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It’s Always Dark Down Here

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When Arya Stark was ten years old, she ran away from home.  Not her home, not really.  Her home was in Maine, where there aren’t “real cities” (as Cersei Lannister would call them) and where she could run for ages beneath the open sky and not run into anyone except a few deer, some foxes, and the odd heron.  New York never felt like home to her, not really, not when they moved there because Robert Baratheon had begged father to help him with his work, and especially not after her father had died and she and her sister had to move in with her godfather’s widow so they could finish the school year at the fancy prep school her father had enrolled them in.

Arya hated the prep school—the pleated light blue kilts, the knee socks, the attempts to equalize the wealth levels of all the students while really making it much more obvious who felt comfortable in the environment and who didn’t.  (Arya had once overheard the Head of the Middle School saying to her fifth-grade homeroom teacher that she didn’t understand how someone so clever, so sweet as Sansa Stark could have such a disruptive, destructive, sister.)

Arya hated the girls in her class, hated the teachers who hinted that she should behave herself, hated the school counselor who did a very bad job making her feel as though life should carry on as normal after her father died, and hated her sister for liking the place.  She hated homework, she hated teachers, she hated gym class (“Physical Education” as they called it in their stupid, rich, New York way), hated that they didn’t let boys into the school, hated that they made her take music and art and Spanish even though she didn’t need any of that at home (her real home.  In Maine.  Not here).

But most of all, she hated coming home to not-home, to not-father, not-mother, not-brothers—but to a clean and enormous apartment on Central Park West, in a building that looked rather like a castle, which was supposedly haunted, and outside of which John Lennon had been shot.  She’d never have forgiven the Dakota for any of those things, but she would negative forgive it for being the home to which she was forced to return every day.

Arya hated Cersei Lannister—who didn’t even attempt to hide how barbaric she thought Arya was—she hated Joffrey—who was a liar and always sided with Sansa.  She hated Tommen and Myrcella for not being old enough to be her friends and she hated that she wouldn’t be free of them, not until her mother realized that keeping the girls in New York for school was unfair and stupid.  (She hated her mother for it, but not her mother.  There was a difference.)

And so, she wasn’t wholly surprised when, after school one day, it crossed her mind that she should run away.  It would, after all, be easy.  She only needed to find the right time—take the C down to Port Authority, spend her allowance on a ticket to Augusta and make Jon come pick her up.  She kept her backpack packed accordingly at all times and in the dead of one November night, walked right out the door.  Didn’t even bother to lock it behind her.

“Where are you off to?” Boros the security guard asked her.  His main job was to keep out the tourists who wanted to see where John Lennon had lived, but apparently, at night, he only wanted to stick his nose where it wasn’t wanted.

“Field trip,” she lied.

“At one forty-five AM?”

“Yes.  They want to beat traffic.  I’m carpooling because Cersei doesn’t want to take me to the East Side.”

He looked at her sideways.

“She didn’t say anything about it.”

Arya sighed and rolled her eyes.  “She’s obsessing over Myrcella’s skating lessons.”  It was true.  But she still wasn’t sure Boros would believe her. 

He checked his watch.

“Well, if your ride isn’t here in five minutes, come wait in here with me.  It’s cold outside.”

It was cold—the first real cold since the fall had started.  Arya stepped out of Boros’ view.  She waited for a taxi to drive by, then sprinted for the subway stop on the corner.  She swiped her metrocard and pushed through the turnstile.

The platform was empty—unsurprisingly for two in the morning on a weeknight on the Upper West Side.  She craned her neck, looking down the tunnel for the white headlamp and the encircled the red C of the subway.

There was no sign of it, only darkness and the gloomy lamps of the tunnel that cast enough light to see the scuttling rats, the odd empty beer can, and…

“Hey!” she called.  “Be careful down there!  You’ll get hit by a train!”

The man started.  His face was grimy, hair lank, and the yellow parka he was wearing looked as though it had lost most of its feathers. His eyes widened and, after a moment’s hesitation, he ran off down the tunnel.

“What are you doing?” Arya yelled.  Then, looking again to make sure a train wasn’t coming, she pushed aside the barrier at the end of the platform and ran after him.

Maybe it was because she was impulsive and hotheaded, like Cersei always said, or maybe because she was stupid—Sansa’s favorite insult—or maybe it was just because it had been so long since she’d had any real excitement in her life, but she tore after the man in the yellow parka.

“What the fuck are you doing, kid?  Go away!” he shouted back at her, leaping lightly to every alternating panel that held the tracks in place.

“Where are you going?” she demanded.

“Go away!”

She was almost level with him now, and wondered how he must feel to be at pace with a ten-year-old.

“You’ll get hit by a train,” he hacked at her, breathing hard.

“You’ll get hit by a train,” she snapped back.  If she was, so was he.  She wasn’t stupid.

“Won’t,” he grunted.

“Will.”

She wasn’t sure why she was still running.  She really ought to go back.  But this man was curious, and clearly terrified of her—so he wasn’t going to do anything.

*

When Arya thought back on that night, she kicked herself sometimes.  She shouldn’t have gone after him, she should have waited for the C and taken her bus, like she had planned.

And, if she’d followed him, she should certainly have turned back before the train came and the man with the yellow parka dragged her down a side tunnel and she’d found herself in a crowd of about twenty, who had picked her pocket money and offered her a half-eaten bag of potato chips as consolation.  The chips were stale and Arya was furious, but she was only ten and had no idea how to go about getting her bus ticket now.

But she certainly wasn’t going back to Cersei’s and she figured if she annoyed them long enough, they’d give her her money back and send her on her way.

But she was wrong.

And the longer she stayed, the more they treated her like one of them.

*

One night, she and Ang decided that they were going to walk to New Jersey.  She knew it was night because none of the New Jersey Transit trains were running and the Amtrak ones were few and far between.  They crept through the ACE tunnels and found the service connector that took them out into the train bay of Penn Station.

“It’s cold,” muttered Arya.

“Keep your voice down, you want us to get caught?” hissed Ang.  He was twitching—the way he did when he saw the sky.  The muscles of his shoulders were tensing and untensing as if afraid that that higher ceiling might collapse.  She supposed it was a fair fear, since he couldn’t see what was holding it up.  She wondered how long it would take her to twitch in fear at the sight of the sky.

“Nothing’ll happen to me.  I’m fine.  I might even get the money for my ticket back.”

“Oh will you quit going on about that?”

“But you…you’ll probably be a kidnapper or something and they’ll chuck you in prison and you’ll be able to see the sky from your little cell window every day.”

“Will you shut up, Nan?”

They called her Nan.  She’d told them that was her name when they’d asked.  Nan Snow.  They knew it was a lie, but as Jon had once said, all the kings horses and all the king’s men couldn’t get Arya to say what she didn’t want to say.  So they called her Nan—or girl—for lack of anything better.

She did shut up though.  Ang was jumpier than the rest, perhaps, but he had a sixth sense when it came to trains.  Lem joked that he could feel them through vibrations in his feet, but Arya knew better.

There was something smart about Ang, like there was something smart about Beric.  She guessed he had memorized the schedules.

Ang was moving and she followed him past the platforms and into the tunnel that ran under the Hudson River. 

“Why do you even want to walk to New Jersey?” she asked, her voice bouncing off the walls.  “They don’t have subways there.  New Jersey Transit runs above ground.”  That’s what Thoros had said, anyway.  She’d never been—or at least, Nan hadn’t.  Arya Stark had been to see Springstein with her father at the Meadowlands once.  It seemed like ages ago.  Sansa hadn’t wanted to, so she and mom had stayed behind with the babies and she, Jon, and Robb had taken New Jersey Transit to Secaucus and followed the ocean of people to the Boss, Dad leading the way.

Ang ran his hands over the tunnel wall and dim fluorescent bulbs illuminated the wet grime he took away.  “These tunnels run deeper,” he said.  “They’re safer.”

“They flooded more than the others when the hurricane rolled through,” she muttered.  She was glad she hadn’t been moling when Sandy had flooded New York’s subway tunnels.  She’d been safely tucked away in flannel pajamas in the Dakota, sipping hot chocolate and telling Tommen and Myrcella ghost stories she’d gotten Boros to tell her when they’d been waiting for her father to fetch the car, before he’d died and she and Sansa had had to move in with Cersei.

“You’re not a nice girl,” was Ang’s response.

“Never said I was.”

They walked in silence for a little while, only the splats of their footsteps echoing.  It was a different echo than the subway echo—deeper.  She supposed it was that there couldn’t be air grates here.

“Aren’t you afraid that the tunnel will cave in and we’ll be trapped here? And we’ll suffocate because there’s no ventilation?”

Ang chuckled.  “Well, now I am.”  He didn’t sound it though.

“You should be.  My dad said that most of the infrastructure in the US was going to shit.”

“Did he now?”

“Yup.”

“Going to shit?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Interesting.”

“It’s true.”

“He said that to you?”

“I just said.”

“Going to shit?”

“Well, he didn’t say it that way.”

Ang chuckled again.  He was more relaxed now that they were underground again.  She wondered if his ears were popping the way hers were.

“Of course he didn’t.”

“What do you mean?” she asked quickly.

“Your dad probably never said words like shit around you.”

“He did,” lied Arya.  “All the time.”

“Shit,” Ang repeated.  “Fuck.  Tittyfucking.  Ballsack.  Cunt.  See? You’re flinching.  You’re not used to them.”

“I’m ten,” Arya snapped.  “I’m not used to anything.”

Ang threw his head back in a laugh this time.  It rose and fell, bouncing back to her ears in a full cacophony. 

“Too clever for your own good.”

“Cleverer than you,” she snapped.

“Sure you are…Nan.”  He was quiet for a moment.  Not silent, though.  You could never have silence in the tunnels.  There was always some noise, whether the skittering of rats over the tracks or the distant rumble of some train or another.  Ang’s breaths were loud, heavier than usual—or maybe that was just Arya’s imagination.

“If you were as clever as you say you are, you wouldn’t be down here,” said Ang at last.  “You’d go back where you came from—not wherever you were running to—and know that that’s a better place for you than this.”  He ran his hands over the tunnel wall again, almost a loving caress this time.

“I can go back.  Anytime I want.”  But her voice sounded thin, even to her own ears.

“That’s right.”

Ang placed an arm around her shoulder.  She squirmed away.

“Get off me.”

He laughed again, but there was no humor to his laugh.

*

Arya didn’t foray to the street side.

She knew that if she did, she’d be found, and then she’d be in trouble.  She wasn’t sure what, specifically, that trouble would be, but she knew it would be there and there would be a lot of it. 

She knew there would be police involved, or, at the very least, a shriek of “that’s her!” and someone sprinting at her, chasing her down—running faster than Lem that first night and she wouldn’t be able to escape and it would be back to the Dakota.

Or, worse, they’d look straight through her and not even realize the unwashed, tattered, homeless girl was Arya Stark.

*

By all accounts, Beric had been around the longest—at least of their little squadron of moles.  He was also the only one that Arya didn’t think was quite right in the head.

She knew that he and the others did drugs.  She saw them burning spoons and injecting stuff into their veins when they thought she was asleep.  (She had asked Thoros what it was once and he had chased her off, saying “No, no.  You can be here because we can’t get rid of you, but you’re not having any smack, you got that?”)  The others would talk and laugh and tell stories about the tourists they had freaked out, but Beric never did.  He’d always look off into the distance or curl up and stare at the wall.

“See,” said Ang, “You say you can’t go home.  Beric really can’t.”  He had caught her watching one day, as Beric was tracing a pattern through the dust on the wall.

“Why not?”

“He’s supposed to be dead,” was all Ang had to say.

Lem said that it was because Beric’s fiancée had married someone else.  Thoros said it was because his degree had been falsified and he was on the run so they couldn’t get him.  Harwin said that it was because he owed millions of dollars to the government.  Maybe they were right.  Maybe they were wrong.  But Beric was the only one Arya was scared to ask.

That was, until March, when she followed him down the E.  Most of the time, they didn’t follow the E.  There were too many trains, and they ran too frequently, too much of the day, the vein that brought the Queensies (as Arya thought of them) and East Siders to Penn Station and Downtown.

He didn’t go into the station near the end of the line, but he very nearly did.  He got so close that he could read the words on the station wall.  World Trade Center.

“You weren’t even alive when I died,” he said to her, his voice hollow.  It didn’t carry far and she hadn’t realized he was talking to her, hadn’t realized he’d known she was following him until he tilted his head so his mouth was facing her.  “Your world and mine are different.”

She didn’t say a word.

“I hear them at night.  All the people screaming and crying in the stairwells.”  He paused.  “They were stuck, but I flew.”

Arya backed away from him, slowly.

“Never spoken to a dead man, have you girl?” he called after her.

She broke into a run.

She stayed away from Beric after that.

*

Arya slept underneath a grate on 8th Avenue.  Not directly under—if it rained, or if some dog decided to take a piss, it would be miserable.  But she got a view of the sky and it reminded her of home.

She didn’t let herself think of home—not her mother (who was either celebrating the loss of her most troublesome child, or sick with worry to the point of insanity), not Robb, not Bran, or Rickon.  Not Jon.  Especially not Jon.  Sometimes, if she saw a girl in white socks passing by overhead, she thought of Sansa and it made her chest compress, to the point where she wondered if she made a huge mistake.

*

At first she stayed out of stubbornness, hoping that the irrational decision to stay would result in their running her off and sending her home with her bus ticket in hand.

When that didn’t happen, she stayed because she didn’t want to go back to Cersei and pristine antique furniture that she couldn’t touch because she’d break it or dirty it or something.

Then she started liking the compressed dark world of the tunnels, the way they crissed and crossed and she knew how when others didn’t, when the secrets had died with whoever had planned the subways in the first place.

She learned those tunnels as well as she learned the forest back around the house in Maine, learned them so well she could navigate them blind if she had to, and when she realized that, somehow, this underground world felt like home.

*

It was in February that she found her favorite subway stop.

It was very late, past midnight, she’d guess, and she was curious about seeing what the turnaround for the East Side Line looked like.  So, when the 6 pulled away from the platform at Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall, she followed it.  The tunnel it passed through was very dark, but Arya knew darkness and knew what it looked like when darkness was expanding into something bigger, and that happened as the train ahead of her rounded a loop and pulled back towards the light of the platform.  For the first time in a long time, she looked up unimpeded into the sky of New York City, through a glass ceiling that reminded her of pictures of a cathedral she’d seen in one of Robb’s architecture books. 

She stayed until dawn crept into the platform.  Trains slithered past her every few minutes, but she barely noticed them, watching the way that the dark station slowly grew lighter—not from lamps—but from sunlight, real honest-to-god sunlight, and she was able to see the way that dark bricks and light knitted together in a way that almost reminded her of being in the woods, complete with the shadows cast by the branches that were the iron frames holding the glass in place above her.

She didn’t tell the others about it.  She was sure they already knew and that they hadn’t told her and she didn’t care. 

She didn’t go back, either.  She knew it would never be as magical as the first time she’d sat there for hours, watching the sun rise.

*

She went with Thoros and Lem to the broken ground of the Second Avenue Subway and, for the first time in months, she felt adventurous.  The truth was, the tunnels got boring once you learned to recognize the sounds of approaching trains.  They snuck through the 7 connector, pushing through barriers that were padlocked a little too loosely for people who didn’t eat regularly.

“Wow!” breathed Arya when Thoros turned on the flashlight.  It was tremendous, a ceilingless cavern that seemed to go on forever, rough wet rubble piled high to the side, and smoother, more mudlike rubble up to her ankles.

Thoros grinned at her.  “Could tell you were getting bored.”

“Not anymore.”

They walked as far up as the tunnel let them, then back down again.  If ever Lem or Arya reached out to touch something, Thoros would swat them with his cane. 

“They’ll know,” he snapped.

“No they won’t,” said Lem at the same time Arya asked “How?”

Thoros glared at them.  “They just will, all right?”

But long after they had left, Arya knew she would be back, that the raw new tunnel would be her newest haunt.

She spent her nights down there, talking to herself—making up stories in her head where she fought off bandits, where she killed Joffrey, Cersei, Mr. Clegane the therapist at school.  She pretended that she was some feral Lady in some made up world where seasons could last years and winter was coming.  She pretended swordplay and friends called Hot Pie and Mycah and the Bull, and she felt alive again.  With the darkness so thick it seemed to smother her eyes, she was an assassin, a warrior, a demon and the whispered name “Arya Stark” brought tremors of fear to her enemies. 

She would sneak down into the tunnel the moment she heard the end of the work, ad the recession of laughter back to the surface of New York, and the loud crack of the worklights being shut off.  Then, it was her world until morning.

*

Sometimes, she would test her luck.  And as May wore into June, she began to sneak in during the working hours, fingers pressed firmly in her ears and watched the workmen in their orange reflective vests.  She liked watching them.  She felt like they were her peons, making her world a little more sweet, a little more perfect, every day. 

With her fingers pressed into her ears, she made up stories for them, just as she made up stories for herself.  She placed them in her little fantasy world though.  These were upsiders, they had real lives, and coming up with real problems and fears for them seemed almost offensive.  The man who was limping slightly—what if he actually had gotten that limp fighting in a war?  No—it was easier to place them in the ice, in swirling snow and wind that howled as loudly as the drills they used to chip apart the bedrock of the city.

That one, with the shortened fingers—he served the rightful king, and would die defending him.  The other one—the one with the eyepatch—he’d killed his brother, and was out get the power he saw was rightfully his.  The one with the streak of silver in his hair had tried to kill the princess.  And…

She couldn’t come up with stories for the tall one, the one with broad shoulders.  Maybe it was because he seemed not to wear his world on his face, like the others, who were cunning, or tired, or angry quite visibly.  He was impassive, focused on the tunnel, almost as much as Arya was.

Or, maybe it was because his coloring—pale skin, pale eyes, dark hair—reminded her of Jon and reminding of her of Jon was the one thing she really didn’t want.  Reminding her of Jon made her want to cry because she knew that if she stayed down here much longer, she’d forget what he’d look like and would forget that she wanted to go home and would start thinking this was her home.  Reminding her of Jon reminded her that she was Arya Stark, not Nan, and that Arya Stark shouldn’t be in New York at all, much less the subway tunnels.  Arya Stark should be in Maine with her brothers and mother, and Arya Stark wanted to go home, and whenever she remembered that she’d bite back tears and look away from the tall one do her best to forget that he didn’t have a story.

*

Exactly four times, she thought she saw him looking at her.  She couldn’t be sure.  He never said anything at all, and he would look away when she noticed him.  (That was what made her sure she’d been seen.)  He never ratted her out though.  No.  Sometimes, he dropped protein bars on the ground, and she’d grab them when the lights went out after the day’s work.

*

She never shared the protein bars with the others.  Never.  That was one of the rules.  You only share food if someone is dying.  She liked that rule.  It made sense to her.  They weren’t a family, after all.  None of these men was her father, who brought home cupcakes after work just because he passed a bakery.  And besides, she was somehow better at finding good food than they were.  She had no scruples about walking down a crowded subway platform in search of the Zabars bag and a box of cookies, or an apple from Fairway.  She was small enough and her coat was now too big for her in a way that made it easy to hide food down there.  And, of course, sometimes, she would pretend to be asleep on the platform (curled up enough so that people wouldn’t know she was a little girl) and some nice lady would leave her a bagel. 

It wasn’t honest, but it was better than stale chips out of trash cans, and healthier too, she didn’t doubt.

Cersei had been obsessed with eating healthily, and they’d only ever had “all natural” things in her house.  Arya had hated it.  She liked having the choice of where and how to scrounge, liked finding her own food.

But the protein bars somehow stripped away that feeling, and she remembered horribly what it was like to be provided for, what it was like to feel that someone was looking out for her.  She’d never had that at the Dakota, and she certainly didn’t get it from the other moles.  She’d last felt it when her father had brought home Magnolia three days before he’d died.

*

He was stronger than the rest of them.  She’d learned that because things seemed to get lifted more easily when he was involved.

He was also kind.  She’d learned that from the protein bars, but also from the way that he asked the fingerless one (the Hand of the Rightful King) about his children, and looked genuinely interested when the man pulled out his smartphone and began sliding through pictures of Devan’s piano recital.

“What did he play?” the tall one asked.

“Something by Bach.  Can’t quite remember.  But I could probably sing it in my sleep he’s been practicing it so much.”  The fingerless one seemed to swell with pride.

It was the end of a workday—Arya only ever saw the ends of workdays—and they were walking back along the tunnel, moving slowly, easing tired muscles from a hard day of labor.

“I always wished I’d played piano.  Always thought it would make me smarter than I am.”  He flashed big white teeth, his blue eyes on the fingerless one, and for a moment, Arya thought he’d forget to drop the protein bar.

“Yeah.  My older boys are jealous.  We only got the piano a few years ago.  Stan was getting a new one so he sold his old upright cheap.”

“Lucky Devan.”

“Lucky Devan,” agreed the fingerless one.

The tall one’s eyes fell on Arya again, and she thought she saw a flicker of pity. 

Then he dropped the bar casually behind him.

*

They never asked where she was when she came back from Second Avenue. 

At first, she didn’t care.  They never asked where she went, after all.  That was one of the things she liked about this place.

But then, it started to make her brows pull together.  She knew they weren’t her mother, but didn’t they care what happened to her?

*

One day, when she was lost in visions of swirling snow—like the nor’easter that had hit them two years ago, when Bran had almost gotten lost in the snow, but worse—a shadow crossed her face and he was crouching down in front of her, gripping her wrist.

“What are you doing down here?” his voice was not unkind—curious, mostly.

“Let me go!” she hissed at him.

“Can’t do that, I’m afraid.”

“Yes, you can.”  She squirmed but he was much stronger than she was.

“Hey, Gendry, you coming up?” called the fingerless man down the tunnel.

“In a sec.  I’ll shut it down.”

“Suit yourself.”

Gendry looked at her with very blue eyes and Arya felt young for the first time in months.  Thoros, Lem, Ang, the rest, they treated her like a small adult.  Gendry looked at her the way Jon did.

“I’m out of protein bars.  Let me buy you a burger.”

The thought of a hamburger—a real hamburger with real meat made her mouth water.

“Let me go,” she tried again, lamely, but he shook his head.

“I’m not going to do anything to you.  I promise.  Let’s get you food.”

She looked at him, her eyes wider than she’d intended.  The way he said it, as though it needed to be said, made her scared—more scared than living with a group of strangers who burned spoons in the subway tunnels.  But, at the same time, there was an honesty in his eyes that reminded her of her father.

He pulled her to her feet and led her to the service shaft.  He cracked off the lights and they rode the elevator up.  There was a McDonalds two blocks away.  It was so bright inside.  It hurt Arya’s eyes.

Gendry didn’t let go of her wrist until they were settled at a table, a mountain of food in front of them.

She grabbed a burger and wolfed it down, the almost sweet taste of fat and oil overwhelming her tongue.

"What’s your name?” Gendry asked.

“Arya.” She was too happy to even think of lying.

“That’s a nice name.”

“Better than Gendry.”  He smirked at her.

“How long’ve you been in the tunnels?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  This time, she did lie.  But now Gendry’s eyes reminded her of her mother, so she mumbled, “Since November.”

Gendry’s eyes seemed to expand in shock.  “Eight months,” he breathed.  “She nodded.  “Why’d you run away?”

Stupid traitor tears filled her eyes.  “I was supposed to be going home, but they took my bus money and wouldn’t give it back and I couldn’t go back to Cersei’s.”

“Why didn’t you call home?” he asked.

“Mom would be mad at me for running off.”

Gendry’s face was gentle and he placed his hand over hers.  “I’m pretty sure after eight months, she’d be happy just to hear your voice.”

Arya felt her lip tremble.  Gendry reached into his pocket and put his cell phone on the table.

“Do you know the phone number?” he asked quietly.

She took it and dialed.

It was answered on the third ring.  “Hello?”

“Jon?”

There was silence on the end of the line.  Then, “Arya?”

*

Gendry took the bus up with her to Augusta and Jon picked her up.  Jon was taller than he had been, but not as tall as Gendry.

That night, after everyone had gone to bed, she lay on the hill and stared up into the bright blackness of the mid-June stars.