Arya felt rooted to the spot as Jon came running to her. Her heart was slamming against her chest, her eyes releasing tears she hadn’t shed in years and she could only stand there gazing at this older version of Jon as if when she blinked he would disappear like the ghost she was sure he must be. Then he stopped just in front of her, lifting his hands shakily to hold her face as if he too couldn’t believe that she was standing in front of him. “Arya?” he asked in an all too hopeful voice. Arya could only respond with a sound that was something between a whimper and a chortle before Jon pulled her against his chest in an embrace that screamed home, both of them sobbing against the other.
When Jon finally loosened his hold on her to look at her face they both sighed, “I missed you” at the same time like the children who finished the other’s sentences all those years ago. They both laughed at that until Arya remembered the news of Jon’s death, the news that all but devastated her. “I heard you died,” she said, agonised, in a low voice.
Jon smiled a pained smile at her. “You didn’t think I’d leave you alone in this world did you?” he replied, holding her gaze, in the self-satisfied tone he’d use with her when they were children - earning more chuckles from her as a result. Arya felt her heart grow under his gaze. Jon raised his hands to Arya’s face once more to plant a lingering kiss on her forehead. In his arms, I’m home, I’m finally home the voice in Arya’s mind shouted. Arya hugged him tighter then and he reciprocated the gesture. She found herself quietly weeping against Jon’s neck; this was the first time in nearly eight years she was with a member of her family.
Sansa joined them then and embraced Arya. Whispering, “Welcome home sister” against her ear before she turned to everyone in the courtyard who stopped whatever they were doing to look at the three of them. “My lords, my ladies, my sister the Lady Arya has returned home. We will have a feast in two nights time, upon the Queen’s arrival, in Arya’s honour. For now, please excuse us. Jon and I would like to welcome Arya home in private,” Sansa articulated in a voice that sounded all too much like their mother to match the face that was entirely Tully.
While Sansa spoke, Arya felt herself bound upon by the hulking figures of Ghost and Nymeria both wagging their tails like the puppies they were when she last saw them, and not the great big, fearsome, direwolves they were now. She stroked both of them affectionately and hugged Nymeria tightly.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered against Nymeria’s fur. “I’m sorry for throwing stones at you and forcing you to leave. I missed you so much.”
As if she understood her, Nymeria simply licked her face cheerfully. Not one to be left out Ghost joined in and Arya found herself wrestled to the ground and giggling freely for the first time in years. For a moment she looked up at Jon and found him with a glint of reverence in his eyes. Even Sansa looked amused at the picture Arya made with the two towering direwolves competing for her attention.
Jon pushed them off her after a while and led her away from the courtyard and to their father’s solar, with his arm around her shoulder, sending her an unbelieving smile every time their eyes met.
In Father’s solar they had their supper and the three of them began to fill each other in about their time apart. Sansa told her that she stayed in King’s Landing until Joffrey’s death before being sneaked away to the Vale by Lord Baelish, returning home just before the War for the Dawn. She told Arya how she married a Lord of the Eyrie and now had a son called Robb. Arya was happy to know that their family had continued. Sansa promised Arya that she could meet her nephew in the morning and excused herself to prepare a room and bath for her.
Left alone together, Jon moved away from Father’s old seat and sat beside her, taking her hand into his own. “And you? Where have you been for the last six years? No one has seen or heard from you since Sandor Clegane travelled with you,” Jon inquired.
“The Hound?” Arya asked quizzically. “I thought he died.” Jon then told her how he arrived with Sansa from the Vale and had been in her service ever since. Seeing Arya lost in her thoughts in response to this news, Jon repeated his inquiry about her whereabouts over the last few years.
Not keen about speaking of her past, Arya gave him a brief, palatable, version of her journey. “Ever since I left Winterfell, it seems as if Braavos was my destiny. First, you gave me Needle, a bravos sword. Father found it you know? I thought he was going to take it but instead, he got me an instructor. The best swordsman I ever met,” her eyes were as wide as saucers, “Syrio Forel, first sword to the Sealord of Braavos,” she beamed.
“And then I met another Braavosi, in the Riverlands. Well... he was from Lorath but spent lots of time in Braavos. He helped me at a time I needed help and told me if I ever wanted to find him again, I should say some words to any Braavosi and they would take me to him. After Father and Robb and Mother and Bran and Rickon, I didn’t have anywhere left to go. The Hound took me to the Vale but Aunt Lysa was dead, then he fell to an injury and I left him. I wanted to get back to you but no ship there was going to Eastwatch or to the North. Instead, the sailor told me he was going to Braavos so I went.”
“Did you find him then, the man?” Jon asked with an anticipation that seemed to mask a sense of reluctance.
“No.” Arya replied. “I never found him. But a kindly man gave me a place to live during my time there. During the day I did many odd jobs along the way.”
“And did this kindly man ever…?” Jon asked.
“No!” She shouted.
Keen to change the conversation, Arya teased, “So… Jon, or should I say Aemon Targaryen, care to tell me how you went from playing a Targaryen hero when we were children to becoming one? Even in Braavos I heard about the dragon-riding hero who fought the Others. If I’d known it was you I’d have told people a few embarrassing stories about our childhood to make sure your head never got too big.” Jon, like Bran, was always easy to tease.
Jon told her then about Howland Reed and his proof that Jon was the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. How Father had raised him as his bastard to protect him from King Robert Baratheon who approved of the killing of Rhaegar’s other children; how Father left King’s Landing in disapproval and how Father hardly talked to King Robert until the Greyjoy Rebellion. He told her of how his aunt, who was even younger than Jon, was hunted halfway across the world by King Robert’s assassins and how meeting her and learning her story made him thankful for Father’s actions even though at first he struggled with being raised as a bastard when he was a trueborn. He spoke about leaving the Night’s Watch to rescue her and Arya was reminded of the phrase she’d utter to comfort herself. Jon will want me even if no one else does.
He told her how he was crowned King in the North after her absence, japing “I stole your crown, my Queen,” and then how he bent the knee to secure Queen Daenerys Stormborn’s dragons in the War for the Dawn.
Arya enquired about the war but could see that it still pained Jon to talk about it. He simply offered that it was a long year in which their armies lost lots of loved ones. Queen Daenerys herself had lost a dragon during the war. “I felt as if you were here with me though, Nymeria brought an army of her own to the Wall.” Arya smiled at that.
“How did you bring yourself to fight for the Queen against your brother,” Arya asked, remembering the man who brought an end to Cersei.
Jon looked pained at the question. “He wasn’t Prince Aegon,” Jon curtly replied. “Dany believed he was a Blackfyre but whoever he was, he wasn’t my half-brother. Ser Barristan Selmy said that Prince Aegon had a birthmark behind his knee, something that King did not.”
Arya could see Jon felt uncomfortable talking about this war as well so she paused her questioning to sip some of the Arbor gold Sansa had provided.
As she did, Jon spotted Needle in its scabbard. Wide-eyed, “you still have it?” he exclaimed.
Arya smiled, “We spent a long time separated but Needle always reminded me of home, of family...of you. I could never let her go.”
“Gendry said you lost it,” he whispered.
“Gendry?” she asked, putting down her wine. “You met Gendry as well?”
Jon told her then how Gendry came to Winterfell with the Brotherhood without Banners. She couldn’t believe her ears. Of course, they’d take their time to a destination I wanted to reach. Jon told her of how Gendry learned how to make obsidian weapons during the war. "Gendry had started making dragonglass daggers by the time archmaester Marwyn, my friend Sam and Pate, two Maester sin training from the citadel, decoded the old magic required to make Valyrian and dragon steel swords," Jon said. "Gendry made the first Valyrian steel swords in a long time."
Arya beamed at that. She used to like watching Gendry when he worked and she knew how much he loved working in a forge.
“So where is that stubborn bull then,” she laughed. “Is he still here?”
“Arya,” Jon paused, “Gendry died during the War for the Dawn. He died to save his cousin, the Queen,” Jon offered. Condolences in his voice.
“Cousin?” Arya asked, only to learn that Gendry was the son of Robert Baratheon and therefore related to both Jon and Daenerys through his great grandmother Rhaelle Targaryen. He used to tease me for being a lord’s daughter and this entire time he was a King’s son!! Ewww. Bella. Good thing he didn’t ring her bells.
Jon told her how the queen legitimised all of Robert's known bastards and took them on as her cousins to show that she was here to heal the realm and not continue old wars.
For years Arya told herself she had a hole where her heart used to be. But despite this insistence, she always felt the pain of loss viscerally notwithstanding the fact that loss and longing had been her companions for years. Gendry left her for the Brotherhood but he was the only friend she had in a long time. Her heart broke at the thought that she would never see him again.
Thankfully, Sansa returned then to tell Arya her room was ready and that she had a bath drawn for her. Arya bid Jon goodnight and made her way to her assigned room with Sansa while trying to keep her tears at bay. Ever since Arya left Braavos she promised herself that she wouldn’t hide herself anymore. She’d be Arya Stark again whatever it took and Arya Stark would mourn her friend.As they walked, Arya saw that Jon had been assigned her parents’ old shared room and Sansa the Lady of Winterfell’s. Arya on the other hand was given a guest room further down in the Great Keep. Arya told herself that was for the best as she did not think she could sleep in any of her family’s old rooms tonight.
Arya awoke from her featherbed at the hour of the nightingale, just before dawn. Unable to sleep, she slipped into one of the dresses Sansa had left in her room, of course, Sansa would think of clothes, took the flowers in the vase beside her bed, donned a plain grey cloak that was in the wardrobe and made her way out of her room.
She made her way across the covered bridge connecting the Great Keep to the armoury, the entire yard visible beneath her. From there she turned right into Guards Hall, down the steps to the ground floor, stopping just before the First Keep and down the spiral steps behind the heavy ironwood door. For a moment she found herself looking for the spiders and rats the size of dogs Old Nan once warned her about before smiling at the memory and at the men, and lone woman, around who Arya would play monsters-and-maidens and come-into-my-castle. She then stopped in front of an imposing figure.
“Father,” she whispered looking at the statue that both looked and didn’t look at all like her father. He had a direwolf at his feet but no iron sword across his lap. Arya reckoned that was because no one in Winterfell now had any reason to fear her father’s vengeful spirit. He was a man of justice, not vengeance, something Arya wanted to emulate, even if she struggled at times.
“Father. I’m home and I’m sorry,” she cried. “I tried to save you that day. I’m sorry that I couldn’t.” The rational part of Arya’s brain told her there was nothing she could have done for him that day but there were many times Arya wished she succeeded to reach him even if it was just to die with him.
“I miss you. So much. Father, you gave me hope you know? Even after you left, even after I thought you would never hug me, comfort me or plant a kiss on my forehead again. Well, I never did get that from you again,” she chortled in a half-sob. “But you spoke to me father. In Harrenhal. I heard your voice. When they turned me into a mouse, when I gave up. Yo u are Arya of Winterfell, daughter of the north. You told me you could be strong. You have the wolf blood in you you told me. Father, you don’t know what that meant to me. I came close to losing myself so many times you know? But then I’d remember I’m the daughter of Eddard Stark, blood of Winterfell and then I’d try again.”
Looking at her feet now, chewing her lip, Arya whispered, tears in her eyes, “But I feel like I’d disappoint you if you were still here. I’m not a good person anymore, Father. I’ve done terrible things and I think you’d hate me if you were alive. I hope you wouldn’t. I want to be good now. I want to make you proud. I always tried to keep your lessons alive Father. Even if I couldn’t act upon them.”
“Here, I brought you flowers. Just like when I was a girl. I thought you might like them even now. You liked them then,” she offered, placing them at his feet.
“Father, Jon told me who his mother was.”
“Hello Aunt Lyanna,” Arya said moving to the statue beside her father’s, placing some of the winter roses at her feet. “I’ve learnt a little about you from Jon and Father told me I reminded him of you. I’ll look after your son Aunt Lyanna. Even if he insists on looking after me,” she said laughter in her eyes.Arya paused then, remembering Jon was marrying Sansa in a few days time. She said her farewells to Father and Aunt Lyanna then. Paying her respects to both her uncle Brandon and Grandfather Rickard and the crowned likeness of Robb atop the empty tomb on her way out.
When she finally made her way atop the spiral steps, Arya found Jon waiting beside the ironwood door, one foot leaning against the wall. “I knew you’d visit Father first thing in the morning. I thought I’d give you a moment with him,” Jon offered unprompted.
“You still call him father?” Arya asked.
“He was the only father I knew.” He shrugged nonchalantly.
“Do you want to know something else?” He smirked.
“I know where you’ll go next as well!” That self-satisfied smirk back on his face, his arms folded across his chest.
“And where is it I will go exactly?” Arya teased back.
“Come with me.” He said, taking her hand and guiding her to the glass gardens. Once inside, still holding her hand, he directed her to a small nursery at the back of the gardens full of different types of flowers. Amongst them she spotted: blue winter roses, purple bellflowers, forget-me-nots, moon blooms and even a small patch of the poison kisses that gave her a rash on their journey to King’s Landing.
“Your next stop is the lichyard,” he offered. “Arya Underfoot’s dead aren’t only buried in the crypts and you wouldn’t visit Old Nan without taking her flowers. I always knew you’d come back so I made sure I saved myself time and put as many flowers as possible here so you wouldn’t make me hunt flowers with you like when we were children.”
“I know, I know, you’re so clever Jon ” he said in a high pitched voice he meant to mimic her own. “I know, Arya thank you,” he smirked, bowing for show, with a smug grin on his face that reminded her of all her brothers at once.
Amused at his show and his continuous self-assuredness Arya scrunched her nose and called him stupid. He helped her pick bunches of flowers and told her, while they did that, about how the Boltons had neglected the glass gardens along with every other responsibility the Starks had to the North and how Lord Manderly provided new glass for the glass gardens so Winterfell could feed its people during winter.
Together they then visited the lichyard, paying their respects to the dead of their home, well, the ones they could bury anyway. Jon told her how he buried Old Nan himself while Arya told him how she met a lady that reminded her of Old Nan in Braavos although she wasn’t as kind.
Arya left flowers at the graves of Jory, Wyl, and Heward who they lost in King’s Landing after which Jon guided her to where he laid a tombstone for Ser Rodrick. Although the Boltons killed him in the Battle for Winterfell, when Theon sacked the castle, Jon wanted Beth to have a place to come and remember her father. He did the same for Maester Luwin as well: the gentle man who helped raise them all.
After that, they left to join Sansa and Robb to break their fast. Arya found her nephew looked exactly like Rickon did at the same age. Auburn hair and smiling Tully blue eyes. Arya repeated bits about her journey from the previous night for Sansa. While Sansa told her about the feast she was planning upon the Queen’s arrival the following day. She said that she had a dress ready for the feast and another for the wedding and instructed Arya to visit the seamstress for alterations to be made.
After the fitting, Arya left Sansa and her ladies, all of who were from the Vale, in the room and made her way out into the courtyard for a walk. As she walked past the stables, an arm pulled her inside and a hand covered her mouth before she could scream. It was Jon. Smiling at her still with that smug look on his face.
“Do you still enjoy riding?” He asked and before she could answer “Good” he continued. “We’re going riding.”
He had a grey, spotted, palfrey mare saddled for her and had a black courser saddled for himself. A bag of provisions in the saddle-bag. Together they trotted outside of the Keep in the direction of the Wolfswood with Ghost and Nymeria accompanying them. Once outside the castle grounds they sped up into a canter before Arya galloped away hooting, “catch me if you can!” over her shoulder.
Arya felt so free. Laughing. The North wind blowing against her face, Ghost and Nymeria loping beside her and then darting ahead. She rode so fast her braid came undone, a flowing mane flying behind her. I’m so happy she thought.
She turned back to see if Jon was catching up to her only to see he had stopped ages ago and was leaning against a sentinel tree, no longer ahorse and admiring her. The fondness in his gaze warmed her heart and made her feel as beautiful as Nymeria of Braavos.
Arya cantered back to him and smirked, “No need to let me win you know? I was always the better horseman.”
Jon simply rolled his eyes. “Come, I want to show you something,” he said, pulling her from her horse.
Then, holding her hand, he guided her through a clearing, past great big oaks, evergreen trees, ironwoods and sentinels that Arya was sure had been there for hundreds of years. Their fallen pine needles littering the forest floor until he stopped in front of a great big Weirwood with a smile carved on its face.
There, Jon told her the story of his mother entering the lists at the Tourney of Harrenhal as a mystery knight with a laughing tree on her shield. “Lord Howland Reed told me she based it on a tree that reminded her of home,” he said smiling at the tree. “I found it a year or so ago during a hunt and ever since then I’ve returned here whenever I was happy.”
Arya asked why it was a laughing tree and she could have sworn she heard it reply, “Maybe because I know something you don’t, stupid” in a petulant voice she couldn’t quite place. She looked at Jon for confirmation he heard the same but he didn’t seem perturbed at all. Arya had once heard her father’s voice speaking to her from the Godswood in Harrenhal but it didn’t sound like the voice of a mocking young man with laughter in his voice. In fact, the tree’s eyes reminded her of one that followed her around in her dreams.
While she was lost in the eyes of the tree and its amused smile, Jon laid a cloth on the forest floor and began to place a tub of blackberry tarts on the cloth as well as an assortment of cheeses - all remnants of her childhood. Bran loved blackberries so she’d steal blackberry tarts from the kitchen with him, hiding from Gage the Cook, before running off to the broken tower together to devour them. Sometimes they’d give some to Rickon to keep him quiet. That Jon remembered her love for them made her want to shower Jon with kisses as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She even began to move arms outstretched to hug him until she remembered he was about to marry Sansa in days.
Instead, she returned her arms to her side and boldly asked, concealing her true tumult, “So...you went from being my brother to becoming my good brother. How did you go from the originator of don't tell Sansa to her betrothed?”
Jon answered her almost defensively. He spoke about the war, how Sansa came home, how she tried her best to support him, how her husband died and she became alone and unprotected from the advances of lords seeking to marry her. He told her how theirs was a political alliance in part and a brother trying to protect his sister.
While he sounded earnest, he’s trying to protect my feelings Arya told herself. Sansa had always been beautiful and that only increased with age. Of course, Jon would fall in love with her when they reunited as cousins. Sansa was always meant to be a princess. The thought of Jon marrying Sansa burned Arya’s heart for reasons she didn’t want to give any thought to. Jon was her brother until yesterday. She told herself it wasn’t jealousy that she was feeling but merely the thought that their relationship would change once he had a wife, especially one as proper as Sansa. In her thoughts, a voice that sounded like Sansa and her mother combined offered up “ the lords won’t like the two of you gallivanting like children. You must grow up Arya .”
Noticing that she was deep in thought, Jon said, “I know she’s my betrothed, but I love her as my sister. Arya, with you gone, she was the last of my Stark family and this was the only way I could protect her.”
When Arya didn’t reply, he joked, “And when I say sister I don’t mean it in the Targaryen sense.”
“You shouldn’t lie in front of a Weirwood you know? Even if it’s a smiling one,” she quipped.
“I’m not!” He insisted. At that, the Weirwood shook its leaves singing truth, truth, truth . This time she was sure Jon heard it too as his eyes shot up.
Still, not happy with the feigned smile she gave him he decided to continue his japing. “Do you still want to be a Wildling? Perhaps I should steal you for a bride and run away with you beyond the Wall,” he joked, making a grab for her and pinning her against the forest floor.
And then it felt as if time itself had stopped for Arya. Jon’s solid body above her felt comforting. As he jumped to grab her, her legs made way for him to settle between them and as she gazed into his eyes, the laughter in his eyes made way for something else. Something darker. Grey pupils blown black, he looked at her like a man beguiled but Arya told herself she was attributing her own, uncomfortable, feelings to him, and yet, she didn’t want to look away. She felt her body begin to heat and Jon’s breath get heavier as he looked into her soul, his eyes dragging themselves down to her lips.
I’m imagining things she told herself and told him he was crushing her, the great lumbering fool that he was. Self-conscious, he apologised and moved back to where he was sitting.
They spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening filling each other in on parts of their lives apart, occasionally sending shy looks to each other that confused her. She and Jon had never been shy around each other at all in their lives.
Arya noticed that like her he seemed to focus on happier or more practical memories than anything too heavy. Occasionally the laughing tree would shower them with red leaves as it’s addition to their conversation, offering the odd words as well. Often the tree’s quips would be targeted at Arya alone and Jon wouldn’t hear them. Arya couldn’t think of anyone more annoying than that tree other than maybe Bran when the two of them would have a battle of wits.
When the sun set, Jon built them a fire saying that he didn’t want to return to the Keep just yet.
In the end, they returned just after supper was served and the Great Hall mostly cleared. Arya was somewhat thankful for that. While she loved feasts as a child and was sure she would now she was home, she wanted to avoid being a spectacle for as long as she could.
Inside there were still a few lords and ladies who Jon had introduced her to in turn. Arya found that she liked Lady Maege Mormont and her daughters. They made her think of her own childhood and how she wished she could be both warrior and lady. The Mormont girls, Jorelle and Lyanna, in dresses with dirks on their belts showed her it was possible.
After them, they sat for their supper with Lord Wyman Manderly. She met him twice in her childhood when she travelled to White Harbor with her father and found him still as warm as he was then. He told her how he knew the false Arya, Ramsay Bolton married, wasn’t her. “I’d never forget those Stark grey eyes my girl nor the stubborn jut of your chin whenever your father refused you anything,” he said.
Arya asked Jon then who the girl was. “When you disappeared, the Lannisters sent Jeyne Poole in your place to give the Boltons legitimacy in the North,” he growled. Arya thought Jeyne couldn’t have been pleased with being forced to be Arya Horseface but couldn’t help but feel sorry for her when they told her some of the things Ramsay Bolton had done to her.
When they were joined by Wynafryd Manderly and her Locke husband they told her about Lord Manderly’s revenge against the Freys and Boltons in the form of a Frey pie. Arya laughed at that saying she wanted to do the same to them too. “I’m glad someone showed them The North Remembers the story of the Rat’s Cook,” she laughed.
They spent most of the night talking with Lord Manderly, later joined by the Mormont girls and two of the older Umbers, as well as a few men from clans Norrey and Liddle. Together they filled her in on happenings in the North. Arya thanked them all for marching for her, she was thankful to know that after years of being alone some people somewhere thought her important enough to be a rallying call for a pack that had been all but separated. Even Hother Umber who sided with the Boltons initially, had slaughtered Bolton men in secret inside the Castle before the battle. They all simply remarked “ The North Remembers sweet girl .” Arya felt as strong as Nymeria at the head of her pack then.
As the night went on Lord Manderly told Arya about his efforts to find Rickon; about how the trail went cold for years before he began hearing tales of a red-headed wildling boy with a great big direwolf in the lands beyond the Wall. “I thought Rickon was dead,” she whispered and Jon assured her that he had sent free folk men to find out the truth of these sightings.
Arya found the Northern lords on their table easy to talk to. Lord Manderly was especially earnest in his concern for the smallfolk of the North and had told her of his plans to expand trade into the Free Cities, something he felt was restricted in part by winter and White Harbor’s relatively moderate port. They spent an hour or so discussing trade in the North, needs across the Narrow Sea they could meet and ways they might be able to do so.
Arya had never met her grandparents before but that evening with Whoresbane and Mors Umber, Wyman Manderly, Torren Liddle, and Brandon Norrey, made her think this must be what it’s like to have a grandfather.
That night, she went to sleep happy and when she dreamt, she was a wolf again.
She ran through the woods with her white brother as they did every night. But this night, when he caught her, he claimed her for his own.