"You'll be a wonderful lord. And any lady would be lucky to have you. But I'm not a lady. I never have been. That's not me."
She turns from him, trying to control her expression. It used to be so easy to keep a cool facade, but she discovered that around him it was almost impossible, especially after their night together. She takes another arrow and shoots on the target, the warmth of his presence fading slightly as he takes a step back. She wonders if he's leaving for good, if this is the last conversation they ever going to have. It hurts to think that it might be.
But he stays for a long moment, just stands there, few steps behind her and Arya doesn't want to cave and turn to look at him. She made her decision. She's not a lady. But his presence seems to be radiating energy and she's completely aware of him. When he speaks, his voice is low and controlled, so different from the excited rambling from just minutes earlier that it almost feels like it's coming from a different person.
"Do you even feel anything for me at all?"
The absurdity of the question makes her turn around and face him again. He's heartbroken and she hates that she did this, despite having her reasons. Before she can answer, he speaks again.
"Or was I just the nearest available man for you to…"know what's like"?"
She's taken aback by the implications. "Are you asking if I used you?"
"Well, did you? Because we know each other from before? Did it made everything easier?"
Gendry knows they're harsh words, but he needs to understand. His world was turned completely upside down, everything he thought he knew was slipping through his fingers. He was allowed a moment of despair.
She looks at him, hurt. He's not wrong, knowing him definitely made everything easier but she didn't lay with him for convenience. She wanted him . But she didn't want to talk about that right now. Not when she was making her so angry.
"Because it did me so good knowing you from before! You rejected me! You decided to stay with Brotherhood and they sold you to the Red Woman!
"Aye, I left you. And I regretted that everyday. When I heard about the Red Wedding, I thought…" he swallows the lump in his throat and looks away. "But you survived. And we found each other again. I thought we could still be friends, but…"
He frowns and scoffs. "But I was still the bastard blacksmith that was serving your lord brother. That's all I was going to be when you asked me to come with you to Riverrun and that's what I was when I came here. Until the Queen declared me lawful son of Robert Baratheon and made me a lord! I thought now I could finally be…" he shakes his head and takes another step back. She waits for him to say something else but he doesn't.
Arya knows it would be best to just let him think the worst of her, let him believe she just slept with him because he was there, not a complete stranger and wanted her. But something is screaming inside her head to explain, to make him understand. She's going to ride to King's Landing the next day and doesn't know if she's going to survive. It would be better for him to think she used him and doesn't have feelings for him, it would make it easier for him to forget about her. But it's a lie. And they have always been honest with each other, since the beginning. It's another thing she wants to preserve until the end, along with memories of Jon messing with her hair and calling her 'little sister', the short moments she'd spend with Sansa, reconnecting, her father's smile, her mother's hugs, Robb's laughter at her antics, playing with Rickon in the courtyard. Gendry is her family too and she doesn't want him to hate her. But how to explain that she doesn't expect to survive and that's one of the reasons she turned him down? How do you say to someone who is in love with you that you can't be with them because you decided to walk into your own death?
She knows she's not schooling her face properly by Gendry's reactions. Whatever he's seeing makes him give a resigned sigh. He nods and looks away from her and she feels her heart breaking again. After losing so many people, it shouldn't hurt this much, she should be used to it by now.
They stay in silence, not knowing what to say or do but not wanting this to be their final moment together. After a while, he speaks again.
"You haven't answered my question", he sounds tired and she thinks he's probably about to give up on her.
"Do you feel anything for me at all?"
Arya knows how to disguise as a completely different person. She knows how to take off faces and wear them, she knows how to school her own expressions to not show any emotion. But in this moment she finds out that she can't lie to Gendry. And it must be all over her face because the hurt in his eyes lessen slightly and he takes a step closer to her.
"I'm sorry for asking you to be my wife. I understand that you don't want that, you're right, you've always said that you weren't a lady. And to be with me…" he gave a self depreciative laughter and it just breaks Arya's heart a little more. He goes on saying that he doesn't care about being a lord and how he'd probably be stabbed in the back within a week of coming to the Stormlands and how he should instead just try to find work somewhere, find a forge and be only a smith for the rest of his life.
Arya shakes her head at this nonsense. “I wasn’t lying when I said you’re going to be a great lord. You care about the people, you’ve lived your whole life among them. You know how it is to be treated like your life doesn't matter, you'd never do that to someone else! You will put them first, like no other lord ever cared to do."
Gendry looks at her with a soft expression and his arm moves like he wants to touch her. He doesn't though, and Arya realizes that she wants him to do it. She wants his touch, his kisses, his arms around her. She only had him for a few stolen hours. It's not enough. Not even close.
"You could do the same", he answers. "Here. With your family. You spent a lot of time among us lowborns to know how things are for us. You can help here."
"I'm not staying in Winterfell."
Gendry frowns, confused. "Where are you going?"
"King's Landing. I'm going to kill Queen Cersei."
"Your list? Still going to finish that?"
"Yes. She's the last one, she deserves to die for everything she's done to my family."
He nods. "And after she's dead?"
This was the moment she was dreading the most, telling him she didn't expect to come back because she didn't expect to survive. "I don't know if I'll live through it", she says and it makes everything worse to put in words. The face he makes, a mix of incredulity and anger, adds even more weight to her heart.
"So you riding south to die? That's your great plan? After everything you faced to come back to your family, you'll just give it up?!"
"You don't understand…"
"You're right, I don't! I never had a family, so how can I understand leaving it after spending years trying to get back to it?"
And he's not wrong, Arya thinks. But this is the path she's been in for years now. She can't just turn from it, this is what she became. But Gendry might be seeing something in her, something she doesn't know it's there because this time he reaches out and holds her face.
"Arya, think of how much good you can do for the people here. How you can help them, teach them!"
"You're a fighter! You can help many to fight like you, you can train them!"
Arya never really thought about it. She's so consumed with the idea of avenging her family that she never thought about the after. Killing Cersei is the most important thing for her now and she'd gladly die to accomplish it, but what if she survives? She thought she was going to die fighting the army of the dead and she didn't. They didn't. Maybe there was still a chance...?
"You think the people of the North will accept that?"
"You're the slayer of the Night King. How can't they not accept anything you do?"
He's still holding her face and she covers his hands with hers. She wants to kiss him again. More than that, Arya realizes, she wants to be with him. To sleep and wake by his side, to find out if he still snored. To share the warmth of a hearth with him, to be embraced by him again.
"Because they might want a lady, to make them feel like everything is normal again. And I'm not."
"But you are! You're the daughter of a lord, two of your brothers were Kings. You're highborn, liking or not. You're a lady and a fighter! I'm a lowborn bastard and a blacksmith and a lord too, now. Not one thing or the other, but all of them together." He runs a thumb along her jawline and smiles, a slight blush covering his cheeks. "You've always said that you were never a lady because you never behaved like one, but as you are highborn, whatever you do is a lady's doing. Brienne of Tarth was knighted by Jaime Lannister before the battle, she's a lady and a sor. I've heard about the little lady of Bear Island, head of her house. A lady who died dressed in armor, killing a giant. And Daenerys Targaryen is a queen who rides a dragon into battle… They're all fighters and ladies. I don't see why you can't be both as well."
Gendry doesn't understand what being a lady means or why she's so adamant about not being one. To him, it only means being highborn. To Arya, is being confined into stuffy dresses, entertaining guests and being married off for politics. But he's not wrong about Lyanna Mormont and Brienne of Tarth. Maybe she can be both, like he said, and create her own definition of what 'lady' means. Maybe, and she hates herself a little more for letting her hopes up, she can have everything in the end.
Arya was never greedy, but here with Gendry, the possibility of having both, her freedom and him? It's almost too good to not reach out and take it. So she does.
She kisses him, slow and deep and is delighted to feel his arms around her waist, pulling her closer. It feels different somehow, the way he's holding her, their bodies pressed close, one of his hands holding the back of her head, the other sliding down her back to settle on her hip. He's being bolder than in their moments before and Arya feels her body responding to him, like when he slammed the axe against a piece of wood, but with much more intensity. His tongue is touching hers and he tastes like ale but it's not unpleasant. She wants to keep tasting him forever.
When he pulls back, Arya doesn't immediately open her eyes. She tries to commit to memory all the sensations, the sound of his sighs, the taste of his kiss, the press of their bodies together. She doesn't want to give him up, she wants him, to be with him.
"If I asked you to come back to your family after you finish your list, what would you say?"
"You spent years trying to get back home. You're finally here! Ride south if you must, kill the queen but come back! Be with your family again!"
She looks at him with a small frown, confused. "You want me to come back to Winterfell?"
His expression saddens a little and he leans back, his hands going back to her ams.
"I want you to be happy, Arya." She watches as he steps back and misses his warmth immediately. "I shouldn't have asked you to leave your home to be my wife, I forgot myself and I'm sorry."
Gendry takes a deep breath, like he's gathering courage to say something else, but seems to decide to stay quiet. He looks at her intensely and Arya wonders what he’s seeing. She's so confused right now, wanting so many things but afraid to take them. She watches as his faces morphs into a pained expression and he pulls her to a urgent, almost desperate kiss. Arya kisses him back but something feels wrong. This kiss almost tastes like a goodbye. He pulls back and says her name but she can't hear him asking her again to come back to Winterfell while he's going south to take his place as Lord Paramount of the Stormlands because it'll mean they won't see each other again and she doesn't want that. She can't say goodbye to him again. Arya kisses him to shut him up and doesn't stop until she can feel his hardness pressing against her.
And she wants him again too, Arya realizes. They slept together in that same storage hallway just two nights before. Her first time with a man was with a bastard blacksmith against sacks of grain in a hallway of her family castle. Very unladylike. The thought brings a smile to her face. She's not a lady by her own definition of the term, what her mother and father also believed she should be. But maybe she can be something else, like Sor Brienne and Lyanna Mormont. Maybe Gendry's right and she doesn't have to choose between one thing and the other.
He steps back again but doesn't look at her. She can see he's embarrassed, a light blush covering his cheeks. Arya smiles a little. Between the two of them, she's the one that steal kisses and he's the one blushing like a maiden. They are not conventional at all but they work together, they fit. Always have, since they were kids, fighting for survival together.
"Would you want me if I did those things? Like train soldiers and fight battles? I mean, would you want a wife that does these things?", she asks, timidly.
"Arya, how can I want you in any other way but the way I know you? I don't love you despite what you do, it's because of it. You're a fighter, like me."
It seems so simple when he puts like that. She's going to leave the next day to finish her list because Cersei deserves to die and she can't leave it to chance, she needs to make sure it happens. And she knows the battle will be raging while she is in the city. It'll be dangerous and she might not survive. But if she does…
"You should talk to Jon", he says unexpectedly, surprising her.
"They’re going to make battle plans for the attack on King's Landing. And you and Queen Daenerys have this goal in common. If her army attracts the attention to the city gates, it might be safer to enter the city."
Arya looks at him. He goes on. "If you kill the queen before Daenerys's arms breach the walls and the city surrenders, the people will be safe."
"I'm not going down to save the city.", she says,
"No, but if you kill the queen, the war is over. You'll be saving them anyway."
It makes sense. Cersei would never surrender, she would burn the city down or let Daenerys do the dirty work. But if she's not there to order the armies to resist and if they can make the city's surrender official, then there wouldn't be a need for anymore bloodshed.
"Killing Cersei is the quickest way of ending this war, that's true."
"Then talk to Jon. I'm sure he's tired of battles and might be willing to accept this option."
Arya scoffs. "I don't think my brother will accept me riding into a condemned city to kill a queen."
"Does he have an option? You're going anyway, so he might as well take you in their plans. If only to not start the attack on the city while you're still there. They could at least give you a head start."
He sounds resigned because he knows he's right. She's going to ride down to King's Landing to kill Cersei despite Jon taking it into account in their battle plans or not. She wonders if any other man would be so accepting.
"Does it anger you? That I'm going to do this?"
"What? Kill the queen?", she nods. "I don't like the idea of you in danger, but I understand that you need to do this. I remember you reciting your list before sleeping every night, I guess it's not something you just shake off. I'm not happy that you feel like you have to do this, but it's not like I can stop you. I know I can't tell you not to go."
"But what if you could stop me?"
He rolls his eyes. "How could I stop you? Do you want me to sit on you or tie you to a bedpost?" He looks annoyed at her and shakes his head. "I don't want to stop you. I never did. I just don't want you to get hurt, I just want you to be careful and to stop acting like you're still alone in the world! You have a family, for fuck's sake!"
She remembers the time where she offered to be his family but he refused because he was a lowborn bastard blacksmith and she was daughter of a lord. She didn't care about that then and still doesn't now. But he does. She wonders if he ever considered himself part of her family, the way she did him. Probably not, Gendry was always one to respect propriety. It hurts that he didn't, Arya realizes.
She looks at him. They deserve a chance. Even if in the end, they don't stay together, they should be allowed to try, at least.
"Gendry, I don't know if I'll come back. But I'll try. That's all I can promise now."
He nods. "It's all I ask. That you try to live."
"When are you leaving for Storm's End?"
His face does something funny, he contorts it like he's feeling a sudden, acute pain or a deep annoyance.
"I don't know. Like I said, I don't know how to be a lord. What am I supposed to do? Ride to the gates and say 'I'm the new Lord, let me in'?"
"You'll have a royal decree naming you the new Baratheon Lord. The castellan will read it and pass the news to the soldiers, so they will let you in. Then he will pass the news on to the maester and the staff."
He sighs and runs a hand over his face. "Is there a guide for bastards suddenly turned Lords somewhere? I'd have to ask someone to read it for me since I'm shit at it." He huffs, humorless. "I'll have to learn how to read and write better. A lord that barely can do both… What was she thinking?"
"She was buying your loyalty. She could have you knighted as a reward for your hard work and bravery in the battle, but a knight doesn't command forces and doesn't have subjects loyal to the Throne. She's probably going to give a few more lordships in order to gain more trust and support."
Gendry nods. "Aye. I've heard all the Tyrells are dead, so she'll be giving Highgarden to someone random as well? Is there any bastard from the Reach here?", he asks with a humorless laugh.
"You're not a random person. You're the last Baratheon alive. A house that has a rich history that now is yours too. You deserve to know it. The other things you can practice and learn: reading, writing, ruling. Even using cutlery”, she adds with a small smile.
He looks exasperated for a second, but then his expression morphs into that mix of hope and love that makes her breath stutter and her heart beats faster. But before he can say something (or ask for something she's not ready to give, not yet) she goes on.
"You should stay here. Wait until the war is over. Despite the way she acts, Daenerys isn't the queen, she has no real power to legitimize you by Westerosi law. After it all ends, if she wins, she'll give you the royal decree. If she loses…"
Gendry huffs. "If she loses, I guess it'll just make everything easier for me. Master Mott always said that a skilled smith can find work anywhere. I can stay in Wintertown, open a shop and just work until the day I die, I guess. Maybe, I can even go back to King's Landing if it gets too cold here for me." He shrugs, but his tone is teasing.
Arya rolls her eyes, but smiles. She takes his hand and looks in his eyes. "Wait here." And it feels like she's saying 'wait for me'. Gendry nods and squeezes her hand. "As you wish, m'lady."