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This is how it begins:

She flowers when she is fourteen. He knows this because his tiny sister, the one a girl calls the waif, tells him. She bled in the night, she says, wide dark eyes blinking up at him meaningfully. Your girl has become a woman, brother.

It is incongruous to him; a girl who tries very hard not to be Arya Stark has always been small so long as he has known her, and though her wants and wishes, her goals in life, have never quite matched her stature or the norm of her sex she has still always seemed so strangely innocent and childlike in certain ways. A girl playing at a mouse, a ghost, a wolf, no one. Impatient. Impetuous. Desperate to please and denying it all the while. A mind and body made for steel, not silk. Still, biology does not lie, and when a man steals into her room while she is training with her own brothers and sees the truth of her maturity upon the sheets, he knows that a change must come to her. After all, steel wrapped in silk is still steel, and a cloth-bound blade can still cut.

When next they train together, she is noticeably taxed by the exertion, more distracted than normal; she bends slowly, twists gingerly, winces harder when their staves meet to clatter. He disarms her, she collects her weapon once more with a huff, and he uses his staff to correct her posture. “Higher,” he says, pressing the wood longways into the small of her back until her spine straightens and her shoulders rise. “Looser,” he says, tapping at her elbows until she relaxes them and they are not so rigid. “Looser still,” he says, prodding her hand until her white-knuckled grip on her own staff becomes gentler, more a caress than a clutch. “Eyes closed,” he says, and her grey eyes shut obediently. She has been given back her sight, but sometimes she falls into old habits and relies upon them too much to truly see. “Again,” he says, and again they dance.

Too quickly he once more disarms her. Even taking into account her feminine pains, she is too sloppy. She's not paying attention. “Enough,” he says, and raises an eyebrow when she lifts her head to argue. After a moment she complies. “Your thoughts are not in this room,” he tells her simply, and takes both their staves to return to the armory. “Go and work in the kitchens. A girl returns to this room tomorrow, and she will bring her thoughts with her.”

She goes and works in the kitchens. She serves the table at meal and listens to all of the Masters speak, but she will not meet his eyes. They return to the room the next day. He disarms her far too soon again. Her face screws up in annoyance, her shoulders tight and drawn, prepared to rally against a rebuke that doesn’t come when he circles her thoughtfully, asks instead, “Who are you?”

She blinks, not expecting the question. “No one,” she says, too late and too quickly, too defensive. He strikes his staff against her knuckles. He cannot be kind when kindness does not benefit her.

“You lie. What are you thinking?”

“Nothing.” Another strike, at her thigh.

“You lie. What has upset you?”

“Nothing.” Another strike, at her hip.

“You lie.” She lets out a soft hiss of pain and he pauses in his circuit around her, viewing her in profile.

She is small, yes, but her breasts are budding, her face losing the softness of youth. He has only ever known her to be gaunt, far too much time spent being underfed when her body needed sustenance to grow, but since coming to Braavos and the bounty of the House she’d gained back some of the puppy fat that a child her age would have, were they not her. Puppy fat on a child settles more leanly on a woman. He is not sure he will ever be able to imagine her as anything more than a girl, but he can see how time has worked itself upon her body.

He raises his staff again and sees her tense in preparation for another strike, and then he sees the startled look of question when instead he tucks the point of it to the underside of a breast and raises it lightly. It is more acknowledgement of her sex than he has ever given her beyond calling her a lovely girl, more than she has received from anyone by way of touch. The physicality of it is a different sort of understanding of her femininity than growing up being told she was female and knowing it, logically, to be so. He wonders how much thought she herself has given to her changing body.

“Jaqen?” she asks, a fearful sort of betrayal in her voice; she yelps, unprepared, when he drops his staff to strike at her shin.

“Jaqen is dead,” he reminds her. “Arya Stark knew Jaqen, and he is dead and she is gone. Who am I?”

“No one,” she says, both sullen and confused; a familiar exchange, with an unfamiliar start.

“Just so. And who are you?”

“No one.” Instead of a strike, he lifts his staff, trailing it from her shin; up, to her knee; up, to her thigh; up, to the womanly center of her, and rests it between her legs. Her expression is worried, her eyes wide, her mouth parted nervously. He cocks his head at her. If her response had been pleasure he could have left it there, but now he knows the base of this act to truly be fear. “What are you doing?”

He hums. “A girl must lose her virginity,” he decides, and nods to himself. Her eyes widen further and she takes a step back.

“W-what?”

He takes her staff from her hands; her grip is weak and pliant. He throws both his and hers down to the floor. He must teach her now, and this is not the lying game. He sits upon the ground and gestures for her to join him, and after a moment, cautious and confused, she does.

“How do we serve Him of Many Faces?” he asks. She says nothing, just waits, and he shakes his head at her. It is not rhetorical.

“We give the gift,” she answers finally. “Valar morghulis.”

Valar morghulis,” he agrees. “How do we give the gift?”

She settles slowly, more comfortable now that she is being taught, now that he is not threatening her body or touching it in new and uncomfortable ways. “With daggers and swords,” she says. “With poison. With rope and chain, and bow and arrow. With shadows.”

“With our wit,” he continues. “Our minds, our words. We give the gift in security, in secret, in succor. We are no one, unseen. To give the gift, we must use all parts of us for Him of Many Faces. All parts. A girl’s body must be a weapon, and she must know all it's secret places, all the edges of it, sharp and blunt alike.”

Her faces colors in indignation. “A girl’s body is a weapon,” she argues, leaning towards him angrily. He leans in as well, reaches out towards her before she can follow the movement, and grips her chin in a hand. Her eyes widen, her muscles freeze, as he pushes his thumb between her lips and presses it against her tongue, the soft surface of her palate. She stares at him, unmoving, a flush rising on her cheeks, and holds her breath as with his other hand he pushes the point of a dagger drawn from the lining of his sleeve into her stomach.

He nods. “A girl’s body is a weapon. But you must learn to weild it, before it is turned against you.”

In Westeros, he knows, at her age she would be auctioned off, were she any other highborn girl freshly flowered. She would be found a lord husband with the most advantageous match and her maidenhead would be bought and paid for and she would breed whelps until her woman’s parts withered and dried as all flowers eventually must. In Westeros, she would have been raised under the belief that nothing made her more valuable, nothing of her had more worth, than her virtue; a virtue that would be taken from her by the man with the most gold and titles that she could be traded for, and that only if she were lucky. It could be taken by force as well, torn violently from her girlish grip. So long as she holds that belief, so long as she fears the loss of that incorporeal virtue, it can be used against her, and her girl’s body that was a weapon becomes a woman’s body that is a weakness. He removes his hand from her face, pulls his thumb from her mouth. It’s wet with her saliva and the air is cool against it.

“Lose your virginity,” he says again. “It is a concept only. Lose your maidenhead. It is just flesh. The loss takes nothing from you that you do not allow it to take. Do it on your own terms, but soon. Someday you will be told to give the gift to someone who may require pleasure before they can be made to accept it. We serve Him of Many Faces with all parts of us, and if a girl truly wishes to become a master within our Order she must use all parts of herself to do it, even those parts she considers most private. Valar dohaeris.”

“All men must serve,” she intones. Her eyes are dull and downcast, a flush still on her cheeks. He has told her something she does not wish to hear, but he has not let himself fall in a habit of being kind if it will not benefit her.

“Faceless men most of all.”

“Have you, ah-- Have you had to sleep with someone before?” she asks, biting her lip. He watches her fumble with the words, amused; she can speak about it, at least. Though she cannot meet his eye when she does. “To give the gift, I mean?”

He nods. “Yes. It happens, occasionally. There are those of us in the Order who are more comfortable with the obligation and those of us who are less so, just as there are those of us with more proficiency with swords than with throwing knives, but our flesh is His to use to deliver His will as He sees fit.”

Her voice is small, and she curls in on herself where she sits. She is flowered and grown but here, here he sees only that angry lovely girl in Harrenhal, skinny and dirty and fearful and vicious in her fear. He gave her bravery, where he could. “Must I really do this?”

He will not be kind if it does not benefit her. “You must,” he says, gentle but firm. “So long as you fear the possibility, it rules over you. A maidenhead is nothing but a scrap of flesh, and a girl has done bloodier work.”

“Fear cuts deeper than swords,” she whispers to herself quietly. He leans back, to give her the illusion of space. “All men are made of water.”

“Just so,” he agrees.

“Could you do it?” she asks suddenly, head raising up to look at him. He blinks at her. Unexpected. “I trust you. It wouldn’t be so bad, I think, if it were you.”

He considers it. He could. She is pleasing to see, when she is fighting, when she is angry, when she is proud or self-assured; when she is a wolf. He could touch her flesh, and find his pleasure in it, and he could help her find her own pleasure too. It could be easy, and simple: a transaction, a lesson between Master and Apprentice. It is not unheard of, though not necessarily encouraged within the Order, and often only when the novice is older than she, or has been in service longer. But then, rare indeed is a female novice. It would allow them both some measure of control over the act, him assured of the safety of his charge and her giving something she has assigned value to to someone she values, and who would recognize that value.

He could put his mouth upon her lips, her breasts, her vagina; he could show her how blood fills certain areas of the body, how feeling congregates to specific nerves; he could enter her, please her gently and then, when the pain has passed if she is one of those women whose body finds pain in the initial act, he could teach her how rougher and harder and faster can be pleasurable too. He could taste her lips and drink of her femininity, could place her hands and mouth on his own form so that she knows where men like to be touched. He could explain how sighs and moans and the delicate arch of a spine can be as deadly as a knife, as addicting as a drug, can lull a man as easily as a drop of sweetsleep.

He could do this thing that she asks, perform this kindness she seeks. He is capable. He would even enjoy it, both for the pleasure of flesh against flesh and the softer, gentler pleasure of making her happy, keeping her safe for so long as he is able. He cares for her, such that he can, a damning thing.

But, this is what she does not know: she does not know that other Masters wear the face he favors to train her, and they see the familiarity between them. She does not know that the Order watches her closely, as aware of her inability to give up Arya Stark as he is though he has not spoken of it to his brothers. She does not know that others hear her call him Jaqen, hear her assign unto him a name, an identity, a being. She does not know the worry of his siblings; not for her, no, she has promise but is a novice only and would not be difficult to remove, not an asset too important to lose. His siblings worry for him, a man the Order has put much more time and resource into. She does not know that, since becoming No One, she is the only thing of import he has ever chosen for himself, and choice is the first and most slippery step to becoming someone.

She knows that he will not be kind if it does not benefit her; she does not know that his definition of what benefits her differs from that of his superiors and siblings, and is far more in her favor that it by rights should be. He could give her this, what she wants-- he could want it as well if he let himself, and that want is the most damning of all.

"No," he says finally, and pretends not to see the way she slumps in disappointment, as if a weight upon her shoulders she'd assumed would be lifted has settled even heavier. "We are too familiar already. It breeds contempt, and both these things are of no use to No One." He leans forward and sets a hand on her arm, and she looks up at him with sad grey eyes. Her bottom lip is between her teeth and he reaches out once more and sets his thumb against it, pulling it free. "When your moonblood has passed I will find you a courtesan, a learned man with gentle hands." Her face screws up disdainfully and he smiles, charmed as ever by her petulance. "A mark, then? Perhaps it will be easier, to give this gift of yourself to someone to whom you will give the gift after."

This seems to be more to her preference. Her eyes unfocus, aimed somewhere over his shoulder as she contemplates it. Then she nods determinedly. " Gentle hands. Bah. What use have I of gentle hands? Give me a dead man’s name. I will give him the gift of death afterwards and it will be done. Behind me.”

"It will be done," he agrees. He feels… unduly displeased by this, despite knowing its necessity. Truly, she will no longer be his lovely girl after. That was always the goal, he supposes, to create and build a creature of death, to nurture the potential within her, to teach her what kind of woman she can become. Still. It is a loss to them both and he mislikes it, though one he knows she will feel much more keenly than he himself will.

"I wish I were not a girl," she says, looking down to where his hand still rests on her arm, skin against skin. "It makes everything so unnecessarily difficult."

"But you are not a girl," he tells her gently, "and I am not a man. Who are we?"

"No One," she says softly, dutifully. He does not strike her for the lie.

Three days later they are training and she moves faster, quicker, more fluidly; when they are finished he inclines his head towards her midsection and she nods in unspoken answer to his unspoken question. Her moonblood has passed, and it is time.

"He is named Alesso Notyne," he tells her. "He keeps the books for one of the brothels near the Moon Pool. His master has found him skimming more than his fair portion of earnings. He is not unkind to women."

"Only stupid to work," she says, and then sighs. "How am I to give the gift?"

A flash of humor, rare between them these days as her training becomes more intense: "Typically a girl spreads her legs, but a man believes you can be as imaginative as you like." She gasps in offense and swings a fist at him that he blocks and swats away easily. He bows his head in apology for the jape. "The method is at your discretion. A man suggests poison, but only delivery of death was requested, not a specific package for the delivery."

She nods, the sour expression leftover from his joke slipping away from her like sand between opened fingers, replaced by trepidation. There is far too much Arya Stark in her voice when she asks quietly, and with an air of defeat as if she already knows the answer, "Are you sure it can't be you?"

"It could," he says, and then with gentle finality, "but it shouldn't. Go. Valar morghulis."

"Valar dohaeris," she returns, eyes low.

He stops her, an indulgence, sinful and sweet. "Lovely girl." She turns to look at him, curious. Hopeful. A man named Jaqen called Arya Stark such, once. "There is a place within you where you are safe and warm and you cannot be touched by the world beyond. Go to that place inside, when you must." She nods slowly.

He watches her leave, and sighs to himself once she is gone.

She comes back the next morning, flushed and gaze averted and looking much the same as she had the day before, but he knows the loss of a maidenhead does not magically change the countenance. It is said that upon losing maidenhood, a woman becomes a hungry creature, craving only more manflesh, especially if her maidenhood is lost out of wedlock. This girl looks more embarrassed mouse than lusty lady. He gives her moontea with a solemn nod, and she drinks it without a moment of hesitation. They continue training; languages, a concession to potential womanly pain that may carry over with her from the exertions of the night before. It is only partially favoritism on his part. Her Valyrian needs work.

"There was no blood," she ventures after some time. "In Westeros, a lord's family would be presented with the bloodied sheets of the marriage bed. As proof." There is a question in her statement, one that she does not know how to phrase.

"We require no such thing in this House. We judge not blood." He hums thoughtfully. "Arya Stark had rode horses since she was a small girl, had she not?"

"She did." She sounds wistful. A girl thinking of her own past, not No One contemplating the history of another. It isn't a lie , not truly, but quick as a snake he raps her knuckles with the hilt of the dagger he hides within his sleeves. When she glares at him he meets her gaze and holds it, his expression sharp. He will not be kind when it does not benefit her. After a moment her eyes lower, supplicant.

When she has quieted once more, a girl who is a wolf whose throat is bared, he speaks again. "Perhaps when Arya Stark was a child she bled her maidenhead upon a saddle and did not realize."

"Then that whole exercise was for naught?" she growls, barely restraining a seethe, a snarling beast once more. Her fists clench in her lap and she chews on her lip, eyebrows pulled down.

“It was necessary,” he reminds her simply.

She turns her face from him, teeth bared, and when he sighs quietly in disappointment at her she snaps, “Fuck you.”

It is damning. Were it any of his brothers wearing his face to receive this treatment, this blatant disregard, even he could not protect her from the ire of the Order. There is too much to her in this moment, too much within her filled with Arya Stark, and she is lucky that it is only he with a fondness for her who witnesses it. He can forgive her outbursts to an extent, knowing the difficulty of the task he’d given her, but after that extent no more. Kindness only when it benefits her; and cruelty, when that benefits her too.

"Rule your face," he commands, but when he draws his dagger again to reprimand her she catches it, rips it from him. The blade slices open his palm and blood drips to the floor between them. They both freeze and stare at her hand, gripping the hilt, damning.

He will remember this moment, later. He will look back on it through the lense of hindsight and with the terrible knowledge of what comes to pass from it. He will mourn it. This is the moment where he first understands, truly, that Arya Stark can never become No One. She will never be able to put aside the proud wolf, and the proud wolf's hunger for blood. She can be nothing but what she is, and she is a Stark.

But that is later, and this is now-- she releases the dagger, slowly, as if unsure of how to correct her grievous violation. It drops the short distance to the ground, lands in the smattering of blood. It has been some time since she has had to be beaten into submission, and neither of them have wished to return to such contention. Cruelty, when it benefits her.

He flexes his hand, contemplates the wound. It does not even hurt truly, nearly surgical; he is in the habit of keeping his blades sharp. It will pain him more when it begins to scab. After a moment he holds it out for her to see. "Here is your blood," he tells her, toneless.

She drops her head, hands placed on her knees, back bent and shoulders slumped. Prostrate. "Forgive me. Please. I was angry."

"When will you learn," he sighs, "that nothing you are told is for naught? When will you learn to trust your Master? That he wants for you to succeed and the things he tells you to do are to push you towards that success? A man had thought that you would trust him enough to listen, if you had trusted his coin to take you across the sea. Perhaps you should have stayed in Westeros with Arya Stark. Perhaps you should go back to her now, if she waits so shallowly below your surface. My coin got you here, it can take you back. Tell this man if you wish this thing, and I will book you a ship tomorrow."

She flinches. "Please." She reaches for his hand, takes it in her own, turns until his bloody palm faces her and then kisses it, just above the cut. "Forgive me. Please."

It hurts. His breath catches. He thinks to the days before, where she had asked if he could perform the task of taking her maidenhead. He had denied her. He had believed it to be the right thing to do, the best thing for her. He still believes that now. Comfort cannot come above progress. But… If she had said to him then this thing she says now, please, with his blood upon her lips, he does not know that he could have maintained that denial. Damning. Damning, damning.

"We are done with languages," he murmurs; they have not been speaking Valyrian since they began discussing her maiden's blood. "A girl goes to serve in the kitchen. Tomorrow she washes the bodies and reorganizes the armory. The next day she will dust the front chambers and sweep the halls."

"She will," she promises. Her lips move against his skin. His palm is still held to her mouth. "Valar dohaeris. She serves. She trusts her Master. She is No One."

"You lie," he says. "Go. Valar morghulis."

"Valar dohaeris," she whispers again, and rises. His hand falls away from her own. She bows deeply, eyes still downcast, and leaves.

When she is gone he takes himself in his hand, the one that is not injured, as he has not in many moons. He imagines it.

Her beneath him, against him, around him; warm, wet, maiden-tight. Squeezing. Gasping. Her eyes shut in pained ecstasy. Her breasts, small, straining upwards with each heaving breath as he moved within her. He would kiss her there, between them, and again on her pink nipples, and on the pale undersides. He would put his thumb back between her lips to touch her tongue again; he would put his thumb between her lower lips and touch her there until her womanhood grew as wet as her mouth. He would take her fingers in his own and press them against the soft core of her, watch her touch herself with his instruction, and when she had soaked their fingers he would press them against the hard mast of him and instruct her in that as well. He wonders if she would listen to him as intently in this as she does when they train with weapons. He wonders if the dead man made her peak when she gave him her girlish gift. He wonders how fast he himself could make her fall apart, and how many times before she begged for rest. He wonders if she would let him put his mouth on her afterwards, if he would taste her maiden's blood upon her skin the way she had tasted his upon his own. He wonders how far inside of her he would reach, how deep she would draw him into her, how full of himself and his seed he could make her. She is small. He is not. He wonders if he would be able to see the shape of himself within her. He comes. His spend cools quickly, shameful, on his hand.

Damning.

Yes, he will think on this moment later and mourn.

 


 

(This is what he does not know:

Alesso Notyne kisses with skill but invokes little passion, and her mind wanders boredly as his hands trail down her body. He was easy, too easy; but she supposes he works in a brothel and he is likely used to having to pay for female attention, and the prospect of having a young and nubile woman in his bed for free was too good to pass up. She only had to tilt her head and smile, to lift her skirts high enough to flash a pale thigh at him the way she has seen the whores do, to get his attention.

The vial of sweetsleep presses against her stomach from where it rests within the hidden pocket sewn sloppily into the side of her gown, a quick alteration she’d made to the silk monstrosity she’d pilfered from the House’s storeroom of clothing donated by the dead. She wonders, briefly, what befell the courtesan who had worn this gown to find the comfort of death in the poisoned pools of her temple. It matters not. The dead are dead still even if she wears their clothes and their faces and their names. She will do this deed that her hateful Master has charged her with, lose herself of this responsibility of gender that she did not ask for, and afterwards when Alesso has sated himself of her flesh she will sate another thirst with a goblet of wine. And the dead man will have a very sweet sleep indeed.

Alesso kisses down her neck, sucking and biting at her skin. She wonders if she is supposed to find such an act pleasurable, the way the whores in Wintertown seemed to whenever Theon visited them. Then again, she’d heard of their pleasure in his touch from the man himself, hiding in corners and closets when he would tell Robb about such things, and maybe his opinion on their want of his touch is skewed. Perhaps no woman finds pleasure in this game. Perhaps her lady mother merely tolerated the touch of her lord father on her skin for the love Catelyn had borne the man in her heart. Or, perhaps, she is alone in her boredom, the lack of ardor in her breast; perhaps she is broken. Sansa had always said she was ugly, perhaps she is so ugly that her body simply cannot comprehend the supposed beauty in the union of flesh.

Alesso bites the top of her breast through the silk, hard enough that her skin will bruise. She winces. Gods, this is tedious. She tries to imagine another in his place, thinking that maybe if there were a visage more pleasing in front of her then that fire she feels at the center of her thighs that ignites some nights when she is in her cell alone will spark here. She has a task, and she doesn’t want to disappoint Jaqen, and she even understands the need for it though she mislikes it. She is bored but better a boring bedding than a forced one. She’d rather this than a rape. And it is comforting, more comforting than she’d expected, to know that he will be dead by the night’s end-- comforting too to know that in doing this she will have ruined herself for marriage, and will not have to face the prospect of laying with a man she doesn’t care for nightly, or until she quickens. But gods she also doesn’t want to just stare at a ceiling while some dead fool ruts between her legs. Better if she can find some pleasure, too.

She draws up a mental picture of Jaqen, his wicked smile when he was still open enough with her to smile so, the long slope of his body in the baths at Harrenhal, the intensity of his gaze when he imparts wisdom to her. But the scent is wrong, and the shape too; Alesso smells of wine and incense and is too short and compact to stand in for her Master. And it is strange, too, to try to think of Jaqen like this. Maybe once, when he was not her Master; maybe when she was a ghost and he her bravery that walked beside her. But now it feels… just strange. She trusts Jaqen, thinks that this night would end more happily for her if he had just agreed to take her maidenhead and be done with it, but she thinks it would have been less about passion and more impartial than the songs her sister used to love, the stories her mother would tell her of the way a man should make her feel. A lesson only perhaps, but one she would be satisfied to learn. She banishes Jaqen from her mind and tries to think of another.

The dead man is far too short for her to pretend he is Gendry, who even just past the cusp of boyhood had been tremendous. And besides, thinking of some stupid smith boy will only get her heated in anger, not lust.

And… that’s it, really. She supposes there is no other man she could contemplate desiring. Damn.

Staring at the ceiling it is, then.

Alesso pinches her thigh through the silk of her gown and she hears, as if from a distance, her Master’s voice within her head. There is a place within you where you are safe and warm and you cannot be touched by the world beyond. If she cannot find pleasure in this act, then perhaps that place will bring her some instead. She closes her eyes and searches.

That place is Winterfell, and a forge at Acorn Hall, and on the road beside the Hound as she rides a craven horse she stole with a sword that had been stolen from her now reclaimed, and the room she trains in with her Master that smells of ginger and cloves. That place has Father and Mother, and Jon, Robb and Sansa and Bran and Rickon; that place has her family. It has Jaqen, and the Hound, and a blue-eyed smith’s apprentice who she almost hates more than she loves but who is still hers. It has Syrio, and Nymeria, Nymeria, Nymeria-- that place has safety and warmth and love, oh love.

And better than love, for that place too has death, that place has Cersei's head displayed above the mantle, it has the Mountain’s blood dripping into the floorboards, it has Meryn Trant hung from the rafters. It has a carpet of red Lannister cloaks and a feast of Frey food for guest’s rights, a Bolton’s flayed skin tacked onto the wall and a dried Greyjoy kraken suspended from the ceiling and holding torches as a chandelier. That place has all she loves and all she hates and it has her, victorious, a vicious wolf pacing, watching over it all, protecting her pack.

Alesso Notyne slips his hand between her thighs and touches her most intimate place. The cupping hand, the questing fingers, pressing between the lips of her womanly cleft, startles her abruptly, drags her without warning from that place inside her; instinctively, Arya Stark takes the paring knife from the platter of fruit abandoned on the bedside table and sinks it into Alesso’s left eye. He jerks twice in a spray of blood and a guttural moan that she mutes as much as she can by pulling him to her body, smothering his face against the fabric of her gown. He quiets quickly, though the spasms continue, as does the blood.

“Fuck,” Arya whispers, holding the dead man to her breast. His limp body pushes the hidden sweetsleep against her like an accusation. “Fuck.”

She takes off her gown and the blood-soaked bed sheets, washes herself with the basin of cold water provided for the feminine cleaning necessary after sex. She stares at the soiled silk and linen, sopping with blood. My maidenblood, she thinks, and nearly laughs.

She wraps the corpse in the fabric, bundles and ties it at either end. The room is an exterior one, and overlooks the canal; she has no rocks available so she weighs the bundle down with a few heavy books tucked beneath the dead man’s feet. She waits until the night has passed into very early morning, when even the whores of the building have quit their business, and throws the wrapped remains of the dead man out the window and into the canal. Should Jaqen ever see the body, he would know instantly that it isn’t the careful work of No One, but the feral snarling rebuke of Arya Stark. Her Master knows her too well and is too clever by half. She can only hope that the eels of the canal dispose of the body for her before the books dissolve and it floats to the surface with bloat.

There are spare clothes in the drawers within the room, simple and inelegant things made for the comfort of sleep. She shrugs into them and climbs out the window herself, scaling the side of the building carefully until she can reach a bridge over the canal with her toes. On swift and silent feet Arya Stark, still a maid, returns to the House of Black and White. When she returns to her cell she collapses in exhaustion, and dreams of running on wolf’s paws, her breath hot behind her teeth and tasting of blood.

Her Master, too clever perhaps but still just a man, does not question her assumed lack of maidenhood. Sometimes she thinks that he cares for her too much, to accept her word in this matter without dispute; sometimes she thinks that he cares for her not at all. It could have been you, she thinks to him when he corrects her pronunciation of poisons in Valyrian. Maybe I’d have felt something, if it were you. Maybe I'd have wanted it, maybe I'd have not failed the task, if it had been you. But it wasn’t him.

Perhaps, considering everything that happens after, that is for the best.

(Later, much later, when Braavos is far to the East and she has left her Master behind, her skin is heated by the fire of a forge and the fire of a smith’s skin, and Gendry sighs her name reverently into her neck, Arya Arya Arya. She still hates him almost as much as she loves him, but only almost, and they will both die tomorrow, and she sort of wants to see what all the fuss is about.

It’s alright. A pleasant distraction. There are certainly worse ways to spend her last night alive. It is not so terrible as a Faceless Master had led her to believe, once; there is no change in her dark heart, no spectacular shift in how she views the world around her. She feels no more or less woman than she did hours before. She could see herself doing it again. She doesn’t, though, at least not with him. They don't die somehow. Somehow. But he’s a Lord now, and he loves her though she understands not how, and he would have her be his Lady.

And that’s not her.

She’s not really sure what she is at this point. A hero. A slayer. A princess. A wolf, a ghost, a mouse. No one. No, she isn't sure, and she doesn’t know if she’ll live long enough to figure it out. But she knows it’s probably not that.))

 


 

This is what happens after she leaves, when she is not there to see:

The Masters within the Order take the Master of the renegade Apprentice aside.

“She took faces from the Hall, brother,” one tells him. Damning.

“She killed our sister,” a second reminds him. Damning.

“You allowed her to leave,” a third accuses him. Damning.

“She knows the rites to use them, as all Apprentices do, and so they are hers to employ as Him of Many Faces wills. Valar dohaeris. If He is offended then He can easily prevent their use,” he says to the first. Damning. “It was a test for the both of them. Valar morghulis. I cannot be blamed that our sister failed, nor should I be faulted for the Apprentice I'd trained for success succeeding,” he says to the second. Damning. “She was not going to be No One, but Arya Stark has a destiny. I did my best to prepare her for it. I did not allow myself to be kind if it was not to her benefit,” he says to the third. Damning.

“She stole names and faces from the Many Faced God,” the first presses. Damning.

“It was a test for all three of you, and all three of you failed,” the second sighs. Damning.

“You have profaned us, and yourself,” the third murmurs. Damning.

He is sequestered within the House for many moons while the Order determines how best to deal with him, how best to deal with the creature he has created who wears the identity of Arya Stark. He does the serving work of novices; dusting and sweeping, cleaning the bodies. It could be galling, but he does not let himself have too much pride. His soul is sick for lack of purpose, though, for giving the gift is all he has known. He questions his own decisions, from giving a lovely girl three names and then a coin, to seeing his sister’s face bloody upon the wall and letting a wolf stalk free after she’d pressed a needle to his chest. He has had nothing in his life but death, and for a brief moment a dark haired, dark souled girl who revelled in that death.

He hears news from across the Narrow Sea in the form of rumors and stories, from the mouths of acolytes telling his estranged brothers three new things. The Dragon Queen burnt King's Landing with her children, killing everyone. The Mad Queen burnt King's Landing with her wildfire, leaving nothing. An army of wolves descended on the South. The army of the dead slaughtered the entire Western continent and even now begin to cross the frozen sea. The King in the North whose name is Stark sacrificed himself to kill the Night King. A girl called the Wolf of Dawn killed the Night King. The dragons had died in the fighting and the Dragon Queen killed herself in mourning. The Dragon Queen and the King in the North are wed and rule together in harmony. Queen Cersei and the King of the Sea are wed and rule together in harmony. The Dragon Queen went mad and the King in the North who loved her slayed her to protect the realm. The North fell to the dead, but Good Queen Cersei defended the South.

He does not ask the other Masters for the truth, because he knows he will not receive it. He waits, and serves, and prepares himself for judgement.

Much time has passed before his brother, one of the older Masters in the Order, comes to him and sits him down. With a kindly face his brother says, "We have made a decision. You were right, Arya Stark did have a destiny. She has fulfilled it. She slew the Night King, and is named Nightsbane and the Wolf of Dawn."

There is a weight that leaves his chest, his heart, his lungs. He breathes and it feels like the first breath he has drawn since Arya Stark pressed a Needle to his skin. She lives. She triumphs. He says nothing.

"Cersei Lannister is dead. Daenerys Targaryen is dead. The Seven Kingdoms are in upheaval as they recuperate from the long war. Arya Stark has vanished from the eyes of the new fledgling court, assumed to return North." His brother leans in closer. "You will find her and kill her."

He tenses. Makes eye contact. "A man knows this name. I cannot do this."

His brother smiles, kindly and sad. "You knew a boy who was a girl. You knew a mouse, a weasel. A ghost and a cat of the canals. Briefly, you knew No One. Do you know Arya Stark, brother? Do you presume to know the Nightsbane, who slew the King of the Others? The woman she has become? Perhaps you knew her, once. I do not think you know this name now."

He shakes his head, a denial, but he knows the words to be true. He tries a different tact. "Who paid for this name? Who has worth enough to buy contract to give the gift of death for Arya Stark, who you say saved Westeros?"

His brother chuckles. "You know that the Order does not always require payment for the gift, if we choose to give it freely. Her name does not have to be paid for." He stares at his brother, stares into his kindly eyes. He has known this man since he himself was a boy, learned under him and played with him the lying game. No matter the kindly face worn, he knows his brother's tells.

"No, not always," he determines. "But payment was given regardless."

His brother smiles wider, sadder. "Just so. The Order bought contract."

He scoffs, shakes his head again. "The Order doesn't have anything of high enough value to buy the life of a savior. What could we have taken from ourselves?"

But he knows: the Order does not always ask for coin, or possession. The Order asks for something of equal value to the person paying, something He of Many Faces finds a fair enough price to pay for the gift. Not coin. Not possession. Those are the things of men, and He would require something higher and dearer of the Order to kill Arya Stark, the slayer of death.

And he knows the answer before this brother says it, before he smiles, so sadly and so kindly, "We gave up a brother He favors. We gave up one of our most useful tools. We gave up a man who devoted his life to our House. We gave up you, Jaqen H'ghar."

He closes his eyes. Bows his head. The weight comes back to his chest, twofold, threefold, tenfold. An identity, a becoming, damning. A contract, bought and paid. Only death can pay for life, and her death will be the payment for the life she damned him with that he did not ask for. He knows that the Order does not mean for him to come back from this. This contract will end him, whether by her blade or after with his own. Slowly, he nods. "He will do this."

"Valar morghulis, brother."

"Valar dohaeris, brother."

A man who is No One sleeps that night. The next day he wakes, and his brothers take a knife to him; they carve a deep line into his cheek, and damn him with the face he has favored since meeting a lovely girl. Scarred such, he will be unable to pull faces from the ether and wear them as all Masters can, and the masks in the hall that Apprentices use will sit upon him poorly. This face will be his last, and none will wear it now but him. When it is done, Jaqen H'ghar rises, bleeding, and sets sail for the West. He knows that this time he will not come back.

 


 

This is the start of what they become again together:

It takes Jaqen a half-moon to cross the sea, another half-moon to find her trail and a moon again to catch her on the King's Road. Nearly three moons have passed since the dawn rose after the Long Night. Arya Stark is wounded still from the battle of King’s Landing that ended what the smallfolk now call the War of Queens and she travels alone and slowly, making poor time in her journey but leaving little behind her to track. He finds her in a natural hollow worn into the side of a hill, the opening hidden by the trunk of a leafless tree, a fire burnt low enough to do little to stave off the cold of the winter night, a black horse hobbled close. She sleeps in her traveling clothes and under a thick furred blanket, a cloak still clasped at her throat to retain heat. A set of leather armor rests discarded by her pack. She should have braved the discomfort of sleeping in it and left it on. Sloppy. He'd taught her better than that.

He allows himself a moment to watch her, an indulgence; he cannot see much of her form beneath the cloak so he cannot tell the passage time has marked upon her body, but her hair is longer and braided back in a fashion he knows to be Northern but has never seen her wear. Her possessions are scant. A pack of provisions, a spare cloak should one be rendered unusable, a quiver of arrows and a longbow that looks too big for her stature. A sword, at least one dagger. If she is clever, which he knows her to be because he drilled that cleverness into her, there are other daggers that he can't see.

There are some, he knows, whose countenance lose their worries in their sleep, some whose troubles melt from them in the comfort of the night. Arya Stark is not one of those people. She sleeps with a grimace, brows furrowed and lips drawn down, as if she fights the world even in her dreams. Her body remains still, though, calm, curled on her side and one leg pulled up slightly, the outline of her knee visible under the cloak. If her muscles jump within her limbs then her skin contains them well.

She does not look like the warrior they claim killed the Night King. She looks like an angry girl, not yet even six-and-ten. She looks like his Apprentice still, but darker, and in furs instead of cloth. How many times had she looked such in her cell at the House, and how many times had she turned that drowsy anger on him when he'd presumed to wake her? How many times had he chastised her with humor in his voice as they broke their fast before going to train? How many days, hours, minutes has he spent with her? The gift he was told to give has never felt so unwelcome.

His indulgence meets its end, before he is ready; perhaps it is some tiny creak of his leather armor, perhaps it is a shift in air pressure as the breeze passes him through the hollow, perhaps it is the soft and barely-there inhale of his lungs from one breath to the next, but she wakes suddenly, quickly and efficiently, and he must move before her dagger flies through the air. It whistles just past his ear, slicing through where his eye had been a moment before, and then he is on her.

Height and weight give him an advantage, but he had taught her how to grapple and she knows his body well, where to twist and kick and leverage to remove herself from him. Blade clashes against blade as he brings his shortsword down to meet her own thin bravos water dancing foil. He has the size, but she has the maneuverability, and with a deft curl of her abdomen she leaps to her feet, cloak snapping around her.

“Jaqen?” she asks, surprised, once she sees him in full, but that surprise does not stay her blade and she slashes around his sword towards his face. He bends backwards at the waist to fall beneath it, and the noise it makes as it cuts through the air just above his nose is threatening. She backpedals. “Wait,” she says, “stop,” but her sword doesn’t lower and neither does his. “Jaqen,” she says again, and for the first time in a long time he allows himself anger.

To hear her call him this, this name that she had damned him with, that she had assigned to him, it is nearly too much. How many times had he told her Jaqen is dead and she had insisted that to be false with her naming of him? She did this. She made him Jaqen. Jaqen is a name he could have shed as easily as any other he’d taken, this face as inconsequential to him as any other in the Hall, except that it was what she recognized him to be, and he had allowed that to matter to him. Damning. She gave him this name and he did not ask for it, and she placed affection for her into his heart and he did not ask for it, and she stole him from the Order with a contract for her death bought with his life and he did not ask for it.

Arya must see some of that anger in his expression; she backs away again, but so intent is he on giving chase that he doesn’t see the flick of her wrist. He steps sideface in time for it to miss the nape of his neck where his armor ends, but it lodges instead into his shoulder. Momentum and a keen edge punch it a handful of inches through the leather and he breathes hard through his nose in irritation as he feel the blood from the wound collect tackily under the chestpiece. The next knife he is prepared for, and knocks aside with the flat of his blade. It screeches when the metals meet and then falls to the soft loamy ground.

Wait,” she says again, more urgently now, but still he advances. Her water dancer’s blade is too thin to cut through his armor, made more for piercing between the joints or slicing at exposed skin, but he has always been faster than her and he has better reach besides. A fourth dagger flies from within her heavy cloak and he steps around it, lifting his sword. “Jaqen, please! ” She leaps backwards, away from his swing, only to realize her back is now against the wall of the hollow. Her Needle scores a line into the armor covering his stomach, but she doesn’t have enough strength to force the thin blade through the reinforced leather.

A change comes over her, and he sees the moment that she understands that she will find no mercy in him; her face closes, looking so impressively like No One that a man who has been named Jaqen H’ghar finds himself blinking in surprise. All but her eyes, grey and feral and frigid and Arya, and this faceless wolf amalgamate throws herself at him in fury. At such close quarter he cannot keep hold of his shortsword, and he drops it to draw his own dagger as she produces a fifth from what he can only presume is a bandolier hidden beneath her cloak.

Again they grapple, until he pulls her to the ground where he can use his weight against her. She aims for his head, his face, his throat, jabbing violently for the quickest kill she can get with no regard to how refined or clean it is, a wild desperation in her attacks foreign to he who trained her. Even with his larger stature against hers, using his core trunk muscles to roll them until she is on her back and he straddles her thighs, it is all he can do to keep her blade from gouging his eyes out. Pure luck lets him knock her dagger from her grip, and when he raises his own to sink into her gut she claws at his eyes and mouth with her hands, nails flaying open his skin and leaving trails of fire across his face, distracting him enough that his stab goes wide and sinks instead into the soil beside her stomach. Blood oozes from a particularly deep scratch and drips down onto her linen shirt. Dimly, as if from a distance, he is aware that her cloak has come unclasped in the melee.

“Stop,” she hisses, still clawing until he grabs her wrists and wrests them above her head with his hand, sacrificing his dagger to hold her still. His other hand wraps around her throat and squeezes. Inelegant, and he’d had every intention of giving her a faster and cleaner death, kindness only when it benefits her and cruelty too, but he has only just now realized how angry he is, as if being given a name for himself and accepting it has opened up a floodgate to emotion he’d not been aware he had. “Stop,” she says through a wheeze. Her hips buck beneath his violently and he remembers suddenly, like through a haze, the day he’d told her to lose her maidenhead and she’d asked if he would do it.

He would have. He would have. Gods, he would have. The thought only pains him now. Damning .

“Stop,” she says again, and, “Jaqen,” and, “please.” Her struggles quiet and slow beneath the force of his grip on her throat. This is how heroes die, he thinks to himself. This is how the dawn breaks.

Valar morghulis,” he tells her, and feels her throat work in a swallow against his palm, a palm she’d kissed once.

“I’m pregnant,” she gasps, and it is as though the world around him stops.

It is a ploy, he thinks suddenly, a suspicion supported by the advantage she takes in his laxed grip, twisting sharply to flip their positions. Vertigo at the abrupt displacement takes him for a brief enough moment for her to grab her dagger off the ground and set it against his throat, a mirror of where he’d tried to strangle her. And yet, when his eyes flicker down-- yes. He is at an angle to see beneath the billow of her too-large shirt, and he spies it. A bump. The soft rounding of taut skin. Small, not far along at all, but assuredly there. Her wild desperation and pleading make sense now, when he’d only ever known her to fight wholy and with exactation. She has never given mercy and never expected it, before now.

He goes limp beneath her, dropping his head to the ground to stare at the bare branches of the trees above them. Snow collects, and through the grasping fingers of white wood he can see the night sky, clear and cold, and the stars beyond. The point of the dagger presses into his skin, piercing just barely.

“Do it then, lovely girl,” he says. “Go on.”

Arya grits her teeth. “Not yet. Answer my questions first.” She jabs her dagger forward lightly, opening him up more but not enough to leak lifeblood. He feels her thighs flex against his stomach; she is tense, prepared for a counterattack, but the fight has left him, as has the anger. He only nods at her. She cocks her head, panting lightly from the exertion of their fight. No, not anger now, guilt because she compromised him by giving him his name but he cares for her still, enough to let her leave the temple when her time there was done, though she’d left blood in her wake. “You won’t try to kill me?” He shakes his head. She growls and jabs again, harder, and when he looks in her eyes he sees hurt there. “Why not?”

“Payment was given for one death,” he tells her softly, “not two.”

She stares down at him, eyes wide and teeth bared, trying to discern the truth. But this is no lying game. He has nothing left for her now but truths. “Who paid to have me killed?”

“The Order. For your betrayal.”

She scoffs out a laugh, though her expression doesn’t add much humor to the sound. She looks, if anything, even angrier. She presses in again with the dagger; it is getting worryingly deep. Some animal instinct in him, engrained to the core of his being, struggles against this acceptance, something inside fights to live, but he’s tired now in a way he's never been before. It is exhausting, he thinks, to be. “So they sent you? ” She scoffs again. It sounds wet, unhappy. “If that really is you.”

“They branded this face to me.” He licks his lips. The stars are very bright tonight. He has never given himself time nor opportunity to consider his own death, aware of it's coming though he has been. He has never deceived himself into thinking he is immortal. Had he the option to choose a death, he thinks this would be the most fitting one; at her hands. “You remember? A man told you how a deep enough scar could sear false flesh to true?”

He remembers. She’d been younger then, had just earned back her eyes and was shown the Hall of Faces. She’d asked why the masks were needed when she’d seen him change his own at will, with just the press of his fingers to his temple. He’d shown her how the faces were prepared, the mix of substances used to cure them, how to care for the flesh of the masks. He’d explained how a branded face could only be worn by the one it was sealed to, condemned to that person with blood magic. A punishment, he’d said. She’d been so eager to learn. He’d never had an Apprentice before her. He was never given the option to have another, but he doesn’t think that he would have taken one even if he had. Unfair, to expect any other acolyte to measure up to the standards she'd set in him.

“I remember,” she says quietly. Then, sharper, “Why did they do that?”

“Punishment. For your betrayal. And mine.”

She reaches up with the hand that isn’t holding the dagger to his throat, bleeding him sluggishly, and touches the scar across his cheek that damns him. It draws the torn skin of her scratches tight and he gives an involuntary wince.

“What did they pay with?” She laughs; again, humorless. “What have they of worth compared to me?”

“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing of worth compared to you. But, the payment was Jaqen H’ghar.”

Her laughter stops and she stares at him. Surprised. “You? But-- you’re not Jaqen. You’re no one. I remember, you said it constantly.” Her mouth tips up into a mean little smile. “It seemed important to you to remind me.”

He nods. The dagger bites again. He is not losing enough blood to be truly threatened, but he feels lightheaded nonetheless. “I was. Once. Now I am someone.” He sighs and closes his eyes. “Though, not for long, I think.”

She moves over him, leaning closer; were he not wearing armor, he thinks he could feel that life within her pressing against his own stomach. “I should kill you,” she tells him. It’s impressively cold and unfeeling. Truly, spectacular. She has managed to marry the calculation and distance of no one with the ferocity of a wolf, to become some creature mixed of them, some being higher than anything a man who once was a Faceless Master has ever seen. It is a statement of fact in her mouth. I should kill you, she says, with the authority of nature. The sun will rise, the sky is blue, the river flows. I should kill you. He can only nod in agreement. She should. It would be kind. A kindness that benefits them both. A gift.

Valar morghulis,” he tells her, a blessing, a benediction.

Instead, she moves away. She pulls off of him and stands, a smooth and economic motion, and finds her cloak on the ground. As she shakes it out, she says quietly, “But I don’t think I will. Not yet. Not today. You made me.” And then she looks at him with cold grey eyes, wolf eyes, and says the most damning thing of all: “And I made you.”

Arya Stark retrieves her weapons, and then his own, and he stares up at the sky above them and contemplates the statement. Yes. She made him indeed. He watches from his position, prone on the ground, as she moves back to her bedroll and sits, drapes the cloak back over her shoulders. One hand raises to rest upon the light bulge of her stomach. He had nearly stabbed her there. “Get up,” she says finally, “and remake the fire. There are hours to go before the dawn, and we need to have a talk, you and I.”

He considers this wolf, this weasel, this mouse and this ghost, this lovely girl he made and who made him.

He gets up, and obeys. All men must serve.

Chapter Text

These are the things he gleans from her without language, while he remakes the fire and they exist together in silent proximity:

She is thinner than she should be, and inordinately taxed by their recent fight. They have wrestled such before, and even done so while wielding live steel; his training of her was meant to be comprehensive, after all, and in his teaching he tried his best to be thorough. More often than not in their lessons he still bested her, the simple fact of size and experience working against her, but she had promise and talent that needed only cultivation, and though she followed his victories with a sulk she often rose from her loses even more determined to prevent their happening again. Tonight though, after only a relatively short grapple wherein she drew his blood multiple times but shed none of her own, she sits on her bedroll, pale and short of breath. An effect of his attempted strangling, he thinks, but it persists long enough for him to realize that it is some symptom of the growing life within her, and not caused by the grapple itself; and on the heels of that realization, another, wherein he understands that despite fighting him at a disadvantage she still nearly bested him. A wolf without a face, but she has sharp teeth indeed. He is proud, perhaps, the way he imagines a smith feels after forging a sword.

He learns that her motherly gestures, the hand upon her stomach, the brief pauses between glaring at him where she stops to stare at the evidence of the life within her womb, are unconscious, and resented. The first time she catches herself resting a palm over her midsection she snatches it back, and upon realizing her gaze has wandered back down to it her face tightens and she looks away forcefully.

And finally, she is either further along than he’d assumed, or the babe is of a size to carry heavier than it should. Two moons, give or take a handful of days, since a man named Jaqen left Braavos for the last time, and he’d been given no information, no intelligence on the pregnancy of his mark. Two moons is not enough time for her to be of such a size, petite though it still is; a babe should not be visible. Perhaps an intentional omission on the part of the Order, perhaps his brothers believed correctly that the knowledge would stay his blade, except-- he had not lied. Payment given for one death only, not two. If the Order had known then the price demanded by He of Many Faces should have been higher, for not even Jaqen H’ghar who was once a master among Faceless Masters is worth enough to Him for two lives. It nullifies the bought contract; it damns him with a name for naught. He wonders, briefly, blasphemously, what the Many-Faced God is playing at.

Unless he is expected to wait for the pregnancy to run its course. Unless the contract is not nullified, but merely placed upon hold for the interim of a tiny life’s development. Is he to stalk her in the shadows until she reaches the birthing bed, is he to give the gift to her after she’s pushing a screaming babe bloody into the world? Surely not. By that time she will be surrounded, sequestered, protected by the stoic North, and perhaps once he could have accomplished such a thing easily, but damned with only one face the subterfuge that gift would require is out of his reach. She would be foolish to keep him at her side for so long, foolish to trust his motivations assuming she doesn’t find fault and think to kill him before then, and his lovely girl is no fool. He would have to breach Winterfell to get to her and he could do it, but it would be suicide-- ah. Indeed. Valar morghulis.

A thing to ponder over.

These, though, are the things they speak of in the hours before the dawn:

“Do you have a horse?” she asks, after he has rebuilt the fire. It’s small and dismal and produces more smoke than heat or light, for dry wood is difficult to find in winter, but after some coaxing he produces a flame. At his answering nod she says, “Bring it here and hobble it by mine, as close to the hollow as you can.” To retain heat within the space, he knows; but perhaps to prevent him fleeing in the night without her knowing as well. He is surprised she’s allowed him the freedom of movement that he has, considering how recently he’d tried to gore the babe in her womb. The thought causes a throb of pain within his heart. He plucks at it, examines it, determines the source as guilt. He has never felt guilt for giving the gift before.

Is this guilt born of Arya Stark? Or Jaqen H’ghar?

A thought that had occurred to him earlier with a dagger to his throat comes once again to the forefront of his mind and he sighs as he finds his horse, a plain brown palfrey a few hands taller her black one and with a bit more bulk, and leads it closer to the hollow. It is exhausting, to be.

Arya eyes him critically as he returns, says nothing as he hobbles his horse by hers. The two geldings sniff and snort at each other, both unsure of their new companion, visibly contentious of each other in a way that he and Arya will not allow themselves to be. It nearly makes him smile, but only nearly. “I’ll admit,” she says dryly, “I’d sort of expected you to mount and ride off and turn back up in six moons to finish the job.”

Clever child, her thoughts keep a parallel pace to his. He dips his head in acknowledgement of the statement. "A man had considered," he tells her honestly. That is all he has for her now, honesty, though he is unsure if this is because he believes he owes it to her or if he believes her deserving of it. Perhaps both?

Her answering smile is humorless. "Should I expect you to vanish and reappear in half a year, then? I pity the wet nurse.” It is humorless, and leaves quickly, and she tells him with soft and quiet menace, “You’re welcome to try.” A wolf, growling low in her throat, teeth not yet bared but the suggestion of it clear.

He hesitates, because he does not know what his course will be in that time. A contract bought and paid, her death for the naming of him; but, so named, so identified, what keeps him from choice? No one listens, no one obeys, no one serves his House and dies in that service if he is lucky. Valar morghulis, dohaeris. That is all he had ever known, all he had ever expected, all he’d ever wanted, living as No One in the Order, as a Master of it. Until he’d met a girl who could not leave behind Arya Stark, that was the entirety of him, the whole of his being, and on meeting her met too the sinful temptation of choice , choice that led him to where and who he is now. Not no one, but Jaqen H’ghar, damned into identity by his choices and hers and the authority of the Him of Many Faces.

No one was an assassin, but Jaqen H’ghar has a choice. He wonders, when the time comes, what he will choose.

He says, instead of all of this, “A man supposes that we will cross that bridge when we get to it.”

He feeds another piece of wood into the fire, prods the embers until they flare and warm once more. The night is cold, deathly so, no heat retained in the clear and cloudless sky. He looks over at her to see her still staring at him assessingly, her eyes just as cold as the night, and just as dark. “But I will not leave you now, this night.” Her brows twitch downwards just slightly, expressive though she tries to control her expressions, but they have played the lying game enough that he reads her still. He thinks though, with a small warm feeling of pride, that anyone who did not spend hours at a time for months on end staring at her face to read the truths and lies from it would see nothing there. To all but him she must seem so unknowable, and terrifying to those faced with that unknown; he knows her, knows that unknown, and knows enough to fear it. A faceless wolf. What a cunning blend of the two she has become.

Lost in his thoughts, appreciative of the creature he created who evolved on her own merit to become something better than what he could finish bringing to shape with his own hands, he does not clarify until she allows some of her anger and impatience to cross her face in warning. “I will not leave you now,” he says again, and then carefully continues, aware that it will provoke her ire, “You need help.”

For all that Arya has grown and evolved without him, it seems he does still know the core of her, the center of her soul. Or, at the very least, her anger he can predict. That anger comes to the fore of her expression, lips parted to bare her teeth as she says calmly, cooly, “What.

He lifts his hands defensively, and explains, “You are underweight. Worryingly so, for your condition. You are not as aware of your surroundings as you should be, as a man has known you to be in the past; earlier, this man was here for over a minute before you reacted to his presence and woke. I overpowered you, and if I can then so can others--” She scoffs at this, offended, but he isn’t wrong. It would be improbable, yes, but possibility is proven. “You are pregnant and traveling alone in winter.” He makes a show of looking at the horses, his and hers, and the packs, his and hers. There is no evidence of another presence with her. “At least, I assume you are alone. Where is your husband?”

She lets out a bark of laughter, simultaneously spooking the horses and lending credence to one of his suspicions. A bastard, then. “I am unmarried,” she confirms once she’s finished with her wry mirth. “I have no husband.” Then, sharply, emphatically, as if she is reminding both him and herself, “I need no husband. I need no one.”

He almost asks where the father is, but then thinks-- two different wars have only just ended, one for the dawn and one for the throne. Knowing what he knows of her, he cannot imagine that Arya Stark wouldn’t stride her way into the thick of the fighting; it is not so much of a stretch to consider that the father of her child would be a warrior as well, and could have fallen in any of the battles that have occurred since the conception of the babe. He may not know all parts and sides that make up this woman now, but he knew the Arya Stark that a lovely girl in Braavos clung to so stubbornly, and that Arya felt the loss of her loved ones keenly despite the darkness in her soul.

He is… unsure of who he is now, does not wear this blending of Faceless Master and Jaqen H’ghar as well as she wears the blending of no one and a wolf, this face sits strangely on him now that it is scarred. He is unused to the possession of a name that he cannot shed, a role he cannot cast aside. Unsure what his decision will be, when a child is born and a gift can be given to one, a contract collected. Damning, in his unsurety. But, he does not think that whoever he is now, whoever he is damned to be until his death, he does not think this man wants to cause her hurt in her heart. He does not wish her to suffer the reminder of a man she took to bed dying.

(And he has no doubt that it was a man she took to bed, no doubt that it was a man she cared for enough to share her body with. He has seen her fight, and only just barely bested her, and that only because she is weakened and he knows her, was the one to train her; if a man tried to force himself upon her that man would assuredly be killed too quickly to put a child in her. And, if in the off-chance the babe itself was unwanted… he remembers that day in the House, the day she cut his palm and then kissed it, that day he damned himself with lustful touch, the day following the night she’d lost her maidenhead. He’d given her moontea and she had drank of it willingly, without argument or hesitation. Eagerly, even. No, if a babe was not desired, she would not keep it, and he would not fault her. That she has carried it so far along now as to show is testament enough that, even if the child were not wanted, it is at the very least not unwanted.)

So he does not ask, and she does not give answer. Not this night, at least.

They sit in silence, him staring at the fire and feeding it occasionally, and her staring at him. In the past, in the House, when she had been wary of him, whether wary over the apprehension of training or wary for the retribution of some slight or fault he found in her, when her wariness proved unnecessary she would relax in small increments. An untightening of the muscles in her shoulders, a gentler measurement to her breath, eyes and thoughts wandering to inattention when it was made clear her attention was not required to him. At times, her ease in his presence was even enough to stop his own wariness of her, wariness of the affection for her breeding in his heart. But, there are no such small increments tonight. Her gaze is cold and predatory, untrusting and at odds with the trust she had shown in him earlier by not killing him. Despite her claim that they need to talk, she speaks little and he does not prompt her.

It is not until he moves to stoke the fire again and cranes his neck too far to the side, pulling the wound in his throat she had opened, and winces as the fragile skin breaks again and bleeds anew that Arya moves from her bedroll. He watches, curious, as she rolls to the side and grabs her pack, pulling it closer to her and fishing from it a waterskin and a rag clearly used for the express purpose of wound care, judging by the shape and careful cleanliness of it. “Here,” she says quietly, tossing both items to him.

He pulls the stopper from the skin and sniffs, nose wrinkling at the strong scent of wine. It’s pungent, not the sweet fruity smell of the Arbor nor the dry tannin of a Dornish make, and he raises an eyebrow at her even as he upends some onto the rag and presses it to the wound with an aborted hiss. At his dubious look she shrugs. “Strong maybe, but a couple sips will make your belly warm in a blizzard.” Then, wickedly, “The freefolk ferment curdled aurochs milk to drink. Be glad I didn’t give you some of that to wash your papercut with.”

Papercut,” he grumbles, wincing again at the sting. Were it a year and a half ago and across the sea, when he was her Master and she his apprentice, when humor was more common with them between bouts him having to strike her for lies, he would have looked at her piteously, asked with a mock-pathetic whine, will she stitch her poor Master up as well? and she would have snorted and tried to punch his arm. She would have missed, she always missed when she tried to punch him, but only because she telegraphed the motion so obviously as to give him opportunity to dodge. Now, though, the moment of levity between them dries up quickly as they remember how and why he’d received his supposed papercut.

He does not speak again until she draws her cloak around her once more and lays down on her side, curling up beneath the thickly furred underlining of the garment. “Are you going to bind me?”

“Do I need to?” she asks, not moving, eyes already closed.

“It would be wise,” he points out. He wonders if he will ever be rid of the urge to teach her, to press her to better her mistakes, to become something more than what she is, to become as capable as he knows that she can be. “I did try to kill you earlier.”

She sighs, but still doesn’t rise back up or otherwise change positions. “That was before you knew, and I know you . You won’t try to kill me, not if it results in two deaths. Not if only my death was bought contract. You’re too by the book. You wouldn’t shame the Order, now that you know. You won’t hurt me now.”

“Won’t I?” he asks, because he is still learning who he is now, and so he questions her belief in him.

“You won’t,” she says with finality, and he supposes a statement made with such damning authority must be true. “Besides,” she continues quietly, “you were right. I could use some help.” She says it with such shame, as if the admission pains her; and she says it with fear, too. A pregnant girl, traveling alone in winter.

He was right, she needs help. But she was right, too.

He won’t hurt her now.

 


 

Over the next few days, he discovers why her journey has been so slow, why she has made so little progress North from King’s Landing:

The first two days pass without major incident, but also without much progress in terms of distance. They speak little but spend less time on horseback than he had expected; Arya breaks often and with no explanation, simply announces that she needs to rest and then dismounts and does so for an hour before they continue once more. She eats in the saddle, and sparingly, some sort of thin jerked meat that she chews as little as she must before swallowing, a detail he notices only because he is watching for it. She sips from the skin holding wine more than the one holding water, and neither enough to truly quench thirst. She calls for camp hours before the night is due to fall, and slips into sleep quickly, the nearly-instant sleep of the exhausted.

The third morning before he breaks camp, he heats a pot of water over their campfire and places beside it a small jar of honey to warm, one he carries for medicinal purposes but can serve for something else now. She watches with sharp, cautious eyes as he makes a tacky but nutritious porridge with the boiled water and the groats they feed to the horses and sweetens it with the warm honey; through every step of the process she glares at his hands as if waiting for him to sleight-of-hand some poison into it, her earlier proclamation of trust questioned. She grimaces when he hands her the bowl of mashed horse feed. Admittedly, it doesn’t look appetizing, but it is a trick he’d learned while traveling with a Dothraki khalasar to get close to the horde’s khalakka and it gives more energy to a man than most would expect.

“Eat,” he says simply. “That dried meat you nibble on isn’t enough to keep you fed, much less a quickened babe.” Still, she does not touch it until he rolls his eyes and grabs the spoon, taking an exaggerated bite himself, eyebrows raised pointedly. He had learned early into her apprenticeship that she reacted better to acts of emotion, even when they were false-- when they trained with weapons, so long as they were not playing the lying game he might mime feeling to sway her into doing something he wanted her to do for her own benefit, if she were hesitant. It was only after she left the House with bloody hands that he realized that somehow, his mummer’s show of emotion had become perhaps a touch too genuine.

When he drops the spoon back into the bowl Arya huffs and lifts it, satisfied it will not poison her but still grimacing at the chunky texture of the porridge. “It hasn’t yet,” she says, taking a bite. She looks nauseous for a moment but after a moment more her face clears and empties, and she eats another spoonful without further complaint. At his questioning noise as he prepares himself a bowl of the porridge, she clarifies, “Quickened. It hasn’t quickened. It doesn’t move yet, it’s just big.”

He hums, grinding the oats into a grainy flour with a rock and asks casually, “When did you… That is, how far along…?” It is a question that he has wondered often in the last few days, nearly as frequently as he has wondered to the identity of the father. He knows her, knows that in the War of Queens she would not have allowed herself to straddle peace and conflict, would not have stalked the periphery of battle when Cersei was forever a name constant on her list. He cannot help but be curious if his wolf were aware of her condition when she went to war.

For the past two days, Arya has brushed off any hinted questions, any subtle queries he had, and truly has made no attempt at conversation at all, a far cry from the early days of her apprenticeship where she’d chatter question after question and he’d had to quiet her curious peeping with a stern look. Indeed, she now seems interested in him only to have him serve as a warm body to keep watch at night while she sleeps and when she has to stop and make water. Now she seems in a more agreeable mood-- after her first few tentative bites of the porridge she tucks into it with gusto, reminding him more of the half-starved child who sat at the dining table of the House and gorged herself on the bounty of the canals for the first time than the warrior whispered of in the inns and taverns he’d passed during the moon it’d taken to find her, the one fabled as the Wolf of Dawn. She’d always been more personable on a full stomach.

“What is the date?” she asks, mouth full of food. Since his childhood he has had a preternatural affinity for understanding the passage of time, can view a lunar calendar only a handful of times a year and still know the current date after a quick calculation. This is a trait of his that she obviously remembers, though it had come up rarely in her training. He tells her, and she does a quick calculation of her own before determining, “Three moons tomorrow.” She pauses then. “Huh,” she says thoughtfully, and looks down at her stomach. “Three moons.” Still looking down, her eyes unfocus as her mind wanders somewhere beyond here. “Seems like a lifetime.” Then, a sharp shake of her head and she turns her gaze back to the bowl of porridge.

“A very exact answer,” he says, eyebrow raised once more.

This time Arya rolls her eyes at him and huffs, “It was the night the White Walkers attacked Winterfell. I won’t forget that night so long as I live.” Then, her own brow quirked up to hide a flush, “And we only, you know… did it the once, so. Not a lot of opportunity for me to mistake the when.”

Did it,” he repeats with the same emphasis, delighted by the deepening of that flush. “How darling.”

“Shut up,” Arya snaps at him with a growl, then demands, “and break down the camp and saddle the horses.” He waves his still-full bowl of porridge at her in excuse, and she growls again, louder, and gets up. “I have to piss,” she announces, and then stomps away to do so, shouting over her shoulder, “Saddle the horses!

Three moons, he thinks to himself as he finishes his own meal. No, not even that; three moons tomorrow. That she is showing as much as she is this early is… almost concerning, he thinks, but he is neither maester nor midwife so perhaps his judgement on such things is off. As small as she is, he cannot imagine the size she will be in the days preceding childbirth. And to her account, she slept with the father only once. Yes, the moontea on that damning day after Alesso Notyne took her maidenhead was a good idea indeed.

And this is the morning when he truly understands her predicament-- they are on the road headed North for less than twenty minutes after breaking camp when ahead of him, she abruptly sways in her saddle and then without further warning turns and vomits violently to the side. She manages to curse once before retching again, coughing up mostly bile, and he slides from his horse to help her off hers and turns her away just in time to miss the next deluge. She leans against him heavily for just the briefest moment, more vulnerability in the span of a breath than she has shown him since before leaving the House, and then shoves him away, not willing to accept whatever comfort he would give. She kneels to retch once more though by now her stomach is empty and nothing releases from it.

Her horse seems used to this occurrence and merely snorts, tail flicking, but his own startles from his sudden dismount and the movement and noise and takes off down the road at a trot. “Go,” Arya snaps at him, waving a hand at the runaway steed. “Go, get it back, go , I’m fine, I’m not sharing a saddle with you--” and without needing much more prompting he goes, vaulting up onto her horse who dances nervously for a moment under his weight before being spurred forward, following after his own at a canter.

He catches up further down the road and swings her black horse wide to get ahead of his own, pulling short on the reigns in front of it; his brown bucks and neighs before calming, and he grabs the reigns that had fallen loose and leads it back, still mounted on hers. They’re lucky that one of the reigns hadn’t wrapped around a front leg and tripped the palfrey, to his knowledge there isn’t a village along the road to buy another for many miles and he doesn’t relish the thought of walking in the snow while Arya rides. When he returns to where he’d left her on the road, he sees a puddle of sick and not much else.

“Arya?” he calls, dismounting and turning in place until he spies boot prints in the snow, leading off the road and down the incline of the bank. As thick as the snow is he doesn’t trust the horses to be led down the hill. “Arya?

“I’m here!” she calls from down below. “I had to piss!” And then, quieter and audible only to him because it echoes and he is listening, she grumbles, “Again.” His heart, which he hadn’t even realized had begun to pound, settles and he lets out a sigh. A few moments later she pops into view from around a tree in the little valley below and, huffing, she climbs back up the hill. When she reaches the top she digs through the saddlebags on her horse and pulls out the skin of wine. She takes a large mouthful, swishes it over her tongue and gums, and then spits it out with a sound like a hacking cat. Then, groaning, she sits on the side of the road and drops her head into her hands.

He watches. There is not much else he can do. He watches, and waits, and she takes a handful of minutes to breathe deeply, head lowered and face obscured by her hands and the dark hair that falls around it. For want of some action to take, he leads his horse over to the mess of vomit, still faintly steaming with heat in the frigid air, and holds tight to the reigns when the gelding shies away from the unfamiliar sight and smell. He forces it still until it becomes acclimated, head lowering and soft brown nose nudging the snow around the sick, nostrils flaring as he pats its neck and murmurs comforting noises. Hopefully, if such a thing happens again, it will not panic and bolt. He will need to work with it on mounting and dismounting more quickly than it seems used to.

By the time he returns her own gelding has taken to pawing at the snow and hoping for sprigs of grass that it will not find, and Arya is whispering to herself quietly. No, not whispering, cursing-- and after a moment he realizes she is not cursing at herself, but at her occupied womb. What she has to say to it is not particularly kind.

“You useless fuck,” she hisses to her midsection hatefully, “it’s porridge, you tiny idiot, porridge. Stupid stubborn bastard, you’re going to starve me and then we’ll both die you ungrateful parasite.”

He pretends not to hear, but another suspicion confirmed. Her diminished bearance makes much more sense now; pregnant and traveling alone in winter and unable to keep down food, spending more than she is able to intake. Why has she not just found a village to stay in, a keep or castle? She’s Arya Stark, a Princess of the North and sister to both the Queen in the North and King in the South, the Wolf of Dawn. Now that Cersei Lannister is dead she could find a bannerman loyal to their cause, or scores upon scores of smallfolk willing to take her in for shelter until the babe is born, for want of favor with the new Crown.

But then, he supposes there are scores just as willing to take her in for a hostage as well; sister to both Westerosi monarchs, pregnant with a bastard and weakened by it, she might seem easy prey for ransom to a peasant fearing starvation in winter. Opportunity can turn the most the most loyal subject into an outlaw, and though he has no doubt that Arya can handle herself neither can he banish the feeling of her throat beneath his palm, her lungs struggling to take in air as she said so desperately please. She can handle herself, yes, but no longer is she the only one she must protect.

Traveling alone in winter is a risk. Asking for help and expecting altruism in so tumultuous a political climate is a risk. If a risk must be taken, he understands that this is the one she feels most equipped to handle.

He says nothing when after a time she stands, rising slowly, and stumbles very slightly. He says nothing when she clambers back up into her saddle and spurs her horse onwards, not waiting for him to mount as well. He says nothing when they stop not an hour later so she can rest once more. She says nothing as well. And in fact, neither of them speak at all but to point out fresh tracks crossing the road, or a raven flapping its way overhead, until they make camp that night after yet another day of dismal progress.

When the fire has been made, Arya takes a sip of her wine and says, so fortified, “When the dead sieged Winterfell, I fought with the men.” She glances up, brows furrowed as if daring him to object, to claim her femininity a hindrance. He who taught her to be so deadly, to hone her aggression into something controlled, is almost amused by her expectation of him to expect of her something less. When no defiance or offense is raised she continues. “In the battle, a slew of them came at me, and in the attempt to find better ground I…” She grimaces, briefly, before admitting, “I cracked my head into a wall.” And she lifts a hand, pulls back a few inches of hair along her temple; so revealed, he can see nestled in the pale skin of her scalp a scar, pink and fresh and new. “The injury was perhaps more significant than I originally believed.”

“How so?” he asks. His hands itch to quest her skin, to touch and feel along her skull. He has seen men receive injuries to the head, heavy blows they’d assumed themselves protected from by their helm, that broke pieces of the cranium without their knowledge, or caused a bleed in their brain that killed them suddenly and without warning weeks after the fatal strike had been placed. Indeed, he has caused such injuries before.

“Dizziness,” she says. “Nausea.” Then, shamed, “I fainted once.” He nods at each new symptom. “But my skull didn’t fracture, and my nose and ears didn’t bleed.”

“A concussion,” he determines, and she nods as well.

“So the maester who checked me after the battle at King’s Landing said.” She quiets for a minute, takes another sip of wine. “The dizziness passed quickly, but the nausea was stubborn. I didn’t make much sick, but neither would my stomach tolerate food, and by the time I...” She trails off, looking away.

“A man understands,” he tells her, and she sighs softly, though whether in relief that she will not have to explain or irritation that events unfolded as they have he cannot tell. Lack of appetite due to a head injury blending into an inability to keep food down on a pregnant stomach. No wonder she is so thin and so tired. The nature of their relationship in the House was intimate, however platonically, in both proximity and physicality, and he knows that since flowering her moonsblood has never met a regular sort of schedule, was never reliable enough to predict. Three moons pregnant, and the effects of a concussion can last a moon or more; so afflicted, and without the assurance of a monthly bleed, she likely didn’t even realize she was pregnant until she began to show.

And how long has it been since then? A week? Two? How recently had she realized her condition before he’d come upon her like vengeance in the night for a decision he could not fault her for even at the time? This is still new to her, he thinks suddenly, the knowledge barely more settled in her than it is in him. This is a grapple more painful and deadly than the one they’d engaged in when he’d tried to kill her, one between her body and her heart. With a dawning comprehension he wonders if perhaps she didn’t have a choice with this babe; unknowing of her cycle, distracted by war and the physical ailments of a concussion, would she have thought to take moontea for a dalliance that lasted only one night? Would it have even occurred to her that this outcome was a possibility until she’d seen the rounding of her gaunt and empty stomach that could not be explained by a meal? She’d said it hadn’t quickened, so moontea is an option still… one that he knows she will not take now, not without much consideration, so long as she has a Faceless Master with a bought contract for her life on her heels, blade stayed by the swelling in her womb.

Guilt. Muted, but realized. Mutual damnation. Her existence damns him with an identity, and his presence damns her with a child. And still despite this guilt, he does not know what he will do , once her bought death can be brought to being. A war in him; his own grapple, between the no one he has been and the man he now is damned into life.

And yet… and yet all despite that, still she held a dagger to his throat. Still she held his life in her hands. He bested her, but only just, and ultimately she had the final strike in their fight. Despite a weakness that she cannot help and a frailty that she cannot be blamed for, despite a revelation that upends her world, still she triumphs, still she succeeds, and against him. A smith with a freshly forged sword. A teacher surpassed by his pupil. A man, survived by a girl, lovely and vicious. Yes, he realizes, this is pride, as he has never felt it before. This is the production of something larger and greater than its origins. The wolf he could not tame, stronger for being unbroken. He had sought her make her faceless, and she became instead the Dawn.

Guilt and pride. The constant undercurrent of his relationship to her.

She speaks suddenly, pulling him from his dark musings. “I’m not weak,” she tells him coldly, eyes sharp as she stares at him over the fire. “I’m not. I killed the Night King.” He blinks at her, surprised at the declaration; surprised she could think him to believe anything contrary. When he does not reply she shifts in place and says with menace, “Don’t you dare think that I can’t hold my own in a fight just because I got sick this morning. I’ll cut that face of yours off.” It would be funny, almost, if she said it as a jape. But she doesn’t, so it’s not.

She killed the Night King. She killed his sister, a Faceless Master. She could have killed him but for mercy born of consideration for all they have been to each other and the use he can be to her now. If she had remained in the House, she could have become a Master herself, and at a far younger age than he had, and she would have been among the best the Order had. Never has he doubted her capacity to fight, to destroy, to give the gift; only ever worried for her inability to become No One, the wolfish claws of Arya Stark sunk too deep into the girl he'd chosen to train. But he hadn't chosen just a girl  had he? Arya Stark is who he chose, the destiny he consciously wove into his own with three names and an iron coin. That he could ever have expected her to give up her identity is fault to none but him.

“Arya,” he interrupts shortly, and as it has every time over the last few days where he’s spoken her name so plainly she stops, startled into silence. He feels the truth in his words as he says them, had not realized the depth of that truth until he speaks them aloud. “I’m proud of you."

It does not please her the way he’d thought it would, the way he’d hoped. Indeed she barely reacts at all, just stares at him with those cold eyes, lips turnt as ever lightly down. If anything the statement seems to upset her, the way ice upon a lake may be upset; so thinly as to be invisible, but fatal if treated foolishly. When she finally speaks it’s with that same quiet malice, that ice cracking beneath his feet. “One day, I will stop wanting to please you.” She says it like a promise, like a threat, and then so said she turns her back to him and curls into a ball on her bed roll, cloak pulled up high.

They do not speak again that night.

 


 

This is what he learns, slowly, quietly, piecemeal over a week of time on the road:

He learns they are going to Winterfell. He'd assumed this a given, but having it confirmed means that he can begin planning actions in earnest. A blade stayed for two lives when only for one was death bought; a decision, and soon, on who exactly Jaqen H'ghar is.

He learns Arya does not want to be identified. They pass travelers frequently, most heading South back to King's Landing from where they'd fled into the lands surrounding like fleas on a dog when the Dragon Queen began her fiery siege. She avoids them all, and they avoid her and himself as well except to occasionally eye their fine horses or well-made armor with an envy that sometimes has him settling a hand casually on the hilt of his sword. War and winter are unhappy bedfellows for commonfolk to share. Even when they pass contingents of soldiers painted with a direwolf standard she ducks her head, pulls her hood up so as not to be recognized. But yet he watches her and she watches them, eyes scanning faces for someone she recognizes (who?). When they pass by without that recognition she seems at once relieved and disappointed.

He learns she is not particularly fond of the bastard in her belly. After his declaration of pride for her, and seemingly so appeased by the fact that a week has passed without him disappearing or making another attempt on her life, the high walls she uses to dam her emotions begin to fall, bit by bit, the facelessness she draws around her like a shield bleeding from her to reveal more of the wolf at her core; never to show vulnerability, but irritation she allows him to see in spades. She’s irritated at their lack of progress, she’s irritated at her lack of appetite, she’s irritated by the snow when it falls and the sun when it shines and him when she determines that he breathes too loudly. She’s especially irritated by her bastard. Her favored affection for the life growing in her womb seems to be useless fuck, for the frequency that she hisses it. If she cared enough for the father to lay with him, she does not seem to have cared for him enough to happily and without resentment nurture the seed he planted.

In the time since she’d left the House to now, he’d remembered well her viciousness, remembered her aptitude for violence, remembered her cunning and quickness. He’d remembered the admiration in her eyes when he would teach her something new, remembered how her face would lighten when he allowed himself humor with her, how her disappointment would radiate when he had to chastise her. How she had cried, when she believed he had drank the poison and died for her actions.

He remembered a favorite mission he’d given her after she’d pleased him well in her lessons, to steal lemon cakes from Umma, a mission he knew she’d fail because it was impossible to steal cakes from Umma, and the cook had chased her back to him with a switch in hand and fussing. The girl had laughed apologies and blamed her horrid Master for giving her the assignment; but after Umma had gone his little apprentice, her knuckles red from the switch, had pulled two lemon cakes from her sleeves to present to him with such pride. No sweet will ever again taste so good as this one, a man fears, he’d told her with mock-sadness as they ate the pilfered treats, and she’d laughed, high and pleased.

He remembered seeing his sister’s face on the wall, blood dripping, dark holes with sightless eyes and mouth agape in agony. He remembers a wolf and her teeth, Arya Stark wearing the face of his apprentice and pressing a sword to his chest. But no: it had never been her wearing his apprentice, for his apprentice had never truly stopped being Arya Stark.

In the time between then and now he remembered much of her, her triumphs and failings, the remembered good of her shined to a gloss in her absence and the remembered poor of her damning him through his punishment.

Somehow, in all that, he forgot the whining. He’d forgotten how surly she could be when displeased by the world or the actions of those surrounding her.

To her credit, she is quiet about it. Though he thinks this more to be caused by the self-consciousness she feels speaking to her womb in his presence than a consideration of it. She complains to her bastard pup that it prevents her from eating, and it prevents her from sleeping, and it prevents her from sitting ahorse for longer than an hour without needing to make water.

He has little first-hand experience with the effects pregnancy has on a woman, has spent little time near to them and spoken to them even less. Indeed, most of his interactions with ladies carrying child has been to give them the gift in the temple-- girls whose men promised them home and hearth for a tumble in the sheets and then left them with a seed planted unplanned; girls who had autonomy ripped from them, forced by muscle or steel to spread their legs for men without scruples; women untrue to their husbands and carrying the child of another, weeping for a merciful death before their man discovered their indiscretions and gave them an unmerciful one. He has even delivered the gift to infants and children, those born too early, too sickly and small to live long; bastards unwanted; a babe whose mouth is one too many for a family to feed. To those women and children he had done his duty without hesitation, had undressed and cleaned their bodies and carved their faces if those faces were of use to He who had Many of them. And after his duty was done he had not thought of them again, did not give pause to wonder to the circumstances that led them to the death they sought. It was not his place to do so. Valar morghulis.

So, limited as his exposure has been to those cultivating life within them, he doesn’t know if Arya’s ire for her bastard and the tribulations it seems to gleefully inflict upon her are universal to women. Perhaps the babe can hear and understand her hateful muttering and seeks to punish her; perhaps the carried so too resents the carrier. All that he can do is try to make the journey as gentle as possible by looking away when she is sick in the morning and saying nothing when she calls for one of her many rests. At the rate of their travel a trip that should take a moon, maybe a bit more considering winter, could take a handful more. By the end of the first week, after a day when they are only able to progress a few leagues before she is too fatigued to continue and must rest for the remainder of the day, a niggling of doubt begins to grow within him where he wonders if they will even be able to reach Winterfell before she grows to such a size that travel is impossible.

If she were able to eat anything of substance beyond the tasteless dried meat she has in her pack, already rapidly dwindling, he thinks that she would regain some of the strength that he so admires her for, that had caught his eye even so many years ago when she was a slip of a girl trying desperately to be a boy. He says as much to her on the dawn of the eighth morning they’ve been traveling together, though using less inflammatory words. The glare she sends him is nothing short of scathing, could possibly melt the snow around them if she focused on it instead of him.

Thank you for your tremendous wisdom, Jaqen,” she hisses, taking a vicious bite of her jerky. They will have to stop at the next town despite her desire to keep her condition unknown, with how slowly they move both their stores of provisions are beginning to run out. His own breakfast is cooking on a spit over their small fire; hunting and tracking is not to his personal strength, he being far better suited to a more urban sort of prey, but that morning he’d managed to fell a rabbit unfortunate enough to leave its burrow to forage, and the grease drips aromatically from it and pops as it hits the flames. Watching this, Arya’s expression vacillates between queasy and starved. “Eating food without vomiting. A concept I’d never considered. Do you hear that, child?” she asks, directing the question to her womb. “Jaqen says we need to eat. Have you an opinion on this?” Pointedly she tilts her head down, aiming an ear at her stomach and blinking wide guileless eyes off into the distance as if straining to hear. He watches her antics boredly, turning the spit. After a moment Arya looks back up at him and gives a large dramatic shrug. “We can give it a shot, I suppose. Stay close by though, because I’ll want to aim at you when it comes back up.”

“Cleverness abounds,” he tells her drolly. “Perhaps if you spoke more kindly to the babe it would react more kindly to you.

She laughs at this. “Does a horse speak kindly to its rider? Because I feel for this thing how I imagine my horse feels for me: burdened with weight, and irritated when spurred.”

A moment of curiosity, frank and unguarded. He asks, “Then why carry it? A horse can throw.” And only after asking does he consider the insensitivity of the question, does he consider that perhaps he already knows the answer. If she rids herself of the babe, what stops the Faceless Man sitting across from her roasting a rabbit from skewering her? (What stops him, but that he is not a Faceless Man now? A death bought contract with the payment being the life of Jaqen H’ghar, but does not Jaqen H’ghar who has now name and face so too have choice? That question again, the one that he’s pondered frequently over the last week during the long stretches of quiet where they ride unspeaking: what sort of man is Jaqen H’ghar? )

Predictably, she quiets, and an awkward silence blooms between them. He resists the urge to clear his throat. That faraway look crosses her face again as she stares into the fire. It’s an expression he is familiar with; he saw it often when she was his apprentice and her thoughts were across the sea in Westeros, worrying over her family and her homeland. It was not truly a lie, perhaps one of omission, and he had never struck her for the look when it had come over her. A concession, one he’d justified with the thought that he could not promise that he himself would not think of his own childhood home occasionally, if he could remember it. As he ever had then, he waits for her now to draw herself from wherever it is her thoughts have rooted that are far from here.

When he was her Master and he did not strike her for the lie of remembering her life before when she should have been No One, was he truly Faceless then? Those tiny concessions he gave her, the ones that had built up over time and slowly nurtured that wolf inside until its claws and teeth grew strong enough to attack, were those the actions of No One? Perhaps, deep down, it was not a bought contract which gave life to Jaqen H’ghar; perhaps Jaqen H’ghar had been born within him from the moment a child who was a ghost whispered the name into his ear and damned him with it.

When Arya does speak again, what she says surprises him. Instead of a reminder of his threatening presence, instead of reiterating how recently he’d tried to strangle the life from her, she says, “My sister won’t remarry. After what she’s been through, nobody expects her to. And though she may eventually take lovers, I doubt she would suffer to carry a bastard. My brother Bran…” She hesitates for a moment and then lets out a small humorless huff of laughter. “There are many reasons why he will sire no children, that he is chair-bound being the very least of them. And Jon--” she cuts herself off, face tightening painfully. He knows little of her surviving older brother as a man, only what he had gleaned from her over the scant conversations of her apprenticeship where he had allowed her the very rare indulgence of speaking of Arya Stark’s past. Aegon Targaryen, nee Jon Snow, bastard and Lord Commander and King in the North all in one, lover to the Mother of Dragons and exiled for her murder. And all that happened… yes, there are many reasons for her to be pained. She laughs again, this time not only humorless but utterly devoid of feeling altogether. Faceless, almost, but born of pain and not of No One. The wolf laments.

Once she has collected herself she continues, “I never wanted children. Ever. I never wanted to be a wife or a mother, never imagined myself a Lady. And after everything, I’d never expected to be an aunt either. I told them, after the dead attacked Winterfell and we survived, I called us, the last of the Starks. And I believed it. I believed it wholly, that we were the last, and our name and blood would die with us.” Perhaps for the first time in his presence, when Arya rests a hand on her stomach it is purposeful, not the unconscious motion of burgeoning motherhood.

“But not so now,” he surmises quietly, the gravity of the statement evident. The air around them feels heavy with promise, with intent.

“No,” she agrees at an equally soft volume, eyes lowered to her stomach. “Not so now. I did not want children. Truly, I do not want this child. But it will not be a Snow, and it will not be a Baratheon--” (he blinks, says nothing, stores this statement away to be examined upon later) “--it will be a Stark. Stark . And when my siblings die, it will be the Stark in Winterfell.” That she does not include herself in this does not escape him, though he is unsure if she means to implicate that she will either not remain in Winterfell with her siblings and the babe, or if she anticipates dying away from it.

“And after that?” he asks.

Her eyes rise to meet his slowly. Damningly, she parrots his words from days ago back to him. “A girl supposes we will cross that bridge when we get to it.”

The explanation she’d given him seems sounds-- they are not playing the lying game, but neither is she lying. It is truth she speaks: she keeps the child despite her disdain for it and her circumstances because it is a Stark. But her answer to his question is a reminder that though he himself is not a factor in her decision to not rid herself of her bastard, she remains ever aware of him and the potential threat he poses.

Who is Jaqen H’ghar, he wonders, and what sort of man will he be and what sort of choices will he make?

So focused on their conversation, he doesn’t realize the rabbit on the spit has remained so and unturned besides until it catches fire. Arya gives a startled bark of laughter when he jumps from his place to remove the skewer and waves the charred meal through the air until the flames go out, and the resulting meat is burnt through to black and utterly unappetizing.

“Gods, that looks good,” she says suddenly, hunger evident in her voice for the first time in days, and he stares at her.

“It is inedible,” he tells her plainly. He supposes the top layer of flesh could be scraped off, but the taste of smoke and char would have burnt into the meat.

“Give it here,” Arya demands, reaching out, the solemnity of the conversation before leaving her swiftly in the face of an apparently abruptly returned appetite. “I’ll show you inedible. I’ll edible the hell out of this.” Obediently he hands over the burnt rabbit, and she hems and haws for a minute until it has cooled enough for her to take a bite, teeth biting through the blackened flesh with an audible crunch that makes him wince. Grease drips down her chin and she throws her head back, letting out a groan of ecstasy. “Don’t you ruin this for me,” she says, apropos of nothing, and he believes she means him until realizing she’s speaking once more to her unborn bastard.

“You chose to do this,” he points out to her, settling back down beside the fire, mildly put out as she consumes the meal meant for him. “Don’t blame me when you get sick in an hour.”

She slows for a moment, as if contemplating the possibility, and then shrugs and takes another crackling bite. “Worth it,” she tells him around a mouthful.

But she doesn’t get sick, and after he breaks down the camp and she makes water, it is with renewed energy that she mounts her horse, and that day they stop only a handful of times instead of a dozen. And so, lesson learned that she can tolerate meat if it is burnt to a crisp, with the ghosts of conversations had and necessary to have walking beside them, the first week passes.

Only six more moons to go.

Chapter Text

Here are the things that a man who has been Jaqen H'ghar for several years now without realizing it discovers about himself, upon reflection:

He likes the scent of cloves and ginger. He likes citrus fruits like lemons and oranges, and he likes honey, and baked clams and eel pie, and horseflesh (but only when rubbed with the hot spices the Dothraki use before it's seared). His skin itches terribly when it's too dirty for too long; he doesn't think himself vain and will tolerate filth and squalor to serve a given role for Him of Many Faces without complaint, but much prefers to be clean and is willing to spend extra coin at inns for a bath if given the option. He prefers daggers to throwing knives and shortswords to daggers and the quarterstaff to shortswords, though he recognizes that the quarterstaff is not always the most logical implement for gift-giving. He has no personal affinity for potions and poisons, but will not deny their usefulness and especially likes basilisk blood because he finds the unpredictability of it delightfully predictable.

He dislikes the color yellow for no concrete reason that he's conscious of, just knows that he avoids wearing it and finds it does not catch his eye when worn by others. He enjoys gray weather like fog and rain and snow, but doesn't particularly enjoy being cold. He has never had a pet, not even as a very young child, but he's intrigued by the idea of cats; independent little creatures who come and go on their own time and require little attention or affection but serve a purpose as mousers, and sometimes they will consent to have their chins scratched. He likes to read and he primarily likes to read about philosophy, and most of all he likes to discuss what he reads with others who like those things as well even though he personally thinks that sometimes others take those discussions too seriously, which is why he did not often discuss such with the brother his apprentice called the lordling. Alcohol is not a vice he's felt necessary to indulge in, and he has in fact thought little of vices in general, but when such times as he's needed to use drink as a prop while fulfilling a contract he prefers dry whites to sweet reds, and either of those to ale.

He enjoys the pleasure of two bodies meeting very occasionally, but has never been in the habit of seeking it unprompted. Marriage and family is a concept nebulous to him, his Master siblings his family and service the bride he has ever been wholly devoted to. He recalls very very little of his childhood but feels a strange sort of subtle kinship to the Lorathi that suggests to him roots in Lorath, had the Order not torn those roots up. For very much of his life he had no desire for the presence of children, and assisted in the training of other Master's acolytes with polite distance only when asked. When he had his own apprentice he treated her more kindly than perhaps he should have, than perhaps warranted, than perhaps best for her development into No One; all things he did to her benefit, kindness and cruelty alike, but perhaps without realizing it at the time he sought to benefit Arya Stark and not the No One she could become. His lovely girl, his faceless indulgence to choice, his secret selfless selfishness.

Preference. Like and dislike. Choice, when choice made available. No one has no compulsion to prefer or compare one thing over another, but flesh is flesh regardless of if it's wearer boasts a name or not. The tongue tastes, the eyes linger, the ears listen, and these senses meet to collect these preferences and likes and dislikes and choices. Influenced by the face he wears, perhaps; influenced by the many, many faces he's worn, perhaps. Did his own tongue prefer white wine to red? Did the eyes he was born with find yellow pleasing? Would he remember, if he ever knew?

Is Jaqen H'ghar the man he was deep inside when he thought he was faceless, or the boy he was before that, or some new being conjured from whim? Is Jaqen H'ghar the man he would have been if he were not faceless? Before Jaqen H'ghar, before facelessness, who was the sad, small boy who wandered desperate and alone through the doors of the House of Black and White? Why did he go there? If he could recall, would the information matter? Does Jaqen H'ghar find origin in the skin of a boy he cannot remember? In the bought contract of a death for his life and name? In a lovely girl whispering identity and sin and becoming into his ear? Is Jaqen H'ghar a culmination of the many faces a man has worn, a hodgepodge of the thoughts and feelings of the men and women he's briefly been in the name of service to Him of Many Faces? Blasphemous, but perhaps a facet of Him, multitudinous and vast but distilled from multitudes and vastness into single form, an alchemy made flesh, identity and damnation collected and molded into man by divine hands and the untameable will of a wolf?

Jaqen H'ghar reflects and discovers preferences. He discovers likes and dislikes, and choices when choice made available. He discovers indulgence and selfishness and a self that he'd previously assumed selfless. A name, a man; born today or yesterday or a half-moon previous when Arya held a dagger to his throat or across the sea when his brothers cast him from his House or a lifetime past when he kissed the hair of a wolfchild and made her a ghost, their meeting a single link in the chain of events that bore Arya Stark to her destiny.

Jaqen H'ghar reflects and discovers, and upon reflection and discovery he wonders, as he has become wont to do, who is Jaqen H'ghar? And what sort of choices will he make?

 


 

Arya seems to wonder these questions as well, and has some of her own:

"What'd you do, after I left?"

She is quiet when they travel, usually, when she isn't complaining about her hunger. Now that she's discovered the secret to her fickle appetite is just burning everything into oblivion she eats nearly constantly and with a voraciousness that he's previously only seen of the half-feral street dogs in Braavos, as if making up for all the food she couldn't keep down in the moons previous. Her gorging is at once endearing and nearly as worrisome as her starving: endearing for the simplistic delight in her expression when she eats without fearing sickness and the way her cheeks puff up like a squirrel as she intakes as much as she can; worrisome for the fact that he had not accounted for travel with a pregnant woman when he'd packed provisions for the journey to find her (nor had he packed under the assumption that he'd survive the encounter, or its aftermath), and she hadn't anticipated being pregnant when she'd began traveling North. They eat the horsefeed more than the horses do now, and the further North they range the harder it is to track game. In this she has more skill than he does, and thankfully she is not yet of a size that she cannot hunt quietly, but hunting takes time and they don’t have the time to spare. They have, after all, a very real time limit to travel, a limit heralded by the developing bump of her stomach that grows larger so slowly as to be almost unnoticeable.

They’ve passed houses, tiny settlements along the side of the road, farms where farmland once was before the snows came in earnest; these buildings are all abandoned and picked clean by scavengers, furred and feathered beasts and men alike. Still, they search each one with the practicality of assassins and take what they can, scavengers themselves. If Arya finds this distasteful as a Princess, to steal from what remains of the dead smallfolk who may support her family, she does not say so. But what little food is left in those places is inedible; the next largest hold that he knows of along the Kingsroad is Moat Cailin, and that is too far away for them to survive on hunting alone. If it were not winter, if she were not eating everything in sight, if she did not still have to stop and rest so frequently… many factors make this journey a difficult one.

Not for the first time, he wonders why he feels obligated to stay. He could leave; choice when choice made available. He could disappear and make his way alone, either to come back for his contract once she’s birthed or to let nature run its course, for without assistance, in her weakened state, she will surely perish whether it be by starvation or exposure to cold or the birthing bed. Will and spite can only carry the human body so far, and though she has both these traits in excess the babe she carries debilitates her, possibly more than she realizes.

He could disappear and put her behind him entirely, the way he should have after helping her escape Harrenhal; her fate is not tied to his own so inexplicably, not anymore, or if it is he could cut those ties. All that connects them now is choice , and could he not simply choose to wash his hands and be done with her? She betrayed the Order, left the House-- left him, and all he'd sought to teach her. She chose to leave him, once. Would it not be within his rights to do the same? Except, service is all he has known, service the bread and wine his soul has ever supped on to find purpose in the breath in his lungs, the blood in his veins. He has not service now. And what else has he, if not her?

Or, a thought. He could just kill himself and be done with it all , not just her but himself as well, the created being of Jaqen H'ghar seared to his mind and his face; a death for a life, is that not so? And what purpose does his life serve now, without the only service he has ever known to fill him? He of Many Faces would get His due, and Jaqen H’ghar would be freed of the demands of damnation and identity in death.

He wonders why he feels obligated to stay, but obligated he feels nonetheless and so stay he does.

Regardless, food is an issue.

Arya clears her throat pointedly, drawing his attention from his musings and back onto her. He muses instead on the question. Pride is not a feeling he has allowed himself to have often, and usually only when regarding her; indeed, feeling in general he has not allowed much until recently when it appeared and was forced upon him. He contemplates whether that pride will be stung if he is honest with her and tells her the truth that he didn’t do much of anything after she left because he wasn’t allowed to. He hums thoughtfully.

“A man was given assignment that sent him to Lys,” he says finally. Arya turns in her saddle to squint at him.

“You lie,” she decides after a moment, and he smiles. She doesn’t seem to find humor in it though. “I don’t want to play the lying game, Jaqen,” she tells him darkly. “I want answers .”

He shrugs and sighs, affects disappointment. “If a girl believes that her skill of insight has grown rusty and cannot discern truths, then I suppose I must oblige.”

Yes, he knows her still; time and age and distance cannot change so drastically the heart of her, the heart that he had grown to know intimately and at times despair. Her voice is heated when she snaps, “I can play the lying game, I said I don’t want to.”

“Just so,” he agrees mildly, and she growls. When he meets her gaze it’s irritated, but a hot irritation and not a cold one so he knows that she is merely annoyed and not truly angry, and so he just raises his brow at her until she huffs.

“Fine. Lying game. But only because I’m bored.” And she crosses her arms over her chest and glares at him. Petulance; he is, as ever, charmed.

“I served in the House with the acolytes as punishment,” he says. “I was not allowed to leave Braavos and my duties were minor. I washed the bodies and cleaned the temple and served in the kitchens and collected information from the sailors and whores and told my brothers three new things.”

He keeps his face placid as Arya watches him. When they had first started playing the lying game when she was a child, she had so many terrible tells: when she tried to lie she would chew her lip, and when she thought he was trying to lie to her she would squint as if it would make those lies easier to discern. Now when she knows they are playing, her expression is as impassive as his, a distance and coldness in her eyes but coldness born of concealment and not fury. Yes, he thinks again, as he has occasionally over the last fortnight of their travels, were anyone else to look upon this face they would see nothing and no one ; and he sees, gloriously, Arya Stark.

“A lie,” she determines finally, “and a truth.” He nods slightly and gestures for her to continue. It is easy to slip into the role of teacher for him, to wear once again the cloak of mentor. And yet when he wears that cloak, he finds that it does not fit quite so well as it once did. Teaching to benefit an acolyte of the Faceless Men is different than teaching to benefit the Wolf of Dawn. How could he presume to be of any use to this beast into which his apprentice time has wrought? But, her own cloak of pupil must be as well-worn and familiar to her, because when he nods she allows herself a small and satisfied smile. “You served with the acolytes, but did not collect information.” The smile falls slightly and she tilts her head in consideration. “It was not Braavos you were not allowed to leave, but the House .”

He nods again and says again, “Just so.”

“Why?” she asks.

“Punishment,” he answers.

She shakes her head in disagreement. “Why punish you? I’m the one who killed the waif and went renegade.” Then, with a grimace, she leans down to pull some of her jerked meat from a saddlebag. It is perhaps distracting from the conversation, but even truths revealed by the lying game cannot stop the appetite of a pregnant woman. As she chews distastefully, having ignored this particular food since discovering that she could eat things of more substance if it were burnt, he looks away from her and into the distance, further down the road.

“Yes, it was you and not I who went renegade and killed my sister.” Out of the corner of his eye he sees her flinch minutely. “It was also you and not I who took faces from the hall without being given permission. But you were mine , my apprentice, and so I was responsible for you. And the decisions you made.”

She tried to kill me ,” Arya says defensively, biting into her snack with a crunch that makes his nose wrinkle. “She hated me.” He nods. She did, though he did not know why; a test, then, for both of them. All three of them. And they all failed.

“You went rogue. It should have been a man’s duty to kill you and not his sister’s.” As it is his duty now, he thinks, and wonders if she thinks the same in tandem, his clever, lovely girl with her cunning mind that keeps pace so easily with his own. What sort of man is Jaqen H’ghar? he wonders again. And what sort of choices will he make? “But,” he continues after a moment, “I sent her instead because she wanted to kill you. And I did not.” (Perhaps Jaqen H’ghar has already made choices. If he uses choices previously made, choices made by him before he was truly aware of himself, as a template, does that not give him something to work off of in the future? If Jaqen H’ghar chose to send his sister to remove the rogue apprentice when by rights it should have been his duty, can that choice to abstain from harming her be made again? Or did he only choose her death still by way of proxy? What sort of man? )

She stares at him for a long moment and then says very quietly, “A truth.” He blinks. It had not even occurred to him that they were still playing the lying game.

He nods anyway, acknowledging it. “Just so.”

They are quiet for a while after that, gravity of conversation weighing them both down. An hour later she calls for a rest, looking paler than usual in the way he has grown to understand means a spell of fatigue. In the last week her stomach has grown slightly, visible to him only when they make camp for the night and she removes her armor, and though he knows the nausea has for the most part passed but for brief occasional spells she still has moments where exhaustion creeps over her abruptly. He asks quietly if they need to find a place to camp and settle until the next morning, or if she needs merely to sit for a moment or make water; at first she shakes her head, and then sighs and nods. Travel for the day done then, but at least they got in a few leagues. If the weather remains mild they should reach where the Kingsroad and the River Road meet within the week.

A good bit off the road they find a flat spot of land shielded by the steep rise of a hill on one side and a small sheer drop to the bank of a small river, some offshoot of the Trident frozen over with ice. Against the hill he makes a fire while she goes ice fishing, a skill he has never learned but she seems adept at; she sacrifices some of her dried meat to bait a hook that she ties to a rope and drops it into the river, and by the time he has a fire built to his satisfaction she’s caught a fat trout. When she comes back with just the one fish, face maliciously gleeful, he knows he’ll be responsible for his own meal that night. Boiled oats it is.

“I always feel weird eating these,” she admits suddenly, leaning against a tree and watching hungrily as he roasts the fish. She claims that it tastes better when he’s the one burning the food. When he looks up at her questioningly, she says, “My mother was a Tully.”

He thinks back to the lessons his own very kindly Master taught him, when he himself was but an apprentice. The Heraldry of Westeros had always annoyed him tremendously as a child; why did people needs names and animals, and sayings too? And sometimes not even animals but weapons, or stars or trees, just stupid shapes on shields. Better to be Faceless, he’d told his Master, and then a boy can be anything . His Master had smiled, but his voice was disappointed as he’d told his apprentice that sometimes to be truly Faceless you had to wear a face and know what that face would know, and if he ever went to Westeros for a bought contract he would be glad to have learned the silly animals so important to houses.

Tully, he thinks. A leaping trout. Family, duty, honor. His lovely girl has always been so very Stark, but perhaps in this way she took more from her lady mother. Family. Duty. Honor. A very telling sequence, a very damning order.

“Would you eat a wolf?” he asks, lightly enough that she knows to take it as a joke. She glares at him for a moment before her eyes lower back down to the cooking fish.

“Probably,” she decides after a moment. “I’m hungry enough right now that I’d probably eat a person . I’d feel weird about it, though. When King's Landing burnt… it's horrible to say, but the whole place smelled like a massive pork roast. Would you eat a wolf? I bet they're gamey."

A wolf, he thinks, not any wolf. There is one wolf he would happily devour. The turn of his thoughts startles him, and he shakes his head sharply to force his mind to a different tact. Where had that come from? Arya takes his shaking head as answer to her innocent question and shrugs. He turns the spit, not looking at her; it is only after he’s burnt the fish to her satisfaction and began on his own pot of water to boil for tasteless porridge that he realizes she is still watching him. Banishing earlier thoughts, he tilts his head, an indication for her to speak.

“Why are you still here?” she asks. It would be a demand were there force behind the question, but instead of the vicious wolf he has grown to know in the last half-moon he sees instead sitting across from him his apprentice. The girl who wanted to please him, to learn all she could from him, who admired him and hated to disappoint him even as she could not make herself let go of the behaviors he tried so hard to train out of her. A girl fresh to the House, desperate for the easy affection and protection that a strange man gave a mouse in Harrenhal, and confused and hurt when now that same man would strike her with his staff. Kindness and cruelty both only to her benefit, though she could not know at the time.

He considers the question. Jaqen H’ghar, damned to identity. Preference, likes and dislikes, choice when choice made available. Why is he still here?

“I don’t know,” he says, and thinks damningly, because I want to be here .

Her eyes narrow at him. “You lie,” she tells him, voice flat and displeased, and begins to eat her charred fish sullenly.

When she is finished with her meal, chasing the trout with the last few bites of his porridge despite his warnings of her impending nausea (and his claims that she will starve him if she keeps eating his food), he asks his own question: “Why did you leave?”

She pauses in the process of removing her armor. It’s leather, lighter weight than his own and of a darker dye, and does not require assistance to don or doff. When she pulls off the chestpiece to reveal her undershirt, this one not so billowy as some of her others and stained with sweat beneath her arms and breasts, shows just barely the growing life within her womb. It’s larger than it was when he first came upon her, and he wonders again to the size of the father, that even before quickening the babe carries so heavily. Three and a half moons.

“Clarify,” she says finally, once she’s removed her armor and settled onto her bedroll with her cloak drawn around her. “I’ve left many places and people. Why did I leave King’s Landing? Winterfell? The father of my child?” Clarify, she tells him, and the implication is that he is free to ask. But her tone says that she may not answer.

“Braavos,” he says, and does not say me.

Arya is silent for long enough that he would think she won’t answer but for the unfocused glaze of her eyes as she stares into the fire, chewing her lip. He gives her the time she needs. This is something he has wanted to know.

“Mercy,” she answers finally, looking from the fire to him. He shakes his head, dissatisfied with the poor answer and the amount of time it took for her to give it.

“You are not opposed to death. A man has seen you work it. The contract for the mummer’s life was simple . It would have taken less from you than the one that took your maidenhead.” He stares at her, her impassive expression, the depths of her grey eyes and the very slight furrow of her brow, the tiny downturn of her lips. They’re bruised and red from the abuse of her teeth. He lifts his gaze back to hers and says, “This thing you say is true. But it is not the whole truth.” He leans back, crosses his arms. Across the camp her horse nips at his and the brown gelding snorts angrily. Time has not made companions of their palfreys. “Mercy, then. And?”

When she is quiet again he lets out a soft scoff and turns away. It is only that he is hurt . That anger, shockingly deep and overwhelming, that had risen in him the night he’d tried to kill her not that long ago simmers threateningly under the surface, though he has tried to quell it. It is exhausting, to be. All he had done in the role of her Master he had done for her, kindness and cruelty alike, all actions to her benefit. When he chastised it was to show that he expected more from her because he believed her capable of more; when he gentled it was so she may know rest to have the strength to rise again; when he struck her or beat her it was because those things that she did that caused him to do so would have given any other Master leave to kill her and she needed to be No One to survive the Faceless Men. A wolf stalked free of the House with bloody waves in her wake, but had it been another Master than he to see her go she would not have left Braavos alive. She wanted to learn, but Arya Stark had no place there; she existed only within herself, and within him.

He wanted her to succeed. He taught her. He trained her. He allowed affection and damnation for her. She killed his sister and threatened him, and he opened the door for her escape. He suffered the consequences for her actions, that she could be free.

Arya shakes her head, looking irritated at his dismissal of her answer. “No, don’t do that,” she snaps, and he lets out a questioning grunt. “ That ,” she says again, and then, “the pouting . I’m thinking, hold on.”

“A man does not pout,” he tells her, affronted.

“A man pouted the entire time he helped me escape Harrenhal because I wouldn’t unsay his name unless he did,” she shoots back. When he opens his mouth to argue she interrupts, reiterating, “I’m thinking . I'm trying to decide where to start.”

While she thinks, snow begins to fall in soft fat flakes, and he feeds the fire. The hill provides them with some manner of cover, but the trees are leafless and he hopes that the snow lets up in the night. Finally, she says, “You know how I had a direwolf?” He frowns but nods; Nymeria. Arya used to dream of her occasionally, in Braavos. All of her siblings had one, and all but two have by now died. Nymeria ranges wild and untamed, like her mistress, and Jon Snow’s was sent North of the Wall. (Arya had mentioned that at some point over the last fortnight. “I knew he was lost to us then,” she’d said.) “The day my brothers found them, they’d gone with my father to give judgement to a deserter of the Night’s Watch. It was the first time Bran had gone with them; they wouldn’t let me go because I was a girl .” Despite himself he chuckles at the derision in her voice.

“When they got back we were all so preoccupied with the pups, fighting over which one we wanted and what we’d name them and how we’d train them, that Bran forgot about the deserter until later.” Her eyes gain that faraway look again, and he knows what she sees in her mind though he cannot imagine it himself: Winterfell, as she remembers it as a child, bright and beautiful and glorious the way childhood memories tend to be. Did he ever have a place like that? Was there ever a home before the House that he’d felt safe enough in to love? He cannot recall. “He and Jon and I stayed in the kennels with the pups when all the rest had gone. Rickon was a baby and needed to sleep, and Robb had to train with Ser Rodrick, and Sansa went to practice her embroidery.” She grimaces briefly. “I was supposed to be with her, but… embroidery is stupid. But Jon was a bastard and didn’t have lessons, and Bran had been allowed to have the day because he’d gone with them that morning, so it was just us and the pups. And then out of nowhere, Bran just started weeping . And Jon asked him why, and he said it was because he’d never seen a man die before that morning, and I told him he was stupid because it was just a deserter.”

She pauses, and he raises an eyebrow. The both of them see the hypocrisy in the sentiment at the same time.

“I didn’t desert ,” Arya says pointedly. “I renegaded .” He snorts. “Anyway, Bran was crying and all upset because father had killed the man, and he’d asked why it had to happen and why he had to watch, and Jon said--” She lowers her voice dramatically and thickens her Northern accent, apparently in imitation of her older brother. “-- Father says the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword . And Bran stopped crying. He just accepted it, like fact. Because our father had said it, and so it must be true.”

Arya swallows abruptly and looks away from him. Her eyes are wet in the firelight and he pretends not to see when she places her hands on her stomach. They are quiet for a long time. Jaqen is not quite satisfied with the answer, and perhaps considering what followed from her decision to leave he never will be, but he understands it in a way he did not before. The snow falls a little heavier, and one of the horses lifts a hoof and stomps.

“When I was Mercy, the mummers were putting on a show of the War of Five Kings. The bloody farce they made of my father and my brother Robb. They were better than that. They were better men than any of those fuckers in King's Landing. I tried to be Faceless, Jaqen, I really did. But I was thinking about my father, and I saw the way the girl who’d paid for Lady Crane’s death looked at her so hatefully, and all I could think was that if she wanted her dead so much she should do it herself. I thought, the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

We were the swords,” he says quietly. “Faceless Men are not men, we are tools . The swords wielded by the Many-Faced God, who passes sentence to all living things eventually. Valar morghulis , child. It is fact, not something a man says simply to scare little girls into submission.”

When she speaks now it is without the sad, half-dreamy quality of her reminiscing, and her eyes sharpen. “Don’t preach to me about death, Jaqen. My family all died before I’d even become a woman grown. I fought death in Winterfell. My babe was conceived in the very shadow of it. I was surrounded by it in King’s Landing. I know it by sight and smell and taste. When Daenerys burned the capitol, ash fell through the air like snow and I breathed death. I held it in my body, my chest and my lungs. Valar morghulis. I am a sword, Jaqen, and you helped make me one, but I decided that I wanted to be a sword for myself . Valar morghulis . Let someone else carry His will; I am a sword and a wolf and Arya Stark.”

He bows his head in acceptance. A question asked, an answer received. No amount of explaining can make him satisfied with those answers, nor can it change the past. It cannot bring back his sister, or his place amongst his siblings. It cannot take away from him the name Jaqen H’ghar. It cannot put them back into a time when he was her Master and she his apprentice. She is a sword and a wolf and Arya Stark.

But she is not done with him this night, and she asks, “What about you? Without the Faceless Men, who will you be a sword for now?”

Who is Jaqen H’ghar? And what sort of man will he be? And what sort of choices will he make?

Preference. Likes and dislikes. Choice, when choice made available. Once he was a sword for another; not for Him, but for a girl, scrawny and scared. He was her righteous sword that gave her strength and made her a ghost. You made me , she’d said, the night he’d found her and nearly killed her, and she’d nearly killed him. And she’d said, And I made you.

“I don’t know,” Jaqen says, and thinks damningly, you, I am yours.

But Arya cannot hear his thoughts. She can only see his face. She laughs unhappily and tells him with disappointment in her voice, “You lie.”

 


 

(And this is not the beginning, but it is how things begin to shift:

It eventually stops snowing, but the wind is frigid and the fire burns too low no matter how much wood he feeds it. It is cold enough that his very bones ache within his skin, cold enough that even Arya’s teeth begin to chatter. They hobble the horses even closer, and she wraps her arms around her stomach defensively, as if her thin flesh is enough to ward her bastard from the chill. They aren’t even in the North yet; he cannot imagine how cold it must be in Winterfell.

He is nearly about to suggest that perhaps they make instead for Riverrun, or the Vale where he knows the Stark family has supporters, ones closer and more easily accessible than her family in the North, when Arya says grimly, “Well, nothing for it I suppose.” And then she pulls her bedroll next to his own and sits leaning against him, teeth gritted as if in pain and a glare on her face daring him to comment.

Despite her aggravation, or perhaps because of it, she is warm at his side and when he wraps an arm around her waist and tugs her closer she curls into his body like a cat. It is innocent and platonic, necessary for comfort, but even as they huddle together she remains tense as a drawn bowstring. Still, with the two of them sharing heat the cold night is more tolerable. He reaches into that place of Facelessness that he’d lived so much of his life in, the place that he now seems to exist apart from, and sinks into it as much as he can, until she is not Arya and he is not Jaqen; they are two bodies only, two creatures of flesh doing what creatures of flesh must do to survive.

When she is tired enough to try for sleep and wishes to lay down, he does so as well obligingly, her back to his front. Heat bounces between them, retained in their bodies by sharing one bedroll to sleep on and using the other as a blanket and his cloak thrown over them both. It isn’t comfortable, but it’s also not freezing , which is about as much as can be expected. Whatever settlement they next pass through they’ll have to try to find enough food for them both and a tent, and more blankets if they can. He only hopes that she has more coin than he does, and that whoever they meet will be willing to part with coin alone.

Arya is tired, clearly, but doesn’t sleep for a long while. He feels her chest expand with breath, hears the grinding of her teeth against each other, smells the scent of snow and dirt and the oils the human body produces in her hair. He doesn’t sleep, either. A thought, unbidden and unwanted: did Alesso Notyne hold her like this? Did the father of her child? Did the man whose bastard she carries pull her close to his chest, did he wrap his arms around her, did he bury his face in her hair? And why does it matter if he did?

No One had no claim to her like this; No One had neither reason nor right to wonder such damningly possessive things; No One could not view her as anything more than apprentice for both their sakes. But-- could Jaqen H’ghar?

“A girl was right,” he admits to her quietly, suddenly. He knows she is not asleep because she tenses once more in his arms. “A man lied.” He feels her inhale sharply and hold it, and does not continue until she looses the air from her lungs in a slow breath. “I am here because I have nowhere else to be, and I do not know where else I would go.”

“Jaqen,” she murmurs, and he cannot , she cannot speak that name so softly and sadly while he holds her so close. His arms, draped over her side, tighten in a warning squeeze and she stills once more.

“I cannot be my own sword,” he says. They are of a height difference that, her back tucked as closely to his chest as it can be, his chin rests on the ground above her head, and her hair tickles his throat. He wonders if she can hear his heart beating, if she can feel it tapping against her spine. “If I am my own sword then I do not know who wields me.”

“Are you going to kill me?” she asks. “Tonight? Tomorrow? A moon from now, or six? When I’m in my birthing bed or after I’ve left it?” For all that she asks the question with seriousness, she doesn’t seem overly concerned by the answer. In fact, over the course of his speaking, she’d actually relaxed against his body. Whatever he has told her, she gains trust from it, though he had sought only to be truthful. Trust. Damning. Damning, that he is warmed by it.

He considers the question, asks it of himself for the hundredth time since learning of two lives when only one bought contract. Who is Jaqen H’ghar? What sort of man is he? And what sort of choices will he make? Preferences, likes and dislikes, choice when choice made available.

“I don’t want to,” he tells her-- it isn’t an answer, not exactly, but she doesn’t say such and merely huffs out a breath of laughter.

“If you don’t want to then don’t,” she says, like it is simple, like saying it is something he had not considered. He supposes upon reflection that he hadn’t. Duty, a factor, and convenience too. But want? He had never thought to consider want.

He does not have much faith in himself; how can he, when he does not know himself? How can faith be placed in an unknown quantity, how can he be relied upon when he doesn’t know what sort of choices he will make? This doubt he feels in himself suddenly seems to have lifted from Arya, as if it had switched bodies. She nestles in closer, draws his arms around her tighter. Like this, his right hand rests over her stomach. It feels firm beneath his palm, rounded with life within.

“A man does not know who Jaqen H’ghar is,” he whispers into her hair, like a secret.

“A girl has met him before,” she says, low with sleep. She’s lax within his arms, and warm. “He’s alright. Bit of a prick sometimes. It’s cold, Jaqen. Go to sleep. We can figure out the rest later.”

Something within him settles, like an anchor in his soul. Jaqen H’ghar becomes , slowly and in very small steps, over the course of a night and a year and a lifetime. Tiny concessions, allowances a man gave his apprentice, a man gave a ghost, a man gave himself. Tiny preferences. Tiny likes and dislikes. Tiny choices, when choice made available.

It’s cold, and Jaqen holds Arya. And he decides that she is right: they can figure out the rest later.)

 


 

Four days later, Jaqen makes one of his first decisions:

It is snowing again. It has been doing so off and on since they’d played the lying game the other day, and the last four nights since they have been forced to sleep close together for warmth. Since his confession, since she’d begun to understand that he is just as ignorant of his motivations as she is, she has softened to him. She speaks more frequently and with more warmth, asks questions about his life as a Faceless Master that with no more obligation to the Order he isn’t required to keep secret, though continued faith to Him of Many Faces may stay his tongue. Perhaps no longer does he serve in the same way, but there is still only one God, and he knows Him well.

And she doesn’t only ask questions about his time of service, but about himself , and between the two of them they begin to fit together the pieces of the puzzle that make up Jaqen, despite the fact that pieces are missing they’re not even aware of. In this the lying game is nearly helpful, for she sees within him truths when he speaks falsely that he hadn’t been aware he’d been hiding.

“I like to debate philosophy,” he says.

“You lie,” she tells him, and then laughs at his offended look. “Jaqen, you like to debate because you like to be right . The whats and whys don’t matter.”

Later, he says, “Once when he was an acolyte, a boy finished a contract bought a day later than he was meant because he was hungover. His Master was wroth."

“This is true,” she decides after a moment, and then asks with a smirk, “but why?”

“In an attempt to settle the suspicions of a soon-to-be dead man, a boy played dice and drank with him.” He grimaces. “I’d never had sweet wine from the Arbor before that. I… overindulged.” Arya crows with laughter and he allows himself a smile. She laughs even harder when he admits, "When a boy realized he'd passed the limit of his time on the contract, he had to hurry. I may have neglected to put pants on before delivering the gift."

“This is true!” she says again, delighted. “Faceless and pantless! And it explains why you prefer dry whites to sweet reds now. You drank less of the red at meal within the House, when it was served.” He comments on what a strangely specific thing to notice, and she shrugs. “You were my Master, I sought to emulate you. Though to my memory, I never forgot my pants.”

And later still, he says, “Umma the cook passed from this world a few months after a girl left the House. She caught a chill in her chest and died in the night.”

She turns fully to stare at him, blinking in surprise. “This is true,” she murmurs. “And also a lie. She did not die in the night. What happened, Jaqen?”

He nods, acknowledgement of her insight. “She did catch a chill, and within a few days her cough grew wet. My kindly brother gave her the gift from the pool at her request.” He bows his head, and she does as well. “ Valar morghulis. It is the way of things.”

“Yes,” she agrees, “ valar morghulis. It is still sad, when they do. You are allowed to mourn.”

He blinks. “I don’t mourn.”

This time her smile is sad. “You lie. Even when you were no one you liked Umma. Everyone did.” It does not even occur to him that he is upset over the death of the cook that he’d known nearly his whole life, since he’d come to the House, until she tells him that he is. He reflects and discovers that she is right. He is upset. After telling her this, they spend an hour discussing their favorite meals the old woman would make.

And so, in preference and likes and dislikes and tiny choice when choice made available, he and Arya learn Jaqen. It gives them something to do on the road, some way to pass the time, and though Arya had seemed content to travel in silence for the first two weeks together she seems a bit more spirited now. It almost seems as though they have regressed, harkened back to the nostalgic times of her apprenticeship where his concessions allowed Arya Stark to shine a bit through the no one he tried to make her become; except it feels like progression instead, built off of their shared foundation of old camaraderie into something else, something new.

Still, there are some things Arya is not willing to discuss. Though they come together at night to share heat between them, with dawn comes distance; when the sun rises they part, and she seems unwilling to suffer physical touch without the cover of darkness. Neither do they speak of of this fresh and fragile habit they've formed, of the way she seems to enjoy most when he sleeps with a hand on her stomach, for when he tries carefully to ask of it on the third morning she turns red and tells him to go fuck a camel cunt and then stomps off to make water. Despite her vitriol at sunrise, that sunset finds her once again staring at him until he opens his arms in offering and she sidles close. Jaqen H'ghar, he discovers this way, is a selfish man, and willing to take whatever he can get. He does not force the conversation for fear of pushing her away. For the benefit of heat and comfortable sleep, of course.

Another thing he does not know because she will not speak of it is the identity of the father of her child. The longer she dodges the subject or skirts around it the more he is convinced the man is dead, slain in one of the various battles the Starks have thrown themselves into since the bastard’s conception. Either that or someone so below her station as to be shameful; a concept that he knows she personally doesn’t adhere to, but may wish to keep from her sister Sansa, who Arya hopes will agree to foster the bastard and raise it as a trueborn Stark.

He is contemplating this, the man whose child Arya carries, when she points out smoke ahead of them. “There shouldn’t be a working inn on this road yet,” she says curiously. “Not until we reach the Crossroads.” All other buildings they’ve passed have been abandoned, their inhabitants dead or fled away from the Kingsroad and the soldiers that march up and down it.

“A camp, perhaps,” he hums. The further North they get the less they meet others on the road, and most campsites they’ve seen have been days old and empty. Once, they’d come across one to find the handful of travelers there dead, their corpses frozen stiff and still curled up as if in sleep; died in the night to exposure. They’d taken what little of value the dead had left behind.

It is just barely midmorning, the two of them only having been traveling or an hour or so and Arya hasn’t yet called for her first inevitable break. They share a glance and keep moving forward. When they reach the source of the smoke, it’s to find a building, perhaps a small inn once, that’s fallen into disrepair. Half of the structure has collapsed upon itself, the roof caved in, but the two rooms still standing intact have firelight in their windows. The two of them draw to a halt a hundred feet away from the building, eyeing it thoughtfully.

“This was empty when Sandor and I came South,” Arya says, voice quiet so as not to carry. He has by now heard the story of Sandor Clegane. Valar morghulis , but some part of him wishes they'd met for he thinks that he owes the Hound for the care he'd shown a lovely girl, as rough as that care may have been.

“Travelers, like us,” he guesses. His horse shuffles beneath him, tossing its head with a snort.

She sniffs at the air, nose raised like a dog, and groans. “They’re cooking something, I can smell it. Gods I’m starving.”

She may well be. They hadn’t found any game the day before and she’d had to resort back to her dried meat and a bowl of porridge, which she’d gotten sick from for the first time over a week. They’d talked still, but the day had passed rather miserably for her, and she'd spent the night shivering in his arms.

“Perhaps they will be willing to part with some of it?”

She frowns and shakes her head slightly. “I have little money. When I came to King’s Landing I didn’t think I’d have to find my own way back North.” He reads her face. She’s lying; she didn’t think she’d come back North at all. It's a relatively harmless lie, though, so he lets her have it. She is here now.

“Favor, then? Reimbursement, when we’ve reached Winterfell. They would be fool to turn you away in your condition.”

She shakes her head again. “I don’t want to make it known,” she says, but then her stomach growls so audibly that he can hear it from the saddle of her own horse. “You little shit,” she hisses to her middle accusingly. She hasn’t been so acerbic with her bastard since discovering she could eat burnt meat, and Jaqen sends her an admonishing look.

“Kindly, lovely girl, kindly ,” he reminds her. She snorts.

“If you want to be so kindly towards it then you carry it,” she huffs. Then she kicks her horse forwards, angling it towards the building. He follows with a shrug. When they come near they hear movement within the house and see shadows against the firelight in the windows. “Hullo!” Arya calls out from her horse. After a minute the door in the front opens marginally, just enough for a person to sidle out halfway and aim a crossbow at them. He watches as Arya tenses.

“W-who goes?” the man in the door shouts. His voice is trembling, as is his hold on the crossbow. It’d be less threatening if it were a bow and arrow; a crossbow can still misfire with force.

“Arya Stark, of Winterfell,” she says. There’s authority in her voice that he has not heard her use before, not even when she spoke so damningly to him. “We mean you no harm. Our supplies run low and we would be happy to pay you for anything you’d be willing to share.”

“There’s an inn t-two days North,” the man with the crossbow tells them, gesturing up the road. “Go b-beg there.” From inside the building, a woman’s voice calls out a question.

"Did she say Stark? "

The man pales, turns hisses back through the partially opened door, “It's n-n-nobody! Just s-so-some beggars. St-stay inside.”

“The girl is pregnant,” Jaqen says, gesturing to Arya, who shoots him a glare. “We would appreciate any assistance you have to give.”

Pregnant? ” the woman’s voice comes from within again, the man with the crossbow begins trembling harder. “Move, Bors.” And then the man named Bors is pushed forcefully to the side as a gaunt woman takes his place in the doorway, her brown hair thinning and stringy. “A Stark of Winterfell, pregnant?” She licks her lips and wipes her hands on her heavy skirts, then squints up at the two of them on horseback. “Yes. Yes of course we have assistance to offer, m’lady, m’lord! Anything for a lady of Stark. You've got the look of them, m'lady, you do. Please, please come in, there’s a stew in the pot. Got lucky with some snares and caught a few rabbits, m’lady. Please come in!” She licks her lips again.

He exchanges a glance with Arya. Something is unsettling with the woman, but the man seems frightened and more like to throw the crossbow at them than shoot it. A conversation, unspoken, communicated in facial expression: A raised eyebrow. Do we risk it? A glance down at her stomach. You need food. A small shake of her head. I can wait. An assessing look at Bors with the crossbow. They are not a threat to us. She bites her lip. It may not be worth it. He looks at her stomach again. But it might. Five seconds they converse without language before she nods her head to the woman. “We would be grateful,” she says, and dismounts. He follows her, dropping from his own horse.

“Wonderful,” the woman says, smiling, then pushes at Bors. He fumbles with the crossbow. “Go take their horses ‘round back. Please, m’lord, m’lady, come inside.” Another silent exchange between the two ex-assassins and then he goes with Bors and the horses while Arya is ushered inside. The woman chatters as they go, and Bors continues trembling as he leads Jaqen to a hitching post around the side of the building, protected by a snow-covered thatch awning. A few yards away a couple hens cluck from within a dilapidated coop. As he ties the horses, Bors drops the crossbow, which upon impact shoots its bolt off back in the direction of the road, and the sounds makes one of the hens squawk in surprise.

“Sorry,” Bors gasps, scrambling to pick up his weapon and missing the way he palms a dagger reactively. Trembling violently, he reloads the bolt with clumsy hands. “I-I’m not u-used to the cold.”

“Have you needed to use that yet?” he asks; upon a closer inspection, Bors is more boy than man, made to look bigger than he truly is by the layer upon layer of furs he wears, with a barely-there scruff of hair on his chin.

Bors gives a shaky shrug. “N-not here. We’ve o-only been here a few days. C-can’t be too c-c-careful.” Then, as they finish securing the horses and go around back to the front, he asks, “I-is she really Arya S-stark?”

Recognition. Damning, for a Faceless Man. But then he supposes that Arya Stark was never really one of those. Instead he just nods in reply. Instead of looking surprised or awed, Bors just looks more afraid. Another warning bell rings in his head, but he maintains his earlier opinion that a frightened boy and a skinny woman are no threat to him and his vicious little mother wolf.

The building must certainly have been an inn at some point; there is a large empty space devoid of tables or chairs, but a warm crackling fire in the hearth with the furniture used for kindling. Three packs rest against the wall just to the side of the door, each with a bedroll. It is in front of this fire that he finds Arya and the thin woman, and a man in a half-set of armor with a broadsword. Arya sits on the floor with a bowl of stew that she’s devouring with all the grace and poise of a feral dog while the thin woman putters around nervously and the large armored man leans against the wall, arms crossed and watching silently. When Arya’s eyes raise to meet his they flit briefly to the man in armor and then narrow meaningfully, and now he knows to keep an eye on that one. And then she takes another large bite of stew and moans around full cheeks, and now he knows that at least the food is good.

The woman titters about how honored they are to host m’lord and m’lady of Winterfell, and he doesn’t bother to correct her on his own identity. She prattles endless about supporting the Starks and how they’d prayed for the Dragon Queen to smite down the wicked Cersei and how thankful they were for protection, and when he gets his own helping of stew he takes a few bites and then swaps his full bowl for Arya’s empty one and she finishes his off, too. The woman, still unidentified, keeps telling them things she thinks they want to hear. Bors keeps trembling. The armored man keeps staring.

Arya meets his eyes once more and nods slightly. They need to leave, and soon. Something is wrong.

When Arya finishes eating they make their excuses to leave. She fishes a few silvers from her coin purse, enough to cover the food had it been for sale at an inn, and neither of them miss the way the armored man eyes the purse assessingly. The thin woman insists on giving them more furs. It's cold, she says, and getting colder, and really she does insist, won't m'lady come into the other room just to see what extra clothes they have and decide if they want some? Arya smiles and nods, and he sees how her hands fall under her cloak to the hilt of her sword.

He counts in his head. The armored man shifts his weight where he stands. Bors shakes so hard it rattles his boots against the floor and tightens his grip on the crossbow. It takes minute for the sound of a scuffle, and a second more for a feminine scream, and the armored man who still hasn't said a word lunges, broadsword raised to strike.

Jaqen, still on the ground, tucks and rolls to the side instead of rising, and when the armored man tries to check the momentum of his blade, already traveling down through the air towards the space the assassin's head had been a second ago, he takes the brief opportunity to draw a knife from his belt and stab it into the back of the man's knee, sending him sprawling to the ground with a shout. The armor clatters noisily against the floor, and the weight of the heavy metal chestplate keeps him from immediately getting back up. It is a simple thing to lean forward and drive the knife into the unprotected skin at the base of his scalp. The armored man seizes, twitching on the floor, and then stills. Six seconds since a woman screamed. Arya has still not appeared.

When he pulls the knife from the armored man's skull Bors makes a sound like a wounded goat, high and bleating, and lifts the crossbow. Clearly unused to the weight, the boy can't raise it high enough quickly enough and releases the bolt too early; instead of sinking into his gut the bolt punches through the leather of his jerkin above his hip, slicing through the material and scraping off the first few layers of skin. Enough to make him bleed, but largely superficial. He grimaces nonetheless. He likes this armor, and between the hole in the shoulder from Arya's knife and this new tear at the hip, repairs will be costly. He throws his knife at the boy, and when it slices the skin of his throat right beneath his jaw Bors screams again and stumbles back, dropping his crossbow and tripping over himself to lean against a wall, his entire body shaking and hands at his throat. Nine seconds since a woman screamed. Arya has still not appeared.

Jaqen gets to his feet and stalks to the door Arya and the thin woman disappeared through, kicking the crossbow away from the cowering boy as he goes. Even as he approaches the door busts open; Arya, her thin bravos dancing blade drawn, pauses at sideface in the doorway. The two of them inspect each other in a small handful of seconds, assessing damage. She isn't even breathing heavily, looking remarkably composed but for the red gore covering half the length of her skinny metal toothpick and the way her non-dominant hand shields the round rise of her womb. When she sees the wound on his hip, visibly red and weepy through the tear in his armor, she raises an eyebrow at him and he gives her a chastising look.

"Getting old, Jaqen?" she asks, smirking. "Can't move out of the way fast enough anymore?"

"A man faced two," he sniffs. "A girl faced one. And both of his had weapons." He leans to the side to glance around her into the other room. It's as empty as this one, but for the thin woman who moans pitifully on the floor, hands pressed to her stomach and blood pooling beneath her. She will not be long for the world.

"One of yours still moves," Arya observes. She smiles a wolf's smile, a predator with limping prey in sight. He glances behind him to see Bors, weeping quietly and still holding his throat, huddled against the wall.

"P-p-please," the boy whimpers, "p-pl-lease." He's trembling so heavily that in the effort of stemming the blood dripping from his throat he's smeared it across his skin with his hands. "I t-t-t-tried t-to ma-make you leav-ve. I-I knew t-t-t-they'd d-d-d--" He inhales raggedly, and Arya's malicious smirk has fallen into a mildly neutral frown. "I d-didn't know t-them much, t-t-they were b-bad people --"

"He did try to turn us away," she says thoughtfully. "Probably knew they'd try to jump us and didn't want the trouble." Behind them is a deathrattle, and when he turns to look the thin woman has stopped breathing, her hands falling limp. The armored man too lies dead in front of the hearth, the deep puncture in his skull leaking blood and the thin grayish matter of brain. When Arya walks towards him, sword still drawn, the boy sobs and crawls back further against the wall. She squats in front of him to get a better look at his wound and then, with a surprised grunt, tips backwards slightly and plops onto her rear, not having accounted for the added weight of her unborn bastard upsetting her balance. Bors, still twisted away from them in fear, doesn't see. Jaqen however does, and Arya sends him a murderous look, daring him to comment as she pushes herself back up to her feet. He raises his hands defensively. When she speaks again her voice is gruff with embarrassment. "What do we do with him?"

He blinks at the boy, and then looks at Arya and tilts his head. "Clarify," he says, as she sometimes does. What is there to do?

She gestures to the boy's throat. "He is cut deep enough that he may bleed out unless he's treated." Bors' sobbing becomes louder and he curls in on himself like a beaten dog. "We have options on how to handle this. Leave him to either die slowly, or not; give him the gift of mercy; attempt to treat him. I intend to take their shit," and here she gestures to the three packs against the wall by the door. "They're dead, they don't need it, I do."

He nods, understanding. He sees the prudency in taking what supplies they can use. Cloaks, socks, blankets; such things are worth their weight in gold on nights when it snows and the already freezing temperature plummets further. And the packs themselves too, fill one with what's left of the broken remains of furniture and there is dry kindling for a warm fire, a luxury. The chickens outside, meat. These are things they need, for they will only get colder and hungrier as they continue North and she carries her child further along.

But, if they take these things, the boy will die of starvation or exposure one, assuming the wound in his throat doesn't do him in.

It should not be a difficult decision. He has killed before, easily and without hesitation or regret. He kills like it is breathing, like the air escaping the lungs of a dying man fills his own. He's killed men and women and children, for contracts bought or for mercy or for the want and will of a vengeful ghost or for the simple inconvenience of their presence. He's never needed reason to kill before, only direction .

Speak three names, and a man will do the rest.

He looks at her. "What do you want a man to do?"

Arya narrows her eyes at him, looks considering. Says slowly, "What does a man want to do?" They both turn to look at the weeping boy and when he turns back to look at her again, expression troubled, Arya sighs heavily. "Think on it," she says. "I'm going to go check the thin woman and see how many socks she's wearing." And she wipes her bloody Needle on his shirt, ignoring his annoyed grunt, and sheaths it. Instead of smirking at his aggravation as he'd expected, she just tilts her head at him. "A man should be bloody," she tells him. "This is his work." And then she leaves him to his decision.

It is said among the Faceless Men that all babes are born with a dark angel who walks beside them in their life, and takes them into the darkness of death when it is their time. He walks, slowly, towards the boy crying and bleeding on the floor. He looks barely as old as Arya does, though clearly not nearly so capable. Even younger perhaps. He kneels beside Bors as he has done to hundreds of similarly weeping people at the stone pool in the House, ready to give them the gift. There is… responsibility to this though, that the giving of those gifts were not weighed by. Who is Jaqen H'ghar? What sort of man is he? What sort of sword, and who wields him?

What choices will he make?

"She is right," he tells the boy, reaching to pick up his knife where it had landed from the throw. "You will probably die of that wound. If it does not continue bleeding and you don't die of blood loss then it will likely fester and a fever will take you within the week." Bors weeps harder, the wracking sobs forcing more blood out from between his fingers. "We do not have the means to treat you, nor can we afford to take you with us." In old Valyria, the first Faceless Man heard slaves begging for death. He asks quietly, "What do you want?"

The boy takes a deep hiccuping breath, rattling and wet. "I w-w-w-want my mama ."

Jaqen nods. "Where is she?"

"K-k-king's Land-ding. She d-d-d--- The d-d-dragons…"

Jaqen nods again. "I will take you to her," he says, the same sad softness in his voice that he'd used to comfort those seeking the gift of the pool in the House. But here is the difference: no one had mimed that sad softness. Jaqen feels it. And he takes his knife once more and jams it between the boy's fingers and into the skin under his chin. Bors dies instantly, and Jaqen catches his body as it goes limp and slowly lowers it until he is laying, almost peaceful, on the ground. He stays there for a long, long moment.

When he turns, Arya is watching him from the doorway once more with an indiscernible look. "It is done." His voice comes out more hoarse than he was expecting and he clears his throat. Jaqen H'ghar has killed for her before, but this is the first time he has killed for himself.

She nods at him. It is neither approval nor disapproval. He reaches out to close the boy's eyes, and then rises to assist.

They strip the bodies of their socks and cloaks, but those are the only articles of clothing of worth. Bedrolls, dried rations. No tent unfortunately. She eats the rest of the rabbit stew while he slaughters the two thin chickens in the coop and inexpertly butchers the meat. By the time they've finished scavenging and cooking what little meat is salvageable from the scrawny birds it's late afternoon, and neither of them see a point to continuing down the road and having to camp for the night when they can sleep under a roof with a lit hearth. He rolls the three dead bodies outside, props them up in the snow as warning to any travelers in the night, while she unhappily vomits up half the stew. When the sun sets and they curl up together, feeling almost comfortable with extra padding beneath them and a warm fire close by, she shivers against his front and occasionally lets out tiny pathetic coughs.

"You're catching a chill," he murmurs into her hair.

"Fuck off," she says muzzily, and he chuckles. "I'm from the North, we don't get chills." He hums agreeably and pointedly says nothing when she coughs once more. A minute passes, and then she asks, "Why did you do it?" It could be an accusation, but it's not. It is a question, a curiosity. She asks it the way she would ask him to repeat a swordplay maneuver so she could better see the forms. Simple want of explanation.

He thinks on it for long enough that she must assumes he won't answer, and she nudges her hip back against his irritably. He squeezes his arm against her side until she stills. "Mercy," he decides finally. It doesn't seem like an adequate reason to him until he says it aloud, but now he knows; yes, mercy. Given by Jaqen H'ghar. For no other reason than Jaqen H'ghar felt mercy necessary.

She is quiet for a minute; he retaliates for earlier by nudging her back and she lifts a hand to swat at his shoulder, the angle awkward. He chuckles again. Then, quietly, "He asked for his mother. He cried for her."

"Yes," he agrees. Her stomach, swollen with life, is firm beneath his palm. (She'd kissed that palm, once. (He banishes this thought.))

"Do you think--" she asks, and then cuts herself off. He cannot know what question she had thought, what timid vulnerability she would have had his opinion on, but he also cannot help but imagine it.

Do you think my child will cry for me?

She doesn't speak again that night, so he doesn't either, and once she slips into slumber he holds her even closer, hand over her stomach, and wonders at the choices they have both made.

Chapter Text

Soon, he learns another lesson in being, and feeling:

Helplessness.

An inn two days North the boy had said, one that Arya confirms to be the Crossroads, but how long it will actually take them to get there he isn’t certain. Despite her very emphatic denial that Northerners don’t get chills, the morning after they arrive at the dilapidated building and kill it’s traitorous inhabitants, Arya has a difficult time waking and her nostrils are crusted with dried mucus from her nose running in the night.

When she was his apprentice, when they were protected by the thick walls of the House, he knew her as not necessarily slow to wake but certainly unhappy to; it was a favored punishment of his if she displeased him in some way, whether by action or behavior, to throw a bucket of water on her to pull her from her sleep. It had never failed to amuse him the way she would wake, screeching like a cat tossed into the canal, nor how she would glare at him hatefully with dripping hair over the meal table when they broke their fast with the other Masters and acolytes. Other mornings, those mornings following nights where she’d shared dreams with her wolf, he’d use his staff to poke her awake; a lesson learned from the first morning he’d tried to shake her out of a wolfdream, concerned by her sniffing and grunting and twitching, and she’d lashed out with a growl and sunk her blunt teeth into his wrist. That had been a most awkward fast breaking.

Since joining her on her expedition North, she’s proven to be a far more efficient and economic waker, drifting almost seamlessly from the world of dreams and into awareness. She wakes without assistance now, and sometimes even before he does, and some days she even startles him as she rises without warning from her bedroll, having given no physical indication that she’d woken, lying supine one moment and rolling to her feet the next. Jaqen is unsure if this is just a development of hers, a sign of maturation and leaving childhood and childhood flaws behind, or a habit born of necessity of travel and the knowledge that dead sleep and drowsy awakenings have no safe place on the road. Both, possibly; from what he’s gleaned of her life up to this point, there has been little to no break from difficulty, no lull in the trials she’s faced. Indeed, perhaps her time as his apprentice in the House is the safest and most comfortable she’s been since her first stay in King’s Landing, before her father was beheaded, as tenuous as that safety and comfort must have felt in the presence of so many assassins (and especially one who enjoyed waking her with buckets of water).

But that particular morning, despite the fire still burning in the hearth, lower now from neglect but easily stoked when he rises to do so, Arya merely curls tighter into herself when he pulls away from her, burrowing further into the nest of bedrolls and blankets they’ve made on the floor. He lets her sleep as he feeds the fire and checks on the horses outside. Snares, the thin woman had said, that they’d caught rabbits in, but if they are still set up outside the building then he cannot find them, and he’s loathe to venture too far into the surrounding snowy wood and leave Arya on her own. When he comes back inside, eager for the warmth of the fire and stomping snow off his boots, she still sleeps, though her breathing wheezes from her audibly in tiny squeaks and she’s shivering despite the extra blankets and the fire in the hearth. He’s concerned to discover that her skin is feverish and clammy to the touch, and when he finally forces her awake by pulling her upright and having her lean back against him, she coughs up phlegm, spitting it indelicately to the side.

Furniture would be delightful, a chair at this point a blessing, but he knows the sacrifice of accoutrement for kindling to have been a prudent decision on the part of the building’s previous tenants. Instead, he bundles her up in all the bundling he can find and sets her as close to the fire as he dares. Her skin of wine has long since run empty, but thankfully it seems the armored man had indulged in drink for they’d found two bottles of strong Dornish amber in his pack, though one of those bottles is nearer to empty than not. This alcohol is of a likeness of strength to her own, though dry and nearly bitter with tannin, and he warms some in a pot by the hearth. He takes a mouthful himself before letting her have some, ignoring her grumblings; he coughs at the dry fire that tears down his throat and into his stomach, but after a moment his whole body feels warmed.

“Careful,” he tells her hoarsely when he’s handed her a gently steaming cup of the warmed wine, and she manages two sips before gagging, tossing her blankets askew and bolting to a corner to vomit. He hesitates, unsure of whether or not her pride will allow her to tolerate compassion, but after the third time he watches her entire body heave violently as it struggles to empty an already-emptied stomach he follows to crouch beside her, one hand holding back the dark braid of her hair from where it threatens to fall forward and the other settled between her shoulders.

“This little monster is going to kill me,” she says shakily; for the first time, he hears actual trepidation in her voice, an honest tremor in her words that belies her attempt at flippancy. Whenever she speaks so ruefully about her bastard, it’s always with the air of a tasteless joke, or aggravation, as if even as her body does the duty of women she comforts herself by disdaining it. Now she speaks as if for the first time she’s actually considering the threat to her health the babe poses, not just the inconvenience of its existence.

“It hasn’t even quickened yet,” he says with a shrug. “It doesn’t know you well enough to want to kill you.” She sends him a waspish look even as she accepts the hand he offers to help her to her feet.

“There’s been plenty of people who’ve wanted to kill me without knowing me,” she tells him, voice dry. She moves slowly, as if sore, when he guides them back over to the hearth, and needs assistance lowering herself back onto the little nest by the fire. “What’s one more to the list?” When he refills the cup with more warm wine she sends him a supremely offended look. “And now I think you’re trying to kill me. Again. Do you want me to vomit on you?”

“Try,” he urges, and after some vicious muttering she takes another smaller sip. This one she manages to keep down, and the next as well, though when she pairs the third with a bite of blackened chicken he can see her visibly force down a rising gorge.

In this slow, methodical manner of taking a sip and waiting, then taking a bite and waiting, they suffer through their morning meal, and even this seems to sap her of strength instead of renew it as she shivers pathetically afterwards, eyes closed and face pallid. She sniffs frequently and violently, struggling to contain the running of her nose, and admits after a while, “I don’t even think I have the energy to be embarrassed about this.”

“A man has seen worse,” he assures her. He has, and she knows it: they’ve both cleaned the various bodily fluids of the dead; the function of bowels loosened without human instinct to keep particular muscles from laxing; the noxious vomiting after a poison administered as the body tries to eject what ails it and damns itself in the process; blood and viscera from daggers or swords or knives or staves. A little mucus is nothing to him, a fact which he proves by taking the fabric of one of the blankets in his hand and wiping her nose with it, mock-doting. Her said nose, red and crusty, wrinkles.

“Yuck,” she says, but then takes his wrist and keeps his hand with the blanket held aloft against her nose as she blows it loudly and wetly.

“Yuck,” he agrees. She smirks at him, but shortly after this her eyes grow dim and glassy and she leans against his side, seeking the warmth his body provides. Within minutes she’s slipped back into a fitful sleep, muscles trembling and sweat beading on her brow, and Jaqen finds he is unwilling to force her awake again.

This day passes slowly, the inching crawl of tedium; Arya sleeps, occasionally wakes briefly to choke down some food and wine, sleeps again. She gets up to make water as little as she possibly can, citing soreness in her bones and a dislike of the possibility that she’ll (in her words) freeze her cunt off. He points out that generally speaking women lack parts to freeze off, and she shockingly doesn’t continue the topic of argument, something he first assumes is a rare show of maturity to not engage in squabbling but then realizes it more because she is too exhausted to summon the energy to do it.

Morning slips into afternoon, and afternoon slips into evening. Two days travel on the road is a working inn, with warm food and soft beds. Or at least, warmer food and softer beds than this drafty building provides. Two days, only one more if they’d been able to travel, but Arya sleeps and wheezes and sniffs and shivers and coughs and he doesn’t want to press her into marching unless absolutely necessary. She’s a hardy little thing, always has been; he’s seen her burdened by sickness of flesh very rarely, and only once to such an extent as this that he can recall, when they'd been freerunning across the rooftops of Braavos and she'd slipped on a loose shingle and tumbled into the canal below. The weather, so often gray and foggy, had been especially cool and wet that week, raining even as he fished her out of the canal, and by the time they'd returned to the House she was already sneezing and coughing. She’d been laid up in bed with a fever for near to a week after that.

Sleep, he's learned, is often the best cure for her ailments. Sleep and food and warmth and time. The first of these things is easily allowed, but the others… food is sparse, kindling spent cannot easily be refreshed, and time the resource most restricted. Each day that passes with less progress forward than the last makes him wonder more and more, though quietly for to bring it up would be to risk Arya's ire when they've only so recently reached a truce, if they will even reach Winterfell by the time the babe decides it's ready to be born. Indeed, he fears now that may not even reach Moat Cailin before she's of a size to make sitting ahorse difficult enough as to be impossible. He can only hope that when the time comes to make this decision she will accept the logical and pragmatic answer and halt their journey to find her birthing bed elsewhere.

Otherwise they'll both be in for a cold, snowy labor in the wilderness, and while he has decided that he will not leave her for the time being, neither does he have desire or intention to play midwife. His hands are made for guiding life from the world, not pulling life from a womb into it.

These are thoughts he has frequently, and they cycle through his mind unkindly during this day where he has nothing to occupy himself with but thinking. He leaves her side as little as he can, very literally; she spends most of the day sleeping in his lap, the two of them sat close to the fire, her nestled into his chest and sapping as much warmth from him as she’s able while they both sit covered by a handful of blankets. Over the day and into the night her cough becomes progressively wetter and more congested, phlegm pooling in her chest, and Jaqen can do little to control or comfort it, limited as they are by resource and environment.

Were it summer, were it green and warm, he could find certain plants to make tea from to help her symptoms. Thyme, ginger, fennel, yarrow; common enough grown wild a year ago and made nearly nonexistent in winter. All he has to offer her is amber wine and charred, stringy chicken. Water is in abundance, thankfully, and he himself indulges in tiny sips of the wine only when he begins to feel the effects of the overwhelming cold, instead choosing to partake in snowmelt, boiled to cleanliness over the fire in the hearth.

Without some more effective way to help, without much choice but to wait, his unkind thoughts fill him, leaving him.... anxious, in a way that he’s never been anxious before. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, found their way to the Many-Faced God through his means, and never has he felt fear or discontent at the work he has been designed for. His body, his soul, is not designed for purposelessness, not designed for worry. Even those contracts when he had to watch and wait for his dead quarry for weeks did not feel as much like inaction as this one day does.

He worries for the time that they waste, he worries for their food stores so recently restocked falling low again, he worries for the girl shivering in his lap. He worries that she will not recover; he worries that, so weakened by the bastard in her womb tearing through her energy hungrily and selfishly without any care to the health of the mother carrying it, she will wither and die. A faceless sword, the Wolf of Dawn, Arya Stark the Nightsbane-- she is still, despite all else that she is in addition, only human, and he knows too well how fragile humans can truly be.

And if she is gone, what is there for him? Had he not considered killing her, and after her himself? Was that not his original intention upon leaving Braavos? Chasing ultimately his death? He has nothing but her now, no purpose beyond the lovely girl in his arms, cast from his House and his siblings and his duty to Him of Many Faces. He is still discovering who he is, perhaps, but he has so discovered this: without Arya Stark, it would be a bleak world for Jaqen H’ghar indeed.

Preferences, likes and dislikes, choice made when choice available; he has discovered so recently want, and on the heels of want possession, the sin of owning and belonging and being owned. And, wanting leads to not wanting, and he does not want Arya to die.

He would pray it to Him, if he were not still so devout, if doing so did not still feel like sacrilege.

And so he discovers helplessness, and fear, and thinks these thoughts to himself silently as he stares into the fire, his chin resting on the top of Arya’s head while she sniffles and coughs against him.

 


 

And another lesson yet:

Boredom.

The heart can hold fear only so long before one of two outcomes is made true; either the heart is overwhelmed with fear and stops, or assimilates to it and becomes numb. Muscles can only stay tense for so long before either cramping or loosening, and Jaqen worries himself to exhaustion and falls asleep at some point in the night with Arya still huddled into him. The next morning she wakes long enough to eat and drink some more, and cough violently, but now the congestion within her loosens and she’s able to cough up the phlegm that had clung to her throat and lungs. Unflattering, perhaps, the way she hacks and snorts and then spits, but better this than aspiration.

This day too passes without them leaving their won shelter, and again Arya sleeps through most of it, but she coughs more and wheezes less. As the hours pass he considers the decisions they have both made that have brought them to this point, and when he bores of that musing that he’s indulged in so often over the last few months he instead thinks to recall the passages of one of his favored books left behind in Braavos. And once he bores of that, he creates in his mind a cyvasse board and plays against himself the way his Master taught him to do when he was but a simple acolyte to sharpen his memory and instinct for strategy.

Much like he is able to calculate dates and times, so too can he bring to mind writings or conversations, memories which play within his mind with perfect clarity, a mummers show of truth and fact behind his eyelids. It has been most helpful in his life to deliver the gift for contracts bought; when he was a Master, he excelled in long term, undercover missions for his ability to perfectly remember the details of a cover, impossible for all but those trained in the lying game to catch him within a lie.

Now he uses this unique talent to try to entertain himself while Arya sleeps through the second day in a row.

He thinks first of lessons, failures and triumphs both, and both too lessons he sought to teach his apprentice and lessons he’d learned during his own time as a pupil. It has become an exercise in becoming for him, to remember events of his youth and allow himself the emotion he’d denied during their happening; by the time he was old enough to begin sparring with weapons he’d already had hubris beaten out of him, and so he recalls his first time successfully lying to his Master, his first time disarming one of his apprentice brothers with his staff when they’d laughed at him for choosing a stick as a weapon instead of a sword, his first time giving the gift for a contract. At the time there was acknowledgement, a quiet affirmation of his skill, a nod to himself that yes, he is capable-- but no happiness, and no pride, for happiness and pride belonged to someone and he was so determined to be no one.

So he thinks of these things now, and feels that warmth in his gut that he has come to associate with goodness, with spectacularity. Pride, so damning as it was when he was a Faceless Man, seems nearly heady now to Jaqen H’ghar.

He thinks of his own apprentice. The lessons she’d succeeded at, the ones she’d failed, how she was adept at giving the gift and often vicious in her delivery but had difficulty reserving judgement for it. The mummer Crane was not her only hesitation, he knows. But far more than her failings were her successes, and she excelled at being unnoticed. She had a rather singular talent of blending that he’d noticed on the road when they were both false crow recruits and she was a girl who was a boy; and noticed again at Harrenhal, when she was a ghost inside a mouse and a wolf inside a ghost. He’d tried to hone this talent, to show her what it means to be the shadow unseen and how much power that gives a man, or a girl.

When she’d first hit the center target with three throwing knives in a row; her aim had ever been impeccable but the knives were a new balance to grow used to as opposed to the bow and arrow, and when she’d landed hit after hit, thunk thunk thunk, she’d smiled her vicious little wolf’s smile and he’d struck her for the hubris. Now, he lets himself feel pride for her victory, and guilt for his treatment of it, though at the time he’d been justified in his actions. Kindness only when it benefited her, and cruelty too; no one cannot be a vicious wolf.

When she’d been assigned a test against the skill of a fellow apprentice, both of them given the same dead man’s name and told to race against each other. So caught up were they both in the competition, so caught up in getting to their shared target first and sabotaging the other, that neither of them realized their target was a Faceless Master until Jaqen’s brother had incapacitated them both. Both apprentices had failed, and he’d had to drill into her concentration and focus. Her disappointment had been palpable, and at the time he hadn’t allowed himself similar feelings; he feels them now, his personal disappointment, the commiseration he’d felt for his fellow Master whose own student had failed.

His edict to lose her maidenhead, her asking it of him. How clinically he’d viewed it, the distance that he’d forced himself to face the request with. He could have wanted, but he didn’t let himself, not until she’d kissed his palm and damned him into wanting with his blood upon her lips. Now-- no. Now, she is pregnant with another man’s bastard and relying upon him to help her get North. This want he cannot allow himself to feel the way he now allows himself to feel pride or embarrassment. This want has no place between them. Perhaps once, but not now; damned though he himself is with it, so too loathe is he to damn her with it as well. He forces this memory from his mind.

Pushing himself from these thoughts, he instead considers the bastard babe itself.

Baratheon, she’d said. Or rather, not a Baratheon. He knows no living Baratheons. At least, none acknowledged. It is no secret that the fat King Robert had sown his royal oats across the land, but those bastards of royal blood had been scattered to the wind and most not only unacknowledged but largely unaware of their heritage. Could it be possible he’d misunderstood her meaning? Unlikely, for she’d spoken truly enough. More likely, though improbable, that she’d met and fallen in with one of these bastards, but then why say Baratheon at all? Bastards are viewed more kindly in Essos than in Westeros, for true, but to invoke the name of the Rebel King for the child in her womb would be more inflammatory than admitting her bastard pup had a bastard sire.

How strangely the cyvasse game of fate plays its hands. A Targaryen Prince takes a Stark Lady from her Baratheon betrothed, damning the kingdoms to upheaval and war, the shadow of their folly stretched across decades and generations. Now, following a Targaryen siege, a Stark Lady carries the bastard child of a Baratheon herself and flees North. To think destiny would tie so many different strings together in so many convoluted ways… the Many-Faced God surely has a sense of humor.

Any child of any Stark would be subject to the grabbing hands of court; so long as there is a kingdom, there is a Game, even if that Game lacks thrones. A child of a Stark and a Baratheon, even if that Baratheon were illegitimate… yes, now he sees, now he understands the scope of her desperation to be North when she births. The Great Game has it’s due, but better to remove as many ties as she can between it and the child before her little bastard becomes so tangled in them as to choke. Again, he sees the risks she weighs: to leave the babe in the hands of her sister is to damn it into playing the game of thrones, but at least it would play for a Stark. Better that, she must assume, than the snakes in King’s Landing; and it doesn’t matter how kindly or fair is the head which wears the crown, for there will always be snakes in the court.

But, he cannot help but wonder how adamantly she must disdain this child, to not even consider raising it herself away from the game an option.

These thoughts and more fill his head that second day. He’s got more than enough time to think them.

On the third day she wakes and is able to stay awake, though her body aches and she nearly soils herself coughing. Her nose leaks like a sieve and her eyes are red-rimmed and still slightly glazed with fever, but she’s more aware than she has been the last few days past and is happy to complain about everything once more. He pours water down her throat and smiles when she whines about being bored of chicken despite only having had it as an option for a day or so, and while he’s unable to cajole her gently into moving around and stretching her joints to try to relieve some of the aching, he is able to bully her into it by holding a cup of warmed wine over his head and out of her reach, using it as incentive.

“You’re a right bastard,” she hisses at him once she’s finally done enough shivering laps around the room to please him, carefully avoiding the corner where her vomit from the morning before had congealed and then frozen in the night. He rewards her with the wine and a piece of chicken and is again reminded of a starved dog by the way she tears into the blackened flesh with a crunch of her teeth. He’d pat her head but he knows that she’d bite him; the way she glares at him with her gray wolf’s eyes gives him the impression that she knows the direction of his thoughts and agrees with them.

“A man does not recall the legitimacy of his birth, but he supposes you would be the authority on this,” he says with a little shrug. His own meal is some hardtack procured from the belongings of the armored man, who seemed to be the most prepared of the three dead. It is supremely unsatisfying but unlike Arya, he doesn’t see much point in complaining about things that cannot be helped.

She contemplates his response, and then snorts with laughter. “Yes, I see it. Arya Stark, Queen of the Bastards. I do seem to surround myself with them, don’t I? Bastard brother, bastard child, bastard child’s bastard father…”

The revelation of her words doesn’t seem to reach her until a few moments after she’s said them, and she glances at him out of the corner of her eye. A suspicion confirmed again, something he’d already surmised given legitimacy. He says nothing, letting her keep her secrets and keeping his own peace on his already having sussed them out. That her bastard is seed of a bastard matters little to him even if it is a Baratheon bastard, matters as much as the child being seed of anyone, though he knows in Westeros such things are viewed differently as he has been taught.

Still, she fidgets, seemingly uncomfortable with his lack of response, and finally snaps, “It doesn’t matter, you know. That I laid with a bastard.”

“A man knows,” he says simply. She doesn’t seem mollified by this.

“That didn’t have anything to do with anything, and it wasn’t why I left him, and it doesn’t change anything.”

“I know,” he says again.

“And I don’t care if Sansa doesn’t like it, I don’t care if it’s right or it’s proper or about any of that, it’s nobody’s business.”

“I know.”

“It doesn’t matter who the father is, because it’s not going to be his , it’s going to be mine and the North’s and a--”

“Stark,” he finishes for her. She deflates briefly to stare at him. “It’s going to be a Stark. A girl has said. A man does not argue.” He tilts his head at her. “Why do you think that I care?” He doesn’t realize how callous the question is until she flinches minutely and draws away. “I didn’t mean-- lovely girl, a man cares, of course.” Then, a concession: he allows his own grumbling admission, “That seems all he can do, now.” Her mouth tips up into a slight smile at this but it’s gone quickly, and Jaqen struggles for a moment to word this the way he truly wishes before saying, an echo of a sentiment from long ago and far away, “We judge not blood.”

She stares at him hard, lip caught between her teeth in a habit of old that she indulges in now rarely; how often as his apprentice was her bottom lip chapped and raw from chewing? And now he’s seen her do this only a small number of times in the near-moon they’d traveled together. He finds that he misses it; in the way that he has allowed himself to feel past pride and past pain, prides and pains he’d not accepted before, so too does he now allow himself to feel endeared by this tiny vulnerability. And yet, upon thinking-- had he not always found it rather endearing? Damning, but he is growing used to being damned. Damnation is not so terrible a thing as he’d once assumed.

“Well,” she says finally, still aggressive but now unsure where to aim that aggression, “good.”

This fire in her carries her aloft for another hour filled with glaring and grumbling and looks that dare him to bring the subject back up before she crashes once more, coughing until she hacks up phlegm into the corner of the blanket the two of them have deemed the snot rag (her words). When she finishes her cough the fabric in her hands is bloody.

“A girl scratched her throat, perhaps,” he murmurs. “You have been coughing quite hard.” Arya, staring at the blood, says nothing.

They don’t mention it again, not for a while; Arya eventually slips back into sleep after another bout of coughing that ends in a half-retch that thankfully brings nothing up.

Over the course of this, the third day here, several things of note happen: firstly, her fever breaks some time in the afternoon. Her skin is still sweaty but no longer is it hot to the touch, and her brief times of waking show a heightened clarity to her eyes. Her appetite returns slowly, and she reaches for the water more than the wine, and twice more she rises to pace around the length of the room and stretch her muscles before she’s worn out and must rest again. She grouses about the weariness of her body, and Jaqen is startled to realized that after two days of her sleeping near constantly he’d actually missed the complaining.

Secondly, during one of her many extended naps she has a wolfdream. He almost believes her to be awake for the twitching movement of her body and how she paws at his chest, except that she has no reason to paw at his chest, and upon realizing her movements are erratic he thinks for a moment that she is seizing, that her mild fever was more dangerous than he’d believed. He tries to shake her awake, but she growls in a familiar way, and when he doesn’t refrain she bites at him rather nastily, teeth clicking against each other as she snaps her jaws at the place his wrist had been moments before, his skin saved from teeth-shaped bruises only by his quick reflexes. When he stops shaking her she calms, snuffling closer against him, crusted nose audibly working in deep sniffs against his chest, her eyes moving under their lids.

Thirdly, and shortly after her wolfdream, other travelers happen upon the building. He hears the crunch of snow beneath horse hooves, the quiet rumbling of voices; quickly, cautiously, he eases Arya away from the cradle his body has made for her and settles her into the nest of blankets, ignoring her annoyed growling and the way she shifts into the spot he’s vacated as he rises to peer out of one of the thankfully unbroken windows. Four men, all on horses. Unarmored but armed. Covered head to toe in thick furs. Jaqen watches them inspect around the building, sees them gesture at the three bodies tossed outside in warning, the corpses now covered in snow but preserved well by the cold. They look from one window to the next, aware of inhabitants due to the glow of fire and the smoke from the chimney, and he knows the moment they see his silhouette in the window for the way they still suddenly.

There’s a brief stalemate between them. He could handle them well enough without Arya’s assistance, especially if he can get to her bandolier of knives, but he’d prefer not to-- he’s been sacrificing his appetite for hers, and is aware enough of himself to recognize that he isn’t exactly in prime fighting form. His mind is sharp still but his body grows more lethargic by the day, stomach tight and empty, and the little excess fat his body carried burned away as it now resorts to eating muscle. Arya is not the only one of the two of them at risk of starvation, though he’s disciplined the vessel that carries him to be efficient regardless.

One of the horses stomps and throws its head in a whinny, and after a long minute the men turn away and continue down the road.

He waits at the window, staring out after them for near to two hours after they’ve disappeared, his calves cramping from cold and disuse but he is determined to keep watch. He hears movement behind him; Arya shuffling, and then coughing, less wet and throaty now, and then the quiet puttering of her rising to retrieve something from one of their bags, the soft swishing noise of the blankets dragging against the floor and she takes them with her. After a moment she joins him at the window and hands him a cup of water and one of the less-burnt pieces of breast meat from the chicken. Already they’ve nearly run out, and he’s surprised that she’s offering one of the few things she’s able to eat to him instead of the hardtack he’s been gnawing on for the last few days. He shakes his head at her, thankful but denying, and she glares at him unrepentantly until he gives in and takes a bite. It’s disgusting, burnt to a crisp. How she can not only stand to eat the charred meat but crave it he will never understand.

She looks back out at the road, satisfied that he’s eating; he sees her eyes follow the trial of hooves in the snow, watches her watch the snow fall and then estimate how much time has passed since the travelers came by based on how lightly covered the tracks are.

“Four,” he supplies, before she asks. “One of the horses was directly behind another and placed its hooves in the tracks its fellow left.”

“Trail horses,” she surmises, and he nods. “Farmers? Displaced smallfolk?”

“They had weapons.”

She shrugs. “Lots of people have weapons these days.” He merely hums in reply. They both stand at the window for another few minutes before she speaks again. “We need to leave,” she says softly. He nods once more. “Tomorrow.”

He looks at her, glances her up and down; there is sweat on her brow still, but less than before, and her cheeks aren’t as rosey with heat. She stands straighter, not as hunched as if in protection, and a familiar sharpness has returned to her eyes. The wolf rises.

“Tomorrow,” he agrees.

Another half hour they stand watch together before determining that the four armed men won’t come back, and when they return to the hearth Arya draws the blankets around herself once more while he feeds kindling into the fire. They’ve reached the dregs of the wood available, and Jaqen knows that even if her strength were not returning from her short bout of illness that they would have to leave on the morrow; their resources are spent, and to stay would be to die. After building the flames he leaves briefly to check on the horses once more. They too are thinning and growing unhealthy with the neglect of winter, and he can only hope that when they reach this Crossroads inn that there will be fresh horses for purchase. Or rather, fresh horses to steal, given their lack of funds.

While he’s feeding them and checking them for sores and breaking the ice on the trough of water, he hears Arya coughing, the sound muted by the walls between them but still audible. When he returns, he sees her staring down at the blanket bunched in her hands, stained with mucus and saliva and, now, more blood than had been present before. He sits a small distance away from her, unsure of her boundaries in this moment. When she finally speaks it’s a quarter-hour later.

“My aunt died in the birthing bed,” she tells him suddenly, not looking at him. “Everyone thought Rheagar raped her to death, but he didn’t. He loved her and got her with child and then he died. And then she took a fever and she gave birth and then she died. And so all the shit that’s ever happened to my family happened because some royal idiot couldn’t be satisfied with what he had, and some stupid girl couldn’t be strong enough to stick around and deal with the consequences.” Her jaw clenches and her hands make fists in the sheets. “My aunt died in a bed of blood and Jon suffered his whole life for it. We all did.”

He breathes in. Breathes out, through his nose. Lays a hand on his knee, palm up and open, an offering. After a moment of hesitation she takes it, squeezes, and then lets go; an acknowledge of the comfort he would offer, but not an acceptance of it.

“You will not die,” he tells her, voice soft. He cannot have the authority of nature that she carries with her, cannot possess the command of a Princess and a wolf, but he was a Master once and her Master besides, and he wills that part of her so eager to please her mentor to listen to him now and heed his instruction. “A man will not let you.”

She laughs, a quiet puff of air, and places the hand she’d touched his own with on her growing stomach. “I don’t think you’ll have much say in it,” she says. “Not in this. And besides, I’m not afraid to die. That’s fine. I don’t care about that.” He shakes his head, and she continues before he can interrupt her. “No, I really don’t. Valar morghulis, Jaqen, this I know. I’ve been prepared to die since I learned about the White Walkers. Before that, even-- I was prepared to die the day I left Braavos. I don’t fear it. I fear the world I leave behind if I do. Jaqen,” she says with sudden urgency, turning to face him fully, “you’re an assassin. You may not be Faceless anymore, but you can still give the gift. If I die for this babe, don’t let someone use me as a symbol. I’m not a banner. I’m not Lyanna, and I don’t want to be. If someone would use me the way Robert used her, you kill them first.” He blinks at her, startled, surprised by the demand. “You kill them before someone can start a war. I’m so fucking sick of war, and my family is too. We deserve some rest. Valar morghulis, yes, but if I die then don’t let them use me as a rally cry, and don’t let my child be used as a tool.” She grabs his hand again, holds it tighter. “Promise me, Jaqen. Promise me.”

What sort of man is Jaqen H’ghar? What sort of choices will he make? What sort of promises? And which ones will he keep?

It costs him nothing, he decides, to promise her this thing. He costs him nothing because she will not die, and so he will never need to kill in her name to prevent another from it. She will not die, because he will not let her. Without Arya Stark it would be a bleak world for Jaqen H’ghar indeed.

“I promise this,” he tells her. She takes a deep shuddering breath, and he’s astonished to see her eyes shining and wet. Pregnancy, he determines; mood affected by the babe. She shakes her head lightly, blinking away tears, and then pulls his hand up and kisses his palm. Oh, damning. How cruel a beast, this mother wolf. “Arya.” His voice is hoarse.

She sniffs, drops his hand to wipe at her nose, and coughs, though this a cough caused by the swelling of her sinuses and not the congestion in her chest. “Sorry,” she mutters. “Sorry. I got-- sorry. I got a little carried away there. I’m fine.” At his suspicious look, she scoffs. “Truly, Jaqen. I’m fine. Just-- this useless fuck.” And she gestures at her tummy. “It’s messing with me. And I’m tired. And hungry. And cold. And sick of bloody chicken.” She clears her throat.

The silence that falls between them is heavy and awkward, and though the awkwardness eventually passes they do not talk again until that night, when cold and comfort has forced their bodies together once more. It is easier for her, he has found, to be vulnerable in the night, to say the things she will not let herself say when the sun is up. “Thank you,” she murmurs softly into the darkness, the room barely lit by the glow of the hearth. He nods, his chin scraping the top of her head; gently, guiltily, a concession to want, he kisses her hair, as he did once when she was an even smaller scared child. It means more now, though. Perhaps to the both of them.

She takes his hand in hers, resting over her stomach, and threads their fingers together. Palm to palm, the kiss of hands.

Jaqen doesn’t sleep well that night.

 


 

And still another, for all it seems he can do now is care and learn:

Jealousy.

After the trial of her sickness, the trip to the Crossroads is shockingly easygoing. They set out the next morning, and during her first break to make water a couple hours later she spots a herd of deer and manages to fell one of the scrawnier ones with a throwing knife through the eye. Impeccable aim; he supposes she’s well motivated. They take an hour to harvest meat off the kill, packing it in the cleanest strips of fabric they have available and storing it in a saddlebag. Not preferable to cooking it immediately, but the cold will keep the meat long enough to last through the day. Besides, he knows she’ll just have him burn it to hell and back anyway. To her astonishment, he takes his own knife and opens the deer’s throat, draining the steaming lifeblood and collecting it in one of the now-empty wine bottles they’d been using to keep snowmelt.

He sees her aghast look and shrugs. “It’s nutritious. Mix it into the porridge or with drink and it becomes more fortifying.”

“That’s disgusting,” she says, but she still watches in fascination. He finds her reaction humorous, considering she's the one of the two of them who dreams of sharing a body with a man-eating direwolf.

They make startlingly good time that day, something he attributes to the fact that she falls asleep in the saddle and he is able to lead their horses further than she would if she’d been awake and willing. That night he roasts the meat over the campfire and the both of them stare hungrily as it cooks. He boils some of the blood, and again her nose scrunches in distaste but she stares avidly nonetheless, fascinated despite her revulsion. He mixes a half-mouthful of wine and another half-mouthful of blood into a cup and then, instead of sipping, downs it in one go so as to taste as little as possible. This and a few bites of the cold chicken are his meal while Arya inhales as much of the deer as she can fit into her stomach, and then she purses her lips guiltily at his own lackluster fair and graciously offers him some of her own.

Sleeping that night is difficult, as spoiled as they’ve been by a roof for the last few, but with their bodies pressed together and sharing heat they manage eventually.

The second day and second night on the road pass by much the same, save for that Arya occasionally breaks from riding to walk instead, stretching her sore muscles. She coughs less and since their last night in the abandoned hovel hasn’t produced blood when she does, and she seems much more cheered despite her shivering and sniffling. Again they play the lying game to pass the time and it is almost…

Jaqen is almost…

Happy.

Happy for the simple joy of being in her presence and not having her angry at him. Happy that he did not kill her nearly a moon ago. Happy that she is feeling better, and happy that he is with her now.

Damning. But-- was he not already damned? Had she not damned him so long ago? In Harrenhal, with the name he now takes for his own. And no, he thinks, she didn’t damn him, he damned himself and she was simply the conduit for that damnation. And he thinks, it’s not so bad. Being damned.

Arya, having been probing how and where exactly he’d picked up drinking blood, falls quiet in her questioning, and when he turns in the saddle to look at her curiously she’s squinting at him in suspicion. “What are you smiling about?” she asks dryly, eyes narrowed as if she expects him to tell some jape at her expense.

He hadn’t even realized he’d been smiling, nearly chastises himself at the lack of control over his face, but then thinks, why?

Smiles are weapons, he’s learned, and they can be as sharp or as blunt as their wielder likes. When he was first Jaqen H’ghar in a cage with Rorge and Biter, he used smiles to make them discomforted. People left him alone; surrounded by rapers and murders who walk free, but this man is in a cage, and he smiles, and they wonder why. That smile made him dangerous. In Harrenhal, he smiled at the serving women, and those smiles were treats; no less calculated, but kinder, and they got him into the baths to clean himself and made the wenches refill his mug of beer first before the others and got him choicier cuts of meat to eat. To Arya he smiled, and kissed her hair, and called her lovely, all to engender trust in this distrusting little monster he found himself so fascinated by; and because she was so desperate for kindness and he smiled so kindly and offered her such terrible, bloody gifts, trust him she did despite her distrust.

Smiles are weapons, he thinks, and then thinks, a wolf smiles by baring its teeth.

What weapon does he wield now?

Or, is it a weapon at all?

“I don’t know,” he answers her question with a little laugh.

She squints harder at him, almost comically so. “...this is true,” she determines after a moment, sounding confused and still suspicious. “Weirdo.”

He laughs again, a bit helplessly, and so too does this second day pass, and the next morning after they break camp Arya is eager to keep moving, kicks her horse into a steady trot that forces him to keep pace or risk being left behind. The road becomes more and more populated as they get closer, the River Road seeing more traffic between the Riverlands and the Vale than the road North, the people left from the remnants of Darry and Saltpans, both decimated in the wars, congregating to the crossroads and the inn there to create almost a makeshift community of their own. When they finally reach the Crossroads inn at late morning, it’s bustling with more activity than he’s seen since arriving in Maidenpool from Braavos and starting his journey to find and kill the fabled Wolf of Dawn.

Arya, impatient for something, leaves him to handle seeing to the horses in the inn’s stable. The two geldings seem almost happy to settle into actual stalls filled with warm hay; his ornery brown sticks its head and neck over the low wall of its stall to bite at the newly-bared withers of her black, both of them shivering their backs and shoulders as if glad to be rid of their saddles. Surreptitiously, he makes note of the other horses in stable, picks out the choicest ones and determines which he will buy or steal when it is time for them to leave. There are a small handful of horses of clear Northern stock, their coats thicker and shaggier than the others, and at least two of them in well enough health that their ribs aren’t showing.

When he joins Arya inside the inn, he finds her tucked away into a corner, picking at the remains of a meal left behind like a crow and her eyes moving over the people around them constantly. He would almost think her assessing threats, but instead she seems to be looking for someone, and someone in particular. He thinks to when they were further South and passed by contingents of soldiers, and how her gaze would flit from one face to another as if searching for a familiar one. Who? he’d wondered then, and now thinks, her Baratheon bastard. The father of her child. As he settles beside her, he finds himself searching as well for a face he does not know but prominent features that anyone would recognize as belonging to a stag lord. Dark hair, blue eyes. Features most handsome, if rumor of Fat King Robert before he became fat are true. And he wonders, as his apprentice, did she ever seek for him with such focus in a crowd? She certainly doesn’t now.

Why, he wonders, the pull towards her bastard’s sire? When she had disdained his unborn child so much as to call it useless and a parasite, when she had disdained him so much as to say his child belonged only to her and the Starks. Why look so avidly for him? Why do her grey eyes jump from body to body with a near-desperation, why does her tilt her head one way to the next as if trying to pick out a certain voice?

A man she’d cared enough for to lay with. Perhaps, if she found him, she could convince him of the sense in leaving their child with her sister. Perhaps she could make him understand her mislike of motherhood, her desire to keep their child safe in the North. Perhaps she could persuade him into joining her, to finish this journey they had started together, to put to rest this babe they’d made with the meeting of their flesh. A man she’d cared enough for to lay with, a man she cares enough for now to seek. And Jaqen knows her pull, her charisma, the want that she inspires in those around her to bend to her will; a man she’d care enough for to lay with could only love her ardently. He’d be a fool of tremendous proportions if he didn’t, and Arya would not suffer the affection of such a fool.

And she hasn’t acknowledged him once since he’d returned to her side.

If she found him, her Baratheon bastard, if he is not dead from war and she stumbles upon him on the road, what use would she have of Jaqen? He is an assassin, not a ranger; she is a stronger hunter than him, his helpfulness to her now ends at being a body to keep her warm and eyes to take watch. Trust has grown between them, yes, but still he was sent to kill her-- it would be prudent, it would be smart to send him away or even simply kill him if she found another body to take his place. A body she knew better than his, one she’d found agreeable enough to share with more than just warmth.

If she finds the father of her child, how much longer after that will she tolerate the presence of a man with a false face and a damned name who is still trying to learn who he is?

“Lovely girl,” he says suddenly, his mood abruptly black, and she turns to look at him quizzically, her eyes drawing from the crowd around them with reluctance. He is suddenly unsure of what he intends to say. What is his goal in getting her attention? To express his worry that she will abandon him? To assure her that even if she finds a man more suited to this journey she has undertaken he would not kill her? Now, looking into her face, her eyebrows furrowed and her lips very slightly turned down, he finds he can’t grasp what he’d intended to say. “Arya, I--”

Arry!”

They both turn to see an absolutely massive rotund boy with dark shaggy hair standing before them, a tray of food in his hands and a look of tremendous delight on his face. Arya too brightens, a smile splitting her features, and when the boy sets the tray down on the table she lets out a surprised laugh as he lifts her up from her seat and into a hug.

Jaqen tilts his head in dangerous consideration. It’s a stretch, but... He could see Baratheon there somewhere, perhaps, and he supposes the boy is comely enough beneath the chubby cheeks. There is certainly a familiarity to him, as if he’s seen the boy somewhere before; he’d had occasion to view King Robert a handful of times in his profession as a Faceless Master, had spent some small time in the Rebel King’s court, once as a squire to a knight and once as a lady-in-waiting. Could this familiarity be attributed to memories of the fat boy’s father?

The large boy sets Arya back down and then sits as well, sparing not a glance for Jaqen, as if he merely blends into the furniture. That he has trained himself to blend so well is no comfort to him when he is not trying to do it. Indeed, the boy has eyes only for Arya and his face is open and nearly reverent in it’s appreciation, as if his lovely girl is something mythic, larger than life could contain, a sword and a wolf and death that walks. (He wonders, briefly, almost self-consciously, if he looks at Arya so and simply doesn’t realize it. Gods he hopes not. The bruises his Master would give him if his kindly brother ever caught him ruling his face so poorly.)

“I knew you’d make it, Arry, I knew you would. Told you didn’t I, me and you, we’re survivors, and bloody hell you killed the Night King! People comin’ and goin’ and talkin’ ‘bout the Wolf of Dawn and I get to say to ‘em, I know her! That’s my Arry! Saved my life she did, and now she’s saved all of yours too, I tell ‘em. Oh, Arry, you’ve no idea how glad I am to see you. Bless you, but you’re skin and bones you are! Here,” he says, and finally interrupts his own talking to take a deep breath, and then shoves the entire tray filled with food at them. A serving wench passes by and tells him admonishingly that the food was meant for another table but he just waves her away, eyes never leaving Arya.

For her part, Arya immediately digs into the food voraciously, nevermind that it isn’t charred as she’s become accustomed to. A meat pie with creamy cheese and warm ale, and the crust cracks noisily when she digs a spoon into it. Jaqen feels his stomach rumble; she must hear, her senses acute even as she gorges, because she pushes the second pie on the tray closer to him. It is not until she does this that the fat boy seems to notice the dour-looking man frowning at him sullenly.

“Hey, I know you from somewhere,” the boy says, almost accusingly, and then leans forward. When he does, so close, Jaqen realizes that he has actually met this boy before. The fat pie boy. One of the Night’s Watch recruits. He left Harrenhal with Arya and another boy.

“Hot Pie,” Arya says, mouth full and crumbs falling from her lips, “you remember Jaqen, right?”

Apparently so, because after a moment the fat boy ‘Hot Pie’ gives a startled shriek of, "You!" and jumps away from the table, upending his chair which clatters loudly to the ground. There’s a brief lull in the dull roar of the other patrons of the taverns, everyone holding their breath to see if a fight intends to start, but after a few seconds it returns to its normal level of raucous revelry. Arya, he sees, is wearing her mean little wolf’s smile, though there is affection in her eyes when she turns them from Hot Pie back to Jaqen.

“Yes,” she says with a grin, “I think he remembers you.”

“A man admits, that was somewhat gratifying.” Jaqen takes a slow bite of the pie. It’s very good. “Hello, fat child."

Arya snorts into her ale, sloshing it over the rim of the stein. "Jaqen," she hisses scornfully, though with a smile that she can't quite repress. "Sorry about him," she tells Hot Pie. Nervously the boy rights his toppled chair and, still eyeing the ex-assassin with wide dark eyes, sits back down gingerly. "He's still learning manners."

Jaqen, as her Master, had drilled his apprentice on courtesies. How and when to address whom and the subtleties of conversation, things half-remembered from childhood and entirely disdained. How to charm, to read body language; the lying game with tone and tenor instead of facial expression. This is when the large majority of her beatings for insolence took place during her time under his tutelage. Looking away from the pie boy and back to his lovely girl, he raises a wry eyebrow at her as if to remind her of this. Clearly, she needs no reminder; when their eyes meet her fond smile widens into something cheekier and she sticks her tongue out at him. He reaches out, quick as a snake, to grab her tongue, and she retracts it just in time, chasing after his hand with a bite.

The fat boy squeaks.

"Don't mind him, Hot Pie," she says, still smiling, though she moves that smile from Jaqen to the fat boy. It’s warm inside the tavern, warmer than they’ve been in over a moon, and she loosens the clasp of her cloak and begins shedding layers, pulling off clothing until she’s removed all her furs and sits in just her leathers. The armor, already having been designed to fit snug to her form, hangs tighter than it used to and she can no longer fasten the lacing of it entirely, stretched as it is across her growing stomach. Not even four moons yet, though close, and yet she carries as if she’s nearly five along. “He’s harmless. Mostly.”

Hot Pie looks at him the way he imagines a goat would look at a dragon, a similar reverence to how he looks at Arya but based in fear rather than admiration. “O-okay. W-well. I s’pose I should… say thanks? For Harrenhal, I mean.” The boy clears his throat and steels his expression, nodding seriously. “You got Arry out and she got us out, so I s’pose you saved all of us, yeah? Me and her and Gendry. So, um. Thanks.”

He hesitates before nodding in acknowledgement. He cares little and less for the fat boy and the dark-headed lad who his lovely girl had dragged behind her in her flight from Harrenhal, the flight he’d lended his assistance to. It was to her he’d given his coin, not them.

“Have you seen Gendry lately, Arry?” the fat boy asks her, turning away from Jaqen and focusing on Arya once more. “Passed through here a few moons ago on a big fancy horse with some men, he did. Said he was coming from up North. He asked about you, actually, ‘cept I hadn’t seen you since we last talked right after the Battle of the Bastards. He’s the one what told me ‘bout you killing the Night King, said you fought the dead together. He’s grown up, he has, our Gen. Not as grown up as me and you though, eh? You look pretty with your hair like that Arry! I heard some rumor from people comin’ up South that he was some Lord or somethin’ now. Can you believe that, Arry? Our Gendry Waters, some sort of Lord? Well, guess you can, since you’re a princess and all now. What’s it like bein’ a princess? I always wondered. Gendry’s a lord and you’re a princess, and what’ll that make me when it’s all said and done? Maybe I’ll be some sort of king, yeah?”

Arya starts looking a bit cagey, fidgeting in a way that Jaqen has not seen in a while. She’d been comfortable until the fat boy started talking about their… friend? The name is familiar. So much of his memory of Harrenhal is devoted to his little wolf, but now that he remembers the boy existed he can recall this Gendry. The third child freed by his gift to a ghost, the tall dark one. Something stirs in his mind. Gendry. The boy with the bull helm. Goldcloaks had accosted the Night’s Watch recruits looking for him, some royal bounty. The smith. Dark hair and blue eyes.

Gendry Waters.

A bounty for a Baratheon bastard.

His gaze slides back over to Arya, and he sees the moment that she realizes he’s put it together.

“Oh, hell,” she sighs, throwing down her spoon and crossing her arms. “Here we go. Thanks, Pie.”

“You’re welcome?” he says, confused, as Jaqen turns to look at Arya and crosses his own arms.

“The bull boy?” he asks dryly. “Really?”

“We are not doing this right now, not here,” she says firmly, holding a hand up to silence him. Hot Pie gapes at her, looking as if he expects the terrifying man who killed the guards of Harrenhal so easily to reach up and snap her hand off. Honestly, Jaqen is tempted.

Not doing this here,” she repeats when he opens his mouth to object, and then turns away from him and back to the fat boy. “Hot Pie, is there any chance you’ve got a room available? It’d be lovely to sleep in an actual bed for once.”

“I-I think I can get you one, yeah,” he says, then glances between the two of them nervously. “Are you going to… share?”

“Yes,” Arya says without hesitation, “we only need one room. And food, please. And a bath if you can.” A bath. He nearly groans at the thought. He scrubs himself with snow as often as he can tolerate to keep his skin clean but warm water would be a godsend. “We can pay.”

They can’t, not for all that. At least, not immediately. But before he can try to decide whether he should interject, Hot Pie shakes his head firmly. “No, Arry, don’t you remember? Friends don’t pay. I’ll get you a room if I have to kick someone out to do it.” Friends don’t pay. Suddenly her eagerness to see if the fat boy still worked there makes sense.

Arya smiles at him, but when she looks back at Jaqen whatever she sees in his expression makes her smile fade and she stands with a sigh. “You’d better find us a room fast, Hot Pie, otherwise I have a feeling my friend and I are going to have a row here in the dining room.”

The fat boy clearly is imagining a row between them to be very bloody, and his face pales. Then his eyes fall to her midsection, the swelling of which is made apparent without the layers of fur she’d been wearing when they entered. “Arry!” he squeaks. “You’re-- you-- you’re up the duff! You really are a girl!”

“Yes,” she agrees. “Unfortunately.”

“You look like you’re going to pop right now!” Her face screws up, affronted; when Jaqen turns back to give him a hard look, the fat boy shoots to his feet with another squeak. “I’ll go find about that room now!” And then he waddles off quickly, his bulk disappearing through the throng of people in the tavern.

When he looks at her once again, Arya is watching him, expression bored. “Alright, let’s hear it. But keep it down and keep the dagger in your pants, I don’t want to tempt Pie’s hospitality by actually fighting you.”

“Arya,” he says, voice strained, “your child is going to be an idiot. The smith boy looked constipated every time he tried to think.”

She rolls her eyes. “Well, I never said he wasn’t stupid. Just that he was there. Did you ever get to see him shirtless while you were skulking about Harrenhal? Besides, as far as I’m concerned this bastard is as much your fault as mine or his; if you’d just fucked me like I’d wanted you to, I wouldn’t have had to go to him to see what it’s like before I died, would I?”

Her faces tightens suddenly. Thrown as he is by her vulgarity, by the words and the sentiment of them, like I’d wanted you to, it takes a moment for the deeper meaning to register. Another revelation.

“We’re not doing this here,” she snaps quickly, trying to curtail his anger.

“A girl should have known what it was like because she was given a task to learn that she’d said she’d fulfilled,” he reminds her, voice quiet and hard.

“We’re not doing this here, Jaqen.

He stands as well, steps closer. Their table is in a corner, and when she backs away from him her spine meets the wall. He looms over her, one hand against the wall and the other on the table, trapping her between his arms as he leans down to look into her eyes.

“Jaqen,” she murmurs, keeping him at distance with a hand on his chest. “What does it matter now?”

“You disobeyed me.

She nods, licks her lips lightly and then draws the lower one between her teeth. His gaze is drawn to the motion for a brief moment before lifting to look back into her again. “I did. I disobeyed you often. You beat me for it, often. Why does this surprise you now?”

And what answer does he have to this? What answer that will satisfy? That she’d lied to him and he’d believed her? That this fact injures his new pride? That this lesson he’d charged her to learn had cost him as well? That it was the first time he’d glimpsed the extent of his damnation, the first time that he’d had reason to acknowledge its existence; damned with guilt over forcing her to lose her innocence, damned with lust that he’d wish it had been him? And that damnation for what? What does it matter now?

No, he realizes suddenly. He isn’t angry with her. He’s angry with himself. Perhaps he was only ever angry at himself.

When he leans forward he hears her breathing pause, her lungs still; when he presses his forehead to hers, he feels the puff of air as she exhales against his face. “You misunderstand,” he tells her softly; a misunderstanding that he himself has only just understood. “A man is disappointed in himself. You disobeyed, and he trusted your disobedience. My fault.” She shakes her head, her skin sliding against his where it meet at their temples. “Yes, lovely girl. My fault. I allowed Arya Stark to hide within you, because I allowed Arya Stark to become important to me. It was a necessary lesson. A valuable one. I knew it to be so, and yet for you I wished otherwise, because I knew it would hurt you. And you lied, and I trusted it. What could you have been, but for my indulgences? What could you have become?” He sighs. “I failed you. You failed because I failed you. My sister died because I failed you. You left because I failed you.

Her hand on his chest tightens, gripping the fabric of his surcoat. “Yes,” she agrees quietly. It is a knife in his heart. He swallows heavily. “You failed me in many ways. And you succeeded in many more. You made me, Jaqen. You helped me become what I am, and what I am is, despite everything I’ve been through, alive.” She takes a deep breath, then gently pushes him away so that their eyes can meet once more. This vicious creature he helped her become, this faceless wolf, this sword that slew the Night. “Maybe,” she continues, “if I had become a Faceless Man, this lesson you wanted me to learn would have been necessary. I understand how and why it would have been. But, perhaps more important and more necessary are the things that came after because of my disobedience.”

His palm itches. The scar upon it burns; a scar just as damning as the one on his cheek which sears this false face he had favored so long to the true one beneath that he cannot even recall the shape of. He remembers that moment, the moment she’d taken his dagger, denied punishment; the moment he’d realized that she was not merely his willful girl but something greater and wilder than he could control. He remembers that moment, and the one that came after it, and mourns.

“I let you lie to me,” he says again, and shakes his head. “I trusted that lie. I allowed you to keep Arya Stark. I allowed you to become her, and I allowed her to leave. That moment was the beginning of the end for you and I.”

She nods. “Our time as Master and apprentice, yes. But you are not my Master now, and I am your apprentice no longer. Jaqen, don’t you understand? It’s over. Done. And now we get to decide what it is we begin as again.”

Preference. Like and dislike. Choice when choice made available. Who is Jaqen H’ghar, and what kind of man will he be? And what kind of choices will he make? Kind or cruel, and to whose benefit?

She raises her hands, draws his face back to hers, pulls him until her forehead rests against his throat, her hair tickling his chin. With a sigh his arms drop from their cage to either side of her and wrap around her. Her stomach, her bastard’s bastard, presses between them. “If it makes you feel any better,” she admits softly after a moment, “I did have every intention of losing my maidenhead to that stupid dead man. I wanted to do what you told me to. I tried.”

He just sighs again, his breath stirring her hair. He sighs much more often now than he used to. It is exhausting, to be. “Was he uninterested?”

She grimaces; he feels the twist of her expression against the skin of his throat. A wolf, and her teeth are so close. He wonders what it would feel like if she bit. “No, he was interested. I, uh. Before things could… progress, I sort of. Killed him. On accident.”

His brows furrow. He pushes her back by her shoulders to stare at her. “You accidentally killed the man you were supposed to kill on purpose.”

She nods. “He touched me in a place I wasn’t expecting and I stabbed him in the eye with a paring knife.”

“You… stabbed him. In the eye. On accident. Because he touched you. The thing you were literally there for him to do.”

She crosses her arms petulantly. “He startled me!”

He shakes his head, raises his eyes to the ceiling as if beseeching help from the gods. “How are you pregnant?”

“Well, Jaqen, when a man and a woman are both bored and think they’re going to die in a few hours, sometimes one thing leads to another, and--” He places his hand over her mouth to stop her, feels her smile against his palm. And oh, he didn’t even realize it was his palm with the scar, the one she’d kissed so long ago, until she licks it. It’s vindictive, childish, meant to tease and nothing more, no more suggestive than when she’d stuck her tongue out at him earlier; still, his breath catches and holds. Something in his expression must change, for her eyes widen. When he pulls his hand away the motion is slow, nearly timid. Her mouth uncovered, he can see when she licks her lips. His eyes drop to them and pause; hers stays on his and sees.

A moment later, an interruption, blessed and cursed; the fat pie boy returns, triumphantly informing them that he’d procured for them a room and a bath besides. Hot Pie pauses on the other side of the table, taking them in, how they stand together so closely, his eyes intense and her mouth opened slightly, lips parted. “I’m interrupting something,” he decides, and makes to leave.

“No,” Arya says; her voice is pitched higher and tighter than Jaqen has heard it before. “No, it’s fine. Show us, Hot Pie.”

“Go,” Jaqen tells her when she retrieves all of her layers of clothes and makes to follow the fat boy. She stops to look at him, mouth opening to argue, and he gestures at the food. “A man has been giving you his meals for a week. I’m hungry. Take the first bath and I will go when you’re done.”

She hesitates before nodding, lip between her teeth. As she walks away, following Hot Pie, she glances at him over her shoulder, eyes wide and… considering.

Despite what he told her, he doesn’t eat after she leaves.

Things change, after that.

Chapter Text

This is what leads to the realization that Jaqen H’ghar has, perhaps, gotten in over his head:

The fat pie boy leads Arya upstairs, presumably to the room they will be staying in, and she disappears for an hour to soak in the tub that some of the inn’s help have lugged up and filled with bucket after bucket of warm water. He can only assume that by the time he’ll have his turn with the bath the water will be tepid, but even that would be better than snow. This is the longest he’s gone since he'd arrived back in Braavos with a missing coin without having even the option to bathe, and his skin itches beneath his leathers. A luxury, to be clean; a further luxury to have his clothes cleaned as well. Were it not winter and the temperature so deathly low, he’s sure both himself and his lovely girl would be plagued by nits and then they would both feel exceptionally less lovely.

He picks listlessly at the food for a few minutes, consumed as he is by thoughts of Arya and the rather unique situation they’ve found themselves in, until he comes to his senses abruptly, shaking his head at his own stupidity, and begins to eat in earnest. The first time in over a month that he’s had warm food that’s actually good, something of more substance than boiled groats and hardtack, and he’s too busy mooning to make use of it. His stomach, shrunken and tight from weeks of poor diet, hurts as he fills it past the point of comfort; he doesn’t know how long Arya plans on staying at the inn, but he hopes that it isn’t long. They should have travelled much further in the time they’ve been on the road, and Winterfell is still a great distance away. Better to get as much food in as he can, while he can.

The fat boy comes back down the stairs of the inn, his reappearance heralded by the way the steps creak under his girth, and when he glances over to the corner Arya had claimed for them, Jaqen raises his eyes and meets the boy’s gaze. Hot Pie visibly flinches and turns, hurrying back into the kitchens where he belongs.

He sips from the watered-down ale his lovely girl had poured for herself, contemplating their journey. A moon it had taken them to get this far, and she will be… he calculates, eyes closing briefly. She will be four moons on the morrow. Sixteen weeks pregnant and they are only a third of the way to their destination from Winterfell, with weather conditions that will surely worsen as they travel further North. To be fair, several days have been sacrificed to sickness, and if they are able to restock on provisions and their health permits he estimates perhaps another month and a half to Moat Cailin, given their pace to this point. He’s only ever known the keep to be empty but recently, according to Arya, it’s been garrisoned with the swamp-dwellers from the Neck; a gift from Sansa Stark to the crannogmen who could not fit in Greywater Watch and whose drifting water homes have been claimed by the snows and frost. Arya assures him that the Lady Meera Reed who now holds the Moat will show them all hospitality, and he has no reason to doubt her-- they must only get there.

A month and a half to get there, a month further to reach Winterfell, assuming they don’t take sick and use up more precious time, assuming they manage to keep two horses alive and hale the whole way, assuming they don’t freeze in the night or starve on the road… assuming all of this, and allowing time for leeway, Arya will be close to seven moons when they reach Winterfell.

At four moons she carries of a size closer to five, though his experience with pregnant women is limited and his guess of her bearing may be off. If he has learned anything of the size of a woman with child in the last month, it is that changes happen both slowly and suddenly; he had not realized how much Arya had grown since he’d joined her until her fat pie boy’s reaction to her stomach had him looking at her anew. With the size she is now, guessing at the size she may grow to be, and taking into consideration how difficult the pregnancy has been for her thus far between the concussion and the sickness… he doubts she will be able to ride at even a leisurely pace by six moons.

No, he thinks. They cannot tarry here too long, though the food and the bath and the bed is tempting indeed.

When Arya rejoins him downstairs an hour later, her hair is wet and loose, not quite dripping but made darker by the saturation, and she’s left behind her many layers of furs and her leather armor both, dressed only in one of her handful of long, overlarge men’s undershirts and a pair of dark breeches. Her Needle, of course, is belted to her side but he’s amused to find that she must tuck the belt beneath the growing bulk of her womb, making it seem even larger than it already is. She is also barefoot, and approaches near-silently; his attention focused on his food, he knows she is there only because he is specifically listening for her, and so does not note her appearance until she’s sat back down.

“Clever girl,” he murmurs as she settles back into the seat she’d vacated earlier and pulls another of the meat pies towards her. The tray the fat boy had set down had been prepared for a table much more populated than their own; five meals arrayed in front of them, and between their two starved stomachs they’ve nearly finished the tray themselves. He keeps waiting for her nausea to make an appearance, but for once her stomach doesn’t seem inclined to make a fuss. Perhaps the babe is also delighting in the excess of food.

It takes a moment for her to place what he’s referring to, but when she does she rolls her eyes. “Don’t think that me going barefoot has to do with you,” she says dryly, pulling her damp hair over her shoulder and combing tangles from it with her fingers. Out of the braid it’s been in, and clean for the first time in gods only know how long, her hair is longer than he’d thought it would be and thicker as well. “I gave my clothes to one of the wenches to wash, including my socks, and I don’t relish wearing boots without them.” Her voice lowers into a tone of malicious delight, and when he looks up at her her eyes are bright and mischievous. “I think I’m developing a fungus on my big toe from wearing dirty socks so much. Want to see?”

He chews his mouthful of meat pie slowly, maintaining eye contact for a long moment, and then sets his spoon down and pushes the plate away pointedly. Arya lets out a small, evil laugh that she then tempers by telling him, “They’re adding more hot water to the bath for you now. Thank you for letting me go first.” Her smile widens, becomes sweeter; the whole of her seems much less severe, much less wolfish, with her hair down and tumbling, curling at the ends as it dries. In this moment she looks like neither the Nightsbane nor his apprentice in Braavos-- she looks like any other girl of five-and-ten, the way she should have if fate and golden lions hadn’t torn her life apart so early. “I appreciate it.”

He resists the urge to clear his throat, controls the muscles of his face, the gentling of his eyes; the look he gives her is neutrally mild and he nods.

If she’s offended by his bland response she doesn’t show it, instead leaning back in her seat and kicking her bare feet up into the chair across from her, threading her fingers together and setting both hands over her stomach. With a quiet sigh she rests her head against the wall behind them and closes her eyes. She seems content to pretend that their conversation earlier hadn’t happened, seems to find it fair to put the ordeal behind them, gives no indication of her thoughts or feelings. He still feels… vaguely unbalanced. Like I’d wanted you to.

When he stands she opens one eye to watch him, grey and warm. She has a look on her face that tells him she could doze off any moment; he’s grown familiar with it over the past moon, and especially in the last few days. Still fighting sickness and now with a full belly for the first time in weeks, it is a wonder she didn’t pass out in the tub and drown herself. It is a testament to her assurance in herself that she feels so unthreatened in this inn, surrounded by people, that she’s allowed herself to soften so. At early afternoon, the dining room is not quite so loud and unruly as he imagines it will be in the evening, but there are still a good dozen people eating and drinking, sprawled around the tables and benches and shouting over each other to be heard.

Still, he would feel better if she would sleep in a bed and not a chair in a crowded tavern. Though he also has no doubt of her abilities to give the gift and give it spectacularly, neither does he wish to tempt fate by dangling a small pregnant girl in front of men of unknown scruples.

“A man goes to take his bath,” he says to her, leaning down to speak to her quietly. Her other eye opens and then both of them blink slowly. “Once he is finished a girl goes upstairs for her nap, yes?”

Arya groans mulishly. “ Ugh, all I’ve done recently is nap. I’m so tired of being tired.” Even as she finishes her statement she interrupts herself with a yawn, and then chuckles ruefully at his raised eyebrow. “Yes, yes, alright. A girl goes and naps. Hurry up, then.”

When he leaves, he feels her eyes following him, but by the time he reaches the landing of the stairs and turns slightly to glance at her they are closed once more as she again rests her hands on her stomach.

The bath is lukewarm, the water vaguely cloudy; he shares the same tub she’d just vacated, and though this inn seems prosperous given its location they are not so well-off that they can afford to draw a fresh full tub for every patron. That it is warm enough to steam lightly in the cold air that permeates even through the insulated walls is enough for him. It’s no Harrenhal, but it will serve.

Shedding his clothing is an almost religious experience. Fear of frost and the loss of certain extremities has led both him and Arya to remain as clothed as possible at all times, and when one garment is soiled enough that they are forced to change to another they do so a piece at a time so as to remain covered. It’s been harder for her, he knows, given how often she must drop trou to make water; indeed, he’s heard her complaining often of raw and wind-chapped thighs, though she complains quietly and to herself and only when she thinks he’s not listening. As such, he hasn’t had safe opportunity to be nude in moons, and is unlikely to have another one again for several moons more.

The water is warm and swirls of dirt and grit that Arya had scrubbed off of her skin rises to the surface and eddy around his body as he sinks down into the tub with a heavy sigh. There’s a thick block of goat’s milk soap dropped to the floor at the side, and as he works it over his own skin in a perfunctory manner he tries not to imagine Arya washing herself with it as well. He tries, and fails.

He’s forgotten how pale she was. Knowledge he had, intellectually, but as long as her travel has been and the many nights as they’ve slept in whatever dirt they could find to avoid sleeping in snow had left them both with a layer of grime covering them, dust and soil sticking like a cake. His own skin, far more tanned than hers but paling slightly the longer he spends time in a Westerosi winter, seems almost like bronze compared to the ruddy brown shade it’d taken on the road. So too had the flesh of her throat, the slight slope of one shoulder that peeked through the loose collar of her large shirt, her hands and fingers, so too had those things seemed fairer than he recalled of their time together in Braavos. Natural paleness exacerbated by winter and sickness, he thinks to himself admonishingly. Unkind and unseemly both, to fetishize illness.

Still.

It is not so far a stretch then, to think of that pale skin with water sluicing over it, to think of her running the soap over herself. The length of her neck, her ankles and up into the strong corded muscles of her calves and thighs, her hips, her firm rear, her breasts which grow larger and heavier though at a slower rate than her stomach, and though she tries to hide them.

(His mind skirts almost skittishly away from the round swelling of her stomach, the proof of life within her womb; not so much that it is tangible evidence that she has been touched by another man, for to judge her on that would be foolish and cruel and he'd already been working on the assumption that her flesh had known ardor long before she'd admitted her pregnancy to him. It's more that he's unsure of how he feels of viewing her in such a context in the first place, not even taking into account that she carries another man's bastard. And it's not claiming or possession, not the desire to steal her from the father of her child-- or at least, not wholly. She's his lovely girl, yes, but Arya Stark belongs to no one, and especially not to him, something she was happy to prove with his sister's bloody face and her sword at his throat. (Thinking this, he realizes the root of his earlier jealousy: it is not so much that he wants to keep her, but rather that he wants, perhaps a touch desperately, for her to keep him. She has a family, others who love her more kindly and gently and unconditionally, but now he? He has only her. A bleak world without her indeed.))

It isn't until he realizes that he's beginning to grow hard despite the cooling temperature of the water that the full scope of his depravity is made apparent. She is but a girl, he thinks to himself sharply. She had been his apprentice. He held a position of power over her that without consent to touch makes him feel wretched to think of touching her, even as he finds that he wants to. He pulls at that facelessness inside of himself, tugging for no one who had so dispassionately told her to lose her maidenhead, as if the hows and whens and wheres didn't matter, who had denied her when she'd asked if he--

Like I'd wanted you to.

Oh, what a terrible twist his mind gives that statement. She'd wanted him to, but only because she trusted him. Only because she placed faith that he would not take advantage, that if he touched it would be to teach and not for lust. She didn't want his flesh because she found him comely or because she had ulterior feelings, it was because he was no one, because he treated it so dispassionately.

Would she have asked him so if she knew at the time the extent of his quiet concessions? If she knew how, even if subconsciously, he sabotaged her? Failure to make her faceless because he was too enthralled by Arya Stark, and he hadn't even realized it. If she knew that he'd failed her, he was failing her, he would fail her, would she still ask this task of him? Would she ask it if she knew that he had damned himself with lustful touch inspired by her asking, her marking him, her lips stained with his blood?

She had wanted him not because she wanted him but because she wanted someone who would value her maidenhead, her body, for the fact that it was hers and not because it wasn't yet spoiled. She wanted him because, like herself, he shared the opinion that maidenhood was simply concept, that losing it accomplished nothing and to be the one taking it meant nothing as well. She wanted him because she knew that he would not stake claim, would not cry ownership over her if she gave him her virginity. She wanted to share her body with someone she trusted-- and, he supposes, in the end she did.

She didn't want him because she cared for him. She wanted him because he was her teacher and she expected to be taught.

He didn't want her because she was a maiden untouched. He wants her because she is gloriously, triumphantly, viciously Arya Stark.

Jaqen H'ghar grits his teeth and finishes his wash. He forces himself to clean his groin and nethers without lingering on the inflamed flesh of his manhood, stirred by the thought of her mouth, bloody from his palm, bottom lip caught between her sharp wolf's teeth, her eyes wide and eager, skin pale and soft, her long hair down and wavy and thick between his fingers, breasts heaving with heavy breaths as he shares with her the carnal dance of flesh to flesh. Like I'd wanted you to.

He rises from the tub. After the both of them had soaked the water smells much less clean, like horse and dirt and the undercurrent of blood that follows them both from the magic of the masks. He stands, naked and dripping and shivering in the cold afternoon air, hands braced on the side of the basin and head bowed, hair wet and hanging down over his face. And he realizes two things:

He realizes that he has, perhaps, gotten in over his head.

And he realizes that he has learned a new lesson in being, and that lesson is self-loathing.

 


 

(And this is what he does not see and does not hear, because he is not there:

Fourteen men, thirteen now that Jaqen has left. A group of five, two of three, and one of two. They ignore her for the most part and she listens, ears pricked like a wolf stalking prey; Arya senses no danger in this place and she has learned to trust her instinct, but after so long isolated she hasn't had opportunity to practice her skills of observation unseeing and doesn't want them to get rusty.

The group of five-- Riverlands accents. Ice fishers, she thinks. They grumble to themselves about tributaries frozen over more densely than their skiffs can break through, but good-naturedly. She hears them making noise about talks of restoring Darry, except that it was a Frey keep; their tones are derisive. Loyal Tully supporters then. Unlike to rally to her, but equally unlike to be a danger. She guesses based on their smell, overwhelmingly of fish and snow, that they are at the inn dropping off a catch, and she probably has them to thank for her full belly.

One of the trios-- Northmen, without a doubt. At least one of them is of the freefolk, judging by the raucous yelling and heavy indulgence in ale even so early in the afternoon. He is easily the loudest, and happiest, in the room, and when he stands up and yells Piss on this Southron snow! she smiles to herself. Ah, yes. Definitely of the freefolk. His fellows (Bear Islanders? They’ve got the Mormont look, swarthier than the Northmen of the inland, and hairier too.) seem both amused and vexed by the wildling’s enthusiasm, laughing even while they demand of him to sit. Not all of the freefolk went back North of the Wall, and part of Arya aches, wishes that Jon could see this, how the people he’d chosen who’d chosen him in turn integrate now. Still, she determines that she will have to keep her distance from this group; Northern honor is a deeply rooted thing and she doesn’t want to risk their insistence on helping her return to Winterfell. More people means more mouths to feed and slower pace, and she cannot imagine Jaqen happily sharing camp with such a rowdy group.

Jaqen. He would be bathing now. In Braavos he was always clean, like he took the time to do it every day. She can't imagine bathing every day, what a waste of time. He did smell better in Braavos though, to be fair. Like cloves and ginger, not at all like horse and mud the way they both constantly smell now. She always liked that smell, it made her feel safe; it would fill their training room as they sparred, scent strengthened by sweat. Even when he'd beat the shit out of her she never felt like she was in danger.

Not like earlier. That felt dangerous. Not as though she were at risk to be wounded, for while she wouldn't be opposed to a good scrap she doesn't think the man Jaqen is becoming would be happy to strike her while she carried child. No, when he'd loomed over her, caging her against the wall, it'd felt like a different sort of danger, a different kind of risk. A headier sort.

No, focus! Stillness. Observation. See with things besides your eyes.

The other trio-- soldiers, or sellswords one. Two of them are younger, one close to Gendry’s age and the other of a like to her own. The third is older, and more seasoned; she listens, and he talks less than the two boys, is more measured. One has the rough brogue of the North and the other the softer, more lilting accent of the Reach, while the older man has no discernable regional accent, a mark of a man who’s travelled the country most of his life. Sellswords. Mercenary. They too reek of fish; perhaps guards to the Riverlanders? The two boys discuss her, and then one of the kitchen wenches, and then her again. Their language is course and crude but not threatening. What I wouldn’t give, the Reach boy says wistfully, and the Northerner makes a bawdy jest about how sweet a taste is mother’s milk that has Arya’s eyebrow arching even as her eyes remain closed. A smack, a yelp. The older man chastises them. Do something about it or stop nattering, he grumbles. The boy from the Reach mutters something about her frightening companion, the Northern boy says Aye but he’s left now hasn't he?

Arya lets herself smile, briefly. Nevermind her companion, these boys should be frightened of her.

But maybe she'd let Jaqen kill them for her. She misses fighting, misses the heat in her blood and the way her body seemed to know the steps to dance with steel far better than the steps to the songs Sansa so used to adore, but Jaqen is his own sort of terror.

When he was her Master, sometimes she was given assignment to watch him work. He would take the simple deaths of people in Braavos, the work of acolytes, and she would watch him give the gift and marvel at his fluidity. Once he'd been given the name of a bravo and he'd dragged out their duel so that she, hiding in the shadows, could watch his steps, mind his form, see how he acted and counteracted to better learn. When he'd finally stuck the bravo with his water dancing foil and the hissing peacock had deigned to die, she'd clapped for her Master, a quiet gesture meant in jest, and he'd bowed for her with a smirk.

It was that smirk she'd brought to mind when she'd tried to imagine him kissing her instead of Notyne, the dead man meant to take her maidenhead. At the time it had made her feel strange because Jaqen was her Master, her teacher. She'd felt self-conscious to imagine him so, even more than before, and set him aside. But he's not her Master now, is he?

Yes, if these sellsword boys want to be frightened of Jaqen she'll let them and she won't blame them, and she'll let him kill them for her while she watches.

Focus.

The pair sitting alone occupy another corner of the dining hall much like she herself does, and much like herself they sit quietly, eat slowly, don’t interact. One of them… she tilts her head and inhales, sniffing, reaching for that part of her still connected to Nymeria despite time and distance, the part of her that sometimes allows her to slip into something a little less than human. One of them smells of salve, unscented but still floral, mint, cool in her mouth. She brushes her tongue against the top of her palate to push out the taste of ash. A salve for burns, terrible ones. King’s Landing. Dragonfire.

Slipping in further to escape the sights and sounds and smells of a city burning, she feels snow beneath her paws, a weariness in her legs as she and her cousins lope over the frozen countryside, chasing the wind and searching, searching endlessly, and Arya asks, what are you searching for? Nymeria isn't sure, but thinks that she will know once she finds it. She thought it was the girl, the mirror of her, but she’d found the girl again and found her incomplete besides. The mirror of her, incomplete, and so she must be incomplete too. Arya tells her, you could make me whole again and I could make you complete, and Nymeria thinks I am wild I am wild I am wild; what are you? And Arya doesn’t know how to answer.

When she dreams, she is Nymeria, they share a mind and body and heart; during her waking moments when she stumbles into her own sort of warging she feels the sensations of her wolf muted, feels her wild soul and untameable spirit. Where is her wolf? What does she seek? And why, after she herself has achieved the goals of her life, are they both incomplete?

Footsteps, coming towards her. Not Hot Pie’s; not heavy enough. Not Jaqen’s; not soft enough. She pulls away from her wolf and opens her eyes, lets them focus on the sellsword boy from the Reach. She drops her feet right before he helps himself to the chair across from her. Arms crossed over her stomach, she stares at him half-lidded, still drowsy despite her playing at observer, despite her brief brush against a beast. He smiles at her, nervous. Over his shoulder she can see the Northern boy watching with a smirk and the older sellsword shaking his head.

He clears his throat and says, "Pretty girl like you, in the way you are, shouldn't be left alone."

She stares at him.

"Right rude of your friend, to go and leave you downstairs by yourself."

She stares at him.

He clears his throat again, clearly becoming discomfited by her half-lidded wolf's eyes watching him languidly. "Might be you were looking for some company? If your man left you."

She stares at him.

He licks his lips and leans forward, adding a bit of menace to his voice-- false, betrayed by the slight crack at the end when he says, "You know, you should be thankful someone nice like me is here offerin' to help. Could be the next man isn't so."

She stares at him.

She feels lazy, sated, warm and full and clean. She's got Needle. Her instincts tell her no danger, and she trusts her instincts; if this boy decided to start a fight she’s confident she could finish it quickly. She almost wants him to, almost wants the tussle and the blood. Every day that passes and the bastard within her grows larger, the less she feels as though her body is truly her own. She hasn’t used a weapon but to kill the thin woman and to fight Jaqen over a moon ago. The Battle for the Dawn seems years ago, and Braavos a lifetime past. She cannot even train or practice her stances because of the babe and feels the finely honed edge of her body, only ever sharp and dangerous, dulling as she carries further along. This, she thinks, is why she never wanted to be a Lady: her body does not belong to her now, and she hates it.

So she thinks, yes, let him think to intimidate me. And she will prove to them, to him and to herself both, that she still has teeth.

It’s almost with disappointment that she registers the heavy stomps of Hot Pie’s approaching gait. When he reaches the table she softens calculatingly, gives him a smile measured to sweetness; it has the dual purpose of being endearing, reiterating that she has affection for him and they are friends (and friends don’t pay), and pointedly snubbing the comely young sellsword from the Reach by emphasizing her lack of response to his own presence. Sure enough, the mercenary reddens and pushes away from the table as Hot Pie, oblivious, says brightly, “Did you get enough to eat, Arry?” Gods bless Hot Pie. All of them. The old ones, the new ones. Hot Pie deserves them all. When the sellsword slinks away in shame, back to his chortling companions, Arya lets her sweet smile grow a little less sweet and a little more mean.

“For now,” she tells Hot Pie, and he laughs and sits at the spot the other boy had just vacated. She yawns, shifting in her seat to place her feet up in a different chair. As she moves, Hot Pie’s gaze lowers to her tummy and his expression tightens. She blinks at him lazily, waiting for the flurry of questions he’s surely fit to burst from.

“So,” he starts, aiming for casual. “Who-- that’s--” She raises her eyebrows, and then in a rush of breath he asks, “It’s not his, is it?” And then he points up at the ceiling, apparently referring to Jaqen upstairs.

Arya laughs, the sound startled from her. “No,” she says with a bit of a giggle. “No, definitely not.”

“Good,” Hot Pie says sternly, “he’s too old for you.” She snorts with laughter again, but he seems genuinely concerned and he leans forward over the table, lips pulled down into a frown. “Arry, he’s not… he’s not hurtin’ you, is he? He just seemed so angry earlier.”

She doesn’t know how to explain that a month ago Jaqen tried to kill her, but now he’s the person she trusts the most to help her. She doesn’t know how to explain that in Braavos, Jaqen would beat her on a regular basis with his staff, would slap her if she lied, was her savior and her menace both; and that he did these things to teach her to become a killer, to shape her into what she is now. She doesn’t know how to explain that they are learning, the both of them, who he is, and neither does she know how to explain that the more she learns of him the more she likes who he is, and she had already sort of liked him before.

“No,” she tells him simply after a moment, “he’s not. You think I’d let anyone hurt me? Honestly, Pie, your lack of faith…” Chastened, he scratches the back of his head. “Besides, he wasn’t angry. ” And he wasn’t, she thinks. He was just… unduly irritated by something. If he were truly angry, Hot Pie wouldn’t have seen it. He would have hidden it away facelessly. She decides to give him a very abbreviated summary, figuring that he’s owed for not charging them for food and board. “I went to Braavos for a while, Jaqen taught me there. I… ran into him again recently, after the war. Now he’s helping me get North for this thing,” and here she pats her stomach.

“Oh, okay,” Hot Pie says with his easy, simple acceptance. “Is your husband North?”

“I’m not married,” she tells him dryly, and again he just nods. Bless him. Bless him forever.

“So the scary man taught you? To do things like what he did in Harrenhal? All the killin’ and stuff? Mad, that, but I s’pose that’s how you took out the Night Lord or whatever they were calling him. I’m glad he’s not mean to you, Arry, ‘cause I’d have to try to defend you and he’d probably just kill me too. So really this just works out best for everyone. But you don't have to kill anymore, right? Since the Night Lord and the Mad Queens are dead and all. Whatcha gonna do now? You ever thought of just settlin’ down and makin’ pies or something? Didn't you say somethin' 'bout making a pie last time? Always a place out there for people who make pies. Everyone eats pies. Dead useful skill, makin’ pies. Bet you’d get a nice husband out of a man if you fed him a pie. Not that you need a husband! Tolly, one of the girls here, she don’t have a husband. Her man’s one of them, what do you call them? Buildin’ houses? Masons! He’s a mason and they never got married but he’s got five kids from her and another on the way and they’re all happier than clams. That's somethin' my mommy used to say, happy as a clam. You ever wonder why clams are so happy? What do they even do? All’s I figure they’re good for is eatin’. So if it’s not the scary man’s, whose baby is it?”

Arya, having dozed through his chattering with her eyes closed, swats his hand from the air without opening them as he reaches out to poke her, and then yawns widely. “Gendry’s,” she says, and then realizes that it is the first time she has said it aloud so plainly. Jaqen had come to the conclusion on his own and accused her, and she’d admitted to sleeping with Gendry, yes; but she cannot remember ever explicitly acknowledging with words who her child’s father is before now.

She has tried very hard to compartmentalize things. Her body no longer feels her own, this is true; but so too is it true that sometimes she has difficulty grasping that she is well and truly with child. It seems a concept just slightly out of reach. Her body is not her own, but the swelling of her stomach doesn’t feel like life to her. It feels like… nothing. Just a swelling stomach. Just nausea, and aches in her spine and knees and tits. It feels like any sickness she’s had in her life, and none of those sicknesses resulted in a babe. It doesn’t feel like she’s nurturing seed, like there will soon be a living, breathing thing that she has created within herself.

She was too young to remember when her lady mother was pregnant with Bran, but she does recall vaguely when Rickon was carried. She remembers her mother happy to be with child, the way Catelyn would gaze down at her growing tummy with affection and wonder despite having born a handful of babes already, how she would laugh softly when all of her other children would crowd around and demand to touch and feel the rounding flesh. Sansa in particular had loved to rest her head upon their mother’s stomach, loved to press her ears against it to hear the babe move. Arya herself had found the entire process discomfiting, and had avoided touching her mother like this after she’d first felt Rickon kick. It was strange, watching the skin shift over tiny roving fists and feet, brought to her mind of rats moving within a cloth sack.

Arya doesn’t feel affection or wonder. She doesn’t feel anything. Annoyed, if she had to put label to her emotions. It simply doesn’t feel real, and she keeps thinking she will wake up one morning to find the gentle rounded slope of her womb flattened once more, the last few months a dream caused by the concussion. (Sometimes, she thinks she will wake to a night in Winterfell, her heart pounding as the dead screamed around her, the smell of rotted flesh in her nose. Sometimes, she thinks she will wake to a morning where ash fell from the sky in King’s Landing, her entire body sore from a frantic escape and her eyes blinded by the searing flashes of dragonfire. Sometimes she wakes thinking she’s finally woken to these things, and it is all she can do to rise.)

So distanced from the concept of herself as a mother, it is equally difficult for her to grasp the concept of Gendry as a father, much less the father of her own child. It means little to her that she is denying him knowledge of his child, unless she thinks on it too hard. It doesn’t feel like she’s stealing anything from him. Maybe it should. But it still doesn’t feel real. She thinks (hopes?) that when the babe finally quickens and begins to move within her, it will solidify for her. She thinks (hopes? ) that things will be simpler if the babe doesn’t quicken at all and she just bleeds out this burdensome thing. But… no. The last of the Starks. She never wanted a babe, but Eddard Stark's blood should not die out.

But she says it, Gendry’s. And it is. But more than his, it is hers. It does not feel real, and she does not love it, but if there is one thing that can be claimed about Arya Stark it’s that she’s possessive.

Hot Pie nods again. “Not surprised, I guess. Well, I am surprised that you’re pregnant, ‘cause I never took you for the motherin’ type, no ‘fense meant, but I s’pose that since you are it makes sense it’d be Gendry’s. He was always terribly sweet on you, you know, even when we were all young and you called him stupid so much.”

“Maybe he shouldn’t have been so stupid then,” she says with a shrug. She disagrees with him, though. If Gendry were sweet on her he wouldn’t have left her, and if he hadn’t left her then things would have been so different. So very different. She sort of hates him for that still.

“Well,” he says, “not everyone can be as clever as you and me, Arry. But you know you’re going the wrong way, right? He’s gone South. He’s in the Stormlands now.”

“I know,” she tells him simply.

After a moment Hot Pie actually understands her meaning. “Oh,” he says weakly. He fidgets, starts piling up the emptied plates that she and Jaqen had scoured. She’s overwhelmed suddenly with the urge to tell him everything, everything, from their flirtation in the forge to sleeping with him to him proposing to her to her leaving without saying goodbye.

She’d disdained romance as a child, disdained passion and the flights of fancy that Sansa had deemed so important; and then, older now and enthralled in her own passions, she could not even indulge in speaking of them to her sister. Sansa now is older too and just as scarred as Arya is, though her scars are in different places and take different shapes than her own. How badly she’d wanted to go to her sister and talk of this, ask advice, ask opinion. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She hadn’t spoken to anyone of it, and that one night with Gendry faded into past, inconsequential, right up until she’d realized that she was gaining weight in a very specific place despite being unable to eat.

“He asked me to marry him, you know,” she admits. “Asked me to be his Lady.” The way Hot Pie’s face screws up in horror makes her laugh.

“Why would he go and do a thing like that?” he asks, sounding offended on her behalf. “Even now that you’re a girl you’re not a Lady. No ‘fense.”

“He was drunk,” she tells him. She realizes after a moment that she’s smiling fondly, sadly. “He was happy and we were both alive and he’d just been legitimized and given everything he’d ever wanted when he was growing up, and he was very, very drunk. He was so drunk he called himself by the wrong last name.”

And then, another thing she’s never spoken aloud, another admission that she wishes she could share with her sister but can’t: “I could have loved him, I think. I didn’t then and I don’t now; at least, not the way he wanted me to. But if he’d stayed a bastard, if he hadn’t asked me to be his Lady, I think I could have eventually. I don’t know if I could have stayed with him. But I could have loved him.”

Hot Pie just nods, looking uncomfortable and clearly not equipped to handle this conversation. "Well," he starts, voice hesitant as if he's afraid she'll stab him if he says the wrong thing, which she supposes is fair considering she'd threatened to do just that on their first meeting. "My mommy always said the heart wants what the hearts wants. Or, I guess, doesn't want, I s'pose."

The heart wants what the heart wants. What does her heart want? Does she even have one of those anymore? She feel adrift. Empty. Sleep is slow to come without having the list that she’s used to define herself for so long. All her names are dead. Her family is spread across Westeros, and nothing can bring them back together; there is no enemy to fight, no force that keeps them apart. Only choice and will. She had her revenge. Her pack survived. And now they've separated, and have no need of her anymore.

If she still has a heart, it is sharp and bloody, encased with ice; and beneath that ice, raw and windswept. It has no place to rest, no home and no hearth. She thinks of Nymeria-- searching, and for what? The mirror of her, incomplete. She doesn’t know what her heart wants. She thinks then of Jaqen, learning himself, relearning himself. Reverse-engineering. Start with what you know and work backwards to discover why and how. She doesn’t know what her heart wants, but she knows what it doesn’t want.

She doesn’t want a cage. She doesn’t want her gender to trap her in a role she is ill suited for. She doesn’t want to be a broodmare, or to dress in silks and practice embroidery and pretend to care about courtly things. She doesn't want a husband. She doesn't want expectations.

No featherbed for me.

Taking pity on him, and for want of changing the subject, she smiles at Hot Pie and says, “Your mother sounds like she knows a lot.”

He nods agreeably. “Oh, she did. Smartest woman in the world, she was. You remind me of her, sort of; you’re both clever and fiesty and don’t let people tell you what to do.” He considers for a moment, then says almost apologetically, “You’re not as fat as she was, but we can’t all be perfect, Arry. I know you don’t really gain weight. 'Cept for, you know.” He points at her midsection. Then he bites his lip, eyes wide, and asks haltingly, “Can I… touch it?”

She blinks at him. “What?”

“Your tummy,” he says, gesturing towards her rounded stomach again. “It’s so big, and I ain’t never touched a belly with a babe in it before. Is it movin’ yet?”

She blinks again. “Um. No. It’s, it’s not moving yet.” Save for her family, no one else besides Jaqen has touched her without purpose in so long, and even her siblings did so sparingly. Sansa was, understandably, not an especially physical person anymore. Bran was… Bran. Jon was the most affectionate, but aside from their reunion in the godswood of Winterfell he had little time for anything but quick hugs or a hand on her shoulder. Sandor was the last person not in her family, and Gendry before that.

Arya has never been particularly tactile. As a child she tolerated touch more than she sought it, save for from Jon and her father. Not much changed as she aged. Sleeping with Gendry was an experiment, a boredom, a whim spurred by curiosity and affection and fear. Beyond that she’s neither wanted nor received physical attention, the necking and questing fingers of a dead man notwithstanding. Sharing a bedroll with Jaqen, his hand draped over her waist, his breath stirring her hair as he sleeps, is the most she has touched another person since she was young enough to share a bed with Sansa.

She and Jaqen are the only ones who have touched her stomach, the swollen evidence of life in her womb, and even he does not do so except when they lay down together to sleep, and often only when she places it there first. That he is the only person she has been in close proximity to since discovering her condition matters little; she would no more invite touch if she were suffering pregnancy in a castle or a keep.

But. It’s Hot Pie. Hot Pie isn’t just anyone. He's a friend. And he’s the first, the only person, to ask. Sometimes, the soft touch, the big warm palm over her bastard at night feels like a secret. Something shameful. Neither of them speak of how close they lay together once the sun rises. She doubts Jaqen would so easily place his hand on her in the daylight, the way Hot Pie wants to. She doubts he would even think to want it.

“Yeah,” she says after a long moment. “Yeah, sure.”

Hot Pie lights up, his expression having fallen during her thoughtful silence. Slowly, almost reverently, and with a care that seems nearly comical coming from his large stature, he reaches out and puts his hand over her stomach. His palm is not quite so big as Jaqen’s, his fingers fatter and paler. It’s weird, but not wrong. At first he just rests his hand on her, and then after a couple seconds very lightly presses in as if testing the give. “It’s warm,” he tells her, looking up at her with a delighted smile. “And not as soft as I was expecting! Like a nice firm dough.” It surprises a laugh from her, and he smiles wider.

There is a moment, quick to come, between one breath and the next. It feels like a spark. It feels like a realization. This is mine, she thinks suddenly. This is my child. My son or my daughter. I’m making this. It’s warm, and not as soft as expected, and mine.

“You’ll be a good mommy, Arry,” Hot Pie says decisively, pulling away from her and nodding his head as if he is the authority on such things.

And then that moment is gone.

She smiles at him, and the smile is forced and melancholy but bless him he doesn’t notice. Jaqen would have seen, but he’s not here. Because she wouldn’t be a good mother. She’s too coarse, too sharp. She is a wolf and a sword. She was not made for gentle things. If she kept the babe she would ruin it, and she cannot ruin the last of the Starks. Her child belongs in the North; and she? She does not know where she belongs anymore.

Nymeria searches for something, the mirror of her incomplete, and she doesn’t know what it is but she thinks she’ll know when she finds it. I am wild I am wild I am wild; what are you?

What is Arya Stark? What is she now that her list is empty? Now that her pack has split? Is she a wolf? A Princess? A sword? The dagger in the dark, the shadow unseen, the vengeful ghost with nowhere to aim her vengeance? If she is a sword, who wields her and to what purpose now that her purpose is fulfilled? What is Arya Stark? And who is she? And what choices will she make? And where will she go?

I am wild I am wild I am wild; what are you?

She hopes that Jaqen can figure himself out sooner rather than later. She thinks she might need him to help her figure out herself, too.)

 


 

This is how Jaqen H'ghar finds peace within tumult:

After he bathes, after he’s put on the cleanest clothes he has left and surrendered the rest to the soft-spoken wench who comes to do laundry, after he’s sat on the bed with his head in his hands while no one is there to see him wallow, he meditates.

Meditation is something he picked up during his travels, a YiTish practice meant to calm the mind and the body. He sits, eyes closed, and controls his breathing, feels the expand and compression of his lungs as air fills and empties from them. His legs crossed, hands on his knees, spine straight. He thinks, and in thinking acknowledges, and in acknowledgement accepts, and in acceptance allows release. It is the closest he has come to being no one since understanding that he is now indeed Jaqen, the closest he has come to achieving the stillness of mind and spirit that allowed him to give the gift so frequently and without remorse.

All bodies are simply bodies. All flesh is simply flesh. The arm which holds the sword, the legs which walk, the eyes which see, the maidenhead which marks a virgin: all a matter of body, the meat and viscera that make a human. The skin holds the organs, the veins hold the blood. Valar morghulis. Open the skin and the organs fall; open the veins and the blood spills. King or lord or beggar or fool, all men are simply men, and all men must die. It is the mind that assigns value to these things, the spirit which puts a price on what the body is worth. Love, affection, possession; the things which cause men and women to fear death, the fragile impermanence of the flesh.

Life is easier when you accept that the ending of it is inevitable. Taking life when you accept this inevitability is easier still.

He’d tried to impart this skill, this practice, to his apprentice to no avail. Arya was a whirlwind, diametrically opposed to the absence of self which makes no one, though she had tried. Long hours they had sat in silence, facing each other with knees touching, eyes closed; he did not see, but he could feel her fidgets, could hear her frustrated sighs. She didn’t find peace in meditation as he did, didn’t find purpose affirmed or absolution in the contemplation of mortality and flesh. She found peace in her little list, the recitation of the names of her hated enemies; thinking of these names and their deaths at her hands gave her purpose, thinking of vengeance delivered and justice for her family gave her absolution.

A wolf does not meditate, does not consider the worth of flesh and the inevitability of its passing. A wolf simply finds prey, and hunts.

Meditation now does not give him answers to his current predicament, but it gives him some measure of stillness, some amount of calm with which to consider this predicament more objectively.

His little apprentice, his apprentice no longer; he lusts for her. No, incorrect-- restructure. Clarify. He lusts for Arya Stark, who happens to have been his apprentice once. The distinction feels as though it should be an important one but he finds little kindness in it. He lusts for her touch, lusts to touch her. Cruel of his body, his mind, for she is a child still. No, incorrect-- partially. Clarify. She is young, but a woman grown, capable of bearing child. Had she not had her life torn so asunder, had her parents not been killed and her country not fallen into war, she surely would have been sold into marriage at this point. Had her life gone the way it'd been planned since she'd been birthed herself, likely this would not even have been the first babe she'd carried. Young, yes, perhaps, but not a child. Considering the turn of her life maybe she never truly was one to begin with.

When did it start? When she bled. No, incorrect-- think. Clarify. When he bled. When she bled him. When Arya Stark denied punishment of her inability to be no one , when she took his dagger and opened his skin and showed him so plainly that she was a wolf with wolf's teeth. When he realized that he did not wish to teach her a lesson so she could become a better killer, but so that he could please her, teach her the pleasure of flesh and how very lovely she could feel, spare her the indignity of having this flesh she valued being taken from her by the Lord that flesh had bought, to give her the option of choice. Had he ever not been damned by her?

He thinks, and in thinking acknowledges, and in acknowledgement accepts. And from acceptance, release. And now he must only decide how to proceed from here.

That he cannot act on his urges is an assumed given. Arya is vulnerable, though she does not seem it and indeed may perhaps not even realize. She is pregnant and relies upon him in some small part to assist with her pregnancy and her journey North. To place further expectation upon her when she is already so burdened by circumstance would be of the utmost unkindness that he could possibly insult her with, and despite all the hurts they have caused each other and the unhappy nature of their reunion Jaqen… cares for her. Always had. It was ultimately their downfall.

So what then? Who is Jaqen H'ghar? What sort of man? And what choices will he make?

Mortal flesh so cleansed by water, so too is mind cleansed by meditation: Jaqen thinks, acknowledges, accepts, releases. That he cannot act on his desires is a given. That he will not leave her is a given as well. Jaqen was Faceless once; he is used to repressing preferences, likes and dislikes, choices when choice made available. He will stay, and help. And when Arya is not so burdened by circumstance… well. A man will cross that bridge when he gets to it.

But until such a time, he must remain aloof. Distant. Place no expectation upon her. Bury his traitorous ardor until, so smothered by no one, he is not even aware of it himself. He was a Master. He is capable.

This determination is, of course, immediately tested.

When Jaqen comes back downstairs into the dining room, not so clean as he'd like but cleaner than he'd been before and with his thoughts settled more securely, he finds Arya in the same seat he'd left her in, her legs stretched out and toes bared, listening to the fat pie boy sitting across from her with a little smile. When she hears him coming and turns that smile on him, his pulse stutters briefly, settled thoughts stirred violently once more. Fuck.

Her smile dims as he approaches and one of her sharp eyebrows raises. "You alright?"

Unaware his expression had betrayed discontent; shameful. He was supposed to be good at this. Wrestling his face into a more placid look is small effort. "The water was cold," he offers in explanation. The look she gives him is disbelieving, but when she opens her mouth to press him all that comes out is a loud yawn. "And a girl is meant to nap now, I think we'd agreed?"

Her glare is deadly, but the fat boy pipes up, "You do look rather sleepy, Arry." When she redirects that glare to him he flinches.

"This is a betrayal I won't forget," she tells them both sourly, and ruins the threat with another yawn at the end. To Jaqen she asks, "And what are you planning to do while a girl naps?"

"Listen," he says with a shrug. "Get news of the road ahead. Find provisions."

She nods, satisfied, and places a hand on the table to brace against as she pushes herself to her feet with a wince. Her back cracks audibly as she stretches. "I expect three new things when I come back," she says gravely, a clear imitation of himself as her mentor in the House. A smile slips from him before he can stop it, charmed. She smirks when she sees it, and then like a shadow slips through the room, silent on bare feet.

She does not come back, though. When afternoon stretches into early evening and she still has not appeared, Jaqen hazards to check on her and finds her still in the bed of their shared room, the tub now drained of water and gone but for the small puddles where it had sat. Her body is curled, knees tucked close to her chin, and though her face is buried into the pillow he can still hear the small snores, slightly nasal with the remnants of congestion from her sickness. Her dark hair spreads, still loose, over the pillow. Sleeping off the last of her chill, he hopes, and goes back downstairs once he’s satisfied she is well.

He learns more than three things over the course of the day in the inn, and some light exploring into the makeshift shanty town of cobbled together buildings that have sprung up at the crossroads. He learns that maesters are predicting a false spring, and are hopeful for a moon or so of warmer weather before the temperatures plummet again. He learns that the Red Wolf of Winterfell has commissioned great panes of glass to be shipped from Myr, at extreme cost to the North’s coffers, with intention of rebuilding the hold’s glass-encased gardens. From the mumblings of the Northmen he overhears this from, opinions on this decision of his lovely girl’s sister are mixed. He learns that Hot Pie’s hospitality does not extend to the contents of the stables, and he is hesitant to invoke Arya’s title without her consent. He learns that the great pack of wolves that’s been ravaging the countryside for years has been sighted once more near the Whispering Wood, led by a fearsome beast rumored to be the Young Wolf Robb Stark born again, howling his vengeance and killing and eating all men in his path; and he cries, mournful, at night for his dead wife and unborn pup. (This particular detail he will not share with Arya.)

He learns that the inn has a serving girl named Tolly, who’s more woman than girl and more bitch than woman, and who doubles as a midwife. The fat pie boy, who is still frightened of him, introduces them with a stutter. Tolly, a severe-looking lady heavy with child herself, looks rather unimpressed with him and he doesn’t see much of import in her either, but when Hot Pie says that his ‘Arry’ had mentioned difficulty eating and a recent sickness Jaqen must concede it would perhaps be wise to seek advice from someone more versed in childbearing than either him or Arya. He has little knowledge of the intricacies of pregnancy, and while Arya hasn’t claimed complete ignorance he can neither imagine that she’s a font of knowledge.

Regardless, Tolly offers somewhat begrudgingly to take a look at Arya in the morning, and he says that he will broach the subject with her when she wakes.

When the sun sets and he has settled upon his three things (the glass shipment from Myr to Winterfell, the horses he will need her name to procure, and the midwife willing to speak with her about her babe), he returns to their room to find Arya sitting on the bed, blankets drawn around her in a nest, blinking at him sleepily. A taper has been lit upon the bedside table, and it throws dramatic shadows on the wall as he enters the room. Their clothes have been returned to them, freshly laundered, and it’s with an appreciative groan that he shakes out a clean shirt and pair of breeches.

“Turn around so a man can dress,” he bids, back to her and already pulling off his current shirt. It pulls at the light wound on his hip from the trembling boy’s crossbow, a wound so minor as to have been inconsequential but the scab of which had softened in his bath and now itches irritatingly. He scratches at it for a moment.

From her nest of blankets, Arya yawns. “Why? It’s not like I haven’t seen your ass before.” He stops, arms through the sleeves of his new shirt, and sends her a look over his shoulder. She shrugs, unrepentant, expression owlish. “Valar morghulis, valar dohaeris. What is High Valyrian for all men must piss? Besides, it’s not like you jumped to cover yourself in the baths at Harrenhal. Honestly, between traveling with Yoren’s recruits and selling clams at Ragman’s I’ve seen more cock than I know what to do with. You men, you just whip them out whenever you like. Wish I could piss that easy. Cunts are all bending and squatting.

He grits his teeth and finishes changing his shirt. The mouth on her. Sometimes he wishes Sandor Clegane were still alive just so he could slap the man. “A man would appreciate some semblance of privacy, please. I don’t watch when you make water.” When he glances over his shoulder once more she’s still watching him, now with a smirk on her face. Less owlish, more wolfish. “Arya,” he says sharply, and she shrugs once more before shuffling in place, scooting until her back faces his own.

“What three things have you for me?” she asks. He hears a yawn in her voice. She’s slept more in the last handful of days than he has known her to sleep ever; but then, he supposes that he’s never known her to be pregnant and frequently sick while so. He gives her her three new things as he changes his breeches and small clothes, grimacing as he steps out of his underthings and throwing looks over his shoulder to make sure her back is still turned. It is.

To the learning of the planned reconstruction of the glass gardens she’s thoughtful for a long moment, and then tells him that the idea is a prudent one; the gold and goods Sansa would have had to give up to get so much glass would have severely weakened her budgets, but once the gardens are built they will have produce within a few moons and it doesn’t matter how rich the North is in coin if everyone starves to death. To the horses she heaves a sigh but agrees with his assessment that they need fresh mounts, for to keep their current ones would be to run them to a frozen death, and she too agrees that she must use her name as leverage, though she doesn’t sound happy about it. Though given knowledge of Winterfell’s recent significant expenses, she wryly suggests writing to the court of King’s Landing to provide reimbursement. “Or Gendry,” she says, and not seeing the way he pauses briefly as he dons new (new! clean!) socks. “Just send a raven directly to Gendry. He’s Lord Paramount now, bet he gets loads of requests for reparations. He’d probably just sign off on it. It’s not like he can read.”

“Does a girl believe his advisors wouldn’t read a letter to him, especially if it detailed his one-time lover, who is a Princess, travelling North with his unborn bastard?” he asks, voice dry. “I think that if the goal is an uneventful journey with no interruption from your child’s father, that is a fool way to go about it.”

She gives a hum as if in consideration. “Yes,” she agrees after a moment, a certain sadness in her voice, “best not.” When he turns back to her, now fully dressed once more, she’s already facing him as well (how long had she been watching him without him realizing?), and at his quizzical look she smiles, without happiness or humor. “Sometimes I think I’m a terrible person,” she tells him suddenly. After a moment he sits on the floor, carefully avoiding the puddles; with her on the bed, he is of a lower height than her, and so supplicant he hopes will dissuade some of her vulnerability to allow her to speak freely.

“Clarify,” he says after a moment, when it is clear she doesn’t intend to elaborate. She huffs a breath of laughter, also humorless.

“Do I need to?” she asks, and draws the blankets around her tighter until she is nearly cocooned within them. It would be amusing, were it not for the conversation being had. “I’m keeping his child from him. He doesn’t even know about it because I won’t let him. And it’s not-- I’m not fooling myself. I know that he’ll find out eventually, and it’ll cause trouble between the Stormlands and the North down the road. I just--” She takes a deep breath. Her form beneath the blankets moves, rearranges; he cannot see, but he knows she has wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m scared. Women don’t have a lot of power in the South. If he acknowledges it as his then I don’t really have a say in anything that happens to it. If I can get to Winterfell before he finds out then it’ll be protected.

A subject so far unbroached, for he has been loathe to push their boundaries when only so recently has she allowed herself to trust him. Still, a question he’s wondered, a suspicion he’s had. “Do you think,” he asks, voice quiet, soft as silk, “that this boy will try to hurt you? Your child?”

She laughs, a loud bark. “No! Gods, no. He’ll be angry, but I don’t believe for a moment he’d hurt me. But… it’s a family. His family. He’s never had one of those. He’ll want to keep it.” Her own voice hardens valiantly to try to cover its crack. “And he can’t. It’s mine. And I won’t be his. He can’t have either of us. I don’t care what he wants.”

He tilts his head at her. Her eyes are wide, brows drawn in, teeth bared. Her shoulders are tense. Her arms around her rounded womb. “You lie,” he tells her quietly.

She stares at him. And then suddenly, abruptly, begins to laugh. And when laughing gives way to weeping he moves forward, rests his forehead against her knee where it hangs from the side of the bed, still swaddled in blankets. She cries quietly for a minute only, the little sobs soft and shaking, before drawing herself back up with a wet sniff. She drops a hand to the top of his head and cards her fingers through his hair; his eyes close. “You’re right,” she says finally, voice rough. “I am lying. I wish I weren’t. I wish I didn't care. Gods, why do you have to be so good at seeing truths?”

“I was a Master,” he reminds her in a murmur. Then, though it pains him, “Your Gendry I assume is not. Ravens die. Weather becomes inclement. Take your time, make your decision. And if you must, lie to him when you have. Tell him you'd sent word and assumed it received. Tell him you'd believed him aware. You are an accomplished liar.”

“To all but you,” she says, and combs through his hair once more. He concedes this with a shrug; he was, as stated, a Master. “I feel as though I’m being terribly selfish.”

He lifts his hand, wraps it around her ankle; squeezes lightly, kneads the muscle of her calf. Distance, some part of him admonishes himself. This is not aloof. This is not no one. “Do you want to share your child?”

The hand in his hair tightens minutely and when he looks up Arya sniffs, her smile wet and sad. “I don’t know what I want,” she admits.

He allows himself a small smile in return, sad as well. “This is true. And, a man is familiar with this,” he tells her gently. “Intimately. It will come, in time. I have so learned.”

Arya holds his gaze, her eyes somber. A moment passes, and another. Finally, she nods, sniffs once more, but her tears have dried, her weeping there and gone. They sit like this for several minutes, her bundled in blankets and he kneeling before her on the floor. Occasionally her hand drifts through his hair; he feels rather like a pet dog, but it isn’t disagreeable and seems to give her some measure of comfort besides. Finally, she clears her throat and asks, “What’s my third thing?”

Distance, he thinks, and pulls away. He stands, stretching, and goes to collect his soiled clothing, gathering it into a pile and placing it beside the door. Then he turns to their cleaned clothes and begins folding, packing it back into their bags; Arya cannot be trusted to pack her own clothing because she will wad everything up and space will not be used efficiently. He believes she does this on purpose so that he will pack for her. “Your fat boy--”

“Hot Pie,” she corrects firmly, though with a smile.

“--yes, the pie child, he has an acquaintance who is a midwife. Given this is the last semblance of civilization we will see for at least a moon, and given your abnormal size, I’d thought it may be in your best interest to be seen to before we set out once more.” When he glances up from his packing, her expression is stormy, all earlier sadness gone and replaced by ire. He blinks. “You… don’t have to?”

“What do you mean, abnormal size? ” she demands heatedly. He blinks once more, then gestures at the direction of her stomach. The answer, he assumes, is obvious. Apparently not so. “What’s wrong with my size?”

“Arya,” he says slowly, “you’re only four moons. You’re carrying of a size almost a moon further than that.” Her thunderous look settles slightly, becomes somewhat worried. “I’m not saying you should be concerned, but I think perhaps speaking to someone with more experience on this would help determine why.” He squints. “Do you… know anything about what size you’re supposed to be?”

Arya glares downwards towards her tummy. “‘S all just fat to me. I don't even notice it growing anymore, it just does. I’ve never had to bend over to see my twat before.” Before he can adequately unpack this statement, she lets out another yawn and then drops onto her side, curling into herself and looking at him irritably. “I’ve gone through a dozen different emotions in the last ten minutes. Do you know how long I went without feeling anything at all? I miss being numb. This is incredibly tiring. I feel like all I do is sleep and I’m still sleepy.”

He nods in agreement. It is exhausting, to be.

When it becomes clear that Arya has reached her limit of conversation, he begins to unravel their bedrolls and gather their own blankets, those she hadn’t commandeered to use in addition to the sheets and furs already on the bed. He layers them, arranges them as he likes, and so doesn’t see her look of annoyed befuddlement until he has dropped to the ground with a sigh and she says, “What are you doing.” It is not spoken as a question.

What he is doing is trying to maintain distance. The night will be cold, yes, but so sheltered by the insulated walls of the inn, the wooden floor warmed by the hearth still roaring in the dining hall below, it will not reach the fatally freezing temperatures that they have been forced to endure up to this point. There is no reason for them to share the bed. When they have slept together in nights past, it has been practical, necessary for survival, him trapping her heat and her warming his front, but that necessity is made unnecessary now. The cot is not so large that they could share it without brushing, and it is… intimate, to sleep so closely without reason.

Without reason, it is too much like want, and no one does not want. No one does not want to share heat, to feel her heartbeat, to hear the soft sounds the human body makes at rest. No one wants nothing.

“A man is going to sleep,” he says, ignoring her stony glare. “The bed is small, and the room is warm. There is no need to share.”

This clearly displeases her, though he cannot say why. He’d thought she would delight in having the soft cot to herself so that she could spread out. He knows that her back aches in the morning from sleeping in their one shared position; truthfully, his own back often aches as well but warmth and survival are deemed rather more important than indulging their cramping muscles. “...fine,” she says finally, and then blows out the taper and rolls so that her back is facing him. He sighs.

This type of petulance is much less charming.

 


 

(And shortly, another lesson:

No one may not want, but a girl can.

Jaqen wakes to movement, the slide of fabric against fabric. He hears Arya sniff and then cough quietly. Feels the floor he’s laying on shift very slightly as she gets off the bed and walks closer. She reaches him, pauses. He counts their breaths. Slightly less than a minute passes before she seems to come to some decision and lowers herself to the ground beside him. “Arya,” he murmurs, voice rough with sleep. She stills for a moment before continuing to settle into her spot, redistributing the blankets she’d wrapped herself in so that they fall more evenly over the both of them. She hums in reply. “There’s a bed, lovely girl. You should sleep in it.”

She tucks herself against his back; it is almost a mirror of how they have grown accustomed to sleeping together, save that she is behind him instead of in front. “I don’t want it,” she says. She does not sound as though she’s just woken up the way he has. She sounds as if she’s been awake for a while. Her next words are whispered, soft, like a revelation. “No featherbed for me.”

If there is meaning to this he cannot find it, though the phrase sounds familiar, as if from a poem or song. Tiredly, he makes a concession: can he be faulted if she seeks him? This is not him acting on his desires.

Choice when choice made available. He cannot be blamed for what she chooses; he cannot be blamed if what she chooses works to his own selfish benefit. After all, she is his apprentice no longer.

He is tired, and Arya curls against his back. She is warm, her stomach a light pressure on his spine, and he knows somehow that he will sleep better now than he had before. He lets himself appreciate it and decides to self-flagellate on the morrow.

It is exhausting, to be.)

Chapter Text

And, the consequence of tired concessions:

When he was no one, he did not often dream.

As a child, yes. The more he thinks of the boy he once was, a subject he'd allowed pushed from his mind for so long, the more he remembers, and he remembers dreaming: hazy thoughts of a grey little city on a grey little island, flitting at the edge of his small sleeping mind like songbirds, there and gone again in a shimmering flap of wings. A woman featured often, though he could not remember her face, her features nondescript; she wore soft dresses and would ruffle his hair with a gentle smile, call him sweet cricket and ask him why he chirped so sadly. Didn't he know she was just around the corner? But no matter how many ephemerally dreamy corners his toddling legs took him around he could not find her. She was always just beyond reach. He recalls very vaguely that as a child he would wake crying from these dreams, the soft pitiful weeping of a forlorn babe, but even now that he is not no one that grey little city on that grey little island means little to him, and a crying boy even less. Whoever that boy was and whatever life he came from, he was not Jaqen H'ghar.

These childhood dreams slowed and finally stopped when he became an acolyte in the temple. Though he still held the watery unclear memories that sparked them, emotion and selfhood were beaten out of him with fists and staves. Instead of feeling so overwhelmed with sadness when he thought of the woman who held him so sweetly that he couldn't control tears, a boy became able to think of these memories with a sort of detachment, as if they'd happened to someone else, a story he'd been told but hadn't lived, aware of their existence but with no emotional tether to them.

In adolescence he dreamed of blood and pain and the many deaths of many faces; the sacrifice all must make to use the masks and become another, though as a Master he'd grown numb to these dreams until, as most Masters do, he'd simply stopped having them.

A man who was no one but has become Jaqen H'ghar dreams occasionally, though with that same vague haze to his dreams that a boy had experienced once. He dreams of wolves prowling the foggy streets of Braavos; of walking through the Hall of Faces and seeing that all the masks are the face of his sister and blood leaks from their eyes and mouths to lap in waves at his bare feet; of a lovely girl in Harrenhal whispering his damned name into his ear, Jaqen H'ghar, and watching with the satisfied eyes of a predator as he opens up his own throat; of a direwolf whose teeth are Needles, tearing off his false faces until he has no masks left to wear and his true face is laid bare, to discover only a rotted and mealy visage beneath it all because Jaqen H'ghar was never real and whoever he was meant to be died as a boy.

When he dreams these dreams he wakes from them simply, quiet as a breath, with little indication of his troubling thoughts. If they stir him to motion in his sleep Arya makes no mention or comment, and he is hesitant to name them nightmares for he doesn't fear them and neither do they horrify him, per say. Instead they instill in him a sense of disquiet, of unease, bring to him a lack of equilibrium. He feels unbalanced upon waking, and balance has ever been important to him.

The dreams of flesh… those have not plagued him since he was an adolescent, barely of an age to Arya, not quite a boy but not so a man yet either. Even the Faceless Men are but humans with human needs; sleeping, eating, shitting, fucking, as his coarse-mouthed brother Arya had called handsome would say. That as a man he'd never had much desire for the last of these made him exemplary as a Master. The body was a tool, and he'd used his as necessary, but he'd also maintained that tools do not want to be used, tools do not lust to be handled. They simply are when it is their time to be. When he'd explained such to his most handsome brother, the other Master had simply laughed at him.

So long since he's had one of these dreams, of warmth and passion and flesh, that he sometimes forgets the human body capable of them; his dreams are too often dark, even if not truly frightening, for him to contemplate the possibility of lighter ones. Foolish, this, for a man who'd found purpose in a House of Black and White. A coin has two faces. And so it is unexpected to have one so suddenly, and he is ill-prepared.

Arya straddles his hips, thighs to either side of him, and he thinks, this is a dream. She grinds their groins together, sensation muted through their clothes, and he thinks, this is a dream. Her hands rest on his stomach, fingers climbing beneath his shirt to scratch shallow furrows into his abdomen, the skin unbroken but puckered and red, and he thinks, this is a dream. She rides him languidly, a lazy smirk curling at her mouth, her hair down and loose, in one of her too-large shirts, nails digging into his navel, and he thinks, this is a dream.

A dream yes, but oh what a lovely one.

Not his apprentice, but Arya, and she draws her bottom lip into her mouth, her teeth showing, and he wants them at his throat. He wants her in control, wants to worship and adore, and she laughs as if she can hear this, braces her hands on his chest to bring her core down harder against his, slower. His hands at her hips, her thighs, running down the supple darkly dyed deerskin breeches to her rear, the soft intake of her lungs as he squeezes, the way she brings up a hand to palm one pert breast through her shirt, nipples visibly pebbling. It is all he can do to suppress a groan, and thinks if it is a dream then why suppress? And so he lets himself touch her and he lets himself murmur encouragement and he lets himself rock his hips up into hers, lets himself slot the hot hardness of him in against the hot wetness of her, the both of them damp through their pants.

Lets himself say her name, Arya, Arya, Arya and she laughs, exultant, powerful, the way he imagines a wolf would laugh if such beasts could: dangerously and with too many, too-sharp teeth. Absolution in her skin, purpose in her breath, damnation in her warmth. Blood sings in his veins, leaps to the fore of his flesh, palms aching to touch, form aching to be touched. Hands, the tools man uses to shape and mould, so mould to her, the jutting bones of her hips and the ridges of her spine, the delicate fold of skin to skin of her stomach when she bends to let him quest higher to her shoulder blades, sharp as knives, the spirit of her a sword and her body its sheath. And her hands, the hands which moulded him, and I made you too, seeking the hard plane of his chest, nails burrowing into the dusting of fine hair there they find.

Her tongue an arrow and lips a bow, piercing his throat painlessly as she continues to lean over him, mouth at the collar of his shirt, licking and scraping teeth and cheek against the rough stubble of a beard he hasn't had means to shave cleanly in weeks. Her hips, undulating, that lauded dance of flesh, heated and heady, rocking hard against the thickness of him, his manhood straining towards her warmth in a bid to bury, Arya, a prayer, his blood sings and she answers that song with her teeth, biting until his skin breaks and marking his body as she's marked his soul, the crotch of her pants so wet over her vagina that it pulls taut, that he feels the cleft of her lower lips, the shape of them split apart as she grinds against the hard length of him between them.

Possessive, possessed. He could watch her find her pleasure on him and be pleased just from the watching. He could restrain his touch at her direction, bend to her devious whim. He could breed her quickly, forcefully, as animals do, the two of them predators of man; he could satisfy himself with her satisfaction, touch nothing but what she allowed him touch; he could feast upon her body, his mouth to where she is sweet and dripping, honey from the comb, and be full with this sup and require no reciprocation; he could love her, if she let him, if he let himself. What could they create, together? Not a Master, not an apprentice; not a wolf or a sword; not faceless; just a man, just a lovely girl. Just what they at their cores could become.

She pulls back to kiss him, finally finally, her lips to his, tasting of his blood, feral, a goddess astride him, blasphemy but for the fact that he is sure Him of Many Faces would agree with the sentiment. She smiles against his mouth. A sweet threat, a dangerous promise. Her hands lower, nails dragging over his skin, to his breeches. His manhood twitches as she plays with the laces, she licks the gasp from his lungs. Releasing him from confines, holding him between her body and his; so warm, and so wet. Her covered genitals over his uncovered meet in a slick slide as she rides him, her breasts pressed against his chest, stomach to stomach, firm rounding womb of her to equally firm abdominal muscle of him.

His. Possessive, possessed. Hers. He thinks, mine.

"Arya," he breathes, her name a rapture.

Muzzily, from behind him, she mumbles, "What?"

Awareness washes over him. He wakes efficiently, quickly, with little lingering in the suffocating heat of his impassioned dream. And upon waking, despair; he rises abruptly, startling a grunt from Arya who had been tucked against his back and who now blinks up at him with sleepy irritation. "The fuck?" she asks, squinting. Dawn has just broken and the soft pale light filters in through the window of their room, painting her into something otherworldly and ethereal. He shakes his head, stop: she is literally glaring at him and smacking her lips against morning breath, her hair a tangled mess and eyes puffy, there is nothing that makes her ethereal in this moment save his want of her.

"Go back to sleep," he tells her, pulling as much of her old Master into his voice as he can, a command that suggests disobeying to be most unfavorable.

It must work on some subconscious level, because she squints for a moment more before grumbling, "...'kay." And then she curls back up, eyes closed once more and face buried in his pillow. Considering how quickly she returns to her dreams, already letting out the tiny snores he's grown accustomed to hearing in his ear, perhaps her obedience has less to do with a desire to obey and is more because she'd intended to go back to sleep regardless.

He retreats with speed. The inn downstairs is quiet, it's business not yet started, though he hears movement from within the kitchens as the help starts their tasks of the day. Walking into the cold outside after only having been asleep and warm a mere minute before is akin to walking directly into a wall of ice, his skin immediately prickling with gooseflesh and already prompting his muscles to shiver; so quickly had he fled that he had not retrieved any of his layers or furs, and so stands facing a Westerosi winter in naught but a thin shirt and his most loose pair of breeches and only one pair of socks, all already beginning to grow sodden with snow.

He fairly jogs towards the stable, where it smells of horse sweat and horse shit but at least is warm, and finds a bale of hay to sit upon. Once sat, he puts his elbows on his knees and stares hard at the ground. No, he tells himself, no, and tries not to draw comparison to reprimanding a child. It is difficult. His manhood is only now softening, and this primarily due to the shock of cold; kindest praise to Him of Many Faces that he'd suffered this dream the night Arya had been sleeping at his back as opposed to his front.

The last time he'd taken himself in hand was… yes, was also because of her; a kiss to a wounded palm, blood on her lips.

His apprentice had wanted to please him, in her own way; sometimes he wonders if Arya ever truly wanted to be Faceless, or if she simply wanted to be taught and fell in with a difficult teacher. She had gamely attempted facelessness at his command, followed instruction as best as she could, and had genuinely seemed surprised at her own action of dissent that had wounded him; her regret that she'd spilled his blood had been real, though her insistence that she could serve the Order faithfully and be no one was not. He'd allowed Arya Stark, a wolf, to leave the training room with his blood in her mouth, though the wolf had had her tail tucked. And when she'd left, he'd touched himself to the thought of her. Shameful and damning. He'd mourned his loss of control afterwards.

The last time he'd laid with someone was before that, early in her apprenticeship. She'd just lost her eyes, sight clouded by vengeance then taken from her by the Order in retribution, and during her temporary banishment from the House he'd found himself with an unexpected amount of free time. Bound to Braavos, waiting for his wayward student to earn her way back as he was unwilling to completely leave her, but unable to spend his time teaching. He'd taken contract within the city for want of being productive, spent a week as a house guard for a wealthy ship merchant. Opportunity to get subtly closer to the dead man came in the form of his amorous wife, and it was opportunity he’d taken. He’d done his duty, let her slake her lust with his body, and with her favor worked his way quickly through the unofficial ranking of guard until he was charged with the personal protection of the Lord of the house; this charge he’d ultimately failed, but only because the wealthy man was dead as soon as his name was whispered in offering to the Many-Faced God.

Thrice in that week he’d coupled with the Lord’s wife, and none of those three times had felt so passionate nor so overwhelming as the scant touches he’d shared with Arya in his dream. Not once in the time he’d briefly been the Lady’s lover had he wanted her half so ardently as he’d wanted Arya, mumbling and dazed from sleep and glaring at him for waking her, glassy eyes narrowed, collapsing back onto the pillow and snoring when she was bid. Indeed, he had not wanted the rich man's wife at all, her and their sex together both simply means to an end.

Upon thinking, he realizes that he cannot remember when he last desired besides the times he has desired Arya, cannot recall to mind if his body had ever truly wanted before now. Even the dreams of lust in adolescence were more lust for the mechanics of the act, lust for something tight and wet, but never had those dreams been of a specific person, and never to his knowledge had he viewed a woman or a man and coveted their flesh.

The loss of his own virginity was accepted, necessary, the same task he'd given to his apprentice so too given to him by his own Master. Unlike Arya he'd chosen a courtesan for his first, and from her learned the female anatomy, the ways women can be pleased and the ways they only pretend to be pleased by their lovers, which sighs and moans are true and which are false, the erogenous places of the body and how they can be exploited. The courtesan, he recalls, had been much amused by his solemn and analytical approach to becoming a man, and though he had found pleasure in her touch it was only a lesson to him, only experience gained. In the interest of fairness he'd bedded another man as well, though this practice he'd found less pleasure in, and then to complete his knowledge of the subject he'd taken a female face and lain with both sexes as a woman as well. It was necessary. He learned from it. It made him more prepared for any given role that the Many-Faced God sought, the exercise simply a more advanced form of the lying game. It was not because he was sex-crazed, as his handsome brother had jeered. To him, his body was a weapon, and he'd made it more deadly for the knowledge of it he'd gained.

But he'd never truly desired to be touched, never wanted sex for the act of it alone, and certainly never with one specific person before. Touches served a purpose, were steps closer to a goal. He enjoyed them when he shared them, but they were not arbitrary.

And yet… he desires Arya for the simple fact of that she is Arya, and she is desirable to him.

That he wants her, yes, a determination made the day previous. Information acknowledged, accepted. How badly he wants her that his mind, only ever within his control, has turned against him in addition to his body is worrisome, for he cannot control how it wanders in his dreams, and they cannot afford to sleep separately once they are on the road again and survival will depend on warmth. He can only hope to keep this contained within himself for as long as he possibly can, and pray that Arya does not find it insulting or distasteful if she should find out.

His thoughts are distressingly cyclical. He should not want her, but he does. He had not known want before her, but he knows it now.

One of the horses in the stable stomps a hoof and snorts. He shivers on his hay bail until the hot thrumming of his blood from his dream passes and control of his body is his own again. His breath, exhaled on a tremor, fogs instantly in the air. He hears in his mind, like a phantom, his handsome brother laughing uproariously at his predicament.

It's going to be a long five months.

 


 

The delicate process of attempting to maintain balance despite the scales being tipped disfavorably follows thusly:

Breakfast is bacon, honest to gods bacon, and biscuits smothered in gravy made from the meat's grease. He manages to eat half his plate before Arya comes down the stairs at a trot, the old wooden steps creaking beneath her, her eyes wide and nose in the air like a tiny voracious hound. "Bacon," she breathes upon seeing his meal, and he quickly shovels another two large bites into his mouth before she joins him at the table and pulls his plate away from him, eating what food he has left. Disgruntled, he leans back in his seat and crosses his arms, watching her dig into his meal with a glare. He was never a defensive eater before he started travelling with her. Why does he want her, again?

He catches the arm of the lone serving girl working so early and requests another two plates, one for each of them, and at the prospect of more food Arya slows her inhalation to eat more daintily. Dainty for her involves actually chewing her food and not much more measure than that; when she glances up at him and sees his irritated expression at her having stolen his breakfast, she rolls her eyes, cheeks packed with biscuit.

"Don't blame me," she says, wiping her lips when speaking causes some crumbs to fall from them, "blame my starving passenger." She rolls her eyes again, more expressively, when he grumbles about blaming the both of them and then picks up the last piece of bacon from the plate and breaks it in half, giving him a piece with the grave air of a Lady bestowing a token to a Knight. "There, now you can't say I've never done anything for you." Popping her own half into her mouth before she's even swallowed the food already in it she asks, "What happened earlier? You bolted like a startled deer."

"Unkind dream," he says shortly. Daringly, he reaches out and dips his small piece of bacon into the gravy pooled on the plate that was previously his. Arya watches with narrowed eyes as if debating whether she wants to bite his hand off for the transgression. He'd anticipated her question and tried to determine how to best phrase his answer while still in the stable, what he could say to allay suspicion without lying or revealing too much truth, and had decided on giving her carefully worded half-truths.

"You said my name," Arya tells him, her tone almost an accusation. Finally she swallows and washes the large mouthful down with some of his watery ale.

He nods, already knowing what he will say to excuse this. "You were killing me." It isn't strictly a lie. Just probably not so literal as she might imagine. Still, believable. It'd certainly felt as though he were dying at the time. He's dreamed of wolves biting into his throat before; that in this particular dream his mind had lended the metaphor to be far more pleasurable than usual is inconsequential.

Her brows draw in, furrowing. They are by far the most expressive feature of her face. She sets her mug down, leans back in her chair and crosses her arms, tilts her head at him. "Why was I killing you?" she asks after a moment.

His answering smile is sardonic. "There are a plethora of reasons a girl would wish to kill this man, I'm sure. That the name Jaqen H'ghar is not on your little list still surprises me sometimes."

She shrugs in acknowledgement at the first statement, but then disagrees with the second. "You never qualified, the list was very exclusive. Though you did come close when you tried to kill me a few weeks ago." He raises an eyebrow, commenting on the use of past tense, and she shrugs again. "I don't have a list anymore. Everyone that was on it is dead." She grimaces, leaning forward once more to take a sip from her pilfered drink and then staring into it with an unhappy turn to her lips. "And I didn't even get to scratch the most important one off myself. She was killed by some bloody rocks."

"No more list," he muses thoughtfully, inwardly thankful that she was so easily dissuaded from the topic of his dream. "How does a girl sleep without her special lullaby?"

Her eyes lift from the mug, catch his own, and her expression smooths into something more mild. She says, almost idly, "Better, recently. Had trouble for the first part of last night but it passed with some repositioning." The implication is impossible to miss, and he sees the truth of it in her face even as he wonders to how: it would seem she sleeps more easily at his side. Their gazes hold, though he worries what she may read in his.

After a moment, she smiles. It's slow, curling, not so much devious as assured of something she'd been suspecting. "Perhaps a man has been sleeping better recently, too," she says, voice a guileless little hum.

He is saved from having to quickly think of a reply to this that won't damn him by the appearance of more food, this served not by the previous wench but once more by her pie friend. "Mornin' Arry!" the fat boy says cheerfully, and then markedly less cheerfully, "Mornin', um, Ser Jakken."

Arya bites her lip in amusement at his disdainful look. "Jaqen," she corrects with a smile, already pulling another plate towards her.

The fat boy's face screws up briefly. "Jackon?" At Jaqen's narrowing eyes he squeaks.

"Jaqen," she tries again, bacon poised at her mouth but unable to take a bite for how she's smirking.

"Jekin."

"Just say scary man," Jaqen tells him dryly. "I prefer that anyway. And a scary man is not a Ser, fat child . "

Arya hisses at him admonishingly, but Hot Pie just shakes his head with an affable shrug. "No, 's alright, I am fat. 'S not an insult, just a fact. I'm fat, he's scary. 'Sides, scary man is much easier, I kept thinkin' Arry was sayin' your name was Chicken, 'cause she said it so fast, but I wasn't so sure that sounded right."

Arya's eyes widen in malicious delight, and Jaqen feels whatever remaining respect he'd commanded as her superior fading away. There will be no living with her after this.

In Braavosi, he says softly, "A man could still kill you, you know."

Also in Braavosi, she replies, "A man could try." She finally takes a bite of her bacon, crunching it between her teeth loudly. Then, in the common tongue once more, she says with a sweet simper, "Ser Chicken."

Clearly sensing he's grievously misstepped, Hot Pie stands once more and backs away, sending nervous glances at Jaqen. "Um, so, Tolly should be by in a few hours, she's working the evening so she'll want to take a look at you before then, I'll just let you know once she's here, okay bye." Then the fat boy disappears, lumbering back into the kitchens with haste.

Only once he's gone does Jaqen begin eating his own food; a folly he will surely regret soon, waiting, for Arya has already finished her second round of bacon and is eyeing his even as she chews on a biscuit. Uncharitably, he thinks wistfully on the weeks previous when she'd been unable to keep down anything that wasn't charred black. Clearly she does not suffer the affliction of nausea so keenly now.

Her eyes leave his bacon, lift to meet his own, and her brow rises. Then, in the manner that they've become accustomed to, they hold an entire conversation with a few scant words.

"Hours to occupy ourselves," she observes mildly, the question implied.

"Provisions. Horses," he replies. Things they can fill that time procuring. She nods, sniffs, takes another bite of her biscuit.

Chewing, "How long do we stay?" He tilts his head at her, deference, though he glances down at her swollen stomach in reminder. She considers, decides, says, "Tomorrow." He hums his approval, even as she sighs in disappointment at her own answer. "The bath, though…"

"The bath," he agrees with his own sigh. He takes a sip from the watered-down ale they've been sharing before asking something he's been contemplating frequently. "Winterfell?" She sets her jaw, nods. "Are you sure? It will only get more difficult," he warns.

Riverrun is far closer, and held by her uncle. The Eyrie is further and a bit more treacherous to reach, but still closer than Winterfell and also held by someone of her blood. Either would welcome her, he knows, and though the reception may not be so warm as she'd wish given that she has little personal favor with neither her uncle nor her cousin he does not believe either keep would deny her sanctuary should her bastard's father discover her condition and march. A precarious position indeed; his lovely girl flirts with another war, brought on so soon after the last, with her desire to keep her child to herself. And the spark to ignite that war is the temper of a spurned lover, and that lover a Baratheon besides; a family rather famous for their temper. Ours is the fury.

"Winterfell," she tells him, determined. Her grey eyes are the steel Valyrian blades are crafted from. "If I must have a child, then I want…" She swallows, looks down at the table; her eyes are no less hard for the tearing in them. One, two drops, before she sniffs again and visibly fortifies herself. "Then I want to give birth in the same room my mother birthed my siblings and I in. And I want my sister there with me."

He pretends not to hear the crack in her voice at the word sister. Things he had gleaned in pieces over months of playing the lying game in Braavos, trying to bleed the Stark from his angry little apprentice, led him to believe while Arya had a tumultuous relationship with her older sister, there was little more important to her than her family, her pack. Sometimes, he is reminded of how terribly young she is; not yet six and ten, and yet she's lived such a long and difficult life. Guilt, inside him: he has not done much in their history together to alleviate that difficulty.

"Winterfell," he agrees after a moment. Come what may, Winterfell it is.

After they both finish breaking their fasts (hers broken with decidedly more bacon than his when he makes the mistake of looking away from his plate for a moment only to find that when his attention has returned to it he’s missing several pieces and Arya is chewing with an incredibly self-satisfied look on her face), they depart from the inn, and Jaqen directs her to the various and sundry people he’d located the day before when he’d inquired to procuring the necessities for setting out once more. Blankets and bedrolls they’ve managed to get on their own through means of scavenging, and though extras of both would certainly be helpful it would be difficult to carry any more than they already have without obtaining a third horse so as not to overburden whatever steeds they end up setting out with. Unfortunate, but the most they’re able to buy of foodstuffs is dried meat and hard bread of a similar like to what Arya had been travelling on before he’d joined her.

Arya invokes the Stark name judiciously, and only has often as she must, preferring to pay for what they can with what little coin they have; neither of them make mention of the fact that she is pregnant, and she is not yet so large that layering clothes and her thick cloak cannot hide her burgeoning stomach. At times she says Queen Sansa and at others she murmurs King Bran, seeming to try to spread between her two siblings the expenses they are about to procure on her behalf, and to those people they are able to get scant items from she gives letters signed with her name; he is certain the people she hands these letters too cannot read them, but hers is a powerful family to call for cause and more than once it's remarked upon of her Stark look.

Laden down with several more pairs of breeches and socks, the unappetizing food that nonetheless is made to keep longer, and a heavier fur-trimmed cloak for him as he had not left Braavos intending to journey across the Northern expanse of Westeros in Winter, the two of them circle back to the inn with their haul a few hours after having left it. Arya seems almost spirited, moving without stiffness and her chin up, eyes sharp; it seems sleeping for half a week straight has returned some of the energy robbed from her for the last while by the concussion, the inability to keep down food, and the recent chest sickness. She looks self-assured, purposeful, every inch of her the Princess whose status she now uses to her benefit. He has never seen her so… confident.

No, incorrect-- clarify. He has never seen her so confident without a weapon in hand.

When she'd first become his apprentice in the House, she was filled with false bravado, puffing up and hissing like a cat, telling him sharply I'm not scared whenever she was faced with something she feared, as if saying the words alone could make them so. She'd come to him half-trained, the stances and orders of a respected bravo long dead the only instruction she'd received, and this years past and hazy to her, a water dancer's temperance dulled in Harrenhal, with the Brotherhood, with a snarling Hound; temperance did not keep her alive then, but the feral wolf inside her did. He'd forced her to relearn what she thought she knew, correcting her with words and bruising strikes alike as needed, and though she'd railed against his commands like the untameable beast she was she eventually accepted his lessons. So taught, and with a more complete teaching, her false confidence with a blade became true.

But still, despite her deftness with her knives and swords, she could not claim to be no one so confidently, could not put behind Arya Stark with such success. His apprentice vacillated wildly on who, exactly, she wanted to be. This girl now has no such indecision, or if she does then she hides it so well that even he cannot see falseness in her; she knows who and what she is. It's gratifying. A girl playing at a boy, a mouse playing at a ghost, a wolf playing at no one-- it is satisfying, viscerally, in the place in his heart where affection for her roots, to see her come into her own. Not pride, not satisfaction in himself, but simply in her.

She said, the night he'd joined her, you made me and he'd accepted the blame, for he believed that she'd wanted someone to blame. Now, though, he does not think he made her. Helped shape her, perhaps, but Arya Stark made herself.

He doesn’t realize he’s staring at her as they deposit their goods back in their room until she stops folding socks to glare at him, eyes narrowed. “What?” she asks, voice accusing. “You’ve been watching me like a hawk for the last few minutes. What’s wrong?”

It takes him a moment to think of a response, but the one he does think of feels fair. With a shrug, he says, “It is hard to remember that a girl who proclaims so seriously that she is Arya Stark, Princess of Winterfell when she wants something is the same demon child who steals a man’s food from his plate and requires cuddles to sleep.”

Her face reddens and she crosses her arms petulantly. “It’s not cuddling, idiot, it’s… huddling. For warmth. People do it frequently when it’s cold.”

Smirking, he returns to packing the clothes she’s folded. “A man thought Starks didn’t get chilled.”

“We don’t, but I bet H’ghars do,” she snaps, throwing a sock at him. He ducks his head, not looking away from his work, and smirks harder at her irritated hiss as the garment sails over him. “Maybe I sleep better not having to worry that you’re not going to freeze like a delicate flower in the night. Or maybe I should just let you and save myself the misery of your company.”

“Ah,” he says sagely, looking at her and placing a hand over his heart. “It is nice to know that a girl cares for me so.” He glances to the other side of him where the sock lays in a heap on the ground. “I’m not picking that up for you.” She throws another at him, the mate to the one thrown previous, and he dodges this as well and says, “Nor that one.”

“I’m pregnant,” she huffs, turning and sitting on the bed with a frown. “I can’t bend over.”

“You're only four moons, you've some time before you can use that excuse. Has a girl forgotten how to squat? It is a motion the legs make, a man can demonstrate if you are unfamiliar with the concept.” When she reaches for another thing to throw, this a pillow, he says, “You will only make a bigger mess for yourself to clean.”

She falls backwards onto the mattress, pulling the pillow over her face instead and groaning into it. “If I squat I might piss myself.”

He considers this for a moment, then tells her, “I certainly won’t clean up that.

When he has finished sorting and packing away their new clothing in preparation for leaving the next day, he does actually pick up the two socks on the ground because he is also afraid she may wet herself if she attempts a squat. When he turns back to her he sees her still on the bed, lounging, but she’s taken the pillow away from her face and is watching him with a contemplative look. He tilts his head at her, invitation to speak.

“You know that’s not me, right? Princess Arya Stark. It’s just a face I was using.” As she says this her eyebrows draw in, her bottom lip goes between her teeth. The change in expression is minor, but he still reads uncertainty in it.

Unsure of what response she will find most favorable. He hums thoughtfully. “It is a face you wear easily, and well.”

This doesn't seem to soothe her the way he'd intended for it to. “I don’t want to be a Princess,” she says softly, lifting her gaze from him to the ceiling. “I don’t want to be a Lady. I just have to be one right now to get what we need. I just want to be… Arya. Just Arya.” Eyes back on him, and there is something soft and vulnerable in them now, at odds with the hard steel they’d been earlier. “You know that, right? It’s just a face. I’m just Arya.”

Just Arya, she says, as if Arya could ever be just anything. He considers for a moment.

Her hair is still loose, more tangled than it had been previously but still spreading out in waves on the mattress behind her. Her lip between her teeth. Eyes wide. Laying back, and without the layers of furs she’d been wearing, the curves of her body as if displayed. He wonders if she realizes what kind of picture just Arya paints. Stepping forward, her eyes following him, he reaches out and pulls her lip from between her teeth with his thumb. "You are whatever you wish to be," he tells her. "But, I think you could be both."

She blinks up at him. "Clarify." Her lips move again his thumb. She has not backed away from him.

He invites ruination, damnation. Had he not a few hours ago chastised himself and demanded better behavior? Ah, but any distance between them is too much distance for him now, accustomed as he has grown to her. Distance was him leaving her in Harrenhal and returning to Braavos, unsure if he would ever again see the dirty orphan child he gave his coin too, unsure if his little Lady of Stark would survive the harshness of the world to find him again. Distance was his dead sister, was waiting for a punishment, waiting for information he was not guaranteed to receive on the fate of his lovely girl. The work of years, an entire life shaped by the Order and facelessness, trampled into the dust under the weight of a month and a day spent freely as Jaqen H'ghar. Good that he has been exiled; he could not return to serve in the House after this even if they invited him.

Control. He was a Master of it, once.

Control and distance: he rules his face and turns back to their packs. "You are not faceless," he reminds her, quiet. "You have choices available. Options. And any who dare demand you shed Arya Stark to become what they want you to be... “ He glances up at her, does not have to explain. A dead faceless master, blood dripping on the floor, a Needle to his throat. He knows most intimately what happens to those who make such demands of her. “But you would make a good Princess, if you choose to be one. You have no lack of authority.”

She sits up, pulls her knees up and wraps her arms around them, sets her chin on one and stares at the wall. He closes their packs, assured that everything is folded and tucked away neatly, and places them by the door in preparation for their leaving tomorrow. He says, “Arya.” She look at him without moving her head, out of the corner of her eye. Then he says, an echo of something she’d said to him a week past, “If you don’t want to then don’t.” After a moment she nods slightly in acknowledgement and returns her gaze to the wall.

Leaving her to her ruminations, he exits the inn once more to visit the stable for the second time that day, this time thankfully with more clothes on. He tracks down the head groom, inquires to the horses, asks after any available. When he mentions the name Stark the groom brightens considerably, and to Jaqen’s astonishment leads him over to the same two healthy Northern horses he’d been eyeing the morning previous, both stocky mares with shaggy fur.

“Been holding onto these two for you,” the groom tells him. “Man came by last week with them, a bag of gold to keep them fed and stabled, and a letter from King Bran saying you’d be by for them soon.” He squints, leaning forwards, and eyes the ex-assassin. “You’ve got the hair, red and white. You are Jaqen H’ghar, yes?”

Yes, astonishment is the best word for what Jaqen feels.

Filled with questions, he returns to their room at the inn. Arya still sits on the bed, though she seems more settled than she had been when he’d left, favors him with a small smile which fades slightly when she sees his expression. “Jaqen?”

Before he can ask anything, truthfully before he can even close the door completely behind him, there is a knock on it. He and Arya exchange looks; swiftly, she moves to retrieve her Needle from where they’d hidden their weapons beneath the bed frame, grabbing his shortsword as she does and tossing it to him. He positions himself close to the wall, so that when he opens the door into the room it will hide him from view, and Arya is poised to draw should she need to, already standing at sideface. There’s another knock on the door, louder and more impatient, and he unlatches it and swings it open, obscuring himself from view and reading Arya’s face to determine if whoever enters the room is a threat.

From the way her eyes widen and she quickly hides her foil behind her, he assumes not. An assumption proved shortly, when the pregnant serving wench he’d met briefly the night before comes into the room, a young girl of perhaps eight or nine at her heels. He must have just passed them downstairs.

Upon entering, the pregnant wench stops for a moment to size Arya up, then says, “That fatlard baker boy wasn’t kidding, you are big.” Without much further ado, she bustles the child in ahead of her, ignoring Arya’s immediate indignant squawk of you’re one to talk! When she goes to shut the door behind her and sees Jaqen there, leaning casually with one knee bent, heel on the wall and arms crossed over his chest, she shrieks. “Fuck! You’re going to scare me into labor early, you are!” Then, to the child, “Don’t say that word, muffin.” The child nods solemnly, but once the woman has turned away Jaqen sees the little girl mouth the profanity silently to herself, lips shaping the word fuck like she’s tasting it. The older woman turns back to Arya with a huff. “Well, I’m Tolly. Hot Pie said you needed lookin’ at, here I am to look. This is Maeg, she’s one of mine, and my ‘prentice. She’ll be watchin’ and learnin’.”

Arya, having bristled at Tolly’s immediate entrance, looks at her warily. “I’m… Arya. That’s Jaqen.”

“Already met him,” Tolly says with a sniff, “and already know you, too. Hot Pie’s little Princess. He doesn’t shut up ‘bout you. Nobody did for a while. Wolf of Dawn this, Nightsbane that. Well, here you are, Princess Arya, doin’ as women do same as the rest of us with wombs and cunts.” She turns to the little girl, Maeg, once more. “Don’t say that one either.”

Arya’s brows are drawn in but there’s a slight smile tilting the corners of her mouth now, as if she doesn’t know what to make of this wench, at once insulted and charmed. When Tolly ushers her towards the bed she sits back down, pushing Needle beneath the bed frame once more and glancing at him quickly as if assuring herself of his presence before turning her attention back to the midwife.

Her movement seems to have reminded Tolly of something though, and she turns to glare at Jaqen. “You gotta leave. No men in here. ‘S woman’s business.”

“No,” he says firmly as Arya growls, “Absolutely not.” Maeg looks back and forth between them and her mother nervously.

Turning to cross her arms at him threateningly, Tolly asks him, “You the da?”

“He’s not,” Arya snaps, “but I want him to stay.”

The midwife glares at her. “Well we see where wanting got you, don’t we? You’ll have to undress so I can get a look at you, and I don’t want him in here with my girl while you’ve got your tits out.” To Maeg, “Not that one either, muffin.”

At this Arya grits her teeth and sends him a look that’s at once embarrassed and pleading, weighing the vulnerability of facing this alone against the vulnerability he will see if he stays. He mislikes it, but realistically he knows that the point of bringing a midwife to her was to have her looked over, and it is traditional to exclude men from matters of the birthing bed. That he is willing and happy to eschew tradition in most senses does not matter in this instance. He has no doubt that she could easily slay the midwife and the child if she needed to, has no doubt that there is no threat here.

And besides… to be in the same room with her while she is undressed would be to tempt fate for another of those dreams.

Distance, he thinks, even if distance disappoints her.

In Braavosi, he says to her, “A man will wait outside, should you need him.”

She tightens her jaw, but after a moment nods. Pointedly, he takes his shortsword with him when he leaves, but feels Arya’s eyes on his back as he goes. He closes the door behind him, leans against, closes his eyes and listens. The voices are muffled, quiet so that he cannot hear words, but tone he detects. Arya, irritated. Tolly, also irritated.

Listening, he waits.

 


 

This is what he cannot hear and cannot see for the wall that separates them:

Happy as a clam, Arya thinks sourly. She and Hot Pie are going to have words.

“Alright, shirt off,” the pregnant midwife tells her with a grunt, crossing her arms over her own swollen breasts. Arya glares at her, begrudgingly following direction and untying the laces at the collar of her blouse. When she takes it off, she hears the little girl give a gasp of surprise, and the midwife’s eyes widen. “Fuck me,” she hisses quietly, eyes trained on Arya’s stomach.

Confused, she glances down and-- ah. Yes. The scars. She’d noticed them last night in the bath, the first opportunity she’d had to be nude for an extended period of time since King’s Landing. The gifts of the Waif are stretched grotesquely over her swelling belly in some spots and knotting in others, the white scars turning her navel into a warped constellation of lines and jags.

The midwife recovers quickly, shakes her head with a whistle. “Those won’t be pretty when you’ve hit full size,” she warns. “Might not ever be pretty again.”

Arya shrugs. Her mother had had scars on her own stomach, the skin loosened and soft from her many pregnancies, hidden behind her elegant dresses and tightened into place by corsets. She herself has little patience for vanity; she has given small thought to what her body will look like when she has finished this woman’s task, and worried more of how long it will take to work her muscles back into shape, how long it will take to make herself a weapon again.

She doesn’t care for not being beautiful afterward. She was never beautiful, anyway.

“I’m going to touch you now,” Tolly warns her, and then kneels down on the floor with a grunt and does so brusquely. She puts both her hands on Arya’s midsection, seeming to take several different measurements with her fingers; Arya jumps with a flinch at the first touch but bites her tongue and doesn’t argue. Tolly finds her hip bones, sharp from her inability to keep down food, and spans her thumbs and little fingers across the rounding of her womb. Another measurement, from the lowest point of her growing stomach down to the crotch of her pants, and then a mirror of that from the highest point of swelling to her breasts, still hidden behind her bindings. All the while, Tolly asks questions and Arya does her best to answer them, while little Maeg watches with rapt attention, her eyes trained on where her mother places her hands, where she stops and starts a new measurement.

“Has it quickened?” the wench asks. Arya shakes her head, and Tolly gives a thoughtful hum. “How far along?”

Jaqen would know. He’d be able to answer immediately. Arya has to think about it. “Four moons today, I think,” she answers after a moment.

The midwife looks up at her, eyes narrowed. “Tell me true, girl. That skinny ginger out there the da?” She shakes her head again, biting her lip against a laugh. Skinny ginger. “Da bigger than him?” Arya nods her assent. “Hmm. You sure it’s four moons?” She doesn’t wait for a reply. “You’re bigger than four moons. Four and a half, maybe. Not quite five. Bit big for it to not have quickened yet. This your first?”

“My only,” Arya answers firmly. Tolly just snorts.

“‘S what I said with my first.” She pats her belly, far more rounded than Arya’s own. “This’ll be my sixth. Dunno if my man’s seed is strong or my soil’s fertile. ‘Spose it doesn’t matter either way.” She grimaces as if remembering something and looks over at Maeg. “What’s the first rule of being my ‘prentice?”

“Don’t tell da ‘bout any of it,” the little girl says brightly, and Arya snorts a laugh.

“Aye, good girl. Could be twins.”

It takes a moment for Arya to realize the midwife isn’t referring to herself. “T- twins? ” she gasps, horrified. She stares down at her growing stomach. No. Surely not. Surely the gods wouldn’t be so cruel. Two at once would tear her apart. She cannot even fathom it.

Tolly shrugs, unrepentant that she’s just shaken Arya’s world senseless. “Could be. Could just be a fat little fuck. Don’t say that, muffin. Every babe is different. Could be it’s big and you’re small, could be your womb is closer to your skin and it just shows more, could be lots of shit. Nor that, Maeg. You’ll know if it’s two in there once it quickens. That should happen soon, gods willing, and if it doesn’t then you may expect to bleed it out in the next month. If it doesn’t quicken then pray you bleed and don’t have to carry it through to birth. If it dies in the womb then birthin’ it won’t make it any less dead. Here, love, watch,” and she repeats one of her measurements, slower, so her daughter can see.

Arya tries desperately not to cry, a spell of emotion taking control of her for a few brief moments, overwhelming in a way she has not experienced since she was a child barely older than little Maeg, hearing a crowd cheer for her father’s blood; not since she saw through the haze of smoke and blood her brother’s body paraded with his wolf’s head sewn on his shoulders. The intensity passes quickly but leaves her feeling exhausted, wrung-out and as stretched within as the scars of her stomach are without. She wants suddenly, violently, for her mother to be here. She aches for the want of it, for Catelyn’s hands in her hair, for a kiss on her brow. Her relationship with her mother had been strained her whole life, had never had the chance to develop into something less strained. She does not think Catelyn would be proud of her, does not think she would approve of the choices Arya has made in her life, but this knowledge does not lessen her wanting of the woman who gave birth to her.

Control your face, she hears Jaqen’s voice in her ear. She closes her eyes and she is in their training room in the House of Black and White, her in her gaudy acolyte’s robes and he in his shapeless unflattering Master’s. He is leaning over her shoulder, mouth close to her skin. It would almost feel seductive, were it not for the threatening poke of his quarterstaff at the back of her knee. A man can see your fear, and if a man can see then he wonders who else can?

She controls her face, the despair in her dark battered heart smothered beneath her determination. Tolly and Maeg do not notice her lapse.

“You’re carrying low,” the midwife tells her. “Low means it’s a boy, more like than not. Grats to the da, whoever he is, you little harlot. You should tell 'em he'll have a son soon. Maybe two even. Men like sons, bitch endless about getting girls even though ‘s girls who give ‘em sons. Don’t say that, muffin.”

“Which?” Maeg pipes up. “Endless?”

“No, love, bitch.”

From the gleam in Maeg’s eye when her mother is not looking, Arya suspects the child knew exactly which word the midwife had meant.

A son. She’ll have a son soon, Gendry’s son.

She wonders if he will look like his father, tall and dark haired with bright blue eyes; she wonders if maybe he won’t have a touch of the North in him, the dark browns and greys of the Starks; or maybe he’ll favor the Tullys in a way she never did, with the streaming red hair of her mother and sister and brother Robb. Kissed by fire, the wildlings say. She wonders if he will prefer the sword or the hammer, if he’ll be great and lumbering but powerful like Gendry or quick and tricksy like her and Jaqen. Will he climb, like Bran did? Or ride like Robb? Be kind like Jon, and honorable like her Lord father? Wild, like Rickon? Like herself?

He will respect women, she decides, he will not take a wife and expect her to exist only for his pleasure. He will be fair and just, but clever. Not blind. Smart enough to see people for what they are. Smart enough to make sure that people see of him only what he wants them to see. Smart enough to rule his face, to go into every encounter and leave it having learned three new things. When he learns of pain, he will learn how to use that pain, to become stronger from it. He will be good. Her son will be good.

And then she thinks, sharply, harshly, a vicious wolf tearing apart this little dream as easily as it tears apart a fawn, he will be whatever Sansa raises him to be.

Despair takes her once more, for a moment only, before she forces control and hardens her heart with another layer of ice. Sansa will raise him to be all of those things. Sansa will raise him to respect women, to never abuse his wife. Sansa will teach him to be fair but not so fair that he can be exploited by others. Sansa will teach him to grow stronger from his pain. Sansa will raise him to be good.

Sansa always wanted children; Arya never did. Sansa would not now consent to bear child; Arya has had one thrust upon her.

Sansa can love him where Arya cannot. And if Arya cannot love him, then she must content herself with the knowledge that he is nevertheless loved.

She wants her mother. Desperately, so deeply that each beat of her heart is agony, she wants her mother. She thinks of a weeping boy with a bloody throat and a crossbow, crying to Jaqen for his mama. Do you think my child will cry for me?

All this she thinks in the span of a few breaths, and then compartmentalizes it. It is gone. Done. Away and behind her.

When Tolly makes to rise she stumbles slightly, loses balance, and finally gets her to feet with both Arya and Maeg assisting her, a hand dropped down to her incredibly large stomach. When she catches Arya eyeing the size of her she laughs, the sound not particularly kind. “Just wait, girl, you’ll get there. And you’ll hate every bloody minute of it, ‘cept the minutes you don’t.” With a grunt she settles herself onto the bed. “Pie said you were sick. Tell me ‘bout it.”

Clearing her throat, Arya explains from the beginning, holding little back: the concussion, leaving King’s Landing, not being able to keep food down. The loss of appetite, the exhaustion, the soreness; Tolly nods, unsurprised, confirms for her that these are all normal symptoms of early pregnancy. When Arya mentions that the nausea has abated suddenly, she is assured that this too is typical of some women, but when the midwife asks on her diet and Arya lists off what little she’s been able to keep down the older woman frowns.

“Wine? You little idiot.” Arya lets out an offended huff, brows furrowed, but Tolly just rolls her eyes. “Stop drinking spirits. Thins the blood, and fucks with the babe. Don’t say that, muffin. You’ll be lucky if he’s got both his eyes and both his ears when he comes out at the rate you’re going, and you’ll be lucky if you don’t bleed out. There’s always more blood than you’d think there is.”

She thinks then of Jon, of her aunt; a bed of blood. She thinks of herself, a chill in her chest, coughs that tasted like copper. She thinks of how everyone tells her she’s of a size too big. She thinks, You will not die, a man will not let you. But is Jaqen not infallible? A Master assassin, yes, but how can he control the birthing bed? She would trust him to kill for her, for he has-- at this point, she would even trust him to die for her, for has he not too done that? But she cannot trust his assurance in this matter.

She simply nods. “No more wine,” she says. Though it had warmed her so reliably when the winds blew… ah, but she’d just have to convince Jaqen to hold her more often, and tighter.

Should she feel bad for him? She doesn’t. She sleeps better when he is behind her, or beside her, or at her front. She feels better when he holds her. She feels as though, for the brief span that she’s encircled in his arms, he is holding her together, holding her rattling and windblown heart within his hands, and yet she does not feel trapped.

Jaqen will not ask her to marry him. He won’t ask her to be his Lady. Insofar, he’s yet to ask her for anything at all.

Sometimes, in the hour of the wolf, when the world is dark and quiet around them and the fire burns low and his breath stirs her hair and his palm covers her womb, she wonders if this is a ruse. He’s an assassin, a Faceless Master, with a contract bought for her life. He is, she knows, quite adept at lengthy missions-- was he not on just such a one when they’d first met, her a boy named Arry and he a criminal in a cage he could have easily escaped from? She wonders if he is just playing a very long game, wonders if his rather endearing attempts at learning Jaqen, the man she’d named him to be, is just that and nothing more: endearing, calculatingly so, the same as the smiles she gives Hot Pie. Endearment meant to build on the affection she’s always carried for him; affection born when a man gave a mouse bravery and reminded her she was a wolf; affection that kept her in Braavos long past when the time had come for her to leave; affection that stayed her dagger from cutting his throat open the night he’d tried to kill her, when he whispered do it then, and called her lovely girl for the first time in so very long.

Gendry made her feel wanted. He’s made her feel desired, made her feel like maybe, just maybe, all the terrible things Sansa and Jenye Poole had said to her when she was a child, all the terrible names like ugly and horseface, maybe they weren’t true. Maybe she could be beautiful. Maybe she could feel the things that women felt in the songs, the things she’d forever thought just beyond the reach of her evil dark heart now there within her grasp. And she had. For one shining, keening moment, she’d felt… wanted. Wanted for no more merit than she was Arya, and for once Arya was enough.

But then Arya wasn’t enough. Then he wanted a wife. Then he wanted a Lady.

Gendry made her feel wanted, but Jaqen made her feel needed. And that feeling of being needed, necessary… it was powerful. Heady. She could glut on it. And he had to know that. How could he not, observant as he is? A cyclical thought: is he manipulating her? Can she trust him?

He has made no move yet. If he wanted to kill her he could have. He’s had ample opportunity. If he thinks to wait until she’s given birth, he can contend with the might of Winterfell.

And, she likes it. Feeling needed. Even if it’s false, she will enjoy it while she can.

Another few breaths and then this too she pushes away, to think on another time.

Seated beside her, unaware of the turmoil raging behind her breast, Tolly continues. Arya forces herself to listen to the midwife with the same dutiful attention that little Maeg does. The girl is only a small handful of years younger than her, but had Arya ever really been so young? She must have. She has memories of a kind childhood in Winterfell, but after all the time and distance between then and now it feels as though she is as ancient as the weirwoods, and whole lifetimes have come and gone in the few scant years difference between her and Maeg.

The midwife tells her of upcoming changes to expect: more soreness in her back and breasts, more hunger, more pissing, how her breasts will eventually leak and what that feels like. When Arya broaches the subject, somewhat timidly, of her recent rapid fluctuation of mood, the brief but violent jolts of melancholy and ennui, the frequency of crying that she hasn’t indulged in since she was a babe herself, Tolly just laughs. And then continues laughing. And laughs some more.

“You’re just cryin’ sometimes? ” the midwife asks. She reaches out and ruffles Maeg’s shaggy brown hair. “This one had me weeping for six moons straight. Everything made me cry. When I was sad I cried. When I was happy I cried. When I was hungry I cried. Angry, bored, sleepy, I cried. Once I started cryin’ because I saw a dog that was just too good. My man wanted to confine me to bed, ‘cept I cried about that too. It’s normal.”

From there she goes into detail of the things that make Arya want to blush, save that she has too much control over her expression to allow herself. Birthing positions, labor duration and false labor, how to breathe. She’s never realized there was a special way to breathe. “I’ll be in Winterfell before then,” she says, trying to assure the older woman and possibly herself as well. “I’ll have other midwives there with me, and a maester.”

Tolly snorts, derisive. “A maester. I'll listen to a maester's opinions on childbearin’ when one of them's shat a squalling piglet from his fat wrinkled asshole. Muffin, you know which words not to say.” Then she eyes Arya critically. When she speaks again, her voice is serious, not sardonic as it has been through this rather abnormal consultation. “You won’t make it to Winterfell,” she says gravely. “Not before you go into labor. It’s too far, and it’s winter, and you’ll only get bigger.” She reaches out suddenly, takes Arya’s hands within her own and squeezes her fingers. “You should stay here, child. I can help you with your babe. Or go to Riverrun, if not here, but somewhere close. Road’s too long and you’re too big. You’ll need help gettin' that fat little thing out, and something tells me your skinny ginger out there don’t know enough to be that help. You’re goin' to kill yourself and your babe.”

Appreciation wells up within her, fills the jagged cracks of her hardened heart. She holds Tolly’s hands for a moment before gently letting them go. “I have to do this,” she says softly. “It’s a Stark. It needs to be in Winterfell.”

The midwife sighs, shakes her head. Reaches out and runs her hand through her daughter’s hair while the girl watches the exchange, quiet with the somber mood. “And nothing will sway you?”

“Nothing will sway me,” Arya says, gentle but firm.

“You little idiot,” Tolly says again, sounding incredibly tired. “Fine then.” And then she goes back to detailing the different positions a woman can give birth in comfortably, describing the process of the afterbirth and the passing of it, how to tie and safely cut the visceral rope connecting mother to babe. Then, as if determined to impart as much wisdom as she possibly can, she uses a pillow to show Arya how to properly swaddle and hold a newborn, touches the places on her own body that she must show extra support when lifting a babe. Arya refrains from telling her that she has no intention of handling her child once she’s rid her body of it; it seems almost cruel to say such in front of little Maeg, though surely the child will be exposed to similar grim situations at some point in her apprenticeship.

“Now this is important: you're going to want to shake it. Don't. Ladies don't like to talk about it, they want to pretend all their little sprogs are perfect angels, but I'd bet the roof over our heads that your lady mother wanted to shake you senseless. I sure as fuck wanted to shake mine." The girl startles, stares up at her mother as if offended. "Well, not you, muffin. But you can't. Don't shake it. It don't matter how tired you are or how long it's been screamin' at you or how many times you've gotten pissed on; don't shake it. Willena's husband shook their boy when he had colic and the child never stopped shakin' five years later. Gets fits and can't concentrate. We're all waitin' for the poor thing to accidentally bite his tongue off and pitch over. Don't shake it.”

The midwife expounds on the importance of patience, the fact that babes cry often and sometimes constantly, and sometimes there’s no reason for it, that when putting a babe to breast it can occasionally be difficult to latch. “Patience,” Tolly says frequently. “Above all, patience.”

When she has shared all that she can think to share, with both the girls listening avidly to the torrent of information, Tolly takes a deep breath and leans back against the headboard of the bed as if exhausted. “Well then, that’s all I can think of,” she says. “Have you any questions for me before you head out on your foolish quest?”

None she can think to ask now, none that have not already been answered. Save one. But that… she bites her lip. Glances at the door, and then away again. Glances at Maeg, and then away again. She takes a deep breath, draws herself up, and puts the command and steel of Princess Arya into her voice to steady it when she asks, “Can I lay with a man?”

One of Tolly’s brows raises, and Arya raises one to match it as if daring her to make some disdainful comment. Maeg’s eyes are wide. Finally, the midwife answers, nearly cautious, “You can, yes. It won’t harm the babe.” She too glances at the door, which they both know Jaqen waits on the other side of. He is not in the room, but in this moment his presence is still nearly stifling. “He’s not the da,” she says, as if reminding Arya. As if Arya needs reminder.

“I know,” she says.

Tolly sniffs. “He your husband?”

“I have no husband.”

The midwife hesitates, looks at her own daughter for a moment, then takes a breath to fortify herself in a manner similar to Arya’s a few moments ago. “Men can make things… complicated,” she says, picking her words carefully. “Especially when you’re not married to ‘em. Especially when babes are involved. And most especially when those babes are not their own. I’ve helped girls just like you birth their babes, and I’ve seen men kill those babes as quickly as I’ve pulled ‘em out.” Again Maeg’s eyes are wide, but she doesn’t seem startled or disturbed; merely curious. She stares at her mother speaking of her work the way Arya imagines she used to watch her father sharpening Ice with a whetstone. “Just make sure you know who you’re travelin’ with, girl. I’ve got a fondness for bastards. I like ‘em. I like helpin’ girls in trouble birth ‘em. I don’t like people hurtin’ ‘em.”

She still worries for Jaqen’s motivations, though she would like to trust them. She still wonders if he is simply drawing her into complacency before he strikes. She still is not sure he will not try to kill her, when all is said and done.

But for all that he is still so unknown to her in some ways, she knows one thing with certainly: his contract is for her life, not the life of her child.

She trusts that, at least.

“I know him,” she tells the midwife, and hopes it is true.

Tolly is not so well-versed in the lying game as she and Jaqen are, and does not read the uncertainty in her expression as her once-mentor surely would. She simply nods, accepting Arya’s statement. “Well, if that’s it then--” she starts, moving to rise, and then gasps as if in surprise and sets a hand on her own heavily-pregnant stomach.

Maeg bounces forward with a gap-toothed grin. “Is it movin’, ma?”

“Aye,” Tolly says with a grimace, “little bastard kicked me right in the gut.”

Very seriously, Maeg turns to Arya and informs her, “I can say bastard, since I am one.” She seems inordinately proud of this fact. Then she leans forward and places both her hands on her mother’s middle, smiling with delight at whatever she feels inside.

“Does it kick often?” Arya asks curiously, watching as Maeg chases the movement in her mother’s womb from one side to the other, her little hands starting first at the bottom and then sliding to the top.

“No,” Tolly grumbles, “but when it does I feel it. Every babe is different. My first hardly moved at all, my second was a tumbler. The one between muffin and this one here was like to break my back with how hard he’d punch it.”

“Theo will be trouble,” Maeg tells Arya very seriously. “Everyone says so.”

“No he won’t, ‘cause I’ll wallop him if he is,” her mother promises sternly. Then she looks back at Arya. “You ever felt a babe move in another woman?”

She hesitates, and then nods, thinking of her mother carrying Rickon, the way the movement beneath the skin had made Arya’s own skin crawl with distaste. Rats in a bag, she remembers thinking. Worms in a corpse. But she was younger then than Maeg is now, was still losing milk teeth and whistling when she talked and barrelling through Winterfell as clumsy as a wolf pup. “Not in a very long time,” she says softly.

When the midwife asks if she wants to feel, Arya hesitates. She bites her lip. This will be me soon, she tells herself with determination. Best to know what to expect. And so emboldened, she reaches forward and presses her hand, palm open, on Tolly’s stomach.

For several long moments, stretching nearly into a minute, she doesn’t feel anything and is disappointed in it. She is struck with a most illogical notion that nonetheless grips her: the babe within the midwife can probably sense that Arya is unfit for motherhood; it probably shies away from her touch because it knows she does not love her own child. It probably fears her, the darkness in her heart that radiates through her body. It knows that she is a creature of death, and she has no business doing the work of life.

Another wave of melancholy washes over her. She bites her lip near to raw, until the skin threatens to break, and struggles to hold back the sudden swelling of her sinuses, the tearing in her eyes. Just when she thinks she’s about to break down sobbing for the second time in as many days, Maeg makes a triumphant noise and places her hand over Arya’s, directing her touch to the other side of her mother’s womb. With the child’s hand over her own, showing her where to wait, within a breath she feels the veiled but clearly distinguishable shape of a tiny foot against the wall of skin separating them. The foot presses forwards until she can nearly count the individual toes before retracting; though the babe does not surface again so closely, Arya can still feel movement within the womb, movement almost akin to what it feels like when a gut is upset.

She lets out a soft little gasp without meaning to and feels one of those traitorous tears let slip when she looks up at Tolly with astonishment. The midwife smirks at her. “It’s a lot less impressive when you’re eight moons along and it’s rollin’ all over your bladder,” she says, and Arya gives a wet little laugh.

Maybe it is because she is older now, or maybe it’s because she herself is pregnant. But it doesn’t feel to her like rats in a bag at all.

Chapter Text

Their last evening at the inn at the Crossroads follows thusly:

The door opens. A whuff of air as it does, flowing over and around a body in the doorway, of a height to his middle; the little girl. Jaqen, leaning against the wall to the side of the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest, opens one eye to look down at her. She pauses at the threshold to gape at him, the unrestrained and discourteous stare of children. She's missing a front tooth. Voices, behind her. He can hear the words clearly for the first time in an hour; the women within had been speaking quietly during their conversations as if aware of his presence on the other side of the door.

"...thought to names?" The midwife. She comes up behind the little girl, shoos her out of the way. Maeg finally breaks eye contact with him to squeak and jump away from where she'd been blocking the door.

Arya next. "We don't name a child until they've passed two years in the North, it's bad luck." By the time she's finished speaking she's followed them out of the room, caught sight of him. He looks her over, reads her face: this thing she says is the truth. And also a lie. He cannot tell which parts are the truth and which are the lies; he misses some sort of required context. He raises an eyebrow and she shrugs. Unimportant, that shrug says. She'll tell him later, if she feels like it.

When the midwife looks at him as well, her expression drops into a glare. “Gods, you’re a lurker. Run along, muffin,” she says to the child, “and see if Hot Pie has anything for you to eat. I’ll be after shortly.”

Maeg’s smile, missing teeth though it may be, is delighted. To Arya, the girl says with all seriousness, “Hot Pie and I are going to get married one day. I decided it already, ‘cause he bakes so good. We’re going to get really fat together.”

Arya makes that strangled snorting noise that he has come to understand is laughter being startled from her and immediately suppressed. Tolly’s already sour countenance turns positively acidic, though she restrains herself from saying whatever she may be thinking as the child scampers away. The midwife takes a deep breath. Jaqen can see her count to ten, ticking off the seconds on her fingers, before she releases the breath. Then, to him, she says, “Alright, skinny man, your turn. In you get.”

He looks back at Arya, who seems much less mirthful now, eyeing the midwife suspiciously. He tilts his head, inclines his chin down towards the shortsword now resting at his belt. An offer, if she’s so tempted. I could kill her. Arya deadpans, glances pointedly at Tolly’s bulging stomach. She’s pregnant. Jaqen shrugs. Valar morghulis. Arya rolls her eyes. Don’t be stupid.

“Princess, go make yourself useful and make sure my girl isn’t trying to get practical with the baker boy about all this baby nonsense,” the midwife sniffs at Arya; his lovely girl studies the woman consideringly, then tilts her own head to Jaqen’s sword. Maybe. He smirks, then obliges the midwife. He has questions of his own.

“Ah,” he says, turns back. He places a hand on the door that Tolly had been about to shut, braces against it to keep it open. Arya, already heading towards the stairs, glances at him over her shoulder curiously. “Lovely girl, there are horses for us in the stable. And a letter. This man’s name was mentioned.”

Curiosity becomes confusion, becomes a frown; Arya nods at him, looking troubled, and then continues down to the lower level. She’s clever, she’ll puzzle out the mystery.

Tolly huffs at his distraction, pokes him in the back to get him moving again. She reminds him of Umma, but without the familiarity between them that allows for such personal concessions. When the door is shut behind them, the midwife puts her hands on her hips and whirls to glare at him. “You must convince her to stop before Winterfell. Either that or have one of her royal siblings, don’t matter which, send her a cart, but it’d be better to just give up her trip North. She’s not goin’ to make it far enough to get there before she’s too big to ride, not with how she’s carryin’, and it’ll only get colder and the road will only get worse the further you get. Blizzards, no food, bandits, wolves-- too much shit can go wrong.”

All thoughts he himself has had, and all trumped by the same issue: “She is determined,” he says with a shrug. “Her determination often creates possibility out of the impossible.”

Tolly throws her hands up in aggravation. “She’s young, and pregnant, and an idiot! Of course she’s determined, but the world doesn’t bend to the will of young pregnant idiots just because they want it to! Argh! ” After her outburst she paces a few lengths around the room, muttering irritably. “You’re both idiots. Hogtie her and keep her here, get lost on accident and end up in White Harbor, fuck her ‘til she can’t walk--” He startles; startlement for him means blinking several times in rapid succession berfore regaining control, and she doesn’t notice. “--it doesn’t matter how, just make sure she’s somewhere clean and warm before she squirts that little bastard out or they’ll both die. If it weren’t bloody winter it’d be different, but it is!” She deflates abruptly, all of the bluster leaving her in a rush, and when she sits upon the bed it’s with a heavy sigh, one hand over her stomach. “Already hard enough to keep babes alive in winter, don’t need to go addin’ more hardship on top of it.”

Several long minutes pass where he contemplates this and the midwife stares up at the ceiling, the both of them silent. “I will not force her to change her course,” he says finally, quietly. “And if I try to dissuade her anymore than I already have she’ll be more determined to do it out of spite. And believe me, I have tried.” The woman snorts. “The decision to stop must be her own. What I will do is keep her alive until she either makes that decision or she reaches Winterfell. If that means that I have to assist her in childbirth, so be it.”

The midwife sighs, drops her head into her hands. When she speaks her voice is resigned, tired. “What know you of labor?”

“Little,” he admits. “There is blood. The woman pushes. It takes time, usually, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Gods alive, my nine year old knows more than you. ‘Spose you can’t help it though, s’not like cocks lay eggs with hens.” She lifts her face from her hands to squint at him suspiciously. “She said you’re not the da and you’re not her husband. You her knight? Bodyguard? You fuckin’ her?” He stares at her, his expression carefully blank. She squints harder and then scuffs. “That’s not a yes or a no. It’d be easier if you’re fuckin’ her, leastways then you’d be comfortable ‘round her cunt. If you’re playin’ midwife you’ll have to get real personal-like with it. Food for thought.” She shifts, lays herself out on the bed, kicks up her feet and crosses them at the ankles, makes herself comfortable. “Hope you’ve a good memory, boy, and thank your gods that it’s me you’re talking to and not any other midwife, ‘cause they’d not share a hint of the trade with a man.”

A question concerning this, if she's so willing to impart to him wisdom: "Why separate us earlier, then?"

The midwife scoffs again, eyes hard. "Said I had to undress her, didn't I? Wasn't lyin'. Besides, needed to ask her questions and wanted honest answers. Couldn't trust her to tell me true if she was lookin' to you every five seconds. And she had some questions of her own too, and I doubt she'd have keen on you hearin' 'em." He considers this, shrugs. Fair enough answer, though he remembers the look of suspicion on Arya's face earlier when the woman drew him aside and wonders what questions she'd asked.

He reaches-- that mask of no one that he once wore so well is difficult to grab hold of now, the role he'd spent his life living not so easy to fall into. But he was an apprentice once, and for all that his master was kindly he was much more demanding than he expects the midwife will be. The body is the simple prison of the complicated soul, simple flesh, simple blood, simple function; even Arya's body is simple in this way. Distance. He has dealt with the female anatomy before, and not always to seek or give pleasure. If he can achieve the calmness of mind to give the gift and lead the body to death then surely he can too achieve that calmness to guide a body to life.

So he listens, calmly, as the midwife describes the process of birth and the role he could potentially play in it; the various complications that could arise; how to tie and cut babe from mother; how to clean both properly and insure the infant breathes without obstruction. She tells him the things she believes Arya will be incapable of remembering or handling herself in the moment, distracted as she will be by the birthing process itself.

Maesters say slap a babe to make it cry.” She says maester with the affection one would direct at a cowpat. “Don’t fucking slap it. Idiots slap newborns. Just give it a good rub to help it shake things up. Get it as dry and warm as you can as quickly as you can, it'll come out hot with blood but will lose much of that heat if the blood is allowed to cool on it, and blow in its mouth if it still has trouble breathing after that.” She also says, with almost equal derision, “It’s her first and she’s tiny, so she’ll probably tear on the outside. Stitch it, if you can-- let it drain, keep it clean.”

He nods along, absorbing as much as he can, filing the new information away as neatly as possible to review later as necessary. He learns that the midwife has shown Arya how to hold and swaddle the infant; she must not have admitted her plans to leave the bastard for her sister to raise. He does not mention it either, if only to spare himself more angry muttering. When the midwife has finished imparting as much knowledge as she can think to, grumbling once or twice about having to repeat it, he lets out a hum of consideration and says, “This is much more complicated than a man had originally believed.”

The midwife snorts, getting back to her feet with a grunting heave. “Men. Happy to think twats are just holes to fuck and wombs are just plots of soil to grow seed, don’t even think about what the women have to go through.”

Arguing would be pointless, so he doesn’t. Instead he just makes back for the door, not bothering to remove his sword from his belt, half his mind focused on cataloging everything he has learned of midwifery and the other half praying to Him of Many Faces that he will not have to put what he’s learned into practice. Out in the hallway, noises of the dining room below echo through the stairwell; after both his and Arya’s talking-to it’s late afternoon, and the tavern is becoming more lively as the sun goes down. His lovely girl is down there somewhere, and he has to figure out how to have a conversation with her without thinking of potentially having to stitch up vaginal tearing. He grimaces.

The midwife touches his arm. He looks down at her hand, raises his eyes slowly up to her own. She lifts her hand away, discomfited. In fact her entire demeanor seems troubled, hesitant, at odds with the vitriol she has comported herself with up to this point. “She trusts you,” she says after a moment. “With herself. With the babe. Even if it’s not yours.” She clears her throat, draws herself up, visibly regains some of the vinegar of her personality; she pokes him in the chest. “Don’t fuck that up.” Then, with a stomp that’s more a waddle than anything, she pushes ahead of him and makes her way down the stairs.

After he follows her, it takes a moment to find Arya; the room is much more crowded than it was earlier, or even the day before, and he has to scan the room twice before spotting her tucked away in the opposite corner of the one they’d claimed previously, her back once more to the wall as she smirks at the fat pie boy, who looks incredibly flustered by the way the little girl Maeg is staring up at him adoringly and chattering. The midwife, already at the bottom of the stairs, barrels through the crowd, shoving people aside and ignoring their angry shouts. When she reaches their corner she grabs her daughter by the back of her shirt, lifting her away bodily and swatting the fat boy hard on the shoulder before turning and dragging the child off, ignoring the girl’s petulant whines.

Arya is still giggling about it when Jaqen approaches, gliding around patrons easily, and when she sees him the giggling turns to smirking. She leans towards him as he drops into the seat beside hers. “Oh, you look like you just got chastised. Did you receive a lecture as well?”

“The midwife has the disposition of a wasp,” he says, stopping just short of a grumble. When the pie boy looks at him, Jaqen narrows his eyes; the boy jolts to his feet with a high-pitched excuse that he must return to the kitchen, and scampers off. Pleased, he reaches out and snags Arya’s drink. Odorless and clear. He sips at the water, raises an eyebrow at her over the cup. He’d been expecting ale.

“No alcohols,” Arya says with a shrug. “Wasp’s orders. And you should stop scaring Hot Pie on purpose, he’s letting us stay here for free.” He shrugs, unrepentant. Valar dohaeris. “So? Did you learn three new things?”

“A man learned many new things,” he says after taking another, deeper drink. The water is warm, slightly gritty. Snowmelt. He supposes that they cannot expect much better after indulging in free hospitality for two days. At least it doesn’t have hair in it. “For instance, he learned that a girl is likely to shit herself during labor.”

Arya thinks on this for a moment. “Yuck,” she says finally.

“Yuck,” he agrees.

She takes the mug back from him, drinks as well. “She neglected to mention this to me.”

“The implication, I believe, was that you would be rather preoccupied.” He makes to prod her stomach, stops himself a few inches away before withdrawing. It seems distasteful, to touch her without permission, even in jest.

Training is different; in Braavos, they would occasionally forgo staves to grapple, grab, his hands at her throat to hold her, wrapped around her shin to pull her down, snatching her arm to jerk her off balance. And she would give as she got, elbows to his gut, a shoulder to his knee, teeth in his wrist if he were not fast enough to snatch away. Once their training stopped abruptly when he’d forced her to the ground, pinning her beneath his weight, and she’d attempted to headbutt him, misjudged her aim, and nearly broken both their noses. The rest of that day was spent in a lecture on how and when headbutting was appropriate, and why kneeing him in the crotch would have been more effective and easier for her to accomplish. (Admittedly, he’d been relieved to have not been kneed in the crotch, but that it was not her first instinct was worrisome enough to constitute the lecture, as nasally and bloody as that lecture was.)

So too is it different when he holds her at night; that is for comfort, survival, the sharing of heat. If his hand were not on her stomach it would be on her thigh, or her chest, and the stomach is the most innocuous of those places, the stomach would have the least meaning to touch were it not for the bastard growing within that made it swell. And he could not claim that touch uninvited, not when she settles his hand there herself, not when sometimes in her sleep her fingers twine into his.

Her expression, when his eyes rise to see it, is amused. “It’s not going to explode if you poke it,” she informs him, one of her sharp eyebrows quirked. When he just pulls the mug away from her and drinks once more she smirks. “What, you want to touch it? You can, it’s not like you don’t all the time.”

“That’s different.” He doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t not want to. That she is with child is a fact that he’s accepted. Her being pregnant makes her no less Arya. He doesn’t fear her condition, nor does he disdain it, or exult in it. It simply… is. He thinks, at times, that he has accepted her pregnancy more easily than she herself has. Then again, it is happening to her, and not him.

She considers this, then nods and shrugs. “Yeah. I suppose. Well, if you want to then it’s there. I won’t break your hand off if you want to give it a go. It’s not like I haven’t already been groped by Tolly today, and you’ll probably be nicer about it than she was.”

He hesitates for a moment, considers it, and then nods as well, acceptance of her acceptance. Then, gently, he pokes her middle, along the side where he knows her to be ticklish. She shifts away from the prod instinctively, her nose scrunching in a smile, which she then hides by snatching her mug from his other hand and taking a drink from it. Splitting it between the two of them as they have been means it’s nearly empty now, and when the table beside them receives a tray of food that grabs Arya’s eye and has her nearly visibly salivating he gently catches the arm of the serving wench who’d delivered it to request food for themselves; three plates, and more water.

“Why three?” Arya asks curiously once the wench has sashayed away, smacking the wrist of a laughing and clearly drunk patron of the table just in front of their own when he reaches out to grope her bum. The man settles back into his seat with a wince and a glare after the serving girl, grumbling to his fellows. At this the two of them share a dry look. A bar fight waiting to happen. She slips one of the throwing knives from her bandolier, offers it to him questioningly, the slant of her brow suggesting just in case. He shakes his head, pats the pommel of his shortsword. She rolls her eyes. “I could knife him where he sits now before he even realized I had a weapon. You’d have to move in to engage.”

“Mmm.” He leans in close to her, sets his chin on her shoulder, and murmurs into her ear so as not to be heard by the subject of their conversation, “And when a girl has knifed him and the drunken man dies, will she have time to knife his companions as well before they rise to get retribution?”

She tilts her face towards his, speaks just as quietly. “Yes. I could kill every one of those men with my knives alone, sitting right where I am.”

The skin behind her ear looks incredibly soft. His lips are very close to it. She’s pulled her hair back so it’s not loose anymore, not in the severe braid she travels in but a simple tail at the base of her scalp; he can see the way the skin at the back of her neck prickles lightly into gooseflesh when his breath puffs against it as he demands quietly, “Explain to me.”

She smirks, a dangerous curve of her lips, surveys the table of four. “The drunken man would be easy. He's preoccupied by his wounded pride, he would never see the knife as anything but a flash of grey before it sunk into his skull. His companions… The one sitting beside him first, who’s facing me. He would see where the knife came from before the others, his mouth would open to shout, and my knife would take his tongue, into his palate. He'd choke on blood before he could make more noise than a whimper. Then the one sitting in front of the first dead man, with his back to me, he’d be turning in his seat to look behind him and I’d catch him through the eye. The man beside him would have risen from his seat by then and I’d get that one in the throat. And then,” she says, before he can interrupt, “I’d have one knife left in my belt for the fifth man with them who’s been in the privy taking a shit since Hot Pie left.”

His breath leaves him in a chuckle and he draws away, leans back in his seat and takes a sip from their nearly-empty mug of water. “Good, good. A man was wondering if you’d noticed him despite being preoccupied with your fat boy.”

She clucks her tongue at him, disapproving. “Jaqen, you underestimate me.” Her smirk widens into a grin, no less malicious, no less dangerous. “I have a plan for killing everyone in this room.” When the serving wench comes back to them with their tray of food Arya’s grin softens abruptly, becomes sweeter as she thanks the wench.

A game they would play, in Braavos: find a tavern much like this one, or a winesink, or a square putting on a mummer’s show and observe, compare notes on how and in what order they would give the gift to everyone present, how they would flee without raising suspicion. It was a good game, it taught her to think several steps ahead, taught her to consider cause and effect: if this man dies, who reacts first and what do they do, and how does she counter that reaction? It taught her to consider environment, to be aware of her surroundings: she could leap from that window because it is closest and most accessible, but the canal is beneath it which she'd have known if she'd been paying attention when they came here, lovely girl; if she kills this woman first instead it opens a path to that window which leads to the rooftops and escape. For all her hesitation of the practical application of their trade, when exploring the hypothetical she could be vicious. He wonders if she remembers the most important part of that game.

“Everyone?” he asks idly, pulling a plate towards him, palming the handle of the serrated bread knife that came with his trencher. Before he can twist to press the blade against her throat he feels the sharp point of the Valyrian steel catspaw dagger she carries separate from her bandolier of knives digging into his side, the flesh above his right kidney. It pokes him just hard enough to leave an impression without breaking the skin; it’s sharp and wicked, could run him through as swiftly and easily as her Needle, and he neither saw nor heard her draw it. This is the blade she used to kill the Night King.

“Everyone,” she confirms, raising her chin up, lips tilted into the lightest of smiles, grey eyes half-lidded.

Fuck.

He could kiss her. He could. Lean forward, his lips against hers. Lick them, into them, his tongue chasing the air in her lungs. What would it taste like? Fuck. He breathes out, hard, through his nose.

Blood. It would taste like blood. It would taste like blood because if he kissed her she’d stab that dagger right into his side. And he wouldn’t blame her.

“Just so, lovely girl,” he murmurs, and relaxes his grip on the bread knife. “Well done.” She sheathes her blade, that little smile turning into an equally little smirk, one brow quirked once more. She looks exceptionally pleased with herself, and pulls a plate closer. Fish stew in a trencher of bread. There are cut potatoes in the stew, tasteless from being frozen but still nutritious. “And,” he says, finally answering her earlier question, “three plates so that I will have something to eat when you finish your first and inevitably steal what’s left of mine.”

“Aww,” she coos with false sweetness, “you’re learning.

The meal passes quietly, her indeed stealing bits of fish from his meal and then pulling off bread from his trencher to dunk into the stew. It takes a shameful amount of effort for him to bring his heartbeat to heel; his blood thrums in his veins from the earlier threat of her dagger, pulse jumping each time he thinks of that mean little smile, her heavily-lidded eyes. That was an expression meant for a bedroom, for teasing amongst pillows. Shameful. Damning. He forces a grip over his heart, over his blasted libido. The thought of how easily she could empty the room of life, how easily she could have killed him, should not inflame him so.

The third plate they split between them, as he’d anticipated, chasing each other’s spoons away from chunks of potato and fish. In solidarity he drinks water as well instead of ale, though admittedly this is also partially because the ale in this tavern is not to his liking and wine is unavailable. It is not until he raps the tops of her knuckles with his spoon in retribution for her stealing the potato he’d been digging through the stew for that she remembers something suddenly. “Oh!” she says, and pulls her knuckles from her mouth, having been sucking on them after his reprimand. “The horses!”

He blinks, trying to determine this jump of logic, and then remembers; the two horses given to them by her brother the King, the stablemaster who knew him by a name that none but her and his brothers across the sea should know him by. “The horses,” he agrees, and then pushes the plate towards her, having eaten his fill. He will miss this when they leave, the warm food. They’ll be back to trail rations and hard tack on the morrow. "Sent to us by your brother the King. Who is somehow inexplicably aware of my being here."

Arya looks troubled, sets her spoon down and crosses her arms over her chest. “Bran is… different. Not because of the chair. Most people don't know, I think the little Lannister is trying to keep it under wraps. He’s... “ She hesitates, seems to assess him for a moment as if trying to determine how much she wants to tell him and how she wants to word it. Then, taking a deep breath, she explains to him the Three-Eyed Raven.

It is a tremendous amount of information to try to understand.

A boy that can never be surprised, can never be betrayed, who sees all possible outcomes of every situation, who can influence the past and control, to an extent, the present. Warg. Greenseer. King of the Six Kingdoms.

An assassin’s worst nightmare.

A long minute passes after she finishes as he contemplates this before he says slowly, “So, we can only assume your brother knows of your condition.” She nods, looking miserable. “And we can also assume he knows who the father is, and your destination.” She nods again. “Is he… always watching?”

She bites her lip. “I don’t think so? I think it’s more of a checking-in thing. Um.” She lifts her eyes to the ceiling as if beseeching the gods. “Bran? If you’re listening now, just… have someone knock something over I guess?” When nothing happens in the dining hall beyond the regular ruckus of patrons, she shrugs at him. “He’s probably not paying attention right now then.” She sighs, picks up her spoon again, starts mashing the leftover food to mush restlessly. “It’s not… Jaqen, you must understand: Bran isn’t really my brother anymore. In body yes, but not in mind. He doesn’t care about family, or blood, or names. And it’s not that he doesn’t love us, or that he thinks he’s better than us, he’s just. Different. Something bigger. Something more. I don't think that he's capable of love anymore. That he’s helping me at all is more help than I expected to get.”

It is almost a frightening thing to consider, the lack of agency that must come with having a creature near to a god for a brother. And yet, near to a god is not a god, for there is only one god though He wears Many Faces. Jaqen has felt His will before, known His blessing; if her brother is an agent of the gods then he is an agent of Him. Valar morghulis, the inevitability of it unchanging. A greenseer can influence the how and the when but He always gets His due in the end.

"And yet he helps you nonetheless," he says after thinking on it. "Perhaps the course you choose is the one you are meant to be on. Or, perhaps there is more of your brother within this Raven than you know." Arya still looks troubled, though she has stopped abusing the remains of their meal. A lock of hair has fallen from the loose tail she's pulled it into: he is struck by a sudden urge, and he indulges in the innocence of it for it does not feel to him like a concession to ardor; he reaches out and tucks the hair behind her ear. Quietly, he continues, "This man does not presume to know the machinations of the god, but if He assists your journey through the means of your brother then He has plans for you. Destiny." As soon as he says this he winces; yes, perfect , encourage her foolhardy plan to continue her journey, the literal thing he's been trying to dissuade her from.

And yet… Him of Many Faces led a man to her when she was a child, and then her to him in Braavos, and then both of them back again now. To what purpose does the god push her towards now, and himself through proximity? Ah, a thought-- the two of them are not the only ones her brother is assisting. A third travels with them noiselessly, though its presence is known and it carries heavier by the day.

Arya sighs, eyes rising once more to the ceiling, becoming wet and red. The midwife had told him she'd mentioned this, the sudden and overwhelming urge to cry which now catches her unawares but passes quickly, and so he makes no mention of the tear that rolls down her cheek. "I killed the Night King. What more can a god ask of me? What further destiny can I have? I'm tired of destiny."

"Perhaps it is not your destiny," he says, and to both emphasize this point and to attempt to being levity back, he pokes her again in the side, just where her womb begins to protrude into roundness, and then runs his fingers very lightly over her side.

Ticklish, she jerks away from him with a startled laugh and then slaps his hand away. The shadows haven't completely left her eyes but she seems lighter now, pacified. "Just my luck to have been stuck with a pious assassin. Well, if this useless fuck has any sort of destiny then that sounds like a problem for Sansa to deal with."

 


 

That night, after humor has returned to her:

"Ugh," she groans, rolling amongst the nest of sheets and blankets on the floor, pressing her face into a pillow. Jaqen, checking their packs again because he is responsible , watches her in amusement. "I am not looking forward to being back out on the road."

"Why not?" he asks mildly. "Do you not miss the snow, and the starvation, and the sleeping in the dirt? We have only been here two days, lovely girl. Surely you are not so spoilt already." He hums, squinting as he counts. Two, three, four… he is missing a pair of socks from his pack. On intuition he upends Arya's and finds her with one more pair than he'd set aside for her earlier. When he looks up at her and sees her eyes just peeking out at him from the cocoon of sheets she's wrapped herself in he levels a glare at her, and she lifts her chin to stick her tongue out at him. There is another reason beyond responsibility that makes him constantly check his belongings, and that is that Arya is a shit.

After a moment though she sobers, rolls onto her back to stare at the ceiling. "We have to leave though," she says thoughtfully. "And not just to get to Winterfell sooner." He hums in question, bending to light the taper at their bedside table. The sun has not completely fallen, but shadows stretch across the room and dusk slowly turns the world darker through the window. A clear, cloudless night; even with the warmth of walls it will be cold. Matter-of-fact, she says, "I used my name today to get favors. Word of that will spread. And even if Tolly keeps her mouth shut…"

He pauses, considers this. Yes, even if the midwife does not mention seeing to her specifically, if it were made known that she'd paid professional visit to a passing girl of the North with dark hair and grey eyes and dangerous countenance while the inn was also being visited by the Princess of Winterfell, the Wolf of Dawn… Her reticence to invoke her family name in favor of paying by coin makes even more sense in this context. That he had not thought of this himself is both irritating and worrisome.

A voice in his head, a memory: his kindly Master, when he was but an apprentice himself, learning of misdirection. A feint to a boy's left knee, a distraction from the blow he then received to the stomach; hold the staff in the middle and both ends become a weapon. You are focused, his Master told him, impressively so. It did not seem a compliment. A boy sees a painting of a landscape and finds one tree in this painting which particularly pleases him. Does this make the painting solely about this one tree? No; there is more, a larger picture to view, that a boy does not see because he focuses so intently on this one detail. It is the same in battle, in all things. Make sure you do not focus so much on anticipating one thing that you do not think to anticipate another.

But a lovely girl is not a quarterstaff or a painting, and it is difficult to focus on anything else. How disappointed in him his Master would be.

"It was necessary," he reminds her, shaking these thoughts from his mind. That he had not considered this before is done and in the past; he can only endeavour to broaden his focus in the future. "The horses would not have been able to keep pace, not with us eating from their food ourselves. And even sleeping together as we do we would not survive if we didn't get heavier clothes. Or at the very least, we would arrive at Winterfell with a few less toes." He affects a pout, and when Arya sees it she snorts a laugh-- he has learned that this stolen face he favors is good at pouting. It is the lips, he thinks. "A man likes his toes."

"I know, I know. They are your best feature, I'm sure." She begins to chew her lip, brows drawn in; her thinking face. "I am just trying to think ahead to what will create the least inconvenience to Sansa. There were petitions of marriage to both of us before I'd even left King's Landing, I don't even want to know how many requests for my hand she's received in my absence. If word spreads that I'm traveling around Westeros pregnant then she'll have to deal with angry grumblings about that on top of the angry grumblings she already deals with, and all this even before I show up back home with a bastard for her to take off my hands. She'll not be likely to thank me for the troubles."

He raises an eyebrow. "Angry grumblings that you won't accept marriage suits that a man can only assume you'd already rejected?" She's quiet for a long moment, eyes back on the ceiling, and then mumbles some vague meaningless nonsense words under her breath. "Arya."

She rolls to face him, looking both guilty and amused. "Rejected is a strong word. There was some hemming and hawing. A couple I'll think about it's." He can only imagine what his expression looks like, for she bursts into giggles. "People give you things when they're trying to court a Princess, Jaqen. Before I left the Capitol I got Sansa an entire cart's worth of furs delivered to Winterfell just for telling some jumped-up Southron noble I'd give his suit due consideration. I know I'm not going to accept it, my sister knows I'm not going to accept it-- hells, even the people asking probably know I'm not going to accept it. But they're still going to ask, and if they want to give the North free things when they do, things we need , then it doesn't hurt me to accept them."

"A girl teases, prostitutes her name," he grumbles. It sits poorly with him for some reason, that she even considers indulging such a farce. The same dark emotion that had haunted him when they'd arrived at the inn, the one brought upon him by the thought of her finding her bastard's father, threatens to swell again. If she duly considers suits, what stops her from eventually accepting one? And if she marries a, in her own words, 'jumped-up noble' for things, what use is he to her, he who can give her nothing but the dubious pleasure of his company? What has he now if not her, when he himself is to her but one of an untold number of options?

Ignorant of the destructive turn of his thoughts, Arya snorts, propping her chin up in her hands. She cannot rest comfortably on her stomach, her body twisted to the side; he can see the shape of her contortion through the blankets. "I prefer to think of it as accepting practical bribes for a theoretical outcome," she tells him with a smirk. "But even if nobody expects me to marry, which they would be tremendously stupid to do, if rumor starts that I'm wondering wanton with a bastard in my belly and a foreigner at my side then people will be expected to complain about the loss of goods from the bribes they were expected to make. That's just politicking. My goal was to get to Winterfell as fast as possible with as few people as possible knowing, to try to control the output of information as well as gain sanctuary for the babe. That the Crossroads lacks a rookery works in our favor in this, but people will still spread word, if they think to."

"Politics," he sneers. "What possessed a girl to poke that bear I will never understand. Give a man a name to deliver the gift to anyday."

She tilts her head at him, seeming unbearably amused by something, then says with a smirk, "If you're that upset over it, once we get to Winterfell I'll compile a list of the men who whine the most over my rejections and you can just kill them for me. Something to pass the time for you."

It is the first time either of them have broached the topic of what, exactly, is to be done with him once they've reached their destination, jape though it may be. He has only one trade to peddle, though he is exceptional at it; despite his skill, he cannot imagine that his lovely girl's sister would be overjoyed to host an ex-assassin. He himself has no aspirations, no plans beyond insuring Arya survives her pregnancy and labor. And from there, he supposes he will just follow her for so long as she tolerates him. If he thinks of this nebulous, formless future that looms ahead of him for too long he begins to feel adrift, purposeless, overwhelmed by the weight of his follies that led him here. His whole life to this point determined by structure, rules, a frame for him to work within; a frame broken down and ruined by this sad, lovely girl who he takes responsibility for, who takes responsibility for him.

It is too much. One step at a time. Choice, when choice made available; lacking the order of his former House, all he has now are available choices.

"It is dark," he says abruptly, trying to push these worries from his mind. "We should try to sleep, we need to leave early in the morning."

Arya, still swaddled in the blankets, frowns as he approaches their nest, seeming to pick up on the melancholic turn of his thoughts. He watches her think, watches her mind reconsider the turn of conversation that led to his withdrawal; sees, in the furrowing of her brows and the teeth which chew into her lower lip, as she identifies what upset him.

"Jaqen," she sighs, "it was a joke." When he says nothing, just bends down and begins lifting sheets to determine which she's claimed and which are used as the base of the nest, her expression becomes genuinely apologetic. "Jaqen, I-- fuck!" She shrieks in surprise as he yanks the sheets out from under her, rolling her twice within her cocoon before she topples from it entirely, and then gapes at him from where she's been dumped on the floor, eyes wide and startled as he casually begins arranging those sheets back onto the downy mattress. When he returns to collect his pillow from the floor as well she reaches out and tries to grab at his ankle, hissing in annoyance when he hops over her clawing hands easily. "Cunt!"

"A girl may not wish for a feather bed, but a man has been sleeping on the ground for over a moon and is like to continue doing so for many moons more." She crawls across the floor after him, snatching for his socked feet, and he dances away from her once, twice, before dropping onto the bed and pulling his legs up, tucking his feet under them and out of her reach. As she glares at him from the ground, wounded, he arranges himself into a careless lounge upon the mattress, looking at her with one eyebrow raised. He says, voice casual, " I intend to make use of the bed, if you will not."

"Miserable old shit," she curses him, rising into a sitting position. "Poor feeble hips, poor feeble back, can't tolerate a good floor-nest anymore." He shrugs at her, then lets out a wide and only somewhat feigned yawn, eyes closing. When they've opened once more, her ire has passed and she considers him with narrowed eyes. "How old are you, actually?"

Ah. That is… an interesting question.

He has worn this borrowed face for so long that at times he forgets it was not his own until recently; this face he wears, now seared to him by magic and damnation, belonged to a man close to thirty and two when he'd been given the gift. He'd never worn it before the contract which took him to the black cells of the Red Keep, where he'd then been conscripted into the Watch and met his lovely girl upon the road, and he had chosen it because it was utterly foreign to Westeros, distinctive and interesting of feature, a face very rarely used by his siblings, older and harvested long ago. A foreign criminal with strange hair and strange voice and strange manner of being: those lesser than he were frightened of him and left him be, and those whose attentions he sought were intrigued.

This face meant nothing to him, the choice of it a whim, just the same as Jaqen H'ghar was naught but a name pulled fancifully from the ether; except that this face and that name were the ones that Arya Stark grew to think important, and then so too did they become important to him.

But he himself… he has not thought to consider his old body, the one he'd been made to shed indefinitely when his siblings had scarred this face's mask to his own skin. In truth, he never cared much for the face he'd been born with. It had been neither hideous nor striking, not quite plain but not quite handsome either. Simply flesh. Simply skin and bone and meat and muscle and blood, valar morghulis, and the god does not care to the appearance of a man when he does. Since the time he'd become a Master he'd preferred to wear the masks and switch between them occasionally; a practice to cultivate no one, so as to bury who he'd been, so as not to wear one face long enough to identify with it. For all the good that had done him.

He has not looked upon himself in a mirror and seen his true visage in over a decade. What color were his eyes? His hair? His skin, was it pale or dark? If he thinks on it hard he knows that he will remember, but to what end? What point? Whoever he was before, he cannot be them now. Now, he can only be Jaqen H'ghar, with the face of a nameless man so long dead as to be rendered effectually inconsequential. This face grafted to him feels more authentic to his being than the one he'd been born with.

But time is absolute. Time does not care how many faces he's worn, or how long he's worn them. Time, his time, is finite, and had a specific beginning. He thinks, for a long moment, then answers, "Twenty and nine. A man is twenty and nine." Twenty and five when he'd worn this face for the first time. Four years he has been Jaqen H'ghar, though he'd briefly been no one again during those years as well. Four years since he had meet a skinny little child of ten and one with dirt on her face and fury in her eyes. Four years seems like a lifetime; he snorts a little, thinking that if he were being fair then Jaqen H'ghar would be just barely out of toddling age, not nearly thirty.

"Fourteen years between us," Arya says, sounding awed, and then whistles softly and props her chin upon the bed, blinking those same eyes at him though they are less furious now. "When I was born you were only just a bit younger than I am now."

"More like than not a boy was sweeping the dirt from the entry to the temple when a lovely girl was brought into this world," he agrees.

For a moment she seems almost troubled, her eyes unfocused as if in thought, but after that brief consideration has passed she shrugs and rises off the floor. "Fourteen years isn't so bad," she says, dismantling the nest upon the floor further by pulling their own blankets from it, leaving only the bedrolls. She bends for her pillow and nearly tips forward, off-balance, before catching herself with a grunt. Depositing the handful of linens and furs onto the bed, she tells him with another shrug, "For a while I'd kind of assumed your true face was the first one you showed me in Braavos, the older one with the dark skin and white hair."

He chuckles, sitting up to help her settle the blankets evenly, and then obligingly shifts to the side to give her more space when she plops down on the mattress and burrows beneath the sheets like a little mouse. "That was the face my own Master had worn, when I was but an apprentice. A man supposes he wanted to test your resolve." The disappointment that had fairly radiated from her when he'd told her there was no Jaqen H'ghar within the House, and the relief when he'd pulled off his kindly brother's false face to reveal his own.

She snorts, twists to face him and pokes him hard in the chest. "That you gave me the most vague instructions possible to find you again after you left me at Harrenhal and I still followed them on nothing but faith should have been test enough."

Lifting one hand, he places it over her own, pressing her hand against him, her fingers digging into the fabric of his shirt. He is sure she can feel his heartbeat, steady and calm. "Lovely girl," he murmurs softly, and a smirk curls at his mouth when he sees the faintest dusting of a flush across the bridge of her nose, though this may just be a trick of shadows cast from their taper. "Have you not learned by now that the tests never stop?"

She narrows her eyes at him, pulls her bottom lip between her teeth, and he tilts his head in question at the strange reaction to his jape. Apropos of nothing she blurts, "My brother named you in his letter. Jaqen H'ghar. He was very specific." He blinks at her, uncomprehending, yes, and? and she huffs.  "If the Three-Eyed Raven says you're Jaqen H'ghar, then that's who you are. And that means the tests can stop."

Seeing that he still does not understand her strange and cryptic statement, Arya rolls her eyes and huffs again, louder, squeezing her hand into a fist against his chest before turning away, still gripping his shirt as she twists. She blows out the taper, dropping the room into darkness but for the light of the moon through the window, and then rolls back to face him, tucked against his side. He lets her stay there, befuddled; yes, he is Jaqen H'ghar, he'd assumed they'd both understood that at this point, that it was a given. Who else can he be now?

"A girl is very strange," he tells her in a whisper, quiet demanded by the dark. In retaliation she sticks her feet between his legs, and though she wears socks as well her toes are still cold against his calves and he jumps at the chill. "And she has cold feet! Wicked child."

"Shouldn't have stolen her blankets," she says with a yawn; he does not know how she knows he's opened his mouth to argue, but she interrupts before he can. "Shut up and go to sleep, Jaqen."

On his back, in a bed for the first time in over a month, with her pressed against his side and her hand resting curled over his heart as if comforted by its beating, he complies.

 


 

(This is what neither of them know, because neither of them are there:

Sansa of the House Stark, First of Her Name, Queen in the North, Lady of Winterfell and the Red Wolf, goes through her letters. There are many, and all require attention.

Propositions of trade, between the North and the Free Cities; between the North and the Southern Kingdoms; one surprising overture from YiTi. All previous trade agreements must be poured over, changed, and ratified once more acknowledging the North as its own independent kingdom, tariffs on imports and exports must be renegotiated. Braavos in particular salivates at the prospect of a new country’s birth. The Iron Bank has sent her a letter every fortnight with offers to loan her coin, to smooth the transition of the change in economy. Very pretty, those letters. They manage to be flattering to her new position while at once subtly reminding her how vulnerable that new position is. The last letter has brought up a fair point though, that the North should have their own currency instead of using the minting of the South as they have been, and the Bank has generously offered to strike a new style of coin… with a loan taken to cover the cost of the striking, of course. She'll have to confer with her advisers.

The North itself is not necessarily in a precarious position; while it is true that winter hits them the hardest, it is equally true that they are the most prepared. It will be a harsh winter, if a short one. Two days past she’d received a letter from the steward of Highgarden, Willas Tyrell, asking after the design of Winterfell’s glass gardens, for their southron crops were not hardy enough to survive the chilling temperatures and the Reach must adapt to the cold or starve. She had agreed to share the designs on the condition that seeds of southron vegetables and a plot's worth of rich Reach soil be sent North in exchange, and that Winterfell be charged at discount for whatever they buy of Highgarden’s first crop in the spring. Lenient, perhaps, but she has sympathy for Willas, the inheritance of his family taken from him in favor of an upstart sellsword… and perhaps affection for him as well, affection born of the childish wonderings of might-haves and could-have-beens. Puppies, she thinks to herself with a sort of sad nostalgia. She misses Lady fiercely, misses Ghost almost more for how close the two of them had grown since she'd reunited with Jon. When Jon was busy, she would sit with Ghost in front of the hearth in her solar and brush him, pull tufts of fluffy white undercoat from his haunches while he stared into the fire, silent, as if indulging her. Puppies.

She could use a dog.

Other letters are acknowledgement of her throne. She’d requested of Bran -- King Bran, mustn’t forget that-- that all Lords Paramount and their bannerman and houses of note at least acknowledge the North’s independence formally, even if not all those houses have intention to do trade. Her own steward has written up dozens of replies, all saying the same rote thing, some form of thanks that is gracious without sounding vapid, without sounding like their acknowledgement of her power gives her that power, and she has signed them and stamped them and only written one reply in her own hand, to the Lord Paramount of Storm’s End. She and Gendry keep up correspondence, when they’re able. Nothing too personal, but all her family and friends went South and none returned North with her, and she is often surprised by how lonely she feels. Yes, she decides as she thinks this, she could use a dog.

She likes Gendry, he's very down to earth, and his handwriting is much, much improved. It is nearly entirely legible: his first few were clearly written by a proxy. She does not tailor her own writing to his level of literacy-- he must learn, and quickly, if he is to survive being Lord Baratheon. Often he asks her for advice on how to handle the nobility in his charge, when Ser Davos can't answer his questions for him. One of his letters was sent asking what was the point of hawking, and why does everyone like it so much? Another bemoans the endless parade of noblewoman come to court for his hand. The Lord Baratheon is unsubtle in his newness to gentry, unsubtle of his humble origins. The part of her that is Alayne, bastard tough, who learned at the feet of her father Petyr says remember this and use it, he is giving you gold. The part of her that is Sansa, trueborn daughter of the honorable Eddard Stark says this is how you make friends, and we do not use our friends.

Eddard Stark, she thinks somewhat sadly each time she saves Gendry's letters just in case their information becomes useful later, would probably not very much like the woman she's become.

Receipts, of how much Winterfell owes and to whom. Receipts to Myr, for the glass. Receipts to the Vale, for stone with which to make repairs. Receipts to the Riverlands, for the fish. They will need to start rationing that, soon. Fish beneath the frozen rivers still swim, can still be caught, but they do not spawn, and the bounty of the water is not a resource indefinite. No one will like rationing, but the North is stoic, and they will survive. The War for the Dawn is over, and now they must only survive the cold. Receipts from, to her amusement, North of the Wall. Trade with the Freefolk comes in the form of furs and meat, and they accept no coin as currency, instead favoring to barter for weapons. One of these receipts details the exchange of twenty castle-forged swords and five dozen iron-tipped arrows for two mammoth pelts. She’d believed the trade to have been firmly in the favor of the freefolk, until she’d seen the size of the pelts themselves, fur enough to line the coats and cover the beds of a full score of her smallfolk. Twenty swords was a small price to pay for the warmth of her people.

A letter from the Citadel, delivered by a white raven: a false spring will start in the turn of the next moon. The tone of this letter is hopeful, for the winter will not be as long nor as debilitating as they’d previously anticipated. Thank you, Arya, she thinks, and buries her pain. Her quiet knife in the shadows, the wolf watching her back; Sansa misses her sister dearly, desperately, wonders where she is and how she's doing. If she's safe, if she's happy. Come home, she wants to tell her, and enjoy this peace, this life you won for us from the dark. You don't have to fight anymore. Come home. But she does not know where Arya is, and has received no word.

Marriage proposals. To her, and to Arya using her as proxy. Arya's she saves in a little box, for the two of them to laugh over together when her sister eventually comes home. If she comes home, but those thoughts are dangerous and overwhelming and Sansa mislikes them tremendously.

Her own, though, she must at least acknowledge. She hates these the most for how presumptuous they seem, as if she needs a husband, as if the North needs a King. Her reign is young, still in its infancy, but she feels as though she's doing an adequate enough job at keeping her frozen country alive. The smart ones don't start with worthy enough to be your husband, but rather worthy enough to give you heirs. This is a clever bit of wordplay, giving her heirs, as if she were not going to be the one carrying child, as if she were not going to be the one suffering touch to her body. She still has dreams-- oh, but don't think about those, Sansa. He is dead and gone and she survived. Besides, she's already married, technically. She'll lean on those technicalities as heavily as she can for as long as she can if they give her excuse not to indulge Lord Thus-and-Such's feeling of entitlement to her womb.

(The matter of heir is a problem though. Only a small handful of months she's been Queen and already she hears her people murmur over it. Succession. Lineage. Just settled on the now and already worrying about the what comes next. She likes the idea of an election, a council; rather ingenious of Tyrion, that. The North has fewer noble houses to choose from so they cannot emulate the South completely, but it can be modified. Her advisers grumble at the idea, the North remembers tradition which is good right up until it isn't, but they can be made to see the benefits.

But a Stark heir? No election can decide a child has the blood of Eddard Stark, no council of man can decree a babe a warg or give it the loyalty of a direwolf. No, only two people in the world can do that: Arya, and herself. Arya would rage , fight it kicking and screaming, a snarling wolf all the way to her birthing bed. And Sansa? Sansa trembles. How to bring child to the world when she can barely consent to be touched, when the thought of laying with a man, any man, makes her skin crawl?

If she could choose, if she were forced to choice, she would choose Jon; brother of heart but cousin of blood, and the North has wed cousins before. What child could be more Stark than theirs? He would be good to her. He would be kind. She trusts him, and trust is so very rare a currency for her to hold these days. Except. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. No one if not him, and he will not. And so the conundrum continues.)

All these letters addressed to the Queen in the North; and only one addressed directly to Sansa.

No letter from Bran, whose interests are only ever represented formally through his Hand, and who seems to now care little for familial relations. Nothing from Arya, who’d vanished from King’s Landing shortly after Jon left with nary a whisper of her departure and only a vague notion that she was planning to head West. Nothing, nothing at all, from Jon, not since he’d sent a raven letting her know he’d made it safely to Castle Black. (She’d tried to start a correspondence, but the reply she’d received then was from the Watch’s maester, informing her that Jon had ranged North with the freefolk shortly after arriving and they did not know when, or if, he would return.)

In her study, surrounded by her letters, Sansa closes her eyes and sighs.

I lobbied for your exile because I knew the Unsullied wouldn’t stay, she’d written to Jon. She’d sent it to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, addressed to him, sealed with the Queen’s sigil; to be there, when he arrived by boat from King’s Landing. It detailed her plan: to push for his exile over his execution, to have him sent North. Why would the Unsullied remain in Westeros? What had they to gain here now, without their Dragon Queen? If he went North she could protect him. She would give him the Dreadfort, or Last Hearth-- there were no Boltons or Umbers left to hold either keep. He could be her bannerman, or if he wanted to stay in Winterfell he could, she would not deny him. It would make things… complicated for her, but she was sure they could work through it. Together. Come home, she’d said. You’re my brother. You belong with your family. Torgo Nudho will not know.

His answering letter had been short: I will know.

How ironic, telling him he belonged with his family; she’d sent the raven to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea the very day Arya had left for parts unknown, and she had only discovered her sister’s absence hours later. Sansa is the only family he has left in their childhood home. And Sansa-- who does she have? With him gone? And Arya gone, and Bran? The family she'd fought so hard for so long to get back to? Gods, she thinks, suddenly tired. She could use a dog.

Please, she did not say to him, though she'd wanted to. She will never again plead with a man. She will never again beg a man for anything. Not even her brother, and not even to stay.

All she had done, she’d done for her family. To make them safe in the place where they belonged. How selfish she’d been for wanting that. How naive, to think Jon wouldn't choose his honor and his pain over her. How silly, to think that Arya would prefer her to freedom. And now she sits on her throne in Winterfell, her family scattered to the winds. The last of the Starks. In the very rare times that Sansa allows herself to do so, she mourns in the only way she has learned is safe for her to mourn: silently, and alone.

There is one letter addressed to her, though. Or rather, it’s addressed to Wife. When she sees it, she smiles. It’s a sharp smile, affection masked by mean humor. It’s a smile she’d learned from Arya.

Her correspondence with Tyrion Lannister began with a sort of tentative interest from him, and a chilly reception from her. She isn’t sure she knows how to be anything but chilly, now.

They’ve warmed, over the last few months, and especially now that the dust has begun to settle in Winterfell, now that everyone has better begun to acclimate to being a kingdom unto themselves. They can joke about such things now. He can call her wife in letters and she can write husband without feeling as though she is sharing her throne, or she is being indulged by being Queen; more importantly, she can call him this without feeling bile rise, without thinking of colorless eyes and a slimy smile. Her first husband was certainly the better of the two. Familiarity between them, if not love. Sansa doesn’t think she knows how to love anymore.

Maybe she never knew. Maybe she only thought she did, blinded by her mother and her childish notions of happily ever after, by the stories and the songs. She hates the girl she used to be; hates her, and pities her. If that girl had truly known how to love, she would have loved Tyrion when she was young, and Jon when she was even younger than that. And then how wildly different would her own story have turned out?

They trade letters every week, give or take a few days to allow for the ravens sent to rest through inclement weather. Sometimes, the breath of fresh air he provides, the small break from being the Winter Queen, the lone living Stark in a house filled with Stark ghosts, sometimes that break is what helps her remember she is Sansa, and Sansa has more depth to her than simply Queen.

Wife, the letter starts, and then continues with, dearest and most beautiful and deadliest wife, which is how Sansa knows that Tyrion wants something, and not in his official capacity as Hand, but because Tyrion wants it. Which, more like than not, means gossiping. He misses Varys, she thinks. Bronn is not so fun to trade snide remarks with since he’d blackmailed Tyrion into getting his seat. He misses his brother. He misses Missandei, and sometimes even Grey Worm. And most of all, Sansa thinks, he misses Daenerys. He misses the woman Sansa never got to meet, the woman he’d pledged himself to in Essos. (They say when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin. Perhaps that coin occasionally takes time to fall. Perhaps Daenerys' coin landed with improbable balance on its edge, until some outside force pushed it to one side. Sometimes, Sansa wishes she could have met that woman, too. Sometimes, in her darker moments, she wonders if she was not that outside force that pushed Daenerys herself.)

Wife. Dearest and most beautiful and deadliest wife,

Having until rather recently been the authority on monstrous little brothers, I think I can say with some certainty that your little brother is the most monstrous of all. This morning on breaking our fast, the good King Bran turned away his food most casually, and when I, halfway through the meal myself, expressed concern over his lack of appetite like the good Hand I am, he finally deigned to tell me the food had been poisoned. Grandmaester Samwell was just able to administer antidote to me before I shat myself to death. When I most humbly expressed concern that I'd been allowed to consume half a meal's worth of poison, my sweet King told me simply that he knew I wouldn't die from it. Which, given that I didn't, I could not even argue.

This is his revenge for the Broken thing, I am sure. I called him such during a small council meeting recently and I swear to you my lady, his eye twitched. Three months in and I am finally starting to chisel Brandon Stark out from the ice of the Three-Eyed Raven that encases him.

Sansa smiles as she reads, makes a note to look into the finances of her more prominent bannerman to see if any had a sudden dip in their coffers, an absence of coin that might cover the cost of the tears of Lys. She cannot think of any of her men that would want either Bran or Tyrion dead, but… she has learned to keep three steps ahead of her opponents, and to never trust. That Bran is the King least in danger of assassination matters little when just the threat of it could spark another war.

He is planning something too, I am sure of it. He is sending letters to places where no ravens are trained to go. Yesterday he asked how I would feel on taking a trip back North. A step forward in progress! Asking me about how I feel as opposed to just telling me. We will teach him manners yet. Regardless, in a few days I expect that I will be told to pen a letter to you officially detailing intentions to visit. Or perhaps I won't, because he may consider this letter I am writing now the official detail of intention to visit? He has developed a habit of not telling me his plans until the very last second and delighting in watching me scramble to make it look like everyone involved in those plans knew of them from the beginning. Regardless, I think that you should expect us soon, and I will inform you as soon as I know myself.

This would be treason, this private conversation of his King's intention to a monarch of another kingdom, save that Bran already knows, knows exactly what Tyrion writes her, because Bran knows everything. And so instead of treason, it is only wry amusement. Tyrion can never betray him, no one can, because Bran will always know his intention. Sometimes she envies her brother his omniscience, wishes that she could be so assured in her own dealings and with her own people.

Sometimes, when she is feeling lonely, when she is overwhelmed, when the crushing weight of being a Queen and a lone wolf who has always felt more trout than wolf besides begins to press down on her, she comforts herself with the thought, this is how it is meant to be. This is who I am meant to be. Because if it were not, Bran would know, and he would tell her.

Wouldn't he?

I hope this letter finds you well, and that the seeds I'd sent you a fortnight past will sprout quickly once the glass gardens are built. I think you shall delight in the result. (She'd had her maester study them thoroughly before she'd even handled them, wary. A dozen poisonous plants she can name off the top of her head, can never be too careful-- they'd been rose seeds. Simple red roses, from the Reach. They wait in one of her trunks, for the glass gardens she plans for won't be big enough to devote space to flowers when what they need in winter is food. Still… a sweet gesture. She wishes she were still innocent enough to fully appreciate it.) I'd brought up the possibility of us constructing such gardens here in King's Landing, but my King assured me that it would not be necessary. I have learned that if there is nothing else in this world that I can trust, then I can at least trust the assurances of King Bran the Broken. I hope his eye twitched as I wrote that. I grow petty in my old age.

As always, my regards to Jon should he happen to contact you first, and yours to him should he contact me; likewise with Princess Arya, should I discover her whereabouts you will be the second to know. Best wishes to the both of them, regardless. And to you yourself as well, dear Sansa. Best wishes to you most of all.

Yours,
T

Sansa reads the letter, rereads it. Pours herself a goblet of wine from the carafe at her desk. She's developed a taste for it recently. Pushes aside her other letters, her receipts, her acknowledgements. Grabs a blank piece of parchment and a quill, dips the nib into the ink. She writes:

Husband. Wise and clever husband,

I would be most aggrieved if you shat yourself to death and hope in the time that has passed since your writing your last letter and my receiving it that you remain in fair health. So long as we are still married I don't have to bother responding to most of the many proposals I've received. You are a most convenient excuse.

Tell my brother if he wishes to travel North then he can write to me of it himself, for I know his hands at least still work. I hope his eye twitches at this, too. Still, I look forward to seeing him. Winter is cold, and nothing warms the soul quite so much as family. Winterfell is a keep meant for more than just I, I think. I have been considering getting a dog.

As for the roses…

And into the night she writes. And when she sleeps, it is alone.)

Chapter Text

When the night has passed and dawn breaks:

They fold their blankets and pack their bedrolls before going downstairs to break their fast. If Arya feels guilty about the amount of food they’ve consumed at no cost to the business her friend works for she doesn’t show it; between the two of them they put away a meal meant for a party twice their size in an attempt to consume as much as they can before leaving, and most of that she herself eats. He cannot imagine how relieved the innkeeper will be once they’ve finally said their goodbyes. Likely the proprietor expects compensation down the road, or perhaps they are just genuinely expected to be hosted without expense given that she is a Princess. His own dealings with royalty have always been on the opposite end of the spectrum to making them comfortable and healthy.

She lingers for a few minutes past when they’ve finished the last of their food, eyeing the door leading to the kitchens. Her fat friend hasn’t made an appearance this morning; he knows how sentimental she can be about those she considers her own. She was probably hoping for a farewell. But the pie boy doesn’t show his face, and after a quarter-hour of dawdling she sighs and nods at him. “Time to leave,” she says. He finishes the last of his ale and stands with a nod as well.

Her entire demeanor seems withdrawn and ill at ease, and when they step from the threshold of the inn into the morning air outside she visibly braces against the chill. Their breath rises as fog and he reaches out to pull the clasp of her cloak tighter around her neck; she swats his hand away in annoyance, her cheeks flushed with cold. “Not too late to stay,” he reminds her.

After a moment her irritation passes and she shakes her head. “Destiny, remember?”

Damn him and his piety, and damn his new apparent inability to keep his mouth shut around her. He sighs. The beating his Master would have given him, the bruises . Ah well. They are not in Braavos anymore.

Despite her words her resolve still seems somewhat shaky: when they get to the stables and find the horses her royal brother had sent for them, she pauses at the stall that her black palfrey is housed in. The gelding snorts into her palm when she reaches out to pet it, soft lips nipping at her fingers as if in search of a treat. She scratches the velvety nose for a moment before telling him, very matter-of-factly, “I like this horse.” And then abruptly she bursts into tears.

Jaqen, several feet away and in the process of saddling his new bay mare, blinks at her. “Um,” he says.

“Just, objectively speaking,” she continues around a hiccup, “he’s a good horse.” She strokes the gelding’s neck with one hand and wipes across her nose with the other. Jaqen shares a concerned look with the stablemaster.

Leaving the head groom to finish securing the saddle, he returns to Arya’s side and once there reaches out to pat her shoulder awkwardly. Up to this point her random bouts of sadness have always felt justified to him, have followed a moment understandably fraught with emotion, and have passed with relative swiftness. She has never required nor wanted comfort during them, save for the night in the dilapidated building when she’d told him of her aunt’s fate and pressed from him an oath to kill in her name should she die in childbirth. Now she weeps over a horse. “There, there,” he tries, stilted. Good that she had not sought comfort from him; apparently he’s terrible at actively giving it when it does not include feeding someone poisoned water.

It seems to do the job though. She turns and leans her face on his chest, pressing her forehead into the leather chestpiece of his armor. She lifts away, then butts down again; it takes another few of these motions for him to realize she’s smacking her head against him as if he’s a wall. He indulges in an eye roll while she can’t see it, places a hand against the back of her head to keep her still before she brains herself against one of the metal studs in the armor. “The horses we were riding are not in good condition, lovely girl. If we don’t switch they will starve and die.”

“I know ,” she wails, the sound muffled into his chest. “It’s just a horse , I shouldn’t care! ” He pats the back of her head and waits for the fit of melancholy to subside. As all her spells of mood caused by the babe have, it passes quickly, and within the minute she is simply sniffing. When she pulls away there is a smear of snot across his front. He carefully withholds a grimace; often her pregnancy-influenced sadness seems to be followed rapidly by irrational ire and he doesn’t want to provoke it. “Stupid, stupid,” she mumbles tearfully. “I hate this. Stupid useless fuck.” Close as they are, he briefly assumes her to be speaking to him before realizing that she is once again chastising her unborn child. The bastard is going to have tremendous esteem issues if she keeps this up. He rubs her back with a sigh.

Once she has collected herself a bit more, seeming a bit less fragile beneath his hands, he returns to his task, preparing her new horse as well while she says her farewells to the black gelding she’d travelled on up to this point. He eyes his own rowdy brown who stomps and snorts within its stall. That horse will have no tearful goodbyes. The two Northern mares both seem good-natured and healthy with thick shaggy coats, one a plain dun and the other a soft brown with dark dappling. He takes the larger of the two, better to bear his heavier weight; they may need to switch once she carries further along. When the stablemaster isn’t watching he pulls their lips back to check their teeth and lifts their legs to inspect their hooves. Neither make a fuss. Again he wonders to the power of foresight her brother possesses. Had he selected these horses specifically, knowing their gentle temperament, or merely requested two in good health be delivered?

Arya is still petting the black gelding despondently once their new mares are tacked and prepared to leave. He's debating whether or not it's worth the extra five minutes they'll gain on the road to try to gently steer her away when she finally heaves a heavy sigh, pats the black on the neck one more time, and then turns to leave it. She takes the reigns of the smaller dappled mare and leads it from the stables without a word. After a moment he follows.

Once he's caught up to her, she grumbles, "It's just a fucking horse." He neither agrees nor disagrees with the sentiment; he can tell that she is unsure of it herself. Instead he gives her a questioning look, and she scoffs when she sees it. Grudgingly, she admits, "I rode South with Sandor on that horse. Had to leave it behind when we got to King's Landing. Found it again after."

He raises an eyebrow. The yard outside between the stables is muddy with trampled snow slush and horse shit. People are starting to congregate at the inn, come for breakfast; they will wait until they've passed by the worst of the crowd to mount in relative solitude. She will require assistance to get into the saddle and her pride won't let him help her in a place so visible. "A girl is sure this is the same horse?"

She nods. "It was a survivor from the Dothraki frontrunners during the battle for the Dawn. They had to geld most of their stallions before crossing the Narrow Sea, too many horses crammed into a tight space and the stallions would have killed each other to get to the mares. The khalasar it belonged to had a distinctive brand they'd used. I… may have stolen it. Oops."

The horse she'd ridden during her journey with the Hound. Her attachment to it makes more sense in this context. They've spoken little about Clegane as a man, save that he was coarse and crude but that he cared for her in his own way, and that for the duration of her time in Braavos she hated and loved him in equal measure. She held love more than hate, at the end. Seeing his thoughtful expression, she shrugs. “It’s just a horse,” she says again, smiling to assuage him without quite managing to keep the sadness from the gesture. “I’ll get over it.”

Whatever meaningless placation he would have given her in response is interrupted by a loud “ Arry! ” They both turn to see the fat baker boy waddling through the churned mud towards them, a bundle of cloth in his arms and, oddly, the midwife’s little apprentice in tow. The child carries her own package, this a small wicker basket that nonetheless requires both hands to lift high enough to avoid dragging over the ground. Arya smiles slightly when she sees them, a genuine smile of unexpected pleasure. He has noticed that her wider and more vibrant grins and smirks are often at least partially affected and more done for the benefit of those receiving them; those more heartfelt tend to be smaller, quick to come and quick to go so as to be less noticeable.

The pie boy catches up to them, panting, and says, “Can’t believe you were going to leave without saying goodbye!” The child stumbles to a halt beside him, losing traction in the mud and sliding with a squeak. Jaqen reaches out with his free hand and steadies her before she drops her basket.

Arya raises an eyebrow, still looking pleased but with a wry edge to it. “I waited for you for a while but you didn’t show.”

“I was busy,” Hot Pie says, and then thrusts the cloth in his hands towards her. “Making these!”

He and Arya exchange looks before she hands him the reigns of her horse and then takes the bundle from the fat boy’s hands. Leaning over her shoulder to see as she unwraps it, he both hears and feels the hitch of breath in her chest. “Oh, Pie,” she sighs softly. Inside the bundle of cloth, still faintly steaming against the cold air, are two loaves of baked bread meticulously cut into the shape of wolves. One is visibly snarling, teeth carefully carved in an opened maw, tail bushy. The other is smaller than the snarling one, though in an effort to keep it little it has retained less of its shape. Despite the warmth of the bread the texture is hard and blocky, and it doesn’t flake as she handles it through the cloth; food made to keep. Looking down at the loaves, Arya sniffs hard, says again with emotion thick in her voice, “Oh, Pie .”

“That one’s you, see,” he says excitedly, oblivious to her sniffling, and points to the snarling wolf. He transfers the point to the smaller wolf. “And that’s your little’un! I made it with oats so it’ll keep longer and-- oof!” His breath leaves him in a wheeze when Arya launches herself at him, holding the bread in dubious safety against her stomach as she hugs him and begins weeping again. When the fat boy looks at Jaqen in horror he just purses his lips and glares. He had just gotten her calmed. 

As she pulls away to tearfully inspect the bread wolves once more, he feels a tug on the heavy fur of his cloak. Jaqen looks down to find the midwife’s child staring up at him, her basket raised in offering. “I’m s’posed to give this to you!” Brow raised, he takes the parcel and looks through it.

Three tiny earthenware jars sit nestled in a rag meant to protect them from knocking together and cracking. When he lifts the lid on one he sees little shavings of ginger root, and a very familiar smell meets his nose. The other two both contain dried green leaves, one of which smells distinctly clean and minty and the other the sweet smell of berry. Maeg stands on her tiptoes to look down into the basket to look at them; obligingly he leans down slightly, if only so the girl doesn’t topple over trying to keep her balance. “Ginger and peppermint, for nausea,” she says, pointing at them in turn, “and raspberry leaves. Those are for later, when she’s bigger. Ma says it’ll help start the labor.” Then, hesitantly, as if she thinks he may be a little stupid, “Um, you make them into tea.”

Herbs such as this in winter, even dried and stale as these must be, are worth more than their weight in gold. That the midwife was willing to part with them when she herself is as heavy with child as she is suggests that she is either less irreverent to Arya’s lineage than she’d led them to believe, or more worried. Perhaps both. He replaces the lids on the jars and says gravely, “A man thanks you and your mother for this gift.” Glancing at Arya, who’s still sniffling over the bread while the fat boy prattles about ingredients and preparation tips for baking, he says wryly, “She would too, if she thought to.”

He takes a shirt from the pack tied to the saddle of his horse, rolls the jars up carefully within it. When he hands the girl her basket back she stares up at him with wide brown eyes before blurting out, “You talk funny.”

Arya, overhearing this during a pause the fat boy takes to draw breath, lets out a startled snort, and then snorts louder at his offended expression. She shoves the bread into his hands as a distraction and then hugs Hot Pie again. The fat child looks both surprised and delighted by the display of affection; Arya is rarely tactile, a truth of her character she has always carried. In Braavos she suffered the touch of others with a gritted jaw and a smile that looked to him more as bared teeth, and only when a contract or training demanded it. It was different between the two of them, where contact between them was expected for their relationship as Master and apprentice, and different too in that they shared a higher level of familiarity, and intimacy in that familiarity. She did not rail against him when they brushed, did not disdain his touch when they grappled. Indeed she sometimes invited physical attention from him; though this often in the form of punches, to be fair, or brief tussles she would instigate where he would be obligated to put her in her place. Violence seemed to be her preferred method of showing affection. When training with her own brothers within the House however, the other acolytes learned quickly that any unjustified touch or brush of skin with his cantankerous student was likely to earn them a bloodied nose or a blackened eye. Violence was also her preferred method of showing displeasure. Generally speaking, in any given situation Arya could be counted upon to react violently.

(He’d thought, towards the end of his time as her Master, of ways to cure her of this aversion to touch. She would need to grow comfortable with sharing close space with others, be they ally or mark, to take certain contracts and do certain jobs. Sensory flooding, perhaps; his stern-faced brother had developed a particularly amusing punishment for acolytes when they fought where he would make them wear the same blouse at the same time, forcing their bodies to touch from their hips to their shoulder. Such close contact usually prevented a pair of students from scrapping again, and he’d thought to make her share this with a brother until she stopped trying to crawl out of her skin to get away. But whenever this came to mind, the idea of demanding his apprentice to touch another for a prolonged period of time despite her dislike of it, he would remember Harrenhal: watching from a distance as a vengeful ghost became a timid mouse whenever she passed by the guards who loudly and openly raped the keep’s female staff, small and desperate to remain unnoticed.

He’d still given her the task of losing her maidenhead. Kindness only when it benefitted her, and cruelty too. Though he’d tried to give her choice and option as to the how and the when and the who. Like I’d wanted you too … ah, damning. Perhaps in hindsight he should have expected his lovely girl to forgo the sex with Notyne and skip straight to the killing. It doesn’t matter now. It is past and behind them.)

“They’re great, Pie,” she tells him. “They look like actual wolves and not weird donkeys.”

He shrugs good-naturedly. “I’ve had a lot of practice. The wolf-shaped ones sell faster, ‘specially after you killed the Night Lord.” -- King! the midwife’s girl pipes up, but the fat boy ignores her. “You stay safe, Arry. And you bring your little bump back to see me once it’s spring again, alright?”

Arya hesitates, then smiles. “I-- yeah. Yeah I will.” She looks up at him very briefly, makes eye contact for a mere second before glancing away. They both know she is lying. He does her the kindness of not pointing it out. When she speaks again her voice trembles very lightly at the end. “Bye, Hot Pie.”

“Bye Arry,” he says with a smile, then gives Jaqen a nervous nod before taking the little girl by the shoulder. “Come on, you,” he says, voice growing softer with distance and bodies that pass between them, “if I don’t get you back to your mommy soon she’ll kill me.”

Arya sniffles as she watches them leave, then takes the warm loaves of bread back from his arms, still wrapped in the cloth. She continues her previous march down the road without looking back. He hesitates to follow her. “Lovely girl,” he calls finally; she pauses, not turning to face him. “A moment.” Finally she glances at him over her shoulder, face curious and annoyed both, but when their eyes meet she nods. He leaves the horses with her and gives chase to the fat boy and the little girl.

Upon catching them, he presses a hand to the boy’s shoulder and the child shrieks in surprise, which causes the little girl to shriek as well. Jaqen winces at the twin high-pitched noises. Upon seeing him the fat boy puts a hand over his own ample chest, breathing hard. “You scared the hell out of me!” Then, as if remembering that he’s speaking to someone very deadly, he cows and lowers his eyes. “Err, um, did you-- need something?”

Jaqen speaks quickly, sharply; the child is less likely to argue if he demands rather than asks. “There is a horse in the stable now, a black gelding with a dothraki brand. It belongs to Arya. Favor of two thrones can come to a fat boy who keeps that horse stalled and fed until a scary man returns. This fat boy understands, yes?”

The fat boy stares blankly at him, eyes wide. Finally the girl speaks up, looking at the baker. “He says to keep the horse here and don’t sell it or anything.” The pie boy looks down at the girl, then back up at Jaqen, and then nods quickly. Jaqen narrows his eyes into a glare to really drive the point home and the boy nods even harder, chins wobbling with the motion.

“Clever child,” he says finally to the midwife’s daughter, and bows his head in thanks. She smiles her gap-toothed smile up at him winningly. She waves after him when he leaves to return to Arya. His lovely girl waits where he’d left her with the horses, and though her brow raises in curiosity and no small suspicion he does not tell her of what he’d done. Truthfully this is mostly because he feels somewhat foolish having done it. It’s just a horse, but a horse she is attached to. She is sad to leave it; she will be happy to get it back. Foolish to assign importance to a simple animal, but foolishness he will bear to please her, it would seem.

When they’ve walked a quarter mile and left the crossroads and the small makeshift community, the traffic on the road thins; very few people are coming from the North, and even fewer are journeying into it. Most of the travel the inn sees is between the major townships of the Riverlands and the Vale. When they’ve put enough distance between them and the inn they stop and he gives her a boost up into her saddle; she is short enough that pulling herself ahorse without assistance is difficult enough, and adding in the extra weight and surface area her swollen womb brings makes it an almost comical sight. Less damaging to her pride to get a leg up than to attempt to clamber into the saddle only to fall out of it before she can get settled.

Only four moons along. It’s going to be a rough time.

It is with little fanfare that they leave the inn behind them. They travel in comfortable silence into midmorning, and invigorated as she has been by the extra sleep and comfort of a filled belly that their stay had afforded them they manage to make it until noon before she has to call for a break. He feeds the horses while she paces in a circle around them, stretching her back with a wince.

“Fuck, my hips hurt,” she complains, grimacing as she bends forward. She is able to touch her knees easily still, but when she attempts to stretch to touch her toes he watches, entertained, as she has to catch herself to keep from pitching over. She finds this far less amusing than he does and the glare she sends him when she sees him watching is positively acidic. He lifts his hands in apology.

He then ruins that apology by then saying, “A girl has only been riding for a few hours. Were two days enough to spoil her for the saddle?”

The question is not deigned with a response; instead, her eyes narrow at him for a long moment before she says, almost accusingly, “The girl was right, you do talk funny.” He sends her a dry look but allows the deflection. “I know it’s a Lorathi thing, I remember that from our language lessons. But you slip between speech patterns seemingly at random. Why?”

He considers this for a moment before shrugging, leaning back where he sits. They had cleared their little rest area of snow as best as they could before laying furs down, but even still his rear is starting to go numb from the cold of the ground. “Sometimes this speech used by the Lorathi comes more easily to me, and sometimes the convention of the common tongue does. I can use either exclusively if I choose to, obviously. But at ease a man oftens blends the two. I think, perhaps, a very young boy came from Lorath.”

Throughout his speaking she had continued her pacing, but now she plops down beside him with a grunt before considering him thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I can ever imagine you as a child,” she admits after a moment. "Any time I try to think of you as a youth, I can only see the face you wear now, but younger. To me it seems as if you've always been strange and handsome and mysterious."

He shrugs. “Imagine this face, if you like. It is more mine now than the one I was born with, and I haven’t been a child for some time. I remember very little before coming to the House, and I think equally little on what I do remember. A man did not speak as a Lorathi except when using the culture as a cover until recent years." He glances around them for a moment.

The gears in her head are visibly turning as she watches him search, her eyes narrowed nearly to a squint. "Recent years… after me?" She pulls her knees up, crosses her arms over them and then rests her chin on top of this. She maintains this position for about five seconds before seeming to grow sore in it and instead rising to pace again with a quiet curse.

He follows her progress with amusement before turning to dig through her pack. "Just so."

Just as his borrowed name and borrowed face meant little to him before Arya created meaning from them, so too did his manner of speaking mean little. It was a tool he'd used, after they met: she recognized him as a Lorathi and so he continued to speak as one to engender trust; she learned better under him, regardless of who wore his face, than she did his brothers in the rare times that they assisted her training without borrowing his countenance. She reacted best to familiarity. His siblings had chastised him for indulging her in this, but he'd maintained that to bring her into the fold she must want to be brought, and would not allow a stranger to lead her. Distance from familiarity could come when she was closer to becoming no one and further from Arya Stark. And so he kept those traits which she identified as belonging to him so that she would better accept her training. After all, she came to Braavos for Jaqen H'ghar, not no one .

To her, this face was his, and the name Jaqen was his, and the Lorathi speech was his. Everything he was she assigned to him. And somewhere along the way, he stopped belonging to the House and became hers.

He feels her close presence as she stops her pacing to stand at his side. When he looks up at her in question, she reaches out and touches his face. He tenses, surprised, as she rubs her thumb over the scar on his cheek which sears the mask of this false face to him. Her grey eyes are unreadable even to him, her thoughts hidden, but her voice is quiet as she says, "I'm sorry for this one. You must place much stock in me." An acknowledgement of his damnation, and her part in it. He does place much stock in her. Always has. Clearly too much, for no one does not form attachments like the one that has grown in him for her.

One more pass over this scar before her hand lifts from his cheek, though the tips of her fingers linger to trace the much fainter and more shallow scars across his jaw where she'd clawed him with her nails the night he'd tried to kill her. The one given to him by his brothers will remain until his last days; these scratches will fade in time. Wryly, "These I am less sorry for."

The temptation to take her hand is strong: to hold it to his face, to bring it to his mouth and kiss her fingers, to pull her down to his level with it and press his lips to her own face. Strong, but he resists regardless. Instead he shakes his head. "You live. A man does not regret any of them now."

As at the inn, when she smiles it is small and quick, a fleeting favor. She shakes her head slightly as if in disagreement or disbelief, but doesn't speak whatever thoughts run through her mind. She pulls away and with distance between their flesh the moment loses some of the soft vulnerability her questioning had brought out in them both. He does not bother to mourn it; more of these moments will come. She paces another few turns before once more repeating her stretch, with a bit more success this time. Grunting in exertion as she bends, touching first the toe of one boot and then the other and swaying slightly as she does to compensate for her growing bastard as she attempts balance, she disregards their previous conversation to instead ask, "What are you searching for, Jaqen?"

He shuffles through her pack once more. "The bread the fat child gave you. A man is peckish. Ah ha!" He finally finds the bundle of cloth the breaded wolves are wrapped in, burrowed into the middle of her pack so her bundling of clothes can help it retain heat and shape. In her bid to push the bread into the center to best protect it, the rest of her belongings that he'd carefully folded and packed the day before are now much dishevelled. Whatever. She can pack her own clothing and if she leaves something behind or her pack splits at the seams from her wadding everything up into a bulge then that is her problem to deal with.

The larger of the two pastries, the wolf that is snarling, seems to have taken the most damage during its packing; its fragile teeth have broken off and into crumbs which collect at the center of the cloth it's wrapped in, leaving the wolf looking somewhat gummy instead of vicious. The smaller of the two looks rather more like a vaguely quadrupedal lump than a wolf to his eyes, but when he snaps off what he believes is meant to be the head and chews it the taste is fair enough. Grainy and oaty, surprising easy to chew considering the thickness, and with an aftertaste of honey. "This is good," he admits, and only when he looks up does he see the aghast expression on her face. "What?"

"That's my bastard!" she says, offended. "You ate his head!"

His? What interesting things she'd learned from the midwife's visit. That she had not mentioned she'd learned the babe's sex before now when it is startled from her is something he notes, the distance she tries to place between herself and the life growing within her crossed minutely. The point remains though, and he waves the now-headless loaf at her. "It's bread. A man ate bread. Bread made for eating."

"It's a metaphor! Symbolic!" she cries, snatching at it and huffing in disgust when he pulls away before she can grab it. "A little baby wolf and you ate his head!"

Rising and backpedaling away, using his superior height to his advantage, he sets a hand on her shoulder to hold her at bay and once outside of her grabbing range he takes another bite. A tactic he'd used often as her Master in Braavos, one that never fails to incite her. Though she is a woman grown, she's grown little and has always hated him using her smaller stature against her. If memory serves she will either attempt to kick his knee in or punch his stomach in reply. "The metaphor tastes good."

"Argh!" She retaliates instead by ducking beneath the hand holding her back and tackling him, sending them both tumbling over backwards.

The grapple is half-hearted, at least on his end, conscious as he is to not risk accidentally hurting her in her condition. They roll once, the world revolving around them, and he thinks of the hundred ways he could gain the advantage over her sloppy form and put her down. Instead he mostly just grunts out laughter as, when they even out from the roll, she straddles him, punching at his chest, the thudding blows cushioned by his leather armor. When her knee knocks into the skin below his navel where the chestpiece ends, the air leaves him in a soft wheeze and he releases his grip on the bread, still held above his head out of her reach. It thuds when it hits the ground. She scrambles up his body as if she is a squirrel and he is a tree, grabbing the lumpy headless wolf and then sitting heavily upon his chest, further stealing his breath beneath her weight with a quiet, " Oof! " Her hair, braided once more for travel, slides over her shoulder to brush his neck as she leans over him to wave the blocky bread in his face.

"I win," she preens, panting through a wolfish smirk. He hums tonelessly and she swats his shoulder with the back of her hand. "Say I won!"

"Yes, yes. The pregnant girl won. Huzzah." He shoves at her legs, thrown to either side of his chest. "Now a man would appreciate his freedom. Get off me." When she doesn't move beyond lifting the dubious wolf pastry to inspect it for damage, brushing dirt away from where it had landed on the ground, he sighs. "Please."

"This held up surprisingly well," she chirps instead, shifting to make herself more comfortable upon her seat. It is not until she does this that he becomes aware of the full scope of their compromising position, and his own discomfort rises. Straddling his chest, knees tucked in against his ribs, a self-satisfied smirk on her face… it is not difficult to imagine such in a more intimate context, though he wishes it were.

"Arya," he says through gritted teeth, " off ."

He truly is not her Master anymore, apparently; rather than obeying, she tilts her head and after a moment smiles down at him, a wicked and malicious little curve to her lips. "I rather like the view though," she tells him. She holds the breaded wolf(?) to her chest and the muscles of her thighs tense, the motion causing his leather armor to creak slightly, as if aware that whatever she says next will cause him to have a disfavorable reaction and is preparing for it. Her mean smile widens slightly. "You, beneath me."

He dumps her on the ground.

She is uninjured, if her snort of laughter is to be believed. Grumbling irritably in Lorathi and feeling strangely out-of-sorts he rises, leaving her where she giggles with the bread in her hands to ready the horses. Beneath her.

In the metaphorical sense, since she seems so caught up on metaphors? He supposes he is beneath her now, stripped of his Mastership and with her own exalted title of Princess. Most people are beneath her at this point. He doesn't think her to be the type of person to hold much esteem in social status over personal abilities but perhaps she finds amusement in the direct flip of their own.

The literal sense, the physical one? She bested him rarely in Braavos, and often through means of trickery or rather than raw strength. Rare was the opportunity for her to make him admit defeat, and she delighted in those opportunities when they came. A novelty to her, then, to put him into a place of submission. Often their grapples during her training ended in an opposite way, with her spitting and swearing as he used his body or his staff to pin her to the wall or the floor, or some other surface if he'd thought to surprise her with the attack somewhere outside their training room. Indeed much of her apprenticeship was spent beneath him .

And on the heels of that thought comes the one that made him dump her on the ground in the first place, the thought that he attempts to force from his mind as he ties his pack to his saddle.

Beneath her, in a different physical sense? Like I'd wanted you to . Her pressed against him, leaning over him, their faces close enough that he could feel the breath of her exhale, her eyes dark with vicious delight. Perhaps she liked him beneath her, as a woman does, as bodies do when pressed close. She seems the type to enjoy control in this way, does not strike him as a lady to lay passive beneath her lover. No, she would revel in the power of it, the dominance, the thrill of him at her mercy. She would keep her own pace and take what she wanted from his body, give him only what she felt him to have earned in a very exacting amount. She would smile her wolf's smile and laugh her wolf's laugh and if he wanted more of her touch than what she deigned to give him she would make him beg; he would beg. Her perch on his stomach, his chest, is too close to his dream of the other night, brings to mind too strongly the phantom feel of her wet heat against his manhood as she rode him languidly. I rather like the view. Like I'd wanted you to.

He swears once, quietly, in Lorathi. And then again in Dothraki and once more in the language of the Summer Isles, as both those tongues have a litany of words dedicated to the frustration of the flesh.

Arya's expression when they mount again is satisfied, a predator after a successful hunt. Far, far too knowing. He himself taught her to hone her skill of insight; foolish, to project his thoughts so obviously as to mutter curses. The little shit thinks it's amusing to make him uncomfortable. He thinks uncharitably of her for a moment, dark thoughts of irritation that she dares tempt him so, but after a moment more he wonders if this does not reflect uncharitably upon himself. Not her fault he is attracted to her. Her simple existence tempts him, and he can't very well expect her to cease that .

Still. Unkind of her to mock him, and he can only assume that she is mocking him. Her smirk brings to mind quick comments she's made over the last few days, passing innuendos. He questions suddenly and with a sense of dread if she has not sussed out his desire, the boyish longing that has so abruptly reared its head as to cause him to send lingering looks and warm considerations to her eyes, her mouth, her throat. Assuming this is true, that she mocks him means that she is at the very least not disgusted by it. That she mocks him… an amusement? The thought sits poorly with him, that she could make jest and tease over something that distresses him. Pride, new and fresh, the skin which grows fragile over a scar; unused as he is to allowing himself to have pride based upon his own merit, so too is he unused to having that pride stung.

She still carries in her hand, the one not holding the reigns as they set off again, the now-headless bread meant as metaphor for her bastard. He debates on if he wants to tarnish her smugness. Kindness when it benefits her. Cruelty too. What benefits him? A lesson: he is not her Master now, but neither will he tolerate purposeful disrespect without retribution.

"So," he says after several minutes of silent riding during which she continues to look incredibly pleased with herself. Once her attention is on him he nods to the little baked wolf. "You have a son?"

A reminder of her earlier admission, of her current condition. The distance she demands between herself and her child that she voluntarily crossed, distance she does not like acknowledged. He knows that she compartmentalizes. It is easier for her, to maintain that distance, to view her growing bastard as a concept, formless and ephemeral and something separate from herself. He knows she does not consider her babe as her babe, and avoids humanizing it. His reminder of her earlier acknowledgment is a subtle warning: he hears, and he sees, and though not a wolf himself he does not lack his own teeth.

He knows as soon as he says this that he has made a mistake.

The words hit home, though she takes the strike perhaps harder than he'd intended; her expression, curious and open one moment, shutters and closes, becomes blank and empty the next. "So it would seem," she says without inflection. She turns away from him to sit straight in her saddle once again, eyes on the road ahead. "Midwife said I'm carrying low. Apparently that means a boy." A year ago he would have been proud of the lack of emotion in her voice; part of him, a dark part that will forever belong to his House in Braavos with Him of Many Faces, is proud now. The majority of him feels strangely ill at ease for having smothered her cheerfulness to cause it. He feels, very suddenly, as if he has misstepped even more grievously than he'd anticipated. "Lucky Sansa."

He isn't sure what to say to that, and is denied opportunity to think of an adequate response when Arya nudges her heels into her mare's side, kicking the horse from a lazy trundle into a brisk walk. Even when he pushes his own horse to match the pace she stays several purposeful yards ahead of him. He berates himself with a quiet sigh. In the grander scheme they have only recently reconciled with each other; his stung pride should not have roused him to wound her. He knows that she is in a difficult situation, one that has left her wounded already even without his influence.

Twice more over the day they stop to break. She paces, stretches, nibbles upon the dried meat they’d procured at the crossroads, and does all this with a cool demeanor that harkens back to a month before, when they’d first begun to travel together. She speaks sparsely and invites little conversation, and he finds himself unable to think of something to assuage her. An apology will not suffice, for Arya doesn’t accept apologies gracefully; she does not like to be reminded that she can be hurt.

The day passes slowly, awkwardly, the chill sprung up between them after several days of warmth and camaraderie exacerbated by the chill in the air. It irritates the congestion in her chest, still lingering from her recent sickness, and in the late afternoon she coughs violently enough to exhaust her, the extra energy she'd gained from their days of rest seemingly already spent. They cease travel for the day sooner than they’d expected to.

This bruise he has caused is not brought up until that night when, across the campfire from him with her cloak drawn tight around her, she says, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

What she refers to is a given. To this point her pregnancy, and her decision to give up her bastard, he has treated with quiet support, given her autonomy its respect and kept his opinions to himself. The distance she places between herself and her child he has matched, until today when he had matched too that crossing of distance, though hers had been unconscious and his had been deliberate and with intent to wound.

He pokes the bed of coals with a branch, rearranging them and causing embers to flare. “No,” he agrees. When he chances to look up at her, she’s watching him, eyes hard and head tilted slightly to the side as if studying him. The scrutiny is discomfiting, nearly inhuman for the way the flames cast shadows upon her face and sparks in her eyes; he turns his attention back to the fire.

After a moment, after seeming to see something within him, she comes to a conclusion: “I hurt you somehow.” He says nothing, neither agreeing or disagreeing. Hurt is a strong word. Irritated, that she would mock his attention when he has naught in his life but her to give attention to. Disappointed, that she would make light of feelings he is both uncomfortable having and until recently incapable of understanding, as he would almost rather her turn him away bluntly than jape. Hurt implies expectation. He has tried to avoid that. She narrows her eyes at him, assessing, as if they are playing the lying game. “The play, earlier?” Still he doesn’t speak but she reads him well, too well for his comfort. She nods at her own determination, answering for him when he will not, and then sighs. “That is what friends do , Jaqen. They play and wrestle and tease.” Then her nose crinkles slightly. “At least, I think they do. I haven’t had friends since I was young. That’s what my brothers did when they were my age, anyway.”

Friends. A sound, within his head: his handsome brother laughing. Sex-crazed , his brother had called him. So focused was he on the troubles of his own passion that he had viewed their interactions through an impassioned tint. Arya had not been mocking his want of her with her teasing; she had merely been a youth of five and ten and a tomboy, merely had an incredibly rare moment of indulgence to the playful innocence that a girl her age should have, that she should not have to indulge in except that she was forced violently to grow up too quickly and too soon. He had misinterpreted the situation.

Her play was simply play. Her teasing was simply teasing. Her words, despite the metaphor and the physicality, were simply words. He is an idiot.

“A man was embarrassed,” he tells her. Truth and painful admission will serve him better than an apology will: she will respect the offering of his hurt more than she will appreciate the reminder of her own. That she will likely interpret his embarrassment to be over her besting their faux-grapple rather than him believing her to have been mocking his fledgling feelings only works in his benefit.

She nods, shrugs, as if this same embarrassment is to be expected. “You did let a pregnant girl beat you up.”

“What was I supposed to do?” he asks, half in cautious jest and half genuinely curious as to what she’d expected. “Stab you?” After a moment she concedes this point with another shrug. Then, when his attention has returned to stoking the fire, she pulls something out from within her cloak: the wolf-shaped bread, now largely lost of its shape from small pieces breaking and crumbling away over the day. The larger snarling wolf is still within her pack; she holds in her hands the small one that had sparked their earlier altercation. This time he is the one who makes a soft noise of surprised dismay when she breaks the hard pastry in two with a crack, and when she tosses one of the halves at him he catches it and stares at her.

“It’s just bread,” she reminds him. Her voice is calm, the statement easy for her to make; forgiveness in response to the apology he didn’t give her because she wouldn’t want it. The metaphor, it seems, has lost the capacity to harm her. They eat the bread.

 


 

(An hour later, wrapped in each other for warmth despite the awkwardness of the day:

“I don’t know how to have friends anymore,” Arya admits into his chest. She lays facing him tonight, her face tucked against his front, her arms drawn up between them. This position does not retain heat so well as when they lay curled with her back to his front, but he doesn’t complain as it is also less likely to cause his arm to lose circulation. “Maybe I never knew. I never really had any as a child. Just Jon, mostly. A boy named Micah briefly, but he died. Gendry, I think, until…” She trails off, but the implication is clear. Until they’d slept together. "But none of the girls in Winterfell liked me. I didn't like them either, to be fair. I just followed my older brothers and Theon around and emulated them. Robb and Theon would tussle often. I suppose I'd just assumed that's what men do ."

“A man had his siblings,” he says softly, yawning at the end of the statement. “But we were not friends as you understand the meaning to be. We were no one. No one might have need of comrades, but not friends. ” A thoughtful hum. "I had thought to make friends with a lovely boy once, asked him for a drink. He hit a man's companion with a stick instead."

He feels Arya's snorting chuckle, muffled against his shirt. "Maybe a man should choose companions that don't hiss at lovely boys."

"A man didn't choose his companions," he reminds her. She shifts, raises her head to look up at him and lifts an eyebrow. They both know Jaqen was in that cage by choice. He shrugs. "The boy ended up being a lovely girl, anyway. A man was mildly surprised but accepted it easily enough. It was a tumultuous time for all involved." She ducks her head back down with another snort.

"We are friends," she says once her face is buried back into his shirt, as if it is a clarifying statement. Nearly a question. "You were my friend, before. In Harrenhal. In Braavos, too. Even when you were my Master you were my friend. I trust you. That's as close as I know how to get to friendship now."

The midwife's words from the morning before: She trusts you. With herself. With the babe. Don't fuck that up.

She cannot help his feelings. She is their cause, but she did not ask for his ardor, did not invoke it, cannot be blamed for its organic growth. She trusts him; he trusts her. If she does not know how to have friends anymore, then he himself never learned. Distance , he tells himself. He cannot view every interaction between them through the lens of want. It does her a disservice.

Unfair to place expectation upon her; he has had this thought before. If she never returns his affections, if she never seeks his touch beyond the platonic embrace he holds her in now, he will have to content himself with that. He can content himself with that. He will be hers, in whatever capacity she deems him deserving, until she turns him away. Friendship is no small thing, is not a consolation in place of his true wants; for the hurt that exists between them, for his abandoning her after Harrenhal when he could have returned her to her family and later, his violent method of teaching in Braavos; for her killing his sister and leaving him to a traitor's fate in the House; friendship is more than either of them deserve. And yet here they are.

"We are friends," he agrees. Then, because he feels he must though she accepts apology poorly, "A man regrets his behavior earlier." Cruelty, to throw her bastard in her face, a child she does not want to carry but for the blood of Eddard Stark and the demands of family, duty, honor. Cruelty has occasional place between them, but only to benefit. Not for its own sake.

She is quiet for some time, long enough that he believes she may have fallen asleep except that she is not yet snoring. "Good," she says finally. Her acceptance of his regret is the most he can expect in place of her forgiveness of it. It will suffice. Then, very softly, nearing timidness, and surely spoken only because she does not have to look at him when she says it, "I'm glad we're friends, Jaqen."

He hears it in her voice, feels it in her body, her muscles loose and lax against his own; this thing she says is truth.

"As am I," he says, and her hands dig into his shirt, tighten into fists until she is holding him fast; this thing he says is truth, too.

They sleep.)

 


 

Two days later, a lesson a long time in the making:

The second morning after they'd left the inn at the crossroads, their third day back on the road, he rebraids her hair from where the tie had loosened in the night and she asks, "Have you thought about going back to Lorath?"

His fingers pause their combing.

The day before was treated with tentative normalcy. He’d watched his words carefully to avoid wounding her again, and she'd watched her own to avoid giving him more ammo in the event that he decided to do away with that avoidance. They broke camp, they rode, they stopped riding to stretch and eat, they rode again. There was a conversation, an exchange of notes, on what they’d both learned from the midwife; this conversation began hesitantly for the both of them, considering the subject matter was still raw, but it felt more like a lesson than anything and they’d been able to maintain objectivity, and the discussion was necessary to have. They made camp for the night. He held her. She’d coughed frequently, the leftover congestion in her chest pooling when she lay supine, and hard enough that a small handful of times she had to rise to make water to avoid pissing herself in her sleep. Their rest was not especially restful, the both of them waking frequently, and at some point in the darkness her braid had come loose.

After a moment he goes back to sectioning out her hair, then twisting those sections gently. There are braids exclusive to the Northern style of Westeros, and those are the ones she prefers, but he is largely unfamiliar with them. He has more knowledge of the Southron styles of Westeros, as when he has come to the continent on contract in the past most of his business has been conducted in the South. But a fishtail is common enough fashion in both Westeros and Essos and this he can do easily. It’s simple, which he knows she will appreciate more than the complicated Southron plaits, and will suffice to pull the hair back from her eyes. She could groom herself well enough, but even after so little time back on the road she seems to be handling travel less robustly than either of them would like, and when she’d asked if he could do it for her because her shoulders were aching he’d agreed. So now they sit at their empties campsite, the horses already saddled, ground-tied and waiting for them to mount to start the day’s journey. She’s settled with her knees tucked beneath her, between his own legs, her back to him and her soft, dark hair sliding between his fingers.

He considers the question. As ever when he thinks of the nebulous future he feels a sense of purposelessness rise, an anxiety that wells within his chest. Where will he go and what will he do, when she no longer has need of his questionable presence? When she has returned to the North that loves her, that she loves, and realizes the man who travels with her is no one of use? Who is Jaqen H'ghar without Arya Stark? No one, and he can be no one no more.

Sometimes in the night, in the stillness of the dark, he has contemplated equally dark thoughts. No one forced into someone by her, Jaqen H’ghar created by her will, purpose of a man redirected wholly from his House to her; valar dohaeris . Purposeless without her now; valar morghulis. He does not fear death, for he trusts the Many-Faced God far more than he trusts himself. Rather, he does fear that yawning void in his heart, the one that whispers dohaeris, dohaeris , service is purpose and purposeless without his House and siblings, without her. Tools do not want to be used, do not lust to be handled, are discarded when they are no longer needed. He has ever been a very good tool.

He had been prepared to kill her and then himself when he left Braavos. His own death not in guilt or punishment, but because without purpose he had no use for himself, no emotional attachment to his own person. He has ever been very pragmatic about that. He did not shy away from the thought of ending his own life then; he does not shy away from it now. Though he would be lying if he said it were his preference.

“No,” he says, hands moving once more, carefully weaving the strands of hair together. “Nothing remains for a man there.” The words are mumbled, spoken from the side of his mouth; the leather tie she secures her braid with is between his teeth so he will have it available when he needs it.

“Braavos, then?” she asks. Again he pauses; he’d thought the matter of his insult the day they'd left the inn over and dealt with, but now he wonders if she is questioning him to make a purposeful point. Arya does not accept apology well; she prefers to trade hurts. He hurt her with his words. Is this her revenge? If it is then he will let her have it, though he does wish that for once she could act like a normal person and just accept his apology.

Except that her voice seems genuinely guileless, as if she is simply curious without intent to target. Facing away from him, she stares ahead into the middle distance. When he leans around very slightly to inspect her face for signs of intended retribution, her gaze is unfocused and dull with drowsiness. It sharpens when she realizes he is staring at her and she raises an eyebrow. They eye each other, both suspicious, before her face screws up in a yawn. No games, then; she does not seem to have the energy for them.

“Not Braavos,” he answers finally after a long moment, holding the different strands that make up the braid in one and hand and placing the other on her chin, turning her face away from him and towards the front once more gently so as not to interfere with the angle of the plait. “The Order would not take kindly to the insult of my presence in the city it makes home in.” She draws her breath between her teeth in a wince-- truly no subterfuge then, if she is just now considering this. “A man has… little attachment to any one place in the world. He was no one, for a very long time. He has only just recently become someone.”

“Little attachment anywhere?” she questions. He watches the muscles of her neck and shoulders tense in preparation to turn once more; he touches her chin again, lightly, reminding her not to move. It will irritate them both if the braid is lopsided, her for the way it will weigh heavier on one side and him for having to look at it being uneven. She stills once more with a huff and he smiles where she cannot see it, charmed. She fidgets even now, even after all her lessons and her mantras of calm as still water. He can only imagine the frustration of her lady mother trying to tame her wild snarls of hair when she was a toddling child if this is how she treats being groomed despite having reached maturity. “Come now, Jaqen, you’ve been all over the world. Surely someplace caught the attention of no one, even if just for a moment.”

He hums, holds the end of the plait in one hand and takes the leather thong from between his teeth and ties the braid in place with the other. “An attachment someplace, yes. Nowhere that requires travel from here.” He tugs the braid gently to make sure it will hold, then tugs again for simple want of irritating her. She flicks the inside of his knee in retaliation. He smirks, but the levity leaves him quickly as she rises and stretches, still standing in her place between his outstretched legs. When she turns to face him his head is at level with her thigh and he looks up at her, asks with a sigh, “Must we speak of this now? ” The conversation is necessary, but five moons remain before she is due to labor and he’d hoped he’d have that time to figure out his course.

Head tilted down towards him, she considers him contemplatively. “I suppose not now, if you don’t want to. But soon, yes. Sooner rather than later. I don’t want to stay in Winterfell any longer than I have to, I--” She grimaces, glances away. Takes a deep and fortifying breath. “It will be easier for all involved if I leave as quickly as I’m able.”

Yes, he can see that: easier for Sansa, if she is to take the mantle of mother for the babe, to have the mother of birth at distance; easier to control the whispers of the court if Arya is not seen near the bastard Prince; easier for Arya, too, to not be forced to proximity with the child she plans to leave behind. Though he hopes she is aware that her departure from the birthing bed will not be as immediate as she’d like, for even ignoring the time it will take for her body to heal from the physical struggles of delivering the babe, winter is a factor still. The snows of the North will prevent expedient retreat, especially if she is still recovering from her pregnancy.

A shift in the world with her next words; she stretches, arms lifted above her head, shoulders rotating, and says with a grunt, “We’ll have to figure out what we’re doing next, eventually.”

We. A very simple statement with very complicated implications. We assumes that she assumes him to be joining her in whatever she herself plans to do, assumes that she’d believed his continued presence at her side a given. It is said casually, as if in afterthought, the subconscious inclusion of his being alongside hers. As if she had not even given consideration to the idea of their inevitable split.

Finishing her stretch, she looks down at him and then narrows her eyes. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

He ducks his head. He doesn’t know what expression he wears; damning, for a Faceless Master to not have complete control over his face. He clears his throat. “A man does not stare.”

She grabs his chin, surprising him with the move, and her touch is not quite as gentle as his own had been against her face when he’d been doing her braid. She tilts his head up to look at her and squints into his eyes as if trying to read something. He doesn’t know what. She doesn’t seem to know what either, because after a moment she just shakes her head in confusion. At odds with the firm hold on his chin, her voice is soft when she says, “Stop being weird.”

That anxiousness in his heart at the thought of being a discarded tool is receding, leaving something that resembles the softness in her voice. It worries him, that he is so easily placated, but her hand on his face is warm even if it is not gentle, much like she herself, and he remembers the truth in her statement the other night. I’m glad we’re friends. Perhaps he will have to learn to live as something with more depth than a tool to be used. He already knows from experience how jealously she guards her friends.

Levity necessary. He shrugs in response, unspoken communication in the motion: that shrug says but I am weird. She snorts. Her hand is still holding his chin; her thumb touches his lip briefly. A familiar want, to kiss it. The denying of that want is equally familiar. After a moment her touch leaves his skin, instead slides through his own hair, combing her fingers through it. Her look is thoughtful. “Yours is long enough to do a Northern braid with.”

He shakes his head, finally rises from his sitting position on the ground. He stretches his own arms and back, and they both wince when his spine cracks noisily. “Another time,” he says. They have lingered in this spot for too long, time lost to the creature comfort of securing her hair. He cannot begrudge her this though, for he knows she is beleaguered by other physical discomforts. His own body mislikes riding for hours at a time, and unlike hers is not carrying child. If it pleases her to keep her hair from her eyes when so much else displeases her then it is a simple thing to take the time to do it. His own hair bothers him less; he has grown used to it, and unlike hers it will grow no longer than it is now.

A thought, that he has not yet considered but should perhaps have come to his attention before now: seared to him and damned with this false face, will he visibly age? Valar morghulis , but when wearing the masks they do not reflect the passage of time, the magic preserving them keeping them from wearing down or wrinkling. If the hair is cut it will regrow, but only to the length that it was when the face was harvested and the magic poured over it. If the face is struck, the mask would retain the mark but only until it is removed, and the flesh would be smooth and unblemished again if it is donned once more. Pulling faces from the ether as Masters do works similarly, just without the inconvenience of having to keep track of the masks. Will his body come to disrepair, the mortal weakness of age taking him as it takes all men blessed, or perhaps cursed, to not fall in battle? Will his bones grow brittle, his muscles weaken, his eyes go and his organs fail all beneath the youthful guise of a man of thirty and two?

Unlikely: his end, he hopes, will be quick and bloody. Punishment even he does not deserve, to linger on past his usefulness, a sword left to rust. Him of Many Faces take him before such comes to pass. Let him die in service. Valar dohaeris.

Worries for another time. Levity still necessary. When he helps her up into her saddle he says, "You can use a man's hair to turn him into a pretty Northern lass another day." As he'd hoped she laughs at the jape.

Companionable silence is their norm. Hours pass upon the road that do not require the entertainment of occupation. In Braavos her training was not always so violent; the hours added to sum up days that they spent in his cell, his having more room and furniture than hers by dint of him being a Master, each with a book, she studying language or the formal art of war and he reading whatever had caught his interest at the time. They would break that concentration occasionally. She would ask a question on pronunciation or get his opinion on something she had read, and he would read aloud to her passages or poems he believed she would find interesting. They have learned how to exist together in quiet proximity.

When that quiet ends, it is relinquished easily between them; shortly after resuming travel following their first break for the day, he brings up the earlier topic of conversation. “Does a girl have interests to pursue, after?” The after does not require clarification. They both understand that he means after she gives birth and leaves Winterfell and her child both to the responsibility of her Queen sister.

This talk does not worry him so, now. It is easier to discuss what she may plan for the both of them than it is to speak on what he plans for himself.

When she answers, her voice is wistful and nearly sad. “No,” she answers. “Not really. I didn’t--” She cuts herself off, and he turns in his saddle to look at her. Had he himself struck a nerve? Surprising, considering she’d introduced the conversation in the first place. But no, she does not seem aggravated on the topic, merely somewhat melancholy. She sighs. “I wasn’t expecting things to end up as they did, after the war. I don’t really know what I was expecting. I suppose I’d always sort of thought that once I got back home, once all the names on my list had been crossed off, things would just… fall into place. But Bran is King in the South and Jon is at the Wall again and Sansa is Queen in the North. Everyone is different now. And I’m different too.” An unconscious motion; she rests one hand upon her swollen womb. He makes no mention. Again her gaze is unfocused, watching the distance that stretches out before them, the road which continues on. “I was thinking perhaps to travel.”

Her questions from earlier make somewhat more sense, almost an attempt at consideration: if she expects them to stay together and she thinks to travel, then she was likely trying to gauge his own interest. Warming, and humbling too. Not vengeance at all. His objectivity is severely compromised, if he reads malicious intention in all of their interactions where there is none. He will have to do better.

“Where will she go?” Not Braavos, neither of them will be welcomed there. At least, not so soon after her betrayal and his exile. Perhaps in a decade when the dust has better settled, when time and duty has put some of his siblings to their final rest and some of the apprentices who’d called her sister are Masters themselves. The politics within the Faceless Men change with the years, just as all organizations do. Perhaps a generation within the Order that knows a cold winter will act more kindly upon them in the warm summers to come. Unlikely, but perhaps.

Still her tone is vague. “I don’t know,” she says quietly. “Anywhere. Somewhere that isn’t here. Too many memories in this land for me. Nobody knows what’s West of Westeros. Perhaps I’ll go there.”

He cannot help it: he laughs, and loudly. Birds startle from the trees around them at the sound, and she jumps as well before giving him a look of real offense, not playing at hurt for the way he chuckles. Not at her expense, or at least not wholly. Placatingly, he lifts his hands. “Ah, lovely girl, many apologies. I think a man can answer this question for you, though.” Her hurt shifts to confusion and she slows the pace of her mare so that their horses now walk at exact equal speed, the better to share conversation. “West of Westeros lies Asshai and the isle of Ulthos to the South, and YiTi beyond that. West and North is the Thousand Islands where ships do not land, and further still is Ibben.” Her eyes are wide, brows drawn in, mouth slightly parted; he watches her clever mind work.

Still she balks. “But… that's what's East. ” She shakes her head. “West of Westeros is always beyond the edges of all the maps. All of them, even the big military ones.”

He smiles again, and sees the moment that she understands his mirth to be rueful. “Yes, but that is because maps have edges. Maps are flat. ” She shakes her head again in disbelief. “Lovely girl, the world is round."

Good that her horse is well-mannered and walks alongside his without requiring direction, for her grip of the reigns has slacked and she stares at him, dumbfounded. He watches her calmly, lets her read the truth in his face. Another shake of her head, but not in denial this time. Her voice is hushed. “How do you know this?” Before he can answer she continues. “How do I not know this? I-- my father was Warden of the North, I received the highest education possible short of becoming a maester myself. I learned as much as the Southron Princes and Princess did. I-- you taught me, Jaqen, you gave me those bloody maps!

He nods. He did. “Who was your teacher, when you were a child? Before this man, before your bravo Forel? Who taught you your letters, your sums?”

Arya has a look upon her face that suggests her entire understanding of the world has been upended, which he supposes is actually likely exactly what has happened. Her mouth opens, closes; wide-eyed and gaping, she looks very much like a fish. He struggles to refrain from smirking. How he’d looked forward to this moment as her Master… his mischievous glee over the upcoming reveal was forgotten after all that had passed between them, but he remembers it now and revels in the absolutely flabbergasted expression on her face. “I…” She hesitates, swallows, as if questioning even this that she knows to be personal fact. “Our keep’s maester, Luwin. He… he taught us everything. He delivered all of us from our mother’s womb. He would clean me and bandage me up if I fell and got a scrape or a cut. He would tousle my hair and laugh when I would try to sneak away from lessons.” Her eyes and voice both sharpen, an edge. He questions the integrity of someone she respected. “Are you saying he lied to us?”

He can only nod, and again she reads the truth. “Or perhaps,” he allows, to save the dignity of her opinion, “it is better to say that he withheld the truth. Maesters do that often. A girl is clever, this I know; when you were a child, was it difficult for you to learn to read?” She shakes her head, an uneasy look on her face. “And do you think an equally clever peasant child would have greater difficulty learning on simple principle that she is a peasant and you were not? The midwife’s girl, at the crossroads, do you believe her to be less intelligent because she is baseborn?” She shakes her head again. Cruelty when it benefits her-- he wonders, given how much she is shaking her head, if she will not accidentally shake her own brain loose.

“Then why, a man wonders, are only noble children taught such and not all? Lack of manpower, perhaps. A deficit of educators. A maester can only teach so many at once. But is a girl here and now beside this man a maester?” He does not continue until she shakes her head once more, forcing her to acknowledge it, the privilege of her education. “If you taught six children and those six children taught their families and those families taught their neighbors and those neighbors taught their children who grew and moved to a different town and married and bred and taught their children and their neighbors in turn and so on and so forth, how many people do you think could read in two decades?” All of them. Everyone. He knows it as well as she does. Her mouth opens further, poised to interrupt, but he continues, “ But, whom does this benefit, except the smallfolk? Does it benefit the nobility who rule, to have educated peasants who could keep better track of their ledgers and have better understanding of medicine and hygiene? Say a Lord’s son is stupid, but he is still a Lord’s son. He reads poorly but this noble blood still gives him infinitely more opportunity than the miller’s son who is naturally more clever but is never taught . No, highborn do not benefit from educating the lowborn. Knowledge, after all, is the right of their blood, the benefit of their name.”

She shifts in her seat, uncomfortable; his words challenge views she has held subconsciously, never thought to challenge because she believed them inherently. The privilege of her education. He is not angry at her, but his smile is still a bite. “And who gives them this right? Who teaches the highborn? Who does the nobility trust to feed them education? Who, lovely girl, taught you?

“Maesters,” she breathes quietly, the sound nearly lost to the chilly winter breeze.

“Maesters,” he agrees. “Maesters who gift the Lords and Ladies and King and Queens with their knowledge. Maesters who choose what knowledge to give them. Does a girl, off the top of her head, know the percentage that the merchants of King’s Landing are taxed to receive shipments of herbs and spices from YiTi?” She does not shake her head this time. She doesn’t have to. They both know the fee is astronomical for perishables from so far East, and only slightly lower for goods which will not spoil. Too expensive, to ship items across the world without charging exorbitant costs when neighboring trade partners in the East can be reached more easily. Months of seafaring, the risk of pirates or storms as they travel the length of the coastline of Essos-- there is a reason YiTish customs are so rarely found in Westeros. “And,” he continues, smiling, hammering the nail into the coffin, “does a girl know the taxation on the same items shipped to Oldtown? Assume the world is round, and a ship from YiTi must only sail East for a moon. Do you think it would still be so expensive for the maesters of the Citadel to receive their reagents?”

The moment of realization, a wave crashing over her. “They’re keeping people stupid.”

“They’re keeping people controlled, ” he corrects her gently.

She breathes heavily for a moment, eyes unfocused as she stares down at her hands. This is all he’d hoped for and more. He’d genuinely forgotten how he’d been looking forward to this moment of revelation when she was his apprentice. He gives her the space to think, watches her eyes shift back and forth as she reconsiders all she’d thought she knew. The deliberate withholding of education; the different implications that a round world as opposed to a flat one suggests; the quiet control the maesters hold over economy. When she finally looks at him again, her expression lost, he reminds her of something vitally important: “The tests never stop, because the teaching never stops.”

She sighs, and the sound is brittle. Despite his enjoyment of the delivery of this moment he cannot help the small pulse of disquiet at being the cause of her confusion and pain, though he is not it’s ultimate source. Cruelty, when it benefits her. If she had stayed with him she would have learned eventually regardless. “Why are you telling me this now? Why was this not a part of my training in Braavos? If I had taken contract in Oldtown…”

He laughs again. “Lovely girl, how far into your training did you think you'd gotten? Did a girl believe herself ready to become a Master so quickly? It takes years to shed the acolyte's robes. If you had come with me directly after Harrenhal… but alas, I had you for less than half the time I should have. No, sweet one; there was still so much for you to learn, so much a man had left to teach you. I was simply more concerned with the immediate instruction of the blade so you could survive a battle of flesh. Training to battle with wits would have come after. You are exceedingly clever but your education is lacking, and influenced by those who benefit from that lack. There is a reason acolytes do not take contracts outside of Braavos. Only Masters tangle with the maesters.”

She stares, dumbfounded. Ah, if only he could show her a globe. When he’d first seen the one kept in the House he’d been awed. As a child he did not have her, now dubious, benefit of formal teaching by a maester; all his education was given by the unbiased hands of the House. A boy received bruises and cuts from training with weapons and then, still bleeding, would switch to letters and sums. The globe, a spherical map of the world stretched to scale across its surface, had occupied his adolescent attention far, far better than the task given to him by his Master to lay with a woman and become a man. He had traced the secret trade routes of the maesters so many times that he knows them better beneath his fingers than the feel of a woman’s flesh.

Then she blinks and, abruptly, there is thunder in her face. He draws away from her slightly, wary. Surprise he had expected. Self-flagellation, perhaps, that she had never before considered the privilege of her knowledge over what the lowborn are taught, conditioned as both the nobility and the peasants have been for generations to believe that she is owed one thing and they another by simple coincidence of name and blood. Even irritation he could believe, that he had withheld this from her until now. But the fury worries him.

“That little shit!” she seethes, her voice nearly a screech. His mare jitters slightly beneath him at the startling sound, tosses its head and flags its tail with a snort. “He was going to let me sail off without saying anything!” At his look of concern, both over the statement and the worry that she may fling one of her knives at him, she snaps, “ Bran! Before I left King’s Landing I talked about sailing West and he didn’t even blink! Gods, that may have been nice to know before I’d drawn up commission plans for a bloody galleon. ” At this he again laughs before he can control the urge.

“Ah,” he says with a chuckle, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye, “but a girl does not sail West now; she rides ahorse with a man and sneezes and snores on him in the night, and he rejoices to have her.”

She huffs, her face red from either his words or her residual fury. Crossing her arms, she glares over at him and asks, “What else do I not know?”

He had found such pleasure in being her Master, in imparting wisdom and watching her soak it up and demand hungrily for more. She took to languages like a duck to water, demanded perfection from herself with bladework, kept pace with every lesson he sought to teach. Truly, good that he had no apprentices but her; none would compare. He smiles. There is an answer in that smile, unspoken. Much.

A glint in her eye, a wolf sighting prey. She leans forward in her saddle towards him, intention running through her body. “Tell me,” she says.

“Ah,” he hums, “but I thought a girl was no longer my apprentice?”

“She’s not,” Arya asserts forcefully, “but she is your friend and she wants to know.” His smile widens, and her expression becomes eager.

Taking a deep breath, he begins.

Chapter Text

A game; a craving; a mirror, seen at distance:

"Bathing in a river," she says.

He hums thoughtfully. Counters, "Arguably, you could do that now."

Her nose wrinkles and she shoots him a look of disgust from her seat in the saddle. "Not without freezing my tits off. Theon said he once saw a whore who's nipple turned black with frost and they flicked it and the whole damn thing came off, flew across the room and landed in someone's ale."

He parrots her expression and says, "And Theon was a reputable source of information on this?" She considers this for a moment and then shrugs, conceding the point. Then she gestures at him, a go on then motion, and he sighs. "Yes, alright. Hmm. Berries."

"Berries," she agrees with a dreamy expression, but then argues, "but too general. That's like saying fruit or food that isn't hardtack . Be more specific."

He rolls his eyes. "Blackberries, then." She tilts her head at him curiously. She may not know blackberries very well, they aren't hardy enough for Northern growing and the glass gardens of her youth were probably dedicated to more filling vegetables. In explanation, "Umma made a curd from them occasionally. Dark purple, sweet but tart. If a man remembers correctly a girl enjoyed the curd on her biscuits."

Her face lights up in recognition and he smiles. "Blackberries! Now I remember. We had to have those shipped to Winterfell if we wanted them and Mother and Sansa preferred lemons so we didn't get them much. Strawberries." It takes him a moment to realize this is her next offering and he raises an eyebrow. "You're right," she sighs in response to his unspoken rebuke, "I'm just thinking about berries now."

Even between the two of them, assassins by trade who thrive within the quiet shadow, silence, after a prolonged period of time, can become exceptionally boring . Comfortably boring, but boring nonetheless.

It is rare for the silences between them to carry oppressive weight in recent days, save for when she has entered a mood and found some imaginary fault or slight within him that she determines he must be punished for. Though those come with increasing frequency as she carries further along they also pass with increasing quickness; that very morning she'd found displeasure in how he'd saddled her house, glared at him hatefully for a handful of seconds, and then almost immediately recognized her anger was misplaced and calmed with a penitent look. He has learned to not take offense and simply wait her fits of irritation out. Quietly enduring a short if vitriolic tirade and then graciously accepting the inevitable apology that follows works far, far more to his favor than pointing out when she is being unreasonable.

A week and four days since they left the inn at the crossroads. Even in this short time she has grown noticeably, though he notices largely because he watches for it. Within a few days of their departure her chest congestion had finally passed completely and felt her feeling a bit more hale, though with increased energy and increased size so too came, inexplicably, a further increased appetite. He does not know where she puts all that she eats, for her growing womb surely cannot account for all of the calories she ingests. Gone is the nausea of the moon before; she eats voraciously and without prejudice, consuming whatever is put in front of her as often as she is given food. Even taking her condition into consideration when they'd prepared for the next leg of their journey they are already worryingly low on the store of trail rations they'd procured. She can eat a day's worth of food for the both of them for her midday meal, and though inconvenient he is loathe to deny her sustenance. She practices restraint when she must, though with a look of disappointed resignation that pains him and inspires within him sympathy. She is remarkably pitiful, when she wants to be.

He hopes, fervently, that as they get further North and people become less plentiful that perhaps game might. Otherwise they will both be starved down to the bone before they reach Moat Cailin.

"Leaves," she says instead, drawing him away from his most frequently visited worry. At his look of confusion she elaborates, "On trees? Practical, kept the sun off you. Green as anything. I know I'm Northern, and a Stark besides, winter is coming and all, but I miss green. Snow is lovely but it gets dull after a while."

He nods in thoughtful agreement. Yes, leaves on trees are something he misses of summer as well. "Rain," he replies. She huffs a breath of laughter and he frowns at her. "What?"

"You hate rain," she says with a smirk. "You'd change my training depending on the weather. We prowl the harbor tomorrow, lovely girl , you'd say, and then on the morn you'd look out the window, see the rain, and say, we practice poisons today, lovely girl ." Her imitation of him is an obvious and poor characerature. He does not growl when he speaks nearly so much as she seems to believe he does.

With another expressive eye roll he clarifies, "A man enjoys the sound of rain. The smell of it. Very relaxing, to read a book beneath an open window and listen to the rain outside." He closes his eyes and tries to remember it. Moons since he has heard the noise, near musical; all his ears recall now is the sound of crunching snow. Braavos smelled like shit when it rained and some of the canals in the inner city would overflow if it lasted more like a day or so, but it was home, so much as no one could claim a home, and at times he misses it. Essos in winter tends towards tepid fog, especially on the coast; during his imprisonment in the House after she'd left him, he'd found something approaching peace in the sound of rain pattering against the stone walls and roof, a rare solace for his despondent mind. Wryly, he continues, "Better rain than sleet, no?"

They have been lucky enough to avoid sleet thus far, but with the predicted false spring they are sure to suffer through it eventually. South of the Neck will be warmer and wetter; in the North, the climb in temperature will be minimal enough that moisture in the air will remain solid. They will surely at some point have to hole up to wait out a blizzard. He can only pray that when this happens, the phase of her pregnancy that requires her to devour anything remotely edible that isn’t nailed down will have passed. At this point he would not put it past her to practice cannibalism if they ran out of other options.

“Anything is better than sleet,” she confirms, her voice serious. “We get sleet in summer at Winterfell sometimes, it freezes overnight and coats the ground in ice. I can’t tell you how many times as a child I slipped running across the yard. That I never broke my neck is a wonder.”

He can imagine it. Arya, smaller even than she was when they met, sprinting on tiny legs through a castle’s slushy yard only to have her feet fly out from under her with a squeal. She’d have been in a dress, likely, still beholden to the desires of her mother, and gone down in a tangle of flailing legs and arms and fabric. He smirks and asks, “And why would a young lovely girl run when she knew it wasn’t safe to do so?”

Her response is a guileless look, a simper so sweet and innocent that butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. “Sometimes my septa didn’t notice me sneaking out of my needling lessons. Sometimes she did.” He laughs and she smiles, seeming delighted in his amusement. “Septa Mordane was spritely for an old lady! If I didn’t run she’d catch me and march me back to my lessons, sighing the whole time. It was much more fun to join the boys in the training yard and watch them practice archery.”

He heaves his own sigh of playful disdain. “At least I can content myself with the knowledge that you have vexed all your teachers so.”

She snorts. “I never tried to vex you,” she says reasonably. “You’re just easily vexed.”

He blinks at her. Nods, as if in agreement. Clears his throat and takes on an expression of deep thought.

“Hiding your Needle after a man explicitly told you to dispose of your belongings,” he begins, tone conversational, and lifts a finger. “Ignoring a bought contract for a thin man’s life despite ample opportunity to complete it.” He ticks off another finger. Realizing his intention, Arya grimaces. “Trant,” he continues, giving no further explanation for this because none is required, and sending her a droll look as he ticks off a third finger. “Taking advantage of a man’s affection for his student to lie to him about completing the task of losing her maidenhead.” At this she opens her mouth to speak and he cocks his head at her as if daring her to argue, raising an eyebrow and a fourth finger at the same time. “Continuous inability to get along with her fellow acolytes.” She winces, nodding along slightly as he goes, thumb joining the lifted fingers. “Ignoring a bought contract for a mummer’s life despite ample opportunity to complete it, leaving the service of the temple without warning, killing a man’s sister, taking masks from the Hall of Faces, and threatening me before absconding back to Westeros using funds stolen from the coffers of the House.”

By the time he is finished all ten of his fingers are splayed and he looks at them in mock astonishment, as if surprised at the number. He turns that look to her and waggles his fingers, eyes wide.

“I did do all of that, didn’t I?” she says, biting her lip against a guilty smile.

“And more,” he assures, “but if I took off my boots and socks to count on my toes as well I might lose them to the cold, and a man thinks he has proven his point.”

“He has,” she tells him, “no need to lose toes on my account.” She considers the number of her transgressions, wincing again to herself. “How did you not strangle me?”

His voice is deadpan, his face blank. “A temptation regularly fought.” She hides a giggle in her sleeve.

It is easier to speak of such things now. Still painful, at times, but easier. Difficult, to disprove of her clinging to Arya Stark during her training to become no one when he finds himself so entranced by Arya Stark now. And so too does he better understand the want of selfhood, the familiarity of a name and a personality all to one’s own. Being no one was easier at times, because no one could be anyone and no one required no responsibility and came with no expectations, but as time has passed he has found that he prefers being Jaqen H’ghar. Unlike her, he had no identity to cling to when he came to the House; he was an empty vessel waiting to be filled. It was easy for him to give up what very little he had in service.

A thought he has had, occasionally: good that he was exiled, for having known the indulgences of true preference and true like and dislike and true choice when choice made available, he does not think he could return to being no one. Jaqen H’ghar is rooted inside him, and the seeds of selfhood were planted by a most lovely girl. Foolish, then, to think this and still find irritation in her disobedience during her training.

The matter of his sister… this hurts him still.

The little Master was not his friend, for he had no friends amongst his siblings, but she was one of the few in the House who did not often take contract and therefore her presence within its walls was much more common. The masks sat poorly on her countenance, as happens occasionally with the unpredictability of magic, though her dedication to Him of Many Faces was paramount. Her talents were more suited to potions and poisons, to the maintenance of the masks and the upkeep of living flesh when Masters or acolytes were injured in their service. All the Masters, himself included, tended to default to a persona at rest, though it was easy for them to shed these personas to adopt another as needed. Preference, choice when choice made available; his handsome brother was sardonic and crude, his stern brother was stern, the lordling pompous and himself mischievous and sly. The tiny sister Arya called the Waif was most often sharp, cutting, and as poisonous as her craft. Before his lovely girl had come into the House and teaching her took up his attention, he and his sister would often trade barbs across the dining table, to the mixed amusement and disdain of their siblings.

She was older than him, though not by much and this belied by her diminutive stature, and the two of them had entered custody of the House within a small handful of years of each other. They did not share a Master but were apprentices together nonetheless; when it became clear she lacked the blade skills of the other acolytes, he proposed to train with her in exchange for her tutoring him in poisons, a skill he has always found himself lacking in, and in so doing learned his own preference for the staff. As they grew, he began to take more contracts and she dealt with matters of tonics and poisons. When he was injured she would stitch him, when he was bruised she would give him a salve. Often when he sought her medicine she would greet him with an impressively violent eye roll and he would laugh and applaud her for how sincere she had made the false emotion seem. After becoming a man and losing the innocence of flesh, she had requested his assistance in her own education on the matter and he obligingly showed her what he had learned, sharing lessons in this as they had shared lessons in weaponry. It allowed her to shed her own perceived innocence, and he to put to practice the knowledge of pleasure he'd been taught. It was not uncommon for acolytes to lay together to achieve this end; he had simply not considered his sister for it originally because he’d wanted to learn from someone with experience themselves.

He had asked for her help in training his own apprentice, believing that introducing companionship and competition both in the form of someone Arya perceived to be of similar age and gender to herself would benefit the girl, surrounded as she was in the House by male apprentices often older than she. He’d hoped that his sister’s influence would put her at ease, and that at ease she would learn better. He’d hoped that their similar viciousnesses would temper each other, that his sister’s biting countenance would appeal to Arya’s own acerbic wit. Clearly he’d misjudged.

Their interactions did not go as he’d intended. His lovely girl was a jar of wildfire and his sister a flame. Arya he can understand; she did not have the control of a Master, was untrained and untried. He made a mistake. His sister, though. At times he wonders on her lack of restraint. The Waif egged Arya on, provoked her far more than was justified in the name of training, far more than no one should have. Perhaps his sister was not so much of no one as she seemed. Perhaps Arya has a singular ability to assign selfhood to the selfless, amplifying within the tiny Master those preferences and likes and dislikes and choices when choice made available the same way she had done to he himself.

 

He should not have placed them together. His sister hated his lovely girl in a way he had not anticipated, a way no one should not hate. Arya’s betrayal of the House was inevitable; he has made his peace with that. She could not become no one, regardless of the mummer and his own sister’s negative influence to her learning. All of the Masters had seen it save him, watching as they had through his favored face as they too played at being Jaqen H’ghar to test the girl. He does not blame her. Arya Stark is too much to expect anyone, himself included, to give up. But his sister certainly did nothing to slow her decision to leave, delighted in the opportunity to give chase to the runaway acolyte. He should have gone after Arya himself, as was his duty as her Master to take responsibility for her. But his sister wanted to kill her and he did not.

Why, though? Why the disdain in the tiny Master? He doesn’t know. Supposes that, at this point, he never will.

It worked out, in the end. He would not trade Jaqen H’ghar for no one, and neither would he trade Arya Stark either. She lives, she triumphs; the Wolf of Dawn, the Nightsbane. The best outcome for his student that he could have hoped for. She flourishes. Grows. And so too does he grow with her, the teacher become student himself as she teaches him to reclaim the concept of self.

He does wish his sister did not have to die for it to happen. He wishes that Arya had not cut off her face in mockery, the snarling vengeance of a feral wolf finally untethered from the leash of the Order. But it is over and done, and for all his wishes he cannot change the past.

Arya is quiet during his musing of this, though the quiet between them is calm. Snow crunches beneath the hooves of their horses; it is nearing midday, and he knows she will want to stop soon to eat and stretch. Her hips and lower spine have been paining her, added weight of the babe exacerbated by constant riding and the cold and sleeping upon the hard ground. In the last few days he has taken to showing her the meditative stretches of YiTi, a practice she didn’t have much care for as an apprentice but now joins him in with little argument. Her favorites are the Naathi butterfly, which works the thighs and hips, and the Westerosi warrior, which often pops her knees and back. When he’d done the two-foot staff pose she’d gaped at him in astonishment most gratifyingly.

After a few minutes of silent travel, he reminds her, “Your turn, lovely girl.”

She thinks, eyes lifted up to the sky; it is gray and overcast, as it always is now, and growing darker with the promise of snow. Gods above but he would kill for a tent. They create shelter as they’re able, hanging blankets and furs over tree branches and huddling beneath the overhang, but it is difficult to dry those snow-dampened fabrics come morning. Most often they simply begin scouting for a hollow in a hill or a small cave or some such a few hours before the sun starts to set, settling in whatever they find and sacrificing time on the road for the assured safety of shelter. Luckily the terrain of the Riverlands obliges, the land pockmarked by such natural occurrences. Better to lose an hour of travel than to freeze in the night because the blanket they’d used as cover ripped down the middle and dumped half a foot of snow on them.

“Bugs,” she says finally.

He sends her a look of surprise. “Bugs,” he repeats in disbelief.

“Bugs!” She bounces excitedly in her saddle at the thought, and her dappled mare snorts and flicks its tail but otherwise doesn’t react. “Beetles, earthworms, crickets. After Harrenhal and before the Brotherhood found us, Hot Pie and Gendry and I were on the run and survived by eating bugs. Well, I did, Gendry refused and Hot Pie got sick the one time he tried and it came back up. They’re not so bad, bugs, once you get used to them. You just have to swallow without chewing, ‘cause the legs will get stuck in your teeth.” His horror is palpable and, he is certain, absolutely visible in his expression. He does not bother to check it and when she sees it her shoulders draw up and her chin juts out. “What?” she asks defensively.

“You ate bugs?

She shrugs, unrepentant. “Sometimes we ate acorn paste too, but the bugs tasted better.”

He should not be so derisive, Many-Faced God knows he has had to eat questionable meals. But his questionable meals have been in service: unborn puppy on a stick in the slave pits of Astapor, waiting to get close to a particularly hated master; jellied lamb’s brains in Lhazareen, celebrating a successful raid with a khalasar while simultaneously poisoning their khal; a broth made from boiling the baculum of an ape as part of a fertility ritual in the Summer Isles before killing the madam of an esteemed brothel. Rare in his life have the times been that he’s been required to forage for survival, his specialty as an assassin being better designed to hunting more aristocratic game. The contract he’d been on at the time of their meeting was one of the few that had required squalor of him, and even in that job he was fed and watered adequately enough for survival by the wandering crow.

Knowing what he knows now, he does not regret not taking her to her family, to Riverrun. At the time it had simply been a matter of inconvenience, which he knows to be a sore subject with her, but with the knowledge of hindsight be cannot feel bad for making the decision he’d made. If he had taken her, she would have adored him as her savior right up to the point when either her mother had married her off to the Freys for a bridge, or the family of the Twins had taken her hostage at her uncle’s wedding. He does not regret not forcing her to come with him, for if he’d have tied her up and dragged her back to Braavos behind him she would detest him for the rest of her days even if she’d found sanctuary and education in the art of killing within the House earlier. He had little to give her, when he left her behind after helping her escape Harrenhal; no food, no horse, no weapons he himself did not also need. What he did have he gave willingly: an iron coin of great value, and none of it monetary.

Acknowledgement that he had done what little he could given the circumstance does not stop him from feeling somewhat guilty with the knowledge that after he’d left her in Harrenhal she’d been hungry enough to root for bugs.

“Stop that,” she commands, stirring him from his unhappy thoughts.

“What?” he asks. He smooths his expression, banishes the sadness from his eyes and the tightness from the corners of his lips. Rule your face, his Master admonishes in his head, the old man’s voice sounding far more surly than the kindly tone he’d taken with Arya.

That, ” she clarifies without much clarification, gesturing vaguely at his face. “You look like Nymeria when she was a puppy and I wouldn’t give her table scraps. Big, stupid sad eyes.”

“A man’s eyes are not stupid,” he says, affronted. She rolls her own at him.

“Big and stupid and blue,” she insists. Then she squints at him thoughtfully. “What is your natural eye color?” He shrugs. It has been many years since he’d last looked in a mirror wearing his own face. She shrugs as well. “I’m going to pretend they’re blue, then. I like blue eyes. Anyway, bugs aren’t that bad. The worms were worse because they were a little gushy, but once you bully your tummy into submission they’re easy to eat. Better than being hungry all the time .”

At this she bends backwards at the waist slightly to reach within her saddlebag and pull out some of her dried meat. The bread her fat friend had given her is long gone, and all that remains are crumbs of honey-flavored oat at the bottom of her pack that she occasionally digs around to find. She tears at the thin hard meat with her mouth, looking very much like a wolf scavenging an old kill, and chews with a grimace. “Great,” she says, sounding despondent. “Now I’m having a craving for earthworms. Oh, and blackberry curd. Together, maybe, in a trencher. With some of that fish stew from the inn.”

His face screws up again before he can help it, becoming more and more distraught with each word she speaks, and again she huffs when she sees it. “Don’t judge me! I have cravings for lots of stuff. It’s this useless parasite that wants the weird things, not me.” Quieter, in a grumble, “Bloody winter, used to be you could just kick over a rock and find a nice worm…”

“A girl has not mentioned these cravings before,” he points out, intrigued despite his disgust. The desire of odd food is a symptom of pregnancy, he knows, but to this point Arya hasn’t spoken much on what she wants to eat, simply that she needs to eat something .

“Talking about food when we don’t have any makes me sad,” she says, sighing, and then promptly contradicts herself by cheerfully talking about food. “Most of the time I want garlic. Just whole bulbs of garlic, I’d eat it like an apple. That’s the simplest one.” Her face takes on a dreamy quality as she speaks, eyes unfocusing even while she chews on the flavorless dried meat. “Cheese fried in pork fat. I’ve never tried it, but it sounds good and I want it. Umma’s clam chowder with diced lamprey and this white leek sauce with lamb I had in King’s Landing once as a girl. Stewed cabbage and mutton slow-cooked with chopped onion, gods .”

She continues, ticking off on her fingers as she goes much like he had earlier when listing her vexations. “Seared horseflesh with a thick orange glaze like they make in Pentosh; peaches from the Reach and heavy goat’s cream sweetened with honey; tomato slices and scallions and truffles and boar baked into a pie; roasted duck in mushroom sauce and spiced mulled wine served steaming. I saw a lizard-lion once and I have no idea what they taste like but I still desperately, desperately want to eat one. Venison and blood pudding with a biscuit to soak--” She cuts herself off when she looks back at him; he is laughing as silently as he is able, shoulders shaking with the effort of restraint. She flushes and turns away with a loud huff.

He laughs aloud, finally allowing his mirth to show, and once his chortling has gentled to a fond smile he sees that she is staring at him, flush still high on her cheeks. “Apologies,” he says, lifting his hands placatingly to assuage her embarrassment. “I admit, you think about food in far more detail than a man realized.”

“I’m pregnant,” she says with an imperious sniff. “Food is basically all I think about these days. Food and sleep."

“Well if I find a feast within the forest that serves any of these meals a girl desires I will be sure to point them out,” he tells her, chuckling again.

She opens to mouth to reply, some dry comment to cover her embarrassment if her expression is to be believed, when she startles abruptly, bending forward in the saddle with a wince and a hand upon her stomach. “Arya?” he questions, humor gone instantly in the face of worry, but she waves his concern away and straightens after a moment.

“Need to stop soon,” she admits. Though she has settled once more in her saddle her hand still lingers upon her middle and her eyes are still lightly pinched. “I need to, ah…” She trails off and grimaces at him meaningfully.

Ah, a privy stop. If she needed to make water she’d just say she had to piss. With her recent increase of appetite so too has her number of bowel movements increased, and they strike oftentimes violently and suddenly, and occasionally painfully. The midwife had warned the both of them that this too could be an effect of the pregnancy, and had encouraged them to keep track of sizes and consistencies to curtail possible dehydration. The first time he had, very reasonably he believes, asked her for these details because he is a good friend who is concerned for her health and comfort, she had uttered a wordless, irritated shriek that had caused his normally well-mannered horse to startle and buck. He does not ask anymore and trusts her to pay attention to her bowels herself.

His concern, he feels, is justified: her babe has still not quickened, though it grows larger in increments by the day, and at nearly four and a half moons she is, according to the midwife, far enough along that she should expect to feel movement within sometime between now and the coming weeks. Either that, the sour woman had told him, or she could likewise expect to find blood on her thighs. Miscarriage, he knows, comes often with cramping pain; understandable then that he worries when her stomach pains her, whether that pain ultimately be caused by hunger or aggravated bowels.

She does not seem to find his concern justifiable at all. When she realizes that he is still watching her guardedly, scanning her face for signs of discomfort, she narrows her eyes and bares her teeth at him, very much like a spitting cat. “You are such a hen ,” she accuses, then kicks her heels into her horse to spur the mare into a jog. His own obligingly gives chase without needing much cajoling.

At least this time she’s been given some warning. The morning before, they’d been on the road for less than an hour before she’d paled suddenly and vaulted from her saddle to sprint into the woods, hissing shit shit shit the entire way.

They find a good clearing at the base of a knoll, the rise of which looms above them and gently crests at a little less than a quarter-mile high. That and the trees to either side of them give them some small manner of protection from the light flurry of snow that has begun to fall, the flakes fat and soft. He ties the horses to one of these trees as Arya disappears into the woods to do her bodily business; no need to hobble the mares, they have yet to make a fuss about much of anything in the time since they’ve left the inn. He starts a fire, coaxing tiny flames from damp sticks with as little kindling as he can and an ample amount of cursing.

She reappears, stamping snow from her boots and huffing, by the time he has a pot of snow melting above the fire to replenish their waterskins with clean drink. The horses munch happily from their nosebags of groats. He eyes her; her cheeks are red with cold but she does not seem unnaturally pale from loss of blood, and neither does she seem necessarily upset. Rather she looks annoyed with his inspection. She is well; placated, he says with targeted cheer, “So… how’d it go?”

Her expression scrunches and her cheeks become even more red. “Shut up. I hate you. Shut up.”

“No you don’t,” he argues with some amusement, looking into the pot of snowmelt and drawing a twig from it before it becomes too hot to touch.

Arya sighs expansively. “No, I don’t,” she agrees, sounding as if she is bemoaning this fact. She rotates her shoulders and bends her back, stretching down to her feet. As usual, she can at first reach her knees but not her toes, and after a moment removes her cloak and places it on the ground to use as padding and to free her range of movement as she takes the warrior’s stance, legs spread apart, arms stretched out in front and behind, shoulders straight. When she twists very lightly at her middle her back cracks audibly and she hisses in pained satisfaction. She holds the pose, rocking forwards and backwards slightly to stretch her thighs and calves.

He admires her form for a moment before suggesting, “Chin up. It engages the muscles of the neck and shoulders.” She lifts her chin obediently, raises an eyebrow at him. He hums thoughtfully, considering her proportions, the size of her growing belly. He goes through his mental catalogue of poses and tries to imagine which will be comfortable for her to hold without the added weight of her womb paining her. Nothing on her back, nothing that twists the middle. “You may benefit from the plank,” he says finally. “Maintain core muscles, strengthen your back.”

She thinks on this for a moment before switching sides, shifting which leg is bent beneath her and which is stretched out behind. “I don’t remember that one,” she says, apologetic. “Show me?”

Taking off his own cloak to use as a traction pad, he demonstrates the position. Even with the fur as a buffer the cold of the snow beneath him seeps into his fingers. Back straight, elbows rigid, legs stretched and knees locked. It would be easier to maintain if he were barefooted, but thankfully the leather of his boots is worn supple and soft, and though his toes are pinched the pressure is quite light. In his own meditation he can hold the plank for extended periods of time, though he finds little reason to do so after a minute has passed. With the pain in her lower back, perhaps strengthening the spine would alleviate some of her discomfort. He holds the pose for half a minute, long enough for her to study and for him to get his own enjoyment from the stretch.

She has not moved from her pose when he rises, is instead smirking at him very slightly. The smirk leaves quickly, there and gone, and her gaze becomes innocent when he narrows his eyes at her. “A girl seems distracted by something,” he murmurs, feeling strangely ill at ease. There was a weight to her look that he does not quite know how to place, almost mocking save that her countenance was not aggressive. Almost as if she were laughing at her own private joke, and this possibly at his expense. For the span of a breath he is unsure whether or not he should be offended, but then corrects himself brusquely. He cannot again make the mistake of believing she has ulterior motive for every interaction between them.

“Apologies,” she says with a smile. “I remember now, thank you.” She bites her lip for the briefest of moments and continues, “I just thought about another craving I’ve had recently.” When he raises her eyebrows and gestures for her to elaborate she just shakes her head, her expression smoothing all at once into the slight, placid frown that he knows to be her face at rest. He shakes his own head. Based off of their earlier conversation, if her craving is one that she does not wish to share, then it likely involves bugs again. He’s better off not knowing.

She shifts, lowering to the ground as he roots through their packs for food. When he emerges with some of the hardtack that she finds unfavorable and which therefore makes up the majority of his own diet, she has transitioned flawlessly into the plank, her back held at perfect slanting angle and palms flat against the ground, head raised. He nods appreciatively; clever girl, to have memorized the correct position from just a single brief observation. She holds it for a minute, longer than novices to the pose are typically able to do, before rising and moving into the Naathi butterfly. Her feet together, heels at her groin, knees pointed out and hands at her ankles. Her thighs make fluttering motions like the pose’s namesake, opening up her hips and pelvis and he watches, trying to determine if this will be safe for her to continue further into her pregnancy. Yes, he doesn’t see why not; if anything the motion would help loosen her for childbirth. Though he doubts he could convince her to do this during the early stages of her labor.

“See something you like?” she asks, drawing his attention. He blinks, lifts his eyes from her pelvis to her face; her eyebrow is quirked and that light, teasing smirk is back.

He nods. “You’ve taken to the poses well,” he says approvingly, “considering when I tried to get you to do them in Braavos, a girl flopped around the floor like a limp fish in protest.” She snorts a breath of laughter, shaking her head as if in disbelief.

“Torgo Nudho set sail for the aisle of Naath,” she says, apropos of nothing. Torgo Nudho; Grey Worm . The Dragon Queen’s Unsullied commander. “He took the remainder of his forces with him. His lover, Daenerys’ handmaiden, was Naathi. Cersei killed her.”

He thinks on this for a moment. Torgo Nudho was briefly Master of War, and advocated for the death of Jon Snow in retribution for the murder of Daenerys Targaryen. Good, then, that his lovely girl’s brother was not killed; good that Torgo Nudho’s lover came from Naath, of all possible places. “They will all die within the year,” he says assures her, tone appeasing, as he works through his own poses to stretch his muscles, sore as well from long days of riding and long nights of sleeping on the ground.

Arya stops her movements to stare at him. “What?”

He tilts his head at her, holds a high lunge for a handful of breaths before shifting into a seated compass. It pulls his hamstrings and thighs taut with delightful pain as he lifts his foot above his head; he had not stretched quite enough to do such a complex pose comfortably, but it is nice to know that his body can still manage it.

"The Naathi butterflies?” he questions as well, surprised. “A man knows he taught a girl this.” She does not seem to be listening now; instead she stares intently, brows furrowed and bottom lip between her teeth, at his form as if committing the sight to memory. Ah, no. Nip that in the bud immediately. “Not this pose, Arya,” he says sternly, switching the leg he has lifted. “Too advanced for you, and too much pressure on the pelvis. It will injure a pregnant girl, not open her as other, simpler positions will.” Poses like this he can teach her to hold in the months following her labor, when her body has recovered from it’s designed work, but even with his limited knowledge of the pregnant female form he cannot imagine the contortion of the compass to be safe.

She blinks, shaken from her thoughts, and nods quickly in assent. “Yes. What? Yes. Butterflies. Yes! The butterflies are poisonous.” Her brows draw in further, thoughtful. In admittance, as if surprised herself, “I’d forgotten about that.” He clicks his tongue at her in disappointment and she bristles defensively. “I had other things on my mind! A war, for starters. Wights. Two different mad queens. A brother suicidally in love with one of them. My sister seemingly determined to provoke Daenerys into burning her alive. Dragons , Jaqen. Literal fire-breathing ones. I think I can be forgiven about forgetting some bloody poisonous butterflies on an island I will never go to.” She moves, maneuvering herself into cat’s pose. Her dark hair, fishtailed by his hands once more, slides over her shoulder and hangs in front of her face. He considers the curve of her spine, imagines how she will carry as she grows; maintaining the cat position will be difficult, perhaps painful, the further along her pregnancy goes.

“The butterflies themselves are not poisonous,” he reminds her as he transitions from his more advanced pose to the cat’s himself. “They simply carry the plague. It has been several months, yes? The majority of the Unsullied are likely already dead, and those who are not will die soon. The plague is incurable, so far as this man knows; and this man knows a lot. This Grey Worm will trouble a girl’s family no more.”

When he glances up at her after a few moments, he sees that she has moved from the cat pose to the cow’s and his eyes widen. On her hands and knees, her back curved in a perfect bend, her pelvis and rear raised-- he swallows and looks away. Shit. Innocuous! Fool man, sex-crazed ; he had taught her these positions himself. And yet. If she tucked in her elbows, lowered her chest, kept her rump in the air…

It is easy, to imagine his hands upon her hips, palms covering the firm shape of her bottom, easy to imagine holding her in place as he pushes into her from behind, taking the warm wet hole raised so sweetly in offering. Easy to imagine her soft gasps of pleasure, how she would brace to press back against him, the restless way her thighs would flex and tremble under his own. His hand between her shoulderblades, directing the angle of her spine, showing her where to bend to better take him as deeply as she can. The eager squeeze of her feminine muscles around his manhood. The sway of her swollen breasts beneath her, nipples tight and sensitive between his fingers. His name, his name , sighed like ecstacy from her lips.

Easy to imagine. Too easy.

It seems he is not immune to his own cravings.

“We are done with the meditation for the day,” he says with sharp abruptness, rising and drawing his cloak from the ground to shake the dirt from it. Arya’s eyes, previously unfocused in thought, snap back onto him in curious surprise. He tries to keep the storm from his face, the arousal from the set of his lips, but she must see some hint of upset still in him for her own eyes widen and her mouth parts very slightly. Then her expression becomes almost pleased for a moment before settling into neutrality once more and she rises as well, arms lifted briefly above her head to stretch her shoulders before she picks up her own cloak. He huffs; a pleased expression. If she’d wanted to stop the stretches before now she should have, no need to wait for him to call the practice done.

The water has begun simmering, the fire not quite hot enough to bring it to boil, but it will be clean enough for safe consumption; he removes the pot and sets it to the side to cool for transference to the waterskins. Arya dons her cloak and sits once more, the cheer on her face from earlier gone in favor of a mild frown. Not necessarily displeasure; her thinking face. He rises, moves to his horse to dig within the saddlebags, not looking for anything specific but requiring a small amount of time to quiet the spike of lust that has caused his blood to hum within his veins.

These moments have come with distressing frequency and are spurred by mundane happenings: if she is seated and looks up at his standing form he imagines instead her kneeling before him, mouth open, lips and tongue moving across his hardened length; if she sighs contentedly in her sleep while he is curled against her back he imagines instead the whimpers and moans he would pull from her as he slid into her from behind; during her fits of irrational irritation where she is glaring and growling at him he imagines instead her riding him forcefully, taking her pleasure from his body as retribution for whatever perceived slight has upset her.

The God has shown him some small favor at least in the midst of this madness of flesh; only once has he dreamt of her since leaving the inn, and this dream short and not stirring him to action in his sleep. He is certain she did not notice, for what had woken him from it was Arya herself, snorting and twitching and snuffling in the thrall of a wolfdream, her legs kicking and arms twitching as if to mime a four-legged lope.

Returning from his aimless perusal of the saddlebags, he sees Arya still staring contemplatively into the distance. She glances up at him and favors him with a slight smile when he hands her some of her dried meat. "I didn't know Torgo Nudho well," she says as he sits once more, apparently returning to their earlier conversation. "Truthfully I didn't know any of the Dragon Queen's contingent well. I stood in on the war council meetings but I mostly observed. My teachings were more focused on one-on-one close combat than cavalry formations and infantry, as you know." He nods; assassins are not knights, and they do best in the shadows of corridors, not the open fields of war. "But I watched. I listened. They were all utterly loyal to her. The Dothraki so much as the Dothraki can be, but the Unsullied breathed for her."

She shifts, settles a hand unconsciously upon her stomach. Guilt stabs into him, cools his ardor further; lustful fool, to pine for her when she is so compromised. Deplorable man. She would hate him if she knew. "They called her mhysa ," she says, voice quiet.

Mhysa . Mother. He knows, having learned this upon returning back to Braavos. His knowledge of the later stages of the war in Westeros is minimal and comprised mostly of what he has gleaned from Arya herself due to his forced isolation after she'd left the Order, but he was still a Master of the House during the Dragon Queen's reign in Slaver's Bay. Mother, the freed slaves had chanted as if in hymn, they say.

"When Cersei killed Missandei of Naath, Daenerys' handmaiden and Torgo Nudho's lover, she was given a last word." Arya smiles, humorless, and turns her eyes from the middle distance and onto him once more. "And she told Daenerys, dracarys ."

He nods, following her meaning, a weight settling in his chest. "And the dragon forgot that she was first a mother."

"How different do you think the world would be?" she asks, swallowing and turning the jerked meat over in her hands. "If Missandei of Naath had shouted for mother instead of fire . For mercy, instead of destruction. Perhaps King's Landing would not have burnt. Perhaps Jon would not have had to kill Daenerys. But Missandei of Naath didn't care about what came of the world after she was gone. Missandei of Naath wanted fire. And so instead of a mother to protect and nurture them, fire is what King's Landing got." Finally she lifts the meat, takes a savage bite, and then growls, "I do not know if Missandei deserved to die, but she deserves something . Whatever form the spirit takes when the Many-Faced God reaps the flesh, I hope hers agonizes to know all that she had damned." A violent truth, spoken through bared teeth: "I am glad Torgo Nudho will die, and I am glad her Naath is what will kill him."

They sit, her tearing into her meal and him considering this. It means little to him, truthfully. What is done is done and Arya lives. That is all that matters. But her… it must pain her, a sympathetic pain, for her brother loved the Dragon Queen and she loves her brother. Jon Snow exiled for killing Daenerys, a punishment less than what the Grey Worm had called for, and killing Daenerys for setting fire to the city after Missandei of Naath had cried dracarys . When a Targaryen is born the gods flip a coin. And on Daenerys' coin, one face was a mother and the other a dragon.

He glances up, looks at Arya.

Does she believe her own coin is sided by a mother and a wolf? That she must fall to one side only, and damn what is on the other side's face?

As if in poetic response, the thought guided by divine intelligence, the wind shifts and, abruptly, their mild-mannered horses begin to stomp and yank at their tethers. Both he and Arya look at them in surprise, pulled from their respective thoughts. His dun rears, throwing its head frantically; the mare's eyes are wild, its ears pinned back. A song drifts over the knoll. No, not a song. A howl.

Another howl joins it after a moment, and then another, and then another. Within seconds an eerie chorus of primal fervor rises around them. He stands quickly, draws his shortsword and curses the fact that Arya's bow is on her horse for he does not think he could calm the mare enough to get it without risking being kicked. He looks around them, spinning to see; with the world white and brown with snow and leafless trees the wolves will be relatively easy to see from a distance.

Movement, at the corner of his eye: at the rise of the knoll, imposed against the sky, are the silhouettes of a handful of wolves and, amongst them inexplicably, a horse. A destrier, based on the size, standing at least ten and six hands at the withers and shockingly unafraid of the predators surrounding it considering the loud and violent panic of their own two mares. The destrier tosses its head back and-- howls. The sound reverberates in his chest, his lungs. Louder and deeper than the other howls. Not a horse. A wolf. A massive wolf.

He drags his attention away from the beast with difficulty to look at Arya. Her eyes have rolled back into her head, the color gone from them and leaving only white. He thinks for a wild moment that she is seizing, but her body is still and calm and her expression is lax. Her dappled mare bugles in fear and the wolves sound off their howls again as if in answer, a furious dirge of hunger. Arya twitches minutely. There is more noise than the wolves that he can see at the top of the knoll justifies, even factoring in echo; this is only a portion of them, and somewhere close by is the rest of the pack.

The mares squall and the smaller wolves pace in response, but the large one remains still, as if considering the scene before it. From this distance he can make out little detail beyond size, but the massive beast does not seem as agitated as its littler fellows.

Finally, and without much indication as to why, the great wolf turns and disappears beyond the rise of the knoll, crossing to the other side of it and away from them. The smaller wolves follow after a moment or so, and within seconds all of them have vanished from sight. The howls die down, their last echoes fading from the woods around them, but he keeps his shortsword out and stays at ready, not trusting such a large pack of predators to so simply leave behind easy prey.

"It's alright," Arya speaks up suddenly, her voice quiet; it startles him nonetheless and he jumps before turning towards her once more. Unlike himself and the horses she doesn't seem afraid at all and is not even looking at him. Her eyes remain fixed at the top of the knoll where the wolves had stood. "I told her that her cousins were scaring the horses." Her lips lift in a smile, distant and vague as if she was pulled abruptly from a dream and wishes to return to it. "She thinks that horses are just ugly, fat deer that are stupid enough to let people ride them."

"Nymeria, then?" he asks with far more calm than he feels. His blood is still pumping, his heart still pounding: even from a distance there was such a wild presence, such overwhelming ferality. Most primal magic encased in most vicious flesh. He has no doubt that the massive beast could have bounded it's way down the knoll to tear them apart before they could do much to react. It can only be his girl's direwolf, for no mundane creature could grow so large and there are none but Arya's South of the Wall.

"Nymeria," she confirms, her smile becoming more focused, and she shakes her head as if pushing away drowsiness. She turns that smile on him and then laughs, eyebrows raised. "You look as though you've seen a ghost!"

Not a ghost, but a direwolf; it is one thing to know the beast which acts as sigil for her house is large, another thing entirely to see it. How had any of her siblings perished, if all the Stark children had such monsters watching over them? And yet he knows her Nymeria and her brother Jon's to be the only surviving ones of their litter. Even from such a distance he could see the tremendous size, for natural wolves are by no means small but the direwolf had made her cousins seem like more pups in comparison. He has no doubt that Arya could easily ride her, if the beast would consent to be saddled.

"A Stark girl is safe from the hunger of a direwolf," he says, his heart finally beginning to calm. "I doubt a H'ghar would fare so well, if your wolf's pack thought to try for a taste." He sheaths his sword and runs a hand through his hair.

Men he can handle, men are easy. He knows how to manipulate a man, knows how to turn a poor conversation to his benefit; and if that poor conversation cannot be easily salvaged then at the very least it usually can be easily ended with a knife. He has never tried to talk his way out of conflict with a wolf, but he cannot imagine it would end very favorably. Nor has he had much reason in his chosen trade to grapple with one, though he knows intellectually the points of anatomy to exploit if he were forced. All the wolves he has been pressed to interact with in the past have scattered easily enough when threatened, the packs of threes and fours chased off to find easier game than a man with fire and a sword. But this pack he knows to total closer to the dozens, and all of these accustomed to eating manflesh which came before them in plentiful droves during the War of Five Kings.

Neither does he think he could fell a direwolf on his own; at least, not without significant injury. A creature that large, with a coat that thick and muscle that dense, would be difficult for him to wound enough to be fatal before it closed distance to tear out his throat.

Arya, when he looks back to her, is still smiling with slight bemusement. "You look how I felt when I first saw the dragons at Winterfell," she admits.

Assassins are not knights. The two of them, their specialty lies in the quiet kill, the subterfuge. The knife in the dark, the shadow unseen. They are predators of man and more suited to an urban hunt. He does not feel embarrassed or ashamed to be cautious a creature born from such raw wildness as a direwolf.

"She's not going to hurt you," Arya insists with a laugh, directly contradicting the turn of his thoughts. "You're mine, my pack. She won't hurt my pack. She respects that sort of thing."

He scoffs at the surety in her voice, finally attending to the horses. They are still spooked and the both of them dance nervously, shying away from him as he approaches. He makes soft soothing noises until his dun begins to settle, its sides still heaving with panicked breaths but calming at his voice; the mare has taken to him quickly, nosing and lipping at his hands for attention when he tacks it in the morning and not subsiding until he finally gives its snout a thorough rub. Arya's mare, whom she has named Dark Sister but whom she actually calls Spot for the dappling of her coat, takes more effort to convince to relax, and lifts its head up and away from his outstretched hand, eyes rolling. He persists until both mares have calmed enough to stop tugging at their tethers and bucking in place. "And what makes you so sure about that?" he asks finally, glancing at her over his shoulder.

She's still watching him with a look of something that approaches soft amusement. When she gives it, her answer is short, simple, and offered with a shrug as if it is the most obvious thing in the world: "Because she is the mirror of me."

He reads her face and determines that this is true. But truth, he knows, is subjective . Just because she believes it does not mean it is so. Still, he nods as if in acceptance of this, and silently determines that he will do everything possible to not provoke her wild, massive beast.

"Eat," he bids after a moment. "Our waterskins are filled and we have stretched, and soon a man and a girl must continue their travel."

She sighs and goes back to her dried meat, chewing despondently and surely imagining one of her more elaborate meals; he and the horses, prey to wolves in a way that she is not, listen with wary attention for the return of her mirror's somber song.

 


 

This, the soft and silent movements that nonetheless shake the world:

That night she is restless in a way that she has not been before.

Though tired, she seems unable to sleep, and unable to find a comfortable position in which to lay; therefore neither does he sleep and neither is he comfortable. Their normal routine, wherein he curls at her back and she places his hand upon her womb, lasts for all of ten minutes before she rolls to face him, burrowing into his chest. This they maintain for nearly an equal amount of time before he is shoved forcefully onto his back instead of his side and she tucks herself beneath his arm, head on his chest. This seems to do the trick, but half an hour later she rises with a growl to find a spot a distance away to release her bowels. When she returns, her hands frigid from being scrubbed with snow to clean them, she climbs on him, pushing the air from his chest with a grunt. She curls into him with all of her weight pressing against him, their legs tangled and her hair tickling his chin. Then she rises, paces for a while, and pushes him back onto his side to start the process over again. Any time that he attempts to rise as well, whether or not his intention is to assist her with… something , she growls angrily that she doesn't need him to help and he can just go to sleep. Which, of course, he can't, for the moment he begins to doze she will return and manhandle him into a new position that she will inevitably grow dissatisfied with.

Groggy, caught in a perpetual cloud of drowsiness and growing more irritable as time passes where she will neither allow him to sleep nor allow him to truly wake, he finally says after nearly three hours, "The next time a girl gets up she can find a different man to lay with."

Arya, having just settled at his side once more, pinches the soft skin of his navel. "You'll freeze and die," she says reasonably, as if reminding him of the chill. As though he needs reminder. The fire has burnt low, producing neither enough heat nor light for his tastes, but cannot be encouraged to grow without more kindling; each time Arya rises to pace or make waste and whatever position she's bullied them into is disrupted once more, cold air engulfs him, rushing against his body from where the blankets have lifted and she has left.

"If I die, it will be in my sleep, which means I will have been sleeping at all, and therefore death will be worth it," he grumbles, yawning at the end.

Arya seems to consider this thoughtfully for a moment; she is much more awake than he is. " Valar morghulis , I suppose," she says finally and with a little shrug. He snorts and she huffs a chuckle in response. Then she hisses out a wince and pulls away once more to rise and pace, and he resigns himself to freezing and dying.

She trudges off once more to find herself a makeshift privy, and while she is gone he finally stands and stretches, blinking the bitter cold from his dry eyes and arranges more wood onto the fire, poking the embers to make the heat within flare. He's unsure what ails her, if it is just soreness of the joints or watery bowels, but he hopes that some of the tea given to them by the midwife will soothe whatever is causing her grief. They have used the dried leaves sparingly, for unlike food which can be supplemented by hunting, the horse's oats, or (if ever they grow incredibly desperate) boiled tree bark, the ingredients to the tea cannot be replenished until late spring at th earliest. The one made from shavings of ginger seems to calm her irritated stomach the most, and after coaxing the fire to produce more heat he sets a pot of their snowmelt to simmer to make her a cup. This done, he sits in front of the fire with his eyes closed and enjoys a minute or so of drowsy peace.

Later, he will chastise himself for his inattention, but whether the beast's approach escapes his notice because she moves so quietly or because he is that distracted by sleep he does not know; there is the soft crunch of something weighty hitting the snow close by, and then a moment later hot air hits the back of his head in a rush, stirring strands of his hair and causing his skin to immediately erupt into gooseflesh. As it wafts around to his front it carries the smell of copper and death.

He freezes, adrenaline spiking through his blood and washing the exhaustion from him all at once. His shortsword is at his pack, which is unusual for him but for the fact that Arya had them tossing and turning so much that the weapon simply became too cumbersome to wear to sleep. There is a knife at his thigh, and another in his boot, but he does not know if he could be quick enough to draw either before the beast struck, and the only fatal blow he could deliver with so small a blade would be through the eye and even that not guaranteed. Now that he is aware of her presence he can hear the quiet noise of her breathing, the way the lungs inflate like a bellow as she inhales; the next exhale again causes his hair to flutter.

You're mine, Arya said. She won't hurt my pack.

Animal instinct begs him not to turn, but turn he does nonetheless, and slowly.

Nymeria looms over him, her head lowered to sniff at his own. She is at least as tall as their mares, and likely bigger, her head alone the size of Arya's torso, swiveling ears as big as his own hands. Her nostrils flare as she scents; there is blood on her maw. The fire throws her fur into hues of orange and red, but her eyes are a sharp natural gold and they bore into his own with frightening intelligence. He does not speak, does not otherwise move, loathe to provoke her to break this fragile truce.

He needs Arya to come back, now.

The direwolf studies him, sniffs once more. She licks her muzzle, smearing blood. Then she peels back her lips, baring teeth the size of kitchen knives, and growls. The sound is low in her throat, vibrates in his blood like the strum of a bard's sitar, causes the hair on his arms and the back of his neck to stiffen and rise like he is little more than an animal himself. It is violent, full of deadly promise, as though the wolf is speaking to him and saying you are a predator of man but I am a predator of everything.

There is, more than the violence, more than the threat, recognition in the beast's eyes.

She is the mirror of me. Neither of them, girl nor wolf, could be tamed. Though he had tried unsuccessfully to bring the girl to heel.

A wolf does not understand kindness or cruelty for benefit only; a wolf misbehaves, a wolf is kicked, a wolf bites back, and does not think to consider the kick a punishment for actions it had taken.

And he wonders, when the wolf slept, did she dream of the girl? When her belly was full and she was warm and surrounded by her pack, did she close her eyes and open them again to be Arya, a starving girl jostled from one place to another with little control over her direction? Did she dream of the foggy streets of Braavos, of a Master who struck her with a staff? A girl reasons, a girl understands, but a wolf sees only a man who beats her, feels only the feelings of a girl desperate for approval and affection consistently denied both. Did Nymeria see the allowances he gave her girl? Did she see and understand how he allowed Arya Stark to survive when his duty had been to burn her out so no one could rise from her ashes? Does she see, more recently, the companionship, the understanding, the soft words spoken in the night?

No, he thinks, looking into Nymeria's cool golden eyes; or if she does, she does not care for these things. She cares only for remembered strikes and bruises, cares only for trust eroded and not it's slow rebuilding. A wolf reacts; a wolf hunts. A wolf kills.

The sound of Nymeria's threatening snarl breaks the silence of the night; whether the horses had slept through her approach or had simply frozen in fear he does not know, but at the noise they finally startle into reaction, and the dappled mare screams . A screaming horse is a terrible sound to hear, and within seconds Arya's voice shouts through the night, "Jaqen!?"

He does not answer. Nymeria drifts closer, her bared incisors a mere inch from the bridge of his nose. He does not move. He has dreams of direwolves tearing off the false face seared to him; could the wild and feral magic within the beast counter the magic of blood which binds the mask? Could she pull this face from him with her teeth, and what would it reveal? Can he be Jaqen H'ghar without it? He does not know. He does not breathe.

And suddenly, the direwolf turns away, as if believing some point to be made. She pivots and trots off in long, graceful strides back in the direction she had come, leaving tracks the size of dinner plates, and passing the carcass of a doe under which blood pools, visibly steaming in the cold air. This must have been the crunching of the snow that signaled her arrival, for the kill was surely not there a minute ago. Arya reappears, crashing through the snow back to the camp with her Needle drawn, just before the direwolf passes from the radius of light cast by the fire.

"Nymeria," Arya breathes in realization when she sees her; adoration in her voice, and beseechment too. "Wait. Please."

The wolf pauses for a brief moment, ears flicking and one paw still lifted in the air. Then she continues on her way without turning or looking back.

Finally he moves, facing Arya; the girl's expression is disappointed but unsurprised, and when she notices his attention she smiles a melancholy sort of smile. "She's not a tame wolf," she says with a little sigh, as if in explanation. This does not stop her from gazing sadly after where the wolf had vanished. He understands quite suddenly that there must be some disconnect between the girl and the wolf, some hurt which has not yet healed in a similar manner to how Nymeria does not seem to care for him, but apparently does not disdain him enough to do him violence without provocation.

The mirror of her, but a distortion in that mirror. On the side of the girl or the wolf?

Arya inspects the carcass of the doe while he collects himself; his heart still pounds, breathing coming sharp until he forcibly restrains it. Thinks again of those dreams of wolves tearing at his face. If the mask is stripped from him forcibly by the fangs of the wolf, does he stop being Jaqen H'ghar? Does he become no one again? Will all that he has built of himself, all he has learned, be ripped away in Nymeria's jaws?

He shakes his head and rises to calm the terrified horses once more.

The water is simmering by the time the task is complete, and he pours it into two cups and pinches some of the ginger shavings into each. Selfish, perhaps, to use some for his own benefit, but he could use some calming aid himself. Arya is using her catspaw dagger to butcher the doe, slicing off cuts of meat and rubbing them with snow to clean them. The kill is scraggly and thin, as most game is in winter, and has already been torn into, likely by Nymeria herself; some of the offal is missing, the liver and the heart. There is not much of use to them, but more than they'd had before. The camp stinks of blood and hot meat when Arya rises with a wince, bending over, a look of discomfort on her face. He hands her a cup of the tea, still steeping, and they switch places.

He works until he has settled, slicing the meat into thin stripes to make it easier and quicker to cook before throwing pieces into a pan on the fire. It will take a while to fry through given the low temperature of the fire.

"Hey, at least she brought us something," Arya says with mild cheer, though this warps slightly as she restrains another wince. Now that he has woken, his earlier irritation for her antics becomes concern and he narrows his eyes at her. When she sees the look she sighs. "Don't start your clucking," she warns, taking a sip from her tea though it cannot possibly have steeped enough to be of much use. "It doesn't hurt, I'm not in pain. It's just… weird. " She sets a hand upon her stomach, looking confused and annoyed. "Like hunger pangs, or the movement of bowels, but when I try to use the privy nothing comes." She must be more concerned than she lets on if she is sharing information of her waste, something she normally is too embarrassed to do.

He tilts his head at her, mind working. "Where?"

She lifts her shirt and his breath catches once more. Not for the immodesty, but because-- the scars . They're both pinched and stretched depending on where across her middle they fall, jagged lines of white lightning that contort the skin of her stomach. He has noticed her scratching at her middle occasionally and assumed it to be a normal itch, but seeing these now he guesses that she must be aggravated by the way the hard scar tissue is forcibly pulled taut across her rounded womb. How , he almost asks, save that he knows. His sister, the small Master she called the Waif.

He did this. Through proxy, he did this. If he had done his duty and hunted her himself rather than send his sister, he could have given her a clean wound, a quick and merciful death, given her a gift . This… this is violence, vengeance, fury , multiple stabs in an attack to the gut when a slit throat would suffice. Why?

Looking down at herself, she does not notice his horror. She sets a hand at the bottom of the swell of her womb, just above where the angle of her hips begin to meet her groin. "Here," she says, then winces again and her hand drifts across the round rise to the other side, close to the bend of her small intestine. "Here, too. It goes in fits and bursts and isn't always in the same spot. Like fluttering, almost."

That specific description draws his attention, pulls him away from the dark turn on his thoughts. Fluttering or bubbling , the midwife had told him.

Arya jumps slightly when he reaches forward to place the palm of his hand against the spot she'd indicated. The skin of her stomach is warm, noticeably tight from being stretched across her growing womb, and a hard, raised scar rests beneath the joint of his thumb. It is the first time he has touched her bared flesh here, though his hands know well the shape of her middle for she sleeps best when he holds her. He should have asked before touching, but--

"What the fuck are you doing?" she demands, though her voice is more curious than surly, and she does not slap him away or otherwise argue.

He cannot detect anything, but the midwife had said that even after quickening it may be difficult to feel from the outside until the babe has grown larger. "Can a girl not think of a reason to feel movement within?"

She frowns at him, placing her hands upon her hips. He retracts his own hand, though some quiet part of him wishes to keep it there, to move it around the span of her womb to see if maybe he could feel those flutterings of life. "Well I tried to shit and I can't, so…" She trails off when he raises an eyebrow at her meaningfully. "No," she breathes after a long moment, "no, it's not--" The denial doesn't seem angry, per say; merely confused, merely disbelieving. "It's-- it's supposed to kick, or something. Babes kick. Not… this." She puts both of her own hands on her stomach, holding the shape of it between her palms, her fingers. She opens her mouth to speak again and then interrupts herself with another flinch, the slightest tightening of the muscles of her face.

She sucks in a sharp breath; when she lifts her eyes away from her swelling stomach to meet his own, they are wide and wet and filled with an emotion he cannot put to one single name. Distress, pain. Fear and worry. And, perhaps, a very tentative sort of wonder. He anticipates the tears before they fall, and when her shoulders begin to shake he leans forward, pulls her into his lap and wraps his arms around her, shushes soft noises into her hair.

Neither of them sleep for a long time. He holds her as she weeps, though he is unsure what exactly she is weeping for and truthfully does not believe she knows herself. And throughout the night he sees golden eyes glinting at them through the darkness at the periphery of the firelight.

Though he may be imagining that.

Chapter Text

Something he does not know, which she is glad of, is that wolves are not great at giving courtship advice:

The girl joins her. She pauses, just barely, in her steps. Her cousins do not notice the lapse, eager as they are to start their chase. The girl is not as wild as she used to be, the connection between them not so pure or easily maintained. But the mirror of her hunts with her now, sharing her legs and paws, the breath in her lungs, the scent of game in her nose and the sharp teeth in her mouth. She misses running with the girl. Good, that she has joined the pack now. She can remind the girl what it is to be wild.

(What are we hunting, Nymeria? )

Oh girl of old blood, of Forest blood; she hunts with wolves now, not Man. And wolves hunt whatever they want.

When the girl sleeps and she pulls her from her dreams, the girl is her and things are not so much shared between them as experienced secondhand. But the girl is close now, away from walls and in the wild, and no longer distracted with the hunting of her own precious prey. It is easier to share with her when the girl slips into her mind while she wakes, and when they share a hunt so too can they share feelings. She guards some of herself from the girl, for the girl is returning to walls; she had been returning to walls the last time they'd found each other again and the girl had asked her to come with her. She will not go again into walls. She is wild, she is wild, she is wild. No walls could contain that wildness. How can the girl not know this?

But. She has concerns. Concerns she must express, for the girl’s safety and the safety of her litter. The girl has whelped and carries pups, and she does not trust the girl's mate, who stinks of blood. (What? What mate? Do you mean Jaqen?) The male-Man the girl travels with, who wears thin animal skin armor and has red-and-white fur. He had taught the girl to hunt, to stalk. Is he that much older, that his fur is turning white? (No, that's just-- well, yes he is older, but-- he's not my mate. I thought we were going to hunt, not gossip. What do you mean he smells like blood?)

There is a soft yip behind her, the scramble of stumbling paws in snow. She huffs and slows her pace. She forgets sometimes that these cousins cannot keep up with her longer legs. They are young, the pups of the cousins she'd found when she was first chased away by the girl (Oh Nymeria, I didn't chase you--) and they are not so strong as their parents were, her second pack. Manflesh was plentiful when they were whelped and now the Man have stopped fighting each other. When she first ran with her cousins they found the corpses of Man around every riverbend, down every road, hanging from every tree. The feasts they enjoyed! Live Man tasted best, before the blood thickened and the meat spoiled, but dead Man filled the belly just as well. Now she and her cousins-who-are-pups scavenge through the snow for their food, like the stupid deer and the scared rabbit do.

One male who is thinner than the rest falls behind even further and she slows again to barely more than a trot. She considers this little male as they go. His ribs are showing, his paws still large and ungainly on his legs. The last survivor of his litter, one of the last litters born after the Man bodies began to decline. He is small enough that if his mother had not died she would still be teaching him to hunt, likely even still regurgitating for him to feed on solids. Now he must run at her side to survive, and he cannot keep up. He will die himself, and soon. Many of her little cousins will die. It is hard to feed a pack of their size on the stupid ground prey alone; older cousins have already split off to form their own, smaller groups. They had howled in sadness to leave her, for beasts remember the old magic better than Man does and hers is the most oldest and wildest of magic, and she had keened her own mournful song at the parting, but if they had not left she would have had to eventually chase off the younger pups to keep the whole pack from starving. She would prefer to keep the pups, if she can. Many of them will die but they are still her pack.

If they kept going South to where the roads meet, they could find more Man. She smells them in their dens, the stink of mating and whelping, of drink and hearthfire. If they kept going, they could feed on the Man there, and then her little cousins would not die. (You can't, Nymeria. They're innocent people. You killed soldiers before, not smallfolk. That is not a good hunt. There are too many cousins in your pack, if it continues you will upset the population of game and then all will starve, man and beast alike. Valar morghulis, and wolves too.) The strange words of the girl mean little to her. Words in general do. She knows Nymeria because that is her, and she knows to me though she will no longer take command. She understands concepts, intent. Even when she and the girl converse it is not with words but rather with emotion, with scent, with the innate understanding of two halves of a single soul meeting. It makes disagreements between the two of them… difficult, to reconcile.

But she listens to the girl, the mirror of her. More cousins means more mouths to feed. The smaller ones will die and the stronger ones will survive. And when the season turns those stronger ones will stud and bitch and breed and whelp and their pups will be stronger, too, to replace the weak ones who died. It is nature, the circle upon which life turns. She will listen not because of words, but because of instinct and sense. Words are nothing, but scent and blood and actions and stones thrown mean things. The girl has bitched, and her mate stinks of blood.

(I told you, he's not my mate. You keep saying that. What do you mean by he stinks of it? )

She stops, sniffs. Her cousins halt at her heels, noses lifted to try to catch the scent that she's picked up. Deer! The pups slaver and one barks in excitement but she snaps her teeth at him until he stops. Do not scare the game! These young pups, these autumn whelps, bred into meals of Manflesh; they have not yet learned the quiet hunt, the silent stalk. The girl’s red-and-white mate makes a better hunter than they do, and she does not mean this kindly. She takes off again at a lope, bounding across the snow and through the forest after the scent. When her cousins follow they are silent, chastised.

His face stinks of blood, like it is smeared across his snout, like it fills his mouth. (His face…? Oh. The mask.) She approves. Bloody teeth means he catches prey, means he defends his kills. She does not like him though. He struck the girl, across the deep water the breadth of which even her powerful legs cannot swim. The girl was his pup until her blood ran and then she would have been his bitch, but he hit her with his metal claws and bruised her, tried to tame the wild from her. Words mean nothing to her, but the male-Man with the red-and-white fur told the girl she was no one and nothing and the girl was hurt by it, and the girl is the mirror of her: the mirror of a beast so deadly and magnificent as she cannot be no one or nothing . (It's not that simple.) But now they're mated. This she does not approve of, for mates should not bite each other except in play or to hold gently in place for successful mounting, but she admits that she remembers from the girl's memories that the red-and-white male was powerful and strong and clever, a good candidate to sire pups. She does not like the male, but she does not blame the girl for letting him mount her. Their litter will be quick and smart. (Mounting-- we're not mates! )

Except that he is afraid of her-- good that he fears, for she is fearsome and all Man are her prey save the girl, and soon the girl's pups, but he should fear nothing the girl does not fear. That is what it is to be mates, she thinks, to share a hunt and a catch, to share defensive fright, to share bites in play and to share the sunlight when it shines through the trees for a nap. That is what her little cousins do when they mate, anyway, except for the times the bitches run their blood and the mated pairs just fuck silly. (Nymeria! )

But the girl has bitched and whelped; as the male-Man stinks of blood, the girl stinks of motherment and the smell the body makes before the teats drip milk. Even female-Man have this scent when they whelp, though they are inferior to wolves, as most females of most species do and are. And besides scent, she knows the girl, knows the shape and shade of her; she carries pups. Is the male of red-and-white fur not the father of her litter? Did the girl's true mate die? The girl surely has not allowed herself to become so tame that she would not choose a strong male with sharp teeth to breed with; did her mate fall in battle, gored by a Man's metal antler? She growls as she runs, startling one of her little bitch cousins who trips over her paws with a soft yelp. She will find the Man who killed her girl's mate and rip out their throat! (He's also not my-- the father is fine, Nymeria. Better than fine. He's a bloody Lord now.) Oh. Good! She does not know what a Lord is for words mean nothing to her, but there is a connotation of importance to the feeling the girl shares. A pack leader, perhaps. But where? Why did the girl not stay with her pack? (His pack wasn't my pack. I left him. He… how do I make you understand? He wanted to… he tried to collar me? ) What! The mirror of her, collared? She will find this Man and rip out his throat, pack leader or no! (No! It's alright! I-- I hurt him enough. He didn't mean it to be cruel. He... this is complicated. He wanted to keep me, when he knew that I didn't want to be kept. He thought keeping me meant love? )

Ah. Like the girl thought keeping her meant love. She hurts to consider this, sometimes-- the girl loves her and she loves the girl but she is wild wild wild and she will not stay again behind walls.(Nymeria--)

She follows the tracks of the deer, finds them in a glade stripping the bark from trees. A herd! A male and three female, and one has whelped and it makes her fat and slow with deer-pup. Stupid prey to breed in winter; when her little cousins try to mount each other in the snow she bites at them until they part. The winter is too cold for pups off all shapes, wolf and deer and bird alike. When the air turns warmer, when she dreams of spring, then her cousins can fuck to birth their litters at the turn of the seasons.

Will the girl's pups survive the winter? Even the helpless pups her cousins birth are born with fur, squeaking and blind and toothless things they are. The Man-pups are born naked as if skinned and must be smothered in the pilfered fur of kills. A Man-pup should be birthed within walls. She is conflicted. She does not want her girl to go within walls, but she neither wants her girl's pups to shiver and die. She hates walls, hates them, for walls killed her grey brother. (Grey brother? ...Grey Wind? Walls didn't kill him, Nymeria, betrayal did.) But he was trapped by walls, and her gentle sister was killed by decisions made within walls, and her unnamed brother was killed inside the walls of a cave defending his boy's escape from them, and her angry brother was killed when his boy was lured from the wild and into walls, and her silent brother she cannot feel for he wanders beyond the great Wall! Walls destroyed her pack, walls killed her siblings, walls and Man! She hates them! She is wild, she is wild, she is wild! She will keep her girl, make her see, keep her wild like she is!

She leaps at the deer! She sinks her teeth into the buck, startling a baying scream from him as she uses her superior weight to pull him to the ground. His hooves kick at her and it hurts but the skin does not break, protected by her thick fur. Her cousins swarm the does, snap at their legs and tummies. They have less protection than she does; a little cousin is kicked in the throat by the doe carrying pups and he falls, wheezing around the crushed airway. After a few desperate attempts to rise he drowns in the blood pouring down his gullet and dripping from his mouth and nose.

She breaks the buck's neck with a hard toss of her head before barreling into another doe that her cousins have cornered, knocking the prey's hooved paws out from under her and leaving her soft belly and genitals free for her cousins to tear with their teeth. Two cousins have mounted the back of the pregnant doe, the fat prey too slow to escape, raking at her shoulders and face with sharp claws and holding themselves in place with their jaws. The third doe is more swift, no longer surprised by the attack and not swollen with pup, and bounds off into the forest. No loyalty in prey! She contemplates the pregnant doe, considers making her cousins let it flee as well; the girl is right, if they kill and eat all prey there will be no prey left to eat, and the deer-pup could be a doe who grows to bitch and make more deer-pups for her cousins to eat. But it is winter, and the doe is heavy. A deer-pup born in this cold would not survive anyway, and the womb will be filled with most nutritious blood.

Her cousins bring down the pregnant doe and kill it. They circle to let her eat the hearts and livers and tongues of the prey, as is her right as the largest and strongest of the pack, and only when she has consumed those do they move in to rip into the meat, carefully avoiding her biting jaws as she too eats her fill. The stronger cousins fight over the full womb of the pregnant doe, snarling and snapping and wrestling, though she watches them carefully to make sure they will do each other no lasting harm. The deer-pup is dragged out of the carcass and away by the winner of the scrap, tiny body steaming in the snow, and gorged upon.

Her girl enjoyed the hunt? (I did. I miss fighting. I miss blood. It felt good, to run and leap and bite again. The hearts tasted better than I expected them to.) Good. She will pull the girl from her dreams tonight and they can share a hunt again. It is easier, now that they are closer together. No great water separates them, no walls between them now, no wars of Man for the girl to fight to take her attention. The girl needs to remember that she is wild, too.

Fighting with her own body will come after she's birthed her pups. Bitches within her pack must pull their weight; they chase prey with milk still heavy in their teats. The girl can hunt again, one day. If the girl stays with her, the two of them can hunt together forever. (I can't, Nymeria. I have to go back home.) She… understands. Though she does not like it. Home to the girl now is walls, for man-pups need walls. When the girl's pups have grown their teeth, they can all join her in the wild. She will become home to the girl again. The girl is the mirror of her, and she is the mirror of the girl; a single soul shared between two bodies. They are their home, their pack. Her, the girl, and now the girl's pups. (There's only one babe, Nymeria. Humans don't have litters like wolves do. Not usually, anyway.) Truly? Is the girl sure? Well. Good. Less mouths. Female-Man have a disappointingly low number of teats. She has always wondered how they kept their litters fed, when the pups are not born with claws to push each other away from milk.

The skinny young cousin she had contemplated earlier is chased from the carcasses of first the buck and then the doe who had not whelped. She watches. (Can't you do something to help him? ) She snorts. The strong survive and the weak die. (The lone wolf dies but the pack survives. He's your pack, even if he's little.) She thinks on this for a moment before barking for his attention. The male, barely more than pup himself, trots over with his eyes turned down in respect. She sniffs him, then bares her teeth.

After a moment he wags his tail and begins to lick her jaws eagerly, cleaning the gore and meat from between her gums and her lips; once he has cleaned her, she regurgitates. Her little cousin eats the half-digested meal happily. (That's. Not really what I was expecting. Do you have pups, Nymeria? )

She snorts again, lays her face upon her paws and begins to lick the blood from the fur between her toes. The whole pack are her pups. She is their leader and their mother and their god.

But, her own litter? Nurtured of her womb and birthed of her body, fed by her milk? No. She has not yet whelped. She will take no mate who cannot prove he is her equal, who cannot hold his own against her in a fight. Her little cousins are too small to be equal to her, though they try for her attention; when her blood runs the larger males strut about with their knots showing like they expect her to do something about it. The stupid ones try to mount her without permission and she tears out their throats. She has thought, sometimes, to go North once more, to see if she could find a male of her own size to breed with. But the only males she has seen of her size are her brothers, which does not in and of itself bother her save that all her brothers are dead except the silent one, and he may as well be for the distance between them. Besides, her silent brother likes walls too much.

She does not like the male with red-and-white fur, but at the very least he and the girl are equals now. When the girl was small they were not, but she has grown and so have her teeth, and he seems to respect that. She watches them sometimes, through the girl's eyes. Their barking is companionable and they share meals, share the warmth of fire. Her cousins fear fire but she remembers it to be bright and warm and good to sleep near, and the red-and-white male makes the girl fire. He grooms the girl's fur and brings her food and when they sleep together it is close and with her beneath him, aligned as if they are knotted. Is the girl sure they are not mates? She should be wary if they are not, for he acts as though courting, and some males will kill the pups of other males to make room for their own seed. That is not a practice she tolerates in her pack, and her kind do not tend toward this sort of jealousy in general, but other animals are not so gentle to their offspring, and Man least of all.

(We're not mates! Gods. Not for lack of trying, though. He's usually so clever but when it comes to this apparently he's as dumb as a sack of bricks.) Oh? So the girl wishes for them to be mates but the male doesn't? Surprising, given his behavior. (I don't know. Gendry was easier. It was all over his face that he wanted to fuck me. Jaqen is harder to read. I've been flirting with him constantly and he doesn't seem to get it.) They act as mates do but have not mated. The girl has whelped so her blood won't run, the scent of her heat cannot enflame him. (Maybe he simply doesn't find me comely enough. I wouldn't blame him. Grumpy and pregnant. I'm as big as a cow and probably as good company as one.) Nonsense! The girl is the mirror of her, and she is the most magnificent and glorious creature of all. Impossible, that any male would think the mirrored reflection of her soul unseemly. (Thanks, I think.)

Have they wrestled, the tussle of bodies to show him her strength, to press the skin together, to exchange scents? (Yes. And then I mucked it up. He could just be playing at ignorant to spare my feelings, but as embarrassing as it'd be I'd rather him just tell me to stop if he's not interested. At least then I'd know.) No, if he did not want her on some level he would bite and snap to push her away when she curled against him to sleep. Hmm… has the girl tried lifting her tail and ass, to show him where he is supposed to go? Has he never mated before? She hasn't either, but at least she understands the mechanics of it from watching. (No, he has. Gods I cannot believe I am having this conversation with you. And I sort of… have done that? Ugh! I don't want to talk about this anymore.)

Has the girl rolled to show him how soft her stomach is, to show him the muscles of her thighs? Some males prefer the gentler females to the deadlier ones because they believe them more capable of whelping, though she personally thinks that is stupid. Clearly the girl is fertile, for she carries pups already. Her teats are not so big that they will get in the way of a hunt, but not so small as to be unnoticeable; she remembers when she was a pup and the very fat pack leader who made her gentle sister die came to visit the girl's father with all his stink and his wine, and the fat male-Man had a lot of opinions on the teats of female-Man. He liked to hold them, knead them in his paws, take them in his mouth as pups do. (When the hell did you see that? ) The girl could remove her furs and show the red-and-white male her nipples, show that they are of a good size for pups to give suck, let him try if he wished. (Nymeria, please stop.)

Perhaps he finds it distasteful to mount where another male has already knotted and planted seed? Some males will not spare attention to a female who has already been mounted. But some are the opposite and will share a bitch, taking turns at her until satisfied, which she herself watches carefully when this occurs amongst her cousins and allows only if the female being used does not seem distressed by the attention. (I don't want to hear about wolf orgies! ) But if he curls around the girl at night this is likely not the issue. The father's scent would already have been replaced with his own at this point. Perhaps he just genuinely does not know where he is supposed to put his cock? Maybe the girl needs to take him in hand and guide him. Sometimes the younger males have trouble aiming when they mount and tire themselves out before they even find the bitch's hole. If the girl puts him directly against her heat then surely he can figure out the rest on his own. Instinct, after that, to thrust and knot and spill. (Fuck me.) Yes, exactly! That's what they're trying to achieve.

Ah, but the issue at the heart of the matter seems to be lack of interest, or lack of confidence in the girl's own interest. The red-and-white male is a hunter, pitiful hunter though he is for he is a hunter of Man and Man is an exceptionally simple prey. The girl could bring him a kill as offering. Normally it is the male who courts the female, but the girl may have to put effort into it because she is pregnant and males tend to show disinterest in mounting pregnant bitches. Or, perhaps, he believes that the girl herself is uninterested because she has already whelped. Her cousins do not seem to think to mate except to breed for pups, but she understands that there is some pleasure involved in the act, so she can see why both the girl's male would think her apathetic to being fucked, and also why the girl would wish to be fucked.

The girl must show her interest explicitly. The red-and-white male taught her to hunt, he will appreciate the effort of tracking and taking down prey. The girl should bring him a fresh kill to show she is capable, stimulate her genitals to strengthen her scent, and then sit on his face. (Oh my gods.)

She huffs a growl. She is only trying to help! The sound startles the little male-pup cousin who was licking the snow around her regurge. He jumps and skitters back, tail tucked and ears low, supplicant though unsure of how he'd displeased her. She licks his nose to ease him and after a moment he wags once more, violently enough that his entire back end wiggles from the force of it, delighted to have the attention of the pack leader. (That's adorable.) Yes. She will be sad when he dies. She is sad when any of her cousins die. She contemplates the male who had been kicked in the throat by the pregnant doe. He lays at distance, his blood cooling on the ground. He was young too. All her pack is young now. Autumn pups born of summer matings. So many of them will die. So many of them have already left. What will she do, once her pack has gone? When all her cousins have left, like her siblings and the girl did, and she is all that remains?

There is a sensation in her gut, a phantom movement that she is confused by. The girl begins to pull away from her, back into her own body. She holds on tightly! Stay wild, stay with her! (I have to go, Nymeria. My bast-- my pup is moving and I am hungry; even if I am with you when you eat, it does not fill my own stomach.) She lets go with a soft sigh and places her chin back on her paws, ears drooping. She will bring the girl and the red-and-white male more game, now that her own pack has eaten. She will take care of the girl, the mirror of her, the child of Children and most old blood whom she has claimed; and she will take care of the girl's pups, and her soon-to-be mate too, though she does not like him.

The girl leaves her. She is wild, she is wild, she is wild; and, even surrounded by cousins, without the girl she feels utterly and unbearably alone.

 


 

And this is what she does not know, or at the very least has forgotten:

When she has her wolfdreams, her physical human body reacts to the stimulus of experiences shared with her wolf.

This, while dreaming of the hunt, manifests as kicking in her sleep, as growling and sniffing and occasionally biting if she is disturbed. When she wargs into her wolf in her waking hours to converse, this apparently manifests in talking.

Four days since her Nymeria had found them, four days since her babe had quickened. The direwolf ranges close, the howls of her pack heard often at distance, though he has not seen them. Their mild-mannered mares have become more skittish though no less sweet, snorting and stomping and requiring to be soothed before they will allow themselves to be tacked. After the first night it had moved, Arya's bastard has settled somewhat. It does not torment her the way it had that night, though it is indeed more active at night in general; it moves infrequently enough that she slips in and out of denial over whether she believes it to have actually quickened at all, though he thinks personally that this is just her attempting to compartmentalize its existence further. Easy to know intellectually that she carries child, difficult perhaps to be faced with the concrete evidence that the child lives within her. A suspicion: perhaps on some level she had hoped the bastard would not quicken at all and she would simply bleed it out. He does not presume to know her thoughts, and is unwilling to cause the pain that he believes discussion of them will bring about.

At just over four and a half moons, she can no longer wear her leathers. The armor had been tailored to fit her when she was half the size she is now, and the laces that she has been loosening and loosening to stretch across her growing womb have reached their end. He has had to alter her pants to make them wearable, tearing the seams along the sides and hand-stitching extra fabric cut from one of their blankets to widen the waist so that they fit over her hips without pinching her. She is exceptionally disgruntled by this, but he simply shrugs her irritation off as he sews the material together using silk thread from his medical kit. Good, at least, that she had already been in the habit of wearing too-large, too-loose shirts.

They sit in their respective saddles, though the reins of her mare are looped through one of the metal rings of his own saddle as he leads both horses along the road. Arya had expressed concern over the possibility of Nymeria and her pack storming the Crossroads, considering their close proximity to the community; wolves used to eating the flesh of man and unafraid of humans would find quite a feast at the inn and the small shanty town surrounding it, at least until the people there became aware of the attack and hid in their buildings. So he keeps her horse from drifting off the road or falling behind while she wargs, a process she'd described as reaching out with her mind until she finds her direwolf and then sinking into her body.

She is gone for a little over an hour, her eyes wide open and washed white. She twitches in her seat, fingers tightening on the saddle's horn and heels occasionally drifting into the side of her mare. This encourages it to speed until he reaches to gently pull on its reins; the constant back-and-forth of what the mare perceives as direction has caused it to become irritated. From the way it tips its ears back and flicks its tail when Arya accidentally spurs it with her movement, he fears it may be reaching an end to its patience and may attempt to buck.

His preference would have been for her to warg during one of their breaks, but when they stop to rest it isn't really restful for Arya. Certainly she does not spare the time to sit and warg, which seems to require some manner of concentration. She paces, stretches, makes her waste and water, and then they are back on the road.

When he'd first joined her on her journey, they would stop a small handful of times a day and rest for an hour or so each time. Though their breaks now are shorter, lasting only a few minutes, they break more often, their stops having climbed up to a dozen or more a day, and this takes nearly as much time as the hour-long breaks of a moon ago. Arya blames this, unsurprisingly, on her bastard; the soft flutterings of movement that she experiences within seem to be concentrated solely atop her bladder. Each time she mounts or dismounts from her horse she requires assistance to clamber to or from the saddle. She can dismount alone with difficulty, but he would rather help her than risk her injuring her back to do it. Despite his own ease of ability to rise to and drop from his own mare, the minutes they take to do so add up.

For all of this, however, he still believes that they are making fair time. At the inn he'd estimated a month and a half to reach the Moat, placing them currently at roughly a month now before they get there. In a month Arya will likely be of a size to make sitting ahorse comfortably quite difficult; he hopes that the crannogmen holding Moat Cailin have a cart to spare for them to use, so that she can rest within that instead. But with their meals now apparently being supplemented with fresh meat from kills Nymeria provides, he worries much less about food. For the first time since leaving the inn, this morning he'd been able to eat his fill without feeling guilty about potentially taking food from Arya's future meals.

Though they have not seen the direwolf in the flesh since the night Arya's babe had quickened, only the massive beast can be responsible for the game that has appeared in their camp in the night. The first deer was the only whole carcass they'd been gifted; the night before last they'd received two rabbits, both missing their heads. This morning they'd woken to find what could only be the haunch of a horse, and this had been the prompt for Arya's concern over the pack's presence so close to the inn at the Crossroads.

Valar morghulis, but he admits that even he would find it rather morbid for her beast to drop off a man's corpse for them to make a meal of.

Regardless. Arya mumbles when she wargs.

Her words are quiet, disjointed. Clearly whatever he hears is only her half of the conversation with her wolf, and even that he does not hear the entirety of. She mutters once or twice about hunting, and strangely also about mating or mates; he can only assume she is relaying her pregnancy to the direwolf, and couching it in a verbiage that her beast will understand. Once, in confusion, she says his name, the inflection of her voice as if a question.

Bloody Lords, collars, keeping and love. There is clearly a thread their conversation follows, but he himself is unable to see it given as little information as he has.

Something about the wind, and then she stops talking for some time, though she does not fall silent; instead she growls violently, snarling and twisting in her seat. Her eyes are still wide and white, and he does not think she has blinked once since the warging began, but now her brows are furrowed and her teeth are bared as if she is a wolf herself. The thrashing movements further aggravate her mare, which worries his own, and he pulls them both to a stop in the middle of the road, murmuring softly to them to calm them until Arya has calmed herself.

Once she has stilled, she remains still for several long minutes and her expression flattens again. Cautiously, he guides the horses back into forward pace. A literal hunt then, and she just made a kill. Her wolf must be eating. He shakes his head. He is not unused to magic, having performed it himself in some limited capacity to preserve the flesh of the masks and to don and doff them as an apprentice, to place them upon Arya herself as her Master if her duties required a different face. Warging, as he understands it, is an entirely different level. The magic he uses is cosmetic, simple glamours augmented by blood and their performance to cast eased by the Many-Faced God and His will.

To slip very literally into the skin of another creature, not just figuratively by changing one's own appearance and behavior… one warg who could even temporarily control an army's general would be powerful, the ability employed to spy of astronomical value. A warg who is a King himself-- he shudders to think at the power. If all of his lovely girl's siblings can warg, if she passes the ability onto her own children, could an army be created? Breeding selectively through the generations? Good that her kingly brother is the only one who actively uses his ability within a public eye; too many world powers would seek to manipulate such a thing to use for their own gain, were they made explicitly aware of the possibility.

What a boon she could have been to the House, had she stayed, had neither of them betrayed the Order, her with her actions and he with his allowing of her to act. It is rare for Faceless Men to take partners, rare for multiple assassins to work the same contract, but if she had honed her ability within the House she would have required a handler; someone to watch her body and defend it while she warged to achieve a kill for a contract bought. He doubts she would have accepted any but he himself to take that task. His siblings would have argued, for he was a valuable asset and it would waste his talent to play nursemaid, but eventually the Masters would concede to make use of her abilities. Arya would win the argument surely, as she always does.

He imagines it briefly, a vague fantasy of the road their entwined destinies could have taken together had they not frayed when they did: the force she could become, the truest shadow unseen, the utmost silent knife in the darkest of darks; and he guarding her while she does their most deadly of work.

She is a wolf and a sword and a perfectly feral creature untamed, mirror to a direwolf and diametrically opposed to the stillness and calm of no one, and he would not change who she is for anything in the world. But. The thought of her as one of his sisters, a Faceless Master, the ruthless quiet she could become, giving the gift in His name at his side--

He breathes hard through his nose, presses a fist with violent pressure into the crotch of his pants until his manhood stops throbbing with interest.

Alright. Don't think of this anymore. Don't think of Arya, teeth bared, fulfilling a contract bought. Don't think of her within the House, the House he had been raised to work in, a woman grown and grown into herself as well, selecting her deadly tools from the armory. Don't think of her pulling a face over her own from the ether itself, a grace gifted by Him of the Many. Don't think of her arguing with their siblings over the meal table, and especially don't think of bending her over that table until her arguing gentled to gasps. Don't think of pushing her to the ground within the Hall of Faces and burying his own face within her most secret and delicate of parts, and don't think about the nooks and crannies of the storeroom where they could find a place to hide for her mouth to pleasure him in return, and don't think about the stealth necessary to sneak into her cell at night where she would be waiting for him impatiently with her flesh bared to touch and pinch and lick and suck at his leisure, and don't think about fucking her by the poisoned pool in the front room of the temple while the God's statues watched the carnal duel of His most deadly children with approval.

Gods it would have been easier if his siblings had just castrated him instead of searing the false face to his own. He glares down at his groin. No, he tells it, a distressingly common occurrence. As usual it does not listen.

Arya begins mumbling again, her meal apparently done. Blood and hearts. Home, this word spoken with sadness and pain, and desire too. The softness of it, the near childishness of the want in her voice, is enough to finally draw him completely from his misguided passion. As ever when his flesh has cooled of its ardor he is flooded with guilt and he chastises himself once more.

Packs, pups. The melancholy that had colored her voice at the word home passes quickly as she and her wolf seem to move onto other conversations. Again mate comes up, this spoken with such defensiveness that he looks over at her in concern. Her face has colored, cheeks red beneath her milky eyes. "Dumb as a sack of bricks," she says quite clearly, with derision. Then she says, "Gendry," before trailing off into unintelligible mumbling once again. Ah. She must be bemoaning the mental faculties of her child's father.

Perhaps the boy with the bull's helm grew more clever as he aged, but Jaqen finds doubt in this. The smith spoke rarely during their time on the road with the Night's Watch recruits, and what little he did was often only to the young boy they all called Arry. Mostly he grunted when he was spoken to, or glared, and this often to cover up his lack of understanding. When he did have to think, the effort of thought was usually accompanied by a look nearing distress. He supposes the boy was comely enough, with a broad jawline and bright blue eyes over a well-muscled frame. The serving wenches at Harrenhal seemed to find his countenance pleasing, when they were not mooning over Jaqen himself who had the advantage of being foreign and therefore mysterious, and also a soldier rather than a smith, though perhaps more importantly he kept himself clean.

It has been years since he's seen the child, but he cannot imagine the boy-turned-man to have changed so much in that time. What his clever girl saw in the bull that made her enjoy him so much as to willingly give him her maidenhead he cannot imagine. But then, she'd seemed willing enough to give it to he himself when he'd ordered her to lose it, so perhaps her judgement on these things is simply not so keen as he'd thought. Like I'd wanted you to.

He sighs.

Regardless, what's done is done. He can only hope her Queen sister can throw enough tutors at the child to counteract whatever of it's father's intelligence it may inherit.

Arya makes a wordless noise of dismay, drawing him once more from his unkind thoughts. When he looks at her again her cheeks are blood red, flushed nearly enough to glow against the backdrop of white snow. "Please stop," she says, voice distressed, and then after a few long moments her face screws up in disgust and she mumbles something vague that sounds frighteningly like wolf orgies.

He squints at her, trying to discern how that topic could have possibly come up between her and the direwolf, and then shakes his head and decides he probably doesn't want to know. Though this will be the perfect comment to use to tease her with later.

She quiets then, and stays quiet for several minutes, before abruptly the white fades from her eyes to leave them steely and gray once more, the color of the sky before a storm. She blinks rapidly, hands lifted to rub at her eyes as if they are dry, then grimaces at him when she sees she has his attention. "How long was I gone?" she asks, voice hoarse, and then winces and clears her throat.

"Just over an hour," he says, and tosses her his waterskin so she does not have to bend to retrieve her own. She catches it from the air and uncorks it, taking several deep draughts, before making to throw it back to him "Keep it," he tells her; judging by the amount she'd just drained from it, they will soon have to stop for her to make water and he can retrieve it then. "Does the inn at the Crossroads still stand?"

"For now," she says, licking her lips before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "But I was right to worry, she'd been considering taking her pack South to attack it." She frowns as she reaches out to pull her reins from the loose knot he'd tied them to his saddle with. "I think I convinced her to stick to wild game, but…" She runs her tongue over the top row of her teeth with a soft sucking noise, looking troubled. "Her pack is too large, a few dozen more than what we saw the other day on the hill, and they became too used to eating humans during the war. Some of them have already gone rogue to make their own packs, and most of the ones who hadn't left have already died." She looks up at him, meets his eyes and shrugs. "I'm concerned for her, I suppose."

Then she winces very lightly, a hand lifting her settle against her womb. "I can't believe you can't feel this," she says, nearly accusing; a dozen times over the last few days she has grabbed his hand to hold it to her bare stomach, moving it across the stretched and scarred span to where she had felt movement within, but despite how hard he presses (which is admittedly not very hard for fear of causing her or her babe discomfort, which she scoffs at) he can detect nothing for the barrier of skin and viscera that separates his palm from her womb. "I felt it so much that Nymeria felt it too while I was warging into her." Again she winces, though by now he knows that it is more in minor discomfort than internal pain.

"Should we stop soon?" he asks. Their midday break has come and gone, though the sun is still high in the sky. He estimates another few hours before they will have to stop for the night, and likely another few breaks will be taken in that time.

"Aye," she says with a sigh, stretching within her saddle. Now that she has calmed her mare has too, and it tolerates the movement far better. "I need to eat something soon. We went for a hunt and eating in her body made me hungry too."

"No need for excuses," he assures her. When she looks at him in question he smiles, sweet and disarming, and offers in explanation, "A girl is always hungry."

She scoffs, but cannot hide her own little smile.

They continue down the road, the snow crunching beneath the hooves of the horses. Since leaving the inn and heading North they have encountered only two other parties, one of these clearly a handful of sellswords who nodded at them in acknowledgement as they passed without speaking, and the other a pair of travelers like themselves who kept their heads down and their hands on the hilts of their swords. The abandoned campsites that littered the roadside further South have also dwindled, and often they must find their own place to make camp for the night.

After a few minutes of companionable silence wherein Arya's eyes have unfocused as she unconsciously runs a hand across the length of her belly, the gentle motion of impending motherhood that she does not seem aware that she is making, he draws her attention by asking innocently, "So, wolf orgies?"

She whips her head around to gape at him, eyes wide and mouth dropping open, and he grins, delighted by the reaction. "What?" she croaks out.

Smiling at her embarrassment, he hums, "A girl talks to her wolf, and sometimes her words are spoken aloud. I'd thought perhaps I'd misheard, but considering your reaction now I think not, hmm?"

Her facial expressions are positively acrobatic; her brows furrow and then rise, her jaw drops and shuts and drops again, her cheeks flush red and then abruptly pale to ghostly white. "What else did I say?" she asks forcefully but with a very slight waver at the end, as if at once demanding and yet fearful of the answer.

He cocks his head at her consideringly. What an interesting reaction. He thinks back on all she'd mumbled loud enough for him to discern meaning in the noise and can think of nothing he could have heard that would cause her to look so irritated and so nervous.

Which can only mean that there was something discussed that he hadn't heard that she worries had reached his ears.

"I don't know," he says after a moment, now curious. "What else did a girl say?"

Her eyes narrow at him and she huffs in annoyance. "Nothing for you," she snaps, though he can tell that she is just momentarily aggravated and not truly offended. "Private conversation. No Jaqens allowed." He chuckles in response, and her cheeks flush once more. "I have to piss," she announces with spite in her voice, as if hoping he will find the statement uncouth. He shrugs and gestures out to the forest around them as if to say, have at it.

Within the hour they stop to break; Arya's ire has calmed, as it always does when it spikes abruptly. He helps her from her horse, stretches and wanders to make his own water while she makes hers, and they take a few minutes more to allow the mares to finish munching from their nosebags. When they have both finished and she has retrieved some of the roasted horseflesh from the gift Nymeria had left them he cups his hands for her to step into, boosting her up into the saddle.

While he repacks the nosebags into his saddlebag, his mare turns and nips at his shoulder, taking the fabric of his cloak between her teeth and tugging. He grunts in surprise but keeps his balance, then sighs as he pats the horse's snout and scratches beneath her chin. Twice he attempts to turn to vault into his own saddle, and twice more the mare grabs his clothing for attention. Disgruntled and amused at once he huffs a breath of laughter before finally swatting the mare away, and once settled in the stirrups she swings her head back to bite at the toe of his boot. "Cheeky," he mutters with a smirk, kicking at her nipping mouth very lightly in retribution and then immediately undoing the chastisement by reaching to scratch her neck.

When he glances up at Arya she's watching the interaction with a sort of bemused thoughtfulness, eyes considering. "What?" he asks, sitting up straight in his saddle once more.

"The horse learns from her rider," she tells him dryly. "You're in a positively sunny mood." She says this as if it is a fault, like an accusation, and continues when he snorts, "It's making you most troublesome. Cheeky, like your horse."

He shrugs. "A man travels in good company on an empty road, he has a direwolf hunting for his meals, and for once it is not snowing." He gestures up at the sky, where indeed the cloud cover which has lingered grayly over the world has passed for the first time in days, allowing the sun to peek through. "Perhaps today my mood simply reflects the weather." The smile he sends her is full of practiced charm and she scoffs once more.

"If you think that a grumpy pregnant girl is good company than you should put forth a concentrated effort to make more friends," she says, voice amused and wry. And beneath that, some quiet hurt, like a bruise inside that she had not realized was there until it had been pressed on accident. A kernel of self-deprecation. He frowns at her.

"I would choose no other company," he tells her, because this clearly is true. Had he not already chosen her over his siblings, his House, the purpose that has led him through his life? A choice he does not regret: the thought of her as his Faceless sister is a tempting one to consider, almost nostalgic for all that he had hoped she would become when he'd been her Master, but he would not give up Arya Stark for all his brothers and sisters in the House.

She stares at him, eyes wide at the serious proclamation when she'd obviously been expecting a jape. She holds his gaze for a long moment, lip between her teeth, and seems to weigh a decision in her head. A decision she apparently makes: she sighs, shakes her head, and says, "We should keep moving."

She spurs her mare into motion and, confused and wondering if he had accidentally said something to upset her, which he does with increasingly frequent occurrence, he follows.

They keep moving.

 


 

 Not that night, nor the next, but the one after that; they both make errors of miscalculation:

"I want to hit something," Arya says, quite matter-of-factly. Jaqen looks up at her, glances around them as if in search of a target, and then points to himself in offended question. "That'd be nice," she admits.

Three days in a row she has warged into her wolf, and both the previous nights had wolfdreams, and while it gives her something to do upon the road to preoccupy her, and indeed she seems happier for communing with her bestial mirror which he appreciates, it appears that running and hunting as a wolf only compounds her frustration with her condition upon returning to her own body. She now paces restlessly, and this the restlessness of a body that demands use rather than the restlessness that seems to take her when her babe starts to move.

The sun has just begun to set, painting the world in soft pinks and yellows, the pastels of an ending day splashed across the clouds above and snow below. At certain angles the light reflecting off the snow is nearly blinding, and not for the first time he wishes he'd had the foresight to bring some kohl with him to use beneath their eyes as the Dothraki do; charcoal will do in a pinch, but is much more irritating to the eye if it happens to get between the lids. In the hour since they had stopped for the day to make camp, she has not ceased moving: she paced while he built the fire, she did her YiTish stretches while he made a mostly flavorless but hearty stew from the leftover horseflesh and some of the horse's groats and a few chunks of hardtack, she paced again while eating and likely spilled more than she ingested, she attempted unsuccessfully to climb a tree before he realized what she was doing and upbraided her fiercely, she curried both their horses from snout to rump, and she reorganized her pack and was only dissuaded from reorganizing his own by him threatening pain of death.

After all of that, he doesn't have much trouble believing she would like to hit something, and has even less trouble believing she would specifically like to hit him. He eyes her suspiciously; she herself is eyeing him in consideration, as if trying to calculate how many whacks she could get in before he retaliated.

At this point he doesn't think he could be blamed for wanting to hit her, too.

This look of consideration should be his warning, but for some reason he's allowed himself to fall into the illusion that his girl has finally learned courage and sense; after a few minutes his attention has wandered back to the fire, Arya's unhappy pacing fading into the periphery of his awareness, and the moment his muscles have relaxed of their tension she takes a stick she has been considering and smacks him in the shoulder with it.

It is a light hit, to be fair, more of a tag or a tap than a true blow. Still, he's removed his armor for the day, cajoled by her insistence that Nymeria remains close and will protect them from anything that may want to do them harm (and also by the soreness in his bones from wearing the armor to sleep in winter), and his skin stings, more surprised than anything. When he whips around to glare at her she's not even watching him, instead tossing her chosen weapon from hand to hand as if trying to decide if she likes the balance. Would that he were one of the priests of Asshai, that he could set her on fire with just his mind…

He wouldn't, of course. But the temptation is certainly there.

"Let's spar," she says, seeming to find her stick satisfactory. It is thick, just slightly less so than her forearm, and not quite the length of her Needle. Striking with surprising speed for her swollen size, she tags him on the opposite shoulder. He grunts in annoyance and, surprisingly, she does not laugh at him, though being a pest is one of her favored pastimes. Instead she simply circles him and the fire, her wooden weapon held at ready.

"A girl is pregnant," he reminds her, since she apparently requires the reminder.

She shrugs. "So don't hit my middle," she suggests, and reaches forward with her stick to tag him again. He bends to avoid it, allowing his impatience at her antics to show on his face.

"Arya--"

"I can feel myself getting weak," she says without more inflection than mild interest in her voice, as if they are discussing the weather. "My muscles soften, not just my stomach but the ones in my arms and legs. I didn't realize the extent of which until I was awake inside Nymeria." She snaps her stick forward again; again he dodges.

"Arya," he tries again, more placatingly. He thinks to soothe her, to assure her that this is normal and she will be back to her fighting form within the year, but once more she interrupts.

"I hate my body," she tells him. Though said with a mild intonation there is a sincere disgust in the words that takes him aback. "I hate the babe for doing this to me. I was never beautiful or delicate, but I used to feel powerful, and graceful in that power." Distracted as he is by the vitriolic statement, delivered with such casual ease, her next hit lands; again, the tap is light, far lighter than the blows they would trade while training in Braavos, but her words add weight to the strike. "When I'm in Nymeria I feel that power again. I'm a predator." She drops from her readied stance, holding her stick loosely at her side. "And then I come back to this," and she gestures at herself, the length of her body, and finally the contempt enters her voice, becomes visible on her face.

"A girl is pregnant," he repeats himself, gently. "Some… softening, it is to be expected. It will pass."

Her lip curls back in distaste. "I do not want to be soft," she snaps, and slashes at him once more. He leans back beneath the stick, feeling it whistle through the air in the space his torso had occupied moments before. That strike would have hit him significantly harder than a tag. "I want to be a wolf. Fight me!"

She stabs down at him and he must roll a turn across the dirt to avoid it. It is easy without the armor to impede his movement; he curls his abdominal muscles to pivot from the ground, rising to his feet without using his hands. She flips the stick within her fingers, spinning it, the movement deft, and allows him to put distance between the two of them as she paces a slow, tight track around the other side of the fire. He frowns at her; a miscalculation, he should not have implied her to be soft while she is so conscious of herself, though he had meant it to console.

He cannot hit her middle. Her legs too are not an option, for to hit one would risk upsetting her balance and may cause her to fall. Her back is weak but to strike it could cause lasting damage. Shoulders, then. Arms. The head, if he is exceedingly careful. The breasts even are exploitable, for he knows them to often be sore enough that anything more than the slightest pressure can cause her discomfort.

He has worked with less, in the past.

He does not want to do this, but neither does he see a way for this to resolve peacefully. Despite her ambivalent expression, there is a sharpness to her eyes that suggests she is more upset by the circumstance than she is letting on. He knows that she disdains the feminine gentling of her body, knows that she blames the babe for blunting the form she had only ever sought to hone to a keen edge, but to assign hate to those things is worrisome and extreme, for Arya hates just as passionately as she loves, and with arguably more focus. As ever when she is taken by a mood of anger, she must be allowed to work through it; though this is the first time she has done something to threaten bodily harm to either of them, or her unborn child. "Arya," he tries once more, his voice quiet, nearly pleading, one last opportunity for her to see sense. She does not take it. 

He sees her muscles tense before she leaps to close the distance between them; it is enough time for him to draw a thin branch from the fire and raise it to meet her own stick. The end of his improvised weapon is still in flames, and as the wood meets to clatter embers fly from it, landing with sharp pops in the snow. She jumps back and away, eyes wide with surprise and following the fire at the end of his stick. He takes advantage of her retreat, turning and spinning his own weapon in a mockery of her showy movement before, the fire crackling as it is moved at speed through the air, then shoving the flaming end of it into the snow. Steam rises from it with a hiss; it is still lightly smoking and blackened at the end when he draws it back out.

He turns to face her once more and assumes his old, familiar stance.

If she wants a fight he will give her one.

Her charge is silent, none of the grunting or shouting that he remembers from early in her apprenticeship. He assumes dodging her telegraphed attack will be simple, but when he pivots to avoid her strike she shifts it into a sweep to take out his legs; finely honed instinct has him jump, to lift above the blow meant for his knee. Her eyes are wide with disbelief when he lands, and he himself is surprised that had worked. Still, her disbelief gives her pause, and he smacks her shoulder with his stick before backing away quickly.

"You hit me," she says, as if she hadn't thought he actually would. He shrugs. After a moment her incredulous expression morphs into a feral grin, a wolf baring her teeth, and she moves forward, aggressive once more.

It does not take her very long to realize that he has handicapped himself for her benefit; his hits are short and stinging but not carrying much force, and often only when she leaves herself open to a retaliatory attack. Mostly he dodges, defensive, or meets her stick with his own; his goal, after all, is to let her wear herself out of her sudden anger without patronizing her or hurting her, or offering violence to her bastard, the innocent passenger of her rage. She growls and glares for the first few strikes where their wooden weapons bounce off each other, and hisses after he bends out of the way of another of her blows, "Stop toying with me and fight! "

He complies. A tag at her elbow, nearly causing her to lose her grip. Another at the back of her shoulder as he slips around her responding attack. One, checked with extreme effort and delivered specifically to make a point that he is capable of doing it, that stops a hair's width from her chin. He tags nothing below her breasts, and those only once and lightly. When he does she shrieks a strangled, "Fuck! Okay, okay! Not there!" and he subsides with a rush of guilt that promptly vanishes when she uses his concerned pause to tap with unnecessary force exceptionally close to his groin.

His retaliation to this is methodical, patient, and absolute, turning aside her attacks or ducking under them: he will not let her win just because she is feeling pitiful. It would do her a disservice, and she would not appreciate his purposeful loss. Her frustration mounts and her taps and tags become smacks and stabs. What hits she lands that he cannot dodge will surely bruise. Riding on the morrow will be tantamount to torture.

They spin, circling the fire, a give and take of movement; she takes a step forward, he takes two back; he presses forward and she is pushed to defend. Twice in quick succession he tags her, wrist and collarbone, and sees her becoming more and more reactive, less controlled. She does not count her steps, does not watch his muscles to predict his moves; she lashes, turns away his next strike, stabs at his knees. She aims once at his face and unlike his earlier movement does not check her blow, and it is only his quick reflexes that save him from a bloody nose. She breathes as if the air is pulled from her lungs with hooks, sweat flies from her braid as she pivots to dodge, her lips pulled back in a growl when she offers a vengeful smack to his side.

She is furious. She is feral. She is a beast wearing the skin of a girl.

He should not be hard. He can only hope, with what little of his thought can be deviated from their fighting to spare to hope, that his pants are not so tight as to show.

At the pinnacle of her displeasure she snarls and unleashes a flurry of blows upon him so vicious and quick that he cannot turn them away to step aside, can only twist his stick to meet her own to prevent the weapon from striking his skin with violence. He holds either end of his stick in his hands, turning it so that her blows meet the middle, and tries to best determine how to escape the barrage without harming either of them, for if he moves from under her attacks her momentum will pitch her forward if he is not there to meet her, when after the sixth consecutive hit his stick simply cracks and breaks beneath the onslaught, not able to withstand the battering the way their training staves in Braavos had been and already weakened by what had been eaten from it by the fire.

She checks her next attack just before it takes him in the stomach; with the weight and fury behind her swinging, the blunt force could, though unlikely, potentially have caused a rupture in his gut. Instead, quick as a snake, she moves the end of her stick to rest at the apple of his throat. He feels the very light pressure of it shift as he swallows.

They both still, neither moving, barely breathing.

"A girl wins," he says, finally, after a long stalemate, dropping the two halves of his broken branch and raising his empty hands, palms facing up. His heart is pounding, his blood rushing through his veins. Arya's eyes are dark, her pupils dilated, her brows furrowed over them. She pants, sharp quick breaths. Her hair falls in pieces from its braid to stick to her flushed, sweat-dampened skin. His manhood, traitorous thing that it is, stirs further in interest.

Slowly, she withdraws her weapon. When she speaks her voice is nearly a growl. "If that had been a serious fight you would have killed me ten times over."

He considers this and after a moment nods, almost apologetically. "You were sloppy," he admits.

She huffs in frustration and turns to toss her stick into the fire. He catches her arm before she can lose the weapon, taking the wood and turning it in his hands to inspect it. It is thicker than his own had been, was chosen with more care; it does not seem like it will threaten to break, and is of a good size to her. He hands it back and she takes it, looking confused and still annoyed. "A girl is vicious like a wolf, growls like a wolf, hunts with wolves, but if she attacks as a wolf she will always fall to the sword. Control, lovely girl. Temperance. It separates men, and girls, from beasts." She watches, brow raised, as he moves into the forest a short distance and searches before coming up with a new stick for himself, this one sturdier and sized better. He tests its balance, swinging it twice and then jabbing through the air at an imaginary foe, before nodding his approval. "We will do it again," he says, "and it will be a true spar, not an angry girl smacking her friend for things which cannot be helped as though he is a nail and her stick is a hammer."

"It is nearly dark," she argues, though she does not look put out at the thought of continuing their fight. He looks up at the sky; they have perhaps half an hour before the sun sets, and already the soft pinks have faded to purples and grays, the landscape around them drab and dreary.

"Then we will go until the darkness comes," he says, and lifts his new weapon into a readied stance.

Now her fury has subsided, and their wood meets with light taps instead of the punishing clamor of their previous blows. "Looser," he reminds her when he notices her grip is too tight. "Higher," he says when the tip of her makeshift staff begins to lower. Her expression has calmed and her movements are slow, weary from exertion when she has become accustomed to extended rest. He does not comment beyond gentle corrections. It is akin to their trainings as Master and apprentice, though slower, kinder now for it is an exchange between friends and equals; this neither is a true spar, no more so than the previous violent scrap; it is a push and pull, a back and forth, a tap of wood to wood occasionally accompanied by a tag of wood to skin in playful chastisement when one or the other leaves far too obvious an opening.

"This is like dancing," Arya says thoughtfully after a few minutes of silence between them have passed, broken only by the sound of their weapons meeting in reaction to movement.

He considers it and nods acceptance. "Just so." His blood has cooled, his heart has slowed its race, but proximity to her and the memory of her besting him, even if he had been gentling his blows in careful consideration, remains hovering just at the corners of his mind. He is careful to maintain a distance to her even as they turn in circles around each other, their mimicry of dance in and of itself a mimicry of death; too tempting, he thinks, to close the gap between them.

Despair: has he ever not been lost?

But, he cannot allow his own issues to impede her progress, her happiness. A concern, spurred by a previous comment. He asks, as he pokes her elbow with his stick and then uses the length of it to show her how it should be held, "Do you not think you are beautiful?"

Arya blinks in surprise at the non sequitur. She lowers her weapon, this a purposeful motion and not a mistake he needs to correct. She tilts her head at him, face blank, eyes calculating as if looking for a deeper meaning to the question. Finally, she asks in retort, "Do you think I'm beautiful?"

There is not a word that exists in any tongue of man which could adequately describe her, he thinks. "That is not the question," he says.

She snorts derisively and gestures down at herself once more, a repeat of the motion she’d made before their short but brutal tussle. The stains of sweat are visible beneath her breasts and arms, her swollen stomach an obvious stretch at the fabric of her shirt. Her meager diet does not lend to the gain of weight that most pregnant women suffer, at least not beyond the obvious weight of her womb, but even so he can see the softening of the muscles in her arms, the slight thickening of her thighs. "The other day when we were hunting, the pack killed a pregnant deer. Nymeria called her fat and slow." She shrugs with a self-deprecating laugh. "I feel more like that deer now than I do like Nymeria when I am running in her body."

“Hmm.” In their circling, he pauses to tap at her lower spine with the end of his stick. “Higher, lovely girl,” and she straightens her back once more. “Did you not also say that this fat and slow deer killed one of your wolf’s cousins? Not that I am agreeing with your sentiment, simply making a point.”

Their weapons tap together again, the movement slow and almost lazy. There is no reason for their supposed spar now, for neither of them are getting much training from it. Rather it facilitates movement, and this movement more directed and falsely purposeful than Arya’s recent habit of pacing incessantly. Her gaze is distant, her tags half-hearted; she makes a clumsy move for his wrist that he easily turns away, but though she leaves herself quite open for retaliation he does not strike her in return. She is thinking now, and hard.

“Gendry asked me to marry him,” she says suddenly, with the air of an admission. “After-- ...after.”

He blinks, lowers his own stick in surprise. This time her tap to his wrist hits and he winces. His mind works to find the logical leap from their last, seemingly important conversation to this new topic; ah. The heraldry of Westeros. The rearing Baratheon stag. Almost prophetic, that her direwolf would hunt and kill a pregnant doe. The wolf ending the mother deer. The superstition of Westerosi will never cease to amaze him. But… that there would be a proposal between them, despite neither having knowledge of sown seed bearing fruit. He does not know how to respond to this. The bond between the two of them, his lovely girl and her smith, must have been deeper than he’d realized, and more painful to her now for its obvious fraying.

“I don’t want to be a fat, slow pregnant doe, brooding fawns,” she tells him, petulance in her voice, and beneath that some deep manner of hurt, of disappointment. “That’s why I told him no. That’s why I left. I wanted to be a warrior. I wanted to be a wolf. And I ended up fat and slow and pregnant anyway.”

It is a leap in logic indeed, but one he can understand how she would make. The exchange of cloaks, the Westerosi wedding tradition, becomes the exchange of names, the perceived loss of the Stark that she fought so desperately against he himself to keep; the smothering of an independent predator beneath the weighty expectation of prey. The nobility tend to place such distinction upon their arbitrary sigils, and those of the North moreso than any other region. She has ever scorned the trappings of womanhood, ever disdained what culture has told her she is meant and designed to enjoy, because she did not enjoy them herself and for the metaphor, the loss of self and control, the force exerted on her will. Identity, most important to her, and she identifies so very strongly as Stark.

Would she has said yes? If the Baratheon were still simply a bastard, if he had not been acknowledged and uplifted into the nobility of his father’s blood, denied him for his childhood by circumstance of birth? If this Gendry were still a smith, would Arya have consented to wed him? Without the cloaks, without the expectations that comes with being lover to a Lord? Her lowborn husband could stay with her in Winterfell; he has a tangible trade, a respectable one unlike Jaqen himself, a valuable skill to peddle. Or, if after marriage she still had wanderlust, Gendry would have been able to wander with her were he not beholden to the responsibility of Lord Paramount.

Would she have wanted it? Did she want it, before it came with too many attached strings?

It should not matter to him. She is not his.

It does matter to him.

It matters to him because if she did want it then she was denied that want. And he wants her to be happy.

“There does not have to be a dichotomy between desires,” he tells her. They are neither of them attacking, neither of them dancing; they stand but a few feet apart, watching each other. It is dark now, the sun having set, and the fire illuminates them in reds and yellows, throwing her face into shadow as it flickers with the wind. Her eyes are dark and intense. “A girl can-- Arya, you can be more than one thing at once. Being a mother does not stop you from being a warrior. A Princess can swing a sword. And, if you choose, you can be both a wolf and a wife.”

She scoffs and says with nearly a sneer, “Are you saying you think I should have married Gendry?” She comes closer, the barest step. He tenses, expecting an attack, but she drops her stick to the ground and crosses her arms beneath her chest.

He huffs, releasing his own weapon to fall and running a hand through his hair. “No, a man is saying that he thinks that you should stop allowing what you perceive yourself to be dictate who you are, and what you want. You fought too hard for too long to be Arya Stark to allow yourself to take the privilege of being her away from you.”

The tension in her body leaves her in a rush; between one breath and the next she diminishes, from a snarling wolf to a lost-looking girl. “What I want,” she says, almost like it is a question. A movement, unconscious: one of her crossed arms lowers, a hand stops to rest upon her rounded womb. She does this more frequently, now that the babe has quickened. He does not mention it. A long moment passes with her clearly in thought, and he allows her the time and space that she needs. Then her eyes refocus, clarify, and the look she gives him is the same look she had sent him over her shoulder at the inn, nearly two weeks ago, after he had cornered her against the wall. Considering.

She moves quickly, takes his hand in hers before he can think to react, and turns his palm up. It is the hand she had cut so long ago; the scar has faded but still stands out, silvery white, against the skin. She traces it lightly with the tips of her fingers. The hair raises on his arms, the muscles shiver. It tickles. This hand had been bleeding the last time he’d pleasured himself, and he’d done it to the thought of her bleeding him.

What is he doing? What is she doing?

When she speaks, her words are a suggestion but her tone is suggestive, laden with intent. “Maybe a man should think about what he wants, too,” she says. She tilts her head just slightly. Her eyes dart down to his lips. She bites her own.

Projection. He sees what he wants to see, or interprets what he sees to benefit him. She cannot mean what he thinks she means. She is pregnant. They just had a literal fight brought about by her own self esteem issues. He is nearly twice her age. She was his student. They are friends. Just because he wants does not mean she does. She cannot know what she implies.

Can she?

She pulls back, her nails trailing very lightly over the scar on his palm. When she turns away it is with the barest hint of a self-satisfied smile, the merest twitch of her lips. She kicks her stick into the fire.

They do not fight again that night, and their arguing is done. But his mind; oh, his mind. That wages a war the end to which he cannot see in sight.

Chapter Text

The next morning, they both find it rather difficult to wake, for rather different reasons:

He does briefly, but she is a warm presence against his side and the horses are not stamping and snorting with the agitation that accompanies a visit from her direwolf. The light movement that heralds his return to consciousness causes Arya to tighten her grip where she has latched onto his shirt like a limpet, and it is not difficult to convince himself that the two of them will survive another few minutes of rest. He closes his eyes again, shutting out the pink of dawn.

When next he opens them, groggy, the sun has already risen a distance into the sky; it is far later in the morning than they typically sleep, and by all rights they should likely have been back on the road already. He shifts where he is laying, muscles tensing to rise, when once more Arya preempts this by burrowing deeper into his chest. Her forehead presses against a bruise just beneath his collarbone. He tries again and again she resists. Finally his attempts cause her to wake; she grunts softly, murmurs some nonsense noise before loosing a little groan, the sound of a body struggling from the hold of sleep.

“No,” she grumbles. Her voice is thick as though she is forcing the word to be produced.

“Yes,” he argues, and braces a hand against the ground to push himself upright.

In response she throws her leg over one of his own, hooking her foot under his knee and trapping his thigh between hers. She squeezes her thighs together around his as though in punishment. “No,” she says again, more adamantly.

Arya ,” he sighs in exasperation; when he makes to untangle them, she bites him. It’s a dull pain at his chest, the feeling of it muffled through the layers of clothing he is wearing, and she certainly gets more fabric between her teeth than skin. Still, the pinch just beside his left nipple causes him to jerk in surprise, catapulting his drowsy attention into sharp awareness. When he says her name this time it is with much irritation.

“I warned you,” she offers in drowsy excuse. When she finally lifts her head to look at him, her eyes are slightly puffy and crusted, as he's sure his own are. The winter nights are not kind to either of them. Her expression falls just short of petulant, her sleep-drunk mind seeming to be unable to muster up the energy to maintain such a complex emotion. She sets her chin upon his chest and blinks at him slowly, once, twice. At the third blink her eyes stay shut until he jostles her.

When they open again to narrow at him in another warning, he glares down at her. “We need to get up and start moving,” he says, trying to appeal to the logical part of her, though he knows that attempting to do so this early will be in vain. Arya is a stubborn girl when she’s in a fair mood, to say nothing of when she’s forced to wake against her will. Again, as he occasionally does when she decides to be difficult in the mornings, he thinks of Braavos and the plethora of buckets at his disposal and endless amounts of water to fill them with to fling upon her to drive her from her bedding. Snow, maybe. A nice substitution. He could shove it down the back of her shirt. She’d shriek and jump into the air like a startled cat. She’d try to kill him, of course, but if their spar last night is anything to go by then she’s getting to a size where she’s rather lumbering and he doesn’t doubt he could keep himself at distance from her skinny Needle. The throwing knives might cause issue but he’s sure he’d be able to figure something out in the spur of the moment.

If only he could get up to do it.

Arya just continues blinking at him before her mouth curls into a tiny smirk. “Mmm,” she says as if in thought, “that’s your contemplating murder face.” She nestles in closer to his body, though he is quite unsure how; the length of her is plastered to his side, her rounded stomach a pressure against his own middle, her shoulders tucked beneath the arm he had wrapped around her in his sleep. When she lays her head down once more, still watching him blearily, her cheek presses against another bruise and the pain throbs dully.

Now that he is aware of it, his whole body radiates unhappiness; his muscles are sore from their spar and his joints ache from sleeping upon the cold ground. The journey to the Moat cannot pass fast enough. No one had been able to handle the aches and pains associated with travel and work readily enough, compartmentalizing the discomfort and shoving it away as an expense of duty, but Jaqen H’ghar seems to be having a bit more trouble with it. Jaqen H’ghar, he suspects, is a man who would much rather sleep in a bed than in the snow. Perhaps he is simply softening himself now that he has discovered selfhood, but somehow he cannot find fault in the preference.

“If a girl bites me again then it may become an actively murdering face,” he warns her. Her smirk widens. When he attempts to rise once more, she tightens her hold on the thigh caught between her own, grips his shirt harder. She opens her mouth, closes it; her teeth click together audibly as if in reminder of their existence. With a groan he drops his head back onto the bundled shirt he has been using as a pillow to blink up at the cloudy morning-yellow sky. “Arya, come now. A girl is not unreasonable. We must move.”

“It’s cold,” she mumbles, tucking in impossibly closer. Despite her words, where their bodies meet is warm; they both wear layers but the heat of her flesh sings softly to his, as if to lull him back into the tempting arms of sleep. This, regardless of her defensive denial at the inn, is certainly more cuddling than huddling.

“The day will not get less cold, if that is what a girl is waiting for to wake. In fact, moving will make her warmer. Up, child.”

Instead she crawls atop him completely, as though she wishes to climb directly into his skin, knocking the air from his lungs beneath her weight. He winces as she presses against bruises and knots swollen from his flesh by her vindictive battering the night before, but his knees as if on instinct part to allow her space between them. Their hips are near to flush, her face pressed to his throat, bared from his shirt by their shuffling. He feels her breath when she exhales.

It is too early for this shit.

“A man would almost think you want to birth your child in the snow,” he grouses, diligently ignoring the flare of interest that alights his groin; his member, already slightly stiff from sleep, makes as if to harden further. It is probably only the continuing pain of his sore muscles that stops his body from embarrassing him.

“I’m not going into labor right now,” she says, tone mild, as if he is the one being unreasonable. “One late morning would not set us back on schedule so terribly as you seem to think it will. Go back to sleep.”

“Arya,” he tries again, but is interrupted by her loud and clearly feigned snore. “A man should have tossed a girl into the canals more when he had the chance,” he sighs, resigned. There’s a huff; Arya lets out a soft and sleepy chuckle before growing still once more. After a minute her snores are much less feigned.

Despite the haze of sleep surrounding his mind, he knows he will not be able to drift off again so easily as she has. His body is stiff and his joints ache, bruises make themselves known with painful throbs. Apparently she is not the only one who is out of form; such a simple spar should not cause his body the irritation that it seemingly has. Several factors, perhaps. Neglect of meals: in the last two months, between traveling to find her and traveling with her now, he has consumed far less of nutritional value than he should, than his body is accustomed to. Poor sleeping conditions: though not unused to having to forgo a bed, rare have been the times of his life that he has been made to sleep on a hard ground so often and for so long. Weather: it is cold and growing colder the further North they go, cold enough that his very bones ache beneath his skin.

And, the factor he likes the least: lack of use. He has dealt with such things before, in contracts which required him to become someone who would not use their body for violence. He has been a shepherd, a whore, a lady-in-waiting, a maester, a merchant; he has donned the masks of many vocations that did not call for action, that did not need him to maintain physical strength. And though he excelled at these contracts for his ability to blend, to become entirely the persona he played, to remember the details of a given cover to the letter, they did not often ask him to sit ahorse day in and day out with the only muscles worked with any regularity those being in his arms to boost a pregnant girl into her saddle and then to pull himself up into his own. And in most of these contracts, he sometimes had found time to steal away from prying eyes to keep up with some small training regime to prevent his body from going soft.

No, he did not like fighting Arya last night, though now the aftermath allows him to somewhat better understand her predicament, her frame of mind. He himself has not felt so sore or so weak in many years, and certainly not from the dubious amount of effort exerted the night before. It is… concerning, discomfiting, how lethargic he feels. A sword, blunted, to an extent that he had not realized. Yes, he understands her better now.

Something will have to be done to address this. Perhaps, while she is still of a size to do so, they can do some light sparring more often. Obviously rules will have to be lain down and abided by to insure her safety, but so long as she is able to keep her temper under control he does not see why they could not very carefully practice combat.

The other occurrence of the previous night, though.

Well.

They have not addressed her strange dismissal of the conversation, the almost-- no, not almost, the flirtation she’d exhibited. As though her express intent was to invite attention. His palm tingles from the phantom memory of her fingers tracing his scarred skin. Another statement of hers to add to the litany that runs through his mind when he contemplates the meeting of their bodies: Like I’d wanted you to. You, beneath me. A man should think about what he wants. And an expression to accompany it: her eyes, the gray of a storm, considering his mouth from beneath her lashes, her own lip pulled to worry between her teeth.

Days past, when they’d wrestled, when he’d hurt her with callous words, he’d had a thought: did she know? Was she aware? The desire his flesh feels for hers? He’d made connections, brought to mind off-comments and mild innuendos she’d delivered. He’d assumed her to have recognized his want, to be mocking it, and had reacted poorly in response. And then he’d concluded that his assumption had been wrong, that it was projection. He saw what he wanted to see, their interaction influenced by his own lust. But, thinking now, had he truly been wrong?

And now, last night: he thinks again on her behavior now compared to Braavos, compared to when they’d first reunited. In Braavos they’d shared camaraderie, as much as camaraderie could be shared when he was no one and she was attempting to be no one as well; still, touches between them were not uncommon, nor jokes or japes, though all of these had tapered off the longer she’d spent beneath the roof of the House and the less content she became there. Certainly though those touches and jests did not measure up to what they have now, the liberties shared between them. This very morning, how they lay, a testament to this in and of itself, for in Braavos it would not have even crossed his mind to think to hold her as he does now. For warmth, yes, survival makes proximity necessary. But the cuddling? The allowance of her atop him for sole purpose of her comfort at the expense of his own? No. As her Master he would have expected the bare minimum of contact and accepted no more than that. He would not have thought to want , and especially not to want her who existed as a tool for him to shape to better be of use to his House. But a wonder: would she have wanted it? Had she?

Arya, who disdains touch not expressly invited; yet she demands from him physical attention. Arya, who accepts so very little vulnerability of herself to be seen; yet she shares with him willingly her pains and her fears. He had been her teacher, her superior, and there had been some manner of intimacy in that, but even leaning upon their history alone may not account for the indulgences Arya allows for herself with him now. An assumption he’d carried, that they are friends and that is simply how it is between them, and yet by her own admittance she’d viewed him as friend in Braavos and she had not acted so familiar, so coy then . Her fat friend too, the pie boy at the inn, certainly she would not allow that child to hold her as Jaqen holds her now, to know her as he knows her now. He cannot begin to fathom Arya looking at the inn’s baker with the expression she’d favored he himself with last night.

That was the look a woman gives a man, a wolf gives a meal. Hunger. Want of consumption. A look that belongs amongst bedsheets. A realization, sudden: he’s seen it on her face before. At the inn, when he’d cornered her against the wall. At meal with her Valyrian catspaw dagger poking into his side after whispering plans of murder into his ear. After their wrestle and before he’d ruined her good mood with his barbed words, her sitting atop his chest and staring down at him in triumph. The intensity of her gaze as he’d been relaying the lesson of the maesters. When he’s shown her the meditative stretches, and specifically those which required some moderate measure of flexibility. A second realization, on swift heels of the first: he’s seen this look on her face a lot.

Projection, he’d believed. She cannot know what she implies.

And yet, thinking back, when has Arya ever not known what she wanted? When has she ever not striven determinately towards her goals? She wanted a death and she got it, whispering a name into his ear; she wanted freedom and she got it, whispering his own damning name into his ear; she wanted training and she got it, chasing him to Braavos and the House; she wanted loose of the expectations of the Order and she got it, killing his sister and holding her Needle to his throat; has he ever known her to quibble except for now, when he believes her to be quibbling?

Arya does not, by habit, allow herself to be placed into position where she is forced to do things she does not wish to do, and neither does she rest on her laurels when she comes to a decision. Even the issue of her bastard, an extenuating circumstance which clearly pains her: despite her distress she maintains the ambition to deliver the child to Winterfell and her sister when there are far easier, far simpler solutions, some of which include the father of her child and the simplest of which includes moontea which, if consumed in enough volume, could even now still the quickened babe.

By this logic, he can only assume that, as ever, Arya knows exactly what she wants. The determining of what that want may be is what he is unsure of.

Him? Perhaps. Likely, even, now that his eyes are opened to piece together clues. She had shown previous willingness to bed him, even if the willingness then was fueled by his command as her Master to lose her maidenhead and her own wish to lose it to someone she trusted. To use this past request for his flesh to meet hers would be to hold her accountable to a circumstance they have both moved beyond; insubstantial evidence of potential present desire now. But the willingness had been there. If nothing else, she does not find him repulsive, whether by the shape his body takes or by the fact that he had been her teacher.

And an inclination shown too to bed a man out of wedlock, and that clearly evidenced by the rounding shape of her womb, the bastard which she carries. Arya cares little for the convention of culture, for what courtesies she has been told she must adhere to. She would not stopper her ardor simply because society would tell her it is uncouth to lay with someone outside a marriage bed.

The behavior now, behavior which has carried for the past few weeks, since he had cornered her at the inn after learning of her disobedience; her lie that she had completed the task he’d set before her to lose the innocence of flesh, a lie he had allowed himself to believe for the trust that he placed in her, the affection. Her behavior now offers even greater affection than that which he had demonstrated that allowed her to remain a wolf, that invited upon him damnation. She smiles and touches. She looks upon his form with consideration, presses against it at night, and this closer than simple want of heat requires. She speaks to him as an equal, as someone she trusts implicitly, sharing with him things that by her own admission she would not share with even her family.

They are closer, now, than they were before. They have grown closer. They have, simply, grown.

So, evidence: a past willingness to bed him which indicates that she trusts him with her body and that, at the very least, she does not find his own distasteful; an indifference to the idea that she can only share her feminine form with a husband, an indifference that borders upon aversion; current behavior which could be classified as coy and, if one chose to read into it beyond the shallow surface, even flirting.

From evidence, tentative conclusion: an assumption, not baseless, not without merit, that she would not be adverse to laying with him as men and women do. An assumption, not without merit, that perhaps she may even want to. It is… damning. A tempting conclusion to arrive to indeed. His manhood twitches at the thought, the idea that she may desire him similarly to how he desires her. That she too may wish for his mouth upon her, his tongue to taste her femininity, his hands to touch and grasp, his length to slide into the sheath her body provides. That she may wish for his breath in her ear, his eyes upon her form. That she may wish to taste and touch as well, to set her fingers against his flesh, to feel with her hands or her lips or her girlish core the hardened physical proof his body offers of his want of her, his affection.

He inhales deeply, holds the breath in his lungs for a long moment, then exhales. Arya, caught in the space of nonsense between waking and dreaming, mumbles something inarticulate as his chest, which is currently acting as her pillow, rises to disturb her. She frowns in her dozing; he cannot see, but instead feels the shape of her lips pulling down through his shirt. Warmth in his belly, his groin, his heart; an urge, sudden, to run his fingers through her hair. An urge resisted. This conclusion he will not be willing to accept as fact without explicit assurance, but it is one which seems more credible the longer he thinks on it.

And yet.

That she is pregnant is a factor still.

It is not that he disdains her having been touched by another man, not that he finds it disgraceful that she even now carries a bastard; rather, he worries for how potentially impaired her judgement may be due to this. She suffers fits of ire, irritation, melancholy, fits which come quickly and without warning but pass with relative speed. And like this, so too has she confessed to cravings which consume her thoughts wholly until she bullies the want of them into submission. Who is to say that her lust, her consideration for his form, is not so inspired by similar bursts of emotion? Of craving? Anger that is quick to come but quick to pass can be indulged with much less damage than ardor.

Assumption that she desires him; plausible assumption, but assumption nonetheless until she states it plainly. Working upon this assumption, what becomes of them if they give into the temptation of flesh and lay together and then, a craving satisfied, her desire passes? It opens them to further complication, and they are already with their shared history so incredibly complicated.

Would she regret it? Him? His assistance? His very presence?

She has already shown that she can and will leave a man despite caring for him. He would not, of course, ask her to marry him, as her smith apparently did; not only does he have nothing to offer her, but he knows that she has no desire for the marriage bed, and truthfully neither does he. But could their friendship-- which, despite its new depth and intensity, is still only so recently repaired and at its core built upon the shaky foundation of their initial power imbalance-- survive the fallout of that regret? And if their friendship could not, would their ability to travel together?

A thought he had had several times over the course of their first few weeks on the road together, when things were much more tense: she will not survive this journey without help.

Maybe she could do so without him now with the assistance of her wolf, but even that is a risk; Nymeria would have to spend prolonged periods of time with Arya each night to guarantee she would not freeze, and no horse, no matter how mild-mannered, would tolerate the constant presence of such a great predator. Assuming the steed didn’t drop where it stood from its heart giving out in fright, it would be nearly impossible to calm enough to ride reliably without threatening to throw, the physical trauma of which the unborn babe would be unlikely to survive. Without a horse the journey would have to be made on foot, and given her increasing level of discomfort in her back and hips it could likely take her near to a week to cross the distance they could make in a day mounted.

Without him, or at the very least without some form of human assistance, she would have one option for survival, if she wished her bastard to survive as well: to turn and make her way back to the Crossroads immediately and pray the weather holds until she gets there. And this, he knows, she would not do.

Assumption, though not baseless, that she desires him. Assumption, though not baseless, that that desire is born of fits of passion similar to her fits of rage. Assumption, though not baseless, that she would leave him if she found his presence suddenly intolerable.

She has spoken of afters , of plans for the two of them once her womb has done its work. Even if she does not feel affection to the same extent as he, there is clearly some manner of affection within her, clearly a wish to keep him close. All of the options in the world available to her, including a life with the father of her child, and yet she speaks with such ease of opportunities for what they may do next. All of the options in the world available to her, and yet for him there is now only Arya Stark, only her which gives him purpose, valar dohaeris.

He cannot risk alienating her. He cannot risk giving into the temptation she presents, the temptation her desire presents, if a possible result is the fracturing of what they have built, of what they together have become. Not while she still needs his help to travel North. If she sends him away after she has labored then his purpose lost, his service ended, valar morghulis ; not ideal but if he is to end his life for lack of use of it then he would prefer to do so knowing that she is safe. He has little attachment to himself and finds equally little fault in that. There are some parts of him, he suspects, that will always view himself as simply a tool to be used, Jaqen H’ghar or not.

And thus, working from these assumptions, decision made: if her want of him is craving influenced by the changes the babe has wrought upon her body, this craving will pass when so too does the babe pass, and they may continue as they have without having the cloud of lust suffocating them, for he is sure that exposure to his ardor without indulging it will eventually cause it to burn down to the barest of embers. If it is not craving, if it is the genuine resonance between her flesh and his, her heart and his, then she can make that choice without impairment once she’s birthed and put distance between herself and her bastard, and he can trust that choice.

And so, ultimately, he must wait.

She is just under five moons along. Just over four moons, giving some leeway for when her body decides to labor, before the matter is over. Allowance of time for her to grieve, for her to regain confidence in her autonomy.

He has waited longer periods of time for things less important than this.

 


 

Assurance gained in decision:

When finally they both muster the strength to rise, it is slowly and with much and mutual groaning.

"Fuck," he says, feelingly, when he finally pulls himself up to his full height and feels his shoulder twinge painfully, the dual discomfort of it having been whacked mercilessly with a stick the night before and then having slept on a cold and hard ground.

"Fuck," Arya echoes, limping forward a few paces with both her arms twisted to press her hands to the small of her back.

They trade quiet hissing curses as they eat breakfast and then break camp, and then, several hours after they should have been on the road already, stand together staring at their tacked horses in trepidation.

"We could just take a day," Arya suggests, though the tone of her voice doesn't sound hopeful for his response. He gestures, wordlessly and without looking at her as his eyes are still trained accusingly at his mare, towards her swollen stomach. She sighs, despondent, then squares her shoulders and lifts her chin in determination. "Well, nothing for it, I suppose."

It takes several tries to lift her into her saddle, this attributed to her pained knees and back as well as the soreness in his shoulders. It is not without difficulty or apprehension that he pulls himself upon his own horse. Then they are both sitting astride, and they both take a moment to wince in discomfort at this fact.

"I haven't felt this shitty since the waif came after me while I was blind," Arya says with a grimace, after they have spurred their mares into motion and have been on the road once more for several minutes. She winces with each step her horse takes. Then she pauses thoughtfully and amends, “Well, running through King’s Landing as it burned while suffering concussion was no peaceful jaunt either, I suppose. But at least I could see then.”

"Just so," he agrees. His spine and shoulders are in agony, his skin mottled with bruises; during their process of preparing for the day he'd stolen away to scrub himself with snow, as is the ablution ritual he performs as regularly as he can tolerate the cold, and so undressed could see the spots of discolored flesh number in the dozens and are littered across his body, testament to Arya's fit of pique the night before. "A man has not felt so since he was a boy and his Master had him running the roofs." They share a knowing, pained look. Freerunning is an important skill for an urban assassin to know, but there is a steep and wretchedly painful learning curve. Arya had her own difficulties with the practice as his apprentice due to her petite stature.

After several minutes have passed and they have both become accustomed once more to riding, he admits, "A man understands, better than I had yesterday, the discontent with a body." Arya looks over at him, brow raised in question, and he clarifies, "I too feel weaker than I should, than I'd prefer. I cannot imagine the extent to which a girl feels this, for our circumstances obviously differ, but I know enough now to sympathize."

She thinks on this for a moment before nodding. "A girl appreciates this recognition," she says, and-- the speech pattern of his origin of birth should not seem so provocative upon her lips. He swallows and forces into himself calmness. A decision made: her attraction is assumption until consent explicitly confirmed, and consent he cannot comfortably accept until she is no longer compromised. However pained he may be.

And so over the course of the day they talk to establish some sort of safe sparring they can do, some light exercise she can participate in beyond the simple YiTish stretches. Midmorning passes into afternoon, and conversation continues over their frequent stops, though these are less so than in days previous due to their shared difficulties in rising into and dropping from their saddles.

Conversation is, perhaps, a generous descriptor; argument is probably more accurate. They cannot seem to settle upon a regime that suits the both of them: he thinks they should spar in the mornings to loosen their muscles for the day, she thinks they should spar at night to tire themselves out. He believes hand-to-hand is adequate exercise and safer in practice, she would rather continue fighting with sticks. He votes for every other day to give her body time to recuperate, she says there's no point in doing it at all if it's not done daily.

Afternoon passes into evening. A resolution has still not been found. Sometimes, he thinks that Arya just likes to argue for the sake of arguing.

It is not until they have stopped for the night that they are able to come to an agreement: they will spar in the mornings, alternating days between striking with sticks and practicing pugilism, and only on those days which her body feels up to the challenge.

 "But," he says sternly as he refills their waterskins for the next day, having melted a pot of snow earlier, "a girl must be able to recognize her limits and communicate this to me. Pride should not risk health."

"Yes, yes," she sighs with a grand roll of her eyes, and he sends her a look of annoyance. She is wrapped in their blankets and settled upon their bedroll, looking bored and drowsy, as she has for the majority of the day. She is not even watching him, is instead staring into the fire with half-lidded eyes. He reaches out and gives her shoulder a light shove to make his point, and she turns a glare on him. The effect of the hateful look is dampened somewhat by the wide yawn that she looses.

They had traveled later than either had truly wanted to in attempt to make up for the time lost in the morning, and their choice of campsite is somewhat rushed; the sharp, nearly vertical incline of a hill to one side and the road at a short distance to the other. The wall of earth is shaped strangely as it towers above them, creating a small natural overhang that nearly resembles a hollow except that the dip it creates is too shallow to qualify. It is closer to the Kingsroad than he prefers, as he generally likes to camp out of sight of any travelers who may potentially turn bandit at the opportunity of chancing upon a single man and a pregnant girl asleep in the night, and there were already the bones of old campfires present, a testament to the site’s use by others in the past and proof of foot traffic. But the sun had already begun to set before they'd thought to look for a safe place to make camp, distracted as they both were by friendly argument and desire to shorten the distance between themselves and Winterfell, and the divet within the hill gives them something to break the wind that had begun to blow with increased fervor in the late afternoon.

"Arya," he admonishes. "Swear to this man you won't treat your body so recklessly as you did last night."

Another eyeroll, but she says, very put-upon, "I swear."

He narrows his own eyes at her, reads the muscles in her face, the minor twitches of her expression; this thing she says is true. He nods in acceptance. Her mouth lifts into the slightest of smiles beneath his inspection and she pulls the blankets around herself tighter before asking, “Will we fight tomorrow?” Despite the physical toll their sparring had taken on her the night before she seems eager for a repeat, eyes alight with interest. Probably she desires to cause him pain once more, since she seems to delight in it so.

His responding look is wry and his words echo this. "If a girl is willing to wake early enough that it does not impede our travel, yes. We will fight in the morn. She remembers the practice of combat with open hands, yes?"

Yet another eyeroll, this delivered with clear and mocking exaggeration; he wonders if they will not simply roll out of their sockets. Do they not tire of the constant motion? Her voice remains amused when she answers, " Yes , she remembers the slaps and the swats. What is the point of fighting with your hands if you cannot use fists?"

“The point is that slaps are less likely to cause lasting damage to--” He cuts himself off, grunting in surprise as he ducks away from the open-handed chopping motion she aims playfully at his throat. “ Arya!

She snorts out a laugh, looking quite pleased with herself for having caught him unawares. “Why’d you duck?” she asks, giggling meanly around the question. “I thought it would not cause lasting damage.” It’s his turn to glare at her, though he cannot quite help the small upturn of his mouth, charmed as ever by her petulance. Quite suddenly and quite unrelated to their conversation, she says, "I like when you say my name."

He blinks at her, confused by the abrupt change in topic. "Arya?"

She nods, looking amused. "You never used it, in Braavos. Just called me a girl , or sometimes lovely girl in the very rare times I had managed to please you." Her smile twists, the shape contorted by the lip she takes between her teeth. "Even if now you only say it when you're chastising me."

He considers her. She’s still smiling, pleased from their play. There is amusement and affection in her eyes, softening their usually stormy grey. Her lip is red from being chewed. The previous night she'd bid him to think on what he wanted; flirtation from her, and invitation to flirt in return. Assumption, but not baseless. Determination to wait for explicit approval to explore ardor, to wait for her pregnancy to pass to indulge upon it. But, if invited to, does invitation not imply permission? Flirtation is harmless. It merely stimulates. A concession, tiny.

They are, the two of them, built upon concessions. He himself was very literally born by them.

"Perhaps a girl should not do things that require such frequent chastisement," he tells her, and then when her mouth opens to argue he lowers his voice to a tone targeted to tease, a practiced murmur he has not had cause to employ for some time, and purrs, " Arya. " He drops his eyes to her lips and allows them to linger, briefly, a mirror of her own look yesterday, before glancing back up to take in her reaction in full.

Said reaction is most pleasing to witness. Her pupils dilate. Her brow, very slightly, twitches upwards as if surprised. Her breath hitches minutely. Her own eyes dart down to his own lips though hers do not linger and instead lift again instantly. Even so close as they are, side by side, he doubts these subtle tells would have been noted, were it anyone but he who taught her to exercise control over her face watching. Because it is him, he sees them clearly. He feels quite smug.

She swallows and blinks, gives a barely-there shake of her head, and then looks away. There is a moment where her emotions are bared quite plainly, before she seems to remember who, exactly, she is with and visibly relaxes the muscles in her face, wiping herself of expression. In that moment, though, she appears mildly troubled, though not offended; rather, she looks as though she has seen something and is unsure of what, exactly, it is. It is an expression that almost perfectly encapsulates the feeling that most of their interactions over the last few weeks have left him plagued with. That expression is a question, and that question is what did that mean?

Assumption of her attraction, her desire, though not baseless, and gaining merit by the hour.

Turnabout, he has always believed, is quite fair play.

 


 

He is built upon concessions:

The next morning they spar with their hands, as agreed, though this sparring is shorter and simpler than he thinks either of them were expecting; they are, arguably, in even more pain than the day before, consequence of riding for hours on end with already sore muscles. Within ten minutes of their fight her energy has flagged enough that he has already tagged her with three fatal ‘killing blows,’ having lifting his own restriction of hitting nothing from the shoulders down so long as he does not put much force behind his blows. They attack with swats and jabs, using either the backs of their knuckles or the tips of their fingers, and though certainly some of these hits will bruise it is much less painful or damaging than even sparring with sticks. Still, his aim carefully deviates from her middle.

They call it quits within a quarter hour, Arya breathing heavily and looking irritated, and this time it is he who suggests they take a day off from travel and she who argues.

“I’m fine, ” she snaps even as she leans against a tree and wraps a hand around her stomach. “I don’t need coddling, I can keep going.” He can already tell that she is working herself up into a fit of anger, brought about by her perceived weakness. Her brows are furrowed in annoyance, her body language defensive.

“Well,” he says with a sigh, sitting back down upon their bedroll and then reclining languidly, “a man intends to take a break.” He winces as he stretches back out upon the ground, and the wince is only somewhat affected. “He is sore and stiff from riding and the wind is blowing quite hard. A day by a fire sounds nice to him.”

The wind is indeed blowing rather punishingly, swirling snow through the air in little flurries as it passes through the bare and leafless trees. Though closer to the road than he would prefer, the cover of the rise at their back is much appreciated, and with the horses tied close to the small hollow they’ve claimed and the fire stoked to produce more heat their campsite is nearly cozy. It would, of course, be better if Arya would join him and stop stomping about in the snow. Charming petulance can only get a girl so far.

“You’re just trying to let me save face,” she growls, determinedly packing up what she can of their site to leave. When she bends to try to pull the bedroll out from under him he deadweights and blinks up at her innocently until she huffs and moves on to something else.

“I’m really not.” When she turns to glare at him he lifts the hem of his shirt, exposing his midriff-- there is a spectacular bruise splashed across his abdomen to show off, and gives him the opportunity to catch her reaction to being graced with bared flesh that she is unused to seeing. She blinks twice at the sight before turning away to pace once more, though he spies a flush bloom high on her cheeks. “See?” he asks, carefully keeping the satisfaction at her response from his voice. “A girl did quite a bit of damage the other night.” Still she continues her annoyed pacing and grumbling, this now seeming to split between three targets: herself, himself, and her bastard. After a particularly hateful muttered insult he sighs and sits up, cocooning himself in the blankets as he has seen her do many times, and calls out gently, “Arya.”

At her name she turns to look at him, frowning, and having gained her attention once more he says, "A girl swore to me." Reminder of her promise from the night before. After a moment her frown smooths into something approaching apologetic and her shoulders droop. Having properly delivered chastisement and feeling her response adequate, and not wanting to turn her anger instead to melancholy, he lifts an arm in invitation, beckoning her to join him beneath the bundling of fabric and furs. She blinks at him, eyes shifting from his face to the space offered and then back. He raises an eyebrow, and after a prolonged pause where she moves neither closer nor away he shakes his outstretched arm, flapping the blanket lightly.

Finally, almost reluctantly, she returns to the small hollow and lowers herself to sit beside him, slowly so as not to lose balance. Before she can seat herself fully he shifts to haul her into his lap, spreading his knees to either side of her, creating a cradle between his legs that she is deposited into with a soft noise of surprise, similarly to how he had held her for warmth when she had been sick with fever before they'd made it to the inn. Sitting against him, he cannot see her face, but a flush of red rises at the back of her neck as he bends to murmur into her ear, “Better to share heat and cover this way, no?"

Her swallow is audible. She tilts her head just slightly to look at him from the corner of her eye, her expression discerning, calculating, searching. That question in her face again, what does this mean, and, perhaps, though smothered, a touch of hope. He raises an eyebrow at her once more before breaking their connected gaze to nudge her closer and place his chin atop her head. The smell of her hair, like snow and dirt and horse sweat, fills his nose as she concedes, “I suppose.”

Slowly she relaxes into the embrace, her body softening against his, gradually allowing more and more of her weight to settle into his form. She does not seem uncomfortable, merely questioning, as though she expects him to startle her with a hard shove in jest. Finally, after several peaceful minutes, the tension of her anger has fled her completely and she heaves a sigh before turning to tuck herself more fully against his chest and beneath his chin. He rewards this by tightening his arms around her, drawing the blankets closer; and, consequently, drawing her closer still as well. This is in no way huddling. This is very, very much cuddling, and seems, at least to him, more intimate even than how they sleep together at night.

It is also a much better way to defuse her fit of temper than just allowing her to rage.

Early morning passes into midmorning, passes into early afternoon. At some point Arya, finally having decided that she does not need to remain vigilant in his hold, slips back into sleep; her nasally snores vibrate where her face has settled into the dip of his clavicle. She presses lightly against several bruises across his body, but it is not so painful to be worth disrupting her rest. Rare is the opportunity for her to peacefully nap during the day, though he knows she often has the urge and at times will do so in the saddle while he leads the horses, keeping a careful eye upon her swaying form to make sure she does not fall from her horse in her sleep.

And, truthfully, he is comfortable where he is as well, the indulgent concession to want of her form against his own. Innocuous but for intention. Her earlier wariness would give him pause save that she did not seem displeased by the attention so much as expectant that his offer of comfort was made with motive to tease. Once she had calmed and allowed herself to be trusting she had settled into his arms most easily.

These are the moments he would miss most, if his assumption proved to be true and their potential union of flesh caused a rift to form between them. These moments of softness, of acceptance of comfort; Arya is vicious, Arya is a wolf, Arya does not expect arbitrary kindness, but when she is allowed breaks for gentleness she seems to revel in them, in the quiet moments between one perceived fight and the next. She has, for so many years, travelled from one danger to another, survived trauma after trauma, such that when she is given opportunity for rest she either does not know how to take it and therefore spurns it, or allows herself to indulge but with no faith in its integrity. But now, now there is a softening to her, one not caused by her pregnancy, not caused by muscles unused. A slow melting of the ice that she has frozen her Northern heart inside so that it cannot be touched, and so untouched may it remain unwounded. And a softening to him, too: his own heart, stiff with rigor from having been smothered into unfeeling by no one , beats a slow and steady pace now, guided back to life by her hands.

Moments like this, moments formed of the trust built between them where his presence allows her some measure of peace, these are the moments that he would hate to tarnish with misplaced lust.

An assumption, though not baseless, gaining merit by the hour, by the interaction. A decision to wait, made with her best interests at heart, one he knows to be kindest to her though difficult to him. His arms tighten around her and she murmurs something vague, sense lost to sleep. Holding her now does not hurt her, does not go against his decision. Tiny concessions. Harmless to them, helpful to her, indulgent to him. He was made from concessions such as these, identity of Jaqen H'ghar birthed of them. He rests his cheek against the crown of her head and closes his eyes.

But moments like these must always, eventually, pass.

Sometime after noon, while she still naps against him, he hears a noise in the distance, further up the road. Suddenly alert, he lifts his head and listens nearly without blinking, a sniper’s focus, until the noise becomes close enough to be determined as hoofbeats. “Arya,” he says quietly into her ear, and her snoring ceases; some instinct in her, tuned to him, recognizes the warning in his voice, the way his body is still and his muscles are tense against her own, and when she wakes she does not fight or question it. She moves just enough to lift her head from where it was tucked into his throat, to better hear. It is so very different to her recent routine of grumbling when she is roused from slumber, much more akin to their early days of travel where she would rise from sleep and into instant awareness. He had not realized how much she had laxed in her attention when waking until he sees the difference in it now.

Comfort, he realizes, and were his own attention not so focused he would allow himself to be warmed by it. She lets herself sleep more deeply and wake more slowly now because she is comfortable in his presence in a way she was not before.

Neither of them move as the sound comes closer, followed by the noise of voices, indistinct with distance and halfway drowned out by the hoofbeats. A little less than a minute after she wakes the party comes into view; seven men, all of them mounted but with two men having to share one horse, four of them armored and all of them armed and none of them carrying standard that can be seen, traveling South. Sheltered as the two of them are within the small hollow, and this blocked partially from view by the bulk of their own horses being tethered close to maintain heat, they are in better position to see without being seen, though it will be clear to those passing on the road that their small camp is still in use.

The travelers on the road draw short, the moment that they spy Jaqen and Arya’s mares made obvious by the sudden pause in movement. Voices, soft; they speak at a purposefully low volume so as not to carry and be heard, and between the stamps and snorts of all horses present he cannot catch what is being said with any reliability. Arya does not move in his arms, her breathing measured and slow, and he does not have to look at her to know that she, like him, is watching the men carefully. Still wearing what they had worn to spar in, he lacks his armor, not having donned it for fear of her breaking her fingers if she tried to strike the leather and misjudged her aim or the strength of the blow's delivery, and her bandolier of knives, her Needle, and his shortsword are all still settled where they had deposited them that morning at their packs and saddlebags.

Two of the men break off from their fellows and ride their mounts at a walk towards them. "Get a man's sword as well," he tells her softly, and feels her short nod of acknowledgment before she rises from the space his body has made for her to stand. Once they are untangled from each other he climbs to his feet too, letting the blankets fall in a puddle around him. Arya slips around him on silent feet, her shoulders high and tight. Immediately his skin, bared to the cold despite his cloak after several hours of sharing her heat, prickles into gooseflesh but the stance he adopts is casual, hooking his thumbs into his belt and strolling from the small hollow they have made their camp in to lean against the side of the dun mare, still unsaddled, and watch the two men approach. His mare turns and noses at him for attention, unaware of the tension in her rider, and he nudges her face away with his shoulder.

"Well met," one of the men calls out when they've reached the edge of the road. They do not hesitate to step off of it and into the snow, coming closer. The horse of the one who'd spoken tosses its head as it nears their mares. The man speaking has an easy smile and bad teeth. "Haven't passed many travelers on the road recently, this far into winter. Have you?"

"Well met yourself," Jaqen says politely to the greeting, sizing up the party. The five men who'd hung back on the road are watching the interaction, each in varying degrees of interest with the deepest of which nearing hungry , and this belonging to the man who's sharing a mount with one of his fellows. "Not many, no."

Behind him he hears the shuffling noise of Arya quickly tugging on the straps of her bandolier, the creak of leather as she fusses with the belting of his sword.

The second man who'd approached speaks now, and his smile is much less easy than the first's. "Good looking horses you have there. Healthy." Jaqen nods in agreement but doesn't respond. "Hard to keep horses healthy on the road in winter." He nods again. A presence comes up behind him, and he feels the lightest lift at the back of his cloak; Arya slips one of her knives into the waistband of his breeches. Her own weapons are hidden beneath her cloak, and she cannot hand him his sword without it being obvious that she is arming him. She remains close at his side, and her suspicion is palpable as she eyes the intruders.

They too notice her; from the group of five on the road there is a quiet murmur exchanged between a few of the men, and then snorting laughs.

The first man who'd spoken turns very briefly to glare at the rest of his party over his shoulders before looking back at the two of them with another smile. "Well met to you as well, little miss," he says to Arya; Jaqen does not have to look at her to know that her brow has ticked in annoyance. His attention returns to Jaqen, clearly having assumed him to be the superior of their pairing. When he speaks, his voice is still friendly, reasonable. "Small thing like her, you could double up easier than my friends back there can," he chuckles, gesturing back to where the two men on the road are sharing a single mount.

"Easier access too," says one of the men still at distance. "Cunt just right there in front of you." Another laugh resounds from the group. Arya takes a step forward, body language the fury of ice, but he places a hand in front of her to still her in place. Given the attitude of the group at large, hers included, he has doubts that the situation can be salvaged without some manner of violence, but the man who’d first approached them seems to be of a more tempered sort.

The seeming leader of the party, the man with bad teeth, gives the two of them a simpering smile. "You'll have to excuse my friends, it's been a long journey, and we lost one of our horses a week back. Tensions rise when two men have to share a saddle, you know how it is. If you'd be willing to barter, we--"

The second man who'd approached them interrupts. "How much for the horse?"

A shout from the group behind them, coming from one of the two men sharing a horse. "How much for the girl?" Another chorus of laughter. The speaker continues, "You can have her back after we’re done, if you want."

He is not a man prone to rage, but a flare of anger still ignites in his chest, making him grit his teeth. A gentle tug at his sleeve; once Arya has his attention and he leans very slightly towards her, she tells him softly, "That one is mine. " Jaqen sighs, feeling all chance of peaceful resolution beginning to slip through his fingers.

"Three gold for the horse," someone else calls out, and the man who'd first approached them sighs as well, looking annoyed but unsurprised at the behavior of his fellows. "One gold for the girl."

"No," another voice replies, "five silver for the girl, she's been used already. Look at the size of that bump!"

"A man is uninterested," Jaqen tells them sharply, voice brooking no argument and allowing for no leeway. He eyes the five men hanging back. The two sharing a saddle, first. She has not been able to give him his sword yet, but if he moves quickly enough he could grab the blade Arya had slid into the back of his breeches. He is not as good at throwing knives as she is, but he is still fair hat at it. "He suggests, respectfully, that you leave."

The man with bad teeth smiles again, this time less kindly. “I really wish you’d let us pay you, friend. I’d hate to have to kill you over a horse and a whore.” There goes the idea that this man is more tempered. Ah, well. Let it not be said that he did not first attempt diplomacy.

Arya's face is blank, a study of emotionlessness. He would think her deaf to the words if he did not know her well enough to know that she is assessing their potential combatants and determining who she will take out first, just as he'd taught her to, just as he himself is. "A girl will stay back," he commands quietly, and feels her tense in anger at his side. "She is compromised. I will handle this."

"Five silver to give her back afterwards, eight to keep her, a gold piece to cut his tadpole out of her and put a different one in." The men are mostly talking amongst themselves at this point over how much they believe Arya to be monetarily worth and more laughter rings out, echoing across the snow.

He should, at this point, have expected what comes next.

She moves fast, faster than even his trained senses could have tracked to stop, and with shocking speed draws a hand from beneath her cloak, wrist flicking to fling one of her knives through the air. It spins, end over end, blade over hilt, to lodge directly into the eye of the horse carrying the two men in a single saddle. Yes, she is much better at throwing knives than he. The squeal the beast lets out is short, aborted; it pitches to the side, back legs kicking in a wild spasm, and topples first onto its front before falling prone. It is dead before it fully hits the ground, courtesy of the knife tickling its brain, but both its riders are dragged down with it, shouting in surprise and tumbling from their saddle, one man screaming as he is crushed beneath the weight of his dead mount.

The previously calm afternoon erupts into absolute bedlam.

All horses present, including their own, begin to panic. Their two mares tug at their tethers, rearing in place, and he must jerk to the side to avoid the frightened stamping of his dun. Arya has moved ahead of him; another knife is let fly and finds a target in the chest of the man with the bad teeth, whose mount bolts, taking off into the woods at speed. If the man with the bad teeth yet lives, he does not control his horse enough to stop its frantic escape.

The second man of the pair who’d approached them, the one who was less kind, screams obscenities and draws his sword, but then promptly drops it with a howl as Arya takes Jaqen’s own shortsword which she had held onto and reaches up in one smooth motion to stab directly into the man’s groin before dancing away on quick feet. Blood pours down the man’s breeches and incites his own horse into a buck that knocks him, wailing, from his saddle and onto the ground. She then tosses Jaqen his blade and he catches it by the hilt, feeling the familiar weight and heft, before bending to pick up the dying man’s own dropped sword as well. He swings it once to test the balance, finds it not to his liking, and then hefts his arm back to throw it with a grunt. It spins through the air, a mimicry of her knives but larger, to impale itself into the torso of one of the unarmored men charging towards them. The metal sinks into his flesh, punching into him at an angle; the hit not as precise as Arya’s keen aim and the blade cleaves partially into his shoulder before it is stopped by the dense bone, but the man stumbles with a scream nonetheless and drops to die in the snow.

By now the others have dismounted in varying degrees of grace, having correctly deduced that being ahorse will not help them in such short quarters with terrified mounts. If they had been riding warhorses then perhaps, but their steeds are largely young and seem untrained to handle the stress of bloody combat, likely collected from other travelers on the road through similar means as they’d tried to take Jaqen and Arya’s own. Those unfortunate victims, though, were probably far less equipt for violence than two trained assassins are. There is enough time for Arya to bend to slide her Needle into the throat of the man with the bloody groin before the remaining three brigands fall upon them, the fourth still stuck screaming in pain and rage beneath the dead horse.

The melee ends remarkably quickly. Jaqen parries the sword of one man with his own and deals him a deadly slice across his gut before turning to meet another opponent whose sword is raised to deliver a downward strike but whose face suddenly laxes; this man pitches forward limply and Jaqen sees the hilt of another of Arya’s knives sticking from the back of his skull. He grabs the handle and allows momentum and the dead man’s weight to pull the knife out, stepping to the side as the body falls before throwing that same knife into the chest of a third man squaring off with Arya, carefully edging around the length of her Needle. That man gasps in shock to find a blade unexpectedly in his skin; Arya lunges forward, draws it from his chest with a squirt of blood, and then stabs it up into the man’s chin and drags it down, opening his throat in a red waterfall.

She steps away from the twitching corpse. He pauses to stare at her; vicious, violent, unrelenting in her vengeance against the men who’d thought to rob them and take her autonomy from her. There’s a beatific smile on her face, splattered red from arterial spray, blood in her teeth and eyes like a wolf. He could watch her do her most deadly of work for the rest of his days-- movement, behind him, a change of air pressure. He reaches behind himself to draw the knife she’d pushed into his waistband and turns to drive it into the chest of the man who he’d previously cut across the belly, though not fast enough to prevent the slice aimed at his own gut that scores a line low on his navel. The man’s sword then falls from limp fingers to land with clatter on the ground, snow melting to pink slush beneath spilled and steaming blood. He maintains eye contact with the man as he dies, watches the life leave him, valar morghulis.

Arya begins laughing as he lets the man drop to the ground, turns to glance at her.

“That was easy!” she crows in malicious delight, vicious in victory. “How is it that I get tired play-slapping with you but I can kill a handful of men without breaking a sweat?”

"Adrenaline. Anger. Also, you play-slapped with a Faceless Man for a quarter-hour without break, then threw some knives at some unarmored bandits for twelve seconds." He bends to wipe the gore from his blade on the dead man's clothes, just restraining a wince as it pulls on the opened skin of his stomach. "The difference of energy expended between the two is not comparable."

She laughs again and toes the head one of the brigands laying in the snow to check if he is dead. " Threw some knives, he says. I will handle this, he says. Haven't you learned by now I can take care of myself? Besides, you threw a bloody sword! Why not keep it? I've seen you dual-wield."

"The balance was shit," he tells her with a shrug. She slits a man's throat to ensure he is dead, and Jaqen approaches her, rests a hand on her shoulder to lightly and slowly spin her in place for his inspection. She allows it, looking at first confused and then annoyed and then amused. "A girl was not harmed?" Now that his own adrenaline has passed, the violence done, worry takes its place as his focus. He had not seen her to be harmed but neither was he able to keep attention on her throughout the encounter. "A child?" Temptation to set a hand against her middle, to assure himself of her babe's safety, to try to feel that movement of life within though he knows she is not far enough along for the quickening to be discernible from the outside. A tiny concession: built upon them, he places a palm across her stomach. He still feels nothing, but her answering smile is nightshade, sweet and deadly.

"We are fine," she says with a smirk. She places a hand atop his, moves it a few inches to the left and down, closer to the divet of her navel. "Here, he moves. Can you feel it?" He shakes his head and she chuckles once more. "I'm shocked. It feels like he's dancing in there. Like he's excited by the fight." She looks down at her stomach and that wolfish grin softens just slightly as she regards her swollen womb. Then her eyes lift from her form to his own and her brows furrow. "Jaqen, you're bleeding."

He pulls away to look. He is. Sluggishly, though blood still wets the front of his shirt, the waist of his breeches, testament to the thin slice he'd taken across his own navel. Had it been her instead of him to receive such a wound-- but it was not her.

"A man is fine," he says gruffly, "it is nothing. A scratch. You're sure you were not hurt?"

"Yes," she hisses, annoyed, as she tries to pull the hem of his shirt up to verify the claim and he swats her hands away. Adrenaline passed, worry assuaged, but she still has wolf's eyes and his blood still pumps within his heated veins. The accuracy of her throws, the speed of her movement despite her size; blood pumps within him indeed. "Stupid man, let me see--"

" Cunts! Fucking cunts!"

They both stop their squabbling to turn to where the last living brigand is caught beneath the horse. The man pushes ineffectually against the dead beast, unable to shove its weight off enough to free himself, and he screams at them violently for another few seconds before returning to the quiet grunts of struggle.

Arya's pupils dilate as they had the night before, vindictive desire evident on her face. Again he is graced with an expression that belongs to a different sort of dance than combat, but her lustful look is aimed to the thought of killing. Blood on her face, wolf's eyes, she can take care of herself; yes, his blood pumps, his body hums , tuned to her .

Killing has never brought him the satisfaction of flesh, though he knows it is not uncommon for those accustomed to death to find it so stimulating. Truthfully little in his life has stirred him to ardor unprovoked, and less than that as often or as intensely as Arya does. Especially, it seems, when she fights. Death that walks, that smiles, that jokes and flirts; death that is a lovely, lovely girl. Blasphemy in his heart: what ardent worship to her he would perform. To taste the blood of her kills upon her lips, to offer prayer at the altar her flesh makes to Him their god by her simple existence, to feel those muscles and that skin that make house that feral soul against his own.

Yes. His body hums.

"A man believes you had claimed that death," he murmurs, and her eyes stray from the pinned man back to him, a hunger in her bared teeth. "I will clean my wound and change clothes." She tilts her head as if trying to decide if she wants to pursue her bloodlust or assure herself that his injury is as minor as he claims, and he shakes his head and gestures to the man who has begun screaming again. "Go, Arya. Collect what is yours." Her answering smile is unkind and she stalks away from him, towards her soon-to-be kill.

He breathes out, hard, through his nose. She'd killed so easily, so adroitly; pride in him as her teacher, as her friend, to see that carrying child makes her no less dangerous. He hopes that this will give her some small boost of confidence, to be assured that though blunted her body is still a weapon. He should not be hard.

Good that they had not saddled their horses, for the two mares are still skittish and afraid as he returns to their camp to collect fresh clothing. The wound across his navel is shallow, had been delivered without much force thanks to the blow he himself had dealt the man who'd given it to him. It rests a few inches above his hip, nearly parallel to the cut he'd suffered from the shaking boy's crossbow bolt before they'd arrived at the inn. It does not hurt him terribly, this a combination of cold weather, tolerance to pain, and lack of severity, but it does pull when he walks and continues to weep blood. He rustles through his pack, grabs the cleanest clothing he currently owns, his medical kit, and the waterskin of snowmelt. It would be better if they had wine, but alas they lack alcohol thanks to the midwife's admonishments.

He moves a fair distance from their camp, out into the woods, following the natural wall of the hill at his back until he finds a spot with decent enough cover to insure his privacy. He sheds his cloak and shirt and shrugs into the clean one at speed, his skin prickling and flushed from the cold, and then peels his bloody breeches from his hips and thighs, hissing in discomfort as the waistband drags tauntingly over where his manhood is still stubbornly swollen with interest.

Blood runs with adrenaline, the body reacts. It is normal after violence. His assurances fall flat, even to himself. It is only-- her expression, her bared teeth, exultant with the thrill of battle after so long at rest. Her strength, her speed , such that even he could not track her initial movements, her impeccable aim with her knives, the fluid way she had unmanned the mounted attacker with Jaqen's own blade.

He picks through his medical kit, pulls out his needle and his silk thread, uncaps the waterskin and carefully washes the wound. The water against his skin is nearly painful in the frigid temperature, and he wipes it away quickly. He sits to lean against a tree, readying the needle and thread. The angle makes it difficult to stitch his own navel but he manages, eyes firmly locked onto the wound and not the bulge his member makes against the front of his new pants. Even as he repairs it his body betrays him. He will not indulge his own stupidity, he will not. Shameful to find pleasure in a situation that could have ended so poorly. If Arya had not been able to get her knives, if she had not reacted so quickly, if the bandit's horses had been better trained--

But it hadn't ended poorly. It'd ended with her triumphant, half a dozen dead men at her feet and she untouched by the victims of her fury who had thought to make victim of her. It had ended with her ferocious laugh, her bestial smile, her hand over his hand over her swollen womb, a wolf protecting her pack, a mother protecting her child.

His member throbs. He stabs himself with the needle in punishment.

When he is finished with the stitching he applies honey to the wound, coating it lightly before wrapping it in bandages from his kit. He pulls up his breeches. Stands. Paces a few turns around his tree. Stops and takes a deep breath.

He has not touched himself in moons. Moons upon moons. He has not wanted to until these last few weeks. His body did not know desire for its own sake before her. He was not so afflicted by want. Damning, and damned by her, as seems to be his wont.

He stares down at the evidence of his perversion. Takes another deep breath.

He is made of tiny concessions.

He gasps to draw himself out, to put to palm the hard shape of his manhood. He leans once more against the tree and sighs. Daily he takes himself in hand to make water, when he is soft or semi-hard with sleep, but it is something else entirely to do so with intent to spill. He is hot in his own hand, hot and rigid, and throbs once more at the first stroke. He is not tentative, not hesitant, not gentle or slow; quite aware that Arya will be waiting for his return; Arya, Arya , vicious Arya, deadly Arya, his girl, his student who became his equal, his better .

Her smile, evil, the intensity in her eyes, the storm of ice that sings in her skin when she hunts prey of man with her teeth of knives; would she smile to see him so undone? Would her eyes be so intense to watch him touch himself to the thought of her? He breathes out hard through his nose. Would she touch him? Taste? Where? His mouth, his hands, his cock? Her fingers, smaller than his own and thinner and paler, wrapped around his member to tug as he tugs now. Her lips at the skin of his mast, kissing affection against the swollen head, tasting his seed, the proof of his lust. Her eyes, half-lidded to stare as she touches him slowly, as she traces the veins along the underside with her tongue before taking him in her mouth to sit in the wet warmth of her throat.

Or would she demand attention to her own pleasure?

Oh! The delight he would take in giving this attention. He increases the speed of his strokes. He would make her wet first, make her wanting, make her want as he wants; his tongue against her slit, into it, lapping her to a drip before he sank inside. In the snow, like animals. He would press his thumb to the pearl of nerves above her hole until her legs trembled, until her muscles clenched in delight around him inside her. He would take his fingers, covered in her honey, and suck them, offer her a taste so she could know the savage sweetness of her cunt as he used it for its designed purpose. His hips push forward, into his grip, his movements desperate, his mind imagining how her heat would envelope him, how she would take him in her girlish clasp, how their groins would meet with a slap of skin, audible from her slick. 

His hand works, twisting at the head of his member. The thin musk that leaks before seed spills drips from him, wetting his fingers, turning his grip into a smooth slide. A vein twitches beneath his knuckles. His testicles feel hot, full, desperate to empty. To come inside her, to feel his seed fill her womanly channel, to know that pleasure the father of her child had known. Her ass, firm in his hands, flushed red with irritation from a swat, from his nails digging into the skin, from the slap of his hips as he pushed inside of her as deeply as he could.

Her breasts in his hands, soft and giving and swollen with milk, her nipples pebbled and tight between his fingers. The taste of their gift, his lips wrapped around them to suck, the pink bud rolling beneath his tongue as she tangled her hands in his hair to hold him close. How they would sway as he took her from behind, hang heavy as she rode him, bounce as he laid her onto her back to fit between her legs, thighs wrapped around him, her ankles digging into his spine as he buried himself again and again and again, her head thrown back to howl, throat bared to kiss, her eyes shut with ecstasy, her mouth open as if to scream his name--

He gasps her own name, " Arya ," and spills over his fingers and into the snow with a soft grunt, his balls drawing up and tightening with each throb that looses seed. It is consuming; he has not touched himself this way in so very long. He had nearly forgotten how good it felt to work himself to release. He knocks his head backwards into the tree, his chest heaving with breaths, thick and viscous spend cooling rapidly where it had caught between his fingers.

The shame is immediate.

He tucks himself away before he has even fully softened and hisses in discomfort as his sensitive member is shoved back into his breeches. The rigorous roll of his hips had pulled at his stitches until the flesh is swollen and sore but nonetheless aftershocks of pleasure shoot like lightning across his skin, through his veins; he grits his teeth in punishment until his jaw is pained. Foolish lustful man. He'd made a decision , he was going to be good. He was not going to indulge his ardor until given consent. Shameful. The dehumanization, the objectification placed upon her. Like he is nothing more than those men who'd thought to buy her.

Tiny concessions. Damning. Damn it.

"Fuck," he sighs despondently, and cleans his soiled hands off in the snow.

 


 

And, the lesson he will apparently never learn; identity of Jaqen H'ghar was born not of tiny concessions, but rather of their consequences :

"Five silver to let you go without your tongue," Arya says, standing over the body of the dead horse and staring down at the struggling man with satisfaction curling lazily in her chest.

"Fuck you, you fucking bitch!" He spits at her but the angle is poor, trapped as he is on the ground with his lower half stuck. Tears are streaming from his eyes and blood trickles from his mouth; the weight of the beast falling on his middle ruptured something within his gut. "I'll cut you open cunt to ass until that little shit inside you drips out!"

She puts a foot atop the horse's stomach and leans into it, pressing the weight into him further. The man screams , his wail agonized, and flails, more blood bubbling up between his lips. "Eight if you want to keep your fingers and eyes too."

"Fuck! Just let me go!" He's sobbing now. It's beautiful. Music. She almost wishes she'd waited a little longer to open Walder Frey's throat. She would have liked to hear him sob.

She's learned from her mistakes.

"A gold piece," she tells him, voice lowered to the throaty purr that she learned from Jaqen, "and all I take off is your cock."

"Please," he weeps. "Please."

She lets him plead a little longer, lets him cry. The babe moves inside her womb, flutters pressed against her gut, moving from one spot to the next. Dancing, she'd said to Jaqen; the movements are not discomforting, not just shy of painful as they usually are. Just activity, as if the babe within shifts simply to find the best view possible. He-- it had moved throughout the short fight, reaction possibly to her own movement. Like her, the child seems to delight in vengeance.

Of course. The first time she feels anything like actual kinship to her bastard and it is while she is killing someone.

When she bores of the man's tears she takes Needle to his throat, sticking him through with the pointy end. His skin parts like butter beneath the sharp blade and she cocks her head and blinks down at him languidly as he chokes on the blood that bubbles up behind his teeth to pour from his lips. Mmm. She will never not enjoy killing sick fucks who deserve it.

She retrieves her knife from the horse's skull, wipes it clean on the blanket beneath the saddle, before going to hunt for the others she'd thrown. The one in the lungs of the man with bad teeth is likely lost to her, for she does not think at this point she could track his runaway mount to retrieve it. Ironic that the whole debacle had started over the bandits wanting one of their mares; all six of the horses they'd rode up on have disappeared, fleeing into the woods. Earlier in her sleep she'd had a wolfdream, but Nymeria was not hunting, was lazy with her own nap and curling amongst her cousins. She will have to try to warg into her mirror later, to let her know of the new prey running loose.

Shame that the horses had run, though. She'd have liked to have gone through the saddlebags to see what goods the bandits had carried. Spare clothes, more furs, cooked food-- a tent. Any of those would have been helpful.

Inside the one bag that she can reach of the dead horse, the other smashed into the ground beneath the corpse's weight and unavailable to her unless she and Jaqen can force the body to roll, she finds socks , bless the old gods, and some smallclothes she would not touch with a pole. Gloves that will not fit her but perhaps Jaqen could use. Trail biscuits and a small tin of spiced animal fat used for cooking. Maybe with this they can add some flavor to whatever meat Nymeria brings them next. Perhaps she should not, but she misses the cuisine of Braavos dearly. Everything there had tasted so rich. She feels like she's been in a war and on the road for so long now that everything just tastes like mud.

She hauls all this back to their camp, having to take several trips; she'd laughed at Jaqen earlier for her burst of energy, but now that energy flags once more, like it had during their spar that morning. Still, she is comforted by the fact that though her muscles have softened and she does not have the endurance she used to, she seems to have retained her aim and her speed. She can defend herself. She can kill. The look on his face when she had put a knife through the skull of the man who'd been charging him… and the way he'd pulled the knife out and returned it to her by throwing it into the chest of the man who'd been harrying her. The tandem they'd worked in, the fluidity of their movements. She'd been aware of his body at all times, conscious of his steps, the shifts of his weight.

She sighs.

It had been so different, he had been so different, to the gentle way he'd held her that morning, like she was something to be treasured. That had been Jaqen, a man she's learning to be surprisingly considerate; in the fight he had been her Master in Braavos, the teacher she had tried to emulate, she had wanted to become. Ah, the intensity in him as he'd killed that last man who'd cut him, stared straight into his eyes as he died… had she been old enough in Harrenhal to feel the want of flesh, likely she'd have been lost on him from the beginning, from the very first time he killed for her. Probably good then that she had been too young and too innocent of sex to know want of such things.

She shivers. She knows them now.

When several minutes have passed without his return she takes to checking the pockets of all the various corpses. Coins, mostly, are her prizes. Coppers for the majority, some silver. Fair enough. She finds no Lord's sigil, no written identification; simple brigands prowling the road, perhaps broken men of the wars past. She had wondered-- she'd killed the main branch of the Freys, Walder's sons and grandsons, but cousins still wander, and bannermen too. But if these men came from the family of the Twins then they do not advertise it.

While she is shuffling through the pockets of one man, a hand braced on her sore back as she squats, she hears the soft noise of hooves and turns, knife in her hand prepared to throw, to see one of the six horses of the bandits, lacking rider. It apparently has returned to try to find its master, though it stamps nervously and its ears are pinned back. It takes some cajoling to get it to calm, some soothing murmurs, but eventually the horse, a gelded blue roan, allows her to approach and take its reins.

She smirks as she leads it over to their mares, who turn to sniff at it in interest. The bandits had come for one of her horses, and now she'll leave with one of theirs. Good, for now they have a spare to hold their packs and for her to switch between once she is of a size that riding constantly on one horse may tire the animal.

By the time she has hobbled the roan, not trusting its disposition to merely tie it as they'd done with the mares, Jaqen still has not returned. She frowns and wipes at some blood that had dried to a crust across her cheek. He had not seemed terribly worried about the cut he'd taken, but was it worse than he'd anticipated? Can he not reach to stitch himself? Have his guts fallen into the snow and he lies dead even now? Fool man, he should have let her check on it before stomping off!

If he is injured-- she huffs a breath and shoves the fear from her mind. It cuts deeper than swords, this she knows. He cannot be so debilitated by wound, they are only just now starting to get somewhere. She knows she had seen interest on his face, she knows it, for he had looked at her the way Gendry had looked at her and Gendry was certainly interested. 

Thinking of Gendry makes her hurt, as it sometimes does. Affection between them had been genuine, born of shared hardships in childhood, and perhaps she could have loved him if she had let herself, if he had let her. But, even if he had not become a Lord she thinks there would have been some manner of expectation in him that she would have found galling to meet. He would want children, for that is what men want; heirs to carry blood, is that not why she keeps her own babe? For blood of Stark? But born of bastardry as Gendry was, he would not want to father one himself, and she will not marry. She has gone through too much to lose her name.

Part of her will always care for Gendry, so much as she is capable of caring for him, for the loyalty he'd proven to her family, for the sensitivity he had shown her; he was not unkind, when he took her maidenhead. He had made sure she enjoyed the act with a consideration that she knows most girls in her station do not receive from their first lover. Part of her will always hate him for leaving her when they were children, for wanting more from her as adults than she was capable of offering him. He claimed to love her, but he knew her so little that he truly thought she would marry him to be a Lady? That, she thinks, is not love. That is idealism.

She is not sure she knows what love is. She could not confidently claim to truly love anyone, save her brothers and sister. But… if it is not love she feels for Jaqen then it is at the very least affection, and perhaps more than that affectionate possession , and she will not let this man she has claimed as her own die in the snow. Not before she fucks him first, anyway.

And she will. She's decided it. There is interest in him, she knows it now; he wants as she wants and must only be convinced to act upon that want. Nymeria was right, not that she will admit that to the direwolf for fear of inflating the beast's already monstrous ego: she had only needed to be more explicit in her desire for him to have confidence in it.

Well.

If he wants explicit, she'll give him explicit. She's much better at that than subtle flirting.

It is this thought that spurs her away from their camp to follow him into the forest. Finding his trail is not difficult, he had not been attempting to hide his tracks; she huffs and puffs as she slogs through the snow. It has fallen thick here, off the road and at the base of the steep hill, and comes to nearly her knees. She steps in the bootprints he'd left, the better to conserve energy rather than trying to wade through the snow herself. Twice she has to stop and catch her breath. "Useless fuck," she mumbles in habit at her womb, and then staunchly smothers the rise of guilt that threatens to take her. She won't feel guilty about being honest, she won't . It is a useless fuck.

It takes her a minute or so to find him. She opens her mouth to call out, to say there you are and chastise him, but instead she stops and blinks. She would think him holding himself to make water, except-- with a quiet gasp she ducks behind the trunk of a bare and leafless tree, hiding her form from his view as he--

Holy fuck . He's having a wank.

Heat shoots down her spine to settle in her core, feminine muscles clench in sudden interest. Fits spurred by the babe have driven her on occasion to sudden lust but she hides these the best she can and tries to ignore the unprompted want. This is certainly not unprompted. She hears, the noise purposefully muffled but echoed across the snow nonetheless, a soft grunt followed by a sigh. Warmth pools further and she bites her lip.

Slowly, so slowly and so very cautiously, she peeks around the trunk of her tree and watches with wide eyes.

He is leaning against his own tree, shoulders hunched, face tightened as if in pain. His cock is hard. She cannot discern details of it, obscured as it is by his pumping fist, but-- thick. Thick she can tell. Her muscles clench again, the visceral want to have that inside her. Gendry was thick and it had hurt at first but she had ridden him slow and once she'd loosened around him the thickness was good , so good.

She's seen men wank before, at Ragman's when she was a Cat of the canals, though she'd had no interest in watching then and had often jeered insults at the men as she'd passed. Regardless, she's not unfamiliar with the concept, and so too has she seen whores perform the service for clients when she would deliver clams and cockles to the brothels. The whores had often done their work with looks of boredom or, if they were paid well enough, faux-delight, an affectation she could read as a lie in their expression thanks to her training. The men themselves often looked ridiculous, red-faced and panting, squealing like pigs as they rutted mindlessly into whatever hand held them.

Maybe it is inherent to Jaqen, maybe it is born of her want of him; there is a dangerous beauty in how he touches himself, in the way his expression twists, one moment furrowing his brows in demand and the next lowering them in a pleading sigh, as if he is unsure of what he wants from his body and it too is unsure of him. His hips move into his hand but it is nearly graceful instead of a boarish rut, the lines of his body a pleasing aesthetic as his muscles work visibly beneath his skin.

She had touched Gendry sparingly, this not of disgust but of desire to get him inside her quickly, and so did not have opportunity to explore the length of him, to luxuriate in the feel of the soft skin stretched over the hardness within. She watches Jaqen now, lip between her teeth. Her mouth waters. Her smallclothes are damp. If she touched his cock she would not have to feign her interest as she'd seen the whores do.

Would he let her play with it? Indulge her curiosity? Run her fingers from root to stem and press her thumb against the head? Would he find her shameful or wanton for wanting to taste? She's heard some women say it is disgusting to have seed spent in their mouth and heard others say it makes them feel powerful. She liked riding Gendry, being on top: it made her feel powerful like the whores had said. Would taking Jaqen in her mouth and seeing that pleading expression on his face so close and because of her give her that feeling of power too?

Would he let her ride him? Stupid question, of course he'd let her-- would he enjoy it? Or would he prefer to take her from behind as wolves do their mates, the better to hide her fat stomach, her swollen thighs? A discontent blooms briefly in her heart, for why would he want such a cow naked atop him, why would he want her in a position to see her ugly and long horseface, but she banishes this as quickly as she has it. Even if he thought those things she thinks he would be considerate enough not to mention them.

His hand speeds up its motions, the jerking he gives his cock looking nearly painful. Her eyes dart from his groin to his face, unsure of where she wants to focus attention. His face, so expressive, nearly alien for how incredibly much of himself he is allowing to be seen-- but wait, he's not allowing himself to be seen, he doesn't know --

Guilt is sudden, immediate. She pulls back behind her tree and nearly slaps herself. This is not a show he is putting on for her, this is a moment of vulnerability he had taken pains to find a secluded place to hide. How often has he given her distance when distance is what she'd required? How often has he been considerate to her privacy, her wants and needs? Bitch, she thinks to herself angrily. Stupid bitch in heat. This is not meant for her--

A quiet moan, low and guttural, and then breathed as if in prayer, " Arya. "

She stifles a gasp, and then a laugh of delight, and then steals away back through the snow, careful to step where there are already tracks. Even at her size she is quiet when she wants to be.

Though not an intentional show, it seems that was indeed meant for her after all.

Chapter Text

(Not so long ago as it feels and not so far away as it seems:

Lord Eddard Stark sits beneath the heart tree in the godswood of Winterfell, Ice across his lap and whetstone in hand, when he hears the rustling of underbrush close by. He pauses. The noise stops. No one approaches. After a moment he does another stroke with his stone. Footsteps, slapping in the mud. He pauses once more and there is a tiny giggle.

He closes his eyes and lets loose a little sigh to hide his smile. Neither Jon nor Robb would scurry through the bushes at their age: they would walk with respect through this sacred place. Sansa does not like the godswood, adhering to the faith of her mother. Only the younger ones would sneak, but it is midday and the children should be at meal. This narrows down the possibilities further. Rickon is too young to get to the wood without assistance and Bran is too likely to have attention doted upon him by Catelyn or Maester Luwin to be able to escape table; Arya, though… she's clever enough to wait for her septa to focus on her sister before she snuck away.

"Arya," he calls out pointedly, trusting his educated guess and lifting his head. At hearing her name the girl gives another giggle and bursts through the bushes, bright and green with summer leaves, and trots over on bare feet, comfortable in this natural temple to the gods in the way that only the truly ignorant or truly devoted can be. She holds her flimsy and soiled slippers in her hands, and there's mud down the back of her dress; she's slipped in the yard again. Her smile is gap toothed and wide but dims somewhat when he asks, "Should you not be eating with your siblings?"

"I did eat!" she says, defensively, and flops upon the ground, heedless to the state of her clothing, to shove her feet into the steaming, heated water of the pool at the base of the tree. There is a twig in her hair, he notes, and the careful braid her mother put in that morning is tousled and mussed. Catelyn will be wroth. He hums and returns to his sharpening.

"I should hope," Ned tells her. "If you do not eat you will stay the same size forever and everyone who sees you will always think you a little girl."

Her childish face tightens for a brief moment and he spies an unexpected flash of hurt that makes him stop the movement of his whetstone to glance at her in concern. Almost as quickly as he notices this though, her bluster returns. "I won't! I'm going to be big, and strong, and I'm going to be a knight! " She kicks her feet in the pool a couple times before water splashes over the side of it to soak the hem of her dress. She subsides when he sends her a dry look of reproach.

She really is a strange little girl. He loves her fiercely, as fiercely as he loves any of his sons, but there is too much of Lyanna in her sometimes. He could chastise her for the statement, remind her of her place, but despite himself he finds it endearing as well; and besides, that brief look of hurt in her expression gives him pause. He takes a moment to look her over, for he knows all his children as well as he is able and he is familiar with their mannerisms: despite her giggling and her boasting, Arya's shoulders are tight and drawn, her gray eyes pinched at the corners, and upon further reflection her splashing appears less playful than it is nervous. Something, it seems, has upset his younger daughter.

Arya is sensitive beneath her bluster, sensitive in a way different to her older sister’s sensitivities. She hates to be reminded of her weaknesses, hates to be doted upon the way Sansa adores, kicks and fidgets whenever Catelyn tries to fuss over her skinned knees or elbows. Better to let whatever her upset is pass, or allow her to bring it up herself, for if he makes mention of it or asks questions she will puff up like a cat, hiss defenses, and then slink away like one too. "And why do you want to be a knight?" he asks indulgently, hoping to distract her from whatever little wound she carries. As young as she is, and as carefree as only a child of a great Lord can be, surely whatever pains her cannot be too debilitating and will pass given sufficient time.

Her answer is instant and delivered matter-of-factly. "Because knights get to fight. They get to enter tourneys and travel around and do jousting!" She lifts her hands, the sleeves of her dress waving as she gestures wildly the way young children do. He nods along, for knights do indeed get to do those things.

"They have responsibilities too, though," he reminds her. Responsibilities like riding to war if called upon. Responsibilities like tracking down and putting to justice murderers, pillagers, rapers. Responsibilities that he wishes on none of his children but knows that, at least for Robb and Bran, will be expected once they are men grown. Rickon as the youngest mayhaps will be a maester, and Jon--

He still is not sure what to do with Jon.

But Arya, sweet and feral little Arya, should not have those worries. She should be a child forever, free to run and play in the mud till the end of her days. Would that he could promise such happiness as that for her. The world is not that kind though, not even to children, and the look she sends him is annoyed, as if he's just insulted her intelligence. She is a rather prickly thing when she wants to be. "I know that," she insists. "I can be responsible." Ned cannot help the amused smile he aims at his sword and Arya gasps at it, offended. "I can!"

"Responsible enough to not sneak away from meal the way you sneak away from your septa's lessons?" he asks, brow raised. This is something Catelyn worries over regularly. Arya shuts her mouth and looks petulant for a moment before smoothing her expression into something resembling contrition. Clearly false, but when it comes to getting the girl to apologize Ned has learned to take what he can get.

She then immediately ruins that already empty apology by telling him with a sniff, "Septa Mordane's lessons are stupid, anyway. Needling and embroidery. Knights don't need to know how to do those! I want to do archery with Bran! We're going to be Kingsguard together!" Her voice raises, working herself up into a fit of pique quite suddenly as children her age tend to do and as she seems predisposed towards. "I'm better than him anyways, maybe he should practice sewing!"

"Arya," he says gently, hoping to calm her, "Ladies don't need to know archery to--"

"Then I don't want to be a Lady!" Her volume has risen to a shout, but upon spitting this vitriolic statement she deflates suddenly. A child should not scream at her Lord Father so and he would be within his rights to punish her, but he is not that kind of man and something tells him that this anger in her is born of hurt. She has made similar comments in the past, but none of those were delivered so violently or passionately as this. Quietly, her voice weak and tremulous, she mumbles, "I want to be a knight. "

Ned isn't good with words. He is well aware of his faults. He's not like Brandon who was charismatic and bold, and he doesn't have Benjen's easy humor, nor Lyanna's ability to make friends with everyone. He does not always say the right thing. But sometimes, he has learned, little actions can be nearly as good as the perfect words, and this especially where his children are concerned.

With a soft sigh he carefully and gently places Ice upon the ground. He leans forward in his seat and unties the laces of his boots to tug them off, pulls up the legs of his breeches. Arya doesn't say anything when he moves to sit beside her and stick his own feet in the water, the way he used to do as a child himself and as he has not done in some significant time; she doesn’t look at him, her whole body tense. They sit together silently for a few minutes, Arya's lip between her teeth and her fingers digging through and ripping up the moss from the forest floor nervously. Finally when Ned nudges her tiny pale ankle with one of his toes beneath the water she heaves a sigh, the sound seeming almost too big to come from such a skinny little thing, and leans into his side, her rosy cheek pressed against his shoulder.

"Sansa called me ugly at table," she admits sullenly. "She told me I had a horse's face and nobody would ever want me and I'd be a bad Lady. Jeyne laughed and septa Mordane and Mother got mad at me when I yelled at them even though they were mean first. That's why I ran off."

He nods seriously and reaches out. He takes her small and pudgy hand in his, makes her uncurl her fingers and drop the moss she'd been pulling at. He brushes the dirt from her palm to clean it and smiles lightly to see that her knuckles have been stained green. "Sansa shouldn't have said that," he tells her. "It was cruel and unkind. But you should not have yelled at her either."

She nods and gives a small sniff and Ned considers her thoughtfully. She does have a long face, but so did Lyanna when she was a child and she'd grown to be one of the most beautiful women in the kingdoms. His mother had a saying, ugly baby makes pretty lady. Lya had been beautiful from the day she flowered to the day she died, sweet and radiant even as the grip of her bloodstained hand laxed in his own and the smile dimmed on her pale face as her pleading whispers of promise became thin and reedy.

"But she's not wrong, though," Arya says, kicking her feet beneath the water once more even as she laces their fingers together. Ned will miss this when she's grown, the way he misses Sansa's easy affection from before she'd tried to start acting the part of a Lady before her time. Sansa used to beg for attention, lift her hands hopefully for him to hold her. He refrains from such overt familiarity around his men, but when alone with his family he allows himself to be gentler and Sansa would squeal with laughter when he bent to hoist her up over his shoulder, her red hair streaming, while Cat fussed in the background and insisted she's not like Robb, Ned, she's a girl and she's delicate!

Arya is not so old yet that she disdains being spun playfully, but Ned knows that someday she will be. Someday, someday soon, she will outgrow him, and she will not want to sit beside her father and hold his hand and lean on him for comfort. She will not want him as confidant to soothe her hurts and fears. He can only hope that by the time she is old enough to want these things again he will not be too old and grey himself to enjoy it.

"Why do you say that?" he asks, squeezing her fingers and letting himself smile just slightly when she squeezes back. She glances at him, expression droll.

"Because I am ugly," she says, confidence in the statement as though it is irrefutable fact. "I do have a long face, and my teeth are big, and my eyes are dull, and my hair is boring brown and stringy. Sansa says nobody will ever want to marry me."

Ned sighs again. Sansa says this, Sansa says that. He suspects that despite their differences, Arya really does love her sister dearly, otherwise she would not put so much stock in the insults, not allow them to hurt her so. He will have to have a discussion with his wife about how their daughters treat each other. Not that he thinks it will do much good. Arya is quite unlike any little girl that Catelyn has met; he thinks, sometimes, that if Cat could have known his sister better, perhaps the two women would have benefited from each other. "I don't mind," Arya assures him hurriedly and squeezes his hand again, misunderstanding his upset. "If I don't get married then I don't have to be a Lady, and then I can be a knight with Bran."

He laughs, a small sad little thing. She is very much like Lyanna. He wishes regularly that his sister were still alive, but most often recently he wishes it the most when Arya says things like this. Lya would know how to talk to her, Lya would know what to say and how to say it so the girl would not be hurt. Instead of her aunt who was so very like her, though, Arya must be content with her father who can only try to understand. "You sound as if you've thought this out before."

Arya nods in agreement and says, voice reasonable, as though her logic of eight years will be enough to convince him and the world at large, "It really would be the best for everyone, I think. I don't care about husbands or having kids, or embroidering, or singing hymns. I wouldn't be a very good Lady. But I'm good at fighting and riding, so I would be a good knight."

She is good at fighting; sometimes Ned watches when she sneaks away to practice with Bran and Jon. But she's good at the fighting of children, good at knocking sticks together playfully, good at ducking around her little brother's wooden sword and laughing when he falls into the mud. He prays that she never has occasion to find out if she is good at true fighting; he prays none of his children do. He hopes the only blood Robb sees is when he delivers the King's justice to deserters and poachers, he hopes Bran only knows the combat of tourneys when he is eventually squire to a knight. He hopes his summer children can keep their summer dreams and their summer comforts and that they never know war and pain as he has known them.

Lord Eddard Stark hopes this, but does not expect it. He knows that winter is coming. He knows that no matter how long or peaceful the summer, winter always comes.

He drops her hand and raises his own to instead tilt her chin up so that she is looking at him instead of their reflections in the pool. When her eyes lift to meet his he leans forward to kiss her forehead. Her smile is sudden, bright and beaming, for she knows her father loves her but he is not the most overtly demonstrative of his affection, and so it is a treat when he allows it to show. "You are still young yet," he tells her. "You will grow into your teeth and your face and your eyes and whatever else it is that Sansa wrongly finds lacking."

"What if I don't?" she asks, still smiling though the corners of it begin to strain. She asks it flippantly, as though she cares not at all for the answer, but her voice wavers at the end as it lifts in question. Whether it is secret want to be beautiful or simple desire for her sister to accept her, Ned cannot tell. The minds of little girls are a mystery to him, and Arya’s even stranger however much he loves her.

Then you will be a knight, he wants to say, for the answer would please her. But he is not in the habit of lying to his children. He can want all the things in the world for them, but his wanting will not change what the world will give them. Neither can he swear to her you will and promise her beauty when she ages; she trusts him and his authority too much, and if he tells her this she will believe it simply because the words came from him, and it will wound her all the more if she never becomes beautiful the way he'd said she would this day.

If Arya is ugly as she grows then she will still have suitors as the daughter of the Warden of the North, but less than she might have if she were beautiful. If she is ugly then like as not she will marry a Southron Lord's second son to strengthen ties, and if she is ugly and willful then it will probably be the third or fourth son of a Northern Lord, the better to keep her close to Winterfell where loyalty to the Starks may inspire some leniency for her antics. The most that he can hope is that her husband, whomever he may be, will get her with child quickly and often enough to distract her from her discontent and to give her some manner of joy in a life she, even at this age, seems to disdain. Would that she could be a knight, but she was born a daughter and not a son.

Arya Underfoot , he's overheard Mikken laughing as he's made his Lord's rounds through the keep, that one will be trouble. Ned is not sure he disagrees.

He does not tell her these things, though. There is a childish vulnerability hidden in her jutting chin, her furrowed brow. He does not tell her that she will never be a knight and he does not tell her that it will not matter if she is a good Lady or not, or if she wants to be one or not, for she will be one regardless. He does not tell her that this is simply how the world works and that she cannot change it no matter how stubborn she is nor how unfair she finds it; and neither can he, though he would wish to make her happy.

He is saved from having to tell her any of these things by a shout, echoing through the trees of the godswood. "Arya?" a boy calls, and the girl's face lights up in cheer.

"Jon!" she hollers back, clambering to her feet. Ned grabs her wet and dripping leg to steady her as she stumbles and nearly pitches over into the pool in her haste to rise.

Another rustle of bushes nearby, and the boy comes into view, picking twigs and leaves from his own dark curls and saying, "Arya, you'd better come back, your mother is--" Jon stops, blinking, when he sees Ned, and then his face shutters, the amusement that had hold over his expression emptying. He clears his throat before bowing. "My apologies, Lord Stark," he mumbles. "I will take my leave, I don't mean to interrupt."

Ned swallows and nods without speaking, aware of how informal he must look, sitting in the dirt with his breeches rucked up and his feet in the water. He loves him as a nephew, as a son , but the older Jon gets the less Ned knows how to handle him, how to handle the threat the boy poses that he is not even aware of. And, insult to injury; they are the both of them painfully aware that, as his bastard, Ned cannot show him the same manner of affection he can show his trueborn children. He has never sat upon the ground as casually with Jon as he sits now with Arya, had never picked him up and spun him as he might with Sansa, nor practiced swordplay as he has with Robb. It is an ache in Ned, that Lyanna's quiet and sad boy cannot know the love he deserves, for to love him as he deserves would draw too much attention, and attention could kill him.

As is her wont, Arya disrupts the tension of the moment by racing over to her cous-- her brother and throwing her arms around his waist, knocking him backwards a few steps with a startled oof! "You're not interrupting, stupid!" she chides, softening the insult with another of her sunny smiles. Long face or not, Ned thinks there is not a soul in the world the girl could not endear herself to, if she put it into her mind to try. "We were just talking!"

"And you should return to your meal, if you are to grow big and strong, " Ned tells her, then tilts his head and considers her form before saying wryly, "Though you may want to consider changing your clothes, first."

Arya attempts a guilty look that falls just short of the mark before running back over to him, her toes sinking into the moist and loamy soil. She throws her arms around Ned's shoulders, surprising him; "Thank you, da," she mumbles, calling him the name she has not used since Catelyn chastised her and told her she was too old not to be calling him Father. Rickon is the only of his children who still calls him such now, and his heart clenches briefly to hear this from his younger daughter once more. Then she trots back to Jon, taking his hand in her own and leading him back out of the woods as if she were the one to come fetch him and not the other way around. Jon glances over his shoulder at Ned, expression unreadable, before turning back to respond softly to his sister's chattering, and after a moment the two children disappear into the woods.

Ned watches them go. There is a pain in him: they are both, in quite different ways, so like Lyanna. And they will both, in quite different ways, inherit her struggles. The lone wolf dies but the pack survives; solace, for so long as they have each other they will forever know love despite their given roles in the world, and so long as Winterfell stands they will have a home to return to.

He looks up at the heart tree. He is struck by an urge, sudden-- he prays often, but almost always silently. To speak his prayers aloud makes him feel silly, stupid, as though he is talking to the wind. If the old gods can hear him then they should not need words to do so, but…

Staring into the solemn face of the weirwood, it's empty weeping red eyes, he says quietly, "Watch over them, please. All of them, but those especially." He swallows. “It will be harder for them to be happy than it will be for the others.” As usual, if the gods hear the words they do not acknowledge them. The face of the weirwood remains unchanged, still solemn, still weeping. Somewhere within the godswood a raven quorks, and when the breeze blows through the leaves of the heart tree it sounds almost like a sigh.

Lord Eddard Stark, his feet still dipped in the pool as he has not done since he was young himself, sighs as well.)

 


 

Negotiation, arguably failed:

He gives himself another minute to calm his racing heart. It doesn’t help as much as he’d hoped; deed done and hands clean, but guilt still hammers against his mind and muted aftershocks of pleasure still alight his blood. Rarely have been the times in his life that he’s taken himself in hand and spilled so quickly, emptied so completely, and yet unlike those previous times he does not feel sated or satisfied with the action, and his skin buzzes persistently. Typically when he has allowed himself to feel the pleasure of flesh he is spent, tired; yet now, even so soon after pleasing himself, his body hungers, as if searching for more of that elusive warmth that he’s denied himself so staunchly.

It is exhausting, to be.

He paces another few quick turns around his hiding spot, indulging that restless hum in his muscles, before chastising himself sharply. Rule your mind, rule your face. He takes a deep breath, places a hand over his eyes to pinch them in frustration, and compartmentalizes. He thinks, acknowledges, accepts, releases. Would that he had opportunity to meditate, to truly examine his thoughts and give them their due diligence before purging them, but Arya is waiting for him and she is not known for her patience. He has indulged himself enough. It is time to move on.

When he returns to the camp Arya is waiting for him, her expression blank and placid, near a match to his own controlled one. He meets her eyes, though it is difficult; guilt consumes him, but to avoid her face would be to implicate himself, and when Arya thinks someone is hiding something from her she will pursue discovering the secret doggedly. She quirks an eyebrow at him, nods down at his waist. “How’s your cut?” she asks, voice neutral.

He squints at her. She’s very neutral. Could she have followed? Heard-- stop. Stop projecting.

“It will heal,” he answers mildly. It feels sore, stinging from the honey and the stretch of his thrusting, and after he had cleaned his hands of his shame he had checked the stitching to find that none of them had popped but the bandage he’d wrapped around his middle had begun to spot with blood. He will have to do his best to keep it clean. He glances around the camp. Six dead men, one dead horse, the snow red and pink with blood. Seeing a new addition he raises his own eyebrow and gestures in question to a third horse, hobbled near their own.

“It came back while you were busy,” Arya says with a shrug. Busy. Not gone, but busy. Could there be implication that-- stop. There is no implication. He goes to look over the horse, a roan gelding. It shies like a yearling but subsides when he murmurs soothingly and allows him to check its teeth and hooves, ears swiveling back and forth nervously. She continues while he inspects, “I already searched the dead men, not much of worth. Some food in that one’s saddlebags.”

He hums in acknowledgement and finishes. He’s stalling and he knows it. Shameful and damning. Idiot. He glances about the camp once more before saying, “We should leave.”

She sighs but nods. Blood all over the snow, and her wolf is not the only predator in the woods. How much progress they will be able to make is arguable, for by now it is mid-afternoon and the sun is already high in the sky. A few hours on the road, perhaps, before they will be forced to find another place to camp for the night. Unfortunate that they were not able to stay in this little hollow protected from the elements for the full day, but he would find it less ideal to sleep so close to dead bodies and risk drawing the attention of a bear or another wolf pack. Even if her Nymeria and her own pack came to protect them from other beasts it would be… disturbing, to see and hear as the direwolf’s cousins feasted on the corpses of men.

After a brief discussion, it’s decided that he will break their camp while she butchers the horse she’d slain, harvesting what meat she can from it while he works. The roan gelding will hold their packs and blankets until he can get a better feel for its personality, not trusting it to carry either of them while it is still so jumpy from combat. He tacks and saddles their mares, folds their blankets and douses their fire, while she cuts strips of flank from the dead horse. They are not so pressed for food now that Nymeria has begun sharing her kills, but days may pass between the direwolf’s visits and it would be foolish to leave behind good meat.

When all is packed away and she has washed the blood from her hands, she assists him in donning his armor. He can get it on and take it off himself, though it is certainly less cumbersome to do so with help, and especially as the stitches make the cut on his navel throb, pulling painfully whenever he bends or stretches. Arya helps him shrug into the leather chestpiece and hovers at his side to secure the straps, her dexterous fingers picking at the buckles with practiced ease. His mind deviates for a moment, deviant, to imagine those fingers wrapped around him, clever and sure on his cock, before he forces his thoughts back into submission.

Though he is certain his face is calm, for most of his self-control at the moment is diverted to the task of keeping it so, he must still make some motion that betrays him, some soft breath or twitch of body; Arya glances up at him as she works, and her own eyes catch his. The contact makes him swallow reflexively, and her gaze drifts down to follow the motion of his throat. She bites her lip before ducking her head once more to pay attention to the buckles of his armor. Her lip is still between her teeth when she finishes. Turnabout, fair play.

Projection. He’d have known she was there if she’d followed him, he’d have heard, his attention was not so fractured as to be completely unaware of his surroundings. Wasn’t it?

He heaves their bags and blankets up onto the roan gelding while she watches; he does not allow her to help with preparing the horses anymore, nor does he let her lift much in general. She vacillates between offended by this and ambivalent, offended that he would dictate her actions but ambivalent on letting him do the work for her. The tumult rages in his mind, a mixture of shame and guilt and appreciation and lust, lust which he cannot seem to shake despite his earlier indulgence and which truthfully only seems to have strengthened because of it. They are, the both of them, quiet as they mount their horses. His palms tingle from the brief touch to her middle that boosting her into her saddle requires.

The quiet extends through their riding, this brought on by several factors:

Firstly, his discomfort. The skipping of his heart, the sinking of his gut, the innate human reaction to dread that apparently even his Faceless training cannot curtail; this passes as time too passes, as they ride further without her confronting him. Projection. His paranoia had projected knowledge onto her. His shame, that he had pleasured himself, remains unknown. But that same shame still persists. She may not know, but he does. Guilt inside him. It is difficult for him to look at her in the face of it. Flirtation, assumed mutual attraction; even if assumption proven true neither of those are permission, and though he had not touched her with his flesh it still feels as though he has violated her trust in his mind.

Secondly, she takes the time to warg in the saddle, citing a desire to tell her direwolf of the horses running loose in the woods, of the bodies of the brigands even now cooling in the snow. Valar morghulis, and all wolves must eat. Unlike her previous wargings or wolfdreams, this time she is still, her movements constrained to minute twitches, and her talks with her beast coming out in the barest of mumbles and most of these unintelligible. The only clear thing she says at a volume loud enough for him to hear is a calm and determined tonight, and lacking the context of their conversation he cannot parse what exactly will happen tonight that she is determined about. The wolves feasting on their kills?

Thirdly, when she returns to awareness she is quiet. Not sullen or angry, not napping as she rides. Simply quiet. It is a change from their recent habit of talking as they go, more akin to the early days of travel, but she does not seem uncomfortable in his presence, merely contemplative. Mostly he avoids looking at her, too consumed by guilt of his own weakness, shame that over a decade was spent being a Faceless Master and yet he is reduced now to his most basest desires; occasionally, he chances a glance at her to find her studying him with a thoughtful expression before, realizing she’s been caught, she looks away herself.

As he’d anticipated, they are not able to make much progress on the road. Twice they stop for her to do her bodily business, and by the time several hours have passed it is time to begin looking for a place to camp, the both of them wary of making the previous night’s mistake of making site so close to the road because they are pressed for daylight. They are beginning to leave behind the terrain of the Riverlands to enter into the flatter and wetter area of the Neck, and the geography becomes much less obliging to find shelter the further North they go. He dreads the causeway leading to the Moat, for once they reach it they will not have the option of camping off the road. The swamps and bogs may have frozen over, but he would not trust that ice to hold the weight of three horses, a man, and a pregnant girl growing heavier by the day. Twelve days to cross the causeway on horseback in summer; how many more it will take them than that he does not know.

It is not until after they have made camp and a fire and he has unsaddled their mounts and they have cooked and eaten the horseflesh that she finally breaks the silence between them. It is in a way that he did not expect; though, like her attack on the brigands earlier, perhaps by now he should have.

She licks the grease of the meal from her fingers before wiping them off on her breeches and announcing very suddenly, “I am done being subtle.” When he looks at her, frowning at the non sequitur, she releases an explosive sigh before standing up from her seat across from him on the other side of the fire. Once on her feet, she pats her legs and bum to shake the dirt from her pants, crosses over to him, and stops directly in front of him with that same thoughtful, considering look she’s favored him with occasionally over the last few weeks.

Head tilted back to stare up at her, it is as though her movement towards him is a breeze which stirs the embers of desire in his loins that have slowly and quietly smoldered all afternoon, the heat of his passion not so much extinguished by his indulgence in it as merely banked. Those embers, spurred by her proximity, fan now into flame. “Arya,” he says. No one was a Faceless Master; he is Jaqen H’ghar, and his heart is a drum in his chest.

In one motion, smooth and with surprising fluidity given that her center of gravity is upset by the swelling of her stomach, Arya drops into his lap. It is not the cradle he has made for her with his body before, not a hold; her legs part, knees to either side of his hips to hold her upright as she kneels, just barely refraining to touch, over his crotch. Her face hovers mere inches from his. When she breathes the air skates across his false face. Her hands go to his shoulders, as much to hold him still as it is to balance her. “Arya,” he says again, softer, a whisper that passes between them. Whether her name upon his lips is prayer, pleading, demand, or reprimand he does not know.

Her hands leave his shoulders but not his body, palms drifting up to his neck, up until her thumbs are at his chin, up until her fingers are in his hair. Once there her grip tightens, just barely. She uses the hold to tilt his head slightly, so slightly that he hardly notices it except for the pull at his scalp. When she seems pleased with the angle she’s directed him to she hums, her lip between her teeth. The color of it reddens as she chews. Since finishing the fight with the brigands he has existed in a twilight state of lust; her legs to other side of him, her hands in his hair, her face so close to his own. Her breasts brush his front oh-so-slightly with each breath. He was already semi-hard, and in response to all this hardens further. The want in him; oh, the want.

“I’m going to kiss you now,” she tells him. Her words are decisive but her voice carries the tiniest tremor.

Assumption of her attraction. Her desire. Not baseless. Proven. She feels as he feels. She wants as he wants. Assurance. Permission. Absolution. Benediction.

She leans in, her eyes closing. As she does her swollen middle presses against him. Every inch of him longs, but this touch of her, reminder of her womb, is like a slap. Awareness of the situation takes him. He’d made a decision. Once already today he has given himself a concession he did not deserve, a concession which damned him with shame, which disrespected her. Her words decisive, yes, but the delivery of them he cannot trust, not so long as he knows her wants and cravings to be influenced by outside factors.

He turns his head away before their mouths can meet.

The regret is instant, and compounded by her reaction. The change in her is immediate, one moment soft and lax against him and the next every muscle in her body abruptly tense, as though she has been woken from a dream and into a reality she finds threatening. She is holding her breath; he feels it, as close as she is, feels the way her lungs had expanded with air on her last inhale and how they freeze now, still full. Her grip on his hair loosens slowly, as if to move with speed would startle him into violence. Finally she breathes, the exhale ghosting across the skin of his neck and causing gooseflesh to rise.

“Oh,” she says. Her voice is flat, empty of inflection.

“Arya,” he sighs, and now her name definitely comes out pleading. Decision made to wait, to be sure that her want of him was not simply lust dictated by pregnancy’s capricious grasp on her emotions, decision made with her best interests at heart, but he had not taken into account the possibility that if she propositioned him he would have to turn her away. He had not factored in her inevitable disappointment with this decision, nor his own.

“I thought--” She stops, clears her throat. It is nearly visible, how she hardens against the shame that allowing herself to be vulnerable now inspires, elicited by his rejection. She braces her hands against his shoulders again but this time it is to push herself away from him rather than to balance herself in his lap. “I should go.”

“Wait,” he says, finally lifting his own hands to take hold of her hips, the purpose of this twofold: to not allow her flee before he can explain his reasoning, and to keep her from--

In her urgency to escape from his body, she brushes against it, the seat of her rear pressing down lightly into his crotch. This would not matter if he were not hard. But he is, so his response is an instantaneous hiss and a tightening of his grip on her waist, his jaw gritted and his eyes closed with the effort of restraint to not chase that pleasure, to not push her down against him once more, to not thrust up and into her conveniently spread legs.

When he has regained enough control over himself to look at her, grimacing at his base behavior, Arya is staring down at him hard, her eyes narrowed. “I’m confused,” she admits finally. Her voice is still flat. “Is this a yes or a no?”

Fuck it, more concessions: he groans, removing his hands from her hips to drop his face into them. He shakes his head and mourns the decisions he’s made in his life to get to this point. Truly he is Faceless no more.

“Because,” she continues, “you would not kiss me, which tells me no. But this--” Before he can move to stop her she rocks her hips down and into him, this motion more purposeful, more controlled, more targeted to tease reaction; he bites down on another hiss. “--tells me yes.

“A man would speak,” he says. His voice is muffled by his palms.

“So speak,” she demands, staying where she is. She does not move into him again, but neither does she move away. When he lowers his hands just slightly to glare at her over his fingers, she raises an eyebrow, unrelenting.

“A man would speak with blood intact in his brain,” he amends, the words strained. Finally, with a look of suspicion, Arya allows herself to fall backwards and away from his lap, sitting her rear instead on the ground between his legs, her knees drawn up to knock into his own. They are still close, but no longer does her presence threaten his sanity. Their legs tangled so, neither of them will be able to escape easily with their pride intact.

For all his determination in his decision, he had not expected having to justify it so soon. After all, he’d only come to this conclusion yesterday. He should have known that by encouraging Arya with his flirtation she would escalate her behavior, and not be satisfied until she got exactly what she wanted. Which is, apparently and despite all the hurt between them, him.

Taking a deep breath, he compartmentalizes once more. He is her friend, he was her teacher, his existence made of her mercy; all things, as ever, to her benefit, kindness and cruelty alike. He knows Arya: she will try to sway him in his decision, she will try to use her wiles to change his mind, because when she makes her own decisions she does everything in her power to bring them to fruition immediately and does not think to consider their long-term consequences. She will try, and he cannot let her succeed, for unlike her he is sensible and he thinks things through. So he must force distance. He must not fall into the temptation she presents.

And the negotiation begins.

“Arya,” he starts, and then pauses with a wince, trying to carefully pick his words. She remains unmoving, sitting before him, brow still raised, retreating emotionally behind an air of carelessness since she cannot retreat physically. If he had not felt her so tensed against him, had not heard her lungs still has if the very act of breathing hurt, he would almost think her utterly uncaring for the situation. She was not Faceless, but she puts on a very good face. “A girl is-- you’re pregnant.

Before he can continue, she says again, “Oh.” And then laughs very slightly and looks down at herself with a sardonic expression. She sniffs and then nods. “Yes, I suppose I am, aren’t I?”

“Lovely girl, a man--”

“No,” she interrupts with another laugh, “I understand. I don’t even want this ugly body, why would you? ” She sets a hand against her rounded womb with a smile, unkind and unhappy, at odds with the way she’d made almost the same gesture that afternoon with a look nearing affection as the babe had moved within her after the fight.

Fuck. He’d considered her trying to sway him with encouraging touches, with her flesh against his, but he had certainly not considered the possibility that her pain could sway him. He’d prepared to fend off more attempts at kisses, not to hear her disparage herself so violently. Again he opens his mouth and again she interrupts. “This one is on me, I suppose, I’m not sure why I’d expected--”

“A man would speak himself, not have you speak falsely for him,” he says, voice a reprimand and coming out sharper than he’d intended for it to, though this seems to work to his benefit. It has the same effect of quieting her now that it did in Braavos when she displeased him and needed to be chastised. He tilts his head at her, considering; she chews on her lip and will not look at him. Sighing, a concession, made of them as he is: he leans forward to take her chin in hand and lift it until her eyes are forced to meet his. They’re as grey as the sky before a snowfall, and watery. Using his thumb he pulls her lip from between her teeth. It’s warm, plump and red from being worried. He breathes hard through his nose. He could be kissing that fucking lip right now but for his bloody sense. Quietly, and with more heat behind the words than he’d meant for there to be, he reminds her, “A girl felt evidence of this man’s want, no?”

A long moment passes where she doesn’t move, before she gives a small and shallow nod, blinking. A single tear falls to roll down her cheek at the motion. “Shit,” she sniffs, turning to rub her face against her shoulder to wipe it, but he keeps his grip on her chin and uses that thumb to instead now wipe at the tear himself.

“This is what I fear,” he admits to her solemnly.

Her face screws up in confusion and this time when she pulls away he lets her. “What, crying?” she asks, sniffing once more and swiping a hand across her eyes and nose. “You should be used to it by now, it happens all the time.” She clears her throat once, twice, three times before being satisfied, and when she speaks again her voice is stronger, not so wet. “It’ll pass, it’s just--”

“Pregnancy,” he finishes. “Yes, a man knows. He knows a girl has moods which come and go quickly. Urges. Cravings.” Understanding dawns in her expression, understanding and a brewing argument, and he finishes pointedly, “He knows these pass leaving her embarrassed and shamed by their having occurred.”

Arya frowns, incredulous. "You think I only want to lay with you because I'm pregnant? " The way she says it, like the very concept is absurd and not rooted in evidence to previous fits of mood spawned of this same pregnancy, is nearly enough to draw his attention from what she says. The emphasis placed, as if her pregnancy being the sole reason for her want is ludicrous, as if she wants on more merit than simply this and is surprised by his apparent belief that there could be no more reason than that. Assumption, confirmed: he would very much like to kiss her now, and do more, perhaps. Restraint from this is difficult but to her ultimate benefit.

"A man thinks," he says with gritted teeth, "that this may influence a girl's decisions more than she realizes."

She stares at him as though he's stupid. Obviously he is not explaining his reasoning well enough.

With a sigh of exasperation, he continues. "If we lay together because a girl is spurred to want by influenced moods, when that mood has passed what does her want become? Shame? Regret? If regret, does her tolerance for a man's presence continue? If it does not, what do we become?"

Her staring is unabated as he speaks, and continues for several long moments after he is done. Finally, she closes her eyes tight as if the very sight of him causes her pain and says, disbelief heavy in her voice, "I genuinely cannot decide if all men are idiots, or if I just have exceptionally bad taste."

Well that's just rude. He glares at her, offended, and when she opens her eyes and sees it she glares back. "Arya," he tries, longsuffering, "I value this--" And he gestures at the space between the two of them, this gesture encompassing, meant to convey all that has passed between them, all the trials they have faced, to become what they together now are. "--as I have valued nothing before in my life. Our friendship, it is more important to this man than simple pleasure. More important than yours, more important than mine. He would regret, fiercely, if this friendship were wounded by impulsiveness and lack of forethought. He is trying to communicate with you to prevent this." Her look of irritation begins to subside into something more thoughtful, more considering. Finally. Reason begins to win out.

Said as gently as he can, "You already left one man you wanted, who wanted you, because your ideals did not match. If communication had occurred then perhaps that would not have happened." There is a flash of hurt across her face at the accusation, but he is not wrong and they both know it.

If expectations between she and her smith had been established, perhaps she would not be in the predicament that she is currently in; a predicament which benefits him, admittedly, for he is unsure if the acceptance and camaraderie that has grown between them would have been reached as quickly or easily if they were not forced to spend every waking moment with each other on the road as she fled North with the bastard Baratheon’s bastard in her womb. Certainly he doubts this would be the case if he had been charged with her death and tracked her down to find her at Storm’s End, consort to a Lord Paramount, or at Winterfell with her bastard husband, had communication between her and the bull boy resulted in him turning away his title to remain lowborn and therefore more agreeable to her.

Regardless, he will not allow lust to fracture what they are as it had fractured her friendship with her smith. Better to not indulge it at all, if they cannot find agreeable terms to satisfy the both of them before finding the satisfaction of flesh.

"So," she says slowly and after a pause, "communication."

"Setting boundaries," he confirms, relieved.

"Negotiation." She nods thoughtfully, staring into the middle distance as if in contemplation, and then looks back at him and raises her eyebrows. "And then we fuck?"

That's not-- she will kill him. He drops his face back into his hands with another heartfelt groan.

When he has collected himself enough to look back up at her she is watching him in amusement, lip back between her teeth and the corners of her mouth curled into a smirk. It is good to see this, certainly better than her crying, though it likely does not bode well for his sanity. "Clarify," she commands once she has his attention. "You are not opposed to laying with me."

"So long as--" he starts, but she shakes her head and interrupts, "Yes or no, Jaqen."

He shakes his own head and huffs out an annoyed breath through his nose. "No," he admits finally, and her smirk widens a touch. Quickly he continues, "But there are extenuating circumst--"

Again she interrupts and he barely restrains the urge to throw his hands up in exasperation. This is not how communication is supposed to work. "And you don't want to currently because… you don't trust my judgement?"

"Clarification," he argues, "a man worries a girl’s judgement may be compromised. Trust of her itself is not the issue."

She tilts her head at him. Slowly she raises herself to her knees and shuffles just barely closer. And now come the wiles. "He does not trust this girl's want of him," she says, phrased almost like a question but delivered as statement.

He swallows. That she speaks so now, so closely, with that look upon her face; focus! Control. How did she know that to use the Lorathi speech would catch his lust's attention? They had both spoken so frequently in Braavos, he still playing his character and her picking up the eccentricities of her Master, but it had not aroused him so then, and he is unsure of when this convention upon her tongue became seductive to him. Regardless, she is doing this on purpose, the little shit. "He does not trust it is not influenced into impairment."

Closer still. On her knees like this she is just barely of a height above him, and she looks down at him with her lip between her teeth. "Would he like to feel proof of her want?" she asks, voice quiet and low. "He has permission. She gives it. Between her legs, he could feel it with his fingers."

" Arya, " he hisses, her name wrung from him as if strangled. Now that their knees are not so tangled he is free to move and he does, backwards and away from her and to his feet to pace. She laughs, breathy and amused at his irritation, as he puts distance between them, distance necessary to prevent him from further disrupting his own decision. Want between her legs that he could feel; he cannot help but imagine sliding his fingers between her lower lips, finding them wet for him, the slick smoothness as he pressed against that womanly pearl above her slit to make her even wetter. His manhood throbs.

Distance. He paces.

When enough time has passed that she has determined he will neither return to where she waits nor look at her, she asks, still from the place by the fire where he had left her, "You won't lay with me because you think my want is affected by pregnancy?" He pauses in his circuit. Still keeping his eyes to the ground, he nods. "So, you would rather wait until… what? After I've given birth?" Another nod. "And nothing I say will assure you of my soundness of mind in this?" A hesitation; damning. She latches onto it. "You would not even kiss me?"

He breathes hard. To kiss her is innocent, but for the inevitable want to advance further from it. "A man would prefer not."

A smile in her voice, confidence, assured. "You lie." He has nothing to say to this. She is not wrong.

Movement, and finally he looks up at her to find that she too has risen to her feet. She stretches, her arms above her head, her shoulders pulled high, and then shakes her limbs loose as though preparing for a run. He watches her suspiciously. She's up to something. As she does this stretching she says, "So, communication."

"Yes…" he says slowly, eyeing her as she bends to touch her knees, her toes. The normal YiTish stretches that she does after riding and before bed, but that they are done in the current context worries him as to her motivation. Still. Communication. Communication is good.

Grabbing the toe of her left boot and holding the pose, stretching her calves and thighs and back, she asks, "Are you going to get very drunk, be legitimized into a Westerosi Lord, and then ask me to marry you?"

He purses his lips. Wryly, "The chances of that happening are infinitesimal. Besides which, a girl has no desire to marry and neither does a man."

"Yes or no, Jaqen," she says again, this directed to her feet.

He snorts and says decisively, "No."

Arya rises with an agreeable hum. "Then our circumstances already cannot be compared to mine and Gendry's." Once straightened, she places her hands on her hips. The look she gives him is thoughtful, considering. "I cared for him, Jaqen. I really did. I do, still. Part of me will always care for him. But he does not know me, and I do not know him. Not now, and certainly not enough to justify marriage. He knew me when I was a child, for the span of a few very difficult months, and those dwarfed by how long I have known you, learned from you, traveled with you. We did not talk as you and I do, we did not learn each other as you and I have, we did not grow together into who we are, the way you made me and I made you."

She tilts her head at him with a light frown, though this expression is not unhappy so much as displeased, as though she'd assumed one thing and is disappointed to find it not so. "Do not think you are the only one who values what is between us."

He bows his own head in acknowledgement, chastised. He was not wrong, evidence exists that she would leave a lover despite caring for him, but she is not wrong either; the situations, when laid plainly this way, are too dissimilar for this evidence to carry weight now.

And it is… warming. To hear her say such.

“Noted,” he says, conceding this. She nods, seeming pleased that she had made her point, and crosses their campsite to near him. His muscles tense, preparation for something, some sort of attack of temptation, but instead Arya merely begins setting up their bedroll, unfolding their blankets and snapping them through the air to shake off the horsehair.

Shit. He had not considered that they would still have to share warmth together at night.

The winds which had blown with frigid bluster earlier in the day have subsided, mostly, but there is still a threatening chill in the air, a cold and wet smell he has learned to associate with impending snow hanging in the atmosphere. They have been tremendously lucky, so far, to not encounter weather so inclement as to impede their travel, and indeed it fairly shocks him that they have not been forced to suffer through her most hated sleet. Perhaps He of Many Faces still smiles down upon His faithful servant, though that servant no longer serves His House.

They have been lucky not to have been sleeted upon, but it is as cold as it ever is, and especially the further North they get the closer they will have to huddle.

As she arranges things to her liking, something she has become increasingly fussy about, she says, “So, I suppose next is clarification of expectation. This would set you at ease, yes?” He nods, and then murmurs an affirmative upon realizing that she is preoccupied and will not see the nod. “Mine,” she tells him informatively, “have not changed. Get to Winterfell, birth, leave Winterfell.” She pauses her movements before admitting, “After that’s done I’m not especially picky, I suppose. Travel, perhaps.” She glances at him over her shoulder, one eyebrow ticked up. “If we lay together are you going to insist I settle down?

He snorts a laugh at the thought. Insisting Arya do anything is the best way to insure that she will do the opposite purely out of spite. And besides, he cannot imagine Arya as settled. She is too wild, too windblown. A wolf may den but it still ranges. “No,” he assures her.

She nods and goes back to her nesting. “Will you expect me to give up fighting and hunting, or say that I should only wear dresses and exist to simper quietly in the background, or want me to birth child after child of your blood and name?”

“No, no, and no.”

Fighting is inherent to her now, a core of her existence; weapons may be put aside in peacetime, but if she intends to travel then she will surely at some point be called once more to action, whether that action be against brigands upon the road as they’d found today or pirates upon the sea. And as for himself, fighting is all he has ever known, fighting and service. They are, the both of them, assassins, though she did not graduate in full and he has been disgraced. He cannot imagine a life without blood and blade.

He has seen her in a dress and found this no more or less visually pleasing to him than the sight of her in armor; in fact, he remembers her discomfort in them, and finds the concept of bidding her to impede her own happiness for the sake of aesthetics discomforting to him as well. When she was made to do so in service of a contract it was different to him, demand of costume to complete character, but to expect her to do this unprompted is unrealistic and unnecessary both. Besides, it is much easier to fight in breeches and without a mess of skirts tangling one’s legs, which he knows from experience.

And the last… he has no claim to her now, and touching her body would not give him one, would not make it any less hers. Her womb is her own, as is the decision to fill or empty it. His only blood of consequence is the blood he has shed and spilled, his only name of import the one she had damned him with. He has nothing of worth to pass onto the world.

Arya, seemingly pleased with her arrangement of blankets, settles on them with a sigh before lifting her face to smirk at him. “Good,” she says. She pats the bedroll in invitation, but he knows better, this trap too obvious. She will touch him if he sits by her. When he does not move forward her expression pulls into a pout, but he can still read the amusement in her that underlies it. “Well, there’s my expectations handled. Laying together doesn’t seem like it would change them much. And yours?”

He hesitates.

It is difficult, to want. To allow himself to want. Too recently has he become capable of doing it to find the act of wanting something for his own benefit comfortable. It is difficult too to consider this nebulous future he did not have before which now spreads out, vast, before him. Not so painful after their conversation before his lesson of the maesters, when she had said so easily we and included him without hesitation in her own, apparently equally nebulous plans, but difficult still. He has no goal, no destination, nothing to work or fight towards, save her happiness and comfort, the importance of which his own pales in comparison to.

When he answers, it is with a timidity that he had not expected of himself, that he would curb but for the fact that authenticity and truth seems paramount in this conversation. “Before, a girl had spoken of… afters. She seemed willing to include this man in them. He would…” He grimaces, restrains the urge to run a hand through his hair, a concession to nerves. “It is not expectation, but he would like to explore with her what those afters may entail. He has no want of her but that.”

And what he cannot say: that he would be content to trot at her heels wherever she may roam, to ride in the wake of her waves, to follow whatever path she takes and find fulfillment in the simplicity of being in her presence. She is an agent of Him, favored by the Many-Faced God, a force most delightful to behold. Pride in him, for she is a force which he made and which made him. Pride to have had a hand in creating something so powerful, and pride deeper still in having been brought to existence by it. A thought he has had: It is not so terrible, being damned. And another thought he has had, perhaps worrisome: He could love her, if she let him, if he let himself.

“Done,” she says simply in response to this, as easily as taking in breath. And once said, she lays back upon the bedroll in a lounge, looking at him pointedly. “And now we can kiss?”

“Conversation does not change the fact that a girl is pregnant,” he reminds her wryly.

“But conclusion reached through it negates why pregnancy poses your proposed issue,” she counters. “We have, together, decided that you will not do these things which would cause me to leave our partnership, and I am happy to accept your terms for it’s continuance after I’ve left the birthing bed. So what is the issue now?”

He grimaces; his reasoning for his decision is sound, but so is her argument against it. Still. He hesitates. Arya has never been the best at forethought or thinking her actions through, and the fact that thus far her impulsive decisions have paid off has not led her to having developed the temperance to check them. This, they, are a lot to risk. “A man still worries,” he admits.

After a moment her expression softens minutely, becomes more of a smile, carries a touch more warmth. “You speak like a Lorathi when you’re nervous, did you know that? You haven’t said you or I in several minutes.” Upon realizing she is right he clears his throat. Damning, to allow such obvious evidence of his discomfort. She looks at him for some time, waiting for a further response that he does not know how to give, before sighing and rolling onto her back to stare at the night sky, settling her hands upon her rounded stomach placidly. “So you will not kiss or touch me?”

“Arya,” he tries, not knowing how to answer and attempting to pacify but his voice instead comes out hoarse.

“Fine,” she says with a huff. “If you won’t do it then I’ll take care of it myself.” And then without much more warning than that she dips one of those hands beneath the waistline of her breeches, loose from having been let out to accommodate her growing size. It is so unexpected that the depth of implication in this action does not strike him until he realizes that there is a shifting at the front of her breeches caused by the movement of her fingers.

His breath leaves him as if he’s been kicked in the gut. The arousal that spikes through him is immediate, consuming; his manhood, having softened somewhat during their serious conversation, instantly begins to harden again in interest. The shock of it nearly weakens his knees.

“Arya,” he says again, and the intention is to admonish, but her name leaves him in a groan.

Her answering laugh is breathy and interrupted by a hiss. Her fingers work with obvious force inside her breeches; her hips shift upwards in an aborted thrust that bows her back. She is not yet panting, but her breath comes heavy already, as if she has been pleasuring herself for some time and not having only just started. She turns her head to watch him beneath languid, half-lidded eyes, smirking to see him rooted in place.

“I have been wet for hours, ” she informs him. “So this is getting handled one way or another.” She draws her lip between her teeth, closes her eyes; she makes some movement that must please her greatly, for she whimpers out her next breath and her hips rise once more. Is she touching her lips? Her pearl? Her slit? His mouth nearly waters to know. “Now,” she says when she’s seemingly regained control of her faculties, “you can either stand there and gawk like an idiot, or you can come over here and help.”

He is made of concessions.