hand on her shoulder and squeezes. “She must be.

“How can you know?”

He pulls back his hand and shrugs. “Well, you’d know, wouldn’t you? You’d have felt it, if she perished.”

“What do you know of a Stark’s connection to its direwolf, Anguy?" Arya asks with a smile.

“I can guess well enough, m’lady. Northerners are different.” He gestures to her as if to say, ‘obviously.’

A true smile works its way across her face. “Aye, we are.”

He hums. “Finish up here, and we’ll practice some.”

“Practice?”

“Target shooting,” he says excitedly. “Work off some of that dreariness. You’ve a cloud hanging over you, m’lady.”

Arya thwacks him on the shoulder.

Offering a booming laugh, Anguy asks, “How are you with a bow and arrow these days?”

“I’m decent.”

“Just decent?” He remembers an angry girl marking a straw man, arrows dead in its head, its heart, and well, its balls.

Arya keeps her gaze downward. “I prefer a blade.”

“Must have been a rough few years, m’lady.” He sounds contrite.

“Do I seem so different now?” Arya can’t help but wonder. How must the brotherhood see her? An angry, grubby girl of two, three and ten returning a dangerous woman grown. They must think her slightly mad. Arya isn’t sure how to feel about that. A part of her is pleased. Don’t underestimate me, she thinks. I ate men like you for breakfast back in Braavos.

Anguy shrugs. “There’s something … something—”

Arya recalls Gendry’s words. “Something dark?”

“Something sad, Arya.” He watches her curiously.  

Arya deflates. “Oh,” she shrugs. “Well.”

Anguy shakes his head. “Don’t mean to overstep, m’lady—”

“In times of war, who is safe from sadness?” Arya dips her spoon and eats a bit of porridge.

Anguy frowns. “Aye.”

-----

Gendry finds her in the dining hall as she finishes breaking her fast. He is relieved to see her, perhaps stupidly so. A small part of him still feels anxious, still thinks Arya might be a dream, a spectre. Taking a seat beside her, he offers a quiet “M’lady.”

Arya is pulled from her conversation with Anguy and smiles up at him, open and honest, despite the dark circles and slight furrowed brow he notices mar her expression. “Gendry.”

He shoots her a small grin and wonders, not for the first time, if he’d be so lucky to wake up to her every day now. Would the gods be so kind? Years spent wondering what fate awaited Arya left Gendry bitter and jaded. Too often, he imagined her death—first at the hand of the Freys; later, the Bolton bastard. In every horrifying scenario he dreamt up, Gendry cannot save her in time. He is left mourning her again and again. But to see Arya here beside him, all warm flesh and generous smiles, leaves him breathless. He doesn’t feel so hopeless anymore. “You look…good, m’lady,” he blurts out. Arya raises her brows.

Anguy gives a rough cough, and Gendry shoots him an annoyed glare. Ever since Arya’s return, Anguy’s gaze and tone have been grating on him. “Such sweet words in the morn, lad.”

Gendry’s muttered Piss off is drowned out by Anguy’s laughter. “How are you so cheerful this early?” he grumbles.

“Dear boy, I spent my night with a sweet-cheeked lass, remember? And I woke this morning feeling the Lord of Light’s generosity.”

The smirk must be glued to his face, Gendry thinks bitterly, and he prickles at being addressed as ‘boy.’ Arya stays silent but he can see a small smile playing on her lips. She would find Anguy’s antics amusing.

“You ought to take some pointers, bull,” Anguy says. He leans forward, elbows settling against the table, hands clasped. He eyes him knowingly.

Gendry hoots. “What, and make out like you every night? Balls deep in some tavern wench who doesn’t even know your name?”

“Such language in front of the good lady! And just so we’re clear, she can call me whatever she pleases, so’s long as her mouth and cunt are wet and willing, lad.”

Gendry’s gaze snaps to Arya, and he feels a flush creeping down his neck. He shouldn’t allow himself so easily flustered, but she’s outright cackling at his side now, eyes turned into crescent moons and wolfish grin so pretty. “Shut your mouth, Anguy. I’m sorry, m’lady. We shouldn’t be talking of this.”

Arya shrugs. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve heard worse.”

That does nothing to settle Gendry’s nerves. “It does not, m’lady,” he says with a grimace.

“Arya,” she reminds him.

“Aye. Lady Arya.”

It takes a great deal of self restraint for Arya not to clap his ears.

“Though I s’pose once you take back Winterfell, you’ll be a princess.” For the first time, their difference in station amuses Gendry. He can picture her now, begrudgingly playing the proper princess, fists clenched at her side, a secret dagger strapped to her thigh. It makes for a pretty picture.

Almost as if reading his mind, Arya grumbles, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

He grins down at her. “I would.”

“And you would serve this princess? Kneel to her? Promise her protection, follow her into battle?” she asks haughtily.

The mirth slips from his expression, his gaze determined. “I would.”

Arya is taken aback by Gendry’s sudden seriousness. She thinks back to a conversation in a dark wooded forest.

“You can come to Winterfell and—"

“And what?”

“My brother, she falters, “he would welcome you. We have a forge! You could—"

“What, serve him? I’ve served men all my life; they never gave a damn about me. “

Arya swallows. So why am I different? she wonders.

Gendry meets her gaze evenly.

All the while, Anguy watches the pair with poorly concealed annoyance, and perhaps, concern. It’s as though they’re tethered by a string, he thinks. He gets a flash of two young’ns on the cusp of adulthood, wrestling around in the abandoned smithy of acorn hall. That had been the first red flag. “You won’t be stealing kisses from any princesses, boy!” Lem had admonished. He shakes his head. Who knows? a foolish part of his brain asks.

“You two,” Anguy says as he fixes them with an impressive glare, “need to think long and hard about what you’re doing. This game you’re playing at, it’s dangerous.” And with that, he nods and rises from the table. “The practice yard, m’lady. I’ll see you out there.”

Arya watches in confusion as Anguy leaves. When she turns back to Gendry, his eyes are conflicted. “Hey.”

His head snaps in her direction. “Hm?”

“I would never ask you to kneel to me, Gendry,” she says quietly.

Gendry reaches over and brushes the rough pad of his thumb across her cheek. Bold, yet again. The others take Anguy’s warning, he thinks. “You wouldn’t have to ask, Arya.”

-----

After engaging in enough shooting practice to make her arm sting, Arya begs off to the stables. Anguy had patted her roughly on the back, insisting that if she followed his advice, she’d be the best markswoman in all of Westeros.

“I have no such ambitions,” she said with a laugh.

“Still. My guidance rang true. You are so very blessed to have a mentor as myself, m’lady!”

Arya wanted to remind him that it’s been some time since his ambiguous advice of “Never hold,” but he’s too busy laughing triumphantly.

Now, in the stables, Arya finds a moment of calm. Though her body still aches from the journey, she is eager to get back on a horse, to feel the wind on her face as she rides. She methodically brushes through her mare’s coat, whispering sweet words. Mercy is a good girl, sweet and strong and preening from the attention. She butts her head towards Arya’s in such an affectionate manner, she has half a mind to gather wildflowers and braid them into her mane out of thanks. “Sweet girl. Don’t worry, you’ll have time to rest before we set off again.”

After compiling a short list of supplies she’ll need before their journey, Arya surveys the grounds of the inn. She finds a spare bit of land and pulls Needle from her sword belt. She’d been practicing nearly every day since landing in Westeros, intent on keeping her skills sharp. Flicking the skinny blade in a graceful arc, Arya slashes through her imagined enemies. Jon’s Stick them with the pointy end! rings through her head like a mantra, and she pictures his sweet smile and the ghost of his warm embrace. They never had the chance to spar together with the blade he had forged for her. Arya wonders what it might feel like anyway. Would Jon wield a sword as great as Ice like father? Would he prefer an aggressive fighting style? Would he easily deflect her attacks? Growing up, Jon had always been a smart fighter, quick to parse out his opponent’s strategy and look for an opening. He was still learning when they parted ways though. He was still so young. No doubt the years at the wall would harden Jon; he would no longer spar as a green boy, she thought. He must be a great warrior, Arya thought proudly.

With a grunt, she spins on her foot and smoothly sheathes Needle. Crouching low for a moment, she quickly draws her dagger, flipping it from one hand to the other and stabbing the short blade into the imagined neck of Cersei Lannister. I’ll make her bleed, Arya vows savagely.

A few feet behind her, a little voice calls out, “How’d you do that?”

Arya whirls around. Peeking from behind the side of the inn is a little girl, hands and face slightly dirtied, her blonde tresses a nest atop her head. She eyes Arya curiously, a slight frown on her face, as if she were working out a difficult set of sums. She must be one of the orphans the inn’s taken care of. She drops her arm with the dagger. “Do what?”

The little girl jerks her head forward. “That. With your little knife,” she chirps. Carefully, she inches closer to Arya. “The way you play with swords don’t look like anything the brotherhood do,” she says, suspicious.

Arya hums. “I had a dancing teacher once.”

The girl’s expression turns sour. “He taught you to dance and fight?”

“No,” Arya says with a laugh. “He was from Braavos. My father had him teach me a different type of fighting, with lighter steps and speed. They call it water dancing.”

“I want to learn,” she says, with a kind of resoluteness only a child can muster.

Arya lowers herself on a nearby bench and pats the space beside her. The little girl bounds up to her, plopping down with eagerness. “I’m not as good as Syrio,” Arya warns. “But I’ll be staying for a little while, and I could teach in the meantime.”

“But I’m a girl,” she remembers forlornly, her earlier confidence wilting.

“So am I,” Arya says with a shrug. She dusts the dirt from the skirt of her dress. Then she unsheathes Needle and hands it to the child pommel first with a murmur of, “Careful.”

She runs her little hands across the hilt and frowns. “They say it’s not ladylike, to run around with a sword in hand. That’s what all the old drunks tell me when I talk of wanting to fight.”

Arya leans forward. “Can I tell you a secret?”

She nods.

“All the best warriors are women. Visenya, Nymeria, Wenda the White Fawn, all of them ladies and proper fighters. The old drunks can shove it.”

She outright giggles, and hands the sword back to Arya. “I’ll tell ‘em that next time.”

Arya nudges the child’s shoulder and grins down at her. “Good girl.”

The child swings her little legs to and fro. “They say you’re a lord’s daughter.” Doubt colors her voice.

Arya quirks her brow. “I am.” No use hiding it; the maids must’ve talked enough.

“And your lord father allows you to fight? He doesn’t mind?”

Arya leans back, her throat dry. “He did at first. It worried him, I think. But he was … a kind man. I was an unruly child, but I loved him so. I used to run through the woods and pick him wildflowers, weave a crown of winter roses in his hair.” She pictures Ned among his soldiers, a grin on his usually somber face as Arya clambered to him, setting the little wreath atop his head and declaring him her lord of love and beauty. “And I bested my brothers when we sparred with wooden practice swords or practiced archery, and it would always make him smile. He said I had the wolf’s blood in me. He did not wish to change me or see me molded into a different kind of lady." It has been so long since she’s spoken of Ned. Arya feels a slight stinging behind her eyes and tries to smile. “He was a good father,” she says quietly.

The girl peers up at her in confusion. “Where is he now? Why are you here all alone?”

There is a painful lurch in Arya’s chest. “I—” she grits.

Suddenly, Gendry steps forward and enters the clearing. His hands are covered in soot, smudges of it clear on his chin and neck as well. He shoots Arya a comforting smile and gestures to the girl. “Alya, time to get back. They’ll be needing you in the kitchens, girl.”

The girl, Alya, bounds up to Gendry, annoyance coloring her voice. “Aw, I’m still talking with the lady,” she whines.

Arya rises with a laugh and kneels by her side. “Alya, is it?” She nods. "I’m Arya. We’ll talk more at supper, how’s that, hm?”

“Alright,” she says begrudgingly, looking back and forth between Arya and Gendry. “You just want Lady Arya to yourself Ser Gendry!” She sticks her tongue out at him.

“Maybe so,” he says, a smug look on his face. “I’ve known her longer, it’s only fair, little one.”

Alya eyes them curiously. “You two?”

“We knew each other as children,” Arya offers.

“How’s that?”

“Oh no, you’re not getting out of your chores.” Gendry gives the little girl a soft push. “Off you go.” It is an amusing sight; massive, slightly taciturn Gendry wrangling a wild little girl.

He and Arya stand side by side, watching as Alya lopes back to the kitchens, grumbling the entire time. “I like her.”

Gendry peers down at her, eyes warm and lips upturned. “Aye, she reminds me of you. A real pain in my ass.”

Arya reaches up and thumps him on the back of his head, giggling outright at the little oomph! he lets out. She’s quick to dance out of his grasp, laughing the entire time.

-----

That evening, he finds her surrounded by a gaggle of children. The hellions swarm on Arya, supper forgotten, as they beg to see her sword, to see her dance, after Alya had run throughout the inn, boasting of the lady’s prowess. Gendry looks on fondly, sees how Arya falters for a second at the sudden attention, before her face splits into a wide grin. She musses at their hair, promising the children a demonstration in the morn, so long as they behave and eat their supper tonight. A series of grumbles follow, then Arya leans forward and whispers conspiratorially with the lot of them, her voice hushed and excited. Gendry wonders if this is how she was with her brothers, wonders if she sees the ghost of her siblings in these wayward orphans. Before the children can protest anymore, Miss Daliah whirls through the dining hall, clutching a bundled little thing to her bosom and tutting at the young ones.

“Off with you now!” she exclaims, making a shooing motion with her free hand. “Let the good lady eat her supper!”

Arya smiles in thanks, stopping short at the sight of the babe. Before she can ask, Miss Daliah offers, “Kitchenmaid’s son. Ronald.” She sighs. “The father ran off some moons ago. We all try to look after the sweetling while his mother works.”

Arya nods, stifling the ache in her chest as she peers down at the plump little babe. The sight of him shouldn’t pull at her heartstrings; Ronald looks nothing like her brother and yet, she cannot help but be reminded of baby Rickon. No amber colored locks or shocking blue-gray eyes, but the flushed cheeks and little grin plastered on the babe’s face is reminiscent of the youngest Stark. She reaches down and runs her finger across his soft cheek. “He looks happy,” she remarks.

“Aye,” Miss Daliah says as she bounces the bundle in her arms. “He’s a sweet boy, calm in his disposition and giving with his smiles. He’ll grow into a good man!”

Arya’s throat closes. When she’d left for King’s Landing with her father and sister, Rickon had barely seen two name days. How had he grown up, she wonders. Would he recognize her face? Doing her best to ignore her sudden grief and offering her arms, Arya asks, “May I?”

Miss Daliah laughs. “A soft spot for children, my lady? Of course, of course!” She deposits Ronald in Arya’s arms, fussing to keep the blanket wrapped around him. In the transition, the babe’s soft gurgling raises in volume. He flaps his little hands in the air, clutching at the neckline of Arya’s dress and pulling in glee.

“Oof,” Arya grunts. “You’re strong, little one.” Ronald giggles in response. As she settles him against her chest and coos in encouraging murmurs, the babe quiets, and he leans a heavy head against her shoulder.

Miss Daliah watches the warm exchange. “You’re a natural, m’lady. Do you have little siblings of your own?”

The smile on Arya’s face falters, her hold on Ronald tightening in the slightest. Before she can answer, Miss Daliah’s attention is pulled elsewhere, and after Arya assures her it’s no burden to look after the babe a little while longer, she’s waddling off.

Arya sways back and forth a bit, watches as Ronald’s eyes droop, a little smile still playing on his lips. Arya snorts. “You’re a strange one. Able to nod off among all this hustle and bustle,” she whispers. “A good lad. Your calm heart will surely ease your mother’s burden.” She rubs a soothing hand against the babe’s back and thinks of another lifetime with children running amuck in the halls of Winterfell, the lord’s youngest son giggling happily in his crib. Longing blooms in her chest.

Across the hall, Gendry watches Arya with sad eyes. He’d known her to have a soft spot for children. He remembers how she’d slip the little ones extra food and blankets back at Harrenhal, how little Weasel would cling to Arya during their trek along the Kingsroad woods. And while she never spoke oft of it, Gendry knows she’d had little brothers, how she must’ve run wild with them at Winterfell. He watches now as Arya continues to coo at little Ronald, lightly bouncing him in her arms as the babe drifts off to sleep. He can see the naked affection on Arya’s face, and a traitorous part of Gendry’s brain imagines what she’d look like holding a squirming babe with his raven hair and her slate gray eyes. Before his imagination gets away from him, he hears a shifting and sees Lem sit beside him.

“A word of advice, if I may. Don’t moon so openly over the little lady.” He smirks and takes a swig of ale.

Gendry mourns any semblance of a peaceful night and grumbles. “Leave me be, shithead.”

Lem laughs, a high tinny sound among the low roar of their drunken brothers. “Been some time since I’ve seen you out of sorts, lad. It’s wonderful.” But then his gleeful expression turns pensive. “You gonna tell her then?”

Gendry goes back to watching Arya. “Tell her what?” he asks absentmindedly.

He feels, rather than sees Lem shake his head in disappointment. “You truly are an idiot.”

It is with great reluctance that Gendry pulls his focus from Arya and turns to Lem, rolling his eyes. He can guess well enough what the man refers to. “There’s no time for that,” he says lowly. “We’ve to fight a war in the north. There are more pressing matters.”

“Ah, there’s always time for love,” Lem sagely intones.

Gendry snorts. “You sound like Tom.”

Lem scoffs. “Don’t insult me, boy.”

-----

Later in the night, after most of the patrons have finished their supper, either retiring to their rooms or opting to drink themselves silly among the brotherhood, Gendry wanders the inn. He’d lost sight of Arya after she joined him for the rest of supper, having been pulled into an inane drinking game by one of the brothers. Arya had laughed and told him to enjoy himself. Now, he finds Arya in on the side rooms, curled up on a tattered chaise with a drowsy Alya in her lap. Gendry shakes his head, all the children had gone to bed earlier or so he thought. “How long have you been sitting here?” he whispers.

Arya shrugs, one hand holding a cup of mulled wine to her lips, another running through Alya’s tangled nest of hair. “She fell asleep and I didn’t want to wake her.”

“Your legs must be numb.”

Arya scoffs. “She hardly weighs anything, ‘s alright,” she says with a smile.

Gendry smiles in return and inches closer, his footsteps rousing the little girl. “C’mon then, little lady,” he says, lifting Alya up. She’s getting bigger, he thinks sadly. Only at six, she’s already heavy in his arms. Won’t be long before he won’t be able to carry her to bed. Alya immediately clutches round his neck and murmurs drowsily, “Arya was telling me about the wildings up north.”

“You’ll get more stories later. Time for bed.” He hoists her up more securely and looks back at Arya. “I’ll be right back.”

She rises and nods, drawing close to him. “Goodnight, Alya.”

Alya reaches down blindly and squeezes Arya’s hand. “Goodnight, m’lady.”

Gendry can only chuckle as he walks towards the little one’s room. “Oh, now you remember your courtesies.”

Alya half-heartedly swats at his neck and grumbles. “‘M sleepy.” And then she’s gone to the world, no doubt dreaming of giants and wildings and monsters made of ice.

-----

Back downstairs, Gendry is met with the sounds of Arya’s soft snores, her mouth formed in a little ‘o’ as her fists seem to grapple for purchase. The mug of wine hangs perilously in her grasp, and Gendry is quick to set it off to the side. “Arya,” he whispers.

She mumbles something unintelligible.

“Arya,” he tries again. “Let’s get you to bed.”

“Just…just a little while longer. Don’t … wanna … not alone.” She shifts in her half asleep state and pats the space beside her. “Gendry,” murmurs.

He goes to sit beside her, first undoing his cloak and draping it across Arya’s curled up form. With a heavy sigh, he leans his head back and watches her, eyes trying to memorize every little detail of her face. Her wrinkled brow, her soft eyelashes, her slightly flushed cheeks. Gendry resists the urge to lean forward and cup the side of her face, desperately wanting to feel that warmth. Instead, his hand carefully falls at the dip of her waist. Her body thrums with heat despite the chill of the inn. He can so easily imagine a life with Arya like this, hazy nights where they’re curled up by the fire. Perhaps a brood of children of their own. Honest work, good food. A good life, he thinks. But it’s foolish of Gendry to entertain such thoughts. She’s lost everything, he reprimands himself. And what she hasn’t lost forever, she’ll have to fight to the bitter end to get back. But I’ll be there, he vows. I’ll help her, I’ll fight with her, I’ll die for her if I have to.

As if reading his thoughts, suddenly Arya’s hand reaches across her middle and settles atop his at her waist, though her eyes remain closed and her breathing steady. She gives a little squeeze and a low snarl. You fool, her touch seems to say. No one's dying. I’ll protect you.

And Gendry smiles. Even in slumber, she’s a fierce thing. “We’ll protect each other, m’lady.”  

 

 

Chapter Text

In about a fortnight’s turn, Arya and the brotherhood have gathered enough supplies, men, and horses for their march north. They settle on a decent group of riders, though a portion of the brothers will remain here to keep watch over the inn and the surrounding villages. The plan is simple; make it to the wall or as far north as they can manage and find Jon. It’s not much to go on, not much in the way of battle plans at all, and Arya still feels a queer sense of uncertainty, that these men would willingly follow her into rugged lands with only her hearty thanks—and a place at Winterfell if they’re successful—in return. At best, she remembers the Brotherhood Without Banners as a neutral force, protecting the small folk as it were. At worst, they were a raving group of outlaws, ready to ransom Arya and any useful captive for a bag of coin. What’s changed, she wonders. When she mentions this to Gendry one evening, he can only chuckle. You make people want to follow you, want to fight for you, m’lady, he wants to say but he’s too chickenshit.

“Let us fight for the north,” he tells her instead. “Things have changed, believe it or not. Though no brother would turn his nose up at a handsome payoff. But Anguy wasn’t just feeding you pretty words the other night, Arya. We’re all just biding time while Cersei plays her games in King’s Landing. The brotherhood will rally behind a good cause; they want peace.”

Arya considers this and decides not to kick a gift horse in the mouth. She’ll have able bodied men and good weapons at her disposal, and perhaps her family and any loyal northern houses they can gather will have a fighting chance. While preparing for their trip, Arya makes it a point to gather as many leathers and furs she can get her hands on. In the evening, she mends what she can with lackluster sewing skills and prays it’s enough to keep the men warm during their travels. She has no doubt that once they’re north of the neck, this grizzled motley crew will be freezing their southron asses off, and the last thing Arya needs is to lose more people—to hypothermia and frostbite no less. No, we’re making it to the wall, all of us, she vows.

In the meantime, Arya trains. As promised, she’s taken to teaching many of the children and younger maids how to fight, if not with a sword then at least a few useful defensive tactics that’ll ward off bandits or rapers. Alya, as it turns out, is utterly vicious and spirited with her practice sword. Oftentimes, Arya has to reel her back in, and she suddenly feels for her Braavosi teacher Syrio, wondering where he found the patience to wrangle a bloodthirsty little thing with a weapon. But the children are improving, they’ll be able to defend themselves soon enough, and that’s the most important thing.

-----

Gendry spends much of his time in the inn’s makeshift forge, repairing swords and armor before their journey. Arya finds him in the evenings, when he’s so lost in the steady pounding of his hammer or the hiss of steel cooling in water, he sees little else. She sits at one of the benches, quietly watching him work and discreetly taking note of his bared chest, memorizing the thick planes of muscle along his arms as he shapes steel. She brings him warm stew and bread, and they sup together right there in the forge, the glow of the smithy fires casting a warm light around them.

One afternoon, Arya is teaching the little ones proper stance and strategic attacks when she catches sight of Gendry across the yard, a smirk on his perpetually sooty face. She waves him over and tosses him a sword, and he raises his eyebrows as he catches the pommel easily.

“If you have time to watch, you have time to practice.”

“Ah, I don’t know…” he trails off, scratching the back of his neck with his free hand.

“Come on,” Arya goads. “Spar with me, ser.”

Almost immediately, the children and the few brothers watching make way and give an enthusiastic cheer.

“I much prefer a warhammer, m’lady,” Gendry says, and Arya feels a thrill run up her spine. With his size and know-how, he could probably bash my skull in, she thinks. But he’s the Knight of Hollow Hill now, and as such, he ought to train with a sword too.

“No harm in getting used to live steel,” she quips.

Gendry swings the sword to and fro, enjoying the gratifying swoosh of the blade among the hoots and hollers. He can’t help the wry laugh that bubbles from his throat. He is blessed with the craftsmanship to build a sword as beautiful as any—a sword many high lords would pay a good fortune for—but for all Gendry’s prowess in the making of such a weapon, he still feels slightly awkward wielding it. Arya must catch on, because her expression turns a bit soft before morphing into a something altogether challenging and dangerous. Let’s dance, her eyes seem to say.

Giving a grunt of assent, Gendry slightly lowers himself into a fighting stance, sword arm outstretched. He makes sure to keep his body deftly turned towards Arya. “Sideface, right?”

Arya grins. “You remember.” She unsheathes Needle and waits for him to make his first move.

After they circle each other for a bit, Gendry starts strong, long blade moving in a bold arc and seemingly coming down towards Arya’s shoulder. But she’s quick to move out of its direction and side steps in a half twirl, little blade deflecting Gendry’s attack and swiftly rounds Needle towards his gut. She flicks the side of the blade against his ribs and smiles. “You’ve got to be quicker than that, bull.” Gendry grips the hilt of the sword tightly and lunges again, once, twice, forcing her back a few steps before she ducks and rolls out of his way. Arya sends a hard kick to his calf while he’s turned away, but his sheer bulk leaves him unphased and highly amused. He whirls around and shoots Arya a cocky grin, sword moving hard and true from one side to the other, then swiftly up, the tip nearly piercing her at the breastbone before she swats the blade away with another flick of Needle. Gracefully, dangerously, Arya draws a path with her skinny sword, rapid enough where they can hear the hiss of metal cutting through air and seemingly towards Gendry’s upper torso. Her steps are quick and calculated, and Gendry can’t help but admire her delicate yet highly effective footwork, stumbling back because of it.

“His left side!” a bystander suddenly shouts. “Go for his bad side, she-wolf!”

“Shut your damn mouth, Anguy!” Gendry grunts.

Distantly, a boy among the throng of onlookers whispers to his friend. “She-wolf?”

His companion nods. “That’s what they call the lady.”

And when the pair turns back to the spar, they catch sight of Arya’s hungry gaze, her grin wide and teeth bared. A fitting name, they think.

Arya’s eyeing Gendry’s left side now and advancing on him, so in a last ditch effort, he swings his body low and in a semi-circle, catching her at the hip and nearly sending her flying. Needle scatters to the ground.

Unsheathing her extra dagger and glaring at him with murder in her eyes, Arya screeches. “Did you just body check me, you giant oaf?!”

Sweat licks at the nape of Gendry’s neck, and he feels a bit of pride bloom at having disarmed Arya. Well, partially anyway. I wonder how many bloody weapons she’s got strapped on her right now. “Every technique is fair game, m’lady. Didn’t they teach you that in Braavos?”

“I’ll show you what they taught me,” she mutters, and then she’s rushing towards Gendry, dagger at the ready. Gendry brings his sword up to deflect her advance, but she’s already two steps ahead of him. Hesitating at the very last second before they’re quite literally toe to toe, Arya fades back and allows Gendry to lean towards her. Quick as a cat, she shifts from one side to the other, twirling with precision so that she’s suddenly behind Gendry, nearly climbing atop him with the blade of her dagger hot against his exposed neck. “Yield,” she murmurs.

And Gendry stills at the feel of her against him, barely registering the slightest dig of the blade into his flesh. He drops his sword and sighs, though his lips fight a smile. “I yield, m’lady,” he whispers, as Arya pulls back and drops to the ground. When he turns, he sees her eyes alight with something—something burning and beautiful—and his blood sings, whole body buzzing. Gendry is suddenly reminded of conversation he had long ago, when he was newly knighted by the brotherhood and they’d stopped at a brothel to celebrate.

“Yer a knight, are ya?” a scantily clad woman had asked him, lashes fluttering and bosom pressed against his arm.

Gendry could only nod. He’d had few experiences with women and was unused to the attention. He wonders how any woman could breathe in a bodice that tight.

“Ah, a brave and strong one then? Tell me,” she purred. “You must’ve fought in battles. Does killing make your blood hot?” She ran her fingertip down the vein of his forearm and Gendry blanched. He’d killed before, to defend himself and Arry. There was no joy in it, no reveling in bloodlust. Killing didn’t make him feel anything, he thought. “Very few things make my blood hot, woman,” he’d grunted before storming out.

Now, standing across from Arya, having felt the exhilaration of sparring with her and remembering the feel of her lithe body against his, Gendry isn’t so sure. He stares at Arya with something akin to hunger, and she meets his gaze steadily. Raising a brow, she almost dares him to say something, but the moment is broken by the cheers.

Almost immediately, the children swarm, eager to congratulate Arya and clamoring for her to teach them this and that trick. Alya looks particularly starstruck. Next to her, a little boy, Willis, she remembers, inches forward and shyly hands her a fistful of flowers, dirtied roots and all. She crouches down and offers him a kiss on the cheek, before indulging the rest of the children with their questions and fawning. Even Anguy lumbers up to Arya with a rough pat on her back and a raucous laugh at her ear. “Well fought, m’lady!” he exclaims. She is dirty and sweaty, and here in this clearing, surrounded by orphans and misfit outlaws, with Gendry’s heady gaze on her, Arya couldn’t be happier.

-----

In the days leading up to their departure, Arya finds herself spending more time in the woods and among the kitchen staff. She often ventures out early in the morn, hunting for rabbit and foraging for mushrooms to bring back to the kitchens. It’ll make for a heartier stew, she thinks, and Miss Daliah and the maids are thankful for it. Baby Ronald’s mother, Mirah, especially takes to Arya’s presence and soon enough, they become fast friends. She’s a kind girl a few name days ahead of Arya, and her biting humor and easy smile is a welcome sight. Oftentimes, Arya helps look after the babe, cradling him against her breast and surveying the grounds as his mother works. Other times, she’ll stay in the kitchens, rattling off her brief knowledge of how best to bake brown bread while Mirah gathers the ingredients. In turn, Mirah teaches Arya how to better mend clothing or what tree bark and roots are best for tanning spare hides to make satchels or sword belts.

They exchange stories and japes, and in the wake of their conversations, Arya misses her mother and sister dearly. Catelyn and Sansa may have been proper ladies, but there is something about the sharing of knowledge among women that Arya feels acutely deprived of. She’d only gotten a taste of it back in Winterfell, too often feeling like an outsider or clouded by her rash nature. In her travels, she was always met with gruff men, and her time in Braavos had turned her cold. But since returning to Westeros, Arya felt warmth inch its way back inside her chest, and her longing for home and family and companionship grew. The atmosphere of the inn had much to do with that, as did Gendry’s presence. A fact which Mirah was quick to point out.

“He’s good for you,” she says one night while nursing baby Ronald.

“Who?”

Mirah snorts. “Why, Anguy of course. Gendry, you daft woman.”

“Oh. Well, we—we knew each other. Before, I mean. When the war had only just begun. He knows me well,” she says quietly.

“And you reunited here.”

“Yes.”

“Lucky, you are. He looks at you like you hung the moon, m’lady.” Ronald gurgles in assent as he finishes his meal, and Mirah laughs.

Arya feels a blush creeping down her neck and returns to stitching up one of the torn wool coverlets. “He does not,” she protests.

Moving her hands to cover her babe’s ears, Mirah shoots Arya a wry grin. “He does so. He looks at you like he’d like a quick romp in the smithy, m’lady!” she whispers.

Shooting up from her chair, cheeks ablaze, Arya plucks Ronald from his mother and gives a half-hearted kick to her foot. “Mirah!” she chides. Arya’s no stranger to bawdy japes but the subject of Gendry has her feeling flustered. “I’m not! We’re not…romping,” she whispers.

Mirah cackles and it’s such a full, lively sound, that soon Arya grins. “But you want to.” She sighs dreamily. “Would that I had some handsome burly man take me for a romp or two.”

At this, Arya goes to sit by Mirah and eyes her carefully. “I’ve not been here a full moon’s turn, but I’ve seen many men approach you with their affections—”

“Ah, they’re too fond of ale and wandering women to commit,” she gripes.

Arya smiles. “Mayhaps you should make your way up north. We’ve good men to spare,” she japes.

Mirah takes Ronald and lowers him into his crib, softly sweeping the hair from his forehead. “Mayhaps one day, m’lady,” she murmurs. “My boy and I have more adventures to come, I believe.”

“You’ll always have a place at Winterfell,” Arya vows. “If we can take back the bloody castle,” she mutters.

And Mirah turns back, smiling, clasping Arya’s hands in hers. “I’ll hold you to that, m’lady.

-----

The night before they’re to leave, Arya wanders deeper into the woods and settles against a large oak tree, kneeling before it in supplication and closing her eyes. It’s no weirwood, but it’ll have to do. She sends a quiet prayer to the old gods and the new, asking for safe, uneventful travels, and fortitude in reuniting with her family. Most of all, Arya asks for courage—that she may protect those she loves, and guidance—should she lose anyone in the battle to come. Leaning back on her haunches, Arya peers up at the night sky, comforted by the fact that wherever her siblings are, they’re looking up that same view. Her mind wanders to Jon, her best brother, and Arya cannot help but feel a knot of apprehension settle in the pit of her stomach. Jon will want me, even if no one else does, she remembers repeating to herself whenever her mother or Septa Mordane scolded her, when Jeyne or Theon called her horse face, when Sansa thought Arya a secret bastard because of her Northern coloring. But those days were long gone, and though her love for her brother had not waned in the slightest—in fact, growing beyond comprehension while they were apart—Arya knows neither she nor Jon will return to Winterfell the same people.

In the back of her mind, she imagines her brother looking upon her with only fear and disgust, recoiling at what she’s become. A more traitorous part of her imagination delves deeper. He’ll not recognize nor want you. Monster. Why would he welcome a monster back in his arms? Arya shakes her head to dispel the thought. Growing up, her worst fear had been disappointing her father. Ned was ever lenient with Arya but on days when his patience grew thin or she pushed too much, his gaze turned hard and resigned, and she’d never felt such shame. Now, she imagines how alike Jon must be to their father, what it would feel like for Jon’s eyes, Ned’s eyes, her own eyes—slate gray and unyielding—to look upon her with disappointment, and Arya could retch. Skirmishes, battles, wars, even death itself did not scare Arya. It was a welcome thought, that this misery would end one way or another, but to feel hope bloom in her chest and think she could take back what was once ripped from her, only to face rejection… Arya would choose death a hundred times over. Before she can entertain any more morose thoughts, she hears the crunch of leaves and twigs snap and knows Gendry is making his way towards her.

“What in the hells are you doing out here, Arya? It’s freezing.” Gendry nears her, attempting to pull his rumpled cloak and thin tunic tighter round his hulking frame. He’d been in the forge all evening, no doubt getting his fill of the sweltering heat. But tonight was brisk; the damp earth beneath her knees cold to the touch. Looking up at him now, Arya finds his expression confused, if not a tad concerned.

Arya rises and brushes the dirt and scattered leaves from her leather breeches. “I was just thinking,” she says simply.

“You were out here skulking,” Gendry surmises. “What’s wrong?”

Shaking her head and offering him a wane smile, Arya clasps her hands behind her back and considers her next words carefully. “Did you know,” she starts, “that Winterfell was built on a system of hot springs? Inside the walls, all year long, you can feel the heat from the springs; it’s as if the castle itself is thrumming with life. That same heat keeps our gardens safe; winter roses will bloom as though we’d been living in the long summer. When it was warm enough, my brothers and I would swim in the spring in the godswood. It’s a sacred clearing a ways from the castle, the heart tree at its center as pale as snow with a bleeding face carved into the bark. It used to scare my lady mother. But I always found the face comforting, like an old friend. Like Old Nan. She was probably as old as Winterfell itself,” Arya says with a hollow laugh.

Gendry takes a step forward. “Arya,” he says quietly, willing her eyes to come back to focus.

“I remember everything,” she confesses. “Every last detail. And I don’t know what I’ll do when I return, and all that remains is rubble and the ghosts of my family. I have all these memories, Gendry, and I don’t know where to put them. They don’t fit inside me anymore.” Arya hands cradle in her chest, as if physically holding herself together. Peering up at him, her eyes beseeching, she continues. “I always thought, no matter how far gone I was, no matter how much they beat me into facelessness, the minute I was safe inside the walls of Winterfell, I’d remember what it was like to be Arya Stark. That was foolish of me. How can I remember if there’s nothing left of my home?” The hands against her breast are clenched so hard, the whites of her knuckles stand out against her dark leather jerkin.

Reaching down and prying her fists apart, Gendry covers her hands in his own, smoothing down her palms and lacing their fingers together. For a minute, he just squeezes in time with a steady heartbeat, giving her the space to decompress. In a quiet voice, Gendry admits, “I’d never had a home before. Not for true, at least. I was knocked around Flea Bottom for a while, from growing up in a tavern to sleeping on a dirty cot in the back of Mott’s shop. It was always so noisy; you could barely hear yourself think above the din of merchants or drunkards or orphans running amuck. No matter how close I got to feeling like I belonged, nothing felt permanent. It took me a while to learn that home isn’t always a place. Then there was you, and Hot Pie. We mighta been sleeping in the woods, or in a shit pen at Harrenhal, or in a fucking cave while the red priest worked his magic, but I always had someone familiar.” Gendry wonders if he’s making any sense.

“We were a family,” Arya offers quietly, taking a step forward, her forehead just a breath away from laying on his chest.

Gendry lightly snorts but continues. “Aye, a strange one at that. But it felt like home for me, even if I was too stubborn to say so back then. We made a home out of nothing,” he says, a bit of wonder and apology creeping into his voice. I’m sorry, he thinks. I’m sorry I ever said we couldn’t be family. Pulling his hands free, Gendry cups the side of Arya’s face, thumb running a line from her bottom lip to the soft curve of her jaw. “Your family,” he murmurs. “Your brothers and sister will help.”

“What if they don’t want me?”

“I keep telling ya,” Gendry starts to grumble. “That won’t happen. They’re your people. And people make a home,” he says resolutely. “It’s not just thousand year old buildings or bleeding trees or winter roses. When you’ve got your family back, you’ll rebuild…share new stories while honoring the past. Bit by bit, you’ll remember what it’s like to be Arya.” Gendry tips her chin skyward, his gaze boring into hers, steady, patient, loving.

When she cracks a smile and reaches up to cover his hand with hers, the tension and sadness abate. “When did you get so wise?”

Gendry scoffs. “You’ve not seen me at my best, m’lady. There’s genius hiding here,” he says as he taps a finger to his temple.

Arya shoves him playfully, and he laughs, a sweet booming sound, as he gently wrestles her in an embrace and pushes her back against the oak tree.

“Feel better?” He peers down at her. He’s so close, she thinks.

“Yes,” Arya whispers, and then she leans forward to kiss him. It starts soft, just a chaste press of their lips, cautious and searching. Then another. And another. When Gendry places a kiss to the corner of her mouth, she giggles, arms reaching around his neck and pulling him closer. She urges him forward, so much so that the hard line of his body nearly melts into hers. Arya welcomes the weight, enjoys the feel of Gendry against her, warm and steady, his cloak billowing around them like a cape. Arya fits her lips against Gendry’s and kisses him in an altogether thorough fashion, exploring, teasing, and pulling every plausible reaction from him. She reaches round and fists her hands to the back of his tunic and underneath, palming the hot cord of muscle along his abdomen. When she rakes her nails toward the small of his back, his hand flies to the juncture between her jaw and neck, applying the lightest pressure, and he moans in her mouth.

The sound is jarring to Gendry’s ears. He rears his head back to stare at Arya. His pupils are blown so wide, there’s hardly any of the blue iris left. To his credit, Arya looks equally ruffled, her lips red and swollen, hair flying haphazardly round her face as her braid came undone. Suddenly he gets a glimpse of what she might look like lying beneath him, wild hair splayed, hands running up his torso, bare thighs raised and cradling him, as her hips brace the weight of his now. When she pitches forward and peppers kisses under his jaw, sucking a line of bruises down the column of his throat, little else matters. His body thrums with want and in a crazed moment, Gendry thinks he’d like to fuck Arya right here in the bloody woods, and with the way she molds herself against his body now, a torturous pressure against his half hardened cock, she’s like to agree.

With great reluctance and even more self-restraint, Gendry braces a hand on the oak tree to push himself away from Arya, much to her displeasure. “Come back here,” she grumbles.

Gendry can only chuckle, willing his body to calm down with the added space between them. Arya reaches forward and slightly tugs at the neck of his tunic, keeping their bodies apart but softly bumping her forehead against his. “You don’t…that wasn’t a mistake, was it?” she whispers.

“No.”

“Then why stop?”

A low grown. “Because I won’t know how to stop, Arya, and I’d rather we didn’t end up rutting right here in the dirt.” Liar, he thinks.

Releasing his shirt and raising her nimble fingers to cradle his jaw, Arya kisses him softly. Gendry is too quick to give in, reveling in the feel of her lips against his. She steps back, a pretty blush on her cheeks and nods. “Fine,” she says, giving him a light shove. “We’ll do it when we have a bed. A room. With a door. And a lock,” she adds, grinning.

"Do what?" he asks stupidly.

Arya shrugs. "Everything."  

And Gendry chokes on his own spit. “You’ll get me killed,” he mutters.

Arya’s expression sobers too much for his liking. “No,” she murmurs. “It won’t come to that.”

“Don’t think like that,” he chides.

“What?”

Gendry shakes his head, closing the distance between them to pull Arya into his arms. “I’ll not leave you, Arya. I’m yours as long as you’ll have me.”

Swallowing past a lump in her throat, Arya burrows further into the crook of Gendry’s neck, inhaling his scent. “I’m yours too,” she promises, voice muffled and slightly embarrassed.

When Gendry leans down and presses a kiss to her forehead, Arya shudders, and he must mistake it as a reaction to the night chill, because Gendry quickly pulls off his cloak and wraps it around her shoulders, clasping it tight around her neck. “Come on, let’s get back inside.”

-----

That night, while tossing and turning in bed, Arya idly remembers that any tree can be heart tree. In truth, a godswood is what you make of it, and as long as one feels the presence of the old gods, the meaning is clear.

She thinks of her and Gendry earlier, embracing before the tree, exchanging a cloak and making a promise to each other, and imagines it must’ve made for a pretty sight. The maiden and the smith. Both of them the warrior.

-----

Miss Daliah pulls Arya and Gendry into her embrace, her portly figure warm and comforting to the pair. “Safe travels,” she says after another squeeze. When she looks at Arya, her eyes dance with mirth. “Look after the bull, m’lady. He’s like to lose his wits that far up north.”

Arya chuckles and nudges Gendry. “I’ll do my best. Thank you, again, Miss Daliah. Take care of yourself.”

“You as well, child.” Then she’s waddling back towards the inn.

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the children. The night before, she’d found time to regale them with a final round of tall tales, mussing their hair and kissing their cheeks before they went to bed. Many of them are still asleep at this early hour, but Alya had woken, half drowsy and dragging herself outside, still clad in her nightgown and wool cloak.

While Arya says her goodbye to Mirah, hugging her fiercely and leaning forward to place a kiss on baby Ronald’s head, Gendry makes his way to Alya. He kneels and places a warm hand on her shoulder. “You’ll be good, won’t you? Look after the little ones?”

Alya nods mutely, a pout working its way on her lips, and Gendry feels worry curl in his gut. It’s no good, he thinks, for a child to watch familiar faces leave. He pulls the child into a gruff hug, telling her he’ll miss her. She clings to the neck of his jerkin and sniffs. “Me too,” she murmurs, careful to keep her voice steady and her tears at bay.

And suddenly, Arya is moving towards them, rubbing a soothing hand against Alya’s back and smiling down at her. She pulls back from Gendry and wraps her little arms around Arya’s middle, squeezing with all her might, as Arya grunts out a laugh and pats her gently. “Remember to keep up with your training. And if the any boys give you shit—”

“Arya,” Gendry chides, fighting a smile of his own.

“Gives you trouble for it, you remember what to do?”

“Stick ‘em with the pointy end,” she responds dutifully, voice muffled against Arya’s stomach.

“Good girl.” She leans forward and places a kiss to the crown of Alya’s head. “I’ll miss you, wolfling.” And then Alya really does cry, though she scrubs at her cheeks, swearing the next time they see her, she’ll be the best swordsman in all of Westeros.

“I don’t doubt it,” Arya says, voice full of pride.

Saddling their horses and waving goodbye to the remaining members of the brotherhood and inn staff, Arya, Gendry, and their motley crew head north for harsh conditions, certain bloodshed, and a promise of peace.

-----

A few days of riding later, when they couldn’t find an inn to house all of them, the group decides to set up camp in a patch of woods. Arya builds a fire, and as she and Gendry prepare their shared bed pallet for the night, hardly anyone bats an eye. It isn’t until Arya wanders towards the horses to provide them more feed that Anguy slinks towards Gendry.

“You two, then?”

“What about us?”

Anguy sighs, though it’s full of mirth. “S’pose it took you long enough. You been looking at the little lady all cuntstruck since she came back.” But laughter dies in his throat, as Gendry clambers to his feet with dangerous speed, grizzled hand roughly shoving the archer over a log and knocking him flat on his ass. “Don’t talk about Arya like that,” he threatens, face flushed in anger and gaze ice cold.

It’s deathly quiet among the men. Anguy peers up at Gendry in shock and perhaps a little admiration.

Beyond the little clearing where the horses rest, Arya watches the exchange in wry amusement and bounds back towards the group, worming her way in front of Gendry and patting his chest. “All right, you’ve said your piece,” she murmurs while gently pushing him back. Gendry goes willingly, though not before sending another glare at the archer. “The next time he opens his mouth, I’m going at him with my hammer.”

Arya smiles and places a quick kiss to his cheek. “No need, I’ll tear out his throat first.”

Gendry looks wholly smitten and convinced. “Alright,” he says, nodding.

Behind them, Lem lets out a cackle.

-----

In the dead of night, behind a thicket of trees, two golden eyes flash in the moonlight. Ah, she thinks, a member of my pack returns.

Chapter Text

Arya hears his grumbling before anything else. “Alright there?”

“Fine,” Gendry mutters.

Arya’s snort is good natured and just shy of mocking. “Still not much of a horseman, are you?”

“I’m a Knight of Hollow Hill, good lady.”

“Knight or not, I bet your ass is sore as all hells.”

If they weren’t trotting down the Kingsroad, Arya’s sure Gendry would reach out and twist her ears. He rolls his eyes at her, and she swallows the urge to stick her tongue out in retaliation. They’ve been traveling at a steady pace, making good time despite the gradually harsh conditions, but still, there’s nothing glamorous about their journey. That evening, the group decides to stop for some much needed rest while Arya lopes off with Mercy to hunt. Gendry can’t help but look after her with a bit of wonder; it’s clear Arya is a seasoned rider. She seems completely at ease as she rises in her saddle, head bowed towards the mare’s ear, whispering endearments and encouragements. They gallop off towards a thicket of trees, as though one form.

Gendry’s setting up a fire when Anguy crouches at his side. Their exchanges as of late have been less icy, thankfully. Anguy, for all his biting wit, has kept his mouth shut around Gendry, opting to converse with the other brothers or impart more bawdy stories or shooting advice on Arya. The archer must want to make peace, though, as he smiles and grunts a quiet, “Here,” to Gendry, handing him stray firewood and dry leaves.

“Thanks.”

“Think she’ll catch some rabbit tonight?”

“Aye, if we’re lucky. Arya’s getting sick of squirrel anyway.” Silence extends between the men, though not uncomfortably.

“I’m, uh,” Anguy starts, absently scratching at his ginger beard, “sorry, about before. You don’t look cuntstruck—”

Gendry’s head snaps in his direction, eyes hard.

“Not! I just mean. I know it’s not like that between you two. Or, not just that,” Anguy amends.

Gendry seems satisfied enough with that, muttering, “Alright.” He doesn’t particularly want to continue this conversation though.

Anguy doesn’t take the cue and continues. “You love her, then?”

His voice is too soft for Gendry’s liking, and suddenly the smith feels raw, exposed. “How’s that any of your business?”

“S’not but I’m curious,” Anguy says, chuckling. “You don’t have to answer, lad. Suppose I’ve known for a while now, anyway. Seeing as how you two were back then.” He places a hand on Gendry’s shoulder. “You know, it won’t be easy.”

He doesn’t offer an explanation, but Gendry can figure out his meaning. He looks back at the archer, expression finally softening. Gendry doesn’t know much about family, but he supposes the warning and genuine worry from Anguy is as close as he’ll get to an exchange with a true brother. “I know,” he says simply. “It never is with her.”

Anguy doesn’t miss the way it’s said with fondness and affection, and he leans back, shaking his head and laughing. “Aye, I guess that’s part of the appeal.”

“I’d rather you didn’t think ‘bout Arya’s appeal at all, Anguy,” Gendry says lightly.

Anguy offers one of his booming laughs this time, and something resembling peace settles between the two.

-----

When Arya returns to camp, she’s got a sizeable hare and a few squirrels in her hands, as well as a bushel of herbs and wild mushrooms. The wind’s picked up, and much to Gendry’s displeasure, a light layer of flurries begin to coat the forest floor. She finds him huddled near a tree, cloak pulled tight around his neck, nearly covering his ears. He looks entirely put out and adorable.

“You look awful pleased.”

Arya holds up her provisions like they were treasure. “Supper,” she says, grinning.

Gendry notes how bright her expression is; she truly seems happier, excited even. He snorts as he stands, ignoring the slight creaking of his joints from the chill. “Is that all you’re happy ‘bout?”

“It’s getting colder,” Arya offers with a shrug. She smiles. “I miss the cold.”

“You’re the only one, m’lady,” Gendry says, his tone lighthearted.

Arya notices how his teeth chatter and reminds herself to grab him an extra fur from her sack for tonight. After she hands a few of the other brothers the animals for skinning, she sidles up to Gendry and briefly squeezes his hand. “You’re with a northwoman now, ser,” she says primly.

He leans forward in a flash and presses a kiss to her cheek. “You northern lot are mad. ‘Spose I should get used to it though,” he murmurs.

Arya laughs and moves away from him in a way that can only be described as a saunter, purposefully bumping into Lem when he calls out, “You two are nauseating.”

Everyone shares a smile though. It’s good to be traveling together again.

----

In a week’s time, they’ve traveled up the Green Fork River, past Seagard and the Twins, and settled in a small village before braving the Neck. There, they find an inn that thankfully has enough vacancies to room everyone. The rag tag group is more than happy to rest, glad to not be sleeping on the forest floor or stomach another round of roasted squirrel. The Riverlands are still wild as ever, and oftentimes, the hairs on Gendry’s neck rise from an eerie feeling of being watched. Arya’s dreams as of late are rather wild as well, and he hopes spending a night sheltered and sleeping on a real bed will ease her worries. After walking their horses to the stables and offering a bag of coin to the innkeeper, Arya and Gendry trudge up to their shared room and peel off layers of travel-weary leathers from their bodies.

Arya does a quick rinse in the bath, wetting her hair and pulling it into a rough braid as she exchanges her dirty tunic and breeches for the soft velvet dress Miss Daliah gifted her when they left. Meanwhile, Gendry stands just in clean trousers before the basin and wipes a damp cloth over his head and face, feeling more human without a layer of grime clinging to his skin. Arya stands behind him, helping move the cloth over his neck with broad stripes over his shoulders.

He can smell the lye soap and pine on her and closes his eyes briefly, tension slowly building in his belly. Arya presses a lingering kiss the base of his neck, and Gendry wants nothing more than to turn around and take her against the door. He’s got a warm hand splayed against her waist when she murmurs, “Supper.” He ignores her and mouths a line up her throat, taking in the smell and feel of her. Arya’s places her little hands against his bare torso, but doesn’t push. She’s not so hungry, she reasons in her head.

Suddenly a hard thump against the door causes the pair to pull apart, and a voice that sounds an awful lot like Tom calls out, “Come down an’ eat! You two can rut like rabbits later!”

With a sigh, Gendry pulls on a shirt and rolls his eyes. “Fuckin’ Tom.”

Arya laughs and leads him downstairs. “Later,” she promises.

----

The food is warm and the drink, though watered down, is good. When the patrons have had their fill, Tom picks at his little lyre and starts plucking. The jaunty tune floats through the hall, but as Gendry hears him croon ‘No featherbed for me~’ he quickly grabs Arya’s hand and ushers her out, making a beeline for their room and pointedly ignoring the knowing look Anguy shoots the pair.

“Gendry?” she asks, curious though not complaining at their exit.

“I’m, uh, tired,” he says simply, shrugging, as he leads her into the room and bars the door. When he turns back, Arya’s eyes are dark. She moves quickly, her gaze hungry as she pushes him against the vanity and presses against him. Their lips meet in a frenzied kiss and Gendry swears he hears Arya growl at him, hands deftly untucking his tunic and slipping beneath to rub along the muscle of his lower belly. Any coherent thought flies out his head, and he grips her shoulders in desperation, eager to get as close as possible. Gendry walks them backwards towards the bed, lips meeting the corner of her mouth, her cheek, her neck, behind her ear—anywhere he can reach.

“Gendry,” Arya whispers, “by the gods if you don’t get me out of this stupid dress…”

They part for a second, Arya ripping his shirt over his head while Gendry clumsily pulls at the laces of her dress. When it pools to the floor, he reaches for the ties of her corset and suddenly stops to enjoy the view. Arya looks thoroughly debauched, half-dressed, hair wild, and sizable teats threatening to spill out. She chuckles at his slack-jawed expression and urges him to continue, pressing a feather soft kiss to the side of his jaw. “Come on, then.”

He all but rips the flimsy shift off while Arya undoes his trousers, hands ghosting over his half hard cock which pulls a groan from the smith. Then it’s just the two of them in their smallclothes, panting heavily and eyeing each other. Arya can see the slight hesitation on Gendry’s face though, and she places a hand on his forearm in worry.

“Do you want me?” she asks simply.

“I—” He shakes his head as if to dispel of a bad thought.

Arya pulls back suddenly, hurt. “No?” she asks in a quiet voice.

“No! I mean, no, I don’t not want you. Gods, of course I do. I just—"

“Just what?”

“S’not proper, Arya,” he mutters unconvincingly.

She snorts and gracefully unhooks her breast band, throwing it to the floor to expose smooth skin. “I know we’ve been apart a while, Gendry, but what makes you think I’m a proper lady? Because I’m a woman grown now? My tits make me proper, do they?” Arya inches closer to him, and Gendry’s mouth goes dry. He’s seen naked women before, but there’s something about the soft curves and dusty pink tips of Arya’s breasts that undoes him.

He reaches out and curves a warm hand round her ribcage, thumb running a line across the underside of her teat. When she grabs his other hand and boldly places it square on her breast, he grunts. “You never make things easy, do you?”

Arya smiles. “Never.”

Gendry peers down at her, expression open and honest and cautious. “I…want you.”

“Then have me.”

He shakes his head slightly. “It’s—”

“Stop thinking so much,” Arya cuts in, impatient.

Gendry huffs at that. “You’re always calling me stupid. The minute I take a second to think things through and you change your tune.” His words are put out, but his tone is amused. As he squeezes his hands and moves them up and across her collarbone, feeling the warmth thrumming through her skin, Gendry feels his last bit of resolve shatter. She’s so beautiful, he thinks. He wants to tell her as much, but his tongue feels too big, too clumsy in his mouth.

Ever bold, Arya presses forward and snakes a hand between his legs, lightly cupping his hardness. When her fingers curl around his member and move up and down with intent, Gendry pitches forward with a drawn out moan.

“I think,” she murmurs, “this is the one time I would welcome a bit of stupidity.”

Gendry clenches his eyes shut and briefly wonders how her hand can feel so good.

“I want you,” he hears her whisper. “I want to make you feel good. I want this, please.” Arya moves her hands to the waist of his smallclothes and tugs them down, freeing his cock which now stands flushed and throbbing at full attention.

When Gendry chances a look at her face, he’s almost surprised to see Arya so vulnerable. Cupping the side of her cheek and swallowing the urge to suddenly tell her he loves her, Gendry presses a lingering kiss to her lips and moves them onto the bed.

-----

Gendry has his head buried between Arya’s legs, tongue lapping at her sopping cunt. “So wet,” he whispers, arousal coloring his voice. She vaults a little higher on the bed, fingers clutching the sheets so hard her knuckles have gone white. She’d heard whispers of the ways a man pleases a woman, but she never imagined… When Gendry moves a finger towards her entrance, gathering the wetness and pushing forward, Arya nearly shouts.

He lifts his head and glances at her. “Good?” he asks.

Arya’s so out of sorts, she can only jerkily nod, biting down on her lip to keep from crying out.

Gendry chuckles and presses a kiss to the inside of her thigh, dipping in a second finger to shallowly fuck her. “Don’t do that,” he chides. “I want to hear you.”

When he twists his hand and crooks his fingers up, tongue licking a broad stripe from her entrance to the top of her mound, Arya shudders. “Gendry,” she moans roughly, feeling herself so close to peaking.

Arya feels Gendry unlatch from her, his damp forehead pressed against her leg as he pants. “Want everyone to hear you,” he murmurs. “Screaming my name.” He feels her clench around his fingers and continues. “Would you like that?” he asks, peering up at her. “I ought to hang your smallclothes at the door, let everyone know you’re mine.”

Something filthy and delicious works its way in her chest, and Arya flushes at his words. He fucks her harder and moves to suck her clit, and she lets go, growling out his name and rolling her hips with wild abandon. Gendry works her though it, kisses at her flower as she comes down, and when he withdraws his fingers to rub the slick around his cock, he has the decency to look bashful. He’s not one to be very vocal during coupling, but the look and feel of Arya invades his senses, and he found the words spilling forth.

“That was…”

 Gendry smiles down at her. “It was alright, I hope.”

Arya shakes her head. “I’ve touched myself before but…” she trails off. “Never felt like that,” she says finally, while Gendry tries to move past the image of Arya, legs akimbo, working a fierce hand between her legs.

She’s still panting when he moves up and cradles her hips with his, engorged cockhead moving up and down her cunt. “You sure?” he asks her.

“If you don’t fuck me right now, I’m like to go mad,” Arya says with a light snort. She lifts herself up and plants a hard kiss on his mouth. “I’m sure, Gendry.”

When he enters her, his hand shoots out to smooth against Arya’s lower belly, fingers tracing along the jagged scars. And it grounds him to feel her, real live flesh warm under his hands as he eases inside. He breathes roughly through his nose, finally letting out a sigh when he’s fully sheathed. “Gods,” Gendry murmurs. He shuts his eyes for a second, luxuriating in the vice-like feel of her.

Arya wriggles experimentally around him, and huffs a bit at the discomfort. At this, Gendry’s eyes fly open. “Are you alright?” Any other time, and she might laugh at his expression. He looks almost pained, jaw tight and eyebrows furrowed.

She takes note of the sharp pang at her core, the queer feeling of adjusting to something so large and full invading her body.

Gendry’s eyes never leave hers. “I—I don’t want to hurt you,” he grits out. He pitches forward to rest on his forearms by her head, body taut with apprehension.

Arya’s hands cradle at his neck, and she lifts slightly to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “You’re holding back quite a bit, aren’t you?” she asks with a little laugh. “I’m okay, Gendry, just go slow,” she urges him. She reaches a hand to his buttock and softly guides him to rock forward. “There,” Arya sighs, when she feels the pain abate. “Just like that.”

Gendry grunts and dips his head to nose behind her ear. He rocks forward again, and again, this time with more pressure. He groans out her name, rising on his knees and pistoning forward, thighs slapping against her ass from the strength of it. “You feel—” Gendry grounds out, but stops short, embarrassed to say anymore. He opts for fucking her in earnest, turning his head to press kisses along her neck, across her cheek, finally meeting her lips, tongue dipping inside. His movements gain speed, and he nearly goes cross eyed when he feels Arya lift her hips and meet him, thrust for thrust. He rises and leans back on his haunches, hands kneading at her flesh and pulling her forward forcefully. Arya lifts herself to bracket his hips with her legs, pressing her chest to his and finding purchase by snaking a hand around his shoulders. After a particularly graceful lift and roll of her hips, Gendry shouts.

“So good,” Arya murmurs, feeling his thrusts go erratic. “More, please. I want to feel you.”

Gendry continues to snap his hips against hers, breathy response lost in a guttural moan when she clenches around him and he finally spends inside her. They both fall back onto the bed, a mess of sweaty limbs and harsh panting.

“Well,” Gendry says, mind blank and body lethargic from pleasure.

Arya reaches out and pats his thigh. “Well.”

-----

“We should’ve done that earlier,” Arya says some time later when they’re laying side by side, moonlight filtering into the room.

“That good, huh?” Gendry laughs and reaches a hand around her waist to pull her closer, pressing a kiss to the crown of her head. “You sure there’s been no one?” he chances to ask. He can feel a light blush working its way down his neck when he explains, “You seemed to know what you were doing.”

“Did it feel good?” Arya asks simply.

Gendry snorts. “What do you think?”

Her laugh is bright when she burrows into his side, chin propped up on his chest. “I’ve never…before. I just watched and learned. Back in Braavos, there was a time when I worked as a serving girl for a whorehouse. The women were kind; they fed me, housed me. And well, they taught me a bit about…you know.”

Gendry’s surprised to hear that, just another reminder that he knows little of their time apart.  “You lived in a brothel?”

Arya hums. “For a little while.”

“What else did you do?” he asks carefully.

“I trained.”

“To fight?”

She’s quiet for a long time before leaning back against his arm and staring at the ceiling. “To kill,” Arya finally says. “You know Jaqen—”

Gendry grunts. “Aye, I’m familiar with him as you well know.”

Arya reaches out and lightly smacks at him. “That morning when we left Harrenhal, he’d given me a coin. Said it would grant me passage across the Narrow Sea to him, if ever needed. After I ran from the Hound, I tried to find a ship to take me north but none would,” she says sadly. “Braavos was my only option, and when I arrived, I landed on the steps of the House of Black and White. It’s a guild of sorts.” She chances a glance back at Gendry.

His mouth is quirked in a frown. “The Faceless Men?” He’d heard of sellswords from Essos before, then, darker rumors of trained assassins making their way to Westeros.

“You know them.”

Gendry looks down at her and shrugs. “Only whispers.” When she doesn’t respond he smooths a hand down her arm. “Arya, I mean, gods, how—?”

Arya turns suddenly and hides her face in his side, words muffled. “It wasn’t easy. They beat me down, day after day, made me forget who I was. They blinded me and made me a beggar. They wanted me to be no one.” She feels Gendry’s hold on her tighten, and she powers on. “I asked for it, though. All that time, I truly thought it was my calling. I thought I didn’t have anyone left, no family or friends or…or you. No home to go back to. So, I tried. And I came very close to succeeding. But…” she trails off.

“But?”

“I started having dreams about home, and my family. Not to mention, I failed my last test.”

“Test?”

Arya swallows past a nervous lump in her throat. She keeps thinking Gendry will turn away in disgust at her words. “They wanted me to—I was tasked to take out a woman. But I couldn’t, and I know the god of death makes no distinction between good and bad people but when I thought of my father and my lady mother, what would they think of me? My father always said, he who passes the sentence should swing the sword, but … Lady Crane hadn’t done anything. I couldn’t look her in the eyes and kill her. In the end, I paid the price for that,” she mutters.

And Gendry rears his head back in understanding. “Those scars,” he whispers.

Arya nods. “She’s gone now, the one who hurt me. After, I went back to the House of Black and White, and Jaqen already knew. I had to leave,” she finishes. When she peeks up at him, his gaze is soft and sad.

“Was he very sad to see you go?” Gendry asks quietly.

Arya thinks back to their farewell in Braavos, his resigned expression and the feel of his hands ghosting along her arms. It feels so long ago now, even if it hasn’t been a few moon’s turn yet. “I thought he’d be disappointed. But I think he knew from the beginning. My family, my home lay heavy on my shoulders. It would’ve taken a lot to fully strip me of all that. He didn’t scold me, he just. Let me go.”

Gendry leans over and braces his hands beside her ears, eyes conflicted and dark. “Did you love him?”

Arya shakes her head and reaches up, rubbing a thumb along his cheek and thumping her forehead against his. “No. I could’ve, I think,” she admits. “He was kind to me, he looked out for me. But there was too much darkness between us. That life…the secrecy, it’s not a place where love can grow.”

He pulls back and asks, “And now?”

“Now? Now…I don’t know if I’m capable. This place where my heart is, it’s felt cold for so long. The things I’ve done, I don’t know if I deserve any love. But … when I think of my brothers and sister, when I see you, all I feel is warmth.”

Her words are cut short when Gendry leans down again and kisses Arya hard on the mouth, lips searching and pleading. He fully rolls atop her, the solid line of his body boring down on hers. It’s rougher than she’s expecting, but a slight thrill works its way up her spine, and she reaches around to clutch the hairs at the base of his neck. After a while, Gendry lets up, panting. He moves a palm down her neck to cover her bare chest, resting over her thundering heart. He places a kiss to her breastbone, then, lower, drawing a trail to those healed scars, a kiss for each one. I love you, his touch says. And Arya reaches down to cup his face, the words right there on her lips. Instead, she smiles and murmurs, “Coupling’s made you softer still, bull.” Gendry laughs and moves lower, mouth once again occupied.

-----

In the morning, Arya pulls a thick wool cloak from her pack and hands it to Gendry. They make their way downstairs, drawing knowing looks from the brothers, but both are too well-rested and sated to care. As the others saddle up their horses, Gendry suddenly pushes Arya against the side of the inn and kisses her full on the mouth. She makes to deepen it, but he groans and hangs his head, remembering himself.

“Your brothers will have my head on a pike,” he mutters.

Arya’s laugh is bright. “I’ll protect you.”

-----

After a few days of riding, the group is knee deep in the Neck, having made their way towards Greywater Watch and Moat Cailin when trouble finds them. Haggard looking bandits suddenly swarm, eyes hungry.

“What do we have here?” one of them calls out.

Anguy rides to the front, bow clutched in hand. “We’re not looking for trouble,” he says tightly.

The bandit sneers, a toothless smile on his leathery face. “Are we looking for trouble, lads?” he asks his group.

“You’ll find it if you don’t let us pass,” Lem calls out, light tone belying the way his posture is taut and ready to fight.

Gendry rides up, slightly covering Arya’s form from view. “Move behind me, Arya,” he murmurs, but before she can answer, a true scuffle breaks out as the men move about each other, swords drawn and blades meeting. He whirls around, warhammer tight in his grip as he urges her back. Gendry should know better, though, as Arya merely tells him to be safe before she vaults off Mercy, Needle and dagger hot in her hands. For the most part, Arya, Gendry, and the rest of the brothers are able to stave off the attack. She runs towards the bandits as quickly and quietly as she can manage, swinging Needle in a continuous arc. Using the momentum of cutting one down to swing her body around, Arya kicks at another, kills another.

A burly man reaches out and backhands Arya across the face, causing her to stumble against a tree and setting her blades to the ground. He moves to strike her, but she rolls away, the tip of his blade only able to cut a line across her upper arm and round her elbow. From Arya’s periphery, she suddenly watches as a lone figure appears and throws a dagger back in her direction before being pulled into a sword fight. The sting of blood quickens her steps; she darts forward, deftly picking up the blade and crouching to slash at his thigh. He grunts, falling to his knees as he clutches his leg, looking up at Arya with cold fury. She uses the opportunity to stride forward and kick him square in chest, her boot suddenly pressing against his throat. Her next words are quiet and clipped. “Stay down if you don’t want me to slash your throat next.”

Before he can croak out a response, Arya hears Gendry yell from across the clearing. He’s swinging his warhammer to and fro, a wild look on his face as screams at Arya to move. From behind, another bandit grabs her by the arm, and she hisses at the contact to her cut. He’s a tall, reedy thing, swift enough to push Arya against the stump of a nearby tree, wiry hand flush against her throat and applying enough pressure to make her see spots.

“Yer a pretty thing,” he grunts.

“Fuck off,” she rasps. Arya tries to swing at him, but he knees her in the gut, and she lurches forward from the force of it, dagger clattering to the forest floor.

“Now, now, don’t fight.” He leans closer. “Don’t mind when they fight back a bit, though,” he admits, lecherous grin wide on his ugly face.

Blearily, she makes out the shape of Gendry cutting down one man after another to make his way towards her. The bandit’s grip on her throat lets up, and as she greedily gulps down a lung full of air, he slaps her across the face and moves the tip of his blade against her breastbone. “What’s your next move, lass,” he asks, laughing in her face. Arya stills before swiftly rearing her head back and knocking it forcefully into his nose, causing him to stagger back and clutch at his bleeding face.

“Bitch!” he spits.

Before she can reach for his blade, a deep growl sounds from behind and in a flash, a large form bears down on the man, pinning him to the ground and ripping his throat out. Nymeria turns back to Arya, then, muzzle bloody and eyes knowing.

Arya is slack jawed as more wolves emerge from behind the line of trees; she hardly notices Gendry darting to her until his hands frantically cradle her face and rove her body, checking for serious injuries. “Arya! Are you alright?”

But she can only grip his hand and nod towards the clearing, and they and the brothers watch as the wolves finish their vicious takedown of the bandits. It’s an utter bloodbath by this point, and Arya suddenly feels the air rush out her chest. She drops to her knees, tears welling in her eyes.

“Girl,” she murmurs.

Nymeria’s head snaps in her direction, eyeing her carefully as she lopes towards her prone figure. The brothers watch with unguarded curiosity and fear, and Anguy and Lem whisper furiously to each other. Gendry remains stalk still before belatedly moving as if to protect Arya.

“She won’t hurt me,” Arya whispers. Nymeria nears, bypassing Gendry’s tense form completely to get to Arya. She shoves her head towards the girl’s neck, smearing blood but huffing in delight. “Girl,” Arya says again, tears freely running down her cheeks. She throws her arms around the direwolf and hides her face in the soft, wild fur. “You’re back,” she whispers. At that moment, Nymeria relaxes her stance and nudges into Arya’s side, low growl content and affectionate. All around, the other wolves seem to take note and relax on their haunches. The brothers eye each other warily. This is certainly a sight to behold.

“Arya? Is this…” Gendry’s voice trails off.

Arya moves away and furiously wipes at her tears, remembering herself. Reaching out to scratch behind the direwolf’s ears, she peeks up to meet Gendry’s wide eyed gaze. “This is Nymeria,” she murmurs. The beast preens under the attention and inches closer for more pets. “My direwolf,” she says simply, finally smiling.

Gendry exhales in wonder, taking in the sheer size of the beast, before carefully kneeling next to Arya. Slowly, he raises a hand for Nymeria to sniff. She does, then paces back and forth once, twice, before lowering herself onto her belly and pushing her muzzle into his hand. With an amazed chuckle, Gendry reaches out and scratches below her jaw.

Arya nudges him. “She likes you,” she whispers. Abruptly, her head snaps to the side at sudden movement, and Nymeria rises, teeth bared. A slight man, pale in complexion with dark hair and green eyes cautiously moves towards them, hands clasped behind him. He looks unassuming save for the fresh blood clinging to the side of his face, and Arya recognizes him as the man who tossed her the dagger earlier during the fight.

“My lady,” he murmurs, inching closer.

Arya rises and presses a firm hand to Nymeria’s neck. “It’s alright, girl.” She cocks her head at the man. “I owe you thanks, ser?”

“Ah, I’m no knight, my lady. But I am glad to see you and your friends safe,” he says quietly, a small smile playing on his lips.

Gendry is at Arya’s side in an instant, warm hand sliding into hers, a slight frown on his face. “Who are you?”

The man raises his hands. “I mean you no harm. My name is Luca, of House Reed.” He nods towards Arya. “We’ve been waiting for you, my lady.”

Chapter Text

After boarding a small vessel with Luca, Gendry, and a handful of brothers (not to mention a very water travel-weary Nymeria), Arya is left to gape at the scenery from the head of the boat. The bogs of Greywater Watch are like nothing she’s ever seen. As a child, she’d heard tales of the moving castle from Old Nan, and later, an absent word or two from her father about the enigmatic House Reed. The Crannogmen. The less kind whispers called them frogeaters, savages, sorcerers even. But Arya always found it comforting—the idea of a castle so fortified yet untraceable. A house without knights. Just a lord and his loyal people, bobbing along the swamps.

As the snow flurries melt away, a heavy fog settles across the Neck, and in the distance, Arya can make out the bleary shapes of a castle—though they resemble haunting shadows more than anything else. She hears Luca step to her side before she sees him. Nymeria gives a cursory glance and light chuff at him before contentedly laying by Arya’s feet.

“An unusual sight for you, my lady?” he asks quietly. Arya can’t help but feel at ease around the slight man. He towers over her, though most people do, and there is something ominous in his gaze, but his voice is soft, his stance unassuming.

She turns to Luca, a look of awe on her face. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she answers honestly. “It’s as if everything suddenly emerged.”

“Aye, I suppose we leave an impression,” Luca says with a small laugh.

Arya feels Gendry inch closer to her side so that their arms are touching. He and the other brothers take in the sight with thinly veiled awe; it’s not often Riverlands outlaws and knights happen upon the famed floating castle. But he must sense Arya’s slight apprehension, as he slips his hand in hers and squeezes comfortingly.

“Arya,” he murmurs.

Leaning against him, she starts to feel the effects of the previous fight and her whole body aches, face sore and dried blood seeping into her dirtied clothes. Gendry looks no better. She turns to him briefly and smiles. “I’m alright.”

At this, his expression softens before he shoots another curious glance at Luca, who offers a small, awkward cough. “I apologize for the unexpected nature of all this,” he says, gesturing around vaguely. “We received word of your arrival and had to move quickly, my lady.”

“Word from who?” Gendry asks, voice gruff. He cannot temper his skepticism. After being set upon by bandits and watching Arya be shoved around and cut at, Gendry is hesitant to place his trust in anyone. His blood is boiling, his body hurts, and his mind is muddled. Anguy and the others must feel similarly, as they all peer at the crannogmen with narrowed gazes.

Arya and Nymeria are the only ones who seem nonplussed. The beast gives a little whine at the tension before pacing to Gendry’s side, nuzzling into his hip while he absently scratches behind her ears. Surely there is something strange about all this, Arya reasons, but her training in Braavos and countless nights playing the game of faces have assured her of enough; this man means no harm and he speaks plainly. She gives Gendry a small pat on his forearm and offers Luca a wan smile, prompting him to answer.

“Your brother, my lady.”

Her expression pales in an instant. “Jon?”

“Lord Bran, my lady.”

Arya grips Gendry tighter. “How—where is he? I haven’t seen my younger brother since,” she swallows, “there were rumors of Greyjoy, he—”

“I apologize, my lady, I don’t have all the details. I know Lord Bran lives,” Luca says, smiling softly at Arya. “My uncle, Lord Howland, is better equipped to speak of this with you. We’ve almost arrived, now.”

He turns from her, looking out as they make their way down a narrower channel. Soon, the swamps give way to clearer water, and they pass small huddles of people, women and children crouched by the bank weaving baskets and setting nets, men venturing into the water with three-pronged spears and makeshift traps. All serenely glance at the group as though this were a normal occurrence—as though it is no bother a band of dirtied, bloodied travelers ventures onto their land. Arya gets the sense these people are humble and easygoing by nature, that they see no potential danger as anyone who enters Greywater could only do so if invited.

They meander through the marshlands, settling at the shore where a young girl waves lightly. She is perhaps around ten name days, and just like Luca, she bears the same slight figure and green eyes, but her hair is honey brown, and her expression decidedly brighter.

“Luca!”

“Joanna,” he answers calmly. He turns back to his guests. “My sister,” he offers, small smile playing on his lips. He gestures for everyone to carefully alight.

They make their exit, and when Luca gracefully hops down and briefly embraces the young girl, Arya can hear her excited murmurs.

“Is she here? that’s her isn’t it?”

Luca leans back and playfully musses her hair. “Who?” he asks cheekily, and Arya feels her heart crack. She thinks of how Jon used to do the same to her. She thinks of how she’d give anything to see her younger brothers, too, and muss at their auburn curls.

Her thoughts are cut short when Gendry stands behind her, chest lightly pressed against her shoulder, a warm hand splayed at the dip of her waist like a solid weight. He looks down at Arya with what he hopes is a comforting smile. “Never been to a secret castle before,” he whispers.

“Me neither,” she responds, lightly burrowing into his side. What an odd day it’s been. Gendry presses a soft kiss to the side of her head.

When she turns back to the siblings, she can’t help but laugh at Joanna’s utter look of disbelief. She considers their battle-weary appearance, not to mention the hulking direwolf at her feet. What a sight they must make.

“The She-Wolf,” the young girl whispers, eyes wide as saucers. Luca nudges her and tuts.

“This is a true lady of House Stark,” he intones seriously. When his younger sister continues to gape, he thumps her behind the head. “Your courtesies, Joey!”

The young girl stumbles and offers a clumsy curtsy, a soft “My lady,” and Arya is immediately charmed. Smiling, she bounds forward and bows. “Hullo. Just Arya is fine, Lady Joanna?”

“Joey,” the young girl blurts. “I—” she starts, taking a shallow breath, “can I meet your wolf?”

Luca is still smiling when he ushers everyone forward, nodding to the small folk and steering young Joanna by her narrow shoulders. “Later, little sister. I think it’s time our guests met with our good uncle.”

----

They’re led into a small parlor, Luca calling for a maester and any available servants to attend to the group’s wounds. Arya waves away a handmaid while dipping a rag into a basin and cleaning the cut along her upper arm, Gendry doing the same to the gnash below his eye.

“That’ll scar,” Arya says quietly, wrapping a stray cloth around her bicep. She grimaces, testing the soreness of her cheek where the brute backhanded her, notes a slight burning at her neck as well.

“Think it’ll be ugly?” Gendry asks absently, wincing when Arya reaches over and rubs an herbal salve on his face.

Arya shakes her head imperceptibly. “Handsome. Makes you look like a warrior,” she whispers, leaning forward and pressing a kiss to his brow.

“Careful, m’lady. Everyone will know you’re sweet on me.” Gendry’s words are teasing but she feels him lean into her touch. She sees the slight sag in his shoulders and huddles close.

“Forgot what a fucking nightmare traveling through the Riverlands was,” she murmurs. “Hardly a moon’s turn into our ride and set upon by bandits.” Arya shakes her head.

“When I saw that bastard choke you, I—” Gendry grits, jaw clenched. He doesn’t remember cutting down man after man with his warhammer, only seeing Arya and needing to reach her.

“M’alright,” she murmurs.

“We’re lucky Nymeria and her pack came.”

“Aye,” Arya laughs, bumping her forehead against his. “She’s a good girl.” She turns to see Nymeria making the rounds among the men, sniffing here and there, assessing the situation before seeking a pet or two.

Gendry snakes a hand around her waist and whispers, “You know they’re calling you the Wolf Queen now.”

Arya snorts, rolling her eyes. “I’m no queen,” she mutters.

“My lady.”

Abruptly moving out of Gendry’s embrace and turning to her side, Arya sees Luca flanked by an older man. He has dark hair speckled with gray, deep set green eyes with a far off look, and wears a placid smile. He seems to whisper something to himself while gazing at Arya and peering curiously at Gendry, before shuffling forward and bowing.

“Lady Arya, I am Howland Reed.”

“My lord,” she says with a dip of her head.

“You so look like her,” he murmurs. Arya cocks her head in confusion. Who?  But Lord Reed simply shakes his head and offers a sad smile. He looks kind, Arya thinks. Kind and troubled, much like Father. “I apologize, my lady. It’s no matter. Would you accompany me to my solar? There is much to discuss.”

Arya hesitates for a brief moment before nodding. She turns back at the feel of Gendry’s hand in hers, squeezing.

“You’ll be alright?”

“I will,” Arya promises, squeezing back and smiling. “Keep an eye on Nym for me, would you?” And then she’s in step with Lord Reed, leaving Gendry with Luca and the rest.

-----

When they reach the main solar, Lord Reed gestures for Arya to sit. He’s a quiet man by nature, soft-spoken with a gentle gaze. However, seeing this young woman before him leaves Howland breathless. It’s Lyanna come again, he thinks wildly. The same wild dark tresses framing her fair face, the same slate gray eyes. But where Lyanna’s had a carefree glint to them, Lady Arya’s are slightly guarded, her features set in a wary, somewhat solemn expression. She takes after Ned after all, he thinks wryly, heart suddenly splitting at the thought of Lord Stark.

“My lady.”

“Arya,” she cuts in kindly. “Please.”

“Arya, then.” Wringing his hands together, Howland looks down, unsure of where to begin. “I’m very sorry about what happened to your father,” he settles on. “I wish—if only—” but Arya shakes her head sadly.

“There was nothing that could be done, my lord. We went south,” she says simply. “Wolves don’t fare well in the south. My father was an honorable man, but the games they play in King’s Landing,” Arya shakes her head again, as if to dispel of bad memories. “He was a man with honor,” she repeats, “and he died for it.”

Her gaze glints like a low burning fire, thousand year old eyes so haunted Howland thinks them unsettling on the face of a woman so young. Another difference from Lyanna, he notes; where his friend was just a woman-child running wild with her brothers and seeking her next adventure, Arya seems bathed in something dark and unnaturally graceful, fit to fight her demons in war. And yet, when he looks upon her, he can’t help but see the fierce she-wolf—before her escape, before the tower in Dorne, before the scent of blood and death…before the screaming babe.

Howland is roused from his thoughts when Arya quietly asks, “Why do you keep looking at me like that, my lord?”

“My lady?”

“You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

And Howland can only smile. It’s been so long since he’s thought of Lyanna. He welcomes her ghost, but he does not wish to disturb this young woman.

“Apologies, my lady. It’s just, you so resemble your aunt,” he murmurs.

“Lyanna?” Arya asks. She thinks back to her father saying the same. “But she was beautiful,” Arya mutters to herself. ‘Aye, beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time,’ she remembers Ned saying. She remembers her father’s eyes never looking so sad as then. He never spoke much of his sister. And no one thought to ask.

“What do you know of her?”

Arya eyes him skeptically. What was the point of discussing the dead? “She—she was taken. Kidnapped by the Targaryen prince. It’s what started the rebellion.” Her mind wanders to the Fat King. Absently, Arya wonders what young Robert must’ve been like, how in love he must’ve been with her Aunt Lyanna to wage a war for her. Was he already known for his love of whoring and drinking by then? Or was it Cersei who drove him to such proclivities? She catches the mournful look on Lord Reed’s face and softens her tone. “Did you know her, my lord?”

“Aye, I did. But before all that. Before war and bloodshed, I knew her. A fierce thing, she was,” he says, mouth quirking up in affection.

“Wolf’s blood,” she murmurs, smiling back at him. “That’s what my father said; Lyanna had a touch of it, my uncle Brandon more than a touch,” Arya recites from memory.

“I’d say your aunt had more ‘an a touch!” He thinks back to a ferocious young girl fighting off a group of attackers as he lay prone on the ground. It is as fond a memory as it is painful, his introduction to the wolf pack. “She saved my life once. At the Tourney at Harrenhal.”

At this, Arya leans forward. All she knew of the tourney was Prince Rhaegar crowning her aunt instead of his wife. The moment all the smiles died, she’d heard her father say. “How?” she asks reluctantly.

Howland smiles. “I’d traveled to Harrenhal from the Isle of Faces to observe the great tourney when a group of squires attacked. It was just me, and as you can probably guess, I was a slight young man. Couldn’t put up much of a fight against larger men. That’s when your aunt stepped in, wielding a sword no less!” ‘That’s my father’s man you’re kicking!’ she’d said, shoving at one squire while swinging her sword at another. Howland shakes his head in amusement. “She chased them off, helped patch me up. Your father let me sleep in his tent that night. They took care of me,” he says, voice tinged with wonder. “I couldn’t imagine why they went to the trouble; I was just a crannogman.”

Arya reaches over to pat the older man’s hand, touched by the tale. “You were a vassal of House Stark, loyal and in need of help. We look after our own, my father taught me that. My aunt must’ve thought the same. Your nephew saved me in the fight earlier. I suppose that’s just how our houses are, my lord. Looking after each other,” she finishes sweetly. “Tell me, how was my aunt with a sword?” Arya asks curiously.

Howland barks a sudden laugh. “Good enough to fight off three large squires, my lady! I suspect you are just as skilled, if what my nephew Luca says is true.”

Arya’s hand absently grips the pommel of Needle, Howland’s gaze following her movement. She smiles slightly, nodding. “I don’t wield a greatsword like my father, but I do alright with a small blade. My brother Jon gave me this,” Arya murmurs, gesturing to Needle. “He’s at the Wall, I’m trying to get to him.” Her voice saddens at the thought of her older brother. They’ll have to be careful if they want to make it that far north safely. What would he say when he saw her, Arya wonders. Would he smile? Laugh? Cry? Would he muss her hair and pull her close, call her little sister? It would be so sweet, Arya thinks. She is so preoccupied by thoughts of Jon and their reunion she misses how Lord Reed’s expression blanches.

“Your—yes, Jon,” he rasps, clenching his fist below the table. He gets a sudden flash of a solemn looking babe, exhausted from cries for his young mother, swaddled close to the wet nurse while Howland looked on at Ned, holding his dead sister’s hand.

Arya’s hackles rise at his tone. Did he think Jon pitiful or wicked for being baseborn? “Jon is my best brother, my lord. He has no desire for power, to unseat us or—he’s always taken care of us.”

Howland shakes his head, grimacing at the misunderstanding. “My lady, I would never suggest that. I know your father loved Jon very much,” he says quietly. He’s all Ned had left of Lyanna, he thinks sadly. Though, looking at Arya, kind, willful, fierce as she is, perhaps Ned had more reminders of his young sister than Howland thought. “It must’ve been hard for a young man at the wall. He’ll be glad to see you, my lady.”

Arya relaxes at that. “Arya,” she reminds him playfully before her expression suddenly sobers. “What news of Bran, my Lord? Luca said you—”

“He lives, Arya. I’m not clear on the details surrounding the turncloak, but Bran escaped from Bolton’s clutches. He is safe beyond the wall. As safe as we can hope, at least, amidst harsh conditions. He’s with my children, Meera and Jojen, no doubt working to return to Winterfell. It seems you’re not the only Stark going home.”

With a sigh of relief, Arya leans back in her chair, head lightly thumping against its back and closing her eyes. “I miss them,” she whispers. She thinks of little Bran, always so happy and mischievous while climbing the walls and trees of Winterfell. He loved to scamper up the Broken Tower, said it’s where you had the best view of the North. But when she’d last seen him, he was bound to his bed, legs a mess. She’d kissed his forehead and said goodbye before going south, thinking once she returned, she’d regale him with more tales and brighten his mood as he recovered. “It’s been so long,” Arya says sadly.

Howland rises from his seat and stands beside Arya, carefully placing a weathered hand on her shoulder and squeezing. She peers up at him sorrowfully. Though she’s just met the man, she feels quite at ease among the crannogmen, finding House Reed and its people quiet and thoughtful and hardworking. Loyal, too. Arya could use some friends. “All will be well, Arya,” Howland vows. “Now, come. You and your party could no doubt use some rest before we sup.”

Rising, Arya smiles. “You’re very kind, my lord. I can see why you and my father were friends.”

“I knew no better man, Arya. I miss him.” Howland’s gaze is far off again. At the window of his solar, a congress of ravens circle about.

“As do I.” Ghosts never truly leave us, Arya thinks bitterly. But maybe, we find new friends because of them.

-----

That night, they gather in the main hall for supper with everyone, members of House Reed and townsfolk alike. There are no grand announcements or proclamations, but the crannogmen welcome Arya and her party warmly, whispers of the Daughter of the North and She-Wolf following in her wake. They sup on fresh salmon and mussels, stewed venison and root vegetables, honey rosemary bread, and warm cherry cobbler—delicious, hearty northern fare that reminds Arya of home. She hardly feels the ache in her body when she leans into Gendry’s side and sips at her ale.

He peers down at her with a smile. “You look happy.”

She hums. “I forgot what it’s like, to be among Northerners, even this far south,” she adds, smiling wryly. “The people, the food, the air…I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”

Gendry’s expression seems sad at her words. How long has it been since she’s been among her people, he thinks. Gendry used to think Arya a lone wolf, dangerously blazing her own path. It wasn’t until he heard Arya speak of her family recently, and now watching her interact with House Reed and their people, that he remembers Arya is truly part of a pack, extended by her late father’s men. Once she makes it back to Winterfell with her brothers and sister, she’ll truly be home. And Gendry…he’ll try to find his own place there as well. It plagued him some nights, the sinister, traitorous feeling that he was still some useless bastard smith, no better than the dirt under a highborn’s polished boot. He’d tried to make something of himself, been knighted by the brotherhood, looked after the people in the Riverlands, fought for the downtrodden. And yet, when he thinks of facing Arya’s family, especially her older brother, he cannot help but feel his balls retract into his body. He’ll know, Gendry thinks, he’ll take one look at me and know I’ve bedded his little sister, defiled her, ruined her before she could even—

His thoughts are cut short when Arya reaches up and cups his chin, eyes searching. “Are you thinking stupid thoughts, Gendry?”

“How did you know?” he blurts out.

“You’ve that look on your face, the one when you worry about useless things,” Arya says sagely, releasing his chin and pressing a light kiss on his lips.

Across from them, they hear Joanna giggle, watching them amusedly as she slips a stray piece of meat to Nymeria. The two have become fast friends, the beast nuzzling at Joanna’s hand, even letting Luca scratch below her jaw. "See," Arya says, "even Joey thinks so." She shoots the young girl a wink.

Gendry huffs a laugh and pulls Arya closer, lips softly brushing against the side of her head. “It’s a good thing I have you at my side then, m’lady,” he murmurs. “Keep the stupid thoughts at bay.” She burrows into his chest for a moment and muffles a laugh, lips briefly pressing against the base of his throat as he stifles a groan. When Gendry looks up, he catches sight of Lord Reed, the older man’s gaze still just as curious as before, eyebrows quirked and mouth set in a grim line. It’s as though he recognizes him, but Gendry’s sure he’s never made it this far into the Neck, never encountered any from House Reed. The lord’s gaze renders him strangely chastised, and he leans back awkwardly from Arya, avoiding her questioning gaze.

-----

Back in their shared room, which neither requested but Luca led them to earlier anyway, simply rolling his eyes at their spluttered protest, Arya and Gendry prepare for bed. She’s stripped down to one of his cotton tunics, the hem just barely reaching behind her bum, and Gendry sits in bed in just light breeches. For all his grumbling about the cold, the man is basically a human furnace, burning so warm he often sleeps without a nightshirt. Arya doesn’t complain. After undoing her braid and combing through her curled tresses, Arya bounds towards Gendry, landing in his lap and kissing away the light oomph he lets out. With legs astride his hips, she brushes a thumb along his jaw as Gendry hesitantly rests his warm hands at her waist.

Little is said as he leans forward and catches her lips in another kiss, slow and cautious. They’re still sore and weary from the swordfight, and Gendry is mindful of Arya’s wounds, avoiding her bandaged arm and gently cradling her head due to the bruise blooming on her cheek. It’s not as feverish as their first time, but it is just as sweet. When Arya snakes a hand across the back of his shoulders and rakes her nails down the length of his back, Gendry bites back a moan, nipping at her lips instead. He slips a hand beneath her (his) tunic and palms her stomach and sides, loving the feel of her soft skin and the jagged lines of her scars. With his hands guiding her, Arya rocks back and forth across his lap, gently at first, then building speed when she feels him harden. Her smallclothes are already damp, and when she reaches up and pulls the tunic off, Gendry is happy to comply, lifting her slightly to undo his breeches and shimmy out of them along with his smallclothes.

Arya settles down and continues to glide to and fro, the soft cotton of her underthings creating a torturous kind of pleasure for Gendry. He palms her chest and delights in the apple sized breasts that seem to fit so nicely in his hands. “That—” he grits out, “that’s good.”

Trailing a hand down his broad chest and brushing against a pebbled nipple, Arya hums. “Just good?”

Gendry growls, fingering at the waist of her smallclothes to tug her back and forth, back and forth before leaning forward and breathing harshly against her neck. “You. These need to come off,” he groans, finally ripping the clothes away and rendering her bare. “Beautiful,” he breathes, as a pretty blush works its way from Arya’s cheeks down her neck. Tension continues to build in his lower belly, and when Arya lays flush herself against him, slick with want, his cock nestled like a rod between her lips, they both groan. Arya leans her head against his shoulder and shudders.

“Do we—like this?” she asks, suddenly shy.

“Is that alright?”

“Yes, I just. I don’t know how to…” her voice trails off, hips still rolling flush against him.

Gendry grabs Arya at the waist and lifts her slightly, reaching out and lining his cock at her entrance, gesturing for her to slowly lower herself. He goes cross eyed at the feel of her. The slide is hot and slow, she envelops him like molten silk, walls fluttering until he’s fully sheathed. When Arya shifts forward experimentally, she suddenly pulses around him and Gendry’s mouth goes dry.

“Alright?” he rasps.

Arya pitches forward, nose buried in the crook of his neck as she mouths at his skin, humming in assent. She’s never felt so full. Her hips shift forward and back once, twice, before lifting fully and roughly sitting back down, causing Gendry to nearly shout. Arya claps a hand over his mouth, eyes boring into his. “We have to be quiet,” she whispers, but he can see the slight upturn of her lips. He licks at her palm and suddenly holds her in place, slamming up into her with strength, enjoying the feel of her tensing above him.

They fuck quietly like that, no sounds save for the sharp slap of his thighs against her ass. After a while, Arya pushes a hand out to still him and steady herself. Using her hold on his shoulders for leverage, she rolls her hips up and down, up and down, enjoying the slack jawed look on Gendry’s face before he shuts his eyes, body rigid to stave off spending too early. Arya continues to slam her hips against him, hands nudging up his neck for attention.

“Look at me,” she demands quietly.

His eyes shoot open and meet hers, expression so starved in its pleasure Arya almost takes pity on the man. Kissing her hotly once, he pulls her back by the waist, licking at the fingers of his other hand and reaching down to where they meet, eyes on her the whole time. When Arya feels Gendry smoothly sweep across her nub, her rhythm falters and she clamps down on him, walls like a vice. Her pleasure is overwhelming, vision blurring before she shuts her eyes entirely, nearly falling back on his legs were it not for Gendry holding her up. He fucks her with great fervor, then, grunting a string of nonsense as he pulls her close and bites down on her shoulder as he finally spends. They’re both panting into each other’s necks as they come down, Arya gone slack above him, curled up against his chest.

“That,” she whispers, lips brushing behind his ear.

“Was good,” Gendry finishes. “Always. It’s always good with you,” he murmurs, trying to catch his breath.

They sleep curled around each other that night, dreamless and content.

-----

They leave Greywater and House Reed a day later, with much needed supplies, more men, and warm words of encouragement from Lord Reed. Arya had protested at first, but the lord simply smiled. House Reed will always be loyal to House Stark, Arya. Let me help where I can.”  She watches now as Joanna says a tearful goodbye to Luca, briefly clutching at his waist before crouching to hug Nymeria.

“Goodbye, friend,” she whispers.

“You’ll see each other again,” Arya offers kindly. It’s left unspoken, but Arya gazes at the rest of House Reed, her face solemn before nodding once. I’ll take care of your men, she promises.

Howland steps forward and pulls Arya into gruff hug. “I wish you safe travels, my lady.”

“Thank you, my lord.” Arya whispers, patting his shoulder.

He pulls back and nods to Gendry, clasping his hand warmly. “Look after her, would you, ser?” he asks, pulling a good natured snort and roll of the eyes from Arya.

“I’ll do my best, m’lord,” he says. The man still eyes Gendry with an appraising gaze. But where there was once skepticism, there is now only genuine curiosity and a bit of melancholy.

“Take care of each other,” Lord Reed says finally.

Arya shuffles uncomfortably at the side, suddenly remembering her conversation with Lord Reed the previous night.

-----

“My lady, I must ask. The man you’re often with, the tall, big one—”

“Gendry?”

“Aye, he is a friend of yours?”

Arya considered how to refer to him. “Yes,” she said haltingly. “He is—he’s mine.”

“What house is he from?” Lord Reed looked concerned.

“None. He’s a smith from Flea Bottom, down in King’s Landing. He’s been a knight with the Brotherhood the last few years, though.”

“How old is he, my lady?”

“I—” Arya stopped, wondering at the sudden interest. “He is a few name days ahead of me. Perhaps two, three and twenty? I’m sorry, my lord, is there something wrong? Why…he’s a good friend,” she said. “He’s been by my side since—since Father was—”

Howland reached out and patted her shoulder comfortingly. “There is no trouble, my lady. If he is a good friend to you, then I trust him. However, I must say, when I saw the two of you that first day, it was like looking at ghosts come alive.”

Arya quirked her brow at that. She knew she resembled her Aunt Lyanna but Gendry? How did he fit into this? Did he haunt Lord Reed too?

“He is the spitting image of Robert, my lady,” Howland said gravely.

Robert? Suddenly, it all came together for Arya. The large build, the raven hair, the blue eyes. Even Gendry’s rare explosions of fury. “King Robert?” she sputtered.

Howland nods."You two are…” he trailed off, looking awkward.

Arya realized what he was hinting at, or warning, rather. “We are not them, my lord,” she said stiffly.

“No, you’ll survive,” Howland murmured, eyes suddenly filled with grief.

“I—I love him, and we’re not—that is, we won’t make the same mistakes,” she rambled before Howland squeezed her shoulder again.

“I speak out of turn, my lady. I apologize.”

Arya watched him carefully, unsure of what to say. “Gendry is a good man,” she settled on finally.

“Aye, I can see that much. Your lord father would be greatly comforted, to know you had someone looking out for you. Excuse this old man and his musings. You are not your lady aunt, though you possess her kindness and fierce nature. Take heart in that, I beg you. No matter what the bards sing, she was a good woman, a good friend. She was easy to love, much as, I suspect, you are, Arya.”

-----

The party meets dry land again and reunite with the rest of the brothers. Nymeria lopes off into the woods to check in with her own pack, no doubt, and they march into the nearest town to secure more horses for the crannogmen. Slowly but steadily, they make their way towards Moat Cailin, braving the harsh winds and light snow. As they ride, Gendry pulls up beside Arya and eyes her questioningly.

“You’ve been quiet.”

Arya offers a wan smile and shrugs. “A lot’s happened,” she says simply.

“What did you and Lord Reed talk about?” he asks suddenly, eyes searching.

“My brother. My father,” Arya says. “My aunt,” she adds sadly.

“Your aunt?”

“Lyanna. She—my father’s younger sister. She’s gone now. I resemble her. My father used to say so, and as I got older, I guess there’s more of a likeness. That’s all.”

Gendry nods, absently recalling a few of the older folks whisper Lyanna alongside She-Wolf when they watched Arya. “That all?”

Arya hums, nodding. The words are right on her lips. I know who your father is, she wants to shout. You’re the son of a king, a true prince because you are kind and good and everything a prince ought to be. But she can’t imagine having this conversation on the road, can’t imagine revealing this to Gendry whose spent his entire life spitting on highborn folk. How will he react when he finds out his own father was the king, a gluttonous, whoremongering king at that? She’ll tell him in good time, but she’s scared. Scared of their future, scared of their past. She and Gendry’s stories were linked long before they came into this world, but Arya bristles at the notion they may meet the same fate as their ancestors. Traitorously, Arya wonders if Gendry would ever start a war for her. Would he love her enough to do so? Did Robert really love Lyanna, did he know her well enough when he marched to the Trident and smashed Prince Rhaegar to bits? Stupid. Stupid girl, she thinks. Now’s no time to muse about ghosts.

Instead, she reaches a hand to her side and tightly clasps Gendry’s, fingers interlocking briefly. “Don’t worry. All will be well,” she says, remembering Lord Reed’s words. And when Gendry smiles, lifting their joined hands to his mouth and lightly pressing a kiss to her knuckles, Arya is as sure as anything. I’d wage war for you, she thinks wildly. I love you.

The large group, nearly resembling a respectable retinue now, ride along the Kingsroad, with Nymeria weaving back and forth before trotting between Arya and Gendry. With her people at her side, and a hidden army of wolves at her disposal, Arya feels something like pride and anticipation pool in her belly. She’s going home.

Chapter Text

“Fucking hells, it’s cold,” Gendry mutters, teeth chattering. He wraps gloved hands over his arms, rubbing back and forth with jerky motions. Little warmth is gained, and he shuts his eyes, trying to think of the beating sun, bringing to mind the hottest day in Flea Bottom he can recall. Even amidst the crowded alley ways and putrid stench of horse shit, it was still warm. Blessedly warm.

Lem snorts behind him, hooting triumphantly at getting a fire started despite the damp earth. They’d found an abandoned edifice along the Kingsroad near Last Hearth, and all were eager to get some rest before journeying ahead. “No shit, it’s cold. You’ve never been this far north have you, lad?” His tone is good natured and teasing, but Gendry can see Lem’s lips turning a curious shade of blue.

The smith harrumphs and rolls his eyes. They’ve made it past Castle Cerwyn, well on their way past Winterfell, even. It had been a tense trek, Gendry could see it was hard on Arya to simply evade the guards and bypass her childhood home. They were a few days’ ride from the Wall now, and with each hour, the cold seemed to leach deeper into their bones, chilling them from the inside out. He’d never seen such snow before, white and dense and deceptively charming. When the winds picked up, there was no charm to be found. The snow danced in the air, harshly slapping against the cheeks of these weary travelers.

Gendry shivers again, suddenly sending thanks to whichever gods are watching over them. The conditions may be miserable, but it’s a miracle all members of their party have made it this far, all fingers and toes intact no less. His chapped lips rise in a wry, if not slightly bitter, grin when he thinks of how well the Crannogmen have fared. They are not horsemen by trade, but the small group of Lord Reed’s men carry themselves properly, as if the snow and harsh winds were no more than an afterthought. They were like Arya that way. And in truth, they considered themselves Northerners, though they haled from the southron most tip of the Neck. Perhaps that’s where the resolve comes from, Gendry thinks. Just aligning with the North in name, in spirit, and strength was enough. Absently, he wonders if he could do the same, just fake it til he makes it. Perhaps he will freeze to death first, he thinks morbidly. His cock is like to turn into a damned icicle at this rate.

From his leaned position against the wall, Gendry hears a light laugh and turns to see Luca joining him, shooting an amused snort his way. “Soft Southroner,” he intones, and Gendry somehow finds the strength to extend a burly arm and shove the skinny, laughing man.

“Piss off,” he mutters good naturedly, chuckling himself.

Much to his surprise, the two have become fast friends. It’s a strange development for Gendry to feel so at ease with others. Even after staying on with the brotherhood for years now, he was always slightly tense, expecting a harsh word or meanspirited reference to his bastard status. He’d grown up without many friends, often too quick to bark curt, angry words. His large build and tactless demeanor only added to the idea that he was frightening and unapproachable. At some point, Gendry started to believe it. That all changed when he met a fierce, dirtied girl in King’s Landing, wielding a skinny sword and sticking her neck out for him expecting nothing in return. She never mocked him for being base born, she never clapped his ears and derisively called him boy. Only Arya was different, Gendry thought, his pitiful heart twisting up all sweet and loving.

Luca treats him like a friend, though. The man is gentle and honest, with a propensity for dry humor and the occasional bawdy jape. He speaks plainly about things that matter, things that feel too big and too unknown for Gendry. He handles his own against the amiable or downright raunchy ribbing from the other brothers, too. His fellow crannogmen follow by example, and after more than a moon’s turn on the road, they all settle into cautious but sincere camaraderie. Gendry can see how it pleases Arya, sees the grateful smiles she sends to the men.

Her men. For they joined this fight in her name. They would wade into the worst battle for her, and Gendry knows it unsettles Arya, that she cannot fathom why. Luca is adept at listening to her fears though, and at the beginning Gendry thought him suspicious. Was he sweet on her? He still tempers the stray flare of jealousy, reminding himself that Arya has been on her own for too long. She can use all the friends she can get. She’s always been good at that, Gendry thinks fondly. Befriending the strangest lot, looking after the smallfolk. It came easy to Arya. It’s what started her friendship with Gendry.

Another howling wind slams against the walls, dislodging some of the snow caked on his sparse beard. He rubs an absent hand through the hairs, enjoying the bit of coverage it provides. He remembers Arya saying that Northmen kept warm with their beards. “And from fucking,” she said sweetly, a dangerous glint in her eyes. Gendry is still blushing when she suddenly appears, nodding to Luca and the others as she sidles up next to him and wraps a thick fur around his shoulders. He tilts his head in thanks and watches as she dusts a bit of snow from her clothes, sighing.

“Winter is coming, Gendry,” she says simply.

He snorts. “It’s here, m’lady.”

But there’s something ominous in her tone and gaze, a far off look on her face. She looks pale, he thinks worriedly. Perhaps Arya isn’t as impervious to these conditions as he thought.

“Arya?”

She comes to, shaking her head. Leaning forward, she presses a quick kiss to his cold cheek. “I’m alright,” she says. But as Arya returns to the balls of her feet and turns away, she suddenly pitches forward, hand shooting down to cradle her midsection as a sharp, stinging pain worms its way through her belly. “Ah!”

Gendry reaches out immediately. “What’s wrong?” he asks, tone urgent. Arya isn’t the type to be so obvious about discomfort, let alone pain. The other men sneakily shoot her concerned looks, Luca looking ready to ask her himself.

Arya sweeps her hand across her belly one last time before straightening, grimacing slightly. “It’s nothing. Mayhaps stiff muscles from the cold,” she says. She turns back to Gendry and squeezes his hand. “Truly, I’m fine. I guess it’s been so long since I felt a real winter,” she reassures, shrugging.

“Come on.” She leads him out the shack and towards another section where they set up a tent. “We’ll keep each other warm,” she says, noting the tittering coughs from the other men. Even Luca is blushing at the imagined innuendo. Rolling her eyes, Arya continues to pull Gendry forward, tossing a longsuffering look to the rest and calling out. “Oh you gossiping maids.”

The laughs that follow are amused, and Gendry feels a bit of his worry subside, happy to follow Arya.

-----

That night, as Arya and Gendry crowd together on their bed roll, Nymeria stays close, hovering over the pair before laying beside Arya. They inch closer, feeling the steady thrumming of the beast’s body, the heat she emanates. A little while later, Nymeria leaves them to patrol with the other wolves, and in her absence, Arya shifts her body towards Gendry, pressing her back to his front, trying to seek warmth. Gendry wraps an arm around her waist, pulling her close but being gentle about it. He can tell Arya is still in pain, though she told him otherwise as they readied for bed. Gendry wonders if it’s an errant pain from their previous encounter with the bandits, but it’s been some time since that fight. What could it be, he thinks.

He fingers at the hem of Arya’s nightshirt, mouth twisting up in a smile as he remembers her claiming his tunic as her own, often wearing it to sleep. She’d said she liked how it smelt of him, like soot and musk, something warm and familiar. Arya had been in her cups at the time, sipping on ale and eyeing him with poorly concealed hunger. A few of the men nearby had guffawed, hooting with laughter as Gendry’s face flushed bright crimson. He thinks he’s done more blushing in the last few moons than the past two decades of his life. He’d scolded her then, but loved her sweet laughter in response, the pretty flush of her cheeks.

Now, though, Arya’s face is set in a frown, eyes clenched shut with brows furrowed. Gendry dips his hand beneath her nightshirt and splays a large, warm hand over her lower belly, cautiously rubbing slow circles into her skin, feeling the taut, tense muscles of her abdomen. His fingers dart across the rough, uneven lines of her healed scars, and he anxiously wonders if this is some phantom pain from being stabbed long ago. Thoughts of Jaqen and whoever hurt Arya bubble to the surface, and Gendry stills, swallowing the urge to spit out a curse or two. He couldn’t protect her then, but he vows to do so now. Continuing his soothing movements, Gendry leans down and presses a soft kiss to the skin behind her ear.

Arya shifts slightly and turns her head, forehead meeting his as she melts into his touch, humming appreciatively. “That feels good,” she murmurs, half-asleep and smiling. Gendry draws a path across her lower belly again, before snaking up her ribcage and briefly cupping a breast, nuzzling into her neck the whole time. It’s not an impassioned touch, simply warm and comforting, and Gendry thinks he could live his whole life like this. Curled around her small form, head buried in her wild hair, hands roving her soft skin. He falls asleep with those thoughts, finally warm and entirely content.

----

When the moon is high and exposed in the night sky, Arya dreams of wolves and pack and family. She sees through the gaze of Nymeria, eyes blinking sharp and golden, before vaulting forward with the rest of her pack. They weave through the dense forest, kicking up a slurry of snow while marking a perimeter and scouring the lands for a possible threat. With the wind whipping at her soft, thick fur, Arya’s, Nymeria’s thoughts wander. The beast takes her master back to her puphood.

Memories of running with Shaggydog and Summer, playfully nipping at Ghost and trying to entice him into a wrestling match emerge. Arya’s heart lurches at the image, the sight of quiet, solemn Ghost who is so much like Jon. His blood red eyes blink back at her before stalking off, meandering towards the other pups and bumping heads. Nymeria follows and tussles a bit with Shaggydog. When she meets the gaze of Summer, Arya suddenly meeting the eyes of Bran. “Arya!” she hears him scream. “Sister!” Then blackness descends.

When she comes to, Arya is in a snowy clearing, lands unfettered and wild, somewhere beyond the Wall, she muses. She gazes up at a massive, gnarled heart tree, leaves the same crimson of the godswood back in Winterfell, but there is something menacing in the look of this land. From behind the pale tree, a tall, lanky figure emerges.

“Bran!” Arya shouts, running towards him before stopping short at the look on his face. The soft features she remembers have melted into cold, hard eyes, a grim mouth, a harsh countenance. This Bran shakes his head sadly, stalking forward while clutching a dagger in his hand.

“This blade,” his voice rasps, “was meant to kill me.”

Arya takes a step back, shaking her head furiously. “No, you’re not—Bran,” she croaks, eyes searching. “Where are you? Tell me, please, I need to get to you, I won’t let anyone hurt you!” she cries.

She watches as Bran nods sagely, gazing back at her with serene eyes. He advances on her, expression finally softening as he presents the dagger, a beautiful sharp blade with an opulent, golden pommel. “You have to be quick, Arya.” She nods. “You have to be brave.”

Arya swallows, avoiding the blade and reaching for her little brother, wanting to feel the warmth of his embrace. Suddenly, Bran morphs into a faceless black brother, dagger in hand dripping with blood. Behind them, the heart tree bleeds—dark, syrupy droves of blood flow to the ground, pooling around Arya’s feet and rooting her in place like quicksand. She looks back up at Bran, no, not Bran! she thinks wildly, as this man descends upon her with the blade.

Arya can’t move. Quick! You have to be quick! Quick as a cat!  But all she can do is stand helpless and watch as the black brother stabs her again and again with the dagger, more blood dripping from her front now, staining her tunic, Gendry’s tunic, dark crimson. Arya moves frantically to cover the stab wounds, feels her skin pulse, feels the thick blood continue to rush anyway, coating her palms. The pain is sharp and ice cold. And when she looks back up again, her assailant is gone. He stands before her still, but wearing the face of the Waif. The same limp blonde hair, the same damnable smirk on her ugly face.

“Who are you?” she drawls, voice bored.

Without thinking, Arya begins to answer No One before the Waif sails forward and wraps a cold hand around her throat.

“No more lies, Stark,” she says, grip tightening. Arya’s vision dances with black spots. When the hand goes slack and her vision clears, she’s looking into the face of her older brother.

“Jon,” she cries, before seeing matching stab wounds along his gut, the same pools of red flowing from his body. So much blood, she thinks absently. We’re swimming in it.

“Little sister,” Jon whispers, voice broken and eyes apologetic. “I did it for you,” he says solemnly. The blood from her wounds gush now, and Arya truly feels as if she’s wasting away. She feels her pulse thinning, and before she can ask Jon what he means, she wakes with a gasp, hands wrapped around her middle and tears in her eyes.

----

Gendry wakes from the force of Arya’s movement, the strangled, mournful cry from her lips violently cutting through the low whisper of winds. “Arya,” he murmurs, mind foggy from sleep. He reaches out and is surprised to see her draw back. “What is it, is it the pain again?” he asks helplessly.

Arya shakes her head, willing her tears away and forcing her body to relax. “It’s nothing,” she whispers, but she can already see Gendry trying to rub the sleep from his eyes. She soothes a hand against his cheek, hoping he’ll let this go. “For true, I just had a bad dream,” she says, trying to smile. “I’m so anxious to see my family,” and it’s the truth. She pushes Gendry back to a laying position, running a hand down his neck and sweeping across his shoulders to lull him back to sleep. He drifts off reluctantly, asking her once again if she’s alright before letting his eyes close.

When Arya feels wetness on her, she stills, frantically thinking the stab wounds were real, but she clears her mind and notes the liquid seeps from between her legs, not her stomach. She lifts the fur and confirms the blood lightly coating her thighs, thankful to see none of it has stained the bed roll. Sighing, she nimbly rises and grabs an extra change of clothes before stalking out the tent and towards the low burning fire.

Arya crouches, taking her time to boil a small pot of snow over the flames, dipping a stray rag in the liquid and deftly cleaning between her legs before roughly washing her stained smallclothes. Despite the pain and discomfort of traveling these harsh lands, her moonblood is a welcome sight. She remembers a time back in Braavos when it stopped coming, when she was blind and hungry, her already small body further deteriorating, her blossoming stunted. After her run in with the Waif, Arya believed it would never come again, her womanhood fully ruined. But she’d gained back her strength, continued to grow, and luckily got her moonblood regularly. It was a sign of growth, of maturity, of independence. Most importantly, it was the comfort of knowing she’d never carry a babe in her belly unless she desired to.

Thinking back to her last few days at the inn, Arya recalls quietly going to Mirah and asking for ingredients to brew moontea for her journey. Her mouth quirks up in a wry smile remembering how her new friend simply smiled and gathered the necessary herbs, her disposition kind and gentle save for a good natured remark about Arya enjoying all the saucy romps to come. She thinks of holding little Ronald in her arms, how he’d reminded her of baby Rickon, and made her imagine what her own babe might look like. Despite the warm feeling settling in her chest during those moments, Arya was loathe to consider that future just yet, not when everything was on shaky ground.

No home, no family, no husband. She wasn’t the type to prescribe to traditional expectations, but Arya had grown up in a loving home, she watched as her parents fell in love as husband and wife and built a life together. She wanted that, she realized. On her own terms, to be sure, but it was easy for Arya to imagine a future with a husband, a brood of kids running wild, visits from their uncles and aunt. Her heart twisted with longing at the image. When everything settles down, she reasoned, when her family and her home were safe, when she and Gendry could just be without the threat of war or going cold and hungry, when he knew the truth of his parentage, they could move forward. Then she would allow herself that future. In the meantime, Arya’s been brewing and drinking the tea after each coupling with Gendry. Absently, she wonders why he never inquired about the possibility of a babe, figuring his mind too muddled and sated in the afterglow of sex. Men, she thinks amusedly.

Soon her expression sobers. Arya knows deep in her heart Gendry wouldn’t take kindly to such oversight. She knows him well enough to know he’d not want to father bastards, that he would likely never forgive himself if she became pregnant on the road, unsafe and unsettled. Arya suddenly thinks of Jon. Sweet, solemn Jon, who loathed going to brothels in Wintertown and never laid with whores. Jon who would rather take the Black than fritter away his time between the thighs of some unknown women, risking the possibility of a babe out of wedlock. He was not nearly as carefree as Theon, whose cock likely directed his body, brain nowhere to be found. Arya’s chest tightens at the thought of Jon never knowing a woman’s touch or love. She wanted that for her brother, wanted a good woman to recognize his kind heart and love him for it.

Trying to avoid the frigid chill of the night, Arya pulls on woolen breeches and quickly wrings out her smallclothes, hanging them over a stray branch above the fire to dry. From the thicket of trees behind her, Nymeria lopes forward, trotting towards Arya with a knowing look on her face if possible. The beast leans into her master, muzzle pressing at her hip and humming. Everything okay, girl? she thinks. We’re okay, the direwolf directs back at her, chuffing contentedly when a hand lands on the crest of her head, scratching behind her ears. Arya hears a low rumbling from the woods and watches as dozens of golden eyes blink back at her from among the trees. The sight of the wolf pack comforts her.

All will be well, she remembers Lord Reed’s words. She repeats them again, wishing them to be true. Idly, Arya thinks of his conflicted gaze at her and Gendry as they were leaving Greywater Watch. He’d told them to be safe on their way to the Wall, and wished her good fortune in reuniting with Jon, though his words had stilted over the mention of her brother. It was strange, Arya thought, the same tense look that crossed his face when they sat in his solar that first day. Sighing, she gives Nymeria another pat before making her way back to the tent, hoping Gendry didn’t wake or feel her absence. She’ll try to get some much needed rest; they were towards the end of their journey now. Soon, she would see Jon. Soon, all would be well.

-----

Jon wakes from a fitful sleep with a terrible headache, body sluggish and sore as he lifts to sit against the bed, chest and stomach still burning in the wake of his stabbing. He rubs a grizzled hand across his face, trying to swallow past the dry feeling in his mouth, when a well meaning cough sounds across the room. Reluctantly, he raises his head to meet the concerned gazes of Ser Davos and Edd. Before either can suggest this or that, Jon shakes his head and grunts. “I’m fine.”

Ser Davos sweeps forward and pins him with a firm glare. “Lad, you took more knives to yer gut than most soldiers see in a lifetime. You need rest.”

Jon doesn’t like the worried, comforting look on his face. So paternal, so reminding him of his long dead lord father. “I need to leave,” he mutters. There are too many ghosts here, he laments. Of the men who stabbed him and who were beheaded for it, of the remaining black brothers who look upon their lord commander with unsure gazes. At every corner of Castle Black, they haunt Jon.

“Where to?” Edd pipes up. “Winterfell is still in Bolton’s clutches. The situation with the Wildings is still precarious—”

“Free folk,” Jon reminds him tiredly.

Edd continues. “We know that bastard never had your sister, but we don’t know where she is, or your brothers and other sister,” he adds carefully, voice unusually soft.

But at the mention of Ramsay Snow and his supposed Stark wife, Jon’s jaw snaps shut, body tense with barely controlled fury. He remembers the night Theon and Jeyne—“Arya!” she’d screamed, “I have to be Arya!”—came to Castle Black, half-starved and broken. The sight of them sent Jon spiraling. The former ward huddled close to the steward’s daughter, trying to soothe her with hushed words as they stumbled in like the undead, vacant stares fearful and unsettling. He’d sent Jeyne to be treated in nearby Moletown, personally asking the maester to see to the poor girl’s wounds and have women close by to comfort her.

Theon’s wounds had been tended to as well, though the extent of them were not disclosed to the lord commander. He’d been clothed and fed and carefully led into one of the spare prison cells since then. Jon was still unsure of what to do with the turncloak. There was no love between them as boys, the Ironborn often sneering at the bastard for every perceived slight, and after receiving word long ago of his betrayal and sacking of Winterfell, Jon was sure to kill him. The sight of Theon Greyjoy now though, who had been a perpetually smirking, cocksure figure in Jon’s memory, was startling. He cowered on instinct, gaze flitting to and fro to avoid direct contact, body curling in on himself when anyone drew near.

He hadn’t been able to meet Jon’s gaze, simply mumbling a string of apologies and asking that Jeyne was cared for. He sat hunched over in his cell later, promising Jon he never killed his little brothers, but apologizing nonetheless for betraying Robb and House Stark’s kindness. “Don’t speak of Robb, don’t say his name!” Jon bellowed, the memory of his bright, laughing brother stained with blood and regret. The Ironborn had cowered, his voice barely carrying across the cell, meek as it was. No, the Theon he’d grown up was nowhere to be found, and what remained was a poor shell of a man. Jon thinks he could inflict every torture under the sun on Theon, and it would pale in comparison to what Ramsay did to the man.

Lord Bolton, Jon reminds himself bitterly. Warden of the North. Jon thinks of the threatening raven sent soon after having received Theon and Jeyne. Ramsay had the gall to end his letter with a demand; I want my bride back, bastard. Jon grimaces and suddenly thinks himself sick to be relieved it was in fact Jeyne who acted a pretender for his little sister. After seeing what remained of the Poole girl—after learning, even vaguely, of what she suffered—Jon knows he would’ve gone truly mad if it had been his Arya. I never would’ve known before, Jon thinks. If he had escaped Castle Black without mutiny, he would’ve ridden to Winterfell and saved his sister. He would’ve died for her a different way. He would do it again, he thinks forlornly.

Jon’s gut clenches uncomfortably. He’d heard awful things about the Bolton bastard, sick stories of his bloodlust and penchant for torture. To find out that Ramsay had killed his father and proclaimed himself Lord of Winterfell was unnerving. He was a psychopath, a kinslayer. Was he what Lady Catelyn thought I might become, a more traitorous part of his mind asks. Wasn’t she convinced he’d eventually usurp his siblings for the title, did she think him capable of killing his own family, his own father, for the honor of residing over Winterfell? My wretched base born blood, he thinks bitterly. All those years watching his every move with fearful, resentful eyes when the real enemy was to the south.

But that is unkind, Jon chides himself. He’d heard about the Red Wedding, and when he pictures Lady Catelyn’s body limp as someone slit her throat, he could retch. The woman he grew up with, the woman who held no love for her lord husband’s bastard, would’ve done anything for her trueborn children. She would’ve given up her life for the health and success of her brood, Jon knows, and for that love to be forsaken by the conspiring Boltons and Freys could not be forgiven. Jon would gather his remaining family and take Winterfell back, he vows, thoughts suddenly wild with images of his brothers and sisters. He’d seen them, hazy and alive, in his dreams. That was his only option, there was no place for Jon at Castle Black anymore. He’d fought to lead, and he died for it.

Jon comes to and shakes his head, unsure of what to tell Ser Davos and Edd, who watch him closely with apprehension. Before he can make sense of his jumbled thoughts, a new voice cuts through the room from the doorway.

The Red Witch hovers from a distance like a siren, red robes and ruby necklace and crimson tresses unsightly against the bleak walls of Jon’s chambers. “All is as it should be, lord commander,” she calls out. “I’ve seen the flames. Your time is coming.”

Jon tenses, detesting her foreboding tone. There is something queer about the witch, he reasons. As grateful as he was to be plucked from certain death, he did not like feeling beholden to the priestess, remembering the unseemly way she stuck to Stannis. Rather, it was the way Stannis would hang off her words and visions—surely not in a pitiful way, as Stannis Baratheon was a cold, harsh man, blunt in his appraisal and unyielding to the sways of women—that disturbed Jon. He never witnessed anything inappropriate, but it was well known Stannis’ deference to the red witch. She was his queen.

Jon always found his steady, stoic nature rather surprising, only having the Fat King to compare him to. The famed Baratheon king loved his women, Jon knows. At the welcome feast in Winterfell, he recalls seeing Robert Baratheon’s broad face snugly buried in the overwhelming bosom of some serving girl. He'd pulled her into his lap in full view of everyone, and Jon remembers the steely look on Queen Cersei’s face, though she tried to mask it with indifference and boredom. He’d pitied her then. Now, he wanted the bitch’s head on a spike.

Jon’s gaze floats back to the red witch, wondering if she was as dangerous as the queen. Stannis trusted her and look what he got for it—a failed prophecy and death. Jon grunts noncommittally at the priestess and fully rises from bed, landing on shaky feet while waving away help from Ser Davos and Edd. When he ambles towards his desk to go about the grating process of drafting ravens, he suddenly misses Sam. His kind friend would know what to say, but he was at the citadel now and Jon Snow was alone. Before he can put quill to ink, though, Tormund lumbers through his door, deftly pushing the red witch aside. His face is grave, a rare look for him, and Jon immediately stills.

“What is it, Tormund?”

“We’ve got company, little crow.”

Jon is on his feet in an instant, pulling on a cloak and scurrying down the steps with his friend. From atop the battlements of Castle Black, young men stand at the ready.

“Riders!” one calls out.

“Open the gates!” another cries.

The doors lurch open and Jon finds that the newcomers are not riders at all. He sees a hazy form on a sled-like contraption, pulled by a large direwolf. They’re flanked by two companions wrapped in what looks like heavy Wilding furs. Jon’s mouth is dry, a gasp on his lips. As the group moves closer, he makes out the familiar sight of a young man with a mop of auburn hair and striking blue eyes. The soft features Jon remembered have grown sharp and mature, though, carrying in them a solemnness that wasn’t there before.

“Bran,” he whispers. Their eyes meet, his little brother’s face morphing into a tentative smile, and Jon is suddenly overwhelmed by a sharp splitting in his chest. He’d imagined his reunion with his siblings for years now; this feels a dream. Tears spring to the lord commander’s eyes and he runs the rest of the way, ignoring his slight limp and rushing towards his younger brother.

“Bran!” Jon cries, blurring past his companions and falling roughly to his knees in the dense snow. He pulls the boy—a man, Jon thinks wildly—towards him in a crushing embrace, which Bran returns, long arms wrapping around Jon, breath shuddering.

“Jon,” he murmurs, throat thick and eyes glassy with unshed tears.

“Bran, gods, Bran, you’re here.” Jon’s hands furiously rove his brother’s form, checking for any immediate injuries. There is something mad about his touch, as if to confirm this is no spectre or thinking Bran might vanish before his eyes unless Jon keeps him within arm’s reach. His vision blurs as pulls back and looks his brother square in the face, disbelief etched on his expression.

“It’s alright, Jon. I’m here,” he says quietly, slightly squeezing Jon’s arms as if to comfort.

Jon suddenly finds the situation ridiculous. He is the older brother, he should be reassuring everyone. Remembering himself, Jon clears his throat and claps a warm hand on his shoulder. “You are, little brother.”

A curious look flashes across Bran’s face, something sad and remorseful, before he smooths his expression into a true smile, nodding and glancing at his companions.

Jon turns suddenly and faces the two figures, a young man and woman. Distractedly, he notes Summer and Ghost tumbling in the background, a group of black brothers eyeing the entire situation cautiously. “And you bring friends,” he says.

“Meera and Jojen Reed,” Bran offers, warmth coloring his tone.

“Reed?” Jon thinks back to his lessons. “Lord Howland’s children, then?”

They both step forward and bow, confirming his suspicions and smiling hesitantly. Jon finally takes in their haggard looks, the bags beneath their eyes, the slight tremor in their hands. They didn’t have an easy time getting here, Jon thinks sadly. “What happened?” he murmurs, looking from one face to another.

The young man, Jojen, makes to answer, but his sister stills him with a single touch. Her eyes are guarded, expression tight though apologetic. “It’s a long story, my lord.”

“Jon,” Jon answers easily. “I’m no lord. And of course, you all must be tired. Let’s get you inside and warm, we’ll call for food in the main hall.” He gestures to a few lingering brothers to guide the newcomers. Jojen nods in thanks and moves to follow Edd. Meera does the same, but Jon does not miss the moment between she and his little brother, a soft look on Bran’s face as their hands briefly clasp before she stalks off with the rest. Jon crouches down, smiling. “Ready?”

Bran nods, moving to undo the buckles on the sled and allowing Jon to carry him to his own chambers. He notes, as he moves one arm beneath Bran’s knees and another cradling his back, that Bran weighs little. His legs are still spindly, no doubt malnourished from the lack of movement and muscle development, but there is strength in Bran’s arms and shoulders, his upper torso filled out, his jawline sharper despite the soft look on his face. He’s a man grown, Jon thinks with a slight clench in his chest. He’s suddenly reminded of Robb and Ned’s build, of the formidable look of a Stark man, and if he hugs his little brother closer at the thought, neither mentions it.

-----

They convene in the dining hall later, Jon and Bran gathered with the Reed children, Ser Davos, Ed, and Tormund. The other black brothers watch the group with curious eyes, but for the most part, offer much needed privacy for the travel weary newcomers. They settle down with warm bowls of stew, hearty frybread, and a pitcher of watered down ale.

“Eat, please. Fill your bellies. Though, it’s not the best food,” Edd apologizes. He’s much like a mother hen sometimes, Jon notes, with this good natured fussing.

Meera simply smiles and shrugs, digging into the food with gusto. “Better than what we scrounged up beyond the wall, I’d wager,” she offers, mouth turning up in a pretty smile. There’s something kind and bright about her presence; the way her dark curly hair floats about, her green eyes glinting playfully, reminds him of Arya somehow. Not for the first time, Jon wonders who this girl is to Bran.

Her brother is of a calmer disposition, dirty blond hair shaggy but deep set eyes the same brilliant green. Jojen Reed is a slight man, as tall as Jon, but noticeably thinner. However, there is a protective aura to the boy, something knowing and steady. After a while, he sends a meaningful glance towards Bran, gesturing for him to start.

Bran gulps from his mug of ale and pins Jon with somber gaze. Jon wonders if he’ll ever see that soft, carefree expression from Bran’s boyhood again. His sweet little brother, whose only flare of wildness showed itself when the rascal climbed every inch of Winterfell. “Jon,” he starts quietly, bringing the man out of his musings, “there is much to tell. It may sound unbelievable, like one of Old Nan’s tales,” he continues, lips lifting in a brief grin, “but I swear it to the old gods and the new, I speak it true. I have a tale, br—brother,” his words curiously fumbling over the term of endearment. “I would tell you, if you would hear it.” Bran’s face is grave, an unknowable look in his eyes, and Jon swallows down a lump of hysteria.

He looks around the table at all their tense gazes, remembering the tall tales he heard as a child, and more recently, the horrors he’d witnessed beyond the wall. There are a host of things Jon will never forget, things he could scarcely believe, and he’s unsure if he wants to know anymore.

But Bran’s gaze is urgent, and Jon will do anything to ease his burden. “I would hear it,” he says solemnly.

----

Back in Jon’s chambers, Bran is finally sleeping after the tense conversation over supper.  He settled in bed after much nagging from Jon, who worked to fluff his pillows, pull extra furs from his trunk, offer him another warm tunic for a nighshirt.

Bran rolled his eyes, waving him away while reassuring him. “I’m fine, Jon,” he’d said with a laugh. “You remind me of Mother, fretting like that.” But at seeing Jon’s expression falter, Bran immediately apologized, tone contrite. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” He looked away, remembering all the times Catelyn had treated Jon a base born pest.

Jon cleared his throat, expression mournful. “It’s nothing, little brother. I’m…so sorry about what happened to her, and Father, and Robb,” he said, tearing up. “I should’ve ridden south—I could’ve—”

Bran cut in with a vigorous shake of his head. “There is no going back, Jon,” he said sagely. “They met an awful end and it was through no fault of your own.” His voice was hard then, biting and angry, alluding to the killers and co-conspirators. They’ll pay for it, his tone seemed to say. When he looked back at Jon, his face softened. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

Jon nodded, throat tight.

“Well, as alright as you can be,” Bran continued. “I heard whispers of mutiny, I saw you bloodied and dead,” he rasped, voice pained as he referred to his greensight.

Jon fumbled, unsure of what to make of Bran’s gift? Skill? “It’s nothing,” he said blithely, but the put out look on Bran’s face caused him to snort, tension lifting. “Fine, it bloody hurt. But let’s not speak of it now, brother.”

Bran sighed. “We need a plan, Jon. Once Arya returns—”

At the mention of their sister, Jon’s heart leapt with pitiful hope.

“She’s close, Jon,” he reassured again. “She journeys here with an army,” Bran added.

“An army?”

“Of sorts,” Bran said vaguely, a mischievous smile peeking through his expression.

Jon nodded, none the wiser. “I miss her,” he admitted quietly.

“I know it, Jon. She misses you just as much.”

Jon stared out at the night sky, words flowing unbidden. “I swear I’m going mad, Bran. Sometimes…I swear I could hear her, see her even. She looked scared and alone, readying for war. But I can never reach her in my dreams,” he lamented. “I can only watch.”

“She will return to us,” Bran said simply. “All will be well,” a strange tilt in his voice.

Jon sighed, “I hope so. Come now, you need your sleep.”

From his spot near the fire now, sprawled on a stray bed roll with Ghost by his side, Jon watches Bran carefully. The hollow feeling he’d grown so used to lifts a bit at the sight of his returned brother. He is alive and well—as well as can be expected considering the circumstances, considering the sight and knowledge that was foisted on the young boy. Jon takes heart in that. But there’s dread too; the threat of the Night King and his army of wights loom like a bad storm. He’d seen their power at the massacre of Hardhome. Jon’s blood runs cold at the thought of his former home or any corner of the seven kingdoms meeting the same fate. Bran had assured him, though, Arya’s return was imminent, and once they could take back Winterfell and gather with Sansa and Rickon, the threat would be manageable. There was dread, Bran relented, but there was hope as well. Jon chose to believe his brother.

He awaits Arya’s return with quiet elation. He’d give anything to see her again, muss her hair, tease her about swordplay, anything, anything. His wild little sister. Jon smiles in the dark like a madman starved. But his expression sobers when he remembers Arya wouldn’t be so little anymore. So much time has passed; he wonders how she could’ve possibly escaped the Lannisters’ clutches and survived. He remembers their farewell the night before she went south with Father and Sansa, remembers the feel of their last embrace. Arya jumped into his arms, tearstained cheeks resting against his shoulder as her little feet dangled from his hold like a ragdoll. I’ll miss you, she’d said somberly, suddenly so like him, like their father. It won’t be forever, Jon had promised. Different roads, little sister, he reminded her, sometimes lead to the same castle. Who knows?

Jon drifts off to the image of Arya’s return, comforted still by the day when all the Starks can be together again. Bran had mentioned Rickon survived after fleeing Winterfell with Osha, a Wilding woman, and Sansa too, escaped King’s Landing despite being married off to the imp and accused of plotting King Joffrey’s death. He and his siblings were flung to the four corners of the world, and Jon would do his damndest to find them and set things right. He blearily thinks of Ramsay Snow and his wretched letter. He’s just a bastard, Jon reasons. Like me. And he can be killed, just as I was. This time though, he’ll stay dead, Jon promises. And we’ll take back our home. That night, Jon sleeps peacefully for the first time in moons.

-----

The party crests the bank carefully, trudging through heaps of dense snow before catching Castle Black in their sights, a dark, looming, monstrous structure. Arya stops when they’re just a short ride from its doors. Gripping her reins and turning back to Gendry, she suddenly feels her heart twist up nervously, a hopeful, hesitant smile spreading across her face. He nods at her, silently encouraging Arya as best he can, before she abruptly hunkers down in her saddle and spurs Mercy forward. Jon, she thinks excitedly, I’m here, brother. Arya feels the wind thrash against her running form and shuts her eyes, sending a quick prayer to the old gods. Let him be alright, she asks. Safe and whole and there when I arrive. She and Mercy continue to blaze ahead, gaining speed as Nymeria is hot on their heels, howling crazily all the while. From the tree line, more wolves emerge, running after their pack leader with great gusto, joining in on the wild cries.

The sight is something to behold, Arya’s figure catching a bright, scorching path against the pristine backdrop of snow. She looks some fierce warrior queen, Gendry thinks, and the others must agree, as he hears a series of chortles and guffaws at her retreating form. Luca trots up to Gendry and watches with great amazement.

“The Wolf Queen,” he says wondrously.

And the smith can only nod in assent, a proud grin on his face and an astonished chuckle bubbling past his lips. Something like apprehension settles in Gendry's stomach, though. Whatever happens next will determine the rest of their course. Once the Starks reunite, it truly begins.

 

Chapter Text

Jon wakes to something wet and insistent on his face. As he blearily opens his eyes, he catches sight of Summer knocking his muzzle against Jon’s cheek, licking a broad stripe and whining. Ghost lays by his master’s feet, content and fast asleep.

Jerking his head away and grunting, Jon reaches out blindly and scratches behind Summer’s ear. “Mornin’, boy.” He means to shut his eyes again when he feels Ghost suddenly perk up, rising from his spot to butt heads with Summer, yipping uncharacteristically.

“Jon, get up.”

“Hm?”

Bran chucks a stray fur at his head. “Up, up,” he says, impatient. “Put on some clothes.”

“Ow.” Jon lifts the fur from his head, rubbing a rough hand over his face before turning to Bran. He sits in Jon’s bed, wrapped in a roughspun tunic and wool cloak, looking fidgety. “Are you hungry?” Jon asks. “Do you need to…” He gestures vaguely towards the privy.

“M’not a babe, Jon,” Bran mutters, rolling his eyes. “You need to get up, she’s almost here.”

Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Jon’s head suddenly snaps in his brother’s direction, words finally registering. “What?”

Before Bran can answer, Tormund throws open the door to the lord commander’s chambers, sporting a wide grin. “You gathering a party, little crow?”

Jon stares stupidly at his wilding friend.

“More company. Big group. Led by some lass and big ass wolves. Up you get,” Tormund croons, literally plucking Jon from the ground as he pulls on a cloak and some boots. “You too, little wolf,” he says, nodding to Bran and swooping him up easily.

“Th—thank you,” Bran stutters. He’s still getting used to the wilding, to his boundless enthusiasm and large presence.

Jon is hop skipping out his chambers, muttering something to himself. He turns back, eyebrows raised to his hairline and asks, “You said wolves? As in, more than one?”

Tormund’s laugh is booming. “Today oughtta be fun, little crow.”

-----

“State your business, wench.”

Arya swallows the urge to stamp her foot. “I’ve told you,” she calls out, voice shaking. “I’m here to see the Lord Commander.”

“Aye, and who might you be?”

Another black brother jerks his head nervously. “Call off your dogs, girl.”

Nymeria chuffs, circling in her spot before baring her teeth at the rangers. Gendry and the rest of their group catch up then, sidestepping the wolves and riding to Arya’s side.

“He called ‘em dogs,” Lem chortles, tone mocking.

“The cold mess with your sight, lad? These look like kennel pups to you?” Anguy asks. He lazily swings his bow to sit on his lap, an amused look on his face.

“Listen here,” the black brother grunts.

“I’m Arya Stark,” Arya cuts in, frustrated and impatient. Gendry reaches out and squeezes her hand, steadying her. “I’m here to see my brother, Jon Snow,” she says clearly.

“We had an Arya Stark come by before, milady. Seems there are ample pretenders.”

Luca rides forward. “You had other visitors, didn’t you? I’m from House Reed,” he says with a knowing expression. “I’d like to see my cousins, now.” The crannogmen move forward, flanking their man, while the others, Arya included, eye Luca curiously. Did that mean Howland’s children—if Meera and Jojen made it to the wall, then Bran must’ve—

Understanding dons on Arya, and she works her jaw. She is cold, she is tired, and most of all, she is anxious to see her brothers. Nymeria paces back and forth, watching the rangers with an irritated glint in her eyes. “I’m doing you a courtesy by asking nicely,” Arya starts, voice low and threatening. “Either move aside or we’ll let ourselves in.”

Before they can respond, a commotion is heard beyond the gates, and the first ranger turns his back, dipping his head in deference to whoever’s behind him. He looks to his brother across the ledge. “Open the gates, Ronard.”

The ancient doors lurch open, and the first thing Arya sees is a more black. A sea of both gruff and scraggly men covered in dark furs, their faces haggard and vigilant. Interspersed in the crowd are rougher looking people in paler furs, expressions more curious than guarded.

A large, redheaded man is laughing. “Another little wolf!” he exclaims.

Gendry tenses, half expecting an attack. He turns towards at Arya, murmuring, “Alright?” and she nods, riding forward with Nymeria by her side. The other wolves stay just outside the gates, pacing back at forth. Arya slips down from Mercy, frantically looking for a familiar face when two forms—one snow white, the other spotted in blotches of brown and black—vault at her, bearing down on her slight form and pushing her to the ground.

A gaggle of black brothers shout in surprise. Even Gendry and a few of the Brotherhood drop from their horses and step forward, thinking the worst, but the sound of Arya’s laugh stops them. She giggles as Ghost and Summer nuzzle against her face and hip, her hand, anywhere they can reach, whining and licking affectionately. All the while, Nymeria circles the pile, nipping here and there and butting heads with her brothers. A short distance away, Nymeria’s pack howls, the untamed calls cutting through all other noise. Arya is so distracted, looking up at Gendry with a bright smile, happy tears at her eyes, that she barely hears the man come forward.

“Arya,” the voice croaks, heavy with emotion.

Her head whips forward, settling on the lord commander as she clambers to her feet, self-consciously wringing her hands. Arya steps forward, stopping just a stone’s throw away from the man. Absently, she notices the hot tears tracking down her cheeks, the wobble of her mouth, stifling a sob.

“Arya,” Jon says again, moving forward cautiously.

“You so look like Father,” she whispers. And he does. The same slate gray eyes—my eyes, Arya thinks—same long face, same grim line of his mouth, now carefully pulled into an amazed smile, even his hair is pulled up the way Ned used to wear it.

Arya’s vision blurs, and she’s suddenly pulled into a crushing hug. Her hands shake as she grips onto Jon’s furs, burrowing her face in his neck and trying to steady her breaths. “I missed you,” she cries. “I’ve wanted to see you for so long—I tried to—gods, Jon.” Arya trails off, shaking her head and holding him tighter. She inhales deeply, burning his scent to memory as her hands find purchase across his back and broad shoulders. He’s grown, she thinks, laughing madly at the realization. My big brother, a man grown.

Jon presses a round of kisses to the crown of her head, only pulling back at the sound of Arya’s wet, shocked laugh. He smiles for true as he smooths a hand along her cheek, thumb wiping away tear tracks, before moving down her dark tresses. Jon’s fingers fall through her wild nest of hair and settle along her jaw. “Let me see you, now.” He tips her chin up, keeping a steady hand on her shoulder as if to keep her in place, to make sure she’s real.

“Little sister,” Jon murmurs, tears pooling in his eyes.

Arya feels her heart split at the familiar endearment. She messily wipes at her face, wanting to get a clear look at her best brother. “Jon,” she says, smiling. “I’m here.” She covers his hand in hers, pulling their joined fingers up to press a kiss to his knuckles before holding his hand between them and squeezing tightly. Her limbs feel restless, her expression a touch awkward. How must she look to him, Arya wonders.

Jon laughs, a cheerful, clear sound. “You are,” he says, reaching forward again and smoothing a hand down her hair. It feels so different from the way he used to playfully muss at Arya’s head. The movement is apologetic as it is affectionate. “I missed you too.” Jon’s tone is light, but his expression holds a bit of melancholy.

The sight of him so reminds her of Jon in her childhood, slinking off in the background to brood. That solemn look of his, of their father’s, is too much for Arya. But before she can respond, the big, redheaded man steps forward and tuts. “Don’t keep her to yerself, little crow!”

Arya looks past Jon at the big man. A wilding, she realizes, her eyes wide as saucers. But just behind him is a familiar boy—no, a man, Arya corrects. He sits on a nearby bench, expression serene as he smiles at the scene before him. Arya gasps and immediately runs through the scattered crowd, past the massive wilding, and towards her little brother. With a dogged look on her face, Arya leaps at the man, pulling him into a wild embrace and sending the pair tumbling to the ground, snow splattering all around them.

Bran lets out a grunt, laughing in the process—a shocked, bright sound. “Ow,” he chides. He tussles with his big sister, trying to duck away as she musses his hair and presses messy kisses on his forehead, his cheeks, his nose.

Belatedly, she pulls back and grins down at him. “Bran!” Arya shouts in his face.

“Yes, yes, it’s me,” he says unceremoniously, voice teasing. He fakes hurt as she swats his shoulder, tears streaming down her face though her grin could rival the sun.

Arya pulls him into another hug before easily lifting him back on the bench, smiling all the while. She’s grown strong, Bran thinks proudly. His wild sister, Arya Underfoot. He has so many memories of practicing swordplay with Arya in the godswood, hiding from Mother’s disapproving gaze as they scampered across the woods and up the trees. They used to pretend to be wildings, promising each other they’d venture beyond the wall one day and treat with giants.

Bran’s heart clenches at the sight of Arya now. Her dark hair prettily frames her face, dancing to and fro from the chilling wind. The same gray eyes and wolfish grin, he notes, but the fat’s melted from her cheeks, the lines of her face more defined. She’s beautiful, he thinks affectionately. But there’s a slight dig in his chest, at all the time missed watching Arya grow, and growing with her. He feels the former absence of family so acutely in this moment. When Bran gazes at Jon, sad smile on his face as he walks towards them, he knows the lord commander must feel the same.

Reaching out and tugging on his sister’s delicate but sturdy hand, Bran briefly interlocks their fingers before smiling blindingly up at her. “We’ve been waiting for you, sister.”

Arya snorts. “You sound like Luca.”

At the mention of the crannogman, Arya suddenly turns towards her party, watching as he and the rest of House Reed’s men reunite with an unfamiliar pair. They must be Howland’s kids, Arya thinks. She catches sight of Gendry and the brotherhood then, the lot of them looking unsure and slightly awkward.

Arya gives Bran’s hand one last squeeze before bounding up to Gendry, a teasing smile on her lips. She makes to reach for him but he coughs and steps back, formally patting her back and wincing. She can hear Anguy give a distinct snort behind them, muttering, “Here we go.” Arya furrows her brows before taking Gendry’s hand, pulling him in Bran and Jon’s direction, and gesturing for Anguy and Lem to follow.

Across the yard, Jon’s eyes zero in on his sister, taking in the decidedly mature lines of her face and her almost coquettish? expression as she sidles up to a large man from her group, but no, that can’t be right, Jon thinks. That’s not Arya. He wouldn’t even know what flirty looks like on his little sister, can’t make sense of it. The strange man meets Jon’s calculating gaze and steps back from Arya, body tense, before she’s urging him and a few others forward, rolling her eyes. That’s more like her, Jon thinks amusedly.

“Come on,” he hears her mutter.

“Arya,” Jon calls out. “And?” he prompts, voice wary.

“Milord,” the tall, thin one greets. He’s got a bow slung over his shoulder and an easy smile on his face. The other two parrot the greeting, bowing slightly. Jon watches as Arya nudges the big one, face morphing into a sweet, teasing smile. He lifts his head to meet Jon’s eyes, expression hesitant.

“Just Jon is fine,” Jon answers, hoping none of the newcomers address his as Lord Commander. The title feels false on his ears. A reminder of his failure. Shaking his head, he turns back to the men. “Welcome to Castle Black. I should thank you,” Jon starts, “for seeing to my sister’s safe arrival. I’m in your debt. If there’s anything you need, I’ll see to it.”

He must catch the attention of the entire party then, as they shuffle towards him, backing Arya and her friends? comrades? he wonders, with resolved gazes. Jon notices a lithe man move forward, recognizing him as the one who pulled Meera and Jojen into a fierce hug a moment ago. He flanks Arya’s other side, his men coming up behind him. As Jon takes in the sight of the newcomers, a sizeable group of able-bodied and decently armed men—led by his sister, no less—he wonders if this was the army Bran referred to. Ghost, Summer, and a massive direwolf who can only be Nymeria trot forward just then, and in the distance, Jon makes out another round of chilling howls from the pack beyond the gates. He catches Tormund backing up in his periphery, an impressed look on his face.

“We’ve no need of anything, m’lord,” the big one says, pulling Jon’s attention back.

“Save for food and shelter in the meantime,” another pipes up.

The large man’s eyes bore into Jon’s, face set in determination. “We’re with the Brotherhood without Banners, m’lord. We kept watch over the Riverlands during the war, tried out best to keep Lannister soldiers away.” At the mention of the famed house, another spits, affronted. “We’ve been traveling with Lady Arya for a time, and we were joined by men from House Reed,” he continues, nodding to Arya’s right. Crannogmen, Jon realizes. “We’ve come to fight for her. For your house, m’lord,” he finishes, voice gaining conviction. To his side, Arya watches him with a soft expression before turning back to Jon and smiling reassuringly.

“It’s true, Jon. Gendry’s an old fr—he’s—I’ve known him for a long time,” she settles on finally.

The man, Gendry, peers down at Arya with a look too affectionate for Jon’s liking. He has a large build, Jon notices, figure easily dwarfing Arya. His muscles speak of a life of hard labor, chest massive and large hands looking rough and calloused even from a distance. But there’s little aggression in his stance—if anything, he looks nervous as he angles his body towards Arya, as if to seek reassurance. A curious man, Jon thinks, a stray flare of protectiveness for his sister seeping into his chest.

“They’re here to help,” Arya says, rousing Jon from his thoughts.

“Help?”

Arya eyes her brothers, anticipation clear on her face. “We’re going home, aren’t we?”

Bran smiles placidly as Jon continues to dumbly gape at his sister and her rag tag misfit army.

Stepping forward and clutching their hands, Arya leans forward, a dangerous glint in her eyes. “Winterfell,” she says. “We’re taking it back.”

-----

Gendry and the rest of the party settle into their guests’ chambers at Castle Black, offering rough but sincere thanks to the black brothers who see to them. A slight one, Edd, he recalls, fusses about with an older man, pulling out stray furs and blankets for the group before telling them to join the Starks in the dining hall later on. Gendry thinks Edd’s friend is too old and refined to be a brother of the Night’s Watch. He certainly doesn’t come across snooty, but there’s a gentle way about him that settles Gendry’s nerves. Perhaps the way he seems a fish out of water among the black brothers endears him to Gendry as well. It’s a feeling the smith knows well, not quite fitting in. The man must notice his attention, as he gives a light cough and smiles at the young man.

“Alright, lad?”

Flushing, Gendry nods clumsily. He hadn’t meant to stare. “Fine, m’lord.”

“Ha!” The man’s outburst is good natured. “I’m no lord, lad. No more ‘an the son of a crabber from King’s Landing, is all.” Gendry’s ears perk at the sound of the familiar, thick accent. “Ah, but some do call me the Onion Knight. Ser Davos Seaworth,” the man introduces himself, extending a weathered hand and smiling warmly at Gendry. The look on his face is…fatherly, Gendry realizes uncomfortably.

He hesitantly clasps Ser Davos’ hand, nodding slightly. “Gendry,” he offers. “Gendry Waters.”

“You a knight, then, Gendry? Soldier? Yer a big one.” His gaze is appraising. “Suppose the Starks can use all the strong lads they can find,” he says, chuckling.

Gendry’s throat dries. Some days he feels like a knight, when he rides through the Riverlands and protects the orphans of the inn. Other days, he feels no better than a no good bastard boy from Flea Bottom, stuck in a rut, directionless. That morose feeling’s drifted some ever since Arya returned. He finally found something to fight for—or someone, rather. Most days now, he feels like a warrior by her side. Shaking his head from useless ramblings and shrugging, Gendry grunts, “Smith, ser. I’m with the Brotherhood now but, uh, I’m from King’s Landing too,” he confides. “Used to apprentice under Tobho Mott.”

Ser Davos’ eyebrows raise in surprise. “The Street of Steel?”

Gendry nods.

“Well. Never thought I’d meet another Flea Bottom boy in my lifetime,” Davos responds, kindly patting Gendry on the shoulder. “How in tha hells you end up traveling with the Stark lass?” he asks, naked curiosity on his wrinkled face.

Gendry blanches, suddenly unsure of how to speak of Arya. He wonders if whatever he says will reach the ears of her lord brother. The sight of the solemn man, face littered in battle scars and sizable build wrapped in jet black furs, intimidated Gendry at first. His long face, so like Arya’s, was drawn into a grim expression, only softening for his younger sister.

Arya’s reunion with her brother was intense, and Gendry watched the pair carefully. At some point, the fierce embrace and tears were too much for him, and he had to look away, feeling like an intruder on a family moment. The lord commander looked a man possessed to Gendry, face burrowed in his sister’s hair like she might disappear. The younger Stark, Bran, seemed the opposite, almost expecting their arrival, his face entirely tranquil before Arya wildly leapt at him. Watching the touching scene left Gendry feeling lonely. Even as Arya stood a foot away from him, even with the brothers at his side. He’d never known true family, never felt the unyielding bonds the Starks seemed to have. A pit formed in his stomach, and he mourned the loss of what he was never able to experience.

Coming to, Gendry faces the old knght and tries to smooth his expression. Scratching at the back of his neck, he shrugs again. “M’lady found herself in the Riverlands a while back, needing safe passage to the North and men to back her,” he starts, offering an abridged version. “It was an easy decision to make. Certainly beats pussyfootin’ around, waiting for Lannister soldiers to raid the lands again.” He can’t quite keep the vitriol from his voice.

Davos carefully regards the young man. There’s something strangely, startingly, familiar about his eyes, about the harsh line of his mouth as he spits at the Lannisters. “Lad, do you—”

“Gendry!”

They both turn to see Lady Arya smiling by the doorway, flanked by the archer and the crannogman. She seems surprised to see Gendry’s company, but politely nods to the old knight anyway. “Ser.”

Directing his attention to Jon’s sister, Davos dips his head, smiling. “My Lady Arya. I’m Ser Davos, a, uh, counsel to the lord commander.”

The young woman nods again. “Yes, thank you for helping him, Ser Davos. Arya’s fine,” she says in a slightly teasing, put out tone, sounding much like her brother when it comes to titles and deference. “There’s supper, if you’d both like to…” she trails off, gesturing behind her to the dining hall.

When Davos makes his way out, he sneakily watches as Lady Arya hangs back for the lad, bumping his hip and cocking her head at him. The lad, Gendry, sighs and briefly wraps a burly hand across her shoulder, head dipping low and murmuring something to the young woman. Davos lips quirk in a wry smile. He’s raised enough sons and been in love himself to notice the signs. Ah, this oughtta put the Lord Commander in a tizzy. He averts his eyes and follows the newcomers towards the hall, stifling a chuckle.

-----

That evening, Arya watches, content and amused, as the scene unfolds before her. Between the brotherhood (who are no wilting wallflowers) and the crannogmen reuniting with their liege lord’s children—not to mention the curious men of the Night’s Watch and the lingering wildings—supper is a decidedly raucous affair. It had been a trying, emotional day, and a big gathering, chaotic as it was, coupled with warm food seemed the best medicine.

Arya spent the better part of her day settling in Jon’s room. They weren’t children anymore, she knew, and three grown Starks in the lord commander’s chambers must’ve made for a funny sight, but she spent the last few years thinking she’d lost her family. Nothing was going to keep her from them now. Gendry had clasped Arya’s hand, squeezing briefly, before sending her off to her brothers. “Go on,” he said sweetly, “be with your family. I’ll see you at supper.” When he was sure no one was watching, Gendry pressed a quick kiss to her temple before shuffling towards the guest cells.

Jon insisted on separate rooms or perhaps sending Arya and Meera to Moletown where handmaids would be available, but Arya wouldn’t hear it. “Castle Black is no safe place for women, little sister,” Jon had said worriedly. “Meera Reed seems to be doing alright,” Arya countered, to which Bran had openly chuckled. “She brandishes her spear when a man looks at her sideways. You could employ the same tactic, sister,” Bran suggested, eyeing her knowingly. Absently thumbing her dagger, Arya nodded. It was decided then, she was staying.

Now, Arya sits nestled between Jon and Gendry, Bran settled across and shooting her amused glances every once in a while. Sending a goofy look back at her little brother, Arya suddenly catches sight of Meera’s curious gaze, and she flushes before laughing lightly. Lady Reed intrigued Arya; she had a captivating look to her, donning thick wilding-like furs and roughly pinning back curly tresses to reveal an open, pretty face. Jojen Reed seemed to have a calmer feel about him, reminding Arya of Luca. When she remarked that he was handsome, she’d been met with matching put out looks from Luca and Gendry. Thinking about it now, how they all came together, Arya couldn’t help but laugh. What a strange journey it had been.

Arya’s pulled from her thoughts when Jon nudges her side, chuckling in a low voice. “You look like you’re having fun, little sister.”

Before she can answer, the big wilding—Tormund, she learned—slams a mug of ale before her, grinning widely. “Of course she’s havin’ fun! Who wouldn’t, with a charming group like us?”

Jon rolls his eyes at his wilding friend, as Arya laughs, loud and bright. She’d never met wildings before, and the introduction to those beyond the wall fascinated her. They weren’t much different from most Northmen, Arya found. Loud, gruff, strong. But there was something, something freer about them. She returns Tormund’s smile and shrugs, “Just so,” she offers, the Braavosi phrase easily slipping from her lips.

Tormund leans in slightly, eyes wide. “They call you the Wolf Queen,” he says conspiratorially. “Isn’t that right?” he asks, gesturing to Gendry as he sets a mug of ale before the smith.

Gendry pauses, looking around at the curious gazes before nodding slowly. “S’pose it’s caught on,” he says. “The Wolf Queen. The She-Wolf and her army.” He shoots Arya a quick grin, meaning to go on, but she budges a hand against his ribs, poking expertly and causing Gendry to flinch and bark out a laugh. Jon peers at them, face contemplative.

“Shut it,” Arya mutters, tempering an embarrassed smile. Turning back to Tormund, she shakes her head. “Those are stupid names and tall tales. I’d rather hear your stories,” she counters. “Giants, mammoths, the like.”

“Ha! The little wolf would have me regale her! Which do you want to hear first, why they call me Giantsbane or the one time with a bear—”

“Neither,” Edd and Jon grunt at the same time. Jon shoots a hand out, ushering his wilding friend to sit back and finish his food. Pulling Arya into a side hug, he whispers in her ear, “Don’t encourage him,” but she only laughs sweetly.

Supper continues, loud and hectic. There’s little talk of the coming fight or strategy, though everyone anticipates that conversation later. Tonight, there is food and drink and bawdy japes. At her side, Jon fusses with Ser Davos and Edd about a Night’s Watch matter. Many of the brotherhood pull Tormund into conversation, watching him like he’s the most interesting man on earth. Bran and the Reeds calmly converse too, and it warms Arya’s heart to see her brother among his friends. She hopes he can get along with Luca, who’s become a dear companion along their journey.

When Arya turns to Gendry, he’s quietly shoving food in his mouth, eyes glued to the table. Times like these, Arya remembers her smith isn’t exactly one for socializing. She snakes a hand to his thigh and his leg jumps. “You keep eating like that and you’ll choke,” she murmurs.

Gendry swallows his bite and rolls his eyes at her, lips fighting a smile. “S’good,” is all he says, and Arya laughs.

“I know. I made it, stupid.” Arya’s thankful to Edd for giving her free reign of the kitchens. The provisions at Castle Black may have been meager, but years of know-how when it came to eating on the road meant Arya could whip up something mildly delicious with little effort.

“You love to call me stupid. What would your lord brother say to that, m’lady? Mayhaps you need a scolding,” Gendry says, tone playful. He feels the tension seep from his body, though the soft hand kneading his thigh is distracting enough.

Arya peers up at him with dark eyes, forgetting herself as she whispers, “I’m in need of something else.”

The air between them hangs thick when a strained cough cuts through. Arya whirls around and is met with the questioning gaze of her older brother, his eyes hard and mouth set in frown. She catches Bran’s eyes then, and the twerp looks like he wants to laugh. Before she can say anything, Jon leans forward, setting his elbows on the rough wood and directing his attention to the smith.

“Gendry, was it?”

“Aye, m’lord.”

Jon smiles, but it doesn’t look too welcoming. “Jon,” he reminds him. “I’m no lord.”

Gendry swallows, nerves working down his spine. “You’re Lady Arya’s brother, so…” he trails off.

“I’m just a bastard,” Jon says easily.

“I am too,” Gendry blurts, unsure if it’s stupid or offensive to find common ground with Arya’s brother over this one thing, but the lord commander’s expression suddenly softens.

“Are you?” he asks quietly.

“Gendry’s a knight,” Arya cuts in, voice warm. “And a skilled armorer. The best in the seven kingdoms, mayhaps,” she says, playfully nudging Gendry’s side. “He’s got a sharp eye, he immediately recognized good castle forged steel when he saw Needle.”

At this, Jon’s expression morphs into something wholly loving, and Gendry fights the urge to look away. He feels a strange pang of jealously but it calms as he takes in the warmth of Arya’s side pressed up against his.

“You still have it,” Jon surmises, tone soft. He hadn’t gotten much a chance to ask Arya about the blade, only seeing an ornate dagger at her hip when she arrived. The idea that she kept her gifted sword safe all these years fills Jon with a rush of affection, and he feels a distinct stinging behind his eyes.

“I do,” Arya answers simply, smiling softly at the look on Jon’s face. “It’s in my sack. The last few legs of our journey were pretty rough, I didn’t want to damage the blade from the biting cold. But I’ve had it by my side since you gave it to me, Jon. It’s served me well.”

Arya’s looks down then, feeling her own rush of emotion. She remembers the day he’d given her Needle, their last farewell before she headed south and Jon to the wall. There had been a promise of reuniting, even then. Different roads, Jon had said, can sometimes lead to the same castle. And Arya believed it. Sitting here with him and Bran now feels like a dream. Tears begin to well in her eyes, and Gendry must notice, as he gently places a hand over Arya’s, thumb brushing a soothing line across her wrist. Jon catches the movement but when the smith looks his way, the lord commander only has a resigned look on his face.

“Are you as good with a blade as my sister is, Ser Gendry?” Bran asks suddenly, voice gentle and friendly, pulling the trio from their tense moment.

“Gendry prefers a hammer,” Arya offers, head shooting up.

Gendry smiles at the younger Stark, awkwardly scratching at his beard and shaking his head. “I don’t think anyone’s as good with a blade as your sister,” he says. “I can shape steel just fine…blades are what I know. But, in a fight, a hammer serves me well.”

Tormund’s attention is drawn to the conversation then, eyes sparkling at the talk of weapons. The men dissolve into a heated debate, Gendry coming out of his shell a bit when discussing the merits of a warhammer, Anguy adding his two cents that a bow and arrow do the job just fine, Davos cutting in that they should all see Jon wield Longclaw before they dismiss the power of live steel.

Above the din of conversation, Meera laughs, low and cheerful. Her eyes meet Arya’s, who cocks her head in question. “Ever try your hand at a frog spear?” she asks. Jojen and Luca hoot at her side, eyes bright.

Arya’s answering smile is wide and excited, and Jon sniggers. “You’ve already got two blades on your person, you gonna have your smith fashion you a trident spear next?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Arya reasons, and Jon laughs outright, pressing a kiss to her temple.

“It’s good to have you back, little sister.”

She leans into his side and nods sweetly, eagerly listening as Jojen explains the pros and cons of hunting with a three-pronged longspear, gentle voice commanding.  

-----

After supper, Arya steals Gendry away for a quick moment, pushing him up against what must be the maester’s cell, the rookery high above them.

“What—” Gendry starts to ask, but Arya cuts him off with warm lips, tongue working into his mouth like a woman starved.

She presses into his body, the buds of her breasts brushing against his chest and pelvis cradled against the front of his breeches. The brief pressure is torture, and Gendry grunts into the kiss, hands flying to her ass and kneading at the flesh. They break apart and Arya mouths along the column of his throat, sucking hot bruises across his collarbone, moaning lowly into his skin.

Gendry thumps his head against the wall, eyes unfocused. “Yer mad,” he rasps, feeling outside his own body. “Do you know what your brother will do to me if we’re caught?” He means to scold, but Arya presses another lingering kiss to his chest, and Gendry lets out an embarrassing groan.

“Not gonna get caught,” she reassures, moving back to kiss his lips. He groans again, a loud broken noise, and Arya giggles against his mouth, finding the whole situation amusing.

There was no way they could share chambers while at Castle Black, not at first, anyway. She’d have a talk with Jon at some point. But in the meantime, Arya missed Gendry, missed his embrace and the feel of him against her. If stolen kisses in the dead of night was all they could manage, then so be it.

“We really shouldn’t—”

Arya laughs, a low seductive sound. “There are many things we shouldn’t be doing, Gendry. And I’ll want to do them anyway.” She presses a kiss behind his ear, pulling his earlobe between her teeth. “Plus, I want you thinking of me tonight.” Arya slips a hand beneath his shirt and rakes her nails down his abdomen, enjoying the way his muscles clench with anticipation.

Suddenly, Gendry flips their position, roughly pushing Arya up against the wall and covering her body like a blanket, face buried in the crook of her neck. “Yer a right pain in my ass, m’lady,” he mutters, voice amused as it is aroused.

“You love it.”

Above them, a raven circles, cawing loudly.

-----

The first night at Castle Black is a hard one. Arya’s grown used to sleeping by Gendry’s side. Saying goodnight to him before the guest cells felt strange, padding back to Jon’s quarters and walking on eggshells around her brothers felt worse. It was good to have them back, but so much time had passed, and there was a bit of refamiliarizing they all had to do. At being family, at being honest with each other. When Arya tip toed into their shared chambers that night, Jon simply pulled her into a hug, easily detecting her apprehension. She leaned into his embrace and felt a bit of tension melt away.

Arya readies for bed now, pulling on Gendry’s wool tunic and the too-large sleep pants Jon offered her before he slipped from the room to make a last round through the castle. Bran quietly watches her from his side on the bed.

“What is it?” she asks, smiling as she undoes her braid and combs through the wavy tresses.

“You can talk about them, you know.”

Arya blanches, looking down at her hands. When Bran reaches over and squeezes her fingers, she raises her head to face him, heart clenching at his knowing expression. He’d alluded to it before, after their reunion that morning, that he’d been beyond the wall, honing his skill with the help of Meera and Jojen.

A greenseer, Bran said. It was leagues ahead of skinchanging, a term Arya learned when she mentioned she oft thought she could see through the eyes of Nymeria while dreaming. Jon admitted the same with Ghost, and Bran eyed the both of them sagely. The sight of their little brother, cerulean eyes suddenly ripe with knowledge was slightly unsettling, but he’d reassured them both he’d worked to temper his skills, only using them as much as was necessary.

“Don’t tell Jon,” Bran starts, and Arya immediately chews on her lip.

“What is it?” she asks, worried. She’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and she’s sure Bran’s about to tell her Sansa and Rickon are truly lost to them, or that Winterfell can’t be taken back, or worse, she thinks, he knows about the truth of her journey, her time in Braavos as a Faceless Man.

“Arya,” Bran chides, pulling her from her inner ramblings. “I’m—it’s nothing to do with Sansa and Rickon. They’re leagues away, but they’ll find their way back to us. I’ve seen it.”

“I miss them,” Arya admits. “The last time I saw Sansa…” she trails off, clenching her eyes shut and trying to push away the image of her sister fainting atop the Sept of Baelor, the sound of her father’s disembodied head thumping to the ground. “We were cross with each other,” she whispers, squeezing Bran’s hand tightly.

“I didn’t know that would be the last time, I thought we’d have more…more arguments, more screaming matches, more anything.” Arya snorts, a wet sound from the tears blurring her vision. “You know, I actually miss her scolding me about embroidery and curtseying. I’d give anything to hear it again.”

Bran twists his upper body towards his sister, pulling Arya into an embrace and carding his fingers through her hair. He’s always been good at this, she thinks brokenly. For as wild as he was with his love of climbing, Bran had always been the sweet one. Easy words and gentle smiles. Their lady mother loved him for it. Sansa doted on him for it. Arya didn’t think she had any more tears to cry, but wetness tracks down her cheeks and she burrows into her brother’s shoulder, absently noting his strength.

“You’re all grown up,” she murmurs sadly.

This time, Bran snorts. “Don’t be so surprised, sister. I could probably best you in an arm wrestle,” he japes. After a while, Arya pulls back, roughly wiping at her face before settling next to Bran.

“When Osha took Rickon away, I thought I was going to die,” Bran says quietly. “I knew she had to do it, it would’ve been too easy to catch us if we stayed together, but he was the only one I had left. He was all I had of Mother and Father, of you and Sansa and Jon and Robb.” He hangs his head, throat thick with emotion, but he powers on.

“Sometimes, beyond the wall, when I felt lonely, I’d use my greensight and … and see, all of them, all of you, but especially Mother and Father. There were times I saw them as young adults, right when they first married. Flashes of Mother singing to Robb, or Father guiding you through the godwood. It felt good,” Bran admits, voice broken and ashamed. “I wanted to stay there forever, just continue looking for those moments. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t interact with the memories, I still got to see, and it felt like enough.”

Arya’s hand shoots forward, roughly cupping Bran’s chin and staring him square in the face. “Don’t you dare, Brandon Stark,” she rasps. “I just got you back, Jon and me. You can’t stay locked in your greensight forever, becoming some shell of a person. That’s not living. You were meant to live, the dagger meant to kill you failed, remember?”

“How did you—”

“I saw it in a dream,” Arya explains. “I know you miss them, I do too. And maybe if I had your abilities, I’d be tempted to watch them forever, remembering them happy and alive. But you have us too, and we’re going home,” she vows. She clutches at Bran’s hand, grasp tight. “Promise me you won’t lose yourself to this—this gift. Promise me, brother.”

He gets a sudden flash, Arya’s face morphed with their Aunt Lyanna’s, hands bloodied as they clutched at Ned’s, eyes pale and beseeching. Promise me, Ned, she’d cried. Bran rears back, his eyes wide.

“Bran?”

“I promise,” he rasps, placing his other hand over hers.

Arya nods, pulling her hand back to gently cradle the crown of his head, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “Good. Now, tell me about Meera. I saw you blushing bright crimson at supper. What’s the story there, brother?”

Bran squawks indignantly, pulling a stray pillow out and sailing it towards her head. “Shut up!”

Jon enters his chambers to find the pair of them like that, cheeks flushed from laughing, pillows and furs strewn about the bed, talking over each other. The sight is like a warm vice on his heart, pulling at memories he’d kept locked away for years. Sighing exaggeratedly, he lets the wolves into the room, shooting his siblings a longsuffering look despite fighting a smile of his own. Nymeria settles at the foot of the bed, Summer and Ghost curl up by the fire.

Arya rises, gathering another fur and throwing it over Jon as he settles on his bedroll. “You won’t be cold?” she asks, brows furrowed.

Jon laughs. He hadn’t much felt the cold ever since … coming back. But that was a story for another day. “I’ll be alright, Arya. Go to bed, you must be exhausted.”

She nods slowly, crouching down to press a kiss to his bearded cheek before blowing out the candle and padding back to bed.

“Goodnight,” Arya calls out in the dark, voice small.

“Goodnight," her brothers chorus back.

-----

The next afternoon, Arya’s stomach cramps had gotten the better of her. Meera quickly caught on to her discomfort and kindly suggested brewing tea to ease the pain, and now Arya finds herself in the kitchens, scouring the cupboards for ginger root and honey. With provisions in hand, she blindly searches for a clean kettle when a sudden noise pulls her attention away.

Creeping down the corridor behind the kitchens, Arya hears the low rumbling of Jon and another voice. When she peers into a side room she sees them, her brother looking stiff while a woman descends upon him, dressed in revealing red robes and an ornate ruby choker. Her hair is as crimson as the weirwood leaves back in Winterfell, but the sight of the strange woman unsettles Arya.

“I told you to stay away. We have enough going on with my sister arriving, I don’t need you whispering in my ear the whole time.”

Arya’s eyes widen, she’s never heard Jon speak so plainly and rudely before. He must shoot the woman a hard look, as she stills in her advance and peers at the lord commander, gaze appraising and hungry.

“You’ll need my counsel in the wars to come, Jon Snow,” she drawls, voice tinged with a foreign accent. “Your sister too. I’d like to—”

At the mention of Arya, Jon takes a threatening step forward. “You’re to stay away from my sister, witch,” he spits. “I don’t care if you brought me back from the dead, I’ll gladly banish you from the North if you come near my family.”

Arya doesn’t like the frantic edge to Jon’s voice, it scares her. She makes her presence known then, quickly stepping into the room and worming her way between her brother and the woman.

“Jon,” she says urgently.

“Arya, what are you—” Jon starts, but Arya just shakes her head.

Turning to face the woman in red, her concerned gaze for Jon melts into a smooth expression and cold eyes. “Who are you?” Arya asks harshly, stepping forward to cover her brother. “What do you want?”

The woman whispers something in a foreign tongue, eyes raking up and down Arya’s form before settling on her face. “Dark sister,” she coos at Arya, fingers suddenly outstretched as if to touch the girl.

Arya steps back, hand gripping the pommel of her dagger with intent as she glares back at the woman. Jon’s gaze follows the movement, and the hair rises on his neck. He gets the sudden feeling that Arya would have no qualms wielding the sword against the red witch, that she’s quite deadly with a blade. He needs to get her away from here.

“Arya,” Jon murmurs. She turns back to him, expression questioning. “I’m alright. You should go, this…Melisandre will be leaving soon. You go on now.”

“She—she hurt you,” Arya blurts, voice cutting.

Before Jon can explain, the red witch cocks her head. “Dear girl,” she continues, mouth curling into a dangerous smile, “the one you bring with you, with eyes the shade of a Stormlands ocean. Does he know where he comes from?” Melisandre asks. “Does he know who he is?”

Arya pales, vision swarming. She’s running from them the next moment, Jon’s voice calling after her. She has to find Gendry.

Chapter Text

She finds him in the makeshift forge. It’s no more than a few low burning fires, a mishmash of weathered instruments, and a cooling barrel, but it’s the first time Arya’s seen Gendry truly comfortable at Castle Black. She grimaces. I’m about to ruin this, she thinks.

“Gendry.”

He whirls around, a sheepish smile on his face. “There you are! Edd said this was all they had for a forge. Thought I’d see what was what. He mentioned a better smithy in Moletown? But I figure—” Gendry stops short, taking in her tense expression and frowning. “What’s the matter?”

“Gendry, I—” Arya pauses, unsure of how to start. She steps into his space, gently taking his hand between hers and squeezing.

He tips a finger beneath her chin, but she avoids his eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asks, anxious. “You’re scaring me. Is it—was it your brother, did he say something about…about us? Or—”

Arya shakes her head, finally meeting his gaze. “It’s nothing like that. Jon doesn’t even—” but she stops, thinking back on the series of curious looks her older brother shot her when she was around her smith. “I have to tell you something,” she says instead. “About…about your family, Gendry. Howland told me something, and I should’ve said so sooner. I didn’t want to upset you but now—now—”

Gendry wraps his hands around her, grip firm. “Wait,” he cuts in. “What do you mean my family? What does Lord Reed have to do with that?”

“I know who your father is,” Arya blurts, wincing at the sudden pressure on her shoulders. When she chances a peek at Gendry’s face, his expression is unreadable—a strange, cool look.

“What do you mean?” he asks quietly.

“Lord Reed. He—he said when he first saw us, it was like looking at ghosts come alive,” Arya starts. “I told you before, I resemble my Aunt Lyanna. But you…Howland said you were the spitting image of King Robert. The large build, the raven hair, the startling blue eyes.” She pauses then, staring at the floor and letting her words sink in. When Gendry doesn’t respond, Arya inches forward, meaning to comfort, but he suddenly wrenches away, pushing her roughly back before stumbling into the tray of smithy tools.

Gendry’s expression is pained, mouth twisted up in a horrified frown. “No,” he murmurs. “That’s not—just because Lord Reed thinks so doesn’t mean…” his voice trails off.

Arya takes a cautious step forward, hands outstretched in a calming manner. “It must be why the hands of the king came looking for you,” she says quickly. “Why my father was intent on meeting you face to face, why the goldcloaks were hunting you on orders from the Queen. Gendry, there are rumors the royal children weren’t Baratheons at all. Cersei must’ve wanted to get rid of any of Robert’s natural born—”

“I’m just a bastard!” Gendry shouts, a hint of panic in his voice.

Arya’s voice is harsher than she means to make it. “You’ve never been just anything! You’re a skilled smith, an anointed knight of the brotherhood, you’re a good man, Gendry. Being the son of a king doesn’t change—”

“Stop saying that,” he growls, eyes cold. “What am I supposed to do with this? You tell me it turns out my father, my sire,” he spits, “was that fat, drunken, whoremongering king. He didn’t give two shits about his people, Arya—let alone his own blood, it seems! You—since the Neck, you’ve known this? Why didn’t you… no, why would you tell me this?”

Something catches in Arya’s throat. She’s never seen Gendry so worked up. She’d seen him angry, and stubborn, and sullen, but never … this. Never so betrayed, she thinks mournfully.

“I had to tell you,” she says after a while, voice low. “And I should’ve done it sooner, but I was scared,” Arya admits. “When Howland said we looked just like…my aunt was betrothed to your father, and it ended terribly for them. I didn’t want that lording over us,” she says, voice broken. “I’m sorry.” Arya takes a step towards him, eyes beseeching. “I’m sorry, Gendry.” When she places a hand on his cheek, he reaches up and catches her wrist, his posture stiff and unsure.

“I don’t want this,” Gendry mumbles.

Arya’s at a loss for words. The red witch’s hungry gaze hangs heavy in her mind, but what could she tell him? You can’t choose your own blood. It’s yours whether you like it or not. People will use you for it, whether you like it or not. Perhaps they’re all true, but it sounds cruel all the same.

Settling her hand along the column of his neck, Arya powers on, voice steady. “You have a right to know who your father is, Gendry. Your bloodline, it’s … Dangerous people will come out of the woodworks; they’ll threaten and seduce you for it. Please hear me when I tell you: you have to be careful. I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’re safe, I won’t let anyone hurt you,” she says fiercely, eyes boring into his.

“You’re not him,” Arya finishes quietly. She leans up and presses a tentative kiss under his jaw, fingers shifting to the nape of his neck. “I’ve seen you, Gendry.” Another kiss on his chin. “I’ve seen your heart,” A kiss on the corner of his mouth. “It’s good,” Arya whispers, willing him to believe her.

When her lips reach for his, he reels back, eyes conflicted as he shakes his head. I messed up, Arya panics. I ruined this for true. Before Gendry can say anything, a sound startles the both of them, and they abruptly pull apart.

“Lad, I—oh! Apologies, my lady, I didn’t realize you were here.”

Arya gulps, trying to smooth her expression into something pleasant. “It’s fine, Ser Davos. Did you need me?”

“I have need of the lad, actually. If he could spare a moment?”

“Course,” Gendry grunts, making his way towards the old knight. A step later, he stops, turning and stiffly bowing to Arya while avoiding her eyes. “M’lady.” And then they’re off, leaving her alone in the frigid smithy.

-----

Jon’s been looking for Arya all day.

She somehow evaded him since the tense moment with Melisandre, avoiding his questioning looks from afar and slipping away when he meant to go after her. Jon found her reaction to the red witch curious. In a split second, he watched his jovial little sister melt into someone steely and cold. Jon thinks back to Arya’s harsh expression, her delicate hand swiftly reaching for her sword belt. A soldier, he thought. That’s what she looked like. The realization unnerved him. In the years they’d been apart, Jon suspected Arya had to face terrible things in order to survive. You didn’t dodge the Lannisters by suffering fools. And when she turned up at Castle Black, she indeed seemed older and wiser.

But nothing could’ve hinted at her newfound grace or the extent of her fierce countenance. Not until the red witch appeared. He hadn’t mean for Melisandre to get anywhere near his family. In fact, she’d kept her distance after Bran and the Reeds arrived, seeming almost afraid of the young trio. But she was still eager to offer counsel, now ignoring Jon’s orders to make herself scarce and going so far as to set her sights on Arya. The mere mention of his sister made Jon see red. After she ran from them that afternoon, a stricken look on her face, he snarled a final threat at the red woman before looking for his sister.

When Arya failed to show up for supper, Jon’s worry morphed into dread. He made to exit when Bran placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “She must be tired. Leave her be for now, Jon,” he said, having Tormund expertly place Bran between Jon and the smith at the table.  The smith, Jon thought accusingly. Gendry. He certainly looked off to Jon then, the hulking line of his shoulders tight, lips set in a grim frown as he quietly shoveled food in his mouth. He hadn’t spoken a word all evening, save for a stray grunt towards his brotherhood comrades. If Arya’s absence was a surprise to the smith, he hadn’t let on. Mayhaps they had a row, Jon pondered, the thought prickling at his skin.

The Arya of old had a knack for speaking out of turn—it often drew the ire of Lady Catelyn and the septas. Much to his amusement, she spoke freely and honestly, words biting and surprisingly sarcastic for a girl her age. Jon wondered if that habit had only increased with the years, wondered if it got her in trouble with her smith. But the two of them seemed thick as thieves since their arrival. Gendry often regarded Arya with a moonstruck look on his face, Jon noticed. It was intimate, it was…loving. Was that how I used to look at Ygritte, he thinks sadly.

Jon shakes his head to dispel of unpleasant thoughts. Arya hadn’t been in their chambers that night. Bran stayed mum, gently telling Jon she’d come around. Now, he combs through the halls like a madman. She wasn’t in the training yard or the dining hall. Not with the Reeds, nor by the guest cells with the brotherhood. Jon has half a mind to find the smith and ask him himself when he hears a pattering from the kitchens. Peering from behind the wall, he finds his sister stewing over a small pot, hand nimbly stirring at its contents while she chews on her lip.

“Arya,” he says, voice relieved. “I’ve been looking for you all day. Are you hungry? There’s—”

Arya head shoots up, expression surprised. “Jon! Gods, since when are you so light on your feet,” she mutters. “I’m not—I’m not hungry, I’m just warming some milk.” She scratches behind her neck. “Used some of the stray herbs, if that’s alright.”

Jon steps further into the kitchens, dipping his head to get a better look at her face. “Of course,” he murmurs. He takes in her red, puffy eyes, the dried tear tracks. “Hey now,” he whispers, tone concerned, “what’s this?” Jon gently cradles her face in his hands, thumbs wiping across her cheeks.

Rolling her eyes, Arya wrestles out of Jon’s embrace, absently patting his arm. “S’nothing.”

“I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen you cry, sister. What happened?”

Arya shoots him an unsure look, shaking her head before stirring at the milk again, reaching below one shelf for a patch of cheesecloth and a mug. Jon leans back against the counter, watching her carefully.

“Is it the smith?” he blurts when the silence is too much for him. It’s curious, he thinks, Arya used to be the type to endlessly chatter. Now, pensive moments seemed to come natural to her. What changed, he wonders.

Before Jon’s ramblings can get away from him, he catches sight of Arya’s grimace.

“What did he do?” he asks, voice gruff.

“Nothing.” Arya’s tone is defensive, the line of her body tense as she strains the mixture and dumps the pot into the sink. “Gendry wouldn’t—” She sighs. Turning back, her expression suddenly melts. “Oh Jon, don’t use that lord’s face, you really do look like Father now,” she chides, a sweet, sad tilt to her voice.

Arya settles next to him by the counter, cradling the warm mug in her hands. “I fucked up,” she admits in a small voice. “I…kept something from Gendry. Something important. And I only recently told him, and now he’s wroth with me.”

Jon doesn’t like the despondent look on her face. “Does this have anything to do with what Melisandre said?”

“I don’t like her,” Arya says, scowling before taking a sip from her mug. “I don’t know what that priestess told you or promised you, but there’s something dangerous about her.” She suddenly reaches a hand out, fingers tightly gripping Jon’s wrist. “Promise me you’ll be careful, Jon. I’ll do what I can—I won’t let her hurt anyone, but—”

“Arya,” Jon cuts in, tone placating. “I’ve told Melisandre to keep her distance; I have a few men guarding her. And since when is it you who has to protect me, hm? I’m worried about you, sister. You’ve been distant all day, you haven’t eaten, I find you here crying.” He shakes his hand free of her grasp only to interlock their fingers. “What did the smith say to upset you so, Arya?”

“It’s not my story to tell. He has the right of it to be wroth, but he didn’t hurt me, Jon. He would never,” she says resolutely.

“How can you be sure of that?” Jon asks quietly, not sure if he wants the answer.

Arya angles her body towards him now, gingerly placing her mug on the counter before covering her other hand over their joined fingers. “Jon,” she starts carefully, like he’s something to be handled.

He bristles, rolling his eyes and urging her to get on with it. “I know you’re not a child anymore, Arya,” he chides.

At this, her face blooms into a true smile, and she squeezes his hand playfully. “When you call me little sister so sweetly, when you look at Gendry like you might deck him, I think otherwise.”

“You are my little sister. And I want him—any man—to be kind to you,” Jon says quietly.

“He is. I’ll tell you this, Jon; the first time I met Gendry wasn’t a few moons ago in the Riverlands. I’ve known him for years, ever since father, ever since they—” Arya swallows thickly, averting her eyes.

Jon tries to hide his shock. Arya and the smith have known each other for years? All that time he couldn’t be there for her, this unknown man had stepped in. Pulling his hand back and settling it on her shoulder, Jon nudges her face up, meeting her gaze. “Arya,” he rasps. “I’m sorry you had to—I wish I could’ve, I should have…” he trails off, voice pained.

“I didn’t mean to upset you or make you feel guilty,” she says, shaking her head. “What happened to Father was awful, to Mother and Robb…but they will pay for it, I’ll make sure of that,” she vows, expression fierce. With a sigh, she looks down again. “I just meant Gendry and I looked after each other back then, from the very start. I’ve always trusted him, and he’d sooner skewer himself than see me harmed—you have to believe that.” She fiddles with the hem of her overly large tunic.

“You and he—”

Gendry,” Arya reminds him, lifting her face, an amused quirk on her lips.

“Aye, Gendry. You two were…”

“We were separated for a time,” she offers, “but we found each other again.”

“And how long have you been…” he gestures vaguely, suddenly very uncomfortable and very unsure if he’d even like to have this conversation. Where was the little girl of his childhood? The one who ran wild through the godswood with a practice sword, with little bother for boys and valiant knights? That was always Sansa, he thinks mournfully, trying to draw up the image of his half-sister. Sansa who was prim and proper and a lady through and through. Sansa with her pretty embroidery and her beautiful dresses and her consideration for courtesy. She’d once told Jon that whenever a lady introduced herself, it was polite to respond, ‘That’s a pretty name.’ She wanted sweet words and sweet songs. She was meant to lead a happy life in the South, and Arya…

Well, Jon wasn’t sure what Arya was meant to do. Wasn’t sure if their lord father had even figured that out. His little sister was always running, always flitting here and there in search of a new adventure. She wanted to be free, he thinks. She would’ve scoffed at the idea of settling down with some perfumed lord. But Gendry hardly seemed the type. A bastard, a smith, a renegade knight. Maybe Arya had found her true mate after all. His thoughts are cut short when Arya cackles, loud and bright.

“If you could see your expression right now,” she says in between laughs.

Jon screws up his face, playfully shoving at her and huffing all the while.  “Don’t tease me! This is hardly a talk I ever thought I’d have with you,” he scolds. “Are you going to be this annoying when telling Bran?”

“I doubt Bran will have your reaction.”

“And why is that?”

Arya’s laughs die down, expression turning contemplative. “I know it’s different for you, Jon. You’ve always tried to protect me… From scrapes and bruises. From Sansa and Jeyne when they called me horseface. From Mother when she despaired to make me a lady. You were always there to comfort. Same as Father. I’m not sure I ever thanked you for that,” she finishes quietly.

Jon feels a slight stinging behind his eyes, wanting to tell Arya she was always quick to offer the same comfort, but his tongue feels thick and clumsy in his mouth.

Roughly clearing her throat and looking away, Arya continues. “Anyway, I’ve teased Bran enough about Meera Reed. He’ll probably do the same to me about Gendry.”

But Jon can’t quite mimic her blithe tone. His gaze feels heavy, his heart clenching.

“Does it bother you,” she asks quietly, “to see me with him?”

“It…worries me,” he finally says. “I don’t know where you’ve been, Arya, or what you’ve had to experience. And it comforts me to know you had someone by your side. I loathe to think of you on your own … the lot of us, we’ve been apart too long,” he says sadly. “But this man, he’s good to you?”

“He is,” Arya responds easily. “He’s kind and gentle, despite his looks. Stubborn as a bull, to be sure…but then, so am I. He knows me, the true me. He never makes me feel like I have to be someone else.”

Gently cupping her cheek, Jon tries his best to smile. “Then I’m glad.”

“We’re alright, then?”

“You and I will always be alright, little sister. I’ll have a talk with your smith soon enough, get the true measure of him.”

Arya chews at her lip again. “Don’t scare him off,” she mutters, only half japing.

“He and I might have more in common then you think. Bastard to bastard, so to speak.” Jon’s words must poke at an old wound, as Arya’s expression darkens, lips frowning and eyes far off. “Mayhaps,” he says gently, “you should speak with him as well.”

“He won’t want to hear it,” she says. “I hurt him.”

“If he’s as kind as you say, and as enamored with you as I suspect, then he’ll listen, Arya. All will be well,” Jon reassures, remembering Bran saying the same.

Arya’s brows furrow as she cocks her head. “Have you been talking to Howland Reed?”

“Huh?”

Laughing, Arya shakes her head. “Nothing. I…I hope you’re right.”

“I am. Now.” He gestures to her still steaming mug. “Finish that up. We should get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll have to deal with battle strategy and ravens and the like.”

“Sounds unpleasant,” Arya says, blowing a stray curl from her face.

Jon tucks her hair behind her ear and laughs at her bluntness. Some things never change, he thinks.

-----

Gendry strikes at the hot shard of dragonglass like a man possessed, arm sore and slick with sweat from the continued movement. He shifts the glass over, using a flathead chisel and hammer to shape a crude spear point. The material was unknown to Gendry, strange and brittle, hardly the type to withstand heat or pressure. But Ser Davos had come to him with the odd request, and the smith felt obligated to at least try.

When the tip of the dragonglass cracks, he roughly drops his hammer. “Fuck,” he mumbles. He rubs a weary hand across his face, soot collecting with sweat as his brow. Grabbing a pair of tongs and dumping the fractured glass off to the side, Gendry leans against the counter and sighs. He suddenly feels like a caged animal in the makeshift forge. Gendry had been hiding out here; scrabbling together new shoes for the horses, repairing a few blades for the black brothers.

His conversation with Arya had sent him reeling. And now, days later, his frustration mounts—at being blindsided by the news of his parentage, at not feeling like he knew himself anymore … at the anxious and crestfallen look on her face. Arya was obviously apologetic, and he winces at the memory of his outburst, his voice panicked in a way that was new and frightening. But she’d warned of other forces, other people using Gendry for his parentage, and it shook him to his core.

All his life, he’d just been a bastard, and in recent years, he’d come to accept it. Maybe a bastard was no good in name alone, but Gendry had made something of himself. When Arya showed up at the inn, he was resolved to build a better life with her. For her. And now… it was one thing to think his father some wary traveler passing through a Flea Bottom tavern, but the king? Robert Baratheon no doubt drunkenly spurted his seed some two decades ago, and now Gendry would pay the price.

He pinches the bridge of his nose, remembering Arya’s insistence that this didn’t change him—not his heart, she’d said. A lie, he thinks. It changes everything. He was a royal bastard with a target on his back. Worse too, if they didn’t manage to kill him, mayhaps he was destined to end up as belligerent and wanton as his father. Mayhaps his Lady Stark would meet the same tragic end.

The thought of Arya sends his heart splitting. They’d barely spoken a word to each other, reduced to stiff, fleeting glances during mealtimes and the shaky war councils Jon Snow had cobbled together. She spent much of her time training, he knew, with a few from their party and some of the Night’s Watch rangers. That morning, Gendry caught her out there with her brothers. Bran hanging from the railing with the big wilding’s help as the lord commander came at Arya with his greatsword. She’d nearly bested him, but her expression was sullen, and Gendry watched as Jon Snow tipped her chin up, his gaze tender. Bran cheered before reaching for his sister’s hand and giving it an affectionate squeeze.

He stumbled back to the smithy after that, not wanting to see any more. She’s got her family, he thought brokenly. What does she need me for? I’m no highborn. Being the bastard of the king doesn’t make me special. The words ring bitter and angry in his head, and Gendry grunts in frustration, bringing his hands up and slamming them against the rough wood table, large palm catching the end of the chisel and sending it flying to the ground.

“Seven bleeding hells,” he muttered.

“Dear boy. Princeling,” a melodic voice calls out.

Gendry whips around, surprised gaze meeting that of a strange woman. She wears fitted red robes with a plunging neckline, revealing droves of pale skin. Her hair is the shade of fresh blood, long and thick, and pools well past her shoulders to settle at the dip of her waist. She’s beautiful, he thinks absently. Too fine a woman to be staying around Castle Black. But the shape of her, seductive as it was, belied a peculiar something. In fact, it is her expression that Gendry finds most jarring. Red lips curled into a knowing smile and dark eyes glinting hungry as she seems to float towards the smith. No one’s ever looked at Gendry like that. Lust was one thing, but this… she looked like she might devour him. Ruin him. It’s unsettling, he realizes.

“Dangerous people…” Arya’s voice rattles around his head then, “you have to be careful.” Gulping, Gendry leans back, posture tight as he clasps his hands before him.

“Can I help you, m’lady?”

The woman grins and cocks her head at him, eyes calculating. Light catches on her ornate ruby choker, seeming to flood the smithy in hazy, crimson waves. “Princeling,” she croons again.

Gendry feels a pit of dread settle in his stomach. “You’re mistaken, m’lady,” he grits out. “I’m just a smith with the brotherhood. Traveled here with Lady Arya.”

The woman encroaches on his space, lifting a wiry hand to roughly grab his chin, twisting his face closer as her nails dig into the meat of his cheek. “It won’t do well to lie to yourself, boy,” she scolds, strange accent wrapping around her words. “Yes,” she says, nodding, “you certainly have the look, don’t you?” Her hand smooths along his jaw and behind his ear, settling in the thick, raven locks. “Your hair.” Another rises to skim across at his cheek, the pad of her thumb remaining at his temple. “Your eyes.”

Entranced and rooted in his spot, Gendry closes his eyes, leaning ever closer. “What…” he murmurs.

But she just shushes him, groping at his hair and massaging the nape of his neck. “Dear boy,” she hums. “Oh, I could do so much for you. Do you even realize your power? The strength of your bloodline? A Baratheon,” she whispers. “A would-be king.”

At this, Gendry’s eyes fly open, gaze clearing and fear bleeding into his expression. “No,” he near shouts. He tries to wrestle free of her grasp, but she holds tighter, one hand smoothing down his neck and massaging across his chest. Gendry’s limbs feel heavy, eyes lidded once more. This is wrong, he thinks frantically. Using all his strength, Gendry raises a hand and roughly pushes the woman back, grip violent and crushing on her shoulder. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m not—”

“Gendry!”

The spell is broken then, the pair break apart and Gendry takes an unsteady step back, head woozy and chest tight. He slowly lifts his head and is met with a downright murderous Arya, her gaze as cold as he’s ever seen. But it’s directed at the woman in red, who’s doing her best to appear nonchalant at the moment. Arya grips at her sword belt and takes a threatening step forward when a burly figure appears behind her, wrapping a grizzled arm around her waist.

“Little wolf,” a gruff voice murmurs. Tormund, Gendry realizes. His bulky form nearly covers the entire doorway, but Gendry can still make out a concerned Luca behind him. “You get yer smith out o’ here,” Tormund continues. “I’ll take care of the witch.”

She nods stiffly, making a beeline for Gendry but not before sending one last threat to the woman. “Come near my family again, and I’ll have your head on a block,” Arya says easily, tone chilling.

“As willful as the lord commander, I see. You Starks are part of a larger plan, Dark Sister,” she chides, voice bored. “This one too, if only he’d see reason,” she says, gesturing to a dumbstruck Gendry.

Arya stops short, just a hair’s breadth from the woman. Tormund inches forward, posture wary. “You think your red god trumps all else, is that it?” she asks quietly. “My brothers and I are of the North, the blood of the First Men runs through our veins. The old gods look upon us, we won’t do you or the lord of light’s bidding. As for Gendry.” She takes another careful step, face twisting up like she smelt something foul. “He’s mine, red bitch,” Arya spits with venom.  “Look inside your blasted flames, see how far I’ll go to protect the ones I love. See how that ends for you.”

The woman in red has the good sense to remain silent.

Arya nears Gendry then, harsh expression melting into concern as she extends her hand. “I know you’re still cross with me,” she whispers. “But please, we have to go.”

Gendry nods and wraps his hand around hers. They quickly sidestep the witch, leaving her to Tormund, as Luca ushers the pair towards the main castle.

-----

Jon is sitting in his solar with Davos when Arya, Gendry, and Luca Reed stumble in. The smith is pale, a stricken look on his face as Arya drags him further into the room. She gently pushes him to sit while whispering something to the Reed boy.

“Arya, what—” Jon starts, rising from his chair, but his sister simply shakes her head, her features set in severe lines.

“Ser Davos,” Luca pipes up, “mayhaps you can spare a moment? My cousins and I would like to confer with you about something you mentioned in the war council.”

Davos raises his eyebrows, stumbling out his seat after Jon gives him a nod. “Aye, of course. I’ll, uh, take my leave of you lord coma—”

“Of course, Davos,” Jon offers. The two men leave, Luca sending Arya one last reassuring look as he guides the old knight from the room. Jon turns to the other pair then, watching as Arya gingerly sits beside her smith and carefully places a hand on his forearm, pulling him from whatever stupor he was in when he entered.

“Arya,” Jon says, tone questioning.

She snaps her head in her brother’s direction, eyes floundering. Jon sighs. “Gendry,” he tries instead.

The smith swallows roughly. “M’lord.”

“What’s going on?”

“I—I think I need to tell you something, m’lor—”

“We have to protect him, Jon,” Arya blurts. “No matter what, promise me House Stark will vouch for Gendry."

Jon pauses, taking in her panicked expression and fearful eyes. It’s not a look that suits her, he thinks. He’d spent the last few days trying to cheer her up while harboring a grudge against the smith. No matter the row the two must’ve had, it wouldn’t do for him to stew in the forge like a madman while Arya gloomily floated about. It scared Jon, too, to see his sister so affected by a man. It scares him now, to see the both of them so rattled by whatever had passed. He can see the true fear on her face though, so he relents.

He walks towards the pair, kneeling before Arya and taking her hand in his, squeezing gently. “I promise, Arya.” Jon nods to Gendry. “Now, what is it?”

“I’m not who I say I am—or, I’m not who I thought I was,” he starts vaguely, wringing his soot-dirty hands.

Jon rises again and leans against his desk, eyes narrowed.

“Arya said, when we were in the Neck we met with Lord Reed, and he told her I looked just like my father. Before. Before he was—” Gendry stops then, face pained.

“Howland said he was the spitting image of the king, Jon. He’s one of the Robert’s. A Baratheon,” Arya rushes on, letting out a loud breath.

“King Robert? But he was …” Jon looks at Gendry, eyes roaming the smith for anything familiar. He’d only met the king once, when he’d traveled to Winterfell and whisked half his family away. All Jon remembers was his rather rotund form and his love of drinking and women. Gendry didn’t seem to have any of that. But…his eyes, Jon thinks. A peculiar, piercing blue.

“Our fathers were friends,” Jon murmurs, almost to himself.

Gendry peers back at him, tense expression finally melting. “I wouldn’t know, m’lord. I…I met your father once,” he offers instead. “S’pose this was why he sought me out, but he seemed like a good man. Kind. Said my work was fine, wanted to buy my bull’s head helm.” He scratches absently at his beard, a sheepish smile on his face.

Jon smiles back at the smith. “That’s high praise, Ser Gendry. Our father wasn’t the type to speak frivolously. I’m sorry things didn’t work out differently. Maybe we all would’ve known each other sooner, maybe…” he trails off shrugging.

Arya eyes them with a soft expression, thinking of another lifetime where she and Gendry might’ve grown up together. Been friends. No running, no threat of war, she thinks wistfully. No fathers charged with treason and executed. No scheming queens calling for a royal bastard’s head.

-----

Much of the evening was spent on quiet conversations, lingering talks from the previous war council. The mounting pressure to carefully plan their siege of Winterfell left everyone on edge. Arya had been cooped up with Bran and Jon the previous day, the three of them drafting ravens and sending them to any Northern houses who’d sworn fealty to their father. They ran the risk of the Bolton bastard intercepting correspondence out of Castle Black, but Bran sent Summer loose with instruction to keep a watchful eye among the lands. That was the first time they’d seen their brother warg, and the sight was as fascinating as it was disturbing. His eyes went pale, his face tipped skyward, a silent murmur on his lips. When Bran came to, a tranquil smile on his face, Jon and Arya felt a bit of tension abate. 

Jon was locked in with Davos and Edd too, poured over a scraggly map, shifting pieces back and forth and discussing how best to use the brotherhood and crannogmen to their advantage. The black brothers curiously eyed their leader, a strange sense of anticipation blanketing the castle walls. They notoriously took no part in the affairs of the seven kingdoms, but their lord commander was more a Stark—mayhaps more a wilding, even—than a ranger of the Night’s Watch now, and many didn’t fault him for setting his eyes on family and Winterfell. He’d taken his vows and died for it, Jon told Arya. There wasn’t a place for him here anymore.

It hadn’t been an easy conversation. Jon hemmed and hawed around the subject at first, but she clearly heard him when he said the red witch brought him back. Arya didn’t like thinking of her brother like that, bleeding out in the snow from countless stab wounds, perhaps seeing their lord father or Robb beckoning him to the other side. It wasn’t just mutiny, she realized, it was death. He died for me, she thinks brokenly as they scatter apart after supping. It won’t happen again, she vows to herself.

Arya ambles through the training yard now, hoping for a quiet moment. The last few days left her feeling all out of sorts. Her only comfort was having successfully neutralized a new threat. While in Jon’s solar, after Gendry took his leave, Arya made her brother promise to send the priestess away, and he’d easily agreed.

“I know you may feel beholden to her for what she did, but I just don’t want her lurking around—”

“Arya, she already has my thanks. I’ll be asking her to leave by the morrow. If anything, it’ll be a relief. She makes Davos cagey. Some of the black brothers may be sad to see her go but…”

“Only because they want to fuck her.”

And that had been the end of the conversation, Jon sputtering at his sister’s coarse language.

Arya leans against the railing, slipping her eyes closed and thinking back to the troubled look on Gendry’s face. She settled for the cautious smiles they shot each other after speaking to Jon, brushing off the concerned, curious gazes of Luca and Anguy. Bran had told her to give him time, and that’s what she was doing. Meera, while sharpening her frog spear, told Arya to tread carefully but if he wouldn’t listen, “then make him.” She chuckles at it now, feeling that she and the Reed woman were kindred spirits of a sort.

Finally feeling the cold, Arya stalks off towards the dining hall, turning one corner and nearly crashing into a firm body.

“Oh! I—”

“Arya,” says a relieved voice, large hands steadying her at the waist. “I was looking for you.”

She stares up into brilliant blue eyes and takes a cautious step back. “I’m here,” she says lamely, wincing at her awkward tone.

Gendry peers down at her, eyes unsure. Sighing lightly, he gently circles her wrist and leads them into one of the storage cells behind the kitchens, letting go to light a candle by the window ledge. Warm hues bathe their figures in the little room.

“I’m sorry, Arya.” His voice is gruff. “I shouldn’t have—I reacted poorly,” Gendry says, grimacing slightly, as he reaches for her hand.

“I’m sorry too,” Arya responds quietly. “For not telling you right away. And for…For what this means for you. If things were different, if you had known your father mayhaps—”

“Don’t think I would’ve liked him much, to be honest.”

Arya nods slowly, face pensive. “He was an unfit king, it’s true. Belligerent, and foolish. I don’t think there was a serving maid in existence who could cross his path without having her skirt hiked up,” she says bluntly. Gendry’s expression twists, and Arya slaps a hand to her forehead. “Sorry, gods, I just meant—”

“I know all the ways he was bad. Or I can guess. We heard as much in the streets of Flea Bottom.”

“I don’t know if he had any real want of power. I think after the rebellion, he just…found himself in the position. He’d gone to war for my aunt, whether he had a right to or not, and I suspect the last decent bit of him died when she did,” she says sadly. “I think he loved my father though, in his own way. Mayhaps that kept him going for a while … wanting to be a good enough man to be Ned Stark’s dear friend. But that doesn’t mean he was ever worthy of being your father, Gendry. You’ve the last of the Baratheon blood, but you choose your own path. And you’ve done so well. I wasn’t lying before; I’ve seen your heart, and it’s good. It’s good, please believe that.”

Gendry doesn’t realize he’s crying until the hot tears pool at the corners of his mouth, dripping past his chin. He roughly wipes at his face, feeling foolish and exposed. Before Arya can comfort, he pulls her close, head dipping to catch her lips in a frantic kiss.

“What—”

“Please,” he grunts into her lips. No more, I can’t think about the family I never had, the father who probably didn’t want me to begin with. It hurts. Gendry moves against her like a man half-starved, pushing her back against a spare wall and caging her with his arms. Arya melts as the kiss deepens, and she clutches at the hem of his tunic, hands warm through the fabric as they splay across his lower belly.

When they part for air, Gendry mouths along her neck before sucking at a patch of skin behind her ear, rough tongue laving feverishly and pulling her earlobe between his teeth.

“Nngh,” Arya moans, eyes unfocused and head dizzy. Her hands rove up his back and clutch around his shoulders. She feels bathed in his form, disappearing into the line of his body, tension melting into something heady and desperate. Arya abruptly flips their positions, twisting and shoving Gendry to lean against the wood counter. She places a series of kisses at the corner of his mouth, below his jaw, at the tip of his collarbone, before sinking to her knees. Nimble fingers work at the laces of his trousers, and Gendry can only stare slack-jawed, eyes bugging with realization as Arya roughly tugs them down.

The fabric of his underthings is embarrassingly damp from his hardening cock, and when she leans in to mouth along the shape of him, lips hot and wet, Gendry shuts his eyes. “Fuck,” he mutters, hand gripping the edge of the counter. “You don’t have to. Arya, we can just—” He can barely get the words out, stupidly aroused as he is. No one’s ever done this for him.

Arya laughs low and sweet beneath him. “I want to,” she says simply, reaching into his smallclothes and exposing his length. Steadying him at the base, she inches forward and wraps her lips around the head, sucking experimentally. Gendry gives a slight jump, groaning, and Arya takes that as the go-ahead.

She releases him and licks a line from base to tip, once, twice, before lightly lapping at the crease between his balls and his thigh, moving across to lewdly suck at the pendulous weight of him. One hand pumps his cock while the other rakes up his hip and finds purchase along the meat of his abdomen. Gendry’s eyes fly open, forcing himself to watch as Arya works him. His skin feels on fire, tension pooling in his belly like a taut spring. She takes him in, mouth swallowing as much of his length as possible before bobbing up and down again, and his hand shoots out to cradle the back of her head, fingers gently tugging at her soft hair.

The sensation is the most pleasurable kind of torture—so different from the plush softness of her cunt. It’s … wetter, messier, with a slight resistance as his cock brushes the back of her throat. It’s crude, Gendry thinks wildly, eyes roaming her supine form and burning every detail of this moment into his memory. Arya releases him once more and brushes her lips against his frenulum, gray eyes peering up at him wide and knowing as she rakes a fingertip down the thick vein at his underside. Gendry nearly spends. His hand is still dug deep in her hair, to urge her to continue or stop, he’s not sure.

He blindly surges forward, swollen cock wanting to buck into the warm, wet heat of her mouth, and Arya flattens her hands against his hips, fingernails nearly digging into his ass to hold him steady. Her mouth covers the length of him, sucking furiously.

The pressure is too much. Gendry’s hand runs down the nape of her neck, a warning in his touch. “I—” he grits. “Arya—”

She pulls off him with a pop, thumb and forefinger firmly circling him at the base. “What?” she asks cheekily. Her hand moves up, entire fist pumping him before the same light, two-fingered hold circles just beneath his cockhead, twisting to and fro as if working a wine cork.  

“Ah!” Gendry near shouts, eyes rolling back. “That’s—”

“Hm?” Arya asks, leaning forward to press hot kisses across his pelvis, lips brushing up his length before meeting her fingers at the tip. She swallows him then, fist working in tandem, moving up and down with her mouth before cupping his balls.

Gendry grabs onto the counter with both hands, knuckles going white. “I’m close. Gods, please, I’m going to—”

Arya pulls off briefly to smile sweetly at him, a free hand reaching for his buttock and kneading at the flesh. “In my mouth.” Gendry sputters but she shushes him. “Come on, then.”

Her mouth is back on his length, cheeks hollowing, and he hesitantly but exaltingly lets go, vision going white and guttural moan broken from the strength of his release. Arya works him down, finally letting up and shoving him back in his pants when he hisses from overstimulation. She’s lacing up his breeches when a calloused hand smooths across her cheek, the pad of his thumb rubbing against her lower lip.

“Arya,” he murmurs, groaning outright when she takes the digit into her mouth and sucks lightly.

She deftly rises to her feet, crowding his space as she presses a chaste kiss to his lips. “I have to go,” she says reluctantly, sad smile on her face.

Gendry wraps an arm around her waist, dipping his head to bury it in her wild tresses. “Not yet,” he mutters. “Let’s just…”

Arya chuckles low in her throat, hand reaching up to thread through his hair. “We’re not fucking here, it’s too cold,” she admonishes.

Biting back a smile, Gendry burrows deeper into her neck. “That’s fine,” he murmurs. “Just ... like this for a little while,” he says. Pleads.

“Alright.”

They stay like that, quietly embracing in the lowly lit room. After a while, Gendry says again, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing,” Arya reassures, head settled against his shoulder.

“No, I need to—”

“It’s forgiven,” Arya says quietly.

“We can’t choose our blood,” he says sadly.

Arya’s thoughts are far away, on loose heads and slit throats. “No, we can’t.”

Gendry’s arms tighten. “It’ll end better for us won’t it?” he asks quietly.

Arya isn’t sure if he’s talking about Robert and Lyanna, or Ned, or the other Starks and Baratheons, for that matter. Their cursed bloodlines, tragic as they were. It doesn’t matter, Arya decides then and there.

Pulling back and cupping his face, Arya fixes him with a fierce gaze. “We’re not them,” she says. In a softer voice she adds, “We’ll learn. We’ll live.”

Nodding, Gendry leans forward, whispering, “Aye, we’ll live, m’lady,” as he captures her lips in another sweet kiss.

Chapter Text

“Absolutely not.”

“Would you give us a moment, please?” Arya asks tersely. “I need a word with my brothers.”

Jon means to object, and Bran mumbles something beneath his breath, but the icy glare his sister sends them (along with the rest of the room) could still an auroch. Reluctantly, the lord commander grumbles something unintelligible to clear the war council, watching with tired eyes as the smith squeezes Arya’s arm before they all slip out the room.

“Arya…” Bran starts delicately. Jon can see the pained look on his face, the slight grimace. “Jojen should not have said—”

“You’ve seen it,” she counters, accusation clear in her voice. Arya paces by the door, flexing her hand over Needle’s hilt. “If you know I can help, then why not let me?” she asks quietly, facing the both of them.

Bran sighs, wheeling himself closer to Arya. He’d been getting used to the new chair the Reeds and Davos fashioned, a design largely cooked up by Luca. It beats having Tormund enthusiastically lug him all over Castle Black “It doesn’t work that way, sister. I see numerous outcomes. And they are glimpses at best! He is craven, Arya, if you get too close and—”

“Don’t you think I know that? I’ve heard the same whispers you have, Bran. If he’s as horrific as they say, all the more reason to get me in and out quickly, finish the job before more people have to die trying.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Jon reflects on the afternoon. It had started out promising. Over the past week, ravens had poured in from all over the Northlands, his father’s former bannermen pledging loyalty. Life under Bolton rule must’ve been poor for responses to come in so quick. Houses Manderly, Karstark, Glover, and the like seemed more than eager to offer their assistance and men. It had surprised Jon, if he was being honest. He was but a bastard, disgraced by the men of the Night’s Watch—

You weren’t disgraced, stupid,” Arya chided. “Not now anyway. There was mutiny, and you served justice! No one faults you for looking towards Winterfell, Jon. Northerners will see you and think of Father, as honorable as he was.”   

Jon remembers Arya’s words the other night when he admitted to his uncertainty. She had been able to pull him from his funk, and he realized she must’ve experienced a similar, strange sort of loyalty from the Brotherhood without Banners and the crannogmen. They followed her, trusted her. Ned’s valiant daughter, he’d heard some of them whisper. Not for the first time, he wonders what their father would think. Would he be proud? Would he think Jon weak for leaving the Night’s Watch? In the end, it mattered little. The dead were dead, and he was resolute to fight for what was left of his family.

He sent a prayer to the old gods when the ravens came; he asked for guidance and finally, finally allowed himself to believe the scales had tipped in their favor. Ramsay did little to gain the love of his people, and his newfound lordship following Roose’s mysterious and sudden death was on shaky ground. The Boltons may have had bloodlust on their side—the threat of flaying and all kinds of unspeakable torture—but they had opened themselves up to heavy skepticism, and an angry, distrusting North was never a good thing. The people would fight, they would unite behind a new, more legitimate leader.

But Jon was well aware he would not lead alone. In battle, perhaps, but for the Northmen, they would rally behind all of House Stark. News that Bran and Arya were with him at Castle Black, along with whispers that Sansa and Rickon lived, no doubt heartened the lords’ resolve. The pack survived, and soon the rest of the Seven Kingdoms would learn it.

There was the matter of the latest raven as well. Terse as it was, it gave Jon hope and the sweetest sense of vengeance.  

Lord Commander, it read:

We’ve taken back Riverrun and have a hold on Lannister forces advancing on the Riverlands. Walder Frey and his men lay dead at the bank of a river, the rest of their house taken prisoner. With your help, the Boltons are next. They will regret ever taking a blade to those you and I hold dear. The North has a long memory, as does House Tully.

I pray that my great niece and nephew are well. I wish you good fortune  in the wars to come, Jon Snow.

Brynden Tully, the Blackfish

He thinks of Robb, with his wild auburn locks, and a sweet, wolfish grin on his face. He had led the Northern rebellion, proven himself a fine mind for warfare. And he had married for love, Jon knows. They were expecting a babe. Jon pictures his brother and his good sister, huddled around their newborn the way Ned and Lady Catelyn must’ve been so many times before.

Jon blinks back the tears cornering at his eyes and is roused from his thoughts when Bran grunts something from his smart mouth and Arya looks close to striking him. Jon would tease them if this weren’t a conversation he was dreading.

Rising, he rounds the table, face set in determination as he worms his way between his siblings.

“Little sister,” he starts.

“Don’t.”

Her calm, near cold demeanor is suddenly too much for Jon, and his frustration mounts. “No one’s asking you to play martyr, Arya!” he exclaims, rough hands gripping her shoulders. “You’ll not die for the sake of the North or this family, I won’t allow it. Do you hear me?” Jon recognizes the slight hysteria thrumming his body, but he can’t help it. His chest feels as though a mammoth sits upon it, clawing at the pitiful muscle beneath. “I didn’t just get you back to lose you again,” he growls, voice thick with emotion.

Bran settles a cautious hand on Jon’s forearm, trying to calm him. “Peace, Jon,” he murmurs. “We just need to think of an alternative—”

“You both know what I can do,” Arya says quietly, leaning forward and taking hold of their hands. She avoids their eyes though, gaze skittering away as though ashamed. “What I learned in Braavos was because I thought I had no one left. It is a dark glamour, it is not who I am,” she reassures. “But in this case, I don’t see another way.”

Jon is already shaking his head but Arya shushes him, finally looking in his eyes. Her gaze is resolute, if not a little sad. “I am good with a blade, but I will be lost in battle, thuggish men hacking away at me. I am better spent using my speed and skill. And you, Jon, I expect you to hold the line against Bolton’s men. Confer with Bran, work out all the strategies with the Northern forces and the Brotherhood and Reed men. Meanwhile, if I can slip in and take the face of those closest to Ramsay, I can end this. Please.”

Sighing, Jon pulls Arya into his arms, keeping a steady grip on Bran’s shoulder. He hadn’t known what to make of her…training. Braavos felt a world away, the Faceless Men nothing more than nighttime tales, up there with ice giants and grumpkins. It wasn’t that he didn’t approve, Jon would never fault Arya for surviving, but it unnerved him. His sister returned to them grown and full of dark grace, it seemed. That she was so capable in swordplay and in the art of disguising and killing was as horrifying as it was fascinating. She presented them with a real chance to take down Bolton, but at what risk…

He burrows his head in her nest of wild hair and sighs. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I oughtta thump Jojen for even suggesting…” Bran trails off in a disgruntled tone to hide his growing fear.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Arya chides, voice muffled against Jon’s chest. She reels back, eyes soft as they regard her younger brother. “He meant no harm, he is not scheming. He is an experienced greenseer, and I trust his advice. If things go awry, I’ll get out. They didn’t call me Arya Underfoot for japes. I’ll be okay.”

Bran does his best to smile, but his gaze still looks far away and troubled.

Placing a tremulous hand on Arya’s shoulder, Jon fixes her with a heartbreaking, resigned look. “There is a man,” he starts, thinking back to what Theon had told him, “Damon. Damon Dance-for-Me, they call him. He is a man-at-arms close to the bastard. They say he shares his lord’s bloodlust and stalks around Winterfell brandishing his whip. If you can get to him—and it will be difficult, sister; he thugs around with other dangerous men—you can get to Ramsay. It will have to be before the battle is too far ahead. We will need to find you a way into the castle.”

Arya smiles then, a biting, deadly tilt of her lips. She’s never looked more like the famed she-wolf, Jon thinks. “Leave that to me,” she says haughtily. “Now, let’s call everyone back in. We have battle plans to finalize.”

------

“Your brother looked frightful, Arya. What did you speak of?”

“I told him I bedded you.”

“You what?” Gendry startles so suddenly his head thwacks against the post of their shoddy cot. Arya had gone to Jon earlier, asking for her own cell, and he’d reluctantly agreed, shooting her a long-suffering look all the while. If he suspected the smith would join his sister, he didn’t say.

Arya keels over, cackling in her place and shaking against Gendry. He budges his fingers against her ribcage, causing her to squirm and huff. “I only jape! I’m sorry!” she squeals inbetween laughs.

He gently rolls atop her and fights a smile of his own, reaching out to smooth the hairs framing her face. “You’ll truly get me killed one day, m’lady,” Gendry grunts. “Your brother already wants to gut me, don’t give him cause to do so before the damn battle.”

“My brother,” Arya starts, gently cradling his face, “still thinks of me as that little rascal running through the godswood.” Her smile turns sad. “It’s been so long, it will take time for all of us to adjust. Jon is just being protective. He may grow fond of you, yet. Bran likes you.”

“Aye, ‘spose I have one Stark man on my side, then.” He leans forward and presses his forehead to hers, expression sobering. “What did you really speak of, Arya? Why did they look so tense when the war council ended?”

She hesitates, chewing on her lip and trying to avoid Gendry’s gaze. “It’s…” Arya pitches forward, burying her face against his neck and reaching around to clutch at his back. There’s a slight desperation in her touch.

Gendry sighs, pressing his full weight on her and snaking an arm beneath her neck, holding her close. “We ride in a few days’ time. I know there’s a plan for you to get close to Ramsay, but that doesn’t mean—you don’t have to do it alone, Arya. I could help—”

Arya rears back, vaulting a little higher on the bed so she can look him square in the face, expression pained. “You are better fit for the battlefield. You and I…we’re fighters, but our talents differ. I’ll do what I can, where I can. You must promise me to survive,” Arya says, voice scratchy. 

“So long as you promise the same, m’lady,” Gendry responds, and then he’s kissing her.

Without much preamble, Gendry rips her tunic over her head and sends it tumbling towards the floor. He takes in her bare skin and lack of smallclothes with hungry eyes, attaching his lips to her jaw and kissing a hot line down the column of her neck and sweeping across her collarbone, sucking the skin until rose-colored bruises bloom. Palming a breast in his large hand, Gendry brushes the pad of his thumb against a pebbled nipple that elicits a desperate moan from Arya. Traveling lower, he kisses along the soft skin of her stomach till he reaches the thatch of dark hair at the apex of her legs. He can smell her arousal, and his cock twitches in response, straining beneath the rough cotton of his underthings and breeches.

When he shimmies down the bed, meaning to hike her leg over his shoulder, Arya sighs. She grabs at his hair, clutching him and hauling him back up towards her and quickly reaching down to undo the ties of his sleep pants.

“No,” she grunts.

“No?” His face screws up momentarily, brows quirked in confusion. “I thought you liked…” he trails off awkwardly, biting back a groan when her delicate hand cups him.

“I love it,” Arya reassures, leaning in to brush her lips by the corner of his mouth. “But I need you to fuck me.” She bends her knees and uses her feet to push down the rest of his clothes, and when he’s bare, she tips her hips up to meet the hard line of his cock. Gendry shudders, taking in the feel of her breath at his neck, the buds of her breasts against his skin, and most importantly, the utter slickness of her cunt over his throbbing shaft. Leaning back on his haunches, he grabs the base of cock and lines it at Arya’s entrance, sliding in with one swift movement and hissing at the vice-like feel of her.

Gendry pounds into her, knees digging into the light mattress as his hands rove up her ribcage to grab at her tits. “Gods, Arya,” he murmurs, eyes sharp, “you’re beautiful.” He goes slightly cross-eyed when she reaches out and rakes blunt fingernails against his nipples, hands sliding down his abdomen and fingers splayed in a ‘V’ against his groin where he enters her, adding a queer pressure to Gendry’s lower belly that could have him spending right then and there. He grunts something incoherent, whether to urge her for more or to lay off, he’s unsure.

A hand raises towards his face, two fingers nudging at his lips. When Gendry takes her into his mouth, tongue laving over her digits, he feels … craven, in the most delicious way. Arya trails her slicked fingers to her clit, rubbing in short, jerky circles as her other hand grasps at her breasts, moaning all the while. The added stimulation has her clenching around his cock, and Gendry near shouts, pulling out and panting, “Not yet.”

Arya peers up at him, a dangerous but affectionate glint in her eyes. She continues to touch herself a bit while Gendry stares down at her, slack-jawed and stupid aroused. After a moment, she raises on her knees and gifts him with a deep kiss, hands sliding across the back of his shoulders and further down to give his ass a playful squeeze. He growls low in his throat as Arya turns around on her hands and knees, presenting him with her backside, cunt dripping and ready.

Little is said as he inches forward, one hand wrapped around her hips as he pushes forward with a shuddering breath. He’s never done it this way, and the pressure is as good as it is surprising. Tighter, deeper. “Fuck,” he mutters.

The feeling must be mutual as Arya falls forward, face planted against her crossed arms and moaning for more. They fuck like that until Gendry feels his balls tighten. But he wants her to peak first. Reaching for a breast, he leans forward to press kisses along her sweat soaked spine. “Touch yourself,” he rasps. “Please.”

She is more than happy to comply, fingers sweeping across the top of her slit and tightening around him in the process. The new wave of pleasure, coupled with the resounding feel of Gendry inside her, taught skin of his pelvis slapping against her ass, has her spent. “Gods,” Arya croaks, and she let’s go, stuffing the fist of her free hand to her mouth to stifle her broken moans, hips undulating against his him.

Two or three more strokes and Gendry is gone, roughly pulling out to paint her ass cheeks white, grunting endearments all the while. Arya breathes harshly as she slumps to her belly, limbs boneless and body suddenly exhausted. He takes a stray cloth to wipe her clean before joining her in bed and pressing a kiss to the back of her head. She twists around, languidly pulling a fur atop them as she rests her head and hand against his chest.

“I love you,” Arya says quietly into the dark room.

Gendry goes stiff, eyes bugging in his head before the arm wrapped around her waist tightens into her side. His tongue feels too big, too clumsy in his mouth, but damn if he hadn’t been wanting to tell her the same for moons now. Arya doesn’t push him to respond, simply playing with the hairs at his chest and breathing in time with him. In the darkness, he can make out the soft, contented look on her face. He feels his chest split, thinks that he would do anything, absolutely anything to keep her by his side for the rest of their days. I’ll make her happy, he silently promises.

Reaching down and cradling Arya’s face with his warm palm, Gendry urges her to look up at him. When their eyes meet, they sport matching stupid smiles. “I love you.” He says it like a vow.

Arya nods once, a suddenly shy look in her eyes as she leans up and kisses him soundly on the mouth before burrowing into his side and slipping her eyes shut.

He’s left feeling stunned and satisfied, goofy grin etched into his face.

“You better rid yourself of that moonstruck expression, ser,” Arya chides, continuing before he can respond. “Lest my brother sees it tomorrow morn and really does gut you.” He swears she’s laughing as she drifts off to sleep.

-----

They’re all gathered round the makeshift smithy, Gendry gesturing to different kinds of armor and sharpened blades for the men. He’d spent the better part of the afternoon repairing and forging what he could scrape together from Castle Black. It’s not as fancy as the stuff of kings, but it’ll get the job done.

Arya watches in amusement as her smith grunts out halting suggestions, fumbling for words before he goes ahead and just demonstrates for the men, fitting them with the proper ring mail and leathers and blades.

Bran suddenly sidles up to Arya in his chair, clutching the custom saddle Gendry helped fashion with Luca and Davos’ help. The contraption keeps him secure on a horse, with freedom to move his upper body. The first time they’d seen him trot around Castle Black, Bran’s answering laugh could’ve rivaled the godsdamn sun. Summer happily ran after him, yipping here and there with Nymeria. He looks grown, Arya remembers lamenting. As a child, Bran had dreams of becoming a knight, she knows. He’d wanted to train under Ser Barristan. But fate had dealt him a cruel hand—two broken legs and whispers of cripple, half-man. Seeing him now, though, with the unimaginable gift of sight and the resolve to grow strong and steady, heartened her. In war council, he proffered guidance with a keen eye and a calm heart. He reminds me of Father that way, Jon had said fondly.

She peers down at him with soft eyes, brows suddenly quirking at the far off look on his face. Times like these, she remembers her brother’s role as the mighty greenseer beyond the wall. The three-eyed raven, he’d told her one night. “The bloodraven perished, and that responsibility came to me.” His voice had been so sad. “But that’s not all of who you are,” Arya said. At that, he smiled. “And I suspect you’ll always be there to remind me, sister.” She’d twisted his ear affectionately. “Of course.”

“What is it, Bran?” she asks worriedly now.

He comes to, eyes clearing as he gently pulls Arya’s hand into his. “We’re on the eve of battle, Arya. You’ll have to be quick—”

Arya thinks back to a dream where Bran had said the exact same. Quick as a cat, she vows.

“And you’ll have to be brave. Promise me you’ll be careful.”

She squeezes his hand, feeling an eerie sense of … something. “I will, you don’t have to worry.”

His smile is a mournful. “I cannot help it. Seeing…knowing doesn’t make this any easier. You should not have to bear the burden alone. If—”

Arya crouches down, lowering her voice so as to not draw attention. She places a comforting hand on Bran’s knee. “I am not alone, not anymore. I have you, don’t I? And Jon. And Gendry. The brotherhood. Luca, Meera and Jojen. There is hope, brother.”

Bran cocks his head and his worried expression melts into one of surprise, a pleased, nearly teasing smile on his face. “Your heart is light,” he murmurs. “You told the smith you love him.”

Arya snatches her hand back, flushing crimson. “How did you know?” she hisses. “You weren’t watching, were you? I swear to the old gods and the new, Brandon Stark, if you ever—"

“I wasn’t watching!” Bran screeches. “That stupid look on your face tells me well enough. Gods, smite me in my place if I were to willingly spy on you and the smith wrapped up in bed like a pair of lovebir—”

She pinches the skin at his neck, twisting sharply and baring her teeth. “Why you!” Bran yelps in response, hand swatting back at his sister.

Their commotion has risen in volume and they both suddenly turn to see the men, Gendry included, shuffle their wide eyed gazes away, awkwardly taking up conversation on the battle to come. Jon peers at them quizzically before marching towards the pair. From the corner of the smithy, Ghost watches them, whining pathetically as Nymeria bounds forward and nips at her brother, licking affectionately at his muzzle.

“Do I even want to know?” Jon asks tiredly, doing an uncanny impression of their father.

“No,” they parrot back, snapping their mouths shut and feeling ten years old again.

-----

Arya watches from the shadows as Jon, Tormund, Gendry, Luca, and a handful of men meet with the Ramsay just outside Winterfell’s perimeter. The march had been tense, a great deal of the Northern forces conferring at Hornwood and Last Hearth before marching forward and remaining hidden during the parlay. The direwolves, along with Nymeria’s pack, circle apart from the group, buried deep within a thicket of trees but near enough to keep a watchful eye.

She takes in the sight of the Bolton bastard, his small stature, his smarmy, pale skin, and beady eyes. He looks no more than perhaps eight or nine-and-ten, younger than both Jon and Gendry. And yet, his beguiling smile belies the true horror of his character. Arya had heard tell of his bloodlust and twisted proclivities. She’d sat with Theon by his cell and urged him to tell her everything he knew. At first, the Ironborn shied away from her, eyes skittering away and body curled in on itself.

“No, no, I protected Lady Arya, I had to, he would’ve—he did! But I escaped with Arya, had to save Arya. I’m good, I swear. Reek is good,” he’d mumbled to himself. Arya waited for his fit to pass before calmly reminding him who he was, who Jeyne Poole was. She sat quietly and listened to his tales, hard as they were to stomach. “He’s not a man, my lady,” Theon rasped. “He’s but a monster, if he has you within reach he will ruin you, break you apart, bit by bit.” Tears had pooled in his eyes.

Arya felt a traitorous stab of pity for the man, though he did not deserve it, she thought unkindly. He had sacked Winterfell, gone after Rickon and Bran, and betrayed Robb all in the name of misplaced hubris. But now he sat sad and trembling like a babe, face drawn in pain. Whatever Ramsay had done to Theon would take ages to heal, if at all. Reaching out a hand, she patiently waited for him to meet her touch, the mangled stump of his hand finally resting in hers.

“Ramsay Snow is only a man. And any man can be killed. He will not survive the battle, not if I have any say in it. Help me, Theon. Please.” 

And so they sat in that cell while Theon tried his best to recall every detail. Where the maester would be, the kennel master, the men-at-arms who Ramsay favored. Where Ramsay drew his battle plans, how often he retired to his own chambers, how he even took his godsdamn meal. Theon pulled into Reek’s mind to give Arya everything he could offer, and by the end, he felt spent, physically drained, but his heart was a little lighter. He’d plucked these memories from the darkest depths of his mind, and hearing them, verbalizing them hadn’t destroyed him. Arya stiffly but genuinely thanked Theon, encouraging him to go to the dining hall and get some food. He’d likely spend the rest of his days at the Wall, she thought, unsure if she found it a comfort or a waste.

From across the snowy clearing, Arya thinks she can make out the words “little wife” slipping from the bastard’s mouth. Gendry physically stiffens, no doubt holding back from throttling the damned snake. They’d parted earlier, huddled together before having to ride off. She’d cradled his face and brought his forehead to hers. “Be smart,” she murmured, “and be safe. I love you.” He responded with the same, and with that, they kissed quietly in clear view of everyone to see. No use hiding it now, she thought wryly.

She prays he will not be provoked by Ramsay. As far as the Bolton bastard knows, Arya is still in the wind, and Gendry is simply another Northmen standing by Jon Snow as a show of strength. And in truth, the sight of both he and Tormund flanking her brother, all wrapped in jet black furs and donning grim faces, was intimidating. She can only hope it rattles Ramsay some.

The parlay ends tensely, with Ramsay calling out something deeply unsavory, if the murderous look on Jon’s face is anything to go by. Arya watches as he reluctantly turns his horse away, riding towards Davos with the rest of the group following. From behind her, Jojen stills in polishing his frog spear and places a calming hand on Arya’s back.

“It’s almost time, my lady.”

“Arya,” she murmurs automatically, collecting her sack and lowly whistling for Nymeria.

Jojen smiles softly, dipping his head. “Arya. You’re ready then?”

She nods, digging her hand into Nym’s fur as she trots up to her human.

“Trust your instincts,” he says vaguely. “All will be well.”

“Your father told me the same.”

“He is a wise man. I reckon he learned that from your father.”

“It didn’t end well for him,” Arya says quietly, looking down at her feet.

“No, but the Starks live on. You’ll take what you learned from him and survive. Your story’s not over just yet,” Jojen tells her, voice sage and comforting.

When Arya looks up, his expression is clear and open, an almost playful glint to his eyes. “How can you be so sure?”

Jojen smiles for true this time. “The gods demand it, Arya. They put their faith in you, you’ve felt it, haven’t you?”

She cocks her head and gives him a speculative look before reluctantly nodding. She thought she’d gone the mad the first time it happened. Leaning back against a gnarled tree, she could’ve sworn she heard rasping voices swirl around her. It was different from the distant cries of Bran in her dreams. It felt more realized, the whispers of the old gods caressing her face like an old friend, urging her onward. She hadn’t gone to Bran or Jon with it, feeling foolish and perhaps too scared at their response.

But the way Jojen had watched her during their stay at Castle Black felt like he was in on some secret. He was a more advanced greenseer than her brother and was ever patient in teaching him, Bran had told Arya. When the Reed man came to her one night, alluding to her time in Braavos and her propensity for disguise, her blood had curdled. But his words held no threat, simply suggesting that Arya not take her skills for granted in the battle to come. “Do what you have been taught to do, Arya Stark. Use it and reclaim your house,” he’d said. Arya hopes his visions don’t lead her astray. She hopes that in whatever wars to come, she will always come back to her family—her siblings and Gendry. Nymeria pushes into her side then, lowly whining to comfort and rouse her from her thoughts.

Jojen is watching her with careful eyes, slowly placing a hand on her shoulder and squeezing. “You worry.”

With a somber look, Arya gazes back at him. “You’ll look after Bran.” She doesn’t pose it as a question.

“If he were here, he’d bristle at that,” Jojen says with a chuckle.

Bran and Meera are with a small group of crannogmen deep in the woods, no doubt astride their horses with frog spears at the ready. And, in Bran’s case, a lightweight axe Gendry had especially made for him. “Yer built big up here,” Gendry grunted, slapping at Bran’s shoulder. “Use it to your advantage, swing hard and true, like this.” Then he’d demonstrated with his warhammer, and Bran watched him like he might’ve looked at Robb once, with unbidden admiration and glee. “I can do that?” he asked quietly. Jon looked on from the railing. “Aye,” he called out to his brother. “Go on, Bran. Give it a try, give the smith a run for his money!”

Arya smiles at the memory, shaking her head when she feels her lips turn down in concern. “I am his sister, and I will ask it of you nonetheless. If anything happens, get him out. Keep him safe, and remind him…” Arya trails off, voice suddenly thick with emotion.

“I will do all I can, my lady.”

“Thank you, Jojen. For everything.” With a final nod, Arya turns away from him, securing her slender pack beneath her tunic and making her way towards Winterfell.

-----

Above the din of battle, Arya quietly slips into the castle. Jon’s forces had steadily converged on Bolton’s men, swords drawn and with cries of “For Lord Stark!” at their lips. She can still hear the clang of hot steel as she creeps along the walls. With her back against the cool cobbled stone, she takes a moment to shut her eyes and mentally nudge at Nymeria.

Arya had been practicing her warging with Bran while at the wall, quickly managing basic communication and commands, as her bond with Nymeria had readied her for slipping into different skins. It was most natural with her direwolf, and increasingly easy with other animals; birds, small game, hunting hounds. 

She blinks once, and her eyes open pale, face slack and tipped skyward. Looking through a honey-hued gaze now, Arya urges Nymeria to lead her pack across the clearing and tear into any Bolton man who stands in their way. She feels the rush of harsh wind as her direwolf sprints alongside her wolf cousins, feels the pure adrenaline coursing through her body as Nymeria rips the throat of one soldier and growls at a next.

Good girl, she thinks. Look out for Jon and Bran and Gendry, please. Arya feels a mental nudge in assent, and she comes to, huddled against the outer walls of Winterfell. The sight of her may be more conspicuous than originally thought, but amidst the chaos of battle, one slight girl hardly seems to draw much attention. From the corner of her eye, she spots Damon, boyish in appearance and towheaded. His famed whip is in hand, greasy and swaying from side to side as if to taunt.

He hangs back with a small group of men, the lot of them overseeing the fight with a lofty, nasty smile on their lips. Flanking Damon is a tall, witless looking man with wan skin and yellow teeth. On his other side, a shorter boy, plump in appearance though his face is set in hard lines. When he whispers something to Damon, Arya spies his soft mouth, not a tooth in sight. They make for a poor sight, a disgusting motley crew.

Ramsay rides forward and shouts something at them, causing the band to scatter, Damon trudging behind his lord while greedily looking back at the battle. Absently, Arya wonders why they’re not at the heart of it, but she suspects they aren’t as adept in swordplay as they’d have others believe. Or perhaps the Bolton bastard keeps a few of them close to protect himself. He only carries a bow and a satchel of arrows, after all. Arya takes note of every detail, filing them away in her mind as she creeps near the gates and silently strikes at a guard who rounds on her.

Kicking at his knees so that he falls before her, and deftly twisting his head sideways, Arya does away with the guard without even needing to unsheathe Needle. They’re out of the way enough that she can quickly don his weathered garb and slip through the gates. Arya spots Damon’s fair hair towards the stables and stalks alongside the castle walls, busying herself as a guard would and keeping an eye for when Ramsay leaves the man-at-arms.

Sure enough, the bastard dismounts from his horse and barks at Damon for something or other, shooing him towards the castle along with Maester Wolkan. She takes in the elderly man’s frightened gaze and tense posture. He fears Ramsay, Arya thinks sadly. How many in his household cower before his gaze, she wonders. She swiftly follows them, padding along one corridor unnoticed until she hears a low growl from the side. One of Ramsay’s girls—beasts, rather—snarls at Arya, pulling against the lead held by Ben Bones, the kennelmaster. Arya had expected as much, been told by Theon that Ramsay’s girls were looked after and always close by. She barely spares them a second glance as she slides into the mutt’s skin, forcing her back on her haunches and whining pathetically. The old man cocks his head, confused by this one’s timid nature but ultimately urging the bitches back.

Arya rounds the corner, watching as the maester and Damon slip into a heavily guarded room, tired looking men stationed at the doors, hands gripping at the pommel of their swords. She takes a breath and considers her options. Arya could try to find another way to Damon, but this is her best chance. She counts the guards, gauges how long and with how much effort it’d take to incapacitate them. Nodding to herself, she strides forward, fingers slightly twitching towards the hilt of her own blade.

A heavyset man stops her immediately, stepping ahead and narrowing his eyes at her small frame and unfamiliar face beneath the helm. “Damon has business with the maester,” he grunts. “Go on, boy.”

Quick as she can, Arya whirls into the man, using all her momentum to send him into the wall opposite. She wraps a hand over his mouth while swiftly unsheathing her smaller dagger and gutting a line down his torso. She throws the same blade at the guard across from her, hitting him dead in the throat, thick blood dripping down is front in droves. The other two converge on her with swords drawn, and Arya grabs at Needle to parry the lunge, the tip of his blade missing her neck but nicking her across the cheek. She’s able to quickly disarm him though, shifting his body to block a hit from the other. Crouching low to retrieve her dagger, Arya nearly jumps atop the same man, promptly sending the blade into the juncture between his neck and shoulder and twisting. She stuffs his own tunic in his mouth to muffle his cries. His body crumples to the floor, and then it’s just Arya and one last guard.

She widens her stance, pivoting her body towards him, ready to attack. He has his longsword outstretched, a slight tremor in his grip that causes the entire blade to shake. “Who are you?” he hisses, eyes bugging in his head. He looks no older than Arya herself, features too big for his face, mouth twisted up like he might soil himself.

Sheathing her blades, Arya sighs. She suddenly pitches forward and twists his sword arm at an unnatural angle, grabbing the hilt of his sword as it falls and using its ragged pommel to strike him in the temple. She catches his unconscious form and lowers him softly to the ground. He’ll not rouse before she’s done with Damon, Arya figures.

She glances around frantically and at seeing the barren corridor, gets to work dragging the bodies into a spare chamber, stuffing them inside and soundly shutting the door. The drags of crimson are a frightful sight, but Arya simply procures a vial of caustic cleaner from her vest, wiping it along the stone floor and driving the blood away.

When she slips into the maester’s cell, she passes a light glamour over her form, allowing Arya to naturally pitch her voice lower. The elderly man whirls around in surprise, Damon looking ruffled behind him.

“I—is there something you need, ser?” he asks. For such a big man, his nature is quite timid, Arya thinks.

“I have need of Damon, maester. A missive from Lord Bolton’s master of arms. If you would excuse us, please.” The lie passes smoothly from her lips, posture cocksure and commanding.

Master Wolkan startles, awkwardly shuffling forward and nodding. As he passes, he gives Arya a queer look, as if trying to place her face. She stares back at him unperturbed, fingers lightly tapping against her scabbard while nodding him towards the door.

When he exits, Damon rounds on her, expression annoyed though genuinely curious at the interruption. “I don’t recognize you,” he says skeptically, hands absentmindedly gripping the handle of his whip. “Well, what do you want?” he asks, tossing his shaggy fair hair to the side.

With little preamble, Arya bars the door, undoing the glamour and ripping the helm from her head. Her hair tumbles down, thick brown waves fanning across her shoulders and back.

“Gods, that’s uncomfortable,” she mutters, tossing the helm aside and lifting the hem of her tunic to retrieve the tools strapped to her belly.

Damon stares at Arya dumfounded, too stupid to brandish his whip in the time she reveals herself. Perhaps the mere sight of a woman and a sliver of bare skin is enough to disarm him, she thinks wryly.

She stalks forward, hands clasped behind her back.

“I’m sorry for this,” Arya murmurs, expression neutral. “Well, that’s not true, is it?” she asks with a slight chuckle. The man continues to sputter, finally stepping back and jerking his arm forward, as if to strike.

Arya spins on her right foot and rounds her left against his chest, kicking the air from his chest and sending him tumbling to the floor. “Now, that won’t do.”

He clutches at his breast, eyes finally shaking with fear as he asks, “What do you want with me?”

“Heard from a certain Ironborn you were close with Ramsay. That’s enough reason,” Arya says lightly, leaning forward and aiming the tip of Needle at the hollow of his throat.

“Ironbor—Theon—that fucking Reek!” he spits, “Bolton will cut off his lips the next time he dares show his face! Ah!”

A trickle of blood drips down the column of Damon’s throat, Needle digging into him with intent. Hovering over him, Arya smiles. “How strange you say that,” she murmurs. “I’ll be taking more than your lips today, sir. Damon … Dance-for-Me, is that right?”

He nods fearfully.

“Shall we dance then?”

-----

When Damon exits the maester’s chambers, room pristine as it was before, he heads for the lord’s solar on the second floor. Nodding to the members of the household as he passes, he hastens his steps. The cries of battle permeate the castle walls, the kiss of blades and the grunts of dying men melding into a horrific song. At the entrance to the solar stands Ben Bones, old papery hands clutching at the leads of Ramsay’s girls. With a cold glare, Damon dismisses the kennelmaster, eyeing the hounds as they suddenly turn docile and move to guard the door from outsiders.

“Good girls,” he murmurs before rapping his fingers against the thick oak door. “My lord,” Damon croons.

“Enter.”

He slips into the room, gaze hardening at the sight of Ramsay Snow perched in the ornate chair before the circular table, smiling and sipping at a goblet of wine.

“Damon. What are you doing here? Didn’t I tell you to meet with the maester before heading onto the field? Are you hard of hearing or just dumb,” he mutters.

Damon dips his head, expression contrite. “Apologies, my lord. I’ve gotten what I needed from Wolkan.”

“Good. When the Stark bastard and his band of savage wildings fall, we’ll need something to have our fun with them in the prison cells. Now off with you, let me enjoy a moment to myself.” His voice is affable, and one might think his countenance genial if it weren’t for the cruel twist of his smile, the fingers restlessly flexing at the edge of the table. He looks alight with anticipation, Damon thinks, ever ready to play with his food before devouring it.

“Of course, my lord. The battle rages on, I’m needed there. But I had to see you first, I have something to tell you.”

Ramsay sneers at the man. “Well?”

Nodding to himself, Damon bows his head once more before lifting his gaze at the bastard, eyes aflame with poorly concealed vitriol. Raising a hand, his fingers grip at the base of his jaw before trailing up to remove his false face. His form shrinks, clothes suddenly hanging loose on a smaller, decidedly feminine frame.

“What in gods—”

Arya shakes off the annoyance of having to go another round of theatrics and simply pierces the bastard with a deadly stare. “Hello, husband. You sit in my father’s chair.”