Since Arya’s return, Jon found himself thinking about the words of Lord Howland Reed. “The wolves will come again,” he cryptically said. “The wandering one, the wild one and the winged.” Ever since the older man went beyond the Wall, Jon found himself missing him often. He’d become a father of sorts to him over the years and while Jon had Lem, he insisted on being called Lem - “I’ve had this name for so long now, it doesn’t make sense to be Richard again, my old lovers might not know Richard, ” - as well as his numerous advisors and companions, he hadn’t found someone to fill the places Lord Howland and, to some extent, Ser Davos had left behind in Jon’s life.
The men were advisors, yes, but they were also people Jon could pour his heart out to. While the world saw him as the Crown Prince of the Seven Kingdoms and the Northerners looked to him for leadership, Lord Howland had seen the boy whose world had been shaken by the news of his parentage and he supported that boy when he cried and when he had questions and whenever Jon found happiness he celebrated it with him. Ser Davos had done much of the same. He left Jon’s side much earlier than Lord Howland, to return to the Stormlands not long after the Queen took her throne. “My Marya has been patient with me while I followed two Kings and a Queen to the ends of the world, seeing things most men don’t see in ten lifetimes, but it’s time I return to my woman now,” he said.
Jon missed them at this moment. He wished Lord Howland and Ser Davos were here so he could tell them how happy he was about Arya’s return.
Ever since her return, he’s found himself grinning like an idiot often. Sometimes he feels like he’s talked more in the last two days of Arya being here than he has in years. He tells himself it’s because he’s missed her but he knows it’s also because he’s noticed how she holds back on him. She hasn’t mentioned any of the things Sansa told him about the massacre at The Tower of the Hand, or how she escaped King’s Landing. She hasn’t even shared anything about what Gendry told him: of the King’s Road with Yoren, getting caught by the Mountain, Harrenhal or all that followed once they joined the Brotherhood. She doesn’t even talk about the things Sandor had told him they experienced. Until this morning he didn’t even know Arya sold clams on the harbour in Braavos nor the fact she spoke fluent Braavosi. Jon speaks so much because he wants to create a comfortable space for her so they can return to what they were: two people who told each other everything. He knows however that he’s been holding back on her too.
Arya is more reserved than she used to be. The girl with the tangled hair and muddy knees is no more. He’s seen her be as comfortable in dresses as she is in breeches. Sansa has had her attend a dress fitting and he didn’t hear a peep from her. She moves as graciously as any woman found in court and can hold a conversation with everyone from the Freefolk to the Queen herself. Arya was always good at talking to people but he sees a more measured tone to her speech now.
And then there’s her swordsmanship. Arya would beg him and Robb to teach her and sometimes Jory or Alyn would help her play with sticks. On other occasions, she’d blackmail Fat Tom to teach her, telling him she’ll tell Gage he stole eggs from the kitchen that morning if he didn’t. But in all her years of playing sticks, Jon had never seen her hold her own with a sword that well. Her movements were gracious and there’s no way she would have learned what he saw that day from the few months with the teacher in King’s Landing she told him about. He also had no doubts she could be lethal with a sword given what he saw that morning.
Jon also noticed how distressed Arya was in her practice the more she struck and parried and spun away, the more distress she looked. He wanted to know what she was thinking of and more than anything he wanted to run down from his hiding place on the covered bridge to hold her in his arms and make whatever pain she carried go away. But then Tormund and Val had broken her concentration.
Despite all these changes and questions, underneath this new, measured, Arya, Jon still found remnants of his Arya in her too.
He saw it in the way she would make faces at him when she couldn’t find words to describe how she felt or what she wanted to say. His favourite was how she’d scrunch her nose when she was confused or embarrassed or how she’d chew her lip when she was thinking although those instances would be over in the blink of an eye. It was as if she was training herself out of those tells.
Jon saw his Arya in how her eyes lit up when he presented her with the flowers in the glass gardens and in her smiles when she played with little Robb and even Aemon. He saw his Arya in how she listened wide-eyed at the stories of the Northern lords and their rough riders. The desire to learn everything still evident in her animated conversations with Dany’s Dothraki bloodriders, each of them using hand gestures and a mixture of languages to try and convey what they wanted to say. He saw it in her conversation with Dany’s companion Missandei as well who she spoke to in a language he didn’t understand.
And he saw how underneath it all she was still Arya Underfoot, able to find herself where no one would imagine. She has an extensive knowledge of Braavos and the Free Cities. In a conversation earlier that evening, Dany spoke about a childhood in Braavos, of a house with a red door and a lemon tree beside. From that description alone Arya knew where it was, remarking nonchalantly that lemon trees only grow in Braavos in the Sealord’s palace and around his menagerie.
Dany has been watching them all evening and asked Arya at one point, “Do you know what they’ve done to the ever-brooding Aemon? This man is clearly not Aemon. He keeps smiling. Where’s that Targaryen melancholy.” Arya merely joked back, “I believe it’s the Stark sullenness. After all, he was raised by the Quiet Wolf. Not all of us were as loud as me and Rickon.” The two of them laughed at that.
It wasn’t only Dany’s companions Arya found it easy to converse with. She took well to his Freefolk friends as well. Telling them that sometimes she wanted to run beyond the Wall and become a wildling herself. Val told her she was always welcome to join them and Tormund joked that she would make a good spearwife, while looking straight at Jon.
The Northern lords were also happy to have her back. Although there hadn’t yet been time to discuss it, they were already treating her as the Lady of Winterfell. She spent time with each of the chiefs of the Mountain Clans thanking them for their part in marching into battle for her. She made fast friends with the Mormont and Manderly girls as well as Alys.
And Lord Manderly doted on her like a granddaughter. They first bonded when she heard the previous night how he cooked the Freys in a pie. She told him how she had the same idea once, Old Nan made sure all the Stark children knew the importance of guest right and the story of the Rat’s Cook. From then on, Jon found the two of them using every spare moment to talk of trade to strengthen the North’s economy and the need to make Winter Town the North’s home for winter again.
The majority of the Northern smallfolk spent the winter at White Harbor rather than at Winter Town this past winter. House Stark was revered throughout the North for providing for its people through the Winter Town settlements. It’s why The North Remembers. Arya was keen that this tradition continue. She learned about how when the Boltons took power they used the smallfolk to rebuild Winterfell and then killed, rather than provide for them. When Jon took over Winterfell again their coffers were massively depleted and his preparations for winter were widely impaired by the War for the Dawn. Many fled to White Harbor for succour and stayed there for the majority of winter. While provisions from the Vale provided relief to some of the mountain clans and Dany’s wealth from Essos and the Reach’s support fed the armies during the war, Lord Manderly remained the North's biggest benefactor. With a milder than usual winter after the War for the Dawn and an early spring on the horizon, Arya was keen to begin planning for the next winter and Jon found her and Lord Manderly huddled in a corner that morning, engaged in talk of lumber and silver - Arya was convinced that with the right support, the North’s wealth from silver could be more valuable than the Westerlands’ ever declining gold reserves.
Even the inscrutable Lady Dustin had warmed to Arya. Jon found her lips twitching in a smile and an impressed look on her face as she studied Arya.
Then there was what Ghost did the previous night with Nymeria. Varymyr Sixskins once told him it was an abomination to be in an animal while it mated with another. As wrong as it was, it lit a primal fire in Jon for Arya. Yes, he loved her. He was sure. He made peace with that a long time ago but being near her, around her, atop her and between her legs like he was at the laughing tree confirmed that he needed her as a man needs a woman as well. She was Nymeria in human form: strong, a unifying force and loyal. And who was he but Ghost himself? Ever since he warged Ghost upon his death, he’s struggled to differentiate where he ended and Ghost started. If nothing else Jon was sure Arya was his as much as Nymeria was Ghost’s. Wedding be damned, a dark part of him thought. I want my bride back, that dark part of him growled. If I have to be a bastard about this I will. Perhaps I got this madness from my father.
While he thought this, he was watching Arya walk around the hall with Sansa. He found himself between a rock and a hard place. Having to choose between his heart and the honourable thing to do which would be to honour his betrothal to Sansa. Sansa needed him and he owed her the safety she so desired. After all the help she offered him during the wars, it was the least he could do. Yet this was Arya. He marched to save her from a monster despite knowing his life might be forfeit for it. He was even killed for it.
“The way you look at her a man might think you mean to steal the wrong sister for yourself.”
Jon turned round to see Tormund who’d joined him then, drink in hand.
“Who can blame you? When you told me you were marrying a Stark I was expecting Benjen Stark come again - the man was my enemy but what a fucking warrior! Then I saw the pretty Southron lady over there and thought she looks like no Stark I ever saw. This one though, she has all Benjen’s fire. A strong sort. Saw her in the yard this morning. I can see why you died for her. She’d give a man strong sons. Still, I thought you liked redheads. Hah? Kissed by fire. Hah!” Tormund clapped him on the back with a guffaw that reminded Jon why the Freefolk said Tormund could laugh the snow off a mountaintop.
But Jon couldn’t laugh at Tormund’s joke. Not tonight.
“You really are hot on the younger one? Well, yer faak’d. Every kneeler from The Bay of Seals to Dorne is here to see you wed the redhead. This is why stealing a woman is best. No one but your woman, if she wants you, sees you coming when you steal her. That way no one knows if you change your mind. When I stole my bear, she didn’t see me coming. I left Ruddy Hall, bundled up in my furs as I was and I mounted her. Great big teats and a body warmer than a fire in a snowstorm. No one but us knew our five bear cubs were mine until I marched back down over the Wall with you. Twenty years I was fighting crows by day and sailing off to Bear Island to rut my bear by night.”
From the corner of his eye, Jon could see Tormund turn to look at him then. Expecting a response. Jon didn’t offer one, instead, Jon flexed his burned hand, opening and closing the scarred fingers, dark thoughts of stealing, and rutting running through his mind.
“If you want to steal her, I’ll help you take her back to Ruddy Hall, just say the word,” moving closer he whispered, “But I’ll tell you now, I’m not fighting a dragon for it.”
Still unimpressed, Tormund asked Jon what he planned to do. Jon didn’t know.
He saw Arya leave the hall then, looking a little upset. He left to follow her.
Jon looked everywhere he thought she might be: her room, the lichyard, the crypts, the broken tower where she’d hide with Bran sometimes, the First Keep and the cellars under The Great Keep where she’d hide with him, he even checked the kitchens and the area around the Heart Tree. He even checked the tree Bran fell asleep in once.
Arya was nowhere to be found.