Gendry looks at her and thinks, this is not the same girl he left behind all those years ago.
Then he realises, she is not a girl at all now; she is a woman, her hair longer and her features sharper. It is not just the physical differences, though - he marvels at the way she coldly stares up at the Hound, remembering how he had once held her back as she had screamed at him to burn in Hell. She doesn't flinch under the Hound's gaze - she matches it, even - and she holds herself with a confidence and surety that the girl Gendry had known never had. Perhaps it is the kind of certainty that comes with being home, Gendry wouldn't know, but he thinks perhaps it is more than that.
Suddenly her eyes and voice are on him, and his brain short-circuits as he tries to come up with a reply to her carefully controlled words.
"You look..." Beautiful, his mind supplies, but he ignores it. "Good," he finishes lamely.
"Thanks," she replies after a pause. "So do you." She keeps her voice neutral, but there's something in her gaze that tells him she knows what he wanted to say. He shifts uncomfortably for a second, then turns and heads deeper into the forge, knowing she will follow.
"Not a bad place to grow up if it wasn't so cold."
"Stay close to that forge, then," she replies, and he smiles, grabbing a sword and surveying it.
"Is that a command, Lady Stark?" he jokes, seeing her draw up beside him in her periphery.
"Don't call me that," she says calmly, a world away from this same conversation years ago.
"As you wish, m'lady," he says, turning to face her and grinning. She holds his gaze for a second before smiling and laughing, and suddenly it feels for a moment like they're that boy and girl again, running for their lives from Lannister soldiers.
But the moment passes, and neither of them are the people they once were. He is no longer a nameless bastard boy and, perhaps for the first time in her life, she now seems to truly fit the title of Lady Stark.
She hands him a piece of parchment with a design on it, and he can barely believe what he's seeing. He doesn't understand why she'd need something like this - not when she has her sword back and some fancy new dagger. It's Valyrian steel, must have cost someone more money than Gendry will ever see in his life.
"I always knew you were just another rich girl," he teases, causing her to roll her eyes. She takes her dagger back and handles it with practiced ease, slotting it back into her belt.
"You don't know any other rich girls," she says innocently, eyes wide, humour dancing in them. It's the most emotion she's shown since she first opened her mouth, and it confuses him. She's always confused him, really, but at least he understood the anger and desire for revenge she used to have. He suspects she still has them underneath that cool façade, but they're more controlled now. He wonders again what she went through to bring such a drastic change, then decides not to ask. It's not important.
She walks away from him and he watches her go, surprised when she turns and smirks at him one last time before leaving. He keeps watching the exit long after she's gone, unsuccessfully attempting to figure out the feelings seeing Arya - this new Arya - has brought up in him. He gives up eventually, telling himself that these don't matter either, not with the impending doom that's facing them, but he can't bring himself to ignore them. She's on his mind for the rest of the day, and he can't help but long for her, even though he knows it's impossible, for more than one reason.
But then, everything Gendry had thought impossible is now not so, and he secretly thinks, perhaps this might not be too.
Warning for non-explicit descriptions of sexual activity. It's more just the build-up to sex, but I thought I should add a warning anyway.
She returns to his forge a few days later, walking around and making demands like she owns the place. Which, Gendry supposes, she does, at least in part. Even so, the forge does feel like it is his - the men working there do so under his direction; it is his castle to rule over, as he might have done had he not just been the dead king's bastard. Besides, he's never treated her as a lady, nor has she treated him as beneath her, so he doesn't fear denying her the way some around here do. He slams the axe into the log, and the highborn disinterest is wiped off her face, replaced by something Gendry can't quite read.
"It's going to be safer down in the crypt, you know," he says, knowing she's not going to care even as he speaks. He does, though, which is mostly why he's put off making her weapon. He knows she must know something about fighting - a lady isn't allowed to carry Valyrian steel daggers for nothing - but she doesn't understand what they'll be facing. He does.
She's asking him questions, questions he doesn't want to answer. He barely even knows how to describe them - he settles on 'really bad', but she just lifts an eyebrow, and suddenly she's Lady Stark again.
"This is Death," he tells her. "You want to know what they're like? Death, that's what they're like."
A silence falls between them and she drops her gaze. Gendry wonders - hopes - that maybe he's rattled her enough for her to give in, but, of course, he's wrong. She grabs a dragonglass dagger and tests its weight, finally looking up and meeting his gaze.
"I know Death," she says, almost casually throwing the dagger. It slams into a pillar across the forge, startling the man working next to it. Gendry stares, hearing her picking up another dagger.
"He's got many faces." The second dagger hits the pillar right next to the first. Gendry turns and looks at Arya, and it feels as though he's seeing her for the first time. He knows many men who wouldn't have been able to make either of those throws, all good fighters, and he wonders anew how she became this good.
She picks up a third dagger. "I look forward to seeing this one." She throws and Gendry watches the weapon's flight, again shocked when it meets its mark. He breathes out a laugh, then turns to face her as she walks past him.
"My weapon?" she prompts expectantly. He nods, looking back at those daggers.
"I'll get right on it," he promises, and he means it this time. He watches her leave, then pulls her drawing out, considering it again. This is going to be the best damn weapon he's made.
He finishes the weapon the night of the battle, and, this time, he goes to her. He watches from the shadows as she fires arrow after arrow, never once missing. When he eventually moves forward, she just looks at him with no hint of surprise on her face - Gendry wonders if maybe she knew he was there the whole time.
"That for me?" she asks, putting down the bow and taking the staff from him. She twirls it expertly, running her hands up and down its length. "This'll work," she says, and Gendry feels an inexplicable rush of pride. It's hardly the most complicated thing he's ever made, but, well. It's Arya.
He searches for something to say, because this could be their last night, and he doesn't want them to part this way. "Last time you saw me, you wanted me to come to Winterfell." He shrugs as she continues pacing. "Took the long road, but."
Arya finally looks at him then, as though hearing all the 'buts' he hadn't said. But I'm here now. But the past doesn't matter. But I'm sorry I took so long.
Or perhaps she doesn't, as she starts questioning him again, this time about the Red Woman, and he really doesn't want to answer these questions. But he does, and her face drops when he tells her who he really is, just like it did in the forge. He rather enjoys causing that expression, Gendry finds.
She recovers quick enough, though, and then there's more questions, about girls and how many he's been with, and he tries to bluff his way through it but she sees right through him. She's always been able to do that, he recalls. It's one of the things he's always admired about her.
Suddenly she's walking closer to him and Gendry's mouth goes dry under the intensity of her gaze.
"We're probably going to die soon," she says, sounding incredibly calm about that fact. "I want to know what it's like before that happens."
He blinks down at her, understanding dawning upon him. "Arya, I-"
She cuts him off, leaning up and pulling him down to meet her. He could resist if he wanted - and perhaps he should - but gods he doesn't. He follows her lead as she kisses him with increasing passion and intensity, his hands grabbing at her waist as she forces him closer to her.
She soon breaks away from him to start desperately undoing the ties on his clothing. He does the same, harshly tugging her belt off and throwing it aside. They don't stop until his shirt is tugged over his head and she's down to her undershirt and breeches. She puts her hands on his chest and shoves, hard enough to send him down onto the bags of supplies that are lying on the ground.
He watches as she pulls her shirt off, the movement exposing scars running across her stomach and side. His breath catches, and he can't stop himself from staring, from wondering how she came to get these scars.
"I'm not the Red Woman," she interrupts, halting her movements. "Take your own bloody pants off."
The words sound like a command, but Gendry recognises them for what they are - she's giving him a choice, a chance to say no. He could tell her they can't, that it's not right, a King's bastard though he may be.
When she moves on top of him, it feels again like he's seeing her anew. Only, this time, he knows he's seeing her, the real her, scars and all. Then she kisses him again, and Gendry loses himself in her.
Later, when the horns of battle finally sound, they dress quickly, barely able to look at each other. They eventually lock eyes, and Gendry considers kissing her one last time. But that would feel too much like goodbye, and he doesn't want to think about losing her when he's only just truly found her. He nods once, a silent understanding passing between them. Then they head out of the room to their positions for the battle to come.
Gendry spares a final look back before he leaves and dread settles in his heart. He hopes, prays to whatever gods might be out there, that this is not the last time he sees her.
(Deep down, he knows the gods aren't listening.)